Tuesday, March 22, 2011

You Should Read Cara Hoffman

“…there is no beach down there, and there never was.  That’s not what you find when you go digging.  There are bodies and bones.  Women’s bodies, which first became their coffins at puberty, a skin coffin.  A place from which you will never be heard, except maybe by those who are buried nearby, or those with their ear to the ground.”
 - Cara Hoffman, So Much Pretty

  In high school, I got into a debate on Sex Education with a girl from another school.  It was some future leaders of America something, where the top percent of students from different schools get together to butt heads.  The question of whether to teach contraception quickly became about religion (there are more churches in central New York than schools or grocery stores), with my Born Again best friend leading the abstinence-until-marriage charge.   
A few desks away, a girl with a future Women Studies Major’s enthusiasm led the condom charge.  Spittle flew as she spoke and gestured, blood flushed her face.  She talked about owning our bodies, taking responsibility for our sexual identities, ending the war on women.  She knew more than anyone else in the room and had given all of this serious thought.  Her fervor also scared us all, including the students on her side.
When she mentioned the use of animal feces as a contraception, we giggled.  We were still teenagers after all.  She giggled too, saying, “it’s true,” before heading back to her point.  We needed that tension breaker to hear what she had to say, and she needed it to calm down a bit.
Her passion told me there I was missing something about the world, with my matriarchal Mohawk upbringing, where tota means both grandmother and grandfather, where the men know they exist to season their women's lives, where the eldest woman names each newborn child.  I wanted to know what this passionate student knew.  Hopefully without the spittle.

At Syracuse University, I was accepted as a member of the Peer Sexuality Program.  If a Resident Advisor requested a Sex and Dating Workshop for her floor, the Peer Sexuality Program answered.  When a Fraternity wanted a program on Rape, we were there.  When a Sorority wanted a program on Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Contraception, they called us.
I did all the workshops with various partners (workshops were presented by one guy and one girl), but my two favorites were Homophobia and Gender Issues.  
I don’t remember all of the research and required reading of the Program, but the backbone of these two presentations was Suzanne Pharr’s “Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism.”  I also remember Dr. Charlotte Davis Kasl’s Women, Sex, and Addiction and Sandra Lipsitz Bem’s The Lenses of Gender.
The readings deepened my interest in gender studies.  Moderating folks from the Greek fraternity and sorority system as they discussed all manner of sexuality, these young male and female fish who didn’t know the rigid roles and gender divide in which they swam, made this interest become a life-long fascination.
To give you an idea of how slack my reading on these topics has gotten over the years as I’ve gravitated toward fiction, Self-Made Man has been on my to-read list since it was published in January 2006.  

  Then along came Cara Hoffman’s So Much Pretty.  
  You can read all the non-fiction in the world on a topic but never really feel it.  The everyday horrors of life are so overwhelming they become white noise, then a story comes along and makes them real.

The best stories are mirrors.  They reflect life and shed light into the dark corners in ways that change the reader.  So Much Pretty is one of these stories.  It manages to attack the topic of violence against women without salivating over it, the way so many stories with dead women as central plot points unfortunately do.  It's a page-turning thriller, but look between the lines.  It's also a feminist manifesto.

 Keep your ear to the ground on this one.

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