Monday, February 27, 2012

Why is is so quiet here? Find me on Berkeleyside

It's been more than a year since I posted a story on Ghost Word, but not because I am lazy. I am writing regularly on Berkeleyside, a news site I run about Berkeley. I frequently write about local books and authors there, so come check it out. You can find it here.

I plan to resurrect Ghost Word soon at a different URL.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Peggy Orenstein on the marketing of pink

From her home in north Berkeley where she lives with her filmmaker husband Steven Okazaki and seven year old daughter Daisy, Peggy Orenstein has been opining for years about the world of girls and feminism for the New York Times magazine. Last week, her latest book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, was published and it is getting big play in both legacy and on-line media. It is both an expose of and meditation about the corporate push to market princesses and pink and early sexuality to young girls.

Orenstein just escaped the snows of Chicago (she got on the last plane leaving O’Hare on Tuesday) and is about to embark on the West Coast portion of her book tour. (She will be speaking Feb. 7 at St. John’s Church in Berkeley and Feb. 17 at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland) Ghost Word caught up with her to ask a few questions.

Do you wear pink?

Of course I wear pink. I’m not a crazy person. But it’s such a tiny slice of the rainbow and although in one way it seems to celebrate girlhood, it also repeatedly and firmly fuses girls’ identity to appearance then it presents that connection not only as innocent but as evidence of innocence. And that innocent pink pretty quickly turns into something else, a kind of diva, self-absorbed pink and ultimately a sexualized pink.

What is Daisy’s position on the color now?
Truthfully, she was actually never that into pink, which is part of why I became so aware of it.  It was never her favorite color, but people were constantly pressing it on her. I remember being in a drug store and the very nice clerk offered her a balloon, then asked what color she wanted and before she could answer, (I think she was going to say purple) said, “I bet I know,” and handed her the pink one. Daisy looked at me kind of confused, like she wasn’t sure if she was supposed to say thank you or no thank you. And I thought, really? When did THIS happen? I think last time I asked her, her favorite color was “rainbow.” That’s all right by me.

What’s the big deal about little girls being obsessed with princesses? Hasn’t that always been the case?
Comparing the way girls do Princess today to the way we played is like comparing a five-channel TV to a satellite dish. There are 26,000 Disney Princess products alone—considering they can’t slap them on cars, liquor, cigarettes anti-depressants or tampons, that means they’re on EVERYTHING. And it becomes this mandate, the only game in town. I remember going to Daisy’s preschool and they were doing a project where they were making a book, each one filling in the sentence “if I were a [blank] I’d [blank] to the store.” So if I were a ball I’d roll to the store. And the boys had filled the sentence in all kinds of ways. Yes, some said Lightening McQueen but they said puppies, bugs, raisins, all sorts of things. The girls said exactly four things: Princess, Ballerina, Butterfly and Fairy. One especially ambitious girl said “Princess, butterfly fairy Ballerina.” It’s too narrow. The teacher was really surprised—she’d been around a long time and this was really when the princess juggernaut was truly taking off. She had tried to get the girls to broaden their imaginations but said they just wouldn’t.

No question it’s cute. And it can feel empowering
because you think, well, girls are freer to express their femininity and their sexuality and we're not tamping that down or denying it anymore. But it’s part of this flume ride that defines girlhood as makeovers and spa birthday parties and princesses and Bratz dolls and being the fairest and ultimately the hottest of them all, that encourages them to define themselves from the outside in instead of from the inside out.  It pretty quickly slides from playing pretty, to playing “sassy” to playing sexy, which does the opposite of what people might think in terms of girls’ emotional and psychological health. Being objectified—judging yourself by the way you think others see you--actually disconnects them from their sexuality and makes for decreased sexual health as they get older. One of the most sobering conversations I had was with Deborah Tolman, who does research on girls and desire. She told me that by the time girls are teenagers, when she asks them questions about how arousal or desire felt they respond by how they think they looked. She has to tell them looking good is not a feeling. As parents of daughters—and for those of us who are women ourselves—I think we understand that potential, that vulnerability, and it’s the last thing we want for our girls. So it’s the magnitude, the dominance and what, in the commercial culture, it’s channeling girls into that’s disturbing.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Best Books of 2010

I have been spending most of my time writing about Berkeley, CA for Berkeleyside and asked Berkeley authors for their favorite books of 2010. Here is the article I wrote.

A few of the many good reads on Lance Knobel's bookshelves.
Berkeley is a city for book lovers. There are 30 independent bookstores in the city and at least three stores specializing in rare books. Berkeley residents love their public library and check out items at a rate three times higher than other California residents. In 2008, that meant they borrowed 2.2 million books, CDS, DVDs, and tools. The University of California library system, considered one of the best in the world, has more than 11 million books scattered throughout 29 libraries on campus.

Given the community’s deep interest in the printed word, Berkeleyside asked a number of authors and library professionals for their recommendations for the Best Books of 2010. The books didn’t have to have been published in 2010; they only had to be read this year. And the eclectic choices, from the Stieg Larsson books to a book about bankers during the Depression, reveals just how broad our reading tastes are.

Sylvia Brownrigg: The great thing about literature is that it travels so swiftly, leaving no carbon footprint -- you don't need to be a locavore when it comes to reading. However, it is always a pleasure to enjoy and champion writers from around town, and two brilliant books were published in 2010 by San Francisco authors: The Bigness of the World, by Lori Ostlund, and The Professor: A Sentimental Education by Terry Castle.

Ostlund's stories, mostly of middle-aged lesbians navigating the dangerous waters of communication, and the often safer territory of travel abroad, are wry, subtle and intelligent, with memorable lines and a melancholy that lingers under the humor. I first encountered Ostlund's great voice at a Litquake reading, and was delighted when her prize-winning collection came out in paperback this year.

Terry Castle's book is a different kettle of fish: half of the book is a gripping, painful and funny memoir of a tormented affair she had as a grad student with a charismatic, madly narcissistic older woman. The second half is a selection of Castle's long review essays from the "London Review of Books", which typically combine autobiographical comedy with deep, startling readings of the authors under review. The most famous -- one could say infamous -- of these pieces was Castle's appreciation/ deflation of Susan Sontag, after the latter's death. It is hard to shake the image of the celebrated theorist darting in and out of buildings on University Avenue in Palo Alto, urgently modeling for Castle what it was like to dodge gunfire in Sarajevo.

If you are going to travel, from the comfort of your armchair or in this case your Kindle (not that I have one, yet) -- you have to sample the English writer Helen Simpson's newest story collection, In Flight Entertainment. Simpson is always sharp, true and insightful, and in this latest book takes the brave risk of using climate change as a theme in several stories, with the result that the reader is haunted afterwards, not just by great writing but by an ominous sense of where we're all headed. This book will be coming out in paperback, a book you can actually hold, in 2011, but before then it's on offer for Kindle readers -- or those who are willing to go to Britain to stock up for their bedside table.
Sylvia Brownrigg, who lives in the Elmwood, is the author of five acclaimed novels including The Delivery Room and Morality Tale. She frequently reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and has just completed her first young adult novel, Kepler’s Dream.

Linda Schacht Gage: When a Cal journalism student gave me a copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, I read it in one night.  The book is the true story of cancer patient Henrietta Lacks and the impact her resilient cells have had on the medical industry. I liked the combination of compelling family story and accessible scientific information. It's also a mystery with a strong social justice theme running through it.

Like many others, I read all three Stieg Larsson books about the busy girl, Lisbeth Salander, who had dragon tattoos, played with fire and kicked the hornet's nest. That led to an exploration of some other Scandinavian mystery/thrillers by Henning Mankell, whose Kurt Wallender Mystery Series provides some great reads.

But the most enjoyable book for me in 2010 was Cutting for Stone, by Stanford's Dr. Abraham Verghese. It's an epic tale of  twin boys raised in Ethiopia by two doctors after their mother dies and their father leaves them behind.  A beautiful narrative seamlessly interwoven with medicine set against a backdrop of civil war.

Tip for Readers:  The First Editions Club at Book Passage in Larkspur Landing and San Francisco. Each month a signed first edition of the bookstore's choosing arrives in the mail. In 2010, some great reads landed in my lap through this club, including Tinkers (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2010) and a fur covered copy of Dave Egger's The  Wild Things.

Linda Schacht Gage, an Emmy award winning television reporter , teaches at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.  She is the chair of the Neighborhood Library Campaign, former chair of the Berkeley Library Foundation, and chair of the  Berkeley Authors’ Dinner, the major fundraiser for the foundation.

Tomas Moniz: One of the best things about having teenagers in your house: an excuse to continue reading young-adult novels. Even though my own children have, in their own words, moved beyond ‘those childish books’, I seem to have acquired a debilitating appetite for wizards and dragons, sibling detectives, and teen revolutionaries. So, with that excuse, I completely enjoyed the culminating third novel in The Hunger Games series: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins.

My daughter and I fought over who got to read it first the night it came out.

‘Dad, I’m fifteen!  How old are you?’ my daughter argued.

Needless to say, her pleas fell on deaf ears.

After we each read it, we thoroughly enjoyed discussing the book because it presented issues that many young-adult books tend to avoid: the complexity of friendships, personal disappointment, conflicting desires. There were no easy answers to the dilemmas faced by the characters. The book’s lead character, Katniss, refuses to compromise or to acquiesce to authority, despite the pain and the loss it causes her. The book's ending was a shock and left us unclear if she was the greatest revolutionary of young adult literature or completely insane.

Inspired by the book, my daughter and I sat around talking about politics instead of the typical who is getting together with whom, which tends to be the default subject matter most of the time.  Though have no fear, there’s a love triangle in the book as well, but it just seemed so secondary after everything else. Read it, but beware.
Tomas Moniz, who lives in south Berkeley, is the author of the zine Rad Dad and an English professor at Berkeley City College.

Tom Leonard: 2010 is a year of economic wreckage, from our neighborhoods to the international community.  There is no better perspective than to look at things falling apart in the clear light of history.

Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret was written by an editor at the Washington Post who has led the paper’s coverage of the Great Recession. Steve Luxenberg goes back to his childhood to look into the social experiment of institutionalizing mentally ill people in the first half of the 20th century. His family’s tale shows that moving up could mean stepping down hard on a sibling.  The sacrifice is a small drama in a bleak landscape, then grand opera as the Holocaust generation comes into focus.

Kevin Boyle's Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age won a National Book Award a few years ago and it throws an even brighter light today on race in boom and bust.  Boyle manages to make actors we may think we know well—the KKK, the NAACP, Clarence Darrow-- into the wounded figures we recognize in political debates today.  The story is about newcomers to Detroit neighborhoods of the 1920s, the same decade that gave us many communities with racial boundaries in Oakland and Berkeley.

The Pulitzer Prize winning Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed is sympathetic without taking prisoners. Lord Keynes’s good name is the only reputation to survive (though his market speculation was news to me -- he lost three-quarters of his investments before the Great Crash).  “Lunatics presently in charge,” after World War I pursued the illusion of gold as salvation or, as in the case of one president of the Reichsbank, thought his job was to efficiently deliver mountains of paper money rather than to stop hyperinflation.

Tom Leonard is University Librarian at UC Berkeley and a professor in the Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author of three books, Above the Battle: War-Making in America from Appomattox to Versailles, The Power of the Press: The Birth of American Political Reporting, and News for All.

Elizabeth Stark: In Karen Joy Fowler’s mind-blowing new collection, What I Didn’t See and Other Stories, a child in the final story describes her favorite book: “The stories in Castles and Dragons are full of magical incident. Terrible things may happen before the happy ending, but there are limits to how terrible. . . . The stories are much softer than the (Brothers) Grimm and (Hans Christian) Anderson. It was many, many years before I was tough enough for the pure thing.” Reaching beyond the limits of imagination and beyond terror toward dazzling pleasure and transformation, Fowler’s book is the pure thing. A wonderful read.

The debut novel of Yael Goldstein Love, The Passion of Tasha Darsky, an absorbing and compelling love story about genius and motherhood, signals the arrival of a great talent. Love has her own pedigree, as the daughter of the amazing Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, whose latest novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, tops my holiday list.

Elizabeth Stark, who was born in Berkeley, is the author of Shy Girl. She is also a filmmaker, writing instructor and organizer of literary events around the Bay Area.

Donna Corbeil: The most memorable books for me tend to be those most recently on my nightstand, an age thing no doubt. One author – two books -- top my list for this year. Mary Karr is a poet and storyteller extraordinaire; her stories are all the more powerful because they are her own and told with honesty and bravado. I read for the first time, though it is now 15 years since it was first published, The Liar’s Club, followed by her more recent Lit, A Memoir.  Ms Karr brings to life all the pain, humor, terror and awe of an unsettled and at times destructive childhood in The Liar’s Club and then in Lit shows us what kind of adult that can make.

You don’t have to read the first book to enjoy Lit, it stands on its own and she retells some of the earlier stories as they seep into the psyche of her adult life. Lit is more about what we do as adults with our own histories; they can drown us if we let them or, as Ms Karr demonstrates, we can make poetry out of them. But, in any case, her most recent memoir is rich in humor, sorrow, reconciliation and the power of hope. Not a bad message to end the year with, told by an expert storyteller with just the right amount of humor and humility.

Whether you believe in a higher power or not, self-love, redemption and peace are the human form they take in her struggle with alcoholism, motherhood, divorce and success.
Donna Corbeil is director of the Berkeley Public Library

Lance Knobel: This was a year for reading about financial crisis. Michael Lewis's The Big Short was the most engaging account of the crisis, even if it didn't attempt a systematic view. There's even a Berkeley connection (beyond Lewis himself): one of the contrarian investor groups that Lewis writes about had its start in the North Berkeley hills. Liaquat Ahamed's Lords of Finance, which covers the maneuverings of central bankers in the 1920s, gave me a historical perspective on our current travails, as well as a fascinating portrait of those financiers -- Montagu Norman, Emile Moreau, Hjalmar Schacht and Benjamin Strong. I don't think future historians will find Ben Bernanke and Jean-Claude Trichet quite so interesting.

The other book I'd recommend from this year's reading is Operation Mincemeat: How A Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory, Ben Macintyre's account of the true story behind The Man Who Never Was. There's no need for fiction when reality is this astounding.
Lance Knobel is a co-founder of Berkeleyside, an international consultant, and the former Director of the Programme of the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. He lives in the Elmwood.

Frances Dinkelspiel: One of the best discoveries I made this year was City of Veils, a literary mystery by San Francisco writer Zoe Ferraris. Her first book, Finding Nouf, won the 2008 Los Angeles Times Prize for First Fiction, but I hadn’t heard of it until I read its follow-up.  Ferraris lived in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s with her then-husband, and in City of Veils she brilliantly conveys the inner workings of that society, particularly the conflicts between men and women. Her main characters are a female forensic scientist, Katya Hijazi, who has to pretend she is married to hold down her job as a technician in a Jeddah homicide unit, and the desert guide Nayir Sharqi, who helps her solve the mystery of why a woman’s body washed up on a beach.  Sharqi is an orthodox Muslim and he struggles to reconcile his fond feelings for Hijazi with the realization that propriety means he should keep his distance. While the mystery drives the narrative forward, the real treat of the book is its examination of a modern Arab country.

My nonfiction pick of the year is Autobiography of an Execution by David Dow, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center and the litigation director of the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit legal aid corporation that represents death-row inmates. Dow defends murderers for a living, and this memoir explores both his rationale for defending those who have committed heinous crimes and the toll it takes on his personal life.

Autobiography of an Execution is a moving indictment of the death penalty, which, Dow argues, is handed out more often to those who are poor and have dark skin and upheld frequently by crooked cops and indifferent judges who are generally white. But this book isn’t a mere polemic; it shows one man’s struggle to get the system to take stock of what it is doing and the personal cost when his efforts fail.
Frances Dinkelspiel, a co-founder of Berkeleyside, is the author of Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California. 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

What Did California Look Like Before the Europeans?

Grizzly bears at the shore

When Laura Cunningham was growing up in Kensington, CA  she used to walk to school and wonder what the San Franciso East Bay looked like before buildings and roads covered everything.

That curiosity about the landscape continued as Cunningham got a degree in paleontology at Cal and natural science illustration degree at UC Santa Cruz. So in the early 1990s, Cunningham began to research what California looked like when it was teeming with elk and antelope rather than cars and people. The result is A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California, a remarkable picture book published in October by Berkeley’s Heyday Press.

Flipping though the pages is like taking a step back in time. Cunningham has created realistic paintings of the early California landscape, beautifully recreated in the book. There is a  painting of grizzly bears resting under a large oak tree and one of them eating the carcass of a whale that has washed up on shore. There are paintings of marshes full of birds and small mammals and paintings of native grasses.  Cunningham also includes “before and after” paintings, such as El Cerrito Plaza in the 21st century and the same spot thousands of years earlier.

“Vernal pools, protected lagoons, grassy hills rich in bunchgrasses and, where the San Francisco Bay is today, ancient bison and mammoths roaming a vast grassland,” reads a description on the Heyday website. “Through the use of historical ecology, Laura Cunningham walks through these forgotten landscapes to uncover secrets about the past, explore what our future will hold, and experience the ever-changing landscape of California.”

El Cerrito Plaza today
Grizzly bears eating acorns (at El Cerrito Plaza thousands of years ago)

Cunningham spent years learning about California’s flora and fauna. In addition to poring through books and handling fossils at  libraries at UC Berkeley and around the state, she hung out on ridge tops to catch a glimpse of a California condor. (They used to live in the Bay Area but are now only live south of the Monterey area.) She traveled to Yellowstone National Park to observe grizzly bears up close and hiked to remote hills to find patches of native grasses. She discovered some animals that once lived in California but no longer do, like the Gong, an albatross-like bird that has a distinctive cry. Now it can only be found in the South Pacific, she said.

“What impressed me most was the sheer abundance of wildlife,” said Cunningham, 45, who now lives in a small Nevada desert town.  “We’ve lost a lot of the abundance and biodiversity of the state. It must have been beautiful.”

Downtown Oakland thousands of years ago

This article originally appeared on Berkeleyside.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

East Bay author tackles circumcision in first novel

Lisa Braver Moss is a product of Berkeley — she grew up there, went through the public school system, and attended UC Berkeley. When Moss decided to write a novel featuring a Jewish doctor who starts to question the practice of circumcision, she set it in Berkeley. Moss, who now lives in Piedmont, will be speaking Friday November 12 at 1:30 at the Jewish Book and Arts Festival at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center.

Lisa Braver Moss

Ghost Word caught up with Moss just days after the November 1 release of The Measure of His Grief. 

Why did you decide to write a novel that has circumcision as its main theme?

The Measure of His Grief is a literary novel about a Berkeley physician, Dr. Sandy Waldman, and his Jewish identity, his marriage, his secrets, his grief over the death of his father, and the price he pays for being a visionary.  It’s also about Sandy’s wife, Ruth, a nutritionist and cookbook author who had a difficult childhood and who will lose patience with Sandy; and their teenage daughter, Amy, whom Sandy and Ruth adopted at birth and who spends a lot of the novel grappling with whether to make contact with her birth family.  So, while the book is very much about circumcision, it’s not a treatise on the topic; it’s literary fiction.
I first became interested in the circumcision controversy in the late eighties, after the births of my sons.  We’re Jewish and they were circumcised, but that decision haunted me because while it reflected my tradition, it did not reflect my spirituality.  I felt that in order to ensure that my sons would be accepted in the community, I’d been asked to separate myself from my biological urge to protect them.  I found myself wanting to write about my experience, and published a few articles questioning the practice from a Jewish point of view.
I went on to write articles and books on other topics, but remained interested in Jewish circumcision.  I found it surprising that despite all its psychological, sexual, medical and religious complexities, no novelist had ever taken it on.
Two things inspired me to make a foray into fiction with this topic.  One, I myself had become much more deeply engaged in Jewish thought and Jewish life and community as a result of the research I did to write those first articles.  The more I delved into Jewish writings to understand the circumcision tradition — in order to write in opposition to it — the more Jewishly engaged I felt.  I always thought that would make an interesting story, and that’s what happens to Dr. Sandy Waldman.  He’s grown up assimilated, for reasons different from mine — he’s the son of Holocaust survivors, many of whom didn’t rear their children Jewishly — but like me, Sandy discovers what Judaism means to him as he rails against circumcision.
The second inspiration happened when I interviewed several men about this topic, including a Jewish man who felt he had remembered his own circumcision trauma.  I learned about foreskin “restoration,” in which circumcised men stretch their residual tissue over a period of months and years to mimic the function of the lost tissue.  I was astounded by the fact that there may be as many as a quarter of a million men around the world who are currently engaged in this process, and I couldn’t seem to shake myself free of that information and its rich possibilities for exploration in fiction.  Also, the idea of that kind of repair struck me as very rich, since repair/healing, tikkun olam, is really the central tenet of Judaism.
So between the foreskin restoration aspect, the interviews I did, and my own strengthened Jewish identity as I expressed my opposition to circumcision, I began to realize I might have a novel — and that if indeed I did have a novel, I had a male main character.

Why did you set it in Berkeley?

I was born at Alta Bates Hospital and reared in Berkeley — went through the Berkeley public schools, graduated from Berkeley High, and then attended Cal Berkeley.  My father had a retail store right across from the Cal campus during demonstrations and riots, so I saw a lot, and Berkeley is very much a part of my consciousness.  It’s a great place to set a novel: beautiful, forward-thinking, yet also in some ways provincial, exasperating in its self-satisfaction.
Regarding circumcision, I find it fascinating that in a town where anything goes, and even among very assimilated Jews, circumcision generally remains the norm in Jewish families.  Things are shifting somewhat with the dropping circumcision rates in the general population and the prevalence of interfaith families in Berkeley and elsewhere.  But for the most part, circumcision is still regarded as a central emblem of Jewish identity even in Berkeley, a place that prides itself on thinking outside the box and abiding by its own version of correctness.  I wanted to explore that paradox.
That said, circumcision is a conundrum among progressive Jews everywhere, not just in Berkeley.  All non-Orthodox Jews who are patching together their decisions about keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath, and so on, must also come to terms with circumcision, which is often the one tradition that’s kept.
Another reason this book is set in Berkeley is that with all its tolerance of ethnic minorities, Berkeley is not an entirely comfortable place to be Jewish.  I wanted to explore that, too.

What was your Jewish upbringing in Berkeley like? Did your family attend temple? How did you obtain a Jewish identity?

I grew up mostly assimilated, with some observance of Jewish holidays but very little in the way of other Jewish practices or education.  I went to religious school for a few months when I was eight or nine, but I never developed a stable sense of community around being Jewish.  Yet I felt from an extremely early age that being Jewish was important.  To this day I’m not sure I could put my finger on how or why; it was something intangible, but even as a girl I knew I would always embrace my Jewishness in some way.
Then as a young mother, I began digging into Jewish learning so that my articles would be well-informed.  As I mentioned, it was in this process that my Jewish identity and affiliation became stronger.  For example, I became a regular at the Jewish Community Library in S.F. and signed on for an adult bat mitzvah at my synagogue.

Considering all the causes Berkeley residents have embraced over the years, why do you think they have not questioned the practice of circumcision more closely?

Great question; I’m not at all sure I know the answer.  If you’re asking about Jewish residents, my sense is that at least in my parents’ generation, Berkeley tended to attract Jewish transplants who were anti-establishment and anti-religious observance.  I wonder if perhaps underneath the embracing of progressive ideals, there’s also been some unconscious anxiety about the dangers of complete Jewish assimilation.  Circumcision is a one-shot deal during which the parents can reassure themselves that they’re still holding to something Jewish.  That’s my theory for today, anyway.
If you’re asking about Berkeleyans who aren’t Jewish and who make it a point to question authority on all fronts, I don’t know why circumcision often seems to be an exception.  Certainly the procedure flies in the face of all medical precedent, which dictates that surgery should be a last resort, not something done as a preventive measure on a routine basis.  Also, very few physicians are well-informed about the relatively recent research establishing the anatomical function of the foreskin and the erogenous nature of its tissue.  What that means is that many doctors don’t understand the drawbacks of circumcision, and therefore cannot present a balanced choice to parents.
My sense is that circumcision is often done even in families in which the parents would ordinarily embrace natural remedies and alternative solutions to health issues, and are opposed to unnecessary medical intervention.  I wonder whether circumcision’s link to sexuality causes anxiety, thereby clouding the judgment of physicians and medical consumers alike.

Do you think you can be Jewish and not circumcise your sons?

Strictly speaking, from the point of view of Jewish law, you’re Jewish if your mother is Jewish, circumcision notwithstanding.  That said, as a matter of practice, circumcision is still seen as central in mainstream Jewish practice.  What do I believe?  That what’s really central to the future of Judaism is engagement in Jewish life, intellectual and spiritual inquiry, and community.  This does not necessarily involve circumcision.  Indeed, I would propose that a conscious decision not to circumcise can be a more Jewishly authentic act than going along with something that collides with one’s personal ethics, violates one’s spirituality, or disrupts one’s biological urge to protect one’s newborn.

What surprised you most in your research about circumcision?

I was very surprised to learn that circumcision as done today is a vastly more radical procedure than Biblical circumcision.  That’s because during the Hellenic period, many Jewish men, in an attempt to “pass” as non-Jews and thereby gain civil rights, would systematically stretch their residual foreskin tissue over a period of months so as to look uncircumcised.  The Talmudic rabbis reacted by legislating a far more extensive operation, one that could not be reversed by stretching.  It is this more radical procedure—not Abraham’s comparatively mild cut—that both mohels and physicians are still practicing today.

I’m also continually surprised that recent research demonstrating the highly erogenous nature of foreskin tissue does not seem to be of interest to more people, though there is a subculture of gay men who are tuned into this.  There’s some jittery joking along the lines of “well, it’s a good thing it’s gone, because otherwise I’d be an absolute animal.”  But I’ve observed very little serious consideration of the information; it doesn’t seem to fully sink in, maybe because it makes men feel queasy about what they may have lost.

What has the reaction to your novel been? Are people squeamish about the topic?

The response has been wonderful — I’m pretty thrilled with the reviews.
Regarding the squirm factor, yes, that’s there–hey, there are a few scenes in the book that make me wince.  But more than anything else, The Measure of His Grief is a story about a man and his wife and their daughter as they all try to navigate their ways through love, grief, identity and everything else that’s part of being human.
Is circumcision a squirmy issue?  Sure.  But then, I’m old enough to remember a time when homosexuality was looked upon as “icky” by the mainstream; when I was growing up, it was seen as a psychiatric condition, even in progressive Berkeley.  Well-meaning people felt completely justified in their squeamishness about this; it wasn’t even questioned.  So I think we have to question our squeamishness about circumcision.
That said, you can’t legislate openness to a topic.  I realized as I was finishing the book that despite its male subject matter and male main character, I may well have written a women’s book.  I’m fond of saying that this novel will interest anyone with a penis and anyone who knows someone with a penis.  Well, my readers may fall mostly into the latter category.

This article first appeared in Berkeleyside.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Meredith Maran and My Lie: A story of false incest

Bay Area author Meredith Maran has been chronicling her life and the world around her since the mid 1990s. Her bestselling memoir, What It's Like to Live Now and Notes From an Incomplete Revolution, detailed what it was like to come out as a lesbian, raise two sons in a marginal neighborhood, strive for social justice, and grapple with the successes and shortcomings of feminism. 

Her 2001 book, Class Dismissed, is Maran’s in-depth look at Berkeley High, where she spent a year following three students from three different ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds. It remains an incisive look at an American high school grappling with sex, class, race, and the achievement gap.

But Maran’s tenth book will prove to be her most provocative – and controversial. My Lie, A True Story of False Memory, published last week by Jossey-Bass/Wiley, tells the story of how Maran falsely accused her father of sexual abuse. Her volatile charges, made in the middle of the height of the recovered memory movement, split her family apart, denied her children a relationship with their grandfather, and shaped Maran’s reality for more than a decade.

Years later, Maran realized she had made the whole tale up, and My Lie recounts how she reached out to her father and family for forgiveness. My Lie also attempts to make sense of the recovered memory movement that rocked the nation in the late 1980s and led to numerous high-profile trials, like the infamous McMartin preschool case. Maran discusses how a generation of feminists attempted to bring incest and sexual abuse out of the shadows and how some overly zealous prosecutors and therapists exploited the recovered memory phenomenon.

On Tuesday, September 22, Berkeley Arts & Letters will present an evening with Maran, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review Editor, and Berkeley novelist Ayelet Waldman. The topic “How do we come to believe lies?” will begin at 7:30 pm at the Hillside Club.

Maran will also be on KQED Forum with Michael Krasny at 10 am September 22.

Ghost Word caught up with Maran just as My Lie was published.

Your story is so shocking and disturbing – a daughter realizes that her once-beloved father molested her, cuts off contact for a decade, and then realizes she had made the whole thing up. To tell this story, you must lay your faults and biases out for everyone to see, which must have been extremely difficult. Why did you decide to tell this story publicly and how hard is it to admit this lie?

I have a big mouth, and I'm a memoirist and essayist. Therefore, my faults, along with my gifts, are always on public display. I'm a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kinda gal. I like people who are the same way. Denial, obfuscation, withholding, dishonesty with self and/or others: not my favorite traits. And I can't ask more from others than I ask from myself.

It actually felt--not good, exactly, but satisfying to explore this piece of my worst behavior, to come forward and say, I did this terrible thing and I'm doing my best now to understand why and to make amends where that's possible. I'm a great believer in "be the change you want to see," and admitting a wrong is a good place to start.

You write that as a young journalist you wrote extensively about incest and sexual abuse and that after a while this became the prism through which you saw the world.  How did immersing yourself in the “recovered memory” movement influence your thoughts about your father?

I'm a person who is publicly admitting to a huge mistake--not a saint. It's profoundly tempting to blame the harm I caused on the mania of the times. There's no question in my mind that absent the recovered memory craze, I wouldn't have accused my father of molesting me. I'm almost equally certain that I would have come up with another way to blame my pain--and women's pain--on men if that story hadn't presented itself. 

My Lie not only deals with your particular story, but the larger question of what is truth.  Your talk at Berkeley Arts & Letters is titled “How Do We Come to Believe Lies?” What is it about our society that permits people to create their own truths, to insist their version of the world is accurate, to be self-delusional?

It's not just our society. It's human nature. That said, America was built on "rugged individualism," the notion that any one of us can "succeed" by virtue of pure conviction. I think Americans are particularly attached to the belief that suffering is preventable and that there's a simple explanation and solution for everything: better to believe a false, simple explanation ("Obama isn't an American citizen";" "Our fathers are all molesters") than to grapple with the complexity of truth ("I can't stand having an African American President") or uncertainty ("I don't know how I can be a feminist and a grown woman and still feel so powerless with my father.")

If it happened to you once, can it happen again?

The bigger question is, if it happened to US once, can it happen again. And the answer, clearly, is yes. We're the country that lived through Salem, McCarthyism, the sex-abuse mass panic--and we're the country in which two years after the rumor started, more people than ever believe that Obama is a Muslim and health-care reforms would kill their grandmothers. It's happening again right now. We're just lucky that somehow we avoided having Palin as our Vice President in spite of it.

You recanted your charges against your father several years ago. He is now suffering from Alzheimer’s. Does he remember this piece of your joint history? 

We're really lucky: my dad's Alzheimer's is relatively mild, and he's married to a woman who is his best friend, home health care provider, straight woman for his endless jokes, and the love of his life. By his own description, his wife is not only keeping him alive, but making him happy. So, the bad news is: yes, he remembers this piece of our history. The good news is: he's trying to forget it!

Have your other family members forgiven you for your lie? 

Define "forgiven." Each person in my family feels differently about it (and everything else). Our relationships are as different as we are. Mostly, I feel grateful that the harm I did hasn't permanently estranged us.

Monday, August 30, 2010

A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer

When Lauren Belfer's City of Light came out, I devoured it. I don't generally adore historical novels, but this one about Niagara Falls and the building of an electrical system hooked me from the start. So when I heard that her new novel, A Fierce Radiance, was about the discovery of penicillin, I rushed to my library and put it on reserve.

Unfortunately, I wish I didn't move that fast. Belfer's second novel is not nearly as good as her first. It tells the story of a female photographer from Life Magazine who goes to the Rockefeller Institute in NYC to photograph human tests of penicillin. It then goes on to talk about how the federal government commandeered research and production of the drug during World War II, but strictly limited its use to soldiers. The pharmacy companies were required by law to produce the drug and sell it cheaply, but they conspired to create similar drugs which they later patented and made money on.

The back story is good. It's just that Belfer inserts clunky dialogue and far-fetched situations to tell the story. I found myself cringing at her writing at times.

Still, I did not know anything about the medical quest to prove penicillin and produce it on a large scale, and A Fierce Radiance told me that story.