HAND HOLDING & DICE
GUIDE FOR EDUCATORS
Hand Holding and Dice are original short stories written by Rachel Asher. The stories tell the experiences of a case manager working at a center for survivors of political torture. The stories go beyond the experiences of survivors to address the secondary trauma experienced by health professionals.
THEMES & TOPICS:
Mental Health of Health Professionals
Hand Holding and Dice are recommended for people age 15 and up. This feature is suitable for the general public, college students, medical students, and students in the upper years of high school.
Hand Holding takes approximately 15 minutes to read. Dice takes 10 minutes. If discussion is integrated within the experience, more time will be needed.
Hand Holding and Dice can be studied as read-aloud texts or given as a homework assignment. We have provided readers' guides and a "further reading" list, below.
To support deep engagement with content, students can reflect on their experiences of reading Hand Holding and Dice through essays and informal reflections. Students can write about the stories together or focus on certain elements or themes from the stories to develop essays, written projects, and focused presentations.
READERS' GUIDE FOR HAND HOLDING:
Why does Rachel begin her story by focusing on the speculum?
To what extent does Rachel’s description of the speculum create for her an emotional distance from her client?
By the end of the opening paragraph, what questions do we have about Rachel and this situation? Why does Rachel’s client need “additional support”?
“I am skilled. I can explain, with enviable intellectual grace,
that she was raped and left in a dark cell”
This is the first explicit reference to sexual violence.
What does Rachel mean by “enviable intellectual grace”?
“little fingers around my lungs”
“the warmer bones interlaced with mine”
“It’s a part of your bones before you know it,
the spongy part like I said, the marrow,
and then it never leaves.”
How do Rachel’s references to anatomy and medical terminology
frame or change the meaning of the story? What is their purpose?
“this clean gynecologist’s office with its sterilized instruments”
Why is Rachel drawing our attention to the
cleanliness and organization of the office?
What is Grace’s story?
What happened to her?
“There are thousands of women like her who come to
the United States every year, seeking protection.”
SUGGESTED ACTIVITY: Ask students to work in smalls groups to research torture treatment centers in the United States. What services do these centers provide? What are the challenges of working in these centers?
“Reading a scar is not the same as reading about scars.”
What does Rachel mean by this?
Rachel references “the US definition of political torture”
What is this definition, and how does it differ from the United Nations definition?
“easier to swallow her story whole without ever tasting it”
To what extent is Rachel skeptical of her own ability to be present
and listen to the horrific details of Grace’s story?
There are moments in the story where Rachel addresses us, as readers, directly:
“Maybe you hear about them on the news. Even if you
hear their stories, you may not listen to their stories.”
“Forgive me for this.”
How does this direct style of writing frame or change Rachel’s story?
“it is getting harder for me to tell which side of the prison cell door I am on”
What does Rachel mean by this? Is this question answered later by Rachel’s reminder to herself? “I remind myself that when they tell their stories, boundaries between self and other often become blurred” And by her characterization of her colleagues? “we all scurry around and do our work, blind as bats, day by day. Maybe if we don’t open our eyes it won’t be there, we think, and it will leave us alone.”
“There is a corpse next to me. I am there. But no, she was there.”
Throughout the story, Rachel’s narrative slips from her reality of
Grace’s experiences and into Rachel’s dreams and imaginings.
What does this tell us about Rachel’s job as a case worker
for survivors of political torture?
OF GAY & LESBIAN PEOPLE:
“she is no longer her daughter”
“Maybe there is something I can do to make them love me again.”
“You are not mine anymore.”
“They tell her they will teach her not to be “gay.” I thought
about how I had never cared about gay rights before.”
Grace was raped and tortured, and rejected by her mother, because she was gay.
Rachel does not reveal immediately the perpetrators’ reasons for raping Grace.
How does this - this slow reveal - change how we read the story?
SUGGESTED ACTIVITY: Have students work in small groups and research the extent of so-called “corrective rape” worldwide.
Rachel’s encounter with the mailman illustrates
her anxiety about Grace and perhaps her job in general.
SUGGESTED ACTIVITY: Have students, working alone or in small groups, research best practices for how health professionals might learn to cope with “vicarious trauma.”
“What are the feelings of asphyxiation? Panic, I would at least imagine. But I haven’t experienced it, and they have, and it’s not my place to ask them if those words are sufficient. You never probe a survivor about anything, especially their torture. If they want to tell you about it, they will. And it will burn you.”
Why should a health professional “never probe a survivor about anything, especially their torture”? To what extent is Rachel attempting to put herself in the shoes of torture victims? Rachel suggests that finding the words to describe torture may be impossible. Why is this?
“something like that should burn you. It should scorch your eyes. It should torch straight down to the sap of your bones and leave you shaking. It should give you nightmares”
What is Rachel telling us?
“Did they forget to scrawl out in big, red lipstick letters on a mirror, that many cultures lead women to believe they are disgusting and to blame for anal rape?”
Rachel lists the different forms of torture identified by the center where she works. Why is Rachel angry that the list is incomplete or too general? Why might some cultures perceive anal rape to be particularly shameful? Why might some cultures blame victims for the crimes of others?
How should we understand the title “Hand Holding”
and references to hands throughout the story?
“holding her hand while the doctor inserts the speculum”
“Her palm is smooth. Her scars are elsewhere”
“Someone else should be holding her hand. Mine shakes.”
“I hear the words, but my hand doesn’t know how to write the words.”
“At least my hand is not shaking, but maybe that’s just because she is holding it.”
READERS' GUIDE FOR DICE:
What are Rachel’s first impressions of Aina?
What is Aina’s story?
What happened to her?
“This is her version of getting up in the morning to drink coffee, of taking out the trash.”
What does Aina’s self-reported behavior tell us about her?
“the reds and blues like venous blood”
“the dark, radial strokes of the iris”
“she ripped off my skin”
“inside the marrow”
How do Rachel’s references to anatomy and medical terminology frame or change the meaning of the story? What is their purpose?
“I prefer the comfort of interpreters, of halted English, foreign dress—all of this makes what happened to the survivors seem like a dream, a smear on the horizon. I can keep their stories behind the bars that they were kept behind.”
Why might Rachel prefer to see her clients in this way?
“I’m going to be writing what you tell me
so we can figure out if our center is the right place for you.”
“I am a case manager at a federally funded treatment center
for survivors of political torture, and Aina is about to
get a check in the ‘eligible’ box.”
What does this tell us about such treatment centers?
“what I think I know about terror feels like a childhood habit on the edge of breaking”
What does Rachel mean by this?
“The American soldiers did these things to me also.”
When Rachel learns that American soldiers tortured Aina,
Rachel responds, “No. Please. I am not ready for this.”
Why does Rachel respond in this way?
“You don’t get to cry.”
Why does Rachel tell herself this?
“I want torture to be something other countries do, something that happens to other people who speak foreign languages and don’t look like me or sound like me.”
Why does Rachel want torture to be “something other countries do”?
SUGGESTED ACTIVITY: Ask students to work in small groups to research the history of the use of torture - both official use of torture and unauthorized torture - in the U.S. military.
“I could be standing over her holding a black hood,
and the difference is starting to feel like a roll of the dice.”
Rachel is imagining herself as the perpetrator of Aina’s torture, with the “black hood” a reference to “hooding,” a form of torture made infamous by photographs of American torture at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Why does the story end in this way?
HAND HOLDING AND DICE:
What do Hand Holding and Dice tell us about the choices we make?
What do Hand Holding and Dice tell us about
the importance, challenges, and limits of empathy?
In each story, how does Rachel respond emotionally and intellectually to the information she uncovers? How are Rachel’s responses in Hand Holding different from and similar to her responses in Dice?
“it is getting harder for me to tell which side of the prison cell door I am on.” (Hand Holding) “I am sitting in this chair but I could be standing over her holding a black hood, and the difference is starting to feel like a roll of the dice.” (Dice)
Throughout Hand Holding, Rachel appears to struggle with the boundaries of empathy and over-identifying with Grace, her client, as survivor of torture.
In Dice, Rachel appears to identify with American perpetrators of torture.
In light of this, how can these stories be reconciled? Are they contradictory?
Or are the stories, read together, making a singular point?
Are these stories about Grace and Aina, or are they about Rachel?
Hand Holding and Dice. Copyright 2017. Rachel Asher. All rights reserved.
Stories and features edited by Danny M. Cohen.