Title: Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved My Life
Author: Christie Tate
Date Read: December 27, 2020
One and a half snaps.
It is a trope in several films you have likely seen. Pan by the long table with donuts and black tar coffee poured from a large silver urn into small white styrofoam cups; move toward the middle of a large, nondescript room– an abandoned classroom or a large hall in the basement of a church… land on a circle of chairs in the middle. This is group therapy. It is also the central setting of Christie Tate’s memoir: Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved My Life.
Tate’s invitation to her own personal experiences with years of group therapy, under the direction of Chicago’s Joseph Rosen, is unadulterated and unashamedly honest. Tate was a top-of-her-class lawyer and workaholic that just could not seem to get her personal life in order. Dr. Rosen promises healing from several hours of weekly group meetings. Christie is skeptical, insisting that that she is defective, beyond cure. But Dr. Rosen issues a nine-word prescription that will change everything: “You don’t need a cure. You need a witness.” She has witnesses in the circle, but each reader adds to those who will attest to her unravelling and the miraculous arc of her healing journey.
We do bear witness to Chrsitie’s bulimia, her childhood sexual trauma, her relationship disasters, and sex that makes her feel bereft and dirty. The group has no rules around disclosure or fraternizing with others from group. Indeed, we find out that Tate had an affair with a married man from group– a relationship she subsequently points to as evidence that Dr. Rosen is not helping her as he promised. But Rosen’s aloofness, his quirky prescriptions, and the weight of the group puts Christie right again.
Christie Tate is a writer and essayist. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post,The Chicago Tribune, Pithead Chapel, McSweeney’s, Motherwell, Entropy Magazine, A Perfect Wedding, Together.com, Brain, Child and others. Now married and a mother of two (see Epilogue in Group), she wrote a viral essay about her daughter asking her to stop writing about her on the internet. Read it here.
Title: White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White Poeple to Talk About Racism
Author: Robin Diangelo
Date Read: August 27, 2020.
White people can’t really talk about racism. Racism is a loaded and pejorative term that white people go out of their way to shun. The fragility arises in attempting to deflect hard conversations about race by insisting they are ‘colour-blind’; ‘that they don’t see race’; ‘that they were taught to treat everyone equally’; ‘that they have black friends.’
DiAngelo addresses her book mostly to white people, and she reserves her harshest criticism for those whom she sees as refusing to acknowledge their own participation in racist systems. She makes clear that: “[r]acism is deeply embedded in the fabric of our society. It is not limited to a single act or person. Nor does it move back and forth, one day benefitting whites and another day (or even era) benefitting people of color. The direction of power between white people and people of color is historic, traditional, and normalized in ideology. Racism differs from individual racial prejudice and racial discrimination in the historical accumulation and ongoing use of institutional power and authority to support the prejudice and to systematically enforce disctiminatory behaviours with far-reaching effects.” (DiAngelo, 22).
One of the most potent ways that white supremacy is propagated is through media representations which have a profound impact on how we see the world. The people who write and tell these stories (and who are predominantly white, upper class, males) help shape our worldview. All of our societal systems create an inequity that favours and privileges white people. “At the most general level, the racial frame views whites as superior in culture and achivement and views people of color as generally of less social, economic, and political consequence; people of color are seen as inferior to whites in the making and keeping of the nation. At the next level of framing, because social institiutions (education, medicine, law, government, finance and the military) are controlled by white, white dominance is unremarkable and taken for granted (DiAngelo, 34).
Most white people have limited information on what racism is and how it works. But they almost always have predicatable reactions to the suggestion that they benefit from, and are complicit in, a racist system. These reactions are characterized by emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and by behaviors including argumentation and silence. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue.
Watch this quick video in which DiAngelo explains how white fragility reinforces racism.
The current climate in the United States makes this book extremely important and timely. We need to be open to real conversations about race.
In some ways, what has unfolded on the streets of Kenosha, Wis., over the past week has had a wearying sense of familiarity. There was another demoralizing shooting of a Black man by the police, another angry outcry in the streets, another disturbing trail of destruction that had the potential to overshadow the message of the need to end police violence and racism.
Trevor Noah asks in this video: “Why was Jacob Blake seen as a deadly threat for a theoretical gun, while this gunman, who had already shot people, was arrested the next day and treated like a human being whose life matters?”
Simply, white supremacy. Which means white people need to start having real conversations about race. Use DiAngelo’s book as a tool to help navigate real ways to start these important conversations with an open heart and a willingness to accept feedback with grace and a desire to move us toward equality instead of division.
Alicia Elliott’s collected essays explore a large array of topics that include but are not limited to: poverty, domestic violence, sexual abuse, inter-generartional trauma, colonization, gender, parenthood, mental illness, and racism. Elliott writes with searing precision and a captivating prose. She makes clear perspectives and positions that are often overlooked and underexamined.
Her work posits essential questions about the treatment of Native people in North America while drawing on the intimate details of her own life and experience with intergenerational trauma. What is the relationship between depression, colonialism and loss of language — both figurative and literal? How does white privilege operate in different contexts? How do we navigate the painful contours of mental illness in loved ones without turning them into their sickness? Elliott skillfully navigates these complex problems with intelligence, thoughtfulness, and honesty.
Not only is this an enjoyable read– it is necessary for your anti-racist education; your better understanding of mental illness and a clear vision of how poverty and colonialism link them all.
This book will make it’s way to my classroom bookshelf to be shared widely.
Title: Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
Author: Brene Brown
Date Read: June 26, 2020
You have likely heard of Brene Brown from her powerful TED Talk on the power of vulnerability. Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston who studies and writes about courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. This book picks up on the vulnerability thread.
While vulnerability is the birthplace of many of the fulfilling expereinces we long for– love, belonging, joy, creativity, and trust, to name a few — the process of regaining our emotional footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values are forged.
Brown, p. xviii
In each of our lives we face situations where we need to rumble with our emotions, and the enivitable stories we make up as we work to handle them. The emotions we feel in response to the shame, guilt, anger, and heartbreaks in our lives require that we address our thinking about the situation, how we feel and how we are behaving– and know that all of these are connected.
Brown writes that our desire to make up stories is a primitive survival wiring. In the absence of data, we make up stories. Meaning-making is our biology. This struck a chord for me. I don’t know about you, but I have (on more than one occasion) written the screenplay dialogue between myself and a person with whom I was in disagreement with. I could tell you why my boyfriend acted a certain way; the response my roommate would give to my complaints; the story behind a co-worker’s behaviour; and on and on. Truthfully, I wasn’t often very good at it. The second thing that seized my attention was her own row with an idea given to her by her psychiatrist in response to a situation she had been in. Instead of taking sides (as Brene had hoped she would) she instead asked her if she believed that people are really just doing the best they can. Brene shirked this explanation with fury but set out to test the theory. The best summation came from her own husband: “I don’t know. I really don’t. All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.” (p.113). I love that thinking, and it was a true take away from this book.
As Brown notes, “We make up hidden stories that tell us who is against us and who is with us. Whom we can trust and who is not to be trusted. Conspiracy thinking is all about fear-based self-protection and our intolerance for uncertainty.” Problem is, these stories distort how we relate to others.
But it isn’t that we should not capture these first stories– we should. But we need to interrogate them more closely and look at what’s really there. We need to be honest about the stories we make up about our struggles, to revisist, challenge and reality check them. This is rumbling with a problem– owning it, looking at the stories we are making up, and getting curious about why we are thinking and feeling that way. This spoke to me. I had written lots of “shitty first drafts” (Brown, p.85) about all kinds of things– but many of them did little capture the real essence of the situations I found myself in. In fact, they often distorted reality and caused further damage.
The Rising Strong Process is really quite simple, but transformative. The goal is to rise when we fall, overcome our mistakes and face our hurt in a way that brings more wisdom and wholeheartedness to our lives. First, we need to recognize our emotions and get curious to figure our how they connect with how we think and behave. Second, we need to get honest about the stories we make up and challenge confabulations and assumptions. Last, write a new end to the story based on what we learned from our rumble. Then, use this new story to transform how we live, love, parent, and lead. (Brown, p.37).
This book came highly recommended to me, and I highly recommend it to you.
I think I would like to be friends with Glennon Doyle. She is thoughtful, intelligent, and fierce. She reminds me of many women I am lucky to call friends.
She also has a unique back story that make her all the more interesting to listen to. She suffered with bulimia, alcoholism and drug addicition. She became pregnant and vowed to overcome her addicitons and be the best mother she could. What followed was a prescribed Chrsitian path; she married, had more children and then became a Christian mommy blogger and successful writer.
But, after her husband cheated on her and threw her marriage in to closer inspection , she fell in love with Abby. She is now in a loving marriage with a woman and sharing the raising of her children with her ex and her new partner, whom the children refer to as a bonus mom. I love this picture of Abby’s sweatshirt proclaiming her status.
Untamed begins with an explanation of a metaphor that she weaves throughout several of the essays contained in her book; about Tabitha the Cheetah. She talks about visiting the Cheetah Run at a zoo. The zookeeper explained the training they gave Tabitha, and Glennon felt sick to her stomach as she thought of how Tabitha had been tamed– and that she must miss the wild.
“I knew what she’d tell me. She’d say, “Something’s off about my life. I feel restless and frustrated. I have this hunch that everything was supposed to be more beautiful than this. I imagine fenceless, wide-open savannahs. I want to run and hunt and kill. I want to sleep under an ink-black sky filled with stars. It’s all so real I can taste it.
Then she’d look back at the cage, the only home she’s ever known. She’d look at the smiling zookeeepers, the bored spectators, and her panting, bouncing, begging best friend, the Lab.
She’d sigh and say, “I should be grateful. I have a good enough life here. It’s crazy to long for what doesn’t even exist.
Tabitha. You are not crazy. You are a goddamn cheetah.” (Doyle, xv-xvi).
It is in this spirit that Doyle uncovers what tames us– what keeps us from what we are longing for. Our work to be good mothers, partners, daughers, employees, friends– we strive so hard to be good, and deny that this work actually makes us feel weary, stuck and overwhelmed. Doyle offers her insights in a series of short essays where she unpacks the thinking that blocks women– the cultural conditioning and institutional allegiances– they are cages, and we don’t have to stay in them. Untamed is a feminist manifesto; a parenting handbook; an introspection; a love story; marriage counselling; and thoughtfully and beautifully written. It should be on every woman’s to be read pile.
Glennon Doyle is also the founder of Together Rising. Together Rising exists to transform collective heartbreak into effective action. It has raised over $20 million for people in need with a most frequent donation of $25. They have taken on projects such as pulling children out of the sea outside of refugee camps in Greece, providing a single mother access to breast cancer treatment, or reuniting families at the U.S. border. She speaks of the foundation’s work in her book, but you can also find and follow on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
This. This is the history book, that’s not a history book– but a narrative about race interspersed with the history of why black people have been oppressed in the United States; needed by every child of this generation who might have a chance to change it.
You have heard my rally cry about why Jason Reynolds is the best Young Adult writer writing for teenagers right now. And if you haven’t, read here, here and here. This partnership with Ibram X. Kendi is no exception.
Award-winning historian Ibram X. Kendi wrote Stamped from the Beginning, in it, he argues that racist ideas in America have a long and lingering history, one in which nearly every great American thinker is complicit. As Kendi provocatively illustrated, racist thinking did not arise from ignorance or hatred. Racist ideas were created and popularized in an effort to defend deeply entrenched discriminatory policies and to rationalize the nation’s racial inequities in everything from wealth to health. This is a remix of Kendi’s book. A book written especially for young people.
In the first chapter, Reynolds invites his readers in (in his usual, laid-back, ultra hip way) by explaining: “Before we begin, let’s get something straight. This is not a history book. I repeat, this is not a history book. At least not like the ones you’re used to reading in school. The ones that feel more like a list of dates (there will be some), with an occasional war here and there, a declaration (definitely gotta mention that), a constitiution (that too), a court case or two, and of course, the paragraph that’s read during Black History Month (Harriet! Rosa! Martin!) This isn’t that. This isn’t a history book. Instead, what this is, is a book that contains history. A history directly connected to our lives as we live them right this minute. A book about the here and now. A book that hopefully will help us better understand why we are where we are as Americans, specifically as our identity pertains to race.” (Reynolds & Kendi, p.1-2). Reynolds has a way of engaging young readers, and that’s exactly why he was chosen to remix Kendi’s book.
Reynolds delivers on his promises. Stamped presents the history of America’s racial inequities spanning the period from 1415 to the present. In his unique style, Reynolds offers historical facts alongside the narratives of the people, the politics, and the popular culture that shaped the racist beliefs that have endured. He also recounts the courageous battles fought by those who eschewed simply ‘fitting in’ and assimilating in favour of an antiracist future that would embrace Black people as fully human and equals in their country. He does it, all the while speaking directly to his readers: “But whenever people rise up against bad things, bad things tend to get worse. You know the old saying, When the going gets tough, the tough get… racist. Or something like that.” (p. 24); “People like Benjamin Rush, a physician from Philadelphia who wrote a pamphlet saying that Black people weren’t born savages but instead were made savages by slavery. Record scratch. Pause.” (p.45-6); “And the president at the time, Woodrow Wilson, feared that beig treated decently overseas would embolden Black soldiers. Make them too big for their britches. Make them expect fair treatment at home, the home for which they’d just risked their lives. Let that sink in.” (p. 142). Reynolds never forgets his audience.
Title: Kids These Days: A Game Plan for (Re)Connecting with Those We Teach, Lead & Love
Author: Jodi Carrington PhD
Date Read: April 1, 2020
This was a staff book club pick– and a real winner! When we came together (on Zoom) to discuss it — it had our unanimous praise.
If you have not heard of Dr. Jodi Carrington, you are in for a treat. Carrington hails from Alberta, bringing a classic Canadian-girl charm and warm kindness to her philosophy and approach to child psychology. A mom to her own three “babes”, Carrington proposes that the most integral step in helping kids who experience grief and trauma is to assist the people who hold them– their parents, educators, and counsellors.
She speaks with a humbling reverence for teachers and the challenging work they do in assisting all of the kids in their care. Above and beyond all else, she posits that it is connection that we all crave– and that many of the kids we serve are terribly disconnected. There was a time when families lived close to and with extended family. They weren’t so distracted and busy– there was connection. In fact, she writes: “… every time you hear yourself say, that kid is attention seeking or lying,” try to replace that phrase with, that kid is “connection seeking,” and see what happens” (p.63).
In teaching, in parenting, in coaching– in any capacity in which we look to help kids learn and become better at something; our job, first and foremost, must be to develop a relationship with the person we want to teach. Kids do not learn from people they think don’t like them. I have taught for over 20 years, and I know nothing to be more true. Teaching is about relationships. I think that is why online teaching during a pandemic is so difficult; we miss out on the face-to-face interactions that help us to form strong relationships. In fact, Carrington outlines five keys to (re)connecting with people in our life; and one of those keys is eye contact. She writes, “I talk to educators about doing this every day so they can connect with their students: Meet your students in the morning and greet them with their name and notice if they give you their eyes. The ones who do make contact easily concern me far less than the ones who don’t” (p.122). What I wouldn’t do to be in the hallway to check in with my students right now!
Another key to reconnection is to “get down on their level.” She says that meeting someone face to face is where the magic lies. I know this all too well from parenting. (Have you ever seen a mom kneeling in front of a toddler in the candy aisle? Turns out she knows her stuff. Been there. Done that.) She writes: “Being on the same level as the other person allows for easier access to their eyes. It slows you down too because you’re consciously thinking about creating an optimal environment.” She notes that fear based techniques certainly have their proponents and do garner some success in times of significant distress; you can threaten or inflict pain and likely get a response– but where do these approaches leave the relationship? Without a relationship, you cannot teach. And I love this, “When compliance from people we love or teach is predicated on what they stand to lose, they will never be motivated by respect. They will be motivated by fear. And fear is very different from respect” (28). You don’t learn to get better or to self-regulate when you are fearful of the person holding you.
When kids are dysregulated (or have “flipped their lids”) they are in a primitive state of fight, flight or freeze— and they need us, the adult, to offer them soothing connection. Carrington explains the Circle of Security, and our job as regualtor is: “Always be bigger, stronger, kinder and wiser. Whenever possible follow a need. Whenever necessary, take charge” (p.48). Which means, she says, “when your kid is losing their freaking mind, you need to dig deep into the core of yourself and figure it out with them” (p. 49).
Carrington describes so many of the kids we meet in our work: regular lid-flippers; Caillou kids; Flat Stanley kids; attention-seeking; manipulative liars (you need to read her book to get her great descriptions of each of them)… but, as she says, “these babes all have the exact same needs. How they pull for us to meet those needs makes all the difference” (p.71). Carrington is on the mark throughout this book. She spoke to me as a teacher, as a parent, and as a leader in my school. Carrington’s experience as a child psychologist allows her to build narratives around each of these kids, suggesting strategies to repair and rebuild relationships. You will see many of the kids you have taught, or coached, or cared for– and you will understand them better. And, hopefully, after reading her book, be in a better place to help them in the future.
She even seemed to narrow in on my own marriage. She explains that “[We] often tell people what to do, rather than showing them. We say to kids, “That’s not a good choice” or “Just calm down!” Here’s the thing: Never in the history of telling someone to “calm down” has “calm down” ever worked. Telling someone how to behave is never, ever, as powerful and transformative as showing them what you want from them. Think about the last time your partner told you to “Just calm down!” How effective was that? What was your response? The hope, when we yell or hiss “Calm down!” at someone we love is they will, indeed, calm down. The hope is they might even look at us and say, “Oh you’re right babe, I didn’t realize that I was losing my mind. You always know just how to get me to calm down. I’m just so glad that I married you” (p.29). If, like Carrington, you can agree that never in the history of my spouse telling me to “calm down” (or “relax!”) has “calm down” ever worked, then why do we keep trying to make it so, with everyone, including kids, all the time?
Really, Jodi says it best: “The kids are the least of our worries. Seriously. If that sounds blasphemous in a book for concerned parents and educators (and anyone, really, who worries about “kids these days”), then I am so glad you’re here. If you own a kid, work with a kid, or love a kid, you will find something inspiring in these pages” (XIX). She is not wrong. If you care about the kids these days… read Jodi Carrington’s book!
You can also find Jodi on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram. She does great Facebook Live chats (usually over a glass of wine…) dropping the occasional f-bomb(which I also kind of love) as she wades through the weeds of raising, loving and connecting with kids.
Title: Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Middle Crisis
Author: Ada Calhoun
Date Read: February 2, 2020
This book came highly recommended and I scrambled to get it in my Amazon cart. It did not disappoint. All Gen X women: a must read!
The quote that opens the Introduction to her book sums it up pretty succinctly:
You come to this place, midlife. You don’t know how you got here, but suddenly you’re staring fifty in the face. When you turn and look back down the years, you glimpse the ghosts of other lives you might have led. All your houses are haunted by the person you might have been.
Hilary Mantel, Giving Up the Ghost
Today’s middle-aged women belong to Generation X and the end of the Baby Boom. Gen X birth years are identified as those born between 1965 to 1980. For the longest time, Gen Xers have struggled most with what really defined us as a generation. Douglas Coupland popularized the moniker in his book of the same name, but we have been pretty much been the ignored “middle child”– overshadowed by our Baby Boomer parents and the younger Millineials we babysat.
Calhoun writes that: ” Generation X women tend to marry in our late twenties, thirties, forties, or not at all; to have our first children in our thirties or forties, or never. We’re the first women raised from birth hearing the tired cliche “having it all” — then discovered as adults that it is very hard to have even some of it.” (p. 5-6)
Because so many of our generation delayed marriage and children into their thirties and forties– we also find ourselves caring for parents in decline at the same time we are caring for little children; and asking for raises and ‘leaning in’ at work. Fused with this stress is a hormonal tumult and the mood swings of menopause. And in a cruel twist, the symptoms of hormonal fluctuation are exacerbated by stress, while the symptoms in turn raise stress levels! At the same time, we are inundated by breaking news alerts, social media feeds that show us how awesome everyone else’s life is, increased work obligations, phone calls to return, texts to send, and emails to write. “Our lives can begin to feel like the latter seconds of a game of Tetris, where the descending pieces pile up faster and faster.” (Calhoun, 20).
So, yeah– women are facing a midlife crisis. We have it all: marriages, kids, careers, homes… but we are stressed about having it all. We have sky-high expectations for ourselves and as a generation we are also exhausted, terrified about money, and overwhelmed.
Calhoun provides an excellent analysis of this midlife crisis– one in which I know my cohort will see themselves in. As difficult as it was to face some of it, it was also a relief to know that I was not alone– and that many women feel very much the same. It is yet another book that opens up the conversation for women to support one another– to share experiences and to rally around as we push through midlife stronger with a tribe that will reassure us and empower us.
Title: Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
Author: Trevor Noah
Date Read: October 27, 2019
I think Trevor Noah is a brilliantly witty and savvy political analyst. I think he does outstanding work as the host of The Daily Show. When I saw his memoir, I knew I wanted to read it– but it was the title that truly caught my eye.
Noah grew up in South Africa during apartheid. He writes: “…which was awkward because I was raised in a mixed family, with me being the mixed one in the family. My mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, is black. My father, Robert, is white. Swiss/ German, to be precise, which Swiss/ Germans invariably are. During apartheid, one of the worst crimes you could commit was having sexual relations with a person of another race. Needless to say, my parents committed that crime.” (Noah, 21).
Noah’s memoir is written the way you would expect– in a way that helps you make sense of complicated issues, like apartheid; race relations; poverty; domestic abuse– but also with his irreverent sense of humour and masterful wit.
Through his memoir Noah reveals an origin story that is thoughtful, educational, alarming, and wonderfully comedic. His relationship with his mother reveals a complicated and enduring connection between a woman that refused to let racism, apartheid, or rules of any kind guide her life, her love, or her decisions. I fell in love with Trevor’s mother, you will too. It says it all in his dedication: “For my mother. My first fan. Thank you for making me a man.”
Here is an excerpt from his opening chapter:
Sometimes in big Hollywood movies they’ll have these crazy chase scenes where somebody jumps or gets thrown from a moving car. The person hits the ground and rolls for a bit. Then they come to a stop and pop up and dust themselves off, like it was no big deal. Whenever I see that I think, That’s rubbish. Getting thrown out of a moving car hurts way worse than that.
I was nine years old when my mother threw me out of a moving car. It happened on a Sunday…
excerpt from Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (p.5).
I loved this memoir for the stories and their wit; but mostly for the illuminating education and analysis of apartheid and the entrenched racism of South Africa. Noah writes: “Relationships are built in the silences. You spend time with people, you observe them and interact with them, and you come to know them—and that is what apartheid stole from us: time.”
I’ll admit, this one took me two tries. The first time I gave up much too easily. I picked it up again with the intention of finishing, and I am glad I did.
Harari gives a whirlwind tour of how we have ended up as the singular species to survive over the last 100,000 years. That’s a lot of ground to cover! Stay with him, he is a reliable and skillful story teller. And our story is fascinating.
Throughout this examination of our battles for dominance and how we moved from foraging clans to defining ourselves as citizens of cities and kingdoms, Harari also questions how it is that we came to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism. And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?
“How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realize some possibilities while forbidding others. Biology enables women to have children – some cultures oblige women to realize this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another – some cultures forbid them to realize this possibility. Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist.”
Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens
It will challenge your thinking about what you know about Sapiens and give you much to ponder. A worthwhile read.