Month: September 2013

They Fuck You Up, Your Mum And Dad

They might not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had, and add some extra, just for you. The Elwell Press investigates the legacy of poor parenting and asks, are we compelled to forgive a parent that hurts us?

In the past, politicians railed against single mothers, blaming them for the decline of modern society. But which was worse – for one parent to be entirely absent, or for them to be present, permanently or periodically, casting a pall of intimidation and control over the household? You were a child, you reacted based on the developing emotional intelligence you had at your disposal. Maybe you hated them. Then hate turns to contempt, contempt to scorn, and scorn to pity. From there, pity may turn into a total absence of feeling, or it may become forgiveness.

Each had their own reasons for acting the way they did. Whether through mental illness, the scars of their own bad childhood, or countless other reasons, their behaviour was both damaging and incomprehensible to the people around them – maybe not through their own malice, but by the nature of their psychology. Because you’re a decent person, you tried to help as best you could. But you were never going to be able to fix their problems. Only they could do that.

This isn’t an excuse to insult or dismiss people with mental illnesses. Many mentally ill people make wonderful parents in spite of their conditions. But some parents, not deliberately but as a consequence of their illness and their circumstances, unwittingly provided home lives that were unstable, stressful, or frightening for their children. This article isn’t about them. Many people without mental health problems provide harmful environments for their children. This article is about those parents.

This article is about the parents that behaved disgracefully for no apparent reason; violent, controlling, abusive, uninterested, manipulative, neglectful, selfish, or fucked up in their turn, their behaviour was as incomprehensible as it was hurtful. Like many children in this situation, Laura felt she was responsible for her father’s erratic and spiteful behaviour, and felt like adapting her own actions would help heal the deep wounds.

“My father was never really around and when he was it wasn’t a pleasant experience. I spent years as a child trying to fix the situation, trying to forgive him for leaving me and treating me so badly. I gave him far too many chances to change, but he never did. I’ll never forgive him for the way he treated my brother and I. I have severed all ties; I couldn’t stand the constant promises of change and the disappointment.”

The absent parent, whether dead or living separately, represents potential. They may be a saint, they may have loved us dearly, every moment could have wounded them like a knife to the heart. The present parent was no such benevolent unknown quantity. Their behaviour, even if erratic, was usually reasonably predictable. Perhaps there was a point when you decided your life was better without them in it. Perhaps they just disappeared one day, and you moved on. Either way, you haven’t seen them in years.

When you explain this to people, they ask you stupid questions. Who do you take your boyfriends to for approval? They’ll come to your graduation though, surely? Who will give you away when you get married? What will happen when you have your first baby? As if you need, or would even want, their presence at the high points of your life. When people say that cessation of contact is their loss, not yours, it’s these days that they’re talking about.

Natasha* hasn’t seen her mother in over fifteen years. “She tries to get in touch every now and then, but I don’t ever want that woman in my life. I just can’t bring myself to forgive her for how she treated me whilst I was growing up. I’ve had friends who understand and some who don’t; even family pressure to forgive and forget. They tell me that she’s changed. Whether she has or not, I can’t forgive her – as far as I’m concerned there is no excuse for what she put me through.”

Young women in particular feel unusually pressurised to rebuild the familial bond, to forgive and make peace. Perhaps it’s the idea that women should be family-orientated, or the notion that weddings and births will bring the family together, or the desire of outsiders to see their idea of a happy ending made manifest in your life, even if you tell them that’s not what’s right for you. Whatever causes it, even people who know you well can still sometimes wish that you could make peace with the parent that hurt you, for your sake if not the parent’s.

Well, here’s a revolutionary piece of advice that therapists and self-help books won’t necessarily give you: you don’t have to. It’s okay; you don’t have to forgive them, to welcome them back into your life with open arms like nothing ever happened. Maybe you’re not even still angry, although no-one would blame you if you were. You just want nothing to do with them. It’s fair enough that you don’t want them in your life. That’s the really critical point; it’s your life. If you don’t like your job, you leave it. If you don’t like someone new you meet, you don’t see them again. And if someone you happen to be related to treats you like shit, why would you want to be around them?

The only person you really owe any loyalty to is yourself; sometimes, that’s the person we treat worst of all. You don’t have to forgive the person that hurt you, even if they’re your dad. You can walk away, start again, pretend they don’t exist. You can move on, refuse to follow their bad example, and define yourself. You can do better. You can do so much better.


“It is a crime to be born a woman in India”

In Hindi and Punjabi, the word for shame is “sharam.” Shame is a powerful concept, used to control and modify behaviour the world over. It’s the root of guilt, both religious and social, and some commentators suggest that it’s a weapon wielded against women particularly. Now the broadcast journalist Anita Anand is turning the shame on Indian society, saying “the Sharam is yours, unless you address the roots of these attitudes. The Sharam is yours, unless you treat women better from the womb to the grave. The Sharam is yours, if you hide away your daughters until the day they are married in response to these awful crimes.”

She speaks with reference to the rape and murder of an unnamed 23-year-old student in Delhi last December. The student was travelling home from the cinema with a male friend when she was set upon, gang-raped, mutilated with an iron bar, and thrown from the bus. Five men and one juvenile male were arrested. Mukesh Singh, Vinay Sharma, Akshay Thakur and Pawan Gupta were found guilty of both rape and murder and will be sentenced on Friday 13th September.

Ram Singh, the ringleader who told police that the murder was necessary so their crimes would “not come to light”, was found hanged in his cell in March. The 17-year-old juvenile was sentenced to three years in prison; there was an international outcry over the perceived brevity of the term, but this case is exceptional; in India, it takes between six and eight years on average for a rape case to come to court, and the conviction rate is four per cent. It’s estimated that there are currently 90,000 rape cases pending trial in the Indian court system.

The student’s father condemned the existing culture with the words “It is a crime to be born a woman in India,” and Anita Anand illustrates just how accurate this is: “They are the same words uttered by a woman police officer who was dragged from her car just over two weeks ago, while making her way to her sister’s funeral. She was gang raped by men wielding axes in Jharkhand state in eastern India. They are also the words used last week by social activists, after a six-year-old girl, who was locked in a room and repeatedly raped by a 40-year-old man, was forced by a council of elders in Rajasthan to marry the eight-year-old son of her attacker.”

It’s understandable, then, that so many victims grow impatient or mistrustful of the legal system. Shortly before the student’s case came to trial, the Times Of India reported the case of a rapist, Raju Vishvakarma, burned to death by his victim after visiting her home to negotiate an out-of-court settlement. His victim had invited Vishvakarma there after he was released on bail, but when he arrived she and her brothers doused him in kerosene and set him alight. The unnamed rape victim is being charged with his murder, although her actions met with widespread support and approval on Twitter. A series of gang rapes in a disused mill in an affluent area of Mumbai have also provoked public condemnation and anger.

Rape in India is, beyond a doubt, a sensitive and vital subject. It’s also a difficult subject for white, Western feminists to discuss without accusations of privilege and racism. All the good intentions in the world can’t replace dialogue and the voice of experience, and history has shown – and is showing us still – that inflicting one worldview onto another country will never be easy or wise. It’s possible, and it is to be hoped, that this cases marks a sea change in women’s rights in India and beyond. Women everywhere deserve better treatment than this, and Western feminists must support Indian feminists in any way they can.

In February 2009, the Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose and Forward Women launched the Pink Chaddi campaign – mailing pink underwear in protest to a religious leader who threatened to marry any young couples found together on Valentine’s Day. The Blank Noise project targets street harassment – known as Eve Teasing – in the same way that Every Day Harassment and Reclaim The Night do, and introduced the Safe City Pledge in response to the December 2012 rape case. And most strikingly, Save The Children India has launched Save Our Sisters, an anti-violence campaign featuring images of the goddesses Saraswati, Lakshmi and Durga bearing cuts and bruises.

Indian feminists know what needs to happen, even though the cultural obstacles may seem almost insurmountable. Women’s rights are changing globally, making huge leaps forward, even in countries where cultural relativism seemed to excuse such inequalities. Saudi Arabian feminists such as Wajeha al-Huwaider called for domestic violence laws, and this August saw the introduction of the nation’s first DV legislation. Change is possible, change is achievable, and change is inevitable. As feminists, it’s our job to lend our support to projects worldwide that endeavour to improve lives of women everywhere.

First posted Wednesday, 11th September 2013

Twitter Rape Threats: A Glimpse Of A Crumbling World

Since the Bank of England announced the presence of Jane Austen on the new £10 note, Caroline Criado-Perez, who spearheaded the campaign to put more women on UK money, has been subjected to a well-documented and much-discussed barrage of abuse via Twitter and her personal email. It’s been described as trolling, but the difference between trolls and Caroline’s aggressors is palpable. Trolling is the act of being deliberately provocative to elicit an angry response; a threat of rape is a criminal act. There exists a gulf of meaning between trolling and threatening violence against someone whose opinions you disagree with. It’s the difference between playing devil’s advocate and leading a targeted campaign of aggression and hate.
In addition to this, Caroline, her supporters, and other prominent feminists including two female MPs have been subject to bomb threats and racist abuse on the site. Twitter’s response to the tweets has grown sterner and faster over the week, but still the threats keep coming. The senders are quick to reiterate their numbers and resilience against banning, but Caroline and the others continue to pass each new tweet onto the police.
At the time of writing, two men have been arrested; the first aged 25, the second just 21. Their youth is striking – born well after the advent of the feminist movement, these young men won’t even remember a time before the UK’s female Prime Minister, much less a time when women weren’t welcome in workplaces or universities. For a generation who take women’s rights almost for granted, for those who have never had to afford it much thought, it’s a startling deviation from the party line.
For these men, the threat of violence is a means of control. Like the cases of ‘corrective’ rape seen in South Africa, the threats are a way to assert dominance over a woman who challenges their fragile, crumbling masculinity. Regardless of whether they would actually act on their threats or not, their weak self-concept and chauvinistic protection of outmoded gender relations reveals a complicated and defensive psychology.
They system they know how to operate in has failed, and the world has changed around them. Like a small child denied their own way, the aggressors respond by lashing out – in short, they throw a tantrum. Unlike a small child, though, they have sufficient knowledge of social convention to channel their rage into the most effective form and target it at the most vulnerable area. While they deny that they would actually commit rape, the threat of sexual violence is still powerfully intimidating; fortunately, the women in question refuse to be intimidated.
In response to the story, print and broadcast journalist Emma Barnett gave the aggressors the right to reply on her radio show. Her callers provided a telling insight into their mindset: they insist “she was asking for it… if you put your head above the parapet, like she has, then you deserve this type of abuse. It’s what you get when you are a woman shouting about something,” that “feminists like Caroline are undermining what it is to be a man” and subsequently require “sorting out”. They justify their actions by claiming “men are predators… and this is what we do… these men wouldn’t actually come and rape her. They don’t mean it. Rape is a metaphor.”  
Rape isn’t a metaphor. Rape is a tool of domination, of control, of power. Rape is a taboo that these individuals have exploited to intimidate a woman who, in their eyes, has developed ideas beyond her station and must be brought back into line. As journalists, as activists, as feminists, we must resist the fear forced upon us. These threats are an attempt to control a woman who, in their eyes, has too much to say and too big a platform from which to say it. They insist feminism will change nothing, has changed nothing, but their fear is visible behind their anger and spite; in time the mask of anonymity will slip and Caroline’s opponents will stand exposed for all to see.
Behind the explicit threats and creeping menace lies another wave of attempts to discredit; the commentators, both journalists and private citizens, who insist that retweeting threats is ‘attention-seeking’ and that ignoring the problem will make it go away. Chiming in with these are the men who write long articles and aggressive tweets claiming that feminism is no threat – if this were the case, there would be no need to confront it or publicly mock it. Ignore it and it’ll go away, right?
Those with a vested interest in maintaining the patriarchal status quo have been ignoring feminism since its first faltering steps. It’s 100 years since Emily Wilding Davison fell under the King’s horse, 95 years since women were given the vote, 48 years since the UK gained its first female MP, 38 years since the Sex Discrimination Act, 19 years since rape within marriage became a crime, two years since changes to the law of succession allowed a Princess to take the British throne. Campaigners have achieved all this with tenacity, patient effort, and a refusal to remain silent. We did not submit to ignorance then, and we must not submit to it now.
First posted Thursday, 1 August 2013

What Nigella Can Teach Us About Violence Against Women

To outward appearances, Nigella Lawson has things all figured out: she runs her own media business, has a successful publishing career, and makes frequent public appearances looking impossibly glamorous. She’s everything that an ambitious woman is meant to aspire to be. And, it emerged on Sunday, she also appears to be a victim of domestic violence.


At first, the images published by the People were shocking, as you’d expect of any depiction of violence against women. But then we started to think about what happened, started to ask questions, and a more insidious suspicion took root: the casual and callous way in which Charles Saatchi laid hands on his wife in public led some commentators to suggest that this wasn’t his first attack on her.


For him to so brazenly attack Nigella in full view of both passers-by and fellow Scott’s patrons, without trying to conceal or disguise his actions, implied much about the dynamic of their relationship.  Witnesses told the newspaper that Nigella had attempted to placate her husband by speaking reassuringly and kissing him on the cheek; many readers will be able to identify this as the classic response of a woman threatened by her spouse.


But Nigella doesn’t fit the traditional profile of a victim of domestic abuse: she has economic independence, makes regular trips overseas on business, and presumably does not lack the resources to move away from her abuser. So, we wonder, why does she stay? A 1998 study[1] reported by Psychology Today may provide some answers: “Emotional abuse plays a vital role in battering, undermining a woman’s confidence.”


While it seems that Nigella and women like her have sufficient self-esteem and personal agency to succeed in business and personal endeavours, their intimate relationships are far less clear-cut. What the events of this weekend demonstrate beyond anything else is that even independent, capable women can be bullied and manipulated into accepting physical and verbal attacks that, for whatever reason, they won’t or can’t walk away from.


The emotional manipulation used by abusers is well-documented and wholly discomforting; their victims are isolated from friends and family, deprived of the resources that would help them escape, and worn down to such a low ebb that they accept violence they would never have tolerated previously. In the case of successful or high-profile women, their visibility might discourage them from seeking help; the gap between their private and public personas might seem so great that to report being abused feels like admitting a weakness.


At the time of writing, the UK press is reporting that the police are investigating Charles Saatchi following the publication of these images. Saatchi may later face charges; in spite of his wealth, it seems unwise for him to pursue a libel case when the evidence is so damning. It’s inappropriate to conjecture on the future of Charles and Nigella’s marriage – perhaps she will remain with him in spite of public condemnation of his actions.

If nothing else, we can hope that the story – so shocking when presented against a backdrop of middle-class media comfort – inspires other women to seek advice and assistance if they find themselves in similar situations. This week, like every week, two women in the UK will die at the hands of their violent partners. This week, like every week, all women deserve better.

First posted Sunday, 16 June 2013

Of Bread And Circuses

Juvenal referred to it as ‘bread and circuses’, George Orwell characterised its worst excesses as prolefeed, and Victorians despaired of the corrupting influence of the penny dreadfuls. It’s plain to see, then, that our love affair with escapism through entertainment is almost as old as society itself.
Marxists, echoing Juvenal’s and Orwell’s sentiments, fear that focusing on the narratives of fiction – be it classic literature, blockbuster films, or soap operas – would distract the proletariat from their struggle towards revolution. In many ways they’re correct; even now, the politically aware cringe as the country invests more attention in TV talent shows than in the comings and goings of our politicians. But perhaps we overlook a significant point – perhaps these distractions are important precisely because they allow us to escape from our reality.
Times are hard, and they’re hard for almost everyone. Perhaps what we really need is to escape into someone else’s life for a while; to try out a different set of burdens like a different suit of clothes, to look out on the world from behind another pair of eyes, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
The shoes may take us across Dartmoor pursuing a gigantic hound, or to Stonehenge with our doomed love, or to the shores of Innsmouth fleeing unthinkable horrors. They may stand on the green grass of the Shire, the cobbles of Edinburgh, the grey earth of Winterfell or the dusty concrete of London Below. But they bear us away from our own lives, our own problems, and permit us to lose ourselves in impossible and fantastic worlds.
We submit to almighty terrors, to wrenching losses, to every twist and machination of vindictive fate, because we know we can close the book and walk away. We can explore our own strength and character without having to experience what Shakespeare called “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”. Here we test our emotional fortitude, pitching ourselves against blow after blow to examine how well we weather the storm.
We solve mysteries, protect the innocent, play the hero or the villain. Often we don’t decide which we are until the end. We meet soldiers, lovers, wizards, murderers, queens, poets, tyrants, heroes, angels, vampires, monks, prostitutes, revolutionaries, scholars, searchers and seekers, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, children. And in time, inexorably, we begin to care.
We dedicate precious time and space in our minds to these characters. We despair that the word ‘character’ makes them sound so flat, so trivial; to us, they are people. We give them sequels, films, TV shows. We make them real in our heads and then we try to make them real in the world. We share them with our friends, discuss incarnations and iterations – are Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and John Rebus really so different? Whose face does each of those names conjure up?
We need stories. Like dreams, we use them to explore and make sense of the world. They speak to us about human nature, the subtle dance of interaction and disclosure that takes a lifetime to master. Stories are how we investigate and memorialise our humanity. Stories are what make us human.
First posted Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Too Many Protest Singers, Not Enough Protest Songs

Today we buried one of the most politically important Prime Ministers this country has ever seen. That, I’m afraid, is the last good thing I can find to say about her. Like many people who were left high and dry by her policies, I had little time for Thatcher, her cabinet, or her legacy. While I agree that it’s distasteful to publicly celebrate her demise, I was secretly pleased to observe that her detractors marked the occasion with a uniquely British and increasingly popular form of protest – inflating the sales of a particular song to register their protest through the UK Top 40 chart.
In a post-Blair society where a million people can march on Westminster and be utterly ignored, it seems the nature of protest has changed. The UK pop charts, formerly the record of an important yet ephemeral cultural progression, have become the battleground for all manner of political and personal rebellion.
For years, music has been an indicator of politics, ideology and cultural identity. Now it’s become a means of registering dissent in a public arena in a manner totally removed from its previous efforts. Gone, perhaps, are the protest songs of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan; here instead are Cowell-baiting online campaigns featuring Rage Against The Machine, inspired and perpetrated by web-savvy millennials who have identified the potential that rapidly advancing technology can provide.
A disenfranchised public, seemingly aware that placards and chanting no longer carry as much weight as before, can now convey their anger and disapproval by purchasing a 79p download from iTunes. Surely even the most broadminded futurologists would have failed to envision such a development in technologically-enabled civil disobedience.
It’s not a flawless system by any means – on this most recent occasion, the BBC declined to broadcast the entire song, and their track record for banning controversial songs has been a matter of discussion for decades. Fortunately for those trying to make a point, the nation’s news media have not been reluctant to publicise the campaign; even as they condemn it for its disrespect, they provide the oxygen of publicity.
Of course, the nature of the legal download system – the only way to perform the act of protest is to purchase the track from a recognised provider – means that to register our dissent we must indulge in a singularly undemocratic act; we pay to protest. But contrast this with the alternatives and the recommendations of the new process become clear – rather than travelling to London, marching and chanting, and risking arrest if the protest degenerates into violence, the objector can make their point simply by clicking the button marked “buy”.

Should we be shocked that political dissent has now been rendered marketable, and that profit can be derived? Maybe, but we should be more grateful still that individuals still want to protest.

First posted Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Why Every Day Should Be World Book Day

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” ― Ray Bradbury
When I was a child, my parents used to hide my books while I slept. It wasn’t out of malice or sport, but necessity; hiding the books was the only way to avoid spending the entire day reading them to me. I didn’t learn to read until I was five years old and attending school, mostly because my mother doubted her ability to teach me, but once I had there was little that could stop me. Independently of the National Curriculum, I read Tolkien at age 10, Dickens at 12, Shakespeare at 14 and Chaucer at 16. Words had power, I knew, and they could take you places.
Today is World Book Day in Britain and Ireland; something of a contradiction, since the rest of the world celebrates it on April 23rd. We’ve been marking the day since 1995, and I remember the first event. I went as pre-transformation Cinderella in an apron made from an old blue sheet – a poor substitute for my first choice of costume, the peach from Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. It was precisely my kind of event; from the moment my parents had read me The Very Hungry Caterpillar, books had been my favourite thing in the world. I appeared to be in the minority there, though.
For a bibliophile like me, it was never easy to get along with the other kids at school. I liked reading; I wanted to read the books they disdained. They wanted to watch obnoxious TV shows and talk about ephemeral boybands. It only got worse once I reached senior school. It wasn’t cool to know things. It wasn’t cool to actually understand and enjoy the Shakespeare the others pretended to read. They didn’t want to learn; I did. I wanted to go onto college and university and do nothing except inhale and exhale words for the rest of my life; I’d wanted to do nothing but that since I was eight years old.
The society I grew up in displayed – and still displays – a rabid anti-intellectual streak that imperils the potential of every intelligent, curious child within it. It’s not cool to be intelligent; a large vocabulary is a burden, not a blessing. Grammar is something that happens to other people. We communicate in writing more than ever before. We read more than at any other point in our history. We are never far away from words on a screen, if not in print, and yet so many people still struggle to make themselves understood. Eventually I found a place where I fit in, surrounded by university lecturers and creative types in pubs filled with vibrant conversation. There was no going back.
Books are amazing. They take us to places we could never go by ourselves, places that only exist in the landscape of the mind. I’ve been to the Shire, Wonderland, Narnia, the Discworld, other planets and other times. I’ve spoken with witches in the Highlands of Scotland, watched young lovers swoon in Verona, charged across bloodied battlefields in France and accompanied pilgrims to Canterbury. I’ve shivered in the trenches of World War One and battled dragons under mountains at the edge of a different world. I’ve run through moonlit woods with werewolves and hunted in the night with countless vampires.
I’ve solved murder after murder and tracked the course of endless lives and loves. I’ve burnt books with Ray Bradbury, spiralled between blissful highs and desperate lows with Sylvia Plath, been on a boating holiday with Jerome K Jerome, and fled from unspeakable horrors with H P Lovecraft. I was in 1930s Paris with Anaïs Nin, 1900s Dublin with James Joyce, and 1970s Las Vegas with Hunter S Thompson. I’ve lived more lives than anyone has any right to, and there’s no way I’m stopping now. The feel of a book, of paper under fingers, is a trigger no less powerful than the kiss of a lover, and I am not ashamed to feed the addiction.
First posted Thursday, 7 March 2013