Monday, April 3, 2017

Black Like Rachel

Rachel then ..
I can feel my husband’s questioning glance when this particular topic arises: what to make of Rachel Dolezal (who has, in another phoenix like move, re-named herself Nkechi Amare Diallo)? And why am I so angry about it?

She has irked me - as she has irked many progressive people who have intensely disliked the charade of a woman, born white and of European descent, pretending to be black or, at best, permitting others to assume that she is black because she has done a number of things to suggest she is black including: colouring and curling her blonde hair into a dark afro; darkening her skin cosmetically; wearing afro-centric clothing such as dashikis and African-inspired styles. Whether by a sin of commission - she actively lied and distorted her personal history - or omission – she did not correct people when they assumed she was black or bi-racial - it has all just felt wrong.

I don’t object to the fact that she loves black culture or identifies with black people. Her first husband was black and her children are bi-racial; her four adopted step-siblings are also black – three African-American and one of Haitian origin. Nor do I object to the fact that she has worked with civil rights causes and institutions to help benefit the black community. Some of us love black culture and feel an affinity to the black community. Some of us, as allies, have volunteered with similar organizations.

It’s the consistent lying. And to what end? Stories that she traveled to South Africa (she did not). She said that she was born in a teepee. I can’t even begin to explain that one – not many African Americans would dare claim that very specific circumstance. Stories that she was abused by her parents – specifically that she was whipped (what historical parallel does that bring to mind when thinking of the sufferings of black people?). She has since walked that back although she insists she was abused physically by her religious parents. Assumed to be black by the admissions office at her university when she applied - because her portfolio of art was full of African-American portraiture - she received a scholarship based on her presumed racial identity. She was also accused of plagiarizing the work of the artist J.M.W. Turner by closely duplicating his 1840 work The Slave Ship. The ... slave .. ship.

Lie. Upon. Lie.
Rachel when "uncovered"
My problem with Rachel is not just the lying. My problem with Rachel is that I know exactly how she feels. As a woman who presents in a racially ambiguous manner – I have dealt with this issue for decades. In the town where I was raised, my very curly hair, olive skin and full lips invited curious remarks about my parentage. 

What was my nationality? Was I truly Italian? Was there not something else mixed in there? Was I Italian on both sides? If you knew anything about the history of southern Italy (as I was later to learn and educate myself on), my looks would not have appeared so curious or strange upon reflection.

Why a person of southern Italian descent might resemble a person of African descent should not be much of mystery. Sicily – where my parents were from – is closer to Africa than to Rome and sometimes that was not just a geographic distance.

But then, when I was seven or ten or fifteen and I faced those questions – in that conservative, racially homogenous, racist environment where ethnic groups clung together with a rabidness that amazed and puzzled me – the questions about my parentage were not merely curious, they were rude, hostile and suspicious.

It made me look at myself in a new way – as an Other – and to seek out other people who might mirror my experience, and physically resemble me. In this case, it was other black people. So, in a sense, I was black like Rachel was black. Not truly black but perceived as black by some.

I, too, was drawn to people with whom I had been compared – people with afros and braids, people with café au lait or dark skin, people who may have been outside of the white mainstream. And there too, sometimes people would assume I was bi-racial. Some of the time. Some of the time, there was merely hostility as to just why this white girl was hanging around. I was not particularly welcomed or liked. I was just tolerated, tolerated at best.

Even in multicultural, tolerant Toronto where I moved to when I turned nineteen to attend university the questions were similar – but now I was exotic, interesting looking. For people that look like me – this is just politely worded code for “You ain’t from around here, are ya pardner?”

But during that time, and afterwards, even though I felt an affinity with black people, loved “black” music, had black friends, read James Baldwin and Langston Hughes and Eldridge Cleaver and Toni Morrison voraciously, I never once said yes, I am black, when someone asked me. And I forbore the intrusive, mildly insulting questions from white people, “You don’t mind me saying – I thought you were black?” I don’t mind because I don’t perceive it as an insult although apparently you do. That I do perceive as an insult.

I understand Rachel’s confusion, her desire to escape what appears to be an unhappy family situation, the desire to identify with her four step-siblings, her black husband and bi-racial children. I understand her attraction to black culture and history. If you feel oppressed or victimized by your circumstances, it makes sense that you might turn to a like-minded group for comfort or strength. I know I have white skin but I have my sorrows too, you might think. I am like you.

But my husband also raised an important point during our discussion which got very heated – it’s only white people who get to claim the privilege that they are of another race and asked to be treated sympathetically. A black man cannot claim that he identifies as white and should be treated as such. An Asian woman could not either. No person of colour could assume this posture and expect sympathy. Because they would be considered to be delusional as many people consider Rachel to be.

Rachel ... now

Friday, March 31, 2017

March Cultural Roundup

Anna Karenina (U.S., 1935)
Anna Karenina (U.K., 1948)
Get Out (U.S., 2017)


Women and Words, St. Michael's College, UofT, featuring: Michelle Alfano, Connie Guzzo McParland, Lucia Cascioli, Gianna Patriarca, Carmela Circelli, Domenic Cusmano, Darlene Madott, Silvia Falsaperla, Giovanna Riccio, Licia Canton, Terri Favro, Mary Di Michele, March 10, 2017


Books on Film: Zadie Smith talks about A Room with a View (UK, 1985) at TIFF, March 13th
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Flower that Vronsky Plucked

He looked at her as a man looks at a faded flower he has gathered, with difficulty recognizing in it the beauty for which he picked and destroyed it.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Originally published 1873 - 1877 in serial instalments; re-published by Penguin Group, 2000) translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 838 pages

It pleases me to remember something that I read about Tolstoy during the writing of this book ... apparently Tolstoy did not much like his heroine when he began writing the book, finding Anna's infidelity disturbing but as time went on he grew to love her and accept her indiscretion and, perhaps conversely, her courage to act on that indiscretion.

We begin the book as Anna has come to Moscow to mediate between her brother Stepan (Stiva) Oblonsky and his wife Darya (Dolly). Stiva has had an affair with the governess and Dolly has just found out. Anna tries to persuade her sister-in-law to forgive her husband. Aside from introducing Anna to the story, this subplot serves another important function: it contrasts the repercussions of the infidelity of the brother, Stiva, with the repercussions of the future infidelity of the sister, Anna. Anna's fate is ultimately tragic while Stiva's infractions are seen as minor dalliances that, if Dolly were sensible, she would ignore.

The accidental meeting of the future lovers at the train station - where Vronsky has gone to
pick up his mother and Stiva has come to meet Anna - introduces the first element of tragedy with the gruesome death of a train station worker caught beneath the wheels of an oncoming train. The death sends a chill through Anna who sees this as a terrible omen. The novice reader will wonder at her fright; the seasoned reader will shudder at the reminder of the novel's denouement.

Alexei Karenin's prissy greeting to his wife Anna in the train station, "Tell me Anna, am I not a good husband?" cements our resistance to Karenin (I cannot envisage the husband without thinking of Basil Rathbone in the 1935 version of the film) who stands in vivid contrast to Vronsky, passionate, intense, quickly approaching to the train officials to give them money for the family of the worker who has been killed. The gesture may be false but it enthrals Anna and the reader, albeit momentarily. Or when he boards the train to St. Petersburg because he says, "I cannot do otherwise." Passion is the greatest aphrodisiac.

The train sets the stage for three key narrative points: the ominous death of the railway worker when Anna and Vronsky meet, the scene where Vronsky reveals his love for Anna when she returns to St. Petersburg on the train and the final scene in which we see Anna before her death.

Soon after, when Vronsky rebuffs Kitty, Dolly's sister, for Anna at the much anticipated ball, Kitty suffers a devastating blow to her ego, expecting a proposal but recognizing with shock that Vronsky has fallen for the much older Anna. The awkwardly sincere Levin, who has proposed to Kitty, shamefacedly retreats to his country estate, knowing that Kitty has fallen in love with Vronsky and has refused his proposal.

In my initial readings (this is my fifth time reading the book) I often wondered why so much time was spent on the Levin/Kitty relationship aside from the fact that Levin so very obviously stands in for enlightened aristocrat and landowner Tolstoy himself. I was frustrated by the minute accounts of Levin's activities versus those of Anna's lover Vronsky's more frivolous ones. Now I understand the need for this contrast. Levin cares for his land and his muzhiks (peasants) while Vronsky entertains foreign princes, mediates disputes between officers trying to seduce a third man's wife, socializing with fellow officers, squandering his fortune and squabbling with his overbearing mother.

Levin is stalwart; Vronsky is fickle. Levin is plain speaking, awkward, socially inept but

honest. Vronsky is charming and seductive but shallow. Vronsky is handsome and suave while Levin is misanthropic and moody. True, Vronsky's sexual passion initially overwhelms the reader. His passion for Anna is "like that of a man suffering from thirst." He turns our head ... after all, passion is the greatest aphrodisiac.

There are several keys to understanding how Vronsky feels about Anna, his married lover, and Alexei Karenin, the betrayed husband. When Vronsky first encounters Anna's husband Karenin he feels a sense of repulsion, as if someone has "sullied a spring that he thought pure". He wants something that is not rightfully his.
Garbo and Frederic March as Anna and Vronsky (1935)
The other key scene is the death of Vronsky's race horse, Frou Frou, that Vronsky literally rides to its death. It is easy to interpret this as a metaphor for his doomed relationship with Anna. Anna is an object of desire - a beautiful, treasured object but an object nonetheless - who is destroyed when she is no longer desired. He has gone from a frivolous young man to a fully cognizant participant in the destruction of Anna's marriage and her life.

"For the first time in his life he had experienced a heavy misfortune ... " He speaks of Frou Frou's death but for us, the readers, we understand the import of what is to come ...

After Kitty recovers from her heartbreak at a German spa, she crosses paths with Levin again when she travels to Dolly's country house. Levin, whose love is both seemingly unrequited and unresolved, is both terrified and thrilled to find Kitty so close to home. Kitty has recovered fully and now sees Levin in a new light; she sees his worthiness and superiority to Vronsky.

Anna becomes more and more mired in scandal confessing that she is pregnant with Vronksy's child after her intense public reaction to Vronsky's fall at the races (where Frou Frou dies) and Karenin urges her to leave the races. Here, Karenin sees that the rumours he has been discounting are true. Anna and Vronsky's affair is opposed by high society not because he is not serious but because he is too serious. It is not "good form" to wreck one's career (and her marriage to an important government official) over a sexual passion. Pregnant, Anna confesses her state to Karenin and that she does not love him, forcing him to stipulate that she must conceal her affair or face the consequences.

At a crucial point, we see how Vronsky wavers in his love for Anna ... precisely when she confesses her passion to her husband. Vronsky quickly learns as his cynical colleague concludes, "It's hard to love a woman and do anything." She sees their passion as a life changing event that she would never forgo; he sees it as an impediment to his career. He has irrevocably destroyed her old life and while Vronsky can proceed with virtually all aspects of his life, Anna can proceed normally with no aspect of her life. Anna's image of Vronsky is romantically fantastic, literally: As at every meeting, she was bringing together her imaginary idea of him (an incomparably better one, impossible in reality) with him as he was.

And yet what Vronsky sees is closer to the truth: He looked at her as a man looks at a faded flower in which he can barely recognize the beauty that had made him pluck and destroy it ... but now ... that he felt no love for her, he knew that his bond could not be broken.

When Karenin sees that Anna has defied his wishes and permitted Vronsky to enter their home, he moves forward with his plan to divorce Anna. She has a premonition that she will die in child birth carrying Vronsky's child. Anna's dream of the foul muzhik disturbs and haunts the reader as it does Anna. Frighteningly, her lover has a similar dream that he does not reveal to her.

Vivien Leigh in the 1947 version
At the exact centre of the novel two pivotal events happen: the engagement and marriage of Kitty and Levin, and Anna gives birth to her daughter Annie, falls into a delirium and nearly dies. Levin, initially depicted as a well-meaning but bumbling lover, shines in his love for Kitty. This comes as a revelation to me - a middle-aged married women having read the book several times - I see Levin differently, now valuing his constancy and genuine love for Kitty.

It's as if Tolstoy is pointedly telling us that this is what true love brings (Kitty and Levin) and this is what misguided sexual passion brings as well (Anna and Vronsky).

Karenin and Vronsky reconcile somewhat - Karenin is abashed by Anna's humility and guilt in the delirium that follows the birth. Vronsky is also chastened by Karenin's magnanimity. Vronsky, finally shamed and horrified by his position, tries to kill himself but fails. Karenin is more than the set of cliched villainous characteristics that Anna despises - he feels the suffering of both his unfaithful wife, her distraught lover as well as the tiny infant who languishes without her mother's care.

After Anna's illness, Karenin agrees to let the couple travel to Italy with the baby Annie (whom Karenin, surprisingly, has come to surreptitiously love - another lovely nuanced scene that adds layers to the image of the emotionally constricted Karenin) and the couple leads a seemingly bucolic life but one that presents difficulties for both lovers.

Vronsky, no longer the passionate, illicit lover but now the common-law, dutiful husband, is bored and isolated; Anna is moody and fearful of losing Vronsky's affections. He takes up painting in Italy, she pines for something more but it is difficult to say what. Her son? Her lost respectability? Normalcy in their relationship?

The dutiful Kitty serves as a counterpoint to Anna in the narrative- forgoing a honeymoon to return to the country with Levin and then tending to Levin's irascible, dying brother while Anna is perceived as having abandoned her son Seryohza while in Italy.

When Anna and Vronsky return to St. Petersburg, Anna longs to see her son Seryohza (who has been told that his mother is dead) but must ask for written permission from the sanctimonious Countess Lydia Ivanovna who has taken over the despairing Karenin's affairs. Of course, she is forbidden access but Anna decides to enter the house despite the trepidation of the servants who do not dare refuse her. This scene causes more emotional anguish in me than all the other scenes combined. Each succeeding reading, more so. Firstly, I felt for Anna as the disgraced wife and "unfaithful" woman; now, I feel for her as the mother who has abandoned her child.

Sophie Marceau in the 1998 film

Seryozha is shocked, delighted, to see his mother on his birthday. Anna is ecstatic but fearful. She flees only when Karenin, largely silent and impassive, enters Seryozha's bedroom and encounters them there. Anna leaves in shame and mortification, having forgotten to bring Seryozha's toys that remained in the carriage.

This disappointment engenders a sort of defiance in Anna ... the more she is scorned by society, the more determined she is to flout convention. She asks to be taken to the opera by one of Vronsky's friends. She is particularly beautiful this evening. Vronsky opposes this public outing knowing that Anna likely will be insulted by her former friends and acquaintances. He is not wrong. Deciding to join her at the last moment, he sees her being shunned and humiliated by a former acquaintance.  

Something breaks in Anna. Now she fully realizes that she has reached a point of no return in Russian society.

This compels the couple to reside in the country where they can surround themselves with sympathetic family and acquaintances - largely those who profit from the couple like the German steward of their estate, a local doctor who is helping Vronsky build a hospital for the muzhiks, an architect and a parasitic and disreputable relation of Anna's - the Princess Varvara. 

When Dolly comes to visit her sister-in-law Anna, she is initially filled with admiration and awe for their lavish lifestyle and Anna's still evident beauty, which seems have grown with her isolation and condemnation from society. Dolly compares her life of financial worry and anxiety about the children, her loss of looks, her worries about Stiva's fidelity with Anna's own situation. But this impression does not last. Whereas, Levin ceremoniously ejected one of Stiva's friends from his home for shamelessly flirting with Kitty, Vronsky seems to neither care nor notice the same behavior in his own home with Anna. Little by little we see the difference between the two men.

Keira Knightly
in the 2102 film
By the time she is ready to leave Dolly feels that Anna's position is a lonely one, a false one, where Anna seems to have no real emotion for her daughter and is ever fearful of losing Vronsky's love. Anna now lives only to please Vronsky but her actions fail. He is determined that Anna will not restrict his "masculine independence":

Vronsky appreciates Anna's desire not only to please, but to serve him, which becomes the sole aim of her existence, but at the same time he wearies of the loving snares in which she tries to hold him fast. As time goes on ... he has an ever growing desire, not so much to escape but to try and see whether she will hinder his freedom.

When Levin and Kitty come to Moscow for the birth of their first child, Levin and Anna's paths finally intersect, introduced by Stiva. Initially, Levin is charmed by his encounter but when he sees Kitty's horrified face as she learns of their meeting, he fears that he has erred in agreeing to the meeting. Was this Tolstoy's feeling as well? That he had been seduced by Anna against his better judgment?

Anna's trust in Vronsky falters, eroded by her loneliness, isolation, unfounded jealousy and fear of the future. She finally agrees that she must have a divorce from Karenin, which she is resisting as it means that she will never have access to her son, and her brother Stiva is sent as an emissary. But Karenin has adopted a more vindictive stance, refusing to grant Anna one.

This insecurity propels Anna into a series of hysterical and irrational arguments with Vronksy who is hardening towards her. For the first time she entertains thoughts of death that not even the nightly doses of opium can assuage. Vronsky leaves for business with his mother and Anna decides to visit Dolly. With the presence of Kitty there, Anna turns mean-spirited - perhaps ashamed before, or chastened by, the innocent Kitty who still bears a grudge against Anna.

Some impulse drives her to take a train to meet Vronsky at his mother's estate (fearing that his mother is plotting to have him married off to Princess Sorokin's daughter) but Anna is inflamed and confused. Her thoughts are scrambled, hostile, addled. At the station, reminded of the incident with the doomed railway worker the day she met Vronsky, she makes a momentous decision.

Each time I read Anna Karenina, I have a remarkably different response to it. Initially, I was  overwhelmed by Anna and Vronsky's passion. On second reading, I was chastened by Anna's surrender of her son to this passion. I could not imagine doing so. Upon further readings, I was angered and somewhat perplexed by the choices that Anna makes that bring her to her fate.

And yet she moves me enormously as do all the principals characters ... Vronsky, Karenin, Seryozha, Dolly, Kitty, Stiva. But Anna, my Anna, if only it was not so.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Malignant Memory by Barbara Patterson

Malignant Memory, a new novel that not only tells the tale of the Canadian residential school system and its aftermath, but of trauma, suffering and the redemptive power of forgiveness. The novel was written by Manitoba nurse and researcher Dr. Barbara Paterson. All the stories of abuse at the residential schools and orphanages featured in Malignant Memory are based on real-life experiences patients had shared with Dr. Paterson during her career. Dr. Paterson generously offered to share the source of her inspiration for the novel on this blog.

How the Canadian Residential School System Inspired a Story Full of History, Heart and Forgiveness

My grandmother (whom I called “Nana”) was kind and generous. But she was prone to rages that caused my sister and me to flee in terror.  It was as if she had unleashed a monster living inside her. She screamed and threw things, calling us despicable names. The next day, she acted as if it had never happened.

Nana spoke of her early life only rarely. She altered the details when she relayed a story she had told before about her childhood. The only fact we knew for certain was that Nana’s father had abandoned his wife when Nana was young. He took the oldest child, a boy, with him. No one in the family saw either of them again. Nana’s mother died shortly after her huband left. Some of the older girls were taken in by family members. No family member wanted Nana. 

I was an adult when Nana sent me a letter. Nana wrote that when she was very young, she had desperately wanted a mother figure in her life. She thought her oldest sister could be that person for her. She gave her sister a Mother’s Day card. Her sister had reacted angrily, saying she was not Nana’s mother, Nana’s mother was dead, and Nana should come to peace with her lot in life as an orphan.

It was then that I learned for the first time that Nana had grown up in an orphanage.
In later years, Nana had ways of rebuffing my attempts to learn more about her orphanage experience. She died without us ever having a conversation about this subject.

After Nana died, many First Nations people introduced me to the horrors of residential schools.  Their stories were gruesome. They were about sexual and physical abuse, starvation, forced labour, and the systemic devastation of culture, language and identity. 
I began to draw similarities between what happened in residential schools and what I had read occurred in orphanages at the time (I do not want to imply that the orphanage experience is the same as that in a residential school; the systemic racism that was inherent in the residential school system is a profound difference).

I learned about eight years ago that one of Nana’s friends was a Mohawk woman who most likely had attended a residential school. I began to imagine that in their shared pain and traumatic memory, they were able to discover the pathway to their healing. As wounded healers, they offered each other the redemptive power of love and forgiveness. This speculation was the basis of the book Malignant Memory, a story that deals with an orphanage, the Canadian residential school system and the aftermath of growing up in those difficult environments. It is also a story of trauma, suffering and the redemptive power of forgiveness.

Writing Malignant Memory has helped me to make sense of the terrifying yet loving nature of my grandmother. It has also helped me to wrestle with the aftermath of the residential school system and its manifestation in the destructive behaviors of some survivors, such as addiction and domestic violence. I now understand that memories of profound trauma, such as the experience of abuse in residential schools, are stored in the brain’s limbic system. 

These traumatic memories remain hidden, repressed, until some trigger makes them visible again. When those traumatic memories are triggered by events, anniversaries, or other things, survivors of trauma experience the memory in a flight, freeze, or fight response. They may seek ways of escaping the memory of the trauma. They may be abusive to themselves or others. I believe that Nana’s fits of rage were the result of her trauma in the orphanage.

Barbara Paterson, Ph.D., has an interdisciplinary doctorate in nursing, psychology and education, as well as a master’s degree in post-secondary education. She served as a professor at the University of Manitoba, the University of British Columbia, the University of New Brunswick, and Thompson River University until her retirement in 2013. Dr. Paterson is the recipient of several prestigious awards, such as the 3M Teaching Excellence Award, the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal and Canada’s Most Powerful Women Award for her work as a university educator and her research on chronic illness. Dr. Paterson speaks frequently on topics of education, health and Canada’s aboriginal people, and has been featured on top media outlets like CBC Radio and in more than one hundred scholarly journals. She lives outside Winnipeg, Manitoba. 

For more information, visit

Malignant Memory is available online via Kobo, Amazon and ChaptersIndigo, as well as select local bookstores.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

February Cultural Roundup

A scene from The Salesman
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
The Salesman (Iran, 2016)
Shall We Dance (US, 1937)
What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann (US, 2005)
Aaron Diehl Trio with Cecile McLorin Salvant at Koerner Hall, February 23rd

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

January Cultural Roundup

Angela Davis (from the Power to the People exhibit)
Today will be different by Maria Semple
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Mapplethorpe: Look a the Pictures (US, 2016)

Power to the People: Photography and Video of Repression and Black Protest, Ryerson Image Centre

Art Bar Series at Free Times Cafe featuring Karen Mulhallen, January 31, 2017

Sunday, January 1, 2017

That which was read

Read in 2016 ... with pleasure. 

Fifteen Dogs
 by Andre Alexis
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
Beyond the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
Did you ever have a family by Bill Clegg
The Girls by Emma Cline
Outline by Rachel Cusk
In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave by Elena Ferrante
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
The Paper Men by William Golding
Bettyville by George Hodgman
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Dreams of My Russian Summers by Andrei Makine
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Brightness Falls by Jay McInernery
When Everything Feels like the Movies by Raziel Reid
Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul by David Adams Richards
The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984 by Riad Sattouf
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
M Train by Patti Smith
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag
Stalin's Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva by Rosemary Sullivan
Western Light by Susan Swan
The Rainbow Comes and Goes by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt
Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese
A Boy's Own Story by Edmund White
Old School by Tobias Wolf

Saturday, December 31, 2016

December Cultural Roundup

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

White Christmas (U.S., 1954)
Moonlight (U.S., 2016)
Arrival (U.S., 2016)
La La Land (U.S., 2016)
Singin' in the Rain (U.S., 1952)
Manchester by the Sea (U.S., 2016)

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Skirmish on Christmas

This is a reprint from a blog posted a few years ago but I think it's still relevant...

Let me say up front that I have a healthy skepticism about the purported "war on Christmas" that is allegedly, and perennially, being waged by atheists, non-Christians and general purveyors of the destruction of Christian culture in the Western world. The biggest (and loudest) proponents of this view are, of course, Fox News and Christian televangelist Pat Robertson, ad nauseum, every Christmas season.

This war is, at best, perhaps a skirmish rather than a war - its militants are armed not with nuclear armaments but some lesser weapon ... say, machetes or, possibly, bayonets. 

What Fox News fails to acknowledge is that the Christmas spirit, such as it is, is omnipresent, pervasive, sometimes annoyingly so, in a society so obsessed with materialism and ostentatious public displays of wealth. It not so surreptitiously follows you into the drugstore, on to street corners, into the workplace, into every retail outlet and coffee shop with merchandise to peddle. It is virtually inescapable for those who do not celebrate it.

One minister recently offered an astute observation as to the biggest threat to the true meaning of Christmas: the rampant consumerism and monetization of everything having to do with Christmas, and not the godless heathens (like me) who don't believe in celebrating the birth of Jesus.

On the other hand, the crusaders against Christmas are tragically repulsed by, and rail against, the appearance of a lone Christmas tree at city hall, artfully designed nativity scenes in malls and the singing of Christmas carols by children in schools. 

I completely understand the unease of those who feel religious prayers should not be conducted in public schools and imposed on all, regardless of their religious belief. I, unconditionally, support the removal of religious symbols in almost all public spaces - the judiciary, municipal, provincial and federal offices, etc ...

Here is the secularist Annie Laurie Gaylor's triumphant crowing when she and fellow believers (or is that non-believers?) managed to have a nativity scene banned from Palisades Park in Santa Monica:
They [the secularists] showed the Christian people of the city what it feels like to have a public park promoting views that offend your personal conscience. These views were on public property that were supposed to be owned equally by everyone.
I agree somewhat and yet ... I can't help thinking what [fill in the indefinite article and  expletive of your choice].

Christmas has taken a distinctly non-religious character for many Canadians, newly arrived immigrant or long established citizen. In an on-line poll conducted by Abacus Data in December, 2011 of 1,004 respondents who were asked if they celebrate Christmas - no fewer than 86% in any given demographic category (and as high as 97% in one category) said that they did celebrate it - regardless of gender, age, province/region, religious affiliation, status as an immigrant or education.

I suspect that many of us do not necessarily celebrate the birth of Jesus - we celebrate something else, a tradition of being with family, gift sharing and charity. As one smart ass noted recently on facebook: "Just 'cause I say 'Merry Christmas' doesn't mean I worship Jesus." Indeed not.

But say we do try and eliminate all vestiges of Christmas from public life ... why stop there? Why not remove all religious paintings from publicly funded art galleries, forbid the singing of Christmas carols on the street and public spaces, halt all St. Valentine's, Easter and St. Patrick's Day celebrations in public schools, all holidays that clearly have a historical, religious Christian origin? No Valentines shared between schoolmates. No Easter egg hunts at school. No images of floppy Easter bunnies bearing chocolate eggs. No images of shamrocks or leprechauns.

But wait ... why not abolish Family Day in Ontario too? Doesn't that discriminate against some people? "What if you don't have a family?" one hapless female whined to me when it was announced that we would have a civic holiday in February named Family Day. Why ... were you raised by wolves? I wanted to ask. She was miffed by the name of the day. Okay, let's call it "Do whatever the heck you want day." Feel better now, girlie?

What a soulless, boring, fastidiously politically correct existence that would be ... to wipe out all the charming little rituals and customs that have a religious origin because some of us are alienated by Christianity (or any other religion or concept). Why eliminate that which is beautiful, charming, fun and artful - the sacred music and Christmas songs, the iconic visual art of the season, the nativity scenes, the Christmas fables for children, the sharing of wonderful treats particular to the Christmas season - because it may offend or is not in accordance with our own particular religious views?

This draconian perspective that requires that we eliminate all that potentially offends or alienates from public life will have a much larger, deleterious effect - it will destroy the goodwill and intentions of those who do not wish to offend, who are not bigoted, but merely wish to celebrate a Canadian tradition - because, yes, Christmas has become for many a Canadian tradition not a religious one, irrespective of one's faith. It's embedded in our culture and history. It's a part of our culture. Canadian culture.

Please, remove that which is racist, ugly and distasteful in society ... oppose intolerance everywhere, in every instance, but does Christmas really fall into that category?

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

November Cultural Roundup

Mystical Landscapes: Masterpieces from Monet, Van Gogh and more, AGO, November 20th

Brightness Falls by Jay McInernery
Beyond the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Monday, October 31, 2016

October Cultural Roundup

Queen of Katwe (South Africa/US, 2016)
Driving with Selvi (Canada, 2015)
The Others (US/Spain, 2001)


Learning Curves: The Moth in Toronto, Massey Hall, October 6th

Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul by David Adams Richards
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
The Girls by Emma Cline

Draft 12.1 Reading Series at the Flying Pony, October 23th 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Ragged Edges of the Night

The night began to show ragged edges ...

The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House, 2016) 355 pages

Thank you Vincent Bugliosi, the attorney who successfully prosecuted Charles Manson and the Manson gang for the Tate/LaBianca murders of August 1969. He wrote the seminal non-fiction account of the murders, Helter Skelter, which was responsible for my life long aversion to all things hippie at the tender age of fifteen. And thank you Ms. Cline for reinforcing this very healthy fear with this new work of fiction.  

Cline evokes - I almost said beautifully but that seems an odd choice of words - the atmosphere which leads to the ensnarement of the fictional fourteen year old Evie into a Manson-like cult in southern California in the late 1960s. It is a chilling record of the tail end of the 1960s dream of freedom and liberation from convention, now, turned nightmare with the Manson murders.

Told from the perspective of the a middle-aged Evie, Cline poignantly portrays the fear and insecurities of the young teen faced with two self-absorbed, now divorced parents (dad makes off with his nubile assistant Tamar while mom is enamoured with a "gold miner" looking for financial assistance). But it is not only those circumstances. Evie is privy to the anxieties that many young girls experience (Am I pretty? When will I find someone? Why doesn't he like me?) and is eminently exploitable by outside forces. 

Wisely, Cline waits until hundred pages into the novel to introduce us to the members of the cult which gives her ample time to develop the character of Evie. She becomes drawn into the cult because she is lonely, pretty but unsure of it, and perceived as valuable to Russell - the fictional stand in for Manson. She also comes from an affluent family with a beautiful grandmother who was once a famous Hollywood star. Initially, she is not seduced by Russell but by the ragtag, barefoot hippie girls who troll the city in a mysterious black bus scavenging for food in dumpsters and likely also searching for susceptible young girls to join its commune. Evie is enraptured by the black haired, imperious Suzanne (representing one may safely assume Susan Atkins, one of the key Manson "girls", known as sexy "Sadie" by the Manson family) but she is inevitably seduced by Russell himself. 
My glitchy adolescent brain was desperate for casualties, for conspiracies that drenched every word, every gesture, with meaning. I wanted Russell to be a genius. 
Slowly, inexorably,  Evie is drawn into Russell's web largely because of her attraction to Suzanne which she barely seems conscious of. "Eve", Russell murmurs seductively. "the first woman." Roped into disturbing sex acts with Russell (as all the Manson girls are) Evie consoles herself that at least it wasn't coitus. 

She lies to her mother saying that she is sleeping at her (now ex) best friend Connie's house when she is at the ranch where Suzanne and the others live in shared squalor and a dripping disdain for the "pigs" (straight, conventional, non-hippies) whom they steal from, exploit and terrorize at Russell's command. She steals money from her mother and a neighbor and starts to assume the garb of the drugged out, teenage hippies with ne'er a word from her mother who is absorbed in her latest futile romance.

She is persuaded to have a threesome with the flailing rock star Mitch (who may represent the lost Beach Boy Dennis Wilson or the record producer Terry Melcher both of whom had ties to the Manson cult, Wilson much more so than Melcher) and Suzanne against her better instincts. Later, retribution towards Mitch who has disappointed Russell goes terribly awry and leads to horrible acts of violence. 

Initially, I wondered why Cline had situated the older Evie in the midst of her old friend's home saddled with two teenagers - Evie's friend's son Julian and his girlfriend Sasha - but it becomes clear by the end when Julian coerces Sasha to expose herself in front of Evie. Cline wants to underline the fact that young girls are still susceptible to these same pressures and humiliations - just as Evie was as a young girl (and, by logical extension, the Manson girls). And Julian becomes an object of Evie's scrutiny too - how did the little boy whom she watched play in a school concert grow up to poison and kill a dog? What element was at work in the male species that summoned forth such hatred and vitriol? 

Emma Cline
Almost two thirds into the novel, Evie begins to understand the underlying evil of the ranch and its malformed inhabitants - like an unbearable and unsustainable frequency that hums beneath it all. 

By the end of the novel, we are meant to infer Suzanne's violence and savagery is a direct reaction to the humiliations she experiences at the hands of the cult and men in general - it's a dubious argument but plausible. Why else does Cline mention a humiliating date with an older man that Evie experiences as an example of the indignities that young girls endure - she links it directly to Suzanne's anger and the violence that she exhibits. However tempting this theory, many of us have experienced these episodes of violation and we have yet to participate in the savagery of the Manson murders. The causes of this atrocity are much more complex than that and are perhaps unknowable.

Mercifully, the actual murders depicted here are less explicit that you might imagine and its fictional victims are somewhat concealed to avoid perhaps the expected censure or recriminations from critics. I will leave it to the reader to determine the extent of Evie's participation in the murders. 

I am sure that the subject matter has put off many readers as well. I remember a colleague's withering look when I mentioned this book: "How could you read that?" he seemed to imply and I had my reservations before I started it too. 

Cline is careful to incorporate real details from the historical record: the cast of the Manson villains are easy to recognize in the narrative for the most part; the squalor and destitution of the Manson ranch is replicated such as the scavenging for food, the dispensing of LSD tabs like Eucharists by Manson, the ravings of the cult leader and complete control of the family members, the sexual exploitation of the teenage girls to ensnare valuable assets, the sexual and emotional humiliation of the girls to ensure their servitude; the exploitation of wealthy relations; the raids into the homes of their unsuspecting neighbors to "spook" and punish them presaging the violence to come ... Cline adheres to the smallest historical details such as the Manson girls eating and discarding watermelon rinds into the kitchen sink the night that Rosemary and Leno LaBianca were murdered or the stealing of Dennis Wilson's gold records. 

If I were to lodge a criticism of the novel it would be the slightly odd sentence structure which at first appears fresh and unique but soon annoys - sentences sometimes read like a series of subordinate clauses or sometimes lack verbs. But the descriptions are sharp and fresh and the insights into human behaviour nuanced.  This is a major talent in the making. 

Lest we forget, amidst the fascination with the cult members (for it is easy to be captivated by the strangeness and violence), who exactly they killed during the two nights of their rampage on August 8th and 9th, 1969: Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, Stephen Parent, Jay Sebring, Sharon Tate and her unborn child.

The Manson girls at trial (left to right):
Susan "Sadie" Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Lesley Van Houten
Note: As I read The Girls I was simultaneously listening to the enlightening ten part series "Charles Manson's Hollywood" on the podcast You Must Remember Thiscreated  and written by Katrina Longworth. It's a great audio companion piece to this book.