Sunday, November 24, 2013

Trollegitimi non carborundum

A simple cure for trolls: crack an egg on their heads!
Trolls offer simple, wrong solutions to painful, complex problems

One of the most astonishing benefits of the Internet is that it has made us all instant experts about other people’s lives.  We can skim a Facebook status update and immediately diagnose the obvious causes of and solutions to a child’s mental illness, where trained therapists and psychiatrists have tried for months or years to provide answers.  In fact, some of us are such “experts” that we just can’t quit posting—we have to argue our point until it is dead, buried, and reincarnated as a three-toed sloth somewhere in Madagascar. Then we have to hunt down the sloth, kill it again, bury it, and…

The Internet community has a name for people like this: trolls

I’m not exactly sure where this term comes from. Is it because they lurk under blog posts, coming out to challenge any viewpoint that disagrees with their own? Or is it just because they are really ugly, mean people? Or some combination?

I have a theory. I don’t think that trolls are actually mean people. I think if a troll were standing behind me in the grocery store checkout line, s/he would be perfectly pleasant. We would probably talk about the weather, because that’s just what people tend to talk about when they are not on the Internet pummeling people with their brilliance (in ALL CAPS, of course).

Trolls are especially good at diagnosing the simple, unambiguous cause of my child’s mental illness. It's definitely one of these:
  • No father/stepfather/male role model in the home.  
  • Violent video games.
  •  Red Vines/vaccinations/gluten/casein/soy protein/no soy protein (etc.)
  • Demons
  • Me (bad parent, poor prenatal care, not enough discipline, too much discipline, etc.)
  • My child (willful, disobedient, etc.)
Trolls offer equally simple proposed solutions:
  • Find a new dad for my kids (aside: could someone make a Disney movie about this one please? Because I would really love to see the Disney movie where Dwayne Johnson comes into the single mother’s life and rescues her kid—oh wait, that was Journey 2: The Mysterious Island  and it was like my FAVORITE MOVIE EVER!)
  •  Only let my teenage sons play games based on “MyLittle Pony.
  • Dietary supplements. Lots of expensive dietary supplements.
  • An exorcism (when I told my priest about this, he looked at me and laughed).
  • Crack a raw egg on my kid’s head.
Yeah. I’m actually not going to do any of those things (though the supplements are tempting, so tempting! Also, the egg, but mostly because that seems like it would be kind of funny.)

But I am also not going to criticize anyone who claims that any (or all) of these solutions has worked for their child. Because you know what? We all want something that works for our kids.

And that, to my mind, is the place where many of those mental illness trolls come from. They’ve found a “simple” solution that works for them—so they assume that it will work for me. They want to help me, to educate me, to enlighten me, in ALL CAPS. Why would I give my kid a Zyprexa when I could have him on a gluten-free diet instead? (Zyprexa is a nasty drug, by the way. I’m not even going to attempt to argue otherwise. But sometimes there are worse evils).

I’ve found H.L. Mencken’s oft-quoted bon mot to be more indicative of my actual experience with my own son:  “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem--neat, plausible, and wrong.

In too many cases, that “well-known” solution continues to be mother-blame. I recently posted a portion of a tragic email I received from a desperate mother in Colorado. This is some of what she wrote (reprinted with her permission and in her exact words):
My 9 year old son has a mood disorder with severe anger problems and after 3 hospitalizations for hurting himself and other people, being kicked out of schools, after school programs and summer programs, I finally asked social services for help. Social services placed him in a residential facility, but in order for that to happen; I had to give up partial parental rights. Meetings were set up with social services, GAL, residential therapist and me to come up with a safety plan for my son to return home. After my son failed the first step in the safety plan, the group still pushed him to come home, but I denied him to return home for safety reasons.

Within a few months I received paperwork in the mail that the GAL placed a motion for me to lose my parental rights stating that I was an unfit parent and that I abandoned and neglected my son. The GAL felt that my son was institutionalized and he needed a loving home for him to get better. The court dd side with the GAL and my parental rights were taken and so was my son. It has been 6 months since I’ve seen or talked to him; my family is able to see him, but I am not allowed to and social services are holding all my gifts, letters and cards until he is stable. A foster family did come along, but within 4 weeks, they told social services that he will not work out for them because of him being unsafe. I feel that I am being abused by the system and being punished for advocating for my mentally ill son. I feel that I am not the only mother going through this.
Most people had the same reaction I did to this story—horror and sadness for the mother. But one sincere and well-meaning gentleman had to make the point—again and again—that the state could not possibly take this woman’s child from her unless she was an unfit mother. Which meant that she was probably a single mother. Because everybody knows that single mothers are the cause of boys’ mental illness. Etc.

The thing is, this mom’s story does NOT imply in any way that she was a bad mother—in fact, her attempts to get help for her son in the face of overwhelming odds show that she is a good mother. It’s the system, to my mind, that is at fault here. Why would the state terminate her parental rights? Why would they try to place her child in foster care, rather than working with her and providing access to resources?

Why indeed. I encourage everyone who does not realize how common this mom’s heartbreaking story is to become acquainted with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. Here is what the Bazelon Center has to say on the subject of relinquishing custody
Parents forced to make this devastating choice are victims of an irrational and wholly inadequate system of insurance coverage. Employer-based health insurance may cover outpatient therapy and acute hospital care, but the intensive community-based services (such as wraparound services) required by many children with serious disorders are typically beyond the reach of private insurance. As a consequence, working families who cannot pay out of pocket for such services must forego essential care for their child, often with dire consequences, or relinquish custody to the state so that the child will become eligible for public insurance, typically Medicaid. 
Parents are asked to give up their rights because the state wants the money that attaches to a child who has mental illness. There it is. That answer is not as simple as blaming the mother. But it makes a whole lot more sense, if you stop and think about it before hitting “post.”

And that’s what I’m asking here, troll-folks. Let’s all stop to think, just for a minute, before making a potentially hateful and hurtful comment about an issue that might be more complex than it appears at first glance.  Apology accepted. 

P.S. The "clever" title is not my own--the inimitable Xeni Jardin from BoingBoing tweeted it a while back. Loosely translated, it means "don't let the troll bastards get you down." Words to live by.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Fabric Scraps and Old Wounds

What Joni Hilton’s “Are You a Liberal Mormon?” meant to me

On Saturday, sequestered by November’s first snowfall, the kids and I decided to clean out the closets, donating bags of clothes that don’t fit, old toys we no longer play with, and my fabric stash.

Parting with the last of my fabric was harder than I thought it would be—much harder, in fact, than selling the few pieces of gold jewelry my ex-husband gave me during our 13 years of marriage. I’ve shed fabric a few pieces at a time in the six years since The Divorce (the children still refer to it in capital letters, acknowledging the post-apocalyptic wasteland that remained in the aftermath of our temple marriage’s sudden and unexpected dissolution).

These last three bins represented my most cherished finds—colorful satin brocades, plush, luxurious Minky, quirky calico prints, and finally, the pink chenille I once lined with toile flannel and made into a couture outfit for my much-wanted and much-loved baby girl.

How I loved to sew in those days of young Mormon motherhood! I made train quilts and book bags and matching pajamas for the boys, documenting everything in carefully planned scrapbooks. But having a daughter took my sewing to a whole new level. I dreamed up outfits for her in my sleep, bought a serger, and spent many happy afternoons creating my masterpieces.

After The Divorce, I had no time for sewing. But I kept the fabric because of what it represented, a life I had lost but still sometimes longed for.

Last summer, my little pink chenille-robed pixie turned eight, and I pulled out the sewing machine once more, to fulfill a promise I made to her and to myself. We went to the fabric store where she picked out a pattern, white satin, and gold-leafed chenille for her baptism dress.

I was out of practice, and the dress, with its slippery fabric, gave me fits. Unable to put the zipper in, I conceded partial defeat and modified the design for buttons. I cut myself more than once and bled spots of bright red blood onto the white fabric.

And I cried as I stitched the seams together. Because the truth is this: I did not want my daughter to get baptized in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While I still consider myself culturally Mormon, I no longer identify with the church’s teachings, and I fear that they can be especially toxic for bright young girls.

But baptism is what my daughter wanted (and no eight year-old should face the sort of social stigma she would endure if she didn’t).

Many brilliant Mormon and post-Mormon bloggers have done a better job than I could of articulating my own existential angst at the thought of my daughter’s baptismal covenants. Sitting behind her (I was not permitted to sit beside her) was one of the most agonizing moments of my entire life. Talk about NOT feeling the Spirit! Still, I smiled through the ceremony, shook hands, and got through the day. Because that’s just what you do, and it wasn’t about me anyway.

But I didn’t realize how truly bothered I was by the whole baptism pageant until I read Joni Hilton’s essay, “Are You a Liberal Mormon?” I know it’s so two weeks ago, but Ms. Hilton is still on my mind, because you know what? She is exactly like many of the Mormons I know—smug, self-righteous, and “perfect.”

If not staggering out of bars at 2:00 a.m. makes you perfect. Because that is apparently what “liberal Mormons” do (?????). Ms. Hilton’s essay was quickly taken down, probably because even the editors of Meridian Magazine had to realize how toxic it was. In case you somehow missed it, you can read Mormon Stories’ excellent coverage of the debacle here

This quote really stood out for me: “Liberal Mormons have forgotten that Christ runs this church, not mortals. God’s laws are uncheangeable [sic] and eternal, not somebody’s notions that sway in the breeze and adapt to each new social trend.”

Except they aren’t. Many Mormons I know manage the dizzying act of being both relativists and absolutists simultaneously. Blacks and women can’t hold the Priesthood, only now blacks can because in 1978, God changed his mind. Gay people can’t get married because God said they can’t, but God also used to say it was okay to have several wives, and now that’s just not okay.

These are not unique insights, by the way—these are glaringly evident examples of God changing his mind gleaned straight from sanitized LDS church history.  

One of the attractions of Mormonism has been the image and lifestyle that people like Ms. Hilton represent—clean-living, wholesome, nuclear families with hard-working, shirt-and-tie fathers, even harder working stay-at-home mothers, and a slew of bright, polite, successful children. I want to make it very clear that I am not criticizing that lifestyle. It works well for many people.

What I am criticizing is something I used to do myself as a temple going, faithful Mormon mother: Mormons have got to stop judging the latte drinkers.

You know what I mean. Jesus, if there is a Jesus, does not give a damn about whether somebody drinks coffee or not. He just doesn’t. This is a God whose first miracle was to change water to wine. When I was in Mormon Sunday School, the lesson focused obsessively on explaining that the “wine” in question was actually nonalcoholic grape juice. Now that I’ve enjoyed a glass or two of cabernet sauvignon for myself, I have to say that I very much doubt this. No one would be impressed by a god who changed water to grape juice.

Closet cleaning accomplished, my Saturday turned to a much anticipated interfaith choir concert hosted by my parish and organized by a local LDS stake music director. I had the opportunity to catch up with many of my LDS friends as we shared worship music. The concert featured several local church groups, with a finale sung by a 100-member chorus. My friends embraced me; we caught up on their children’s missions and college plans. I felt loved and included and best of all, not judged.

The LDS church is at a crossroads. Its branded lifestyle, the so-called traditional family as described in the Church’s document The Family: A Proclamation tothe World, is increasingly rare, for a variety of reasons. Yet people like Ms. Hilton cling to their own notions of righteousness, categories that exclude and hurt people both within (the “Liberal Mormons”) and outside of their faith.

I’m not sure about many things, but I am pretty sure that’s not what Jesus would do. Jesus would have an interfaith choir concert followed by a community potluck every single night of the week. And all—Mormons, Christians, Atheists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and Pastafarians—would be welcome at the table.

P.S. If you live in the Boise area and want some pretty awesome fabric, I donated my stash to the Goodwill on State Street. I hope your daughter looks as fabulous in your creation as my daughter did in mine.