Therapists (Jailbreak Part 4)

This is excerpt number four of my memoir in progress, tentatively titled Jailbreak. “The jailer” and “the harlequin” are both parts of me. You can find out more about the jailer here and the harlequin here. In the quatrain that opens this piece, the harlequin is speaking.

I have a wave of power inside me
I have a wave of fruit
I think I can be 300 feet tall
And I’m wearing a kickass suit

This confidence inside me my old therapist thought was a liability, my craziness talking. A lying dodge. On the whole she seemed to prefer the jailer. She and the jailer would have long conversations together. She never addressed the harlequin because she did not like him.

Therapy session between me and Robin:

Me: So.

I always start with So because Robin makes me start the show each time. Neither of us will ever say anything, the whole time, unless I begin. I hate the responsibility, and the bleakness between us, this room in which we seem locked together for 45 minutes at a time, a dungeon I pay to enter. Robin looking at me dryly as if I still haven’t learned anything in the 20 years I’ve been coming to see her.
Sometimes she actually says it: How long have you been coming to me, Donna?
Me (variously): Five years. Nine years. 19 years. 20 years.
Robin: Then why are you still doing X bad thing?

***
Maybe the harlequin didn’t like Robin, either.
Me/Harlequin: “I sometimes wish our therapy were more playful.”
Robin: “Therapy isn’t play. It’s hard work!

***
“I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do.”
Robin: “Yes you do!”

***
The harlequin ignores Robin, bides his time. Feeds me under the snow, through my root system, feeds me like birds at his many feeders, shines dazzling sunlight on me even in winter.
***

I’m sick of you wasting away without me, my love. I’m sick of you locking yourself in the dungeon to work. I miss you.
***

I will give you custard apples
and I will give you tajines warm with cinnamon
I will give you walks in the mountains
and I will give you a dog

Today I am not happy with everything E does and it makes me fear that my love is a farce. Would someone who really felt a lot of love be annoyed by her partner nervously going on about Trump when we’re having dinner at a new friend’s house? Be afraid that her partner sounded awkward and unconfident? Look at her partner’s face and think that she looked tired?

Why does E stir up the judge inside me? The judge rants, in my head, about E’s nervous boring chitchat. About something rude she said to Fred.

The jailer wants to break the house to bits, kick down the beautiful floorboards and mix them with dog shit, with peed-on papers from the doghouse, smash in the windows, sledgehammer the mirrors, destroy the furniture we built together and the art we put on the walls and shatter glass until it is so dangerous in here I have to leave.

***
The jailer resents E. He’ll be sitting there hammering more sheets of lead onto the cells and her voice will waft over and he will want to take his hammer to E’s lack of confidence and her belief she’s ugly. Put E in the deepest, dirtiest, most toxic dungeon cell, the saddest, scariest one and he will take his hammer to her and wipe out, wipe out all the awkwardness and the self-hate.
***
Did Bob invite us to dinner not because he likes us but just to get information on the outré sexual subculture that we have been involved in and he has not? Does he really enjoy our company? Does he think we’re cute? Does he think of us as boring?

This reminds me of the time I was eight and I thought my best friend Julie only liked me because I bought her bubblegum. She didn’t have any money, and I had some which I wanted to share. I liked her, and we hung out all the time, but I was afraid she only liked me for my money.

Now I realize Julie liked me for myself. But before the age of 12, I was certain that none of my friends liked me for me. I was sure they were with me only to get something from me. I often told them so and their feelings were hurt.

 

Fantastic Times

Hey, I have two events coming up in March I’m really excited about!

One is a reading in conjunction with the Women’s History Month art exhibition at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon. At the opening, I’ll be reading from new work, while Mandy Kelso reads from her new book of poems and 50 women artists exhibit their work! Saturday, March 7, 2:30-4:30 PM, 477 Main Street, Beacon, NY (readings are at 3:30; I’ll also be signing books!) Wine and refreshments served.

The second is an amazing evening called Twice Told Tales where 12 of us writers will produce works inspired by six photographs by Margot Kingon. The event is curated by Linda Pratt Kimmel (who will also be reading) and it’s Sunday, March 15 at 6:30 PM at Quinn’s, 330 Main Street in Beacon! ❤

Hope to see you at one or both of these!

I’ll Be Your Editor Today

My name is Donna, I’ll be your editor today. I edit book manuscripts of memoir and literary nonfiction. I edit shorter memoir pieces and essays. I even edit shop book proposals.

And if you want, I can edit something by you. I’m willing to work with you to create a package that fits your budget and your needs. Also, my editing packages and writing classes make a great gift idea for the holidays. Contact me at minkowitz46@gmail.com.

I Am My Own Dream Man

 

I’ve begun sweating hard on the upper chest and forehead several times a week. It’s only menopause, but I’m imagining I’ve become a trans man and am suddenly staggering and shaking with the amp-force of testosterone. People who have actually transitioned say they felt like they were going through a second adolescence, and I feel like that, haggard, hamhanded and stapled into 780 volts of something electric I cannot understand.

Weird pustules popping out on my face. Itchy, literally and figuratively. Bursting out of my skin, like a werewolf. I dreamt I was at a conference and wound up having sex with my roommate at the conference hotel, a fictitious gay male friend. In the dream, he was a kind of gay man who is a sort of icon for me, bearded, curlyheaded, sexy, smart, activist. Teddy-bear-like, and smiling at me from the other queen-size bed. Fiendishly energetic and productive.

My friend was also gregarious and kind, and our sex was friendly, funny (“Who’d ‘ve thought I’d wind up having sex with you! I haven’t seen a penis since 1980!”) and surprisingly fun.

“But I always knew sex with you would be really, really special.”

So who was this gay man? I was kind of frightened of the dream (I am happily married to another woman) and spoke to my therapist about it. She said, “Do your dreams normally come true exactly literally the way it happens in the dream?”

“No.”

My therapist is gnomic — although she does not look like a gnome — she’s short, like me, but not masculine in the slightest, although she’s about 10 years older than me and therefore postmenopausal almost certainly. A crone, by the mythic definition at least. A little frilly — she likes florals, wears hose — but not a femme fatale either, thank God, because that would terrify me in a psychotherapist.

She said: “I like to think of every character in a dream as being part of the dreamer. Because who else would they be if not you?”

Who would they be?

“My lost brother.” The thought comes to me (I’ve never had a brother in the waking world), and at the same time the dream man looks just a little like my old editor H. who, balding, sweaty and fat but bearded and mustachioed, could burrow through any obstacle whatsoever with the sheer force of his energy. Let me be perfectly clear about this: I hate H. But when he was my editor I was telling him all the time that he was like a second father to me. (For all my hatred, it was true.) He never seemed particularly pleased to hear it. Still, the man was productive.

The dream man was far nicer and far cuter, but with a similar power as my mentor. The poet Denise Levertov wrote about my dream man once this way:

“the flowerlike
animal perfume
in the god’s curly hair”

My dream guy’s hair denoted animal powers — what in economics is called “animal spirits” — a sort of mammalian joy in what was possible, what could be done, in the work that could be accomplished. There was an “agricultural” sense to him, like a Wagyu that longs to plow the field. Brown and Taurean, beaming sweetly under his horns, able to give because so gay and empowered.

Able to love because of the enormous cord of muscle on his chest.

Stamping down the floor.

Tenacious. I have been tenacious but not in as entire a way as this man. Not in as direct a way as this man.

Just seeing my 54-year-old face in the mirror, trying to find a way not to see it simply as fat, exhausted, lined.

His face my face. Not so bloody different. I happen to be a Taurus, too. My hair is naturally brown. I make things I love, and I still love them after I have made them. I keep loving my wife, and I will never stop.

“Power becomes you,” my first therapist once said to me. And, though I’m not trans, I pretty much always have identified as a boy, but a weak boy. A boy of fluff, a boy not as confident as his actual powers would suggest, a boy afraid to use his core of fire. This man in my dream was different not so much by being male, but by being a man.

And indeed now I am faithful, as I never was. For I am not changeable anymore. I am myself all the way through — I know what I am, every piece good and bad, and I will not shatter or crack.

This has nothing to do with the blood no longer soaking my uterus every month, and everything to do with awakening from a delusion. The delusion, of more than 35 years’ standing, of powerlessness.

I find my Self inside me suddenly like a dragon of all genders, flexing its green limbs, coiling and uncoiling wings and legs and slow-raised eyelids, glancing softly at the world. Long eyelashes batting, webbed talons raking the black soil, look of love.

Sensitive


The Bellingham Review has also just published the following short essay by me (published under the title “Tender”) in their fall special issue of creative nonfiction about disability.

I’m on Facebook. Some of my friends are posting their fury, as artists and radicals, about something that’s just happened: A few art students have complained to college administrators about their professor. He’s made them watch, as part of a regular class session, an experimental film he made. It shows, among other things, his erect red penis again and again, at one point going into a woman’s mouth and later, her vagina.

These friends of mine are furious the students have interfered with their professor’s work by complaining. On their pages, commenters condemn students for their “fragile sensibilities” and “fragile feelings,” for how “delicate” they surely are.

Oh reader, I am fragile, I am delicate, in fact I’ve often wanted to write a book entitled Sensitive. Because spectacularly, insatiably, annoyingly, unbearably, I am.

I am not saying that everyone who doesn’t want to have to watch their professor fucking a woman on camera is someone who is Delicate, like me. But I thought I would tell about my own experience.

I am sensitive in almost every way a person can be. And most of my sensitivities come from disabilities. I have a couple different ones of those (physical, psychic), but the disability that has made me the most sensitive of all, the tenderest, perhaps the choicest meat to the touch, is the abuse and neglect I experienced as a child.

But the tender meat is tickled all day, and sometimes it’s// unbearable

“Grow up,” says one Friend of a Friend, and others echo, “Yup, they should grow up.” A woman comments, “One would hope that they’re mature enough to care of themselves and leave.”

None of us has read the students’ complaints because they are not public, so we don’t know what they told administrators about being made to watch the film. But a man mocks them for having what he writes in capitals as “Triggers. Oof.”

Oof. I am able to be triggered, yes indeed, and definitely not always able to take care of myself in a situation of harm and just leave.

About that last bit, no human being is in fact so powerful that we are always able to remove ourselves from what we can’t endure.

My friends’ 5000 fans condemn the students’ “latent puritanism,” their “learned helplessness,” their “censorship, punishment, and scapegoating.” Says a man, “The conflation of discomfort and harm is a truly bizarre phenomenon that I believe can be attributed to a vocal minority of bourgeois, sheltered millennials.”

To read the piece on their site and see the other work in their special issue on disability, click here.

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.”

When A Holocaust Denier Asks for Help Promoting His Book


This appeared, in slightly different form, in The Forward on March, 30th, 2017.

The email was a blatant appeal to my ego. The subject line said “Speaking Engagement,” and the writer, who I didn’t know, was inviting me to speak about whatever I wanted to — wow! — on a New York City panel celebrating the release of a new book by “internationally acclaimed British jazz saxophonist, philosopher and author…Gilad Atzmon.” They were inviting me, Atzmon’s volunteer publicist said,” because of my “honest and thoughtful perspective” which would be “valuable” on the panel.

I hadn’t heard of Atzmon before, but the panel was scheduled at the hip Theater 80 St. Marks in the East Village. The vague synopsis the publicist sent for his new book, Being in Time: A Post-Political Manifesto, simply suggested that “much of humanity has been reduced to serve the interests of big money and oligarchy” and claimed that “Left and Right have become indistinguishable and meaningless.”

But there it was, at the bottom, the following curious phrase: “a tale of the decisive victory of one elite.” Gilad Atzmon, said the press release, “has managed to dissect the ethos, strategy and culture that are driving this invincible elite.”

Googling, I discovered that Atzmon, born in Israel, identifies himself as “a proud self-hating Jew.” American white nationalist Greg Johnson, an admirer, calls him a “self-exterminating Jew.” Since 2000, Atzmon has been spewing out viciously anti-Semitic writings with statements like “we must begin to take the accusation that the Jewish people are trying to control the world very seriously” and “with Fagan and Shylock in mind, Israeli barbarism and organ trafficking seem to be just other events in an endless hellish continuum.” Then there was this: “It took me years to accept that that the Holocaust narrative, in its current form, doesn’t make any sense… We should… ask why? Why were the Jews hated? Why did the European people stand up against their next-door neighbors?… What is the holocaust religion there to conceal?”

I can’t recall any other “offer” of a speaking engagement that has ever made me feel such an intense mix of emotions. I’m a Jewish writer, a lesbian, a progressive who has written for The Nation and used to be a Village Voice columnist. I knew that the racist right, both in this country and around the world, had become increasingly brazen. But had they become so brazen that they thought a Jewish lesbian leftist would rally to their side? Or were they just trying to dupe me? I felt horror, anger, disgust; and I felt queasy.

But I also felt an overwhelming anxiety about why Atzmon’s backers thought I in particular would speak on a panel promoting him. Did something in my writing make them think I’d be sympathetic? As a reporter, I’ve written about the antigay Christian right many times. And I have, in fact, tried to “understand” them. Why would anyone spend their time trying to take rights away from another group of people? I spent a good portion of my work life trying to find out. Did I go too far trying to “understand,” and was this why a man who’d said “the [Nazi] death marches were actually humane” thought I’d be on his panel?

I have wanted to understand what makes far-right bigots tick, but I never wanted to support their mission. I finally realized that the primary reason Atzmon’s backers had approached me was not because of anything I’d written, but because obfuscating, and deliberately obscuring hateful premises behind seemingly genuine critiques of real-world oppression, are a fundamental part of the white supremacist and anti-Semitic projects. Gilad Atzmon may have begun as a progressive critic of Israel, but he metamorphosed into a misogynist, antigay Jew-hater, and he has made a career out of confusing the two stances.

It is symptomatic of our weird political moment, when white nationalists and Sebastian Gorka hold power in the White House, that progressive Jewish writers should be approached to legitimize a man who said “the Jewish tribal mindset” “sets Jews aside of humanity.” When white nationalism and anti-Semitism are being discussed as mere “political ideologies” equivalent to any other, when millions voted for Trump because they believed his lie that he would fight the rich for them, we need renewed political clarity in our country more than we need air and water.

The dangers of such obfuscation are getting clearer by the moment. The “progressive” former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, whom the Green party ran for president in 2008, has written the introduction to Atzmon’s book, and radical Jewish lawyer Stanley Cohen has apparently agreed to be on his April 30 panel at Theater 80. In a sense, it’s of a piece with Atzmon’s perennial ability to get some on the left (Richard Falk, James Petras, the journal Counterpunch) to endorse or publish his work. But the willingness of some so-called progressives to support blatant anti-Semitism is oddly mirrored by the right’s increasingly successful use of the tropes of class oppression against Jews, African-Americans, and immigrants. When Atzmon argues that “the Jewish elite” are destroying “working people,” when Donald Trump complains that an elite has let “radical Islamic terrorists enter the country by the thousands” in order to “disenfranchise our working class,” it’s time for all of us to be utterly and completely clear about our politics, exactly what we’re saying and what it means.

In this time of great danger to the poor, to people of color, and to Jews, it is time to unite the entire country behind its real needs, and to revive the slogan of Occupy: We are the 99%. No population is the enemy; the problem is not a person or persons, not even the 1%. The problem is the exponential rate at which economic inequality is growing, and an overall system that is not meeting most of our needs. The more we identify the problem as systemic, and not caused by an amorphous “them” that is exploiting “us,” the more strength we will have to fight Gilad Atzmon, Donald Trump, and anti-Semites everywhere.

 

 

How to Cook A Trump: A Modest Proposal, with Recipes

Photo credit: Brains and Eggs.

I have to say, it’s hard to write about how good food tastes when Trump is compiling weekly lists of “crimes” by immigrants. I wanted to describe for you the precise degree of crispness and umami of the chicken thigh/fermented soybean/potato chip appetizer at the hot new restaurant Llama Inn, but it’s hard to stop thinking about him turning Syrian children back to die from bombing and starvation. I was tearing my hair out trying to figure out what testosterone enantato to do about this when a good idea suddenly occurred to me: it would probably be possible to roast Trump like a turkey, trussing him with a little cooking twine and rubbing him all over with European butter, salt, and pepper.

With his new, yellower hair color and more deeply-bronzed skin, he looks like a roasted turkey already, so I thought this would be a good time to try out Tom Collicchio’s Thanksgiving recipe and stuff a thick handful of Kerrygold Irish Butter between his skin and his breast meat, mixed with sage, tarragon, thyme, and rosemary to take some of his funk away. He weighs about 12 times what an average Thanksgiving turkey does, so he could provide a dinner for approximately 20 Iraqi families fleeing rape and what the UN calls “staggering violence” ultimately caused by George Bush’s war.

I have a particular idea for the stuffing. I feel more personally threatened as a Jew than I ever have in 52 years, now that we have a Nazi on the National Security Council and a White House that denies that the Holocaust had any particular impact on Jews. So I thought it would be community-building and holistic to stuff Trump up the butthole with charoset. (If you haven’t heard of it, charoset is the mix of chopped fruits, nuts, and wine Jews eat on Passover to represent the bricks and mortar we were forced to make as slaves in Egypt.) There are dozens of different versions made by Jews from different cultures, but I love my own family’s version best, diced apples and walnuts mixed with sweet, deep purple Manischewitz. There are plenty of non-Passover recipes in which charoset is used as a stuffing, including a lovely one by Martha Stewart that goes up the butt of a Cornish game hen. According to the Talmud, there are also revolutionary sexual connotations to the lush, fruity, sometimes spicy dish: the apples, dates, figs, grapes, walnuts, pomegranates, and saffron used in various versions of charoset all appear as erotic symbols in the Song of Songs, the Hebrew Bible’s ode to carnal joy. (Bananas don’t appear in the Bible, but because they’re also pretty erotic, they’re used in versions from India, Afghanistan, Mexico, and Uganda.)

And the 2nd century sage Rabbi Akiva said — I am not making this up — that charoset particularly signifies the wild frolics that ancient Jewish slaves were able to have in the apple orchards when they snuck away from their overseers to defy Pharaoh’s edict against sex. Charoset for all these reasons is understood to bring a sweetness and hope into our memories of horrible slavery and oppression, and it can bring some sweetness even into Donald’s meat.

The president is known to subsist on a diet of Big Macs, buckets of KFC, and Lay’s potato chips, so it may take some doing to rinse the flavor of salmonella and excessive salt from his flesh. I suggest using the cleansing technique developed for beef kidneys: soak him for two hours in a large Dutch oven full of water mixed with a little white vinegar or lemon juice, then rinse him out three times with fresh water and drain him in a large colander.

Once you’ve cleaned the Donald, he’s perfect for the national dish of Somalia, baasto iyo sugo hilib shildan. In the years since Italy colonized Somalia starting in the late 19th century, Somalis transformed spaghetti Bolognese, the food of their occupiers, into a spicier dish with profoundly African flavors. (Mussolini tried to boost his popularity at home by intensifying the occupation in the ’30s, but you should read up on how that ultimately turned out for him, Mr. President!) One thing to note before I give the recipe: Somali cuisine is halal. Is the First Golfer? I’m not equipped to give a religious opinion.

(With apologies to Somali cooks everywhere.) To prepare, sauté a load of onions in a large skillet. Add cumin, coriander, cayenne, cinnamon, turmeric, cloves, crushed green cardamom pods, fenugreek seeds, and fresh garlic and green pepper. Add fresh Donald, minced, till nicely browned. Add diced tomatoes and tomato paste, sauté until fully blended, about five minutes. Add a little chicken stock and some large-diced potatoes and carrots. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Serve over al dente pasta, topped with chopped cilantro. Eat a banana on the side. (Somalis like to have one with every entrée.)

The Somali civil war is one of the bloodiest going on right now, with the widespread kidnapping of children so they can be forced to be soldiers, and systemic sexual violence. All sides target civilians. The conflict, like most of the current wars in Africa, ultimately stems from the massive destabilization wrought by European colonization. Somali refugees could use a good meal like this: 2 million of them have been forced to flee the country, and only one hundredth of one percent of them — 299 people — were granted visas by the United States in the last fiscal year on record, 2015, according to Quartz.

A Desi chef who insisted on going nameless out of fear of being rounded up offered this recipe: “I just think that given our president’s unnatural tone and coloring, as a chef of Indian cuisine I think immediately of tandoori chicken, with that ridiculous, unnatural bright pink tone a lot of versions of it have.” (Much commercial tandoori chicken relies on food coloring,the chef notes; more holistic versions use a mixture of tomato paste and yogurt that turns the chicken reddish.) “But if you used the president, you wouldn’t even have to marinate him, he’s already that color. And given the sort of injustices he’s committing against humanity, he surely deserves” some time in “an 800° tandoori oven.”

For those of you who can’t bring themselves to bite into such meat and digest, here’s a vegetarian recipe from La Morada in the South Bronx, one of the best Mexican restaurants in the city:

La Morada’s Guacamole Recipe

1 whole avocado, hand-picked by undocumented immigrants in California

1 tablespoon of diced tomatoes cultivated by undocumented immigrants in Milwaukee, Florida

1 tablespoon of cilantro harvested by undocumented immigrants in California

1 tablespoon of onions gathered by undocumented immigrants in Washington

½ lime, hand-picked also by those whom you persecute.

1 pinch of salt.

First take the avocado and smash it with the same passion that activist smashed Richard Spencer’s face, [and activists have smashed] xenophobes, racists, homophobes, and other forms of injustice. Keep smashing the avocado until justice and equality reign. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well until it harmonizes the same way solidarity and intersectionality triumph together. Pair with your favorite Mexican food because you know America can’t survive without Mexicans. Enjoy. ”

Friends and FBI agents, this column is a satire. I don’t believe that any human being should be eaten, not even the president. I do believe his policies are immoral, and he should resign immediately in favor of Bernie Sanders, Angela Davis, or Jasilyn Charger.

Originally published in Gay City News, February 16, 2016.