An Interview with Author and Activist Trista Hendren

coffee cup

I first encountered Trista Hendren’s name in an article by Elizabeth Plank that described Trista’s work with Rapebook, a page that cataloged and attempted to stop the proliferation of materials promoting rape and violence against women on Facebook.  I wrote a blog post about Facebook and misogyny, and Trista and I found one another on Twitter.  Imagine my joy when I learned that Trista is also the author of The Girl God, a children’s book about the divine feminine.  I immediately ordered the book, and when it arrived, I knew I’d made not just a new virtual connection, but a friend.  The more I learn about Trista’s life and work, the more she inspires me.  She’s in Oregon and I’m in Virginia, so our paths aren’t likely to cross soon, but I feel sure we will meet in person one day.  And when we do, we’ll begin talking as if we’d picked up a long-lost conversation.  That, my friends, is the Goddess at work.  And so is this—you might want to grab a cup of coffee or tea, because Trista’s answers to my questions will give you plenty to ponder, and plenty to savor.

The Girl God Questions

Your children, and especially your daughter, Helani Claire, were clearly your motivation for writing The Girl God.  What drew you to the divine feminine, and inspired you to reveal Her essence to your children in this beautiful book?

Yes, she was. There is no end to how much I adore my daughter. I raised her very specifically to be strong and most of all, to be completely herself.  That was really important to me because I don’t think we have raised girls in previous generations like that. I was raised in the church to be submissive. That really hurt me in so many ways throughout my life. Not that I didn’t have great, well-meaning parents – I did. However, I think that one little thing would have made an enormous difference.

When Helani turned 5, I really began to see the way the outside world was also affecting her. And it was not good.  I had a son that was 3 years older, but the expectations placed on him were completely different. I began to see that many people could not tolerate my daughter being herself. That was my wake up call.

Being a full-on, inspiring mom is a lot of work. Even then, you are competing with an outside world that has an entirely different message for your kids. I wanted to write something that would be a tool for women and girls; that could stand up to TV, movies and social media with an alternate vision of the worth of women.

Can you tell us a bit about the process of writing the book, from your first inspiration through publication? 

The story came to me all at once – of course as an author yourself you know that also includes a lot of revisions.  I was trying to talk to my daughter about God and she just could not relate until I spoke of “The Girl God”.  That’s the scene I tried to capture in the book, where her face just lit up and she really grasped it.

I had envisioned exactly what kind of art I wanted in the book but didn’t know anyone who painted like that. Months later, I saw Elisabeth’s art pop up on Facebook and I instantly sent her a message asking her if she would be willing to illustrate the book.  She asked to read the story and then agreed.

As for the quotes, I have been collecting meaningful quotes and poetry for over 10 years. I started a compilation journal for myself during a particularly rough period in my life. It really sustained me through other difficult periods.

About 5 years ago, I noticed many of my friends’ kids were also struggling in various capacities, so I began making them their own journals. I would just take an empty journal, add 10-15 poems that I thought they would find meaningful and/or helpful and post them in there. I’d also write a note about how the journal had helped me and my wish that they would add to it over the years.

My journal is my most valuable possession. If my house caught on fire, I would grab that and my kids.

So when I put this book together, I always had the idea of adding quotes and poems to it.  As a kid, I was always memorizing Bible verses – many of which I still know.  My hope for kids with The Girl God is that they will also learn these quotes and they will sustain them throughout their teen years and into their adulthood.

The Girl God contains some absolutely wonderful quotations—some of them were familiar to me, but you introduced me to some beautiful work I hadn’t encountered, including the words of Patricia Lynn Reilly.  How did you choose the quotations for the book?

Choosing the quotations was hard.  I had very specific things in mind, and also wanted to honor as many of the world religions as possible.  There was also a balancing act with the art and the storyline. So some quotes from the beginning were completely different than what we published.  I work with Patricia through Imagine a Woman International so her words were a given as one of my biggest sources of inspiration.  I just came across Dale Allen and Sue Monk Kidd as we were about to go to press – so those were very last minute but absolutely necessary additions.  I tried to balance strength with nurturing and to also show the Divine Feminine in various faith traditions.

You mention in your acknowledgements that you had envisioned Elisabeth Slettnes as the illustrator for the book from the beginning.  How and when did you first encounter her work?  Why did you know she would be the perfect illustrator for your book?

It’s hard to explain. I just knew. I found her several months after I wrote out the story. My husband had encouraged me to go for it and really make it into a book.  Elisabeth was a friend of an artist friend of his and happened to be in Norway where he lives. So when I went to see him in Bergen, we made the trek out to Lilehammer and met with her in her studio. I knew right away I could work really well with her.

Rapebook Questions

 I first learned of your work because I was concerned about misogyny on Facebook, and read Elizabeth Plank’s article about it.  She referenced Rapebook, the page you created to fight rape culture on Facebook.  What type of content did Rapebook catalog and flag?

Our primary concern was pictures that depicted young girls and violence against women. As we got into it, there were many things I just wish I had never seen. The prevalence of pornography – including child pornography – on Facebook is just huge. Those are things that we could not of course re-post.  So a lot of our work was under the radar.

We were criticized that some of the things we posted were really “not that big of a deal.” I think it’s really important to note that what we felt we could post ethically as opposed to what we actually saw ourselves and tried to deal with amongst ourselves were two very different things.  One admin in particular was singled out in a horrible way. They even went after her 12-year-old daughter. That particular admin was really the backbone of the page in the last months, and we all owe her an enormous amount of gratitude.

I’m really glad you asked me about Rapebook because you’ve given me the opportunity to acknowledge all the other people who remain nameless who worked so tirelessly on that page.

When did you begin Rapebook, and how long was the page active?

I had written several articles about Facebook in November of last year with little or no response. We started organizing feminist administrators both on and off Facebook to get ourselves better organized to act on these issues.

I started Rapebook with a collective of women in a fit of frustration later that year. It really was done ever so quickly.  In retrospect, we should have used “Stop Rapebook” which is actually how our Facebook web address reads, but it grew so fast we never had time to change it. There was a lot of confusion around the page; I think there still is.

The page was active for 4-5 months and had many different women (and men) working on it at various stages. The work was abusive. I often said it was like agreeing to be punched in the face all day. So women came in and out as they were able to and helped and our male partners really helped tremendously at the end to keep it going.

What response, if any, did you receive from Facebook’s leadership when you confronted them with the racist, sexist, violent, and illegal content on their site?

Facebook was always very responsive and professional – I will give them that. But in terms of action, the word impotent comes to mind.  Yes, this is offensive, even horrible – but we can’t stop free speech.

What response, if any, has Facebook leadership given concerning the reasons for removing and blocking content that shows women’s bodies breastfeeding, or female anatomy for educational purposes?

They always said it was a “mistake”.  I find that hard to believe since it happens so consistently.

You and the other Rapebook administrators are no longer maintaining the page because you received death and rape threats.  What lessons have you learned from this experience, both personally and politically? 

We actually stayed on after the death threats, which I am not sure many people know. I wanted to get off then, but it was a collective.  The other admins felt strongly that we must keep fighting and not be forced off. In retrospect, I’m glad that we stayed.

The reason that we did log off was that it began to affect all of our health.  I was the sickest I have ever been for about 2 weeks.  One admin started throwing up all the time. It was really disgusting work. And, we just began to think, why are we devoting all our efforts on a volunteer basis to do work that Facebook – with billions of dollars – should be taking care of?

It was a never-ending shit workload. The harder we worked, the more we found.  It was impossible for us to keep up—and we began to question whether we were even making a difference.

We felt we would make more of a statement by posting a final letter and leaving the page up on our own terms.

Although Rapebook is now inactive, you and others continue working for change; for example, a group of concerned activists has started the #FBRape Twitter campaign to inform companies about where their ads appear on Facebook.  What do you think is our most effective means of fighting violence against women in social media?

I think #FBrape is the most effective campaign we have seen to-date.  We are constantly learning how to do this. I learned a lot through Rapebook and some of that has informed this campaign.

My personal opinion is that I don’t want to be on a site that promotes rape and violence against women. I think there is a lot of bad energy on Facebook and it’s not where I want to spend my time.

I believe the best method would be for women to leave Facebook in masse. However, almost no one is willing to do that.

That said, I am very supportive of all the campaigns going on against Facebook because there are a tremendous amount of young people that are affected by this. What’s on Facebook reflects our society at large and I think we need to come out forcefully and say, NO MORE.

That said, I don’t have strong hopes that Facebook will change after working on this for so long.  My kids will never have an account on Facebook.  We are probably in the minority – we don’t have a TV either. There are not many things that I am strict with my kids on, but this is one of them. Too many kids are bullied. Too many girls have killed themselves. I have just seen too many awful things on Facebook for me to ever consider letting my babies go on that site.

Life’s Journey Questions

Your life story is both interesting and inspiring—you came to the divine feminine within two different religions as part of your personal healing process.  Can you tell us a bit about your spiritual journey?

I was a deeply spiritual teenager. I attended church almost every day and spent hours reading the bible and praying in addition. On some levels, I’m happy about that. I never got into trouble with drugs, sex or alcohol. Those choices can be hard to undo – especially for girls.

On the other hand, it took me a long time to be able to do anything on my own terms just because I wanted to.  I have lived most of my life for the benefit of other people – mostly men.

I went to a Southern Baptist college to study religion when I was 18. It was the first time I was away from my family and it was one of the best things I have ever done for myself. As I studied the historical, cultural and linguistic roots of the Bible, I began to lose my faith.

I transferred to another college before ultimately coming home for good. I was never able to believe in Christianity again. I called myself an atheist, but I was more like a struggling agnostic. It was very difficult for me as someone who had leaned on my faith for most of my life.

How I came to Islam could be an entire book. I will try to be concise: Islam gave me a platform where I could believe in something again. And, for most people this will probably sound strange, but I found my rights and worth as a woman within that faith.

What I have come to realize over the years is that the Divine Feminine was squashed out in both religions – and She needs to come back for either of them to be complete.

You wrote The Girl God for all your children, including a son and two stepsons.  What do you think boys and men can gain from learning about and embracing the divine feminine, both within themselves and within culture?

The Girl God is equally important for boys—although I realize most of them are probably not going to want to sit around reading it in front of their friends. My son was initially more fascinated with the book when it arrived than my daughter. Mostly, I think, because he didn’t realize all that time that I would actually have a real book to show for all my efforts. He was so proud of me, and that continues to mean a great deal to me.

My step sons are older and are fortunate to have a father who doesn’t fit the traditional mold. My husband is a rare man. His values certainly informed the creation of The Girl God and of both his boys.

The role of “boy” or “man” can be really hard. The idea of a harsh male God is really exacting for everybody. The feminine side of God is critically important because all of us need love and nurturing. You don’t get that from the Bible or the Qu’ran – unless you are really looking for it.

We plan to write a book specifically for boys, based on a love letter that I wrote to my son that is a wish for all boys. I am working on quotes to support boys specifically as well.

You worked for several years within the world of finance as a mortgage broker.  What connections do you see between the need women have to connect to the Goddess within and our need to become financially empowered?

Great question. When I was a broker, I worked really hard at empowering women financially. But nearly every time, the women would come back again and again, broke.

I think that there are two systems in place that hold women back financially. One is external. You cannot deny that women around the world make less money for the same work. Women own only 1% of the world’s wealth. There is a systematic financial oppression of women firmly in place. That will not change until we turn the system upside down.

The other is internal: until we believe we are worthy, we will not be financially independent. And that is not to blame women in any way. We socialize girls from almost the get-go to think of themselves as lesser beings. The idea that God can only be male is the worst form of this.

You can’t work on one system of oppression without the other. I hope that my writing will begin to change the way we think about both.

I also want to say that women are marketed and sold an enormous amount of crap. Buying into all of that contributes to our oppression. Until we decide we won’t buy into this anymore, we will continue to have less money. We can also learn to live with less so that we can do more.

I quit my job, which had a high earning potential for many years, so that I could do the work I love. To do that, I cut my expenses back by 80% and sold my house and my car. I now walk everywhere, and love it. That was a gradual process that took me years to come to terms with. I’m very proud of my life now. I couldn’t say that before – even though from the outside, my life probably looked a lot better earlier.

We are conditioned to think far too much about what other people think instead of learning about what makes us happy. I tried to include quotes along that line in The Girl God book as well.

Your career has many facets—author, life coach, political activist.  What connections do you make among your activities, and how does the divine feminine inform and inspire your work?

Z. Budapest has a fabulous quote on this and I think I don’t think I can improve on it:   “Without the Goddess, feminism is not going to work, because you’re going to burn out. You’ve got to have spirituality connected with your political aspiration because that’s how this animal works.”

5 thoughts on “An Interview with Author and Activist Trista Hendren

  1. Melissa says:

    I am the admin with the 12 year old daughter being referred to in the first answer about ‘Rapebook’

    ”We were criticized that some of the things we posted were really “not that big of a deal.” ”
    The acceptable sexism because there is no rape, killing and beating involved in it, vs the not acceptable sexism… One has to wonder how it got so far, that there is in fact sexism which is considered normal and within decency limits. I suppose it was the rape, killing and beating that made women and others prioritize in this way, because it is not worth risking being killed or beaten to object to verbal damage to the female reputation and status. We can have free speech, so long as we keep things that are “not that big of a deal.” to ourselves, otherwise we will receive death and rape threats to warn us that we have been saying things again, which are “not that big of a deal.”. Sometimes, I am tempted to abandon all feminism which does not apply to me directly, because it is not a big deal to so many others, even women. It seems so easy to run my own life, and keep patriarchy somewhat out, but when others get involved, the idea that one can live without patriarchy directly in ones family life causes situations like aggressive arguments and more recently death threats come along to oppose me.

    ”Those are things that we could not of course re-post. So a lot of our work was under the radar.”

    And, there were the things we knew, but could not always prove. And, also facebook thought sometimes that removing some content by certain types of people was the problem solved. We know it wasn’t solved, as the hate mobs and their massive networks of followers were still allowed to remain on facebook, minus one or two memes.

    The following is what I wrote, about some of the attacks on us, and the ‘Rapebook’ page, by these mobs. Note, the content of these blog is only some of what happened to us and our page.

    http://www.travelblog.org/Europe/Germany/Bavaria/Munich/blog-776385.html

    http://www.travelblog.org/Europe/Germany/Bavaria/Munich/blog-786282.html

    Like

  2. Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Melissa—and a million thanks for the work you did. I am so sorry for what you experienced, and what your family went through. To have your daughter threatened must have been terrifying. Because you fought this fight so hard, you brought Facebook’s misogyny and rape culture to light for others. Those who don’t see this, or argue with you about the definition of sexism, are blind to the monumental service you performed. Unfortunately, backlash has blinded many to what sexism is, and that it is all a big deal, and all connected–the work you did has helped to expose it, and I am deeply grateful to you for it.

    Like

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