Sex And The Single Soldier

by Katie Zavadski

In What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France, Mary Louise Roberts recounts the unsavory activities of the good boys of the Greatest Generation. Jennifer Schuessler reviews the book (NYT):

The book cites military propaganda and press accounts depicting France as “a tremendous brothel inhabited by 40 million hedonists,” as Life magazine put it. (Sample sentences from a French phrase guide in the newspaper Stars and Stripes: “You are very pretty” and “Are your parents at home?”)

On the ground, however, the grateful kisses captured by photojournalists gave way to something less picturesque. In the National Archives in College Park, Md., Ms. Roberts found evidence — including one blurry, curling snapshot — supporting long-circulating colorful anecdotes about the Blue and Gray Corral, a brothel set up near the village of St. Renan in September 1944 by Maj. Gen. Charles H. Gerhardt, commander of the infantry division that landed at Omaha Beach, partly to counter a wave of rape accusations against G.I.’s. (It was shut down after a mere five hours.)

In France, Ms. Roberts also found a desperate letter from the mayor of Le Havre in August 1945 urging American commanders to set up brothels outside the city, to halt the “scenes contrary to decency” that overran the streets, day and night. They refused, partly, Ms. Roberts argues, out of concern that condoning prostitution would look bad to “American mothers and sweethearts,” as one soldier put it. Keeping G.I. sex hidden from the home front, she writes, ensured that it would be on full public view in France: a “two-sided attitude,” she said, that is reflected in the current military sexual abuse crisis.

Fiona Reid also reviews the book:

GIs arrived on French soil with preconceived sexual fantasies and an ingrained belief in the decadence of French women. This prejudice was reinforced in the early days of liberation as women suspected of sexual liaisons with Nazi soldiers were paraded, shaven-headed, through the streets while other (equally available) young French women eagerly greeted their American liberators with public kisses. Clearly there was romance but there was also abuse. Sex may have been given freely in the initial heady days of liberation, but it quickly became a commodity and US soldiers were soon associated with prostitution and soaring rates of sexually transmitted disease. Those who argue that prostitution does not necessarily degrade should pay close attention to the language of Panther Tracks, a GI newspaper, on this topic: “An especially vivacious and well-rounded harlot might demand a price of 600 francs. However the price scales downwards for fair merchandise and mediocre stock. Some fairly delicious cold cuts can be had for 150 and 200 francs.” By conceptualising French women as “cold cuts”, GIs grew used to accepting subservience from all women and from the entire highly “feminised” French nation.

In a review last month, Robert Zaretsky considered the racial implications:

A veritable army of infected women, overwhelming France’s shattered medical facilities, was one tragic legacy of this cultural collision. An even more tragic and disturbing legacy, though, was that of rape by American soldiers. The crime was almost always, due to the institutionalized racism of the American Army and racial prejudices of French civilians, associated with blacks: of the 152 soldiers tried for rape in France, 139 were black. Segregated and relegated to service duties like food and laundry services, black soldiers had more contact with French civilians. This presence of black soldiers in the rear lines fused with racial stereotypes, widespread among both Americans and French, that blacks were “hypersexualized.” When one adds stark linguistic and cultural divides to these stereotypes, as well as the traumatic experience of war and liberation, blacks were frequently accused of crimes they never committed.

Inevitably, a segregated army that numbered thousands of officers from the American South rarely questioned these accusations. Roberts’s meticulous review of the rape trials reveals a fatal pattern of racial prejudice with accusers and the military courts. Along with chocolate and cigarettes, Jim Crow turned out to be another welcome American import.

David Ellwood finds parts lacking:

It is a devastating tale, written with rare fluency and style and meant to pull down for ever the sacred images of the ‘good war’ and America’s armies as being full of unsullied heroes, risking their lives to bring liberation, relief, hope and democracy. Unfortunately it also presents a blinkered view, restricted in effect to what happened in two regions in northern France in parts of 1944 and 1945. … Depravity was not the whole story. In most places Americans were also seen as carriers of a model of modernity. The medium of their technology alone carried a message: the soft power of hard metal.

It is David Reynolds who explained best just why the GI’s behaved so often in their uncontrolled way, a question Roberts never gets to the root of, even as she insists that the US army was unique in its attitudes to sex. Freedom to spend, eat, drink, smoke and to buy women anywhere, anytime was not the casual thoughtlessness of a power new to total war. Instead it was the key technique chosen by the general staff and Congress to hold together armed forces which were not fighting to defend home and hearth; a huge, raw mass of young individuals in uniform from a land with scarce military traditions and a strong commitment to citizen democracy. The American under arms was an extraordinarily privileged being compared to those all around wherever he (or she) went to war. Probably it is still so, but over time the Pentagon has found other ways to motivate its personnel beyond the promise of unlimited money, food and sex. The unhappy Normans (and plenty of others) paid the price for the start of this learning process.

A Service For Body Donors

by Katie Zavadski

Southwark Cathedral in London holds one annually:

For some people, donating their bodies for medical research is a way of telling the world that they do not want a religious ceremony or a funeral of any kind. The donor may be saying, in effect: “Once my body has served its main utilitarian purpose, let it serve one more purpose and then be disposed of quietly and anonymously…”  In fact, making a gift to medicine doesn’t preclude a dignified or religious act of disposal. As is explained by the London Anatomy Office, which serves the needs of seven medical schools, donated bodies will eventually be released, and loved ones then have a choice: they can either arrange a private funeral themselves, or allow the medical school to conduct an act of cremation at which a chaplain will conduct a short service unless otherwise requested.

Still, for many donors’ next of kin, the annual cathedral service seems to offer a welcome chance to say “farewell” and “thanks” in a beautiful and historically resonant place, where a religious community was established nearly a thousand years ago to meet the needs, both spiritual and medical, of both travellers and local people.

Face Of The Day

by Katie Zavadski

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Daniel Boschung’s close-up portraits explore human flaws:

For his series “Face Cartography,” the photographer Daniel Boschung creates an unnerving portrait of the human face, bringing it into a hyperrealistic focus that exceeds even the powers of the naked eye. Each high resolution likeness is composed of approximately 600 individual shots, each of which boasts the astounding size of 900 million pixels. The artist programs an ABB industrial robot to scan the entirety of his subjects’ faces, forcing them to sit still for up to 30 minutes per session.

Boschung’s photographs are visually jarring in part because they allow us to scrutinize the features of others in ways that are not possible in daily life. We rarely get close enough to view another’s pores and nose hairs; even if we did, our eyes would focus on a single spot, and the rest would fade into our peripheral vision.

See more of Boschung’s work here.

When The Principal Controls The Press

by Katie Zavadski

Two intrepid high school students in Michigan, Madeline Halpert and Eva Rosenfeld, tried to combat some of the stigma against depression by using their positions as managing editors of their school paper to write about the struggles of others. They even went so far as to get consent forms signed by the parents whose names they would include in the piece. Yet their principal, like so many others, blocked them from publishing the article (NYT):

As we were putting the stories together, the head of our school called us into her office to tell us about a former college football player from our area who had struggled with depression and would be willing to let us interview him. We wondered why she was proposing this story to us since he wasn’t a current high school student. We declined her suggestion. We didn’t want to replace these deeply personal articles about our peers with a piece about someone removed from the students. After we asked her why she was suggesting this, she told us that she couldn’t support our moving forward with the articles.

From an administrative perspective, this made some sense. It is her job to protect the students to the best of her ability. She believed that the well-being of those who shared their experiences — and most important, their names — would be put at risk because of potential bullying. She also mentioned that she had consulted a mental health professional, who told her that reading about their own depression could trigger a recurrence in some of the students and that those who committed to telling their stories might regret it later.

Our school has a very tolerant atmosphere, and it even has a depression awareness group, so this response seemed uncharacteristic. We were surprised that the administration and the adults who advocated for mental health awareness were the ones standing in the way of it. By telling us that students could not talk openly about their struggles, they reinforced the very stigma we were trying to eliminate.

I’m not certain that this is any better than those who ban books from school libraries. To be sure — there’s a wide maturity and experience gap between a 14-year-old freshman and an 18-year-old senior. But high school students, in my experience, are remarkably capable of rising to the challenge and treating any number of sensitive topics with grace. Unfortunately, in my few years as a counselor at a summer camp for high school journalists, I’ve heard far too many stories of principals refusing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I only wish Halpert and Rosenfeld had named names.

Larry Kramer’s Normal Heart

by Katie Zavadski

The HBO adaptation of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” an autobiographical tale of the onset of AIDS and the births of Act Up and GMHC, premieres this Monday. And Larry, visibly aged in the video seen above, was by all accounts as active on set with director Ryan Murphy as anywhere else. Patrick Healy looked into the making of the film (NYT):

Mr. Murphy said that he and Mr. Kramer, in the hospital, worked for months on the screenplay by email. They were determined, he said, to create a movie with “real immediacy” — visually graphic scenes that would pack a punch for New Yorkers who lived through the 1980s and that might motivate those continuing to fight for gay rights today. Harrowing monologues in the play, like the description of one character’s physical disintegration on a cross-country flight, have been opened up into fully rendered moments that show the agony of AIDS.

“I wrote the word ‘true’ on a notecard and put it on my computer,” Mr. Murphy said. “Larry was always trying to be on the right side of the angels, but he can be so abrasive, and he was so hurt by how he was treated by his friends and enemies in the ’80s. I wanted the movie to be true to all sides of him.”

After finding fault in so much, Mr. Kramer found little with the movie, and none with its depiction of his life’s work. “It’s about speaking up, being a buffalo if you have to, being mean if you have to,” Mr. Kramer said. “You do not get more with honey than with vinegar.”

Larry’s comments on Truvada in that interview, I’m sure, will get addressed by Andrew next week. But according to Richard Cohen, the original’s vinegar is still there:

The HBO movie is rough on Reagan and Koch.

They earned it. Reagan had gay friends and associates and was in no way a bigot. But he was clearly afraid of alienating his conservative base. The Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell characteristically said later that “AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals.” Reagan did not even mention the word AIDS until the disease was impossible to ignore and his friend Rock Hudson had died from it.

As for Koch, mayor of a city hugely impacted by the epidemic, the movie flat-out declares him to have been a closeted homosexual — afraid to acknowledge the reality of AIDS lest his own secret be revealed. Koch always put his private life off-limits. He was entitled to this — but not at the price of ignoring a public health menace that needed immediate attention. The tendency then and somewhat still today was to blame gay men for their plight. The proposed remedy was to deprive them of their sex life — a remedy some felt was worse than the disease.

Emily Nussbaum reflects on the importance of the movie:

There are grittier routes to the history of this period, including excellent documentaries such as “gay Sex in the 70s” and “How to Survive a Plague.” There are more expansive books, like Randy Shilts’s “And the Band Played On,” and more richly philosophical plays, like “Angels in America.” Yet there’s something implacable and pure about “The Normal Heart,” not despite but because of its message-in-a-bottle specificity. Not for nothing was a 1994 book by Kramer titled “Reports from the Holocaust”; as a gay Jew, he saw one identity as a metaphor for the other, with a built-in warning system. When people began dying, the choice was clear: you could be the Warsaw resistance or you could be the American Jewish Congress, beggars who stayed behind the scenes, lobbying for help that never came. Even in 1985, Kramer knew the effect of this obsession on others. “All analogies to the Holocaust are tired, overworked, boring, probably insulting, possibly true, and a major turnoff,” Felix says. “Are they?” Ned replies.

In 2014, AIDS and gay identity are no longer tied together in a three-legged race. The idea of making real change through the system is no pipe dream, either: each day, more Bens switch sides, now that gay rights has become a safe, default liberal perspective. But Murphy’s adaptation is a useful time machine. It’s a corrective to complacency, a reminder of a period when rage itself was a necessary tonic, a caustic application that could burn through the misery of shame and isolation. What’s the use of an alarm, after all, if it’s not loud enough to wake people up?

I remember sitting with a copy of And The Band Played On in high school, pairing Larry’s characters with their real-life counterparts. That interest must have, on some level, been triggered by growing up with my own stories of the Jewish Holocaust: To borrow Larry’s analogy, it made sense to remember this one, too.

And yet, a time machine may just be needed. The other day I asked a friend, a gay man in his mid-20s, whether he would watch the film version of the play with me. “Sure,” he replied. “What’s that about?” One of the film’s stars, Matthew Bomer, is just a decade older. It’s telling that his experience with the story is so different:

There’s a headline that keeps circulating from a quote that you gave, where you said, “Larry Kramer probably saved my life.”

Yeah. I’m sure he did. At the time I first read it, my first sexual relationships were with women. But even then he put the fear of God in me! (Laughs) He educated me in a lot of ways. It was a very useful fear. But it was also the education to be smart and be safe, and that carried over into my later relationships and also when I started to have relationships with men.

But I think he saved me on a more profound than practical level. Even at 14 when I still didn’t know who I was when I read this piece—I was still figuring out who my most authentic self was—to have this voice that was such a firebrand and so honest and so authentic, to know that that reality was out there, even though it was nowhere near my immediate experience in suburban Texas, to know that somewhere it was out there gave me a sense of hope. And I think I knew on some level that a part of me that hadn’t been acknowledged yet was going to be OK.

Read Andrew’s look back at Act Up here, and Larry’s response here.

Face Of The Day

by Katie Zavadski

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The Weapon of Choice project portrays visual manifestations of verbal abuse:

Called Weapon of Choice — to represent the abuser’s choice to use these words to harm — this project was a collaboration between photographer Johnson, make-up artists and victims of both verbal and physical abuse. The images imply the verbal abuse is inextricably tied to physical abuse, because that is what Johnson found to be the case with many of his subjects.

“While listening to the stories from participants who had suffered abuse, we discovered how closely physical abuse followed verbal abuse,” he writes. “Where we found evidence of one, we found evidence of the other. When the abuser chose to inflict harm, verbal abuse was just one of the weapons in the arsenal.”

See the Weapon of Choice website here.

(Photo by Rich Johnson)

Picky Eaters Anonymous

by Katie Zavadski

Picky-eating adults (or PEAs) count the likes of Anderson Cooper among their ranks. Hilary Pollack infiltrated one of their online communities:

As a non-PEA, it can be difficult not to pass judgments on those who are basically encouraging a mother to shrug and supply her son with a diet entirely of gluten and sugar. But why do we care what other people eat, especially those who have such strong convictions about it that they’d rather risk becoming a pariah than try a bite of zucchini? It’s difficult to imagine that anyone would choose such an affliction.

Group founder Bob K. assures another exasperated parent with some resigned but hopeful food for thought:

“In most cases … hypnotherapy will fail.  What we have is very hard to overcome.  The good news [is that] many people that have [this issue] are gifted in other ways, and there is no reason to not have a very happy life with it.”

This may be true, but one of the more difficult parts of being a PEA—and one that they lament together with knowing words of encouragement and empathy—is the ongoing struggle with romantic relationships. Some are in happy marriages, but many others report being rejected by potential partners again and again for their seeming stubbornness. The more experienced PEAs of the group adamantly insist on being upfront about it on the first date, lest it come out as a “secret” weeks or months into a relationship. And universally, if they’re forced to choose between a babe and their French fries, the fries will prevail. Conversion is not an option, but maybe finding a kindred spirit is. And nobody wants to be lonely.