Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Review The Girls Guide to Homelessness, Brianna Karp

This book is the product of a blog: The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, but is not the reproduction of that blog. Instead the author, a twenty four year old, has shaped the narrative to center on the moment that began to define her new existence. A scene that a seasoned novelist would read with envy, so skillfully crafted was it. The day when she gathered her belongings from her mother’s house, boxed what she had room to take with her, donated to goodwill what she couldn’t, boarded her trailer, and drove away into a darkening street to live in a Walmart parking lot. She describes the fear of the unknown, potential predators, and how she would adjust to life without electriiciy, water, or heat. . She surveys her new surroundings and with a powerful exisistential shock realizes she is now technically homeless, and has joined the ranks of the invisible, unwanted, unknown ones. People her parents would scorn on the street, and society in general considers worthless.

She was now one of the worthless.

After this moment of existential angst she breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly:

“But then, its not really enough to tell you that I’m homeless, is it? You want to know who the hell I am and how I got here.”

The image at the beginning of the book resonates, and develops a power as the book goes on. Brianna’s story is one of many of thousands, cast out in the street by the 2008 meltdown. Her story is equal parts unique, equal parts representative.

The book then launches into her past and she begins the tale of a truly horrible, abusive family and her efforts to cope with them. A bipolar mother, a docile and spineless stepfather cowed by his wife, a sister mentally screwed up by the family religion of jehovah’s witness.

In fact, the opening scene would have served equally well as the end of the story of her managing to extricate herself from her horrible, soul crushing family. A family that she nevertheless loves but eventually recognizes her inability to save or deal with.

“I haven’t had any contact with my family in nearly two years at this point, and I don’t expect that I will anytime soon. I still love them very much, as I suspect I always will. But I realize and accept that they are not going to change, and I cant force my will or perspective on them. As a result, we are destined to live separate lives.”
The past wrongs, the ravings of her mother who also repeatedly beats her senseless, the father who molested her, and the insane logic of the jehovah’s witnesses mount as she continues her narrative of the past. By the midpoint of the book the reader is convinced of Brianna’s courage in leaving.

But s I said, though the opening scene would have served equally well as the end of her story, her story continues, despite difficult circumstances.

Prior to the homelessness, she had made a good living as an administrative assistant, earning over 50,000 a year, having put herself through college. She details her adolescence, where she would often work three jobs, and pursue her degree. She had, in 2008, acquired a house, a dog, an off and on again boyfriend, and a horse. Yes , a horse.

Having escaped her past horrors and having her success and freedom yanked so brutally away, its shocking that she doesn’t simply give up, descend into addiction, or just live in a cardboard box. But Brianna endures and continues to work hard. She installs herself at the local starbuck’s where she uses the wifi to spend 8 to 10 hour days job searching. In between for sanity sake she continues chronicling her life in her blog, but never descends to self pity.

She does not though lose all feeling and compassion. She instead joins a group of other bloggers and reaches out to people. She becomes an informal ambassador for the homeless, correcting misunderstandings and prejudices. She actually makes an appearance on the today show, wins a high profile competition to apprentice at Elle magazine, and is interviewed on NPR.

Her life gets better, but not always easier, she is dogged by vengeful Walmart employees, vindictive managers, and more often than not the absolutely brutal indifference of those who retained their status and things, or refuse to change their narrow minded views.
If this were the whole story it would be enough. Impressive in its own right, as legitimate a document for our times of the dangers of freefall in a capitalist system as Down and Out in Paris and London. And what follows has caught some criticism from her reviewers on Goodreads and other sites, but the second half of the book for me only validates her struggles to keep mind body and soul alive, and to fulfill that most basic of human needs: happiness.

She meets a guy online. Matt. Not in a pick up site but on a homeless blog group. He has his homeless story to share, and works to spread awareness and support groups. Brianna begins a long distance relationship with him. They eventually meet and make plans for the future.

She is faulted for this but I simply can’t agree. The search for love and happiness is seldom relegated to those who are financially stable. What is revealed in these pages is a simple basic human need. Brianna may be destitute, may be struggling to survive a difficult future, but she never stops being a human being. She never stops wanting to love someone, and wanting love in return.

The rest of the book is taken up with this story and it does not read like a teenage chick lit story. Its brutal in parts, complications ensue, and you marvel at this girl’s refusal to say no to life.

More significantly for me, I found the comparisons between Matt’s English existence and Brianna’s American one acute. The English universal health care and social welfare system, in place since World War 2(watch Michael Moore’s Sicko for ideas on how this was achieved) saved thousands of people from the despair and loss of life that happened in America.

As Matt says at one point to Brianna “In England we actually care about people.”

At the end of the book we can see his point.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, Review

Without a doubt this is the most revolutionary text I have read thus far this year. To evoke a biblical allusion the scales have fallen from my eyes and I see the "war on drugs" for what it really is: a means of racial social control as repressive as Apartheid in South Africa.

The author, a former supreme court justice aid, meticulously describes and delineates the "War on Drugs" as being a system designed to 1) repress inner city lower income communities and effectively turn them into red zones, 2) place "criminals" under constant supervision and monitoring of the state, 3) prescribe harsh and unhelpful sentences for drug use and possession beyond the range of 'justice,' 4) criminalize poverty, 5) reward state and local drug enforcement agencies in the form of cash (federal subsidies for picking up and prosecuting drug criminals), and 6) effectively remove on third of the population from being able to vote in elections.

The more I read the more i felt like a fool for once upon a time falling for all the war on drugs rhetoric. I am ashamed to admit just how taken in I was by the stereotype of the black man as drug criminal and i see now that in many ways our society, under the guidance of corporations and neoliberal policies reinforced this.

This book has forced a brutal self reckoning in my personal life and made me choose a new path of existence rather than participate in a culture of mass enslavement. I can no longer in good conscience pretend that any of this, this system built on a culture of caging human beings, is capable of accomplishing any good.

In the pages of this book I found the diagnosis of the ills of my own community: a rural area devastated by the neoliberal policies that sent its factories and industries overseas and replaced them with prisons as the only means of gainful employment. Predominantly white communities that see no other means of self sufficiency than locking up people of color, and in the process turn a blind eye to the damage caused to the lives of the incarcerated, to the society as a whole, and to the nation. In a 50 mile radius from where i live there are 3 state prisons, 2 Federal prisons, and 4 Juvenile correctional facilities. Solzenhietzen's phrase, 'the prison industry, comes to mind.

Each chapter introduced more to be angry about. Not least of which is the way the drug war makes local communities wealthier by allowing them to keep whatever monies they seize in raids. So instead of wiping out the drug trade in their towns they raid them periodically to increase coffers. No wonder tv is so full of cop shows: lets villainize the black inner city person and heroize the police who lock them up.

I hope for meaningful change. And will find ways to be active in the future. But I will vote for any candidate that can help bring about meaningful change.

Thank you, Ms. Alexander, for waking me up.