by J. Sam Williams
noun: insurrection; plural noun: insurrections
a violent uprising against an authority or government.
"the insurrection was savagely put down"
In the early hours of November 10, 1898 a fire grew on the grounds of The Daily Record in Wilmington, North Carolina. This fire signaled the start of a coordinated attack by a mob of white men who targeted The Daily Record due to it being a prominent black-owned business. Alexander Manly, the owner, had been told to destroy the paper and get out of town, or the mob would do it for him.
By the end of the day 60 black residents were dead, the newspaper building had burned to the ground, and many black citizens had fled for their lives. The attack was a coordinated effort by white supremacists to remove black influence and retake political power for Democrats, the conservative party of the late 1890s, and which represented the values of white supremacists. The leader of the attack, Alfred Moore Waddell, was a former member of Congress, and would go on to become Mayor of Wilmington.
Two days prior to the coup d’etat the local government had been elected, and the Republican party, the liberal party of the era, was largely in control. Upset with the circumstances, Waddell and his mob decided to take matters into their own hands. Rather than respect a free election, they decided their values were more important. They imposed their will by force, and succeeded.
Last week we witnessed the echoes of history on a massive scale. A mob formed, masked to the world as protestors. They listened to President Trump and other conservative politicians. They heard about how the election had been stolen. They believed in lies, and spurred on by carefully worded hints and nods the mob moved towards the Capitol building. The symbol of American freedom, American dreams, American ideals.
“What happened today was an insurrection incited by the President.” - Mitt Romney
Upset with the election results, and with Democrats, America’s liberal party, taking full control of the Presidency, the Senate and the House of Representatives these criminals rushed police and broke into the Capitol building to stop the confirmation of Joseph Biden’s Presidential win, convinced that the election had been stolen.
They battled with the Capitol Police, injuring at least 56 police officers, and killing Officer Brian D. Sicknick. Four members of the mob died, one shot by the police, the other three from “medical emergencies.” Video and photos showed mobsters being maced, having guns drawn on them. Separately officers were spotted taking selfies with the criminals, helping them down the steps of the capitol building, and observing as the mob walked around casually.
Bombs, guns, destruction of property, videos of a lone officer running as the mob rushed him - these are the acts, the symbols, the definition of terrorists and terrorism. Domestic or not, white or not, the people who attacked the Capitol were terrorists. They stormed the seat of government of the United States with the intent to overthrow the outcome of the election. Holding onto the words of a false god, thinking they bore the torch of righteousness, these terrorists tried to stage “a revolution” as one maced women said to a camera.
While many have tried, there is no comparison to the protests we have seen in relation to social issues like police brutality, or the rights of citizens based on name-a-category. While people may disagree with people exercising their freedom of speech to burn American Flags, or block highways, that can’t be compared with breaking into a government building. To those who try and compare the destruction of private property to an attempted coup - the literal attempt to overtake the government - may I introduce you to the False Equivalence logical fallacy. Someone throwing a brick through a Costco window is not the same as halting the Presidential certification to keep President Trump in power.
Apples to oranges doesn’t cover it. Apples and oranges are at least pieces of fruit. There is no similarity here. The opposition to a free and fair election is the stuff of freedom’s nightmares. To keep a President in power, even after losing an election, because the President pretends to hold onto the values you hold is not what the US Constitution protects. The Constitution upholds a government that elects representatives to make laws for us, a democratic Republic, a government that protects, in theory, the right for us to have our own religion, our own values. For citizens to rise up and attempt to force their values on other citizens by violent means is a theocracy. And as much as some Americans may want a theocracy, America, as set up by its founding documents, is not one.
The difference between someone shouting, “Black Lives Matter!” and rifling through elected leader’s offices, leaving threatening notes, breaking windows, and swapping out the American Flag for a flag that says the name of one man, is so vast that only the severely indoctrinated won’t be able to spot the contrast.
What’s worse is the President of the United States knew that this protest was scheduled. He knew that he had stirred the hearts of many to believe that Democrats were stealing the election from right under all our noses. He had access to all the information possible that indicates that such diversionary tactics, such a drive to nationalism, to the extreme, causes violence. Instead of ensuring proper methods of security to protect the presidential certification, he denied multiple requests to mobilize the National Guard. Eventually his Vice President had to take charge when the violence escalated.
Then, and only after President-elect Biden demanded it, Trump put out a message to “quell” the terrorists.
“I know your pain. I know you’re hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election, and everyone knows it, especially the other side.
But you have to go home now. We have to have peace. We have to have law and order. We have to respect our great people in law and order. We don’t want anybody hurt. It’s a very tough period of time.
There’s never been a time like this where such a thing happened where they could take it away from all of us — from me, from you, from our country. This was a fraudulent election.
But we can’t play into the hands of these people. We have to have peace. So go home. We love you. You’re very special. You’ve seen what happens. You see the way others are treated — that are so bad and so evil. I know how you feel, but go home and go home in peace.”
Trump’s message was essentially, “Not like this. Your hearts are in the right place, but this isn’t the Law and Order I campaigned on. Go home. For now. We’ll get these evil-doers later.” Trump has cast Democrats and their supporters as evil, dangerous, he’s created a scapegoat out of Americans that don’t support him, cast politicians as devil-worshipers for if they don’t support him, god, then they must support the devil, not-Trump. These attacks on the beliefs of anything other than what Trump thinks his base values are directly tied to the attacks on the Capitol.
Trump has encouraged terrorists.
Even in the midst of the terrorism he did nothing to address the cause, only the symptoms. Did Trump even condemn the terrorists? He did not. He called them special. He told them he loved them.
When Trump’s presidency started to become more of a reality, many of his would-be voters would ask this question, “What can he really do though?” We’re sitting with the fruition of his decisions as the President. We all stay inside to avoid a disease that has caused nearly 400,000 deaths in less than a year. And while we all stood still when nearly 3,000 died on 9/11 and attempted to find an immediate solution, we can’t be bothered to even believe there is an issue when over 3,000 die a day. We all watch as Americans rush fellow Americans, call them un-american, prepare to take fellow Americans hostage and fly the flag of the Confederacy, a dead and defeated enemy state of the US that tried to keep one of the most ultimate evils alive.
This is the man that so many American’s voted for. A man who leveraged division, and the misplaced anger of so many to win power for himself. And for what? To help pay his debts? To make more money for himself? Americans chose a mouthpiece for values that the man doesn’t even hold. Trump works for himself, and he said whatever he needed to grab power, to put himself in a position where he could, well, name a selfish action. The office didn’t change him. The responsibility didn’t make him a better man. There was never a magical solution for electing a narcissist who can’t accept consequences. This false god has been exposed as the biggest loser in American history. Unfortunately, what he’s rekindled won’t die with the end of his Presidency.
Nationalism, White Supremacy, Manifest Destiny, the usurping of American Patriotism, this is part of American History that we all must reckon with in order to heal, and to build a better future. Our country started with slavery as a major economic resource to help build our infrastructure. Any country that starts out this way must do some real reckoning. There are so many mistakes to see. We must take off our blinders and stop putting new ones on our children. We must learn about events like the Wilmington coup, the Tulsa bombing, the lynching in the 1920s. We must see the correlation of how the end of slavery led to the mass incarceration of black men and women to keep them enslaved legally, how this has led to a history of police brutality towards black people and a deep seeded mistrust. We must see the relation to today’s social movements, where black people are asking that we just value their lives as much as anyone else, that we can say the simple sentence, “Black lives matter.” Where is the lie in that phrase if we truly value all life? We must see the double standards when protestors gather to expose police brutality and are met with force, while white people can break in to the Capitol Building and, in the words of Michele Obama, “...once the authorities finally gained control of the situation, these rioters and gang members were led out of the building not in handcuffs but free to carry on with their days.” Can we not see the evil in this? These people committed egregious crimes and were led away. Over this summer we saw mass arrests. Where were these mass arrests on Capitol Hill?
Trump has virtue signaled White Supremacy right back into the forefront of society. Supremacists have such strong convictions that they felt like they could start a revolution and not face consequences. Largely they did not. They marched on Capitol Hill and left Capitol Hill. Four casualties is a light price to pay for actual revolutions, just ask any revolutionary in Europe whose head lies in the bottom of a basket of revolutions past. Time will tell how many of these poor excuses of revolutionists are arrested.
We will be dealing with the repercussions of the Trump presidency for decades. White supremacists, domestic terrorists, they have this figurehead to assign a twisted form of martyrdom too. They see this as the forces of evil winning. Why? Trump told them so. And unfortunately there are so many whose faith has been usurped by the idea of Trump. Somehow Trump has convinced many Christians that Trump trumps Christ. Republicanism for some has become an idolatry and those in power have become gods. And these new gods have the ability to convince the masses of obvious lies, providing “alternative facts.” A new form of politics is born and it is here to stay. Look at the certification of Biden’s win. A handful of politicians still went through with challenging the election even after witnessing first hand what undermining a free election does.
So the ideas that Trump trumpets survive. Fraudulent elections, evil democrats, fear for losing an America that never existed. But the President is also still the President. He resides in the White House, he still has command of the Armed Forces. It’s a small amount of time, granted, but what kind of message are we sending if a President can inspire insurrection and remain in office, one command from accessing nuclear codes. Our government is sending the message that it is too hard to remove such a dangerous presence, and that even when the embers of a civil war spark, political wins in 2022 are more important for the GOP than condemning the leader of their own party, the man who is responsible for all of this.
To the citizens who voted for Trump because he supports conservative values, this is a moment for you to reassess your priorities and reconcile your perspective on life. Insurrection, violence, death, the tearing down of American ideals for one man, is it worth it for whatever policy you wanted? Is it worth it for stacked courts? For harder immigration? For tax benefits? Think on this, because you who voted for Trump enabled this.
Our politicians have a moral duty to remove a dangerous man. The 25th amendment or a second impeachment work. Our citizens have a moral duty to speak up and demand the removal of dangerous ideology from our government. It is so important that we squish this insurrection as firmly as possible. This is a moment where we can pursue both sides of Machiavelli’s recommendation. We can rule by fear by squashing all manner of white supremacy, spoken or unspoken, removing the means to messaging, condemning it at all levels, while also ruling with love, by listening to legitimate concerns of wealth inequality, drug ravaged communities, and a future that will continue to abandon blue collar work. We cannot forget that our students are watching, the young minds being molded by every moment in this debacle. If we allow Trump to stay in office, if we allow politicians to be moved by ideas of “all is fair in love and politics” then we will face waves like this again and again.
We must reconcile what happened at the Capitol. We have an opportunity to see America for what it is, to see the duality between white people’s experience and POC’s experience. This is not a moment to let past, to allow true evil, lies, deceit, selfishness, to run back to its layer, yelping from a slight slap on the wrist. We must weed out what allowed the insurrection to occur. We must work to eradicate the intolerance and animosity of White Supremacy, otherwise it might be Nov 10th 2098 when my great-grandchild writes about how an attempted Coup happened again down in Wilmington.
The Return of Raven, The Acid Bath Princess of Darkness
It’s two thousand and eight, you’re a teenager at Hot Topic, and you love nothing more in this world than Gerard Way.
(Or it’s nineteen ninety one and you’re buying Nirvana “Nevermind” on cassette at the Sam Goody.)
(Or it’s the eighties or the seventies or earlier... it’s Strummer, it’s Bowie, it’s The Beatles... it’s Tupac, it’s Run DMC, it’s the Sugar Hill Gang...)
(It’s a mall, it’s The Dozens on the corner, it’s a field on a New York dairy farm, it’s a soda shop...)
No... in this case, it’s two thousand and eight, you’re 17 year old Sarah, and it’s you and your 15 year old sister in small town South Carolina, in your room with a videocamera putting on skits. And while music plays a very important part in this story, and in the creation of the American teenager and all the cliques and subcultures it spawned, the touchstone here is comedy. Not a George Carlin record, not an episode of “Kids In The Hall,” not even an episode of Nickelodeon’s “All That,” because your parents didn't pay for cable and they wouldn’t let you watch television anyway. But it’s an improv class you fell in love with at school, the humor of the characters you and your sister create, the plays you’ve been writing together since you were little, and the jokes you tell to make each other laugh.
This is before TikTok. This is before Vine. But it’s right at the genesis of a video sharing site called YouTube. Your sister will play “Tara” and your friend “Azer,” and you will discuss all things mid aughts emo and goth, from AFI to “Twilight.” You aren’t on LiveJournal like so many millennials who are sincerely posting lyrics from Morrissey or The Cure, instead you’re sneakily posting links to your videos on the 4Chan messageboard. You’re a babyfaced college kid trying to troll an audience into making fun of fictional characters they’ll think are real, two junior high girls who just took down their Zac Efron posters and used their iTunes credits on Evanescence singles. (It was a trio of friends, until in storyline, Azer was banished for shopping at Hollister.)
But the crowd you were waiting for really doesn’t take the bait. (Not in 2008, anyway...)
The 1950s ended. The hippies became yuppies. Kurt Cobain died and "TRL" replaced grunge. You stopped making videos, you did some nude art modeling, you had bills to pay when you found out men paid for used underwear on the internet, and life took you in a different direction away from your comedy dreams...
It all leads to professional dominatrix Petra Hunter talking to Meow Meow Pow Pow, over teleconference during a global pandemic. The same day, that rich guy who was in “Home Alone 2” got banned from Twitter for attempting a fascist coup at the Capitol building. But there’s a lot of ground we’ve skipped over, so we go back to the beginning.
“When I was...”
When you were Raven. The Acid Bath Princess of Darkness.
"We're sitting here in Tara's room, rocking out to MCR and celebrating 2009, or "the New Year." Which, we don't really understand why people are making such a big deal about it, because really one more year is one more year that everyone's closer to death. Whatever. Suit yourself, humanity."
I saw the Tara and Raven emo/mall goth videos long after the fact, and they were often brought up in a Facebook group that me and some friends helped moderate a couple of years ago called “It’s 2005 and This Is Cool As Hell.” Yes, nostalgia for the mid aughts already, to the tune of 120,000 members (until a Business Insider article incorrectly pegged it as a piracy threat with watch parties for copyrighted material, and got it shut down).
Those numbers are nothing compared to the nearly two million views that just one video on the “xxblo0dyxkissxx” YouTube channel has received - the highly quotable New Year’s 2009 shout out video.
Other videos with “only” a quarter to a half million views or so were singalongs to bands like A Simple Plan or a reaction to the trailer for “New Moon.”
Some have celebrated Raven and Tara as a goth / emo Beavis and Butthead, though their demeanor may more resemble spun off characters Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane. Their spiritual predecessors are Circe Nightshade and Azrael Abyss of the reoccurring “Saturday Night Live” sketch called “Goth Talk,” but these were not influences and all unknown to Sarah and her sister at the time. They didn't have access to a lot of media or other extras, and had to make up their own fun.
“For most of my life I have felt financially insecure," Sarah tells me from her current residence in Dallas, Texas. Her family was poor and they moved around frequently when Sarah and her sister were children. “I don’t actually think the mall in South Carolina had a Hot Topic. We moved to South Carolina from East Texas so all of those things I was envisioning were from back home.”
“We played together a lot and over time that turned into us just developing our own senses of humor. Before the videos, we had made these spoof ‘Seventeen’ magazines. Which is funny, we weren’t really allowed to read those either. We just made these dry, absurd magazine for teenagers based on the covers we saw at the grocery story. We wrote articles, we played dress up and took pictures to be celebrities in the magazine." The stories included “My First Day of Middle School Was a Disaster!”, about a very bad day that ends with farting to make it worse. Like a young David and Amy Sedaris, they also wrote plays together.
While in junior high theater in 2003, Sarah ended up in an improv class. “I fell in love with improv. 'SNL' became one of those things that I was allowed to stay up and watch as I got a little bit older." She had a soft spot for Chris Parnell and Chris Kattan, but as a "young and innocent" devotee, “I devoured it all.” One of Sarah's first internet experiences was seeing Loney Island's "Lazy Sunday" from the 2005 season on YouTube. She also explored the burgeoning world of social media. “I was on Blogspot, I was on Xanga... I had multiple MySpaces. I was a pretty early adopter of Facebook. I remember watching music videos on YouTube. All of the sudden this whole world of music videos was there for me.”
Recording began in 2007, with help from visiting family friend "Azer" (they now perform music as NeutralOneder) at various points until production ceased in the summer of 2009. While fan fiction writers, podcast hosts, aspiring comedians, outspoken politicos, and others saw their profile rise on the World Wide Web, Sarah couldn't even get the notorious 4chan messageboard to follow her links to flame her videos. "Take a look at these weirdos!" was the hint, she says retrospectively, as she was "secretly hoping this would lead to something a little bit bigger for me, even if I didn’t say it.”
Meanwhile, in 2008 during Sarah's early college years, she "found these flyers on my college campus that were like 'pose for a photographer, $40 an hour.' Hey, that sounds like great money! I ended up in this really weird skeezy situation.” Her first experience in sex work was modeling "naked and revealing poses of a young looking 18 year old... I never got paid for that.” She went on to some nude modeling for art classes, but in January 2011, she stumbled onto "the greatest swindle ever... selling dirty panties. You mean to tell me...?”
From that eCommerce, she soon was asked to "dom" interested clients over webcam, as well as producing custom video clips and phone calls, before finding a career as an in-person dominatrix. “I was going to do a thesis in creative writing, creative non fiction. It was too much. I dropped out three weeks before the end of my last semester before my thesis semester,” Sarah says, and got to work on building and opening a dungeon instead.
Concurrent with the videos, but also unknown to the sisters at the time was “My Immortal,” an online Harry Potter fan fiction series told through a goth lens by author pen name “Tara Gilesbie” and her co-author “Raven” through username “XXXbloodyrists666XXX” on FanFiction.net. The writing also invoked Hot Topic, My Chemical Romance, and other staples of Sarah and her sister's Raven and Tara cinematic universe. Still, as reported by Sarah (as well as her sister in an often overlooked 2014 interview with New York Public Radio that partially lifted the veil), there was no connection beyond coincidence.
Nevertheless, internet users linked the fanfic with the videos. Three years after they stopped making them, "our videos started getting more and more traction because 'My Immortal' has such a cult following behind it.”
With increased viewership came the backlash Sarah had previously tried to provoke, although it took a different form than her and her sister had anticipated. Having gone through a mall goth phase herself several years prior, Sarah would write lines asking herself, “What is something I could say that would piss off younger me?”
Instead, "the comments that we got on YouTube for pretty much... were just... awful.”
“Three years ago someone left a comment insinuating they were going to rape and murder me.”
Sarah has a few theories as to what stoked such hatred. "What I think a lot of people forget is that in the mid to late 2000s emo kids were everyone’s punchline. Also since comedy is a traditionally male dominated space, you see two women proclaiming to be emo, so that’s two strikes against them. And add in the fact (Raven and Tara are) really, really young... I don’t think historically there has been space for young people to be funny at all. I think that TikTok is kind of changing that just a little bit, because it’s such a youthful platform and there are so many people who are doing such great comedy there. But... there’s this assumption (youth) can’t be funny. Or if they are funny, they can only be funny for other young people.”
Raven's youthfulness, “fantastic deadpan,” and “pretty strong intensity” led viewers of her and Tara to “assume they’re real," even as the sisters worried their characters were too over the top and would give away the game.
In addition, “music and talking about music,” says Sarah, was also male-dominated, and perhaps “a little too much (for men) to wrap their heads around at the time.”
Sarah's sister, who portrayed Tara, did not comment for this article and hasn’t emerged because of how her and her sister were treated. But Sarah let me know that the commentary on their physical appearances, in videos recorded as they "suffered from mental health and body image struggles" and Tara gained weight from antidepressants, did an immense amount of damage. “When you’re a kid... that stuff really gets to you. For 12 years I lived with the assumption that I created this work that only I thought was funny. And that everybody else thought was totally worthless.”
As for Tara, a mother now herself who doesn't look the same after a complicated pregnancy and childbirth, has no interest in social media or being seen, and doesn’t want her child to go through what the sisters did by proxy.
Sarah points to a 2016 teaser she posted as another example, by then having grown into her adult aesthetic. "I was always 'the ugly one' growing up so of course I expected a fair share of 'Raven you’re ugly' comments.” But she describes the contrast between comments on the early videos and the 2016 teaser as “night and day.”
“You’re fuckable now!” she bellows, mimicking the male voice of one 2016 comment sent her way. “There’s really only a place on the internet for women if they’re conventionally attractive, and if they’re not, they have to make that a part of their thing. She has to make her unattractiveness part of her comedy. There is no room for a woman to just exist without having to say something about it or apologize for it or joke about it. I’m pretty mad because what I look like shouldn’t determine whether or not people think I’m funny. And what I look like certainly shouldn’t impact how people treat me on the internet.”
That same year, "I signed up for improv classes again. I was really excited about it, let’s do it, let’s go... I ended up dropping out my first term. One, I was really depressed, which I think is a joke in itself. But two, I was a sex worker and the atmosphere was a lot different... at the time, I wasn’t out about my job as I am now. I remember having the worst anxiety thinking, 'What if someone recognizes me from the internet? What name do I choose to tell people? What name do I decide to perform under? What happens if someone finds out Sarah from improv is Petra the dominatrix?'”
She couldn't make the jokes about her day job that others would make about theirs. “Even though societal views are changing, it’s still a stigmatized job and we don’t have any protections. Day one that you become a sex worker, you learn that you have to be so, so careful of your true identity and how many people you truly let know about who you are. Because otherwise if the wrong people find it, they will hurt you.”
As an improv 101 class, the low hanging fruit for her classmates was "dead stripper jokes... I spent a lot of those improv classes just really, really anxious. I felt like I couldn’t be myself. I just really didn’t feel like there was a place for me.”
While Sarah worried sex work was a potential concern for agents and producers who might see it as "a liability... not (being) squeaky clean," it was also the trauma from all those YouTube comments that "killed something inside me. It kind of taught me that even if I thought I was funny, other people wouldn’t think I was funny. It just took away that fearlessness, and that willingness to fail and to do whatever the fuck it took to make those things work. Over time it slowly fizzled that fire out.”
A new persona emerged in the last ten years that became Sarah’s means to make a living, the Dallas Dominatrix Petra Hunter. Besides the work that led to operating her own dungeon, Sarah also appeared on shows like “Off the Cuffs,” a podcast about kink, discussed relationship trials and tribulations on “Vegan But Lazy,” started two offshoot businesses offering BDSM materials, spent summers fostering for animal rescues, and used her Twitter as an activist and an advocate for sex workers. She has talked about the FOSTA-SESTA bills meant to mitigate sex trafficking, which impacted online advertising for sex workers, and how difficult that made it for her to vote for Joe Biden since Kamala Harris was a co-sponsor of that legislation.
Sex work and all the tasks that come along with it are “so consuming,” says Sarah, the carefree life of her persona being a mirage while the hustler behind the alter ego is working 12 hour days with few days off. With “hours and hours spent on website edits, emails, (and other) unpaid work,” it’s not the “easy money” that it looks like. Particularly in the COVID era, all those going through financial difficulties may joke “Guess I’ll make an OnlyFans!” says Sarah. “A bunch of selfies and drinking mimosas, and raking in thousands of dollars,” it is not.
This leaves little to no time for the things Sarah enjoys. “I soothe myself through overworking. It’s definitely unhealthy.” In the first couple months of the pandemic, she did start reading more and writing again. But after it became clear that sheltering in place was going to last a lot longer than a brief "vacation," she was “faced with this guilt. Even though I want to write, there’s this voice in my head that’s like ‘dude, Sarah, you need to write something that’s actually going to make you money RIGHT NOW.’” So instead of an essay about personal experiences, she'd instead write a blog post meant to direct more web traffic to one of her Petra sites.
After all that, out of energy and mental capacity, there remains the stack of books to be tackled someday, not to mention all the writing of her own she is inspired towards but too exhausted to undertake. “When I read again, I want to write. But life gets in the way and I don’t do it. And then there’s a whole shame cycle... ‘you call yourself a writer but you don’t even write.’”
However, all this more than prepared her for an emerging situation in the final days of December 2020. A new slew of wannabe internet sleuths started “connecting the dots” between Raven and Petra. And so, Sarah outed herself first to control the narrative. “It was a power grab.” After years of imposters claiming credit and pirates ripping the video to reupload on their own channels, Sarah took everything sex work taught her about “marketing and branding, and gaining control over your own content” for the last decade and put RavenIsAPoser.com on everything.
Twelve years to the date of publishing the most popular Tara and Raven video, the New Year’s 2009 shout out, Sarah emerged on TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter to confirm that Raven and Tara were characters. Immediately, she had behind-the-scenes footage and stories to share, as well as some short video bits like the 2016 teaser had seemed to foretell.
“I was expecting this tremendous backlash,” Sarah says, expecting to have to lock down or disable her Petra accounts and ride the wave of more internet hate. Instead, after a grueling year for people personally, for the health of the nation, and for an embarrassing and scary election cycle rife with coup attempts, the nostalgia of Raven and Tara felt oddly comforting. “I wasn’t expecting this kind of reception at all,” says Sarah. “I truly had no idea that our videos were so universally beloved until just a few days ago. And so I’ve spent the past 12 years just assuming that no one thought I was funny. And that no one watched our videos.”
Yet like every generation that looked back at the one before it, Sarah points out, today’s zoomers are fascinated with what millennials and Gen X’ers may have taken for granted in the 2000s. In one Instagram exchange, a “baby,” as Sarah jokingly and lovingly called them, asked her “So wait, did you get to go see ‘Mean Girls’ and ‘Elf’ in theaters?”
“I didn’t because we were poor,” Sarah laughs, “but I could have!”
Also, Sarah has been told, even if Raven and Tara were tongue in cheek, the characters have over time come to encourage people to be themselves. “There was just something so unapologetically authentic about them... (they were) open about their feelings and the things that they liked.”
The reveal of Raven in 2021 felt like a fun pop culture story. I pursued an interview after Sarah had tweeted she had a lot to say about how her and her sister had been treated. I knew the profile would be a look at what was then and what is now. On the late afternoon we spoke, a siege on the Capitol in Washington DC by supporters of the outgoing Trump regime was still being cleared out after leaving four people dead, a fifth who would succumb to their injuries the following weekend. The reporting that weekend would reveal complicity of law officers and elected officials beyond just the President’s incitement. While we didn’t know that yet, there was still a melancholy, as there has been while over a quarter of million Americans have succumbed to COVID.
In a bizarre way, in this weird spot in history as a new administration readies to take over and a vaccine has begun distribution, Sarah has inadvertently grabbed the mic and stood on a platform built incrementally over 13 years. But for all my high falutin’ ideas for a thinkpiece on where we’ve all come from 2008 to 2021, I found myself in a poignant moment with a person still coming to terms with everything she’s been through herself from then to now.
“To be met with all of this love and support and genuine excitement from so many people has been such a mindfuck for me. It’s the best feeling ever!!! But it’s also so painful in so many ways. Because I spent so much of my life thinking what I did didn’t matter and that people didn’t care about it. And now every single day, I’m being bombarded with proof that what I did actually did matter and it did impact a lot of people, and a lot of people love it.”
Taking a breath... “It’s a lot to handle.”
Raven was a great comedic invention. Petra is a luxury professional. Sarah is a smart entrepreneur and engaging, composed interview subject. But she admits there has been a lot of crying in dealing with all of this, and that emotion was present in her eyes and her voice in this conversation.
“I never fully made the connection between how much comedy had really meant to me and how badly I had really wanted it to work out for me... and how damaging the reception had been. It became not only a snub of my comedy, but of me myself. Of course it was something that I always wondered, what would have happened if I did actually pursue this?”
“Living for 12 plus years thinking that I wasn’t funny and that people were rejecting me as a person or whatever only to be met with nothing but love and support and the kindest words. So to find out that for 12 years I thought that I wasn’t funny only to find out that hundreds of thousands of people thought I was hilarious this whole time.”
The interview subject may not have been the only one wiping away tears at this juncture.
“It’s so great. And it’s so sad... as much as I love sex work and am grateful for (it), if there was any way I could do comedy and sustain myself, I would do that in a fucking heartbeat.”
So, what now?
“I’m honestly trying to figure that all out.” Sarah is having a blast, rediscovering her drive and handling the pressure. It’s “cool... but really intimidating,” she says, asking herself, “What if I’m not funny anymore?” She also worries about the fickle nature of the internet audience, and that “at any time, the bottom could fall out.”
Sarah is striking while the iron is hot, with the old footage and new content, and reaction videos to old material to come, with director’s commentary on everything it took for her, Tara, and Azer to put their material together. One previously unseen piece will be a Raven and Tara singalong to Avril LaVigne’s “Complicated” (deemed neither emo nor goth enough, and shelved at the time), plus some rare blooper reels (“Most of our videos were shot in one take”). She wants to shoot some videos talking about herself, not either of her personas, about how the music she once used for comic fodder helped her find herself and discover her voice “as an adult emo.”
I asked Sarah if she had given herself permission to fully embrace these pursuits. She isn’t quite there yet, but she has begun hiring a team to help manage the Petra output, freeing her up a bit to see where Raven takes her. “I’m in the very beginning of some very big changes. So it’s really, really exciting in those ways.”
She laughs when she imagines new comedy bits to shoot. “I had two ideas today! It gives me hope. Maybe things aren’t over for me yet.”
The weekend after our chat, as I finish writing this article, I enjoy the new videos that start to pop up on her social media channels. I also watch the first video from years back on her YouTube where they were originally uploaded, and I’m happy for the teenagers rocking out to My Chemical Romance. They have a tough road ahead, but it turns out okay.
“We’ll carry on...”
Hub is a writer and former 90s kid who knows less about emo music and more about Emo Phillips, but you can see more of his work anyway at HubUnofficial.com.
When I was a kid, there was a cable network called The Family Channel. One program they showed was reruns of the 1960s version of “Batman,” a character that debuted in Detective Comics in 1939. There was an episode called “The Bloody Tower” where Batman’s sidekick Robin (real name: Dick Grayson) stumbles over a clearly marked Death Bee Beehive Trip Wire set up by the villainous Lord Marmaduke Ffogg. Ffogg’s daughter, Lady Prudence, stands over Robin and mocks him coolly, advising him to stay calm or risk being stung. So, this bee, I don’t know if it was made of felt or paiper-mâché or what, but it was about the fakest thing I have ever seen. I have a distinct memory of watching this show with my sisters, my parents having given us vanilla ice cream with hot fudge on top.
Now, my kids watch “Teen Titans Go,” which includes a much more obnoxious version of Robin, and sometimes another hero named Bumblebee. There was an entire episode about Beast Boy creating a new system of currency using bees. None of these characters have any adult supervision, as even Robin has escaped the shadow of his former caretaker Batman.
This series is a parody of a more serious anime style show that ran for five seasons called “Teen Titans,” and both incarnations included a supervillain group called The H.I.V.E., but none of them were costumed like bees. The adults on this show were the most evil of all the characters, and a recurring theme was the young villains rebelling against their supercriminal mentors.
Apparently, there have been six different supervillains in DC Comics titles that were all called Queen Bee. Some versions were the head of H.I.V.E. as characterized in the printed comic book titles, but this affiliation was not portrayed in any live action or animated show that I could find.
There is also an old Quality Comics superhero named Red Bee who was acquired by DC in 1956, but then became public domain. One version fought mobsters and Nazis with an arsenal that included trained bees stored in his belt buckle. Another version was the original Red Bee’s grandniece, whose costume, weapons, and bees were all robotic. She is briefly mutated into a beelike creature, and when she is restored to human form, she gives up the superhero life to be a research scientist. Perhaps she will also become a mother? There aren’t a lot of superheroes who are parents, but especially mothers. Raising a family and being a superhero are often shown to be incompatible. There are far more criminals in pop culture who are shown juggling being a parent with being an outlaw.
“Kill Bill” is not a DC property, but it has many bee references (in dialogue, costuming, and music cues), themes about parenting, and a monologue about DC heroes worth mentioning. The titular Bill says Superman has contempt for humanity that is made evident by his secret identity Clark Kent being “weak... unsure of himself... a coward.” But I feel that Clark Kent is his true persona, as he was raised by the Kents on farm in Smallville - Superman is the bravado he puts on to be a hero for the planet. I think we don’t see Clark Kent holding his Superman qualities back during his everyday life as much as we see Superman masking his vulnerabilities while on duty.
Batman, on the other hand, never had a conventional human experience. He was raised as the privileged Bruce Wayne, then traumatized witnessing his parents be shot to death in a Gotham backalley, and ultimately became the personification of vengeance as the Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne is the facade he displays to cover up what he’s really doing at night when he is his true self.
Clark had the Kents. Batman has mostly only ever had Alfred the Butler. Robin, as Dick Grayson, did have his circus performer parents, killed during an acrobatic stunt turned tragic, but has otherwise had only Batman and Alfred, or served as a de facto parent himself for the other Teen Titans.
Bees, the hive structure, and loyalty to the Queen (the mother) seem to indicate the ultimate devotion to “family.” Yet bees are rarely the good guys in the comics, and the good guys in the comics rarely have family or parents in their lives.
You know who did have a parent in their life? Lady Prudence. And where’d that get her? Wielding fake ass looking bees as a weapon, of course.
I’ve had a lot of ups and downs with my parents, none relating to bees, but all our disagreements have definitely informed how I want to be a parent (or, maybe it’s more accurate to say, the ways that I DON’T want to parent). I want my kids to always be close to me, and I don’t know how to resolve that with the inevitability that they must someday buzz away from our hive. As long as they still want to come back to visit, and they still think of me as a hero in the future like they treat me and tell me that I am now, that’s all I can really hope for and dream of.
Hub does not involve himself with honey, or wear much yellow with black, but he is a busy bee over at hubunofficial.com.
Ranking the Characters of “The West Wing” by Punk Cred
I have been on a rerun binge of NBC’s “The West Wing,” drawn in partly due to the HBOMax reunion special, but also because I genuinely enjoyed the show during its original 1999-2006 broadcast run. Martin Sheen’s “President Jed Bartlet” is often held up as the Commander-In-Chief people wish we had, especially in these uncertain blah blah blah. He failed to disclose his multiple sclerosis and covertly had a rogue Middle Eastern minister of defense assassinated - these misdeeds feel quaint in the wake of unprecedented lying, bigotry, and suppression from the current crook in the Oval Office.
Note: The following is based on a dream the author had a few years ago, and while generally you should not write out your dreams and/or nightmares, the author decided to try anyways and make something coherent/cognizant/meaningful out of it. You can decide if it works. if you dare...
City of Terror
We found ourselves in this small mountain town filled with floating castles and ancient-looking buildings—museums, churches, capitols, old houses—each historic and antiquated monument floating atop its own individual mountain, like a dozen acropolises. We’d spent the morning visiting each one, gallivanting around with the other tourists. The city itself was in a large valley made up of the small hills and cobblestone streets that wound around these edifices. White snow topped the green mountains on either side of us.
The sun was bright, but you could barely feel it as the narrow valley and hills and many buildings had a tendency to slant its rays and keep the sun from penetrating totally in the street of the city. The whole town looked as if it were painted as a chiaroscuro. Light. Dark. Light. Dark. In some parts, particularly down low, the cold air and dark shadows felt as if they were emanating from the earth itself.
We were on vacation in this small, fairy-tale-like-town for, as they call it, a “Babymoon.” Particularly special for us because we’d spent several years navigating the hellscape of miscarriages and infertility treatments, with visits to doctors’ offices becoming more frequent than meals eaten out.
As evening encroached, my six-month pregnant wife and I soon found ourselves in line with all the other tourists to go to a famous ball put on by the locals. The waiting area sat atop an inclined street that led to the base of a small castle. The entire city and valley stretched out on either side of us. A 360-degree view but for the stone structure right in front of us. Pink snow topped the green mountains as dusk approached.
They said the city began as a refugee camp, some years, long ago. A different time, but the same world. These residents walked and lived in camps at first. All borders shut. Some of them lived in cages. There was no room at any inn they stopped at along the way. So, one day, they made their own way to a part of the world no one cared they’d occupy. Somewhere in between Greenland, Wyoming, and Azerbaijan. They built a city for themselves. Because no one else would. Some of them were architects after all. And doctors. And city planners. And philosophers. And lawyers. Those that were still living.
My wife and I were tired. The tiredness that hits the bottoms of your feet and lower back, exacerbated from walking around on cobblestone all day. My wife was not feeling good. She sat down next to me as we waited in line for the doors to open.
After thirty minutes or so, people began grumbling amongst themselves. It was a strange noise to hear after walking about this town all day and hearing nothing but laughter, joy, and curiosity coming from folks—both us tourists and the locals alike. That’s when I first felt that something was not quite right.
Perhaps it was because there was a man in line I didn’t like the sight of. He looked like he was concealing a weapon but it couldn’t have been, for weapons were outlawed, no, not outlawed, didn’t exist.
In fact, the more I thought about it, I realized that this entire fantastical little city existed without a single unit of police or military. There were not even jails for there were no need for them. A guide had told us this as we toured the largest castle on the tallest peak—it’s location right behind the smaller castle in front of us. It was strange for us Americans, who were so used to guns and men in uniform patrolling the streets. So used to violence and the unpredictability of men.
Night started to descend while we waited in line, and as the lights of the town flickered on, everyone’s phones started to ring and ding, one by one, with the sound of text messages and call alerts. People began picking up, unworried at first, and then more so as they realized that it was not just their phone going off, but everyone’s, and something of this nature could only be an emergency alert.
My wife stood up with one hand holding her stomach, the other on her lower back. I grabbed her left hand to help her rise. The sound was far enough away and unexpected enough that most of the looks the other tourists’ faces were ones of shock and confusion. Were they bombing the ski resort up above us for avalanches, perhaps?
We all rushed down and around the cobblestone street leading up to the castle and over to her so we could see what had caused her to scream. And that’s when we saw it as we wound around to the right of the small castle to join her: The large castle crumbling and falling off the side of the hill. Another explosion punctured the air. We all flinched. More of the castle crumbled away. Distant screams.
Then, other sounds. Closer, deeper, faster, and more shocking. Right behind us. The sound of a gun, I think. The sound of bodies suddenly flapping against the cobblestone next to us.
I grabbed my wife and we rolled down a small knoll in the street to the left. I pushed her down hard, harder than I should have for a woman carrying a child. The shots continued.
“Let’s go!” I whispered to my wife.
We got up, crouching, and began running down the street that wound itself down the hill like an ice cream cone.
“We have to get down and get out of this city,” my wife said. I nodded.
We jumped a small guardrail and I caught my wife as she jumped and then tumbled on top of me into the sweet, green grass that covered the hills in between the switchbacks of the road. Grass so green and fertile you could nearly taste it in the cream and milk at restaurants and coffee shops.
I pushed her down beside a small bush and lay flat. The trucks drove by above us, the men wearing Viking masks. We heard them stop. Doors open. More sounds.
Pop pop pop. Pop pop pop.
“Down with the imperialists!” one said. Or was it tourists?
I nodded at my wife to keep moving and she nodded back. We moved straight down the grass this time, slowly, my wife huffing, and when the road came up again below us, we paused, looked right and left for signs of anymore trucks, dashed across the road like the chipmunks and squirrels had done all day, and began moving down the next stretch of grass between the winding-ice-cream-cone of a road, always crouching. Staying low.
We had moved fast. That’s what had saved us. Despite my wife’s pregnancy and the slow walking down the hill now, those first few moves were crucial. The drop and the roll down the small knoll in the street, then around to the left. Then down the street. Now the hills.
We would get out of this I thought. Whatever this was. And that’s when the top of the small mountain we were just on exploded. Tiny pieces of rock and ancient brick from the castle flew over us. We hit the ground again. Our ears ringing now. For this one was close and loud and big. We covered our heads with our frail hands. I threw myself on top of my wife. We could hear the trucks coming back down the ice-cream-cone road.
We moved down the hill and were back in the town, the city of shops and stores and restaurants and bars that spread across the base of the valley and clustered up around each acropolis. The place that earlier today had seemed so beautiful and peaceful and quiet and calm. We ran across the street, into one of those fancy touristy-yet-local restaurants that serves high-end Italian dishes alongside hand-rolled sushi. We burst in, my wife and I. Covered now in grass and rubble. Short of breath. A small trickle of blood was running down my wife’s left temple. A bruise was developing on my knee. Everyone looked up at us simultaneously. Most of them locals. Not one of them looked concerned. Did they not know? Did they not hear?
“The explosions!” I shouted. “The men, the guns! Didn’t you hear it? This place is not safe. We need to move, all of you. Now!”
They continued to stare at us in silence. The approaching steps of two men in suit jackets.
“I’m sorry, sir, but we’re going to have to ask you to leave.”
They threw us out.
Our goal was then to make it out of the city at all costs. We could survive in the woods, my wife and I. We could survive in the streams and rivers and fields and glaciers and whatever was beyond this town. It was where we were most comfortable, to be honest.
“There’s two of them there!” someone shouted, as we crept through the streets.
I whipped around to see four men with guns behind who had caught sight of us. I grabbed my wife and we barged through a door to the building on our left as shots hit the cobblestone street.
We entered what appeared to be the circular lobby of a bank or a governmental office. Everything was polished and white and marble. A large chandelier hung down in the center of the space. There was only one desk at the far end of the room, a concierge of sorts. My wife’s right arm was draped around me as she held her stomach and leaned heavily onto me. I held her around the waist. We walked toward the concierge who, upon seeing us, promptly picked up his phone and began dialing.
“No, wait!” I shouted. “She’s pregnant.”
The man seemed unconcerned.
“We have papers, documents! We’re travelers, American citizens. Do you see what’s going on out there?”
The man paused for a second, considering. Maybe he considered the baby. Maybe he considered us a nuisance more than anything, as less than, as not even something worth giving up.
“You can go out the back way,” he said. “You cannot stay here, but I can let you leave quietly. Where you choose to go from there is up to you.”
“Please, just don’t send us back out there,” screamed my wife. “We just need to get out of this city!”
“Fine. Follow me,” said the man. He was black and wearing at least a thousand-dollar suite.
He led us through the door behind the concierge desk and then another one. Each hallway was white, polished, and marble. He let us out into an alley. In one direction was a dead end. The other led back into one of the main streets.
“Goodbye,” he said. “And, Good luck.”
The door slammed behind him and we froze.
And that’s when we were rescued. Sort of. A young, muscular man in a hoodie sitting outside a door further down the alley. He looked at us for a second, then waved us over. We ran to him. We had no other choice.
The young man closed the wooden door behind us a with a small bang. It made both my wife and I flinch for it sounded like a gun shot.The young man, however, also seemed unconcerned. He was nearly apathetic and unapologetic as he sized us up. Contemplating what to do with us. As if we were a hindrance to his evening and not fleeing for our lives from the violence outside. He didn’t offer us tea or coffee. Neither did he even offer us a seat. Not even to my pregnant wife who was now bleeding rather profusely from somewhere on her head. All he said, was, “Follow me.”
We followed him through two rooms and down a small flight of stairs into a cellar of sorts. It smelled of wine, dates, figs, and cheese, was earthy and comforting.
“Here,” he said, opening a latch in the center of the floor to reveal a large hole.
“This slide will shoot you out of the city.”
“Yes, it’s an emergency slide. Should things ever get too bad.”
I was dumbfounded. “But … Isn’t this bad?”
“This is normal,” the man said. “On this day, you just happen to be the unlucky ones. We cannot shelter anyone here who was not born here. And sometimes the locals get a little bit tired of all the tourists.”
“So they shoot them?” my wife asked.
“But what about the buildings?” I asked.
“We like rebuilding things. It’s what makes this city so interesting. But then everyone wants to come and look at the things we’ve built. And sometimes we get tired of it. We do not have to let anyone come, after all. This is our home. A home we were forced to make on our own when no one would accept us into theirs. So we are not obligated to help anyone. No one felt obligated to help us.”
“But what about—”
“Please,” the man said. “You must go. I must return to my work. I have much to do.”
“Thank you,” my wife said, even though I did not feel like thanking this man.
“I must go,” he said. “Au revoir.”
I spun toward my wife. She nodded at me. Giving me strength. I took her hand and we jumped.
When I was young, I often assumed that every German living in 1940’s Nazi Germany was a full on Nazi. Or else a resister. But no, many of them were bakers, simply going to work each day, baking bread, watching the ash rise from the smokestacks and thinking nothing of it. They thought nothing of war. They merely went to work and did their job and didn’t ask too many questions. Like this man.
Or was it I who, in a past life, was the baker?
We landed on the soft earth some thousand feet below the city. A lake stretched out in front of us. My wife and I did not look back at the city above us but kept moving forward. The city in the valley with the hills and acropolises and the sweet, green grass. That city was probably red now. Red and yellow from fire. Beautiful City. City of Terror. City of No Samaritans.
Pop a mind-altering substance. Maybe a cup of warm cider. Or a soft wool blanket. Or the semaphore of a cat who sits just out of reach. Is an edible available? Sure, that works. Or simply rub your entire torso against a wooden fence until your neighbor buys a shotgun and brandishes it at you. Next, take out your pen and stab yourself with it, like a Super Solider™ preparing to go into battle except the battle is the act of laying extremely still in a purple meadow surrounded by swaying trees. Birch and Elm and Oak and Willows and every conceivable genus of Eucalyptus. Trees. Those woven sinews snaking between now and next, up and down. Sit and smell your invention. No don’t write, you dummy, that’s how the ink spills out and ruins the meadow. Don’t sully your imagination by pressing it against these soft, sweet trees. You little Longhorn Beetle. You fruit of rot. You inadvertent mycelium. Holster that pen, soldier.
Parents will probably start to creep in at this point. As they do. As they will. They’ll stain the walls with bits of china and they’ll bring with them the artifacts of childhood. A watercolor of a nameless boat. Charles Aznavour records stacked to the ceiling. A Bescherelle of nonexistent conjugations. A few pets will appear. A floppy-eared dog. A cat named Magic who ran off into the ravine. Maybe a small bird will perch on your shoulder as you practice your scales. Or a rat will emerge from your sleeve with a sage piece of advice. Something about the soil in a cemetery. You should listen to it, because it’s just you in animal skin, which is the best skin, the best you. There’s a bloodletting coming, obviously. But it’s not prophetic. Just a happy splatter. A happy little splatter with your family watching proudly.
"No don’t write, you dummy, that’s how the ink spills out and ruins the meadow. Don’t sully your imagination by pressing it against these soft, sweet trees."
This piece was originally published in the Stansbury Forum on June 6, 2020. The Stansbury Forum is a website for discussion by writers, activists and scholars on the topics that Jeff focused his life on: labor, politics, immigration, the environment, and world affairs. Please be sure to check out their impressive work and support their mission. The original link to the piece is here and their website is here.
The Narrative of Change
by Gary Phillips
Trying to get a breath in a time of COVID 19 and knees to the neck.
I belong to several dues paying mystery writer associations. These groups do not have the collective bargaining power for its membership like my white-collar Hollywood union the Writers Guild of America (WGA). The WGA has a past when its members got in the face of the studio bosses and some got their heads knocked in for their efforts and others blacklisted. Different then from the WGA, these aforementioned associations don’t exact a floor for book advances, set a standard pay for a short story of a given length, or seek to establish working conditions for the writer – which in the case of prose writers as distinct from script writing; it’s a solitary undertaking. But not for nothing the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), a national board I once served on as well as past president of the local chapter, does have as its motto, “Crime doesn’t pay…enough.”
To that end the 75-year-old MWA has used the bully pulpit to advocate for a better status of genre writers, intervened in contract disputes, called to task shady publisher practices, and more than anything, provided a way for established pros to interact with first timers or those looking to get published. This through formal talks and seminars as well as bending an elbow at a neighborhood tavern or the bar in the evening during a mystery convention. And like the history of a lot of unions, the MWA wasn’t always diverse. It would be fair to say the MWA was something of a white old boys club for many a year. In fact, Sisters in Crime (SinC) was founded in 1987 by 26 woman crime writers including bestseller Sara Paretsky specifically to address the frustration they had with the obstacles they faced in publishing, and not receiving their fair share of book reviews in a field then dominated by male reviewers.
Today matters are different. There is not only diversity of gender and race/ethnicity on the board of the MWA as well as sister misters on the SinC board, the membership reflects a changed landscape of the types of writers penning these stories. While the police procedural is still told, it could be a story of cop who’s a black woman confronting departmental racism to do her job right. Or about an Asian-American private detective who not only is perceived a certain way by others but is investigating the questionable death of a suspect at the hands of the police or some other so-called authority.
No surprise then when in 2018 the MWA awarded former prosecutor turned author Lina Fairstein its Grand Master award and the membership rose up in opposition. Fairstein to many, me included, helped railroad, along with the police, five black and brown teenager into prison for serious time, convicting them of rape and beating a victim half to death in a “wilding incident” in the infamous Central Park Five case. A case where DNA finally exonerated the now grown men and the city paid out $41m in a settlement. The award was soon rescinded.
Fairstein who has a solid record of pursing justice for years in cases of sexual offenses, maintained the youths were involved in some way in the rape in an op-ed piece she wrote for the Wall Street Journal in June 2019. Really the surprise was the MWA board picking Fairstein and claiming not to know the controversy surrounding her.
Now in the wake of nation-wide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, captured agonizingly on smartphone video, by fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin (now charged with 2nd degree murder), the MWA and SinC (and I’m a sister mister) have both stepped up. The organizations issued statements in support of efforts at reform of the police.
From SinC’s statement, “The murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are only three recent reminders of the 400-year history of violence visited upon Black people of the United States.”
“Listening leads to understanding, and action leads to change,” the MWA’s statement read in part.
On a listsev I’m part of, Crime Writers of Color, various discussions fly back and forth via email among the loose-kinit group – some of whom are part of the MWA and SinC. The morning following the publishing of these statements, folks on the listserv heard of examples of pushback from the membership, and the nature and character of such was bandied about.
More importantly, reality demands that writers of color and their white colleagues have to re-evaluate what they write and how in they tell the story. There is no getting around the way in which black and brown communities are policed, be the cops white or not or a mixture as was present at Mr. Floyd’s demise. In this time of the virus that too will have to be depicted in some way in our fictions. Yet not every mystery story has to be about that (though I can imagine a story where a murderer kills someone and tries to make it look like complications from COVID) or the use of excessive force and race. But me and my fellow crime writes are challenged to consider the point of view, of who is telling the story and thus who controls the narrative…from the hardboiled to the cozy.
Family Crypt Chorus Blog
“And on my best behavior I am just like him
Look underneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid”
“John Wayne Gacy Jr.”
In Dad’s Home Movie, I Defy Him
I’m still rocking on unsteady hips, but already
he’s bragging to his universe about me.
(Favorite daughter; see how much she knows.)
He sets us up:
first the camcorder, then the game.
Marie! Can you go get me number fo-ah?
His voice is gentle, New England music.
A toddle, a squat. A yellow magnet 4
retrieved from a board. The thunderclap
of Dad’s applause.
Aww-right! Number fo-ah, thank you!
Now, how about… number two?!
A shy smile forms beneath the armor
of my thick-bobbed hair.
I hold up my index finger. Numbah one?
You play your own game, huh?
And I do.
(And still I do. Favorite daughter, born
or burst forth, formed
Each number he counts,
I counter. Each number I name,
I find. And Dad’s laugh,
instilling this in me:
As long as you’re smart enough, Sweetpea,
the rules are yours to make.
Just once, I pause
to investigate his camera,
my huge hazel eye gazing at its gaze.
Then it’s right back to gleefully retrieving
(three instead of seven, eight instead of five)
until one day, I see myself, and see
how the numbers have changed:
add 35 years, and one near-fatal accident, and--
I don’t think I really want to be Minerva.
I wish I’d sought your wisdom
before warring for my own.
I wish I could put both of us
back inside your head.
Dad’s footage runs down; Mom’s key
turns in the lock, and I run to her, arms-up.
Jacket off? I entreat her
and crawl into her lap, remembering
I’m no deity, but a child
—but too late.
Those Dead Spaces: When No One in Your Family Talks
My family didn’t talk much growing up. There was a lot of family history that, if not covered up, was at least unspoken. Most of it was barely scandalous, but still, we didn’t talk, not about things that were actually going on, not if it wasn’t in whispers. Certain things were better left unsaid after all. The nice, decent, Christian-white-people-way. No “gossiping.”
We didn’t talk about abuse or mental illness or even teenage rebellion. We whispered about these things as if they were dirty, radioactive secrets. Just like those three monkeys: “See no evil, speak no evil, hear evil.” To do so was to bring a demon to life.
This eventually provided a reactionary state of mind within me to convert to an all-honesty, raw-confessionalism later in life as a response to the safe, closeted, sheltered, see-no-evil-hear-no-evil-do-no-evil Christianity I grew up with. This, at least, is what a therapist once told me in couple’s counseling once. She said I should be careful not to overdo it with my honesty. That I was over-reacting against my past.
“Fuck you!” I said to her. “I’m not overreacting against anything! People can’t just pretend that life is nice and tidy and never be in touch with reality!”
Maybe she was right.
This lack of familial communication is perhaps why I still have trouble communicating with people today, preferring to spend most of my time, alone, in my own head. Unless it’s through writing, I don’t share things easily. I bottle my emotions. I have imaginary conversations and fantasies in my mind rather than confronting people directly.
This creates problems. In marriage and relationships mostly, but also at work. I am distanced person. I rarely convey my emotions through speech. It’s like, I just can’t. This is perhaps why I’ve always been drawn to writing. Why I attempted to write a raw, confessional, edgy memoir in my early twenties. Why I’m still trying to write that book to this day.
I might be mad at the crypts underneath my family’s history. Those dead bodies buried (some of whom are still alive) that we never speak of. But I have the same dead spaces within me and beneath me. Mistakes I’ve made. Many nights I would not want televised on the big screen. Vaults underground I’d do anything to keep you out of.
Sometimes I even try to cover up of these chambers with raw honesty. As if confessing to one crime will spare me from the others. Sometimes it even works.
But I’m still forced to live with the smell.
the green door
a green mottled door winks itself into existence and creaks open. a sort of yawning creak that might be a groan. or a slow flood. or a winter fling with a grad student you never really liked that much but then got so busy existing—between exams and learning how to cook udon noodles without a stove—that your slipped right into a whole life together. chipped dishes and microwaves and too many kiddie pools for one person to own balled up in the garage. a garage. Christmas lights and stamp collections and decorative whatevers until you wake up thirty eight years later as if the photos of you and the now-gray grad student that adorn the walls are poor reproductions. that sort of creak of a door. you never asked it to open but it did.
the door itself is so aggressively unobtrusive it might be a prop on a movie set. not the kind that goes up for auction on eBay some number of nostalgic years in the future before being snapped up by a highly sympathetic man named Tom from Wisconsin. no, it’s the kind of prop that gets left in a studio’s alleyway for the garbage collector but somehow gets wedged in a gaping sewer grate and nobody bothers to fish it out and so it remains slowly decomposing over the course of several human lives. and nobody seems to mind. people are generally agreeable to ornamental decomposition. something about HyperArt or Situationists or other stone-cold thoughmongers. the door keeps opening it and you, idiot, keep walking through. like maybe this time there won’t be a twelve-foot crocodile tick-tocking its way through the foyer. like maybe the disproportionate hangover is ever-coming instead of never-ending. the colorblind pond-scum of its exterior will keep you away, but it doesn’t. though the grass may be greener, it scuffs your seams just the same.
Lifetime Spent Sitting
originally published by Thirty West Publishing House in Marrow
Lifetime spent sitting
My whole life was
spent in the backseat of my parents’
car while they looked for
a brand new house.
In new neighborhoods, with
new car smell, I was woozy with motion.
I asked for the radio and
they turned on stations I didn't like.
Old music and new cars and new homes
and repeated bumps over potholes; I was always sick.
I’ve wasted my adulthood sitting on men’s
laps, listening to music while drunk.
New men and old music and sitting.
And my life is a chart scaled by carsickness.
The Building of a Crypt
My family has been building its own crypt since 2007
That’s not true, but that’s how it feels,
My mother grew ill
My sister left for college,
My childhood rushed to an end
Yet this is par for the norm of life,
But when my mother died I found that my family, well
My family’s house crumbled brick by brick
And while those left have tried to build it back
Those bricks have been joined together for a crypt
Here lies a former family, it reads,
Scattered to the West, broken and disorganized
Nothing has been the same, though we try
The family has died, it came to an explosive end,
And though glue remains, trying to hold two ends,
The effort seems fruitless, and impossible to mend.
By J. Sam Williams
Dear San Francisco 49ers,
It’s me, Tom Brady, the best Quarterback and football player of all-time. I hear you’re going to the Super Bowl this year. Congrats! It’s been a bit since you last played for a Championship. You know I’ve been to the Superbowl four times since you fellas lost to the Ravens. I won three--I mean all four of those Super Bowls, orchestrating the best Super Bowl comeback ever against the Falcons and definitely did not get stripped, causing a turnover, on the final drive against the Eagles.
Anywho, you are going to the Super Bowl and that’s a big deal. Are you sure you’ve got the best team? Are you sure you’ve got the best Quarterback? Have you seen all the reports that Jimmy G is just a game manager? That people don’t trust him in big situations? I know Jimmy really well. He backed me up here in New England. There's a reason we traded him. I mean come on! He threw eight passes, total, in your Championship Game. He threw for less than 80 yards. You could use a new Quarterback. You know whom you should get, me: Tom Brady, Bay Area native and a GIANT 49ers fan.
How perfect would this be? The prodigal son comes home, leaving behind his life of working for The Dev--I mean Bill Belichick. With this win, San Francisco will tie the Patriots, and no one else, for six Super Bowl Championships, becoming the best franchise ever. But also, with this win I’ll get seven Super Bowl rings, more than any franchise has total, and finally unlock the secret to immortality.
Think about it. Jimmy might only play two more years, if he goes the way of Andrew Luck. I will be immortal, getting stronger with each ring I collect, kinda like Thanos. Don't you want Thanos running your team? What a story that will be! Tom Brady returns home, becomes Thanos, wins every Super Bowl, and lives forever. They’ll build a shrine for me--I mean us.
I know what you’re thinking. “Tom, it’s the week of the Super Bowl, we can’t trade for you.” When have rules ever stopped The Patriots anyone from doing anything? Plus, I’ve gotten that sort of thing handled. Just bring Jimmy to a TB12, his key card should still work. I’ve got a lab in the basement where we cant switch our faces for the week, and then we can put Jimmy in one of the hyper-sleep tanks where I keep my clones house plants.
It’ll be great. You won’t regret it. This will be the best decision your franchise has ever made.
Looking forward to hearing back from you,
What time should Jimmy show up at TB12?
When Tía Lupe arrives to pick me up, she honks the horn. I rush out. I don’t like to keep people waiting.
When I’m close, she gets out of the car and walks around to the passenger door. Her car is loud and hot and filled with trash. I settle into the driver’s seat. I put on my seatbelt, adjust the mirrors and roll up my window. As I drive away from the curve, the bottles of soda rattle in the back.
Lupe is calm and confident as she gives me instructions. She’s my mom’s niece but they’re the same age. She’s married to my dad’s younger brother.
Unlike other families, the women in our family don’t drive. Tradition weighs heavily on us. Unlike getting married and having children, this is a choice. My mother doesn’t drive. Her mother doesn’t drive. My dad’s mother doesn’t drive. Primarily, the men drive. They decide where we go and when. My mother doesn’t leave without permission.
Tía Lupe drives. When she leaves the house, she’s often followed by her husband. He spies on her, stalks her, watches her. I’ve been in the car, when she’s spotted him. My mom was in the front passenger seat. I was ten and sat in the backseat. Lupe pulled over and got out of the car to talk to him. I held myself still in patient tension as I watched him talk to her through the rearview mirror. Mom didn’t say anything. She looked forward. But I wondered with constricted breath what we would do if he hit her. It was a hot day and I remember the warm seats caused puddles of sweat beneath my thighs. I was relieved when she returned.
I haven’t decided my place in the family yet. I’m 20. I want big things like independence and autonomy. I’d rather die than be stuck here. It seems so cliché, but I’d rather die than live without freedom. I don’t want to be my mother. I’m a practiced self-harmer. When I tell myself I won’t live without freedom, I do this with an escape plan in mind.
After I’m 30 and I leave El Monte—a city east of L.A.--again, I will have nightmares about being trapped here. Those nightmares will hold me into my forties and beyond that.
“Now turn to the right,” she says, “We are heading to the mall.”
“Okay,” I say.
Her hair is long and permed into tight curls that tend to frizz. She’s a cloud of golden brown fuzz. She hates her forehead so she keeps her curly bands at eyebrow level. Her traditional aesthetic means she’s all dressed up and wearing heeled shoes. At this stage in the timeline of her beauty, her eyebrows are tattooed. Her lipstick is a freshly applied bright mauve.
There’s a cassette tape playing loudly. I ask her to lower the music.
“It’s fine,” she says.
“It’s too loud.”
“No, it isn’t. You have to learn to drive with distractions,” she says, “You are so young, you need to learn to live a little. Stop living like you’re an old woman whose life is over.”
“It’s hurting my ears,” I say.
“You’ll get used to it.”
As I drive, my face is pinched and I have to take deep breathes. My senses are overloaded. And I’m angry that she’s ignoring me. I take deep breathes to calm down. But being with her right now, is one of the most joyous moments of my young adulthood.
Despite how critical she is, she believes I might be something. She sees the possibilities of my life unfolding in front of me. I think she sees hope. As we drive, I wonder again who she is defying to teach me. It is her mother-in-law or my father or her husband? Is it my mother? How many are rooting for me to fail?
Tia Lupe and I always had a tense relationship. She’s a declarative women with a deeply abusive past. She constantly rubs me the wrong way. She doesn’t like to hear me say “no” to her.
But love is tricky. Lupe has been in my life from the beginning. She spends every weekend with us—with my mom. We are as close, but I know she also lies to me.
We head to the mall, Lupe turns up the music and rolls down all the windows. She’s ablaze in sound and wind and the chaos of hair. I take a deep breath.
In a few years, Lupe will be dead. And my mind will circle back to this moment between us again and again. A moment. What’s a moment?
A moment can be everything. I doubt it took her longer than a moment to write that note and take those pills. In a single moment she decided she was done. She flung her head back and swallowed death. She probably didn’t even think of me.
She comes once or twice a week to teach me how to drive. In that hour that we spend together, I smell her perfume. Beneath the chemically scent, I can smell her skin coming alive like a jungle. She wears tight pants and a loud patterned blouse. And she talks to me in clipped tones that are self-assured and unwavering.
She has severe mental illness. But I don’t know this. She doesn’t share her stories with me. Her stories are making the rest of the family panic. Her omission feels like lies. I wonder later if she was as afraid of my judgement as I was of hers?
My family doesn’t like me. I break their rules too much. I’m driven. I’ve graduated school with high honors. They act like they are proud. But I can tell something is wrong. My male cousins aren’t achieving what I’ve achieved. They aren’t graduating. My father’s family is wondering who the hell I think I am to usurp their men so easily.
I come from a family of criminal immigrants. In my father’s family, the men dominate and somehow always end up in jail. They don’t believe in respecting the American system. They all came in illegally and live their lives skirting the edges of society. We aren’t really engaged. We aren’t really involved. We aren’t fully here. Part of them in still in Mexico. Part of me is stuck deeply in trauma.
I’m at the edges of this family—a marginalized person within a marginalized group. Later, much later, I will feel betrayed by Lupe’s silence. I will be angry that my mother isolated me this way. And much later after that, I will understand that this isn’t anger. It’s grief.
I adore her. Tía Lupe is a second mother, much bolder than my own. She somehow balances my mother’s unbending anxiety. Unlike my mom, Lupe talks more openly about her own anxiety and depression. Lupe talks about her bad marriage. And she complains a lot. She’s one long wail.
Every weekend, my father’s family visits Grandmother Lola. She lives next door. After Lupe greets her mother-in-law, she comes over our house. Often, Lupe’s mom is also there. My mom, Belia and Lupe gather around the dinner table and talk about their husbands and their children.
Sometimes, Belia’s other daughters visit as well.
I prefer to stay in my room. But the laughing and the bellowing draw me out. It’s 11 AM on a Sunday. I’m 14 and believe people have no business visiting at such an early hour. I’m still in my pajamas.
It’s Isabel laughing. When she laughs it’s a booming sound like the explosion of a tire on the highway. I wave as I head to the kitchen to grab something to eat. I’m quiet as I move about. Lupe is talking about her sons.
“No, no. Boys are so gross. You should see how they leave the bathroom.”
I cringe. I grab a bowl and set it softly on the counter. I open the fridge to take out the milk. There’s very little left. I miss the conversation as I lean into the fridge to see if there is more milk.
“This is just so hard,” Lupe says, “I don’t really want to be around. I feel done.”
She has two sons. Her oldest son is 15. The youngest is about 10 years old.
“We all feel that way,” my mom says, “It’s just so important to remember what it says in the Bible.”
I’ve heard my mom’ speech before. I pour out the cereal and head back into my room.
They are here so often, I don’t think they should expect the niceties anymore. But there’s more to it than this. I’m afraid of their rejection. Inside me is my mom’s voice telling me that no one likes me.
Isabel enthusiastically greets me. Tia Lupe makes some comment about how bland I am. My Tia Belia softly says, “Hi Mireyita.” She speaks in a voice that reminds me of children.
I hide back in my room with the cereal I got from the kitchen.
I sit in my room reading. When I’m done with the cereal, I set it down and begin to wonder when it’s okay to go out again.
The women’s voices are a constant buzz against the walls of my room. I tell myself I hate the fact that they talk so much, but this isn’t true. I hate that I’m left out. I love that they are here. I love that they show up and unload and create worlds together.
When I leave my room again, mom is talking about buying a plot of land in Mexico.
“We can all live together,” mom says.
“No,” Lupe says, “the kids are American. Besides that one would never agree.”
“That one” is what she calls her husband.
I set my dirty bowl on the counter. I walk by them again and close my door.
For the rest of my life, I will think about this. I will wonder what loneliness drove her to end things. What was missing? But mostly, I will wonder what kind of person I needed to be for her to trust me. And this, this will change everything.
It will change the way I see mental health. It will change the way I understand compassion. The responsibility I feel over the systems in our family that made her death possible--will change me. And for many days over the next decade I will wonder about her arms. I will wonder about the arm she tossed over her body as she lay dying and waiting. I will think about her inky veins visible underneath the pale pools of her skin that look like blue Danube china. Later, when I’m married, I will collect this china and store it in my laundry room. I won’t use it. But owning it will mean everything to me. I won’t understand why, because sometimes thoughts are imprinted in us like transferware and they just don’t leave. All of my life, I will love the elegance of blue against white. As dignified as her death was not. For decades I will wonder what she felt in those last moments. I will wonder about the thickness of her skin—translucent like a moth’s wing.
For years later, I will wonder if death has lined us up like children ready to go home after the school day has ended. Had it, without my knowledge, put me in line after Lupe? I will spend hours thinking about this, wondering if my death is inevitable. Secure in my belief that depression is a deadly condition and I am next.
Except that I’m not like Lupe. I am stubborn. I am a tenacious problem-solver. When my own son turns 17 and has a mental illness, I rail passionately about what suicide teaches those that are left behind.
“It’s a damned legacy,” I will say to him.
He’s sitting on the living room chair. I’m sitting on the rug in front of him. And I’m yelling. Which isn’t necessary. He exudes fragility. He’s trembling. His eyes are shiny with tears and his mouth is shut tight. I hang on to him hard and decide that if I don’t let go, he can’t leave me. But I keep thinking that I can pull him through by sheer force of will. The way I might have for Lupe.
I find out about Lupe’s death as I’m walking into my mother’s house. I’m home from the mental hospital and still feel shaken from my own experience.
The scars of her death will haunt me. I will wonder at what point she decided to overdose. At what moment did she decide that emotions aren’t temporary? At what moment did she believe that the depression would last forever? I will also wonder about how she had the courage to do this while I was in the hospital myself. Was she trying to tell me something?
But right now, we drive.
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