Podcast: Making Room for Civil Discourse

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.

Learning the Dynamics of Emotional Abuse

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…

Surviving Domestic Violence: Voices of Women Who Broke Free

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.”





The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize It and How to Respond

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!”


Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men

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.

Using First Person Accounts to Understand the Realities of the Working Poor

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:

Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America

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.”


Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

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.”


Working Poor: Invisible in America

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.”

Without a Net: Middle Class and Homeless (With Kids) in America

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.”


World’s Apart Poverty and Politics in Rural America

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.”







If We Want to Bridge the Cultural Divide

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.

Ann Braden and students from Rutland High School at the workshop: “Finding Common Ground on Guns”

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.

Find the Octopus

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?