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Aurora levins Morales
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The Algerian crisis
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South End Press, 1998; Paperback, 135 pp.
Review by Margaret Randall
This small collection of straightforward, easy to read, essays will make some among us angry but give those willing to stay with it the clarity of the authors vision. It is a vision rooted in history, her own and her times. Levins Morales activism and teaching have produced the necessary questions; her scholarship and courage point her towards answers. She has not been afraid to use her own life as text and road sign.
"I started graduate school and therapy within two weeks of each other," Levins Morales tells us in her introduction, and says she instinctively understood the two processes to be connected. A fresh examination of roots (raícism is the term she uses for rootedness as a spiritual and political practice); an exploration of history that makes healing possible; race, class, privilege and loss; language as a purveyor of reality; the integrity that is possible when personal and political are understood to be of a piecethese are the core issues that concern her.
This author is not the first to speak about these subjects, or to link them in practical ways. Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Gloria Anzaldúa, and others come to mind. Nor is she the first to ask us to consider the sexual abuse of a womans or childs body as an act of political violence, akin to such massive onslaughts as slavery or genocidal war. She does, however, have something important to add.
When she writes that "Individual abuse and collective oppression are not different things, or even different orders of magnitude. They are different views of the same creature, varying only in how we accommodate to them," some readers will surely resist. When she uses the word torture, not in reference to political prisoners or concentration camp inmates but to describe her own experience of childhood sexual abuse, some may even stop reading.
This would be a shame. Because, while some of Levins Moraless claims (for example,
". . . the reason were thirsty is not that were being denied water, but our own lack of initiative in the midst of plenty") do not stand up without qualifying explanation, her premises are sound and her analysis extremely useful.
One of this books important contributions is its authors contention that the torturer as well as the tortured person must be understood. She is not asking for some Christian ideal of forgiveness (so cruelly built into the notions of recovery in some sectors of the therapeutic community). What she asks is that we contemplate the human being who has been conditioned to torture because our ultimate goal must be to offer the possibility of change to all.
She explains that, although she was powerless to prevent what her own childhood torturers did to her and for many years obeyed their exhortation not to tell, her familys love and politics did enable her to safeguard her spirit. Part of the way she did this, she explains, was to "envision [her] abusers as young children, before they became this cruel. I would imagine that imprisoned within the adult bodies that hurt me were captive children who had themselves been tortured. I would pretend I could catch their eyes, send them signals of solidarity to give them courage . . ." And she adds: "I speak for the torturers because they are the tortured who did not survive intact." Throughout this book, Levins Morales tells us that "For Jews, for incest survivors, for all the people systematically excluded from official histories, the issue is the same. Oppression." This might seem to be over-simplification. Where does this oppression come from, how is it orchestrated, and to what end? Is the oppression of a people not qualitatively as well as quantitatively more devastating than the "domestic" abuse suffered by individuals? It may help if we acknowledge that one of every four women are sexually assaulted, most by someone they know.
The author takes us on a journey that moves almost seamlessly between historic notation and her own story. Those readers who stay with her will be relieved to find that she does recognize "significant difference . . . between a local manifestation of oppression such as incest or battering in a home and societal abuses such as racism, poverty or homophobia. [It is] the possibility of leaving the abusive situation." I would say it is more complex than this possibility alone, and I would venture to say Levins Morales would agree.
As others have done before her, Levins Morales uses and builds on the work of Judith Lewis Herman to explore the reality and effects, the startling similarities of traumain the individual and the community. As one engaged in the hard work of recovery, she understands that "to transform the traumatic we must re-enter it fully." A long-time social activist, from an activist family and from tribes of such activists, she knows that personal healing must take place within the struggle for justice.
Levins Morales is persistent and artful in her efforts to look at oppression from every possible angle. "One of the results of prolonged oppression," she writes, "is that our vision becomes polarized into the two possibilities of the abused and the abuser, so that sometimes the only picture of liberation we can form is to sit on the same throne we have been forced to kneel before . . ." "The survival of a culture isnt a simple yes-no proposition," she argues. She explores the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, the massive enslavement of West Africans and their subsequent generations of captivity, the genocidal warfare against indigenous Americans, the Nazi Holocaust, child labor, and the ongoing patriarchal control of womens lives to show how power is abused, what privilege is gained by such abuse, and the ways in which victims can become survivors.
As she brings her several threads of argument and experience together, Levins Morales makes a unique contribution. She shows how, "[h]istorically, attempts to create unity across difference have depended, by and large, on the strategy of a lowest-common-denominator goal, with all other agendas and aspirations put on hold." She advocates for a different kind of unity, "[moving] away from the idea of intersections of oppression [to] assume a much more organic interpenetration of institutional systems of power." "Social categories dont intersect like separate geometric planes," she contends. "Each one is wholly dependent on all the others . . ." When Levins Morales writes "It is easy for many leftists to indulge in amused contempt toward movements that dont center on economic injustice or include people whose traumas make them unacceptable," I cannot help but think of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas (a movement to which she also refers). Many of us are familiar with the accusations of long-term sexual abuse leveled by Sandinista Zoilamérica Narváez against her stepfather, Daniel Ortega. Narváez is a woman in her early 30s. Ortega was president of Nicaragua during the decade of Sandinista administration and remains an important figure.
Narváezs accusations against Ortega, and the FSLNs refusal to take them seriously (going so far as to expel Party members who have dared to question Ortegas authority), are tragically symptomatic of Left movements and parties throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and today. Among the many lessons that can be drawn from the recent failures of revolutionary movements, one is that until revolution represents every one of us, it cannot succeed. The young woman who is finally able to cry abuse is as deserving of respectful consideration as is the warrior who ousted a dictator. A feminist assessment of power is necessary, not simply to bring about womens rights, but to make sure we do not replace one abusive power structure with another.
Levins Morales shows us how "A false dichotomy between the personal and the social has polarized those who want to renew and reinvent intimacy, and attempt to reverse some of the profound alienation that oppression creates in our lives, and those who want to reshape the distribution of political power and economic resources." For much too long this false dichotomy has kept us separate. "To reclaim the personal is to reunite these;" she writes, "to pursue intimacy in a context of liberation; to battle corporations for the individual well-being of everyone. The personal keeps passion alive. A sustained personal life means attention to what kinds of relationship we need in order to remember our goodness, what kind of community keeps us strong, what nourishment we require in order to set about undoing the damages inflicted on us by our own encounters with oppression."
Margaret Randall is a writer and activist with an ongoing concern for the ways in which the personal and global interact in our lives. Among her titles: This is About Incest, Gathering Rage: The Failure of Twentieth Century Revolutions to Develop a Feminist Agenda, and Hungers Table: Women, Food & Politics.