A Passing Phase & The Dangers of Conversion Therapy

Passing Phase ThumbnailJ. Paul Devlin’s A Passing Phase is a light-hearted coming-of-age story about a serious topic: societal and interpersonal bias against sexual and gender minorities. In this novel, seventeen-year-old Nate Whitby enters conversion therapy to “change” his attraction to men. He believes it’s a phase, thinking:

“Absolutely. That’s all it is. Wasn’t he simply a late-blooming hetero? Most definitely. It’ll kick in, maybe as late as college but it will kick in soon enough. It has to.”

With the “help” of his repressive mother, he turns to a therapist who is eager to “treat” him despite the fact that doing so is against the law in their state. Nate emerges from this damaging process with a better understanding of who he is, but in real life, not everyone is as lucky.

Conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy or Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE), involves practices aimed at changing an individual’s sexuality, gender identity, or gender expression. In the past, this type of therapy included such aversion-based treatments as applying electric shocks when a patient was aroused by same-sex images. Today, it includes treatments to alter an individual’s “thought patterns by reframing desires, redirecting thoughts, or using hypnosis, with the goal of changing sexual arousal, behavior, and orientation.”

These practices continue to occur despite the fact that the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality as a pathology from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) more than 40 years ago.  There is also a strong professional consensus that this treatment does not alter sexual orientation or gender identity and that it presents a serious risk of harm to those undergoing it.

As Ryan Kendall testified before a California State Assembly Committee:

At the age of 16, I had lost everything. My family and my faith had rejected me, and the damaging messages of conversion therapy, coupled with this rejection, drove me to the brink of suicide. For the next decade I struggled with depression, periods of homelessness, and drug abuse.

Recognizing the risk of harm to LGBTQ youth, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has called for the elimination of conversion therapy in Ending Conversion Therapy: Supporting and Affirming LGBTQ Youth (October 2015). The Administration noted that there are many ways to end this practice, including through the passage of legislation.

Conversion therapy on minors is now illegal in a handful of states, including California, and the District of Columbia. Do laws preventing therapists from performing conversion therapy violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?

Appellate courts have said no, ultimately upholding these laws as constitutional regulations of professional conduct. In Pickup v. Brown, the 9th Circuit analyzed California’s law prohibiting mental health professionals from performing SOCE with patients under the age of 18.  The Court determined that the law prohibited conduct, but not expressive speech, and was related to a legitimate state interest in “protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors.” 740 F.3d 1208, 1231 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting 2012 Cal. Legis. Serv. ch. 835, 1(n)). Meanwhile, the 3rd Circuit analyzed New Jersey’s law banning SOCE counseling of minors and concluded that it was a “permissible prohibition of professional speech” because the state has an “‘unquestionably substantial’ interest in protecting citizens from harmful professional practices,” an interest that becomes stronger when it relates to minors. John Doe v. Governor of the State of New Jersey, 783 F. 3d 150, 153 (quoting King v. Governor of the State of New Jersey, 767 F. 3d 216 (3d Cir. 2014)).

In my opinion, the protection of LGBTQ youth from harmful and discredited professional practices is not just a legitimate or substantial state interest, but a compelling one. Conversion therapy should only happen in fiction, if anywhere at all.

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On Book Bloggers Who Don’t Recognize That They Are Self-Published Authors Too

Every now and then, I come across a post in which a book blogger explains why they do not review self-published novels. They are entitled to limit their reading material in any way they choose, and I can’t deny that there are reasons to avoid some self-published books.

However, I find it hypocritical when book bloggers have a categorical rule against reading self-published books. Don’t they realize that they are also self-published authors? As one traditionally published author and book reviewer said, books bloggers are “leeches” for whom “the Net has given … a bog to wiggle around in.” That traditionally published book snob bemoaned the proliferation of self-published book blogs, saying that attempting to read a review on one is “identical to seeking relationship advice on the wall of a public restroom.”

If self-published book reviews are so bad, then of course those of us looking for our next read should only consider the opinions of reviewers for the New York Times and other traditional outlets.

That type of unconditional rule would be ridiculous, though. Why would any reasonable person look down on a book reviewer for having the entrepreneurial spirit to set up their own blog through WordPress or Blogspot?

Sure, some self-published book reviews are of poor quality, but many are not. It doesn’t take much effort to figure out which ones are good, and their opinions might better reflect the public’s taste. As I wrote in Do Book Bloggers Need Credentials, linked above, “Book reviewers should be like most readers—normal people who may have a better idea of what the public wants to read than someone who uses words like ‘palaver’ and ‘vulgate’ (as that critic did).”

Personally, I often find the reviews on traditionally published outlets to be unreadable. Remember when Mr. AMB critiqued the traditionally published reviews of Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies?  He felt the New York Times review looked “more like the product of a quick skim of the book than an actual reading.” I have read more than a few reviews in traditionally published outlets that were far less helpful to me as a potential reader than the reviews I found online.

There’s no reason to believe a traditionally published book review is inherently better than a self-published one, and the same is true of books. It isn’t so hard to figure out which self-published books are good when many of those authors write blogs and offer excerpts of their novels for free.

The publishing establishment is a small, elitist set of gatekeepers that promote only a tiny portion of the interesting literary ideas out there. Their preferences tend to be white, male, and heteronormative, and those of us who want to read more diversely should look elsewhere for reading material. Those with an implacable rule against self-published books are missing out.


Disclosure: I write this post from the perspective of a self-published author who has never written a query letter but might do so at some point (never say never, right?). So far, I haven’t considered attempting traditional publishing because I see it as a time-consuming endeavor that–if you’re successful–is essentially a muzzle. I like my freedom. I like criticizing the publishing industry–like I did in The HarperCollins Lawsuit: Keeping Authors Aboard As Traditional Publishing Sinks–without worrying about repercussions to my publishing future.

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Why Are Identical Twins *Different*?

Twins Now_June 2014

I was one of the last to know that my twins are identical.

Via ultrasound, we knew they shared nothing but the womb–not a sac, not a placenta–making us believe they would be fraternal/sororal. When they came home from the NICU after an arduous 78 days of intensive care and observation, one had red hair and the other brown. Or so it seemed. Over time, their hair met somewhere in the middle, becoming a dark red, an unusual hue for chance to choose twice in children of mixed South Asian heritage.

Still, their father and I focused on their differences: their size differential, their unique freckles, and their individual personalities.

Their grandfather, my dad, was the first one in the family to tell us they were identical. After careful study, he said, “They have the same ears.” I’d never considered their ears before, but I couldn’t deny that our girls shared many strikingly similar features.

Ultimately, their father and I sprang for a DNA test to tell us once-and-for-all what should’ve been obvious: whether our little girls had come from a single zygote or two.

The test confirmed they are monozygotic, or in other words, identical twins.

Except they’re not really identical: One is left-handed, the other is the opposite; one wears glasses, the other doesn’t; one is silly, the other is serious; one loves math, the other prefers social studies; one enjoys Baby-sitters Club books more than Number of the Stars while the other’s reading preferences are the reverse; one adores salad, the other junk food; one likes peanuts while the other insists she’s allergic (she’s not); and they still look nothing alike (at least to their parents).

What makes them so different?

the geneThe answer lies in their environment. As author and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee has said, “[F]ate impinges differently on their bodies.” In his May 2nd article in New Yorker, drawn from his newest book (released today), The Gene: An Intimate History, Mukherjee attempts to explain to a lay audience how environmental factors change gene expression. Apparently, he did so with only questionable success. His New Yorker article has been heavily criticized as “misleading” by researchers in the field because it “ignored key aspects of gene regulation.”

The criticisms of Mukherjee’s New Yorker article make me wonder about the accuracy of his book, but at least one of the critics has said that an excerpt of the book “was more accurate and thorough than The New Yorker article.” Despite the book’s potential flaws, I’m looking forward to reading it in the hopes that it will shed light on the mysteries of genes and identical twins.

Twins are fascinating. They are also fun (as you can see from this short video of M & S when they were 12 months old!):


It’s been a treat to raise these two over the last eight and a half years.


*Dr. Mukherjee is also the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, which I wrote about on this blog in Censoring Speech to the Detriment of Women’s Health.

**A few years ago, I asked my daughters about what made them different. Here’s what they had to say (in No Two Alike: Encouraging Individuality in “Identical” Twins).

***The picture is from the summer of 2014 when they lost their two front teeth at the same time. The video is from December 2008, when they received an animatronic dog for their 1st birthday. And here is how you’ll often see them now:


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Smoking in Children’s Books: Would a Rating System Help?

In Forsyth v. Motion Picture Association of America, et al., a plaintiff has waged an uphill battle against Hollywood to force films featuring tobacco imagery to receive nothing lower than a “Restricted” (R) rating, thereby reducing the exposure of children under 17 to these images.  Among the films the plaintiff believes should have been rated R — instead of PG-13 — because of such images are The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey.

Both of these movies are based on J. R. R. Tolkein’s classic novels, which feature pipe-loving hobbits, wizards, and dwarves:

“What do you mean?” [Gandalf] said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”

“All of them at once,” said Bilbo. “And a very fine morning for a pipe of tobacco out of doors, into the bargain. If you have a pipe about you, sit down and have a fill of mine! There’s no hurry, we have all the day before us!” Then Bilbo sat down on a seat by his door, crossed his legs, and blew out a beautiful grey ring of smoke that sailed up into the air without breaking and floated away over The Hill.

“Very pretty!” said Gandalf. “But I have no time to blow smoke-rings this morning…”

~Chapter 1, The Hobbit

Elsewhere in literature, we’ve got Lewis Carroll’s hookah-smoking caterpillar:

[Alice] stretched herself up on tiptoe, and peeped over the edge of the mushroom, and her eyes immediately met those of a large caterpillar, that was sitting on the top with its arms folded, quietly smoking a long hookah, and taking not the smallest notice of her or of anything else.

~Chapter IV, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

And even my darling Matthew from Anne of Green Gables (which I’ve been re-reading as I work on Anusha of Prospect Corner with my twins):

Matthew was smoking—a sure sign of perturbation of mind. He seldom smoked, for Marilla set her face against it as a filthy habit; but at certain times and seasons he felt driven to it and them[.] Marilla winked at the practice, realizing that a mere man must have some vent for his emotions.

~Chapter III, Anne of Green Gables

AliceDo these types of positive, neutral, or at least tolerant references to smoking in children’s literature harm children?

I don’t know to what extent the books children read directly impact their behavior — it probably varies from book to book, subject to subject, and child to child — but I certainly remember many books from my childhood that influenced me. At a minimum, I think it’s fair to say that the books children read reinforce societal norms and that books that glorify or excuse smoking might send the wrong message. That message could be a genuine concern for parents who do not want their children to smoke.

That is, if their children live in a vacuum.

Hopefully, a pro-smoking message isn’t the only one a child is receiving. I’m quite comfortable with the fact that my children are exposed to many different messages, not just the ones I want them to accept. As I said in Please Stop Parenting My Children:

[E]xposure to many different ideas doesn’t brainwash people. It’s the exposure to only one idea or belief system that does. If the mere exposure to new ideas is enough for those old beliefs to crumble, then its proponents should stop to consider why their beliefs aren’t more persuasive. In my opinion, an idea that can’t withstand a fair debate isn’t an idea worth passing onto the next generation.

When it comes to smoking, my children are receiving medically-accurate information about its dangers from me, from their school, and also from other books they read like Ramona Quimby and Her Father (which my 8-year-old reviewed on Beverly Cleary’s 100th Birthday in April).

However, it might be difficult to counter messages in the books my children read if I don’t know the content of those books. Part of me wants to be able to vet all of their reading material by reading it myself, but who has the time to do that? Plus, my helicopter-parenting would probably remove some of what makes reading so enjoyable for my children: the ability for self-exploration without their mom breathing down their necks.

Still, I try to do my parental due diligence–so I don’t end up with another Butterfly situation again!–by googling books for reviews and asking friends for recommendations and advice.

Would it be useful to have a standardized rating system for books like the one the film industry uses? Maybe an emblem on the cover?

Probably not. As the Forsyth lawsuit suggests, ratings are largely arbitrary and not everyone agrees with the results. Plus, if the rating is too sensitive about so-called offensive material, then it might dissuade parents and educators from allowing children to read books for no good reason, making the rating no better than a “book ban.”

Shortcuts in parenting rarely work. A rating is no substitute for assessing the book myself, and hiding a book because of the themes it may or may not contain is no substitute for talking to my children about those challenging topics. I don’t always know what they’re reading, so the best I can do is to encourage them to come to me if they have questions.

So far, nothing bad has happened because of something my kids read. If my kids end up smoking someday, it probably won’t be because Matthew Cuthbert did.


*Illustration from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

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A Man Called Ove: A Journey That Began When Mr. AMB Asked His Wife For Help (As He Should!)

OveVia Mr. AMB:

I didn’t like the books I was reading and so, like the curmudgeon I can be, I complained about it to AMB. She handed me her Kindle, which contained Fredrik Backman’s debut novel, A Man Called Ove.

Ove is the quintessential strong, silent type, the sort of man who can “take responsibility for things and fix a water heater if necessary.” However, with the loss of his wife and his job, he has lost his purpose. As a result, he sets about using his practical skills to engineer his exit from life. Whenever he’s about to go through with it, though, his pesky neighbors intrude upon his abode, forcing him to take responsibility for their problems.

If viewed solely through a plot summary, A Man Called Ove is predictable and sentimental. But dwelling on how the plot of A Man Called Ove is predictable is like dwelling on how the plot of A Confederacy of Dunces is implausible: it shows the reader has missed the point of the story.

As I was reading A Man Called Ove, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to A Confederacy of Dunces. Ove is, most assuredly, a “genius” in the sense of Jonathan Swift’s quote that inspired the title of John Kennedy Toole’s work: “When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.” Both novels deftly and hilariously demonstrate the sheer absurdity that assails us continually in the course of human interaction. The difference, however, is that Toole’s Ignatius Reilly is utterly useless whereas Ove is just the man for the job, whatever the job may be. Correspondingly, Ignatius finds his solace in The Consolations of Philosophy, whereas Ove finds his by doing handiwork.

In the end, Ove gets much closer than Ignatius in actually applying Boethius’ lesson in The Consolations of Philosophy: “Nothing is miserable unless you think it so; and on the other hand, nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it.” The path that Ove takes from misery to contentment may be predictable, but it is a worthy, fulfilling journey.

For more on A Man Called Ove, see these reviews (the ones that encouraged AMB to buy the book, which she still hasn’t read for some bizarre reason):


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Why Do You Write?

Have you ever wondered what compels writers to bring their pens to paper (or, in our modern world, their fingers to the keyboard)? This is how some of my favorite authors have explained their motivations to write:

(1) Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World (among other works), said: “Well, one has the urge, first of all, to order the facts one observes and to give meaning to life; and along with that goes the love of words for their own sake and a desire to manipulate them.” (via Paris Review)

(2) Lois Lowry, author of The Giver (among other novels), said: “I write books because I have always been fascinated by stories and language, and because I love thinking about what makes people tick. Writing a story… The Giver or any other… is simply an exploration of the nature of behavior: why people do what they do, how it affects others, how we change and grow, and what decisions we make along the way. Added to that, I love the process of finding the right rhythm of words, and then putting it all together, finally, to make a book.” (via Scholastic)

(3) Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse Five (among other books), said:

  • “I write books which express my disgust for people who find it easy and reasonable to kill.”  (Letter to Draft Board #I, Selective Service, Nov. 28, 1967). (via Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited by Dan Wakefield)
  • “Writing well is more than a way to make money. My father Kurt senior wrote like an angel, simply in order to be civilized, to make the lives of those around him more amusing and interesting.” (Letter to Alexander and Jackson Adams, Jan. 18, 1997). (via Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited by Dan Wakefield)

(4)  E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web (and other books), said: “I haven’t told why I wrote the book, but I haven’t told you why I sneeze, either. A book is a sneeze.” (via Letters of Note)

These authors write for a range of reasons, including the need to process the world around them, express themselves, satisfy an urge, or entertain others. I particularly like White’s analogy of writing to a sneeze. In other words, he wrote because he had to.

Two Lovely Berries by AM BlairI write stories for many reasons too.

In the beginning, when I wasn’t sure whether I would ever share my writing with anyone, I wrote fiction to process the real-life horror stories I see through my work as a public interest lawyer (resulting in Two Lovely Berries, a New Adult novel that addresses family violence).

Amelia Elkins ElkinsI also write to escape from life’s drudgery and stress. With Amelia Elkins Elkins, a Persuasion-inspired “courtroom romance,” I combined my interest in the law with my love of Jane Austen, whose novels have always comforted me during stressful times.

Now, with Anusha of Prospect Corner (a work-in-progress), a multicultural take on Anne of Green Gables, my reasons for writing have grown to include my desire to engage with my children. We’re writing this story together. There’s nothing more rewarding than hearing them laugh at the lines we’ve created as a team.

Our version of Anne is named Anusha. She’s a redheaded Sri Lankan American, like my twins, and she lives in a diverse community that is quite different from Anne’s racially homogeneous Avonlea. Each week, I write a chapter or two of the story, which they critique (they are quite opinionated little writers/editors). Then, I rewrite the chapters and write the next one based on their suggestions.

We’re just over 40,000 words into the story, about 5,000-10,000 words away from the end. I’m going to be sorry when it’s over, but, as I’ve explained to my kids, Anusha has a whole lifetime of adventures ahead of her. I feel a sneeze coming on…😉



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Is This What Equality Looks Like? (Thoughts on Curtis Sittenfeld’s Modern Take on Jane Austen)

PP and Eligible

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible is more than a romance, much like the novel on which it is based: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. As I said in Why Jane Austen Appeals to Girls (and Boys) Who Don’t Just “Want a Boyfriend,”

Yes, [Pride and Prejudice] is a love story at its core, but its historical context, multi-dimensional characters, and commentary on social hierarchy and human nature add weight to the ‘girl meets boy’ plot.

In Eligible, Sittenfeld gives us the romance we expect (though not necessarily in the way we expect!), as well as a perspective on how far women have come in the two centuries since Pride and Prejudice made its debut. We see progress in how most of the Bennet sisters react to Mrs. Bennet’s adherence to bigoted values and stereotypes. We also hear it in what Kathy de Bourgh, a Gloria Steinem-like feminist who is quite different from her counterpart in the original, has to say when Liz finally gets ahold of her.

I enjoyed this novel, though I am still processing how I feel about the latter half of it. [A minor spoiler ahead] Liz disappointed me by inadvertently outing someone to Darcy — and Elizabeth Bennet isn’t a character I expect to disappoint me — but I appreciated seeing her growth by the end of the novel.

Eligible takes place in 2013, when women are able to inherit wealth and are no longer confined to the domestic sphere as they were in Austen’s time. There’s no doubt that we’ve come a long way in the last 200 years, but questions remain about the meaning of the “equality” we’ve achieved in comparison to men.

Eligible touches on this issue, if only briefly, when the updated Bennet sisters discuss the Bachelor-like reality television show that stars modern Mr. Bingley.

Eligible is degrading to women,” Mary said, and Lydia said, “Of course that’s what you think.”

“But every other season is one woman and twenty-five guys,” Kitty said. “That’s equality.”

“The women humiliate themselves in a way the men don’t,” Mary said. “They’re so desperate.”

Today, when women get the opportunity to do what men get to do, is it truly an equivalent experience?

For the women on Eligible, and the shows on which Eligible is based, maybe not. Do the producers cast them because they seem “desperate”? Do they direct them to be that way? That behavior comports with stereotypes about women, keeping viewers happy by giving them what they expect.

Mary’s description of this reality TV show made me think of other examples of dubious “equality.”

The first example that came to mind was women in sports, where even our most powerful female athletes are reduced to sexual objects in tiny shorts (i.e. women’s volleyball) and don’t receive equal pay even for superior athletic performance (i.e. women’s soccer). Then, of course, we have the lingerie football league, where women are tools for male sexual gratification under the guise of “sexual freedom.” None of these female “opportunities” threaten the gender hierarchy Jane Austen would’ve recognized (as scandalous as scantily clad women in a public venue would likely seem to her).

Meanwhile, in the workplace — where we’ve made great gains since Austen’s Anne Elliot lamented how women “live at home, quiet, confined [where] our feelings prey upon us” in Persuasion — sexual harassment and unequal pay are so ubiquitous and difficult to challenge that many women simply accept it. It’s “just part of the job.”

In the 21st Century, women have far more opportunities than they did in Austen’s time, but so much of our success still depends on pleasing men and keeping quiet. That’s not equality.

For more on Sittenfeld’s Eligible, see these reviews:

  • Austenprose — A Jane Austen Blog: “Within the limitations of the Austen Project, Eligible delivers engaging characters and witty dialog, along with the pleasure of comparing favorite original scenes with new ones.”
  • Literary Treats“I’m not completely sure I’m comfortable with how race and gender identity are treated in the story, though Sittenfeld is very careful to voice disapproval (via Liz’s thoughts) of the offensive views (usually Mrs Bennet’s). […] All that being said, I still really enjoyed this book. It’s certainly one of my favourite Austen adaptations by far, and one of the few I that I think actually succeed at updating Austen’s story for contemporary times.”



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