Monday, October 31, 2016

The Body As Weapon

Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-Lepage (French, 1848–1884) Oil on Canvas, 1879

I begin this essay with two stories:

A teacher I knew at a Catholic elementary school became pregnant with twins, and due to the inadequacy of her paycheck and her husband’s self-employment in construction, she had no health insurance.  When the time came for her to deliver, she went to the emergency department at LAC + USC Medical Center.  Once she had been signed in, she waited on a gurney in the hallway with a number of other similarly struggling mothers to await full dilation and crowning of the child’s head before being wheeled into the delivery room.  Many of these women were screaming in agony, but were virtually ignored by the staff.  The teacher, herself, wanted an epidural, but the nurse informed her it was too late and she would have to go naturally.  She was worried about the fact that she would be birthing two babies, but was powerless to fight back and demand immediate medical attention.  She was eventually pushed into the delivery room and gave birth to two healthy girls.  A group of teachers from her school and I went to see her a day or so after the birth.  The hospital policy did not permit visitors like us from going to her room on the maternity ward, so we waited in the lobby while the receptionist telephoned the nurses’ station to convey the message that she had company.  We waited for quite some time before the elevator doors opened and a frail woman in a paper gown with paper booties on her feet stepped out.  We did not recognize her.  To me, she appeared as if she had had a stroke. One side of her face drooped and was scary in its pallor, a sickly grey.  She walked toward us with a wan smile before anybody could recognize her.  When we did, we all clapped and cheered, but only the women hugged her gently as if she were made of glass.  I noticed that there were bright red drops of blood on her booties.  She looked like a woman who had gone ten rounds with death resulting in a draw.  Yet, she was defiant.  She had banged out the girls and was ready to get out of the hospital.  Only weeks later did she confide to others that she didn’t want her husband to touch her because she did not feel she could go through that suffering again.

At another school where I was employed as the English Department chairperson, we interviewed a candidate to fill a teaching position for the fall.  It was early August and school would be starting in a week, so we were racing to find someone.  A woman presented herself with excellent credentials, so we scheduled an interview.  She was a tall, slightly heavyset, with a no-nonsense attitude and a thorough knowledge of the curriculum she would be required to teach.  She had owned her own tutoring company, but now wanted to get back into full time classroom teaching.  We went through the interview process, had her meet the Board of Trustees, and checked into her background, but since she had her own company for the last seven years, we could not rely on previous employers for recommendations.  Time being of the essence, and the fact that she was a strong applicant, we decided to offer her a contract.  Once she signed on the dotted line, she asked the principal when her medical benefits would start.  He told her that thirty days on, she and her family would be fully covered.  “Good,” she said.  “I’m five months pregnant and will need to take the three months off to give birth.  After that, I’m not sure I’ll be returning.  It all depends on how things go.”

She knew we could not rescind the contract without leaving us open to a discrimination lawsuit, but she was not exactly forthcoming when we talked about teaching and her experience.  She certainly never mentioned being pregnant, and because she was tall and wore flowing and loose clothing, we could not see the “baby bump.”  We knew she had taken the job to get the health insurance that she could not afford being self-employed.  So she worked from August to December, left for Christmas break, and never returned.

The body is a weapon.  That is the thesis.  A gun, a knife, a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire—those are extensions of the body to aid its weaponized power.  It is best exemplified in the Greek comedy by Aristophanes, Lysistrata, where all the women get together and refuse their husbands sex to stop the Peloponnesian War.  Human beings have only the weapon they are born with, and they must make the most of it as they can when fighting back against oppressive and abusive discrimination.

In Dolores S. Williams’ chapter in After Patriarchy, she speaks of the abuse visited upon black women in the time of slavery.  Indeed, this is a prime example of white slave owners using their bodies as weapons against black women, torturing them sexually and physically, but it is also an example of the black woman’s body as weapon.  In the “area of sexuality…slave women were forced to stand in the place of white women to provide sexual pleasure for white male slave owners.”  This is horrific as a standalone fact, but it also gave the black women some power.  These women, according to Williams, often became housekeepers rather than field workers, and enjoyed privileges not accorded to other slaves.  Although wrong and an aberration, the white male oppressors needed the black women they victimized.  It was indeed “coerced surrogacy,” but the weapon of the black female body could be used to coerce privileges and specialized treatment from their “owners.”  Often, the black woman was characterized as a “Jezebel,” a sexually voracious exotic other far removed from the often distant and removed white woman.  In this way, her body and her sex elevated her as a “counterimage of the…Victorian lady.”  It was a tragic and brutal imbalance, but the abuser was as much trapped in the abuse as the women he victimized, and the woman to whom he was rightfully married was a victim as well.

Paula M. Cooey in her chapter discusses how the body can be redeemed in a post-patriarchal society.  First, she notes that pain and suffering of the body are commonplace and expected, and it is through this turmoil that we can “make a better world.”  The body can be starved, beaten, raped, strangled, murdered, but it still functions as a powerful symbol of that abuse and destruction.  Think of the piles of bodies on Mexican streets murdered by drug lords.  They represent a horrific crime, but they also represent an indictment of those criminals.  They often argue that they do much civic good in the towns and villages, that they are only responding to the supply and demand from the U.S.  They argue they are like Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men:  steal from the rich and give to the poor.  The piles of bodies say otherwise.

Without a doubt, the most potent symbol of body as weapon is the phallus—it is often characterized as a sword or club or gun barrel.  Cooey notes that men achieve power by controlling “sexual interaction, reproduction, childbearing, medical practices, and work roles, often justified or rationalized on religious grounds.”  Women in the world, now and in history, often lacked political power or social status to fight back against this phallic weaponry, but it is through a woman’s body that new life comes into the world.  A woman is an incarnation generator, bringing flesh to life, and although women have been discriminated against and demeaned and violently abused throughout patriarchal history, only a woman can truly give life, is truly like God.  In a post-patriarchal society that Cooey describes, all bodies yearn for redemption, and only in pain and injustice can this redemption take place.  Male oppressors are at a distinct disadvantage in the search for redemption.  The celebration of frailties in the human condition gives strength.  Men, with their anatomical strength and raging phallus have much to answer for whereas women, the life givers, stand up through the denigrative and abusive history they have suffered.  The abuse of another also taints the abuser.

Body-as-weapon has no better expression than that of a suicide bomber who believes in the explosion, his or her body will act as shrapnel to pierce the bodies of the enemy.  Literally, they become the bomb that shreds the flesh of the unsuspecting victims.  Their redemption comes through their destruction.  They are promised something better beyond this life, depending on the translation—virgins, heaven, something.  They are unworthy of salvation unless they turn themselves into a weapon for the Supreme Being in a misguided attempt to destroy in the name of a God.  Men and women use their bodies as armaments.  But what of Jesus?  Is his body a weapon even as it is destroyed by the weapons of others—Roman soldiers, Pharisees, et cetera?

For all his passivity, for his eventual accepting of his fate, Jesus is a weapon, a potent weapon.  Cooey focuses on the bread, or the Bread of Life, which is Jesus’ flesh mixed with blood as wine.  Jesus literally gives his flesh up in an act of destruction.  He is crucified, died, and was buried, to paraphrase the prayer.  He did not envision his bones as slivers of shrapnel piercing the enemy, but his flesh as bread to save the lives of his followers and allow them to redeem themselves for eternal life.  As a victim of horrific torture and abuse, Jesus also becomes feminine.  Cooey argues that “The ethical dimensions of the redemption of the body are gynocentric, or woman-centered.”  She tells us that violence is primarily directed at women:  abortion, infanticide, neglect of female children, genital mutilation, forced pregnancy, and beatings, tremendous, incessant, fists pounding flesh leading to bruises, disfigurement, and death.  Jesus was beaten, whipped, lacerated, crowned with thorns, nailed to a piece of wood; he suffered stab wounds, and probably asphyxiated to death as his body sagged on the cross.  He suffers perpetually and in solidarity with all those whose suffer, especially women.  But he also uses his man body as a weapon, giving up his flesh and blood for redemption of his followers, like some kind of self-sacrificing hero in an action movie.

After death, his body continues to be a weapon, first by its absence at the tomb and the threat that implies, and later by his appearances to his apostles and eventual ascension into heaven.  He dies, but is still present, the ultimate triumph over the mortality of body.  Death has no power.  Death, as John Donne put it, need not be proud because he has failed.  Jesus lives.  In a post-patriarchal reading of this, through Jesus we embrace what is unique about human beings, and women can be redeemed in his ability to undergo immense suffering and survive.  Saint Paul “distinguishes between psychological and spiritual bodies not by the logic of his or her soul or ego, but by the logic of the Spirit of God, a logic that would guarantee the body’s imperishability.”  As Jesus lives, so do his followers.

In the opening stories of this essay, the teacher was not broken down by the horrific pain of double childbirth.  She was empowered, emboldened, by her survival and triumph over pain.  She also decided, going forward, that she would control her procreative future on her own terms.  The teaching candidate knew she needed medical coverage for her child and herself and was willing to obscure the truth and not be forthcoming to get what she wanted.  Is this dishonorable?  In a world where people—women, the poor, the disenfranchised—have few tools at their disposal, she simply used what she had to get what she needed.  She did work for the money—she taught every day from August through December.  Beyond that, she owed the school nothing.  And if she had revealed her pregnancy to the principal, a male, and to the Board of Trustees (one woman and eight men), she would not have been hired, of that I am certain.

Our bodies are weapons.  The strength and breadth of their powers vary in situation and circumstance, but we use them as we can to right the imbalances in this world.  Our redemption is the acceptance of pain and suffering in these battles.  Victories always come at a great cost.


·         After Patriarchy: Feminist Transformations of the World Religions edited by Paula M. Cooey, William R. Eakin, and Jay B. McDaniel (Orbis Books, 1991)

Friday, October 28, 2016

What Would David Carr Do?

One of the voices I’ve missed in this crazy election season is David Carr’s.  He was The New York Times media reporter and author of The Night of the Gun:  A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life. His Own.  (Simon & Schuster, 2009).  He would have something to say about the way the media has covered Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and how each candidate has manipulated those same media outlets in return.  It has been quite a feeding frenzy, and Carr would know what to make of it and possibly, how to make sense of it.

Working in an academic institution, I am struck by the kind of snobbery those in the ivory tower have for journalists.  Evidently, it is more courageous and intellectual to research and write a paper on some obtuse and disconnected corner of the universe than it is to go out into the desert embedded with American soldiers and report back on the war against ISIS.  When one teacher heard that I called myself a journalist, he responded that I would have to “up my game” in the academic arena.  Journalists are some of the smartest people I know.  If they’ll have me, I’d rather run with their crowd.

I reread Ta-Nehisi Coates' piece in The Atlantic that he wrote about David Carr after he passed in early 2015.  I am a fan of Coates’ work, and it came as no surprise that Carr was an early champion of him and his writing.  He explains Carr’s genre as that of a “reported narrative.”  It is journalism with a twist.  Not just the facts, if you will, but drawing conclusions from those facts and stories, or better yet, allowing the reader to draw conclusions from the journalist’s presentation of facts.  Whatever way one wants to think about it, this kind of factual writing is truth with a clear agenda.

When Carr edited the Washington City Paper, he made it a point to challenge his writers to tell compelling stories with solid “reporting, direct quotations, and vividly rendered scenes.”  Coates goes on to write that Carr “was constantly imploring his writers…to do something different, to tell stories differently, to break the form.”  There is a technique to storytelling, and it is elemental and necessary to a human being, maybe going back to our camp fire days.  “Let me tell you a story…” was a way to hook the reader.  We are a gossipy, story-obsessed bunch, we humans.  Carr believed one could learn factual storytelling from the masters, and he continually challenged his writers with articles from the leading publications.  His newly minted journalists studied these pieces, broke them down to their constituent parts, all just to see how they worked.  Carr implored the writers in his employ to reach beyond their capabilities.  Take on too much.  PUSH YOURSELF!  Good journalism had room for poetry, imagery, characters, and the well-formulated opinion.  According to Coates, “David had no interest in objectivity, but he always believed that the truest arguments were reported and best bounded by narrative.”

I have no interest in academic writing because as it is practiced these days, it is abstract and obtuse.  It lacks, quite often, narrative and character.  It is written for the tenure committee, not for people in the real world.  It is not tied to anything real.  Are there exceptions?  Yes, but most peer-reviewed journal writing is devoid of blood and guts.  It is sanitized and distanced from the scene of the crime.

Carr was a tough editor in a field where weak editors can ruin a career.  He went hard on his people, but that is what it takes:  a thick skin and dogged determination.  Teachers must go hard on their students because the world will be hard on them when they “grow up.”  Really, soft landings are hard to come by and for the most part, not in line with human experience.  We get our asses kicked and then we learn.  Such is education in its truest and most real form.  Flubbing a story or confusing the facts is death for a journalist, and Carr would have none of it.  His dictum to his writers was to get it right or no one will take you seriously.  Being right in the facts and the reporting is the hallmark of journalistic excellence.  Carr advocated being “twice as good” as journalists at other papers, and that a writer must set a “higher bar” for him or herself than others do.

Coates talks about the fears of the student-journalist:  “the fear of offending, of asking impolite questions, of intruding.”  Much to Donald Trump’s dismay, journalists don’t back down when threatened.  They have a story to tell and the story will be written, lawsuits and threats be damned.  Like any petulant-Hitler-want-to-be, Trump thinks he can blame journalists for his own inadequacies, including his small hands.  But in the end, a good journalist, according to Coates, approaches “people you did not previously know and barrage them with intimate questions,” although he admits that this is “one of the hardest things to do.”  To see how Carr handled this, look no further than the excellent film, Page One:  Inside The New York Times (2011) where we see him eviscerate Sam Zell and his cronies when they laid waste to the Tribune Company.  He displays “the principle” of “violent and incessant curiosity” best “represented in the craft of narrative argument,” as Coates tells us.  What happens to bad editors, the career-damaging kind?  “Some of these editors end up working in public relations.  Some of them become voting-rights activists.  Some of them are hired by universities [BINGO!] to have their tenured years subsidized by aspiring young writers.”  For shame.  This view is seconded by no less than Susan Sontag in her Paris Review interview:  Academia kills the writer.

The irony in all this is that towards the end of his life, David Carr entered academia as an adjunct at Boston University, and when he died during the early spring of 2015, it was Ta-Nehisi Coates who assumed his professorial duties to finish the semester.  But that’s okay because the best writers are teachers in their own right. I think students in the stream of college academic life would be the welcome beneficiaries of the wisdom of journalism as personified by David Carr, and later, Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Embrace the story and jettison the obtuse.  When in doubt, ask yourself:  what would David do?

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Demon Comes At Night

Donald Trump got me thinking about one of the most interesting characters in Jewish mythology:  Lilith, the notorious first wife of Adam.  She appears in various forms in a number of mythological stories across cultures beginning with The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Dead Sea Scrolls, The book of Isaiah in the Old Testament, The Zohar:  The Book of Enlightenment, “Alphabet of Ben Sira 78:  Lilith,” and “The Coming of Lilith” by Judith Plaskow.  In close reading, these stories reveal a woman who could be interpreted as a free spirit wishing to control her destiny and because of this, she is characterized as a demon while in another vision of her, she becomes the snake in the Garden, luring Adam and Eve into mortal and irreversible original sin.  Finally, in the Judith Plaskow piece, she is revealed to be a strong woman willing to sacrifice herself to save and enlighten her sister Eve, a significant elaboration and rich mythologizing of the Adam and Eve creation story.

Lilith comes from an ancient Sumerian name for female demons and wind spirits called lilitu, according to Janet Howe Gaines in the article, “Lilith:  Seductress, Heroine, or Murderer?”  These spirits were known for attacking pregnant women and infants as well as for their sexual harassment of young men.  Lilith, or Lilit, is often depicted with long, flowing hair and wings, and sometimes with birds’ feet or as Michelangelo imagined her, with the body of a snake and the face of a woman.  In the book of Isaiah, 34: 14, this demon appears in the Judgment of Edom:  “Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts, satyrs shall call to one another; there shall the Lilith repose, and find for herself a place to rest.”  The punishment of Edom echoes that of Sodom and Gomorrah, so it seems reasonable that evil in all its forms would find shelter there.  She haunts deserts and lonely places, swooping down to infect those she attacks with her poison.  She is a dramatic and dark figure in the Old Testament landscape.

She also appears in the dusty parchments found at Qumran, The Dead Sea Scrolls:  “And I, the Master, proclaim the majesty of his beauty to frighten and terrify all the spirits of the destroying angels and the spirits of the bastards, the demons, Lilith, the howlers and the yelpers, they who strike suddenly to lead astray the spirit of understanding and to appal [sic] their heart…in the age of the domination of wickedness…”  Here, too, she is a paradigm of evil who can only be vanquished by God.  She is a demon called out in exorcisms, and Janet Howe Gaines assures us that “the Qumran community was surely familiar with the Isaiah passage…”  This brings us to Judaism’s entanglement with Lilith and her origins in Jewish texts, specifically, the Talmud where Lilith is said to be a succubus, or female demon who comes in the guise of a woman to lie with men in sleep and become pregnant by them from their nocturnal emissions.

The ancient mystical Jewish text known as The Zohar mentions Lilith in several sections.  We learn that Adam was “not careful” with this, his first mate.  “Seduced by her, he sinned with that whore of a woman, the primordial serpent.”  Again, she is woman in form only, but her overriding character is that of the demon temptress, the whore leading men astray.  Later, she is paired with Sama’el as one of his consorts.  He is Satan, and the text tells us that she is his equal, his partner, also called a “Serpent,” a “Woman of Whoredom, End of All Flesh, End of Days.  Two evil spirits joined together…”  The ancient authors of the text go on tell us that she is a “smooth-tongued alien,” an “evil woman.”  Rabbi Abba is quoted as saying that human beings are on a single path to the divine, but this seducer perverts this path day after day and time after time.  Lilith has the power to lure human beings away from God and into darkness.

The battle between Lilith and Adam is one of matriarch versus patriarch.  In “Alphabet of Ben Sira 78:  Lilith,” the two original human beings fight for dominance.  The symbolism of the position of male and female in the sexual act is a struggle for power.  Lilith is a woman who will not obey her man, making her a rich symbol for feminist interpretations of the text.  Lilith’s angry outburst is to name God, a major transgression in Jewish tradition.  His name cannot be uttered without dire consequences, but she does it, and performs the act with salty abandon.  The one hundred of her children she is sentenced to see die every day as punishment assures a balance between good and evil in the world.  Lilith is fertile and procreative, but only dark beings issue from her nighttime couplings, often the result of “wet dreams.”  The spawn of Lilith are not conceived in the proper way; their path to creation is shrouded in darkness and evil.  The passage tells us that amulets must be prepared to protect healthy infants from the horrible demon Lilith.

In Judith Plaskow’s piece, we come to a breath of fresh air, and through analysis, see a different interpretation of this unique creature.  The most interesting aspect is that she is created from the same cosmic dust as Adam; in short, they are true equals.  They were, Plaskow tells us, “equal in all ways,” which leaves the reader to imagine that this equality would extend to the procreative act.  In this telling, God is branded just another man, already siding with Adam in this domestic battlefield.  It is the story of the feminist revolt against the good old boys network put in place to keep undesirables, namely women, under control.  Lilith flees this claustrophobic relationship.  She seeks justice and equity, and it is significant that she can get neither from her creator God or her husband.  God is tarnished with abusive patriarchy as much as Adam.  So she flies away.

God does not make the same mistake twice.  He creates Eve from Adam’s rib; out of man comes woman, which already casts a shadow on her sex.  Eve is doomed to servitude.  However, this quaking, seething mess of a marriage in the most beautiful and pastoral garden is threatened by Lilith who tries to return.  Eve sees her and, as Plaskow recounts, “began to think about the limits of her own life within the garden.”  This is the quantifiable crux of the story, the epiphany, the turning point not for Adam or Lilith, but for the newcomer Eve.  She is awakened to the possibilities in life.  She sees, quite literally, over Adam’s wall to the great wide open.  Walls are there to be climbed, to be knocked down, to be obliterated, and once enlightenment begins for Eve, things cannot return to being as they were.  The wall is blown apart.  Plaskow writes in language beautiful and fraught with poetry:  “And they [Lilith and Eve] sat and spoke together of the past and then of the future…And God and Adam were expectant and afraid the day Eve and Lilith returned to the garden, bursting with possibilities, ready to rebuild it together.”

Plaskow’s version of the story resonates so strongly with feminists and those who respect women.  However, why is Lilith demonized in other myths and texts?  In those tales, Lilith is characterized as evil and ostracized because she wishes to control her own fate and sex.  In Isaiah, she is lumped in with the horrific annihilation of Edom and destined to roam the desert in a deranged haze.  Why is she subjected to such punishment?  In a word, land.  Edom is destroyed because the land of Zion has been wronged.  Zion has suffered encroachment.  Therefore, God will send every evil scourge he can muster down upon the heads of Edom’s inhabitants, and the demon Lilith is one of those scourges.  In the Dead Sea Scrolls, Lilith is put with the bastards and those who stray from the proper understanding—in other words, those who do not think the way they should, the howlers and the yelpers.  Are they the protestors, those who stand up for others?  Are they those who seek justice and equity, who dare to challenge the status quo?  In the Zohar text she is again a temptress, a consort with Sama’el.  She is again an outsider, and a negative influence on others with her smooth tongue and seductive ways.

The question remains:  who is Lilith?  In Plaskow’s poetic version, and one that is most acceptable because it reveals her character, she is a woman who clearly speaks her mind.  She questions the way things are, and acts as a facilitator and teacher for Eve, a woman later charged with corrupting mankind and costing human beings the Garden of Eden.  Lilith is enigmatic, gutsy, wild, and most importantly, free.  She flies across the desert, wraps herself in snakes, dares to be sensual and sexual.  She is every man’s fantasy and every man’s curse, a haunting, dream-like presence who threatens to shake loose the foundation stones of society.  And yes, she is woman.


  • Lilith:  Seductress, Heroine, or Murder?" by Janet Howe Gaines Bible Review (October, 2001)
  • The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls translated by Geze Vermes (New York: Penguin, 2001)
  • The Zohar:  The Book of Enlightenment translated by Danial Chanan Matt (N.J.: Paulist Press, 1983
  • The New American Bible (World Catholic Press, 2011)
  • "Alphabet of Ben Sira 78: Lilith" (various translators)
  • "The Coming of Lilith" by Judith Plaskow from Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality: A Sourcebook Ellen M. Umansky and Dianne Ashton, editors (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992)