Film Review: 26.2 to Life

I still remember the incredible emotions that choked me as I took the last steps of the Oakland Marathon and realized that, yes, I was going to finish. Even with lots of experience racing endurance events, including some very long marathon swim, there was nothing quite like it. And the faces of everyone around me reflected that we had all undergone a very special experience, stretching body, mind and spirit to their limits, and that we would forever share that experience.

It is this direct appeal to common humanity that drives Christine Yoo’s fantastic documentary 26.2 to Life, which is now playing in select theaters and winning all sorts of incredible awards at film festival. With unparalleled access to the inside of San Quentin–the yard, of course, 105 laps of which add up to 26.2 miles, but also other areas of the prison, including the cells–this documentary has the potential to go where no work of advocacy has gone before.

Lots of tired, jargony academic pieces about carceral geography and mass incarceration blather about “bodies” and “embodiment”, but nowhere is the somatic experience of an incarcerated body more visceral than in this film. We see people living under the horrid conditions that are only too familiar to regular readers of this blog and using endurance running–their own bodies, pushed to their limit–to sublimate and divert anger, to release stress, to find liberation, to imagine commonalities and brotherhood with people running on the outside. In one memorable scene, runner Jonathan Levin talks of running as a physical form of doing penance for his crime, reminding me vividly of the incredible ending scene of the Buddhist film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring.

Other runners feature more prominently, and we get to learn their personal stories. Markelle “The Gazelle” Taylor, the fastest runner of the club, dreams of qualifying for the Boston Marathon and running it if he makes parole. Rahsaan “New York” Thomas finds his voice as a journalist and leader in prison (his work for the San Quentin News and for Ear Hustle is also featured in Adamu Chan’s recent documentary What These Walls Cannot Hold. Tommy Wickerd works hard to redeem himself from a life of violence and be as much of a good husband to Marin and father to Tommy II as he can from behind bars. These folks, and many others featured in the film, are people I know. Some of them I met in person, though most of them I did not; I did spend many many hours with their loved ones, and hearing from them, in the weekly #StopSanQuentinOutbreak coalition meetings that we document in FESTER. There was something heartbreaking in watching these very familiar people in footage from before the calamity would strike and terrorize them and require them to develop new forms of courage and work new psychological muscles.

What stands out in the movie is how it lends itself to bridges of empathy and perspective taking. Not pity–though the men’s stories are contextualized in a way that does not absolve them from accountability and yet evinces profound understanding of their circumstances–but the same sense that every one of us has felt upon embarking on a huge athletic undertaking. The same sense of exhilaration and terror that is evident in the first steps of the protagonist of Brittany Runs a Marathon; the same trepidation and enormous effort of the swimmers in Driven; the sense of dread, then relief, accompanying Alex Honnold’s heroic climb of El Capitan in Free Solo. Christine Yoo has elevated Taylor, Thomas, Wickerd and the other runners to their rightful place along these cinematic athletic heroes by bringing her viewers into communion with the most basic things we all share: our bodies and our striving to make something of our lives within them.

You must see this movie. And you also must consider financially helping some of the film’s heroes. As pioneering research by Alessandro de Giorgi shows, the first and foremost challenges for anyone on the outside involve their basic survival: finding a place to live and a job. Even phenomenal athletes are not exempt from this. Markelle sells amazing athletic gear you can wear in pride for your training and racing, and Rahsaan is doing wonderful journalistic work that requires support.. Too often we expect formerly incarcerated folks to hit the ground running with activism for their friends still on the inside, discounting the importance of getting their own lives in order. Let’s lend our fellow athletes a helping hand.

Mendelssohn Reimagined: The Yom Kippur Conflict

The fierce conflict that erupted in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square on Yom Kippur showed how a classic political philosophy problem can come to blows. Religious organization Rosh Yehudi asked the city–seen as the bastion of civil rights and secular progress–for permission to hold an outdoors prayer with segregation between men and women. Municipal authorities refused: Tel Aviv does not hold segregated public events, a creeping problem in many municipalities in Israel. Rosh Yehudi leaders appealed the decision to the Tel Aviv District Court and were rebuffed, and nevertheless mysteriously announced that they have found a way to hold the prayer in a way that “upholds both halakhah and the law.” At the event, this way was unveiled: they did bring screens and dividers, and some of them were armed.

Secular people, angry at Rosh Yehudi’s flouting of the city and court mandates, interrupted the prayer loudly with noise and protest and removed the barriers. For religious people, this was a difficult sight to bear, as Yom Kippur is one of the only bastions of public religiosity that used to be tolerated and protected by the secular majority. Here is footage of the incident:

Video by The Holy Land, by Zahi Shaked

For more on this, you can listen to this interesting podcast, or read the opposing views of Daniela Gan Lerer and Meital Pinto. The incident also splintered the protest movement, as some thought the provocation would be counterproductive while others expressed the awakening of the secular public from decades of religious coercion.

To me, the incident underscored how much the serious issues that philosopher Moshe Mendelssohn raised in his book Jerusalem are still vividly present–and how they arise in Israel in much the same way that they arose in Germany in the late 18th century. Mendelssohn, a bright light of Western philosophy, in conversation with other Enlightenment greats like Lessing, Dohm, and Kant–whom he beat at an essay competition!–lived a life of deep contradiction (read all about his life in Leora Batnitzky’s book How Judaism Became a Religion.) He was an observant Jew who was at the same time versed in fresh Western philosophy; he wrote commentary on the Torah (which would later be banned by ultra-orthodox authorities) as well as hobnobbed with Berlin’s intelligentsia–even as he had to enter the city, where his own living situation was precarious due to his Jewishness, through the animal gate; he presented Judaism, to non-Jews, as a religion of reason, superior to Christianity in terms of its compatibility with science and reason, lauded ideals of the Enlightenment era, while at the same time explaining the importance of the embodied rituals that made Jews seem so alien to, and othered in, their European surroundings.

The advent of the modern state and the earnest focus on equality and civil rights (along with all the glaring blind spots that it had) brought to the forefront what came to be known as “the Jewish Question”: up until then, as my beloved dad described in his wonderful short story collection, Jewish communities lived amongst themselves, not really mixing up much with the general population, not regarded as full citizens, steeling themselves against pogroms and general hostility from the surrounding community, and pretty much self-governed by their own rabbis and authorities. But with new winds of civil rights and citizenship blowing in European countries, mostly in Germany, some thinkers figured that better integration and civil rights should be granted to Jews. For some thinkers, offering citizenship to Jews was important for the improvement of the Jews themselves, who were deemed backward and reviled based on their dress and customs (as well as their financial occupations); but for Mendelssohn, offering citizenship to Jews was important because Judaism should be regarded as a religion–the person’s private business, between them and their religious community–rather than a membership card in a political entity. In other words, one can be Jewish in their own home, following the customs and halakhic directives, and a full-fledged German or French citizen in the public sphere. The difference between religion and state, posited Mendelssohn, was the source of its power:

The state dictates and coerces; religion teaches and persuades. The state enacts laws; religion gives commandments. The state is armed with physical force and makes use of it if need be; the force of religion is love and benevolence.

This was directed especially as a critique of the practice of religious excommunication: Mendelssohn did not want to accord to religious leadership the statelike power of obliterating a person from their membership lists based on their inner faith or beliefs.

What’s remarkable about Mendelssohn’s writings, and his massive influence on the haskalah movement, is that they centered around the question of Jewish citizenship in European countries. The notion that Jews might at some point be citizens in their own nation-state did not come into the conversation. Just a few decades later, when the Hamburg temple would reform its liturgy, one of its main innovations would be prayer in German rather than in Hebrew, under the assumption that Hebrew was a dead language, irrelevant to the lives of the German-speaking congregation. The idea that, one day, Jewish people would congregate in a public place and pray in Hebrew was unimaginable.

The kicker is this: As my late, beloved colleague Gad Barzilai famously wrote in his book Communities and Law, most of the writings on multiculturalism–in many ways, a continuation of the Enlightenment-era debate–are the work of political philosophers examining the adaptation of ethnic and religious groups to largely Western societies in the United States, Canada, and Europe (Waldron, Nozick, Kymlicka, Parekh). Very little of this has engaged with non-Western societies, and particularly with Middle Eastern societies. Which brings us back to the peculiarities and endemic characteristics of the Yom Kippur conflict. One of the main admonitions of the protesters in the public debate about this was that the prayer gathering was deliberately (and provocatively) planned to take place not only in open, public place, but at a bastion of secularity. “If they want to pray with gender segregation,” goes the argument, “they are more than welcome to do so–in their own orthodox synagogues.” This argument, for me, echoes a Mendelssohnian concept of Israel as a European nation-state: the power of the state is secular and secularizing, and religion should be kept as the person’s private business, conducted in their private sphere, and certainly not endorsed by the state apparatus.

Contrast this to the position held by the organizers of the prayer gathering. Their position implies that Israel, unlike the Mendelssohnian state, boasts a unique religion-state nexus through its declaration of independence as a “Jewish and democratic country”, and has a special, privileged position for the Jewish faith that must be respected in the public sphere. The battles along this lines are many and varied, and only recently included the big blow-up over keeping Passover kashrut laws within public hospitals.

It may well be that “Jewish and democratic” are not harmonizable ideas, and that this conflict, along with its other manifestations, has brought to a head the fact that multicultural theories can produce neat analyses (and clearly defined disagreements) only in the situation that Mendelssohn and his intellectual progeny could envision: a seemingly secular state contrasted with religious subgroups. But even this is a bit farcical. The extent to which German society, presumably sterilized from religious contamination, was truly that–with Judaism having the same relationship with it as, say, Christianity–is highly dubious, and we know that many philosophers of the era (even Kant!) explicitly discussed religious elements in their state theories. Could it be that the relationship of religious Jews with their Jewish-and-democratic state is, in some way, analogous not to the relationship of Jews with 18th century Germany, but rather to the sublimated, seemingly invisible relationship of Christians and Christianity with 18th century Germany? If so, what this conflict does is bring to the forefront a sticky problem that permeated not Mendelssohn’s thinking, but the thinking of his contemporaries, who mistook hegemony for secularity and habitus for neutrality.

An Imagination Hijacked by Orthodoxy

In 1818, a Jewish congregation in Hamburg established a constitution for a new temple. Energized by the emergence of the modern state and the prospect of emancipation for Jews, and inspired by Moses Mendelssohn’s philosophy, they sought to infuse winds of change into Jewish dress and customs. And there would be quite a bit of change: the liturgy would be sung in German, not Hebrew (a dead, unspoken language at the time); men, women, and children would attend services together; and there would be something akin to a confirmation ceremony for children of both sexes. Eliezer Liebermann, a prominent supporter of reform and emancipation, praised the new services in his book The Light of Splendor: “They have cleared the path of stumbling blocks and hailstones and have removed all obstacles from the way of our people by establishing a house of prayer in which they can pour out their hearts before before His Great Name, blessed be He.” This, he maintained, was not the way of assimilation and disappearance, but a path toward salvaging Judaism in a way that met people where they were: if there had been men who “illuminated the good and beneficial path. . . with sap and nectar”, then “many of our people who have left our religion in this generation because of our numerous iniquities would not have done so.”

But not everyone was a fan. The Hamburg Rabbinical Court issued a 1819 decree against the reforms. This desecration of the traditional liturgy is clearly an emotional issue for them: the dissenters’ new prayer book, which toned down the yearning for Zion, “caused great sorrow and brought tears to our eyes over the destruction of our people.” The Hatam Sofer, leading preserver of the orthodoxy, finds “changing even one detail” of the traditional liturgy “reprehensible.” The outcome is known to history: the split of Judaism into reform, conservative, orthodox, and ultra-orthodox.

It was happenstance that, right after I read those sources, I came upon Rogel Alper’s critique of Adam Sandler’s new teen comedy You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah, and was struck by how much he played the same guilt-tripping, emotional register as the Hamburg court and the Hatam Sofer. You can read his review verbatim here, or check out this excerpt:

And how is Stacy’s Jewishness, which is presented as such a significant and vital component of her identify, expressed?

It’s an ethnic, tribal, familial issue. The Holocaust and Hitler are mentioned, of course. There’s some Yiddish slang and concepts in Hebrew, in a thick American accent. And that’s it. These are cosmetic decorations. The Jews in this film are an ethnic group. Their lifestyle is liberal. Girls are called up to the Torah and the spiritual leader is a young, kippa-wearing female rabbi. In terms of nationality they’re Americans just like Paul Simon, Woody Allen, Larry David, Adam Sandler and his daughters Sunny and Sadie Sandler. What do they have in common with Israelis?

Nothing. Israel isn’t mentioned in the film. Not even once. Stacy isn’t planning to visit the Western Wall. She doesn’t need to see the Land of Israel. She’s a Jewish woman and her Jewishness is presented as very central to her self-definition, but the country that in the Israeli Declaration of Independence is called “A Jewish state in the Land of Israel” doesn’t appear at all on the map of her values, her dreams, her self-fulfillment or the anchors of her existence.

She doesn’t yearn to “make aliyah” to Israel and doesn’t call it a “homeland.” She doesn’t long for it. She’s not in exile. Not for 2,000 years and not for 2,000 seconds. She doesn’t swear allegiance to it, doesn’t hope to “return” there and doesn’t pray to be part of the sovereignty and revival of the Jewish people in its land. She’s a Jew who already lives in security in her country. America is her homeland. She’s so American.

The inanity of Alper’s lament is obvious: it’s as if he is unaware of the fact that the United States is home to the largest Jewish diaspora, a diaspora that plays a considerable role in the the engine that drives American funding for Israel. It’s also as if he’s unaware of the fact that many U.S. teens do visit Israel, for their bar/bat mitzvah or on other occasions, with their families or with Birthright. Or as if he was never thirteen himself and cannot fathom that middle-school kids have lofty concerns closer to their hearts than the fate of Zionism. Mostly, it’s as if he’s unaware of the fact that Israel is on fire, imploding, and governed by messianic kooks, altogether not a particularly enticing place for Israeli teenagers to imagine staying and building their future there, let alone foreign teenagers to imagine actually moving there.

But let’s set all of this aside. Throughout the movie review, Alper conflates the characters’ lack of interest in Israel with their liturgy. What is it that he finds “not Zionist” or “not Israeli” about Stacy and her friends? Their feminism, as it turns out. As alienated as the Hatam Sofer by the possibility of female empowerment in a religious context, Alper seems bewildered by the fact that girls in the United States are called to the Torah (oy!) who, when looking at their rabbi, see a model of female leadership they can relate to (oy, vey!) wearing a kippa (oy, gevalt!)

Where does this lack of imagination come from in a secular, lefty man? Certainly not for lack of exciting models of alternative spirituality in Israel. Every Rosh Hodesh, the Women of the Wall (many of them immigrants from the U.S.) come to the Western Wall to joyously pray with the torah. The reform movement has a new sidur called Tefilat Ha’Adam, which is not only egalitarian, but contains many of the beautiful, Israel-rooted secular songs that Alper is familiar with. All around secular Tel Aviv, Jews who have an interested, curious, loving dialogue with their heritage gather for study dinners, creating a spiritually-engaged secular community. The Temurah Institute in Israel, like it’s U.S. counterpart, the IISHJ, ordains secular rabbis and offers great guidance to officiants and celebrants. There is a fabulous secular Yeshiva in Jerusalem and another great one in Tel Aviv. Anyone looking for a really great spiritual experience with no coercion or dogma can come learn at the Alma Home for Jewish Culture. Girls are called to the Torah in Israel. Women are ordained rabbis and officiate ceremony and ritual in Israel. Every day.

Are ordinary secular Israelis, like Alper, unaware of this flourishing spiritual environment? Where do they get the dumb idea that orthodoxy and Israeliness are one and the same? They certainly spend a lot of time pissed off at the country’s orthodox hijack, where their entire circle of life is governed by an inexorable church-and-state knot that excludes, alienates, and humiliates. Do they not know there are other options?

There is no doubt that the stronghold of Jewish orthodoxy on every aspect of spiritual Jewish life in Israel is stifling at best and life destroying at worst. The seeds for today’s messianic nuttiness, complete with its perennial essential ingredient–gender marginalization–were sown many decades ago. Israelis of all stripes, even those who are deeply displeased by this, have lived with this status quo for a very long time, and the anti-government awakening is happening decades too late. The current talk of segregating men and women in national parks is compounding the already terrifying creep of segregation in streets, public transportation, academia, the workplace, and the arts. Perhaps the nauseating flavor of state-sponsored orthodox coercion has numbed the imagination of Alper and his secular friends to the degree that they cannot imagine any loving connection to Judaism in their own country that is not saturated with these noxious elements. And if so, they have a lot to learn from Stacy and her friends.

Can We Hustle for Our Book Without Social Media?

A couple of years ago, after our San Quentin litigation ended, I left Twitter, an excellent decision that I do not regret one bit. The improvement in my quality of life was palpable and immediate. Occasionally I miss some kerfuffle that is relevant to my professional interests, in which case someone usually fills me in. Most of what I miss are pile-ups, tiresome at best and dreadful at worst, and I’m happy to be rid of it all. Occasionally someone wants to link to my stuff and emails to ask what my handle is. My career hasn’t gone down the drain; my “brand,” such as it is, hasn’t suffered from lack of cultivation; and I don’t feel like I’m lacking information or updates on important things.

The prospect of leaving Facebook is more complicated, because by contrast to Twitter, Facebook is populated by lots of distant friends and family with whom it would be difficult to stay in touch without the platform. The problem is that the platform has become worse to a point that it is impossible to deny or dissociate. Finding new posts from friends has become a Herculean task. I repeatedly see the same posts–old ones–and am not exposed to new ones. Some stuff gets prioritized, other stuff is hidden, and I have no say on the matter. Worst of all, the platform has become inundated in ads and reels that offer me absolutely nothing, and getting rid of them (through assiduous clicking and unclicking) is an abhorrent chore.

Plenty has been written about attention, mindfulness, and how destructive social media is to all these. Plenty has also been written about how we (more precisely, our eyeballs) are the product. It feels, though, that lately they’ve dropped the pretense of offering us a decent user experience in return for our attention; they’ve thrown the towel and now it’s all about unabashed marketing. Perhaps the price we have to pay for our connections and relationships has become steeper from the corporation’s loss-and-profit perspective. In any case, having now started full-time grad school on top of my full-time job and my very full-time kid, my time is limited and precious. I can’t afford to squander it by engaging in an Easter egg hunt for my friends’ words. At the same time, what is the alternative? It’s the only place that brings together people I can’t reach otherwise.

In addition to the personal cost of severing relationships that I care about and can realistically preserve only through Facebook, there’s the imminent publication of FESTER. Chad and I think this book is important; we wrote it because we wanted California’s COVID-19 correctional disaster remembered, and because we wanted to usher in the urgent conversation how to prevent the next plague from decimating the prison population and beyond. We want to bring first-hand accounts of the suffering to you, and we want you to follow the blow-by-blow account of the litigation so that you’ll know that courts (and politicians! and sheriffs!) are no good when it comes to emergency situations and lives on the line. We wrote it because we want people to witness the heroism of incarcerated people, their families, and their recently released friends, as well as countless advocates and activists, and to see what people can accomplish when they organize together against a tough, cruel system. For you to have this experience, we need you to read the book. And I’m now wondering whether it’s possible to get you to read the book without Facebook, Twitter, Insta, TikTok, and the like.

What would be good ways to promote our book without hustling online? We’re open to suggestions. If book promotion requires an online presence, I may have to do that, too, but I’m not looking forward to it and it will exact a psychological and cognitive price I’m not happy to pay. On the other hand, I’m happy to organize in-person events and parties, go on the radio and on TV, cold-contact bookstores and universities, and contact various organizations and activist hubs. Will the latter stuff be enough? I’m not sure, but I’ll certainly discuss it with my publicist and with those of you who have recent books out.

The Dream Is Over? Seasons in Fitness and Sports

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclestiastes 3:1-8

For many of us, this is an ordinary Friday; not so for the small subset of people interested in marathon swimming. Today, my friend Avishag Kofman-Turek, whom I met through our mutual interest in swimming the Sea of Galilee, completed an amazing athletic feat: swimming the North Channel from Ireland to Scotland.

Throughout the day, since the wee hours of the morning, I followed the GPS feed and rooted for Avishag’s safe and successful crossing. It is a huge endeavor. The water is frigid and required many months of difficult acclimation, not to mention a considerable increase in practice yardage (I should say, mileage.)

While witnessing this accomplishment, I was busy reading and completing assignments for four courses: Modern Jewish Thought, Intro to Buddhism and Buddhist Studies, How to Read the Book of Job, and Buddhism in the West. Recently, I’ve embarked on my own marathon swim, an intellectual one; I’m pursuing rabbinical ordination at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism and a masters degree at the Graduate Theological Union’s Center for Jewish Studies. I’ve been keeping this on the down-low during the application process, but if you peek here you’ll see a familiar face. It’s a feat no less solitary than marathon swimming, nor is it going to be easy (I continue to work full time as a law professor and be a full-time devoted mom to my son – I just sleep a lot less and have eliminated idle Internet time from my schedule) but it looks a lot less heroic, as it entails nothing photogenic: just sitting in front of my laptop, reading and writing.

It’s been ages since I trained for, and participated in, a real marathon swim. I know exactly when the last time was: the Thames Marathon in 2016. It was beautiful and serene and a good way to go about semi-retirement from marathon swimming. I still swim in the bay once in a while, and I did crank out a 5k without much effort in Kona last year, but nothing like the distances I used to put in week after week when I was training for big things like the Sea of Galilee or the Tampa Bay Marathon. In the last year, I shifted my efforts into multisport and lifting, partly to combat perimenopause and its discontents, but in the four months since my dad’s illness everything came to a grinding halt and the grief has made it very hard to work out at all, let alone swim a meaningful distance. I’m experiencing a really rough somatic reaction to breathing while swimming, perhaps because dad died of a rare lung disease and struggled to breathe before he was intubated. The lack of exercise and some emotional eating resulted in putting on some weight, and while a couple of months of careful whole food/veg juice diet and vigorous exercise will do the trick, I’m just not feeling it as a pressing priority. I am making an effort to eat healthy things, take good supplements, and move every day (I commute by bicycle, lift in my garage, and take walks in the neighborhood). But it really is an effort.

I did feel a little melancholy today reflecting on Avishag’s amazing swim. Not a sense of envy at her success, but rather a bit of wistfulness about how I don’t seem to be able to muster the kind of gumption and perseverance I used to have about dramatic athletic feats. I take some comfort in the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, echoed in this awesome Rich Roll podcast about periodizing one’s life. Now’s the time to take good care of myself without embarking on big health-and-fitness goals, make sure I’m well nourished when I go to teach and study, and invest in my new academic pursuits. Thing is, I’m not getting any younger, and while swimming is something you can continue to do and improve in throughout your life, I doubt I’ll be able to pull off big marathon swims out of the blue when I’m in my 60s and 70s without putting the requisite time now. But none of this matters if I just don’t have it in me at the moment.

The dream is over,

What can I say?

The dream is over


I was the dream weaver, but now I’m reborn

I was the walrus, but now I’m John

And so, Dear Friends, we’ll just have to carry on;

The dream is over.

John Lennon, “God”

Self-Compassion for Disillusioned Activists

In the sixties, Todd Gitlin, then a young, passionate student, became involved in the fight against the Vietnam war and in the struggle for equality. Alongside his friends at Students for a Democratic society (he was the president in 1963-1964) he agitated, organized, protested, held movements, registered people to vote in the Deep South, and fought against orthodoxy in the Democratic party and for a New Left. Many years later, already a sociology professor and incisive critic of the movement he helped create, he evocatively wrote about how much activism had meant to him. The first half of his masterpiece The Sixties reads like a manifesto of hope; the second half, though, is rife with confusion. Plans for political action got muddled with self expression and individuality a-la diggers and the Mime Troupe (to read a different perspective on those, read Peter Coyote’s fantastic memoir Sleeping Where I Fall); people he admired and respected as leaders disappointed at best and disintegrated at worst; former comrades slid further and further to the left, established the Weather Report, and engaged in clumsy but frightening violent actions Gitlin could not condone or comprehend (learn more about those in the podcast Mother Country Radicals). Gitlin’s later books reveal an author and thinker who still very much believes in the ideals of socialism and peace, but resents the splintering and performativity of identity politics that he believes shattered the movement in the 1970s.

Today I found myself going back to one of my favorite books by Gitlin, Letters to a Young Activist, which evokes that deep ambivalence and wisdom that comes only from spending years in a movement you both admire and fiercely critique. Gitlin talks about the importance of passionate motivation but also reminds young activists not to “think with their blood”; highlights the crucial role of shining a light on the wrongs of your own side, but also the importance of letting self-flagellation by the wayside; and warns against the dangers of “marching on the English department”, as it were, while one’s opponents “march on Washington.”

What brought me back to Gitlin were a number of recent conversations with younger folks I like and admire a lot about their disillusionment with infighting and lack of integrity in radical movements and organizations with noble goals and true dedication. People admired and respected in positions of leadership turn out to behave in disappointing ways; serious issues get buried or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, debated to death, complete with public denunciations and humiliations; minute complaints turn into struggle sessions that sap everyone’s will to come back; and eventually people come to demonize their comrades and brothers in arms more than they do the bad guys they are fighting against.

Hearing about this stuff is always heartbreaking, especially when I see folks who I know put in countless, tireless, thankless energy, time and effort into organizing and activism express disillusionment and despair. I can offer very little solace in this sort of situation; dealing with big disappointment as an idealist is really hard, and calls for more than one self-compassion break.

Kristin Neff, who has written and spoken extensively about self compassion and mindfulness, offers a three-step formula for anyone who is struggling. The first step is to admit that this is, indeed, a moment of suffering, a low point in the person’s life. The second, which I’ll elaborate more on in a bit, is understanding that suffering is universal, a part of life, and that everyone suffers–sometimes intensely–from time to time. And the third is offering oneself some kindness, either through expressing it or through a gentle hand touching one’s own heart.

I like this exercise a lot, and find the second step especially important, because as Brené Brown explains, one of the traps of shame and self-pity (by contrast to self compassion) is to see one’s experience as unique and idiosyncratic. I see a lot of this horror in young, committed activists, who are so distraught by occurrences in their group or community that they believe it must be prey to some special variety of pathology. This is where I can offer some comfort. As regular readers know, I’ve written and spoken quite a bit about the sixties, and part of my work on Yesterday’s Monsters included learning about cults and movements that swirled around the California counterculture when Manson put together his “family.” When the murders occurred, and when Manson and his followers were identified as the culprits, they evoked a wave of horror because cults and their inner workings were not well known or understood at the time. Indeed, the idea of thought control and brainwashing was associated at the time only with Communist regimes such as China and Korea (see an example of this in The Manchurian Candidate.)

But while this group stood out in the heinousness of their crimes, they were by no means the only group led by charismatic leaders and/or a vision to be plagued by exploitation, violence, and oppression. In the mid-seventies, the California legislature held a hearing for family members of young adults who had joined cults, hearing testimony after testimony about how their loved ones fell in thrall to some charismatic leader or other, started believing some stranger things, dramatically changed their appearance or habits, isolated from them to the point of estrangement, and gave all their effort and resources to the cult. Witnesses testified about the Moonies and about a variety of Christian apocalyptic cults. The legislators at the hearing tiptoed between expressing deep concern and sympathy and reminding everyone that cult members were adults with the freedom of religion and expression.

To this day, whenever I see people criticize radical activist movements that fall prey to unsavory activity and conflict, the demonizing language compares the movement to a cult. This is not a scientific or easy process, because cults turn out to be quite a malleable category. But one need not go into the reeds to identify pathological cultish elements in pretty much every activist movement, including influential and notable ones. Three years ago I wrote a post about this stuff that identified a lot of the obvious issues: betrayals of the cause, identitarian splintering, sexual exploitation or perceived exploitation, financial malfeasance, etc. Having read a lot about movements in the 1960s and 1970s, I see situations where the FBI were infiltrating and persecuting organizations and cells and eventually didn’t have to do anything to hasten their demise: these outfits crumbled on their own, without the malignant interference of the feds, because they suffered from these inherent issues. Stanley Nelson’s fantastic documentary about the Black Panthers is a case in point: there’s nothing the FBI could have done to dissolve the Panthers that Huey Newton didn’t do himself. Larry Kramer’s acerbic account of ACT UP in The Normal Heart shows the awful indifference and demonization the activists were working against, but also how they sabotaged themselves through horrendous infighting. I see this stuff again and again.

Here are some factors–and this is by no means an exhaustive list–that are part of this malignant cocktail. Oftentimes, radical organizing draws people who seek the type of camaraderie and belonging that membership in a close-knit group of likeminded people working for an important cause can provide. Some young folks get swept in this energy because home life is rife with trauma or neglect, or because their school or employment networks haven’t improved their lot socially. I’m not saying their commitment to the goal is not genuine; all I’m saying is that excitement about a common vision is infectious and promises an embrace that is very difficult to resist if one feels lonely or traumatized. The fact that a lot of radical movements strive toward ideological purity is also part of this. It isolated people and drives them further into the insular experience of the group, with no reality checks and balances on the outside. I’ve spoken to mixed-race couples that broke up on account of a commitment to racial justice that was so strong that it eclipsed years of love and commitment. I know of people who took the Liberation Pledge (not to eat where animals are served) and ended up unable to eat with anyone from their family or friend group outside vegan movements. Not only does this mean all of one’s social efforts are invested in a relatively small group of people, but that group ends up being an echo chamber and it’s very difficult to test ideas in the real world. And moreover, anytime purity and adherence to principles are the yardstick for worthiness, people turn on each other and compete over who is a more zealous advocate for social change. This process of eating each other seems to accelerate as shit starts hitting the fan, because people who are afraid and fighting for their own survival are sure to lash out at the people standing closest to them.

The fact that crappy things are happening to committed activists throughout the social justice field is not cause for cheer, but I think that anyone who thinks their organization is uniquely pathological might derive some comfort from knowing that, apparently, homo sapiens seems to find a way to ruin communities centered on ideals and struggles pretty much all the time. I don’t think we’ve found a way to organize and seek social change that doesn’t end up marred in these kinds of self destructive crap. I wish we could, but I’m in my late forties, have organized and agitated plenty, and I’m just not seeing it. The one that came closest to being a healthy organizing container, for me, was the #StopSanQuentinOutbreak coalition; it wasn’t without its warts, but it was highly effective and overall a really positive, supportive environment. I suspect the magic had something to do with the fact that, in addition to the long-term decarceration vision, we had tangible, short-term emergency goals, and thus no time for faffing. Perhaps human nature, like nature in general, abhors a vacuum, and will fill any available space with infighting and oneupmanship.

I don’t know what the answer is. But I do think that understanding we’re talking about universal phenomena that radical movements go through can be helpful to people who think they’re stuck in a uniquely dysfunctional scenario. Every unhappy family, as Tolstoy famously wrote, is unhappy in its own unique way, but they are still all unhappy. And that means that any person who believes in an ideal, a vision, a blueprint for far-reaching social change, and is committed enough to put a lot of work into it, will experience heartbreak from time to time. If this is you now, then it’s simply your turn. Offer yourself all the kindness you need to get through the rough patch, and then see if there’s another path for you to change the world or bring about your values in a way that supports your heart better.

Book Review: Zohar Gazit’s A Struggle to the Death

Following the tragic passing of my father, I spent a lot of time thinking about mourning rituals, and particularly about the invaluable work of Menuha Nekhona (“A Righteous Rest”), the all-volunteer organization that runs the secular-civil cemetery in my parents’ town. I was so impressed with them that I started drafting a book proposal about secular burials in Israel, but a few days later found out that someone has already written a book about alternatives to religiously sanctioned deaths: Zohar Gazit’s A Struggle to the Death (Tel Aviv: Resling, 2016) (Hebrew.) The original title, “Osim et HaMavet” (“making death”) is a double entendre: it’s a figure of speech meaning “haranguing someone” and also, in this context, implies the creative remaking of a hegemonic ritual in a way that fits the needs and concerns of deeply underserved populations.

Gazit’s book, which is based on his doctoral dissertation, examines three alternative death initiatives: in addition to Menuha Nekhona, he looks at Path to Life, an organization devoted to the healing and welfare of family survivors of suicide and to the destigmatizing of these deaths, and at Lilach, an organization promoting death with dignity (passive euthanasia) for terminally ill patients. Gazit’s theoretical framework heavily relies on Bordieu’s “field” concept (what sociological work doesn’t?) and shows the complicated relationship that each of these organizations has with the death “field.” All three of these organizations struggle against the hegemonic death rituals and perceptions in Israeli society: the religious concept of suicide (and any other actively chosen form of death, including some forms of euthanasia) as defying halakhic rules; the aggressive and greedy religious monopoly on burials in Israel, run by Orthodox Hevre Kadisha organizations who perform alienated, antiquated rituals, discriminate in plot allocations, and humiliate the dead and their loved ones; and the Israeli hierarchy of death, which glorifies military casualties and features a constant contest among other groups about their relative prestige, access to services, and differential stigma.

Gazit’s analysis is incisive and sensitive. His ethnography (participation in meetings and rituals, plenty of interviews, clever media analysis) shows internal conflicts and contradictions within the organizations he examines. What they want to highlight, and who they want to associate themselves with, is a delicate and carefully strategic dance of courting legitimacy and support. For example, Path to Life activists fiercely oppose efforts to downgrade the status of soldiers who committed suicide beneath that of supposedly legitimate military casualties; at the same time, they assiduously avoid even the semblance of supporting suicide as a legitimate option. They also contest professional opinions that discourage open talk of suicide as potential encouragement, arguing that open conversation can invite attention, help, and saving lives. Similarly, Lilach activists try to disengage from suicide organizations and stick to passive euthanasia, so as not to invite displeasure. And Menuha Nekhona have faced a complicated relationship with the very few people in Israel who sought cremation, an option associated with deeply negative stigma in Israel due to the legacy of the holocaust; at the same time, they’ve had to partner sometimes with Hevre Kadisha for burial services, among other surprising disclosures in procuring coffins: traditional Jewish burials are in shrouds, with no coffin, but bodies flown in from abroad arrive in coffins and Hevre Kadisha sell these to Menuha Nekhona.

Gazit’s book is full of fascinating information for anyone interested in social movements, sociology of religion, political theory, and constitutional law. I learned a lot. There is plenty I’m interested in that I didn’t find in the book (such as the negotiations of individual burial styles, headstones, and maintenance), but there’s only so much one can include in one work. My only quibble–a minor one, and by no means limited to Gazit’s book–is that he repeatedly relies on the terms “good death” and “bad death” for, respectively, the hegemonically sanctioned death and the alternatives. I know these are both well-established sociological terms of art and Gazit is correctly using them. But terms of art in sociological theory can sometimes sound jargony and, in this case, given that these organizations fight deep injustices, come off a bit precious and more than a bit jarring in their aesthetic and moral removal. I would have preferred “hegemonic” and “alternative.”

This minor issue aside, Gazit’s book is an important and worthy addition to other texts investigating national-religious hegemonies in Israel and those who try to contest them, such as Daphne Barak-Erez’s Outlawed Pigs and Michal Kravel-Tovi’s When the State Winks. I’ll end with my favorite passage (in my own translation from Hebrew):

All three organizations have emblazoned death on their flag, but they carry a message of life. Better, safer, richer, more mindful life, achieved through dealing with the “bad death.” From an event that happens to us, death is shaped as an event that we are active in. Passive social isolation, leaving decisionmaking to the medical establishment and later to Hevre Kadisha with no input from the individual and their loved ones, are replaced by decisions, choices, and action. Addressing “bad death” is framed as an empowering resource in the activists’ lives–an expression of courage, principled stance, and a struggle against injustice.

A “Shloshim” (“Thirty”) Ceremony for my Dad

Today, my family will observe the “shloshim” (“thirty”) ritual for my dad, a little over a month from his death. This Chabad resource explains the ceremonial significance of the passage of the first month of mourning. It is customary for family and friends to visit the grave and witness the unveiling of the new headstone (“giluy matzevah.”)

Headstones are placed on graves for various historical, practical, and cultural reasons. I see dual symbolism in a heavy, sturdy stone. First, there is the idea of finality, of coming to terms with the loss, which reflects the complicated psychological process of grief after the shock and confusion that characterize the time of the funeral. The grief is far from dulled, but it begins to transform as loved ones try to adjust to their bereavement. And second, there is the idea of the stone not as an end, but as a beginning–as a cornerstone for what will eventually become a memory palace for the person we grieve.

The concept of a “memory palace” comes from memory science, where it is also known as the “method of loci.” It is an ancient mnemonic device which uses the visualization of familiar spatial environments–or the detailed imaginary construction of spatial environments–in order to enhance the recall of information. I think that the idea of spatially constructing memory during bereavement is hugely important. Events immediately preceding death, as well as death itself, tend to loom very large in the loved ones’ consciousness, which I think is true in cases of a sudden, shocking passing as well as when a prolonged period of suffering and caregiving overshadows a lifetime of happy memories. This understanding transforms the meaning of a headstone from something final to a new beginning–a freeing process by which having the dying process and the death settle into the memory makes room for preceding memories to emerge and populate the palace.

In light of this understanding, I choose to interpret my dad’s headstone as a cornerstone for the memory palace I’m building for him in my heart. The ceremony I’m officiating today is therefore designed to ceremonially and emotionally place this cornerstone, through sharing memories and through special prayers and texts crafted to move along the memory-building project.

The central prayer of the ceremony is my version of the traditional Jewish “El Maleh Rakhameem” (“God full of mercy”) recitation, which is a deeply spiritual call to find a proper resting place (“menukhah nekhonah”) for the soul of the deceased. The original prayer is full of flight, bird, and wing imagery, which reminds me a lot of one of my dad’s favorite songs, El Cóndor Pasa:

My version of the prayer retains the flight motif and invites the memory to soar (English translation follows the Hebrew original):

חברים אהובים, מלאי רחמים, חברים עצובים והמומים, המציאו מנוחה נכונה על כנפי זכרונותיכם הטובים במעלות קדושים וטהורים, כזהר הרקיע מזהירים, לנשמת חיים אבירם בן שרה ושמואל יוסף שהלך לעולמו. רננו לכבודו, הללו את זכרו בכינור ובנבל עשור. שירו לו שיר חדש. היטיבו נגן בתרועה. זכרו את הווייתו הזכה, את חכמתו הרבה, ליבו הגדול והחומל, צחוקו הטוב, מעשיו הנאצלים, ועשו מעשים טובים בשמו ולעילוי זכרו. את הציווי לחיות חיים מוסריים, טובים ומשפרי עולם שמרו – אל נא תעזבום בשמו. בכל לבכם דירשו את צרכי תיקון עולם – אל נסטה ממצווה זו כשם שהוא הגשימה בכל נשימה מנשמות אפו. הנה תאבנו לדעת איך לרפא תבל – בצדקת מעשינו נחיה כשם שחי הוא את חייו הטובים והראויים.

על כן ברחמיכם הגדולים תסתירוהו בסתר כנפיכם לעולמים, ותצררו בצרור זכרונותיכם היקרים מפז את נשמתו. ליבותיכם האוהבים הם נחלתו, וינוח לשלום בנשמות כולנו, ונאמר שלום.

Dear friends, full of compassion, shocked and saddened friends, find proper rest on the wings of your good memories in holy and pure realms, like the shining stars that sparkle in the skies, for the soul of Haim Aviram, son of Sarah and Shmuel Yosef, who has passed away. Sing praises in his honor, glorify his memory with a ten-stringed harp. Sing a new song for him. Let your trumpets ring. Recall his righteous being, his abundant wisdom, his big and compassionate heart, his hearty laughter, his noble deeds, and do good in his name and for the elevation of his memory. Preserve the commandment to live a moral life, good and world-improving – do not abandon it in his name. Seek with all your heart the needs of repairing the world – do not neglect this commandment, as he fulfilled it with every breath he took. Indeed, we desire to know how to heal the world – through the righteousness of our deeds, we will live just as he lived his good and worthy life.

Therefore, in your great compassion, hide him under your wings for eternity, and gather tightly the dear memories of his soul as a precious treasure. Your loving hearts are his legacy, and may he rest in peace within all our souls, and let us say, peace.

Film Review: Holding It In

Filmmaker Omer Yefman and I went to school together and, after wanting to see his films for years, yesterday I finally had an opportunity to attend a screening of Holding It In (2020), his film with his partner Chen Rotem, an honest, no-barred-holds window into their surrogacy journey.

I’ve been interested in Omer’s work since hearing about All Happy Mornings (2012), in which he and Chen opened up about Omer’s bisexuality and their complicated journey into nonmonogamy (something I had written about from a legal and sociological perspective.) I remembered him vividly from our school days as an authentic, real person, who met the world around him with humility and curiosity, and it was a pleasant discovery (though not at all a surprise) that Chen is also a fantastic and openminded person. I especially appreciated the film’s entry into a fraught conversation in Israel about surrogacy. Israel’s limited adoption market, a product of its decided natalism, means that people aggressively pursue IVF treatments with enormous social backing, and that queer couples and people for whom IVF is not an option pursue surrogacy. This has produced a ferocious debate in the queer community about the power differential and exploitative potential of surrogacy, as well as legislation that excluded same-sex couples from surrogacy in Israel (surrogacy is still an option for opposite-sex couples and single women.) Some surrogates have spoken up against the assumption that they are exploited or powerless in the relationship, while other commentators have dismissed their perspective as privileged and not representative of the overall population of surrogates.

Issues of money and power are not at the center of Chen and Omer’s journey–they are frank and vulnerable about conversations of partnership, giving, children, family time, and camaraderie before and during Chen’s pregnancy–but they are not far from the surface. In one scene, Chen and Omer’s two young kids are asleep in the back seat of the car while the parents discuss Omer’s discomfort using “surrogacy money” to go on a family vacation abroad. Earlier in the film, discussing their decision with friends, Chen is adamant that she would insist on paying for surrogacy, and there’s an agreement that payment is fair and important given the sacrifice and risk. “It’s our money,” Chen says. “I’m still uncomfortable,” Omer replies.

Surrogacy and adoption are distinguishable in important ways: by contrast to surrogacy, which is a service from the get-go (in one touching scene, Chen explains to her young kids that the baby is “a guest in our family” who “will return to his parents” after he is born), the decision to place a child for adoption can only be made after the child is born, no matter what theoretical agreements birthparents and adoptive parents reach before the birth, and therefore there is no compensation, as such, beforehand, which could be constituted as bribe. But to say this is to some extent hypocritical. I’ve written before about the fact that, like surrogacy, adoption is a situation in which a baby usually passes from poorer hands to wealthier hands, while money changes hands in the opposite direction. The meticulous limitations on what is, and is not, remunerable, obscure this important point–an effort to quantify the unquantifiable. Regardless of the legal or ethical taxonomy of payments (support? compensation?) the quantification of such a fundamental and immense human process is at the heart of the discomfort.

Because of this deep truth, people on both sides of either adoption or surrogacy relationships would do well to remember that there are some things that this money should not buy. One of the most stunning moments in the film, for me, was when Chen returned from a medical checkup and told Omer that the prospective parents discussed a C-section with the doctor–without having discussed it with her first. Here’s the scene:

I felt rage bubbling in me while watching this scene. I’ve been in a similar situation from the opposite side, I thought. Someone else gave birth to my child. And it would never occur to me to make any demands, requests, suggestions anything at all about the birth. I feel very strongly that the only person who should be entitled to make decisions about a birth (what form it would take and who would be in the room, to name just two factors) is the person giving birth. As the scene progressed, Omer’s resentment toward the parents was palpable, while Chen explained that she did not want him to be angry on her behalf and that she was listening and trying to see things from their perspective (in the conversation we had after the movie, some details emerged that somewhat ameliorated, though did by no means eliminate, my deep concerns about the parents’ stance.) I had to actively remind myself that it was also Chen’s choice whether to feel resentful or not, and that adoption was fundamentally different from surrogacy. A birthmom gives birth to her own child and therefore makes her own decisions. A surrogate gives birth to someone else’s child. But a birth is a birth, I thought. What can be more personal than giving birth, regardless of the genetics of the child? The greatness of the film is that it is willing to ask these difficult questions without giving pat answers that rely on definitions and self righteousness.

And this is at the heart of my deep appreciation for the film: more than a film about an unusual, deeply stirring journey, it was a film about two incredibly brave and honest people, who are willing to confront not only complicated social and psychological questions, but their own demons, and to do so authentically in front of a camera. Their struggles and epiphanies are never self-serving, and never take the form of the all-too-common “lived experience” narrative one encounters all around us, where people marinate in their own goodness publicly. We’re flawed, just like everyone else, they seemed to say, and we want to share our process with you. In our conversation after the show, the filmmakers mentioned that, while documenting their experience, they weren’t thinking “people will be seeing this later”, but I think that there is a profound act of service in making this film that parallels the profound service of surrogacy. By opening a window into their personal life, far from generalizing their experience or making ethical proclamations, Chen and Omer are offering me and you an opportunity to engage with our own sense of ethics and question even the assumptions we clutch most tightly. What more can one possibly want from a film?

Family and Predisposition in the Age of 23andMe: The Cat Is Out of the Bag

Just a few days ago, I did the hardest thing I had ever done: I officiated my father’s funeral. Hundreds of friends, colleagues, and students of my dad came, many of whom remembered me only as a very young child. Many of these people commented, to my mom or to me, what a shock it was for them to see me: I am a dead ringer for my father, especially in my now short haircut that resembles his own haircut when he was in the army. The striking resemblance is hard to ignore. I took a lot of pride in these comments. It is wonderful to resemble my precious dad, who was the best person on Earth, and if I ever live up to be a tenth of the person he was, I’ll be very proud of myself.

Sleepless and weeping, I just read Kwame Anthony Appiah’s column in the New York Times from 2022, in which he applies an ethical lens to two letters written by adopted adults who want to contact their birth families. At the time these people were adopted, it was customary to keep their provenance secret from them, with a possible revelation (or not) when they came of age. Consequently, people who now, thanks to 23andMe and similar platforms have access to their genetic makeup, can now more easily find their birth families, which opens up lots of complicated moral dilemmas.

As regular readers know, I’m an adoptive mother. My wonderful son is the light of my life and the best thing that ever happened to me and my partner, as well as to our parents. I’ve written about our adoption journey and its implications for my worldview here, here, here, and here. The gold standard in current adoptions is open adoption, in which the child and the adoptive family know the birth family and vice versa. Some birth parents choose to be in touch and involved. Some do not. How people handle the immense pain of placing a child for adoption is profoundly individualized and should be respected as such. But at least one’s biological origins are never a shameful secret that needs to be hidden from them, awaiting a big revelation.

This newer adoption regime is not without its complications, and works differently for different families, but current science widely considers it significantly superior to closed adoption. The main argument for it is this: people are naturally drawn to their biological provenance. It is deeply important to them. In the first few days we spent with our son as a newborn, during the long, exhausting, and yet precious nights of hourly feedings, I was drawn to reading Charles Dickens novels, and remember being struck by the centrality of the mystery of provenance in so many of them: Bleak House, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Little Dorrit. Dickens himself had great interest in this issue, as one of the key founders and benefactors of the Foundlings Hospital. He published an article about it in 1853 titled Received, A Blank Child. The psychological distress of not knowing who one is, where one came from–especially in the rigidly stratified Victorian era–permeates Dickens’ writing. At the time, I also encountered many adult adoptees who so deeply resented the secrecy of their own adoption that they came to oppose adoption altogether, alongside many birth mothers who feel that the secrecy and shame surrounding the process created sickening opportunities for pressuring them to place their children for adoption. While anyone is entitled to their opinions, which are naturally shaped by one’s own life experiences, I wonder if the distressing legacy of unscrupulous closed adoptions is unfairly skewing these folks’ view of a much-transformed (and for the better) adoption landscape.

In his sensitive responses to the adult adoptees, I noticed that Appiah, who is characteristically careful with his terminology, does not use the terms “right” or “birthright” to know one’s biological origins. I’m not super versed in the jargon of philosophical rights theory, and the word “right” means different things to different people. But it does strike me that knowing who your birth family was is deeply important to many people and it makes a lot of sense to me that it does. Regular readers know I’m very far from a biology determinist, and even I was surprised by how gratifying I found it to be physically compared to my beloved father. It was deeply meaningful and brought me unexpected comfort in this devastating time. At the same time, It’s clear to me that even though people have a “right” to know their provenance, as they do other aspects of their biology, these discoveries do not necessarily make things better for them. A 2017 study by Lebowitz et al. highlights some significant downsides: today’s technologies, which give people access to a plethora of information about their genetics, make them overestimate the impact of their predisposed genetic properties and thus makes them pessimistic about their physical and mental health–despite what we know about epigenetics and the considerable impact of environment.

All these threads boil down to this: knowing things about your own genetic makeup, including about your birth family, has advantages and drawbacks, and plays out differently for different people. Thing is: good or bad, simple or fraught, freeing or burdensome–knowledge about your DNA is now easily available and secrets are near impossible to keep. Law and policy in a variety of areas–including family law and criminal law, two fields I’m deeply interested in–must be shaped with the understanding that the cat is out of the bag.

I think the idea that our deepest and most unsavory secrets will come to light–and living with the inevitability of discovery–looms large in our collective nightmares. In Clarissa Pinkola Estés book Women Who Run with the Wolves (now experiencing a well-deserved renaissance), she tells the story of a golden-haired woman murdered by a spurned lover and buried near a river. In time, reeds resembling her beautiful tresses grow over her grave and sing the song of her murder and her killer’s name. It’s no coincidence that many cultures feature similar stories. The wonderful Argentinian film noir Los Tallos Amargos is based on the same plot point. The new, democratized access to DNA testing has ushered an age in which these deeply embedded cultural fears are here.

In the adoption field, this means that birthparents and adoptive parents have to be very clearly apprised of the fact that their child will have access to information about their provenance. This is true for closed adoptions, open adoptions, and even kin adoptions to hide all kinds of unsavory family secrets. DNA testing services are here and in wide usage, and so whatever you think you are hiding about a child’s biology–to protect them, to protect yourself, whatever the reason–will come to light. Whatever role you play in the adoption triangle, you have to play it with the understanding that you have no control over whether, or when, the facts will come to light. This can cause a lot of distress and fear, but it is nonetheless true.

In the criminal justice field, it means that much of the concern about invasive DNA testing methods is now moot, whether positive or not, given their increasing availability and sophistication and decreasing costs. I see these concerns raised by privacy advocates and racial justice advocates. Honestly, it seems a bit ridiculous to resent the role that private DNA testing services and familial DNA testing played in unveiling and prosecuting California’s most heinous murderer and rapist, or to begrudge the relief that the current wave of cracking cold cases through novel uses of DNA technology brings to families even decades after the crime. In 2013, Charles MacLean called for accelerating another helpful DNA-based tool: producing an artist’s rendering of a perpetrator’s face based on an ancestry analysis of their DNA, which raised concerns about AI-generated over-racialized portrayals of perpetrators. Regardless of where you stand on the range between enthusiasm and concern about these technologies, they are here now and have helped crack at least one horrendous cold case.

This also means that some arguments about rehabilitation-versus-retribution are going to be skewed by our increased knowledge about whether and how people can change. In 2005, the field of juvenile justice was rocked by new insights from neuroimaging and developmental psychology about the malleability of the adolescent brain, leading to many welcome enlightened developments regarding the sentencing of people for crimes they committed at a young age. But what about kids who, from a very young age, present symptoms of what might later be diagnosed as psychopathy? In this piece, Angela Lashbrook looks at a difficult paradox we face now: on one hand, we want to exercise extreme caution before labeling children as psychopaths, opting instead for the still scary, but perhaps less so, diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder. On the other hand, it now turns out that the earlier the psychopathy diagnosis, the easier it is to do something about it, both clinically and through environmental redirection; adult psychopaths are notoriously resistant to any treatment or remediation. But talking about the advantages and drawbacks of labeling people with a diagnosis we now have the scientific means to determine they actually have is moot in an era of accelerated discovery and decreasing costs.

I would like to see more scholarship and policymaking in these areas leave behind the “pros and cons” discussions about disclosures, and move toward the more important question: how are we to shape our personal lives and public policies knowing that, whether we like it or not, genetic knowledge is widely available? How do we shift the conversation from talking about the virtues of keeping secrets that are impossible to keep toward framing the validity and immutability of these revelations in a scientifically valid way? Rather than trembling in fear of discoveries that will shake up our self perceptions and our families, wouldn’t it be better if we thought about the extent to which these discoveries have the power to shape our lives, and the varying degrees of freedom to shape our futures even as we know more about our pasts and presents?