In my last column, we read about two women who had overcome difficulties and trauma to speak out and reach out to other women and share their experiences instead of remaining alone in their pain. Below are books from two more women with widely divergent experiences that each have powerful lessons to teach us.
“Why were women, who bore the brunt of war, expected to remain quiet while men debated how to make peace?”
By Leymah Gbowee
From 1989 to 2003, with only brief interludes of relative peace, Liberia was embroiled in a brutal civil war. Leymah Gbowee chose in her book, Mighty Be Our Powers, to tell “the other reality” of the conflict, not portrayed in the foreign media. Instead of focusing on the “power and destruction,” the “male diplomats” and “the fighters-always men,” Ms. Gbowee says, “look more carefully, at the background, for that is where you will find the women…Our suffering is just a sidebar to the main tale.”
This startlingly intimate memoir is uplifting and heart-wrenching, sometimes in the same paragraph. Ms. Gbowee pulls no punches describing her experiences during the decade-long civil war that destroyed much of her country. There are some scenes in this book that are incredibly difficult to read as she documents the terror and fear that were constant companions for thousands of Liberians for years on end.
Ms. Gbowee outlines the history and culture of Liberia that she felt led toward war, including “social inequality, the unequal distribution of wealth, the exploitation” based on tribal origins that “are some of the reasons we had so many problems.” In a nod to similar situations, she says, “Just as it happened elsewhere in the world-in Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo-some balance had shifted, and decades of repressed rage poured out.” At one point, Ms. Gbowee describes her family’s miraculous escape from a church shortly before almost a thousand men, women, and children who had taken there were massacred by government forces. She mentions feelings of betrayal as “four US warships full of marines anchored off the coast and evacuated American citizens but made no move to intervene” to prevent additional massacres or protect innocent civilians.
Later, during a break in the hostilities, Ms. Gbowee returned to school and also started working at the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program, run by the Lutheran church in Liberia. The pastor in charge, Reverend B.B. Colley, urged her to reach out to others: “Every one of us in this country was victimized one way or another, and every one of us has to heal…You tell your own story. Now you’ve survived, you’ve overcome your victimization. Then you need to help somebody else-and not just a person, you help the society!” Ms. Gbowee began working with former child soldiers, boys who had been kidnapped, kept high on drugs and alcohol, and forced to kill in unimaginable ways. “Everyone in Liberia hated these boys.” Rejected by their families – if their families were still alive and could be located – and abandoned by the rebel leaders who had kidnapped them once they were wounded or of no use, they were angry, violent, and without hope. “I couldn’t forgive the ex-combatants for all the evil they’d done. But I did come to feel pity and compassion for them, even though I wasn’t always comfortable with those feelings…There were times I wondered if I was crazy,” Ms. Gbowee says, “But these young people didn’t know why they’d raped, looted and killed-or even remember much of it, they’d been so high. They’d been exploited, used up and thrown away. The war had destroyed their childhoods the way it had destroyed mine.”
Ms. Gbowee is open about her personal failings, as well as the problems her country faced and still faces. I so admire her willingness to be open about her mistakes, to use her experiences to lead her to empathy instead of despair, and to reach out to others. “Maybe because of the mistakes I’ve made, I don’t feel the right to be critical of other people’s decisions.” Her focus on reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing is astounding as is her ability to see the needs of the individual in global problems. “Nothing feels distant anymore…Every conflict has a face, many faces. Every problem touches your heart.”
I can’t cover the entire breadth of Ms. Gbowee’s efforts for peace, and the empowering story of how she and other women she organized forced the military, government, and rebel leaders to negotiate peace, in this review. But her work has been ongoing for many years now, and she was recently honored with the Nobel Peace Prize (in conjunction with two other women). She and those with whom she works do an incredible amount of good, working for peace and justice and inspiring others – especially women – to take a stand as well. Ms. Gbowee is one of my heroes.
“One of my greatest fears is family decline.”
By Amy Chua
Before picking up this book I read a few horrified reviews. These reviewers described Ms. Chua’s parenting style as akin to child abuse, swore that anyone who followed these methods was damaging his or her children, and loudly and vociferously denied that “Chinese parenting” had any virtues. The quotes they used, straight from the source, seemed to back up their assertions, and I too was somewhat horrified.
And then I actually read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. And I really don’t see what all the self-righteous high-dudgeon was about.
On the very first page of prose, Ms. Chua plainly acknowledges her parenting tunnel-vision. She states “This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.” And then towards the end she bluntly summarizes: “When Chinese parenting succeeds, there’s nothing like it. But it doesn’t always succeed.”
Again and again, the sections that were quoted by reviewers, bloggers, etc., as evidence of how terrible “Chinese parenting” is, when read in context, were followed up with Ms. Chua’s recognition that she screwed up, or she over-reacted, or she has blind spots and weaknesses and self-doubt. And it is absolutely clear that she loves her kids and is completely devoted to them. She is confident in their abilities and has high expectations for them, which she helps them reach through hours of concentrated effort, on both her part and theirs.
There are several features of “Chinese parenting” – I use the quotation marks because, as Ms. Chua points out, parents of many ethnicities follow this philosophy – that “Western parents” would do well to consider. For example, she mentions “I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem…In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.” Of course this can be taken to an extreme – in either direction – but there’s a middle ground, folks, which I think is what Ms. Chua was working towards after her approach didn’t work with her second child.
I definitely disagree with her that “nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” I think the inherent competition implied in so many activities sucks the fun right out of them. When I was in Italy for a short period of time I knew I wasn’t going to be fluent in Italian, but it sure was fun to stumble my way through a few conversations with sellers at the street markets or tourist shops. When I took an ice skating class in college, it was obvious that I wasn’t going to the Olympics – ever. But I really enjoyed trying something new and I don’t feel that time was wasted even though I was never going to be the best, or even any good at it.
Ms. Chua also deftly turns some of the criticisms aimed at “Chinese parenting” right back at “Western parents.” For example, she often gets asked “Who are you doing all this pushing for–your daughters…or yourself?” Her answer is “that everything I do is unequivocally 100% for my daughters. My main evidence is that so much of what I do with Sophia and Lulu is miserable, exhausting, and not remotely fun for me. It’s not easy to make your kids work when they don’t want to, to put in grueling hours when your own youth is slipping away, to convince your kids they can do something when they (and maybe even you) are fearful that they can’t.” But, she goes on, “I sometimes wonder if the question…should be asked of Western parents too. Sometimes I wake up in the morning dreading what I have to do and thinking how easy it would be to say, ‘Sure, Lulu, we can skip a day of violin practice.’ [Instead] I have to stay home and scream and have my kids hate me.” Ms. Chua explains “Chinese parenting is one of the most difficult things I can think of. You have to be hated sometimes by someone you love and who hopefully loves you, and there’s just no letting up, no point at which it suddenly becomes easy.”
Another pointed criticism with some serious substance: “All these Western parents with the same party line about what’s good for children and what’s not – I’m not sure they’re making choices at all. They just do what everyone else does. They’re not questioning anything either, which is what Westerners are supposed to be so good at doing.”
Ms. Chua makes a telling confession at one point: “The truth is I’m not good at enjoying life. It’s not one of my strengths.” Describing the contrast between her and her mother-in-law, she says, “Florence saw childhood as something fleeting to be enjoyed. I saw childhood as a training period, a time to build character and invest for the future.” She goes on a bit later to say “Happiness is not a concept I tend to dwell on.” That right there seems to me to explain her approach to parenting, both the strengths and the weaknesses.
In the end it seems to me to boil down to a different way of defining what is “best” for your child and a different method of getting there. Neither “Chinese parenting” nor “Western parenting” is all good or all bad. Both, taken to extremes, can be damaging. But they each have traits worth considering and implementing, as long as the child’s well-being is not lost in the mix of ideological purity.
On My Bedside Table…
Just finished: Talking to Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede
Now reading: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
On deck: Swagger: 10 Urgent Rules for Raising Boys in an Era of Failing Schools, Mass Joblessness, and Thug Culture by Lisa Bloom
Come find me on goodreads.com or email suggestions, comments, and feedback to egeddesbooks (at) gmail (dot) com.