Introduction: Past, Present and Future Tense
(CW: This review makes references to sexual violence, suicidal ideation, abusive relationships and other triggering shit, take care friends)
This’ll be my last book review for a bit. I still have The Broken Teapot but that’s more of a collection of essays online than a formal book. I want to get that review out before the end of January, but don’t expect it. I just started school back up and am really jazzed about some of my upcoming classes. However, I feel this series is important self-accountability (though it could just be intellectual posturing BS, who knows? tell me what you think!) work and I want to at least do this review before I put my focus on papers for school. We’ll see how it shakes out.
Expect for me to continue this series in the summer with books on self-forgiveness, shame, regret and other more psychological and psycho-political things of that nature. None of that means I am ready to forgive myself for the harms I’ve perpetuated. But I at least want to look into the subject and see if there’s some way I can hold space for the harm I’ve perpetuated and also the good I’ve done in the world. I don’t do so as a way to excuse or “move on” from the shitty things I’ve done, but rather as a way to stabilize my mental health so I can continue to do better and be better in a healthier and more consistent manner.
I do so for my friends, my family, my co-workers, my classmates, my professors, the people I interact with on a daily basis, strangers online, acquaintances online, and anyone else I come into contact with. I’m serious about the harm I’ve perpetuated and trying to take some measure of self-accountability. And so far reading books, compilations and experiences about sexual violence and listening to survivors and aggressors (with a greater emphasis on the former) has been the biggest form of help to me so far. I don’t claim it’s made me a betterperson (although that’s possible) or that it guarantees I will never fuck up again, but I do think it makes those possibilities less likely and more manageable if they do.
I know none of this is likely a solace to the people who I’ve already harmed and I’m sorry for that. All I can do is strive to do better and make sure that I change my rules around romantic and sexual interactions. To that end I’ve largely stopped flirting or even complimenting online, I don’t have sex with people who drink (period) and I try to always explicitly check in with my current partner about their boundaries and how they’re feeling in the moment. And yes, if you’re new, my partner knows all about my history and I’m lucky to have their support.
I think that covers my bases. I hope you enjoy this review and make sure to take care of each other. Trans rights are human rights and Donkey Kong 64 saved us all from transphobia in 2019, thanks for coming to my TED Talk.
The Revolution Starts at Home (And Goddamn is it Tough)
Do you ever have the experience where you’ve had a really shitty day and you come back home and your surprised to learn a show you love got a new season? Or maybe you just took a shower after a really sweaty workout? Or perhaps after what feels like an eternity of a year (looking at you 2018) we start 2019 off right with a 57 hour live-stream that showcases how much Donkey Kong supports trans folks.
Whatever your preferred analogy that’s what The Revolution Starts at Home was for me after reading Conflict is Not Abuse. Granted, I only got through the introduction and most of chapter 1 on that book. I plan to go back and read a few sections of the book that people said were good, but not for a while.
But back to The Revolution Starts at Home: It’s amazing and go read it please.
This is perhaps one of the best compilations/books I’ve read on sexual violence thus far, and though I don’t claim to be an aficionado on the subject, I’ve read more than a handful of writings on sexual violence from radical perspectives and this book has to be one of the most challenging, warm, exciting and theoretically invigorating reads I’ve had in a while. There were a few slow moments towards the end but overall this is an excellent read for either folks who have perpetuated harm or those folks who have supported it. And as this book points out, everyone who has done both. Because survivorship and not being an abuser are not necessarily mutually exclusive in the ways many folks within radical communities always think.
In trying to survive the violence that many of us, especially women, people of color, gender non-conforming sorts, and any combination therein, it is very possible for folks to use violence themselves. This doesn’t have to mean some liberal conclusion that makes survivors as bad as their abusers, but it does have to mean that we keep relationships in their proper context. We don’t just see the violence that people commit against each other and against themselves as isolated or without cause and effect. It’s easy to see survivors as angels and it’s even easier to see abusers as monsters, especially when they’ve been abusive more than once.
However, abstracting either of these groups of people makes for an awkward experience when we realize that all of us have the capacity to harm. In millions of small and subtle ways that we would never even think of or never mean. But all of that can add up to terrible effects and as we all know (or should know) a good intent doesn’t negate a terrible impact and vice versa. You cannot wish away the harm you’ve done with statements like, “oh it was just an accident!”
Believe me, I’ve tried.
But none of that makes the process easy. It doesn’t mean that we can simplify survivors and their roles or the role of the abuser/rapist/perpetrator of harm/aggressor. But those roles are, in of themselves, simplified to allow for easy lines to be read aloud your local social justice teleprompter without much forethought in doing so. One of the byproducts of that is “cancel culture” as well as call-out culture which aren’t the same but often overlap in various ways.
Take the DK 64 Stream I keep praising. It was put on by a Youtuber named HBomberGuy and it was an amazing outpouring of support towards trans people. But HBomb himself isn’t trans, he’s bisexual and cis and white. That’s part of why so many folks felt safe to flock to the stream to begin with. But that’s not even the problem because apparently, in the recent past, HBomb (real name Harris or Harry) had defended a friend of his who was known to be creepy and may have attempted to rape someone, awful shit, right?
On the other hand, this happens so often in leftist spaces. Someone calls out someone else and their friends say, “I’ve known them forever and they would never do this. They were always good with consent around me/towards me/towards me and people I know!” etc. This response is understandable (I’ve literally had friends say this about me, for one thing) but predictable and toxic and ultimately undermines survivor’s trying to come forward with their stories.
So how do I make sense of this claim against Harris? Should I cancel him? Is HBomberGuy now canceled after raising over $300,000 for trans rights in the UK and having countless videos educating people about good ol’ leftist politics like Don’t Be a Gigantic Dickhead and Perpetuate Racism? As Harris himself in the stream said, he’s not necessarily an amazing person, it’s just that the bar has been lowered so far in the discourse that saying, “hey maybe racism exists and is bad?” can sometimes be a radical statement these days. And I don’t bring up the amazing things Harris has done recently to undermine the harms I’ve mentioned but to raise a point that I raised earlier: Can we hold harms and goods together?
Is it necessary? Is it a worthwhile cause to begin with? I legitimately don’t know because this is such a context dependent situation. But it’s one I struggle with and I know it’s one that many of us in leftist circles struggle with.
Heck, everyone struggles with loving art when their favorite artists turn out to be shitheads. What should I do about Pirates of the Caribbean (especially the first two movies) now that I know Johnny Depp is an abuser? Should I stop watching his films, stop going to new films he stars in, should I speak out against him and the studios that support him? Should I call out people who are supporting him?
How far does this go and why?
I’m not posing these questions because I have the answer, here’s a spoiler: I don’t have the answer and anyone who says they does needs to check in with themselves once in a while. Not because they’re wrong but because this is such a big ethical choice to make, at least in my eyes. So it’s at least worth thinking about from time to time. I struggled with these two situations, less so with Depp and more with Harris and ultimately decided to forgive the latter and diminish the role of the former in my life. I don’t watch Depp’s old movies anymore and if anyone brings him up I mention he’s a shithead and I don’t support movies he’s cast in if I can help it.
At least I can rest easy knowing Depp isn’t in Kingdom Hearts 3, right?
But that likely wasn’t for those reasons, sadly.
A Joy so Secret, Waldo is Impressed
There’s an essay in this compilation called, The Secret Joy of Accountability and it’s the essay I took that “angels” and “monsters” labels for survivors and perpetrators of harm, respectively. It’s a terrific essay that discusses how, for instance, relationships can be so immersive and abusive at the same time that they become this thing you can’t find your way out of anymore. Like a dog trapped under some blankets or getting a paper bag on your head, or a fish not knowing its in water. Abuse becomes the air you breathe and the water you drink and all of the notes you wrote to your partner to “clear the air” or make things better just either brings things back to “normal” or makes it worse. Speaking from experience.
But Jesus, that title. Look, if there’s some fucking joy to be found in this process of writing long protracted reviews about books that involve sexual violence, I’ll let you know, but so far, not a whole lot of luck. I enjoy writing these reviews, I enjoy confronting my presumptions and biases about sexual violence and what it means to heal from it as well as cause it. But I wouldn’t call even the deepest revelations I’ve figured out about myself or society at large joys, at best they’re like little tidbits that keep me going through this process. And I don’t want to spend this review just complaining about how hard it is to be me, because fuck that.
This process isn’t really about me or for me, even though it objectively is and is at the same time. It’s confusing, right? But anyways, the joy in being accountable to myself, or at least the closest thing to it I’ve found, is feeling like maybe I’ve made some progress and as a result can do better in my everyday interactions with the people who matter to me the most and even those who don’t matter to me at all on a friendship, family or lover level. The real “joy” comes from realizing I’ve changed a behavior here or there or minimized it for the comfort of others.
These aren’t big steps or changes but the path of a thousand steps begins with a single clichéd step. And one of the biggest things I took from this collection, this wonderful collection of writings, is that changing your behavior isn’t supposed to feel comfortable! That’s not how habits are broken! If you enjoyed these habits so much that they are habits then it’s likely because they give you satisfaction, happiness or whatever else on some microscopic level. And trying to actually break that process of micro-happiness through repetitive behavior, thoughts, etc. isn’t fun and is not necessarily full of joy either. It’s hard, it sucks and it often requires a lot of staring in a mirror, but it’s still worth it.
I can’t help but think about Marie Kondo and the recent craze around her “does it bring joy to you?”as a way to de-clutter your personal belongings. This, being applied to books in particular, led to a backlash which then led to a much better backlash against the backlash (though I found both backlashes overblown and unfunny most of the time, ooh, look at my centrism and implied rationality!)
Would self-accountability be kept with Kondo’s method? And what exactly does “joy” mean anyways? At first, I thought a helpful response might go something like this, “That’s a good guideline but some things bring us a lot of pain, they challenge us and make us re-think long established routines and beliefs. That shit can be really painful and could even lead to losing friends. So how can I call such books that do things like that joyful? But Kondo herself and her defenders have pointed out that the term “joy” is a pretty complicated word and doesn’t just narrowly mean happiness in an extreme way.
Joy can come from challenging materials, joy can come from sadness and even sorrow. I wouldn’t have been able to feel the absolutely joy I did today in my first class of social and political philosophy if I hadn’t gone through other sorrows first. That doesn’t mean those sorrows were OK, I have to be alright with them or I wouldn’t take them back if I could or try to undo the things that got me to those feelings. But ultimately everything has a cause and effect to it. Contrary to some folks beliefs, I didn’t just randomly start being shitty to a previous partner.
It stemmed from months and months of neglect from them which doesn’t excuse my behavior or actions, but it does partly explain them. It doesn’t make it OK or right or the other person’s fault, but it is important to realize so it doesn’t just look like I’m some hapless monster who likes hurting people. Because I’m not.
Obviously a lot of this draws us into murky territory with survivors. At what point is their taking responsibility for what happened in an abusive relationship just victimizing themselves? Is it ever fair to tell a survivor that they should take more “responsibility” for a situation they didn’t have a lot of agency in? But then consider my situation where I was poor, isolated, didn’t have a car, didn’t have steady income for a long time and had a hard time connecting and making friends.
None of that excuses anything either, but it does help illustrate why I didn’t just leave or move out when things got too much. In fact, my previous partner and I tried many times for me to find somewhere else to live (that wasn’t my grandmother’s) but it never worked out despite my repeated attempts to get away. Does that help or hinder our analysis of my shitty behavior towards that individual?
A lot of this book is asking ourselves to come to terms with the violence we do to ourselves as well as the violence we do to others in the process of trying to be who we want to be. Sometimes we discover our coping mechanisms sucked and then we try to do better, that’s what I did and am still doing almost 5 years later.
But this process never stops and for it to be a sustainable process there must be some joy or at least satisfaction in these processes. There has to be some sense of accomplishment in the ways we find ourselves trying to improve. Otherwise, what’s the point? What’s the point of trying to be better if we’re just going to feel shit about ourselves after and forever more? I’m not saying it’s got to be all smiles and sunshine and rainbows after a long hearty essay or introspection, but damn.
There’s got to be something we can get from these attempts at owning our shit and trying to do better then just, “Fuck, I guess it’s just another day where I fucked up and I’m scum.” Because look, that’s not helping the people you hurt and it’s likely not even making their lives better. All it’s doing is reinforcing to yourself that you are a bad person and you deserve to suffer. How is that going to help your life or the people around you? Even if you don’t have a lot of friends, what is this attitude going to do for the strangers you meet or the people you talk to online?
The answer is it’s not and it’s just going to make you more likely to repeat the same mistakes, maybe just in different ways, if you’re lucky. That’s what happened to me and I’m sick of it. I want to do better and be better and it’s tough to do that when you think all you deserve is to be thrown away in the trash. Other folks can feel that way about me, that’s real and valid and I get it, but it’s not for me.
Conclusion: Confronting The Violence Within Ourselves
I was looking for that quote that goes, “we all have the capacity for great good and great evil” (by William Faulkner? I’m not sure.) but I like this one better:
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, observed in The Gulag Archipelago
(I have a snarky Kingdom Hearts based remark, but I’ll restrain myself)
Sometimes, I wish the harm I’ve perpetuated is simply because I’m evil, that would make things so much easier! And maybe that’s a solace for some people out there who think that about me. But I’m not a monster, I’m just a regular person who has made some terrible mistakes that she’d rather not live with sometimes.
That’s too much for some people and I totally get that, but after finishing a 3 hour conversation with a friend (former friend?) not long after I was accused of being a serial rapist (the serial part is wrong and was based on incorrect presumptions about me, but I digress), they concluded that while what I did was wrong and incredibly irresponsible, I wasn’t a monster and clearly felt remorse.
This book helped me further deal with those emotions, which are the ones I really want to start focusing after my next reading. My self-hatred spirals a lot and recently after a particularly brief but unpleasant Twitter conversation about this, I had to call a suicide hotline for the first time since late 2017. I was having a mental crisis and wondering if I’ll ever do this accountability shit right. And you know what? Maybe I won’t ever fully get it, but I’ll keep trying to do better at it.
And I’m going to keep reading books like The Revolution Starts at Home.
There’s so much more to say about this book but my notes were sparse and my biggest note has already been said to death already: Buy this book!
Trans rights are human rights, so says Donkey Kong.