It’s been a painful few months. For you, too? I’ve been trying to get to the root of the heavy depression–despair, really–that I’ve been stuck in since November. Or even before November, but 11/9 is when it really took hold of all the insides of me, squeezed tight, shuttered me in with its bleak outlook: nothing is ever going to be all right again.
This, of course, is not true. So many of us have made it through impossibly painful times, and we have built up skills and tools for navigating the horrors of our world: governmental ignorance and abuse, a society that treats women and all folks of color like animals to be used and then discarded, that treats the earth like a garden to be plundered and then abandoned. My sweetheart last night reminded me of how scared we all were at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, when no one really knew what was happening–and then, once we did know, the folks in power alternately pretended like nothing was happening and tried to force us to be even more terrified of sex than we were already supposed to be. But we got through it together, with rage and sex and laughter and art and community.
It does seem like life under this Rapist-in-chief (and his so-called administration) will be worse than anything most of us have had to confront in this country, and that we’ll have to build a whole new set of tools for surviving, for helping one another survive. But that’s work we can do, all while resisting and struggling for justice and change.
But knowing this wasn’t getting to the root of my despair. I’ve been isolating mostly, trying to get some writing projects done, but also just wanting to be alone in my house with the blinds closed. Maybe it will all go away. A child’s way of thinking. Maybe when I open the blinds back up, maybe when I wake up tomorrow, everything will be better.
But things kept not being better when I woke up the next morning. I sat on the couch and watched the rains come in over San Francisco bay, and every loud, low plane I heard I was afraid would turn out to be the Rapist’s first bombing raids on too-liberal San Francisco. When would the attacks begin?
This is old fear. I realized my behavior bore a strong resemblance — this despair, this fear, this isolating — to the ways I acted in the first months after I broke away from my family, when I was in my early twenties. I was honestly terrified that my stepfather would make good on his oft-repeated threats to send someone to harm or kill me and those I loved; every noise at night the old New Hampshire farmhouse where I lived with my then-boyfriend was the spy-friend of les’ climbing up the outside wall, about to break through the bedroom window with his weapons: the one attached to his body and the ones clipped to his belt.
So there’s the ache and memory of this terror, arising now because this Rapist now installed in the highest office of the land talks and acts so much like the man who terrorized my sister and I through our adolescence. The demands for loyalty, the gas lighting, the abusive teasing, the Orwellian-Newspeak changes in message or tone, the racism, the elitism, and, of course, the misogyny and sexual violence that he downplays as teasing or helpful or consensual — these were all tactics my stepfather used as well. These are the tactics of the common abuser. So many of us talked about this before the election. We talked about The Rapist’s abusive behavior toward his opponents during the primary, his horrific language about and threats toward various communities of color, his malignant teasing of a journalist with arthrogryposis, his predatory behavior toward Clinton during the debates. We talked about the difference between “locker-room talk” and bragging about sexual assault.
Folks who supported the Rapist didn’t want to hear it. Folks often prefer to be on the side of power, the side of the abuser. Don’t we who have been through abuse — as children or as adults — know this?
So here’s the other abuser’s tool the Rapist-in-Chief wielded, one my stepfather also brandished, of course: he convinced the mothers that he’s the one in the right. That they shouldn’t listen to their daughters, their children.
That they shouldn’t listen to reality.
A week or so ago, I realized that was the link to this deep grief I was feeling — a grief so big I couldn’t even cry about it. The link had to do with that 53% of white women who voted for this man, this now our Rapist-in-Chief: these women sided with the abuser.
Just like my own mother did.
I remember sitting on the futon in the bedroom of that old New Hampshire farmhouse, just a couple of months, I think, after I first told my stepfather that I wanted to end the “sexual part of our relationship.” He’d moved quickly to get me to agree that what I was really saying was that I wanted to break contact with my whole family; it was his way of further isolating me from my mother and my sister. He threatened to harm me if I contacted them, which I didn’t do for awhile, but then I changed my mind. I thought, it has to be that my mother just doesn’t know. She doesn’t know what he’s been doing to her daughters when she is away at work, or over the phone, or at his office.
(Never mind that there was plenty of awful that she did see, that happened right in front of her– that happened to her — that wasn’t enough to push her through her fear (or whatever else it was that kept her tied to him) and get her to leave.)
So I decided to call and tell her. I was terrified. I brought the phone over to the bed, sat crosslegged at the far end, and dialed her number at work. Their secretary transferred me to her office, but she was about to go into a therapy session with a client; could she call me in an hour?
I spent the hour trying not to throw up from fear. She told my stepfather about the call, and so they spent the hour (I found out later) talking with my sister about how to contain Jen’s most recent “attack” on the family. My mother called me back. I took a deep breath and asked whether she knew what her husband had been doing to us.
She said, Yes.
This took all the air out of my body.
“What do you mean, yes?”
She gave me specific acts, which, I found out later, my stepfather had told her to specify. She said, “He told me about it.” And, “He’s sorry. He knows he crossed a line.”
I didn’t have any words. What could I say to this? Here was my mother, calmly telling me that she knew her husband had been sexually abusing her daughters. She wasn’t raging. She wasn’t telling me that she’d hit him with a paperweight when he told her, then called the police and was leaving him immediately. She just said, “I know.”
I don’t remember now how the call ended. But I remember the enormous blanket of grief that overcame me. What could be done now? Wasn’t that my last possible attack on this man who’d destroyed my childhood and family? Hadn’t it been my belief, all through my adolescence, that if I could just get up the courage to tell my mother what was happening, she would be outraged, she would take our side finally, she would make it stop?
But it wasn’t true. She chose him. She would keep on choosing him for another year or so, until my sister broke contact with them, and even after that — until we called the police and they were both arrested.
She chose him over us.
This is the sorrow that is so big it doesn’t have anywhere to fit in my body. This is the grief that is too big for tears. This is the heavy lead blanket of despair that has covered me since the release of that fucking tape from 2005 of our-now-Rapist-in-Chief bragging about what he could do to any woman he wanted, and I heard (white) women from around the country excusing him. White men, too, of course — isn’t that to be expected? (Think about what Brock Turner’s father said about his son’s rape; the men so very often stand up for their own.) But here I was, still the abused girl, hoping my mother would step up for me, us, the country, when she heard the truth.
But she didn’t. More than half of the white women in the country, again, chose the abuser over the abused, for reasons I will never quite be able to understand, even though I can articulate some of them: Security? Defiance? Fear? Having spent many years working in domestic violence prevention, I know the dangers of calling out the abused women who stay with abusers — I know how quick we as a society are to blame women for their own abuse. And, too, as an abused child of an abused woman, I know how painful it is to have your mother turn her back on you in favor of the man who has been hurting her as well as you.
So, it’s complicated, this work.
As a white woman who voted against him, who spoke out against him, who joined with others in calling out his abhorrent behavior, what can we say to these women, some of them mothers, to get them to choose their children, and the children of others, over the Rapist?
Of course, women of color, all folks of color, have their own deep, historical (and present!) grief about white women choosing, repeatedly, to side with violent white men.
What will these women tell their own daughters, their sons, their children, about how to behave in the world? What can they say that will ever contradict they message they sent when they explicitly chose this man? It’s likely that their daughters will have to do the work for them.
My mother eventually walked away from her second husband. She eventually got out from under him, when he was sent to prison. But we have never quite reconciled that moment when I told her what he’d done to me, to us, and she said, “I know,” like it was nothing. Even if she was speaking out of her own brainwashing, her own abuse, her own terror (and I do believe now that she was) — that doesn’t undo the wounding to our relationship, the way it unhooked something inside me from what Mother was supposed to mean, from the possibility of having a mother.
What do we do when the mothers seem not to care about the abuse of the fathers? Here’s how I got through those early years of grief — well, I drank a lot then, which I’m not doing anymore. Bad tv helped, and movies that made me laugh, and then movies that made me cry hard. Long walks helped. And speaking out helped: telling the truth to people who could hear me, receive my words, who helped me to understand that I was not crazy — that yes, in spite of how my mother had reacted, what my stepfather did was not ok. Not even a little bit at all ever.
And so my work is to join with all the voices around the country, around the world, committed to speaking up over and over and over: no matter what the (white) mothers and fathers are telling you, this Rapist-in-Chief’s behavior is not ok. We are not crazy to be terrified and furious. We are right to be outraged and to work for change.
Take 10 minutes if you have the chance today and write what you want to tell the women, tell the mothers, who keep on choosing abusers over their children’s or even their own well-being. This might be a letter to your own mother, a character’s mother, or mothers in general. We need all the words of all the people now. Please keep writing and speaking, and be so easy with you–which, I don’t know about you, but has been hard work for me recently, this being easy with myself, but I keep trying, returning to center. Gentle course correction is the name of the game these days, I think. And hot tea. And chocolate.
Thank you, always and every time, for your words.
*I think I’ve mentioned in the blog that I refuse to use this man’s name, and intend to refer to him as The Rapist or Rapist-in-chief (I preferred Rapist-elect) for the next four years