Category Archives: rape

Work Life Sameness

I wrote a post with this same title three years ago, when I went to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories for work.  My Palestinian colleague and I met with dozens of activists who told us about the terrible prison conditions, torture taking place therein, and the oppressive regimes (both Israeli and Palestinian) under which they live.

Meanwhile, back in Minnesota, my son was in Moose Lake Prison, from which I had just been ejected because I was wearing a “low-cut blouse.”  This was the worst day of my life in the last three years.

All Omar knew about me was that I was a white, Jewish, middle-aged woman from Minnesota.

“My son is in prison,” I informed him at what seemed like an appropriate time.  I told him about being thrown out.  “I don’t think they know who they’re up against,” I said. “They’re not gonna know what hit them once I get back.”

It turned out to be the other way around. A letter from the Department of Corrections—basically a six-month restraining order—was waiting for me when I returned.  I tried to fight it but the DOC has complete discretion and hides behind the term “Security Issue.”

Yep, I was a big threat.

I think Omar realized I wasn’t some dilettante coming to “save” the Palestinians—what we refer to in the NGO world as just White Women With Scarves.

Part of touring Colombia with a company called Responsible Travel is that you get guides with deep knowledge of socioeconomic and political issues.

So on our first day, in Bogota, Lynn and I got an earful from our guide, Michael Steven Sánchez Navas.  Often I will use pseudonyms for people to protect their privacy, but in Michael’s case I am intentionally using his real name in hopes that transparency with protect him.  Lynn and I have both friended him on Facebook, and it appears he does the same with every tourist he encounters.  Maybe many global sets of eyes on him will put a check on anyone who doesn’t like what he has to say.

More about this later, but for now I’ll just say that this vacation seems like it happened a year ago because I came back to work to find we’ve got three proposals for Iraq due within a month.  Another organization is the lead on all of them, which is great, but it’ll still be a ton of work.  It’s good thing.  But it’s all Iraq, all the time, and all I read and hear about is prisons, torture, rape, and war.

But first, let me back up to something less depressing, the Casa Deco hotel.  As the name implies, it’s a deco-era hotel located in the Candelaria neighborhood of Bogota.  It’s got a lovely lobby with no elevator, but a helpful employee hiked our cases up to the second floor.  It was Lynn’s turn to do a small double take—since in her hemisphere the second floor is the first floor.

I have most of these plants at home, but they are at most 12 inches, not 12 feet, tall.

“The owner is Italian,” said the guy lugging our luggage.  This was by way of explaining why the hotel was full of reproductions of work by Gustav Klimt.  Klimt was Austrian, so this wasn’t really an explanation, but we were tired so we didn’t press.

There was one bed.  The hotel guy quickly folded down and made up the couch, which turned out to be a hide-a-“bed.”  I claimed it, seizing my chance to make up for the times Lynn has sacrificed by taking the bad bed.

I had double checked with our tour agent that there would be two beds.

“Lynn and I are good friends,” I had written, “but not that good.”

Besides, the thrashing around I do to relieve my restless legs would drive Lynn (or anyone) crazy.

And it was bad.  Hard as concrete on one side, lumpy with a big dip on the other.

But so what?  You can get by with little sleep for a couple nights.

The art above the bed was more likely to give me nightmares, if I looked too closely.

Lady Day

Lynn, Richard, Possum, and I made our way into the Wyndham, got some drinks, then headed into the auditorium.

The show was Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.  The premise is that Billie Holliday, the American jazz icon, is performing at a run-down bar in Philadelphia right before she dies, age 44, in 1959.  It’s a two-hour monologue and song book, accompanied by a man who plays the piano, tries to stop her from shooting up, then procures heroin for her.

I don’t go to a lot of live theatre.  It always feels to me like people are talking in a stilted way: “Look at me—I’m acting!”  I was leery about going to any American show in Britain.  On my first trip to England, my cohort of volunteers—who were from all over Europe and Asia—insisted on going to a west end musical involving a loud-mouthed Texan in a big hat.  There was also lots of waving and shooting of guns.  I squirmed through the whole thing.  The group members loved it and laughed all night about “typical Americans.”

Lady Day would be performed by Audra McDonald, with actual audience members on stage as though they were customers at the bar.  This was a bit strange, since McDonald and the musicians were dressed in period costumes, while the customers/audience members were dressed in contemporary clothes.

We were seated at a café table right below the stage.

I loved Billie Holliday as much as anyone; I had listened to her songs over and over, especially in my angst-ridden 30s, but would I be able to sit through two hours of angst?  And my chair was wobbly!

Then McDonald began her performance, and within moments all distractions melted away and I was riveted.  I knew Billie Holliday’s story—raped as a child, raised by a single mother, addicted to drugs and alcohol, did prison time, full of regret over not having children and a string of abusive relationships.

McDonald’s voice was well up to the task of Holliday’s songs; when the first strains of “Strange Fruit” began I teared up instantly.

Southern trees bear strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

 

Pastoral scene of the gallant south

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

 

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop

So the show was about Holliday’s life, but also about racism in America, and the lot of being a famous woman performer, and love, and addiction. Believe it or not she was also very funny.  I wanted to run up onto the stage and hug McDonald/Holliday, tell her everything was going to be alright and that I would take her home and take care of her.

I didn’t find myself feeling defensive about the theme of racism.  In fact, just the opposite.  Racism is a reality in America and always has been.  It’s something we’ve had to struggle with, collectively.  We’ll probably never see the end of it.  I’d like to think that as older generations die off, younger ones will be less racist, but the crowds in Charlottesville at the white supremacist rally last year were mainly young men.

So why would I feel proud of my country?  Because at least half of us are fighting this shit. At least half of us are fighting back–marching, writing essays, lobbying our elected officials in opposition to racism and other “isms.”

The performance ended; we looked at each other and I spoke first, “I feel like a wrung out rag!”

“That was intense,” said Richard.

“I’m exhausted!” said Lynn,

Added Possum, “I never knew!”

We went back to the hotel, ordered some wine, and talked for hours about racism in our respective countries.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill was made into a TV show; if you want to watch it it’s here.

Have a box of Kleenex handy.

Pigeons

Sometimes I get a notification from WordPress: “Your stats are booming!”  I used to get excited, thinking it must be a publisher in New York reading every post I’d ever written and reaching for the phone to call me with a book deal which would come with a huge advance.

I went to the stats page to investigate and for some reason my last post had attracted the attention of three dozen Canadians.  Why?  I looked at the tags and categories. Were they drawn by the word “England?”  I’ve written loads of posts about England.  The only words that were different were “shopping” and “charity shops.”  Who knows?

Maybe I have a Canadian stalker.  Or three dozen.

Everyone I know is talking about the powerful men in media and politics who are being outed for sexually harassing or assaulting women.  All I can say is: it’s about time.  And I’m not surprised.  It’s happened to me at least a dozen times.  No one famous, but plenty of regular men who had some kind of power over me by virtue of age, title, or size.  It stopped when I hit my 40s—one advantage of getting older.

I never reported any of the incidents because first, I was very naïve and often unsure what was even happening.  Maybe I was misinterpreting things?  I mean, the social worker who was helping me get my act together after I spent two months in a psych unit after trying to off myself when I was 16—when he said he’d like to see me in a lace nightie, he was just trying to help me feel like a woman again.  That’s what he told me.  And that 30-something guy who stopped his car at the bus stop and asked if I wanted to go party—I was 18 and eight months pregnant—he didn’t really want to …?  No!  That’s gross!  I must have misunderstood.

And surely that Greek Orthodox minister hadn’t meant to press his hard-on against my derriere in that crowd of people at the Justice for All rally, right?  Wrong.  When I turned around in shock, he smiled as if to dare me, “What are you going to do about it?”  It must have been my fault.  I had thought how handsome he was and maybe he had sensed that and thought I would like what he did.

Surely my boss’s boss had been fiddling with the coins in his pants pockets when he stood next to my desk talking about nothing and staring at my boobs, right?  I had just started that job and really needed it.  It was 1986 and I had never heard the term “sexual harassment.” It never occurred to me to report him.

A friend described how she tried to get her husband to understand what it’s like.

“Imagine there’s a third kind of human out there.  They’re a foot taller than you and 50 pounds heavier.  They own everything and run everything.  And they want to fuck you in the ass.  Every time you go for a job interview, you know they’re imagining you naked.  They walk past your cube and look at you sideways, and you know they would like to bend you over, pull down your pants, and fuck you in the ass.  They brush up against you and act like it was an accident, but you know they just wanted to cop a feel.  If you say anything, you’ll probably be out of a job and nothing will be done anyway because HR works for them.”           

Back to England, and a more uplifting note.  There are things about the UK with which I have a visceral association.  One is the little teaspoons.  Below are my American teaspoon and a British one, which is larger than many.  Every British home has loads of these.  Something to do with tea, I think. I bought a couple at the £ Store to remind me of the UK.

Then there are the wood pigeons.  When I asked Lynn’s husband, Richard, What’s that bird?” he replied, “What bird?”  He didn’t hear them anymore; their call is so ubiquitous.

It’s this call and these spoons that made me smile every morning.

Stories as Old as Time

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

The Borghese, pronounced borrrr-geh’-see-ah, was once a private estate originally owned by a cardinal who was the nephew of a pope.  There was a lot of money to be made in the Catholic Church 500 years ago, which is partly what sparked the Reformation.

The gallery is one building in a sprawling complex.  There was the villa itself, where successive owners lived before the last ones bequeathed it to the state.  There were parks filled with statuary and fountains, and then there was the gallery.  I didn’t see the villa, but I imagine it isn’t too shabby.  So if you were lucky enough to live here in the 17th Century, the gallery was your own private art museum.

My group of a dozen New Yorkers, Floridians, Hoosiers, Ottowans, and one Dutch couple were led around efficiently by our guide, Mario, who said he was an art student.  He was around 35, so I think he may have meant he was a lifelong student of art.

The first room featured a sculpture by Bernini, the Rape of Persephone (by Hades, the king of hell).  According to Mario, they “lived happily ever after.”  Really.

rape-of-persephone

Despite the repulsive subject, I couldn’t help but marvel at the lifelike bodies carved out of a block of solid marble.  Look at Hades’ fingers sinking into Persephone’s flesh.

rape-of-persephone-2

The Rape was the centerpiece in the room, but every inch of the room was covered with art.  Even the walls, floors, and doors were works of art because they had been painted to look like marble or other precious materials.  I wondered how much just one of the friezes above the door would be worth, and what anonymous artist had produced it.

In a hallway, there were these 3D murals on the ceiling:

3d

The next room featured another guy (Apollo), who couldn’t keep his hands off a woman (Daphne) who had said “No.”  She pleaded for help to her father, the river god Ladon; and he turned her into a tree.  How did Bernini know where to start?  How did he carve the arms and fingers without cracking one off?

apollo-and-daphne

We passed through an enormous room that was closed for renovation, but we stopped to appreciate the ceiling; this is one small section:

ceiling

There was a sculpture of Napolean’s sister Pauline, who was married to a Borghese for the political alliance. Note the wrinkles in the marble “mattress.”

pauline-b

Then there were the paintings by Caravaggio.  This one had been banned because it depicted Mary with cleavage and was unflattering of her mother, Anne.  Full frontal male nudity, I guess, was not a problem.

caravaggio

Continuing along the rape theme, there was this painting of Susanna being raped by the elders.

rape-of-shoshana

The painting below depicts a virtuous vs. sinful woman. It’s not what you think—the naked one is virtuous because she isn’t hiding anything.  You know us women–always keeping important secrets from men.

virgin-whore

After an hour and a half, Mario said we could walk around by ourselves until our timed ejection at 2pm.  I had read about a statue by Bernini called The Hermaphrodite—female from behind, male in front. Mario had led us past it without comment and it was pushed against a wall—for modesty’s sake?  Was male nudity deemed unseemly when it was an adult?  But there were plenty of other statues of naked men throughout the gallery.  Was it because of the gender fluidity of the statue?

hermaphrodite

I had not expected to encounter these themes of rape, of women being objects for barter and use by men, and of the mixed attitudes toward nudity. Aside from The Hermaphrodite, I didn’t go looking for any of these works; they were highlights of the gallery featured on the tour. Mario didn’t interpret or make any sociopolitical commentary.

Open a newspaper anywhere, any day, and there will be stories about rape and human trafficking and women being killed by stalkers. I’m not one to say “nothing ever changes.” The world is safer and saner in many ways than it was four hundred years ago.  But art suggests that human nature, emotions, and impulses don’t change.

 

Justice, Sweet and Sour

Summer is over, and so is my break from blogging.  In my last post, I listed all the things I was going to do with my extra time: sit outside in the morning with my coffee and listen to the birds, plan a fall trip, and figure out how to publish the first year of the blog as an e-book.  Oh—and write a novel.

I sat outside with my coffee once.  I am planning a fall trip to Italy, Malta, and Spain.  I didn’t write a novel, but Vince and I have started working with an editor on the e-book.

Mostly, I’ve tried to live in the moment.  Summer is so brief.  There were fun moments.  At a family weekend at a cabin, someone brought a Donald Trump piñata (Made in Mexico, appropriately).  I fostered a litter of seven kittens which drew visits from friends and family.  Vince and I went to the State Fair where, at the FabBrow booth, he insisted he wanted a uni-brow.  The makeup artists got back at him by making him look like a community theater actor.

pinatakittens

fabbrow

I spent a lot of time outdoors.  There were hikes and bike rides, and one day a friend and I spend hours making jewelry down at the river. Other times I packed a book and a beverage and biked to some quiet spot at a lake or the river.

The big local news this summer was of the killing of Philando Castille by a cop.  Castille was black.  The cop, Jeronimo Yanez, was Latino.  Castille was pulled over for a broken taillight.  He had a gun in his glove compartment, and believed that the proper procedure when interacting with a cop was to inform: “I’ve got a gun, and I’ve got a permit to carry it.”

I suppose Yanez didn’t hear anything after Castille said “I’ve got a gun.” Blam!  Shot point blank five times and left to bleed to death.  Castille’s girlfriend live streamed his last moments on Facebook.  I have not watched that video, but hundreds of thousands of people have.

I live within walking distance of the Governor’s mansion in St. Paul, where the inevitable protests took place. Traffic was blocked off by the police for a month and I was kept awake a couple nights by helicopter noise.  The protestors blocked off the nearby interstate and either police were patrolling with helicopters or it was news media copters, but they were loud.  Not that I’m comparing my minor inconvenience to the Castille’s family’s loss.

govs-mansion

This week marked one year since Vince was released from prison.  He is doing so well.  He just started a new job in catering, and he’s excited.  In a month he will go off intensive supervised release, which means he’ll be able to stay out past 10:30 or go to Wisconsin to visit cousins.  Best of all, he won’t have ISR agents showing up day and night asking him for urine samples.

Another event prompted me to write this post.

In 1989, an 11-year-old boy named Jacob Wetterling was abducted by a stranger at gun point in a small town in Minnesota. He was never found.

Vince was the same age as Jacob.  Vince became a Bar Mitzvah, got his first job, moved out, turned 20, had a serious girlfriend, had serious drug and alcohol problems, went to jail, got clean, relapsed, turned 30, moved to Lanesboro, went to prison, got out, and has two years of sobriety.  In a few months he’ll be 38.

This week, a man confessed to abducting, sexually assaulting, and executing Jacob Wetterling by shooting him in the head, then burying him—and returning a year later to move the remains.  Lying handcuffed in the last moments of his life, Jacob asked the man, “What did I do wrong?”

Vince was sentenced to over four years in prison for drug possession.  Because the statute of limitations has expired, Jacob’s killer will get 20 years on a child porn charge.  He’ll be a cho-mo—the most loathed prisoner among prisoners.  According to Vince, they are also considered a “protected class,” by officials, perhaps to prevent prison vigilantes from meting out real justice.

Au Mal Pain

As usual, the prison news includes the good, the bad, and the disgusting.

The good: If I didn’t work in fundraising I might not have caught this item.  The California Endowment has announced it will divest its assets from companies that run private prisons, jails, detention centers, and correctional facilities.  This is fantastic!  The California Endowment is a foundation with $3,668,459,217 in assets.  That’s real money, and maybe it will start a trend.  I look at foundation tax returns almost every day, so I see where they invest their money.  It’s disgusting to see a foundation with a portion of its assets invested in a weapons manufacturer, for instance, and making grants for international poverty programs.  In part, it’s all the small arms the U.S. peddles to warlords abroad that destabilize developing countries and keep them impoverished.  That’s an extreme example but I bet it’s not that uncommon.  If you have retirement investments, you too may own part of Alliant Techsystems or Prison Corporation of America, and you are probably earning fantastic rates of return.

The not-so-good news, also in California, is a report that found abuse, racism, and cover ups a physically isolated prison about 90 miles northwest of Reno.  The town in which the prison is located, Susanville, has fewer than 16,000 people, and the two correctional facilities are its largest employers.  “Employees form tight-knit social groups known as “cars” that can foster what the report terms “a code of silence” that makes it difficult to report wrongdoing.”  They are accused of abusing physically-disabled and minority prisoners, inciting attacks against sex offenders, and conspiring to impede the investigation.   The prison’s nearly 3,500 inmates won’t report abuse because they fear the nearly 1,000 employees will find out and retaliate.  If this is true in this case, why wouldn’t it be true in Moose Lake, where Vince was incarcerated?  Moose Lake has a population of only about 2,700 and, as you might guess from its name, it’s in the sticks.

Then there are two items that would be ridiculous if they weren’t true.

First, rapper Nicki Minaj did a December 10 interview with Billboard Magazine in which she spoke out against mass incarceration, lengthy drug sentences, and the racial bias in sentencing: “What it has become is not a war on drugs.  It has become slavery.  When I see how many people are in jail, I feel like, ‘Wait a minute. Our government is aware of these statistics and thinks it’s OK?’ The sentences are inhumane.”

Earlier this year, she had said about Barak Obama’s prison clemency program, “I thought it was so important when he went to prisons and spoke to people who got 20 and 30 and 40 and 50 years for drugs. There are women who are raped, people who are killed and [offenders] don’t even serve 20 years.”

I guess you could call it a case of bad timing, then when Minaj’s brother was arrested December 3 for raping a 12-year-old girl.  She posted his $100,000 bail.  Blood is thicker than principles, I guess, and I’m not being sarcastic.  As his sister, she probably believes there’s a good explanation.

Last, in prison food news, the New York Times reports that the state’s prisons have announced they will stop serving Disciplinary Loaf—also known as NutriLoaf—to prisoners in solitary confinement.  It was served with a side of cabbage.

God, sometimes I wonder if you think I make this stuff up—that’s why I provide links.

This menu change is part of a slew of reforms to solitary confinement practices.  It was brought about as the result of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, whose director said, “Food is very important to prisoners in a deprived and harsh environment; it is one of the very few things they have to look forward to.”

I’ve pasted the recipe below in case you want to serve it to your family over the holidays.

Recipe for Nutraloaf

Makes 50 loaves.

Ingredients

5 pounds whole wheat flour

20 pounds all purpose flour

1.5 gallons milk, 1 percent

8 ounces fast active dry yeast

4 pounds sugar

2 ounces salt

2.5 pounds powdered milk, nonfat

2 pounds margarine

5 pounds shredded potatoes (with skin)

2 pounds shredded carrots

 

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Heat milk to 105 degrees, then add sugar, salt and yeast. Let stand for 5 minutes.
  3. Add both flours and dry milk, then mix.
  4. Add margarine, potatoes and carrots. Mix for 10 minutes.
  5. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let dough rise.
  6. Grease and flour loaf pans and add dough.
  7. Bake loaves for 40 to 45 minutes.

 

Sincerely, Barak Obama

I wrote to the White House about a month ago to thank President Obama for his efforts to lower incarceration rates through sentencing reform, reintegration programs and other “upstream” measures. I thought I would share the response I received.  Too bad the White House seal and other graphics don’t show up:

Dear Anne:

Thank you for writing, and for sharing your son’s story.  Today, our criminal justice system holds approximately 2.2 million Americans behind bars, at a cost to taxpayers of $80 billion per year.  Many of these individuals are violent criminals who are off the streets thanks to hard‑working police officers and prosecutors, but many others who are incarcerated are non‑violent offenders whose punishments do not always fit their crimes.  We have to make sure that our justice system is fair and effective and is doing what it can to make individuals, their families, and their communities stronger.

My Administration has taken concrete steps to enhance public safety while also making our system more just.  By channeling resources into early childhood education and issuing discipline guidance to our schools, we are creating pathways to success instead of pipelines to prison.  Through initiatives like “My Brother’s Keeper,” we are promoting reforms to the juvenile justice system and reaching young people before they’re locked into a cycle from which they cannot recover.  Additionally, the Justice Department’s “Smart on Crime” and “Justice Reinvestment” initiatives aim to address the unnecessary use of mandatory minimums in the Federal system and work with states to lower their incarceration numbers and reinvest in crime prevention services.

For currently incarcerated individuals, my Administration has supported critical improvements to our prison system that target overcrowding, solitary confinement, gang activity, and sexual assault.  We are promoting rehabilitation programs that have been proven to decrease the likelihood of a repeat offense, and we are expanding reintegration programs—such as those supported by the Second Chance Act—that work with government agencies and non‑profit organizations to help provide access to employment, education, housing, and health care for the nearly 600,000 inmates released annually.  In addition, I directed the Office of Personnel Management to “ban the box” on most Federal job applications in order to end the practice of disqualifying people simply because of a mistake they made in their past.

While my Administration remains committed to taking action to improve all phases of the criminal justice system, it is time for Congress to act.  Meaningful sentencing reform and juvenile justice reform legislation would make a crucial contribution to improving public safety, reducing runaway incarceration costs, and making our criminal justice system fairer.  There is strong bipartisan support in Congress to achieve these goals, and I am encouraged that the Senate and House will continue to work cooperatively to get a bill to my desk.

Thank you again for writing.  Throughout my Presidency and beyond it, I will continue working to keep our communities safe and make our justice system fair.  To learn more about these efforts, visit www.WhiteHouse.gov/Issues/Civil‑Rights/Justice.

Sincerely,

Barack Obama

Seeing how Vince struggles with the after effects of being imprisoned, it is comforting to know that lawmakers on both sides agree the system must change—drastically, and now—and that my president cares enough about this to take it on even after he leaves office. I believe this is the only issue Republicans and Democrats agree on and are working on together nowadays, which tells you a lot about how messed up the system is.