Asking the Unasked Question About Gay Teen Suicide

Asking the Unasked Question About Gay Teen Suicide

Elliott batTzedek

On Coming Out Day, October 11, 1987, I was supposed to be in DC. Instead, I’d stayed in Madison, WI, and agreed to have my parents come for an awkward, difficult visit, spilling over with things not said.

That Sunday morning, after they’d left on Saturday night, I stood in my kitchen, my three-theophyllines-a-day in one hand, the whole bottle in the other. I took the bottle. I didn’t plan to, I hadn’t been contemplating suicide, I didn’t want to die. I got to the hospital, went through the horrible charcoal-swallowing, stomach pumping procedure, was put on suicide watch for 36 hours, and sent home.

No, I hadn’t been able to tell my parents I was a dyke, and yes, that was because of the intense homophobia I had always witnessed in my small home town. But I wasn’t a mess because I was lesbian. I loved being lesbian, loved everything about it, had no qualms, poured my whole self into the lesbian community. Seeing my parents made me fall apart because I’d been falling apart for months under the pressure of constant flashbacks of childhood sexual abuse. My mind was remembering images, my body remembering blows, my nose the smell of him. All of this was painful beyond my capacity to process, and I was desperate to just make it stop. Spending two days with my family increased that pain exponentially, and that morning I snapped.

Watching the coverage of gay teen suicide this fall, I am pushed back to that day. If I had died, would it have been spun as a “gay youth” suicide? If it were covered at all, I think it probably would have. And that would have been a lie about my life.

And because I know that would have been a lie, I wonder constantly about these teens. While I am generally dubious about any sort of statistical statement about what is suppressed, for the sake of argument I’m going with the stats as they stand – 1 in 10 kids is gay/queer/lesbian/gender queer/etc, but 6-8 out of 10 kids are victims of sexual abuse before the age of 18.

Who is counting the suicides among these 60-80% of children?

And of the gay kids who kill themselves, how many are also survivors of sexual abuse? Is bullying really THE issue here?

By which I mean this – I don’t doubt for a second that physical and psychological assault cause depression and can lead to suicidality. But what other assaults are we pretending not to see? How much easier is it to blame “bullies at school” than to really know what that child’s life was at home? Are we, yet again, looking for an easy exterior identified problem so we can as a culture go on lying about sexual abuse?

That is – is the current focus on “bullies” another form of Megan’s Law? Megan’s Law, and all similar laws, which unload the entire, vast, damage of sexual abuse of children onto the very small percentage of sexual predators who are unknown to their victims and “snatch them away from loving families.” Of course this happens, and of course it is horrible, but 90+% of sexual abuse of children is by an adult the child knows, usually is related to, and has been taught to trust. That’s a whole lot of social resources and fear-mongering for a “solution” which avoids completely the real problem.

The focus on “school bullies” is starting to feel the same to me in the way it is the evening news feed, the only explanation, the “we can fix this with laws and enforcement of laws” false surety. The single most dangerous place for a child is home; the most dangerous people are the adults given access to the child. When I count through everyone I know who has managed to kill themselves, or come damn close to it, every single one of them was sexually assaulted as a child, sometimes for years and years. No anti-bullying initiative in the world could have protected them.

And yes, some of them were also bullied, including me, my life in high school made miserable by my peers; bullies, after all, tend to repeatedly assault kids who are timid, who collapse in on themselves, who, in fact, act like prey. But what do you think would make a child, born whole, be acting like prey by high school, or middle school, or elementary school? Going after only the bullies who target vulnerable children is like blaming the vultures for eating the carcass of a deer killed by a hunter.

But it is so much easier to blame the vultures, who live out there somewhere, than to blame the hunters who live in our homes. And as long as we’re looking out there somewhere, and not inside the home, the sexual abuse of the majority of our children will continue to be accepted and acceptable, and children and teens will go on killing themselves or acting out their abuse on themselves and other children.

So, do we go for the feel-good media blitz of the 10% (if that) solution, or do we really, finally, try to save all our children?


Timely Lyrics Wednesday

It’s one of THOSE days at work, and I found myself humming this Roches’ classic:

The Death of Suzzy Roche

I work in the laundromat
The one that Suzzy Roche
Does hers at
I hate her guts
She thinks I want her autograph

She’s got stinky crusty socks
She’s got underwear that shocks
O what a pig, she’s such a pig
I’d like to stick a turd in her mailbox

Some people really have a lot of nerve
Everywhere they go they think they
Should get served
Everybody in the laundromat is equal
Suzzy Roche

She hands me a ten dollar bill
Asks so sweetly if I will
Give her some change
I’d like to bang her head
Against a windowsill

She says the machine is broke
The way she loaded that thing is a joke
Broken machine, another broken machine
Now I’d really like to cut her throat

Some people. . .

She decides that she’s got to get out of there
Other people waiting but she don’t care
Cycle is through, her cycle is through
I took out her clothes and threw them everywhere

Boy was she mad when she got back
I said listen honey don’t give me no flack
Pick up your clothes, pick up your clothes
And when she did I stuck a knife right through her back

Some people. . .

pre-poem research – The Bushel

All writers do research. Always. Sometimes it is called “daydreaming,” but it is still research.

Sometimes it is browsing, a word adopted by websters and heightened by the invention of google and wikipedia into an art form.

Today I need to know about pecks and bushels. How much is a peck? How much peck could a woodpecker peck? Here’s what I found out, which will now live somewhere in the dusty second-hand store I call a brain until I can spout it at an opportune but usually unimportant moment.

The Bushel

Bushels are now most often used as units of mass or weight rather than of volume. The bushels in which grains are bought and sold on commodity markets or at local grain elevators, and for reports of grain production, are all units of weight. This is done by assigning a standard weight to each commodity that is to be measured in bushels. These bushels depend on the commodities being measured and the moisture content. Some of the more common ones are:

* Oats
o USA: 32 lb = 14.5150 kg
o Canada: 34 lb = 15.4221 kg
* Barley: 48 lb = 21.7724 kg
* Malted barley: 34 lb = 15.4221 kg
* Shelled maize (corn) at 15.5% moisture by weight: 56 lb = 25.4012 kg
* Wheat at 13.5% moisture by weight and soybeans at 13% moisture by weight: 60 lb = 27.2155 kg

Other specific values are defined (and those definitions may vary within different jurisdictions, including from state to state in the United States) for other grains, oilseeds, fruits, vegetables, coal, hair [seriously? hair?], and many other commodities.

Government policy in the United States is to phase out units such as the bushel and replace them with the metric system as used for all purposes in the rest of the world, and for all scientific and technical purposes world wide. It is therefore important to know how the bushel relates to the metric equivalent, and whether the bushels are used as units of mass or units of volume.

The name “bushel” has also been used to translate non-US units of a similar size and sometimes shared origin, like the German “Scheffel”.

Mark Twain’s 19 Rules Governing Literary Art

From Twain’s brutally funny essay on Fenimore Cooper’s literary offenses in the Deerslayer series. I thought of this essay on Saturday at the Brandywine River Museum, standing in front of one of N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations for Deerslayer. Here’s the beginning of the essay; I’ll put the link to the whole piece at the bottom. It was written in 1895, so please put his cultural references in that historical context.


There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction — some say twenty-two. In “Deerslayer,” Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the “Deerslayer” tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.

2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the “Deerslayer” tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.

4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.

5. The require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the “Deerslayer” tale to the end of it.

6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the “Deerslayer” tale, as Natty Bumppo’s case will amply prove.

7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the “Deerslayer” tale.

8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.

9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the “Deerslayer” tale.

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the “Deerslayer” tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the “Deerslayer” tale, this rule is vacated.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.


You can read the entire essay online here

a greater variety of poetry than what gathers in the schools?

Annie Get Your Gun
Fifth in a series of eight manifestos.

by D.A. Powell

The thing about sardines when you buy them in a can: they are fairly uniform in size and in flavor; their individual identities have disappeared into the general fishiness of the soybean oil; their little bones have melted; their flesh has become a mass grave; they are fairly cheap and fairly consumable; and one forgets a sardine quickly after one has partaken of it.

But damn: don’t some people just love sardines? They’re convenient; they take no preparation time whatsoever; and, though a steady diet of them would probably be unhealthy in the long run, they are—in the short term—a pretty safe snack. They’re snacky. They aren’t lox, but they aren’t cat food. They are the middle of an ocean swimming with possibilities.

Sardines school. Yet, despite their defensive strategy of hiding behind one another, millions of them get eaten. All that schooling does them nary a whit of good. And yet, they still join, instinctually, each one believing that it’s some other poor pilchard who’ll be devoured.

I don’t know that artists and poets join schools for quite the same reason that sardines do. Sometimes there’s a true innovator in the bunch, sometimes they really do share some common misunderstandings about aesthetics, sometimes it just so happens that a bunch of really interesting people all shop at the same hat shop and they start to hang out and resemble one another and make little sandwiches. It can seem quite seductive to be associated with a school. Or to have a school from which one insistently distances oneself. Or even to found a school. But most of what makes a school truly interesting is what others say about it; not what it says about itself.

Is it the nature of beings to coalesce? I think sometimes that artists, like other lower forms of intelligence, want to “belong.” Or rather, that they want to not belong in some similar ways. They want to belong to the outside, and yet to be recognized by the inside. It’s a conundrum. Because, really, in order to belong to a school or a movement or a gang or a pod, you have to—whether you’re willing to think about it this way or not—move towards a “center.”

Maybe it’s peculiar to our time, in which actual schools (academies) proliferate and spawn, that we’re seeing so much centrism. What we need is more eccentrism. Who isn’t tired of the contemporary qua contemporary? Who isn’t bored by innovation for innovation’s sake? It has, sadly, become the mode du jour. Not even a school. A monocultural fish farm. An orchestra in which everyone is trying to solo at the same time. A tin of silvery bodies falling into place. I imagine that each of those fish must have thought it was going in a new direction. But all the other fishes got there at exactly the same time, and thus the great net encompassed them all.

Look, I like sardines. I probably like them better than most. But the time will come when all we have of the mighty oceans is canned fish. That’s the doomsayer in me. Shouldn’t there at least be a chance that I am wrong? Shouldn’t there be a greater variety of life, a greater variety of art, a greater variety of poetry than what gathers in the schools trying oh so hard to appear larger and more menacing than it is? Write a manifesto. Don’t you see that it’s too small to keep? Throw it back.

On not taking scholarship too seriously….

from The Art of Biblical Poetry by Robert Alter

“In the 1930s, an Orientalist, Paul Kraus, set out to show that the entire Hebrew Bible, once properly accented, could be demonstrated to have been written in verse. When he discovered two-thirds of the way through his analysis that the texts no longer bore out his thesis, he took his own life.”

ok, so I can be an intense theory-head, but jeesh. Who the heck was on his tenure review committee? Elohim the big ole’ thundering mountain war god?