Writing About Shame

grey and brown fox on open field near herd of deer
Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

I’ve denied shame exists, but that’s wrong. And one thing that makes me feel deeply ashamed is being wrong. Just imagine how I felt when at 21, I found out I was adopted! I’d been wrong about quite a few things.

Here’s a poem that touches on the experience of shame, published in February, 2020 by the wonderfully daily poetry journal SWWIM.  It’s an honor to be included in their river of poems.

For Sure

Books for Giving & Forgiving

adult blur books close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Have you been reading more during the COVID pandemic? Or thinking about reading more? Here’s five quick reviews of some favorites among the books I read in 2019. Looking back, “Books For-giving” makes sense since all of these books have some element of forgiveness to them, whether it’s forgiveness of another person, a culture, or oneself.

Many years ago, Gloria Steinem published Revolution from Within, which was my first introduction to the idea of holding your previous selves with love and forgiveness. It’s easy to judge our own trespasses more harshly than we judge others’ behavior. Steinem (as I recall) recommended visualizing your “old” self  as a fallible human being and forgiving any wrong-doing or wrong-thinking.

But that’s a book I read thirty years ago. Here’s what occupied my mind in 2019:

25241883The book that wowed me the most in 2019 was Kia Cothron’s novel, THE CASTLE CROSS THE MAGNET CARTER. That’s not a typo, but I’ve wondered if this weird title has something to do with the sad fact that this book didn’t win every single major literary award the year it was published. Or maybe it was the length. If you’re someone who isn’t scared of long books with even longer threads of moral complexities, this is for you.

As others have noted, Kia Cothron’s book is a masterpiece. Brilliant language and dialogue, unforgettable characters, and a complex narrative arc all inform this magnificent historical novel. The last hundred pages broke me open like I was a pomegranate, all ruby red and full of seeds.

 

 

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. KendiIt’s barely three years since publication of STAMPED FROM THE BEGINNING, Ibram X. Kendi’s comprehensive history of racist ideas and policies. Since then, Dr. Kendi has taken a position at American University as director of the new Anti-Racist Research and Policy center, and he’s written this brilliant new book, HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST.

Interweaving the history of his own changing ideas about race from childhood to the present with the intellectual history of social and political theory and policies concerning race during the same time period, this book is a must read for everyone interested in healing the wounds of racism in our country.

Dr. Kendi’s logic is concise, beautiful, and convincing for me — and even, I think, for people who are not as ga-ga over syllogisms as I am. I listened to the audiobook (read by Dr. Kendi) and then bought the print version to re-read and use as a reference.

Longbourn

Somehow, even as a lifelong fan of British women novelists, I’d never read anything by Jo Baker until this year. It’s especially surprising that I never picked up Longbourn, her riff on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, one of my childhood/young adult faves.

Baker has the particular storytelling gift of exposing cultural lapses in logic and compassion, and similar lapses in individual readers. In other words, she sets you up like a bowling pin for your own personal epiphany.

Longbourne  parallels the plot of Pride and Prejudice by prefacing each of its chapter with a quote from P & P. These function as a sort of shorthand for the where and when of the main characters of Longbourn: Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, Mr. Hill, the butler, Sarah, the ladies’ maid, and Polly, the char. The acts and concerns of the gentry, however, are as the acts of insects — utterly insignificant, except when they happen to sting. And sting they do, in surprising, devastating ways, often with less consciousness of cause and effect than an insect.

The focus is on the hearts and minds of the people employed by the Bennett family. It is their secrets, their desires, their thoughts, and their concerns that move the novel forward. In the precarious and changing economy of early 18th century England, these characters are as concerned with stability and security as the Bennett daughters, and they make a host of distinct sacrifices to stay afloat. This is a page-turner with a deeply embedded treatise on class division.

 

Good Talk: A Memoir in ConversationsRead this one nearly nonstop, and it is the book I wanted to give everyone in my gift list! I picked it up because I thought there might be some scripts or pointers I could use to talk with conservative family members about politics and race. I either got that idea from a review or from my misinterpretation of a review. This book has no easy answers about that.

The story is expertly braided around “uncomfortable “ questions Mira Jacobs’ young son asks her, beginning when he becomes obsessed with Michael Jackson. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time.

I was amazed not only at how much the illustrations (is that the right word?) added to my enjoyment of the book. Jacob reproduces the same image of each character over and over again, yet each drawing seems to change expression to match new text. How did she do that??? Miraculous!

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OMG, I haven’t read so many books by men in one year since I was a kid on a Dostoevsky binge. That’s because so many books by men have irritated me to the point of rage. Men, y’all are leveling up.

I’ve been consumed by issues of race this year as many people have been. Ruffin’s very original take on one possible future of race-based policies and race relations is scary, even (or especially?) for me, the old 97% white lady. I had a hard time getting past the narrator’s hinky voice, but believe me, it’s crucial to the story line.

 

 

 

I’m always looking for my next book, so if you have any recommendations, please post a comment!

My #BlackHistoryMonth Reading List

I tweeted out a list of favorite African American writers this month, which included a few writers I NEED TO READ. February has an extra day this year, but it’s not nearly long enough for this project or to honor #BlackHistory.

The image below contains the first couple of tweets. I’ll post more, but you can also go to my Twitter page for the full list. https://twitter.com/MicheleJSharpe

Unfortunately, the links in the tweets are not live because the image is a jpeg. : (

The image, though, is linked to my twitter page and you can find the links there. Octavia Butler’s affirmation journal entry is just too cool.

BHS list 1

Writing about Family for NYT

Last Friday, the New York Times published a short essay I wrote about meeting up with my brother James in Boston. As mentioned in the piece, I was our mother’s first child, born when she was fifteen years old, and whisked away in a secret adoption.

I’d only known James for about ten years at the time we met up in Boston, having reunited with my mother’s family when I was 34 years old. She had died the previous year, which left a hole in my heart that the wind still blows through. But I’ve been incredibly blessed to have had five brothers, a sister, and many nieces, nephews, cousins, two aunts and an uncle, all kind and loving people. Because of who they are, they’ve always been very supportive of my writing, too.

I’m so grateful to them, to NYT Editor Roberta Zeff, and to all the kind people who’ve taken the time to post comments on the piece.

One Drop

For #NAAM2019, I’m rewinding a piece from 2017 on finding ethnicity (more than once) as an adoptee. Originally published in Argot at https://www.argotmagazine.com/first-person-and-perspectives/one-drop

One Drop

 

Publish D   [Image description: a close-up microscope image of blood platelets.]
Image description: a microscopic closeup of blood platelets
I used to be Italian and Jewish, the product of what was called a “mixed marriage” in the mid-twentieth century. Although that made me different in a bad way from other kids, the good news was all religious holidays were mine to exploit. Good Friday and Yom Kippur, Ash Wednesday and Rosh Hashanah, all of them freed me from school. I could be religious at will.
At twenty-one, I turned into Nothing. A cousin told me I was adopted, and no information was available about where I came from. I became the question mark, the blank page, the space between these words. A bit of a nihilist at that point, I found living in uncertainties felt liberating.

When the State of Florida, where I was born, sent me the non-identifying information allowed by law, I turned into the daughter of a fifteen-year old girl who was Irish and Native American.

Few people know the whole story of their lineage; for adopted people, answers about ethnicity can zigzag wildly. Occasionally, a casual acquaintance has asked me, “What are you?” as if they’ve observed my perma-tan with suspicion. My answers to that question have changed depending on what I thought I knew at the time. But I was raised white, and I’ve passed as white all my life. Aside from a gang of Irish neighbor kids beating me up while yelling “dirty Jew” when I was eight years old, white privilege has protected me from racist violence all my life.

At thirty-four years old, I reunited with my blood family thanks to a private investigator. Except for one aunt, no one knew I’d even existed. But my family recognized me because I looked so much like my mother, who’d died the previous year.

I was a surprise, a long-lost sister for my six siblings. ­­ I also gained two aunts, an uncle, a dozen nieces and nephews, and eight first cousins on my mother’s side. No one knew who my father might have been. They did know, however, that my mother’s father was not the man named on her birth certificate – her real father was a Jewish man that my grandmother worked for. So then I turned into an Irish, Native, and Jewish woman.

My new relatives were very open about stories many families regard as secrets, and my siblings were puzzled my birth had been hidden. Everyone knew my grandmother had given up two babies before bearing my mother, and everyone knew about the anxiety disorders, addictions, hospitalizations, and incarcerations that plagued our family. At a funeral, one of my mother’s childhood friends revealed I was the third baby my mother had given up for adoption. That meant my mother had been pregnant at least three times by the age of fourteen.

I started thinking I might be a product of incest, maybe a big enough secret to hide. Elton, my mother’s stepfather, had been a violent man according to my aunts and my uncle. My grandmother had divorced him soon after I was born. If Elton was my father, that meant my aunts and my uncle were also my half-siblings.

I spun another paternal theory, too. My mother became pregnant with my sister Belinda just two months after I was born. Maybe, I thought, Belinda’s father was my father, too, and our mother and her husband hadn’t wanted to tell their six other children they’d given an older sister away. If that was what happened, then my half-sister Belinda was my sister on both sides.

Either of these theories worked for me. I loved my new-found family so much, the thought of being even more closely related to them was appealing, even if that meant my mother had suffered. The years went by, and I thought about these theories from time to time, but there didn’t seem to be any way to check them. My adopters were silent, and the laws of Florida, where I was born, still keep adoptees’ original birth certificates secret.

Then in the spring of 2015, my sister Belinda, my aunt Rose, and I all spat in our individual tubes and sent our DNA samples off to 23andMe. When we got the results back in June, they showed Rose was still only my aunt, and Belinda was still only my half-sister. Both of my paternity theories were shot down. I started imagining the happier possibility that my mother, at fourteen, had simply been caught up in a youthful passion.

My family believed we had American Indian blood, and Rose and Belinda’s results both showed a fractional percentage of Native ancestry. My results showed a slightly higher percentage. And, I learned I was 1.2% Sub-Saharan West African. Just a bit over one drop.

One Drop laws, a feature of the systematic American racism of the twentieth century, enforced a binary, either/or definition of race. In states with One Drop laws, people were officially defined as either white or black for purposes of census-taking, voting, employment, and all matters related to segregation. One drop of Sub-Saharan African blood, or one African ancestor, made a person subject to all the racist restrictions imposed against African-Americans. And because there was no room for a third or fourth or fifth designation in that white or black system, the One Drop laws resulted in a paper genocide attack on many Native American tribes.

These laws were in effect when I was born, when ideas about “racial purity” were still in vogue. Were my adopters, with their mixed Catholic and Jewish marriage, allowed by the state of Florida to adopt me only because I, too, was mixed – the bastard child of an Irish-Native-Jewish-African bastard? And now that I know the truth, am I a transracial person?

I hesitated to claim that identity. Cultural appropriation has felt icky to me since the New Age phenomenon took off in the 1970’s. And coincidentally, right before my DNA tests came back, a regional NAACP executive was outed as a white woman in a series of national news stories. The executive’s mother and father came forward to tell the world that their daughter, who’d been posing as African-American for about ten years, was a white woman. At the time, I thought the story a particularly wackadoodle example of cultural appropriation.

Then, soon after my DNA results came back, a scholar and college professor who’d represented herself as Cherokee in her life and her work, someone I’d met, spoken with, and had personally admired, was also outed in the media as white. Questions about her true ethnicity had circled around for years, and it seems she’d tried to develop proof of a Native identity, but hadn’t been able to find even that one precious drop of Indian blood.

People still ask me the “What are you?” question. Today, if I felt like answering, I’d say “Irish, Native American, Jewish, African.” Maybe I’ll start saying “Not quite white.” I like the rhyme.

I feel a sense of pride knowing that some of my ancestors survived American racism, at least for long enough to have children of their own. But I’ve felt uneasy about identifying as African or Native, and can’t help questioning where this uneasiness comes from. Maybe it’s from my belief that identity is so much about experience and emotion.

When people of color experience racism and express rage, anger, frustration, disgust, and fear, I may listen with respect and feel empathy or outrage on their behalf, but the primary emotions do not belong to me because I’m not a target of racism. I can’t pretend those primary emotions are mine, and if I did pretend, I’d be no better than the wannabe-African NAACP executive or the wannabe-Indian professor. I’ve passed as white for good reason – DNA analysis shows I’m 97% white.

But if I hang on to my identity as white, what does that mean? Am I intentionally passing at the expense of others? Am I complicit in silencing the mixed-race truth of the American population? After half a life spent separated by adoption from my family, my culture, and my history, and the other half navigating through a new and complex identity, sometimes I long to once again be Nothing, the space between these words.

 

Review of Three Adoptee Memoirs Published in Hippocampus

Right in time for #NAAM2019, my review of memoirs by adoptees Nicole Chung, Karen Pickell, and Lori Jakiela appear in the current issue of Hippocampus Magazine. Each memoir is lyrical and insightful, and each presents a distinct experience of being adopted.

Hippocampus Magazine, by the way, publishes terrific nonfiction stories. If you are a writer of nonfiction looking to publish a piece, check them out!

From the review:

“With its built-in interrogation of what it means to belong to a family, adoption offers a rich context for memoir. Quests to locate mysterious origins provide deeply archetypal narrative arcs for adoption stories, too, and the specialized dialect of adoption invites stories that consider the impact of language on life.”

Click here for the full review — and check out these excellent memoirs!

The Lie of Scarcity

And How It Oppresses Us

Image description: Coins spilling from a jar. Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash
Capitalism and the American government would have you believe there’s not enough wealth to go around. For example, we’re told a universal basic income is impossible because (1) it’s too expensive, and (2) it won’t work.

I suspect what’s really meant is “Poor people need to bootstrap themselves.”

But how can they, when so much wealth is hoarded?

We’re told that businesses are more important than people every day, like when Amazon’s Whole Foods cut access to health care benefits for part-time employees “in order to better meet the needs of our business.” And those benefits had to be purchased by the employees.

In fact, there’s plenty of basic resources for everyone. Most of the U.S.A.’s wealth is hoarded by a tiny group of people, mostly white men.

Wikipedia’s table of wealthiest Americans by net worth, taken from Forbes magazine. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Americans_by_net_worth

This is over $900 billion dollars in personal wealth. No family or individual needs even 1% of the kind of money these billionaires possess.

But that $900 billion is just the very top tier of the ultra high net worth (UHNW) wealthy. In addition to these fifteen, more than 20,000 other people posses enough wealth to require a dedicated office staff to manage it via “family offices.” From Investopedia:

Family offices are private wealth management advisory firms that serve ultra-high-net-worth (UHNW) investors. They are different from traditional wealth management shops in that they offer a total outsourced solution to managing the financial and investment side of an affluent individual or family. For example, many family offices offer budgeting, insurance, charitable giving, family-owned businesses, wealth transfer, and tax services.

So how many of these family offices are there, and what sort of wealth do they manage? The numbers are difficult to estimate, as you may have guessed. Wealthy people often spend considerable energy to keep their financial affairs and tax returns private. The 45th president of the U.S. is a good example of that. Most Americans running for public office release their tax returns to the public — but most of them aren’t UHNW people.

One organization, Family Office Exchange, estimates there are over 10,000 such family offices in the United States:

For our estimate, we’ll assume that half of those individuals with $100–500 million in assets have some form of a family office. For those with assets greater than $500 million, the percentage is probably higher. According to FOX’s biennial Family Office Benchmarking Study, these families typically have more complexity, can afford it, and desire the privacy and control provided by a single family office. For purposes of this analysis, we assume 75% have family offices. This simple reasoning results in more than 10,000 single family offices in the United States, shown below:

Chart showing how Family Office Exchange estimates the number of U.S. family offices

I wouldn’t want to treat this group of investors unfairly (you know how that upsets folks with privilege), so let’s make a lowball estimate of the total wealth of UHNW individuals in the U.S. by multiplying 20,000 people by $100 million — the lowest amount of net assets for those eligible for the family office. The answer is:

$2,000,000,000,000‬

Yes, that’s $2 Trillion, a number that’s very hard for me to wrap my brain around. What does that number even mean? For comparison purposes, the U.S. spent just under $600 billion on Medicaid for 73 million people in 2017. So 73 million people received healthcare in 2017, and it cost less than the personal wealth of 20,000 people. No, wait — it cost less than the personal wealth of only FIFTEEN people. Someone check my math, please.

There’s a tipping point beyond which it’s hard for very rich people to lose money. Left to its own devices, money breeds with itself and makes more money, creating what’s called “generational wealth.” You might have noticed in the top 15 wealthiest people chart that three of them, all members of the Walton family, accumulated their wealth via inheritance. When UHNW people don’t spend all their money (who could?), their wealth accumulates via interest, dividends, appreciation, and probably other ways I know nothing about in my middle class world.

Most Americans (about 85%) live above the poverty line, which is now set at $12,490 per year for an individual, and $25,750 for a family of four. To put that in perspective with our UHNW friends’ wealth, that means a family of four making $30,000 per year lives on .03 percent of $100 million, or that $100 million could support over 3,000 families of four in a given year.

In 2017, the U.S. Census estimated that 39.7 million Americans lived in poverty. Fifteen million of those are children.

So i have a question: If these UHNW folks loosened their grips on their wealth — via increased taxes, for example — how might that ameliorate poverty in America?

[This article originally appeared on my Medium blog on September 25, 2019]

Honoring Laura Hershey — #CripLit Goddess

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Image description: Book cover featuring photo of Laura Hershey, a white woman with O2 line and wheelchair, at her desk.

The publication of a new book by an author you love is a wonderful thing, perhaps especially when that author is no longer in this world  Last month, a posthumous collection of Laura Hershey’s poetry and prose was published by The Unsung Masters Series, a project of Pleiades Press, Gulf Coast Journal, and Copper Nickel Journal.

Hershey passed away after a sudden illness in November of 2010; this came as a shock to her many friends and followers, including me. I’d met Laura when she organized a WOM-PO event at the 2010 AWP conference in Denver. About 30 women attended the lunch, exchanging news about recent books and publications.

I’d become familiar with Laura’s work through the WOM-PO listserv, and deeply admired her incisive intellect and her writing on personal and political facets of living as a disabled woman, and I was anxious to speak with her about her work. At the time, I was working on a chapbook of poems about my experience with hepatitis C and stigma. After some conversation, we embarked on an exchange of poems via email for mutual feedback.

Laura and her long-time partner Robin Stephens had recently adopted a teenage girl, and many of her poems in our brief exchange centered on her new daughter. As an adoptee raised in a fucked-up home, I had a bad taste in my mouth about adoption in general. Laura’s poems were a palate cleanser for me. I had no idea that an adoptive parent could focus, as she and Robin did, on learning all they could about who their daughter was, understanding her daughter as an individual, and acting for the benefit of their child.

The Unsung Masters Series project is an important one, but Laura Hershey was hardly unsung in the many communities she touched with her poetry, prose, and activism. For a sampling of her international influence, check out her website, which continues to live on after her death.

She put her considerable energies to work for both the theory and practice of LGBTQ and disability rights. In addition to her prolific writing, she worked with ADAPT, Not Dead Yet, and other disability rights activist groups. Among other issues, she advocated for universal design — a world that is ready-made for all of us — because, as she asked, “what could be more universal than having a body?”

One of Laura’s poems, “You Get Proud by Practicing,” was set to music and also became a rallying cry for many people with disabilities. It’s included in this important book. Here’s an excerpt:

 

You Get Proud by Practicing
by Laura Hershey

If you are not proud
For who you are, for what you say, for how you look;
If every time you stop
To think of yourself, you do not see yourself glowing
With golden light; do not, therefore, give up on yourself.
You can get proud.

You do not need
A better body, a purer spirit, or a Ph.D.
To be proud.
You do not need
A lot of money, a handsome boyfriend, or a nice car.
You do not need
To be able to walk, or see, or hear,
Or use big, complicated words,
Or do any of those things that you just can’t do
To be proud. A caseworker
Cannot make you proud,
Or a doctor.
You only need more practice.
You get proud by practicing.