Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Story that Murdered Dan Anderl

The internet makes connections where none previously existed. For researchers and activists and entertainers, this is a boon. For the paranoid, it can be damnation.

Judge Esther Salas and her son Dan Anderl
I recently discovered the existence of an internet subculture called targeted individuals. I saw strange loose interactions, people talking past each other and rambling about their experiences as victims of coordinated, community-wide stalking, led by the government or by atheists, depending on who was talking. A little Googling turned up a Vice piece on the development of a shared delusion that paranoid schizophrenics have crafted, to try to make logical sense of their experience of the world. Together, they've affirmed that yes, the entire world is watching them, judging them, trying to make them feel that they're crazy. Yes, it's really happening--things in their environment are being moved around or changed, and it must be because somebody is sneaking into their homes and workplaces, making the change, and sneaking out again, and all to make the targeted individuals lose the support and trust of their families and friends.

This shared delusion is--well, it's a little funny, right? In the way we laugh at absurdity. Occam's razor says you just forgot that you set your coffee mug down over there; no team of spies has set up in your neighbor's house for the express purpose of moving your coffee cup. But it's mostly tragic, and I think I can understand the determination to piece together a coherent narrative. It's what all people do, especially all people groups together: we tell stories so that the world makes sense. We have creation myths to tell us what we truly are, what our purpose is, why life is so hard. (We are dust; we are animated by the breath of God; we turned from God and turned on one another in the Garden.) So it makes sense, too, that people whose minds have failed them would need stories to explain what's going on and what it all means. They've just gotten their stories from the most unreliable storyteller possible.

There are other online communities created by people whose minds and behaviors and traditions have failed them. They go there to reassure themselves that this isn't their fault; that it's somebody else's fault; that there's a secret, unspoken system working against them. They are poor, it turns out, because of the Jews and the Illuminati. They are single, it turns out, because all women are drawn by biological imperative to alpha males. They are sick, it turns out, because of 5G and glutamates.

I have intimate experience of this in the pre-internet days. My father, a paranoid schizophrenic, had a series of obsessions to explain his malaise and confusion. He was suffering from mercury poisoning, so he made my mother give him purging chelation IVs at home. He was picking up radio signals from the air, so we all had to wear glasses without metal frames. We were looking at him, so he rushed at us, beating me with his belt buckle, screaming puff-faced and bulge-necked that we were aggravating him.

It's true that he was exposed to mercury as a small child, playing with the shiny liquid stuff that his father brought home from work at an Oak Ridge laboratory. But as an adult, he believed the problem was amalgam dental fillings. He bought some device he billed as a mercury vapor breathalyzer, and drove around town with it, stopping strangers in parking lots and making them huff into a straw. He made a banner with dot matrix paper, filling the back window of the van he lived in with the words

If your dentist uses mercury amalgam, SHOOT HIM!!!

All this to make sense of a senseless life. Without easy connections to other delusional paranoiacs, he had to forge his own brand of fearful, raging insanity, using data gleaned from an analog world. Online, he has turned to end-of-days prophecy. He made a video detailing the star signs that indicated a hail of meteors would destroy the West Coast after the 2017 solar eclipse, and it appallingly went viral, unironic comments trailing below the video praising his insight and the truth he was speaking. In the internet age, his delusions are morphing to coordinate with the data that other delusional people are sharing, crowdsourced insanity.

You don't have to be schizophrenic to take part in a shared delusion, though. We're all vulnerable to getting carried along by a community and its sense-making narrative. We're built to think and act in stories: we join political movements and churches, educational groups and social groups that tell a story about what the world is like, what our place is in it, what everybody else's place is in it. Our economic policies, our child-rearing practices, our buildings and our manufacturing all come from and reinforce those stories: what is the spirit of the American people? What is the shape of God's work in the world? How do people behave under normal circumstances, and how do people behave under abnormal circumstances, and why? What makes us us, and what makes other people different from us? We explore those questions through stories and, the more we tell those stories (about the free market, about Original Sin, about Paleolithic diets and pioneer ingenuity), the more we see the world make sense. The stories that we hold in common with each other explain not only our lives, but all the things that don't fit with our lives, and there's the danger. Those shared narratives tell us why life is so hard, and those shared narratives can make people with ordinary, functional minds turn on their neighbors, from Salem to Jedwabne to Tulsa.

Jump with me over to Denmark in the late 19th century, where Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll's House has just premiered. It's the wrenching story of Nora, a naive middle-class housewife, groomed for a life of idleness, who is drawn into a con by her husband's trusted buddy. When the husband learns his wife has lost his money, he rages at her, and she stands up and rages back, rages that she has been kept stupid and uneducated so that her father and her husband would have a doll to play with, rages at her wasted years and empty head, and she walks out the door (leaving behind her three children because, in this time, women had no right to custody).

The play was a hit in Scandinavia. When it moved to Germany, the ending was re-written. Nora is shown her children, and she breaks down and stays, a palatable narrative for a culture that believed Western society would collapse if women were allowed to leave their marriages.

The real tragedy behind the play is that it was written to redeem the horrific experience that Ibsen's friend Laura had as a Norwegian housewife. When Laura's husband contracted tuberculosis, Laura took out an illegal loan for his treatment and forged a check to pay it off. Her husband responded by having her committed to an asylum. Ibsen recognized that Norway had a narrative of female innocence--a story they told about the fragility and purity of women, and how women needed to be protected from, among other things, financial responsibility and the knowledge of financial matters. This narrative required adult women to be kept ignorant, which of course set them up for error. And when they erred, they were not protected by their innocence. Retribution for failure to live a benign, mild life was brutal.

Of course, most of us couldn't live benign, mild lives if we tried. Only a few of us are born to roles that allow innocence or ignorance; most of us are born working-class, or born men, or both. But that narrative of natural female ignorance and innocence, of our unsuitability for participation in a man's world, of our culpability in the collapse of Western society--that story is alive, on the internet, and it's morphed through the collective delusion of raging men whose lives are hard for reasons they can't understand. Collectively, this subculture has crafted a narrative that we are all slaves to our sexual orientations and gender roles, and that if we'd accept that we could find some peace, but women have departed from their lane, and that's why things are shot to hell. It's because all women have unfair advantages that these particular men are fired from their jobs over and over again; it's because all women have unfair advantages that these particular men have lost custody of their children (the most-reiterated example that Men's Rights internet trolls bring up). When nobody wants a second date with them, it's because all women are wired to have sex with a different sort of man. Into this metanarrative of wrongful female domination, this subculture can fit all the details of their lives--it's a bigger story that explains away their conflicts, their broken relationships, the way every bar in the world seems too high for them to meet.

And so together, in Red Pill and Incel and MGTOW forums, they tell this bigger story, over and over, bringing their daily struggles and their ponderings and their malaise, making the myth bigger and bigger. It bubbles up into the mainstream when somebody fires off a Google memo about how the female brain cannot science, but most of the time, most of us are blissfully unaware of this community.

Until August 4th, 2009.

And May 23rd, 2014.

And April 23rd, 2018.

And November 2nd, 2018.

And February 24th, 2020.

And July 19th, 2020, when self-described Men's Rights activist Roy Den Hollander murdered the 20-year-old son and critically wounded the husband of Esther Salas. First news reports use those phrases that are too familiar: feminazi, the draft, ladies' nights at bars, manosphere. They are part of a story built to make sense of the world by identifying who the villains are (and it's all women who exist in the public eye, and all men who support the dignity of women). They are data points connected into a narrative that is absurd to the rest of us, but which answers the question "Why is this happening to me?" in a way that this community has accepted as patent truth.

I grieve with Judge Salas for the murder of her only child. I grieve with her as her husband fights for his life. For the audacity of sitting as a judge, for the audacity of hearing a case brought by a Men's Rights lawyer, she has suffered an attack that is anything but unprecedented. She is the latest victim of a story that has grown legs. The so-called Men's Rights communities are telling a story about female domination that explains all their woes and then sends them out to homes and yoga studios and city streets with guns in their hands. They are making a sense of the world that turns them on their neighbors. Collectively, as they craft their creation myth, they find their way to the dawn of sin, hissing the first act of cowardice and the first act of cruelty: The woman you gave me; it's her fault.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Maybe it Doesn't Matter if Eden Was a Setup

So I fed the troll and responded to an online question asking why we should all suffer because of something Adam and Eve did. Here's my response, expanded and edited:

There are a lot of ways of reading the story of the Fall. It does seem like a setup, right? “Here’s Paradise. Here’s the one thing you’re not allowed to do, and I’m going to put it right smack in the middle of Paradise where you can see it all the time, and I’m not going to explain why you’re not allowed to do it.”
So many Christians (and Jews) don't read this as a literal account, partially because any story where God is the bad guy needs a grain of salt, and partially because the epic battle of The Almighty God vs. John T. Scopes isn't all that troublesome outside of the Bible Belt. The Descent of Man and the Fall of humanity can coexist in most Christian traditions. (Something most Christians do is read heavily into verse 3:15, folding it into the Prophets and the New Testament to interpret victory over the serpent as the advent of a savior and, finally, victory over the Fall.) But regardless of whether they read the story literally and which other Scripture and traditions the readers bring along with them, most people also read the story as being about big, eternal problems that humanity is mired in. Problems like:
  • We die. What’s up with that?
  • Sometimes people do terrible things and I want to know who to pin the blame on, but the closer I look the more complicated it gets. I don’t like that. Can you tell me a story that pins the blame on women? I’d feel better if I could pin the blame for everything on all women for all of time. [Theologian’s note: You’re reading the story wrong, you jerk.]
  • We do the very last thing we ought to do. Like, we seem compelled, as a species, to just up and do the worst possible thing in any given situation. What’s up with that?
  • We work so hard and still barely have enough to get by. What’s up with that?
  • Romantic relationships. We feel incomplete without each other, so we hook up and then just destroy each other. What’s up with that?
  • God seems so far away. Is that true? Why?

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Greatest of These is Charity

Put your money where your vote is, and you'll become a bigger deal than the president in the lives you reach.

November 9th: Days For Girls, so that women in poverty can continue schooling and work even when there's blood coming out of their wherever.


Monday, November 7, 2016

So, this year I'm not voting. Bring on the hate!

Maybe your first feeling is contempt, or relief because you know I would have voted against your candidate. You may be copy-and-pasting URLs to FunnyOrDie celebrity videos so that I'll be shamed by Adam Scott into voting. To you I say: You may have drunk the Kool-Aid.

We've all drunk some form of it. Very few of us will change our minds about politics because of a rational argument. I didn't vote for George W. Bush in my first election because of reason; I voted because of religion. Ditto Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries and Ralph Nader in the 2008 general election and Jill Stein in 2012. So I'll start by saying that you aren't going to be able to show me the error of my ways here, and I'm not going to be able to convince you to do an about turn, either. What I'd like to do is gain a little of your respect. Please understand that your position—the patriotic position, the position of the responsible citizen who uses the tools given them, the position of the people who vote their conscience—is already broadcast on every channel, streaming on every network, posted on every religious forum, communicated to every child in school. So the nonvoters are probably not just in need of a little education; they've heard the message. Your voice has already been heard, is being heard, and will be heard as long as human government exists. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety-Jig

We used to sing:
One door, and only one, and yet its sides are two:
Inside and outside. On which side are you?
One door, and only one, and yet its sides are two.
I’m on the inside. On which side are you?

There's no line on the ground that shows the change between then and now. I can't identify the moment that I shifted from conservative fundamentalist to progressive Baptist. Or from abuse victim to abuse survivor. Or the moment I changed my mind about the role of women in the Church, or about what it is to be saved, or about how good Sunny D tastes (not good at all, as it turns out). Things changed without my noticing. Some things that were big changed so much that I don't see how I could have developed from the person I was twelve years ago. That was a life I couldn't wait to get rid of. At eighteen, I was off like a shot, five hundred miles away and never going back.
Now I’m going back.

Friday, December 6, 2013

NaNoWriMo: I Did That

nanowrimo.org is an organization that runs writing workshops for youth. Their title event is the National Novel Writing Month, run every November. You sign up and commit to churning out a 50,000 word first draft of a brand-new, never-before-worked-on novel.

So, I did that. I did it for the reason I put down in my NaNo Author Info page:

When I was small, I thought that authors were like gods, generating full-fledged books straight from their minds, like Athena born from the head of Zeus. Then I noticed that some books are very very badly written, and while it shattered my worldview, it meant that authors are human and with hard work and luck, I too could be an author someday.

I'm participating this year because I have a fear that hitting 30 without seriously working on a novel will mean that I'm not actually a writer but just an ordinary working stiff. I turn 30 in December. The challenge is on.

It was not difficult. I created an outline in October, bought a battery-powered word processor for $10 on eBay, and typed like a lunatic during my commute to and from work every day in November. I wrote on the computer while the baby was napping on the weekends. I wrote by hand in the bathtub. And on November 28th, I hit the 50k mark, and paused for a breather.

Emotionally, it's been a little difficult. In the wake of a sudden death in the family, things are strained at home. Revisting many of the lowest points of my childhood for this writing project left me drained, and struggling to keep upbeat and to maintain order in household containing a grieving spouse and tantruming toddler.

But it's satisfying. This is a creative process that parallels my work as an interior designer, from concept to design development to revision and documentation. The pace and phases are familiar and I'm confident that, writing skills and experience aside, the process itself is something I can go through. And five years as a designer has taught me that nearly all the work is revision, and that it's so, so much better to delete the things you loved last week than to hang onto them when they no longer fit your design purpose.

Writing fiction for anyone else's viewing is terrifying to me. A friend who knew about NaNo demanded an elevator pitch, and I froze in place. It's too embarrassing. Everyone has a very bad novel kicking around in her head. I don't want anyone to know I'm one of the everyones. I come up with concepts, create outlines, start writing, tell no one, and get nowhere. NaNo's community and public accountability swept me up and carried me to the first goal.

So I'm putting my synopsis here, because it's time for accountability and concrete commitment, instead of crawling inside of a closet or dresser drawer to write. Don't worry; I won't be posting excerpts here. But I am going to put my goals and progress out for the world to see. The first goal: reach the end of December fully prepped to begin the first revision on January 1st.


"Corey, Someplace Else" takes place in a re-imagined Appalachia, charting the emergence of the title character from his family's cycle of abuse and his exploration of the beautiful and complex world beyond the gates of his trailer park. This YA novel is in the magical realism genre, with a Southern Gothic sensibility.

In the rural town of Culmore Cove, 17-year-old Corey Ellison leaves his mentally ill father and moves in with a pair of austere great-aunts. He explores their century-old farmhouse and finds ghosts and memories inside. When he takes a summer job with a renovation company, Corey puts his second sight to use, identifying properties that carry good memories and those that are haunted by a bad past. He spends his days with a ghost and turns a critical eye on his old friends. As his abilities increasingly disconnect him from the world, Corey reevaluates family roles and the happiness and suffering that are part of living with others. In this hot, lush Tennessee summer, Corey will encounter deadbeat gods, monster catfish, ghosts of the Cherokee, and the night-stalking Wampus cat, and come to terms with the probability that he won't make it to autumn alive.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Montgomery County Public Schools, Eid, and Religious Expression

My grandmother told me how, growing up in Augusta, GA in the '30s and '40s, school was extended to Saturday mornings. She said that it was done to make the Jewish students truant. I don't know the accuracy of this, but it's not implausible motivation for a school system that started each day with a chorus of "Dixie" while saluting the Confederate flag.

Her story was about a system that was created in order to exclude a special population. This week, there's a story making the rounds about a request to change an existing system to accommodate a special population. Parents of Muslim children in Montgomery County Public Schools would like the school system to recognize the holy day of Eid in the same way that the most important Christian and Jewish holy days are recognized: by shutting the schools so that families can perform religious observances together. Read the story here:

The Montgomery Village Patch
WAMU coverage
ABC coverage

WAMU states that while standardized tests are not administered in Montgomery County schools while Muslim students are home observing Eid, other routine exams and quizzes are given.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Writing Exercise Generators

I'll be a world-famous novelist some day. Got a story kicking around. I'll get it down on paper eventually. It's a million-dollar story, and if it weren't for this writer's block it would be done by now. Going to be the next Harry Potter, I tell you. There just hasn't been enough time to get it written, is all. But one day!


Okay, I'm not holding my breath for a movie deal. But I'm knocking the rust off of the cogs in my brain and using the bits of time I do have free to write like a maniac. I spent five minutes staring at a blank page last week, got mad, and made up a list of topics. Then I used a random number generator to select which topics I'd write on. I find I get into the swing of it about forty-five seconds before running out of time.

Update: I've committed to NaNoWriMo and split the generator into two. The outline/plot generator is to help you tinker with your ideas and look at them from a new direction. The scene generator consists of unspecific prompts that can be interpreted in many different ways, to suit your novel. Keep mashing the button until you come up with relevant prompts, or make up your own list. If you leave a comment with a good suggestion, I'll update the list!

Here is the outline/plot generator list:

1. Outline of the story in 15 lines
2. Outline of the story in 7 lines
3. Summary of the story in 3 lines
4. Summary of the story in 10 words or fewer
5. A description of the most critical setting, and why it is critical
6. A description of the most significant physical object in the story
7. The (emotional, moral, spiritual, etc.) takeaway
8. The method you will use to communicate the (emotional, moral, spiritual, etc.) takeaway
9. How you are worried that the (emotional, moral, spiritual, etc.) takeaway might be missed or misinterpreted by the reader, or contradicted by your own writing
10. A description of the main character's biggest obstacle to overcome (or be overcome by), in 1 line
11. A description of the main character's biggest obstacle to overcome (or be overcome by), in 4 lines
12. A list of five events, characters, or themes that you had planned on putting into the story, but which don't fit seamlessly right now
13. Something you know, but which your main character doesn't know
14. The most unpleasant thing that happens in the story
15. The most pleasant thing that happens in the story
16. What the main character wants most at the beginning and at the end of the story
17. What someone else wants most for the main character
18. Describe the kind of reader who would like this story
19. Describe the tone of the story
20. How does it all end? Summarize the conclusion in 2 lines

Here is the scene generator list:

1. The opening paragraph (an alternate opening paragraph if you've already written one)
2. The closing paragraph (an alternate closing paragraph if you've already written one)
3. Introduction of a primary character
4. Introduction of a minor character
5. A character finds something funny
6. A scene that contains an animal
7. Something that happens late at night
8. A near miss
9. A conversation in which the truth is not being told
10. A character's desires are fulfilled
11. Something is not as expected
12. A character performs a new task
13. A character enters a new environment
14. A character settles into something comfortable
15. Something is given up on
16. There is a new plan
17. There is a lost temper
18. Something familiar is different
19. Something is broken
20. Something is found

The Way of Light Wreath

We just received our Way of Light Wreath. This is a spiral candle holder that holds 24 candles, one for each day of Advent. There is a figurine of Mary on a donkey that winds to the center of the wreath as each day is marked.

There are two extension pieces that transform the spiral into a holder for 40 candles. There is a figurine of Jesus to mark the journey from the beginning of Lent to the cross.

 The wreathes are handmade in Canada by a young man named Caleb Voskamp. His mother blogs here. And the wreath can be ordered here.
The wood is beautiful and aromatic. The piece is warm and organic, made with care by human hands.

This is Sophia's second Christmas, but the first one she'll be really aware of. We are looking forward to introducing our daughter for the first time to the cycle of the Church: Anticipation, longing, waiting, following Christ as he moves to the center of our lives.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Madonna and Child and Me: Breastfeeding in Church

It was a lovely sanctuary, golden and glittering, and Sophia charmed the people sitting around us by bouncing up and down in the pew to get a view of the altar. She gabbled during the Creed and crowed during the Alleluia. At the Passing of the Peace, all the little old ladies smiled and told us she was sweet. We kept the hymnal out of reach, but the family in front of us wasn't as quick, and their little one removed #631 and tried to eat it before they could pry the book from her hands. When Mass ended, a middle-aged man came up from where he'd been sitting far behind us.

"Are you new here?" he asked. Ah! How familiar. At Memorial, this is the point where we would be asked if we had just moved to town, and did we have a church, and would we like to grab lunch somewhere, and just say the word if we need anything, anything at all.

"We're from out of town," my mother-in-law said. "We're visiting."

"I have to tell you I was shocked by what I saw today," the man said. "Just shocked. You know, there are women's rooms for that kind of thing." He breathed heavily, huffing and puffing with rage. After a moment of silent confusion, we all realized that he was talking about how, during the homily, when Sophia started to cry, I took out a giant wrap and fed her beneath it.