The Violent Art of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

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Setting Moon by Tsukioka Yoshitotshi

When Japan opened its borders to trade in the 1850s, inflation, epidemics, riots, murders, executions, and battles ensued. It’s easy to rattle off the sequence of events, tracing chains of political cause and effect, and lose sight of the human dimension of all this carnage. The imagination smooths over the detail, removes individual faces, wipes out the actual blood.

The art of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi puts the blood back in the picture. He was there amidst it all, sketching in the execution grounds and battlefields. His prints zoom in on individual people — beheader as well as beheaded — and condense the spirit of his time. At this scale, his era’s violence attracts as much as it repels, leaving us face-to-face with our own capacity for bloodlust. It’s no wonder he called one of his series Biographies of Valiant Drunken Tigers; the warriors he depicts are as abhorrent in their bloodthirsty battle trance as they are admirable in their bravery. To look at his prints is to mourn the loss of life and to revel in it.

Yoshitoshi was born as Owariya Yonejiro in Edo (now Tokyo) on April 30, 1839. His father was a merchant wealthy enough to buy himself a place in a samurai family register — and hence a samurai title — from a financially struggling clan. Around the age of three, Yoshitoshi left home to live with his uncle; one of Yoshitoshi’s students would later claim that this was because Yoshitoshi disliked the mistress who moved in with his father at the time. At 11, he was apprenticed to printmaker Utagawa Kuniyoshi, whose studio specialized in depictions of heroic battle scenes.

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Byôkwansaku Yôyû Gazing at a Severed Head by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

In Kuniyoshi’s studio, the aspiring artist learned to draw human and animal figures from live models (a rather unusual practice, which Kuniyoshi had adopted from the West), perused his teacher’s art collection (which included Western engravings), and copied his designs, including gruesome prints like Byôkwansaku Yôyû Gazing at a Severed Head. He was building the foundation of his pictorial language. As was customary, he acquired his name as part of his artistic training; Kuniyoshi gave his student the name “Yoshitoshi,” including the character “yoshi” from his own name as a mark of lineage.

Outside the studio, history was happening. In 1853, three years after the start of Yoshitoshi’s apprenticeship, Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Edo Bay and demanded that Japan open its borders to trade with the US. The shogun (military leader) complied with Perry’s demand, and the following years saw massive inflation, epidemics, and riots. As if that wasn’t enough, in the years 1854–1855 Japan was hit by a series of devastating earthquakes.

When the 1855 Edo earthquake hit, Kuniyoshi was returning home from the kabuki theater. He had just watched a performance of the chilling tale of the hag of Adachi Moor, a cannibalistic witch who preyed on visitors to her home, especially pregnant women. By the time he made it home, his students (including the 16-year-old Yoshitoshi) had given him up for dead.

Sometime during the next few months (or perhaps that very night), Kuniyoshi suffered a stroke. Though he lived for another six years, he hardly made any more work after the earthquake…with the notable exception of multiple prints of the Hag of Adachi Moor, whose image seems to have lodged itself into his brain. As we’ll see, his student inherited the fascination.

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Lifelike Dolls of the Hag of Hitotsuya at Adachigahar by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

When Kuniyoshi died in 1861, 21-year-old Yoshitoshi hadn’t had time to establish his own art studio. Meanwhile, unrest was reaching new heights. After the opening of borders, inflation and unemployment skyrocketed, and epidemics swept across the country. Hundreds of thousands died of cholera in 1858, twice as many of measles in 1862. Westerners were blamed for this and anti-Western sentiment soared; rebels began murdering foreigners. The murderers, in turn, faced execution. During these restless years, Yoshitoshi would join the crowds at execution grounds, continuing his teacher’s practice of sketching from life…or, in this case, death. There were many scenes to behold. A samurai plunged the knife into his bowels himself when ordered. Others were hanged or crucified, but good old-fashioned decapitation was favored for its simplicity. Plus, the severed head was a useful deterrent, easily exhibited and paraded around town; 123 severed heads were displayed in Edo between 1862 and 1865.

The fruit of all this observation can be found in the 1866–1867 series 28 Famous Murders with Verse, which Yoshitoshi completed in collaboration with another of Kuniyoshi’s old students, Utagawa Yoshiiku. (Each artist designed 14 of the prints.) The stories depicted in the series draw from history, popular legends, and the kabuki theater.

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Fukuoka Mitsugi with Flying Papers, Severed Head by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Fukuoka Mitsugi with Flying Papers, Severed Head, one of the 28 Famous Murders, is based on the true story of the 1796 Aburaya teahouse murder, during which a 27-year-old doctor flew into a jealous rage, murdering three and seriously injuring six. The print captures the instant after the decapitation. Everything about the composition implies the recent struggle: the papers scattered during the altercation haven’t had a chance to descend, the killer’s expression is still frozen in fury. The red pigment mixed with glue spattered across his robe horrifies with its verisimilitude. Look more closely, and it only gets creepier: two of the bloodstains are handprints, left there by the woman whose head lies severed in a puddle of its own blood.

Yoshitoshi was hardly the first Japanese artist to represent violence. Long before it was a print, the story of the raging doctor had been dramatized in a kabuki play. Violent plays like this one were traditionally performed in the summer, to cool the audience with shivers of horror. Gore in woodblock prints was nothing new, either. By the time of the 28 Murders With Verse, the genre of violent art was splitting into subgenres, common enough to have their own special names: chimidoro-e (blood-stained prints), muzan-e (atrocious prints), namakubi (depictions of severed heads).

Yoshitoshi’s prints are gorier than those of his predecessors, but this may be due less to his personality than to temporary lapses in censorship. During the last years of the shogunate, his police force must have had better things to do than chase down unruly artists. (In 1884, the police would start a clampdown on prints depicting blood and violence, which had nominally been forbidden all along.) Perhaps the 28 Murders were simply the result of the shrewd marketing decision to print gore while that was still possible. Given how often woodblock printers turned to violent subject matter, there must have been demand for it; we know that 28 Famous Murders with Verse sold extremely well.

Tradition, demand, and lapses in censorship all conspired to make Yoshitoshi’s art possible, but it was the violence of the final years of the Edo period that turned the possibility into bloodstained reality. The years of the series’ publication saw killings, rebellions, executions, and riots caused by an unprecedentedly bad rice shortage. Yoshitoshi’s art was a mirror held up to its time.

The prints also coincided with the death of both heads of state: the shogun in 1866, the emperor in 1867. When the 14-year-old Meiji succeeded his father as emperor, opponents of the shogunate saw their chance: if the shogun could be deposed, the “restored” emperor could be controlled by his cabinet. So began the Boshin War of 1868–1869.

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Sakuma Daigaku Drinking Blood from a Severed Head by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

By May 1868, the shogun had given up Edo (soon to become Tokyo) — but a band of his samurai were too honorable to follow suit. They fought to the death against the emperor’s modernized army at the doomed Battle of Ueno. Yoshitoshi was there too, sketching the fighters, and perhaps even the 83 bodies left to decompose in the summer heat due to an edict that forbade burial.

Yoshitoshi’s Selection of 100 Warriors, printed during the years of the war, represents the violent acts of famous samurai, and features such bloodthirsty work as Sakuma Daigaku Drinking Blood from a Severed Head. The print applied lessons learned in the battlefield, execution ground, and Kuniyoshi’s studio. The debt to Kuniyoshi’s Byôkwansaku Yôyû Gazing at a Severed Head is clear in the hair-clutching and the green kimono (complementary to the red of blood) — but the terrifyingly compelling result is Yoshitoshi’s own. The print traps the eye in a gory loop: from the grimacing mouth of the victim, down the blood trail dripping into Sakuma’s armpit, then back up to the gaping mouth, the gaping neck…The dead and the living are inextricably bound, the winner and loser have almost the same face — two heads like theater masks, differing only in mood.

The image depicted a scene from the 16th-century war between brothers Oda Nobuyuki and Oda Nobunanga; Sakuma Daigaku took the head of Nobuyuki’s general during one of the battles. He doesn’t appear to have drunk his victim’s blood, though his leader Nobunaga did eventually have the skulls of his defeated enemies gilded and turned into sake cups. Perhaps Yoshitoshi combined the two events for dramatic effect. The subject-matter — a war between brothers — echoed the civil war of Yoshitoshi’s own era, while avoiding possible censorship.

Sakuma Daigaku Drinking Blood from a Severed Head is the 20th in a projected Selection of 100 Warriors, but Yoshitoshi would abandon the series by #65. Just as the country was returning to a semblance of peace, the artist would suffer what appeared to be a mental breakdown and fall into a deep depression. During the five years that followed, he had to accept his students’ gifts of rice and pickled vegetables. Once, he burned the floorboards of his home for warmth. To support him, his mistress, Okoto, would sell her possessions and formal clothes. A few years later, she would move back to her hometown, sell herself to a brothel, and send Yoshitoshi the profit.

Yoshitoshi emerged from his five-year hiatus into a changed Japan. Though the pro-imperial samurai had rallied under the slogan “Western technology, Japanese values,” what followed the Meiji Restoration was in fact the dissolution of much that traditional Japan had held dear. Replaced by a conscripted army, the very samurai who had helped overthrow the shogun would soon become obsolete. The same fate was befalling many Edo traditions — including, eventually, woodblock printing, which would be superseded by the Western techniques of lithography and photography.

Yoshitoshi clung to tradition as stubbornly as the samurai fighting at Ueno. He took up time-honored artforms like Noh chanting, abstained from Western technologies like gas lighting, and sang praises to old ways of life in his many historical prints. His work took on a more subdued tone; in addition to near-bloodless warrior prints, he now designed images of beautiful women. His treatment of real women remained appalling, though; around 1878, his second mistress sold her formal clothes and possessions to support him, then contracted herself out to a brothel. Though biographers praise the wife he married in 1884 for her stabilizing influence, Yoshitoshi “did not stop his philandering” after their marriage, Eric van den Ing and Robert Schaap noted in their book, Beauty and Violence: Japanese Prints by Yoshitoshi, 1839–1892.

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The Lonely House on Adachi Moor by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

And then, in 1885, he produced perhaps his most bloodcurdling design. In The Lonely House on Adachi Moor, a heavily pregnant woman hangs upside down from the ceiling, her round belly flopping helplessly downwards. Below her, the shriveled hag of Adachi Moor readies a knife to slice open the womb. There might not be any blood (by then, censors wouldn’t allow that), but this print is as haunting as any Yoshitoshi produced.

Yoshitoshi’s Lonely House on Adachi Moor — designed on the 30th anniversary of the Edo earthquake — is strongly indebted to Kuniyoshi’s earlier prints. The flaccid-breasted, bony hag is almost the same; her victim even wears the same red skirt. Still, let’s give Yoshitoshi his due: it’s the innovation of hanging the victim upside down that turns his design into the stuff of nightmares.

As with the teacher, so with the student: prints of the hag heralded the beginning of Yoshitoshi’s final years. She reappeared in one of his last masterpieces: The Actor Onoe Kikugoro V as the Hag of Adachi (1890). The following year, Yoshitoshi invited his friends to meet a group of artists…who turned out to be a figment of his imagination. He spent the next year between several mental health hospitals, then died from a cerebral hemorrhage at 53.

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The Actor Onoe Kikugoro V as the Hag of Adachi by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Hoping to extend the artistic pedigree which stretched back behind him in unbroken lines of repeated syllables — Yoshitoshi, Kuniyoshi, Toyokuni, Toyoharu — Yoshitoshi trained more than 200 students and gave 60 of them artist names. None of their work passed the test of time; woodblock printing effectively died with its bloodiest proponent.

Like the subjects of his prints, Yoshitoshi had been a “valiant drunken tiger,” risking his life to view the carnage from up close, battling mental illness, bravely and foolishly pushing his medium forward even as it was becoming obsolete. Like the samurai he admired, he was the last of his kind. He was also, by 21st century consensus, the greatest Japanese artist of his era.

Originally published as “The Artist of Japan’s Bloody Era” in Rabbit Hole Magazine. Reprinted with Rabbit Hole’s permission. All images in the public domain.

Becoming Nomadic

Sometimes I think everything is beautiful. Then I come to a place like this, trees glowing orange over cobalt hills, a beauty so blinding I veil my eyes with clichés – and my worldview shatters.

I had a dream, once, of moving to a cottage in the mountains, but I had settled for city life. I told myself I wanted closeness: to cafés, museums, friends. More importantly, Ben liked the city. (Never mind that he shared my dream of mountains, my inner conflict – it was easier to think that he didn’t.)

Besides, everything was beautiful, people as lovely as nature; I wasn’t really giving anything up. I meant it when I said it – patches of pavement, paintings of corpses, busy city squares have all floored me with unexpected glory – but “everything is beautiful” had also been the spell I chanted to protect myself from my own dreams.

It was only when I arrived at the dream, the home with trails leading out the front door, that I let myself feel my yearning. It did make sense to want this, not just weekend drives to the distant mountains, excursions to the highest peaks on the sunniest days, but the daily walk, the grass decked out with pearls after the rain, the leaves turning day by day, the birds I know almost by name.

I walk, climb on. This place, in its silence and solitude, lets me hear my own thoughts. I think about what we give up: happiness, adventure, community; success, safety, solitude.

Ben and I became nomadic just as the days were getting too short and too cold for gathering outside. (We’re in New Hampshire now, but who know’s what’s next? Not knowing is part of the thrill.) The pandemic has removed some of the tradeoffs; the dream of community is slumbering, adventure and solitude can take its place. But afterwards? Once, I would have moved to mountainous seclusion in the blink of an eye, but I have grown to love people, almost despite myself.

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Walking through birdsong, I remember the first time I visited New York. Screech! Rush! Honk! No end to agitation; agitation to no end. So that’s what people meant by “energy”? The one place I could never live, I thought. I visited once, twice, thrice, and started to understand, the way you understand a second language, the attraction of cities: the beauty of crowds, faces, people, everyone with a different story, everyone a miracle.

When I lived in the suburbs of Boston, I had those glorious strangers, plus friends I’d known for years. What do I give up when I choose solitude? There is a tension in me: even these hills of gold are empty without the hearth, the heart.

Another vista emerges, horizontal strips in complementary colors: grey-blue and russet grasses, orange trees, blue hills, long thin clouds. Vertical birches frame the view and complete the picture, forming a box, a home for my vision.

I inhale; the air smells like being alive. I see my inner tensions as complementary colors, sources of vibrance.

I grew up between places. Our house in Poland was an anchor, a base, a home – but travel was always my second home. I want to have it all. I dream of a cottage in the mountains; I dream of never settling down; I dream of city friends.

I dream of a single place that is travel and home, community and solitude, mountains and city. Maybe this is what our ancestors had, hunting and gathering through the forests in a band of friends. I had this in high school, for a moment, when my scout troop backpacked through mountains of stillness, sang full-throated at the bonfire at night. I carry a nomad inside me, who doesn’t understand this world of screens and only wants to walk, and walk, and sing.

The mountains are calling and I must go. I heard what John Muir heard, but I stopped my ears. “I must go” – what sort of a reason is that? When you live in society, you do what you can explain.

Our mountain is a ski slope. Near the peak, a narrow, vertiginous ladder goes up to the chairlift. I look up. Folly to climb and folly not to climb.

I choose a place halfway up the ladder, just where delight meets fear, climb there, no further, then descend. My dreams butt heads with dreams; the tensions are what defines me.

What scares me more than a life of inner conflict is a life without it.

At Nightmare’s Edge, Lifelike Dolls

Originally published in Rabbit Hole Magazine.

Picture Credit: Reborn dolls

I want to stroke Alma’s silky wisp of hair, put ointment on her peeling ankles, kiss the place where a drop of blood has dried on her teeny heel. I keep scrolling. Eloisa stares at me with vacant green eyes, her fists delightfully wrinkled but eerily glossy. I keep scrolling. Red-eyed and deathly pale, Isadora makes my heart stop. Beneath her button nose, the minuscule mouth dribbles blood, sports fangs.

Adopted, the caption reads. Painted and designed by an 11-year-old – under her mother’s supervision – Vampire Isadora was sold at a discount.

At reborns.com, anyone can become a happy parent. With the help of a dropdown menu, you can narrow down the 657 lifelike dolls by price ($100-$5000), ethnicity, gender, eye material (glass, acrylic, polyglass). Select “boo boo,” and the faces scrunch into pouts. Choose “realborn,” and the vampires, chimpanzees, and waxy misproportioned monstrosities all blessedly disappear – replaced by something which, in its own way, is even eerier: dolls made from 3D-printed babies. (Where do the models for the dolls come from? Bountiful Babies, the top supplier of 3D-printed doll parts, is suing dollmaker Stephanie Ortiz for libel over alleged ties to the Kingston Clan, of polygamy and child marriage fame.)

Reborns.com lies deep in the uncanny valley: that terrifying twilight zone whose residents appear almost-but-not-quite human. Is this website a Toys“R”Us or a slave market? Are these dolls babies or playthings, dead or alive? Unable to settle on a characterization, my mind churns; my stomach churns with it.

Picture Credit: teadrinker

Not everyone feels that way, though. The community of hyperrealistic doll enthusiasts has been steadily growing since 1989, when Joyce Moreno created the first “reborn” doll. The original process of “reborning” involved stripping store-bought dolls of their paint to give them a more lifelike makeover. These days, most artists use unpainted, purpose-built doll kits instead, but the name has stuck.

There are now tens of thousands reborn artists and collectors worldwide. They chat on specialized forums and buy the dolls on eBay, Etsy, Facebook, even walmart.com.

Rather than being put off by ambiguity, the reborn community appears to thrive on it. A reborn “mother” might find her baby at a convention, displayed next to bags of disembodied, unpainted doll parts. She won’t mind knowing that the womb this doll came from was the oven which helped set the paints.

Picture Credit: Donna Lee Originals

Or perhaps she had her baby shipped by mail from an online “nursery.” In this case, she might post a carefully choreographed unboxing video on YouTube. Like a mother at a baby shower, she’ll coo over the accessories that come with the purchase: the cardigans, onesies, itty-bitty shoes. Then comes the birth certificate, and finally: the doll itself. Tradition dictates that the feet are unwrapped first, precious toes squeezed while the head and torso remain swaddled in a blanket. Unboxing complete, the new mom might cradle and rock the doll like a real baby, even change its diapers – only to plonk it unceremoniously to the ground, the neck lolling back as if snapped.


Who are the people who collect these dolls? Why do they do it? And with a lifeless baby in the house, how do they sleep at night?

Most (though by no means all) reborn collectors are American or European women. Reborns are mostly white, so many of their collectors (who often refer to dolls of other races as “ethnic”) probably are too. About half have real children. Beyond that, every collector’s story is different.

Shane Pointon’s reborn was modelled on his stillborn son. The father, who burst into tears when receiving the doll from his wife, delights in combing its hair and choosing its outfits. This is the sort of story you’ll find in the tabloids, but Pointon is hardly your typical collector; one reborn artist reports serving a single bereaved customer over seven years. In the minority of cases in which a reborn is based on photos of a real baby, the tragedy prompting the rebirth is usually only this: the prototype had gone on to become an adult, sometimes, the very adult requesting the reborn: more than one son has gifted his mother a reborn version of his baby self.

Many, perhaps most, collectors see themselves as just that: collectors of world-class masterpieces. The artistry really is spectacular; Vermeer would be put to shame by the 30 layers of paint a reborn artist might use to mimic skin over veins. Small touches complete the illusion: individually rooted hairs, heartbeat and voice modules, baby scents.

Some display the dolls in cribs; others arrange their vinyl babies in glass cases. Kellie Eldred prefers to think of the dolls as “huggable works of art.” She cradles her masterpieces to decompress at the end of a long day at work; nothing soothes your nerves quite like the sensation of holding a pellet-weighted doll.

Though literal loss of an infant is uncommon, other losses abound: childlessness, infertility, miscarriage. Lucenda Plancarte, who has stage four endometriosis, picks up her reborns on her sad days, the ones when she can’t help asking “Why am I not a mom today?” I half-expect Plancarte to dissolve into tears on screen as she says this. “Okay, you’re gonna get through this,” she chirps instead. Like so many reborn moms, she has pulled off the trick: dreaming on the verge of her nightmare, finding comfort in a memento of her loss.


“When you go out and push a pram, everybody looks…You feel seen when you’ve got a baby. I can walk down the street now and nobody looks at you, nobody talks to you.”

Christine was the one who cut her grandson Harry’s umbilical cord. She was his primary caretaker for 2.5 years, while his mother battled from cancer. Then the mother recovered, snatched Harry, and immigrated from the UK to New Zealand.

It’s time to take out the stroller; Christine has had Harry reborn.

For 2.5 years, Christine had a purpose, an identity. And just like that, it was snatched away. For other mothers (birth or not), the transition is less abrupt, but who’s to say it shouldn’t hurt too?

I think back to the sons who reborn themselves for their mothers. I’m your baby – the best gift you can have. I first saw it as infantile egoism. Now, I sense a tenderness beneath the strangeness: he understands his mother’s loss. For years, she had tethered herself to his development; nobody checked whether she was dizzied by its speed. He doesn’t see himself as a baby, but a part of her always will. He is finally old enough to understand this.

The next moment, I’m spooked again. What will Harry think when his grandmother shows him his doppelgänger? If you can replace me with a doll, did you ever really love me?

Reborners have a penchant for bluntness. The doll, unlike a real child, won’t grow up, won’t do drugs, won’t move to New Zealand, won’t die of leukemia. This is all said explicitly. “Let’s be honest, children are cutest when they’re newborns. We all want them to stay that way.”

Reborns “don’t give you any trouble,” collector Lachelle Moore sums up. “There’s no college tuition, no dirty diapers…Just the good part of motherhood.” To hear this as a onetime child is to feel, literally, objectified. It’s to become nothing more than the trigger for the secretion of maternal instincts. Whatever happened to loving a child’s interior? To watching and helping a baby become her own person? Is none of that part of what makes motherhood worthwhile?

Reborning shines a blinding light on parenting’s dark side. Our parents did want to hold on to us forever; a part of them did, anyway. And still, they let go. That is love.


When Christine brought “Harry” back home, her husband couldn’t hide his revulsion. “It’s like something out of the mortuary!” he protests. The quiver of Christine’s lip is barely perceptible, but it stings more than the sharpest accusationFor all the sympathy I have come to feel for these collectors, I remain repelled by the reborns themselves. Why must the dolls look so alive – and hence so dead? Why can’t their owners play with ragdolls instead?

Picture Credit: michelle a

It’s tempting to say: to better inhabit their fantasy. But despite all the talk of “adoption,” for all the diapers and doll-strollers, it would be a mistake to accuse reborn collectors of delusion – and not just because they themselves deny that the dolls are real babies.

Do you believe in a movie’s fiction when you watch it? What if you’re engrossed in a gripping scene? These collectors embrace their dolls in a similar way.

When Lucenda Plancarte sits with her dolls, she is also sitting with her infertility. What Shane Pointon, the grieving father, takes out of the wrapping paper is a fantasy child and the reality of his son’s death. When Christine puts her newborn in a stroller, she imagines he is Harry even as she learns to accept that he isn’t.

The very feature of reborns which repels me – their residence at the edge of the uncanny valley – is what allows their owners to move through their grief. The doll is an infant one moment, and just a doll the next; the owner can escape her grief for an instant, then be brought right back.

More than their mindboggling realism, this is what makes reborns art to me. Like the most beautiful tragic play, they connect their audiences to their sealed-off feelings, offer solace, so that, fortified, they can return to reality.


After hours of polishing this article, I look in the mirror and see…a doll. A physical mechanism which will one day fail me; a bone-sack which can kill each dream through infertility, illness, death.

What if I’m wrong? What if the illusion lies in finding these babies creepy, not cute? What if I, not the collectors, am the escapist?

If something out of a mortuary looks cute, then something cute can end up in the mortuary. I can’t bear to face this conclusion – the staggering fragility of babies – so I deny reborns their cuteness.

The uncanny valley exists because our brains abhor ambiguity. We want an impassable boundary between fact and fiction, the human and the inhuman, the living and the dead. Of course, no such boundary exists; we are all sliding towards the uncanniest of valleys: death.

There is no place to dream but at the nightmare’s edge.

Why I Procrastinate

“For fifteen minutes, welcome everything in yourself. Invite every new experience, offer it tea, send it love.”

I didn’t have high hopes for this exercise. Don’t I already welcome everything during my daily meditation? Well, it was worth a try; I was having a crappy day anyway.

Almost immediately, I realized that what had seemed a calm mind had actually been composed of a cacophony of voices. Here’s a dramatization.

Cast:

  • Crastie: a lovable, tantrum-throwing child responsible for my procrastinatory tendencies
  • The Auntie Committee: a group of well-meaning but dogmatic matrons who have taken it upon themselves to solve Crastie’s problems.

Crastie: I don’t want to write this blog post!
Auntie Vigilante: No time for fretting, you’re behind on your writing already!
Auntie Anti: Now, Crastie! Why don’t you brighten up?
Auntie Tauntie: How about you do something nice and relaxing, like reading a book? That will cheer you right up!
Vigilante: Half an hour with a book in hand, and you’ll be ready to get back to work!
Crastie: I don’t wanna!
Tauntie: Oh, okay… Then maybe you could do the dishes while listening to podcasts? You always enjoy that! It’s relaxing and productive. As soon as you see that glorious empty sink, everything will be right with the world.
Vigilante: Now isn’t that right, Crastie? There’s no end of wholesome activities! You could water the plants in your garden. Or make some iPad sketches – you’ll gain some lovely graphic design skills too!
Crastie: I don’t wanna do ANYTHING!
Anti: Well, perhaps you’re right. It’s important to Do Nothing every once in a while. Maybe it’s one of those days: a nice hour of meditation, and you’ll be good to go.
Vigilante: Or perhaps some gentle yoga?
Tauntie: Or maybe a little power nap? You haven’t been sleeping well, poor thing! Go right ahead – a half-hour nap, and then you’ll wake up good and refreshed!

Phew! All this was going on in my head? A Committee of Aunties jabbering a mile a minute, offering a new self-help scheme every ten seconds? No wonder feeling sad turns me into an exhausted insomniac, kept up at night by the chorus in her head…


I had been welcoming everything, including the Aunties, but now I focused my attention on Crastie. What if she – I – really didn’t want to do anything right now? Could I welcome that?

I lie down and close my eyes for a little while. Then Crastie chimes in: what if we played some phone Boggle?

The Aunties are back.

Auntie Anti: Young lady, phone games never did anyone any good! You say it’ll be fifteen minutes, but it’s always a lost afternoon, not a second of it enjoyable.
Vigilante: There are a hundred wholesome things you could be doing, and you choose to fritter away your time instead?
Crastie: F**k that wholesome s**t!

I always wondered why my procrastination involves excruciatingly boring activities like phone games and scrolling through Facebook. Now I have an epiphany. Crastie chooses her activities precisely because they are unenjoyable. When the Aunties declare an activity Wholesome, they expect it to cheer Crastie up – so if she chooses a Wholesome Activity but continues to mope, they blame her and exhaust her with further solutions. Better to choose something which will probably make her feel worse. When it does, at least she can’t be blamed for doing it wrong.

I try out an experiment. “Sure thing, let’s play Boggle.”

It’s surprisingly fun; I’m better than I’ve ever been at this harmless game. After twenty minutes, Crastie asks me to put down the phone. “Thanks. I think I’ve had enough.”


When the Little Prince asks the Drunkard why he drinks, he explains: “I drink to forget that I drink.” While this sounds circular, it isn’t: what fuels the drinking isn’t the drinking itself but shame. It’s the same mechanism when Crastie and I play phone Boggle or endlessly scroll through Facebook. Yes, those things are made to be addictive, and at some point quitting cold turkey is the only way out. But that’s not the fundamental reason we keep scrolling. The fundamental reason is that as soon as we stop, the Aunties will wag their fingers and lament: “She did it again! All that time down the drain!”

This is why Boggle lost its addictive power as soon as I removed the taboo against it.

I should have known this. When I meditate, I make a point of thanking my subconscious whenever it alerts me that my mind has wandered. Yes, the ultimate aim of meditation is shorter and shorter periods of mind-wandering. But getting mad at myself when I fall short of this aim – negative reinforcement – just doesn’t work. My subconscious has no reason to let me know that it has strayed if it will only get scolded once it does.

I need to treat Crastie the same way: like the Prodigal Son. Unless I give her amnesty for confession, she’ll always choose to forget that she procrastinates.


Last year, I went on a ten-day meditation retreat. I was hoping it would help me write my dissertation by strengthening my willpower, but nothing of the sort happened. In fact, after ten days of paying attention to my breath, I started doubting that willpower even existed…  If I didn’t want to do something, no plea or threat or appeal to duty could convince me otherwise.

Despite that apparent handicap, the few weeks after the retreat were some of the most productive in my life. I made rapid progress on my dissertation. I woke excited for my research every day. I couldn’t do anything I didn’t want to – but somehow I wanted all the right things.

I was also surprised to find that I still scrolled through Facebook. The big difference was that I noticed the scrolling almost as soon as it happened, and immediately paused and gently asked myself what I needed.

Crastie and I were on friendly terms back then. Whenever she showed up, we’d find that my to-do list had taken me in the wrong direction. I was tired and overworked and needed a break, or my self-imposed deadline had been unreasonable, or I disagreed with my advisor’s suggestion, which I had interpreted as a demand. My procrastination always had a reason.


Getting to know the Aunties has helped me understand a puzzle about depression and anxiety: why is it that every time I find a “cure,” something that reliably dispels dark moods, it stops working?

Because as soon as I know that a method “always works,” the Auntie Committee hijacks it. They create an expectation that the activity will work, which triggers Crastie’s fear of failure. “Do some self-care, and you’ll be good to go!” they chirp. This pushes her right back into the rule-following mindset which was the cause of her unhappiness in the first place.

Crastie isn’t the problem; the Auntie Committee is the problem. They transform love to duty, joy to rule-following. They don’t understand the concept of not doing anything; for them, there is only Doing Nothing.1  For them, there is no such thing as “for its own sake;” no such thing as Being, only Doing.


American culture is run by Auntie Committees. It has transformed self-care into a type of action, another item to check off the to-do list. But self-care is an attitude, not an activity: not yoga, not baking bread, not bubble baths. If it’s run by the Auntie Committee, it isn’t self-care. If it’s done for its own sake, from the heart, with no expectations, it is – even if it’s running a marathon or scrolling through Facebook.

An unhappy child doesn’t need advice. She needs a sympathetic ear, a shoulder to cry on, and a big, unconditional hug.

It isn’t any different when the child is me.


[1] I suspect they are also the reason my meditative practice keeps degenerating into a baroque litany of rules. (E.g. After every six breaths, check if you’re still paying attention; if you notice sleepy thoughts, breathe more deeply; if you can’t bear to sit still, count to ten before deciding whether to move.”)

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Trust Boredom

“Would you take a pill which removed your boredom forever?”

I almost said “yes.” Boredom is excruciating. Doing nothing – meditating, sunbathing, kicking down the cobblestones – is lovely. Boredom is an unscratchable itch layered on top of that glorious nothing. Who needs that?

I almost said “yes,” but I know the trickery of thought experiments. I hedged: “yes, if it doesn’t change anything else about my life.”

“Oh, but that’s the point: what do you think it would change?”


Recently, I wanted to paint this gorgeous view:

As usual before starting a landscape, I tallied the things I loved about the view: the depth of the green of the poplars(?), the wildflowers scattered in the foreground, the glow on the lake.

A glorious view, but fifteen minutes later I was yawning. The vista was green on green on green, and trying to differentiate those ten muddy greens from each other made me want to shoot myself.

I paused and reconsidered. What was my aim in painting? Capturing my excitement about the view. Enhancing my appreciation. Riding the edge between representation and paint, playing with my brushstrokes. Loving nature like Joaquin Mir did:

Joaquim MIR I TRINXET. Gold and azure [oil on canvas], circa 1902 ...

Well, I sure as hell wasn’t heading in that direction. Even if I got the damned greens right, would that take me where I wanted to go? It would lead me to accuracy, to realism – not to the type of art that brought me alive.

I loved the depth of the color of the poplars, but did I love the particularities of their muddy color? I placed a stroke of pure, delicious blue in their shadows. I put purple on the trunks. I made the grass in the foreground emerald green because I love the color, then, seeing the grass pinking slightly as it dried, added a blob of pink in for good measure.

I didn’t know where this would take me; I loved every moment.


There are terrible pictures that have taken time and pain to make, intricate and difficult, results of grinding patience, research, great amalgamations of material. They frighten the sensitive student for the message they carry is of the pain and boredom of their making.

Robert Henri, “Art Spirit

When I read this quote, I think not of painting but academic philosophy. How many papers had I read like that – intricate and difficult, results of grinding patience, research, great amalgamations of material? How many papers like this had I forced myself to read through tears of boredom, since they were on the topic of my dissertation – that great amalgamation of material I thought I had to write?

Henri gave me permission to trust my boredom. What if rather than a sign of insufficient stamina, it was a sign of taste? What if these texts were exactly what they appeared: meticulously researched crap?1

I used to feel guilty for how much “non-philosophy” was on my reading list: how much literature, pop science, education. About how much time I spent painting and writing non-academic essays, or polishing the words in my dissertation to my liking. I found those things so much more interesting than what I was “supposed” to do, but I approached them half-heartedly. Now I realized that it was how Henri had said:

People are often so affected by outside opinion that they go to their most important work half hearted or half ashamed.


Henri’s insight helped me write a better dissertation faster and more joyfully. I started aggressively skimming my bibliography and writing things I would actually enjoy reading. And these parts – faster, better, more joyfully – weren’t in conflict, as I’d thought – they were correlated! Henri says, startlingly:

It is easier, I think, to paint a good picture than it is to paint a bad one. The difficulty is to have the will for it.

That’s not true for all senses of “easier,” but it points in the right direction. But then why do so many people do boring work? If it’s easier, why is having the will for it hard?

Doing and making what excites you is a high-risk, high-reward strategy. You risk judgment. You risk finding out that no one else is excited by what excites you. Straying from the beaten path, half of the time you’ll walk aimlessly through the darkling forest.

Being meticulous is safe. Doing what everyone else is doing is safe. Academia is – yes, safe.

At least, that’s what had brought me to grad school: safety, not excitement. I wanted to look like someone who does what she loves, but I was terrified of stepping outside of the strictures of academia (with its promises of status, perhaps even of stable employment) when my love flowed elsewhere.

Fear – of the “real” world, of judgment, of unemployment – brought me to academia. Boredom was the antidote which helped me escape.


Of course I wouldn’t take the pill from the start of this post. Boredom is a guide. It’s almost a moral compass. It’s what tells me that I have lost my “why.” Removing it would mean crawling patiently in the wrong direction.


People who suffer from congenital insensitivity to pain don’t live very long. They don’t notice that they’re ill until it’s too late; they burn, cut, and bite themselves without realizing.

Boredom is a type of pain, and it’s important for similar reasons. Maybe it’s even more important. I’m happy that my hand automatically escapes a hot burner before I even physically feel pain. But I wouldn’t want my boredom replaced by an automatic reflex, even if I ended up doing the same exact things I do now.

My painting – and my life – wouldn’t be mine in the same way if I didn’t actively use my boredom as a guide.


And my landscape? I painted over the patch of red-pink in the foreground three times before I found the right balance between safety and excitement, between getting it “right” and making it alive. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

[1] Taste is subjective, so this is all about what I personally find interesting, not what anyone else “should” be interested in.

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How Not to Flinch From Praise

Everyone knows that negative feedback is tough to take. A lesser-known fact: positive feedback can be just as painful. Take Vincent van Gogh’s reaction to his first (and last) glowing review:

when I read the article it made me almost sad as I thought: [I] should be like this and I feel so inferior. And pride intoxicates like drink, when one is praised and has drunk one becomes sad, or anyway I don’t know how to say how I feel it, but it seems to me that the best work one could do would be that carried out in the family home without self-praise.

Van Gogh isn’t alone. During one of my grad-school talks, I could tell that the audience was enjoying themselves. The Q&A was lively, and afterwards several people stopped me to tell me how much they liked the presentation. But when I got home, I couldn’t access any of their enthusiasm. Curled up in bed, the only thing I could remember was the sensation of everyone’s eyes fixed on my bare face.

My brain processes praise in a funny way. Like any utterance, a compliment is a packet of information – some good, some bad. I’d like to be able to view those side by side, but in my mind, the bad parts wrap around the good. It’s a little like a nut with a hard toxic shell.

Thankfully, I think I’ve discovered some nutcrackers. I’ll describe them later in this post – but first, let’s get clearer on what the nuts are made of.


When I flinch from praise, it often goes something like this.

You say: You look so nice in that dress!
I think: When tomorrow I wear sweatpants, you’ll judge me.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is like-2.png

What I hear is not that you’re positively evaluating me, but that you’re evaluating me at all. If I’m praised, then I’m seen; and if I’m seen, then tomorrow I might disappoint you. Today I might disappoint you. You might keep looking at the dress and notice that what seemed like beauty was only flashiness. You don’t like it after all, you might decide. If a judgment is yours, it’s yours to revise; to judge is to wield power.

Every judgment implies a scale. Every scale implies the possibility of plummeting down. (This is part of why social media sucks so much. Even if there’s no “dislike” button, the “like” button implies it.)

In this case, my nut looks something like this:


Here’s a second type of nut. Let’s say you compliment me on having good taste in clothes being a good writer despite wearing socks with sandals.

I’m likely to reject this praise for a different reason: identities are damaging!1 That is, if I accept your praise, I’ll think of myself as a Good Writer. If I proceed to experience an otherwise harmless day of writer’s block, I risk descending down a spiral of self-blame. I think van Gogh is right:

the best work one could do would be that carried out in the family home without self-praise.

Better to stay away from the praise altogether.


Given the damage identities can cause, you might wonder why people would give this sort of praise in the first place.

That question is precisely what helped me find my nutcracker. I simply started asking praise-givers for their intention. Mind you, it wasn’t like I asked them point-blank “What do you think you’re doing with that praise, young lady?!” Instead, I tried to get a handle on the experience that prompted the praise. I’d ask things like

  • What do you value about good writing?
  • Is there a particular essay of mine that you enjoyed?2 What was reading it like? What did you get out of it?

After several of these conversations, I started to notice a pattern. If the praise eventually resonated with me, it was almost always because the praise-giver expressed gratitude. They were praising me because I had given them something valuable (usually an experience).

When I discovered that, I started automatically translating praise to gratitude. For instance:

You look so nice in that dress!
Translation: Thank you for bringing me joy with what you’re wearing!

Rephrasing it that way goes a long way towards removing the pressure of possible judgment. It’s no longer a question of whether you’ll keep giving me a thumbs up in the future, but of whether I’ll keep choosing (or at least trying) to give you more gifts.

And for the second nut:

You’re such a good writer!
Translation: Thank you for often bringing me valuable reading experiences!

I don’t have to accept the identity of a Good Writer to feel happy that my writing touched you.


The translation method doesn’t always work. Sometimes I need to ask for more details to understand why you value the experience I’ve given you. (And if I don’t value that sort of experience, I might want to reject the compliment.)

Occasionally, the compliment doesn’t even come from a place of gratitude. Sometimes “you’re such a good writer” means “I could never be so good, so I’ll stop trying.” You say you admire me, but really you’re making excuses for yourself, putting yourself down, or just trying to create distance between us.

Even in such cases, though, exploring your intention is usually worthwhile. Maybe I can help you get over your hangups about writing. At the very least, I’ll see where you’re coming from.


So now we have a couple of nutcrackers: translating praise to gratitude (for the easy cases) and exploring the praise-giver’s intentions (for the hard ones).

There’s just one more step: remembering to actually enjoy the gratitude. And that step is surprisingly hard for me. Why? As a woman, I’ve been taught to value modesty. Pride doesn’t befit a demure lady, or something like that. And as a Pole, I learned that the appropriate response to praise and gratitude is “it’s nothing!” – essentially tossing your appreciation as fast as I can.

The cultural practice of rejecting compliments actually makes some sense. Like I said, identities can be toxic, so that part of praise should be discarded. But there’s a difference between pride in being a Good Writer and satisfaction at giving someone an enjoyable reading experience. The latter is what keeps me going, so I try to train myself away from my instinctual recoil.

In the face of praise, I intentionally pause for a moment, think about the gratitude I’m receiving and try to feel it in my body. It doesn’t always feel like anything. It can even be unpleasant – e.g. if I don’t value the sort of experience I’m being thanked for. That’s okay; I’m practicing. But when it does feel good, there is really nothing like it – nothing like basking in the warm glow of heartfelt gratitude.


[1] For more on the dangers of evaluation and overgrown identity, check out The Inner Game of Tennis and “Keep Your Identity Small.”
[2] This one’s a little tricky because it can sound like I’m fishing for more compliments. It helps if I make it clear that I’m just trying to understand what resonates with my readers.


Thanks to Lila, Rachel, Ann, and Mahaya from the Connection Institute for bringing up and discussing this topic. You rock! (Translation: Talking with you was an enriching experience which helped me write this.) And thanks to Ben for being the best (= e.g. finding gaps in the first draft of this post).

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Axiology, Transphobia, Spouse Selection: Poland’s Sex Ed Curriculum

In my last post, I sounded the alarm about a bill threatening Polish sexual education. Today, I’ll show you just how bad the current curriculum is.

What follows are curriculum fragments interspersed with my own memories from (Polish) Catholic middle school. The italicized paragraphs are my translations of the curriculum for “Preparation for Life in the Family ” put out by the Polish Ministry of Education in 2016 and recommended for 10 to 15-year-olds.


The student will refer to the right to life from conception to natural death.

“This is going to be difficult to watch,” the teacher apologizes. “But it’s important to know the truth. Unborn babies are murdered every day.”

The Silent Scream, she explains, shows footage of a fetus recoiling in terror at an impending abortion. It’s incontrovertible proof that the unborn child feels fear and pain, that it doesn’t want to die any more than we do.

I brace myself. She pops the tape in the VCR, and I see dark, indecipherable pixels an almost blank screen. The program’s host tries to point out the fetus’s body parts, but I can’t really see anything. I squint my eyes. I wait for the action. It’s only when my classmates erupt into tears that I know that the fault is mine, not the tape’s.

Afterwards, we go around the room sharing reasons why abortion is morally wrong.

Ever the budding philosopher, I up the ante. “It’s even worse than murdering an adult. After all, the adult has already had a chance to enjoy life, but the fetus has all of that ahead.”

The girl in black at the back of the room who is last to go has remained one of my dearest friends. At the time, her words run a confused jolt through me: “I think we should be allowed to give arguments for both sides. Just on principle.”


It’s worth covering the dangers connected with masturbation, e.g. pornophilia, sex addiction.

This is the one time the word “masturbation” occurs in the curriculum.


The student knows the differences between contraception and natural family planning.

Abortion was murder; contraception was playing at God. Besides, it didn’t work, and could turn to murder: one educational video claimed that when a condom got stuck inside the woman, the baby would be suffocated on birth by a “condom hood.”


In accordance with personalistic anthropology, humanistic psychology, pedagogy and developmental psychology, as well as familiology and axiology, and also the rules of the Polish language, [the teacher will] (…) highlight the value of marriage, distinguishing it from other relationships – in the legal, physical, psychological, spiritual, and social aspect.

Imagine taking that lesson as the child of single, divorced or unmarried parents!


And that physical aspect distinguishing marriage from other relationships?

The student can list biomedical, psychological, social and moral arguments for sexual initiation within marriage.

In another “educational” video, a leery boy is pestering his girlfriend. “Come on, babe, show me that you love me.” “I want to wait till marriage – that’s how much I love you.”

The guy was so antipathic that I assumed that anyone who wanted sex before marriage was practically a rapist. At the same time, a part of me was confused: was it always the man who was pestering? Did other girls not have unruly bodies like mine?

I made it to college thinking that waiting till marriage was the norm.


The child will know how to express gratitude to family members and what for. (…) He’ll learn to give Father’s, Mother’s, Grandparents’ Day wishes.

This one’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, I’m all in favor of teaching people how to be nice to each other. On the other, I’d appreciate an acknowledgement that some parents might not deserve thanks. Surely reading “honor your mother and your father” in their catechism is insult enough for abused children!


The school’s functions include (…) strengthening the process of identifying with one’s own sex. (…) It’s worth covering disorders of identification with one’s sex, such as transgender, transsexuality.

This new addition to the curriculum is appallingly harmful to trans kids – but not just them. I remember how once it was actually easier to be a tomboy in Poland than in the US. Now, I anticipate teacher-backed bullying at the slightest signs of gender nonconformity.


The student characterizes concepts connected with sexuality: masculinity, femininity, complementarity, love, value, marriage, parenthood, responsibility.

The glaring omission in “complementarity” is the only way in which homosexuality occurs in the curriculum.

I remember looking “gay” up in the dictionary. A classmate had asked me if I was gay, since I never talked about my crushes. (How could I talk about them if they gave me such evil feelings?) I remember hearing about gay parades as some exotically terrible event, where people talked about sex in public and dressed in revealing and bizarre ways. It never occurred to me that any of it might have something to do with love.


The teacher should cover the typology of relationships: e.g. monogamy, serial monogamy.

There is nothing past the period.


It’s not all doom and gloom; let’s end with a few more positive nuggets.

The school’s functions include (…) demonstrating the unity between sexual activity, love, and responsibility; discusses problems connected with sexual objectification.

That’s a beautiful, if quixotic, idealism: it’s not just that there should be a relationship between love and sex, but that there already is one.


The student knows the criteria of spouse selection, the motives for entering into marriage, and the factors determining the longevity and success of marital and familial relationships.

Now that lesson I’d like to attend myself.


In the end, Poland’s “family values” offer an escape hatch out of sexual miseducation: attendance in Preparation for Life in the Family requires parental permission.

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Sex Ed Threatened in Poland

Poland, 2004. “Puberty,” I read in my middle-school biology textbook, “is a time of overwhelming and confusing sexual desires. To manage the impulses of this perilous life-stage, we recommend filling your schedule with as many extracurriculars as possible. That way, you’ll fall asleep as soon as your head touches the pillow, safe from temptation.”1

The textbook was mistaken; no number of extracurriculars was enough. Facedown on my bed in the dead of night, I was never too exhausted to feel my body. The more forbidden it was, the louder the call, and so I let myself believe my body’s fiction: that this was only pleasure, that what felt so good couldn’t be so wrong. That in the privacy of my bedroom, I could do whatever I pleased; no one would ever know, so no one would get hurt.  Against the evidence of every past experience, my body urged that this road was heading somewhere beautiful, towards bliss greater even than what I felt now.

I loved this imaginary world while it lasted, and so I stretched out the act until I could no longer hold it, until the final contraction brought me back to the real world, until with that final gasp I would realize: I had sinned again.

My body made promises it never kept; orgasm always meant shame.


Come Sunday, I’d page through the booklets preparing for confession. “Am I pure in thoughts, desires, acts?” Even the thought of dirty thoughts beckoned with a tempting finger.

I’d take a deep breath and resolve to confess my sins. Like any good Catholic, I believed that that if you honestly show contrition, confess to a sin, and do penance, all will be forgiven. Just reach out your hand, and receive the keys to heaven. Don’t, and hell beckons.

My dirty mind was too shameful to admit; my hand only ever reached in one direction.  Each week, I chose hell over confession. Each week, I desecrated the Holy Wafer with my sinner’s tongue.


When I lost my religion, I kept the shame. I couldn’t even bring myself to admit to masturbating on an anonymous survey.

The first person to help me unravel a few of the threads binding arousal to shame was my high school sex-ed teacher. She was funny, assertive, beloved by the students – and claimed the deadly sin which kept me up at night was perfectly normal.

Until I met this teacher, school and religion had been systematically garbling and undermining my body’s beautiful messages. I hope future generations of Poles won’t have to undergo such brainwashing.

Unhappily, things seem to be going in precisely the wrong direction.


In the proposed Polish “Stop Pedophilia” bill, “anyone who promotes or approves the undertaking by a minor of sexual intercourse or other sexual activity” would face a penalty of up to two years of jailtime. If the bill passes, the only teacher who ever eased my terror at my evil habit would risk imprisonment.

The petition proposing the bill is signed by 263 000 people and backed by the Polish Pro-Life Foundation. It was first put before the Polish parliament in October 2019 and sent to committee for further work this April.


What sort of people would support such regressive legislation? I turn to Google for answers. On sites promoting the bill,2 I read that in Germany, preschool-aged children are encouraged to regularly masturbate. (Parents are instructed not to intervene.) By the time they are teenagers, students are habituated to group anal sex. Poland is beginning to follow suit.

And who is behind this madness? Western corporations who want to addict future generations of Poles to sex, enslaving them to their own desires.

Oh, and don’t forget the pedophiles, who invented “progressive” sexual education in the first place. Take the legendary Kinsey: he apparently instructed pedophiles in rape, telling them how to measure children’s sexual responses using a stopwatch. Later, in Berlin, Helmut Kentler, who promoted the idea of “sexual diversity,” gave known pedophiles custody over orphans. Supported by Berlin authorities, the experiment went on from the 60s until 2003.3


51% of Polish voters recently re-elected the right-wing incumbent, whose party, in addition to being vehemently homophobic, supported the bill. How can so many people be so wrong?

Well, maybe their own sex ed was just as bad as mine. And that includes the progressive teachers. Remember how I said that my high-school teacher normalized masturbation? It wasn’t that simple.

Eyes glinting with mischievous amusement, she informed us that a student from another class had come to her to confess.

 “I masturbated,” he whispered. “How bad is that?”

“How many times?” she asked.

“Once.”

“My mind filled with dirty possibilities,” she confided in us. “Once per day? Once per hour? Half hour?”

Once, period.

We laugh – and that’s the end of the story. No Q&A, no further explanation.

I went away from that class understanding that to masturbate once was okay. Beyond that, I had no clue. Apparently, there was a number past which depravity lay. And were the rules different for girls? Weren’t boys supposed to have a higher sex drive? If there was a boy in the other class who masturbated only once, was something fundamentally wrong with me?

I ached to ask her, but knew I couldn’t – not without being turned into a hilarious anecdote for the other class.

How did my teacher exhibit such a profound failure of empathy? How did she not entertain the possibility that this class contained teenagers just as confused as that boy?

Possibly, she was reacting to the same taboo that the Stop Pedophilia bill is trying to pass into law. Perhaps she formulated her lesson entirely in humorous implicatures for the sake of plausible deniability. But my money’s on a different explanation: despite evidence to the contrary, she had simply assumed that all of us students were already little liberals. After all, good = liberal, and surely we were good.

For the conservative, the sex-ed teacher is a depraved pedophile in the pocket of Big Sex, who is absolutely not a member of your parish.  For the liberal, the conservative is a deprived bigot who, in collusion with pedophile priests, drinks the blood of women and sexual minorities and who is most certainly not a member of your sex-ed class. Stereotypes hurt everyone.

When a nun taught me sex ed, masturbation was cause for shame. When a liberal did, I was simply taught another type of shame: at having been ashamed in the first place.

No one wants to carry double shame. Perhaps the rise of political polarization has something to do with this fact.


The video opens with ominous, belligerent music. With his heavily lined face, cropped hair, and deep scowl, the leader of this prayer circle is not someone I’d care to meet in a dark alleyway.

“We’re here to pray. To pray in the intention of sexually used children. To pray in the intention of depraved children. Children who are depraved in order to be sexually used. But we’re also praying for the depravers. It’s a horrible thing, to damage the psyche and the life of children.”

So it is.

[1] Paraphrase based on memory.
[2] I don’t want to link to them, but they’re in the top five search results for “stop pedofilii.” The video mentioned in the last paragraph is on one of these.
[3] This last part is absolutely true!…


In Part II, I talk about how bad Poland’s current sex ed curriculum is.

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Inside Sliced Corpses, Holes of Hope

Why I love Hyman Bloom’s Paintings 

Hyman Bloom’s New York Times obituary opens with a fantastically backhanded compliment.

A mystical and reclusive painter who for a brief time in the 1940s and ’50s was regarded as a precursor to the Abstract Expressionists and one of the most significant American artists of the post-World War II era, died on Wednesday in Nashua, N.H.

How did Bloom turn from art-world darling to apostate? And did he really deserve such a snarky obituary?


If you’ve seen any of Bloom’s goriest paintings, you might be unsurprised, even relieved, to find his art buried in obscurity. “A Matter of Life and Death,” a recent exhibition of Bloom’s paintings at the Boston MFA, was filled with depictions of decaying corpses and bloody autopsies. The works might have reminded you, like one of my fellow visitors, of the gratuitous violence of the TV series Dexter. Turning your face away from the canvases, you too might have explained: “I don’t want to know a mind like that!” 

I’d like to show you some paintings which might lead you to reconsider, maybe even catch a glimpse of beauty behind the blood.


Seated Old Woman, c. 1972–73

In this exhibition full of cadavers, the painting which upsets me most shows a living woman. She’s old, very old, and completely naked, her body a heavy sagging. You can feel its weight, its emptying. It — she — is sitting in an equally bare landscape — a world sliced in half by a lumpy, menacingly near horizon.

Her body is an hourglass, bottom-heavy. You can almost see the sifting. The tips of her fingers are already dissolving into grains of sand.

She’s sitting below a blank sky, on the edge of a dark, earthy precipice. On the edge of her own grave. Soon, she will simply vanish downwards in a puff of dirt. For now, she looks away, her toothless mouth widening in a grimace.

This looking away is what upsets me most. The body goes where it must. It is obedient. The mind, chained to this inevitability, winces. It turns away — though there is no turning away.

There is no turning away: if you follow the woman’s gaze out into the next room, you’ll find that it leads straight to her inevitable future — to Female Corpse, Back View.


Female Corpse, Back View, 1947

The body is lying face-down, irrevocably pressed against this flat brown surface, this dead end. There is nothing but the hard cold earth.

And yet… we are viewing this from above — so there is an above, a hope.

Our bodies are parallel to this body. So it is standing up, in a gate of shroud, of bone, of paint. No one can stand on feet like these, but the body is a fish, swimming upwards.

We are viewing this from behind — standing in line to the gate to nowhere.


Why were these rich paintings forgotten? 

Antisemitism may have played a role. The critic Hilton Kramer compared Bloom’s paintings of rabbis, cantors, and the interiors of synagogues to “gefilte fish at a fashionable cocktail party.” Kramer didn’t exactly undo the damage by later explaining that his remark was just “one Jew against another.”

But that can’t have been the whole story. After all, we still remember Marc Chagall. A more surprising (considering the painter’s identity) prejudice played a role in the poor reception of one of Bloom’s paintings.


Female Corpse, Front View and Corpse of an Elderly Male are bloated, repellent jewels. The bodies decay into a shimmering mess of paint. It’s hard to look, impossible to look away.

These two paintings were shocking in their day — but not equally shocking. Reasoning that “the Woman is a much finer picture than the Man,1 Bloom’s gallery owner tucked away the latter — but not the former — in a back room, viewable only by special request. 

Why were the paintings treated so differently? As far as I can tell: sexism with a dash of homophobia. Strike one: the corpse was male. The viewer, who was presumed to be a man, could distance himself from the female corpse, see it as a mere object — but viewing the male cadaver meant staring his mortality in the face. Strike two: the corpse was nude. Male nudes have been censored throughout art history. After all, if the only sexual desires which count are those of straight men, why would you even want to paint a nude man?2

Today, the only difference between the male and female nudes is that one has a penis. Which of our aesthetic judgments will our descendants find equally laughable? 


Maybe you think both corpses should be tucked away in a back room. Fine. But why were Bloom’s other, gentler works forgotten?

Christmas Tree, 1939.

Take Christmas Tree. Everything I love about Bloom’s oeuvre is present in this early painting. Made of light and hope, it feels sacred. The tawdry ornaments turn me into a toddler on Christmas Day.

In crucial places, where the painting ought to be convex, it almost seems concave — like a gaping hole at the heart of a mystery. In fact, the tree is a gaping hole: the painting is more red than green, a tower of ornaments piled over a smattering of branches.

This is one of Bloom’s signature paradoxes. His paintings lie at the meeting-place of flatness and depth, interior and exterior. They urge us to go beyond the surface, to excavate and to dissect — and yet they themselves are only surfaces.

There’s one more thing I love about this work: the paint in Christmas Tree forms an unbroken swirl. I imagine removing a single brushstroke, and it’s like pulling a plug in a bathtub; everything would drain away.

You could call this unity “beautifully balanced design” or perhaps an abstract “allover.” But when I look at Bloom’s paintings, I experience the impossible unity of his works not as an aesthetic ideal, but as a spiritual truth. The works are one because the world is one — and I am one with it.


Whether they represent Christmas trees or cadavers, all of Bloom’s paintings take me to that same place of wholeness.

That may be because they all come from the same place: they all have their roots in a single transformative experience. One night in the fall of 1939 (soon before painting Christmas Tree), Bloom, alone in his studio, “felt himself transformed into a boundless being, caught up in an ecstasy of color.” He “had a conviction of immortality, of being part of something permanent and ever changing, of metamorphosis as the nature of being. Everything was intensely beautiful.”

He would be painting that experience for the next 70 years of his life.

Well, that plus its exact opposite:a time of irreparable horror. Earlier that fall, Bloom had had to identify the body of his close friend Elizabeth Chase in the morgue. She had committed suicide.

Death and wholeness. Wholeness and death. From now on, he would grasp these twin experiences, pieces of the human puzzle — one in each hand — every time he began a painting.


The Harpies, 1947.

In The Harpies, eerie monsters are tearing apart a body. Elaine de Kooning singled out the painting for praise, approvingly quipping that “composition, progressing toward total abstraction, seems to devour the subject.”

But while individual works such as The Harpies leaned toward abstraction, Bloom’s oeuvre as a whole was headed in a completely different direction. Just as the art world embraced Abstract Expressionism as the only “progressive” style, he moved further from the mannerism he had helped to create. As he explained,

the Abstract Expressionists, Jackson Pollock, for example, hurled themselves at the paintings with a destructiveness that was a form of nihilism, destroying everything because the world was not to their liking. (…) What I was trying to create was a complex picture in the classical sense; a work with depth and subject matter that was readable and over which I had exerted control. I thought of art as elevating, and I didn’t think Jackson Pollock even had a foot on the ladder.


Bloom painted bodies sliced open; Pollock splashed paint onto canvas. And then Bloom had the gumption to call Pollock’s work “destructive!”

He was right.

The Harpies represent (among other things) the cycle of life and death, the beauty and terror of the bacteria which will devour our bodies after our demise. The painting hovers on the edge of chaos, yes — but only because the world does. It may be “progressing toward total abstraction,” but it will never get there. To get there would be to give up the animating tension, the redemptive kernel which is the whole point of Bloom’s work.

The way I see it, Bloom’s paintings are mandalas. They are maps to the universe and keys to spiritual experiences akin to the ones which started Bloom’s career. (One of the paintings, Treasure Map, is a literal map.) They weave together shattered objects into dense, unbroken tapestries.

 Each painting is a step on a quixotic quest: capturing the universe in a single canvas.


Disappointed at the reception of his cadaver paintings, Bloom exclaimed “I thought they would thank me!” Hardly the words of someone wanting to shock… (He had no intention of shocking when he continued: “the human body is beautiful, inside and out,” either — though admittedly those are just the words a murderer like Dexter would have used.)

What are we supposed to thank Bloom for? What did he think he was giving us?

The Anatomist, 1953

I see an answer in The Anatomist — a self-portrait of sorts. Like the anatomist, Bloom opens up the body again and again, not gratuitously, but to learn something. Like doubting Thomas, he places his finger in the wound so that he might believe. In what? At times: in the resurrection. At other times: in his own mortality. 

I remember what I felt in front of Seated Old Woman: nothing is more heartbreaking than turning away from death until it’s too late. Bloom didn’t want to end up like her.

I think this is why he oriented The Anatomist vertically. If he had rotated the painting by 90 degrees, he would have shown the anatomist’s — his own — perspective. Instead, he gives us three hands (two living, one dead) made of the same stuff, species of the same genus. He gives us a mirror. 

Or maybe we’re hovering above, beyond, the body. Either way, the painting occupies an eternal, multi-temporal viewpoint which includes life as well as death. 

Its orientation is towards final matters. 


Cadaver on a Table, 1953

You can neatly slice the Cadaver on a Table into an upper and a lower half. One half is sinking; the other soars skywards. One hand points to the ground; the other opens to the heavens. In a perfectly balanced tension — or a perfectly tense balance — the two gestures almost send the whole thing spinning.

The cadaver is rudely thrown onto a wooden table. This turns the body into a slab of meat, a mere thing. At the same time, the table’s edges form a triangle, offering the flesh-flaming body up to the heavens. At the apex of the triangle — the cavity in the cadaver’s chest.

That gaping hole — that tunnel — is the spiritual center of the painting — and of all these paintings of dissection. Their subject is precisely what isn’t there: the departed.


The Medium, 1951.

Bloom, who believed in an afterlife, studied astrology, theosophy, and occultism. He searched for spiritual truth in unusual places, taking LSD as part of a psychological study on creativity and attending (and painting) seances. These facts make it easy to dismiss the spiritual themes in his work — and, honestly, make me feel embarrassed to defend them. But when I look at his paintings of the deceased, I viscerally feel the beauty of his faith. It’s a faith I don’t share, but I’m grateful to be able to try it on through these works. They help me look more kindly on people I’d otherwise label “foolish.”  

Even without the promise of an afterlife, I find hope in nearly all of Bloom’s paintings — hope in the very emptiness of the bodies. At times, it lies simply in honoring the departed, in the contrast of what was there a moment ago with what is not. Other times, it’s just the opposite: the works uncover an emptiness, something that had been missing long before death. Concavity instead of convexity. As if the thing I’m most terrified of losing was never there to begin with. 

Somehow, that makes it okay. 


If Bloom’s paintings had merely been shocking, he wouldn’t have been forgotten. Just think of the work of his contemporary Francis Bacon (who once had a joint exhibition with Bloom), whose paintings were made of blood and hopelessness. Or think of Duchamp’s urinal. In the art world, shock value is a feature, not a bug.

Bloom’s work benefited from this for a while. In fact, Severed Leg, one of his least redemptive paintings, hung the dining room of MoMA curator Monroe Wheeler. Imagine sipping cocktails below it!

Severed Leg, 1945

Painted against the hopelessness of a blank wall, the Severed Leg is achingly disconnected from the rest of the world. Bloom’s other dissection paintings aren’t like this. In front of these paintings, which ought to have shocked me most, I lose even the qualified, mesmerized sort of repulsion I experienced in front of the male and female corpses.

The Hull, 1952. I swear it was gentler in person!

It’s hard to explain my immunity to these works’ ostensible violence. They’re so much gentler in person than in reproduction — as if their aura could take me in its arms and shield me from their horror.

In photographs, these are unambiguously paintings of flesh; the red is undoubtedly blood. In person, the flesh is fully flesh, but also the most mesmerizing, caressing paint. The red is blood, yes, but also fire, and light, and soul.


When Kramer compared Bloom’s work to “gefilte fish at a fashionable cocktail party,” he was right that Bloom’s work didn’t fit in with the fashion of his day. Bloom painted representational work just as influential critics like Clement Greenberg proclaimed that the future of painting lay with abstraction.

But Bloom was worse than unfashionable. He didn’t just paint in the wrong style; he didn’t even have a style. His work ranges from the anatomical accuracy of Michelangelo, through the exquisite chiaroscuro of the Baroque, to Pollock’s splattered abstraction. He didn’t have a brand. How, then, was he to make a splash at any of the art world’s fashionable parties?

Instead of a brand, Bloom’s works are tied by a series of spiritual, conceptual threads. His work is animated by paradoxes, pairs of opposing properties. Surface and depth. Emptiness and fullness. Unity and dissection. Life and death. Standing in front of any one of his paintings, I feel these words rub against each other, flint to the flame of spiritual truth.

Such paradoxes were central in Baroque art, and if I had to lump Bloom in with any art-historical movement, it would be the Baroque rather than any twentieth-century current. But Bloom was a Baroque artist only in the sense in which Rembrandt was one. Both artists were fundamentally interested in the human condition. Both reveled in paint — not as mere paint, but as skin, and light, and life. Both had something so much more important than style: soul.

The paradoxes which for a Rubens might only be a technical exercise were, for Bloom, achingly alive. A matter of life and death.


The popularity of the Abstract Expressionists depended on the myth of a linear progression in art. According to this way of thinking, each era comes with one and only one revolutionary style; everything else is reactionary. In her incisive book Hyman Bloom: the Sources of his Imagery, Dorothy Abbott Thompson sketches the history of this myth.

In the 1950s, a new class of wealthy Americans was making its fortunes. Old ways of displaying wealth were falling out of fashion, and

art collecting (…) provided an alternative amusement for the wealthy. (…) An important collection was a testament to the taste, discernment and adventurous nature of the collector (…) Collectors aspired to be both daring and correct — in the lead, and yet sanctioned by the art world.

This aspiration enabled the rise of influential critics such as Clement Greenberg.

Greenberg’s position was that “avant garde,” “modernist,” or “high art” (terms used interchangeably) was difficult and could only be appreciated by those who understood and adhered to the precepts of formalist theory. 

The very destructiveness and nihilism of Abstract Expressionism which appalled Bloom ensured the style’s popularity. The paintings were shocking on the outside: collectors could use them to display their discernment and adventurousness. And they were empty on the inside: ready to be filled with fashionable theory that would vindicate the collector’s judgment. 

The wide acceptance of Greenberg’s art criticism

among wealthy collectors (many of whom were also museum trustees), museum directors, critics and art historians helped create an interlocking and mutually dependent group that, without being intentionally conspiratorial, determined what sort of art would be treated seriously.

Bloom was one of the unlucky.


Bloom was a mystical and reclusive painter who for a brief time was regarded as a precursor to the Abstract Expressionists. But if the judgment that his work was a precursor to the Abstract Expressionists is a mistake, then — well, so much the worse for the Abstract Expressionists.

Bloom’s mysticism and reclusiveness perfectly explain why he was forgotten. In fact, being reclusive is enough. The real question isn’t why Bloom was forgotten, but why anyone is remembered. Bloom never lived in New York, and eventually moved from Boston to the more provincial Nashua, New Hampshire. How could you be remembered if you stop showing your work?

But even if Bloom had continued to exhibit, his “mysticism” would have ensured failure in the art world. His paintings were religious icons; each brushstroke was a prayer, with no gaps that might be filled with fashion. 

What shocked collectors about Bloom’s cadavers weren’t the holes in their center. It was the hope that filled these holes. 

When Kramer called Bloom’s paintings “gefilte fish at a fashionable cocktail party,” he wasn’t wrong about the dish Bloom was serving. What he was fundamentally, depressingly confused about was the sort of event Bloom was hosting.

It was never a fashionable party; it was an ecumenical Sabbath.


 [1] All quotes from Hyman Bloom: the Sources of his Imagery by Dorothy Abbott Thompson.
[2] One book claims that in the 40s it was illegal to exhibit frontal male nudity, but I haven’t been able to back up the claim elsewhere.


Want more essays about underappreciated painters? Try the one I wrote about Rik Wouters. And if you’d like to receive future essays in your inbox, join my mailing list below.

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Hedgehog-Burrito Boundaries

I’m taking a four-week course on boundaries. When our instructor tells us that despite not minding even hour-long video calls, she caps her calls at 30 minutes, I feel some resistance. She explains that she intentionally leaves a 30-minute buffer so that she won’t end up resentful if the conversation goes a little over her stated boundary.

In general:

  • my limit = it starts hurting (physically or emotionally) when you do that
  • my boundary = don’t do that
  • my buffer = the space between my limit and my boundary.

So we’re instructed to have a buffer. I’m still uncomfortable with this idea. Isn’t it selfish? Isn’t it deceptive?  I imagine myself as a hedgehog, who translates:

  • My limit = I don’t want you to do that
  • My boundary = where I pretend my limit is
  • My buffer = a layer of fake quills, like so:
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is hedgehog-4.1.jpg

The next morning, life proves me so very, very wrong.

I want to meditate in our bedroom. The problem: Ben is sitting, sockless, on the living-room couch. And so I remind him, just like I have every morning for the past month, to take his socks out of the closet before I block his way. He needs a moment. My morning routine slips through my fingers; I twiddle my thumbs indignantly.

Thankfully, I remember that I’m taking a course on boundaries. 

“From now on, can you get your socks from the bedroom without reminders?” I proudly request.

“Okay,” he says. I didn’t expect him to sound this taken aback.

As I turn towards the bedroom, a bolt from the blue: “Thank you?”

He wants me to apologize? Hadn’t I just spent a month tending to the warmth of his feet, putting an extra todo in my morning routine and getting only grumbles in return? He knows that I meditate every morning – why would it be such a big deal to just take the socks out the as soon as we get up? 

This is all news to Ben. “If reminding me was so hard, why did you keep doing it?”

“For you! What did you think?”

“That you really hate being interrupted while you meditate!”

“No, I just I imagined that you wouldn’t want to interrupt me, and so you’d sit huddled on the couch with your poor cold feet!”

We start giggling as soon as the words come out of my mouth. The only person in this household who gets cold feet (in both senses) is, of course, me. Projection, projection, projection. Ben’s socklessness would have caused him no grief – and if it had, he would have just stridden into the bedroom without a second thought.

I did the “selfless” thing – then both of us got hurt. 

Then it sinks in: the buffer isn’t a false set of spikes. It’s a fluffy blanket around my hedgehog. It’s there for both of us.

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A lot of other experiences click into place once I realize that. The time I take my guests on sightseeing trip after sightseeing trip… until I’m so exhausted that I basically kick them out of the house to organize their own damned excursion. The times when I agree to dinner delays in 15-minute increments, none of which are a big deal until I’m drowning in a pool of hangry tears and someone has to make me a sandwich, NOW.

Every time I fail to have a buffer, I end up like that proverbial frog: boiled degree by degree, until it’s too late to escape. Too late for both of us: what is boiling is my own blood, scalding everyone in the room.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-2.png

As homework for the first week of the course, I’m  supposed to say “no” to a request every day.

“No one ever asks me for anything,” I complain to Ben.

30 seconds later, he commands: “Could you help me install the AC?”

Of course I say “yes.”


My final realization: confusing requests with demands and boundaries with limits are two sides of the same coin.

When I fail to create a buffer, when my boundaries are limits – then my requests are actually demands. (A request-maker would be happy to say “thank you!”) What I present as a harmless blanket is actually a layer of sharp quills.

And since almost all my requests are like this, I assume others’ are too. When Ben asks me to help with the AC, I presume that he’d been sitting in the corner, hemming and hawing until he was sure that he couldn’t do it alone.

Projection, projection, projection.


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