Image description: On a deep blue cosmos background. Text reads: Surviving Creating Contributing Connecting Sharing Building Healing Growing Learning Unlearning Resisting Persisting
What is this document all about?
This document is the result of a ten-day narrative therapy group project that ran from December 21 to the end of the year in 2018. The purpose of this group was to counteract the pressure of New Year’s resolutions and shift the focus onto celebrating the many actions, choices, skills, values, and hopes that we had kept close in the last year, and to connect ourselves to legacies of action in our communities.
Celebrating our values, actions, and choices may seem trivial, but we consider it part of our deep commitment to anti-oppressive work and to justice.
We hope that this project will stand against the idea that only certain kinds of “progress” or “accomplishment” are worth celebrating.
We want to invite you to join us in celebrating all of the ways in which you have stayed connected to your values, joined together with your communities, stood against injustice and harm. We want to celebrate all of the actions that you have taken in the last year that were rooted in love and justice.
Although this project was focused on the end of the calendar year, we hope that you find this helpful at any time when you are invited to compare your “progress” to other people or to some societal expectation. We think this might be particularly helpful around birthdays, anniversaries, major life transitions like graduations, relocations, retirements, gender or sexuality journeys, new experiences of diagnosis, and, of course, if you’re feeling the pressure that often comes with New Year celebrations!
This project is informed by narrative therapy practices.
Narrative therapy holds a core belief that people are not problems, problems are problems, and solutions are rarely individual. This means that although we experience problems, the problems are not internal to us. We are not bad or broken people; we are people existing in challenging and sometimes actively hostile contexts. We recognize capitalism, ableism, racism, transantagonism, classism, heterosexism, and other systems of harm and injustice, and we locate problems in these and other contexts. We recognize that people are always resisting the hardships in their lives. This project is meant to invite stories of resistance and stories of celebration.
Narrative therapy also holds a core belief that lives are multi-storied. What this means is that even when capitalism, white supremacy, and other systems of oppression are present in a person’s life, that life also has many other stories which are equally true. A person’s story is never just one thing; never just the struggle, never just the problems. This project hopes to invite a multi-storied telling of the year – one that honours hardship and resistance but recognizes that there are also stories of joy, companionship, connection, and play. We know that you are more than your problems.
When we are reflecting on our past year, shame and a sense of personal failing can be invited in – we might feel like we haven’t done enough, and that our reasons for this “not enoughness” are internal. This project hopes to stand against these hurtful ideas, and instead offer an invitation to tell the stories of your year in ways that are complex and compassionate.
Perfectionism and comparison can show up at the New Year, at birthdays, at anniversaries and graduations. But you are already skilled in responding to and resisting hardships. We know that you can respond to any hurtful narratives that show up and try to push you around. We are standing with you as you find the storylines in your year that are worth celebrating.
We know that it is a radical act of resistance to celebrate your life when the culture around you says you are not worth celebrating. If you are fat, poor, queer, Black, brown, Indigenous, trans, disabled, neurodivergent, a sex worker, homeless, living with addiction, or in any other way pushed to the margins and rarely celebrated, this project is especially for you. Your life is worth celebrating.
David Denborough and the Dulwich Centre have outlined a Narrative Justice Charter of Storytelling Rights and this charter guides this project.
My hope is that each of you feels able to tell your stories in ways that feel strong. I hope that you each feel like you have storytelling rights in your own life.
Here is the charter (link is to the Dulwich Centre post):
Article 1 – Everyone has the right to define their experiences and problems in their own words and terms.
Article 2 – Everyone has the right for their life to be understood in the context of what they have been through and in the context of their relationships with others.
Article 3 – Everyone has the right to invite others who are important to them to be involved in the process of reclaiming their life from the effects of trauma.
Article 4 – Everyone has the right to be free from having problems caused by trauma and injustice located inside them, internally, as if there is some deficit in them. The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem.
Article 5 – Everyone has the right for their responses to trauma to be acknowledged. No one is a passive recipient of trauma. People always respond. People always protest injustice.
Article 6 – Everyone has the right to have their skills and knowledges of survival respected, honoured and acknowledged.
Article 7 – Everyone has the right to know and experience that what they have learnt through hardship can make a contribution to others in similar situations.
However you end up using this resource, we would love to hear about it.
You can send your responses to Tiffany at email@example.com, and Tiffany will forward these responses on as appropriate.
Access the full 58-page PDF here.
Image description: A screenshot of the Book Riot #ReadHarder Journal, with one category checked. The category is ‘A book of non-violent true crime’ and the title listed is ‘When They Call You A Terrorist.’
This is an expanded and updated version of a post that was available on my Patreon last week.
I’m participating in the Book Riot Read Harder 2019 challenge this year, which means I’m going to attempt to read books in 24 specific categories.
- The categories are:
- An epistolary novel or collection of letters
- An alternate history novel
- A book by a woman and/or AOC (Author of Color) that won a literary award in 2018
- A humor book
- A book by a journalist or about journalism
- A book by an AOC set in or about space
- An #ownvoices book set in Mexico or Central America
- An #ownvoices book set in Oceania
- A book published prior to January 1, 2019, with fewer than 100 reviews on Goodreads
- A translated book written by and/or translated by a woman
- A book of manga
- A book in which an animal or inanimate object is a point-of-view character
- A book by or about someone that identifies as neurodiverse
- A cozy mystery
- A book of mythology or folklore
- An historical romance by an AOC
- A business book
- A novel by a trans or nonbinary author
- A book of nonviolent true crime
- A book written in prison
- A comic by an LGBTQIA creator
- A children’s or middle grade book (not YA) that has won a diversity award since 2009
- A self-published book
- A collection of poetry published since 2014
My motivation for joining the challenge is that I love books, especially science fiction and fantasy books, but for many years now I have been primarily engaging with academic texts and non-fiction. I’ve become quite disconnected from a habit of reading regularly, and reading for pleasure (as opposed to reading for a specific productivity and work-related purpose – to put together a workshop, complete a paper, or plan a project).
I miss the relationship that I used to have with books, and I’m hoping that this will invite me back into a practice that I used to cherish and that has been lost to brain fog, academics, over-scheduling, fibro pain (have you ever considered the weight of a paperback? Me neither, until fibro!), and the scattered attention that so many of us seem to experience when we’re operating under pressure.
One of the categories for the challenge is “non-violent true crime.”
For some reason, I decided to start with this category, and looked up recommended titles in the category. I’m not really a “true crime” sorta person. I much prefer… honestly, almost any other genre, with the possible exception of heterosexual romance novels. Most of the recommendations for non-violent true crime suggested “white collar” crimes. Financial crime.
I downloaded the audiobook for Billion Dollar Whale, which is the story of Jho Low.
According to The New Yorker:
If you like global intrigue, financial crime, wealth porn, and absurdity, “Billion Dollar Whale,” by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, is for you. It’s the story of Jho Low, an enterprising businessman from Malaysia who used his social connections to the country’s former Prime Minister Najib Razak to transform himself into an international financier. According to Wright and Hope’s account, Low persuaded Razak to create an investment fund, 1MDB, financed with government money, which Low managed behind the scenes. Goldman Sachs and other banks helped raise ten billion dollars for the fund. Then approximately five billion dollars of the money disappeared, prompting an international scandal.
I don’t particularly like any of those things, but anyway, that’s the book I picked. I thought this would be a throw-away category for me, since it’s not a category I was very interested or invested in. I planned to pick something with lots of recommendations, hope it’s decent, get it out of the way.
I made it five chapters in and couldn’t finish. I was frustrated by the way the authors described Low as “the Asian” and “the Malaysian” constantly, a casual linguistic othering that served as a constant reminder that the anticipated audience was neither Asian nor Malaysian. I was frustrated by the way they described women, particularly groups of women hired as entertainment, as “the girls,” casual misogyny to match the casual racism. And I was really frustrated at the use of racist phrases like describing a banker as “going off the reservation” when he operated outside of standard practice. These phrases are not neutral – they are part of, and contribute to, ongoing anti-Indigenous violence and they reference the genocidal practices of colonial governments creating reserves in ways that normalize rather than stand against this violence. This is not even remotely okay.
I gave up on the book, and started looking for an alternative.
I already knew that the blog posts were going to suggest more financial/white collar crime, and I knew I wasn’t interested. As I worked through my response to Billion Dollar Whale, I started thinking about the category itself, and after this reflection (which really should have happened before I picked a book), I think it’s worth challenging the idea of financial crime as “non-violent.” This is particularly true when it is theft by the wealthy, theft that doesn’t require breaking a door or making a threat. The only reason that this kind of “white collar” crime is labelled non-violent is because we, as a capitalist culture, have become adept at ignoring structural and systemic violence. (This echoes the insight that Emily Cutler offered in her post for the Feminism from the Margins series, about how the structural and systemic violence of patriarchy is rarely recognized as violence.)
But despite our unwillingness to see it, capitalism is violent, the wealth gap is violent, and the ferrying back and forth of money between members of the ultra wealthy does have violent impacts on the poor and the marginalized. Nothing about capitalism is non-violent. Were the actions of the banks that led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis non-violent? The effects were certainly violent, but not a violence that we readily recognize.
I realized that within this “throw-away” category, there was a critical question that I needed to engage – what counts as violence? What counts as non-violence? And, most pressing, most political, most obvious – what counts as crime, and how does this intersect with justice?
So, what kinds of crimes are non-violent?
After thinking about it for a long time, I came to the conclusion that crimes of identity are truly non-violent. Existing while inhabiting a criminalized identity (at various times and in various places this might be as a trans person, a Black person, a biracial person, an Indigenous person, a queer person) or participating in a criminalized culture (Black cultures and Indigenous cultures, particularly, have been criminalized at various times and in various ways and still are, to varying degrees), are non-violent crimes.
They are only crimes because of violent laws.
So, I narrowed my potential reading list down to books about refusing to cooperate with violent laws. And, since the category was specifically “non-violent” true crime, I was looking for books about refusing to cooperate but not books about violent resistance. (Even though I do think that violent resistance is often not only valid but necessary – how do we define self-defense when the violence being faced is structural or systemic? More hard questions.)
I started looking for books about existing in criminalized identities, and resisting and surviving under violent conditions. I was (and am – please send recommendations!) interested in things like:
– Stories of being queer in places and at times when queerness was criminalized.
– Stories of being trans in places and at times when transness was criminalized.
– Stories of Indigenous and Black cultural preservation when this was criminalized.
– Stories of interracial, non-heterosexual, or otherwise consenting-but-criminalized relationships in places and at times when these were criminalized.
– Stories of women learning to read and write in places and at times when this was criminalized.
– Stories of civil disobedience in response to unjust laws.
And I was/am particularly interested in these stories within colonial contexts – one thing that really irked me in Billion Dollar Whale was that reading it felt like being complicit with xenophobic violence. Why was I reading about a Malaysian man who stole billions from governments, banks, and Hollywood? Why was this the story that I ended up with, when there are so many other stories that do not participate in the “nefarious foreigner” narrative? There’s no virtue in pretending that only white folks behave in horrible ways, but if I’m only going to read one true crime book, why is it this one? I didn’t want to end up there again, so in this category, I was looking for books that didn’t offload the horror of state-sanctioned homophobic, or transphobic, or misogynistic violence onto Black and Brown cultures and bodies.
Basically, I decided that the only true crime I want to read is the “Be Gay, Do Crimes” kind.
What I ended up with is a book that’s been on my shelf for almost a year now – When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele (link is to the title at Shelf Life Books). Khan-Cullors is one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, and her description of the criminalization of Black bodies and the constant intrusion of violent policing into Black lives is both riveting and heartbreaking.
None of what she’s sharing in this book is new information – communities of colour, including Black, Brown and Indigenous communities, as well as trans communities, disabled communities, and so many other marginalized communities who face state violence, have been speaking about this violence for generations. She evokes the long history of criminalization, from the “war on drugs and gangs” (which was always, and was intentionally, a war on communities of colour), to the labeling of young Black men as “superpredators” and the fracturing of Black families that results from mass incarceration and welfare laws that penalize mothers for having a man present in the household even if together their income is still far below the poverty line. One of the incredible strengths of the book is how Khan-Cullors tells the deeply personal story of her own life, and the lives of her family members (both biological and chosen), and also ties this story into the broader story of the system within which they live and love and organize.
And the discussion of organizing is nuanced and multi-storied. She demonstrates how her communities are tied to long legacies of anti-oppressive action, and about the impact of under-funding and lack of structural support that is countered by an incredible wealth of community support and care. This book provides a glimpse into what collective action and a commitment to community care might mean, not only on a social level but also within intimate relationships. One of the most moving recurring themes in the book is the role of the extended community in supporting and caring for individuals within relationship, including restorative justice practices that allow relationships to transform and heal after a breakup, or following injustice within the relationship.
She also talks about the lasting impact of the Black Panthers and their community-focused actions, such as starting school breakfast programs. The Black Panthers were speaking out about racist police violence decades ago, and the work of Black Lives Matter builds on this legacy. It has been generations of work, collective action directed at addressing state violence, and the ongoing effects of slavery and racism in the lives of Black Americans (and, as she points out, Black Canadians also). Despite the fact that this isn’t new, it is necessary to pay attention to it. It’s easy for white folks (like me) to let it slip from sight, because our white supremacist and racist culture makes it so easy to look away. Khan-Cullors tells the story in a way that highlights the persistence of this state violence and the many ways in which Black bodies are policed and dehumanized, but that doesn’t contribute to thin stories of Black lives – the book tells the story of a long history of violence, but it also tells the story of a long history of resistance. The book is full of descriptions of her communities existing peacefully within their own contexts, building collaborative and restorative collectives and families, and having violence thrust into their lives. The violence is present throughout the book, but so are the stories of love, joy, companionship, and resourcefulness within her communities.
It is a book that is both joyful and angry.
I’m really glad I switched books, and I’m glad I made the original mistake because it forced me to seriously consider the boundaries and contours of what constitutes “non-violent true crime.”
Image description: A colorized hallway in what might be a hospital. Text reads:
Madness, Violence, and the Patriarchy
(or, When My Favorite South Park Episode Changed from “Reverse Cowgirl” to “Breast Cancer Show Ever”)
guest post by Emily S. Cutler
This is a guest post by Emily Sheera Cutler. Emily is a Mad Pride activist, a movement that celebrates and finds value in the states, traits, and characteristics typically categorized as mental illness. She is passionate about providing and teaching non-coercive, context-informed approaches to suicide prevention and mental health crisis. Emily blogs about Mad culture and disability justice at www.radicalabolitionist.org, and you can find out more about her at www.emilyscutler.com.
This post is part of the Feminism from the Margins series.
Content note on this post for discussion of self-harm, suicidality, involuntary psychiatric institutionalization
My Mad Pride activism began as a civil libertarian cause. I firmly believed that every individual deserved the inalienable right to bodily autonomy – full control over what to do with their own bodies and minds. I knew from day one of my activism that universal bodily autonomy meant bodily autonomy for individuals designated as Mad or mentally ill – those who were hearing voices, who were suicidal, who wanted to cut, burn, or injure themselves, etc. “Give me liberty or give me death” became a favorite quote of mine, and “People should have the right to do whatever they want as long as they are not violating another person’s bodily autonomy” became a line I often repeated.
A few days after I was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward after expressing passive suicidal thoughts, a group of my friends happened to be watching an episode of South Park entitled “Reverse Cowgirl.” In the episode, the South Park police department enforces a strict requirement of wearing seatbelts while using the bathroom after a character dies by almost falling into the toilet. The episode resonated so deeply with me that I was almost in tears. This, to me, is what being involuntarily committed had felt like: a profound invasion and intrusion upon my body, personhood, and dignity, a violent assault upon my autonomy, all in the name of public safety and security – all when I had not done anything to violate anyone else’s bodily autonomy.
It was shortly after my involuntary commitment that I launched my activism career. The central focus of my activism was the rejection of involuntary commitment for those who had not harmed or threatened to harm any other person’s bodily autonomy. Like many feminist efforts, my activism revolved around the personal liberties and rights of Mad people. Along with my efforts came my striving to promote the message that Mad people are not usually violent or abusive – that being a danger to oneself and a danger to others should not be conflated. “People diagnosed with mental illness are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence,” I would often say.
At that point the line felt clear. I was innocent. A victim. I hadn’t done anything wrong and yet I had been locked up, strip searched, forcibly drugged, and restrained.
But life happened and things got more nebulous. My fiancé came home one day and said he wanted to break up, and I sliced my arm, threatening suicide if he left. Suddenly I was no longer an innocent victim quietly expressing passively suicidal thoughts in an emergency room. I was a full blown crazy woman, using tears, manipulation, self-harm, and suicide threats to keep my partner in our relationship. While I hadn’t violated my fiancé’s bodily autonomy, I had certainly made the shift from “harm to self” to “harm to others.”
The events caused me to carefully re-examine my activism. So many of my arguments had hinged on the notion that madness is not inherently harmful to others, that individuals should have the right to experience and engage in madness that does not hurt other people. But here I was, Mad as hell, terrified of abandonment, engaging in actions that would be considered abusive or even violent by most. Who had I become? Was I one of the violent, dangerous Mad people I had so frequently otherized? “Those Mads” – the ones who deserved to be locked up, separated from society, forcibly drugged even? Was I not even Mad – just bad? Just plain abusive?
A few months later, I found myself rewatching Gone Girl, a film I’d hated when it first came out. What a stereotyping, misogynistic film, I had thought! It makes all women, and especially Mad women, look violent. For context, the film is about a woman named Amy who frames her husband for murder after he cheats on her with a younger, hotter woman. In many ways, Amy is the classic and stereotypical portrayal of the Madwoman: she is manipulative, jealous, possessive, violent, and does everything she can to ensure her husband will never leave her. “When I tell people I’m Mad, they’re going to think I’m violent and manipulative just like Amy,” I had thought.
This time, I felt completely differently about the film. All of the sudden, I could relate to Amy. When she delivered Gone Girl’s “Cool Girl” monologue, a lightbulb went off. I got it.
Below is the famous “Cool Girl” monologue:
“Nick never loved me. He loved a girl who doesn’t exist. A girl I was pretending to be. The Cool Girl. Men always use that as the defining compliment, right? She’s a cool girl. Being Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker and dirty jokes, who plays videogames and chugs beer, loves threesomes and anal sex and jams chilidogs into my mouth like I’m hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang-bang–while remaining a size 2, because cool girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool girls never get angry at their men, they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner. Go ahead! Shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the cool girl.
I waited patiently-years-for the pendulum to swing the other way, for men to start reading Jane Austen, organize scrapbook parties and make out with each other while we leer. And then we’d say, yeah, he’s a cool guy. Instead, women across the nation colluded in our degradation! Pretty soon every girl was Cool Girl, and if you weren’t, then there was something wrong with you.
But it’s tempting, to be Cool Girl. For someone like me, who likes to win, it’s tempting to be the girl every guy wants. When I met Nick I knew that’s what he wanted. For him, I was willing to try. I couldn’t have been Cool Girl with anyone else. I wouldn’t have wanted to. Nick teased things out in me I didn’t know existed: A lightness, a humor, an ease. And I made him smarter, sharper. I forced him to rise to my level. I was happier for those few years, pretending to be someone else, than I ever have been before or after.
But then it had to stop, because it wasn’t me! I hated Nick for being surprised when I became me. He couldn’t believe I didn’t love wax-stripping my pussy raw and blowing him on request. That my fantasy baseball team was not a labor of love. It had to stop. Committing to Nick, feeling safe with Nick, being happy with Nick, made me realize that there was a Real Amy in there, and she was so much better, more interesting and complicated and challenging, than Cool Girl. But Nick wanted Cool Girl anyway. Can you imagine, finally showing your true self to your soulmate, and having him not like you?”
The “Cool Girl” monologue describes many of the insidious, subtle, overlooked forms of violence that the patriarchy has subjected people to for decades. It lists all of the ways that women are quietly coerced to conform to patriarchal standards of beauty and femininity to be loved and valued: maintaining thinness, engaging in unwanted sexual experiences, feigning interest in hobbies and interests that are constructed as masculine, and performing a sense of nonchalance and detachment toward romantic relationships. These are violences that affect us all but that are felt differentially and responded to differentially by people. While Amy is a white, thin, relatively privileged woman, it is often the most marginalized groups of women – women of color, queer women, neurodivergent women, trans women, and fat women – who experience the highest degree of pressure to make drastic alterations to their bodyminds in order to conform to these standards. For the most marginalized groups, these violences may result in coercion to disguise or kill off entire parts of one’s identity; failure to do so may result in more explicit forms of violence such as hate crimes, sexual violence, intimate partner violence, or police brutality.
It was at this moment that it struck me that Amy was describing violence in the “Cool Girl” monologue. Being coerced to make painful, humiliating alterations to one’s bodymind in order to be valued is violence. “Nick Dunne took my pride and my dignity and my hope and my money. He took and took from me until I no longer existed,” Amy says. In some ways, it is murder.
But the patriarchy is hardly ever recognized as violent or murderous. Instead, it is seen as the norm, as acceptable. So Amy seeks to change that. She frames her husband for murder. She stages a violent, manipulative, crazy rebellion to the patriarchy. What other option did she have?
I had also attempted to be the “Cool Girl” in my relationship with my (now ex) fiancé. I had worked 80 hour weeks to perform capitalist ideals of success that he so admired, while still making sure to have enough time to spend with him every day. I had maintained thinness, forced myself to engage in strenuous exercise, participated in sexual acts I found degrading. I had given up real, important parts of myself – my Mad Pride, my Autistic identity, my outward disabledness. And here I was, being told that still wasn’t good enough. I had given up so much, and I was being pushed beyond a limit.
Slowly but surely, I started to get radicalized. I started to learn more about the systemic factors impacting not only suicide and self-harm but also violence. I began to think about the role that powerlessness and systemic devaluation play in driving people to extremes. I started to think about the ways people might feel trapped in situations and dynamics, and how sometimes they might see violence as the only or most feasible way to regain control or escape.
I still see Mad Pride partially as a civil libertarian movement. My belief that every person deserves bodily autonomy, including those who are hearing voices and those who are suicidal, has not changed. But Mad Pride is about so much more than that. I see it as a movement fundamentally about pain, and largely about the pain inflicted by systemic and structural forms of violence. I believe Mad Pride is about recognizing the validity and legitimacy of people’s reactions to this pain.
Like my earlier version of Mad Pride, I believe that feminism often attempts to distance itself from stereotypes. Many feminists have worked to reject the notion that women are more emotional, manipulative, hysterical, or crazy. They have fought to defend the fact that women are just as rational, intelligent, and sane as men. I recently saw a book entitled, “Strong is the New Pretty.” This echoes a sentiment I have often heard in feminist circles: women are not weak like men think we are. We are strong enough to rise above our impulses, to maintain a cool rationality and sense of logic, and to exercise our bodies to meet standards of physical able-bodiedness and athleticism. Of course, I am very grateful for these feminist efforts and lines of thinking; stereotypes are harmful to everyone.
However, I often wonder if, in working to reject these stereotypes, feminists disavow madness – particularly reactions to the patriarchy that may involve violence, manipulation, and strong emotions. What if sometimes our response to the patriarchy – to all of the violence that has been committed against us for thousands of years – involves being weak, being emotional, giving into our impulses to scream, to shout, to self-injure, to threaten suicide, to exact revenge? Is there space for this within feminism? Is there space to at least acknowledge the validity and legitimacy of these responses, even if they aren’t always the most ethically correct or appropriate course of action?
A few weeks ago, I watched the episode of South Park entitled “Breast Cancer Show Ever.” In the episode, Eric Cartman ruthlessly mocks Wendy Testaburger’s presentation on breast cancer awareness, with other students and teachers doing little to stop him. When Wendy threatens to fight him physically to stop him, she is disciplined by her parents. Cartman’s verbal abuse continues, and finally, the school principal, a woman, encourages Wendy to fight him physically. Explaining that she is a breast cancer survivor herself, the principal tells her that “cancer does not play by the rules” and that since cancer will not stop of its own volition, it is sometimes necessary to resort to extreme measures to defeat it.
The patriarchy will not stop of its own volition. It is relentless, demanding, and abusive, and although it does not always result in overt attacks of life-threatening or bodily autonomy-threatening force, it is violent and coercive, emotionally and psychologically. It is extreme, though it is not recognized as such. Sometimes such extremity merits extreme responses. Perhaps madness and particularly Mad women are sometimes violent, and perhaps that is exactly what is needed.
Instead of shaming women for having extreme responses to the extremity and violence of patriarchy, I believe that it is important to engage in practices of community care and accountability that seek to explore what overlooked kinds of violence may have led to these responses. I do not have an answer as to how survivors of trauma and ongoing structural violence can best be held accountable to their responses that may include violence or harm. However, I think it is critical that we begin by taking a closer look at what we define as violence or harm and what we define as acceptable or typical, and what types of actions do or do not merit an accountability process. As our justice system currently stands, a great deal of retribution is carried out against individuals who have committed violence or harm; almost no efforts are made to address systemic or structural violence. Similarly, physical violence – breaking the skin – is seen as the ultimate, most severe and punishable form of violence, while the pervasive psychological and emotional violence that coerces people to make alterations to their own bodyminds remains unaddressed. How can we begin to shift this dynamic? How can we create a system that focuses on addressing systemic and structural violence while still allowing for individual accountability?
This post is part of the year-long Feminism from the Margins series that Dulcinea Lapis and Tiffany Sostar will be curating, in challenge to and dissatisfaction with International Women’s Day. To quote Dulcinea, “Fuck this grim caterwauling celebration of mediocre white femininity.” Every month, on (approximately) the 8th, we’ll post something. If you are trans, Black or Indigenous, a person of colour, disabled, fat, poor, a sex worker, or any of the other host of identities excluded from International Women’s Day, and you would like to contribute to this project, let us know!
Also check out the other posts in the series:
- All The Places You’ll Never Go, by Dulcinea Lapis
- An Open Love Letter to My Friends, by Michelle Dang
- Prioritizing, by Mel Vee
- Never Ever Follow Those White Kids Around – a brief personal history of race and mental health, by Mel Vee
- Living in the Age of White Male Terror, by Mel Vee
- I Will Not Be Thrown Away, by Mel Vee
- Selling Out the Sex Workers, by X
- Holding Hope for Indigenous Girls, by Michelle Robinson
- Three Variations on a Conversation: cis- and heteronormativity in medical settings, by Beatrice Aucoin
- Lies, Damn Lies, and White Feminism by anonymous
- Responding to the Comments, by Nathan Fawaz
- Remembering and Responding, by Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany Sostar is a narrative therapist and workshop facilitator in Calgary, Alberta. You can work with them in person or via Skype. They specialize in supporting queer, trans, polyamorous, disabled, and trauma-enhanced communities and individuals, and they are also available for businesses and organizations who want to become more inclusive. Email to get in touch!
(Image description: A waning moon in a dark sky. Photo from Pixabay.)
It’s the end of the year.
It’s New Year’s Eve.
I was going to write a year in review post (and I’ll do that eventually), but I thought for right now, sitting here on my couch, wondering what each of my community members are doing and feeling – I thought I would write about the pressure of this night. Because let me tell you, my pals! I am feeling the pressure right now!
If so, how are you managing it?
Do you have any insider knowledge to help?
Do you have histories of responding?
I’ll tell you a bit of the history of my relationship with the particular pressure.
In high school, I had the most amazing bedroom. It was painted a bright blue, and it was full of books and candles and song lyrics on the walls, and there was a little tea and coffee nook in the corner, and a fold-down desk where I wrote endless words, and there was so much love and pain in that room. Tonight, I am remembering New Year’s Eve moments in that room. Sitting on the floor with candles and a journal, writing goals and resolutions that would fix my life. That would fix the sadness and the loneliness. That would guarantee success, in whatever way I was defining success at the time. Mostly to do with writing a lot, being creative, sometimes about being a good Christian, sometimes just about being a good person. In all of these longings there was a desire for security, safety, stability. A strong base to build a life on. Safe footing.
I wanted magic.
I wanted that night – this night – to be magic.
I think a lot of people who are hurting want magic.
And in this moment, which echoes all those other moments, I can feel the intensity of the pressure. The desperation.
“Start the year on the right foot.”
I strongly believed that what I carried through this night would influence my coming year – that I had this one night to get it right, set the right intention, feel the right feelings, want the right things, be good enough, be calm enough, be strong enough, be generous and gracious enough, be good enough, be good enough. This night would set the tone for the year to come. Get it right.
Get it right.
Because if it’s wrong…
I don’t believe in the law of attraction. But on this night it shows up, demanding that I attract just the right things with just the right ways of being.
Tonight, I find myself again feeling the intensity, the desperate desire to find the right foot and be on it when the year rolls over.
Because although so much was accomplished in this last year, there was also so much grief and loss and fear and scarcity and anger and shame, and I do not want to carry this into the new year. I want a new year.
Specifically, I want the kind of year that I always wanted when I was in that bright blue room, surrounded by candles, writing with a fancy pen in a fancy journal.
I think that’s why I’m feeling the same pressure in the same way.
I want to feel stable, secure, safe.
I want us all to feel stable, secure, safe.
I want us to have a strong foundation to build our lives on.
I want us to have safe footing.
And I feel like on this long exhale of a night, it would take magic to get there.
I started this post feeling like a storm trapped in a bottle. I wanted to share that feeling, because I have found that I am often not the only one in my life struggling in the ways that I find myself struggling. And I think we are stronger together. I think telling our stories of struggle and responding to struggle can be a powerful act of community care.
As I wrote the post, I connected with a few friends. I watched an episode of Travelers. I felt my body, which is always aching. I felt my heart untangling from the intensity of desire for magic, and found myself wrapping it up in something softer.
As much as I am desperate to start this year on the right foot so I can summon the magic, I find myself remembering that the foot you start on doesn’t have to be the foot you stay on. And I am also remembering all the magic that we have made together, in all of our myriad skills of resistance and response, and our values of justice and care.
Me: Okay, let’s set realistic goals for 2019.
Also me: Yes! Fully agreed. Okay. Let’s say… A zine every month, two blog posts every month, start an email list and send out an email every week, complete one collective document every month, write a book, 10 narrative sessions every week, revamp and run all the online courses, and take one day off every week. And present at some conferences and publish some papers. And get healthy! And keep the house clean. And get back to Stick Figure Sundays! And maybe start another year-long project. This is going to be great. Keep it realistic.
Me: … wait …
Also me: You’re right. Also read a book EVERY WEEK!!!!!!!!
There’s a running list, in a little cream-coloured notebook, of all the projects I hope to complete. Sometimes I read through the list, see the checkmarks and the projects still coming up or in progress, and I feel excited and accomplished. This is how I like to engage with my goals – always a longer list than I can finish, because it is joyful to do the work that I love.
But many times, and especially at the end of the month and the end of the year when I assess what I accomplished in comparison to what I hoped to accomplish. In those moments, I see everything outstanding and I feel a sharp mix of shame for being so ambitious and shame for not getting enough done. Shame squared. This is nothow I like to engage with my goals, but so often, that’s what ends up happening.
A couple weeks ago, I posted an invitation to contribute to a conversation on this topic.
The new year is coming!!
Some of us (I absolutely do speak of myself here) end up being aggressively recruited into the whole “New Years Resolution” thing, with all the pressure and guilt and shame and excitement and joy and enthusiasm that entails.
I sat down with my journal for a couple hours this afternoon and spent some time starting to plan out my year, and I was so conscious of the pressures of capitalism, ableism, and individualism in my thinking.
At this time of year, we can be influenced by discourses that say all we have to do is “dream it,” and when that doesn’t work, we can end up feeling like we’ve failed. And! At the same time! We can end up feeling powerless and hopeless in the face of dreams that feel entirely unattainable.
If you are a goal setter and year planner, how do you navigate that process?
I want to put together a small collective document to bring some community care to this process that often ends up feeling so individual.
Send me your thoughts about surviving the goal setting season! Comment, send a message, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send your comments in by December 19, so I can have the post ready to go by December 21!
Image description: A to-do list with a pen. (Surviving) 2019 Goal Setting. What we want to accomplish and how we handle the pressure. A little collective document project.
I loved the responses.
Lindsay’s comment echoed my own experiences. She shared, “I find this so challenging. Knowing how much I did not get done has started to push me to stop setting goals, because it is starting to feel futile and like the goals just create undue pressure and guilt – SO not the effect I’m seeking! But I love goal setting and when it feels positive, it’s SO good! I am trying to shift my perspective by tracking “achievements” daily. Some days this might be “took a rest day” or “cooked a healthy meal.” And then there are times where it’ll be “ran in a 10K race” or “presented at my first conference.” I think I need to look back and see that I’ve made positive movements, even if they didn’t always match or meet my goals.”
How do we balance the joy and motivation that can come from recognizing the positive effects of our actions, and the progress in our lives, with the invitations to failure that can come with certain practices of goal-setting?
Or do we even need to “balance” these, which might imply that the preferred state would be to have both in some kind of equilibrium. Is there a way that we can decline to participate in the comparisons and expectations?
Can we find a new way to talk about goals, accomplishments, success and failure?
Some folks had ideas!
Emma shared, “I’m planning on levelling up in a few areas and gaining a new skill or 3 or 5 💗 I’ve got some talent points to carefully spend this year. Increase my damage against the patriarchy. Day to day stuff ya know. This way of looking at it helps me hide my terror at another year of gardening and canning but this year with a 6-month-old! This isn’t just a new year thing, it’s been a way of looking at my overall healing as well.”
The idea of approaching healing as a game, particularly as a roleplaying game that gives you the opportunity to put your “skill points” into areas that you choose, is so delightful and interesting.
It has me wondering about things like what might become possible if we imagined our goal setting projects as quests in a game? Would might shift in our sense of “self” if we imagined ourselves as characters, with skillsets that we could increase through experience points and choice?
If you were playing a game of your life, what class of character would you be? A ranger, a paladin, a rogue, a healer, a warrior? Would you be multi-classed?
(Because my little cream-coloured notebook needs more projects, a thought occurs to me: If I put together a collective document or project on the topic of roleplaying games and their role in our lives, would you want to participate? Let me know!)
Rachel also had an idea about the format of goal-setting. She shared:
Just the act of listing goals in a bullet point list (how most people do it) leads to a total and complete loss of proportion.
Here’s one goal I have for next year next to my major focus goal from this past year:
- Learn to cook squid
- Find a post-doctoral job
Those are not the same size at all. The time/number of steps/degree of complexity/degree of that being under my actual control at all are entirely different. But they are the exact same amount of space on a list. So that’s something I will be being careful of in the New Year.
This has me curious – have you found ways to format your documentation of goals so that it’s more representative than a bullet-point list? How do you create the document of your goals?
A couple folks said that reflecting on accomplishments rather than setting new goals was helpful for them.
Dottie shared, “I never know what my life is gonna be like that far in advance so I never know what a realistic goal even looks like lol I am queen of the short term goals. ‘Gonna put my laundry away.’ ‘I hope I can make a pear crisp before these pears go bad but who knows!’ ‘Gonna look back in awe at everything I’ve managed to accomplish.’ ‘Gonna set things aside when I don’t have spoons to finish.’”
This last piece – “gonna set things aside when I don’t have spoons to finish” – feels so important.
Have you ever been able to set something aside because you don’t have spoons to finish? How did you learn to do that?
Richelle also uses reflection as a tool. And her idea turned into the ten-day group that has been running since the 21st! (You can find more information in this facebook album, and you can still join by sending me an email.)
Richelle shared, “I want to do a New Years count down – my top 10 things I’m proud of this year. The pressure to look forward can be overwhelming and I think I want to celebrate what I already am. If media gets to fill time to let staff chill by repeating the awesome that’s happened this year, why can’t I?”
Speaking of chilling…
Shawny shared, “I like to keep it silly/small. Two years ago my resolution was “wear a bra as little as possible.” I met it! It worked great! I’m back to bras, but it was a wonderful year. This year my resolution is “wash my hands more.” It’s also a nice subversion tactic when people ask, especially as a person in a fat body who gets bombarded with extra toxic weight loss goals.”
Rei shared the role of Hygge in helping them work through the process of 2019 goal-planning:
I had a bit of a “lightbulb” moment the other night and a lot of my goal planning for 2019 kind of all fell into place, and along with it, coherent enough thoughts to send something in to you about the goal setting collective document!
I’ll say that I don’t like the idea of “new year’s resolutions” because they tend to set up extremely specific and often unattainable goals that we’ll feel incredibly guilty over when we inevitably fall short. But I do like to pick a couple of key things or areas of my life that I really want to focus on throughout the coming months (I can always adjust course whenever I need to, and I often do reevaluate my goals throughout the year).
My lightbulb moment started with Hygge. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the Danish concept of Hygge (could be roughly translated to coziness, comfort, connection, safety, warmth, and a lot of other related and much more nuanced concepts if you’re not familiar with the term). I really enjoy the idea of exploring Hygge as a way to connect in a spiritual sort of way with my Scandinavian roots and so I know that’s something I want to focus on as one of my goals for 2019. My next step after the main goal is to brainstorm and list a few ways in which to accomplish that goal. I always keep these things as flexible items I can work on over time rather than hard and fast things that NEED to get done so as to realistically honor what my chronically ill self is capable of. While I was listing things to work on to incorporate Hygge into my 2019, I started to think more about what I wanted my life to look like all around, and settled on a couple more areas I want to focus on, mainly Art & Writing, certain organizational/responsibilities based things, and a general sense of self projected through activities and aesthetics. I won’t get into all the details, but I planned out those areas briefly using the same steps as above.
I like to keep my lists, main goals, and sub goals, in a planner or journal to refer back to throughout the year. I can then make more specific goals that are relevant to my schedule and energy needs each day/week/month and so on.
I know that this kind of planning and goal setting probably won’t appeal to everyone, but I very much like the idea of goal setting as a way to try and create a life I love in realistic ways. Ways that honor my capabilities and acknowledge my chronic illness and limitations. It gives me a sense of control when so much of my life is outside of my control, while being realistic about it all so as not to slip into the victim blaming mindset of “if only I come up with the exact right systems and exact right steps and goals I can accomplish anything DESPITE my illness, and if I haven’t then I must not be trying hard enough.” As anyone with chronic illness will know, there are a lot of things I wish I could do that are just not doable in my life as it is, so this method helps me focus on what IS doable to try and create more happiness in my life. A rejection of toxic positivity, and a focus on the realistic and what actually works.
I’ll also mention that I find it very helpful to use the “Life Pie” system from Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” in order to assess various areas of my life and figure out what kind of goals might be helpful to focus on. Though I tweak the categories she uses as “work” in the traditional sense doesn’t apply to my circumstances, and so on.
I appreciate both Rei and Dottie for disability and chronic illness into the conversation, and Shawny for bringing the specific concerns facing folks in larger bodies. Each of the contributors to this small projects bring their own intersections – racialized, queer, trans, disabled, fat, poor. I’m so thankful for that diversity. I am so thankful for my communities.
I’m ending this post with the work of a fellow narrative practitioner, Daria Kutuzova.
In her phenomenal work on “Hijacking the New Year and Other Practices of Anti-Depression,” Daria describes how depression uses “celebration” as triggers, and offers suggestions for an alternate approach. You can find her slideshow here. This section is paraphrased from her work.
Some of her observations about how Depression sneaks in:
– “Taking stock” of the past year (practices of comparison)
– Anticipated lack of the “miracle of renewal”
– Anticipation of things getting worse in the coming year
One of her suggestions is a Tree of the Year exercise as an antidote to these triggers. Here are the questions associated with the Tree of the Year.
– What did you come into the past year with? What was the focus of your attention then?
– Which of your skills and character strengths supported you most through the last year? What new skills have you learned this year?
– Into which projects and relationships have you been putting your time, energy and heart during the last year?
– What were the most magical, sparkling and meaningful moments of the last year?
– What were your successes in the last year, however small or big? What are you proud of?
– What did you pleasantly surprise yourself with in the last year? What good things didn’t you expect, but they happened anyway?
– What gifts have you received in the last year – from people and from life in general?
– What have you lost, had to let go of or had to put on pause in the last year?
– Who has been a really good friend to you in the last year? With whom would you like to celebrate?
– What are your dreams for the coming year? What are your wishes for yourself?
– What were the good habits that you tried to learn/create in your life during the last year, that did not fully “stick”, but while you were doing the routines, it was good?
If we abandon the idea of writing grand, “all or nothing” New Year resolutions, if we decide not to force ourselves into committing fully to doing something for the whole year, but instead look for shorter time increments (a week, a month at the most), which good routines would you like to try in the coming year?
If you find any of these suggestions, reflections, or exercises helpful, I would love to hear about it, and would be happy to pass your reflections on to the contributors.