Letter to the Editor: Re: Obama contraception rule goes too far

Domestic workers march in the Pro-Democracy parade on Hong Kong's anniversary of independence.

Re: Obama contraception rule goes too far

As a 28 year old graduate student I spent time in Hong Kong as a legal advocate for Filipina domestic workers. The majority of them, younger than I and with multiple children, were separated from their families for years in order to support them. When I read about sparing the Catholic Church a “crisis of conscience” I wonder when they will suffer one for their part in contributing to the poverty of Catholic developing countries where there is no access to birth control. I find it disingenuous to laud their work with the sick and the poor when their stance on contraception promotes poverty in the developing world.

99% of women in the United States have used some method of birth control. 98% of Catholic women in the United States use birth control. This isn’t about a government mandate that goes too far but rather about an archaic, impractical policy on the part of a church whose leadership is comprised of men who have never had to navigate the complexities of marriage and family life. It’s time for the Catholic church to enter the 21st century and amend its damaging stance on contraception.

More reading:

Book Review: A Strange Piece of Paradise by Terri Jentz

Tai O Fishing Village

Tai O Fishing Village - Lantau Island, Hong Kong. My own strange piece of paradise.

(I did my best to try NOT to use passive voice here regarding the attack on Jentz and her friend, but my brain is too tired to do the verbal mathematics at the moment.)

I picked up A Strange Piece of Paradise not for the details of the axe attack that Terri Jentz experienced during her biking tour across the United States, but rather because I was interested in the symptoms that resulted from the experience and her process of healing. While one is not privy to the gritty details of PTSD or the various revelations she may have had about her psychological state during her investigative process, she makes it clear that her research of the details surrounding the attack played a big part in this process. While this was a truly interesting, gripping book I felt somewhat disappointed by the end that so little of this aspect was featured. Despite that, it’s stayed with me for the past few weeks and I keep coming back to a few points that I’ll touch on in a subsequent post.

At first, A Strange Piece of Paradise is very much along the lines of a true crime book, consisting of the background of Jentz and her biking companion and the memories Jentz has of the attack. As the book progresses and she gets further into her investigation, it becomes a much broader rumination on the impact of the crime on the surrounding community. The warmth and concern of the people who remember the attack is often tangible when she recounts her meetings with them.

Jentz also explores the psychology of violence against women on both the micro and macro level, as her main suspect is a repeat offender: how violent relationships are sustained and the attitude of communities that continually give well-known abusers a pass, from neighbors to the law enforcement and court systems. As she interviews each of the women who had been involved with her suspect, struck by the idea that these were not the “type” to put up with such abuse, she puts together a rough portrait of how such a person breaks down and isolates their victims in an increasingly vicious cycle.

One of the most salient critiques I read about the book is that it can get repetitive. At the same time, I found that the way she constantly comes up with the same details from different people can be quite fascinating in terms of how stories change and what impacts each person’s memory. Again and again the attack is remembered “as if yesterday”, allowing for a large number of people to talk with. In addition, it was a useful lens through which to view people – for instance, the man she interviewed who made her attack all about him and how his failure to be the hero “ruined” his life (And yet, his memory of the attack is grossly inaccurate and leads one to question if he was even there at the time it happened.). I also never got tired reading how each new individual she interviewed wanted to bond with her over this event that impacted her and the community so deeply.

To some extent there are more radical strains lurking under the surface here, and every time she touched on them I just wanted to nuuudge her a bit so that she would further develop and explore these thoughts. While she makes the connection between society’s entrenched misogyny and violence against women quite clear, she only touches on such things as community versus state sanctioned justice and the cult of individuality in America and its adverse impact on the cultivation of community.

By the end of the book the music of Twin Peaks was playing in the back of my head, foreboding shots of pine and fog looming. Jentz successfully ties the dark, moody landscape to wanton violence against women as her personal investigation increasingly turns up stories of murdered women having been dumped in the surrounding pine forests. I found myself feeling increasingly disturbed and unsettled (though one is anyway by the main subject of the book) despite the warm, welcoming community of people she encountered as she investigated her own near murder.

Overall a good book. I found myself liking Jentz more and more as I got to “know” her through her connection with people over her brutal experience, particularly the way she bonds with other women later on in the book. When I put it down I didn’t expect it to linger as it has, and a number of questions and thoughts have come up in the past few weeks that I’ve been exploring.

The Women Men Don’t See*: James Tiptree Jr. aka, Dr. Alice B. Sheldon

Self Portrait in Snow



“I’d peeled myself down to the empty core. But then it seemed as though there was a little more of me after all. I found another onion.” – Dr. Alice B. Sheldon

“It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.” – Robert Silverberg

James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

I had been lusting after James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon for awhile, and in ‘celebration’ of my decision to read more women’s biographies decided to finally grab a copy. I know, so counter-intuitive, you would think I would have done so after actually having read a few but I find all sorts of excuses to buy books….

So… onto this book in which all lavish adjectives of praise fall short. I picked it up the day it arrived to read “a page or two” and never put it down. From the very first page, Phillips successfully envelops one in Sheldon’s life. It was my “go-to” book until I had about 100 pages left. At that point I began rationing it every night “wanting to spend a little time with Alli.” A little nuts maybe, but this book is such a perfect synthesis of the words of Sheldon’s through letters and journals, the relationships she built with writers and fans of science fiction and Phillips’ narration of her life. Of particular interest are her exchanges with women sci-fi authors such as Ursula le Guin and Joanna Russ (both of whom I want to know more about now) and reading their own efforts at navigating the genre as women.

The terrible thing is, when I get a letter (or a reaction) like that – from a man – I tend not to grow 10′ teeth but to start crying. Which makes me feel muddled, humiliated, grateful, humiliated that I feel grateful, and most of all – recognized.

Joanna Russ on the cachet that praise from men has, despite being fully aware of the power dynamic at play.

I feel like I “know” Sheldon, and what a beautiful, complex, flawed person. I felt utterly captivated and my heart ached for her as the book drew to a close. While one is aware throughout the book that she ends up committing suicide, I still couldn’t help but mourn, the breath knocked out of me as I read about it, feeling sick inside by the loss of someone I had just “met.”

Alice B. Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr.

While there is the opportunity to think about gender and writing throughout much of the book, Phillips weaves in a pointed meditation about the subject in its final pages. It goes to show how one’s opinions of gender inform the way one reads or receives a work (I can call up a particularly long winded critique about this after seven years of working in the book world.) and to my ultimate chagrin, is a conversation that rarely seems to go beyond feminist circles. In addition, it truly saddens me that Sheldon had so much trouble acknowledging her incredible accomplishments as a woman. She seemed a vibrant, passionate and intensely curious person (Gardner Dozois: “one of the most fascinating conversationalists I’ve ever met, brilliant, theatrical, far-ranging, strikingly perceptive.”) and yet she believed she was nothing without the veneer of a male persona. While I am certainly not foolish enough to believe it would have vanquished all of her demons, I wonder how things would be different if she had been much younger when the feminist movement occurred. She was incredibly perceptive about the structure of society and the way things work and yet lacked the affirmation that while patriarchy does not deem it as such, HER activities carried just as much merit as a man’s. Two of the passages that were such striking examples of this are below:

Moreover I suspect that most of the organised world activities are male-structured (as well as male-dominated) so I can’t believe that simply filling in the personnel-slots with women means anything real. And I don’t think things would get much different unless women had a chance to build their own world… which ends up like Russ’ “When it changed” and not Beyond Equality at all (My note: Beyond Equality was a sci-fi anthology of stories imagining what the world would be like once equality between the sexes had been achieved that Tiptree and Russ had been asked to contribute to.). Everything else I try just ends up with Golda Meier running a space station, the Heinlein jocks-in-skirts thing. [...] I REFUSE to fancy some stereotype like Women-Have-ESP or Only-Women-can-understand-aliens etc. etc.

- James Tiptree Jr. in a letter to Vonda McIntyre.

The distasteful proof that my sexuality is bound up with masochistic fantasies of helplessness [...] depressed me profoundly. I am not a man, I am not the do-er, the penetrator. And Tiptree was “magical” manhood, his pen my prick. I had through him all the power and prestige of masculinity, I was – though an aging intellectual – of those who own the world. How I loathe being a woman. Wanting to be done to. [...]

Tiptree’s “death” has made me face – what I never really went into with Bob [Harper] (my note: Sheldon’s therapist) – my self-hate as a woman. And my view of the world as structured by raw power. [...] I want power. I want to be listened to. [...] And I’ll never have it. I’m stuck with this perverse, second-rate body; my life.

- Dr. Alice B. Sheldon

It frustrates me that she did not have the benefit of a therapist that could help her explore what it is to be a woman in patriarchy but rather a man who seemed to regard her as an oddity, completely uncomfortable with a woman expressing or being angry. There is also the question of her sexual orientation, and it couldn’t have helped to be at a loss as to what one was feeling in a society that was(is) simply intolerant and did not allow language for that expression. I also wonder truly if she suffered from agoraphobic anxiety. I feel like this brilliant woman was completely failed by the time she lived in, and it makes me so sad.

I hadn’t been interested in reading her work as James Tiptree Jr. before reading this book, but now I will be sure to pick it up. *The title of this entry is the name of one of Tiptree’s stories.

The Vote to Defund Planned Parenthood

V for Vendetta

Pro Democracy rally in Hong Kong: We are all V



Let’s dispense here and now with this silly fiction that we live in a representative Democracy. Rather, we live in a country which is run by an elite cadre of mostly white men, one of whom, Steve King, has characterized Planned Parenthood as “ghastly and ghoulish.” The incident he cites, that of someone acting like a “pimp” and seeking advice concerning his “girls” to incriminate Planned Parenthood is baseless. The offending counselor was fired and Planned Parenthood promptly called the police – a far cry from engaging in and condoning behavior that was subsequently covered up. And yet King uses this incident in a bid to link them with illegal immigration and “child prostitution” for political leverage when the heart of these issues couldn’t be further from an organization like Planned Parenthood. In addition, none of the federal money Planned Parenthood receives goes to funding abortions.

I have thought about whether I should attach my name to this and while I am wary about doing so it gives a measure of credibility. I’d also like to think that I live in a society that will not penalize me for this, however much I know that it is untrue. I want to know how many men who voted to defund Planned Parenthood took it upon themselves to speak to those of us who have taken advantage of Planned Parenthood’s services. I want to know how many of them sought to get a balanced perspective, rather than choose to continue this sickening vendetta.

Having been brought up in a rather extreme Christian household, Planned Parenthood was the first supportive environment I encountered where I could talk to someone about sex. It was the first environment where knowledgeable adults expressed true care and concern for my sexual well being, the first place I could open up and put my issues with sexuality on the table. I was 24 years old and I was terrified. It began an incredible healing process for me, and I feel truly devoted to the organization given the help I received from their staff. In addition, it is where I went for years to get birth control so that I could prevent the need to get an abortion. Planned Parenthood allowed me to make responsible decisions about my future without the shaming, unnatural dogma of abstinence education.

And even with the incredible testimony of Jackie Speier illustrating that perhaps not all Democrats are spineless sell outs, the vote to defund still passed. This all out vendetta against reproductive services for women is becoming less and less about abortion and more about women’s sexual freedom. And somehow I doubt her speech, nor the words of any of us will matter as illustrated by the House vote. Male lawmakers will continue to boil the debate down to abstractions, accusing women of being “cavalier” in the choice to abort while at the same time blowing off the very real issue of women’s health (Remember McCain’s air quotes?) and such situations as rape, incest, and the inability to truly care financially for a child.

I’ll be watching what the Senate does with bated breath.