Discussed in this post: Two books (Quantum Physics by Humphrey, Pancella, and Berrah; and The Medicalization of Society by Conrad); three or six films, depending how you score it (Andersson’s Living trilogy, Vinterberg’s Hunt, and one disappointing one about David Foster Wallace) and three documentaries (Dreamcatcher, Running From Crazy, and Prophet’s Prey).
1. Idiot’s Guides: Quantum Physics by Marc Humphrey, Paul V. Pancella, and Mora Berrah.
About seven years ago I broke my ankle dancing at a gypsy punk show (I regret nothing!). I ended up needing some screws and a steel plate in order to get all my pieces back together again and, as a result of this, I ended up laying on a couch with some time on my hands. I decided to watch some documentaries about astrophysics, quantum physics, string theory and a whole bunch of other science-y stuff that I knew nothing about. I’m not sure how much I understood, but what I thought I understood left me gobsmacked and amazed and with a renewed sense of wonder. I’m afraid the little science I did know never really communicated this to me. The highschool courses I took all used the language of objectivity and certainty and this is often how science is presented in pop culture, especially as presented by misogynistic idiots like Richard Dawkins or imperialistic idiots like Christopher Hitchens (NB: this remark about Dawkins and Hitchens is not meant to be taken as approval of the egotistical idiots who argue against them for such things as Creationism — in many ways I see the whole pop debate about Religion Vs. Science as dealing with out-moded understandings of both… so it’s kinda like watching dinosaurs fight,which can be kinda fun, except that they’re both actually extinct).But these documentaries showed that science is, well, pretty awesome and there is a lot of humility and awe involved and what scientists actually think might be real is totally amazing and wild and more magical than my Grade 11 physics teacher led me to believe.
I was reminded of this last year while watching (of all things) Frozen with my daughter. At one point, in a song I hope I never have to hear again, Elsa refers to snowflakes as “frozen fractals” and I thought, “what the heck is a fractal?” So, I looked it up and discovered that a fractal is a line of infinite length that exists somewhere between one and two dimensions. In other words: WHAAA?? A fratal is something that actually gets longer the closer you look at it. There are things that exist that are infinitely long, even though they occupy a finite space (and they really fuck around with dimensionality). Isn’t that amazing? I thought so. As a result, I set a new reading goal for 2016: read more books about subjects that I know nothing about. So I decided to read about quantum physics. I went to the bookstore and found this really awesome looking book about time/space… but I couldn’t understand anything in it. So then I went and found this rad looking book about energy/mass… but that also went right by me. I thought maybe a book on string theory would be the solution but I’m not sure I even understood the title. So, then I found this Idiot’s Guide. And, granted, i still don’t understand everything (please don’t ask me to solve Schrodinger’s Wave Equation or even explain all of its component parts… I’m not even sure I understand how functions function, let alone multivariant calculus) but I’m loving what I am understanding (or what I think I’m understanding because my understanding might actually be a misunderstanding… which is sometimes what I think is happening when I watch French movies without subtitles — did I really understand what happened or was I able to understand enough of the dialogue to make up a story that worked with the images shown but was, in fact, an entirely different story than the one people who are fluent in French would see?).
What I find particularly exciting is the way in which the logic and principles of classical physics don’t always hold true in quantum physics. For example, things are both waves and particles simultaneously — and how they will appear depends on how you look at them. Yet no matter how well we attempt to see and know these things, there is a base level of uncertainty inscribed into the nature of things that severely limits what we can be sure of. Not only that, but the very act of looking at things and studying them (in this teeny tiny world) changes how things are. One of the most fascinating examples of this is that, in the world of quantum physics, some things can exist in more than one location at the same time. However, if we go looking for one of those things and end up finding it, it is then pinned to that location and is no longer in the other places where it was (well, except for maybe in other universes which also end up being a very real possibility). Part of what I like about this is how it relates to identity-formation in people. We are all, I think, multiple people at the same time. We are all over the place and exist with multiple (competing, contradicting, and overlapping) identities at the same time. However, when people go looking for us, when they name us, describe us, and do so collectively as a community, then our identity gets pinned down, we cease being a multitude and become an individual. The question, then, is how much this individual identity reveals who we are, and how much it is a fabricated (but no less real) result of tampering.
Anyway, this was a really fun read. So much wonder in the world. I’m looking forward to learning more about how little I know.
2. The Medicalization of Society: On the Transformation of Human Conditions into Treatable Disorders by Peter Conrad.
The Medicalization of Deviance: From Badness to Sickness by Peter Conrad and Joseph Schneider was one of the most significant books I have read in recent years. For a number of years, I’d be playing with the idea that healthcare and the concomitant discourse of community or public health, has replaced religion as the dominant (and increasingly hegemonic) source of our public morality and as the tool that justifies the use of force over populations that are vulnerable (specifically, in my thinking, people experiencing poverty, homelessness, oppression, and marginality). A few months back, I decided I was going to actually take a crack at writing a sustained argument along these lines and a good friend of mine happened to mention The Medicalization of Deviance to me (along with the works of Foucault, it became a major cornerstone of the argument I presented at a small conference in a paper called “How Can I Be Health When I’m Already Dead?” Confronting the dominance of the medical model within social services, with an oppression-informed analysis“). Conrad and Schneider make a very compelling argument that activities that were previously considered bad or sinful have simply been rebranded as sick or unhealthy and that one of the outworkings of this is that the power dynamics and distributions of the status quo are able to continue on the trajectory most desired by those located at the central hubs of power and wealth.
In The Medicalization of Society, Conrad then picks up this line of thought (which he has continued to track over the last thirty years) and explores what has taken place in terms of medicalization. He observes, using various case studies, that medicalization continues to expand in multiple ways and notes that once medicalization takes place it is rarely reversed (the two most prominent examples of demedicalization being masturbation and homosexuality). Conrad then explores the three ways in which the process of medicalization has shifted over these years.
First, pharmaceutical companies have become a major player (perhaps the major player) in the field and they are responsible not only for creating new drugs but for (literally) creating new disease that those drugs then address. Generalized Anxiety Disorder, for example, wasn’t really a thing before Paxil. The same applies to many other coditions, and Conrad explores a number related to aging (particularly in men; Conrad notes that women’s bodies have been medicalized for much longer than the bodies of men, and that the full medicalization of the male body is only really taking place now). Lower testosterone levels in men, for example, are medicalized as soon as testosterone could be produced in a lab. Or even events that were simply considered part of life but not tnecessarily a disease – a man who on the rare occasion is unable to maintain a fully hard erection, for example – is also medicalized once Viagra appears (whose applications quickly expands beyond the aging market). Not only that but even the base level of healthy can start to shift once enhancement medications are available (human growth hormone is one example, as are cosmetic surgeries, or the Viagra just mentioned) and can make us “better than well.”
The second major impact has been the impact of consumer advocacy groups on medicalization. Here we have people with certain experiences or conditions banding together to argue that what they are experiencing is some kind of illness. The spread of adult ADHD is one example of the power of consumer groups. Adult ADHD is the number one most self-diagnosed condition among American adults. As Conrad explores, the fact that this condition (also popularized by pharmaceutical companies producing Ritalin or Ritalin-like drugs, especially post-1997 when drug laws changed in the USofA and permitted these companions to engage in direct-to-consumer advertising) allows people to believe a comforting story about themselves – they did not succeed at work or in school or in other endeavours not because the lacked a work ethic or self-discipline or moral fiber (or whatever other reasons they have internalized for events they have experienced as failures) but because of a medical condition that has everything to do with genetics or biochemistry and nothing to do with their character. Not surprisingly, adult ADHD diagnoses have exploded.
The third major factor Conrad explores is fairly unique to the USofA (I’m sure this is a factor elsewhere but what Conrad looks at seems more specific to the USian context), and this is the rise of managed care and the importance of insurance companies in influencing which treatments or drugs receive coverage and which do not.
All of this then leads Conrad to conclude that the most significant shift in medicalization over the years is that it is now primarily influenced by economic factors and dominated by powerful corporations driven by profit-motives (and Conrad doesn’t even get into the impact of pharmaceutical companies upon those drafting the DSM). Consequently, Conrad argues that an understanding of economics must be added to the social constructionist lens in order to fully understand how this phenomenon is continuing to develop and where it might take us. Further, as a social constructionist, Conrad tries to reserve making any kind of moral judgement about these developments (are they “good” or “bad”?) although he does point out to some more obviously positive and some more obviously negative outcomes of all of this.
I really recommend Conrad – especially Deviance and Medicalization, which I consider required reading for anyone in healthcare or in a profession that has now fallen under the hegemonic control of the medical model of care. I am convinced that my hunch was right – in a society that has abandoned traditional notions of religion as a foundation for public moral discourse, the discourse of health has arisen as the most convenient disciplinary replacement for those situated at central hubs of power, wealth, and oppression.
1. The Living Trilogy (2000, 2007, 2014) directed by Roy Andersson.
It is very hard for me to write about these movies because I liked them so much and they are so perfectly composed as movies. I don’t know if I have ever seen any other movies that so perfectly capture that meaninglessness, absurdity, sorrow and hilarity of the everyday life and death of white people (more specifically, middle-class Western European white people, but I think the insights equally apply to the white people who have colonized Turtle Island). I thought these films were stunningly brilliant (I gasped out loud a few times, which I never do watching movies), horribly depressing (some scenes were heart-wrenching in their honesty), and absolutely hilarious (I laughed out loud with sheer joy at some scenes, which I also never do watching movies). It may be that you have to have gotten to a certain age after certain experiences in life (or maybe just have the right screws loose) to really appreciate these films, but I very, very highly recommend them. That’s all I think I’ll say because it is much better to watch them than it is to read about them.
2. The Hunt (2012) directed by Thomas Vinterberg.
After I watched The Hunt, I read a number of online reviews and it was only then that I realized that it is about a man who is falsely accused of sexually abusing some of the children at the kindergarten where he worked (and the contrast is then made to Vinterberg’s debut film, The Celebration, wherein the patriarch is very clearly guilty of abusing his children in terrible ways). I found it very curious that all the reviewers emphasize this and yet, I felt that the movie never stated this explicitly and, instead, left the question hanging as to whether or not the protagonist, Lucas (played very well by Mads Mikkelsen), is guilty or not.
Why this difference between my reading and those of pretty much everyone else?
Well, to be fair to the reviewers, their interpretation is supported by Vinterberg. In one interview, he describes Lucas as “righteous” and “very just” and “very good hearted” and “insistently civilized” and “a very moral man, almost Christian” whose “standards are way higher than everyone else’s.” Now, of course, for those of us who know about child abuse, and people who abuse children, we know that these words can easily be used to describe a person who abuses chidren – communities, families, and friends are often totally shocked and appalled by who abuses children. “I would have never suspected that of him!” And so on and so forth. So I wondered, “Is the director pulling a fast one? Allowing people to believe one thing, and not quite contradicting them but also not entirely agreeing with them?” Because, really, when I watched the movie, things did not seem so clear cut.
Well, no, I was wrong. Vinterberg is very explicit about this in another interview.
Interviewer: And there was never any doubt about Mads Mikkelsen’s protagonist?
Vinterberg: No. I wanted the audience to be close to this guy, and there’s no way that can happen if there’s any possibility he touched a child.
So, what the heck? How did I end the movie feeling completely uncertain as to whether or not there was an act of abuse and also feeling that some of the most powerful scenes in the film were those that capture that ambiguity (for example, after Lucas has been exonerated and he happens to see Klara, the little girl whose story started the whole case against Lucas, there is this moment where they look at each other across a room and I thought both actors perfectly captured what their characters might be feeling both in the event that the girl told a true story and in the event that she made something up. Really, I thought that was one of the most tense, well-acted scenes I’ve seen in any movie. But it only has that effect when one watches in a way that contradicts what Vinterberg has said about the film!
Here, I’m afraid I have to deploy Barthes against Vinterberg and celebrate the birth of the reader over and above the death of the author (meaning, hey, Vinterberg, just because you say your story is about something, it doesn’t mean you actually get to impose your meaning onto all the viewers – authors do not get hegemonic control over what their texts are said to mean simply because they wrote those texts, and the same goes for film directors!).
So, what happens in the film? The following points all make any kind of conclusion impossible.
- We see that Lucas is a very kind, very caring person who is much loved by his friends and by his students. But, as I’ve already mentioned, anyone who knows about child abuse knows that very kind, very caring, much loved people can still do terrible things (and we see this with other characters in the movie where the sensitive, bourgeois small town folks murder Lucas’ dog and beat up his son in order to take out some of their rage and anger against Lucas – and Lucas’ son, a sensitive and loving boy, spits on Klara and calls her a bitch – so even in the world of The Hunt, good and kind people do awful things).
- We also see that Klara is exposed to a pornographic image by her older brother and that when she tells her story, she echoes the language her brother used at that moment. But what we don’t know is that if this provided Klara with content for a story she fabricates or if it helps her to give language to an event she experienced (that is not shown in the film).
- We also know that Klara is very close with Lucas as she is the daughter of his best friend and he often helps care for her – walking her to and from school, having her over to walk his dog, etc. We see that her home life is a bit tumultuous and that she ends up developing a bit of a schoolgirl crush on Lucas. But what we don’t know is if Lucas has ulterior motives for bonding with Klara in this way and we do know that, when childhood sexual abuse happens, it tends to come from people situated precisely where Lucas is situated with Klara.
- We also see that the Principal of the school and the person sent to investigate the case jump quickly to conclusions based on the somewhat uncertain story Klara told and we also see them coming very close to telling her what to say in order to convict Lucas. However, what we don’t know, regardless of how they tampered with the process, is if Klara is telling the truth (guilty people and innocent people have both been convicted because of evidence tampering).
- Of course, almost immediately after and for the remainder of the film, Klara takes back her story and says she was lying and that she made it all up. But, as the movie also tells us, it is not uncommon for children who are abused to change their stories or take back what they say. Perhaps because they care about the people who abuse them and don’t want them to suffer or perhaps because they become uncomfortable with the scrutiny of doctors and social workers or perhaps because they see how upset their parents become… kids change their stories and this in itself should not make us conclude that the original story is fabricated.
- After Klara tells her story, other children come forward and say that Lucas also abused them and exhibit symptoms of abuse. But there are major problems with the story the children tell (they say Lucas abused them in the basement of his house and there is no basement in his house) But children trying to recall trauma often get major details wrong (our minds don’t store traumatic memories in the same way as other memories) and this does not mean the trauma did not happen (although, in the movie, this is a major factor in the charges against Lucas being dropped). Further, as characters in the movie emphasize, while children sometimes lie about these things, they usually don’t.
- As for the symptoms of abuse, the ones given are quite broad and could be attributed to many causes and, as Vinterberg points out in the interviews, children who have been told that they have been abused (even when they have not) can go on to exhibit the exact same symptoms and life trajectories of those who experienced abuse.
- Near the very end of the film, Klara is shown falling asleep in her bed. She begins to dream that Lucas’ dog (the one she loved to walk – which was killed by members of the community as revenge against Lucas, although Klara does not know this) appears in the hallway outside her room. Her dad then comes and stands in her doorway to watch her sleep and, in her dreamy state, Klara sees his silhouette and calls out the name of Lucas. Is this a mistake she makes because she was dreaming of Lucas’ dog or because Lucas has appeared in her bedroom doorway before?
- What does Theo conclude? He and others are adamant that Klara has always been truthful before, even if she has a very vivid imagination but Klara telling two contradictory stories now seems to undercut the claims of truthfulness and elevate the claims made about her imagination. It appears that Theo believes his best friend and his daughter’s revised story and it seems as though he realizes Lucas’ innocence when he looks in Lucas’ eyes in church at Christmas. BUT his answer is ambiguous (he doesn’t actually say Lucas is innocent, he simply says that he “saw nothing there,” which others take to mean he saw no guilt there). Yet at the very end of the movie someone shoots at Lucas while they are out hunting. We don’t see the shooter – but it was Theo early on who said that he would put a bullet in Lucas’ head if he concluded his daughter was telling the truth (early on in the movie there was a scene in Theo’s kitchen after a hunt when guns are present and Lucas’ dog is barking and I wondered then if that scene foreshadowed Theo shooting Lucas). So was the “nothing” Theo saw in Lucas’ eyes the missing piece that allows a man to abuse his bestfriend’s daughter or was the “nothing” the innocence others assumed (or perhaps even the “nothing” was nothing at all — meaning that it was impossible to know either way by looking in his eyes). Did Theo fire at Lucas or was the shot fired by another member of the community, reminding us that, once certain accusations are made, there will forever be doubts and questions, regardless of any criminal conviction, about the innocence of the accused?
- Finally, it’s worth noting that Lucas is recently divorced and that his ex-wife isn’t keen on having Lucas around his son. In the movie, the ex is regularly discussed as some kind of crazy asshole (as one might expect from a group of male friends out hunting and drinking with the man — but one might also expect that group to be biased)… so all of the other factors already mentioned create the possibility that she became aware of some kind of abuse taking place and left Lucas and tried to separate him from his son because of this.
- (Oh, final thought – I’m not sure we actually ever hear Lucas state or assert his innocence. Initially, he is not told what he is accused of doing and so he can’t defend himself and, later, once the charges are known, he plays the role of the just man suffering up silently under persecution – the man whose life is so moral that he doesn’t have to explicitly refute the charges. It is a further point, however, if he never actually does deny the charges explicitly.)
So why is everyone rushing to proclaim Lucas’ innocence? I think two interrelated factors are at work here. First, the director has told us that Lucas is innocent and it seems like most everyone believes him, regardless of what is actually shown. Second, there is the patriarchal bias of our culture that favours offenders over victims or survivors and prioritizes the stories of men – especially men who are beacons of morality and good citizenship within their communities – over the stories of little girls or boys… or women. The Hunt makes it appear that we do the opposite, that we are rushing to tar and feather the innocent and that good men are getting hurt a lot along the way, and that, hey, we need to remember that men are the real victims here (which is why many audience members, bros and those neckdeep in rape culture, have such a violent and hateful reaction to the character of Klara – a reaction that really surprised Vinterberg and took him aback, since he wanted to show that Klara was also a victim to external forces, but in a different kind of way). But this is not what research into these matters shows (the Gian Ghomeshi trial going on here in Canada is just one example of how deeply some of these patriarchal biases run through our so-called justice system). Far more often than not, abusers are getting away with abuse and victims and survivors are not being believed. So do we need another movie — or interviews like this — to reinforce this stereotype? I doubt it. Thankfully, I don’t think that’s what The Hunt actually is – I think it is a very moving and thoughtful portrayal of the ambiguous overlap of good and evil within people and a well-researched study of how abuse and allegations of abuse impact children and families and communities – just don’t let the director or the critics convince you otherwise.
3. The End of the Tour (2015) directed by James Ponsoldt.
I wasn’t sure what I was looking for with this movie. I’ve read a fair bit of DFW (both of his monsters – the one he never finished and the one that never ends – as well as a couple of his short story and essay collections) and I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read. I like his voice and unlike some other authors (whom I like and feel I can imitate in my own writing), part of what I like about his voice is that I wouldn’t have a clue how to begin writing that way. There were moments in The Pale King when I laughed out loud with joy, not simply at what was written but at how it was written. Often during Infinite Jest, I found myself marveling, “how does he do this??” and “Incarnations of Burned Children” remains the most terrifying horror story I have ever read (although the three pages Marlon James wrote about a young teenager buried alive in A Brief History of Seven Killings is equally strong and short – amazing how much of a wallop can be packed into so few words).
Still, I tend not to watch too many celebrity biopics. I can’t remember the last one I watched before this – especially of the not-a-documentary variety, since I did watch (and enjoy!) Amy a few months ago. If given the option, I’d much rather watch footage of the actual person rather than watch an actor portray that person (to be fair, I didn’t think Segel was bad in this film, although Eisenberg tends to annoy me). So I’m not sure what I was looking for with this movie. Whatever it was, I didn’t find it.
1. Dreamcatcher (2015) directed by Kim Longinotto.
[TW: sexual violence.]
Mostly, I’m skeptical about a lot of social services and the bigger they get, the more harm they tend to do. I’ve been a part of some of the biggest in Canada and the most influential in some cities and I’ve seen from the inside how sick things can be. But sometimes I stumble across something really great and exciting. Usually, these are very small services, still very much rooted in the communities they profess to serve (i.e. still very tangible connected to the grassroots) and generally they are being run by people who were once a part of the community they are now serving. PACE and PEERS, for example, were two small organizations in Vancouver run by former (female) sex workers for current (female) sex workers and, from what I could tell, they did really rad things.
I was also lucky enough to be able to participate in a small service for male and trans* sex workers run by AIDS Vancouver called Boys’R’Us (the name was chosen by the clients and exhibits two characteristics I have come to associate with sex workers over the years – intelligence and a [somewhat dark] sense of humour). The program had only one staff member and about half a dozen volunteers, of whom I was one. It felt like a good fit for me. Although the johns for all sex workers regardless of gender are overwhelmingly male, it felt far more comfortable and appropriate that I be kicking it with male and trans* sex workers instead of the women who were working in my neighbourhood. Women don’t need men to save them. Women mostly need men to fuck off so they can get on with doing with they know best needs to be done (so, as I got to be friends with some of the women in the neighbourhood, I never worked with them in a professional capacity although my wife at that time was volunteering at a drop-in for the female sex workers run by a church just down the road from us).
Most people don’t think about male sex work – the strolls where men (and boys) work tend to be a lot less noticeable to the public eye than the strolls where women work, unless you’re already an insider and know what to look for. But male sex work is also ubiquitous (even in London, where I am now, I am aware of a few fellows who are quietly working that scene). The fellows I saw at Boys’R’Us were low-track. Many were very low-track (although every now and again a twinkie showed up – a twinkie being slang for something fresh and cream-filled that looks delicious but that has no nutritional content, or for someone “young, dumb, and full of cum” as a pimp in Toronto put it to me – feeling like the king or queen of the world for awhile, but that never lasted too long). But, yeah, for most we were talking five dollar blow jobs. Mostly they were working to support addictions. Several were dying from HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis or some combination of the two. All of them were accustomed to getting bad dates and, the lower you go and the less you are able to charge, the more frequently very violent and sadistic dates show up. And, hey, after everything else that’s already happened, what’s a little choking or beating or stabbing or slashing?
I was reminded of this watching Dreamcatcher, a documentary about a former female sex worker, Brenda, working with current sex workers (both in prison in a paid position and on the streets in a volunteer position) and at risk teenage girls in Chicago. It was not an easy film to watch. Multiple sex workers recount details of very violent dates. Brenda was herself shot five times, stabbed thirteen times, and had a john cut all the skin off of her face. What is appalling is both the degree of violence the women and children experience and how normal it is for them to experience that degree of violence. People tend to think folks like Robert Picton who was murdering sex workers in Vancouver and feeding them to his pigs, or Bradley Barton, the trucker from Mississauga, who murdered Cindy Gladue by cutting the inside of her vagina and leaving her to bleed to death in the bathtub of his hotel room (he was found innocent by a jury of mostly white men – Cindy Gladue was an Indigenous woman – who concluded she had consented to have rough sex with him… even though her blood alcohol level was way over the limit set for consent to be a possibility), or the fellow who is likely murdering sex workers in Winnipeg are the exceptions, strange monstrous anomalies, but they are not. This is what comes with the territory of low track sex work. Or with being a woman – all of the girls in Brenda’s afterschool program recount being raped at very young ages, reminding me of a line from Patrick Stickles (“is there a girl at this college who hasn’t been raped?”) and, despite, the stats which show the majority of women experience sexual violence from men in our culture, I’m inclined to believe that all women do – whether it’s men shoving hands up their skirts at a bar or a friend of the family climbing into bed with them as children, I can’t imagine a woman in this patriarchal colonized land not experiencing violence from men at some point. Low track sex work is just the environment where it is easiest for isolated men to get away with some of the most extreme manifestations of this violence (although it’s kind of absurd to set up levels of extremity between, say, getting raped or getting raped and also having the skin of your face cut off, since both events are absolutely appalling).
What’s also appalling is that those with the power and resources to do something about this, don’t really give a fuck (in fact, they may very well be the johns or at least have intimate connections with the johns). A striking example of this was when I discovered that there are known “kiddie strolls” in both Toronto and Vancouver – places where men can go to have sex with children (the area in Toronto is known as the Romper Room). Service providers and cops and anybody around the scene knew about these places… but they continued to exist because… I don’t know… maybe they didn’t care, maybe they felt it wasn’t a battle worth fighting because these places will always appear again (laws of supply and demand being what they are), or maybe they were getting paid off (many cops were sexually exploiting teenage girls I knew on the street in Toronto and cops and other officers of the law almost always get discounts and preferential treatment from sex work establishments).
Anyway, back to the movie. Brenda is really the focus of the film and she really is an amazing woman. She is tireless, devoted, and is able to engage people in a way that makes them feel heard, cared for, and human. And she not only shows she cares via her words and emotions – she cares in very tangibly meaningful ways. To many folks removed from the streets, she may seem larger than life – almost superhuman – but in every colonized, oppressed, and marginalized community there are many women like her. I know. They are some of the people I admire most: Freda Huson, Harsha Walia, Wendy Pederson, Jean Swanson, Ada Lockridge, Darlene Ritchie, these are just a few of the women who are, each in her own way, doing something akin to what Brenda is doing. Everywhere I look, it seems as though women from colonized, oppressed, and marginalized populations are taking the lead on the most exciting, life-giving things that are taking place in our world.
The challenge for me, as someone who gets by just fine performing maleness, is to find ways to become more complicit in what they are on about and less complicit in patriarchy. Here, Brenda’s choice to include Homer, a fellow who used to pimp under the name of Fancy, in the work she does is quite compelling. In Brenda’s world, even the pimps can find redemption if they stop pimping and begin to work towards the life and liberation of those whom they used to oppress. Brenda loves Homer and speaks highly of his character. In her world, there is no one beyond hope. I like that and I like the way she dreams. It is catching.
This was a hard movie to watch, but I would recommend it. Afterwards, you may want to check out The Interrupters which is, perhaps, the male parrallel to what Brenda is doing. Also set in Chicago, it looks at former gang members or leaders (many who served decades in jail for homicides) who turned away from violence and now work as peacemakers in their neighbourhoods. Fascinating what is happening in Chicago, eh? The more death presses down upon a people, the more the Spirit of Life rises up.
2. Running From Crazy (2012) directed by Barbara Kopple.
Running From Crazy focuses on the life of one of Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughters, her relationships with her two older sisters, their relationships with their father (Hemingway’s oldest son), and her relationships with her two daughters. Of the sisters, the eldest lives under some kind of supervised care because she struggles with psychosis and being able to care for herself. The middle daughter became a famous fashion model who ended up retracing many of her grandfather’s steps until she, too, killed herself. This leaves the youngest daughter – the main character in the film – worried that she or her daughters might also end up crossing that line one day (if I counted correctly, 9 members of her immediate and extended family suicided).
I never knew much about the Hemingway legacy. I read a few of his books and thought he was overrated as a writer. I have a half-formed theory that he tends to attract somewhat lost or insecure readers who place a highly value on their own personal pursuit of “masculinity” and that’s about as far as my thoughts have gone with him. I was completely unaware of the family history of mental illness, destructive patterns of substance use, and also childhood sexual abuse (Hemingway’s son, the father of the protagonist, sexually abused his two oldest daughters, and the youngest claims to have only escaped the abuse because she slept with her mom from the age of 7 until she was 16, leaving the viewer to wonder if that was a pattern of behavior that was passed down by Hemingway and/or Hemingway’s father before him – but the documentary never explores this avenue).
Having worked with so many survivors of abuse and mental health consumers (or whatever current term you want to use), it’s interesting to see how experiencing an absurd amount of wealth and easy access into any domain (fashion, the film industry, and art galleries all open with ease to the Hemingway name and the Hemingway money) impacts a family’s experience of these things. In this regard, it reminds me a bit of the Born Rich documentary created by the heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical empire. Clearly these people are suffering, grieving, struggling with loneliness and neglect, and, OHMIGOD LOOK AT THE VIEW FROM THEIR BACKPORCH!!
3. Prophet’s Prey (2015) directed by Amy J. Berg.
[TW: sexual violence.]
This is actually the second documentary I’ve watched about folks involved with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). The FLDS is an offshoot of Mormonism that is centred on their affirmation of polygamy, and the teachings of their prophet, Warren Jeffs, who prioritizes separation from sinners and the world, and preaches in an ever-delayed imminent end of the world… or America… or Salt Lake City… or wherever (you would think that people might get skeptical when The End keeps getting delayed but if people are so full of guilt that they believe the end is delayed because of their lack of faithfulness or their sinfulness and impurity then, really, you can delay The End until people are perfect… which, of course, is never).
The first documentary I watched on this subject was Sons of Perdition (2010) and it followed a group of mostly young (late teens) men and a few young women who had been exiled from their community by Warren Jeffs. That movie was quite sad (and genuinely scary at a few points when some teens go back into the FLDS town to try and rescue siblings or mothers from abusive parents or husbands and the broader systemic abuse of the FLDS). Hundreds of teens have been exiled and are ill-equipped to deal with the outside world or all the trauma they have experienced in their families and under the reign of the prophet.
This movie examines the prophet himself. Although I knew that girls as young as 14 were being given in marriage to old men in the FLDS community, I did not know that Jeffs was, from a very young age, a serial pedophile who climbed the ladder of power in order to permit himself to have sex with any young girl he desired in the FLDS community. It was a horrid movie to watch and I will not and cannot recommend it to any other viewers. This is primarly because at one point, without any warning, the movie plays an audio recording that Jeffs made on his wedding night with one of his 12 year old brides. I see no reason whatsoever to play that recording in the film and believe that doing so is completely and utterly unacceptable. Doing so without warning the audience, so that by the time the audience realizes what it is hearing it’s too late, feels like a form of assault.
However, I did have one thought after seeing this movie. I think, in a way, our society needs people like Warren Jeffs and the FLDS. We need them, and we need to watch documentaries or hear about them in the news (I remember when the Temple in Texas was raided, when the kids were taken away and then returned, and I remember seeing Jeffs on the FBI Most Wanted list), in order to convince ourselves that we are not like them. Because what stands out to us when we view documentaries about things like Jeffs and the FLDS? Two things: one, the appalling violence of what takes place within that community; and, two, how willingly people go along with the violence, participating in the harms caused to loved ones and blindly accepting the words of their leaders as gospel truths and inviolable commands.
But what happens if we reverse the camera’s gaze and look at ourselves and our communities? Who is more violent: Jeffs, the serial pedophile, or the Prime Minister of Canada (or the President of the USofA)? Jeffs, the serial pedophile, or the CEOs of Canadian mining and oil companies? Strictly measured on the level of numbers of people killed, maimed, orphaned, and dispossessed — not to mention ecosystems destroyed, river deltas poisoned, species annihilated and made extinct — it’s obvious that the people heading up the political and economic institutions that structure our day-to-day lives are far more violent than Jeffs. It’s not even close. But the violence Jeff enacts is vicious and very, very personal — and we don’t experience the bombing of foreign children or the poisoning of Indigenous communities or the extinction of the golden toad in the same personal way. So we can look at Jeffs and feel righteous (“What a monster! Who could do such a thing?”) and look at the members of the FLDS as half-insane and blind and a weird anomaly (“how could they so willingly go along with everything?”) never realizing that our leaders are far worse and, given our own participation in the day-to-day structural violence (from encouraging kids to go off to war to purchasing products made by child-slaves in foreign lands to paying taxes that help fund weapons for death squads in Haiti, etc. etc.), we are actually just as insane and blind and deluded.
This is the thing to understand when studying things like Jeffs and the FLDS — these people are not Other than you. If you are a member of the dominant population in our society, these people are you.