Current Events

In the Wake of Parkland: a Love Letter to my Students

February 15, 2018

Dear Students,

I set out yesterday to write you a Valentine’s Day letter, to accompany the chocolate I have shoved at you all week. However, in the wake of yet another school shooting, I lacked adequate words, and a simple letter about your greatness was the wrong tone.

Don’t read me wrong: you are great. As many of you have said (correctly) over the past 10 years, you are the children I didn’t birth. You live here; sometimes it feels like I do, too.  I’ve taught grades 1 through 12. I have kissed your owies. I have counseled your broken hearts. I’ve covered puberty and sexuality education; you’ve given me pink eye and strep throat. We’ve seen each other through migraines, bronchitis, linguistic milestones, graduations, hailstorms, and power outages. Your writing and artwork have been astounding and heartbreaking.

You are amazing.

Over the past 10 years, our school has changed a lot. We lock more doors, we have better alert systems. The teachers wear badges. Sometimes we practice fire evacuations.

Or the dreaded lockdown.

My worst nightmare as a teacher is a lockdown.

Last night, I cried when NPR’s Ari Shapiro interviewed students from Parkland. One of them talked about a staff member shoving students into a closet to protect them from the shooter.

A month ago, I woke up sobbing, and my boyfriend held me while I shook. I’d dreamed about a former student coming back with a gun. Through my tears, I said, “I couldn’t save them. I couldn’t get the door open. I couldn’t get to my kids.” He comforted me and said, “It’s just a dream. You’re okay.”

It isn’t just a dream. Parkland isn’t a dream. Sandy Hook wasn’t a dream. Columbine wasn’t a dream.

Every teacher has students that need extra: extra love, attention, concern, support. We all have someone whose needs are above our training. Maybe not this year. But if we have been teaching long enough, we have taught a student who needed more than we thought we had to give.

My students, I love you. I love you when you are sick, when you are demanding, when you are puzzling. I love you when you are triumphant.

I love you when you are in danger. I will throw you in a closet, behind a bookshelf, under my self if it is necessary.

I love you if you are dangerous, and I am sorry I cannot do enough for you. I am painfully aware of this fact. We strive to provide the resources for you; I hope it is enough, on time, something.

My dear, dear students… I love you.

Your Elle


Can’t Handle the Hustle

I want to write. I want to make art.


I need to write. to make art. to teach, to change minds and ways of thought. I crave input to generate output, but not in an industrial sense. I write better when I’m reading broadly, when I drink deep words and dream the books on my nightstand. I make better art when I hoard found objects and old books and bury myself in the work of James Castle and my former collaborator and artist-educator Troy Passey (both of Idaho).

My art, my writing, my teaching are a reflection of the world within and the world without.

I. Can. Not. Handle. the Hustle.

James Castle made books before bookbinding and bookmaking and altered books were a “thing.” My former elementary students (and some blind students within my school) made hand-stitched books last year, some of which have spent the last 12+ months touring the state of Idaho. I’ve been digging into these arts of late, and the more I learn, the more I feel crushed under the weight of performance, hustle, namedropping, and (dare I say?) circle-jerking.

I want to create, to share, to engage. I want to collaborate and build. Maybe I want to tear some things down in the process of creation. But I see my friends. The friends who put themselves into their art, whose souls I see on the page, the screen, the canvas?

Some of them are dying. We’re going broke in an economy that “corrected” itself this week, as talking heads talk percentages and investments and percentage points that are just numbers on a datastream of using money to make more money.  We’re going bankrupt in a morally bereft landscape trying to scream or throw paint into the void.

I went to the store for paint; that’s the only thing I really want to buy new. I had to wade through a lot of crap to get to the paint. I’m trying to learn from what I see, but I just sat through a 10 minute YouTube tutorial on a certain kind of bookmaking, and if I had made it into a drinking game for every time she had to a) Name drop another blogger/vlogger; b) name drop a product she “just loves”; or c) I don’t need C I am already dead.

My point here is that neither of those things were about creating art in community or collaboration. It was all consumptive affiliate linking and back-patting. Yes, artists need an audience, and hopefully we can sell a poem, or a story, or a painting, and I’d really like someone to pick up that chapbook I just poured my guts into. At the end of the day, however, I don’t want to do art for capitalism’s sake, or for the sake of consumption. I don’t do my job for the sake of the dollar, although I’d die without it. I don’t want to do this just so I don’t die; I want to do this because we live. I want to re-purpose this old shell of the Empire.

But we are dying. Our world is on fire; Idaho rejected (AGAIN, I might add), the science standards related to climate change and human impact on the environment. I don’t want to add to the demand for resources… even though I recognize my preferred media are paper and acrylics.

I can’t handle the hustle. I submit cover letters with no website, because I can’t keep up my blog enough. My health has prevented me from completing my thesis. I’m sick. I’m tired fatigued. I’m pissed, and yet I’m in a good enough place to make some noise. I just have to be my own writer and artist and teacher. Whatever the hell that means. I recognize the privilege I have to NOT hustle. And I will give credit where it is due, but I can not go in these circles where we keep blog linking and back-patting other Crafty Cathy types for making pretties.

James Castle made his ink out of spit and charcoal. We can make our revolution art out of something other than Pinterest-pretty faux-ephemera. Screw your capitalist bougie YouTube branded hustle. That might be the worst sentence I’ve ever published. It’s ok; I’m on steroids. You’ll forgive me.

Trans Military Ban: Some Early Thoughts

Content note: transgender rights, transphobia, transantagonism, LGBTQ discrimination

By now most of us in the U.S. have read of the president’s tweets about overturning an Obama-era decision allowing transgender individuals to serve in the military.

I am not trans, but some of my nearest and dearest are NB and/or trans. I have a lot of mixed and strong thoughts on this. I do not know everything. I can’t promise they will be coherent or consistent. I own that, and in writing I attempt to engage the problem and always be doing better than I was doing before.

By framing the ban as an issue of “medical costs,” the administration has adeptly pathologized the issue as one of  a medical defect, rather than identity. Further, if we do choose to frame it as a medical cost, taxpayer dollars cover prescriptions for the military. The military spends five times more on Viagra than on the combined medical costs for trans personnel. Certainly we aren’t going to stigmatize that, are we? Nope, because what goes on in their pants is none of our damn business.

Of course, there is a delay in implementation. Are we planning to dismiss these active duty service members, despite clean records? That’s a slippery slope of second-tier citizenship for the rest of the LGBTQ community. It sets a dangerous precedent. Would they still be eligible for veterans benefits? The GI Bill, introduced after WWII, discriminated against any soldier discharged for homosexual behavior. Are we willing to go back that far in stripping access and benefits?

The framing of “medical costs” is intentional, as we are currently embroiled in the healthcare debates. Transgender individuals are not a burden to the military, and they are not a burden to society, despite what this president tweeted. Be very careful how this is debated.

A few of my mixed feelings: I am non-violent. I consciously joined a Christian denomination with a peace history and a long line of conscientious objectors. This complicates the issue for me. I want to dismantle systems of power that kill and maim. Military service is not the benchmark for equality, equity, and justice in our society. Even with transgender individuals allowed to serve in the U.S. military, the life expectancy of Black trans women is 35. LGBTQ people in Idaho still do not have housing and employment protections. And both LGBTQ youth and veterans still complete suicide at an alarming rate. See the forest and the trees. This is only one step of likely more to come, toward making LGBTQ people second-tier citizens, or worse.

If you want to do more than just be mad, this is a great Medium post to boost, share, and read:

To the cis person angrily sharing news of the Trump transgender military ban

“I was spanked, and I turned out alright…”

The above headline is not true. The first part is, I guess. However, science demonstrates again and again that spanking, or corporal punishment, or swatting, has lasting detrimental impact on our psyches.

I love science. Especially five decades of science.

Why do parents spank? In my own anecdotal experience, many have said they spank for immediate compliance, when a time-out or a conversation about negative behaviors will not suffice. The lead researcher on the study, Elizabeth Gershoff, stated:

 “We found that spanking was associated with unintended detrimental outcomes and was not associated with more immediate or long-term compliance, which are parents’ intended outcomes when they discipline their children.”

Co-author Andrew Grogan-Kaylor said:

“[S]panking increases the likelihood of a wide variety of undesired outcomes for children. Spanking thus does the opposite of what parents usually want it to do.”

In short, spanking has no proven short-term effect.

What about long-term effects? What about we adults who were spanked as children?

The more they were spanked, the more likely they were to exhibit anti-social behavior and to experience mental health problems. They were also more likely to support physical punishment for their own children, which highlights one of the key ways that attitudes toward physical punishment are passed from generation to generation.

We didn’t turn out “alright.” We only think we did, and are thus more likely to continue supporting the use of spanking.

The line that hit me hardest, and I will continue to shout from the rooftops every time someone tries to differentiate between spanking and “real abuse” came toward the end of the press release:

Both spanking and physical abuse were associated with the same detrimental child outcomes in the same direction and nearly the same strength.

The difference between spanking and physical abuse is slight, and only by degrees. Spanking is abuse.

I’ve written about this before, regarding the use of corporal punishment in schools. Physical punishment damages children. It damages the adults who perform it. It damages the bond between the spanker and the spankee. It violates trust, bodily autonomy. A child’s brain cannot discern the difference between a “spank” and a “strike” meant for abuse. A hit is a hit, especially when we’re teaching our children not to hit.

In a country where the Cult of Compliance is the modus operandi from schools through law enforcement, it is not surprising we still cling to outdated modes of discipline in our homes. It doesn’t work. It never worked. Buying into the Cult of Compliance fuels such beliefs as “If he’d just listened the first time…” and “The officer had no choice…” Resorting to violence with our children warps our thinking.

I originally shared the Mic article on my personal Facebook, but the press release from the University of Texas at Austin is necessary reading.

Abuse, Forgiveness, and Casting Stones

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

This is my third piece triggered by and simultaneously about and not about the most current sexual abuse scandal in the news. This topic grieves me and angers me. Even though I am not from the same faith tradition as the current focus du jour, I have seen this play out across Christian denominations. I have friends who have been abused and friends who have been sexually assaulted, and well meaning church people who have handled the information in ways that perpetuate abusive thinking and center the abuser rather than the victim.

In Abuse and the Use of Power, I wrote

Sexual abuse is not about sex. Sexual assault is not about sex. Talk to victims, survivors, crisis center professionals, the people working in this field. Sexual assault is about power; it is about the abuse of power, trust, and authority. And the kind of social inclusion that could possibly mitigate this kind of damage didn’t, because the victims and the perpetrator were embedded into the same exclusive, tightly knit group.

In Abuse and What Forgiveness Isn’t, I added

Forgiveness is not neat and tidy. But it is also not a transaction, or an automatic response to “I’m sorry.” If it is forced, required, or coerced, it becomes an extension of the original abuse. “Moving on” is an illusion that ignores real issues and maintains the power structures that facilitate abuses of authority.

One of the most disturbing trends I’ve seen in regard to sexual abuse, sexual assault, and the conversations surrounding it, is in the same vein as the forgiveness post. But I was so troubled by it I needed to write a whole separate essay and take a few extra days to process.

“A sin is a sin is a sin.”

I am not going to get into a theological discussion about the nature of sin, or why the Catholic tradition has mortal sins and venal sins, or the irony/hypocrisy of the evangelical church putting so much emphasis on sexual sins and purity as though fornication is the ultimate sin until one of their own men is in the spotlight for just that.

Sexual assault is a CRIME.

This is not just a conversation about sin and the church. This has implications beyond our physical church walls, or the arbitrary boundaries between denominations. Molesting children is against the law. Delicate language recasting it as a mistake, a misstep, an indiscretion, a sin is carefully dodging the consequences of acknowledging the criminal nature of sexual abuse.

My pastor is the executive director of a year-long, faith-based recovery home for women. The vast majority of the women who enter the program have broken the law, often multiple times. I have witnessed these women walk out incredible transformations in their lives. When they give their testimonies at the end of their program, they pull no punches as they share their old lives of addiction and pain. They don’t use soft language or try to dodge consequences. In fact, even as they acknowledge their forgiveness, part of their program is to fulfill all consequences, restitution, etc., that is part of their criminal sentences. But as they name it, they do so because it takes away the shame of secrecy, and establishes a habit of accepting the consequences of their actions.

By dismissing the serious, violating nature of sexual abuse by quipping, “A sin is a sin is a sin,” in a misguided invocation of forgiveness, bloggers and supporters of the perpetrator uphold the code of secrecy that allow perpetrators to escape the consequences of their crimes. And completely ignoring the victims.

“Let he among us without sin be the first to cast a stone.”

I read a really awful blog post, based on a really awful tweet, all based on a gross misuse of that concept. All hash-tagged with support to forgive the perpetrator.

I wrote on Thursday: it is not for any of us, the general public to forgive him. We were not wronged, molested, or abused by him. If we repeatedly avoid hard conversations about abuse, assault, and the systems that facilitate the molestation of children–all under the misguided call for “forgiveness”–these crimes will continue unabated and the bodies and lives of children and women will continue to be attacked.

Now, let me tell you what it can be like to be a female victim of a sexual crime in the church. Elizabeth Smart speaks about her captivity, and the lessons she learned about sex a la the “chewed gum” analogy  significantly impacted her perception of herself as a rape victim/survivor. When I attended church camp in middle school and high I went to a small-group lesson on boundaries in dating. We signed True Love Waits cards. I remember learning that once we passed boundaries there was “no going back,” and that it was my responsibility (as a female) to keep the physical side of the relationship in check. During college, a group of friends were talking when someone opened up that she had been raped freshman year. One well-meaning but misguided friend’s first instinct was to ask if her boyfriend knew she wasn’t a virgin.

This pervasive fixation is aimed at girls remaining pure. And in all those lessons I learned–directly and indirectly–there was no grace.

The full context of the casting stones verse involves a woman about to be stoned for adultery. She is about to become a victim of the male-dominated purity code. She is marginalized, just like every person for whom Jesus went to bat. When people trot this verse out, lacking context, in defense of an abuser, they miss the point entirely. When high-profile men lose positions of power and authority because of sexual abuse or sexual assault allegations, they are not victims. Their victims are victims.

On Thursday, I said I feel no nuance about standing on the side of the marginalized. These girls–now in their teens–don’t have hash tags or social media campaigns. But I’m guessing they have a lot of hurt and misunderstanding. Maybe they feel like chewed up gum. Maybe they only now understand the full extent of what happened to them as young children. Maybe they are horrified by the support offered to their abuser while they feel ignored or revictimized.

The church has done a terrible, terrible job of standing up for abuse victims/survivors/overcomers. It rushes “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” and centers the abusers instead of uplifting and surrounding the hurt and abused. Is it any wonder the rest of the country stares back, agog?

Abuse and What Forgiveness Isn’t

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

Most of the blog posts I’ve read that defend a Christian accused of a sexual crime against another person (or persons) get the concept of forgiveness really, really wrong.

In Abuse and the Use of Power, I wrote briefly about the difficulty I experience writing about religion. I currently attend a Christian peace church that turns the mainstream idea of church hierarchy on its head, but I have attended and witnessed churches and church relationships that cause a great deal of hurt to individuals and groups. I am conscious of the contributions the church has made to historical and modern constructions of racism, misogyny and sexism, privilege, power, and the language and action of oppression. I have also seen the church participate in reconciliation and liberation.

It’s safe to say I have a complex relationship with the church. It’s full of wrestling and nuance, which is something that often gets lost as soon as tempers flare and parties start shouting past each other.

Granted, there are some things about which I feel no nuance. Deconstructing power. Sexual abuse. Standing on the side of the marginalized.

And in that vein, I have read some very troubling things over the last week. I am not going to link them, because page hits. Also because I ended up in a very angry rabbit hole last night following the push behind a specific blog post. It was ugly and confounding, and I decided not to go the route of a detailed illustration of the parallels between featuring a blog post on forgiving abusers while simultaneously featuring specific language that has been called out as being sexist and damaging… the more I dug into it the more I realized my emotional health couldn’t handle it. Especially not before bed.


Through the lens of power, here are my responses to points of conversation as I have read it to date, and what I assert has been missing from nearly every conversation involving a high-profile sexual assault:

“We should forgive him!” That is not within our power; forgiveness is not ours to give. Unless we are the target or victim or God Himself, it is not our responsibility to forgive.

“He confessed and apologized, so the victims need to forgive him.” There are many variations of “The perpetrator did X, so the victims should do Y,” and they are problematic. First, an apology is not an equation. It does not guarantee forgiveness. In my 12-Step group, when we reach Step 9 and make amends we do so with the full understanding that forgiveness may not be proffered in return. When my students get an apology, they say “Thank you;” I have taught them not to say “It’s okay.” Because usually it is not okay. Second, forgiveness cannot be demanded, required, or coerced as part of a conditional agreement or system. “He confessed and apologized, so the victims need to forgive him” is an expression of the exact same abuse of power and authority that manifested as the sexual assault. The hierarchy of perpetrator over victim remains in place, and the authority remains in hands of the assaulter.

“Move on.” A lot–and I mean a lot— of blogs and articles and opinion pieces have mentioned and paid lip service to the victims. The amount of ink they get compared to the perpetrator is a dismal ratio, and maybe that’s to ensure they’re privacy. Then again, maybe not. In this specific case, we’re told the victims got counseling. We don’t know what kind. We’re told they moved on. Or, we’re told they should move on. Empty cries to “move on” ignore very real issues that happen in churches and families around us. One woman wrote about her similar molestation, and that she was counseled (by a lay member of the church, a non-professional) that forgiveness was required, and that moving on was the only thing that would glorify God. And a five-year-old child cannot complete counseling. For one, counseling is an ongoing process. Furthermore, if a child cannot fully process what happened to her body, she cannot understand the implications of forgiving that sin against her. It’s distinctly possible that if/when she chooses to forgive her assailant, she will need to re-forgive him every time the memory of abuse reemerges as a power in her life. A victim/survivor of sexual abuse is the only person who can decide when she can move on, forgive, let go of some of the hurt. As far as us moving on? If we do not have real conversations about child sexual abuse, the systems that facilitate its commission, and the barriers to intervention, it will keep happening. We need to have conversations about how to best separate victims from their abusers, how to help victims recover and heal, and how to rehabilitate abusers so they do not abuse again.

Forgiveness is not neat and tidy. But it is also not a transaction, or an automatic response to “I’m sorry.” If it is forced, required, or coerced, it becomes an extension of the original abuse. “Moving on” is an illusion that ignores real issues and maintains the power structures that facilitate abuses of authority.

Abuse and the Use of Power

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

I’ve stared at this blank blog post for a while.

My heart is heavy and more than a little frustrated. I do not want to jump into the fray regarding the latest high-profile abuse scandal to capture our attention. The coverage of such stories bothers me, the way we center the narrative on the perpetrator and fixate on how and why he did it, on whether his consequences were served in the right time and manner, and on whether the appropriate public response should be outrage or forgiveness. Although my heaviness and frustration have been triggered by this latest event, it is by no means limited to this incident, nor is it centered on the tradition or the adherents from which the abuse sprang. There are well-written pieces on that, and that is not my area. Moreover, I have found this happens across traditions.

To date, I have written about the intersections of gender, race, social class, and language. I have written comparatively little on the topic of or intersection with religion. It’s a difficult topic for me. I grew up in the Lutheran tradition, got my B.A. from a liberal Lutheran college, spent a lot of energy not fitting in to the Evangelical circle during college, and currently wrestle at a Brethren church. I know a lot of people who have been hurt in and by the church, regardless of tradition. I have been hurt by the church and by well-meaning church people.

It’s hard to write about something to which I am still so closely tied. But that’s why I attend a church that decides most things by consensus. Where the pastors defer to the congregation, rather than the other way around. Where the pastors are a husband-and-wife team with equally strong voices. It’s not perfect, but once when a pastor said something in a sermon that caused me to become visibly uncomfortable, I got a text message later (because I prefer texts) so we could hash out the intent, how I heard it, and why I was bothered.

It has become abundantly clear when there is an imbalance of power, there exists the potential for abuse. I learned this from the church. My graduate work has confirmed it. And the current media firestorm illustrates this even further.

Allow me to elaborate:

I am currently preparing a manuscript with two additional authors on the abuse of women and girls with disability. The paper covers twenty years of research studies into the topic, and finds that across all age bands and across all categories of abuse, women and girls with disability experience abuse at higher rates than women and girls without disabilities. The single most common theme that emerged? Victims were more vulnerable to abuse as a consequence of power being used inappropriately. We also wrote:

[The] difficulty in achieving justice in the court system for women with disabilities who have been sexually assaulted stems from the failure to recognize the abuses of trust, power, and authority in the relationships of these women.

Further factors that conveyed risk or protective factors were isolation vs. social inclusion; that source indicated the degree to which a woman was socially embedded mitigated the likelihood she would experience partner violence.

So how does this relate to the current news cycle? Everything.

The pieces I’ve read have fit into two categories: those that have used carefully selected language, and those that have called out the careful words for softening and whitewashing what was an act of sexual abuse and violence against the bodies of young girls. But both categories seem to be so caught up in the politicization of the scandal that they miss some really important information.

Sexual abuse is not about sex. Sexual assault is not about sex. Talk to victims, survivors, crisis center professionals, the people working in this field. Sexual assault is about power; it is about the abuse of power, trust, and authority. And the kind of social inclusion that could possibly mitigate this kind of damage didn’t, because the victims and the perpetrator were embedded into the same exclusive, tightly knit group.

And it is this part of the narrative that bothers me so much, that most conversations are missing: however it was (or wasn’t) handled, after whatever counseling did (or did not) occur, the person in question still went on to achieve positions of power and authority. 

Most of the pieces I’ve read in the Forgiveness camp demonstrate some simplistic and/or disturbing misconceptions of what forgiveness means. I’ll get to that later this week. But the amount of power, authority, and leverage ascribed to his (former) position with the Family Research Council is troubling, snarky and/or frustrated comments about anti-LGBT campaigns aside (those are worth discussion, but not in this blog post).

The way we center our coverage on perpetrators is disturbing. Our concern for victims/survivors’ wellbeing rarely seems to match our morbid curiosity for the details of their violation. We need a new lens: power, and why give it back to the perpetrators.