Hello, My Name Is __

In 2017, Liam surpassed Noah as the most popular male baby name in the United States. The name Emma remained the most popular female name, followed closely by Olivia, Ava, and Isabella. Over the past 100 years, the top baby names have changed relatively little. There’s some fluctuation over which biblical name tops the list, but nonetheless, the trends remain static and fairly arbitrary. Names are an integral part of our identity, but most of us have no say in what name we are assigned—so what role does a name play in shaping who a person becomes? Why do certain people name their kids Apple, Adolf Hitler (as one neo-Nazi couple did in 2018), or even a single letter? Will the Liams of the world live up to their name’s meaning of “strong willed and protective,” or are names simply an easy way to distinguish one another?

Archeologists have traced the first known named humans to Mesopotamia. An ancient tablet found in modern-day Iraq records a business transaction: “29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim.” Archeologists speculate that Kushim was a buyer or seller who signed his name to record the transaction. Names became necessary as humans began to record their communication because they made it possible to differentiate between people and refer to a specific person more easily.

Names serve a similar purpose today. For most of us, our name is an unconscious part of our identity; it’s the first thing we tell new people. Parents today often spend countless hours deciding on the perfect name for their child. Compared to countries like New Zealand, where the state reviews all baby names and prohibits unreasonably long or potentially offensive names, the U.S. has few rules for naming children, though numbers and symbols are still prohibited.  

Having a fairly unique name myself, I’ve often wondered whether less-common names produce any kind of subconscious effect on their owners. This question has proven difficult for researchers to answer. Often, people with unique names form too small a sample size, and it can be difficult to isolate the experimental impact of one name versus another, since individuals tend to only have one name in their life. In 1948, researchers at Harvard University compared the academic performance of men with unusual names versus those with more common names. They concluded that individuals with unique names tended to have lower academic performance. However, more recent studies have concluded that there was no correlation with academic performance.

Searching for answers myself, I talked with several friends and family members about their names. Emily Jane, a Colorado College sophomore with the most popular first and middle names for females in her birth year, says, “I feel like my name is pretty boring, but I don’t think it affects my life or my success too much.” Emily’s opinion was common among the students I talked with. Most people seem to like their names, but discount any unconscious power they might play. Sam, a first-year student who identifies as a woman, said, “I like having a common name because it’s easy for people to remember you.” But, she says, “it makes me feel less unique because so many people have my name.” However, she also felt that “The name ‘Sam’ could be seen as unprofessional,” which is why she applies to all of her jobs as Samantha.” Most people develop an affinity for their own names because they are so familiar. But despite the attachment that we might have to our own names, how other people interpret our names could be more important in determining whether names carry power over our lives.

Just as Sam worried that her name may be seen as “unprofessional” to future employers, names can also be a way for employers to screen, stereotype, and discriminate against job candidates. In a 2003 study called, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Market Discrimination,” Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan examined whether names act as a signaling mechanism that allows employers to discriminate by race. Bertrand and Mullainathan first identified distinctly “black and white sounding names.” They did this “by identifying those that have the highest ratio of frequency in one racial group to frequency in the other racial group.” Emily and Greg became the “white sounding” test names, while Lakisha and Jamal acted as the “black names.” Next, they used these same names to create 5,000 fake resumes responding to help wanted ads in Chicago and Boston. They submitted a series of identical resumes to a variety of companies, half of which were headed with a “white sounding” name and half with a “black sounding” name. Bertrand and Mullainathan were able to isolate the effect a person’s name had on whether they received a call back—since the resumes were identical except for the name attached to them, any difference in employers’ response rate could be attributed to the name’s implied race.

They found that “white names received 50 percent more calls for interviews. A white name yields as many more call backs as an additional eight years of experience on a resume.” Bertrand and Mullainathan’s findings show that names are one of the quickest ways to discriminate. Their findings suggest that names affect employment prospects, and thus have huge real world implications. However, it’s important to note that these findings are more tied to the underlying racial connotations behind names than to the names themselves. Furthermore, this study only looked at the effects of name discrimination during the first stage of the hiring process. Presumably, a discriminatory employer would be equally discriminatory during later stages of the hiring process. However, it’s clear that certain names could help a candidate get their foot in the door.

This same discrimination is the reason many immigrants feel the need to use anglicized names. A 2009 Swedish study looked at how immigrants can improve their economic outcomes by changing names. Mahmood Arai and Peter Skogman Thoursie, economists from Stockholm University, found that immigrants who changed their names to Swedish-sounding ones earned an average of 26 percent more than those who kept their Slavic, Asian, or African names. Researchers speculate that candidates with Swedish-sounding names seemed more trustworthy to employers. In this way, familiar names helped them land higher-paying jobs. This pressure to assimilate represents underlying racism in the job market. Names are not the cause of such racism, but they provide a tool for discrimination to occur.

However, research from another 2003 study challenges both of these previous findings. Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics, and his partner Roland G. Freyer, Jr. produced a study for the National Bureau of Economic Research that analyzed California birth data. Levitt and Freyer compared birth records of children with distinctively black and white names. They isolated the impact that names played in life outcomes by running a regression analysis and removing the role of socioeconomic factors, parental education level, and race. Since the records were available for multiple generations, researchers were able to evaluate whether names helped people advance over time. Although names may signal determining factors, like a person’s wealth, they found that names themselves played no role in how successful people ultimately turned out to be.

In contrast to prior research, Freyer and Levitt found “no negative causal impact of having a distinctively black name on life outcomes.” In other words, their study shows that names have a negligible impact in how others treat us, and thus have little impact on success. They attempt to reconcile this finding with earlier research, arguing that if distinctively black names really were a detriment, we would see people changing their names more often.

Maybe they’re right. Names might just be an interesting, while fairly meaningless, part of who we become. However, when I was wrapping up my research, I noticed one last part of Levitt and Freyer’s study that interested me. At the start of their article, they tried to explain why black and white names diverged in the first place. They argue that segregation in the 1960s and 1970s, coupled with the Black Power movement, led to a profound shift in naming patterns. They write, “The median black female in a segregated area went from receiving a name that was twice as likely to be given to blacks as whites to a name that was more than twenty times as likely to be given to blacks.” Instead of looking at the impact of names on individuals, maybe we should consider why individuals’ parents choose certain names in the first place.

Names don’t conclusively change who we become, but they do tell us a lot about a child’s circumstances at birth. Eric Oliver, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, described his interest in names: “They are highly related to taste and fashion but largely free from market effects.” Names can tell us a lot about social, cultural, and political trends. Yet unlike other signals of culture, names are free for anyone to use. Oliver looked more into what names can revealed about parents. He and his colleagues found that liberal, educated parents are more likely to give their children unique names that serve as conscious or unconscious signals of their “cultural taste.” Conservative parents tend to name their children more popular and traditional names, like John or Mary. The authors presume these conservative names can signal economic capital.

Although a child’s name is unlikely to affect who they become, names are an interesting signal of their parents’ backgrounds. For example, one person I spoke to mentioned how her name “has prompted [her] to learn more about Scottish history.” Names can connect people to their family’s history, culture, or story. For some, this connection can serve as a positive link to a larger community, but for others, the connotations of a name can become a burden that instantly shapes how people perceive you. The studies that I reviewed show that names can certainly provide a basis for judgement. Although Levitt and Freyer discount the impact of distinctively black names, I find the research on discrimination in resumes quite convincing. Names provide a foundation for people to hold racial bias, often before ever meeting face to face. By understanding these studies, we can better understand the bias that surrounds names. A person’s name may indicate something about where they come from, but it doesn’t necessarily describe who they become.

Fill In The Blank Issue | April 2019

Emerging Adulthood

“You need to get over this fear of being an adult,” I remember my mom reproaching me during my senior year of high school.

“It’s not that I’m afraid of being an adult. It’s just that … being an adult kind of … sucks. And I don’t want to do it.”  

Now in my final semester of college, my defensive reply rings more and more true. When we’re children, it seems like all we want to do is grow up—to drive ourselves around, buy whatever we want, and eat cookies for breakfast (because we can). And sure, the ability to do those things is pretty liberating. However, lately I wish I could return to the days when I lacked this freedom—the days of others taking care of me, the days of no responsibility.

Still, at age 22, I can’t say that I personally have that much responsibility. In fact, so long as I’m still in college, I’m living the cushy life, which not all students can say. I can pat myself on the back as much as I want for taking out the trash, paying the internet bill, and getting my flu shot, but I’m still living without any true responsibilities, financial or otherwise. I am privileged enough to have my parents’ support for rent and food, and the little income I make I can put toward gas and frivolities.

I am, as my mom and therapist tell me, “in transition.” I’m in transition to becoming an “adult,” or “adultish,” or a person who practices the art of “adulting.” I imagine most, if not all, of my classmates recognize that they, too, are in transition. In fact, as part of my Third Block adolescent psychology course, we examined our own cohort: emerging adults. It was during this course that I truly came to terms with the reality that I was entering a new and distinct stage of my life.


As time has gone on, particularly now in the second semester of my senior year, I am compelled to come to my own conclusions about how one transitions to true adulthood with grace and genuineness, while grappling with feelings of shame and uncertainty about societal expectations. These unpleasant emotions typically emerge in the same way: someone asks me that classic cocktail party inquiry, “So, what are you doing after graduation?”

Despite the casual way it’s presented, this question often fills seniors with nausea, dread, and self-doubt. You mean I have to have everything figured out, beyond just taking out the trash, paying the internet bill, and getting my flu shot? I have to foster a career that offers me benefits? Not only is, “So, what are you doing after graduation?” a paralyzing, terrifying question, it’s a deeply existential one. It gives college students pause as to what they’ve been doing for the past four years and whether it was all even worth it. I feel particularly haunted by this question and the implications of my future decisions. But why? Because I have all the free time to think about it.

Fourth Block of junior year, I made an epic discovery: I could finish college in just three and a half years. I could be done with my major, two minors, and all-college requirements in exactly 12 months.

This discovery meant the world to me. It meant saving my family a semester’s worth of tuition, entering the workforce sooner than the rest of my classmates, and, most importantly, being done with tests, presentations, essays, and exams. That was huge because, during the first semester of my junior year, I decided that I was done with this whole “school” thing, done with this institution of cramming and regurgitation, of having to prove myself again and again.


At school, you’re never done. There’s always a way to get ahead, a meeting to attend or to plan, and an obligation to fulfill. So, after working my first real-ass, 9-to-5 job after sophomore year, I realized I just wanted to be in the real world, where I could finish my work at the end of the day, open a beer, and be done. In a sense, I was like a little kid again: I wanted to be an adult.

Well, here I am. I’m done with school, not yet graduated, with free time out my ears. I work part-time for Bon Appetit, network and job hunt relentlessly, and bide my time reading, listening to podcasts, and cross-stitching. I clean my housemates’ dishes and fold their laundry, sweep the floor, and buy the groceries. Whenever someone asks me if I’m free to do something, I respond jokingly, “Am I free? Please, I’m unemployed! Of course I’m free!” Though I’ve been slowly but surely making peace with my current position, there’s still a tinge of terror in my voice.

To be honest, I fluctuate between feeling completely secure in this job search process and feeling completely helpless and directionless. I could have taken a more conventional path. I could have just continued on with school, continued on with my work-study jobs, and pursued post-grad jobs when I could in between. But at what cost? At the cost of feeling like a robot, weighed down by constant stress, and left without time and energy to wholeheartedly explore my career options. As I watch my housemates cram for exams, furiously type last-minute papers, and spend hours at the library preparing presentations, I do not feel an ounce of jealousy. In this regard, I feel totally self-assured in my decision and recognize that taking time off is a viable option for someone experiencing burnout.

The real reason why I often feel like I’m in way over my head and going nowhere lies in shame. My housemate sent me an article from an advice column, entitled, “I’m Broke and Mostly Friendless, and I’ve Wasted My Whole Life.” The writer laments that at age 35, she has nothing to show for herself: she’s moved around constantly, worked multiple jobs with no upward mobility, and maintained few relationships, along with a myriad of other self-declared failures. In many ways, the writer was describing the life I feel destined for: a life of constant movement, never settling, but never really progressing, either.

Polly, the woman who runs the advice column, asks the writer to consider the root of all these feelings of inadequacy: shame. The writer is ashamed of moving around so much, rather than taking pride in the experiences she’s accrued by traveling. She criticizes her movement among industries, rather than applauding her adaptability and versatility as an employee. It’s all about frame of mind. Polly beautifully illustrates how the writer’s decisions don’t need to be viewed as destructive—perhaps she could have done things differently, but by making these choices, the writer has now brought herself to a point of wanting to change. And that’s good, too. At 35, she still has all the time in the world (so surely, at 22, I do as well).  

Shame creates an alternate universe; shame makes us believe that everyone is judging our choices and lifestyle. Like the writer, I periodically allow shame to dictate what I think others’ perceptions of me are. I think that everyone knows (and cares) how frustrated I am applying endlessly to jobs only to hear no response back or to receive flat-out rejection. I find myself pathetic for only being able to secure one part-time job, confronted with so much free time that I feel like doing my housemates’ dishes gives me purpose. I forget that I should be proud of myself for effectively graduating in only three and half years. I forget that, given my poor mental health record, having free time to cross-stitch, listen to podcasts, read, and even do dishes is inherently good for me. I forget that as aggravating as job hunting can be, at least I have the time and space to do it, without class, work-study, and extra-curriculars piled on. I am in an ideal position, thanks to my own hard work.

Still, the shame that many of my peers and I feel persists. It lies in the beliefs held by society at large about where we’re “supposed to be” and what we’re “supposed to do”—all insinuated by that cocktail party question. Luckily, the expectations that previous generations have laid out for us are shifting, and what we’re “supposed to be” and “supposed to do” are far murkier than they once were.

I learned in my adolescent psychology course that these shifts have to do with a new view of the human lifespan. Previously, developmental psychologists supported a simpler progression of life stages: infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood. However, in recent years, they have discovered that our age group—namely, those 18 to 25—are their own breed. Why? Because society finds us in the most diverse of circumstances.

In our liberal arts bubble, we often think that all 18 to 22-year-olds are in college. The reality is, at age 18, many aren’t in school. Some might be married, have children even; many take gap years; many work or travel. Some are taking time off and working part-time for their school’s catering service. Those who do go to college might do any number of things after graduation: attend graduate school, move back home, explore the world, begin their career, or just flat-out flounder. It’s no wonder that I feel overwhelmed by being (kind of) out in the real world; our paths as graduates are practically limitless.

The ambiguity associated with “emerging adulthood” comes with many negative stereotypes about our age group—stereotypes that may add to our shame as we navigate this tricky time. However, Clark University professor of psychology Jeffrey Arnett demonstrates how many of these myths are misguided.

For starters, people imagine the college-age group as suffering from enormous stress, experiencing a “quarter-life crisis.” Sure, our anxiety manifests itself through memes and the frequent alcoholic beverage, but in reality, we’re all just trying to make sense of ourselves and our experiences. Arnett notes that we’re simply in an age of “identity confusion,” a term coined by developmental psychologist Erik Erikson to describe the process of exploring different selves to ultimately arrive at that self which will help us flourish in true adulthood. He counters social psychologist Jean Twenge, who points to the increase in major depression over the 20th century as evidence of our duress (even though this rise in depression is evident across all age groups). In other words, everyone is stressed out by the world right now. Thus, we seniors should all take a deep breath, acknowledge that we’re in the same boat as everyone else, and not blow our position out of proportion (I would do well to take this advice).

Thankfully, this should not be too difficult—our age group is pretty optimistic, despite this era of investigations on Russia, fake news, and polarizing tweets. Arnett points to studies by Hornblower (1997) and Schulenberg and Zarrett (2006) that demonstrate that the overwhelming majority of 18 to 29-year-olds believe that they’ll get to the place they wish to be in life, and that overall well-being increases from age 18 to 26. I’m honestly unsurprised; I find myself and my peers often saying, even in times of duress, “It’ll all work out.” I, for one, really want to believe it will all work out—I just struggle to internalize this belief.

Those emerging adults who are overly stressed are typically the ones who struggle to cope with the unstructured time that comes with this developmental stage. This fact reminds me to shut up when I start lamenting that I’m free to binge-watch “New Girl.”

Another negative stereotype about emerging adults is our selfishness. We appear self-indulgent because we spend more time and money on ourselves than on others. This appears true; how many Colorado College alums can I name who decided to dirt-bag around the West rock climbing or travel to South America after graduation? Many students, at least at CC, have the financial means to indulge in a “gap year.” That being said, our generation is the most likely to engage in volunteer work, and Arnett argues that “selfishness” is a misinterpretation; in this time period, we are not necessarily obligated to work, marry, or have kids, so we foster our self-development. We travel, experience new places and jobs, or engage in further study, not because we’re selfish, but because we’re trying to be our best selves. If we did not practice this self-development, we wouldn’t be prepared to devote ourselves to others in the future, whether it be to a spouse, children, family, or co-workers. Especially after a school as rigorous as CC, taking time to recharge and reassess only seems healthy.

The final negative stereotype about emerging adults is the notion that we refuse to grow up. This one hits close to home. Yet our “refusal to grow up” may not be a refusal, but a necessity. Arnett comments that economic constraints nowadays have made it much harder for our generation than previous ones to settle down with a job, partner, and kids by age 25. Many jobs require more than an undergraduate degree—that’s a given now. But also, most emerging adults see the same bummers about adulthood as I do: Though independence is nice, paying bills, going to work, and caring for all your personal needs is onerous, and lacks spontaneity. Moreover, on the personal side, I feel as though adulthood means sacrificing bits of my childlike identity—wearing a turtle backpack skiing, making pancakes for dinner, and embarking on hairbrained schemes on late summer nights.

Still, Arnett says that by age 30, most of us settle down, whether it be through a job or a relationship or both. We land on our feet, much the same way that practically all of us end up at the right college. We experience some stress, we self-develop, and ultimately, we accept adulthood, for all its perks and suckiness. And I think that all of us, as confused as we feel currently, recognize this as our future.

Though I still feel frustrated and dip in and out of optimism, I have come to accept that all of the existential thoughts I’ve been having are not particular to me. Though my immediate peers may appear less jumbled by their class routine, they’re struggling with the same challenges as I am: getting responses from potential employers, questioning whether they’re making the right decisions, and feeling shame if they’re pursuing aspirations that others don’t find as meaningful. Even those who do have an answer to “So, what are you looking to do after graduation?” may feel a pit in the bottom of their stomach, unsure if this first step in their career path is really going to take them places or fulfill them adequately emotionally and mentally.

The bottom line: None of us really know how to transition into true adulthood, and there isn’t a prescribed way to do so, but we can still remain optimistic, foster personal growth, and embrace our transition. I still don’t know what “adulthood” means for me. Maybe it’s job stability; maybe it’s buying my own house; maybe it’s finding a significant other. For now, I can learn and define what my emerging adulthood, or adulting, means.

To me, it’s first sticking to my values: being a loyal friend, practicing self-care, and always working on my communication skills. Most of all, never accepting adulthood as a walk in the park, but learning to deal with the unfortunate aspects (taxes, health insurance) with grace. It means doing away with my shame at my current position and focusing on the positives. It means embracing my free time and using it to explore this chapter of my life, to cultivate the best Slaico I can be. And sometimes, it means eating cookies for breakfast.

Fill In The Blank Issue | April 2019

A Walk with Hieronymus Bosch

Let’s take a walk, go hand in hand with the man who’s been called a mad monk, the devil’s painter, and a psychedelic seer born too soon. Are you scared of Hieronymus Bosch, or the devilish creatures he conjured up for his hell? Do you want to understand his mind? They say one’s art is an avenue to their mind. Come on; let’s go.

Many critics credit Bosch, not the Italian renaissance painters, as the true father of modern art. His otherworldly creatures were shocking in the conservative, Catholic era and still remain provocative today. His paintings carried themselves through history—from being pictured in the alien bar scene of “Star Wars: A New Hope” to inspiring tattoos and dorm-room decor. It’s believed that people who commissioned Bosch’s paintings practiced an early version of humanism—the then-controversial belief which upheld that all humans have to think for themselves about good and evil. Reflections on this belief can be seen among many of the characters of Bosch’s works. To understand this, let’s place ourselves in his most infamous painting, the 1490 triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”

At the beginning of time, God said: “Let there be Light.” Let there be a dome to keep the world in two separate places and one place will be called Sky. Sky; Water; Let the water come together in one place so that land will appear below. Earth; Water; Sky; Let lights appear above the sky to separate day from night and show when months, years and festivals begin. Fire; Sky; Water; Earth. “Let life begin,” God said at the beginning of time. From His cloudy vantage point, He looked at the earth He had created.

“And so it was done.” The first leakings of life were birds (which can be seen in the upper left corner of the first panel) flying in spirals, following upon each other in old gusts of air. Plants emerged, green and ephemeral, and then the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil emerged in the garden of Eden. God said, “Let the land produce creatures according to every kind.” From the right side of the lake came dark shadow forms, lizards, frogs and other hybrid amphibians going to seek shelter in the rocks. Adam emerged, and from his rib the first woman, who was named Eve. God said to the humans, “I am putting you in charge of the fish, the birds and all the wild animals … You are free to eat from any plant in the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for if you do, you will surely die.”


Some interpretations of the triptych claim that it depicts the many dimensions of Adam and Eve’s decision whether or not to eat the forbidden fruit. In Bosch’s time, fruits were well-known symbols of specific human characteristics: the cherry represented fertility and eroticism, the bramble symbolized love, and the strawberry temptation and mortality. These fruits are the center of many social scenes across the middle panel of the triptych. The scenes depict how humans could respond to the various temptations, represented by the fruits. In the first panel, a scene from the Garden of Eden, all of the fruits are safely on the trees. The middle panel shows creatures eating the fruits, and the last panel has no fruits because it depicts the consequences of eating them. This last panel is often titled “Hell” or “The Last Judgment.”

Bosch 1.jpg

Beyond the biblical analogies, little is agreed upon about the meaning of Bosch’s triptych. Many interpretations claim that the painting is a warning against sin. Others employ irony, Freudian analysis, and existentialism to explain the symbols. Art theorist Laurinda Dixon writes that the painting corresponds with a popular 15th century alchemical allegory. Another art theorist, Wilhelm Fraenger, controversially claims that Bosch was a member of the “Brothers of the Free Spirit,” a heretical sect of the time, and that the middle panel shows their ideal of a perfect society. The critical element of this ideal is sexual freedom, represented by the sweet fruits and physical contact between many characters. In Fraenger’s opinion, sexual freedom leads to salvation, not hell, breaking with the popular conception that the panels are to be read chronologically.

The contradictions within the masterpiece and the lack of historical information about Hieronymus Bosch make it difficult to nominate any sure claim regarding Bosch’s intentions. Given the context of analysis, the best way to explore the piece is to enter into it ourselves and draw our own conclusions. In the foreground of the first panel, Eve is presented to Adam. It’s interesting to compare this scene to a similar one in Bosch’s 1482 triptych “The Last Judgment” in which Eve holds the exact same posture but is being pulled away from the side of a sleeping Adam rather than presented to him—removing temptation versus presenting Adam with it. In many of Bosch’s depictions, Eve is a passive figure, as in the first panel of “The Garden of Earthly Delights.

She floats with her feet hanging in a way that would not actually hold her, presenting her wrist to the pink-robed man, the only one around them wearing clothes. While Adam is attentive to this man, Eve has her eyes downcast.

In the bottom left hand corner of the neighboring panel, another group of humans is contemplating the scene of Adam and Eve. They are mesmerized. How did the tranquility and simplicity of the Garden of Eden turn into the chaotic world behind them? The sunlight glints through a pile of jewels (in the first panel), off the surface of the lake, and into their eyes, warding them away. An owl perched in the window of the pink tower in the lake stares out at them. Its eyes watch them directly even as they move away from their spying position and begin walking through the events of their own panel.  


Is the pink-robed man God? In scripture, it is God who presents Eve to Adam, but this man looks much younger than usual depictions of God. In the larger context of Bosch’s artwork, it’s clear that this man resembles Bosch’s representation of Jesus. The jewels and the owl emphasize both the purity of the first panel and its expensive, inaccessible nature. The owl is one of only four characters in the entire triptych that looks directly out of the painting at the viewers.

The black woman with one cherry on her head and another coveted behind her back tries to shake the feeling of the owl’s eyes. She hurries along with her group, taking the hand of the white man whose arm is poised by his ear like he is about to twirl. She whispers to him about the owl’s eyes. All the humans around them are paired off suggestively, so her original group, the Eden-watchers, do the same and scatter into the crowds. The woman with the cherry on her head and the man, poised to twirl, link arms to blend in with their society.

Bosch 2 middle.jpg

They walk alongside the pond first. She dips her toes in the water and he reaches down to cup a handful of it and drink. He calls her to crouch with him and look at the strange flower that’s blooming out of an opaque pink fruit at the bottom of the lake. The whole contraption floats to the surface. When the flower-head breaks into the open air, a sheer bubble begins forming on it. A couple appears inside of the bubble, nuzzling one another. Below them, in the pink fruit that the flower grew out of, is another face, engaged in intense conversation with a black rat. The rat eventually convinces the face to play a prank on the humans, so he squeezes his arm out of a hole in the fruit to gently tap the shear bubble. It falls into the lake, and without the floaty bubble, the rest of the flower sinks.

The woman with the cherry on her head begins running after the bubble, bobbing along. It gains a pinkness upon contact with the water that gradually darkens until the bubble is totally opaque and obscures the kissing couple. Only the man’s foot, in the same position as before, peeks out from the right side of the opaque globe that much resembles the fruit that the flower originally grew out of. The faces of a man and woman look out from the other side of the fruit, but their postures suggest that the foot couldn’t belong to either of them. “I think there’s another person in there,” Cherry-on-her-head tells her partner. “Oh, I think it’s the man who knocked them into the water before!” Infidelity? Her partner looks on excitedly. The man in the pink globe is now pulling at a blackberry floating on the lake’s surface. Suddenly, Cherry-on-her-head looks very afraid and pulls on the wrist of her partner, Poised-to-twirl. They begin to run. When they stop, next to a hoard of people being fed berries by a giant bird, Cherry-on-her-head asks, “Did you see the owl, still looking at us?” The pink berry floats to the bottom of the lake behind them, perhaps to begin the cycle (of life?) again.

The walking couple is blown away from the lake by a cool breeze. A man carrying a giant fish like a lance stumbles out of a small, orange, cylindrical building and blocks their path. He doesn’t notice because he’s chattering with the other people who are also spilling out of the cylinder.


In Bosch’s time, the fish was a symbol of Jesus. Next to the man with the fish is a woman whose face and hair resembles Eve, but she’s sitting in the exact posture as Adam in the first panel. Strange, right?

The fish flops out of the man’s hands. Poised-to-twirl chases the fish with him to help, but it’s too slippery, so they both end up in a pile on the lap of a woman. Her face is veiled with a clear, conical flower, and she’s heedless of the commotion around her and of the man to her left, flirting with her, with a blackberry on his head. Next to them, another man is flirting in a different way: he’s placing a bouquet of flowers in the buttocks of another man, stooped down with his head enwrapped in his arms. Poised-to-twirl meets the eyes of this man, and once he notices those eyes, he can’t escape their gaze.


The bent-over man is one of the four figures in the painting who stares directly out at the viewer. Perhaps this is one of the ways in which Bosch marks important moments in the piece. One interpretation of the scene with flowers is that it shows homosexuality, or “the sin of sodomy.” The symbolism of flowers themselves is unclear. For some, they represent corruption. Another interpretation claims that the scene shows humankind’s digression from the natural, the flowers indicating our use of perfume to mask natural odors.


Cherry-on-her-head grabs the man’s wrist and begins running again. “I saw the owl, it was staring at me from atop a bundle of dancing legs!” she says when they finally stop. She looks amused rather than scared of the owl now; her mood is high. They arrive at a grove of apple trees. People sitting there are openly gorging on the fruits. They are laughing and look relaxed. Cherry-on-her-head and Poised-to-twirl introduce themselves. One woman tosses them the fruits that she was eating. She rubs her stomach, “I’ve had so much.” Her stomach is pregnantwith fruit? Everyone bites into more fruit. They’ve never tasted such sweetness. The air smells thick with sweetness. Fruit juices drip from the trees, and the sticky fog clings to the naked bodies of the people.


Art critics say that the forest fruit-eating scene is a direct reference to the fall of man. It is an exaggerated depiction of Eve’s picking of an apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and directly acting against God’s command.


Our couple continues through the grove of trees. Their journey almost goes on forever because the thick air slows them down and they keep pausing to eat fruit. As they near the edge of the forest, gusts of a different-smelling air revive them and urge them forward. They burst from the trees into a whirling dust cloud. In front of them, men mounted on many types of beasts are circling counter-clockwise, very fast. Some of them carry fish-like lances. One carries an egg. Poised-to-twirl wants to dance with them. He grabs the mane of a unicorn and pulls himself onto its back. Cherry-on-her-head is right behind him, and they go around and around with the people. Their skin, sticky from the forest, collects dust; by the time they make it to the inside ring of the parade, they are covered. At the sight of the pool at the center of the circle, Cherry-on-her-head cries out. She tugs Poised-to-twirl off the unicorn, and they stumble their way over to the pond and topple right into it. The group of women in the pool jostle at the splash the couple makes. They were all so serene before, starkly separated, unperturbed by the activity of the men around them. The peace is restored as Cherry-on-her-head and Poised-to-twirl submerge and rub themselves clean with the glistening water. Some of the women gaze serenely outward at the commotion around them. Only some of the men look inward to the bathing women. Cherry-on-her-head and Poised-to-twirl sneak away from there when they finish cleaning.


The scene with the group of riders resembles a few ceremonial customs of the Middle Ages such as fertility rituals and dancing around the May tree.


Beyond the circle of galloping men is another body of water. Our couple continues toward it. On the left shore is a circle of crouching naked people grasping at each other and the giant strawberry that they support. On the shore beside them is another group of people creeping from the water to take cover inside of a giant eggshell. In the center of the lake is a tower made of glistening blue stone and at the center of the tower is an intrusive opening.


While the center panel of the triptych is sexually suggestive at every turn, this scene is particularly noteworthy because it is the only explicit depiction of sexual activity in the painting. It’s also closer to the Hell panel than the other sexual scenes, and these humans are apart from the rest.

The idyllic landscape is the same across the seam between the two first panels, showing they are clearly connected. Smooth green hills roll into each other, populated by similar figures, vegetation, and crystal blue ponds. In the background of both panels are blue mountains. In the bottom left corner, the group of people looking from the middle panel into the Garden of Eden highlights the intended connection of these panels.

There is no such continuity between the second and third panels. The color scheme shifts immediately and the animals morph into monsters. The humans are helpless subjects, rather than active and exploratory as depicted in the middle panel. There is only one place in the middle panel where the color scheme approaches the last panel. In the lower right corner, a woman painted in dull browns holds a fruit to her chest, as if remembering its taste. Her mouth is blocked, so she cannot eat it and a man points down at her, scolding. He is another of the four figures looking out of the painting at the viewers.


The walking couple picks up from where they left off, by the highest lake. They pass a blue, spherical construction with a merman floating above a fish and gesturing. Everything is green and bright and cluttered, and our characters are unaware of the impending doom before them. They mount an idyllic-looking hill and begin to descend again when they are thrown suddenly into darkness and different kinds of activity. Their wrists are clasped behind their back and the fruits knocked off their heads by green, laughing monsters. They have joined the group of new souls being ushered into hell. Cherry-on-her-head notices a key below them with a human man limply hanging inside of its eye. The key is to Hell perhaps, for the gates have been opened.

 All around them a war is raging. Knights charge over a bridge in the background to seize a burning house, and more humans are shoved around a burning pit of fire. There are horrible cries and the sounds of bagpipes, harps, and other musical instruments. Our characters get pulled onwards by evil-looking, humanoid monsters. They pass the key and an ears-and-knife-machine and come upon a giant, white tree-man rising from a frozen lake. “Brr,” Cherry-on-her-head shivers. The demons pull them toward the lake and then shamelessly onto the ice. The Hell-dwellers have something sticky on their feet to keep them from slipping, and they cackle as the humans they’re pulling fall with almost every step. Poised-to-twirl gives in and lets himself be dragged across the cold, slick ice. 

They pass under the hollowed belly of the huge, white tree-man. Hollering, laughing, and the sound of feet stomping echo off the surface of the ice. The sounds are coming from a drinking tavern inside of the tree-man structure. Cherry-on-her-head’s stomach twists. She can’t believe she had ever even indulged in those fruits! The large, porcelain face of the tree-man leers in at the drinkers, happy to house these drunken humans in his belly.


Bosch 2 Side.jpg

This scene shows the sinfulness of indulgence, perhaps implying that the initial temptation represented by the fruits leads to worse vices like drinking and gambling. The face of the white tree-man is meant as a self-portrait of Bosch himself. Whereas both of the other panels contain significant centerpieces, there is only an empty boat into which one of the tree-man’s legs is rooted at the center of the Hell panel. Today, Hell is commonly associated with heat and fire, but in Bosch’s time, it was associated with cold.


Hordes of human and animal sinners skate upon the frozen lake, jeering at and spitting on the group being escorted slowly across the lake. Poised-to-twirl shouts at them, helplessly. He pulls at his rope when they pass the flailing man in the hole in the ice. His demon tightens the ropes around his body and sneers, “That man is doomed to drown forever. Leave him be.” Our characters are losing the sharpness of their senses because of the cold, and they can hardly believe their luck. Through a haze, they see a group of men staring at a music score inked into the butt of another person whose body has been smashed by a giant harp. They see a birdman looming above everything, surveying. He eats person after person head first. The bird immediately digests the humans as he eats them. They fall through his body and emerge below, visible through the transparent base of his golden throne. Their bodies sink slowly into a hole in the ground. Sitting beside the sewer hole is a naked woman with a toad on her chest and her eyes closed. She is being fondled from behind by a demon and from the front by two green arms with antlers as hands.


This is one of the most commonly analyzed scenes of Hell. The sitting woman’s posture is the same as Adam in the first panel and the veiled Eve in the second panel. As in the second panel, here, a woman takes Adam’s posture, again has her eyes closed, and again her face and hair look like Eve’s. The toad on her chest is typically taken to be a symbol of impurity. Critics speculate that she symbolizes inappropriate over-indulgence in life, and perhaps out of embarrassment, now has her eyes closed to avoid looking at her own reflection in the mirror in front of her. The birdman above sits in royal contrast to her. His throne is modeled to resemble the first toilets of the time, a luxury only afforded to the most affluent of society. Bosch himself probably had a toilet like this. Members of society who were not so wealthy would use the river.


Cherry-on-her-head and Poised-to-twirl are separated, but they don’t notice because their brains are so foggy. They are released by the demons who guided them, but their freedom doesn’t matter because all they can do is topple along, falling over and making incoherent noises. Cherry-on-her-head passes a pig nun who spits on her and a suited rabbit. She pushes through a crowd of naked people. When she gets to the other side, she feels herself pushed down by a man. He tapes her mouth shut and points accusingly at her. He spins her to face a wall and whispers in her ear, “Embrace your destiny.”

Somewhere in the distance, Cherry-on-her-head sees what looks like her old self. A fruit is tantalizingly placed on that woman’s head, but she can’t eat it because the owl is staring at her.


Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” painting is a spectacle and a mystery. What about it made it stand the test of time so well? There is a lot of religious art from this period but none so immortal as Bosch’s. Perhaps this is because other artists painted more inside the box. Bosch’s work is grotesque, a style that has always been on the fringes of our culture; his paintings thereby avoid dating themselves. “Garden of Earthly Delights” just as easily could have been painted today as in the 11th century.

The grotesque nature of the painting makes it free. Bodies—naked, bingeing, contorting, and exploring intimacy—play a major role in its sense of freedom and grotesqueness. At the time, and still today, bodies are a taboo subject. We’re often told to cover them up and preserve their holiness in the image of God. Humans in the painting explore how to escape these confines and humans in the world do this, too. A modern version of the “Garden of Earthly Delights” might show cyborg combinations of humans and machines instead of humans and animals, but the themes of exploring bodily functions, the nature of social interaction, and the pursuit of pleasure are all still relevant today.

Count Henry III of Nassau Breda (Netherlands) first commissioned “The Garden of Earthly Delights” for his house. Not long after he received it, it was seized by Spanish armies (clearly a desired piece of work) and housed by Phillip II of Spain. To this day, it remains in Spain—now in the Museo de Prado in Madrid.

 Fill In The Blank Issue | April 2019

Nine Meals Away from Anarchy

The original version of this article was researched and written in early 2017, but has been edited for this issue of Cipher. All names have been changed for the sake of privacy.

"Planning for the future is like going fishing in a dry gulch; nothing ever works out as you wanted, so give up all your schemes and ambitions. If you have to think about something—make it the uncertainty of the hour of your death." -Gyalse Rinpoche



In Jill’s small thrift store on the corner of a hill in Manitou Springs, I asked her, “Where do you see yourself in three years?”

"Dead," she replied, without missing a beat. She noticed my surprise and let out a deep sigh. "I'm not good at suffering." She looked up at me, face trembling slightly, as we stood in her little thrift store. "I mean, we're going to suffer terribly! Without food and water … we can live without food for a while … you can’t really live without water," she said, and I began to picture the world she imagined. Moments earlier, I’d found myself standing in her small shop, flipping through the pages of Mother Earth magazines. I read out loud, "how to build a solar oven, how to start a hydroponics system, how to survive with only four dollars a day."

"I've been trying some of those out," Jill said. Her cheeks jiggled slightly as she spoke, as if her words were full of enormous weight, causing her face to droop down towards the carpeted floor of her shop. Though she’s currently a Manitou Springs resident, Jill is originally from California. She’s the single mother of a daughter who shares my name. Jill collects rainwater from her roof in a 100-gallon bucket that she uses to water her plants and bathe, and she’s built a small dam in the creek behind her shop, to slow water flow before it no longer exists.

"People don’t realize how fragile we are, how fragile our beautiful world is, we're given this beautiful world … I can’t even watch nature shows on TV anymore, I just start crying." I felt my eyebrows crease, and when I finally looked at her, it seemed like she’d lost hope already.

"I'm not a religious person,” she said, “I'm a little spiritual … so in a little bit of my spiritual way I think it's mother nature's way of getting rid of the worst virus its ever had, humans. All we do is destroy and ruin … we're a selfish, greedy, self-centered race … God, I hate to tell you this."

Every day for nine years, Jill has spent long hours in her small shop, staring at her computer screen, reading articles and watching YouTube videos about earth science and climate change. She has invested $20 in a small solar panel that conducts enough energy to fuel a small light for her living area, and she has already begun to dehydrate foods and make beef jerky for her cat. "I'm a prepper," Jill tells me.

My first encounter with Jill filled me with fascination and curiosity, but also left me disturbed by unanswerable questions about the future and fate of humankind. My obsession with her beliefs brought me into her world, and into those of others who saw the same things she did.



“If I let fear take over,” Robert said, as we sat in metal chairs on the small porch of his chicken coop, “I imagine it's going to be total chaos, total anarchy, people killing people for food. You have a little bit of food, somebody's going to want it, and they'll kill you for it.” Robert Matthews is a Colorado Springs resident and retired interior designer. He built a greenhouse in the backyard of his home, next to an outdoor garden that flourishes in the growing season. We connected two years prior to this conversation, when I expressed interest in helping with his aquaponics project, and ever since, I have spent long hours watering his papaya trees, giant chard, and tomato vines. Often, he harvests next to me and we talk about life and the state of the world. I told Robert about my conversation with Jill, and we talked about what it means to survive, sitting in his backyard watching his well-groomed hens stick their heads through the small spaces in the cracks of the fence behind him, calmly squawking.

"I've been in a funk," he told me, and I watched red wetness fill his eyes. I noticed the empty beds in his garden, and thought back to the summer months we spent pulling weeds. In the midst of climate change chaos and the anticipation of human-initiated anarchy, growing food has become Robert’s mission. He told me he'd woken up. He clenched his fists and looked down at them, "What do you have to do to wake people up?"

“Nobody’s ever lived through anything like this, so nobody really knows exactly what’s going to happen,” Robert said. His vision of the future aligned almost identically with Jill’s, and I started imagining the exact same picture of a doomsday in my head again. “We’re nine meals away from anarchy,” he said. Jill had said the exact same thing just days later, and suddenly, it didn’t seem so crazy anymore. Preppers like to say that the average grocery store is said to have approximately three days worth of food supply per person. Nine meals. This means that if food trucks no longer arrived at the grocery store, it would take only three days before the entire store was depleted of its goods. That’s it. So what happens when we start to get hungry? I imagined half a day without food: my stomach would throb and ache, and my body would quickly lose all energy. We cannot begin to imagine the problem, however, as we still sit in abundance. Unlike those currently battling starvation in other parts of the world, to most of us reading this article, hunger is a foreign reality. We do not know a life without food in abundance, so what happens when we get desperate?




A few days later, I sat on a bar stool at the back of Colorado Coffee, across from another Colorado Springs resident, David Dandt. Robert had put me in touch with him, telling me that David had something to say about doomsday, too. A wide-brimmed, black hat shadowed the top half of his face, while the lower half was covered in thick gray stubble. His eyes looked almost black, like his dark, long-sleeved button up shirt, and the thin rim of his glasses. He held a serious and controlled expression as he sat back in his tall seat. "When the grid goes down"—David picked at a crumbling section of his chocolate chip muffin—"imagine you're standing in San Francisco, way up in Clint tower, and you see millions and millions of people in a relatively small place … all these people completely dependent upon outside food, and there is a crisis of some kind … I just imagine, you know, food riots, and just some really terrible stuff.” David Dandt is a journalist for Time Magazine and the Denver Post, a documentary filmmaker, and resident permaculturist in the Pikes Peak region. He began to paint the same picture of a doomsday: Anarchy. As a leader of a movement called Adventures in Permaculture and a participant and facilitator of a local project aimed at growing and distributing food to feed the population of Colorado Springs, David is a prepper of his own kind. He said, "we may not be ready for what comes, but we're trying to get ready, and part of that readiness has to do with understanding the vulnerability that modern society has, and building self-reliance and resiliency at a community level. So that’s kind of our plan."



When I first met Ava, she was standing at the very top of a tall ladder, picking papayas from Robert’s tree in the greenhouse. She was wearing maroon robes with matching sandals and a small beanie covering her shaved head. Ava is a Buddhist nun who has a garden of her own near Manitou Springs. She also believes in an imminent doomsday. She told me a story that illustrates what we are feeling:

 “It’s a time of warfare, and the invading army is coming in from another country. There is a monastery, and there are monks, and they hear about the invaders coming in, and so they all flee because they want to be safe. Except the one. The Abbot. He sits there, and he's meditating, and a big warrior comes in with a huge sword, like a samurai warrior. He sees the monk, and he says, ‘what are you doing just sitting here? Don’t you know I have the power to run this sword right through you?’ And the monk answers back calmly, ‘and don’t you know I have the power to love you while you're doing it?’ And then the samurai warrior puts his sword down, bows before the monk, [and] realizes who the stronger person is.”



I thought back to the Black Plague, when millions of people were killed off. I thought back to the Cold War. I remembered Y2K, when on December
31, 1999, thousands of  people prepared for a total shutdown of all technology systems, and I considered 2012, when hundreds of people sat anticipating the end of the first Great Cycle of the Maya Long Count calendar, when people imagined Earth colliding with a nonexistent planet called Nibiru, giant solar flares, a planetary alignment that would cause massive tidal catastrophes, and a realignment of Earth’s axis. I considered the plethora of recent books and films about the end of time, including “The Road,” “Sudden Impact,” “I am Legend,” “Independence Day,” and “Take Shelter,” and I wondered if our obsession with the apocalypse was more than just coincidence. I remembered the morning I received a fluorescent orange backpack in the mail from my grandfather, a survival kit that held all the essentials, and how I laughed with my sister about my grandfather’s unnecessary anxieties.

Overwhelmed by a sense of naivety, I thought about Jill, who has lived through all of these moments in history, and yet this time, in this moment, she truly believes it’s the end. The end of the world and the total extinction of mankind conjure an unimaginable fear that if truly felt could awaken the prepper in all of us.



What was so interesting to me is how connected all four of my conversations had become. Without even knowing it, Jill, Robert, David, and Ava had said some of the exact same things and described almost identical versions of our future. They all expressed a similar fear and a corresponding awareness, but they were all isolated in their efforts to combat or simply conceptualize their realities. So, naturally, I invited them all to breakfast.

Five of us move to a circular table near the window at Good Karma Café. "She looks nervous," Robert whispers to me, watching Jill fumble with her wallet. No one seems hungry, so instead we all sit in a circle with full mugs of coffee and spiced chai. The table is shaky, and Jill spends the next few minutes trying to stuff tissue under its leg, crouching uncomfortably close to David. He shuffles to the left. Robert spills coffee over the side of his mug, and David appears frustrated when Jill comes back to her chair and the table continues to shake. Robert wipes the spilled coffee away from my recorder sitting in the center of the table.

The cafe smells like breakfast burrito and cinnamon and is full of regular people enjoying breakfast conversation. I think how funny we must look: a dark-featured man with a wide brimmed black hat and thin glasses, an older woman with reddened eyes and thinned, matted hair, another middle-aged man with snow-gray hair and a wide, sturdy shoulders, a Buddhist nun dressed completely in her maroon robes, and a young, painfully curious college student. The way we sit like stones, arms tucked by our sides and faces full of nerves, makes it obvious that we don’t know each other at all.

“We’re living in the most fascinating and interesting time a human has ever lived," Jill says, and leans across the rickety table, as if to break the tension.

We are gathered on the basis of belief. Each stranger sitting around the table believes in the imminent end to human civilization. They are all doomsday preppers. We share a few moments of silence around the circle, before delving into several hours of deep and heated discussion on the nature of humankind, the damage we have done to the earth to cause our destruction, and what our final days will actually look like.

We begin, naturally, at the beginning: we talk about a time when humans lived among each other in community, with the sole intention of fighting for survival. Life was simple back then, but always a hunt for food and resources, and a means of surviving day-to-day. Every individual had their role, and together they lived off the land, hunting, gathering, and working with what they had. Humans existed as a single organism, where isolation meant death.

We don’t talk about if—instead, the matter is when and how to approach doomsday. The four strangers ask questions about when are we going to need to choose between survival and sacrifice, and whether we’re going to choose to love or to hate in the midst of chaos. They speak almost entirely in hypotheticals. As the cold coffee in our mugs is slowly sipped, we talk about fear, ethics, and the core nature of humankind. How are people going to respond in the face of doom, and how can we manipulate our outcome?

“I have a crossbow and I have a gun,” Jill says over her empty cup when Robert asks her how she intends to respond when other humans come to invade her food storage. She chooses survival. As if rearing from an unimaginable stench, David angles his body away from her, "I will not kill someone,” he says, “I will not kill myself, I will only share until someone kills me. I have no problem with that. I’m not afraid of dying. I’m not afraid of giving. What I am afraid of is staining my soul with killing someone else or myself, and withholding what I have from someone in need. That’s what stains my soul. Not sacrifice. Sacrifice is fine." I notice other strangers in Good Karma Cafe begin to eavesdrop (how could they not), as we describe the very worst conditions of humanity.

As Jill continues to interrupt the conversation, uttering the same mantras as if still not completely convinced of doomsday herself, her eyes become shallow pools of subtle redness, and her thick wrinkles seem to sink lower to the floor, "Action is the antidote to despair," she continues to say, sounding increasingly frustrated each time, as she realizes that her vision of action isn’t quite the same as everyone else’s.

“The nature of human beings is to be vicious animals when they are desperate,” she says, and I imagine ferocious beings entering her small thrift store and trying to steal her stock: the evidence of the effort and preparation that had consumed the last several years of her life. I imagine Jill standing with her crossbow and gun in shaking hands, and I feel an incredible sadness in realizing the potential loss of human compassion in the face of fear.

"So you have a choice,” David says to Jill. “You can shoot yourself now, or you could wait to starve in 10 years." He is angry, and I’m shocked. I force a neutral expression, though I was utterly appalled: these strangers had met just minutes ago, and now it seems as if he was telling her to take her life.

Jill talks about needing to prepare, and Robert says to her, “Prepare to protect, or prepare to welcome them?” Robert describes opening up the doors of his greenhouse to the community, indulging in fresh food with strangers and loved ones, then finally “drinking the Kool Aid… [to go out] the pretty way, loving your neighbor, loving your family.” I suddenly see a raw humanity in the face of a common despair. They truly believe they’re going to die from this. “So it’s the dying with dignity approach.” Robert laughs, but he isn’t joking.

Jill had given up all hope in humanity in the end, and all that was left of her religion was fear—a fear that motivated her survival, but clouded her faith. To Robert, however, anticipating doomsday is about soul, and making people whole. Ava had remained listening for much of the conversation, and finally, she nodded her head, saying, it’s about the “potent[cy] of the importance of making our life matter.” I notice Jill nodding too, and I remember my second visit to her store, just days before breakfast, when she said, "I'm happier now that I’ve ever been in my life." She spoke of coming to realize the beauty in the fragility of life. I feel a sense of peace in knowing that even in her state of despair, Jill could still find the beautiful.


Robert, Ava, and I sat alone at the rocky wooden table, after Jill had stood up, put her sunglasses on, and walked back up the road to her small shop and David had exited out the squeaky door. The lingering jingle of the door bells rang in my ears, and I thought about community.

I thought about the minutes before entering the cafe when I sat in a small lime green Kia with Robert and Ava, unable to maneuver into a wide open parking space. I thanked God that Manitou was quiet that morning. I was still so anxious about the reality that in minutes, I was to sit with four individuals who agreed to meet and discuss The End that I had forgotten how to parallel park. Although still minutes early, I felt the panic of being late, of disappointing, and after what felt like a hundred attempts, Ava stepped out of the car, and Robert put his hand on the wheel. There we were, just feet from Good Karma Cafe, a large white haired man filling the front seat and directing the young college student, while a Buddhist nun blanketed in maroon was making absurd hand gestures at the little green car. And each time I prematurely bumped against the curbside, all the conversations in Robert’s greenhouse about wholeness, and community, and hope flooded from my toes to my skull. Suddenly it didn’t matter whether or not we had 10 years or a century left of existence, it didn’t matter whether we would have enough food to sustain ourselves, it didn’t matter whether we were prepared to kill or starve, because all that mattered in that moment was fitting into that space, and paying the three-hour parking fee.

Fill In The Blank Issue | April 2019

Demystifying Wicca

When I asked Colorado College students to describe Wicca, “something witchy” was the most common explanation after “I have no idea.” In CC’s classically innovative style, community members hard pressed for a definition came up with guesses ranging from “a fun search engine” to “an innovative way to clean ears” to “similar to a wiki link.”


So, what is Wicca? The oversimplified answer is modern-day witchcraft. However, Wicca is a complex and diverse religion that, despite its foundations in ancient and medieval times, has its roots in the 20th century. Wicca is the best-known form of Neo-Paganism, a term which encompasses a plethora of religious and spiritual values, but pays specific attention to honoring the Earth. Other commonalities among sects of Wicca are the practice of magic and worship of a female deity called “the Goddess.” Common uses of magic, sometimes spelled “magick” to distinguish from stage magicians, include incantations and symbolic ritual or ceremonial actions. Due to the lack of centralized authority and a focus on small covens, there is a great deal of variation in Wiccan practices. Because people are largely unfamiliar with Wicca, there exist a great number of misconceptions about it. One of the largest misunderstandings lumps the identity of the medieval witch together with the identity of modern witch. Despite this misconception, the origins and practices of each identity are vastly different. 


Wicca took off in England in the 1950s after the repeal of archaic witchcraft laws. A retired British civil servant named Gerald Gardner published “Witchcraft Today” in 1954 and formed a coven of followers. Prior to publishing the book, Gardner had been involved in occult practices during his time traveling throughout Asia and had worked extensively with more obscure readings of Western witchcraft. While he wasn’t necessarily a religious pioneer, he familiarized people with Wiccan values, initiated them into small, organized covens, and made sure the culture was known and could survive worldwide. The movement spread rapidly in the United States during the late 1960s when many subcultures held a high regard for nature, unconventional lifestyles, and spirituality independent of traditional religion.

Covens are typically small, with around 10 to 15 members who enter through an initiation ritual. A member who becomes familiar with magic and ritual can undergo further levels of initiation, rising through ranks that ultimately end in the authority of priesthood in the witch realm. Rituals vary between sects, but magic may include old folk healer practices and spells passed down generation to generation, or new spells and approaches to magical manifestation; Wicca magic is not static. Features of Wicca magic often incorporate herbs, candles, tarot cards, magical oils, incense, or crystals. Members conduct important rituals surrounding new and full moons, equinoxes and solstices, Halloween, the beginning of February, Mayday, and the beginning of August. The eight solar holidays, or sabbats, are all very important, comparable in weight to the 26 lunar ones (about two per 28 days), depending on the individual group’s tradition. Meditation, the sharing of a ritual meal, and rites involving ceremonial magic to invoke help from the deities are also important components. Some versions of Wicca are polytheistic, with collections of deities from around the world, many belonging to the Roman and Greek pantheons, while other versions are strongly monotheistic, worshipping only the Goddess. Some are duotheistic, worshipping one goddess and one god. Wicca can also be pantheistic, meaning that there is no individual God; rather, the universe as a whole is God, as the combined substances, forces, and laws that are manifested in the existing universe. Many Wiccans abide by the ethical code called the Rede, which states, “If it harm none, do what you will.” Though medieval witchcraft was inextricably linked to Satan, the term “witch” in Wicca has different connotations.

While Gardner pulled heavily from the witch crazes and trials of medieval Europe, the modern witch or Wiccan presents much differently. In the past, witches were those who made a pact with the devil and practiced harmful magic on the world around them. When one thinks of a time period characterized by witchcraft, images of bubbling cauldrons and broomsticks may appear. The era is better characterized as one of rampant fear and hardship. The citizens of Europe were indeed terrorized, but not because of women’s supposed weak morals and subsequent susceptibility to the devil’s seduction. The severe weather patterns, droughts, blights, famines, and the spread of disease were caused by natural phenomena. People’s fear of the devil was very real, and witchcraft seemed like a logical way of explaining the cruel state of the world without the scientific information that exists today. Accused witches were women 80 percent of the time, and many were already alienated members of society who made easy scapegoats. The use of torture often brought about false confessions, and, in a cyclical way, these confessions provided more “evidence” that the devil was present.

Dr. Margaret Murray was a British folklorist commissioned to write the entry on witchcraft for the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1929. Instead of delving into the plethora of competing, though not necessarily comprehensive, accounts and works on the matter, she spun her own tale and presented it as if it were the leading mainstream theory. She accounted that “witches had been up to something of which society disapproved, but it was in no way supernatural; they were merely members of an underground movement secretly keeping pagan rites alive in Christian Europe.” Although her story wasn’t fantastical in its reductionist, rational approach, it forced the imagery of broomsticks, animal costumes, representations of the devil, and other coven gatherings into public consciousness. Once Murray’s work was reprinted and became influential to well-known authors of the time as well as filmmakers, journalists, novelists, and thriller writers, the individual reader or viewer’s imagination could run wild. And thus, with time, “Charmed,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” were born. Although Murray’s theories were later disproved, the modern witch became immortalized in popular culture. For whatever reason, we are pulled towards the supernatural and the unexplained. The disprovement of Murray’s theories left a vacuum in place of what was, for a short time, understood as an academic truth. And perhaps this excited people. Therefore, while Murray’s description of witchcraft lost credibility, the same witch now took on a host of potential identities and truths in the public realm of sensationalism.


Today, Wiccans exist in all shapes, sizes, and sects around the world. They have a large presence in the Western United States, and fortunately for those reading this, there is a large Wiccan presence right in our backyard in Manitou Springs. However, through the CC student poll, I found that only one person out of 75 identified as having ever practiced it, and said so hesitantly. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to collaborate with a self-described “Wiccan from the West Side.” While he is open about his practices, he wished to remain anonymous to be as candid as possible, so for the sake of this article we’ll refer to him by his chosen pen name, Witga. It’s important to remember that Wicca practices and devotion range largely between individuals and groups, and, like other religions, cannot be distilled into an all-encompassing experience. Nor should Wicca be trivialized to spells or sparkly Urban Outfitters crystals and other witchy aesthetics rampant in pop culture; even though some of these objects are used in ritual, the objects without the proper consideration of their role in the religion can be problematic. All that aside, Witga’s views open a window into an understanding of a spiritual section of the world that many are unfamiliar with.

“Am I a witch? I am witchy, doing witchy things, deliberately using magic daily in small ways and occasionally in large ways in my life … I don't generally say out loud that I'm a witch, because I don't feel the need to publicly claim the label, and I prefer to avoid the little battles I sometimes encounter when I name myself that way publicly.”

In an earlier discussion, Witga said that while he is open about these practices, he isn’t outwardly vocal about them out of the fear that the public judgement could impact his professional life. He discussed how his practice of his religion in the Southeastern part of the country was similar to his experience in Colorado Springs: “It’s relatively hard … and people have to be pretty dedicated to it for it to be worth the hassle, the social cost, and the potential economic cost.” By contrast, there is often a greater sense of acceptance on the West Coast. It’s not so much a question of whether you're a sorcerer, but rather “what kind of sorcerer, what flavor?”

“Am I a Wiccan, a more religious category than ‘witch?’ I have fully and happily participated for decades in Wiccan rituals and other events. I share the central tenet of the Covenant of the Goddess in my envisioning a world where all living beings are honored and cherished as manifestations of the Sacred.”

It’s important to note that although in the popular sense, witch or Wiccan seems to have a female connotation, gender identity is not a constraint. The fluidity in Wicca actually makes for a community of inclusion not reduced to a hierarchy of binaries. Because Wicca is so tied to the Earth, mother Earth, and is cognizant of the moon and of other seasonal cycles that often parallel cycles in the female body, it is easy to draw these conclusions. However, the celebration of such natural powers is not exclusionary—quite the opposite. Although Wicca does not have the same type of historical textual base as some other religions and, in some forms of practice, can consist of cherry picked, romanticized, and hyperbolized imagery of pre-Christian fertility cults, scholar Diane Purkiss argues that this unconventional fluidity doesn’t matter. That the development of Wicca was independent from classic academic approaches of “this is what happened” versus “this is what could have happened,” is actually liberating, as it exists separately from the patriarchy and from the traditional writing of history that is by men, for men. So in this deviation from traditional religion to one that values the Earth, feminism, and spirituality, anyone should be able to support Wiccan beliefs.

Witga explained his individual involvement with Wicca. Since moving to Colorado he has not joined a coven or other group. “Personal mystical experiences starting in my childhood let me know that magic is afoot in the world. Denying the evidence of my experience has always seemed illogical to me; I respect logic too much to not embrace magic in my life. I speak only of my own response to my own experience, and I have no desire to convince anyone else that there are such things as the mystical or magical, or to convert anyone to my ways of perceiving or naming.”

Much of his personal practice tends toward gratitude and deeper connections with the world around him. "I do magical things which may or may not have direct, physical effects on the world. Those magical things definitely do have effects on me personally, however, and the resultant changes within me cause me to feel, think, and act differently, thereby resulting in indirect but perceptible effects in my world. That is how my magic and logic combine in daily praxis.” It’s undeniable that our perceptions and attitude towards the world at a given moment play a large role in how we experience it.

Wicca is not confined to mysticism, but it can be an important aspect for those who practice. Witga offered an example of his practices:

“I happily lived in a house across the street from a college campus, but had to move to be closer to an aging family member years ago, and decided to rent my old house to college students. I loved my house for many reasons, one of the most magical being the boulders powerfully constituting much of its century-old foundation.”


He continued, “I was concerned about strangers occupying my former home, and I wanted to not worry about it all the time, so I performed magic, what I call witchcraft, on my house's space. This included putting a boulder at each of my yard's corners and other powerful places on the property.” As he placed the boulders, he said some words which “made a difference to my feelings about the safety of the house and the safety of the renters who would be occupying it.”

“The rituals I performed, along with the engaging effort of moving the boulders, valuably changed me. I felt calmer and surer about renting the house to strangers. I had a new body-memory of working to keep the house and its occupants secure. I was at once more relaxed about my new renting endeavor and also more aware and more vigilant about ways to keep it a safe place for all concerned.”

Magic was not the only way Witga had kept his house safe; he screened prospective tenants and checked references very carefully, in addition to adding new locks and an alarm system. “Over time, I added an inscription in new concrete at a doorway, welcoming specifically well-intentioned folks. This is at the core of my practice: magical work is not instead of mundane action, but in addition to and interwoven with it. They synergize with each other, with each affecting the other and their weaving creating something new that is not strictly of just one or the other.”

Witga finished the interview by explaining, “I have always lived in a timeless and temporal magical community of witches in a sense, even though I'm usually a solitary practitioner. My consciously experiencing and naming it that way is a function of my awareness of it and deliberate engagement with it.” With such dedication, it becomes evident that Wicca as a belief system can be integrated into one’s personal identity.


“I do magic because it makes me happier and more capable, just one more tool in my life along with psychology, physics, sociology, math, a car, a wrench, and electricity. I identify as a witch because it gives me a trans-generational sense of connection with other magic users and witches going forward as well as back in time,” Witga says. There has been a decline in the number of Americans practicing organized religion. Coupled with other factors, many theorize that this has led to a decline in community and a disconnect from “greater goods.” Using Wicca as a tool rather than a truth may be an appealing route for people looking for a larger connection outside more mainstream religion.

This piece can’t possibly serve a comprehensive explanation of the religion, nor is it meant to convince you to practice or not to practice Wicca. Rather, it seeks to shed light on a lesser-known religion and set of values and to give voice to at least one kind of identity within the Wiccan community. Wicca has a unique historical place at the crossroads of magic, other religions, and reckoning with history. No matter its origins or misconceptions, the foundational, universal aspects of Wicca lend to inclusivity and offer many opportunities for further exploration.

 Fill In The Blank Issue | April 2019

A Lightning Bolt Across the Face of Ken Thomas Murphy

My mom always hated the shirt. The gray one. The one screen-printed with President Ken Thomas Murphy’s bust, whose face was painted with a lightning bolt like David Bowie on the cover of Aladdin Sane. Below his smiling head was, “Cha Cha Changes,” a social commentary of some sort, but one that I hadn’t really thought about when I bought the shirt in 10th grade. It was edgy—the edgiest shirt I’ve probably ever owned.

Every time I slipped it on and walked into the kitchen, my mom would roll her eyes. “I hate that shirt,” she’d say.

I’d give her a side-eye smirk as I opened the fridge, flicking blonde hair behind my left shoulder and tapping my acrylics against the side of the door as I leaned in to find lemonade. The fridge was decorated with magnets; one of them was David Bowie’s face.

I wore the shirt to a few metal concerts back then. The ones for bands like May Cletus Devour and San Andreas Fault. I went to high school with the boys in those bands. I had a crush on the lead singer once and prayed he’d leave his girlfriend for me. He didn’t, but after they broke up months later, he started calling me more. I was already with someone else, someone who was in a David Bowie cover band.

When I was in high school, I wore the Murphy/Bowie shirt when I wanted to feel like a badass. It made me feel like I could get into a bar fight at any given second. It made me feel like the rebel I wasn’t, which is why I wore it to those garage-band metal concerts. Also, my mom hated it, which made me want to wear it more.

It wasn’t until about a year ago that I learned why she hated it so much.


March 1956

My mother was conceived in a hotel room near Brown University in the spring of 1956. The room was quaint. Mr. Ken Thomas Murphy could have afforded a penthouse in the nicest hotel in Rhode Island, but that would have been too conspicuous. He was 38 and well-known, while my grandmother was 19 with a pretty face and an education. The sex was hot, scandalous, and slightly fucked up.

Ken pulled out, but a sperm faster than his reflexes wiggled through the corona radiata. My grandmother never saw Ken in-person again, but a few weeks later, she cried on the phone with Ken’s secretary, who paced back and forth and never stopped looking down as my grandmother stuttered over her words. The secretary’s brow furrowed, and he said he’d pass the message along. My grandmother secluded herself in her closet and cried into her knees. She didn’t stop crying until a black Rolls Royce picked her up in front of her residential hall the next morning.

Ken ran for president in 1960, and during his campaign, he declared abortion to be “repugnant.” However, the Murphy family also fervently believed in the upkeep of their reputation. After the black Rolls Royce picked up my grandmother at Brown University, it brought her to an alley behind a CVS in a Boston suburb. There, two men in black escorted her through the back door. Inside, was an iron gate at the end of a dark corridor with a steep staircase tucked behind it. The men stopped at the gate and instructed her to go down the stairs. She went and they bolted the gate behind her.


January 1957

Ten months later, my grandmother emerged from the staircase 30 pounds heavier. She had auburn-dyed hair, a nose ring, and heavy makeup that created a film over the remnants of cystic acne. She began school as a spring transfer student at Smith College the following day. The semester had started a week prior, but a phone call had been made to the president of the college and she was admitted—no questions asked. At Smith, the Secret Service forced my grandmother to go by a new name. It was a name that at least one person in any given room would likely also have, and she was afraid to use any other.

My grandmother had alabaster skin and her pupils were almost always dilated when she was indoors. Outside, she squinted in the sun as if her eyes couldn’t quite properly adjust to natural light. Her eyes looked like someone had wrung a lifetime of grief out of them. Even though her baby had been born a month prior, she never saw the child. The only information that my grandmother received about her daughter—my mother—was that she was given to “a good family in Rhode Island.” My grandmother never knew her name, but the adopted family named her Cynthia, or Thia for short.

My grandmother was underneath a CVS and five months pregnant when Ken lost the vice-presidential nomination in a “nail-biting” Democratic National Convention in August 1956. Ken knew of my grandmother’s pregnancy, but his secretary told him that “It was taken care of.” He never talked about it again. And although he lost the election in ‘56, the publicity put him on the national political stage. He went on to be elected President in November 1960 and was assassinated three years later in November ‘63.


April 1961

“You’re not real.” Robbie pointed down at my mother when he said it.

“Yes, I am!” Cynthia screamed back, stomping her feet.

Robbie was nine, and Cynthia was five. She followed him as he ran to the kitchen where their mother was making eggs benedict. A news broadcast of President Murphy murmured in the background. He was talking about some bay filled with pigs in Cuba. My mom’s family lived on the ocean in Barrington, Rhode Island where they had a dock harboring two small yachts in their backyard.

“Thia isn’t real. Tell her.” Robbie said, pointing again at my mother.

Their mother didn’t turn around. She pressed a lemon through a lemon press, and hesitated in her upper-class New England accent, “Well, Thia, you were adopted.”

Thia blankly stared. She wouldn’t understand the implications of that word for another few years.


November 1963

My mother was almost seven years old and playing down the street when an adult neighbor told her that she needed to go home because President Murphy had been shot.

Thia ran down the sidewalk back to her house. When she saw her father unloading boxes of lemons from his Jaguar in the driveway, she said, “Dad! Dad! President Murphy is dead!”

When Thia’s father heard this, he slapped her across the face with all his might and knocked her onto the grass. “You should be ashamed of yourself. Never make jokes about the president being dead, especially President Murphy.”

Her father, who she had never seen so scary-looking, said, “Go to your room. I’m telling your mother what you’ve said. No dinner.”

A few hours later, my mother was in her toyless room, lying on her bed, staring at the ceiling. Her father opened the door with his hat in his hand and tears streaming down his face. He sat on the bed where my mother had been reading a book.

“I am so sorry, Thia. You were right. I can’t believe he’s gone,” he said.

My mom sat quietly next to her father and held his hand as she watched his tears fall.


December 1971

My mother went to boarding school in Westover, Massachusetts. At school, there was a girl named Carolyn who lived down the hall. She was the daughter of President Murphy who had been assassinated on a grassy knoll in Texas a few years prior. In school, everyone confused the two or assumed they were sisters because of their striking resemblance, closeness in age, and similar likes—they both played field hockey, were “wicked good” skiers, and loved David Bowie’s music to the point that they camped outside a record store together during a blizzard just to be the first people to listen to Hunky Dory in their dorm.


September 1957

There is no proof to show that my mom is President Ken Murphy’s first daughter, besides her eyes, which look like someone photoshopped them off President Murphy’s face and pasted them onto hers. She never had a birth certificate because she was born in secrecy and kept there for nine months to ensure that there was no chance her adoption could be linked to President Murphy, whose wife was seven months pregnant with their daughter, Carolyn. The day my mom was adopted into a family, it was her soon-to-be brother Robbie’s fifth birthday. But before Robbie had woken up, his dad had gotten a phone call from a friend. On the phone, a muffled voice said that there was a baby who needed a home. The friend was soon-to-be President Ken Murphy’s secretary.

“Well, is the baby healthy? Is it in good shape? Is it a WASP?” My mom’s soon-to-be father George asked on the phone.

George was born in 1921, so he was not the most politically correct of people. He had a wife, Margaret, who was an undiagnosed sociopath from an old-money, Episcopalian family. George had been a goofy boy from a working-class family of Christian Scientists. He was deaf in one ear because his Christian Scientist mother thought she could pray away an ear infection when he was nine years. Instead, she prayed away his ability to hear. They stopped being Christian Scientists after that, and, as a non-denominational Christian boy who could poke fun at himself for being half-deaf, he was charming enough to marry Margaret.

So, instead of getting a cake and presents on his birthday, Robbie got a baby sister. The baby was “wearing a dreadful dress,” according to both Margaret and George. They picked her up at a gas station parking lot from two suited men in a black Rolls Royce. They then stopped at the Barrington Talbots to get her a plaid dress to come home in. George and Margaret cared more about the baby’s propriety than ensuring she had a comfortable life full of love.


January 1968

When my mom was 12 years old, George and Margaret got divorced, so George took her and her brother Robbie to Colorado for a ski trip. My mom grew up skiing every day there was snow on the mountains and had dreams of being on the U.S. Ski Team. George wasn’t much of a skier but liked to hang out in the lodge bars and talk to snow bunnies while his kids skied. While skiing, my mom broke three vertebrae, and George didn’t find out for two days because he had met a woman named Vera in the lodge and said they had “really hit it off.” Apparently, they had hit it off so hard that George didn’t wonder about where his kids were for two days, which is how long my mom spent in the ski patrol hut.

George got married to Vera a few months later and they stayed together until he died of a liver disease in December 2006. My mother still has back problems to this day.

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June 1968

Vera came from a wealthy family in Vermont. She had a daughter named Ginny who had body image and addiction issues, which started out as anorexia and then morphed into bulimia and then marathon running and then cocaine. She was in and out of rehab programs often, but she was my mom’s step-sister and best friend. When my mom and Ginny were 14, Ginny only ate grapes, which she always purged because George said self-induced vomiting is good to do after eating “when you feel fat.” George would bend over a toilet and make himself throw up whenever he drank four bottles of wine or ate too many oysters. I suspect he did this because he cared a lot about his image.

After Vera and George got married, Ginny and my mom spent their summers in Citra Beach, Florida. My mom’s stepmom, Vera, threw a lot of garden parties and all of her linens and towels were monogrammed. She loved Kentucky Fried Chicken, so she would buy buckets of chicken and place the pieces on her monogrammed linens in wicker baskets to make it look like she battered and fried the wings herself. She also hid peanut butter in her closet to eat when George wasn’t around. George liked thin women, which is why he thought it was a good idea when he heard that the neighbor was spiking his heavy-set daughter’s orange juice with speed every morning.

During one garden party, Vera was drinking wine—a lot of wine—while Ginny and my mom sat by the pool in their swimsuits. Vera was very drunk by the end of the night, and George and their friends brought up “how dreadful” it was for there to be a new Catholic church being built in town. Vera rolled her eyes at this, and said, “Well, Thia is of Catholic blood.” She continued, “It really is a good thing she got out of that Murphy family. They’re bad news. It’s no wonder they all keep dying. It’s a shame she looks so much like them and like her father especially.” Vera slipped on some wine that had fallen out of her wine glass after saying that, and George grabbed her arm to catch her fall and then dragged her inside. My mom didn’t say another word for the rest of the night and lied in bed awake until morning, listening to David Bowie. She closed her eyes during her favorite parts of his songs and wished she could be free like him.


August 1975

When my mom was 18, Vera got very drunk again at one of her garden parties. “I’m so sorry you are that scoundrel Ken Murphy’s daughter. I know George is good friends with the family, but they really are awful.”

My mom stayed quiet, but the pieces had mostly come together by now.

She started college in New Hampshire the following week. My mom’s mother Margaret only let her bring one small suitcase, which was half-filled with David Bowie records. She called Margaret once every two months to check in, but once my mom realized that her dad wouldn’t take away her trust fund if she dropped out of college, she dropped out and moved to Aruba.

My mom only asked Margaret once about her biological parents. Margaret said that they went to Yale and were musicians. She said that one played string bass and the other played trumpet. She also said that said they died in a car accident shortly after she was born.

Margaret said all of this while she was cutting lemons to make lemon squares for her book club. Without turning around, she said, “Be careful what you look into.” She pressed the knife down more firmly with each word.



My mom still listens to those same David Bowie records. She hates lemons. She hates the government. And she hates conspiracy theories. She doesn’t even vote in elections and still wonders whether she’s real sometimes.

Whenever I see a photo of President Ken Thomas Murphy, I see my mom’s eyes, and I see corruption. Murphy is often remembered to have been “progressive,” but he was really quite conservative—so conservative that he and his secretary hid his infant daughter and a girl he had knocked up just to keep the President’s reputation intact.

My mom doesn’t trust people, especially those with wealth or power. And I can’t blame her. She was alienated for being adopted, and she lived her entire life seeing glamorous photos in the media of her successful, biological family going about their lives without her.

As a political figure, Ken Thomas Murphy was very different from David Bowie’s rock-star persona Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy was an omnisexual alien rock star who transformed pop music. Bowie was progressive—even more progressive than many of his fans could handle. His Ziggy Stardust persona was the embodiment of rock and roll as a fearless indigo child who could transform his image to forward whatever message he needed to send. This sort of figure was not President Murphy.

And maybe that’s why my mom hated the shirt so much, which is only something I realize after having heard my mom’s stories and piecing them together with research I’ve done. The shirt paints Murphy as some wild progressive that he wasn’t. Because if Murphy had been a little more progressive, my mom may not have ever been born, or the family would have embraced her as Murphy’s first child, 11 months older than her future hall mate, Carolyn.

I can’t bring myself to throw the shirt away. It has too much nostalgia stitched into it, despite the faux pas of its graphics. The shirt is currently sitting in a box in a storage unit in central Nevada. I wonder now how many other girls also bought the same shirt and what made them buy it. I wonder how many of the shirts are in landfills or scattered across the world in thrift stores. I wonder if anyone who wore it was trying to paint a face of edginess like I had been. I wore that shirt to heavy metal rock concerts when I hung out with punk boys in 10th grade—the same phony shirt whose message romanticizes government corruption. My mom is the daughter of a complicated history, which makes me the granddaughter of a complicated history. On my mom’s side, my family tree technically stops, but there are actually books upon books written about her biological family’s genealogy. But whenever I flip through the pages of those books, I just see the names and faces of people I recognize, but whom I don’t care to know. Ultimately, they are the strangers who abandoned both my mom and me.

 Fill In The Blank Issue | April 2019

The Non-Human Brain

Most species of octopuses have over two thirds of their neurons in their arms. This means they have more neurons dispersed throughout their bodies than in their central brain. The brains of octopuses, and most cephalopods (squids, cuttlefish, and nautiluses), act as the central control, but in the same way that a baseball coach stays on the sidelines and simply tells the team what to do. The brain doesn’t really do any of the work; that is left to the eight ganglia (groups of neurons) in the arms of the animal.

As an octopus navigates the ocean floor, one arm may pick up a clam shell, hoping for a meal, and the chemoreceptors (neurons that detect chemicals) on its suckers will deduce whether or not there is a clam in the shell. If there is, the ganglion of that arm will send signals called action potentials to each of the densely packed muscle fibers in its boneless arm to create a coordinated movement that pulls the clam to the octopus’s mouth. This whole time, as the octopus moves across the mosaic of colorful coral covering the seafloor toward its prey, the organism’s skin is engaged in the process of camouflage. Rhodopsin molecules (the same ones humans have in their eyes) in every inch of its skin have been processing the colors below them and sending signals to nearby pigment cells, which expand to change the octopus’s skin color and camouflage the animal according to its surroundings.

While all this is going on in its legs and skin, who knows what is going on in its central brain? Maybe its distributed sense of self allows its thoughts to spread throughout its body, or maybe it doesn’t even have thoughts in the same way that we do, since its neurons are not localized in one place. The possibilities are endless when you consider species that have evolved different neural structures; structures in which the very essence of their being is created.

My major, “Evolution and Implications of Animal Neuroscience” focuses on exploring these unique subjective experiences of other species derived from their varying brain structures, and cephalopods are only one amazing example. Great gray owls live in a world colored by their exquisitely precise sense of hearing; they can locate a vole under multiple feet of snow from 100 yards away just by hearing the soft rustle of it taking a step. A dog has such a strong sense of smell that it can detect some odors in parts per trillion (10,000 to 100,000 times better than humans). Dogs perceive countless scents that create a narrative of all the people, dogs, or squirrels that have been nearby recently. The variations of brain structures are endless. My education has introduced me to this world of different worlds, and it has taught me is that these capabilities that we learn about in other species are their superpowers, not their evolutionary feats on a scale of “stupid” to “human.”

The latter anthropocentric view, however, is the norm in STEM classrooms. We understand the brains and experiences of other species through the lens of our own biological feats. The nervous systems of other animals are labelled as either similar to humans or less than humans. But humans are not the epitome of intelligence; we possess only one version of it. Evolution has produced all sorts of intelligent ways to navigate this world, and these ingenious adaptations construct realities for other species that we as humans, very literally, cannot fathom. So, who are we to judge their intelligence based on what our brains can comprehend about it? We give ourselves a great deal of credit because our brains are the ones we most intimately understand, but once you get to know the brains that fly through the Rockies and swim along the Great Barrier Reef, the human brain doesn’t quite seem like the best model anymore.

This anthropocentric paradigm is interwoven in our policies, speech, and everyday actions. At Colorado College, I have noticed a lack of critical discussions that consider the role of non-human animals. In many places such as dissection labs, animal research labs, and primary literature discussions in classrooms where non-human animals are a part of the conversation, their intellect, rights, and welfare are not. Instead, students are shuffled through their scientific education without having to address their responsibilities towards non-human animals that they work with. Changing this lack of awareness and creating a more thoughtful and compassionate generation of future scientists is going to require professors to facilitate more dialogue and students to be brave enough to speak up and ask the right questions.


My science education at CC started off with Introduction to Psychology. We went through the typical psychology curriculum, learning about classical experiments that have influenced what we know about the field today. The Milgram Experiment made participants believe that they were administering painful shocks to other participants, and the Stanford Prison Experiment involved designating participants as prisoners and guards and allowing the situation to unfold to see how they would act. Both of these studies inflicted serious mental trauma on the participants and would not be repeated under today’s ethical guidelines for humans. Now, the American Psychological Association outlines the following rights for human participants: protection from harm (including mental), informed consent so that they can decide whether or not to participate, freedom to withdraw at any time without losing possible compensation, confidentiality, and debriefing after the fact so that they know what the purpose of the study was. Despite this, much of modern psychology is based on the valuable information we learned from studies like the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment—ones that occurred before these regulations were in place


Roger Hock, the author of my textbook for Introduction to Psychology, “Forty Studies that Changed Psychology,” described these studies as “research [that] could not be replicated under today’s ethical principles.” He adds, “The lack of guidelines, however, does not excuse past researchers for abuses.” He then discusses non-human animal rights in research, which are more controversial than human rights “because animals cannot be protected, as humans can, with informed consent, freedom to withdraw, or debriefing.” Although it is true that we cannot fully communicate with non-human animals or understand what they are thinking, Hock discounts the fact that we can try, and in doing so, can minimize their suffering. Throughout the past decade, Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, has been conducting the “Dog Project,” a series of research experiments in which he trains dogs to go into an MRI machine, awake and not strapped down, and perform cognitive tasks during scans. They do many practice trials before conducting the actual research, so the dogs better understand what they are getting into when they hear their commands, and they have the freedom to leave the machine at any point. Berns also looks for signs of stress in the dogs throughout the research and releases them from the study if they seem to be suffering any stress during the experiments. This methodology gives the dogs a type of self-determination; they have protection from harm, freedom to withdraw, and relatively informed consent.

Hock then explains his idea of the animal rights perspective: “Animal rights activists take the view that … animals are equal in value to humans and, therefore, any use of animals by humans is seen as unethical. This use includes eating a chicken, wearing leather, and owning pets (which, according to some animal-rights activists, is a form of slavery).” This is the platform of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), an animal rights group that represents the extreme end of the spectrum. In describing animal rights activism this way, Hock fails to acknowledge the majority of animal rights activists who are somewhere in the middle of that spectrum and believe that improvements can be made to research in STEM fields. Hock then asserts, “However, nearly all scientists and most Americans believe that the limited and humane use of animals in scientific research is necessary and beneficial. Many lifesaving drugs and medical techniques have been developed through the use of animal experimental subjects … The primary reason animals are used in research is that to carry out similar research on humans clearly would be unethical.”

 Again, Hock is ignoring any middle ground, and painting a picture that those who support any consideration of better treatment for lab animals are in the miniscule minority. Hock justifies the use of lab animals with the fact that those studies have contributed a lot to science, an attribute that he also gave to the Milgram Study and Stanford Prison Experiment earlier on the same page, which could not be repeated today due to the harm they inflicted on the participants. And of course, the type of research done on non-human animals “clearly would be unethical” if done on humans. This distinction, which to me seemed like a very difficult line to draw, was brushed under the rug as if it was clear-cut and not worth discussing.

This was the end of the conversation about animal rights in my Introduction to Psychology class, a required intro-level course for both psychology and neuroscience—two fields that are inextricably tied to animal research. The class also includes a supplementary lab that requires students to train a rat to roll a marble down a track and push a lever for food over the course of multiple weeks. There are always rumors circulating about the fate of the rats after the class is over. According to the rumors, most of the rats end up being fed live to raptors, whereas the smartest of the group go back into the breeding colony for the next class, but none of this was addressed or clarified for students. So, I felt a little in the dark when I was given an animal to work with that I knew nothing about. I was not informed where it came from, why it was allowed to be here, or where it would go once it tested out of the lab. I felt not only that the psychology department was hiding something, but also that my education was lacking. As the person actually working with the animal, I felt I had a responsibility to be aware of these things in order to practice responsible research.

Continuing through my scientific education at CC, I moved onto classes like Biology of Animals and Neuroscience, in which we did dissections. Despite the fact that we dissected a quail, a shark, and a sheep heart, we did not have a conversation or even a reading covering the ethics of dissection. Unless students asked directly, the professor did not tell us where the specimens came from, and did not inform us of the purpose of these dissections and why it was necessary to use real specimens instead of models or pictures. We were not even asked whether or not we wanted to participate. If a student physically couldn’t stomach the lab, that was understood, but I was made to feel as if there was no room for moral qualms, because dissections have always been a part of science, and this is how students learn.

I am not saying that dissections do not teach students a great deal—I only understand brain structure so well because of the donated human brains in the psychology lab—but those were donated by choice, and the department was very transparent about where they came from. With non-human animal dissections, an organism’s life is taken, and their bodies are passed out to every student in the classroom. To me, this warrants more critical thinking before diving in with a scalpel, but once again, I was left feeling like there was a gap in the conversation.

In my neuroscience class, we dissected cow brains. They were used more sparingly, with eight students per brain, but again, the professors gave no insight into that decision or process. We also did a lab in which we gave rats amphetamine, a type of drug that is known to induce repetitive motor movement called stereotypy in mammals. We observed their behavior, which indeed turned out to be stereotypy. When the lab was explained to us, despite the methodological techniques learned through it, I felt that the educational value didn’t fully justify how we w using the rats, and I wished we could either watch a video instead or do a different lab. For this reason, I was tempted to ask my professors if I could opt out. Not wanting to miss out on something unforeseen that I could learn from this lab, I decided to give my professors the benefit of the doubt and still participate.

I still wanted to make sure that this lab was not harmful or distressing for the rats, though. So I asked my professor if it was, and I got a very short answer, ensuring me that the rats were fine. Even when I tried to ask again and clearly express my concerns for the mental well-being of the rats, I was not given any type of explanation of the mental effects of the drug, but instead another assurance that they would be fine. To their credit, the professor was genuinely trying to reassure me, but did not seem to grasp that I was hoping for a more thorough discussion considering the educational necessity of potentially harming animals. It was simply not on their radar that a student would be asking for such an explanation, and that in itself was really disheartening to me. I ended up expressing my concerns in the course evaluation, not wanting to confront my professors and risk losing their respect over an issue I felt very unsure about or being more burdensome than I was already made to feel from approaching them the first time. In retrospect, I could have been more direct and set up a meeting with the professors in order to fully discuss my issues with the lab, but at that point, they were just potential concerns. However, when concerns like that arise for students, the conversation I was asking for should be more accessible than it was to me.

My most recent STEM class in the Organismal Biology and Ecology department solidified my realization that this lack of discussion on the use of animals in laboratories is a real problem at CC. Not only is the discussion left out of classes that perform labs and dissections involving animals, but it is left out of classes that read primary literature regularly for the sole purpose of discussing it. The field of physiology was popular in the 20th century, so we read and discussed a lot of studies that used outdated techniques that caused unnecessary stress and harm for the animal participants.

For example, in 1979, Warren M. Zapol and a team of scientists performed one of countless studies on blood flow in Weddell seals during forced dives. They learned valuable information about the blood pressure changes that diving mammals have evolved to allow them to dive for long periods of time, but the experiment involved a thoracic aorta catheter and forced dives. This means they surgically inserted a tube into the seals’ hearts that was connected to a machine outside of their bodies that measured heart rate and blood pressure while they were tilted backwards and had their heads submerged in a bucket of water to simulate a dive. One can only imagine how painful and terrifying this must have been for those seals. In our class, we acknowledged that these studies were overly stressful for the seals and were causing the research to be inaccurate because they were unable to simulate dives below the animal’s aerobic dive limit. But we did not acknowledge that the studies were overly stressful and painful to the point that we should strive to design more ethical studies today.

We also read studies about crabs with poles glued to their backs, and loggerhead sea turtles that were taken from their environment, and made to perform orientation tests in pools while strapped into harnesses. The welfare of these animals did not make it into our conversations. When it was brought up how stressful or harmful these experiments were, students usually laughed it off with a comments like, “That’s terrible.”


At this point in my education, I am almost two years into a major composed of classes in biology and physiology of non-human animals, neuroscience, and psychology. Since all of these classes involved non-human animals in some way, discussions of the use of those animals in research and how what we know about neuroscience applies to making responsible decisions about non-human animals should be present. Instead, I have been met with not only a lack of discussion on the topic, but a resistance to it. This is especially frustrating at an institution that is meant to encourage critical thinking about subjects like these.

It is worth noting that I have yet to take some upper level classes such as Cognitive Neuroethology that may include the types of conversations that I am looking for, but it is still important that these conversations are present in all classes that deal with non-human animals. The discussion needs to be paired with any mention or use of non-human animals, in the same way that the Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiments bring with them conversations about the ethics of human research. Otherwise, the message sent to students is that talking about the benefits and costs of using non-human animals for research is just not an important aspect to consider.

CC is a microcosm of a broader political atmosphere, in which the issue of animal rights is perceived as an extremely polarized one. The way the issue is usually portrayed, is that on one side are people who abuse animals with a clear conscience for the benefit of the meat industry, scientific research, or the production of animal products while the other side consists of “militant,” radical activists that want to completely prohibit any use of animals with no concern for the wealth of scientific knowledge they provide. In reality, there is a well-represented middle ground, but the more that the former side hides in fear of their companies and labs being shut down, and the more that the latter side expresses anger rather than rationality, the more those two sides are pushed apart and the less open dialogue there is. This type of dynamic only pushes us further from finding solutions that accomplish what both sides really want: humane treatment of non-human animals.

This was made apparent to me when I met with one of my neuroscience professors, Dr. Lori Driscoll, who does research looking at the effects of probiotics on social behaviors in rats. Initially, I had not planned to meet with her due to my own polarized misconception about scientists who do research on non-human animals. I did not even consider the idea that she would be willing to have a conversation with me about changing the dialogue around non-human animals in STEM classrooms, because I prematurely assumed what her viewpoint would be—in doing that, I was exacerbating the problem.

In talking to her, I learned that she and Dr. Krista Fish, an anthropology professor that conducts primarily observational research on primates, had taken the initiative to create an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) at CC. This is a committee that oversees and regulates all research with live vertebrate animals. They consider things like housing conditions, psychological welfare, invasiveness of observational studies, safety of both the participants and researchers, and the cost benefit balance between the educational value and the suffering of the participant(s). All federally funded research institutions are required to have this committee, but as a private institution, CC is not required to have one and didn’t until about four years ago. Despite all the additional meticulous paperwork and fleshing out of protocols for researchers, Driscoll and Fish both remarked that starting the committee “was just the right thing to do.”


Since its creation, IACUC has already spurred many positive changes at CC, the first being an introductory video that is now shown to all students in introductory psychology before they start the rat lab. The video explains the lifecycle of a rat in the CC breeding colony and dispels many of the commonly circulating rat lab rumors. Rats are bred based on genetic diversity, not based on which rats test out first and are “the smartest.” There is no selective breeding going on. The rats that don’t go back into the breeding colony after being used for the lab are sent to the Pueblo Raptor Center. Previously, they were transported to the center alive so that they could be live catch for the raptors, which improves the survival rates of the raptors that are released. But the stress that this process induced for the rats was deemed too much by IACUC, and the rats are now euthanized before being sent to the raptor center.

The video also explains how to care for the rats and what behavioral signs are indicators of stress or illness. Naturally, as psychologists, before permanently putting the video into the curriculum, the professors in the department first conducted an experiment to determine whether it would be effective. They studied two classes, and showed only one the video. Students from both classes took a written survey about the purpose of the lab afterwards. Driscoll remarked that “the students who saw the video provided richer and more informed responses about what the purpose of the exercise was and about in general what the benefits are and what the downsides are of using animals in research.” Having that extra education about the non-human animals they were working with—knowing the cost of their use and understanding their behavior a little better—seemed to promote greater intentionality in the exercise and help the students understand that working with the animals was a privilege. This result “put everybody in the department at ease, and now [the video is used] as a standard part of the introduction to the rat lab,” Driscoll said.

IACUC is a great step towards filling in this gap in conversations and awareness at CC, but it doesn’t cover everything. Just in terms of species, it only covers vertebrates, which Dr. Emilie Gray, a professor in the OBE department, remarked is problematic. Driscoll also remarked that “insects have a lot of the basic structures we do; they avoid painful stimuli,” and cephalopods are classified as invertebrates as well. IACUC also doesn’t cover all the non-human animal classroom experiences at CC; it doesn’t regulate dissections since the tissue is dead, and it doesn’t regulate classroom discussions of non-human animals.

Since IACUC is not meticulously reviewing the procedures and education surrounding dissections, that responsibility is left to professors and students. Right now, there is no discussion of the educational importance, the necessity of the species, the number of specimens ordered, or the sourcing of the specimens. Many of the professors I interviewed knew the name of the company that CC orders specimens from, but could only make guesses about where that company gets the animals. Driscoll remarked that we should be “selectively avoiding suppliers who are irresponsible in thinking about where their tissues are coming from.” Driscoll and Bob Jacobs (the other neuroscience professor) are conscientious about only ordering the brains that they need, having found that eight students per brain is the maximum number of students that can work on one brain and still see what’s going on, but again, this reasoning is not mentioned to the students doing the lab. I think that initiating this conversation before dissections would have the same effect that the video had for the rat lab: increased intentionality of the students and a more tangible appreciation for the costs of their learning. When asked about implementing this in her curriculum, Gray responded that “it would be possible … to take a moment and talk about the source of the animal, and maybe make more explicit what students are going to get out of it rather than this just being a fun activity, and making sure you respect the animals that you’re dissecting.”

IACUC also doesn’t regulate classroom discussions about research articles involving non-human animals, but there are still ways that both students and professors can increase respect and consideration of non-human animals. In the psychology department, Jacobs has taken a positive step to promote this extra consideration of non-human animals. In his classroom, he has changed his language around the intelligence of other species so that it isn’t so anthropocentric. For starters, he uses the term “non-human animals” instead of simply “animals,” which removes the constructed dichotomy between humans and every other species. Second, he intentionally avoids starting every sentence about another species with a comparison to humans (phrased like “unlike humans” or “slightly smaller than that of a human, this brain structure...”). And finally, when discussing research about animals, the question of How does this inform our knowledge of the analogous human structure? or How does this help humans? doesn’t immediately follow every explanation. Non-human animals provide valuable models for human diseases and biological processes, but learning about them is also important for veterinary medicine and for understanding the amazing diversity of the animal kingdom.


So, if you are reading this as someone afraid of the downfall of the laboratories and companies that depend on the use of non-human animals, I hope that you can take a second to consider the immense intellectual and emotional capacity of other species and see why there should be an increase in consideration of and respect for non-human animals. And if you are reading this as someone trying your best to fight for the rights of non-human animals and having trouble understanding how people in this world can treat them in the way that they do, I hope that you can look through the eyes of researchers who do see the suffering that their study participants experience and are wishing that working with live subjects wasn’t the current method for advancing science. Regarding the rats in her own lab, Driscoll remarked, “I hope for the day when we don’t do any non-human animal research anymore.” There are also researchers, such as Jacobs, who conduct research on non-human animals, but only work with dead, donated tissue, so that no non-human animals are harmed or killed for the benefit of the research.

The issue of animal rights, in reality, is not very polarized, because many people with seemingly different viewpoints actually just want what’s best for non-human animals. According to a Gallup poll from 2015, when asked about what type of protection non-human animals deserve (encompassing research labs, the meat industry, amusement parks, circuses, zoos, etc.), 32 percent of people said they deserve the same rights as humans and 3 percent said they don’t need much protection. But the large majority (62 percent) had a view somewhere in the middle, believing that while non-human animals can still be used for the benefit of humans, they do deserve some protection.

Most people want more protection for non-human animals, so rather than hiding from one other, we should be working to increase transparency and productive dialogue. At CC, this is of utmost importance, because the students here will go on to set the standards for scientific research and education in the future. As an institution, we need to be receptive to IACUC, think critically about our curriculum surrounding the use of non-human animals, and check our own language to make sure we are speaking about non-human animals with the respect that they deserve. 

Fill In The Blank Issue | April 2019

Beautiful, Ordinary People

It seems like every fourth photo on my Instagram feed is of a beautiful woman—a beautiful woman I don’t know. Being from New York, a lot of the Instagrammers I follow are glamorous city girls with an affinity for sparkly clothing and NYC rooftops. Others live in suburban America, posting pictures of themselves impeccably done up in their girlish bedrooms. Others live in entirely different countries, live entirely different lives.

Some may call them “Instagram baddies” or “art hoes;” they post hundreds of pictures of themselves, but also of their art, fashion choices, thoughts and feelings, and glimpses into their inner lives. It seems the only commonality among all these Instagrammers I follow—who aren’t really famous and who I don’t really know—is that they are all beautiful. Incredibly beautiful.

I’ve spent the last few months talking to beautiful people on the internet—some of the very people I used to see when scrolling through my feed. I chose to do my sociology thesis on Instagram influencers because I find beauty fascinating, which is at least partially why I spend so much time on Instagram. On Instagram, beauty is more than just beauty. Beauty is a tool that social media users employ to gain influence—literally to become an “influencer.” And to have influence is to have power on the internet. I’m sure we all know the story of the Fyre Festival and the handful of bikini-clad influencers who posted a simple orange square leading the fraudulent festival to completely sell out. The aggressively marketed Hulu documentary about Fyre claims that “the Fyre Festival proves that the power of influence is real.” But I believe, more importantly, the power of the influencer is real. I wanted to know about the influencers. Who are they really? What do they get from Instagram? Money? Power? Fame? What I found is that the line between an influencer and a follower is a blurry one.

Naturally, I found the influencers for my interview sample on Instagram. Being the semi-famous individuals that they are, it took a while for me to get in contact with anyone. I would just shoot DMs off into the abyss hoping for a reply or two. The influencers that did reply were always friendly and enthusiastic. After all, they are just ordinary people. The biggest question I initially had was a nosy and simple one: how much money do you make? But I quickly found that Instagram creates many avenues of success, and money is only one of them.


The influencer @akiralopezg is one such success story. They’re (They use they/them pronouns) a 19-year-old from Australia with a slightly edgy and very trendy feed. They post a mixture of professional model shots and pouty selfies. Out of all the influencers I interviewed, they were the bluntest about their success on Instagram. As they put it: “I like to see it as a game. You play the game to win likes.” The bluntness fits effortlessly into their aesthetic. @akiralopezg told me they wanted to use their Instagram to expand their world beyond Australia, especially considering they have aspirations to be a filmmaker. Remarkably, they were scouted by a modeling agency in LA that found them from their Instagram account, which brought @akiralopezg closer to both their modeling and filmmaking aspirations. The “game” is more extensive than Instagram.

Another influencer I talked to, @maitreyabrooks, had recently finagled a job through Instagram as well. @maitreyabrooks is a young professional from Portland, Oregon with a chic, Portland-y feed: earthy but modern. Her posts have a neutral color palette, alternating between pictures of outfits, food, and restaurants with impeccable interior design. Often the businesses she visits, coffee shops or ice cream stores, will know who she is, or at least who she is on instagram. Knowing her potential to reach an audience, they’ll offer her free stuff: a free coffee here, a free pint of ice cream there. The brand Outdoor Voices contacted her, asking her to promote their product, but @maitreyabrooks decided she would see if they could offer her more. She asked if they had room to hire her in an advertising role, and they agreed. Benefits from Instagram seem to follow @maitreyabrooks everywhere. She, like pretty much all influencers, also receives a lot of free products delivered to her doorstep. She’s very thankful for the fact that she receives, “a lot of benefits … I haven’t had to buy clothes in a while or jewelry or beauty supplies.”

But aside from receiving nice gifts, how much money do influencers actually make? Understandably, nobody really wanted to straight up answer that question. However, @maitreyabrooks explained what a collaboration with a brand looks like. She works with Urban Outfitters despite having only 6,000 followers, making her what they call a ‘micro-influencer.’ In her recent collaboration, she was asked to choose $1500 dollars worth of clothing from the Urban Outfitters website and was then given another $1000 in cash in exchange for 25 photos delivered to UO. @rohinielyse, a blond Glossier representative and influencer located in Brooklyn, told me, “I don’t feel comfortable revealing the exact amount but it’s enough for me to live on.” The influencers who responded to me tended to have a smaller following, so I imagine influencers with more followers make even more money.


The term “influencer” comes from business scholarship and simply means a consumer who is socially situated to easily influence other consumers to buy a product. Brands are a crucial part of the influencer industry. And with influencers having a return on investment 11 times higher than traditional advertising, brands are not likely to let up. Brands and influencers work hand in hand in a mutually beneficial relationship; influencers promote brands and brands promote influencers. @akiralopezg said they gained a lot of success from working with the brand Unif. After Unif reposted them, they got 17,300 likes on one post. @rohinielyse had a similar success story after working with Glossier, which happened after she “went to their showroom and posted a few photos … and then they emailed me.” Promoting brands can help you get more followers, and brand promotion is status in itself. This explains the trends of influencers or even regular users tagging brands who aren’t even paying them.

Unlike @akiralopezg, influencer @isabelleestrin didn’t initially have any grand plans for her Instagram. She remembers first downloading the app in a high school math class. Her feed has an airy, almost French feel despite that she’s from Brooklyn. She has an affinity for romantic mirror pics taken in her all-white apartment while wearing lacy white outfits. Despite her 38,200 followers, she thinks of her Instagram as a personal account, because she believes her success came naturally: she started gaining followers without really trying. Still, @isabelleestrin does work with brands. She explained to me, “usually a brand will reach out to me about collaborating, or vice versa, and that’s always really nice and fulfilling.” This comment represents the sort of relationships influencers and brands have on Instagram. Brands comment on influencers posts and they DM them: they’re friendly. @isabelleestrin only works with brands that she aligns with “ethically and aesthetically.”

Many influencers subscribe to @isabelleestrin’s standards. Brands and influencers can have a lot in common: they have high standards for ethics and aesthetics. Many influencers refuse to work with brands that have bad sustainability practices or are not expressly body positive. In this way, the influencer industry can actually encourage better business practices. The “aesthetics” part is why influencers and brands work so well together. Just like businesses, influencers create a branded aesthetic for themselves; that’s how they gain followers (and how they make profit). Businesses, then, need only ensure that the brand of an influencer they hire matches their own. Some feminist scholars have argued that influencers engage in self-objectification, but I believe it’s closer to self-commodification. Influencers can work with brands because they are brands.

@maitreyabrooks points out that part of why influencer marketing works is that it’s more personal than traditional advertising, she says, “A lot of my followers are in Portland … we run into each other around town … people really do trust what you’re talking about because you wouldn’t be doing it if you didn’t mean it. That’s the whole wave of micro-influencers. It’s just more personal and more organic.” The personal touch explains why the behemoth brand Urban Outfitters, with 8.4 million followers, would enlist an influencer with only 6,000 followers. On Instagram people have a relationship with their advertisers, but often that relationship is one-sided. Instagram doesn’t just blur the lines between influencers and brands, but also between everyday individuals and brands.


Glossier is perhaps the best example of an Instagram brand. All of Glossier’s product are clean, white, and Instagrammable. Seven days after the release of their product Cloud Paint in 2017 there were 1,700 user-generated images of the product. In four weeks, there were 6,368. The company almost exclusively uses Instagram influencers to advertise. But Glossier’s involvement with Instagram goes even further than collaborations with influencers. One of Glossier’s major strategies is to take the “customer is always right” philosophy to the extreme with the aid of the internet. The Glossier team takes time to respond to comments and messages sent to their social media profiles, and the business then creates products directly in response to what followers say they want. Again, Instagram brings individuals and brands closer together. @maitreyabrooks even thinks influencers are the entire future of advertising:

“Traditional advertising is not worth it anymore. Because a company can release, say, a line of pants and you can either spend $200,000 advertising it, and you don’t know who it’s being advertised to. Or you can have a budget of a couple thousand dollars send to influencers have them post it and it sells out the line in like a day.”

Instagram, let’s not forget, is a platform deeply imbedded in capitalism. It is the top social media for advertising. Influencer marketing is, like data-mining, a step further into intrusive advertising methods because Instagram influencers are the people we choose to follow, not the ads that interrupt our television programming. On Instagram, there’s no “cut to commercial.” It’s easy to forget you’re being sold something. Often, influencers don’t even discuss the products they are selling; they just wear them and tag them. And yet, it’s an incredibly effective advertising technique. Instagram influencers are like the cool kid at school who shows up carrying a particular backpack: the next day everyone else comes in wearing the same thing. Instagram allows companies to harness the power of the “cool kid at school” on a global scale.

Instagram influencers often use their beauty as a huge leg up in attaining influence. Instagram is undeniably a platform that glorifies beauty. If likes are the currency of Instagram and beautiful people get the most likes, then on Instagram beauty is power. I call this power “beauty capital,” a form of capital which can be turned into economic, cultural, and symbolic capital. But if beauty is power, then it becomes crucial to consider the ways we define beauty on Instagram.


The final sample for my research included 70 influencers, and I ensured the sample would include influencers of different races and body types. Given that everyone’s feed is so hyper-tailored to their interests and tastes, it is impossible for me to say whether everyone or even most people’s feeds reflect a wider range of beauty standards. As @isabelleestrin said when I asked her about shifting beauty standards on Instagram, “It depends on what content you’re consuming and what you’re taking from it.” I can say that there are plenty of very popular influencers who fall outside of Eurocentric beauty standards. Because Instagram is a platform that anyone can engage with, it enables people to broadcast themselves without needing to get through the narrow gates of Hollywood or the modeling industry or any other mass media. Instead it is up to us, the Instagram users, to pick a feed that represents the kind of beauty we want to see. We have the ability to curate a feed that expands our norms and assumptions not just about beauty, but about everything.

However, while more types of beauty are celebrated on Instagram, influencers still create impossible standards within their types of beauty. Using Instagram analytics software (usually used by brands to find influencers to work with), I found that in my sample of 70 influencers, 62 of them had a predominantly female follower base. By selling an idea of beauty to women, the influencer industry mimics the traditional advertising world. In many posts, nearly everything an influencer wears on their body will be tagged, from their hair extensions to their colored contacts to their lingerie. But unlike traditional advertising, on Instagram, women choose their own models. If you’re goth you can follow all the goth girls; if you’re curvy you can create a feed with influencers that look more like you. Of course, the influencers you follow will still be incredibly beautiful. On Instagram, women choose their own impossible beauty standards. The recent backlash against photoshopped mass media popularized the idea of “real” women (versus model women) in advertising. But what does ‘real’ even mean? Beauty capital is a major avenue for women to gain power on the internet, but it is a double-edged sword: you still must be (impossibly) beautiful.


Instagram fame, beauty, and the influencer industry all may seem like rather shallow pursuits, but they’re the future. I think about @breughnuh, a 15-year-old from New Zealand, started her Instagram in October 2018, and when I interviewed her in January she already had 8,000 followers—Now she has 22,900. I also think of the bluntness with which 19-year-old @akiralopezg told me: “I go through explore and change my aesthetic according to what is exploding on explore [the explore page of Instagram].” Generation Z grew up on smartphones—they understand social media. While Instagram fame may seem like a young and frivolous interest now, as Generation Z ages it will likely become more serious. Shallow or not, Instagram and the influencer industry represents a major way that young people, and especially young women can gain power in the internet age.

The influencer industry has an estimated value of $1.8 billion, and it’s growing, not because of influencers with millions of followers, but because of influencers with thousands or even only hundreds. As @maitreyrabrooks points out, micro-influencers are successful precisely because they don’t have millions of followers. So the connection feels more personal. As the number of followers someone needs to become an influencer keeps shrinking and the desirability of working with brands keeps growing, I can imagine a world in which every single one of us is an influencer, all selling each other products. Glossier CEO Emily Weis welcomes such a world: “What’s very motivating to us is the idea of every single woman being an influencer.”

If we’re all influencers, it’s worth asking yourself: what are you selling?

Fill In The Blank Issue | April 2019

Writing a Life

Whenever I walk into the bookstore in my hometown with Emma, she has already read everything on display. I labor over what I am going to read next, knowing that if I don’t finish the book before the next block starts, I will never finish. She tells me about every book, trying to decide whether or not she thinks I would like it. So far, she’s never been wrong. Ever since we sobbed together over Nicole Krauss’s “History of Love” sophomore year of high school, she tells me what to read and I call her when I’m done. Even though she had already graduated when I finished Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life,” I still called in between two of my high school class periods, leaning against my locker, crying to her about it over the phone. She would understand how I felt.

Over this past winter break, as we spilled to each other everything that had happened since the summer, she told me to read Sheila Heti’s “How Should A Person Be?” As the days of break passed, she became more and more insistent. I had to read it. It was Maggie Nelson-esque, she said. And knowing our shared deep admiration for Maggie Nelson, a contemporary poet and theorist, neither of us took this comparison lightly. Nelson’s work seamlessly blends intellectualism and theory with her own lived experience. But when she ran out of her house to give me her copy before I came back to Colorado, I was skeptical. I trusted Emma, but “How Should A Person Be?” looked like a poorly designed self-help book. On the cover of the copy she handed to me, a featureless, dark green, ceramic figurine woman kneels and rests her head on her hand beside a kitschy bright yellow ceramic flower. Both are flecked with obvious glare from the room they were photographed in. The ugly white title, in a font that looks suspiciously similar to Times New Roman, overlays over the ceramic pieces, under all of which lies a dull gray.

“How Should A Person Be?” is a book without any clear narrative arc. A cursory flip through the book revealed a chapter called “What is Betrayal?” and another, “What is Love?”  Though I love thinking about questions like this, other people’s responses to these questions are usually polarizing for me. Sheila, the protagonist, is a playwright in Toronto who is obsessed with being a genius (she thinks she could be one, despite working on the same play for three years without any progress). The story is framed by Sheila’s friends competing in an ugly painting competition, but focuses on Sheila’s relationships with her own art and the woman who becomes her best friend, Margeaux. Their relationship is a depiction of female friendship like I’ve never read before: intense, devoted, and loving, though simultaneously petty and sometimes cruel. This relationship becomes fraught when Sheila wants to begin recording her conversations with Margeaux in an attempt to document life without artifice to better help her write her play. Along the way, Sheila puts enormous amounts of energy into seemingly small things (a major plot point of the story comes when she and Margeaux buy the same dress on a vacation, causing an argument). She does so while also musing on the value of art and life’s big mistakes—she almost nonchalantly describes her three-year marriage and then divorce from an unnamed man. She unashamedly describes both her humiliating and pleasurable experiences with men as well as her embarrassment at being unable to follow the classic narrative arc of a writer’s life (towards the end of the novel, she goes to New York to have the classic artist’s experience and ends up leaving after a few days, having flashed a small child at a crowded restaurant).

Throughout all of this, Sheila takes both everything and nothing seriously; every small worry is exemplary of one of life’s big problems and every big life event is equated to something small and inevitable. And somehow, perhaps because of the unconventional nature of its narrative, “How Should a Person Be?” answers its big, chapter-heading questions right. Or maybe it doesn’t answer them right, but it answers them the way I would like to think that I could answer them, the way that I want to be able to answer them.

Some literary critics think that, in very certain cases, a piece is beyond criticism, that these pieces are too painful and too intimate to be critiqued analytically. That’s kind of how I feel about “How Should A Person Be?” All the questions I was subconsciously asking—all my confusions about the ways that people exist and interact that I have unknowingly been trying to express since I entered high school—Sheila both voiced the questions and meditated upon the (lack of concrete) answers in 306 pages wedged between two misleading covers.

One of these questions turns out to be the center of the novel. I almost compulsively ask various people I know how they got to where they are, doing what they do, existing how they exist. Maybe if I know how other people live their lives, I can apply some of that to my own. Maybe if I ask enough people, I’ll discover the blueprint for a life. Maybe I can know how to exist.

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Upon finishing the book, I texted Emma (these texts are from Emma’s point of view).

When Emma and I talk about Sheila, is the Sheila in our discussion Sheila the author or Sheila the protagonist and narrator? The protagonist shares the author’s name and the novel is dedicated to Margeaux, also the name of Sheila the character’s best friend. Both Sheilas are writers living in Toronto. Both are attempting to capture “real” life through their art. “It’s autofiction,” Emma told me, though I’m still unsure of exactly what this means. My copy says that “How Should A Person Be?” is a novel; another copy’s cover classifies it as a “novel from life.”

In my search to understand my strong reaction to “How Should A Person Be?” I think of my almost as intense but less personal reaction to Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts,” and google “autofiction” and “autotheory.” I find that perhaps work like Heti’s is not as unique as I first thought it to be, but it also is not widely written about and defined. I came across Lauren Fournier, a visual artist, curator, and novelist whose academic work revolves around autotheory as a specifically feminist movement. In her dissertation, she writes that autotheory has not yet been defined, but seeks to frame it as the author’s “embodied experience [that] becomes the primary material for generating theory.” This indicates that the knowledge people gain from living through situations is valid as evidence and documentation of theoretical truths. In the same way, Heti’s embodied experience—in all of its disgustingness and emptiness and glory—informs the plot and characters. And maybe all fiction does this to some extent: how can a person’s lived experience not influence the “fictional” narratives they construct? Maybe it’s the simple act of using real names from Heti’s life that makes the events in the novel and Heti’s emotional outpourings seem that much more genuine and real.

In an article considering the lines between fiction and reality in contemporary autofiction, Christian Lorentzen writes, “Heti’s and Lerner’s books don’t lack artifice—they are novels, however their readers receive them—but the artifice is in service of creating the sensation that there’s no artifice, which is the whole point.” Through her lack of guile or clearly artificial narrative, Heti’s book draws closer to life itself. Heti’s attempts to record life with as little alteration as possible are in vain—the fact that she’s reducing life to a book inherently makes it something less than life. She’ll never be able to record life in all it’s life-ness in a novel. Maybe the same feature that makes the novel come across as mediocre and boring to some—the inclusion of the mundane and the petty and the perceived exclusion of artifice—is what makes it that much closer to life.

In the prologue, Heti begins by talking about how she perceives the personalities of great celebrities and artists and her desire to be one of those celebrities and great personalities. In the next two pages, she moves from this to blowjobs to Moses to a typo that she frequently makes (she accidentally types a ‘d’ at the end of soul to turn it into sould). It’s not stream-of-consciousness writing, but it mimics the way I think (and maybe the way a lot of people think), moving from big questions to mundane anxieties at the speed of light. The central question of the novel is its title: How should a person be a person? How should I exist in order to lead the type of life I want to live (and how do I want to live anyway)? Heti, of course, can’t answer this question. But her own seemingly inevitable conflation of the mundane with the dramatic and the all-encompassing: I can see myself there. Such broad questions, Heti knows, can only be answered on life’s micro-levels, in its most subjective spheres. She talks about being in a relationship, what it means to be married, and what it means to believe in destiny. She then writes, “In all of this, there was an overarching question that never left my mind, an ongoing task that could never be called complete, though I hoped one day it would be: What was the right way to react to people? Who was I to talk to at parties? How was I to be?” Everything, even conversations at parties, relates back to the central question of being a person. For Heti, every interaction is a microcosm for some larger pattern, answer, or rule of life; nothing can be taken lightly.  

I’ve told everybody to read this book. Is it one-of-a-kind, like I view it to be? Is it objectively a mediocre work? Even so, it had such an impact on me. I want to know how other people receive it. Is the effect of the novel less intense when the reader doesn’t relate to the protagonist? In other people’s reactions, I find myself trying to refine and make sense of my own fixations with and reactions to various parts of the text. Kat, my friend and the wonderful editor of this article, having given into my nagging and begun to read the book, texts me: “ok so im like a bit more than halfway through and I love it but lowkey Sheila is totally insufferable.” And later at lunch she complained, “Why is she so preoccupied with being a genius? She’s not a genius.” She paused and I waited for her to go on, “I wanna tell Sheila to chill. I like this book but it’s mediocre.”

Heti makes large generalizations about women, but also makes it implicitly clear that she’s not trying to speak for everyone—she doesn’t need to speak for everyone because she’s not following some of the prescribed rules for geniuses. To Sheila the protagonist (and perhaps also Sheila the author), being an artistic genius requires producing work that can “stand the test of time” and works with virtues and plotlines that ring true universally.  In her view, she has written herself out of the category of “genius” just by virtue of being a woman; she writes that “one good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like … I laugh when [men] won’t say what they mean so the academies will study them forever.” She doesn’t need to write the “Next Great American Novel” or make universal claims that answer philosophy’s big questions about life and love, even though those are her questions too. By prototyping her own sort of anti-genius and by allowing her work to be so intertwined with her life, she is able to answer these questions surprisingly originally, and on her own terms.

By page three of the novel, Heti discusses her blowjob prowess. The first page of the autotheoretical work “The Argonauts” finds Maggie Nelson talking about getting her face smashed on the floor during anal sex. Both women establish immediately that they aren’t here to write or be geniuses by any set of rules that have so far been used to judge “genius.” Dante, by contrast, had a wife and children and only wrote about a woman named Beatrice, whom historians now think never even existed. Although his lived political experience became important to his work, his lived personal and intimate experiences were almost irrelevant. And I don’t mean to say that Dante speaks for all examples of male genius, but there is a common thread among the people (almost always men) widely perceived as genius by academies and institutions. The intelligence of Mark Zuckerberg, whom Heti cites as an example of male genius, is impersonal. It is completely outside of his experience as an individual. Entrepreneurial, literary, scientific, artistic: all of these come with their own sets of expectations and limits. But Heti doesn’t particularly care about these people or qualifying her judgements on them. She doesn’t really care about the rules others have set out, about genius or about analysis of things like genius at all. She sees the world the way she sees it, and she sees it unapologetically.

This is part of the reason this book struck me so much. Someone talking about her life as it is, day to day, is much more impactful to me than someone who attempts to speak for everyone, or attempts to speak about only the most profound moments of life. She is able to find profundity in her life’s un-profundity. Often, I love talking about the abstract things. I like philosophizing. But then I go back to my life, and usually, I’m stressed about the wording of my texts, whether there’s a more fun party that I could be going to then the one that I’m currently at, or whether people can see the pit stains on my shirt during class. I think more about my relationships with other people than I do about any theoretical philosophy that doesn’t apply directly to me. If my best friend and I also bought the same dress, as Sheila and Margeaux do, I would also think for a long time about the implications and our possibly changed dynamics. My life is often mundane. This is also what might have led the novel to such an ambivalent public reaction: maybe it falls flat with some people because they read fiction to get out of their heads and lives, not to become pushed deeper and deeper into them.  

This is also not to say that the term “relatable” can be applied to every audience. Maybe this book struck me so much because I find myself relating very deeply to the main character, in ways that are sometimes shameful; she talks about things I’ve felt but never read in a work, fiction or nonfiction. This is not to say art must be “relatable” to be appreciated, because I don’t think I believe that. Heti’s work hasn’t taken away from my awe at art that does not directly apply to my own lived experience. But maybe it has to be relatable to be felt, and maybe we can begin to embrace fiction not only as a method of experiencing worlds and perspectives beyond our own but also as a way to further articulate things about our own lives in a more intimate and exploratory sense. Maybe art can be just as profound if it is uncomfortably close to home.

Fill In The Blank Issue | April 2019 

Letter From the Editor

Dear             (1),

These letters tend to follow a decently formulaic format. We open with a fun anecdote relevant to the issue’s theme. We continue with brief descriptions of the pieces included and then relate them back to the theme. We wrap up by returning to the theme more broadly, musing on its place in our readers’ and our lives. It’s a tried and true design, so solid anyone can do it. So, per the theme, this one’s in (2)’s hands.

I remember being doubled over laughing with my middle school best friend, (3), as we read aloud the ______(4) stories we’d created using a Mad Libs book. We’d take turns asking each other for the filler words; the privileged person who knew the story’s topic, drunk on power, uncontrollably (5) as she wrote down and ridiculed whatever (6) term the fool in the dark had said. The anticipation of the mystery revealed was (7) on both ends; but even though the fun was based on uncertainty, Mad Libs were reliable. We knew we were in for a (8) good time, every time.

As (9) and I got older, though, the mysteries got less fun. The laughs were less (10), the game overplayed. I got into (11), she got into (12). We lost the thrill of the simple uncertainty, shifting our focus to the much more significant (at the time) blanks of our lives—who will be my (13) date? How am I going to convince my mom to let me go to a party at a   (14)? What Halloween costume will make me look (15) while still communicating that I’m cool and chill?

In the same vein, the pieces in this issue (16) the ways we try to fill in the blanks of our lives. In Becca Stine’s piece, she describes her experience meeting with four local (17), people who don’t see there being any sort of blank in the future: the end of times is upon us. Courtney Knerr investigates the use of animal lab subjects in (18)’s STEM classrooms, and highlights the importance of informing students of their origins and fate post-lab. Cormac McCrimmon investigates how what our (19) write on our birth certificate impacts our future. Audrey Westby’s adaptation of her thesis ( (20), Audrey!) suggests that companies use influencers to create a standard for beauty, perhaps capitalizing on filling in the blank of the broad and indefinable. In providing an answer to the question of what Wicca is, Emily Kressley also touches on the human tendency to (21) towards the supernatural and unexplained, things that let our imagination fill in the blanks. And Kate Barnes explores the mystery of (22)’s painting, “ (23),” dropping her readers into the work to try to help us understand it, and maybe facets of our own lives, better.

As these writers show, we are able to fill some of the blanks of our lives—I went to (24) with (25); I lied about where the party was; and you can’t go wrong with a (26) costume, am I right, ladies?—but other blanks will always be up in the air. Life’s essential questions have fueled our best (and worst) thinkers for generations, and they will continue to do so until (27) kills us all. What does the future hold? What is truth? What is right and what is wrong? ask (28) students and stoned teenagers alike. We don’t know, and can’t know, the answers to these questions. So while it’s (29) and intellectually fruitful to think about these things, maybe it’s also time to reconsider the pleasures of small mysteries. May this nerdy Mad Libs rip-off do the trick.


Maddie and the rest of the Cipher staff

Fill In The Blank Issue | April 2019

18. School you wish you could attend

19. People you resent

20. Congratulatory word

21. Verb

22. Artist

23. Work by said artist

24. Same stupid event

25. Your Crush :P

26. Most ridiculous noun you can think of

27. Noun

28. Your major

29. Adjective

30. Your go-to email sign off

  1. Sexiest man alive

  2. Your name

  3. Your middle school best friend

  4. Adjective

  5. Verb ending in “ing”

  6. Adjective

  7. Adjective ending in “ing”

  8. Silly adjective

  9. Same middle school best friend

  10. Adjective

  11. Sketchy teen activity

  12. Rigorous port

  13. Stupid event

  14. Sketchy loan

  15. Hot adjective

  16. Verb

  17. Unlikely profession