On reading poems from Donika Kelly’s ‘Bestiary’ in jail.

On reading poems from Donika Kelly’s ‘Bestiary’ in jail.

This post briefly touches on sexual assault and child abuse.

Many of the men in jail have struggled with interpersonal relationships.

After reading Bruce Weigl’s “The Impossible,” a poem about being sexually assaulted as a child, somebody stayed after class to ask if there were resources to help somebody recover from that sort of experience.  The next week, he brought a two-page account of his own abuse.

After reading Ai’s “Child Beater,” many men proffered their own horror stories.  Sometimes they offered excuses for their parents: “My mom, she had me when she was thirteen, I guess what you’d call it now would be ‘statutory rape.’  So she didn’t know what to do with us.  But there were plenty of times, I’d be mouthing off, she’d tie my arms to rafters in the basement with an extension cord, and … “

Seriously, you don’t need to hear the rest of that story.  Nor the conversation (we’ve read “Child Beater” about once a year) when the men discussed which objects they’d been hit with.  They appraised concussions and trauma with the nuance of oenophiles.

Consider this gorgeous poem by Mouse:



– Mouse


We had this cat

Small gray and frantic

Always knocking over my mother’s lamps


Me and my sister can’t sit on my mother’s furniture

But that cat can

My mother would whoop my ass for her lamps

Knocked over and broken


One day my mom bought me a dollar sign belt

Made of leather and metal

I put that belt to use every time I

Got my own ass whooped


We humans evolved to hunt.  By nature, we are a rather violent species.  But these cycles – people’s crummy childhoods; institutional violence during schooling and incarceration – amplify aggression.  Our world “nurtures” many into malice.

If you ask people in jail why they’re in, almost everybody will say that they were busted for drugs or alcohol.  But if you look at bookings, or hear from somebody what sort of case he’s fighting, about half the time it’s domestic violence.

So we’ve been reading poems from Donika Kelly’s Bestiary, a charming volume that uses abundant animal imagery to elucidate human relationships.  The men need a safe space to discuss love and romance.  Obviously, a dingy classroom inside a jail is not the ideal place, but this is what we’ve got.

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Kelly’s “Bower” opens with:


Consider the bowerbird and his obsession

of blue,


… then catalogs some of the strange objects that a male bowerbird might use to construct his pleasure dome.  They are artists, meticulously arraying flowers, berries, beetles, even colorful bits of plastic, striving to create an arch sufficiently beautiful that a visiting female will feel inclined to mate.

Among tropical birds with female mate choice, most males will remain celibate.  They try to woo each visitor, but fail.  Usually one single male – he of the most impressive aerial gymnastics (among manakins) or he of the most impressive bower – will be chosen by every female in an area.  Because the males don’t actually raise their young (their contribution ends after the ten or twenty seconds needed to copulate), any given male will have more than enough time for everyone who wants him.

Every male bowerbird devotes his life to the craft, but most of their creations will be deemed insufficiently beautiful.



how the female finds him,

lacking.  All that blue for nothing.


I love the irony of this ending.  This bird’s bower has failed.  The bits of blue that he collected were not sufficient to rouse anyone’s interest in him as a mate.

But life will generally seem pointless if we focus only on goals.  Most bowerbirds won’t mate; Sisyphus will never get that boulder up; you and I will die.    This poem is heartbreaking unless we imagine that the bowerbird takes some pleasure in the very act of creation.

(The natural world is not known for its kindness, but in this case it probably is – because every male bowerbird feels compelled to build these structures, it’s likely that their artistic endeavors feed their brains with dopamine.)

Indeed, most poems that we humans write will go unread.  Even for published poets, it’s probably rare that their words woo a future mate.  But even if Kelly’s own creation did not bring her love (and, based on what little I know about the publishing industry, it almost certainly did not bring her great fortune), it’s clear that all that effort was not for naught.

She made something beautiful.  Sometimes, that alone has to be enough.

At another class, we read Kelly’s “What Gay Porn Has Done for Me.”

Thanks to the internet, many people learn about sexuality from pornography.  One flaw with this “education” is that even when the female actors mime pleasure, they do so while gazing outward.


Kelly writes:


Call it comfort, or truth, how they look,

not at the camera, as women do,

but at one another.


In generic heterosexual pornography, there is a distance.  There is no “relationship” shown between the actors – they’re not even looking at one another.  Instead, the female actor is expected to gaze at a camera, and the (likely male) consumer is gazing at a computer or telephone screen to make some simulacrum of eye contact.


Each body is a body on display,

and one I am meant to see and desire.


Generic heterosexual pornography seems to objectify the actors much more than gay pornography because the focus is on a performer’s body more than the romantic acts depicted.  Because so much of this pornography is consumed by a homophobic audience, male bodies are depicted minimally – usually only a single organ within the frame – which prevents couples from being shown.

The pleasure offered isn’t quite voyeurism, pretending to watch another pair make love.  It’s fantasy, the chance to imagine being the bearer of the male genitalia.  But this fantasy, independent a fantasy of conversation and mutual seduction, makes others’ bodies seem a thing to be used, not a carriage for the partner’s personality.


I am learning


what to do with my face,

and I come on anything I like.


To desire, and to be desired, need not be degrading for anyone involved.  This is a hard lesson to square with the sort of “sex education” that I received in school, which was sufficiently Christian that sex was presented as both desirable and bad.  If a person thinks that he or she is wicked for wanting, it’ll be hard to discuss what each person wants.

There’s no way to pretend “I’m a good person who just got carried away!” if you make a sober, premeditated, consensual decision to do something bad.

Of course, sexuality isn’t bad.  But many people still posture as thought it is.  When these people feel (totally natural!) desire, they’re forced to create dangerous situations that might excuse their subsequent behavior.

Which, because of those excuse-enabling contortions, often winds up being bad.

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On Vaughan & Staples’s ‘Saga’ and parenting metaphors.

On Vaughan & Staples’s ‘Saga’ and parenting metaphors.

I’m reasonably well-versed with small stuff.  I’ve studied quantum mechanics, spent two years researching electronic structure, that sort of thing.  I imagine that I’m about as comfortable as I’ll ever be with the incomprehensible probabilistic weirdness that underlies reality.

But although I helped teach introductory calculus-based physics, I’ve never learned about big things.  I took no geometry in college, and most big physics, I assume, is about transferring equations into spaces that aren’t flat.  The basic principle seems straightforward – you substitute variables, like if you’re trying to estimate prices in another country and keep plugging in the exchange rate – but I’ve never sat down and worked through the equations myself.

There’s only so much physics you can understand without chugging through the math.  Our numbers don’t quite describe the world – they can’t exactly express quantities like pi, or the solutions to most three-body problems – but they do a better job than our words.

gravity.pngStill, some excellent pop-science books on gravity have been published recently.  My favorite of these was On Gravity by A. Zee – it’s quite short, and has everything I assume you’d want from a book like this: bad humor, lucid prose, excellent pacing.  Zee has clearly had a lot of practice teaching this material to beginners, and his expertise shines through.

Near the end of the book, Zee introduces black holes – gravity at its weirdest.  Gravity becomes stronger as the distance between objects decreases – it follows an “inverse square law.”

If our moon was closer to Earth, the tides would be more extreme.  To give yourself a sense of the behavior of inverse square laws, you can play with some magnets.  When two magnets are far apart, it seems as though neither cares about the existence of the other, but slide them together and suddenly the force gets so strong that they’ll leap through the air to clank together.

But because each magnet takes up space, there’s a limit to how close they can get.  Once you hear them clank, the attractive magnetic force is being opposed by a repulsive electrostatic force – this same repulsion gives us the illusion that our world is composed of solid objects and keeps you from falling through your chair.

Gravity is much weaker than magnetism, though.  A bar magnet can have a strong magnetic field but will have an imperceptible amount of gravity.  It’s too small.

A big object like our sun is different.  Gravity pulls everything together toward the center.  At the same time, a constant flurry of nuclear explosions pushes everything apart.  These forces are balanced, so our sun has a constant size, pouring life-enabling radiation into the great void of space (of which our planet intercepts a teensy tiny bit).

But if a big object had much more mass than our sun, it might tug itself together so ardently that not even nuclear explosions could counterbalance its collapse.  It would become … well, nobody knows.  The ultra-dense soup of mass at the center of a black hole might be stranger than we’ve guessed.  All we know for certain is that there is a boundary line inside of which the force of gravity becomes so strong that not even light could possibly escape.

Satellites work because they fall toward Earth with the same curvature as the ground below – if they were going faster, they’d spiral outward and away, and if they were going slower, they’d spiral inward and crash.  The “event horizon” of a black hole is where gravity becomes so strong that even light will be tugged so hard that it’ll spiral inward.  So there’s almost certainly nothing there, right at the “edge” of the black hole as we perceive it.  Just the point of no return.

If your friends encounter a black hole, they’re gone.  Not even Morse-code messages could escape.

(Sure, sure, there’s “Hawking radiation,” quantum weirdness that causes a black hole to shrink, but this is caused by new blips in the fabric of reality and so can’t carry information away.)


The plot of Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, revolves around a Romeo & Juliet-esque romance in the middle of intergalactic war, but most of the comic is about parenting.  K read the entire series in two days, bawling several times, and then ran from the bedroom frantic to demand the next volume (unfortunately for her, Vaughan & Staples haven’t yet finished the series).

Saga is masterfully well-done, and there are many lovely metaphors for a child’s development.

For instance, the loss of a child’s beloved caretaker – babysitters, daycare workers, and teachers do great quantities of oft under-appreciated work.  In Saga, the child and her first babysitter are linked through the spirit, and when the caretaker moves on, the child feels physical pain from the separation.


A hairless beast named “Lying Cat” can understand human language and denounces every untruth spoken in its present – allowing for a lovely corrective to a child’s perception that she is to blame for the traumas inflicted upon her.

lying cat from Saga

Perhaps my favorite metaphor in Saga depicts the risk of falling into a black hole.  Like all intergalactic travelers, they have to be careful – in Saga, a black hole is called a “timesuck” and it’s depicted as a developing baby.


My favorite scene in the film Interstellar depicts the nightmarish weirdness of relativistic time.  A massive planet seems perfectly habitable, but its huge gravitational field meant that the years’ worth of “Everything’s okay!” signals had all been sent within minutes of a scout’s arrival.  The planet was actually so dangerous that the scout couldn’t survive a full day, but decades would have passed on Earth before anyone understood the risk.

Gravity eats time.

So do babies.  A child is born and the new parents might disappear from the world.  They used to volunteer, socialize, have interests and hobbies … then, nothing.

They fell into the timesuck.

On child abuse and drawing conclusions from data.

If you’re looking for a good strategy for having a bad weekend, I’ve got one: you could go to your local library and borrow Ross Cheit’s book The Witch-Hunt Narrative.

Cheit ruined my weekend.  And his work is out there, ready to ruin yours too!

Not that his book isn’t good.  It is.  I’d write that I’m glad he wrote it, except that I wish he hadn’t needed to.  But he did.  And, sadly, because I am working on a project that involves many sad occurrences, I needed to read it.

So, his book?  He (and a huge team of helper monkeys) went to considerable trouble to investigate several large child abuse trials that were described as “witch hunts” in the media.  He makes a personal statement revealing his bias going into the work right from the beginning, and then presents the evidence he found as clearly and exhaustively as possible.  I found his reasoning to be extremely cogent, his writing lucid, and his conclusions persuasive.  I think he makes a compelling case that many children were failed by our criminal justice system – the children who were deemed dishonest, the children who were denied compensation for harm wrought upon them, and those who were later harmed by perpetrators who perhaps could have been stopped in a less hostile legal environment.

For me, reading this book, one of the main things I took away was that the same individuals were often serving as expert witnesses for the defense, testifying against the children’s claims.  And in his research, Cheit identified some highly suspicious potential motives for these people – several seem to have believed sexual contact between adults and children to be reasonable.  But one of the major adversaries discussed in the book is Dr. Maggie Bruck, whom Chiet at one point accuses with the statement: “Bruck’s position in these cases is not based on science alone.”

That sounded like the kind of statement I could write an essay about.  For one thing, my own project concerns academic science, the difference between how objective it is and how objective the population at large often believes it to be.  And I was interested in why Bruck would make the claims quoted in the book.  For instance, there is this compelling passage from Chiet:

“The remarkable blind spot in Bruck’s position is how it failed to apply her vast knowledge and concern about coercion to the most likely and powerful source in the case: the man who used a baseball bat to make his points.  In Bruck’s view, the interview of July 14, 1994, was completely tainted because in the preceding months David had had contact only with adults who believed Ardolino was guilty.  Bruck never explains why this is so objectionable, while an interview conducted immediately after years under the control of the defendant doesn’t rate any similar concern–even when the allegation, backed up with medical evidence, is that the defendant slowly beat his brother to death.  Apparently, even a witness to such horror is suspect in Bruck’s view if he does not disclose the abuse immediately, on the first interview, and all in one piece.

“There is, of course, a hidden value choice in the position–one that deems the coercive effects of the police interview as a far greater concern than the coercive effects of living with Robert Ardolino for years.  In that respect, Bruck’s position is de facto pro-defense.  This is the only explanation that makes this position consistent with the Rouse case, where Bruck readily accepted recantations that occurred only after the children moved back into a residence where the adults did not believe the original claims–the mirror image of the reason she used to reject David Ardolino’s testimony.  So Bruck does not see the Rouse adults as tainting the recantation in that case, yet she sees David’s foster mother as tainting his testimony, which was, in effect, a recantation of his earlier denials.  These positions are logically incompatible, except to the extent that they both favor defendants.  This “pro-defense orientation” is precisely how Ceci described the design of his research studies when testifying in the Foeller case in Michigan.  Why so many psychologists have aligned themselves with the defense, to the point of demonstrating and even admitting bias in that direction, is a puzzle for another time.  What matters for this book is that these politics exist and work to diminish the credibility, and ultimately the safety, of children.”

Yeah, there are a lot of names in that passage.  I didn’t fill in the background for them – Cheit explains them all clearly in his book, and, honestly, I’m not sure they matter so much to understand the point he’s making here.  There is a clear bias against children, and clearly illogical, inconsistent reasoning going on.  So how does that square with the claim that these people, such as Dr. Bruck, are scientists?

I have only read one paper authored by Bruck – I chose the most recent publication listed on her faculty page at Johns Hopkins, a review of the way children disclose abuse.  She cites a number of other studies and presents some of their data to argue that although children clearly do wait long periods of time before disclosing abuse, she feels that other behaviors described as comprising “childhood sexual abuse accommodation syndrome,” such as possible waffling in a story about what happened once a disclosure is made, do not occur.  And the impression I got from Cheit’s book is that she has testified as such on the behalf of the defense in several cases – testified that children who behave that way are probably not real victims and might be imagining or fabricating their stories of abuse.

I could go through her article bit by bit and explain why I think her interpretations are unreasonable, but that would belie my main point – just because something is “science,” and just because there are numbers attached to it, does not mean there is only a single conclusion that can be drawn.  In my opinion, the closer one gets to mathematics, the more agreement there will be that a certain result implies a certain underlying truth.  But by the time you’re dealing with physics, or chemistry, or biology, or psychology, or economics (which I see as being roughly scalar jumps from one to the next, in terms of what objects are under study), a single experimental result can be interpreted in various ways.  Because most experimental set-ups use model systems.  You always have to accept that there will be some underlying assumptions made about what features of your system will and will not affect your interpretation.

Let’s say you’re replicating some biological process in a test tube.  You have to assume that the tube itself won’t matter – and for some experiments, this is known to be false, and researchers doing those studies might take a few aliquots of purified protein and incubate them in their test tube before even starting the experiment, hoping to block off potential sites along the wall of a tube where the protein might stick.  And then, if that researcher, someone who’d realized the tube was a problem and was doing those pre-incubations, later read a study that involved their model system from someone who did not pre-incubate protein in the test tubes, obviously the latter results would seem suspect.  But it’s possible that no one else would realize that there would be problems with the data.

For a study in psychology, this problem seems even bigger.  Some researchers have argued that the specific wording for questions on psychology surveys can result in different results (and, sure, you might worry about results that are so exquisitely sensitive to seemingly-extraneous details.  I do) – so there are possibly many, many nearly-imperceptible details of a model system that might affect a study’s results, and that you might therefore consider relevant when analyzing someone else’s work.

So, instead of going through Bruck’s paper bit by bit, I’ll point out only what I see as the largest difference between the studies she cites and the real-world situations she has tried to extrapolate those findings to: timing of interviews to identify abuse.  If a case involving many children is going to be prosecuted, the trial happens all at once, and so data collection has to happen all at once – there isn’t time to wait 4 years for one child to be ready to say what happened, 5 months for another, 7 years for another.  Every interview might be conducted within that first year.  And her review cited a study reporting that only 43% of “young” girls (oft older than those involved in the trials described in Cheit’s book) disclosed abuse after STD evidence known to the girls and the interviewer was found that demonstrated that they had been abused.  So, given that many children won’t report abuse right away even when there is already proof known to the person they’re talking to, trying to extrapolate to the way disclosures are made by children who are younger, who do not have proof, and who are reporting what happened perhaps long before they are psychologically ready to do so… to me, seems foolish.

Not that her analysis doesn’t qualify as “science.”  Bruck has made some assumptions, and she has looked over some data, and she’s made some conclusions.  Her methodology is consistent with the practice of science.  Her conclusions may be wrong, but that’s most likely a problem with her underlying assumptions.

Anyway, that’s all I have to say about that.  I had originally thought I’d work in some clever references to other anti-child science (here is one of the more horrifying examples I was considering – which is even salient because you could argue that the children’s susceptibility to suggestion goes along with Bruck’s pro-defense stance), or work in a passage comparing the ways in which children’s testimony was discounted to the way that women’s testimony was (and often still is) discounted in violative assault cases, or a passage contrasting all the attacks on child reliability with people’s acceptance of adult witness testimony, even though there have been many studies showing that adults aren’t very good witnesses and some showing that children might not be much worse.  But, you know, putting all that in would make this much longer and sadder, and it’s pretty long already.