Sunday, May 31, 2009

Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America

While I’m no author, I would think a really good biography¹—one that does justice to the life of its subject—would be one of the hardest of books to write. If such is the case, then a biography about someone who’s devoted his or her life to a controversial cause, such as Margaret Sanger did with birth control must be the toughest nut to crack. In Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America, Ellen Chesler undertook a difficult task and executed it well. She managed to walk the camera of her author’s eye all the way around the complex character of the poor Irish-American girl baptized Catholic who grew up to hate that same church so much she threatened to leave the country if John F. Kennedy were elected President, nevertheless a hallow threat from a dying old woman. While Chesler’s portrayal is no doubt sympathic, it is not unduly so; she is willing to look at the world from Sanger’s perspective—who would trust a biographer unwilling to do at least that much—yet she also feels no compunction about pointing out Sanger’s character flaws, contradictions, and many detractors.

As a biographer, Chesler covers the main events of Sanger’s life from birth to death without going into tabloid details, a point which I appreciated very much. Perhaps this could be ascribed as an effort to improve the image of her subject; I prefer to believe it is an indication of the author’s tact, class and integrity. Regardless of what one thinks of another person’s politics or religious views, it still isn’t necessary to drag up endless details of dead affairs. Sanger was no saint, which goes without saying; more than that isn’t relevant.

In fact, it often seemed this biography was as much about the history of birth control in America as it was the story of a woman’s life. Before Sanger took on ‘the cause’ which came to be associated with her name almost as Freud’s is with Psychoanalysis, ‘The Comstock Law of 1873 made it a crime to sell or distribute materials that could be used for contraception’.

‘Birth control’ or ‘family planning’, as it later came to be called much to Sanger’s horror² is an incredibly complex topic. I read this book to gain a greater understanding of the history behind it. Taken in conjunction with abortion, it is probably the most multi-faceted issue facing our country today—and the least understood. Besides the obvious male—female aspect, there are also the following polar perspectives: married—single; law—justice; wealthy—poor; truth—lie; society—individual; freedom—responsibility; young—old; life—death; government—taxpayer; government—citizen; government—family; religious believer—non-believer; God—human. These are not in any particular order, nor is the list complete. In various ways throughout the book, Chesler shows how Sanger encountered and dealt with the factional partisan nature of her chosen vocation.

While not comprehensive by any means, I do recommend this biography as an introduction to the person and the topic. It does not include any of Sanger’s writings, yet I do believe anyone just reading what the crusader wrote without knowing the background context of her life would do themselves as much a disservice as they would Sanger; she was often battling specific individuals, groups, political parties and governments. Whether or not you agree with her position—and I obviously don’t—it becomes all the more critical in a situation such as this, not to come into the middle of a conversation you don’t understand. I have already forgotten more than I ever dreamed I didn’t know about the history of the birth control movement in our country early last century—and I finished the book just a few weeks ago. Anyone reading this review in a few months, or more, shouldn't bother to ask me any questions of detail. The book is chock full of facts and figures, whereas my head is sieve for that type of information.

But if you want to learn about Margaret Sanger and her role in the birth control cause, read Chesler’s book and . . . don’t stop there!

That concludes my 'official' review of this book which I was planning to post today, the Feast of Pentecost, birthday of the Church and conclusion of the Easter Season. It seemed auspicious to remind those who profess to believe in the One, True God that our work here on earth is far from over. However, as I have just learned of this morning's murder of George Tiller, late-term abortionist, it also seems especially telling that issues Sanger battled all her life are as relevant today as they ever were...and just as controversial.

¹ This book is at least three times as thick as The Margaret Sanger Story: and the Fight for Birth Control so I thought I'd just skim this, but after reading the Introduction, I came to believe this was the more accurate of the two available biographies. In her Introduction, Chesler lists, compares and contrasts all of the biographies written about Sanger, including two autobiographies from the 30s. Although writing for a series called "Woman of Valor" Chesler does not seem bound to paint some idealized picture of Sanger; she is willing to show her subject's strengths and weaknesses. Interestingly, Margaret doesn't always compare favorably, even with her lesser known siblings. However, I believe this biography still falls far short of Margaret Sanger's Eugenic Legacy which I hope to read very soon.

² If I understood her correctly, M.S. envisioned the movement in the hands of idealistic and strong-minded women (such as herself) dedicating their lives to teaching other women how to control their fertility. In the 1950’s when the leadership passed into the hands of men who reorganized and renamed the Birth Control Federation of America, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Margaret saw this as a failure of nerve, a step backward. In fact it was a savvy political decision based on the times made by those who were actually trying to help her ‘cause’.

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Literary Blog Award

Thanks to my friend, Harvee Lau over at Book Bird Dog, for yet another cool blogging award! This one is for something which seems to really fit in line with the okie-booklady mission, i.e., reading! ☺ ☺ ☺

The Literary Blogger Award acknowledges bloggers who energize and inspire reading by going the extra mile! These amazing bloggers make reading fun, and enhance the delight of reading! I'm passing on the award to:

Suzanne at Come to See
Michael at Reach Paradise
Enbrethiliel at Sancta Sanctis
Marie at Naru Hodo
Pete at The Food Which Endures
Ladystorm at Mystery, Suspense, and God, Oh My!
Marianne at Saint Benedict Academy

Thanks to all of you for being such great blogging friends!

God bless you and yours,

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Innocent Traitor

Lady Jane Grey, the grand niece of Henry VIII, and queen of England for just over a week in 1553 is the subject of Innocent Traitor, Alison Weir’s first work of historical fiction. With over ten works of history to her credit, Weir is one of my favorite British Renaissance and Reformation historians mostly because she presents the Catholic and Protestant theological differences of the era in an impartial manner without resorting to inflammatory or stereotypical rhetoric.

Innocent Traitor is a very ‘good read’. It presents the story of the young Jane’s life from the perspectives of those closest to her, through the major, known events of her all too short life. The few historical ‘facts’ I’ve checked out all did—as if I had any doubt. I really knew they would, mostly I was just curious on one or two points. If Innocent Traitor has any weakness, it would be in the beginning where it seemed/sounded like all the characters spoke with the same voice. I didn’t notice this as much later on in the story, so I don’t know if I got to know the different characters, if I just became so engrossed in the story I stopped paying attention or if in fact the characterizations did get better. In the beginning, it especially bothered me that Jane sounded like an adult at three and five.

That criticism aside it’s a very absorbing read. Why anyone would have wanted to be a monarch back in those days is beyond me. And yet so many did—and paid the ultimate price for their ambition. Poor Jane only wanted a quiet life with her books and look what she got?! After the Reformation equivalent to a Dickensian childhood, she became the pawn of her parents and the Duke of Northumberland, was given in marriage to an abusive husband, maneuvered into a crown she didn’t want, lost it, abandoned by everyone, thrown into prison and finally—thanks to her father’s second treachery against the Crown—Jane received the verdict of treason and was executed.

There were some speculative additions to fill in parts of history which remain unknown, and yet Weir's choices are still probable. Recommended.

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Pied Piper of Atheism

If you want to understand why your children (grandchildren or any young people you really care about) should not be reading His Dark Materials, read Pete Vere and Sandra Miesel's book, Pied Piper of Atheism. It consists of two essays which give a brief back ground of Philip Pullman, the author/creator of the series; summarize the series and critique its many pitfalls for young readers.

For starters, there's Pullman himself, as volatile as an Oklahoma firestorm, and just as likely to change directions. Numerous examples are given of his conflicting statements, retractions, inconsistencies and contradictory claims; they are too numerous and unbelievable to begin to list or go into here, so I’ll just mention one. He accuses C. S. ‘Lewis – who he hates with a vengeance – “of a sadomasochistic relish for violence”. Yet his own novels offer gore far more graphic than anything in Narnia. Pullman sees no reason to shield young readers from…murder, suicide, mutilation, torture, euthanasia, and cannibalism. Iorek the polar bear eats his fallen rival’s heart and his best friend Lee’s corpse.’ (page 88) Both essays offer enough other disturbing examples of excessive savagery from the Dark Materials Trilogy to make Narnia seem as tranquil as a sleeping baby by comparison.

As for Pullman’s irrational hatred of Lewis -- and J. R. R. Tolkien -- 'So deep is Pullman's aversion to Lewis that he marked the hundredth anniversary of Lewis’ birth in 1998 by viciously denouncing the man and his work in Britain’s premier leftist newspaper, the Guardian. … His hottest wrath is directed at the Narnia series, “one of the most ugly and poisonous things I’ve ever read”.’

Speaking about his contemporary competition, Pullman is quite thrilled by the heavy artillery Christian critics have trained on J. K. Rowling. This amused him. “Harry Potter’s been taking all the flak”, he told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2003. “Meanwhile, I’ve been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God.” (page 89)

Miesel's essay does an excellent job explaining the difference between the so-called magic in the Harry Potter series which is really natural, inborn ability, not Gnostic “secret wisdom” as it is the Pullman series. Rowling’s spells invoke no gods or demons, and consists of an alternate form of technology. Pullman’s Arctic witches are pagan, sexually permissive and embody modern Wiccan divination. Neopagan ceremonies, child sacrifice, adultery, church trashing and moral relativism are the stuff of the alternate world Pullman has created. Even the so-called god he claims to have killed is a tired old man and certainly not the One True God at all, for all the author’s wasted imaginative efforts and talent.

If the violence, atheism and occultism isn’t enough to concern you, then be assured there’s also plenty of ambivalent sexuality, both overt and covert to fill any child’s mind with confusion. Every person in Pullman’s world possesses what is known as an external daemon—part soul, part conscience, part personality—which assumes the form of an animal. In all but a few cases, the daemon is of the opposite sex, a point which Pullman draws attention to and uses to create/raise gender identity questions totally inappropriate for young readers.

Parents are most strongly urged to boycott this series. For further information, do read Pied Piper of Athiesm. There is a very small amount of overlap in the two essays but they are in no way redundant. This book is quick read and comes most highly recommended!

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Proper 'Hugging' of a Baby

Instructions for properly hugging a baby:
1. First, uh, find a baby...

2. Second, be sure that the object you found was
indeed a baby by employing classic sniffing techniques.

3. Next you will need to flatten the baby
before actually beginning the hugging process.
4. The 'paw slide: to accomplish this technique,
simply slide paws around baby and prepare for possible close-up.
5. Finally, if a camera is present,
you will need to execute the difficult and patented
'hug, smile, and lean' so as to achieve the best photo quality.

6. Prepare to go "Awwwwwwwww!"

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Poverty of Spirit

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 5:3

Poverty of Spirit by Johannes Baptist Metz seemed like such a simple book the first time I read it. Perhaps I was just so overwhelmed by everything else to do with Retreat in Daily Life -- the term given to St. Ignatian' Spiritual Exercises when they are conducted over a six month period verses the usual thirty day intensive seminar format. In 2004-2005 I participated in the program offered here in Oklahoma by the Benedictine Sisters at their Red Plains Spirituality Center in Piedmont.

However, the simplicity of Poverty of Spirit is comparable to that of the initial Beatitude which it expounds, the closer you look the deeper it goes. 'To become human means to become "poor," to have nothing that one might brag about before God.' (p.10) Nothing? Nothing! NOTHING! Let that sink in. Really and truly sink in. Poverty of spirit isn't about becoming poor but accepting that we already are poor, only most of the time we just don't know it, or get it. 'We are so poor, even our poverty isn't our own.' (p.51)

Ah, but this is a review and not a homily. Still, it is hard to write about this book without going into its spiritual teachings and mystery. Poverty of Spirit can be read in one sitting; it's only fifty-two pages. And yet probably a third of my copy is highlighted because of all the quotable sayings.

Jesus's poverty of spirit begins with His acceptance of His humanity, something we are so familiar with we usually fail to grasp the immense significance of God-become-man. It continues with His life of prayer, obedience, service, ultimately culminating in His sacrifice on the Cross, called the sacrament of poverty of spirit.

Cardinal Metz shows how we human beings are innately poor and the various shapes poverty takes: commonplace; misery and need; uniqueness and superiority; provisional nature; finiteness and death. Each distinct form is dealt with as both our chalice and our curse. And yet, those of us who would lay claim to the kingdom of God/heaven, know this to be blessed.

A spiritual classic worth reading . . . many times. For me, once every Lent. I re-read this again this year, as I've done every Lent since I first did the St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises-like many of the great works, it can be read in a short span of time, but probably never mastered.

One additional note about the author, which I just learned recently in reading, The End of Time?: The Provocation of Talking about God, Cardinal Metz is a fellow Bavarian and colleague of Pope Benedict XVI.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Happy Mother's Day!

I used to evaluate, rank or rate my holidays, i.e., try to determine if they were better than previous ones. As I’ve gotten older, for better or worse – and it really doesn’t matter which – I don’t do that anymore. Now instead I’ve learned to use special days as opportunities to count my blessings. Today I had so many I lost track.

For starters there are my own dear mothers: the dear lady who gave birth to and raised me in the Catholic faith and the other special lady who bore and lovingly brought up my husband. I call them both, “Mom” and I love them beyond words. I am twice blessed in their love and in the wonderful men they've been married to for over fifty years each, my two “Dad”s.

Then there’s the man who made me it possible for me to become a mother, the most profound vocation and life-changing event which has ever happened to me. Thank you Bear, for our two beautiful daughters, and for the gift of your love, fidelity, and friendship through these many years.

Which brings me to our own dear children, the two most beautiful young ladies—inside and out—I know. This week they were both inducted in the National Honor Society (NHS). Our older daughter, Meg, will be President of the Carl Albert High School NHS next year. Michelle performed in her Spring Concert this past week; she amazed me with her talent! And Meg attended her own school’s prom with her friends; she enjoyed herself very much.

If all these blessings were enough, I got to spend the day with my entire family and talk to all four parents as well. Last night I went to Mass with my husband and Michelle and today I went again with Meg. In front of us today at Mass there was a young family with three children, the youngest of which was the most delightful blonde-haired little boy with Down’s syndrome. He was affectionate, sweet, well-behaved and so cute it almost hurt to look at him. It was also obvious he was the delight of his family. As I watched the little boy hugging and kissing his bigger brother, I couldn’t help but think of this video I’d recently watched called, What Do These People Have In Common?

It’s been a lovely overcast misty day spent quietly doing nothing in particular. I am most abundantly blessed. Thank You God for everything! May this little branch forever be attached to Your True Vine!

May all the mothers everywhere have a very happy and blessed Mother's Day!

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Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Contraception of Grief

Not an easy book to read nor absorb, although I did technically-speaking "finish" it in under two hours. It can be purchased from Priests For Life or read entirely on-line.

The difficulty in the first chapter stems from the historical framework, medical language and theological background necessary to place this work in its proper perspective. So while I'd love to be able to just hand it to my teen-age daughters the way my own mother handed me a book on "The Facts" when I was about twelve, it wouldn't be advisable.

In one of the subheadings, "The Manipulation of Language" I was again reminded of Josef Pieper's Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power where he talks about lies, the crafting of well-reasoned arguments and whether the writer is seeking to convey the truth or deceive his audience. When such is the case, 'from that moment on (the author/artist) no longer considers the other as partner, as equal. In fact, he no longer respects the other as a human person.' Pieper says this 'becomes a speech without a partner, since there is no true other; such speech, in contradiction to the nature of language, intends not to communicate but to manipulate.'

This section of the book examines popular methods of birth “control” – commonly used even by those who consider themselves pro-life – which in effect do more than just prevent conception. Subtle shifts in definition, lack of full information and pressure from significant others have led to life-changing choices by women with disastrous results.

Chapter 2, A Collection of Personal Testimonies, is the longest; while less challenging methodologically it is more draining emotionally. Families – and women in particular – who are still trying to come to grips with their own Contraception Grief are encouraged to begin the process of healing. One place where understanding and compassion may be assured is at Janet Moreno’s website Silent No More.

Subsequent chapters offer other positive solutions, stories and redeeming outpourings to flow from this holocaust of sorrow, including: Contraceptive Evangelization; acknowledging the challenges of living this Truth; the virtue of Chastity; the healing power of the Eucharist and the power of the Marital Covenant. So while the first two chapters can be overwhelmingly difficult to read, especially for anyone between the ages of sixty and twenty who has been a victim of this disinformation campaign, there is hope to be found in this book and honestly, it’s the only true Hope to be had anywhere, redemption through Jesus Christ.

Important book!

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Different Presidents, A Different Corps

I don't know how much longer this video will be around to be viewed ... in my country of supposed free speech. I know it's a political 'statement' ... of the wrong kind and therefore dangerous.

What can I say? As a Pro-Life, practicing Roman Catholic, military vet who is against gun control, same sex marriage, right-to-die, and embryonic stem cell research legislation, married to someone who shares all those same 'heinous' characteristics/views, I've become public enemy number one in my own country today.

But if I was in both of those crowds, I'd cheer Dubya and I'd stand there when Barry came swaggering in. Oh how I miss you George W.! Still I hope you and Laura are enjoying a well-deserved retirement! God bless you both!


Saturday, May 2, 2009


I wrote the book review below just after I finished reading Silence. It was the end of a long and very fruitful Lent which culminated in the finishing of Father Neuhaus' great work, Death on a Friday Afternoon, our neighborhood fire and, most importantly, Holy Week leading up to the Easter Triduum. Bearing this in mind, this review seems a bit out of place now in the light of the Resurrection. And yet, in a recent discussion on the Via Dolorosa with my friend, Sharon*, she helped me to understand that 'sometimes when it seems that all around us are celebrating, this may not be true joy in the Lord.' Sharon referred me to a selection in Sister Faustina Kowalska's, Divine Mercy in My Soul, where that saint writes about the happiness of the crowd on Palm Sunday, 'But Jesus was very grave, and the Lord gave me to know how much He was suffering at the time. And at that moment, I saw nothing but only Jesus, whose heart was saturated with ingratitude.'

Here is my review:

Silence is a modern classic by Shusaku Endo. On the cover a crucified Jesus hangs from Japanese writing characters. My friend, Carol, recommended this book to me awhile back and I've had it sitting on my bookshelf. Then during Holy Week while I was finishing Fr. Neuhaus’ Death on a Friday Afternoon, he mentions the heroic struggles of the European missionaries who gave their all to travel around the world to share the Gospel message. Sometimes it just seems appropriate to leave off one book and seek out another, as if you are being led to it.

Silence tells a fictionalized story of what may have happened to two Portuguese priests who ventured onto mainland Japan during the persecution of the Christians around 1643. The story is told – brilliantly and poignantly – through the eyes of one Sebastian Rodrigues. The all important thing was to suffer and die a glorious martyr’s death. It was unthinkable that those who did not know Christ could devise any suffering, whether it be physical, mental, emotional or even spiritual which would lead the true believer to recant—but then this was before the days of Vietnam and the Japanese POW camps. Then it was believed no pain, deprivation, imprisonment, torture of oneself or one’s fellows—however prolonged, could ever be so bad it couldn’t be endured for love of God. It was simply a matter of one’s faith and will.

Silence is about the silence of God. I was 96 pages into the book before it occurred to me to keep track of all the times Shusaku Endo used the word, ‘silence’, ‘silent’ or ‘silently’, as well as words about sound. I had a feeling it was central to the story. From then until the end of the book (page 191) I counted fifty-one more times; I may have missed a few. It might have been a silly exercise—like something a high school English teacher would have you do—but I didn’t mind. And it focused my reading just when plot action came almost to a halt and most everything which was ‘happening’ was in the main character’s mind, or as experienced through his senses.

Silence is a powerful book. It seems to have as much to say about East meets West as it does about evangelization, martyrdom and the true voice of God. It is one Christian man’s search for the meaning of ‘the mud swamp Japanese in me’. ‘Japan is a mud swamp because it sucks up all sorts of ideologies, transforming them into itself and distorting them in the process.’ (p. xv) Sound like another country we all know and love?

Silence will leave you different than it found you. 'Be still (silent?) and know that I am God.' (Psalm 46:10)

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* Thank you Sharon!