Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Happy Fat-Shaming Halloween #bodyimage #bullying

Where, oh where, do children learn to be bullies?

Unless you've been hiding in a cave, you've probably seen this letter, faxed by someone named "Cheryl" to a radio talk show, who announced she would be giving this form to a select group of children tomorrow.




There has been a wave of furious commenting on this letter. Most of the comments condemn the writer; a few applaud her "honesty" and "stepping forward to say something." Others have focused on the likelihood that what "Cheryl" is going to be dressed as, this Halloween, is a woman who likes to clean eggs and TP off her house.

But one of the best and most moving comments I read moved me so much I wanted to share it here - and am doing so, with the writer, TL Hamrick's, permission.

<Rant on>

Whether this is a contrived stunt or not (I am seeing some chatter it may be on some discussion threads)... Sadly, there are mean spirited people everywhere that have no problem shaming a child, or ANYONE that has a weight higher than they personally find acceptable.

It is disgusting. If this caller exists, she is a bully. Seriously... if you are that concerned about health, give out healthy treats, or better yet, turn your light off and keep your miserable self in your home.

Weight is merely a measure. It does not indicate worth. When folks 'fat shame' and hide behind 'health concerns' they are making a couple of ignorant assumptions about the person they are 'shaming'. They are assuming:

1- That the person does not realize, every second, of every day, that their body falls outside what our media, our advertising, our clothing, makeup, and sporting industries tells us is 'the standard'. They are unable to notice in the mirror that they are overweight. Obviously they have never attempted to maneuver through/sit in an amusement ride, an airplane seat, a movie theater seat, a booth at a restaurant, a chair in a waiting room with arms. They do not realize from their peers, attempting to date, going to the doctor, and fat shame random asshats like this that they are heavy. THANK YOU CAPTAIN OBVIOUS! Or is it Captain Ahole?

2-That they are inherently ________. Fill in the blank. Lazy. Undisciplined. Gluttonous. Selfish. Many will make statements to the order of:
"Just eat less and move more... it is not hard."
"He/she is more likely to have [insert health condition or conditions HERE]..." and they will either offer pithy statements of concern, or outright disgust that 'they' should not have to 'pay' higher insurance rates, etc."
"Just try to [insert obvious strategy here, that if I Google right now I can find 120 strategies that differ or conflict- and I guarantee that many folks who struggle with their weight have tried them ALL].
Or my personal favorite that I hear quite often...
"I used to be heavy... and I did [insert the strategy used that worked in your case]."

Each person's journey in this life is not the same. Even family members who live in the same house. Each person's relationship with their body is not the same. Reputable studies show that shaming and similar tactics are NOT successful long-term, and often result in additional challenges. The two assumptions above trumpet two basic arrogant errors. One is the person is oblivious despite being bombarded every second of every day from every direction with messages of what is 'socially acceptable.' The second is the person is too lazy, unmotivated, stupid... to do anything about it.

Losing weight, if that is the person's choice, is not an easy, linear journey. Many folks struggle with the side effect of medications (antidepressants, steroids, etc.) that make weight loss so difficult. Or health problems that are real, and are not excuses. PCOS, Lupus, Renal failure, Organ Transplant, Fibro, MS... I could go on for days. To look at the person, they look 'fine'. Again, check your assumptions!

I love the young woman who writes the 'Adulting' blog. She quoted a friend that stated "If you cannot touch it, you should not comment on it." This friend was referencing body shaming and objectification.

As a person who was painfully thin until my early twenties, and struggled (and still struggle) with weight, especially at about age 30, when my PCOS went into full swing. I spent a good part of my 30's overweight or obese, lost weight, kept it off for about 2 years, received a treatment/implant that caused my diet/exercise to fail and gained it all back, plus... and lost it again. Now I am on the too skinny side due to a serious health issue that I am recovering from, and will I ever be morbidly obese again?

I hope not. But... if I am, I will continue my striving for health at any weight, and the body comments? Do. Not. Want.

These are my feelings as a 44 year old woman who is pretty damn self confident. I cannot imagine being under the age of whatever age children and teens are when they trick or treat, and having an adult pull a cruel, asinine trick like that. A cruel act that would ruin not only that night, but possibly trick or treat forever.

And to those that read the last paragraph and thought, "Good!"

Your lack of compassion, and your self-righteous self-deigning as the food police makes you at your core, an ugly human being.

<Rant off>



Thanks, TL, for a thoughtful, well-reasoned, and passionate response to all that fat-shaming ugliness. I encourage everyone to go check out her blog, here.

Some people don't like Halloween, for whatever reasons. Don't want to deal with it? Fine, turn off your damn porchlight and go do whatever.

But please, whatever you decide to do, think before fat-shaming, especially before fat-shaming children. Nobody can ever know the full story of anybody's life just by looking at them.

Your thoughts?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Ghosts & Monsters & Witches, Oh My! #bookreviews

Who doesn't love being scared half to death for Halloween?

Actually, I don't. Bag full of candy? Sign me up. Dress like a slutty [nurse, teacher, librarian, Cinderella]? Already there.

Line up to watch Halloween or Friday the 13th, Part One Billion?

Oh, hell no! I'm a total Hallo-weenie.

I'm terrified not real big on spiders or bats, either, though I have to admit, some of the latter can be awfully cute.

via trunkinthetrunk

However, I have discovered that at this time of year I do enjoy reading a good story that includes classic Halloween elements: ghosts, monsters, and witches.

I even wrote a super-short ghost story myself. Follow this link to read The Haunting of Julia.


Here's some of my recommendations. Links are to my reviews on Goodreads.

Ghost Stories


Ghostwriter, a sexy romance set on a small island off the North Carolina coast. It's a blend of historical (WWI) and contemporary, sent chills down my spine, and ends with a very different Happily Ever After. Setting: Small island off the North Carolina.

The Lantern, a modern Gothic romance set in a crumbling house near the lavender fields of Provence, France, with flashbacks to the 1940's. It's a very sensual callback to Daphne DuMaurier's classic Rebecca.

Dream Lake, a contemporary romance set in a small town (Friday Harbor) on the shores of a lake. This is a very unusual ghost story in that the ghost starts out being attached to a place, and somehow gets attached to a person. Also, the ghost has been ghosting around so long he's forgotten who he is or why he's still in the land of the living.

Green Darkness, set in 1968 and Tudor England - the time of Protestant Edward VI, Queen Jane Grey (the Nine Days Queen), Catholic Mary I (Bloody Mary), when you could be executed for adhering to Catholicism one day, and Protestantism the next. From our end of history, that period of time appears compressed into a historical footnote, but for the people living then, as in Nazi Germany, it meant daily uncertainty and terror. You never knew when they were coming for you and your family, and as in George Orwell's 1984, what "the right belief" was, kept shifting.

American Celia Taylor and Sir Richard Marsdon fell in love-at-first-sight on board the Queen Mary, but something's gone very wrong in their new marriage. They seem to be haunted and cursed by echoes of their previous selves: a half-noble, half-bastard servant girl, and a monk sworn to chastity, whose forbidden romance met with a violent end. To not only save her marriage, but her life, Celia must relive the past for herself and Richard or is it Stephen? There is such richness and an almost tangible quality to the scenes set in the sixteenth century, that I keep going back to this book every few years just to breathe it in.

Ghost Stories and How To Write Them is a short Kindle-only combo of both short ghost stories, and tips by the author who sold them.  (Because if you write, wouldn't it be nice to sell your work, for money?) Being me, of course, I wrote my own ghost story(ies) first, and decided to learn the craft. afterward.



Monsters


Lily Munster
Lily Munster (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I've always been more of a Munsters fan than a monsters fan. Did anyone else ever get the brilliant idea to "dust" the living room like Lily Munster, using talcum powder and a big puffy?

My mother was not amused.


Septic Zombie, is an adorably cute children's book written by an adorably cute then-seven year old.

Frankenstein, of which I've watched about a dozen different movie and TV versions, but the book? It's really worth reading to discover what was original, what was vastly changed in the various versions, and if you're a writer, the structure of how it was written is quite interesting. It would be significantly edited, and very differently, today.

And imagine, if there had been no Frankenstein, there would have been no Young Frankenstein. No Frank-N-Furter? No picnic? No Time Warp?

I'm afraid so, Janet.




I realize there are other monsters. Vampires, mummies, swamp things, werewolves, etc., but they mostly get their own category.

Vamp It Up

I've read vampires who are lesbian sorority sisters (Better Off Red), vampires who are rednecks (Rednecks 'n' Roses), vampires who run BDSM sex clubs (The Seeking Kiss), and of course, the original vampire (Dracula).


Here, Wolfie Wolfie

I've read werewolves who are sexy business execs (Perfumed Heat), Navy SEALs (A SEAL in Wolf's Clothing), Cinderella (A Bite's Tale), and one Jersey Girl werewolf in group therapy for her hoarding (Coveted).

Do you have a favorite type of monster story?

Which Witch?

The Witch of Blackbird Pond - this MG/YA book was the first book I remember reading about "witches," though it's actually more about prejudice and small-mindedness, with some coming-of-age and romance thrown in. Setting: 1680's Connecticut colony.

Born Wicked - in this alternative history YA, 16 year-old Cate Cahill is the eldest of three sisters, all powerful witches, in late 1800's America.  Since their mother died, Cate has been doing her best to raise her sisters and protect them, but they have other ideas. Witchcraft had been real and celebrated, until a group called The Brotherhood came to power, and since then it's been something that could get a girl killed - or locked in the insane asylum. Girls are expected to marry at 17, or declare an avocation for the Sisterhood, which appears to be something like a convent... or is it?

Witches of East End - Freya's a bartender who decides to mix in some actual love potions with her specialty drinks; sister Ingrid's a librarian with the gift of healing infertility and creating charms for fidelity. While those two gifts might slip under the radar, their mother Joanna can raise the dead - and none of them are supposed to be using their powers. Add in an environmental disaster, a murderer or two running around the small community, and suddenly it looks like Salem all over again. Setting: modern day hidden town on Long Island, New York.

Witch Hill  - most people are familiar with Marion Zimmer Bradley's  The Mists of Avalon, or her Darkover sci-fi series. Many would say that this book tiptoes across the line from paranormal romance to straight erotica.

I wouldn't say that. I would say that Witch Hill straddles the line with her legs spread gleefully wide. Since I enjoy erotica, not a problem for me. While it's copyrighted 1990, it was clearly written much earlier - the time clues (no cellphones, beepers, or computers, the love interest drives a VW bug) place it in the 1970's, a time of free love and much drug experimentation. A line frequently repeated is, "All witches are promiscuous," and the latest incarnation in a long line of witchy Sara Latimers is not going to be disproving that anywhere in these pages.

If you like reading about creepy, faux-witchy rituals, drugs, sex, and orgies that include all three, you may enjoy this book. Setting: 1970's back-country New England., in a neighborhood first created by H.P. Lovecraft.

Have you read any of the above books?
Do you have a favorite Halloween-y read or movie?
A favorite paranormal being?


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Monday, October 21, 2013

The Haunting of Julia

Mass-produced colour photolithography on paper...
Mass-produced colour photolithography on paper for Toy Theatre; Romeo and Juliet (background and surroundings removed) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If Juliet survived, would Romeo have haunted her for the rest of her life?

I was eight and Robert was ten when his family moved next door. I loved to swim in their pool, and my dad’s fully stocked game room kept us busy in bad weather: dartboard, foosball table, big-screen TV with Wii, and a real pinball machine. Playmates, best friends, soulmates.

Texting caused the accident. Not ours; the other driver’s. Somehow I know this, though I don’t know how I know. I remember the screech of tearing metal, a rain of shattered glass, then, not pain, but intense... pressure. I can’t breathe, see only crimson, taste a vile sweet saltiness in my mouth. Sirens, darkness. Nausea, freezing cold. The blinding whiteness of the hospital, antiseptic smells and rhythmically throbbing machinery. I hear our weeping parents, snatches of conversation. “Will recover, but the other...” “So sorry.” Organ donation? WTF?

 I scream. Robert, I won’t lose you.

It’s okay, Jules.
I can hear Robert, even if it’s not with my ears. How? He chuckles. You really think death can keep us apart?

Everything seems unreal, fragmented. I wake up scared and lost, then...

Read the rest at Diana Cachey's What Happens in Venice Haunted-Palooza, and find lots of other spooky stories and giveaways there.

***

Because it's a month of ghostly hauntings and such, I decided to try my hand at this original short ghost story.

Like it? Hate it? Got suggestions to make it better?
Please leave a comment and let me know.
Thanks!
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Monday, October 14, 2013

Cheryl Strayed's Wild, Turquoise Circles, and Dead Dogs

People "get" different things from books; that's part of what makes them so wonderful to read and discuss.

English: Take along the PCT near Parks Creek T...
English: Taken along the PCT near Parks Creek Trailhead in the Scott Mountains. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My book club's upcoming discussion in November is Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. From the Goodreads description:
At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother's death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker, and the trail was little more than “an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise.” But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone. 
Schematic overview of course and lands of the ...
Schematic overview of course and lands of the Pacific Crest Trail (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
While Oprah loved it, most of the reviews are raves, and it was the 2012 Goodreads Choice Winner for Best Memoir & Autobiography, some reviewers disliked it. Why? Some felt it doesn't describe enough of the scenery and beauty of the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed bypassed what they felt was the best part (as did many other hikers that year), through the Kings Canyon, Yosemite, and the High Sierras, which were socked in by snow. They thought she was a total idiot in her preparations - her boots were too small, her pack was too heavy, she did no preparatory hikes to condition herself. They express concern, rightly, that she did not have the proper respect for the PCT, that people may get into their heads it's safe to try to copy her. There's also some slut-shaming - some reviewers didn't like her because she "ruined" her marriage, was promiscuous and tried heroin.

I found many of the criticisms had some validity. My family loves to camp in the High Sierras, and I've hiked in the Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks. There's something very healing and empowering about the American wilderness. At the same time, it ain't Disneyland, with nicely sanded safety fences and non-toxic paint on everything. Nature can kill you if you don't take proper precautions and treat it with respect.

Elephant Knob, in the Sequoia National Forest
Also known in my family as the place where [Name Redacted] almost fell to her death.

Nature can kill you even if you do take all proper precautions.


But Why Was Ms. Strayed Such a Mess? We Don't Talk About That


A big part of what is glossed over in the reviews, both positive and negative, was the huge impact domestic violence had on Strayed's life.

Last year (October 2012) I ran a whole series on domestic violence, which left me so emotionally tapped out I wasn't going to run a single blog post on the subject this year. Let someone else carry the ball for once.

And then I read Wild. And many, many reviews, in which nobody even mentioned the domestic violence history, and why those repeated traumas just might have led to Cheryl becoming a thrill-seeker or to choose self-destructive behaviors.


Throughout Cheryl's earliest years, her mother Bobbi was being severely beaten by her husband/father of her children (I don't recall his name being mentioned, so I'll just call him A$$clown). Bobbi would pack up the kids and leave, but this was in the days before there were widespread networks of battered women's shelters set up throughout the US. So, eventually, Bobbi would return, because A$$clown promised things would be different. Besides, she had no money and no where else to go.

Eventually, Bobbi left A$$clown for good, with her three young kids, including Cheryl, the middle child. They lived in a series of ratty apartments, receiving ?welfare? ?food stamps? while Bobbi struggled with a series of minimum wage jobs and boyfriends. When Cheryl was ten, Bobbi remarried, a fairly decent man named Eddie. Eddie neither beat nor molested the kids; he actually played with them, instead. There was more emotional stability, but financial stability was still a stretch, as the family began building a house in rural Minnesota, living without running water or modern plumbing (read: toilets) for most of the rest of Cheryl's teen years.

She married at 19, and when she was 22, her mother Bobbi died after a very brief struggle with lung cancer, at the age of 45. The family disintegrated. Eddie quickly moved on, remarrying within a year of his wife's death.

Cheryl dropped out of college, less than a semester from finishing. She threw herself into one-night stands and flings, including a man who introduced her to heroin. She and her husband Paul split and reconciled, split and reconciled, and finally divorced. She was bottoming out. Somewhere along the way, Cheryl got the wild-hair-up-her-ass idea of making this massive solo hike, over 1,100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail, with the idea that if she did this, it would allow her to get her head, and life together.

Surprisingly, it did. Cheryl could very easily have died on the trail, but she made it, and she did turn her life around. My review of the book is here. Cheryl talks about her journey in this clip:




Domestic Violence Doesn't Always Claim Its Victims Upfront


English: pink ribbon
English: pink ribbon
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Yes, there are women (and men) who are outright murdered by their partners in cold blood, like Kay Marie Sisto. But what effect does it have on a woman to have to continually flee her abuser, small children in tow? Does struggling to provide food, shelter, and clothing for your kids once you've left an abuser take a further toll on the immune system? Does it upset the body's homeostatic balance enough, over time, to make it vulnerable to diseases like lung cancer, which claimed Cheryl's mother Bobbi? Or breast cancer, which claimed my mother?

Many doctors believe it can.

And what long-term effect does it have on a child who must watch one parent continually beating his/her parent up? Fleeing with a parent in fear for their lives?

Might a person with that background become an unstable teen who marries too young, experiments with drugs and promiscuity, and does seemingly crazy, life-endangering stunts on a whim? There are some emotional injuries that leave us permanently scarred.

In the end, Cheryl Strayed found her life on the Pacific Crest Trail. But how many other young men and women spiral out of control and don't find a way out?

The ripples of domestic violence can spread a long way out. Before we go all Judgey McJudgerson on someone who is "slutty," fat, alcoholic, a junkie, etc., consider that we don't know all the details of their childhood. At least some of these "out-of-control" people may be swallowing and numbing their pain with sex, food, booze, or other substances.



It's a Dog's Life - or Death


Recently on one of my chat groups a friend vented about an incident in her neighborhood the other night. A woman broke up with her boyfriend. He came to her place, and he shot her dog eight times.

Ex-boyfriend left, neighbors gathered, the police came.

Neighbors and passers-by had plenty to say about the victim's inappropriate behavior. Apparently she was acting "too upset" and emotional about her dog. It was just a dog, after all; her appropriate behavior should have been gratitude and relief that her psycho ex hadn't shot her.

My reaction to that



And This Is Why We Have Still to Talk About Domestic Violence


Because even though my friend from the chat board was furious with the neighbors' reaction and thought it was perfectly natural for the victim to grieve for her dog, because he's been her precious baby for five years, even though she herself had experienced domestic violence as a child, she didn't seem to "get" that the victim was in more danger than ever.

A person who has just left, or announced her (or his) intention to leave an unstable person is in what they call "the red zone." This is when most deaths from domestic violence occur.

In this woman's case, we know her ex is a) out to terrorize her; b) armed; c) willing to shoot and kill a living creature. That he shot the dog eight times (overkill) speaks to him being a sick, sadistic bastard.

I would wager that at least part of the victim's "overreaction" to the murder of her dog was stark fear for herself and her loved ones. He ex might have threatened her dog or loved ones in the past, and this act was a clear message, "It'll be you, next." Or her mother, sister, children if she has any. Shooting the dog also rendered her much more vulnerable, because now she doesn't have him to defend her or give a warning bark.

I've since learned that her family moved her out the next day - hopefully to somewhere safe.

The police don't yet have the shooter in custody.


What Can You Do, As a Bystander?


Don't talk smack about the victim. Not ever. Not even if she keeps going back to him, or she was drunk, or whatever.

Take a quick look at this clip. How many of these excuses have you said or thought? How many of these have you heard someone else say... and didn't speak up, because it felt uncomfortable?



I am ashamed to admit I have said, or thought, some of these things. But no more.


Maybe we can't eliminate every single occurrence of domestic violence and rape. But we can certainly work to make it rare. We can work to end rape culture.

An example of rape culture is, when a psycho shoots his ex-girlfriend's dog, people in the neighborhood walk around muttering about her behavior (crying too much), instead of offering her comfort, support, and protection.

Our message should never be one that shames victims, but shames the abusers and rapists.

Please consider joining the No More campaign. Add their logo to your website or blog. Follow them on Twitter and FaceBook. Share the PSA's (Public Service Announcements). Share this post, if you think it's helpful. Donate to a domestic violence assistance program in your area.



And please, speak out whenever you encounter rape culture or victim-blaming statements. Don't let them pass in silence.

***
Domestic Violence Resources

USA:
National Domestic Violence Hotline - 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)  TTY- 1-800-787-3224 
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (includes downloadable guides for helping women in abusive relationships)
RAINN - Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network 1.800.656.HOPE
National Alliance on Mental Illness, aka NAMI

Canada:
National Clearinghouse on Family Violence - you will need to opt for English or French

UK:
Women's Aid - 0808 2000 247

Australia & New Zealand:
Domestic Violence Information Manual - phone numbers vary by territory

For Male Victims:
Menweb
Why Men Stay in Abusive Relationships

Have you read or will you read Wild?
Do you share my rage at the  neighborhood reaction to the dog shooting?
Your thoughts?
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Monday, October 7, 2013

Slut of the Month: Cleopatra

via Wikipedia Commons
Rolled up in a carpet.

Or, by other accounts, in a sack of bed linens.

Put aside, for a moment, the legend of Cleopatra as a great seductress and think about how incredibly clever and daring that was.

Her enemies stood between her and the one person who could help her regain her throne. Enemies who would be delighted to kill her (and vice-versa, granted). The chances of battling through with an army were slim to none.

A messenger was also likely to be waylaid or killed, but her enemies had already ticked off Julius Caesar, and perhaps part of 21-year-old Cleopatra's calculation was that they would be too afraid to tamper with a gift for him.

She could have smothered, or passed out from heat prostration. Apollodorus, the servant carrying the carpet/bedroll, could have betrayed her. Caesar's guard might not have allowed the carpet to be carried into his room.

It was not only a once-in-a-lifetime stunt, but Cleopatra having herself delivered to Caesar rolled up in whatever-it-was, was a once-in-recorded-history stunt. Nothing like that had ever been done before, and we can be sure that from that time forward, any gifts to a ruler or conquering hero were carefully inspected, outside said ruler/hero's presence, to make sure they did not contain an assassin, groupie or who-knows-what.


Cleopatra's gamble paid off.


Caesar was impressed. And aroused. Whether becoming 53 year-old Caesar's mistress to cement the deal was her idea (history has painted her as an unstoppable seductress), his (Caesar himself had a colorful sexual history as a man of many affairs), or due to mutual attraction, nine months later Cleopatra gave birth to his son, Ptolemy Caesar, who would be called Caesarion (Little Caesar).

She'd been losing the civil war; now she had Caesar and the backing of Rome on her side, who helped defeat her enemies. Later, Julius Caesar would become famous for pithily describing his conquest of Britain, Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered). As biographer Stacy Schiff put it, "Apollodorus came, Caesar saw, Cleopatra conquered."

Caesar was then the most powerful man in the Western world, but he had his enemies. Although he sent for Cleopatra (and her son) when things "settled down" in Rome, and they continued their affair there, her presence provided a partial excuse for ill feeling against him. She was present in Rome when he was stabbed to death by the Senate, and quickly fled back to Eqypt, again pregnant with Caesar's child, which she miscarried.


You Think Your Family Dinners Are Awkward


The enemies that Cleopatra had to sneak past while rolled in that carpet were the forces of her own brother, Ptolemy XIII. She was born around 69 BC, was named a goddess as a child, and became queen at age 18, along with her 10 year old brother as co-ruler and official husband.

Eqypt itself was heavily divided; the Egyptian people formed one faction, the Greeks who dominated Alexandria were another, and there was a substantial foreign contingent, including more Jews in Alexandria than anywhere outside of Judea itself.  But the elephant in the room was the Roman empire, which dominated the Mediterranean.

Not complying enough with Rome would lead to Roman intervention; there was always the chance they would decide to replace the Ptolemies with one of their own generals, or another foreign national. Cleopatra's uncle, the King of Cypress, had been removed by Rome. But if it appeared there was too much cooperation with Rome, the Egyptian people themselves would riot and revolt. Then there was the second elephant in the room, the not-so-happy family.

Many of the Ptolemies were stabbed, poisoned, exiled, or dismembered, most often by another family member or their agents. Cleopatra's father, Ptolemy XII (Auletes) had been deposed by her two older sisters, and had regained his throne only with the assistance (and loans) from Rome, leaving the finances and governance of Egypt... pretty much a hot mess. Being a minor, Ptolemy XIII  had a regency of three adults, while Cleopatra felt perfectly capable of ruling her country without the "help" of her husband-brother and his hostile advisers. Later, with Caesar's assistance, Ptolemy XIII was found drowned in the Nile. Later yet, Cleopatra's second brother became her husband and co-ruler, Ptolemy XIV, and also died young, reportedly poisoned by her.

Kind of like the George Foreman family, the Ptolemies were very big on using the same names, over and over again. 

When people talk about Cleopatra, we almost always usually mean the last pharaoh of Egypt, who technically was Cleopatra VII Thea Philopater. Although the first Ptolemy was a Macedonian Greek general under Alexander the Great, who liberated Eqypt from Persian rule in 332 BC and founded the city of Alexandria, it's not only hard to tell the players without a program, it's hard to tell the players with a program. Then there's the whole Eqyptian royalty tradition of pharoahs marrying sisters/mothers/aunts, which the Ptolemies adopted.


via Wikipedia - and many of the relationships are not universally agreed upon by Egyptologists
As demonstrated by "our" Cleopatra, simply because a pharoah was officially married to a sibling (or two), or other relation, that does not necessarily mean the official spouse was the father or mother of one's children. Cleopatra would later name her son Caesarion her co-ruler as Ptolemy XV.


The Lips That Launched A Thousand Ships


One feature on which everyone agreed was Cleopatra's "most charming voice and knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to everyone." (Cassius Dio) She had charisma, she was fluent in at least seven, by some accounts, nine  languages, and she was quick-witted. Plutarch says:
"For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased..."
Her ability to converse with just about anyone in his or her own language, was an invaluable tool for a Queen who had to win her way through diplomacy, rather than force of arms. Egypt, before and during Cleopatra's time, had little in the way of standing armies. What Egypt was famous for, however, was shipbuilding (as makes sense for countries engaged in international trade). While Mark Antony was vilified by Rome for assigning various timber-rich provinces to Cleopatra's care, it makes sense since she had the tradesmen and resources to transform trees into a sizable navy.

She was the first Ptolemy to learn the Egyptian language; all others had stuck to Greek.


But was she beautiful? One controversy raging in modern times is whether Cleopatra was black - or was not black. and what she actually looked like. The coins and busts that remain depict her as having a rather prominent nose, and a firm chin, though they may or may not be actual likenesses. I've read various opinions that depict Cleopatra as brunette, blond, redheaded, olive-skinned, pale-skinned, dark-skinned. For now, the jury is still out on that issue; we know she had Macedonian Greek ancestry, she was an African queen, and much of her genetic heritage is unknown. There was certainly prejudice and discrimination in those days, but it was not based on skin color.


Cleopatra probably didn't look much like Beyoncé or Elizabeth Taylor, although thanks to this movie, Liz represents the mind-picture many of us form of her.

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What the 1963 movie, which was at the time the most expensive movie ever made, portrays well, is the pageantry and excess of both Egypt and Rome of that era. There are many historical facts it plays fast and loose with, but Cleopatra's grand entrance into Rome is not-to-be-missed. No CGI in those days, it cost a mint to build, costume, and film.


Alexandria was the New York City of Its Day; Rome was More Like... Albany


Near the mouth of the Nile, Alexandria was a trading port in a prime position. A new city, expertly planned, it boasted broad, clean streets, stadiums, baths, gymnasiums, concert halls, and running water in the houses. Alexander the Great's body was entombed there; the 370+ feet tall Alexandria Lighthouse was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, and then there was the Alexandria Library.




The Alexandria Library contained over 500,000 volumes, with attached lecture rooms and exhibition halls. It became the world's first true university, where astronomy, geography, physics, mathematics, zoology, language and literature were taught. They figured out that the Earth and other planets circled the Sun long before Copernicus "discovered" it.

Julius Caesar himself is said to have accidentally burned part of the Library during what became known as the Alexandrian War, his defense of Cleopatra's throne against her younger brother and sister. The rest of the library may have been destroyed by Emperor Aurelian (3rd century AD) and by decree of Emperor Theodosius (391 AD), because, well, pagans.

Can we have a moment of respectful silence for the Alexandria Library, please?



The Ptolemies were the original book thieves. Any ship coming into Alexandria harbor was searched for books (then in scroll form), and said books confiscated.  After being taken to the library and carefully copied, the book copies would be returned to their owners.


Rome, in contrast to Alexandria, was primitive, crowded, and noisy. The Roman crowds loved spectacles (bread and circuses) and the Triumphs held by the conquering generals, usually featuring captured enemy combatants. Caesar himself held three Triumphs while Cleopatra was his guest in Rome, including one about the Alexandrian War. Even though her sister Arsinoë had revolted against her, seeing her paraded past the roaring Roman crowds wearing silver chains left an indelible impression on Cleopatra.

While Roman armies were out conquering the world, the Roman government itself was in a constant state of flux. Rome had been a Republic, then Caesar was chosen as Dictator for Life. After Caesar's murder by the Senate, there would be a Triumvirate: Octavian Caesar, who was Julius' adopted heir, Mark Antony, and Lepidus.



Mark Antony - Not The Sharpest Sword in the Armory


Marcus Antonius
via Wikipedia Commons
He was a dear friend of Julius Caesar, and had won some important military victories. He was also something of a party animal, perhaps even an alcoholic. When he and Cleopatra began their affair, it is possible they were truly in love. It is also possible Cleopatra coolly surveyed her options for the best possible Roman alliance to protect Egypt: Lepidus, already being edged out of power by Mark Antony and Octavian; Octavian - the adopted son of Julius Caesar, a natural rival of Cleopatra's son by Julius Caesar, and decided that Mark Antony, weak reed that he was, was her best option.

It is from her time as a lover-wife of Mark Antony that some of the most extravagant tales of Cleopatra come: the golden barge with purple, perfumed sails; the swallowing of a pearl (after pretending to dissolve it in vinegar; clever Cleopatra knew vinegar didn't dissolve pearls); the fishing trip where, after Antony was faking a catch by having swimmers place purchased fish on his lines, she one-upped him by having a purchased, salted fish placed on his hooks. The revels and ceremonies with herself as Isis/Aphrodite, and Antony as Osirus/Dionysus. The three children she bore: twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, and Ptolemy Philadelphus.

In a culture where Roman women did not even have the right to their own names: Julius Caesar's daughter was Julia, Octavian's sister was Octavia, Mark Antony's daughters were all Antonia; the idea that Cleopatra, a woman, was a political force to be dealt with put Roman togas in a twist. So it was easy for a devious plotter like Octavian, who played the long game, to plant seeds of disaffection among both Antony's partisans in the Senate, among the Roman people, and even among the armed legions. It didn't help that to Roman eyes, Antony was "giving away the store" in terms of eastern possessions to Cleopatra and her children.

In the end, Octavian 's admiral, Agrippa, defeated Antony and Cleopatra's fleet in Actium, Greece. Octavian persuaded Antony's legions to desert to him in droves, and had both Cleopatra's son Caesarion, and Antony's oldest son, Antyllus, murdered.

All that was left was to drag Antony and Cleopatra back to Rome to walk in chains at his Triumph.


Death Can Be a Pain in the Asp


Mark Antony, after living in shame for some months after Actium, finally determined to kill himself, but managed to bungle that, too. He fell on his sword, but took long enough dying that he could be brought to Cleopatra where she had holed up in her mausoleum.

After arranging Antony's funeral, Cleopatra, who had long decided that she would not do the Roman Walk of Shame wearing Chains, in silver or any other color, was ready to take herself out in style. Unlike Antony, she wasn't going to bungle it. She had laid in a supply of poisonous snakes - or poisoned figs, some historians believe - and managed to sneak them past Octavian's clueless guards. Enough for herself, and for her two closest handmaidens, Charmion and Iras, who also preferred to take themselves out, rather than trust themselves to Octavian's mercy.

As last step, Cleopatra sent a letter to Octavian, requesting burial in Antony's tomb. He sent guards to stop her, but they arrived only in time to see Iras and Charmion die.

Charmion was adjusting Cleopatra's crown. "Was this well done of your lady, Charmion?" he was supposed to have demanded.

"Extremely well," she said, "as became the descendant of so many kings."


Death of Cleopatra by Jean-Andrè Rixens via Wikimedia Commons

After an ending like that, Cleopatra's life and death has been told, retold, dramatized by Shakespeare, made into many movies, and painted by... pretty much everyone. Cleopatra lived her life on her own terms, successfully ruled Egypt for almost twenty years, and died on her own terms, at the age of 39.

From Smithsonian Magazine, Rehabilitating Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff:

...Catastrophe reliably cements a reputation, and Cleopatra's end was sudden and sensational. In one of the busiest afterlives in history, she has become an asteroid, a video game, a cigarette, a slot machine, a strip club, a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor. Shakespeare attested to Cleopatra's infinite variety. He had no idea.

For More on Cleopatra:

Cleopatra, A Life - Stacy Schiff (non-fiction)
The Memoirs of Cleopatra - Margaret George
Cleopatra's Clothing - David Claudon website
Cleopatra - Empress of the Nile - Ron Miller and Sommer Browning
History Channel Documentary





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What have you always "known" about Cleopatra - and what has surprised you?
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