Book Review – “Educated” by Tara Westover

Author: Tara Westover – Photo Credit New York Times

Every once in a while, you find a book which grabs your attention from the first page and keeps it until the last page. “Educated” by Tara Westover is such a book. Further, “Educated” provides a compelling example of ongoing and cumulative trauma which serves as an excellent tool for social work clinicians who treat those with complex trauma and social educators who teach on trauma.

Growing up with a conservative, survivalist Mormon family on an Idaho mountain, Westover is one of seven children, the youngest, and one of two girls. Westover describes a home led by her father, Val, with (undiagnosed) bipolar disorder whose decisions, influenced by his paranoia of worldly influences, including doctors, hospitals and the government, impacted the family in extreme ways.

For example, Westover describes significant preparation efforts by the family in readiness for the end of the world, which required the stockpiling of food, ammunition, and supplies. Several of the family’s children, including Tara, were born at home and did not have a birth certificate in order to avoid any interaction with government agencies. Westover provides many stories which recount extreme danger and injury to family members related to her father’s decision-making, including one terrifying incident where she is impaled by metal while working with him in the family junkyard business.

Westover’s mother appears to be a combination of healer, spiritual leader, and dutiful wife. She is alternatingly supportive and emotionally unreliable, even deceptive and betraying in the account provided. A community “midwife” and herbalist with no formal training, she provides intervention and healing for the myriad of catastrophes which befall the family. Her reputation as a healer results in the family’s reliance on her herbs, oils, and salves for treating even the most extreme injuries when Val declines hospitalization for himself and others.

Of all the stories told in the manuscript, perhaps one of the most heartbreaking are those of interactions with her brother “Shawn”. A survivor of multiple severe head injuries, Shawn is unpredictable; alternatingly devoted and loving to his sister, and then on a dime, extremely violent. Westover recalls an incident when she went to the grocery store with Shawn but did not want to go in because she was dirty from working in the junkyard.

Excerpt from Educated

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“I feel strong arms wrenching my legs. Something shifts in my ankle, a crack or a pop. I lose my grip. I’m pulled from the car. I feel icy pavement on my back; pebbles are grinding into my skin. My jeans have slid down past my hips. I’d felt them peeling off me, inch by inch, as Shawn yanked my legs…I want to cover myself, but Shawn has pinned my hands above my head. I lie still, feeling the cold seep into me. I hear my voice begging him to let me go, but I don’t sound like myself….I’m dragged upward and set on my feet. Then I’m doubled over, and my wrist is being folded back, bending, bent as far as it will go and bending still. My nose is near the pavement when the bone begins to bow. I try to regain my balance, to use the strength in my legs to push back, but when my ankle takes weight, it buckles. I scream. Heads turn in our direction. People crane to see what the commotion is. Immediately I begin to laugh – a wild, hysterical cackle that despite all my efforts still sounds a little like a scream. ‘You’re going in’, Shawn says, and I feel the bone in my wrist crack.” (Westover, 2018, 194-195)

At the heart of Westover’s memoir is her father’s beliefs about formal education. The first few Westover children were allowed to attend school for a few years, then they were homeschooled by the mother for a time. However, by the time Tara was old enough for education, there were no formal educational efforts in place.

Tara learned to read from her older siblings, and two of her older brothers ultimately left the home and community for higher education. Tara struggled, but ultimately followed the path of the educated brothers. The incredible component of Tara’s story is that she evolved from a life with no formal education to having earned a Ph.D., as have two of her older brothers.

Westover’s book is an excellent example of the trauma stories that social workers often see in their clinical practice. It is sometimes difficult to articulate the complexity of trauma when in the context of a family’s belief systems, but Westover does it eloquently. She articulates the presence of love, faith, and expectations all while also describing decisions and incidences which routinely placed family members in situations of high risk physical and emotional danger. Betrayal trauma is a theme throughout as she cannot trust her parents or family to appropriately care for her.

Further, she describes the complexity of survival in the face of not being believed, an experience all too common among trauma survivors. She also experiences a common phenomenon when family trauma is confronted – the retelling of the experienced story in a manner which serves to protect abusers and to shame the victim. Her story ends with a family divided, and it appears from press releases from the family, to be an entrenchment of positions about her version.

While Westover clearly feels attachment and even love for her family and her home, it appears that the path to healing for her is one that requires distance. This type of resolution is one that social work practitioners know well.

Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland’s Wellness Health Book Review

Carol Craig believes her ‘miserable’ childhood affected her adult health Photo Credit: TINA NORRIS

Can Scotland’s overall poor health record be explained by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)? This is the simple but undeniably challenging question that forms the basis of Carol Craig’s book, the third in the series of short books — Postcards from Scotland — that are written to spark new thinking about why us Scots are the way that we are.

The book gives a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s own challenges in her childhood and adds into the mix the experiences of ‘ordinary folk’ with well-known faces in Scottish culture — including the comedian Billy Connolly and Scottish actor and filmmaker, Peter Mullen. It also points to the latest evidence and academic research.

As a communications professional, I am always curious about the source and credibility of any written piece. At the start of the book, I must admit, I was initially a little skeptical as the emphasis seemed very much on the author’s own experiences, rather than any concrete research. She reflects on her upbringing in a council estate in Milngavie, a suburb to the north of Glasgow, in the 1950s and 1960s comparing this to the experiences of another child from the same estate, Scott. A few pages in, I did wonder should this not be an autobiography? Indeed, near the end of the book, the author herself admits that a friend asked her if she would not be better off writing a novel.

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Any doubts I had about the emphasis of the book being more anecdotal, rather than balanced with research, were soon laid to rest. In chapter two, ‘Childhood adversities, trauma, and health’, the author highlights early studies into the role of ACEs in ill health.

In particular, she talks about the work of Dr. Vincent Felitti, currently Director of the California Institute of Preventive Medicine, in surveying 17,000 patients to see if there was a link between childhood experience and ill health later in life.

The methodology for this research included a simple survey with questions focussing on two types of adversity: physical, emotional and sexual abuse; and second, what the wider family context was (e.g. did your parents separate?Was there abuse within the relationship?).

Phase two of this study, from the early 1980s, was to research the medical history of respondents and reveal any connections between such early adversities and health outcomes. According to the researchers, the links were startling. This initial study has arguably paved the way for current thinking and research on Adverse Childhood Experiences globally.

The real strength of this book is the accessibility of its tone, language and subject matter. Carol Craig definitely does not write from a narrow lens and the book should appeal to a wide range of readers — children’s sector frontline workers, social historians, policy-makers and think-tank workers, to name a few, and anyone really with an interest in the health of our small nation and the issues that surround it.

At the centre of the book, the author argues that adverse childhood experiences in Scotland are common and that ‘nurturing children has never been one of Scotland’s strengths’. This, combined with detailed accounts of childhood abuse, make for difficult reading, which the author does not shy away from. What she does really well, however, is make a series of serious points in relation to adversities in childhood that is mainstream and accessible without belittling the subject matter. No easy task. For example, she talks about the depiction of Scots in film, TV and in fiction, making the point that depiction of difficult subject matter is indicative of real life. Art imitating life.

I was drawn, in particular, to her accounts of the relationship between the character Chris Guthrie and her father in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic Sunset Song. Not only did this passage take me back to my 16-year-old former self (I read this classic book for the first time as part of my Scottish Standard Grade in English), but it illustrates a key point that Craig’s book is trying to make: the poor fate of Gibbon’s main character can, at least in part, be explained by the abuse that she suffered in her formative years. It was, to name the title of the book: ‘hiding in plain sight’.

It would be a crass and unfortunate use of language to say that Adverse Childhood Experiences are in vogue just now, but in reality, there is increasing narrative in professional and public circles and research surrounding them as a way of explaining outcomes later in life. My work at CELCIS (the Centre for Excellence Looked After Children in Scotland) has taught me to always question labeling — unconsciously or otherwise — when it comes to children and young people as often this can lead to negative stereotyping and pigeonholing that separates children who may have experienced adversity with the rest of society.

While I uphold this belief, any phrasing or terminology that is used in a positive way to deepen society’s understanding of something that can have a detrimental impact of Scotland’s children and families can be justified when used appropriately. Hence, I would recommend Craig’s book for anyone with an interest in the subject matter.

At the end of the book, the author proclaims: ‘I will judge this book a success if three things happen’. While the list of three are fairly altruistic and focus on better outcomes for children and society’s need to better understand how we can bring up children, the use of the proclamation jarred with me a little. I cannot recall another author who would make a proclamation in such a grand and forthright way.

That said, if you want a stimulating read about an ever-evolving and important subject matter, this is a really good and accessible read. I look forward to her next book in the series.

Six Reasons Why Social Workers Shouldn’t Worry About the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria

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Earlier this month, Dr. Beverly Tatum just released a 20th-anniversary version of her ground-breaking and well-informed book Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria: And other conversations about race. She discusses the phenomenon at Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. This is a topic I think about a lot as the mother of a Black child.

In my son’s small, private, predominantly White school, I noticed that in his grade particularly all the Black students are in one classroom and all the East Indian students are in another classroom which are the two major non-White groups at his school. This got me thinking. School has begun and at public and private schools – elementary through high school – the Black students, the Latino students, the Asian students, etc. are probably sitting together in the cafeteria as I write this. And on that note, so are the band students, the drama students, the athletes, and so on…AND here are some reasons why school social workers, teachers, or administrators should NOT be concerned.

Yes, they are sitting together and it is o.k. We like to sit, play, live, and work with people who make us feel safe and comfortable and the fact is, that is often people who look like us. If I spend all morning and all afternoon in situations that make me feel unsafe and/or uncomfortable or with people who are different than me and I am the minority in numbers, then I want to be able to share a meal (a sacred joyful time in many households) with people who make me safe and comfortable.

Usually, this means being with people with whom I share some values and beliefs based on our identity. We have to remember that students, particularly those in middle and high school, are figuring out their multiple identities and how those identities intersect. Students are navigating a complex world both internally and externally. To help promote student wellness, let the girls sit with the girls and the drama students sit with the drama students and the Black students sit with the Black students…if they want.

Now, this does not mean that you should tolerate purposeful exclusion, discrimination, or mocking, but rather accept that students (like adults) need to create their own safe spaces. AND you and your colleagues should think about how you can systematically and intentionally create spaces for cross-cultural dialogue that may bridge any gaps at lunch tables or on playgrounds.

Forcing students to sit together in some orchestrated inclusion situation will always back-fire. Let it happen organically. You cannot force people to like each other just because it is a rule in a student handbook. Rather, you can teach students to talk to one another and to hear each other’s stories. You can create spaces and facilitate times for dialogues and learning. Cultural competency is a value and a skill that should be integrated into our schools’ academic curriculum and co-curricular activities.

The dialogues about this should be ongoing. Cultural competence should be reflected throughout every aspect of our schools. Students may still choose to sit together by identity group and with ongoing dialogues, but there will be more awareness and understanding of why. Have you paid attention to what the students’ other needs are? The Brookings Institute estimates that 1 in 6 children come from food insecure household. Add to that the fact that at least half of our school-aged children have a mental health need. And these are just two examples of need.

Our students have a multitude of needs and obstacles that need addressing before we can even get them to attend to sitting and playing together. If a student is struggling at home, in their personal life and space, it is even more challenging for them to be ready to discuss and embrace sitting with people different than them. A student may be worried about what others know and think of their situation. Or, a student may be too distressed to attend to their neighbor. Just think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – individuals need food, shelter, safety – basic necessities before they can begin to think about and get situated in belongingness and love for others.

The guilt or discomfort we may feel about students sitting together based on identity groups or shared interests has nothing to do with them. No matter how you, myself, or our peers feel about race relations or interacting with groups of different social identities is not how the children of the 21st century feel.

Not a scientific study with proven significance, but still worthy of mention, Good Morning America has done a series called “Black and White,” in which Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts interview children about their thoughts and feelings about race. When Roberts asked them if their different skin color makes them different from each other the children answered in unison “No.”

We should not place our expectations, guilt, hurt, anger, etc. on them. Students have their own emotions to deal with as it relates to equity, inclusion, and social justice. They don’t even always use the same language to describe it. We need to see them and hear them and let them develop their own space and ways of facing race relations in the 21st century.

Inter-racial friendships may be challenging for some kids to form as Nadra Kareem Nittle points out in her article “Why Interracial relationships are Rare Among Children and Adults“. Children, especially young people, are navigating their own identities and navigating someone else’s adds some sort of pressure or complication to their lives. When your school begins to create a cultural competency plan, include the students and the parents.

Diversity work in schools and anywhere is best done when it becomes part of the integrated fabric of the school and is not just an add-on 1 day or 1-semester program. If you want the students to sit together in the cafeteria or anywhere else, then the school needs to have an ongoing, comprehensive, effective, and impactful plan that begins on day 1 and never ends. The National Education Association has great resources that schools can utilize as a starting place.

Teaching for Tolerance is another resource to find culturally competent and relevant educational information. Remember too that cultural competence needs to be shown in who is hired at the school and who holds leadership positions. Diversity and cultural competence need to be seen in photos, posters, and textbooks year-round. And parents and guardians (as extensions of the schools) need to also have the tools to facilitate such conversations at home and with their families.

So, I am okay with the fact that my son is in the same classroom with the other 3 Black students in his grade. I know that he has always played and sat with all the children in his school, and vice-versa. In reconsidering our concerns about all of the Black children sitting together, social workers should help teachers figure out why this is or is not okay for each child, and administrators should think about what will work best for each school’s culture.

The famous Black scholar W.E.B. Du Boise wrote that the “problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” It is now the 21st-century and we should ask ourselves what are we doing if this problem still exists? We also need to think beyond the dichotomy of the Black and White binary and make sure we pay attention to the diversity and intersectionality within our schools and neighborhoods and speak to that specifically, and not just speak to Black and White students.

In the coming decades, the population of our country will continue to become increasingly diverse. Soon, we will need to ask ourselves “Why are the White students sitting together in the cafeteria?” And then we must be prepared to answer that question and do something about it.

Overcoming Emotional Trauma: Life Beyond Survival Mode

Motivational speaker Travis Lloyd’s Overcoming Emotional Trauma: Life Beyond Survival Mode is a fresh fusion of autobiography and practical advice for professionals and those who are experiencing or have experienced trauma.

Dealing with trauma is never an easy task, but Travis takes a topic that is normally excruciating to think or write about and makes it approachable. Oftentimes funny, always down-to-earth, and full of great insight, this book will be a comfort to those who are going through a tough time.

Download Overcoming Emotional Trauma
Download Overcoming Emotional Trauma

Overcoming Emotional Trauma follows a balanced format of each chapter beginning with Travis talking about his life and in the latter half of the chapter devoting itself to more general advice based on the issues raised in the earlier part of the chapter.

For example, when Travis focuses on how he was acting in “survival mode,” the end of that chapter suggests ways you can begin to get out of survival mode yourself.

The “Roadmap to Success” chapter later in the book, where Travis compares the timeline of his own life to Ryan, another individual who grew up in the foster care system, is where light bulbs will light up in your head if they haven’t already.

Seeing the vastly different experiences of two people at the same age with very similar childhoods emphasizes the point that everyone responds to trauma differently and that you always have the choice to change your life for the better.

Dr. Gregory Keck’s chapter about the “two screens” of perception in traumatized individuals is also particularly interesting, and it’s a surprisingly light read given the heavy subject matter. Travis shares his experiences with abuse, drugs, and high-risk behaviors, and he never seems self-pitying while always emphasizing the power of personal choice in making life changes.

Rather than listening to a dispassionate expert give you dry information on how to repair your damaged psyche, Travis makes you feel like you aren’t so alone in whatever it is you’re going through by sharing his own struggles. It is one thing to be told what to do to overcome trauma, it is quite another to feel like there is someone out there who “gets it,” who truly understands what you’re going through. Travis takes experiences that could seem maudlin and trite, but instead infuses them with a sense of humor and compassion.

As a motivational speaker, author, health care professional, and hip hop artist, Travis uses his multiple talents to reach youth in different mediums. Travis’ goal with this book is to help empower its readers to get out of survival mode and start to make changes in their own life.

Whether you are looking to overcome your own personal trauma or you are a professional looking to better serve yourself and your clients/patients, Overcoming Emotional Trauma has useful advice and is a just plain enjoyable read. For more about Travis Lloyd, visit his website http://travislloyd.net/.

Should Kids Have to Keep Themselves Safe?

Recently, Violence Free Waitakere (VFW), in West Auckland NZ, launched “‘Jade Speaks Up’, a new multimedia resource to help keep children safe from violence.” The media release said, “The resource aims to help children put safety strategies in place to support themselves, should they feel afraid in their lives whether from bullying, natural disasters, adult threats or witnessing grown-ups fighting.”

Jade Speaks Up
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Natural disasters aside, because none of us can control those, the question has to be asked, “Are we at the all-time social low that kids, “aged 7-12 years,” now have to take responsibility for keeping themselves safe from violence and bullying?” That’s what adults were supposed to do when I was a little boy.

All kudos to Elaine Dyer and her team at VFW for a job well done. It’s a nice 8 minutes of animated characters on real-life backgrounds, catchy music, with guides and resources for teachers, parents, therapists, and social workers to facilitate sessions with children on self-preservation.

But goodness, what a sad indictment it is on us, as adults. We must finally admit we can no longer trust ourselves and each other to fulfill one of the most important roles of adults — child protection.

The countless and growing statistics and news reports attest to it: we’ve got so bad at looking after kids, the least we can do is help them look after themselves. If this saves one kid from hiding, and it’s worth its weight in gold.

I know, I’m preaching to the converted if you’re reading this. But, like me, I hope you’re holding out for Elaine and VFW to release “Jade Doesn’t Have to Speak Up.”

Hackney Child – An Interview with Jenny Molloy

Hackney Child
Hackney Child

Hackney Child is a riveting book about the challenges a child encounters growing up in the care system. The book is based on the true life events of author Jenny Malloy who uses the pen name Hope Daniels and written with Morag Livingstone.

I had the opportunity to interview Jenny in order to get a first hand account of how writing this book has transformed her life. Jenny tells a tale of resilience and courage, but also one of the system failures and needed programs to help families function better.

According to the Hackney Child’s website,

“Hackney Child is a shocking reminder of what some children are subjected to as they grow up. The scars can last a lifetime and there is no certainty they will ever heal. The best way is always to fight back. Hope Daniels has done this and displayed great courage in reliving the events of her childhood through this manuscript. I wish her all the success in the world’ Hackney Child offers a supportive Advice and Training role which will remind Social Workers why they chose the vocation of Social Work, and why Looked After Children are so special.

SWH: Tell us about your thought processes and decision to write Hackney Child, and how did you go about the process?

JM: This is such a big question! My thoughts on writing Hackney Child was that I was very very scared about being judged. I was adamant that I would remain anonymous, and this is why I have a pen name, Hope Daniels. I was absolutely paranoid that my mum would hate me for doing this but decided to write it with Morag and decided we would go ahead at the end.

I went through a massive rollercoaster of emotions and feelings throughout – and had to take a couple of months off at one point, as you see, when writing Hackney Child, I was totally transported back in a way that I had never experienced before. I found myself reflecting on my childhood, and my experience in Care, and whilst it was cathartic, it was also extremely painful. Myself and Morag had 1-1 interviews, I sent writing, we used my SS Files, and Morag interviewed 1 person who had applied to foster me. We spent much time sending writing between us until we got the story right.

SWH: As a result of your book and experiences, have you been engaged with the thought leaders within the social care UK system to implement changes or improvements for children who are cared for?

JM: Yes, in so many ways, and continue to do so. I was influential in producing the Care Leavers Charter, endorsed and implemented through the Care Leavers Foundation, Care Leavers, and the Children’s Minister, Edward Timpson. I am currently working alongside OFSTED, Martin Narey – Government TSAR on LAC, The Chief Social Worker, and many thought leaders in Scotland, including the Scottish Government.

I have also devised a training programme based on my own recovery from my childhood and addiction, and have been sharing with Local Authorities. It has received a response which I didn’t expect, one of enthusiasm, passion to carry the learning’s through to direct work, and an understanding of what it is really like to live through an abusive childhood, a life in care, and then life as a care leaver.

My time working with frontline social workers, Care Leavers and kids currently in the system is what drives me to work within the policy world. I have met huge number of inspirational kids and professionals, that when the going gets tough, and my frustrations at changes not happening quick enough, motivate me to stick at it.

SWH: What are some of the biggest challenges you face in doing outreach to practitioners/providers and children who are in long term care?

JM: Accepting the flaws in the system, and accepting that I cannot rescue the kids.

SWH: What is your mission and vision for Hackney’s Child, and what do you hope to ultimately accomplish?

JM: My mission is to make the UK Care System a place where LAC are loved, protected and successful.

There will always be a need for safe secure and loving places for some children to be cared for away from their birth families; to enable this Hackney Child strives to:

  • Ensure all children in care are safe and protected by those who care for them
  • Every child in care is expected to succeed, and receives the emotional and practical support to do so.
  • All children in care receive equal opportunity to recover from trauma experienced.
  • Those acting as corporate parents understand and take personal responsibility for developing and safeguarding the children they care for.

My ultimate goal is for the shocking statistics around Care Leavers, homelessness, drug addiction, offending, revolving door prisoner sentences and repeating, at times, the cycle of Care for their children to be seen as a failure, of the system, that served to rescue them, and the fire in your belly anger that should be aroused at these statistics by the policy makers raises itself, and changes happen.

It’s too easy to blame front line staff, who, in my personal view, are passionate, caring, skilled people who have an inner vocation to change children’s lives

SWH: Most importantly, what is your life like now, and have you found a sense of peace through your work and writing?

JM: My life is beautiful. I had no idea who I was, how I could ever have a life away from the pain, shame and guilt that I had carried for so many years, which I have discovered through Hackney Child and my direct work with the “Care System’, wasn’t mine to carry. I was a child.

I have worked through strategies on dealing with the sorrow that comes over me at times, together with the flashbacks of my childhood, some which are forever new and haven’t come to me in years, and now use these strategies with the children and young people that I work with.

I have 2 wonderful kids, now grown up, a husband who helped me to accept my character assets, and a beautiful, content granddaughter, who will never have to experience a mother with the pain that her grandmother had.

I’m now proud to say that I was raised in the Care System, and not ashamed to say that my family consists of people who were my social workers and care home staff. I love them and they love me. My family is now free from my past.

The Story of LGBTQIA: What Do All These Letters Really Mean

Genderbread-2.1

LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQIA…..In previous articles, I have used several of these acronyms, and  I want to use this article as a way to clarify what they all mean. I know sometimes the alphabet soup can be a bit confusing, but hopefully this will break it down for you. Let’s go!

Lesbian: A female-identified person who is attracted romantically, physically, or emotionally to another female-identified person.

Gay: A male-identified person who is attracted romantically, physically, or emotionally to another male-identified person.

Bisexual: Individuals who are attracted to both men and women romantically, physically, or emotionally.

Transgender: Individuals whose biological sex is different than the gender with which they identify. Sometimes the term “born in the wrong body” is used, however, this depends on the individual’s preference.

Transsexual: Transsexual individuals have physically altered their body in order to better match their gender identity. It is a term that refers to biology, not to identity necessarily, and it is indicative of a change in one’s physiology.

Queer: queer is an all-inclusive term referencing lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transpeople, and intersex persons.

*It was previously a derogatory term in the 1980s, however, it has currently been reclaimed when referring to the LGBTQIA community. Queer attempts to reject the idea that the labels of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender are able to explain any one person’s identity.

Intersex: Someone whose physical sex characteristics are not categorized as exclusively male or exclusively female.

Asexual: A person who is not attracted to anyone or does not have a sexual orientation.

Ally: A person who does not identify as LGBTQIA but supports the rights and safety of those who do.

In my previous article ENDA, I spoke briefly about the differences between sexual orientation and gender. I find the Ginger Bread Person to be a very useful tool to provide interventions and education to both clients and individuals in the community. The following link is an additional resource that will help clarify any additional questions you may have regarding gender and sexuality. Here is a preview:

Love the Genderbread Person? Then you’re going to love the book I wrote. It’s called The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook: A Guide to Gender, and it’s a couple hundred pages of awesome – Sam Killermann

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