Done to Death

Lizzie has a clear message for us: we ought to care more about Lizzie Borden, whether or not we think she murdered her parents. Although–spoiler alert–she did, the film says, and we should still care about her because of that. If we eat up Dead Girl Stories and true crime, why not care about Killer Women too?

Macneill’s film starring Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart is the latest in the oeuvre of Lizzie canon–from a B&B to Lifetime movies, zombie slaying fan fic to bobbleheads. The film takes up where history leaves off. Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered in their Fall River, Massachusetts home on a sultry August day in 1892. Evidence and a mistrial, not to mention Lizzie’s social status–she teaches Sunday school, she goes to the theatre–kept Lizzie from the gallows.

Lizzie posits its own theory behind this historical whodunit–that Lizzie and Bridget Sullivan, their live-in Irish housekeeper, fell in love and conspired to off Mr. Borden, who’s too cheap to pay for electricity and creaks up dark stairs at night to molest Bridget in her attic bedroom.

The film creates empathy formally: it spins a tight spool of spaces that trap Lizzie and Bridget: staircases are dark angles, people spy on each other through windows. The dread Lizzie builds within the home mounts tension that can only release when Lizzie and Bridget retreat to the barn. Here, Lizzie tends to her pigeons and tutors Bridget. The air is lighter and shots are longer. We yearn for moments of tenderness and reprieve alongside Bridget just as Lizzie does so that we too can escape from the gothic home. We long for a release from the tension and from the narrative that has gripped Lizzie since her case first became famous in 1892.

Lizzie and Bridget share their first kiss in the barn, allies against Mr. Borden, fortified in their resolve to support each other. A shot tracks their movements and pulses, enclosing them in their shared space. Sunlight soaks them and allows them to breathe for a moment: though they hide among the haystacks and aviary, there seems to be hope for them beyond the sickly, oppressive home. In moments like these, The Murders melt away and the story is instead one of love. Only after a cut do we see Mr. Borden watching through the window, aligning his gaze with our own. Though we know he’s coming from the scene preceding their kiss, we want to luxuriate in the barn with them just a bit longer before he intrudes, to let this story go somewhere else for once.

The claustrophobia of the film’s beginning delights in refractions like these. We watch Lizzie and the Bordens through mirrors and windows, the horrors and stolen kisses alike reflecting back onto the public that has gazed into Lizzie’s life with a voyeuristic lack of shame for time immemorial. A mirror casts Lizzie and Bridget’s first close embrace in double. Lizzie watches us watch the story and renders our gaze uncanny. Why do we want to watch this? What are we intruding on? With bravado, Lizzie acknowledges our desire when we watch a move about Lizzie Borden and turns that desire on its head, reflecting back onto us a different story of love, family strife, and female empowerment–the murders merely rumbling beneath the surface.

Through refractions and voyeurism, moments of dank, familial horror–Lizzie confronting her slimy uncle John Morse (Denis O’Hare), the family eating Lizzie’s pet pigeons for dinner–are juxtaposed against the airiness and headiness of moments Lizzie and Bridget share in the barn and Lizzie’s bedroom. Here the film surpasses its predecessors, transcending the gaudiness of the case and its details, locating the horror inside of the home and the structures that trap all of the women in the Borden household instead of in the crime photos and evidence. While everyone else seems to care about whether Lizzie did it, the film initially cares about who Lizzie was.

Yet after the murder, the film’s tight spool quickly unwinds, and it’s jarring. Any empathy created dissolves like the blood she washes away from the murder hatchet. Perhaps Lizzie is agoraphobic: when it looks out from the home and into the jail and courtroom, it loses its footing, unsure how to navigate the world. We lose the lens of mirrors and windows and watch events unfold more typically. We lose the tension once the film shows us what we came for: The Murders. John Morse and Bridget visit Lizzie in jail, and the film’s truth is presented in flashbacks. Instead of mounting dread through what remains unsaid and lying in wait in the house’s crevices, story usurps Lizzie’s agency, attention is devoted to showing us what happened this time around. Though the story is one of agency, Lizzie and Bridget become secondary to plot.

The people disappear, becoming once again the historical paper dolls we’re used to manipulating for play. Emma, her sister, and Morse feel particularly flimsy while Bridget and Lizzie’s romance fizzles, never allowed to consummate before the murders gobble up screen time. Bridget lies on the stand to defend Lizzie, she cannot summon the rage within her to murder Andrew Borden as planned, and she moves away from Fall River after the trials. Bridget visits Lizzie in her cell and asks what she was to her. She feels used, spat up, secondary to Lizzie’s desire to overthrow the patriarchy and secure her inheritance. She’s another girl in a story about a murder. None of this is aided by Chloë Sevigny’s chilling, stone-faced performance. Was Bridget but a tool for her, or was their love something grander?

At the same time, we have to ask what they all mean to us, and by the end of the film, they don’t mean much: Lizzie and Bridget become vessels through which we may explore the latest theory. In ascribing so much attention to the murders and creating a cohesive narrative around them, Lizzie spends less time slowing down and delighting in the light of the barn or listening for the creak of the stairs, wondering if the bedroom door will be opened again tonight. Though it aspires to something greater, it allows the desires of the culture more broadly to shape whom, or rather what, we watch on screen. Lenses crafted earlier in the film shatter; we’re back to watching what we’re accustomed to by now.

Lizzie has been done to death, whether theorized, filmed, or written about. The end of the film no longer reflects onto us. Rather, it shows us what we expect. It offers up its own account of the murders, and the people meant to gain our empathy earlier on become secondary to this story. Instead of using a worn figure to tell a new, strong account of a female antihero, or women in love in 1890s Massachusetts, it suffers from the perceived need to answer the question inherent to Lizzie: did she do it?

Michael Colbert is a writer based in Portland, Maine. He loves horror film (his favorites are Candyman and Rosemarys Baby), and he’s a coffee addict (his favorites are Costa Rican and Ethiopian). His work has appeared in such publications as Germinal, Gravel,  and the Worcester Journal.

Posted in Culture, Unabridged | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

I Still Believe, Britney: Twenty Years Later

What happened to you on October 23, 1998?

My mother, Beverly June, and I left our three bedroom ranch house on Slim Wilson Boulevard in Nixa, Missouri, in a gold Saturn sedan. As we drove to McDonald’s, we fussed over the radio. My mother preferred KTTS 94.7, a local country and news talk radio station. I always turned the dial to Hot 106.7, a top 40 station that on October 23, 1998, likely played Barenaked Ladies’ “One Night,” Brandy & Monica’s “The Boy is Mine,” and Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing.” But we had a deal, my mother and I, that I could choose the music if, and only if, I went inside McDonald’s while she went through the drive-thru. You see, we’re cheap, my mother and I; while she got herself a breakfast burrito and me a sausage biscuit in the drive-thru, I took two 42 oz. cups inside and refilled them with Diet Coke at the self-serve soda station without paying for them.

On October 23, 1998, my mother left the radio station on Hot 106.7 as I went inside McDonald’s to get her drinks. When I came out the other side and slipped into the car, handing my mother her morning’s worth of Diet Coke as she gave me my breakfast, the Hot 106.7 DJ introduced a new single by a former Disney Mousketeer.

It is safe to say that I have spent the subsequent years of my life trying to recreate this very moment. My mother and I in the car outside a suburban McDonald’s. Those four repeating pulses on the keyboard. That drum track that thumps along in classic rock fashion on the two and the four. And then the question that, perhaps more than any other, has defined life in the modern age: “Oh baby, baby, how was I supposed to know, that something wasn’t right here?”

Twenty years ago today on October 23, 1998, Britney Spears released her debut single “…Baby One More Time” and changed my life forever.

That sounds hyperbolic, and perhaps it is. (Especially if you’re a straight dude, one who hasn’t spent his entire life understanding his own existence through products of popular music culture.) But twenty years on, I’m not convinced the hyperbole of Britney Spears is unwarranted. Quite the contrary: it strikes me as generally understated.

Consider the music video for “…Baby One More Time.” It’s iconic, joining the ranks of such music videos as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” And this iconography is not just my (very gay) opinion: Britney’s debut video consistently ranks towards the top of “Best Of” lists in venues as diverse as Rolling Stoneand Business Insider(outlets not traditionally favorable to “bubblegum” pop or female stars more generally, to say the least). When MTV’s Total Request Live (TRL)aired its final episode on November 16, 2008, “…Baby One More Time” held the #1 spot in their countdown of all-time music videos, and was the final video to appear on the show before it left the airwaves forever. This praise is not unwarranted. The video is a meta-pastiche of the genre that blurs both time and age. Set in the same high school where the 1978 John Travolta and Olivia Newton John smash Grease— a film supposedly set in the 1950s, though striving for the affect of every high school every where at any time — was filmed, Spears wears a traditional Catholic school uniform for most of the video: knee socks and pleated skirt, gray cardigan over white Oxford. But time and age are queered: that white Oxford is tied up to reveal her midriff, what would go on to become her signature look, and her hair is braided into two childish pigtails. She dances with others dressed just as queerly as her, a cross-racial group of women and (what I read to be) visibly queer men.

A weird as hell seventh grader learning HTML and quickly building a fan site for Britney on the web community Geocities, I didn’t know that I needed to hear this song and especially, to see this music video. But as Walter Benjamin argues, “The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.” For anyone considered Other — whether by race or gender, sexuality or class — finding urtexts such as “…Baby One More Time,” however silly that may appear to the rest of the world, is an act of survival.

Even if we didn’t know it then, “…Baby One More Time” gave us Britney and made her a metaphor through which to understand our evolving culture. Britney’s almost 37 now, but she wasn’t yet 17 when her debut single hit our radio stations and MTV. I was barely 14, which means I’ve grown up alongside Ms. Spears, as have my fellow early millennials, the generation that was the first to adopt life on the internet as life. The generation drowning now under a student loan debt crisis. The generation that, because they weren’t excited to vote, inadvertently elected Donald J. Trump to the White House. What I’m trying to say: a generation of tumultuous times, to say the least. And all along this path, the deep discography of Britney Spears has emerged.

…Baby One More Time (1999)

Here are the songs that started it all: the title track, “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” and “Sometimes,” though in hindsight we should all be listening to the bop “Soda Pop,” a reggae-lite track in which Britney tells us over and over “open that soda pop, watch it fizz and pop.” By all accounts, this was also the time when Britney, on tour with *NSync, started sleeping with Justin Timberlake. He was, he is, a loser, and like straight men with frosted tips in general, Britney should have stayed away from his weird beat-boxing man-boy ass. She was, and is, the more interesting performer and person.

Oops!… I Did It Again (2000)

Non-Britney aficionados will usually say this is her best album. It’s not, but it’s definitely strong. Just think of that TIMELESS title track — and its music video with Britney on Mars in a red pleather jumpsuit receiving the Heart of the Ocean necklace from Titanic from a hot astronaut who is now an orthopedic surgeon in Phoenix. Plenty of her biggest hits come from this album, too, like “Lucky” and “Stronger.” Fun fact: I chipped my tooth in high school attempting to learn the infamous “chair dance” from the “Stronger” video, finally convincing my parents to let me get veneers.

Britney (2001)

Finally, Britney gets POLITICAL. This album is a direct response to the (illegitimate) election of George W. Bush in 2000. “I’m a Slave 4 U” begins with a treatise on both Bush and Gore’s ignoring of the youth vote: “I know I may be young, but I’ve got feelings, too” (and when she performed the lead single live at the MTV VMAs with an albino boa constrictor, it was clear to me that the dance was a statement on the evils of either Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or Justin Timberlake). “But who am I to say what a girl is to do?” she pleads on “Overprotected,” in a clear statement on a woman’s inalienable rights over her own body. “Boys, and when a girl is with one (Get nasty),” Britney spins on “Boys,” “then she’s in control.” It’s clear she was returning to the fundamentals of Judith Butler, who similarly argues that “to operate within the matrix of power is not the same as to replicate uncritically relations of domination.”

In the Zone (2003)

We’re about to invade Iraq, and Britney wants to make a strong progressive statement on the possibility of collaborative thinking outside of war. She collaborates here with Madonna, The Ying Yang Twins, and R. Kelly… okay, maybe collaboration isn’t always great, and thus the real standout here is her powerful statement in favor of masturbation: “Another day without a lover, the more I come to understand the touch of my hand.” Amen.

Blackout (2007)

The years between 2003 and 2007 were not good for Britney and were not good for us. During New Years 2004, Britney married a childhood friend in Vegas, only to annul the marriage in a matter of hours. A few weeks later, we inaugurated George W. Bush to a second term. The day before I turned 19 in September 2004, Britney married her backup dancer Kevin “K-Fed” Federline. They had two boys and Britney subsequently financed his “hip hop” album Playing with Fire. By 2006, however, they divorced, Britney was spotted around LA partying hard with Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan and driving with her son in her lap instead of in a car seat, and the American death toll alone in Iraq topped 3,000. I’m always aphrensive to talk about this album because I want to dispel the myth that chaos and heartbreak make for good artistry. But the album is fucking amazing as a dance album: “Gimme More,” “Piece of Me,” “Radar,” “Get Naked,” “Freakshow,” “Why Should I be Sad”… it oozes sex and regret, but with a strong synth overlay, became a club smash.

Circus (2008)

In 2008, we elected Barack Obama and Britney, post-rehab and with a height-defying bob, released Circus. “All eyes on me in the middle of the ring,” she teases, welcoming us to gaze upon her reborn as the First Family tweeted out pictures of their Portuguese water dog, Bo. Things were looking up.

Femme Fatale (2011)

Unpopular opinion, but this is my favorite of the newer Britney albums. “Till the World Ends” is an updated version of “I’m a Slave 4 U,” but this time with a lived gravitas only turning 30 can bring. “Hold It Against Me” is a sex-positive anthem that simultaneously celebrates consent and fucking. And in the video for “I Wanna Go,” Britney goes on a dance-fueled roadtrip with openly gay Cuban-American actor Guillermo Díaz driving a vintage convertible. Here. For. It.

Britney Jean (2013)

“’Work Bitch’ is a gross neoliberal anthem,” I saw a straight, white, tenured English professor write on Facebook from his second home. And that, my friends, is exactly why straight white men, even if they are my colleagues, don’t know shit. In 2013, Britney secured herself as the queen of the Las Vegas strip and the gay bar, all while the Supreme Court ruled marriage a right of same-sex couples. “Hold your head high, fingers to the sky,” she sang as gay couples wed everywhere from Alabama to Alaska, “They gonna try to try ya’, but they can’t deny ya’.” Neoliberal? Sure. But certainly not gross. Fabulous. And perfect to dance to after those gay marriages become gay divorces.

Glory (2016)

This album should have done better. “Britney Spears sounds like she’s having fun again,” The Boston Globeraved. “Slumber Party” — “I think I see confetti from this potion / Pillow fights and feathers, overdosin’” — is an absolute bop. The greatness of this album was right there in front of us, and we chose to ignore it. Huh. How 2016 of us. We should have listened to Britney.



–D. Gilson is an Assistant Professor of English at Texas Tech University. He’s working on a collection of essays on queerness and evangelical pasts.


Posted in Culture, Unabridged | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Message about Life Lines from Trevor Project’s James Lecesne [Video]

In the 20 years since The Trevor Project launched its life-saving suicide prevention and crisis intervention lifeline for LGBTQ youth, they’ve helped thousands of young people across the country. But they have never collected stories from those that have used the service.

The Trevor project and TMI Project came together in 2018 to do just that: to locate the people, to hear their stories of survival, and to help them to write and share those stories with the world.

Watch the video below to hear a special message from Trevor Project’s co-founder James Lecense, and to meet a few of the courageous storytellers who will join us on stage for Life Lines: Queer Stories of Survival on Nov. 5th!



Life Lines: Queer Stories of Survival
Monday, November 5th, 2018, 7pm One Night Only!
The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd Street, NYC

The post A Message about Life Lines from Trevor Project’s James Lecesne [Video] appeared first on TMI Project.

Posted in Culture, Unabridged | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


When it becomes clear which way Susan Collins will vote, clear that her speech has moved beyond any possibility for the plot twist I crave, Mo asks if we can just turn it off. We’ve been circling in our subdivision, sugar maples ablaze in the too-warm air, the child asleep in his car seat. I don’t let him turn it off. I tell him I need to hear this, because I need to feel my rage.

Any basic bitch will tell you that Venus went retrograde yesterday, that pumpkin spice rooibos is back in stock at Trader Joe’s, that she can’t remember how she got home. The feminist astrologer Chani Nicholas writes, If your rage is showing up… it trusts you enough to receive it.

Like Kabbalah, in the Gothic novel, there is another world hidden in this world. In Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest, which is a good if not particularly famous example, Adeline, who, despite her preternatural talent for poetry and music, is often described as artless, takes refuge in a ruined abbey. She is in the care of strangers, and maybe she’s always been in the care of strangers; these particular strangers don’t know why they were forced to take custody of her during a strange scene of capture, entrapment, and exchange. Fearing themselves pursued by creditors, the family hides deep in the abbey, beyond a trap door.

Put another way, in the Gothic novel, there are girls in the walls.

I didn’t watch the testimony. I was ensconced in my office, prepping Milton for a class I am co-teaching, thankfully, with somebody who knows something about Milton. I blared the new Robyn single and then old Robyn albums through my earbuds, because fembots have feelings too, even me. Every few minutes, I’d check Twitter, where stoic pictures of Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford circulated among the strangers to whom I choose to listen in the margins of my day.

You have to call Christine Blasey Ford a patriot in the purest sense of the word but you couldn’t call her artless. That term, I think, we must reserve for her fifteen-year-old self, that body held down against the mattress, its screams muffled. Apparently we can sacrifice that girl. Apparently we’ve moved on. As Collins intoned repeatedly, Christine Blasey Ford is a professor.

There’s a skeleton in a chest; there’s a Marquis who owns the abbey; there’s a terrifying manuscript; there was a captive here before.

I’m reading Margaret Cavendish for class, a class that I am co-teaching, thankfully, with somebody who not only knows something about Milton but also knows something about Cavendish. I’m listening to The Postal Service, which somehow, miraculously, holds up, and then to Phoenix because I’m craving voices that profess their own immaturity. In the margins I write, is this another world or the same world?

The Marquis wants to trick Adeline into a false marriage! She almost escapes through a window, but is rescued! Now he wants to kill her! By the way, he has already killed her father and stolen her inheritance! But things will turn out OK for her; don’t worry. There is an eligible bachelor, and there is something like justice.

Why did Susan Collins yell at the imaginary person who leaked Ford’s letter, as if revealing the world within this world were the true criminal act? Why this displacement, why this use of radio?

Gothic novels are not without their comforts; Jane Austen read them all the time. Her first finished work, Northanger Abbey, is all about this. The artless heroine, Catherine Morland, both reads novels and thinks she is in a novel. She is, of course, but she’s not in the novel she thinks she’s in, or maybe she is, I don’t know. When we glimpse Catherine reading, Austen’s narrator explains, “Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body.” In spite of this, it’s typical to read Northanger Abbey as a satirical send-up of the Gothic genre.

The child has found a tangled necklace from my teenage years in a box of treasures, and asks me what it says. It’s an Einstein quote: Imagination is more important than knowledge. “Mommy,” he asks me, “what’s knowledge?”

Gothic novels are not without their comforts; I watch them all the time. In one of the final episodes from Rachel Lindsay’s season of The Bachelorette, Rachel asks, “Can I leave?” and host Chris Harrison assures her, “you can’t leave.”

I’m not saying Northanger Abbey isn’t tonally peculiar; I’m not saying it takes the Gothic, or itself, seriously. It’s just that those who see Jane Austen—and, by extension, literary fiction—as moving beyond the Gothic in the early nineteenth century see her as inventing or perfecting something else. When we’re dealing with lines of inheritance rather than literal skeletons in the closet, we call this realism. But there is another world hidden in this world.

In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne Dashwood avoids “falling a sacrifice to an irresistible passion,” as she had once desired and maybe did already, and instead winds up with an older guy, Colonel Brandon, who is not not a mansplainer. For example, he mansplains to Marianne’s sister Eleanor the difference between the former’s “happy” ending and the fate of his young ward, Eliza, whose infatuation with Willoughby led to an unwanted pregnancy, an unwanted child, and, ultimately, her general unwantedness. In some twisted sense, Eliza’s downfall at the hands of Willoughby makes room for Marianne’s restorative marriage plot—Willoughby deserts her, sure, but she got off easy. Colonel Brandon may not make her palms sweat, but he knows how to treat a lady.

A few days ago, the writer Rachel Syme tweeted, Who is a woman who, growing up, you always thought of as a kind of public joke but upon getting older you realized her story wasn’t so funny after all? My answer, which I don’t post, is Lydia Bennet, the sacrificial lamb of Pride and Prejudice. She’s a desperate and disillusioned (but so flirty!) fifteen when we meet her; by the end of the novel, she’s “eloped” with the rake who already tried, and failed, to elope with Darcy’s fifteen-year-old sister. Darcy proves his love to Lizzy by essentially paying the rake not to abandon the disgraced Lydia, and to instead stay with her as man and wife. Put another way, Lydia is the victim of both abduction and child trafficking. Her victimization is the essential hinge of the marriage plot, opening the door to Lizzy and Darcy’s ideal union.

I read The Romance of the Forest a few weeks before my own wedding, in a literal forest (the reading, not the wedding).

In Sense and Sensibility, time gets a little slippery, and so we don’t know exactly how old Eliza is, or how old her child is, but we suspect she was either an older fifteen or a younger sixteen at the time of her disappearance.

I’m not saying every marriage plot isn’t a story of confinement. The Bachelor is a wife contest but it’s also a story about a lot of beautiful women trapped in a mansion. See, above, my use of the word subdivision. See Susan Collins twisting the knife by calling Kavanaugh a husband and father. But when she says—

To that leaker who I hope is listening now—

she is using a different poetic technique, that of apostrophe, an address to someone who is not there. But the literary critic Barbara Johnson taught us a while back that apostrophe makes the person be, if not there, then real.

You leaker. Stop crying, you leaker, you haunting, get back in the wall.

The patriarchy depends upon the periodic sacrifice of a fifteen-year-old girl. Jane Austen understood that, and we’d do well to remember it.


Rachel Feder is the author of Harvester of Hearts: Motherhood under the Sign of Frankenstein, which started here

Image: “Lady Doyle After Sir Thomas Lawrence,” detail. Jake Wood-Evans, 2018.

Posted in Culture, Unabridged | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Masters of Goodbye

The camera zooms out slowly from a mirror-compounded chandelier refracting rainbows and settles into focus before expanding toward yet other chandeliers until finally descending on “The Girls” — as Motown founder Berry Gordy called them — together again for nearly the last time.

Ed Sullivan and his audience had seen them on this stage well over a dozen times since 1964, and Diana Ross—hunched and looking a little sedate behind heavy eyelids, despite her indefatigable showroom smile—seems to acknowledge their path with a hint of somber reflectiveness. By 1970 her gift for melodrama precedes her and she owns it. She must own it: it is the currency that will ensure her on-screen future. The other two Supremes, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, flank Ross in matching outfits that could pass for bronze but to me are more of a pumpkin orange. Ross is distinguished in luminous yellow-gold, standing at the summit of a platinum-silver cubic heap.

Do we find her, 50 years later, performing in the spirit of the actress she would soon become, or does she reflect the burden of her group? Is she regretful? Or does her gravity announce the promise welling up behind her, when Cindy and Mary cut through the soaring horns at 0:29 to finally relay the title of the song: Someday We’ll Be Together? This performance of Someday has 4.8 million views on YouTube, where I watch. I can and have and will watch it again and again, each performance lasting in the other’s succession as they pass into a numberless whole. But unlike other things I watch again and again on YouTube, this performance remains divinely remote unto itself each time it cycles through.

We like to think that some mixture of realpolitik and spiritual inertia killed the 60s—following the big assassinations, queue decadent footage of the Rolling Stones at Altamont or Jodorowsky’s El Topo. But watching The Supremes, it appears as though the 60s orchestrate their own demise. In this fantasy, an era that in fact was just beginning has the power to wave goodbye under the compulsion of its gentle will, exuding poise and mysterious allure.


I love the chandeliers and mirrors. Their over-blown magnificence seems broadcasted from an alternate state that gestures toward us as it drifts away. And so this feels like a final performance, but it isn’t— finality is simply the evening’s theme, more fluid and seductive than The End they have the power to defer. They’d sing from here one final time again, these pantsuits transformed like Cinderella’s carriage into gowns and the chandeliers no longer hanging from the ceiling but miniaturized into the exorbitant compositions hanging liquid from their ears.


It’s December 21st, 1969, and the Supremes have now become or have always been the masters of goodbye. Their planned obsolescence is bearing down on us more immediately now— In 1967 the group name was changed from The Supremes to Diana Ross and the Supremes and the change helped eject Florence Ballard from the group, ridding the Motown family of her volatility and willfulness. Cindy Birdsong took the stage as her look-alike replacement that same year. Per industry norm, the name change also signaled Ross’ future as a solo act. “Reflections” (“of the way life used to be”) was Ballard’s last hit single with the group she founded in 1959. Their name change from the Primettes was her invention— The Supremes was truly and uniquely hers to lose. And by the time they were reflecting on the way life used to be, that condition was affirmed.

The pomp and circumstance of December 21st 1969 begins with a brief interview:

Ed Sullivan: What is soul?

Diana Ross: Well, soul is kind of hard to describe. I think it’s everybody doing their own thing. I think you’ve been doing your own thing for 22 years on this show. [applause]

Thus Ed Sullivan is christened soulful by the genuine artifact whose real names they dare not say. Then he invites The Supremes to do their own “own thing.” That is, “a medley of their many hits,” no less than ten songs brushed gently against their passing grace in just over three minutes:

Baby Love
Stop! In the Name of Love
Come See About Me
My World Is Empty Without You
You Can’t Hurry Love
The Happening
You Keep Me Hanging On
Love Child
I Hear a Symphony

Reducing these songs to their most elemental signatures not only saves (prime) time, and not only stuns us with the concentrated formula derived from what had tenderized us months and years before— the medley is also honest for its sheer economy, because it distills what works and disregards the rest. This central tenement of pop music was realized only sporadically in the previous decade, and Berry Gordy had the vision to pursue it from 1959 because he would not tolerate—as he could not afford—to release anything less than the hits we would live by. And if tonight is December 21st, 1969, as it remained throughout my 90s childhood, then that was ten years ago— both a blink of an eye and infinity away. In a certain narrow sense, then, this main-lined medley is something like the apex of Motown’s formal achievement.

But the pace is mechanical and relentless— “You Can’t Hurry Love” flashes by in eight seconds. Do we even have time to enjoy what was so precisely located as the very source of our enjoyment? And how is it that we can’t hurry love but can hurry through this song, when the two had seemed so innocently intertwined? And when performance degrades into rendition, what do we retain for the present but the spectral recent past, a turgid state of having happened? “There’s no there there,” Gertrude Stein said of her native Oakland. The Supremes stand one quick American flight removed from their native Detroit, but here it’s time, not space, that’s blank—we might say that there’s no now now.

I’ve seen these moves before. Despite was feels unprecedented as medley, there’s also a painstaking repetition—some would call it “professionalism”—to the hands and the sways and the totemic power of three. We’ve all seen these moves before, and the group knows it, and they know that we know it, but now it seems new for them to know that we know that they know that we know it, and so things feel just a little different now. The Girls precipitate nostalgia through gesture: a miraculous feat.

The Totemic Power of Three

Cholly Atkins, the head choreographer at Motown, defends his results against the increasingly-familiar charge of cookie-cutter homogeneity across Motown acts and within the acts themselves: “Everybody’s doing the same thing at the same time, but they’re doing it in their own way so you let them retain the one thing that they will think is very important, their individualism.”

They will think it is very important. One Supreme remains. Two others are nearly or completely gone.

* * *

It’s December 21st 1969 and “Someday We’ll Be Together”—the group’s final hit and the last American song of the 60s to reach #1 on the Billboard charts—is the evening’s crowning feature. It’s sung last, and in full. Cindy Birdsong was kidnapped earlier that month, and since then Motown has kept closer watch at their headquarters. She escaped by jumping out of a moving car onto the freeway, and so I wonder how she even made it here tonight. And I wonder how many others were wondering the same thing. Or more accurately, I wonder how few. Mary Wilson: “It was hard to know exactly what to feel.”

It’s December 21st 1969 and the Supremes have now become or have always been the masters of goodbye. If parting is sweet sorrow, their sweetness is a drug they have the genius to prolong. Its tragic companion is just the veneer—and that is the yet-rarer genius. This message seems to me the bitter locus of the song, and it’s no wonder I find it reaching out to me from the steel town of my childhood, where “oldies” hits were the lingua franca of an ageing (and predominately white when not avoidably Chicano) populace rooted dismally in a postwar confidence that had long before been replaced by industry recession. Ironically, by these 1990s the Supremes had begun or had always signified the town’s desperate claim to the preeminence of “the past” and all that that indicated beyond the radio. Detroit was burning loudly then, more silently today.

“Culture” is often the final pathetic holdout, and is perfectly suited for staging its own demise in order to keep hanging on. The Supremes had always known this by 1969—it’s evident in the way their dresses fall—and so too did the cob-webbed oldies of our car radio. And yet the hits remained Forever Gold. I took swimming lessons. I helped my mom sell snow cones from a truck in a parking lot so bright with midday that I almost squint to remember it.

* * *

“Someday we’ll be together…” This promise doesn’t seem to land, even then. And so to repeat the cognitive relay— they know that we know that they know that the promise of reunion is only the promise of show business and so only lasts through its duration on this stage. “How sad,” they concede. And how sad that they concede.

What is true for The Supremes in a future they can only pine for is also true for the song’s many other significations. Hope, in all its elegant composure, will not overcome the entropy built into the American machine, and the veil of disbelief in this physics is lifted— the Everybody Couple can’t weather their storm, DNC protesters in Chicago can’t challenge the authoritarian regimes surrounding them indefinitely, Cointelpro was decimating the Black Panthers just as this song was being sung.

And many American soldiers would never return from their measureless distance abroad. In the PBS series The Vietnam War, Roger Harris recalls hearing from his mother while serving with a Marine division in Vietnam: “‘I talk to God every day and you’re special. You’re coming back.’ And I said, Ma, everybody’s mother thinks they’re something special. I’m putting pieces of special people into bags.”

As of this writing, all three of the women comprising The Supremes in these performances remain alive. And yet nobody reaching out of time seems more aligned with the cult of the dead. Why? It could be because “Someday’s” poignancy lies in the expedience of its tragic negation, and the performance here depends on confirming this fact amidst the trappings of glamour.

We will not be together again someday. I tell you we will, but through a matrix that communicates what can’t be said. The heart of the matter is so devastatingly absent that we ourselves are hardly here, are in fact already gone.

* * *

Diana Ross and The Supremes gave their final farewell performance, after the other farewell performances, at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas on January 14, 1970. It can be heard on the live album Farewell. But I’d rather count Ed Sullivan, arguing that in that era the sensational reach of television lays greater claim to the sentimental truths of our collective consciousness. On television, event and artifact converge and conspire.

And so it’s strange to notice the details reality expunges. For instance, although we’re hearing the studio mix of the song in this performance (you didn’t think they were “actually” singing, did you?) the man you can usually hear in the background encouraging Diana on has disappeared. In abstracted audio-space, his gruff “you tell ‘em” lends a kind of mise-en-scène, at least upon repeated listening, whereas here he’s exchanged for what can be seen.

If you listen again, his extemporaneity seems odd to begin with, an intrusion of the studio’s living circumstances that might’ve remained on the cutting room floor just a few years earlier. That man is or was Johnny Bristol, who wrote “Someday We’ll Be Together” in 1961, alongside Jackey Beavers and Motown mainstay Harvey Fuqua. Bristol and Beavers recorded the song as “Johnny and Jackey.” According to Wikipedia, “Someday” was a moderate success in the Midwest but gained little notice elsewhere. That is, until the song was recovered and its content met with real-life goodbyes.

We’re left with that feeling of just a few years earlier. But though the group’s new situation arguably helped propel the song, its broader context was also a destabilizing force. In Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme, Mary Wilson recalls new, challenging questions encroaching upon the dream they were until they were reduced to a dream they only tried to be—timely questions, fair questions, questions that were already or have become unfair, or were becoming fairer all the time:

“How were our love lives? What kind of pajamas did we sleep in? What were our exact measurements? What did we think about the Vietnam War? The Black Power movement? And what was the truth behind Florence’s leaving the group?”

In an interview, Mary Wilson recalls that Ballard was raped in 1961 and then disappeared for weeks, just as the group was getting started. Wilson’s close friend, of course, was never the same again. Less than a year before her death in 1975 at the age of 32 Ballard made her very own final concert appearance, at a benefit for Joann Little, a black female prisoner who was charged with killing a prison guard who raped her. Would Ballard’s final performance, forever untelevised, expose the conflicts underneath a larger saga?

Florence Ballard, standing outside the comment thread

By one interpretation, the 60s that The Supremes helped define had also come to dismantle them, and December 21st 1969, for all its luxuriance, perhaps stands in for this version of reality. But there really are “alternative facts,” other 1960s robust in various locales and invisible to others. For a start, we shouldn’t forget that “The Girls” were sporting homemade dresses and fake pearls in their adolescent bedroom mirrors, glamorous long before others told them that they could be.

* * *

And then… in a way, it doesn’t end. Instead the girls seamlessly depart, as both the product and the product’s missing referent: In a wonder of camerawork and character movement, you don’t notice Mary and Cindy shimmy backward slowly as Diana shimmies slowly forward so that their repositioning doesn’t seem to happen until it’s complete and the stage has darkened. I’m reminded of passing clouds, how you’re not quite sure when exactly one becomes a Pegasus becoming the strong profile of an adult becoming the softer profile of a child on the wing.

Stars and galaxies replace them, and the performance—what I can watch—fades to black from here. Is there more captured on a tape reel somewhere, the girls shaking the producer’s hand, Ed loosening his bowtie as they all walk off-camera in silence and on their very own human feet? If there is, I hope I never see it. I’d rather this beauty yield to nothing less than its own phantasm. This phantasm, after all, fails to erase what it denies.

Spencer Everett does whatever it is anymore in New York. Sometimes he edits Resolving Host with Citron Kelly and Carmelle Safdie. He has often been thanked for submitting his work. 


Burns, Ken and Lynn Novick, creators. The Vietnam War. Florentine Films and WETA, 2017.

George, Nelson. Where Did Our Love Go?: the Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound. University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Wilson, Mary. Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme. St. Martins Pr., 1986.

Posted in Culture, Unabridged | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Get Your Early Bird Tickets ($25 off) for Life Lines: Queer Stories of Survival!

Tickets for Life Lines: Queer Stories of Survival are now available for purchase. From now until October 22nd we’re offering Early Bird discount tickets for $75. That’s $25 off the purchase price!

Life Lines: Queer Stories of Survival
November 5, 2018, 7pm
The Irene Diamond Stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center
New York, NY

Ticket Pricing

  • $100 Regular Admission
  • $75 Early Bird (Ends Oct 22)
  • $25 Students (Must show valid student ID at door). Use code TMISTUDENT25 at check-out

In honor of The Trevor Project’s 20th anniversary, a cast of 11 LGBTQ storytellers from around the country, selected from a nationwide call for stories, will take part in a TMI Project true storytelling workshop this November led by Academy Award-winner James Lecesne alongside TMI Project Co-founders Eva Tenuto and Julie Novak. Life Lines: Queer Stories of Survival is the culmination of that work.

The production will feature inspiring true personal stories of triumph in the face of suicidal attempts or ideations with a goal of raising awareness about the importance of The Trevor Project Lifeline and similar suicide prevention services.


  • Bailey Anderson
    Bailey Anderson

    Pronoun: She/Her/Hers

    Hometown: Spring, TX

    “…my life forever changed when I finally accepted who I was. Made up my mind and decided to start living authentically and telling the world who I am. I am a transgender woman of color. That statement saved my life.”


    Pronoun: They/Them/Theirs

    Hometown: Alexandria, VA

    “I’ve never seen such a change as the time after I got help. My grades improved. My friendships deepened. My smile returned. When you think you are alone it makes the world a place of pain, as you see connections between others, thinking you don’t deserve the same.”


    Pronoun: He/Him/His

    Hometown: Hasbrouck Heights, NJ

    “My call to The Trevor Project changed my life by allowing me to see I wasn’t alone. To see myself as strong and envision how I will be when I grow up. I use this experience to live a great life and be myself. Show the world who I am and make a difference.”


    Pronoun: He/Him/His

    Hometown: Brooklyn, NY

    “My parents and sister were incredible. They let me guide the way and let me know that if I was gay I could tell them and it would be perfectly okay…It was still a very long journey to happiness, but I was no longer carrying the burden alone.”


    Pronoun: He/Him/His

    Hometown:Forked River, NJ

    “I am thankful every day that I reached out in the myriad of little ways I did – that I didn’t end up a story between some train tracks and instead I’m a story of survival and perseverance. I’m not the depressed kid with the cut up thighs who drives in circles for hours convincing himself not to wrap his car around a tree on the mountaintops. Now, I’m the out and proud trans man who devotes every day to making life better for everyone and absolutely takes no shit and demands respect not just from everyone around him, but from himself as well.”


    Pronoun: He/Him/His

    Hometown: Saugerties, NY

    “The road out of my depression was long, and not without occasional backpedaling, but having a person willing and able to see me through everything I had constructed allowed me to find a way forward.”


    Pronoun: She/Her/Hers

    Hometown: Greenfield, WI

    “I don’t remember a lot of things but I will always remember the line that changed everything. The person on the other end said, “You are worth more than this moment.” I sat down and cried.”


    Pronoun: She/Her/Hers

    Hometown: Little Rock, AR

    “Although it took me over half of my life, I now understood that I had a right to be alive and that I wanted to ensure that other queer kids could have the chance to stay alive through the hard parts. I look at my life and I still see the horrors, but I also see the beautiful and wondrous experiences that I would have missed had I succeeded in killing myself.”


    Pronoun: She/Her/Hers

    Hometown: Highland, CA

    “I know I have something deeply rooted that I’ve never shared with the world. I’m looking for closure and I’m looking for hope.”


    Pronoun: He/Him/His

    Hometown: Joshua Tree, CA

    “I’m a thriving, living, loving, alive human. I realized I was trans, that I was burying deep shame around that. I moved to a completely new, quieter surrounding, and finally found my footing in who I am, and was able to achieve some major goals: buying a house, maintaining a stable healthy relationship, etc.”


    Pronoun: He/Him/His

    Hometown: Jersey City, NJ

    “I understand that we are the total of our experience, and every bit of it makes us who we are. Finally, who I became was someone I wanted very much to live as, for as long as the universe lets me.”

The post Get Your Early Bird Tickets ($25 off) for Life Lines: Queer Stories of Survival! appeared first on TMI Project.

Posted in Culture, Unabridged | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vicarious Resilience to hit the film fest circuit!

Woodstock Film Festival & Atlantic City CineFest Official Selection 2018We are proud to announce that TMI Project’s documentary short film Vicarious Resilience, produced in partnership with the Mental Health Association in Ulster County, is an official selection of the 2018 Woodstock Film Festival and the Atlantic City CineFest!

Vicarious Resilience follows three Hudson Valley residents over the course of a 10-week TMI Project storytelling workshop presented at The Mental Health Association in Ulster County (MHA). In this workshop, the participants face mental illness, childhood neglect and addiction head-on; and, ultimately, share deeply personal stories about love, loss and triumph.

The screening will be followed by a Q & A.
We hope to see you there!

Vicarious Resilience Screening
Rosendale Theatre
October 12th, 2018, 1pm

Date, time and other details about the Atlantic City CineFest to come! 

The post Vicarious Resilience to hit the film fest circuit! appeared first on TMI Project.

Posted in Culture, Unabridged | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Animal Attraction: The Ridiculous Realism of Bachelor in Paradise

“This is [bleeping] drama,” laments Bachelor In Paradise contestant Clare Crawley as she leans over the balcony of one of the thatched villas at the beachside resort where the hit reality show is filmed. No one else is visible in the shot—there doesn’t seem to be any audience for her rant. Voice shaky with frustration, she adds: “This whole [bleep] is drama.”

The camera cuts away from Clare to focus on a raccoon that has emerged from a dense tangle of mangroves by the beach. It stares intently in Clare’s direction, listening. The raccoon’s nose gently quivers, scenting something. “I don’t want this,” Clare sighs. “I just wanna have fun!”

The raccoon is visibly losing interest. Still staring toward Clare, it begins backing slowly into the undergrowth. As she bends down to examine her bug bites, the raccoon seizes the opportunity and turns tail, disappearing into the shadows.

Clare’s Raccoon

When this scene first aired in August 2014 during Season One of Bachelor in Paradise, it was bizarre—utterly out of place in the Bachelor franchise, a reality show empire that trades on impossibly earnest faith in love at first sight, whirlwind romance, and fairy tale endings. Where The Bachelor promised heady conversations between potential soul mates, Bachelor in Paradise offered an obviously artificial exchange between a well-known runner-up from The Bachelor and a trash panda. No wonder some critics decried the scene as a sign that that this new addition to the Bachelor franchise was not working at all. But four seasons and many animals later, it has become clear that Bachelor in Paradise’s appeal is inseparable from the way it uses animal footage to defy the conventions of reality television.

The way the show’s host, Chris Harrison, describes it, the original inspiration to splice Clare Crawley’s confessional together with footage of an intruding raccoon was fortuitous. “The raccoon was real and the raccoon was there,” he insisted in an interview with New York magazine at the close of the first season: the raccoon really did peep out from beneath the trees while Clare was talking, even if the illusion that they were interacting originated in post-production. In another sense, though, the intrusion of the raccoon was far from random: it was, instead, just the latest example of a long history of incorporating animal interruptions into human theater. What makes it so engaging, then, is not its hilarious randomness, but the way it taps into and reinvents a tradition of using animal spontaneity to awaken audiences to the artificial conventions of Western drama.

Animals have been closely associated with theatricals since ancient times, when gladiatorial spectacles and the Roman circus advertised the excitement of exotic animal bodies engaging with human beings in front of a live audience. While critics often treat modern drama as an exclusively human enterprise, playwrights have drawn upon animals for comic relief since at least the 1590s, when Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona featured the clownish Launce walking onstage with his dog Crab. Later, in nineteenth-century Europe and America, an entire genre of animal melodrama emerged, where trained animal actors performed scripted roles onstage alongside human players—and just as often failed to perform those scripted roles, much to the delight of audiences.

Patrick Stewart rehearsing Two Gentleman, 1970 <3 <3

Whether animals performed well or refused to perform at all, what made these kinds of animal drama so amusing to audiences was the sheer unpredictability of nonhuman creatures dropped into conventional theater. Onstage animals have a unique ability to flip the script, interrupting the established pacing and pattern of drama. As the drama critic Bert O. States once explained, when an animal such as a dog appears onstage, we are confronted with “a real dog on an artificial street. . . . the dog is blissfully above, or beneath, the business of playing, and we find ourselves cheering its performance precisely because it isn’t one.”

The animals of Bachelor in Paradise intrude into a very different realm from the scripted-and-rehearsed world of the theater. There is not supposed to be any kind of established plot on reality television—no preconceived drama an animal could interrupt. But the delightful surprise of the cats, parrots, frogs and dogs that frequently crop up on Bachelor in Paradise is the way they force a sudden recognition that there is a script to interrupt—or at least of series of conventions structuring the stories we tell about falling in love, conventions that we expect to be reaffirmed on our favorite romantic reality shows.

The shock of Clare’s conversation with the raccoon arose from the uncanny way it both drew on and defied those expectations, directing attention to the stilted conventions that structure our ideas of romance. On the one hand, Clare’s unexpected conversation with a forest creature was glaringly out of place: it was utterly unrealistic, the sort of thing you never see outside of Disney, where naïve princesses frolic through the early stages of their animated courtship stories with only animals for companionship. On the other hand, according to the assumptions structuring romantic reality television, that was essentially what Clare was: an unattached Disney princess trapped in an exotic location while she awaited rescue by some ideal husband, a knight-in-shining-armor who would usher in the fairy-tale ending she always wanted.

When they spliced Clare’s words together with an apparently receptive raccoon, in other words, the editors of Bachelor in Paradise forced viewers to confront the discordant and sometimes downright bizarre expectations that structure our notions of romance. They foregrounded the close relationship between fairy-tale narratives and reality television, even as they played up the absurdity of this relationship by showing how strange it would be to literally mix the commonplaces of those genres together—to actually see an eligible twenty-first-century woman speak with a woodland creature, for instance.

Parrot trash talks

Viewers responded to the challenge as viewers have typically responded to the challenge of animals onstage: they embraced it, apparently appreciating both the real animal and the artificiality such animals exposed. The raccoon became a fan favorite, generating reams of internet commentary and even spawning a short-lived Twitter account. Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, the producers behind Bachelor in Paradise added captions to the Clare-raccoon conversation and used it as promotional material for the second season. Nor did Season Two disappoint: it featured Clare talking to a raccoon two more times, and also showed her branching out by confiding in a crab.

As it turned out, Clare was to be only the first of many contestants to show an odd intimacy with the animals of “paradise.” Ashley Iaconetti, for example, held conversations with an angelic image of her dead dog and with a living Amazon parrot. The most recent season of Bachelor in Paradise, which just wrapped up last month, has continued and expanded the tradition, building animals into the narrative in newly disruptive ways. So for example when Jordan, a hilariously self-aware male model, abandons his blossoming romance with Annaliese to seduce newcomer Jenna on a blanket on the beach, the camera barely even registers their connection before panning out to juxtapose the kissing couple with a ghost crab raising its claws aggressively as it clatters over the sand. Elsewhere, a first date between John (an endearingly geeky software developer) and Caroline (a realtor and former Miss Massachusetts who has always preferred jocks) seems like it might be derailed by a frog, a cat, and a dog that keep chasing each other around the patio tables, interrupting the staged romance of dinner al fresco. (The animals end up making the evening—and revealing both contestants’ good humor—instead.)

The campy appeal of these exchanges between human cast members and unwitting animals is two-fold. While they draw on an established habit of admiring animal interruptions of human artificiality, these animal scenes are particularly useful for drawing attention to the artificiality of reality television. When Clare seems to speak to a crab, when Ashley I. seems to confide in an Amazon, and when a dinner date seems to be repeatedly interrupted by the food chain, the incongruity of it all forces even the most passive viewer to question what is really happening: where are these animals coming from? Which of these conversations are real, natural, and in earnest? And what are animals doing here?

Sometimes, as in the animals that interrupt of John and Caroline’s date, the answers are unclear. In many cases, though, the answer is indubitable: the animals are belated additions to the footage, oddities spliced in by editors who see the animals as convenient stand-ins for producers and their assistants. The animals are, in short, placeholders for the many network staffers who befriend contestants and interact with them regularly in order to steer, cajole, and coerce them into the dramatic plots that make reality TV so compulsively watchable.

The Bachelor and The Bachelorette carefully remove these invisible actors from the drama, editing the show to make the programs’ ideas and interactions seem spontaneously, inherently dramatic. The recent spate of reality TV exposés, from the Lifetime drama UnREAL (2015-18) to the book Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Guilty Pleasure (2018), by contrast, have played up the artificial labor employed offstage to create the supposed “reality” of the Bachelor franchise. Yet these exposés are in a very real sense belated. What they reveal is simply a more prosaic version of what Bachelor in Paradise first intimated back in 2014: the entire Bachelor narrative is a sham, the product of artful manipulations on the part of a team of casting directors, producers, directors, and editors invested not in “reality,” but in maximum drama.


The reason that the animals of Bachelor in Paradise are so important is that they draw attention to this drama, encouraging even the most gullible spectator of the franchise to become a savvy, alienated analyst of the show’s inner workings — or, maybe, showing that these two positions were never as incompatible as they seemed. Animals occupy a key place in the drama of paradise, either by interrupting it (as in the date between John and Caroline) or by serving as glaringly unrealistic substitutes for the off-screen human beings who have been manufacturing it all along.

In light of all this, Clare’s confession to the raccoon seems loaded with a new level of significance.

“This whole [bleep] is drama,” she says as she leans over the balcony.

It was some member of the invisible production team that Clare Crawley sobbed to on that fateful day a raccoon crawled out of the woods to watch her. It was another member of the team that recorded the footage of her crying, her face obscured by a dangling tropical frond. Someone else captured the footage of the raccoon, and another member of the same faceless labor force welded the footage together, getting approval from invisible supervisors before placing it in the final cut.

Still, it was ultimately the raccoon that drove Clare’s words home, precisely because the raccoon could not have really listened to her or cared for what she said. Watching Clare, and watching the raccoon that seems to be talking with her, we are forced to admit it: This is not reality. This whole [bleep] is drama.


John MacNeill Miller may not live in paradise, but he still spends an unhealthy amount of time talking to animals. For a sense of what these unhinged one-sided conversations sound like, follow him on twitter: @Snarls_Dickens.

Posted in Culture, Unabridged | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Tears on the Bench

In 2001 I got a great job.  Young and freshly minted, I landed a tenure track professorship at Bryn Mawr College, a women’s liberal arts college – a “Seven Sister” – outside of Philadelphia. I have no memories of my first day of teaching.  On the second day I walked across the turreted and gargoyled campus to teach a freshman seminar in a fieldstone mansion set among gigantic trees.  My class was waiting for me, and we began to play, babies together, at professor-and-students.  Then a colleague appeared at the door.  “You all need to come with me,” she said.  The date was 9/11, and the first tower had been struck . . . Two vast and trunkless legs of stone . . . My colleague ushered us into a packed classroom and we watched as that smoking monument, soon joined in flames by its twin, fell.  I grew up as a teacher that day.  My colleagues and I collectively invented a new, non-game: “how to be fully present for young women, some in their first days away from home, many of them from New York City, on 9/11.”  I did a lot of things before the sun set.  But I didn’t cry.

I can’t read Walt Whitman’s “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field Last Night” without wanting to cry.  I teach the poem in an upper-level seminar called “Dead Presidents,” a class about the cult of Founding Fathers.  The class looks at the years between the funerals of George Washington in 1799, and Abraham Lincoln in 1865.  We read all sorts of great stuff, like Hawthorne’s  House of the 7 Gablesand Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” and Apess’ “Eulogy on King Philip.”  We end with a deep dive into Whitman, especially his Lincoln poems, but we spend a lot of time with Drum Taps and especially “Vigil Strange.”  . . . Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the battle-field spreading. . . I read it out loud to my students, every time.  I’m sure my voice quavers.  But I’ve never actually shed a tear.


Here’s a little lesson about crying – historical crying – from another class I teach, “Literatures of American Indian Removal.”  Once upon a time, the State of New Hampshire tried to claim Dartmouth College as its state university.  In 1818, the case went to the Supreme Court, where John Marshall, as chief justice, presided.  Dartmouth was represented by Daniel Webster. . . . It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college, and yet, there are those who love it . . .  In an impassioned speech, Webster cited love as the private passion that draws a fairy circle of protection around the small college, keeping away publics that cannot possibly feel correctly.  Webster’s oratory was so moving that the great judge wept openly on the bench.  John Marshall, who shaped the Supreme Court into the powerful third arm of government that we now rely on it to be, was moved to tears.

Dartmouth was founded to educate Native men, but immediately abandoned that project.  That abandonment was partly why New Hampshire felt it could be claimed as public.  But Marshall’s court decided it would remain private.  The decision is a cornerstone of the American corporation.  The corporation, he wrote, “is chiefly for the purpose of clothing bodies of men, in succession, with these qualities and capacities that corporations were invented, and are in use. By these means, a perpetual succession of individuals are capable of acting for the promotion of the particular object like one immortal being.”  Corporations are immortal bodies, made up of successive generations of white men clothed in the invisibility cloak of power.

I teach this decision alongside Marshall’s Cherokee cases, partly because “Dartmouth v. Woodward” is about Native Americans, and partly to enable a discussion about the emotions of immortal “fathers,” and the ways that the “body corporate,” as Marshall described it, disciplines and disperses the bodies, and the emotions, of those who do not fit.  In 1831, Marshall rejected the Cherokee Nation’s case against the State of Georgia, which wanted to force them to remove.  Marshall’s decision ends with these words; “If it be true that wrongs have been inflicted and that still greater are to be apprehended, this is not the tribunal which can redress the past or prevent the future.”

Among other things, Marshall is saying that his courtroom is not the place for having feelings about the violence of US expansion across Native land.  A small college and the men who love it, yes.  An entire nation facing removal, no. . . The college is become a grand College for the White people. You know, and all England knows that we went through England, beging for poor Helpless Indians; not for able White People. – In every deed I have nothing to do to help that Institution; If I had twenty sons I would not send one there to be educated I would not do it that Honour . . . My students immediately understand the tracks of the judge’s tears. The emotions and actions of white men in private institutions exclusive to themselves and protected by themselves (courts, colleges, just for example), are sacred and immortal.  But the suffering and feelings of those upon whom those same men enact wrongs?  Those are not ever to be heard, neither in the past nor the future.

The fact is, I sometimes fight tears while lecturing about Native American history.  The Ghost Dance particularly.   And I fight those tears hard, for several reasons.  Non Native Americans know how to feel gently sad about Indians being “gone.” Sometimes that sadness might well up in a tear or two.  We’re taught how to have those feelings very early on.  Actual Native history demands much more than sadness.  It involves acknowledging the reality of five centuries and counting of genocide and dispossession; it turns the very idea of being American upside down.

But it also requires recognizing that Native people aren’t gone, that they are in the unfolding process of being here, still themselves, and that studying the past must be in the service of Native people serving the Native future.  This is hard work.  Tears are the last thing required of white teachers.  Second, as any scholar of American literature of the 18thand 19thcenturies should be able to tell you, the tears of white women writers and readers (and teachers) are never neutral, and entire schools of thought are dedicated to understanding the peculiarly political role of those crystal droplets . . .There are in this world blessed souls, whose sorrows all spring up into joys for others; whose earthly hopes, laid in the grave with many tears, are the seed from which spring healing flowers and balm for the desolate and distressed . . .Me standing up there boo-hooing would tap into a long and complicated history of crying that I, white minister’s daughter as I am, feel conditioned in my very bones to repeat.  And I choose not to.  Luckily, repressing feelings is part and parcel of being a teacher.  I can go without lunch if I have to.  I can mediate arguments.  I can stay up beyond the point of exhaustion to grade.  I can keep myself from laughing – lovingly! -when the passions of my students charm me in ways that would offend their dignity.  I can refrain from weeping.


But yesterday I did cry, as I’m sure, gentle reader, you could see coming a mile away.  It was the sort of crying that comes upon you suddenly and fully, that you cannot repress because it’s over almost before you know it’s begun.  I froze, mid-sentence, before my class.  My throat constricted.  I was choked, silenced.  I could only stare at the shocked faces of my students through the tears that welled in an instant, then spilled down my cheeks. . . But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt . . . it was yesterday, and today is Thursday, September 27, 2018.

As I write, Dr Christine Blasey is testifying before a Senate Judiciary Committee, a panel comprised of 17 male and just 4 female senators.  All eleven Republicans on the Committee are white men.  The man she accuses listens, and will be allowed to respond.This past two weeks leading up to this moment have been harrowing.  The things we share with each other on Facebook and in hallways and on the street are prefaced, often, with content warnings. Some of us still cannot tell. Others tell again and again.  And everywhere, the deafening barrage of disbelief and sneering contempt which has always been there as a dull roar, but the din of battle is upon us now.

But that’s not what I cried over, though of course yes, it is what I cried over.  The seminar I teach is called “Philadelphia Freedom:  Slavery, Liberty, Literature 1682-1857.”  We were reading several things in preparation for a field trip this Saturday to visit the Bell, the State House, and all the other monuments to liberty that stand on a grassy plot of National Park land in the center of the city.  It isn’t how the city really looked in 1776, but it hints at Penn’s founding fantasy of open spaces . . . yet it may be a greene Country Towne, which will never be burnt, and always be wholesome . . . We’ll be given a tour by “Beyond the Bell,” a new company begun by Haverford alums, that tells a different story of a city inhabited and built and imagined forward by men and women of color, enslaved and free, and white women, as well as by your Ben Franklin types.  A tour that remembers that Philadelphia had lenient laws governing women’s lives and choices, a city with a culture of sex and gender diversity supported in large part by the expansive understanding of “freedom” set in place by Quakers.

To prepare them for this tour, I assigned a difficult essay about how monuments to founding fathers interact with tourists and passersby.  The passing human crowd flows around the monument, always changing.  The passing crowd needs the monument to define and fix it, and the monument needs the crowd to give its heft meaning.  Think of the opening sequence of House of Cards, in which a seated statue of Chief Justice John Marshall is illuminated by the sped-up lights of flowing traffic as the sun sets on Washington DC.  Time and human traffic flow around him, but his bulk only gains solidity as the moment lingers and the light fades.  He looms darker even than the pathetic fallacy of an American night.  This interaction between the passersby and the monument perpetuates the statue as the thing that ties the immortal past of the founding fathers to an immortal future of the same.  Meanwhile the passing moment of now, the moment of women being attacked, for instance . . . a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action . . .flees, again and again, from specificity, from lastingness, from belief.  We also read“Ozymandias,” a poem that tells us how mighty monuments to founding fathers need the passerby.  Without the soft, breathing, living being, the Founding Father cannot press “the hand that mocked them” against screaming mouths.  Instead, the statue crumbles and falls.

We worked our way through the difficult essay, and found it easiest to understand if we turned from Founding Fathers to Founding Mothers.  Bryn Mawr College, you see, has a very troubling founding mother.  M. Carey Thomas, lesbian, tireless warrior for women’s education, harrowingly vicious racist and anti-Semitic.  The truth of her racism has long been suppressed, more successfully than the bit about her being a lesbian, though the College hasn’t ever quite been comfortable with that, either.  The heroics are impressive.  Thomas wrested the college from the control of men who wanted it to be little more than a finishing school for good Quaker wives.  She commissioned the Oxbridge-inspired stone buildings that invented the “collegiate gothic” style that now looks to students like Hogwarts. Which is fitting, since Thomas called Bryn Mawr her “fairy college.”  Having gained power, she re-dedicated Bryn Mawr to the actual education of women.  She sought out brilliant young women who busted into the all-male confines of, for example, courts and colleges.   Bryn Mawr women began to appear throughout the professoriate, in the courts, in the hospitals.  But no black women and no Jews.  Thomas went to great lengths to keep them out.  And she made her beliefs perfectly clear, in public speeches, and in unforgiveable language that does not bear repeating: no italics in this paragraph.

A few years ago the invisibility cloak afforded Thomas was taken from her.  A research project which became an ongoing movement emerged, called “Black at Bryn Mawr,” was started by Emma Kioko and Grace Pusey, both class of 2015.  They painstakingly documented the centrality of African American labor to building those gorgeous buildings, cleaning them, cooking in them.  The open secret of Thomas’ repellent beliefs, long known and felt by students of color and Jewish students but largely ignored in the body corporate, began to be voiced.  Students objected to the veneration of Thomas in college lore, and the use of her name for the most Oxfordy of all the Oxfordy buildings on campus.  Walking past that building, speaking its name, reiterated the hurt, reinscribed the historical fact of race-based exclusion.

“Black at Bryn Mawr” understands and acts upon the argument that passersby of the monument are always in (non-consensual) interaction with that monument and its claims to supremacy. The name must go! After decades of hurt and some years of protest, the name is now gone from our tongues.  The building is renamed.  But the building is there.  The monument itself remains, the portal to the secret cloister.  Above the door, the sinister fairy queen’s name is carved in stone.   OK, let’s have some italics after all.  Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

As we talked about Thomas, it became clear that the students thought she was the founder of the college.  “Founding Mother, Founding Mother . . .”  the words passed from mouth to mouth.

I asked them, “Was M. Carey Thomas actually Bryn Mawr’s first president?”

“Yes,” they said.

“She wasn’t though,” I said.  “The first President was a man.   You’re never heard of him, but you say his name every day.  His name was James Rhoades.  That dorm down the hill is named for him.   We do have a Founding Father here, and he was a white supremacist too.”

“What did he do?”  they asked.

When I opened my mouth to answer, the tears came.  I choked.

What I couldn’t seem to tell them was that James Rhoades was a member of “The Friends of the Indian,” a group which wanted to bring ‘the Indian into his true and rightful manhood and citizenship through legislation.’  Native people, whose kinship structures, genders and land use were incomprehensible to white Americans, were to be forced into nuclear families headed up by one man.  The work of cultural decimation could be done in one generation, the “Friends” argued. Men with several wives had to choose one and families were shattered and separated.  Structures of gender multiplicity could not survive the nuclear family.  Children were sent away to boarding schools for years on end where they were forced to speak English, to cut their hair, to forget their culture.

There was a cruel method to this madness and of course it had to do with land grabbing. The “Friends” were architects of the Dawes Act, part of a longer project of “Allotment,” which turned vast Native lands into enforced segments of private property.   These segments were distributed to the newly legislated “families,” represented by only one man in each group, rather than to each member of the Nation regardless of gender or age… I must say I am opposed to giving the husband a certain quantity, and to the wife a certain quantity, and to the child another. I want for the Indians to be brought together in families. There will never be any civilization without families . . .Indian land shrank overnight, swallowed by the phobic vortex of what the “Friends” believed to be the three pillars of “civilization,” but only if defined in law by them; family, home, property.

So instead of explaining this, I cried.  In all the ways I didn’t want to.  Choked, momentarily, into silence.  Did Rhoades’ cold hand stop my throat, enraged that I would accuse him  . . . this is not the tribunal. . . ?  Or was it simply that I was trapped, breathless, between the monumental weight of the past and the weight of the future, a future in which a bad mother may be toppled, but a bad father raised up again and again and again forever?  The future which begins, as Trump’s Presidency continues and as the Supreme Court decision looms, to look more and more like the past?  Title 9 allows women’s colleges to exist, in spite of the fact that they seem to discriminate against men, as long as the world is sexist. We who work in women’s colleges laugh about that.  We are immortal, we believe, because sexism will never end.  We are a monument to women’s education, our past and our future assured by the students who pass in endless succession through and among the stone mansions of our grand purpose.  But yesterday I think I felt it differently.  I felt it all fleeting away.

My teaching of women, trans men and non-binary folk at this college is made possible by a Supreme Court Decision about the immortality of the corporation.  Privacy.  Privilege. Invisible power.  Long dead parent figures haunt us.  The college continues to struggle with its history, fighting for its future.  Still, it is beautiful and I love the passing daily details of my job, which I am desperately lucky to have.  I engage with my colleagues to perfect our work of being present for our students in a post 9-11 world.  I never underestimate the extraordinary gift of thinking alongside such wonderful young people.  I do love it. But yesterday I was squeezed, panicked. We are disappearing into the shadow of the monument.  . . . Come away, O human child! / To the waters and the wild / With a faery, hand in hand, / For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand. . . 

It’s getting dark outside.  This day is drawing to an end.  I’ve now tuned in to the news, and I’ve learned that she was composed, and calm, and respectful.  Tears were almost there, but held back.  He, the man who would be judge, railed and snarled and wept.   We shall see what tomorrow brings.

–Bethany Schneider is Associate Professor of English at Bryn Mawr College and, as Bee Ridgway, author of THE RIVER OF NO RETURN, a corporate spy time travel romance

Posted in Culture, Unabridged | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Don’t Walk Away from Me: A Ballad for Whitney Houston

In Honolulu — the underdog karaoke champion of the world — there is no hour that someone on the island is not honoring the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, or her pop scion Whitney Houston, in the karaoke booth. Basking by the fluorescent glow of the television, your resident mahu diva, local Filipinx sweetheart or, Samoan crooner is perfectly emulating Whitney’s signature melisma.

You have to have actual pipes and artful restraint to do justice to either singer, but the crystal clean production of Whitney’s pop music allows for a distinct mode of aspiration. We ought to admit it: we all sing Whitney, most of us inadequately. In spite of this universal truth, as a public, we do not honor Whitney Houston with the reverence she deserves. Houston’s creative legacy instead continues to be diminished by tabloid historicity and the spectacle of her demise. What would it look like to remember Whitney without the mockery and judgment of her addiction?


As cultural critic Greg Tate and his literary ancestor Amiri Baraka have both long contended, Black music is the soundtrack of struggle. You cannot take everything but the burden. The voice is the voice because of the pain. To overlook it is straight up greedy. And yet, both Bobby Brown and Kanye West have done more than just overlook the pain; they’ve capitalized on it, aiming to earn a profit from the intimate suffering of black women by reproducing its hyper-spectacle. West restaged Houston’s death scene on the cover art for Pusha T’s album Daytona, where Brown’s recently released mini-series The Bobby Brown Story revives and reduces Whitney to the insatiable Jezebel addict.

But the singularity of Whitney’s voice emerges from a complicated genealogy of genius and trauma across three generations. Beyond the formulaic march towards death in the biography genre, the recent documentary Whitney (Miramax & Roadside Attractions, 2018) maps out these hidden histories. Directed by Kevin MacDonald, the film rightly centers the black matriarchs and women as the life force of the Whitney ecosystem namely mother Cissy Houston, and creative manager and longtime companion, Robyn Crawford. Cissy blazed the path and groomed her to be a star, while Robyn grounded her reality with unconditional love.

In addition to these pillars, viewers meet the village of extended family who raised Whitney such as Ellen “Aunt Bae” White (Cissy’s sister) who likewise cared for Whitney’s daughter during her primary years. The instant when Aunt Bae’s voice breaks describing her role in Bobbi Kristina’s early life, the psyche links their fates: Whitney to her own child. And we are transported to the simultaneous site of shared tragedy — a bathtub. In the Egyptian faith system Kemetism, when one dies, the soul or ba must traverse across an underworld in a boat made of solar bark driven by the sun god Ra. The bathtub transforms into a baptismal boat towards deathly reunion. May Ra bless their watery sojourn to the sky.

In one of many scenes where Whitney must negotiate her limited energy between her daughter and her drive, we witness a moment between sets during a live performance. Through the hyper energy and swarm of hands prepping her face and hair to return to the stage, Whitney tries to reassure Bobbi Kristina that her presence is appreciated — you are the greatest kid! You’re the greatest kid in the world! But Bobbi Kristina slumps away knowing the battle for her attention will end in defeat.

Nearing the end of the film, the producer of the 2012 film revival of Sparkle Debra Martin Chase shares how Whitney encouraged her not to leave her child behind for long stretches of time. When their mother Cissy went on tour, multiple family members would keep Whitney and her brothers. According to her brother Gary Houston, during these periods both he and Whitney were molested by their cousin. Although this detail in the documentary was meant to humanize her and shift the trajectory of her public struggle, this critical revelation may have fueled more scandal, rather than empathy.


Watching her history of performances, we have witnessed Whitney become a superhero on stage — the expanse of her lungs manifesting wings of her back and shoulder muscles. If we recognize the necessary physicality of being a professional musician as akin to elite athletes, then we should also observe the profound betrayal when the body no longer obeys your command.

Mother and original diva Cissy Houston trained Whitney to sing from the abdomen, the chest, and the head. In concert with her mechanical capacity, Cissy further explains that Whitney’s true expressive power emerged from delivering each performance with her “heart, mind and guts.”

When black and blue artists like Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Prince and Jean-Michel Basquiat have offered their whole hearts, minds, and guts as they did during their brief but bold lifetimes, could we respond then with the same grace we offer fallen white addicts? Our princess of pop gave us a way to express love in its multiple manifestations from exuberant anticipation to imperfect longing. Through Whitney’s voice, we forgive ourselves for mistakes we would gladly repeat. And yet, we reject her contradictions instead of embrace or accept them as part of the authentic force of her sonic storytelling.

Courtesy of Madam Tussauds. Wax figures of Whitney Houston at Madame Tussauds representing iconic moments (L-R): Super Bowl Performance (1991), Studio album (2009) The Bodyguard, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” (1988).

America only wanted the Super Bowl Whitney Houston not Newark’s beloved Nippy. When her instrument was damaged beyond repair, and she could not reach that much anticipated climactic high note, the mass consumer rejected her. In the broader history of trans-Atlantic slavery, the black body was synonymous with labor and commodity. So when black entertainers die of depression and addiction, they are often treated as broken commodities. In comparison to the treatment of arguably lesser white counterparts and counterfeits such as rehab’s finest Amy Winehouse, Whitney’s unforgiving audiences likewise reveal their lesser selves.


Speaking of plantation lullabies, in Hawai’i, the social practice of karaoke traces back to its sugar and pineapple laboring cultures. After a long day wielding machetes on cane and root, workers would gather, make libations and sing together to release the angst and fury of unjust and unequal conditions. Beyond the poetics and politics of karaoke, singing will always be so very human. We sing to feel the vibration of our voice and hence our pulsing lives. We hum to connect our thoughts to our selves. We lull our children to sleep with melody and heartbeats. And we sing Happy Birthday, as Whitney did during many award ceremonies and otherwise to her daughter Bobbi Kristina, because that is what we do to mark rotations around the sun.

If we belt along to their ballads and experience deep catharsis and therefore healing, then perhaps we owe them that much more R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Our personal love for Whitney may overflow in private but the public acknowledgment and dare I say, gratitude remain lacking.

Alright all together now, but this time with feeling — No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity…



J. Faith Almiron wants to dance with somebody. Instead she is an assistant professor in Afro-American studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She can’t stop, won’t stop working on a book about Basquiat. Follow her musing on culture on medium and  @makadangdang1.

Posted in Culture, Unabridged | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment