Dear Reader,

Over Colorado College’s spring break, a lengthy white supremacist diatribe, which specifically targeted Deans Mike Edmonds and Rochelle Mason, was sent through an encrypted email service to a large portion of the CC community.

In the weeks since, students, faculty, and staff have remarked that events like this are not isolated incidents, but rather manifestations of the white supremacy that underlies our country and our campus. In light of other recent racist events at CC—like the Yik Yak comment referenced in the email—this is an important lesson. It is, in other words, a mistake to think that racist messages like these are written by people who are entirely unrelated to our community and its culture. There are aspects of our community that make some people feel that it’s socially permissible to believe in and express racism, at least in certain circles. A racist joke, for example, does not come from nowhere; it’s a social action that someone feels it’s permissible, or at least possible, to take.

To be clear, most people at CC are not white supremacists. But white students and faculty who maintain a belief in racial equality have certainly benefited from being white. This privilege is clearly distinct from overt racism, but the two are related because certain elements of white privilege are what make some people feel that it’s permissible to express racism. And although we cannot directly change an anonymous bigot’s views, we can certainly change the aspects of our community that reinforce and foster racist lies. These aspects are what I’ll focus on here.

Allan G. Johnson, a white sociologist and former professor at Wesleyan University, gave a lecture in which he delineated a few specific characteristics of white privilege. First, because of long-standing racism and bias, race is reflected in power structures. This means that as you look to the top tiers of any hierarchy in a society characterized by white privilege, you’ll tend to see white people. And as you look at the lower tiers of the hierarchy, you’ll tend to see people of color. If you see a person of color in a position of control, you’ll probably notice it as an exception to the rule.

This is true of CC. High-level positions tend to be held by white people, and Deans Edmonds and Mason are exceptions to the rule. The author of the email targeted them precisely because their exceptional success threatens the continuation of white supremacy. They have succeeded despite the benefits afforded to white peers, and that they have succeeded in the face of disadvantage means Deans Edmonds and Mason had to be especially talented to get where they are—the opposite of what the author claims.

We can also see what Johnson observed operating within Cipher. The magazine’s staff and writers are predominately white, and the percentage of students of color involved in the magazine is lower than the percentage of students of color at CC (which is roughly 24 percent, according to the college). This is partly because, for a number of reasons, people of color have long been excluded from journalism as a whole.

Johnson says that social systems give their participants “paths of least resistance”—they facilitate particular ways of behaving and discourage others. The American social system, for example, encourages us to enact behaviors like being timely and tipping waiters. And some paths (like tipping) are more encouraged than others (like being timely). In terms of white privilege, the path of least resistance is to accept—and perhaps to not even see—racialized power structures. But we need not mindlessly follow the path that has been laid out for us. By recognizing and trying to dismantle these structures, we can step off the path of least resistance.

For Cipher, this means encouraging more students of color to be involved in the magazine—not because the publication needs to fulfill some sort of diversity quota, but because to continue operating as we have been would be to ignore important stories and talented writers. To ignore these stories would be to accept the system of privilege that we’ve inherited.

Johnson also says that a society in which white privilege operates will be “white-identified,” meaning, “white people are taken as the standard for human beings in general.” At CC, the white experience is taken to be the standard experience both numerically and culturally. Two-thirds of the student body is white, and the way we often portray CC makes it sound like the school is entirely white. Many of the school-advertised hallmarks of CC—like expensive ski trips, a rock climbing gym, and our own music festivals—are historically white (and wealthy) spaces.

At Cipher, we can see white-identification by looking at whose stories we choose to tell. The path of least resistance is, of course, to tell white people’s stories. And the vast majority of Cipher’s stories are, even in this issue, by and about white people. This hasn’t happened because of any nefarious planning, but because white students feel entitled to tell their stories—that, in turn, is partly because white students see other white students’ stories already represented.

How we choose to tell these stories is also important: stories by and about white people almost never refer to the race of the subjects or authors. We don’t even think of them as stories about white people; we just think of them as stories. When there’s an occasional story about someone of color, on the other hand, that fact is always mentioned, and almost always made integral to the story. This disparity exists not because white people’s race is irrelevant to their lives, but because, as James Baldwin put it, “Being white means not having to think about it.” Cipher can take a resistant path in this regard by making explicit the ways race is a factor in stories both about and by white people. 

I’ve just described a few of the elements of white privilege that make some people feel that it’s permissible to express racism on campus: the racialization of power structures, which stories we choose to tell, and how we choose to tell those stories. When white people populate a space, it’s more likely for someone to believe that it’s permissible to believe in and express racism in that space. When media sources claiming to write important stories are exclusively covering the stories of white people, it becomes possible for someone to think that other stories are in fact unimportant. So to allow white stories to dominate in media can foster the belief that white stories should dominate the media. And when stories about white people make no reference to race, the illusion that white people are unaffected by their race remains unchallenged. Telling stories this way also fosters the illusion that whiteness is an exceptional standard from which all other races are deviations.

The reality of race and privilege is one we all inherited without anyone asking us for our permission. And, as Johnson says, “It’s a system in which we have to live, at least until we change it.” Faculty, staff, and students have been working hard to change this system. Two years ago, faculty created a Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies major. Over the past five years, administrators have increased the racial diversity of the student body, albeit too slowly. And students of color have been resisting incarnations of racism on campus for many years. Some Cipher writers have done their part by making a concerted effort to tell the kinds of stories that are usually silenced. (Here, you can find a compilation of recent Cipher stories that address race and racism.)

Still, CC and Cipher can and must do better. I’m confident that Cipher’s staff, especially our newest editors, will.



Ethan Cutler, Editor in Chief

The back wall of Donna Shugrue’s office features a poster of Rose and Jack from “Titanic,” along with massive portraits of her two daughters with their husbands. A large board full of pictures of smiling couples hangs behind her desk, reminiscent of the thank-you letters and holiday cards that doctors sometimes show off in their offices. Only, instead of healthy patients, Donna has happily married clients.

Before I saw Donna’s ad hanging on the wall of the bathroom at Wooglin’s Deli in Colorado Springs, I didn’t know matchmaking existed outside of “Fiddler on the Roof.” After a tumultuous two-week experiment with Tinder over winter break, I was skeptical of the idea of finding love through any kind of formal dating program. But when I read that Donna had married over 700 clients in her 27 years of matchmaking, my curiosity was piqued. 

I went home and filled out a “dating profile test” on I answered each of the 46 statements with a number from 1, “Clearly Agree,” to 5, “Clearly Disagree.” The statements varied from “My feelings are easily hurt” to out of left field statements like “Wearing designer clothes is worth the extra money,” “The nicest people attend religious services regularly,” “I rarely have headaches,” “I believe in the theory of evolution,” and “People who get sexually transmitted diseases deserve it.” Many of them didn’t seem to have anything to do with romantic compatibility. They challenged the belief that most people hold about love: that it happens as a result of some kind of inexplicable chemistry or spark. We romanticize love even more when it “doesn’t make sense”—think Romeo and Juliet. Love, in my mind, had nothing to do with religion, headaches, or designer clothes.

Donna called me with my results a few days later. Before I could tell her that I was seeking an interview and not just her service, Donna went straight to her explanation. She gave me a score from one to 10 in categories of temperament, sociability, conformity, affection, religion, and finance. 

A week later, I am sitting across from Donna at her office in downtown Colorado Springs as she explains the way her matchmaking process works. Within minutes she is rattling off client stories, peppering the memories with love advice. Her stories varied from sad to sweet to hilarious.

“Leroy,” she says, showing me his picture on the wall, “had the corniest sense of humor I’d ever experienced … after the interview I thought, God, I know I’m going to hear about this in feedback from his matches.” The first woman she set him up with told Donna he was nice and good-looking, but “cracked one corny joke after another.” The second and third matches went the same way. “But the fourth match was her,” Donna says, pointing at the woman smiling next to Leroy in his picture. “And when she called me with feedback the first thing she said was, ‘He’s so funny!’ I was like, ‘Yes! He is! If you think he is!’ And guess what? They’ve been married for years now.”

Donna’s service uses similarity to predict compatibility. Over and over, she tells me that the key to a successful and lasting relationship is to find someone who thinks the same way that you do. According to Donna, the saying “opposites attract” might be true in the short term, but usually fails to create a relationship that lasts. She says temperament is an exception, “because if you have the same temperament you’ll either butt heads and fight or avoid confrontation to the point of avoiding communication. Opposites in temperament can balance each other out.” 

Donna explains all this to me with so much confidence that I find myself immediately believing her, questioning my conviction that love stems from “chemistry.” I am surprised by how quickly Donna and I hit it off—our conversation lasts almost two hours longer than we’d intended. At the same time, I’m not surprised at all: Donna and I are similarly fascinated by personality and compatibility. We are both able to talk for hours about the way people relate to each other. But, unlike those of us who prefer to think of love as requiring nothing other than some mysterious ingredient, Donna takes a pragmatic approach to romance, emphasizing the importance of lifestyle factors, religion, social habits, and finance—all of which I’ve always considered of secondary importance. Donna looks at compatibility with one end goal in mind: stable, lasting romance. 

Personally, I am wary of approaching love with an “end goal” in mind. This is, at least partially, the source of my skepticism regarding dating services in general. There’s a danger in searching for love instead of just falling into it. With apps like Tinder, for example, you’re frantically looking for someone to fill some sort of role in your life, whether it be a hookup or a serious relationship. It’s almost as though the person is secondary to the role, and when you try to fit a person you meet into that role, you run the risk of not actually seeing them for who they are. Or worse, you end up marketing yourself for the kind of role you want to play for another person. 

In Donna’s service, all clients have the same general goal: they want a long-term partner. Donna makes it clear that her matchmaking services do not cater to people interested in hookups or casual dating. In her words, the people who come to her are “serious” about meeting someone. And Donn makes any variation of that goal (some clients want kids, some clients don’t want to get married, etc.) clear to each party from the beginning. 

The first thing Donna does for a client is identify potential matches with scores that are close to their own. “All my matches start with these scores. That’s how strongly I believe in them,” she says. She points again to the photos on the board behind her. “These are couples I’ve matched who are married or in relationships. If you look at where the scores are compared to each other, you’ll see that they’re pretty close.” 

After Donna finds matches with similar scores, she shares information from the “interview sheet” with each party. “Before you meet someone, you know where they were born, how many brothers and sisters they have, whether or not they own their homes, whether or not they have pets, what religion they are, if they go to church, what church they go to…” the list goes on. Donna does not share each party’s income with the other, though she does keep it in mind herself. “I definitely pay attention to it when I make a match,” she says, “because to some extent, income is a matter of lifestyle choices, and you want someone who can make similar lifestyle choices.” The question on her test about buying designer clothing makes more sense now.

After filling out an interest and activity sheet, Donna has her clients do a special exercise: they write down what their ideal relationship would be. “You sit down and you think, What would the right person for me be like? What kind of qualities would I want him or her to have? The best way to draw that out of yourself is to think about past relationships or marriages that you’ve had and what you’ve really liked about that person. And then think about what you didn’t like, and turn the negatives into positives and write it down.” She leans in. “And I’ll tell you a little secret that I don’t tell anyone until after they’ve written it: what they ultimately describe is themselves.”

Although Donna does screen for physical preferences, she encourages her clients to move beyond their assumptions about what physical characteristics they’re attracted to, unless those boundaries are “written in stone.” According to Donna, women tend to limit themselves according to height preference, while men limit themselves according to weight preference. “I’ll have a five-foot tall woman and I’ll say, ‘What’s the shortest you’ll go?’ And with no hesitation she’ll say, ‘Six feet.’ I’ll say, ‘Eliminate everybody below six feet, why would you do that?’ She’ll say, ‘Because I like tall men, they make me feel protected.’ Well, the reality is that you can feel safe and protected by somebody who is your own height or even shorter than you are.”

In fact, a picture is the only significant thing, apart from income, that Donna does not share with her newly-matched clients. She tells each party the eye color, hair color, height, and weight of their match, but does not provide photos. All first dates are literally “blind” dates. Her service stands in stark contrast to dating apps, where photos are the first (and sometimes only) thing you see. Online dating feels like an emotionally risky guessing game: participants try to gauge from photos how attractive, normal, nice, or interesting other participants are (often unsuccessfully, since it’s easy to lie, or at least skew the truth of who you are, through carefully selected photos). 

Unlike Tinder, Donna makes a match according to the scores first, and then hopes the two clients will be attracted to each other. For Donna, compatibility precedes attraction. Her pragmatism is surprising for someone whose entire career is based on helping people find love. But maybe Donna’s success rate just speaks to how easy it is to fall in love with someone once the practical factors are in place. “I can’t tell you how often someone will call me with feedback and say, ‘That’s somebody that I probably wouldn’t have picked for myself,’” she says, “but in a one-hour meeting they’re already feeling some kind of spark.” 

Even when Donna occasionally pairs people up who have a difference in one or two scores, she makes sure they both go into it knowing about that difference. She points to one of the photos. “Marsha was an eight in sociability and Jay was a five. He was a three in finance and she was a six. She was more outgoing than him, he was more budget-minded than her. And boy, was that reflected in their relationship from the beginning.” Donna tells me about a couple of money-related squabbles, and about how Marsha wanted everyone in her family to meet him on the second date. “I said, ‘No! He’s much more shy than you are. That will take him out of his comfort zone, and it’s too soon to bring your family into the picture anyway. You just met him!’”

Marsha and Jay, Donna tells me, married after only three months, contrary to one of the rules she prescribes to her clients to ensure that their relationships last. “I tell people, don’t even have sex for the first three months!” She explains that it takes most people that long to get relaxed enough to be themselves, which is when you can start to identify whether things are or aren’t working. “But once you’re physically involved you’re emotionally involved. It takes the focus off the friendship and puts it on the intimacy, and that’s not what you want to do when you don’t even know someone.” She tells me that the couples who wait for three months are the ones who are most likely to end up on her wall of success (Marsha and Jay are an exception). “I’ve seen relationships that I thought had potential end because they were intimate too quickly, and they didn’t know how to deal with it, because they didn’t know each other.”

The no-sex rule is one of Donna’s three big rules. Rule number two is “Don’t ask yourself where it’s going or how this person could fit into your life long-term for six months” because “you don’t have enough information to answer that question yet.” Rule three is “Don’t do anything as serious as getting engaged, married, or moving in until you’ve gone a full year” because “people can change with the seasons.” “And anyway,” Donna adds, “one year is not a long time to wait if you think that this is someone you’re gonna spend the rest of your life with.” I ask Donna if she follows the relationship rules she gives to her clients. She bursts out laughing. “Hell no! Don’t ask me if I’ve not had sex in the first three months!” 

All of these rules are measures of precaution to ensure that the relationship progresses slowly, carefully, and based on mutual understanding between the two people. Donna goes to great lengths to avoid the problem articulated in a New York Times op-ed piece, “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person”: people rarely delve into their complexities before committing to a long-term relationship, leading to some unpleasant surprises later on. A similar sentiment is articulated by this meme:

Donna blames internet dating services for exacerbating the problem of not knowing your partner, and the resulting high divorce rate. According to her, these websites are “time consuming, ineffective, and people aren’t honest. They lie about everything.” Donna considers her service a much-needed alternative to online dating; instead of advertising yourself to lure other people to you, you present your most honest self to Donna and she picks someone out for you based on that knowledge. Donna takes pride in her old-fashioned attitude towards her business; she never uses a computer, except for printing out the profile test. She calculates her scores manually, and keeps all her records from the past 27 years on paper. She even keeps her phone and answering machine in the other room of her office, separate from where she works and meets clients, so that she can answer and return calls at her leisure.

Her goal is to make her clients as prepared and informed as possible before they agree to meet with each other. Her position as middleman makes for honest, clear communication. “What they’re trying to do is help me help them,” she explains, “so they know that the more they share with me and the more honest they are with me, the better I can match them.” 

This three-way communication continues after the match, when Donna’s job becomes more about counseling and coaching. Donna prescribes a strict procedure for the newly matched pair: she exchanges names and phone numbers, and the man calls the woman—a rule made to ensure that there’s no misunderstanding about who calls first. The only purpose of the phone conversation is to set up the in-person meeting, which also should not be long. (“No lunch or dinner, just a cup of coffee, one hour.”)

The feedback continues after each date. “It takes all the pressure off the situation, doesn’t put anyone on the spot, and it allows the process to become more focused and fine-tuned.” She facilitates feedback after each of the next few dates, and, depending on the client, after a relationship is established. Until a pair of clients become intimate, they are encouraged to meet other matches. 

Unlike most matchmaking services, Donna charges based on matches rather than time. Her clients typically purchase 10 matches—although they sometimes find success before they end up meeting the other matches—for $1,800. When Donna can’t make 10 matches, she charges less. The unlimited relationship counseling is free of charge. She even provides coaching for people who have met significant others outside of her service.

I ask Donna what she does for queer clients. She says that, occasionally but increasingly frequently, she’ll get a call from someone asking to be matched with someone of the same gender. She tells whoever is calling that she doesn’t have matches for them in the system yet, but that they can be the first if they’d like. Since it’s obviously discouraging to have no potential matches, no one has been willing. So far, she’s been unsuccessful at starting a client base for queer matchmaking, though she hopes that this will change in the future. 

Donna became a matchmaker, ironically, after going through a divorce. She met her ex-husband just after she graduated from high school. Her father, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, got her a job as a secretary in Scotland, where he was stationed. There she started going out with Herb, a boy in the Air Force. She moved back to the U.S., and they dated long-distance for a few months while she was in school at Memphis State University. Herb went home to Connecticut for a short period before he was to be relocated to Pakistan for 15 months. Donna decided to take a break from her studies and spend time with him and his family. 

Next thing she knew, she was pregnant. “Back when I got pregnant there was no [access to] birth control, no abortion. You had a baby,” she says. So they decided they would get married just 10 days before Herb left for Pakistan. By the time he came home, their first daughter was seven months old. 

Donna describes the beginning of marriage and motherhood as a challenging time. Suddenly she was a 19-year-old mother living away from her family, on the third floor of a house where she didn’t know the people downstairs. And the marriage was not a match Donna herself would have set up. “My ex-husband’s a great guy,” she assures me. “He was always good to me, he was always good to the girls. I just knew that I couldn’t spend the rest of my life in that marriage.” She stuck with it for 20 years until finally, at 40 years old and after two years of marriage counseling, she decided to go through with a divorce. 

During her marriage, Donna had held mostly part-time jobs. After the divorce she found herself newly single and in need of a career. “And never in a million years did I think it would be matchmaking,” she says, despite the fact that at her 25th high school reunion, after she had been a matchmaker for a few years, she got a reward for “most obvious career path.” She was known in high school and throughout her marriage for bringing couples together. “I probably had half a dozen weddings under my belt before I even thought about being a matchmaker,” she laughs. “It’s something that I feel like I have the talent for.”

Before Donna became her own boss, she worked for two dating services in Denver: Successful Singles International and Matchmaker International. The first service went out of business, and the second one put pressure on her to match clients quickly. Discouraged by the hard sell technique, she decided she wanted to start her own company. She opened “Perfectly Matched” on October 6, 1991. It was the first dating service with an office in Colorado Springs. 

Skeptical that an emerging dating service would have easy, immediate success, I ask Donna whether it was hard to build a client base at first. In response, she pulls out a large yellow pad. “This is my computer,” she says proudly. “I don’t share this with a lot of people: this is every sale from every client every day for 27 years.” The prices she started with were as low as $100-250, compared to the approximately $1,800 that she charges today. “And I was honest,” she adds. “I couldn’t come in and say I’d been doing this forever when nobody knew what a dating service was back then. So I told [my first clients], ‘You’re number one in the system, you’re number two.’”

It strikes me as funny that Donna considers matchmaking an up-and-coming service, when, to me, it feels like an antiquated alternative to apps like Tinder. It’s nearly impossible to calculate the success rate of any dating service, because of the difficulty of defining what a successful match is. Do you include casual relationships? Relationships that have broken up? Divorces?). But Donna’s thorough screening process and careful facilitation strikes me as more likely to be “successful” than Tinder’s mindless swiping. The other key difference between Tinder and Donna is that Donna is as much of a relationship “coach and counselor” as she is a matchmaker. “My job really starts when somebody gets into a relationship,” she says. “I do more counseling and coaching than I do matchmaking.”

This aspect of her work requires strong therapeutic skills and the ability to be a friend as well as a service. I ask Donna if she has to deal with a lot of heartbreak during her coaching sessions. She points to the corner of the desk. “Why do you think those Kleenex are sitting right there?”

Because of her role as a relationship counselor, Donna’s own involvement in her clients’ lives often extends into friendship. One couple she matched even came by her office on the way home from the hospital the day after their son was born. Donna is often invited her clients’ weddings. She always makes sure to ask if the other attendees know the couple met through her after an embarrassing wedding incident in which the groom told everyone that they’d met through Donna but the bride said they’d met through a friend. “I’m standing there at the wedding and one of [the groom’s] friends is saying, ‘He told me how they met through your service, that’s so great!’ And the bride’s sister looks at [the groom] and says, ‘You met her through a dating service? She told me you met her on the ski slope!’”

Donna’s approach to love is hard for me to relate to as a young person who isn’t looking for long-lasting romance. In a phone conversation after the interview, Donna and I speculate briefly about how her test and matching system might work for “millennials.” Regardless of the aspects of her process that aren’t relevant to my age group, the strategy of mediating a relationship so that each party is honest and knows about each other’s lifestyle and goals from the beginning seems to be universally valuable. “What I do is the opposite from what people do on their own,” Donna tells me. “I start with the things that matter.” Donna and I still have somewhat different ideas about what “matters” in a relationship. I still can’t imagine judging a potential significant other by their thoughts on designer clothing or the theory of evolution. But, thinking back to my Tinder experience, maybe I’ll have a bit more success if I make my goals and opinions clear from the beginning—and, of course, guess at my date’s temperament and affection scores (which I’ve already started doing). 

When Noah Green was three years old, a neighbor caught a whiff of rotting food coming from the apartment he shared with his mother, Eleanor. A couple of hours later, concerned policemen were knocking on their door. Eleanor refused to let them in at first. When she finally relented, the police entered to find the home in a horrific state of disorder. Cookware, moldy food, and knives littered the plastic rags that coated the floor. The police found Noah amidst the disarray. A few hours later, Noah was sitting in a police station, crying in his overalls. He spent a couple of weeks with his grandparents afterwards, occasionally visiting his mother in the hospital, but he never really understood what was going on. Years later, Noah shrugs it off with a laugh. He now knows that his mother is what most people would call a “hoarder,” though he doesn’t think the term fits. 

The label “hoarder” presents a strange incongruity. On the one hand, people use it so loosely that nearly anyone could be called a hoarder: those who have “too many” books, “too much” clothing, or “too much” of anything. On the other hand, our culture often sensationalizes and ostracizes those who hoard as if they’re rare outcasts with a strange illness. 

I’ve witnessed both of these extremes firsthand. I first heard the word “hoarder” sensationalized when I was in elementary school, watching TV. During a commercial break, dramatic opera music played as a hand slowly turned a door knob. The words “unbelievable,” “dramatic,” “unimaginable,” and “unnerving” flashed across the screen one by one. Then, the music intensified and the door opened on a shot of a child navigating through ten-foot-high piles of stuff. The screen went black momentarily before “HOARDERS” appeared. Years later, I experienced the other extreme when my disappointed mother walked past the empty “trash” and “donate” boxes outside of my room and called out, “Hoaaar-der!” 

A few weeks ago, confused about these two extremes (and subconsciously suspecting that I had hoarding tendencies of my own), I reached out to Jennifer Hanzlick, the founder of “Clutter Trucker,” a company that helps those with hoarding disorder remove the excess stuff from their homes.  

After helping her grandparents, who experience hoarding tendencies, clear out the clutter in their home, Jennifer realized how physically and emotionally taxing the process was for people with hoarding disorder. She was both surprised and troubled by the dearth of hoarding cleanup services. “Many people are overwhelmed with the amount of things in their homes,” Jennifer said. “They want to get rid of it, but don’t know where to start and need extra help. I started to do a little bit of research, because they always say, ‘If you want to start a business, solve a problem.’ I knew this was a problem, and I felt a strong pull to help out.” 

Jennifer began by explaining that hoarding goes beyond an unwillingness to let go of material possessions. “When I mention this word ‘hoarding,’ people begin to wonder if they have a problem, because, come to think of it, they can’t park their car in the garage because of the things piling up that haven’t been used for years. They might use it someday, so they don’t throw it out.” But Jennifer makes it clear that “hoarding disorder is a serious, complicated mental illness.” According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there are four parts of the disorder, which Jennifer described for me: “an excessive accumulation of stuff; extreme difficulty in discarding your possessions and sometimes trash; living spaces cannot be used for their intended purpose; and lastly, it causes distress and impairment.” Plenty of people exhibit one of these tendencies, but, as Jennifer said, “unless you meet all four criteria, you’re not one of the fifteen million people in the United States who struggle with hoarding disorder.”

Since fifteen million people amounts to five percent of the population, hoarding can hardly be considered an obscure phenomenon. Still, its prevalence often goes unnoticed because many of those who struggle with it feel ashamed. “There are more people with hoarding disorder than with Alzheimer’s disease,” Jennifer said. “But you wouldn’t know it. They’re hiding, silently, behind closed doors. With the blinds pulled down, they’re afraid to come out, and they’re afraid to let you in.” 

As Jennifer went on, I only vaguely registered that, statistically speaking, I couldn’t have been very far removed from hoarding disorder. A few hours later, by some wild coincidence, I ran into Noah, a fellow Colorado College student. Still dazed by Jennifer’s story, I couldn’t help but share a bit of it with him. Noah told me that throughout his upbringing he had, at different times, tolerated, embraced, and resisted the hoarding tendencies of his mother.

Jennifer explained that hoarding behavior is often a symptom of trauma or other mental illness. One of Jennifer’s clients did not struggle with hoarding until the year after her husband’s death. Another client exclusively hoarded baby powder, which covered the floor of his apartment in a layer at least a foot high. Jennifer later found out that his last memory of his mother, who died when he was a baby, was of the baby powder she used when changing his diapers.

In the case of Noah’s mother, the hoarding manifested as a result of her history with OCD and anxiety. Before Noah was born, his mother, Eleanor, had lived alone in an apartment for 20 years. No one had ever come in, so it became a world of her own. She was a single mother and Noah was her first and only child, so he was the first person to see her world. During her pregnancy with Noah, the anxiety and OCD that she had struggled with since adolescence worsened and eventually became what Noah called a “horrible fear of the world.” And it didn’t get better once Noah was born. “The excess of things in our home,” he said, “became a kind of protective layer from the outside world, which was scary, uncertain, and out of control—a place where people were trying to get us.” 

Contrary to our culture’s stereotype of “hoarders,” not all individuals who struggle with hoarding disorder are deeply attached to their possessions. “The things around me and on the floor were not even very dear to my mother,” Noah said. “There was a mingled fear of throwing things away and a sense of empowerment or safety that came with my mother’s feeling of control over the seeming lack of control.” By letting everything land wherever it would and deliberately not dealing with it, Noah’s mother had been able to gain a sense of agency in her home environment.

Noah remembered not being allowed to clean any part of the house, or even to throw anything away, which would have meant taking away precious control from his mother. He chuckled, remembering how he used to try to sneak out of his room when he couldn’t sleep, but inevitably his feet would make a loud crunching noise as he tiptoed across the plastic on the floor. Only when his mother was asleep could he throw things away. “I remember this broken jar of mayonnaise on the floor of the dining area. It had been there for weeks, and it was growing mold. I remember that I could neither touch nor pick it up until she went to bed.” As for larger-scale clean-ups, like Noah’s room, for instance, there were points when Noah couldn’t really help himself. But cleaning his room would make his mother very upset. She would say things like: “Noah, now I’m going to have to look through all of the trash.”

Eleanor’s OCD extended to an extreme fear of heavy metals and chemicals, which meant that Noah was neither allowed to brush his teeth nor bathe on his own until he was 13 years old. Every morning and night was like a trip to the dentist. Noah’s mother would carefully brush his teeth before giving him a sponge bath. “Since my mother refused to use actual towels, after giving me a sponge bath, she just wrapped me up like a mummy, using paper towels,” Noah told me with a smile. He was also spoon-fed until he was 11. 

It was very important that the fate of the trash and everything in the home was in Eleanor’s hands. Even if she didn’t catch him throwing things away, she would still hold onto trash bags, hoping to comb through each and every article before deciding what to throw out. She often kept the trash bags for a very long time, saying that she was going to throw them away but that she needed to look through them “just one more time.” It was only when the layer of things strewn on the floor got too thick to wade through that she would throw things away. Noah emphasized that this would only happen once it reached a “critical mass.” Very quickly, though, things just went back to how they had been.

Concerned for Noah’s well-being, his extended family called the Department of Children and Family Services a number of times over the years. For a while, all he knew was that every now and then at school, kind yet serious adults in formal attire took Noah aside to talk to him. As a kid who wholeheartedly loved his mother and felt fiercely loyal to her, when Noah realized that those adults were being alerted by his family, he couldn’t help but think, Wow, my family is really just trying to get in the way of what we’re doing. When the phone rang and Caller ID revealed that extended family was calling, like a synchronized duet, Noah and his mother would pick up the phone at the same time. Eleanor would listen attentively and quietly scribble a script for Noah to cheerfully speak into the receiver. 

For a long time, Noah never told anyone what was going on inside of his home. After all, his family had attempted to change their way of life in such corrosive ways that anyone or anything that tried to intervene was seen as a threat. It wasn’t that Noah’s family was being malicious. But instead of trying to understand Eleanor and Noah, they saw an intractable problem and they ended up trying to separate a mother from her child.

“We put red big tags on [hoarders’] doors and we threaten them,” Jennifer said, exasperated. “We make fun of them and say they’re weird, lazy, dirty, and sad … This only perpetuates the issue and plunges them into an even deeper state of fear and shame—so much so that many of the few who do see therapists for other reasons are too afraid to even tell them about the hoarding.”

Therapy for hoarding disorder is a complicated resource, because while it’s often sorely needed, it’s inaccessible and rarely sought out. People with hoarding disorder often only feel comfortable reaching out for help once they are in a “better place.” It’s only then that they can reach out because, as Jennifer noted, “they aren’t comfortable with accepting help until they feel safe and not threatened.” In a vicious cycle, people often need the confidence that therapy provides in order to get better. But they often don’t even have the confidence to start therapy, much less sustain it. So they end up trapped, lacking not only the confidence they need to get better, but also the confidence they need to start trying.

Jennifer has seen this sort of trapped feeling more than a few times. “When I met Jim,” she told me, “he immediately began to tell me, ‘I don’t know how I let it get this bad … I’ve tried so many times to clean it up, but I can’t make any progress … I was going to see a therapist, but I stopped going … And I could never even tell her about the inside of my house.” At this point in their interaction, Jennifer was still standing outside of his porch. Jim was kind and apologetic, and it was obvious that he really didn’t want Jennifer to go beyond the door, which displayed a sign that read, “Danger: It is a crime to occupy this building or remove this sign.”

Finally, Jennifer gently told Jim that she had to go inside. “I go in, and it’s everything that you and I have, just a lot more of it.” But when she entered the bathroom, she saw several Ocean Spray cranberry juice bottles filled with yellow liquid and buckets filled with bulging, tied-up bags. The plumbing was broken. “Some people see this, and they think it’s dirty and disgusting, but it’s resourceful,” Jennifer told me. She went back out on the porch and sat with Jim as he cried. She told him, “It’s okay, we can clean this up. I do this every day. You’re not alone, and don’t feel bad.”

“The way that I see it,” Jennifer said, “we can either choose to judge Jim or we can choose compassion.” She emphasized that although hoarding disorder is a complicated mental illness, being a Clutter Trucker employee requires neither a psychology degree nor impressive cleaning skills. “There is no specific training. You just have to have compassion, and I really do believe that most people are compassionate by nature. I think that it’s just about allowing that to shine through. That’s really all it is. It’s about being human and allowing yourself to care for someone without judging them. It really shouldn’t be hard.”

When Noah was about 13, he became aware of the world outside of his home and realized how different those two worlds were. The world beyond the safe bubble of their home was, to Noah and his mother, an unfamiliar place teeming with unknown variables. Even when Noah went to school, he followed strict guidelines set by his mother. He carried a baggie with wet wipes, using each one in a very specific order. At lunch, he had to be careful not to touch anything besides his food. “People noticed, and they remarked,” Noah said. “But it’s not like I remained oblivious to how everyone else acted. I saw what other people were doing, and I knew that my mother and I strayed from much of what they did, but the idea was, ‘We’re different and it’s us against them.’” He paused for a second and tried to find the words to describe their relationship. “We were so intertwined and had become so profoundly enmeshed that, for a long time, it was really hard for me to tell the difference between us … There was no real divide between our personal or emotional space.” 

Noah had been his mother’s emotional rock from a very young age. She would tell him everything. Unlike most six-year-olds, Noah had to stay strong for and support his mother, not the other way around. In a reversal to the airline refrain, “Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others with theirs,” Noah had grown accustomed to taking care of his mother, in order for her to take care of him.

Things began to change as Noah approached his teenage years, and began to want more independence. “I was trying to see the world through my own eyes,” Noah said. “But my mother had created this very rigid, domineering, protective bubble around herself and had extended it to me.” As conflict emerged between him and his mother, so did a sense of intense internal conflict. Noah began to feel that he was betraying his mother and developed a deep self-hatred for failing to be there for her fully.

When tension between what Noah wanted for himself and what he had to do for his mother escalated, he began to push back on her attempts to keep them together all the time. Sometimes the guilt of that small defiance would force him to recite a kind of mantra. In his head and aloud, he would compulsively repeat, I am nothing; my mother is everything. I have failed you.

As Noah tried to juggle being a teenager and his mother’s mental health, he was also dealing with his own set of mental health issues. Noah’s anxiety and panic disorder heightened towards the end of sixth grade, leaving him unable to finish the school year. The next fall, Noah found that he could usually only manage to go to school for three days each week. Later on, there was a 10-month period during which Noah couldn’t bring himself to leave his house. It was only out of desperation that he finally asked his extended family for help and left home to enter a residential treatment program for eight months.

After leaving treatment, Noah went to boarding school. “I remember thinking to myself, I’m going to separate myself completely from my past persona. I’m going to be this new person that I know I can be, that I like—none of the mental health issues and none of the baggage from home,” Noah said. “And you see, when someone asks a question, like, ‘Where are you from? What’s your family like? What’s your history?’ You can only answer so much. So when you’re talking to someone, you create a history for yourself.” Noah created histories for himself that were very much distanced from what he grew up with. “But there were points when there was just so much cognitive dissonance that it would come firing back, and suddenly, I felt very much in this old reality.” 

As Noah has grown, he has learned to embrace a fuller and more honest sense of his experiences and history. For the last couple of years, Noah has been doing a thought experiment: “I go back and revisit all past iterations of self—my child, adolescent, and teenage selves—and I embrace all of those people because they are ultimately just one person,” he said with a smile. “These are all continuous parts of who I am. It took me a long time to realize that I can be who I am now with all the things that have come before.”

Noah’s mother is also doing much better now. Noah speculates that his presence catalyzed her recovery. “I demanded a certain way of life and started to clean more, which became a sort of exposure therapy … It’s painful, especially at first, but over an extended period of time, it’s possible… to become somewhat desensitized. It was a compromise that grew over several years, where she gradually let some of the hoarding behaviors go.”

Regardless of her mental health condition, Noah’s mother is always frank and apologetic about everything that has happened. “She’s fundamentally a very good and lovely person,” Noah said. “My mother knows the ways in which it hurt me and feels badly in almost every respect.”

“I think that just doing away completely with the label ‘hoarder’ would be a good direction to head in,” Noah said. It’s true that the label clumps dissimilar people under an overarching umbrella term in spite of the fact that different hoarding tendencies stem from different origins. “For my mother, instead of describing her as a ‘hoarder’ or ‘someone who suffers from hoarding disorder,’ I would prefer to say that she had a terror of the world and people around her. This fear presented itself in severely obsessive, compulsive thinking which manifested itself in how she built and managed her home environment … It’s a little longer, but it’s more holistic.”

Clearly, Noah has been able to do exactly what Jennifer exhorts us all to do: “Look beyond the clutter,” she told me. “They are people … I can’t stress this enough.” Whenever she first meets up with clients in their home, she focuses on the person, “on who they are, what they’ve done, what their passions are, what they want to accomplish … Are they grandparents? Do they have kids? Do they like to go out? What do they like to do?” Jennifer glowed as she told me, “I can’t tell you how creative, intelligent, resourceful, funny, successful, and kind my clients are.” She paused for a second, frowning slightly. “But nobody will tell you that. They’ll say, ‘My neighbor is so crazy; they have a yard full of stuff.’ And it’s frustrating because if they would just take the time to get to know them and understand the illness, then they could begin to see them as whole people.”

Noah, too, acknowledges that it’s much easier to say, “Oh, they’re just a hoarder,” rather than going through their whole life story. “But I think there’s an expectation incumbent on everyone, that they should recognize that there are many parts of the story. Many times, they really shouldn’t try to form any immediate conclusions, even if that means leaving a person unlabeled and uncategorized.”

It has been eight months since Laura and Tim have had sex, and both of their children hate them, but no one is very surprised by either of these facts. Both Laura and Tim are not supposed to be on this earth. They are not the fittest, and therefore they should not have survived. Societies have rules, rules to which this couple fails to oblige. Laura drinks her milk with ice and Tim eats his Kit Kats whole; Laura pours the milk before the cereal and Tim lets his soak for too long. She dips her Oreos in water and he drinks orange juice after brushing his teeth. Tim is a businessman who only shakes with his left hand; Laura is an interior designer who leaves her Christmas decorations hanging year-round. Laura and Tim kiss their family on the mouth—that is gross. Laura wears blue eyeshadow. Tim wears white after Labor Day. Tim never removes his sunglasses, a $5 pair of black aviators with a purple trim. Laura has the same glasses. She only wears hers on Thursdays.

They lead a life of blasphemy and it has put their children to shame. Little Tim and Tiny Laura are sent to school with wet cereal and watery milk and for this they are shunned. The children at school do not come close, for their parents have warned them that Little Tim and Tiny Laura come from a home that one cannot trust. Little Tim and Tiny Laura have explained to their parents that they must cease their sacrilegious behaviour, that the way they act is cruel. Little Tim and Tiny Laura want to live mundane lives. Days spent at the park and on the swing. They want slushies and ice cream on sticks. They want ham sandwiches and PB&Js; they want crayons and finger paints. They want to be invited to play. Little Tim and Tiny Laura are upset, so they send their progenitors to Away. Laura and Tim are now at Away, and in this place called Away, they are climbing on rocks.

“Reach!” Tim yells, plunging his pudgy finger into the sky.

“I’m trying, you stupid turd!” Laura yells down, fire raging in her eyes behind the tint of her shades—it was a Thursday.

 Laura likes calling Tim a stupid turd; she thinks it is an astonishingly accurate description. Tim does not like it when Laura calls him a stupid turd because he agrees that this is an astonishingly accurate description, and Tim does not like to think about his stupidity or his turd-like qualities.

 Laura’s body quivers as she clings to the crumbly rocks. Hot from the sun, her hands are clammy and wet. She struggles to find a grip. When she looks up, she sees a cockatoo fly across the sky. She drops her head and whispers to herself, “Bird.” Laura brings a hand to her face and feels a cloth on her eyes. Where did this blindfold come from, she thinks. I swear it was not there before, she thinks. She whispers to herself again, “Laura is confused.”

Tim, who is also confused, looks to his left and to his right and he sees that there are other couples around him. They are confused. Everyone is confused. A squat woman belays a lanky man. This man’s name is Steve: Tim knows this because the woman is screaming on repeat, “S-s-s-steve! D-d-d-don’t f-f-f-all!” When Tim looks at Steve he notices his arms. Tim thinks they look like wet noodles and soon he is sure: this man, his arms are not arms at all but noodles, moist noodles. Then there is Savanna, whose name Tim simply knows. Tim is creepy like this. Savanna is on the ground. The soil beneath her has turned to soap. How odd. Then there is Sasha, who is with Savanna. Sasha yells, “Anything but soap!” 

A voice booms from behind the group, its depth echoing off the cliffs around them.

“Couples! Please. Be calm. Please. Communication is key. As you guide your loved one across the rocky territory, use motivational speech. We are trying to work together.”

 Focus Tim, focus. He tears his eyes from the soapy earth and looks back at the wall of rock, then up at his wife. “Climb!” Tim yells with such force that his face turns red. Tim is unattractive when he does this—he is always unattractive, even when he does not do this.

 “I’m trying!” Laura replies. Saliva launches from her mouth as she spits the words toward the ground. Laura looks like a duck, but when she spits like this, she looks more like a cow. Laura is more attractive than Tim, but Tim is very ugly. Laura can sometimes be pretty. Today she is not pretty.

The instructor, a tall man with large muscles, approaches Tim. Tim is a small man with small muscles covered in layers of fat. Tim is fat not because he eats Kit Kats but because he eats them whole—he deserves this misfortune. The instructor turns to Tim and begins to speak, but then decides otherwise. Shivers run down his spine and he steps back from Tim. Tim is not safe to be around, he thinks. He has an inkling, an inkling that tells him that Tim is a businessman who only shakes with his left hand. That is wrong, he thinks. This is a dangerous man, he thinks. He shudders and retreats.

 Laura is frozen on the rocks, her body tense. She screams. Tim remains unphased.

Tim looks down at his shoes. His childhood flashes before his eyes—he watches himself eating soggy cereal, buying his first pair of glasses, kissing his mother and father on the lips. He returns his attention to Laura on the rocks.

 “Laura!” he yells.

 “Tim!” she yells.

 They are good at names.

 “Move your body up!” he yells.

 “Up, where?” she yells.

 They are good at yelling.

Tim looks at his hands and sees that they are empty. But he was belaying Laura, he thinks to himself. Laura’s rope dangles down the rock’s face. It goes nowhere, and is held by no one. It is a magic rope. Laura does not know about her rope. Laura is instead thinking about her feet. Laura’s feet are bare and the rock’s surface gouges her skin, cutting deep into her flesh. This hurts Laura. Tim knows this hurts Laura.

Tim is still confused. He does not know what to do or what to say or how to say it. “Just up!” he squawks, a twitch in his voice. Tim yodels insecurely. Tim does this when he feels insecure. Tim is a stupid turd.

 “Why, why do I have to go up?” Laura’s question is caught in the wind and Tim does not hear her.

Tim is not paying attention. Tim is trying to remember how he got to where he is. How did I get here, he thinks. Where is here, he thinks. “Tim is confused,” he whispers as his eyes dart across the landscape.

Laura tears the blindfold from her face and in rage, she throws it into the air. The cloth erupts in flames. It evaporates, leaving smoke in its wake.

Laura broke the rules of the game. She cannot take the blindfold off once it is put on. Laura does not know this. This is not good news. This is in fact bad news. Tim and Laura do not know that they are in a game. But it is true that their life is just a game. And you see, when you break the rules of the game, you lose the game, and when you lose the game, you die.

You do not want to be sent to Away.

The rock Laura was holding onto turns into a snake, and she briefly reflects on the cliche qualities of the moment before letting go of the surface. She begins to fall, then tumbles in the air. When she hits the ground, she plunges into the earth and disappears. Tim is standing next to the wall of rock until Tim, too, is sucked into the ground below his feet. He disappears.

Tim and Laura descend into a darkness. They hurtle through the air for eternity, a limbo they must endure. 

It is a sunny day, and Little Tim and Tiny Laura are at the park. Their legs dangle above the ground as they sit on the swings, holding ice cream on a stick and PB&J. They look at the playground—the seesaws and the slide. Across the field there is a game of soccer, and by the hopscotch, other kindergarten kids are waving at them to come play. Little Tim and Tiny Laura take a bite of their PB&Js. They turn to each other, feeling the weight of their sandwiches in their right hands and their ice creams in their left. They look at each other and slowly, they smile. 

Yes, think Little Tim and Tiny Laura. The progenitors deserve this misfortune. Yes, think Little Tim and Tiny Laura. These people are a disease in our communities. Yes, think Little Tim and Tiny Laura. They will suffer for their social violations. They will pay for their offenses in this world. Yes, think Little Tim and Tiny Laura. They have died. Yes, think Little Tim and Tiny Laura. They are dead.

"Do you know why this is called La Casa Azul?” My classmate Nate and I shared a hesitant look.  “Well, aren’t all the walls blue?” I asked in reply.

Oliver Fröhling laughed. He knew that we were used to overanalyzing questions that professors asked, so he always had fun messing around with us. 

“Yeah!” he responded, grinning and moving right on to another joke. “We Germans have a special sense of humor. You do know how many Germans it takes to change a light bulb, right?” Nate and I looked at each other again, perplexed. “One!” he said, “we’re all really efficient and have no sense of humor!”

 We worked with Oliver over the next two weeks, and the jokes never stopped. Nate and I were in Oaxaca, Mexico for the field component of a class called “Development and Grassroots Resistance in Latin America.” Oliver looked like a hipster Indiana Jones in his weathered leather jacket, T-shirt with the logo of his organization, and felt fedora. After spending just a couple hours with Oliver, we realized that behind his lighthearted charm was an acute understanding of modern Mexican politics. He walked us through the crowded streets of Oaxaca, past markets selling huitlacoches, tortillas moradas, sopes, chapulines, and Oaxacan moles, and into the office of Servicios Universitarios y Redes de Conocimiento en Oaxaca (roughly translated as University Student Services and Meeting Networks in Oaxaca), also known as SURCO. 

SURCO is Oliver’s brainchild. He founded the organization after writing his PhD on indigenous political movements in southern Mexico. The small organization, which he runs with just a few other people, serves to educate and facilitate communication between different social movements in Mexico. SURCO provides information to both nongovernmental organizations and to municipios, local administrative entities in Mexico. In Oaxaca, the vast majority of municipios are run by indigenous people with their own governmental structures. SURCO’s research has created significant awareness around social issues and helped numerous up-and-coming movements overcome barriers to education, information, and infrastructure.

After the debt crisis in Mexico in the ‘80s, new neoliberal policies resulted in the removal of social services formerly provided by the state. Organizations like SURCO stepped in to provide assistance (and even education) in the state’s absence. While some organizations see the end goal as the filling the need created by the lack of a Mexican social safety net, Oliver says that the real goal is to topple capitalism, which, he thinks, is the power structure that created the lack of services in the first place.

One of SURCO’s ongoing projects works to preserve the indigenous Zapotec language. To encourage Zapotec speakers to engage with the language in a modern way, SURCO is developing open-source software in Zapotec. This would enable indigenous communities to use Geographical Information System (GIS) software, allowing them to impose demographic, resource, and cultural information onto maps. GIS can be used to prevent and monitor the spread of diseases, analyze the risk of an oncoming natural disaster, and help address the endless list of other problems. SURCO wants to use the software to aid indigenous groups in maintaining sovereignty over their lands.

Mapping software in Latin America has historically been used in ways that curtail political liberty and reinforce existing power structures. The first significant use of GIS mapping in Latin America was during the drug war in Colombia. According to Geoffrey Demorest, the U.S. military researcher in charge of this project, GIS was used “in both counter-narcotic [efforts] as well as the suppression of lawlessness.” He called the tool “an indispensible starting point” for the state as a tool of power, and this pattern of GIS usage has continued ever since. 

In 2006, geographers from the University of Kansas went to Oaxaca and completed a mapping project financed by the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO). This was part of a larger effort to predict areas of potential unrest and perceived drug flow in southern Mexico. The mapped areas were home to social movements that the state saw as hostile. Oliver pointed out that the FMSO-funded expeditions were met with immense criticism from indigenous communities. These communities argued that the expeditions were potential threats to their liberty and sovereignty, due to the involvement of the U.S. military and the historically antagonistic relationship between the Zapotec people and the Mexican state. “Mapping has always been very close to [the] state and military, and basically just reflects state and power relations,” Oliver told me.

Military involvement was bad enough, but the issue has gotten more muddled as the private use of GIS has increased. (Think of Google Earth, for instance.) The private sector places yet another variable into the equation, one which makes the cultivation of data even more potentially detrimental to liberty. Mining companies, for example, will often use different geographical information systems in order locate the resources found within land granted to them by the federal government. Because around 80 percent of land in Oaxaca is held communally, government land grants tend to foment unrest. SURCO has been using another form of open-source GIS called Quantum GIS (QGIS) to inform communities how much of their communal land will be surveyed or potentially taken from them and offered to private companies. These are mostly Canadian-based mining companies that practice open-pit mining, a particularly destructive form of mineral extraction.

Aside from the outright infringement of destructive mining on indigenous lands, the use of GIS by private companies also creates what Oliver calls an “increased surveillance mechanism.” He explained, “If you’re growing organic coffee or you’re part of these kind of environmental carbon trading programs, then your land will be placed in these GIS programs in order to surveil or estimate the amount of carbon that is captured.” It is this combination of government surveillance and private investment that raises problems within communities. Open-source software allows SURCO and those who use it to analyze and manage their own resources, thus subverting the existing power structures—which, after all, was Oliver’s original goal. 

If the main point is basically “who gets to do the analysis and who gets to generate the data,” as Oliver put it, then QGIS is important because it allows anyone with a computer and an internet connection to democratize and improve data. “The reason why we use open-source is because it is free,” Oliver said. “But we also very much support [a] philosophy of [the] open-source movement because knowledge is not something that should be proprietary. It should be something that is created collectively; it should [be] out there in order to be improved.” Democratized data has given these marginalized communities a way to fight back.

Empowered by SURCO’s assistance, various Oaxacan communities are now using geographical mapping systems for resource management. In Capulalpam de Méndez, a forest community, people have warmly embraced QGIS and open-source technology, and other Oaxacan communities are now following suit. In fact, Oliver said that “forestry communities are using it [not only] for resource management [but also] to create community-protected areas.” QGIS has even been used to map out the effects of a hydroelectric dam and see what areas are now susceptible to flooding. These projects are what Oliver calls “capacity building,” meaning that they help develop a community’s capacity to resist exploitation, by giving them technologies that they need to generate and analyze their own data.

Here, Oliver claims that one way in which modern government exercises power is through big data and “dataism,” which is the idea that data is supremely valuable. Oliver takes his concept of big data from the prominent Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, one of the first to express concerns about the rise of dataism. Han writes, “Every click we make is registered, each word we introduce into search engines … Our digital footprint reveals an incredibly exact representation of our self, of our soul, perhaps even more precise or complete than the image we make of ourselves.” The internet has allowed for a complete registration of life into data. This becomes a huge problem when you factor in microtargeting, or the strategic use of data in order to manipulate potential clients (and in the case of the U.S. election, voters). Because our digital footprints are such complete and precise representations of our selves, companies are now capable of reaching, influencing, and predicting our psychological processes.

This field of study, called digital psychopolitics, poses a significant question to human liberty because it supplies governing bodies with more direct access to our “selves” than was ever previously possible. Han warns us that digital psychopolitics will usher in “the end of liberty.” 

Big data in Oaxaca, when viewed from Han’s perspective, is an attack on community liberty, privacy, and democratic procedures—and that’s before considering the potential for exploitation at the hands of private interests. “The big issue is security,” Oliver said, “but that’s not all of it. Oaxaca is … part of this extractive economy, so there are mining interests, energy interest[s], and then the whole flip side of the green economy [the forced expropriation of land so that companies can install windmills or solar panels].” Big data provides access to information that incentivizes private investment.

 Nonetheless, Oliver made it clear that “technology is certainly not always bad,” and that technology and mapping are only tools. “I like my cell phone,” he said, “but [I am] also not on the other side—that technology will free us all. It can only free us if our social and political structures are set up for technology to make us more free.” Oliver reiterates that “technologies are never neutral”—they are created for certain purposes. He also thinks they can “be appropriated by people for certain new and maybe positive ventures.”

 He added that there “are all kinds of barriers, the first one being language … you are talking about indigenous communities that might not even be that proficient in Spanish, and most of these software programs tend to work in English.” Additionally, access to decent computers and high speed internet can be quite costly. Data is not transparent—certain groups are barred from accessing and understanding it. SURCO’s aim is to provide and translate that data so that people can create a collective consciousness about projects that may be detrimental to communities. Open-source software is key to social movements because it democratizes data. Because, as Oliver notes, the questions that surround the use and cultivation of data are fundamentally questions of power.

Despite their promise to support community movements, QGIS and other forms of open-source software are only a means—a crutch for democracy—in what Oliver calls “the war.”  It’s the war against private and state use of GIS for exploitation, but it’s also a broader war against inequality. “Wealth is distributed in an uneven way so that, a lot of the time, communities have to accept projects that they don’t really want just because they don’t see any other option to survive.” He paused, gave a wry smile, and said, “So, I’m getting at this thing called capitalism.”

"Hey Callie, I’m here to talk to you about my penis.”

Out of context, this message sounds like the usual dick-centric message a woman might receive—it’s like a sales pitch, a virtual version of a solicitor at my door. Or maybe it’s a cringingly straightforward version of the classic “what r u doing 2nite” text. But thankfully, this time, no one was trying to sell me on their penis.

This message actually originated from a conversation with a female friend of mine. We’d been discussing penis appearance and circumcision when we realized that we knew very, very little about it. How common was it? Were there any proven benefits? Where does all the foreskin go? What even is a penis? In search of answers, I reached out to the Facebook community to ask for penis anecdotes and opinions surrounding circumcision. The post was basically an inverted version of that Jonah Hill scene in “Accepted” where he’s yelling “Ask me about my weiner!” I was yelling into the cybervoid for people to let me ask them about their weiners. As it turns out, people really want to talk about dicks because, believe it or not, no one ever actually asks.

Maybe you’re rolling your eyes at the suggestion that penises should be talked about more. We do seem to talk about them all the time, whether it’s a joke, a comment about the size of the president’s peen or some other masculinity-threatening insult. But the truth is, the United States has a penis problem—or rather, a penis discourse problem.

Most of us think about the penis a whole lot, whether it’s because we want dick or because we have a dick. But we don’t really think about the foreskin. That is, until we we have children ourselves. “Congratulations on your new baby! Now do you want to cut off its dick skin or not?”

There is a war being waged over the foreskin—the war on circumcision, as some see it. Circumcision has been an unquestioned norm in the United States for a long time. Only in the past couple decades have people started resisting the practice. Anti-circ and pro-circ folks are, shall we say, going head-to-head over circumcision: its benefits, frequency, ethicality and so on. People have a lot of cock-eyed opinions, and the debate is surprisingly complex. Thinking about circumcision as a decision of whether to snip is just the tip ... of the iceberg.

Those opposed to circumcision deem it an act of violence. Circumcision of infants, they argue, is nonconsensual and cruel, as many infants are not given an anaesthetic for the operation. The leading group against circumcision, Intact America, considers circumcision akin to female genital mutilation. Groups like Intact America, which describe themselves in their mission statement as “passionate, professional, principled, and uncompromising,” hold the opinion that circumcision is an unnecessary and invasive surgery. They go as far as to support an all-out ban on circumcision. 

Reading Intact America’s website, I realized I didn’t actually know exactly what happens during a circumcision. In order to fully understand, I spent an hour watching different instructional videos on how to circumcise both adult and infantile penises. My personal favorite circumcision video was the one featuring “Blue Danube” by Richard Strauss. (Every good circumcision is accompanied by a full orchestra.) 

Now that I’m basically an expert, I can clear up some medical and anatomical confusion. A circumcision happens like this: first, you cut open the foreskin on the upper side of the penis with scissors, then slit the underside, peel it like a banana, and cut it off. Often, metal instruments are used to hold the foreskin open in order to ease the cutting process. The procedure sounds incredibly painful, though I can’t imagine a surgery that would sound pleasant when described in graphic detail. 

The World Health Organization estimates that about 30 percent of the world’s penis-owning population is circumcised. Most of this population is comprised of Muslim penis owners living in Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East—circumcision, or khitan in Arabic, is mentioned in the hadith and the sunnah. Circumcision is also mandated by most Jewish communities, a tradition which stems from a passage in Genesis 17. God tells Abraham, “This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised.” God then goes on to explain that if Abraham doesn’t keep his people circumcised, their souls will be compromised and cut off from God. From what I gathered, this is where religiously-motivated circumcision began. But, in the New Testament, Paul basically argues that because Jesus was circumcised, no one else has to be. Jesus’ foreskin died for our sins, so circumcision fell out of Christian tradition.

In other predominately Christian countries, like France and England, non-religious circumcision will soon have disappeared. But circumcision rates in the United States are still high (around 80 percent of men aged 14 to 59 are circumcised) despite the fact that the majority of the United States is Christian. So how did we come to live in a foreskin-less nation?

There’s no one clear answer. It seems, however, that if God wasn’t the one telling you to circumcise your child, it was your box of cornflakes. Cereal namesake John Harvey Kellogg popularized the belief that circumcision was an effective method of stopping masturbation and keeping a person clean and chaste. That anti-masturbation, pro-hygiene argument became especially popular after the First World War, when the military was forced to discharge more than ten thousand men due to STDs. The proposed solution? Circumcision. 

Starting in the Second World War, soldiers were required to be circumcised before being deployed (this is all, of course, based on very little scientific evidence suggesting it would help prevent STDs). This meant a lot of grown-ass men were circumcised (without anesthetic) and were told that it was for their health. So later on, when given the decision to circumcise their own children, many couples decided it was better to do it early, when the memory wouldn’t be so painful (medical opinion at the time held that babies didn’t feel pain). During the postwar baby boom when hospital-births were the new standard, circumcision became the doctor-recommended option for parents. A slew of medical reports by Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose book “Baby and Child Care” remains one of the best-selling books of all time, claimed that circumcision was cleaner and safer for the child. (Spock, as it happens, rescinded these statements near the end of his life.) By the 1960s, nearly 90 percent of babies were circumcised. Couples in the 1960s saw their friends throwing their children off the proverbial dick-snipping bridge, and they decided to follow suit.

By the ‘60s, the argument for circumcision seemed to be that circumcision was cleaner, safer, and prettier than the alternative. The hygiene argument for circumcision has never really made sense to me. I understand it’s another part of your body you have to clean, but to recommend cutting it off so you don’t have to clean it? That’s kind of like saying you should cut off your hands since, if you don’t have hands, you don’t need to wash them after you go to the bathroom. 

The arguments of safety and STD transmission are contentious ones; look it up and you’ll find a hundred studies that say circumcision prevents STDs and another hundred that say it doesn’t. Neither argument has been proven. And the argument that circumcision makes penises more attractive is just a positive feedback loop of negative thought to justify a popular practice against its challengers. Apparently, if all scientific justification for something fails, the public resorts to “it just looks better that way.”

The online discussion about circumcision makes the isssue seem very black and white, so I wanted to know if people actually think about their penises the way the internet makes it seem they do. It was awesome to see the number of people willing to talk to me openly about their penises. People I hadn’t spoken to in years reached out—from old camp counselors to boys from my middle school. My friends from Colorado College messaged me; even my uncle sent me his opinions. I actually got catfished by a pretend med school student using a picture of Chelsea soccer player Eden Hazard to slide me fake medical advice about circumcision, which was cool in an inconvenient way. 

Most of the responses came from circumcised people, which is unsurprising given the high rate of circumcision in the United States. All of the responses I got were from penis-owning people who identified as men. In general, most were pretty nonchalant about circumcision—definitely not as heated as those vocal on the internet.

Some of them hadn’t thought about it at all before, while others had several paragraphs of thoughts on the matter. Their opinions on the debate ended up boiling down to a few main contentions also made by circumcision scholars: religion, consent, cleanliness, pleasure, and appearance. (I granted all interviewees anonymity in the interest of getting frank, honest answers. Completely randomly generated names are used in lieu of given names.)

The question of consent and circumcision is at the heart of the debate. A lot of the responses I received were from Jewish men who had no issue with their parents making the decision to circumcise them. On the other hand, non-Jewish Richard (uncircumcised), found it an “imposition of religion.” He said it was a “consent violation if the person is too young to make an informed decision for themselves … and frankly abusive.” One of the few women who reached out for an interview said it was “pretty barbaric … it should be a choice that a penis owner makes when they’re old enough to do so, rather than a choice that’s made for them when they’re babies.” 

But others argued that as kids we had to do a whole bunch of shit we didn’t want to anyway. One guy called the consent argument “complete bullshit. I didn’t consent to if I could or could not go to preschool, eat veggies, grow up in USA, etc. The list is endless.” He reasoned that “it’s not like children can consent to orthodontic surgery (which is often cosmetic).” Those making the violation-of-consent argument were typically uncircumcised people, while circumcised folk tended to have a more relaxed attitude about it. Both sides make good points: I didn’t consent to my parents giving me horrible haircuts as a child, true, but my hair grew out, whereas growing foreskin back is much harder. But also, if a parent is following what their religion has dictated for years, what’s common with other new parents, or what they’re told is best for their child, then I’m not quite sure it’s abusive, either. Additionally, banning circumcision (like Intact America suggests) means preventing Jewish and Muslim practices and could lead to amateur circumcisions performed out of adherence to religion, which carry serious medical risks.

Pleasure is the one thing I found circumcised guys get bummed out about, as there are a good deal of rumors that having that ultrasensitive foreskin makes for better sex. The public seems to have  accepted this as fact, although there isn’t much actual scientific evidence because sexual pleasure is hard to quantify. As circumcised Paul put it, “I want a penis that is as sensitive as can be, because … sex is nice.” A lot of guys I talked to who had been circumcised for non-religious reasons found it pretty illogical—they said they definitely wouldn’t have been circumcised if they had been given the choice.

On the other hand, there’s the cleanliness argument. One girl I interviewed felt better knowing that guys she was hooking up with were circumcised because she found it cleaner. Several fraternity brothers made it clear to me that they thought uncircumcised penises were gross, but quickly backtracked to make it clear that they had never thought about any penises, ever. The cleanliness argument has spurred some pretty demoralizing conceptions of uncircumcised penises as “gross” or “dirty.” A friend of mine told me she had considered uncircumcised penises ugly and dirty before she saw one and realized they were just regular old penises with more skin. That experience wasn’t unique to her, either. Colorado College junior Richard II told me a story about his friend whose girlfriend wouldn’t go down on him specifically because he was uncircumcised, and several guys I attempted to interview for this article actually told me they thought uncircumcised penises were “disgusting.” It turns out that a lot of people get squeamish about the uncircumcised penis. 

There’s a lot of danger in the “ew” argument. Penises have become a sort of bodily indicator of power in addition to sexuality. Maybe the rhetoric surrounding penises is negative because they’re sometimes associated with male domination and toxic masculinity. With the recent increase in body positivity surrounding vaginas and their beauty, I’ve found that no one really ever calls penises beautiful or strong or anything like that. And I’m not hopping on some men’s rights bullshit train, but I do wonder how penis owners feel about having the general narrative remain, “All penises are gross, and some are even grosser, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” 

I tried asking people I interviewed about penile body positivity. Some, like John and Peter, felt that this lack of conversation about the penis and the body was detrimental. According to uncircumcised John, the inclusion of penises in discussions of body positivity could “delegitimize the stigma and shame of differently shaped and sized penises” and “get men talking about their feelings around their bodies in general.” This body talk is important, too, because almost every guy I interviewed pointed out how they almost never see other people’s dicks. Most guys noted that they only see other penises in porn, and that, as a result, porn is what shaped their idea of how the “correct” penis looks and acts. On the other hand, Richard II pointed out that because of the penis’ association with sexuality and male power, any body positivity movement around the penis would end up feeling like a movement for male power.

We see how body shaming and lack of representation of bodies affects people all the time, but we seem to ignore the penis in a very counterintuitive way. We don’t talk about penis appearance because we don’t think that cisgender men belong to a faction of people that needs more attention or support. But this leads to internalized insecurities that can very quickly turn into aggression. If someone is ashamed of their penis, they might associate sex with embarrassment, and a supposed indicator of “power” might come to indicate their inadequacy. It’s easy to see, then, how guys can end up combating feelings of powerlessness with violence. The circumcision debate thus only exacerbates this issue—an incredibly vulnerable part of someone’s body is considered unattractive because of circumstances (and circumcisions) completely outside of their control.

ggressively masculinizing the penis through our rhetoric has implications other than cis male shame, though. It further ostracizes trans women and perpetuates the dangerous idea that trans women are still male. We paint the penis as this solely sexual, male body part and it seems as if the only place we’re talking about the penis outside of sexuality is in the circumcision of infants, where it suddenly seems like the penis belongs to the argument and not the owner. The only arena where the penis is desexualized is one where it’s denigrated. To me, we seem to be focusing on the penis in all the wrong ways, and our rhetoric is creating a culture that kills people. Toxic masculinity thrives in a phallocentric society. Insulting the penis in any way (even by proxy, as in rejection of sexual advancement) becomes a dangerous action for all women but especially for trans women, whose penises are used as proof of their “fake” womanhood. This myth of the penis as inherently and aggressively male contributes to the transphobia of men who have killed at least six trans women in 2018 as of February 23, 2018 in the United States alone. 

So where do we go from here? One possible solution would be to start viewing and thinking of penises in a non-sexual way. Our country is weird as hell about nudity no matter how you cut it, but penises are often shut out of the whole “nudity isn’t inherently sexual” narrative. Of course, there are reasons for this—say, indecent exposure, which is something that crosses the line over body positivity into harassment. Though we maybe shouldn’t advocate for a universal “free the penis” movement, we should definitely rethink the strange place we’ve put the penis in our thoughts about the body.

In terms of being pro- or anti-circumcision, I am very much on the dick fence, but that’s not what matters. What matters is that when we take as rigid a stance on the circumcision debate as people tend to, we shame one kind of penis or another. Calling uncircumcised penises dirty and unsafe isn’t exactly uplifting, and calling circumcised penises mutilated (as groups like Intact America do) doesn’t do wonders for self-esteem either. Surely, there’s a way to have this discussion that doesn’t denigrate all penises and perpetuate a culture of body shame around a vulnerable body part. 

Peter seemed to nail this topic on the head (the metaphorical one, not the penis one, because ouch): “Masculinity standards are not talked about enough. Penises are a large part of being masculine and being comfortable in your own skin. Guys grow up watching porn and there are discrepancies of expectation and reality. I think that being able to love what you have, and understanding that what you see in the fiction world of porn can create a feeling of inadequacy. I think that this feeling leads to anger that targets women and other guys. So creating a culture of penis positivity is important.” 

We are so obsessed with the penis as an emblem of male sexuality that we don’t even know where would we be if we could break down these notions about the penis. The entire conversation just clearly indicates how strangely our culture thinks about bodies and sex and how they relate. It’s completely nonsensical to think the uncircumcised penis looks weird. If we think that, it’s because we were taught to. 

So, America, it’s time to quit dicking around about the dick. 

These days, it seems acceptable to call anyone a fascist. Recently, for example, feminist scholars Mary Beard and Christina Hoff Sommers have both been labelled fascists by a number of American student groups, as reported in The New York Times. Both of them have no affiliation to fascism, yet the label seems to be sticking.

One would imagine that the legacy of fascism would have do with the millions of individuals whom it has persecuted, maimed, and killed. After all, that kind of knowledge is available in most textbooks on 20th century history—textbooks in which students learn about the atrocities committed by the Italians and the Germans and, ideally, form their own judgements as to how it happened and what must be done to prevent it from happening in the future. For many, facing the history of fascism forces us to confront the unsettling fact that the ability to do evil seems to exist in most, if not all, humans.

For the most part, students learn in these textbooks that fascism is now a thing of the past. They’re taught that this specific political philosophy must include the following elements: a totalitarian form of government, a glorification of the “citizen soldier,” an othering of a targeted group, a paramilitary and expansionist component, and a strong father-like leader in charge. (This definition of fascism comes in part from Alfred Stepan’s book, “The State and Society.” Stepan’s definition, unlike the short blurbs in dictionaries, begins to express the complexity of fascism.) But we don’t usually use the word “fascism” to refer to what I’ve just described. Instead, we often use it as an insult directed at American conservatives or leftists curtailing hate speech. The word is powerfully charged, so problems arise when we use it as a vague insult.

Based on the requirements I’ve just provided, one would have to look long and hard to find living individuals who directly supported a fascist government. They would have to be at least 80, if not 90, years old. Still, given the above definition, calling neo-Nazis fascists wouldn’t be so inaccurate as to raise a serious problem (though if we were splitting hairs, we would also differentiate between them and historical fascists).

While contemporary “pseudo-fascists” believe in many of the racist, homophobic, and sexist ideas that historical fascists held, most of them cannot truly be called fascists, since they believe in a limited, certainly not totalitarian form of government. An authoritarian form of government tends to be content as long as its citizens refrain from particular actions (like having a satellite dish), while a totalitarian state is hell-bent on impacting every aspect of their citizens lives. Take, for example, 20th-century China under Chairman Mao versus contemporary China under Xi Jinping. Though this is reductive, it’s fair to say that whereas Mao’s government was involved in every aspect of every citizen’s life (and killed tens of millions of people), Xi’s government wants to keep people in line and control their use of the internet.

But our use of the word “fascist” has spread far beyond applying it to neo-Nazis and illiberal nations. Our biggest problem is not that we use “fascist” to describe people who share a similarly oppressive but less radical ideology, but that we call people fascists simply because we disagree with them on political issues. 

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, espouses views that are certainly conservative and debatably offensive. Perhaps for this reason, he is routinely characterized as a fascist. But Peterson’s political philosophy is a version of classical British liberalism, not fascism. Dr. Peterson has spent several decades studying the effects of totalitarianism, and has been trying to help young men (his typical audience, and, he says, the cohort most likely to be radicalized) transition away from such extremist views.” George Orwell remarked in his essay “Politics and the English Language”  that “the word ‘fascism’ has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’” Orwell wrote this in 1946.

It is intellectually lazy to use the term “fascist” to characterize an individual that one disagrees with. Recall the last election cycle, when some were quite quick to characterize Trump as a fascist. While he did hold views reminiscent of the historical fascists, his thoughts were (and are) not organized into any sort of meaningful ideology or worldview. By calling Trump a fascist, people are writing him off, such that they don’t have to further engage with his ideas. And this attitude extends beyond Trump: since any so-called fascist is obviously a terrible person incapable of meaningful dialogue, calling someone a fascist seems to imply that one need not take the alleged fascist’s ideas seriously. Given the murderous history of real fascism, this must not be our attitude.

Ironically, our tendency to use the term “fascist” as a broad, pejorative term is exactly the kind of thing that historical fascists did. They used simple, evocative words to construct stereotypes and incite violence. The tendency to use a provocative insult to avoid substantive debate becomes especially pernicious when it’s used to justify actual violence. Neo-fascists often use provocative language to incite violence, but this is exactly what we’d expect from them. What’s less expected (and more ironic) is that members of Antifa, a group that brands itself as “anti-fascist,” often use the slogan “Punch a Nazi.” Exhorting people to “punch a Nazi” is, regardless of how evil a Nazi might be, the same kind of violence-based rhetoric that the historical fascists used. In trying to fight the contemporary bastardizations of fascism, advocates of violence against alleged Nazis only resuscitate its corpse.

This is not simply a matter of semantics, as Orwell reminds us in the aforementioned essay: “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.” Using the word “fascist” to characterize individuals with whom one disagrees is an impulsive action. What Orwell reminds us is that our usage of the word “fascist” creates a vicious cycle: our lazy use of language leads to laziness in thought, which then leads to greater laziness in language, and so on. Simply slapping the label “fascist” on a person will not solve unclear or shallow thinking; it will only disguise it, like a Band-Aid covering a festering wound. 

Even at Colorado College, we overuse the word “fascist” by applying it too broadly to any sort of bigot. This is not to say that we should pat racists, sexists, or homophobes on the back for exercising their free speech. We should, however, engage those people and try to understand their viewpoints. It might seem like too much of a burden to engage with people whose views are clearly outlandish and even hurtful, but on a college campus, we (or others for us) are paying to participate in an intellectually engaged community.

No one benefits from a culture of hushed whispers or brooding silence concerning an ever-increasing list of taboo topics. And if it seems like there aren’t any taboos, consider a question widely considered inappropriate like, “Why is CC committed to having international students on campus?” Is it just because we need more statistics and languages that President Tiefenthaler can mention when talking to donors? The person asking these questions might be dismissed because they don’t know the supposedly obvious reasons for including international students at CC. 

But rather than dismissing that person as ignorant, or as a fascist, we need to respond directly and substantively to this sort of question. Once we stop questioning what we take to be a basic truth, we grow complacent about it, and then we stop understanding how to defend it. And it is precisely when we cannot defend our beliefs that they are most vulnerable. When we reflexively dismiss people who question values like international diversity, we merely brush away the bigotry we perceive to be on the surface, while these beliefs remain unchanged. If we want to have any chance of affecting real change, we need to engage with all the ideas present in our community.

When I came to CC, I found an environment of engaged, motivated, and intelligent students. But even these intelligent students are too often wary to discuss uncomfortable questions. And, unfortunately, the uncomfortable issues seem to be the most important ones. Still, that shouldn’t be a reason to give up. It should make us more determined to try to change what we can.

Changing the way we engage in dialogue with each other on our campus—both in and outside of the classrooms—works to restore the primary purpose of a liberal arts education: learning how to navigate a complex and erratic world. Silence in the face of discomfort will get us nowhere, and will lead to greater resentment and hatred in our own community. 

I know that an essay like this one might anger students. But if that anger does not make us rethink our ideas, I hope it will at least push individuals out of apathy. Here on campus, we are so isolated from disagreement that we will have made progress even if we only interact with the other side of a debate in order to reaffirm our own beliefs. Exposing ourselves to others’ viewpoints and learning from that experience is a core part of a liberal arts education. We cannot embody CC’s “Mission and Vision,” “to develop those habits of intellect and imagination” if we are unwilling to interact with peers with whom we disagree. 


“Christian Evangelical people, ya know, never really interested me,” said a voice on the phone. “But,” said the voice, the Twelve Tribes members “weren’t like them. They lived together and loved God and loved one another with all their heart.”

The Twelve Tribes is an international confederation of 12 alternative Christian communities. One of their outposts is the Maté Factor Café in Manitou Springs, Colorado. It’s a cafe with a dark wood interior and murals of pastoral scenes on the walls. It’s open 24 hours every day except on the Sabbath, and nobody who works there receives a paycheck. Instead, their wages go to a collective fund supporting the entirety of the Twelve Tribes. They live and worship together in two big communal houses in Manitou Springs and love hosting visitors. I’ve heard them called many things: a cult, evangelical Dead Heads, and even “super-racist pagan witches.” Rumors abound, but it turns out they’re more than willing to tell you about their lifestyle if you just call them up and ask. 

One Sunday evening, I did just that. On the back of their pamphlet adorned with a picture of the Milky Way and the intriguing question “Do you wonder why you were created?” was the number 1-800-TWELVET. 


Andrew, the man on the other end of the line, was in upstate New York. He seemed quite surprised at my call—the 1-800 number was his cellphone—but he was happy to talk.

About 20 years ago, when he was a college student in Oneonta, New York, he went downtown to see a few Twelve Tribes members play folk music. When the performance ended, he went up to them and started a conversation. He was intrigued and, on a whim, asked if he could check out their home.

“So that was sorta crazy, and I was just like, ‘Alright!’ and just hopped in the car with them that night and took off to … I didn’t even know where I was going. It was about two hours away,” he said. “So I ended up getting there, and waking up in the morning on this beautiful farm with all these amazing people that were pretty humble, pretty down to earth—not weird and religious.”

This upstate New York settlement was (and still is) one of about 70 locations where members of the Twelve Tribes have taken root over the last half-century and run various businesses to support themselves. Founded in 1972 by a man named Elbert Eugene “Gene” Spriggs Jr. in Chattanooga, TN, the group picked up their fair share of disciples back in the day by following the Grateful Dead in what they still call a “peacemaker bus.”

“We were like paramedics and first-aid, and we just took glass out of people and made sure people didn’t kill themselves when they had too much acid,” recalls Ha Qinai, a Twelve Tribes resident in Manitou Springs. His Hebrew name, adopted when he joined the group, means “the zealot.” Wearing perfectly round wireframe glasses, he smiles and takes a sip of mate through a metal straw. “Made sure they got some mate and some good loving,” he says. He tells me that they take this approach often—following band tours, sending out pairs of missionaries, and chatting up the folks that come into the Maté Factor at 1 a.m. 

“We really believe that we want to reach people. We call them lost sheep,” says Kol Levah, a single mother who joined the Manitou Twelve Tribes just under a year ago. Her name means “whole-hearted friend.” She told me that living without a partner was very unfulfilling. Late at night, after working and putting her daughter to bed, she would come into the Maté Factor Café just to talk to someone who cared. 

And they would listen. After a while, they won her over. She now lives just up the road from the cafe in a communal home with her 4-year-old child. “You don’t realize how much you need people until you have them,” she explains.

So is it a cult? Unsurprisingly, Twelve Tribes members don’t use that term. Nobody decides to join a “cult”; they decide to join a “community.” And in the case of the Twelve Tribes, it’s a community that offers, as Andrew says, “a real hope for the restoration of humanity” through literal interpretations of scripture. The group attempts to recreate the first-century church from the Book of Acts, complete with preparing an army of 144,000 male virgins for the Second Coming of Christ (which, yes, really is in the Bible).

Plenty of outsiders express their dissatisfaction with the Twelve Tribes on the internet. A quick browse turns up posters of Gene Spriggs, who is “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” A host of alarming stories from former members and critics can be found on anti-Twelve Tribes blogs and forums. There are allegations of brainwashing, racism, child abuse, and corruption. Support organizations have been created for ex-members who have nowhere else to turn.

But members dismiss these criticisms as nonsense. “I was used to all kinds of negative things being said about every church that I went to,” says Ha Qinai. He had already embarked on his walk with Jesus (that is, a life of Christian faith) by the time he stumbled upon the Twelve Tribes. He says all the churches, gurus, and communities that he tried ended up the same: some charismatic leader who was “totally crazy, taking advantage of these people … making a lot of money.” But that didn’t happen in the Twelve Tribes. “We’re an open book,” he says. 

Ha Qinai’s account of his previous experiences is what experts on radical religious groups often see—all-powerful leaders tricking the suffering masses into drinking the Kool-Aid of their beliefs while actually funding their extravagant lifestyles. The flow of money within the group is obscured, and the leaders use isolation and absolute authority to effectively brainwash members. “Cults are usually started by very narcissistic leaders,” explains Dr. Daniel Trathen, a psychologist in Denver, Colorado who has studied cults extensively as an advisor for the New England Institute of Religious Research. “It starts out looking like it’s very orthodox, and shifts and changes with power, when the person gets power.” 

Gene Spriggs certainly is often accused of leading a cult, including rumors that he appropriates Twelve Tribes funds to live in a castle in Ireland. Kol Levah, however, tells me this isn’t true. According to her, he lives just as simply as other members and busses tables in newly established Twelve Tribes businesses. But, the group still considers Spriggs a prophet, and his teachings are a large part of daily worship.

“Lack of transparency is a real problem with money, especially with a group that takes in the levels of money that they do,” says David Clark, a cult expert who counsels those recovering from cults and contributed to the book “Recovery from Cults,” published by W.W. Norton. His stance is that once members buy into the ultimate authority of a leader such as Spriggs, outside institutions have no credibility at all in their minds, making cults a form of mind control. “It’s a human tragedy,” he says. 

Ha Qinai, on the other hand, tells me the Twelve Tribes members are constantly checking themselves and one another to make sure they practice what they preach. “We do not want,” Ha Qinai says, banging his fist on the table, “to become that which we hate—a bunch of religious people who are hypocrites. We want to be free from that kinda stuff, you know?” 

When I asked Dr. Trathen whether or not he thinks the Twelve Tribes is a cult, his answer was unequivocal—“no doubt about it.” No malicious intentions are required, just a self-isolating group that believes they possess absolute truth. They have what Clark calls a “no one else is the true church except us” mindset. Even if they are “an open book,” they are a cult by nature of their leadership and absolutist faith-based values.

“I think the biggest thing,” says Kol Levah, “is that [critics] are taking an outside perspective, and if they were able to come into our home, have conversation with us, and just see our hearts—then they would be able to dissipate that.”

She’s the only native Coloradan in the Manitou branch, and her four-year-old daughter is now homeschooled by Twelve Tribes members using their own curriculum (called “training”).

Kids growing up in the community do chores, attend community worships twice a day, and play like any other kid. They’re also, however, disciplined physically—a serious point of contention that has brought Child Protective Services to various Twelve Tribes communities throughout the years. Clark says that, from what he’s seen, the Twelve Tribes really do cross the line when it comes to the treatment of youth. “These children acted like little adults,” says Clark. “Why? Because they went through behavior modification training.” 

Clark’s view is that they homeschool children to avoid contamination by outside ideas. He explains that “critical thinking is a threat” to the Twelve Tribes. And on the subject of discipline—“they’re going to get a compliant child, and they have to use whatever physical means it takes to get to that goal.”

Ha Qinai explains their child-rearing methods with a metaphor. He tells me how everyone says their children are different, better behaved, more polite and attentive. “For us, we know—it produces good fruit. The way that our Father intended spanking was a whole package, and you gotta have all the right ingredients,” he says. “You’d never spank out of frustration, you’d never spank out of anger. You’d never spank without forgiveness and love and restoration.”

If you’re an adult, you’re free to leave the community as you please, though you’ll be completely broke upon entering the outside world. “When you lay [your personal possessions] at the apostle’s feet, they get control,” says Clark. People leave all the time, though Clark mentions how emotionally challenging this can be, especially for those who have grown up on the inside. According to a study done by Michael D. Langone, counseling psychologist and editor of “Recovery From Cults,” there is evidence that ex-cult members experience heightened anxiety, depression, confusion, and difficulty thinking critically—not to mention unfamiliarity with basic tasks like filing taxes or applying to schools and jobs. “There are a million people who go into cults every year and a million people who come out—and not the same million.”

To combat this, nations have put up legal barriers to living the way the Twelve Tribes members do. Ha Qinai tells me that they abide by the law until it contradicts the word of God, at which point they choose civil disobedience over damnation.

Law enforcement has come after Twelve Tribes communities more than a few times. But many members understand that a brief stint in jail or a midnight raid is nothing compared to what Jesus and his disciples went through, so they take this opposition in stride. “We’re not surprised by these things, because Yahshua was the example; he warned us,” says Ha Qinai. But in Manitou Springs, the surrounding community largely seems to welcome the presence of the Twelve Tribes. Though the Twelve Tribes’ beliefs are seriously at odds with those of a modern liberal audience, they’re skilled at public relations. When they ask “How are you?” they really want to know. That must be part of why so many people are on board. The community offers friendly faces and respite from the “void or emptiness inside your soul,” as Adam said on the phone. I found myself comfortable and at ease chatting with Ha Qinai and Kol Levah in the cafe, both of whom smoothly fielded any contentious questions I asked. After spending only an hour with Twelve Tribes members, I was far more sympathetic toward them than when I had entered, though I still don’t consider myself persuaded to join. 

According to Clark, certain circumstances cause individuals to be more receptive to groups like this. “In transitions,” says Clark, “You’re moving from one place to another, you’re emotionally needy.” People in need will latch on to the Twelve Tribes’ simple kindness, hippie aesthetic, and willingness to engage and forgive. “The indebtedness that comes from them helping you out of a crisis is a powerful tool in the hands of a cult,” says Clark. 

Not everything about cults is bad, according to Clark. But there’s a tradeoff: “What is the price you’re going to pay for the benefits you perceive are there?” He clearly doesn’t think it’s worth it. Since they take scripture literally,  the Twelve Tribes believe that homosexuality and premarital sex are sins. They also believe that women should be “homemakers.”

A life of modesty and worship as a barista, and working towards the goal of producing 144,000 male virgins to prepare for the Second Coming of Christ certainly doesn’t appeal to everyone. But, taking your drink with a grain of salt, the Maté Factor Café is certainly worth a visit for the tea and the conversation—they have no problem engaging with even the most godless of college students.

 “You should go over for Friday night celebration, for the Sabbath,” said Andrew. “You—and your whole class if you want—are invited.” So if you’re trying to have a dialogue with someone whose perspective is unorthodox, you’ll find that folks at the Maté Factor Café are far more willing to talk amiably than many far-right groups in El Paso County. It may only be Grateful Dead nostalgia, but you might be shocked to find you have something in common.

Natasha and I share a history marked by white knuckles gripping wooden pews and dusty sunlight sliding through antiquated church windows and transubstantiated wine tasting of vinegar. For me, growing up in a Pentecostal church run by ex-Southern Baptists meant that my fight was “not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Twice weekly I confronted this evil by confessing lust for other women to a Cajun ex-convict pastor who ran a drug, alcohol, and sexuality rehabilitation facility out of a converted shack behind my church. She forbade me from receiving the body of Christ until I rebuked my wickedness and cast out the demons from my heart—but still, every week, I found myself tasting salty tears while solemn believers standing around me received Christ’s forgiveness in the sapidity of grape juice.

On the other side of the world, Russian Orthodoxy also asserted that the body and blood were for those with penitent spirits. Every Sunday, Natasha opened her mouth wide and Father Sergei placed the sacramental bread upon her tongue, but she tasted only ash. Each week she held this cinder under her tongue as her mamuchka crossed herself and bowed to the crucifix. Prepubescent Natasha sat in the shadow of her mother, a single woman raising a child in a society newly eclipsed by the fall of the Soviet Union. Picking at her skin, Natasha waited for the divine liturgy to come to an end. Bloody fingernails and patches of missing hair on her arms betrayed her anxiety. Have mercy upon us and save us, forasmuch as He is good and loveth mankind. She crossed herself and bowed to the icon.

I am 13 and my own outstretched palms are bathed in sunlight streaming through opaque stained glass windows. The Bible says that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord while knowing in your heart that He died for your sins, then you will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I pray the sinner’s prayer, begging Christ to remember me in His kingdom. I am 13 and, like the thief on the cross, I am being justly crucified for my sins. I wonder if I, too, can be with the Lord in Paradise even though my heart is contaminated with feelings for other women. At school, a student spreads a rumor about my homosexuality and people throw things at me and stop talking to me. At home, my father tells me that gays are unnatural and my brothers call homosexuality disgusting. Still, my thoughts are focused solely on Christ and His sacrifice. I ask myself if living an open life of sin is worth it. For what is a man profited, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?

Natasha is 14 and clothed in a white dress and white shoes. She stands at the font with her godmother. Do you renounce the Devil? She tilts her face up to the cross as the priest gathers water and begins to pour it over Natasha’s hands and head. The water reminds Natasha of her patron saint, Veronika, the woman who wiped the face of Christ as He carried the cross to Golgotha. As the service ends, Natasha thinks of the cross that she bears. A boy in her classroom calls her a faggot offhandedly and a gay man is murdered just outside Moscow and still Natasha wrestles with Christ’s redemption.   

Natasha and I are in our 20s when we first meet in April, when snow is no longer falling but sidewalks are coated in black ice and skies are still heavy with gray. The Moscow sun is falling just behind my friend Gosha’s apartment complex as I climb the stairs with my bookbag. Inside is a bottle of vodka and stray beers. When I enter the living room, I see Natasha and Gosha spreading kartoshki, pelmeni, and solyanka on a table while listening to Soviet-era music from the rebellious progressive rock band Akvarium. Natasha eats a pelmeni and tells Gosha that Pasha is coming with his grandmother’s pickled tomatoes, which the Amerikanka must try with the vodka. I laugh and take off my shoes as Natasha shows me a photo on her phone from the night she met Pasha. The phone’s brightness is dim but I see Pasha, eyes closed, with his foot on a stool and a guitar on his knee. Gosha is shirtless, sitting on the ground with his head next to Pasha’s foot on the chair. It isn’t until Natasha turns up the brightness that I see her in the background, face turned away from the camera and spine bent over babushka’s jar of pickled tomatoes.

I do not tell her I am gay. Instead, I let her teach me about ecology in the Kola Peninsula, transportation engineering in St. Petersburg, and Orthodoxy in a post-Soviet society—but it isn’t until a friend’s wedding that Natasha tells me about Christ and queerness. Cheeks flushed warm and red, she takes a shot and tells me that she is afraid of God. I watch as she follows with a large bite of pickled red tomato, hands nimble around the skin and juice dribbling down her chin. I am reminded of original sin, of Adam and Eve and the serpent, and I wonder if God damned woman because of the pain He first felt when His own new creation ate of the forbidden fruit.

Later, Natasha pours herself another shot and I reflect on Christ’s cry in the garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion: “Oh my Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” Jesus, knowing that He is to be sacrificed to atone for the sins of man, asks if God’s will can allow Him to escape the cross—but no. The disciples fall asleep in the garden and Natasha takes off her shoes and I confess barefoot before my pastor in Louisiana as I too ask if this cup can pass from me. I am 16 and going to prom with a boy who will bring me to the lake after the dance. We are sitting on the pier together and he puts his hands around my waist. I spend the next two years closing my eyes and gritting my teeth as his hands travel over my skin. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Natasha hides her shoes under the table and takes a seat next to me. We have eaten all the pickled tomatoes and the jar casts a small shadow over an empty plate. She turns and tells me that, years ago, she prayed for this cup to pass from her. She explains that, if God wills it, then temptation will pass and she can take communion, face the crucifix in peace. But the cup did not pass from Christ, and Judas kissed him and the soldiers came to Gethsemane and still Natasha works to reconcile her faith with her sexuality.

Natasha stopped taking communion at 17, when she told herself that walking in sin and continuing to take communion would lead only to weeping and gnashing of teeth. Sitting against the wall behind the bridal table, Natasha talks about those missed communions as if her voice is echoing in the empty chalice, trapped in the darkness created by the pre-communion pall. She pretends to have found peace with her decision, but her hands reveal her unrest. She first tugs at the bottom of her green dress but then begins picking at her skin and roving as though searching for a wooden church pew to hold. I look down at my own knuckles and remember white Sundays clutching at the wood, wondering if God saw my sins through the hymnal prayers. 

Natasha has no doubt that Christ sees her sins, which is why she abstains from communion, choosing to hide near choir stalls rather than brace the credence table. She spends her whole life navigating this balance between obscurity and light—navigation I’m learning, too. Russia is no different from Louisiana when all roads lead to Calvary. And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. Natasha—at Gosha’s apartment, and at the wedding, and each time I see her—mirrors Mary of Bethany. Mary of Bethany was the sister of Lazarus whom Christ raised from the dead. Later, she approached Jesus at the home of Simon, anointed His head with expensive perfume, and washed His feet with her hair. I imagine Natasha in that room, breaking the sealed jar of perfume on Christ’s head and watching the fragrance run down His body. Like Mary, she is desperate to empty herself and forfeit all in hopes of attaining Christ’s love.

I am back in Louisiana. It is March, almost a year since the wedding in Moscow, and I am sitting at the coffee shop where, two years ago, I ended my forced straight relationship. The boy was kind and I was restless and broken and felt as though I had failed Christ. I sat down and reflected on my pain, on two years of emotion and experience and body given to someone whom I knew I didn’t love. We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. 

I order a coffee and ask myself why peace is so evasive, why I continue to struggle with peace and God as I live openly. I think of Natasha and fear that the peace of God, which should be righteous, will always evade us both. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. I take a sip of coffee and taste the chicory, smiling as I remember to celebrate all the milestones. After all, even through all the trauma in our adult lives, Natasha and I no longer taste ash and vinegar when we take the bread and wine from the father.