Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down and getting to know the formidable polymath and activist-author, E.W. Sandlin. Ms. Sandlin is the author of two poetry collections, The City Beyond the Ninth Wave: Poems for Healing and the Sometimes Lonely and A Thirst for Light: Poems of Eroticism, Dedication, and Desire, and the short novel Petit Fours from the Pie Hole: It’s For Your Face Hole. Her blog, Being Southern Somewhere Else, is an eclectic collection of essays on social and cultural issues of import, and she is the author of the essay collection No One Has Such a Dog, And No One Should: Collected Canine Essays. Her recent efforts to put a spotlight on issues of social injustice such as homelessness, domestic violence and animal rights, first brought her to my attention in 2015, and I quickly became an ardent fan.
In her own words: My love of canine kind verges on, and sometimes leaps the brink into, the ridiculous. Growing up, my family dogs were always particularly rotten, but also infinitely good. Having them in my life has both enriched and enlivened my days, as well as offered me unique perspectives on a variety of topics. As both a writer and an anthropologist, I have long been fascinated by the dog’s role in human cultural evolution. Forming half of this particular commensal dynamic, dogs have changed with us as a species. They have traveled vast distances, endured the hardships of new climates and environmental conditions, and witnessed the birth of agriculture and domestic animal husbandry. Perhaps they even played a crucial role in the success of some ventures, thanks to the unique bond they shared with their humans.
MED: Thanks for sitting down with me for this interview. Please tell me, where are you from?
EWS: I’m from Georgia, and grew up in a small town just north of Atlanta.
MED: Can you tell us a little about yourself? Your education, family life, that sort of thing?
EWS: I currently hold a Masters degree in Anthropology from the University of New Mexico. My undergraduate education deals primarily with the global history of concepts, ideologies, and philosophical systems, as well as archaeology. I’m the youngest of my parent’s three children, the only girl, and the only bookworm. My fascination with language, writing, and the various mediums through which we communicate has set me somewhat apart from my parents and siblings. While I acknowledge that I am a part of a genetically similar grouping of human beings—a family—I’m not certain we’ll ever know one another. They don’t really understand what I do, as a writer, but do their best to support me, I suppose.
MED: Please take 5 minutes and tell your life story in as much detail as possible.
EWS: I don’t consider anything about my life remarkable. Certainly, it’s not worthy of the David Copperfield treatment. I was the unexpected girl child. According to family accounts, as soon as I developed the powers of speech and locomotion, I had a penchant for wandering off and starting conversations with strangers, jumping into swimming pools, petting strange dogs, and picking flowers from other people’s gardens. In large part, this hasn’t changed, although I no longer ask strangers if they intend to finish their lunch and I leave flowers where they grow. I’m socially awkward, but that seems to be a secret I keep from myself most of the time. While I was born in Florida, most of my life was spent in Georgia, a place where misogyny and violence towards women is largely normalized. As a result, I also grew up believing that I was terribly ugly and unworthy of affection. That seems like a terribly personal bit to share, but that single statement has had a huge impact on my adult personality. I think too much. I’m direct to the point of being abrasive. I believe in firm handshakes and challenging conversations. While I’m a big fan of intellect, it took me a while to discover I was a scholar. The public school system is nothing to write home about, especially in Georgia, and as a result, I felt free to absent myself from it whenever possible. College wasn’t something I was interested in pursuing immediately after I somehow managed to graduate high school, but I did eventually go at the age of 25. I finished a double major in four years and went directly to graduate school.
MED: In your opinion, what, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
EWS: Bigotry of any kind. Violence against or wholesale repression of any group of people.
MED: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
EWS: No One Has Such a Dog, and No One Should is a collection of essays that run from personal, family pet stories to a more scholarly consideration of our connection with the species. This is an excerpt from the essay Wookie Princess and Our Adoring Public. It’s about Sierra, the dog of one of my close friends.
Let Us Sing You the Song of Our People
Some dogs are barkers, Sally being one of those. Others sport resplendent singing voices. Sierra and Satchel used to be quite the pair, performing duets of sonorous howling that echoed among the trees and out over the golf course. It was somewhat startling to passing golfers, but we enjoyed it. These days, Sierra is a solo act, since Rosie is still perfecting her technique and more apt to yip and squeak than howl. It’s alright. Sierra is a patient teacher. Every one of her puppies from the several litters she and Satchel produced could howl by the time it went to its new home. Along with her skill of punching other dogs in the face, who wouldn’t want one of these virtuosos?
Occasionally, I keep an eye on the dogs so Jenn can run to the store or complete errands without feeling guilty about leaving them alone. I’ll bring my work with me, so I can justify my time away from home, and inevitably, Sierra will throw a performance for me. Lying on the carpet, her eyeless face turned towards the front door, she warms up. A series of whining growls, short but increasing in length and body, presage her song. Then, she issues a throaty warbling howl that sounds like nothing so much as Chewbacca. Rosie chimes in, yipping and squealing a puppy descant, and for a few minutes, two dogs make the noise of ten.
Growing up with dogs that did not howl, this has always been a bit alarming to me. After two or three minutes of howling, yipping chaos, I approach them to sooth Sierra. Jenn has said she does it most often when she’s lonely, and I don’t want her to feel that she’s been abandoned. Rosie, who is jealous of any attention given to the Old Blind Dog, always comes rushing in to shove her face between Sierra and me. It strikes me that sometimes, Sierra’s song speaks of that loneliness, a feeling of being put aside in favor of newer, younger dogs.
She hardly ever gets to see her human Mommy and Daddy since she came to live with Jenn, and even engagements with the Adoring Public have become largely a thing of the past. Sierra howls, lifting her old, sightless face upwards, and she might as well be singing the Blues. Rosie doesn’t understand, because she has no patience. Doggie loneliness is not to be found in puppyish histrionics every time Jenn steps outside without her. It’s in the quiet patience, the hours of darkness. It’s in the waiting to hear another voice raised in song that has gone quiet forever.
MED: What inspired you to write your book, No One Has Such a Dog, and No One Should?
EWS: Well, quite aside from the fact that I’m a jibbering idiot about dogs, my family has a rich history of making up songs, silly names and sayings, and providing canine dialogue. I joked for years that I was going to write a book about it. Another reason I’ve written the book is the fact that I’m a trained anthropologist and archaeologist. Dogs are a huge part of the human journey, and without canines, the world might appear quite differently. For those who have a difficult time grasping what I mean, consider another case of absence. Draft animals—oxen, horses, and even water buffalo—are incredibly important to the pursuit of effective farming in Asia and Europe. Many of the advances we see after the domestication of these animals, upon which still other critical features of culture depend, did not occur in the same way in the North American, Mesoamerican, and South American civilizations, because there were no large beasts of burden.
Dogs provided supervision of livestock and children, protection against wild animals, hunting assistance, companionship, and even transportation. Without them, animal husbandry, sufficient protein acquisition, and something less tangible within our own collective psyche, would have been dramatically different. Hence, my motivation wasn’t simply driven by my penchant for dogs, but as a scholar interested in communicating how important dogs are to human culture.
MED: I understand you have some big news to share! Please, tell us about it?
EWS: In 2016, I decided that my big project would be to use my writing to benefit others. While a friend introduced me to Ahimsa House in 2015, my goal took some time to come into focus. Specifically, for eight weeks (February 1st – April 1st), half the royalties from each purchased copy of the book will be donated to Ahimsa House.
MED: That’s wonderful news, that you’d use your book royalties to support your cause. What is Ahimsa House and what do they do?
EWS: Ahimsa House is a charitable organization operating in the state of Georgia. Their mission is to provide shelter and resources for the pets of those fleeing abusive situations. While it may sound a bit odd, pets are often used as leverage by abusive partners or spouses to manipulate and control other members of the family. 71 percent of women who escaped an abusive partner reported that the family pet was threatened, injured, or killed during a conflict. In light of this, many women will actually remain in a dangerous home in order to protect their pets, because most shelters will not allow animals of any kind. From 2007-2014 in the state of Georgia alone, abusive relationships claimed the lives of nearly 1,000 women.
What Ahimsa House strives to do is connect women with resources to enable them to escape, while offering shelter and care for their pets. This takes the form of veterinary treatment for injuries, foster homes, and food. Once the women are ready to reestablish a household of their own, Ahimsa House sets them up with a care package of essential items—from litter boxes for cats to crates, leashes, and kibble. They also arrange adoptions of stray or “orphaned” animals, taking steps to ensure population control of dogs and cats. Considering that they are almost entirely reliant on volunteer efforts and donations to rehome and provide for these animals, they do remarkable work. They are by no means without advocates in the community, but it’s a large task. Every little bit counts.
MED: When one thinks of “victims of domestic violence,” one doesn’t necessarily imagine that pets qualify. Why do pets need shelter from domestic violence?
EWS: The abusive personality seizes upon any opportunity to further control, display power, or manipulate an intimate partner or spouse into serving their goals. Unfortunately, one of the simplest paths to power is to punish what we love. That can be human children or pets, the latter of which is usually more convenient and less likely to cause an abuser trouble with the law. Threats of harm to a pet will almost always escalate into physical violence as the abuser seeks to further their control over their human victims. Pets become targets for maiming or indiscriminate killing who lack even a voice of their own to protest.
MED: Some of our readers may be wondering: “Why don’t people just leave their pets behind, instead of risking their own safety?” How would you answer that question?
EWS: Would you leave a child in such a situation? Studies have shown that the love a human shows their pet is of the same type that they would give to a human child. The brain releases the same chemicals, responds in similar fashions to various situational stimuli, and enjoys a mutually beneficial mitigation of stress during the simple act of contact. But there is another facet to consider. Victims of abuse are made to feel responsible for their own situation, which could not be further from the truth. However, especially in the Deep South, there is a pervasive cultural attitude held by many, including law enforcement, that if a man hits a woman or exercises punitive measures of control—like taking her money, ostracizing her from social connections, restricting her movements outside the home—she “must have done something to make him mad.” This is called victim blaming, and is intensely disempowering. But the bond a victim shares with a pet instills a sense of parental responsibility for their wellbeing. To remain in a dangerous home in order to shield a creature more helpless than they are is, in fact, an exercise of will. It’s something they can control. As well, even after a person has been demoralized in this way, that sense of responsibility precludes abandonment. It’s the last, truly human voluntary action. To abandon a helpless animal is to lose that.
MED: Do you have any advice for victims of domestic abuse and their pets?
EWS: Leaving behind all your possessions and money is one of the most difficult decisions you can make. It means giving up the idea of being independent, at least at first. But if your house were on fire, what would you take with you? This is simply a different sort of fire, but no less deadly. If you live in Georgia, contact Ahimsa House (http://ahimsahouse.org/) from a safe location—a public library will often have computers you can use. They will put you in touch with organizations that can offer you refuge, and help you to make arrangements for you pets. If you live in another state, contact the American Humane Society, the American Humane Association, or the ASPCA after you have made contact with DFACS Don’t lose hope. Save yourself, your children, and your pets. Possessions can be regained or repurchased. Life cannot. Below is a link that provides both information about what constitutes abuse, laws in place to prosecute abusers, and many links to locate assistance and shelter nearby.
MED: What can our readers do to help and support victims of domestic abuse, both human and non-human, in their own communities?
EWS: Since many organizations are restricted to statewide operation, they can either make contact with them on a case-by-case basis. Alternatively, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), the American Humane Association, the American Humane Society, and the ASPCA will have information about volunteer opportunities, donation initiatives pertinent to their communities, and other ways to help on their websites.
MED: Thank you so much for that insightful interview. You’ve really put a spotlight on a little-understood aspect of domestic violence that I know I’ve never really considered before now. I wish you every success in your partnership with Ahimsa House, as I’m sure our readers do.
Where can we get a copy of No One Has Such a Dog, And No One Should and how can we continue to follow your career and your good works? (links to blog, twitter, Facebook, amazon author, and other pages)
EWS: You can visit me on Amazon if you would like to purchase a copy of the book.
I keep a personal blog on WordPress. Being Southern Somewhere Else is a place for me to talk about projects that are important to me, offer updates on publications, and wax poetic when the spirit moves me.
I’d also love to meet new people on Twitter or Facebook, so please feel free to come and say hello.
Thank you again so much! I really appreciate you taking the time to share your work and your important cause with my readers. Best of luck with your writing and your activism. I’m sure we’ll all be hearing much more about you in time to come.