Sunday, February 18, 2018

. . . And An Englishman in (Bleeding) Kansas

...Or Squatter Life and Border Warfare

While getting into the spirit of rewriting an old WIP (Channing, by name), I started brushing up on the events of Bleeding Kansas. It's surprising to me that more people aren't acutely aware of this episode of American history, but I think most people would stare at your blankly if you asked them about Bleeding Kansas. (Kansans would probably be the exception.)

In the mid-1850's, small-scale civil war broke out in the territory of Kansas, just a few years before the Civil War engulfed the nation as a whole. It was a preview of what was to come, with bloody little battles, high passions, and remarkable characters. John Brown and his sons famously hacked five pro-slavery men to death at Pottawatomie Creek. The Free State town of Lawrence (where my grandmother's family lived) was sacked; the hotel, the biggest building in the territory, was destroyed, and two printing offices were ransacked and the presses tossed into the river. The violence never really stopped until the Civil War finally settled the question of slavery for good.

So what caused this crisis in Kansas? Specifically, it was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Ever since the Constitution in 1789, there had been a series of crises and compromises to do with slavery: the three-fifths compromise, the Missouri Compromise, the Nullification Crisis, the Compromise of 1850. The trouble was that these were thin veneers over the very real, very deep-seated differences between the North and South (which isn't to say that the North and South weren't intimately interwoven in myriad ways). This was becoming more and more apparent by the mid-1850's, and Abraham Lincoln stated it best when he said that ultimately the country must become all one thing or all the other. There was no way it could continue to be so divided. There was no middle ground, as the failure of the repeated compromises demonstrated. Either slavery was acceptable, or it wasn't.

In 1854, Kansas and Nebraska were being organized as territories, and the old difficulty reared its ugly head: would these be slave territories or free territories? This was more than an existential question of what was best for Kansas and Nebraska The carefully-maintained balance in the Senate between free and slave states was at stake. Tensions rose. But in stepped the Little Giant, Stephen A Douglas, Senator from Illinois. He proposed "popular sovereignty" on the question of slavery: let the people vote on whether to allow slavery. After all, this is a democracy, is it not?

The difficulty is, of course, that questions of morality can't be put to a vote that way. Democracy can't mean that 51% of the people can simply do whatever they please. There has to be a "higher law", as Seward put it.

But the law was passed, and Kansas and Nebraska became "popular sovereignty" territories, though apparently it was Kansas everyone cared about (sorry, Nebraska). In short order, Missourians started pouring over the border to vote fraudulently in Kansas elections, while Emigrant Aid Societies in New England sent Free-Soilers to settle the new territory. Rival constitutions and governments were established, and it didn't take long for the Border Ruffians (Missourians) and the Jayhawkers (Free-Soilers) to begin clashing.

In any case (and that explanation was much longer than I meant it to be), I came across a book called An Englishman in Kansas, or Squatter Life and Border Warfare, about the experiences of an Englishman named T.H. Gladstone in Kansas during the crisis there. It's entirely evident that he despises the Border Ruffians, but I'm alright with that. He paints a vivid picture of the ugliness of the whole situation and of Kansas as a place at that time--a dangerous, violent, almost absurdly topsy-turvy place where right is wrong and wrong is right.

Also of interest to me was the introduction by Frederick Law Olmsted, who was, among other things, the man who created Central Park in New York City. He makes very pointed remarks about the hypocrisy and moral ugliness of slavery. Perhaps the most striking passage for me was the following one. It may be an entirely, or partially, fabricated, but it has power because it's entirely plausible. The last phrase ties in with the first sentence and neatly sums up the point: terror was the order of the day. Any appearance of safety and of obedience from the enslaved people was only a product of well-founded and constantly-cultivated fear:

But, ‘Planters sleep unguarded, and with their bedroom doors open.’ . . . 
It is but a few months since, in Georgia, or Alabama, a man treated another precisely as Mr. Brooks treated Mr. Sumner, coming up behind him, with the fury of a madman, and felling him with a bludgeon*; killing him by the first blow, however, and then discharging vengeance by repeated strokes on his senseless body. The man thus pitifully abused had been the master of the other, a remarkably confiding and merciful master, it was said—too much so; “it never does to be too slack with a nigger.” By such indiscretion [i.e. being too lax] he brought his death upon him. But did his assassin escape? He was roasted, at a slow fire, on the spot of the murder, in the presence of many thousand slaves driven [from their homes] to the ground from all the adjoining counties, and when, at length, his life went out, the fire was intensified until his body was in ashes, which were scattered to the winds and trampled under foot. Then “magistrates and clergymen” addressed appropriate warnings to the assembled subjects. 
It was no indiscretion to leave doors open again that night.

 *Famously, Mr. Brooks, a Southerner, attacked Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor, beating him senseless. Brooks felt that Sumner had insulted his family in a speech Sumner gave about the slavery question. Sumner was famously anti-slavery.

Friday, February 16, 2018

. . . And How Aly Raisman Informed My Writing

Unless you have been living under a rock, you will almost certainly be aware of the upheaval that has been taking place in USA Gymnastics. Just in case you aren't aware, former team doctor Larry Nassar pleaded guilty to sexually abusing well over a hundred and fifty young women and girls, all of it under the guise of "medical treatment." He worked with the national team for decades, and so many of the gymnasts I have known and loved were among those who came forward publicly as victims: Alexandra Raisman, Gabrielle Douglas, Jordyn Weiber, Simone Biles, Jamie Dantzscher and many, many others. These facts were in the news; the story was getting a lot of coverge. But what really gave this story its power (and got the attention of newspapers and the evening news) was the sentencing phase. Part of the sentencing phase was the "victim statements". Since Nassar had already pleaded guilty, the only question was how much time he would serve for his crimes (hint: a very long time). Originally, something like 80 young women were going to make statements. However, as things got underway, there were more and more of these young women (I don't like the terms "victim" or "survivor", really; "victim" seems to take away any sense of power, and "survivor" makes the thing they went through sound passive or internal, like cancer). Over 160 women and girls ended up telling their stories.

"Little girls don't stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world." --Kyle Stephens

I'm not the only one who was moved. People from all over the world were blown away by these young women's stories and the power with which the stories were told. Their words were put on banners for women's marches and repeated all across social media. Their words became soundbites. There stories were everywhere.

I may have been more touched than your average person (though less so than some!). I knew so many of these young ladies as athletes, because I follow gymnastics avidly (and have done so since 1996--and if you look closely, you can see Larry Nassar at Kerri Strug's side after she injured her ankle so famously). So I was floored to hear about all this sordid slime going on behind the scenes. And while I do, of course, mean Nassar, I also mean the enabling, destructive atmosphere that allowed him to continue his abusive behavior.

Make no mistake: those who are familiar with the sport know--have always known--that ugly things are always lurking around its edges. Things like verbal and emotional abuse and eating disorders and political intrigue are open secrets. To hear this all cracked wide open, however, was intense and illuminating.

It was so intense and so illuminating because this was about sexual abuse, but it was also about so much more. It was about how abuse happens, how people are manipulated and brainwashed and tricked. It was about what happens to the psyche of those who experience it. It was about what it does to individuals and families.

"The tables have turned, Larry. We have our voices, and we are not going anywhere." --Aly Raisman
Mattie Larson talked about banging her head on the tub so that she wouldn't have to go to practice, because she couldn't stand to be there anymore, in an environment of mental and sexual assault. Several young woman talked about suicidal moments. One woman's father didn't believe her when she told him as a girl about Larry; when he finally believed her, his guilt may have contributed his suicide.

It was only tangentially about Larry Nassar, only tangentially about even these particular cases. It was about the human toll that it all takes. One thing that was repeated over and over was the fact that the people who experienced the abuse thought it must be alright--he's a doctor or he's worked with so many Olympians or I'm making too big a deal of this.

I took so much away from what I heard from the 156 people who gave impact statements, and it informed me as a writer. I'm currently working on a project where the main character, a young woman, is taken advantage of and then abused physically and emotionally. The question is, what does that do to a person? I've never experienced such abuse. Many of those who suffer abuse don't speak about it openly (as is their right).

Listening to the impact statements at the trial helped me understand the way such abuse seeps into the minds of the abused and causes all kinds of havoc. It causes doubt--it causes confusion--it causes shame--it causes a disconnect from one's own personality and feelings. Over and over, those who were abused described being confused, because everyone and everything around them told them that what was happening was alright, that their feelings of discomfort were simply wrong. They began to doubt everything they thought and felt. It didn't just affect them sometimes, or when they were in the gym. It affected how they thought and felt all the time.

I wanted to show how such an abusive atmosphere could affect my character. I considered the way it might change her entire thought process. Will it make him angry. I thought of how it might change her reactions to things and how she sees herself and even what she does. Most of all, I wanted to show that she was still very much herself.

There are a thousand reasons why the stores of these young ladies are so important. The real impact of abuse is so often hidden away. It's important for such stories to be told.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Moving the Lock-keeper's House

A little while back, I posted an update on the old Lock-Keeper's House on Constitution Avenue here in DC. In case you haven't been keeping tabs on this (who are you and why don't you care, by the way??), the Lock-keeper's House is one of the oldest structures in DC (c. 1836). It used to be home to the lock-keeper, who watched over the C&O Canal Extension, which connected the C&O (that's Chesapeake and Ohio) with the Washington Canal, which was located where Constitution Ave is now. The Potomac came up nearly to the base of the Washington Monument and the front lawn of the White House. Today, of course, it's been filled in to form the National Mall.

It's a little hard to tell, but that's the building there just right of center, and it's moved back
from the street (see the cars on the left?).

After years/decades of being neglected, the poor old Lock-keeper's House was in pretty bad shape for a long time. Part of the problem was its proximity to the very-busy Constitution Ave. It was about fifteen feet off of the six (or eight? my memory is failing me) lane street. But, luckily, the NPS got funding to restore it, and work got underway last year. A few weeks ago, I took my usual walk up Constitution Ave. from work, and lo and behold, the house had been moved! It is now back a respectable (and respectful) distance from the street.

And look, here's a video here of the move! Very neat:

 I came back two days later and saw that the entire place was encased in a kind of tent of plastic sheets. That must mean the serious work is taking place underneath. When done, the place will serve as a visitor's center for the National Mall (this work is part of a revamping of Constitution Gardens).

The Lock-keeper's House's current status.