March Book Review Club: Hunger by Roxane Gay (memoir)


“What you need to know is that my life is split in two, cleaved not so neatly. There is the before and the after. Before I gained weight. After I gained weight. Before I was raped. After I was raped.”

When Roxane Gay was twelve years old, a boy she trusted led her into the woods where he and his friends gang raped her. Underestimating the love of her Catholic family, she told no one about her rape but instead turned to food for comfort, and over time, her body became both a fortress and a cage for her. At her heaviest, Gay tells us early in the book, she weighed 577 lbs as a twenty-something. Hunger chronicles her complex relationship with her body. We see Gay as a sheltered child, as an intelligent yet damaged adolescent, and as an accomplished woman haunted by what she calls “the girl in the woods.”

My body issues are different from Roxane Gay’s. While she has had doctors write her medical diagnoses as primary diagnosis “morbid obesity” and secondary diagnosis, “strep throat,” I have gained and lost the same 30 pounds repeatedly over the years. While she and I might be in different BMI classes, I did relate to her memoir. I, too, have lived in fear of my own hunger, of the knowledge that my hunger for food might actually hint at deeper problems. I, too, have always felt my body to be unruly, something never quite within my control, or as much in control as is possible in world where cancer or crippling car accidents can happen to anyone.

While I definitely related to so many parts of this, it was definitely a learning experience for me. My issues with weight have been fairly superficial, such as not fitting into the shorts I want to wear, while Gay’s are more everyday and immediate, such as will she fit in the only chair that is offered to her? Hunger brings awareness of what life is like for those in “unruly bodies.” Gay talks about the problem of airline seat sizes, and also the embarrassment of being unable to keep up with friends when walking as a group to a destination, or never being able to sit on an unfamiliar toilet seat for fear of breaking it. People can’t address these types of everyday inequalities until they are aware of them.

While I was reading Hunger, we had an evening full of rain in Michigan, followed by a drop in temperature, which turned all roads and sidewalks into ice. Every school district was closed, but predictably the university I work for remained open. I was signed up to attend a session on white privilege that morning (which out to be about privilege in general). Our presenters gave us this exercise where we were in groups with randomly assigned amount of money, and we could buy privileges. The privileges ranged from being able to practice your religion to being being able to hear radio stations in your native language. What I noticed after we all shared what privileges we had chosen was that none of us had chosen were those dealing with able-bodiedness. Why had none of us selected it? Because we were all so able bodied that we were able to get to a random building in the middle of an ice storm, so we didn’t think about the limitations of the body because none of lived that reality. Had the sidewalks not been covered in a sheet of ice and less able bodied people had been able to get to the session, our choices probably would have looked different and the able bodied attendees may have learned something new from their peers.

Similarly, Hunger provides a perspective that is needed. We all need to be able to understand the struggles of people who live in bodies different from ours, whether it’s due to weight or physical disabilities or some other factor. We need to examine what we assume about other people’s bodies when we don’t know their stories.

I do recommend this book. The obvious audience is people interested in women’s issues and body image. It would be helpful to medical professionals, as obesity stigma is common in the medical profession. (It will actually be a work book club selection at the School of Public Health where I work.) But everyone lives in a body and could benefit from reading Hunger.

FCC Notice: I purchased my own (Kindle) copy.


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@Barry Summy

February Book Review Club: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (nonfiction)


Bryan Stevenson is the founder of Equal Justice Initiative and an attorney who represents those who have been wrongly accused of crimes and those who have been given sentences that far exceed their crimes. While Just Mercy spans Stevenson’s entire career in law, the primary focus is on Walter McMillian, a man who was put on death row for a murder he did not commit.

Walter McMillian was found guilty of murder in the same Alabama county where Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. McMillian was an African-American man who was accused of the murder of a white woman. His accuser was a white man who was trying to strike a deal with local law enforcement to escape punishment for his own crimes by “solving” a recent murder that outraged the small town. To the man’s surprise and eventual alarm, local law enforcement immediately latched on to his story about McMillian, even though Walter McMillian had dozens of alibis on the day of the murder. The story grew more fantastical and more “witnesses” were pulled into the scam, aided by local law enforcement who knew they had the wrong man, but wished to be seen by the public as being “tough on crime.”

When Stevenson became involved in the McMillian case, Walter was already on death row. Stevenson was shocked at the flimsiness of the evidence he had been convicted on, as well as by the evidence that had been suppressed. In Monroe County, he learned that those most proud of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird were those quickest to deny that Walter McMillian was their town’s black scapegoat. Stevenson sought to reveal the cover ups and corruption that defined the case, and before long, he was receiving bomb threats at the office.

I loved this book, though it is definitely not an easy read. I connected with Stevenson and his clients and the reading experience was very emotional for me. This was a book that was surprising and not surprising all at the same time. Going in, I knew the death sentence often reflects the prisoner’s ability to afford decent legal counsel more than it affects the seriousness of the crime. I knew that people executed for crimes are sometimes discovered to be innocent when it is too late. I knew the link between race and severity of sentencing. I knew women prisoners are vulnerable to rape by prison guards and that many have given birth while chained to prison beds.

What this book did was make that all personal with stories rather than statistics. And it did at times shock me. I was surprised at the severity of punishment for child offenders. I was surprised by the stories of poor women wrongly accused of murder after delivering stillborn babies. I shouldn’t have been surprised at how recently courts were able to exclude all minorities from juries, but I was surprised.

This is an eye-opening book, and I do recommend it. What I do not recommend is reading it in public. This is not a restaurant book, a Starbucks book, an airplane book, or a train book. Because it will make you cry. And when you cry, it will weird out the person stuck in the middle seat of your airplane row. Consider yourself warned.

FCC Notice: I bought my copy.

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@Barrie Summy


Why I Marched


Like many at the Women’s March on Washington, I was a first-time marcher. My bus ticket was a Christmas gift from my husband who knew I wanted to attend, and our bus drove through the night on Friday and Saturday.  I had followed all the instructions on everything you should and should not bring to a rally or on a bus. I had studied all of the safety advice on avoiding potentially dangerous people, what to do in the event of tear gas, and knowing your legal rights at a march.

I was nervous about the possibility of something going wrong and people getting hurt, but I decided to move on with the now viral advice of Carrie Fisher:  “Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.”

The hardest part of the march for me was not the possibility of getting tear-gassed and trampled or even the grueling double-red eye bus schedule, it was calling someone I loved to let them know I was attending. This is someone who I love and who loves me, but who has extremely different political beliefs than I do. This conversation went even more poorly than I had expected, and I was left with the horrible feeling of disappointing someone.  But I had to go because I believe in bridges rather than walls.  Because I am concerned about being on the right side of history.

So I went.  A bit hurt, a bit nervous, but determined.

As a stepmom of teenage girls, I want to be a good example for my girls and I want to make the future better for them.  In four to six years, when the girls go to college, sexual assault will still be rampant.  It might be worse, given the renewed patriarchal zeal. I want a safer world for them where they are not grabbed without their consent or graded on their appearance on a scale from one to ten. I want job opportunities for them, where they make as much money as their male colleagues.  I marched for them, for myself, for my sister and cousins, for friends, and for the women who don’t realize they need it.

One of the women in my group wore a sign that said she was marching for her daughters, granddaughters, and nieces.  On the back of the sign, she had glued photos of her female family members, smiling and optimistic.  It received many positive comments throughout the day, as everyone was there because of love.  Love for family or friends or the ideals of a nation. We all marched because there were things we needed to protect.

It was a women’s march, and as concerned as I am about women’s rights, I was not there strictly due to women’s issues and neither were my fellow marchers.  There were many #blacklivesmatter posters, both from black and non-black marchers.  For my sign, I opted to use a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote –“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”– to show that this march was for all of us: male and female, all races, all religions, all sexual orientations, immigrants and natural born citizens.

I may have some disadvantages as a female, but as a white Christian I also have many advantages.  I can wear a cross around my neck without strange men threatening to set me on fire, the way women in hijabs have been threatened.  I can claim my faith without someone threatening to put me on a registry.  I want Muslims, and any other marginalized religious group, to have the same religious freedoms that I enjoy.  My whiteness also protects me, allowing me to live without fear of the police.

Being under attack for your skin color, your religion, or your sex is personal.  It’s not something you get over.

As the daughter of immigrants, immigration policies are also personal to me.  My parents, born and raised in South America, are hard-working and honest.  They didn’t know the language when they moved here, but they learned quickly and built the life they wanted, centered on God and family.  They worked hard so my sister and I could attend private colleges.  My parents are not murderers and rapists; they are patriotic, full of gratitude, and deeply decent.

In addition to being the daughter of immigrants, I am also the wife of a school principal and the sister of a teacher.  This too is personal.  Our educators work hard for their students and deserve support rather than micromanagement and scapegoating.  Our students, 90% of whom attend public schools, also deserve our support.  I want a secretary of education who actually knows something about education and not just the power of a hefty donation in furthering one’s agenda.

The backlash against the march has been widespread, and many of those denying the legitimacy of the protests are female.  “What rights am I missing?” women cry, even as the Office on Violence Against Women is scheduled to be cut, a slap in the face to the 1 in 3 women who experience physical violence from an intimate partner in their lives and 1 in 5 of women who are raped in their lifetime. “Why can’t these women stop complaining and just give him a chance?  He won. They need to get over it.”

We aren’t angry feminists lashing out against imaginary grievances.  We are feminists, it is true, and current events have left us angrier than we have been in a while.  But it isn’t anger that brought us to the streets. It’s a hope in a better world and a willingness to do our part to bring that about. It’s love, not hate.

I marched with five of the women on my bus, and all of them make the world a better place.  One works at a shelter for domestic violence victims.  Others of our group volunteer at the same domestic violence shelter, creating a shelter for the pets of those families, so families do not stay in bad situations out of fear that their abusers might kill the family pet.  We had a social worker.  We had a woman who worked in education for decades, both as an elementary school teacher and as a professor, and holds two master’s degrees and a PhD.  She is now retired, but she’s still devoted to kids, working as a volunteer librarian at a school in Detroit.  Another woman is a mother to more than a dozen adult children and a grandmother to more than twenty.  In women like this, I see hope.

As a Christian, I believe in hope and reconciliation.  I believe in a God who will make all things new again, and expects us to do the same in the current life on this earth, not just the afterlife.  We are expected to feed the poor, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and care for the earth which has been entrusted to us.  Political activism is one way for me to love my neighbor as myself.

Now the march is over, and I am so very grateful for a peaceful event for DC and for peaceful events all around the world. I am grateful for all the women and men who stepped out of their comfort zones to take to the streets, following in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and many other champions of justice.  Voices have been heard, and now it is time for the work to be done.

The Power of Small Donations


Image credit: Ashley Schweitzer via Minimography

It was the week after the election.  It was late morning, and I was seated in an auditorium at work, waiting for a lecture on polio to begin.  I was drinking coffee and  feeling antsy, which has since become my new normal, and guilty.

I was feeling the weight of all the causes that would need to be supported over the next four years: civil rights, immigration, women’s rights, protecting religious freedoms, the environment, healthcare, the sciences, etc.  I may have voted blue, but that is where my responsibility as a citizen begins rather than ends. I felt like I had to donate to all the causes and volunteer for all the organizations.  The problem, of course, is I have a family, a full-time job, and due to a financially weird 2016, a bit more debt than is wise.

The speaker, a man who had written a Pulitzer winning history of polio, took the stage, and he was exactly the encouragement I needed that day.  While I learned new things about the development of the polio vaccine and about early public health campaigns centered on the vaccine, what interested me most was the history of the March of Dimes.

These days, the March of Dimes focuses on birth defects, but in the beginning it was devoted to the eradication of polio.  The March of Dimes did not want to be an organization that depended on extravagant donations from the powerful few, but a movement of the people.  They chose a dime as their suggested donation because everyone, no matter how poor, could spare a dime for a good cause.  And it worked.  During that time, the March of Dimes gained more donations than any other health-related organization, with the sole exception of the Red Cross.

Hearing the March of Dimes history made me remember another story.  A church I used to attend had partnered with a local food bank.  One of the deacons spoke in front of the church, asking for our participation.  He didn’t encourage us to all go home and clear out our pantries.  Instead he asked that, each week, each family or individual bring one can or other non-perishable food item with them to church.  Just one, which wasn’t a financial drain on anyone.  However, when you have a church with 600 or 700 people, it makes for a very full food bin every single week, and it’s sustainable over the long term.

I have become a believer in the power of small donations. I am one person who wants to make a difference.  All around the country there are millions of other people who also want to make a difference.  We don’t need great wealth, but we do need all of us.

My four-year goal, or at least the financial part of it, will be to make a small donation to a different organization every month. I used the Jezebel list as my starting point and made my own list.  I am trying to make the organizations as varied as possible, to benefit as many groups of people as possible.

This is my list, as far as I have planned it out:

Already Donated:
November:  NAACP Legal Defense Fund (civil rights)
December:  RAINN (sexual violence)

Future Donations:
January: Sierra Club (environmentalism, to be donated 1/20/17)
February:  Community Foundation of Greater Flint (the Flint water crisis is an issue that is close to home for me)
March: Council on American-Islamic Relations
April: Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund
May: National Immigration Forum
June: Southern Poverty Law Center (fights against hate groups)
July: Human Rights Campaign (LGBTQ rights)
August: Native American Rights Fund
September: Anti-Defamation League (fights anti-semitism)
October: PEN America (protects free speech)
November: Campaign Zero (policy to address police violence)
December: National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Tentatively, I am planning to move away from the national organizations you see listed here for 2018 and give mainly to local organizations.

I am still developing my four-year plan, beyond the financial aspect, and I imagine it will be a work in progress the entire time.  Right now, I am committed to a small monthly donation, participation in local political groups, and some volunteer work. I am trying to do what I can and let go of what I cannot.

Like with donations, I am remembering that I am part of a whole, like a vivid dot in an impressionist painting.  It’s when you step back and see the whole picture that you can appreciate the beauty.