Sunday, October 19, 2014

Faith, Doubt and Sexual Abuse in Film and Fiction = Amended Reviews

This is an amendation and extension of my previous posting.

In this posting, I deal with three cinematic and fictional treatments of practicing Catholic priests whose faith is profoundly challenged by the revelations of the sex abuse scandal in the Church. I haven't forgotten the Synod on the Family, just finished in Rome. I continue to believe the vacillations over language dealing with LGBT persons was a moment of grace, one of those rare moments when we are given a glimmer of light and (hopefully) the grace to continue onwards in faith and trust in the Lord, who guides the Church in ways far beyond our comprehension. That doesn't take away from or diminish the scandalous fact that the abuse crisis was sidestepped by a Synod dealing with "The Family," and by implication the threats to its integrity in these days. What could be a greater threat than the abuse of its children? And all those men in the Synod hall - some of whom are criminal abusers because of their participation in the coverup and the rest - who may remain 'innocent,' in degree -are nonetheless tolerating, accepting and protecting the criminals in their midst.  This is the nature of the Catholic Church today as its institutional leaders quibble over English words like "Welcome." Yes, the Spirit is truly among us, but so are the criminals. They are us and we are them and that fact must not be forgotten. 

I just finished watching the very interesting, absorbing crime film, The Calling, with Susan Sarandon (the lead) and Donald Sutherland (in a supporting role). Ms. Sarandon is the local police investigator charged with tracking down a serial killer, who appears to be dispatching his victims for religious reasons. As it turns out, his victims are all terminally ill and are willingly surrendering to his 'final treatment,' much like Dr. Kevorkian.  But there is more to the story than just that, much more in this very contemplative examination of faith, death and dying. Donald Sutherland has a brief, but memorable cameo as a kindly, wise Catholic priest who helps Sarandon decipher a Latin clue in the case. As it turns out, however, Sutherland is at the heart of the case. In the past he ran an orphanage for young boys and tried to find them homes. In one particular case, two orphan brothers were sent to his care. He could only find a home for one of the brothers and the other he kept and raised at the orphanage until his maturity. Father Sutherland and his staff didn't ask too many questions of the prospective parents in those days. In other words, they didn't require a very extensive background check. The result of their lack of scrutiny in this particular case was that the boy was sexually abused for years by his adopted parents and eventually committed suicide. The surviving brother? Well, I'll leave that unclear, because I've already given too many spoilers. But it's a very interesting take on the abuse crisis, because I'm sure most viewers would expect Father Sutherland or one of his fellow priests to be the abusers. Not in this case. The film has other fish to fry and does so with an adroit combination of harrowing suspense and deep contemplative calm - which will put off most impatient blockbuster saturated viewers.

At one point, Sarandon asks 'Father' Sutherland "And do you really believe this stuff?" He replies wistfully after a thoughtful pause, with a slightly wearied smile, "I did....yes.....once. But times are different now.  Unwavering faith in the Church is ... difficult to sustain. think quite possibly... with good reason." Sutherland's portrayal is nuanced, gentle, wise and sad and through his character's flickering faith we see glimmers of a deeper hope, if only for brief moments. Towards the end of the film, however, Sutherland recites the Lord's Prayer with the kind of heartfelt sincerity and profound faith that only a great actor can deliver. There is a depth of belief here, and love for the divine mystery, that is all the more mysterious for existing in such a dark night. He tells Sarandon, "Back then, people had a deeper faith." She replies, "Blind faith." He answers, "Profound faith." I should have known that Susan Sarandon would not take a part in an ordinary slasher film. Sutherland is only on the screen for a short ten minutes, but it is one of the most profound characterizations of priestly service and faith in recent cinema history. 

Sutherland's portrayal is matched, if not surpassed by Brendan Gleeson, in one of the outstanding films of the year, Cavalry.  Gleeson portrays a wearied but stalwart Catholic priest in a small Irish village. It is an outstanding  characterization of a Catholic priest of profound, unwavering faith in the Divine, but very little faith at all in the institutional Church he serves.  Gleeson encounters a myriad set of problems in his small village, including the despair of his own daughter whom he fathered as a married man before his wife's death and his entrance into the priesthood. Gleeson also must deal with the scandal of the sex abuse crisis right within his own parish, and the full horror of the Irish scandal hits home. For Gleeson is being stalked by a victim of priestly sexual abuse, who is seeking vengeance upon any priest chosen at random, since, he believes, most victims of priestly sexual abuse were chosen randomly by the abusers. His intent is to kill the priest.  Gleeson turns in a staggering performance  of a man of faith struggling through dark times when God is silent and the lights  in the Church seem to have been extinguished. Yet something remains out of the emptiness and the silence, something that gives Gleeson's character the inner strength to make the necessary and final sacrifice. He goes down to the beach to meet his 'accuser' head on. So good I saw it twice and will see it again. To date, the definitive cinematic treatment of the clerical sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church - in Ireland or anywhere else for that matter. 

And that in turn leads me to John Boyle's deeply affecting novel examining the Irish Catholic sex abuse scandal through the life of one Irish priest - A History of Loneliness. It is a beautiful, sad book written with exquisite simplicity, economy and grace. I was hoping it would treat the abuse scandal through the eyes of a man of faith similar to the above two examples of Donald Sutherland and Brendan Gleeson. However, Boyle takes an entirely different tack. His narrator, Father Odran,  is a shy, retiring, passive soul, with no real evidence of a genuinely living faith at all. The incidents of abuse Father Odran Yates encounters in his priestly ministry are seamlessly interwoven into all the other aspects of his life, and that is the book's great strength, because it makes the abuse incidents all that more shocking. We follow Odran's struggles to deal with his mother dying of cancer, his sister stricken with premature dementia, his seminary roommate accused of endless crimes of sexual molestation of young boys - while being moved from parish to parish. Most horrifying of all - in a scene that is actually not described, but only hinted at - Father Yates' own priestly vocation began after a moment of sexual abuse. After catching him in his bedroom lying on top of a local girl, Odran's mother invites the local parish priest to have a talk with the boy. The priest asks him, "Are you a dirty, dirty, boy, Odran, are you, are you?" with a lascivious prurient interest that is chilling. He asks him if he has been lying with those 'slutty girls, those slutty slutty girls." Have they been tempting him to abandon his boyish innocence. Then the priest places one hand on Odran's knee with the words, "It's just a bit of fun," and the scene fades out. We don't need to know what follows, but it is all the more horrible for not being described.

Next we see Odran walking downstairs and into his kitchen after the priest has left. His mother, who had recently lost her husband and Odran's father, when he committed suicide, taking his younger brother with him as both of them drown in the sea. greets him with glowing joy, She recounts the news, "Oh thank the Lord, Odran. Father has confirmed my deepest belief. You do have a vocation to the priesthood." Odran understands that his mother needs some 'supernatural sign,' to sustain her religious faith after the terrible suicide of her husband and murder of her youngest son.  And Odran simply accepts the judgement in a rather passive manner and goes off to the seminary, where he discovers the routine life suits him. He becomes ordained and lives a quiet life as a librarian in a boys boarding school, until the bishop one day transfers him to a parish, much to his dislike. There he encounters a young gay boy who comes out in front of his mother in the priests' parlor. He also has several run ins with parents who are outraged that he is found 'alone' with one of their children. HOw times have changed and the priest can no longer be trusted. Occasionally, Odran as the narrator returns to the scene of his early abuse, but only to reiterate that it is too horrible for him to either contemplate ir or describe it. And yet it formed part of the foundation of his vocation - a vocation, as his roommate points out to him at the end of the book - is no vocation at all, but only an escape. This incident of abuse occurs early in the book and the reader is haunted by it all throughout the remainder of the story.  Odran has never developed a mature religious faith in anything, he has simply accepted his life and it's routine passively without question, all the moral decisions having been made for him.

I found this novel, in its understated elegance, to be one of the most devastating indictments of the abuse scandal in the Church one could hope to read, and certainly the most outstanding treatment of the abuse scandal in the Irish Church. I have to say, though, I remained somewhat puzzled by Boyne's authorial choice to use a passive narrator, one who does not act decisively in his own life, but simply lets events and other persons decide for him. This leaves a certain emptiness at the core of the book which I don't think is very satisfying fictionally. Possibly the author is making some sort of statement about the immaturity of faith of a number of practicing Catholic priests. 

One interesting segment of the book, however, deals with Odran's years in Rome as a student, when he is assigned the very prestigious job of serving evening tea to none other than the Pope himself. At first it is Paul IV (just beatified today). And during his term of service, Odran becomes infatuated with a young waitress at a cafe near the Vatican and faces the first real crisis of his vocation. He visits her nearly everyday and there encounters the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Albino Luciani. Boyne is at pains to depict Luciani as a genuinely saintly, friendly, wise and compassionate man, who befriends the young seminarian and advises him on his struggles. When Paul IV dies and Luciani is elected as Pope John Paul I, Odran continues his duties of serving the Pope his evening hot drink....until one fateful evening, having an emotional crisis of faith, Odran misses his duties - for the only time in his tenure. And it is that very night that Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I,  is poisoned, as many of us believe. I found this a very interesting aspect of Boyne's novel, that he subscribes to the 'theory' that Luciani was indeed murdered and makes this such a central event in his young protagonist's life. Father Luciani, John Paul I, is the only decent, genuinely spiritual Catholic figure in the entire book. What is Boyne's message there, I wonder? That the genuinely holy are murdered? Or that genuine holiness cannot long survive within the institution?  Luciani is the only light Boyne as author allows to shine within the Roman Catholic Church of his novel. Interesting. A strange and troubling book, as it indeed should be, given its subject matter. What makes it so impressive is that the incidents and stories of sexual abuse, as I noted above, are woven so seamlessly and naturally into the tapestry of a whole human life, the life of Odran Yates, a boy who never quite grew up into a man and who's path in life was set by a horrific moment of priestly sexual abuse. The finest fictional treatment of the sex abuse crisis I've read, sobering, disturbing and profoundly sad. Unlike the two previous film treatments, there is no profound faith to sustain the priest, Odran Yates, only the memories of the past and thoughts of a life that might have been. Devastating.

We've seen a fair number of films (and books) to date that deal with the abuse crisis from the point of view of the abused, but these three treatments above look at it from the point of view of practicing Catholic priests, whose faith is challenged by the magnitude of evil subsisting within the church. Very interesting treatments. Take a look at this list (as of 2013) of the most memorable films on the subject. I've seen them all. Silence in the House of God must be added to the list. 

More reviews tomorrow of the images of the Blessed Mother in the recent Czech films, Divided We Fall and Muj Pes Killer (My Dog Killer).

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Synecdotal Ruminations and Reviews

The Road Through the Wilderness

It's been a month since my last posting at this blog, and I've been busy immersing myself in Czech culture on a deeper level, especially its past religiosity and its present seemingly atheistic present. I've been plowing through some classic films of the Czech New Wave and some more recent ones that deal with our Nazi and Communist past in Bohemia and Moravia. In these later films, religious iconography feature in striking ways, especially icons of the Virgin and Child and the occasional technicolor print of the vibrant Sacred Heart of Jesus. These images are used to moving effect, evocative, suggestive and a little sad - suggesting as they do aspirations of hope that have never been fulfilled. 

The title of this posting, besides containing a sly wink at the Synod in Rome just over,  is meant to discourage any random internet searchers from 'wasting their time' on my own reflections, which are primarily designed to help clarify my own feelings and thoughts about things. My apologies for being so solipsistic. 

I did read some of the blog coverage of the 'Synod on the Family,' just held in Rome. Much ado was recently made about an interim report using positive and accepting language about LGBT people, including the fact they have much to offer the Church and respect should be paid to their partners and the benefits of a long term relationship. There was a broad range of reactions, from the cynical to the euphoric, with more modest, balanced, cautious views in the middle - such as, from William Lindsey at his blog Bilgrimage, reminding us that such tolerant language has been used before and was in fact the instigating factor for Cardinal Ratzinger's infamous letter on Homosexuality in the '80's, responding to what he deemed a 'too benign' attitude towards homosexuality. Skimming over these views, I found myself feeling interiorly that this 'event' at the Synod was a moment of grace, however partial and slight, and should be welcomed as such with some modest hope and always with the question, "Lord, what must we do?" What is being asked of us as Christians/Catholics in these difficult times as the Church faces a kind of disintegration.

I was struck by Jerry Slevin's remarks that the positive report's language on LGBT was "too little too late," and that a collapse of the leadership structure of the Church was imminent and no amount of window dressing or 'nicey nicey' talk could forestall it (my paraphrase). And I felt that Jerry is essentially right, yet my own intuition is that a 'collapse' is meant to happen in the providential order of things, though let us hope and pray it is not total, surely not. Yet failure in the light of the cross seems the only way to heal the sickness at the heart of the leadership of the church. Failure of a kind must come before the church can be reborn, so for me both the synod's positive comments on gays, however slight, and what seems to be an imminent collapse of some kind are both moments of grace to be welcomed with courageous faith and trust. However, I'm reminded of an amusing comment Dostoevsky puts into the mouth of his protagonist, Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment, "Well, if you're going to drag Providence into it, then there's no getting anywhere (in the discussion at hand)." Indeed, Providence and the Spirit can be used as words to justify almost anything. Yet should that prevent us from making these kind of discerning decisions and statements. 

I look with admiration upon all of those stalwart devoted Catholic activists, such as the great Sister Fonseca of Spain or Terry Weldon at Queering the Church, who manage to survive as active participating Catholics within the Church's structures and who feel called to fight the good fight, on behalf of women and gays. But then I think of all of those equally inspiring, prayerful, devoted Christians who have felt 'called in the Spirit' to walk out the door, as their own particular kind of witness. Surely "the Spirit" (there we go again with that word) is gathering all of these disparate movements and currents together and directing them towards some good end we cannot as yet foresee = those who remain to keep the fires burning, those who leave to forge new paths for Catholic/Christian witnesss. Somehow the 'impending collapse,' which I do feel is in some sense inevitable, will be met by all of these positive spiritual currents.

I'm reminded of my aunt Gini, mother of eleven children and grandmother of over 20, a leader in her parish of the Old Mission in Santa Barbara, and a Eucharistic minister for almost forty years. In 2002, she announced to her friends, family, fellow parishioners that she was entering a year of silence and prayer - and would have to drastically cut down on all of her social contacts. At the end of this year of prayer and contemplation, Gini announced (at a meeting of religious women in Santa Barbara in a speech that made it onto the pages of the National Catholic Reporter) that at the end of her year of prayer, she was 'led kicking and screaming out of the Catholic Church.' I'm sure many of her friends and fellow parishioners were deeply shocked and her family surprised. Gini had been such a stalwart support of the Church for so many years that this 'leaving' was a truly spectacular event. It remains the single, most powerful witness in my experience of  an outstanding, prayerful, discerning Catholic walking out the door because she felt 'called,' and not out of pique, anger or frustration or because "I just can't stand it anymore." She felt led in the Spirit to make this most painful sacrifice and to give up an aspect of her religious soul that felt like her own flesh and blood. She made the sacrifice in obedience to the same burning divine Love she had discovered through the Church, that burning Love that was now asking her to walk as a witness against the evils of the Church. She listed three reasons, 1) the Church does not protect Children, 2) the Church does not respect women, 3) the Church is attacking gay and lesbian people. Yet she wanted it made clear that these were not 'reasons' for her decisions, they were simply concrete supports for a decision that was essentially a response to an interior call. Many of us are being so called - to meet the face of the beloved Crucified Savior and the  future of the church on that wilderness road outside the formal structures of the Church itself. If there is a collapse of some sort coming, these are the people preparing the way for the future of the church, in new kinds of witnesses and new forms of community. So we must ask, not only "O Lord, what must we do?" but also, "What do these signs of the times mean?" that so many devout and prayerful Christians are leaving the formal fold of the RCC after prayerful discernment in response to a call. This is not at all the same thing as walking away in disgust or fatigue or despair, giving up and walking out. These people are walking away with both pain and joy in their hearts, doing peacefully what they know they are being asked to do. And that means something profoundly significant.

Part Two of these reflections:

I recently attended a concert at Old Town Square in Prague - at the beautiful baroque Church of the Czech Brethren,  St. Nicholas. The Czech Brethren were founded by a group of reformist Catholic priests in 1920, lead by the very learned and devout Father Karel Farsky. This group had been actively seeking reforms within the Czech Catholic Church for several decades and they petitioned Rome for permission for two simple things: to be able to celebrate the Eucharist in the vernacular language and to allow all 'laypersons' at the services to receive the Eucharistic elements under both species of bread and wine. Needless to say, the Vatican refused their request in the most vivirulenterms. In a way it was more the ruthless manner of the rejection than the simple fact of refusal which decided these priests, after prayer and discernment, that they were being called to break away. On January 19th, 1920, they celebrated the first public mass in Czech and the response from their fellow Catholics was overwhelming. I've always been so moved by this story, as an example of the many ways the Spirit moves and acts in so many surprising ways. A hundred years ago this story unfolded and here we are still dealing with an intransigent Vatican structure. It is time for it to go. I've always felt the holiness of the Czech Brethren Church every time I've visited it or attended services there, though personally I don't feel called to join them. However, they stand as a positive example (over an against the negative signs of disintegration - I guess that caveat is necessary), of the many ways the Spirit is messaging us that the old tribal boundaries are dissolving and are simply not so important anymore. One of the core elements of the Czech Brethren's Statement of Faith, is their belief in the integrity and holiness of ALL the Christian churches, who each give their own particular witness to the mystery of faith in Jesus the Christ.

In 1947, the Czech Brethren began ordaining women to the ministry. 1947! Think about it.

More thoughts to come: time for dinner. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Back from the "Dead"/Book Reviews

Just getting back on my feet after eight weeks of very intense interactions with Czech kids in summer camp in the mountains. The experience was so intense I felt cut off from my own spirit from time to time, but worth every minute.  What great kids.

I'm getting ready to review two books, John Boyne's magnificent fictional treatment of the sex abuse scandal in the Irish Church, The History of Loneliness. Here are the endorsements from three of Ireland's finest contemporary writers:

"An urgently compelling story of power, corruption, lies and self-deceits, the damage that happens when we turn our eyes from wrong. Anyone who wants to know what happened in the Irish Catholic Church needs to read this brave, righteously angry and stunning book. Some of us have long wondered what it would be like if a master storyteller turned his powers to this theme. Now we know." (Joseph O'Connor)

"John Boyne has plunged into the dark and troubled history of the Catholic Church in our time and come up with a novel to treasure. Unflinching, moving and true" (John Banville)

"The complex architecture of this haunting novel is seamlessly constructed. The path to the priesthood that Odran Yates follows is both understandable and sympathetic. And Father Yates is a good man; he is innocent of the false accusations made against him (he's not a pedophile). But as this author accomplished, so masterfully, in The Absolutist, John Boyne has created a character who holds himself accountable -- in the case of Father Yates, for the sins of others. No writer today handles guilt with as much depth and sadness as John Boyne. As Father Yates takes himself to task for all he didn't do, no less than the sexual duplicity and cover-ups of the Catholic Church are indicted. This is John Boyne's most important novel, and of vital importance to Irish history; it is also a gripping story, one no reader can put down until its devastating ending." (John Irving)

The second book I've been asked to review by the publishers: Robert Blair Kaiser's Inside the Jesuits: How Pope Francis is Changing the Church and the World. Both RB Kaiser and myself spent sometime in the California Province of the Society of Jesus, so we share some of the same old friends and mentors.

As a brief preview of my reactions: Kaiser's book takes us up to January of 2014 when many of us were still in the full flush of Francis' honeymoon, without reality having a chance to intrude into our idealised conception of this pope (though Betty Clemont over at Open Tabernacle was as usual far ahead of the rest of us). So Kaiser's glowing optimism seems already terribly outdated.

More damning in an otherwise illuminating book on the endeavors of Jesuit ministries world wide - is Kaiser's chapter on former Jesuits who are still doing outstanding humanitarian and religious work in the world - whom he dubs 'still a Jesuit' Jesuits. Many outstanding former Jesuits are listed together with their inspiring ministries - with one glaring omission. Not a hint of the great gay theologian and former Jesuit, John McNeil. Not a whiff, not a suggestion. Once again, as with Elizabeth Johnson's Quest for the Living God,  we are presented with a sweeping survey of many significant movements  and individuals that does not include a single hint of LGBT people and their struggles, not to mention the outstanding activists and theologians working on their behalf. In a way, the failure to mention John McNeil in Kaiser's book is a greater lacunae than our absence in Johnson's book. It is as if we simply don't exist, not even a blimp on the radar screen, and certainly we are not invited to the conversation, as Bill Lindsey never tires of pointing out at Bilgrimage.  I suspect that these writers would both be quite surprised to have this omission pointed out to them: "Oh dear, I never thought of that," blinked the deer in the headlights. I don't think it's done with ill intent. I suspect it really doesn't occur to these thinkers that LGBT are of any importance in the theological conversation. LGBT who?

So anyway...after a glorious summer, it's back to reality and work and writing and dealing with the world. But life seems good, and the Holy and the Sacred are all around us leading us by the heart to new forms of spiritual community. I simply have no time for dealing with the manifold scandals of crumbling religious institutions which have outlived their time. My beloved students deserve more from life and from my own paltry efforts on their behalf. No time or energy to spend on fools in high places. The Crucified and Risen Lord calls to us on the byways of the world among the lost and marginalized, far from the purple carpeted hallways of religious elitism. I run to him where he is truly found and leave all else behind. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The travails of young love

On a bit of a hiatus from blogging for the summer as I recollect my spirit, but I may have some reflections to share this weekend about the difficulties of young love. Been listening to tales of heartbreak from some of my young students. And young River Viiperi has broken from his partner of two years, Paris Hilton, so these must be difficult days for him as well. I emphasize his youth - and that of my students - because he and they have their whole lives ahead of the them, with unimaginable riches of love yet to come. But the travails of young love can be so painful to endure.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Papa Francesco does it again

Well, the whole world - or at least the semi Christian world - is all a flutter over yet another freewheeling interview of Pope Francis conducted by acknowledged atheist and La Republica journalist Eduardo Scalfari. Before the ink had barely dried, Father Lombardi of The Vatican Press Office was already huffing out his damage control , assuring us that Scalfari was not directly quoting the unpredictable pontiff's exact words - especially in regard to two celebrated quotes which are already causing much comment and consternation among some, bemusement and amusement among others, including myself.  More serious comment will follow in short order, I'm sure.

Why all this elaborate Comedy of Errors - surely this effect is exactly what Pope Francisco wants, else why grant a second interview to the very journalist who supposedly took such license with his words the first time around.

The two quotes-: paraphrased by me, since Father Lombardi assures us that as quoted they couldn't be the pope's own words.:

Some cardinals are among the church's pedophile abusers. Wow, what a shock to the cast system  of clerical  idolatry that barb must be, and I have no trouble believing Pope Francis capable of making such a simple, sensible, common sense observation.

And it only reminds me of the famous remark attributed to Our Lady of Garabandal, Spain in 1966:

Many priests, bishops and cardinals are on the road to perdition and are leading many souls with them.

The pope then goes on to "say," in Scalfari's imaginative rendition, that about 2% of Catholic priests are pedophiles, which would be lower than the current loose estimate of their number as less than 5% among the general population (if so, I doubt the pope's statistic). That seems a bit of damage control, and politely and very gently misses the point - it is not the number of pedophiles among the clergy that is and has been the problem, it is the astounding number of bishop enablers who have helped cover up the offending priests, thereby extending their rein of abuse and vastly increasing their number of victims.

Second quote: celibacy was instituted 900 years after the death of Christ. "The problem certainly exists, but it is not on a large scale. It will need time, but the solutions are there and I will find them."
Celibacy a problem? Another shock to the system of false institutional idolatry. Change does indeed come to the church - but oh so painfully slowly.

Two quite ordinary comments among ordinary mature, rational human beings. So why all the flutter?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Tears of Gaza and Women who Love Women who Love Children Who Are Not Wanted

Krivoklat Castle

Tomorrow I leave for three weeks of summer camps in the forests of Krivoklat, so there will be little time to devote to my random musings on this blog. I look forward to the camps every year for the wonderful bonding that takes place between camp teachers and the Czech kids. In my case, I get to do real theater with a group of about 12 students, aged between 14 and 18, We spend the entire week preparing a 30 minute play for presentation on Friday. It's all great fun, with lots of exciting activities in the evening - including campfires and the harrowing 'Scary Walk,' in which teachers, staff and older kids hide in the forest and scare the bejesus out of the little ones, who must follow a string and a line of candles through the forest. I always come home exhilarated and exhausted both.  

A few final comments on previous items I've posted about - forgive the lack of links.


Eyewitnesses have confirmed that Tariq Abu Khdeir was abducted from his uncle's backyard while watching the protests outside on the streets - in other words he was deliberately targeted as a member of his cousin, Mohammed's family. 

The death toll in Gaza from the recent Israeli onslaught has left 100 dead, 84 of them women and children. Prior to the death of the three Israeli teens, which so dominated the world's media, Israeli soldiers were caught on video firing point blank into a crowd, and killing two unarmed teen boys - an event that registered nary a blimp on the world's news networks. Yet this mainstream indifference to Palestinian life has been going on for decades. 

Israel’s current escalation and assault on Gaza should be viewed in the same context – a cynical attempt to distract and make the Abu Khdeir immolation lynching story disappear from headlines and memory (and to a lesser extent the brutal beating of his American 15 year old cousin Tarek by Israel’s Border Police). While assaulting Gaza’s defenseless population, Israel’s government will find itself back in its comfort zone where it will be able to take control of the narrative by having obsequious Western media outlets and politicians parrot its preposterous claim that it is “defending itself”. They will also repeat the hackneyed “what would US/UK/Canada do” line, ignoring the fact that Gaza is an open air prison for dispossessed Palestinian refugees under Israel’s control. An escalation along the northern border cannot be precluded. This is what happens when you suffer two devastating PR blows in one week.
Will the subterfuge work or will history remember the immolation murder of 16 year old Mohammed Abu K’deir as Israel’s Rosa Parks moment, the moment when Israel’s apartheid could no longer be denied? Only time will tell.
And a moving story from Haaretz about Gordon Levy visiting the family of Mohammed Abu Kdeir.
Small Shrine to Mohammed on his bed
Gordon Levy again in another Haaretz article on the Israeli onslaught against Gaza, which puts everytning into perspective, Hamas' rockets, the murdered Israeli teens, the burning alive of Mohammed and the uncountable nunber of Palestinian children killed:

Following the kidnapping of three teenaged Israelis in the territories and their murders, Israel wildly arrested some 500 Palestinians, including members of parliament and dozens of freed prisoners who had no connection at all to the kidnapping. The army terrorized the entire West Bank with a dragnet and mass arrests, whose declared aim was “to crush Hamas.” A racist campaign raged on the Internet and led to a Palestinian teenager being burned alive. All this followed Israel’s punitive campaign against the effort to establish a Palestinian unity government that the world was prepared to recognize, its violation of its commitment to release prisoners, a halt of the diplomatic process and a refusal to propose any alternate plan or vision.
Did we really think the Palestinians would accept all this submissively, obediently, and calmly, and that peace and quiet would continue to prevail in Israel’s cities?
What exactly were we thinking? That Gaza would live forever in the shadow of Israeli (and Egyptian) caprice, with the restraints sometimes loosened a bit, or sometimes painfully tightened? That the biggest prison in the world would carry on as a prison? That hundreds of thousands of its residents would remain cut off forever? That exports would be blocked and fishing restricted? What exactly are 1.5 million people supposed to live on? Is there anyone who can explain why the blockade, even if partial, of Gaza continues? Can anyone explain why its future is never discussed? Did we think that all this would continue and Gaza would accept it submissively? Anyone who thought so was a victim of dangerous delusions, and now we are all paying the price.
But please, just don’t act surprised. Just don’t raise hell about the Palestinians raining rockets on Israeli cities for nothing – such luxuries are no longer acceptable. The dread that Israeli citizens are feeling now is no greater than the dread felt by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who in recent weeks waited in terror for the soldiers to break down their doors and invade their homes in the middle of the night, to search, trash, destroy, humiliate, and then snatch a member of their household. The fear we’re experiencing is no greater than the fear felt by Palestinian children and teens, several of whom were killed needlessly by Israeli Defense Forces fire in recent weeks. The trepidation Israelis feel is certainly less than that felt by Gaza residents, who have no Color Red warnings, no “secure spaces,” and no Iron Dome to save them, only hundreds of scary sorties by the Israel Air Force that end in destruction and the death of innocents, including the elderly, women, and children, who have already been killed during this operation, as it during all its predecessors.
Isabel and Tabra
Meanwhile, on other fronts, I'm simultaneously reading Isabel Allende's early novel Of Love and Shadows, and her recent memoir, The Sum of All Fears. In the latter, she describes the anguishing situation of her stepdaughter, Sabrina, born prematurely to her husband, Willie Gordon's drug addict daughter Jennifer.  When the courts deprived Jennifer of custody and the doctors assigned Sabrina to a home for terminally ill babies, Isabel was desperate for her and Willie to adopt the granddaughter, but Willie refused, saying neither he nor Isabel were prepared emotionally to care adequately for a child after the death of Paula. It was the worst disagreement of their marriage, and Isabel even moved out of the family house for a while. However, providence intervened in the most wondrous way. Her best friend, Tabra, had also counseled Isabel that she was ill equipped to care adequately for this baby who "needed two mothers." When Isabel told this to her support group of women friends, The Sisters of Perpetual Disorder (which she joined after the death of her daughter Paula,) and when she repeated the phrase, "the baby who needs two mothers," one of the women in the group said, "Oh, I know two mothers." These two mothers were both Buddhist nuns who ran a retreat center on the ocean. After a ten minute call, Fu said she wanted to meet the baby. After she and her partner, Grace, met the baby - 
"Grace held out her arms and Odilia handed her the baby, who seemed to have lost weight and was shivering even more than before. But she was alert. Her large Egyptian eyes gazed into Grace's and then focused on Fu. I don't know what she told them in that first glance, but it was definitive. Without discussion, with a single voice, the two women declared that Sabrina was the little girl they had been waiting for all their lives."
No wonder Isabel has such sympathy and understanding for love between two women in the face of such generosity of heart. Once again we see Lesbian women partners coming forward to love and care for the most challenging kind of child. 
Finally, River Viiperi. Mustn't forget our favorite Spanish supermodel. He's driving around in a brand new Mercedes, 'donated' to him by Mercedes Benz Esperanza, while assuring his followers that luxury does not bring happiness or love, a principle I think he truly believes. One of his favorite singers is Sam Smith and River's favorite lyric:
I don't have much to give,but I don't care for gold
What use is money,when you need someone to hold

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Women, Gays and the World of the Spirit in the work of Isabel Allende

Despite the sweeping title, these are simply disjointed reflections on one of my favorite authors, whose work has always shown great spiritual depth and insight, coupled with the clenched fist of indignation in the face of injustice towards women and gays and all marginalized groups.

First a word on Isabel Allende's spiritual awakening, which gives great insight into the spiritual dimension of her work:

Taken from Lorette C. Luzajic's Fascinating Writers series. 

When Allende herself encounters the rare-for-her but dreaded writer’s block, she finds an unusual way around it: she drinks a potent shamanic rainforest hallucinogen and disappears into her mind for several days. During this unorthodox excursion, Isabel “crossed through the opening and effortlessly plunged into an absolute void… There was no sensation, no spirit, not a trace of individual consciousness; instead I felt a divine, absolute presence. I was inside the goddess… something I can only define as love, an impression of oneness, I dissolved into the divine, I felt that there was no separation between me and the rest of all that exists, all that was light and silence. I was left with the certainly that we are spirits, and all that is material is illusory.”

Allende says that on that voyage she lost her fear of death.

This remarkable anecdote is far more significant than the loss of writer's block. It testifies to Isabel's own vocation as a witness to the spiritual dimension outside the framework of conventional Christianity. "I was inside the goddess." This is what I have always appreciated about Isabel's work, that she is so open to discerning the validity of non traditional spiritualities, without losing her critical faculties. She is able to appreciate and critique in equal measure, while respecting and incorporating the spiritual dimension into her stories, but spirit seen from a feminist perspective. 

In the previous posting Celebrated Women and Humble Men,  I linked her with Spanish supermodel, River Viiperi, in a reflection on enduring love between famous women and their loving partners, a comparison that was intended to be mind-bending. 

A gender bending portrait of the male if ever there was one. Wow!

Much of Isabel's fiction concerns the struggle to free women and sexual minorities from heterosexual male control over space and power and to create safe, open spaces for women (and by extension all sexual minorities) to express their own desires and achieve their own emancipation. In Latin American culture especially - men tend to dominate the public spaces, women are expected to fade into the background, and gays, well of course, gays must remain well hidden behind closed doors - and transexuals, don't even mention the word. In other words machismo culture assigns women and gays to their own private assigned spaces on the margins as inferior beings. Isabel seeks to break down all of these barriers and to insist that males must learn to defer at times to the equal power of their women partners and to allow them their own space. 

This is one reason I paired her with young fashion model, River Viiperi in the previous posting. When in the public sphere with his partner, Paris Hilton, River must defer to the intense media attention she engenders, step back and allow his partner her own public space.  His own role is as a regulator of the crowds, and even video recorder. It is a subservient position, to be sure,  and it is  remarkable to watch a Latin Male fulfilling this role with such grace, charm and good humor - and with no loss to his self respect. For this, he has received much flack and and an ocean of sexist sarcasm. Wittingly or not, River Viiperi is a feminist ally and a role model for strong supportive males. 

River controlling the ' space' around his partner. 

Isabel in her own position as a feminist author has not had so easy a time herself. As Lorette C. Luzajic says in her wonderful article, "Of Love and Shadows: the Stories of Isabel Allende," at Book Slut:

Despite endless comparisons of her work to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other writers of the Latin American "magical realism" genre, where the mystical merges with quotidian life, Allende is not acknowledged by the Latin boys’ club as a serious writer. Pablo Neruda told her she had too much imagination to be a journalist, and Marquez does not acknowledge her importance -- sad, because the woman’s perspective in this genre of literature is the element that was always missing, the most important one. “I don’t belong to their club,” Allende told Argentinean-born anthologist Alberto Manguel. “In Latin America, women are not respected. You have to make twice the as much effort as a man for half the recognition. And if you are a writer, ten times as much… If a woman had written Garcia Marquez’s brilliant Love in the Time of Cholera, her novel would have been branded mushy, over-sentimental… The male literary community in Latin America would be delighted if women wrote only cookbooks, children’s books… let them not fuck around with the rest, with ‘real’ literature.”

Nonetheless, Isabel has attained her own special renown as a powerful feminist author and artist, even if she will never be paired with the 'big boys' of Latin American fiction. And she has proven herself to be an ally of all marginalized sexual minorities as well.

First a bit of gossip about Isabel's own personal experience with gay people.

Isabel's son Nicu had been married for some ten years to a Venezualan women named Celia. Upon the birth of their third child, Celia announced that she was really a lesbian and needed to separate from Nicu. She then promplty fell in love with Sally, the fiancee of the son of her husband by a previous marriage. Much to the shock of the whole household and to the consternation of Nicu, both women moved away together. Celia leaves the children to be taken care of by poor Nicu. 

"Isabel not only continues her friendship with Celia, but she even takes the side of Celia and supports her to the annoyance of her son. Before this conversion, Celia was a gay-baiter with very strong views and prejudices. Afterwards, Celia not only practices lesbianism, but actively preaches the advanteges of gay love. She advocates that everyone should try it and says that it is much better than being heterosexual."

Despite the genuine heartbreak of this story, especially for Nicu, there is something resembling a 'comic opera' about this anecdote. That Isabel sides with her daughter in law demonstrates a remarkable tolerance and understanding for alternative sexual experiences. 

Now onto Isabel's gay characters. 

First the criticism:

Isabel's latest book, Ripper, a crime novel set in the San Francisco Bay Area, received mixed reviews and some critical comment for 'gay bashing'. I was surprised to hear this, because I knew of Isabel's sensitive treatment of gay characters in her previous work. However, once I began reading Ripper I had to confess that some of the treatment seemed a bit slapdash. 

Here is a rather harsh criticism from Canada's Amazon. 

I don't want to be a hyper- sensitive politically correct watchdog, but some things must be said. This author's portrayal of LGBT characters is cliched at best and reactionary at worst (save for two female partners who make a brief appearance). We are portrayed as child molesters, self destructive waiters/drag performers (nothing wrong with a drag performer, but it saddens me that some straight people are still only comfortable with a gay man if he is in a dress) and at worst one of fiction's most tired and offensive cliches, a homicidal maniac of a cross dresser (no, it is not the waiter) Put this together with unbelievable premise and unlikely leaps of faith, and you have a novel that simply does not deliver on any of it's promise.

For myself, I thoroughly enjoyed Ripper, though I admit some of the descriptions of gay folks did seem like caricatures of some of our most embarrassing characteristics. However, I am also thoroughly familiar with Isabel Allende's remarkable treatment of gay characters in her previous fiction, so this made the excesses of Ripper seem like an anomaly

Since this is not an in-depth literary essay, I'm simply going to quote a long passage from her 1986 novel, Of Love and Shadows, to demonstrate Isabel's great sensitivity to the plight of gay people. 

Here is Isabel's description of Mario, the 'elegant and discrete stylist' at the fashion magazine where the lead male character of the novel, Francisco, works for a time and meets the love of his life:

He had delicate hands and a spirit inclined towards fantasy, a quality his father had tried to beat out of him. Drastic measures had not, however, cured his effeminate manerisms or altered his inclinations. As a child, if the family turned their backs for an instant, he slipped away to entertain himself in solitary pastimes that provoked pitiless ridicule: he gathered stones from the river and polished them for the pleasure of seeing the colors shine: he scouted the dismal landscape looking for dry leaves to arrange in artistic compositions; he was moved to tears by a sunset, wanting to capture it forever in a line of poetry or in a painting he could imagine but felt incapable of realizing. Only his mother accepted his peculiarities, seeing them not as signs of perversion but as evidence of a soul that was different. To save him from his father's merciless floggings, she took him to the parish priest to enroll him as an assistant to the sacristan, hoping to disguise his womanly gentleness among the skirts of the mass and offerings of incense. The boy's mind always wandered from his dog Latin, however, diverted by the golden particles floating in the light that streamed through the church windows. ... When his father learned of these visits, he led Mario by the ear to the mine whorehouse, accompanied by his two older brothers. There, with a dozen men impatient to spend their Friday wages, they waited their turn. Only Mario noticed the filthy, faded curtains, the stench of urine, and Lysol, the infinite desolation of the place. Only he was moved by the melancholy of those women exhausted by wear and the absence of love. Threatened by his own brothers, when his turn came he tried to play the macho with the prostitute, but she needed only a glance at the boy to see that he was destined for a life filled with mockery and solitude. She was moved with compassion when she saw him trembling with revulsion at the sight of her naked flesh, and she asked the men to leave them alone so she could do her job in peace. As soon as the others left, she bolted the door, sat on the bed beside Mario and took his hand.

"This isn't something you can be forced to do," she said to Mario, who was weeping with terror. "Go away, far away, boy, where no one knows you, because if you stay around here they'll end up killing you."

In all his life he had never received better advice. He dried his tears and promised never to spill them again over a manliness that in his heart he did not desire.
What a remarkably sensitive portrait of a young gay man, the only young male capable of seeing the "infinite desolation" of the brothel and "the melancholy of those women exhausted by wear and the absence of love."

Shortly after meeting Francisco for the first time, Mario falls deeply in love with the heterosexual young man. Here is Isabel's remarkably sensitive description of their first dinner together in Mario's apartment:

Francisco saw two goblets beside an ice bucket where a bottle of champagne was cooling; he noticed the soft lights, smelled the aroma of the wood fire and incense burning in a bronze censer; he heard the jazz from the hi-fi speakers, and realized he was the only guest. For an instant he was tempted to turn and walk out, to avoid raising any hope in his host's heart, but his desire not to hurt Mario, to gain his friendship, won out. As he looked in Mario's eyes, Francisco was moved by a mixture of pity and sympathy. He searched among his gentlest emotions for the one most appropriate to give to the man who was timidly offering him his love. He sat down beside Mario on the raw-silk sofa and accepted a glass of champagne, calling on his professional experience to help him steer through uncharted waters without doing something foolish. It was a night they both remembered. Mario told Francisco his life story, and delicately hinted at his growing passion. He anticipated a refusal, but he was too moved not to voice his emotions; no man had ever appealed to him so strongly. Francisco combined virile strength and assurance with the rare quality of gentleness. Mario did not fall in love easily; he distrusted stormy affairs, the cause of much unpleasantness in the past. He was prepared this once, however, to risk everything. Francisco also talked about himself and , without overtly saying so, communicated to Mario the possibility of sharing a solid and deep friendship, but never love. Through that long evening they discovered shared interests, laughed, listened to music, and drank champagne. In a burst of confidence forbidden by the most elementary caution, Mario spoke of his revulsion for the dictatorship and his desire to oppose it. His new friend, able to read the truth in his eyes, offered his secret in return. When they said goodbye, shortly before the hour of curfew, they exchanged a firm handshake, sealing a pact of solidarity.

Another remarkable passage and I dare say one that could only have been written by a woman. I rest my case about the sensitivity of Isabel Allende towards her gay characters in fiction. This is a woman of great insight and compassion into the plight of marginalized human beings, a woman who views the myriad forms of human love across gender boundaries through the eyes of the loving divine mother goddess. 

Viva Allende

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Update to the beating of Tariq Abu Khdier: A Way Out of Darkness

Yesterday I posted about the savage beating by masked Israeli police of 15 year old American-Palestinian, Tariq Khdeir, cousin to murdered teen, Mohammed Abu Khdeir. Why do I mention the fact that the police were masked? Because the 'blaming of the victim' continues with police assertions that Tariq was wearing a keffiyeh, the traditional symbol of Palestinian nationalism - and the common protection worn by Palestinian youth against Israeli tear gas. None of this explains why a 15 year old child, who had clearly been subdued, was beaten again and again and again without restraint.

The first instance of 'blaming the victim' came with the suspicions planted that the boy's murdered cousin, Mohammed,  may have been gay, insinuations that immediately went viral over Israeli channels.

Here is an excellent article at The Jewish Daily Forward about The 'Pinkwashing' of Mohammed Abu Kdeir: It suggests that part of the motivation for the rumors, besides pinning a motive on the family for the murder, may also have been to contrast the 'homophobic Palestinians (bad) with the very liberal Israeli attitude towards LGBT people (good). Mohammed's father was questioned for six hours after the discovery of the body as police attempted to get him to admit this was an honor killing. 

But back to the beating of 15 year old Tariq Abu Khdeir. Would we even be discussing this case if Tariq were not an American citizen? As it is, the video of the beating has gone viral and caused widespread outrage in the US and Palestine. Does anyone remember the brutal beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 and the widespread riots in 1992 that occurred when the four police officers were first acquitted? I still remember Rodney's plaintive cry urging restraint in a news conference while the riots raged: Can we all get along?

This case is taking on similar proportions, as the common Israeli brutality to Palestinians on a daily basis (including, it should be added, the abduction and murder of young teens) has now been exposed in a way that cannot be shoved under the carpet - simply because the victim was a US citizen and, most importantly, because the incident was caught on video. 

Here is a poignant photo posted of young Mohammed before his case went worldwide:

It turns out that Mohammed's story - and the gruesome photos of his burned torso - have gone viral over the airwaves and nearly obliterated the preceding story of the three murdered Israeli teens. This fact has occasioned a great deal of outrage, as well, on the part of those invested in an image of Israel as a just and democratic state. Why does one murdered Palestinian boy, and a beaten cousin,  take precedence over three Israeli teens who were first murdered by Palestinians. And so the cycle of blame continues round and round and round. 

Palestinians say this 'happens all the time,' particularly the beatings they sustain. There is a great deal of bluster and denial coming forth from Israeli spokespersons at the moment in reaction to this claim, but this is a case that will not go away. It looks to be a watershed moment for US-Israel relations. The boy has been placed under house arrest - with no charge - and fined - for no reason given. The family and his mother especially, are furious and are demanding compensation from the Israeli government. 

In yesterday's posting, however, I was much too glib about the effects of Tariq's beating. Here is the professional opinion of an American neurologist:

He needs an immediate return to the US for appropriate comprehensive neurological work up – his loss of consciousness as well as his chronic headaches
and occasional disorientation suggest the possibility of significant issues. 

Tariq's family claims he was in the back garden of his Uncle's Jerusalem backyard when he was attacked. Given the fact his cousin, Mohammed's charred body had not yet been released to the family, there is some speculation that the attack was premeditated as a way of putting pressure on the family to 'admit' the death of Mohammed was an 'honor killing,' due to his being gay. In any event, the attackers did not count on a video going viral. 

For full coverage, see Mondoweis

And yet, there is a way out of the madness, and it is being shown by the families of the Israeli and Palestinian teens.

The families of murdered Israeli teen Naftali Fraenkel and murdered Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir are drawing comfort from an unexpected source: each other.
Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat took to Facebook on Sunday to write about an “emotional and special telephone conversation between two families that have lost their sons.” He said that during his visit to the Fraenkel family home, he had a chance to speak to Hussein Abu Khdeir, Mohammed’s father, and express pain at the “barbaric” murder of his son.
Barkat then suggested that Abu Khdeir speak to Yishai Fraenkel, the uncle of Naftali Fraenkel who recently told the press that “the life of an Arab is equally precious to that of a Jew. Blood is blood, and murder is murder, whether that murder is Jewish or Arab.” The two men took Barkat’s advice and comforted one another by telephone.
In a separate visit organized by Rabbi Rafi Ostroff, chair of the religious council of Gush Etzion, Palestinians from the Hebron area showed up at the door of the Fraenkel family, looking to comfort the bereaved.
Asked why they had come, one Palestinian said, “Things will only get better when we learn to cope with each other’s pain and stop getting angry at each other. Our task is to give strength to the family and also to take a step toward my nation’s liberation. We believe that the way to our liberation is through the hearts of Jews.”
He later said that the visit went very well from his perspective. “They received us very, very nicely. The mother [Rachel Fraenkel] was incredible.”
“I see before me a Jewish family who has lost a son opening the door to me,” he added. “That’s not obvious. It touched my heart and my nation.”
The Palestinian visitors also mentioned an initiative spearheaded by Jews and Muslims to transform July 15, the Jewish fast day known as 17 Tammuz, into a joint fast day for people of both religions who wish to express their desire to end violence in the region.