Friday, July 29, 2011


Many years ago I interviewed a woman in the Italo-Canadian community about her experiences with domestic violence for a now defunct magazine of Italian culture called eyetalian. That interaction has stayed with me and I wanted to re-print it here ... Please keep in mind that the figures cited have likely greatly altered.  

Fra moglie and marito, non metteci un ditto.
Between wife and huband, don't place even a finger.

On an autumn afternoon in 1993, when Filomena* finally wrenched herself free from her husband's violent beating and stumbled next door for help, she was covered with blood from the wounds inflicted to her head and face where he had bludgeoned her repeatedly. Twelve hours in an emergency room and one week in the hospital would attempt to mend the ten cuts to her head, two broken fingers and bruised shoulders and arms. As she explained what had happened to the police - the culmination of twenty eight years of domestic violence first perpetrated on a teenage girl - her husband Armando had calmly walked to his truck and drove to the local police station, covered in his wife's blood and with no surface wounds of his own, attempting to file a complaint against his wife whom he claimed had attacked him.

Filomena had done the unthinkable. This mother in her forties, with three children, had left her home and her marriage and sought assistance from COSTI, a Family Counselling Centre specializing in problems within the Italian community. She took refuge in a shelter for battered women in Aurora, ON with her youngest child. Her husband Armando had sworn when she refused to return that, "Everybody's going to regret it, the young and the old alike."

Filomena was a teenager when her future husband visited her village in the mid sixties seeking an Italian bride. He had come from Canada, having decided that Italo-Canadian girls were not Italian enough for him. Armando, ten years her senior, fixed on the shy teenager as a prospective bride. Too young to be married in a religious ceremony which the local priest had refused to perform, Armando persuaded her parents to allow a civil ceremony to be performed before she was to be taken to her new home in Canada where her parents hoped she would lead a better life than they had had as struggling farmers in Italy.

The violence began four days after her arrival, prompted by the mild compliments of a bus driver Filomena had met that day and innocently repeated to her husband. For this information, she was slapped by him on St. Clair Avenue while passersby watched but did nothing. It was the first but not the last time. Nor was Armando intimidated by those that tried to intercede in future altercations whether by family or strangers claiming that Filomena always deserved her "punishment".

As is part of a disturbing pattern described by Domenica Luongo, Chief Social Worker at COSTI, Armando's violence was directed almost exclusively towards his wife. It was not merely that he was a violent and controlling man. Here was also a man who knew that he could only justify his behavior towards his wife. As a young girl with no English skills and no relations in Canada to protect her, Filomena was completely vulnerable. Women who are geographically and socially isolated from their communities and blood relations are less likely to find shelter or protection against abusive husbands here in Canada. The safety net of the village where everyone knows your business has disappeared.

His family, now her only family in Canada, had varied responses but in general the old adage "Fra moglie and marito, non metteci un ditto" (Between wife and husband don't place a finger) prevailed. They ranged from feigned indifference to fear of Armando's violent temper to active interference by revealing her whereabouts when she left home the first time.

Her first child was two months old when she left and took refuge with one of her in-laws. She had planned to leave the country and sought legal help. She was advised that she could not take the child without the father’s consent. After her whereabouts were revealed by her in-law she returned home. If there were organizations to assist battered women in the Italian community in the late sixties, Filomena had no way of knowing.

She had never been to a hospital to treat her injuries and had never confided to her family in Italy. An anonymous letter eventually brought her mother to Canada. She too was threatened by Armando. Again legal counsel was sought and the same distressing information was conveyed. Filomena would lose custody of her first and now soon to be second child. She had been married for five years.

His behavior worsened because she had revealed his dirty secret. The mother of his children was locked in during the day to prevent her “infidelities”, was beaten sometimes not only daily but hourly for “real” and imagined transgressions and was prohibited from using the telephone. Her young children helplessly watched her be beaten and recall incidents from very young ages.

It took fifteen years but she began to fight back with fists, with feet and with any object she could lay her hands on.

“I cannot explain it,” Filomena says. “I guess I had enough. The anger was there. The willingness to [fight back] was always there.”

Shocked by her defiance Armando vowed that it would be the first and the last time that she would do so. It was not.

What brings a human being to the point where she or he will no longer be mistreated? That’s a difficult question to answer and might best be approached by examining the question of why an abused person chooses to stay in a violent situation. Lucas Forli, a social worker with COST’s Domestic Violence Program, cites three major impediments; shame, guilt and fear.

Shame: In Italian culture there is often a strong sense that women must “manage" the family and, implicitly, their husband's behavior. Loss of control and violence on his part can sometimes be construed as a failure on her part to control him and her own perceived role in “instigating” these violent outbursts. There may be a sense of shame that they have failed as wives.

Guilt: guilt and embarrassing the family, guilt about “provoking” violence, guilt for allowing themselves to be abused.

Fear: fear of further violence, of being shunned by family members, of financial dependency and the disintegration of the family. In a culture that desperately clings to the ideal of the family, this last may be the strongest of all.

So she remains. Better the devil she knows than the one she doesn’t, she may sometimes say to herself.
There is no single face to these women. They are young and old, affluent and working class, childless and with many children. However, there is an emerging profile of families in which domestic abuse occurs. According to Forli, there is often a lack of ability on the part of women to develop a strong sense of self. There is a great deal of rigidity regarding gender roles and a sense that power and authority does, and should, reside with the male.

COSTI services 500-600 Italian Canadian yearly. Many of the issues brought to the staff involve domestic violence. This is, of course, a very small portion of the estimated populace of 500,000 in Toronto. There is no statistical difference in domestic violence in Italian-Canadian families versus other Canadians. But think of the sense of secrecy and shame in the community where many of us know at least one family member or paesana who did not have the resources or support to leave an abusive situation. How many Filomenas will step forward and share their stories?

Filomena is finally free after almost three decades of abuse with only a permanent restraining order to protect her. Armando served less than a year in jail after pleading guilty to this final episode of violence. Filomena shares these thoughts for young women in violent relationships: “No matter how long you wait, it doesn’t change things. The first time he touches you it’s the end. It’s like a green light saying, 'I can do this forever.' The statistical information that COSTI receives confirms this. The only factor which alters an abusive partner’s behavior is being charged and convicted.

*The names of the principals involved in the domestic violence have been changed. Initially published in eyetalian, many moons ago in the 1990s.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Sentimentalists

"It made me sad then, and still does, to think of it. And also not a little afraid. To think that despite our best intentions we may, in the end - and necessarily - leave the people that we leave quite extraordinarily alone."

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud (Originally published by Gaspereau Press Limited; Re-published by Douglas & McIntyre, 2010) 218 pages

I know a number of people who gave up on this book and were mystified by its winning the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Her win was a bit of shock for many people who follow the Gillers. The writer is relatively unknown; the original publisher is a small Nova Scotia press (initially only 800 copies were produced). That, of course, doesn't disqualify it as being a good book by any means. But the reaction to the book has been very curious, almost hostile.

The book is laden with metaphorical meaning that might appear heavy-handed; the pace might be perceived as slow. Skibsrud's voice is poetic but sometimes ponderous, producing long sentences with elaborate, meandering subordinate clauses. But some passages are beautifully written and there is a quiet intensity which appeals to my more melancholy side.

The unnamed female narrator chronicles the life of her father Napoleon Haskell, his loneliness, alcoholism and illness during the last years of his life as he entrenches himself in the home of his friend Henry Carey. After the Vietnam war, Napoleon befriended Henry, the father of a fallen Vietnam buddy named Owen Carey, and began taking his wife and two little girls to Casablanca, ON every summer to visit.

As Napoleon's health declines, his two daughters eventually move him from his trailer in Fargo, N.D. to the house owned by Henry ("the government house") which was paid for by the government after his farmhouse was flooded by an engineering project. The "lake" that surrounds them deliberately submerged the fictitious town of Casablanca, Ontario by which they reside. The "new" town of Casablanca is little more than a few houses and an intersection, representing a shadow of the town flooded in 1959.

The lake serves as an obvious metaphor for Napoleon's submerged memories surrounding the war and Owen's death of which Napoleon never speaks. He deflects questions about the war with a sad observation which his daughter repeats: “Once my father said, women think that they can make sad things go away by knowing the reason that they happened."

The names of characters and places chosen by Skibsrud are curious and significant. Napoleon suggests a a small but powerful man who is, in the end, defeated and exiled as is our main male character. Napoleonseems defeated by the course of his life; he faces a slow and quiet death by lung cancer in Casablanca. Naming the small town Casablanca suggests a place of conflict and intrigue, with mistaken identities and villains lurking in the background as in the 1940s film.

This Napoleon is charismatic and funny. He does a wicked impression of Bogart for his children, trades stocks (ineptly it appears) on-line and finishes off the last part of his life drinking too much, arguing with Henry over political issues and entertaining his recently separated daughter (the narrator of this tale).

After the narrator discovers her partner in flagrante delicto on freshly laundered clothes on their conjugal bed ("with a woman who happened to look very much like me"), she flees Brooklyn for Casablanca and hides out with her father and Henry. The soiled laundry on the bed becomes an apt symbol of the defiled relationship.

Personally, I find that the last third of the book is the most affecting. The scenes of the past set in Vietnam are tersely worded and effectively rendered. They represent a dramatic shift in the language and pace used in the first two thirds of the book. The language is realistic; Napoleon's fear is palpable as is the anxiety of the rest of the troops. Napoleon witnesses a My-Lai type of incident about which he speaks to the chaplain of the unit. A trial ensues and Napoleon is effectively ostracized for his confession.

As the book progresses and we learn more of Napoleon's past, he declines and slips into a sort of dementia which affects his memory. But it is not until after his death that the narrator learns more of Napoleon's suffering during the war. The book ends with 30-page trial transcript, based on the events that transpired in Vietnam - a different approach from the rest of the novel but it felt like a bit of cop-out, a shorthand for the events of the past. And we are, really, no nearer to finding out the truth of Owen's death than we were at the beginning which was frustrating to me as a reader.

The story, while fictitious, has roots in Skibsrud's own family history as she explains here:
“The real beginning of this story was a summer that I spent working on Flagstaff lake, a lake that covers four now submerged townships in northern Maine, and served as the inspiration for the lake and the buried town in my book. That fall, with the beginnings of a story in my head, my father began to speak for the first time about his experiences in the Vietnam War. I am still not sure exactly why he told me his story when he did, but I think it had to do – it was 2003 then – with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which had been for some time stirring in him a deep anger toward a government willing to repeat the mistakes of the past at the expense of innocent people; soldiers as well as civilians.

My mother thinks that my father told me his stories because he knew that I would do something with them – what I did write, though, was not my father’s story, but my own. And it is not a true story. At its root, though, there are two true things. One is my father’s testimony following Operation Liberty II in 1967, in which he spoke out against the murder of a civilian woman by the Captain of his squad. The other is the feeling I got floating over the buried towns of Flagstaff Lake: a feeling of the way that everything exists in layers, that nothing disappears; it just gets hidden sometimes.” Gaspereau Press Ltd.
The Sentimentalists is sometimes lovely, poignant, melancholy. I just wish an editor with a firm hand had gotten hold of Skibsrud and was able to curb her more excessive linguistic meanderings.

Friday, July 15, 2011

How I Learned to Love the "F" Word ...

I know the precise moment when I became a feminist - now a term frequently employed as a dirty word or, quite often, used with disdain. I was eleven. Oh, please, you scoff - how could that be so? But I recognized immediately that rules that applied only to females were ridiculous rules.

Here is a section from my novella Made Up Of Arias (Blaurock Press, 2008) in which I describe what roughly happened, in a fictionalized form, to me when I was eleven, a practising Catholic and enrolled at a grade school called Holy Name of Jesus on Belmont Avenue in Hamilton ...
Each Thursday morning a Catholic mass was held in the center of this open concept classroom and every Wednesday evening the chairs would be set in a semi-circle around the “portable” wooden altar on wheels. Traditionally, there was a core group of six or seven boys who set up the chairs and also acted as the altar boys. The girls' responsibility was to care for the linen and upkeep of the altar itself. We proceeded in a comfortable state of ignorance until the day that some of the girls volunteered to set up the chairs on that fateful Wednesday evening.

On a nondescript Wednesday afternoon in the fall, Mr. Ward asked for volunteers and the usual boys raised their hands. I got an inclination, a premonition of things to come; I raised my hand too.

“Very good. Ralph, Tommy, Andrew. Tony. David and ... Lilla,” said Mr. Ward with some satisfaction, counting off the hands and making a note in a small black notebook that he always carried. All heads turned towards me, boys and girls alike.

“She can't do it,” Ralph objected. His blonde spiky hair stood up on end, even more that usual, which gave him a vaguely Nazi-like air. His red windbreaker and neatly pressed jeans lent him more than his usual air of confidence.

“And why not, sir?” Mr. Ward asked, his Irish lilt became more pronounced when he was angry or bemused. In this case he was bemused.

“ 'Cause she's a girl,” Ralph said, as if explaining the obvious to a simpleton.


“And ... and girls don't set up the chairs for mass!” came the indignant reply echoed by a chorus of masculine Yeahs which echoed through the classroom.

“They don't? Well, heavens, why not?” Mr. Ward leaned forward on his desk, eager to hear the response as if witnessing some strange relic of Canadian culture he was unfamiliar with.

“They just don't sir,” Ralph said, more to the group of muttering boys, attempting to bolster his faltering position, than to the teacher.

“That's right sir!” The boys were yelling. This immediately galvanized the girls, even the ones who couldn't care less, which was most of them. They stopped inspecting the ends of their hair or picking scabs off their knees and were yelling too. Mr. Ward passed a hand over his dark, curly hair obviously relishing the turmoil.

“If I want to help—why can't I?” I burst out angrily.

“ 'Cause the chairs are too ... heavy,” offered one budding male chauvinist. “Chauvinist” was a word I'd heard on TV but had never used until that day. (“But why are they burning their bras?” Mama asked in a puzzled fashion, “Don't they know how much we need them?”)

“They are not!” yelled my friend Teresa. “We carry them every day in class. What's the difference if we set them up for mass too?”


“But girls never do the chairs!” whined Ralph and one of his cohorts in unison.

“Because a thing has never been done doesn't mean it can't or shouldn't be done,” said Mr. Ward as he turned to erase the blackboard behind him. As he said this it felt like the proverbial light bulb had turned on above my head.

“If some of the girls want to help, so be it. There's more than enough work to be done and it will save time for all concerned. Isn't that fair?”

“No! No!” yelled the boys while the girls cheered. Some danced an impromptu jig in the aisles, raising their clasped fists like champions, jeering at the boys.

“Well, I don't see why not,” said Mr. Ward laughing at the whole crew of us and the volcanic eruptions that had sprung from his innocent request.

“Well, I won't do it with a bunch of stinkin' girls,” Ralph cried.

“I won't either,” trumpeted Tony behind him.

“Aaahh you babies,” the girls hooted.

“No, I won't,” Ralph reasserted again emphatically.

“Fine Mr. Puzzo. I will take your name off the list and Mr. Tacchino's. I know Father McKenna will be a little disappointed but that's the price of living in a democracy. I won't compel you, gentlemen.”

But a further thought intruded. Father McKenna usually took the boys to Tim Horton's once a month to thank them for their help. It was, by all accounts, a veritable donut orgy, or such was the rumour. Ralph and Tony suddenly were reminded of this, when they overheard the other boys' whispered question “What about the donuts?” which made the rounds of the room.

“Yeah, what about the donuts?” Tony asked.

“Never mind that crap,” Ralph fumed as the girls danced around the room. As it stood, half of the eight boys had dropped out. They were replaced by Lianna and two of my friends Teresa and Anna Maria. That we thought, was the end of that.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Making up

As a feminist (yes, I will cop to that dreaded and much maligned "F"word), I am constantly puzzled by the reaction of some to the amount (or lack of) of makeup women wear. People seem so invested in what women do to, and for, themselves and seem to feel very comfortable commenting on it in a manner that they would not employ about other areas of your deportment or physical appearance.
It's as if they perceive makeup as a barometer of the worthiness of a woman's inner being or self-worth. "Too much" is an issue (slutty, provocative) but none at all is also perceived as a problem (slovenly, not feminine enough). In their minds, does the artifice of cosmetically enhanced beauty equal falsity? Insincerity? Lack of character? Frivolity?

When I was growing up my mother alternated between admonishing me, to "Go take some makeup off in the bathroom" with telling my younger sister,"Why can't you put on a little lipstick?" because she thought she looked too washed out.

Exhibit "A": all the "gotcha" photos of celebrities without makeup in public places which now constitute a sizable portion of the front covers of gossip rags and website pics.

Exhibit B: The HMV shop in London retailer Harrod's full two-page 'ladies' dress code tells workers in every department to wear: "Full makeup at all time: base, blusher, full eyes (not too heavy), lipstick, lip liner and gloss are worn at all time and maintained discreetly (please take into account the store display lighting which has a 'washing out' effect)." For non-compliance, a previously lauded store employee named Melanie Stark was forced to resign even though she had worked there for five years sans makeup.

Exhibit C: The media reception of Republican nominee John McCain's wife Cindy McCain vs. Republican nominee-wannabe Fred Thompson's wife Jeri Kehn. Ms. Kehn was described by right wing pundit Joe Scarborough as resembling a "stripper". Oh that's not fair, let me clarify: he asked if she "works the pole". No matter that Ms. Kehn was a former political consultant, the Republican Senate Conference and the Republican National Committee.
Ms. Kehn's crime: being comely in a sexy fashion, well put together, glamorous (perhaps too glamorous for a Republican politician's wife?). It's upscale demure housewife (McCain) vs. hottie trophy wife (Kehn) - guess who wins public approval? The message seems to be that if cosmetics are used at all they must be used modestly when you are in the public eye ... Unless you are some sort of a pop star who is expected to "tart it up" for the public.

The heavily made up Evil Queen in Snow White peering into her mirror to re-ascertain her own beauty...
But top-ranking celebrities certainly are not immune to criticism. Someone like Lady Gaga who builds her image on extreme artifice and theatrics takes a great deal of heat for her elaborate makeup and clothes but just as much if she dares to appear in public without. As a simple exercise plug in the phrase "too much makeup" in Google and see the sort of remarks you come up with. They aren't pretty.

Not surprisingly, a great deal of makeup on a woman seems to signal "trouble" with a capital "T".

Exhibit D: the Evil Queen in Snow White, the depiction of every mean girl in every movie about mean girls (you can tell she's bad - look at the makeup on her!), depictions of working girls in film and photography, the "talentless" starlets who provide gossip fodder for the Internet, print and television, and women who are perceived to be your garden variety "tramps" ...

And, sadly, women are just as disturbing as men in their criticisms, never failing to register their disapproval when a woman does not conform with their image of what women should dress like, should look like, and should or should not put on their faces.

Feminism, for me, has always been about breaking down stereotypes and liberating women from roles that are forced upon them by others, male and female. Feminism should equal freedom - it's not about other women conforming to your vision of what women should be - ranging from their complex life choices about marriage, procreation and career options to simple, frivolous decisions about whether to wear high heels and mascara.

I stand by my theory (previously expressed here) that shoes and clothes dictate female friendships. A high heel wearing aficionado will never bond with a makeup-less Birkenstock lover in any substantial way. Women don't roll that way. Yes, we are that shallow at times. We are just not that tolerant of each other. Women, who, by and large, do not want to be perceived purely as sex objects or judged solely on their looks, often do exactly that to other women.

Sometimes the husband will catch me in an up and down assessment of a perfect stranger on the street: "You're doing it again!" he will admonish. I have to consciously stop myself as I particularly hate to be the recipient of such a reciprocal assessment. J, my daughter, is experiencing a bit of that now in public, too, as she experiments with hairstyles and clothes.

Female friends sometimes ask me if J, now fourteen years old, is into makeup (as it happens, just a dash of mascara). When I say no, they always say happily, "Oh great!" as if she, and we as her parents, have dodged a bullet. And if I said yes, what would that say about her and her choices? Would that be a disappointment to anyone? A provocation of some sort?

I see makeup as part of a costume that I put on every day - a reflection of who I am and who I want to present myself as to the world. Is it a mask? Of sorts ... But we all wear masks. We all try to project certain carefully cultivated images to the outside world as women: virtuous housewife, serious and politically aware citizen, devoted mother, hottie, career girl, smart girl, an "I-don't-care-about-fashion" girl. For some, my costume may be just a little more provocative than yours.

Let's ease up gals. If you do not wish to be judged purely on your physical appearance and as a sexual object, let's not judge other girls and women by that standard either. That is neither progressive nor fair ... yet another "F' word.

Friday, July 1, 2011

NYC: Hot Canuck in the City

Last full day in NYC ... J not feeling well - perhaps it is the heat. I hang out with her at the hotel and let the husband explore. The places he went, the things he saw: an exhibit at the Impossible Project, 425 Broadway 5th Floor; the Morrison Hotel Gallery (rock & roll photography), 124 Prince Street; Kidrobot (limited edition art toys and apparel), 118 Prince Street; and Muji (home decor), 455 Broadway.

In the afternoon we spend time exploring Tribeca, NoLita and Soho with our amici. We meet at Yellow Rat Bastard, 483 Broadway, a clothing/shoe store which sells cool Ts and teenage-ish, inexpensive clothing, where J buys some Ts, Vans and some souvenirs for the family. The offspring are happy; ergo, we, the old people, are happy despite the very loud techno pop which is driving some of us mad.

We wander into "NoLIta" or "North of Little Italy", Mott Street specifically. Where are all my paesans? Gone to more prosperous neighborhoods? Inevitable but still sad I think. Mott Street north of Canal Street was historically part of Little Italy, now predominantly Chinese.

Our friends take us to a great restaurant called Emporio, 231 Mott St. We sit in the back courtyard and order pasta, piadine (which I had never heard of but is a sort of flatbread from Romagna), pizza ... excellent meal! Everyone full, we roll on to Mott then Spring Street.

We wander the streets. I search for Spring Street Books, a small independent bookstore but, alas, it is now gone. I did a little research - is it possible it disappeared in the 90s? I don't think I was able to find it three years ago either when I looked for it.

Allsaints' decor: a series of sewing machines
I did rediscover Pylones, 69 Spring St., which is a odd little shop full of bizarre sort of kitsch and home decor. That can survive but not an independent bookstore in this area? And, oddly, Rice to Riches, 37 Spring St., a shop which sells just rice pudding, yes, just rice pudding. Everyone had rice pudding - although how they could after we stuffed ourselves at Emporio, I have no idea.

Up Broadway and into another fab clothing store called Allsaints Spitalfields, 512 Broadway. Beautiful clothes in a gorgeous environment but, alas, due to the humidity and my lack of sleep I felt like an older man I saw sacked out in a chair awaiting his wife. He had fallen asleep and was holding his wife's faux designer bag in his arms ... was there ever a sadder sight to be found in a retail store?

Home to rest before we head out to the High Line in the Meatpacking District in the evening. How to describe this lovely space? I want to mention it in detail as it is so beautiful:

The High Line was originally constructed in the 1930s, to lift dangerous freight trains off Manhattan's streets. Section 1 of the High Line is open as a public park, owned by the City ...When all sections are complete, the High Line will be a mile-and-a-half-long elevated park, running through the West Side neighborhoods of the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea and Clinton/Hell's Kitchen. It features an integrated landscape ... combining meandering concrete pathways with naturalistic plantings. Fixed and movable seating, lighting, and special features are also included in the park.

The High Line by night ...
This is a beautiful path lined with flowers, grasses and shrubs and which is clearly inspiring a sense of amour based on the not so furtive canoodling couples we pass on our walk. The view of the city is spectacular; the air is scented with flowers and herbs. I'm glad our friends recommended it.

Time for a late night meal and we spot a pub just below us: Half King Cafe, 505 W 23rd St. The Canucks are hungry so we descend for some pub food.

This is our last night and we've  had a great time. I am conflicted between feeling there was much more that we wanted to do and longing to go home and sleep in my own bed. The kid is trying to convince us to come back in November for her birthday. It's tempting kid, it's tempting!