A Woman’s Biology: Risk and Guilt

A Woman’s Biology: Risk and Guilt

Because of their ability to conceive a child, give birth, perpetuate the species, women have for centuries been honored, sometimes considered saintly, but often buried too soon to live a full and creative life. But precisely because of this biological endowment, this ability to help perpetuate the species, women have also been treated cruelly, taken for granted, sometimes considered evil witches with powers that require control and abuse.

As a former Labor and Delivery nurse, I was fascinated by a recent article that appeared in the New York Times. It’s a personal recounting by writer Leslie Jamison of her C-Section experience, and the research she did concerning this medical procedure. (Posting this after the unethical decisions being made in Texas, only underlines the importance of healthcare for women in any situation related to their reproductive rights.)

JAMISON, A PERSONAL HISTORY  

Jamison starts her piece by recalling the words she used to discuss the birth of her daughter. “When they got her out…”

Jamison writes: “…the day after my daughter’s birth, I found myself emphasizing how much I held her, how I never wanted to put her down. It was as if I felt the need to compensate narratively for that first hour, when I wasn’t able to hold her at all—to insist that we bonded just as much anyway. I found myself exaggerating the part about the not caring if I was numb before they cut me open, when in fact I did care. I told the doctors that I would actually love some more anesthesia in my epidural…as if I were trying to make up for other kinds of pain I didn’t experience – unwittingly obeying the cultural script that insisted on suffering and sacrifice as the primary measure of maternal love.”

Jamison states that even now, 3 years later, when women describe pushing out their babies or having 40 hours of labor, she feels a pang of guilt, a kind of shame, as if her own birth story “wasn’t one that merited pride or celebration, but was instead a kind of blemish, a beginning from which my daughter and I must recover.” She then provides a fascinating history of the Caesarian section. A few excerpts: French obstetrician Jean Louis Baudelocque wrote: “That operation is called Caesarean by which any way is opened for the child other than that destined for it bye nature.”

JULIUS CAESAR–AH, THAT’S WHERE WE GET THE NAME? 

There is an apocryphal story that Julius Caesar was born by cesarean, as his mother survived the birth and went on to bear more children—at a time when it was impossible to survive a C-section. She tells us that in 1925 Herbert Spencer, a professor of obstetrics at the University College London, speculates that it “was called Caesarean as being too grand to have been first performed on ordinary mortals.” He also calls it: “the greatest of all operations, in that it affects two lives.”

But Jamison knows and we know, that for most of history, the procedure saved only one life. The mother did not routinely survive, until the 20th century, because before then, the procedure was usually deployed as a last-ditch effort to save the child, the mother dying, bleeding out, or already dead.

MACBETH, A FORETELLING  

Historically and in literature, the C-section was often associated with the imperial, with the divinity. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the cesarean-born Macduff experiences a birth that is an answer to a riddle: The witches have promised “that none of women born shall harm Macbeth” but in Shakespeare’s creativity, Macduff is exempt from such a foretelling as he “was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.”

Jamison, a modern woman looking back on the history of a procedure she has experienced, makes the comment that Macduff’s exceptional birth might grant him some singular power, but such a birth also relates monstrosity. “Untimely ripped doesn’t exactly summon the epidural and the blue tarp.” Jamison knows, she’s been there.

COLONIAL AMERICA 

Of course, the early history of the Caesarean, a little used and experimental procedure, did not insure life for either the infant or the mother. But neither did natural childbirth. The baby was often fortunate if he or she survived. But in the graveyards of Boston and other parts of the New England states, where our early settlers are buried, you can often find a series of graves for a family. First is the grave of the husband, his dates, which always extend his time of life. Then alongside him are his wives—sometimes two or three. No, he wasn’t a bigamist, but when the first wife died in childbirth or from puerperal fever (see below), he married again, and if that wife died, he married again—eventually not for sex or more children, but for someone to raise his progeny, feed and clothe them, tend his garden.

THE SHAME FACTOR 

Jamison also discusses how the advent of the C-section has been used by some to shame mothers. In his book, Childbirth Without Fear, Grantly Dick-Reed inferred that pain during delivery was a lesson women needed to learn. “Children will always mean hard work and will always demand self-control.” Easy for him to say when he’s standing by the delivery table and not lying on it. 

FINAL THOUGHTS  

Jamison’s article is pivotal and for her, she worked through the angst of her fears and regrets. But the end of the article speaks truth for all mothers, no matter how we have brought our children into this world. Jamison writes: Why do we want so much from our birth stories? It’s tempting to understand life in terms of pivotal moments, when it is actually composed of ongoing processes:not the single day of birth but the daily care that follows…diapers and midnight crying, playground tears and homework, tantrums…If we are lucky, birth is just the beginning. The labor isn’t done. It’s has only just begun. 

For more information on Puerperal fever that caused the deaths of post-partum women, go here https://boomerhighway.org/living-in-the-body-part-2/

Bridget Reyes / A Little Muse Photography

Medical Dramas: They Can Educate

Medical Dramas: They Can Educate

I like reading and sharing pieces I find in the NYTimes, Chicago Tribune, WSJ. THIS IS ONE OF THEM… the title of the piece:

IN A TV SCRIPT, I CAN REWRITE A PATIENT’S FATE  by Daniela J. Lamas  

Dr. Lamas is a writer and co-producer for the television medical drama, The Resident, though her main employment is that of a pulmonary and critical care physician at Brigham Women’s Hospital in Boston. 

MEDICAL DRAMAS AND REALITY 

In her piece in the NYT, Dr. Daniela J. Lamas is very aware that she straddles two worlds, finding the writing gig an uplift from the death and dying she sees in her hospital’s Covid unit. When she can retreat to her messy call room, she uses Zoom to join a group of writers struggling with a scene, another medical emergency for Conrad Hawkins (Matt Czurchry), the eponymous hero of the The Resident.

Lamas never works in a vacuum, taking with her the image of the older female patient who now has Covid, her pastor having insisted she not get the vaccine. Dr. Lamas presents this situation to her writing team, hoping they will change the story line. Example: the pastor visits, sees his parishioner suffering and begins to preach from the pulpit that all his people need to get vaccinated. (But like Dr. Lamas, this story line is my creation. Will the writers group accept it?)

Dr. Lamas writes her reality: …though her lungs are slowly improving, her kidneys are worsening, and she is profoundly delirious, not waking up. We stand at the bedside and call her name, her eyelids flutter.

Down the hall, we titrate drips and manage vent settings for a man whose stem cell transplant cured his leukemia but ravaged the rest of his organs. His wife would be at his bedside, but she is at her father’s funeral.

And though the article does not say, I imagine this elderly woman did die from Covid, an unnecessary death.

STORY LINES THE WRITER’S ROOM REJECTS

Dr. Lamas writes: I used to want to show the hospital as it truly exists, to reveal the humor and tragedy and grace that characterizes my world. (She explains with the following examples.)

  • The family that came to say goodbye to a dying woman, a misplaced ID card leading them to believe, wrongly, that she was their mother.
  • A patient’s brother, with skull tattoos on his shaved head, who told us he could not be in the room when we took his brother off the ventilator. So when he left, we thought we would never see him again, but were surprised when he returned, not to sit by his dead brother, but to collect the man’s prosthetic leg. Another nurse said he spent the rest of the day in the hospital chapel with the leg beside him.

Dr. Lamas writes that even producers and writers for The Resident say such stories are simply too grim. The public does not need or want to be reminded of how quickly things can go bad, how families fall apart, how doctors do their best but patients still die.

Especially now, viewers want to see their doctor as heroes, to follow a formula that has doctors saving lives more than losing them.

IN THE WORLD OF THE TV HOSPITAL

Dr. Lamas writes: “During my first experience on the set…I learned that when things went wrong (a medical word being mispronounced) I was assured, “Don’t worry. We can fix it in post.” She underlines that she loved that phrase, one she wanted to say to her patients over and over. “…to be able to have another chance, to treat the sepsis earlier, to stop the pastor form advising against vaccination, to fix it in the post.”

Dr. Lamas reminds us that during the pandemic, her roles as a critical care doctor and a television writer are often in conflict. Though she wants to honor and remember every patient who died, she also yearns to tell stories that are hopeful, where there is always the chance for recovery, no matter how dire the diagnosis.

“It’s a tension I am still learning to navigate. How do we tell stories that feel true while also keeping viewers engaged? What kind of cheats are acceptable, and which are irresponsible?”

Dr. Lamas then makes a particular reference to the struggle that often ensues when the team is trying to save a cardiac patient. She reminds us that TV characters survive cardiac arrests far more often than people in real life do.

“…and the nurse left alone to clean up after the death…” If our viewers could see that, “they would change the channel.” She is right. I still remember during my Cardiac rotation, watching a team try to save a patient, the family waiting in an adjoining room. The man died. And yes, the floor was littered with medical pads, bottles, wipes, tubing…

IN THE REAL WORLD

Dr. Lamas is right when she stresses that medical dramas are important, that they can provide escape, but also education.

“In the writer’s room, we have a change to …offer a different ending to the story. And in doing so, we can sneak in potentially lifesaving education—early warning signs of certain illnesses, the dangers of overtreatment or the impact of inequities in access to care…television dramas have an unparalleled opportunity to educate and even to change behavior…I have come to believe that it is worth glossing over the facts IF we can weave a story that encourages viewers to trust science, to get vaccinated, to look differently at disease. When I find myself fact-checking what I see on the television monitors, I remind myself of this more important goal.”

Dr. Lamas ends her piece, mentioning a patient that she met one morning on rounds, asking him to mute the TV show he was watching, a medical TV show, as she needed to listen to his heart. He seemed surprised that he had to miss something, explained that medical dramas had been his one constant. The plots reassured him, taught him what might be ahead in his own medical story, while helping him feel less alone on his own medical journey. Dr. Lamas smiled. She understood.

(I confess that one of the reasons I became a nurse after having my three children—was my propensity to be gripped not only by books and articles about medicine, but by watching television medical dramas. I’ve written about that before. I was an avid ER fan. Now it’s New Amsterdam, Chicago Med, and of course The Resident.)

A Short Critique of Modern Love, Season Two…

Modern Love, short films based on stories sent to the New York Times, is back. Season Two. Minnie Driver kicks it of off with a charming story of a woman and the sleek sports car she loves to drive, though it requires many repairs to keep it alive. But slowly we discover the car is really something more, a symbol of the love this woman had for her first husband who has died. Watching her interactions with her daughter and second husband, we realize there is more to that aging auto than snatches of her memory. There is love and something else: a spiritual connection? Or something magical as Minnie drives the curving steep roads of the Irish countryside, always returning home safely.  

An Irish background is repeated in another story, where we meet two people traveling on a train from Galway to Dublin. Gradually they speak to one another, then sit with one another, hoping to have a real conversation when they are on the train, heading back to their respective careers after holiday. But why wouldn’t a tale of modern love include an exchange of at least an email address? But it’s a story and the very word story means a surprise is included. 

REVIEWS OF MODERN LOVE, SEASON TWO 

Critic Roxana Hadadi writes: “Modern Love was affected by COVID-era restrictions, with episodes that filmed in New York state and Dublin, Ireland. But the lack of technical creativity is a noticeable distraction. The green screen is eye-searingly conspicuous, imagined sequences are slightly embarrassing, and an over-reliance on flashbacks signals an awareness that the dialogue isn’t doing quite enough work to communicate the details or dynamics of these relationships in the present. “Modern Love” is easy to watch because it’s so non-challenging and because it asks so little of its viewers. But it’s even easier to forget.”  

But we will continue to watch, finding the story lines interesting, and the actors more than capable of awakening the plots. It’s always a combination: writer and actor. If the story doesn’t touch you, all the hard work from the actors might not touch you either.

LOOKING BACK TO SEASON ONE:  

The consensus on Rotten Tomatoes: Carried by its charming cast, Modern Love sweet and simple sensibilities are easy enough to enjoy, even if its quaint portrait of modern life in New York City doesn’t always ring true.

My favorites from Season One:    

  1. A single book critic bonds with her doorman following an unexpected pregnancy. 
  2. When a journalist asks a dating app’s CEO if he’s ever been in love, it sparks a conversation that will change the course of both of their lives.
  3. A gay couple hope to adopt a child.
FINAL THOUGHTS:  If you like short stories that shout out a New York City milieu, Modern Love Stories are for you. 

A HOUSE FULL OF WINDSORS

A HOUSE FULL OF WINDSORSSometimes you come across a novel that reminds you of your own personal proclivity (and to better explain: a tendency to choose or do something regularly; an inclination or predisposition toward a particular thing.)

Those who regularly read my posts, know that I am quirky in some ways, one of them being that I have an interest (a slight passion?) about all THINGS BRITISH. But especially the Royal Family, the Windsors.

And most of you know that this started because of my name, which led me to read British history as if I were preparing for a Master’s Thesis, all while being encouraged by close family members who visited England and brought me memorabilia; all while discovering it was meaningful to cut articles about the Windsors out of newspaper, or save magazines with photographs, ask for books about their lives and watch royal weddings on TV.

My family didn’t mind too much, because if they questioned me on this rather strange proclivity, I could always say it’s just another way of learning more about HISTORY. 

But then, along came…

A FELLOW ANGLOPHILE  

Because the Internet connects you to people you would otherwise never meet, and thus connected me to Kristin Contino, who when it comes to this particular proclivity, this love of the family of Windsor, certainly has me beat.

Kristin’s many trips to England have been recorded with numerous photos. And when a major royal event was about to take place, she and her family once again made the trip, finding a spot near Windsor Castle and able to be up close and personal observing the pageantry of the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. After that, I knew I’d found an even more ardent follower of the Windsors…but that event was only the beginning….

Kristin has a reproduction of a bright red British Phone Booth in her home, not to mention those items which all of us seek out when celebrating the royals: tea towels for weddings; tea cups and plates; photos and books. I have a few. (See some of mine below.) Kristin? She’s the QUEEN OF COLLECTIONS. 

And then the final example of her passion, the arrival of Contino’s novel: A HOUSE FULL OF WINDSOR, a delightful story whose main character, Debbie Windsor, falls in love with a member of the landed gentry, Alan Percy—and whether it’s being enthrall to London or Buckingham Palace or her love for Princess Diana and everything royal, Debbie collapses into the arms of this tinged with royalty but not so gentle man—and bloody hell, she gets pregnant. First with Sarah and soon after, with twins!

But later, we find her back in the good old US of A, her marriage over, yet her desire still for all things royal filling up her house. Debbie has become a hoarder. She lives in a house full of windsor. And because she now has trouble navigating her rooms because of the overflowing bins of British mementoes, her three children know that SOMETHING MUST BE DONE.

Will Debbie find a pathway through her living room? Will Sarah, who provides the reader throughout the novel with her Sarah Says tips, have the answer? Maybe so, as her first TIP encourages readers to be ready for company, but then immediately acknowledges that in her family, “dirty secrets are best swept under the rug.”

I’m sure Kristin Contino had fun writing this book. Her photos of her trips to England, her love of those red telephone booths are testament to that. The novel is light-hearted and from page one presages a happy ending. Her characters make predictable decisions so that everyone is jolly and red-cheeked with happiness in the end. And the novel is clever, the hoarding is real, because when you’ve fallen in love with the photos of the Windsors and Princess Diana, it’s understandable that you might go for cheeky Alan, that rotter, who chases birds (that’s British slang for girls)—but in the end decides that bloody hell, you better let your children help you out so that life is cracking again.

A HOUSE FULL OF WINDSORS

 

Memories and Their Power

Ann Patchett says: I’m very sure that my memories are true and accurate, and if I put them up against the memories of my family or my friends, they would have very different true and accurate memories. Even if they differ from a sibling etc.

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory

“You have your wonderful memories,” people said later, as if memories were solace. Memories are not. Memories are by definition of times past, things gone. Memories are the …faded and cracked photographs, the invitations to the weddings of the people who are no longer married, the mass cards from the funerals of the people whose faces you no longer remember. Memories are what you no longer want to remember.”
Joan Didion, Blue Nights

That’s Joan Didion, her words veering toward the negative. Because loss is tragic, hard, challenging. She longs for her daughter. That loss shakes up the foundations she depended on, and I applaud her words as a search for strength.

But can we be nostalgic when we are young? Yes.

Anne Frank was, writing in her diary of days past, knowing those days were gone, that her world was imploding and that she might never again sit in a classroom, walk the streets of Amsterdam free and unhindered, look forward to love, marriage and children.

Anyone who looks back in longing–for a friend, a house, a parent, an experience, can feel and write about their longings–this is nostalgia. You want something back, that you don’t want to forget.

CREATIVITY AND REMEMBERING 

There was a time when I began to write, that nostalgia seemed to propel me. Why? I was young, and I saw that my experience was in some ways limited. Some changes in my life had already happened (loss of a parent, early responsibilities as a result). And I saw that I didn’t want to relive my childhood, but that it dwelled within me, making my losses and gains part of me, the engine of my creativity.

Because when you write, you are either pulling things out of your own experience or making shit up. Both land on the page, and wow, you’re a writer. (Though not necessarily a good one. It takes time, lots of time. Maybe forever.)

SO WHAT IS THE ENGINE OF CREATIVITY?  

When Author Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, The Dutch House, Commonwealth) takes a memory and infuses it with meaning, she then uses it in one of her novels. She describes her process this way: “I’m very sure that my memories are true and accurate, and if I put them up against the memories of my family or my friends, they would have very different true and accurate memories. Even if they differ…” Because we know that fiction comes from seeds of experience. IT COMES FROM LIFE, FROM LIVING. And what one person sees or hears or feels, can differ from another.

EVEN FICTIONAL CHARACTERS LIVE IN OUR MEMORIES 

One of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Strout, discovered that her characters refused to stay within the pages of past books. Though Strout left her home in Maine for New York City, Maine stayed with her. So did the voice, the face, the life of Olive Kitterridge, the eponymous title of the collection of short stories that won Strout the Pulitzer for fiction.  But Olive wasn’t finished. She continued to speak to Strout, and thus Olive Again came to be, more stories that take us back to Maine, but also (and this is to amazing and clever) bring back characters from Strout’s other novels. It’s delightful for Olive to find herself living in the same senior facility as the mother from Amy and Isabel, that being only one example. After writing My Name Is Lucy Barton, Strout felt compelled to learn more about Lucy’s beginnings and sent her back to a small town in Illinois to reconnect with her siblings and other in a collection of stories, Anything Is Possible. We all do this: let our memories grow, fill out the stories of our lives, enhance them. At some level WE ARE ALL STORY TELLERS. 

WRITE IT DOWN 

Many of us kept or still keep a diary. It’s our lives on paper, our deepest thoughts and even our anger and our hurts. It’s not fiction, but it can fuel fiction and it always comes from the power of memory.

Talk to an old friend. Discover that the mention of a place, a high school crush, a certain teacher brings back a flood of memory. And though they aren’t always positive, they are part of our lives. Joan Didion wrote Blue Nights after losing her daughter. She wrote The Year of Magical Thinking after the death of her husband. Joan used the power of her memory, of her words to seek healing. Each and everyone of us is a vessel of stories. Write them down. They are part of you, and they have power. 

Writers and where they live…  Part One

Writers and where they live…  Part One

The Santa Ana Winds of California

 

I’ve written a memoir of my early years in Chicago. I’ve written about PLACE (the house, the streets, the vegetation, the traffic, the people on the streets) because it colors so much of who we are. (You can reread my first post about PLACE here.)

No one can write fiction, a memoir, a biography without PLACE becoming a major character. Think of the wonderful selection of memoirs that have become best-sellers: Black Boy, All Creatures Great and Small, Born a Crime, Becoming, When Breath Becomes Air, The Glass Castle….all are filled with references to the place the author has lived, the streets he or she has walked.

And if you have moved during your life (I’ve lived in three different states) or even if you have remained in the same place your entire life (New York City, Colorado Springs, Huntsville Alabama, only to name a few) HOW DIFFERENT your life has been from the lives of others and from mine.

ILLINOIS 

Illinois is flat, flat. Even as a child, I knew that was in some way a detriment, as if flatness could be the butt of jokes. Then, after fourth grade, my amazing mother took me and my brothers to California! My uncle and cousins lived there, so why not! We traveled on the California Zephyr that runs from Chicago to San Francisco. WOW! Our train revealed parts of the country I had never seen: the plains of Nebraska, the Rocky Mountains (real mountains not hills), Salt Lake City (they washed our train there) and on to San Francisco: the trolley cars, the harbor, the steep streets.

Weeks later, after seeing the Grand Canyon and Albuquerque, New Mexico, we headed home on another train, the El Caspitan that runs between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Chicago. I met a girl my age on the train. I can’t remember where she lived, but it was a more glamorous place than what I was going home to. So when she asked me where I lived (flat flat Illinois) I said we lived near the “hills and the flats.” (a truly fourth grade answer) But it wasn’t a total lie. Beverly Hills, Chicago, is called “hills” for the following reason:

High bedrock under the retreating glaciers left the most prominent feature in the area, the Blue Island Ridge in South Chicago, a 6-mile-by-1-mile table of land that sits 25 to 50 feet above the adjacent flatland. Residents often identify their community as “Beverly Hills,” a reference to that glacial ridge just west of Longwood Drive, the highest point in Chicago. Wow, the highest point in Chicago …Even as a fourth grader, I knew that was something, and I lived two blocks from that RIDGE, which we called, “the hill.”

BEFORE AND BEYOND ILLINOIS

But after Illinois, there was Iowa (some hills) and then for the last seven years, California, I could see the bottom of a mountain out my window. But how does one, how does family gravitate to a place?

Again, the Uncle that moved there, his family, my cousins. We kept up the visits, weddings, touring. My brother moved there, and then one of my daughters did; grandchildren were born, and so yes, we did our California time and it was wonderful. I’ve written about California on this blog.

But I’m not alone, some of our most treasured authors have written about California, Joan Didion being one of them. Her works include: Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Play It As It Lays, The White Album, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. The last two volumes are diary-like, Didion trying to come to grips with the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and then the death of her daughter, Quintana Roo.

THINGS SO CALIFORNIA: The Santa Ana Winds 

If you have ever been in California when the Santa Anas blow, then you will feel them blowing in Didion’s passage:  

There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio Passes, blowing up sand storms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to flash point. For a few days now we will see smoke back in the canyons, and hear sirens in the night. I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air. To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.

WIND, FIRES 

What did I love about California? Besides being near my grandchildren…sunshine is ever present. It lifts your spirits, though there is something called June gloom, but that is infrequent. The blue sky is full of dry soft winds, now and then a jet stream (at least where I lived). There are pepper trees and jacaranda trees, roses everywhere. Some people say they help hold back the fires.

Because yes, there are fires. (And earthquakes, though in the 7 years we lived there, we had only two experiences: one when my desk kinda rolled; the other hardly felt. But we bolted our TV to the wall, used museum glue behind art hangings. We also had two large emergency canisters in our garage which we never needed.

Wherever people live, they adjust. Joan Didion writes:

Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.      

For instead of “fire and rain”, California has fire and wind–“It never rains in California, but Girl don’t they warn ya…

FINAL THOUGHT

As Edward Albee wrote: There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California. 

Next Week: Part 2

Why Do Men Want to Control Women?

Why Do Men Want to Control Women?

Charlotte Gray, while reviewing Amy Sohn’s THE MAN WHO HATED WOMEN, writes in the Wall Street Journal: “In 1873, a new federal law prohibited the distribution and promotion through the U.S. postal service of ‘obscene, lewd or lascivious’ material. The legislation covered not only dirty postcards and sex toys, but also pamphlets about contraception and sexual health. A booklet about marital relations or an abortifacient powder was now considered as indecent as an advertisement for a brothel.” The question: who caused this to happen: The answer: Anthony Comstock.

Amy Sohn describes in her book, The Man Who Hated Women, how Comstock’s forceful move to pass this federal law dealt a severe blow to information that women needed to care for and understand their bodies.

The law profoundly affected women’s health. It not only supported a prudish misogyny that harkens back to Puritan history, but aspects of it can still be found in laws that prevail today in parts of the U.S.

WHO WAS ANTHONY COMSTOCK?

Certainly he was a woman hater, also a Congregationalist, who believed in the Victorian ideal of womanhood: the woman should only be “the angel in the house.” Born in 1844, Comstock went from being a store clerk to turning to anti-vice activism. He was offended by what he called the moral corruption of the Gilded Age in New York City.

WHY TAKE IT OUT ON WOMEN?

Like some of our cities today, New York during the Gilded Age was the center of huge wealth but also abject poverty. Wealthy men were eager to take advantage of poverty stricken women who walked the streets of New York as prostitutes, and who had nothing to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and the dangers of childbirth.

Sohn writes in her book: “…Comstock lumped women together with “sinful” practices.” He got the YMCA to form the Suppression of Vice committee and to make him their lobbyist in Washington. This allowed him to push for harsher penalties against obscenity peddlers. Then, to convince the male representatives in DC, “Comstock organized the most vivid exhibition of sex toys the capital had ever seen.” Congress members handled the toys and other articles, saying they would pass the law he wanted.The result: The Comstock Act of 1873. Other states went on to pass similar laws.

Don’t We Often Say: When someone is obsessed with something, he might actually like it.  

Comstock could not keep the dirt out of his own eyes. He began seeing pornography everywhere, started lawsuits that tried to subdue materials “as diverse as lottery tickets, pornography and medical books written my physicians.”

Being unable to quell his own urges, and hating women, Comstock, decided to fight EVERYTHING and everyone, especially women. Gray writes that he hounded “sex radicals” the eight women who were caught up in sex-oriented movements of the time. Those included abortion, spiritualism, atheism and anarchism.

THE WICKED EIGHT

In her book, Amy Sohn focuses on eight women Comstock went after, sexologist Ida C. Craddock getting the most attention. Unable to attend the University of Pennsylvania because of her gender, Craddock studied comparative religion and developed a passion for sex and symbolism.

At the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Craddock watched a belly dancer, then later wrote that dance utilized an ancient religious rite, symbolizing self-control of sexual pleasure. But Comstock was also watching. He called the performance obscenity, and wanted to jail the performer.

WOMEN AND MEN IN THE BEDROOM 

Ida C. Craddock fought for women, argued against marital rape, telling women they had a right to enjoy sex. Craddock printed business cards that read: Scientific Motherhood, Prenatal Culture, Right Living in the Marital Relation. She sent information through the mail: “putting herself right in the crosshairs of the Comstock Act.” Comstock won that battle, having her arrested in 1902 for being “lecturer of filth.” Eight months later, unable to face prison, Ida C. Craddock committed suicide.

THE AFTERMATH… The early 1900’s was a time when newspapers pulled in readers with wild tales of sex and sin. But gradually, Comstock’s harsh beliefs no longer coincided with the growing power of women. Though he died in 1915, his law continued to stay on the books for many more decades, inciting women to claim their power, speak out for their rights and needs. Year to year this fight intensified, encouraging “transformative feminist activism.” Comstock might actually have helped the feminist movement, helped women see the need for more agency in their own lives.

Ms. Sohn ends her book with a warning: “Wombs are still a battleground because of what they represent.” Then she then quotes Ida Craddock: “I would lay down my life for the cause of sex reform; but I don’t want to be swept away, a useless sacrifice.” Craddock died, was forgotten, but Sohn and others have successfully resurrected this amazing woman. 

Ida Craddock’s manuscripts and notes are preserved in the Special Collections of the Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Her battle with Anthony Comstock is the subject of the 2006 stage play Smut by Alice Jay and Joseph Adler, its world premiere at Miami’s GableStage in June 2007. 

Amy Sohn’s book is THE MAN WHO HATED WOMEN  Farrar, Strauss and Giroux Publishers. Artwork: The Gilded Age, Central Park New York City 

You might also like. https://boomerhighway.org/books-that-pave-the-way-for-lifes-journey/

JANE ROSENTHAL’S DEL RIO: AND THE SEEDS OF A FICTIONAL WORK    

JANE ROSENTHAL’S DEL RIO: THE SEEDS OF A FICTIONAL WORK

I met Jane Rosenthal during a Women’s Fiction Writers (WFWA) retreat in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We were both living in California at the time, enjoyed each other’s company, our love of writing, and discussed the inevitable struggle of getting published.  

And today, I’m pleased to present to you, Jane’s second published work, DEL RIO, a Novel. I hope you will enjoy reading about Jane’s process and how personal experience contributed to her vision for this story.

Jane’s Voice: My novel Del Rio is set in a fictional town in the Central Valley of California, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Central Valley is a place made up of small towns, near where I lived, towns so accessible that they were where I went to get my hair styled, grocery shop or go to the bank. This particular town, Del Rio, doesn’t really exist, except in my imagination.

One of the best compliments I ever received for my manuscript occurred when I was pitching the book at a conference. An editor, looking over his glasses at me, pronounced: “Wow, so do you live in Del Rio?”

The place seemed that real to him. And in a way, it is. Writing is a journey, and this book took me on one.

JANE’S REALIZATION THAT MUCH OF DEL RIO WAS NORTH OF THE BORDER …

Jane says: One Saturday a few years back, something happened that changed the whole trajectory of the book. I’d gone into town to do errands. But when I got to Wells Fargo Bank, the line was out the door. That had never happened before. But I’d never been there on a Saturday, mid-month, payday for the farm workers. It didn’t take long before I realized I was the only native English speaker in the entire line.

A lightbulb exploded in my head. I didn’t need to go south, at least in the book, to be in Mexico. I WAS on the west coast of Mexico. Right then, right there. After I made my deposit, I headed to my office, to sit down and write the first sentence that would become Del Rio.

That sentence came easily: Fletcher wanted me to meet him at the Starlight Lounge, an old roadhouse set on the banks of the San Joaquin River, a few miles south of town.

This was the voice of Callie, my protagonist. And even though Del Rio starts and ends in California, Callie travels to the west coast of Mexico, to a fishing village called San Benito, a place that is Night of the Iguana on steroids. Her mission: to search for a killer.

Then Jane reminds us: You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens once Callie gets there!

FICTION THAT SHOUTS FOR ACTION

Jane’s book is a fascinating read. She tells us: I’d intended when I first started on this Mexico Trilogy to set the second book solely on the west coast of Mexico. I’d been to Mexico’s Pacific coast many times and loved its “Night of the Iguana” feel. I wanted to give the reader that atmosphere, but a totally different feel and cast of characters from the Mexico City setting I had recreated in Palace of the Blue Butterfly. (get it on Amazon)

But then she saw that the seeds of her story were literally planted in the United States.

CENTRAL VALLEY, CALIFORNIA WORKERS–WHAT THEY NEED AND DON’T HAVE: BACKGROUND INFORMATION….

  • Farmworkers are not protected under the National Labor Relations Laws (NLRA).
  • Farmworkers are exempt from many protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA). Exempt from most minimum wage and hour guarantees.
  • They are not entitled to overtime pay or mandatory breaks for rest or meals
  • There are few labor protections for farmworker children.
  • Most farmworkers are excluded from federal minimum wage laws and other labor protections, including the right to overtime pay for workers that work more than 40 hrs./wk.
  • FWs are not protected from retaliation by federal law when engaged in labor organizing.
  • They are not entitled to receive attorney fees under the Migrant and Seasonal Ag. Worker Protection Act.
  • Many FWs on small farms don’t even have access to toilets and hand-washing facilities and drinking water.
  • There is a Lack of Transparency in the Food system.

The Fair Labor Standards Act is supposed to protect all workers with respect to the federal minimum wage and overtime pay, even undocumented workers.  However, workers have little or no way to enforce their rights.

FINAL THOUGHTS 

Read Del Rio for a great story, as well as a look into the dangerous games being played, the innocent lives being risked. Because it is happening, right before our eyes.

And if moved by Rosenthall’s experience, the words in her book, the information I have provided here, please go to https://farmworkerfamily.org/information  and donate. For more information that conflicts with above, go to: http://www.lacooperativa.org/farm-workers-know-your-rights-in-the-workplace/

P.S. California produces over 350 commodities; including 1/3 of the nation’s vegetables and nearly 2/3 of the nation’s fruits and nuts. California produces 90% of the strawberries grown in the U.S. Between 1/3 and 1/2 of all farmworkers in America reside in California, or roughly 500,000 – 800,000 farmworkers. Approximately 75% of California’s farmworkers are undocumented; 83% in Santa Cruz County. Approximately 1/3 are women, and they range in age from their teens to their 60s. In addition, there are 400,000 children working in U.S. fields;

TALKING TO STRANGERS

TALKING TO STRANGERS

Malcom Gladwell has so impressed the reading world with his analysis of life, that the term “Gladwellian intellectual adventure” has been coined.

But though I confess to not have jumped on his bandwagon before Talking to Strangers, when I saw he had written about Sandra Bland, I had to know his thoughts.

We now go through life with cable news. And then it was July of 2015. I’m white, Black Lives DO Matter, but hearing of a Black woman who had just arrived in Texas for a new job, a new life, had been arrested for a traffic stop, and then hearing just days later, that it was assumed she had hung herself in her jail cell—I was angry, had many questions, that to this day and even beyond this book, have not been answered. Why? Because we are still living in a time when these questions challenge us to give answers we don’t want to face. 

HOW TALKING TO STRANGERS IS ORGANIZED 

Gladwell starts with Sandra and ends with Sandra. In between, he works to reveal the disconnects in society, by exploring, as only he can, history, psychology and the roots of evil in our society. Oh, he wants to come to some conclusion about Sandra, but before that, he explores how often we just don’t have the big picture. Why? Because we ARE often STRANGERS to each other, and that means there are no exact rules to govern human interactions.

He attacks the problem in sections: some being Default to the Truth where he exams in detail the Sandusky (sex with a child) Case. Another being Transparency which includes the Amanda Knox case and a fraternity party sex case.

COUPLING 

But the most interesting section is Coupling,where Gladwell makes the case that often two things that go together are hard to separate. Suicide is often coupled. Suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge; Sylvia Plath and how gas was delivered to  homes before safety measures were introduced; preventive police patrolling in Kansas City, Missouri and the interrogation of Blacks. 

Gladwell concludes the coupling section with this: “There is something about the idea of coupling–of the notion that a stranger’s behavior is tightly connected to place and context–that eludes us. It leads us to misunderstand some of our greatest poets (Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton), to be indifferent to the suicidal, and to send police officers on senseless errands. (Sandra Bland.)

SANDRA BLAND Note: All parenthesis are mine. 

Then Gladwell asks, before the last chapter, when he discusses the Sandra Bland case…

“So what happens when a police officer carries that fundamental misconception– (that people are going to break laws, do wrong, especially if the are Black)–and then you add to that the problems of default to truth and transparency? (That by their very nature, police can make us feel afraid, feel wrong when we are right, liars when we are truth tellers, especially if one is a person of color) YOU GET SANDRA BLAND.”

YES, SADLY. You get that two personalities who view the world differently, should not be thrown together in a tense situation. And, unfortunately, as a reader and a human, we are left with this: “If you are blind to the ideas that underlie our mistakes with strangers—and to the institutions and practices that we construct AROUND those ideas—then all you are left with is the personal…and now Sandra Bland, who—at the end of the lengthy postmortem into that fateful traffic strop…somehow becomes the villain of the story.

READ THIS BOOK. TALKING TO STRANGERS

Original Sketch  artist not listed

BACK IN CHICAGO…

BACK IN CHICAGO...

The ability to love everyone starts with children. We are blank slates. We see the world bathed in equality—until, as we grow, we begin to become aware of differences. Or they are pointed out to us. Regardless, there is always hope.

In a world where we are truly now a global nation, where we could look like the United Nations, differences should not be an issue.

But there is something in an individual’s DNA that makes them cling to those first times when we see differences or feel different or are taught to claim a difference. Why? I don’t have an answer. 

EVERYONE HAS SOME PREJUDICE 

There are people on this earth who claim that they have no prejudices. That everything in their purview is equal. I say, that’s impossible. Maybe you are or have always been comfortable with the differences that exist in humanity regarding skin color. Awesome. Wonderful. But I proport there isn’t a person walking this earth that isn’t prejudiced in some way. And it may be as simple as food choices.

Because life is about choice and within each of us is some small voice telling us that THIS is better than THIS. It just depends on what we are talking about. But we must be honest.

HOW PREJUDICE BEGINS 

As a child, I lived on the southside of Chicago. But—in a neighborhood that was all white. The people of color I knew were few. There was Jenny, the Sioux Native American who cared for us when we were very young. (read here). And there were the two Black women who cleaned and ironed for us. (read: here.)

OPENING MY EYES

But what did I notice as I grew up in Chicago? (I am doing my best to be honest.)

  • That all our neighbors, the people who worked in stores, the kids in school, the people in church, our doctors—they were all white.
  • That when my mother drove me through neighborhoods to downtown Chicago (before the city built the Dan Ryan Expressway, which was geographically laid out to separate many Black neighborhoods from white ones) that the sidewalks were crowded with people walking; that there were people missing limbs, people in wheel chairs, maybe even people who had lost hope. READ: people who had to rely on public transportation; people without good healthcare. People who lived in food deserts and healthcare deserts. Please note that in certain decades THE CAR was everything. This was before we began to look on public transportation as a positive way to travel. I did live three blocks from the Rock Island train that zipped my mother into Chicago for her job. From that train, I could look out upon housing, old apartments, yards bare of grass, sometimes filled with trash… Okay—poverty.

What did I notice during my years of education?

  • Well, I’m certain I would never have looked around for a Black child in my grade school. That possibility wasn’t even on our radar. There were two girls in my class whose skin was actually tan all year long: read, darker than mine. Damn, that I noticed that. Is there something in our DNA that points that out?
  • But after high school, working in the city every summer in downtown Chicago, the variety of people along the sidewalks was fascinating.

What did I notice off and on just living and working in Chicago and its suburbs?

  • That even though I was white, there were sales women in high-end stores that were not interested in helping me return a blouse or search for a size. Because prejudice can move through all tribes—I obviously wasn’t dressed in a way that indicated my buying power. That memory still stings. But GET OVER IT, You Privileged White Woman.
  • That working in an integrated high school in Chicago Heights, Illinois and then much later working as an RN at Mercy Hospital in the Bronzeville area of Chicago, were some of the best years of my life. If there was some ignorant, leery, unsure person hidden inside me—those career choices made me push her aside.

MY FIRST JOB INTERVIEW 

“Some of our students have knives,” the Superintendent of the high school where I was interviewing told me. I needed the job. I said that was okay. I spoke out of ignorance. What did I know about dealing with a student who might be carrying a knife? I learned to be open and caring of all my students. Was I lucky? Yes. But there were so many students throughout my teaching years that showed me their humanity.

It was the same at Mercy Hospital when I first started working in maternity. I might be nervous walking into a room to help a stranger deliver her child. But the bond of the female species, of motherhood, of helping someone in pain—damn, humanity was flowing through those rooms and continued to do so.

NOTE: It is 2021, and thank God, Mercy Hospital, that will always serve minority families, was saved from the wrecking ball. But close by in Bronzeville, Michael Reese Hospital did not survive. (read: Life and Death in Englewood by Linda Villarosa, New York Times.) 

WHEN THINGS CAME TOGETHER–FOR ME

“Gresham went over night.” You would have to live in Chicago (or maybe a different urban city) to know what THE HELL that means. Translation: the white folks moved out and the Black folks moved in. THIS IS OUR HISTORY. It’s Chicago’s history and it is the history of many cities in this country. It is wrong. 

Other terms are contained in one blistering sentence (a friend said this): “Yes, for sure there is gentrification going on in that neighborhood, cause they are getting rid of the slum.”

Definition of Slum: a densely populated usually urban area marked by crowding, run-down housing, poverty, and social disorganization. 

Actual Definition: an area of a city where people unable to find good-paying jobs are forced to live. And regarding history, people of color are forced to live there, a place where houses are abandoned because of job loss; stores and hospitals close. When I grew up, the hospital where I was born was a quick drive away. I took that for granted. Again, from a recent article in the New York Times: Now you drive through communities like Englewood and see empty lot after empty lot…  And I recently learned that the south suburbs of Chicago do NOT have a trauma center. They have hospitals, but not a trauma center. The trauma center is   Christ Advocate Trauma Center which is three miles from me, within the city limits. 

EDUCATING MYSELF BY READING…

There was James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, Alice Walker. But now there is Ta-Nehisi Coates. Thanks to my daughter-in-law, I read BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME. Then I read WE WERE EIGHT YEARS IN POWER, which wasn’t just about the Obama era, but about Reconstruction, the freedoms initially given to freed people of color and then taken away. The continuation of brutality, of lynching and home burning. The device of red-lining which is to refuse (a loan or insurance) to someone because they live in an area deemed to be a poor financial risk. Short version, because they are Black. 

When Black folks left the South, looking for employment and better lives for their families, white men devised ways to isolate them in run-down neighborhoods, to prevent the breadwinner of the family from getting ahead. White people have always been able to get ahead by buying a home for their family, which provides them with shelter, but also the possibility of increasing their initial investment.

Getting ahead is the key to everything, for everyone. In America, each one of us should have that chance.

But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?              

From Kitchenette Building by Chicago Black poet, Gwendolyn Brooks

PS Fighting prejudice must be an ongoing but oh so worthy effort. 

Photo: Monument in Bronzeville, Chicago, Illinois. Honoring the World War I 8th Regiment of the Illinois National Guard.