Sunday, December 8, 2019

Book Review: Know My Name

Image: The cover of the book is a darker teal color with a few lines that look like twigs in gold random directions around the edges. The title of the book is in large, capital, white letters. Underneath, "a memoir" in smaller, thinner, lowercase white letters. Under that is "Chanel Miller" in the same letters as the title.

I recall reading Chanel Miller's victim impact statement (as Emily Doe) when it made the rounds years ago. Without divulging my own history in detail, I will simply say that it meant a great deal to me to read. I remember it affecting everyone I knew who was in a place that offered them the ability to read it at the time. We felt empowered and seen by this woman's words that were both brutally honest and exceedingly gentle. I recall being appalled by the sentencing hearing, or what was available about it in the media. I am a person who believes in prison abolition and am in favor of restorative justice when possible. It was not just the sentence itself that bothered me, but how it was justified and described. It was how the sentencing hearing was basically a congratulatory party for the aggressor. After that, I don't recall hearing much else until I saw Miller being interviewed on the Daily Show. When I realized who she was, I couldn't wait to read her book, Know My Name: A Memoir.  I also was afraid to read it. I steer clear of reading, listening to, and watching things that end up being trauma porn or a long detailing of horrors. I am glad I went for it anyways because Miller manages to both be honest and detailed about her experiences without the writing falling into the trauma porn category. I believe this is because she is an excellent story teller that manages to grasp the entire picture ad convey it well to her audience.

If there was ever a single piece of literature that one could hand to someone when they ask, "Why didn't she go to the police? Why didn't she report (the rape/assault/etc?)" it would be this book. It's not because it's the worst story I have read about interactions with police and hospitals after an assault. It's because it is one of the "better" ones, though I put that in quotes because there is never anything good in something like this. Miller's story represents one in which she was treated with respect by most of the people she encountered early on. She met a caring detective, concerned and gentle hospital workers, had a supportive and loving family and partner, a DA who was passionate about her case, and so on. She represents an experience in which everything early on goes as least terribly as it can, and yet her experience remains horrific and traumatizing at a level that no one should ever have to endure. The invasiveness of the police, medical exams, court systems, as well as the absolute unease that comes with knowing something happened when one was completely helpless and unconscious is enough to damage anyone. Miller wasn't given much choice whether or not to report as she woke up in the hospital. But, this terror is often as good as it gets within the system. Meaning, the best is still one of the worst things that can happen to someone. Most of the system when one chooses to report can actually add extensive amounts of trauma. The other side of the coin is that she had to endure what followed in a much more public manner than most people, creating a unique set of awful circumstances.

Miller's writing is superb and engaging. She manages to take us through a very long story that can easily become tedious if told without talent. I do not mean that the traumas themselves are tedious, but they can be difficult to capture with words and some people find court systems boring. I found my self completely drawn in by her words and story. I can't think of another book that captured what it is like to endure something like this and how it affects every aspect of one's life and the world around them. I don't read a lot of survivor stories with this much detail because I feel it is often an exercise in retraumatization on my part. But, Miller manages to capture the harrowing ordeal she went through without mincing words and also without leaving the reader wanting to completely give up on the world at the end.

I am not going to detail anything about the case or her trauma as I want her words and the book to do that. As I said, she conveys it best and does a far better job than I would. She also manages to create the necessary connections between her struggles and that of others, especially other traumas that were going on in current events around the time the book was written. I will say this. Something that struck me over and over was how talented Miller is. She is a writer, a comedian, an illustrator, and many other things. I found myself thinking, how much talent have we lost to trauma and violence? How many victims might later have become writers, artists, doctors, astronauts, performers, scientists, care takers, and so on if the rug were not ripped out from under them by sexual violence? This is not to say that one must be exceptional in order for their story to matter. On the contrary, I think that everyone has something important to offer this world and that sexual violence can place a giant, sometimes immovable, roadblock in the way of discovering what that is. My questions are rhetorical. I know we have lost countless people to these violent acts. I know countless predators have been lifted up and defended as Brock Turner was while those who survived their acts struggle to breathe. It is difficult to know how to exist in a society like that.

Miller does not allow the reader to get stuck with that feeling. She leaves the reader with hope and not in the way many writers on these topics tend to. I often struggle with overly optimistic takes on surviving trauma which often suggest that people come out stronger and better and now everything is over. Miller manages to leave the reader with a realistic set up. Yes, the trauma still affects us. Yes, it still hurts. No, it will not ever disappear. No, nothing was fair. Yes, the system is broken. But, it is not all that there is and it cannot take away all that we are. Miller's words are essential reading for people in every field from gender studies to law to medicine to parenting. They are definitely essential reading for those without sexual trauma who find themselves struggling to understand why someone makes the choices they do. Miller captures all of this and more in this book, all while telling her story honestly and beautifully. I hope to see more from her in the future.

This was also posted to my goodreads. 

Book Review: The Goodness Paradox

Image: The cover of the book is very pale pink with the outline of seven homogeneous muscular bodies standing side by side holding hands, composed as red silhouettes. The third body from the left has a large black X over it. The title is across the top in large black letters. Across the bottom is the byline in smaller black letters. Below that, in red letters, is the author's name.


I made a well thought out decision not to finish this book. This is the first time I have done this when I have received a review copy. I am at a place in my life where there are so many things I want to read and never enough time. As a result, I don't want to waste the time I have. Normally, I don't write much for a DNF. But, I felt obligated to spend time on this since it was a review copy I received.

The idea of this book is an interesting one. Human violence and virtue, evolution, anthropology, and so on. I was irritated quite early on, but forced myself to give the book at least 100 pages and finished out the chapter I was on at 112 (approximately 40% of the book not including notes.) Unfortunately, the more I read, the more I found wrong with the book. He even started off the first paragraph with the claim that Hitler was a vegetarian and loved animals- false information often spread by edgelord meat eaters as a "gotcha!" to silence and demean vegetarians. I had an interest in seeing that he worked with Goodall and that she offered a blurb, but left wondering if Goodall had read anything by this man. If she has, I need to interrogate my positive view of her as well.

First, this book says little about virtue. It focuses mostly on violence. Second, holy hell is it steeped deeply in thick, white, colonialism, outdated language and concepts, debunked male dominated evolutionary psych theories, anthropocentrism and ideas of other animals as disposable objects, confirmation bias, and more. I bristled first when Wrangham discusses spending time studying populations in the Congo and how he went in expecting them to be very violent primitive people because he came from a lovely, nonviolent, rural English community. Ok. Well, he was wrong, but he seemed to not understand how screwed up and detrimental to scientific progress his initial belief system was. He doesn't let go of these racist and xenophobic prejudices. One simply cannot get an accurate picture of violence in the Congo without looking at colonialism's influence. A little research on him found that this was not the first time he was accused of racial insensitivity or racism. I stuck with him, understanding that not every book or author is perfect. But, it only got worse over time. To detail every instance where Wrangham's colonialism dominated his views would involve me writing an even longer review of a book I didn't finish. Perhaps I will just include a quote from Darwin he decided to use, in which he states that an indigenous group of humans he encountered were, "...the most abject and miserable creatures I anywhere beheld..." using this as a justification for discussing tribal peoples, almost always of color or from the global south, as less advanced than white colonizers. He used assessments and quotes like this regularly without any criticism or acknowledgement of the horribleness (with the exception of saying Nazis suck and pandering to them sucks, but that's easy.)

The book is also littered with language that made me feel like I was reading something from 1950, not 2019. References to "mentally handicapped" children, claiming white colonizers "discovered" indigenous people and land, claiming being Deaf was not an "optimal design" funnily enough after he claimed eugenics was wrong, generally negatively referring to people with disabilities or with pity, the aforementioned ways of discussing peoples of the global south, and so on.

Wrangham has a very reductive approach to looking at human and other animal behavior. Even when he seems to be covering all of the bases in discussing the various reasons for said behavior, he directly contradicts himself from one section to another or uses anecdotal or insufficient research to support his points. For instance, he notes that chimps being more violent than bonobos on average could be due to environmental factors like lack of access to food. He then discusses a study done in captivity with rescued chimps and bonobos in which they were placed in a room with bananas and watched. The bonobos shared, the chimps defaulted to a dominant eater. This, to him, meant that food and environment were not the cause (which he contradicts again later.) But, did anyone really think some banana slices in a room would erase each animal's entire history before they arrived there as well as information passed down from generation to generation before that (something we know they and many other species do?) If we took humans raised in a highly violent system and put them in a room with a cookie, would we expect that to be an accurate assessment of their potential? It's just bad assessment of science. I am not saying chimps aren't naturally more predisposed to violence, just that this was a terrible way of trying to prove it.

This inability to fully understand other animals as complex beings (a pretty critical component to his field and to creating a proper analysis here) is evident in how he discusses studies of imprisoned and abused animals. He fawns over studies where animals' brains are implanted with electrodes and after an already painful and terrifying brain surgery, are stimulated into aggressive states. He uses a study with a bullfight, using an animal who is already extremely abused in order to create an aggressive response, as a legitimate way to study natural behavior. There are studies where furriers keep animals in small cages over many years trying to find the best way to make a fur coat before killing and skinning them that are treated as amazing. He romanticizes the (ab)use of chimps for entertainment. He celebrates monsters like Yerkes and his colleagues traveling to Africa to kidnap primates from the wild and bring them home to study, harm, and kill. There were so many instances where one could read it and assume he was talking about a toaster rather than a living being that he has spent his life studying- which is also troublesome. Much of this is intertwined with his lack of interrogation of his white, colonialist approach to everything. I kept asking myself- did Jane Goodall really read this book before offering a blurb or was she just helping her colleague.

Once again, this is something Wrangham has been accused of before. For instance, in a previous book which was basically incel fodder couched in some pseudo-womens-empowerment lingo, Wrangham claimed that women choosing aggressive men is why we have patriarchy, leaving less aggressive ones in the friend zone. We know clearly that human attraction is far more complicated than that, but this long history of men in evolutionary research refusing to interrogate their own patriarchal internal processes. This has even lead to them borderline excusing rape due to their highly biased perecption of why it has occurred. But, hey, I told myself, maybe he has learned more since then and grown. He has changed his tune on Bonobo aggression- previously saying females were less aggressive but in this book saying they are moreso than males. But, he does seem to contradict that later so I am not sure what is true.

This leads into one of the main reasons I put this book down. Yes, there was colonialism and oppressive thinking and obvious bias. I have read many science texts with that in it but still found something useful. The problem was, I realized I couldn't trust anything he said. From the bias to the contradictions, what was I actually learning? On top of that, the book is stylistically boring and repetitive at times. It's a shame because the topic seems extremely interesting with huge potential to tell us something great. That just wasn't happening in this book. So, I'm putting it down and will definitely avoid this author in the future.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Book Review: Racism as Zoological Witchcraft

Image: The cover of the book has a light blue background with an abstract illustration of a human eye at the center. The eye iris of the eye is composed of three layered circles. Outside the iris, a light blue outline of a forest overlaps on the right side, in the first circle is light orange with a silhouette of a deer with antlers overlapping the left side. The next circle is pink with another silhouette of fir trees on the upper left. The last circle at the center is composed of a black starry night sky with a floating white silhouette of a human on the upper right. The top half of the book has the title in large, pink, uppercase letters. Below and slightly overlapping the bottom of the eye is Aph Ko's name in large letters. Below that in small letters is, "Illustrations by Alise and Jack Eastgate, Foreword by Claire Jean Kim."

Once in a while, a theorist comes along and helps you realize just how stuck in a paradigm your thinking is. There is a long history of our movements often being categorized by waves or generations- a practice that often puts white voices in the spotlight. As times and society change (and while many things stay the same,) daring authors, activists, thinkers, and others break through what is accepted at the time to create something needed and new. These people are critical to the evolution of thinking and activism. Aph Ko is one of these people.

I have followed Ko's work since Black Vegans Rock and Aphro-ism and also had the privilege of seeing her speak at an Intersectional Justice conference (of which her talk was one of the best, if not the best.) I have been regularly blown away by her ability to use the knowledge we have to create new things, rather than only repeating or strengthening ideas that already exist. In "Racism as Zoological Witchcraft: A Guide to Getting Out," Aph Ko takes many belief systems regarding anti-racism, animal liberation, intersectionality, feminism, and other kinds of radicalism and dissects them mercilessly. While reading Ko's work in this book especially, I was moved by her unapologetic passion. Ko tells the truth and creates thought exercises that stimulate the mind and create change even if a particular concept is not fully fleshed out. Ko has clearly considered things outside the box so intensely that her excitement about the evolution and change of our movements shines through the pages. 

This book is well organized and fairly short at 126 pages, not including notes and sources. Normally, I would read something this short more quickly. But, Ko introduces so many complicated concepts and discusses so many intense and serious things, that I put the book down frequently. This book requires one to take their time and think. Ko begins from the premise that many of our movements are colonized and static in how they approach the subjects at hand- focusing mainly on racism and animality (though me dividing the two into separate camps for the sake of clarity goes against Aph's thesis.) Ko has a background in media studies and uses her experience to analyze these topics in various media- the movie Get Out being central to the text.

I actually decided to rewatch Get Out after reading Ko's first analysis of it in the book. I am a person who often pays attention to how other animals intersect with humans' stories in media. However, I did not realize just how intertwined the constructs of "human" and "animal" were in Get Out until reading Ko's analysis and rewatching the film. Ko highlights how human and other animal suffering and exploitation are not just metaphors for one another, but are intimately intertwined as part of a much more insidious system of what she refers to as Zoological Racism. She weaves this analysis throughout the book as a cohesive thread.

There was one section of the book that I struggled with and that was a chapter titled Moving from Intersectionality to Multidimensional Liberation Theory. Ko previously coined the term social layerism to describe "the ways in which intersectional activists and scholars often pile oppressions on top of one another without an "intersection" or "connection" ever really taking place." This is basically a colonized, white veganism version of faux intersectionality that is separate from the concepts promoted by Black lesbian feminists like the Combahee River Collective. It seemed to me through reading this chapter, that Ko was addressing social layerism rather than actual intersectionality. The idea of multidimensionality is central to intersectionality. It is not that Black women experience racism on top of sexism or vice versa, but that the intersection creates a multidimensional experience different from either oppression on its own. Now, it's clear that Ko understands this. She even goes on to say at the end of the chapter that some people will make the argument I just made and that it is incorrect. She claims that we are so steeped in intersectionality being the accepted theory that that stands in the way of us being able to grasp multidimensionality liberation theory. That said, I still found myself searching for the difference between the two.

Ko goes on to explain multidimension liberation theory using a very helpful analogy, complete with illustration, of different kinds of houses. This is where her theories did begin to separate from and evolve past intersectionality for me. She explains that we currently look at oppressions from the front of the house seeing only the front doors as an entrance to fighting it. What oppression really is is a multidimensional house with many different entrances. We must find and explore those in order to most effectively fight oppression.

I also was both enlightened and confused by her example of Black mens experiences as being gendered and sexualized. This also seemed to be in line with or expanding upon intersectionality to me, (i.e. the intersection of being Black and male creates a unique set of struggles.) It is undoubtedly important not to place Black men in the same patriarchal category as white men, but I think she took it a bit far. She quotes mens studies theorists Johnson and Curry throughout this section. While I did understand some of what she was saying- such as Black men needing to be included in the history of white sexual violence against Black bodies, the importance of dismantling the Black male predator trope especially with their history of victimization, and the horrific history of lynching enforced through the power that both white men and women have held over Black male bodies- some of the text seemed to border on the whole #notallmen/men-get-X-too phenomenon that is often used to silence women discussing struggle and violence at the hands of men- including Black men. I am not saying Ko was silencing women. On the contrary, I believe she is trying to expand upon often one-dimensional theories about race and gender in important ways. However, I was left saying to myself, "I would never claim that I lack white privilege due to the fact that my being trans, queer, disabled, etc causes me not to experience it in the same way as a white cis het man." Is Blackness in particular the oppression that overrides any other advantage? If a disabled man is violent towards a nondisabled woman, do we discount the patriarchy and misogyny involved because he is disabled and she is not? Perhaps it is that white supremacy and animality are the central tenets and the same thinking would not apply to all marginalized people.

Johnson's quotes used by Ko were the ones that I felt uneasy about, but wasn't sure exactly why. As a result, I decided to read some of Johnson's posts online in case the small quotes out of context led to a misunderstanding on my part. Reading more from Johnson only bothered me more. He makes valid points about the oppression of Black men, but the way he frames them is from a staunchly anti-feminist viewpoint where he constantly devalues the voices of of women and often seems to suggest that Black women are oppressing Black men by asking that women be centered. He believes that Black men are incapable of having male privilege or patriarchal advantages because of their oppression based on race. He uses anecdotes artfully to paint a false picture that Black women have it easier than Black men. It is as if he does not understand the various reasons Black feminisms came about and reduces almost all of them to extremist misandrists. He demeans sensitive and gentle men, claims women actually want "hypermasculinity" "behind closed doors," and refers to hypermasculine men as real and others as just pandering to feminism. All in all, the messages about the needs of Black men to be included are overshadowed by the anti-feminism and low-key misogynoir in his writings. I could write more about this, but this was such a small section of the book that I don't want my opinions about this guy who did not write it to dominate. Also, having said all of that, I haven't stopped thinking about this. So, perhaps some of these things will settle into my mind and I will feel differently. Perhaps there are things I don't understand yet due to the phenomena that Aph Ko describes in which we are stuck in one way of thinking.

In wrapping things up, Ko discusses "Afro-zoological resistance" as the solution to these conflicts arising from the static nature of our current understandings of oppression. She states, "Animal is part of the vocabulary of white supremacist violence; it signifies the rhetorical and social branding of certain bodies, which white supremacy wants to consume, exploit, and eliminate without question." She reminds us that single-issue and "two-dimensional" intersectional movements are colonized and locked in place requiring that they be upended in order to fully understand the scope of oppression. She also discusses how this fits into animal liberation in particular stating, "...veganism isn't just about kicking a meat-eating habit and getting some veggies into your diet... It's a powerful rejection of a racist food system and a racist, cannibalistic politics that characterizes animals and nonwhite people as disposable and consumable."

Overall, Aph Ko provides the needed upheaval of current systems of anti-oppression thought and activism that is critical for the growth of all movements over time. I am very excited to watch the ideas she explores grow and affect change over time. This book raises more questions than it answers and I believe that was part of Ko's intention. I still have quite a lot to think about.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Book Review: Free Cyntoia

Image: The cover of the book shows Cyntoia Brown-Long from the shoulders up, looking directly into the camera. She has long brown/black hair down past her shoulders, brown eyes, and light brown skin. She is wearing a white top, a necklace, and earrings. Across the top in light beige letters is says her name and below that in smaller white letters it says "with BETHANY MAUGER." At the bottom, in large blue/violet letters it says "Free Cyntoia." Below that, in smaller letters it says, "MY SEARCH for REDEMPTION in the AMERICAN PRISON SYSTEM."

Content Warning: This review, given the person it is about, includes subjects of abuse, sexual assault, drugging, violence, traumas of prison, and other things I may forget to mention. Read with care.

When I became aware of Cyntoia Brown-Long's memoir- Free Cyntoia- I was very interested to read more about her journey. I had followed her case through awareness raised by activist groups and news articles, but this book added a large amount of depth and detail to her story that I never knew about. The book is well written by Cyntoia and Bethany Mauger and is accessible in its style to a variety of readers.

Something that stuck out the most to me while reading this book is Cyntoia's resilience and capacity for forgiveness. Frankly, I felt, and still feel, downright infuriated about everything she went through. Every time she would get past another hurtle, another person would take her down. She really manages to capture the horrific and defeating nature of the prison system in the USA. She also takes a ton of responsibility for her actions and the actions of others. There were times in this story I found myself saying, "Wow, she still thinks (particular abuse she suffered) is her fault." 

As I read this book, I realized quickly that I would have to take my time with it, despite wanting to devour it whole. Cyntoia and I have a lot of differences in demographics and privilege, but we share a lot of experiences and thinking patterns in our youth. She described what it was like to think and feel certain ways so well that I had to make sure I put the book down here and there to take care of the feelings it brought up for me. I, and many others, are not at all far away from what happened to Cyntoia. One nudge in another direction and many of us could have found ourselves in her shoes.

-The following summary contains some spoilers about Cyntoia's story that are detailed in the book.-

Cyntoia's life had a rough start with many ups and downs. She was adopted by two extremely loving Black parents who cared for her when her mother could not. She found herself outcast in many circles for her lighter skin, but still found herself in gifted school programs. Her struggles with the law began when she was placed in juvenile offender and psychiatric schools and institutions for very minor offenses such as petty theft or trespassing in a house with other kids. She was then placed in foster care after refusing to be around her sexually predatory uncle who came to pick her up. Time and again, Cyntoia was punished for trying to keep herself safe or for sticking up for herself. 

Eventually, Cyntoia was exposed to porn where she learned that sex with strange men is just something normal that you have to do. She internalized this and had her first sexual experience with a stranger- likely an adult man- who preyed upon her while waiting at the bus stop when she was 12 years old. She became a runaway and suffered heinous abuses from adult men she encountered including being drugged and raped multiple times by multiple men. She eventually meets another adult man she came to believe was her boyfriend who abuses her in every way imaginable and forces her into sex trafficking. He started with his friends and slowly forced her to expand who she would be abused by- all adults, while she was in her early to mid teens. He forces her to continue, at times at gunpoint, with promises that they will use the money to run off together some day.

Eventually a predator in his 40s picks her up, takes her to his home where she feels threatened especially by all of the guns he keeps showing her, and she takes the gun Kut had given her and shoots him in self defense. When she is eventually arrested, the police lie to her and Kut snitches on her immediately as well as lies about her, placing all of the blame at her feet. At this point in time, Cyntoia still believes she just had a boyfriend. She still had no idea that she was a trafficking victim and that Kut was her exploiter and abuser, not the love of her life.

After a horrifying and humiliating trial, an unjust court system referring to her as a "teenage prostitute," a prosecutor out for the blood of a young girl, and an unethical mostly white jury find Cyntoia guilty of everything including first degree murder which carries an automatic life sentence for adults in her state. They tried her as an adult despite her being years underage. In prison, even more injustices and betrayals happen to her including finding out her college law professor was a prosecutor who fought to keep her in prison for life and a guard who preyed upon her and started a sexual relationship with her which only she was punished for. It is not until an activist campaign goes viral after many people see a PBS documentary about her case that things begin moving in her favor. Multiple women help Cyntoia come to realize that she was a victim, not an immoral or bad person. Once Cyntoia became aware of just how insidious those who preyed upon her were, she started a project called GLITTER to mentor young girls and help them escape and avoid trafficking while she was still in prison. Her attempts to raise awareness were often overshadowed when reporters would choose to instead focus on her personal case. Cyntoia held onto this desire to help others and obviously still does today. 

Cyntoia eventually meets her future husband as a penpal in prison who helps her become a follower of the Christian God. Through the hard work of everyone involved, Cyntoia eventually finds clemency and goes home on probation.

-End summary with spoilers about Cyntoia's story-

 In the beginning of the book, we get a glimpse of Cyntoia's initial court experience in which she prays, "God, if you let me out of here, I'll tell the whole world about you." Cyntoia explains that she  did not believe in God because no God would allow her to be in her circumstances and no God ever answered her prayers for help. By the end of the book, she is giving God credit for almost everything.

I have to admit, I started to get irritated when the God talk went from mentions of gratitude throughout the story to his presence dominating the entire thing. There were so many people who worked so hard for Cyntoia to help her find clemency, yet she focuses almost solely on God giving her a miracle. I am an atheist, but that doesn't mean I don't see the value religion has in peoples lives and culture. I am glad that Cyntoia found a faith that works for her and has shared her truth through this book. I just have a very hard time seeing a deity be given the credit while the people doing the actual work end up as a paragraph at the end of her acknowledgements. I do not understand how she sees all of her negative experiences were part of some divine plan when she is able to get out. Most people never achieve what Cyntoia has and logic follows that their suffering is also part of God's plan. I can't get behind that. But, it doesn't matter so much what I believe because this is Cyntoia's story and this is what mattered to her. It gives us insight to where she is today.
When Cyntoia comes home to the place that her new husband has lovingly stocked with everything she wanted, she does mention that it feels unfair that so many others will not have the same thing. She still attributes it to God's miracle bestowed upon her. Her husband Jaime undoubtedly played a huge part in that, going very heavy handed with the God talk from the moment they began corresponding. I understand how she ended up at the belief system she did.

Overall, Cyntoia's memoir is a very interesting read. I believe this book will also clear up a lot of misconceptions people have about her and her case. She is a highly responsible- perhaps too responsible- woman who has become very knowledgeable caring. I hope her book helps people in similar situations get out alive or at least know that they are not alone.

 This was also posted to my Goodreads.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Book Review: How to Be an Antiracist

Image: The cover of the book is a white background with black that looks like it was applied with a paint roller unevenly. In the black area, in large capital letters going down line by line vertically is "how to" in red, "be an," in yellow, "antiracist" underlined and in white, "Ibram X." in pink, and "Kendi" in green. Across the bottom in very small white capital letters is "National book award winning author of" and under that in yellow is "Stamped from the Beginning."

In reviewing How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, I want to note that I read this book and followed it up by seeing a live discussion of the book with him in person. Seeing and hearing Kendi at the event definitely boosted and added to the book and my understanding of his philosophies. My review of the book alone may have been different.

My introduction to Kendi was through reading his book Stamped from the Beginning. Though that book was "a definitive history of racist ideas in America," I still consider this book to be one of the best overall American history books in existence. As a result, I went into "How to be an Antiracist" with very high expectations. Not all of them were met, but Kendi still left me with a lot to think about. The book jumps around stylistically quite a bit. A good chunk of it is a memoir composed of Kendi meticulously analyzing his own history with internalized racism and racist actions. It sometimes jumps from 101 level information to fairly advanced analyses of racism and white supremacy a bit too quickly. An excellent historian, Kendi peppers the book with well researched history to back up each topic. There is a lot of telling and explaining different kinds of racism and racist ideas. What this book is not, despite its title, is a "how to" guide for being an antiracist. Kendi only really goes so far as to say things like "holding and acting on this idea is racist, holding and acting on this opposite idea is anti-racist," creating a black and white set up for the whole book. At his event, there was much better elaboration on this. But, before that, when I finished the book, I felt like he was saying you jump into being an antiracist and that anti-racists no longer do racist things. This is, of course, untrue and at odds with his claim that all races include racists and are capable of racism- a highly contested point, but we will get to that.

Once I let go of the title, I did find the book held my attention, despite its lack of organizing. The book's target audience can vary from section to section, but one thing is for certain: this book is for all races. Many antiracist texts are specifically for unaware but well intentioned white people or are for those with advanced scholarship. Kendi emphasizes the varied human experiences with racism among different people and I believe this really helps the book stand out in great ways. In the book he focuses on his and other Black people's projections of their internalized racism (bootstrapping for instance) along with the rampant racism of white people against people of color. 

While overall, I really liked this approach, there was one section that had me scratching my head. Kendi devotes an entire chapter to "anti-white racism" whereas no other race has their own chapter. He follows it by a chapter on the "power argument" in which he gives his opinion as to why the assertion that people of color can't exert racism over white people due to poc's lack of power- is false. I disagree with this, but I do understand where he is coming from. I understand that the average person is not going to grasp why hating white people is prejudice rather than  something with the power of anti-poc racism. I also agree that claiming anyone never has power can be, well, dis-empowering. But, it seemed to me that all of the ways Kendi claimed Black and other non-white people had power over white people were of class and other oppression, not race. For instance, a Black cop having more power than non-police, a rich Latinx person having power over poor people including white poor people, etc. I also don't understand why such a large section of the book was dedicated to "anti-white racism," and why it was tackled as if it had the same effect and impact of white supremacy. Then there is something that really baffles me- Kendi capitalizes the "W" in white. It is my understanding that people capitalize the B in Black, the L in Latinx, etc to express proud racial and cultural identities that are often attacked and maligned by racists. What does capitalizing the "W" encourage? White pride?

At Kendi's event, "anti-white racism" did not receive any of this kind of attention, for good reason. Thus, I am wondering if a better editor could have helped convey his intention better in the book. I didn't ask him about these things because I did not want to re-center whiteness. But, in the talk, he stated, "I define being racist as someone who is expressing racist ideas or racist policy through their action or inaction." I suppose with this definition, you could make the argument that, since race and class are inseparable, a person of color with class privilege, internalized racism, and who is espousing and supporting racist policy could have an effect on a white person. But, again, I don't see how "anti-white racism" holds the power here. I just worry that the fragility of white liberals will be supported and ignited by this kind of analysis. It seems to support the crying white woman's tears about having been called, "Becky" after a racist action she took was called out as somehow being the same as a Black person being called the n-word. Do we really need that in a book white people will look to as a "how to" guide?

Kendi's attempts at tackling intersectionality were less messy, but still struggled at times. I definitely appreciate the importance that Kendi placed on tackling all oppression and that being indivisible from tackling racism. But, he does things like create terms like "Queer Racist" and "Queer Anti-Racist." Just reading those without the book, one would think he is talking about Queer people who are being racist or anti-racist. But, his intention is to call out racialized homophobia of heterosexual people and so on.

These issues have a lot to do with semantics though and arguably don't dismantle the meat of the text itself. Kendi did a ton of things right. Along with the aforementioned original ways of tackling a book like this as well as tons of the interesting history, Kendi has an ability to be direct and firm while also being gentle. Something from his talk that exemplified how he does this in the book was when he said something to the tune of, "admitting you've done something racist is an antiracist action." Basically, being an antiracist is a constant practice of confronting, learning from, and dismantling racism. Kendi's focus on racist policy as the center of this. I don't entirely agree as I believe racist and colorist othering and prejudice existed before government and likely will after it. But, I do agree that the policy, government, and corporate levels are where most of the power lies. Kendi speaks regularly of the reality that it is not only direct racist actions that are racist, but the failure to take action against racism. At his event, he aptly stated, "The heartbeat of racism is denial." This leads into another thing I believe Kendi did well that is often shied away from by self-professed anti-racists.

Something many people reading this book may be reluctant to accept is that there is a very real problem with racism in liberal, progressive, and radical thought. Kendi explained this both in the book and at the event. The book details many instances of harm caused by mildly (if that) left of center (democrat/liberal) politicians with heavy emphasis on the damaging words and actions of the Clintons. I believe Kendi did an excellent job encouraging liberals to look in the mirror instead of always pointing the finger at republicans and did so in a way that will leave them open to accepting it. 

The end of the book ends up being a gut punch. We discover that Kendi has been surrounded by cancer for some time now. His mother and wife battled with severe cancers. Following that, he was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer- one of the most dangerous, having approximately an 80% death rate. Kendi is now in remission. I found myself crying while reading this part of the book and when he spoke of this during the talk. I recently had a second cancer surgery for a far less dangerous (but still not fun, of course) cancer and thought maybe that was why. But, really, I couldn't stop thinking about how this great mind could have been taken from us so early. The emotional impact of him sharing these experiences actually went quite well with his analogy that racism is like cancer. I often am put off by any comparison of an oppression to an illness or especially a healthy disabled person's life. They often dance on the line of ableism at best. But, I have yet to meet someone that celebrates cancer. I found that the way Kendi tackled this discussion was quite beautiful. He took something that had plagued his family and turned it into a way to better understand and strategize how to eliminate racism. He encouraged us to tackle racism as we do cancer- relentlessly, in both targeted (like surgery) and widespread (like chemo and radiation) ways, with consistent monitoring (like follow up visits and testing) after these treatments, and repeating treatments when necessary. For instance, simply killing a racist bill or policy in Congress is not where the fight ends, you have to monitor the entire system to make sure another doesn't show up and detect it as early as possible. It is true that many won't make it and many will be left struggling. It is also true that many can survive. He encouraged us to see calling someone or something racist as an invitation to "begin the painful process of healing" from the infection of racism (spoken at event.)

Seeing Kendi in person definitely warmed me to many aspects of the book I was confused about and added a face and voice to the parts I really enjoyed. The book is definitely worth reading for anyone out there who needs to understand the different ways that racism manifests in our world. I also definitely encourage going to see him speak or discuss the book in person if that is available in your area.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Book Review: Radical Joy for Hard Times

Image: The cover of the book is a photo of a forest taken from the perspective of looking straight upward. All of the trees tops point towards the center where the dawn sun is brightly shining through. In large white capital letters, the title of the book covers the page with each word on its own line. Under that in much smaller letters is "Finding meaning and making beauty in Earth's broken places." Below that is the author and foreword authors names in smaller letters

Radical Joy for Hard Times is a poetic and beautiful work that tackles many ugly things. This is a book about environmentalism and the planet and its starting point likely requires the reader to at least care a bit about the environment. Trebbe Johnson explores these topics using mainly story telling and philosophy, but you will also find poetry, studies, activities, and more. While this book could get a little too hippy-ish for my personal tastes at times, it undoubtedly made me consider a great many things about how I exist on and relate to this planet and its inhabitants. I imagine I will continue to do so as time passes.

Trebbe Johnson is a very wise woman with countless experiences to share from throughout her life. Johnson is from Pennsylvania, like me. As a result she intimately knows the horrors of fracking all over the state among other things. She tells quite a few stories about this in the book. There are so many other stories and experiences she shares including things like surviving natural disasters and the destruction of the environment and also rituals people have used to mourn or celebrate the plant and ways to find joy among it all. Do not read the title and assume this is all a happy go lucky read, though. I believe I got through at least half of it and asked myself, "where is the joy?" (Don't worry, she gets there.) This worked out fine for me. One reason is that I can't stand excessive optimism and positivity when discussing things like this as they are often manifestations of denial. The other reason is that one of Johnson's main themes in the book is accepting the entirety of our experiences and how everything is intertwined from the messy to the beautiful.

There is an entire section on emotions and grief regarding the loss and/or transformation of the "Broken Places" of the world. It calls attention to the detrimental nature of many cultures to demean grief about other animals and the planet. This is particularly true for men who in western colonialist and some other cultures are not permitted to show any emotion other than mild happiness or a spectrum of anger.  It was nice to see a section that tackled this directly, especially because the lack of allowance for grief and emotions is a huge cause of burn-out.

Johnson also explores the wide reaching psychological and sociological effects of ecological collapse. Destruction of environments and nonhuman animal habitats is something that is of mourned by both individuals and entire communities- sometimes worldwide such as in the case of oil spills that have attracted attention (unfortunately representing only a few of many that regularly occur.) The cultural expectations around grief translate to the clinical as well. Johnson describes more than one instance where a client was trying to grieve the horrors of environmental destruction and the therapist told them it was actually a manifestation of something else and that they would stop being upset once some other root issue was addressed. I can attest that I have had similar experiences. Even as a child while sobbing, mourning the death of my beloved dog, I was told I was likely actually upset about a human in my life. It was here that Johnson introduced me to the field of ecopsychology, which was very interesting and something I had not heard of previously.

In Johnson's analysis of what she calls "Scare/Scold/Rally" campaigns, she made me consider the ways I have approached environmentalism and animal liberation. She reminds us of examples of environmentalists like the founder of Earth First! calling humans a cancer and his and other racist environmentalists' borderline celebrating the deaths in Africa via AIDS and other disease. (Johnson doesn't call them racist, directly, but I am.) She includes studies that show that apocalypse type messaging can activate bigger denial responses in people via activating the just world fallacy. This is the belief that the world is inherently a just place where bad things only happen when they are deserved and good things happen to good people. It is, for instance, associated with the appropriated and colonized version of what people call "karma." This denial can be seen in how many grown adults have responded to the brave and brilliant teen, Greta Thunberg's passionate address to world leaders by ruthlessly attacking her. (For the record, I support Thunberg's style of address and her passion, I am just using the most recent example of widespread denial.) Johnson does not claim that the answer is to be without passion, anger, and seriousness around issues of climate change, but to be more thoughtful and considerate of the tactics we use to talk about it. She urges us to discover ways to tell the truth most effectively. 

She also discusses how some Hindus (and I note, many far left radicals) have a belief that we may be too late to stop ecological collapse with the ways we are headed and thus must invest more in community based structures and ideas of mutual aid. Johnson includes perspectives and experiences from various cultures and includes Black, Brown, and Indigenous people. I do think that at times, Johnson leans a little toward "noble savage" tropes in her discussions of indigenous people. There are some statements that seem to paint all native people as having the same rituals around nature, all being people who kill animals and believe an animal "gives" their life for humans. There are a lot of indigenous people who believe animals' lives are taken from them and choose not to consume animals as a result. There is a very wide range of indigenous experience regarding nature and animals. That said, I still appreciated her sharing and insights from the times she spent listening to various indigenous people about their rituals and cultures. I appreciate her discussing environmental racism (even if she didn't use those words) via calling attention to countless abuses of mostly poor Black people in polluted housing projects.

The only thing I disliked like about this book was the way Johnson talked about animals. It wasn't egregiously terrible. There is just a divide sometimes between environmentalists like me who see animal liberation as a central tenet of environmentalism and ones like Johnson who shy away from any strong statements about nonhuman animal exploitation, aside from ones most people have an easy time agreeing with, like saying endangered species poaching is wrong or discussing the beauty of wild, non-domesticated animals. She refers to animals as "it" regularly which always bothers me, especially in texts literally about environmental destruction. The borderline fetishistic admiration of how some indigenous people slaughter animals is another example. I am not saying indigenous people should stop preserving their cultures. They are the least responsible groups worldwide regarding animal exploitation and environmental destruction. I just often see white and other colonizing people using them as an excuse to shy away from calling out animal agribusiness as a whole. More and more each day, environmentalists are accepting that we must stop animal agriculture- including the 1-5% that are nonfactory farms (many of which have an even larger carbon footprint than factory farms) in order to slow climate collapse. I would have liked more direct addressing of domesticated animal exploitation and related environmental destruction.

Johnson finishes off the book by discussing environmentalism through a lens of existentialism in one of the final chapters. This was something I did not quite expect and really enjoyed reading. I don't claim to have a single philosophy I adhere to in life, but if I had to, existentialism would likely be it. She discusses the reality that, yes, focusing on individual consumption or intervention as some world saving venture can yield unrealistic assessments of what should be done. (I am vegan for instance, but don't believe my individual veganism is more powerful or that I need to be more accountable than large exploitative corporations like Tyson foods.) However, doing what is right in general as an individual has meaning and purpose in and of itself. Existentialism is often associated with atheism- since there is no afterlife, we must do what we can to create meaning in this life. But, even as an atheist, I think existentialism can also be applied by those who are afterlife-faith-based as well. Rather than believing that all rewards will come after death, we also can find rewards now even if the reward is in knowing that we did the best we could and remained true to our moral compass. 

Overall, this book was a compelling read that defies categorization. Johnson has a great many ways of wisely approaching these topics and it works out fantastically in this text. 

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Book Review: Forward

Image: The cover for the press packet of the series is a navy blue in the top left corner that transitions to black at the bottom. Across the center from the bottom left corner to the top right is a wide set of thin lines in different shades of blue- light in the middle and darker on the edges. Above the halfway mark of the cover is the words "please enjoy" in small, white capital letters and below that "FORWARD" in letters transitioning from white to light blue, top to bottom. The "W" is bent like a fast-forward icon and is pink and light blue.

The six short stories in Amazon's Forward series are all listed separately on the website and on goodreads. I decided to review all of them at once since they are, by nature, short. The series features six prominent authors in fiction, most known for their science and/or speculative fiction. Like any collection of short stories, some are better than others. I enjoyed reading most of them, but the ones I didn't love weren't terrible or a total waste of my time. 

The only author I was familiar with before reading this series was the legendary N.K. Jemisin, so I can't speak to if this collection is definitely a good representation of these authors' longer form works. What I will say is that Blake Crouch definitely earned himself a new reader with his entry in the series. I will do my best to discuss each story without any spoilers. This means I'll be saying less about each one, but it's probably for the best.

The first story in the series is Ark by Veronica Roth which centers a botanist in charge of preserving pieces of nature before the end of the world via a cosmic collision. This story is all about what is going on between characters and the interactions and connections they have. I feel that the author did a good job capturing the complicated experiences and emotions in the lives of the protagonist and others. This is a slow, casual story involving themes that are anything but casual. It was not the most exciting of the collection, but it was an enjoyable read and a good starting off point for the collection.

The second story was my favorite of the collection. Blake Crouch's Summer Frost explores artificial intelligence in really interesting ways. It centers Riley- a video game developer who creates an artificial intelligence that performs differently than it was intended to. Crouch manages to include themes that I don't often associate with AI stories such as witty examinations of humans' interpretations of gender and sexuality, misogyny and gender discrimination in gaming and developer cultures, and how those things translate to an artificial intelligence that is analyzing them. 

The story has some decent representation as well, centering on a lesbian/bisexual/queer woman (she is married to a woman, thus could be any of those) who is a brilliant programmer. She has very real discussions about what it means to exist in a body and to feel for someone- or some thing- else. That said, I am not just giving it cookies because I liked the representation. It is a genuinely well written and rounded story. It held my attention the entire time and included a really cool twist and ending. It is a story that felt complete when it was over, which is something I find lacking in some short fiction. After reading this story, I added Crouch's books to my list of those I want to read.

N.K. Jemisin's Emergency Skin was the third story in the collection and I have quite a lot of feelings about it in multiple directions. This was the entry that sparked my interest in the collection in the first place. I will say that this is a story I liked more once some time had passed, but I am not exactly sure of the reason. I can say that I am the target audience for a story like this that is very heavy on leftist themes of anti-capitalism and communist utopia. The thing is, while it was written beautifully, I think Jemisin was a bit heavy handed with some of the messaging while failing to adequately tackle other intertwined messages. I am being vague because the progression of the story involves many reveals that I don't want to give away. 

Emergency Skin is about a traveler from a far off, tidally locked planet that is returning to Earth in order to collect necessary substances and information. It is narrated by those who are commanding the central character who is returning which was a very interesting narrative style. It becomes clear quickly that the commanders are white supremacists, capitalists, and all other manner of terrible things who believe those left behind are either all dead or are primitive savages. What the explorer finds is quite interesting to say the least.

As I mentioned, the delivery of the messages in this is very heavy-handed, which I have found not to be the case with other things by Jemisin that I have read. So, I would not call this story entirely representative of her work. Her famous Broken Earth trilogy is brilliant in part because the characters are very developed, very flawed, and the obvious underclasses in these books are still imperfect and capable of doing harm. This is not the case in Emergency Skin. I also think Jemisin missed the opportunity to tackle forms of oppression outside of class struggle. While there are mentions of others, there seems to be a suggestion of a simple solution for very large and complex problems. These are the reasons why I have ended up writing more about this story than the others. All of that said, I still enjoyed it. Sometimes it's fun to have something heavy handed, especially if it is well written, which it was. As time passes, I enjoy the story more as I recall the terrible and fantastically creative aspects of the supremacist commanders and their willingness to do anything to hold on to the worlds they have created.

The fourth story was You Have Arrived at Your Destination by Amor Towles. This is another story focusing more on the characters than anything else. The science fiction aspect of it involves the likely future of designer babies via genetic engineering. The protagonist visits a fertility clinic that explains their work as similar to how credit scores are collected- by examining a variety of information and drawing conclusions about future behavior and other occurrences. Our protagonist is shown several full videos of his potential future children that were chosen by his wife in advance. What begins as an exciting experience becomes an unnerving awakening. I am on the verge of giving away too much about the story, so this one will remain brief. Overall, an enjoyable and interesting story.

The next story was one of my least favorite of the bunch. The Last Conversation by Paul Trembley is written in second person narrative which I generally find off putting with a few exceptions. This story was not one of the exceptions. However, it did hold my interest because there is a mystery to be solved. It surrounds someone waking up after being in a prolonged sleep, confined to what seems like a prison, and being both studied and cared for by a scientist who assures them that they are not in prison. The scientist is very focused on helping the central character recall the memories they have lost. I knew what the big reveal was going to be long before it occurred. The author does manage to capture the kind of fear and despair of existing in an apocalyptic world full of loss and struggle. It wasn't without merit. I was simply not a huge fan of the execution and story overall. If you are buying the whole collection, it is still worth reading.

The final story- Andy Weir's Randomize- was the one hard science fiction story of the bunch, which made it a fun and valuable read. My only exposure to Weir before this was seeing "The Martian" in the theater before knowing it was based on his book. I was not a huge fan of the movie, but it was entertaining enough. However, movies are often not representative at all of the books they are based on, so I did not know what to expect. 

Overall, I enjoyed the science more than I enjoyed the story. It is a story about capitalism and competition that doesn't seem to take issue with either one. It borders on making capitalist exploitation and ingenuity seem, for lack of a better term, cool. We have a brilliant scientist and a cutthroat business owner going head to head in craftiness. It didn't surprise me to find out that Weir identifies as "fiscally conservative." The writing style in general didn't blow me away either. The story is told, though, using super interesting descriptions of quantum computing and quantum entanglement which I found fascinating. I can't say I fully understand how all of it works, but things were still explained enough to create a real sense of wonder in me. It likely helps that I have interest in these topics outside of this story, despite my meager grasp of them. 

Because of how far this story leaned right, the science was not enough to make me fall in love with it. But, like the one preceding it, I don't regret reading it and still think the collection has value as a whole. Forward saved the least enjoyable for last, though perhaps that doesn't matter much given that these stories are all available as single items and are also marketed as such on some platforms. As far as short story collections go, this one has some high and low points but overall provided an entertaining escape from this dying world and gave me a glimpse into many possible futures.   

This was also posted to my goodreads with ratings at the following links:
Ark

Summer Frost
Emergency Skin
You Have Arrived at Your Destination
The Last Conversation
Randomize

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Book Review: Oppression and the Body

Image: The cover of the book is a dirty pink color background with black abstract images in the foreground that resemble a person's body silhouette, their shadow, and patterns of lines over all of it that almost look like ribs from a chest x-ray. In large, capitalized, white letters that cover most of the space is, "OPPRESSION AND THE BODY." I smaller black letters across a dirty pink stripe at the bottom reads, "ROOTS, RESISTANCE, AND RESOLUTIONS." Below that in smaller white letters is, "EDITED BY CHRISTINE CALDWELL AND LUCIA BENNET LEIGHTON."

"Oppression and the Body," begins from a place of introspection and intentionality. Both editors took the time to explain where they are positioned in society via privilege or lack of it, how this may affect what they produce, and steps they took to even things out. Both editors come from a background of somatics and did make attempts to have representation across authors chosen for the book. There were some times where their language fell short, such as using "transgendered" instead of "transgender" on the back cover and elsewhere as well as taking Ta-Nehisi Coates quotes about Black peoples experiences out of context and generalizing them to everyone. I thought the former was because an Eli Clare essay from 2001 was included in the book using that term, but they also have another trans person in the book using updated terms. I found it a little strange that such an old (while excellent) entry from Eli Clare was chosen because he expands upon it and addresses some things he has changed his thinking about in his recent book, "Brilliant Imperfection." But, that could simply be a publishing/copyright issue. That said, it served an important function in discussing disabled, Queer, and trans bodies in Clare's consistently elegant ways.

The entries in the book are grouped into three main sections: Oppression of bodies in societies, marginalized bodies in society, and embodied action. The authors come at the topics using multiple mediums including descriptive analyses, therapeutic interventions, and poetry and other types of art. I really appreciated that some authors were inclusive of nonhuman animals in their discussions of somatic oppression and healing. Most of the essays are academic in style and nature. I am not a poetry person normally, so I am not sure if my distaste for it was because of preference or quality of the poetry. I really enjoyed and got a lot out of most of the other entries though. I also enjoyed that each essay contained both citations and bibliography offering the reader a lot of other sources that expand upon these topics.

The entries I enjoyed the most were the two at the beginning by each editor and those by Carla Sherrell, Beit Gorski, and Jen Labarbara. The first two gave me a better idea of studies in somatics and did well setting the stage for the rest of the book. Sherrell brought needed attention to the white centrism of many somatics practitioners and practices, leading many people to see the term "somatics" as meaning white. She explained how Black people suffer in unique and transgenerational ways, requiring tailored interventions such as those inclusive of their ancestors. Gorski shared xyr experience and knowledge as an intersex, nonbinary, trans person by explaining ways in which the medicalized binarism of sex and gender are problematic and harmful. Xie showed that it is not only gender that is socially constructed, but also sex. In xyr other essay, xie offered models for defining and coping with body and social dysphoria via "transforming distress" group intervention. Labarbara utilized her knowledge and experience as a Queer, Femme, woman to destigmatize Queerness as a response to trauma. She describes Queerness as a sublimation and "welcome effect" of sexual violence and other trauma, smashing ableist, rape culture ideas that stigmatize survivors and/or LGBT people or attempt to separate us from the whole of our lives. I chose to focus my review only on these entries because I enjoyed them the most, but do not take the intentional brevity as indication that the other entries did not have immense value as well.

While this book didn't hit on every demographic out there, there comes a point where attempting to do so can amount to destructive tokenism. Given that reality, I thought the authors did well finding voices across a pretty specific field of study. I also really enjoyed the graphic design of the cover and book, as a side note. You can judge this book by its cover.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Book Review: Reimagining Death

Image: The cover of the book shows a colorful photo of a shroud. The body is wrapped in a white shroud and covered with wildflowers. There is an illustrated white ribbon added to the photo over the shroud. The top part of the ribbon says "Reimagining" in script, the next section says "DEATH" in capitalized letters, the next portion says "stories and practical wisdom for home funerals and green burials: in smaller capital letters. Across the bottom is a white box with the author's name and the foreword author's name in capital letters.

Reimagining Death tackles very important topics that many human beings shy away from confronting, often until the last minute when it is too late to have access to the most choices. The book definitely has a target audience- one that I thought I was part of but it turns out, not so much. This affects my review, but does not mean someone else would not enjoy this book more than I did. I am reviewing mostly on my own tastes and unmet expectations.

It is necessary to mention that I'm an atheist, but not the annoying internet dude kind that finds superiority in their lack of belief in God(s.) I respect that religion and spirituality have important and often positive roles in peoples lives and have no desire to take that away. That said, my opinions and outlook on green burial and other topics covered in this book come from a love of nature and desire to feed the Earth and those on it when I die. It comes from a rational place of wanting to avoid contributing to the suffering of others and to climate change in death. I also have thought about death fairly regularly from a young age, so I didn't need to learn a lesson that death should be spoken about and embraced as part of life. I was hoping that this book would teach me a lot about conventional and green practices in depth, how far reaching the negative effects of the former are, and the importance of viewing death differently. Instead, I got a book that is very heavy on the stories and very light on the "practical wisdom." Every time I would get past a long, drawn out story about a death ritual, I would get to a section I thought would teach me what I wanted to know. Unfortunately, I would just find a bullet point list with a few bits of information before the author moved on to another story. All of the stories were written in a style that just didn't work for me. Most of them seemed longer than they needed to be.

It is very clear that the author is writing from her perspective as a a "woo woo" spiritual hippie type who lives in a community on Whidbey Island that I assume is predominantly white, middle to owning class people of a similar bent. I have been to the island once and it is an absolutely gorgeous place, but is very unlike where most people live. Every story is written in this very new agey perspective, assigning extreme cosmic significance and meaning to all sorts happenings. There is a lot of psychic, spiritual, and other things that were of no interest to me, however much I understood the significance to the author and her friends. I think I was just hoping for something that didn't treat everything around death as a magical experience all the way down to washing the genitals of your mother's dead, rigored body or anointing your dead husband's perineum with oils. Sure, we can find spiritual experiences in after death rituals, but is all of it a fantastical experience full of immense meaning? It may be for some, and that is fine. But, the book is written as if it should be for everyone.

Another thing that makes the author's centering of her own experience clear is that cost is pretty much never discussed. Is a green burial and home funeral cheaper (after all of the legal paperwork and home hospice care many cannot afford?) I don't know. It was something I wanted to know. The author discusses her housekeeper nonchalantly as if it's something everyone has and all the stories focus on people who were able to afford home hospice care from what I can tell. Do I believe people should be able to die at home or wherever they prefer? Absolutely. But, many people don't. There is a section about if someone dies in a hospital, but it is not a centered experience throughout the book. Pretty much everyone discussed seems to be someone the author is related to or is in her community.

Even though I did not get a whole lot out of these stories, though, I do think that some people can. I think that reading these stories can help people realize that there are alternatives to many mainstream western after death rituals. I think that these stories could be comforting to someone who has recently lost someone or who needs to see death as a topic that should be embraced rather than avoided. I think people similar to the author in particular could enjoy these stories. I think people looking for story telling more than practical information on the topic would enjoy these stories. 

I didn't really get what I was looking for until the last two chapters of the book. The chapters, "Reimagining the Future in Ecological After Death Care" and "Be Prepared: Creating a Plan with Family and Friends," were the most useful to me. They were still too light on the information I wanted, but I did finally get to read more about what practices like embalming and typical cremation do to the body and the environment. There were a lot of things I learned such as alternatives to cremation if you don't want a burial and how these alternatives can actually be good for the environment rather than neutral. I found things like composting burials, the use of cryogenics, water processing and other methods to be very interesting. The appendices at the end also offer information and sources for those looking for more outside the format of the book. There are also a lot of lovely photos of green burials and rituals that were really cool to look at.

All in all, I don't regret reading this book. I would recommend it to someone looking to understand how after death rituals do not have to be as expected. If you are more looking for the kinds of information I was, I think you could easily skip around in this book, choose what you need, and leave the rest.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Book Review: Empowered Boundaries

Image: The cover of the book has a white border with most of the center of the book coated in light blue to look like an uneven paint job. All of the fonts resemble hand-writing in capital letters. Across the top in black is, "EMPOWERED BOUNDARIES," with "power" underlined in orange. Below that is a horizontal orange strip with "SPEAKING TRUTH" written inside. Below that is "SETTING BOUNDARIES" in white. Below that is another orange stripe with "INSPIRING" in black letters. Below that is "SOCIAL CHANGE" in white letters. Coming out of the orange stripes are thin, curby arrows made of orange dotted lines. Across the bottom in yellow is the author's name: CHRISTIEN STORM.

Something that frequently goes through my head when reading various self-help books is the phrase, "must be nice." As in, "it must be nice to have the privilege and/or luxury to do (xyz.)" Many self-help books reflect the dominant culture or demographics which leads many of them to fall short. Different people experience the world in different ways based on how they are positioned in society. One of the best things about Cristien Storm's "Empowered Boundaries: Speaking Truth, Setting Boundaries, and Inspiring Social Change" is the author's intimate understanding of and connection with the great diversity of human experience.

Boundaries are something I have struggled with endlessly and I sought this book out in hopes it would give me more of a backbone and better communication skills. I did not expect it to be as relatable as it was. I didn't realize from the name that Cristien Storm is one of the founders of the group Home Alive which formed after the brutal assault and murder of a close friend. Storm not only has personal connections with oppression, but has educated herself about things she may not suffer personally. These things help create a book that includes the premise that societal oppression is intimately linked with boundaries. We all have power in some situations and lack it in others, thus there are always power dynamics at play in all of our interactions. As she states near the end of the book, "power cannot be communicated away." Thus, she offers a wide range of tools to navigate boundaries while also navigating human interactions in the real world.

I do think this book will be received best by people at least slightly on board with leftist ideas of collective liberation (i.e. people who at least believe oppression exists and have an introductory understanding of it.) There is a central theme of the issues with individualist, victim blaming culture vs creating supportive and functional communities. Storm communicates how setting boundaries can foster community-wide change for the better.

Something that adds a very human touch to the book, among all of the deep discussions of oppression dynamics and complicated social interaction, is the real anecdotes peppered throughout. Storm uses groups and interactions she has had over the years to give the reader examples of each concept as she goes along. These anecdotes represent a wide variety of voices, allowing her to better explore the nuance of these topics. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for boundary setting, self defense, communication, conflict resolution, or any other human interaction.

Storm is very thoughtful with her use of language and it shows. I could tell throughout the book that she made an effort not to leave anyone behind. She regularly brings up how one experience or technique will work for one person but not another. There are a number of helpful exercises included at the end so that people can practice and figure out what works best for them. Storm is also exceedingly kind and highlights the importance of being gentle with ourselves. This was especially evident in discussions of survivors who thought they didn't do enough to defend themselves or others. Storm re-frames things to help people focus on all of the things they did do to survive, once again breaking through patriarchal, victim blaming ideas that are internalized by many if not all people, feminist or not.

After reading this book, I feel like I have a much better understanding of boundaries and how to create and communicate them. I believe that if this book was not written from such a radical perspective, I would not have gained so much from it. I have been able to assess things throughout my life that make more sense now. I have a much better idea of how I can handle boundary setting in the future. It really brought the point home that boundaries are a critical aspect of all relationships. As the saying goes, "good fences make good neighbors."

This was also posted to my goodreads.