Mona Eltahawy’s essay: Abortion is normal

Feminist Mona Eltahawy is nothing but brave. She is one of my heroes. I look up to her so much and try to model my own feminism on her fearlessness. Nevertheless, despite her bravery (which really is next level) she found herself avoiding talking about the topic of abortion and her own abortions until late last year. Her examination of why this was so difficult makes for compelling reading, even more so given Roe v Wade was overturned only a few days ago in the US. Read the essay here and don’t forget to sign up to Mona’s newsletter.

Social media: when algorithms manipulate and intersect with abuse tactics

I first heard about Jaron Lanier some years ago when my housemate bought his book You Are Not a Gadget. I didn’t know much about him, other than what my housemate told me, but the title alone was enough to make me agree with Lanier, in principle at least. I am not a gadget, and neither are you. The notion of being a gadget is abhorrent to me, yet lately, I feel like I have become an extension of my smart phone, rather than the other way round. While Lanier’s assertion has stayed in the back of my mind, and though I’ve struggled significantly with social media in one way or another for years, I avoided looking into his work until now because I knew I was addicted to social media. Although I knew it was bad for me, and wanted to stop using it, I couldn’t. It filled a gap. Or, rather, many gaps. I have, however, only recently made the connection between the algorithms that control our use of social media and their correlation with tactics used by abusers, which, as a survivor of abuse, has given me just reason to pause my social media use and take time out to examine what this means for me, my work, and my healing.

For those not familiar with Lanier or his work, he is a computer scientist, philosopher, writer and composer, who advocates for significant changes to the ways social media is both structured and used. His most recent book is called 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. One of his earliest books, You Are Not a Gadget, was published eleven years ago in 2010. Back then I had a phone that was technically a smart phone but wasn’t actually very smart, compared to today’s little computers that we carry around everywhere and which do everything for us. I could look at Facebook and my email on it, and use Google. I was addicted to checking these things, all day. My phone, limited as it was, had become an extension of me, and I had already been using Facebook for several years. I remember thinking at the time that Facebook was also an extension of me: a record of my life, an avatar. My account contained folders of thousands of photos of me and my life that I kept meticulously organised and updated. I spent hours each day on the platform, chatting with friends, mostly. Then things started to change. Facebook branched out dramatically — shifting its focus from connections between friends and family and fun things like games that you could play with strangers, to adding more and more pages and features, creating more and more reasons for using the platform. All of a sudden businesses were using it in lieu of websites, interest groups formed and used the pages as (ill-functioning) forums, and a separate messaging app emerged. It seemed to me that Facebook wanted you to live your life within Facebook and do away with websites, online forums and groups that were hosted elsewhere (in much better ways), and even texting your friends. It confused me that you could use the messaging tool instead of texting or calling someone directly from your phone. Why would you want to do that? Then the other social media platforms (Twitter, Instagram) added them too, and it seemed to me that these social media “worlds” were designed to keep you dependent on them, locked within them, in order to perform basic functions such as contacting friends or looking at a shop’s wares. It felt invasive to me and as though these platforms (Facebook in particular) were like an out of control garden creeper, becoming entangled with and taking over all areas of my life.

One day, I simply got fed up and deleted my Facebook account, and never looked back. This was a little while after some nasty incidents had taken place in a couple of groups that I was in, including a group I hosted. I didn’t deactivate Facebook, I deleted it. What I witnessed there was shocking behaviour, the likes of which I’d never witnessed on any Web 1.0 forum. Sure, in the old forums you’d have trolls and arguments, but they were generally kept under control by moderators and the other members. They were outnumbered. No more. In a group I hosted on Facebook, the members ranged in age from roughly 35 to 50, nevertheless I saw all kinds of bizarre, immature and unruly behaviour including the taunting of other members, flouting agreed-upon group rules to test the moderators, jealous outbursts, triangulation, public bullying, and even a death threat. It was out of control, so I left. I now keep an anonymous account at Facebook that I don’t use, but the platform has grown so much, that if I don’t have one at all, there is no way for me to access certain kinds of information anywhere else on the internet. This is the kind of power and control over access to everyday information that I have a problem with.

Twitter is another matter entirely. I’ve been on the platform since 2009, and watched the culture there change dramatically. It used to be a safe space for cultivating friendships and having light chat with people. I don’t remember any algorithms obviously privileging certain tweets over others in the early days. You saw tweets as they happened, in order. There was less performativity because there was less competition over whether or not your tweets were seen. Your friends could and generally would keep up with whatever you tweeted as there were fewer users and the connections seemed stronger. There were no threads, and I don’t even remember the capacity to like tweets or message someone privately. Retweeting was clunky, and if you wanted to add a photo you’d have to upload it elsewhere and link to it. Links were not embedded, nor was media. Politics didn’t seem to factor in. You could only tweet 140 characters, so people stuck to that. As ridiculous as it sounds, I made some good friendships this way: pleasant and light, but decent. Fast forward to now, and, as comedian Richard Ayoade once said: “Twitter is a fast moving river of hate”. And that it certainly is.

For me personally, since I started a new account to share my writing in 2018, Twitter has been a nightmare. Initially created with the idea of sharing my work, I’ve been subjected over the past three years to bullying about my appearance, stalking and harassment by exes and their sidekicks, and intense trolling by someone who set up a parody account of one of my friends, who was himself subjected to bullying and defamatory accusations. Also, due to the nature of my writing, I have been an obvious target for grooming and abuse by creepy men, who always hide their abusive behaviour well away from the public timeline, yet act as friends and “woke” supporters publicly. Is any of this OK? No. Add to this that Twitter is now a hotbed of political activity, which isn’t a problem in itself, but its political nature (or maybe Twitter’s algorithm – see the video link below) seems to promote aggression and argument, shaming and cancelling, simplistic black-and-white statements, bullying, and endless, saturated retweeting. Not to mention clumsy threads that go on and on in a platform only designed to support 280 characters. Twitter is not designed for complex arguments and one certainly cannot present a nuanced argument about anything in 280 characters, let alone a nested thread of many, many tweets. These things are not necessarily failures of Twitter’s users, but the platform and its structure. Like Facebook’s group discussion structure, it’s clumsy and hard to keep up with things. And yet people flock to Twitter in droves, sadly thinking their voices are making a difference, while in reality often only parroting the opinions of their friends (most seem too frightened to disagree or hold a different opinion for fear of being shamed and cancelled for even the slightest deviance) and retweeting only the voices they agree with, over and over. This is not a public forum of much value. Real debate needs dissent and disagreement and complexity. Twitter does not have the capacity to hold space for such debates, and sadly I believe it’s leading to a dumbing down in peoples’ critical thinking and communication skills. The space has become — or perhaps only ever had the capacity to be — intensely tribal and basic.

The majority of people on Twitter do not produce original tweets, let alone original creative content. Let’s talk about “content”. As an artist, highly trained in how to make music, and as an amateur and untrained poet, and a writer of some skill, I hate the word “content”. To me it conjures up an empty vessel that needs filling in order to have use or purpose. Content implies a filling, but does not specify the quality or nature of that filling. To me, it suggests that anything will do. I make art that is meaningful, personal, and has wider social implications. I studied music intensively from age 11 to 32. I make art, with all of the thought, history, study, skill, and design that goes into making a work of art. My art is not made to fill empty spaces, particularly not those empty spaces that exist in hostile, algorithm-controlled places like Twitter. So, my art fails on Twitter. And yet, I’ve found my art and my art practice as a writer has been defined and changed by Twitter, heavily, and in ways I’m not comfortable with, in my attempts to receive attention for my work there.

When I studied and practiced music and wrote music regularly, I did it alone. Mostly out of necessity. In the very early days I was part of two ensembles that regularly made and performed music together and that was magical. But when I returned to study later, due to my budget and the way my curriculum and course were designed, I had to make music alone. And this was OK with me. I spent 20 months making what I consider to be the best thing I’ve ever made, an electroacoustic composition called Pope Joan, and apart from my university supervisor and a few friends, nobody heard it. That was also OK with me. I made it for me and I felt no need for public validation or even a public airing, and though it did receive some significant public attention many years later (at an exhibition called Melbourne Now that 750,000 people attended), it didn’t change how I felt about the work. The attention it received was neither here nor there. The work was the same and my attitude towards it remained stable as I had only ever made Pope Joan for myself. This is the kind of creative purist I am; I make art for art’s sake and rarely for money, yet sadly, since writing poetry and pieces about abuse and MeToo over the past few years, I’ve felt a real shift in my own attitude toward making, which I believe comes largely down to social media. Part of this shift came from the desire to make my art very public, to make my voice and my lived experience as a survivor of abuse very public. Both for myself, as a gesture of validating myself and my experiences, and in the spirit of helping others. Many people relate to what I write. Many people thank me for writing what I do and for expressing the things they can’t express or won’t express publicly, as it is unsafe for them to do so. People applaud me for my courage and bravery all the time, but I’ve always been this way, and just not about sharing my emotions. I have no shame about my experience and I’ve learnt that abuse thrives in silence. I’ve also learnt that abusers are rarely held accountable for their abuse, by their victims or the legal systems, or by society even. So, my writing is an attempt to rectify that, to say: this is what happened and I have a right to say it and expose it. It’s a fine balancing act between safety and seeking justice and one that the MeToo movement started and which, I believe, must be continued and expanded upon. All of this sounds good, right? It sounds like social media might be a great place for me to share my work, gain traction and attention, and try to educate others on abuse, right? In some ways, yes. In many ways, no. My work gets largely ignored, especially on Twitter, by an algorithm that seems designed to reward aggression and hostility. If this sounds preposterous to you, utterly implausible even, please watch the Jaron Lanier interview I’ve posted below. My work also gets (seemingly randomly) boosted at odd times and in odd ways. I was heartened that a recent poem that I wrote called The rape, about my own rape, was viewed quite a lot on Twitter. It is probably the most powerful thing I’ve written and its message is important. My most viewed poem, Predator, which warns of the red flags of narcissistic abuse, is a good poem and has a good message. I’m glad it’s been viewed almost 8,000 times on Twitter alone. But the problem is this: it’s inconsistent. The algorithms are designed in abusive ways. And this is no exaggeration. They are built upon principles of intermittent reinforcement, which is a manipulation technique abusers use to keep their victims confused, disoriented, and ultimately, hooked. “Intermittent reinforcement is the delivery of a reward at irregular intervals, a method that has been determined to yield the greatest effort from the subject. The subject does not receive a reward each time they perform a desired behavior or according to any regular schedule but at seemingly random intervals.” (https://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/intermittent-reinforcement) This principle is also behind the intermittent payouts programmed into computerised slot machines at casinos, and is responsible for keeping gamblers hooked. It is also programmed into the algorithms used on the major social media platforms. Intermittent reinforcement leads to the production of dopamine in our brains, which is a feel-good chemical. Please watch the interview with Jaron Lanier below, and note that this interview is three years old, so my guess is, things have only intensified since then.

As a survivor of abuse, I’ve made a dedicated effort to study the mechanisms and dynamics of abuse recently, since I left a particularly abusive relationship that woke me up and made me question and want to change everything. Intermittent reinforcement featured over and over in this relationship in unpredictable and random ways, and always left me hanging for the good moments, the love, the happiness, to return. They did, but with increasingly frequent moments of abuse starting to dominate, in between. You remember the good moments, and while you’re being broken down by the abuse, by the put downs, by the emotional and/or physical violence, you come to believe you are the problem. Intermittent reinforcement is a manipulation strategy that modifies the behaviour of the recipient. You start to note which of your behaviours are rewarded by good behaviour, and you replicate them, to get the reward. Who wants abuse, right? We all want to be treated with validation, respect and love. We all want to have quality attention paid to us and to be heard. Abusers manipulate you with these techniques, and others, to get what they want out of you. As Lanier says in his interview above, the marketing/business models that social media platforms have based their algorithms upon, draw heavily on these principles, which, by their very nature are intrinsically manipulative and abusive. In this case, they act to reward advertisers with financial gain — understandable, given that we are living in late-stage capitalism; but what’s not normal, and what’s actually very sinister about this, is that we are modifying our behaviour on these platforms as a result of these algorithms, in order to be seen, heard and liked by others. This behaviour modification is inextricably bound up with the business model that drives and controls the algorithms that decide what gets seen and interacted with on social media, rather than us deciding what we see and interact with.

And so, we end up in frustrating cycles of performativity, in which human connection and validation become the reward. This is perfectly natural and human to want and need, but the problem is that only certain kinds of behaviours get rewarded, and these behaviours end up degrading our interactions. If the most simplistic and hostile takes on things are those that get shown to us on social media, before all else, and if we are rewarded for engaging with these things, what hope does gentle, quiet interaction, or complex, nuanced art have of being seen and interacted with? I know from my own experience of Twitter that people tended to respond more to brazen political posts of mine than they do my actual work, generally speaking. It frustrates me as my work is intensely political and personal, and always has been. Twitter also devalues my posts that require people to click on a link, which would mean they end up potentially leaving Twitter and therefore the platform, resulting in fewer advertising dollars for Twitter, presumably. Twitter has also valued some of my more dramatic, simpler poems, versus those constructed with meticulous craft and originality. And so I’ve found myself pandering to the masses and popularity and (re)producing the kind of work that gets more attention. And guess what? Even doing that doesn’t, necessarily, get you more attention. Intermittent reinforcement doesn’t work that way. It’s less predicable than that. If it was predictable, and if you were rewarded every time for the same behaviour, how could Twitter and social media platforms hook you in? No, it doesn’t work that way. You need that push-pull dynamic of an uncommitted lover who is playing games with you: all over you like a rash one moment, absent and avoiding you the next. You want that hit, the rush of dopamine, when you finally get rewarded, and if you don’t, you blame yourself, not the twisted, psychopathic algorithm. And round and round you go, addicted, producing “content” that means little to you, in vast quantities, just to see if something sticks, just for validation. This is no way to make art and Twitter is no platform for one who is writing about and trying to heal from abuse. It replicates the dynamics of an abusive relationship so closely, while also opening one up to further abuse via trolling, targeted grooming, stalking, etc., that it is a potential nightmare of retraumatisation for abuse survivors.

For the past year in particular I have withdrawn from Twitter many times, despite it gaining my work extra attention, due to the platform triggering me. It’s that sense of never being enough that reminds me of my abusive upbringing, and that yearning to be seen and heard, that is frankly, unhealthy. I’m from Generation X. Thankfully I grew well into early adulthood before the internet was even a thing. I also know how to cultivate and maintain friendships offline, but I fear these days are numbered, especially for those my age and younger. So many of my friends seem to only want to maintain friendships now through these performative spaces, rather than in real life. So many want to use social media’s built-in messaging apps rather than the phone or face-to-face communication. So many now think of social media as real life, the default space to exist within, carefully crafting and curating selves that are pale semblances of the rich, nuanced humans we all are. And then there are those who create false selves and false lives online in order to pretend or deceive. And that pretending can come from a place of self-doubt and insecurity, or, at a more sinister level, people can use false selves online to predate on others, to target vulnerable people to use and abuse. This performing of self can be subtle (lies by omission or a favourable camera angle) or completely fantastical (catfish and fake accounts), and includes everything in between. I am happy to perform my art, but I am not happy to perform my self, inscribing my self daily, over and over, in order to feel seen, heard and deemed worthy by an anonymous public. It’s not healthy. As a survivor of life-long abuse, it’s important to me to build a strong self and to get validation from within. Just as I did when I was writing music that was for nobody but me. My creative expression and sense of self worth need to be fuelled from within, not tweaked and manipulated by the abusive algorithms programmed into social media platforms. As an abuse survivor, it is critical that I heal away from abusive spaces. This is why I am taking time out from social media.


I have written about social media in the past and my belief that it is detrimental to human connection and relationships. If you’re interested, please read my essay Online culture, narcissism and the death of human connection and my poem Who am I? which you can also watch below.

The radical act of liking yourself as a woman

Liking yourself as a woman is a radical thing to do. The patriarchy tells us, from the moment we are born, that we are here to serve and that we are fundamentally flawed. Liking yourself as an abused woman, is even more radical. I am a survivor of abuse, as many women are, due to the intrinsically abusive, imbalanced nature of patriarchy. Abusers systematically break girls and women down (and boys and men too) so that they are easier to abuse. The abused then loathe themselves and perpetuate this abuse through self-abuse. It serves the abuser well to have victims who don’t like themselves. The disliking of the self is not conducive to good mental health, in anyone. Conversely, a robust self esteem is critical to the development of a healthy self and also helps us notice and be less susceptible to abuse from others.

Liking yourself is taboo. We are discouraged from doing so in Western society. We are told that we should not speak or think well of ourselves, that it is arrogant to do so, but that we must love and serve others. Especially if we are women. Even more so if we are abused women: we exist merely to serve our abusers and exist only as extensions of them, not as fully fledged humans in our own right. Patriarchy is intrinsically abusive. Patriarchy is narcissistic. It denigrates, subjugates and uses women so that they serve and bolster men.

When I was thirteen, I went to a friend’s slumber party. We stayed up all night, telling jokes and stories, all lined up in sleeping bags on the floor, crammed in like sardines. I had an idea and raised it with my friends: “let’s go around the room and each say one thing that we like about ourselves”. The room fell silent. Awkwardly so. I have no idea what inspired me to say this. I had little self awareness, but there must have been an innate, wise, mature part of me, that knew this was a lovely thing to suggest and do. We didn’t. After a few awkward murmurs and giggles, the topic changed. Even under the cover of darkness, we didn’t dare state that we liked ourselves. We probably didn’t know how. Or if some of us did, we already knew, at thirteen, as girls, that it was taboo to make such proclamations. I remember feeling sad and embarrassed that I’d even raised it. It was, after all, a radical thing to do and it still is.

Today I wrote a poem about my body. My majestic, overblown, patriarchy-defying body. I am supposed to hate my body and torture it into submission. To whittle it down with starvation and gruelling exercise in order to make myself fit the patriarchy’s preference for small women. Women who do not take up space. Women who make themselves smaller and smaller while the men make themselves bigger. I take up space. I am tall and I am not thin and I am an automatic affront to patriarchy. And I am beautiful.

Today I looked at my naked body and I thought it was beautiful and I wrote a poem about it. It took me over forty years to do so, but I did it. I said something I liked about myself, out loud. And you know what? It felt glorious to do so. It felt even more beautiful than when someone dearly beloved gives me a genuine and heartfelt compliment. Except I said it to myself. And that love, the love I gave to myself, is greater and more sustaining than the love any other person can give me because the source of that love is always there, within me. Liking the self, or even better, loving the self, is a radical, feminist act. It defies the patriarchy, fosters a healthy sense of self and helps us cultivate better relationships.

Do you like yourself? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts: tell me one thing you like about yourself in the comments below. Go on, see how good it feels to do so.

Online culture, narcissism and the death of human connection

personal-1087838_1920

What are we doing to one another? At a time when we have the capacity to connect more than ever before in human history, we’ve come undone. We pull away, we ignore, we miscommunicate, violate basic, shared social codes and manners that were the norm only ten years ago. We blame the technology (which we created), we blame age (it’s old fashioned to treat others with respect, and totally “normal” to treat others with disdain), we blame anything but ourselves, our own choices, behaviours or cowardice. We fail others online by failing to see their humanity, by failing to employ empathy, by treating others as flippantly as if they were products on a shelf to be chosen from, picked up or rejected, consumed, returned, exchanged, liked, disliked and thrown away when we tire of them. We idealise, devalue and discard both strangers and friends alike*. We hide behind screens, pseudonyms, and advertisements of our selves. We play up our good bits, hide the bad, and some of us outright lie and manufacture false selves. We are commodities, we are products. We are the pawns and by-products of late-stage capitalism. We perpetuate and feed the finely calibrated machine of consumerism that we created by selling our selves as products to one another. We publicise and perform our selves in ways that were previously only available to the famous, to celebrities, to performers. Andy Warhol’s prophetic 15 minutes of fame has morphed and mutated into fame all the time for all of us. Fame 24/7. We filter and pose our exteriors into acceptable versions of us, dictated by still-more-famous-than-us plastic people who have literally sculpted themselves into non-human, semi-artificial life forms, people who define the new “beautiful”, who define the new behaviours. People who seem to do nothing other than perform false versions of themselves to high acclaim. These are the people we emulate in this visually-focussed, superficial, virtual, performative, narcissistic world we have created.

We are all performers now, all the time. We willingly gloss over privacy agreements and give consent to god-knows-what’s-in-the-fine-print, not being fully aware of what’s being done with our information, our representations of self, our most private messages and photographs that we exchange without a moment’s care with strangers, all because we are so desperate to connect, to belong, to love, to share, to feel included. We are attention hungry and many of us are not prepared to do the self-work required to improve our selves and our self worth. Self worth is more dependent on ‘other worth’ than it has ever been before. We are addicted to it. The chemical rewards from the dopamine and oxytocin hit we get every time someone “likes” what we do, while intermittent, is enough to keep us coming back like junkies. Intermittent reinforcement is a principle casinos operate on to get gamblers addicted, as do psychopaths and manipulative abusers. The principle goes like this (and it’s been studied): give someone a reward, randomly, but not always and definitely not consistently, and they will return to you, or your pokie machine, for more of that reward, no matter how infrequently you give it, and no matter how much it costs them, and no matter how much you violate them in between the moments of reward.

What are we giving up in the desire to connect, and why are we so blind to the fact that we are in fact, more disconnected than ever? Do we think that 24/7 connectivity in the palms of our hands via multiple social media or dating platforms makes us connected?  Messages stunted by limited character counts ping out on Twitter, bounce around the virtual walls and echo before dying, largely unheard and not responded to. Not only can we not say as much as we want to, the tiny messages we are permitted to send get largely ignored in the ever-flowing stream of self-expression and content-rehashing that whizzes on by. It’s overwhelming. I believe (and hope) we’d all rather cuddle up on a couch with a loved one, breathe in sync with one another, heart rates aligning, sharing words and experiences. I also believe that’s all we are seeking from these technologies and platforms, which promise so much, but deliver mostly heartbreak and superficial human connection of a magnitude I never witnessed in the pre-internet era. If I have this distance and perspective by virtue of my age, then what on earth is happening to “digital natives”? Have their brains developed in atrophied and stunted ways? Do they even know or appreciate the depths that friendship or intimacy can plumb if conducted offline without technological intervention? Or only as an adjunct to the shallow online default we’ve all become accustomed to?

All of these outbound one-way, superficial messages, all of the filtering and commodification of the self that is encouraged by social media, has led to an unnatural growth in narcissism, which is now endemic in such modes of communication. Narcissism has become normalised through social media and online dating interactions and threatens to become a global disorder that ruptures the fabric of society as we know it. The tech tools we’ve created encourage it and social media fuels and exacerbates it. Narcissism, in its most extreme form = the death of relationships. You cannot have a relationship with a narcissist, or not a healthy one anyway: a healthy relationship is one that goes both ways, in which both people’s needs are met. Narcissism is a solitary mindset that involves self-promoting to others or manipulating others for the sole purpose of receiving attention and admiration. It is a one-way transaction. Without attention the narcissist feels empty, hollow, meaningless, like they don’t exist. Just as we all feel when our posts don’t get “liked” enough online. There is a real danger in this way of thinking. With a narcissist, there is no genuine exchange; the narcissist’s disingenuous attitudes and extreme fakery render any authentic exchange or connection totally void. The equation goes like this: I pose, you applaud. There is no depth to the exchange beyond flattery and self-congratulation. It is a toxic and addictive cycle for those devoid of self worth or internal fulfilment. Read More

Online culture, narcissism and the death of human connection

personal-1087838_1920

What are we doing to one another? At a time when we have the capacity to connect more than ever before in human history, we’ve come undone. We pull away, we ignore, we miscommunicate, violate basic, shared social codes and manners that were the norm only ten years ago. We blame the technology (which we created), we blame age (it’s old fashioned to treat others with respect, and totally “normal” to treat others with disdain), we blame anything but ourselves, our own choices, behaviours or cowardice. We fail others online by failing to see their humanity, by failing to employ empathy, by treating others as flippantly as if they were products on a shelf to be chosen from, picked up or rejected, consumed, returned, exchanged, liked, disliked and thrown away when we tire of them. We idealise, devalue and discard both strangers and friends alike*. We hide behind screens, pseudonyms, and advertisements of our selves. We play up our good bits, hide the bad, and some of us outright lie and manufacture false selves. We are commodities, we are products. We are the pawns and by-products of late-stage capitalism. We perpetuate and feed the finely calibrated machine of consumerism that we created by selling our selves as products to one another. We publicise and perform our selves in ways that were previously only available to the famous, to celebrities, to performers. Andy Warhol’s prophetic 15 minutes of fame has morphed and mutated into fame all the time for all of us. Fame 24/7. We filter and pose our exteriors into acceptable versions of us, dictated by still-more-famous-than-us plastic people who have literally sculpted themselves into non-human, semi-artificial life forms, people who define the new “beautiful”, who define the new behaviours. People who seem to do nothing other than perform false versions of themselves to high acclaim. These are the people we emulate in this visually-focussed, superficial, virtual, performative, narcissistic world we have created.

We are all performers now, all the time. We willingly gloss over privacy agreements and give consent to god-knows-what’s-in-the-fine-print, not being fully aware of what’s being done with our information, our representations of self, our most private messages and photographs that we exchange without a moment’s care with strangers, all because we are so desperate to connect, to belong, to love, to share, to feel included. We are attention hungry and many of us are not prepared to do the self-work required to improve our selves and our self worth. Self worth is more dependent on ‘other worth’ than it has ever been before. We are addicted to it. The chemical rewards from the dopamine and oxytocin hit we get every time someone “likes” what we do, while intermittent, is enough to keep us coming back like junkies. Intermittent reinforcement is a principle casinos operate on to get gamblers addicted, as do psychopaths and manipulative abusers. The principle goes like this (and it’s been studied): give someone a reward, randomly, but not always and definitely not consistently, and they will return to you, or your pokie machine, for more of that reward, no matter how infrequently you give it, and no matter how much it costs them, and no matter how much you violate them in between the moments of reward.

What are we giving up in the desire to connect, and why are we so blind to the fact that we are in fact, more disconnected than ever? Do we think that 24/7 connectivity in the palms of our hands via multiple social media or dating platforms makes us connected?  Messages stunted by limited character counts ping out on Twitter, bounce around the virtual walls and echo before dying, largely unheard and not responded to. Not only can we not say as much as we want to, the tiny messages we are permitted to send get largely ignored in the ever-flowing stream of self-expression and content-rehashing that whizzes on by. It’s overwhelming. I believe (and hope) we’d all rather cuddle up on a couch with a loved one, breathe in sync with one another, heart rates aligning, sharing words and experiences. I also believe that’s all we are seeking from these technologies and platforms, which promise so much, but deliver mostly heartbreak and superficial human connection of a magnitude I never witnessed in the pre-internet era. If I have this distance and perspective by virtue of my age, then what on earth is happening to “digital natives”? Have their brains developed in atrophied and stunted ways? Do they even know or appreciate the depths that friendship or intimacy can plumb if conducted offline without technological intervention? Or only as an adjunct to the shallow online default we’ve all become accustomed to?

All of these outbound one-way, superficial messages, all of the filtering and commodification of the self that is encouraged by social media, has led to an unnatural growth in narcissism, which is now endemic in such modes of communication. Narcissism has become normalised through social media and online dating interactions and threatens to become a global disorder that ruptures the fabric of society as we know it. The tech tools we’ve created encourage it and social media fuels and exacerbates it. Narcissism, in its most extreme form = the death of relationships. You cannot have a relationship with a narcissist, or not a healthy one anyway: a healthy relationship is one that goes both ways, in which both people’s needs are met. Narcissism is a solitary mindset that involves self-promoting to others or manipulating others for the sole purpose of receiving attention and admiration. It is a one-way transaction. Without attention the narcissist feels empty, hollow, meaningless, like they don’t exist. Just as we all feel when our posts don’t get “liked” enough online. There is a real danger in this way of thinking. With a narcissist, there is no genuine exchange; the narcissist’s disingenuous attitudes and extreme fakery render any authentic exchange or connection totally void. The equation goes like this: I pose, you applaud. There is no depth to the exchange beyond flattery and self-congratulation. It is a toxic and addictive cycle for those devoid of self worth or internal fulfilment. Read More

Dear Dad

It’s ten years today since you left, yet it’s longer than that since I last saw you. The last time was when we danced in the nursing home together, remember? First, jiving arm in arm down the hall, big band bellowing from the communal TV. Then, whirling and twirling to Bach fugues and laughing and clapping and singing while Glenn Gould’s fingers flew on the keyboard so fast that they blurred while yours snapped in the air and then I kissed you through joy and tears and said I love you Dad and thank you and goodbye. But you didn’t leave then, well, not quite, though you were already gone.

You always wanted to hear me sing and I always felt too shy, like you’d see my innards, witness my most treasured secrets, take away my soul. But now I know you just wanted it to sing. I didn’t have a voice, but you wanted one to emerge. Last night I sang along with the Miserere by Allegri and I hit the high C. I have no idea how but my body remembered and as it soared it unlocked me and the me that died when you did. The music in me died back then because I thought all along I was doing it for you. My music was my gift to you, an offering to the father god who placed his girl-child on a pedestal and never took her down. It was a tricky place for me to be, but was strangely without condition and more about your belief in me than exaltation, so let’s just call it love, shall we? Yes, I’d like that.

Lord knows I need some balance but I didn’t know it was there all along. Sometimes it takes a different way of looking, a way of reaching for the light like a hungry plant, to see that the darkness can be avoided if only you choose life. All I needed to do was peer in the mirror: my face like yours, my eyes your eyes, my voice yours but higher, my music a cultured, trained expression of your own raw talent. Your love constant, your belief in me stable. Never pushing, only encouraging. Steady. Known. Bedrock.

That time you followed along on the footpath while I marched on International Women’s Day 1996 through the centre of town. It was so taboo then, so dirty to be a feminist, yet you clapped, cheered and smiled from the sidelines, raised your fist in solidarity with your daughter cautiously being herself, quietly finding her voice among familiars. I smile thinking about it. My belly feels warm.

And I’m glad, Dad, that there are things you’ve missed. Like my struggle through the aftermath of you going. I’m glad you never saw me this way. I’m glad you missed the fracture of the family that came undone with your leaving. You do know you held it and me together? Like psychic glue, I wonder more and more about the power of you. You missed the ascendance of idiots in positions of power both home and abroad, and senseless attacks on citizens by terror-inducing maniacs, escalating fear and fiscal folly, increasingly wasteful consumption and the election of a fraudulent orange-hued strange-haired man to the highest office on the planet. You would have been aghast, yet curious. And I’m glad you missed the smart phone, and social media’s spiralling rise and its co-opting and ruining of human relationships and language, and I’m glad you missed the music, which got much, much worse and much more boring and much less live and oh how you would have hated it. Especially after growing up through rock ’n’ roll and The Beatles and singing in opera choruses and musicals and of course in the shower too.

And I’m sad, Dad, that there are things you’ve missed. Like the orange cat who is my constant companion. She is pretty special and full of spunk and chirrups and I reckon she would have let you pat her. And the farm with the sheep and the million yellow flowers and the snakes and the mice and the tiny town nearby that looks like it’s itching for a gun fight. But I’m not sad that you missed the disease, this dreaded thing that’s forced us into our homes, into a great disconnect that feels like death while living while we wait and occupy space, while we all hold our breath. Placeholders we are, waiting to spring into action and hug and dance and sing again, once the invisible threat is vanquished. You, as always, would have been fascinated by it, but I’m glad you aren’t here for it. It might have killed you if you weren’t already dead.

I imagine you doing your crazy dance in the loungeroom, making us laugh, knees bent, twisting inwards-and-outwards while your feet pivoted, head jerking emphatically, clicking fingers, always embarrassing us. You were such a dag, Dad, and you didn’t care. Such abandon and freedom in the body that betrayed you too soon in the end. Such wit and spark in a sharp mind that became so cruelly muddled and confused. The purity of those final days, sitting in the sun on a bench outside with you, cuddling and smiling at one other. You had no words and love needs none.

Love needs no posturing for it is felt.

_________________

This piece was originally published on medium.com in April 2020.

Wounded children

Fear of exposure is predicated on shame. If one is not ashamed to be seen, truly seen for who one is, there is no way to be exposed by anyone else. Shame is predicated on wanting to hide and I do not want to hide.

If you show me to the world as I was born I will say “yes, this is me, see how beautiful I am.” There is no shame. I am not ashamed of my body or of that which lies under its skin. I do not hide.

If you try to sully my name I will freely admit my sins and say what I have done wrong. I take responsibility for all I do. I make mistakes and do not claim to be perfect. Perfection is a fantasy that maims.

If I cannot be honest with myself, there is no way I can relate to you. Those who cannot be honest cannot be close with themselves or others. I am able to be close.

I do not hide. You see my writing and in it you see me. You cannot take away my clothes or my mask, because I do not wear any. I walk around naked every minute of the day. I know me and in knowing me I know you too. I am brave, but are you?

I can see you behind your mask and your costumes and your skin. I see you clearly and this makes you uneasy. There is nowhere to hide and being seen terrifies you. I see you.

Rest assured, if anyone else could see beneath your surface, they would not see much, for there is very little there, nothing tangible. Maybe the ghost of a little boy unable to articulate his fear or secure the love he needs. He trembles. He cowers. He hides. He rages. He cries in secret. It is for him I have love and compassion. It is with him that I try to connect.

I do not love the shell of you. Your shell is old and it is hard, cold and impermeable. It is aggressive and greedy. Your shell takes and takes.

Child me connects with child you, for that is where we share DNA. You know me for I used to be like you, until the moment I was not. The moment you decided to remain more animal than human. Predatorial.

I have met you before, many times already in this life, but that does not mean you are safe. It only means I know you. I was born to one just like you. There was a moment when you all chose the wrong path, the sinister one, and now there is no way back. I chose the right path, so now, after decades, we are chasms apart. Yet somehow the ghost of you echoes within the kernel of me. You are a product of the path I refused to choose.

I do not love the shell of you. Your shell is old, gnarly and calcified. Your shell is punctuated by an erect, hungry cock. Your mouth is full of sharp teeth and your mind is full of chaos. You have eyes that cannot see.

You are grown now, and all you are is this carapace. You are a mirror and a mime. I will not be your muse. You are layers of defensiveness: sweat and hair and ink and smalls and thermals and shirts and jumpers and coats encased in armour, sequestered away on an island in a fortress surrounded by moats that distance you from those you claim to love. You are locked away in a state of arrested development. You are an onion with an empty core and I peel you back until you are no more. I will not be your whore.

Online culture, narcissism and the death of human connection

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What are we doing to one another? At a time when we have the capacity to connect more than ever before in human history, we’ve come undone. We pull away, we ignore, we miscommunicate, violate basic, shared social codes and manners that were the norm only ten years ago. We blame the technology (which we created), we blame age (it’s old fashioned to treat others with respect, and totally “normal” to treat others with disdain), we blame anything but ourselves, our own choices, behaviours or cowardice. We fail others online by failing to see their humanity, by failing to employ empathy, by treating others as flippantly as if they were products on a shelf to be chosen from, picked up or rejected, consumed, returned, exchanged, liked, disliked and thrown away when we tire of them. We idealise, devalue and discard both strangers and friends alike*. We hide behind screens, pseudonyms, and advertisements of our selves. We play up our good bits, hide the bad, and some of us outright lie and manufacture false selves. We are commodities, we are products. We are the pawns and by-products of late-stage capitalism. We perpetuate and feed the finely calibrated machine of consumerism that we created by selling our selves as products to one another. We publicise and perform our selves in ways that were previously only available to the famous, to celebrities, to performers. Andy Warhol’s prophetic 15 minutes of fame has morphed and mutated into fame all the time for all of us. Fame 24/7. We filter and pose our exteriors into acceptable versions of us, dictated by still-more-famous-than-us plastic people who have literally sculpted themselves into non-human, semi-artificial life forms, people who define the new “beautiful”, who define the new behaviours. People who seem to do nothing other than perform false versions of themselves to high acclaim. These are the people we emulate in this visually-focussed, superficial, virtual, performative, narcissistic world we have created.

We are all performers now, all the time. We willingly gloss over privacy agreements and give consent to god-knows-what’s-in-the-fine-print, not being fully aware of what’s being done with our information, our representations of self, our most private messages and photographs that we exchange without a moment’s care with strangers, all because we are so desperate to connect, to belong, to love, to share, to feel included. We are attention hungry and many of us are not prepared to do the self-work required to improve our selves and our self worth. Self worth is more dependent on ‘other worth’ than it has ever been before. We are addicted to it. The chemical rewards from the dopamine and oxytocin hit we get every time someone “likes” what we do, while intermittent, is enough to keep us coming back like junkies. Intermittent reward is a principle casinos operate on to get gamblers addicted, as do psychopaths and manipulative abusers. The principle goes like this (and it’s been studied): give someone a reward, randomly, but not always and definitely not consistently, and they will return to you, or your pokie machine, for more of that reward, no matter how infrequently you give it, and no matter how much it costs them, and no matter how much you violate them in between the moments of reward.

What are we giving up in the desire to connect, and why are we so blind to the fact that we are in fact, more disconnected than ever? Do we think that 24/7 connectivity in the palms of our hands via multiple social media or dating platforms makes us connected?  Messages stunted by limited character counts ping out on Twitter, bounce around the virtual walls and echo before dying, largely unheard and not responded to. Not only can we not say as much as we want to, the tiny messages we are permitted to send get largely ignored in the ever-flowing stream of self-expression and content-rehashing that whizzes on by. It’s overwhelming. I believe (and hope) we’d all rather cuddle up on a couch with a loved one, breathe in sync with one another, heart rates aligning, sharing words and experiences. I also believe that’s all we are seeking from these technologies and platforms, which promise so much, but deliver mostly heartbreak and superficial human connection of a magnitude I never witnessed in the pre-internet era. If I have this distance and perspective by virtue of my age, then what on earth is happening to “digital natives”? Have their brains developed in atrophied and stunted ways? Do they even know or appreciate the depths that friendship or intimacy can plumb if conducted offline without technological intervention? Or only as an adjunct to the shallow online default we’ve all become accustomed to?

All of these outbound one-way, superficial messages, all of the filtering and commodification of the self that is encouraged by social media, has led to an unnatural growth in narcissism, which is endemic to and epidemic among, such modes of communication. Narcissism has become normalised through social media and online dating interactions and threatens to become a global disorder that ruptures the fabric of society as we know it. The tech tools we’ve created encourage it and social media fuels and exacerbates it. Narcissism, in its most extreme form = the death of relationships. You cannot have a relationship with a narcissist, or not a healthy one anyway: a healthy relationship is one that goes both ways, in which both people’s needs are met. Narcissism is a solitary mindset that involves self-promoting to others or manipulating others for the sole purpose of receiving attention and admiration. It is a one-way transaction. Without attention the narcissist feels empty, hollow, meaningless, like they don’t exist. Just as we all feel when our posts don’t get “liked” enough online. There is a real danger in this way of thinking. With a narcissist, there is no genuine exchange; the narcissist’s disingenuous attitudes and extreme fakery render any authentic exchange or connection totally void. The equation goes like this: I pose, you applaud. There is no depth to the exchange beyond flattery and self-congratulation. It is a toxic and addictive cycle for those devoid of self worth or internal fulfilment. Read More

I am self-partnered (and these are the reasons why)

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Though it’s no doubt old news by now — given the speed at which information travels on the internet — a few days ago actor, activist and all-round awesome person Emma Watson declared in an interview with British Vogue that she considers herself to be “self-partnered” rather than “single”. I first heard about this in a video that Russell Brand put online today, discussing the merits of Watson’s decision to use this label. Apparently this statement has led to the usual barrage of mockery and cynicism by those less-inclined to seek new and alternative ways of being, thinking and relating. If you’re interested these responses, I’m sure a quick Google search will yield links to examples of this, but I’m not invested in delving into that side of things any further. By writing this essay, I do not claim to espouse balanced reportage. I am excited by and fully in favour of the term “self-partnered” and this article will explain the reasons why it resonates with me, as well as discuss the potential it holds to be a new and empowering way to identify, particularly from my own viewpoint as a feminist woman and as a survivor of psychological and sexual abuse.

Below is the relevant extract from Vogue UK:

She turns 30 in April, and describes 2019 as having been “tough”, because she “had all these ideas” about what her life was supposed to look like at this age. “I was like, ‘Why does everyone make such a big fuss about turning 30? This is not a big deal…’” she shares. “Cut to 29, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I feel so stressed and anxious. And I realise it’s because there is suddenly this bloody influx of subliminal messaging around. If you have not built a home, if you do not have a husband, if you do not have a baby, and you are turning 30, and you’re not in some incredibly secure, stable place in your career, or you’re still figuring things out… There’s just this incredible amount of anxiety.”

If it’s staggering to think that Watson worries about this stuff, it’s comforting, too. “I never believed the whole ‘I’m happy single’ spiel,” she continues. “I was like, ‘This is totally spiel.’ It took me a long time, but I’m very happy [being single]. I call it being self-partnered.”

In a longer version of the interview, Watson also said:

“I see “self-partnership” as just taking some time out from the merry-go-round of relationships and “looking for the one”, and instead getting to know yourself a bit better.”

At this stage in my life, recently out of a relationship and delving into an intensive reinvestigation of self and purpose, I found this idea of self-partnership incredibly appealing. I immediately took to Facebook and proclaimed the following (to all 44 of my friends):

Thank you Emma Watson. This is the perfect way to describe where I’m at in my life right now. Self-partnered. I like it very much. We always need to be a partner to ourselves and get our self-worth from within. I suggest that we should all be healthily self-partnered always, and first and foremost. Having relationships with others should always come second to this primary relationship with self. If we don’t understand, respect and find our selves worthy, we cannot have healthy relationships with others. I also resent the idea that I have to be married to be worthy as a woman. It’s a notion that has weighed me down for decades and I’m finally throwing off the shackles. Self-partnership as a woman is a feminist notion as it subverts the dominant belief that women only exist (or are their best selves) in relation to others: as wives, mothers, lovers and carers.

In the comments section of Russell Brand’s video on Facebook about Watson’s declaration (he asked followers what they think), I wrote the following:

I think it’s brilliant. I’m recently out of a relationship and in a position where I’m really exploring myself and who I am. The relationship was abusive so I have to do a lot of self work to ensure I’m healed and also to forge a new future. Self-partnered perfectly describes where I’m at right now. I think we should all be self-partnered first and foremost, and partnered with another second. We should always have a healthy relationship with our own self and need to find self esteem and worth within.

Those were my initial thoughts, and since this morning they have developed. I believe that all humans, in order to be emotionally healthy, both within themselves and in relationship with others (friends, family, lovers, other-partners), must first and foremost be focused on cultivating a solid and healthy relationship with themselves. This means that one should feel ok to be alone, should derive a sense of worth from within, and be able to self-soothe, self-parent, and, by extension, I will argue, appropriately self-partner. We are already familiar as a culture with the concepts of self-worth, self-soothing and, to a lesser extent self-parenting. Self-parenting, for those who might not know much about it, is a concept explored in certain fields of psychotherapy (such as Internal Family Systems). It is particularly relevant to situations where people have had abusive or toxic childhoods. With self-parenting, in order to regain a sense of balance and healing to one’s wounded inner child, one takes on the role of a loving and kind parent (in an imaginary sense) and soothes the child self when it is triggered emotionally, rather than expecting others to do the soothing for you. It acknowledges and accepts the inability of one’s parents to have adequately provided the emotional nurturing one needed as a child, while also acknowledging that we carry within us the resources to be emotionally self-sufficient and to heal ourselves. It is potentially a very powerful process. Once familiar with this concept, the person can then consciously bring that inner-parent (who is inherently loving, caring and wise) to mind at times of need and crisis, in order to be able to provide solace, comfort and healing to the inner child self. Seen in the light of these other concepts then, self-partnering seems to me a natural extension of these more-widely accepted notions. It is one more way to rely upon and provide support to the self in a healthy, conscious and independent way. The next time you want to, say, go to the movies or eat out somewhere nice, but deny yourself the chance because you don’t have a partner (or even a friend) to go with, try going alone. The freedom and decadence of treating yourself to an activity you enjoy by yourself is a wonderful and self-affirming thing indeed. Read More

Why My Teeth Clench and My Shoulders Seize Up: Sexual Abuse and Coming to Terms with Trauma in the #MeToo Era.

My original MeToo story.

Feminist Confessional

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When I think about writing this piece, I notice that my teeth are clenched and my shoulders are raised. I also feel that familiar, pleasant, slightly floaty feeling as if I’m not really here. I stare out the window vaguely without focus. It’s called dissociation, and I’ve only recently learned to label it as such. It’s pleasant, because it allows me to leave a painful situation, mentally, to check out, even if my body isn’t coping.

I’ve been encouraged for a few years by well-meaning medical folk to deal with the underlying trauma that is a contributing factor in my chronic illness; and I’ve tried hard to identify and move through it. I have had debilitating symptoms for over a decade now, most of which seem untreatable. I won’t delve into the full story of my health problems right now: suffice to say these symptoms and my pain levels are…

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