Contemporary, Literary Ireland: Donal Ryan

I love the books of Donal Ryan. I don’t mention them much here—to my American friends—because he is an Irish writer and they are very Irish and I think sometimes they are too Irish for many American readers. (He is published on a small press here—Steerforth—and I will forthwith begin buying more of their fiction because, well, Donal Ryan.) That is, the milieu, the mind-set, the contemporary history—all are set in an Ireland I know well.

But, dagnabbit, Ryan is a brilliant writer. Everything he’s written, brilliant. None of this “well, I liked his second one best” business. ALL. BRILLIANT. So, American friends, read them.

They were published (and I read them) in this order:

The Spinning Heart (novel)
The Thing About December (novel)
A Slanting of the Sun (short stories)
All We Shall Know (novel)

I have just finished All We Shall Know. It hasn’t even been reviewed in the States. But it was special.


Couldn't find my copy of The Thing About December. It's Around here somewhere.

Couldn’t find my copy of The Thing About December. It’s around here somewhere.

I Am Your Sister, Your Wife, Your Mother. I Am a Statistic. I Am a Human Being.

I haven’t thought about this in two decades. But I’m thinking about it now, because these words and these statistics are in the news.

  • Every two minutes an American is sexually assaulted; a disproportionate number of them women.
  • One out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.
  • In 1995, 28 percent of rape or sexual assault victimizations against females were reported to the police. This percentage increased to 59 percent in 2003 before declining to 32 percent in 2010.
  • The majority of sexual violence against females involved someone the victim knew. In 2005-10, 78 percent of sexual violence involved an offender who was a family member, intimate partner, friend or acquaintance.
  • On average, there are 288,820 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States.
  • As of 1998, an estimated 17.7 million American women had been victims of attempted or completed rape.

I could go on. (Sources linked below.)

You see, I was a victim of sexual assault, of unwanted, inappropriate sexual advances from a powerful man for whom I worked. Until today, I have only told two people about it: my friend Melania (not her real name), and my husband, Gerry.

I have reflected upon this for some time. I don’t bring it up now because I need the catharsis of telling. (I’m not a brooder, not prone to take things hard. I’m tough, I’ve always been tough, and I tend to remember the good and forget the bad.) I don’t bring it up now because I’m wounded or hurt and need help. (I know who the broken person is in this scenario; it’s not me.) I don’t bring it up because I want justice. (God knows there’s little justice in this ol’ world.)

No, I bring it up now—twenty-five years laterbecause there are women today who are being castigated for bringing up similar stories now. They’re being called liars by people (mostly men) who have no freaking clue what it was like, what was involved, what it’s like to live with the memory of something like this in which you were powerless—for a variety of reasons—to simply say, Take your hand off me, you asshole.

So let’s talk about it, shall we? My case doesn’t concern someone in the public spotlight—but otherwise it’s the same: a woman conducting her business, a man who sees women as things for his entertainment.

My Story

I got divorced at age thirty-seven; I was the mother of a six-year-old. I’d been married to my son’s father for eighteen years, and it had been my choice to leave—but it was not a decision taken lightly, and I was rattled to my core. At the time I was slim, didn’t have grey hair, and generally looked about ten years younger than I was.

After my divorce in 1990 I moved home, where I worked for a small family-owned company not far away. It was a stressful job, and while I had a few friends among the staff, for the most part I didn’t fit in. The owner of the company, a man, married with kids, was tall, outgoing, smart, funny, charismatic. He was my boss. The offices were attached to a warehouse, and it was a rabbit warren of hallways and out-of-the-way places that were not always well traveled. You didn’t necessarily run into coworkers going from A to B.

The first incident was this: The boss and I passed in one of these quiet corridors, and he engaged me in conversation. He said something funny, I laughed, we chatted. And then he reached out and gently pinched one of my my breasts and said, “I want some of this.” A coworker came around the corner then, and nothing further happened. I didn’t have to respond and both of us were able to pretend as if nothing had happened.

Now—at age sixty-three—I am furious with him. Understand, I’m not damaged by it. I’m not carrying it around. But it was inappropriate at work or in any environment, and I shouldn’t have had to deal with it.

At the time I was shocked into speechlessness. Nothing like that had ever happened to me. (Sure there was that flasher in the raincoat in San Francisco about twenty years earlier, but I’d just laughed at him. Which is, basically, my style.) Also, of course, I needed the job; I couldn’t afford to make waves, though I knew this was sexual harrassment. (Actually, though, my husband reminds me, it wasn’t harassment: there was no quid pro quo. It was inappropriate touching without my consent, and that is assault.)

But I’d already learned how expensive lawyers are. I did nothing.

Just about the time I’d “forgotten” the incident, this man came into my office just as I was leaving it. I was in front of my desk, not behind it, and he asked for something, a document, I had on my desk. I turned around and reached for it, and was shocked to feel this man, my boss, up close behind me, bumping his groin against my rear end.

WTF? There was no rescuing coworker this time but I handed him the document and quickly put distance between him and me. I was mortified.

“He Didn’t Mean It”

Notice that? I was mortified, although I’d done nothing inappropriate.

I had this job because I’d been working for the company in a different capacity prior to my divorce. When they heard I was moving to the area, I was offered the job in the “main office.” I’d had the job in the field because my close friend of long standing, Melania, was friends with the owner’s wife. And with the owner.

One afternoon after these two incidents, Melania and I were visiting, and I cautiously brought up what had happened to me. And Melania said, “Oh, I don’t think he meant it like you think he did. You must be misinterpreting it. He’s a jokester.” And we never talked about it again.

See that? Someone I trusted brushed off my concerns.

A Recap

So let’s review the reasons why I did not come forward:

  • This man was my boss; he had money, power, and authority in the community.
  • He chose his moments well; a public discussion of the incidents would be nothing but “he said, she said.”
  • I needed the job: single mom, little money, couldn’t afford to take on a legal case.
  • I had no idea how to handle the situation. I was mortified.
  • A trusted friend brushed off my concerns.

Furthermore, I knew even then that women who report rapes are often blamed for it or told they have misconstrued what happened. Rape culture wasn’t as well understood and documented as it is now, but it was becoming more so. Nowadays corporations are careful to school executives and managers about sexual harassment in the workplace, but in 1990 that was a few years in the distance. It was still a Mad Men society back then, strangely, particularly in smaller companies like this one.

Women like me, we learned to get along with men in the workplace. If we didn’t laugh at their questionable jokes, we at least didn’t make a stink about them. That’s what we called “go along to get along.” I was a pragmatist. I went along, but I did my work and went home—I didn’t hang around with anybody after work.

And so I did nothing, said nothing. I went on.

Flash Forward Twenty-Five Years

A week or so ago, a videotape emerged of Donald Trump bragging about how he touches women inappropriately. It started a national conversation. And within days, other women began stepping forward, saying, “He did that to me too.” I think perhaps there are a dozen of them on the record now.

Naturally, this being an election year, the meme machine swung into action, accusing these women of being liars. These people think it’s suspicious that the women just now “remembered.”

I don’t. Think about the recap. These are all women who were accosted by a rich, powerful, tall (six-foot-two) man. No one else was present, so an accusation would be one woman against the Trump machine, which they probably couldn’t afford to do. In fact, if any of them consulted a lawyer, they were probably advised to not pursue it; Trump could ruin them. And, of course, they were probably mortified and didn’t relish the thought of being publicly shamed.

So what’s different now? There’s a tape; there’s audio proof of this particular type of bad behavior by this particular man. One woman came forward, and then another and another. The stories don’t sound made up when a dozen different women have similar stories to tell (also, they told others at the time, and those people—friends, mentors, and so on—have also verified the stories). Most of us believe them, but there are some very loud, ugly voices calling them liars … and worse.

            And this proves the point. These are all women who, like me, just got on with their lives, because who needs this crap from these assholes? Who needs it? But they are coming forward now because of current events. Because there is safety in numbers. Because there’s proof that this man acts with others they way he acted with them. Because they are angry. Because women should be able to exist in society’s public spaces without fear of being assaulted.

I’ve had a wonderful, happy life. I still have a wonderful, happy life. The things that happened to me all those years ago don’t affect who I am now, and they certainly don’t define me. I don’t live a fearful life.

Though perhaps I should. Some people are angry with the victims, not with the perpetrator. On social media, people I know and love (?) are posting the nastiest, ugliest, lyingest things the meme machine can cobble together, as fast as it can cobble them together.

So let me remind you, my brothers, my fellow Americans, one more time: I am your sister, and it happened to me. I am your mother. I am your wife. I am your coworker, your employee. I am your neighbor. You know me. You know who I am, so you can’t—you shouldn’t—disparage my character simply because I say I was sexually assaulted by a man with power and money. I am coming forward now not for sympathy but because I am angered (nay, I am enraged) by the way you all talk about women.

I am a human being.

I am not lying.

Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)
National Sexual Violence Resource Center
Bureau of Justice Statistics



“Eschew Ignorance. Pursue Truth.” Be a Good Citizen.

When I was much younger than I am now, I worked at a medium-sized newspaper for a few years. I knew the journalists, the editors, I watched them work. I asked questions of them. About that time I was also taking classes in what was then called “mass communication” at the local university. I learned about the importance of a free press (something I also learned, of course, in history), and the role journalism—good journalism, that is, the real-thing sort of professional journalism of accurate information and dispassionate judgment that answers to the ideals of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and a code of ethics—plays in informing the public. I’d been writing—journals, stories, humor—for years, and I was considering journalism as something I might be good at.

Twenty years later I was a divorced mom with a Mac and an AOL email account in the early days of the user-friendly Internet. I loved email—I could type long letters faster than writing them out, and I was quite the letter-writer in those days—but one of its banes was those stupid, stupid, seriously stupid emails that people with apparently nothing better to do with their precious lives passed around. (Remember the $250 cookie recipe?) Usually these emails came to me from people who wanted to spread some sort of outrage, rarely personal; usually they were addressed to twenty or more people. They were often astonishing stories I had trouble believing, and sometimes they disturbed me enough that I would research the story to learn whether or not it was true. In the days before, this was no mean feat. But you could, with a little effort, get at the truth, even then.

One of them—this would have been about fifteen years ago—concerned a contingent of Gold Star mothers who were reportedly turned away from the office of Senator Hillary Clinton. It is not, of course, true. (The simple story is that the women arrived without an appointment on a day Senator Clinton was not in the office. It has been strongly refuted by the national Gold Star Mothers organization. Here’s the whole story.)

And the idea that people were passing around this information as truth really bothered me. (Remember, I was raised by the Original American Patriot. Truth and justice are the American Way, yeah? We didn’t tell lies in our house. We just didn’t.) So I researched the story and I wrote an email explaining the truth, including links to valid information, and I replied to all of the recipients of the email. I ended by saying,

Regardless of our political persuasion, it’s incumbent upon us as good citizens to not tell lies or pass around the lies of others. How would you feel if someone fabricated a story like this about you?

Well, it really annoyed my friend. (To be honest, the friendship’s never been the same and I couldn’t care less. I have a low tolerance for that sort of behavior.) But I learned something from it, to wit:

1 Adults really don’t like to be told they’re wrong or to have it implied that they have misbehaved (even when they know it’s true).

2 Some people would rather believe a lie when it comes to politics. For them, the “win” is the most important thing, the only thing.

3 Many people prefer to have their prejudices and opinions confirmed, even if it’s only by an apocryphal story. Facts don’t really matter to these people.

Flash forward a few more years. Now I’m an editor of books. I’ve been an editor for twelve years. I work on both fiction and nonfiction, and in the case of the latter, I have spent years honing my skills on fact-checking and tracking down original source material—because you wouldn’t believe the sorts of websites some folks want to cite as a source. For example, those awful, awful quotes sites like ThinkExist and Brainyquote? They are not good sources. (I’ve written quite a bit about sourcing quotes here and here, and I’ve written about fact-checking here.) When you factor in people whose minds are closed to virtually all information that does not fit neatly within the narrow confines of their belief system, you end up with all sorts of bat-shit crazy stuff (like the Gold Star Mothers canard) and when you add to that people who are so [determined? angry? misguided?] that they will do anything—including lie—to support their world view, well, we’ve got a big problem. We’ve got people who are promoting an agenda by lying about the other side of the story, and we’ve got people who cannot see the difference between lies and truth.

I often get work from a publisher who publishes current event–type books, often those that espouse viewpoints from the opposite side of the political fence from me. And that’s precisely why I get the work: the managing editor knows me well, knows my political leanings. She also knows that I take my work very seriously. She hires me, she’s told me, to keep her authors “honest,” to make sure they’re not just spouting hot air but are backing up their claims with facts and research from good, unbiased sources. (I wouldn’t allow, for example, citations from WorldNetDaily or NewsMax, because they are so obviously slanted they are more opinion than fact. I could go on and on with the list of biased or propaganda websites.)

But a lot of folks don’t care about separating truth from opinion or propaganda, it seems. They seem to have no ability to think critically. To question. Now we’re involved in an insane political cycle in which one candidate seems incapable of telling the truth. For months, my husband and I have scratched our heads, wondering if this guy is gaslighting us. As Time magazine’s recent cover story noted, “political debate has become unhinged from reality.”

Donald Trump, the GOP presidential nominee, has spent years regularly encouraging his followers to doubt much of what is known to be true: that the earth is warming, that Obama was born in the U.S., that the FBI’s decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton follows prosecutorial precedent. … One of the first casualties of this worldview is the very ability to have a national debate with a common set of facts.

Why is that?

I check everything before I believe it. I research before I buy a car. I look into the science of weight loss when I want to shed some pounds. And when I hear of a story that’s, well, out there, I check into that too. What makes me do this—and not my brother, say, who not only supports a congenital liar but hates the “other side” so much he will post to his Facebook page the most egregious (and easily refuted) lies about them? What does he think other people make of this … this ugliness that he says right out loud?*

I think what I think about political matters, but I try to be respectful of others’ opinions, even when I adamantly disagree with them. I believe that America needs, and has always needed, a reliable and logical conservative voice in American politics—just as it needs a liberal and progressive voice. There’s room for all of us at the table. But … when I see people I once had great respect for continue to post the most heinous statements about people like me, calling me things like libtard (really?) … well, it’s gone beyond a difference of opinion. It’s hurtful. It’s hateful. It’s un-American, frankly.

I still believe strongly in the truth, and that actual truth is ascertainable. I still believe in the power of critical thinking. I still believe that one’s character matters, and that a good citizen searches for the facts—no matter how much or little those facts ultimately support his opinion. I would urge you to become a more responsible citizen; I would urge you to check your facts. I would urge you to use discernment** as you do so. We have the technology.

* There have been a variety of scientific theories about this phenomenon. Here’s one. Here is another. As a friend of mine notes, fear + ignorance is a potent cocktail, and it’s easy to manipulate those under its influence with memes and slogans.

** Here’s how to be discerning online:
1) Watch for obvious bias; if the article uses pejoratives like libtards, it’s slanted. Look for multiple sources, too; if an article has only one source, beware.
2) Go back to the article’s original sources; are those articles being cited fairly and accurately or has the writer cherry-picked statements out of context? Does the material even support the writer’s point?
3) Research the writer and the contributors to the article. Are they experts in the field?

Wanderlust I Can Sate

An author friend of mine has a wonderful blog she calls Appalachian Blessings. Born and raised in the mountains of West Virginia, Sarah lives in North Carolina now, with her husband.

We will be seeing them soon, because a few months ago—when we were recovered from all the party excitement but not yet ready to plan a major excursion—we decided we’d take a little getaway to Asheville, North Carolina.

I’d been there four years ago with my son, to attend the wedding of his best friend. We loved it—and I’ve wanted ever since to take Gerry. When we decided on the place, I got in touch with Sarah for some suggestions, and we started making plans. Dinner plans.

Then she ran this blog post—“Signs of Autumn”—and got me all excited. Yes, we’ll be there right in the middle of October, and, yes, I love autumn too. So watch this space. Soon I’ll have a new trip to tell you about.🙂

Here, the backyard dogwood tree has just begun to turn.

Here, the backyard dogwood tree has just begun to turn.

Pumpkin Harvest

Last week I met “in the middle” with a client, which meant I found myself in tiny Nolensville, Tennessee. This one was made easier because sometime in the last year or so Veterans Parkway was completed, which means if I’m headed west, I can get to the interstate (I-840, which will cross I-65 and eventually hit I-40) without ever going into town.

I always enjoy a new drive, and this one, in particular, had some items of interest that caught my eye. So I took Gerry back a few days later.

We bought a pair of Amish-made Adirondack chairs at Smucker Farms (delivered later). They’re made out of “poly”—recycled material (including some wood) that will last for decades, we’re told.

And then we stopped at Fast’s Nursery in Arrington because I couldn’t resist the vast array of pumpkins.

Fast's farm shop in Arrington, TN.

Fast’s farm shop in Arrington, TN.

Just look at these things! A vast array indeed!

The names are fantastic: Porcelain Doll, Giant Cinderella …

The names are fantastic: Porcelain Doll, Giant Cinderella …

The colors are beautiful on these Porcelain Dolls …

The colors are beautiful on these Porcelain Dolls …

Even this classicly shaped pumpkin—a Giant Cinderella—has a hint of pink in it.

Even this classicly shaped pumpkin—a Giant Cinderella—has a hint of pink in it.

I nearly swooned over these: Warty Goblins! Blue Dolls!

I nearly swooned over these: Warty Goblins! Blue Dolls!

The sun was very bright.

The sun was very bright.

Ghostly Blue Dolls …

Ghostly Blue Dolls …

I have no idea what these are called, but as far as I’m concerned, they embody the spirit of Halloween.

I have no idea what these are called, but as far as I’m concerned, they embody the spirit of Halloween.

But wait! There’s more!

But wait! There’s more!

Yes, I bought a couple pumpkins. Who could resist?

’Tis the season!

’Tis the season!

The days are cooler, and the nights are definitely cooler. We’re heading into autumn, y’all.


Holding Two Opposing Thoughts in My Head: It’s Self-Evident, Y’all

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, in “The Crack-Up,” an essay published in Esquire magazine in 1936

I was raised by an American patriot (my daddy), a man pledged to give his life for this country for the twenty-three years he was on active duty with the United States Air Force. He raised us all to show respect for the flag, and I do. I do. I can even tear up, as he always did.

And yet, as an American, I also support the right of the football players who’ve chosen to kneel rather than stand during the national anthem, as a protest for the many things they see wrong in our society. I see those wrongs too.

I can hold these two opposing thoughts in my head—my love and respect for the country of my birth while I note that not everything is perfect here, that there are deep wrongs we need to right. But there is a certain ilk of people in this country who cannot (actually, will not) do that, hold the conflicting thoughts. They condemn this peaceful protest.

I wonder what they would think if they read this book? By historian/professor Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America shows us an America most people don’t want to believe exists. And I’m not talking about the connotation you may get when you read the title. No, I’m talking about our revered Founding Fathers. This book made me think differently about them.

The Founding Fathers. You know: Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and others. Those guys to whom this ilk—the folks who can’t stand it when a football player quietly takes a knee during the national anthem—rush to ascribe all sorts of signs and wonders. I did, too, honestly, until I read this well-researched book. The thing is, those guys were really just very privileged white English assholes who brought their class superiority with them when they left England. They talked a good game—all men (though not women) created equal, being endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights indeed—but they really didn’t walk the walk. Those blessings of liberty were really only intended for, you know, white men of the monied class.

And yet, and yet. That Constitution. And that Declaration of Independence. They’re things of beauty. We’ve been clinging to them for 240 years. So there’s two opposing thoughts for you, yes? I can hold them both in my head. I can love and respect the dream manifest in the words We hold these truths to be self-evidentself-evident, y’all!—and hate the fact that the writers of those words brought both black and white* slaves to this land to do (ahem) the hard work. The work that well-bred, well-off white men shouldn’t have to do, they thought.

These are perilous times we live in, friends. Hate speech—particularly toward people of color—abounds. My husband and I were just having this discussion at breakfast. “You can change your accent and your address,” he said, “but you can’t change the color of your skin.” I look around at my fellow Americans and I’m appalled and ashamed by their behavior, not by the behavior of the peaceful protesters. I’m shocked that some Americans presume to judge others for a quiet, peaceful protest, something granted to all citizens of this country. Peaceful protest. Free speech too.

Two opposing thoughts.

As humans, we’re capable of that.

In the 5 September 2016 issue of Time magazine, there was a ten-question interview with legal scholar/professor Akhil Amar of Yale University. His ethnic heritage is Indian, his parents having immigrated to the United States from India before he was born. The last question in the interview was this one:

Q: When you emptied your pockets so we could take your picture, you pulled out three copies of the Constitution. One wasn’t enough?

A: People died for these words, so we should have the words literally close to our hearts. You should have more than one copy because if someone asks you a question about the Constitution, I think it’s wonderful and democratic if you can give them a copy and you can read it together.

This made me tear up when I read it.

This is patriotism, y’all. Loudly demanding that someone stand during the national anthem because your small-minded idea of what America is can’t survive without a faked-up show of respect,** because you are incapable of holding two opposing thoughts in your tiny little head is not patriotism.

* They were referred to as “trash people”—because the wealthy landowners literally intended to work them to death, then throw them away like trash. Nice.

** How many times in years past have you tuned in a televised football game and watched as the camera panned down the line of athletes waiting to play? There was a time in my life when I spent every Sunday during football season doing this. I remember: some sang, some put hands over hearts, some did neither of those things, some swayed, lifted legs, bounced (staying loose), or grimaced (already in their game faces), some might have even been finishing off a quick exchange of words with the guy next to them, trying to be discreet. Think about it. You’ve seen it, don’t deny it. So tell me again why you’re so outraged now?

Wanderlust in Flames: Alaska Railroad

I had lunch with a friend of mine a few weeks ago. We don’t see each other that often—busy, right?—but we keep up on Facebook and in that lunch discovered our friendship is alive and well. The things that drew us together still do.

Including travel adventures.


I’d seen some photos of a railroad trip to Alaska she’d made with her husband and her son, and I grilled her about it. It’s country I’d like to see, and most people I know who’ve seen it have done so from a cruise ship. Nothing wrong with that, but I have a little vertigo problem.

(Vertigo is caused—trust me, I’ve had all the tests—by sensitivity in eyes, ears, or legs, and while I have all three, it’s the leg sensitivity that knocks me over: standing in an old wooden building on the floor directly above the physical plant, for example, when the heating unit kicks on; or on an upper floor of any metal building, say the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville; or elevators, oh boy, elevators are troublesome for me. I’m highly sensitive to vibration that most of you can’t feel at all. So I’ve concluded that an ocean-going vessel is probably not a good fit for me.)

Thus the idea of a train was very appealing.

A couple weeks later, a large envelope arrived. Inside there was a large, four-color magazine from the Alaska Railroad, and a Post-It Note message: “Jamie, I hope you can go to AK some time.”

Needless to say, she’s inflamed my wanderlust again. Just look at this website! Yes, I want to see Alaska! Bears and eagles and Denali National Park, yes!


Summer? Or winter? We’ll see!