Engaging in Difference Using Restorative Practices

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Six hundred people from diverse backgrounds were seated in a hotel listening to a panel discussing the impact of Restorative Practices in schools. A director and a White woman shared the promising results of a randomized control study; elementary schools implementing Restorative Practices had decreased suspensions (Augustine et al. 1). Even more encouraging, this was the first time a disciplinary intervention had significantly reduced the racial disparities of school suspensions in this large urban district. Throughout the district, staff reported stronger relationships, and surveys indicated a more positive school climate when implementing Restorative Practices(Augustine et al. 2). Also on the panel was another school’s Chief Officer, an African American man, who spoke about the racial disparity within school districts. He challenged the audience of restorative practitioners, stating that before we begin the work of Restorative Practices, we must first address the inherent bias in our schools. He criticized the prominence of White administrators and teachers instructing Black and Brown children, stating children need to see more people like them in positions of authority. Calling for more equity, he stated that White people will need to make space for emerging leaders of color. When asked what he meant, he took a breath and clarified that this applied to some of the White people here at the conference today; White people will need to step aside to make space for minorities. Met with some applause, there was also a tension in the room. After the panel members spoke, the microphone became available to take questions from the audience. A White man, who identified himself as a retired teacher, congratulated the panel on addressing bias. Trying to signal his own repugnance towards racism, he continued “we are colorblind here” and went on to talk about diversity while members of the audience murmured.

While one panelist is seeing data that shows progress in achieving racial equity, another panelist reads the data as addressing only a symptom. I recognized the familiar arguments of Critical Race Theory. The slow pace of racial justice has created a phenomenon termed, “a contradiction-closing case” (Delgado and Stefanic 38). There is a perception gap; one person sees the changes, the other sees the hindrances. To unconsciously defend the gap between ideal and practice, we simplify the narrative to demonstrate incremental progress and point to a reduction in suspension in these piloted elementary schools. The Chief Officer saw the suspensions of Black and Brown children part of a larger systemic racial problem, one of bias in the classroom, that is exacerbated when people of color are denied authority to lead our school systems and educate marginalized children.

As a restorative practitioner, I felt proud of the research making a dent in discipline inequity. And yet, I felt a moment of shame when I looked around the room and noticed the prominence of Whites, like myself, in leadership positions. Were the White leaders blocking progress by taking seats away from others?

Where I work, I feel pride that women are well represented in leadership. However, I cannot help but notice that though we employ people of color, fewer minorities participate at the leadership level. Perhaps I am too quick to embrace incremental gender diversity while overlooking the Whiteness of leadership. While Restorative Practices is about sharing power and authority, it is scary to think that my White colleagues would need to step aside to make jobs for others. I would like to think we could make space by widening our circles. Rather than perpetuate hierarchies, Restorative Practices can provide examples where widening the circle of participation distributes power. Perhaps by understanding race, and looking to other examples such as workplaces, social services, and courts, we can glean lessons to understand how Restorative Practices might help create more just systems.

Roots of Restorative Practices

Restorative Practices is an emerging field focused on improving relationships building social capital and relational networks through participatory learning and decision making (Wachtel, Defining Restorative 1). The fundamental hypothesis of Restorative Practices is “human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them” (Wachtel Defining Restorative 3). At its core, it affirms people’s dignity, needing to feel a sense of belonging, and have more voice and choice in decisions that impact them (Bailie 11). Beyond interpersonal interactions, to impact civil society we must examine normative assumptions that shape society. Naturally, through evolution we tend towards tribalism;

This bias is to favor those that are closer to us in general- it influences who we readily empathize with, but it also influences who we like, who we tend to care for, who we will affiliate with, who we will punish, and so on. (Bloom 95)

The dialogue processes inherent in Restorative Practices prompt empathetic conversation to help people recognize the humanity in one another, thus combating the tribalism instinct. My experience in the field has allowed me to work with people across the globe, of many backgrounds, that all shared a value of honoring the dignity of others and wanting to create more empowering relationships. Specific elements of Restorative Practices are built on community-based justice; having dialogue in circles and honoring the primary influence of family over larger governing systems trace back to many indigenous models of community building (Mattaini and Holtschneider 130; Hopkins 21). When applied in schools, as was being discussed at the panel, this dialogue process brings a struggling student together with peers, teachers, and administrators to engage in effective communication. Facilitators pose questions and people respond with an emotional tenor that encourages empathy that brings the participants closer together. Rather than expel a student as punishment, the student is held accountable for poor behavior and attempts to repair the harm caused. In the circle process, cognitive empathy strengthens social connections and builds more resilient relationships that can counter natural biases.

Restorative Practices builds upon Jürgen Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action in which dialogues within communities can create new shared understandings (Finlayson 57). Habermas explains, there exists a modern discord between the life-world, in which community and family are connected through networked relationships, and the system-world, in which institutions and paid professionals networks have authority in law, economy, and social structures. In modern society, “the colonization of the life-world” prevents the effectiveness of interpersonal communication (Finlayson 56). Similarly, Nils Christie perceived that when lawyers escalate crime into the state’s justice system they “steal” the conflict from the community and take away the “potential for activity, for participation itself”’(Christie 7). The question of who owns these conflicts in our schools, and who is best suited to address the racial inequity, persists. Howard Zehr saw wrongdoing as a violation of people and their relationships (183). By changing the lens to focus on relationships, there is a path forward towards healing. Through dialogue, people can identify the needs caused by misbehaviors and the obligations in these relationships. Inclusive dialogue and mutual agreement could then heal and restore relationships.

Restorative Practices has been used to address issues caused by individual and structural racism. For example, in 1979, a Truth and Reconciliation committee was established after five people were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Greensboro, North Carolina (Beck 395). To tackle systemic racism, in 1995, the government of South Africa used restorative justice to convene a Truth and Reconciliation Committee that offered amnesty to perpetrators of crimes during the era of apartheid in exchange for taking accountability for the harms they caused (Tutu 45). The government selected restorative justice, as opposed to traditional public trials, with the intent of creating a shared understanding of the impact of racist policies. Participants hoped that by creating a shared understanding and reminding the public of the humanity of the perpetrators as well as the victims, they could restore a divided country and build a new national identity.

Since race itself is a social construct, Whiteness is best understood and defined as a “constellation of processes and practices rather than a discrete identity” (DiAngelo 56). Race is based in a historic, political, economic, and social position that places Whiteness in a place of privileged cultural normativity. The effects marginalize and silence other perspectives and allow public narratives around race to be constructed by those in positions of power (Delgado and Stefanic 9). At the panel, it was possible to overlook the absence of people of color in positions of authority because it was what White leaders have been used to doing and have come to accept as normal. It was not until the Chief Officer challenged the assumption that the current education leaders assume a universality, having an unracialized identity, that we can explore how others see themselves as outsiders, defining themselves and their culture. Recently, as part of conference proceedings, Tim Chapman posed that practitioners’ focus on harm has diverted us from the critical work of undoing injustice (The future of Restorative Practices – Big questions for the 21st century). Perhaps while school administrators were focused on diverting students from punitive measures, they overlooked the deeper structural racist systems that favor Whiteness for employment and economic justice.

Displays of White Fragility

In the United States, following the Black Freedom Movement, there was a sense of national progress as constitutional amendments and state laws sought to remedy the marginalization of African American citizens (Eisenberg). However, these social interventions failed to achieve real equality in schools, workplaces, and at the voting booths, resulting in new cultural myths that “the real thing holding people of color back – especially black folks – is not racism, but rather their own behavioral pathologies, personal choices, and dysfunctional cultural values” (Wise 40). This was constructed as a narrative in which America had just displayed valiant leadership to overcome racism, that in our country people should be able to work hard to overcome barriers based on merit (Sue 38). Harking back to our racist past would only keep minorities in a victim mentality.

Probably the myth of merit is most played out in our segregated neighborhoods where the loss of people of color and access to good education goes unnoticed (DiAngelo 58). Schools that serve African American students employ teachers with less experience, have fewer advanced courses and are “also more than ten times as likely to be in places of concentrated poverty” (Wise 33). Segregation creates a coded language that hides race;

White people are taught not to feel any loss over the absence of people of color in their lives and in fact, this absence is what defines their schools and neighborhoods as “good”; Whites come to understand that a “good school” or “good neighborhood” is coded language for “White.”(Johnson and Shapiro qtd in DiAngelo 58)

When the White man stepped to the microphone at the hotel, I imagine, like me, he might be uncomfortable that the Black man had pointed out that he was a White man with more access to power. It is a challenge to the very socialized codes we practice, directly addressing individuals by their racialized identity (DiAngelo 57; Delgado and Stefanic 8). White people are not used to the moment of racial discomfort, yet for most minorities, it is a daily occurrence. The very construct of Whiteness has allowed us, White people, to be unracialized, while people of color are the ones described as “the Black man” (DiAngelo 60). The White man at the microphone wanted to deny his place in this reality. But as Myles Horton notes, when confronted about his place as a White man amidst the Black Freedom Movement, “when acting out of guilt, you’re trying to get rid of guilt, that means you’re trying to serve yourself, not the other people. That’s never constructive” (Horton 197).

When the man at the microphone stated the familiar microaggression; “we are colorblind” his intent was to show solidarity, but instead, he dismissed the Chief Officer’s concern about a lack of minority role models in our school. The microaggression disregarded the evidence of racial bias that impacts the daily lives of people of color and makes a hurtful denial of their reality (Sue 32). Because people fear appearing racist, we sometimes keep our mouth shuts. Sometimes are words belie our intent. The Chief Officer did not criticize this man’s words, he patiently tried to listen for the speaker’s intent.

But as a White woman in the room, I am left thinking about White privilege, the advantages afforded to people perceived as White. I may feel “other” at times based on my gender or religion, but I am still part of the White identity. Judith Butler notes the institutionalized separatism pits forms of oppression in competition with one another rather than uniting for social progress (Butler 21). As restorative practitioners, we might become defensive because we, White restorative practitioners, can see ourselves working to empower others. Rather than becoming defensive, what might we do? Exercises that look inward help us understand the intersectionality of our identity and how that affords us privileges and power (Delgado and Stefanic 58). Fania Davis suggests that before trying to implement restorative justice in schools, it is critical to couple bias training, especially Whiteness trainings, in order to dismantle the prevalent racism in our educational system (55). Restorative Practices demands we reflect on our willingness to share our privileged power. White people sitting in positions of authority can question the narrative that we got here solely on our merit and look at our own individual bias, face the norms of Whiteness and the resulting practices and policies. Fortunately, there are some good examples around the world that show how implementing restorative practices can create redistribute power.

Examples of Inclusive Restorative Practices

There are lessons we can learn from restorative practitioners applying specific processes in workplaces, criminal justice, and communities. First, in the United States, Black Lives Matter has called for restorative justice and urges workplaces to look beyond individual offenses to lead restorative conferencing processes that create a safe place to discuss various perspectives to understand impacts of bias (Opie and Roberts 711). Second, in Canada, the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission paired with the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People has funded their own court systems (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation). Lastly, in the Netherlands, laws have been developed in accord with principles of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF et al. 9) to ensure the rights of children to participate in family group conferencing ensuring their voice in decisions that impact them whenever possible. Each of these examples points to intentional changes made by people in positions of authority to widen their circle to share their power.

In the United States, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 aimed to create fair and equal workplaces but never truly addressed Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for economic justice and failed to protect basic human rights (Honey 7). Whiteness was no longer a privileged legal category to be protected, it simply transformed into a social norm (Bhandaru 233). This caused subtle forms of bias to become more difficult to prove in the court. If an employee fails to prove overt racism and harm, a manager can easily ignore the dynamics that led to the racism. Even if proven, managers might attempt to individualize any action and try to weed out one offending coworker rather than look at the hostile work climate. Similar to how we address the individual suspension rather than the racial bias in the schools, in a workplace a manager can disregard the climate in the workplace that caused “institutional and cultural dynamics that reproduce patterns of under participation and exclusion” (Eisenberg, Sources of workplace inequalities).

Discrimination, like microaggressions, attacks one’s sense of self; “Violations of identity are like gunshot wounds to our heart” (Hicks 38). Instinct might have the hurt person try to exert more power to control the situation and sometimes this can cause more retaliation in the workplace. Therefore, the acknowledgment of harm is critical to healing and stemming further harm. Rather than have a cross-examination, a restorative conference can create a structured, and dignified dialogue. “When dignity is engaged, it is assumed that both parties are in need of understanding – that both contributed to the breakdown of the relationship, that both played a role, though perhaps not an equal role” (Hicks 191).

Restorative conferencing provides an alternative mechanism to address bias in the workplace. Increasing the interaction between races through dialogue provides an opportunity to gain perspectives of different races is and is critical to improving workplace climate (Opie and Roberts 711). Restorative conferences do not focus on determining intent and then assigning blame for bad motives or declaring a singular truth from the point of authority. Because conferencing’s aim is not to dispute facts, there is an opportunity to develop a shared understanding of how harm occurred. Instead, as Habermas explains, using the power of relationships, social order gets constructed based on creating a shared meaning through dialogue (Finlayson 43). It is about pulling in multiple truths, taking turns in a dialogue, and then through hearing perspectives, turning together to a new understanding. Instead of asking the offender why he did something, the dialogue is based around questions of; what happened, what were you thinking at the time, what have you thought about since the incident (Wachtel et al. 166). This leaves room to discuss unrecognized bias; what one was thinking at the time of the incident might evolve based on hearing other perspectives. The person harmed gets to share his perspective responding to what happened, what was his reaction, what has he you about since, and most importantly, what was the hardest part (Wachtel et al. 166). Further, because it is not punitive, it is a safer place to begin to explore and learn about difference and create a new shared understanding. Using a restorative conference, the dialogue focuses on hearing perspectives from people in their own words. People who are witnesses, or even silent bystanders, have a voice to share their perspectives. Together they take responsibility for their actions and identify harms that were caused. Together they discuss what needs to happen to make things right and ensure that people are reintegrated back into prosocial norms of the workplace. By hearing from those involved restorative conferences create a learning environment and also build stronger social networks (Eisenberg). Facilitating opportunities for diverse groups to participate in sharing perspectives has been shown to reduce prejudice (Opie and Roberts 712).

Another example of how people of color successfully challenged White authority using Restorative Practices can be found in Canada’s justice system. Following Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation process exploring harms against indigenous people, new court systems were created by First Nation, Inuit and Métis people. Unlike the United States, where Lady Justice appears blindfolded atop many court buildings, the 1999 Gladue ruling mandated Canadian courts to consider the indigenous background to culturally relevant sentencing in the justice system and consider restorative justice principals (Nicholls). According to Don Nicholls, Director of the Department of Justice and Corrections in the Cree nation, restructuring the shape of courtrooms into circles allowed all people to see and be seen, offenders and prosecutors all sat on the same level, and the inclusive nature of the circle that ensured “no issue gets trapped in the corner” (Nicholls). Conducting dialogues in circles is a symbolic way to show equality and non-domination (Pranis 34). Members of the Cree community now attend court administered by the Cree, not by the Quebecois justice system, and ascribe to their own definitions and deliberations. This ensures people are having court proceedings governed by their peers, with outcomes deliberated by their peers, to support community reintegration. For example, in the Cree system, a youth offender can be as old as thirty years of age. Instead of thinking that a nineteen-year-old boy struggling in school has the cognition to control impulsive behaviors, the indigenous way recognizes that even in their twenties an individual is deeply dependent upon community connections to develop sound judgment. If they are a danger to the public and need to be incarcerated, they remain in local confinement, so their families can visit and participate in rehabilitative services. But often youth may be diverted from prisons to receive social services improving physical and emotional health, to attend summer camps building a positive sense of community, or to engage with elders identifying ways to offer material and symbolic reparations for their harms.

As a final example, in the Netherlands, the restorative circle process has been used to ensure families, rather than government systems, are empowered to make decisions for their children with the intent of keeping families intact whenever possible (van Pagée). Family Group Conferences are circle processes that protect the rights of children by creating space for them to learn, speak and participate in decisions impacting them. Before a child is removed from any home, the child’s support is widened by pulling in not just immediate family members, but extended members of the family, and people who are in their circle of care. Following Christie’s observation, when the family conflict is not pulled out of the family into the government’s welfare system, power remains within the family. In the Netherlands, EigenKracht, a social service organization, has successfully trained more than 800 volunteers who speak dozens of languages to facilitate circles to help families make plans to help themselves (van Pagée). Instead of relying on social workers employed by local municipalities, they train community volunteers. National law mandates volunteers are to be used as facilitators, and while professionals can offer knowledge of resources they are mandated to allow private time for families to meet and decide what is best for them (Wachtel, “Restorative Practices and the Life‑World Implications of a New Social Science.”). What would it look like in our schools if instead of a White professional deciding what was best for a Black child, they provided resources and trusted children and their families to decide what to do to support the struggling child? The rights of children to have Family Group Conferences have been formalized into national legislation in the Netherlands based on data-driven studies of the successful results of this restorative process (van Pagée).

Continuing My Journey

One of the most compelling challenges of the Black Freedom Movement was how leaders could marry the principles and practices of nonviolence to achieve social change. Today, we still must attend to the alignment of our principles and practices to advance social justice. The assumptions of Restorative Practices are based on creating participatory and empathetic dialogue processes. But how we express ourselves is bound by culture. A reliance on restorative circles tries to create nonhierarchical communication mechanisms speaking sequentially and listening to others. While a White normative view might agree that giving everyone chance to speak without interruption distributes power, some studies have shown that positive interruptions actually encourage African American women to speak up and persist in being heard (Mendelberg et al. 27). African American girls are tone-shamed and their questioning in school can be read as confrontational rather than as curiosity (Morris). Recent research examining bias in Restorative Practices warns that basing communication on verbal expressions favors those that work in the service-economy confident in their “people skills” to express themselves (Willis 12). This can adversely affect people who feel inadequate expressing themselves in front of others. It is, of course, possible to sit in a circle, hear others, and remain closed-down to your own social reflection and social responsibility. With this in mind, we must keep our field focused on community dynamics, not just prescriptive processes.

So we require a sensitivity to others and the willingness to discover and confront our own biases. In examining my own racism, the hardest part for me to decipher is my own sense of individualism. As a White American, I was raised thinking of myself as having agency and seeing my parenting and social success as earned by my intellect and hard work, not as the benefits afforded a girl with access to a solid education, born into a family where I did not have to worry about affording my time to study, nor having to fear about being treated with dignity as I traveled between communities. Unlike some mothers, I never had to miss time from work because my daughter was seen as a troublemaker because of how she was asking questions at school, and I never worried about my son’s physical safety when he was stopped by the police. As I have grown to have more power and authority, perhaps now I must stand as an agitator, challenging the institutionalized patterns of oppression where I’ve been privileged.

Engaging with others is one of the best ways to ensure that my sense of the world is not based on any singular story but creates a diverse and interwoven tapestry of connections. We would benefit hearing more stories and developing more sensitivities to other’s stories. Like the comments at the panel, the truth was not either or, it was both opinions and truths, even the perspectives that are hard to hear. Storytelling prompts self-reflection, and in a group environment, listening will create an opportunity for dialogue and true reconciliation (Fellegi 213). We must create a space where it is safe to have difficult conversations. It is sometimes hard to be honest, sometimes our words fail us, but we need to hear each other’s intents and aspirations. How we move forward matters, we must focus on our goals as well as the dignity of one another.

Participation, reparation, and reintegration are fundamental ideals of Restorative Practices. It is not something one just learns. It is something one must practice in the lived interactions of day to day life. In my family, in my studies, in my work, and in my community, I must be vigilant not just to my own bias, as the Chief Officer asked. In addition to looking out to others, I need to be mindful of the structures that sustain my privilege and be willing to challenge them. Only then will we make bigger steps to a more inclusive civil society.



Works Cited

Augustine, Catherine H., et al. Can Restorative Practices Improve School Climate and Curb Suspensions? An Evaluation of the Impact of Restorative Practices in a Mid-Sized Urban School District. RAND Corporation, 2018, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB10051.html.

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Kant We Hegel Our Way Out of This? The Problem of People in Postcolonial Studies


Postcolonial theory has a people problem. By this, I do not mean to suggest those who practice, write, or otherwise espouse a postcolonial perspective on cultural affairs are somehow tricky, obtuse, or otherwise problematic to deal with in professional settings. Even if this were the case, the solution to the deficiencies in postcolonial theory most certainly does not lie in the mandatory installation of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation “Genuine People Personality” (Adams 95) software on every humanities department’s server the world over. Instead, I am unabashedly suggesting that postcolonial theoreticians’ overemphasis on people as the site of analysis lies at the heart of the limitations of the field’s key terms, epistemological boundaries, and approach to understanding phenomena as a whole. Indeed, if postcolonial theory and its related concepts and methods are to have any intellectual purchase, then it is time to abandon its anthropocentric approach to explaining how the world works in favor of perspectives which include non-human entities in colonial processes.

The goals of postcolonial practice occupy several intellectual nodes. One likely comes in the identification of the impact on the psyche and society of those people who suffer under the weight of the colonial project. A second is a means of demonstrating how human knowledge and the institutions it produces has been constructed to create a racist, gendered, and other exploitive architectures to justify and sustain patterns of oppression. A third occurs around communicating the stories of humans before contact and colonization, their collective trauma and resistance to occupation, so that they may liberate themselves to live in freedom in particular cultural conjunctures. What unites these goals are both their evident anthropocentric character and the aims of shifting the locus of analysis from inside the minds of characters in the colonial drama to the human subject positions and collectivities which play out in social and cultural life. Concerns about the colonization of humans were rightly on the minds of postcolonial thinkers during the 20th century. Roughly one-third of all humans alive at the middle of the 20th century lived in non-self governing territories; diplomatic speak for a colony, a mandate, a protectorate, or some other entity which lacked state sovereignty. The onset of the Cold War, the withdrawal from imperial possessions as the global balance of state power shifted, the emergence of wars of national liberation, and the politics of various United Nations organs, and the proliferation of capitalism all worked to create a context for seeing the value of changing the dynamics of political colonization around the world. For postcolonial academics, whose published work came to the party a full generation (Eagleton 204-206) after the formal processes of political decolonization began, their concerns centered mainly on cultural interpretations of identity. This work is done to not only voice, explain and lay blame in the history of colonial relations, but also to point towards ways in which colonial logics, in varying degrees of Derridean-ness, can be deconstructed. This sort of postcolonial analysis fails to acknowledge that colonialism extends beyond the narrow frame of political colonialism, regardless of the suspension of the UN Trusteeship Council’s work in 1994.

The fluid definition of postcoloniality reflects the apparent fact the term ‘postcolonial’ has severe limitations. Loomba rightly situates the very language of postcolonial studies, arguing that the word ‘postcolonial’ itself is only useful “with caution and qualification” and that if divorced from specific historical circumstances, “postcoloniality cannot be meaningfully investigated, and instead, the term begins to obscure the very relations of domination it seeks to uncover.” (16) In turn, Hardt and Negri see postcolonial thought, particularly Bhabha’s binary-busting mechanism of hybridity, as epiphenomenal of the logics of power and Empire. (145-146) These critiques point to another obvious fact: the colonial condition has not ended. Colonialism, neo or otherwise, is not merely or even primarily about the oppression of people. Imperial projects are ontologically materialist in its exploitation of territory through settlement, resources through extraction, surplus value through labor, and profit through finance. In other words, understanding colonialism means examining exploitive relationships between things; a perspective that does not dismiss humans, but indeed dissenters them from the analysis. In the same way that Roy (54) suggests that an exclusive focus on human rights is a camera obscura of contemporary conflict which ignores the vital, fundamental importance of territorial appropriation and resource extraction, so too does postcolonial theory distract of a richer understanding and resistance to the colonial project as a whole by focusing on the epiphenomena of humanity through concepts such as subalternity, the native informant, and hybridity which not only foreclose a sophisticated understanding of human social affairs, but offer a nihilistic and narrow reading of life itself.

There are solutions to the people-based problems of postcolonial theory. Emerging transdisciplinary scholarship focus attention on how the myriad of non-human forms of life, as well as objects themselves, shape and,  are shaped by colonial processes. In turn, theoretical and philosophical debates over “cenes” and the ontology of things point to how holistic work on colonialism necessitates the inclusion of non-human entities to produce robust analyses. Postcolonial theory may have its roots in the study of human affairs, but humans are not the only agents or objects that make up imperial practices; thus the study of colonialism should, therefore, continue to expand to reflect these realities.


The Problem of People

People are a problem in postcolonial theory on at least two levels. First, analyses that focus attention wholly on humans foreclose how colonialism influences other forms of life, as well objects, things, and other aspects of the physical world. People-centered approaches not only limits the field of colonialism’s impact on culture but also miss how material culture can work to sustain and expand colonial projects. Anthropocentric thinking emerges in the precursors and foundational work of postcolonial thought. Cesaire, Fanon, and Memmi all root their analysis of colonial conditions in varying degrees of psychoanalytic thinking. Indeed, it is the emergence, power, and durability of psychoanalysis which not only directly impacted early postcolonial theorists —Fanon, for example, was trained as a psychologist –but speak to what has become an emblematic feature of the humanities; the conceptual and theoretical borrowing from other intellectual disciplines in order to find novel ways to study humans. Digressing into the various critiques of each of these psychological schools would be beside the point at this juncture, although there is something delicious in thinking about Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of psychoanalysis as, “a capitalist disorder.” (Crews 176) Rather, the fact that postcolonial theory latched onto and then extended ideas which were oriented exclusively towards thinking about people, and oppressed people, in particular, was the first act in narrowing the aperture of postcolonial thought for the remainder of the century. The intertwining of psychoanalysis and postcolonial theory is not surprising, for psychoanalysis may be an emancipatory schema committed to freeing, “human beings from what frustrates their fulfillment and well being.” (Eagleton 166) Liberating oneself from slavery, servitude, or the precariat class under the weight of colonialism certainly seems like a worthwhile endeavor for psychoanalytic thinking.

Cesaire may root his work in Marxist analysis, yet the language he employs, “First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the truest sense of the word” (35) is nothing short of anthropocentric. Cesaire’s suggestion that “no one colonizes innocently,” (39) is an intelligent rebuttal to attempts to negate human complicity in colonization –perhaps an earlier, more poetic version of Goldhagen’s provocative thesis on ‘ordinary’ Germans during the Second World War.  While Cesaire works to frame colonialism in economically imperial terms, his argument about both mental states of colonizer and colonized, the latter often dehumanized through the racial component of colonialism, reaffirms that he sees the colonial project as one that lies exclusively in the world of human affairs. In the same vein, Memmi articulates his analysis of colonialism in wonderfully parsimonious terms, “the best possible definition of a colony: a place where one earns more and spends less.” (4)

In a similar vein, Fanon’s works rehumanize the racialized construction of blackness in the face of white supremacy, “I start suffering from not being a white man insofar as the white man discriminates against me; turns me into a colonzes subject; robs me of any value or originality; tells me I am a parasite in the world, that I should toe the line of the white world as quickly as possible , and that we are brute beasts, that we are walking manure, a hideous forerunner of tender cane and silky cotton, that I have no place in this world.” (78) For Fanon, the task of his critique is to expose how the racism that is inherent to colonialism makes him something other than a human, “I am an object among other objects.” (89) But what if we all are objects? What if, rather than setting up human-centric hierarchies, we think about the structures and impact of all objects within particular systems? By framing his opposition to colonialism as a project of rehumanization, Fanon closes off broader, more accurate ways of reading and resisting colonialism, by privileging human existence over those very beasts abused under colonization.

Memmi spends chapter after chapter working through the positionality of the hypothetical colonizer and colonized person, looking to unpack the relationship between these protagonists, intertwined in the tragedy of colonialism. Memmi invokes adjectives such as “disfigurement,” (147) “annihilation,”(151) and ”liberation” (152) to describe the personal outcomes of this relationship. Memmi hints at a broader understanding of the colonial frame but then pulls back towards his exclusively human analysis, “Colonization is, above all, economic and political exploitation. If the colonized is eliminated, the colony becomes a country like any other, and who then will be exploited?” (149) Finally, Memmi writes that the human free of colonialism, “will be a whole and free man;” (153) reaffirming that colonialism and its end is species, or indeed agent-specific to humans.

The point of postcolonial criticism and action should not only be one of ending the exploitation of humans but exploitation writ large; an argument that is sorely absent from postcolonialist theory and praxis because of the anthropocentric nature of their intellectual project. The second people-problem in postcolonial thought: the anthropocentric logic of self-centered human inquiry forecloses other ways of knowing, and thus selectively limits the utility of postcolonial perspectives and concepts. For example, it is worth considering the intellectual options available to anti-colonial intellectuals in the early part of the 20th-century that would have allowed for a more robust postcolonial praxis beyond that of psychological critiques. While it is easy to levy critiques against postcolonialism theory’s myopic foci from the safety of the early 21st century now that many national liberation struggles have been played out, doing so would reek of post hoc commentary. Early postcolonial theorists did not participate in a world with robust environmental criticism, indeed developed theories of nationalism, not even World Systems Theory. But they did have the concept of ‘imperialism,’ a materialist-based, not-exclusively anthropocentric way of understanding and resisting colonial logics that was available to mid- and late-20th century postcolonial thinkers. Indeed, it is curious to ponder why ideas which were so widely in circulation seem completely absent from this postcolonial perspective. Hobson’s turn of the 20th-century analysis of imperialism as the natural extension of capitalist logic beyond the borders of the nation-state not only accurately diagnose the problem of imperialism, but also frame solutions to avoiding colonial logics through capital controls and domestic reinvestment. Hobson’s study is an assessment of both the human and non-human aspects of colonialism, one that rightly sees exploitation in broad terms beyond that of the individual. So influential was Hobson’s thesis that Lenin built and expanded on these ideas for his most prominent of publications, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Synthesizing Hobson and Marx and Engels, Lenin sees financial capital, a non-human object, as the driver of colonialism, one that produces the incentives for imperial policies, extractive economies, and the offshoring of class conflict, the latter being remarkably similar to Memmi’s definition of colonialism. As with much of Marxist influence in the postwar period, (Hobsbawm) Hobson and Lenin-based understandings of imperialism serve to inform anti-imperial praxis in Latin America, from overtly Marxian political and cultural analyses (Morana, Dussel, and Jauregui) to pedagogy, (Freire) to liberation theology. So too can the legacy of Hobson and Lenin be found at the heart of World Systems Theory and in particular, Hardt and Negri’s profoundly influential Empire. Each of these analyses not only avoids the personal and psychoanalytic approach to critiquing the colonial condition, but they are also overtly solidarist and at least are open to, if not outright considerate of, their treatment of human and non-human things.

Hobson and Lenin are nowhere to be found in the analyses of the psychoanalytic approach to postcolonial thought, even though Hobson’s (in English) and Lenin’s (published in English in 1939) work predate and were available to Cesaire, Fanon, and Memmi. But let’s not merely hold these three accountable on their own; their reasons for missing Hobson and Lenin are likely unknowable. Where are Hobson and Lenin, and the study of imperialism in general, in the intellectual history of postcolonialism? Gandhi offers no analysis of either Hobson or Lenin and frames imperialism as “Western Nationalism;” (195) a curious connotation as national liberation and nationalism are the some of the very solutions postcolonialists espouse towards countering logics of imperialism. Indeed nationalism(s) is a key blind spot for postcolonial thought. Loomba is also silent on Hobson, dedicates less than a page to Lenin (10-11) in context with situating the term ‘imperialism’ itself, and dedicates a mere six pages (256) in the entire volume to the concept. Even the inexorable Spivak avoids Hobson entirely, and only discusses Lenin as an apologist for state power. (83) Spivak dedicates pages of prose and footnotes towards imperialism, although much of this comes in the form of her “unquiet ghosts” on the subject. (Eagleton 3) Said reserves just a single line for Hobson, “For imperialists like Balfour, or for anti-imperialists like J.A. Hobson, the Oriental, like the African, is a member of a subject race and not exclusively an inhabitant of a geographical area.” (92) Lenin escapes Said’s sting insofar as he does not appear at all in Said’s seminal work. Imperialism features in Said’s Orientalism of course but Said frames it mainly as a Western construct, rather than a capitalist one. Perhaps this is a reason –there is never ‘the’ reason –why Hobson, Lenin, and imperialism never gain any traction in postcolonial conversations.

Anthropocentrism lies at the heart of some critical postcolonial concepts. Spivak’s conception of the subaltern is a way of thinking through how to name and amplify individual and collective identities under colonization. Spivak’s argument that, “The subaltern as female cannot be heard of read” (104) has its problems, as stories of and by these very women exist and are acknowledged, for example, in testimonio literature the world over. Spivak perhaps concedes this conceptual shortcoming with the intervention of the native informant concept (4); the human tasked with speaking on behalf of their culture under colonization. Spivak’s conception of the subaltern or that of the native informant is emblematic of postcolonialism thinkers’ intense focus on the human subject position which works to foreclose an acknowledgment of other forms of exploitation. The very notion of speaking, and the silences that Spivak sees as a part of the imperial project, presumes that human communication is the only form of dialogue worth acknowledging or even apprehending. In turn, Bhabha’s work on identity also suffers from the same problem of anthropocentrism, although from a different perspective from Spivak’s  Whereas Spivak wants the reader to hear and see those who are obscured by colonialism, Bhabha claims that these folks are already visible, we’re just looking in the wrong places. For Bhabha, an individual’s identity is a hybrid of their cultural condition, one that is shaped and informed by the long arc of colonialism. (277) For Bhabha, there is no Other in a binary sense, only individuals, and groups operating in third spaces between reified conceptions of colonizer and colonized. (66-69) These liminal locales may be sites of oppression or cosmopolitanism, but for Bhabha’s reader, they are spaces dominated, if not exclusively occupied, by human affairs and relationships.

Can postcolonial theory resolve the twin traps of personhood? Such a move will be tricky, as the concept of the subaltern, the native informant, and hybridity are devoutly anthropocentric in their ontology. Focusing on personhood is a central pillar of postcolonial thought, as the intellectual legacy of the Enlightenment shapes the way we have prioritized our politics; both postcolonialists and the rest of us, even if the former is uncomfortable with the idea. Abandoning Hegelian notions of the Self and the Other will be difficult to realize unless one is willing to reconsider humanity’s relationship to life writ large, a perspective that finds its home most prominently in emerging, interdisciplinary ways of knowing. This does not mean colonizing non-Western, indigenous, or other ways of knowing to recapture some lost intellectual framework, although acknowledging these cosmologies is undoubtedly the right thing to do. Instead, rejecting anthropocentrism means considering all of how colonialism impacts and informs material agents in cultural contexts.


Postcolonial Materials

Cross-disciplinary analysis of colonial projects opens up rich ways of understanding how non-human entities contribute to and are influenced by imperialism. Such work invariably involves the methods, evidence, and other tools from cultural, environmental, and literary studies, along with history. Postcolonial theory rests on the practice of traversing intellectual disciplines, and so extending the logic of interdisciplinary practice is essential understanding what Lowe (19) sees as “the intimacies” inherent in colonial practice. For example, paper, sugar, tea, and floral prints; each are seemingly innocuous on their own, and yet each object shapes and is shaped by colonial practices just like humans. Derived from one of the earliest merchantable economies of North America, (Cronon 109) lumber extraction drove efforts of British and later American settler-colonists across the continent; displacing flora and fauna along the way. The colonial logic of the mechanization of production and profit-seeking helped to change the sourcing of paper from rags to wood pulp, producing profound changes to cultural, economic, and environmental landscapes of colonized spaces of nineteenth-century western Massachusetts. (McGaw) In turn, Senchyne (144-148) suggests that the materiality of paper works to develop and further racialized hierarchies by operating within Robinson’s (3) conception of “racial capitalism;” part and parcel of the colonial project. In this case, non-human life such as trees and their surrounding ecosystem, as well as machines and objects themselves that contribute to the production and use of paper embody and normalize colonial legacies.

Focusing attention on production practices reveals both colonialism’s history and current state of affairs. Tsing’s conception of scalability, economies that perpetually expand without the need of changing the essential elements of production, decenter but do not displace humans from colonial narratives (505). In particular, the historical development and contemporary practice of the sugar industry rest upon colonial methods of expansion, standardization, and commodification. (Tsing 510-515) The drive to grow and profit from sugar serves to explain the long arc of capitalist territorial expansion, slave and “free” labor, and deforestation, which in turn influences contemporary demand and practice for cheap food. (Patel and Moore 14-18, 32-34) Indeed, Manning (2004) suggests that food is both an indicator and tool of colonialism. Colonization stabilized episodic famines in Europe (41) where “Agriculture was not so much about food as it was about the accumulation of wealth. It benefited some humans, and those people have been in charge ever since.” (38)

Exemplifying this focus on things instead of people, Lowe demonstrates that, “trades in tea, cottons, silks, and opium connect slave labor in the cotton fields of the U.S. South, the history of Asian textile design and production, and the role of the East India and China trades in the rise of British ‘free-trade’ imperialism.” (74) English tea drinking practice and culture is not contingent on the cultural behavior of humans in Great Britain, but rather the presence of “sugar from the West Indies, tea and china service imported from China, tables made of hardwoods from the West Indies, splendid dresses made from Indian cottons.” (82) What Lowe and the other scholarship makes clear is that an anthropocentric postcolonial perspective that privileges human identity and agency as the site of analysis obscures or subordinates material objects that are essential to understanding the onset and endurance of colonialism.


Speculating Future Postcolonialisms

Thinking about colonialism in a non-anthropocentric way becomes an access point for scholarship on biocolonialism, environmental racism, and speciesism. (Huggan and Tiffin 4-11) This perspective is but one way of rescuing the concepts of the subaltern, the native informant, and hybridity. Animals, in parallel to Spivak’s reading of the term, cannot speak or be heard. Individuals, or better yet animals themselves can, in turn, speak on behalf of non-human objects from their cultural perspective; we merely have to listen. Hybrid locations and cultures can be remapped to acknowledge the existence of non-human actants in these spaces. The slums of Kibera are probably spaces where Bhabha would find hybrid cultures and identities that have been informed by the British colonial experience, so why not the wildlife reserves and parks established by the British East Africa Protectorate? (Chongwa 39-40) These parks are undoubtedly cosmopolitan, home to a broader variety of species and identities that can be found even in the capitalist-core cities of London or New York. Kenyan national parks undoubtedly reflect a legacy of colonialism, including the exercise of colonial power, intervenes in the culture of those who inhabit those spaces if culture is ordinary, learned and lived experiences. (Williams 4-5) There are problems with this line of reasoning for sure, cultural appropriation perhaps the most prominent one, yet questions of who has the authorial power to speak on behalf of something else don’t merely emerge when we are analyzing the colonization of non-humans; the critique is part and parcel to cultural studies as a whole. Instead, decentering humans from colonial studies means acknowledging that the colonization of non-humans occurs in similar and different ways than those of us who work in academia generally recognize.

An edge of contemporary ecocriticism, postcolonial environmental theory synthesizes various scholarly approaches towards understanding the historical, present, and future arc of colonial projects. A core area of study within postcolonial environmental theory addresses the origins and nature of “cenes:” Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Themocene, Chthulucene, and more.  (Balkan 2017) From these standpoints, colonialism is not an exclusive function of human agency at the species level, as climatic and extinction structures work with a variety of entities to further colonial practices in combined and uneven ways. Taking the analytical logic of structures and agents further, Bennett and fellow vibrant materialists understand social action and agency by exploring the assemblages of actants in particular contexts; for example, North American power grids. (24-28) In other words, one can apprehend colonial conditions by acknowledging the agency and influence of all types of objects beyond anthropocentric limits. The point here is that inquiry into colonialism need not be, nor never should it ever have been, exclusively about humans. Some of the more intriguing work in this area lies at the forefront of energy humanities (Imre and Boyer) and petroculture studies, (Wilson, Carlson, and Szeman) whereby access to or in pursuit of fossil fuels enable colonial action and where energy itself exerts agency and structures relationships between all varieties of objects. Thus colonialism remains alive and well, even if humans claim to have abandoned colonialism because the concomitant exploitation of colonization occurs in spaces with and without humans.

Landscapes, flora, and fauna are curiously absent from foundational postcolonial analysis, and so too are markets, machines, and commodities, the engines of capitalist colonial projects. For example, French imperial control over Martinique, where both Cesaire and Fanon hail from, and Tunisia, Memmi’s country of origin, was not exclusively about the power and exploitation of the local population. Ports in Forte-de-France and Tunis and the shipping lanes which connected these colonial entities to the broader Francophone imperial system and modern capitalist world system undoubtedly impacted the environs that Cesaire, Fanon, and Memmi were so passionate about liberating. Rail lines from Tunis stretch outward toward mines and oil fields across northern Africa, linking further on to the extraction of timber, rubber, and ivory from the heart of the continent. Territory, homes, waterways, mammals, libraries, communication networks; all were occupied and exploited by French colonial capitalism. Yes, the colonial condition for the locals in Martinique and Tunisia were deplorable, but Cesaire’s, Fanon’s, and Memmi’s reading of and solution to the colonial situation is suspiciously one-sided. Where is the critique of the French imperial system’s brutalization of the pastoral? Where is the precise, detailed accounting of how the expansion of capitalism from the French core to the Caribbean and North African periphery exploited all aspects of life, not just the local population of bipedal hominids? Flipping the script slightly, is it merely the colonial mindset, and not the literal tools of the trade in the form of flotilla and firearms, which implicate themselves in the colonization of people, places, and everything else in the space? The imposition of the Francophone educational system did not merely colonize locals’ school experiences or knowledge structures; books, buildings, and budgets all became ripe for the picking at the hands of French imperialists. Cesaire, Fanon, and Memmi are rather silent on these issues, and yet exploitation of all things –not merely humans –is at the heart of the colonial project. By failing to fully develop a critique of colonialism beyond the exploitation of humans, thereby privileging one type of object over another, these thinkers set the stage for an anthropocentric reading of postcolonial thought which inevitably comes to misread the proliferation and durability of colonialism to the present day. Our task is not to discard the aforementioned work, but to recognize the inherent anthropocentrism of their work as an intellectual limit to overcome in the present and future critique of colonial practices.

There are other, perhaps more worthy assessments of postcolonial thinking than those I have outlined here. The endurance of settler colonialism on indigenous spaces life is probably the most heartbreaking critique of the limits of postcolonial intellectual project, especially as the rise of postcolonial thought in the 1990s was wrapped up in thinking about emerging identities and nationalism at the end of the Cold War and not about the continued occupation and oppression of indigenous peoples under Empire. The problem of nationalism, the Janus-face of postcolonial thought, also works to limit the utility of contemporary postcolonial thinking, as national liberation ascribes both a vector for overturning European colonialism, but also a means of sustaining colonialism and oppression through Empire, settler colonialism, or blatant imperial capitalism. The problem of anthropocentric thinking may be a nuanced and somewhat troubling issue to work through. After all, postcolonial thought roots itself in the humanities and the social sciences where we primarily, if not exclusively, study human affairs. As I have hopefully argued to some reasonable extent, human-centric thinking has neither resolved the problems of colonialism nor provided entirely accurate accounts of the phenomena in the first place. Anthropocentrism blinds our analytical view to see difficulties in purely human terms, both in their causes and their effects. Decentering, and not discarding humans, from our analysis of exploitation opens up more comprehensive ways of reading the dilemmas that are before us. None of this is easy, either intellectually or practically. Yet if humanities scholars and teachers are genuinely interested in addressing issues of ethics and justice, disrupting locations and the exercise of power and exploitation, then our first acts should be to selflessly acknowledge that thinking exclusively about humans –from our philosophical, economic, and political models to our analyses and critiques of current and future conditions –may in itself be the problem. Put another way: if one is genuinely interested in overturning the colonial project, then it is worth naming all of how such exploitation exists and work, even in small ways, to end imperial interventions into life. We must do better than we have done so far.





Works Cited


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Manning, Richard. “The Oil We Eat: Following the Food Chain Back to Iraq,” Harper’s Magazine, January/February 2004, 32-45. Print.

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No Place Like Home: Magical Ruralism as Cultural Discourse


The iconic film The Wizard of Oz (1939) begins with Dorothy (Judy Garland) desperately wanting to escape from Kansas.  At its core, The Wizard of Oz is a film about a magical journey from rural Kansas to the gleaming Emerald City.  This basic narrative of a young person leaving his or her rural home for the intoxicating promise of urban opportunity underlies many works from the canon of modern American literature.  Since the colonial era, negotiations of rural and urban, country and city, have been central to the shaping of American nationalism.  In the United States, perceptions of countryside influenced settlement and colonization, Jeffersonian ideology, visions of the frontier, agrarian fantasies, the aftermath of the Dust Bowl, and a host of other historical developments and attitudes.  Essentially, American history reflects shifting attitudes about rural cultures and landscapes with contemporary rural culture struggling, in a sense, to define itself against urban-oriented cultural paradigms.

Characters like Dorothy Gale are commonplace in modern American literature.  During the first half of the twentieth century, canonical, widely known literary works by Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, and others portrayed rural American life as essentially alienated from modernity.  Theodore Dreiser’s Carrie Meeber and Sinclair Lewis’s Carol Kennicott yearned to escape small town life in favor of the opportunities and excitement promised by the city. Jay Gatsby, arguably one of the most famous characters in all of American literature, sheds his Minnesota identity to remake himself into a sophisticated, wealthy Easterner.  Gatsby’s lavish mansion is Oz-like in its colorful extravagance and absurdity; he is so obsessed with the pursuit of urban excess that his fantasies ultimately destroy him.  Gatsby’s dream hinges on a complete departure from his rural origins—to win Daisy, he must become a wealthy, sophisticated Easterner.  This narrative of departure works as a kind of twentieth century rural “grand narrative” in that canonical works of American literature legitimized and codified the inferiority of rural culture within the broader context of modernity.  This rural grand narrative hinged on presenting rural life as stifling, boring, and lacking in opportunities.

The question of how rural culture has responded to this grand narrative throughout the late twentieth century and beyond requires further scholarly attention.  While various theories of postmodernism address what Frederic Jameson calls the “cultural logic of late capitalism,” work on rural narratives and culture from the postmodern era is sparse.  In Knowing Your Place: Rural Identity and Cultural Hierarchy (1997), Barbara Ching and Gerald W. Creed argue that postmodern scholarship and society as a whole tend to marginalize rural culture and suggest that “the urban-identified can confidently assume the cultural value of their situation while the rural-identified must struggle to gain recognition” (4).  This “struggle to gain recognition” is a defining feature of rural cultural discourse from the postmodern era and beyond.  In his recent study of Midwestern regionalism, From Warm Center to Ragged Edge (2017), Jon K. Lauck describes how dominant culture in the twentieth century turned away from once-celebrated rural regionalisms: “For the past half century, the prevailing forces and trends in high and popular culture and in the American academy have not been conducive to the study of midwestern history and have cut against a focus on the Midwest as a particular region” (2).  I argue that re-enchantment emerges as the means through which rural culture has attempted to “gain recognition.” A study of postmodern rural narratives and cultural artifacts reveals historical re-conceptualization wherein marginalization of rural space is acknowledged and transformed through magical rural imagery. The conditions of multinational capitalism form the driving force behind the marginalization of rural culture, and postmodern rural narratives respond to these conditions through re-enchantment of pastoral images, forms, or other rural symbols.  I call the cultural discourse that emerges magical ruralism.  In the discussion that follows, I describe how place has functioned in pastoral and modern rural narratives as a way to show how postmodern rural literature and culture more generally can be read as responding to the conditions of postmodernity through re-enchantment of mythical, pastoral, or modern (often industrial) forms.  I trace how postmodern texts by Tim O’Brien, Stephen King, Louise Erdrich, E. Annie Proulx and others exemplify the use of magical ruralism in literature.  Various cultural artifacts, including roadside monuments, are surveyed as a way to show how magical ruralism is a discourse evident in both literature and culture more broadly.


Rural Grand Narratives

Because magical ruralism surveys a broad range of examples not limited to literature, a broad definition of “rural” informs my analysis. The Oxford English Dictionary (2011) provides multiple definitions of “rural,” including “as living in the country as opposed to the town or city” and “of, relating to, or characteristic of peasants or country people; simple, unpolished; rustic.” Definitions of “rural” consistently characterize “rural” as alienated from sophistication. As described above, many grand, canonical narratives of the early twentieth century reinforce the idea that one must abandon rural life in order to achieve modernity and sophistication. In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), Jean-Franҫois Lyotard argues that postmodernism involves the collapse or revising of the grand narrative. Attempting to understand the tension between rural and urban culture is a kind of grand narrative in itself.  As Raymond Williams explains in The Country and the City (1973):

On the country has gathered the idea of a natural way of life: of peace, innocence, and simple virtue.  One the city has gathered the idea of an achieved centre: of learning, communication, light.  Powerful hostile associations have also developed: on the city as a place of noise, worldliness, and ambition; on the country as a place of backwardness, ignorance, limitation. A contrast between country and city, as fundamental ways of life, reaches back into classical times. (1)

The qualities Williams assigns to the country—peace, innocence, and simplicity—are familiar elements of what might be termed the primary rural narrative form: the pastoral.  According to Terry Gifford, a pastoral narrative features a rural or country setting, often juxtaposed in some way with an urban setting (2).  A traditional pastoral work represents the rural country environment as idyllic, simple, and desirable.  Of course, the pastoral narrative is familiar when viewed in the context of the grand narrative underlying American history and nationalism.  In The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1964), Leo Marx explains that rural landscape figured prominently in how early America was imagined as a garden of unlimited potential:

Beginning in Jefferson’s time, the cardinal image of American aspirations was a rural landscape, a well-ordered green garden magnified to continental size. Although it probably shows a farmhouse or a neat white village, the scene usually is dominated by natural objects: in the foreground a pasture, a twisting brook with cattle grazing nearby,     then a clump of elms on a rise in the middle distance and beyond that, way off on the   western horizon, a line of dark hills.  This is the countryside of the old Republic, a chaste, uncomplicated land of rural virtue. (141)

As Marx documents, land was a crucial factor in how the early American republic defined itself against Europe.  Fascination with “unsettled,” remote landscapes spurred westward expansion as individuals searched for arable land, gold, or other early symbols of the American Dream.  Rural life occupied a prominent position in the cultural hierarchy of the early American republic as evidenced by its role in both the formation of a national mythology and in its ability to inspire the general population.
At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Frederick Jackson Turner famously declared the closing of the American frontier.  This is a crucial moment in that Jackson’s speech symbolically suggests that the promises of happiness and riches linked to the pastoral and frontier myths are no longer accessible.  Modernity and modern literature would only confirm this, and a number of fundamental examples of the modern American novel can also be read as rural grand narratives.  In his book The Midwestern Ascendancy in American Writing (1992), Ron Weber notes that many seminal works of modern American fiction were penned by Midwestern authors and made use of Midwestern settings as microcosms of “American life.”  Weber points out that the pinnacle of this “Midwestern ascendancy” was the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Minnesotan Sinclair Lewis in 1930.  In the canonical texts that Weber addresses in his study, including Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), Lewis’s Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), and Arrowsmith (1925) and others, the Midwest is portrayed as “cut off” from civilization and as hopelessly conformist.  The Great Gatsby suggests that Gatsby’s dream is of a kind of sophistication not available in Jay Gatz’s Midwestern home.  Similarly, in Winesburg, Ohio, George Willard as author and artist must flee Winesburg—a town portrayed by Anderson as a place where dreamers turn into “grotesques.”  In L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), which is especially important to the forthcoming discussion of magical ruralism, Kansas is described as a colorless, exhausted world.  Like the urban areas in The Great Gatsby and Winesburg, Ohio, the Emerald City appears as a place where dreams supposedly come true and wherein the “drab” qualities of small town Midwestern life might be countered.
These rural grand narratives provide context for how rural space has assumed a marginalized, inferior position in the postmodern cultural hierarchy.  As foundational examples of canonical texts, these novels also position marginalization of rural space and culture as a central narrative within the field of literary studies.  As Max Weber argues in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), the modern condition is one of disenchantment.  The canonical modern narratives discussed above present rural landscapes and communities as disenchanted and lacking in sophistication.  Magical ruralist texts use re-enchantment as a strategy for countering this cultural marginalization.  Ching and Creed identify a “radical embracing of that marginality by many people in order to contest the late twentieth century’s hegemonic urbanity and it associated socio-political structures” (5).  Magical ruralism surfaces as the cultural discourse where this “embracing of marginality” takes shape, with the supposedly boring and ordinary elements of rural life transformed into something spectacular.


Magical Ruralism
Importantly, a major figure in postmodern literature has pointed to a famous rural narrative as a significant factor in his development as a writer.  In his 1992 essay “Out of Kansas,” Salman Rushdie describes the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz as the text that inspired him to write.  The similarities between the film and Rushdie’s use of magical realism are obvious, and Rushdie acknowledges the prominent green hues in the movie as a source for the “green and black” dreams of Saleem Sinai, narrator of Rushdie’s 1980 novel Midnight’s Children (17).  The links between magical realism and postmodern rural literature extend beyond Rushdie’s essay.  In her excellent discussion of the elements of magical realism, Wendy B. Faris writes that “magical realism has tended to concentrate on rural settings and to rely on rural inspiration—almost a postmodern pastoralism” (Zamora and Faris 182).  In both well-known magical realist narratives and in postmodern rural narratives, rural or “village” life is often threatened by the forces of late capitalism.  Magic and fantasy emerge as means through which characters manage the anxiety associated with existing in such an environment.
Both magical realism and magical ruralism are discourses of marginalization, but to equate magical realism and magical ruralism would be to overlook the significant differences that emerge when tracing the sources of marginalization.  Whereas the forces of capitalism have contributed to marginalization and displacement of indigenous populations and villages worldwide, colonialism and its legacy play a significant role in how magical ruralism and magical realism differ.  In suggesting that both magical realism and magical ruralism are discourses of marginalization, I am not suggesting that the sources or effects of marginalization are equal.  In his article “Magic Realism as Postcolonial Discourse” (1995), Stephen Slemon describes magical realism as a postcolonial discourse historically associated with the Third World (Zamora and Faris 408).  Slemon points out how overuse of “magical realism” can prove problematic: “the concept of magical realism itself threatens to become a monumentalizing category for literary practice and to offer centralizing genre systems a single locus upon which the massive problem of difference in literary expression can be managed into recognizable meaning in one swift pass” (Zamora and Faris 409).  Magical ruralism offers an alternative lens, related to magical realism, through which cultural responses to the marginalization of postmodern rural space and culture can be approached.  Magical ruralism differs from magical realism in that magical ruralist texts enchant or re-enchant decidedly rural forms and materials, both natural and unnatural.  Like pastoralism, these rural “raw materials” are largely Western, often secular forms and concepts.  As with many magical realist texts, ordinary forms and materials assume magical or supernatural powers in the magical ruralist text.  In her article “Scheherazade’s Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction,” Faris explains that “magical realism combines realism and the fantastic in such a way that magical elements grow organically out of the reality portrayed” (164).  Magical ruralist texts tend to draw from a more recent past than magical realist texts; although this is not true of all magical ruralist texts, many of the examples I survey below reveal a re-enchantment of machinery, commercial imagery, or other post-industrial material.  Magical realist texts often make use of a more distant, pre-industrial past, including “non-Western cultural systems that privilege mystery over empiricism, empathy over technology, tradition over innovation” (Zamora and Faris 3).

Magical ruralist literature typically reveals a central anxiety concerning rural life and/or rural landscapes.  Re-enchantment of rural raw materials functions as a response to that anxiety.  In Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods (1994) and in Stephen King’s story “Children of the Corn” (1977), rural raw materials are re-enchanted in a way that both re-conceptualizes history and manages anxieties concerning rural space.  In both texts, enchantment is linked to commodification, in the sense that tourism plays an important role in both narratives.  In In the Lake of the Woods, the Lake of the Woods in Northern Minnesota—a definitely “remote” location—is presented as a locus of subjectivity, mystery, and supernatural power linked to re-enchanting of rural Midwestern landscapes.  “Magic” works in the novel as a depictive re-conceptualizing of the dominant, popular constructions of remote Midwestern space as empty and vacuous—in the novel, remote space as empty and vacuous is aligned with rural space as landscape of spectacle, which is in turn related to the hyper-violent nature of postmodern society.  Importantly, the lake is also linked to protagonist John Wade’s apparently “magical powers”—Wade, a Vietnam veteran and probable PTSD victim—is nicknamed “Sorcerer,” and the novel details his ability to make people disappear.  The subsequent disappearance of Wade’s wife conjures ghostly imagery and references, calling to mind relevant moments in Winesburg, Ohio as George Willard looks upon the deserted fairgrounds in “Sophistication” and notes that “there are ghosts all around,” and reminiscent of the ghostly voices that permeate Masters’s Spoon River Anthology.  Enacting a pastoral journey to the lake forces Wade and his wife into a confrontation with anxiety that eventually culminates in an unsolvable mystery potentially fueled  by rural magic.

In King’s “Children of the Corn,” two Eastern tourists, Burt and Vicky, are driving through Nebraska on their way to California.  The story makes clear that Burt and Vicky are anxious about their encounter with rural landscapes—they point out how “boring” and monotonous the surroundings are, for example.  Importantly, the story complicates whether or not the couple’s eventually horrific discoveries and experiences are even real, as Burt at one point wonders whether he might be dreaming (King 267).  Quantic and Hafen describe the Great Plains as a “state of mind” (xxi) which informs the dreamlike quality of Burt and Vicky’s confrontation with rural space.  Just as the ghost-like baseball players in Phil Alden Robinson’s film Field of Dreams (1989) seem to originate in the corn field, so too do the beings that torment Burt and Vicky. Like O’Brien’s novel, the story revolves around a confrontation with remote space; unlike the modern rural grand narratives discussed earlier, In the Lake of the Woods and “The Children of the Corn” assign magical properties to rural space.  Burt notices that the corn is “perfect” and “impossibly” free from weeds.  The corn also takes on a supernatural, intoxicating quality, as Burt “became aware of the corn fragrance in his nose now, all around him.  The wind through the tops of the plants made a sound like voices.  Soothing.  Whatever had been done in the name of this corn, it was now his protector” (King 269).  Upon getting lost in the cornfield, Burt oscillates between feelings of comfort and feelings of intense fear, with the sacred and the profane coalescing in the image of a crucifix made from corn husks, which Burt describes as “fabulous art” and which Vicky describes as “hideous.”  Again, the marginalized status of the Midwest is re-conceptualized.  King presents the rural Midwest as a landscape of spectacle and as a re-enchanted, postmodern Arcadia of sorts where rural raw materials assume magical properties.
This re-enchanted Arcadia is also populated by species of images, to borrow garden terminology, that are both natural and mechanistic.  As Leo Marx points out, the “garden myth” is bound up in the idea that gardening represents a kind of ideal fusion between nature and machinery.  This is perhaps best symbolized in the work of Willa Cather and in the famous image of the shadow of the plow in the setting sun that Jim Burden describes in My Ántonia.  Relatedly, Marx explains that Ralph Waldo Emerson saw “genius” as stemming from uniting the nature and the machine.  Texts invested in magical ruralist discourse tend to engage with these ideas and to revise related images through postmodern strategies of historical re-conceptualization (Hutcheon) and pastiche.  In the postmodern world the “rural,” like the notion of “wilderness,” is largely illusory or simulated, and it is difficult to posit that an ideal harmony between nature and machine can truly exist when nature has grown increasingly difficult to separate from “the machine.”  In the work of E. Annie Proulx and Louise Erdrich, Cather’s image of the plow in the setting sun is revised and re-worked in ways that evidence the inseparable nature of “the rural” and “the machine” within the postmodern world but that also attempt to expose the unique, magical nature of the rural machine.

In Erdrich’s The Beet Queen, Karl describes an air seeder as “a miracle” (101); the novel also presents the local beet refinery as “Oz.”  Importantly, both the air seeder and the beet refinery are machines in the garden; neither is a natural form, yet both are clearly symbolic of rural culture.  The novel engages with the difficult place of the rural within the postmodern world, as the butcher shop where Mary Adare works and which unites all of the characters in the novel is threatened by an increasingly apparent desire for “one stop shopping” and the “big box store.”  Although Quantic reads the novel as evidencing the “unbearable” nature of the “closed garden” (98-99), I argue that Erdrich’s work is actually invested in a kind of re-enchantment of the uniquely rural materials that do remain and that do serve as important ways in which rural Midwesterners understand their own identities, even when these objects—air seeders and local beet refineries—are related to machinery.
A similar strategy of historical re-conceptualization and recycling of familiar “garden” images is used by E. Annie Proulx in her collections Close Range: Wyoming Stories (1999) and Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 (2004), wherein remote Wyoming landscapes are juxtaposed with often strange, fantastic imagery that is often related to a revision of “machine in the garden” imagery.  In her essay “Making Space: A Notebook,” Sandra Lim describes remote Wyoming landscapes as a way to reflect on the relationships between time, place, and poetry.  Lim writes, “To arrive at any one place in a poem is like witnessing the poet come to his or her own senses: you see a vivid and reasonable hallucination before you” (Lessley and Snider 77).  This “reasonable hallucination” evokes the blending of rural reality and magic typical of magical ruralism and illuminates this blending as it surfaces in Proulx’s stories.   In “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World,” Aladdin, a rancher, is given a magical moniker as a result of a green-shaded lamp arriving in the mail from Sears on the day of his birth.  In this way, the rural rancher is a product of both a kind of frontier landscape but also of a capitalistic commodity.  The symbolic space where these two factors meet overlaps with the space of enchantment.  The story also details Aladdin’s sister Ottaline’s conversations with a run-down John Deere tractor.  Both Ottaline and the tractor are presented in the story as similarly “ugly,” marginalized, and “broken”; the voice of the talking John Deere, not dissimilar from the voice in Field of Dreams, essentially voices the concerns of both the tractor and Ottaline as outsiders.  Giving the tractor a voice, although the story later reveals that the tractor cannot actually talk, works as a kind of re-enchantment of a symbolically “outdated” rural machine.  At one point in the story, Ottaline asks the tractor, “Are you like an enchanted thing? A damn story where some girl lets a warty toad sleep in her shoe and in the mornin the toad’s a good-lookin dude makin omelettes?” (138). Ottaline demonstrates a clear awareness of herself within a broader narrative.  The quotation also draws on fairy tale imagery and situates Ottaline as a character within her own fairy tale.
Proulx employs magical ruralist strategies in blending re-enchantment and postmodern narrative technique.  In her stories “A Lonely Coast” and “The Trickle-Down Effect,” Proulx engages in a kind of pastiche of Cather’s plow image that, I argue, inverts and re-enchants that image that, on its own, is no longer a viable ideal in the postmodern world.  “A Lonely Coast” begins with a question to the reader as to whether or not he or she has ever seen a burning house off in the distance while driving at night on a remote highway.  “A Lonely Coast” goes on to describe the spectacular, unique qualities of that image, emphasizing that it is unique to the type of landscape found only in Wyoming or in similarly remote areas:

You ever see a house burning up in the night, way to hell and gone out there on the plains? Nothing but blackness and your headlights cutting a little wedge into it, could be the middle of the ocean for all you can see.  And in that big dark a crown of flame the size of your thumbnail trembles.  You’ll drive for an hour seeing it until it burns out or you do, until you pull off the road to close your eyes or to look up at the sky punched with bullet holes, see them trying for the stairs, but mostly you don’t give a damn.  They are too far away, like everything else.  (189)

“The Trickle-Down Effect” makes use of a similar image.  Deb Sipple is hauling a load of hay bales back to Wyoming, driving through the night and throwing cigarette butts out the window.  Unknown to him, the cigarette butts are actually landing in the hay, igniting the bed of his truck.  Proulx describes the image of Sipple piloting the rig back into town as “the closest thing to a meteor ever seen in Elk Tooth” (54).  These images can be defined as magical images.  At its most basic level, a “magic” entails a power or happening contrary to natural law or logic.  Additionally, the Oxford English Dictionary (2011) defines “magic” as “an inexplicable and remarkable influence producing surprising results; an enchanting or mystical quality; glamour, appeal,” and further as “the art of producing. . . apparently inexplicable phenomena; conjuring.”  Both images from Proulx characterize isolated rural landscapes as theater for spectacular phenomena; the burning house and ignited hay bales are extraordinary to the point of conjuring illusions of oceans and meteors.

I argue that both images represent a kind of re-working and re-enchantment of Cather’s plow in the sun image in that they depict fantastic, distinctly postmodern, distinctly rural juxtapositions of nature and machine.  Postmodern rural space is constructed through the discourse of magical ruralism not as a resurrection of the “real” pastoral garden or of the frontier, but as a re-enchanted, postmodern space of spectacle.  Indeed, part of the value of the work of Erdrich and Proulx, for scholars, is in how both authors’ narratives cast postmodern rural culture and space as inherently different and perhaps even strange in the presence of experiences and imagery that are not available in urban areas.

Giants on the Earth: Rural Landscapes of Spectacle

“If you build it, he will come.”  In the film Field of Dreams (1989), this message from an unknown, disembodied voice drives Kevin Costner’s character Ray Kinsella to plow under his corn to build a baseball field.  Kinsella is anxious about his rural life; originally from California, Kinsella has moved to his wife’s home state of Iowa to try his hand at farming.  Despite mockery from his fellow farmers, Kinsella follows the voice’s advice and watches in disbelief as dead former baseball players, including Kinsella’s father and Shoeless Joe Jackson, inexplicably emerge from the cornfields to play baseball on Kinsella’s “field of dreams.”  By the end of the film, the baseball field has become an impossible portal of sorts, where those who believe in its magic can travel through time and space.  However, the film ends with a clear message: the magical baseball field and the family farm can simultaneously survive only if the Kinsella family starts charging admission.  Young Karen Kinsella, the voice of a new generation, prophesizes that “people will come,” and the closing image of the film shows a long trail of car headlights piloting through the dark Iowa countryside toward the magical farm.

Implicitly, rural life can persist only if it is willing to re-cast itself as a landscape of magic and spectacle to be consumed by urban outsiders.  Many actual rural communities have embraced “re-enchantment” as a way to spur tourism and economic activity.  In her book The Colossus of Roads: Myth and Symbol Along the American Highway (1984), art historian Karal Ann Marling studies the cultural significance of various Midwestern roadside attractions, including the Paul Bunyan and Babe statue in Bemidji, Minnesota; the Jolly Green Giant statue in Blue Earth, Minnesota; and Pierre, the Talking Voyageur Statue in Two Harbors, Minnesota.  The Blue Earth Jolly Green Giant functions as a bricolage of mythical, modern, and postmodern.  As a completely green, towering figure, the Jolly Green Giant resembles various mythological characters, including the Green Man, the Green Knight of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and, to a contemporary visitor, perhaps even the Incredible Hulk.  Built in 1978, the Blue Earth Jolly Green Giant statue contributes to characterizations of the rural landscape as a landscape of spectacle. The statue re-conjures the magical, idyllic conditions of Fitzgerald’s “green breast of the new world”; this is evident on the company’s present-day website, which currently features a video of the Green Giant happily strolling through green rolling hills while a family eats Green Giant vegetables (GreenGiant.com).  Marling describes how the statue is also imagined by the community of Blue Earth, MN as a way for the community to assert its uniqueness to a largely urban audience: “Like the Paul Bunyan of 1937, the Jolly Green Giant of 1978 is a resonant mark of local presence, a magnet drawing the traveler off the highway, into the mythical realm of the American Midwest” (4).  This example shows how magical ruralist artifacts often paradoxically respond to the conditions of postmodernity while simultaneously appropriating capitalistic and/or commercial forms or agendas.  As a kind of secular “god” figure, the Blue Earth Green Giant is a pastoral image in that the character is literally made of green leaves.  However, the statue also glorifies a processed commercial product.  Unlike magical realist texts, which are often read as “writing against” or challenging hegemonic forces, the Blue Earth Green Giant seems to satisfy these forces through re-enchantment of pastoral and commercial imagery.  Countless other unusual monuments and roadside attractions exist throughout rural America and function as examples of magical ruralist discourse: like the baseball field in the film Field of Dreams, these texts attempt to characterize rural elsewhere as unique destinations worthy of interest.  Geographer Jeffrey Hopkins argues that the kind of “place promotion” evident in such roadside monuments functions as a “postmodern imperative” (66) for many rural communities.  Re-enchantment works as both an imaginative and commercialized narrative strategy.


Implications for Scholars and Beyond

Even as the digital age has closed the gap, to some extent, between rural and urban space, the differences between rural and urban culture continue to shape not only artistic and popular imaginations, but also the everyday lives of individuals throughout the United States.  As Minnesota-born Mark Wunderlich writes in his essay “Famous Mushroom,” “Growing up queer in the rural Midwest, I knew there was no life for me there; I would have to leave, and I would most likely have to move to a city.  In an urban place I could make friends, find a society in which I belonged, and live a life of culture and books and like-minded comradery” (Lessley and Snider 269).  A quick glance at the 2016 United States Presidential Election electoral map reveals distinct trends in the voting patterns of “red states” versus “blue states.”  The electoral map is a useful symbol for understanding the intriguing position of rural studies in the twenty-first century.  While general cultural, ideological, and socioeconomic differences certainly persist between rural and urban spaces, these differences are complex, shifting, and shaped by narrative and historical forces.  Negotiating the challenges that can come with growing up in a rural area with the natural affections and nostalgia linked to one’s sense of “home” is often both bewildering and transformational.  In turning to the rural, scholars will encounter a trove of examples for how rural culture has responded to its perception, both self-defined and externally defined, in the era of late capitalism and beyond.

Specifically, Midwestern and Great Plains literary studies continue to explore the concept of Midwestern regionalism.  Magical ruralism provides a theoretical pathway for new scholarship on rural cultural discourse.  In defining magical ruralism, I have chosen texts situated in rural Midwestern settings and published squarely within the postmodern era; the surveyed texts call into question how both individuals and communities make sense of postmodern rural existence.  In focusing on Midwestern and Great Plains texts, I hope to advance discussions of the nature of Midwestern and Great Plains regional literatures in the era of late capitalism and beyond.  While situating magical ruralism within the context of rural American literature as a whole is beyond the scope of this article, the discourse is grounded in yet not confined to Midwestern and Great Plains literature.  Indeed, rural, agrarian landscapes and cultures exist throughout the world, and magical ruralism can provide a lens through which scholars might examine cultural responses to the conditions of postmodernity from various perspectives and regional contexts.
Magical ruralism is also relevant to broader discussions of urbanity, scholarship, and the management of human resources within the field of literary studies.  While rural states house some of the most prestigious English programs in the country, including the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, rural colleges and universities simultaneously struggle to attract and keep quality faculty who may not want to live in a remote location.  Scholars from rural states may feel pressured to leave their home regions for large and/or urban universities in other states, where both prestige and opportunity are more plentiful.  Ching and Creed explain, “In the West, few intellectuals have deep rural roots, and for those who do, education often severs these connections.  The traditional pedagogical agenda, with its emphasis on enlightenment through the liberal arts, has long been opposed to the supposed essence of rusticity—lack of cultural sophistication and a preference for practical know-how over erudition” (10).  The goal is not to generalize practitioners of education at the college and university level as hostile to rural concerns and citizens, but rather to point out the real implications, for our field and beyond, of the popular attitudes toward rural space and culture in the postmodern era and beyond.  For any scholar who has ever discounted a job due to its remote location, or for any rural student who has wondered why no courses in “local” literature appear in a curriculum, the question of how the academy shapes, contributes to, and historicizes rural culture is relevant.

Finally, magical ruralism is borne out in real economic and community development strategies.  As Hopkins demonstrates, “place promotion” has emerged as an economic strategy for many rural and remote communities.  In examples like the Blue Earth Green Giant, “Oz” has become an economic strategy intended to bring tourists to rural communities.  Karen Kinsella’s prediction that “people will come” reflects a strategy of survival for rural communities: magical ruralism is a theoretical lens for approaching rural literature, but also a broader cultural logic wherein magic and re-enchantment collide with and often attempt to counter historical forces.




Works Cited

Anderson, Sherwood.  Winesburg, Ohio.  1919.  New York: Penguin, 2005.

Baum, L. Frank.  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  1900.  Penguin, 2008.

Cather, Willa.  My Ántonia.  1918.  Mariner, 1995.

Ching, Barbara, and Gerald W. Creed, eds.  Knowing Your Place: Rural Identity and Cultural Hierarchy.  Routledge, 1997.

Dreiser, Theodore.  Sister Carrie. 1900.  Norton, 1994.

Erdrich, Louise.  The Beet Queen.  1986.  HarperCollins, 2006.

Faris, Wendy B.  “Scheherazade’s Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction.” Zamora and Faris 163-190.

Field of Dreams.  Dir. Phil Alden Robinson.  Perf. Kevin Costner, Ray Liotta, Amy Madigan, James Earl Jones.  Universal Pictures, 1989.  Film.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott.  The Great Gatsby.  1925.  Scribner, 2004.

Gifford, Terry.  Pastoral.  1999.  Routledge, 2010. GreenGiant.com. B&G Foods of North America, 2018, http://www.greengiant.com.

Hopkins, Jeffrey.  “Signs of the Post-Rural: Marketing Myths of a Symbolic Countryside.” Geografiska Annaler, vol. 80, no. 2, 1998, pp. 65-81.

Hutcheon, Linda.  A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction.  Routledge, 1988.

Jameson, Frederic.  Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.

Duke UP, 1990.

King, Stephen.  “The Children of the Corn.”  1977.  Night Shift.  Anchor Books,

  1. 390-433.  Nook.

Lauck, Jon K.  From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920-1965.  University of Iowa Press, 2017.

Lessley, Shara, and Bruce Snider, eds.  The Poem’s Country: Place & Poetic Practice. Pleiades Press, 2017.

Lewis, Sinclair.  Main Street.  1920.  Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003.

Lim, Sandra.  “Making Space: A Notebook.”  Lessley and Snider 75-79.

Lyotard, Jean-Franҫois.  The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.  1979. University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

“Magic.”  Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, 3rd ed., 2011.

Malmgren, Carl D.  “The Lie of the Land: Heartland Novels by Smiley and Kinsella.” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 45, no. 2, 1999, 432-56.

Marling, Karal Ann.  The Colossus of Roads: Myth and Symbol along the American Highway. 1984.  University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Marx, Leo.  The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. 1964.  Oxford UP, 1981.

Masters, Edgar Lee.  Spoon River Anthology.  1915.  Penguin, 2008.

O’Brien, Tim.  In the Lake of the Woods.  1994.  Penguin, 2006.

Proulx, E. Annie.  Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2.  Scribner, 2004.  Nook.

—.  Close Range: Wyoming Stories.  1999.  Scribner, 2003.

Quantic, Diane D., and P. Jane Hafen, eds.  A Great Plains Reader.  University of

Nebraska Press, 2003.

Quantic, Diana Dufva.  The Nature of the Place: A Study of Great Plains Fiction.

University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

“Rural.”  Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, 3rd ed., 2011.

Rushdie, Salman.  “Out of Kansas.”  1992.  Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992 2002.  Random House, 2002.

Slemon, Stephen.  “Magic Realism as Postcolonial Discourse.”  Zamora and Faris 407-26.

Weber, Max.  The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  1905.  Trans. Stephen Kalberg.  Oxford UP, 2010.

Weber, Ron.  The Midwestern Ascendancy in American Writing.  Indiana

UP, 1992.

Williams, Raymond.  The Country and the City.  Oxford UP, 1973.

Wunderlich, Mark.  “Famous Mushroom.”  Lessley and Snider 263-69.

Zamora, Lois Parkinson, and Wendy B. Faris, eds.  Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community.  Duke UP, 1995.

America’s Drug Policies: What Works, What Doesn’t


Our current policy mix is not working the way we want it to. The ease with which drugs can be obtained, the price, the number of people using drugs, the violence on the border all show that. We need to rethink our responses to the health effects, the economic impacts, [sic] the effect on crime. We need to rethink our approach to the supply and demand of drugs (U.S. Senator, James Webb, 2008).

For over a century, America’s drug policy has been from a law enforcement perspective.  This approach, has led to a circle of violence across America, particularly in the inner cities.  From a policy stand point; the enforcement centric approach has not worked.  It produced some unintended consequences.  By defining the mission as a war on drugs, the psychology follows that we treat every drug incidence as a war.  In wars, there are casualties.  Cash strapped cities, drug victims needing help, and over policed minorities are the unintended casualties of the war.

War involves weapons, force, killings, and enemies.  War involves an us vs. them approach.  This is hardly beneficial or effective because criminal elements tend to adapt.  As a result, policing adapts by escalating the “war.”  Since our ability to end all drug abuse or supply is unlikely, there seems to be no clear end in sight for the drug war.  Worse still, a chunk of the critical dollar is channeled toward prosecuting the drug war, as opposed to increasing drug education, treatment, and rehabilitation programs.

Historically, drug enforcement has tilted toward minority citizens, since the 1870s anti-opium war, which was largely a race-centric policy, specifically targeting Chinese immigrants.  The various drug law enforcement regimes have predominantly targeted minorities disproportionately for drug enforcement and felony sentencing.  The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 was targeted at what was then referred to as the cocainized blacks (Sterling, 2001).  Likewise, the subsequent anti-marijuana policies around the same time in the West were directed at the immigrant communities of Mexican descent (2001).  As a result, minorities have been disproportionately targeted for drug enforcement and felony sentencing.  These policy proposals will seek to address these problems.

The First World War ended in 1914, and the Second war ended in 1945. War ultimately ends, and combatants eventually retreat. When will the drug war end?  One issue that this policy proposal will address is the way the drug problem is being approached.  Defining the mission as a “war on drugs” promotes violence between the law enforcement community, the peddlers, and the user community. What policy proposals might we put in place to address the circle of violence on America’s streets as a result of the war?  If there is a war going on, will a truce be apt?

This policy paper will recommend policy alternatives that will replace the old enforcement regimes with emphasis on treatment and decriminalization. The policies’ outcome will also be measured against their cost effectiveness or cost benefits.  Treatment and decriminalization as potential replacement policies will be analyzed.  A review of much of the issues associated with treatment and decriminalization will be discussed.  The problem will be defined, questions will be raised, and finally, various policy proposals will be made.


Key Terms: Definitions

Terms such as Drugs, War, and Minorities will surface in this Policy memo.  To avoid confusion, there is need to define them relative to this proposal since these terms and concepts sometimes have multiple connotations.   For example, since the term drug is interchangeable with medication (as in medicine), a distinction has to be made with regard to its usage in this policy memo.

Drugs.  For the purpose of this policy brief: “Illicit drugs are those that are illegal to make, sell, or use” (Mara et al, 2014).  Drugs refer to illicit drugs of abuse.  See Appendix for a breakdown of drugs according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

War.  For the purpose of this policy memo, war applies narrowly to: “Terrorism, coordinated riots, a high crime rate, brutal policing, or criminal predation” (MUELLER, 2009, p.299).  I define it as legal use of force or violence by the agents of the state against perceived criminal elements over a period of time (usually years).  For example, the war on drugs as lasted over 44 years since President Nixon launched it on June 17, 1971 (Drugwarfacts.org, 2007).

Minorities.  This policy brief views a minority as:  “A subordinate group whose members have significantly less control or power over their lives than members of a dominant or majority group” (Schaefer, 1979, p. 5-10).  In the United States, racial minority groups include Blacks, American Indian, Asian Americans, and Hawaiians.  Note: There is often systemic unequal treatment of these groups in the criminal justice system (Schaefer, 1979).


Theoretical framework and principles

  1. We must do away with ideologically driven drug policies. New drug policies must hinge on facts and evidence.  Policy makers must understand what works and what doesn’t?  Drug policy must be measured based on reduction of violence (harm reduction)—including law enforcement induced violence—treatment, and overall wellbeing of communities.
  2. Policies must de-emphasize labels by focusing on bringing drug users from the periphery of society into the core by ending marginalization and criminalization (i.e., decriminalization). This policy brief adopts the “patient not criminal” (i.e., treatment) approach.

Problem Definition

The United States spend more money as a percentage of its GDP on drug law enforcement in comparison with other enforcement:

Between 1981 and 2008, federal, state, and local governments are estimated to have spent at least $600 billion (adjusted for inflation) on drug interdiction and related law enforcement efforts; factoring in costs associated with treatment and rehabilitation, the overall total rises to around $800 billion.  If one were to also add in ‘invisible’ losses brought about by curtailed job opportunities and reduced workplace productivity, the true cost would be far higher.  (Chalk, 2011)

This policy brief will reveal that despite U.S.’s astronomical spending on the drug war, it has yielded little to no result in terms of reducing overall harm to society.  In fiscal year 2011, when Chalk conducted his study, U.S.’s national drug control budget (NDCB) was $24,365.4 (in billions).  By fiscal year 2015 drug enforcement costs ballooned to $26,336.7 (see Figure 1 for illustration).  In FY 2016, the President requested $27.6 billion to fund the “2015 National Drug Control Strategy (Strategy) effort to reduce drug use and its consequences in the United States” (Office of National Drug Control Policy [ONDCP], 2015)—an increase of $1.2 billion or 4.7% increase (2015).  The NDCB is also expected to increase beyond fiscal year 2016.


Figure 1: Drug Control Resources by Function; adapted from ONDCP, 2015.

Federal Drug Control Spending by Function

(Budget Authority in Millions of US Dollars. Source: ONDCP, February 2015)

Function FY 2014 Final FY 2015 Enacted FY 2016 Request
Treatment 9,481.8 10,267.8 10,960.5
Percent 36.9% 39.0% 39.8%
Prevention 1,316.9 1,306.2 1,381.9
Percent 5.1% 5.0% 5.0%
Domestic Law Enforcement 9,340.5 9,367.0 9,736.6
Percent 36.3% 35.6% 35.3%
Interdiction 3,948.5 3,805.0 3,880.3
Percent 15.3% 14.4% 14.1%
International 1,637.1 1,590.7 1,613.0
Percent 6.4% 6.0% 5.9%
Total $25,724.9 $26,336.7 $27,572.3


Clearly, based on the historical and future budgetary allocations and spending, the current policy of enforcement, incarceration, and prohibition has produced dismal success.  Common wisdom would suggest that drug control cost should be reducing yearly, but that has not been the case given the yearly budget increase.

Along with increased budgetary spending on the drug war, there is a social cost.  There has been an explosion in incarcerations as a result of the reliance on the law enforcement and prohibition model of drug control policy.  According to the report by Sabol et al (2007) of the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the U.S. is the leading nation in terms of the number of people serving time behind bars for various offenses (2007).  The U.S. is the global leader when it comes to the number of individuals imprisoned for drug offenses.

In addition, the same BJS report noted that there are two million incarcerated Americans in the federal, state, and local correctional facilities (Sabol et al, 2007).  One quarter of those serving time, are doing so for various drug offences.  According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2015), approximately 6.8 million Americans suffer from drug addiction.  Drug addictions continue to drive the increase in the number of incarcerated Americans serving time for various drug offenses.  The law enforcement and incarceration model is unsustainable and unaffordable in the long run because it diverts dwindling resources from other government—i.e., federal, state, and local—programs into prosecuting the drug war.


Racial disparity in incarceration

The findings of racial disparities in incarceration due to drug related offenses threaten to unravel America’s criminal justice system.  A foremost democratic and multi-ethnic nation like America should exhibit equity in its criminal justice system or risk long-term social and political chaos.   According to Carson (2015), in a BJS report, out of the approximately 208,000 individuals serving sentences for various drug offenses in 2013: “67,800 were non-Latino/Hispanic white (32.6%), 79,900 were non-Latino/Hispanic black (38.4%), 39,900 were Hispanic (19.2%), and the remainder were unaccounted for or not specified in the report” (Carson, 2015).  These findings fly in the face of the knowledge that minority Blacks make up 13.2% of the U.S. population, Hispanics, 17.4%, and Whites, 62.1% (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015).  A federal household survey in 1998 found that Whites make up 72% of illicit drug users, Blacks 15%, and Latino 10%, but 37% of arrests are Blacks and 58% of drug convictions are Blacks; Latinos making up 21% (SAMHSA, 2013)

From the available data cited above, it is clear that:

  • The law enforcement model (i.e., the drug war) and prohibition is costly, ineffective, and socially and fiscally unsustainable.
  • There is a healthcare crises because of the over reliance on the law enforcement model as against the treatment model.
  • Minorities have been disproportionately targeted for drug enforcement and felony sentencing.



This policy analysis utilizes a multi-strategy approach.  That is, a combination of rational (cost benefit analysis) and non-rational approach (normative approach based on the principle of equity).  This memo utilizes cost-benefit analysis giving the new era of budgetary and fiscal constraints (i.e., post great recession climate).  There has to be judicial use of limited resources.  Alternative strategies (i.e., decriminalization and treatment) to the current regime of prohibition and incarceration will be considered based on cost to benefit ratio.

Yes, numbers speak but reason must also prevail.  Aside from the fiscal portion of the analysis, this proposal adopts a normative strategy by addressing the question of: What is and what ought to be?  What is the right thing to do in the face of the inability of numbers (dollar) to solve the problem?


Issue analysis

The discussion within the country over the issue of drug policy reform is divisive among policy analysts, law enforcements practitioners, and lawmakers—at all levels of government.  There are those who advocate for doubling down on the existing policy regime by arguing for the allocation of more funding for law enforcement (U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration, 2015).

Overwhelmingly, the advocacy for the doubling down of the status quo is from the political right and law enforcement intelligentsia (Freiburger, 2014).  One argument that pro prohibition and criminalization employ is the “Flouting Federal Law” (FFL) argument (Stimson, 2010).   Proponents of the FFL argue that:  “Supremacy Clause of the Constitution of the United States, the Controlled Substances Act, is the supreme law of the land and cannot be superseded by state laws that purport to contradict or abrogate its terms” (2010, p. 7).  As such, the current marijuana legalizations in the states are illegal (2010).

There is also the health risk argument for the continuation of the current drug policy.  Proponents of the health risk (HR) argument point to scientific finding that “marijuana use during the teen years can permanently lower a person’s IQ and interfere with other aspects of functioning and well-being” (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2014).  On the other hand, a report of the national survey on drug use (between 1975-2013) revealed no concrete evidence on the effect of drug use (i.e., Cannabis) on adolescents (Johnston et al, 2013, p. 401).  However, as more states decriminalizes (e.g., marijuana), it is expected that adolescents’ use will increase (2013).  By and large, proponents of the HR argument asserts that marijuana (i.e., poster child for pro legalization and decriminalization arguments) is “addictive and that its use significantly impairs bodily and mental functions” (Stimson, 2010).

In addition to the health risk argument, there is the crime escalation (CE) argument for retaining the current policies.  The proponents of the CE argument assert that: “Even where decriminalized, marijuana trafficking remains a source of violence, crime, and social disintegration” (Stimson, 2010).  This policy memo argues that behind the CE arguments lies the silent “broken window theory” (BWT).  BWT is the notion that societies can prevent big crimes by “checking” small crime (in this case, possession of marijuana).

This policy memo does not discuss the argument for change because that is essentially what this whole memo is all about.  However, there is clear evidence that public opinion is moving away from the status quo towards decriminalization, treatment, and regulation.  It is appropriate to say that the public appears ready to call a truce and bring an end to the drug war.  According to a Pew Research Center (PRC) survey:

67% of Americans say that the government should focus more on providing treatment for those who use illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine.  Just 26% think the government’s focus should be on prosecuting users of such hard drugs. (PEW Research Center, 2014).


Policy Alternatives and Proposed Solutions

Recently, the stasis in policies is starting to show signs of movement.  Since 2012 when Colorado passed the law legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, a wave of anti-prohibition initiatives has been proposed at the state level.  States across America have flirted or weigh policy alternatives to current policies but there are still no agreements on what courses of action to take.  This policy memorandum shall examine alternatives to the status quo (i.e., criminalization and incarceration).  As noted above, studies show that the current enforcement regime is ineffective.

As a result, alternatives must consider fiscal sustainability and harm reduction.   Harm reduction principle is based on the notion that society can reduce the damages that drugs cause individuals, family, and societies in general by emphasizing treatment over incarceration (Ciment, 2006, p. 579).  Basing alternatives on fiscal sustainability and the principle of “harm reduction” will ensure that facts and evidence, not ideology, drives policymaking.  The alternatives to the policy problems are decriminalization, regulation, and treatment over incarceration.


Alternative 1:  Decriminalization.

The law enforcement or criminal justice model to the country’s drug epidemic lacks efficacy in preventing drug abuse.  It is unsustainably costly and counterproductive.  Criminalizing (i.e., prohibition) is costly because it drives up the cost (both monetary and nonmonetary) of the drug.  High drug cost, in turn, means that more suppliers will enter into the drug economy (law of demand and supply).

One effect of criminalizing the drug problem is the never ending circle of violence. According to the findings by Jensen (2000), decriminalization:

Would decrease violence associated with attempts to control illicit markets and as resolutions to disputes between buyers and sellers.  Moreover, because the perception of violence associated with the drug market can lead people who are not directly involved to be prepared for violent self-defense, there could be additional reductions in peripheral settings when disputes arise. (p.33)

Stopping prohibition would improve the “violence-scape” of the American society.

Additionally, a research conducted by Miron and Waldock (2010) revealed that:

Legalizing drugs would save roughly $41.3 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition.  Of these savings, $25.7 billion would accrue to state and local governments, while $15.6 billion would accrue to the federal government. Approximately $8.7 billion of the savings would result from legalization of marijuana and $32.6 billion from legalization of other drugs. (p. 1)

No doubt, the fiscal situation of the government (federal, state, local) would improve considerably.  Better still, the savings could be deployed into drug treatment and counseling.


Alternative 2:  Regulation.

Aside from decriminalizing drugs, drugs should be regulated like other pharmaceutical drugs.  Regulation (i.e., targeted at usage, sale, and age restriction) will bring the market out of the underground economy into the open regulated market.  Drugs in the open regulated market will eliminate the need for violence.  Regulation would also normalize drug price and reduce potential profit margin (Insulza, 2013).

In addition, regulation will potentially reduce overall demand “because legal sellers face a stronger incentive to obey such regulation than underground sellers, who are already hiding their actions from authorities” (Miron & Waldock, 2010, p. 53).  The underlying assumption is “that the marginal costs of evading tax and regulatory costs is zero for black market suppliers who are already conducting their activities in secret” (p.53).

Another important impact of regulation is the potential tax revenue accruals from taxation, which is estimated to be:

$46.7 billion annually, assuming legal drugs were taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco.  Approximately $8.7 billion of this revenue would result from legalization of marijuana and $38.0 billion from legalization of other drugs. (Miron and Waldock, 2010, p. 53)

Regulation will greatly reduce the vices associated with illicit drug trade and increase government revenues.  The revenue accruals from regulation can channeled into treatment and prevention programs.

Alternative 3: Treatment.

Between January 1994 and December, 2000 the government of Switzerland conducted a study of 1969 drug dependent individuals on treatment, and the result was a resounding success.  The result concluded that:

Heroin-assisted treatment programs are cost-beneficial to Swiss society, since patients often show great improvements in medical and social variables, including criminality.  In other words, the financial benefits from less criminality, less health-care use, and improvements in social variables are higher than the costs of treatment. (Rehm et al., 2001, p. 1420)

An analysis of the Swiss findings revealed that for treatment participant, criminal infractions fell by 60 percent (2001).  For participants, incomes generated from illegal sources also dropped from 69 to 10 (2001).  Use of illicit/ illegal drug declined.  Participants of the study also showed an improvement in gainful employment (i.e., from 14% to 32%) (2001). Overall health improved and incidence of HIV infection declined among the controlled groups—i.e., those who stayed in treatment program (2001, p. 1418).  There were no deaths from overdoses, and no prescribed drugs were diverted to the black market.  A cost-benefit analysis of the program found a net economic benefit of $30 per patient per day, mostly because of reduced criminal justice and health care costs (2001).

According to the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), treatment is more cost effective than incarceration (JPI, 2008, p. 3).  The result of the policy brief by JPI showed that for every increase in funding (+14.6% between 1995-2005) for drug treatment there is a corresponding decline in violent crime by twofold (-31.5% between 1995-2005) (p.3).  For every +14.6% increased spending, there is a +37.4% increase in drug treatment admission rate (p.3).  Clearly, the cost advantage is in favor of treatment because +14.6% expenditure yields -31.5% and +37.4% in violent crime reduction and drug treatment admission rates respectively (p. 3).  By and large, community based drug treatment is comparatively more beneficial and cost effective than incarceration (Aos, et al, 2007).  For every dollar spent on drug treatment in the community is estimated to return $18.52 in benefits to society” (JPI, 2008, p. 16).


Evaluating the alternatives using the decision matrix (DM).  The evaluation was conducted using six criteria (narrowed down) that were determined to be more socially beneficial.  Weights were assigned to these criteria based on the importance of policy outcomes of the alternatives.  The alternatives were scored based on their effectiveness at achieving policy outcomes (i.e., meet criteria).  The scores were then multiplied by weights to determine ratings per alternative, which were tallied to determine total rating.  The alternative with the highest total rating will be recommended (or at least will top the list of recommendations).

Decision Matrix
Criteria Weight Alternative 1: Decriminalization Alternative 2: Regulation Alternative 3: Treatment
Reduce violent crimes 5 3 X 5= 15 5 X 5= 25 5 X 5= 25
Reduce drug abuse 1 1 X 1= 1 1 X 1= 1 5 X 1= 5
Overall harm reduction 5 1 X 5= 5 3 X 5= 15 5 X 5=25
Reduce overall cost 5 5 X 5= 25 5 X 5= 25 5 X 5= 25
Reduce incarceration 3 3 X 3= 9 3 X 3= 15 5 X 3= 15
Wage gain 3 1 X 3= 3 5 X 3= 15 3 X 3= 9
Total Rating 58 96 104


Score:  5= fully satisfy                     Weight: 5= High Importance            (Score X Weight= Rating)

3= substantially satisfy                     3=Medium Importance

1= partly satisfy                                  1= Low Importance

CBA Matrix of Most Desired Alternative vs. Status Quo. (Source of data: Justice Policy Institute)

Benefits Status quo: Incarceration Desired Alternative
Reduction in the cost of drug-related crimes -$4.00 to -$7.00
Violent crime rate (California) -11.2%
Costs Status quo: Incarceration Desired Alternative
Addiction treatment programs +$1.00
Incarceration per year (per person) $24,655.00
Number Treatment facilities (California) +25.9%


Strategic Recommendations

The data analysis conducted in this policy brief show a preponderance of evidence (qualitative and quantitative, see DM and CBA) suggesting that the government should adopt Alternative 3, Treatment as an alternative to incarceration for low level non-violent drug offenders.  Alternative 3, is most effective at a) reducing violent crimes, b) reducing drug abuse, c) reducing overall harm to society, d) reducing overall cost, e) reducing incarceration, and f) improving wage gain among drug users.  Therefore, I recommend alternative 3 (i.e., treatment) for this committee.

Alternative 2, Regulation, is second most effective alternative but it can only work if alternative 1, Decriminalization, is adopted because it will eliminate the underground—criminal—economy for drugs.  The market for illicit drugs can then be regulated and taxed like any other commodity.  Behind this idea is the notion that demand drives supply.  As such, as long as there is a demand for drugs, criminal elements will continue to occupy the supply chain.  The concomitant effects are—as has been—violent crimes and overall harm to society (e.g., HIV and Hep-C infections).  Regulation and decriminalization will reduce and eliminate the need for violence as a means for guaranteeing procurements and supply.  Better still, regulation would buoy the tax revenue of the government and ameliorate the fiscal dilemma that it faces.

Therefore, in the order of effectiveness, this policy brief recommends the following as the alternatives to the current law enforcement approach:

  • Regulation
  • Decriminalization

It is my opinion that if these recommendations are adopted and implemented, the overall wellbeing of the society will improve.  There will be a significant harm reduction as a result of the illicit drug problem.




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Trends in Substance Abuse Treatment and Application for Sex Offender Treatment


Interest in sex offenders and their treatment has been the subject of study since 1886 (Schwartz & Cellini, 1995). Since then, many changes have been made in the treatment of sex offenders. Current treatment for sex offenders includes: cognitive behavioral therapy, relapse prevention, behavior modification, harm-reduction, and self-regulation. Specifics in the type and time-frames of treatment are based on the program or clinicians approach, risk level, and community support available (Bumby, 2006). While there are many treatment options available, it is difficult to determine the success rates of these treatment methods. One study determined that out of 130 previously conducted studies on sex offender treatment, only 25 of these studies met the minimum quality control guidelines established for scientifically reliable research (Brockett, 2012).

While sex offender treatment has been compared to other methods of treating mental health issues, there is limited research available comparing sex offender treatment to the “lifelong” treatment model utilized in treatment for substance abuse. Treatment experts have identified a combination of group psychotherapy and a twelve-step program as the “gold standard” in substance use treatment (Korshak & Delboy, 2013). Currently, twelve-step programs provide fellowship, resources, and support. This model was developed by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which originated in 1935. AA currently has two million members’ worldwide and 200,000 weekly meetings (Galanter, 2014).

According to the rational model, policy makers seek to gather and examine all relative data, and after analyzing all the alternatives, construct a plan.  This model is sometimes called “means-end” thinking, and is built on the premise that problems can be solved by examining and choosing the best method to reach a goal. Often the solution that is deemed the “best” is based on cost effectiveness and maximum total welfare (Stone, 2011).

On the surface, this model appears to be the most logical. However, humans are not rational decision makers. This phenomenon can be described as the “human problem”, which asserts that humans are never truly rational because of personal bias, emotions, and world views we are never able to make purely rational decisions (Clemons & McBeth, 2009). An example of policy making that is not considered “rational” are policies surrounding sex offenders and their treatment.

In an effort to construct a more rational approach to treating sex offenders, I will be comparing and contrasting the models of treatment used for sex offenders and substance users and offering alternatives to current treatment models used for sex offenders.


Policy Implications

There are currently 747,408 registered sex offenders in the United States (National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 2012). Since 1994, we have required that these offenders make their address, crime, photo, and physical description public record, and thus easily accessible to the general population.

The Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act of 1994 required that offenders of sex crimes against children be registered with law enforcement after release from confinement (Comartin, Kernsmith, & Miles, 2010). Subsequently, Megan’s Law of 1996 stipulated that this registry is made available to the public and included community notification policies. Other legislation, such as The Pam Lychner Sexual Offender Tracking and Identification Act (1996) and the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (2006), increased registration periods for sex offenders and made community notification rules more stringent (Wagner, 2011). By invading the privacy of a sex offender, the general population feels safe. However, studies have shown that allowing public access to the sex offender registry discourages compliance with the registry (Murphy, Fedoroff, & Martineau, 2009).

The passage of these, and other pieces of legislation, has had a negative impact on registered sex offenders. Increasingly, research has shown that sex offenders have been plagued by problematic housing restrictions (Levenson & Cotter, 2005), harassment by the communities in which they live (Pogrebin, 2004), lack of accessibility to forms of public assistance (Travis, 2002), and employment (Wagner, 2011). Additionally, research has illustrated that perceptions and attitudes towards sex offenders are overwhelmingly negative (Olver & Barlow, 2010; Elbogen, Patry, & Scalora, 2003), with one study finding that participants thought it “acceptable” for sex offenders to be physically injured (Wagner, 2011, p. 267).

Some have suggested that the media has assisted in reinforcing myths and stereotypes about sex offenders by over-generalizing them as sexual predators (Katz-Schiavone, Levenson, & Ackerman, 2008). Morrison (2007) aptly summarized that much of the public thinks that registered sex offenders are “incurable, resistant to treatment, and all but certain to offend again” (p. 24). Perhaps not surprisingly, studies examining the public perceptions of sex offenders have found that stereotypes are often not congruent with accurate information related to this population (Church, Wakeman, Miller, Clements & Sun, 2008). In an ideal world, the media would portray objectivity, truth, balance, and accuracy. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to show that the media can live up to these expectations. Regardless of the apparent bias of the media, the general public continues to regard news stories as the “political watchdogs” or “guardians of the public interest” (Schnell, 2001, p. 186).

In the case of Jacob Wetterling and Megan Kanka, there was significant media attention which led to increased emotions surrounding these events. These news outlets play a vital role in drawing attention to political issues and deciding what is “news” and who is “newsworthy.” This attention is a powerful weapon in creating public interest in an issue and can be crucial in generating momentum behind policy issues. Altogether, “some scholars find that the media exert substantial influence in deciding what problems will be given attention and what problems will be ignored” (Oswald, 1994).

Media coverage is also an essential part of bringing the issues to the attention of policy makers. Some problems, no matter how large, are unable to generate enough attention, while other crises events generate enough focus and public support to be placed on the policy agenda. Robinson (1999) calls this phenomenon the “CNN effect”. The basis of the “CNN effect” is that news outlets and media can shape policy. Some argue that political elites influence the media to report stories in a way that is favorable to the political agenda. Alternatively, media reports weigh heavily on emotional response and this emotional response impacts voters and lobbyist (Robinson, 1999), and due to the irrational nature of humans, these emotions play a large part in irrational policymaking.

While the majority of citizens desire to be active political participants, studies show that the majority of the population is not consistent with political participation and is often uninformed. Additionally, even when individuals attempt to be more engaged in the democratic practices like attending political events, voting or researching legislation, they are often swayed by the media. The issue of sexual violence is clearly and easily understood by the general public, and requires no expertise on the subject. This issue is also one that is closely followed by the mass public and, like many political issues, is highly emotionally fueled and fear driven. Also, this issue has the potential to polarize interest groups, who play a dynamic role in effecting policy changes. These specialized groups attempt to influence policy changes in two major ways: insider strategies, and outsider strategies. Insider strategies appeal to our emotions by providing personal stories and expert testimony to influence legislation. Alternatively, outsider strategies attempt to enlarge the scope of conflict and political discourse. Often, this includes media coverage of the issue which may or may not be accurate and can be easily manipulated by the media outlets (Schnell, 2001).

To influence true change, it is vital for policy makers to strive towards a common goal, and work together to provide solutions to current issues. One of the ways to encourage alliances among policy makers is to merge disagreements into a more common goal (Stone, 2011). Reducing the prevalence of sexual violence is a goal I believe we can all agree on. However, the approach to achieving this goal is the subject of much debate. On one end of the spectrum is the punitive approach to managing this problem, and at the other end we have the treatment and preventative approach. While both methodologies have their merits, it is important to assess their individual feasibility.


Background of Sex Offender Treatment

Interest in sex offenders first peaked in 1886 with the release of Psychopathia Sexualis: eine Klinisch-Forensische Studie (Sexual Psychopathy: A Clinical-Forensic Study). This work by Richard von Krafft-Ebing proposed consideration of the mental state of sex criminals in legal judgments of their crimes. During its time, it became the leading textual authority on sexual pathology. Works by Krafft-Ebing depicted all sex offenders as pedophiles and demented strangers. After this work, Freud (1893) and Schrenck-Notzing (1895) published pioneer works in the area on sexual abnormalities (Schwartz, & Cellini, 1995).

In the 1930’s through the 1960’s, the view of sexually deviant behavior was thought to be a product of a mental disorder and that the offenders were too “sick” to be punished. As a result, the sexual psychopath laws were created as alternatives to the criminal justice system. Sex offenders were involuntarily committed to state hospitals for as long as the individual was deemed a threat to society. The purpose was to cure sex offenders in a shorter time than they would serve in prisons, and to protect society against the sex offender population (American Psychiatric Association, 1999).

In 1954, California’s Atascadero State Hospital became the leader in inpatient sex offender treatment, with the primary treatment method being assertion training. The thought that sexual offenders have difficulty relating appropriately to adults led to regression techniques which were believed to meet their sexual needs. This treatment was conducted by psychiatric technicians rather than professionally trained clinicians and did not have a consistent treatment philosophy or protocol.

In 1981, Theodore Frank was released from Atascadero State Hospital. Within three months of his release Fank kidnapped and murdered a two-year-old girl who was playing in her front yard. This crime unleashed a public outcry against the inpatient treatment model for sex offenders, state legislature quickly declared the inpatient treatment model a failure and repealed the sexual psychopath laws. The view that sexual deviance was connected to mental disorder was discredited, and by 1990, all but twelve states had repealed their sexual psychopath laws (California Coalition on Sexual Offending, 2009; Schwartz, & Cellini, 1995).

The 1990’s marked a turn in the management of sex offenders as treatment programs were transferred from hospitals to prisons. Washington became the first state to recognize sex offender treatment as a mental health profession and to begin the certification of sex offender treatment providers. The Association for the Behavioral Treatment of Sexual Abusers, now known as the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, was formed and became the national organization for sex offender treatment providers around the world (Schwartz, & Cellini, 1995).

Recently treatment for sex offenders has attempted to implement a more holistic approach. These methods utilize a multitude of approaches including; cognitive behavioral therapy, relapse prevention, behavior modification, harm-reduction, and self-regulation (Bumby, 2006).


Background of Addictions Treatment

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), approximately 8.2% of Americans meet the criteria for a substance use disorder (Bergman, Kelly, Nargiso, & McKowen, 2016).

One of the most prevalent approaches to treating substance use disorders is the Cognitive Behavioral Model. This model encourages mastery over one’s environment and internal experience by identifying triggers and how this influences their internal experiences and external reactions. This method also teaches assertiveness skills, identification, and avoidance of high-risk people, places and situations, with ways to examine positive and negative consequences of continued substance use. Using this model, therapists and clients work together using problem solving and communication skills to identify, construct and implement a treatment intervention plan (Bergman, Kelly, Nargiso, & McKowen, 2016).

An example of a behaviorally based intervention is AA’s 12-step program. This intervention encourages belief in a Higher Power, recognition of helplessness, the importance of sustained motivation with social support, and complete abstinence. These philosophies have been deeply rooted in substance use treatment in the US. However, the 12-step program has been subjected to criticism when compared to other evidence-based practices due to the reliance on internal rather than external motivators.

Opposite the behavioral model is the method of medically assisted treatment. This model attests that substance use is an illness that is largely outside of individual control and should be treated in the same manner as other medical illnesses.  The US Food and Drug Administration has approved several medications to facilitate medically assisted treatment starting with the approval of disulfiram in 1951. Other approved medications include methadone, acamprosate, naltrexone, and buprenorphine. However, medically assisted treatment does not indicate isolation from therapeutic treatment methods. Ideally, medically assisted treatment would be utilized in conjunction with other psychosocial treatments. However, due to its reliance on chemicals, the medically assisted treatment method could be seen as adversative to behavioral and abstinence-based models (Edmond, Aletraris, Paino, & Roman, 2015).

While abstinence is a large proponent of many substance use treatments, lifelong abstinence is not necessary. In one study of alcoholism recovery, it was discovered that three years of abstinence increased the likelihood of a stable recovery. Another study suggested that five years of abstinence from any substance should be standard practice and that after five years of abstinence the risk of relapse is no longer greater than that of the general population. While the precise duration of abstinence from any substance is still a topic of debate, it has been indicated as an essential part of the recovery process (DuPont, 2015).

In the past, there was a significant stigma attached to treatment for substance abusers. More recently this stigma has been reduced, and access to affordable treatment services has increased. Contributions to these changes can be partially attributed to the implementation of multiple health care reforms within the federal, state and private sectors. Examples of this are, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (Parity Act). These pieces of legislation require health insurers to cover, and health care organizations to provide, prevention, screening, brief interventions and treatment for substance use disorders. Due to the expansion provided by the ACA, an estimated 1.6 million Americans with substance use disorders have gained insurance coverage in Medicaid expansion states (Abraham, et al, 2017).

Together, the Affordable Care Act and the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act assure that care for substance users has the comparable type, range and duration of services as other medical conditions. Additionally, this legislation mandates that financial burden for patients seeking substance use treatment be comparable to patients seeking treatment for an equivalent physical illness.  Illnesses considered “comparable” to addiction are acquired, chronic illnesses. Equally important, this legislation has mandated accessible care delivery such as treatment available within mainstream health care settings including primary care (DuPont, 2015). Implementation of the ACA and its expansion to substance use disorders is still new, and as such, we are unable to determine how it has impacted long-term changes in substance use treatment.


Comparison of Treatment Models

Substance use treatment and sex offender treatment have similar backgrounds in that they both were previously addressed in a punitive manner. More recently, access to substance use treatment has been addressed, and these treatment options have become more affordable with the passage of the ACA. While there are medically assisted options for both substance use and sex offender treatment, this option is deemed more acceptable for substance use than for sex offender treatment. Both models utilize group treatment, however, in the case of sex offender treatment these groups are time limited and follow a strict curriculum. Groups for substance treatment utilize an “open-ended” model which allows for participants to be in different stages of recovery, this allows for better peer accountability. Another significant difference in sex offender and substance use treatment is that sex offender treatment is primarily provided in prison settings whereas community-based options for substance users are readily available.


Alternative Treatment Design

Bardach (2011), provides many definitions of “alternatives”, and the definition most appropriate for this paper is “alternative strategies of intervention to solve or mitigate the problem” (p. 16). For this paper, the identified problem is the prevalence of sex offenders and the possible shortcomings of current treatment. Attempts to mitigate this problem include examining possible alternatives to current treatment and designing approaches based on harm reduction.

Studies on the topic of treatment return conflicting reports. In one study, combined cognitive-behavioral treatment and relapse prevention was shown to reduce the recidivism rate by 40% (Losel & Schmucker, 2005). In a comparison study of treated and untreated sex offenders, 10% of the treated offenders were rearrested as compared to 17% of untreated sex offenders (Hanson, Gordon, Harris, Marques, Murphy, Quinsey, & Seto, 2002). However, another study found no difference in the arrest rates of treated sex offenders as opposed to untreated offenders (Marques, Wiederanders, Day, Nelson, & van Ommeren, 2005).

Notably, policy changes rarely take place by constructing a plan from scratch (Clemons, & McBeth, 2009). While there is no easy solution to the problem of sex offender treatment, we can use the positive pieces of current models of substance use and sex offender treatment to construct a more complete approach. A primary issue is the limited access to sex offender treatment. While treatment for substance abuse has recently been addressed as a health issue, sex offender treatment continues to be addressed from a punitive approach. To increase the success of treatment, it is imperative that we increase the accessibility to these services. One way of doing this is mandating that health insurance cover these services in the form of prevention, screening, brief interventions and treatment for sex offenders.

As an alternative to the current treatment model for sex offender treatment, I propose that more funding is allocated for researching alternative treatment models. Currently, data has not indicated that changes occur within these groups and research has not been done to compare this model with other types of treatment (Wakefield & Underwager, 1991).


Preliminary Implications

In this day of advanced knowledge and research, it seems alarming that there is such limited research on the effectiveness of treatment for sexual offenders, and that the research conducted yields such mixed results. However, current treatment programs were not developed as clinical trials with control groups and scientifically measurable outcomes. As a result, there are no specific standards used to measure success and failure rendering clinical trials nearly impossible to develop. Another limitation to the development of treatment models is the ability to determine success. One measure of success is relapse rates. While this measure works well for substance users it is more difficult for sexual offenders. For substance users, the ability to measure relapse can be as simple as a drug screen, however with sexual offenders you must rely on complete honesty from the participants. Other measure that is commonly used for sexual offenders is rearrests rates. While this measure can be useful at times, it is hard to determine how many sexual offenders may reoffend without being caught, which is further compounded by the number of sexual assaults that are never reported.



While substance use and sexual offending are community health problems that impact multiple individuals and families, there are stark differences in the approaches for treating these populations. On its surface, substance abuse may seem to be harmful to self, while sexual abuse is harm to others. However, this view does not account for the community, family and public health impacts of both these issues. There are many similarities and differences in treatment models for substance use and sexual offender treatment and the political influences impacting regulations for treating both populations. Currently, there are limited studies to illustrate proven success rates for sexual offender treatment, and this is an area that requires more extensive research and development. While there are apparent correlations for treating these two populations including cognitive behavioral therapy and group interventions, there are still significant differences in the accessibility and funding for treatment. To comprehensively address this issue, it is imperative that more attention and funding be allocated for research in this area.




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Discourse on Anxiety: An Analysis of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”

Discourse on AnxietyPDF icon


Stories exist to act as a sort of virtual reality of the mind allowing readers to interact with various ideas and concepts that may require alteration.  Altering the definition of what it means to be a woman in any society has become an important arena for consideration.  In her short story, “Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman captures the essence of this anxiety of definition in narrative journal format allowing a first person view of the inner struggle and thought the process of self-identity.  Discourse, in the story, can be observed to be divided in a very Platonic way in the conception of two social spheres representing the enlightened men and the ordinary women, doctor and patient, and husband and wife.  Rather than placing women in a position to explore a self-realized identity based on education, Gilman’s story divides men and women into distinct categories where dialog becomes the means in which to explore women’s identity.

To streamline the examination of Gilman’s dialog this essay will be divided into three distinct parts.  First, the historical context of the place of women in the nineteenth century will be reviewed to better understand the place of the narrator as well as the purpose of the diagnosis.  Secondly, a review of previous interpretations of the story will be considered in light of a Platonic interpretation of the story.  Finally, the essay will examine discourse as a means of understanding the place of women as being the domestic sphere which acts as a metaphorical cave.

Historical Context

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of reading any work of literature is to understand the social and cultural contexts in which of a story is set.  While autonomous projection can serve a useful purpose for a contemporary interpretation of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” understanding the place of women in the late nineteenth century can also provide insight into understanding the story.  Essentially, it is important to keep in mind that the story was not written directly for a contemporary audience, and that can change the overall meaning within the story.

The story, published in 1892, during an era that promoted the concept of “separate spheres” where men and women were moral, ethically, and politically divided (Hughes).  The ideology tended to rest on hard definitions of “natural” characteristics of men and females.  Women were considered physically inferior to men, but they were also considered morally superior to men as they never left the domestic environment (Hughes).  Moral superiority was the quality that best-suited women to care for the “domestic sphere” where women would raise children, care for the home, cook, and clean.  They also acted as a ballast to ensure that when men came home, they would not also bring the taint of the immoral public sphere with them (Hughes).  Along with the duty of raising children, a woman who may have been middle or upper class would ensure that the servants were doing an adequate job in taking care of the domestic environment.

Women’s rights did not exist in any meaningful way during this era.  Both law and public opinion supported the family as a patriarchal institution in which the husband, and father, was considered the only legal “person” in a household (Goodsell 13).  While this may have operated to make the family a robust and coherent unit, it also legally recognized men as the land owners, property owners, and the owner of his wife and children (Goodsell 13).  In fact, women’s rights could only be considered within the framework of separate spheres.  There were many tracks, embellished with easy to remember poems, which encouraged the subservient behavior.  It was audaciously titled “Women’s Rights.”  These rights consisted of:

The right to be a comforter,

When other comforts fail;

The right to cheer the drooping heart

When troubles most assail.

The right to train the infant mind,

To think of Heaven and God;

The right to guide the tiny feet

The path our Savior trod.

The right to solace the distressed,

To wipe the mourners tear;

The right to shelter the oppressed,

And gently chide the fear…

Such are the noblest women’s rights,

The rights which God hath given,

The right to comfort man on earth

And smooth his path to heaven. (Hughes)

Women’s rights, then, were solely guided by the domestic sphere, and their foremost duty was to their husbands as they “smooth his path to heaven” in a “cheerful” manner (Hughes).  It also highlights an economy where the woman’s cares and concerns come last.  Her first duty is to her husband, next to her children, then to God, and, finally, the oppressed.  Not having any time for herself, the woman acts as a slave to her husband and the domestic environment.

Apart from being enslaved by social and cultural norms that dictated their vocation as raising the next generation, it was assumed that women did not seek sexual or emotional satisfaction.  As William Acton declared, “the majority of women (happy for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind” (112).  When young women were finally married, they were united with men who were at least five years older.  This served a dual purpose.  First, it allowed a man to pursue an education that would provide a foundational income for raising a family (Hughes).  Secondly, the age difference reinforced the perception of the natural hierarchy between the sexes allowing the man to maintain headship over a younger woman (Hughs).

While these marriages were essentially the enslavement of women, many women believed that they belonged in the domestic sphere.  Graves wrote in 1841 that, “Fathers should be the patriarchal sovereigns, and mothers the queens of their households…The sanctuary of domestic life is to her (the wife) the place of safety as well as the ‘post of honour’” (45,60).  The French thinker Alex De Tocqueville was greatly impressed by the fact that in America, “the independence of women is irrecoverably lost in the bonds of matrimony” (245).  While the single girl “makes her father’s home an abode of freedom and of pleasure; the wife lives in the home of her husband as if it were a cloister” (245).  Overall, women could be viewed as little more than property designed for the particular purpose of serving a husband as a nun might serve God.

Masculine Definition of the Narrator

Within the framework of the two spheres dichotomy, Gilman’s story becomes a recognition of two separate worlds in the form of the physician or scientist, and patient.  Contained in the title of “physician” is the complete history of Western Civilization.  All man-made philosophy has elevated John, and all those who remain unblessed by Enlightenment education are those who live in Plato’s cave watching shadows on the wall.  It is from his position as a “physician of high standing” that allows John to authoritatively diagnose and, thus, define his young wife.  He diagnoses the narrator with “temporary nervous depression” with “slight hysterical tendencies,” but found nothing physically wrong with her (Gilman 138).  In the absence of physical evidence of a malady, John subjected his wife to the “rest cure” pioneered by Weir Mitchell and applauded the world over for its innovation, seemingly only be men who would have dominated the medical field.  The “cure” would only work, however, if key elements were followed:

…isolation, complete physical rest, a rich diet of creamy foods, massage, and electrical stimulation of disused muscles, and complete submission to the authority of the attending physician.  All physical and intellectual activity is to be prohibited.  A patient is to be lifted out of her own social and familial milieu and transported to a neutral environment tended only by a nurse and her doctor. (Mitchell)

Based on the conception of women as inferior in every way to man, the concept of the rest cure was designed to provide respite from regular domestic duties that had become a source of stress and anxiety.  The removal to a neutral environment was intended to take all that was stressful from the woman’s life.  However, by the second page of the story, the narrator already feels helpless and frustrated in light of her husband’s diagnostic declaration:

If… one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression- a slight hysterical tendency-what is one to do?…I take phospahtes or phosphites- whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again.  Personally I disagree with their ideas.  Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. (Gilman 138-139)

John has defined his wife, apparently, very publicly, and he has done so in such a way as to veto any self-identification from the narrator.  If the unexamined life is not worth living then, John has examined the narrator’s life for her and has decided that she requires more restriction to heal.  Further diagnostic definition becomes necessary on John’s part to restrict the narrator as a thinking and creative being to relieve her anxiety.

Despite the fact that the narrator may know what is best for herself, she allows her husband to exercise his authority over her out of social obligation to her husband but also out of a sense of inferiority.  Given the public nature of the diagnosis as being both declaratively professional and masculine, the narrator must adhere to the regiment despite the fact that she feels that something is wrong, but she is unable to contradict her husband.  The narrator then becomes “unreasonably angry,” but she reminds herself that she is overly sensitive given her condition further allowing her husband to tighten the chains that enslave her to his person (Gilman 139).

The narrator reacts to the diagnosis by striving to define John.  Her definition of her husband describes him as extremely practical to the point that he has no patience for faith, and he also has an “intense horror of superstition” (Gilman 138).  She initially identifies him as a cold scientist, that believes only observable fact and cares nothing for feelings and less for imagination (Gilman 138).  While John is representative of early modernist Enlightenment thought, he also embodies all of the Western philosophy.  He is the Platonic prisoner set free from the cave through education, and he no longer looks at the world as shadows cast on the wall (Bloom 194).  John can look at and contemplate the light of the sun believing he pursues the source of all knowledge (Bloom 195).  All is illuminated and bright for John, and he is the enlightened man of science.

John’s diagnosis of his wife’s sickness as a nervous disorder is indicative of Enlightenment concepts of women.  Her disorder is a product of the very fact that she is a woman and not a man.  Rousseau said of women, “Consult women in all bodily matter, in all concerns of the senses; consult men in the matters of morality, and all that involves understanding” (59).  Women, according to Hegel, also lack self-conscious reflection which would necessarily mean that women were weaker than men both intellectually and self-consciously as they would have not a human consciousness (Kant 78; Hegel).  Finally, Kant describes women, while beautiful, as being intellectually inferior to men and not cut out for the work of exercising logic or engaging in complex thought (77-79).  All of these definitions of women serve to illustrate the belief that not all were designed to crawl out of Plato’s cave, and, in fact, only a handful of men would achieve the prestige of coming into the light.

As John is dedicated to reason, he decides to remove his wife from the stressful environment of the home and moves her out to the country.  However, his choice of location for respite is worth exploring.  John rents a “secure ancestral hall for the summer” that the narrator also describes as a “colonial mansion, a hereditary estate” and, even, a “haunted house” (Gilman 138).  Considering that women are part of the domestic sphere, it would stand to reason that remaining at home where everything would be familiar would have been a healthier choice.  The narrator does not seem to appreciate the new surroundings, and she believes that there is “something queer about it” (Gilman 139).  John shrinks her world to a minuscule cocoon meant to envelop and heal, but in so doing he has condemned her to the impossible task of recovering without thought or vocation enshrouded with the vestiges of the shadow of patriarchy.

The “hereditary estate” can also serve as the idea of secluding the narrator in the darkness of Plato’s cave.  To this point, John has provided every definition by his education and gender.  Now, as she has a kind of existential crisis he prescribes a remedy that would take her away from her home and into the country.  Like the cave, the colonial mansion represents repression for those who are too uneducated or unworthy to be left to the steady upward slope toward the light of truth.  The ancestral halls embody the shadow of patriarchy that casts shadows upon the wall to allow the narrator some little understanding of why the rest cure is necessary.

Not only has John chained her to a metaphor for the cave, but he also uses condescending childish language as a way to explain why she must stay in the house.  He belittles her as a thinker and writer as he explains:

…that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. (Gilman 144)

He also, out of frustration, reminds his wife of the domestic hierarchy:

My darling…I beg of you, for my sake and for our child’s sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind!  There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours.  It is a false and foolish fancy.  Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so? (Gilman 147)

John not only controls the light of her life, but he also manipulates the statues that cast shadows upon the wall to help his wife understand what is best.  She is not to imagine, but to be practical and willful, both tendencies that suit the masculine.  When the narrator claims she is not feeling better, he tells her that she must get better, not for herself, but for him, their son, and that she just needs to trust him as a doctor.  There is no appeal for his sake as a husband, and she must become more like him if she is to heal.

The majority of healing in the narrator’s case also means identifying within her domestic sphere.  She is anxious and stressed because she may be trying too hard to be selfish and independent.  The diagnostic relationship, rather than being therapeutic, serves to reorient her to the established social order.  She does not belong to herself, and John not only continues to remind her that she does not belong to herself but he also never refers to her by name.  He refers to her by very simple pet names such as “blessed little goose” (Gilman 141), “darling” or “dear” (Gilman 145,147), and “little girl” (Gilman 146).  By not using her name, the narrator’s identity must attach to John to have an identity.  Treating her as a child also serves to allow John the advantage of continual definition to the point that narrator can only identify herself by John’s dictates.  While the narrator reacts negatively to these definitions, they still make self-definition much harder as she has undergone extensive re-description by the light of her life.


While John defines the narrator using scientific language, the narrator fights to understand her personal identity.  Given the rigid definition of women in her day, the narrator struggles to understand who she is.  The conflict makes any definition bipolar as she swings from one extreme to the next in the space of a few sentences.  One moment she describes how much she disagrees believing that “excitement and change” would be better than resting (Gilman 138-139).   Above all, however, she strives to conform to her husband’s wishes, but there is no rest in conformity.  At first, she aims to become the expectation of her society, but the exertion is overwhelming:

… I take pains to control myself- before him, at least, and that makes me very tired…Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able- to dress and entertain, and order things… (Gilman 139, 141)

The act of conformity to please her husband is a heavy burden that contradicts John’s edict as a physician, but the narrator seems to recognize that it is the only way she will be declared cured and released.

However, no matter how hard the narrator strives to conform, she has nothing to occupy her mind except the contradiction and confusion of defining herself.  The narrator allows the contradictory nature of her husband’s definition to oppose her desire for self-actualization.  Ford notes that “but,” the conjunction of contradiction, is used fifty-six times in the short space of the story (311).  Other words such as “and, so, only, besides” are also used as substitutes for “but.”  Even though her thoughts are written secretly on “dead paper,” the narrator seeks a small internal rebellion as a means of identifying separately from and contradicting her husband (Gilman 138).  Having nothing else to occupy her time, the narrator begins to study the wallpaper as it reflects the confusion she feels.

With no other stimulation, however, the yellow wallpaper covering her room becomes her focal point.  She reads it as she might read a book, and she wishes to interpret it as she is interpreting her life.  However, she finds that neither makes sense.  Just as the narrator is to be domestic, so too is wallpaper domestic and humble used to decorate a room or hide drywall or cover blemishes.  Outside her domestic environment, however, the wallpaper becomes a nightmarish symbol of being trapped in her domestic life. Both become:

Repellent, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.  It is dull yet lurid orange in some, a sickly sulfur tint in others (Gilman 140).

Just as the yellow wallpaper has been warped and faded, so too has the narrator personified and projected her confused feelings onto that wallpaper.  She feels repelled, revolted, and she smolders against the definition that John has assigned her, but she still finds no self-definition since she can only describe what she is not as John provides her singular self-conception.

Confusion over who she is can also be examined in the simple nature of her confinement. Her prison is a nursery, with rings on the walls, and bars on the windows (Gilman140).  The only piece of furniture in the chamber is a large bed that is immovable as it has been nailed to the floor (Gilman144).  Here rests another absurdity suggesting that she is a child, but the bed fixed to the floor also defines her sexual life regarding being beholden to her husband.  The nursery has become a place of childishness as well as sexual slavery designed to keep her ignorant and subdued making her recovery an extreme return to Plato’s cave.

Given the contradictory nature of her existence, and having no intellectual stimulation, the narrator studies and observes the wallpaper:

…by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind…it changes with the light.  When the sun shoots in through the east window- I always watch for that first long, straight ray-it changes so quickly that I never can quite believe it…by daylight it is subdued, quiet…in the day time it is tiresome and perplexing. (147,148-149)

While the sun subdues the wallpaper, it also becomes confusing to behold.  What makes the pattern complicated may stem from two similar reasons.  First, it could mean that the narrator is being exposed to the light of knowledge too soon and has no idea how to self-identify apart from John.  Just as in Plato’s cave, exposure to the light too soon may cause disorientation and confusion as the prisoner’s eyes are not yet accustomed to the light and must only receive definition from her husband.  Secondly, the wallpaper may be the narrator’s confusion as she realizes that she is a separate self, and is uncertain how to proceed without a voice.  During the day, in the absence of her husband, she can relax, her journal serves as her voice, and she writes with some certainty of opinion.  There is no burden to conform in the same way as when John is present.  In John’s absence, the narrator seems to use the wallpaper to reflect on her identity and what it means to be an individual.  In any case, the wallpaper becomes tiresome and perplexing as the narrator tries to force a definition of conformity upon it so that she may subdue it in the same way that she is subdued and wishes to overcome herself (Gilman 149).

While the narrator is unable to make sense of the pattern of the wallpaper under the light of the sun, she does discover that under certain dimmer lights she can make out a pattern.  The moonlight, however, becomes the most helpful light as it reveals the true nature of the pattern:

By moonlight- the moon shines in all night when there is a moon- I wouldn’t know it was the same paper.   At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candle light, lamplight, and worst of all moonlight, it becomes bars!  The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind them is as plain as can be. (Gilman 148)

Just as in Plato, Gilman uses the moon to illuminate what cannot be observed during the day.  The narrator, then, can see the truth of the wallpaper, and the wallpaper’s true nature is that of a prison.  It may be the prison of her identity or freedom of choice based on the concepts of family and social structure that trapped so many married women of the nineteenth century.  The moonlight unveils the nature of wallpaper identifying by night what becomes impossible to fathom by day.

Besides the bars imprisoning the woman, the yellow wallpaper is also festooned with other designs.  The first designs that she makes out are the heads of many women, strangled, necks broken, and bulbous eyes that stare at her (Gilman 142).  Those women who tried to escape the bars by forcing their heads through it were strangled and killed.   It may be that this accounts for the rancid smell connected to the “yellow” of the wallpaper:

It is the strangest yellow, that wallpaper.  It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw- not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.  But there is something else about the paper- the smell!  I noticed it the moment we came into the room, but with so much air and sun it was not bad.  Now we have had a week of fog and rain, and whether the windows are open or not, the smell is here.  (Gilman 149).

The smell and the color may be tied to the idea of Gilman nodding to the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre as the segregation of the “other” where “yellow” can mean anyone who is not white (Lanser 428; Owens 77).  While this is an excellent interpretation of the color yellow, I would suggest that the color yellow becomes so pervasive because it is emanating from the narrator.  It’s in her clothes, her hair, and she notices it even when she is out riding in the open air (Gilman 150).  Perhaps it has always been her natural smell, and it was accepted because she took her role and definition in society without question.  Understanding that her definition does not come from her self-consciousness has allowed her to realize that she is part of the “yellow.”  Perhaps the whole world is yellow apart from the patriarchs of the West who form the definitions of not just their society but the world.  Women, ethnic minorities, gay and lesbian, and any who do not fit John’s misogynist definition may be yellow.

While this may generalize the color yellow, it also includes all those who would continue to be yellow even today.  Rather than making it a single group such as women or designing a concept of the Orientalization of the world from the color, it seems that any whose definition could be inhibited by a rhetoric of conquest and definition would fall into the category of the wallpaper.  In the case of the narrator, just as in the event of all who may be yellow, a new self-conception takes drastic action.  When the author finally does tear down the wallpaper, she liberates the shadow woman behind it, and they are united.  She becomes so convincing that she bends John to her will.  Having been out all night, John returns home to find the door locked, and no key.  He calls for an ax, but the narrator stops him:

“John, dear!” said I in the gentlest voice, “the key is down by the front steps, under the plantain leaf!”  That silenced him for a few moments.  Then he said- very quietly indeed, “Open the door my darling!”  “I can’t,” said I, “key is down by the front door under the plantain leaf!”  And then I said it again, several times, very gently and slowly, and said so often that he had to go and see, and he got it of course and came back. (Gilman 154)

Being free of the norms represented by the wallpaper, the narrator can stay the hand of her husband from destroying the door with an ax.  While it takes a repetition, John eventually leaves to find the key and uses it to open the door.

Finally, the door open, the discourse ends when John observes his wife creeping around the room.  Creeping is an interesting word that means to go without being noticed.  Throughout the story, the women of the wallpaper have crept, sometimes on all fours, but always the creep.  They do so, it would seem, in order not to be noticed.  Once they escape their prison and realize that they are human and intelligent, they have no desire to return.  However, lacking a definition, the narrator seems to have gone mad.  Finally, she has come from the cave, but she is just as confused as when she was confined, “I’ve got out at last…in spite of you and Jane.  And I’ve pulled off most of the paper so you can’t put me back” (Gilman 154).  John faints.  Patriarchy has been temporary reversed, but she creeps over him (Gilman 154).  She must continue to creep over him until he wakes.  There is the idea that he will wake at some point since he’s only fainted.  Patriarchy is only temporarily suspended, and while he cannot put her back behind the bars of the wallpaper, at some point, she will have to be contained to return her to the healthy society of her day.


Gilman’s story represents an ongoing struggle for women as they seek to identify themselves separately from preconceived notions of the masculine social convention.  Language can become the chains that constrain and require conformity to social conventions.  One area that is rife with a similar dialog as Gilman’s is the concept of extreme complementarianism.  One such example is John Piper and his conception of living as a Biblical man or woman.  On his radio show, he was taking phone calls answering questions and providing a view of what it meant to live as a Biblical man or woman.  Piper accepted one particular call that interested me, and that was a woman who was interested in becoming a member of law enforcement.

Piper listened to the young lady, but his response to her was similar to reading the dialog of John as he berated and belittled his wife in his sarcastic, condescending fashion:

At the heart of mature manhood is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women in ways appropriate to man’s differing relationships.  The postman won’t relate to the lady at the door the way the husband will, but he will be a man.  At the heart of mature womanhood is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to woman’s differing relationships. (Piper)

Just as the wallpaper reflects the confusion of the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” so too does Piper use a language that confuses the identity of women trying to live in the public sphere.  Just as the poem “Women’s Rights” suggests, Piper draws a list of acceptable behaviors for women as, “the heart of a mature woman is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men” (Piper).  Piper seems to suggest that all men are entitled to if the postman, who is not the woman’s husband, has natural authority over a woman because he is a man strikes me as being very similar to the way in which John belittles his wife as if she were a child.

Despite the fact that Piper began his comments with a disclaimer that he would never make a declarative category that would divide people into distinctly male or female groups, he still felt that there was a difference between masculine and feminine jobs.  Police officers, doctors, lawyers, or, basically, any position where a woman would have authority over a man was unacceptable:

Some influence is very directive, and some are non-directive.  For example, a drill sergeant might epitomize directive influence over the privates in a platoon.  And it would be hard for me to see how a woman could be a drill sergeant- hut two, right face, left face, keep your mouth shut, private- over men without violating their sense of manhood and her sense of womanhood. (Piper)

Again, Piper uses words to bind the authority and ability of women.  A woman should never have authority over man as “it would violate his sense of manhood makes men seem weak in the first place” (Piper).  However, his language is also the language of definition intended to shape the future.

Patriarchal language begins developing the minds of people when they are mere children.  Lately, my ten-year-old daughter has experienced subjection to afore-mentioned language and practice of patriarchy.  She loves to play sports, but recently she was told by a group of boys at school that boy’s sports were all that mattered because their dads said so.  They told her that nobody cared “about girl’s sports.”  She came straight home and asked me if that was what everybody thought.  When I explained to her that was not what everybody thought, she seemed happier, but she informed me that she was going to prove all those boys wrong.  She would outplay any of them any day if they let her play.

Gilman masterfully captures these ideas in her story.  John embodies the social conception of women as being substandard.  Much like Piper and the boys at school, John mostly treats his wife as if she were complaining, and Rousseau suggests, “Women do wrong to complain of inequality of man-made laws; this inequality is not of man’s making, or at any rate it is not the result of more prejudice, but of reason” (571).

Even more than just complaining, however, Gilman represents the flawed logic of her day as well as the advice given by Piper.  There is a suggestion that men are necessary as logical beings to bring definition to women.  Piper’s language is indicative of the same linguistic category suggested by Gilman, namely that the justification for dominance over women through medical definition, family position, and social roles is due to women being merely creatures rather than fully formed adults that can reason and desire without outside definitions.

The dialog between John and his wife oversimplifies women.  He treats her as a child using language that would be more appropriate for a child.  He lords his scientific prowess and high reputation over her as if he were a god and her his creation.  The narrator strives to fit into the conception of what it means to be a woman for her husband.  She struggles to admire him, she obeys his orders as a doctor and a husband, and she struggles to appease him even when she has done nothing wrong.  The dialog has changed since Gilman wrote this story, but it has not changed so drastically to erase the image of the yellow wallpaper from out of the hearts of women in Western society.  The urge to perform according to the social standards still exists, and that desire can still be tyrannical.

In conclusion, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gillman provides an astounding commentary on the desire of women to define themselves as individuals apart from social convention.  Just as masculine identity does not depend only on a profession, so women should not be defined by the social tendency to categorize women as “other.”  The concept of what it means to be a woman must not continuously and continually find definition through patriarchal cultural institutions; instead, women need the freedom to explore and identify who they are without the interference of so many overarching interpretations.  In the end, an institutional definition serves to confuse individual identity both socially and privately.  The idea of the yellow wallpaper provides a discourse on how women can be trapped desiring to know who they are and how they should act or be.



Works Cited

Ford, Karen. “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and Women’s Discourse.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 4, no. 2, Autumn 1985, pp. 309-14. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/463709. Accessed 23 Apr. 2017.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.” The City University of New York, edited by Catherine Lavender, Department of History, 8 June 1999, csivc.csi.cuny.edu/history/files/lavender/whyyw.html. Accessed 25 Apr. 2017.

—. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stories, edited by James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny, Mentor, 1995, pp. 138-54.

Goodsell, Willystine. “The American Family in the Nineteenth Century.”American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 160, Mar. 1932, pp. 13-22. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1018511. Accessed 26 May 2017.

Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), trans. A.V. Miller (New York: Oxford

University Press, 1977), Chapter IV, Part A: “Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Mastery and Slavery.” In the e-book below this is pp. 20-28.

Hughes, Kathryn. “Gender Roles in the 19th Century.” British Library, www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gender-roles-in-the-19th-century#. Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.

Kant, Immanuel. Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. Translated by John T. Goldthwait, University of California Press, 1965.

Lanser, Susan S. “Feminist Criticism, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ and the Politics of Color in America.” Feminist Studies, vol. 15, no. 3, Fall 1989, pp. 415-41. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/317798. Accessed 26 May 2017.

Mitchell, S. Weir, M.D. “Google” [“Google Books”]. Google Books, Google, 1897, books.google.com/books?hl=en&id=ZRcLAAAAIAAJ&dq=Wear+and+Tear,+or+Hints+for+the+Overworked&printsec=frontcover&source=web&ots=cbohBdctgI&sig=G-oGw6nstW0xbg7_aOVzwEGqFNI&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result#v=onepage&q=Wear%20and%20Tear%2C%20or%20Hints%20for%20the%20Overworked&f=false. Accessed 19 May 2017.

Owens, Suzanne. “The Ghostly Double Behind the Wallpaper in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.'” Haunting House of Fiction, edited by Lynette Carpenter, University of Tennessee Press, 1991, pp. 64-79.

Piper, John. “Should Women Be Police Officers?” Desiring God Ministries, DesiringGod, 13

Aug. 2015, www.desiringgod.org/interviews/should-women-be-police-officers. Accessed 21 Feb. 2017.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile. 1762. The Portable Enlightenment Reader. Ed. Isaac Kramnick.

New York: Penguin, 1995. 568-79.

St. Jerome. The Principle Works of St. Jerome. Translated by W.H. Freemantle, Amazon Digital

ServicesLLC, 2010.

Tocqueville, Alexis De, et al. Democracy in America. Pbk. ed., Chicago, U of Chicago P, 2002.

Treichler, Paula A. “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.'” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 3, no. 1/2, Spring 1984, pp. 61-77. JSTOR. Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.

Winterer, Caronline. “Scholarship Versus Culture.” Chapter 5. The Culture of Classicism, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, pp. 152-78.

Women in America. New York, Harper and Brothers, 1858.

The Powers of Poetry: Story, Symbol, and Incantation

The Power of PoetryPDF icon


The healing power of poetry has been apparent to many throughout the ages. Arguments to this effect can be made by informed poets at the drop of a feathered quill. The complications we face in life: the suffering associated with failed relationships, sickness, the deaths of love ones, and so on represent, in a sense, the beginning of the healing process. Writing or reading poetry can mark a commencement to such healing. Healing through poetry begins, as Gregory Orr contends, “when we ‘translate’ our crisis into language—where we give it symbolic expression as an unfolding drama of self and the forces that assail it” (4). That is, by putting our suffering to page, we have given it a healthy distance from us as well as allowed a sort of reshaping rather than bearing it in an unresponsive way. A single step marks the beginning of a journey. Probing more deeply, however, it becomes evident that collective elements within the personal lyric serve to enhance and fine tune a poem’s healing power. In the following investigation, I will consider the questions of what these poetic rudiments are and how they work, both independently and cooperatively. Orr has it that “there are three abiding and primordial powers that shape language into poems: . . . story, symbol, and incantation” (94). The journey from the chaotic effects of trauma to an ordered understanding, or making meaning, is accomplished through setting symbolic stories to incantatory rhythms. I would argue that a study of these fundamentals may reveal some instructive possibilities concerning the making of lyric poems. Following Orr, I shall explore the poetic essentials of the power of story, the power of symbol, and the power of incantation.


The Power of Story

An examination of the element of story may offer clues as to how we can create our lyric poems to be more powerful. Perhaps the most revealing and persuasive means of communication between people is the relating of stories. For instance, I could tell you that my Uncle Larry is a great car salesman. At this, you might shrug as if you are not convinced. Or I could tell you the story of how he sold twenty cars in one day, two of them to passersby who did not even know how to drive. In this case, the focus of the story is Uncle Larry’s prowess as a salesman, and focus may be the central element of story. This story not only lets us know something about Uncle Larry, it also lets us know a little something about the world in which we live, of our societal values, of how we in the U.S. tend to honor those who perform well in their occupations. As the theorist Jerome Bruner might say, it helps us to “make sense of the world” (qtd. in Orr 95), which is another way of saying that through storytelling, we are establishing an ordered mindset in the face of disorder. In writing lyric verse, opposed to prose, the focus of our poems is particularly important because, as Orr points out, all that does not reflect the focus is “stripped away, and meaning is compressed into action and detail that reveal significance” (95). The final version of the lyric poem, then, is a scaled down portrait of the poem’s thematic focus.

While maintaining focus is imperative, conflict is another essential element of story. In personal lyric, nearly always there is conflict, often with someone. Someone close to us has hurt us in some way, is sick, or has died. This conflict does not have to be that outlaw meets sheriff at the O.K. Corral kind of dramatic action. In the words of Orr, “Merely introducing two pronouns into the opening line of a poem creates the tension essential to story” (95-6). That “I” and “you” tends to have the effect of drawing readers in because they naturally place themselves and their own situations into the equation. Cindy Goff’s “Turning into an Oak” is a good example of the merging of focus and conflict:

I looked down at my husband leaving me.

I’m seventy feet taller than he is now.

The bones in my arms splinter into thousands of twigs;

my legs grow together and twist

into the ground. It doesn’t matter

where my car is parked or where my house keys have fallen;

I no longer care what I weigh.

I am sturdier than a hundred men.

From up here I can see Cape Cod,

shaped like a lobster tail.

I watch my husband become a speck

and consider how I’ll miss

being touched. (108)

Nearly anyone could relate to the “I” and “you” in the first line of this poem; that is, any lover who has suffered the pain of a breakup. The conflict becomes apparent in line 1 and lies with the speaker and her husband. The focus begins to reveal itself as the message from each of the following lines meld into a single shattering idea: that empty, disheartening feeling we get when we are suddenly alone after having become used to being together with someone. Not a single line or word in this poem veers from this focus. If one did, as Aristotle reasons, it should never have been there in the first place, “for that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole” (1463). The conflict between speaker and husband is not resolved in the poem; rather, the conflict merges with the focus. The husband becomes “a speck” and is gone. That which remains is the speaker with an inner conflict, which could well describe the true nature of the heart of all personal lyric.

It is true that the focus of a lyric poem is usually on an idea, but this idea, however tragic, would do well to be grounded on a metaphoric center. While it is true that the story in a lyric poem evolves in a narrative fashion, it also, as Orr insists, “wishes to disclose meaning by focusing on something central and leaving out peripheral details unless they reinforce the central subject” (98). Goff’s title, “Turning into an Oak” offers a barefaced clue as to her metaphoric focus. In line 2 of Goff’s poem, her speaker has suddenly grown to an enormous height. In line 3, her arms transform into branches. In line 4, her “legs grow together and twist / into the ground” (108). Goff’s thorny language, that of splintering arms and nothing matters anymore confirm that she considers the metaphor of becoming an oak to equate with the hardhearted nature of her speaker’s newly found single situation. In reflection, Ariel, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, was not turned into a tree, but was confined “into a cloven pine; within which rift / Imprisoned [he] didst painfully remain / A dozen years” (1.2.77-79). I bring up the Bard because of the possibility that becoming a great oak could be seen as a metaphor for a good thing; however, this is not the way I read Goff.

While abstract ideas have their merit in certain forms of narrative, it is the concrete details that give lyric poems their power. William Blake emphasizes this idea in verse: “Labour well the Minute Particulars:” he writes, “attend to the Little Ones; / . . . / He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. / General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer; / For Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars” (Blake). It is usually crucial that lyric verse be written using specific details from title to the final line. Goff’s title is not only precise, but it suggests the metaphoric center of the entire poem. As for concrete sensory details, her depiction of seeing “Cape Cod, / shaped like a lobster tail” presents a visual image that is novel and unique. As Orr notes, the “who, what, where, and when” (100) is organic to most all good writing. This includes lyric poetry! Goff shows in very specific detail the who: speaker and husband; the what: husband left speaker lonely as a tree; the when: the present; the where: at their house near Cape Cod. All these minute details merge to form a cohesive, barebones, and stirring portrait of experience. But they do so much more: such as, fill with affirmative narrative the place where silence might turn into shame or fear and rob us of our present experiences.


The Power of Symbol

While story is often the primary vehicle that carries lyric verse right through to its ending, the narrative is commonly rife with symbolic meaning. Some poems, however, seem to state only the trauma of an experience, offering no solution, no enlightened realization, no healing. In fact, these personal lyrics would seem to affirm the disorder, letting it into our minds and lives. Yet Orr insists “that it is precisely by letting in disorder that we will gain access to poetry’s ability to help us survive. It is the initial act of surrendering to disorder that permits the ordering powers of the imagination to assert themselves” (47). In essence, the mind, when it confronts chaos in narrative, begins to allow compensation to occur, like a person who loses one eye, and the remaining one compensates naturally by developing a wider peripheral range of sight. As Fox asserts, there may be some growing pains to deal with here, but “poetry can be a safe guide, a wise presence, so you don’t feel alone while moving through the inevitable dark place in life” (29). Bottom line, in lyric poems, such recompenses happen due to the symbolic language in the narrative. Marie Howe’s “The Dream” is a good example of just this kind of personal lyric:

I had a dream in the day:

I laid my father’s body down in a narrow boat

and sent him off along a river bank with its cattails and grasses.

And the boat (it was made of skin and wood bent when it was wet.)

took him to his burial finally.

But a day or two later I realized it was my self I wanted

to lay down—hands crossed, eyes closed

—oh, the light coming from down there,

the sweet smell of the water—and finally, the sense of being carried

by a current I could not name or change. (83)

In Howe’s poem, the speaker dreams of sending her father off on a watery burial, but the conflict becomes apparent when, “a day or two later [she realizes] it [is her] self [she wants] / to lay down—hands crossed, eyes closed” and cast off upon the river of expiry in that small boat. The speaker and her father exist in a state of dramatic tension, connected undeniably by the poem’s focus: the idea of letting go to that impenetrable death experience. As far as the narrative alone is concerned, this is all we have to go on. However, to come to an understanding concerning the healing effects of the poem, we can look to the symbolic language for clues. The biblical story of baby Moses comes to mind. As an infant, in order to save him, he was placed in a small boat and hidden among the grasses and cattails “beside the bank of the Nile”. (Complete Bible, Exod. 2.3). Is Howe’s poem, then, about saving the speaker’s father? I think not because it is the speaker herself who desires death, so she really wants to save herself, but from what? The symbolic language Howe uses to describe the father’s death ark may provide clues: “(it was made of skin and wood bent when it was wet.)”. This wood covered in skin could be symbolic for the body, and the fact that it is wet and bent could describe some form of trauma (both wet and bent tend to possess negative connotations) which would explain the speaker’s obsession with death, both her father’s and her own. The death Howe describes for the speaker is not a dark and scary death; on the contrary, it is one of surrendering to a state of illumination accented by the sensory image of “the sweet smell / of the water.” Howe’s speaker puts her faith in an afterlife myth associated with being carried along safely on a river of patriarchal benevolence, an experience she had not found in life. So, the poem confronts a trauma associated with the speaker’s father and fills the vacuum of silence allowing her to regain her identity, or create one. Having reinterpreted her trauma metaphorically centered on a slow ride down the tranquil river of death, the trauma now has less power over her. The writing or reading of the poem stands in the place of an actual death. The speaker is free to live and write another day. What sort of trauma is Howe really writing about? I’d say there is not enough information to say for sure. Abuse, neglect, the father not living up to the speaker’s expectations of what a father should be? Who knows? In basing such speculation on a few symbols, it would be entirely possible to get off the mark concerning Howe’s meaning. Symbolic meaning tends to vary from reader to reader, and readers tend to respond to symbolic language in accordance with their own unique experiences.

It is very likely that most any given symbol will possess more than one meaning, or that the meaning remains ambiguous. The small boat among the reeds and grasses is an ancient symbol, one that could hold a multiplicity of meanings. “All the meanings,” Orr writes, “do not and cannot emerge; they lurk still in the object/symbol, refusing to give up all their mystery to the need for understanding and explanation” (104). There could be a hidden meaning within an ancient symbol that we cannot recognize, or, moreover, meaning of which society no longer makes use. For instance, Isler, et. al point out that poetic incantation has been used throughout the centuries for not only relief of headache, but for the general maintenance health of all the body parts. Here’s a poem from an 8th century monastery at Lake Constance in Switzerland:

O King, o ruler of the realm,

o friend of Heaven’s hymn,

o persecutor of turmoil,

o God of the Heavenly Host!

In the first stanza, the poem repetitively and rhythmically invokes and calls on the Christian God. Today’s society certainly has a very good idea of the symbolism connected with God, but our ideas are very contemporary. The 8th century Westerners were very likely, as a whole, way more conservative in their outlooks concerning dogmatic Christianity, and so the symbolism, from their points of view, would necessarily be interpreted differently than most conservatives would interpret it today. Not to mention our societal liberal progression. I’ll move ahead to stanza 2 where God is called upon to cool “the noxious fluxes / that flow heated in my head.” We do know something of the symbolism concerning the “fluxes,” those excessive and flowing discharges associated with various health problems. But, again, medical conditions are looked at differently today than they were in past centuries. The third stanza of the poem takes the healing theme beyond the headache to other parts of the body:

that he cures my head with my kidneys,

and with the other parts afflicted:

with my eyes and with my cheekbones,

with my ears and with my nostrils. (Isle, et. al)

God is beseeched to heal and protect the individual parts of the body. Today, doctors would check all these parts but rely on scientific medicine rather than the spiritual for healing. I wonder if we have, in following science exclusively, found ourselves off the mark. At any rate, no one knows what all the body parts may have been symbolic of for the people who used this poetic remedy. Such symbolism is no longer needed. As society evolves, the minds of the people expand. As we learn more about the past, old meanings may become increasingly clear. New meanings will be discovered throughout the generations. Bottom line, we do not know all there is to know about symbols, but grappling with a poem’s meaning in light of its symbolic language is certainly one way of coming to a subjective understanding of it.


The Power of Incantation

While story and symbol merge to make powerful and healing expressions, it is through implementing incantation into our lyric poetry that we, like our ancestors, can confront the more serious traumas that come our way. Incantation, that rhythmic replication of poetic reverberations, according to Orr, “is like a woven raft of sound on which the self floats above the floodwaters of chaos” (106). The incantatory effects of a poem have to do not only with repetitive language but also with rhythm. Rhythmic or musical verse alone can be described as incantatory, but when the element of linguistic repetition is added in the spirit of high emotion, the personal lyric becomes forcefully and dramatically puissant. American poet Edward Hirsch observes that “Incantation [is] a formulaic use of words to create magical effect” (Hirsch). “Healing Incantation,” performed by Mandy Moore in the Disney movie Tangled is a good example of incantatory verse:

Flower, gleam and glow

Let your power shine

Make the clock reverse

Bring back what once was mine

Heal what has been hurt

Change the Fates’ design

Save what has been lost

Bring back what once was mine

What once was mine (Healing Incantation)

In the movie, the animated character Rapunzel, voiceover by Mandy Moore, uses this incantation to heal the character Eugene’s injured hand. I deliberately chose it because it presents an unobstructed view of incantatory verse; that is, it possesses no story and very little symbol and can be a universal panacea, effective in healing just about any trauma one could name. With her opening line, “Flower gleam and glow,” Moore summons the healing light; common in many of the light religions such as Paganism, the light is representative of an omnipotent healing force. Right away, readers sense the rhythm or musicality evident in the prosody of the metered lines. Flower, of course, is symbolic of beauty, so the poet healer confronts trauma with the combined powers of light and beauty.  “Make the clock reverse” seeks to bring the injured person back in time to where the trauma had not yet occurred. Here I get a sense that this poem could be used as a charm against aging. Many feel traumatized by the effects of getting older, our beautiful bodies sagging and wrinkling before our eyes. The poem probably would not stop this natural process, but it could possibly help to slow it down and certainly help a poet or reader to make the psychological adjustment to the change. After all, is it our young bodies that we miss, or is it really our youthful outlooks? We come to the beginning of the repetitive incantatory effect of the poem with “Bring back what once was mine.” Here, Moore is referring to ownership of wholeness. Things were good before, and she wants them to be good once again. The following lines all reiterate that which has already been stated: “Heal what has been hurt,”  “Change the Fates’ design,” “Save what has been lost” are all just other ways of claiming that ownership of wholeness that was the norm before the trauma set in. In a sense, the repetition occurs throughout most of the poem, and then we get toward the ending with the reoccurrence of “Bring back what once was mine.” And then the final haunting, echoing ending: “What once was mine.” As powerful as Moore’s poem is, I cannot help but wonder if it would be all the more prevailing written in concrete terms and ripe with symbol.

Many popular poets write in just this rhythmic, incantatory style, Walt Whitman among them. Further, many of Whitman’s poems are also written in story form and packed with symbolism. Here is scene 18 of Leaves of Grass, which inspired Martin Espada’s latest book, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed.

With music strong I come—with my cornets and my drums,

I play not marches for accepted victors only—I play great marches for conquer’d and slain persons.


Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?

I also say it is good to fall—battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.


I beat and pound for the dead;

I blow through my embouchures my loudest and gayest for them.


Vivas to those who have fail’d!

And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!

And to those themselves who sank in the sea!

And to all generals who lost engagements! and all overcome heroes!

And the numberless unknown heroes, equal to the greatest heroes known. (18.353-63)

In the area of story, Whitman celebrates not the “winners” as many do in the U.S.—America, it is said, does love a winner—but the losers. The way I read Whitman, he does not celebrate the losers of battles because he believes such people are ethically or morally superior. Rather, he celebrates them because he has realized the value of seeing everyone as being the same. He sees men as being the same as women, a very enlightened concept for his time, 1819-1892. He sees the so called physically normal as being the same as those with deformities. Those of color being the same as those of no color. Those of same sex sexual orientation being the same as those of opposite sex orientation. The list goes on and on. The man was a social justice warrior! I believe he realizes this sameness not because we do not have our differences, we do, but because, when we look to our likenesses, we begin to heal our differences.

Whitman’s sketch is also packed to the brim with symbolism. Cornets and drums are symbols of music, that marching band sort of music played as a call to battle. Whitman describes it as strong music. Marching bands at sports events play fight songs to rally the spectators for the benefit of the home team. During the American Civil War both the North and the South used drummers and buglers on the battle field. Those sounds had the power to move soldiers emotionally to the place where they were willing to kill or be killed with musket, sword, or bayonet. In modern warfare we no longer bring marching bands onto the battle arena. But in the ceremonies before and after, those bands are still playing those celebratory songs. All this from Whitman in one symbolic line. Whitman, of course, gives us a new slant on old symbolism. His idea is to raise readers’ spirits for the benefit of those who lost their battles, that ship of a person’s life that sank into the sea of oblivion, that forgotten soul. Whitman seems to believe that the losers of battles are just as important to remember and celebrate as the winners, that, effectually, those who lost are the same as those who won because they share a commonality of spirit.

The incantatory effects of Whitman’s verse begin in the first lines with the rhythmic ordering of words. “The presence of rhythmic patterns,” according to Harmon, “lends both pleasure and heightened emotional response, for it establishes a pattern of expectations and it rewards the listener or reader with the pleasure of a series of fulfillments of expectation” (416). Whitman seems to very generally use a rising rhythm beginning with his own combination of iambics followed by anapests, terms which refer to particular schemas of stressed and unstressed syllables. I would say this rising rhythm works so well in this case not only because of the repetitional effect of the metering but because those reoccurring couplets also raise the scene to a final climactic quintet. And, in that last stanza, Whitman uses actual repetitive language: And to those, And to those, And to all, And to accented by three exclamation points drives the incantatory effect of the entire scene to an explosive peak.



I have followed Orr throughout this inquiry, and it seems on point to relate, in conclusion, his personal statement concerning the healing effects of poetry. Early in his life, he experienced a great trauma; being responsible for his brother’s death. Of course, he suffered emotionally for a number of years before he found poetry. On finally finding his way to poetics, he gives the following account:

I wrote a poem one day, and it changed my life. I had a sudden sense that the language in poetry was ‘magical,’ unlike language in fiction: that it could create or transform reality rather than simply describe it. That first poem I wrote was a simple, escapist fantasy, but it liberated the enormous energy of my despair and oppression as nothing before had ever done. I felt simultaneously revealed to myself and freed of myself by the images and actions of the poem.

I would certainly argue that such liberation from the energy of despair could only promote healing. Continuous worry without reprieve seems like a sickness in itself. This might well be another topic to take up in a future study citing healing poems from various sources.

At any rate, in considering story, the question comes to mind of which comes first, the abstract idea or the concrete details describing it. Good poems possess both. Perhaps this is not an either/or question. Perhaps in looking through the prism of our poet-self, it is essential that we remain open to discovering a priori ideas as we experience life in the concrete. I think, however, that every particular experience, no matter how seemingly trivial, is in reality central and necessary. It is the poet’s job to understand this and help others to understand as well. With an idea and a set of details in mind, as we write within the scope of some particular metaphor, those rudimentary symbols will appear quite naturally. In revision, we can shift those raw stones of symbolism into likely places where they can be polished to a glossy finish. Last, as we set our verses to a rhythm for incantatory effect, it may be helpful to be familiar with the various metering techniques, but it is through sounding out our lines that the arrangements are composed. We must write in a solitary cave in order to do this else we be thought insane by passersby.


Works Cited

Aristotle. “Poetics.” The Basic Works of Aristotle. Trans. Ingram Bywater. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 2001. 1454-87. Print.

Blake, William. “Jerusalem.” Bartleby.com. Bartleby.com, 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

Espada, Martin. Vivas to Those Who Have Failed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016. Print.

Fox, J. “Heart, who will you cry out to? Giving silence words.” In Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-making.  Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1997. 1-31. Print.

Goff, Cindy. “Turning into an Oak Tree.” Gorham and Skinner 108.

Gorham, Sarah, and Jeffrey Skinner, eds. Last Call: Poems on Alcoholism, Addiction, and Deliverance. Louisville: Sarabande, 1997. Print.

Harmon, William. A Handbook to Literature. 12th ed. Boston: Longman, 2012. Print.

“Healing Incantation.” Perf. Mandy Moore. Tangled. Dir. Nathan Greno and Byron Howard. Disney, 2010. Film.

Hirsch, Edward. “Incantation: From a Poet’s Glossary.” poets.org.poets.org, 2015. Web. 29 Oct. 2016.

Howe, Marie. “The Dream.” Gorham and Skinner 83.

Isler, H., H. Hasenfratz, and T. O’Neill. “A Sixth-Century Irish Headache Cure and its use in a South German Monastery.” Cephalalgia. 16.8 (Dec. 1996): 536-40. EBSCO.Web. 27 Oct. 2016.

Orr, Gregory. Poetry as Survival. Athens: U of Ga. P, 2002. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. 1611. New York: Signet, 1998. Print.

The Complete Bible. 1939. Ed. J.M. Powis Smith and Edgar J. Goodspeed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1975. Print.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Bartleby.com. Bartleby.com, 4 July 1855. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.


Friendship in Frankenstein: An Artistotelian-Thomistic Analysis

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True friendship, as defined by both Aristotle and Aquinas, calls for not only a whole person development, but also a whole community development. Whole person development refers to the development of individual abilities and attributes that increase virtue or character (goodness), while whole community development refers to the development of environmental and social attributes of community that make room for and inspire the development of the whole person. Within the story of Frankenstein, each of the main characters, Robert Walton, Victor Frankenstein, and the Monster, as well as the lesser characters of Henry Clerval, Alphonse Frankenstein, and Elizabeth Lavenza, highlights aspects of friendship within the larger pursuit of personal goals. The character’s personal goals influence and are influenced by their friendships within the story. My primary claim in this essay is to explicate each character’s significant friendships within the context of true friendship, and show how, as each character pursued a single value, such as intellect, love, revenge, and the like, their development as whole persons (and by extension, their contribution to and development of their communities) was greatly hindered.



The story of Frankenstein is a multilayered tale encompassing multiple themes and ideas. Commentary on the story has stressed many of these themes, including: race relations, education, scientific and medical progress, gender roles and relations, psychological and psychiatric understanding of personality development, attachment, and mental illness. Each of these themes can be said to emphasize specific aspects of whole person and/or whole community development. For example, on the theme of racial discourse, Anne Mellor discusses the descriptive characteristics of the Monster as being obviously Asiatic, non-Caucasian giant, at once implying the early 19th Century fears of the Orient and the implications of association with the nations of the East, whether political, religious, artistic, commercial, etc., might have upon the Europeans (2). Allan Lloyd Smith goes even further, stating, “Shelley chose not to give her scientist the arguably more straightforward route of reanimation of a dead human body: her choice of an assemblage of various human and animal parts introduces the issues attached to cross-racial and even cross-species reproduction and thus engages with the anthropological and biological discourses” of the time (211).

Overlapping with the commentary on race is the commentary on medical and social responsibility to those considered in need of guidance (Marcus 199). Such a paternalistic position changes the protector as much as it changes the protected: Frankenstein comes to share “the monstrosity of the creature’s condition- his solitude, his singularity, his being utterly outcast, his exile from human and communal forms of life” (199). Marcus goes on to say, “Irresponsible medicine is a mythological playing-out of the fantasy of technological omnipotence, is medicine without the awareness of the Other as a coequal self-consciousness” (199). Questions of difference, such as what they are and how we engage each other because of and despite these differences, are as much a part of our understanding of progress, technology, medicine, and politics, as they are part of our worldview.


Gender and Sexuality

Gender and sexuality enter the general discussion, not only in relation to the Romantic/Gothic novel, but also concerning the role they play in our understanding of progress, technology, medicine, and politics. Vanessa Dickerson makes the argument that women within Shelley’s novel are little more than ghosts: “narcissistic males like Walton and Victor tend to be scientists, the doers, the literalizers who dominate the story, the selfless, ethereal and unscientific women in the novel are practically transparent if not invisible” (79-80). They are props in the homoeroticism of the male characters (Dickerson 80; Daffron 417).

Concerning male-male relationships, intimacy, and sexuality, Shelley advances a sensitive, though subsumed, understanding of masculinity (Daffron 417). The intensity of Victor’s and Henry’s relationship, a true friendship as discussed below, is overshadowed by Victor’s insipient homophobia. Victor responds voyeuristically to his monstrous creation, built from the parts of men whose features he found beautiful, relating the Monster’s coming to life in what amounts to a physical description of orgasm, “it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs” (Shelley 22). Victor is horrified by this attraction to the Monster, spending the night dreaming of Elizabeth, his boyhood love. Embracing and kissing her in his dream, Victor witnesses the woman he loved innocently transformed into the corpse of his mother, while the Monster lived and breathed in the next room (23). Victor spends much of the novel evading the line between the sanctioned male friendships of his age and desiring intimacy with another male figure (Daffron 424), represented in the continual tension, feverish hallucinations, and saboteur behaviors toward himself and the Monster.

According to Daffron, Shelley’s presentations of gender inequality and homophobia are part of a larger critique of misogyny. The Monster asks for a female like himself, “with whom [he] can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for [his] being” (Shelley 70). Victor consents to the Monster’s request, but only after repeated threats to the lives of Victor’s friends and family, and with the promise that the Monster and his companion will remain far from civilization (72). Despite the verbal contract, Victor and the Monster remain at odds, and eventually Victor destroys the female companion he was nearly close to finishing (82). The destruction of the companion leads to the Monster fulfilling his threat of killing Elizabeth (97). The use of women as objects, between Victor and the Monster, even between the narrator and the reader in the person of Margaret Saville to whom Walton relates the tale, in Shelley’s restrained critique of the destabilizing force Victorian-era relational paradigms, ultimately perpetuates “a claustrophobic, homophobic space of only men” (Daffron 426).

The way society turns to other-ing, be it by race, gender, social class, societal role, impacts relationships. However, a review of the literature, a brief sampling of which was discussed above, seems to lack a foundational, metaphysical appeal to a metatheoretical approach that would tie all these insights together. There is such a theory, longstanding in its tradition, that does provide such a connection: the Aristotelian-Thomistic understanding of human flourishing as represented through their explication of friendship.


On Friendship

While predating modern, psychological, anthropological, and sociological understandings of human interaction, there is an ancient philosophical theory, updated in the Middle Ages, that provides a metaphysical foundation for human interaction as a kind of flourishing between individuals, what is commonly called friendship. This theory begins with Aristotle and continues through the work of Thomas Aquinas. In reference to Frankenstein in particular, this theory of friendship sheds light on the relationships of the major characters, the Romantic critique of the Enlightenment (especially the notion of progress), and enables us to form a deeper understanding. The purpose of this paper is to bring forth this theory of friendship in relation to the major characters of the novel, illustrating where they have embodied or failed to embody the aspects of human flourishing that comprise friendship. In so doing, I hope to provide an Aristotelian-Thomistic critique of the Enlightenment that is in line with Shelley’s Romantic critique, as represented by the sorrow, disconnection, and despair each of the characters exhibits. Even the lesser characters, such as Henry Clerval, Alphonse Frankenstein, and Elizabeth Lavenza, exhibit this critique of modernity. I will first outline the Aristotelian-Thomistic theory of friendship, limiting the analysis to the Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle and the Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas. Then, I will discuss the three major figures- Robert Walton, Victor Frankenstein, and the Monster- as well as the minor figures with whom they interact- Henry Clerval, Alphonse Frankenstein, and Elizabeth Lavenza- as each of them relates to the main aspects of friendship and its importance to human flourishing.



Aristotle, as expounded in Nicomachean Ethics, presents a theory of human flourishing that has multiple components. Human flourishing, or as it is commonly translated “excellence,” has two aspects, one that refers to what is innate within us (virtue) and one that refers to what we learn from interaction with our fellow creatures (skill) (1103a). Neither the one nor the other is able to develop the individual completely, but rather they work in tandem, showing an astute understanding of the interpersonal factors that contribute to human flourishing. In fact, neither virtue nor skill can develop without being exercised, skill requiring education and tutelage, virtue requiring situations in which the character trait can be exercised. Aristotle goes onto outline his theory of human flourishing over the course of several lectures, and in Book VIII ties this theory to the interpersonal relationships associated with friendship. He builds his understanding of friendship on the same predicates as that of his theory of human flourishing, pointing toward the holistic and integrated understanding of interpersonal interactions and their necessity to human flourishing, “without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods” (VIII.1). Friendship, according to Aristotle, holds groups together, allows individuals to not only seek after justice, but to exercise the virtues completely (VIII.1).

There are three kinds or levels of friendship, each corresponding to a different level of human flourishing: utility, pleasure (hedonia), and virtue (eudaimonia). Each level of friendship corresponds to how we love (VIII.3). Friendship of utility corresponds to utilitarian love: we form the friendship based on what each of the individuals in the friendship gain from the relationship (VIII.3). Friendship of pleasure (hedonic friendship) corresponds to hedonic love: we form the friendship based on emotion, feelings of pleasure, and the arousal of “other hopes of something good to come” (VIII.3). Friendship of virtue (perfect or true friendship, eudaimonic friendship) corresponds to perfect love: we form friendships based on the development of virtue, the choosing of the good for the other because it is the good for the other and no other reason (VIII.3). Eudaimonic friendship, because it is based on virtue, also contains within it friendship of utility and hedonia, just as perfect love contains within it utilitarian love and hedonic love (VIII.3).

Each level of friendship builds on the other, resulting in true friendship only when all three levels are present. Friendship of utility, which seeks relationship with others for the good the individual receives from it, is deficient for human flourishing because it does not provide the individual with a way to develop skill, virtue, feel pleasure- only to satisfy need. Hedonic friendship builds on the notion of utility, and adds the emotions, feelings of pleasure, that arise from the satisfaction of need and from the joy we get from the other. However, hedonic friendship is also deficient, as hedonic friendship does not require the individuals involved to develop character traits that create excellence, nor does it foster the good for the other in the relationship. Eudaimonic friendship is perfect friendship, because not only does it contain the aspects of utilitarian and hedonic friendships (it satisfies needs and has emotional involvement), but also encourages the development of skill and virtue, and seeks the good of the other for the sake of the other. Moreover, true friendship is built on love: “for love may be felt just as much towards lifeless things, but mutual love involves choice and choice springs from a state of character; and men wish well to those whom they love, for their sake, not as a result of feeling but as a result of a state of character. And in loving a friend men love what is good for themselves; for the good man in becoming a friend becomes a good to his friend. Each, then, both loves what is good for himself, and makes an equal return in goodwill and in pleasantness; for friendship is said to be equality, and both of these are found most in the friendship of the good.” (VIII, 5).

True friendship, then, according to Aristotle, does several things to increase human flourishing. For the individual, utility, hedonia, and eudaimonia intermingle for the development of virtue, the creation of excellence of character that is shown through skill and habit, as well as need satisfaction and pleasure feeling. In true or perfect friendship, utility, hedonia, and eudaimonia find their outlet in human connection. This is an important component in Aristotle’s theory. No one individual is isolated or disconnected from the society in which he or she lives. As a result, for an individual to truly achieve excellence of character that is the hallmark of eudaimonia, the individual must establish friendships that reflect and foster the excellence of character after which he or she is striving.

He also addresses the kinds of relationships that mirror these levels of friendship, showing how each can also have the character of true friendship, despite inequalities that may be inherent in the power structure of the relationship. For example, individuals of “sour and elderly people” can engage in friendship when they find individuals of similar temperament or can “bear goodwill to each other” (VIII.6). This type of friendship falls either into the utility level or the hedonia level, depending on the motivation for the friendship. However, such individuals are not excluded from perfect friendship, it is only more difficult for them to achieve it. For individuals who have authority over others, they often chose individuals for friendships that help them achieve some characteristic important to their station (VIII.6). This pertains to familial relationships, such as that of father and son, as well as political relationships, such as that of ruler and ruled. These relationships typify friendships that mirror all three types of friendships, but due to their nature are unlikely to produce perfect friendship. This does not mean that it is impossible, however, but that the nature of the relationship changes when perfect friendship is achieved between these individuals. As Aristotle puts it, “It is by their likeness to the friendship of virtue that they seem to be friendships (for one of them involves pleasure and the other utility, and these characteristics belong to the friendship of virtue as well); while it is because the friendship of virtue is proof against slander and permanent, while these quickly change (besides differing from the former in many other respects), that they appear not to be friendships; i.e. it is because of their unlikeness to the friendship of virtue” (VIII.6).



Thomas Aquinas builds on Aristotle’s basic outline of friendship in the Summa Theologica, stating “Friendship cannot exist except towards rational creatures, who are capable of returning love, and communicating one with another in the various works of life, and who may fare well or ill, according to the changes of fortune and happiness; even as to them is benevolence properly speaking exercised” (I.20.2.r3). Friendship, then, requires recognition of the other as being capable of returning the same choice, the choice for the good of the other. In Aquinas’s concept of rational creatures, he is drawing on the metaphysical precepts of Christianity. Rational creatures in this view can include humans, angels, and any creature to whom God has granted reason. While the specifics of his hierarchical understanding of creation is beyond the scope of this paper, the requirement of rationality places a proviso upon friendship that is implied by Aristotle: we cannot have friendship with creatures that do not have reason. Communication between the individuals engaged in the friendship is also a necessary component, again implied by Aristotle and made explicit here. In order to foster the good of the other, communication is the method in which we make this known.

Friendship unites friend to friend in love, stemming from the desire for good that is appropriate to the nature of the individual who loves (I.60.3). Utility and pleasure are aspects of friendship, but do not comprise the whole or fullness of the love and good which are at the core of true friendship (I-II.4.7). This is a direct mirror of Aristotle’s levels of friendships. Utility and pleasure are part of the fullness of friendship; they are present in true friendship because true friendship satisfies the wholeness of human flourishing. Where they exist without seeking  the good for the other, they are merely functions of parts of ourselves, for Aquinas, like Aristotle, considers human creatures as comprising higher and lower aspects: utility and pleasure satisfy the lower parts, but not the fullness of the rational creature.

Progress toward beatitude or happiness, while not attainable in this life according to Aquinas, is begun in the friendships that we establish with each other; friends enable us to further develop virtues that are necessary for such happiness (I-II.5.5). Moreover, friendships of utility or pleasure only hinder the flourishing of true friendship. “When friendship is based on usefulness or pleasure, a man does indeed wish his friend some good: and in this respect the character of friendship is preserved. But since he refers this good further to his own pleasure or use, the result is that friendship of the useful or pleasant, in so far as it is connected with love of concupiscence, loses the character to true friendship” (I-II.26.4.r3). In other words, every relationship is a kind of friendship, but there is a hierarchy to the relationships in regards to individual and group character development (or growth of virtue).

The reasons that utility and pleasure are incomplete is that they are selfish. They reflect the pursuit of the good back onto the pursuer and not the good for the sake of the other in the relationship: “Friendship based on convenience or pleasure is friendship inasmuch as we want our friend’s good; but because this is subordinated to our own profit or pleasure such friendship is subordinated to love of desire and falls short of true friendship” (Aquinas 205). This is an important explication of Aristotle’s theory. By categorizing friendships of utility and pleasure as selfish when they exist on their own shows, from the point of view of perfect friendship, where they lack in the development of virtue and goodness, where they lack love. True human flourishing is not a quality that exists in an individual rational creature, but rather through the interaction and interconnection of rational creatures. True friendship, then, also requires this interaction and interconnection, as friendship is one of the processes through which human flourishing occurs.


Analysis of the Novel

Within the story of Frankenstein, we are constantly reminded of the need for friends, the desire for the kind of interaction and connection that comes through the seeking of human flourishing. The three main characters- Robert Walton, Victor Frankenstein, and the Monster- each express desire for this kind of relationship, but each fails in different ways. The interactions with the minor characters- Alphonse Frankenstein, Henry Clerval, and Elizabeth Lavenza- also highlight where each of the characters is deficient in their pursuit of true friendship, why each of them winds up frustrated and alone: Walton returning to the bosom of his family, Frankenstein dead, and the Monster into the arctic. The way in which the story is told, as well as the progression of the events within the layered narrative, provide the critique of the Enlightenment that is at the core of Shelley’s Romanticism. The Aristotelian-Thomistic analysis of friendship provided above is in line with the Romantic critique, and in many ways, provides a foundation for the more modern analysis.


Robert Walton

Robert Walton, as the narrator and one of the three main characters of the novel, is the first to broach the desire for friendship that is at the heart of human flourishing. In the opening letters to his sister, Walton writes, “I desire the company of a man who could sympathise with me; whose eyes would reply to mine…. I bitterly feel the want of a friend” (Shelley 4). At first, the desire for friendship that he puts forth is that of hedonic friendship. Sympathy is an emotional response to seeing in another a state or event with which we personally identify. However, Walton goes onto expound his desire further, stating that the friend he desires would be “gentle yet courageous, possessed of cultivated as well as of a capacious mind, whose tastes are like my own, to approve or amend my plans” (4). Such a friend would help Walton to be a better person, develop patience, and ground him in the realities of the moment, “who would have sense enough not to despise [him] as a romantic, and affection enough for me to endeavor to regulate [his] mind” (4). One can extrapolate from these statements that Walton is desirous of more than mere hedonic friendship. The phrasing of this desire is self-reflective, hinting at true friendship but without the other-reflective qualities that would mark his desire as one for true friendship. As the story progresses, the reader is granted insight into Walton’s retelling of both Victor Frankenstein’s and the Monster’s desires. The reader is shown Walton’s deepened understanding of the role of friendship, as he develops sympathy for the other, and reorders his life goals in such a way as to return to his family and begin a different kind of life. He recognizes the horror his sister must have felt reading his narrative (155). When discussing the final moments he has with Frankenstein, he states, “My thoughts, and every feeling of my soul, have been drunk up by the interest of my guest, which this tale, and his own elevated and gentle manners, have created. I wish to soothe him” (156). He goes as far as to try to help Frankenstein desire to live, “Behold, on these desert seas I have found such a one; but, I fear, I have gained him only to know his value, and lose him. I would reconcile him to life, but he repulses the idea” (157). These sentiments show Walton’s deep desire for true friendship, and the understanding that he has been operating on the hedonic level the whole time. He sought a friend as a way for him to feel pleasure in others, and came to realize, over the course of Frankenstein’s tale, that he also wanted to show the same considerations for the other; his self-reflective desire for companionship changed to other-reflective.

After this change, he realizes his own deficiencies of virtue, even as he realizes his growth in eudaimonia, “The brave fellows, whom I have persuaded to be my companions, look towards me for aid; but I have none to bestow. There is something terribly appalling in our situation, yet my courage and hopes do not desert me. Yet it is terrible to reflect that the lives of all these men are endangered through me. If we are lost, my mad schemes are the cause” (158). Such a recognition of his responsibility toward the lives of those under his command, which shows the type of friendship that mirrors true friendship, in the form of one having authority over others. And yet he is clear, his hope and courage are with him. Hope and courage are virtues, the balance between extremes of human characteristics on which excellence is habituated (Aristotle II.7). So, Walton’s relationship with Frankenstein, while beginning as hedonic friendship, changes over the course of the narrative, taking on the characteristics of true friendship, as evidenced by his attention to the needs of his crew.

Understandably, Walton’s full story is not revealed, but only so much as to frame Frankenstein’s narrative. The bookends of Walton’s letters to his sister provide the reader with the setting and context in which Frankenstein relates his own scientific pursuits, interpersonal relationships, and mysterious creation of the Monster, as well as the Monster’s tale, retold through Frankenstein’s narrative. In those few missives, the major points of Frankenstein’s narrative are foreshadowed: the desire for scientific knowledge and renown, the pursuit and development of single attributes and abilities in lieu of the whole person, and the resulting poor interpersonal relationships that arise when one becomes single-minded. Even the desolate reaches of the North where the boat becomes lodged in ice shows the single-mindedness of the main characters- the downfall of their journey, and why they have failed to find the friendships they all seek (Shelley 7, 8). Moreover, the desolation of the North, and the abandonment of Walton’s initial plans for great scientific discovery in favor of returning to his family also foreshadows the Monster’s ultimate despair, a result of the choices and interactions with others that prohibited from achieving the kinds of friendship he desired.

Walton describes Frankenstein in the following way: “I have found a man who, before his spirit had been broken by misery, I should have been happy to have possessed as the brother of my heart” (11). When Frankenstein recovers his strength, and can engage in conversation with Walton, he furthers the development of the search for friendship, both in his relationship with Walton and in the narrative he relates, a large portion of it dealing with his relationships with Elizabeth and with Clerval. Before he begins the story of the Monster’s creation, he establishes what behaviors toward the other are appropriate or, more accurately, inappropriate, behaviors that instantiate and grow the concomitant virtues which form true friendship. To Walton, Frankenstein says, “You seek for knowledge and wisdom as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been” (13). This statement to Walton is the intentional or attitudinal disposition necessary for the foundation of friendship, desiring the cultivation of virtue in the other and the avoidance of disaster or ill-fortune. This disposition is not the only aspect necessary for true friendship, and Frankenstein’s narrative shows what more is necessary through what his relationships lack.


Victor Frankenstein

Frankenstein’s relationships with Henry Clerval, his father Alphonse, Elizabeth Lavenza and the Monster, continue the exposition of friendship within the novel, as well as show how the advancement of any one aspect of human culture, without all the other aspects, can impact the development of true friendship. Henry Clerval is “boy of singular talent and fancy,” who enjoyed risk-taking, was chivalrous, with a keen imagination (19). He was kind and tender, which enhanced his adventuresome spirit (20). All of these traits attracted Frankenstein, drawing him to Clerval as a companion and confidant. Yet, as he became more and more involved in his work, Frankenstein stopped fostering the relationship between him and Clerval. The memories of their companionship and balance took on a quality that resembles friendship of utility.

While Frankenstein continued to delve more and more into his pursuit to create life, he ignored the development of his other virtues, becoming withdrawn and obsessive (32-34). In his own words, “a human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility” (34); Frankenstein lost this balance when he ignored the mutuality that Clerval’s friendship helped to foster within him. It was the restoration of Clerval to Frankenstein (despite the creation of the Monster and the tremendous mental disturbance that obsession caused), that calmed his spirit and brought him back to his senses (37). Frankenstein was able to feel joy and cast aside his sorrows and misfortunes only when his friendship with Clerval was intact (37).

When the Monster murdered Clerval, Frankenstein turned his attentions to the pursuit of the Monster, subsuming all relationships under his need for revenge. Frankenstein acknowledges that Clerval is a victim of his (Frankenstein’s) own pursuit of science, stating “that Clerval, my friend and dearest companion, had fallen victim to me and the Monster of my creation” (135). Frankenstein’s pursuit of revenge of the Monster clouded his responsibilities to himself and to the development of his science- if he had been cultivating true friendship with Clerval, that friendship would have been a check on his obsessions, as he would have been more able to cultivate temperance and the other virtues that go along with the pursuit of the good, of which true friendship is a part.

Frankenstein’s relationship with Elizabeth is a bit more complicated, highlighting friendships that not only involve the three levels of friendship, but also the different types or capacities of friendship, such as between siblings and lovers. Frankenstein describes his relationship with Elizabeth in the following way: “Elizabeth Lavenza became the inmate of my parents’ house- my more than sister- the beautiful and adored companion of all my occupations and my pleasures” (17). He “looked upon Elizabeth as mine- mine to protect, love, and cherish. All praises bestowed on her I received as made to a possession of my own. We called each other familiarly by the name of cousin. No word, no expression could body forth the kind of relation in which she stood to me- my more than sister, since till death she was to be mine only” (18). His description of his relationship with Elizabeth shows that his understanding of friendship is varied and encompasses all three levels of friendship to different degrees. First, it is marked by friendship of utility, as he considers Elizabeth, to some extent, to be his possession, something that satisfies a need for him. Second, it is marked by hedonic friendship, as Frankenstein gains pleasure from their relationship. Third, by stating that Elizabeth was his “to protect, love, and cherish,” Frankenstein shows that there are also elements of true friendship in his relationship with her. Love and protection, and to a certain extent cherishment, are elements that involve the good of the other, for the good of the other.

On Elizabeth’s part, the reader gains little about her perception of the relationship. I think this is for two reasons. First, the reader only learns about Elizabeth’s disposition through Frankenstein’s narrative, and that limits access to her thoughts and disposition. However, there are two letters from Elizabeth to Frankenstein that give some insight into her disposition toward him. In the first letter, Elizabeth writes to Victor as he is recovering from the shock of having created the Monster. She expresses worry for his condition: “You are forbidden to write- to hold a pen; yet one word from you, dear Victor, is necessary to calm our apprehensions” (40). She has hope for his welfare, saying “I eagerly hope that you will confirm this intelligence soon in your own handwriting” (40). She relates to him the happenings of their family, giving Victor information regarding his siblings, father, and household servants; she even indulges to relate some of the gossip of Geneva. These sorts of communiques show that she includes him in her daily interactions with others, despite his distance and lack of reciprocal communication with her. She notes, “I have written myself into better spirits, dear cousin; by my anxiety returns upon me as I conclude. Write, dearest Victor- one line- one word will be a blessing to us” (42). So, there are elements of hedonic friendship here; in writing to Victor, she is giving herself pleasure, pulling herself out of the worry she feels. Moreover, an element of utilitarian friendship remains, as she has the need for her anxiety to be lessened, and asks Victor to satisfy that need for her. This does not exclude the elements of true friendship that are also present- she is genuinely concerned for Victor’s well-being for his own sake. In the second letter, Elizabeth relates the heartache she has felt for Victor over the course of his trial, and the desire she has for his well-being, “My poor cousin, how much you must have suffered! … This winter has been passed most miserably, tortured as I have been by anxious suspense; yet I hope to see peace in your countenance, and find that your heart is not totally void of comfort and tranquility” (137-8). This shows the depths of true friendship, acknowledgement of Victor’s suffering and a desire that he find peace. Further, she highlights aspects of the multiple kinds of friendships they share- that of childhood playmates, siblings, lovers, potential spouses- all of which are intertwined between the levels of friendship they share.

According to the Aristotelian-Thomistic theory presented here, the relationship between Victor and Elizabeth is a complicated one. It has the layers of friendship due to the different layers of relationship they have with one another, as siblings and lovers. It has the levels of friendship- utility, hedonism, and eudaimonia- that mark true friendship, but each of these levels is salient at different times and for different reasons. Given the presentation of the novel itself, this changing saliency presents a new facet of the critique that Shelley makes, which can be inferred from the Aristotelian-Thomistic model. Specifically, friendship, in all its forms, changes over time and according to the needs of the individuals involved in the particular relationship. This causes varied levels of friendship to become more salient than other levels of the friendship at various times. This does not necessarily mean that the individuals engaged in a true friendship do not maintain the true friendship over time, but rather that the development of the individuals involved requires diverse needs, skills, and virtues to be satisfied and/or flourish in order to ensure the overall development of the individuals. Although the novel does not address this directly, it is a clear critique made given the constantly changing interpersonal relationships, as represented in the brief outline of Victor and Elizabeth’s relationship.

Victor’s relationship with his father, Alphonse, also highlights the varying degrees of friendship, although more subtly than his relationship with Clerval and Elizabeth. We know most about Victor’s father from the indulgence and sternness with which he was treated during his studies, from a letter received by Victor from Alphonse after Victor’s recovery from the creation of the Monster, and his presence alongside Victor during and after his trial for Clerval’s murder. “My parents,” Victor tells us, “were possessed by the very spirit of kindness and indulgence. We felt that they were not the tyrants to rule our lot according to their caprice, but the agents and creators of all the many delights which we enjoyed” (19).  Alphonse embodies, to an extent, the friendship of parent and child, as Aristotle remarks:

Each party, then, neither gets the same from the other, nor ought to seek it; but when children render to parents what they ought to render to those who brought them into the world, and parents render what they should to their children, the friendship of such persons will be abiding and excellent. In all friendships implying inequality the love also should be proportional, i.e. the better should be more loved than he loves, and so should the more useful, and similarly in each of the other cases; for when the love is in proportion to the merit of the parties, then in a sense arises equality, which is certainly held to be characteristic of friendship. (VIII.7)

However, there is an incident which Victor relates that caused Victor some amount of heartache, namely, when Victor begins to study Cornelius Agrippa, and his father ridicules him. Victor feels this failure of kindness and intellectual rigor on the part of his father very deeply, and it impacts their relationship for many years. He hypothesizes, “If, instead of this remark, my father had taken pains to explain to me that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded, and that a modern system of science had been introduced, which possessed much greater powers that the ancient…” (Shelley 20-1). In other words, his father was more concerned with his own sense of pleasure or need (it is Alphonse’s knowledge that Alphonse wishes to exemplify or merely to satisfy his own disgust with his son’s choice of study), rather than with the development of his son’s intellect. In this way, Alphonse failed in his fatherly duties, as well as in the cultivation of the friendship he has with his son.

When Victor was in Ingolstadt, recovering from his terror of having created the Monster, with Clerval by his side, he receives from Clerval a letter from Alphonse. This letter contains several bits of information, some which highlights the friendship of father and son which Aristotle mentions. Alphonse looks to commiserate with his son, “You have probably waited impatiently for a letter…” (46). However, the letter is to relate what has happened to Victor’s younger brother- he was killed by the Monster (47). While the nature of the letter is one of tragedy, even if the tragedy is caused by Victor’s Monster, there are certain points which mark this as one exemplifying Aristotle’s theory, as well as showing where Alphonse’s fatherly friendship is also deficient. For example, he has no desire to “inflict pain on [his] long-absent son” but also needs to make him aware of the tragedy that has befallen the family, namely the murder of William, Victor’s little brother (46). Conversely, Alphonse is unable to console Elizabeth, and asks Victor to come and take care of her, “you alone can console Elizabeth,” as well as the whole family, “return and be our comforter,” a sentiment that pulls at Victor’s emotionality, and in some ways, is founded more in utility and hedonism than in true friendship (47). However, Alphonse addresses his son as “friend,” and entreats him to be with them through their mourning.

Further in Frankenstein’s narrative, Victor relates that his father joined him during the murder trial, making an appearance at Victor’s jail cell under the appellation of “friend” (132). During the exchange between Victor and Alphonse that follows, however, their relationship is primarily rooted in the father and son dichotomy, and they try to fulfill the duties and obligations as the circumstance requires. Victor relates, “My father calmed me with reassurances of their welfare, and endeavored, by dwelling on these subjects so interesting to my heart, to raise my desponding spirits” (133). Alphonse validates Victor’s reasons for travelling, acknowledging the heartache his son must be feeling at the murder of his friend, and is for Victor “like that of my good angel” (133). These are the marks of friendship that are proportional and appropriate for a father to a son, even seeking to ensure his son’s future happiness in marriage to Elizabeth (Aristotle VIII.7; Shelley 140). Victor was suicidal during this time, wrapped in the depression and grief of the murder of Clerval, and in this sense, fails to return the proportional and appropriate behaviors of a son to a father (Shelley 134).

Victor’s failings in the many friendships he relates over the course of his narrative is due in large part to his single-mindedness, first in relation to his studies, then in his relation to the consequences of having created the Monster. This single-mindedness overwhelms his ability to form and carry out the types of relationships and levels of friendships that human flourishing requires. It is this single-mindedness that becomes his downfall, although he recognizes this as he is dying, exhorting Walton as only a true friend can, “Seek happiness in tranquility, and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed” (162). His last act is to be the true friend of Walton.


The Monster

The Monster’s narrative about friendship alternately embodies true friendship, friendship of utility and friendship of pleasure. The progression of his story is an analogue of the distinct kinds of friendship Aristotle and Aquinas outline. When he first awakes to his condition, before the notions of betterment or revenge (a kind of personal advantage notion of progress, if you will) consume him, he is filled with wonder and curiosity at his environment, and seeks the companionship of others to share this wonder and curiosity with (71-72). However, given his grotesqueness and overall lack of knowledge concerning human interactions (no language, custom, or familial resemblance), he is quickly set upon by the humans he tries to interact with (74). Eventually, he comes into an interesting relationship with the blind farmer and his children, learns language and routine behaviors, comes to understand trade-offs and heartache, and is exposed to the intricate dynamics of human behavior (Chapter XII).

Something happens within the Monster’s formation, however, that he no longer seeks connection with humans, but becomes obsessed with finding a companion of his own kind. I think the reason for this is two-fold. On the one hand, he is responding to what he is taught from the humans, that he is something to be feared due to his construction and general difference. On the other hand, he sees that he is different, and true friendship is built on connection and development with one who is substantially like oneself, sharing the same species as it were. The combination of experience and existence that overlap in his narrative seem to spur the Monster into a direction of personal progress over and above his development as a good person (whether he be human or not).

In order to create an environment in which he can seek true friendship, the Monster asks Frankenstein to build him a companion that is like him in every way, with the added benefit of potential romantic connection, as well: “You must create a female for me, with whom I can live in the interchange of sympathies necessary for my being” (104). At first, the Monster is living in accord with virtue and goodness in his asking Frankenstein, but it quickly devolves to coercion and revenge. I think this is partly due to the two-fold influence on the Monster’s development already discussed. However, I think it is due more to the fact that the Monster became obsessed with creating his own community, since he had been ostracized from humans. Creating one’s own community is not a bad thing; in fact, it is necessary to flourishing to have a supportive community in which one is involved. It is when the establishment of such a community is the only focus where true friendship becomes perverted- there is no longer the dual focus on personal and group development, a prerequisite for the flourishing of goodness.



The relationship between Victor and the Monster is the antithesis of the Aristotelian-Thomistic theory of friendship presented here. Victor fails in his creator/fatherly duties to the creature, running in fear from the grotesqueness of his creation, and then seeking to destroy his creation without recognition of the Monster’s independence and individual moral standing. Conversely, the Monster goes through his own process, beginning from a place of virtue and eudaimonia and devolving into a murderous destroyer of others’ happiness. As the Monster himself states, “When I first sought it, it was the love of virtue, the feelings of happiness and affection with which my whole being overflowed, that I wished to be participated. But now, that virtue has become to me a shadow, and that happiness and affection are turned to bitter and loathing despair” (164). His failure to flourish is due in part to the treatment he received from others, as well as from his own lack of self-development and focus on revenge against Victor: “For while I destroyed his hopes, I did not satisfy my own desires. They were forever ardent and craving; still I desired love and fellowship, and I was spurned” (165).

Single-mindedness and lack of whole person development remain throughout the novel the downfall of friendship in its full form for each of the major characters. As a critique of the Enlightenment, Frankenstein stands strong against the notion of any one form of progress, personal or group, in which all the virtues and needs of human flourishing are not also developed. The Aristotelian-Thomistic model of friendship helps to shed light on why notions of scientific and single-subject development is detrimental to human flourishing. As an aid to understanding the horror of the novel, what is truly the tragedy of the characters, true friendship as a mark of human flourishing is a key component. While there has been a great deal of research into the themes of the novel, friendship has been little researched. What I have presented here is a rudimentary look into this concept as it relates to the story and as a critique of modernity. Future work should involve a more in-depth analysis of the interpersonal relationships, and would benefit from a closer examination of the Romantic period, its correlation to pre-Enlightenment classical influences on understanding of interpersonal relationships, and a deconstruction of the layered telling of the novel.




Works Cited

Aquinas, Thomas. “Summa Theologica.” New Advent. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Online Edition Copyright, 2008. Web. 31 May 2015.

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae: a Concise Translation. Ed. Timothy McDermott. Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1989. Print.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. W. D. Ross. Internet Classics Archive: MIT. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.8.viii.html. Web. 31 May 2015.

Daffron, Eric. “Male Bonding: Sympathy and Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Nineteenth Century Contexts 21.3 (1999): 415-435.

Dickerson, Vanessa D. “The Ghost of a Self: Female Identity in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Journal of Popular Culture 27.3 (1993): 79-91.

Marcus, Steven. “Frankenstein: Myths of Scientific and Medical Knowledge and Stories of Human Relations.” Southern Review 38.1 (2002): 188-201.

Mellor, Anne K. “Frankenstein, Racial Science, and the Yellow Peril.” Nineteenth Century Contexts 23 (2001): 1-28.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1831. New York: Dover Thrift Edition, 1994. Print.

Smith, Allan Lloyd. “’This Thing of Darkness:’ Racial Discourse in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Gothic Studies 6.2 (2004): 208-222.

Faubourg Tremé: Cultural and Societal Progress in a Neighborhood Faced with Gentrification

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In New Orleans the word for neighborhood is Faubourg. This, like so many other things in New Orleans, speaks to one of the many inherent differences between this city and others. Faubourg Tremé was established in 1842 by free people of color. It is not only the oldest black neighborhood in the United States, but the birthplace of jazz, home to cultural museums, and to Louis Armstrong Park which houses Congo Square – a place where slaves used to meet on Sundays during their one day “off.” For the past two centuries, many of the residents of Tremé have made significant contributions to cultural, social, and political movements. For much of that time, it was a neighborhood where generations of families resided, and parents passed their houses on to their children and their children’s children, relatives lived side by side, down the street, or ‘round the corner from each other. Celebrations, births, and deaths were neighborhood gatherings because they were, after all, family.

Now, Tremé is one of the common destinations of horse and carriage, bicycle, walking, and Segway tours. There are not many days that go by in which I do not hear the methodical sound of a horse drawn buggy going by my house and the words “Tremé is the oldest black neighborhood in the US, founded by freed slaves…” It is a comforting sound tinged with sadness because so many of those families, families whose ancestors fought to buy their freedom and homes they could call their own, are gone. In the scant year I resided there, at least three of the families that welcomed me to the neighborhood have left and the historical interiors of their homes torn apart and discarded to make way for those with money. As a result of this shift, despite the tremendous contributions the neighborhood has made in terms of progress and rebounding from Hurricane Katrina, the residents of this community are now facing the impact of gentrification. In this essay, I intend to discuss the history of Tremé’s contributions to the community-at-large, political movements, and progress, as well as what the neighborhood is doing to meet the societal implications of gentrification in their outreach to new members of the neighborhood; utilizing community events, narrative, general conversation, and discussing how gentrification may impede or advance progress. As a result of my inquiries, I believe, with time, it is possible for many of these issues to be resolved if the community members of New Orleans come together with mutual respect, cultural understanding, and a willingness to listen without marginalization.

New Orleans has a great deal to offer. Almost everywhere you go you can find someone playing music somewhere; the food is said to be world renowned; people greeting you on the street is customary; and there are parades for just about everything. Yet, post-Katrina New Orleans, crime is on the rise, housing costs are up, lots of neighborhoods are food deserts, healthcare services (especially Planned Parenthood) are limited, education is steadily declining, the cost of utilities in the city is rising, and marginalization is increasing. As a result of many of these changes, most of the people who perform the service industry jobs in New Orleans are being forced to live outside of the city they work in. While these are developments common to many US American cities, one might question why any of this makes New Orleans and Tremé different from any other community facing gentrification? What was Tremé before gentrification and why are these changes worthy of discussion? When I originally began my research on Tremé I looked at the changes the neighborhood was facing and was disheartened by what I was seeing, but had yet to make the connection of the impact of Hurricane Katrina in relation to the gentrification of Tremé. It was upon discovering how much former members of the neighborhood had contributed to politics and social movements, such as, fighting the Separate Car Act and buying church pews for slaves, that I began to try and figure out what Tremé had truly been and what it was becoming. In the article “New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood turns 200” by Claude Johnson and Stacey Plainance, Toni Rice, spokeswoman for a neighborhood group, said “All things sacred to New Orleans bubbled up from that neighborhood, because Treme had such a mixture of people and cultures…It wasn’t just slaves. It wasn’t all white or all black. It was German, Spanish, Haitian, Italian” (1).


A History of Tremé and Contributions to Civil Rights

Claude Tremé was a model hat maker and real estate agent. He came from France and settled in New Orleans in 1783.  He married Julie Moreau and as laws of the time allowed when women married, he “inherited the land from his wife’s family, began to subdivide and sell off plots of land in the late 1700s. New Orleans, unlike other Southern cities at the time, was populated by free people of color, who quickly moved into the neighborhood…” (Jervis 1). The interesting thing about this is that while these freed slaves were buying property in Tremé, New Orleans was a port that slaves passed through on their way to being bought and sold. These freed slaves mingled with slaves on a daily basis. The freed slaves purchased their goods from the enslaved in Congo Square in Tremé on Sundays and worshipped with them as well, most likely strengthening the enslaved populations desire and resolve to free themselves:

Tremé soon became a bastion of French-speaking, mixed-race plasterers, bricklayers, cigar makers, sculptors, writers and intellectuals…Tremé residents in 1845 published Les Cenelles, widely considered the first anthology of black poetry in the USA and the Tribune, one of the first black daily newspapers in the country. (Jervis 1-2)

In the early years of Tremé, African-American residents worked together to form a community and build a solid foundation. They even purchased a church in the 1800s. Naming it St. Augustine Catholic Church, they established the oldest African-American Catholic parish in the United States.

Originally, the land and the building were purchased by Jeanine Marie Aliquot, a Frenchwoman, who turned it into a Catholic elementary school for free girls of color. Eventually, the school was sold to the Ursulines Sisters (nuns) who then sold it to the Carmelite Sisters in 1840 and it merged into a school for black and white girls. When they relocated, free people of color requested permission to build a church. The one condition attached to the $10,000 sale was that the church be named after St. Angela Merci. For some reason this did not occur and the church was named St. Augustine. One of the interesting stories attached to this bit of history is that, being a mixed neighborhood, black families began buying pews for their families, when this occurred:

white people in the area started a campaign to buy more pews than the colored folks. Thus, The War of the Pews began and was ultimately won by the free people of color who bought three pews to every one purchased by the whites. In an unprecedented social, political and religious move, the colored members also bought all the pews of both side aisles. They gave those pews to the slaves as their exclusive place of worship, a first in the history of slavery in the United States. (Staff 2)

It was another historical event in which blacks pushed forward to fight for rights. It is at this point that I, again, consider progress. Banneker wrote his letter to Jefferson in 1791. One of the things he wrote was:

Father hath given being to us all; and that he hath not only made us all of one flesh, but that he hath also, without partiality, afforded us all the same sensations and endowed us all with the same facilities; and that however variable we may be in society or religion, however diversified in situation or color, we are all of the same family, and stand in the same relation to him. Sir, if these are sentiments of which you are fully persuaded, I hope you cannot but acknowledge, that it is the indispensable duty of those, who maintain for themselves the human rights of nature, and who possess the obligations of Christianity, to extend their power and influence to the relief of every part of the human race, from whatever burden or oppression they may unjustly labor under… (1)

Yet, some fifty years later, some of the same battles and requests for equality were still being fought and the need to be understood and accepted still remained. So, in this instance, freed slaves in Tremé took the reins into their own hands and found the financial means to gain their own power. While I am still in awe at the success of their endeavor, I believe it was their collective effort that wrought a societal change allowing them to move forward in other endeavors of equality and progress (Staff).

Kant wrote, “Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority…This minority is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another” (1). I do not believe that the people of Tremé lived in a “self-incurred minority,” but instead, an inflicted state of otherness. What I find so inspiring about what the people of Tremé accomplished during that time was their courage and fortitude. Perhaps because their history was so dark, their perception of their otherness, tinged with the fact that many of them may not have had our western mindset (based on where they came from), allowed them to have a requisite “resolution and courage” that comes from having been in such a place of oppression that you either fight or you die; emotionally or sometimes physically. My analysis may be somewhat dramatic, but I believe great adversity enables us to do things we might not normally do.

After the Civil War, Louisiana faced reconstruction. Having had a relatively liberal antebellum period the “Radical Reconstruction in Louisiana was an intense, occasionally violent, contest between those who favored Radical Reconstruction policies and those who fought for white supremacy as the philosophy that would guide public policy in Louisiana” (Museum). The inception of these new laws, instituted “to control the behavior and actions of former slaves in the ‘free’ postwar society, Louisiana and other southern states enacted Black Codes, modeled on restrictions in force under slavery” (Museum), increased the marginalization of African-Americans.

In 1890, Louisiana passed a law which segregated public facilities (Gehman). This law included the Separate Car Act said to provide separate but equal seating on streetcars for whites and African-Americans. Homer Plessy, a resident of Tremé and shoemaker, was born “of mixed racial heritage. His family could pass for white and were considered ‘free people of color.’ Plessy thought of himself as 1/8 black since his great-grandmother was from Africa” (Britannica). In 1887, Plessy took up social activism and “served as vice president of the Justice, Protective, Educational and Social Club to reform New Orleans’ public education system” (Britannica). In 1892, Plessy, with the aid of the Comité des Citoyens or Citizen’s Committee, contested the law by purchasing a first-class ticket and sitting in the “whites only” section, stated his race, and refused to move. He was eventually removed from the train and arrested. “The Citizen’s Committee shunned violence, rather becoming active in the courts by initiating a series of legal cases to enforce civil rights guaranteed by Congress in the 1870s but often denied locally” (Gehman). The organization’s nonviolent mantra could be said to be the precursor for the nonviolent behavior deployed by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Working with Plessy, a black man who could pass for white, gave them just the platform they needed to take their case to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court decided against the case him 1896 ruling “that states had the right to maintain separate but equal public facilities for blacks and for whites [which]…ushered in a spate of Jim Crow laws throughout the South…” (Gehman 94). However, despite the loss, this case had far reaching implications for the Civil Rights Movement when the NAACP incorporated components from this case during “1954 in the historic and controversial Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka” (Spring 102), overturning the separate but equal ruling (Britannica).

Bellamy wrote, in his work of fiction, Looking Backward, “The other fact is yet more curious, consisting in a singular hallucination which those on the top of the coach generally shared, that they were not exactly like their brothers and sisters who pulled at the rope, but of finer clay, in some way belonging to a higher order of beings…” (6). One might infer that fiction has no place here. I believe, in this instance, it does. It is the context behind those words which should be considered. New Orleans was a melting pot with Tremé as an unusual community of people. “The ability to acquire, purchase and own real property during an era when America was still immersed in slavery was remarkable and only in New Orleans did this occur with any regularity or consistency” (New Orleans). But residents took it beyond owning a piece of land and fought to move beyond othering, upholding the principle of equality and taking, into their own hands, the course of their lives. Yet, in my opinion, history can be cyclical and in the years beyond slavery Tremé would face changes which would alter aspects of a once vibrant neighborhood and a group of people who fought for what they believed in.


Times Change

           In the 1960s, Interstate I-110 was constructed, running straight through the center of Tremé effectively cutting one half of the neighborhood from the other. I reside in Tremé and it was not until I had to locate a business in another section of the neighborhood that I realized there even was another part. It was during that walk that I began to understand why Tremé has the reputation for not being the best place to live. Crossing the interstate and walking into the other side of Tremé is, for me, like entering a different world. The side of Tremé that I live in is a diverse neighborhood a few short blocks away from the French Quarter surrounded by shops, parks, and museums. In thinking about this, I realized that the people I see on those neighborhood tours on a regular basis, will likely never see the other side of Tremé. To me, the other side of the neighborhood is not the safest place to wander. It, like so many other places here, still have not recovered from Hurricane Katrina. Many of the houses in that part of the neighborhood are boarded up, have fallen into total ruin, or need a tremendous amount of repair. Here, I did not see the diversity I am so used to and the feeling of poverty is palpable. I left the area with a heavy heart and the realization that I have a privilege here I had yet to recognize before my exploration.

In conjunction with the separation that the interstate highway imposed, the people of Tremé also faced the impact of the drug and crime epidemics that occurred in the 1980s. This, I believe, is when the neighborhood lost the sense of community it once had. It became an unsafe place to be for those who resided there along with anyone else. I have been told that white people avoided the area because a visit was sure to result in robbery or worse. The many that resided there and did not partake in crime remained not only because they lived in homes that had been in their families for generations, but because many of them did not have the means to leave and/or were determined to hold on to the bit of community they might have once had. According to Jervis, it was not until Hurricane Katrina that many of the people who lived in the area left either of their own accord or were forced to leave because of the circumstances surrounding the storm. (Jervis)


Hurricane Katrina Brings Change

          In the early morning of August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. The storm had a category three rating and the winds reached upwards of 140 miles per hour. As devastating as the hurricane was, it was not the storm that did the most damage in New Orleans, it was the levee breaches. New Orleans is below sea level, some areas more than others, but when those particular levees broke, the area sustained damage and destruction that still impacts the city almost 11 years later, and, I believe, will continue to do so.

Some people left before the storm. Those who remained either lost their lives, were stranded in the Superdome, trapped on rooftops, or wherever else they could find shelter until they were evacuated or died. The conditions were beyond deplorable. When the evacuations did begin, there were thousands of people who never returned because they either did not want to or, could not. Many of those who did come back in the weeks and months that followed returned to homes that were uninhabitable. Rebuilding was slow and, according to a local tour guide, the areas that seemed to receive the most funding were the French Quarter and surrounding areas that were frequented by tourists and which had sustained comparatively little damage. Other areas, such as the Lower 9th Ward, still have entire sections which have not been repaired (H. Staff).

People came from all over the world to assist in the rebuilding. They came with the best of intentions. Some, so moved by what they saw and experienced, remained. Yet, I have heard people who discuss seeing “bunches of white people” with New York, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, etc., license plates who were riding through some of the neighborhoods looking for abandoned property they could buy on the cheap. There is no way to know for sure if this was actually what people were doing, but the upsurge in the sale of houses would seem to indicate a modicum of legitimacy.

During all that transpired in the aftermath of Katrina as well as the number of people who had to leave the area and did not return, there are many who seem to have forgotten that the situation in which the people of New Orleans found themselves and the onslaught of gentrification is not just due to the hurricane itself. There is a portion of this turmoil that was man-made when the levees were breached. I believe that if Louisiana had only Hurricane Katrina to contend with, things would have progressed differently. New Orleans would have probably undergone a time-period of recovery and the damage from the storm would have been repaired. Many of those who left for the duration of the storm would have returned and the city would have gone back to being “A place like no other.”

Yet, that is not what transpired. Many transplants came and stayed, many came and conquered, but in the process those who had made New Orleans and Tremé what it once was were gone, along with their culture. In her article, “Gentrification’s Ground Zero”, Megan French-Marcelin wrote:

Long before the floodwaters had receded, any chance of progressive reconstruction—rebuilding as a restorative public works program aimed at meaningful redistribution—was stamped out by policy wonks and TV commentators, liberal city council members, feisty NGOs, speculative real-estate developers, and boutique hotel owners.” (2)

What was left, seems to have become a shell, changing with the influx of transplants and their money.


Gentrification and Tremé

          As mentioned earlier, the part of Tremé in which I reside is quite close to the French Quarter. It is a bustling area with plenty to do and see, even if you have been here for a while. It is a trendy little area with a coffee shop, a community center, and a jazz and cultural museum. My neighbors are friendly and chat with each other from time to time, but some of that “neighborhood feel,” generated by people sitting out on their stoops watching people come and go is waning. In the short seven months that I have been here the faces of my neighbors are beginning to change with some regularity, there is less diversity, and many more transplants (including myself). When a property goes on the market, it can sell in a matter of days and is immediately gutted so that any vestiges of its past are gone and bright cottage colors reminiscent of the gingerbread houses on Martha’s Vineyard adorn the outside, instead of some of the deep rich colors I generally see.

There are some families that are holding on, but there is wariness in their eyes and when there has been discussion about the changes within the neighborhood, I have heard the old residents say “We don’t know these people!” There does not seem to be a connection between the old residents and the new. Long term residents are used to family and even when they do sell their property, many times it is to a family member because “keeping it in the family” is very important here. Of those who have sold outside their family, it has been because of great financial need. Oftentimes, when a home was sold to someone who was not a family member, they witnessed that it was promptly put back on the market and sold to a transplant for almost double the price. This practice has left the neighborhood struggling to retain some semblance of community in what looks to be a losing battle.

To bridge this gap, community organizations such as the Backstreet Cultural Museum and members of Jazz in the Park are working together. In 2015, the first Tremé Festival was held to bring members of the community and surrounding areas together. There was song and dance, and they opened up St. Augustine Church and provided tours for many of the newcomers in the neighborhood so they could really learn about the history of Tremé. It was a gathering to get people on committees and share backgrounds. Jazz in the Park is held on Thursdays and is a family-oriented event with music, a farmers’ market, and activities for children. There are always people on hand to discuss ways in which those who attend can become active in the community with one of the main goals being the discussion of the history and culture of the area.


Where Has Our Culture Gone?

As previously written, Tremé is a place that was filled with a distinct culture which is now eroding. With the transplants come lofty ideals that in some ways make a mockery of old traditions by putting a subtle twist on them. French-Marcelin, who is a twentieth-century historian of urban policy and planning, wrote:

In the years after Hurricane Katrina, cultural commodification has been extended to the business of rebuilding and preserving the city’s unique customs. Transplant communities, exemplified most conspicuously by Solange Knowles (Beyoncé’s younger sister), have effectively taken up the mantle of a grassroots cultural reclamation: renovating historic shotguns, opening stores with local wares, and engaging the tradition of second lines for private events. (4)

These events, these trends of usurpation, are not particular to Tremé or to New Orleans in the way they are being presented and they are not being met with open arms.

One of the things that I see happening as a result of gentrification and cultural change is that many of the long-term are closing ranks to preserve whatever they can of their culture. When I moved here it was pointed out to me that much of what transpires among the locals is handled by word of mouth. I found this out because there were a number of times that I was searching for something and could only find the most cursory bits of information. When I finally asked someone why I was told “That’s just how it’s done here.” Transplants, such as myself, are accustomed to finding out about what is going on by using the internet. It is just the way we think things work. Here, if a local is looking for an apartment, she is relying on word of mouth and those she knows. If something is being sold, it is not advertised in the paper or online, it is offered by word of mouth. It is the transplants who want it online, at their fingertips, and do not have the time to ask around. For employment, you have to know someone who knows someone. “Who are your people? Are they here? How long have they been here? How long have you been here? I knew you didn’t come from here” While I initially found this somewhat surprising I have come to realize that it is one of the ways local people are trying to maintain what little control they still have over their neighborhood.

While the local people try to keep things “in house,” the transplants are coming to either work in the new University Medical Center or they are entrepreneurs who arrive with wads of cash and a view of success which includes being a busy, productive member of society and a “hurry up and wait’ mentality. Someone recently told me that visiting somewhere is far different than living there and they were, of course, right. Some of the newcomers have a difficult time taking that philosophy into account. When you are on vacation, you have a different perspective than when you live in a place. You may not mind the wait, that people are moving slowly, that there is music in most of the places you go, that people are trying to hustle you for a couple of dollars, that the homeless approach you not only for money, but for your leftovers. When you live there, many of the same things you did not mind before becoming an issue. Second lines (brass band parades) are not viewed with the same fondness when those same parades are going past your house “making all that noise.” You do not have time to leisurely wait while the cashier catches up with someone while you are waiting in line and you get sick of people “hustling” you because they are trying to make, in your estimation, a “fast buck.” After all, good money was paid for the piece of property you own, and you do not need to get to know your neighbors other than making sure they keep up the property.

Ultimately, there is a clash between the old and the new, north and south. For example, a story in The Times-Picayune recounted that on:

Monday, at about 8 p.m., nearly 20 police cars swarmed to a Treme corner, breaking up a memorial procession and taking away two well-known neighborhood musicians in handcuffs. The brothers…were in a group of two dozen musicians playing a spontaneous parade for tuba player Kerwin James, who died last week of complications from a stroke he had suffered after Hurricane Katrina. The confrontation spurred cries in the neighborhood about the over-reaction and disproportionate enforcement by police, who often turned a blind eye to the traditional memorial ceremonies. Still others say the incident is a sign of greater attack on the cultural history of the old city neighborhood by well-heeled newcomers attracted to Treme by the very history they seem to threaten (Reckdahl 1).

Funerals here are often followed by second lines because, in contrast to the somber traditional funerals many are used to, traditionally it is a time of celebration here. I have seen many second lines after a funeral here because there is a funeral home near my residence. I have even seen a coffin taken from a hearse, carried on to the family member’s porch, and actually danced on before proceeding to the funeral home. It is nothing new here. Sometimes the procession may be comprised of a hundred people, but people, heretofore, were respectful. Cars caught in the procession would wait, there would be no honking. It was accepted as something that just was, something that needed to be done to honor the dead. There are times now when others do not see it that way, they see it as an encroachment and no longer care to accept or understand the culture or tradition.

This was the case when the brothers were arrested during the second line procession. Now, there is no spontaneity on this side of Tremé. You must procure a permit. “They want to live in Treme, but they want it for their ways of living. ‘Curry said.’ For newly arrived neighbors, Curry sometimes serves as a cultural interpreter. But to those neighbors dismayed by the noise or the crowds that come along with those brands, Curry is stern. “I say, ‘You found us doing this—this is our way” (Reckdahl 2).  No matter, the newcomers win: cross that interstate and you must have a permit or face arrest if an irate neighbor calls the police. To them, this is not a necessity and like many other traditions viewed as something “other,” it should be wiped out. To me, it becomes a cultural genocide; a dismantling of a culture that is foreign to the newcomers. Yet, if the housing and rental costs continue to rise and more of my long-standing neighbors are forced out of the area it may become a moot point.


Climbing Rents and Home Prices.

          Prior to Hurricane Katrina there were quite a few public housing units dispersed throughout the community, now, those units are gone. “In the months that followed, many of the city’s poorest families got even more bad news: The public housing units they called home would be knocked down, even if undamaged by the storm…The goal was to deconcentrate poverty and give lower-income residents a better place to live” (Fessler 2). There were many people who were not pleased with this because most would be lumped into one area away from their known neighborhoods. The new units were built anyway. As Fessler underscores, “At the time of Katrina, more than 5,000 families lived in public housing; today [2015], there are only 1,900. Other poor families have relocated to places like Houston and Atlanta or moved elsewhere within New Orleans” (Fessler 2). Many of the residents who reside in these aesthetically appealing units state that while the units are nice, safer, and offer some amenities their former units did not (pools and up-to-date kitchens). It is also adjacent to Walmart. “It’s hard to explain,” ‘Jennings says.’ “There’s something missing, and you miss it every day. You miss your neighbors for one. Like we used to sit on the steps and conversate with our neighbors, and it’s not like that anymore” (Fessler 4-5). There are also new rules that prohibit or restrict gardens, parties, etc. In some ways, looking at it from the outside it is hard not to find the idea of greater safety and less drugs a better scenario, but my culture is different. When you’ve lost your sense of community after having lost so much already, I can understand why some people would not like it.

Out of curiosity I visited one of the new apartment complexes that have gone up in the area. A two bedroom begins at $2,400 and goes up to $2,650. The penthouse rents for $6,500 per month. It has some nice amenities, plenty of restaurants, and an upscale grocery store right next to it. While I thought it was a very nice place, I could not help but think about what a person would have to make to live there, and the woman who was assisting me was quick to provide the answer. A person must make approximately $90.000 per year for a two bedroom. The local minimum wage here is $7.50 cents per hour, most people make approximately $8 to $10 per hour! “Before Katrina it was possible for people to find housing they could afford, and that’s become virtually impossible for people finding housing in the city” (Woodward 2). The information on the apartment complex helps to explain why. In fact, rents have gone up by over 81 percent since Hurricane Katrina and housing costs have gone up by 46 percent.

Sayre states that “The average house sold for $339,743 in New Orleans in the first half of this year, which amounted to an average of $166 per square foot – up from $114 per square foot just before the storm and $151 per square foot last year. That’s up 46 percent since 2005, or an average yearly gain of about 4.6 percent” (2). Couple this with the fact that many of the new homeowners are evicting tenants or raising rents after buying units and making repairs or moving them out to use units as Airbnb and you have even more displaced people. Many of those making lower wages and are forced to live on the outer edges of town, facing, in many instances, an unreliable transit system to get them to and from work if they do not have a car.


Starbucks and Consequences

Another common thing that is lost in the process of gentrification is the local store. For the most part, the French Quarter is made up of locally owned shops and restaurants. In a tourist environment people expect that. They want to stroll down the streets popping in and out of one cutesy place after another. I think many of us like these types of shop when we are on vacation. Yet, this is changing. The French Quarter and Magazine Street (a more upscale shopping area) have also become home to stores like Starbucks and Whole Foods. There is even a Trader Joe’s. Some may consider this a step in the right direction; some locals do not. The interesting thing is that many locals, in a display of civic pride and cultural deference, do not just give up and say, “I can get a better deal at this chain store.” It is a matter of principle and homage to their culture. So, many of the locals remain true to their community stores. There are a variety of reasons for this, which are inclusive of the fact one or more family members own or work in these stores, they live in a food desert and that corner grocery is sometimes the only place they can get to on a regular basis ‘to make groceries,” and they want to keep it local because “their people been going there for years” and they are not going to give their money to some stranger even if they have to pay a bit more sometimes! The motto is “Keep it local.”

Let me be clear, it is not the case that local people do not ever frequent stores like Starbucks or Whole Foods. But most of the time, it is seen as a matter of loyalty and duty to go to the local coffee shop, Rouses grocery store, the local hardware store. Why? Because each dollar spent outside of a community store puts it one step closer to closing. It is also a way for locals to express their disapproval of the gentrification taking place and they are fighting to keep more places like Trader Joes out! Yet, there are plenty of transplants who do not understand this, and they want convenience over local loyalty, and will pay more to get it.



          Overall, there is a difference between making a place your home versus making a place your own. Some may not see it that way. However, I believe that when you decide to relocate to a different state and arrive with the idea that you “own” not only your dwelling, but the city or town in general, that “they” should adapt their ideological beliefs to yours, not yours to theirs, you may be missing something in the translation. Unfortunately, this seems to be part of the process with western assumptions about how things should be done: take no prisoners, ask no questions later because you do not need to.

Some people may think that this is progress. I would have to disagree because with the supposed benefit of gentrification has come further marginalization of a group of people that were already oppressed. In fact, considering some of the tenets of intersectionality, Tremé is a perfect example of why this concept cannot be examined separately. It is a community where oppression is an everyday occurrence that hides behind no false pretenses, but is instead displayed with intolerance of difference and disdain.

Am I part of the problem or will I be part of the solution? Will the education that I am pursuing provide me with more of the tools I will need to be effective in any way here? I believe it will, but in order to do so I must be vigilant in my exploration, what I hold to memory, what I learn, what I impart from what I learn, and how I use it.

In “Souls of White Folk” Du Bois wrote:

But when the black man begins to dispute the white man’s title to certain bequests of the Fathers in wage and position, authority and training; and when his attitude toward charity is sullen anger rather than humble jollity; when he insists on human right to swagger and swear and waste – then the spell is suddenly broken and the philanthropist is ready to believe that Negroes are impudent… (24)

In a conversation with a recent transplant, I got a hint of this sentiment when the person said, “I don’t understand why they don’t like us! I mean, after all, we’re making things better for them. We’re cleaning up the neighborhood and making it safer. They should be thanking us. They should be grateful!” I still have no idea how I should have responded to this. In fact, I was so stunned that while I know I did reply along the lines of inquiry, asking why people should be thankful for the cleanup of a neighborhood they have been displaced from, I could not find the words to express the measure of my disbelief. I also knew that was one more facet in the notion of paternalistic guidance that western assumptions bring with it; the sense that the marginalized should not only be accepting of the so-called hand being offered to them, but should welcome and learn from it by ‘seeing’ the benefits of the hand being offered. Very rarely does it seem to be seen as oppression, but instead, as the missive “We are bringing you the light!”

What are the detrimental consequences of patriarchal views like that? By the same token, what are the detrimental consequences of simply closing ranks and shutting yourself off? In order for something positive to come out of gentrification, in order for there to be progress people must work together. Since there seem to be two sides to the community, what may be necessary is a collaborative effort versus a community effort. If the two groups remain separate and not collective, in fact, if a collaborative effort does not occur and remains community based, moving beyond Tremé and into the city-at-large, continuing to divide and conquer other neighborhoods, then I believe the heart and soul of New Orleans will be gone. However, if the two groups can find common ground and work together to create a mutual dialogue there just may be the chance to move with common purpose toward collective progress.





Works Cited

Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward. New York: Dover Thrift Editions, 1996.

Britannica, Encyclopedia. “Plessy v. Ferguson.” 2016. Encyclopedia Brittanica, Inc. http://www.britannica.com/event/Plessy-v-Ferguson. 9 May 2016.

DuBois, W.E.B. “The Souls of White Folks.” Darkwater. Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil. New York: Dover, 1999. 23-37.

Fessler, Pam. “After Katrina, New Orleaans’ Public Housing Is A Mix of Pastel and Promises.” NPR, 17 August 2015. npr. http://www.npr.org/2015/08/17/431267040/after-katrina-new-orleans-public-housing-is-a-mix-of-pastel-and-promises. 28 November 2015.

French-Marcelin, Megan. “Gentrification’s Ground Zero.” Jacobin (2015): 1-10.

Gehman, Mary. The Free People of Color of New Orleans: An Introduction. Marrero: Margaret Media, Inc., 2014. Book.

Jervis, Rick. “New Orleans neighborhood boasts rich history.” USATODAY. USATODAY.com, 2 February 2012. Web.

Johnson, Chevel and Stacey Plaisance. “New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood turns 200.” Associated Press (2013): 1-6.

Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightment?” Mary j. Gregory, Trans. Practical Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. 1-7. Book.

Museum, State of Louisiana. “Reconstruction I: A State Divided.” 2016. Louisiana State Museum Online Exhibits The Cabildo: Two Centuries of Louisiana History. 14 July 2017.

New Orleans, Online. “Treme Neighborhood in New Orleans.” 2015. Treme: America’s Oldest African American Neighborhood. 25 February 2016.

PBS. “Banneker’s letter to Jefferson.” n.d. Africans in America. 2 February 2016.

Reckdahl, Katy. “Culture, Change Collide in Treme.” The Times-Picayune [New Oleans] 2 October 2007: 1-4. Web.

Sayre, Katherine. “New Orleans home prices up 46 percent since Hurricane Katrina; suburbs more modest.” The Times-Picayune 11 August 2015: 1-6. http://www.nola.com/business/index.ssf/2015/08/new_orleans_home_prices_up_46.html .

Spring, Joel. Deculturalization and the Struggle for Equality: A brief History of the Education of Dominated Cultures in the United States. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2004. Book.

Staff. “Summary of Church History.” 2007. St. Augustine Catholic Church of New Orleans. 12 December 2015.

Staff, History.com. Hurricane Katrina. 7 March 2009. <http://www.history.com/topics/hurricane-katrina>.

Woodward, Alex. “New Orleans one of the worst U.S. cities for renters.” 30 March 2015. www.bestofneworleans.com:Gambit. Web. 12 December 2015.

“Welcome Home Sisters!”: A Personal and Political Education

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For Rebecca in Barter on the occasion of our 1st Michigan Womyn’s Music festival. by Caroline (and Monika) from Montreal, Canada August 16, 1987

Before Michigan

I’d never seen

a womon with one breast

I’d never seen

womyn walking nude

hand in hand

very simple

but I’d never seen it

Before Michigan

I’d never seen

thirty Amazon mud wrestlers

or womyn

whose breasts

held worlds of their own


creating crafts

for womyn only:

purple velvet

silver labyris

clitoris in pearl

I’d never

walked alone in the woods


of rape


before Michigan

I’d never seen

so many stomachs, thighs,

breasts, buttocks,

so many colored

pubic hairs

made public

with ease



I’d never seen

so many Lesbians

I’d never had the chance

to love so openly

to stand pressed to my lover

outside our tent

orgasms still coursing through us

flute or bongos in the background

womyn stiring, womyn moving,

womyn loving

like us

near by

Before Michigan

I knew diversity

could be respected

amongst womyn

but I’d never

lived the reality

like this…..

womyn of colors, white womyn,

sober support, over forties,

DART, young womyn

interpretation by voice or hand

I’d never seen

children growing

with the education I missed

Before Michigan

I’d never seen

a womon with one breast.


[1] From Voices From The Land http://www.michfestmatters.com/


The above poem was written for a breast cancer survivor as trade for a velvet treasure bag at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival barter market. Every August since 1976 women from around the country and around the world have gathered in rural Michigan for the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (Michigan). More than ten years ago, when I first learned of this annual gathering in celebration of lesbian feminist culture, I knew that I wanted to attend Michigan. As a lesbian feminist who loves music and nature, six days deep in the woods surrounded by other lesbian feminists and some of my favorite musicians, comics, and spoken-word artists seemed like a little piece of heaven on earth. For ten long years I heard the distant drumbeat of my tribe but there was always some reason I couldn’t go; I didn’t have the money, I didn’t have the vacation time from work, I didn’t have anyone to go with, I was at residency for graduate school, I was afraid of the reaction from my activist communities due to controversy over trans inclusion at the festival .  When I learned that 2015 would be the 40th and last Michigan I knew I had to make the pilgrimage despite my fears. I couldn’t let this, my last opportunity, slip away.

I had no idea at the time that Michigan would prove to be more than a camping trip, more than a simple music festival, more than a series of workshops, but a full-fledged educational experience.  It may be unusual to think of a music festival as a school, but in his essay “Movements making knowledge: a new wave of inspiration for sociology?” Laurence Cox (2014) writes, “Much of the knowledge now treated as unproblematically academic, including some of its highest status products, has roots in the efforts of popular movements to contest the status quo” (p. 957). I was already steeped in feminist theory and knew quite a bit about the lesbian feminist culture responsible for shepherding in birth and abortion rights, the equal rights amendment, rape-crisis centers, and women’s shelters, basically the culture celebrated at Michigan. With that background, I certainly didn’t expect to leave Michigan with a whole new perspective on both my role as a feminist activist and my personal identity as a “fat butch dyke”. I didn’t expect Michigan to be as much or even more about education than it was about entertainment. Even today I struggle to articulate both my actual experiences of the festival and the depth of meaning this six-day excursion in the Michigan woods has had on my life.


[1] I will not devote space in this essay for this twenty-year controversy. For more information, see:

  • Official festival statements: http://michfest.com/community-statements/
  • Myths and truths about Michigan: http://www.michfestmatters.com/myths-and-truths-about-the-michigan-womyns-music-festival/
  • History of camp trans: http://eminism.org/michigan/faq-protest.html

When I think of education in the most technical sense there are three words that come to mind—curriculum, pedagogy, and community. Michigan was not only a space for women to live, even briefly, outside the confines of capitalist heteropatriarchy, but it also held space for lesbian feminists to share their culture and language. The curriculum at Michigan was vast and varied; from singing circles to writing workshops, from anti-racism dialogues to herbal medicine demonstrations there was something for everyone. Michigan was a model of “how kindness might produce pedagogical relationships that sow the seeds of possibility for the transformation of … lives” and was an answer to the questions “how might we imagine a feminism that uses kindness as a pedagogical strategy? And what might feminist kindness in the classroom do to the lives, bodies, experiences, and identities that inhabit these spaces” (Magnet, Mason, & Trevenen, 2014, p. 1). Finally, a safe and supportive community was at the heart of everything that transpired on the festival land.

After two days of driving the 900 miles across Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan my partner Dena and I arrived at “The Line”. Thousands of women were lined up for over 8 miles in RV’s, SUVs, trucks, minivans, and compact cars. Some with nothing but a backpack, some with automobiles overflowing with gear. As I lowered my window I began to hear the the refrain, “Welcome home sisters!” What started out feeling kitschy, soon gathered meaning and started to feel real. On the line women of all shapes and sizes and colors, all smiling and waving, greeted us as if we were family. In her entry in Voices From The Land (2016) festival attendee Artemis writes, “My partner walks The Line with the girls and explains, quite plainly, that everyone they see here is female. That one with the beard? Female. That one with the tie and coat? Female. Those two women over there, with the kid just learning to walk? That is a family. Us, here together? We are a family too.” This was the first lesson I began to learn even before entering the gates, I was part of a global tribe of women, of feminists and lesbians. I had a culture and a community, and here I had found a whole new family. For the next 8 hours, as afternoon turned to dusk and dusk turned to evening, we started to get to know this new family while we slowly made our way to the festival gate.

My partner and I finally entered the gates at 9pm as darkness was beginning to settle over the festival grounds. Some of the festival crew suggested we might want to park and spend the night in our car, but having just spent two days in my compact Mazda3 the last thing I wanted to do was spend another minute in its too small confines. Little did we know that we still had hours to get through orientation, pick out our work shifts, load and unload our gear, and figure out how to set up camp in the pitch-black darkness of the rural Michigan woods. You must understand that the land where this festival was built is almost entirely untouched forest; there were no designated campsites pre-cleared of forest debris. Somehow we picked a spot and hung our meager lantern on a branch. I briefly regretted getting the two-room Taj Mahal of tents as we struggled to untangle impossibly long tent poles and what seemed like miles of incomprehensible nylon in almost complete darkness. It was after 1:00 AM when we finally—gratefully, despite the cold temperatures and a leaking air mattress—settled into our first night of much needed rest.

The first morning on the land brought a wave of lessons. Professor Bonnie Morris (1999) describes some of the sensations felt by first-time attendees in her book Eden Built By Eves where she writes, “Forget structure and hierarchy for a moment, the first shock for festival virgins is the plethora of breasts. This is women-only space, folks— which means the freedom and safety to go without a shirt in the soft summer air. It means for many a woman the first day of being at home in her body and the first sensation of sun on her bare back since babyhood. There is no need to cover up here; there is no need for shame” (p. 67). I was immediately in awe of women of every age, size, color, and gender presentation all seeming comfortable and safe in their own skin, clothed and unclothed. It didn’t matter if a topless woman was 350 or 120 pounds, we still looked each other in the eye as we passed, no sneers, no cat calls, no judgments. Even though I felt the heavy burden of a lifetime of female socialization and body shame lifting slightly the hardest part of the second day for me was the showers!

Michigan didn’t have any indoor facilities. There were several shower areas like the one pictured below. They were simply ten shower heads, five on each side of a wooden structure with one curtained shower on the back, referred to as the “shy shower.”

Figure 1:https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/07/fe/48/07fe488822751a8e4274937a886cb889.jpg

After such a long day on the line and setting up camp the night before, I was in dire need of cleansing. As I stood in line waiting for a free spot I got more and more nervous about being so vulnerably naked in front of so many other women. When the first shower opened, I froze. I couldn’t do it. My partner took that first open shower. When the next opened I still couldn’t do it. I waited for the shy shower. As I cleaned off the dust and sweat of the day before I vowed to myself that I was going to somehow overcome this paralyzing fear built on body shame. This became my personal goal for the week; I would walk the land naked at least once before I had to leave it behind.

For the week 6,609 women came together as a family, cooking together, cleaning together, loving together, playing together, showering together, and even fighting together. In short, collectively doing all the things needed to make any home or community a functional place. Safety was the number one priority and collective actions of this makeshift family ensured everyone’s basic needs were met. A kitchen staffed with a mix of festival worker crew and many attendee volunteers cooked hot vegetarian meals three times a day over wood fired cooking pits kept burning overnight for the entire festival. DART, the Disabled Access Resource Team, provided a special centralized camping area, shuttle services around the festival grounds for people with mobility issues, wheelchair accessible showers, and ASL interpreter services at all shows and requested workshops. The Oasis was a place to find any kind of emotional or addiction support. Basic health services for all attendees could be found at The Womb. Outside of the official festival services, women helped each other whenever a need was seen.

I was thrilled to live in a land where “feminist” was not a dirty word, where capitalist heteropatriarchy was not the predominant belief system, and where it was safe to be anyone I wanted to be. A friend of mine recently wrote a Facebook post about some of her Michigan experiences and the loss we share at the closing of the festival:

Michfest, above all else, was a place for womyn to heal from patriarchal trauma and abuse. Approximately 80% of womyn at Michfest were lesbians or bisexual, and many were also differently abled, womyn of color, sexual abuse survivors, butch and gender non-conforming womyn who experienced a lot of discrimination, Deaf or hard-of-hearing, economically disadvantaged, closeted for safety, and/or in recovery. Michfest was our one safe place, maybe the only 650 acres on Earth where womyn were free. That is why all the vitriol against Michfest is such a punch to the gut. Trans activists paint us as a “hate group,” when in fact we are a hateD group, trying to heal. Michfest was, for so many womyn who had survived girlhood, a place of healing from spending our whole lives dealing (to various degrees) with misogyny, abuse, and oppression in patriarchy. There were multiple, daily Sacred Singing Circles, recovery meetings, healing workshops, sweat lodges for abuse survivors, and so on and so forth…and these healing circles and rituals were frickin’ intense. I will never forget the intensity of both the joy, of womyn and girls dancing naked and giddy and free in a circle of sisters, and the pain, the unbelievable pain that surged out of womyn in the form of screams, moans, gagging, tears, gasps, fists pounding the dirt. That literal, physical purging of pain and oppression was often what it took in order to begin healing. It may have been the only place in the world where that purging and healing was possible at that level and with that level of safety…. We had *no time or energy* to put towards oppressing trans people, as trans activists claim, because all our time and energy was required for healing ourselves and each other. AND WE WERE NOT DONE (Gabrielle, 2016).

Never, before Michigan, would I have thought it possible for a big butch woman to parade in a tutu. Never, before Michigan, would I have thought it possible for 30 nude women of color to march in the center of town chanting, “Naked and safe is beautiful.” Never, before Michigan, have I seen girlhood in all its diversity so genuinely celebrated. From archery and hatchet throwing to hula hoops and stilt-walking, dressed in bowties or fairy wings, at Michigan girlhood mattered.

Throughout the week I had a lot to learn from this community of women. Before I could keep my personal promise of walking the land naked I had to learn some hard lessons about me as a fat woman, as a feminist, and as a butch dyke, as well as lessons about the safety and compassion of a community built on a foundation of radical feminist idealism. Fortunately, the loving community of Michigan was just the first aspect of its educational potential. In retrospect I see that there was also an astounding curriculum that was delivered through a powerful pedagogical model that encouraged active participation through its emphasis on kindness, compassion, and safety.

An unspoken but clear commitment to kindness toward each other and the planet at the heart of Michigan made it a place where curiosity and accountable relationships were formed even where there were strongly divergent positions. In 1991 a transwoman, Nancy Buckholder, was asked to leave the festival which sparked a 24-year controversy over trans inclusion and the festival intention as a place of celebration of women and girls who were born female. Despite the festival organizers’ repeated denunciation of the 1991 incident as a mistake, as well as the simple fact that transwomen were always present at the festival, many queer activists have targeted Michigan as well as performers and attendees with boycotts and even extreme threats of violence (see https://terfisaslur.com for examples). Although I had read all about the controversy from outside the festival, I was very curious to see how the topic of trans inclusion was discussed within festival. I was surprised to see that, not only was the topic of trans inclusion discussed but, even in its very last year, several workshops in different formats were dedicated to facilitating the challenging conversations around the controversial topic. I chose to attend two Allies in Understanding workshops and one Imagining an Inclusive Festival workshop.

Early in the first workshop we discussed the practice of radical listening. Radical listening is the startlingly simple idea of listening closely to whoever is speaking instead of thinking about what you want to say next. It seems simple, but it turns out to be more difficult in practice than one would expect. After practicing radical listening and modeling communication techniques that allowed for expression of controversial and even upsetting differences of opinion, the workshop leaders asked everyone to line up along a spectrum depending on how they felt about the idea of trans inclusion in the festival. The line was then folded in half and we were partnered with our ideological opposite in the spectrum and asked to share our feelings and radically listen to the feelings of our partner. I talked about being in what I termed the “Michigan closet,” not feeling safe in my community because I planned to attend the festival and how that was such a shame because so much of the hatred was based on misinformation. The woman I shared this with reflected similar feelings and together we wondered how we could tell the story of Michigan in a way that could be heard by these people we care about but who don’t understand the intention of the festival.  Obviously, I was not on an extreme end of the spectrum and the woman I was partnered with in this exercise was open to a creative dialogue. I don’t know that anyone’s views were significantly changed because of the exercise, but after the workshop one woman who had a more extreme position on the topic said that she thought the respectful conversations that she had over the two days allowed for a deeper level of understanding, if not harmony, than could ever be achieved in the flame wars of social media.

Another example of understanding across difference came from my partner Dena who is a Jewish Palestine solidarity activist. She met several Zionist women at the “Jews Choosing Justice Despite our Fears” workshop for Jewish-identified women.  Although the conversation they had was difficult and uncomfortable, she later told me that the experience allowed women from opposite ends of a heated spectrum to hear each other in ways that had not previously been possible. Later in the day we sat with one woman from the workshop who told her “I can hear it coming from you here in this space.” Unlike anywhere else in my experience, within Michigan people from opposite ends of extremely emotionally charged issues came together to talk through and learn from each other with respect. The feminist ethos of radical listening, unconditional love, and deep mutual respect built into the Michigan foundations and maintained even when we vehemently disagreed, created a space where discussion could occur between different modes of knowing, ultimately creating new knowledge and better understanding.

In a recent Feminist Teacher article, “Feminism, Pedagogy, and the Politics of Kindness” Shoshana Magnet, Corinne Lysandra Mason, and Kathryn Trevenen (2014), describe “curiosity [as] an emotion necessary to learning and discovery, one that thrives more easily in an environment where students feel safe to try out different ideas and to dialogue with one another. In this way, a pedagogical commitment to kindness also helps to foster curiosity, an essential feature of education” (p. 8). They go on to describe a pedagogical method they call “thinking with” where “kindness is understood as a pedagogical strategy to rearrange our engagements with texts and each other, so that ‘thinking with’ rather than ‘speaking to’ or ‘arguing with’ is central to the classroom objectives” (p. 11). In retrospect, I can see that the pedagogy of Michigan was exactly what these teachers were experimenting with in their classrooms, a feminist pedagogy of kindness. At the time of the Allies in Understanding workshop I thought it was crazy and perhaps even a little bit dangerous to “fold the line” and open discussion between the most ideologically opposite participants in the workshop, but now I see that the underlying pedagogy of kindness supported that dialogue in a way where curiosity and the possibility of deeper understanding resulted in conversations that were more geared toward thinking with rather than speaking to or arguing with each other.

The Michigan curriculum incorporated countless subjects that are not available in traditional mainstream educational settings, or even in most social or activist spaces. Some of the topics covered included radical acceptance, feminist history, lesbian culture, and sexual and gender identity. As much as Michigan was a place for affirmative learning, it was also a place for unlearning racism, classism, ageism, ableism, and body shame. This is a radical learning. In her dissertation, Reconstructing Gender, Personal Narrative, and Performance At The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (2011) Lisa Higgins describes Michigan as a place “where women strive to revise regressive models of community and unlearn the negative ‘–isms’ that permeate the larger patriarchal culture. … At Festival, this large gathering of women creates intersections from a range of races, classes, communities, and backgrounds where even this feminist institution is questioned, targeted, and criticized by its own participants” (p. 36). In academia we learn about joining the academic conversation which sometimes means questioning the foundations and separations of disciplines. Similarly, Michigan provided a safe place to not only celebrate lesbian feminist culture, but to seriously question, debate, and expand the beliefs at the heart of that culture. Michigan could serve as a model for education that asks important questions like: What are valid ways of knowing? Whose knowledge is valuable? Whose voices are being left out? How do we communicate across difference?

In their essay, “The Woman-Identified Woman,” Radicalesbians (1970) wrote:

To the extent that she cannot expel the heavy socialization that goes with being female, she can never truly find peace with herself. … Those of us who work that through find ourselves on the other side of a tortuous journey through a night that may have been decades long. The perspective gained from that journey, the liberation of self, the inner peace, the real love of self and of all women, is something to be shared with all women – because we are all women. (p. 1)

The radical feminist values at the core of Michigan made it a place where women could, even briefly, expel the heavy socialization that goes with being female to do the work, individually and collectively, of getting through to the other side of this tortuous journey. The legacy of Michigan is the perspective, liberation, inner peace, and love gained by all of us who have lived and loved and learned on that sacred land and in that truly feminist educational tradition. Michigan will be remembered as a community where the lives and culture of women, regardless of race, ability, size, gender expression, age, religion, or sexual orientation were validated and celebrated. Michigan was a model for education that incorporated a curriculum built according to the needs and desires of all who came through the gates rather than the interests of capitalist heteropatriarchy. Michigan was a place where a pedagogy of kindness made possible true curiosity and radical understanding even where disagreements seemed insurmountable.

With this I am brought full circle to the poem included as a preamble to this essay “Before Michigan / I knew diversity / could be respected /amongst womyn / but I’d never / lived the reality / like this… / I’d never seen / children growing / with the education I missed.” I am profoundly grateful to have experienced a taste of the education, community, curriculum, and pedagogy found at Michigan. Though I regret all the years I missed, I hope to share the fundamental lessons of radical acceptance and feminist empowerment far beyond the gates of Michigan and into the wider world where those lessons are so tragically needed.

As women filed out of closing ceremonies on the final night of the final Michigan I still hadn’t kept my promise to myself. I had managed to take a few showers outside of the “shy shower” under the cover of darkness, never looking up, and with my towel close at hand for a quick cover-up for the return to the tent. I had one last chance. Had I learned any of the lessons of Michigan? Had I let go of any of the emotional baggage from a lifetime of oppression and female socialization? Had I learned to trust? It was time to find out!

Elizabeth Ritzman’s Voices From The Land entry echoes my own sentiments about that last shower and living in the safety and shelter of womyn’s land, she writes, “I remember finding the courage to go shower in the moonlight, and how I never wanted to leave. That safe feeling sheltered by the trees, pebbles beneath my feet, the giggling girls in the trees, that moon, womyns bodies of all sorts wet and glistening, murmuring to each other in the night. This is what it must be like to live in a world created and defined by women. The night is an intimate friend, no longer a threat to be managed.” I stepped out from under the water and walked, cleaner and lighter, for the first time on that sacred land wearing nothing but moonlight.  This final lesson I learned at Michigan was both the most challenging and the most personally and politically rewarding. Body shame is ubiquitous in our culture and has played a particularly destructive role in my life as a fat butch dyke. It took a whole week, the cover of darkness, and the courage, compassion, and radical acceptance of over 6,600 women in sacred community to loosen the bonds of body shame in myself. The bonds are still there today, but for a brief moment, I was able to see what the world might be like without them, and it was phenomenal!





Cox, L. (2014). Movements making knowledge: a new wave of inspiration for sociology? Sociology, 48(5), 954-971.

Magnet, S., Mason, C. L., & Trevenen, K. (2014). Feminism, Pedagogy, and the Politics of Kindness. Feminist Teacher, 25(1), 1-22.

Morris, B. J. (1999). Eden built by Eves: The culture of women’s music festivals: Alyson Publications.

Radicalesbians, Ÿ. (1970). The woman identified woman: New England Free Press.

Voices From The Land. (2016). Michfest Matters.  Retrieved from http://www.michfestmatters.com/