an American tragedy
Looking back, how will we narrate these two weeks to our children, our students, our friend’s children, ourselves? How we will describe what it felt like to see Christine Blasey Ford first appear onstage, or the way she uttered the words “indelible to the hippocampus is laughter”? What words will we use to describe Kavanaugh’s face, his voice, his anger? Will we remember what Jeff Flake did and did not do, what Susan Collins did and did not do? Or will we remember it, as I remember the Anita Hill hearings, as a haze, a feeling, an outfit, a demeanor; that something was wrong and not enough people believed the same.
As for me, I will remember the tremble of Ford’s voice. The indignation of Lindsay Graham’s. The cowardice of hiring a woman to save themselves from the optics of asking the questions that they would nevertheless judge her on. The nausea of that day, and the day after, realizing: they’ve figured out how to say they “believe her,” but not what she truly ruined her life to come say. I’ll remember the footage of two brave women in an elevator. And the feeling of deep resignation and sadness as it gradually became clear that what Ford had predicted, back in August — “that doing so would upend her life and probably would not affect Kavanaugh’s nomination” — had come to pass.
All of these feelings are emboldened for me because of another personal tragedy. (These past two weeks have been a farce in some ways, but the overwhelming feeling is that of tragedy). In June, my dog was hit by a car and paralyzed. She made a nearly full recovery, but earlier this week, due to nerve complications from the original accident, she had her rear leg amputated. She’s recovering, and dogs generally give zero shits about this sort of thing once they’ve figured out their tripod life, but that recovery has been mentally and physically exhausting. She’s three years old and lived an incredibly active life, one that she will continue in a modified way, but the week has been filled with recalculations: I thought our life was one way. But no: it’s another.
To be clear: these tragedies are incomparable. But they are both deeply traumatic, and each stretches and deepens the injury of the other. I thought, or hoped, our country was one way. But no: it’s another. Which isn’t to say that I wasn’t aware that we lived under patriarchy, or that the predominant, if sublimated, attitude towards women remains one of misogyny. Rather, I thought that, a year into the exhausting and important conversations of #MeToo, and twenty-six years after Anita Hill, we’d reached the point where accusations of this sort are not just taken seriously, but considered to be disqualifying, particularly for a job as significant as this one.
And while countless men and women have spent the last twenty-six years (or twelve months) reconsidering their thinking about sexual assault, others have simply learned how to adopt the rhetoric of belief while rejecting the ramifications. As Ann Friedman put it on Twitter:
"‘I believe Dr. Fold was assaulted, but I don’t think Brett Kavanaugh did it.’ I’m sure it wasn’t hard for them to come up with this talking point. The default language around sexual assault has always been passive. ‘She was raped,’ not ‘He raped her.’”
Ann encapsulates the larger problem of this moment: Patriarchy continues to endure, and most (not all! but most!) will say that the structural inequalities it fosters are wrong, or deserve rectifying. And yet, so few, men or women, want to admit their position within patriarchy. Hence: women are made to suffer under patriarchy, not “I make women suffer under patriarchy.” Someone else, truly anyone else, including the victim, is responsible — not men who are the primary beneficiaries of patriarchy, or the (particular type of) women whose position is contingent upon the sustaining the status quo.
Because even if the president doesn’t believe women who’ve survived sexual assault — and mocks them for coming forward — that attitude remains societally, publicly, unacceptable. Yes, men and women laughed along with Trump as he did so at that rally; yes, thousands have shared memes framing Ford’s testimony as politically motivated, or suggested that Kavanaugh is the “real victim.” But for a senator to say they flat out don’t believe her, that somehow remains in poor taste. As a result, they adopt the posture of belief while exempting themselves from the necessary action of it. Again: she was assaulted, not he assaulted her.
To me, that posture — that hollow belief — is even more craven than simply announcing they don’t believe Dr. Ford, or Deborah Ramirez, or any other survivor. It protects them from the stigma of villainy. But that’s what makes the position so hard to counter — and, of course, precisely why they adopt it. It’s slippery. It’s evasive. It’s not heroic but it doesn’t, at least on its face, come off as a cruel.
It’s a peculiar form of gaslighting: I believe women, they say. But everything in our world suggests otherwise. As exemplified by Sen. Lindsay Graham: “I’ll listen to the lady,” he said, “but we’ve got to bring this thing to a close.”
Of course, it’s closely related to the President’s gaslighting strategy. After the release of the Access Hollywood tape: “Nobody has more respect for women than I do.” After making fun of Carly Fiorina’s appearance: “I respect women more than I respect men. ... I have great respect, admiration, and I cherish women." After suggesting that Megyn Kelly has blood coming out of her “whatever”: "I cherish women. I want to help women. I'm going to do things for women that no other candidate will be able to do." (Here’s 18 other times he said he respects women more than anyone — and that’s just to March 2017).
The central tragedy of these two weeks has been watching what Ford and Ramirez had to endure, and will continue to have to endure — and how it’s been framed as galvanizing women, but additionally awakening millions in defense of Kavanaugh, men and women ostensibly furious that such a “witch hunt” could do to them, or their husbands, or their sons, but actually terrified of what might happen if men were held accountable for their actions, and how the status quo would respond to that massive, structural collapse.
The trauma of these two weeks, that’s slightly different. I cannot fathom what it must be like for survivors of assault to endure: to relive all the reasons why they did or didn’t report, to see the discourses around assault generally and their assault in particular resurface and envelop your world, whether on the national news, on your high school friend’s Facebook page. A secondary trauma, then, is the recognition, over and over again, of the patriarchy’s insidious strength. It’s not that we forgot patriarchy existed, or that, as a male professor had the gaul to email me earlier this week, that we’re living in post-patriarchal world. If you’re a subscriber to this newsletter, you’re not naive enough to believe that. But just because you’ve figured out how to live in an ideology doesn’t mean that you don’t feel pain when it punches you, over and over again, in places public and private, where you’re most exhausted and sensitive and vulnerable.
That’s what these past two weeks felt like: patriarchy punching us in the face. Patriarchy in its purest form — those 11 white men on the judicial committee — punching us in the face. Patriarchy in its supposedly sympathetic “Tortured Jeff Flake Mask,” punching us in the face. Patriarchy in a Susan Collins costume, punching us in the face.
Some women were surprised by Collins’ vote and accompanying rebuttal. (Ijeoma Oluo: “White women: feel this betrayal right now? This fear and anger and pin? First off: welcome. Second: Use it to talk to other white women). A great many of us were not. Still, just because you’re not surprised by something doesn’t mean it doesn’t injure you. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel like trauma.
Like so many of us, I’ve become so inured to the news, and to Trump’s various distraction spectacles within it, that I have reached a point of total unsurprise. He could actually punch a woman in the face and I would not be surprised. He could use the n-word on national television and would I not be surprised. In part, as so many have argued, because those actions would simply be manifestations of the type of man, and the accompanying ideologies of misogyny and white supremacy, that he has long evidenced himself to be.
Put differently, Trump has repeatedly shown us who he is. So I will never be surprised when he says or acts in a way that simply adds support to who I already know him to be. The same applies to society: I know we are trudging through life under patriarchy. I know sometimes — especially for white straight middle-class cis-gendered women — it doesn’t even feel like a trudge, because we experience the privileges that temporarily obviate the oppression. But patriarchy, like any other defining American ideology — the classism of the American Dream, white supremacy, hetero-centrism, Christianity — may seem like a squishy theoretical concept you learned about your sophomore year in college. Most of the time, they’re so effective in cloaking themselves that they remain just that: concepts, something that unruly activists rail about with little pertinence to your life.
But these ideologies’ edges are sharp and wounding. And they surround us, even when we mistake them for things like “hiring policy,” or “school uniform code,” or “lack of qualified applicants,” or “there’s just not enough space for a lactation room,” or “common sense.” It’s Senator Chuck Grassley, earlier this week, on why the senate judicial committee is entirely white and male on the Republican side: “It’s a lot of work — maybe they don’t want to do it,” Grassley said. “My chief of staff of 33 years tells me we’ve tried to recruit women and we couldn’t get the job done.” Or PBS’ Mark Shields, post-Kavanaugh confirmation, asserting that “The time for protesting and shrieking is over.”
There are few fights more bruising than fighting a dominant ideology. Of course, when an ideology is secure, to fight it isn’t just bruising; it can be fatal, either literally or socially. It can mean jail and exclusion and unemployability. But when the ideology is under threat, as white American patriarchy is right now, it is unpredictable in its thrashing acts of self-preservation. It can be a different sort of cruel. And the toll of facing it — either in one’s own mind, or in conversation, or in public — isn’t just exhausting, as I’ve written about before. It’s actual trauma. Trauma can be motivating. But it is also deeply scarring and damaging in ways that aren’t immediately apparently.
When we talk about taking care of ourselves in this moment, remember that the care you’re providing isn’t just for these last two weeks — and that many, depending on their identity, have been experiencing the amplified intersection of similar denials of their authority of their own memories and experience their entire lives. It’s not a contest. But be mindful of what this particular trauma builds on, for all of us. Be graceful with yourself. Be furious, be terrified, be saddened, be whatever feels right in this moment. Be weary or energized. But also be honest with yourself and others about why this feels the way it does.
For me, it feels like trying to keep the sky from swallowing me — while also getting punched in the face. It feels like this is a fight me and my mother and my grandmother and my great-grandmother have been fighting, in various ways, forever. It feels like the fight is very far from over, and it may never achieve less hateful, spiteful, terrified and demeaning world, in my lifetime. But when I tell people, in some far off future, about what happened these two weeks, I don’t want to remember it as the weeks when I, or the rest of us, gave up.
If you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, send it their way. You can subscribe here. You can follow Peggy figuring out her tripod life here. And finally: The best completely non-Kavanaugh related thing I read this week.