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Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Rasputin as Domestic Abuser

“Rasputin had convinced [Tsarina] Alexandra of his holiness, and no amount of evidence could turn her against him. All warnings about Rasputin came to seem like attacks on the family, and further isolated them from the people who wanted to help.” — Keith Gessen

Classic abuser tactics. Per the University of Michigan’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center:

“An abuser may claim to be disliked by the friends and family of their partner and use this as a reason for not letting their partner associate with them. Often abusers will withhold phone calls and messages from family members and friends as a form of isolation. An abuser will generally attempt to gain control by cutting off supportive figures in their partner’s life.”

That absolutely fits how Rasputin blocked the Tsar and Tsarina from the rest of the Russian government (minus sycophants). Although it’s unclear whether the “Mad Monk” carried out his maneuvers intentionally, he successfully became the dominant figure in the Romanov family’s lives.

Rasputin: A Short Life by Frances Welch

The most interesting unsolved mystery is how Rasputin soothed Alexei Nikolaevich, Russia’s young Tsarevich. The boy suffered from debilitating hemophilia, and apparently no one but Rasputin could alleviate his excruciating pain. Gessen addresses this in the Guardian article linked above:

“[Rasputin] was recommended to the family by their confessor, who had been impressed by his mixture of smelliness and religious fervour. Then it turned out that he seemed able to stop Alexis’s bleeding. Exactly what Rasputin did has been the subject of medical dispute. During bleeding episodes, Rasputin would talk to the boy, tell him stories, calm him down — this may have lowered the heir’s blood pressure, easing the bleeding. Contemporaries claimed that Rasputin could hypnotise people with his eyes, and it’s possible he hypnotised Alexis, with the same calming effect.”

I don’t find those proposed mechanisms convincing, to be honest. Is charisma really that powerful?

In conclusion, someone buy me Frances Welch’s biography of Rasputin.

I Remember the Circumstances that Led to Her Existence

beautiful portrait of mother and child
Photo by Matteo Bagnoli.

I want to share a thoughtful email response to my recent post about anti-natalism. The author gave me permission to publish her thoughts, provided that I conceal any identifying details. Accordingly, I changed a name. Everything else is unedited.


First of all, I completely agree that adoption is the way to go in this day and age, what with the scary uprise in world population. We need to take care of those that already are, and focus less on creating new life when we have very limited resources. If we were talking about just a few hundred children, this wouldn’t be an issue, but when there are a billion more people in the world than there were 15 years ago, it’s an issue. (And it’s difficult to fathom that number since it is so vast!)

Secondly, I wanted to share why I chose to have a child. I was in an abusive relationship and I thought that having a baby would bring him and I closer together. I wasn’t allowed to have friends, or talk to my family. I was literally at home all day long with no internet, and he was the one that had access to the phone. I definitely thought that he was the know-all and be-all of life, and I thought that I was too stupid to be able to leave him. I was convinced that I couldn’t be loved, because he told me that I was unlovable. In this case, choosing to have a baby with him was not a good decision, since he actually became more abusive after she was born, and then I left him when Stacy was five months old.

motherhood in nature -- illustration by Baird Hoffmire
Birds & Bees by Baird Hoffmire.

It’s this weird state to feel regretful but not regretful at the same time. I have a beautiful little girl that I love so much, but then I remember the circumstances that led to her existence, and I am sad that one day she will learn about her father, and she will develop her own feelings about why he chooses not to be a part of her life.

Sorry if this seemed like over-sharing, but I really wanted to put my voice out there, since I can relate to what you posted. It’s difficult to speak out on this topic since it’s one that a lot of people are sensitive to. Whenever someone asks me if I am going to have another kid, I just say no. There is no way. I just couldn’t handle the stress.

My ex’s step-mom told me that when she gave birth to her son, she couldn’t help but think in those moments, “What have I done? Why did I bring this person into the world?” She said it was simultaneously heart-breaking and beautiful.

I think back to what my mom went through as a single parent with me, and I am just flabbergasted at how well she handled such a stressful situation. I was in and out of the hospital for mental illness and self-harm, and yet she didn’t fall under the weight of it all and took care of me.


babies at bath time!
Photo by Big D2112.

Thank you, anonymous contributor, for sharing your experiences! Here’s what I wrote back:

From my perspective, you are a great mom to Stacy, and you’ve taken care of her and yourself in the best way you had the resources to do! Abusive relationships are no joke. I’m glad that you and your daughter are safe now. Regardless of anyone’s feelings about the ethics of reproduction, I don’t think you should feel bad about your choices.

To be clear — and this definitely wasn’t apparent from my original post so I’m going to go back and add a disclaimer — I don’t think parents are bad people. I recognize that my perspective on this is totally different from most people’s. The reason I usually don’t write or talk about it is that there’s zero chance of substantive change — at best I offend people I like (e.g. you, although you don’t seem offended). Sometimes my editorial self-control gets away from me, though.

I’m still interested in additions to this general discussion, so feel free to get in touch.

Mental Illness & Free Will (Or Not)

Here’s something I’ve been told about depression, both personally and generally: “It’s not your fault.” This sentiment is usually extended to any kind of mental illness. From one perspective, it’s true. We are all products — or rather victims — of brain chemistry and circumstance. No one gets to choose their genetics or how they’re treated by other people.

two men boxing
Photo via USMC Archives.

You gotta roll with the punches. Unfortunately, some of us are bad at rolling. Just because. We didn’t decide to default to stupid coping methods, and most of us can’t change our patterns without help. That’s normal and okay, positivity, blah blah blah, etc. The availability of help is crucial. Without health insurance, I would be sleeping on the streets, or dead, which is a cliche so I’m not sure how to state it with enough impact.

As a mentally ill person, I know the experience of suffering because your mind is beyond your control. (I’m tempted to say “formerly mentally ill”, because of ~stigma~, but it’s not something that goes away when the pills are working.) And yet… I have also human agency. To some degree my emotional experience is my fault, at least according to common ideas about how society works.

Author Alexandra Erin noted on Twitter, “So many systems that make up whatever you want to call ‘civilization’ depend on the participants abiding by certain minimal expectations.” It’s hard to blunder into abiding by such expectations, especially en masse — we do it on purpose, and we’re proud of that. Our species is smitten with the semblance of free will. I feel like I make choices.

choose your collar
Photo by zhouxuan12345678.

Previously I wrote about the illusion of autonomy:

“You’re born with particular DNA programming, which determines how you perceive and process outside stimuli, thus shaping your progress as a person, as a human psycho-physiological entity. Nature is what determines your reaction to nurture, and you don’t have any control over either. They both affect you, certainly, but not in a way that you can manipulate independently of who you already are… it gets circular. [Bold added.]

And yet we think that we have the power to decide things without reference to our formative contexts. Regardless of my philosophical position, my brain is convinced that it is reasonable. Accordingly, society is built on the idea of responsibility for one’s actions. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be! As far as I can tell there’s no alternative. But how interesting, that the entire system of civilization is constructed around a logical fallacy.”

On the one hand, this is sort of freeing. “I’m not responsible for being useless and sad all the time!” On the other hand, if nothing is your fault, then you also don’t have any choices.

trauma of emotional abuse
Artwork by Run Jane Fox.

Battered spouses are often told that they didn’t choose to stay with their abusers after the first incidence of violence (whether emotional or physical). Victims are counselled not to blame themselves. Safety expert Gavin de Becker finds this rhetoric harmful, as he explains in The Gift of Fear. Most advocates contend that abusers forcibly shape reality for their targets, until escape options become invisible. In his book, de Becker argues that this attitude is problematic. If it’s not a choice to stay, then it can’t be a choice to leave. He suggests that empowering abuse survivors requires encouraging accountability for a person’s own abuse. That’s very tricky to do in a non-toxic way.

Are you responsible for your history? Which events and experiences can be traced to your decisions, and which can’t?

old snapshots
Photo by rogintakesphotos.

My reflections on all of this were prompted by Steven Johnson’s complaint about the board game Candy Land, in which outcomes are entirely due to chance:

“It says you are powerless, that your destiny is entirely determined by the luck of the draw, that the only chance you have of winning the game lies in following the rules, and accepting the cards as they come. Who wants to grow up in that kind of universe?”

Really, that’s the only universe we can grow up in. My friend Adam Brinklow commented on Facebook, “I assumed the real lesson [of Candy Land] was to cheat. Cheating being the only means of affecting the outcome.” I wish that cheating were more than a predictable reaction to stimuli… exactly like all other actions.

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