It’s funny—I think of myself as someone who, in “real life,” really isn’t afraid to discuss just about anything, regardless of what the potential reaction of those around me might be. When it comes to my blog, though, I’m a little gun-shy. Maybe that’s because the internet can be a wasteland of misunderstandings based on a lack of body language, eye contact, and accountability; or maybe it’s just a fear of being called out as a hypocrite.
Whatever the case, I’ve been wanting to write about my reaction to Jonathan Safran Foer’s phenomenal book, Eating Animals, for quite some time now, but I’ve been procrastinating. Even now as I sit down to finally begin, I’m finding myself wondering whether I’ll actually be able to hit the “publish” button when I’m done.
I suppose this post is as much about Public Fear of Blogging as it is about (Not) Eating Animals, then. (I guess it’s going to get lengthy.)
If you were a reader of my old blog, Absolutely Vile, then you may recall my rapturous reviews of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novels, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Both books had an enormous impact on me, and Foer quickly became one of my most favorite authors ever. When I heard that he was working on a book about the ethics (or lack thereof) of factory farming, I was surprised, but also confident that he would manage to write about this ugliest of subjects with grace, truth, and artistry. I’d read a couple of articles that Foer had previously written about his experiences with vegetarianism and his feelings about his dog, George, so I knew he and I were at least somewhat on the same page. I was excited to read this new book, for sure.
Until it was actually released, that is. I waited nearly four months before I actually cracked the cover and started reading. I knew Eating Animals was going to change my life, and I was scared.
Me in 1992. Morrissey spoke, and I listened.
When I was in my mid-teens, I became a vegetarian. There was no hesitation or “tapering off” once the decision was made—I just stopped, cold turkey (as it were). Aside from having a deep love of animals, I was also a fan of Morrissey, and I have no problem admitting that his very public and very sincere stance on (not) meat-eating and animal rights had a seriously influential effect on me at that age. I also had a lot of friends who were Straight Edge (this was the early ’90s, after all), and that peer pressure played a positive role in shaping my earliest of opinions about vegetarianism and drug and alcohol use.
Plus, being a vegetarian was another way that I could set myself apart from the average person, something which (for better or for worse) has always been very appealing to me. I knew how “different” (not to mention “difficult”) it made me seem, and I liked that. That said, vegetarianism was definitely not a phase for me—in fact, I stayed a total veg until I was 30 years old.
I’m not sure exactly what happened when I turned 30 to change my ways. Well, the short answer is that I went to Freeman’s with a friend and was lured into eating a bacon-wrapped prune (It’s always bacon that does in the vegetarians, isn’t it? It’s a total gateway meat), but the real answer is more complex than that. I joke around sometimes and refer to my lapse as a “vegetarian rumspringa,” and that’s actually not a bad description of what was going on.
I had come to feel like being a vegetarian was just another item on the list of things that have defined me in other people’s eyes for so many years, along with having dyed hair and bangs, being a Cure fan, wearing black, and so forth. It started to feel superficial, I guess. As much as I am confident about who I am as an individual, I start to get itchy whenever it seems like I’ve fallen into enough of a rut that even strangers have me figured out. I don’t like being a cliché, and, of course, I have that ongoing need to be “different.”
I started to question whether being a vegetarian even meant anything to me anymore. I thought it would be fun to cook and eat the same things as my husband. I was excited by the prospect of going to a restaurant and ordering anything I wanted. The more I dwelt on the positive aspects of giving up on my long-held beliefs, the less and less vegetarianism mattered to me.
Or at least I convinced myself that that was the case. The truth, though, is that I spent 4 1/2 years feeling guilty and uncomfortable about eating meat, and embarrassed every time I had to tell someone who’s known me for any length of time that I was no longer a vegetarian. Often times this information was met with a response of, “Great! I’m so happy for you!”, which made me feel even more uncomfortable with my new non-labeled self. Obviously this wasn’t something that I should have put on par with a decision to incorporate more color into my wardrobe—vegetarianism was something real and good and meaningful that I had committed myself to at a very young age, and I should have trusted myself enough to have held on to my convictions.
Which brings me back to the subject at hand: Eating Animals, the book.
There are plenty of reviews out there already that summarize the content of Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, so I won’t focus too much on those details. Sojourners recently published a “Cliffs Notes Edition” which very neatly outlines the 10 main arguments Foer makes for not eating factory farmed animals, and I urge you to read it.
I, like Foer, have chosen to go beyond the extent of merely eliminating factory farmed meat from my diet. Factory farmed animals comprise “99.9 percent of chickens raised for meat, 97 percent of laying hens, 99 percent of turkeys, 95 percent of pigs, and 78 percent of cattle”—in other words, the vast majority of the meat consumed in the United States. As Foer explains in great detail in Eating Animals, it is nearly impossible to be a meat-eater and not eat animals raised or slaughtered in gruesome environments. Terms I tricked myself into believing, like “free-range,” “organically raised” and “natural,” are virtually meaningless.
I was only about five pages into the book before I knew I would never eat meat again. Halfway through, I crossed out eggs and dairy products as well. When Evan read the book, he experienced the same thing. There was just no way that I, as an educated, compassionate, and financially secure person, could convince myself that there is any reason whatsoever for me to partake in a lifestyle that does nothing to help the world and its inhabitants, and everything to encourage cruelty, unsafe working conditions, and environmental destruction. When I became a vegetarian in my teens, I never once thought about farming conditions, environmental impact, personal health, worker safety, or anything beyond the most basic emotional response to animal rights. As an adult, I thought I knew the truth about these issues, but I really didn’t. Most of us don’t, because it’s not presented to us…and most of us are a little frightened to seek it out.
Aside from compiling a factual reference, Jonathan Safran Foer managed to (as I imagined he would) also put out a beautiful, thoughtful, and thoroughly compelling piece of writing. Lest you be put off by the prospect of reading something horribly dry, depressing and soap-boxy, let me assure you that this book is absolutely readable. Foer explores the philosophy of eating meat and of his own struggles with ethics as a father, as a grandson, and as a young man who enjoyed the taste of a burger. This is not a preachy tome, but a challenge to think and to make meaningful choices.
If you’re feeling apprehensive at all about reading Eating Animals, that’s all the more reason to dive right in. (And yes, even if you think you already know the truth.) What you’ll find is not a pretty reality, but it is an important one. Every single one of us has the power to make up our own minds about what we will and will not put in our mouths. Blaming poor choices on something as simple as a craving (“Oh, but I like the taste of ____ too much”) or laziness (“I have kids, I don’t have time to be so diligent”) doesn’t give enough credit to that power. It’s not an all-or-none prospect, anyway. Even tiny changes are significant when multiplied by millions.
We can do better, though. All of us. It’s good to change, to learn, to grow—and even, sometimes, to revert to the instincts we had when we were younger.