law, lessons learned, psychology, true crime

More thoughts on the Turpin family…

Once again, I realize there are many topics I could write about this morning. The world is in a lot of turmoil, thanks to the pandemic. Europe, in particular, is going through upheavals as COVID-19 cases climb, and fed up Europeans take to the streets to protest new restrictions. I may write about that today or tomorrow, or maybe I’ll put it on the travel blog, which needs more love. But to be honest, what’s really on my mind is the 20/20 special about the Turpin family that Bill and I watched yesterday. I blogged about our initial thoughts yesterday, but now that we’ve had a day to discuss it, and I discovered a December 2019 book review I wrote about the case, I want to write more. The book review reminded me of some details I had forgotten, which weren’t covered in Diane Sawyer’s interview.

I’ll mention again what I wrote yesterday. I am extremely impressed by Jennifer and Jordan Turpin, and their brother, Joshua, who bravely took part in Diane Sawyer’s interview. I realize that what we saw of three of the Turpin children was heavily edited. We have no way of knowing what they are like when they’re not on camera. However, as someone who has a tendency to get very nervous on camera, I must reiterate that the adult children who did participate in the interview are astonishingly bright and resilient.

I was especially moved at the end of the interview, when Jordan and Jennifer mock interviewed each other, asking each other where they saw themselves in ten years. Jennifer Turpin said she wanted to own a house and a car, and write a book. She said she wanted to visit Paris and have tea cakes. I have no doubt she’ll be able to do that if she wants to, and I hope she does write a book.

Jordan strikes me as so very smart, motivated, and curious, and she’s clearly very courageous. She appears to be very extraverted and hungry for life. While I’m sure she’s had some tough times in the almost four years since she rescued her family, she comes across as someone victorious and inspiring. I think she will eventually be just fine.

I do wonder about the other siblings, who haven’t been identified. I don’t blame them for not participating in telling this story. The “fame” that would come from outing themselves might be very damaging. I hope they are doing well, but I am not naive enough to assume that they are.

One thing that I realized in 2018, and wrote about in my post about Elizabeth Smart’s comments regarding this family, is that their situation is more challenging than hers was, simply because the Turpin kids’ parents were the perpetrators of the abuse. Elizabeth Smart went through sheer hell, but her hellish experience lasted nine months, and she had family members, friends, church people, and really, the whole country, looking for her. The Turpin kids, by contrast, were living out their hellish experience and no one knew that they needed help. David and Louise Turpin are now in prison for the rest of their lives, and apparently no one else in the family has come forward to help the children. So they are pretty much on their own, and they don’t have the benefit of having connections with caring relatives or friends to help them navigate the world they have been abruptly thrust into.

Once those kids were finally rescued, after living so many years in that hell, the Turpins were reportedly let down by the authorities and child welfare. I alluded to that possibility in my 2018 post, too. While I haven’t worked in social work for years, I know something about the foster care system. I had a feeling that once the press coverage died down, those kids might end up on their own. In most foster care systems I’ve studied, once a child turns 18, they age out of the system. Some kids are more ready for that than others are, but when you consider that the Turpins knew almost nothing about the world when they were rescued, it becomes easier to realize why they would need more help than other foster children would. Some of the children were too old to be foster kids, anyway.

Oldest brother, Joshua, who was shown in a video that he made with his back to the camera, explains that he needed help with transportation and had asked his caseworker for assistance. She told him to “Google it”. I don’t know the qualifications of Vanessa Espinoza, the deputy public guardian who was charged with helping the six adult children, but it’s clear that she failed at her job. Espinoza also works in real estate, and apparently no longer works for Riverside County. I think that’s a good thing. She clearly didn’t care at all about her clients, and wasn’t interested in helping them. How someone could be involved with helping vulnerable adults, particularly adults from the high profile Turpin case, and let them down so egregiously is beyond my comprehension.

Turpin advocate, and Riverside County Director of Victim Services, Melissa Donaldson, reports that one of the children, who is now an adult, was told by a foster parent that they could understand why her parents chained her up. Some of the other children live in bad neighborhoods or are “couch surfing”. At least one of the minor Turpin children was in a foster home where there were allegations of child abuse and was a victim of said abuse. On the 20/20 special, which was taped in July of this year, Jordan Turpin says she doesn’t have a way to get food. At the time, Jordan had been released from the foster care system without warning, and no plans as to how she might access food, shelter, and healthcare. It was reported at the end of the special that Jordan was getting housing assistance and food stamps with help from the college where she is taking courses.

My guess is that Vanessa Espinoza is not a social worker, and was basically just working in her government job to collect a paycheck. Not to say that social workers are all benevolent and kind, but that field is literally about helping people find and navigate programs that can help them when they are in need, and pursue self-determination. Regrettably, social work, as a whole, doesn’t pay particularly well. The job is often stressful and, at times, can even be dangerous. It doesn’t always attract the best and brightest, and burn out is certainly an issue.

In any case, it sounds to me like the Turpins could use a social worker in their corner who acts as their advocate– and I mean a REAL social worker, not someone who is falsely given that title, but has never actually studied social work. In spite of what some people think, social work is an actual field that requires intensive study. My MSW program was 60 hours and required two internships. Had I continued in the field, I would have had to be supervised for two to three more years and sit for two national exams to get fully licensed.

I read a lot of comments from people who are outraged by how the Turpins have been let down by the system. I hope some of those people realize that social welfare programs are necessary and need government support. I’m sorry to bring politics into this, but the fact is, political parties that strip funding from social welfare agencies are partly to blame for situations like what the Turpins are facing. I suspect that California’s system is better than systems in “red” states, and obviously, that is not saying much. God only knows what would have happened to those children if they had been moved to Oklahoma, as was the plan. A lot of people think social work is “church work.” It’s not, and there are enough people who have been victimized by religion, as the Turpin children definitely have been, that my opinion will always be that welfare work, particularly as it pertains to children, should always be secular in nature.

Obviously, though, the Turpins have also run into some good people. Deputy Colace was a true hero to Jordan Turpin, and you can tell how grateful she still is to him. He’s an example of a really good police officer. And the 911 operator, Ms. Eckley, was also extremely helpful and kind to Jordan, as she called for help. It’s so fortunate that the dispatcher was calm and kind and didn’t assume Jordan was pulling a prank or something. As I listened to Jordan speak, and heard the outrageous story, I can understand how some operators might have thought she was lying. Even the deputy seemed to be skeptical of Jordan until she showed him the photos of her sisters in chains. The fact that Jordan thought to take those photos is incredible. She’s clearly a very bright young woman with a strong survival instinct.

And now… something else I want to bring up…

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I discovered a 2019 book review I wrote about the Turpin case. I had completely forgotten some of the backstory regarding the Turpins. It goes all the way back to the 1980s, in West Virginia, where David and Louise Turpin grew up.

Allow me to state upfront that I am not excusing Louise Turpin for her incredibly abusive behavior. She brutalized her children, and that is putting it mildly. There’s no excuse whatsoever for the condition her children were in when they were rescued. BUT… I had forgotten about Louise Turpin’s horrifying upbringing. She and her two sisters were basically prostituted by their mother, Phyllis. Phyllis was the daughter of John Taylor, a World War II “hero” and owner of a Shell gas station in Princeton, West Virginia. The gas station was the only place to get fuel for miles around, so Taylor made a lot of money.

Phyllis was sexually abused by John Taylor. It was so bad that she decided to get married very young, so she could escape her father’s perversions. However, her husband, Wayne Robinette, was a Pentecostal preacher, and didn’t make much money. John Taylor enjoyed “tight hugs” with his daughter and his granddaughters. So, when Phyllis needed money, she would bring her daughters over for a visit with “dear old dad”. He would get his “tight hugs”, and then hand Phyllis a wad of cash. Louise reportedly sometimes protected her younger sisters from the abuse by volunteering. John Taylor’s wife, Mary Louise, apparently either didn’t know about the abuse or turned a blind eye to it. She eventually divorced John when she caught him raping fourteen year old Louise Turpin. However, because she was worried about the family’s reputation and, I suspect, losing access to Taylor’s money, she never turned him in to the police.

David Turpin married Louise when she was extremely young, probably in an attempt to get away from her grandfather. Clearly, the cycle of abuse began again with their family. Seeing the body cam footage of the house they were living in when the authorities were finally called and hearing about Louise’s obsessions with buying toys, games, and children’s clothes, I am reminded of my husband’s former wife, who had a somewhat similar upbringing. While Ex is not nearly as bad as Louise Turpin was, there are definitely some similarities in her behaviors and Louise Turpin’s. I have noticed that a lot of people with sexual trauma in their pasts have issues with shopping addictions and extreme immaturity. They have a lot of children and treat them as possessions, rather than people in and of themselves. There’s also often religious abuse involved in these cases, as religion can make for an excellent manipulation tool, as well as a way to instill fear in the victims. I have noticed that sometimes in these situations, the perpetrators marry an obsession with childhood and childish things with extreme abuse. Michael Jackson comes to mind, too. He was obsessed with childhood and suffered horrific abuse himself, and he never quite outgrew childish obsessions. And he is also alleged to have been a child abuser.

Again, I am not excusing the Turpin parents at all… but I can sort of understand the origins of how this came about. Over the past twenty years or so, I have seen and heard similar stories from Bill about living with his ex wife. Ex, who was similarly abused as a child, is obsessed with Disney, Dr. Seuss, Peanuts, and Star Wars, among other things. She would buy mounds of crap with money they didn’t have. She forced Bill’s daughters to do the housework and raise her youngest child, who has severe autism. She refused to let her children interact with people in the world who could help them, like their fathers or grandparents. Those who escaped got no help from her, and she would do whatever she could to sabotage their efforts to become independent. Ex is not as bad as Louise Turpin, but she’s definitely on the spectrum, to use an autism term (Ex seems to have incorporated raising children with autism as part of her identity– she claims that three of her five children have autism).

This is, yet again, another reason why we as a society should be more willing to employ people who can help victims of sexual trauma so that they don’t become abusers themselves. There should be much less of a stigma about mental health care, and more money to pay for it. And social welfare programs should not be fobbed off on religious organizations. Abuse victims have enough trouble as it is, without having to deal with religious dogma and potential abuse from religious leaders, too.

Anyway… it’s heartbreaking to hear that the Turpin children are still struggling and haven’t been able to access donated money intended to help them launch. It’s very disheartening, but not surprising to me, to hear that some of the foster families entrusted with their care have turned out to be abusive. I know there are some wonderful foster parents out there, but unfortunately, there are also a lot of people who do foster care so they can collect a check from the state. And it’s especially upsetting to hear that a woman who was supposed to help the adult Turpin children learn how to function in society turned out to be a lazy, uncaring, incompetent jerk. Those kids deserve so much better!

But… I am very happy to see that the Turpin children who have come forward still have a spark and want to get beyond their tragic upbringings. They still need a lot of help, though. I truly hope the 20/20 special helps them get the assistance they clearly still need, so they can go on to enjoy the “wonderful lives” fellow victim Elizabeth Smart predicts they can have. A least a few of those kids are game to take life by the horns. And I hope that the special shines a light on America’s child welfare system. It obviously needs an overhaul.

And on a final note, kudos to Jaycee Dugard, who made headlines in 2009 after she escaped her captors, Phillip and Nancy Garrido, after 18 years of hell. Jaycee Dugard, like Elizabeth Smart, has turned her ordeal into a way to help other people. She has started a foundation called JAYC, and according to the 20/20 special, she’s vowed to help the Turpin children as they continue to heal from their ordeal and adjust to living life on their own terms. I only hope that the money JAYC is raising actually gets to the Turpin children.

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healthcare, law

When a miscarriage during pregnancy leads to a miscarriage of justice…

Last night, as the evening was winding down, I noticed an op-ed in The New York Times about a young woman from Oklahoma named Brittney Poolaw. I have gifted the op-ed in the above link, so if you don’t have a subscription to the paper, you should be able to read it for free.

So who is Brittney Poolaw, and why should anyone care about her? According to Michelle Goldberg, author of the op-ed, Brittney Poolaw is a woman who is sitting in prison because she miscarried during her seventeenth week of pregnancy. At the time of her miscarriage, Poolaw was just 19 years old. She was at home when the miscarriage happened, and had presented herself for medical attention at Comanche County Memorial Hospital.

A police detective interviewed Ms. Poolaw after she admitted to hospital staff that she had used methamphetamines and marijuana during her pregnancy. The medical examiner who examined Brittney Poolaw’s fetus cited her drug use as contributing factors in the miscarriage. Also cited were a congenital abnormality and placental abruption.

Poolaw was arrested on a charge of first degree manslaughter. She didn’t have the money for the $20,000 bond, so she spent a year and a half in jail, awaiting her trial. The trial finally occurred this month, and jurors spent less than three hours deciding Brittney Poolaw’s fate. She was found guilty and sentenced to four years in prison, even though an expert witness explained that Poolaw’s drug use might not have been the direct cause of the miscarriage.

I recently mentioned that I’ve been watching a lot of videos by Jessica Kent, a YouTube personality who has a lot of experience with being in jail and prison. Jessica has done time in several states, mainly because she is a recovering drug addict. She also had the unfortunate experience of giving birth while incarcerated. I have been studying prison reform independently for years, but Jessica Kent’s videos have really opened my eyes to just how unjust and inhumane the U.S. prison system is, particularly for people with drug addictions.

Jessica Kent was pregnant in prison. She’s also a recovering drug addict.
One of Jessica Kent’s videos about her experiences with pregnancy…

I know a lot of people would say that the answer is simple; just don’t do drugs. And I think that advice is easy to follow if you are fortunate enough to come from a supportive family, live in an area where there are many opportunities for work and socializing, have access and the ability to pay for healthcare, and have the will and the drive not to succumb to temptation or peer pressure.

In Poolaw’s case, simply being able to get to a doctor and, perhaps, having an abortion available to her might have prevented her from being imprisoned. According to Goldberg’s opinion piece, Poolaw told the detective that “when she found out she was pregnant she didn’t know if she wanted the baby or not. She said she wasn’t familiar with how or where to get an abortion.” Seems to me that it would have been kinder and better if Brittney could have either had an abortion, or had access to a physician and, perhaps, a social worker or other advocate while she was pregnant.

When I was studying social work, I did part of my internship with what was then called Healthy Families South Carolina. It was a program that was affiliated with Prevent Child Abuse America, and it was designed to help people like Brittney Poolaw maintain healthy pregnancies and get very young children off to a healthier start. Those who were enrolled in the program got home visit services from workers who would help them access healthcare and teach them about making safe and healthy decisions for their babies. These families got coaching from trained parent educators and, in fact, that made a noticeable difference in the outcomes for a lot of the clients. That was something I noted in the massive paper I wrote and presented for my MPH/MSW degrees. Wow… it just occurred to me that the babies I saw when I was finishing my degree are now adults! Time really flies!

Why didn’t someone direct Brittney Poolaw to a program like that? My guess is because she couldn’t access the healthcare system and never got a referral. What would have happened if she could have gotten to a doctor early in her pregnancy? Maybe she would have chosen to have an abortion, or maybe she would have had her baby. And maybe she would have been able to access support from people who are trained to work with young people with big problems. I know nothing about Brittney Poolaw or her past, but experience tells me that a lot of people who end up in her situation have had some pretty terrible traumas in their lives and experienced abuse.

I know a lot of people think that Brittney Poolaw deserves to be in prison for taking drugs while she was pregnant. But having worked with young people who are poor, disenfranchised, and lacking meaningful mentorship, I can understand why she turned to drugs. It happens to so many people. And I think instead of prison, Brittney Poolaw should have gotten compassionate medical attention and real help from someone who might have shown her that she has worth. Having watched so many of Jessica Kent’s videos, I realize that Brittney Poolaw is probably facing even more abuse and degradation on a daily basis now. I don’t think that’s going to help her turn away from drugs when she is finally released from prison.

But, aside from the fact that I think Poolaw’s community really failed her, I also think that other women have much to fear from this ruling. It really is a slippery slope when pregnant women wind up in legal trouble for things they do while pregnant that lead to a loss of the pregnancy. In Poolaw’s case, the actions that contributed to her miscarriage were illegal, but what if she’d had one too many glasses or wine, or something? What if she’d been in a car without a seatbelt or was wearing it incorrectly? What if she tripped and fell down some stairs?

I think it’s very scary that any woman who gets pregnant might find herself being scrutinized by law enforcement after a miscarriage. Not only is it an invasion of privacy, but it also may cause women like Poolaw to avoid seeking medical care. That might be especially true if she’s doing something like drinking alcohol or using drugs. I know a lot of physicians would prefer not to have to deal with drug using pregnant women, but they are precisely the women who need the most attention from someone who has medical expertise. Moreover, it really is chilling to think that the developing fetuses in already born people are superseding the already born people’s civil rights.

The pro-life/anti-abortion movement has been working tirelessly to change laws so that developing embryos and fetuses are seen as “babies” and “children”. But if you take a close look at what happens during pregnancy, it actually takes a pretty long while before the developing embryos and fetuses turn into anything viable outside of the womb. Until then, they really are part of the mother, and it really does seem wrong to me that we should put pregnant women in a different class–with different rules and civil rights– than people who aren’t pregnant. It’s beyond creepy that some judges, particularly in the South, are using situations like Brittney Poolaw’s to chip away at Roe v. Wade and promote the whole “sanctity of life” movement. It seems to me that life is only sacred to these types of folks when it involves the unborn. Once a person has been born, they’re on their own… and God help them stay out of prison.

Should Brittney Poolaw have had an abortion? I suppose she should have, especially since she clearly wasn’t ready to be a mother and had no resources to help her maintain a healthy pregnancy. I’m not sure how open she would have been to receiving help from a social worker or someone else who works with at risk parents and children. But I do think she should have had the option presented to her. It sounds to me like she didn’t have anyone to go to for help when she got pregnant. Instead, she turned to drugs.

I admittedly haven’t looked at Oklahoma’s social welfare programs and I don’t what is available for young people like Brittney Poolaw, but my guess is that even if they are widely available, Poolaw didn’t know how to access them. That’s not really something that is taught in school, at least in my experience. In my first year of my MSW program, I did my internship at a multi-disciplinary rural physician’s practice associated with the University of South Carolina. My clients were referred to me by a family doctor in a rural community. But it sounds like Brittney didn’t have a doctor, and it looks like she was no longer in school… so where would she have gotten a referral to someone like I was when I was in graduate school?

Perhaps the police could have referred her, instead of arresting her and putting her in prison… Or… the medical staff, who should have advocated for her and helped her with her medical problems could have assisted her in finding someone to help her with her problems. Sadly, it sounds like instead of getting the help she obviously needs, Brittney Poolaw will be wasting four years in a prison cell… along with so many other Americans. I hope someday the United States gets over its obsession with incarcerating people. We’ve got to do better than this.

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book reviews, homosexuality, LDS

Repost: A review of The Gate and The Garden: The Apostate Journals of a Gay Mormon Missionary in Japan

Here’s another reposted book review. This one was written October 18, 2017, and appears as/is.

After some concerted effort last night and an early bedtime, I finally managed to finish Corbin Brodie’s 2016 book, The Gate and The Garden: The Apostate Journals of a Gay Mormon Missionary in Japan.  I downloaded this book in 2016, less than a month after it was published.  I just got around to reading it this month.  Sorry to be so slow, but I have a whole stack of books to be read and I keep finding more.

Although I have read and reviewed quite a few exmo lit books, I had kind of gotten out of the habit.  I enjoy a good story about what it’s like to be Mormon, especially when the person is an ex Mormon.  There tends to be a lot less testimony sharing in books by the exmos.  Corbin Brodie (a pseudonym, as are all the names used in this book) is no longer LDS, but he did serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when he was a young lad.  In those days, missions for the guys started when they were nineteen years old; since 2012, the age limit has been set at eighteen.  I am not exactly sure when Brodie served in the Sapporo, Japan mission, but it must have been before 1991, since he makes references to the Soviet Union.

Corbin Brodie grew up in Canada.  He has a younger brother named Duncan and mentions his mother was a very faithful member of the LDS church.  Brodie and his brother were raised to be as faithful as their mother was.  Although I get the sense that Brodie wasn’t exactly TBM (true believing Mormon) from the get go, he agreed to served the expected mission.  His book mostly consists of journal entries he wrote during his time abroad and while he was at the Missionary Training Center.  It also includes a few short stories.  I gather that, like me, Brodie has an impulse to write.  I’m sure writing has saved his sanity more than a few times, especially when he was living in Japan.

By his own account, Brodie got off to a good start at the training center.  He was made a leader during his weeks in Provo, learning Japanese and the missionary lifestyle.  He adjusted to life as a missionary and went to Sapporo, where over the course of two years, he went through a series of different companions.  Brodie seemed to have an affinity for Japanese and picked it up early.  In his journal, he uses a number of Japanese words for church terms.  For example, he doesn’t call his companions “Elder” lastname, as Mormon missionaries call each other, Brodie calls them “Choro”, which I gather is the Japanese term.  He refers to other church officials and the mission home by their Japanese terms, too.  I’m pretty sure that the missionaries in non English speaking areas do use the local terms instead of Elder, Sister, or President.  Anyway, I kind of liked that he used those terms because I enjoy picking up foreign words, even if I don’t necessarily enjoy learning other languages.

At 19 years old, Brodie is now living in an environment where he is surrounded by guys his age, some of whom he finds attractive.  Given that he’s a Mormon, at his sexual peak, and serving as a missionary, being gay is, to say the least, a special challenge.  Although it’s not considered a sin to have “same sex attraction” (as the Mormons put it), it is considered sinful to act on that attraction.  So, I can only imagine that as difficult as being a missionary must have been, it must have been even more difficult to be a gay missionary.  Add in the fact that Brodie didn’t seem to enjoy Japan that much (he mentions not liking the food), and probably would not have had a whole lot of time to enjoy it even if he did, and you have two challenging years.

Brodie is musical and creative, but listening to music that isn’t church approved is forbidden.  Still, he manages to play the piano sometimes.  He seems to have some good experiences with Japanese locals, many of whom don’t want to be church members, but are okay with simply being friends.  He has some good companions who are friendly and some who are “hardasses” bucking for rank or simply people with whom he has nothing in common.  Through it all, though he serves faithfully, Brodie realizes that he doesn’t really believe in Mormonism.  It’s getting harder and harder for him to pretend to have a testimony.  Finally, during his second year, just four months before he’s scheduled to leave Japan, he has a crisis of sorts.  He makes it known that he wants to leave Japan.

Brodie’s leaders do all they can to convince Brodie to stay in country and finish his mission.  They tell him if he leaves early, he’ll be on the hook for the $2000 plane ticket.  Brodie realizes he’ll have to work a long time to be able to pay off that debt.  I actually had to laugh at this, not because it’s funny, but because essentially Brodie was kind of being “trafficked”.  It doesn’t sound that different than the women who are brought into foreign countries and forced to work off the price of their plane tickets.  Also, while I’m still not sure what years Brodie was serving, $2000 must have been an astronomical amount of money at that time.  It’s a lot now.

Brodie also considers his mother, a very faithful TBM who is in school earning her social work degree.  He doesn’t want to disappoint her or his brother, who has also put in his papers to go on a mission.  Eventually, he is convinced to stay and sent to the mission home to finish out his last four months.  The mission home is less onerous, except that Brodie chafes under the rules, including the one that doesn’t allow him to cross the street to buy a candy bar without a companion with him.

Brodie’s story ends rather abruptly.  There’s no neat wrap up at the end of his journals, although he does provide an interesting afterword.  He’s now living in the United Kingdom and has a son, although he is no longer romantically involved with his son’s mother (she’s a dear friend).  He’s still gay.  After he returned home from Japan, he took about three months to break it to his mother that he didn’t want to be LDS.  And his mother, to her great credit, eventually accepted it, although it was very hard for her.

Although I don’t remember if he mentioned it, I got the idea that Brodie’s mother must have been from Scotland.  He writes of going to Edinburgh before the mission and missing Scotland.  I can relate to how much he misses Scotland, since it’s one of my favorite places.  I also got the sense that even if Brodie hadn’t been homosexual, he would have left Mormonism.  It seemed to me that his intellect was too sharp to accept what the church teaches wholesale.  He couldn’t make 2+2=5, like some people can.

My one criticism about Brodie’s book is that it’s very long.  Although his writing is very good and engaging, it was tough going getting through this book, particularly with the inclusion of the short stories.  I realize that he basically published his journals as he wrote them, but personally, I think this book would have been stronger if it had been abridged somewhat.  The short stories were of good quality, but they kind of took away the flow of Brodie’s missionary story.  I love a good short story, but I don’t like to be distracted when I’m reading.  I felt the fiction pieces were somewhat a distraction.

I do think this book would be well-received by ex Mormons, especially male homosexuals who have served missions.  I think they will be especially able to relate to Brodie’s experiences.  I was happy to read that as hard as the mission was, it didn’t seem like the whole thing was a waste of time.  He did seem to come away from the experience with friends, some of whom I hope remained friends after he left the church.

Anyway, if I were going to assign a rating, I think I’d give The Gate and The Garden: The Apostate Journals of a Gay Mormon Missionary in Japan a solid four stars out of five.  It’s well worth reading if you’re interested.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.

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book reviews

Repost: my review of Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter

Here’s another reposted Epinions review from April 2009. This one, posted as/is, may be of special interest to anyone involved in foster care or adoption.

Recently, there’s been some buzz about 24 year old Redmond O’Neal, son of Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal, being arrested for violating his parole on drug charges. The young man is now sitting in a Los Angeles jail while his mother battles anal cancer. Redmond O’Neal is just one of many young people in America who grew up privileged and turned out troubled. Thanks to CNN and FoxNews, we can read about cases like Redmond O’Neal’s all the time; yet we don’t as often hear about people like Ashley Rhodes-Courter, author of 2008’s Three Little Words: A Memoir. That’s a pity, since Rhodes-Courter’s story is so much more inspirational and uplifting. Perhaps it’s also much rarer as well. Wouldn’t it be nice if our media focused more on the positive rather than the disappointing?

Ashley Rhodes-Courter was born in South Carolina in 1985, the daughter of a seventeen year old girl named Lorraine. Ashley never knew her biological father when she was growing up. Her earliest memories of a father figure are of her mother’s abusive husband, Dusty. Ashley’s mother went on to have two more children before she turned 20, Tommy, who died of SIDS after 48 days of life, and Luke, Dusty’s son. Ashley writes that Dusty and her mother were neglectful drug abusers who apparently didn’t know the first thing about how to take care of children. She explains that her mother would carefully strap her into her carseat, but neglect to strap the carseat into the car.

One day, Ashley’s mother decided they needed to get a fresh start in a new location. They headed for Florida, where Lorraine hoped that Dusty would be able to find work. Everything changed when Dusty was pulled over for not having a license plate. The cop then arrested him for not having a license plate or a valid driver’s license. A couple of days later, the cops showed up at the duplex Lorraine and Dusty had rented and arrested Lorraine. That was how Ashley and her brother, Luke, ended up as foster children in the state of Florida.

What follows is Ashley’s harrowing story of her life in a series of foster homes and children’s shelters. Sometimes she was allowed to stay with her brother, but more often, they were separated. All the while, she wondered what had happened to her mother and when she would get to see her again. At one point, she and Luke were sent back to live in South Carolina with Lorraine’s alcoholic father and his live in girlfriend, Adele. Adele turned out to be a wonderful mother figure, but it soon became clear that Ashley’s grandfather was an unsuitable guardian. Moreover, no one in Florida had ever given permission for Ashley and Luke to move to South Carolina. They came back to Florida, plunged back into the system after tentatively bonding with Adele.

In all, Ashley Rhodes-Courter spent nine years in fourteen different foster homes. She was unable to bond with her caregivers or learn to trust them because she was constantly being shuffled around. One foster family turned out to be shockingly abusive, while another foster dad was later revealed to be a sex offender. Through the years, Ashley saw Lorraine a handful of times and was always left with hope that someday her mother would be able to reclaim her.  Sometimes Lorraine would be scheduled for a visit and fail to show up; sometimes Lorraine would show up with gifts, which would inevitably be lost as Ashley moved from home to home.  With each move, Ashley and her brother lost track of their few possessions.  I found myself imagining what it must have felt like to be constantly moved from one place to the next, unable to form attachments.

Ashley’s saving grace was her uncommon intelligence. She did very well in school and had impressive leadership qualities. She was also lucky enough to run into Mary Miller, a woman who acted as her guardian at litem and later helped Ashley and Luke escape the foster care system. Ashley’s mother finally lost her parental rights and Ashley was eventually adopted as a twelve year old, but it took a very long time for her to gain enough trust and stability to be able to say three little words to her adoptive parents.

My thoughts

Ashley Rhodes-Courter is an incredible young woman as evidenced in her memoir, Three Little Words. This book offers a rare first person glimpse of what it’s like to be a foster child. More than that, it shows readers how much children need stability in their lives. A good portion of this book focuses on Ashley’s life after her adoption and the adjustment issues she dealt with even after she found a loving forever family.

Since I have a master’s degree in social work, I was also interested in reading about how the child welfare system served Ashley and her brother. As it turned out, the system did a very poor job looking after Ashley and others like her. Even though Ashley’s mother was irresponsible and abusive, some of Ashley’s licensed caregivers were just as bad. At best, Ashley generally spent a lot of time in overcrowded, impersonal conditions. At worst, Ashley was beaten with a slotted spoon, forced to drink hot sauce, subjected to grueling physical punishments, and exposed to pornography. It’s very clear by Ashley’s account that there are not enough caring people serving as foster parents and too many people who are in it just because the state pays them.

And yet, as someone who has been a social worker, I can also understand why these things happen. One of the reasons I don’t practice social work (besides the fact that I am now married to the military) is that it’s a thankless, low paying, stressful job. A lot of people go into social work because they want to help people. But the system makes it difficult for social workers to be as helpful as they should be and there aren’t enough families who are willing to take in foster kids. So I can see why some inappropriate couples were approved to be foster parents, even if I don’t condone it. Ashley seems to be doing her best to change the situation for foster kids.  Inspired by the film Erin Brockovich and helped by her adoptive parents, Ashley Rhodes-Courter went on to bring a class action suit against the foster parents who had abused her and so many other children.

One thing I noticed about Three Little Words is there’s a little plug for Wendy’s restaurants in it. Dave Thomas, the late founder of Wendy’s, was an adopted child and did a lot of work for the adoption cause. Ashley was also a fan of Wendy’s Jr. Bacon Cheeseburgers.

Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s story is amazing. She was able to channel her writing and public speaking talents into something very valuable for children. I am humbled by her courage and resolve to change the child welfare system.

I think Three Little Words is an excellent read for anyone who is interested in the child welfare system, as well as anyone who just likes an uplifting memoir. I was able to read this book in a matter of hours and I felt good when I finished it. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing a lot more from Ashley Rhodes-Courter in the coming years.

For more information: http://rhodes-courter.com

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.

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book reviews

Repost: DJ Williams’ Playing Dangerous Games…

I originally wrote this book review for Epinions.com on May 11, 2011. I thought the book was pretty bad, but it was an amusing read. So I’m reposting the review as/is for your amusement.

A few months ago, I admitted to being a trifle bit kinky.  Around that time, I happened to add a few books to my Amazon.com wish list.  One of the books I added was DJ Williams’ 2010 book Playing Dangerous Games: The Personal Story of a Social Scientist Entering the Complex World of Sadomasochism.  To be honest, I’m not sure why I added this book.  It wasn’t reviewed on Amazon and it was priced at a relatively expensive $19.95.  But I recently decided to purchase some actual books as opposed to Kindle downloads and Williams’ book somehow made the cut.

Once I started reading Playing Dangerous Games, I found out why it was both rather expensive and unreviewed on Amazon.  It was published by Booklocker.com, which is an outfit that sells ebooks, print on demand titles, and self-published works.  Now… I have nothing against self-published books.  Prior to reading Williams’ book, I read a couple of other offerings by Booklocker.  One book was really awful.  The other was very good.  One thing that I notice about self-published books is that they aren’t necessarily brilliantly edited, and I did find that to be the case with this book.  On the other hand, I think maybe Williams self-published because his book might be hard to pitch to mainstream publishers.  While I think a lot of people would be very interested in reading about kink, it’s potentially embarrassing to buy a book about kink at the local Barnes & Noble.  Therefore, a mainstream publisher might not consider a book like this one a good financial risk.  Thank God for the Internet.  It spares consumers the need to approach a cashier with books about taboo topics.

Who is DJ Williams? 

At the beginning of this book, DJ Williams is a post doctoral graduate student doing research at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.  Williams had earned his doctorate from the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation at the same school.  Prior to becoming a professor, Williams had been a social worker, having earned a Master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Utah.  He also earned a second Master’s degree in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of Utah. 

Williams was in Edmonton, working on some research on gambling in prisons in Utah, when he innocently stumbled into the wonderful world of BDSM.  BDSM, for those who don’t know, stands for bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism.  Williams read a paper about sadomasochism which included some discussion on SM practices such as whippings, electroshocks, canings, bondage, and anal sex.  Williams had apparently never before been exposed to these more exotic flavors on the sexual menu.

A chapter or two later, I found out why Professor DJ Williams was so sexually innocent and naive.  He was raised by devout Mormons and had served a mission in the United Kingdom for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Prior to his mission, Williams took his first trip through the temple, where he took out his endowments and presumably donned temple garments for the first time.  After his mission, Williams came home, got married to a fellow Mormon, and had a daughter.  The marriage didn’t work out and Williams eventually left the church.  And now as a college professor, he had free rein to study the subjects that interested him.  So, although Williams was supposed to be studying gambling in Utah prisons, he soon found himself drawn to BDSM.  Before long, he had scheduled his first appointment with a professional Dominatrix named Mistress Kitten, who gently introduced him to the pleasures of “sexual deviance”. 

One thing led to another and pretty soon Dr. DJ Williams developed an alter-ego he called “Doctor Deviant”.  He began to experiment in earnest, attending his very first “munch” (a gathering of people who are interested in BDSM) and moving on to to his next mistress, Mistress Midnight.  Apparently, Mistress Midnight was well-known for being one of the most twisted of the BDSM bunch in the Edmonton area.  Mistress Midnight taught Doctor Deviant how to throw a bullwhip and exposed him to other BDSM couples who showed him just how deep the lifestyle can run. 

To the uninitiated, BDSM practices can be shocking and disturbing.  Indeed, Williams was shocked and disturbed by some of the things he saw during his earliest experiences at BDSM parties.  I got the sense that Williams was trying to overcome his sheltered upbringing as well as the conventional wisdom he’d picked up as a social worker working with sex offenders and domestic violence victims.  At the same time, he was trying to be a responsible father to his teenage daughter, Brittney, whose mother, stepfather, and half siblings were all still faithful members of the LDS church.

My thoughts

This book could have been a lot better than it is.  DJ Williams is technically a good writer.  By that, I mean there aren’t any egregious typos or grammatical errors and his prose is basically easy to read.  However, despite Williams’ obvious personal affinity for BDSM and his interest in educating himself and others about the subject, he comes off as a bit of a dork.

For one thing, he swears a lot.  It’s as if in order to shed his Mormon upbringing, he has to drop the f-bomb gratuitously as he describes the sensations he feels when Mistress Kitten ties him to a St. Andrew’s Cross and hangs five pound weights from his testicles.  Before anyone tells me they would drop the f-bomb too in that situation, I will share that Williams uses the f-word very liberally.  I’m not at all offended by cussing, but when a word is used so repetitively that it becomes annoying, I’d say it’s time to hire an editor.  And as Williams is a college professor, I would expect him to have a broader vocabulary anyway.

Williams frequently comes off as dorky and contrived in his dialogue… kind of like he’s trying too hard to be cool.  It’s as if he’s trying to make up for a lost adolescence through rebellion, and that entails taking on an alternative appearance, using the f-word, going to munches and drinking screwdrivers (groan), and submitting to a Domme.  I can tell that the BDSM turns him on and is a bit of a mindblower.  Knowing what I know about Mormonism and the stereotype about how church members tend to feel about sex that isn’t strictly vanilla, I can understand where the dorkiness and awkwardness come from.  I sense that despite his efforts to be open-minded, Williams still seems to think there’s something kind of “wrong” with BDSM. 

Williams’ dialogue reads like a cheap novel in that it’s very amateur.  He writes a lot of internal dialogue that comes off as especially disingenuous.  He seems uncomfortable with what he’s doing, even after he wades into the BDSM underground and apparently really enjoys the experience.  Even the title conveys what, to me, seems likes Williams’ conflicted feelings about BDSM.  Done correctly, BDSM doesn’t have to be dangerous at all, and yet Williams titles his book Playing Dangerous Games.

Williams also seems to have a problem with overweight women.  In one chapter, he describes attending a BDSM party where many people are participating in “scenes”.  He notes a “heavyset” woman being tied to a table by male Dominant.  Then he writes that he can’t believe she’s comfortable enough with her body to engage in a public scene.  It seems to me that Williams was trying to be “nice” in using the euphemism “heavyset”, when he evidently meant to say the woman was fat and unattractive and should be ashamed of herself.  Later, Williams describes a private party he had with several other people, one of whom was an overweight woman.  He writes outright that he doesn’t find her attractive.  But then, once the scene starts, he realizes that the “heavyset” woman is a natural actress who makes the scene more real for him.  She becomes more attractive to him for that reason.  But if he hadn’t been tied to a bed, would he have given her a chance to show her most attractive qualities? 

I guess I can give him credit for at least realizing his bias… eventually, anyway.  I do think that he pays lip service to looking beyond the surface, though.  I checked out his Web site and saw evidence that he’s still pretty hung up on the external.  It’s been my experience that people who spend a whole lot of time on their physical appearances often do so to cover up some less flattering internal qualities.

Anyway…

Despite my criticisms, I did find this book interesting on many levels.  For one thing, I myself hold Master’s degrees in social work and public health, so I could relate to some of Williams’ comments about the social work profession.  For another thing, my husband is an ex-Mormon.  He was not raised in the faith, so it’s not a pervasive part of him, but he did spend enough time as a Mormon convert that he knows the culture very well.  I, in turn, have done plenty of research on the subject of Mormonism, though I have never been and will never be a member of the church myself.  And then there’s the fact that I’m also a little kinky, though not nearly as kinky as Williams is. 

I also admire Williams for writing about this subject.  I think it takes a lot of guts to research BDSM, especially given the fact that he’s a college professor and an ex-Mormon.  I do think that Williams seems to have radically rejected his roots.  He’s dyed his hair different colors, gotten tattoos, and been branded… and he engages in some pretty exotic and erotic sexual practices.  However, it did occur to me that Williams has traded membership in a very strict, controlling church community for membership in another controlling group.  After all, Williams went from being a member of a church that told him what kind of underwear to wear to being a member of another group that tells him what kind of underwear to wear.  I’m sure Williams’ Mistress has a say in whether he wears boxer briefs or a cock ring. 

By Williams’ account, Mormonism is spiritually and behaviorally confining, while BDSM is literally confining.  It might be said that members of both groups could be led to a kind of liberation… In both situations, one gives up personal power to become part of something bigger than themselves.  A devout Mormon submits for the promise of a wonderful afterlife with loved ones.  Someone who submits to a Dominant submits for the promise of a wonderful physical and mental experience.  Being “forced” to submit allows the submissive to experience heightened sexual arousal without any guilt.

Overall

I can’t say that reading Playing Dangerous Games was a waste of time.  While I wish it had been better edited, I have to admit that Williams’ book did give me some food for thought.  I would recommend it to readers who want to learn more about BDSM, especially from an academic standpoint.  I also think this book would be interesting reading for ex-Mormons, particularly kinky ones.  Devout Mormons, on the other hand, might not like this book. 

As an Amazon Associate, I get small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.

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