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Archive for June, 2012

Smart Girls

with 3 comments

So, I was looking over the scant comments from yesterday, and a couple of things occured to me, plus one big issue, which comes sort of on the side.

1) To say that some women at a given time and place were able to achieve is not the same thing as saying that that given time and place were open to women achieving.

It just means that some women were able to beat the odds, and in most cases they weren’t able to do that absolutely.

A world in which I am a writer is a very different one than a world in which I am a “woman writer.”

I know that, because I lived through the tail end of the “woman writer” thing.  The implication is that the woman in question, although she writes, is of course not exactly a real writer, and probably needs to be judged by a different (and less stringent) standard.

(Much the same sort of thing these days is implied in calling a writer a “mystery writer” or a “romance writer” or a “science fiction writer.”)

And that designation has consequences both for the work of the writer in question and for the way in which she is read, that make what she does off-side, not exactly mainstream, not relevant to the larger culture in the way the work of a writer (no qualifier allowed) would be.

2) The phenomenon of there being ONE female on the staff of intellectual publications in New York lasted into the early 1970s.  And no, it wasn’t necessarily a question of sleeping your way to the top. 

It was just a fact that there could be only one–any other females would be secretaries, not writers or editors–and that one would be brought on board by one of the male writers or editors. 

Whether the woman in question was sleeping with the man who championed her is actually more complicated than it looks.  I’d say the answer to that was, until the Sixties,

My guess is that the answer to that would be–not always, and probably not often.

That’s because the women who served on these publications very often had Smart Girl Syndrome (see below).

I think that that was at the root of the great and lasting antipathy between Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman.  Hellman had Smart Girl Syndrome.  McCarthy definitely did not.

3) I never said that all men were exploitative.  In fact, I didn’t say any man was.

In some circumstances, it’s quite obvious that the woman was the user–it’s the case with McCarthy certainly, and might have been with Hellman as well.

Okay,  It was the case with Hellman as well, toward the end of Hammett’s life.

But the problem in George Eliot’s case has nothing to do with her being exploited by men.

It’s a function of–Smart Girl Syndrome.

4) Smart Girl syndrome requires a particular cultural atmosphere to take effect.

This is a cultural atmosphere that says the most important thing about a woman is that she be attractive to men, and specifically attractive to men in such a way that they will be willing to marry her.

If she is not attractive to men, anything else she does is suspect–it’s not a real vocation, it’s “compensating.”

This was the cultural atmosphere of my childhood just as much as it was the cultural atmosphere of George Eliot’s. 

It goes along with another cultural assumption–that women can be very smart and very intellectually talented, but when they do that they are “thinking like a man,” and that isn’t attractive to men. 

What’s worse, it almost always goes along with sheer physical plainness. 

Smart girls and not very pretty, and pretty girls know better than to let anybody think they are smart.

5) Please note–I’m talking about INTELLECTUALISM, not any of the vast variety of “smartness” human beings can exhibit.

The old-fashioned term for it is “bookishness.”  Old lady librarians.  The spinster professor in the Chemistry department.  The lady principal and the lady executive with their horse faces and stiff black suits.

6) Young women who wanted intellectual careers were therefore presented with a dilemma, especially if they were not particularly attractive:  nothing counted if they were unsuccessful “as women” (if they didn’t end up married); and they were not the kind of woman men tended to want to marry.

Finding someone to marry them, then, became crucial. 

7) Yes, of course there were exceptions.  Mary McCarthy was one.  She was a very beautiful woman well into middle age.  Lots of men wanted to marry her.  She was married at least three times (it might have been four, I’m blanking a little).  One of her husbands was Edmund Wilson, and at the very height of his literary success.  The last of her husbands was the US Ambassador to France.

8) The exceptions tended to have some things in common, and not just their looks.

In this context, it’s interesting to bring up Lady Caroline Lamb. 

If you’re going to make a comparison between Lady Caroline Lamb and another writer, that writer shouldn’t be George Eliot, but Mary McCarthy.

Both Lamb and McCarthy were beautiful women.  Both were from aristocratic families.  Both were more than a little Bohemian by temperament.

9) If you’re going to compare George Eliot to another writer, it should be Dorothy L. Sayers.

Neither Sayers nor Eliot was aristocratic.  Both came from solidly middle class families with deep religious convictions for whom respectability was essential.

Neither Sayers nor Eliot was particularly “pretty,” and both were bookish in the extreme.  They even shared a lot of the same interests.  Both translated significant works from antiquity.  Sayers’s translation of the Divinia Comedia is still considered among the best ever done.  Both were interested in the Middle Ages.  Both wrote works of theology, Sayers as a mainstream Anglican, Eliot as an Anglican Evangelical.

Sayers seems to have one brief Bohemian moment, giving birth to a son out of wedlock when she was very young.  The child was raised by cousins and her reputataion was very carefully protected. 

Eliot had Lewes, of course, but she insisted throughout their relationship that they live otherwise conventionally as man and wife. And in the end, she insisted on the marriage. 

10) One of the most striking similarities between Eliot and Sayers, though, is in their work.

Both women wrote themselves ideal husbands–Eliot under a bunch of different names in different novels, Sayers as Lord Peter Wimsey.

Both of them made the focus of several novels an idealized version of herself.  Sayers had Harriet Vane, as beautiful as she is accomplished, and attractive to every man in viewing distance.

Eliot’s Dorothea and Maggie Tulliver and the rest are all beautiful women.  Men may be put off by their brains, but they are always attracted to their looks.

11) And finally, both of them married men significantly inferior to them in terms of talent, intellect and ambition.

I don’t know enough about Sayers’s Mac to say anything more detailed than that, but with Eliot’s Lewes, all that’s possible in response is–really?  that one?  WHY?

But the why is simple.  In a word where “success as a woman” was the ultimate bottom line, not marrying anybody was more than they were psychologically able to handle.

12) What has disappeared, in the culture, in the wake of 1960s feminism, is Smart Girl Syndrome. 

If a woman achieves and does not marry, nobody says she’s “compensating” for not being able to. 

If a woman writes, she is a writer, not just a “woman” one. 

And I am not sorry to see any of that go.

Written by janeh

June 13th, 2012 at 9:59 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 2 comments

About ten years ago, I bought a big, heavy trade paperback called Women of the Left Bank.  I’d give you the author here, except that the thing is in the living room on my coffee table, and I’m in here, and AOL is doing the thing where it won’t load more than one web page at a time.

The book is, technically, a work of scholarship in Women’s Studies.  Like another book I also own in a big, heavy trade paperback edition, Sisters in Arms, it’s proof positive that not all of women’s studies is, or needs to be, tendentious politicking.

Women of the Left Bank consists mainly of biographical sketches of the (often lesbian) women who populated 20s Paris–Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Molineau, Djuna Barnes, H.D., and a host of others.

The book fascinated me when I first read it, and I have read it several times since, since it seems to be an illustration of what has always been the basic reason why I am never anti-feminism.

I am sometimes anti-feminist–in the sense of being anti- the ideas of some woman who calls herself a feminist–but anti-feminism is beyond me.

The reason for this, and the memory of Women of the Left Bank, came to me while I was reading the long section of F.R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition dedicated to George Eliot.

For those of you who don’t know, Eliot was a woman named Mary Ann Evans.  She is the author of at least one book most of you hate, Silas Marner. 

I haven’t read Silas Marner

The only book of Eliot’s that I have read is one called Middlemarch.  And I read it because it was assigned in a course, not because I picked it up on my own.  There isn’t a lot of fiction in English I can say that about.

The plot of Middlemarch is this:  Dorothea Brooke is a passionately intellectual young woman prevented, by birth and breeding, from doing anything serious with her intelligence.  Since she cannot be great herself, the best she can hope for is to marry a great man and help him in his work.

The man she marries is Mr. Causabon, hard at work on his Great Book, The Key to All Mythologies.  Mr. Causabon wants to marry because he believes he needs a soft, light feminine touch to help him get away from it all, but also because he thinks a suitable wife will be able to help him as a secretary, and therefore speed the finish and publication of the book.

They marry, and Dorothea goes to work with Mr. Causabon on the book–only to find that it is utterly mediocre, and that Mr. Causabon’s mind is utterly mediocre, and that she is now cut off irrevocably from the life of the mind she has dreamed of.

Now, I know this is not the kind of thing most of you would be interested in reading.

It is the kind of thing I would be interested in reading, but the first time I read it–in a course on the 19th Century English Novel–I found myself almost unbearably put off by Eliot style.  Eliot’s style tends to be–what’s the word?


Very heavy.

I finished the course and honestly thought I’d never read the thing again.  I was wrong.

And I was wrong largely because Dorothea and Mr. Causabon stuck with me.  Who they were.  What they were.  How they ended up.  It’s as clear in my brain now as when I first read it, and thought the book was boring because Eliot’s prose was so sluggish and dense.

To understand what George Eliot’s Dorothea–and George Eliot herself–have to do with lesbian women in Twenties Paris and what all that has to do with my ambivalent relationship to modern feminism, you have to start by looking at the life of George Eliot herself.

Mary Ann Evans was a very interesting person for a (pre and) Victorian Englishwoman.  She was, of course, what Dorothea was–a young girl with truly impressive intellectual talents, born into a world that had very little use for that sort of thing in “girls.”

Unlike Dorothea, however, she did manage to make use of those talents, not only as a writer but as a translator and an essayist.  The use of the pseudonym “George Eliot” seems to indicate that she had to do that under cover of darkness, pretending to be a man, because she would not have been accepted as a woman.

The fact of it is that the pseudonym was not a disguise.  Everybody in literary London knew that George Eliot was a woman named Mary Ann Evans–and that she was living as man and wife with a man who was already married, named Lewes.

I once got into an argument about feminism with a (male) friend of mine, using my mother as an example.  My mother would have been a much happier woman if she had pursued her ambitions, or even if she’d just had a job.  My father refused to allow it, because he believed that people would take it as a sign that his own career was going to hell–why else would his wife have to go out to work?

Even so, my friend said, she could have followed her ambitions or taken a job.  Women did that kind of thing in the Fifties and early Sixties, and even before.

And, of course, in some ways he was absolutely right.  There was certainly sexual discrimination in the Fifties and Sixties, and quotas on women students in law and medical schools, but women were indeed moving into all kinds of professions, and the existence of them there was being increasingly taken for granted.

In the old sci-fi horror classic Them, two of the three people with “Doctor” in front of their names are female.  You can find women physicians–and not just pediatricians–all over Fifties television.

The issue of feminism has been framed wrongly, I think, but making it an issue of women’s access to male careers. 

What is striking about the lives and careers of George Eliot and many of the women who came after them is not their lack of access to male education and careers, but the fact that, having achieved that access, their success did not become their identity.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was a poet.  Thomas Hardy was a novelist.  George Eliot was a homely woman who had to settle for an irregular living situation and, who–yeah, did things.  Like write books.

What’s more, George Eliot took this matter of identity to heart.  She never rested until she finally got Lewes to marry her, and was apparently relieved to finally be “respectable” in spite of the fact that Lewes was her Causabon–a tenth rate mind without half her ability.

This was the case as well with many of the women intellectuals who came after her–that they were women fundamentally, but only contigently intellectuals.

You can see it in the life of Mary McCarthy, a woman who was in no way homely, and who used her beauty to go through a succession of men each of whom successively defined her position in New York’s literary society.  For a while she was “the girl at the Partisan Review.” After that she was, for a while, “the woman at Bard.” 

In both cases, she was where she was because she was dating or living with or married to a man who could bring her into that fold.

This is a theme that runs through Women of the Left Bank without ever being made explicit, and that ran through most of my growing up before modern feminism permanently changed the way this society looks on the work of women.

I can’t imagine anybody saying, as my father did about a friend of the family, that a woman is getting a doctorate to “compensate” for the fact that she isn’t very attractive to men–and this was my father, who wanted to send me off to the Harvard Law School and who went slightly crazy at the fact that “not attractive to men” was not one of my problems.

I don’t think he was ever aware of the discrepancy.

In Women of the Left Bank, we are given short biographical sketch after short biographical sketch of women who either tried to find a solution to their cultural contingency or who tried to work it out as George Eliot had and Mary McCarthy would.

I am not trying to trivialize the work of bringing down institutional barriers to female achievement.  I can still remember the spring when the law and medical schools dropped their female quotas and just admitted on merit.  Vassar traditionally had five or so women in every class go to law or medical school.  That spring, the numbers were suddenly in the forties for each.

Even so, I think it was the issue of contingency that mattered–the change from a world where a woman was always a woman first, no matter what she did, to one in which a woman’s work, like a man’s, was accepted as primary.

And I can remember when that changed for me.

And that’s why, no matter how crazy some of the feminist stuff can make me–“equal pay for COMPARABLE work” has to be one of the stupidest and most pernicious ideas ever to hit print–I can’t think of feminism at base as anything but a positive.

Written by janeh

June 12th, 2012 at 8:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Let Me Entertain You

with one comment

Yesterday was Sunday.  I usually call Sundays my day off, but that isn’t entirely accurate.  I feel very frustrated and unhappy on days when I do not write fiction, so I write fiction on Sundays.  It’s the rest of what I do most days that I let go by the board if I feel like it.  I write the blog or not.  I pick up the living room or not.  I correct papers or not.

What I do do on Sundays, of course, is read.  I also listen to music–harpsichords, usually Bach, but sometimes other things–but t his is about reading, so we’ll go there.

Because yesterday, I had one of the most incoherent reading days I can remember.

In the very early morning, right after writing, I finished up a long essay by Ayn Rand called (in the book I have) “For the New Intellectual.”  In most places it’s reprinted, the title is “Attila and the Witch Doctor.”

Around lunch and into the afternoon, I read two short stories by Poul Anderson, “How to Be An Ethnic” and “The Problem of Pain.”  I have a feeling that I’m leaving out the end of the title of that first one.

Then, in the evening, I started a book of literary criticism by F. R. Leavis, called The Great Tradition.  This is not the kind of book you think it is.  It’s not about the canon, or classical education, or any of that.  It’s about “the tradition of great English novel,” which Mr. Leavis restricts to the works of four writers:  Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad, George Eliot, and Henry James.

Mr. Leavis was a Brit.  He did know that Henry James was an American, and Joseph Conrad was a Pole.

I think it was reading all these things together, sort of on top of each other with no space in between, that made so many of the things Leavis was saying sound so inadequate and peculiar.

The difference between a Great Novel and a not-Great one, according to Mr. Leavis, is that a Great Novel has high moral seriousness and undertakes to tackle significant themes, while a not-Great novel is meant primarily as an entertainment.

Unlike many other critics writing in and around the same period–the book was published in 1948 and references people like Yvor Winters–Mr. Leavis does think that a Great Writer can write entertainments rather that Great Novels.

That’s his assessment of Dickens, whom he is happy to pronounce a genius, but whose novels he relegates to the minor ranks.

Of course, on the other hand, he also has nothing againt the reading of entertainments.

But what struck me about this, aside from Leavis’s annoying habit of ranking everything he’s ever read, was that this is the second time I’ve run across “explanations” of the phenomenon that is “popular fiction” that seem to have been invented without the authors ever having actually looked into the subject.

The other characterization came in a textbook, by a writer whose name I don’t remember and don’t need to.

But here they are:

1) popular novels are written primary to make money.  That’s the motive for writing them, so things like originality and serious issues won’t be found in them, because that would lose readership.  (That one was in the textbook)

2) popular novels are written primarily to entertain, so they’re likely to contain things people already think they know, rather than challenging their ideas or beliefs. (That one was Leavis, more or less.)

Now, the interesting thing about these two ideas is that they seem to have no connection with lived reality.

Maybe the problem is that the people who try to “explain” popular novels know very little about them, even if they’ve tried to read a few.

The claim that the writers of popular fiction write “for money”–and, by implication, nothing else–is a constant of a certain kind of criticism.  I think it comes from a fundamental category mistake.

Critics who do not read popular fiction much or at all pick up their morning papers and find out that Stephen King makes millions of dollars a book, J.K. Rowling makes tens of millions of dollars a book, Judith Krantz gets into seven figures on a regular basis, and makes the not completely insane deduction that popular fiction must be popular, and therefore that it must make money.

In the meantime, he (or she) is unaware that there is a lot more popular fiction out there, some of which is making very little money indeed.

And some of which is being written by writers who would make more money if they would try to bend their principles a little and do what the public wants.

Except, of course, that they couldn’t.  Writers do not write that way.  And the ones that try usually fail. 

Readers don’t read that way, either.

The other thing, though–that there’s a distinction between “entertainment” and tackling serious things–is odder once you look at it.

I know that a lot of people say “I read for entertainment” when what they mean is that they read to shut their minds down, sort of the way I watch television.

But I can’t for the life of me believe that MOST readers read this way.

Cynthia Ozick once famously said “I am not entertained by entertainment.” 

On one level, it was a silly and snobbish thing to say, especially in the circumstances under which she said it (she was condescending to Ed McBain, a writer so awash in tackling serious things his books were like labyrinths, and twice the writer she is even on a technical level).

On another level, though, I understand it.

There really are books out there whose purpose seems to be to present something that you can read without having to think at all, and I’m not entertained by those any more than Ozick is.

My confusion comes in that I don’t  understand why it has to be an either/or proposition. 

Anderson’s “The Problem of Pain” was entertaining at least in part because it was a riff on the classical dilemma of Christian theology–if God is good and loves us and is omnipotent, why does he allow pain?–and because it presented a non-Christian alternative and a non-Christian concept of God.

It did that without descending into the didactic.

So, I have a couple of possible alternative answers to what popular fiction is and why.

1) Writers write what they write.  What comes out is as inevitable as breathing. 

Not all writers are like this, but some are.  And all real writers are like this.

Think H.P. Lovecraft.  Or J.R.R. Tolkein.  Or even Harlan Ellison.

2) Of those writers who don’t write what they write whether that would have chosen it or not–of those writers who do consciously choose between possibilities they believe are open to them–

What they are choosing is not a genre (with “literary” being understood as a genre), but an audience.

It is who they are talking to that matters to them.  And it is the clear and obvious decision of so many self-consciously “literary’ contemporary writers to write for an extremely restricted group of people that makes so much of contemporary literary fiction so annoying.

In some cases, a writer writes for a restricted audience because he has to.  She writes what she cannot help but write and the number of people out there who connect with is is very few.

But too much contemporary literary fiction is the result of decades lived not in a bubble, but in Sylvia Plath’s airless bell jar–life among the upper middle class with little or no contact with anybody else, yes, but even more claustrophobic than that. 

Life among that segment of the upper middle class that identifies first and foremost with academia.

Next to that, the faults of the genres seem to me to be fairly minor.  At least most people who write genre fiction have had non-academic jobs and families with non-academic people in them.

And some of them even do the good old thing of signing onto a tramp steamer to go See Life before they write about it.

Written by janeh

June 11th, 2012 at 8:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Standards of Value

with 9 comments

This is what my day is like.

I get up very early in the morning–around 4 or 4:30, usually.

I stuff enough caffeine in myself so that I am relatively functional.  Sometimes the emphasis is on “relatively.”

I sit down at the computer and write fiction.  Then I get grading and other schoolwork done.  Then I write this blog if I think of something to say. 

Then I have lunch.

In case you haven’t figured this out by now, by the time I get to “lunch” (around 1 to 2), I’m often in the state most of you are in at five, and it’s not like I’m done. 

I have one child still at home–there may be more, but I can never quite figure out what’s going on; there has to be some explanation for the fact that my refrigerator empties twice a week–and that one keeps insisting on being fed.  There are also things to do around the house, and errands, and all that other stuff.

What this means is that I hit four o’clock in the afternoon and it’s as if somebody hit me over the head with a two by four. 

I don’t know what it is about that particular hour of the day, but it’s as if I come to a complete stop.

I’m not the kind of person who can nap, unforunately.  I can lie down and go to sleep in the middle of the day, but if I do that I end up unable to get to sleep again until well after midnight, and sometimes after two. 

This is more trouble than it’s worth in a number of ways, so what I do instead is to wander into the house, fall down on the loveseat, grab the remote, and stare at whatever happens to be available on the television screen.

Note one of the issues here.  When I get this kind of tired, I’m capable of clicking the television on, but the entire process of changing channels bewilders me, so I don’t. 

For the last couple of weeks, what has been on the television at 4 in the afternoon has been Judge Judy. 

This confused me for a while, until I realized that Judge Judy airs on the same channel that carries my preferred local evening news.  All that was happening was that I was watching the local evening news and then nobody was ever changing the channel. 

Sometimes in the evenings I listen to jazz, or Koko Taylor, or that kind of thing.  Somehow, Coltrane in the morning doesn’t quite work out.

At any rate, I’d wander out, click the machine on, and there would be Judge Judy.

I haven’t much liked Judge Judy in the past.  The woman yells a lot, and sometimes she overrides people or prevents them from talking in ways that seem to me to be prejudicial to the interests of the people appearing before her.

She also sometimes has wrong ideas about reality–she doesn’t understand how some things work, but doesn’t realize she doesn’t understand.  That doesn’t help, either.

All of these things are still true, and I still find myself getting ridiculously annoyed at the woman on a regular basis, but in the late-afternoon semi-catatonia, I ‘ve started to notice something else.

I’ve started to notice the people who are appearing before her.

For those of you who know nothing about Judge Judy, Judith Scheindlin is a real judge in a real court–small claims, is my best guess–and the cases televised on the show are real cases, the adjudication of which have actual legal consequences.

They are not, however, cases that have come up willy-nilly by the luck of the draw of the docket.  The people who appear on Judge Judy elect to appear in her court and to abide by her decision.  I’m not sure how that works legally.

And I’m not sure what the self selection process is like.  The show actively solicits certain kinds of cases.  I don’t know who decides to have their suit play out on Judge Judy instead of in their local small claims court. 

The people in those case represent quite a range.  Most of them are white and what used to be called “working class” when I was younger, but there are poorer people and richer people.  There are people at almost all levels of education.  There are white people, black people, Latino people and Asian people. 

And most of them should know better. 

I presume that people who appear on this show do so either because they watch it (and therefore get the idea and the information to have their case heard there), or because they’ve been sued in this court by somebody who watches the show.  In the latter case, I’d think it would be a matter of self-preservation to make sure to watch a couple of episodes so that you’d know what you were in for.

Either that isn’t the case, or a lot of people have a lot of trouble making connections between what they see and what they ought to do.

Virtually every case involves at least one person on at least one side who has not brought any of the documentation they need to prove their contentions. 

What’s worse, their response to Judge Judy’s declaration that without documentation, they can’t win anything is to get petulant and resentful.   It’s as if asking for objective evidence of their claims is in and of itself a form of injustice. 

What’s more, they are adamant that their excuses are not just excuses but justifications–but I left it at home!  but the bank wouldn’t give me the documents!  I couldn’t help it!

It’s just not fair if it counts even when they couldn’t help it.

The other thing they all have in common is this:  they’re convinced that they have a right to do wrong things if a) there was no other way for them to get what they needed or b) the other person did something wrong to them and therefore deserved retribution.

I had to steal the 1500 from her wallet.  That was the only way I could get a car, and I needed a car to get a job!

Yes, I did go into his apartment when he wasn’t home and trash the place from floor to ceiling, but he was cheating on me with another woman and he called me fat and ugly!

So I’ve been looking at this and wondering, really, where it comes from.  They didn’t develop this sort of thing on their own.  Who gave them this sort of view of the world.

And then I realized.

I did.

I am at fault for it–personally at fault for it, in some cases–in two ways.

First, the idea that “I just couldn’t do it” means you shouldn’t be held accountable for it is the bottom line of education these days.  I know you said it had to be on white paper, but I only had yellow.  You can’t take off points for that.  I couldn’t help it. 

I know you said it was due Tuesday, but my car broke down and I couldn’t get to school.  You can’t fail me.  I couldn’t help it.

And those arguments get results–and if they don’t, and the student complains to an administrator, you’re likely to be pressured into letting it get results.

As to the thing about he did something bad to me, so I have a right to get my own back any way I want–it is, I think, the basic premise behind a lot of crime fiction these days, and some fantasy and science fiction as well.

It’s also the premise behind some fairly popular books and movies of what are supposed to be a more mainstream kind.  The First Wives Club, for instance (book and movie), operates on the premise that if you’re a middle-aged woman whose husband has left her for another woman, you’re justified in breaking into his private files to get business dirt on him, blackmailing him about both his public and private life to get the money to fund a Good Works project, and on and on and on.

And it’s not the only example.

Obviously, the world cannot run on people like this.  In the end, we have to have somebody who actually assumes responsibility and gets things done.

But we seem to have reached a place where we are actively producing this sort of thing, both within the classroom and without.

Written by janeh

June 8th, 2012 at 9:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Little Clean-Up For The First Thing Monday Morning

with 3 comments

Well, my foray into rereading Oliver Twist will be done by evening–and a lot of you seem to read faster than I do, or to have more time to read–so I thought I’d do the best I could here to clear up what I’ve been thinking.

That, and to make a proposal.  But that’s at the end.

1) I agree, with Robert and Cheryl, that the reason we shackle 10 year olds is that, somewhere along the line, some otherwise innocuous looking child turned out to be anything but.  That’s the reason we shackle adult prisoners, too.

But both cases leave me in the same place with the same complaint.

It is only a minority of prisoners of either kind who are prone to commit acts of violence, and treating all the rest as if they, too, are mad dogs likely to strike at any moment seems to me to be demonstrably wrong.

It is more demonstrably wrong when the principle is applied to juveniles, who are often in custody for what are not crimes at all–running away from home; skipping school; sometimes even things like “defiance’ or getting pregnant out of wedlock.

What bothers me about this is, first, that it is destructive to kids who are not (at the beginning) dangerous or criminal in any way.

And second, that it says something about how this society–or at least those of us who serve in official capacities–thinks of its own children.

We seem to believe that we harbor among us wild beasts who are incorrigible by definition.  That’s why we’re willing to put them on the sex offender registry for most of their lives for offences that are largely invented and not indicative of any long term propensity for sexual violence, and to put them in jail for life for real enough offenses that may or may not be indicative of long term violence.

I understand the frustrations of people who find that a juvenile who has committed an horrific crime is to be released at 25.  And I can see the inevitable resort (in some cases–see Cinnamon Brown) to “child assassins” to commit crimes that would otherwise have more serious consequences than juvenile laws will allow.

And yet I also remember Mary Bell, who committed an horrific crime (the murders of two younger children) at the age of ten, and who was released in her early twenties to go on to lead what seems to have been a perfectly normal, nonviolent, and noncriminal life.

There is something wrong about the way we think of our children.

2) I also agree with Michael that most of the people who take on foster children for the money–relatives or nonrelatives–lack the “executive functioning” to mount any kind or organized defense of their position.

What the man means is that they’re thick as two planks, and yes, most of them are.

But there are lots of players in this system that do have the brains to do at least that much–caseworkers, social workers, psychologists, bureaucrats–and defend it they will.

But it’s hard to see that this would matter much, because the the dirty little secret of the foster care system is that no alternative procedure will or can be appreciably better.

Note the “can be.”

Because it brings us to this:

3) Let’s call it the affinity problem.

Every time there’s a new child molestation scandal–Catholic priests!  Boy Scout leaders!  Sixth grade gym teachers!–we get long explanations of why so many of these people seem to molest children.

None of these explanations make any sense.

It’s the celibacy!  People proclaim, when Catholic priests are involved.  But actually, the percentages of offenders are exactly the same for non-celebate clergy, and for youth leaders of all types for all denominations.

It’s the repression of homosexuality!  People say, when the issue is Boy Scout leaders.  But the percentages are pretty much the same for all youth groups, irrespective of their stands on homosexuality, religion, or anything else.

Here’s what’s happening–victimizers go where the victims are.

A man with a jones to have sex with children will find a profession where he has access to children.  A bully will find a job that allows her to bully extensively and largely without consequences.

That’s why so many clergymen and Boy Scout leaders land in child sex scandals.  That’s why nursing home workers land in elder abuse scandals.  That’s why there are at least a couple of national stories a year about foster parents who have sexually abused the children on their care or beaten and neglected them.

Last night, after reading some of the comments to the last post, I did a few Google searches.

For Connecticut, I found two high profile cases, one in 2007, and one in the last year.  In the 2007 case, a woman left her two foster children in her car while she went into one of the Indian casinos to gamble for hours.  In the other, foster parents who had sheltered dozens of children over the years were found to have tied them up, locked them in closets, and systematically beaten and half starved them.

The situation got more interesting, if that’s the word, when I went farther afield.  My favorite was a case in Florida where a woman  had staved something like eight children half to death before she was caught by the very caseworkers assigned to supervise her.

Because you have to remember.  Cases from the foster care system are cases in which the foster parents were supposedly being supervised.

The usual response to this sort of thing is to claim that supervision was lax, and to fire the oversight caseworker for negligence. 

But I don’t think it’s anywhere that simple. 

I could complain that the endless “red flags” of supposed abuse are just plain wrong–because most of them are–but what’s really happening here is that victimizers go where the victims are, and no system of child protection will ever be able to keep them out.

They know the red flags of abuse just as well as their supervisors do, and if they weren’t good at disguising who and what they are, they wouldn’t be in the system to begin with.

What’s more, in any pool of potential foster parents, there will be a disproportionate percentage of victimizers looking for victims.  And that will be the case in the pool for teachers, clergy, youth group leaders, nursing home workers, and the rest.

And, more importantly, there is no way to fix this. 

We could certainly correct some of the ludicrous red flags–which not only don’t reliably identify abusers but often wrongly identify them–and ramp up the oversight.

But at the end of the day, we’ll be right where we started.  We’ll be living in a world where some people simply enjoy hurting  others, and will do what they have to to have access to the others they want to hurt.

And the people who enjoys this are almost universally looking for the weak–the very young, the very old, the very poor, the mentally challenged.

We might do better dealing with this if we accepted the fact that are red flags were, in fact, largely both wrong and destructive–that we don’t know why people do these things, and that at the moment we don’t know how to identify them except in hindsight.

We might, but I’m not sure we would.

I do think we might get someplace if we’d stop assuming that our children and our poor are less human than our dogs.

Written by janeh

June 4th, 2012 at 10:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The More They Stay The Same

with 7 comments

So, I’ve been looking at the comments this morning, and it’s been interesting.

Mike is right to an extent–things have indeed gotten better in many ways.

But maybe not in as many ways as he thinks.

Because one of the things that’s been striking me while reading Oliver Twist is how similar it is to the way we handle (mostly poor) children today.

We have, of course, quite thankfully reduced the use of the death penalty to murder only, and to nothing at all in some places–but we have no compunction to sentencing children as young as 15 to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  We just keep them in juvenile facilities until they’re 18, and then ship them across town.

And I have no idea what the rate of orphaned children is these days, but go someplace like Washington Heights or Crown Point or the South Bronx, and you can find plenty of ragged, half-starving children roaming the streets.

You can find plenty of Fagin-like operations, too, with parents and live in boyfriends using children to run drugs and help with the shoplifting. 

But the most striking similarity is this:  the principle institution for “doing something” about children whose parents are absent, or inadequate, or criminal, is to farm them out to designated adults who are paid to keep them. 

This is true in Dickens, and it is true now, because that’s what foster care does. It places children with adults who are given a monthly stipend to pay for their care.

The principle problem with this system in Dickens is the same as one of the principle problems with the foster care system now.  The adults who are supposed to care for the children have an incentive to spend as little as possible on their upkeep and pocket the rest of the money for their own use.

And in spite of all the oversight and training programs and the rest of it that we are supposed to have now, there is a lot of this going on–at least a couple of majorly reported cases a year where foster children are found ragged and malnourished while their foster parents spent their care stipends on lottery tickets and beer, where foster parents ate well and provided little or nothing for the children in their care.

I don’t know if this is a problem that is fixable.  Obviously, oversight does not work 100% of the time.  And the kind of people who would not respond to stipends this way are often unwilling to take in foster children precisely because the oversight is intrusive and often destructive of normal family life.

The stipend attracts the wrong kind of people and the oversight scares away the right ones.  And then the departments do what they have to do to place children somewhere.  They take what they can get and turn a blind eye to what they would brand as violations in any other situation. 

That’s why, ever few years, we get another report from another state that foster homes are actually more dangerous for children than the homes they were taken out of.

But the similarities between Oliver Twist and now are more obvious to me in terms of attitude. 

No, we won’t hang a child for stealing a loaf of bread, but if he skips school too often we’ll pick him up and throw him into a “juvenile facility” for a week while he awaits a hearing, and while he is in that facility we’ll handcuff him and shackle him anytime he has to go anywhere, like court.  We’ll treat him, in other words, as if he were a violent offender.

And it’s not even a matter of being presumed guilty of viciousness until proven innocent.  There is no way for the child to prove himself innocent.  If he’s in the facility at all, he will be treated as a violent offender, no matter how perfect his behavior for how long.

I think discussing whether this sort of thing is better or worse than the Victorians did it is, as the man said, peripheral. 

The truly astonishing thing is that we continue to think of children–and especially poor children–as innately, incorrigibly vicious, to be approached with all the caution we use when we handle rabid dogs. 

We’re even willing to put children on the sex offender registry, for terms as long as forty years, for committing acts it’s sometimes obvious had no sexual content for them at all, or for doing things that any sane society would consider absolutely normal.   It really isn’t a sign of a budding rapist for an 18 year old to have sex with his 15 year old girlfriend.

If there is a similarity between that time and this, it’s that we seem to believe that if children are born poor they are also born bad–and we’ve added to that  that if they’re male, they’re probably born bad even if they’re not born poor.

Eleanor Roosevelt was widely ridiculed for insisting on the fundamental innocense of children, and I’ll admit that there are rare cases in which that is not your best assumption. 

Part of me, though, does feel that there is some value in making that the default assumption.

Written by janeh

June 3rd, 2012 at 9:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Strength of Character

with 12 comments

I am sitting here at the start of one of those days that you just know is going to me miserable, because it looks like rain outside when there isn’t any rain yet, and everything is so humid that the concrete block is wilting.

I am also in yet another spasm of temporary physical disability.  I was walking across the dining room early yesterday morning when I slipped on something.  I don’t know what.  The dining room floor is hardwood.  It looked perfectly clean. 

At any rate, I slipped and I fell and I came very close to breaking my knee.  I could feel it about to happen, and I went frantically twisting around to save myself.  I did, too, except that instead of breaking the thing I twisted it badly, and now it’s hard to straighten out and has swollen up like a casaba melon.

I think Rocky and Bullwinkle and Fractured Fairy Tales have branded casaba melons forever.

I am just coming to the end of Oliver Twist, and a friend of mine asked me yesterday if all the characters in it are passive, and, if they were, if that was a Good Thing.

I found this an interesting question, because it wasn’t the way I’d ever thought about it before.

The title character in Oliver Twist is not so much a character as he is a stand in for a problem–the way in which the society of Dickens’s day treated poor and homeless children. 

I don’t think it would have been believable for a character who is supposed to be so young and so physically frail to have been a great adventurer, or something else of that kind. 

I also think it would not have served the purpose.  Dickens wanted to call attention to the way the poor, and especially poor children, were treated, and conceived of.  An Oliver Twist who resolutely set off to Make His Fortune, and then Made It, would have presented an interesting enough story, but he would also have bolstered exactly the kind of thinking Dickens opposed–that if these children were actually worth anything, they would DO things and get themselves out of their predicament.

I am not much for helplessness in characters or people, but I do think it’s unlikely that a five year old, or even an eight year old, can Do about his own poverty.  There is less he can do about his maltreatment–beatings, and being nearly staved to death, and that kind of thing–in a society in which those things are considered to be just what he deserves.

Oliver Twist is also limited in its time.  We get a quick rehash of how Oliver came to be in a county poorhouse, then move forward until he’s about eight or nine, and then go from there no more than a year or two. 

And although Oliver is not exactly completely passive, he’s not in a position to know what it is he’s supposed to do, or what it is he is supposed to be looking for, although he does have the distinct feeling he is supposed to be looking for something.

He knows his mother is dead, and has been told she was a prostitute, and that his father was some Godforsaken john.  The one thing he consistently does is to fight anybody who says anything wrong about his mother, and it is such a fight that finally gets him in trouble with the law enough to feel he should light out for a new place.

The passivity, or lack of it, here, is, I think, an interesting question.  A lot of people have complained that Oliver is too good and pure (and passive) to be interested in.  One of those people is Jill Muller, who wrote the introduction to the edition I’m reading.

And goodness only knows, the Good and Pure thing can get annoying, and occurs regularly in Dickens’s work.  It occurs more than once in Oliver Twist, and not just in the character of Oliver.  Dickens was a sentimentalist by nature, and he wrote in a sentimentalist age. We’re in Victorian England, the world of saccharine sweetness of nature and the Angel of the House.

But although this is all true enough, it matters to me what happens to Oliver, and he does in fact do quite a few things that turn out to be frantically unsuccessful attempts to rectify his situation in one way or the other.

Brought along to help on a robbery, he makes up his mind to cry out and alert the house so that they can stop the attempt in its tracks–even though he knows that, by doing so, he will be caught along with the rest and almost certainly hanged. 

This does not seem, to me, like the act of somebody who is terminally passive. 

I don’t think it’s a count against  him that he gets shot before he has a chance to pull off his plan.

Thinking about it, though, a lead character who has a plan, knows what he wants, and sets about doing it isn’t something I dislike, but it also isn’t the only kind of character I’m interested in reading about.

It seems to me that there are other kinds of people in the world, and those other kinds of people often have stories, and they can be intrinisically interesting.

If I had to pick my favorite type of lead character, it would be this:  someone stuck in a situation so miserable and all-encompassing that there seems to be no way out of it without behaving in ways she thinks are morally reprehensible, and who comes, over time, through a series of events not directly related to the core problem, to see the way out.

That is, I think, the story at the core of Somebody Else’s Music, which is still my favorite of all the books I’ve written. 

I don’t want a doormat, but I’m also not usually interested in people who have a cause and are intent on pursuing it and succeeding–except in villains, where the object of their desire becomes one of the reasons they engage in their villainy.

Even in villains, though, this is not my favorite type of character. 

In villains, I prefer the kind of person so convinced of his or her own righteousness that she’d happily seen kittens strangled and small children run through woodchippers to bring about her own triumph. 

In other words, all my villains have the souls of bureaucrats in the helping professions.

I want to head something off at the pass here, in the probably vain hope that I can make this clear the first time.

I am NOT SAYING that there’s another wrong with strong and resolute heroes and heroines who know what they want and set out to get it.

I am NOT SAYING that such characters are in any way a  negative thing about a story.

And I am NOT COMPLAINING about such characters.

ALL I am saying is that, for me, other kinds of characters are more interesting.

Oliver Twist is interesting, at the moment, although not really for himself–for the fact that he is the focal point in bringing down Fagan and Sikes and the rest; and for the fact that I find it hard not to identify common themes between that time and this.

Treating children caught up in crimes as if they were adults is one of them.

Written by janeh

June 2nd, 2012 at 12:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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