He Lay Waste A Village. And His Mother Too.

Brookfield_Center_village_greenWhen the  bloodbath smothered my awareness as I worked at home on December 14, 2012, I felt the icy rain  and despairing grey skies freeze my heart. My own children were grown. What matter. Life still feels a dangerous mine-field when you love so much. In an incomprehensible fraction of an instant, the very essence of your life can be obliterated.

I joined a nation grieving, a world, in fact.  I grasped again my personal perplexity at gun ownership, shooting for sport.  I suppose I entered with the grieving searching for a reason in those early hours, before understanding that reason and madness can never co-exist.

Soon, I was also saddened, however, as the media, the official statements and ultimately the president made a body count: “twenty six victims. “Twenty children” and “six adults” shot dead in Newtown.

His mother was a victim. Surely.  He killed her.  (And he, too, must be counted somewhere?  A human life, he lived, he died. He died with great obscenity).

On March 17, 2014, Andrew Solomon published an article in The New  Yorker, The Reckoning. In this article, and in his discussions of it on other media, Solomon, partially based on his previous writings and interviews relating to the Columbine massacre and on his interviews and research into the Newtown shootings, paints a portrait of Adam and Nancy Lanza.  He also describes Peter Lanza from these sources, mediated by Mr. Lanza and his wife’s lengthy interviews with Solomon. What emerges is another portrait of an American horror which places at its center a mentally ill young man, infantalized in many ways, raised with  deficient, provocative mothering . Mr. Solomon has extended the narrative which has alternately blamed, then erased, Nancy Lanza.

It is probably true that had Ms.Lanza and I encountered each other on a PTA committee we would have struggled to  become friends.  The chronicle of her history is as a well-heeled girl from New Hampshire, popular and successful, from an established family. She married her high school sweetheart to become a  stock broker and then stay at home mom in a posh Manhattan suburb.  Suffice it to say, my history has few points of intersection.

She enjoyed guns.  I abhor them.  She enjoyed shooting for sport.  I cannot comprehend such a thing.  She met  friends at the local bar on occasion.  I do not.  She loved her children.  That is a passion we shared.

There is little else we know of Nancy Lanza.  Did she like to read?  Did she enjoy the opera?  Did she have hobbies other than guns: cooking, gardening, knitting, painting, hiking, running?  Was she religious?  Why did she not date?  Was she in therapy?  Did she confide in the sometimes mentioned “best friend?” Did she visit her other son, or he her? Did she like to shop?

I am relieved that there is much we do not know.  Researching for this post was repellant for the intimacies of a life on view. The State’s Attorney’s Investigation necessarily examined every inch of her home, her correspondence, her phone calls, her clothing, her possessions, her life.  The parts which link her to the horrors of the morning of her death have been memorialized in cyberspace.  This is who she is.  This is the sum of her remembered life.

That and her absence among the twenty-six stars on the Newtown firehouse.  The absence of a bell toll for her on the anniversary of the massacre. The failure of a mention by President Obama when he calls on the nation to remember the slain of that day.

If the mother of the slain child,  Ana , Nelba Marquez Green, has the generosity to call for empathy and counts Nancy Lanza as a Newtown victim, I suggest we all need to do so.

I suggest we need to do this because she was a victim of Domestic Violence. This time, and not for the first time, Domestic Violence shattered a community, a nation and reverberated throughout the world.

In the immediate aftermath of her death, when the wise began to question how our society copes with mental illness, a brave and insightful woman posted an article “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” to the relief of many frightened mothers (and fathers). The post is extraordinary especially since information  now available from the State’s Attorney’s Investigation Report was mere rumor and innuendo at that time.

Evidence suggests that Adam Lanza suffered from developmental delay mushrooming into neurological/behavioral/medical/psychological and or  psychiatric issues as he moved through adolescence and early adulthood.  Documents summarized in the State Attorney’s Report and the Solomon article conflate time.

It is difficult to distinguish which of Lanza’s faetures discovered in the middle school years were known to have spiraled out of control into his last years. Lanza’s middle school experiences appear relatively well documented by school and medical sources. Still, these records present contradictory pictures.  Some show a severely disordered  child while others indicate a quite polite one who was not even bullied at school.  In fact some of the school reports are so “normal” one wonders why there would be a reason to pull that child from school or seek professional help at all.  The child described, they note, for whatever reason, had “at least one friend.”

The apparently contemporaneous professional reports herald lurking danger. At this juncture, the question most respectfully arises, where is the village? Certainly this is not a victim blaming exercise.  It is a genuine inquiry: to what extent do we as a community have a duty of care to our members, our children, to offer support to those so obviously struggling?

People question, “How could she not see?” “Why did she not get help?”  People who have never met the family sit in judgement.  “Many  parents, perhaps most, have to find the balance between devotion and denial… Nancy Lanza failed.” states Ruth Marcus, of the Washington Post definitively. Many condemn the deceased woman for what she failed to see or do which can be pinpointed so precisely in hindsight. But, none of these people were present in Nancy Lanza’s life as she was coping with a disordered, adult son.

Nor does it seem there was a large support system for Ms. Lanza when Adam was still a minor.

I would hope that if I were home schooling my child because he experienced, as Solomon states, “sensory overload” and “panic attacks” at school, or if my child was enrolled in  “special classes”, there would be a teacher, social worker, child welfare worker overseeing my tutelage to ensure that I was providing the necessary services.  I would hope that homeschooling, an alternative for creative, enriched learning, is not also being used as on “out of sight, out of mind” method to unload the system of its responsibilities to children with special needs. Newtown tragically demonstrates how  special needs belong to the community not merely to the child.

I trust that if my neighbor’s child had an “episode” in school, the authorities would call paramedics as well as the parent.  I would hope that child would not disappear into the care of a single parent who could be bewildered and overwhelmed.

I expect schools would refer my grandchild to physical or occupational therapy if he exhibited coördination difficulties and extreme fine motor concerns to prevent a teenager from lacing  his shoes.

And I wonder if there is not a professional duty lying outside the family.

If  a child diagnosed with a disorder or condition which substantially impairs his ability to take part in life fails to receive recommend treatment, ought there not be follow-up to ensure the welfare of the child is protected?  Certainly, we can imagine a scenario where an impoverished parent refusing medical recommendations and failing to assist a child to socialize “normally” might risk the actual legal custody of the child. That child could be institutionalized.  Is it wealth which buys the privilege of privacy to leave a child inadequately treated?

A panel video discussion on “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.  Sories from the Front Line” on The Huffington Post in 2012 considered this lack of “village cooperation.” The Lanzas shared with other families the problem of having a child difficult to pigeonhole into  “diagnoses” in a DSM label-driven mental health care system.

Many families struggle with children who  are described by their loved ones as  “brilliant, loving and amazing” and also “volatile, disruptive and explosive.”  It is not so rare that a parent comes to fear an explosive child, particular a child who grows larger or stronger than the parent. Compassionate people describe these children as “needing to develop past their behavior issues.”  Or, as one parent suggested, needing structure which would provide the “scaffolding the brain required to develop. ” Many times this special attention is gained in therapeutic school settings or day schools for special needs students.

The evidence does not suggest that the experts or school systems ever recommended such placement options for Adam Lanza. The Lanzas considered and rejected “private school” except for a brief time in which Adam attended Catholic School. Neither is there a suggestion that either Peter or Nancy Lanza considered a therapeutic home or a special school at critical stages in Adam’s youth.

It appears that Nancy Lanza was the “primary parent” for her sons as they grew.  Peter Lanza told Solomon that he considered that his relationship with his sons hardly changed after the separation from them in 2001 since he had always worked “ridiculously long hours.” Adam was 9 years old.  Apparently, Ryan and Adam lived with their mother. Peter Lanza lived a commutable distance in Stamford, keeping a cordial relationship with mother and visiting his sons on weekends.  He chose to remain involved in schooling and medical concerns.   The parents together participated in Adam’s development into a young man with a sense of humor, a fascination with World War II and a nascent wish to join the military.

The family engaged in gun activity.  Much has been reported about mother’s taking Adam to NRA shooting classes and to a shooting range.  Documents evidence that father took his son shooting as well.  An undated birthday card also evidences a promise from father to Adam to do the same when he next saw his son.  This was apparently after Adam had stopped visiting his father and suggested as an inducement to resume visits. Many are  incredulous that anyone voluntarily keep a gun and ammunition near a person as apparently disturbed as Adam Lanza.  In Solomon’s interview, Peter Lanza is critical of his deceased wife for several things, but  he absolves her for this, stating she would not have done so had she believed Adam to be violent.

According to Solomon, Peter Lanza is a man in need of precision about facts.  One might question why he did not quest for more precision as to the source of the clear suffering of one of his sons.  He is described as a “docile parent.”  Solomon portrays Peter Lanza as  an “affable,” successful, executive accountant not prone to examining emotions. This lack of understanding of or insight into the emotional world could have been something the man passed on to the boy.   Even as I write these phrases, bordering on, if not crossing, a line of psychologizing a person I have never met and never will meet, I cringe.  Yet such long distance analysis has been the posthumous fate of Nancy Lanza.

What emerges from Solomon’s article and the State’s Attorney’s Investigation Report is a portrait of a woman entrapped in a solitary and isolating relationship with her son.  No evidence exits to confirm that this relationship was physically abusive before December 14, 2012.

On that date, the domestic abuse which had controlled her life morphed into murder. Peter Lanza’s weekend contacts with Adam ceased after his son obtained a driver’s licence and a car in 2010.  Peter Lanza told Solomon that around that time Adam displayed no violent or aggressive tendencies in any way despite a “fascination with mass shootings and firearms.” Mr. Lanza had concluded after two years of not being in contact with Adam in any direct way that “It was crystal clear something was wrong” before the murders happened.  Still, on Adam’s last birthday, father did not force a visit to his adult son because, essentially, he knew it would involve a fight and he chose not to make a public scene. Without judging any of those facts, it is crystal clear that Nancy Lanza had no help caring for Adam’s escalating needs through immediate family.

Whether she had any help at all is not established. Solomon’s research and Peter Lanza’s report confirm the impression given by other documentary evidence that the older Adam grew, the less space Nancy Lanza experienced for her own life. According to these sources, as early as age 14, an obsessive adolescent was directing his compliant mother to join him in refraining from touching metal surfaces.  He issued other demands which were reportedly obeyed by his mother: he dictated what shoes she could where and how heavily she could tread; he considered it “inappropriate for her to “lean on” kitchen counters; he directed where she could walk in the kitchen and she agreed to get him computer parts so he could hide his cyber imprint.  Prescribed medication caused disabling side effects and was discontinued without substitution.   Adam’s other compulsions increasingly affected his mother’s life:  he was restrictive in what foods he would eat and how food could be arranged on a plate so that food items could not touch each other; his clothing needed washing several times a day, a demand with which she complied.  In addition, Adam was directing which rooms in the home sunlight could enter, who could ring the doorbell and  when and other factors which affected his sensory peculiarities.  Nancy could offend and enrage Adam or she or some other stimulus could send him into a catatonic depression or uncontrolled weeping  at the slightest misstep.  Eventually communication between them appears to have been limited to email, with Adam often unresponsive.  Nancy Lanza chose to live in such a fashion with her adult son.

Immediately before her death Ms. Lanza confided to someone that she expected to live with Adam for “a long time.”

In domestic violence, the abused often seeks the approval of the abuser.   The intimate nature of the relationship between the two magnifies the “power and control” features of the relationship.  The fact that the victim is the mother of an abusive son can mean her entire identity – am I an adequate mother, a worthy person – is compromised by the abuse.  Feelings of shame can prevent an abused family member from reaching out for help.  As can feelings of powerlessness.

Parricide (child murder of a parent) is not a widely studied form of domestic violence. Unfortunately, it happens. Research suggests that this form of domestic violence is associated with  a victim surrendering the role of an adult within the family.  As she does so, she experiences increasing feelings of isolation.  Because of the shame associated with this form of abuse, she may increase her own isolation.  Generally, there is  lack of information about lethal, non-lethal physical and/or emotional “child on parent” abuse (except perhaps in cases of the elderly which may have different dynamics).   This lack of information can explain the lack of community resources for the prevention and treatment for families with this type of dysfunction.

In the case of Newtown, it is also useful to examine our cultural experience of family violence.  Especially in recent years, the parentified child is a feature of television and movies but also common in the literature and other media of the times.  This social reinforcement of  weak parent models is harmful.  Certainly children are due respect and participation within families. However, current research suggests that confusion of family roles is unhealthy and a potential breeding ground for violence. In addition, the same media continues to exalt violence especially for and to males.  We raise our sons in a world filled with pressure for them to meet social expectations to be “tough.”  Studies reinforce instinct that this media messaging can contribute to  “accumulating aggression in male children.”

Peter Lanza told Solomon he was troubled Nancy Lanza “lied” to him that Adam was getting better. (A review of the States Attorneys Report does not necessarily support Mr. Lanza’s conclusion on this point.) He also suggested: “Nancy’s pride prevented her from asking for help.  She wanted everyone to think it was ok.”

True, pride is the opposite of shame.  A glass half full.  A glass half empty.

Shame is a major impediment to a victim’s seeking help.  Blame reinforces of shame.  A community must have available and known resources for a victim before she can seek relief. There is no evidence that Adam Lanza was violent towards his mother before December 14, 2012.  In fact, evidence fails to confirm that he was violent towards anyone. But the evidence does suggest that Nancy Lanza was, as one professional stated in Solomon’s article, increasingly “becoming a prisoner in her own home.”  She was engaged in a downward cycle of emotional abuse of the most dangerous kind for all concerned.

What puzzles me is the poignant fact that in the hours before her murder, Nancy Lanza gave herself a holiday at a mountain spa. She cooked meals her clearly food-disordered son likely did not eat.  He apparently functioned independently  while she was gone, although his destruction erupted upon her return.  She had purchased an RV and was making plans to move away, start a new life in a new state for her son at a new school. What gave her the strength for these changes?  How did she muster the courage to leave behind the person who apparently dominated her every waking moment?   How could she free herself from that control…and then return?  What gave her the strength, energy and hope to plan a fresh start?

Solomon suggests that this very step – affirmatively planning to move into a different future – may have been the seeds of her destruction. She could have angered Adam with her recognition that she would live with him “for a very long time”; Adam was a young man craving independence.  As the collected evidence shows, he was also utterly incapable of such independence. Peter Lanza states he was distanced by the” intensity” of the Nancy and Adam’s relationship, though there was nothing problematic in the “nature of ” the intensity itself.

Solomon suggests that unreferenced reports on matricide indicate  it is a crime committed by “overprotective  sons” who wish to “free themself from their dependence. ”  Matricide is employed in these overly dependent, conflict laden relationships.  The perpetrator ‘s mother tends to be smothering, the father, distant, passive.

The  literature I studied suggested that matricide, a subclass of parricide, is most often committed by males aged 12-25, less often committed with guns.  It is a crime of domestic violence, often correlated with schizophrenia, severe depression and suicide.  It is a lashing out of extreme rage, usually pre-planned, a concomitant with suicide. It is the “desperate act of severely ill and inadequately treated mentally ill” people. As I discussed, studies suggest that a  disintegrated family structure, unassertive parents and a  child experiencing  a lack of leadership are risk factors.    As with all violence, matricide is a crime of power and control.

Murder victims are not generally blamed for their own slaughter.  Certainly not when they are shot in the head four times in the early morning  in their bed in their own homes.

Nancy Lanza was blamed, belittled and forgotten.

It gets easier every day to turn away.  Our children spend more time “online.” We  can skype into town meetings or get the minutes online.  We don’t even have to go to town or the mall to shop anymore.  It will come to our door. But, the door closed on the house beside us can still shelter people in pain.  Hollywood may have us dreaming about perfect operating systems as mates, but the world is still filled with flesh and blood folks with gladsome and mournful hearts.  We can choose to divorce ourselves from the reality that our neighbor’s world affects our own.  But that will not alter circumstance.  Sooner or later we must accept that we live in a  village after all.

Out of Ireland

There is something lonely about an early spring Sunday in Pennsylvania at sunset.  The gold and orange clouds betray the stubborn chill which returns unwelcome by the startling crocuses which also arrive, timely as ever and against all odds.  The wind sweeps noisily down the lane through naked trees, some few still bearing shreds of a once resplendent autumn.

If  I attempt the poetic tonight, it is because I return from another afternoon at the Irish Repertory  Theatre in New York , where invariably, I  understand anew the complexity, magnificence, sorrow, monstrousness, achievement and loss of  my ancestry. After a performance, I easily access the melancholy so much a part of the rhythm of Irish song, dance, and theatre.

Transport,  Book by Thomas Keneally, Music and Lyrics by Larry Kiran, recalls the  voyage of  a British prisoner transport ship in 1838 carrying female “felons” from Cork to Sydney. Focusing on  four  women who have been convicted of “crimes” ranging in seriousness from stealing butter to participating in a failed revolution, the historical musical drama weaves together threads of  Irish history. Themes of the abuse of power by the British and Roman Catholic Church authorities, the lack of solidarity among the Irish to the cause of  freedom, the  role of religion as a force  for social disintegration and conflict in Irish communities and the ageless echoes of exile in the Irish psyche surface, if only briefly, as the storied ship makes its inconceivable passage .   One woman cannot leave behind her “raging heart”  which, she is counseled by the banished priest who is also on board, she must quell into “submission” as the Lord “submitted.” Another female “felon”  finds love onboard in the arms of a protestant surgeon who is unaccountably, and rather incredulously, willing to face the social ostracism which will be the “price  of love.”  Equally inexplicably is an avowed antipapist’s conversion to tolerance when her shipmates demonstrate  compassion at a time of  incalculable loss.

Traditional Irish music excels at the ballad which can touch the heart of stone.  No such artistry is found in this show.  We understand the women are pained to leave their homeland and loved ones, but more for what we are told than for what the music or acting portray.  We believe the ship is a cruel and dangerous place, but, again, this is merely impressionistic in this show.  Rich stories, characters, themes are touched upon in Transport  but the touch is lighter than its promise.

Still, one is inevitably stirred and made thoughtful at a  soaring  paraphrase of  “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats, even if the tune is not memorable.   Those words, paraphrased, recycled, repeated, as other precious, timeless Yeats’ phrases and images are woven sparingly but vividly through the production bring it to life  when it feels as if it is finally failing.  Through these phrases, I find myself   again  beguiled, searching to affirm what it is that makes me Irish.   The afternoon theatre has offered more than entertainment but less than enlightenment. I find myself reciting Yeats  once more:

Out of Ireland have we come

Great hatred, little room,

Maimed us at the start,

I carry from my mother’s womb

A fanatic heart.

(William Butler Yeats, Remorse for Intemperate Speech.)


Its Saint Patrick’s Day and A Birthday Too!


cropped-cropped-cropped-dscn0267.jpgToday is Saint Patrick’s Day.  It is also the day I celebrate my birthday.  I would do this somewhat diffidently since the usual response to this fact is “How wonderful! You are Irish and born on Saint Patrick’s Day!”  At the age of sixteen, I discovered evidence which strongly suggested that my Irish immigrant parents concocted this coincidence in the twilight moments of March 16th of my birth year.  Perhaps in so doing they gave birth not only to a joyful yarn but also to a child who herself never understood the necessity of the strict boundaries of convention.

Despite teenage angst that invariably would accompany the discovery that one’s very date of birth was not what one thought it to be, I have very happy memories of the Saint Patrick’s Days of my life.  Only now I understand that my parents, and most especially my mother, were “Irish cultural puritans.”

I received an email from my Dublin cousin today titled, “Happy Saint Paddy’s Day”, only to wince.  I could hear my mother saying in her stern but nonetheless musical voice “Its Saint Patrick’s Day, for God’s sake, why is it so hard to say a Saint’s name properly?”  I was taught that “Paddy” was an old British racial slur, much like many of the racial slurs we abhor in the United States which evolved against the poorest classes who were actual or defacto slaves.  A paddy was possibly little better than an animal, ignorant, dirty, superstitious, sexually irresponsible, unhygienic, drunken, lazy, dishonest and stupid. This was the paddy under the British thumb.  The paddy in the “new world” eventually evolved to shed some of these ethnic badges as he climbed into the working classes as a fire worker, police worker, plumber, carpenter, municipal worker or unionist.  I remember the bemusement when I once suggested to a colleague that Paddy wagon was an ethnic slur.  I wasn’t entirely joking.

It was somewhat enchanting to be a little girl spending birthday evenings in happy halls performing Irish dances,lyrical voices mixing with laughter and sentimental song.  I recall the smell of beer and whiskey, but I genuinely do not remember drunks.  There were never green hats, green neon suits, green beer and the shamrocks were real, living plants relatives imported from Ireland.  Happy Birthday was often sung to me while I was sitting on my father’s lap, itchy and sleepy in my green wool dancing costume.

But what I remember most about my childhood Saint Patrick’s days are the quiet times with my mother.  She allowed me to stay home from school on my birthday and it was often just the two of us alone together.  Although March was meant to herald Spring, Saint Patrick’s Day was most often a day like today is: brisk, windy with intermittent clouds and sun, snow flurries surprising us at intervals.  My mother and I would walk outside, maybe purchase some Daffodils at the Penn Fruit, and with rosy cheeks, holding hands return to the house perhaps after attending mass at Saint Alice’s, embracing the warmth with a hot drink and a sandwich.  My mother would make brown sugar candy when we were alone together.  Saint Patrick’s Day Dinner was usually a turkey dinner with Irish soda bread and vegetables. And of course Birthday Cake.  Store Bought.   While everything was cooking, we might take a nap on the sofa, lying head to feet, feeling “cozy” and safe.

My mother never “approved” of the Americanism of wearing green on Saint Patrick’s Day.  “You are real Irish.”  She would say.  “You don’t have to wear green.”  She never tasted a drop of alcohol to the day she died.  My mother scoffed at the “traditional meal” of corn beef and cabbage:  “I never tasted corn beef in my life!”   Often a contrarian, she denounced the March 17 festivities of the Americans as “disgusting.”  As long as she was able,  she celebrated her Saint Patrick’s Day as a quietly, religious moment, embracing her culture and faith as she  had in her beloved Donegal.

This time of year, as the season turns restless, I long to spend another March day with my mother.  I am finally thankful to my parents for their old conspiracy late, late one March 16th.  For by their creative paperwork, they provided me with experiences and memories I treasure and make annually revive.

Ban Bossy? Think again!


cropped-cropped-girls_in_the_garden_oil_c-1906_frank_weston_benson2.jpgIt appears to be that some people attract controversy as metal rods attract lightning.

Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, appears to be one such person. The response to her March 8, 2014 Wall Street Journal Op Ed co-authored with Anna Maria Chavez, Girls Scouts USA, CEO has been vigorous. Ms. Chavez and Ms. Sandberg advocate banning the word “bossy” as applied to girls through a pledge campaign and to engage in other activities explained on a website banbossy.com.  These leaders reach into their own history and into the etymology and semantics of the word bossy.  Their conclusion is that this “B” word heard so often on the childhood play yard, in the classroom, and even in the Boardroom, Courtroom, or Senate Chamber is a social signifier.  It is a word which connotes deeply rooted negative gender stereotypes of women who exhibit competent leadership skills.  A bossy man is to be admired as a leader.  A bossy woman, no matter how successful, is somehow unlikable. A boy or man in charge is acceptable.  A girl or woman who is not kind and nurturing is deficient. Girls suffer, we are told, from these stereotypes, lose confidence, and fail to thrive in the race to the top.

I have no reason to disagree.

In my once male dominated profession of law, it was a good day if the “B” word directed toward me or a female colleague was “bossy.” Each of us have reached into our childhoods and told tales of how we were discouraged by the language of gender stereotypes. Each of us observed that a male lawyer who was a vigorous advocate was “able counsel” or something more superlative.  A woman conducting herself in an identical fashion was likely to be many things, perhaps “bossy” would again be the kindest.

Nor do I diminish the significance of the observations and goals of banbossy.com.  Reinforcing a child’s self esteem is crucial .

Chavez and Sandberg suggest that being bossy can help us live fulfilled lives:” The lesson to children, and to the parents and teachers who raise and nurture them, should be that there is pride in being opinionated, motivated and motivating—that is, bossy.”  (March 8, 2014 Wall Street Journal Op Ed).

My question is more basic.  Why do we need anyone to be bossy?  Motivated, Motivating, Opinionated…..

The starting point in the argument of “Ban Bossy” (the website indicates that this is not a first amendment issue: there is no literal request to abolish a word) accepts the current definitions of “success” of the upper middle class (or higher), highly and well-educated, corporate, largely white, world. The little girl labeled bossy raises her hand too much, tells her friends how to complete the project, seeks out the highest class office. She is the kid who joins all the clubs, has more time for events than for friends, she gets the best grades,  and often she is “good” at everything, from music to sports.   She grows up to be Margaret Thatcher or Hillary Clinton. When she is a known world leader, she is not called bossy; she is called cold, unfeeling or mean, and nasty.

What if we changed not merely the word, we changed the narrative.  The child who gets the highest score on the math test or read the most books over the summer is a success.  But the child who exhibits such emotional intelligence that at lunch she sits next to the little boy who doesn’t speak much English is also a success.  The girl who stands next to the child whom the class bully just disparaged is a success too.  And the one who built a bird house from twigs in the yard is counted among the winners.

If the narrative is altered to include a more diverse vision of “success,” diversity in “motivation” and in methods to motivate others might readily follow.  An Ivy League level education is no longer the pre-requisite to being a “success” in the chosen profession.  Columbia does not even have a Carpentry Department!  When the narrative changes and the means to motivate change, perhaps, the dialogue can also be altered.  “Being opinionated” might no longer be of such high value.  Listening skills, engaging in a meaningful dialogue which moves participants forward might become paramount.

Maybe I am an idealist.  I remind myself of a young woman I knew well when she was me in Women Studies Classes in the 70’s.I thought by now an equal society would have evolved.  Banning words was not a strategy I recall considering.

We anticipated a future wherein boardrooms, courtrooms and senate chambers were open to us.  We even believed a woman would be elected US president.  We considered a future wherein the choice to become a cook or a weaver or a teacher would command financial and social respect.  We read the futuristic novels of feminism’s “first wave” and believed that under our watch child care providers would garner wages which truly reflect the importance of the work performed, the provision of healthy food would be honored, the work of the homemaker would be valid.

Most critically, as our political consciousness grew, many of us began to prefer the attribution “feminist humanist.”  We professed freedom for women necessarily required the same for men. The evisceration of gender stereotypes, or so the argument proceeded, would mean that women could embrace power and men could embrace emotion. In a practical fashion, we sought equal work and life partnerships.  We marched into parenthood armed with the determination that we would talk with our sons about their dreams and feelings and bring our daughters to sports events and political rallies.  Even better, we would seek out the individuality in each of our children and cultivate that precious gift as best we could  regardless of gender.

Decades on, the world is much changed, in many respects to the detriment of the economic, social and political status of women in the US. The ban bossy campaign is started.

Perhaps, the study of conflict resolution and bully prevention strategies has led me to hopes which amplify  earlier ideas as to how to reach  a more equal society in terms of gender.  Banning words is still not a strategy.

Achieving social justice on a real level for women, girls, men or boys demands more than caution with words.

If we continue drowning our daughters from the earliest stages in marketed images of “perfection,” the anorexic, sexualized teen, the air-brushed, perfectly coiffed Kate-Middleton clone mom, words, no matter how pernicious, count little in the construction of gendered stereotypes.  If our films persist in featuring suicidal astronauts or depressive narcissists as leading role models for women even when women of wealth are acquiring a greater voice in what movies are being produced, we must look to new forums.

If these same vehicles persuade our boys that violence and vulgarity are hallmarks of manhood, youth will be trapped in an endless cycle of diminished fulfillment.  If our role models for male success continue to be styled as “tough on the outside, tough on the inside,” men will struggle within roles which inhibit most, limit many and completey exclude more than a few.

So long as we persist in defining our world as full of “winners” and “losers”, our schools will instill confidence in some and a sense of inferiority in others.  So long as we accept a society in which it is a norm that some children will go to bed hungry and some seniors will freeze to death impoverished on city streets, intolerance is almost a necessary aspect of our culture.  If we equate being “opinionated” with leadership we are failing to teach essential listening skills which alone offer us access to understanding.  Understanding the point of view of the other is the only true benchmark of the kind of growth which allows for leadership.  As we see in the world around us, one can easily bark at and boss the converted and lead them into an impasse.  Progress and growth demand more.

Chavez and Sandberg must be applauded for identifying issues which must be addressed.  They may be commended for developing a strategy.  If they are the leaders they contend they are they must continue thinking.

Initially posted at BeaconResolution.com

Do You Hear What I Hear?


cropped-deer-and-water-source1.jpgThe Sealed Letter by Emma Donaghue, a historical potboiler revisiting an infamous divorce case in Victorian England, seized my attention through the dark January days.  Based on real events, the novel exposed the fate of an attractive and frankly sensuous and sexually adventurous married woman who transgressed strict Victorian mores of acceptable feminine conduct.  The novel’s deftly created characters prove that even in this long gone world which is so often thought of as prudish and staid, a man had the freedom to express himself sexually as he pleased.  If he were discovered transgressing social norms, his life in society could proceed in much the same trajectory.  Not surprisingly, the man could also impose almost total control on every aspect of the life of the women and girls in his life.

A woman who confounded society’s sexual norms, however, did so at great peril.  The novel  examines the situation of an upper class woman whose   existence is essentially erased after her transgression is documented.  She is no longer a mother.  She is no longer a wife.  She is no longer a lady, She is no longer a friend. She has no money.  Her life is anonymous.  Sexual adventure equals annihilation.

The novel is particularly interesting in that it also plumbs the secrets of gender.  The adventuring woman’s fate is imposed not only by male dominated legal and moral institutions but by female Society and women’s scorn.  Further, what types of sexual expression is even tolerable to contemplate is addressed by the characters.  The novel requires consideration of how lesbian love could ever find a place in so restrictive a society.

Women have often been important forces  applying society’s laws, customs and mores which result in strict gender roles diminishing  female opportunity.

All these concepts streamed to mind a few days ago as I was listening  to Robin  Young’s interview on Here and Now on NPR  about Superbowl Sex trafficking Included Minors.

A veteran of the women’s movement, active in campaigns against domestic violence and sexual assault, I listened  with interest.    I registered surprise that the McCain family  ( as in John McCain)  would choose to address this challenge.  The University of Arizona has a center to study the issue!  But, as they say, the devil is in the details.

Five to Six percent of the trafficked persons were minors.  Obviously, that is five to six percent too many.  I join those of whatever political stripe who condemn the violation of the physical integrity of any child in any way, physical or sexual.  Further, I deplore the emotional abuse of children, which I would argue, can include excessively sexualized or violent images or other media for entertainment  or marketing which deluges our children from their earliest awareness.

But women are NOT children.  Men are not children.

There was a  problem with the University of Arizona report as described on the program despite Ms. Young’s best effort. Except to inform as to the number of minors involved,  no distinction was  made between various classes of commercial sexual activity.  ” Trafficking” implies that the persons offering sexual services are not doing so voluntarily but are subject to compulsion.  Typically, minors, undocumented workers who are held  by force, or other persons who are kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery are the concerns.  Sexual trafficking describes a worldwide horror.  The University of Arizona speaker Professor Roe-Sepowitz, however, seemed to conflate into this category, all “online sex ads” and “on-line sex buyers”.  She asks “How are we going to control this culture?”

This interview brought to mind an episode of  Borgen, that wonderful Danish television program in which all things reasonable seem to be able to at least find a voice.  A problem is identified in Danish society: Sex trafficking.  A bill is introduced with criminal sanctions.  A questioning mind wants to know if there is really a problem which requires fixing.  The  later hearings, investigation and drama reveal prejudices of those who condemn prostitutes and  the users of prostitutes and those who suggest that whatever one’s moral beliefs about these issues, society has institutionalized paid sexual services since ancient times: it’s a living, it fills a need and if there is no violence and there is consent, it is not a crime.  Also, it is not merely a heterosexual form of commerce.

We do not live in Denmark.

The impetus for the Arizona study (which engaged “ex-army intelligence” employees utilizing “internet sniffing techniques … to track terrorists in Afghanistan”) is that Arizona is the site of the next Superbowl.

I do not live in Arizona.

Now that the right wing cadre  of “let me throw the first stone” moral dictators have lost their quest to impose Plessy vs. Ferguson civil rights limitations on their GLBTQ citizens, usurping the  sexual freedom of adults under the guise of protecting legitimate victims of abuse, degradation, rape and more is cynical and hateful.

There is a legitimate debate to be heard about the issues of prostitution  with respect to consenting adults.  Nevada had such an ongoing debate successfully.  Sex trafficking is too great a harm to be cynically manipulated.

Are these  internet investigative techniques an expansion of power or are they old news?  Either way, discussion of the  study reveals a use of  government  surveillance and/or  military internet monitoring techniques in civil society for political purposes   which cannot be tolerated.  The stakes are too high.

If we are not watchful, it will be far too easy to see the reconstruction of a world where barriers to self-expression are everywhere. When the headlines are all about children and sex trafficking, we may not hear the words “military spying tactics used against US citizens in the State of Arizona.”


cropped-praying-girl-1.jpgWadjda is an award-winning movie  marketed as the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia.  As a western feminist, I consumed available press about the film  and decided to watch it as an act of support for the woman who made it and the story I understood that it told.  My conjured  images of black shrouds in the searing sun suggested that I would be moved and educated by this film.  How surprising, then, is the discovery of delight!

Black forms moving slowly on sunlit streets do in fact inhabit the film.  My western eyes see this without fully comprehending as I am willing to suspend judgement.

Behind the gates and doorways, in the daily action of the real lives of the largely  middle class women and girls we encounter in this movie, all is completely as we know it.  Appliances are modern, gleaming and available for the plentiful food.  Western popular music stimulates the tween girl as she surreptitiously creates bracelets and other “black market items.”  Mother and daughter share intimacies in large airy well-decorated rooms.  Discreet tensions and open conflict overflows from these spaces to the rooftop above where the women still dress in jeans and cool shirts looking down on their world.

Certainly the conservative culture controls female life.   Wadjda  watches her dignified, beautiful mother carefully groom her hair and apply her make-up in the morning before disappearing in a swirl of darkness.  The girl  flares in anger when a taxi driver, clearly economically and educationally disadvantaged and possibly an illegal immigrant, chides the woman like a child for being tardy in getting into his taxi for the three-hour ride through the desert to her employment.  The woman’s friend ultimately rejects this ordeal to find liberating employment in a local hospital.  The dynamics gently explored include the powerlessness of the women , the control of the driver, the ingenuity of the children and the authority of a male even if a mere boy.

Wadjda watches the mother she adores measure her own worth through her father’s eyes in terms of the quality and quanity of  food she prepares.  She struggles to comprehend why this beauty  subverts her own desires for style of dress and hair to please a man so rarely present.  Wadjda is beginning to comprehend  too well that, in her world, biology is destiny.

Contemplating the viewing of this film, I considered that this would indeed be a “foreign” culture.  How startling then to understand the complexity of emotions seen in Wadjda as she endures her conservative, female-dominated religious school.  The insistence of conformity in appearance, down to the shoes which are worn, the  absolute prohibition of any feminine decoration, including nail polish, the suspicion of female friendship, much less love, remain cross-cultural signifiers of  patriarchal social systems and female enforcerment.  Similarly, scenes where students mindlessly recite memorized “beliefs,” use of  shaming and group ostracism as disciplinary tactics and consequent consistent competitive subcultures are also well recognised.

Startling and joyous to feel recognition of the delight of  a child’s physical freedom.  As Wadjda runs down the street, even skips a bit, walks solitary but dreams of riding a bike, the memory of that joy is irrepressible.  When a child is lucky enough to have a full stomach, a secure roof and no present threat of physical harm or illness, exploring the sun -filled day with muscular limbs is a complete pleasure.  Even from my sedentary perch, watching Wadjda, I could recall so many  hours jumping in the sun-drenched Chesapeake waters. I could almost feel again the breeze through my hair on a spring evening as I rode my bike through shaded  streets of row homes or as I explored city spots which I could pretend were dark forests.

Watching Wadjda play with her precocious friend Abdullah, I envisioned my fair-haired daughter racing her friends aside a swimming pool in the summertime.  I remember the tension and  gladness I felt as I watched her small frame dart through other little bodies in pursuit of a soccer ball on a fall day.  I felt contentment that, though grown up, she still chases my puppy down the lane.

Wadjda is not a film which will change the world, if indeed any film can.  It is not a soapbox for any particular ideology.  The movie treats character and culture with respect but not without a critical lens.   For me the movie was a surprise.  It was a reminder that there are universals in life which transcend culture and political or religious systems:  childhood, sunlight, clean and open air, curiosity, hope, movement, friendship and love.