The Strickland-Needleman Carousel

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Hey guys, it’s “ZZZIPP,” from the comment section here. I wrote the following essay for HTMLGIANT in December, but never sent it along to anyone. It’s a response to all of the Garrett Strickland misogyny stuff that was happening then, but it is also really personal which maybe explains why instead of ever sending it along I sat on it like a scared dumb bird.

HTMLGIANT has meant a lot to me over the last six years (I was lurking at the very beginning), and I want to pay tribute to that somehow. I think in some ways this essay is relevant to certain discussions which have taken place since it was announced that HG was closing (i.e.: the idea that it is “better” for indie literature to have the “HG boys club” shut down) (because fuck that).

Thanks again, though, everyone. This was a great community. I really can’t stress enough how important HTMLGIANT was to me, in all kinds of ways, even if I mostly engaged as a “photon.”

***

I haven’t read Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, but for a while I think I wished Stein was my grandmother or my encouraging older neighbour, and I bought a lot of her books all at once and took the rest out of the library. They sat on my coffee table and on my couch and I liked to think that their mere presence was making me a better person and a better writer. I read a few of them, but I never made it very far in Americans. One day I hope to. I must have read the first page twenty or thirty times.

Once an angy man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. “Stop!” cried the groaning old man at last, “Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree.”

It is hard living down the tempers we are born with. We all begin well, for in our youth there is nothing we are more intolerant of than our own sins writ large in others and we fight them fiercely in ourselves; but we grow old and we see that these our sins are of all sins the really harmless ones to own, nay that they give a charm to any character, and so our struggle with them dies away.

When I told the woman I was seeing at the time that I wished Gertrude Stein was my grandmother or my aunt she told me that she thought everyone did at some point in their life. I felt pretty good about that, because she was five years older than me and because she used to be my teacher, and I thought it meant something that I had said something that had resonated strongly with her.

Now I can see all of the problems with that.

*

In December Garrett Strickland commented on Kate Zambreno’s Facebook feed and she immediately unfriended him. He sent her a patronizing note and when she never responded he wrote a prose poem attacking her for “occluding” him from the conversation and wrote about her as if she were a doll (“The Zambreno Doll”). Then he posted it on HTMLGIANT.

The Zambreno doll arrives in the mail. Part of the “Iconoclast Series” I’ve been collecting. Perhaps one day I’ll be similarly immortalized, tho I have my doubts. I read the copy on the box: “Speaks Over a Dozen Variations of Reactionary Polemic Toward History’s Majority Shareholders.”This seems in bad taste for a number of reasons.

Emily Needleman said he had a small dick in the comments. She wrote a prose poem about why she felt the need to say he had a small dick and why she thought it was necessary to say he had a small dick (“The Strickland Dildo”), and Erik Stinson posted it on HTMLGIANT.

After a few days, I take out the toy soldiers again. Maybe I can do something with them— give them to a thrift store or homeless shelter. I open the box and notice that the soldiers look different, somehow. I squint and lean closer. Suddenly, I realize what it is: each of them has a distinct and highly detailed face. How did I not see it before?

I pick one up and examine it. It’s Garett Strickland. I pick up another one. It’s Sigmund Freud. I pick up another one. It’s the kid from my writing workshop who only wrote stories about women getting murdered. I pick up another one. It’s the man who grabbed my ass the first time I rode the subway by myself.

By now, my heart is pounding. I check the rest of the soldiers and confirm: yes, I recognize all of them. Yes, yes, they’re all here. It’s time. It’s finally time. I know what I have to do.

I go into my bedroom and put on my hiking boots. Then I line up the metal soldiers in two neat rows and crush each one under my feet.

Leigh Stein wrote an open letter asking HTMLGIANT writers to tone down the misogyny and she posted it on HTMLGIANT (“THE SEXISM STOPS HERE”). In it she recounted an incident where an editor had told her that men only read her poetry because she was “cute.” She challenged HTMLGIANT writers “to use their power to make this site the weird-ass literary carnival it is at its best, without using discriminatory, sexist, hate speech that objectifies, humiliates, and infuriates their female readership.”

*

Some time in late July last year the woman with whom I had confided my love for Gertrude Stein spent an afternoon sending me nasty texts while I wandered a small town an hour-and-a- half north of Toronto. She said horrible, reprehensible things, most of them tied to my sex. I’m not sure, exactly, what the aim of her texts was, but it felt like a scene from a movie when someone is walking defiantly away from an abusive ex-employer/partner/parent and the insults get worse and worse until eventually the abusive party realizes they no longer have power over the person walking away.

*

“That’s why I’m comfortable writing things like, ‘cry harder, dweebus’ or ‘your dick is gross and bad.’”

“We all begin well, for in our youth there is nothing we are more intolerant of than our own sins writ large in others and we fight them fiercely in ourselves.”

*

My ex-girlfriend was a committed vegan and didn’t believe that animals should be owned, but she liked cats and often took care of them for her colleagues when they were away. Even so, when someone left a box with a meowing cat in her apartment building’s lobby she left it alone, hoping, as everyone else who passed it that day must have hoped, that someone else would deal with it (or that it belonged to someone else). But when she came back down an hour later and the cat was still there she realized no one was going to do anything and she took it in. It was a kitten. Her original plan was to take care of it for a couple days and hand it off to a rescue agency, but the cat grew on her and she decided to keep it.

At the time I had two cats. When I got my cats I was twenty-one and had certain ideas about animal ownership that I don’t have now: namely, that you can “train” anything, and that cats can be “good” or “bad.” At the time, I thought that meant you had to be strict, and that the way to be strict was to yell sharply and immediately correct your cat’s behaviour. Sometimes I was cruel. As I said, I no longer feel that way. I treat my cats differently. I am no longer cruel. But I was learning about families and relationships and still carrying a lot of stuff from growing up in my parents’ home, probably carrying a lot of stuff they grew up with too.

What’s important to this story is that my cats, which are very “well-behaved,” have I think “complexes” from being treated the way they were. They’re uncanny: they don’t, maybe, act like cats, probably because they weren’t treated like cats. My ex-girlfriend made an attempt, I think, to consider what her cat wanted, and one of the things she decided her cat didn’t want was to be touched. She didn’t pick her cat up unless it was necessary and didn’t initiate petting unless she was absolutely certain that the cat wanted that. That is laudable, I think. As a result, her cat, while not being shy, acts like a cat. It is more aloof, more independent, than my cats. It dictates terms. It is, maybe, kind of “cool.”

The way my ex-girlfriend treated her cat is the way I treat my cats now, the way I had for a long time before I met her, after I realized that what I was doing was wrong and understood that I was the one who defined what was “good” or “bad,” that I had all of the power, and that my cats had no idea why they were being punished.

*

All Zambreno did to deserve Strickland’s attention was unfriend someone she didn’t want to follow on Facebook. Someone who invaded her space with an annoying and weary attitude that seemed to suggest he had all of the answers and that he would do her the favour of enlightening her. If someone acted that way on my wall I’d want to unfriend them, too. At low points in my life I’ve acted that way on other people’s walls, and it is unpleasant, and sometimes they have unfriended me, and sometimes I wonder why that doesn’t happen all of the time, instead of just sometimes, and inevitably I regret my poor behaviour, no matter the outcome.

As I’ve aged I’ve realized you can’t take human relationships for granted, because you only get so many chances and you only have so much time in this world.

*

“André,” a friend once messaged me, in the wake of Sandy Hook, “why are you spending so much time arguing with gun enthusiasts?” The gun enthusiasts were my cousins, and I guess I thought I could change their minds. But I felt ashamed by his question, not because I was standing up for what I believed in (my ideals remain unchanged), but because I had let the discourse become so poisonous, and I hadn’t realized I was broadcasting to my entire friendslist (though of course I should have).

One of my cousins is an ex-marine. He served in Iraq. From the stories he’s told me, I don’t think he would need a gun to defend himself from anything, but he keeps a loaded one by his bed. I live in Canada and he lives in the United States, and there’s no question that where he lives it is more violent than where I live. But he’s married and he has suffered from PTSD and I worry for both him and his wife because of the gun sitting within easy reach of his nightmares, although it is perhaps not my place to worry, definitely not my place to use this worry against him.

I love him, though. When we were kids his family used to visit ours every summer or fall. Sometimes at Christmas, too. When I was married and he was thinking of getting married he would call me and I would sometimes call him and we’d talk for hours, about lots of things, mostly about life in general and what we thought our futures might be like. He was thinking, for a while, about moving to Ontario, but he recently had to renounce his Canadian citizenship in order to take a job. Which is really too bad. He’s a different person on the phone, or in person, than he is on Facebook.

No one is a human being on Facebook.

*

Garrett Strickland took aim at Kate Zambreno because she was a woman. He wrote that he felt frustrated after she unfriended him because he wasn’t allowed to “access *every* goddess,” that it was the equivalent of being “barred from [the] temple.” He reduced her to her gender, to a kind of relationship he wanted to have with persons of her gender, and went even further by manifesting her as a doll in his post. He acted like a screaming toddler who is upset because his mother has to go to work; he should not have that relationship to female writers he barely knows (or to anyone, probably). In his apologies and comments since he lost his ability to post on HTMLGIANT he seems confused, but contrite, maybe. But feeling contrition doesn’t change the fact that should be held accountable for what he did.

I think there is a difference between holding someone accountable and policing. I got this insight from a Facebook status update shared by my friend Muna Mire (I can’t find it now, though). Holding someone accountable is making someone responsible for their actions, it is educating them for what they did wrong, and it is making restitutions to whatever victims might exist. Policing is about creating a culture of fear. It leads to resentment and silence. As Strickland’s example probably demonstrates, women are policed far more often than men. But the reverse is also possible.

Is it worth saying Emily Needleman’s comments about Strickland’s genitalia “policed” or “silenced” him? I think, maybe, that they didn’t, given the context of her post (an initial response to a particularly egregious attack). But even knowing that her actions are not equivalent to his, I wonder whether it is useful to attack someone with violence, even when you believe you are right.

*

I like to think that my ex-girlfriend treated her cat the way she did because that’s how she wanted herself to be treated, with respect and caution. That’s beautiful, in a way. I always think of this line from Harry Mathews’s Twenty Lines a Day: “Treat [them] like a boor, and you are a boor”—which is true, I think. Your education doesn’t matter, your social standing doesn’t matter, your politics don’t matter: if you act like a boor, you’re a boor.

I don’t know if our relationship actually abided by those principles. I think my ex didn’t understand that she was in a position of power relative to me, because of her age and our former relationship, and I didn’t understand for a long time how deeply that affected us. She was always on the offensive, not only because she was used to being with men who acted distant and above her (I was the first younger man, the first former student, she had ever dated), but because I think I was a man and she was angry that she had grown up in a world where men were privileged and women were disregarded. Maybe, too, because I had been her student it was difficult for her to see me as her equal, even if she wouldn’t have admitted that.

In the beginning we would often discuss gender issues. I learned a lot from her. But after a while things changed, and I realized that I was starting to feel attacked. This wasn’t a feminism issue, though her attacks were cloaked in the language of feminism. In our worst moments she seemed to hate everything about me. I couldn’t do anything right, especially not when it came to issues of gender. This was weird, because by that point I had become “hyper-vigilant” about identifying and isolating misogyny wherever it appeared, including in myself—more vigilant, she once proudly exclaimed, than even she was. But, like most human beings, I was flawed.

*

Needleman: “cry your tears now, garett. there will be no time for thinkpieces about kate zambreno after the revolution, when you will toil for me, your matriarchal overlord.”

*

I didn’t choose to be a man. My ex didn’t choose to be a women. Some people do “choose” their sex, or at least change it, but the vast majority of people don’t, or stick with the gender our parents or society chose for us. I’m not better than my ex. When I renewed my driver’s license last April, when I was still seeing her, I was shocked by the person I saw in the photo they’d sent to me, the photo that I will carry in my wallet for the next five years: I looked like a psychopath. I must have been something like one. It was a long time after we broke up that I was able to get my ex’s voice out my head: correcting me, attacking me, second-guessing everything I said, that she’d presumed to know I thought. Her voice, but my head. Maybe I wanted that. Maybe that was a horrible thing for me to want from someone.

In grade eight I was bullied pretty hard. When your status was as low as mine was you don’t belong to yourself anymore. Other people get to make decisions about your body, about your intentions. Eventually you start to believe them. Sometimes I wonder if that’s what it feels like to be a woman. Or, more accurately, if that’s what it sometimes feels like to be a woman. My ex told me that’s how she felt. Which is maybe ironic. The first time I went on a date after I broke up with her it was a revelation—pathetic, maybe—that I could have a respectful conversation or that someone could be attracted to me, just as it was revelation fifteen years ago to meet kids my age who were interested in knowing who I was independent of what I’d become the previous year at school.

*

Attack institutions. Attack authority. Attack power. Treat human beings with respect. In his comments, Strickland kept insisting that gender be ignored in the favour of treating everyone as “souls.” As others have rightly pointed out, this was a convenient and insidious way of sidestepping many of the issues his post raised. I think it’s obvious he wasn’t giving Zambreno the same consideration, especially because he very wilfully turned what was might have been just a clash of personalities into a response to his “gender.” He attacked her without grounds, and brought gender into the discussion as a way of marginalizing her response to him (and rationalizing his weird attack).

As one of my Facebook friends is fond of saying of his space, “This is not a democracy”—what someone decides to do with her Facebook wall is up to her. No one ever has any obligation to listen to you. Choosing not to engage (as Zambreno did) is not equivalent to publicly shaming (as Strickland did).

The more I think about the words that Needleman used to attack Strickland, the more I feel like I can rationalize them: what is it to call him a dweeb, or to insinuate that his penis is small, or gross, to the disgusting attempt he made to silence Zambreno? But I think this is wrong. I understand that it is not the same for a woman to insult a man based on his sex as it is for a man to insult a woman based on her sex. But because the former is not equal to the latter doesn’t make the former correct.

As my cousin discovered, when you come back from war, you take it home with you. My ex was used to attacking men, and I was a man. She was used to standing up to institutions that enforced male privilege, and I benefit from male privilege. I wasn’t like the men she’d attacked before—I wasn’t in a position of power relative to her. I think I had very little power, in fact. But for her, the fight wasn’t over, not even with me.

*

The experiences of the past are not always (maybe not even usually) entirely suited to the experiences of your future. Every relationship, every day, every moment, is different. That makes being human messy. You’re going to make mistakes, that’s inevitable. What else is inevitable is that some mistakes are more flagrant than others, either because you really should have known better or because they require more work to fix. Or because you’re an asshole.

If you care at all, the important thing is to learn and atone and listen. If your behaviour is excused by others, there’s no reason to do that. This is one way misogyny perpetuated itself for so long in our culture (it is still perpetuated in this way). If instead assume the worst is assumed about you and you are forever marked by your mistake, you can’t learn or atone and listen, because you have no room to do anything. You become a monster. This is a very different problem. One that seems tricky to me (do all mistakes deserve forgiveness?).

*

Barry Hannah wrote a lot of great stories, but my favourite is “Getting Ready.” I’m not sure if it’s one of his best, but it’s the one I always return to. The story is about a formerly wealthy amateur fisherman who finally lands “the big one” using simple bait and a crap rod. A crowd gathers around him and his gasping catch on the beach, and when a man offers to “do the honours” with his axe, the fisherman gets indignant and throws the fish back into the water. He flies home, reconnects with his wife, sells all of his expensive fishing gear at a loss, and moves out of the big house he can no longer afford:

Then Roger Laird made an old-fashioned two-by-four pair of stilts eight-feet high. It
made him stand about twelve feet in the air. He would mount the stilts and walk into the big lake around which the rich people lived. The sailing boats would come around near him, big opulent three-riggers sleeping two families belowdecks, and Roger Laird would yell:

“Fuck you! Fuck you!”

Laird, it seems to me, is fighting artifice, fighting death, fighting all of the bullshit that gets in the way between human beings who too easily forget how fragile human life is, how quickly we leave everyone behind.

At the end of Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, the main character, Berie, is driving away from her hometown and the best friend she has ever known. Suddenly, she bursts out crying:

I cried for Sils… all that devotion and remorse, stars streaming light a million years after death; I cried for the boyfriends I was no longer with, the people and places I no longer knew well… I cried for everyone and for all the scrabbly, funny love one sent out into the world like some hit song that enters space and bounds off to another galaxy… there was never any containing a song like that, keeping it. It went off and out, speeding out of earshot or imagining or any reach at all…

*

When I was bullied, I remember feeling angry, and disappointed, and voiceless. I remember not giving people who were trying to be nice to me the benefit of the doubt, both because I didn’t want their pity and because I was suspicious of them. Suspicious of their motives and suspicious of human beings. It was a while, I think, before I felt like I could be myself, before I realized that I could speak-up again. That maybe I always could have, in a way.

When I insinuate that attacking men for being misogynist is counterproductive, I am not saying that the anger that goes into those attacks is not justified. But personally, I think violence of any kind is counterproductive because it is so clumsy: it always hits more than it intends. It changes the person who administers it. Though the US Military would probably have you believe otherwise, there’s no such thing as a “precision strike.”

Maybe that’s something we have to live with. Maybe the ends do justify the means when it comes to social change. Maybe we can’t control our reactions enough to guarantee we won’t lash out, especially when that something hits so close to home, or attacks us at the core of our being. Or maybe enough of us can’t. But I hope not.

*

The carousel arrived yesterday morning, in large yellow crates marked “STRICKLAND- NEEDLEMAN.” I watched them pull out the battered horses underneath the floodlights while the rest of the carnival set up around them. The carousel is so old that some of the horses have been replaced, not always carefully: one replacement looks like a doll, another like a toy soldier.

The next morning I go to the carnival because I am eager to see who will ride the carousel…

*

Emily Needleman is on the carousel. Garrett Strickland is on it. Leigh Stein is on it. My ex- girlfriend is on it. Harry Mathews is on it. Alice Toklas is on it. Gertrude Stein is on it. Lorrie Moore is on it. Barry Hannah is on it. Somewhere, riding on the other side, I know, is Kate Zambreno. And I am on stilts wading through the crowd lining up with their tickets, shouting “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!”