Has your experience of relationship exclusivity (monogamy and non-monogamy, but also types of exclusivity within either monogamous or non-monogamous relationships) shifted multiple times?
Would you like to talk about it?
I’m putting together the beginning of a narrative project on this topic, and will be scheduling one group conversation and up to 5 individual conversations between now and November 15.
Depending on how these conversations go and whether there is interest, I will be organizing a six-week narrative practice group where we can explore and re-story our experiences of changing relationship structures. This group will be scheduled for the new year.
My goal is to better understand how people experience fluidity in relationship structure preference over time. I think that within polyamorous spaces there is often the idea that there is an ideal (and linear) trajectory from monogamy to a specific form of polyamory.
I’m interested in talking about this, especially since I think for folks who have a different trajectory (such as returning to exclusivity, or having relationship structure preference expand and then contract, or preferring exclusivity in one area of a relationship even if there is non-exclusivity in another), there can be feelings of shame or failure attached to this.
If this sounds interesting to you, let me know! Email me at sostarselfcare @ gmail, and watch this space for the group conversation information.
Editing to add: The group conversation has been scheduled for November 7 from 11-12:30 mountain time, and will be hosted on Zoom. Contact me for registration info!
Back in 2018 I presented at a conference that was also organized by my delightful and brilliant metamour, Pedrom Nasiri.
This presentation, on the topic of narrative therapy and polyamory, is going to be featured in an upcoming free online course that the Dulwich Centre will be offering! That’s pretty cool! I am sharing it here, as well.
If this is a topic that interests you, you may want to participate in tonight’s (March 18, 2021, from 6:30-8 mountain time) Possibilities Bi+ Community conversation on polyamory. You can register for the zoom link here. If you’d like to be involved in the project mentioned in this presentation, which is still in process, please get in touch with me!
(And I’m also going to come back to the project I talk about here, which got backburnered for a few years. The first nudge back in this direction will be in the Possibilities event this month, on the topic of polyamory. Mark March 18 in your calendar if you’re into that! And I’ll have a post up soon with all the March events.)
Here’s the video!
Here’s the transcript, if you’re more of a reader than a video watcher. (Plus the audio is not great – sorry!)
This conference is taking place on the traditional territories of the Niitsitapi, the Blackfoot, and the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta, which includes the Siksika, the Piikani, the Kainai, the Tsuut’ina and the Stoney Nakoda First Nations, including Chiniki, Bearpaw, and Wesley First Nations. This land, traditionally called Mohkinstsis by the Blackfoot people, is now called The City of Calgary, and is also home to Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III.
Hi. I’m Tiffany.
And first I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this Treaty 7 land and the Indigenous Elders of the past, present, and those that are emerging.
This presentation is about narrative therapy, and it’s also about polyamory. We cannot talk about monogamy, polyamory, or ideas of kinship without acknowledging how ongoing colonialism shows up in these relational norms, as Pedrom talked about at the beginning. The nuclear family, with its focus on monogamous and couple-centric families, is a sharp contrast to the extended kin groups that many societies cherished prior to colonization and that they have maintained after colonization. The colonial project has never been successful – there has always been resistance. An awareness of colonialism, and the cohort of harmful ideologies that often accompany it, which is sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, transantagonism, racism, and others – is critical for talking about how to do therapy that is justice-oriented.
I also want to specifically acknowledge the Indigenous and Australian Aboriginal narrative therapists – the influence that they’ve had on the field and on my practice particularly. I am particularly indebted to Barbara Wingard whose writings have helped my work with community members invite “telling our stories in ways that make us stronger,” and to Tileah Drahm-Butler, whose work on identity migration and ethics of welcome have allowed me to understand and co-research the shifting landscape of relationship orientations that many of my community members go through, and also to Kylie Dowse whose work on “thwarting shame” in responding to men who have used violence in their relationships has been formative for me in responding to abuse within polycules, regardless of the gender of the people involved.
This presentation is about how to support polyamorous community members using narrative therapy, and it’s also about what narrative therapy can learn from the polyamorous community. I think that there is the potential to co-create resources and practice innovations that can benefit both therapists and also the community members who consult us, and my goal is to invite the community into an ongoing co-research project with me.
This presentation is, at its core, an invitation for you to join me in this project, with the goal of creating resources and conversations that can push the field of narrative therapy forward, and that can help develop more supports for polyamorous community members, whether they’re practicing solo poly, relationship anarchy, whether they’re in quads or Vs or the triads that Lindsay will be speaking about later, whether they’re parenting, and supports that recognize that many intersections of identity that exist within polyamory are also influenced by what happens by what happens outside of polyamory. Because these intersections do show up in polyamorous relationships, as we’ve heard earlier today; that neurodivergence panel was fantastic, a lack of responsiveness and awareness on the part of professionals can contribute to injustice, isolation, and struggle for people who are dealing with polyamory and with other intersections that can be amplified within their polyamory.
Okay, so, what is narrative therapy?
According to Shona Russell and Maggie Carey, they define narrative therapy as:
Narrative therapy seeks to be a respectful, non-blaming approach to counselling and community work, which centres people as the experts in their own lives. It views problems as separate from people and assumes people have many skills, competencies, beliefs, values, commitments and abilities that will assist them to reduce the influence of problems in their lives.
I don’t know why I’m so nervous, but I super am.
[Audience support follows]
Okay, so this is an important therapeutic orientation when working with the polyamorous community, because so often, folks can feel destabilized, disoriented, and uncertain about how to navigate their polyamorous relationships. There are fewer maps available. We don’t see ourselves very often in books, in movies, TV shows, or in the media, and when we do, the representation available is pretty narrow.
But narrative therapy assumes that people have many skills, competencies, beliefs, and values – many insider knowledges – that they are already using in responding to the problems in their lives. In my work with polyamorous community members, I have seen this over and over. Even when people don’t have the language immediately available to them, they have the insider knowledges into what works and what doesn’t, what they cherish and what they stand against. People are already the experts in their own experiences.
This presentation is based on work that I’ve been doing over the last year, as part of a Masters of Narrative Therapy and Community Work program at the University of Melbourne and the Dulwich Centre. My work has centered around a few key questions:
● What do narrative therapists need to know about polyamory?
● How can these knowledges inform narrative practice?
● Which polyamory-informed narrative practices will be most influential in therapeutic relationships?
● How can these polyamorous-informed narrative practices be shared with other narrative therapists?
This last point is really important to me because I believe that polyamorous communities and individuals have valuable insider knowledges that could benefit the field of narrative therapy even beyond work specifically with polyamorous community members. This belief is supported by existing work on the topic of monogamies and non-monogamies, and the fluid and malleable boundaries between these two relationship states (Barker, 2011).
So, polyamory and monogamy are not a binary, after all. And many of the insider knowledges that have been developed within polyamorous communities, especially around consent, communication, valuing autonomy, community care, and collaborative approaches to responding to the needs of individuals, children, and extended families could benefit monogamous individuals as well.
Within polyamory specifically, I think that narrative therapy has the potential to significantly shift some of the norms within polyamorous discourse. I am particularly interested in exploring, deconstructing, and re authoring the norms that end up internalising problems; locating the problem within people by framing things like jealousy, insecurity, and anxiety as individual problems that can, and should, be solved by people on their own rather than problems that are external to people, with solutions that are contextual and collaborative.
By shifting our orientation towards problems, we can talk about jealousy as something that shows up in someone’s life, rather than something that is inherent to that person. I have never spoken with a person who is “a jealous person” and has never had exceptions to that problem story in their lives. These totalising narratives always have gaps, exceptions, and we start talking about what people cherish and value for themselves that the jealousy might be getting in the way of, and how they’ve been responding to this jealousy so far. And we can really start to loosen the hold that these problems have on people’s lives. And we can also invite other community members in, to present a united front that stands against the problem. This is a very different scenario than what can happen when we internalise problems, and when standing against the problem means standing against the person who is most being pushed around by it.
Externalising problems that are strengthened by mono-normative discourses, especially when we’re talking about jealousy, can be really powerful for polyamorous folks. We’ve already taken a strong stand against monogamous discourses that don’t align with our values. We already have experience, and valuable histories of action, that can help us in responding to problems when they show up.
By this, I mean that we’ve chosen not to cooperate with certain cultural ideals that dictate that we should find a single partner, that we should have a sexual and romantic relationship with this partner, that we should devote our entire lives to this partner, have all of our needs met by and meet all of the needs of this partner, and that if we love anyone else, we are cheating or have betrayed this partner. This does not mean that we have taken a stand against monogamy, because none of these norms are inherent to monogamy except the single partner bit, arguably, depending on how you define ‘partner’.
So what I mean is that we have taken a stand against certain monogamous norms. Sometimes these norms are referred to as “toxic monogamy”. And it’s important to be clear about that, because just as I wouldn’t want to locate a problem within a person, I also want to take a note from Sekneh Hammoud-Beckett, a Muslim-Australian narrative therapist, and be clear that the problem is not internal to the person, it is also not internal to the relationship, to the culture, or to the community. We can resist or challenge elements of monogamy without assuming that monogamy is itself a problem.
So when we can tap into the existing skills and values that have allowed us to stand against monogamous norms that we don’t agree with, we can approach problems like jealousy or insecurity from a position of stability. In narrative therapy, this is called “finding the riverbank” – if you’re in the river and there are snakes and crocodiles all around you, it’s very hard to figure out what you’re going to do about this. You’re just trying to keep your head above water. And this is often what it feels like when jealousy shows up and dunks us. By finding some solid ground to stand on, we can see the river from a bit of distance. We might be able to see a way through that wasn’t apparent before. And we might find that some of the crocodiles are actually logs.
[Fourth slide] Narrative Relationship Therapy
So Jill Freedman and Gene Combs, writing specifically about narrative relationship therapy, say:
We are all born into cultural stories, and they shape our perceptions of what is possible. For [relationships], stories about gender roles and heterosexual dominance, for example, may shape perceptions of what is possible. However, people do not usually think of the stories they are born into as stories. They think of them as ‘reality’. Cultural stories have the power to shape our experience of reality.
We think of relationships as being multi-storied. That is, every relationship can be expressed and experienced through a great variety of narratives; many ‘true’ stories can be told about any experience. Therefore, we do not look for health or pathology or quality of functioning in [relationships]. Instead, we look at the stories that are currently shaping a relationship, and seek to facilitate a collaborative re authoring process in which more suitable stories can be expressed and experienced.
So when we’re talking about the problems that show up in the lives and relationships of many polyamorous folks, many of these problems are strengthened by stories – which end up seeming to be reality; about what love looks like, and what’s possible within relationships. Culturally, we have ideas about what it means to parent, and it doesn’t usually include metamours. We have these ideas about what’s “developmentally appropriate” for children, and because of discourses that hypersexualise queer, trans, and polyamorous folks, polyamorous is framed as being “bad for the kids”. We have ideas about what it means to be in love, and even if we have taken a stand against some monogamous norms, we may find ourselves on the relationship escalator, waiting for that next logical step.
And maybe that works for us, but maybe we’ve already ridden that escalator with one partner, and we’re living together and we’ve got kids together, and then suddenly there’s a new person in our lives and we need to figure out if the escalator is still something we’re going to choose. If not, what are our options? What do we want?
Narrative therapy offers suggestions for how to approach this. We can explore the stories that are currently shaping the relationships, and start co-researching together.
● What matters to you in this relationship?
● What do you cherish or value about this relationship?
● Who taught you to cherish these things?
● Who supports you in these values?
● Do your partners share these values, a lot, a little bit, or not at all?
● How are you navigating that?
● What does it say about who you are, that you hold these values?
And even beyond exploring the ways in which dominant monogamous discourses influence the lives of polyamorous community members, I wonder what would become possible if we examined some of the stories that are frequently told within polyamorous culture.
As much as polyamorous community members have often written new rules for ourselves when it comes to relationships, we are still influenced by dominant culture.
[Fifth slide] Cultures of Therapy and of Polyamory
This list of principles is adapted from Michael White’s writing in “Notes on power and the culture of therapy”, and I try to be guided in my work by these principles. They are that:
● The cultures of therapy and of polyamory do not have a privileged location outside of culture at large.
● The cultures of therapy and of polyamory are not exempt from the structures and ideologies of dominant culture.
● The cultures of therapy and of polyamory are not exempt from the politics of gender, race, class, age, ethnicity, heterosexism, transantagonism, ableism, ongoing colonialism, etcetera.
● The cultures of therapy and of polyamory are not exempt from the politics associated with hierarchies of knowledge and the politics of marginalisation*
*And that’s particularly important because even though narrative therapy explicitly and intentionally takes a position that people are the experts in their own lives, as a narrative therapist, I am still influenced by the dominant discourse of therapy as something that includes an expert therapist and a client. I internationally never use the word ‘client’ when I’m talking about the people that I work with, because I wanna destabilise that, but it still shows up in the therapy room; it still has to be challenged intentionally every time it shows up.
So this – all of this [gestures at the slide on display] – became very apparent to me when I began this project, because it was the first thing that came up when I began my community consultations.
[Sixth slide] Consulting Community Members
And what I did was I asked members of the community to tell me what I needed to know, basically.
[Seventh slide] Community-assigned Areas of Focus
So, in these consultations, which are ongoing, I met with community members who were not looking for therapeutic help but did have ideas about what narrative therapists (and other therapists) should know about polyamory. I wanted to hear from people who had experience with seeking out therapy or counselling, and who had insider knowledge about what was, and wasn’t, helpful.
These are some of the topics that community members brought up. They suggested that I needed to know about:
● How to help people strengthen connections to histories of choice and agency
● I need to figure out how to invite stories of resistance and declining to cooperate with non-preferred monogamous norms
● I needed to figure out how to make visible the harm of marginalising discourses within polycules, particularly:
○ Hetero and cis-normativity
● I needed to figure out how to help people strengthen their connection to preferred values and
● Address abuse within polycules
● And I needed to figure out and understand couples privilege, which is the hierarchical norms that privilege married, domiciled, or pre-existing couples over non-married, non-domiciled, or newer relationships.
All of this work is informed by a strong ethic of collaboration. The polyamorous community has faced significant marginalisation, and this marginalisation has been differentially felt. I have not experienced all of the marginalisations that are felt by people in the polyamorous community. So I needed help figuring some of that stuff out, and I need ongoing help in that.
Black, Indigenous, and racialized polyamorous community members face an intersection of racism and mononormativity; disabled community members face an intersection of ableism and mononormativity; queer and trans community members face mononormativity intersecting with transantagonism and heteronormativity, or an assumption of non-monogamy based on stereotypes of queer promiscuity.
And yet, community members advise that these intersections are often unacknowledged in therapy sessions. All of these intersections, and many others, must be accounted for in the research process, or the work runs the risk of cooperating with dominant discourses that cause considerable harm. This is in line with other narrative projects, like Salome Raheim’s “invitation to address privilege and dominance”.
So with this information, I started wondering: How can these knowledges inform narrative practice? That was the second step.
[Eighth slide] Case Studies and Strengthening Community Wisdom into Practice
These are some of the areas where I’m trying to bring these insights into practice, I’m not gonna talk much about beginning polyamory, although that is in an area where I’m doing quite a bit of work. I want to focus on the last three, mostly in the interest of time:
So, polyamorous families, which we’ve talked quite a bit about today.
Parenting outside the box is often challenging. Parenting inside the box is also challenging, considering the unreasonable expectations placed on parents, particularly mothers, regardless of whether they are cisgender or transgender; whether they are biological or not. “The box” might include many different dimensions, but most often it is the way that parenthood is assumed to be the domain of people – most often women – who are heterosexual, cisgender, abled, neurotypical, monogamous, and biologically related to their children.
Speaking as a non-binary, non-procreative, bisexual, polyamorous stepparent, these pressures came down hard as soon as I started spending time in public with my nesting partner and his two children. This experience, of suddenly finding ourselves defined primarily in relation to the children we parent, is one that many of my community members also describe experiencing.
Narrative therapy offers helpful practices, particularly around deconstructing discourse, strengthening connection to cherished values and hopes, and inviting families, including extended kin networks, to ‘join together’ (Newman, 2010) in responding to the problem. Every polycule is unique, and I try to bring a spirit of curiosity to these narrative conversations (Freedman, 2002).
The social challenges and pressures facing polyamorous parents are often strengthened by the lack of language and available narratives for understanding polyamorous parenting. In this way, it is similar to any other step or blended or extended family. As Lisa Doodson (2016) notes:
Not only do we struggle as a society to define a stepfamily but also individuals often fail to identify themselves with the definition. Thus stepfamilies are often unacknowledged and unrecognized in society. It could be argued that a general negative perception of stepfamilies and stepparents can lead to a reluctance to identify oneself as part of a stepfamily and this, in turn, will perpetuate the under-representation.
These “negative assumptions” that she talks about can be compounded for polyamorous families, because there are negative assumptions associated both with stepfamilies/stepparents, and also with polyamorous individuals.
There are also sometimes fears of overstepping a boundary. For example, some of my community members have expressed concern over self-identifying as a stepparent in a polyamorous context, particularly if they have taken on parenting responsibilities within a family that still includes multiple biological (or pre-established) parents.
If there are already two parents parenting together, then is another adult in a parental role a stepparent? A live-in nanny? An occasional babysitter? An amorphous blob of emotional energy floating through the children’s lives?
This last is a joke, but it also reflects a real dynamic that I have seen in multiple polyamorous parenting situations, where the newer parent or parents, even after moving in or becoming significantly involved in childcare responsibilities, do not have any easily available label. The lack of accessible naming can invite problems into the relationship, because it can be, as one community member articulated, destabilizing.
There are all of the complexities of stepparenting, which is already a role fraught with expectation, assumption, and frequent invalidation, but without even the thin social acceptance that comes with “real” stepparenting: much of the responsibility, little of the social acknowledgement. If we are constructed in and through our relationships, as narrative therapy would suggest, then the labels and titles available to us make a difference in how we are able to construct ourselves in relation to the children that we parent.
This means that one focus of my work with polyamorous families involves deconstructing discourses around parenthood and family. For many community members, this involves specifically deconstructing discourses of motherhood, because of pressures felt by women and non-binary folks who are read as women are so deeply rooted in pervasive cultural narratives. Spoiler alert: misogyny!
I have found it useful to use questions like:
● Who taught you what it means to be a mother or a parent?
● Who is able to be in this role?
● Have you seen people in this role that you might not expect? Would they also be called mothers or parents?
● Does this definition of motherhood or parenthood feel like it aligns with your own values?
● Are there ways that you resist this definition of motherhood or parenthood?
● Are there ways that you enjoy this definition?
● Are there other words for this kind of caregiving role?
There are so many ways in which polyamorous families are strong, supported and supportive. One of the most important goals of my work with polyamorous families is to uncover the histories of the skills and values that are helping them navigate what is often a joyful, messy, rewarding part of their lives. Sometimes this joy can be obscured by the lack of structural support and by all the ways we get pushed around by monogamous discourses and fears for our kids. Strengthening connections to people’s values, hopes, dreams, skills, and insider knowledges can be helpful.
Narrative therapy with unsupportive family members.
One of the problems that many polyamorous community members are struggling with is unsupportive family members. This is particularly true when children are involved and grandparents are very worried.
Narrative therapy offers tools for responding to this. Many of these are adapted from work that I’ve had the privilege of witnessing at the Gender Health Centre in Sacramento, to help families of trans youth find ways to join together to support their young person despite their own fears and the ways they’re being influenced by transphobic discourses. This is also influenced by the work of Sekneh Hammoud-Beckett; she works with queer and gender diverse Muslim youth and their families in Australia.
In both of these spaces, one of the most powerful responses has been to search for gaps in the problem. So if the problem is that the parent is unable to see a positive way forward for the child, or the parent is unable to loosen the grip of the discourses that have a hold on them or are pushing them around, either transphobic discourses, or mononormative discourses, queerphobic discourses; there are always gaps. Problems are never as solid as they first appear to be. So parents or family members who are being influenced by transphobic discourses might have experienced the pressure of rigid gender norms themselves. Have they ever felt restricted by this? How did they respond? What let them know that a response was possible? It’s actually because of the way that rigid gender norms work; it is impossible to find a person who has ever succeeded at meeting those norms all the time throughout their life. And so at every point where they have not succeeded in meeting that norm, there’s an opportunity to talk about what was happening there, and bring that into a conversation about how they support their trans family members. Same thing with monogamy because the ideal of monogamy is this impossible standard that no one has ever been able to meet at all times, in all ways. So there’s always an opening, you just have to sometimes really dig for it.
So this can also be true when we’re talking about polyamory. Even many folks who are fully in alignment with the most rigid definitions of monogamy, have resisted cultural norms, either in monogamy or in other ways. Those stories can be a gateway to understanding and joining together.
It can also be helpful to explore their hopes for their family member. Why are they afraid of their family member practicing polyamory? What does this fear say about what they want for their family member or what they hope for their member? If they “just think it’s wrong”, who told them it was wrong, and have they ever questioned this authority?
At a recent presentation, Sekneh said that her work with the families of queer and gender diverse Muslim youth often takes years. In my own journey with my mom, who has struggled with my polyamory, this makes sense to me. However, I now have a great relationship with my mom and she knows all of my partners, and narrative therapy offers tools that can make this a bit easier than some of that struggle.
Responding to abuse within polycules.
I left this to last. This is the one that I am most passionate about in my work. It’s also the one where I see the least amount of literature. There is very little writing that addresses abuse within non-monogamy. Tonnes of writing about abuse, a growing body of writing about non-monogamy. I have not seen that intersection addressed specifically, and I think it’s really important.
In my work so far, I have noticed that there are polyamorous folks whose experiences of suffering abuse are minimized or made invisible through reliance on the individualising and pathologising narratives that have been taken up within polyamorous discourse. What I mean by that is that if someone is experiencing abuse and it doesn’t fit into a narrative that we have available to us, it can be way too easy to locate the problem in the person, and that this actually happens fairly often, and that pathologising discourses…I should have a spoiler on this subtext, or maybe I should just follow my script. Anyway, I’m gonna talk about it. I am curious as to how existing narrative practices can be adapted to respond to abuse in polycules.
I wonder: could a group be formed, and accountability circles be used in ways that adapt the work of Michael White, Kylie Dowse, and Kiwi Tamasese of the Just Therapy group. In my specific context, this seems daunting because I do not work with an agency, and I have already encountered the difficulties of engaging in open discussion of abuse in polyamorous contexts. So Kiwi Tamasese, who I just name dropped there, she worked with the Just Therapy team in New Zealand. They had a project called the “Stop Abuse” project, that responded to I believe it was a radio interview, and someone said something about the high rates of abuse within Polynesian, or Pacific Islander communities, and so the Just Therapy team heard this, and thought well, our community is not actually more abusive than any other community. The problem is not racialised communities being more abusive than other communities, and also there is abuse that happens within our racialised community.
On the Stop Abuse project, they were responding to abuse within the community and harmful stereotypes about the community, so the polyamorous community is also contending with both within-community and about-community challenges. We need to find a way to respond to abuse within polycules that doesn’t end up or that resists easily being weaponised against the polyamorous community.
I’m also curious, how can abuse be named and acknowledged when it is experienced by “secondary” or non-domiciled partners? There are so many discourses that suggest these partners should be “happy with what they’re offered” or that they “knew what they were signing up for,” and these discourses are present in discussion groups, they’re present online, and they’re present among many therapists. If you want an example of that, Franklin Veaux, in his book The Gamechanger (2015), talks about a response that a therapist had to a secondary partner bringing up concerns with being treated in rally dehumanising ways, and the therapist saying well, didn’t you know what you were signing up for?
I’m also curious, how can this work address the particular vulnerabilities of “unicorns” (bisexual often women, often younger than the established couple, who are often brought into the polyamorous context at financial disadvantage), or other vulnerable community members who often end up in “secondary” roles? This is a particular struggle for me, because I find the language of hierarchical polyamory, particularly the “primary”/”secondary” thing really challenging, and in sessions where that language is introduced, I have to work pretty hard to maintain a narrative stance rather than centering myself.
I’m also interested in how couples privilege can be addressed in narrative ways. I have done some work in this area, adapting learning from my time interviewing therapists at the Gender Health Centre. David Nylund, who works there, suggested starting a narrative session by asking questions that encourage descriptions of why people chose polyamory and what they value about polyamory. In my discussions with folks I have noticed that “ethics,” “consent,” and “freedom” are words that are used often. So this can then become a framework for discussing whether their actions within the polycule align with these stated values, and asking questions that elicit stories of times when they have acted in alignment with these values.
How can issues of race, class, neurodivergence, and ability be addressed in this work? And how can abuse be discussed in ways that acknowledge how abuse experienced within the polyamorous context may be an extension of violence experienced in everyday life? This feels particularly important, and is one of the points that came up again and again in my interviewing folks about what they wished therapists knew about polyamory. A strong grasp of intersectionality and how intersections of marginalization and privilege operate within polyamorous contexts was a key requirement, and one that many folks had experienced as lacking in their experiences of relationship therapy up to that point.
I have seen that this intersection of polyamory and abuse can occur in a couple areas. I’m going to talk particularly about racism and ableism. Regarding racism – racism within polycules is quite common. Abusive behaviours rooted in racism are so commonplace in many polyamorous communities that it is, to quote another community member, “terrible but not unexpected.” I think that Kiwi Tamasese’s work can be adapted to this context, because we’re working on addressing ‘justice across cultures’ (White, 2007).
It can also occur in relation to ableism, where individualising narratives can serve to isolate chronically ill or disabled folks, and narratives of emotional labour can be weaponised against community members who have more or different needs than their partners. Ableist abuse is particularly insidious in polyamorous contexts, where individualizing narratives have taken root so strongly. Although polyamory offers hope and opportunities for community engagement and support, this hope can only be realized when internalised and structural ableism is addressed directly. Opening up conversations about what support looks like, how folks might value support, and challenging individualist discourses has been an important part of my narrative work with disabled polyamorous community members and their partners.
Polyamorous communities are often cut off from mental health supports, and are legitimately invested in maintaining an image of “an ethics based on honesty, respectful negotiation and decision making, integrity, reciprocity and equality” (Klesse, 2011). Polyamorous folks are, as Kevin Patterson in Love is not Colorblindphrases it, in a position of “forced ambassadorship,” where quote: “[t]he structure of your relationships, the success or failure of your relationships, and even your demeanor within those relationships will be used as an example by monogamous people talking about polyamory amongst themselves…forever” (2018). Facing considerable discrimination from both society at large and many therapists who are “under-educated about the lives and needs of polyamorous people” (Weitzman, 2006), polyamorous folks are often hesitant to speak with their therapists about their polyamory.
I think that this will be a particular challenge in adapting narrative practices to my work with polyamorous communities – how can I create spaces that invite conversation about experiences of abuse (both using abuse and experiencing abuse) in ways that “thwart shame” (Dowse, 2017), which is such a silencing factor, that name abuse and invite a breaking from its effects (White, 1995a), and that engage folks in rich explorations of how they have been recruited into abusive behaviours and how they have resisted (White, 2011). There are already barriers to speaking out about abuse, and narrative therapists have already been engaging with undermining and subverting and getting around some of these barriers. I suspect that these barriers are amplified in some polyamorous contexts and we would need to do some additional work to bring some of that good work that’s happened in narrative therapy already. To bring it into polyamorous contexts, we’ll need a bit of extra work.
Folks can sometimes expect less support from friends, family, and professionals when experiencing abuse within polyamorous contexts. If the partner using abuse is a nesting or married partner, the practice of polyamory can be blamed as the trigger for the abuse. Polyamory, like bisexuality, can invite what one narrative therapist called “the wild reputation that might have meant people wouldn’t believe me” (Kate, 1999) in terms of describing abuse. And when the partner using abuse is a satellite, secondary, or non-domiciled partner, the same victim-blaming rhetoric of “why don’t you just leave” or end a relationship can be amplified by monogamous-normative discourses that frame polycules as inherently unstable, less committed, less loving, etcetera.
It is already perceived that is is “easy” to leave an abusive partner, despite all evidence to the contrary, and this can be exacerbated in polyamorous contexts. What polyamorous folks want when seeking a resolution to the abuse may not be to “just leave.” Although she writes specifically about marginalised women, Amanda Burgess-Proctor’s work seems relevant to marginalized folks of all genders who have experienced abuse. She says: “Obviously, all women desire cessation of abuse. However, the prevailing assumption that women also wish to leave their abusive partners may not reflect the specific desires of certain battered women, including minority-group women” (Burgess-Proctor, 2008).
So there is complexity in polyamorous contexts. And in my own specific work, many of my community members are queer or trans. On that note of complexity, I wonder what is the role of a metamour in a polyamorous context when abuse is present? If a partner has witnessed or heard about their partner experiencing abuse from another partner, the maps for best action are scarce and confusing. This seems to me like an important area for learning and for working and for figuring out how we can invite collaborative action and community response to abuse in polyamorous contexts.
So one of the first times I presented at a conference was in 2013 at the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association’s first conversation. I spoke about the norm within polyamory to “not stick your hand in the crazy”; a phrase that had been used in a discussion group to describe the ways in which certain mental health challenges were understood to render people unfit to practice polyamory. I was a mental health advocate before I discovered polyamory, and I am exactly the types of crazy that were generally considered ‘unpolyamorable’. [laughs] So this norm did not align at all with my values. This norm still exists in many polyamorous contexts. One of my community members recently referenced the ‘rumour network’ that occurs within polyamorous communities, many of which are small and close knit. “So-and-so has Borderline; don’t date them!” is something that this community member has heard multiple times, and this has made their own experience of navigating, searching for a diagnosis and fearing a diagnosis particularly fraught. In contexts where a partner has been abused, and the abused partner has a diagnosis that falls under the ‘unpolyamorable’ category, their abuse may be minimised or dismissed and they may experience further isolation from communities that are often already small and dealing with the scarcity of social support resources.
At this point, it seems important to note the prevalence of Borderline Personality Disorder diagnoses, particularly among individuals who have experienced trauma. Even the research into this topic seems deeply embedded in pathologising discourses (Cattane, Rossi, Lanfredi, and Cattaneo, 2017). I see this diagnosis either formally offered by a mental health professional, or armchair diagnosed by friends, family or partners used to dismiss the experiences, particularly of polyamorous women, frequently in online spaces. And I also see this in the experiences of polyamorous women who consult with me. It is really important to note, and there has been research on this, that gender divide in who actually receives a Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis. Many of these folks seem to have been handed a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder despite this not being an easy or comprehensible fit for them (Druker, 2014). A BPD diagnosis is sometimes used to discount the insider knowledges or experiences of the individual who has been diagnosed. And this can leave these individuals more vulnerable to abuse and less able to access support. These patterns perpetuate the pathologising and controlling ways in which biomedical discourses have responded to “difficult women” (Dolman, 2015). There are always exceptions and resistances. I’m describing a problem, and so you know there are gaps in the problem.
People are always responding to and resisting the injustices in their lives. Two of my community members have self diagnosed as BPD and have found a significant amount of freedom and comfort in the diagnosis. Both of these individuals also use it as a partner selection tool, in this case weeding out the ableist jerks who can’t handle the diagnosis. I appreciate the skillful ways in which these individuals have taken a diagnosis that is often weaponised against vulnerable folks and turned it into a screening tool. Bringing a narrative stance into my session with these community members, and specifically maintaining an awareness that they are the experts in their experiences, and that they are already responding to injustices, allowed me to engage in conversations about BPD without cooperating with ableist discourses. That whole thing about how neither polyamory nor therapy are outside the culture is really real. It takes intentional effort to choose not to cooperate with harmful dominant discourses.
I’m just gonna side note here. These conversations with these two community members are slowly evolving into a collaborative project to create a resource that will be available for folks who identify with the Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis, and who want a resource that centres their voices. That’s probably not gonna happen until spring, probably. But anyway, if anyone here who self diagnosed, or has a diagnosis, or is interested in that project, you can get in touch with me, because I will be doing interviews with people to create this collaborative resource that centres BPD voices. They’re often really missing from discussions of borderline.
Individualizing discourses are incredibly powerful. The experience of anxiety, depression, jealousy, or other difficult emotion or mental health experience becomes disconnected from the context within which they occur, and fall so easily into alignment with norms such as “own your own feelings” or “take responsibility for yourself.” As one community member put it recently, while dealing with an experience of jealousy, “none of us want to be a bad poly people.” When these experiences impact the polycule, they can be framed as an imposition, a problem that exists within one person. One way I have adapted narrative practices within my context is to ask questions that elicit stories of times when the polycule has joined together, or might join together, to respond to the problem. Since all the members of the polycule are already responding to the problem, whether that’s by ignoring the person who is having the problem, throwing bath bombs at them, whatever it might look like; everyone in the polycule is already responding to the problem, which means that we can find ways to respond in more preferred ways to the problem. So it’s just a short jump over to “joining in with” the person experiencing the concern directly (Newman, 2010). So I have a long quote here from Michael White (1995b):
The discourses of pathology make it possible for us to ignore the extent to which the problems for which people seek therapy are the outcome of certain practices of relationship and practices of the self, many of which are actually informed by modern notions of “individualism.” And the discourses of pathology make it possible for us to ignore the extent to which the problems for which people seek help are so often mired in the structures of inequality of our culture, including those pertaining to gender, race, ethnicity, class, economics, age, and so on.
I think that’s really important whenever we’re talking about a diagnosis or pathology to think about whether we are cooperating with norms that make context invisible.
Within my own polycule and polyamorous community, many of us deal with unwelcome guests such as anxiety or depression, or have experienced suicidal thoughts or have been bequeathed various diagnoses, which fit to varying degrees. Despite this insider knowledge, and the corroborating insider knowledges of my community members, there is still a lack of engagement in many polyamorous documents and in polyamorous norms to engage with mental health as something that does exist within contexts of structural inequality. Individualizing narratives frame these problems as being located in the people experiencing them, and invitations to join with each other to respond to the problem can be seen as impinging on freedom or autonomy, or falling into “codependency”. That’s a term I have seen used often to explain why a polycule might not join together, and it ignores the ways that the problem is already affecting everyone in the polycule.
Polyamorous writer and educator, Clementine Morrigan, writes about the “discourse that bemoans the exploitation of emotional labour but simultaneously does not acknowledge the ways in which emotional labour is the glue that holds our communities together” (2017). Avery Alder writes, “If we’re going to be politicising basic kindness between friends and community members, I worry about doing so with the language of labour. Because labour demands compensation, and I think “my kindness to you demands compensation” has insidious implications” (2017). Both of these writers, who are personal heroes of mine, are challenging some of the individualism that has crept into polyamory, and even into social justice networks. This challenge is important!
Alright. This is near the end of my talk.
These are just some of the ways that I’m exploring narrative therapy and polyamory. I’m really excited about this work, and I’m looking forward to eventually generating resources that can be useful for community members as well as other therapists.
If you’d like to get involved in this, either by telling me what you think narrative therapists should know about polyamory, or by working together, get in touch!
Kevin Patterson says: “Once you’re aware of the struggle, we all need to find the room to be better and do better” (2018). My community members have taught me so much about the shape and contours of their struggle, and now we’re working to find the room to be and do better.
So, we have no time/some time? Oh right, we started a little late.
Question clipped for audience anonymity
So, confronting individualism and challenging that. I think externalising is actually the most effective way to do that. Like, just asking where is this problem being located, and if it’s being located in a person, shifting that. I mean, it’s not that easy, like it never is that easy, but thinking about problems as being specifically outside of individuals and not being the responsibility of individuals to fix themselves. So if you ask the question “where is this problem located?” and the answer ends up being “well, it’s…my metamour’s anxiety”, that’s something that is inside that person. Once you notice that, you can start asking questions like “I wonder when the anxiety showed up for my metamour; maybe we can talk about that”. “I wonder what strengthens the anxiety?” “I wonder what skills my metamour has been using since the anxiety first showed up?” “Where did I learn that anxiety is something that exists within people rather than within contexts; I wonder if I can think about that?”
Q: So I think that really interesting point about, – and spoiler alert for some of what I’m gonna talk about later, but – one of the areas the polyamorous I think are legally vulnerable is the stereotype and narrative that polygamy is inherently harmful and inherently abusive. And the overlap between polygamy and polyamory. And so I’m wondering, can you expand on that a little more about that interplay? Are there narrative therapists working on this? I think that narrative therapy’s a really powerful tool to address this too and the fact that it’s a legal problem, because it’s decentering the notion that this is a useful narrative.
Tiffany: So yeah. There is not a lot of writing within narrative therapy about polyamory. I know there are quite a few narrative therapists interested in it. I think the thing narrative therapy does best, that would be most helpful in this area, is collective narrative practice. So, reaching out to community members and collaboratively generating documents that demonstrate how people are responding to injustice or to hardship or to harm. In this case I would say the injustice would be that narrative. How are people responding to that? Because part of the reason that is such a strong narrative culturally, is because those are the stories that we’re surrounded by, so. And then maybe also get every legislator in a room and do some deconstructing discourse sessions; that would also be a way narrative therapy would be helpful [laughs].
Barker, M. (2011). Monogamies and non-monogamies: a response to “The challenge of monogamy: bringing it out of the closet and into the treatment room” by Marianne Brandon, Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 26:3, 281-287.
Burgess-Proctor, A. (2008). Understanding the help-seeking decisions of marginalized battered women. (Order No. 3312668). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304580274).
Cattane, N., Rossi, R., Lanfredi, M., & Cattaneo, A. (2017). Borderline personality disorder and childhood trauma: exploring the affected biological systems and mechanisms. BMC Psychiatry, 17, 221. http://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-017-1383-2
Dolman, C. (2015). Re-contextualising conversations and rich story development. International journal of narrative therapy & community work 4, 12-24.
Doodson, L. (2016). Understanding stepfamilies. Open University Press.
Dowse, K. (2017). ‘Thwarting Shame: Feminist engagement in groupwork with men recruited to patriarchal dominance in relationship.’ International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, 1, 1-10.
Drahm-Butler, T. (2015) “Decolonising identity stories: Narrative practice through Aboriginal eyes” In B. Wingard, C. Johnson, and T. Drahm-Butler (Eds.), Aboriginal narrative practice. Dulwich Centre Publications.
Druker, A. (2014). What to do when a diagnosis doesn’t fit? International Journal of Narrative Therapy & Community Work 4, 16-23.
Freedman, J. & Combs, G. (2002). Narrative couple therapy. In Narrative therapy with couples… and a whole lot more! A collection of papers, essays and exercises. Dulwich Centre Publications.
Hammoud-Beckett, S. (2007). Azima ila Hayati – An invitation in to my life: Narrative conversations about sexual identity. International Journal of Narrative Therapy, 1, 29-39.
Kate. (1999). ‘A story of survival’ In ‘Taking the hassle…’ Dulwich Centre Journal (2&3). Republished 1999 in Dulwich Centre Publications (eds): Extending Narrative Therapy: A collection of practice-based papers (117-124). Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.
Klesse, C (2011) Notions of love in polyamory – Elements in a discourse on multiple loving. Laboratorium 3(2): 425.
Newman, D. (2010). Using narrative practices with anxiety and depression: Elevating context, joining people, and collecting insider-knowledges. International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work 2, 22-29.
Patterson, K. (2018). Love’s not color blind: Race and representation in polyamorous and other alternative communities. Thorntree Press.
Russell, S. & Carey, M. (2004). Narrative Therapy: Responding to your questions. Dulwich Centre Publications.
Tamasese, K. (2003) Stop abuse project. In Waldegrave, C. (Ed.) Just Therapy: A journey. Adelaide, Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications
Veaux, F. and Flox, AV. (2015). The game changer: A memoir of disruptive love. Thorntree Press. (See footnote 1)
Weitzman, G. (2006). Therapy with clients who are bisexual and polyamorous. Journal of Bisexuality, 6(1-2), 137-164.
White, C. (2007). ‘Working for gender justice across cultures’ An interview with Taimalieutu Kiwi Tamasese by Cheryl White. In Conversations about gender, culture, violence and narrative practice, 99-107. Dulwich Centre Publications.
White, M. (1995a). ‘Naming abuse and breaking from its effects.’ In White, M. (Ed.) Re-Authoring lives. Dulwich Centre Publications.
White, M. (1995b). ‘Psychotic Experience and Discourse’ an interview with Michael White. In Re-Authoring lives. Dulwich Centre Publications.
White, M. (1998). Notes on power and the culture of therapy. In C. White & D. Denborough (Eds.), Introducing narrative therapy: A collection of practice-based writings. Dulwich Centre Publications.
White, M. (2011). ‘The responsibilities: Working with men who have perpetrated violence.’ In Narrative Practice: Continuing the conversations. Dulwich Centre Publications.
Wingard, B. & Lester, J. (2001). Telling our stories in ways that make us stronger. Dulwich Centre Publications.
 Given the revelations of Franklin Veaux’s own abusive behaviours, I am following the directives of the people who have shared their stories and leaving this reference to his work here, but sharing the information about what has happened. I would not recommend The Gamechangergiven the information that has come to light. If you would like to read more, you can find the survivor pod FAQ here – https://www.itrippedonthepolystair.com/frequently-asked-questions/.
THE SUPERPOWERS o The Superpower of Community (and community care) o The Superpower of Showing Up o Resilience o Endurance o Dialectics as a Superpower (holding multiple true stories) o Empathy and Compassion o The Superpower of Quick Turnaround of Emotions o The Superpower of Being Able to Get Out of a Bad Situation o The Ability to ‘Chameleon’
From the document:
This document follows a conversation, facilitated by Osden Nault and Tiffany Sostar, whose goal was to center the voices of folks who identify with BPD (either diagnosed by a professional or self-claimed), and to shift the dominant narrative about Borderline Personality Disorder. This document includes quotes from participants as well as quotes from BPD folks who were not at the event itself.
This event was the result of both Osden and Tiffany noting the lack of BPD voices in the resources available about, and especially for, the BPD community. So much of what is available includes harmful stories about what kind of people have BPD, and how difficult and even dangerous it is to be in relationship with them. These stories obscure the complex lived experiences of BPD individuals who have valuable insider knowledges into how to navigate big emotions and the ongoing effects of complex trauma.
Because we live in such a complex, overwhelming, and traumatizing social context, we hope that this resource might also provide help and insight for folks who do not identify with BPD but who have experienced complex trauma or are living with overwhelming Feels.
We also hope that this resource will help folks who are facing the injustice of inaccessible mental health supports. We recognize that the BPD community faces intense stigma and is also significantly underserved by medical and mental health professionals. If you have found this resource because you haven’t found anything else, we hope that it helps. You are valid, your experiences are valid, and no matter how much you may struggle with your big feelings at times, we know that you also have skills, strategies, superpowers.
There’s so much more that we could have put into this document, and we hope to continue this work both within the BPD Superpowers group and through engagement with other folks who identify with borderline personality disorder (either through self-identification or through a formal diagnosis). Maybe there will even be a book!
Acknowledging the political climate in which we are releasing this work and the intersections of oppression and mental illness / neurodivergence.
At this moment, Black people in the USA and marginalized groups worldwide are mobilizing against white supremacist, racist, and anti-Black violent systemic oppression. We are unequivocally in support of this ongoing struggle for more just futures. In releasing this document at this time, we wish to acknowledge the compounded effects of anti-Black racism, white supremacy, colonialism, intergenerational trauma, and many more forms of violent oppression and marginalization on individual mental health and neurotypes.
An Indigenous participant has shared:
One of the first definitions of BPD I saw described it as resulting from a “genetic predisposition” and trauma. I immediately thought about my own family’s intergenerational trauma. At a point in time when we know ancestral trauma affects us to a genetic level, I wondered how the history of colonial violence plays a role in my present day neurodivergent experience.
We see the effects of violent oppression on physical and mental health, spanning generations and present today. In what Angela Davis has referred to as a “very exciting moment,” and about which she says, “I don’t know if we have ever experienced this kind of a global challenge to racism and to the consequences of slavery and colonialism,” we acknowledge that there is a great deal of ongoing work and healing to be done. We release this collective document with free access and the hope that it will aid in the future and ongoing well being of oppressed individuals and communities.
With love and solidarity, The BPD Superpowers group
(An earlier draft of this post was available to Patreon supporters.)
Yesterday was the Winter Solstice, and it was also three weeks since my dad died.
It was a hard day. It has been a hard three weeks. It was a hard stretch before that. It has been a long night, and the night is not over. But the light returns. I know that the light returns. I know that even in the darkest night and the deepest gloom, there is light.
The stars exist. And some of the stars that light our night skies are many centuries dead – still, they glow. Legacies of light, a physics of remembrance. I think that there is something like this in grief, too. A way of light continuing.
And there are fireflies and other bioluminescent plants and animals. Lights in deep gloom. In the further depths of dark ocean, in the forests, in the wide open spaces that can feel like endless empty. There is something like this in grief, too.
There is always light, somewhere. There is always light returning eventually. Sometimes it just takes time to travel to us, for us to travel to the light, for us to find a way to glow, for the small and precious glowing thing to show itself. The long dark is hard, but it is not forever.
I’ve been reflecting on the legacies that my dad left me, the legacies that I want to continue.
I wrote to my friend about the memories of my youth and my feelings about my dad. Hugh said that, in reading my letter about my dad, they could see that he gave me “part of the thing we need most in this world: a sense of urgent justice.”
And this is true. When I think about what my dad gave me, and what I cherish most in myself, it is that sense of urgent justice.
This urgent justice was, in its best and most cherished expression, justice tied to love. Justice tied to acceptance. Justice tied to empathy. Justice tied to an awareness of power and privilege, and an intentional choice to side with the marginalized.
I saw my dad express this justice tied to empathy and awareness of power many times in my life. Those stories have been close to me these last few weeks, surfacing again and again. Luminescent.
In the week after his death, when I was updating An Invitation to Celebrate to include him, and to invite people to celebrate the life of a loved one, I wrote –
“He taught me to always watch for the hurting people and to connect with and care for them. That’s still how I live my life, and it’s my favourite thing about myself. It comes from my dad.”
This is justice.
This is the urgency of justice – to watch for the people who are hurting, to connect with them and to care for them. Justice and love are tied together, braided into a strong triple-strand with the hope that justice and love can light the path to something better, something more possible.
My small Solstice ritual included writing my dad a letter – the first letter I’ve been able to write him since he died. I told him that I love him, that I will not forget him, that he was good and worthy and that I will hold onto many of the things he taught me. I named the threads I will hold onto:
a sense of urgent justice
a deep appreciation for the power of good story
a commitment to compassion and acceptance
These are some of the lights my dad offered me. Lights that are still in my sky.
And every light casts a shadow, so along with these lights I acknowledge failures and complexities. Actions that align with injustice, stories that cause harm, cruelty and rejection instead of compassion and acceptance. These shadows were present in my own life, and in my dad’s life and in our relationship, but they do not cancel out the light. Part of how I will honour my dad is by holding the light, and not denying the shadow.
What those failures and ruptures and omissions, those shadows, offer is the invitation to return to alignment with values of justice, good story, compassion, acceptance.
Fail, and return.
Fail, and choose to come back.
Fail, and then breathe, cry, grapple with guilt and shame, and return again, again, again.
I did not include this in my letter, but it is also true that another legacy I will carry forward from my dad is a deep value of connection. In this, too, we both failed and returned, failed and returned.
I wrote this two weeks ago –
One week since dad stepped out of this story and into another.
I woke up at 4:30. I set an alarm. I didn’t want to sleep through it, to sleep through the slipping from the first week to the second week, to sleep through marking and remembering those ten minutes between when Domini woke me up and when dad slipped away.
I had a plan for the day, to get through this day. It was a pretty good plan, I think.
But I got the wind knocked out of me before I could do it, knocked off the plan, smashed hard into a wall I saw coming but still somehow didn’t expect. Maybe just didn’t expect the timing of it. Didn’t expect it this morning, like that.
I went swimming instead.
Dad and I used to swim at the same pool – Vecova. Helped my fibro, helped his pain, too. We crossed paths a few times. Not enough.
I have spent the last hour reading old emails.
‘Hello my first born, you know, I hope, that I am proud of you. I miss you.’
‘Hi dad, haven’t heard from you in a while. I miss you.’
‘Good morning, Tiffany. I sometimes feel that you and I are growing further and further apart and I do not know how to counter that.’
‘Hey Dad, how are you? I miss you. I love you!’
‘You have no idea how much I miss talking to you; working on a treasure hunt for you; and just being able to connect with you. Even though you are a fully realized adult and are demonstrably moving forward I still think of you as someone who, at one time, counted on me to help you work through some of your issues. I wish that were still the case.’
‘Hi dad, I know you’re probably busy but I thought I’d try again. How are you doing?’
We both tried so hard, for so long.
We both wanted something different.
We were both reaching and reaching and reaching and not quite getting there.
It is hard to read these emails, each of us repeatedly reaching out, somehow not able to get past the missing and find connection.
There is a deep ocean of grief in me, for what we had and have lost, for what we wanted and were not able to find, for what was painful between us, for what was precious between us.
It is a very hard day, today.
Despite how hard it was, we kept trying. We valued connection – we both valued connection with each other – enough to keep trying. To keep coming back.
And I will carry that with me, the knowledge that continuing to try holds value, and that even when it isn’t perfect, it is good and worthy.
I lit four candles for the Solstice.
A black candle for the grief, the loss, the long dark.
A green candle for justice, and for the growth that comes from aligning with justice.
A red candle for love and compassion and empathy and acceptance, the sparks that tell justice where to focus, how to grow.
A white candle for hope and renewal, for the willingness to fail and come back, for the light that we can turn to, phototropic, moving towards what is good and life-giving.
I finished reading Madeline Miller’s Circe a couple weeks ago, but it has been a pretty intense couple weeks over here, so I’m late on this review! This was my Read Harder 2019 book for the category of “a book of folklore or mythology.”
This book was exactly the powerful witch goddess narrative I needed in my life.
(There’ll be spoilers here. Also, content note for referencing rape.)
When I was young, and then when I was older, and then still when I was as old as I am now, so basically always, I have loved mythology. I loved all the old pantheons, but I also grew up in colonialism and so the pantheon I knew best was the Greek. But even though I knew the name Circe, I wasn’t as familiar with her as I was with others.
But Madeline Miller made her real.
The book is phenomenal, beautiful, moving. I listened to the audiobook, and narrator Perdita Weeks brings so much warmth and emotion to Circe’s telling of her own story. (This first person narration is the exact right choice for this book.)
More than anything else, I loved the complexity of the relationships.
Particularly the relationships of divine women living under patriarchy. The depiction of lateral and relational violence between women was woven throughout the book, but there was a subtext of making visible the power relations that forced women to act in complicity with patriarchy against each other. This was never more evident than in Circe’s relationship with her sister Pasiphaë (although her relationship with Scylla is a close, close second). I appreciate that Circe is not somehow above these pressures toward complicity, and I appreciate also that once she realizes what is happening, she resists it. This feels more hopeful to me than a narrative of someone who is just always above these pressures.
But it isn’t just the relationships with other women that are represented with complexity and nuance. Circe’s relationships with divine men are also vivid and complex. And, throughout this book, the operations of power are made visible. The way Glaucus’ behaviour changes as his social standing changes, changes that are echoed by her brother Aeetes once he gains his kingdom. Both of these relationships force Circe to re-examine her attachments, and her trust. Her relationship with her father is also interesting, especially as she learns to see him with less devotion and more insight. And her relationship with Hermes situates her as… not an equal in power or in social standing, but certainly an active and intentional partner in the relationship. I appreciated that contrast, of having at least an equal say even if not equal social footing, in her relationship with Hermes as compared with the other relationships with men. All of these are relationships with other gods.
And, of course, there are her relationships with mortal men. Daedalus and Odysseus and Telemachus – all the name dropping was delightful, but the fleshing out of relationships with each of them was just so well-done. (I loved Daedalus. Crush level: mega. Not as mega as my crush on Circe though.)
Power is a significant focus of the book. Circe’s first interaction with a mortal man is Glaucus before she changes him into a god, and they have a gentle, enjoyable friendship. But after Glaucus, after Circe is banished to Aeaea, Circe meets mortal sailors and they attack her, try to rob her, and the captain tries to rape her. Circe transforms the men into pigs. For many, many years, men come to her island and most of them are transformed into pigs. If they attempt to rob her, if they attempt to harm her, if they look like they might – pigs.
In her relationship with Odysseus, they share an agreement that distrust is often the safer and better approach. Both Odysseus and Circe have harmed and killed many, not all of whom deserved it. And I found this interaction interesting, because Odysseus moves through the patriarchal world with the power of being a man, and when he opts for distrust, there is a lot of systemic power behind it. Circe learned to move through the world with distrust because she does not have that same power under patriarchy, and it was the violence of patriarchy that taught her to distrust men. But Circle does have power. She’s a god. She can turn men into pigs when they try to harm her.
I don’t know where I take this noticing. It seems like there is something here about power and how we wield power, power in context, the difference between structural power and situational power. In writing this review, I read a lot of other reviews, and I agree with the assessment by Electric Lit (content note in the link for some ableist language), that Circe does not consistently challenge the definition or meaning of power, it just grants that same hierarchical power to Circe rather than allowing it to stay with men. This is exactly the thing that nudged at me, that made me think about white feminism and cis feminism and all the other feminisms that have claimed power (and yay! I love that!) but have not gone on to challenge the structures of power fundamentally. This leaves so many other vulnerable groups without access to this claimed power.
This absolutely was the power witch narrative I needed in my life, but it is also imperfect. There’s so much that is done so well in terms of demonstrating how power operates, and how patriarchy pushes the marginalized into competition with each other and complicity with the very system that is harming them (something that also applies to other systems of privilege and dominance – think of capitalism). But I wish it went further.
One part of the book that I keep returning to in my thoughts is the small interaction between Circe and Prometheus. It’s just a short interaction, but Circe returns to it many times when she’s telling her own story. It’s formative for her. Prometheus shows her that there is another way to be; that there are alternative stories available to her, despite how rigid the lives of the Titans and Olympians are. If any part of the book does challenge existing notions of power, it is Prometheus and Circe’s reflections on him. He took power from the gods, and chose not to hold onto it despite the cost to himself. He gave the power away and paid for it. I appreciated this. I wanted more from this – I wanted her to visit Prometheus on his rock, or to expand on this. It felt so important, but always just at the edge of my understanding. I just wanted more from this. But I think the fact that there wasn’t more was a wise authorial choice – it keeps me coming back, and even throughout the book I kept wondering.
Madeline Miller stays relatively close to the source material (I know, because every time a new name was dropped or action described, I paused the audio and headed to google!) but despite the fact that so many parts of the story were familiar already, the story was fresh and exciting. And feminist! The whole book just gave me happy feminist feels – patriarchy is apparent throughout, but it is also critiqued throughout. And I also appreciated the fact that the book acknowledges the presence and advancement of other cultures. Although the book stays within the Greek gods, there are references to other cultures and other pantheons – just small, but enough to alert the reader “hey, the privileging of this storyline and the way it is taken up in Enlightenment discourse and then in colonization… pay attention. There are other gods. There are other cultures. Those cultures are interesting and advanced enough that Daedalus wants to learn from them.” I appreciated this.
And I know I’ve already mentioned how much I loved the representation of relationships between women, but I need to take a moment to specifically appreciate the relationship between Penelope and Circe. This relationship happens at the end of the book, and it is such a stark contrast to the earlier relationships with women. Here, instead of being turned against each other by patriarchal power, two powerful women are able to join together to continue a legacy of resisting patriarchal power. Like Prometheus, this is another example where power is redefined and challenged.
When Penelope takes on the mantle of Witch of Aeaea, I almost cried.
Penelope and Circe are also both mothers. Motherhood is an important theme throughout the book, also. I appreciated that motherhood was not easy for Circe, and that the book challenged the idea that a person is either soft and warm and motherly and falls easily into the role, or cold and distant and abusive. Circe struggles with motherhood, struggles with how to raise Telegonus, and still loves him. She is still an attentive and caring mother even though it is not smooth or easy. This isn’t a narrative that I see reflected very often.
This will definitely be a re-read for me. I highly recommend it, and would love to chat about it if you end up reading it!
You can read my other reviews for the Read Harder 2019 challenge here!
Image description: The 4 of Cups in the Next World Tarot. A person with one breast exposed from a pink housecoat sits on a dock, examining her nails. Four corked bottles float in the ocean beside her, and she has nail polish bottles on the deck beside her. She is wearing fuzzy green slippers.
This is another cross-post from my tarot blog. It’s been a really intense few weeks of responding to abuse – people in my communities are responding to interpersonal, intimate, and social/structural abuse, and it’s been really heavy. Tarot has been helping me work through this, and today’s post is a companion to last week’s Ten of Swords post.
Last week I pulled the Four of Cups, and my phone ate the post. I meant to come back to it, but didn’t have time.
This morning, I pulled the Four of Cups again and I am thankful for the opportunity to come back to this. I’m also so conscious of how our relationship with the tarot deck is so contextual – this card lands differently today than it did last Saturday.
Today, I flipped that card over and in the femme checking her nail polish I saw so many women and femmes in my own life who have experienced abuse and are bored with it.
I thought about those moments when you’re shocked that someone would say or do something abusive, but you also know that they’re just reading from the same ratty old playbook as so many people before them. I’m thinking about how predictable and unoriginal abuse is; the gaslighting, the victim-blaming, the blame and shame and fragility and violence.
And it doesn’t really matter who they are, we see it all over the place. TERFs abusing trans women in the same boring old ways. Men abusing women and non-men in the same boring old ways. White folks abusing people of colour. Across every gap of privilege and dominance, there is the potential for this abuse and when it shows up, it is horrible and unacceptable and boring.
The effects of abuse are real. When I say that abuse is boring, I am not at all intending to downplay the impact. But where I see creativity, resourcefulness, innovation is in the responses to abuse. Abuse is so easy – our whole culture is set up to comfort and console and protect people who misuse their power. Capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy – it’s all designed to make it easy to misuse our power in the same old ways. At the end of the day, it’s the same old Scooby Doo villain reveal – looked like an exciting new monster, but it was the same old thing again.
I see this boredom in the Four of Cups today.
I feel this boredom in my heart. And I feel the heaviness of it in my shoulders, my temples, my hips. Because it may be same old same old boring shit, but it’s also pervasive, entrenched. It’s everywhere. Yes, it’s the same thing. Yes, we can predict the gaslighting, the victim blaming, the revisionist histories. We can predict the response of the media and many of the people around us. But that doesn’t make it any easier. That doesn’t make it hurt less. That doesn’t give the disenfranchised access to power or stability or security. The boring abuse still takes over lives, leaves people hurting, alone, living with trauma.
So, back to the Four of Cups.
Personally, I have always read this card as being about scarcity. It shows up when I’m feeling restricted, afraid. There’s often a sense of constriction in this card for me. I’m holding all those cups in reserve, because I don’t know if I’ll have anything left tomorrow. I’m unwilling to engage, because engagement feels risky.
This card tends to get a bad reputation, but it’s one of my favorites, and it has a very nuanced message. In some circumstances, this card suggests a person who is closed off from opportunities. Being too absorbed in your inner world can be a detriment, leading you to miss golden opportunities. Disconnection and apathy can be inherent in this card.
But in another view, emotional withdrawal does not have to indicate a negative form of apathy. Sometimes you need to hole yourself up, forget about what shiny things the outside world is offering, and let your emotions stabilize. After all, four is the number of structure and stability, and cups are the suit of emotions. Therefore, the Four of Cups can advise you to come back to your own emotional center.
Even in the more “negative” interpretation here, I wonder: what has led this person to be closed off? What has been happening in their context that has them turning inward to their inner world? What is the context that invited disconnection and apathy into their lives?
I think this is especially relevant when we are examining our own responses to someone who has experienced abuse. Do we see them (or ourselves) as “missing out on golden opportunities” (without holding compassion for how much those opportunities might cost)? Are we frustrated with them (or ourselves) or not engaging in their/our own lives? For not leaving, responding, resisting – all the other “opportunities” available to people who are experiencing violence (which are often not actually as available as they seem).
The Next World Tarot guidebook interpretation of the 4 of Cups highlights the potential positives that come with disengagement and withdrawal. I think this is relevant to the current theme of responding to abuse which is so present in my life these days.
In the Next World guidebook, Cristy C. Road writes:
It feels as if she has been in the middle of this argument for centuries. The 4 of Cups is strong, but exhausted, and unwilling to part with the quiet. She is happy now – along the seaside, surrounded by her most comforting possessions. The 4 of Cups asks you to question your exhaustion. Is it due to unhappiness, disinterest, or boredom?
Living in a society so complacent with injustice, the 4 of Cups asks you to transform exhaustion into your own disengaged moment of accidental self-care.
Are there ways in which exhaustion can highlight injustice? Can our exhaustion and disengagement be an indicator of where something is wrong, and we are unwilling to cooperate with it?
Is there a way in which exhaustion can be refusal? Is there a way in which our acknowledgement and response to exhaustion can be self-care?
So often, interpretations of the Four of Cups can feel incredibly victim-blaming. (In Michelle Tea’s Modern Tarot, she actually says, “Often when this card comes up, the problem is you but you’re too deep in your own bad feelings to see it.”)
When we locate the problem internally, it becomes difficult to see the wisdom and creativity of people’s choices to disengage. Disengagement, turning away, avoidance – these things are all massively devalued in our capitalist, productivity-worshipping, success-chasing, “manifest your best life”, “law of attraction” culture.
But people are always responding to the hardships and traumas in their lives.
People are always resisting.
Nobody is a passive recipient of hardship.
Certainly, there are times when we want to be engaged, and there are times when we want to shift away from the restriction and isolation of this card. But what would happen if we brought curiosity to our interpretation of what’s happening?
What if we asked:
Am I feeling disengaged right now? Does this card reflect my feelings in my own life, or is it an invitation to think about how I’m viewing the world around me?
What have I learned about disengagement as being either good or bad? Who taught me this? Does this learning align with my own values, or my own lived experiences?
If I am disengaged right now, why am I disengaged in this moment?
What am I disengaging from?
What does my disengagement make possible?
What have I learned about greed, or selfishness, or self-absorption (also strong elements associated with this card)?
Whose values do these lessons about greed, selfishness, or self-absorption align with? Do these values apply differently depending on the social location of the person who is behaving in “greedy” or “selfish” or “self-absorbed” ways?
What have I learned about self-care? From whom?
Is there a small moment of self-care that I can engage with today? What might that look like?
Who does it serve or benefit when I engage in self-care? Who does it serve or benefit when I do not?
How can I reevaluate (the key word on the Next World Tarot version of this card!) what I have been taught? Can I choose to engage with these discourses and narratives with curiosity, and to honour my own insider knowledges?
This week, in fact the last few months, has been focused on being a support for people responding to violence in their relationships (both intimately and socially/structurally). I have been so thankful for the gentle invitations that the tarot has offered me over this time. I’m particularly thankful for Cristy C. Road’s Next World Tarot and the liberation and justice-oriented interpretations offered in the guidebook.