Get a Spine!

I recently listened to This American Life’s episode Get a Spine! which deals with ghosting, apologies, sexual harassment and other a whole host of other complex nasties that the 21st century is excavating in our behavior. I was an activist before I had my son: an anarcho-socialist (socio-anarchist? sociopathic narcissist?) one of those ‘woke’ white people who rallied against police brutality and the deaths and harassment of black folks before Black Lives Matters came along. Someone who camped out every Friday on Skid Row with thirty other college-educated people with consciences to support our fellow houseless activists who were being harassed by punitive, petty laws which criminalized them for sleeping on the sidewalk even after Jones Vs. the City of Los Angeles was won in 2006 (incidentally one of the attorneys who represented Skid Row residents was a lawyer called Carol Sobel who we later came to know from our time as anti-capitalists). I still stay in touch with some of those Skid Row residents, the infamous TC, General Dogon, the amazing organization LACAN run by the dynamic Pete White. I still talk to my activist friends, many of whom have changed genders, gender pronouns, sexual identities and had some great hairstyles along the way (myself included).

My point is when the world finally started listening to us ‘fringe lunatics’ directing people to go read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack and calling out all kinds of unremarked upon behavioral norms which were perpetuating systemic oppressions (the habits of men to talk over women, white people to talk over minorities, minorities to express concerns which were habitually dismissed by those with more social status and power etc) it was briefly kind of amazing and wonderful and beautiful…. before it descended into the kind of leftist infighting and bickering and finger pointing which leads to deafness, defensiveness and often alienation. About this time, I had a baby, and spent many hours watching social media erupt into outrage over [perceived] racism / sexism / oppression of any kind. As I struggled with severe poverty, CPTSD and the inhumane family court system throughout my son’s infancy, I was in no mood to listen to other’s complaints that I’d used the wrong gender pronouns or oppressed someone by my use of the word ‘fat’ to describe America. I felt like I’d gone from the frontlines of the battle to being yet another asshole armchair activist with people who weren’t out there pounding the streets when we were - and yet had the gall to call us out as if they had some authority. And perhaps they did. Being wrong, is after all, being wrong. You don’t earn a pass by getting activist brownie points - or even by being poor and having a shit time as a new mother.

It is far easier to be sympathetic and forgiving when one’s life is going well and you are the person making a difference in society. It is harder when you become the recipient of much needed charity and a drain upon other’s resources: when you, in short, resort from being the privileged, to the oppressed. I have had the unique and lucky perspective of being both, and of now being offered an opportunity to dig my way out of the horrible financial hole which has blighted most of my life as a parent. I have finally, after thirteen years of endless development and selling scripts which never went away, had a TV series greenlit. I series I wrote and created. A series which I will write, alone. A series I loved writing, which deals, very much, with some of the issues I’ve touched on in this post. I’m very excited and thrilled for it to come alive. I am even more excited and thrilled to finally be able to return some of the charity and material kindness offered to me over the last few years and to become a political person again, not simply a terrified, struggling, single parent in a state of massive, ceaseless anxiety.

The main reason I wrote this post though, is to make an apology. It’s an apology I tried to make back in 2008 when I wrote what I considered a “funny” article for The Guardian entitled crudely, ‘Flab isn’t flab’. Embodying all the worst parts of my cutting edge nastiness, it took a massive swipe at fat people. At the time there was, understandably an uproar of indignation and disgust about what I wrote. The Guardian turned the comments section off pretty quickly. I emailed my editor and asked could I write an apology and a response detailing in a less irreverent way why I had issues with overweight people. The Guardian declined my explanation/apology and refused to take down the post, saying it would be against their editorial policies. I could never really figure out what to do about it after that.

I grew up in a family which has, for the most part, struggled with their weight and accompanying health issues in very painful and unpleasant ways. As a seventeen year old I remember waking up at 3am one day to find my father banging into things having gone blind from medicines taken to treat his weight related heart problems. I had to drive him to the hospital and then start a 4:30am shift at a local hotel where I was a waitress. His sight came back but I watched most of my family struggle with their weight for years: strokes, heart bypass(es), hip replacements, high blood pressure, knee replacements… the list goes on, and it is, perhaps, no surprise, that I internalized this and became severely anorexic for most of my teenage years, and well into my early twenties. I recovered (predictably perhaps) when I moved to America, discovered yoga and trained myself to fill up on healthy foods, breaking the cycle of binging and purging which had characterized most of my early life.

Bullies are often the bullied. Those who attack others often do so because of their own pain. I am often a harsh and uncompromising writer, but I like to think that when I’m wrong, I admit it. Sometimes I’m a bitch just because I’m a bit of a cunt. A lot of the time it’s because of some deep pain it might take me several years to be able to articulate. The Guardian never allowed me to publish an apology, and it weighed heavy on me for many years. Weirdly since the article was published I’ve never had any blowback from it. By rights I should have: we are in the era of public shaming. Yet I’ve remained unscathed. This makes me feel even worse. Nonetheless I embarked on a career of reckless opinionating even after this article which only stopped when someone compared me to Toby Young. Wtf? That was a sobering moment. I had become so left wing I’d nearly gone full circle and ended up on the right.

For all those who have ever been harmed by my words in any way, I am deeply sorry. Words have power and I’ve often thrown them around unaware of the impact of my bull-like demeanour. There are probably many things out there which, acceptable at the time, are now rampantly horrific. If you find them, call me out. Send me an email and let me know. Let’s educate each other with compassion and kindness and some fucks and cunts thrown in carelessly along the way.

And for those strippers and strippers who, in 2013 a day before my son was born, took offense at the chapter in my book which referred to a transwoman as a “tranny” and dissected me in a long and particularly vicious and unpleasant post - my book was written in 2004 when I was 24. “Tranny” was the commonly used moniker amongst transgender people, later to be replaced by transsexual, then transgender, then trans. And the dancer whom I implied to a client was trans…. wasn’t actually trans. I was taking the piss out of the guy’s gullibility, transphobia and the fact this girl was way more stunning than me. If someone was trans I certainly wouldn’t be the one to jeopardize them by revealing it. Older and wiser, I also wouldn’t find that particular ‘joke’ appropriate or funny, and I realize it is pretty goddamn offensive, and yet there it is, written in my book for all to see, and unless it gets a reprint, it will stay there.

Perhaps it should stay. Perhaps all of these flaws, mistakes, bigoted comments, unconscious biases, defensive racism and more should stay for all the world to see how much we can all change and learn in one lifetime, because it is not OK to never change. It is not OK to ignore who or what we once were, even when what we once were was “accepted” and “acceptable” in mainstream society. After all, Hitler was pretty mainstream. Mussolini was too.

I am an activist and a writer and I learn everyday how to be a better and less obnoxious white person / ex stripper / former political Op-Ed asshole.

I hope y’all can forgive me, and we can learn to confront the worst parts of ourselves together, because this is one hell of a time. The world is burning and we need to get the fuck over ourselves and wrest this beautiful planet from some evil motherfuckers intent on fucking it up for our kids, who are braver and smarter than we ever were.

The Hive Gallery

Three of my prints will be showing at the Hive Gallery in Downtown Los Angeles. The show opens March 3rd at 8pm and hope to see you there. It runs until May so try catch it whenever. If you prefer to order prints directly from me give me a shout! The prints are also available on The Hive Gallery website. Yeah, there's no link from me. You'll have to do the google work I didn't do.

The Woman is Perfected

Very pleased to announce that a 45 minute monologue I wrote will be premiering at the Hollywood Fringe Festival this year, directed by Ryan Mcree, a USC grad who was the AD on 'bled' and is a fantastic up-and-coming director talent I am really excited to work with. Venue to be determined, casting to take place in the next couple of months. Here's a little blurb about the play:

“The Woman Is Perfected” follows the psychological breakdown of a single young woman entangled in abusive relationships and a crippling compulsion to perfect her body through plastic surgery. Written by Ruth Fowler and directed by Ryan McRee, this feminist “Everyman” tragedy will have its World Premiere at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Ruth’s “sharp and unsparing” writing has been praised by numerous critics, and the recent premiere of her play “bled for the household truth” at Rogue Machine Theatre was labeled by the L.A. Times “a timely exposé of what passes for intimacy in the Digital Age.” Now, having shifted her focus to the commodification of women’s bodies, she presents a harrowing new psychodrama with her unique balance of clinical investigation and emotional exploration. The play challenges—in terms both literal and expressionistic—how to cling to a genuine sense of identity in a world in which appearances are dominant, artificiality is celebrated, and our customization options are very nearly infinite.

bled for the household truth

In my alternate reality where I deal primarily with words, my play, 'bled for the household truth', is premiering in LA at the excellent Rogue Machine Theater in the fall. The season was just announced in Playbill, Broadway World and American Theater, among others. I'd love to turn bled into a movie. Part of my photography obsession was fueled by my desire to unite words and images - to take control of my words, to give them life with images. Theater was my first love and absolutely delighted that my play is being lovingly produced by such a great new writing theater  and a wonderful director, Cameron Watson, who I admire very much.

 

analog

I used to think in words: sentences neatly printed on a thick cream page, the type of slightly furry paper used in ’70’s paperbacks, the spines worn, gluey threads fraying from use. Tangible images existed in my head, sure, but only as fleeting, blurry still shots, indistinct scenes whirling in the background, out of focus behind the clarity of printed typeface. The dominant narrative was in chapters, pages, paragraphs and sentences: perfectly punctuated, with a beginning, middle and end. 

Because I could read so easily, so quickly, at such a young age, because words and stories became my inner world before I could really articulate confidently to the external, I didn’t realize that other people didn’t think like me: in complex, literary style monologues complete with correct capitalization and full stops. I did not realize, either, that what allowed me to write so fluently and easily before I could make my way in the world also, in a sense, stopped me from participating in the world fully. I could not explain what I was, or what I felt, or what I wanted to say, and I could not let you know that I understood, but by god I could write it. There is something strangely removed about the intimacy of a novel and a memoir, the absence of images allowing the reader to create a reality utterly unique, private and solipsistic. So too, for the writer: even if what we are writing is real, its translation into a literary form renders it into something new. Something fictional. Something with pages which we can rifle through mentally with an imaginary ink-stained finger.

When my husband left, I wrote still, but the writing did not save me like it used to do. Before my divorce, writing had been my SSRI, pumping serotonin through a system which had a hard time making it without help. When it was just me alone with a broken, empty bank account, bills multiplying like melanomas and a child whose reality looked set to be grim and full of an angular, gray weeping, hungry mother surrounded by the ghosts of a dead marriage and fading botox, I took the pills. I took Zoloft because I could not function every day without shaking and crying and it brought me back to a flatlined, muted reality mercifully absent of RBG’s and technicolor, without, even, shadows and contrast. I took Klonapin because the anxiety would crawl up into my throat and sleep there like a dead mammal making it hard to catch my breath. I took Clonidine to suppress the nightmares, the inevitable, unfathomable reactions from trauma induced by the most innocuous of interactions, touches, words, thoughts. I could basically function inside my home with my son, but every time I left my little apartment, I felt like I was walking into no man’s land, dodging grenades and IED’s, more terrified of Venice Beach than I had ever felt walking around Afghanistan ten weeks pregnant. I was told by my divorce attorneys not to admit to taking the pills because it would prove I was crazy. But I was crazy because I was going through hell, and because the pills - and the court ruling - cut off access to the only thing that helped me: writing.

I don’t really know how I appeared, or how I functioned during this time because I have no record of it. The words failed me, the benzos stole my memory, and the person wielding a camera - my photographer husband - used it only when he thought there was a good chance of getting me to break down, cuss and cry and scream in front of a cop. A perfect opportunity for a nice piece of divorce court evidence. Sometimes a picture will pop up in my Facebook feed - remember this from two years ago, taken a few days after your husband left? No? Well, apparently you were still functioning, you were still existing…. Existing, yes. I was a husk, a will o’ the wisp, an ocean of tears which did nothing to cushion the pills rattling around my styrofoam soul. Before the attorney bills rolled in and wiped me out entirely, I did something strange, something extremely impractical, something rather stupid, something which, on the face of it, might prove the selfishness and idiocy which had led me Department F in Santa Monica Courthouse.

I spent $1500 on a digital camera I didn’t know how to use, and a bunch of lenses.

Over the year that followed, the camera sat in a box, ignored. I tried to sign up for a film class, but as someone with a degree already, my enrollment priority was so low I could never get into any interesting classes. In February of this year, I was told that my cash benefits would be cut unless I went back to college, in which case they’d help me with childcare. I took out the camera, scrolled past the filmmaking classes, and enrolled in basic photography 

My teacher was a bored commercial photographer who didn’t really want to be there, and struggled valiantly through blurry shots of people’s dogs, students who couldn’t speak English, students who could speak English and were just assholes, and arrogant kids who showed up only to roll their eyes and slink off before our three hours was over. I sat next to a white girl about my age, working a job she didn’t like that much, and a Latina hairdresser from Redwoods with three kids and a dynamic, charming personality. I learned about aperture, shutter speeds, ISO, resolution, pixels. I learned about still shots and moving images. I started shooting, perversely, on digital, and finding something too clean, too immediate, too perfect about the crisp images I produced, when the three month course ended and I had handed in my assignments, I moved quickly on to analog, kept the 7D for filmmaking, but spent 50 bucks instead on a fully manual AE-1. 

I took black and white photography classes in a small darkroom I found downtown. In lieu of dates, I hid away in a safe light watching pictures of a life I couldn’t see until it developed in the tray in front of me, Instead of seeking out new, destructive ways to make other men pay for drinks and enter our life only to destroy it, I took pictures. I fell in love with the strange, warm smell of the fix, the indigo developer draining away from the tank telling me something had transformed in that light-sealed container. I began to educate myself on photographers in no particular order - Vivian Maier, Sally Mann, Robert Mapplethorpe, Leonard Freed, Trent Parke, Ansel Adams - flicking impatiently through pictures, sneaking peeks at the dust covered books on my ex-husband’s bookshelves until an image would grab me, at which point I’d stare at it, try and figure out what they had done, what I could learn.

I turned my camera on myself and my son. I had no memories and no words, so at least I could have images to help goad my exhausted brain into tangling the disconnected episodes of my disastrous life into some kind of narrative form, into some coherent visual story. I was too frightened to take pictures of other people. Taking pictures, like writing about others, comes with a high cost, a price I was too exhausted to bet on. I did not curate my images, but just printed as many as possible, sometimes making as many as eight full prints just to dodge and burn a particular section which lay hidden by light or shadow until the lights and the filters and the enlargers and the timing would goad it gently into existence. The process of developing and the thick, warm bunker-like quiet of the darkroom worked better than words, and better even, than pills, and definitely better than alcohol.

In those intervening three months between my husband leaving and my taking the pills, my monologue was electric, fingernails down a blackboard, relentless and punishing. Gradually, as the desire to capture life resurfaced like a dead body bobbing up from the misty fog of artificially manufactured serotonin, I found that the memories would emerge swollen and distorted. The picture of Nye I thought was taken last week was actually a shot from three months before. I swore blind this image of a dog peering out of the poke hole in a basement was taken when the light was falling and Nye and I were walking back from Toberman Park only a couple of weeks after we had moved inland and left Venice Beach. In my head I took at least three frames in the evening gloom, that fragile light when golden hour has passed and night has yet to fall - but when the negative unspools from the tank there is just one shot, the edges crisp and clean indicating the light was strong, probably taken at high noon sometime in July, before we went to London. Were these rabbit holes in my memory always there, and the images have just alerted me to them? Or have the pills that saved me drilled through a calcified brain, rendered it soft and spongey? What else have my shot adrenal glands concealed from me over the past two years? 

I recently made a plan. It’s simple, goes something like: file for bankruptcy. Claim citizenship. Take pictures. Write. Finish my film classes. Leave this place. Leave this place. Leave this place far, far behind, and seek out someplace where the light isn’t so perfect, but might be softer, and kinder.