The Wind in the Reeds

wind in the reeds

The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and a City That Would Not Be Broken, by Wendell Pierce (with Rod Dreher). Originally published in 2015. 352 pages.

I’ve read Rod Dreher’s recommendation of The Wind in the Reeds on more than one occasion, and a recent trip to the library reminded me that I had not read it. I’d always intended to, so I decided that now was as good a time as any to give it a read.

Wendell Pierce is a classically Julliard trained actor of stage and screen. He is best known for his role on a television show called The Wire. I am unfamiliar with the show beyond what he offers in this book, where he delves deeply into his passion for his craft and the importance of art -of all forms- in culture.

Wind in the Reeds is equal parts memoir, regional history, and racial commentary. The regional history is particularly interesting to me as my paternal roots are in Southern Louisiana, the region from which Pierce is offering his readers a history lesson.

The book begins as he flashes back to his 2007 benefit performance of the play Waiting For Godot, which was staged as a free outdoor event to benefit the city of New Orleans in the wake of its devastation from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

New Orleans is Pierce’s hometown. His family has deep roots there. After his introductory passages which expressed the depth and breadth of his emotions on the opening night of Godot, he pivots, taking the reader back in time with him. He recounts his family’s Louisiana history all the way back to a slave named Aristile who was sold away from his family in Kentucky and taken to a Louisiana sugar plantation sometime in the years preceding the Civil War. I’m going to pivot here; albeit briefly.

I have a bit of fascination with those rare numbers of black families who have a fairly reliable documented history. Whether it’s Pierce’s story, The Delany Sisters, or my husband’s maternal family, which actually has a family historian with a family tree going back nearly 125 years. It’s a short period of time in the grand scheme, but for slave descendants, it’s significant. Few Americans -of any race- know much about their families beyond their great grandparents. I have yet to meet an unsuccessful black family when those historical roots are watered generation after generation. It’s not that every member of such families is wealthy or fully successful, but there are recognizable strings of strong, hard-working, mostly intact families. Wendell Pierce’s family, as he describes it here, is no different.

After laying the foundation of his family’s Louisiana history, the book connects the industrial and racial history of Southern Louisiana as a region. I found that there were parts of Pierce’s commentary I fully agreed with and others where I strenuously disagreed. I am not, however, unfamiliar with this dynamic; the tension many successful blacks feel between their bedrock belief in personal responsibility and hard work and the idea that there is still so much work to be done on behalf of those who haven’t been able to make it in the same way.

In addition to his historical and racial commentary, Pierce uses two chapters to describe his journey to Julliard, the stage, and then the screen. As with the racial and social commentary, I was equal parts intrigued and equal parts unimpressed. Art is crucially important as Pierce rightly notes, but there is a wide chasm between the classic theater that he studied at Julliard and much of the drivel that passes as art today. His noble admonition for artists to eschew the temptation to allow businessmen and bottom-line concerns to trump their creative integrity isn’t a view that seems to be shared in his industry.

As he ends the book, Pierce turns back to where he started; with the devastation that his beloved city endured in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and his memories of the shock that awaited him as he flew home that very weekend, thinking that as the storm had hit and left Florida, the crisis had passed. What he didn’t know was that after hitting Florida as a Cat 1 storm, Katrina had re-strengthened to a Cat 5 and was heading straight towards the much more vulnerable basin city of New Orleans. He describes the storm, its aftermath, and its effects on his immediate family, who fared far better than most precisely because of his success as an actor.

This was a moving memoir, and its history was informative and interesting. Despite areas of divergent philosophy or politics, one thing was crystal clear: Wendell Pierce is a man who loves his family and takes great pride in the legacy into which he was born.

In honor of Veteran’s Day, which is only a few days away, I’ll wrap up this review with the same excerpt that Dreher posted over at the American Conservative. In 2009, more than six decades after the end of World War II, Wendell Pierce’s father, Amos Pierce, was finally to take possession of the medals he earned in the war but which were denied him when he returned stateside. You’d think a man who was so slighted by the country he fought and nearly died for would be more than a little bit bitter. Amos Pierce wasn’t, as exemplified by this moment Pierce recalled from his childhood:

This was the late sixties or early seventies, when the Black Power movement was in full swing. That ethos demanded that when the national anthem was played, black people protested by refusing to stand in respect.

That night at the Municipal Auditorium, the national anthem began to sound over the PA system, signaling that the fights would soon begin. Everyone stood, except some brothers sitting in the next row down from us. They looked up at my father and said, “Aw, Pops, sit down.”

“Don’t touch me, man,” growled my dad.

“Sit down! Sit down!” they kept on.

“Don’t touch me,” he said. “I fought for that flag. You can sit down. I fought for you to have that right. But I fought for that flag too, and I’m going to stand.”

Then one of the brothers leveled his eyes at Daddy, and said, “No, you need to sit down.” He started pulling on my father’s pants leg.

That was it. “You touch me one more time,” my father roared, “and I’m going to kick you in your f—-ng teeth.”

The radical wiseass turned around and minded his own business. That was a demonstration of black power that the brother hadn’t expected.

That was a powerful recollection that very few of us will be able to relate to as the years go by.

3 out of 5 stars.

Brave New World Revisited

brave new world ps

Brave New World Revisited by Aldous Huxley. Originally published n 1958. 144 pages.

When his classic novel,  Brave New World, was published in 1931, Aldous Huxley’s imaginary world was one he foresaw unfolding many years into the future. It was set in the 26th century, in fact. By 1958 however, the world he saw emerging little more than a quarter of a century after his book was published seemed to be hurtling toward his very grim, sterile vision. And so, he penned a postscript: Brave New World Revisited. To offer some context, let’s do a short recap on the plot of Brave New World.

Brave New World, set in a futuristic age,  largely revolves around the World State city of London, 2540 AF (After Ford). In this well, brave new world, war has been eradicated, biological human reproduction has been replaced by hatcheries, the sexual revolution has come to full fruition with the destruction of the family, and the masses are kept happy through hedonistic indulgences and addiction to a drug known as soma. Life without struggle has been achieved.

Of course, there’s always a wrinkle waiting to tear at the fabric of utopias, and World State London is no exception. There are pockets of the world where religion still exists, the struggles of life go on, reproduction still happens the old-fashioned way, and the messiness of family life continues as it always has. This bit of reality eventually invades World State London, and things get interesting.

However, it’s the state of things in 1958 that motivates Huxley to revisit his fantastical Brave New World prophecies. In Brave New World revisited, we note Huxley’s alarm at the exploding post-war population. He notes the difficulty inherent in trying to control the reproductive habits of humanity and he is concerned about the ability of the world’s resources to sustain this increasing population of humans. Wherever I may diverge from Huxley on that particular subject, he offers a lot of highly instructive commentary which is relevant to life in the 21st century. On the subject of the masses being overly entertained:

“A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it.”

He touches on the banal danger of some of the most popular music of the times:

“Nonsense which it would be shameful for a reasonable being to write, speak or hear spoken can be sung or listened to by that same rational being with pleasure and even with a kind of intellectual conviction.”

On the subject of wresting  control of the masses via the carrot rather than the stick:

“In the light of what we have recently learned about animal behavior in general, and human behavior in particular, it has become clear that control through the punishment of undesirable behavior is less effective, in the long run, than control through the reinforcement of desirable behavior by rewards, and that government through terror works on the whole less well than government through the non-violent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of individual men, women and children.”

There were certainly areas of thought where I found Huxley’s arguments wanting, but none of that changed the fact that he made some excellent observations about the current state of his world and the ultimate trajectory of ours.

Revisiting Brave New World was a welcome opportunity to explore these ideas in a very short book, easily read over the course of a leisurely weekend. The real question lingers:

How close are we to Huxley’s Brave New World? Will we eventually live in a world so unfamiliar that even reproduction has been taken over by what Huxley refers to as the Power Elite?

As for the book, because it induces the opportunity to think about the world in which we live, I give it:

4 out of 5 stars

 

 

 

 

Setting the Record Straight

african american history

Setting the Record Straight: American History in Black and White, Kindle edition. Written by David Barton. 190 print pages. Published in 2004.

In this short book chronicling the political history and trajectory of black citizens in America, David Barton sets out to do exactly as its title implies: set the record straight. While Barton, a lay history expert who is highly regarded in Christian circles, has composed a book filled with valuable and often unknown information, I think he falls a little short of his goal when it comes to offering anything revelatory in a general sense.

I enjoyed many aspects of this book, which began its journey in 1787 and concluded with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and its political fallout. There were a few rabbit trails onto the subject of abortion, a foundational rail of democrat politics, and other religious conservative issues. These were distracting, but short enough as Barton seemed to quickly return to his primary subject matter. This is a good thing because there is a lot of unknown history relating to the numbers of black U.S. senators and representatives who were elected to Congress during Reconstruction. Many of the quotes from those men’s sermons and speeches are quite inspirational. I appreciated the thoroughly detailed sourcing Barton provided.

What bugged me as I read this book was an underlying assumption than ran through it from beginning to end.  Barton seems to be under the mistaken impression that most of his readers (regardless of race) are ignorant of the fact that up until the 1960s, most black Americans were registered Republicans although their votes were splitting nearly 50/50 from the time of the presidential election of FDR. Conversely, he seems to think most of his readers ignorant of the fact that the Democrat party, until the 1960s, was the party which supported slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow.

I will offer this in the author’s defense. Given the staggering amount of revisionist history, twisted narratives and oversimplification of political arguments as presented by most American media, it’s probably not a stretch to assume that very few Americans who are millennials or younger are aware of this information. The problem with this book is that repeatedly pointing out for over 100 pages that every piece of legislation supporting or contributing to the oppression of black people was initiated by the democrat party will do little to change the hearts or minds of people living in the here and now.

As I read through the book, I was torn between my appreciation of its compilation of records, quotes, and sources documenting the accomplishments and milestones of black American politicians in this country and the nagging sense that the entire purpose of the book was to get me to *see* something that I already knew. I wanted to like it, and there were portions of it that I liked a great deal. I simply would have liked it a lot more if there were fewer attempts to contrast the “evil” Democrat party with the “righteous” Republican Party. If this is a hard sell for someone like me, and I have nothing good to say in defense of the Democrat party, I couldn’t help but wonder how it would come across when read by someone more inclined to view the Democrat party favorably, as most black Americans are.

Barton, a devout Christian, does take the occasional moment to remind his reader that true hope and liberty will never be found in any political party, and I genuinely appreciated the quotes he offered from various theologians and Christian politcos asserting the same. For instance, this quote from Noah Webster was offered as a reminder of principles over party:

In selecting men for office, let principle be your guide. Regard not the particular sect [party] of the candidate- look to his character…It is alleged by men of loose principles or defective views of the subject that religion and morality are not necessary or important qualification for political stations. But the Scriptures teach a different doctrine. They direct [in Exodus 18:21] that rulers should be men “who rule in the fear of God, able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness.”

The most glaring omission from the book is a needed exploration of how and why things changed so drastically in such a short period of time. Specifically, how we reached a point where black voters vote nearly monolithically, to the tune of 90% Democrat, despite the previously strong bond between the Republican party and black Americans in the fight for liberty and civil rights. Barton chooses to gloss over this by signaling LBJ’s signing the Civil Rights Act as the turning point, but the situation was far more complex, and longer in development than this seminal moment in 1964.

As is my custom, I decided I would interject a little bit of information here that would have been helpful had it been in this book. There is a relatively clear, if not necessarily clean path to view when trying to figure out the whys and wherefores of the black American exodus from the Republican Party to the Democrat Party. A very good exposition of the subject can be found at the blog Soul Therapy. In his post, How Blacks Became Democratic: The Myth of Republican Racism, “dathistoryguy” offers a much better understanding than most people are aware of. I highly recommend it for a more accurate, well-rounded perspective.

As for Setting the Record Straight? I’m rating it average for educational value, but only for those who can happily take in all the information and ignore the political demagoguery.

3 out of 5 stars

 

How to Be Unlucky, part 2

how to be unlucky

How to Be Unlucky: Reflections on the Pursuit of Virtue, by Joshua Gibbs. Originally published in 2018. 246 pages.

Part 1 of this review touched a lot on the spiritual characteristics highlighted in the book’s reflections on the pursuit of virtue. Another aspect of it is that it is also highly concerned with the role the teacher has -in this case the Christian classical educator- in helping his student to pursue virtue.

To that end, interspersed between all the deep burning questions and conundrums Boethius poses to Lady Philosophy in The Consolation, the author treats us to a sampling of the discussions he has with his students. Discussions in which he reminds them of many things, one of which is that adults are no more virtuous than they are, and with it the importance of understanding that now is the time to cultivate goodness.

In the chapter titled On Pedagogy, Gibbs keeps me pretty well riveted (and convicted) from beginning to end. In the chapter he makes the distinction between the three parts of our being which must be rightly ordered for us to be truly virtuous, drawing from C. S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man. Regular readers here are not unfamiliar with the brain as the icon for what we know, the heart for what we love, and the stomach for what we want, our appetite for pleasant things. He argues that stomach holds more power than the brain, and that the heart and the brain must work together to subdue the stomach. This is the reason I so relate and appreciate Mr. Gibbs’ commentary. He isn’t afraid to get real:

Early in my marriage I came to realize that Scripture is no talisman for warding off sin…

On the other hand, when I was tempted to the degradations of lust, I typically found that imagining my wife’s face distorted by tears was such a talisman. Any man battling the temptation to lust will do far better changing his computer desktop to an image of his wife than some artist’s representation of the Ten Commandments. This is not because a man loves his wife more than God (though most men do, in my experience), but because a wife is the living embodiment of the seventh commandment; a spouse is the incarnation of an abstract moral precept. p. 148

Perhaps it’s because I’ve always stood a little in awe of my husband and have also always battled to keep my love of God and my love for my husband in the proper order, but this speaks to me. Deeply, and I cannot remember a time in the last two decades when I’ve read an author or heard a preacher get real this way about well… almost anything. The connection between the physical, living embodiment of a spiritual principle itself is almost unheard of in modern Christian thought. It’s as if admitting that we struggle to do what is right and that it isn’t oh-so-easy simply because we’re head over heels in love with God whom we cannot see makes us bad Christians.

So we pretend. Gibbs doesn’t, and I liked that.

In the chapter titled On Pleasure, Gibbs gets into the confusion and cognitive dissonance that has gripped American Christians as we have designated just about every solitary act as either sinful or not sinful. In doing so, we’ve equalized things that are not equal even though they are not sinful. We’ve also freed ourselves to be perpetually amused and superficially sated, yet without guilt.

Earthly pleasure can lead to sanctification and epiphany, and we should “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8), as the Psalmist says; however seeing that “the Lord is good” is not a result of every taste, and an over-abundance of tasting distracts from our ability to see that the Lord is good. p. 193

In the chapter On Metaphysics and Freedom, Gibbs hits some topics that I am still turning over in my mind. The first is that Adam and Eve didn’t have a sin nature when they sinned, yet the first things we utter when confronted with our sin or someone else’s is that it is our sin nature. Now that alone is enough to stir debate all the livelong day, isn’t it?

His point isn’t to dismiss that Adam and Eve brought sin into the world, but that Christians are so quick to *go there* that we often miss opportunities to address real issues and concerns rather than spout off pat religious answers that we think are super spiritual. Sometimes the answer is simply, we don’t know everything, nor can we.

The title of the final chapter is Why Do Anything? In it, Gibbs closes by making the point that what we do in our mundane daily lives in less important than how ( I’d also add why) we do it.

If a man is willing to become common and to live a common life with times and seasons which God makes common to all, he will submit himself to a mysterious, transcendent reality. p.230

I completely agree, and that is one of the beautiful takeaways of this book in a world and church which is yelling at each of us that we are not common, are not subject to the law of averages, and in so doing makes us perpetually discontent with normal, anonymous daily living.

If I’d offer any negative criticism of the book, it’s that on occasion the flow left a little to be desired. It felt disjointed at a few points, but the overwhelming amount of wisdom and opportunity to for this reader to examine herself and her motivations far outweighed that minutiae.

5 out of 5 stars

You can read a sample of the first chapter of How to Be Unlucky at this link.

Coming Attractions: Meet Generation Z

I ran across a book title which has piqued my curiosity. It’s called Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World. The Goodreads blurb alone stopped me short:

Move over Boomers, Xers, and Millennials; there’s a new generation–making up more than 25 percent of the US population–that represents a seismic cultural shift. Born approximately between 1993 and 2012, Generation Z is the first truly post-Christian generation, and they are poised to challenge every church to rethink its role in light of a rapidly changing culture.

From the award-winning author of The Rise of the Nones comes this enlightening introduction to the youngest generation. James Emery White explains who this generation is, how it came to be, and the impact it is likely to have on the nation and the faith. Then he reintroduces us to the ancient countercultural model of the early church, arguing that this is the model Christian leaders must adopt and adapt if we are to reach members of Generation Z with the gospel. He helps readers rethink evangelistic and apologetic methods, cultivate a culture of invitation, and communicate with this connected generation where they are.

Pastors, ministry leaders, youth workers, and parents will find this an essential and hopeful resource.

And all this time, I thought my kids born in the mid-90s were officially millennials! Seems I was wrong.

More than this however, is the fact that the differences and overlapping of generations has begun to fascinate me much more in recent years. We tend to assume that generations in families are distinct and easily identifiable, and that may be true now, but it wasn’t always the case.

I was 7 years old when I first became an aunt, so have nieces who are my comrades in 40-somethingness. Many of my nephews and nieces are fellow Gex Xers. That’s basically unheard of today with our delayed family formation and small family sizes, but I can remember being in elementary school with two girls who were the same age, but also niece and auntie.

Because of my unique experience which is only unique in the context of our current reality, I am always intrigued by the different generational labels, and this book by James Emery White is, I hope, an interesting peek at the differences between the current generation of young Christians and the approach to Christian outreach when I was a kid. We’ll see if there is a new, more effective way to share our faith.

When I finish it, I’ll offer my take on whether it’s as helpful a resource as the publisher asserts.

 

Mating in Captivity: Chapters 9-11

mating in captivity

Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, by Esther Perel. Originally published in 2006. 272 pages.

This is the last post analyzing the Mating in Captivity since chapter 11 is the last chapter in the book. This trio of chapters also makes it very clear why Esther Perel is something of a lightning rod to those of us who marry fully committed to monogamy. She asks some pretty inflammatory questions and her answers are every bit as controversial. However, most of that is in chapter 10, and we need to touch on chapter 9 first.

Chapter 9: Of Flesh and Fantasy

This is basically a defense of sexual fantasy. The entire chapter is an exposition of various patients, most married, but not all, and one homosexual patient. There’s not a lot here worth delving into, so I’ll simply offer the chapter’s main idea, which is also its last paragraph:

Giving voice to our fantasies can liberate us from the many personal and social obstacles that stand in the way of pleasure. Understanding what our fantasies do for us will help us understand what it is we’re seeking, sexually and emotionally. In our erotic daydreams, we find the energy that keeps us passionately awake to our own sexuality p.174

The only other thing I will add about this chapter is that it underscored to me how a dangerous idea was suddenly very prevalent in this book. It was always there as a subtext, but it stood out more here, and the idea is that there is an inherent disconnect between sexual excitement and emotional intimacy and comfort. The overwhelming assertion seems to be that if a couple embraces and understands that these two seasons alternate back and forth while rarely overlapping, they can find a healthy sexual balance.

I vehemently disagree with this assertion, not only based on personal experience, but based on my understanding of marriage. Furthermore, accepting this premise as true undeniably sets the stage for what comes in chapter 10.

Chapter 10: The Shadow of the Third: Rethinking Fidelity

If I had to offer a one line synopsis it might be, You Americans might be able to save more of your families if you weren’t so dogmatic about fidelity.

Despite a 50 percent divorce rate for first marriages and 65 percent the second time around; despite the fact that monogamy is a ship sinking faster than anyone can bail it out, we continue to cling to its wreckage with absolute faith in its structural soundness. p.178

And this section, more than almost any other, flies in the face of the ideals of Christian marriage:

Fidelity, as a mainstay of patriarchal society, was about lineage and property; it had nothing to do with love. p.178

This may have some truth historically and biologically, but love is very much at the center of a Christian marriage, cementing everything from the mundane daily tasks to the sexual relationship. Our Bible makes it clear; we can be both sexually connected and spiritually connected. Perel propagates the idea that the two are different things, and again there may some truth to that but when you start from that premise, it’s a short leap from there to “rethinking fidelity”.

One thing that is crystal clear here is that Perel sees the strict adherence to fidelity as a condition of continuing the marriage as a uniquely American phenomena, including the notion that the only way forward is for the offending spouse to come clean:

In other cultures, respect is more likely to be expressed with gentle untruths that aim at preserving the partner’s honor. A protective opacity is preferable to telling truths that might result in humiliation. Hence concealment not only maintains marital harmony but is also a mark of respect. In formed by my own cultural influences, I defer to Doug’s decision to remain silent, and at the same time I encourage him to pursue other ways to reconnect with his wife. p.186

Perel tries to make the case that she isn’t promoting infidelity, rather attacking the ideal that marriage means the death of the individual self. However, the non-judgemental stand comes off as if she is an adultery apologist. She makes the case that we have set up a culture which is, in effect, disastrous to monogamy. There is a bit of wisdom tucked into all of this:

This isn’t a justification of infidelity, or an endorsement. Temptation has existed since Eve bit the apple, but so, too, have injunctions against it. The Catholic Church is expert at not only avoiding temptation but also meting out penance for those we couldn’t resist. What’s different today is not the desires themselves but the fact that we feel obligated to pursue them- at least until we tie the knot, when we’re suddenly expected to renounce all we’ve been encouraged to want. Monogamy, like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, trying to hold back a flood of unbridled licentiousness.

There is again, a grain of truth here, but the answer to the dilemma is the exact opposite of what she has promoted in several other chapters. Rather than release and indulge our erotic imaginations, we should harness, restrain and control them, saving them for monogamy where they can be explored within a legitimate context. Of course, we are living in a culture awash in the flood of unbridled licentiousness.

Chapter 11: Putting the X Back in Sex- Bringing the Erotic Home

This final chapter of the book is one with which I agree in part, and disagree in part. The overarching thesis is that people indulge in all kinds of sexual imagination and shenanigans pre-marriage and extra-marital (pornography, cybersex, affairs, etc), while being tamed and “puritanical” in their intimate relationship with their spouse.

She is in no way condemning any of the stuff I outlined above; the cybersex, pornography, or feverish daydreams.  I would, but she’s not. She is saying they should indulge these things in the context of their marriages to keep the home fires burning, so to speak.

Because, she asserts, passion is destined to be short-lived, couples have to open to one another and be more experimental and honest about what they want. She distinguishes eroticism from sex, asserting that fun, playful, erotic intimacy leaves most marriages “after the housewarming”. I’ll leave her to her assumptions, being the expert and all, but the very idea of almost worshiping a vaguely described idea of eroticism -one which includes perversion- leaves me cold.

The sum total of this book was informative, and the case studies in the form of patient stories was interesting. There were even a few philosophical gems tucked here and there. Overall, however, I don’t think help the average Joe and Jane do anything other than play act at eroticism, entertain infidelity, and believe they are doomed to enter a sexual desert unless they take her advice to heart, and not all of it is good advice.

For informational purposes and the ability to hold my attention, I’ll give it:

3 out of 5 stars

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mating in Captivity: Chapters 6-8

mating in captivity

Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, by Esther Perel. Originally published in 2006. 272 pages.

Chapter 6- Sex is Dirty: Save It for Someone You Love

The subtitle of this chapter is “When Puritanism and Hedonism Collide”, which bugs me because it continues the myth of the Puritans as a repressed people who hated sex and all things sexual. While it’s absolutely true that they shunned and condemned extra-marital sex and fornication) as the illicit acts that they are, the Puritans had a much healthier and robust attitude towards marital relations than most Americans do today, if the studies and interviews that spawned this book are any indication. Boston Magazine debunks Puritan myths in this interesting article.

This chapter is the first since beginning the book where I was nearly completely diametrically opposed to Perel’s positions from its beginning to its end. I say nearly because the chapter’s title takes a very insightful turn at what happens in the minds of many religious wives when it comes to marital intimacy, especially after children arrive, which is covered in chapter eight.

The politics and economics of sex and the diametrically opposed attitudes we witness daily penetrate the American bedroom and insinuate themselves into the creases of our intimacy. The couples I see live at the intersection of this ambivalence, and must negotiate amid these competing value systems. The legacy of Puritanism, which locates family at the center of society, expects marriage to be reasonable, sober, and productive. But alongside this very American notion of individual responsibility and moderation is the equally apple- pie notion of individual freedom. p.90

There’s a layer of truth in that, but the rest of the chapter felt like one long exercise in cognitive dissonance. There was a repeated insinuation (and even insistence) that any external restraints on sexual activity for anyone teenaged or older is repressive. The European standard, along with the dichotomy of their later age of first sex and lower teen preganacy rates, were offered as evidence of their superior sexual attitudes and  practices.

That this approach inherently undermines the ability of married couples to fully embrace and engage with one another erotically seems completely lost on Mrs. Perel, but I knew what I’d be getting going into this one.

Chapter 7- Erotic Blueprints: Tell Me How You Were Loved, and I’ll Tell You How You Make Love

This chapter is all about the connection between how people received love, affection, freedom and pleasure in childhood and the way it crosses over into how they navigate their adult relationships; in this context, their marital relationships.

I was slightly concerned that we were heading into Freudian territory but was relieved  that this was not the case. There are connections between childhood relationship patterns and  adult relationships. I also believe, having lived it, that when partnered with a spouse who makes you feel you can safely be vulnerable, a lot of relational challenges can be overcome. This is particularly so in the area of marital intimacy. To her credit, Perel doesn’t counsel her patients that they are stuck in their patterns.

Those of us who were raised with a strong sense of duty, hard work, and self-deprivation, Perel argues, often have trouble with the duality of marital intimacy. Specifically, she helps her clients see that you can be physically attuned to your mate without completely denying your own desire for satisfaction. Conversely, she asserts that one can be aware of and open to your own desire, acutely so (she used the wording ruthlessly so) without being unloving towards your mate.

We are socialized to control ourselves, to restrain our impulses, to tame the animal within. So as dutiful citizens and spouses we edit ourselves and mask our ravenous appetites and conceal our fleeting need to objectify the one we love. p.122

According to Perel, in a loving marital relationship, the self-absorption inherent in sexual excitement collides with our ideal of emotional intimacy. I believe openness and vulnerability frees us and reconciles that tension. But we’re taught to be invulnerable and look for ourselves because no one else will, so Perel’s patient list and popularity are set to continue to grow unabated.

Chapter 8- Parenthood: When Three Threatens Two

This is a topic that has been discussed, written about, and debated ad nauseum, so I won’t spend a lot of virtual ink telling you what you already know is in the book. That many women absorb themselves into motherhood and have nothing to give their husbands. Also, that some men (albeit significantly fewer) find it hard to connect intimately with their wife once she has become a mother.

Nothing new about that, or even about the advice she gives the couple she uses as the object lesson for most of the chapter, whom she refers to as “Warren” and “Stephanie”.

I did find this bit insightful, worth sharing and pondering, as it speaks to a large part of why so many couples find the bridge between parenting and a return to marital intimacy such a long one:

Her intense focus on her kids is not a mere idiosyncrasy–not simply her own personal style. In fact, this kind of overzealous parenting is a fairly recent trend that has, one hopes, reached the apex of its folly. Childhood is indeed a pivotal stage of life that will inevitably shape the child’s future. But the last few decades have ushered in an emphasis on children’s happiness that would make our grandparents shudder. p. 133

Amen to that, and this was also a good bit of advice to the couple she focused on. It stood out to me not because it was revolutionary. It’s as natural to us as breathing and always has been, but I’d never really stopped to consider what it indicates:

With him and through him, she potentially can begin to disentangle from the bond with the children and redirect some of her energy back to herself and her relationship with Warren. When the father reaches out to the mother, and the mother acknowledges him, redirecting her attention, this serves to rebalance the entire family. Boundaries get drawn, and new zoning regulations are get put into place delineating areas that are adults only. p. 135

That is sound counsel. Kids need to know and understand that Mommy and Daddy have a relationship that is not about them.

Until next time…

Related:

Preview of Coming Attractions: Mating in Captivity

Mating in Captivity: Intro-Chapter 2

Mating in Captivity: Chapters 3-5