On the first anniversary of the alt-right rally that rocked our town of Charlottesville, we are quiet at home, just a mile away from the crowds and cops that have gathered on the downtown pedestrian mall near the parks and still-standing statues. I have a cup of black tea and a stack of books (RunawayHorses, Yukio Mishima; My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh; Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow). Guion is playing the guitar, accompanying our gentle neighbor on the cello. They speak to each other very sparingly; they sip Negronis and the wooden coasters clatter to the floor when they pick up their drinks. Pyrrha sleeps on the knotted wool rug in the hall. She sometimes watches them with one eye.
We have deliberately had a still weekend, but we also ventured downtown to eat. Not as a declaration of anything, but just because it’s what we’d do on any other weekend. We passed through the police checkpoints. We stiffened a little when a man yelled from the street; when, later, a cop car blasted its sirens down the street, but nothing happened. Nothing was visibly awry. We are still happy to call this place home. We do not know what the future holds. We know we are still far from equity in many respects. We maintain a shape-shifting hope for tomorrow.
. . .
If I grieve for anything, it is for the cruelty of aging, for the ways that it brings my beloved family to struggle and suffer in their final days. I still expect dying to be fair.
. . .
“Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”
On the precipice of 30, I am learning how to enjoy for enjoyment’s sake. L’art pour l’art.
In my youth, I felt I had to master anything I loved. But then, inevitably, my inability to master a thing diminished my passion for it. For instance, I loved ballet. I loved watching ballets, studying ballerinas. I took ballet lessons as a girl, and then, as a young adult, read Apollo’s Angels and took two beginner’s classes. I was, and still am, a terrible dancer. I am neither strong nor flexible and I have none of the free courage of movement that dancers require. My inability to master ballet itself dimmed my love of the art form. My ballet slippers collect dust in a drawer upstairs; I have forgotten all of the warm-up stretches I used to try every morning. It is a sad and frustrating conclusion to a brief flicker of interest. I never thought I’d become the next Margot Fonteyn, but I expected more from myself. I let myself down quickly.
I’ve been thinking about this false exchange in one particular realm lately. I have loved fiction since I was a child and still do. I read, on average, 50 to 60 novels every year. I study novelists; I drink up their Paris Review interviews; I am obsessed with the craft. And yet, despite all of this, I do not think I can write fiction. I keep trying and loathing myself.
Maybe I will get over it; maybe I won’t. Maybe I will finally write that thing that has been rattling around in my head for years. But either way, I am now repeating to myself the fact that love and mastery do not have to go hand in hand. I can love a cello concerto without ever having to pick up or know anything about the instrument itself. I can adore Italian film without having to learn key phrases. I can devour fiction without having to write a novel. It’s a little freedom I am giving myself.
“Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake.” — Robert Penn Warren
I do not think I will ever be in the mood to read Don Quixote. Can I take it off my to-read list, where it has been languishing for seven years?
A month after the rally of hatred, our parks are still in turmoil. The Confederate statues are covered up with gigantic trash bags in the morning; in the evening, an unauthorized group of men is tearing them down (which we witnessed last night, walking back to our car). Insipid tourists pose for photos, cheesing in front of the Lee statue, which irritates me to no end. (It’s such an insensitive and weird impulse, to want to pose with this now-infamous statue, which you never would have cared about, much less noticed, before a woman died in the street.)
One thing that has comforted me lately is the presence of excellent local journalists—namely, Jordy Yager. We heard him speak in a panel of other journalists on the topic of race and racism in the news, and I was so impressed with and grateful for his deep grasp of Charlottesville, its history, and the white supremacy that controlled and still controls so many of its institutions. There is still much to be done, but there are many who are fighting the good fight for the long haul.
If you were following the news in the US this weekend, you know that Charlottesville, our little town, became an epicenter for a terrifying rally of white supremacists, Nazis, alt-right instigators, and domestic terrorists from across the country. One woman was killed in an act of terrorism straight out of the ISIS playbook, and 19 more were seriously injured.
We live less than a mile from Emancipation Park, shown above, which was the center of the violence and rage. Our church is right across the street from this park. Since Saturday, we’ve been decompressing for hours on end, like many of our neighbors and friends.
In the aftermath, the most unsettling quote I have read came from University of Virginia alum and Nazi agitator Richard Spencer, who said: “Your head’s gonna spin, how many times we’re going to be back here . . . We’re going to make Charlottesville the center of the universe.”
My stomach fills up with dread when I read those words. I pray that it won’t be true, that days like Saturday don’t become commonplace in our town.
And yet it jars us all out of our complacency. We realize we’re not inoculated from hatred; it breathes and grows right under our feet, right next door. Charlottesville has a dark history of racism that it covers in a veneer of prestigious history and genteel Southern charm. In my bubble, on my street in a hippie neighborhood, it is easy to believe that we don’t have a problem with racism. Clearly, we do.
“If we are to be blindsided by history, it will probably be the consequence not of unresolved disputes but of unexamined consensus.” — Marilynne Robinson, “Value,” in The Givenness of Things
So, what’s to be done?
If ending white supremacy is the goal, tweeting about it shouldn’t be my primary action. The older I get, the more I am convinced that tweeting about racism and white supremacy doesn’t do much, if any, good. Hearts and minds aren’t changed by social media posts. The internet just serves up our own opinions, whatever they are, and calcifies them. Facebook doesn’t soften our hearts—or change the minds shrouded with hate that need to be changed.
If the echo chamber of the internet doesn’t have concrete solutions, where else should we look? Here are a few actions that I’ve been thinking about lately.
Stay in your church or whatever community you belong to. Stay and do the hard work there of talking about white supremacy. Don’t leave because discussions aren’t happening at the pace you want; start the discussions yourself. Don’t wait for someone else to.
Talk to people. Talk to your relatives who voted for Trump. Withholding judgment, listen to them. (I find this particularly hard to do, but I’m learning that it’s vitally important if we are ever going to be able to get through to someone.) Ask them questions. Lots and lots of questions.
Form relationships with people whose opinions you find repulsive. This, especially, is the primary way to create significant change in our communities. It has to start at the very small, very local, very intimate level. One person at a time.
Starting with myself. I hope I can become less horrible, in the wake of all of this, and be more gentle and gracious. It is difficult and seemingly endless work, but I hope and pray Charlottesville is in it for the long haul.
By the time I graduated from college, I was ready to quit being a Christian.
A young lifetime spent in the grasp of the American evangelical movement had worn me down. For so many years, I had been so faithful; I had been the Good Christian Girl. I played guitar in the youth group praise band. I led small groups. I memorized entire books of scripture. I once gave a speech (hard to call it a sermon) to our congregation on Proverbs. I went to evangelical summer camps and proselytized on city streets. I had faithful daily “quiet times” and by the age of 18, I had read through the entire Bible three times. I thought I was solid, as far as my eternal salvation was concerned.
But by the time I got to college, I wasn’t so sure. While I stayed involved in a church and in InterVarsity throughout my tenure at UNC, my spiritual energies were flagging. My soul was exhausted. I was thankful for my Christian community in college, and I made close, life-giving friendships through IV, but that network just fueled the fire of my attempts to be the summa cum laude Christian. Even though I tried, I was never up to snuff. I didn’t care enough about social justice. I didn’t volunteer on the weekends. I gossiped and lied and spent so much time pretending to be good. I couldn’t keep up this façade anymore, of being the Good Christian Girl. Because deep down, I knew I wasn’t.
When I got married, a few weeks after graduation, I started to quietly and silently think about throwing it all away. If Christianity meant being your Best Possible Self all the time, I wasn’t cut out for it. The barriers and judgments that came along with this brand of Christianity, especially the indictments against gay people and women, had also weighed heavily on my heart for many years. I was ready to be done with it all.
My husband is a lifelong Episcopalian, so once we moved to town, he suggested that we try it out. We didn’t know a single person in Charlottesville, and so, why not? I went with bated breath and a hefty dose of apprehension. I had always been skeptical of the denomination, as a true and fiery evangelical Protestant. Isn’t it just a bunch of musty old liberals exchanging Hallmark card pleasantries? Plus, didn’t it smack of Catholicism lite? And what, they can’t make up their own prayers? They have to read them out of a book? What’s the big deal about communion anyway? The church I grew up on only gave us grape juice and crackers once a month, on a Wednesday night, for completely mysterious and unexplained reasons.
We started going to the 5 o’clock service, and over time, my fears dissipated. The clergy were instantly so friendly to us, and within a week, they had already learned our names (a notable accomplishment, when one of the names is “Guion”) and greeted us warmly. We started to make friends. We stalked the music minister at Kroger and looked like homeless puppies so that he’d have to hang out with us, out of his reservoir of pity and kindness.
On a community level, it was an immediately warm and comfortable place. But on a spiritual level, Christ Church dragged me back into belief.
Importantly, being there was the first time, in my entire Christian life, that I’d heard anyone talk about grace.
Yeah, the word was bandied about a lot in the churches of my youth. The word “grace” seemed to hold significant semantic currency, but it was never explained, and it certainly wasn’t practiced. Every pastor I grew up with would tell you that, of course, they believed in grace, in the gospel, in the forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but when it came down to it, it was up to you to get yourself right with God, to prove to God and everyone else that you were the Good Christian Girl. And then, only then, you could be acceptable. Then you could be loved.
The church I attended in college sprung out of a particularly aggressive, masculine brand of reformed Christianity, and today I feel ashamed to say I went there and that I loved it. Or I thought I did. It spoke to my deep need to feel in control of my salvation, to show everyone what a top-notch Christian I was. Jesus was at the center of every sermon, but he was a militant, performance-based Jesus. A CrossFit trainer Jesus who wanted to whip you into shape so that God could love you more. The congregation was filled every week with young hipster Christians, feverishly taking notes in their Moleskines to find out how they could make themselves lovable and forgiven.
This was not the message I heard at Christ Church. All I heard, week in and week out, was: God loves you exactly as you are, which is a pretty busted state. You are not going to make yourself better by your own effort or merit. Jesus wiped your slate clean. He died once, for everyone. Everyone. Come to Jesus. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. Hear this comfortable word from our Savior. This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
I was flabbergasted. This was Christianity? The same religion I was raised in? This endlessly forgiving collection of broken people? I was shocked by the message, delivered in utter absence of judgment, that I was royally messed up and that I had to stop pretending I wasn’t. Indeed, this grace was offensive. What about all of those prayer groups I led? What about the time when I memorized the entire book of Ephesians and recited it weekly? What about that? Was that for NOTHING? I wanted some credit. I wanted Jesus to pat me on the back and say, Great job, kid, I love you more than most people because you’re better than most people.
Being at Christ Church, I learned, quickly, that it was foolish to expect such a word from the Lord and Savior. Rather, the message was: Abby, you’re really screwed up. But you are welcome and loved just the same.
As it turns out, that was all I ever really needed to hear.
In the wake of the horrific Rolling Stone article about a 2012 gang rape at the UVA fraternity Phi Kappa Psi, I have found it hard to control my emotions, waffling between rage and sorrow. It seems that sexual violence is the theme of the year in my town, the supposedly peaceful Charlottesville.
The residents I’ve talked to, many of whom are UVA alums, are grieved, but sadly, many of them are not surprised. The general sentiment is: Yeah. That sounds like something frats would do — and have done for years. And then there is the outpouring of feelings of powerlessness against an entrenched system of violence, adolescent stupidity, and misogyny.
This is my question: How powerless are we?
To me, there seems to be a very simple answer, or at least, a practical solution that could begin a tidal wave of much-needed change: Shut down all the fraternities (and not just for a few weeks, to pacify public outrage).
No, this wouldn’t solve the problem of rape. Sexual violence is often committed by men who are not frat brothers. No, not all frats are evil. Obviously, not all frats are raping women. There are some genuinely lovely and good-hearted men who are in or were in fraternities, and I am delighted to know many such men.
But let’s discuss honestly what this action could do. What are the advantages of the greek system in American universities? What have fraternities done for university cultures?
Advantages of frats
Having a bunch of friends that your parents purchased for you who are all in your same social class. Accordingly, a sense of unity, loyalty, and belonging within this artificial, homogenous family
Parties! Which naturally involve plenty of alcohol, with the added benefit of skirting the law on underage drinking (due to lack of enforcement)
Some mandatory community service
Disadvantages of frats
Parties! Copious alcohol + no law enforcement/adult oversight + groupthink = a perfect storm to generate a mass of bad decisions.
Hazing. Most panhellenic organizations will tell you that hazing is illegal. But most frats will admit that they still do it. Just a little bit. Just enough to maybe kill just one student a year (as was common at UNC). It’s just one human being. He wanted to fit in!
Frat houses that are private property (like many of the houses at UVA) create a perfect culture of protection for frat activities. You can wreak fairly unsupervised havoc to your heart’s content. A private frat house is also a perfect location to trap and rape women with zero consequences to yourself and your brothers.
When you do get in trouble, you benefit from a large degree of protection from university officials because you’re rich. Accordingly, your parents and your frat’s alumni hold clout, because they too are well off, and your university doesn’t want to piss them off by punishing you.
A culture that encourages a strong sense of brotherhood (aka idiotic male behavior), often culminating in a high degree of misogyny.
A culture that fosters racism and elitism. I can’t even remember how many times UNC frats got in trouble for racist and sexist parties while I was working for the student paper; too many times to count. The elitism is so blatant it’s almost not worth mentioning. Such organizations, like fraternities, that exist solely to exalt the most privileged members of society seem crass and anachronistic in 21st-century America.
The exaltation of tradition. Frats have existed for a long time and were often the first organizations established at American universities. There’s a strong feeling that we must protect frats, at all costs, because they have been around for so long. Particularly at such a university as UVA, which views history and tradition as a veritable religion, long-held customs and cultures are very slow to change — or even to admit that they need to change. (Reveling in that kind of circular logic of, well, we’ve always done it this way and therefore it is perfect and unchangeable.)
Among men on college campuses, fraternity men are more likely to commit rape than other college men (Bleeker & Murnen, 2005; Boeringer, 1999). Thus, rape prevention efforts often target fraternity men (Choate, 2003; Larimer, Lydum, Anderson, & Turner; 1999; Foubert & Newberry, 2006). Compared to their peers on college campuses, fraternity men are more likely to believe that women enjoy being physically “roughed up,” that women pretend not to want sex but want to be forced into sex, that men should be controllers of relationships, that sexually liberated women are promiscuous and will probably have sex with anyone, and that women secretly desire to be raped (Boeringer, 1999). Beyond the aforementioned quantitative findings, qualitative research suggests that fraternity culture includes group norms that reinforce within-group attitudes perpetuating sexual coercion against women. These cultural norms have the potential to exert powerful influences on men’s behavior (Boswell & Spade; 1996).
About 30% of UVA’s undergraduates belong to a fraternity or a sorority. (In contrast to other regional schools, UNC, my alma mater, has 17% of the student body involved in greek life; Duke University has about 38%.)
Women were not officially (fully) enrolled as undergraduates at UVA until 1972. So, comparatively, this is a school that is still figuring out how to treat women as humans. Let’s be honest: The Great Demigod Thomas Jefferson wasn’t exactly a role model in this arena. (By contrast, UNC enrolled its first woman student in 1897.)
Let’s be clear: This kind of evil, predatory behavior is not exclusive to UVA. While at UNC, I heard about a story a year about a girl being raped by her frat date, and I heard collectively two separate stories about women in our circle of acquaintances who suffered gang rape at frats. Being assaulted by frat brothers was a common horror story at UNC. A few miles down the road at Duke, my friend, who was in a frat there, reported that many Duke frats had “progressive parties” in which one of the rooms was the “date rape” room, into a which a girl would be lured and sexually assaulted, and then moved on to the next station at the party. These parties are still happening there today, and no frat has been punished for them.
Sexual assault happens at colleges all across this country, which is why this is a problem of epidemic proportions — even if the evidence is scattered and hushed, tending toward horror stories that women quietly share with one another.
Why would we not try to stop at least SOME of those regular assaults against women by closing down institutions that are famous for sexual violence?
Again, frat brothers are not the only agents of evil. There are plenty of other men out there who are committing sexual assault without the assistance of the greek system. But I earnestly believe that we can stop an enormous proportion of the problem of recurring sexual violence on campuses by shutting down fraternities.
If we shuttered frats, students could still join clubs. Parties would still be had. Gratuitous amounts of alcohol would still be consumed. And, sadly, I am not so naive to think that sexual violence would end. Women would still be in danger on a regular basis, so there’s that, to pacify the traditionalists.
But we could shut down a series of long-standing institutions that promote some of the worst sides of human nature: entitlement, machismo, sexism, recklessness, and a grievous lack of respect for human dignity. At this point, I think frats are beyond saving. They are too far gone to implement reform. The entire culture is morally bankrupt and has been for decades. Good men can exist inside this system, as we all know, but the bad that frats generate seems to far outweigh the good.
Is it not worth it? To make some wealthy alumni angry in exchange for improving university culture and perhaps protecting the lives and bodies of girls?
I don’t think university officials think it’s worth it; they’d rather have the money. Money wins, just about every time, when you put a young woman’s life on the scales.
Again, I’m not stupid. I don’t really believe frats will be shut down. Frats will continue to grow and thrive and rape. Those men who assaulted their dates will graduate and become prominent members of society. They’ll become fathers. They’ll pass on their beliefs to their children. And their little juniors will go on to college, join a frat, and start the cycle all over again.
But if we don’t start seriously questioning the worth of some of our most cherished institutions, our world will not improve. And we will continue to hear the same horrific stories, year after year after year. I am trying to be hopeful. In the meantime, I won’t stay silent about what I perceive to be a vicious cancer in our universities.
If the initial article didn’t make you angry, here’s some additional reading that might.
Owning the Conversation, a collection of links about campus sexual violence from a Charlottesville local, Maggie S.
Teresa Sullivan, Abolish the Greek System (Even if you don’t sign this petition, take some time to read the comments from people who did, especially from the former UVA frat brothers. I signed it a few days ago, when it had 200 signatures; today, it’s up to 923 and counting)
Forgive the shameless self-promotion, but I have to note here briefly that I have some calligraphy prints for sale, just in time for the holidays.
Prints start at $25.
Prints can also be framed for you in advance, which I find to be a huge benefit in gift giving. I’m always hard-pressed to find suitable frames when giving art, and Society6 make this very simple.
PLUS, as a big bonus, between now and 25 December 2014, a portion of proceeds will benefit New City Arts Initiative, a nonprofit that aims to support Charlottesville artists and create engagement between artists and our community. It’s an organization that’s near and dear to my heart, so I’m thrilled to be able to offer this collaboration.
I have been wanting to sell prints for a while, and I have a very encouraging and accommodating husband, who has been urging me to explore this new venture. Regardless of the outcome, it’s been a fun foray into another arena for my work.
As some of you may know, I have the good fortune to be married a very creatively gifted man. Guion is the singer/songwriter for a band called Nettles, and they are seriously good. Describing Nettles is a difficult endeavor, but I like to think of it as the music that floats over a misty swamp surrounded by Spanish moss-laden trees. Or the sounds that rise up from a garden in the cycle of growth and decay. Or the harmony elicited by a falling star. It’s a mystical Charlottesville folk band, you know? These kinds of things come up.
Over the past four years, Nettles has been in the process of making their first album. Now, they need your help to finish it. Nettles has a Kickstarter campaign to raise $5,500 in 25 days. Would you consider helping them out? Every little bit counts.
What a lovely, lovely wedding, Chris and Sallie. We are so happy for you two and delighted that you will remain in our lives in town. Don’t ever leave!
I tried to be brave like Maddy, but I’m apparently not over my stink-bug phobia. I looked like a foolish, fretful 3-year-old while Maddy calmly and competently plucked stink bugs off my back and chair and plate all night long. She is a gem.
These days, when I look at Pyrrha for a moment, these words well up in me: Thank you thank you thank you.
Reading The Second Sex and Rebecca simultaneously is very jarring.
Rose and Kemp are coming to visit this weekend! On the agenda: Hiking, apple picking, solving the American political system, and in Rose’s words, “intimate woman-time.” While the boys are presumably doing man stuff, like talking about beer and comparing muscles or whatever it is that boys do when they are alone…
Speaking of intimate woman-time, on this day in 2008, this is where I was. Missing it (and them) now.
I try to be calm when I look at the calendar. I fail.
1: Win and Tracy came to visit! They both totally charmed Pyrrha (Tracy especially became her particular favorite).
2: Cate is having a baby really soon and so there was a beautiful baby shower/garden party in her honor.
3: After the shower, Mary Boyce and I flopped around on her bed and talked about people and things. It was rejuvenating.
4: Ben’s parents hosted a very generous cookout at the Blue House (read: flank steak). Here are Ethan and Hannah, being cute before dinner.
5: The Graves Street Block Party was resurrected by Ross, who is the only person in Charlottesville who could have accomplished such a thing. No one else has his social prowess, his gracious and notable ability to bring people together and create community out of thin air.
6: I spoke very broken and embarrassing Japanese with the very kind and talented local potter, Ken Nagakui. I felt honored to meet him. He was so generous to me, regarding the vast amount of errors I made in such a small amount of time.
7: I had a slight increase of terror, thinking about how busy I am making my life. And yet I am happy. It is fall! My sister is getting married to one of my good friends from college in a few weeks!