With Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, Dr. Loren Olson delivers an all-in-one memoir, psychology, and self-help text about coming out of the closet in later life. Through discussion of key psychological concepts and personal stories Olson, who came out at forty, explains why the coming out process can be delayed for some men, and in doing so attempts to submarine the misconception that gay men who marry women and raise families are only using their wives and children to hide their sexuality. From deeply held religious beliefs and traditional gender norms to social expectations and fear of rejection Olson examines the numerous factors that contribute to the denial and repression of sexual identity. He also discusses the challenges unique to this particular demographic such as helping children understand and cope with their father’s sexuality, and reconciling the desire for a traditional family dynamic in a country that, by and large, does not allow gay couples the benefits of marriage.
Though it is good to see this largely ignored aspect of the gay experience given a thorough examination, Finally Out tries to be so many things at once that the text never really coalesces into cohesive narrative. The history lessons, psychological concepts, personal stories and advice contained in each chapter do not feel like parts of a larger whole, but a jumble of ideas thrown together at random. Transitions from one paragraph to the next are abrupt. When using personal stories to illustrate psychological concepts Olson often fails to explain exactly how the story relates to the concept or the overarching theme of the chapter. For example, in chapter four which focuses largely on the coming out process, Olson writes about the dissolution of his marriage. Though, yes, the break-up of Olson’s marriage certainly played a key role in his coming out process he does not actually write about how it did. He goes into detail about how and when everything went sour, and theorizes about how his wife and children felt during the divorce, but he does not frame the story within a context of coming out and that left me wondering why he chose to include this story in this particular chapter. This disconnect occurs throughout the book whenever Olson introduces a personal anecdote, and it made me feel like I was reading two separate and distinct books, not a unified text.
Finally Out contains a lot of useful information, but it is trying to do too much. Olson should have written a psychology book or a memoir, not both at the same time.
Believe it or not, I am a big self-helper. Whenever I’m faced with a problem I don’t have an immediate solution to, the first thing I do is locate a book on the subject. So, a couple weeks back when an old flame who I’d thought I was totally over suddenly popped back into my life, sparking a host of negative feelings I was convinced I’d dealt with many moons ago, I went looking for a book that could tell me how to process those emotions. An Amazon search pointed me to Sidney B. and Suzanne Simon’s, Forgiveness.
This book attempts to clear a path through the many difficult emotions and behaviors that prevent individuals from fogiving those who have hurt them. The Simons’ ask and answer the questions of what forgiveness actually is and what it isn’t. They look at how anger in the forms of denial, self-blame, victimhood, and indignation can be dealt with and released. The writing is straight forward, all terms and concepts clearly defined.
Of course, the real test of a self-help book is whether it actually helps. I can say with total confidence, yes, Forgiveness helps. Peppered with lengthy writing exercises designed to help the reader clarify his or her own feelings, this book offers insight to those willing and ready to work for it. I finished this book two weeks ago and am still in the process of working through the writing exercises. They are forcing me to examine my feeling regarding long discarded relationships and my own negative and destructive ways of dealing with hurt. The Simons have presented a set of tools anyone can use to find their own way to forgiveness for a fraction of a fraction of the cost of therapy. I would say this volume is a must have for any avid self-helper.
In Odd Girl Out Rachel Simmons attempts to contextualize and explain the many indirect ways school aged girls express anger. Simmons spent a year interviewing women and girls about their experiences with bullying, and what Simmons calls alternative aggressions; the gossiping, rumor spreading, alliance building and silent treatments girls use to express negative feelings toward one another.
Simmons posits that our society does not allow girls direct access to conflict. From a young age they are taught to be “good.” Unlike boys who are allowed to be openly rough, rowdy, and competitive, “good girls” learn to be passive, accommodating, nice to everyone, and to never ever get into fights if any description. They also learn that they are defined by their relationships. These potential wives, mothers, and teachers realize early on that their proximity to specific people is what gives them their value and identity. In our younger years our friends make up our world. This is particularly true of girls who often view social isolation as the worst form of punishment. Without friends to define them they are nothing. The desire to be “good” combined with the desire to maintain perfect friendships leads girls to express their feelings of anger and hurt in the covert and often cruel form of alternative aggressions.
This book offers so much food for thought. I found Simmons discussion of abusive friendships particularly compelling. Girls on the whole are more likely to bully close friends than strangers or acquaintances. Over night best friends can become worst enemies, one friend relentlessly bullying the other for reasons unknown to the victim. However, the victim often tries to preserve the abusive friendship even at the cost of her own confidence and self-esteem. She is willing to make those sacrifices in order to avoid social isolation. Reading accounts of girls trapped in these friendships, I was shocked at how much the bullied girls sound like battered women. Their justifications for remaining in these obviously dangerous relationships echo those given by victims of spousal abuse: (s)he apologized and said it would never happen again, (s)he didn’t mean what (s)he said, (s)he’s nice to me sometimes. They blame themselves, assuming they must have done something awful to warrant such abuse. Simmons recognizes this parallel and worries that by teaching girls to care more about what other people think of them than how they feel about themselves makes them more susceptible to violence.
In the final chapter Simmons offers suggestions on how teachers, parents, and schools in general can support victims of alternative aggressions. Parents are encouraged to listen and soothe children rather than blame them or offer advice. Teachers are asked to learn how to identify alternative aggressions and to make sure the children in their classroom know that such behavior will not be tolerated. She implores schools to write specific policy concerning alternative aggressions and to be consistent in enforcing it. While I have my doubts about how effective the aforementioned plan of attack would be in practice, Simmons ideas are certainly worth considering.
As a victim of relentless childhood bullying myself I found comfort and understanding in Simmons words. Her research gave me a social context in which to view my days of junior high school torment and would highly recommend it to anyone who is dealing or has dealt with bullying.
Bullying should not have to be an unavoidable part of growing up. Alternative aggressions can destroy a young girl’s confidence, self-esteem, and even shatter her identity. Once you’re done with Odd Girl Out you will feel just as strongly as the author that we must do something to stem the tide of girl bullying before all our daughters suffer permanant damage.