Don't F around with LRQ pain

PSA from a woman with a very sore belly

Like most anxious people, I freak out and start googling "appendicitis” every time I feel a twinge anywhere in my abdomen. Usually, this reassures me that I’m not going to die any time soon, and then the pain passes. Which is exactly what happened when I woke up with bad abdominal pain on Friday night.

When I say “bad,” I mean I couldn’t find a comfortable position to get back to sleep in bed or in a recliner in the living room. But it wasn’t bad like the time in 2014 when a post-surgical adhesion caused a bowel obstruction that sent me to the ER. That was 11 out of 10 pain, the kind where all I could do was lie in the fetal position and weep. (Luckily, it spontaneously resolved before they could get me into the OR.) Friday’s pain also wasn’t bad like a 9 out of 10 migraine, where I can only lie in a dark room and hope to fall asleep. It wasn’t bad like the recurrent abdominal pain that sent me to a zillion doctors in my last year of high school, none of whom could find an obvious cause. (Many years later, I read about abdominal migraines, which might explain that.) And it wasn’t bad like the abdominal pain that made me call an ambulance in the middle of the night when I was about 26. (Again, no obvious cause; the best guess was that a small ovarian cyst might have burst.)

The pain I had on Friday night and very early Saturday morning was between 6 and 7, according to my personal pain threshold. (Have you read Eula Biss’s wonderful essay “The Pain Scale,” by the way? If not, go do that. It’s much more interesting than this.) During that time, I Googled to reassure myself that there was no need to wake up Al and go to the ER in the middle of the night. No fever, no nausea, no vomiting, no 10 out of 10 pain. It felt a bit worse on the right side but was mostly all over. I’m on a new medication that delays digestion, and I figured it was my body reminding me that I cannot eat a big, rich dinner and dessert while I’m on it.

By daylight Saturday, the pain was down to 3 or 4, and I was able to sleep. I didn’t feel great overall, but it wasn’t interfering with my life anymore, so I just had an easy day in front of the TV. The only slightly concerning thing was that it seemed to be completely localized on the lower right. But I still had zero other symptoms of appendicitis, and it didn’t make sense that I’d feel better if that was the problem. (NB, I learned from Dr. Google that sometimes people get pain relief when the appendix bursts—but if that had happened, I would have started having symptoms of infection.)

On Sunday, the pain was better still—0 when sitting still, no more than 2 when moving around—and I figured I’d most likely just done a number on some bend in my intestines (which is not great, obviously, but also not something that requires immediate surgery). I ignored it for most of the day and Googled a few more times to reassure myself the only vaguely concerning thing was the location. The area hurt when I poked at it, but felt better when I stopped, and appendicitis is supposed to hurt more when you release the poke. It just didn’t fit.

Nevertheless, I thought to google “appendicitis stories” to see if it brought up any anecdotes about appendicitis presenting without excruciating pain. There were a few. Then I decided to ask a group chat if anyone in there had experience with appendicitis that looked weird. No one had, but they bullied me about going to the doctor for reassurance. I said I’d think on it. I emailed my GP and described the symptoms, asked her if she thought an ER visit was warranted, given the aforementioned drug and lack of other symptoms. It was Sunday, so of course she didn’t answer right away.

Finally, around 4 p.m., I realized urgent care was going to close soon, and I was driving myself bonkers wondering what this mild but persistent pain was, so I decided I should just go in. I wanted to avoid the ER if I could, and I figured an urgent care doctor could give me a quick reassurance before dinner.

Unfortunately, all she could tell me was what I already knew: it could be a couple different things, and it sure didn’t seem like appendicitis, but given the location, she couldn’t rule it out. Her recommendation was to go to the ER and get an abdominal CT. Their policy was to treat any lower right quadrant pain like it’s the appendix until proven otherwise. Goddammit.

I told Al I wanted to stop for food on the way there, and he pointed out that I shouldn’t eat in case they needed to cut me open. I said I was pretty sure there was no way that was happening, but I guessed I could live without dinner for a couple of hours while I sat there waiting to be told nothing was wrong with me.

I walked into the ER on my own two feet and said, “Hi, I have some very mild pain in my lower right quadrant, and urgent care told me to come here to rule out appendicitis.” For the second of what would be at least 250 times, I ran through the list of other symptoms: no fever, no nausea, no vomiting, no diarrhea. Just pain, and barely that—like a pulled muscle or a big bruise—but in a worrying location.

Apparently, even if you’re walking and talking, the words “lower right quadrant” are a magic key that instantly unlocks the ER. (See also: “chest pain.”) They took me back and ordered a CT scan immediately. While we waited for the machine to become available, a doctor and student asked questions and poked at my gut. I told them I had a hysterectomy in 2013 that took everything but my ovaries, and it definitely felt nothing like a UTI. I told them again that I had no other symptoms, and the doctor pointed out to the student that 80% of people with appendicitis have diarrhea or vomiting.

“What else could this be?” he asked his student.

“Ovary?” said the student.

“Right, yes, that’s one. It could also be a [gallstone] lodged somewhere.” (He actually said “choleosomething stone,” but I don’t know what the exact word was and don’t care to learn.) “Could be colitis. Could be cancer,” he added, throwing a “Sorry, gotta teach the kid to be thorough” smile in my direction. The whole time, he was kneading my gut like a cat.

I had already thought of my right ovary, as well as the possibility that gallstones could be causing pain a little lower than one might expect—especially when the onset of pain was preceded by the aforementioned big, rich dinner. I had not thought of cancer, so that was fun to consider after they left, while I continued to wait for the CT.

I told Al not to bother coming in until we knew more, so I sat there reading Twitter and texting people hospital bed selfies with cheerful captions about how I was just being super-dramatic and only needed a test to confirm there was nothing wrong. Eventually, I got up to go to the bathroom, and when I returned to my room, there was someone there to pick me up for the CT scan.

“You… can walk?” he said.

“Yep!” I said, and followed him down the hall.

A short while later, I was back in my bed, and the doctor came in again.

“Unbelievable, Kathleen!” he greeted me. “They always tell you not everybody is a textbook case, but you are really not a textbook case.”

“Well, shit,” I said.

“I’m sorry, but yes, your appendix is inflamed, and you’ll be having surgery tonight.”

And so I did. With one exception, they just used the same holes from my hysterectomy. The appendix was inflamed but not perforated, so it was all pretty uneventful. Got home yesterday afternoon, sore but fine. Murray is sulky as hell because he’s not allowed to jump on me.

I feel incredibly lucky that I never had to deal with all the typical misery of appendicitis, yet experienced just enough pain to get it checked out before things went really bad. This means, of course, that I will forever be the annoying person who says, “JUST GO TO THE ER!” when people are looking for reasons not to. Thank you to the friends in my group chat who were those people on Sunday.

Don’t fuck around with lower right quadrant pain. This is my message to the world. And now I am going back to sleep, delighted that I will never again have to wonder if it’s my appendix.

Love,

Kate

So, Cosby...

What would justice even look like?

Bill Cosby’s conviction for drugging and sexually assaulting three women—he’s been accused of similar and worse crimes by dozens—has been overturned. He is going to be released from prison.

Apparently, the Montgomery County, PA, district attorney before the current one made some kind of deal not to prosecute Cosby. “There was no evidence that promise was ever put in writing,” per the AP. But there was still some evidence persuasive enough to convince the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that Cosby never should have been prosecuted?

I don’t get it either, except insofar as it reflects the way our justice system usually works for rape and sexual assault victims: not at all.

That was one of my tweets in the first fifteen minutes after I saw the news, but it wasn’t the first. The first was this:

I have been on Twitter for thirteen years now, and I still haven’t learned my damn lesson about dropping opinions there that involve nuance. People did not take that tweet well, for reasons that are understandable but have nothing to do with what I meant by it.

What I meant by it:

  1. I am trying to move away from carceral feminism, both because I believe the U.S. prison system is thoroughly rotten and because imprisoning a tiny handful of rapists—those responsible for less than 1% of rapes—does nothing to make society safer. In fact, it arguably makes us less safe by creating the illusion that our justice system is designed to adequately prosecute, penalize, and rehabilitate people who commit sexual violence, when it manifestly is not.

  2. If we take “Does this make society safer?” as the fundamental question here—and I do—then it does not matter if Bill Cosby is free. His age, infirmity, near-universal recognizability, and notoriety will prevent him from having access to more victims during whatever years he has left.

  3. The only good reasons for keeping him in prison, then, are punitive and symbolic. (Edited to add: Linda Hirshman notes on Twitter that I’m ignoring one very good reason, which is that legally speaking, his conviction should not have been overturned.) And while there is a salt-shriveled portion of my heart that believes those are excellent reasons to let Bill Cosby die in a cage, they go to the core of the problem with carceral feminism and carcerality in general. If we believe that harsh punishment should be the primary purpose of prisons, that becomes an excuse to allow or ignore all manner of human rights abuses within them.

  4. Those rampant human rights abuses are happening not only to violent and remorseless people but to people convicted of nonviolent crimes and people convicted of crimes they never committed—who are disproportionately Black men. Wildly disproportionately.

  5. None of that makes society safer—especially not for incarcerated people, their families, and their communities. It does, however, make rich people richer.

  6. If we actually want to make society safer, we need to explore models of justice that aren’t based on satisfying our primitive thirst for punishing (perceived) wrongdoers.

  7. In the meantime, though, it is always galling to see how money and fame can be used to opt out of the shitty system we have.

I’m still learning about all of the above, but I recommend the work of Michelle Alexander, Mariame Kaba, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Angela Davis, and many other Black and brown scholars and activists who have been doing this work for years.


The part I already know a lot about is that there is no “justice” for victim/survivors under the system we have. The reasons for this range from terrible to righteous. On the terrible side, we have rape culture, police who don’t believe victims, evidence that gets destroyed or sits on shelves, prosecutors loath to pursue cases they don’t believe they can win, defense attorneys who work to destroy victims’ credibility by any means necessary, and jurors ignorant of both the law and the effects of trauma.

On the righteous side, we have defendants’ rights, which are and should be sacrosanct. A crime that most often involves a single perpetrator and victim, zero eyewitnesses, and no evidence of physical damage to the victim is extremely difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. As it should be. But that leaves us with a conundrum: On paper, such rapes are illegal; in practice, they simply are not.

If victims know that the chance of retraumatization after reporting a rape is far, far higher than the chance of conviction; and perpetrators know the same about their own chances of being reported at all, let alone convicted, then the system we have does not treat the most common kind of rape—involving no weapon and no witnesses—like a violent crime. We acknowledge that it is one only in the abstract. In practice, 99.3% of the time, we do nothing.

Actually, we don’t just do nothing. We retroactively justify doing nothing, which is much worse. Instead of acknowledging that our system is not designed to resolve this tragic dilemma, we blame victims, fret over perpetrators’ futures, and generally act as if the lack of rape convictions must accurately reflect a lack of “real” rapes. Sure, maybe something happened to you, but it obviously wasn’t that serious, because we all know people who commit serious crimes go to prison. If they aren’t going to prison, then…

Carceral feminism comes about when people who understand that infuriating reality— often while coping with the pain of being victim/survivors themselves—can only conceive of “justice” as punishment for perpetrators under the system we have. Because we know how frequently this crime happens, it stands to reason that police should be making more arrests, prosecutors pursuing more cases, juries voting for more convictions, judges handing down harsher sentences.

Whether or not that would be more fair or equal, though, it wouldn’t be any more just. The system, otherwise unchanged, would continue to disproportionately punish poor men of color—especially those accused of sexual crimes against white women, regardless of whether they’re guilty—while exonerating white and/or wealthy predators. It would continue to focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation and reintegration, so serving time wouldn’t necessarily make anyone less likely to rape again after being released. It would continue to create a great deal more sexual violence, in fact, when the goal should be eradicating it in every form.

The question of what we should do instead is one I have not found an adequate answer for. Activists and scholars have a lot of suggestions and are constantly working on others, but so far, I haven’t been persuaded that anyone’s got it right. All I know is, what we do now is wrong. Wrong for victim/survivors, wrong for the people targeted by the Prison Industrial Complex, wrong for making society in any way safer.

The system we have now breeds rape culture, because we’re so bad at sitting with the reality—a whole lot of people get away with a whole lot of crime in this country—we fabricate reasons to believe it couldn’t possibly be true. The victim must be lying, the perpetrator must have been confused, the signals must have gotten crossed. It simply cannot be that 99.3% of the time these crimes occur, nothing happens to the people who commit them.

It cannot be, but it is.

So no, I do not care that the State has declined to physically punish Cosby any longer. I care that he was allowed to continue drugging and raping women for decades, while powerful people all around him knew it was going on. I care that for ages, female comics publicly joked about his predatory behavior, but the world only paid attention after a male comic did the same. I care that he was only tried and convicted on three counts out of 60—because of what that says about how seriously we take victims’ testimony. I care that some prosecutor apparently made a deal not to prosecute him—because of what that says about money and fame making some criminals more equal than others. I care that there are apparently no documents regarding that—because of what that says about the transparency of our current system.

I care, above all, that nothing in our current system of law enforcement, justice, and incarceration is designed to help victims of sexual violence or make society safer from sexual predators. In many ways, it’s designed to do the opposite.

Which means that even if I don’t know what it ultimately looks like, I know what we need is a whole new system.

Love,

Kate


This letter, like all my letters at the moment, is going out to all subscribers, paid and unpaid. I do not publish on a consistent schedule, so I don’t encourage you to send money unless you feel like I deserve a reward for not clogging up your inbox. If this changes in the future, I’ll let you know. Thanks for reading, feel free to share, etc.

"No 1: Survive"

Happy panniversary

On March 13, 2020, I had two errands to run: voting in the Democratic primary, and picking up enough groceries to last at least a couple of weeks, because I knew the city would soon go into lockdown. It hadn’t been announced yet, but I’d paid attention to Italy and Seattle, was paying attention to New York. Our St. Patrick’s Day Parade had already been canceled, which was basically confirmation that the apocalypse had arrived in Chicago. Grocery shelves denuded of toilet paper and dried beans agreed.

At my early voting location, poll workers were wearing gloves, doling out hand sanitizer, and valiantly trying to keep us all a few feet apart from each other. As I stood in line to place my ballot in the machine, the person in front of me hesitated to take her “I voted” wristband and quietly indicated that she’d like a different one. I saw her problem immediately—the worker offering it to her wasn’t wearing gloves. But that worker, being a person who didn’t think it necessary to wear gloves while dealing with strangers on March 13, 2020, didn’t get it. She picked up a new sheet of wristbands, still ungloved, and held out a new one. The woman in front of me took it, unable to bring herself to say what she actually wanted.

That was the moment I realized that self-protection during a pandemic was inevitably going to involve confronting people. Saying things that feel rude. Pointing out the obvious to people who refuse to see it. Some of my least favorite things to do in the world, except on Twitter.

I didn’t say anything, either. I took my own “I voted” wristband from the worker’s naked hand, telling myself the chances of this person already having the virus were so slim. Which they were, then. At that point, the problem wasn’t that Covid-19 was everywhere, but that it could be anywhere. It was a vague terroristic threat, not yet a field of landmines outside every door.

I carried an Ikea bag into Jewel to do my shopping, so I wouldn’t have to touch a cart. The main focus then was still on fomite transmission, although I remember being incredibly anxious about other people breathing near me. As I stood in line to pay, with other people wantonly bumping and crowding me as though nothing had changed, I realized that clearly posted rules would have no effect on a certain percentage of the population. That was when I resolved not to go out again until it was safe.

On March 13, 2020, I still believed that the impending lockdown would “flatten the curve,” and we’d be back to normal in a matter of weeks. I wasn’t sure how many weeks—two? four? eight?—but I reasoned that if nearly everyone stayed home during that period, the virus would have to die out. Things I didn’t factor in: the incredible contagiousness of the virus, the emerging politicization of the virus, the general unwillingness of Americans to do anything for the common good.

I did factor in the cruelty and uselessness of the federal government, as one always had to between January 2017 and January 2021, but I thought our mayor and governor were doing a good job of taking the threat seriously. I did not think about our bordering states—Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Missouri—or two international airports in my city alone, including one of the world’s busiest. I did not think about all the people in Illinois, of every political stripe, who would see all efforts to contain the pandemic as attacks on their personal liberty. I still believed the virus could be reasoned with.

Within weeks, I realized we’d be home for at least a year, probably closer to two.

All of this came back to me as I read this extraordinary tick-tock of the lead-up to that first lockdown in Chicago. It’s fascinating to see what the people in charge were thinking then, knowing what we know now. And it’s infuriating all over again to learn how little the federal government did to help when this was the situation:

CAPRARA
Governor J.B. Pritzker’s chief of staff

In March, when the craziest stuff was going on, I walked into the governor’s office. He has a whiteboard where we had written down our priorities for the year — things that we were going to look at to make sure we were advancing our policy goals and everything else. He and I were sitting there looking at this list of things that we had wanted to get done. I erased everything on the board and wrote: “No. 1: Survive,” “No. 2: Pass the budget in May,” and “No. 3: Make sure democracy continues.”

PRITZKER
Governor of Illinois

I’ve not erased it since that day. The other thing that’s on the whiteboard are little boxes that say “Choice A: Lots of people die,” “Choice B: Less people die.”

Happy panniversary, everybody.

Can’t wait to see you when we’re vaccinated.

Love,

Kate

The Generational Discourse is Going to Kill Me

and I have chosen the hill I will die on

Friends, I have chosen the political hill I will die on this election season, and it is this: Kamala Harris is Gen X.

My old feminist blogger pal Jill Filipovic, herself a Millennial, has written a new book called OK, Boomer, Let’s Talk. Based on her research, Jill has publicly declared that Kamala is a Boomer.

No. I reject and rebuke it.

First of all, if you write a whole novel describing your generation, and you give that generation a name, the name cannot later be reassigned to an entirely different cohort, especially not by people born 20-odd years after. This is my truth. Douglas Coupland was born in 1961, ergo that, at the very latest, is the beginning of Generation X.

(For that matter, Billy Idol was born in 1955, but I can be reasonable.)

Based on my own primary source research (a hazy recollection of the 1990s), this used to be taken as read. In fact, when people in the ’90s discussed “Generation X,” I seem to recall they meant people born between 1960ish and 1974ish. As a 1975 baby, I felt slightly outside this group for a long time, despite sharing some pop culture references and whatnot. (I also share parents with siblings born in 1960 and 1961, so I was part of the same literal generation as people Coupland’s age, yet vividly aware of how much younger I was. For the record, my sister [1961] identifies as X and my brother [1960] didn’t answer my DM about it, so there you go.) Before Millennials became a thing, people my age and slightly younger were the vanguard of “Generation Y,” but the label didn’t stick. Once we had the term “Millennial,” “Gen Y” disappeared, and those of us born between 1975 and 1980 were quietly reassigned to Gen X.

That’s fine with me. It fits, especially now that I’m middle-aged, and categorical distinctions between me and people fifteen years my senior are increasingly blurry. But it also fits because Reality Bites came along in my nineteenth year on earth and reset everyone’s notion of what “Gen X” meant. Helen Childress, who wrote it, is just a few years older than me, as are Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke—they all fell into the original “X” category that I just missed, but the characters in Reality Bites felt very much like my cohort. Director Ben Stiller (b. 1965) is Gen X by any standard, yet he was old enough to play the yuppie antagonist who bought into the system instead of critiquing it—which, once upon a time, was the defining distinction between Gen X and Boomers. Janeane Garofalo (b. 1964) is a Boomer if Kamala is, but her baby bangs and vintage dresses, one-liners and withering put-downs, were what my friends and I went nuts for.

The ethos—everything sucks; the people with real jobs and money have no souls; young people are faced with a choice between selling our souls and living on the margins; and the only thing that makes any of it bearable is hanging with friends and falling in love and weed—was what connected Reality Bites to Generation X to my life.

It’s simplistic and classist and very, very white, all of which is also characteristic of my generation’s public image. The scene in the gif above depicts Janeane Garofalo’s character and friends stocking up on groceries at a gas station, because they’re broke—not poor, broke—and the one credit card that has room on it is the one her father gave her for gas. That’s the Reality Bites version of Gen X: we’re the “If you called your dad, he could stop it all” generation.

(Jarvis Cocker was born in 1963, and he is ours. Come on.)

And that happens to be completely on target for my personal experience as a white, middle-class, cishet suburban native who could still have called my dad for money until the day he died. Culturally, I identify strongly as part of the Reality Bites generation because I experienced that specific combination of genuine rage and fear at the world our parents gave us with a lack of genuine anxiety about whether I’d be okay anyway. Most people—of any generation—do not lack that anxiety, because it takes a lot of resources to lack it.

That’s not to say people born in the 1970s had no collective anxiety that crossed lines of race, class, gender, and sexuality. We all grew up with the fear of nuclear holocaust, came of age sexually before the advent of life-saving HIV drugs, and hit adulthood during or near a recession. But ambient, arm’s-length anxieties are not the same as a daily experience of racism, sexual harassment, violent homophobia and transphobia, or watching your friends and lovers die by the dozen from a viral pandemic the government refuses to do anything about. So the fact that our generation, when we’re talked about at all, is usually defined as white, straight people indulging largely unearned cynicism should be sufficient evidence that the generational discourse is bullshit.

The generational discourse is bullshit. I understand this. But somehow, I can’t stop taking the bait.

Being born in a particular year doesn’t mean you share formative personal experiences or political opinions with other people born in that year. Certain cultural experiences, sure, and that’s not nothing—especially among those of us who grew up before the internet enabled us all to get real fuckin’ niche. But I also don’t think cultural experiences are what we’re really talking about when we talk about generations.

Quite simply, I think we’re talking about age. We’re talking about the differences between people in their twenties and thirties, forties and fifties, and sixties and seventies. But to admit that would be to admit how much of the discourse is molded by plain old ageism.

If you call them “Fucking Boomers” instead of “Fucking old people,” you can go on to claim your disgust is not only morally pure but the basis of a solid social justice argument. And if you call them “Fucking Millennials” (or, now, Xennials) instead of “Fucking young people,” you can credibly claim you’ve identified a widespread problem other than “I am now old enough to be chronically irritated by younger people who do the exact same ‘entitled’ and ‘selfish’ things I did when I was their age.”

It’s become a running joke that Generation X, sandwiched between two much larger cohorts, inevitably gets left out of conversations, graphics, and articles about demographic differences. But when I reframe this as a conversation about age—as opposed to some vague, birth-year-related cultural affiliation—I understand why it sometimes gets so far under my skin, I’d flay myself to relieve the discomfort.

Case in point, today’s CNN op-ed—Jill again, but I swear I’m not picking on her; this is just her beat at the moment— “Boomers need to hand the reins of political power to Millennials.”

I remember talking to a friend six or seven years ago about how grating all of the “intergenerational feminist wars” discourse was, because it pitted the likes of Gloria Steinem (b. 1934) against the likes of Jill (b. 1983), with no mention whatsoever of those of us who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s. We found ourselves fully erased by articles declaring that the third wave of feminism was born on blogs, as if zines and Riot Grrl and Bust and Bitch and Manifesta never happened. As if Queer Theory magically emerged fully formed in the 21st century. As if Rebecca Walker (b. 1969), daughter of Alice (b. 1944), hadn’t definitively launched our wave with a 1992 Ms. magazine article about feeling called to action by the Clarence Thomas hearings.

(Now, women who watched in real time and wore homemade “I believe Anita Hill” buttons are berated by young people who watched clips on YouTube for supporting Joe Biden as our last bulwark against totalitarianism. Would putting a dozen upside-down smiley face emojis here make me look old?)

When it was just feminist infighting, my overwhelming feeling was “What else is new?” But now, the Boomer v. Millennial fad is everywhere, and being left out of the conversation has higher stakes. What does “Boomers need to hand the reins to Millennials” mean for those of us who are currently between 40 and 60? Are we supposed to retire early, when most of us just finished paying off student loans and need to work for at least another decade or two to have anything like security? Must we agree, to prove we are not the dreaded Boomers who can’t see reason, that the generation behind us contains all the people capable of solving every problem we currently face? Are we meant to concede that even if we don’t own property or have savings, won’t be able to afford private health insurance during the years before we’re eligible for Medicaid, and have twenty to forty years of valuable work experience we’d love to continue using, it’s now on us to make way for ducklings?

Or are we just supposed to keep pretending it’s a joke that everyone forgets we exist?

One reason people get fucking cranky as they get older is that we possess both accumulated wisdom and memories of how we used to think. Younger people hate hearing this, which we know, because we used to be younger people! And we, too, used to think that our generation was uniquely incomprehensible to our elders. We, too, used to believe youth endowed us with powers of both discernment and compassion that would wither to dust before our fortieth birthdays.

(Ally Sheedy, b. 1962. Ours.)

We, too, saw compromise as a cop-out, everyone as a sell-out, and baby steps as backward steps. And by “we,” I mean Boomers—who were well known for not trusting anyone over thirty until they all turned thirty and a lot of them discovered money—as well as Gen Xers, who pioneered sneering at people born in the ’40s and ’50s for their sociopathic greed.

That was the point of us, back when we had a point—i.e., when we were in our twenties and thirties, so the media loved us best.

TIME Magazine Cover: Generation X Reconsidered - June 9, 1997 ...TIME Magazine Cover: The Next Generation - July 16, 1990 - Women ...Ethan Hawke - Generation X: 10 Years Later - Details Magazine - March 2002 - Hells Angels article - No Address Label!

This is one of the big secrets that comes with age: Anyone old enough to do interesting things, but young enough to do them sexily, belongs to a cohort that will be discussed, analyzed, and promoted to death. It will be given a catchy name. It will be resented by older people and briefly aspired to by younger ones.

And then it will turn forty, and no one will give a fuck about it anymore until it gets old enough to represent the Old People who ruin everything.

Size matters, I suppose—Boomers and Millennials are much larger groups. But I’ll be shocked if we’re not all discussing the brand-new, historically unique war between Xennials and Gen X in ten years’ time.

In the meantime, fellow Xers, don’t let them tell you that being caught between those two behemoths means we’ll never have one of our own cohort in the White House. We already did; under the Coupland Rule, Barack Obama (b. 1961) was our first Gen X president.

Kamala Harris will, with any luck, be our second.

Why Am I So Furious About This?

On the Ortberg family scandal and my bottomless rage reserves

Content warning: non-graphic discussion of child sexual abuse

“Why am I so furious about this?” is a question I ask myself at least once a day.

Usually, the answer is, “Because you live in a white supremacist patriarchy during a pandemic, with a narcissistic, fascist dullard in charge; and you can’t leave your house without feeling Death himself creep up behind you, flagrantly refusing to maintain a six-foot distance; and when you bought your condo, pre-pandemic, you confidently asserted that you could live happily without a second bedroom or any outdoor space; so you feel trapped and powerless and hopeless, and you’re unskilled at processing emotions other than anger, so you are FUCKING ENRAGED at every little thing right now.”

But yesterday, I got extra-furious about something quite serious.

The writer Daniel M. Lavery recently revealed a final, crucial piece of information that gives full context to his decision, last November, to cut ties with his family of origin: father, celebrity evangelical pastor and author John Ortberg, Jr.; mother, Nancy Ortberg, also a pastor; sister, Laura Turner, a writer; and brother, John III. If you want a very detailed version of the story, Menlo Church member Ruth Hutchins has compiled a thorough timeline of events here, along with a number of relevant documents and illuminating blog posts.

The basic details that everyone seems to agree upon are as follows:

In July 2018, someone who frequently volunteered with youth at Menlo Church went to John Ortberg, senior pastor, and confessed that he felt a romantic and sexual attraction to children, primarily boys between the ages of 8 and 13. This person said they had never acted on these thoughts—and so far, no evidence has emerged to the contrary—but said thoughts were unwanted, compulsive, and went back a very long time.

Ortberg, who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, did not report this to church elders or work to prevent the volunteer from being around the community’s children unsupervised.

Danny Lavery, almost as soon as he learned of this in November 2019, did report it to church elders (naming the volunteer to them but not to the public) and asked that they begin a robust investigation into both the volunteer’s history with children and the cover-up on Ortberg’s part. Ortberg was suspended for some time, and church elders did perform an investigation. The pastor publicly acknowledged all of the salient points above. (I don’t know if he’d want to split hairs about whether or how he may have “worked to prevent contact” between the volunteer and children, but he never disputed that a pedophile made this confession to him, that he did not report it to his church, and that he knew the volunteer continued to work with children.) He was back in the pulpit a few months later.

In February 2020, Lavery publicly revealed the content of his November report to Menlo Church elders, without stating the volunteer’s name.

Two days ago, Lavery revealed that the volunteer in question was his brother, John Ortberg III.

As far as I know at this writing, no one from the Ortberg family has publicly acknowledged this except Laura Turner, who tweeted yesterday (before nuking her account):

There is so much I would like to address and say right now! But I won’t say it all. What I can say is this: I love my brother Danny, and always will. I can also say that the statement he shared yesterday is full of half-truths, lies, and exaggerations. (1/2)

I would like very much to talk with him about this and offer corrections, but he cut off all contact with our family in November and made it very clear that we were never to contact him again. That is all I’m going to say! (2/2)

(If you search Twitter, you can find screenshots of the above tweets. I saw the originals when Turner’s account was still active, so I’m personally confident that Ruth Hutchins got them right.)

“Half-truths.”

“Lies.”

“Exaggerations.”

Full of” them.

That’s four separate claims about the nature of Danny Lavery’s public statements. Remember that.

One can appreciate Turner’s not wanting to discuss a painful family scandal publicly, but let’s not forget a few key things:

  • The Ortberg family had seven full months between Danny’s report to Menlo Church elders and now to figure out a better way to handle all this.

  • Instead, they seemed content to dismiss it as a relatively minor pastoral mistake, elevated to the level of a scandal by Danny, the mysteriously disgruntled, queer, trans black sheep of the family.

  • Every single one of them—John père, Nancy, Laura, John fils—knew that as long as no one but family and elders knew the identity of the volunteer pedophile, no one could properly understand the nature and scope of the cover-up they all continued to commit through Sunday.

  • “I failed to report a volunteer who came to me for pastoral counseling” is wildly different from “I failed to report that my son admitted to me that he is sexually aroused by children, despite knowing my status as senior pastor of this church in particular, and a celebrity Christian more generally, facilitates his access to them.”

  • I admit the penny didn’t drop for me until someone else pointed it out, but an obvious question has been hanging in the air since February: Why would a church volunteer who had already confessed his darkest secret to his pastor also confide in… Danny? The answer was right there if you asked who would be close enough to both Danny Lavery and John Ortberg, Jr., to tell both of them about having intrusive sexual thoughts about children. I just want to spell that out, because a lot of people are going get hung up on whether Danny should have named his brother publicly at all.

  • The Ortbergs are not stupid people, so I can’t imagine they really believed that no one would connect the dots. They have had an exceedingly generous amount of time and space to consider what to do when this fact became public knowledge.

  • If you acknowledge that your brother told your father, a famous religious leader, that he has pedophilic compulsions, and that said father did not prevent said brother from continuing to work with children, what do you possibly hope to gain by declaring other parts of Danny’s account “full of half-truths, lies, and exaggerations”? Like, he got the details right about your whole family conspiring to hide, at best, a powder keg of potential abuse, but you believe he fudged… something else? Who gives a shit? What is wrong with your heart?

  • John Ortberg, Jr., has made millions promoting himself as a moral and spiritual authority.

  • The Ortbergs made the choice not only to “protect” Johnny in the shallowest, most self-serving way possible—by keeping his secret—but to lose Danny over it. Danny’s public and (recently revealed) private statements on the matter have been full of anguished love for his family, compassion for his brother’s affliction, and concrete suggestions for healing and accountability. His father, mother, sister, and brother decided, together and separately, to accept estrangement from Danny so they could maintain their morally incompetent response to this deeply painful situation. They could have offered the same understanding and compassion to both Ortberg sons, appreciating Danny’s bravery in holding them to account while supporting Johnny in his efforts to find a way forward without harming anyone, including himself. Instead, they chose continued secrecy over a truly loving response to either one of the brothers.

Why am I so furious about this, though—like, personally, viscerally, hypertensively?

I’ve known Danny through the internet for years and am very fond of him, but we’re not tight. I used to follow and occasionally chat with Laura on Twitter, so I was disappointed to see her choice in this matter but not gutted like her friends have been. I am not an evangelical Christian or a believer of any kind. I am not the tiniest bit surprised by pedophilia among the churched, institutional cover-ups of same, or powerful men choosing their status and reputation over genuine, selfless love for their children. So why did I stay up late last night, rubbernecking all of the Twitter commentary I could find on the matter, while feeling increasingly moved to punch a hole in the wall?

This morning I realized it was those tweets of Laura’s that set me off, representative as they are of the unbearable gaslighting of it all. Danny is a liar, an exaggerator, a teller of half-truths—no, not about his brother’s attraction to children or his father’s covering it up, but about, you know, something. Danny is lashing out, breaking away, as one church elder put it during a town hall. As though a man in his early thirties merely threw a petulant fit to establish his own identity apart from his parents.

Interesting thing about unwanted thoughts,” that elder, Beth Seabolt, said later in the same town hall.I had several people write in about OCD. Doesn’t every one of us have unwanted thoughts? … No crime in coming in to ask for help with unwanted thoughts.”

Look at what she does there, rhetorically.

  1. Conflates sexual attraction to children with a significantly less stigmatized and more easily treated thought disorder.

  2. Then immediately downgrades it further to something “every one of us” experiences.

  3. Then underscores that there was no crime reported, and in fact, it was just someone asking for help with that thing every one of us experiences!

In three sentences, she turns a confession of pedophilia by a church youth leader into a brave request for help with a perfectly ordinary problem—nothing to see here, folks.

And of course she’s not going to tell them the name of the volunteer, because that would instantly bring down the whole house of cards.

As for the “no crime” bit, in Danny’s various statements, he mentions that all this first came to light because John III’s laptop was stolen, and he was afraid of what someone would find on it. So, first, he wasn’t suddenly moved by the spirit to seek spiritual counseling or share the burden of this devastating affliction with his family. He “asked for help with unwanted thoughts” only after there was a chance that he might be found out.

And second, what was on that laptop?

To be excessively charitable about it, I can think of a few things that would be highly incriminating without rising to the level of a crime. A “Virtuous Pedophiles” account. Pictures of clothed children going about their lives. A diary about his unwanted thoughts. Perhaps that’s all it was.

But you know what else people who feel sexually attracted to children often have on their laptops?

And did you know—I did not, before listening to the CBC’s harrowing podcast, Hunting Warhead—that the preferred term for what we used to call “child pornography” is now “child abuse materials”? Because that’s exactly what it is. Someone abuses children to create those images, and then people who are sexually aroused by images of children being abused create a financial incentive for such abuse to continue and expand.

I don’t know that John Ortberg III had child abuse materials on the laptop whose disappearance occasioned his confession. But I know that if he did, we can dispense entirely with the notion that no crime was committed and he is not responsible for physical, mental, and emotional harm coming to any child. I would like us all to be very, very clear on that point.

In any case, the answer to why I am so furious about this, in particular, once again comes down to the kyriarchy, the pandemic, the narcissistic, fascist dullard, and the sense of being powerless, trapped, and hopeless. Because what the Ortbergs have done to Danny during this unprecedented time for their family is exactly what our practically and morally useless leaders have been doing to all of us during an unprecedented time for our country. Casting truth-tellers as mentally unstable, agenda-driven troublemakers. Making the problem worse while lying remorselessly about the problem’s very existence. Dissembling and DARVOing to beat the band. Protecting the busted status quo instead of taking measures to protect human beings. Acting from fear instead of love.

I’d say it’s all very un-Christian, but as a cynical atheist, I honestly think it’s right on brand for 21st-century American Christianity.

And I know saying that just gave Christians who are unsure what to think about all this the license they need to dismiss everything I’ve said above.

Oh well. I’ve been honest here. Ask yourself who has not.

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