In the The Benefits of Being an Octopus I explore how difficult — yet how necessary — it is to develop friendships cross barriers. This TED Talk by Caitlin Quattromani and Lauran Arledge centers on a great examples of two friends who were able to maintain their relationship in a true and honest way, despite their political differences. It’s worth a listen.
One of the major themes in my novel, The Benefits of Being an Octopus, centers on the power of finding your own voice. Sometimes the obstacles in front of us feel way too overwhelming to tackle. On top of that there is the failure — in public! around people you know! — that can keep us from speaking up. But often if we’re able to push back against that fear, it can be possible to take one tiny step forward. And then another step forward. And another. And before you know it, you’ve grown so big that now the obstacles are looking up at you, and THEY are the ones getting overwhelmed.
Today, I had the good fortune to speak with Chris Lenois of Green Mountain Mornings on WKVT radio and talk about the importance of speaking up in light of the white supremacist gatherings happening in Charlottesville and other places. Even if it’s hard, and even if we’re afraid we’re going to do it wrong, we can’t afford to be silent.
Here is my column that served as the basis for our conversation:
Our collective horror over the events in Charlottesville was deep and palpable. But just as pressing was the question: “What can we do about it?”
One of the videos that made the rounds on social media soon after was a Saturday Night Live clip with Tina Fey eating sheet cake in reaction to the horrors of the news. I’m all for sheet cake, but that cannot be the end of the sentence.
The cake may be the short-term band-aid our soul needs until we can find our way to action, but we must act. Tina Fey urged people to stay home and let the white supremacists march in a vacuum, but our silence will not speak louder than their rallies.
There were no headlines during the Jim Crowe era about the thousands who stayed home and didn’t join the KKK. Instead, the actions of the Klan echoed throughout society, just as the message of the Charlottesville white supremacists could echo throughout our country today if left unchecked. And that is a dangerous prospect.
A call to action issued by the Daily Stormer (a fascist website that has since been taken down by GoDaddy) laid out a clear marketing strategy that draws on the same dynamics in our society that shaped the last election: the swaths of disaffected white men who were taught to bottle up their emotions and assume their superiority, and who, when economic success hasn’t been forthcoming, have ended up angry and eager to blame. The white supremacists are using their voices, trying to recruit. What are we going to do with our voices?
I used to think there were benefits to the way our society’s racism came into clearer focus during President Obama’s tenure because finally whites wouldn’t be able to pretend it didn’t exist, and we’d be able to address it more directly.
But in the week after Charlottesville, it felt instead like opening up this box of ugliness was only going to embolden other racists, anti-Semites, and white supremacists. What happens when people start feeling like it’s okay to say blatantly racist things out loud?
When gripes about “political correctness” really mean that we shouldn’t have basic societal norms that require decency towards our fellow humans? Those social norms are vital for the same reason we have laws that instill consequences for assault and murder. A functional, democratic society can’t exist without them.
But those social norms don’t exist in places where people don’t value them, and they will disappear from other areas if the loudest voices are the ones peddling hate and racism.
And people understand this. When 75 white supremacists rallied in Boston to show their strength, 40,000 counter protesters showed up to march in the name of love and Black Lives Matter.
Last week in Keene, N.H., hundreds lined Main Street in love, lighting each other’s candles and reminding each other to “Be the light.” The day after Charlottesville, 144 folks gathered at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center’s Local Love Brigade event to send love postcards to key organizations in the area.
These voices make a difference. The day the love postcards arrived, we received a note from a woman who works at a Jewish center at UVA expressing her deep gratitude for the postcards and raising the possibility that the student leaders at the center might start a Local Love Brigade of their own. “From kindness, comes kindness,” she said. “From light, to light.”
Together we can drown out those who hate. We need to make it clear to those the white supremacists are trying to intimidate that they are not alone, and that we will never stand by and watch our country become more racist rather than less. We need to talk about it at work, in classrooms, at the grocery store, and at school pick-up. And when a neighbor makes a casual yet racist remark, we need to be ready to respond. Even if we don’t yet feel ready to engage that neighbor in a discussion of racism and white privilege, a simple reply of, “I wouldn’t put it that way” is a decent start. You might be by yourself in that moment, but know that you are connected to a long line a people whispering in your ear, “Be the light.” Because if we care about making our country a more just and compassionate place, silence is not an option.
Ann Braden lives in Brattleboro and serves on the leadership team for GunSenseVT, the Local Love Brigade, and the Windham County Action Network (WeCAN). She writes about the joys and struggles of staying engaged in democracy. She can be reached at email@example.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.
It is important to understand how hard people in poverty are often working. The reality came through loud and clear when I did research for The Benefits of Being an Octopus, and I am glad Betsy Rader is speaking up about her own experiences in her Washington Post Opinion piece: “I was born in poverty in Appalachia. ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ doesn’t speak for me.” Click on the link below to read it in its entirety.
I know that my family lived on $6,000 per year because as children, we sat down with pen and paper to help find a way for us to live on that amount. My mom couldn’t even qualify for a credit card, much less live on credit. She bought our clothes at discount stores. Thrift was not inimical to our being; it was the very essence of our being…
It isn’t a character flaw that keeps someone in poverty. It isn’t their unwillingness to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, it is the very conditions of poverty that keeps them in poverty.
The problem with living in constant economic insecurity is not a lack of thrift, it is that people in these circumstances are always focused on the current crisis. They can’t plan for the future because they have so much to deal with in the present. And the future seems so bleak that it feels futile to sacrifice for it. What does motivate most people is the belief that the future can be better and that we have a realistic opportunity to achieve it. But sometimes that takes help.
Yes, I worked hard, but I didn’t just pull myself up by my bootstraps. And neither did Vance. The truth is that people helped us out: My public school’s guidance counselor encouraged me to go to college. The government helped us out: I received scholarships and subsidized federal loans to help pay my educational expenses. The list of helpers goes on.
In just over a year from now, The Benefits of Being an Octopus (previously titled Zoey and the Screaming Monkeys) will be an actual book. Actual readers will be able to read it.
This is serious.
The cultural divide that exists in The Benefits of Being an Octopus is not one that’s easy to cross, but it is possible. Recently, I had a great conversation with Chris Lenois at WKVT Radio’s Green Mountain Mornings about the work that’s needed for civil discourse and my visit to Rutland High School to find common ground on the issue of guns.
You can listen to the podcast here:
To read the column that prompted this conversation, you can read it here.
The women I know who are survivors of domestic abuse are seriously fearless and inspiring people. When I began the process of writing The Benefits of Being an Octopus it was so important to me to get that aspect of the story right. That meant that even though I was familiar with the dynamics of emotional abuse from my work on gun violence prevention, I needed to do more research in order to get as many perspectives as possible.
Here are some of the books I found helpful…
By Elaine Weiss
“SURVIVING DOMESTIC VIOLENCE tells the stories of twelve women. Each was a victim of domestic violence, escaped from her abuser, reclaimed her dignity, reconstructed her life, and rediscovered peace. Domestic violence doesn’t just happen “out there” somewhere. It happens in our town, in our neighborhood, on our street. It happens to women we see at work, the supermarket, the movie theater, the ballet and the PTA board meeting. Every woman who has left an abusive man—every woman who has yet to leave—will find encouragement and hope in the voices of these women who broke free.”
By Patricia Evans
“In this fully expanded and updated third edition of the bestselling classic, you learn why verbal abuse is more widespread than ever, and how you can deal with it. You’ll get more of the answers you need to recognize abuse when it happens, respond to abusers safely and appropriately, and most important, lead a happier, healthier life.
In two all-new chapters, Evans reveals the Outside Stresses driving the rise in verbal abuse – and shows you how you can mitigate the devastating effects on your relationships. She also outlines the Levels of Abuse that characterize this kind of behavior – from subtle, insidious put-downs that can erode your self-esteem to full-out tantrums of name-calling, screaming, and threatening that can escalate into physical abuse.
Drawing from hundreds of real situations suffered by real people just like you, Evans offers strategies, sample scripts, and action plans designed to help you deal with the abuse – and the abuser.
This timely new edition of The Verbally Abusive Relationship puts you on the road to recognizing and responding to verbal abuse, one crucial step at a time!”
By Lundy Bancroft
In this groundbreaking bestseller, Lundy Bancroft—a counselor who specializes in working with abusive men—uses his knowledge about how abusers think to help women recognize when they are being controlled or devalued in a relationship, and to find ways to get free of abuse.
He says he loves you. So…why does he do that?
You’ve asked yourself this question again and again. Now you have the chance to see inside the minds of angry and controlling men—and change your life. In Why Does He Do That? you will learn about:
• The early warning signs of abuse
• The nature of abusive thinking
• Myths about abusers
• Ten abusive personality types
• The role of drugs and alcohol
• What you can fix, and what you can’t
• And how to get out of an abusive relationship safely
The tricky thing about emotional abuse is that it can easily slip under the surface and make you wonder if it’s really a problem or if it’s just “you.” Here’s an article about the Twitter hashtag #MaybeHeDoesn’tHitYou that also gives a good sense of the breadth and scope of emotional abuse.
I have long been a believer in the power of first person accounts. My Masters-in-Teaching thesis began by focusing on all the problems of history textbooks and then morphed into a 200-page alternative U.S. History textbook that relied entirely on first person accounts. Not only do first person accounts put regular people smack dab in the middle of the story, but they also offer a window into their emotions and allow for us to connect with others in a much more authentic way.
My researching for The Benefits of Being an Octopus followed a similar path. A friend of mine who is a counselor in one our neighborhood schools (all of the schools in our town face high levels of poverty) was bemoaning the fact that there aren’t many books dealing with the kind of reality that these children are facing. That sparked the idea for this book, and soon I was diving into first person accounts about small town and rural poverty and the working poor. I spoke with one of my friend’s colleagues who not only worked closely with these children but grew up with the same issues herself — and I took furious notes. I got stacks of books out from the library and bought even more. When you read and read and read, you are faced with this:
So many people facing nearly insurmountable obstacles.
So many people working to pull themselves up anyway.
So many people who are forced to be fearless.
Here are some of the highlights:
By Linda Tirado
“As the haves and have-nots grow more separate and unequal in America, the working poor don’t get heard from much. Now they have a voice—and it’s forthright, funny, and just a little bit furious.
Here, Linda Tirado tells what it’s like, day after day, to work, eat, shop, raise kids, and keep a roof over your head without enough money. She also answers questions often asked about those who live on or near minimum wage: Why don’t they get better jobs? Why don’t they make better choices? Why do they smoke cigarettes and have ugly lawns? Why don’t they borrow from their parents?
Enlightening and entertaining, Hand to Mouth opens up a new and much-needed dialogue between the people who just don’t have it and the people who just don’t get it.”
By Barbara Ehrenreich
“Our sharpest and most original social critic goes “undercover” as an unskilled worker to reveal the dark side of American prosperity.
Millions of Americans work full time, year round, for poverty-level wages. In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that a job — any job — can be the ticket to a better life. But how does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich left her home, took the cheapest lodgings she could find, and accepted whatever jobs she was offered. Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, she worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing-home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. She lived in trailer parks and crumbling residential motels. Very quickly, she discovered that no job is truly “unskilled,” that even the lowliest occupations require exhausting mental and muscular effort. She also learned that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you intend to live indoors.
Nickel and Dimed reveals low-rent America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity — a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate stratagems for survival. Read it for the smoldering clarity of Ehrenreich’s perspective and for a rare view of how “prosperity” looks from the bottom. You will never see anything — from a motel bathroom to a restaurant meal — in quite the same way again.”
By David Shipler
“From the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Arab and Jew, an intimate portrait unfolds of working American families struggling against insurmountable odds to escape poverty.
As David K. Shipler makes clear in this powerful, humane study, the invisible poor are engaged in the activity most respected in American ideology—hard, honest work. But their version of the American Dream is a nightmare: low-paying, dead-end jobs; the profound failure of government to improve upon decaying housing, health care, and education; the failure of families to break the patterns of child abuse and substance abuse. Shipler exposes the interlocking problems by taking us into the sorrowful, infuriating, courageous lives of the poor—white and black, Asian and Latino, citizens and immigrants. We encounter them every day, for they do jobs essential to the American economy.
This impassioned book not only dissects the problems, but makes pointed, informed recommendations for change. It is a book that stands to make a difference.”
By Michelle Kennedy
“Michelle Kennedy had a typical middle class American childhood in Vermont. She attended college, interned in the U.S. Senate, married her high school sweetheart and settled in the suburbs of D.C. But the comfortable life she was building quickly fell apart. At age twenty-four Michelle was suddenly single, homeless, and living out of a car with her three small children. She waitressed night shifts while her kids slept out in the diner’s parking lot. She saved her tips in the glove compartment, and set aside a few quarters every week for truck stop showers for her and the kids.
With startling humor and honesty, Kennedy describes the frustration of never having enough money for a security deposit on an apartment—but having too much to qualify for public assistance. Without A Net is a story of hope. Michelle Kennedy survives on her wits, a little luck, and a lot of courage. And in the end, she triumphs.”
By Sonja Livingston
“‘When you eat soup every night, thoughts of bread get you through.’ Ghostbread makes real for us the shifting homes and unending hunger that shape the life of a girl growing up in poverty during the 1970s.
One of seven children brought up by a single mother, Sonja Livingston was raised in areas of western New York that remain relatively hidden from the rest of America. From an old farming town to an Indian reservation to a dead-end urban neighborhood, Livingston and her siblings follow their nonconformist mother from one ramshackle house to another on the perpetual search for something better.
Along the way, the young Sonja observes the harsh realities her family encounters, as well as small moments of transcendent beauty that somehow keep them going. While struggling to make sense of her world, Livingston perceives the stresses and patterns that keep children―girls in particular―trapped in the cycle of poverty.
Larger cultural experiences such as her love for Wonder Woman and Nancy Drew and her experiences with the Girl Scouts and Roman Catholicism inform this lyrical memoir. Livingston firmly eschews sentimentality, offering instead a meditation on what it means to hunger and showing that poverty can strengthen the spirit just as surely as it can grind it down.”
By Cynthia M. Duncan
“First published in 1999, Worlds Apart examined the nature of poverty through the stories of real people in three remote rural areas of the United States: New England, Appalachia, and the Mississippi Delta. In this new edition, Duncan returns to her original research, interviewing some of the same people as well as some new key informants. Duncan provides powerful new insights into the dynamics of poverty, politics, and community change.”
The cultural divide that exists in The Benefits of Being an Octopus is very much based on reality. As divided as we might be as a society, we always have a choice: do we turn away from the other half or do we work to bridge the divide? I write a monthly column in the paper, and this month I focused on the work we need to do to create space for those conversations that can lead to mutual understanding.
Commentary: Bridging the cultural divide with civil discourse
We hear a lot about how people with opposing viewpoints need to be reaching across the aisle and talking to one another, but that is easier said than done. Online comments can quickly become fraught and in-person attempts are often so intense that one wrong step can blow up the whole conversation. Both can easily create more polarization rather than less. It’s like we’re between a rock and a hard place. But it is possible to have a truly productive conversation that helps to bridge the cultural divide – it just takes a lot of work.
The first and most important step is to create a space where intimidation isn’t tolerated. Both sides in the conversation need to feel safe and supported. Without that, any already out-of-whack power dynamics are pushed further out of balance. However, this isn’t an easy task. Intimidation can show up full force like in the case of author and Black Lives Matter activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor who faced an onslaught of death threats and was forced to cancel a series of public lectures at the Seattle Town Hall. Or it can show up in more subtle ways with comments that might seem polite but are designed to cut into a person’s respect for themselves and make them doubt what they know. And while intimidation can be pervasive, the simple act of calling it out and standing firm alongside the people on the receiving end makes a real difference. It requires us pushing back on forces that are deeply rooted in our society – racism, classism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry — but it’s the work that’s necessary if we want to have the conversations we need to have. These conversations don’t have to be (and won’t be) comfortable but they do have to be grounded in basic respect.
Once there is a safe space, the conversation’s goal should be to try to find common ground rather than have a debate. Framing the conversation this way makes it far more likely that people come away understanding each other. Debates increase polarization, but once people feel heard and understood, it’s amazing how quickly barriers can come down. Because of this, as hard as it is, we need to repress the deep desire inside us to prove to others that we are “right.” People’s opinions on controversial issues aren’t about to change anytime soon. Some studies actually show that when people are presented with facts that go against their belief about a hot topic, they simply dig in and believe it more strongly. However, if we can make these topics less emotionally-charged, there is hope.
Finally, both sides must approach with a generosity of spirit, one that assumes the best intentions of the other. I was recently invited to give a workshop at Rutland High School about gun violence prevention, and almost all of the participants came to the discussion opposed to any new gun laws. I was nervous, to say the least, but I titled the workshop: “Finding Common Ground on the Issue of Guns” and at the outset I set out basic ground rules, giving an extra star to the one about assuming the best of others. We began with a focus on big picture common ground, agreeing that basically everyone wants communities that are safe and wants their constitutional rights to be protected. From there, we moved into an open and thoughtful discussion about who should and shouldn’t have easy access to guns. One student, whose father owns a gun shop, talked about how some people think that gun shops will sell a gun to anybody, but how his dad’s shop will refuse to sell to someone if they think the gun will be used irresponsibly. Another student spoke about her own experience with mental illness and how that shapes her view of guns. One of the young men who strongly believed everyone (even criminals) has the right to bear arms actually led the class in a round of applause at the end because it had been such a good, fair discussion. It took my breath away.
These students serve as a reminder to us all that even with the toughest of issues good productive conversations are possible. But it takes drawing a clear line in the sand that intimidating others is unacceptable. It means not letting our emotions lead us into a debate. And it requires generosity. In the story of Stone Soup, the community comes together because everyone gives what they can. We might be between a rock and a hard place, but if we add enough love to that rock we might be able to create something remarkable.
In The Benefits of Being an Octopus, Zoey is obsessed with octopus. To her, one of its most enviable superpower is its ability to camouflage itself. You want to see what she means? Check out the octopus in this video.
(And yes, the octopus is right there even at the beginning. See if you can find it.)
Crazy, eh? The octopus makes the Mr. Master-of-Disguise chameleon look like the two-year-old who hides by burying just their face in the couch pillows. Not quite as sophisticated.
Here’s a second clip in which marine biologist Roger Hanlon (who took the first video) talks with Flora Lichtman at Science Friday about how a cephalopod’s skin is able to help make this happen. So cool!
“We’re behind the eight ball, as it were, if we think the world looks like how we see it.”
Isn’t that the truth?