booknotes: see me naked

One of the books I consulted for my thesis was Amy Frykholm's Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (Oxford U.P., 2004). In Rapture, Frykholm traveled around the nation interviewing readers of Tim LaHaye's Left Behind series, exploring the effect of rapture narratives in Evangelical culture. Frykholm -- who grew up Evangelical and now attends an Episcopal church -- studies her former subculture with a keen and empathetic eye. In her latest book, See Me Naked: Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity (Beacon Press, 2011), Frykholm turns to personal narratives of sexuality, embodiment, and Christian spirituality. The slim volume contains nine profiles of Protestant Christians struggling in various ways to integrate their physical, sexual selves with their concepts of Christian "purity" or righteousness.

As much as possible, Frykholm backs away from any larger-scale analysis in the interest of allowing her subjects to make meaning of their own lives. However, it seems clear that all of her interviewees have struggled to integrate their sexual selves with their theological beliefs. Some because they experience same-sex desires, some because they're struggling to live up to demanding Christian ideologies of chastity or modesty, some because anything associated with bodily desires became the enemy.

One of my favorite essays was less about sexual activity or relationships, per se, than it was about our sense of embodiment and the sensual experience of being and expressing oneself in flesh. "Monica" recounts her experience of attending a life-drawing class while studying abroad -- an experience that challenged her understanding of propriety and ultimately helped her re-evaluate her expectations of what beautiful bodies should look like and how women's bodies should behave. At first repulsed by the normal-looking nude model (to the point where she almost dropped the class), Monica perseveres and eventually exhibits her drawings in the college library upon returning to her home campus:
Monica heard two things in the comments [about her art show]. She heard the same fear and revulsion that she had experienced in herself when first encountering the model. It was a disgust that human beings exist in this form ... she also heard in the comments that Christianity and nakedness were incompatible -- that somehow being clothed and being Christian were necessary to each other (84).
At that point in her own journey, Monica has grown enough to be critical of these assumptions, and by the end of the piece has challenged herself to volunteer as a nude model for community life drawing classes -- an act of bravery that seems to be very intertwined with her developing sense of spiritual practice.

What I think may surprise non-Christian readers of these narratives is their familiarity: in many ways, the discomfort with embodiment is a malaise that is more American than Christian, though obviously practicing Christians will express their struggles in theological language. The individuals here struggle with unrealistic beauty standards, with the commercialization of sexuality, with questions of attraction and desire and what their bodies want versus what they're being taught they should want by their parents, youth leaders, peers. The process of coming into one's own bodily self and finding a voice for our desires is rarely an easy one, regardless of the faith tradition we're raised in.

On the other hand, See Me Naked does put those struggles in a particularly Christian theological and social context, and illuminate some of the ways Christian language -- particularly theology which seeks to construct rigid definitions of "right" and "wrong" sexual expression -- fails believers. Reading stories about young women starving themselves to the brink of death in the name of "modesty" and young men told their interest in pornography was sinful, brought to mind the recent post, How Modesty Made Me Fat, by Sierra of No Longer Quivering in which she writes:
Modesty made me “fat” because it defined my relationship with my body in terms of appearance. Not action. Not gratitude. Not the joy of movement. Just appearance. It also defined my relationship with men as one of predator and prey. It was my job to hide from men so that their sex drive would lie dormant, like a sleeping wolf. But if that wolf ever awakened, it was not because it had been sleeping for a long time and its circadian rhythm kicked in, or it was just naturally hungry. It was my fault because I had done something to “bait” the wolf. Just by being visibly female, or by moving in “unladylike” ways. You cannot consider women full human beings unless you recognize that their lives do not revolve around the male sex drive. Modesty is a philosophy that dehumanizes. It incites constant fear and vigilance in one sex while excusing the other of all responsibility. It’s immoral."
See Me Naked offers similar examples of the way in which our religious language falls perilously short in its ostensible effort to increase well-being for all. Naked tells stories of women starving themselves close to death for the sake of being pure, stories of women and men who feel lost when faced with the task of integrating queer attractions with their Christian faith, and stories of men who are taught to hate and fear their feelings of sexual desires as something inherently impure or incompatible with living a righteous life.

At the very end of See Me Naked, Frykholm does offer some reflections on an alternative ethic of sexuality, one that I think is worth contemplating whether or not you're interested in the explicitly Christian language in which she couches her suggestions. "True, deep, real pleasure is an avenue to the Holy," Frykholm writes. "Through discernment, wonder, and aliveness we will know what real pleasure is ... and when we sense true pleasure, we will trust it and be able to act bodily in it and with it." She recounts the counsel of a parent to her soon-to-be adolescent daughter, "Your body will know more pleasure than you can even now imagine. You are going through a period when your body is going to learn to feel pleasure, and you will be amazed" (176)  While I'd argue that children, too, have the bodily capacity to feel pleasure -- though of a different kind than adults -- I like this invitation to an emerging teenager to embrace that part of her growing-up. Too often, we're quick to associate teenage embodiment with danger, not pleasure. As Frykholm says, "We all know that puberty, adolescence, adulthood are not solely about pleasure ... But pain we know well. Pleasure we sometimes need help attending to" (177). Such an invitation crosses the boundaries of faith traditions and is a reminder to us all how much better we could be, as a culture, at living embodied and joyful lives.

Cross-posted at the oregon extension oral history project blog.


harpy fortnight: season of thanks

I'm finally getting around to posting a round-up of Harpyness posts for the first time since October 2nd. Sorry folks! But it's actually been kinda a slow season for everyone over at TPoH, so the links haven't been accumulating too fast. Here's what I got for y'all:

I think blogging will likely continue to be sedate through the holiday season, as we all balance our personal, professional, and online priorities. As always, you're welcome to hop on over to Harpyness to check out all the conversation in situ there.


thank yous: thesis edition

Maggie + wood stove (October 2004)
photograph by Anna
One of the most enjoyable parts of writing my Master's thesis was pulling together the acknowledgments. Since it's unlikely everyone who appears therein will read the thesis in full [PDF], I'm reproducing the acknowledgments here. 

It should go without saying this is far from everything I have to be thankful for this year, but it's a damn good starting place. 

May your holiday weekend be peaceful and content, wherever and with whomever you may be.

As a reader, I often turn first to the acknowledgments when evaluating a book.  It is here that one gets a true sense of the solitary author working in a densely-woven web of social and intellectual relationships, one that often fades into the background with an author’s solitary byline.  For while it is accurate to say that I crafted this thesis myself, and that the analysis herein is my own, the thinking and writing I have done over the past three years would not have been possible without the myriad conversations, generous support, timely encouragement, articles and books shared by my friends, family, and colleagues. As my partner, Hanna, points out, “alone” is not the same as “lonely,” and although I have written this work alone, many, many people deserve the credit for making sure that I seldom felt lonely or worked in intellectual isolation.

O.E. class of  '75
Without my oral historical narrators, of course, I would have no primary source material to analyze and thus no story to tell.  My gratitude belongs first and foremost, then, to Sam and Pat Alvord, Randy Balmer, Doug and Marj Frank, Mark Evans, Anne Foley, Alison and Phil Kling, Rebecca McCurdy, Sogn Mill-Scout, Paul Norton, Jim Titus, and Randy Wright for sharing their memories of the Oregon Extension and the contents of their personal archives.  Particular thanks are due to the folks at Lincoln for hosting me during my research trip in March, 2010, when we recorded the majority of our oral history interviews. Thank you also to Doug Frank and Sam Alvord giving me access to administrative records and personal papers from the early years of the program; to alumni Phil Kling, for sharing notes, papers, and other ephemera from his student days; and to Alison Kling and Jim Titus for generously sharing their photographs from the early years.

My thesis advisers, Laura Prieto and Sarah Leonard, have been invaluable and professional support throughout the research and writing process. It was my [admissions] interview with Laura back in July 2006 that convinced me I would be able to complete the research I had in mind under the auspices of Simmons' History Department. She has been unfailingly supportive throughout my tenure at Simmons, giving my research notes and early drafts careful and insightful readings.  Any remaining weaknesses in my thinking and writing are, needless to say, my own responsibility. Sarah, meanwhile, deserves particular thanks for allowing me to hijack her seminar in Modern European History in order to write a paper on American psychologist Carl Rogers, one of the influential educational philosophers whose work inspired the Oregon Extension's founders.  Her passion for intellectual history and the dedication with which she approaches her vocation are almost enough to make me reconsider the teaching profession.

Boston skyline across the Fenway Gardens
(December 2007)
I would like to remember the late Allen Smith who developed and taught a course in oral history at Simmons Graduate School of Information and Library Science, and whom I was privileged to study under during his final semester of teaching. His work at Simmons College paved my way with the Institutional Review Board, whose familiarity with oral history research saved me the anxiety and frustration many oral historians face when applying to do human subject research. I also wish to thank Gail Matthews DeNatale, oral historian and former faculty member at Simmons, whose experience and advice helped to shape my thesis proposal in its early stages.

Reaching backward in time to my undergraduate years at Hope College, I wish to recognize my colleagues on the Aradia Research Project, as well as the Aradians themselves, who served as my hands-on introduction to feminist-minded oral history and ethnographic research and who encouraged my enduring interest in the experience of those who live in intentional community.

The outstanding faculty of my alma mater, Hope College, were in many ways responsible for taking the enthusiastic autodidact I was at age seventeen and encouraging me to direct and hone that passion into something I could honestly consider a craft and a vocation. Poet and creative writing teacher Jackie Bartley first opened the door to creative nonfiction to me, suggesting that dedicated research and analytical writing could use the power of the particular to connect us to the universal.  It was Jackie who first suggested I consider attending the Oregon Extension. Thanks is also due to Lynn Japinga for introducing me to oral history methods during a summer spent transcribing her oral history interviews with Reformed Church clergy, as well her determination to offer classes in feminist theology in an often-hostile academic environment. Without her introduction to religious history, I might not have paid such close attention to the nuances of
religious thought and practice at Lincoln. My undergraduate adviser, historian Jeanne Petit, taught my first history class (20th Century American Women’s History) and was the first to suggest I consider graduate school. She has since become a colleague and a friend. I must also extend my gratitude to Natalie Dykstra for her friendship and enthusiasm, for her love of Boston, and for teaching a course on autobiography that was – hands down – one of the most electrifying intellectual experiences of my college career. Her training in the interpretation of personal narratives has stood me in good stead throughout the research and writing of this thesis.

Former colleague Jeremy Dibbell
(December 2007)
I must recognize my colleagues at the Massachusetts Historical Society, particularly past and present members of the Library Reader Services department, who have been unblinking in their support of my research – including covering for me while I spent two weeks out West doing fieldwork. It is impossible to say how grateful I have been these past four years to work at an institution that recognizes my labor as an historian as well as a reference librarian.

I would like to thank colleague Aiden Graham for offering to loan me recording equipment, and for timely technical advice including helping me figure out how to wiretap my phone for long-distance interviews. Thanks, also, to Linnea Johnson and the GSLIS Tech Lab for the loan of a netbook that would otherwise have cost me hundreds of dollars this poor graduate student didn't have.  The Simmons College Student Research Fund, likewise, awarded me a travel grant that helped alleviate the financial burden of my fieldwork in Oregon. Valerie Beaudrault’s assistance in the Office of Sponsored Programs ensured that my application for funds was complete and submitted in a timely fashion.

My father and mapmaker extraordinaire, Mark Cook, is responsible for the beautiful customcreated maps that grace the pages of this thesis: without him, my visual representations of the Oregon Extension as a geographic place would have been awkward and, in all likelihood, inaccurate. My mother, too, has my undying gratitude for first introducing me to the work of John Holt, Ivan Illich, A.S. Neill, and other activists in the free school movement of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as to the history of intentional communities and their intersection with child-rearing and educational practice. Moral and intellectual support and good-humored camaraderie came in full measure from two founding members of the Secret Feminist Cabal, Ashley Minerva LeClerc and Laura Cutter, and from fellow oral historian, kick-ass librarian Diana Wakimoto. Y’all rock.

A slightly different form of support came from Geraldine, the feline member of our household, who took a keen interest in my work and sat on my notes, on the keyboard, and occasionally on my hands in order to ensure that work never took precedence over chin-scratching and the dispensing of kitty treats.

Finally, a few words for Hanna, who stoically endures my mania for American countercultures, Christian subcultures, and the history of utopian thought. Thanks for flying solo for two weeks while I was off collecting interviews in Southern Oregon, for taping useful PBS documentaries, for forwarding promising book reviews, for teasing me about garish 1970s cover art. Thanks for the proof-reading, the cheer-leading, the bottomless supplies of tea, wine, and baked goods. Thank you for letting me cry on your shoulder and for pointing out (quite rightly) that if I didn’t finish this project I would always wonder.

Thanks for helping me keep it all in perspective.

I moved to Boston in 2007 to write this thesis, not fall in love. I found you here, sweetheart, so in the end I did both.


nano update: week three

I'm closing in on my own personal goal of 25,000 words for the month of November, folks! On this Tuesday before Thanksgiving, my official count is 18,444 and the only thing standing between me and completion is the complete sixth season of Doctor Who (I KNOW) and a Tofurky with orange-cranberry relish.

I had Hanna beta the impromptu Breakfast in Bed Challenge from last week and posted that to AO3 on Friday night, so you can go read All That the Garish Week Hath Scattered Wide if you want canoodling and nakedness and a pesky cat.

The five-times-plus-one fic is done but for the second half of the sixth part, which Hanna said on the walk to work yesterday was much to complicated a math problem for early in the morning. With the NaNo word-count whip behind me, it's by far the lengthiest installment of my Sybil/Gwen series to-date. But I also happen to be rather fond of it, and the plottish bit finally, finally gets them to London which is definitely where I wanted the series to take them.

Hanna has requested that I create Branson a boyfriend, since I've taken Sybil away from him. So that will obviously have to be done at some point. My first foray into m/m erotica? We'll find out the limits of my smut-writing abilities!


chai rose water cookies

Last May when Hanna and I were in Holland (Mich.) I ordered a drink at lemonjello's that was a chai latte with a shot of rose flavoring. Heaven on earth. The problem is, rose flavoring is a rare offering at coffee shops and not the sort of thing that's easy to find at grocery stores, even a number of our favorite specialty shops here in Boston. But this morning Hanna and I were in Harvard Square for coffee and window shopping + actual shopping and I found rose water at the fabulous Cardullo's. So tonight we decided to make cookies using rose water, and found the following recipe on the Food Network website. We followed it with slight tweaks, so here is the altered version:


2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 cup canola oil
1 tablespoon rosewater


Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit

1) Combine flour and spices in a bowl and set aside.

2) Cream butter and oil and brown sugar, mix in rose water.

3) Add dry ingredients 1/2 cup at a time until fully incorporated. Cookie dough will be crumbly, like a dry pie crust dough.

4) Use hands to form walnut-sized balls of dough and place on a cookie sheet roughly 2 inches apart.

5) Bake for 15 minutes and use spatula to transfer cookies to wire rack for cooling.

Serve with warm milk and/or chai tea.


congratulations doctor jay!

Joseph Tychonievich, Ph.D.
(taken May 2005, wearing my hat)
Earlier today, my friend Joseph successfully defended his PhD dissertation in horticulture, plant breeding, and plant genetics before his advisory committee at Michigan State University. We're drinking a fine zinfandel tonight in his honor. Congratulations!

Verbena bonariensis with bronze fennel
photo by Joseph


nano update: week two

So they have the widgets up this week, but I'm not sure I'm all that thrilled with them. The color scheme is unimpressive. Still. Here ya go. As of this morning I have 13,880 words written toward the official goal of 50,000 and my personal goal of 25,000.

I like the screenshot a bit better. Perhaps I'm just vain?

This past weekend, I wrote a 3,300 word "plot? what plot?" bit of fan fiction at the request of a friend of mine, which accounts for a fairly large chunk of the total gain made. I'll probably edit it tomorrow evening and post it to AO3 if anyone is feeling deprived of Sybil/Gwen smut and wants something to look forward to for mid-week. It's about as plot-what-plot as I think I'll ever be capable of writing. Let's just say it involved doing some Google searching for the date upon which the zeppelin raids began on London (to ensure that leisurely morning sexytimes wasn't historically inaccurate) and to verify the name an inception date for Sylvia Pankhurst's East London Federation of Suffragists (yes, the acronym really was ELFS).

Happy writing everyone!


nano update: week one

The NaNo site doesn't have word count widgets this year, so I resorted to a screenshot this morning. I'm actually further along than I thought I'd be at this point -- so yay?

I've been working on two new installments of my How She Loved You series (posted at AO3), which is Sybil Crawley/Gwen fan fiction series building loosely on the events from season one of Downton Abbey and, you know, inventing liberally thereafter. I'm currently about 5K and three sections into a 5+1 fic ("Five times Sybil and Gwen parted before dawn and the first time they didn't have to"), a piece about Sybil painting Gwen's portrait, and a longish plottish piece filling in Gwen's back story (complete with Tragic First Love).

Hanna, as usual, has demanded there be orgasms at regular intervals for both main characters, so for those of you yearning after femslash rest assured that this is Porn With Plot and/or Plot With Porn on an installment-by-installment basis.

Any of you participating in National Novel Writing Month? How'd the first week go for y'all this year?


nanowrimo 2011 commencing in 3...2...1...

Today is November 1st and thus the beginning of National Novel Writing Month 2011. As I wrote at The Pursuit of Harpyness last Thursday, I'll be participating this year for the second time (my first year being 2009).

For those of you unfamiliar with National Novel Writing Month, basically it's an opportunity to join thousands of other amateur fiction writers in solidarity as you try to write 50,000 words of fiction between midnight on November 1st and 11:59pm November 30th. A lot of people attempt a full-length novel, but me I've got some fan fiction planned and maybe some non-fanfic erotic short stories I've had kicking around for a while in the back of my brain. We'll see. I'm not particularly gunning for the full 50k, but I'd like to contribute as many words as possible to the overall pool of creativity the event sparks. So ... the upshot is that y'all may not be seeing so much of me between now and the end of the month. My goal is to keep writing at least one post a week here at the feminist librarian -- either a book review or a "thirty at thirty" post. I've already got a virtual book tour event later in the month that I'm committed to (Rachel Kramer Bussel's new anthology Women in Lust!) as well as a couple of advance review items I want y'all to know about (Gayle S. Rubin's collection of essays, Deviations, and Jeanne Cordova's memoir When We Were Outlaws). So look for those reviews in upcoming weeks. I'll also continue posting links at the feminist librarian reads and writing at least one post a week over at The Pursuit of Harpyness. Hanna and I also continue to post three fan fiction recommendations per week at everything is gay and nothing hurts. Plus, obviously, harassment by email is always an option for those of you who miss me!

In the meantime, I hope all of you have a cozy and creative November -- and we'll be back to our regularly scheduled programming sometime around December 1st.