Unhappy families: a scene from Eastenders' Christmas past. Photo: _BRMB_/Flickr
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Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett: My family will never have a “perfect Christmas” – and that’s OK

It’s pretty difficult to get excited about Starbucks finally getting the red cups in when one of the adults present at Christmas dinner could soil themselves at any moment. But even a bittersweet Christmas is worth having.

Here’s a handy – bastardised – literary  maxim for the festive season: “All un-crappy families are alike; each crappy family is crappy in its own way”.

It may not be Tolstoy, but it’s something I’ve certainly learned as I have got older. You think your family has problems? Divorce, disability, drug addiction, maybe some anger issues, a recent bereavement? Perhaps you’ve got someone literally going cold turkey in the upstairs bedroom? Tempting as it can be to lament how disappointingly unconventional your family is (and hell, at Christmas isn’t everyone dining out on their “weird” relatives?), there comes a time when you have to accept that you’re not the only one. 

Every family has its tragedies. As Christmas brings these sadnesses into sharper focus by bombarding us with wholesome images of happy, rosy-cheeked nuclear families in reindeer jumpers with no alcohol problems to speak of, remembering this factoid can be something of a comfort blanket when things get tough. It might not be as therapeutic as tanking up on more “port and brandy” (my Dad’s “cocktail” of choice) or nipping out the back to consume all the drugs you confiscated from your teenage offspring on Christmas Eve, but next time you’re midway through weathering the annual Yuletide rowpocalypse, do give it some thought. It helps. Tempting as it is to wallow in misery as you compare your eccentric, badly-behaved blood relatives with the respectable Joneses next door, it’s far healthier to assume that in all likelihood your neighbours have some dark secrets of their own too.

Still, you could give me all the “Christmas weed” (trust me, it’s a thing) in the world and I still wouldn’t view the festive period as a particularly happy time. After spending most of my teenage years wanting a Bing Cosby Christmas, by my mid-twenties, I finally accepted that 25 December  was never going to resemble the picture-perfect media confection I was presented with as a child. What can you expect with a family that is known to social services and has been ruptured by divorce? Unless you’re part of a tiny majority, you’re never going to see a supermarket Christmas advert that reflects your reality, whatever that might be – drunken rows, racist grandparents, Dad coming by to take you to his for that first Christmas dinner since the separation while your mum stays at home in her nightie, crying (and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have parents.) Factual depictions of real family dysfunction just wouldn’t sell enough chocolate logs, I guess. TV traditionally leaves that stuff to Eastenders.

Every Christmas I visit my severely disabled brother in his care home.  I help him open his presents and cuddle him while he sits there smiling in a Santa hat and then afterwards, every year, I cry because he is poorly and I wish he wasn’t. It’s always really sad and I always struggle to be the picture of festive joy and good tidings that I’m supposed to be because of it. It’s just not very “#Chrimbles” you know? What am I going to Instagram? His face as we drive away? Fuck that.

(Incidentally, I might be one of the few people on the planet who has a modicum of respect remaining for the film Love, Actually. That scene where she spends Christmas with her mentally ill brother breaks me, completely, every year.)

I know I’m not the only one who spends Christmas this way. Perhaps you’re visiting a terminally ill relative in hospital, are a victim of abuse, have a parent with a narcissistic personality disorder, or are one of the many hundreds of families who, thanks to our evil government Scrooge overlords, will be forced to rely on food banks and temporary accommodation this Christmas. If so, it can feel heartbreaking to have a life so imperfect when you are surrounded everywhere by Christmas cheer and crippled frog puppets announcing “God bless us, everyone!”

At Christmas, social inequalities become manifest – people naturally turn their thoughts to those who have nothing, donating money to those less fortunate via charities and Pret sandwiches. Unless, of course, you yourself have pretty much nothing, in which case you’re too busy worrying that you can’t give your children the Christmas they have been taught by advanced capitalism to want so desperately because your benefits have been cut and the fairy lights are fucked and Cancer Research only has dog-eared puzzles left on the shelves. I know Christmas is supposed to be a jolly time and it’s just not “done” to be too much of a Grinch about it, but it’s pretty difficult to get excited about Starbucks finally getting the red cups in when one of the adults present at Christmas dinner could shit themselves at any moment.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the person I’m currently in a relationship with absolutely loves Christmas. He comes from a big family (he’s one of nine children) that’s always considered Christmas as more of a festival than just a roast dinner with some extras and an excuse to get trashed. He maintains that, despite my suspicions, his family’s Christmas in no way resembles the “Home Alone” house, and yes, his family has its own issues (divorce, prison, veganism), but still nothing, and I mean nothing, comes in the way of Christmas. He struggles to understand why, for me, Christmas can feel emotionally fraught. There just aren’t enough of us to maintain a festive atmosphere, for a start. When it’s just you and your mum on the day itself it’s always going to feel a bit sad, no matter how much you might try and keep your spirits topped up.

I don’t want you to think that I’m feeling sorry for myself. I’m not – I do look forward to the day. I’d just like some media balance, because I’m sick of this peddled myth of Christmas perfection. None of us has the ideal family and every human has known sadness. This time of year, coming round as it does like clockwork throughout our lives, creates an impulse for nostalgia. Some of us will look back on the many Christmases we had as children, which will never be as innocent or as bounteous again. Others will remember those they loved whose seats around the table are now empty.

Personally, I try to balance sadness about my brother with the image of his excited, smiling face one December night a few years back when he still lived at home. Because my mum could not afford a tree, a good friend of mine agreed to risk the farmer’s shotgun to accompany me halfway up the mountain in the dark with a saw and “appropriate” one for us. It’s one of the nicest things that anyone has ever done for me or for my family. We may not be cookie cutter cut-outs, and we’re more than usually skint, but as a unit, we make it work.  It’s bittersweet, Christmas, for so many people, but somehow that’s what makes it mean something.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a founder of The Vagenda. She has donated the fee for this article to charity.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.