Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention, by Donna Freitas (Review)

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Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention
by Donna Freitas

Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir

Length: 336 Pages

Release date: August 13, 2019

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Synopsis: 

Donna Freitas has lived two lives. In one life, she is a well-published author and respected scholar who has traveled around the country speaking about Title IX, consent, religion, and sex on college campuses. In the other, she is a victim, a woman who suffered and suffers still because she was stalked by her graduate professor for more than two years.

As a doctoral candidate, Freitas loved asking big questions, challenging established theories and sinking her teeth into sacred texts. She felt at home in the library, and safe in the book-lined offices of scholars whom she admired. But during her first year, one particular scholar became obsessed with Freitas’ academic enthusiasm. He filled her student mailbox with letters and articles. He lurked on the sidewalk outside her apartment. He called daily and left nagging voicemails. He befriended her mother, and made himself comfortable in her family’s home. He wouldn’t go away. While his attraction was not overtly sexual, it was undeniably inappropriate, and most importantly–unwanted.

In Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention, Donna Freitas delivers a forensic examination of the years she spent stalked by her professor, and uses her nightmarish experience to examine the ways in which we stigmatize, debate, and attempt to understand consent today.

rating

four

My thanks to Little, Brown and Company for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

Consent was a difficult read in some respects; it was difficult to see the author recount her trauma, but more than that, it was difficult to think about the excuses she internally made for her stalker before things escalated out of control. Most women have been there, with varying degrees of severity. (Maybe he doesn’t realize he’s being inappropriate? Maybe I’m being overly sensitive and he’s not actually being inappropriate at all? Maybe I said/did/wore something that made him think this behavior would be welcome?)

This memoir is a an engrossing exploration of blurry lines of consent and the harassers who rely on plausible deniability to get away with their behavior. Donna Freitas was an enthusiastic student who loved getting to know her professors. This is probably part of why it took her a while to see that her abuser’s intentions were less than innocent. But a large part of this was probably also due to the professor’s intentionally chipping away at boundaries slowly, so as to acclimate his target to his attentions. By the time things escalated to the point that Freitas felt the need to get outside help, she’d already been in over her head for quite some time. The memoir does an excellent job of illuminating the process abusers of all sorts often use on those they target; things start small and often escalate slowly, all while the victim is questioning whether they’re crazy to feel uncomfortable at every step.

While this was at times an emotionally taxing read, I definitely recommend it to fans of memoirs and feminist works. The author’s exploration of consent, gaslighting, trauma, and institutions that shield powerful men from consequences are all important and timely.

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Whisper Network, by Chandler Baker (Review)


Whisper Network
by Chandler Baker

Genre: Fiction, Mystery

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: July 2, 2019

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Synopsis: 

Four women learn their boss (a man who’s always been surrounded by rumors about how he treats women) is next in line to be CEO—what will happen when they decide enough is enough?

Sloane, Ardie, Grace, and Rosalita are four women who have worked at Truviv, Inc., for years. The sudden death of Truviv’s CEO means their boss, Ames, will likely take over the entire company. Ames is a complicated man, a man they’ve all known for a long time, a man who’s always been surrounded by…whispers. Whispers that have always been ignored by those in charge. But the world has changed, and the women are watching Ames’s latest promotion differently. This time, they’ve decided enough is enough.

Sloane and her colleagues set in motion a catastrophic shift within every floor and department of the Truviv offices. All four women’s lives—as women, colleagues, mothers, wives, friends, even adversaries—will change dramatically as a result.

“If only you had listened to us,” they tell us on page one, “none of this would have happened.”

ratingfour

My thanks to Flatiron Books for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

When I saw Whisper Network described as essentially a mystery novel for the #metoo era, I was super intrigued but also a little wary. I think with books that seem very timely, there’s always the risk that they’ll come across opportunistic and insincere. Not so with Whisper Network, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise of a novel.

An undercurrent of whispers in the corporate world comes to a head when the sudden death of Truviv’s CEO leaves one infamously badly behaved higher up in the company poised to take over. The story takes place mainly in one timeline as tension is mounting, with hints at the disaster to come shown in the form of police interviews after the fact. (Think Big Little Lies style snippets, giving you tiny bits of information at at a time.)

Of the four main characters mentioned in the synopsis, Sloane and Roselita seemed to be the best developed. I think the sheer number of POV characters is part of what kept this from hitting a full five stars for me. I understand why the author made the choices she did, as she was trying to weave together a lot of secrets and personal histories, so this may be down to my own personal taste, as I generally like spending more time in a novel with one or two characters in order to really understand them. I would have liked a bit more focus on Sloane and Roselita, but your mileage may vary.

As a woman in a professional setting, there was something kind of cathartic about this novel, particularly certain sections which were written somewhat aside from the main narrative, and read almost like a plea directly to the reader, such as the following passage:

So when we said that we would prefer not to have to asked to smile on top of working, we meant that: we would like to do our jobs, please. When we said that we would like not to hear a comment about the length of our skirt, we meant that: we would like to of our jobs, please. When we said that we would like not to have someone try to touch us in our office, we meant that: we would like to do our jobs. Please.

Every woman with a job, particularly those of us with already relatively high-stress jobs, can feel this in her bones. The frustration of having so much to deal with at work… and then having someone else’s inappropriate behavior thrown on top of it like the cherry on top of the sundae is just too real.

Baker has written several books prior to Whisper Network, but appears to have focused on the young adult genre. I think she’s starting to find her groove with her latest novel and I hope she comes out with more adult fiction in the future!

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It’s International Women’s Day!

Happy International Women’s Day, bookworms!

International Women’s Day is a day devoted to the women who have fought for women’s rights throughout history. In celebration of the holiday, I wanted to dedicate today’s post to some women who inspire me.

So let’s get right into it! In no particular order….

Malala Yousafzai

Malala’s fight for girls’ education worldwide speaks for itself. She almost paid the ultimate price for her activism, and it only made her more intent on achieving her goals. She said it best herself: “Extremists have shown what frightens them most: a girl with a book.” If you haven’t read her memoir, I Am MalalaI highly recommend you check it out, even if you’re not really a memoir person.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

AOC made history as the youngest woman ever elected to congress, and her status as a newcomer has never made her hesitate to speak out in her new role. She went from bartender to congresswoman with a largely grassroots campaign and has since been a thorn in the side of government officials who are bought and paid for by large corporations. Here’s hoping she has a long political career ahead of her.

Katherine Johnson

After the release of Hidden Figures, Katherine Johnson probably needs no introduction. Johnson worked for NASA and was instrumental in the development of successful space travel. She did all this while dealing with marginalization as a black woman entering a largely white male dominated work force in the 1950’s.

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr is best known as an actress, but in recent years efforts have been made to bring to light the work she did in developing spread spectrum technology.  She did this in hopes of contributing to the US war effort in WWII, as it would provide a means of sending “unjammable” signals to missiles. The US government, unfortunately,  was not interested in her work… until the patent rant out, that is. Today, Lammar’s work provides the basis for a huge variety of wireless communication, from Wi-Fi to GPS and Bluetooth.

Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is a feminist writer who has been remarkably candid about her experience as a rape victim and body issues. If you’re not familiar with her work, I highly recommend her collection of essays, Bad Feminist, and her memoir, Hunger. (Gay has also written a bit of fiction, but admittedly I’m much more familiar with her nonfiction.)

Carrie Fisher

Carrie Fisher is obviously best known for her role as Princess Leia General Leia Organa, but that’s not why I love her. Fisher spent a great deal of her life speaking candidly about her struggles with mental health. The role such a high profile celebrity can have in reducing stigma around such issues is so important. No one is obligated to feel comfortable speaking about such struggles publicly, but I can’t say enough about how much it means to me that there have been people like Carrie who did.

J K Rowling

I’ll be honest and say I have some mixed feelings about this entry, given that Rowling has disappointed me a lot in recent years (and not just because Fantastic Beasts 2 was kind of a travesty) but if I’m being honest, J K Rowling’s influence on my childhood can’t be overstated. I was fully on board the Harry Potter bandwagon the moment the first book came out, and those stories are still near and dear to my heart. Hermione Granger helped me, an awkward, bookish little outcast, to feel like maybe there was nothing wrong with being me, and the underlying messages in the HP books about love and social justice are forever ingrained in my heart.

Thank you so much for reading! What women have inspired you? Let me know in the comments!

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Review – Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, by Rebecca Traister


Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger
by Rebecca Traister

Genre: Nonfiction, Feminism

Length: 320 Pages

Release date: October 2, 2018

Synopsis: 

From Rebecca Traister, the New York Times bestselling author of All the Single Ladies comes a vital, incisive exploration into the transformative power of female anger and its ability to transcend into a political movement.

In the year 2018, it seems as if women’s anger has suddenly erupted into the public conversation. But long before Pantsuit Nation, before the Women’s March, and before the #MeToo movement, women’s anger was not only politically catalytic—but politically problematic. The story of female fury and its cultural significance demonstrates the long history of bitter resentment that has enshrouded women’s slow rise to political power in America, as well as the ways that anger is received when it comes from women as opposed to when it comes from men.

With eloquence and fervor, Rebecca tracks the history of female anger as political fuel—from suffragettes marching on the White House to office workers vacating their buildings after Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court. Here Traister explores women’s anger at both men and other women; anger between ideological allies and foes; the varied ways anger is perceived based on its owner; as well as the history of caricaturing and delegitimizing female anger; and the way women’s collective fury has become transformative political fuel—as is most certainly occurring today. She deconstructs society’s (and the media’s) condemnation of female emotion (notably, rage) and the impact of their resulting repercussions.

Highlighting a double standard perpetuated against women by all sexes, and its disastrous, stultifying effect, Traister’s latest is timely and crucial. It offers a glimpse into the galvanizing force of women’s collective anger, which, when harnessed, can change history.

rating

five

On some level, if not intellectual then animal, there has always been an understanding of the power of women’s anger:that as an oppressed majority in the United States, women have long had within them the potential to rise up in fury, to take over a country in which they’ve never really been offered their fair or representative stake. Perhaps the reason that women’s anger is so broadly denigrated–treated as so ugly, so alienating, and so irrational–is because we have known all along that with it came the explosive power to upturn the very systems that have sought to contain it.

This book came onto my radar when the author, Rebecca Traister, appeared on The Daily Show this past November. I’ll embed it here, because I feel like the author does  a much better job of introducing her book than I can.

If I had to sum up this book in as few words as possible, I’d have to say “realistic yet optimistic.” Good and Mad seems to be equally devoted to outlining the struggles of women and as well as the historical and contemporary triumphs. The underlying message is that it’s daunting to try to enact change when the deck is stacked against you, and success is never guaranteed, but history has shown us over and over that it is possible.

Traister’s attention to intersectionality is very thorough, and she makes a point of outlining how race impacts how women experience sexism in varying circumstances throughout the book. This aspect of her writing feels particularly important when she is addressing large-scale protest movements. The 2016 election saw a large surge of white women with no prior experience in protest suddenly scrambling for a way to make our voices heard.

This is a positive thing, but we must also keep in mind that, for the black women who have been embroiled in social justice movements for years, they’re seeing a lot of people who are late to the party. (And before anyone tries to come after me in the comments, no, I’m not implying no white woman attended a protest prior to 2016. I’m a white woman and protested prior to 2016. The point here has to do with overall trends.) It’s amazing to see so many people inspired to become politically involved, but we must be mindful and look to those with actual experience for leadership.

Reading this book in the current political climate is kind of weirdly cathartic. Traister’s points are so well articulated, heartfelt, and unbelievably timely. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

“The old stiff minds must give way. The old selfish minds must go. Obstructive reactionaries must move on. The young are at the gates!”
-Lavinia Dock, “The Young Are At The Gates,” The Suffragist, June 30, 1917.

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Thank you for reading! Have you read Good and Mad? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
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Review – The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

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The Bell Jar
by Sylvia Plath

Genre: Fiction, Classics

Length: 244 Pages

Originally published: January 1963

Synopsis: 

The Bell Jar chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under — maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic.

This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

rating

five

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” 

Reviewing classics is weird. I’m not the only one who feels super weird about that, right? But I’ve been making an effort to read more classics lately and I wanted to talk about The Bell Jar. This was Sylvia Plath’s only novel, and it’s impossible to read it without looking at it through the lens of her untimely death by suicide. The story is semi-autobiographical (Plath originally published it under a pseudonym in order to spare the feelings of those caricatured within its pages) and an air of hopelessness seems to hover over it with every line. (Seriously, this book is well written, but it’s infamous for being depressing for a reason.)

Esther Greenwood is a college student suffering from a profound sense of ennui. She is working a summer internship at a women’s magazine and is finding herself oddly detached compared to the other girls. Most people over the age of 15 or so will find her highly relatable and sympathetic; she has reached that point in her life where she is meant to be making decisions that will impact the course of her life. And she’s not ready.

She doesn’t know what to choose in life, but more than that, part of her is resentful at the very notion that she should have to make a choice at all. “If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days,” she says. I’m sure there are a select few among us who were practically born with a single-minded mission in life and a clear path ahead of them. The rest of us? Yes, we’ve felt like Esther Greenwood.

Plath’s background as a poet shines through in the evocative prose throughout the novel. While the tone is relatively casual in one sense, something that meshes well with the age and background of the protagonist, Plath breaks it up with images and metaphors that hit like a punch to the gut.

There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other, especially when you are the only extra person in the room. It’s like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction–every second the city gets smaller and smaller, only you feel it’s really you getting smaller and smaller and lonelier and lonelier, rushing away from all those lights and excitement at about a million miles an hour.

This is a relatively quick book to read, but it is not easy. I do think that it’s one we all owe it to ourselves to read. Esther’s descent into debilitating depression will stay with readers long after they’ve finished the book. Readers who loved Girl, Interrupted but have not yet read The Bell Jar are depriving themselves.

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Review – Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, by Roxane Gay

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Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture
by Roxane Gay (Editor)

Genre: Nonfiction, Essays

Length: 368 Pages

Release date: May 1, 2018

Publisher: Harper Perennial

Synopsis: 

Edited and with an introduction by Roxane Gay, the New York Times bestselling and deeply beloved author of Bad Feminist and Hunger, this anthology of first-person essays tackles rape, assault, and harassment head-on.

In this valuable and revealing anthology, cultural critic and bestselling author Roxane Gay collects original and previously published pieces that address what it means to live in a world where women have to measure the harassment, violence, and aggression they face, and where they are “routinely second-guessed, blown off, discredited, denigrated, besmirched, belittled, patronized, mocked, shamed, gaslit, insulted, bullied” for speaking out. Contributions include essays from established and up-and-coming writers, performers, and critics, including actors Ally Sheedy and Gabrielle Union and writers Amy Jo Burns, Lyz Lenz, Claire Schwartz, and Bob Shacochis. Covering a wide range of topics and experiences, from an exploration of the rape epidemic embedded in the refugee crisis to first-person accounts of child molestation, this collection is often deeply personal and is always unflinchingly honest. Like Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to MeNot That Bad will resonate with every reader, saying “something in totality that we cannot say alone.”

Searing and heartbreakingly candid, this provocative collection both reflects the world we live in and offers a call to arms insisting that “not that bad” must no longer be good enough.

rating

five

Anger is the privilege of the truly broken, and yet, I’ve never met a woman who was broken enough that she allowed herself to be angry.
― Lyz Lenz

I don’t think I can overstate how important this collection of essays is. What’s important for people, and particularly men, to understand is that the stories shared in these essays are often not particularly exceptional. While there are some examples of women who suffered extreme abuse (one woman shares the story of how she was raped by her father as a child, and trusted adults asked her to forgive him instead of protecting her) many of these stories are of struggles that are uncomfortably familiar for most women.

The title, Not That Bad feels painfully apt. Too many of us suffer harassment, abuse, even assault, and downplay the significance. The damage. The simmering anger it inspires. We tell ourselves that we have no right to be angry or broken because we survived and there are always other women who have had it worse. Maybe he said something inappropriate but he didn’t touch you. Maybe he grabbed you but he didn’t hurt you. Maybe he hurt you, but hey, you lived! The right to be angry is reserved for hypothetical women who suffered the worse case scenario, women who are no longer around to exercise that right.

An angry man in cinema is Batman. An angry male musician is a member of Metallica. An angry male writer is Chekhov. An angry male politician is passionate, a revolutionary. He is a Donald Trump or a Bernie Sanders. The anger of men is a powerful enough tide to swing an election. But the anger of women? That has no place in government, so it has to flood the streets.

Roxane Gay has done a phenomenal job of bringing together a variety of voices for this collection; intersectional feminism was clearly a driving motivation here. Gender identity, race, immigration status, and sexual orientation are all addressed. I appreciated hearing the perspectives of people who I could relate to as well as those that were totally foreign to me. This book is an important exercise in empathy.

Obviously, Not That Bad comes with a huge trigger warning for a variety of issues, such as rape, sexual harassment, violence against women, homophobia, and pedophilia. (I truly apologize if I’ve missed anything here.) This is not a book to pick up when you’re feeling delicate, and it will almost certainly leave you feeling emotionally raw. Nonetheless, I think it’s an incredibly important book for everyone to read.

Purchase links

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Thank you for reading. If you have read Not That Bad, please share your thoughts in the comments. If you have other recommendations to feminist reading, I’d love to hear from you in the comments as well!

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On The Handmaid’s Tale & Continuing Adaptations Beyond the Source Material

Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale (both the book and the TV show) are ahead, friends. Continue at your own risk.

The van waits in the driveway, its double doors stand open. The two of them, one on either side now, take me by the elbows to help me in. Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing: I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped.

And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.

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Full disclosure: one of my favorite things about the novel The Handmaid’s Tale is the ending. Perhaps this impacts my perception of the television adaptation negatively. I love the ambiguity of book Offred’s fate, followed by the jarring shift to the “Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies,” where we are treated to a transcript of Professor Pieixoto’s speech. We have spent around 300 pages immersed in Offred’s story, feeling her pain and simmering resentment, hoping against all hope that she will escape. We are denied the closure of knowing what became of her.

The sudden shift to Pieixoto’s speech, where he discusses “the manuscript,” i.e., The Handmaid’s Tale, as a historical document, is unsettling. Offred’s story is personal to the reader by this time. Pieixoto discusses her in a detached manner, even cracking jokes at times. Then comes this:

If I may be permitted an editorial aside, allow me to say that in my opinion we must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadean. Surely we have learned by now that such judgments are of necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadean society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily more free. Our job is not to censure but to understand.

(Applause.)

This endorsement of moral relativism is, in context, quite absurd. It makes the assumption that the people of Gilead made the decisions they did because they had no better options, or simply didn’t know any better. Offred’s words painted a very different picture over the course of the book, however. Gilead was an anomaly on a worldwide scale. Other countries, we are forced to assume, found a better way, without resorting to the horrors that befell Offred. Pieixoto’s own speech makes reference to another country banning birth control (a human rights issue, to be sure, but not on the scale of Gilead’s crimes) and providing financial incentives for giving birth. This bears the question: What is Gilead’s excuse?

More generally, both in The Handmaid’s Tale and in real life, historical instances of one group standing with their boot on another’s group’s neck are often met with empty platitudes about how “people didn’t know any better back then.” I think it is quite obvious that the group with someone’s boot on their neck was always quite aware of the moral injustice; they always knew better. It is disingenuous to assume that the dominant group was incapable of the same.

So, how does all of this tie into the Hulu adaptation?

By continuing past the first season, the TV version of The Handmaid’s Tale has removed some of the ambiguity. While the existence of the journal entry recording those final moments with Offred means it is safe to assume that Offred wasn’t immediately killed by Gilead agents, even if she spent time rotting in prison before being executed, one cannot rule out the possibility that she managed to pass on her final entry to a sympathetic person in the hopes that her story would survive.

So the reader can never learn whether or not Offred was betrayed by Nick. The viewer, on the other hand, follows Offred’s story past this point, and learns that she lives at least a while longer. Nick did not betray her. He no longer brings into focus the ambivalent feelings that necessarily come with romantic attachment for women in extremely male-dominated societies. This continuation also means that the show cuts out the historical symposium bit at the end of the novel. (Perhaps something analogous will be added at the very end of the TV series, but thus far it appears to have been cut.)

Offred, despite the academic dissection of her words, was ultimately lost to history. The lack of knowledge of her fate was thematically important to the story, in part because Offred could represent so much more than herself. She was treated as a cog in the machine by Gilead, interchangeable with any and every other Handmaid. Offred’s story is personal to us because we have been allowed access to her individual experience. There was nothing inherently more special or tragic about her compared to any of the other Handmaids.

Ultimately, the ambiguity in Offred’s fate makes a point: it doesn’t matter whether Offred lived or died, when countless Handmaids died in silence, their stories forever snuffed out by the brutality of Gilead. Offred may well have made it out of Gilead alive, but we know that many Handmaids did not. Each of them would have had a history and inner life as vivid as Offred’s. Atwood’s Gilead is, of course, fiction, but as she has stressed over and over in interviews, she didn’t truly make any of it up. All of the things which happen to women in Gilead are based on things that have been done to women throughout history. Offred is, in a way, a voice for all of them, whether they survived or not.

But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.

Endings tend to be one of the most thematically rich moments of a story. Where the author chooses to end things can speak volumes about everything that came before. When an adaptation chooses to continue a story past the moment the author originally said it was done, something is inevitably lost.

However, perhaps The Handmaid’s Tale is less guilty than other adaptations; after all, Atwood works as a consulting producer for the show. She is, of course, the ultimate master of Offred’s fate. And as much as I loved the ending of the novel, now more than ever, we need to see stories about women surviving… and fighting back. And I’m grateful to Offred June for that.

Thanks for reading! Please feel free to share your thoughts on this topic in the comments! Let’s discuss!
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches.

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