Saturday, September 29, 2012

Making the lazy choice: victim blaming in the movie "Bernie"

Last night we watched the movie Bernie with Jack Black. Or to be honest I watched half of the movie before I fell asleep to the amusement of The Dude (seriously, if you knew him you’d know how funny it is to call him that). The movie is based on real events and is about a small time funeral director who befriends and eventually kills an eighty-one year old wealthy widow (Margery Nugent).

In both the film and the real case Bernie is well loved by everyone in town while the townspeople generally dislike Margery, so much so that the real townspeople play themselves in the film and spend much of the time telling the camera what a horrible person she was and what a lovely charmer he was.

Left: the real Bernie and Margery (Joe Rhodes) Right: from the film (Millenium Entertainment)

Friday, September 28, 2012

What’s in a question? The myth of objective science

There is this misconception that empirical research is by definition objective.  There are all these guidelines around sample selection and research design that are supposed to make the entire process purer than pure.  In the face of criticism you can hear the cries of “but I used a random sample, it CAN’T be biased” from miles away.

Coming, as I do,  from a background in psychology I see particular problems with the way so many psych researchers cling to the illusion of objectivity.  How on earth can we study the human mind objectively when we are using the mind to study itself.  There is a certain absurdity in the old behaviourist theory of the mind as “black box”.  Here we have highly intelligent human beings using their minds to declare that all human behaviour comes down to operational conditioning and the motivations and thoughts of the mind are irrelevant.

Did you hear that? That was the sound of me rolling my eyes.

Don’t get me wrong; I think there is real value in using quantitative, empirical methods as best we can in the study of psychology. I also believe that qualitative research is invaluable.  It’s kind of alarming that the notion of just asking someone about their experiences and motivations is considered by so many to be radical if not outright ludicrous.  I think that research in the health sciences could benefit a great deal from some qualitative, participatory action studies. How else do we get practitioners to see patients as whole human beings with agency and insight?

But this is not meant to be a post about the merits of quantitative and qualitative research.  There is a much deeper problem with the notion that empirical research is de facto objective. Even if you could assume impeccable methods and sampling you cannot remove the scientist from the cultural context in which they develop their research questions. There is nothing objective about how you choose what to research.

Questions, after all, are not simply questions. The do more than seek answers, the very nature of your questions reveals underlying biases and beliefs.  When you look at the macro level there are clear patterns in the kinds of questions that are getting asked.

The history of psychology is plagued by research on group differences. Specifically: racial differences in intelligence and sexual behaviours. What does it tell us about the psych community and society as a whole that people keep asking over and over again if white people are inherently smarter than black people?  We learn that our society is obsessed with race. We learn that we assume that there is some kind of fundamental biological difference between races. We learn that we view intelligence as a measure of worth.

This bias is not limited to social sciences. Just look at the medical research. It’s not just about what questions you ask, but what questions you don’t ask. How can we ever know about the impact of systemic oppression on the physical and mental health of trans people if no one is asking the question?

We can see that not only do research questions both reflect and reinforce existing cultural values, they also have very real outcomes on the lives of real people.  Not that long ago the Conservative government of Canada decided to make the long-form census optional. Up until then it had been mandatory, under threat of fine.  This may not sound that important at first but there are hundreds of organizations and even governmental departments that rely on that data to determine how to best assess the needs of their communities.  “When asked about its usefulness, Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan linked the long form census to virtually every spending and tax decision the province makes. The long form census contributes to decisions on everything from optimal traffic light timing to the number and location of publicly funded hospitals.”(, see also )

Here’s another example. There has been a lot of research into the possibility of a “gay gene” or more broadly, are the queers born that way?  It’s easy to get mired down in this argument and it is assumed that all “the gays” are eager for scientific proof that their gayness was not a choice.  But many of us are suspicious of the question itself, and for more than one reason.

First, why is it so important for science to know why people are gay? What will be done with that information? If they knew what makes people gay would they try to find a way to prevent it? Would we be facing genocide by genetic manipulation?

Second, there is a subtle implication in all of this “born this way” posturing. It’s so often used as a defence against homophobia and discrimination that it begs the question: does that mean if it is a choice it’s okay to discriminate against us? Are we implicitly accepting that it would be better if everyone were straight when we cling to the notion of inherent gayness as our front line defence against hate? “Well I know that we seem contemptible but hey! We can’t do anything about it so you may as well accept us.” So in persistently asking what makes people gay or if it’s genetic we are also making some very clear statements about the desirability of gayness.

All of this is to say that the questions we ask, in life and in science are a fundamental barrier to real objectivity.  If, on the other hand, we acknowledge that these biases exist and stretch ourselves to ask the unasked questions we may at least be able to achieve something a little closer to fair, if not objective, scientific research.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Staking claims in all the corners

I love punk music.

There is an ongoing theme of isolation and justified outrage combined with crass, irreverent humour that appeals to pretty much every part of me.  Many bands have songs about personal experiences with mental illness or of being labelled as crazy (The Ramones, Suicidal Tendencies, DRI, L7 to name a few).  This music - along with other heavy, hard or weird music of the ‘80s and ‘90s - was my lifeline as I stumbled through adolescence. Today, it is still my go to music when I feel overcome by frustration, anger or stress.  There’s nothing quite so cathartic as belting out “You can’t bring me down” by Suicidal Tendencies.

But the problem is that punk music doesn’t love me.

When I was fourteen I remember watching a video of some live punk show in which the male lead singer pulled a woman onto the stage and punched her.

That was when I learned that my beloved punk scene was no safer for me as a woman than anywhere else.

The misogyny and homophobia, both overt and implied, is so rampant in punk music that I quickly grew weary of trying to find new bands.  These days at least I can search online for lyrics and get a sense of their overall vibe but in high school the best I could do was borrow tapes from friends and fervently read the liner notes.

Mostly I look for bands that don’t have more than one or two objectionable songs, for example Suicidal Tendencies is not bad but only if I don’t listen to this song. Occasionally I find a band that is persistently offensive but has one or two songs that standout; Dayglo Abortions has very little to recommend them lyrically (this, for instance) – sad because their sound is kickass – but I can’t get enough of rocking out to “Homophobic, sexist cokeheads”.  Often the best I can hope for is that they don’t make me want to punch them.

But every once in a while there’s some ray of light like Liza and Louise by NOFX. When I was sixteen and newly out I was hanging out in the skate shop, looking through the 45”s when I saw this.

Without hesitation I bought it and instantly fell in love. Who knew that a bunch of straight dudes could write a song about lesbians that was actually about lesbians and not some porn fantasy for the male gaze (or ear as it were).

My relationship to punk music is complicated to say the least.

And this brings me to something that many people I follow on Twitter have been discussing lately, namely that Chris Brown’s violence against Rihanna is being held up as evidence of the misogyny in rap culture.  This black rap artist is being held up as the poster boy for male violence while Charlie Sheen (to name only one example) manages to skate right past his history of abuse.  Even when you compare those two narratives there are telling differences in how people explain the two men’s behaviour. Charlie Sheen’s offensive behaviour was due to his addictions and mental health while Chris Brown’s is due to his involvement in hip -hop culture – a convenient shorthand for blackness.

I have heard many black feminists talk about their love of hip-hop and the ways in which it is complicated by the misogyny so often lamented by mainstream white feminists and pop culture commentators alike.

And this is where my love of punk and a black feminists’ love of hip hop meet and shake hands.

What is it about punk music and rap music that makes them so hostile towards women? Is it the male bravado? Is it the blackness? Is it the anarchy?

No, decidedly and absolutely not.

Because the misogyny and homophobia we find in these genres is not what sets them apart from mainstream culture, it is the thing that ties them to it.

There are many things that define what rap and punk are: they both arose out of a sense of disaffection and alienation from the larger culture, at their core they are both about speaking truth to power and refusing to be defined or confined by a classist, racist society.  The one thing about them that is not unique is the way in which they both often wind up reinforcing cultural hostilities against women, queers and other marginalized groups.  The problem isn’t that they’ve stepped too far out of the dominant culture but that they have not stepped far enough.

So yes I love punk music and I like a lot of rap music, what I don’t love is the fact that so many of its creators have utterly failed to see how their regurgitation of objectifying, hateful and outright violent attitudes towards women is aligning them with the very system against which they so passionately speak out.

So before you throw the baby out with the bath water, remember that there is no corner of our culture that isn’t home to someone spewing hateful bullshit.  And the best thing we can do is not to say “This corner sucks, I’m going back to the centre” but to stay put and point out just how naked that punk ass emperor is.

I love my punk, and no amount of hostility from the macho men involved will keep me from it.

Women who rock, 10 essential punk songs
Violence and Punk  Musichttp

Saturday, September 22, 2012

I feel like Humpty Dumpty with nothing but a gluestick.

Lately it feels like every day comes with a new insight into just how broken I am. I’ve known since I was fifteen that I have clinical depression.  For more than twenty years I have cycled between dysthemia (low level but constant depression that dulls your senses and affects every part of your life) and major depressive episodes.  There have been periods where I was depression free – most of university for example and most of the time since I’ve been on my meds – but most of my life has been lived in varying degrees of depression.  The first time I spoke to someone about it I was fifteen, ever since then every conversation I’ve had with anyone about my mental health has been about depression.

No one has ever asked me about anxiety, no one has asked me about flashbacks, no one has asked me about anything that would have helped them to see what I believe is the bigger picture.

The first time it occurred to me that I might have PTSD was over ten years ago.  But the images we are given of PTSD are of soldiers returned from war hitting the deck when a car backfires. We are led to believe that anyone with it can barely function and has vivid full-blown flashbacks where they lose touch with reality and relive their trauma. So I never spoke to anyone about it because I didn’t think anyone would take me seriously, I’d never been to war after all and I never hallucinated or lost touch with reality.

It’s the same with anxiety, I’ve only ever had two anxiety attacks in my life. When I was about ten I had an attack that left me rocking back and forth, crying, convinced that “they were coming to get me”, I’m still not sure who “they” were.  Last year I had a mild anxiety attack with a racing heart and shaking hands. They were very different experiences but I call them both anxiety attacks, the first because of the intense fear and paranoia, the second because of the physiological symptoms. I had always thought that having an anxiety disorder meant having panic attacks all the time so I figured that while I had some anxiety it obviously wasn’t bad enough to talk to anyone about.

A lot of the time if someone had asked me about anxiety I would have said, “No, I don’t have a lot of anxiety” when what I really meant was that I don’t feel anxious all the time. What I failed to acknowledge was that the reason I didn’t feel anxious was because I had circumscribed my life to avoid those things that made me anxious.  But living a life of avoidance is not the same as being anxiety free.

Part of the problem too is that I honestly don’t know what “normal” feels like. I don’t know how non-anxious people respond to things so I don’t know if my responses are anxious or normal.  I find myself asking things like, “Is it normal to get shaky and feel butterflies in my chest when I mildly disagree with someone on Twitter?”  I’m guessing no.

So maybe I could just say that I have the dual diagnosis of depression and anxiety but I still don’t think that’s the whole picture.

When I went in for my mood disorder assessment the psychiatrist told me that I needed to treat my trauma before I got any CBT or MBCT.  Which got me thinking about PTSD again.  So I Googled it, and there was one symptom that really jumped out at me: The sense of a limited future (you don’t expect to live a normal life span, get married, have a career).  Did I ever tell you that I used to believe that I would never live past the age of twenty-five? True story.

Another significant symptom for me was “persistent feelings of helplessness, shame, guilt, or being completely different from others” (  Although, to be fair, I’ve felt completely different since I was a child, the feeling has only grown more intense as I’ve gotten older.

So, last night I started looking at online assessments.  After three tests the consensus is that I do likely have PTSD.

So I guess that’s how broken I am.

This whole journey has consistently shown me how wholly inadequate the mental health care system is.  Not once in the last twenty years has anyone given me a comprehensive mental health evaluation.  I said I was depressed, they asked depression related questions and then they agreed with my assessment.  This is not how diagnosis should work.

Depression is known to co-occur with, or be a symptom of, other mental illnesses but everyone I ever talked to took for granted that depression was the extent of my problem.  A friend of mine recently had the same kind of experience.  He’d spent most of his life trying to get treatment for depression only to find out upon proper assessment that he has BPD (you should check out his blog, he’s writing great stuff about his own process).

It’s hard enough to get any kind of treatment or assessment for mental health issues – especially when you have no money – but to have a diagnosis based on tunnel vision can severely prolong how long you go untreated or inadequately treated.  How might things have been different for my and my friend had we been properly diagnosed ten or fifteen years ago? Nobody knows.  All we really know is that our lives have been put on hold for way too long, and to think that we could have had treatment and perhaps moved forward with our lives decades earlier is saddening and infuriating.

And even now that I feel pretty sure of this diagnosis I have a sinking feeling that there will still be no treatment in sight.  And of course that awareness that I may continue to be insufficiently treated only solidifies my fears that I have gotten as far as I can in my professional life, because without some kind of healing I can’t begin to imagine how to do what I need to do to move forward.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Borderline Personality Disorder

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Room

There is a part of my mind that is still in that room.  I can see it so clearly, two single beds, one by the window, one with its head against the wall.  Black out curtains on the window so no sunlight could sneak in.  As I remember it there wasn’t much else in there, no posters on the wall, maybe a dresser? I’m not sure.

But it's not just the room.

The bed, the shorts I was wearing (since shredded ceremonially), his face, his hands. His hands, where they had no right to be.  Where they had trespassed. My face turning to the side, looking away unable to stop it, unable to say no or to move his hand yet again.  And I remember how it felt, physically. I remember that my body first betrayed me, and then it hurt.  I remember feeling defeated.

The house is still there, the house where part of me died a slow death.  I try to not look at it but I can’t stop myself, every time we drive by.

But that room, that room has moved. That room has found a new home in my head.

And there is part of my heart and my mind locked in there, crying on the bed, wishing he would just get the fuck off of me.

Song of the day: Long way to happy by P!nk

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

I never called it rape...

*Trigger Warning*

I’ve been thinking a lot about rape lately.  It seems like I can’t go online without someone somewhere talking about rape.  Even though I know it puts me at risk of being triggered I can’t seem to stop myself from looking.  It shouldn’t surprise me really.  When I was a teen trying to come to terms with my own assault I collected articles and research on sexual assault in a big fat folder.  My best way of dealing at that time was to understand the big picture and make it political.  My big project for OAC (grade 13) drama was a play about a girl getting raped by her best friend and killing herself.  In retrospect the two predominant themes in my adolescence were sexual assault and suicide.

And yet, with all the of the processing I’ve tried to do over the last twenty three years I am still unearthing new and surprising aspects of my own trauma, and today is no different.  Over the last two decades I have called what happened to me sexual assault or sexual coercion. I have said he did something I didn’t want him to do. I have told myself that what happened to me was bad and it messed me up but women who’d been raped had it worse.

And then I was reading the comments on this post and I felt like I’d been punched in the gut.

Because rape is not only non-consensual intercourse, it is non-consensual sexual intrusion.  That means that if the perpetrator puts anything inside of you against your will it is rape.  I knew this.  I’ve always known this but I didn’t somehow take the next logical leap.

I wrote a post a few years ago and published it on someone else’s blog.  In it I wrote about not only my sexual trauma but about the physiological anomalies that have complicated my relationship with my sexuality in oh so many ways.  In short I had what is called an imperforate hymen.  I couldn’t get a pelvic exam, I couldn’t wear a tampon, and there was no way in hell anyone’s fingers could have gotten past that particular barrier.

I guess that’s why it hurt so much when he tried.

Immediately after he finished I said to him , “You said you’d never finger me” and he said, “I didn’t.” And I guess in his mind he didn’t, because my body wouldn’t let him in.

But in reality he tried, he really tried. And the question I’m forced to ask myself is this: Is it any less rape because my physiology kept him from “going the distance”?

Between the nature of the assault and my own physiological weirdness I have been invalidating myself for more than twenty years.  I have told myself that my trauma was lesser than that of rape victims.  Despite all the evidence of what it did to me I have been gas-lighting myself, feeling like I was crazy, like I was blowing it out of proportion, that I didn’t know what it was like to be raped, I “only” knew the pain of a lesser sexual assault.

But today I finally understand.  I get it.  Because what happened to me was indisputably rape.

And I don’t know how to incorporate that into my understanding.

It makes me angry, it makes me sad, and it makes sense of so many things.

But please, let there be no more surprises.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Another day outside of the box marked pretty

Yesterday I was working for a festival for which I’ve been volunteering for about eighteen years.  The work is of the type most often done by men but because of the lefty, hippy vibe of the festival we have a good number of women on our crew.  For those of us who’ve been working together for a while there’s a certain comfort level and a certain amount of ribaldry.  Yesterday, however, was different for just one short moment.  Yesterday I was doing what I do best and reminding some men on a parallel crew to wear sufficient sunscreen when one of them, whom I had only met that morning, said “I’d like it better if you put it on me.”  I laughed at him, as though it were a ridiculous notion.

But my internal monologue was more like “What the fuck? That is so inappropriate! And who does he think he’s kidding, obviously he wouldn’t want my fat self to rub anything on him. Why the hell didn’t I even say anything? I’m not a teenager anymore I should have told him that his joke was uncool.”

For me, it was a humiliating and infuriating experience.  As a feminist I was pissed that he felt so at ease using that kind of faux flirtation with me when I know to the marrow of my bone that I could never feel safe making the same joke to a man I didn’t already know well.  For a woman to make that kind of a joke is to risk that she will be taken at face value and be presumed to have consented to some degree of intimacy, for a man it’s just another day at the office.

As a survivor of sexual assault and harassment I was dismayed and distressed to realize that I still feel like I can’t say anything when some guy’s comment crosses a line.  My overriding instinct is to treat it like a joke and keep my true feelings to myself.

But the worst part was the feeling that he was unintentionally driving home the fact that it was patently ridiculous that he, or anyone else, would ever find me attractive enough to actually mean a comment like that.

This is messy stuff.  When I’m sitting with friends and they’re talking about how often they get catcalls on the street I commiserate with them but in my head I’m thinking, I almost never experience that now because I am one of many invisible fatties.  It is a twisted emotional mess to both revile the street harassment that so many women must deal with while simultaneous hurting because you are far enough outside of “acceptably attractive” for anyone to feel inspired to harass you.

I don’t want to be harassed or otherwise subjected to the unsolicited advances of men.  At the same time I have yet to succeed at not caring if I am attractive to others.  When I look at myself, and see myself only through my own eyes I see beauty, strength, and style.  When I imagine what others see I see lumpy and ill-fitted, or maybe even nothing at all.  For that is what so many of us fat-enough fatties* seem to be, flat out invisible.

But this is what it means to be living in a sexist and misogynist culture.  We learn to care too much about how sexually attractive we are but if we are “attractive enough” we are subjected to objectifying and dehumanizing behaviour and expected to be grateful for the compliment.  You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, either way you finish each day feeling a little less than you were before.

This isn’t even really about being fat. It’s about anyone who feels like they’re outside of that little box marked “pretty”.  And if someone does show interest, no matter how offensive, we are expected to fall over with the joy that someone has deemed us worthy of such double-edged praise.  We’ve all heard it, “What do you mean no? You should feel lucky that I showed any interest at all!” to which we all want to respond, “You should feel lucky I didn’t kick you in the face.” But in reality we are far more likely to just turn away, feeling angry and humiliated eventually turning it all in on ourselves.

I don’t know what to do about it. All I know is that one fairly innocent joke sent me into a tailspin of emotions and nothing about that is okay.

*I say fat-enough because I recognize that there are many who are bigger than I am who face fat-phobic harassment on a daily basis. I am speaking from the perspective of someone who's fat enough to be invisible and have real problems finding clothes but not fat enough to be shown outright contempt when I'm out and about..