Magic Puppet: On Writing Golem

I’m really pleased that the following piece about how to write about “unbearable experience” has just been published in The Bellingham Review. It’s also about why I chose to use fantastical elements in writing Growing Up Golem.

When I set out to write a memoir about my parents 16 years ago, one of the things that stymied me was early feedback from my peers that the content was “too unbearable” to read about.

It was indeed difficult to be my parents’ daughter. My father hit me a lot. He was also remote and didn’t often speak, and my mother encouraged my sisters and me to make fun of him and call him names, which often resulted in him hitting me more. Despite this ugly bit of manipulation, my mother was nurturing in some other ways – she always fostered my love of learning and books, and continually stimulated my mind. Yet she also would parade naked in front of me, or in flimsy panties and bras, and force me to tell her she was sexy and that I loved and adored her more than anyone.

I didn’t think my parents were too unbearable to read about, but would my readers? An even more compelling issue for me was that I wanted to capture the “uncanny” feeling I had always had of being my mother’s puppet, or her creature (like a magician’s familiar, or something she had created in a laboratory, to experiment on with different stimuli or provocations). How could I write about this when, in the strictest sense, it wasn’t “true”? That is to say, it was truly my feeling, it was indeed what it had subjectively felt like, but my mother wasn’t actually a magician, and I wasn’t actually her homunculus.

Without the magic, however, there was no understanding the frozen way I had lived my life, as if completely separated from my own will and desires, or the fact that I’d never had a long-term relationship till after she died — as though forbidden or prevented by a mysterious spell that destined me for her alone.

Then I remembered that my mother had actually told us she could do magic – a mixture of Jewish magic from the Kabbalah and pagan European magic from Romania, which she claimed she had learned as a child from her grandparents. In fact, up till early adulthood, at least one sister and I had believed that she could actually practice this magic (not to the extent of making golems, but we believed that she could, as she said, foretell the future and interpret dreams).

I decided to use this factoid, with a twist, as the controlling metaphor for the memoir. The twist would be that I would write the book as though my mother really WERE a powerful Kabbalistic magician. And I would combine memoir with fantasy and write the thing as though, instead of giving birth to me, my mother had created me by magic as her own personal golem, an animated clay servant out of Jewish legend. Every statement in the memoir would be true, except those involving magic or other fantastic activities.

This way, I wouldn’t have to let fiction writers have all the fun, but could actually make use of all the richness of myth and archetype in telling my life story. How could I turn myself from a magic puppet under a lifelong spell, into a human being? That would be the question of the book.

It might also be a way to make my father’s physical abuse, my mother’s (nonphysical) sexual and emotional abuse, more bearable for the reader to come on an extended journey with me through it. The light coat of fantasy would be one way of “tell [ing] it slant.”

How I Botched the Brandon Teena Story

On December 31, 1993, a 21-year-old trans man named Brandon Teena was shot and stabbed to death near Falls City, Nebraska, by two other young men because he was trans. A week earlier, they had raped and brutally battered him.

I wrote about it at the time in a long, reported feature for the Voice that introduced Brandon Teena’s story to a broad audience, and helped to galvanize the cultural conversation about trans people. After moving to Falls City from his hometown of Lincoln, Brandon met a 19-year-old woman named Lana Tisdel and swept her off her feet. But a week after he was arrested on a check-forging charge, local police revealed his birth gender in the newspaper. A few days later, Tisdel’s friends John Lotter (Tisdel’s ex-boyfriend) and Tom Nissen forcibly stripped Brandon and forced Tisdel to look at his genitals; then they kidnapped, raped, and beat him, and subsequently killed him.

Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce told me in a recent interview that my article had been the major inspiration for her film about Brandon’s life and murder: “Your article was on fire. I read it and I fell in love with Brandon. It made me love his vulnerability, his daring, his innocence, the way that he gave pleasure sexually. I was in love with this person who had shaped himself.”

It also proved to be the most insensitive and inaccurate piece of journalism I have ever written.

[To read the rest of this piece, published in the Village Voice on June 20, 2018, please click here.]

Election 2018: Off to the Racists

This piece appeared in slightly different form in The Nation, April 18, 2018.

“Jews commit a disproportionate number of mass shootings,” Wisconsin Republican congressional candidate Paul Nehlen lied on Facebook recently. Earlier he had tweeted, “Poop, incest, and pedophilia. Why are those common themes repeated so often with Jews?” Another GOP House hopeful, Pennsylvania’s Sean Donahue, recently told me, “The United States was intended to be white. I don’t see why we had to have the Fair Housing Act.”

Welcome to Trump’s America, where a rash of white nationalist candidates is running for office. Between nine and 17 white supremacists and far-right militia leaders are currently candidates for House and Senate, governorships, and state legislatures.

Most have little chance of winning, but as with neo-Nazi Arthur Jones, who recently ran unopposed in the Republican primary for the 3rd Congressional District in the Chicago area and won 20,339 votes, their mere candidacies, along with other Republicans’ growing acceptance of them as legitimate stakeholders in the party, are dangerous. “They are by their very presence shifting the pole of what most Americans find to be acceptable political discourse,” said Erik K. Ward of the Western States Center, a progressive group in seven states where white nationalism has been active.

Heidi Beirich, intelligence project director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, pointed to an August 2017 Washington Post/ABC News poll that shows 9 percent of Americans now find it acceptable to hold neo-Nazi views. (Of strong Trump supporters, 17 percent say they accept neo-Nazi views, and 13 percent say they have no opinion one way or the other.) “This is a Trump phenomenon,” Beirich told me. “In the past, [white-power groups] saw no space for themselves in the public sphere at all. You’d see the Aryan Nations saying, ‘We never really thought politics was worth our time.'” Both Trump and a new rush of racist candidates, she said, have had the effect of “re-engaging white supremacists in the political system. Before, they were basically apolitical.”

In the new Republican universe, a flood of so-called “alt-lite” media organs and activist have become enormously influential. Sites like The Daily Caller, Gateway Pundit, Rebel Media, InfoWars, GotNews, and other “mini Breitbarts” have championed the alt-right, employed white nationalists as editors and writers, and expressed views similar to white nationalism. And through their popularity and ties to Trump staffers, they’ve been able to influence the White House and demonstrate that there is room for overtly racist policies in the US political system. President Trump has read and acted upon at least one article from Chuck Johnson’s GotNews (about a supposed leak by deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, which Politico says led to Trump firing her). Alt-lite solo media-man Mike Cernovich—who has said “diversity is code for white genocide” and “I like choking a woman until her eyes go almost lifeless”—has demonstrated access to the White House through his scoops about personnel matters and Trump’s bombing of Syria. Both Donald Trump, Jr. and Kellyanne Conway have publicly praised Cernovich, with the president’s son saying he deserves “a Pulitzer.” Cernovich said he’s considering running for Congress this year in California.

Some of these far-right media activists maintain what their own comrades call “plausible deniability” of white supremacism. In this media landscape, the effect of open white nationalists running for office is to push the limits of acceptable public racism even further. Self-declared white nationalists running for office not only give cover to “merely” anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Latino, and Trumpist candidates and officials, they also can radically shift the Overton window, a term that describes the range of ideas that the mainstream media deems politically acceptable to discuss.

These new candidates “are not limited by what exists, so they can imagine genocide, they can seriously play around with deporting millions of people,” said Spencer Sunshine, a longtime writer and researcher on the far right. As such notions enter the public discussion through the far-right media, racist violence becomes more likely. Sunshine told me, “White nationalists’ milieu is super-violent, so any rise in their movement,” including mainstream publicity of their candidacies, will be “accompanied by violence.” According to a study by the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, white supremacists killed 18 people in 2017, more than double the previous year; hate crimes in major cities jumped by 20% the same year, according to data compiled by the Center For The Study Of Hate And Extremism at California State University/San Bernardino. Along with Trump’s election, it is not unreasonable to attribute that to the rise in the alt-right’s popularity and its accompanying online media.

“What’s dangerous is the way Trump has helped institutionalize ethnonationalist currents in a way we haven’t seen since before the civil rights movement,” says Spencer Sunshine, an associate fellow at Political Research Associates, which monitors the far right.

The growing profile of such candidates means they sometimes have a legitimate shot at winning national office. Running for governor in Virginia last year, Prince William County Board of Supervisors chair Corey Stewart campaigned several times with Jason Kessler, the white nationalist who would soon organize the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. (Kessler has been charged in several federal lawsuits with conspiring to incite violence at the neo-Nazi rally.) Stewart came within one percentage point of winning the Republican nomination by devoting almost his entire campaign to defending Confederate monuments. That is to say, in a purple state he won 43 percent of the GOP vote clutching a huge Confederate flag and holding rallies attended mostly by white nationalists. Soon, he was using the racist, sexist white-nationalist terms “cuck” and “cuckservative,” applying them in a Reddit chat to then-Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe and to his primary opponent, Ed Gillespie. (The label comes from “cuckold porn,” where a white man—the “cuck”—watches, humiliated, as a black man has sex with the cuck’s white wife.) Stewart also palled up to Cernovich, sitting for an interview with him. The day after Charlottesville, Stewart condemned “all the weak Republicans” who “couldn’t apologize fast enough” for the violence at the rally. Continue reading “Election 2018: Off to the Racists”

Funky Spunky Literature Night at Quinn’s

As part of my participation in 2018 Beacon Open Studios, I am throwing a Funky Spunky Literature Night at Quinn’s, the best and funkiest venue in Beacon!

April 29, 2018

Funky Spunky Literature Night with Donna Minkowitz and the BOS After Party! 6:30pm, Quinn’s, 330 Main Street, Beacon NY 12508.

Join Donna Minkowitz and special guests in an evening of sexy, edgy, heartfelt literary writing. Minkowitz and Julie Chibbaro, Ruth Danon, and Banana Bag and Bodice theater company will read from their funkiest, most vulnerable, fiercest work, then guide the audience in a game-show-like Memoir Write-a-Thon with prizes for the best sentences and scenes that audience members write about their own lives!

This event will also be the official After Party for Beacon Open Studios! 🙂 Come one, come all. Music by DJs follows the readings and game show! Delicious food and drink available.

You can RSVP on the Facebook event page here.

Hiding in Plain Sight: an American Renaissance of White Nationalism

I covered  the largest white supremacist conference in the country for the progressive think tank Political Research Associates. This is my report back, folded into a guide on how white supremacists are recruiting now, and why people join.

It is shortly forthcoming in print in their magazine, The Public Eye.

http://www.politicalresearch.org/2017/10/26/hiding-in-plain-sight-an-american-renaissance-of-white-nationalism/#sthash.ijBaf2k2.WT5tMVWk.dpbs

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