An Open Letter to Salon and Molly McCluskey — UPDATED

An Open Letter to Salon and Molly McCluskey — UPDATED March 28, 2013

Dear Salon Editors and Molly (if I may),

I read your article, “My Steubenville,” with great personal interest. Before I get to that, let me clarify one key term for you.

The word ‘Steubenville,’ in this case, is like the word ‘bat.’ To bat your eyes at someone is different from swinging a bat or throwing a dead bat at someone. See? The same word actually refers to very different things. I suppose you could bat your eyes while swinging a bat at a bat that someone threw at you, but even then it would be three things, not one.

Imagine that I wrote story titled “My Bat” conflating all those terms at once, intentionally. How would you know it was intentional? Easy. The second kind of bat is a baseball bat. If my story was really about a baseball bat, but I refused to use the qualifier ‘baseball,’ it would be stupid at best and duplicitous at worse. So maybe it wasn’t intentional. If not, then I really shouldn’t be writing or publishing yet.

What you wrote and published was either stupid or duplicitous — or both.

You see, the term ‘Steubenville’ actually refers to at least three things in this context: Franciscan University of Steubenville (FUS), The City of Steubenville (COS), and Steubenville High School (SHS).

You might reply that the University is located in the city, and the high school is a public institution of the city, so that marries them together, somehow. If you did try that strategy you would only further reveal very weak thinking — wait, I thought you valued critical thinking? — and how little you know or understand anything about FUS, COS, and SHS.

From the title to the penultimate paragraph, you use the term ‘Steubenville’  multiple times without ever making a single distinction. Not one qualifier. Zero. Nada. You grouped together the University (that hosts the conferences), the city, and the high school.

What a mess.

It’s crazy, really. Your “Steubenville” in the title refers to Franciscan University of Steubenville’s summer youth conferences. That’s all. Did you go to Big Red? Have you lived in Steubenville, OH? If you did, then you’d know that FUS is about as far removed from the City of Steubenville and Steubenville High School as possible.

I should know. I went to the “Steubenville South” conferences (in Alexandria, LA) as a participant, a “young apostle,” and later was hired to play lead guitar and sing backup vocals for the “Steubenville North” conferences (in Rochester and St. Paul, MN). I spent my entire life in this charismatic niche of the Catholic Church, and I know it well from the inside out. Over the past decade, I’ve been an outspoken critic of it, too.

Did I mention that I graduated from FUS?

This is why I found the essay worth reading in the first place. And it didn’t have to be so bad. Your critique of the conferences and the Catholic youth ministry subculture was spot on in many places. When you linked it up to Evangelical Fundamentalism, you made a serious and solid connection to a latent Protestantism that the movement has always had, and still has to some degree. I’d love to compare notes and stories on this stuff; the conferences have changed a lot, but not enough. I’d love to write a detailed personal account for Salon someday, without connecting it, cheaply, to a rape scandal.

Oh, and the politics of it all. I’m on board with that, too. The Evangelical Right made a home in this movement during the 80’s and still has lots of bedfellows there. I call them Republicatholics. Many of them are family and friends of mine. You could have been far more sophisticated about this aspect — after all, this is the Salon that recently did one of the more insightful interviews with Slavoj Zizek, right? — but, on the whole, I was okay with it. It wasn’t very smart or intellectual or particularly well-written, but it told a story I knew and could relate to.

I can sing (and play) “Refiner’s Fire” like a mutherfucker, too.

Again, I’ve been deeply critical of my alma mater in the past, especially in the ideological direction she has taken over the past decade. When I was there, from 2001 to 2005, I wasn’t exactly the poster boy for conservative Catholic piety. I got impeached from my student senate seat and I frequented the bar more religiously than I did Christ the King Chapel. Later on, when I saw that our beloved (and now former) president, Fr. Terrence Henry, was featured on the Glen Beck Show, I was aghast. Embarrassed. When they staged a premature, press-seeking reaction to the HHS mandate this past summer, I called it that. (Check out my comment at the National Catholic Register.)

When I watched Jesus Camp I shrugged and cringed. Shrugged because I’ve seen and experienced — and believed! — far, far worse; cringed because I could see myself in the preachy boy with the ugly ponytail. (If you haven’t seen that movie, you really should. It is much better than this essay. By “much” I mean ten billion times better.)

So don’t peg me for some predictable reactionary. I really and truly wanted to like your essay. That’s why I read it all the way to the end.

It turned out to be complete garbage, though, especially at the end. What was that ending? The argument, if there was one, went something like the following:

Major Premise: “Few people had ever heard of Steubenville, Ohio, until a shocking act of violence catapulted the small town onto the national stage.”

Minor Premise: “Steubenville is home to North America’s largest evangelical teen gathering. [a few details]”

Conclusion: “Not everyone can leave Steubenville on the back of a bus.”

Implication: Molly got out of “Steubenville” when she 16; the victim of rape did not.

In other words, since (a) we’ve heard about SHS on the news lately we should (b) read your anecdote about going to FUS every summer and from that it follows to say that (c) at least you got out of COS alive, thank heavens.

See what you did there? Pretty crazy. Batshit crazy. Plus, it borders on not being true at all, because you equivocate the key term between three different things and show an incredible inability to communicate any of the details.

Look, Molly, I know you’re a freelancer and I respect that. You’ve got to make money and sell your essays. I get that. Art. But why not have some standards? Why embarrass yourself like that?

Salon, you just got put on the same level of Drudge and Huffington, and other mindlessly predictable and horridly-reasoned echo chambers. The places where the faithful say things like “Well said!” I thought you were (just a little bit) better than that.

Molly did explain why I’ve never read her prose on The Rumpusthe best publication for women’s self-disclosure essays. It’s just not good enough. (Don’t worry much, Molly, they’ve rejected all my stuff, too.)

I hope you both take this letter seriously because guilt by association cuts every which way. By associating yourself with this drivel, Salon, you’ve discredited yourself. By allowing a dull and dim essay go out under your name, Molly (that is your name, right?), you’ve done the same. By posting this letter, I’m in the mix too.

We’re in this together, sort of.

A buddy of mine who went to FUS and has lived in COS most of his life (I think he even went to SHS, too) put it this way, on Facebook:

Speaking with some experience having gone through some similar thought processing at a time, this woman clearly never discovered the taste of wine after she decided she didn’t like the Kool Aid.

Exactly. Maybe you need to drink more. Or drugs? Something.

The middle to end attempts to be conciliatory and nuanced were undone by the clear equivocation you were about to make between Steubenville and Steubenville and Steubenville and the Big Red football team’s rape scandal.

Your seventh-rate essay associated the people of the city of Steubenville, hard working people, people who have nothing whatsoever to do with the Big Red scandal besides finding it as repugnant as you and I do, with rape. Your essay associated Franciscan University of Steubenville, a small and reclusive Catholic community that, sadly, lives as far apart from the City of Steubenville (and, sometimes, reality) as it possibly can and has even less to do with the Big Red scandal, with rape too.

Shame on you both. What a low brow, opportunistic thing to do. If this is what it takes, then maybe you don’t have what it takes.

But maybe there’s a silver lining. Maybe you two can get into cahoots with The Globe or National Enquirer. Given The Onion’s recent classless Twitter exploits, maybe they’ll have work for you. I doubt it.

Good luck with all of that,

Sam (by all means)


PS: I recorded a very quiet, late-night rendition of “Refiner’s Fire” for you, Molly. Sing along if you like.

**************** UPDATE ******************


Molly posted a general reply this morning, at Salon. It only seems fair to post it here. Here is her defense:

Many thanks to everyone who posted here, or reached out in other means, to share their stories. It seems religion is an intensely personal matter, and we’ve had a great discussion about it. I’m seeing several themes along the thread, and I want to clear up a few points.

First, I recognize that the Franciscan University of Steubenville is different than the town, and is different than the high school. In this essay, I use “Steubenville” (as we called the retreats) as a metaphor for the places and times in our lives we leave behind, and a lament that it’s not always possible. Yes, that can be high school, or college, or a traumatic experience or a way of thinking.

Also, having spent eight years in Catholic school, as well as being exposed to various sects of Christianity as I grew, I’m aware of the differences between fundamental, evangelical Christianity and Catholicism. My point in referring to them both was to show the dicotomy between life in one versus the otherand how the fundamental tenant, that we should love each other regardless of our differences, can be blurred or lost in any religion.

To the poster who said Steubenville is a complicated place; I agree. It’s a complicated place in a complicated time with a complicated mix of beliefs. We’ve all had a complicated response to the events that have happened there, whether now or twenty years ago. This was mine. Thank you for sharing yours.

Best wishes, Molly

This gives no satisfaction. In fact, I find it almost worse than the original post. There are no redeeming qualities I can point out. It’s especially vexing to see see a writer invoke “metaphor” for something quite literal and real.

This is what happens when analogy and allegory are confused with one another.

Worse of all, she seems to see no possible harm. None? Not even the possibility of a screw up?

Look, Molly, I’ve written some atrocious stuff that didn’t deserve to see the light of day. Hell, in a few days I may even regret writing this. The only, tiny difference is the ability to recognize the possibility of making a mistake and the generosity to acknowledge it.

In this case of a contemporary and public scandal, to invoke cloudy metaphors is a lame excuse. Dangerously irresponsible.

If this shows the rigor behind her sense of metaphor and the depth of her self-reflection—and, I’m sorry to say, the quality of her writing—I hope she never teaches writing or composition. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if she did or does.

As for Salon, the personal essays editor reached out to me today, via e-mail, and was a very good sport about the whole thing. She even ribbed me for being rejected by The Rumpus, and then invited me to submit stuff to Salon. Classy.

Interesting contrast.



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