feminism · personal narrative · shifting perspectives · women and violence

My radically sexist father

Disclaimer: this is a very personal post, and sort of breaks with our normal format here at Hook & Eye. Trying out something new before breaking for the holidays. Hopefully you’ll get something out of it anyway. Thanks for reading! xx

Anyone who knows me well knows that I had a very complicated relationship with my father, who died suddenly of cardiac arrest in 2006. Memories of him have been resurfacing for me recently, partly because of Trump (more on that below), partly because the holiday season often has me sorting through old papers and feeling nostalgic. A text conversation prompted me to search for his name through the Fordham library databases website, and the articles that produced were like slaps in the face, serving as stark reminders of the childhood he had made so difficult for me. 

From Alberta Report, Nov. 22, 1999
I had posted these on Facebook but removed them after becoming frustrated at the expressions of sympathy in response, which seemed so inadequately linked with the complicated reality of my memories. How could people know, without any context, what these fragments really represent? 
My dad was a self-proclaimed radical environmentalist, and fought for a number of important local causes, such as clean air and sacred land rights. But he also believed that all of Alberta was going to be wiped out in a flash flood originating from the Bennett Dam a few hours northwest in British Columbia, and his conviction that the oil & gas industry in Alberta was destroying the local ecosystem transcended peaceful protest and dissent. He would charge into my junior high school and remove me from class because he’d determined that the local oil & gas flare was particularly bad that day. He routinely posted signs on our lawn expressing incendiary statements in support of Wiebo Ludwig, the cultish local rabblerouser who was associated with vandalizing oil rigs and on whose property the sixteen-year-old girl mentioned in the article was killed. Dad had a fierce case of bipolar I disorder which he refused to treat, and would stay up all hours of the night sending alarmist faxes about pressing but sometimes invented environmental issues to local, provincial, and federal politicians and allies. The small, rural community where I’m from did not like his inflammatory rhetoric and the affiliation with the Ludwigs which he actively maintained (as seen above: “Long Live the Ludwigs!”), and on two different occasions, strangers threw rocks through our windows, once above the bed where my younger sister was sleeping. In response, he boarded up the windows of our house, rendering ever more visible the divide between our family and our town, and consequently spurring more fear and distrust from both sides. That was a horrible year for me, in 9th grade and thirteen years old, dealing with the aftereffects of puberty and just starting out on teenage life–and my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer the same year. My schoolmates were acutely aware that my dad didn’t like their dads’ occupations, and were sometimes not allowed to spend time with me. 
Dad was a source of humiliation and shame for so much of my childhood, and his sudden departure one morning in the spring of 2000, ostensibly as a result of growing antipathy between him and the community, had a positive impact on my family. My mom, with whom he had not slept in the same room for years, seemed to grow younger over the next six months.
I didn’t see him too often over the final few years of his life. My attitude toward him in those years oscillated between pity and revulsion: penniless and destitute, he had retreated into the forest as is befitting someone who devoted twenty years of his life to environmentalist causes, living out of a Boler trailer on his friend’s property. Rarely he would call, more frequently he would mail me conspiratorial articles from questionable publications with scrawled notes at the bottom. Once he resigned himself to the fact that I was pursuing an English degree in university rather than physics or engineering, he gifted me a charming copy of W.W. Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary of the English Language which he must have picked up at some local thrift store. During this time I could see him reaching out in what can be understood as oblique acts of affection to close relatives (such as me and my sister, and children from his first wife) whom he hadn’t treated well when it really mattered. Yet his paranoid interventions occasionally resurfaced: during my first year in college, when I played piano on the worship team for a local church, my dad replicated his old routine of showing up to organizations I was a part of and dragging me out of them, humiliating me further by accusing the youth pastor of having an inappropriately intimate relationship with me. 
Moving to New York has gotten me away from this past in many ways. Ten years after his death, I have enough distance to begin to see him more as a flawed, bitter man who led a complicated and sometimes destructive life, and whose primary mistake may have been his persistent refusal to medicate his serious mental disease. His life and his legacy are becoming important for me to process from a more distanced stance– in this post-election world, it seems more important than ever to think through what it means to espouse radical beliefs in a healthy, productive way, rather than a way that incites fear and violence from all sides. I’m haunted by the thought that the #noDAPL protests at Standing Rock are very much in line with much of what he stood for, but my father would also, in all likelihood, have greatly admired and celebrated the rise of Donald Trump. 
Indeed, the two men are not unlike each other. Like Trump, my dad was a man of contradictions–a performer, trained in provocation and wild bandying about of contradictory ideas, an “entertainer” as the article above claims. He believed the world was rigged against him, a product of his deeply ingrained victim complex. He sometimes displayed horrifying racism and applauded Wiebo for shaving his daughters’ and wives’ heads as a visible sign of their inferiority  (though, to his credit, he did try to convert my sister and I to his causes and encourage us to follow ‘manly’ career paths). He liked to lord his power over people close to him, to make incendiary remarks based on negligible evidence, to recklessly ally himself with anyone who was nice to him and uncritically reject anyone who wasn’t. He probably would have seen in Trump someone who stands up to the respectable decorum of the political establishment, isn’t afraid to speak his mind, and caters to populist concerns. My dad didn’t care about business ventures or money-making, but devoted himself to overturning existing structures and stirring shit up. 
Perhaps my reflections on his story have no place in an academic blog. All I know is that for a long time, academia helped me get away from anything that reminded me of him, and now I’m becoming pushed back, through the ghosts stirred up by the election and the ensuing environmental catastrophe it might engender, and the dire current need for as many modes of anti-Trump activism as possible. So I guess I’m here to reassert my dedication to activism, to environmentalism, but also to feminism and other anti-oppression -isms–to the things my dad fought for as well as the things he couldn’t see his patriarchal ideology was working to unravel.  
guest post · self care · shifting perspectives · women and sport

Women, Academia, Sport: Why I Do This

It’s 4 am, and I have been lying on a cot in the aid station for the last 90 minutes.

A thick wool blanket is pulled over my head for warmth, my right hand clutches a slice from a still-fresh French baguette, and my left holds a water bottle filled with what I can only describe as stomach-turningly sweet liquid.

I am 22 hours into this ultramarathon through Alps (53.5 miles, I remind myself for encouragement), and I calculate that the remaining 21 miles are likely to take me around 9 hours.
I don’t think that I have it in me.

Ultramarathons (or “ultras,” as we call them) are not for the faint of heart. Defined as any footrace longer than a marathon (which is 26.2 miles), ultras are everywhere these days—on roads, on trails, in the desert, and, in my case, through the mountains.
My race is part of a weeklong festival of races around Mont Blanc, all of which end in iconic Chamonix. Mine, called the Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie (or TDS for short), starts in Courmayeur, Italy, traveling through the statuesque French Alps to finish at the foot of Mont Blanc. A 75-mile race, TDS also boasts 7300 meters of climbing (and 7300 meters of descending) over technical terrain, which have slowed me to a near crawl.

 

When I tell my work friends about the race, one of the most common replies is “75 miles?! I don’t even drive that far!” Quickly followed by, “why in the world would you want to do this?”
I usually chuckle. And then I start explaining about how I love the mountains and how I love that feeling of being part of them. I love the feeling of strength I get from the training, like I can tackle anything that comes before me. I love the silence in my mind and the space from my worries. I love the metronome of my late afternoon runs—slipping away from my perch on the 20th floor of the SickKids research tower and from my pursuit to decipher the intricate workings of the cell; sliding through the rush-hour crowds as I make my way north on Bay; cresting the final hill in the Brickworks to look back to downtown Toronto, alight with the setting sun. I love coming back to my lab on the dark, now-quiet streets, and how my thoughts, effervescent, now skip and dance beside me.
I love the humility races like this demand. I love the challenge. And I love that I have to prove myself each time, that nothing is guaranteed.
What I don’t tell my friends is that, however hard they think ultras are, it doesn’t come close to the reality. The drip, drip, drip of your thoughts betraying you. Your legs begging you to stop. The hours and miles stretching before you, seemingly endless. Each race, each time you push the body for this long, is a new struggle with your mind. Ultras can strip away all of those superficial reasons for running, penetrating to the very core of your being. With every mile,—and, later, with every tenth of a mile,—races like TDS demand the real answer to the question of why.
At some point, if you’re going to finish, you need to speak to the demons.
But, as I lie in my cot, if I’m entirely honest with myself, even with three years of ultra-running experience, even though I’ve finished TDS before, this is the very question I’m asking myself. Why should I keep going? The excuses start running again. It’s going to be hours until I finish. I’ve already done over 50 miles. I’m tired. My blister hurts. I’ve been nauseous for the entire night. I want to brush my teeth! I want my pyjamas! I would stamp my foot in frustration if I could. I have so far to go. So many more hours of pain. This is hard. I don’t want to.
That’s it, though, that’s the rub. I don’t want to, but I know that I can.
There are no fireworks in this thought, no epic narratives. It’s just the simple knowledge that I can still put one foot in front of the other. That there is still enough time to finish.
How can I meet the eyes of my husband, my mom, my friends if I stop when I could have kept going? How can I repay all of their support—their emails and texts and far-flung love—by just failing to get out of a warm cot? After all, isn’t running 75 miles in the Alps supposed to be hard? Isn’t that the point?
A half-hour has passed. Still foggy, I sit up and gingerly put on my pack. I stand. My legs ache.
“Better?” the nurse asks.
“A bit,” I reply. I try to smile. “Enough.”
“Bravo, Olivia. Courage.”
I walk out the tent. The mountains behind me are silent, and their dark silhouettes mysterious against the star-filled sky.
Turning on my headlamp, I walk into the night.

Olivia S. Rissland is a Scientist at the SickKids Research Institute and Assistant Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto. Her lab works on understanding how cells decode their genomes. A recent transplant to Canada, she enjoys exploring the ravines in Toronto and taking photos of her cat.