“People count on us to be passive. They deserve to be punished.”
When I saw that the first book chosen for The Militant Baker online book club was Dietland by Sarai Walker, I was curious. It has passed under my radar, as most fiction does nowadays. If I need a fiction escape, I pick up a paperback at a bookstore, read it in the tub, and then pass it on to a friend. I haven’t gotten real sustenance (pun intended!) from fiction in many years. And I’m not knocking that…there is nothing wrong with Pina Coladas and getting caught in the rain.
But appearances are deceiving because Dietland is clearly not any of these things. The cheerful cover lends itself to how the book opens. It’s another version of chick-lit, right? Well written chick-lit maybe, but one of the many “find yourself and then find a man” tropes of a novel on the market.
Dietland is way, way more. Within the first third of the book, the formula veers off wildly… into farce, metaphor, satire, allegory, or melodrama. Call it what you want, but the book uses a narrative plot of wild extremes to remind us of something important. As Annalisa Quinn wrote in her review of the book:
I've never dropped anyone out of a helicopter. But Dietland resonated with the part of me that wants, just once, to deck a street harasser. At the very least, I wish an incurable itch upon everyone who has catcalled me on the street. I wish food poisoning and public embarrassment on everyone I've heard make a rape joke. I wish toothache and head lice and too-small shoes upon every stranger who has told me to smile. Which is to say, sometimes I forget I'm angry, but I am. Dietland is a complicated, thoughtful and powerful expression of that same anger.
The novel tackles rape culture in a brilliantly, subversive way. There is a movement afoot within the novel, two of them actually. There is a group of women, Calliope House, reclaiming their lives, and identity. They are trying to navigate an unjust world with an authentic voice, supporting each other with comfort and safety. Reminding each other not to harm anyone, not even our own bodies, in the quest to fit into the world around them.
It is no accident that the leader of Calliope House is a therapist, and one of the researchers she is funding is a social worker. The home is full of PhD level writers and activists and academics. They are working to awaken the slumbering beast that is the power of an aware woman.
But there is a second group, known simply as Jennifer, who attack this culture of women being attacked by men and attacking each other and themselves… with literal guns blazing.
And as with other movements (for example, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Freedom Fighters in contrast to movements of the same era, headed by Malcolm X with the Nation of Islam or Huey Newton and Bobby Seale with The Black Panthers), the groups start to intertwine and the gentle become angry. They may not always agree with the tactics, they may not utilize the same tactics, but they understand. The novel uses the following exchange in a TV talk show format to demonstrate this leaning to the far and angry left.
On the Nola and Nedra Show, Nola Larson King said: “I’ve been thinking about what you said earlier, Nedra, and I agree with you. I don’t think this is terrorism or lady terrorism. Do you know what I think it is?”
“I’m dying to know,” said Nedra Feldstein-Delaney.
“I think it’s a response to terrorism. From the time we’re little girls, we’re taught to fear the bad man who might get us … Isn’t that a form of terrorism?”
“For God’s sake, Nola. You’re going to get us both fired,” said Nedra Feldstein-Delaney.
The book challenges the idea of bending our wills and our bodies to the wants and desires of heterosexual men. The challenge of the heterosexual mating dance and sexual empowerment is gentler than other messages with the novel, but there nonetheless. Attraction between women and exploration of one’s sexuality through masturbation are tied in to the larger plot threads. A larger body…a woman’s larger body… the message is, can be soft, comfortable, beautiful, appealing, and exciting.
Sarai Walker reminds us of something important with her use of a Virginia Woolf quote, spoken from one character to another, near the end of the novel: It is far harder to kill a phantom than reality. We have become so immune to the saturation of rape culture and misogyny and heteronormativity in our daily lives that we simply don’t blink. It’s both ubiquitous and nebulous. How do we kill a phantom that large?
Walker is certainly not intending a massive Jennifer movement in reality. As in the book, chaos would ensue . But the idea that we could wield our power to remove violent images? Disallow the behaviors of violent individuals through our daily actions? To stop funding industries that perpetuate rape culture and the objectification of women? That we can do.
We have the power of our numbers, our votes, our dollars, our relationships to say no. If we start to blink, we start to respond.
I wrote a column, recently, for Out in SA magazine that focused on talking to your kids about sex. Talking to our own kids about sex is difficult enough. For those of us who work with children and youth in our professional lives, it can be even more difficult. And if you are one of those saints that works with and advocates for children and youth, you know that many of them have experienced traumatic events that have impacted their sexual development and sexual behaviors.
We see behaviors in kids that concern us or downright scare us. We see behaviors that we need to intervene on. We see behaviors that make us worry that the child/youth is a sexual predator who will not be able to maintain healthy boundaries and relationships as they move into adulthood.
I train clinicians and direct care staff about working with these behaviors, setting up safety plans, reacting to unsafe behaviors when they occur, helping clinicians treat these behaviors in order to encourage healthy development. NCTSN has a great handout on sexual behaviors and how to have discussions with children and youth about the behaviors that concern us.
A big part of the handout (and my training) is discussing what normal behaviors are to begin with. A lot of what freaks us out is totally normal, it’s our reaction to it that poses the biggest risk to a child’s development.
Having strategies to manage all questions about sexuality, gender, and sexual behaviors in a proactive way is key. How this all works in different settings is addressed in a 2-3 hour training that I provide agencies. But some of the main ideas, taken from my training, that are shared here for you to consider in your own work environment.
· Frame discussions in a way that doesn’t make presumptions about gender or sexual orientation. Use neutral pronouns (they) and terms (partner), giving children/youth space to articulate their identity.
· Articulate an attitude that sexuality and sexual exploration (both solo and partnered) is normal and healthy, and how rules regarding sexual behavior are designed to promote safety and protect the boundaries and comfort level of others (as well as follow laws, rules, and guidelines in facilities).
· Have an open door policy regarding sex. Provide a space that is shame-free and open to discussion.
· Find ways for individuals to have private time for solo exploration. Normalize this experience in conversations (partnered versus solo sexual activity).
· Teach consent and boundaries and model these behaviors in all your interactions.
· If you mess up in that regard (or in ANY regard), apologize and correct. How we model taking responsibility for our actions will be the best teacher in showing children and youth how to do the same.
· Approach trauma history and reactions as normal responses to abnormal events.
· Frame questions about behaviors and experiences gently, normalizing these experiences, without asking why. (e.g. “Some people have….do you have any experience with that?”
· Discuss how many behaviors are learned based on previous experiences which means that newer, safer behaviors can also be learned.
· Reiterate that even children and youth with offense histories rarely go on to be adult offenders with treatment and support.
· Remind children and youth that while their behavior makes sense, it is not permitted in their current environment. Remind them that they are accountable for their behavior.
· Use a sexual safety plan to help articulate their rights and their boundaries (as well as the rights and boundaries of others) in their living environments.