Futility as a writing exercise?

May 24, 2008

Futility: Trying to write this post has been an ultimate exercise in futility. Trust me, please, there is a story to that, but it is beside the point.

I thought maybe a writing exercise might be in order. Four times I’ve tried to sort through this mess, not only the article itself and the dirty jokes, but how to make it something that suits our purposes here at SCWC.

So let us start with a general exercise open to anyone who wishes to participate:

    Writing Exercise:   

    Write a short character sketch describing a father who has brought his daughter across three states to a hotel in order to dance romantically and make a holy pledge to enforce her sexual purity.

What?  Come on, you know the photo editor laughed about this one.  (Photo by Kevin Moloney for The New York Times)Let the obvious questions begin:

“Say what?”


“Who the …?”

“Now, hang on just a minute! What kind of web site …?”

And, yeah. You read that right.

What kind of pervert am I? Apparently, the kind who reads the New York Times:

The girls, ages early grade school to college, had come with their fathers, stepfathers and future fathers-in-law last Friday night to the ninth annual Father-Daughter Purity Ball. The first two hours of the gala passed like any somewhat awkward night out with parents, the men doing nearly all the talking and the girls struggling to cut their chicken.

But after dessert, the 63 men stood and read aloud a covenant “before God to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity.”

The gesture signaled that the fathers would guard their daughters from what evangelicals consider a profoundly corrosive “hook-up culture.” The evening, which alternated between homemade Christian rituals and giddy dancing, was a joyous public affirmation of the girls’ sexual abstinence until they wed ….

…. “It’s also good for me,” said Terry Lee, 54, who attended the ball for a second year, this time with his youngest daughter, Rachel, 16. “It inspires me to be spiritual and moral in turn. If I’m holding them to such high standards, you can be sure I won’t be cheating on their mother.” ….

…. The purity pledges for the fathers to sign stood in the middle of the dinner tables. Unlike other purity balls, the daughters here do not make a pledge, said Amanda Robb, a New York-based writer researching a book about the abstinence movement who was at the Broadmoor event.

“Fathers, our daughters are waiting for us,” Mr. Wilson, 49, told the men. “They are desperately waiting for us in a culture that lures them into the murky waters of exploitation. They need to be rescued by you, their dad.”

Of course, Erica C. Barnett’s brief commentary may or may not be helpful:

The five creepiest things in Sunday’s Times article on “purity balls,” in no particular order ….

And, as a special bonus, anyone managing to indict ownership culture will receive especial applause and admiration. A hint on that count would be to look back a few years in the American sex wars. Le’a Kent, in considering Oregon’s infamous 1992 gay fray, called “Measure 9”, cited Judith Butler:

“The exploitation of children” comes [immediately after sadomasochism in the text of Helms’s legislation], at which point I begin to wonder: what reasons are there for grouping these three categories together? Do they lead to each other, as if the breaking of one taboo necessitates a virtual riot of perversion? Or is there, implicit in the sequencing and syntax of this legal text, a figure of the homosexual, apparently male, who practices sadomasochism and preys on young boys, or who practices sadomasochism with young boys, a homosexuality which is perhaps defined as sadomasochism and the exploitation of children? Perhaps this is an effort to define restrictively the sexual exploiter of children as the sadomasochistic male homosexual in order, quite conveniently, to locate the source of child sexual abuse outside the home, safeguarding the family as the unregulated sexual property of the father?

That last phrase has haunted me for a few years now, largely because in certain contexts it echoes true. It was the first thing to mind when I encountered Neela Bannerjee’s article for the Times, and repeated itself ceaselessly as I perused Barnett’s five creepy things.

Remember that truth is stranger than fiction. There is, of course, a reason for that.



  1. Ah, now I understand the earlier post.
    This article bothers me on so many levels, I don’t know where to start. As a woman, I can’t describe the creepy factor when I think of my (alcoholic, passive-aggressive) dad being in charge of my virginity. No thank YOU. As a Christian, I hate these clubs (Promise Keepers is another one), where men perform rituals in order to remind/force themselves to be spiritual and moral. Why can’t they be moral because it’s the right thing to do? As Bill the Cat would say, “Ack, pftht.”
    Excuse me, I feel the need to take a shower.

  2. Maybe later I’ll post the prior drafts. I don’t think any of them are finished. Okay, one might be. They’re amusing. There’s some good stuff there. Okay, well, in my opinion. Raw materials, that sort of thing. But damn, I just couldn’t get to the point with those. I promise, though, there is a context in which this whole thing makes sense.

    And, as far as taking a shower is concerned, there are a couple of phrases buried in those that make me want to wash my mouth out even though I typed them. Of course, bourbon would suffice.

    Two elements drove me to obsess over this story to what was, really, an unhealthy degree. First, you know how it goes when you write and tell stories; often you find yourself examining life as if it was some sort of story plot. Reading through Bannerjee’s story, a number of potential challenges present themselves. Whose dirty mind? Between the picture I included and another apparently of a father and daughter praying, it becomes impossible to avoid the fact that my perception is, well, my perception. The second comes in a context that might seem a little specific. I try not to fawn too much over SCWC contributor Michael Thompkins, but since he lives only a few minutes away and, well, we’re north of Seattle, you can imagine we talk quite a bit.

    And he’s a psychologist, too. And that is important for two reasons. When I first sent him the link and a couple of excerpts (the article quote and the Butler citation), it was under the title, “Psychologist needed: Ownership culture out of hand”. I figure he will check in over the next couple of days and give us his take. He better, anyway, since he encouraged me to post this.

    Not that I would suggest a transference of responsibility. Rather, those who have attended his past workshops on character development might recognize in such a news story great potential for theoretic character analysis. Some might be tempted to do some somatic mapping based on Kevin Moloney’s photographs, but it’s not advisable.

    I mean, how would we explain the swords? Or the nymphs bearing the cross? I mean, I’m not a Christian, but people certainly tried to bring me to the faith. As a confirmed Lutheran, a graduate of a Jesuit high school, I am very hard pressed to explain either in a Christian theological context.

    Personally, I think the swords are a phallic thing. The nymphs? Oh, hell, pagan ceremonies are much more fun, right? I mean, after centuries of rumors—drug-laden, airborne orgies and such—it doesn’t seem so strange to suggest that one of the effects would be a secret envy. Whether it’s pop music or high-tech, post-modern revivalism, one prominent aspect of contemporary Christianity seems to be that for many, traditional reverence just isn’t stimulating enough. So of course they’re going to dress up the occasion. Would we be wrong to wonder about what their choices symbolize?

    When I was in high school, we had an assignment where we were supposed to pick out a photograph from a magazine and write the story it tells. I think I had just read The Sunshine Boys, or something, because I ended up with this picture of an elderly woman sitting alone in a row of chairs in a stark office somewhere. I spun a sad, disorganized tale about her bitterness at having not earned a part in some movie or television program. She has a stroke at the end, mostly a device to get me out of a story that was spiraling out of hand, and she died bitter and alone, which is just a terrible thing to say about anyone, real or otherwise.

    Perhaps that should have been the exercise. Post a picture without any specific context and leave people to write a scene. Then I could have skipped this whole embarrassing exposition of my own depravity.

  3. I do hope Michael weighs in on this one. I took one of his workshops about the connection between physical traits and psychology. I’d love to hear how he sees the people in the pictures.

  4. The shrink (now retired and “shooting fiction”) weighs in. I remember my PhD orals–one question:

    Dr. Thompkins,they asked, what is the difference between a functional and a dysfunctional family?

    Correct answer? In a functional family,the emotional lives of the parents are kept differentiated from the emotional lives of the children.

    Bare bones psychological square one: this Purity Ball is a priori a measure of dysfunctionality in these families. If the mothers were running this, I would stop right there with my remote diagnosis. However, the fathers are in charge so I will think some more and return with more comment about the fathers.

    I am still waiting for someone to answer the riddle from the Tudors on shootingshrink.com under Shrinking Fiction. I’ll send the first six comments a signed copy of Gun Play.

  5. OK, Part 2 on this Chastity Dad thing.

    First and foremost, is that these dysfunctional parents are denying their daughters the opportunity to form what we shrinks call age appropriate “object relations.” Object relations is an area of psychoanalysis that simply put says, “we all grow by building one relationship after another.”

    These young women are being denied the opportunity to leave home and battle for friends and first romances on a reality based turf. They are being held captive in the world of infancy and early childhood by their father’s and mother’s needs.

    If one or all of these young ladies chose to remain chaste of her own accord (yes some advice, usually from Mom is OK,) then she would be still building object relations in a reality-based world.

    However, this is psychopathology simply because the young lady is being required to meet her father’s and mother’s emotional needs. She is never set free in a real world. She is a prisoner of the emotional nexus of early childhood. She is never allowed to be an adolescent.

    Finally, whatever loving protection the father wishes to bring to his daughter should be to ensure her adolescence not prevent it. Adolescence is marked by the birth of a mind fully-differentiated from one’s parents. To sacrifice this task, in order to prevent sexual intercourse is an adulteration of paternal and maternal heroic/chivalric goals.

  6. Wouldn’t that have been “Mr. Thompkins, they asked …”? Or is it a Queen of Hearts thing? Degree first, orals later.

    Does the literature have much to say about abuse that isn’t abuse? On the one hand, it is nearly axiomatic that abuse perpetuates itself. But what court would call this sort of incestuous obsession abusive? Indeed, as atheists are finding out, the courts prefer to defend the parent’s right to indoctrinate the child instead of the child’s right to grow up and make his or her own decisions about faith. It is hard to imagine that saying, “I want to be your chastity belt … for God,” would be considered abusive in an environment that considers it unfair to a child that he or she should not be frightened by tales of eternal punishment into believing in a religion.

    So I wonder to what degree will this sublimated incestuous lust, or transferred sexual frustration, or whatever the hell it is, reveal itself to future generations.

    And I did, actually, post one of the aforementioned prior drafts on this issue. It’s over at my personal blog.

  7. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Pike

  8. […] guest speaker announced Insanity as a writing exercise December 4, 2008 After last time you know—you know, don’t you?—that these “writing exercises”, as such, are […]

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