Justin Xavier — Writing Portfolio

Introduction

My name is Justin Xavier, and as you now know, I am a freelance writer. I’ve written articles and social media content for various websites and online channels, research articles about scientific topics like the nutritional value of meat and what science has to say about the existence of an afterlife, and copy to explain the hidden value of the company I was writing about. The topics I write about are broad, and the style of writing varies day to day.

My passion has always been learning. My mother once told me that it was the one thing she noticed that set me apart from my brothers and sisters: I wanted to know all of the answers to everything. When I am assigned a topic I don’t know anything about, I do the work seeking out every report, study, and opinion on the subject so that I can better formulate the best way to organize and structure the information. From there, I fill in the gaps with the meat of the story and lay it out in simple, easy-to-understand language. When assigned a topic I do know something about, I still put in the effort to see if there’s anything I don’t know.

My first published short story was in 2011, my first payed writing job was in 2012, shortly after graduating from Miami University, and I’ve built up a steady resumé in the time since. On a separate but still-writing related note, one of my feature-length screenplays, “Sick For Toys,” was purchased and produced in 2016, and the completed film went to Cannes in 2018.

 

What you will find below is a collection of articles and pieces I have written over the 6 years I’ve been a freelancer. Included:

I. “Math is Just Another Word for Curiosity” — Mathnasium.com [2016]

II. “Is Meat Bad For Me?” — Video Script, Valnet.com [2018]

III. “About Me” — Amber-Tiana.com [2018]

IV. “The Divorce” — Short Story published in Inklings Magazine [2011]

V. “The Top 6 Reasons Math is Hard to Learn” — Mathnasium.com [2017]

VI. “Personal Essay” — Disney’s Emerging Writers Program [2017]

 

I. “Math is Just Another Word for Curiosity” — Mathnasium.com

When humans are born, we think exactly the same way as mathematicians. We’re curious, we’re overwhelmed, and we seek to understand. Life is just a process of discovery as we try to explore the world we find ourselves in and make sense of this overload of information. The toys we play with are experiments. This shape of block fits into this shape of hole. This toy spins, but this one doesn’t. What makes something spin? This is a button. Buttons can be pressed. What happens when these different buttons are pressed?

We don’t think of these explorations as math, but they are. We have a question, and then we seek to find an answer or an explanation. Before we even speak words, we speak the language of math. We figure out the concepts of “more” and “less,” we gain a general understanding of gravity and physics, we observe shapes and witness mysteries. Mathematicians often operate similarly. They seek out patterns in the world and then look for explanations. They try to find rules, or formulas and equations, to explain the way the world around us actually works. They crunch numbers and utilize massive amounts of data to calculate patterns about people and the way that we live our lives.

Somewhere throughout the process of learning, we lose our curiosity. And around the same time, most people lose interest in math. Schools tell us everything we’re “supposed” to know, and we stop thinking for ourselves about what else there might be to learn. Part of this is because most kids don’t like school. It isn’t always fun. There’s work to do, there’s homework, social stressors, concepts that advance and seem endless in their depth, and more subjects than any one person could be interested in. The more information school throws at us, the less likely we are to go home and continue asking questions. “I’ve already learned for 8 hours today, I’m not ready to learn anything more!” You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t feel that way. As a kid, I always enjoyed school, but I definitely didn’t want to keep learning when I got home. I wanted to play with my friends and watch movies. I learned everything I needed to on a given day, and that’s when I’d call it quits.

Math teaches people to remain curious. Math does what no other subject can completely do: It provides the answers. There are rules in math that always work. They will always be true. It doesn’t matter where you are or where you go, the math stays the same. How do we know it works everywhere? Because mathematicians are inherently curious people. When a new rule is introduced, they challenge it. They wrack their brains searching for counter-examples and ways to “break” the rule. They invent new types of Geometry for worlds that aren’t 3-dimensional, just to see if the rule would hold true in an alternate reality. And then, they seek to prove the math. When they’ve failed to disprove a rule, they seek out an entirely new process and attempt to show that their rule or mathematical law is always true, without fail. These proofs then become readily available online and in textbooks.

If they can’t do it… they seek more answers. Math is about looking at the world and asking, “why?” Why does adding a negative number to a positive number make the positive number smaller? Shouldn’t adding always make things larger? Or, why do different-shaped objects fall to the earth at the same speed? When there are exceptions, like feathers, why do they not follow the same rules as bowling balls and dolls? The only reason we know the answers to these questions is because someone, hundreds or even thousands of years ago, had the same questions. And they put in research and work and figured out the answers. Most of those questions have evolved into modern mathematics and science.

There are still a lot of things we don’t know. Mathematicians have fiercely heated debates today about different forms of geometry, or what the definition of an infinite set should be, and why. They seek to find ways to make the world make sense. And that’s why we need more people to be interested in learning and doing math. Because it isn’t only true in the field of mathematics, it’s true everywhere. There is so much that we don’t know about the world, and about each other, and about the universe itself. Math alone doesn’t have all of the answers, but without math, we wouldn’t have any answers at all.

When kids write off math as being “too hard” or “not interesting,” they’re limiting their potential. They unknowingly close their minds to new patterns of thinking, new abilities to solve problems, and infinite curiosities. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it until it becomes an immutable truth: Everyone is capable of learning and understanding math. I’ve never met a person who couldn’t explain to me what “half” means. That’s math. It may be a beginning stage, but it opens the door to so much more. Once you understand that one piece of chocolate can be broken into two equal parts, you also realize it could be broken into more than two equal parts. Or into 2 unequal parts. The process of learning one mathematical concept opens the floodgates to more. The same is true of life.

When we learn math, we become more curious. When we remain curious, we enter the world with a desire and ability to learn. When we enter the world with a desire to learn, we ask questions, and then we gain understanding. Math is truly the first building block on the road to a lifetime of learning and understanding, growth and change, and ultimately, happiness and fulfillment.

 

II. “Is Meat Bad For Me?” — Video Script, Valnet.com

You’ve no doubt heard the rumors: eating meat is actually bad for you, and should be avoided at all costs! But… is that true? With so many conflicting reports, scientists and doctors who claim to be certain as to whether or not meat is healthy, and vegetarianism and veganism on the rise, it’s time to take a good, hard look at the evidence we have available and finally answer the question as to whether or not meat is a part of a nutritious, balanced diet, or is actually slowly killing you from the inside-out.

Before we dive deep into the truth about meat in the modern world, make sure to like this video and subscribe to TheRichest. If you want to be the first to know whenever we post new videos, hit that notification bell too. Now, is meat bad for you? Let’s find out.

First, let’s take a look at historical evidence of meat in the diets of early humans and the species that we evolved from.

Some scientists believe that eating meat was vital to the evolution of humanity’s larger brains, which happened approximately two million years ago. Because meat and bone marrow contains more calories than plants, the species Homo erectus was able to get enough extra energy at every meal to develop and fuel a larger brain. Because meat is so dense, it took up less room in stomachs, allowing stomachs to shrink, meaning that even more of the eaten meat calories could be redirected to brain-functionality instead of just digestion. To showcase the difference, a modern human’s brain uses up 20% of a human’s energy while at rest, whereas an ape’s brain uses only 8% of the animal’s energy. Scientists theorize that in order for this evolutionary change to occur, Homo erectus must have had a diet that contained more meat than plants. Does that mean that a diet of mostly meat makes us more intelligent? It is noteworthy that a larger brain does not always imply greater intelligence, or whales would have already taken over the planet.

Some people today argue that, because our ancestors ate meat, we should eat meat as well. It’s a logical argument, but it’s also an argument that discounts the idea of further evolution. Yes, early humans ate meat, but something happened approximately 100,000 years ago that changed our diets, and a different diet meant that a different type of body, or a different type of human was better able to survive.

Before we get there, we have to talk about the next dietary change that allowed for humans to develop larger brains: cooking our food. Cooked food is “predigested,” meaning that it takes less energy for our stomachs to break down into energy, leaving more for our brains. Cooking makes food soft, easier to chew, and rich in energy. Studies have found that it takes between 39 and 46% less force to chew and swallow cooked or processed meat than other forms of food, saving our ancestors both time and energy. Thus, it is argued that our ancestors couldn’t have survived on raw food alone, or at least couldn’t have evolved to become the dominant species on the planet.

So now we fast forward through a few more stages of evolution to 100,000 years ago, when humans invented agriculture. Thanks to being able to grow their own crops, humans were able to reliably stay in one place, allowing them to have more children. In a relatively short period of time, farmers far outnumbered hunter-gatherers. This massive change in diet from a variety of plants and animals to a more consistent but limited diet of mostly grains spurred the next phase in human evolution.

That being said, scientists also argue that meat was never that big a percentage of human diets, instead saying that meat, even at its most readily available, was never as accessible as walking out into the savannah and finding an animal to eat. It’s not like they could politely ask a gazelle to surrender its body, and other species also evolved defense mechanisms to protect themselves from the likes of humans. Many days, humans would return home from the hunt without meat, and on those days, people would rely more on the ‘gathering’ side of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, aka plants. This implies that the leap from hunting and gathering to farming wasn’t as difficult as some have theorized.

Now that we’ve taken the time to understand where we came from, it’s time to take a look at where we are now.

Modern diets vary wildly from place to place, culture to culture, and even person to person within the same culture. The vegetarian and vegan crowd argues that meat is always bad for us, and shouldn’t be consumed for any reason. Their arguments range from, “it’s cruel to kill animals” to “our bodies evolved to live off plants so it’s better for us not to eat meat.” Whatever the reason, a growing percentage of the population is swearing off meat permanently, meaning that scientists are better able to study whether a meat-free diet is more or less healthy.

The “Paleo” diet, however, insists that our bodies have not evolved from our pre-agriculture Homo erectus days, and that we should be eating lots of lean meats and some raw plants that were available to us at the time, avoiding instead the processed plants and grains that came about when we started farming 100,000 years ago.

So… who’s right? Modern dieticians are divided, but new studies on meat have added some much-needed clarity to the conversation. First, let’s take a look at all of the arguments against meat, so that we know where this anti-meat rhetoric is coming from.

A study done by the World Health Organization has labeled processed meats as a Group 1 Carcinogen, meaning that they definitely cause cancer over time. Processed meats include salami, bacon, sausage, hot dogs, and other similar foods. The longer you eat any of these meats, the higher and higher your likelihood of developing cancer becomes.

Red meats, such as Pork, Beef, and Lamb, have been labeled, in the same study, as Group 2A carcinogens, meaning that they ‘probably’ cause cancer.

If cancer doesn’t scare you, eating processed meats has also been linked to developing heart disease and diabetes. These foods have increasingly been linked to deteriorating health and lower life expectancies amongst those people who partake. The problem is that meat, dairy, and eggs contain cholesterol and saturated fats, which contribute heavily to some of the biggest killers in the United States: heart attacks, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. According to a study published by the American Diabetes Association, people who eat diets with high amounts of animal proteins are 22% more likely to develop diabetes. Add to that the fact that saturated fat is liked to breast cancer, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and cognitive decline, and it’s not looking so good for the meat-eating crowd.

Modern diet studies have shown that eating meat tends to lead to a higher Body-Mass Index, or BMI, than diets with less meat. In fact, the less meat a diet contains, and the leaner the meat within the diet, the lower the average BMI of the participants in the study. In order from highest average BMI to lowest, the diets were: Nonvegetarian, semi-vegetarian, Pescetarian, Lacto-ovo-vegetarian, and Vegan.

Meat has also been linked to a variety of other health problems, such as erectile dysfunction, antibiotic resistance, food poisoning, and a lower life expectancy. Some of this is because almost all modern meat is filled with hormones. In order to produce enough food for a planet with an ever-increasing human population, farmers and livestock producers have taken to injecting their animals with unnatural growth hormones so that the animals grow to be larger, meatier, and juicier than they otherwise would, meaning the animals are available to sell earlier, and usually for more money. On top of the growth hormones, animals are injected with chemicals to keep insects and pests away, and in theory, reduce their prone-ness to disease. The problem is, we don’t always know which chemicals our food has been injected with. Imagine grabbing a handful of pills from a vat, and then eating all of them at once. Even if all of the pills by themselves are perfectly safe and healthy, we don’t know how they’re going to interact with one another or what side effects they may have.

The arguments presented so far only touch on human health, and don’t even begin to talk about how the evolution of meat production and consumption has affected the environment or the planet itself. Early on in human evolution, there were significantly fewer humans, and significantly fewer animals on farms. The methods of importing, exporting, and mass-distributing meat were much slower, meaning that meat would go bad before it got to its destination. Nowadays, we can add preservatives to our meat, and ship it in refrigerated containers, meaning that it lasts longer and is easier to transport around the world.

This ease of production means that we’ve been producing more meat than ever, and the meat that doesn’t sell is discarded. Essentially, we’re creating waste, and we have no plan on how to deal with the ever-increasing amount of animal waste that we’ve been producing worldwide.

That’s not even the worst of it. The human population has exploded in recent decades, to the point where there are currently over 7 billion people living on the planet, and it is estimated that by the year 2050, there will be nine billion people living on Earth. With all those new mouths to feed, we’ll have to step up our game on producing food, but we’re running out of room to store the animals, and we’re running out of food to feed them. In order to feed the animals that we use as livestock, we also need to grow more plants, but we’re very quickly heading for a crisis of space and energy.

Add to this the fact that agriculture is a heavy contributor to global warming, contributing an estimated 14% of the planet’s total greenhouse gas output, and we’re looking at an impending disaster. A significant portion of these greenhouse gasses is methane, or, more simply: farts. Animals fart. Cows fart a lot. The planet is filling up with cow farts, and it’s wreaking havoc on our global ecosystems.

Really, you ask? Cow farts? YES. Okay, cows do emit more methane through burping than farting, but that honestly scares me more. Whether from burps or farts, methane is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide when it comes to global warming, and the planet’s 1.5 billion cows emit a lot of methane. Even conservative estimates say that a single cow creates as much damage to our planet as a car does on any given day.

“Wait… I thought this video was about whether or not meat is bad for me!” You’re right. But if meat is bad for the environment of the planet that you live on, then meat is bad for you. If the planet dies, we all die.

We’ve talked a lot about the negative side of meat and the meat industry, but what about the positives?

While considered to be a dying breed, there are still hunter-gatherer societies in the world today. Many indigenous populations continue to hunt and gather, and their diets do contain meat. Amongst these populations, the risk factors of heart disease and cancer seem not to be a factor, although it is theorized that this is only because of how little meat their diets contain.

The other thing is–the world is a big, big place. Over the course of human evolution, different societies evolved differently, and their diets accordingly. There are still sections of the world, typically in snow-and ice covered lands like the northernmost parts of places like Alaska, Russia, and Canada, where diets consist almost entirely of meat. The people who live in these regions evolved differently, and their bodies are better suited to handle an all-meat diet.

Everyone’s body is unique, and the perfect diet for you may not be the perfect diet for me, or even someone closely related to you. When indigenous populations with restrictive diets become exposed to Western diets that are rich with sugar and processed food, those populations begin to develop diabetes and cancer that was otherwise unknown to them.

It seems clear that in almost all humans, a diet with low amounts of meat-intake is the healthiest type of diet, leading to fewer health complications and longer lifespans. Whether or not you should give up meat entirely depends on who you are, and more specifically, where your ancestors are from. If you’re evolved from European farmers, you can probably survive and thrive on a completely meat-free diet. If you’re closely related to an African tribe of hunter-gatherers, you may actually need some meat for your body and brain to function.

The fact is, there are no easy answers. It all depends on what type of meat, how often you eat it, and who your ancestors are. All that being said, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the industry of meat we’ve created is bad for the planet, and is ultimately unsustainable as we increase our population worldwide.

That’s all we have today for the debate as to whether meat is bad for us! Make sure you weigh in in the comments section below, and if you haven’t already, don’t forget to subscribe!

 

III. “About Me” — Amber-Tiana.com

Amber-Tiana is a living, breathing, 24 hour one-woman show. Immersed in the entertainment industry essentially since birth, she has no comprehension of life without art or performance and constantly seeks to conquer the next stage, platform or medium. Her contagious positive energy and enthusiasm infect her audience and take them on creative, magical journeys through both the digital and physical worlds. All she needs is a microphone, and she’ll keep an audience entertained all night long. She’s a producer, writer, editor, actor, singer, host and live broadcaster. Her greatest pleasures in life come from seeing a project grow from idea to execution and witnessing first-hand the experiences of every person involved, from collaborators, cast and crew, all the way to the audience enjoying the product. The Amber-Tiana brand is built on seeking truth and spreading love, peace, and happiness, and any of her fans would tell you the same.

 

IV. “The Divorce” — Short Story published in Inklings Magazine

This was the dinner he finally realized he wanted a divorce. She hadn’t done anything any differently, but that was exactly the problem. But maybe he should have tried something; maybe it was his fault.

It was the little things that annoyed him. The way she separated her bites by size so that she could eat the smallest ones last. The way she sniffed every drink before bringing it to her lips like it were wine, even if it was water. It was as if she mistrusted everyone, as if she thought someone was trying to poison her.

It was the way she offered to pay for the meal after the server had already taken his card. The way she got up from the table to use the bathroom without telling him where she was going, just assuming he would figure it out when he saw which direction she went. He sometimes secretly wished she wouldn’t come back.

But she had come back. Like she always did.

He turned the car onto the highway toward home. She sat silently in the passenger seat watching the wiper blades clear the slight drizzle from the windshield. She was always useless in the rain, completely distracted by the sight and the sound. She could sit, mesmerized, for hours at a time. He understood up to a point, but eventually he would get bored. He would try to talk to her, or to kiss her, but she would remain in a sort of trance, unresponsive and motionless.

“Sarah, put your seat belt on,” he told her when he noticed the red light on the dashboard. As he expected, she ignored him. Why couldn’t she just listen this once, when it was actually important to him?

Frustrated, he began to merge onto the highway. He hadn’t, however, noticed the semi truck coming from behind him. As soon as he merged, the truck hit the back of his car. The back end swung out, gliding across the damp pavement. The front of his car skidded to the right and the rest of the car followed. Still moving forward, the vehicle tumbled off the road. It crashed into a ditch and came to a crushing halt.

He took a moment to realize what had happened; to examine himself to see if he was okay. He couldn’t find any serious injuries; he just seemed a little shaken up. He turned to look at his wife.

She hadn’t been so lucky. She was bleeding, knocked out on the dashboard. There was a crack in the windshield where her head had struck, and an open wound on her scalp.

He didn’t think about the divorce again until they got to the hospital. He was sitting in an uncomfortable blue chair when the doctor came to tell him how she was.

“Are you Henry Salinger?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Is your wife Sarah Salinger?”

“Yes, that’s my wife,” Henry said.

The question had immediately reminded Henry of Sarah’s initial complaint that her last name would begin with the same letter as her first. He should have known then.

The doctor’s next statement snapped Henry back to the present. His wife had been paralyzed from the neck down. She would remain this way for the rest of her life.

Henry was numb. He couldn’t tell her about the divorce now, it wouldn’t be fair. To leave her at the worst possible moment—how could he explain that to people? His parents, his friends, their friends… It would seem like he was only leaving because of the accident. There was no way he could possibly make them understand.

When they finally let him see her, she was crying. Henry sat at her bedside and held her hand, but he wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t like she could feel it. Henry acknowledged that that was a strange thought to have. The gesture seemed right, though, and he didn’t know what else he could do.

She looked out the window in her room. It was still raining. He thought that meant the conversation would be over, as she would go into another one of her trances, but instead she turned back to him. There were tears in her eyes, but she wasn’t making a sound.

“If you want to leave, I understand,” she said.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said.

And he didn’t. He stayed in the hospital with her all weekend. When he was sure she was okay, he went back to work, but still returned to the hospital every night to be with her. He slept there most nights.

He began to bring in her favorite things from their house, her favorite blankets, her favorite pillow, the giant stuffed bear he had won her at the state fair the year before.

Her parents came to visit. At first they weren’t sure what to say, but Sarah assured them that Henry had been driving safely and had told her to put on her seatbelt, she had just failed to comply.

They told Henry that he was wonderful, great, amazing. They said he was the best person they had ever known, that their daughter was lucky to have a man as great as him in her life.

“She really needs you right now,” Sarah’s mother had told him. “We’re so glad you’re here.”

Henry had simply said thank you, it wasn’t anything, he loved her.

That seemed to appease her parents, and the other visitors. Henry became popular amongst the hospital staff. The nurses all adored him, said he was the best possible husband. If they were ever in an accident, they could only hope they had somebody as wonderful as Henry Salinger.

Henry couldn’t take any more of their talk. He began to close the door to Sarah’s room when he came to visit. That way it was just the two of them, and he didn’t have anybody else to fool.

When they were together, she didn’t talk a lot. Henry would tell her about work, and she would listen and laugh or cry, depending on the story. Then he would kiss her and tell her he loved her.

He noticed that the nurses didn’t feed her correctly. They just put any bit of food in her mouth, regardless of size. He began to relieve them of their duties so that he could do it the way she liked. He organized each bite in order and gave them to her how she wanted.

He allowed her to take a sniff of any liquid beverage before pouring it into her mouth, trying everything to make her feel like her old self, trying to get her to show any reason to make him leave.

And she began, slowly, to act like her old self. After a year had passed, she was talking again like she had before the accident. She would laugh joyously, tell stories about people she knew at the hospital. And Henry would listen.

And then it would rain. Sarah would stare out the window, quietly taking in the beauty of the storm. She would observe each drop of rain against the window, and each flash of lightning would illuminate her smile, or her tears.

When these times came, Henry would lie on the bed next to her and take her hand in his. They sat like this for hours, never saying a word.

 

V. “The Top 6 Reasons Math is Hard to Learn” — Mathnasium.com

  1. You’re either right or you’re wrong.

This is one of the most frustrating aspects of math for many young minds. When it comes to most things in life, there’s some gray area. People aren’t “good” or “bad.” Rules can often bend. Bedtime can be negotiated. But in math, that’s almost never true. 1+1 will always equal 2. The square root of pi will never change. And sometimes, it may feel overwhelming. It may feel like you need to have everything memorized, the way you would in a history class. But that isn’t how math works. Understanding math isn’t about memorization, but about learning the rules, and then making sure to follow them.

  1. Even when you’re doing it right, you might still be wrong.

I see this all the time. A student has worked out a long word problem, gotten all of the numbers correct, and then written the wrong answer in the provided “blank space.” Or, a student is working on an algebra problem and has done every step correctly, but misplaced a negative during step 7. At the end of the problem, the answer is wrong. And as an instructor, I have to tell the student that he or she is incorrect. It can feel frustrating to have done so much work, only to find out that it has all been for naught. It’s difficult to verbalize to a student that they’ve actually done everything correctly, but are wrong nonetheless. Of the 25 steps in the problem, there was only one mistake. And it wasn’t a “bad at math” mistake, but a reading mistake. Often, a student will come away from a situation like this and tell him or herself, “I am bad at math,” instead of being proud of the work that was done correctly.

  1. Math builds on itself.

You can’t move to the next phase of math until you understand the level you’re on. If you’re constructing a building, you have to lay the foundation before you can build the walls. In math, every new lesson is a brand new foundation. It’s a structure with new rules piling up on top of each other forever. If any one of those foundations is weak, there’s no moving on. The reason so many students fall behind is not because they are incapable of learning, but because they are missing one key ingredient from a prior lesson that makes it impossible to progress. If you haven’t yet grasped the idea of a fraction, it’s not going to be any easier once a variable is attached to that fraction. If a student has fallen behind, it may become increasingly difficult to speak up about their confusion. They begin to tell themselves that math is impossible, instead of finding a way to put the missing piece in place.

  1. Understanding the method but not the reason leads to forgetting.

Getting an “A” on a test does not mean that you understand the material. It means you studied, and perhaps remember, at least for now, the method on how to solve a particular type of problem. If you understand that 4+6=10, but not why those two numbers can combine to make 10, you may not learn as quickly that 40+60=100. Or that 104+6=110. When it comes to the more difficult concepts, especially once algebra is involved, it’s very easy to learn how to solve a problem but not why the solution works, making it impossible to move on to the next concept. If you’ve learned the formula for “area” but not what “area” actually means, when they give you the area and ask you to solve the problem backwards, you may be completely at a loss. If, instead, you understand “area” to be “the space on the inside of the shape,” then you may be able to piece together yourself how to solve the problem backwards.

  1. A “C” is not a passing grade in math.

In many classes in school, and in many households across the country, a “C” in a class means, “you understand the material pretty well, and you’re on par with the rest of the students.” In math, this isn’t the case. If you get a “C” on a math test, it means that you don’t understand the material. If you have a “C” in a math class, it means there are fundamental building blocks of your math education that are missing. Because math is cumulative and builds on itself, a “C” means that the next class is going to be even harder, and even if you’ve memorized most of the formulas, there will be problems that are nearly impossible to solve until you’ve gone back to learn what is missing. Understanding the material “kind of” is what leads to problems.

  1. Teachers don’t have enough time.

Acknowledging that the above problems are true, there is no feasible way for a math teacher to make sure that all 30 to 100 of their students across multiple class periods fully understands all of the material. Time is a very limited resource for teachers. They use it to teach, plan a syllabus, grade papers, teach extracurricular activies, and tend to their own personal lives. There isn’t enough time in a week, or a month, to spend one-on-one time with each student to ensure that they are up to speed. If a teacher gets a student who is already months or years behind, there is nothing they can do for him or her without disrupting class time and slowing the learning of the other students. At a certain point, it’s time to go back and relearn the concepts, or get a tutor to help with the basics. It may feel insulting or diminishing, but if the problem isn’t solved right away, it will only persist and grow stronger as the concepts in math get more complicated.

TIPS FOR PARENTS:

  1. Identify where the mathematical “knowledge gaps” are. Take a test online or go to a center and find out what information or concepts aren’t fully understood so that your child doesn’t fall any further behind.
  2. Practice concepts. This can be done at home. If there is a concept that you understand, you can help run drills to enforce and strengthen understanding. If you don’t have time, there are games designed to help practice math concepts where your child may not even realize he or she is learning.
  3. Hire a tutor. A private tutor or a tutor at a learning center can help give your child the one-on-one attention he or she needs to learn and understand concepts that may have been tricky or confusing before.
  4. Use math at home! Try to use terminology like “half,” “less than,” “more than,” or counting when doing everyday activities with young children. With older children, see if they can calculate the tip at a restaurant, or calculate the number of “kilometers per hour” the car is moving while on the highway. Make it fun, have kids race each other for the answer, or reward them for correct answers. Any opportunity can be a learning opportunity.

 

VI. “Personal Essay” — Disney’s Emerging Writers Program

I am a heterosexual, cisgendered Caucasian male from a Midwestern Catholic household. From the outside, I’m about the farthest thing from a diversity hire as you could think of—but if you assumed there was nothing unique about my experience, you’d be wrong.

When I was five years old, my parents adopted two children. I went from being the youngest child to one of the middle children. My adopted sister had Reactive Attachment Disorder and sought to gain dominance over my family, in order to feel safety and security in her life. It was difficult to understand why she did the things she did, why should would threaten and abuse my parents, my siblings, our dog… but understanding the reasons behind the actions, the fear of being alone, the lack of security, the overwhelming sense of unworthiness—it helped. I began to empathize. Not to accept it, but to learn about human behavior and why people do bad things.

Early on in life, I heard from a kid at school that Santa wasn’t real, that our parents were the ones giving us the presents. Upon asking around, I found major discrepancies in the amount and also types of gifts that different people received. When I confronted my mother, she admitted that, yes, Santa was fake. I immediately took this information to mean, “everyone lies.” I could no longer trust my parents, my teachers, our world leaders. Everything someone said was debatable, until I personally uncovered the reality. I devoted myself, on that day, to finding the truth about topics before ever speaking on them.

My family moved a lot. My dad was climbing the corporate ladder at various companies, and that meant that I went to 5 different schools in 10 years. It forced me to learn to fend for myself, to adapt quickly to new environments, and to make friends. It also exposed me to different types of people in different parts of the country. The differences between Kentucky and Wisconsin were great. I realized that people are merely a product of their upbringings, and not predestined to believe what they believe.

I always wanted to be a writer. When I was barely able to read, I began stapling paper together and writing my own books. I set personal goals to make sure every book was longer than the one before it. In third grade, when that wasn’t enough, I began taking narrative risks like killing off the first-person narrator of a story halfway through. The next chapter would begin, again in first person, from a different character’s vantage point, reacting to their friend’s death. My main goal was to constantly push boundaries and try things that I’d never seen before. This opened me up in to taking risks and trying new things in my personal life as well.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I accidentally joined a cult. It seemed welcoming and exciting at first, with a group of talented, positive people working together to accomplish career goals. When the cult leader came onto me sexually, and said that it was necessary to remain a part of his “family,” I found myself the victim of sexual abuse. After exiting the cult and admitting to myself what had happened, people assumed that I would hate the man for what he had done to me. Instead, I felt sorry for him. I understood the pain he felt inside and the reason he felt the need to lure young men into his life and molest them the way he did. It never made it okay, but it got me through. I vowed then to do whatever I could to understand the root cause of issues like this and try to make sure that what happened to me wouldn’t happen to anyone else.

The first acting role that I accepted in Los Angeles was as a nudist in a gay romantic comedy, which required me to be nude for the entirety of the film. I accepted the role because it would be a challenge for me, but also because I recognized the importance of positive depictions in media of the normal, everyday lives of gay men.

I strive to create a world of acceptance and understanding—the opposite of the environment in which I was raised. I know the importance of thinking for oneself. If I can, through storytelling, teach people to discard their preconceived notions and learn to understand and respect one another—I will have succeeded in life.

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Redefining Racism, or Why an Exception Proves There’s a Rule

It’s taken me probably a lot longer than it should have, but I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in people—people on the internet, people I know personally, strangers I meet, even friends and family—where it’s beginning to feel as though these people believe that words like “racism,” “sexism,” or “xenophobia” have only one definition. We’re overdue in re-examining these words, and our relationship to them, because we have a long way to go before these things are eradicated from our lives.

A lot of people seem to believe that “racism” means “a complete and utter hatred of everyone of a specific race.” While that is a correct definition of racism, it’s also, in my experience, the least common form. When I call someone out for saying something racist, I’m usually met with a response like, “I can’t be racist, I’m friends with so-and-so,” or “No, man, Denzel Washington is my favorite actor,” or “I voted for Obama!” The biggest problem with this line of thinking is that you’re technically admitting that you are racist, the second you open your mouth to say it. In order for you to be citing exceptions to the rule, there has to be a rule to begin with. And if your “exceptions” are examples of times that you weren’t racist, that means that the vast majority of the time, you are. It’s the same issue with alcoholics who can’t see their own problem: “I can’t be an alcoholic, I didn’t drink yesterday,” or “I stopped drinking for a week once, no problem,” or “I can quit anytime I want.” The very fact that you have to prove that, sometimes, you aren’t drinking too much, means that most of the time, you probably are.

Sexism is very often the same. “I don’t hate women, I married one!” That doesn’t mean you respect women, it just means you respect at least one woman (and in many marriages, that isn’t even true). “I don’t hate women, I just don’t think they should be in charge. They have periods, and they get all emotional!” The fact that this came out of your mouth is evidence that your thinking is sexist.

Now, many people, understandably, get very defensive when they are accused of being racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise. There’s a stigma in our society that makes us believe that anyone who exhibits any of these traits is therefore a “bad person.” Bad people do exist. The loud, obnoxious, out-and-out haters of others definitely exist. But not everyone who believes falsehoods is a bad person. Most of the time, it just means they don’t know any better. And “not knowing any better” isn’t a crime. And the wonderful news is: it can be corrected! The only trouble comes when people try to deny its existence.

I say we socially redefine these words. Racism doesn’t mean, “A complete hatred of everyone of a certain race.” What it does mean is “a conscious or unconscious bias that leads one to have thoughts or opinions about a race, as a whole.” Here’s a simple test: Answer the following question. What do you think about black people?

If you answered the question, you’re harboring a bit of racism. It is impossible to have thoughts about an entire race, or gender, or sexual orientation, and not be harboring some implicit bias. Even if your answer was, “I think most black people are just trying to get on with their lives,” I hate to be the one to break it to you, but that’s racism.

Don’t feel bad. Every person alive has implicit bias. Even babies are known to show signs of bias towards certain people, certain races, certain genders, based around who they’ve grown up around and who they spend time with. It’s not personal—it’s our nature. The only way to fight against that nature is exposure. Babies no longer show race bias if they spend time with people of other races. They don’t show gender bias if they spend time around all genders.

Chances are, if you grew up in a town that had a majority of one specific race, then you’ve got a bit of racial bias. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, because it’s not your fault. I don’t think you hate anybody. I’m sure you’d treat a kindly stranger with respect and kindness, as long as it’s within your nature to do so. Most people, even the people who may be calling you out for saying something racist, know that you aren’t a bad person. They wouldn’t be talking to you if they did.

Stop defending yourself. Stop fighting the people who are calling you out. It’s going to be easier for you, and everyone else, if you accept that you don’t have all the answers. That maybe you were raised in an environment where you didn’t have exposure to different types of people.

Before you say anything, yes, this applies to me as well. I was raised in the Midwestern United States, in Illinois, Kentucky, and Wisconsin. At each of my schools, there was literally only one black student. It was the 90s, and most people weren’t coming out of the closet. I was a nervous child, and I barely knew how to speak to girls. I had bias in every direction, but I didn’t think I did. I didn’t hate anyone. I was well meaning. I treated everyone equally. But I also didn’t understand that every person—every person—is totally and completely unique.

I said things like “I don’t have anything against gay people, I just don’t want to have to see it.” I said things like, “I don’t think I could ever be attracted to a black girl. I never have been, it might just be part of my genes.” I made jokes about women being worse at driving. About Asians being great at math. I repeated jokes I’d heard black comedians making in their stand-up specials, fully believing that purple kool-aid and fried chicken was the sole diet of black America. I thought maybe if minorities would just work a little harder, they might not be so poor.

I didn’t know any better. I was a child. I didn’t know my beliefs weren’t based in reality. And I also, again, didn’t hate anyone. Will Smith was my hero. I watched anime. I liked girls, even if I couldn’t speak to them. I did their homework because I thought it was nice, and because I thought they couldn’t be as smart as me because they had smaller brains. I had an openly gay friend in grade school, and we spent time together, but I didn’t want him to touch me.

I’m not proud of any of this. I look back at these memories, and every one of them makes me cringe. I just didn’t have the exposure. I didn’t understand that it was possible to be racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, all of these things, even though I didn’t hate anyone. I’m sure I still have some implicit bias. But I work hard not to. I work hard to understand the history of the United States, the history of the world, and know that certain institutions have lasted longer than any of us have been alive. Certain forms of racism have existed longer than we could possibly know, and all we’re doing is enforcing laws and following rules that were passed down to us because we don’t know they were passed for racist reasons. We think we know best—when we don’t even know where we came from. We aren’t exposed to it. We aren’t taught the full truth.

The next time someone tells you you’re being racist, and when your impulse is to deny it, to come up with a long list of exceptions, to fight, try something else. Stay quiet. Think, “is it possible that I’m wrong? Is it possible that I’m saying things I don’t even necessarily believe, because it’s all I’ve ever known?” You might be surprised. Sometimes, maybe you won’t be. But I’m sure, at some point or another, you’ll learn something about yourself. You’ll learn something about someone else. And we’ll all get to grow closer together as a species.

Westworld, War Film, & the Importance of Choice

The most interesting thing to me in a story is character. A movie, a book, a play, a podcast, a short film, an anecdote… any of these things lives or dies by the characters within. And my favorite types of characters are the ones who think for themselves and make a decision that is different from what most other people would do.

Star Wars! Luke Skywalker makes the choice to leave Tatooine and help aid the rebellion! That’s a choice that most people wouldn’t make. It’s a choice that 99% of the characters on Tatooine probably wouldn’t have made; instead choosing to turn over the droids, make a quick buck, and continue on with their lives. But that wouldn’t have made a very good movie, or a very good story.

At this point, I should point out that I’m going to be spoiling the First Season of HBO’s Westworld. So if you don’t want to know… stop reading now.

When we’re dealing with Westworld, we’re dealing with characters who, as far as we know, have very little ability to make choices of their own. The “Hosts” are robots, created and built by humans, and programmed to act a certain way. Within “real” circumstances, they make choices as far as they can react to the stimulus provided by the “Guests” to the park, but outside of that, their memories are wiped at the end of every cycle and they begin the whole thing anew as if nothing had ever happened.

We’re led to believe in the first episode that some of these Hosts are retaining memories, despite the fact that the people running the park are erasing them. Then we’re led to believe, throughout the entire season, that the character of Maeve has become smarter than her programming, and is plotting to escape the park. In every episode, this was the one storyline that kept me watching. This was the ONE story that had me coming back week after week, because the show was getting at the idea of true consciousness and robots with free will.

Cut to… the Season Finale. Where it is revealed that Maeve’s attempts to escape were programmed. Someone (we are led to believe that it is possibly Anthony Hopkins’ character of Ford) added new coding to her that layed out, step by step, everything that she would do in her attempts to escape the park. When this is shown to her, she refuses to believe it, and continues on with her plan.

To me, this shows that I have watched 10 episodes of a show where none of the characters I was supposed to care about were actually making any choices. It’s a show where the only real consequences came from the few human characters who, at the end of the day, were just people attending a theme park. I watched almost 11 hours of programming and the giant, “shocking” reveal was that… I should never have cared about anything that was going on the whole time.

It’s the same story with the rest of the hosts as well. By the end of the season, we realize that even when it seemed as though they were acting of their own volition, they were actually acting on some deep-rooted code that Arnold, their creator, had planted in them many years ago, before killing himself by programming one of his creations to shoot him.

I felt insulted. I felt betrayed. I felt that I had watched 10 episodes of nothing, with exactly zero characters to care about, and nothing but a hollow mystery about a maze remaining. One that had pretty much been spelled out well enough 8 weeks earlier that I was able to predict exactly where it was going. Normally, that wouldn’t bother me. But when you fail to give me a character to latch onto, that’s it for me.

For a long time, I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t like watching most war films. And it was Westworld that finally gave me the answer. War Films are usually about men who don’t have a choice. Men who are given orders, and then follow through on those orders. Yes, they display courage, valor, heroism… but only when being forced to do something against their will.

The most interesting moment in The Hurt Locker is when Jeremy Renner decides to go back to war, despite knowing how bad it’s going to be, despite knowing exactly how much pain he’s going to go through, because he just can’t handle the mundane life at home.

Saving Private Ryan is lauded as one of the greatest films of all time. I never understood why I didn’t love it as much as I’m supposed to. The opening sequence is one of the most gripping and traumatic ever filmed. It is praised for its realism. It is praised for the sheer amount of technical and directorial brilliance that went into it. And at the end of it… I still wasn’t hooked.

I know. This is one of those opinions that I should probably keep to myself. I’m probably going to get hate mail. I know these things. “Saving Private Ryan is, and should be seen as, a masterpiece” they will say. But really… the story of the movie is about a group of men who are sent on a mission that they don’t want to be on. They are sent to save Private Ryan, and they spend a good portion of the movie complaining about it.

I, personally, don’t want to see a movie where my leads are not invested in their own story. I don’t want to follow a story if the characters have not made choices that led them along their journey.

I’ll admit there are exceptions. Lone Survivor is a film that hinges on a choice–one that ends up getting all but one of them killed (spoilers in the title of the movie). That’s interesting to me. That’s a terrible choice to have to make–but the characters made it. And now I’m invested.

The ending of the first season of Westworld was a slap in the face to my sensibilities. It set up an exciting story about characters finally being able to make these kinds of interesting choices… and then said, “we were just joking. That was all a part of someone else’s plan.” There was intrigue and mystery along the way, sure, but that’s not enough. At least not for me.

On the word “Monster” (and its failures)

“What a monster!”

“That guy is just a monster.”

“Lock him up, he’s a monster!”

It’s something we’re heard, or said, countless times. It’s our go-to explanation for anything that we can’t understand. Anything that horrifies us or baffles us. And it is doing exactly the opposite of what we’d like it to: which is to stop the horrific things from happening.

I recently posted another blog about my experiences accidentally joining a cult, where the cult leader physically abused almost every member of the group, and sexually assaulted many of the male members of the group (https://justinxaviersmith.wordpress.com/2016/10/12/my-true-experience-in-a-los-angeles-rape-cult/). Of course, I received an overwhelming amount of feedback, much of which boiled down to, “I hope he rots in prison. What a monster.”

The use of the word “monster” in this circumstance lessens both the cause and the effect of what actually happened to myself and the other victims in this case. By dehumanizing our abuser and labeling him as a “monster,” we give up the ability to understand how and why these sorts of behaviors actually occurred. As a victim of the behavior, and as someone who actually fell for a lot of the “tricks” that men like this use to prey on young, hopeful individuals, I’d very much like to forego the usual use of the word and discuss more about the actual cause of this behavior.

First and foremost, the man who raped me was not a monster. He was a human. If he was simply a “monster,” none of this could ever have happened. Monsters make themselves known. Monsters have one purpose: to wreak havoc and to destroy. Humans have a different purpose: to be loved and appreciated. When we say, “he was a monster!”, we give up the ability to ever prevent this sort of thing from happening again. Because when our children or nephews or nieces meet someone like this, they won’t see a monster. They’ll see a human. A person who needs help. A person who offers them something exciting. A person who has a few flaws, but seems to have the best of intentions.

And that’s the real, horrifying truth of this sort of behavior. Our tormentors, our rapists, our cult leaders, our terrorists… they don’t look or act like “monsters.” They aren’t the horrific hate-mongers we paint them to be. They look and act like anyone else. They appear, on the surface, to merely be human.

When I first met the man who raped me, he seemed like a trustworthy, knowledgeable, confident individual. He claimed to have a lot of skill, a lot of information, and a lot of connections that could help me. All of these things would later turn out to be lies, but at the time, they seemed promising. He seemed, above all else, to have my best interests at heart. And that’s how I was tricked. That’s how I was trapped. That’s how I wound up, months later, being slapped across the face, grabbed by the penis and led around a room, and sexually assaulted by the very same man.

Had I met him and known immediately that he was a “monster,” it would never have happened. I would have walked away. I would have known that he wasn’t a person to be trusted. That he would hurt me. That he wouldn’t have my best interests at heart. But he wasn’t a monster. He was merely a man. A man with insecurities and a need to control everyone and everything around him. A man who knew exactly how to manipulate people into believing and behaving in a way that suited his own needs. And because of that, it’s important to note: this could happen to anyone. It could happen to your children. It could happen to your siblings. It could happen to your nieces, nephews, grandchildren, cousins, neighbors… it could even happen to you.

The face of evil does not appear to be evil when you first meet it. It does not present itself as a “monster,” for then you would never succumb. The face of those people you would label as a “monster” at first glance is simply another human being.

When you talk to your children about the possibilities and dangers of trusting people they don’t know, do not make the mistake of only warning them about the people who are “monsters.” Warn them instead of people. Because people are capable of doing monstrous things, regardless of what word you use to describe them.

My True Experience in a Los Angeles Rape Cult – Updated 7/13/2018

UPDATE 7/13/2018 8:40pm. I’ve re-included a photograph and the name of my abuser (A former update stated that they were removed to protect other victims’ identities, but it’s far enough removed that they no longer have any links to him on their pages). I found out that he had started a new cult under the name of Alex Sojo, formerly AJ Riley, also known as Alejandro Riley or Alejandro Sojo. He lives in Santa Monica and has continued to practice his recruitment tactics, as well as photography, out of his home. His accomplices are Tim “Ryan” Larson and Scott Riley, a hypnotherapist and AJ’s husband. The three of them have a website called Unity2012media.com, and an instagram called @unity2012media.

UPDATE 10/13/16, 12:50am. My abuser’s Twitter, website, and Facebook page (all using some form of @AJRileystudio) have been deleted.

This isn’t an easy thing for me to write. I’ve been putting it off for almost a year, hoping I wouldn’t have to. Hoping I could just move on. But the ramifications of what happened continue to persist in my life. I need to get it out. I need to tell my story. If I can stop what happened to me from happening to even one other person, it will have been worth it.

I moved to Los Angeles for the same reason many young, enthusiastic dreamers do: to become an actor. I landed here excited, as there were endless possibilities for what could happen with my career. I hit the ground running, sending out headshots, resumes, and cover letters to every agent and casting director whose address I could find. I just knew, after everything I’d done before I got here, that something great would happen. And it would happen soon.

And something did happen. I attended a group event for actors and writers to share ideas and read each other’s work, a way for writers to hear their writing out loud, and a way for actors to get a little more acting in. As a writer and an actor, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to start networking. Once there, I met a girl who invited me to another group that she was involved with, one that met every Sunday, which she affectionately called, “Actor Church.”

The perks were incredible: It was free, it was filled with actors who wanted to better themselves, it was an acting class combined with motivational speaking, and it was taught by someone who worked in casting at Warner Brothers. How could I possibly pass that up? It felt like the Universe was responding to everything I had asked for, and things were lining up even faster than I could have imagined. I happily attended Actor Church my very first week in Los Angeles.

The class was everything I could have hoped for. It began with a motivational speech about how to be the very best version of myself, it continued into doing research on actors who had made it big seemingly overnight, and finding the key points on how they did it, and then we practiced “entering the room” for an audition, and what to say to a casting director upon meeting them. The “right” talking points with which to answer their questions. Some of this felt familiar to an acting class I had taken in Charlotte, so I was happy to be able to continue the work I’d been doing without the price tag.

My mistake was never questioning anything. My mistake was never checking whether or not this man was who he said he was. I did do a quick Google search, and didn’t really find anything other than a very brief imdb page which listed him as a producer on a short film that I’d never heard of. But that fell perfectly in line with what he had said, that his job wasn’t meant to be public. He had been hired to see how actors behaved when they didn’t know they were being watched. His job was to see if the actors could be professional on set, without sabotaging the production by being unruly.

I wrote it off. It was the first sign that things weren’t quite right, but I ignored it.

I attended the meetings weekly. It gave me the encouragement I needed to continue pressing on in Los Angeles when nothing seemed to be happening. It gave me a group of actors who supported each other and pushed each other to be their very best, to take risks, to defy all odds, and to never give up. There was a whole lot of good that came out of those early few months. The people I met were on top of their game, everyone was excited, everyone was positive, everyone knew that their careers were going to happen at any moment.

After a couple months, our “life coach” took me aside. “You really have what it takes,” he said. “Not everyone in this class does. I say they do, but they don’t. Obviously, not everyone makes it. But you’re really close.”

In my mind, this was a casting director at Warner Brothers telling me that I was about to break through and become a star. In my mind, this was irrefutable proof that I was going to be cast in a film or television show, and soon.

“If you can just be completely consistent, at your very best, and never mess up, for one whole week… I’ll take you to a dinner with the executives. I’ll introduce you to them. They’ll see.”

I should point out now, that this sort of thing doesn’t actually happen. There is no such thing as a casting director who brings a no-name actor to a dinner with “all of the executives” so that they can decide whether to use him or her in a production. It’s not a real thing. The casting process is long and arduous and no casting director worth his or her salt would ever put an untested actor before the “executives” unless they had seen a number of auditions and trusted them completely. And certainly not at a dinner—it would be in a casting office.

I didn’t know this at the time. This man had so many elegant stories of “the truth behind Hollywood” that seemed to make so much sense to me at the time. So I did what he said. I did my very best to be “consistent.” To be “flawless” for one whole week. And I felt like I did a pretty good job. And at the end of the week… Nothing happened. It was as though our conversation had been completely forgotten.

At this point, I had begun to take special, private classes with this man. He called them “one-on-ones,” where we would meet alone together twice a week to discuss everything that was holding me back, and everything I could do to better myself. We talking about acting, we talked about my personal life, we talked about every traumatic thing that ever happened in my past… We talked about a lot of unprofessional things. And this “bonus” class, outside of the free Sunday classes, could be mine for only $250 a month.

I know. It seemed worth it at the time. It felt like 8 private acting classes / therapy sessions for $250, with someone who had the power to hand me a career. I already felt like I was ripping the guy off by attending his “free” classes every week on Sundays, so I paid the money and I attended the “one-on-ones.”

In one of these one-on-ones, after my week of perfection, I brought up the idea of meeting with the Warner Brothers executives. “You’re not ready yet,” he said. “I thought you were in a different place, but you didn’t show me you had it this week.” And of course, I was devastated. What had I done? How had I messed up this great opportunity? Clearly, this man had seen something. But he wouldn’t tell me what it was. I started tearing myself apart in my mind, analyzing every single action I had taken over the course of the week. “Well, I overslept on Wednesday, but there’s no way he could know about that…”

It was maddening. It was overwhelming. But I knew, deep down, that things were going to work out. I had what it took. I would prove myself.

Then my fearless leader revealed that he was a photographer. And he had been a photographer in Florida for many years, after another many years being an international model. “I want to take some pictures of you,” he said. “You’re very attractive, but I don’t think you see how attractive you are. So I want to show you.”

We headed into his photography studio, which was in his garage, to take the photos. He started the process out by giving me a “test.” Just to see how comfortable I was. To see how comfortable I could be. “Take off your shirt. How comfortable are you on a scale from 1-10?” I said 10. I wanted to be the very best me I could be. “Now your pants. Scale from 1-10?” I said probably an 8.

He put down the camera. “We can’t shoot today. I can only work with models at their maximum level of comfort. If you can’t be comfortable around me… I can’t be comfortable around you.” I changed my tune. I was a 10. I just needed a second.

So we started shooting the pictures.

“If I wanted to take a picture of you, and I wanted people to know you were sad, what’s something physical you could do to show sadness?”

“I guess I could cry.”

“Right. A tear. And if I wanted to show the audience that you were happy… what’s something physical that you could do?”

“Smile.”

“Right again. And if I wanted to show the audience that you were turned on…”

“…an erection?”

“Exactly. It takes everyone else so much longer. I knew you had it in you.”

And he went on to explain his theory about star performers, and star actors. “It’s all about sexual energy. You can’t be a star without it. You have to be able to look someone in the eyes and make them want you. The way you do that is by turning yourself on. If you’re turned on, the audience is turned on.”

It made sense in a perverse, twisted way. It felt like a secret code. Something that most actors hadn’t been able to unlock. I just had to actually be horny when I entered the room.

Then he told me a story about the first time he discovered that he had the ability to be sexy. I had already told him about my own past, about how I used to be extremely overweight, how I never felt confident that anyone could be attracted to me. And he said he felt the same. He said that he grew up believing he could never be attractive. And then he got over it. And this was how.

“I was doing my first ‘bathing suit’ shoot as a model,” he said, “and the photographer wanted me to turn myself on. I had no idea what that meant. I was always taught not to even look at my penis, let alone acknowledge that I had one. When he asked me to turn myself on, I just stood there, confused. And then one of his assistants said, ‘I can help.’ And he came over and started sucking my dick. And once I was hard, the photographer said, ‘yes, that’s perfect,’ and started taking my pictures. As soon as I was soft, the assistant would come back in, and he would get me hard, and we would shoot again. And it went on and on like that. One of those pictures was the one that was used in the campaign. He chose me. Because I was the only model who was actually turned on.”

It didn’t make sense. It sounded absurd. It sounded like utter bullshit. But this man was in casting at Warner Brothers, and had had a long and successful career. How could I not trust him? I wasn’t working, and he was, so he must know better than I did. So I started practicing. “Turning myself on.” So that the camera could see it in my eyes. So that everyone would find me attractive. So that the executives would want me. So that women would want to be with me.

Then there was another test he would do. And it wasn’t just with me. There were rumblings that all of the men in class were subjected to these same sort of “tests.” The first time it happened to me, it happened with another classmate in the room. That’s how I justified it. “Well, he’s okay with it… so it must not be wrong.”

The guy knew what he was doing.

This test was called, “Make me want you.” What we had to do was get completely naked and stand in front of our instructor and do whatever we had to to make him want us. If he wanted us, we “won.” If he wanted us, that meant the world would want us. If he wanted me, I would have a career.

So I stood there, naked. Next to another man who was completely naked. And we took turns. “Turn me on,” he would say. And I would walk toward him, and almost immediately, “stop. Go back.” And then it was my friend’s turn. And it went back and forth like this, both of us beating ourselves up, feeling terrible about the fact that we couldn’t turn this man on, that we weren’t attractive, that we weren’t “at our best,” that we wouldn’t be able to have the career of our dreams…

It escalated. Over a few months, the game started happening more and more, and spread into our photo shoots (which were happening more frequently) and into our one-on-ones. “You need to practice your sexual energy! It’s the only thing you lack!”

I was desperate. I needed to prove that I could be sexy. To myself, to the casting director, to the woman I was interested in… It was the only thing that mattered.

So when he offered to “help,” the same way that he had been “helped” by the camera assistant in his first swimsuit photoshoot, I let him. I didn’t want to. And at this point, he had convinced me that the real reason I couldn’t get hard for him was that I was homophobic, that I had been raised with a “small-mind mentality,” and needed to overcome that. In order to do that, I needed to have a sexual experience with a man. Namely, himself.

The entire time he was sucking my dick, I was angry. But not with who I should have been—I was angry with myself. Angry because I couldn’t get hard. Angry because I was homophobic. Angry because I was a failure. Angry because I had been rejected by the women I wanted because I wasn’t attractive. I needed to overcome this mental block.

And he was not gentle. He grabbed my dick. He slapped it against his face. He nearly chewed on it. He put his fingers in my ass. He did things that I did not enjoy. Things that physically hurt me. Things that I hated him for but then pushed aside because I needed to “get over it.” I needed to “push through.”

Eventually, I closed my eyes and pretended that he was the woman that I wished I could be with. She’s the only thing that got me through those experiences. When I came, he patted me on the shoulder and said, “good job. I think you’re really getting it.”

And the reason I say “those experiences” is because it didn’t stop there. It got to a point where we had a shorthand. He would say, “Do you want to be a star?” and I would say yes, and he would say, “Show me.”

“Show me” meant “take off your pants and put your penis in my mouth.” But of course, he always made sure that I locked the door first. He always made sure nobody could know. He made it a very big deal that I “hide my treasures.” I couldn’t share this with anyone else, especially the women. They wouldn’t understand. Couldn’t understand. So I never told a soul.

He also made a big deal about not being in a relationship, with anyone. He said “having a girlfriend or a boyfriend is like having a plan B for your career. When things don’t work out, you get to go home and complain to your plan B and feel better about yourself and really you’re just giving up.” So I didn’t try to have a relationship. I just kept coming back for more one-on-ones, for more private lessons, for more unwanted dick sucking.

I never enjoyed it. I never wanted it. I never felt like I was growing. At a certain point, I started to realize that even if he worked at Warner Brothers, he was never going to follow through on his promises. It had been 8 months, and nothing had happened. But still, whenever I was at his house, he would inevitably find a way to get everyone out of the studio, and it was the same thing.

“Show me.”

“Do you want to be a star?”

“Prove it.”

“Don’t share your treasures.”

Show me.

Sometimes, the girl I loved was literally only a room away from me. The door was locked, and I would just pretend it was her. Eventually, I let it happen because it was just easier to take the abuse than to try to do anything else. “It won’t last long,” I would think. “It’ll be over soon.”

“It could be worse.”

One time, it went further. He always made a big deal in our group classes about how I was the “trend-setter.” I was the person who would go farther than anyone else. I was the person who would be given a task, and rather than just complete it, I would also go two or three steps again. I was always going to be ahead of the curve, and that’s what made me special. So, all that in my head, during one of the “show me” sessions, he took his own pants off. His dick was hard. He looked at me. I “knew” what I “had” to do.

I could write an entire novel about all of the ways that he manipulated me. The ways that he manipulated our entire class. I could fill hundreds of pages. I could write a fucking manifesto. But I don’t want to. I don’t want to wallow in the misery of what happened anymore.

Eventually it all came out. Another guy in the class had his first ever “show me” experience and didn’t follow the “don’t tell” rules. He told a girl in the class, the girl who had invited me to be there in the first place, 10 months earlier, and she lost it. She told everyone. People took sides. The class broke apart. From there, the sexual abuse ended. The mental abuse continued for a few more months before I finally had the courage to leave.

I’m out of it now. The man never worked at Warner Brothers. He never had a job in the film industry. He was trying to motivate us all enough so that we would make it and bring him along with us. He fully believed in the adage, “You are what you speak.” So if he claimed he worked at Warner Brothers… eventually it would be true. He just couldn’t stop himself from sexually abusing his male students.

The man’s name is AJ Riley. He also goes by Alex Sojo, or Alejandro Riley. The police said there’s nothing they can do without solid evidence. He is not in jail. In fact… he’s still teaching. Before I left, he told me he was “getting ready to start a new cycle.”

That was chilling to me. It was almost a threat. But I cannot allow that to happen. I cannot allow this man to build up his own ego or his own power anymore. When people like AJ get into power positions, they think they can do anything. And the more power they have, the more they think they can get away with.

This is a photograph of AJ Riley the last time I knew him. He is a rapist, a manipulator, an abuser, and he has never worked for Warner Brothers, Disney, FOX, Universal, or any of the film studios he claims to have worked for.

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If you’re in a group and you have even the slightest feeling that something might be wrong… please ask questions. Ask the men and women in your class what’s happening to them. Don’t take no for an answer. They will lie to you. I flat out lied for AJ, plenty of times. People would ask me if anything weird happened, and I would say no.

AJ angrily declared that the man who accused him of sexual abuse was a liar, that he had never sucked his dick. But I knew that wasn’t true… because I had seen it happen. And yet, I said, “I know! How could he have said that?” It’s manipulation. It’s mind games. It’s fucked up. It’s horrible. Nobody should have to go through it.

I am ashamed of so much of what happened… but I’m out of it now. I’ve learned from it, I know what to look out for, and I have made it a part of my mission to prevent this from happening to other young, susceptible people.

Things are looking much better for me lately. Since finally freeing myself from the pressure of being perfect and attempting to please the man who could never be satisfied, my career has actually leapt forward. I’m in a movie that has been playing the festival circuit and comes out on DVD next month. I’m about to produce and star in another feature film. I’ve published a novel. I’ve been approached by a literary agent to represent another of my screenplays. Things are looking very good. And I know it’s because I’m finally out of my depression. I don’t want to kill myself anymore, like I did for about 6 months after getting out of the cult.

I live for me, now. I live to stop the spread of hatred, prejudice, and manipulation. I live to spread joy, love and equality for all.

“Fly”

This is another story I wrote while in College, another one I very much loved. Take a look:

 

There is a fly in his apartment.

I’m sitting on his bed, waiting patiently for him to get home, but there’s this fly.  Normally, this wouldn’t bother me.  Today, however, the fly shouldn’t be here.  It’s my fault the fly is here, and its being here could prove disastrous.

I get up and look around the apartment for some way of dealing with the fly.  I don’t say “kill,” because the fly hasn’t done anything to deserve death.  It’s simply a nuisance, and it’s possibly in the way of me completing my task.  I’m not even sure he’ll notice the fly, or if he does, that he’ll understand its significance, but I don’t want to take any chances.

For that, the fly must be dealt with.

I find a jar in one of his cabinets that could be used to contain the fly.  I scan the apartment for the insect, but it appears to be eluding me.  I walk into the next room to see it circling a lamp, where it settles.  I can’t capture it there, not without breaking something.

I swat at the fly and it leaves its perch, settling instead on the bed.  I bring the jar down upon the creature, but, as flies often do, it escapes.  There are a few more attempts at cornering the insect against a wall and a few times on the carpet, but to no avail.

I decide it’s time to try a new tactic.

I enter into his kitchen again, searching the cabinets for anything else.  I might be able to use, and I find a Band-Aid.  A simple tool with many uses.  It’s perfect.

I tear off the white strips of the bandage and place it sticky-side up on the counter.  I open his refrigerator door and find a loaf of bread.  I open it, take out a crumb of bread and place it on the sticky part of the bandage.  This is harder than you might think while wearing gloves.

I return the bread to its proper location in the refrigerator and carry the bandage into the bedroom, where the fly is taunting me yet again.  I set it on the windowsill and wait.

I’m patient.  I know it will happen eventually.  I watch the fly as it settles on the lampshade.  The pillow.  The ceiling.  The ceiling fan.  The window.  My arm.  Finally, the windowsill.  But not the bandage.  It can sense the bread, I’m sure of it.  It studies the bread with its thousand eyes and I know I have it beat.  After a few moments, the fly lands on the sticky part of the upturned bandage.

For a second, the fly is content eating the bread.  Then it tries to fly.  It lifts upward momentarily, but the bandage is too heavy.  The fly can’t get off the ground.  It struggles against its captor, but I have been successful.  The fly is detained.

I look at the clock.  It’s 5:06.  It’s almost time.

I watch the minute hand creep around the clock face, pointing at the 2, the 3, the 4.  Still, the fly struggles against the bandage.  I look at it pitifully.  If only it could understand what I understand, that sometimes there are forces at work that you cannot overcome.  Sometimes you just have to understand that you’re going to die.

At 5:27, he walks through the front door of his apartment.  As I suspected, he acts normally, suspects nothing.  He opens his refrigerator and pours himself a drink.  He whistles while he performs his actions, unaware that I am seated only a room away, waiting for his entry.

The fly tries to take off again.  I want to yell at it, to convey the message that there’s nothing it can do, but still it fights.  There’s honor in that, perhaps.

He walks from the kitchen towards his bedroom and stops dead when he sees me sitting on his bed.  He doesn’t ask how I got in.  He knows who I am.

“Look, tell them I have the money,” he starts to plead.  Pitiful.

I raise my gun and fire two shots.  He’s dead before he hits the ground.  I stand up, wipe off the barrel and begin to make my exit.  I look at the fly.  Even now, it struggles against its bonds.

I walk over to the windowsill and pick up the bandage.  I take the fly gently between two fingers and pry the bandage away from its legs.  One of the fly’s legs tears off, still stuck to the bandage.  It’s better than what he got.  I let go of the animal, and it flies out of the bedroom.

When I open the front door to leave, the fly leaves as well.  A wise decision.  I close the door behind me and walk out onto the street.

“The Divorce”

This is a short story I had published when I was in college, but I’m still quite proud of it.

This was the dinner he finally realized he wanted a divorce.  She hadn’t done anything any differently, but that was exactly the problem.  But maybe he should have tried something; maybe it was his fault.

It was the little things that annoyed him.  The way she separated her bites by size so that she could eat the smallest ones last.  The way she sniffed every drink before bringing it to her lips like it were wine, even if it was water.  It was as if she mistrusted everyone, as if she thought someone was trying to poison her.

It was the way she offered to pay for the meal after the server had already taken his card.  The way she got up from the table to use the bathroom without telling him where she was going, just assuming he would figure it out when he saw which direction she went.  He sometimes secretly wished she wouldn’t come back.

But she had come back.  Like she always did.

He turned the car onto the highway toward home.  She sat silently in the passenger seat watching the wiper blades clear the slight drizzle from the windshield.  She was always useless in the rain, completely distracted by the sight and the sound.  She could sit, mesmerized, for hours at a time.  He understood up to a point, but eventually he would get bored.  He would try to talk to her, or to kiss her, but she would remain in a sort of trance, unresponsive and motionless.

“Sarah, put your seat belt on,” he told her when he noticed the red light on the dashboard.  As he expected, she ignored him.  Why couldn’t she just listen this once, when it was actually important to him?

Frustrated, he began to merge onto the highway.  He hadn’t, however, noticed the semi truck coming from behind him.  As soon as he merged, the truck hit the back of his car.  The back end swung out, gliding across the damp pavement.  The front of his car skidded to the right and the rest of the car followed.  Still moving forward, the vehicle tumbled off the road.  It crashed into a ditch and came to a crushing halt.

He took a moment to realize what had happened; to examine himself to see if he was okay.  He couldn’t find any serious injuries; he just seemed a little shaken up.  He turned to look at his wife.

She hadn’t been so lucky.  She was bleeding, knocked out on the dashboard.  There was a crack in the windshield where her head had struck, and an open wound on her scalp.

He didn’t think about the divorce again until they got to the hospital.  He was sitting in an uncomfortable blue chair when the doctor came to tell him how she was.

“Are you Henry Salinger?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Is your wife Sarah Salinger?”

“Yes, that’s my wife,” Henry said.

The question had immediately reminded Henry of Sarah’s initial complaint that her last name would begin with the same letter as her first.  He should have known then.

The doctor’s next statement snapped Henry back to the present.  His wife had been paralyzed from the neck down.  She would remain this way for the rest of her life.

Henry was numb.  He couldn’t tell her about the divorce now, it wouldn’t be fair.  To leave her at the worst possible moment—how could he explain that to people?  His parents, his friends, their friends… It would seem like he was only leaving because of the accident.  There was no way he could possibly make them understand.

When they finally let him see her, she was crying.  Henry sat at her bedside and held her hand, but he wasn’t sure why.  It wasn’t like she could feel it.  Henry acknowledged that that was a strange thought to have.  The gesture seemed right, though, and he didn’t know what else he could do.

She looked out the window in her room.  It was still raining.  He thought that meant the conversation would be over, as she would go into another one of her trances, but instead she turned back to him.  There were tears in her eyes, but she wasn’t making a sound.

“If you want to leave, I understand,” she said.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said.

And he didn’t.  He stayed in the hospital with her all weekend.  When he was sure she was okay, he went back to work, but still returned to the hospital every night to be with her.  He slept there most nights.

He began to bring in her favorite things from their house, her favorite blankets, her favorite pillow, the giant stuffed bear he had won her at the state fair the year before.

Her parents came to visit.  At first they weren’t sure what to say, but Sarah assured them that Henry had been driving safely and had told her to put on her seatbelt, she had just failed to comply.

They told Henry that he was wonderful, great, amazing.  They said he was the best person they had ever known, that their daughter was lucky to have a man as great as him in her life.

“She really needs you right now,” Sarah’s mother had told him.  “We’re so glad you’re here.”

Henry had simply said thank you, it wasn’t anything, he loved her.

That seemed to appease her parents, and the other visitors.  Henry became popular amongst the hospital staff.  The nurses all adored him, said he was the best possible husband.  If they were ever in an accident, they could only hope they had somebody as wonderful as Henry Salinger.

Henry couldn’t take any more of their talk.  He began to close the door to Sarah’s room when he came to visit.  That way it was just the two of them, and he didn’t have anybody else to fool.

When they were together, she didn’t talk a lot.  Henry would tell her about work, and she would listen and laugh or cry, depending on the story.  Then he would kiss her and tell her he loved her.

He noticed that the nurses didn’t feed her correctly.  They just put any bit of food in her mouth, regardless of size.  He began to relieve them of their duties so that he could do it the way she liked.  He organized each bite in order and gave them to her how she wanted.

He allowed her to take a sniff of any liquid beverage before pouring it into her mouth, trying everything to make her feel like her old self, trying to get her to show any reason to make him leave.

And she began, slowly, to act like her old self.  After a year had passed, she was talking again like she had before the accident.  She would laugh joyously, tell stories about people she knew at the hospital.  And Henry would listen.

And then it would rain.  Sarah would stare out the window, quietly taking in the beauty of the storm.  She would observe each drop of rain against the window, and each flash of lightning would illuminate her smile, or her tears.

When these times came, Henry would lie on the bed next to her and take her hand in his.  They sat like this for hours, never saying a word.