Archives for category: anthroplogy

[Published in Chicago Phoenix, January 13, 2014]

I was politically active within the gay community in New York City from the late 1980s through the 1990s, working on issues of what was then known as “gay rights.” With groups such as Act Up I worked on issues of equitable housing for gay men who were forcibly evicted from their apartments upon the death of their lover who held the lease, access to affordable and free healthcare by those living with HIV/AIDS, education and advocacy against homophobia within communities and the public school system, and access to affordable or free prescription medication for those living with HIV/AIDS.  These were just some of the issues facing many of us in the queer community in New York City at the end of the twentieth century.  Then in 1990 after recently deceased Malcolm Forbes was outed by journalist Michelangelo Signorile, discussions within the gay community shifted radically from healthcare and livelihood to that of one’s personal or political “coming out of the closet.”  Issues of privacy and public accountability of homophobic politicians were put into question and debates about the ethics of out took place in major US publications throughout the early 1990s. From this critique of outing public officials came the inauguration of self-outing as journalists, entertainers and other public figures began to engage in their own outing from the mid 1990s.  The freedom to be homosexual and to speak about one’s identity inevitably led to discussions regarding the equality of homosexual couples before the law, same-sex marriage, work-related benefits for same-sex partners, and legal access to adoption and reproductive rights.

By the end of the millennium the landscape of homosexuality in the United States had changed radically from the purely political and social to that of the personal as political through which the homosexual subject was then enabled to tell her “coming out” story freely and without fear of reprisal.  These stories today–even awkwardly for those of us who never left a closet because we refused any manifestation of having to conform to any one singular notion of sexuality–demarcate a point in which a certain truth is suddenly revealed to another.  For many homosexuals the “coming out story” lifted forever this taboo of speaking frankly or honestly about one facet of our identity, of our person.  Little did I suspect then, in my late twenties, that this would be one of the more easily opened closets I would encounter in my life.

I lived in New York City, a graduate student and young professor researching and teaching issues of gender, sexuality, anthropology and philosophy of science.  Certainly thoughts of a family were not only far from my mind, it was not uncommon for me when being asked for seating preference in a restaurant to point to the table with children and exclaim, “Anywhere far away from them.”  The joke was on me years later when in 2006 I decided to have a child through IUI (intrauterine insemination) and I became pregnant on my second attempt at the age of 39.  I was quite innocent about the entire process since I knew I wanted a loving relationship in my life and simply had found anything but this with my previous partners, the last of whom stalked me for over a year.  I had also come to personal realizations of my ability to nurture and love a child and to be a better mother than my own mother who holds the honorary Joan Crawford Prize of child rearing.  In short, I knew I wanted a healthy and loving relationship with a human and for most of my adult life I had assumed that the most important relationship I could have would necessarily be with another adult.  For me having a child was a logical extension of this process–of creating my own family, even without a partner.

Upon getting pregnant I continued the renovation of my house, I worked steadily upon research and book projects and undertook the search for the perfect nanny.  For months I interviewed candidate after candidate for the position of nanny–someone who could watch my child a few hours a day so I could bath, shop or go to yoga.  Months of searching left me with only a few solid candidates.  Dealing with pregnancy as a single queer woman had its own set of sitcom hilarity from the cab drivers who would tell me, “Now why did you do it at the hospital and spend perfectly good money to get pregnant? I would have helped you out for free!” one cab driver told me with a big smile on his face.  Others would share their divorce stories to exclaim, “I wish I had my child on my own since my ex-wife doesn’t let me see my daughter.”  And in a Montreal lesbian bar, I was given the “evil eye” for demonstrating my desire to be a single parent after having described my recent and rather disastrous relationships or attempts thereof with lesbians.  Overall I would have to stay that people were immensely supportive of me but the cultural baggage of sexism, homophobia, racism and classism reared their heads from time to time.

During my pregnancy what concerned me most were the allegedly “practical” ends of child rearing from the mountainous volumes of junk mail that arrived for me regarding life insurance and economic plans for the future education of my children to the sexist and classist presumptions about my child.  For instance, I did not wish to know the sex of my child and as such people would ask me, “But don’t you want to know?” Obviously my not wanting to know was in itself the answer to their question, but these individuals desperately needed to understand why I didn’t wish to know to which I would dryly state: “Sex is an invention.  I don’t think we should speak in terms of race or sex.  By giving into a system that creates such divisions we are repeating this.  For instance, why we have these valences demarcated on our driver’s licenses is mind-blowing to me.  After all we are driving a car, not fucking it.”  Others would push further and query, “But aren’t you dying to know?”  to which I would retort: “Are you asking me if I am dying to know if my child has a vagina or a penis?  If that is the case, no, I certainly am not.  If you are asking me–which is what I think you are insinuating–do I have a preference, the answer is no, of course not.  I want a healthy baby.”  And to the rare few who were more obnoxious in their insistence that I “had to know”, I would say, “Yes, I do have a preference: a hermaphrodite.”

And the sexism did not stop at my alleged “need to know” my child’s sex.  There were the questions from both women and men alike about the child’s “need” to have a “male role model”.  I would usually engage these questions head on with a deconstruction of sex by stating, “What makes you think that if I were with a man that both of us wouldn’t be the female role models, or that I might not be the male role model? What is a bloody ‘role model’ anyway?”   The discussions brought forth from such interactions were robust and often people would think about their own sexism implied within their questioning of my and my unborn child’s alleged “needs”. But there were times where I met those whose need to make me conform to their vision of parenting would persist. I was usually able to handle these interrogations with humorous retorts.  For instance, when one Haitian gentleman asked me, “How will you raise a child without a male figure present?” I answered, “The same way I will raise my child without the presence of my pet giraffe.”  He looked at me confused saying, “What does a pet giraffe have to do with having a child?” I responded, “Precisely as much as a “male figure” has to do with having a child. You know, I find most children in the West raised without any consciousness whatsoever of poverty, of our own countries’ imperialistic political and economic practices, but they still have hope to learn about this later in life.  There will always be something we are raised without in life.”  He looked up and smiled at me.

There were many times when parents would attempt to warn me about the task I was about to engage saying, “You will see–you will no longer sleep!  Say goodbye now to life as you know it.”  I always expected horror film music to start playing amidst these lectures (it never did) and I would usually answer such premonitions with , “I ordered the silent model.”  Others would make such comments as a means to discourage me which I could not really fathom from a personal perspective.  I would retort with my usual sarcasm about the fact that I planned for my child to bring in the bucks the minute he could sit up selling newspapers on a street corner.  I would even add a “kaching” just for effect. It seemed surreal to me that people currently engaged in child rearing would approach it with the same regard as wartime preparations.  But this is sadly how many in the West embrace parenthood–it is not an experience that is an incidental part of life but rather parenthood resembles a mission that must be undertaken with the same sort of planning, engineering and ethos that rocket launches entail.

The class situation was equally as unpredictable to me–I was truly puzzled by people’s need to project education and wealth onto my fetus. For those obsessed with my child going to the best schools and universities I would declare that my child would be an illiterate–albeit rich–plumber or electrician, joking of course.  I wanted to protect my child from expectations of any sort since it would be for her/him to decide all matters of life.  Some of my friends were perplexed as many of them were engrossed in the rat race typical to New York City parents where enrolling your child in preschool while the child was still in utero was considered a necessity.  I was told, “You don’t think of this now, but trust me, you will regret not getting on the list now.”  So “The List” became my reference for all the things I did not want to do.  And my not wanting to conform to such notions of parenthood was not in resistance to being “different” from the rest, but my reaction had much more to do with my having taught for over two decades in the university where I faced on a regular basis the products of parents who over-planned their children’s lives: university students with great doubt as to who they were, what they wanted to study, and tremendous fears of disappointing their parents.  So my response to this paradigm was that my child would be the king or queen (or both) of solar panels and I would proudly announce this telling those who insisted my child should be educated in a certain way, “I will retire and my child will take care of Mommy.”  My attempts to subvert were not always met with kind responses, but generally people in my life understood my desire to give my child the possibility of creating his/her own life far away from the weights of my own or society’s expectations.

Finally, my beautiful child was born in February 2007 and I was beyond euphoric.  I understood only then what parents meant when they would tell me, “You can’t understand being a parent until you do it.”  When I saw Umesh for the first time in his incubator, I remember feeling overpowered by the magnanimity of this new life, as if I had stepped into Michelangelo’s fresco lining the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling which reveals God’s and Adam’s fingers almost touching.  I was rolled closer to his incubator and Umesh knew immediately who I was–it was as if he saw through me.  And all I could think when I laid my eyes on him was not how beautiful he was, nor how he looked like myself.  Instead, I immediately thought, “No nanny is taking care of my child!”  I surprised myself by the speed with which I had become the cliché I had resisted all my life and I not only cancelled the nanny and back-up nanny’s services but I found myself bragging what a “genious” (I actually used that word) Umesh was when he latched onto my nipple on the first try.  While still in the hospital, I found myself unable to sleep until little Umesh urinated the first time, worried that his little kidneys might explode as we all awaited his first wet diaper.  I was so worried about every detail of this new life that the nurses in the hospital laughed at me and inevitably so did I.  From the moment my little tadpole was born there was nothing I would not do to protect him.  Our days were spent feeding, sleeping, and diaper changing and then in the evening we would listen to music, entertain dinner guests and even dance to an Om Kalthoum or Warda classic.  Occasionally we would watch an episode of The L Word and I would forewarn Umesh, “This is why your mommy is single.” I would cuddle him as we watched the drama unfold on my computer screen with my editorializing certain scenes with, “She is crazy.”  Umesh would just look around the room, at me and of course at my milk-filled breasts.  Life was beautiful…dare I say perfect.

During my child’s sixth week of life we went to visit my family and Umesh was in love with everyone and the sentiment was returned by all.  Upon our return to Montreal, I felt like Moses parting the Red Sea as we transferred airplanes in Toronto walking through airport crowds which would part as if magically with each passerby glowing over my child.  It is an incredible power to possess whereby carrying a child in one’s arms will cause people who are scampering for their flights to forget–even for one miraculous second–their travel plans in order to smile at your offspring whilst their body slows down to becomes one cog in this massive parting of human bodies that have created an empty, serene path amidst the hundreds through which you can now calmly walk.  Umesh was a magical, beautiful child whose power escaped even my own comprehension.  He rarely cried outside of the three photo “sessions” I made for him and he was an incredibly easy baby in every way.  So traveling back to Montreal on a delayed flight was also easy for him although I had a migraine that night. The moment we arrived home I fed him and put him to bed.  I went upstairs to counsel a friend going through a relationship crisis and heard Umesh rousing so I went back to feed him and put him in his co-sleeper.  I fell asleep and woke up later in the night to feed him.  Then at about 4h45 in the morning I woke up to find Umesh’s lifeless body next to mine.

I remember calling 911 and the drive to the hospital taking forever.  I remember the doctor saying, “I am sorry but I could not save your little boy.”  I remember a minister asking if I wanted to pray. I remember turning to her to say, “What for? There is no God.”  I remember a nurse coming into the room where I was asking me if I wanted to to take a photo of my dead child, lying on the gurney.  I refused.  She asked if I wanted his footprint saying, “you will want a memory of him for the future.”  I told her my memories where “here”, as I pointed to my heart.  I remember wishing that Umesh had not been “the silent model” so that I might have heard him.  I remember laying for six hours with my child’s body on a hospital bed before I was transferred to the psychiatric ward of another hospital.  Sadly, in Canada many institutions conflate mourning with psychiatric illness.  So I was sent off to spend the rest of the day watching people with various mental disorders hit walls and scream as I awaited a psychiatrist who would prescribe me 40 sleeping tablets.  In Islam the mourning period is 40 days.  I said to myself that I did not want to spend my life in grief so I gave myself these 40 days to take these sleeping pills, these forty days to mourn.  I do not remember much else. I had amnesia and to this day I have holes in my memory associated with the weeks and months following my son’s death.

What proved most troubling to me in the aftermath of my child’s death was how so many people, to include some friends, could not cope with my child’s death in any way.  Instantaneously people avoided me as if I had a communicable disease.  Some people were there for me, but mostly my contacts with the outside world were institutional (ie. a SIDS specialist from the Montreal Children’s Hospital to whom I owe my life) and the many strangers whom I would meet in my daily life.  It was through my isolation that I came to learn about so many other parents just like myself and I learned my isolation was not a unique story.  The Italian fruit and vegetable saleswoman at the Marché Jean Talon gave me a medallion of Maria as she confessed having lost her child many years before. The tears welled up in her eyes as she told me her story.  The salesclerk at the paint store in north Montreal similarly told me her story of having given birth to her daughter who had a congenital disease wherein every day of her daughter’s life had been spent awaiting her daughter’s inevitable death.  The man from whom I bought olive oil told me of his sister who was still struggling with her son’s death.  The Mexican immigrant who worked at Home Depot told me of his daughter’s birth defect and his family’s struggle to remain positive. On each occasion where people empathized with me it was often accompanied by their sharing their own personal stories of the loss of a child in their life.  I had stumbled upon, sadly, a closet I never wished to experience–that of the dead child.

There is something intrinsically taboo about a death of a child.  The innocence of the child’s life coupled with the loss of hope for the future and the finality of death create this unspeakable event that nobody wishes to discuss, especially in Western societies.  In the months following my son’s death, the way I viewed the world changed vastly for me both because of the loss of my son and because of the way people treated the subject of his death.  I remember having coffee two weeks after Umesh’s death with a friend who had brought her 10-month old daughter with her.  She turned to me and said, “At least he wasn’t her age when he died” as if there were a better age for a child to die.  I never heard from her again after this meeting.  Another friend advised me to “get a dog” as a replacement for my son.  Another friend was upset and found it “suspicious’ that I didn’t answer her email to explain my son’s death. I wrote her back asking her to “never contact me again.”  The blood stopped in my throat as I imagined the inhumanity of this person.  I remember one person telling me, “Everything happens for a reason… I know it hurts now but you will see.”  I did not strangle that person, but my eyeballs did.  And if I had a dollar for every time I heard about how my little Umesh was now an angel, I would be an extremely wealthy mother of a dead angel.  Like Nicole Kidman’s character in The Rabbit Hole, I would grow frustrated with people’s attempts to make me feel better by saying that God needed another angel.  Kidman’s response to this God’s need for an angel was spot on:  “Why didn’t he just make one? Another angel. He’s God after all–why didn’t he just make another angel?”  I could not relate to the religious metaphors, the afterlife beliefs, nor the pernicious desire to “see the bright side” of the situation. Many friends–especially those with children–avoided seeing me as if death were a contagion. I began to realize that the death of a child is a contagion, a kind of social malaise in our society.  Most people in our culture are uncomfortable around death–especially that of a child.  Because of others’ discomfort, my task in the following months was to deal with my loss primarily on my own and to attempt to forgive those who were not strong enough to be supportive.  I can say that was a most awful task.

So just weeks after becoming a mother, I had to rewind my life and step back to a pre-Umesh time demystifying anew all the cultural prejudices and projections that are married to our incapacity to deal with death.  And so it went that all the classist, homophobic and sexist and predilections were revealed in the mourning process just as they had been in the prenatal period.  The discourse of the natural was one of the most common references I heard and although this might not a seem to be an offensive discourse, the resonances of the “natural” were unavoidable even in this very de-homophobizing world.  For instance, I heard on many occasions:  “It’s not natural that your child dies before you.”  Of course I knew what the interlocutor meant by this statement, but it was hard–if not impossible–for me to respond to it.  Having experienced the death of dozens of friends from AIDS, I knew that neither life nor death was qualifiable.  Yet I cannot deny that the death of my son felt so much worse than even my own brother’s death years before. The discourse of the natural smacks of that which should be so, a form of biologistic entitlement, and it smelled of truisms which I found as comforting as they felt troubling.  After all, why enter into discourses of the “natural”? Certainly we cannot forget that this is the history of homophobia and of sexism to include the resentment towards women’s liberation from certain canonical (sic “natural”) roles they must play in society.  I was not about to enter into the discourse of the “natural” because what mattered was not the “unnatural” aspect of my son’s death, what mattered was the simple fact that he was dead.  Full stop.

Others would tell me, “It must be so much harder on you than on your husband” to which I would ask my interlocutor a simple “Why?”  The general response went something like this: “Well, your child came from your body…you carried him nine months.”  As someone who is adopted I realized the patent absurdity and offensiveness of this statement because attachment is not biological–it is emotional.  Indeed many women choose to create this “pre-birth love” narrative while only a few months pregnant and the subject revels in dreams of their genius child as they claim to already love that which they do not know, the idea of a child.  I never understood pregnant women who would exclaim, “I already love my baby” because I firmly distinguished between hoping the pregnancy would come to term and the actual love of a human which usually implicates the other human’s existence and subjectivity. I believe many expectant parents love the idea of what shall be–many of us hold onto that “child to be” as a symbol of hope and as an extension of the self.  Certainly I do not discount the pain of still birth because this occupies its own painful terrain of loss.  However, to allege that a child’s loss is harder because of the nine months of gestation unveils all the somatic and biologistic discourses that prefer the “natural” child to the adopted child and that evidence a society for which adopted children are the “backup plan” to the hetero-normative (sic preferred) reproductive model.  Such statements which implicated my suffering as somehow “worse” touch upon a societal eugenics which privileges emotional love based on knowledge over a constructed love based on biology.  In the months after my child’s death I found myself having to explain to complete strangers that loss is personal, that it is individual and it certainly has very little to do with the nine months I carried this child in my uterus.  For when I miss Umesh, I miss his smell, his stomach, his smile, the sounds he would make, and just about every living experience we shared.  I miss my beautiful child and not my emotional projections of a child I had not yet met.  What I mourn are the moments I will never have with my child to include the day he would have been crowned the king or queen or solar panels.

Within a couple months my yoga practice became a central part of each day and during savasana I would lie on the grown and tears would flow from my eyes.  About two weeks after my return to yoga, I noticed each day while leaving and returning home, a young boy gazing at me through a chain-link fence across the ally from my home.  He would smile and wave.  One day on my way back from yoga, I went over to meet this young boy and soon six-year-old Ulysse, his younger sister and his parents became my friends. We would have lunches together regularly and dine several times a week at either of our houses.  I was quite close to Ulysse’s parents but it was Ulysse who miraculously brought me out of a shell.  Ulysse had all the usually energy of a young child with a strongly inquisitive element to him.  At times I saw his mother grow impatient with his questions (questions which I actually found quite amusing and engaging) and she would chastise him for “draining” her energy and ask him to stop asking questions.  Once his mother turned to me while holding her infant daughter and said, in front of Ulysse, “I prefer having a girl to a boy.”  I was shocked and confused by her utterance and saddened for Ulysse.  When Ulysse had left the room I told his mother that sex was an invention and that she seemed to be exclaiming a preference for one of her children and not for a specific gender.  If it seemed impossible to think before my son’s death, certainly after I could not fathom a parent who did not appreciate their child.  Indeed there were many occasions when I had to restrain myself from reproaching parents in supermarkets, airplanes and subway cars as they flagrantly abused their children. I found it unbearable to witness parents who were lucky enough to have a child only to mistreat their position of authority with this tiny life.   With Ulysse I discovered that knowing the parent did not make this realization any easier.

Generally I felt close to Ulysse’s parents–we had joyous times together, enriching conversations and I felt as if I could be myself with them.  Well, that is until I mentioned Umesh.  Ulysse’s father was much better at allowing me to mention my son, but his mother would recoil, utter statements such as, “It’s best not to think about it” or  when Ulysse would ask me a question about Umesh his mother would state, as if a moratorium had been issued, “It’s better if we change the subject.”  Strangely it was with Ulysse that I felt better to discuss just about anything and even now I cannot quite understand how this young boy was able to understand death whereas his mother eschewed all references thereof.  I remember one day Ulysse came to visit and make pumpkin pies with me.  As we were walking upstairs to my kitchen he asked quite innocently, “Julian, what did you do with Umesh’s body?”  Initially I was shocked by his line of query and then I paused mid-staircase and thought to myself that this was a reasonable and intelligent question to ask.  So I answered it.  Then Ulysse followed up with another question: “What is cremation?”  I then explained cremation to Ulysse and in the explanation this subject of my son’s death somehow seemed all the less taboo.  Two days later when I went over to visit his mother, she asked me what I had told Ulysse about cremation.  I explained our conversation to her. She then informed me that earlier that day Ulysse had found a dead wasp in the garden and that he had taken the wasp, made a coffin for it out of an old matchbox and that he lit the “coffin” and created a funeral pyre.  I was so overjoyed by this story that I almost cried from sheer happiness; yet his mother was not at all pleased–to the contrary, she was quite horrified.  I had to calm her down and explain that this was just an act of recognizing life–that her son was not celebrating death but rather understanding it a bit better.  I think it was at this moment that I realized that Ulysse’s mother could not be friends with me because death was not only a taboo subject, it was entirely unmanageable for her be it my child or Ulysse’s wasp.  Our visits became rarer and soon I would no longer see Ulysse and his family.

What I have realized in the months and years since the death of my child is that one does not ever “get over” the death of a child.  We can just move through the pain and inhabit it in a way that becomes part of who we are in all the beauty and bitterness that life and death embody.  To this day I still maintain a rather bizarre relationship to the amnesia I experienced in the time after my son’s death as the impact of those beautiful seven weeks took over my heart and mind.  I realized I was in trouble when I found myself driving one day in Montreal and somehow ended up on Celine Dion Boulevard  in Charlemagne.  I could not remember where I was going and I certainly did not recall how I got there.  I just sat in my car and attempted to understand this strange geographic trajectory I had just made.

For months after my son’s death I would obsess over the following subjects:



time travel

why George W. Bush didn’t choke to death on the pretzel

the man who threw his child off the balcony somewhere in China

the Madeleine kidnapping

the couple who, after the death of their child, jumped off Beachy Head with the body of their son in a rucksack and his toys in another

what if I had just woken up five minutes earlier?

or ten?

what if?

why a terms like SIDS would be used to explain an unexplainable death?

why give it a name at all?


I looked for answers only to find there were none and I found myself isolated by our society’s refusal to embrace anything that would not sell fast cars and plasma televisions.  Indeed, my sympathizing with world news events made complete sense given that the community I had before 2007 was greatly reduced in and by death.  I felt more sympathy by world events and struggles of people who really were suffering than by platitudes to take up a hobby or dive into my work.   Also my political work in the field of human rights helped me grow stronger and more realistic about both life and death issues.  I met men and women who had lost all nine of their children and still continued living.  Ultimately, the gay closet was a piece of cake compared to the closet into which I was quite politely shoved from various sectors of our society.  There was no “coming out” of this closet since everyone made sure this door was nailed firmly shut.

I have tried to move on from this experience of having and losing my child only to realize that there is no “moving on”–there is only moving through.  While I learned that there is no correct way to discuss or represent my son’s life or death, I was thankful for those friends and colleagues who would make the simple gesture of stating, “I don’t know what to say.”  Their presence, their silence, their sitting with me in silence, meant more to me than comments which would attempt to dismiss death.  Indeed, these conversations incur bumps and ironing out of misunderstandings as we are not given a handbook called 101 Things Not to Say When Someone You Know Loses a Child.  I had to learn how to react to certain comments and not cut off completely from people who had good intentions but little or no tact.  For instance, one well-meaning friend turned to me after the death of my son and said, “Have you thought of adoption?” I looked at him and said, “If your boyfriend died today, would you want me to set you up with my hot, single friend tomorrow?”  He immediately apologized and I realized that many of these comments I was told that deeply hurt me were mostly made out of the individual’s inability to cope on a very raw level with the fact of death.  We do not like death, we do not wish to think about it and certainly we do not want to be reminded that we could lose that very precious promise of life, the child.  Certainly I felt much in common with some of those men and women with whom I had worked years earlier at Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York as I recalled their stories of friends and family disappearing once they were diagnosed with HIV.

When I was two weeks pregnant I lectured at the university in Freiburg, Switzerland. I had already begun to be exhausted in the late mornings from the surge in hormones.  Just after checking in to my bed and breakfast, I laid down and turned on the television to watch Swiss television.  The first channel had a program on congenital birth defects.  I changed the channel.  The next channel had a show about a child who suffered from a debilitating disease whose name I cannot remember.  Even more quickly this time, I changed the channel.  I thought to myself how I should not think about such “negative” conditions.  Now I realize how in our culture we maintain superficial notions of “negativity” attaching it to something that is simply part of life–death.  Back in Freiburg I did not want to think that such diseases could occur in my life, I did not want to embrace their reality.  Ten months later however I was living a reality that was inescapable and that was there all the time, even had my son not died.

When you lose a child you remind people of what they stand to lose and there will never arrive a moment such as that which often occurs months after a break-up where you realize what you gained from such an awful situation thinking to yourself, “Well now I am so happy to be out of that unhealthy relationship!  I have learned a lot about myself from that dreadful experience.”  There is no way to represent that lost child as anything but the beautiful creature s/he was and there is no narration which will leave people feeling chipper and upbeat.  There is no “lesson” to be learned.  I have certainly tried and failed miserably on that count.  Once I walked into a small shop and the owner and his friends were inside telling comparative tragedy stories as part of a competition.  A woman who talked of her horrid childhood; a man who mentioned his ex-wife’s antics; another man who discussed his treatment and recovery from cancer and so the stories rolled out from one person to the next.  After finding what I had been looking for I returned to the front of the shop and one of the group turned to me and said, “Do you have a sadder story?”  I answered thinking I was being clever, “Absolutely…but if we were to take bets, I would win hands down.”  The crowd became silent in their curiosity and one woman asked me to share my sad story.  “My son died when he was seven weeks old,” I replied.  I don’t know what I was thinking–I imagine a small part of me was hoping they would laugh because indeed I had won the contest.  Instead, they all grew sad and said collectively, “I am so sorry.”   And that is where death is the most painful:  the silence after hearing “I am so sorry.”  I wish there were a follow-up as in quality control surveys:  “In order to serve you better, please give us your feed-back.” I certainly would have written this: Please kill sadistic world leaders and leave my child alone. Oh and make rose water and astroid ice cream. Thank you!

About a year after my son’s death I was in New York with an old friend, Noritoshi.  I hadn’t seen Noritoshi since before my pregnancy and when I told him about Umesh he retorted quite matter-of-factly, “So he decided to leave.”  Somehow those words helped me and I cannot completely understand why.  Perhaps it was this ability to lend agency to my son wherein he made a choice to leave this world and life was not taken from him?  Or maybe it was this notion that my son could possibly have had agency and I was unable to allow that thought into my head because Western societies do not allow infants such agency in relationship to their own lives and deaths?  Or could it have simply been the fact that Noritoshi came up with this response as an answer and not the answer?  I still do not know exactly why, but I feel comfortable with this idea that Umesh left and from his life I take inspiration for how I deal with his death.  So, instead of mourning the 60 years I so desperately wanted to know my child, I am thankful for the beautiful seven weeks that I shared with Umesh in which he was in perfect health and happiness.  Likewise, as hard as it is to understand why people abandon the site of death and scamper from anything that detracts from the projected televised “perfection” of family and friends, I have learned to remain vocal about my son while remaining compassionate to those who chose to live in their carefully constructed death-negating closets… And I still hope to one day taste rose water and asteroid ice cream.

[Published in CounterPunch 19 May, 2013]

Catching a glimpse of a Facebook discussion this weekend, I noticed that Sharon Smith had written a piece entitled, “Why CounterPunch Owes Women an Apology” in the online weekly regarding Ruth Fowler’s 14 May CounterPunch piece, “Angelina Jolie Under the Knife: Of Privilege, Health Care and Tits.”  It was clear from the Facebook discussion that some members of Smith’s Facebook friends and Smith herself took offense at the word “tits.”  Then the focus of ire shifted to the assumption that the editors changed the title from Fowler’s original article which does not even mention the word “tits” (“One can almost hear them howling with laughter at their own perceived cleverness”). Once it was established that the editors did not change the article’s title and that the title was that of Fowler’s creation, the criticism was then directed at Joshua Frank for not having edited out the word ‘tits’ in the title.  The word ‘sexist’ was thrown around quite a bit and by the end of the Facebook thread, I was hooked.

I recalled reading Fowler’s piece with total agreement as this article highlights the way in which celebrity such as Jolie seems to be performing the benefit of ‘public service’ while in truth these enunciations tend to be condescending and hurtful to many.  And for those who really sit down and think about the consequences of such an ‘announcement’ by a celebrity, as Fowler clearly did, this seemingly generous and confessional act is not one that will help other women and men with cancer deal with their illness–to the contrary:  it merely dangles a carrot at millions whose reach falls short financially.  So, I read Sharon Smith’s article and in turn I reread Fowler’s piece.

To be fair, I found Fowler’s piece quite tame for I would have been far harsher.   Jolie–someone who has bought a child from Ethiopia while paradoxically representing UNICEF an organization with which I have had dealings in their cover-up of child trafficking in Haiti– behaves as if the rest of the world really cares about her life to include her medical traumas and misinformation strangely pimped out to us by the The New York Times. And certainly while I would not dispute the existence of readers of People and Hello magazines who take every minute detail of Jolie’s life with incredible weight in their lives, those who actually face imminent mortality haven’t the time for such publications.  Even in the United States where we assume healthcare to be accessible to those with policy coverage, women and men who suffer with cancer must still spend weeks or months looking for the best specialist under their healthcare plan (if they even have one), with few options left to them they then end up googling and reading up on comparative strategies for dealing with their condition, and finally they must spend hundreds of hours in waiting rooms, doctor’s surgeries and hospitals hoping to survive the ravaging of their bodies and personal existences. And let us not even dare mention those who have no healthcare coverage and are at the mercy of systemic leftovers.

Indeed, when Fowler questions what Jolie has done to deserve praise, she is spot on to point out that cancer is in the vernacular of most everyone in the United States.  Simply put, Jolie brought critique on herself by mentioning that she wanted to “bring awareness” to breast cancer without acknowledging her privilege whilst elaborating a choice she made that most people could never afford.

However there is an poignant issue of sexism which Smith elides and which certainly is not to be found within Fowler’s piece.  Sexism is rife within Jolie’s op-ed piece as she equates “femininity” to womanhood.  Since when is being a woman about “femininity”?  As if women who cannot have reconstructive surgery are somehow less women? Clearly, if anyone made this matter about “tits,” it was Jolie who in her own words equates womanhood with femininity with the ability to recuperate the “lost breasts” through a reconstruction to which so many women can never have access for purely financial and/or somatic reasons.  It seems that Smith missed this glaringly obvious point in her misplaced rage over sexism.

In the Facebook discussion as in Smith’s article there seems to be some cultural sensitivity about the word “tit.”  Could it be because Fowler hails from the UK where the word “tit” is not a “dirty word” and where this word occupies various expressions aside from this literal reference to the body?  I recall when I first moved to London hearing a friend mentioning his business going “tits-up” and in response I burst out laughing in admiration of this wonderfully poetic phrase.  Of course, the fact that my friend’s business went under was of no laughing matter to him but he still chose to use an expression that expressed what he meant.  I also still giggle whenever I hear mention of the tube station, Cockfosters.  I come from a prudish country and this is the cultural baggage I brought with me from the USA. Might Smith’s aversion to the word “tit” also originate in a very base reading of the word?   Moreover, while I am aware of sexism in the world today having seen and experienced it in my own life, I do not think that the word “tit” in the title is inappropriate given that Jolie puts gift wrapping and a bow on her experience by discussing the reconstruction of her breasts.   This begs the question, of course, that in a piece addressing breast surgery and reconstruction, how is one to avoid the word “breast,” or any number of it’s synonyms?

In wanting to ensure that Counterpunch allows for other corporeal turns of phrase in its publication I conducted a search of its past articles.  Just for the record, there are plenty of Counterpunch titles with “dick,” “penis,” and “cock” in them, just in case Smith might be interested in developing further her accusations of sexism.   Here are a few of the titles:

“What I Learned About Being a Dickhead”
“Dick the System”
“Penis Envy”
“Penis Politics””Cock Chuggers and Cheese Curls”
“Facebook Cock Up” (ironically written by Michael Dickinson)

But let us return to the “tit” and an article written about a cultural icon who exposes her breasts in an ostensible goodwill gesture to our clueless collectivity.  Smith claims that Fowler misses the point that since Jolie’s op-ed piece was published that “the Internet has been abuzz with debate and discussion about this important subject, demonstrating that Jolie has indeed opened a much-needed conversation.”  Oh, I have read these conversations online and open up discussion it has, such as the various conjectures regarding Jolie’s medical  history (“I have not read Jolie’s entire medical history so I don’t know if she’s had not-A-OK mammograms…”) to those who reject claims of self-promotion (“Dude Angelina doesn’t have to “promote” herself”) to some attempting to figure in Jennifer Aniston (“She wanted the majority of women who are still pissed about Aniston to praise her for another reason.”)   This mediatic event has turned every person into Angelina’s BFF  and/or a medical expert with some calling for “biopies.” With such medical “expertise” chiming in on and message boards why not dismiss our own medical institutions and simply let us all diagnose each other while watching heavy doses of Gray’s Anatomy as we collectively melt into one mass of cyberchondria?  The hard questions about cancer need to be asked and Fowler unveiled Jolie’s performance of martyrdom for the masses because of what it fails to undertake and for the very privilege that it evidences.

What is it about Jolie’s op-ed that necessitates that we speak about cancer at all?  If it is stardom then we have had slews of celebrities in the past twenty years who have struggled with cancer from Audrey Hepburn to Farrah Fawcett.  Perhaps appendiceal and anal cancers are not as appealing to the public?  Regardless, what Jolie’s op-ed piece does signal is the need to question our ethos as a society if indeed our only motivation to speak about cancer is spurred when a Hollywood star tells us to, or when we discover that we have joined the ranks of millions of cancer patients.  For the real problem here is not Fowler’s mention of the word “tit”, but rather it is our inability as a society to embrace the reality of this and other body parts which remain categorically unprotected in a country whose class system decides who can and who cannot have proper screening, treatment and “preservation” of their femininity.

[Published in Counterpunch, 1 January, 2013]

“Today I believe in the possibility of love; that is why I endeavor to trace its imperfections, its perversions.”
― Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

In the United Kingdom 400,000 women are sexually assaulted and 80,000 are raped each year (2010/2011).  These statistics do not include rape victims who are male, whose aggressors are both male and female.  The population of the United Kingdom is 20 times smaller of India’s population.  Yet living in the UK and reading its media, one could easily think that rape solely existed in India and that there is only injustice against women in the subcontinent and other ‘developing countries.’  During the past week I have had many conversations with friends and colleagues about the twenty-three-year-old rape victim, now nick-named ‘Damani’ (lighting in Hindi). A few of these discussions have proven to be productive terrains for analysing rape as a social problem in the world today. However the majority of these discussions have served as cathartic moments for the Westerner to express her disdain for those ‘other countries that do not respect women’s rights’ while proclaiming her own country’s superiority in this area. Facebook comments as well have replicated this neo-colonial gaze towards other countries and in recent days India has been rendered a monolith in human rights abuses; yet the country in which I am currently living has aided my own country (the USA) to amass over 1,000,000 Iraqi, Afghani and Pakistani deaths. (Of course, nothing is mentioned about these women’s rights to live in these countries.)  As such, I am gravely concerned by the focus placed by Westerners upon rape outside of their own borders since rape is not a problem unique to India.  Violence against women is a global problem that needs to be discussed honestly and without pigeon-holing certain cultures as more culpable.

Certainly women’s rights is an issue to be addressed from society to society and there are often nuances of difference from country to country regarding  womans’ roles–both perceived and real–within each culture.  Yet, it is also true that these discussions can only happen candidly from within each society.  As the good people of India march in the thousands on the streets demanding reforms for women’s and girls’ rights–from the problems of female foeticide to educational access to personal safety on the streets of Delhi–it is imperative that we take Damani’s rape as a call to analyse rape and women’s rights here in the United Kingdom.  For while we can make comparisons between societies from the UK to India, this does not change the fact that Facebook is now rampant with postings from women here who use Damani’s tragic story to proselytise about the ‘evils of’ other countries far far away, citing that rape occurs every 20 minutes in India and ‘Let’s not forget Africa. And let’s not forget the women who are raped in warfare.’  The imperative here, of course, is that ‘we’ understand that it is worse ‘over there’.  Honestly, I am most uncomfortable with such arrogant brush strokes of judgement, especially made by people whose knowledge of India (or ‘Africa’ for that matter) is often limited to the media or at best, several months spent in ashram, yoga courses in Rishikesh, various beach hangouts in Goa and/or the ‘volunteer’ stints with NGOs which are riddled with all the appurtenances of Orientalism.  (And I will not delve here into my thoughts on the vulgar classification of independent African nations under the nomenclature of this monolith ‘Africa’ with zero differentiation made between societies and clearly no knowledge of the actual countries’ names and unique histories and cultures.)  What is clear to me is that  years after the lesson’s of Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized is that in the West we learned very little from the colonial heritage which implores the other to resemble us, to mimic our cultures as we perceive them to be superior.  Memmi writes:  “The first ambition of the colonized is to become equal to that splendid (European) and to resemble him to the point of disappearing in him.”  Yet the inverse is also true: that the European expects this disappearance to occur because she sees herself and her culture as far superior to the other and the other’s culture.  Hence Western subjects seem drawn to take up the case of ‘women’s rights’ each and every time a travesty is mediatised (not that they don’t happen daily here and abroad) in order to cathect a personal issue onto the world terrain of human atrocity.  The neo-colonial era of  burqa from 2001 is now transformed to the rape victim of 2012 who elusively escapes all media critique back home.

Yet, if we are to play the statistics game, we might as well do it properly and analyse not the rapes that occurs every 34 minutes in the United Kingdom, but the per capita offences per 100,000 which reveal a quite different statistical field of information.   As recorded by the police registries of each country rape offences in India show 1.8 rapes for every 100,000 versus 28.8 rapes reported for every 100,000 in the United Kingdom.  Of course we could then analyse what percentage of rapes are actually reported and deconstruct the pool and statistical methods, etc.  My point here is to underscore the importance in understanding that these figures are simply terrible when it comes to speaking comparatively for women’s rights in the world today–be it London or Delhi.

In one of my discussions this week about rape, one of my interlocutors questioned me about my experiences living in India and other countries outside Europe and North America asking me if I encountered ‘problems’ while traveling.  I was quite honest and spoke of an attack I suffered last Spring on a bus in Karnataka, India, where a man insisted on sitting next to me on a bus that was 60% empty.  Given that I had ridden next to groper on the way to the temple, a one hour journey, I decided to inform the man that the empty seat next to me was for women or children only. He immediately started to hit my head and as I put my arms up to protect myself from this drunken human, I was rather shocked that nobody on the bus did anything to help me.  I likewise noted to the women who asked if I experienced ‘problems’ that I had experienced the greatest aggressions as a woman while living in the West.  For instance, in Montreal, Quebec when 8 months pregnant I was physically assaulted by a man for ‘standing too close to [him]’ in a queue for a public telephone and while seven months pregnant I was not only run over by a drunk driver but to this day I am still fighting for the SPVM (Montreal Police) and the province of Quebec to proceed with an investigation.  I was also told minutes after being hit by the car, when trying to press for charges against this drunk driver this: “Madame, you are not hurt enough.”  A month later while asking for a report to be drawn up I was told: “Madame, because of your pregnancy hormones you probably imagined being hit by a car.”  And quite recently in London, I was stalked and harassed by my landlord during my first two weeks of living in my flat; yet it took weeks of lobbying the Metropolitan Police Service of Tottenham to take seriously the gravity of the threat.  Apparently this man’s presence in my life as a landlord was considered a civil issue despite his persistent attempts to enter my flat daily and sending 18 pages of SMS in three days with references to his mental instability (ie. ‘I am losing my mind’).  Clearly women’s rights are not as fixed in the West as some of my interlocutors would like to believe and I simply could not claim that I had suffered greater threats to my person as a woman in India, Algeria, or Mexico any more I have suffered as a woman in Canada or the United Kingdom.
Yet in some of these discussions, I felt pressured to jump onto what I refer to as the ‘burqa bandwagon,’ a discursive space where Western women assert their societal superiority and their own country’s excellence in legal jurisprudence.  Personally, I am not drawn to such dialectical arguments and neo-colonial spaces since progress is simply not a linear development that begins at A and ends with Z, nor is it a demarcation that can be made from across many oceans to societies that have very specific differences in how women interact with men and other women.  I am also far too aware of the media blackout that has surrounded the murders of women, children and men in the past eleven years in this ‘War on Terror’ in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan perpetuated by ostensibly ‘enlightened’ and ‘democratic’ Western nations.  The innocent dead see none of this democracy.  Were we to examine honestly the place of rape in the global sphere, the UK and the US would have to shoulder a huge amount of blame for having rendered unstable these countries they have invaded and occupied lending a greater vulnerability to women and children specifically as the link between women’s rights and economic development and literacy is well documented.  As I have lived much of my life in various countries throughout Latin America, the Maghreb, the Middle East and in Asia, I have come to learn how societal inflections on the human experience do not reveal facile notions of oppressor/oppressed.  I have witnessed how the oppression of women is often effected–as it is here in the West as well–by other women and that hand in hand with oppression of women is the oppression of men, albeit an entirely different form of oppression.  Such discussions that polarise women against men and the ‘modern’ against the ‘backwards’ only end up reaffirming a certain Western superiority and linearity of thought which ends up reaffirming Western paradigms of power and predispositions for framing the ‘savage, misogynist culture of India’ as the backdrop for our paradisiacal projections of a fictionalised equality.

As war crimes in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo have highlighted rape over the past fifteen years, so did the pervasive Bosnian ‘Rape Camps’ of the 1990s remind us of the power of rape as a weapon of control in conflict situations closer to home.  Yet, rape goes much further back than the US soldiers’ war crimes in Viet Nam of the 1960s and 1970s or the Nanking rapes by the Japanese forces in 1937. Rape is found throughout history as it is well documented and cannot simply be linked to x or y spot on the planet.  Moreover, media incursions into post 9/11 Afghanistan have highlighted the need to understand rape in a larger context wherein women are not the only victims: what was uncovered by many journalists post 9/11 is that boys and young men were also the victims of the Northern Alliance.  Likewise, revelations such as the Zimbabwe female gangs who have been raping male soldiers has recently come up again in media focus demonstrating the power of women to be sexually violent. When one Facebook poster writes about Damani, stating, “As long as there are men on this planet it will never end…,” I reminded her of the rape of men and the problems facing these men in terms of reporting the violence and of having these reports being taken seriously. The stigma for men to report rape today in any country is most humiliating as these men are basically told that it is impossible for them to physically be raped or that he should ‘consider himself fortunate.’  Recent research into the rape of men is revealing that there are far more male rape victims than previously estimated and that many of the perpetrators are women (most often mothers, aunts, nannies, etc).  In the United States of America 10% of all rape victims are men.  And in another rape case in India this week which has received far less Western media attention, a seventeen-year-old girl from northern Punjab committed suicide after being gang raped by men with the help of a female accomplice.  To demarcate rape as a unidirectional domain whereby only women are raped by men (or that only men can possibly be rapists) is a disservice to undertaking any honest discussion about rape today. Likewise, to discuss rape purely within the confines of ‘underdevelopment’ and ‘third-world nations’ is to diminish the reality of rape right here in the United Kingdom and other Western nations.

What is going on with the need for Western subjects to highlight Damani’s death as somehow endemic to India and other ‘third-world’ nations alone?  I suspect that there is something much deeper going on in this growing problem of armchair Facebook ‘advocacy’ which reveals myriad humans who click and ‘like’ an article about a truism.  For it is self-evident that a tortured puppy or a raped Indian medical student is ‘a bad thing’, yet these are the items of vast interest for people to idle away their days on Facebook.  There is a huge disconnect in my fellow Londoners who post about the travesty of Damani whilst espousing the superiority of their own culture.  On the one hand there is something incredibly violent about casually posting, sharing and liking an article about a rape without the deconstruction of similar events in our own political landscape.  On the other hand, this growing trend of armchair Facebook advocacy falsely simulates a political action–as if ‘liking’ or ‘sharing’ such articles is actually doing something other than objectifying a rape and a death which is for Damani’s family and community alone to experience.  All the rest is cultural fetishism.

Let us learn from India and get off our computers to engage in real political dissent speaking against all forms of rape here and now.