We Once Were Allies

It is hard these days to not get swept up in the caustic diatribe that daily modern dialogues and public discourse produces. There is a prevalence of fear mongering in everything. Whether it’s your side, or the other, no one is content to just stay with the facts. Our current president is one such obvious example. His language is so intensely ramped up into swaying the masses that the level of dishonesty is so evident that it is insulting to anyone with half a brain, or at least a decent memory.

Never before has the concept of merely stating something, regardless if it is questionable or problematic, been so readily accepted as a plausible means to sway opinion. The mere denunciation of scientific facts and historical reality appear to be the new norm of denial. As if the speaker is the authority on all things and we’re supposed to suspend our beliefs as their statements then become reality by the shear force of repetition. Often yelled loud enough to quell the doubt in everyone’s mind.

It is enough to almost make one shy away from it all. Become withdrawn and unsocial. The prevalence of desiring mundane activities increases and although one cannot just crawl under a rock and avoid it all, one can limit their exposure.

I am guilty of seeking out my avoidances. I tend to get much more involved in my own professions, writing and teaching, as a means to not deal with the world. I disengage from the angry rants on social media, I let go of needing you to believe in what I believe in, and I accept that there are some really irrational people out there with even stranger opinions. It is not the perfect solution, but it helps keep me sane.

Yet I find that even then the tentacles of the angry and disenfranchised will still seek you out. It is not enough to not engage. Because much like today’s political discourse, everything appears to be up for grabs as to whose opinions will rule. And if it is screamed loud enough, while gathering your forces, then you win. It is bullying. It is dishonesty. And it has become the acceptable norm.

Not so long ago I too found myself under one such an attack on social media. It came from out of left field, literally, and I was totally taken off guard. The hurt, the anger, the shame were overwhelming, yet I had done nothing but publicly express a belief contrary to another person. A person who used her position and community to then condemn and crucify me in public, ending ultimately with my losing a teaching opportunity, which of course hurt me financially.

But what actually affected me the most was where this attack came from. The woman who publicly attacked me is the managing director of a “San Francisco-based non-profit that… gives voice to innovative queer and outsider writers and artists whose work authentically reflects the LGBTQA community’s diverse experiences.” Ironically I have supported this organization for ages, I have read for their reading series on numerous occasions since 2009, and the founder is a personal friend. Yet it was at one of their readings that I apparently offended the managing director with a piece that I read about bondage sex, when I described a woman as: “slightly overweight,” and having a “flabby butt.” I didn’t know it at the time, but I had upset her. Which given the circumstances was an entirely odd proposition as their reading was labeled as “The Low and the Vile: an afternoon of low-down, vice-ridden storytelling as we salute the hedonistic outlaw legend of North Beach’s Barbary Coast at the infamous Vesuvio’s Café.” My essay described numerous past awkward drug fueled sexual encounters – which I thought would fit into the “vice-ridden storytelling.”

Yet censorship and prejudice can rear her head no matter what “political” affiliation or beliefs one might have. In her own personal bio this woman describes herself as: “one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image.” My use of descriptive language referring to the woman in my essay obviously caused a festering resentment, yet nothing was ever said to me, and I even read again for the reading series three months later when on tour for my memoir.

Now, segue to a year later, and I’m sending out a mass emailing offering an invitation to my online writing course that deals with writing about eating disorders. A subject I am all too familiar with, as I have suffered from anorexia and bulimia my entire life. This was not a therapy course, but a creative nonfiction writing course that encompassed all aspects of eating disorders, body image, and how they affect us. This is such a loaded topic that it makes for excellent writing material. I am not preaching a certain doctrine, or idea. Anyone may join. My mailing list consisted of every contact I have made throughout my writing and teaching career, reading series included, and even though I am hesitant to send out such an impersonal group emailing, I still need to attract students, and I hit send.

The next morning I see my name mentioned in social media. The managing director has reposted the link to my online course with: “I became really alarmed when I saw that Patrick O’Neil is teaching this course. The first time I heard him read he read from a chapter in his memoir where he tied up an “overweight” woman [sic] the ceiling, upside down so [sic] could give him a bj and then he just left her there so he could score drugs. He routinely writes about how disgusting he finds fat bodies and all the work I’ve heard him read from manages to work in fat phobia somehow. I just wrote him to let him know how alarmed I was that he was teaching this course, to inform him that many eating disorders are fueled by fat phobia, and that I worried about his working with people with ED and definitely about his working with fat people. I am so thoroughly flabbergasted and angered right now. Like I can’t BELIEVE that someone this blatantly fat hating would teach this course. And I don’t know whether it’s appropriate to call the university or what.”

She then rallied her followers to respond to her post by linking them, and they all in turn berated me and what I do: contact the university, boycott, sue him, etc. Somewhat nervously I opened my email. There was more of the same. I closed my laptop and felt shock and betrayal. My self loathing took over when my co-dependency went into high gear. Some of her words rang true. I am fat phobic – I have a deeply ingrained fear of being fat, and severe body dysmorphia because of it. I have been dealing with anorexia and bulimia since I was a pre-teen. I had a mother who was on a continual diet and despised fat people, never hesitating to comment and put them down. Her issues with food got passed down to me and became so intertwined with my desire for a parent’s love and then her ultimate abandonment that I spent the majority of my adult life denying it all with drug use.

Years later when I finally got into recovery I was once again forced to address my behaviors around body image and eating. In doing so I sought out therapy, 12 step groups, and public divulging my struggle through publishing essays. I followed the suggestions of others and became conscious of my body, diet and obsessive thinking. It is an ongoing struggle for me. But unlike my mother, the only fat person that I shame and hate is myself. I didn’t make up my program of recovery, I adopted a proven school of thought that the managing director and her friends apparently did not agree with.

Several emails were sent off to the university where I teach. A “certified therapist” and friend of the program manager claimed she would sue the school if I taught the course, although what she would sue about was vague. In each email I was misrepresented and slandered. My university labels itself as a “non-profit private liberal arts school” supporting “social justice… a sustainable environment and community partnerships” as well as “human dignity and dismantling ethnic biases, heterosexism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, and discrimination based on religious, cultural and political affiliations, and other forms of oppression.” Yet in today’s politically charged environment where it all comes down to public opinion and a dominant social media presence, they caved in. Wanting to avoid any unhealthy press, they canceled my course.

I was stunned, disappointed, and hurt. I had never set out to offend. Although I am not one to worry about being absolutely politically correct either. I was disappointed in my school for not supporting me. I felt attacked and misunderstood. But what really confused me was where this all came from. There was a time when those of us who were not “main stream” stuck together. We supported each other, and if there were differences we worked them out internally. Yet all of that is not how it is now. There is no “them and us” – there is only “us” and that is whatever faction you align with. It doesn’t matter who came before you, or what their beliefs may be. It doesn’t matter their experience, or demographic. If you scream loud enough you can drown them out so that only your beliefs can be heard.

I am not a “certified therapist” teaching a therapeutic course to heal eating disorders, nor did I ever represent myself as such. I recently taught a writing group in a California state prison. These were men that were mostly doing life sentences for murder. They wanted to write about their crimes, and in doing so feel a sense of cathartic relief. I do not advocate murder. I do advocate writing about emotions. Which is the same basic concept that I bring to all my courses, the eating disorder course included.

Also, another very troubling aspect in all of this is the managing director’s objection of language. Are we as writers no longer going to be able to use words that people find offensive in our writing? Because obviously, as she herself stated in her various posts and emails, she formed her opinion of me being “fat phobic” based on how I described a woman in a piece of writing that I read publically. Really? And you manage a reading series? Do all the authors you invite to read then need to get their work pre-approved to fit into your limited view of what is acceptable? If so I do believe there is a word for that, it is called censorship, and sadly this type of suppression is being played under the guise of political correctness.

But no matter how you label it, the bottom line is when people make these kinds of divisions and segregate one section from another they perpetrate their own form of oppression, and attacking people on social media is the new form of this oppression. Not being considerate of other’s beliefs is the new intolerance. Reverse shaming is acceptable if you feel your cause is just. Hate is the new medium of communication. They are just words strewn across the Internet. I don’t have to face you. You are nameless and you do not believe in what I believe in. Sadly, we once were allies, but now you don’t know me, or even care.

This entry was posted on Sunday, October 1st, 2017 at 4:19 pm. Leave a comment. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

White Silence = White Consent: Now Is Not The Time To Be Silent

Let me start this off by totally clarifying my position by simply stating, “Fuck Nazis.” Okay, now that that’s out of the way let’s do this.

Until recently it has been extremely unclear as to where or what I’m supposed to be doing, supporting, or fighting within this “evolving” political landscape we all find ourselves in. Not “unclear” as in should I just reverse everything I believe in and start supporting the rightwing agenda. But still unclear as to where I fit in today. Technically I’m registered as a Green. But on all the BIG elections I end up voting Democrat because there is ALWAYS that last minute (and well calculated) fear-mongering that whatever rightwing candidate is running will win if I don’t fall in line and support the status quo: the Green candidate could never get enough votes, you’re splitting the ticket, blah, blah, blah…. And guess what? I voted Democrat, it didn’t fucking work, and we got a racist/fascist in the White House.

Now normally this is where everyone talks of taking the government back with grassroots getting the vote out and democratic change through the normal tried and true political process… Only the megalomaniac that won the election is systematically dismantling everything (but mostly everything his predecessor accomplished because, well, because Obama’s black) and the bigots are strutting around the henhouse large and in charge. Meanwhile what are the Greens and Democrats doing? Nothing. They’re wringing their hands and crying foul while doing shit all. But what’s really telling is that after the election Nancy Pelosi was asked what the Democrats were going to change in order to come back from such a huge defeat of losing the senate, congress, and the presidency and she said, “I don’t think people want a new direction.” Shit, hearing that just knocked what little hope I still had right out of me. Unfortunately the Greens suck just as bad, Jill Stein is still pointing fingers of blame and completely ignoring what is really happening. And if you’re waiting for the Republicans to suddenly come to their senses and find those “Christian values” they are always yammering on about then you’ll be waiting a very long time. The Grand Old Party is so goddamn stoked to be doing their masters’ bidding they’d let Satan himself run the country and call it God’s work.

Sadly after the election I stopped reading newspapers, which was something I have done everyday for my entire adult life. I just couldn’t stand to see what atrocities were being implemented against the American people on a daily basis. And then there’s the president’s pompous face, his bullying demeanor, calculated inflammatory statements, and condescending attitude, and I just couldn’t start every morning looking at that. If I did my day was ruined. I wallowed in depression, and EVERYTHING felt futile. So my reasoning was that if I just ignore it all I’d be okay.

But when you have an avowed racist in charge and the media sucks up to his untethered fascist swaggering and the opposition cowers… well, it emboldens all the other racists that usually hide behind hoods and websites. Plus it further empowers the already empowered racists, the ones with money and political influence, or the ones in government, or that have infiltrated our police forces and local communities. Not that they weren’t always there. But with the president’s endorsement they now feel comfortable enough to come out publically. And when those images of tiki torch bearing angry white guys burst onto the media it was a total symbol that this had gone from obscure fringe to fully becoming a dangerous element that should not be ignored. As ludicrous as those images were—grown men in matching polo shirts and khaki pants fervently screaming about how their heritage and civil rights were being attacked—they brought home the message that the Nazis are here and worse, they’re feeling bold enough to show their faces.

So how did this happen? A moment I can’t get out of my mind was a conversation I was having with a friend of mine at a local literary event. We were talking about the elections and how racist America really was and I said, “I didn’t realize it is was this bad.” And the look of disdain on my friend’s face was like a punch in the gut because what I was really saying was: as a white person America’s racism isn’t affecting me personally—which is literally the definition of white privilege. Looking into her eyes I saw myself and it wasn’t pretty. How had I gotten so complacent, so avoidant, so uninvolved, so fucking milk-toast-middle-of-the-road-can’t-see-it-from-my-house indifferent? Because that’s “how it happened.” You stay silent when you should speak up and act against. No, let me rephrase that; “I stayed silent when I should have spoken up and acted against.” I left that event questioning what I could do to make a difference, to instigate change, and not sit back and avoid it all until it was too late.

Which brings me right back to where I fit in politically. Up until recently I haven’t been secure enough with my legal status to be politically active. I realize that this might sound like an excuse to many of you, but I’ve been in the firm grip of the criminal justice system before and I do not trust them enough to have my best interest if a demonstration did go terribly wrong and something violent or illegal happened and I was accused and/or involved. So I haven’t been there for Black Lives Matter, or immigration marches, or pro-LGTBQ rallies, or Occupy Wall Street, or anti-Trump demonstrations, or any public displays of civil disobedience. Yet what was self-preservation before had turned into complacency. But I wasn’t always like that.

In the early days of punk rock I worked for a lot of bands that for the most part were radically left wing and politically charged. Our shows were flashpoints for confrontation with the authorities, but also Nazis and skinheads, and I was in physical confrontations with them on a nightly basis. We didn’t tolerate their shit. We fought back. We shut them down.

Years later I was incarcerated in the California Department of Corrections and once again experienced racism and white supremacy on an entirely new and intenser level. The criminal justice system is teeming with white power gangs, prisons are segregated, mixing of the races forbidden, and the pressure to join in is intimidating. Out of the need for support and solidarity I sought out like-minded-non-racist cons, joined a writing group, attended recovery meetings and sat in meditation sessions, all of which were not segregated. In the words of one of my colleagues, “you leave that shit out in the yard.” By not participating in the CDC’s race baiting discriminatory policies I opposed the system and stayed sane, although it took some time to get my head right afterwards.

So really for me this Nazi shit is nothing new. It is just unnerving that right now this very vocal and visible minority feels so empowered. But yeah, if a left-wing anarchist was running the country I’d feel empowered too. Only she’s not and we’re fucked, and I’m stuck looking at images from South Carolina of neo-Nazi storm troopers with shields and clubs, and that shit sends a chill up my spine, and I’m in fear for those I love and hold dear. My community is vast and diverse; a multitude of races, genders, sexual orientations, identities, religions, and beliefs. My wife is of Lebanese descent, which translates to A-R-A-B, and for a lot of those racists, Arab is the hated flavor of the moment, and now this Nazi agenda of hate is coming at me in a multitude of levels, personally and globally, affecting those near to me that I love and surround myself with—and I’ve had enough.

During the election I posted a video on social media where this new Amerikkkan Nazi spokesperson was speaking to the camera and got sucker punched in the head and I immediately received several condescending comments and numerous private message—interesting that most closet racists want to talk to you in private—that basically said this is America and you can’t punch people for their beliefs. Ironically I was horrified by this misconception of what it is we’re actually dealing with here. Yes we have the 1st Amendment. But what part of history has shown us that Nazis just close up shop when logically reasoned with, or given a warm group hug? This is not the time for amicable communication because they are not listening. I have friends who are pacifists. I respect them; they’re beliefs, and their peaceful protest. And while it is good to get out there and represent, I’m convinced that with this new era of white nationalism we’ve got to be more proactive.

So if that’s the case, then what is the solution? For me, right now, it’s using my white privilege for the right reasons, making a stand, speaking up, and sending the message that no matter what name you label this racist faction it’s the same old diatribe of hate and it will not be tolerated. If you preach that fascist shit, you act out in violence, and you inflict your will and beliefs on others I will not stand by silently. I am not afraid of you, and you do not represent me or my values and ideologies. I am not under the illusion that we can all live together when your agenda preaches exclusion, fear, prejudice, and genocide. So do not be under the illusion that because of the color of my skin I’ll hesitate, for even a second, to confront you with whatever means necessary. There are too many people I love, respect, and believe in that you are threatening and when you threaten them, you threaten me. As for those that say, “okay, but what about the big picture, what do we do about the Republicans in charge?” Well, this Nazi shit IS THE BIG PICTURE. We take them out. Then deal with the aftermath. But being silent, letting or hoping that someone else will deal with it, and waiting for it all to just go away, is not the answer.


This entry was posted on Friday, September 1st, 2017 at 11:03 am. Leave a comment. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

There’s a Crackhead at My Window

I don’t mean there’s a crackhead outside that I can see through the window. I mean there’s a crackhead pressed against my office window. He’s up on the ledge, a few feet above the bushes, his face pressed flat against the windowpane, one eye staring down at me, the other wandering. I hear him talking, watch his lips as they move, his breath fogging the glass. I can barely catch what it is he’s saying – the noise of the passing traffic on the street below is loud. But when it subsides I can hear him describing, in detail, a litany of problems, talking about all the people who are out to get him: the police, the FBI, the terrorists and something about an unholy, immoral, Jesus-hating Jahad.

From the pained expression on his face, it’s like I’m looking at a cornered animal, only he’s the one outside, nothing but the sky at his back. I’m the one caught in a room with only one way out.
His wandering eye stops moving. For a millisecond we make eye contact. Then he begins mumbling again.

My phone rings. I answer. It’s the front desk.

“Mister O’Neil?” asks the receptionist, “is there somebody outside your window?”

There’s a crackhead at my window. I can hear his fingers beating an unhurried melodic rhythm against the glass, the rumble of this morning’s traffic accompanying him like a throat singer’s slow vibrato. I can hear the receptionist breathing in my ear, the phone receiver cold and impersonal against my face. There’s some sort of static, there’s an annoying hiss, there’s people talking in the lobby. I want to hang up. I want to ignore everything that’s going on.

“Hello?” she says, “you still there?”

“Yes. Yes, I’m still here.”

“A neighbor from across the street, actually the bartender who works at the bar on the corner, called to report someone lurking on the side of the building. Just to be on the safe side, I had someone from maintenance go outside to check. He said that there’s a man on the ledge outside your office. Is that true?”

There’s a crackhead at my window. He’s busy drawing stick figures in the mist his breath leaves when he blows on the glass. The tip of his finger turns white as he moves it against the window in a circle forming the stick man’s head. I’m wondering if he’s drawing his life story, or maybe it’s a sketch of those people who are out to get him. Either way, before he can finish, the figures disappear, leaving small greasy circular marks.

He looks down at me. I look up and wave, point to the phone, mimicking that I’m busy talking. I get the feeling that he understands, because he goes back to breathing on the window while drumming his fingers. Tap, tap, tap, and then this little double da-da, like he’s dashing out Morse code.

“There’s a crackhead at my window,” I say and listen as the receptionist holds her breath.

“A crackhead?”

“Yeah, I do believe he’s a crackhead. He’s certainly not a speed freak, definitely not a dope fiend, too spaced to be just a pot smoker, and way too coordinated to be a drunk. So yeah, he’s a crackhead alright.”

“What should I do?” she asks.

I hear a phone ringing in the background. Apparently she’s too preoccupied wondering what to do about the crackhead to answer the incoming calls.

“What do you mean, do?” I ask.

“Do you want me to call the police, the firemen, the paramedics…?”

There’s a crackhead at my window. His shadow hovers across my desk blocking out the sun. With one finger he points at me, then he points at his head. There’s so much pain in his eyes, it’s unnerving. He shakes his head and repeats the same cycle, pointing first at me, then his head, me, his head – over and over again.

I put the phone receiver down, stand up, and walk closer to the window.

“What? I’m in your head?” I ask.

He nods yes, blows on the glass, writes “hepl” on the mist his breath has left. I pick up a pad of paper and write the word help and show it to him. He breathes on the window, writes help backwards, and smiles.

I sit down at my desk, the pad of paper still in my hand. I’m thinking maybe I should be feeling all warm and fuzzy after having shared such a tender moment with a stranger, but I don’t.

Looking through the smudged glass I see the crackhead’s scabby face, dried spittle forming lumps at the corners of his mouth, the whites of his eyes, bloodshot and yellow. Behind him the San Francisco skyline: the new federal building, the Holiday Inn, the high-rises of downtown.

There’s a crackhead at my window. He’s standing there and I don’t know what to do. After all what are my options? Give him money so he’ll go away, probably to buy more crack? Call the cops and let them deal with him? Keep smiling, waving, ignoring him until he loses interest, leaves on his own accord? None of these are feasible options, none of them the right thing to do.

The clock reads eleven forty-five. Fifteen minutes until lunch. Fifteen minutes of us staring at one another. I get up, face the window, shrug my shoulders and wave goodbye. The crackhead looks puzzled, like he’d never expected this to happen. I can’t sit here with him standing over me any longer. My office feels strange and I’m beginning to feel self-conscious. My window is now a mass of fingerprints and smudges.

Stepping out into the hall, I run into one of my co-workers.

“How’s it going?” she asks.

“There’s a crackhead at my window” I tell her, then turn and walk into the lobby.
Originally published in Blood Orange Review Volume 2.3, June 2007

This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017 at 10:26 am. Leave a comment. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.