THE BOOK: Untangling the Knot: Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships & Identity
Edited by: Carter Sickels (2015)
NOTE: This book is published by Ooligan Press, an educational press where I currently am working as a graduate student in publishing. This review is part (my interpretation of) homework and part my own effort to feature a more diverse range of voices and topics on my platform.
A classmate retold me a quote she had heard (and tell me who said it if you know) about the Caucasian response to Beyoncé’s Formation video this week, which I will paraphrase:
Her video is like going to someone’s birthday party. You can eat the cake, but it’s still not your party.
This paraphrased quote can be applied to Untangling the Knot in many ways. Reading books about queer identity, particularly outside the two-men/two-women binary, always reminds me of how little I actually know about the multiple forms of kinship and lifestyle that exist in our world. From the beginning of this collection of twenty-five essays, it becomes clear that the seemingly lynchpin issue of marriage equality isn’t the panacea that many of us have lulled ourselves into believing it is.
With marriage in the spotlight…who falls through the cracks?
Ben Anderson-Nathe’s essay, the first in the collection, establishes an ongoing theme throughout the rest of the essays. We Are Not “Just Like Everyone Else” points out the long history of kinship networks that queer people have established to protect and care for one another and to raise children. Joseph Nicholas DeFilippis points out the risks of sidelining domestic partnerships as well, calling up examples of elderly LGBTQ folks who have formed partnerships in order to extend rights and care for one another in their old ages.
The institution of marriage itself is a complicated sticking point for many of the writers, including Ariel Gore, who struggled against a system who viewed her sexuality equally (if not more) damaging as her ex husband’s violence toward her and their children.
Child abuse and teen homelessness is another issue. The legal right of gay marriage doesn’t stop families from turning their queer offspring onto the streets to face uncertainty, violence, drug abuse, and disease. Ryka Aoki and Everett Maroon draw attention to the lack of resources and allies available to many kids who are neglected or abused due to their sexuality or gender.
Healthcare is another major one: the right to visitation, the right to health insurance and access to treatment, the right to advocate for loved ones. These are important things to have when navigating our complicated medical system, and ones that I, for one, have taken for granted. Even for those writers who do choose to embrace marriage, healthcare struggles are revisited time and time again, often through the lens of cancer diagnoses. In essays by Chelsia A. Rice and Meg Stone, marriage, and the benefits it brings, is shown to have the power to save lives.
It’s impossible to summarize everything that’s dealt with in this collection, partly because a lot of it is outside my experience (these authors express the issues better than I ever could) and partly because it’s such a detailed and nuanced topic. I’d recommend adding it to your collection and giving some of the essays a look…and then later another look.
Even if the topics are confusing, new, or foreign to you, reading these essays may help you recognize opportunities to be an ally, to help others gain access to what they need to live, and to show sensitivity to people who experience life in a completely different, and often more challenging, way.
[WARNING: SPOILERS AND GRAPHIC IMAGERY AHEAD…SERIOUSLY THO]
If the two names of the films I’m reviewing on their own don’t give you the creeps, then you can probably watch these movies. Maybe even WHILE you’re drinking. Maybe even without gagging!
Both try to scare off the viewer in the first fifteen minutes (or in the case of Excision, the very first scene). For a hardened horror-watcher, I felt that internal dare…the compulsion to stay with the repulsive because they are NOT GONNA BEAT ME DAMMIT.
But man, after months of phasing in slow-burn true crime documentaries and watching It’s Always Sunny reruns on repeat, I’d gotten a little soft. Do I even horror anymore?
The Beer: Portland Brewing Raise the Roost Belgian-Style Red Ale
ABV: 6.2% | IBU: 30
This was a perfect pre-Valentine’s day flavor. It had a spicy mulled-wine nose and a palate that briefly reminded me of conversation hearts–something sweet and citric-acidy. As often occurs with American-made Belgian styles, it was more of a parody of a Belgian than very true to style, but thankfully the hops on this were restrained enough not to completely pull it off track.
Man, I used to be able to watch anything while I was eating. But watching Excision with a bowl of broth and noodles turned bright red with homemade chili oil was not a good plan. From the first shot, watching this movie was like watching a series of blood-soaked tampons wrung out in front of me. Probably worse, tbh.
Yeah, I warned you about the graphic imagery.
AnnaLynne McCord plays Pauline, a young woman who is discovering sex for the first time…and discovering the unfortunate fact that what really gets her off is fountains of blood and dismembered human corpses. We know this because we get to see the vivid teenage fantasies that play out in her head in montage form. Hooray.
She also has high ambitions of being a surgeon, which gives the viewer the brief impression that she might have some type of higher-than-average intelligence. That this will tell the story of a cool and collected monster who carries out her plans with precision and skill.
That impression is overwritten when we watch her give up on a math test and loudly tell her teacher, “I don’t even need math to be a surgeon.”
So no, it’s not that kind of movie either.
The way the script shifts audience sympathies violently from one character to another is, I think, the most laudable aspect of the film. Since she’s the protagonist, the viewer is called to sympathize with Pauline the most often. And it mostly works. I mean, she’s just a teenager. Her mother is controlling and humorless. Her father is oblivious. Her sister, the only person who loves her and sticks up for her, is dying of cystic fibrosis.
One heartbreaking scene shows Pauline listening at the door of her parents’ room as her mom rants about how, no matter how hard she’s tried, she finds it impossible to love Pauline. This isn’t followed by zooming in on Pauline’s hollow eyes or conniving grin. It’s followed by a scene of an inconsolable daughter weeping alone on her bathroom floor. Yikes.
Problem is, though, Pauline’s mom turns out to be surprisingly sympathetic as well, in spite of her coldness. She’s got one daughter that she can’t relate to at all and another one who is dying.
The run-of-the mill people who avoid and sometimes bully Pauline aren’t terribly hard to relate to either. Pauline is hard to like. She asks her health teacher whether or not you can get STDs from a dead body. She threatens classmates that she doesn’t like and even when she reaches out to make friends with the girl across the street, it comes off as robotic and insincere (and in light of what happens later on, probably is). You can also practically smell her b.o. through the screen.
But the director does a great job of playing on the viewer’s sense of justice and morality, swinging you to Pauline’s team, then away, and then back again until the final, horrifying sequence where you just don’t know what to think anymore.
Is it a recommendation? Meh? I guess if you’re looking to see how dark you can go. When I put this one in my DVD queue over a year ago that’s the mood I was in. The acting and writing is solid. And there’s a John Waters cameo if that tells you anything. It’s just a lot.
I was a little more prepared for this film, and it was less gritty than I expected. I also read the book a few months ago and thought I knew what I was getting into. Man was I wrong about that.It was more the emotional violence that made this one hard to watch at times.
While the novel is a pretty transparent morality tale about harvesting and eating animals, the film is more art house than Upton Sinclair. However, just because we don’t see human men shaved, corralled, and de-toothed like livestock being fattened for foie, their destruction is eerie in a completely different way.
Scarlett Johansson plays an alien in a stolen woman-suit (skin…she’s under it) who lures horny dudes into a black room where they become stuck in a mysterious black goo. And eventually, we find, their innards are harvested and collected in some sort of sluice.
The soundtrack does WORK in this film, notably absent in ScarJo’s most sociopathic moments: most memorably when she watches a couple drown in a violent surf and then leaves their screaming infant on the beach to die of exposure. It’s realistic enough for me to wonder how the actors who played the couple (and I think a dog also?) survived the waves in real life. The entire scene made me sick to my stomach.
When she gets back to her work of man-harvesting, though, the music seeps back in like that same black goo. And when we see how the innards are harvested, when in a flash nothing is left behind but an empty sheath of skin, there’s a hard rim-shot like a fake shooting in a high school musical. Which makes you wonder if sound is even a real thing in the context of the world we’re seeing (shudders).
Eventually, the anti-hero/ine seems to become curious about and then sympathetic to the humans she is capturing. And ultimately, that is what brings her down. Or burns her up. You know, whichever.
Bottom line: if it’s your first foray, maybe pick a different double feature.
Make no mistake, planet earth has always been a rough place to live. With no lag time in our receiving bad news, however, the roughness seems particularly acute.
We watch bleeding, terrified people flee from their smoldering homes, theaters, or campuses. We get the newly released, formerly repressed footage of police shooting unarmed teenagers uncut and unsolicited. We get inundated by the latest horrifying thing a politician said repeatedly until we wonder…what is the real news that this noise is keeping me from noticing?
In 1999, most of us could only access a mainstream narrative, which did not have many more scruples than Gawker.
It was in that limited world that my sweet 6th grade band teacher quieted our rowdy class to explain that two boys in Colorado had taken guns to their high school, killing thirteen of their classmates.
The story woven from there shaped how we proceeded in middle and high school, especially how we treated the outcasts and the bullied…like they could snap at any moment. Any retaliation or act of self-protection provoked fear and rumors. Weirdos couldn’t stand up for themselves without fear of even harsher punishments. Some got submissive. Some got kicked out. Some got probation or worse.
And I challenge you to find a high schooler who hasn’t sat through a lockdown or experienced threat of a shooting attack or bomb threat.
Before many of us became nearly numb to mass shootings, this one event shaped the narrative. And every act of terror or mass shooting that followed is compared to this.
Journalist Dave Cullen was a resident of Jefferson County (aka Jeffco) on April 20, 1999. He was one of the first reporters on the scene when word broke that a massacre was happening at Columbine High. His book, researched over ten years, was something of penance for his being complicit in creating harmful myths.
“To avoid injecting myself into the story, I generally refer to the press in the third person. But in the great media blunders during the initial coverage of this story, where nearly everyone got the central factors wrong, I was among the guilty parties. I hope this book contributes to setting the story straight.” — Cullen
Cullen debunks a number of these myths in his book. I’ll present two below.
Myth: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were bullied goth kids who targeted jocks during their rampage.
As terrified students poured from the school, passing through the frozen police perimeter, members of the media intercepted them, putting microphones — and words — into their mouths. Were the shooters bullied? Yeah I heard something like that. Were they members of this “trenchcoat mafia” we keep hearing about? Yeah, I think so. They were wearing dusters after all.
There was a “trenchcoat mafia” at Columbine high school, but Dylan and Eric were not members (though they were casual friends with a few of the guys in that social circle). They weren’t goths. They both had jobs at a pizza place where Eric was promoted to management, as well as a number of friends. They went to school events and actually liked sports. Until a few months before the massacre, they got decent grades. Dylan went to prom, with a date, the Saturday before the attack. Girls loved Eric, and even on the morning of the massacre, a car full of girls had driven by him on the street, honking and waving.
As far as targeting goes, Eric Harris never intended to just be a school shooter. A number of ineffectual bombs were found inside the school and inside the boys’ cars. Eric and Dylan’s journals later demonstrated that the plan was to kill as many people as possible. Eric Harris wanted to top Timothy McVeigh, and the boys’ chose April 20th (it was first April 19th) partially as an anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing.
Cullen quotes one of my old UCSB Professors and terrorism expert, Mark Juergensmeyer, by calling the intent of Columbine “performance violence.”
“Terrorists design events ‘to be spectacular in their viciousness and awesome in their destructive power. Such instances of exaggerated violence are constructed events: they are mind-numbing, mesmerizing theater.'” — Cullen, quoting Juergensmeyer
The big bombs didn’t go off. The smaller bombs only worked to add to the oppressive noise inside the school. In spite of 13 deaths, things didn’t go Eric’s way in the end. He isn’t remembered as a terrorist. He’s remembered as a school shooter.
Myth: The girl who said “yes.”
There was a girl in the library, shot by Dylan Klebold, who said “yes” when he asked her if she believed in God. It was not, as most people thought for years, a girl named Cassie Bernall. Unfortunately, Cassie never had a chance to speak that day before Eric Harris killed her.
Craig, another boy who had been in the library had mistakenly told authorities that Cassie was the one who bravely confessed her faith before being shot to death. It was a story he, a Christian, took as a silver lining to the worst day of his life.
When detectives brought Craig back to the library to try to determine what had actually happened, he pointed to the opposite side of the library to where Cassie had been hiding. Valeen Schnurr had been the one who told Dylan that she believed in God, after he had already shot her once. Less intent on murder than suicide, Dylan lost interest in Val and walked away without attempting another shot. Val survived the attack.
The national media’s attention had largely drifted away from Columbine before investigators confirmed Val’s story. Val and her parents didn’t want to hurt the Bernalls, who clung to the story of their daughter’s martyrdom as a way to pull through the trauma and loss.
The story helped the Bernalls, as well as Christians around the country, deal with the tragedy. The story ultimately hurt the actual girl who said “yes.” When Val would try to talk about what had happened at her own church, she was received coldly, and questioned repeatedly. People viewed her as a copycat, and it only got worse when She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall came out as a book.
“Whether they meant it or not, by printing that book, they called me a liar. And that’s humiliating…Surprisingly, it took longer to forgive them than Eric and Dylan.” — Val Schnurr
After reading about this confusion, I checked out the Amazon page for She Said Yes, and it’s full of 1 and 2 star reviews by some very angry readers (who I assume cavalierly took to the Internet after reading Cullen’s book). I strongly disagree with that tactic. Val has forgiven Misty and Brad, and in the end, these parents lost their devout daughter who may very well have stood up for what she believed in if she hadn’t been blown away first.
My takeaway is that this high-profile mess-up was a case of greed run amok on the part of Pocket Books Publishing. The publishers didn’t want to wait until the misunderstanding had been completely worked out, nor did they alter the title or other defining elements to reflect the truth. It’s an important thing to remember that even if something seems like a “white lie,” there can still be harmful repercussions.
Seventeen years later, the Columbine attack can seem like small potatoes compared to Virginia Tech, San Bernadino, Sandyhook, and others. While “performance violence” is easily applied to the behavior of Isis and Al Qaeda, attention-seekers everywhere, including here in the US, now see mass murder as a very viable option. Mass murder is occurring from one end of the country to another, and we need carefully researched facts if we’re going to reduce occurrences.
The blame game that followed Columbine spun out of control far before the facts were analyzed. It’s not just about how easy it was for Eric to get a gun, though all he had to do was ask his older friend to get them for him at a gun show…no ID necessary. It’s not just about police negligence, though Jeffco covered up of the fact that there was an unsigned affidavit to search the Harris’ house months before the massacre. It wasn’t just glorifying violence in the media, in spite of the rampant inspiration and comparisons the killers drew from pop culture. It wasn’t just Dylan’s depression, though his misery barely registered with the adults in his life before he made an extremely harmful decision. It wasn’t just Eric’s psychopathy or God complex, though I happen to think that was the most powerful factor of all.
Ultimately Dylan and Eric are to blame for what happened at Columbine, but nothing in our atmosphere happens in a vacuum.
Debunking rumors and thinking in a nuanced manner is difficult and takes more time than most people are willing to spend. Detaching from a popular narrative you’ve believed for years is even more difficult. And the Columbine massacre, like all these other acts of mass murder happening under our noses day after day, wasn’t a result of any single elements listed above. It was a toxic cocktail of all of them.
I’ve been choosier with my horror films since starting school and upping my book intake even further. Sunday, I was pleasantly surprised by a film about which I’d read some non-plussed reactions. This film happened to pair perfectly with a beverage already chilling in our fridge, and it seemed criminal not to bring this pairing to life.
The Beer: Fort George Cavatica Stout
ABV: 8.8% | IBU: Not sure…but it is a stout
Meet my new favorite go-to brewery. Fort George Brewing Company is a class act from Astoria, OR, that knows how to truly rock the can game.
Cavatica Stout is a lush stout rather than a dry stout. But it’s still got that comfortable, familiar stout malt profile (Munich malt is one of my absolute favorites). It’s inky black like a shadow that might actually not be a shadow at all, but something living and Lovecraftian.
And even more apropos? “Cavatica” is a Latin word referring to a dark, dank place. A crevice.
If you don’t already know this, there are miles upon miles upon miles of catacombs under the city of Paris. If you can take a tour, DO IT. My tour of a sliver of that labyrinth was one of the most unsettling experiences of my life. There are literal layers of bones from the bodies of epidemic victims that the city government stashed down there.
And every year, smart-asses who just want to party get lost down there, never to return to the surface.
And as if that real-life horror weren’t enough, this movie takes it SEVERAL steps further.
Enjoying or not enjoying a horror movie is heavily dependent on the attitude you take into it. And I quickly realized that this movie would benefit from an “action / adventure movie” approach in addition to an expectation of found-footage horror.
In the form of any “quest” film or book, a hero character is presented and quickly connected with some unattainable objective. Our hero — or heroine — is Scarlet, a young British woman in her early to mid twenties who is smoking hot, multilingual in several living and dead languages, and possessing multiple advanced degrees.
So, pretty damn unlikely. Which is fine.
We find out that she has taken up her mad-professor father’s obsession with finding the Philosopher’s Stone, a stone with miraculous healing properties.
Her archeological, Indiana Jonesesque adventures have pointed her, as we expect, to the Paris catacombs.
Scarlet tracks down her scholarly, but also hot, ex-boyfriend George (for sexual tension of course) and enlists his help with translating ancient texts. The two then find a Parisian club-kid with the street name of Papillon (SO HARDCORE) to guide them into a part of the catacombs where no one has ever come out…ALIVE!!!
Or…dead or whatever.
Things go predictably for awhile. The trio, along with Papillon’s girlfriend Souxie and the cameraman, Benji, start to become lost and disoriented after crawling through a passageway that they’re warned out of. People hyperventilate from claustrophobia. They all find themselves back where they started no matter what they do. Etc. Etc.
Until they start tunneling further into the depths of the earth.
And then it turns into ultra-funtime for every medieval-lore, Dante-loving casual lit nerd that picked up the DVD.
Yeah. This movie was pretty much made for me.
Finding the philosopher’s stone is the goal, but it is not the climax of the movie. It’s just the turning point. As they find time and time again that the only safe path is through a series of manholes beneath their feet, they find a stone wall with crude letters carved into the wall:
Abandon hope, ye who enter here.
And I’m not embarrassed to admit that at that moment, I let out a loud, celebratory, “YEAAAH!”
I can see why some people panned this film. It’s got pretty unrealistic characters. It gets melodramatic. There’s lots of senseless screaming and running around in the dark. Things work out a little better than they probably should.
On the other hand, one of my major issues with found footage is often it’s just watching unformed, wooden characters sit around, get warned about things by forgettable creeps, and not have anything scary happen to them until they all get wiped out in the last five minutes.
Taking the “action / adventure film” approach worked for me. It meant that any cheesiness just translated into part of a fun ride.
And when you’re on a ride you’re allowed to jump and scream when the cheesy scares pop out at you.
Many people writing about Wes Craven this week refer to A Nightmare on Elm Street as the film of his that rocked their childhood. While I knew about, and feared, Freddy Kruger, Scream was the first Craven movie that really made an impression on (i.e., scared the crap out of) me.
With all the people who would go on to blame the Scream movies for their own killing sprees, and all the moral posturing that targeted Craven’s films in particular, he never apologized or allowed his work to be co-opted by anyone with bad intentions. Even Taxi Driver is known as the movie that inspired the attempted Reagan assassination and The Dark Knight is now heavily overshadowed by the Aurora shooting. Regular Joe and Joanne horror fans are so possessive of Craven’s films, however, that we’ll never let the punk-bitches who putz around with butcher knives and play murder take them away from us.
Because, in the end, these movies are all about the survivor. Us. Not them. And in his movies, the villains are ALWAYS d-bags.
“Now see! Don’t you blame the movies. Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative.”
Even though they shock us with creative, unrelenting violence, Craven’s movies took the “final girl” to a whole new level of self-aware empowerment. And as a young woman, remembering the determination that Nancy and Sidney showed in their efforts to triumph over their attackers would help me fight off whatever demons happened to be after me in my own dreams.
“I literally remember a conversation along the lines of, ‘Sean [Cunningham, producer of Last House on the Left], I don’t know anything about making a scary movie.’ And Sean said, ‘Well, you were raised as a fundamentalist, just pull all the skeletons out of your closet.'”
The result of the above conversation is one of the most brutal, hard-to-watch films of all time (Last House on the Left, 1972), but it also marked a personal change that few people are ever able to pull off successfully. Wes Craven was raised in a restrictive, Baptist household in Ohio, and that upbringing took a serious psychological toll on him (as it does on many). He went on to make his own way in life, growing in his appreciation for literature and narrative quality, and ultimately turning his childhood trauma into cathartic, thrilling stories that have affected people who may never have taken a second look at a horror movie.
And maybe that’s because he was able to find a way to help people from all different backgrounds identify their own, inner survivor.
Though his first few films were sadistic in that way that only films from the 70s can be, he continuously pressed forward to develop a unique sense of style and humor that made his films special and relatable. Due to the ravages of brain cancer, he wasn’t able to die on set at age 90 the way he wanted to, but he left behind a body of work that is both entertaining and inspiring to future artists and storytellers.
In a culture where “tired” or “crazy busy” is the almost mandatory answer to “how are you?”, it’s heresy to admit that stretches of quiet transition exist. So I’ll be the first to step forward and say…”Hey. I’m actually not that busy right now.”
While my husband’s new job has begun and is challenging and stimulating his mind daily, I’m having to find ways to occupy myself without slipping into depression, anxiety, or excess.
So what to do with oneself in the meantime?
John Lennon has that annoying quote: “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” To me, it has become a reproach, but I’m trying to shrug it off and prepare accordingly for plans that are already in place. Here are five activities that have been filling the interim time.
1) Part-Time Blogging, SEO, and Social Media Work
A little bit of part-time work has been a life saver on the mornings I wake up and feel like I’m contributing nothing to society or the planet. I even keep a Google spreadsheet with the hours I spend working, as a reminder and calming mechanism when I start beating myself up. It’s a technique I recommend to anyone bent toward self-badgering.
I’ve been fortunate to be able to maintain some of the web work in Santa Barbara county that I was doing, contracted by a developer/SEO friend (and if you have a website you need some help with, send me a message and I’ll hook you up with him). My jobs have included managing social media accounts, ghost-writing industry specific blogs, and doing assorted e-mail newsletter and WordPress tweaks.
Despite the fact that I had good friends and family nearby, and the fact that I had that rare privilege of meeting and marrying someone who really understands me, I was not at my happiest in the place I lived for the past four years. As many people do when they’re unhappy, I allowed myself to engage in some pretty unhealthy eating and drinking habits, gaining about thirty pounds.
Now to be fair, I did stop running and took up powerlifting. I can deadlift over 250 lbs and squat over 200. But I also worked up to drinking a bottle of wine all by myself a couple of nights a week and ate more than my share of Panda Express orange chicken. And I’m pretty sure that’s bad for me.
So I’ve added running back into the repertoire, given up anything deep-fried, and I’ve quit drinking all together. Yes. You read that right. I haven’t had alcohol in almost two weeks. That’s kind of huge for me. Don’t worry, though, after a couple of months I’ll be back to giving you reviews of these fabulous Pacific Northwest brews…just gotta drop this fifty-year-old-man beergut I’ve got first.
The coolest part is, even though it’s a beer and wine mecca up here, every bar and restaurant has non-alcoholic options that don’t suck. The tap rooms serve microbrewed kombucha, for example. Where even am I?
3) Books, books, and more books
Audiobooks while dog-walking and planting shasta daisies in the front yard. Books to review for the Jack the Ripper site I contribute to. And books from the enormous library that’s a mile from my house. I’ve already finished three this week.
4) Taking the Networking Plunge
In the last few weeks, “Meetup.com” that has pretty much blown my mind, and has also added some much needed signposts to the landscapes of my weeks. JT and I joined a group of 12 strangers for a gorgeous hike on the Oregon Coast last weekend, I went to a meeting for women in small business that led to coffee with a very cool lady with her own marketing business, and next week I’m going to an SEO presentation and a writer’s group meeting.
I also got lectured by some dude about how my business card was all wrong last week, but you take the bad with the good.
Moving to a new city as an adult without the immediate built-in network that school can provide is intimidating. Thank goodness for the internet, for libraries, for garden beds, and of course for my boys.