(Book Review) Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy

I wrote this book review on January 4th. I like to work a week ahead when I can. I did not know that on January 6th there would be a violent, white supremacist insurrection at the Capitol. So, I want to leave intact my thoughts from before, but add something as well.
America is not great. We have never been great. The United States has been powerful. It has been prosperous. But we have never lived up to the ideals we were founded on—ideals about human equality written by slaveowners who did not include women in their aspirational notions of our nation, either. I love this country. I get as romantic as anyone about the ideals we are meant to represent, but I also did my graduate research on discourses about citizenship in American literature and I have done the studying to know that we have never, not once ever lived up to being “great.” We have only been a democratic republic in which all citizens were enfranchised for about 55 years. (Oh wait, no we haven’t, because remember the felons.) And as soon as we reached that milestone with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one party set about doing everything they could to sneakily disenfranchise people again. The modern Republican party cannot win presidential elections without voter suppression.
As many have said, what happened on Wednesday was not surprising to anyone who has been paying attention since Donald Trump announced his candidacy by calling Mexicans rapists and criminals. This is the logical conclusion of his rhetoric. There were Confederate flags in our Capitol. Really, talk about losers. Talk about traitors. My blood ran cold. There was a hangman’s noose on Capitol Hill. There are a lot of areas where I think we can probably compromise in politics. White supremacy is not one of them. Absolutely not. Not a chance. Never.
I struggle knowing that people I love voted for this immoral, craven, stupid liar who has enabled some of the very worst groups and exploited some of the more vulnerable. It hurts my heart.
White supremacy is a moral rot that cannot stand. It is dangerous to all of us. It is anti-American, anti-Christian, ignorant, against our best interests, and I just can’t even. I can’t. This country was built on it and we will never, ever, ever be great until we have a moral reckoning, a real one, repent, apologize for where we have failed our fellow humans, and move forward.
January 4th, 2021:

My husband is Puerto Rican, an identity that is unified but heterogeneous, a mixture of Spanish colonizers, African slaves, and Indigenous Latin American people. Most of the time, this fact slips under the current of the intimacy of our relationship. He is just Julio. He listens to salsa music when he works. He cooks us pasta every Sunday and has a passion for baking French bread. The fact of our inter-ethnic marriage usually only comes into our heads when confronted with white supremacist ideology. Then I wonder how safe we really are, how safe Julio is, running or driving. I wonder if there are people we know who look down on our marriage. I wouldn’t be surprised now that I know how many people in our circles were willing to vote for a white supremacist.
I read a lot of scary books, but Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy by Talia Lavin is easily the scariest thing I’ve read in a long time. Lavin, a Jewish, feminist, antiracist journalist, infiltrated multiple white supremacist spaces online in order to better understand modern white supremacist ideology and how it circulates and proliferates online. In her book, she follows the racist and anti-Semitic genealogy of the alt-right and traces its support of Donald Trump and the ultimate, shocking conclusion that he was not extreme enough for many of these people. Her depiction of how white supremacists and their ideas hide in our midst like a “plague” is timely and haunting.
In the current culture of antiracist books, I think Lavin’s journalism offers a really important portrait of how anti-black and brown racism and anti-Semitism are woven together. The blurb on the cover from Rebecca Traister reads “Brutal, urgent, [and] also unexpectedly delicate.” I think that’s a pretty good, succinct description of what makes this book so good. Lavin has a light, pithy tone that hums along through truly depressing material until it lands hard, sometimes humorous or self-deprecating punches. For example, she is chased out of a convention for white supremacist YouTubers and one of them later compares her to a pigeon. As she rehashes the event, she notes: “(I am not shaped like a pigeon. I’m more of a noble heron or perhaps a heavily pregnant stork.)” (161). I was moved by how far she was willing to go to uncover how these white supremacist subcultures function and how they infect broader civil discourses. I was scared for her just reading it.
I thought that the best chapter (worst?) was the one in which she infiltrated a white-only dating site, posing as a white supremacist chick ready to make white babies and be a traditional wifey. Through her analysis, she paints a stark portrait of how misogyny and white supremacy intertwine, perfectly setting up the following chapter on Incels (“Involuntarily Celibate.” They hate, and sometimes kill, women because they are not having sex with them. Sex that they deserve because they are white men, ffs). This chapter also demonstrates how humane Lavin is. As much as she abhors white supremacy, she is still able to see the humanity in the people she encountered on the site:

“Here’s the truth that emerged for me out of a whole lot of deception, out of becoming Ashlynn and courting her suitors. The worst people are still people; their humanity is impossible to disregard, but it does not absolve them. If anything, it makes their choices more abhorrent, surrounded, as they are, by the banality of a life indistinguishable from other lives. Even a self-described Nazi eats dinner, and chances are it’s pork and pinto beans, and would you like the recipe?” (85)

It’s scary how mundane it all is.
When I worked in a jail, I met a fair number of white supremacist or adjacent people and I was kind of mystified by how often that ideology intersected with religion. Lavin also has an illuminating chapter about how white supremacy relies on old-timey notions of Christianity or paganism for its origin story.

“What all these obsessions—with medieval Christianity, with Christian symbolism, and with the Middle Ages in particular—reflect is not just a desire to devolve to a society that was more warlike, built on casual and deadly violence. It also reflects a desire to create an origin myth for whiteness—and imbue a thrown-together and internally inconsistent ideology with an intoxicating whiff of ancient virtue” (141).

In another valuable chapter, Lavin explains what Antifa is and how it functions, a good and necessary text in response to the transformation of anti-fascists into a boogeyman on some corners of the web. And FoxNews.
If you are already invested in reading anti-racist literature, this book is clearly in your wheelhouse and will probably make you feel really mad and scared too. But, if you do not normally read these sorts of books, I think you should definitely read this one. It’s eye-opening and nauseating. Or at least it should be.

Further Reading
Timeline: U.S. Citizenship Law
Comps Notes: Theories of Citizenship and Nation
Two Books On Racism in American Christianity
One Person, No Vote

A Principle and an Equation I Wish Would Become Popular Knowledge in 2021

For nerds (or listeners of Reply All), both of these concepts are possibly old news, but as I think about the persistent problems that enable really big problems, I keep finding myself thinking about two concepts: the Dunning-Kruger Effect and a mathematical equation by David Robert Grimes that illustrates how many people would have to keep a secret for large-scale conspiracies to be true. 

First, the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Have you ever been in a meeting or a class and some bonehead keeps spouting off or trying to take the lead, clearly believing that his ideas are the best even though he is underperforming everyone else? If yes, then you have witnessed the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action. 

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is based on an experiment published in a 1999 paper by Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. They tested participants in their study on logic, grammar, and sense of humor and found that those who tested in the lowest quartile rated themselves as far above-average. They explained: “Those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it” (Psychology Today).

One of the problems of our current political climate that really grinds my gears is the devaluing of expertise. In the name of getting rid of elitism, there has been a rise of anti-intellectualism that I find stunning. Instead of trusting people who have devoted their careers, or sometimes their whole lives, to a certain area of study or work, that expertise has been subjected to conspiracy theories, slander, or plain refusal to listen. For example, politicians are often subjected to the question “Do you believe in Climate Change” as though the scientific community is not in near-unanimous agreement about the issue. For example, Dr. Anthony Faucci, a leading expert on viral disease, is treated like a shill. I think that there are a couple of issues at play in this dynamic, but the easiest one to spot is this insistence that we are all entitled to our opinions. Sure, you can think whatever you want, but not all opinions are created equal. Just because someone thinks something and expresses it with conviction does not make that thought reasonable or, more importantly—true. Arguments require evidence and logic not just likes and retweets. 

Played out on a large scale, the Dunning-Kruger Effect has given us a government full of celebrities and rich people’s buddies who lack expertise, experience, mastery of the English language, and so on, because their belief in their abilities far exceeds those abilities. Call me old-fashioned, but I want the people in positions of power or influence to actually know what they’re doing. Bring back the nerds! (And altruism, please!)

Now, about those conspiracy theories. Working in a library, I was at first really surprised by how popular books on conspiracy theories were. But then, over the last few years, conspiracy theories like Q Anon and P l a n d e m i c (spelling them so as not to be picked up in search engines) have gone viral. It is easy to deride conspiracy theories and the people who believe in them. And I believe that they should be resoundingly debunked as the nonsense that they are, especially when they are as dangerous as these two theories are. BUT, I think it helps to understand that conspiracy theories tend to become popular when the world feels out of control. The conspiracy theory offers an explanation and usually villains behind why things are so out of sorts. For some, it is easier to believe the conspiracy than it is to believe that things have just gone terribly wrong. 

The West Wing =] Allison Janney cj cregg TWW TWWEdit almost done!  katiedits* top10tww I take every opportunity to include a quote about gun  control in these thank you aaron sorkin

To my eye, however, the most obvious problem with these large scale conspiracy theories is just how many people would have to keep the secret for the theory to even be plausible. I think of CJ Cregg on The West Wing and how sure she is that there aren’t aliens because there’s no way the federal government could keep that secret for this long.

So, you can imagine my delight when I heard that a mathematician at Oxford University had come up with an equation to calculate how many people would have to keep a secret for a conspiracy theory to be true. 

“Dr Grimes then looked at four alleged plots, estimating the maximum number of people required to be in on the conspiracy, in order to see how viable these conspiracies could be. These include: the theory that the US moon landings were a hoax (411,000 people); that Climate Change is a fraud (405,000 people); that unsafe vaccinations are being covered up (22,000 people assuming that only the World Health Organisation and the US Centers for Disease Control are conspirators and that others involved in advocating, producing, distributing and using vaccines are dupes. 736,000 people if, as would be more likely, pharmaceutical companies were included); that the cure for Cancer is being suppressed by the world’s leading pharmaceutical firms (714,000 people).”

He also took the math a step further and also calculated how long it would take for certain conspiracy theories to be uncovered by either a whistleblower or an accidental leak. 

If we apply this reasoning to, for example, COVID, if the pandemic was a hoax all of these people would have to keep the secret: the WHO, the CDC (everyone at these organizations, from secretaries up), world governments, doctors, nurses, nursing home staff, the other employees at hospitals and nursing homes, families of people who have gotten sick, funeral home workers, public health workers, reporters, fact-checkers, and so on. It’s a lot of people across the globe. 

As I’ve watched the news over the last year, these two concepts have popped into my head over and over. Life feels really complicated right now and I think that makes a lot of us vulnerable to charlatans and boneheads, but thinking through things calmly almost always helps. 

Further Reading

Understanding the Dunning-Kruger Effect 

An expert on human blind spots gives advice on how to think

Impostor Syndrome: The Flip Side of the Dunning-Kruger Effect

One giant … lie? Why so many people still think the moon landings were faked

Equation shows that large-scale conspiracies would quickly reveal themselves

How many people does it take to keep a conspiracy alive?

Secret success: equations give calculations for keeping conspiracies quiet


The Tale of the Delia’s Glitter Jeans

A Ghost of Christmas Past

Remember Delia’s? If you were an adolescent girl in the 1990s or early 2000s, surely you must. The Delia’s catalog would come in the mail and I wanted everything. I had previously had a smaller version of this experience with the American Girl doll catalog, but with that wishlist I was more reasonable. When I was in the first grade, a group of girls told me that I couldn’t be friends with them because I didn’t have a Pound Puppy. I acquired that Pound Puppy and the stakes were raised much higher: I couldn’t be their friend unless I had an American Girl doll. Christmas came and went and I had my doll and they still wouldn’t be my friends. It didn’t matter, though, because now I had the doll. At seven years old I had sense enough to understand that they weren’t being friendly. I did not have that sense at 15. At 15, my insecurity had few limitations.

So the Delia’s catalog would arrive and I would flip through the pages and I would picture myself in the outfits, mentally trying on different personas. I wanted all of them. I would be better if I was just different. And then I felt bad for the wanting. I was starting to grow into a more adult understanding of greed and modesty and the value of a dollar, but even these rational parts of me could not quiet the utter longing to look pretty and cool, preferably with flat abs. So when Christmas rolled around, I created an elaborate list, with pictures, of what I wanted from the Delia’s catalog. In this very consumerist part of the world, that may be fairly typical behavior, at least if I believe TV ads, but I still feel such shame and regret. Then came the glitter jeans.

I think the term was spacedyed. The jeans were dyed with a gradient ranging from a pale, icy blue to a medium blue at the cuffs and they were glittery. The glitter was actually part of the fabric, not glued on like at the Limited Too (a store I was never petite enough to shop at, frankly). They were pretty darn cute. And I got them for Christmas. And then I only wore them twice, and never to school. I felt so bad about it, hoping that my mom wouldn’t notice. I probably should have exchanged them, but the thing is, I really liked them. I was just too scared to wear them.

Part of the problem was the fit. When you’re an even moderately tall woman (5’8″ for example) buying jeans can be stupidly difficult. Then, throw in the unfortunate super low rise trend of my high school years and things got worse. These jeans fit fine, but the rise was low enough that I felt like if I sat or kneeled or anything, my crack would come peeking out. The real issue, though, was that I had never seen anyone wear anything like them. Were they as cool as I thought they were? Or were people going to notice me? Fearing that I would stick out, I wasn’t brave enough to wear them.

I look back and know two things. First, those jeans were cool. The fabric felt cheaper than it should have, but the overall style of the jeans was pretty darn cute. Second, I was cool. I look back and marvel at how insecure I was. I was so smart and driven and I was into classic books and old movies and I could put together a cute little retro outfit. I wrote my own magazine out of my bedroom and ran through cartridges of ink (thanks, Mom and Dad) printing it for my friends. I was a whole person and I do not understand why I was cutting off bits of myself and hiding them in my bedroom. It made me miserable, and I’m sure it made me miserable to be around. I don’t get it. I should have worn the jeans.

Now that we’ve established that you remember Delia’s, do you remember A Christmas Carol? Remember when the Ghost of Christmas Past comes and takes Scrooge to see scenes from his past—his lonely childhood, his early career, his fiance leaving him because he loved money more than her? Scrooge looks back, first with love and compassion for himself, then with regret. The regret is stinging and I think we all understand it. This part of the story always makes me so sad, though, because of how Scrooge looks back on his youth and sees it differently with older eyes. It can be hard for us to practice compassion for our younger selves and that can make it hard for us to practice it toward other people. We see this dynamic play out when parents live vicariously through their children or hold them to standards that are designed to heal their own regrets, or when they lash out at them for mistakes that hit a little too close to home. We see this dynamic play out when we dislike someone because they remind us a little too much of something hurtful in our own past. We see it when people think that because they’ve suffered other people should too. Bah, humbug.

So, in this last post of the year, as we approach this difficult Christmas, I have three wishes for you:

  1. Release your Ghost of Christmas Past. Bid some regret or hurt adieu.
  2. Practice compassion for the young people in your life. Tell them, specifically, what you love about them. If you can, nudge them to practice compassion for themselves.
  3. If you get your own glitter jeans, please do not be afraid to wear them.

Merry Christmas! I hope you find some joy in the holiday this year and that 2021 brings better days. (Unless you’re in Congress. Congress gets coal, but not to burn. Think of the environment.) 

Please tell me you had something like my glitter jeans experience. I will feel so much better. Let me know below.

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Wrapping Up 2020 and 2021 Goals

Time to wrap up 2020!

(and throw it in the garbage)

Actually, 2020 has not been a totally bad year for me personally. Julio and I moved into our house, had a baby, and started a small business.

So, we had several big, joyous events, but being in our family’s little bubble did not shield us from stressing and worrying about all of the major things that went horribly wrong. And it has been sad to be so far from our family for so long. My mother still has not met our daughter, who will also spend her first Christmas without our big, wonderful family. Those things are on my heart, along with all the big, terrible events this year.

Remember when quarantine happened and all us type-a creative people thought we were going to write a great novel because Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague? What a laugh. (Unless you did that, in which case you’re amazing.) I did make quite a bit of progress on a nonfiction book that I am writing with two friends, and queried a bunch for another project I’m doing, but I did not write any of the novels I have taken notes for or the nonfiction book I plan to write solo. What I did do during that early quarantine is get sucked into following some bullshit YouTube drama, justifying the experience by taking notes for yet another novel I will probably not write.

I also grew a human. Being pregnant during the pandemic was a weird experience. No birthing class. An online hospital tour. My husband not being allowed to come to ultrasounds. Socially distant baby showers. All that. Plus, there was a healthy dose of fear because the CDC kept moving pregnant women in and out of the high-risk category. There was just so little data! But, we made it, single umbilical artery, extra monitoring, and all.

I had planned to pray a rosary every day during 2020, but when I stopped having a long commute during the initial shutdown, the time I had naturally carved out for it was gone and it was hard to keep up with when every day felt weirdly outside of time. And the repetition stopped feeling prayerful. So, I switched gears and I’m on track to have read the whole Bible between April and the end of the year. I have also really solidified my habit of keeping my notebook after some fits and starts over the last two years and I feel GREAT about that. 

Looking forward to 2021, here are my big-ticket plans.

  1. Get our farm business running and registered as a St. Kateri Conservation Center protected habitat. We are technically very close to qualifying, but I want the place to be more fruitful and to look better before I apply. This step is really important to me as a big part of our hopes for the homestead focus on living closer to the land and the creatures on it. I hope my wildflowers grow this year, the compost gets up and running, and I have a big, healthy pumpkin patch come Fall. Our orchard will take some time, but we plan to develop that more too.
  2. Learn how to spin yarn. I have started playing with a drop spindle using some wool tops and raw alpaca fleece that I bought. We could have up to 60 pounds of raw alpaca fleece about six months from now and I would like to know how to turn it into yarn.
  3. On Sundays, I’m going to take a break from social media. We have gotten into a really nice routine in which we do Mass, then Julio makes pasta and we watch Bishop Barron’s Sunday sermon over dinner. It feels really homey and special and I would like the whole day to have that good, set apart sabbath feeling, and, sadly, no social media is the best way I can think of to accomplish that. It’s amazing how much time and energy it takes, isn’t it? For this space, that means that I will be publishing my posts on Monday morning instead of Sunday, as I have been doing most of this year.
  4. Actually complete my personal reading syllabus. I got so swept up in other books and life with a newborn this year that I barely made a dent in my 2020 syllabus. I have rolled some of it over to 2021 and added several books about unplugging, living more intentionally, and nature. 
  5. Write more. 

Other than that, I am keeping it loose. As this year taught all of us, I think, there’s no knowing what’s ahead and how that might help us write King Lear. Or not. 

Response to that WSJ Article, Kiddo

Honestly, what I want to write is “Mr. Epstein, kiddo, go fork yourself.” But, that’s not terribly productive. Or kind. Or thoughtful. It’s just rude. Much like this editorial. It’s rude. It’s disrespectful. It’s pointless. Talk to some women who have earned their doctorates and many if not most of us have stories of passive-aggressive sexism, disrespect, or the simple thrill of getting addressed by your title when you earned it. Not Miss, Ms. or Mrs. Dr.



So instead of simply telling the WSJ where they can stick their opinion, here are some brief thoughts and facts in response to that garbage opinion piece arguing that Dr. Jill Biden should stop using her honorific because she is not an MD and therefore it feels “fraudulent” or “comic,”


Sorry. It just came out. 

Let’s set aside how disrespectful it was for Mr. Epstein to call Dr. Jill Biden “kiddo” in a major national newspaper. The title doctor originally had nothing to do with medicine, so the idea that only someone who has delivered a baby should be called “doctor” is kind of nonsensical. Also, Dr. Jill Biden has given birth to a child, so she’s delivered a baby, ffs. “Doctor” comes from the Latin verb “docere,” meaning to teach, or a scholar. The Ph.D. is older than the M.D. People have been getting Ph.D.s since long before the time when medical professionals were using leeches and operating out of barbershops. To be specific, Dr. Jill Biden has an Ed.D., which follows the conventions of the Ph.D. There were Ed.D. students in many of my Ph.D. courses because of the intersections between our courses of study.

This argument he makes about honorary Ph.D.s makes no sense, whatsoever. Dr. Biden earned her degree. It wasn’t bestowed on her out of generosity. She. Earned. It. Most people who get honorary doctorates don’t go around addressed as “Dr.” Most people who earn them do. Me? I went by Miss Book Lady, Miss Librarian, or Miss Kasey for a long time because I worked outside of the academy, but I sure appreciate it when people respect me enough to use my title. I especially loved the affectionate “Doc.” Because I earned it. I earned a full-ride for undergrad. I earned a dissertation fellowship. I earned my doctorate. It was hard, lonely work. No one gave that to me just because. I didn’t achieve these things in a vacuum and I’m grateful for the support I had, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t earn my title. Of course, there is also Dr. Samuel Johnson, the famed 18th-century literary critic and dictionary author who went by Dr. Johnson everywhere he could and his doctorate was honorary. So, there are some notable exceptions (*cough* Dr. Cosby).

Yes, there are a lot more Ph.D.s now than there used to be and more professional fields are moving toward doctorates as their terminal degree. My brother, for example, earned a doctorate in physical therapy, which is a relatively new development in his field. But, based on the most recent data, only 13.1% of the U.S. population holds Ph.D.s. EDIT: 13.1% hold master’s, doctorate, or professional degrees. Fewer than 2% hold Ph.D.s It’s not exactly common. It’s not easy. 

And women are starting to earn Ph.D.s more often than men. But, in many fields, women are still far outnumbered. Then, there’s the prestige gap. And, there is a historical trend in professional fields that once women start to make up the majority of the field, the pay goes down. Look at librarians. Teachers. So, by all means, start to disrespect the doctorate once women start to excel there, too. That seems productive.

Finally, not to make it personal, but that the author opens with the fact that he taught at Northwestern for 30 years without a Ph.D., but with “only a B.A. in absentia” really makes it sound like he is in some way jealous or threatened by Dr. Biden’s academic success. And if Ph.D.s are sooo much easier to get than they used to be, why don’t you go get one, bro?

Further Reading:

Jill Biden Tweets Rebuke

What is the Real Difference Between a PhD and MD?

Asking for a Friend

Late one night, I was alone with my then two-month-old daughter, who was asleep in her bassinet while I got ready for bed. In a heartbeat, she went from sleeping peacefully to wailing, her tiny arms and legs flailing and a look of pure fear spreading across her face. I rushed to her, scooping her up and calming her. It was the first time I could register her needing me for a purely emotional reason—she wasn’t hungry or cold; we weren’t working on brain development or hand-eye coordination. She was just scared.

In that moment, it was like I could see through a telescope to the future: my little baby a little girl running to me because someone hurt her feelings, her sweet face crumpled with sadness, her bunny in tow. I know that life and other people are going to sometimes hurt her. I feel prepared to help her through that, however much it hurts me to think of her hurt. I know that I cannot protect her from everything and that I shouldn’t, even if I want to. I feel prepared and capable to love her and mother her in life’s hard moments.

But… (Trigger warning: child loss)

Alongside these moments that I can forecast live dreadful intrusive thoughts. Since my baby was born, each day has brought me a stray terror or two. At first, I would picture someone slipping with her on the stairs, breaking her perfect, fragile head. I would picture waking up in the morning to her not breathing. As she grew sturdier, my imagination went further in scope: car accidents, choking, guns, climate change, kidnapping, mountain lions.

Listen, where I live, mountain lions can attack children. It’s rare, but it happens.

One night, as the baby slept, I found myself looking up the exact statistics on how many parents outlive their children. Roughly 19%. Having tracked down that statistic, feeling vaguely reassured, I looked up some books on postpartum anxiety.

Where is the line between natural worry over your child and postpartum anxiety? Will this fear fade over time?

I read that once you have a child, it is like your heart lives outside your body. I feel this way about my husband. Before him, I would occasionally lie awake updating my disaster plan for how to raise my little sister if my parents died in a car crash. Now that she is relatively grown, I update the plan for what to do if something happens to Julio. If I lost him, my future would be a vast wilderness of loneliness, the terrain growing more complicated as we add a baby and a herd of animals. I can’t fathom it. I try not to dwell on it. There is no plan for what would happen if we lost our daughter. It would shatter me beyond anything I can imagine. I know that much.

But where is the line? Will the daily intrusive thoughts fade with time and as I resist giving them breathing room?

I am no stranger to worry. I have been depressed. I am not now depressed, but I do have a thyroid disease that has masqueraded as anxiety before, and that makes it hard to know if the tightness in my chest and the constant feeling that I could cry are because my hormones are adjusting postpartum and to a new dose of my medicine, or otherwise. I take deep breaths. I look at my daughter’s perfect face. I try not to worry. But I wonder, what level of fear is normal?

We had a mouse in the house and, even after Julio caught it, I worry that it chewed on wires and that the house will spontaneously burn down. As the baby sleeps, I read about how to prevent fire hazards in your home. I have a plan. I have a fire escape ladder. I diligently keep both baby carriers and a leash in the bedroom so that if the worst happens, we could get the baby and the dog out of the house. I have a variation on the plan for if I am alone at the time, thinking through how I would convince the dog to let me swaddle her to my back long enough for us to climb down. I check our fire extinguishers. At least I put my worry to use, I rationalize. Incidentally. this plan also works in case of an intruder.

What if the baby sleepwalks when she’s older and falls down the stairs? I suppose a babygate could help, but what if she tumbled over the babygate? I do not have a plan for this scenario, but am open to suggestions.

I know.

I know that I cannot and will not have a plan for everything. I don’t expect to. But when these fears intrude on my sweet moments with my girl, I try to beat them back with a dose of preparedness.

Also, where is the line? And how do you live with your heart outside your body?

Two Books on Racism in American Christianity

Thus summer, after the killing of George Floyd, there was a movement in Catholic circles on Instagram calling Catholics to #RendYourHearts, praying 18 days for racial justice. There was also an emphasis put on the stories of Black Catholics about their experiences and how the Church can repair from a history of racism and injustice. It gave me a lot to think about. During this time, I saw two books on race in the American church that caught my eye, The Color of Compromise and White Too Long. Because both books look at American Christianity, they deal largely with Evangelical and mainline Protestant churches, but also include information on the Catholic experience in the United States. Because I have a small child at home, it took me several months to get through them both.

(A quick note: I did not realize until I was partway through White Too Long, which I read second, that one of these books is by a Black author, the other by a White author. Although each author’s race is important to their experiences and perspective, I am not doing a comparison of the books on that basis.)

In The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby does a deep historical look at the relationship between racism and Christianity in American history, going back to the Colonial Era. He frames his analysis by looking at the theological compromises that Christians in the United States made in order to excuse or uphold racism. For example, during the slave trade, baptism did not make slaves free, but slave owners were encouraged to evangelize their slaves. Yet, Christian tradition had previously held that Christians should not enslave each other.

Tisby’s analysis follows this thread up through Black Lives Matter and to the present urgency. He explains that facing the complicity Christian churches have had in the racist history of the United States is essential for healing:

“History and scripture teach us that there can be no reconciliation without repentance. There can be no repentance without confession. And there can be no confession without truth.”

In the 20th Century, Tisby examines the rise of the KKK, the complicity of American Christians in Jim Crow and segregation, and the failure of many white churches to speak up during the Civil Rights Movement. Into the 21st Century, he examines the complicity with racism, often via silence, of American Christianity during the Black Lives Matter movement: “Christian complicity with racism in the twenty-first century looks different than complicity with racism in the past. It looks like Christians responding to ‘black lives matter’ with the phrase ‘all lives matter.’ It looks like Christians consistently supporting a president whose racism has been on display for decades. It looks like Christians telling black people and their allies that their attempts to bring up racial concerns are ‘divisive.’ It looks at conversations on race that focus on individual relationships and are unwilling to discuss systemic solutions.”

Tisby’s writing is clear, concise, and moving. He makes apparent how American Christian churches have repeatedly turned away from opportunities to be more just, more inclusive, and more equitable and therefore have been complicit, often through inaction as much as through overt racism, in the continued systemic racism in the United States. It’s a hard read emotionally, but an easy read intellectually because of the clarity of the writing. He also includes stirring calls to be better such as: “Complicit Christianity forfeits its moral authority by devaluing the image of God in people of color. Like a ship that has a cracked hull and is taking on water, Christianity has run aground on the rocks of racism and threatens to capsize—it has lost its integrity. By contrast, courageous Christianity embraces racial and ethnic diversity. It stands against any person, policy, or practice that would dim the glory of God reflected in the life of human beings from every tribe and tongue.”

In White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert P. Jones uses sociological studies to create a data-driven analysis of these same issues. He writes:

“This book puts forward a simple proposition: it is time–indeed well beyond time–for white Christians in the United States to reckon with the racism of our past and the willful amnesia of our present. Underneath the glossy, self-congratulatory histories that white Christian churches have written about themselves is a thinly veiled, deeply troubling reality. White churches have not only been complicit; rather, as the dominant cultural power in America, they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy and resist black equality. This project has framed the entire American story.”

Jones comes to the conversation through his background as a Southern Baptist who was struck by the racist history of his own church—the split in the Baptist church came over slaveholding, with the Southern Baptists branching off during the disagreement. In fact, Jones explains how virtually all of the major mainline Protestant denominations split over slavery. Not letting Catholics off the hook, he also examines the history of colonialism and how that introduced racism into the American Catholic church, even as race works differently in that history. For a long period of American Catholicism, a large portion of the church has been comprised of people who were not viewed as white by a majority of American culture—Irish people, Italians, Mexicans, for example. Catholics were also targeted as unAmerican by the KKK, but that does not mean that Catholics have not also been complicit with racism within American culture. It’s a complicated history and Jones unpacks it adeptly. 

He also looks at how white supremacy has become synonymous with organizations like the KKK and that has become soothing to many because it has concealed the less blatant ways in which white supremacy works in our culture. The most upsetting aspect of the book, for me, was when Jones gets into studies that examined the correlation between Christian belief, church attendance, and racist beliefs. The studies found that, more than any other factor, knowing a person’s affiliation with a Christian church was the easiest single factor for guessing that they would also hold racist ideas. Jones writes: “To put it even more bluntly, if you were recruiting for a white supremacist cause on a Sunday morning, you’d likely have more success hanging out in the parking lot of an average white Christian church–evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, or Catholic–than approaching whites sitting out services at the local coffee shop.”

Jones’s book was slightly less readable than Tisby’s, but the data that he includes is incredibly valuable at making the picture of American Christians’ complicity in racism clear. I think these books work beautifully in tandem for those who are looking to do a deep gut-check on the state of race in the church and how much room there is to do better. 

The Ultimate Thanksgiving Episode Showdown – Revisited

In 2015, Julio and I were newly married and decided that, because we lived across the country from our families, we could only afford the airfare, PTO, and energy to travel home for Christmas. We haven’t been home for Thanksgiving since. In 2020, many people are staying home, away from their families for the holiday, and I want to tell you, as a veteran of spending Thanksgiving away from my family—it’s going to be okay. I will admit, I am strongly biased toward Christmas, but there are plenty of ways you can enjoy Thanksgiving with your own household. As blissful vegetarians, Julio and I have made a tradition of having a feast comprised of all the side dishes (my favorite recipes are here) and watching Thanksgiving TV episodes. That first year, on a short-lived blog we ran, we held a tournament to determine the greatest Thanksgiving episode of all time. For your Thanksgiving enjoyment, I present here a rerun of how that tournament went down, in reverse chronological order (for clarity’s sake, I think). Let me know in the comments: what is your favorite Thanksgiving episode of all time?



Before we begin, a quick note about the process. Each matchup was posted with a survey in the blog post and participants voted on the episodes they thought should win each round. Julio and I generated the seeding for the tournament based on the IMDB rating for each individual episode. At the time, each episode was available on Netflix unless otherwise noted, but what is available for streaming and where has changed significantly since then.

Final Result….

The winner is: “Indians in the Lobby”

I never would have guessed that this would be the result. Honestly, I thought it would go to “Slapsgiving” or Friends. I’m delighted that it went to The West Wing, a show that I love and which produced a few outstanding holiday episodes. As I discussed with our friend Keaton on Facebook, though, I think the better West Wing episode was “Shibboleth,” which lost to HIMYM back in the quarterfinals. (2020 edit: If you rewatch “Sbibboleth” this year, it hits all the harder. Oi.) Although “Indians in the Lobby” raises interesting points about how the poverty line is calculated and the ramifications of that, the relationship between the federal government and tribal governments, and, weirdly, extradition and capital punishment, “Sibboleth” is more focused and resonant than “Indians in the Lobby,” and packs several earned emotional punches, well balanced by some wonderful humor. If you have never seen it, it is worth a watch this holiday. 

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(Book Review) The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

The Water CureThe Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

This book is an odd one. I’ve seen it described as a dystopian coming-of-age fairytale and I think that is mostly a fitting description, but the fairytale part I’m a bit iffy on.

The Water Cure is a story of three sisters, Grace, Lia, and Sky who are raised by their parents on what they think is an island, safe from the toxin that has infected the rest of the world beyond their border. Women sometimes come to their shores to recover and be cured after violent, poisonous experiences with men. Men—except for their father, King—are dangerous, and by keeping the girls isolated and purifying them up through torturous “cures” their parents strive to protect them. They are toughened up through rules and rituals around love, preparing them to do anything for their sisters. The protection itself, however, is traumatizing. Lia explains: “Trauma is a toxin that hooks into our hair and organs and blood and becomes part of us, the way heavy metals do, our bodies nothing more than a layering of flesh around everything ingested and experienced” (46). Then, King dies and three men turn up on the shore.

This book has been compared to The Handmaid’s Tale and I get the comparison, but Mackintosh’s writing style reminds me more of Emma Donaghue, specifically in Kissing the Witch. There is a lightness to her tone, even when the narrators recount difficult, brutal experiences. Somehow, the writing seems to skim over the surface of things without being shallow. That feature makes the book a quick read with a lot of impact.

For example, Lia observes, “Llew puts the lid of the piano down without comment, pushes the stool back. There is a fluidity to his movements, despite his size, that tells me he has never had to justify his existence, has never had to fold himself into a hidden thing, and I wonder what that must be like, to know that your body is irreproachable” (77).

Even still, I did not love this book. I think that there are interesting elements and the ending included a twist that I did not see coming and a gut-turning one that I did predict, but once those twists are revealed, I do not think that Mackintosh took advantage of the emotional punch in a way that fully resonated. I wanted more. More detail. More why. The narrative perspective follows the three sisters, or sometimes a chapter on all of them, but I wonder if having one toward the end that dove more into Mother’s experience before the story opens would have settled my disappointment.

I think this book is at its best when the girls’ experience connects to the world beyond their shores in a way that readers’ might recognize. For example, Lia’s relationship with Llew and his subsequent pushing her away sounds strikingly like a bad, half-assed breakup that it is clearest then of anywhere in the book that the men are meant to represent toxic masculinity, not some sort of dystopian world beyond the shores.

At any rate, The Water Cure puts a unique spin on violence against women and its emotional impact and features a compelling narrative voice. It is not a must-read in my opinion, however, because of how much of the book feels borrowed from other dystopian feminist literature. Fans of that genre, will likely really enjoy this book.

The Queen’s Gambit, Addiction, Grief, and Genius

Like many people in the last few weeks, I started watching The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix and ended up binge-watching it because it is just that good. The seven-episode limited series follows the rise of chess master Beth Harmon from her learning to play from the janitor at her orphanage to playing the Russian world champion. I have loved chess off and on since I was a girl. I was in the chess club in the first grade and grew up playing chess with my dad. One of my life’s regrets is that I didn’t keep playing with him. I gave up in college because I could never, ever beat him and I wasn’t at a place where I wanted to/could put in the time to get better. When I worked as a jail librarian, chess came back onto my radar, because it was popular with the guys and some of them gave me tips to help me beat my husband. Anyway, The Queen’s Gambit is fabulous and in place of doing a cohesive analysis, I just want to do some bullet points of what stood out to me as I watched. Spoilers ahead.

  • Of course, I loved the 1960s costumes and interiors and Anya Taylor-Joy is a treasure. When she wore Twiggy-inspired eye makeup, my husband asked, “What is under her eyes?” and I about screamed “Twiggy!”
  • The series throws us into the story at two critical points in Beth’s life: right before she blows a match by staying out partying in Paris instead of preparing and then, back in time, when she was orphaned. I think perhaps this is an interesting move on the part of the writers because they position two types of loss together. Losing a parent is not even nearly equal to losing a chess match, but for someone as brilliant and unused to losing as Beth is, there is real grief that comes with the latter. How she handles the embarrassment of losing that match in Paris nearly derails her life in a way that is transformative much like being orphaned was. In both instances, she has to make herself anew.
  • As someone who studies girlhood, I enjoyed the depiction of young Beth Harmon. Beth is such an odd, cold girl that her depiction falls out of step with how young girls are expected to behave, and right into tropes more aligned with older male geniuses. It was great. I loved watching her play chess on the ceiling and got a real kick out of the look that passed between her and Mr. Schaibel when the high school chess coach brings Beth a doll—a look that said, “Oh brother; what can you do?”
  • Rarely do we see a story about addiction that starts in childhood like Beth’s does. That the orphanage was giving the girls tranquilizers every day (and in the middle of the day!?) is really troubling and hints at a complicated history around children and pharmaceuticals. I think that the show could have done more with Beth’s recovery from the pills, especially since there were so many murky ties between the pills and her grief, and her sense of control over her life, but that these connections are made without getting super explicit or after school special-y is in itself a pretty nuanced take.
  • loved watching Beth’s relationship with her adoptive mom, Alma (played by Marielle Heller), develop. When Alma finds out that Beth has such a talent for chess and that she could make money playing it, I was concerned that it was going to turn into a terrible momager situation. Instead, the relationship grew with such tentative affection that it was oddly suspenseful. I was relieved that Alma seemed to be interested in Beth’s career, not just for the financial opportunity that it afforded them, but also for the way it broadened her horizons. She benefited from Beth, for sure, but she did not just take the money. She supported her and took an interest in her career. There was a lot at work emotionally between the two and it was wonderful to watch a mother-daughter relationship that was not built on cliches. Both had their demons and, well, I was so fascinated.
  • Beth endures more than her share of grief in the series and the audience sees this play out throughout the character’s story and in flashbacks. Beth usually handles her grief in an intensely reserved fashion and it does not really come out until she finds Mr. Schaibel’s photo of the two of them. (Side note: I was disturbed to find out that she never sent him the $10.) It would be easy to write Beth off as unfeeling, but I think the series does a great job of portraying how still waters run deep. Her grief does not look like people might expect, but there are tokens along the way that point to how she is feeling: Alma’s housecoat, her watch, the photo. Beth is reserved with all of her emotions, so it is no surprise that her feelings of loss would be similarly muted in their expression, but that does not mean she does not feel them. I think our culture has a lot of expectations for what grief looks like and it was refreshing to see a portrayal off that beaten path.
  • Finally, I was delighted when Jolene showed up again and that she was portrayed as having made a successful life for herself in her own right, pursuing her own goals and defining what her success looks like. I think in part this could be an effort to bring a character of color into the very, very white world of chess, but I was glad the effort was made, especially because Jolene is such a fun character.

Did you watch The Queen’s Gambit? What did you think?

The Queen’s Gambit runs for 7 episodes and is rated TV-MA. It was created by Scott Frank, Scott Allan, and Allan Scott.

Further Reading

Ten Books like The Queen’s Gambit

What is the Queen’s Gambit Opening?