Reading Notes on Jere Alexander's "And The Dogs Were Silent"

In this book, through pitbulls, we catch a glimpse into the absurdity of the human-dog relationship as it exists today in settler colonial North America.

Reading Notes on Jere Alexander's "And The Dogs Were Silent"

I read And The Dogs Were Silent: A Woman's Diary of Pit Bulls, Dog Love, and Dogfighting in two major sittings. The first was an accidental all-nighter where I crossed over half the book from sundown to dawn, only emerging from my book-stupor when the morning sun shone through my bedroom window. The second was almost a week later, a blisteringly cold January evening in which I finished the book, a sleeping cat burrowed into my side to steal my meagre warmth.

A lot of my work in university had to do with nonhumans, and even though I'm quite firmly outside that ivory tower now, I still keep up with these ideas and theories. I don't want this bit of writing — which I've risen at one in the morning from bed to write — to solely be an exercise in reflex. I'm trying to transform my gut feelings into questions. This text is as much a fieldnote to myself, a log of introspection and questioning, as it is a text offered up for consumption to others. In other words, I'm still working through this shit.

I want to speak! The search for my "own" voice may be inherently flawed and fictional, (...) The process of locating and relocating my voice — not "my" voice, really, but the place from which I'm speaking at any given time. And perhaps I can share bits of what I learned in the field, as I'm translating. Jere Alexander, "And The Dogs Were Silent", (Kindle Edition, Location 2818)

There is a part of me that will always be in total awe of those who publish their raw diaries. This past year I have helped run a creative writing workshop, and I am always amazed at the sheer guts, love and trust it takes when someone submits a page from their personal journals, unedited.

As some readers here know, I studied creative writing formally in university, and we were strictly taught to always adhere to the rule that the voice or narrator of a piece is distinctly different from its author. It's a necessary ingredient to university classroom workshopping, because the workshop atmosphere completely disintegrates into something (even more) vicious when the people criticizing a piece aim that criticism directly at the writer without that shield. It's a clinical detachment that is completely necessary for a professor who has to grade a piece of creative fiction or poetry. The subject matter of the piece is the elephant in the workshop classroom. What grade do you give someone's memories of something highly traumatic or disturbing? How do you critique a writer for lacking a correct or palatable stylistic execution of their own baggage if you can't separate the voice experiencing the trauma with the writer? It's so much safer to hide behind the sometimes-pretense that there is a definite, non-porous boundary between the narrator and the author. So it's unbearably brave to publish something that actively flies in the face of all that. Sometimes it was also unbearable when reading — I'm not surprised it took me a week to sit with the first two-thirds of the book before I could proceed with the last of it. I had to find a bit of my own courage to keep reading, to keep dealing.

The diary is definitely raw as in rough. Reading through some of the entries, I found typos and misspellings and superfluous words here and there, unusual in a published book that straddles an academic fence, as if the narrator was double-dog daring you to question the authenticity of its realness. Uncapitalized and capitalized "i" dotted the piece, their inconsistence creating a subtle twisting in the voice that speaks out from the diaries. I often wondered if the texts with more "i"s were the private entries which had not been published online beforehand, though sometimes I saw the uncapitalized "i"s pop up in what were definitely old blog posts. A tapestry of eyes, a voice that sees.

Some of what I wrote makes me cringe now. I was so naive, and some of it is embarassing and even offensive. I'm leaving it as-is to remind us why some things are included in archives, memoirs, histories, and others left out. It's tempting to want to tell a story that serves us. Jere Alexander, "And The Dogs Were Silent", (Kindle Edition, Location 85)

A voice develops, negotiated between lower-case and upper-case, remembering Alexander's desire to transcend the implacable barrier between the ivory tower of academia and the working class. Sometimes the jumps between "diary entries" (in quotation marks because some entries are blog posts or excerpts of chat logs or fieldnotes, which do not discount their "diaryness" but complicate it) are jarring. There are occasionally valuable pieces of context missing. The voice changes beyond punctuation. What happened to the author between certain logs, other than the passage of time? What happened to this or that storyline? Sometimes the narratives complicate straightforward understandings of identity and growth within social justice. For instance, why does the author mention a feminist framework or lens here, but uncritically use gendered slurs and unfeminist language later? It's a thorny reminder to all of us who keep diaries that likely most of our diaries (past, and dare I say present) would not pass the litmus tests expected from us who negotiate and navigate in or near social justice spaces. (How many of us still use ableist, sexist, and even racist language in our diaries or in close personal conversations between old friends because culture has made that language convenient shorthands to express our grief, our despair, our annoyances, our amusement, our resentment?) Alexander does not sanitize her diaries or fieldnotes for us, puncturing our collective fantasy that we have never had problematic politics. And who is that we? White people involved in social justice? Settlers or folks complicit in settler colonialism but striving towards social justice?

Speaking of social justice, I first encountered the term "companion species" in Donna Haraway's When Species Meet. But otipemisiw/Métis philosopher Zoe Todd researches fish pluralities from an Indigenous legal and historical perspective, bringing a much-needed decolonial lens to the conversation about human and animal kinship, which she introduces here:

Dogs are our companion species. If we conceptualise or recognize a world in which bonds of family and kinship transcend species, then we understand the social bonds that we create with animals do not just take place on individual-to-individual scales. We understand that the fight for animal rights is not just an environmental fight. We have to resist the colonial system of environment-as-landscape, sitting across the horizon and very, very far removed from our individual concerns, especially us urban-dwellers. We must consciously take animals out of that fictitious backdrop and brings them centre-stage with us, to realise that this is where in fact they have always been.

dogs need freedom to live as the creatures they were (biologically) meant to be. This makes perfect sense to me, but goes against a lot of the alpha dog training that everyone is so enthralled with these days. What might be a method of getting at more information about agency in dogs, when people's agendas tend to determine their opinion? There are people who think dogs shouldn't be allowed agency since they might run amok, or eat our children. Then there are people who just think human-dog relationships function better with the human taking the alpha position. They might be the same people who fear for their children, or just people who have been led to believe that's the right way to live with a dog, and they like feeling that sort of mastery or control. There might also be some few people like me (who live under rocks most of the time) who try to be friends with their dogs, or partners in some way. These people are routinely chastised by groups 1&2. Jere Alexander, "And The Dogs Were Silent", (Kindle Edition, Location 2102)

During And The Dogs Were Silent's strongest moments, we glimpse into the absurdity of the human-dog relationship on a macro scale as it exists today in settler colonial North America. It's chaos and butchery. As humans we slaughter millions of nonhumans in order to ensure our own survival, but in the case of pit-bulls and the animal-rescue apparatus, the substistence or food chain reasons for this butchery break apart. According to the ASPCA, approximately 1.5 million shelter animals are euthanized (670,000 dogs and 860,000 cats) every year in the United States.[1] Jere Alexander has no answers, but so many questions, and in places it really feels like something approaching the right questions are being asked in these journals. And finally asking the right questions is so important. Maybe it's just my own feelings, but questions have always felt more important to me than holding on to an answer that can be enshrined as a comfortable all-encompassing truth.

The question of comfort returned again and again. Some diary entries were necessarily graphic and disturbing. Jere Alexander's research into the dog fighting world, and her later forays into running a dog shelter, are filled with heartbreaking details and nausea-inducing experiences. Alexander mentions her own reactions to the stresses of doing research and constantly having to renegotiate her own ethical boundaries. As I mention earlier, the diaries are not always complete. There are important gaps. Sometimes I found I needed more context. Our diaries are always in media res (Latin for "in the middle of things") because our lives have no distinct beginning and end. But when we attempt to fit our lives or research into written narratives, we must tack on these artificial customs because they are easier to communicate that way. There is an assumed logical progression (beginning, middle, end) to how sentences, paragraphs, stories are constructed. Reading And The Dogs Were Silent often felt like I was being exposed to the middle or beginning-middle of a sentence. It reminded me of the first time I read the fragments of Sappho as a teenager. Our brains are wonderful at teasing connections between jagged pieces thrown on the table. But sometimes there was enough discomfort that I found myself yearning for context.

An example then, because I write and speak too often in the abstract. At one point, in the diaries, the voice of the diary makes a classist, sexist and even fatphobic remark about the (perceived) ease with which working class women are able to conceive children (Kindle Edition, location 1488). The voice even has a moment of self-reflexion, a defensive "I know I sound obnoxious, but—" I can't help the discomfort that claws at me, shouldn't a researcher have more empathy? More care? More awareness? Historically, the ways in which poor women (usually of colour, usually Indigenous, usually colonized) are perceived by upper classes is almost always as if they were less-than-human. Almost...nonhuman. Bodies of biological importance, but more like cattle than human. I'm thinking here especially of the way in which wetnurses where used historically in Europe and in the Americas to feed the children of the upper classes — the children of the upper classes literally feeding from the bodies of the working poor. And The Dogs Were Silent seeks to demonstrate the close social ties between the working class and the dogs that exist alongside them but I wonder if the diaries responsibly negotiate that messed-up cultural lens of viewing poor bodies as a resource, as sustenance, as objects. As researchers or thinkers are we recognizing that nonhumans have always been our companions at our table, or are we repeating toxic structures of white settler patriarchal colonialism by juxtaposing poor people and pit bulls as something intrinsically tied beneath the table, scrounging for the scraps dropped by academic institutions which are fully complicit with larger oppressive systems?

All to say, there are a lot of threads dangling in And The Dogs Were Silent, and the diaries are often unable to deal with all of them in a way that feels satisfying to my own admittedly far-removed discomfort. From time to time, later diary entries fill in the blanks left behind by earlier stories. For instance, returning to the early example of working class women having children, we discover later that the voice in the diary was having serious reproductive medical issues and was trying to cope with the "cult of Mommy" which had infected her outlook. (Kindle Edition, location 3787) The pressures in rural America to get married and have children in a way that conforms to the heteronormative ideal are toxic. That contextualization cut through my own frustration at what I perceived as a lack of compassion of earlier entries. And The Dogs Were Silent are the research diaries of an ethnographer, though they are less than that and also more than that. Often, the more personal details slipped through, the more the diaries satisfied some mysterious inner barometer that allowed me to stomach a discomfort that sometimes arose in me while reading.

So what would have felt more satisfactory? Additional commentary from the present-day Jere Alexander, a decade into the future, speaking back to these raw materials? A present-day voice which apologizes for graceless moments and slips and frustrations? Would that have satisfied me further, or just satisfied my own voyeurship? It's hard to say, and I don't have an answer. Do I demand political perfection from ten-year old diaries? What about that mythical idea of accountability, especially as academics and those of us who operate in the periphery of those spaces, such as myself? How does that work with this kind of thing?

It's further complicated by the multifaceted nature of the diary entries themselves. The first half of the And The Dogs Were Silent are records of the ethnographic years, containing descriptions of the author's research techniques and online activities and the changing relationships between the author and a cast of characters from the pitbull world. I had a hard time keeping track of the characters' names after a while. In 2005, the diaries say: "i think i’ve hit a wall with this stuff. my attitudes are changing. i can’t deal." (Kindle Edition, Location 555-556) But nowhere are there descriptions of what those attitudes are and how they are changing. A chunk of the good stuff in And The Dogs Were Silent is the stuff between the lines, the stuff that's implied. Maybe that's why I wanted more context so badly.

The last third of the diaries are where the academic theory really starts making itself felt, from Haraway to Lee Edelman and beyond. These entries and blog posts did sometimes read like teasers, hinting at the heavy-hitting critical stuff. Whether it was how pitbull communities and racism are related, how Black and poor communities are hurt by anti-pitbull legislation, the way non-profits predate on poor communities and on the dog communities they supposedly serve, how pitbulls are related to queer futures, toxic masculinity, racism, etc... As a set of personal diaries, the book sometimes lacked the full personal context to follow them as personal journals and engage with them in that way, and as a set of research fieldnotes, they sometimes lacked the kind of argumentative follow-through that would make them philosophical heavy-hitters.

As I wrote earlier in these notes, these diaries are rough, and make me wonder what that eventual PhD by Jere Alexander was going to look like. I bailed on the university after suffering through my undergrad and working as an RA for a few different sociology/literary labs. Though I left academia, I have also worked as an editor on several different PhD dissertations since late 2016, all at various stages of completion. I'm always particularly impressed by those doctoral students who are able to subvert traditional stuffy "academic writing" to write their thesis differently, and get away with it. As of January 2018, the author biography for Jere Alexander says that she is still a PhD candidate, which means she's been developing this project for over a decade — I'm not surprised that she wanted to get these diaries out there! I just can't help but wonder about the meat of the research, which we catch glimmers of here and there. Questions remain in my mind: What's the full story about what happened at that animal rescue shelter, and with those employees? What where the full legal and political ramifications from the author's work as an expert legal witness on policy changes in Georgia? What's the full story behind what happened with Fox News? What were the repercussions amongst the pit bull community when the author began to run a shelter? Who were all the dogs that lived in the author's own house? What are the factors that made it so the author only ran an ethnographic study on white poor rural pitbullers? What about the Black demographic? What has changed in ten years? I am perhaps too infected by academic writing on nonhuman companions that I can't approach these diaries as a finished product. It's in the spirit of encouraging Jere Alexander to keep developing this research that I decided to publish these notes myself, critical feedback from one (not-quite) philosopher creature to another, and for any passerby who might find this interesting. I especially want to reward that trust and love that is required to publish raw diaries to the general public by taking the diaries seriously and offering my own constructive thoughts in return. There are so many questions that still need asking, let alone answering, I can't help following the threads as far as I can, and wonder where they are all meant to go.

Especially, and always, for the dogs.

Dogs, in their historical complexity, matter here. Dogs are not an alibi for other themes; dogs are fleshly material-semiotic presences in the body of technoscience. Dogs are not surrogates for theory; they are not here just to think with. They are here to live with. Donna Haraway, "The Companion Species Manifesto", page 5

  1. 2024-02-27 — I received a very interesting email from Emily of the World Animal Foundation today asking me to update these statistics, which in the United States have changed significantly since the start of the pandemic. As of 2024, 920 000 shelter animals (390 000 dogs and 530 000 cats) are euthanized per year (according to the ASPCA). This significant decline is affected by a few different factors, including the pandemic. ↩︎

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