36 Years Later

I haven’t written about it for a long time.

When I wrote about it, it was still oddly fresh, even though it had happened so many years before. That’s what the first telling is always like. After the first time I wrote about my illegal abortion, I walked down the street to Lake Michigan feeling like layers of old wet wool sweaters were being stripped from my shoulders. I marveled at this. Had I been walking around for decades with all those thick, scratchy sweaters buttoned up to my neck? It had been so long, I scarcely noticed how damp and heavy and burdened I had become by what had happened when I was just a young woman.

The first telling of my experience with domestic violence had a similar effect. I had never put what had happened to me into words on a page. When I did, I made it a quick story, almost like a graphic novel without the pictures. Shorthand. Because, you know, it wasn’t all that serious what happened. Although it could have been.

Basically, for several years I had a boyfriend who had periods of psychotic depression. These episodes had occurred long before we met although I didn’t know that until a former girlfriend called me one night to fill me in. She told me that when he had these breaks, he became very threatening to himself and to others. There was a long history, she said, “you don’t know what he’s really like.” With me, his threatening behavior was rare and indirect but terrifying. I managed these episodes in strangely calm ways that even now make me feel I could talk someone down from committing mayhem. Maybe not. But let’s say I have experience.

There were several years of his threatening, dangerous behavior interspersed with the kind of companionship and regard that keep people attached to one another. I thought I could help him get his illness under control and then he could be his easy-going, funny self all the time. I tolerated his breaks as a mental health issue, deciding that because he hadn’t put his hands on me, the situation was still manageable. Until it wasn’t. And that’s a whole story by itself. The gist of which is this.

He didn’t have a gun.

Everytown for Gun Safety posted this yesterday on Facebook: “In states that require background checks for all handgun sales, 47 percent fewer women are shot to death by their intimate partners.”

It stopped me in my tracks.

It would have been so easy for him to shoot me, to keep me from screaming for help, running away, getting into my car and speeding away on the night that he finally did put his hands around my neck. Because, you see, in his frame of mind, he wouldn’t have cared about killing me, he just wanted to keep me from leaving. He wouldn’t have cared about being arrested or going to jail, he couldn’t think about that. There was no space in his head for those things. He just didn’t want me to leave and shooting me would have made sure of that.

But he didn’t shoot me because he didn’t have a gun.

He did, however, shoot himself many years later. I went to his funeral and talked to his sisters. They were angry at him for having ended his life. I wasn’t. I was surprised he’d lived as long as he had, the suffering I’d witnessed having been so acute. And I was grateful, deeply grateful, that I had decided to leave him, to give up on him, before he got a gun. It sounds heartless but it’s true.

Eagle Scout

I just bought a copy of the Mueller Report.

When I was 16, I bought a copy of the Warren Report. And I read it which is even weirder.

And, at the time, because the Warren Commission was headed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, I figured what was in the report was the absolute truth and that conspiracy theorists were crackpots. I still mostly think that but it’s harder since it has been revealed to me that truth is like jelly, deceptively solid, fluid with the merest heat.

I ordered the Mueller Report after I saw on the news that a particularly vociferous defender of the president, some Republican member of Congress whose name I don’t recall or refuse to commit to memory, admitted he’d not read the report because, well, why would he have to since the president already told him what was in it and I was reminded of people who run around quoting the Bible because of verses they’ve read on restaurant placemats. It’s hard reading the real stuff. Real hard.

So to make myself feel extra righteous about this purchase, I’m going to quote President John Kennedy’s famous statement about going to the moon.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Now we are entering the realm of the sanctimonious. I understand that. And I would apologize for this, for “making a show of being morally superior to other people” as the helpful Google dictionary puts it, except I think reading the Mueller Report is the morally superior thing to do and that’s why I’m going to do it despite the fact that it will probably take me well into the next decade to finish it, my attention span and preoccupation with social media being what it is.

I was a student once, though, a serious one. So my plan is to approach this task like homework. Now, leafing through this 448 page masterpiece, it seems that the reading might go faster than I thought.

The Trump years have worn me down. I find myself shrugging off things that would have made me careen into a light pole three years ago. Worse, the people around me are shrugging. We’re all shrugging. And many of us, tired of the discipline required for effective moral outrage, are skipping out on the hard work of resistance. It really is such a bitch to deal with national politics. Easier to be a thorn in the side of local elected officials. It’s way more fun and offers the prospect of immediate results.

I think the opposition, and yes, the Republicans are opponents, never mind the nostalgia of Joe Biden in his claim that the GOP would return to sanity once Trump is out of the picture, anyway, the opposition is assuming that we over here in the resistance are so gosh darn tuckered out with all our marching and yelling and sign-making that we’re just going to wander off and watch Seinfeld reruns and remember old times when we thought things made sense.

Nope. Not me. I’m working on getting my citizenship badge at this year’s jamboree. One page at a time.

More Later

Tonight, in one sitting and with the comfort of two rum and cokes, I watched When They See Us on Netflix.

I’d been dreading it but knew I had to watch it. It seemed to me to be a moral responsibility, to not just read about the exoneration of the “Central Park Five” in the newspaper but to sit there and have what I knew would be layers of injustice pile up before my eyes.

I wasn’t astonished by it. I think there are many people in prison who were wrongly convicted largely because of racial bias in the legal system. I don’t think that’s rare; this case was rare, though, for the fear it struck among women everywhere. Wilding. That was the term that was used. The “Central Park Five” – all young teenage boys – were accused of wilding. It was terrifying. They were just boys but they were black boys and so people accepted the wilding label as if it made all the sense in the world. Of course, that’s what black boys do. They go wilding. I remember at the time, we bought that. Everybody bought that. Why.

The film connects us to the five boys in deep, personal ways. We get to know them as regular teenagers, then terrified boys, and then incarcerated people and never once are the characters overdrawn and nothing seems to have been exaggerated for effect. The truth was bad enough without embellishment. And their mothers. We get to know their steadfast, flawed, heartbroken mothers. And their fathers, who sometimes had to disappear to cope with their own grief and helplessness. They were loved boys and the love lasted.

What is missing from the film and reality as well, I suppose, is retribution. Once the actual rapist confesses and all five are exonerated, there are brief scenes where the prosecutor confronts the cop who extracted their confessions and the district attorney who, essentially, constructed a scenario whereby the boys were guilty while ignoring vast evidence to the contrary. I wanted to see her ruined, humiliated, anguished, and repentant. But she wasn’t. Maybe that will come in a sequel.

The racism in the film is profound and will stun a lot of people. But I was not stunned. I was ashamed, though.

It Only Took One Question to Make Me Go Sit Down

“Who would vote for you?”

I’d scheduled a lunch meeting with my longtime mentor, a former priest who was an administrator at the local anti-poverty agency where I was working, to tell him I was thinking of running for Alderman.

And that was the first thing out of his mouth. “Who would vote for you?” It didn’t seem to be a question intended for analysis, like ‘let’s sort through how you would appeal to various voting blocs.‘ It was a reflex statement that read to me like ‘really? you think you should run for Alderman?’ And in that moment, I knew I’d overstepped. It wasn’t my place.

That was twenty-five years ago but I can still remember driving away feeling completely foolish. Who was I to think I could organize and run a campaign, raise money, go door to door, convince people to vote for me?

A friend put me in contact with a leader of an ad agency known as a political kingmaker. I was surprised when he agreed to meet me at a local Mexican hangout. We ate enchiladas on paper plates and he grilled me. “Are you active in the Democratic Party? Do you belong to a church? A synagogue? Do you belong to any groups? Any large groups of people who would support you?”

The answer to all of his questions was no. I didn’t have a base or a group or anything. I just had myself and my family. I also had a lot of experience and knew a lot of people. I had a good reputation and was willing to work hard. It seemed to me that the people who were already Aldermen didn’t have much more than that going for them.

He looked at me and shrugged, “Who would vote for you?” From the campaign kingmaker’s lips to my ears, ‘you wouldn’t have a prayer.’ And right there, in that moment, I gave up on the idea and almost became embarrassed for ever having had it in the first place.

The guy who was eventually elected was younger than me with less experience, a staff person in a neighborhood organization. A good looking guy, suave and lovable, but I don’t know which church he belonged to or who was his base. Apparently he had one, though, or people thought he did. So he won.

Looking back, I know it was my fault for being so easily discouraged. I let myself be marginalized and diminished, maybe because it was what I had come to expect being a woman in America, maybe because I thought it was what I deserved. But I accepted it, that’s the unpleasant truth. I didn’t question their judgement. “They said no one would vote for me,” I told my husband. He started to argue but gave up when he saw I agreed with them.

I don’t think I was unique or that I had some pathologically low self-image. I had plenty of ego even then. I thought I was smart and capable. I believed I was exceptional. Until two men told me I wasn’t. Who would vote for you?

So the women who ran for office twenty-five years ago, those women were lions. Because I’m betting they got the same reaction I did when they started out but they didn’t quit. They refused to believe that no one would vote for them. I wish I had been like them but I wasn’t.

And women who are interested in elective office now? They support each other. They train each other. They knock on doors and take over social media and they win. All over the place. Locally, at the state level, in Congress. It’s beautiful to see. Any one of the many women I know who are in office or are running would laugh in the face of any man who asked them “Who would vote for you?” and then they’d hand him an invite to a fundraiser and keep moving down the line.

It’s so grand. I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to see this.

Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

Muddy Waters

If big pompous guys knew how many times I’ve been waved away in my life and how inured I am to the gesture, maybe they’d try something else to counter my comments and questions. Minimize and diminish, it’s such a favorite tactic of big pompous guys. “You obviously don’t understand.”

I have on my To Do List a recurring task called “Call out B.S.” It never gets completely crossed out as completed, instead it is carried over from day to day, because the river of bullshit is wide and endless, starting somewhere in China and encircling the world five times at least, maybe more.

Wiser people than me say to let the bullshit river flow. Pay it no mind. Bullshit will find its own level as they say in the world of civil engineering and Emily Post. And a lot of the time, I adhere to that belief because, after all, it can be a full time occupation calling out B.S. and I have other things to do.

Still, some bullshit I can’t ignore. And so I call it. Sometimes in person but usually on social media because Facebook, in particular, is a bullshit magnet. And it never goes well, no one rowing on the bullshit river ever hangs up his paddles willingly. I know that. I get the futility of it but somebody has to talk back sometime or we will just be flooded by, you guessed it.

These are Some Mean Times

We dumped our investment advisor because he loved Donald Trump.

Oh, there was more to it than that. Somehow, he felt emboldened to send me a nasty, untruthful meme about Barack Obama during the 2016 election. It was so out of character I figured someone had hijacked his account.

But no, it was him. He defended himself even after I pointed out how his meme was factually incorrect (as if facts matter). And then he went on to explain how Trump’s election would be fabulous for all of us.

We’d known this guy for a long time. Trusted him with some pretty important decisions and certainly a lot of information. We had invested years in our professional relationship with him but it was finished in mere minutes. Done, just completely done.

There was no way we were going to do business with him anymore. That’s how immediate and extreme our reaction was. And that was before we even knew how epically bad Trump would be as president.

Now, I’m not sure I could even carry on a conversation with someone who still supports Trump. And that’s not good. We used to be able to overlook someone being a Democrat or Republican. Heck, we figured all stockbrokers were Republicans, focused completely on making money and minimizing taxes. We were down with that even though when we aren’t talking investments we are on the far left of the political spectrum.

So we straight up asked the next investment guy if he voted for Trump. We now had a litmus test and there was only one right answer. A yes with an explanation wouldn’t work. This was a yes or no question, the upshot of which might have been stuffing our money in the mattress.

It hasn’t stopped there. I just can’t fathom someone still supporting Trump and, as unpleasant and closed-minded as it seems, I can’t knowingly do business with a Trump supporter. I will cross the street, find another gas station, find a different store, change my own oil if I have to but come at me with anything with the slightest whiff of MAGA and I will have to go.

And it’s not one-sided. Oh no, don’t think that it’s only liberals who are drawing their lines in the sand. The MAGA folks are doing the same only they’re louder and not so discreet. Don’t get me started.

It’s kind of crazy if you think about it, that we basically can’t even stand to look at each other. Let’s hope it’s just a moment in time.

The Long Process of Making Amends

I think the trick to dealing with terrible stuff in your past is to own it.

Virginia Governor Northam wouldn’t be in the fix he’s in if he had Xeroxed the page from his yearbook, kept it in his wallet, and pulled it out every chance he had to talk about race, racism, white privilege, and arrogance.

He could have said, “I did this. At the time, I felt that it was okay to do it. It was only later that I figured it out and I’m here to talk about me then and me now.”

I would have listened.

I’ve never been in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) but I know people who have so I’m tuned in to the notion of making amends (Steps 8 and 9 in the 12-step program).

Governor Northam could have spent the entire time between his medical school yearbook’s publication and last week making amends for participating in a blackface/KKK event memorialized in a photo which he now disputes included him even though it’s sitting right next to his graduation picture in the yearbook. Quite an editing error, I’d say.

But he didn’t do that.

He pretended like what was in the yearbook didn’t matter. He ran for office, asked for support, got others to mobilize the substantial black vote in Virginia, and never once mentioned that he’d had this awful behavior in his past. Two explanations for this oversight: either he thought no one would ever find his yearbook or he thought it didn’t matter. In either contingency, he overestimated himself and underestimated others.

Think how differently this whole mess would have played out had the dear Governor decided long ago to make amends.

When a recovering alcoholic makes amends, he is really doing three things. First, he is owning his behavior. Even if he doesn’t remember it, even if he was blacked out at the time, even if he knows he wronged someone only from the dreams of his now-sober sleep, he is claiming his own deeds. That takes great honesty.

Second, by his apology and his efforts to make amends, a recovering alcoholic is validating the distress he caused others. The acknowledgement of the pain one has caused has great meaning to the people who were injured. “Thank you, it’s not nothing that you wrecked my car, punched out my brother, and retched all over my wedding gown.” It takes courage to acknowledge and apologize directly to the persons one has harmed. It’s humbling, maybe humiliating, and then it’s righteous.

And last, owning up to one’s past and making amends reminds everyone of this one essential truth in life: Redemption is possible. It has to be or we’re all sunk. There is nothing greater, nothing more impressive than someone who has seen the error of his ways and now spreads that word to folks hiding their own failings. It’s powerful.

It isn’t the photograph that has disqualified Governor Northam from holding office. It’s what he has done since the moment he opened his yearbook and saw the photograph sitting there next to his yearbook picture. He had a choice right then and again at every college reunion, every walk down memory lane, every time he pulled the yearbook off the shelf to show to his colleagues, to his children, to make amends and be an example of change and progress.

That wasn’t his choice, though. And so it’s right to expect him to resign. Now he will have the time he needs to understand the damage he caused and begin to make amends. I wish him well in that long process.