Sins of the Author

[tl;dr: There's a shorter, sillier update on this whole kerfuffle in my column today over at the Austin Chronicle.]

Last week a crazy (for me) thing happened: James Wood, senior book critic at the New Yorker and thus one of the few literary critics with broad name recognition outside academia, took issue with the introduction of my style column for the Austin Chronicle. In my piece, which is really about the Andrzej Zulawski film Possession, I take a potshot at Wood’s 2013 article “Sins of the Father,” which reviewed a literary memoir by Saul Bellow’s son alongside three other memoirs by the children (all daughters) of literary men. In his review, Wood raised the question–perhaps not in all seriousness, but certainly in all not-dismissiveness–of whether a “great” novelist can have a happy family life. 

Email correspondence with Wood has left me with a greater understanding of his personal stake in that question. In fact, I believe he framed the New Yorker piece the way he did precisely because, as the husband of novelist Claire Messud and a novelist in his own right, he was deeply troubled over the issue of how to balance a commitment to art with a commitment to family. I know I wrote my Isabelle Adjani piece the way I did because I am deeply troubled over it. We would seem to have plenty of common ground.

Nevertheless, it’s still hard for me to sort out my feelings about what happened last week. I feel resentful that in his long comments on my column and over email, Wood never discusses my work in detail or appears to know anything about me–yet many of his emails to me were either about his other writings or his personal life. It strikes me that a writer with as much institutional authority as he has should not need to bring his personal life to bear on a critique of a single review; furthermore, that it would never occur to me to excuse myself that way, because, as a woman already writing about herself too damn much for comfort, I fear I won’t be taken seriously if I appeal to the personal or the emotional; and finally, that, although he claims to have read and appreciated a few of my Chicago Tribune reviews, he was extremely quick to assume, and assert in his public remarks, that I had misunderstood his review on the most basic level.

I’m a little embarrassed at how much that last bit stings; probably, after having gone through the ritual hazing that is grad school at the University of Chicago, I will never be able to stand having my intelligence taken less than seriously, no matter how many jokes I crack in my column, and no matter what bit of pop culture, even fashion, I’m writing about. In that respect I’m much the same as James Wood: I want not only to be read and understood, but to be respected and liked as well, even when those goals aren’t necessarily compatible. 

At any rate, here is my full-fledged critique of James Wood’s review, in its original email form. It’s a critique that could never in a million years have made it into my Austin Chronicle column, because I have somehow wound up, despite having a PhD in literature and a gigantic feminist chip on my shoulder, writing a style column rather than a books column–a bit of personal context that may be all too familiar to other women out there trying to make a living with their pens. I tried to do too much in that initial column because I felt too strongly. I felt too strongly because I always do. And when I do, I always, always write about it.

* * * * *

Dear James,

I was bewildered and somewhat abashed to receive your emails last night. Like many freelance book reviewers and aspiring novelists, I have read your work for years. You’re James Wood of the New Yorker and it never occurred to me that you would swat a fly, though of course you have every right to defend yourself against any less-than-subtle characterization of your work.

And it was unsubtle. I stand by my opinion of your review, but it is absolutely true that I was flip in paraphrasing it. My defense—that I was writing a fashion column for a free alt-weekly in Austin, Texas—is not comforting to someone who’s been straw-manned. I owe you (and possibly my handful of readers) a more sustained and rigorous critique.

It is clear–and was clear to me when I first read your review a year ago–that your intent was not to humiliate and degrade women, or to suggest that they are inferior to men as artists. So why did I, in fact, feel a strange humiliation when reading your piece the first time? Why did I hang onto that anger for more than a year, so that it finally popped out, surprising me perhaps as much as you, in a 120-word introduction to a totally unrelated piece about a horror film?

I’ll try to explain. I did perceive your initial critique of Steiner’s opinion, and understand that later on you’re paraphrasing outdated attitudes in free indirect discourse, rather than espousing them. Your caricature of Steiner in the introduction is funny–though on a side note, as a former academic I will forever feel a slight twitch of revulsion whenever anyone brings up Althusser’s murder of his wife, even disapprovingly, to get a laugh. You probably know, joking aside, that many academics will twist themselves into knots defending or excusing Althusser the murderer because of the brilliance of Althusser the structuralist. As a volunteer first-responder to victims of domestic and sexual violence, I have sat by the hospital beds of women who narrowly escaped the fate of Althusser’s wife. I’m a little touchy about it. If one is going to “mock” Steiner’s rhetorical sanctioning of domestic violence and spousal murder, a discernible undercurrent of outrage seems in order. This is a matter of tone, however, and I am clearly a biased reader.

At any rate, you begin the second paragraph by stating, “It is easy to mock Steiner’s romantic provocations.” To which, as a reader, I nodded my head vigorously and wondered what more there could be to say. “But,” you continue, “minus the murderousness (and the intense maleness of the proposition), perhaps Steiner is onto something. Can a man or a woman fulfill a sacred devotion to thought, or music, or art, or literature, while fulfilling a proper devotion to spouse or children?”

This is where we really begin to part ways. My quibble is not over the intent, but the execution of your argument, and the assumptions that seem to underlie it. The language is gender-inclusive in a cursory way—literally parenthetical. But it is not so easy to subtract the “intense maleness” from Steiner’s proposition as you suggest here. It feels rather disingenuous to dispose of centuries of subjugation in seven words structurally parallel to the word “murderousness”–which, again, reads like a glib dismissal of a really pernicious and horrifying position. (I should clarify that I haven’t read the Steiner article in question and hope I’m not required to in order to discuss yours with authority; I fear the Althusser line would send me all Carrie-at-the-prom and there would be no survivors. I’m just engaging with your version of Steiner here.)

Onward: “The novel may be the family’s ideal almanac, but only a handful of the great novelists of either gender had a successful family life.” The phrase “great novelists” sort of sucks all the air out of the room, doesn’t it? That phrase brings with it so many assumptions that the argument is immediately, to me, a little suspect. I suppose, looking at my bookshelves, I must agree, or at least defer to your greater biographical knowledge. Certainly the novelists I have read obsessively from prior generations—Henry James, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Willa Cather, Patricia Highsmith, Muriel Spark—were not known for brilliant childrearing. But then again, the phrase “great novelists” implies an agreed-on category of great novels distinct from non-great novels, and further implies that such great novels are written by great novelists–not simply novelists who’ve had the time or opportunity to write great novels. I suppose I understand why that list might include Cheever, but not, for example, Ruth Rendell; although I suppose we’ll have to wait until her son pens a memoir to know how attentive a parent she was. There are certainly lots of women writing novels today around the demands of their children, including Jennifer Egan and Emma Donoghue (whose best work, in my opinion, was written after she had a child). But again, we won’t know whether their novels qualify as “great” in the test-of-time sense for another century; we won’t be able to calculate the costs to their children of their greatness, or the costs to their greatness of their children; or, for that matter, to measure them against the sacrifices of comparably great men. So the idea that family life and greatness are antithetical isn’t just speculative, it’s utterly unfalsifiable.

Perhaps “sacred devotion to thought” is a bit misleading as well, in that it doesn’t capture the full extent of the trouble. If there are any great CEOs of history, I suspect most of them are lousy parents as well. The great bus-drivers, cops, and schoolteachers of history, who devote proportional time to their work as the CEOs but for reasons of survival rather than ambition, are similarly neglectful. As you know, the incompatibility of any career with caregiving—writing included—is the product of a capitalist system sustained in part by unpaid domestic labor, the vast majority of which still falls on the shoulders of women.

You may feel that the attitudes you were paraphrasing were historical; in my view, they are bitter realities.

This is what put me in a rage-y frame of mind when reading the article. Reading that initial, and I confess! compelling, question–Is it possible to make great art and be an adequate parent–one simply does not expect an article about fatherhood to follow. Even today, the standards of adequacy for fathers and mothers remain so vastly different that it is very difficult to take seriously any argument that lumps them into the same category, or fails to specify ongoing differences in their experiences. (As the lightest possible example of this, I would point to women performers I know who return to their artistic careers after a short maternity leave only to be addressed as “Mama” and asked, in all friendliness, “Where’s your baby? Who’s watching ___ tonight?” In my experience, this is not a line of questioning to which most men are subjected.)

The biggest surprise for me, though, was the turn your argument took in the sixth paragraph, in which, after a review that purports to pit gender-neutral family life against gender-neutral artistic life, you almost in passing turn to pitting the hypothetical talents of men and women against each other. Paraphrasing with seeming approval what you believe to be the feelings of the three memoirist-daughters, you write:  “As writers themselves, they understand the necessities and the inequalities of talent. The men wrote the books, but it doesn’t follow that in doing so they stole unwritten books from their wives.”

This strikes me as a significant, even defensive, slippage. Reading the review up until that point, it would never have occurred to me to wonder whether Styron’s wife could have been a great novelist; surely the novel thief implied by the rest of the review is family life, not the (implicitly greater!) talent of a spouse. If women novelists were, however belatedly, to enter your review, I would have expected them to do so as potentially great novelists whose novels had been “stolen” by their children, or perhaps by more prosaic partners—garden-variety lawyers and construction workers and the like. That rhetorical shift to economies of talent within the family—hierarchies, even!—spoke volumes to me.

At this point in the piece, you have failed to account for talented women at all except insofar as they are capable of memorializing dead fathers and producing narrative accounts of their lives in which they are ultimately happy to subsume themselves to those fathers’ “sacred devotions.” You say “the cold eye of these adult children is cast in the service of a warmer, more comprehensive vision,” but that vision does not seem at all warm and comprehensive to me, but rather exclusionary and ruthless. I haven’t read the memoirs in question, only your readings of them. But I am not at all surprised to find that the one child who seems unable to forgive his father, who continues to insist on his own personhood and authority at the expense of his father’s is a son, not a daughter (“But, when Greg Bellow talks about protecting his father’s privacy, it should be obvious that he really means denying his father’s publicity, as a way to keep his father to himself”). You are welcome to prefer the daughters’ memoirs to the son’s, and I’m sure you read all four with due responsibility. But it seems to me that the symbolic self-erasure you seem to endorse here is still, in our culture, easier for a woman to stomach than a man. It’s what we’re trained to do, after all, and the fact that most men aren’t may still, to this day, account for a significant portion of the world’s novel-stealing crimes.

I will say again: The argument that great art is incompatible with family life calls up so many gender-related questions that to take it seriously, even for a moment, requires a greater attentiveness to these issues than I believe you gave them. The rhetorical leap to Texas politics in my column must have seemed extremely unfair to you—I did not mean it as an ad hominem attack, but it was certainly an unfounded assumption. (If you do care about our plight down here, I hope you’ll consider donating to the Wendy Davis campaign, or to NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, if you haven’t already done so.) But, reading your review, it did truly seem as if you had forgotten us. Unwanted pregnancies forcibly carried to term have strangled the creative potential of countless women, heartbreaking hordes of women. Call it the drama of maternity! But it’s really, as you know, a tragedy.

Thank you very much for reading, James, and I welcome any response. One more thing: I am still curious as to whether you’ve seen Possession! If not, I hope you find an opportunity to do so. It really is a crushing film.

Best,

Amy

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Skin Is Powerful When It’s Right Next to Yours

It shouldn’t take holding a baby in my arms for me to see the events of Ferguson as personal. It shouldn’t matter that the baby is my nephew. I shouldn’t need to remember his recent warmth on my lap, his boisterous baby laugh, his tiny strong baby hand bringing me a book to read to him. I shouldn’t need to have just held him in my arms a couple of weeks ago to feel afraid for black people everywhere.

But skin is powerful when it’s right next to yours.

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When my nephew gets scared or upset or overwhelmed, he craves the feeling of warm skin against his. He calms right down, even if it’s only his auntie holding him, not his mom or dad. He’ll take what he can get. He sighs deeply, sucks on his fingers, and leans into me, hard. He closes his eyes.

When my nephew sits on my lap, he looks like a baby. When he grows up, he will look like a criminal. This is something I am having a hard time wrapping my brain around, because I’m white. Others have expressed this sentiment over and over again, in the last five days and long before. It shouldn’t take a photo of me reading to my nephew for me to realize that from a distance, we look a lot more different than we feel, close-up.

So much is transmitted through the skin. But you have to get close enough. Close enough to comfort, close enough to wound. Close enough to understand how very little it means for one person to be called “black” and another person to be called “white.”

I call him nephew. He doesn’t call me anything yet, although my sister swears he tried to say “Amy.”

From a distance, my nephew’s skin absorbs light in a certain way. The way it absorbs light makes people feel scared. It’s an irrational fear. I say “people” as if I don’t understand it. Looked at another way, it’s perfectly rational. You only fear people that much when you know they have a very, very good reason to hate you.

You look at a college kid and you see a thug. You look at a reporter and you see a hood. You look at a local alderman and you see an “outside agitator.”

You look at a 14-month-old baby and think, by the time he is 14 years old, he will have undergone a frightening transformation that is completely imaginary. Maybe it will happen earlier. Maybe it will happen at 12. Maybe it will happen at 10. When does it happen? Someone who is black, someone who has experienced it from the inside the skin, tell me. When does it happen?

He’s small for his age. Maybe it’ll be 18. Maybe he’ll be getting ready for his first semester of college, like Michael Brown.

It’s a race, in my mind, a selfish race: my nephew growing quietly older while America grows noisily scarier. Do we have time to shape up before he hits the age of Looking Scary? How much time do we need? How much time does my sister have to prepare him for the reality of life in his city, in his country? How much time does she have to prepare herself?

Maybe he’ll never be stopped and frisked, maybe he’ll never be wrongfully imprisoned without charges or bail or paperwork, maybe he’ll never be beaten. But I guarantee you that if anyone ever is again–and they will be–under circumstances that resemble Ferguson or any of the other events leading up to it, and if he is old enough to see pictures of it on the news, with their half-assed watered-down language of “face-off,” “heightening tensions,” “conflicting reports,” trickling out the next day because they didn’t send any cameras during the four days when it was actually happening—if he’s old enough, he will understand, better than I ever could, that his skin is a mocha-colored target for police batons, rubber bullets, real bullets, tear gas containers, fists. And he will understand why this is happening. He’ll understand it perfectly, in a way I never, ever can.

I wish I could hold him and feel his warm skin against mine again. I wish we could share that moment again where I’m reading to him, where I can’t see him, can only feel him on my lap, and he can’t see me, can only feel me holding him on my lap. I wish we could all just close our eyes for a minute and feel how much we need each other, how much we rely on each other not to hurt and kill one another, how fragile is the skin, how warm, how powerful it is, and how thin.

Rough Draft of a List of My Successes

1) I have it better than most people in this world. I’m surrounded by friends and family, and married to my favorite living organism. I get to do so many things I want to do, including write. 

2) I smile a lot. This probably goes back to my childhood with a sick sibling. I was a bouncy-haired Shirley Temple of a kid. I laughed and laughed, and I made people laugh at me. That’s how I earned my place in the world.

2.5) I still do. It’s fair to say that most people I interact with have never seen what my face looks like at rest. Once at a college party, someone said, “When you stop smiling, you look so sad.”

2.75) That person was not trying to pick me up.

3) The sadness comes from nowhere.

4) The sadness comes from everywhere.

5) The sadness is a tar pit I sink into sometimes, but so slowly that no one can tell it’s happening except me.

5.5) And that makes it hard to ask for help.

5.75) Because when I do, I’m easy to ignore.

5.83) Because I look fine.

5.95) Because even when I say the words, “I’m not fine,” it sounds like “I’m fine.”

5.97) I’m not sure whose fault that is.

6) The sadness is embarrassing.

7) The sadness is my fault.

8) Right now, the sadness is especially my fault. I’m going off of anti-depressants after years of taking them. I started in grad school, because my advisor looked at me one day and said, “Do you think you might be depressed?” That wasn’t my first episode of depression. It was just the worst up until that point.

9) I’m going off anti-depressants because I think it’s the right thing, for now. I’m considering trying to get pregnant, and I can’t be on those particular drugs and be pregnant, and before I decide to switch my cocktail to a pregnancy-friendly mix, I want to be very sure that I can’t live without taking at least one pill every day, as I have almost every day for the past six years.

10) When I missed one pill, during those six years, my limbs felt like they weighed twice as much, and my synapses slackened and floated away from one another.

11) When I missed one pill, during those six years, my peripheral vision narrowed, and everything sounded like it was being funneled through a paper tube, and I couldn’t focus my eyes as quickly, or for as long.

12) Now, three weeks after taking my very last pill, after a year of excruciatingly responsible decreases in dosage, I feel like a person floating next to a boat. Yes, floating next to a boat in a wide ocean while the end of the rope she’s untied from around her waist twitches over the next wave. The freedom feels good. She rolls over on her back and lets the ocean pillow her and the sun dry her eyelids. But you don’t have to close your eyes very long to lose sight of the shore. You don’t have to close your eyes very long to lose sight of the boat. You don’t have to close your eyes very long to lose sight of the rope. The freedom feels good, but that’s a feeling for the shallows.

13) My depression started in high school. I know this because I recently found the rip-a-day Gary Larson calendar pages on which I kept my journal. Pages in which I railed against gender expectations that felt confining and unfair, struggled with loneliness, castigated my discarded religion while yearning, daily, for God, chronicled my thoughts on The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina, catalogued my crushes on baristas and bookstore boys, and wished and wished and wished for someone to notice that I was sad. I fell asleep every day in my calculus class. I fell asleep on the sofa after I came home from school. Not because I felt tired, and not because I was lazy. I just didn’t want to move.

13.5) When you move, that’s when it hurts.

14) Fear of movement is still my symptom. The air feels malevolent, like it’s breathing back at me. If I move, if I care, it will hurt. So I stay very, very still, storing up all my energy for those times when I will have to perform. I shut myself off like a refrigerator light and wait for the door to open.

15) Only one person sees me when I’m not performing. It’s almost certainly not you.

16) I’m performing right now, but writing is a performance like dancing is a performance. I love dancing, even when people are watching. When I’m dancing, it feels good to be alone and it feels good to be watched, so I don’t have to care either way.

17) Failure to keep up appearances is a mortal sin.

18) That probably comes from my mother. But so does my strength.

19) Today I set out to make a list of my successes—publications and performances, risks taken and outcomes enjoyed. But no matter how much I succeed, I feel like a failure. That’s kind of my whole deal.

20) So instead, this is a list of failures. In fact, this whole list is a failure.

21) Or alternately, we could just call it a rough draft.

Jack’s Dad

Another Texas-themed horror story. Spoilers for Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

It’s a flash and a thump-thump and a high-pitched scream, then nothing.

A moment later, the car is at rest, headlights illuminating the empty road. The steering wheel lets out a squeak as she releases it. She puts the car in park, takes her foot off the brake, breathes in and out several times, and looks in the rear view mirror.

Back on the road a whitish heap gleams faintly. She steps on the brake again, and the heap reddens.

She takes her foot off the brake quickly.

It’s a dog, or it’s a deer—do they make white deer? She laughs, or maybe it’s not laughter. She steadies her breathing and opens the door without shutting off the engine. The Nissan Maxima starts up a series of concerned, repetitive noises. Ding. Ding. Ding.

As she steps out of the car, she thinks of her big, yellowish-white dog, Ginger, the one she grew up with. Her parents had a hell of a time keeping Ginger out of the drainage ditch behind the house; Ginger would dig under any fence for the chance to chase squirrels through the brackish water, which drove her parents crazy, because a light-colored dog shows dirt immediately, and looks neglected and half-abused if you don’t give it a bath once a week. Then came Katrina, and their whole street became a drainage ditch, and even after her parents went back to the city they never found Ginger. Nobody from that part of town had their pets from before. 

This train of thought runs ahead of her on the pavement like a dropped spool of thread, skittering to the right and left. She must be further away from the bundle on the road than she initially thought—by a hundred feet at least—which means that the object she saw in the mirror is larger than it first appeared. Larger than Ginger.

She pulls out her phone and turns on the flashlight app. A halo of whiteness flares out and she sees the girl that she has killed for the first time. Her name is Lauren.

* * * * *

Lauren is lying in a heap, face drained of color under the white phone light, head resting in a puddle of pale, red-soaked hair. Her blue eyes are open; there is no doubt that she is dead. The body—well, the fact that it still is more white than red, even if just barely, is a blessing for which she can hardly be expected to feel thankful. The phone light picks out a delicate tattoo on her left ankle, cursive letters, swirling vines.

Somewhere in the background: Ding. Ding. Ding.

She holds her phone close to her chest in a frozen, frantic embrace. Call 911, she has to call 911. How far is she from a hospital? She hasn’t seen anyone on the road for miles—well, it’s East Texas, or maybe western Louisiana, she’s not sure, and it’s the middle of the night, and it’s Christmas. Or it was, a few hours ago.

Christmas doesn’t mean much to her anymore, but it means a lot to her folks, and they were expecting her back in New Orleans for Christmas dinner, until finally she said on the phone, How about Boxing Day? I can come on Boxing Day, that’s the day after Christmas, and her mother said, I know when Boxing Day is. Since when do we celebrate Boxing Day? And she said, Since I want to be with Mark on Christmas, and he’s taking New Year’s off instead of Christmas this year, they have to pick. Her mother demanded, Why would he pick New Year’s instead of Christmas?, and she said, All the residents do, but that can’t really be true, because some of them must work on New Year’s.

So she packed up the Nissan and waited until midnight, and then when he came home he was too tired from working a twenty-four, and they had a fight, and he didn’t end up coming at all. He said, Can’t we just go in the morning, after I get some sleep? She said, You can treat a patient after you’ve been up forty-eight hours but you can’t sit in the passenger seat while I drive home for Christmas?

He walked into the bedroom without a word.

“Fine, I’ll go by myself. Hope the car doesn’t break down,” she said. He was already asleep.

If she hadn’t waited for Mark, she could have left early that morning and gotten to her parents’ in time for dinner. If she hadn’t waited for him, she would have been more alert on the road. If she hadn’t waited for him, Lauren wouldn’t have come streaking out of the woods at the precise time when she was between podcasts, trying to think of something exciting to put on next, something that would help her stay awake—as if, while she waited all that time for Mark to come home, Lauren had been waiting for her.

Her fingers hover over the number screen. It’s too late for an ambulance anyway. Who do you call when someone is just—?

She looks at her speed dial. Mark is at the top, but no doubt he’s so deep in sleep that there will be no waking him. Once when they were dating, she accused him of turning his ringer off at night, but after they moved in she saw firsthand that after a twenty-four, he was dead to the world. Besides, he’s four hours away from her, highway-wise.

Then there are her parents, also four hours away. She looks at the body. It doesn’t belong in the same universe with the words “Boxing Day.” Besides, what can they do? What can anyone do?

Who do you call when you’ve just killed someone?

She could get back in the car and drive away. No one is on the road. It wasn’t her fault. She didn’t even have a second to react; the woods are so dense, there’s hardly any shoulder, the woman hurdled out so fast, and she couldn’t have been going that far above the speed limit, because the brakes didn’t squeal. The seat belt didn’t even lock up over her chest.

The tattoo wraps all the way around Lauren’s ankle, a slightly more adventurous tattoo than most girls get in college. Probably more painful, too.

* * * * *

Suddenly she realizes that Lauren is completely naked. Minutes ago, when she was still hoping that Lauren was a deer or a dog, that almost made sense, rendered the situation more—not normal, but bearable—almost natural. As if she were just another type of animal that ran through the woods at night. Now she can’t believe that she is only just now realizing how upsetting it is to encounter a girl running naked through the forest in the middle of the night with nothing to identify her but a tattoo on her ankle.

She dials 911.

The signal flickers and the voice saying, “911, what is your emergency?” breaks up a few times.

“There’s been an accident,” she says, but it comes out silent. She tries again: “I’m in a car and I hit someone. She’s on the ground.”

“Okay.” The woman on the line sounds unphased. “Where are you?”

“I’m—I don’t know where I am. I’m on the road, I’m on I-10, I’m think I’m still in Texas. I’m driving from Austin to New Orleans. For Christmas.”

“Do you have GPS in your car?”

“No.”

“How about your phone?”

“Yes.”

“Can you use it to give me a little more detail?”

She fumbles, fumbles, and it takes an eternity but she ascertains, and tells the dispatcher, that she is almost exactly halfway between Vidor and Orange.

“I’m dispatching an ambulance. Is the person still breathing?”

This makes her jump. The woman’s voice seems so calm that she has become convinced, over the short duration of the phone call, that things are going to be more or less okay. It seems backward, now, to ask this question.

“She has a tattoo on her ankle. I think her name is Lauren.”

“Is she breathing?” the woman repeats.

“I don’t think so.”

There’s the shortest of pauses. “Okay. Stay there. Someone will be there shortly.”

“When?”

“Fifteen minutes at the most. Possibly sooner. Pull over, sit in your car, lock the doors, and keep your headlights on so they can see you, okay? And keep the engine running, so you don’t run your battery down.”

“Okay.”

When she hangs up she thinks, Lock the doors.

She turns her back on Lauren and begins to walk toward the Nissan Maxima. It’s a long walk. The brakes didn’t squeal, the seatbelt didn’t lock. In the moment it happened, was she already thinking about driving away? She peers around the front and sees that her fender is dented, and there’s something splashed all over it that looks dark everywhere but in the headlights, where it glows the color of blood.

Back in the driver’s seat, she realizes the car door has been panicking in the background this whole time, ding ding ding, at a rate just a little slower than her own heartbeat. She is relieved to shut the door and end its anxious tedium.

The hard part is over now. All she has to do now is wait. Keep the car running so you don’t run down the battery. And so you can get away in a hurry if you need to. And lock the doors.

She wonders, suddenly, if the dispatcher wondered what Lauren was running away from. No, she didn’t give enough details for the dispatcher to have wondered that.

She pictures a party in the woods. A camp-out. Sleeping bags, forties, joints. A bet, a dare, a prank in the middle of the night. She pictures Lauren’s friends stumbling out of the woods, stoned and laughing, just a few minutes from now. A boyfriend, a best friend, looking down at the body, screaming.

She tries to remember the exact moment before the crash, scanning her memory for a facial expression. Laughter, or something else? But all she remembers is a starfish of blond hair hanging in the dark, a white glare of shoulder and thigh. The girl must have been looking behind her. Looking the wrong way, as it turns out.

A date? Or—worse?

* * * * *

This is East Texas. To be honest—let’s be honest, why not, it’s the middle of the night and there’s a dead body back there on the road—she wanted to get through East Texas fast, and she wanted to get through it in the dark.

She makes this trip a couple times a year. If Mark is with her in the car, it’s a toss-up whether the cops will pull her over; if she’s alone, it’s a sure thing. An hour of standing by the roadside while some cop from Vidor or Orange asks the black girl strange questions, question that are just slightly off, so that when she hesitates for a minute, nervous or confused, he can search her car, call for backup, keep her there for another hour at least. Mark tells her, and it must be confessed that he repeats it at parties for their friends’ benefit, that she should put a slip of paper in the Nissan’s glove compartment, “Nope, still don’t have anything illegal in here, thanks for asking,” and she laughs every time, because you have to laugh, but when someone says, “You should totally do that!”, she just looks at the speaker with a deep sense of shaming or having been shamed. She has long since stopped trying to distinguish the two.

She glances at Lauren in the rearview mirror again and thinks about what it’s like to live in Vidor, in Orange. She feels sorry for whatever Lauren had to endure just before her death. Lauren, she knows deep down, wasn’t running from friends.

Ultimately, to her, East Texas at night doesn’t seem any more dangerous than East Texas by day. But it was for Lauren. Darkness killed Lauren, whether you blame a late-night party or an abusive boyfriend or a bunch of good old boys lying in wait for her in a clearing or the poor visibility on this stretch of I-10 at night or the fact that there are some people who have to drive through East Texas who might feel thankful for the poor visibility.

But no one will blame the darkness, or any of those other things.

The car is still on. All she has to do is take it out of park and hit the gas.

There’s an image in her mind that has been there all along. It’s the final sequence from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which she watched at the theater near campus back when the remake came out, and they were playing the new one and the original back to back. It was her freshman year at UT, and this one guy she was dating said, “If you’re going to live in Texas, you have to see the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and although in general she hated horror movies she went along with it, because she was still into impressing those stoner guys who grew up in Austin and liked horror movies.

Almost all she remembers from the movie is that final sequence, where the girl runs through the woods, all covered with blood, that eternal chase scene with its eternal scream. The actress was chosen for her ability to scream endlessly, piercingly, seemingly on loop—or that’s what the guy told her anyway. What was she running away from again? She remembered the guy whispering gleefully in her ear, leatherface, grandpathe patriarch—he was a gleeful movie whisperer—but she could only remember that whatever it was, she thought it was pretty silly. The really scary thing was the girl herself, the way she ran and screamed and screamed and ran.

When the screaming girl popped out onto a road, and the eighteen-wheeler drove up and the tall, black truck driver climbed out, he whispered, You know my friend Jack, we ran into him the other day on the Drag? That’s Jack’s dad.

He looks like my dad, she didn’t whisper back.

Jack’s dad slows the Leatherface down just long enough for the girl to clamber into somebody else’s truck and escape. You don’t really see what happens to Jack’s dad after that. In the credits, he is listed as “Cattle Truck Driver.”

The paramedics are still at least eight minutes away, and, it occurs to her now, she has fatally flubbed her role in this train of events. She was supposed to drive up just as Lauren was running out of the woods, she was supposed to throw open the car door and let Lauren clamber inside the Nissan Maxima just as Leatherface was coming out of the woods after her, and then peel off.

But then, Jack’s dad doesn’t actually save the girl. She’s pretty sure he gets chainsawed.

She turns off her headlights. Now it’s completely dark. She turns off the engine. Now it’s completely quiet.

* * * * *

You are going to get me killed, she silently tells the white girl. But that doesn’t make sense, because she is the one who killed Lauren.

When the levees broke, she watched the news for four hours straight. Her sister called her from her car, inching along the highway toward Houston. Her parents didn’t have a cell phone yet, so she had to trust her sister that they had gotten out in time and weren’t huddled under dirty blankets in the Superdome or bobbing down the street in the sinking bed of a neighbor’s pickup truck. Her sister turned out to be right about this, but Ginger the dog wasn’t so lucky, and lots of people weren’t either. You heard stories. 

Christmas doesn’t mean much to her anymore, but she was raised in the church. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” she tries out loud, but softly. “I will fear no evil, for thou are with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”

She wishes she had a rod, a staff. Something like Jack’s dad had in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That would comfort her. She doesn’t keep anything like that in the car. Because of the frequent searches, she keeps it spotless, nothing but an up-to-date registration, inspection report, and a suitcase in the trunk.

In the trunk. Under the spare. The tire-iron.

She’ll have to start the car, move it to the shoulder, get out, open the trunk, remove her suitcase, pull up the carpet, unscrew the spare, put it on the pavement, and reach underneath it. It will take a long time to do all these things, and the whole time the dead girl will be behind her, and beside her, tapping at her shoulder, the evil-looking trees.

“Deliver us from evil,” she says, but that’s from a different prayer: Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. If there were ever a mantra for a named character, that is it: Lead us not into temptation. Lead us not into tattoo parlors to deface our white skin. Lead us not into clearings at night. Lead us not into the dark woods alone to make out with our boyfriends. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil; deliver us, like letters, to our long-lost friends. Deliver us like babies, screaming and naked and covered with blood.

It’s too late for Lauren. But she’s still alive, and no more afraid of the dark than she is of the day. She will pull the car over, she will get the tire iron from the trunk, and she will wait for whatever comes out of the woods or down the highway. She will be the final girl.

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Nature Girl

As I work on a novel that is somewhat scary and also relentlessly realistic, I’ve also been wanting, for the first time since high school, to write short stories. I’ve never been much of a story writer, and rarely even a story reader; but I need to get better at writing fiction, and the idea of finishing something every once in a while is appealing, and also fun. So anyway, I’m going to start writing and posting stories on my blog occasionally, as a dual experiment in composition and courage. Here’s the first, written entirely in the spirit of fun. I hope you like it.

* * * * *

Nature Girl

 

The lake was just the sort of lake things crawled out of while you were walking next to it, or slithered into while you were taking a dip. The cliff that towered over it was just the sort of cliff atop which a solitary figure could be expected to loom for a moment among the scrubby man-sized trees before disappearing into them so quickly that you could hardly be sure it was ever there in the first place. The cabin was positioned at just the right angle so that you would never see what came trooping out of the forest, unless you caught a glimpse of its reflection in the TV screen just before it shattered the window behind you. Across the clearing, a second, vacant cabin was situated at just the right distance away for a lamp to look, out of the corner of your eye, like a small, smudged face peering out the window of what must have once been the children’s room.

“We had one woman who had to come back before her residency was over,” the owner of the ranch had said, brows furrowing over a steaming cup of rooibos tea. “She didn’t do well with the isolation.”

“Perfect,” she had said.

And it was. She walked in and turned on the lights. As the ceiling fan began to turn, a dozen horseflies bestirred themselves from the window sills with barely audible moans. A breeze whistled around the kitchen corner. Aside from these noises and the unsettling hum of the refrigerator, the cabin was silent as the grave.

She was not, by any means, a nature girl, and had only pretended to like the outdoors in college to please her boyfriend. Even so, as soon as she shooed the flies out of the cabin, she was pleased at the thought of how alone she was. She was hardly roughing it: the cabin was equipped with an air conditioner and space heaters, a garbage disposal in the sink, a water filter on the kitchen faucet. In a month, she was going to be able to do a lot of writing out here.

Stepping back out to the car and looking around the canyon once more, she thought about zombies. She wrote about the surrealism of the everyday: coffee makers, unexplained coincidences. She wasn’t really a zombie person.

But there was something about this spot. She hauled the rest of her bags into the cabin and closed the sliding glass door behind her, drawing back the curtain to see the breathtaking sweep of the cliff, the stillness of the lake. No, not zombies. This had been Comanche territory at one point, but she shuddered away from the knot of racism that would have to be avoided in order to write that story.

Besides, it wasn’t Comanches either. It was Nature. Mother Nature. Monstrously, horrifyingly female—menstrual, maternal—creeping naked on the ground like a spider, red in tooth and claw. Just as Darwin had described her.

Or was it Tennyson? She made a mental note to Google it on her first trip into town.

As dusk settled in the cliff turned black, then the sky behind it. She pulled the curtains shut over the sliding glass doors. Out of habit, she reached for her phone to check email, then remembered that there was no signal in the canyon. Pulling a book out of her bag instead, she turned on a lamp and began to read in the armchair. (She never worked after dark, even on a residency.)

Hours later, her eyes jerked open. A strangled, high-pitched yelp was echoing through the canyon. She was still in the armchair, the book in her lap, and her phone said 10:06 pm. Except for the lamp by her side and the light in the bathroom, which she had left on, the cabin was dark. She got up, sore from the car ride, and went to the bathroom to brush her teeth.

When she pushed the bathroom door open something flew into her face with a dry flutter. She clamped her mouth shut around a scream and flapped a hand around her head. Having batted the moth out of the way, she opened her eyes and caught a second one in the face. A third climbed the wall. She looked at the light bulb and saw that it was orbited by dozens of them, and by throngs of smaller winged insects that bobbled wildly. The ceiling and the upper half of the walls were coated with tiny clinging gnats.

The culprit was a small open window over the toilet; the insects had streamed in toward the light as soon as night fell. She slammed the window shut, sending a cloud of gnats swarming up from the wall. Grabbing her toothbrush, she turned the light out and shut the bathroom door behind her. They would all be dead by morning. Moths had a 24-hour life span, she thought. Whereas she had been alive for thirty two years and counting. She laughed and shuddered theatrically for the benefit of no one and got into bed. Whatever it was out there howled or cackled her to sleep.

In the morning, she slept until the slivers of sunlight streaming through the curtains shortened into nubs. She slid the glass door open and walked out onto the concrete porch.

Outside, the cliff face was indecipherable. Hidden deep among its rocks and woody stems, she knew, lived hundreds of thousands of creatures, whole microcosms. If this were an Imax feature, she thought, this would be the moment where the camera would zoom in and in and in until it rested on some arthropod the size of a minivan twitching through blades of grass as tall as trees, scored by chirps and scratches in deafening surround sound and perhaps accompanied by a flute or Pan pipes as the narrator intoned, On the sheer cliff side, a secret world.

She stared and stared at the layer of thin, scrubby bushes that clung to the canyon wall, but could see no sign of movement. But then, she couldn’t see any on her skin either, and there were billions of tiny creatures moving there, too.

She went to the kitchen and got the coffee started, pleased to find a French press in the cupboard instead of a drip coffeemaker, and then went toward the bathroom. Halfway there she remembered the insect explosion of the night before and paused, then approached deliberately, pushing the door open.

The floor was covered with dead and almost-dead bugs, twitching out their last words in morse code. She fetched the broom and dustpan from the kitchen. Looking up, she saw that many of the gnats had died still clinging to the walls and ceiling, and she brushed them down with the broom, stepping back as they rained softly to the floor. Then she swept all the little bugs into a pile, transferred them to the dustpan, dumped the dustpan into the toilet, closed the lid quickly, and flushed it. The room was clean. She returned the broom and dustpan to the kitchen. Now to begin the day.

She lifted the toilet lid and immediately wrinkled her nose. A single moth floated in the water near the porcelain throat, flapping its wings in agitation, flipping itself over and over in the water like an amateur kayaker. She closed the lid and flushed again.

When she lifted the lid, the moth was still there.

“Gross,” she said out loud. It wasn’t just that the big, hairy, black-and-beige-striped moth was still in the toilet. It was that it was still alive, struggling to get out, splashing faintly in the water. Scrabbling wildly, it managed to pull itself slightly out of the water and began struggling up the side of the bowl. She dropped the lid with a bang and stood there for a moment, uncertain. It wasn’t as if she could pull the thing out and set it free, was it? She flushed again and walked away without lifting the lid.

* * * * *

Coffee on the porch relaxed her considerably. The sky was serenely blue, the sun almost directly overhead. It was just warm enough to wear her pajamas outside with thick socks—the kind she could never resist grabbing at the checkout line even though they were too thick and unwieldy to wear under shoes. A pair of large ravens raced one another up and down the cliff, their cries echoing through the canyon. She opened her notebook, excited by the idea of writing with a pen instead of typing, and began.

Elsie had thought the Honda Civic would never make the trip, 

she wrote. Then, thinking, Let’s not make this too meta, she crossed out “Honda Civic” and wrote “Winnebago”:

but Mark had sworn it had ten thousand more miles in it, and Elsie knew better than to argue. 

She didn’t know anything about RVs, so she put brackets around the word “Winnebago.” Then she thought a moment, put brackets around both sentences, and moved on.

Every vacation felt like it might be their last, now that they were ‘trying.’ 

Good, a theme.

The canyon was remote, more so than Elsie would have liked. She loved French press coffee and 800-thread-count sheets and Antonioni films on Blu-ray, and did not think it was a crime to check Facebook on your phone while cooking dinner. Whereas out here in the mountains, their phones were lifeless plastic rectangles, just alarm clocks with mediocre cameras attached.

Suddenly she remembered how long it had been since the rest stop on the road yesterday, and in a moment she realized she had to pee, desperately. She marched inside. This was absurd. She had to pee and she wasn’t going to let a bug stop her this time.

But it did stop her. It was still alive, and very hairy, and the fact that it had been flushed three times without either disappearing or dying made it strangely intimidating. If it would just stop flapping its stupid wings and trying to crawl up the bowl, she would gladly have peed on it. But this moth wasn’t going to die anytime soon, and it wasn’t going down the drain, and somehow the thought of removing it from the toilet bowl, either to kill it or set it free, was even worse than the thought of peeing on it. She closed the lid again, and didn’t bother flushing this time.

With a deep sigh, she resigned herself to doing something a little silly. She crossed the clearing to the other cabin, thinking, God bless America, even in the middle of the trackless wastes there are two flush toilets within walking distance.

The door was locked. She couldn’t believe it at first; her cabin hadn’t been locked; she hadn’t even known there was a lock on the door. Nevertheless, the sliding doors on the larger cabin wouldn’t give a quarter of an inch. She even tried a couple of the windows; they were either locked as well or painted shut.

The last time she had peed outside was on a family trip to the Grand Canyon when she was eleven. She had almost cried, she was so embarrassed. They were 75 miles from the nearest rest stop, and her parents saw her squirming and exchanged a look and said, Just go behind a bush. No way, she had said. I can make it, I swear. Her brothers were laughing hysterically as her dad pulled the car over. Squatting with her cold, rough tennis shoes brushing her buttocks, feeling chilled and ugly and disgusting, she had thought she could never do it. Then her mother’s voice called from the road, and, startled, she peed.

This was much easier, because she was all alone out here, with no brothers who might jump out from behind a bush and no parents who might honk or yell. This was just sweet relief. The moth could go fuck itself.

* * * * *

Now for a bath. She was filthy.

The lake was a turbid green with traces of chalky gold where it reflected the sheer rocky wall of the cliff. The wind at her back ruffled the surface, pushing soft little ripples against the current at an angle to the curved cliff face. Although the water was murky and algal, here and there she spotted silvery bubbles streaming up near the surface in cone shapes, miniature underwater geysers. She wondered what creatures were burrowing in the mud at the bottom of the lake—frogs, maybe, or salamanders. 

The dam that formed the lake was a massive slab of irregularly formed concrete, wide and easily walkable on the top. You could see where a large hunk had broken off, split by tree roots and perhaps worn just enough by the weather so that one final flood had sent it crashing down into the creek bed below. Where it had been, rusted rebar jutted out like dark red teeth. She walked out on the dam but kept well away from several long cracks in the concrete that were already green with encroaching plants. Peering over the creek-side edge to the little fall, she saw an orange life jacket caught on a rock. Turning back toward the lake, she saw a yellow plastic canoe overturned on the shore. She pictured the owner’s children running around with bare feet and orange life jackets, yelling as they took running leaps into the water. Thinking about it made the valley feel less secluded than it had a moment before, so she stopped.

Just then, her eyes moving over the lake caught a faint line beneath the surface, almost exactly parallel to the dam’s edge. It distinguished itself immediately from the natural surroundings by being perfectly straight; upon further inspection, she could make out ninety-degree angles through the murk. She took a step forward and looked down into the lake water. The line turned into a large rectangle, and a moment later she saw another, skinnier rectangle, parallel to the first but deeper, fainter.

It was the most familiar shape in the world: a picnic table, just like the ones in the clearing near the cabin, but submerged under fifteen feet of water on the bottom of the lake, thirty feet or so from either shore, so that it was hard to imagine now it had gotten there. Moreover, there was something strange about how perfectly upright it was, just the same as it would look on land, but underwater.

She pictured the orange-life-jacketed kids, bored with jumping in the lake, dragging the table out onto the dam and throwing it in. Then she thought of the iron bars all covered with algae, and the kids sitting at the underwater table, not wearing life jackets anymore, eyes open, hair waving like long strands of underwater grass.

She walked quickly back to the cabin and pulled out her notebook.

As they made love that night, she could feel herself getting distracted by noises that were not cars and buses. In the daylight, these non-city noises had soothed her: the birds chirping, the wind rustling through treetops, the softly tumbling waterfall under the dam. But at night, the sounds hung apart from a silent background as if painted on a vast black canvas of silence, or floating in a silent sea. The howling of the wind around the kitchen corner was menacing at night, and the yelp she had earlier taken for some strange bird now seemed more likely to belong to a coyote. Even as she sighed and moaned under Mark’s intent, rhythmic pressure, she tried to capture the echoing call in her memory, so she could listen to it again in the morning.

She wrote all afternoon, trying to get to the monster part before dark—menstrual, maternal, red in tooth and claw—but she still wasn’t there by the time the sun slipped over the canyon rim, and now it was time to prepare dinner, because she never worked after dark. 

After dinner she glanced toward the bathroom again, and then she brushed her teeth at the kitchen sink. She couldn’t call it a fear anymore—it was the ghost of an aversion, just something she didn’t want to have to think about, and so the door was closed, and things were working out just fine, and by morning she would have forgotten why she cared about the thing in the bathroom that she didn’t want to think about just now, in the dusk. She hurried outside to pee one more time while there were still shadows on the ground, and came back in and went to bed.

* * * * *

In her dream, she slipped, naked, into the lake. She wriggled her toes and launched herself away from the trailing grasses and muck near the shore, then bicycled lazily, moving her arms back and forth to stay afloat, and looked down.

It was there in the murky depths, beneath her, a little patch of refracted sunlight picking out one corner, the rest receding into the gloom. She closed her eyes, held her breath, raised her arms above her head, and dropped straight down, letting out a long trail of bubbles and pushing the weight of the water upward with her arms, until she felt her toe touch something smooth and slippery. She opened her eyes and found that the water here was dark, and full of shapes that were darker still. In the dream she didn’t need to breathe anymore, and with her hands she reached down and grabbed the table edge and pulled and swung her legs forward underneath it, and then she was sitting on the soft, slimy fur of the wooden bench.

She tilted her head back and saw a vast circle with wavering edges, bisected down the middle. One half was the chalky, rugged gold of the cliff, the other half blue, shimmering with rainbows of refracted glare thrown off by the whitish disc of the sun. Exactly between the two halves of the sky, standing on the edge of its golden lid, she saw the silhouette of a figure, tree-sized, standing apart from the silhouettes of the trees, which were man-sized.

* * * * *

When she woke up early the next morning, the sound was all around her. It was echoing off the cliff’s edge, rolling across the bowl of the valley. She sat straight up in bed. The light was a diffuse, throbbing grey at her windows, and a damp chill sharpened the edges of every surface, grabbing at her skin. The sheets tugging at her as she sat up, the parquet floor slowing her bare feet on the way to the glass door.

Pulling the curtain aside, she stared into mist, dense and pale in the center, fading into green grass and slender black tree trunks toward the ground. The garbled, unearthly shriek echoed again through the valley. It was so close she could almost feel the walls quiver with the sound, see the mist shiver around it. She squinted into the clearing, but the fog was impenetrable there; the cabin across the way might have vanished, or never existed at all. The sound came from everywhere and nowhere. She hurried to the south-facing kitchen window and looked out—nothing. In the east-facing windows, the forest wasn’t even a dark smudge.

There was only one window that faced west, toward the cliff. Without a moment of hesitation, she pushed open the bathroom door which had not been opened in three days and looked out the window.

They floated rhythmically down the lawn like giant, lumpy balloons bobbing after invisible children, striped fans spread stiffly behind their dark, iridescent bodies, trailing wings like long, heavy sleeves through the wet grass, red combs and wattles dripping wax-like from their dead-white faces. The three massive turkeys moved together as if choreographed, gliding toward the cabin in slow, rhythmic formation, long chest feathers swinging in tandem. After four or five steps, as if by silent agreement, they paused and simultaneously straightened their necks in front of their bodies, releasing in one voice three tormented, high-pitched gobbles. Then, while the strangled cries still hung in the air, their white necks retracted again, and they rotated slowly in place, fans perfectly parallel, like kabuki dancers. When they had executed a 270-degree turn, the turkeys took up the careful stride once more.

She watched until the whole slow-moving flock drifted into and then out of her field of vision, the slender, crook-necked hens looking puny next to their screaming mates, a solemn procession of state moving past her bathroom window.

The lake was just the sort of lake you could imagine jumping into with an orange life jacket on. The cliff was just the sort of cliff you saw in movies about the wonder of Mother Nature. And that is why she didn’t see it when it came for her—menstrual, maternal, red in tooth and claw—as far from the quiet surrealism of the everyday as a Comanche is from a coffeemaker, or a woman from a Winnebago.

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The Stars at Night: Blogging for Wendy

This is something I’ve never done before, or even imagined doing, to be frank. Keep in mind, I’m a journalist who primarily covers books and authors. When I’m feeling especially relevant, I write about a movie. And yet here I am participating in a fundraising campaign for Wendy Davis, and asking other people to participate too—by donating here, and by reposting and tweeting this with the hashtag #GiveToWendy.

Miss that link? Oh, don’t worry, you’ll see it again. Read this first:

* * * * *

The nice thing about living in a state where you’re always losing—where the majority of lawmakers want to trample on your rights so badly that they will actively look for ways to turn minority, college-age, and other Democratic voters away from the polls on election day to do it—and they can do it, too, thanks, SCOTUS!—the nice thing, in short, about living in my favorite state, Texas, is that you never have to try to win.

After all, a female, pro-choice Democrat running for governor has about as much chance in Texas as a snowball in . . . Texas. And I never dreamed I’d be raising money for a snowball.

Then again, I never dreamed that I would be sitting in the Capitol wearing the same orange t-shirt for days in a row, eyes riveted on the Senate floor, watching a woman in neon tennies stand up for women’s rights against Rick Perry’s stooges and win.

And she did win, folks, no matter what happened afterward. I was there. That’s me in the hoodie, surrounded by my friends Frank, Kaci, Kareem, and Val.

WeWereThere

WE were there!

crowd-in-texas-capitol-1

That night, Wendy Davis won. They had to lie and cheat and bend the rules and finally call a rematch to undo the victory. But that doesn’t erase the fact that that night, against tremendous odds, Wendy won.

* * * * *

Can Wendy win again? Check out the articles here, here, and here for the reasons why she could.

Every one of them contains the word “longshot.” Every one of them also contains the words “Ann Richards.”

120523_annrichards_cycle_ap_328_605

Texas is a weird place, y’all.

In 1990, the stars aligned for Ann Richards, and she won an impossible election in an overwhelmingly red state. When people talk about how she did it, they use the word “fluke” a lot. After all, it was a race without an incumbent, and GOP candidate Clayton Williams made that gruesome rape joke just in time, and a third-party candidate drew off a small but crucial number of votes. Total and complete fluke.

Leaving aside the fact that the state has inched blue-ward slowly but steadily over the past two decades, and that over the past year Republicans at the state level have become infamous for their rape gaffes, and that Wendy Davis is just the kind of misogyny magnet to bring out the very worst in the most bigoted Republicans—including, already, likely opponent Greg Abbott—and leaving aside the fact that most Americans blame the GOP for the expensive government shutdown—leaving aside all those things, let’s just take a look at the phrase “the stars aligned.”

When the stars align, we call it a “fluke.” But it wasn’t Clayton Williams along who got Ann Richards elected. It was my Nia instructor, who went door to door in the hot Texas summer, and my friend’s mom, who did fundraising, and all the women and men who campaigned tirelessly when Ann Richards looked like a poofy-haired and very melty snowball. It was the foundation of support that allowed her campaign to capitalize on that fluke and bring it home. It was everyone who had contributed to the campaign with their time and their dollars up until that point.

Dollars are important. Abbott’s already got 20 million of them socked away in his campaign fund, and there’s plenty more funneling into state groups like Texas Right to Life, which is already flooding the airwaves of South Texas with bilingual attack ads calling Wendy an “abortion zealot.” (Mattel must have started demanding royalties for the use of their other favorite term. Guess I’ll have to stop production on my “Furlough Ken” Ted Cruz t-shirts.)

Early money improves a candidate’s chances by making them look viable. All of the national media sources about Wendy’s campaign mention she was able to raise $1 million before even confirming her plans to run. They also say she’ll need a whole, whole lot more. If you know you’re going to vote for her in the election, and you want her to be a strong enough candidate to keep attracting support later in the race, go ahead and throw a dollar or two in the bucket right now. I hate to return to this snowball metaphor one more time, so I won’t mention how snowballs get bigger. You get the point.

If you checked out the Texas Observer piece I linked to up above, you may have noticed that in addition to listing the reasons why Wendy Davis can win, it also lists three reasons she can’t. The most important and daunting one? “Democratic Defeatism“: “Democrats aren’t just lacking party infrastructure. In some areas, they lack hope. Losing has become acceptable, even expected, among Texas Democrats.”

Why try to win? We keep hearing that Wendy Davis’s “star power” may not be enough. We fear it, in our sad little defeatist Texas Democrat hearts. But Wendy Davis’s star power, prodigious as it is, does not lie in her enviable hairdo. It lies in us. The stars aligned for Wendy in June, and the stars were the thousands of orange-t-shirted folks at the Capitol who risked losing their jobs to show up day after day in orange; the ones who got de-tamponized at the door, arrestedtased; the ones who watched the live feed and re-tweeted updates coming out of the Capitol when national news wasn’t covering the story; finally, the ones who helped her stand upright during the final moments of the filibuster, just before midnight, by standing with her and making our voices heard.

We’re the stars that aligned, y’all. And you know what the stars at night do in Texas.

Here’s the secure link. Give ‘em hell.

Wendy Davis

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Laughter, Part I

I’m writing two posts (or more? I don’t know) about the funny. This is the first. The next one will be about gender and the funny, and why you should totally run out and see the new Aubrey Plaza movie “The To Do List” when it comes out this week.

In a recent interview with writer Owen Egerton (whom I would describe as a humane humorist, or a humanorist, please start spreading that word around, it’s going to be big), we talked about humane comedy. This is a discussion that usually revolves around “punching up vs. punching down.” (There are scads of essays about this online, but they all boil down to “pick on the big guy, not the little guy.” Here’s a nice one.)

Comedy, as the word “punching” suggests, can be a strong method for critiquing power. But is that all comedy is good for—punching?

What is it good for anyway?

Nicolas Cage as Sleeping Beauty asks, “What is funny for?”

* * * * *

I didn’t used to care about comedy. Not even a little bit.

I remember 15 years ago, when we were in college together, Shana Merlin, one of Austin’s luminaries of improv, said I was funny and asked why I didn’t do comedy. I was really surprised. Me, funny? No, ma’am. I was a very serious person, interested in feminism and suffering and feelings. Comedy seemed trivial, light, auxiliary. The (awful) novel I wrote for my undergraduate thesis was about loss and loneliness. I had taught myself to write songs on the guitar (I know) and the songs I wrote that I liked best were the angsty ones about traumatic breakups. The funny ones were just me blowing off steam, so they couldn’t be good. I am still kind of disturbed by the probably truth that my comic songs are actually better than my sad ones. (“When I Slept with the Cold-Side Guy” is my breakout single.)

Me pretending to be Mazzy Star at an open mic.

Me pretending to be Mazzy Star at an open mic.

So when my husband Curtis and I started dating, I confess I was a little daunted by his investment in comedy. He is a huge comedy nerd, raised on Monty Python and SNL and SCTV and Comedy Central. At the time when we got together, he was performing in multiple improv and sketch comedy shows a week. After years of knowing each other in a distant way, he and I had reconnected (I think that’s what the kids are calling it these days) when I was visiting Austin over Christmas. We got along so well that just a couple of weeks after I went back to my cold, lonely grad school existence in Chicago, I bought a plane ticket to come back down and spend the weekend with him.

There was one thing, though: he had a show that weekend. A comedy show. That I would have to attend.

Sitting alone in the audience with a six-pack between my feet, waiting for the show to begin, I was so nervous I was actually nauseated. What if I hated it? What if I got emotionally invested in this guy, and then found out I was dooming myself to years and years of comedy that I thought was dumb, boring, or even worse, alienating?

My husband came up on stage, and the Your Terrific Neighbors show commenced, and thank the merciful heavens, it was funny. And smart. (And dumb. But in a good way.) As the show progressed, I remember feeling an immense relief, a warmth spreading through my chest unattributable to the beer I was drinking. I felt, I knew, we could be good together.

And we are. We laugh and we laugh and we laugh.

* * * * *

Owen Egerton told me about two types of laughter. One is about making fun of someone–punching, as it were. That’s the one that gets talked about a lot. But the other, he said, is when you’re laughing with your family.

I grew up in a funny family. We are all very different from one another, but we all have one thing in common (aside from loud voices, hot tempers, and giant, beach-ball-sized heads): we all laugh a lot. Tolstoy once wrote, “Happy families are all alike, but every family is funny in its own way.” (Watch out, I’m on a roll here. Try not to spit orange juice all over your keyboard.)

I mean, probably everyone thinks their family is funny, right? I’m not trying to suggest we were funnier than most families, but we had our moments. A highlight of my youth was the time my father started hurling Cool Whip into our dessert bowls from across the room, taking aim from progressively farther distances until there we all had Cool Whip in our hair. (Which reminds my of my theory that Cool Whip was created by accident in a Vidal Sassoon research lab, when a sleepy scientist, dumped a packet of Sweet-N-Low into a batch of hair mousse by mistake.) My mom used to take great delight in plunging a knife, theatrically, into the perfectly smooth surface of a newly opened peanut butter jar. My sister’s specialty was this one raspy monster voice that nobody else could do without hurting their throat. My brother did funny voices and faces, and quoted Monty Python where necessary.

Most often, though, we would play that most sophisticated of humor games: Stare At My Sister Lara Until She Laughs. It was always fun to play, because she had no resistance at all and would explode into giggles immediately, sometimes until tears came out of her eyes. Sometimes you didn’t even have to look at her; she would start laughing as soon as she could tell that you were about to look at her. That probably should have made it less fun, but then comedy is one arena where nobody likes a challenge. Watching Lara laugh until she cries is still a pastime I enjoy when we’re together.

Laughter is tribal. It establishes and enhances relationships, infuses social bonds with a sense of family and transforms people, however temporarily, into a community. Like anything else that cements feelings of belonging, it has two sides. With apologies to Heidi Klum, it can tell you who’s in, or it can tell you who’s out. (Are you reading this, Heidi? Everything going well? Do you ever miss Seal?)

In the fall of 2002, when I was lonely, broke, jobless, and miserable in Portland, Oregon, my brother flew up to help me pack up my worldly possessions and drive with me back to Austin. We wound up driving 36 hours straight, with no overnight stops. (Did I mention I was in a hurry to get back to Texas?) During the alternating bouts of tedium and delirium, we kept each other entertained with a series of running  jokes that no one else will ever find funny (“Hornswoggled!” and “So good with fruit!” topped the list). It was like home had come to me.

We use lots of other methods to establish in-group connections–gossip and slang, for instance. But laughter is special. Laughter is different. Laughter floods your brain with all kinds of delightful chemicals, but it would be a mistake to say that it feels like a drug; rather, it feels like the thing that drugs are trying to give you. Laughter is social even when you’re alone.

* * * * *

In graduate school I studied structures of power and structures of language, ways of making meaning and ways of taking meaning apart. But I never studied the structure of a joke.

I did, on my own, read the philosopher Henri Bergson’s 1900 essay “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic,” on the slender pretext that it might be useful for my dissertation. (It wasn’t.) Bergson spends a lot of time talking about how the funniest thing ever is when humans act like machines. In fact, he goes so far as to define all comedy as “something mechanical encrusted upon the living.” (Oh turn-of-the-century, how I love you!) I assume that he’s not so much talking about David Cronenberg-type stuff (although I do think horror and comedy have a lot in common), but rather about characters who act out their particular idiosyncratic modes of being over and over again, machine-like, ignoring the consequences. “At the root of the comic,” he says, “there is a sort of rigidity which compels its victims to keep strictly to one path, to follow it straight along, to shut their ears and refuse to listen.”

This is similar in principle to what comics nowadays call “heightening.” Of course, it’s also how some people define insanity. (Maybe that Bergson essay had something to do with my dissertation, after all.)

Bergson also memorably claims that comedy “appeals to the intelligence, pure and simple; laughter is incompatible with emotion.” The first part seems patently true. I have never felt so intellectually engaged as when trying to figure out why something is funny, or why it’s not funny, or why it’s almost funny. As my friend Jon (another funny dude) once pointed out to me, comic acting is harder than dramatic acting because it is highly stylized. It doesn’t work if the timing or the rhythm or the physicality is off. In comedy, you can’t get by on Method; heartfelt doesn’t hack it. The best comedians—the Buster Keatons and Bill Cosbys and Lily Tomlins and Maria Bamfords—are masters of the minute, paragons of precision. They are formalists.

But I don’t agree that laughter is incompatible with emotion.

The short-lived television show “Freaks and Geeks” is, to my mind, one of the most perfect comedies ever created. Like all great wince comedy, “Freaks and Geeks” is about alienation: two different types of outsiders, the burn-outs and the nerds, travel parallel paths of awkwardness and isolation in a Detroit high school in 1980. Examples of comic brilliance on the show are legion, and the then-unknown cast now forms a kind of comedy Justice League: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr. (Sarah Hagan must be Wonder Woman in that analogy, because she’s the only one that hasn’t starred in her own movie, despite her manifest brilliance. But more on gender next week!)

One of the most amazing scenes in the series is a montage of Martin Starr’s character Bill watching a Garry Shandling stand-up special on television after school. In the episode, Bill, an only child, latchkey kid, and perpetual punching bag at school, feels threatened when his mom starts dating his gym teacher. (I mean who wouldn’t.) As he eats his Sandwich of Loneliness on his TV Tray of Isolation, he starts to get absorbed in the stand-up routine. The Who’s “I’m One” is playing over the whole scene, so you can’t hear the routine itself; you just see  his slack, mouth-breathing Bill face dissolve into sandwich-dribbling, tear-squinting laughter. Screen shot 2013-07-22 at 9.35.15 AM

Starr is amazing to look at, and the scene would be hilarious enough if it were just him. But instead, the camera cuts back and forth between Shandling on the TV and Bill on the couch, showing how, as he gets sucked deeper into the routine, Bill begins to respond as if there’s an actual person in his living room. He nods along, raising his milk glass back when Shandling raises his water glass to the audience, and even points to himself, shaking his head as if to say “You got me, Garry.” The shots get tighter and tighter on both of them, Starr’s face framed by the television screen in your living room just as Shandling’s is framed by the television screen in Bill’s living room. As Bill’s laughter contorts his face, making him look progressively more hilarious, it almost seems like Shandling is laughing back at him. Toward the end of the sequence, matched shots almost create an eyeline between the two characters, angling them toward one another even when they look away, as you do when you’re laughing so hard you can’t look the other person in the eye anymore. It’s as if even the averted gaze of laughter–that acknowledgment of alienation and loneliness, our inability to connect–could actually connect you to another human being.

That’s the thing about comedy. When it feels best, it also kind of knocks the wind out of you. Like a punch, yes, but one that leaves us all gasping for air together.
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To Answer Your Question, Sir

During all the hubbub surrounding the passage of HB2 and the suppressing of women’s constitutional rights here in Texas, I was asked a very reasonable question by a very kind friend. He’s a guy I like a lot. I have been pondering his question since he asked it, and I hope he takes this post in the spirit it was intended.

Anyway, his question is not exactly what spurred me to write this post. I’m writing it now because I’ve seen the same question asked several times following the Trayvon Martin verdict Saturday night. It’s a question people ask a lot during weeks as horrifying as this one. After a particularly violent round of racism or misogyny or homophobia plays out on a national stage–after a teenager has been shot and killed and his killer absolved, or a woman has been sentenced to 20 years for protecting herself against an abusive partner, or the rights of 13 million women have been systematically bullied out of existence–it surfaces again and again:

What can we [non-marginalized allies] do? What can we [men] do to fight sexism? What can we [white people] do to combat racism? 

It may surprise you, if you have asked this question recently, to find out that not everybody wants to hear it. Depending on who you are and whom you’re asking, you might get your head bitten off. You may be told to back off, be quiet, and stop making it all about you. Or you may be given an icy rejoinder instead of the folder full of anti-racism or anti-sexism instructions you were expecting.

This can lead to hurt feelings, which is a shame, because nobody wants to hurt your feelings. In my experience, during shitty times like these, most of us just want to talk about what it feels like to be the target of institutional violence among other people who know the feeling, and with the people who are closest to us. We may want to express our outrage and grief in public, or we may want to sit in silence for a while and hug our knees.

Just to be clear, I’m a white cis woman living in a patriarchal, racist, heterosexist country. I’ve had plenty of advantages in life. My privilege is considerable. As someone who is both an oppressor and oppressed, I can’t claim to be speaking for victims of racism or other types of discrimination. I am working off my own experience as a member of a marginalized group. So if you read this and feel I’m not speaking for you, please feel free to let me know. I have tried where possible to listen and defer to those who are experts in their own oppression. (And I know there are other posts like this one out there, so if you know of a good one, link to it in the comments.)

So first I want to explain why some of us get so mad when people who do not share our particular oppression ask the question, and then I want to honor the good intentions behind the question itself and do my best to answer it. First off, it’s not really the question itself that’s the problem. It’s WHEN you ask, and WHOM you ask.

I’m angry because you only asked it today. To me, that implies that you never noticed this type of thing (racism, misogyny, etc.) going down before, or you didn’t pay attention to or believe the people who told you about it. It implies that you are only asking now because it has become so obvious you can’t possibly ignore it. It implies that you only asked because it made you sad. Tragedy begets empathy, and empathy is important; but why should I have to get kicked right in front of you for you to believe me when I say people want to kick me?

We all have bystander disorder when it comes to social justice; we look the other way until we are forced, by someone or something too big and bold and upsetting to ignore, to stop. But imagine how it feels to be the person shouting for help the whole time, or giving up on shouting for help because they’re tired of being dismissed or ignored or even attacked for it. Now something made the national news, and now you are finally paying attention.

I’m angry because you asked me. To me, this implies that I am your only or best source of information about this stuff, which is not true; and besides, we’re tired right now. We’re tired of educating you on your terms. We talk and talk and talk about this stuff, and you stifle a yawn or ask why every single thing has to be seen through that lens. (Because I can’t wake up and not be a woman, that’s why.) By the time you ask us to talk, our jaws hurt and we have a headache, and we’ve just been smacked in the face so hard that you are finally taking notice. We are tired right now from being oppressed, and we should not have to have this conversation with you on demand, when there are other resources out there. Think about waiting at least until the initial trauma is over and using the time to do a little research on your own.

So what CAN you do? 

Listen, believe, and defer. Listen to us when we talk about these issues. Believe us when we say something in our world is happening because of racism, sexism, ablism, homophobia, etc. Listen and believe not just the first time, but the hundredth. Racism is still there the hundredth time. Defer to our expert knowledge of our own oppression. We have lived it, through no choice of our own.

And please, please, do not discount us when we occasionally sound (to you, to ourselves) like crazy people. Being a woman in a patriarchy, or what have you, can make you feel crazy, and then that craziness can be used to disenfranchise you; that’s called “gaslighting,” and it’s a tool of the oppressor. But members of marginalized groups aren’t crazy; they’re sensitive. (Have you ever noticed how quickly the connotation of the word “sensitive” shifts from positive to negative when it’s thrown at someone else? “I think I’m a pretty sensitive guy” vs. “I think you’re just really sensitive.” Think about the payoff of that shift for a moment, and then think about gaslighting again.)

Oppression does make a person sensitive, in the same way that dogs have sensitive noses and cats have sensitive hearing. Just as one instrument is more sensitive than another to the thing it is meant to measure, so most women are more sensitive to misogyny, black people to anti-black racism, Asian-Americans to anti-Asian racism, etc. Walking around in a female body is the best crash course in sexism any man can have; just ask Dustin Hoffman, or this guy. But as long as a man can take off his lady clothes or add a Mr. to his name and be accepted as a man, it doesn’t make him an expert. Sensitivity is a survival skill. The fact that we are sensitive is only a problem for people who don’t want to feel implicated by problems they have the privilege of being able to ignore.

Try not to say “I feel bad” over and over. Watching people get oppressed does feel bad, but it feels worse to be oppressed–just like watching someone get treated for cancer is extremely painful, but not as painful as actually having cancer. It’s fine to have bad feelings, but be judicious about where and how you express them. Bringing your sadness about it to the person who is most directly affected by it may feel like solidarity to you, but to us it may feel like a request for comfort–or, worse, absolution. “Don’t worry, you’re not the problem,” we feel compelled to say. “I’m not talking about you.” But sometimes you really are the problem, or at least you’re not part of the solution, and we just don’t want to hurt your feelings, so we squash our own.

Susan Silk and Barry Goldman have a great piece about the right way to structure intimate interactions around trauma and grief. It’s called the “ring theory of kvetching.” I think it was originally written about relationships with sick people, but it works very well for oppressed and marginalized groups as well, particularly in these heightened moments. The idea is to picture any traumatic situation as a bull’s-eye, with concentric circles coming out from the person most directly affected. The person at the center of the trauma (i.e. the one with cancer) should always be exactly that: at the center. The circle of people who interact directly with the central person are experiencing secondary trauma, too. But whenever possible they should be taking their sadness about the central trauma to the next circle out, to their friends who are less directly affected, not inward, to the primary person. We do not ask the person who is more directly affected by the trauma than we are to absolve or take care of us. That is not their job. We have cats and therapists and other friends for that.

Do not apologize for being in a position of privilege. Your being a man/white/cisgender/financially stable is not the problem. Somebody is going to be those things. The problem is the social, political, and economic structures within which those characteristics make your life worth more than others’ lives. The energy you waste apologizing could better be spent helping. Privilege is not a sin to atone for. It’s a tool you can use to help. Atoning implies you’re helping in order to make up for being who you are; but helping is what all of us should be doing, to the extent that we can. In religious terms, it’s the difference between penance (atonement) and mitzvah (duty).

Do apologize for doing something that hurts others—even if you didn’t mean to. Apologizing IS the right thing to do when it’s you who made the mistake. If you’re not willing to apologize for a real harm that you caused, even if you didn’t mean to, your other apologies are going to seem kind of disingenuous. So, wrong way to apologize: “I’m sorry, on behalf of men, about misogyny.” Right way to apologize: “I’m sorry I linked to that article; I thought it was funny and I didn’t see how problematic it was, thanks for taking the time to explain it to me.” Resist the urge to dwell on your feelings of shame over having made the mistake. It’s harder to be oppressed than to have the embarrassing realization that you’ve contributed to oppressing someone else.

CALL SHIT OUT. You’re in a bar, and your friend makes a nasty slut-shaming joke. Call it out. You saw a movie with a bunch of friends who liked it. You liked it too, except for that one awful character who was a creepy Asian stereotype. Call it out. Say it out loud: “Fuck that shit.” Somebody makes a rape joke. It’s a comic you like. Call it out: “Fuck that shit.” (You can even call yourself out. You find yourself starting to talk smack about your body as a way of bonding with other women, the kind of talk that can start off a round of competitive body-shaming, which is triggering. Call it out: “My bad. Fuck that shit.” See, it’s fun!)

One side effect of male privilege, white privilege, etc., is that people listen to you and take you seriously when you talk. The fear you feel that keeps you from calling shit out is the fear of losing that privilege, being lumped with the boring old oppressed people, and feeling for a single moment what people feel who don’t have a choice in the matter. Examine that feeling! And in general . . .

Examine your privilege. Contrary to many of our (for me, Protestant) instincts, privilege is NOT a sin for which you have to atone. It is a tool that you have been given and others haven’t. That’s not fair, obviously, but throwing away privilege isn’t usually an option even if you think you want to. For instance, throwing away male privilege or white privilege is literally impossible, and throwing away class privilege doesn’t make you a saint unless you gave it to someone else. Far more useful: get used to seeing it, noticing that it’s there. It’s natural and comfortable for your own privilege to be invisible to you; fight nature, fight comfort. Handle your privilege with care, because it’s dangerous. Use it to help others, because it’s powerful. Above all, don’t ever deny it. That is the most insulting thing you can do. 

And yes, if you are successful at leveraging your privilege for others, it might eventually, one day, disappear. That’s something you have to look in the face and see for what it is. Equality means you might lose some of your edge. Decide whether you’re okay with that and act accordingly.

Talk amongst yourselves. This would be a great time for you to reach out to other men/white people/straight people etc. who want to be allies and brainstorm ways to make a difference as an above-mentioned with like-minded above-mentioneds. Remember, I don’t know what it’s like to be a man any more than you know what it’s like to be a woman, so I don’t know all your available options. Listen to this dude about men’s leadership role in ending sexism for inspiration, and share it with dudes you know.

Be prepared to be wrong, even when you’re trying. Let go of your ego for a minute. Be embarrassed in private, then let it go and resume trying. That’s how we cope with mistakes.

Do your research. Believe it or not, there are whole institutions devoted to the study of these problems, and courses, many of them free, which you can take to learn more about them. If you live in Austin, I highly, highly, highly recommend the Safeplace Volunteer Training for a complex introduction to issues of violence against women. Yes it’s 40 hours; consider it a free course, even if you don’t go on to volunteer, though hopefully you will want to. There is no way you can sit through that training and not come out the other side with a better understanding of institutionalized violence against women, and the intersectionalities of race, class, ethnicity, and sexuality that contribute to it. There are resources like that in your town. Look them up.

Ask more specific questions. Instead of “What can I do?” ask, “Where can I donate?” Instead of “What book should I read?” ask, “What’s a better place to start, bell hooks or Judith Butler?” In other words, do your homework, and ask questions that imply you are actually ready to do something.

Follow up. This is the hardest part, for everyone, including me. Don’t sit around flagellating yourself, but keep paying attention and trying to find ways to help. Sign up for the Safeplace training course and attend every session you can. And when you find you’ve slacked off or lapsed in paying attention or let time pass without doing what you meant to do, don’t waste time beating yourself up. Just try again.

Forgive us when we’re bitchy. Nobody’s perfect. We’re not either. Sometimes we snap and snipe, sometimes we say things that sound over-the-top or vengeful or ungenerous. Please understand why and give us space for our anger. Your continued empathy is a balm to us, especially over time. My husband’s continuing efforts to understand misogyny have made me a stronger and better feminist, because he supports and loves me and forgives me when I let my anger get the best of me, and that has made me trust him and given me hope. Be that person for someone in your life. You have that power.

Once more with feeling, these things are not useful: ATONING, SELF-FLAGELLATING,  APOLOGIZING FOR HAVING PRIVILEGE.

These things are useful: LISTENING, DEFERRING, BELIEVING, LEARNING ON YOUR OWN TIME, APOLOGIZING FOR ABUSING PRIVILEGE, ACTING, STAYING INTERESTED PAST THE MOMENT.

Thanks for reading.

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Our Bodies, Our Voices

I have a new essay up at The Rumpus called “Bodies That Mattered,” where I talk about the use of the word “choice,” the silencing of Texas women, and other stuff.

I never thought I’d end up writing so publicly about abortion – it’s a scary issue to become involved with because of the violence, both rhetorical and physical, that has surrounded it for decades in this country. But women my age are waking up to the fact that options our mothers (and grandmothers) fought for and won are being taken away from us. The pro-life position, however sincere, is fundamentally at odds with women being able to have the same degree of physical autonomy and the same types of life choices as men. It isn’t the only issue we have to fight for, but it is pretty critical. And I am beginning to realize that women who make this choice have been demonized and demeaned by the silence of women like me on this issue as much as by the words of the opposition.

So anyway, check out my essay, and if you have your own personal and direct experience with abortion and you’re brave enough to tell it, I hope you find a way to do so.

*Yesterday I was interviewed live about this issue, and about rape culture, for an ACLU radio show  called “Give Me Liberty” on KPFT Houston. You can find and listen to the episode here – scroll down to June 30, 7:00 pm – and tell me whether I sound as terrified as I felt.

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It’s Democracy, English!

The line to get into the Senate gallery wrapped three times around the Capitol rotunda.

The line to get into the Senate gallery wrapped three times around the Capitol rotunda.

This is a follow-up to my previous post, “I’m Naive, Not Stupid. There’s a Difference.”

I am still reeling a little from the number of readers who contacted me about that piece, which I wrote the morning after sitting through the Texas House of Representatives hearing on the now-infamous Senate Bill 5. My blog typically generates about 8 page-views a day. That single post has generated about 70,000 page-views since Monday. (By the way, if you haven’t already, please read Dan Solomon’s 3-part series in the Austin Chronicle for the most substantive and informed coverage of the week.)

Now, having watched the history-making Senate filibuster alongside 2,000 protestors inside the Capitol and at least 170,000 around the globe, I feel almost embarrassed about how naive that post, in fact, was.

My shock and anger over GOP representatives’ churlish behavior on the House floor prompted me to write that post. I truly could not believe my eyes. Some have pointed out, rightly, that this is standard for the legislative sausage-making process, the endless train of amendments only part of the grand political theater that would culminate Tuesday night in thousands of demonstrators shaking their fists and screaming “Let her speak!” as Sen. Wendy Davis stood calmly in her back brace and pink sneaks for the thirteenth hour in a row. As such, Republican House members could not be expected to listen or care about the “chubbing,” as it is called when proceedings are artificially prolonged in the House.

Was it just “chubbing”? Although House Democrats were undeniably running down the clock, I still say no. Every single amendment introduced a reasonable exception to an unreasonable bill, and was backed up by evidence of the catastrophic “unintended consequences” of the unamended bill. The only disingenuous aspect of their testimony was the word “unintended,” which everyone knew was a lie.

* * * * *

Regardless, I am here to tell you that if the Texas State House of Representatives is a frat-house, the Texas State Senate is a shark pit. Having watched it from the gallery for eight hours and the auditorium for seven, I can tell you, new depths of my naivete have been plumbed. Every time a point of order was called over some new imaginary violation of the filibuster rules, I was flabbergasted anew. The back brace! The ruling that Roe v. Wade was not “germane” to a bill about abortion! The ruling that discussing the state’s already-rigid restrictions on abortion was not “germane” to a bill introducing further such restrictions!

(And I would like to point out, in case anyone watching missed it, that Sen. Kirk Watson was reprimanded on the “germane” issue for discussing a woman’s right to choose just moments after pro-life Democrat Sen. Eddie Lucio had given the Senate an earful of his own personal beliefs on the matter. In fact, the only legitimately germane questions I heard all night from a Republican came from Sen. Bob Deuell. Note that I didn’t say “evidence-based.” I said “germane.”)

Every time the mics went dead as Lt. Gov. Dewhurst consulted with the parliamentarian and other senators, I thought, “There is no way that objection is going to be sustained. There is just no way the Texas GOP would risk shutting down a high-profile filibuster on a technicality—not when they’re just planning to pull a second special session anyway if the bill is blocked.”

Once again, I was naive enough to believe that the reasoned and impassioned words of Sen. Rodney Ellis, Sen. Kirk Watson, Sen. Judith Zaffirini, and most of all, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, whose absence due to her father’s death the GOP tried to exploit for political gain—I was naive enough to believe that their brandishing of the rule book would shame even Republican senators into voting with the interest of “the body.”

But then again, why would they vote to protect “the body” of the Texas Senate when they wouldn’t vote to protect the bodies of Texas women? Or the body of the fiercely intelligent and candid and brave woman who stood before them in her pink tennis shoes, who forewent food and drink and bathroom breaks to withstand a punishing filibuster during which every word out of her mouth made perfect, crystal-clear sense.

Ladies and gentlemen of the world, Sen. Wendy Davis makes more sense after standing alone on her own two feet talking about abortion for 12 hours than House Rep. Jodie Laubenberg does when she’s propped up at the podium for five minutes answering questions about her own bill. Both women refused to answer questions after a while. The difference is, Sen. Davis wanted to be heard, while Rep. Laubenberg wanted to be silent. Only one of them got their wish.

When the words “sustained” rang out each time, a collective gasp of shock rang through the spectators even before the boos and angry yells. Honestly, even cynical (read: knowledgeable) watchers of the proceedings did not believe those calls would be made, that when Sen. Ellis called out a list of examples of assistance being given to filibustering senators in the past without garnering warnings, that when Sen. Zaffirini read the rules out loud (getting in a delicious dig about the applicability of the word “his”), these direct allusions to the law would make a difference.

Nope!

But there was one more big surprise waiting for us all at the end of the night. After Sen. Davis had been interrupted so many times that it became clear a full-on battle was being pitched against the filibuster, the atmosphere among orange-shirted protestors in the Capitol were tense. It had by that time become a relief to me that there was no chance I would get back into the gallery, because at least the spectators in the auditorium were free to cheer and boo and chant as loudly as we wanted to, while those in the gallery could only lean forward in their seats, white-knuckled and close-mouthed.

When Sen. Kirk Watson, whom I’m proud to call my senator, began raising parliamentary procedure questions, essentially filibustering in Sen. Davis’s stead for the last hour with the help of the other Dems, the thing started to turn into a bit of a spectator sport. But it wasn’t until that final half hour, when GOP senators turned their attack on Watson, that it really hit the fan. I have no idea what happened in that last half hour. Try as I might to keep up with who was contesting what motion and what was being put to a vote, I simply could not follow the recursive logic of the proceedings, except to note that Sen. Ellis (I think?) kept asking for the transcript to be read to determine what order some things happened in.

I have to say, though, the room around me was on top of it. I know they were, because every time Sen. Duncan (who got called in to replace Lt. Gov. Dewhurst as the President at Sen. Watson’s request) claimed a particular motion had been tabled, the noise around the room was genuine astonishment. Not rage (though that was bubbling under the surface), but astonishment and confusion. “That’s not right!” the spectators in the auditorium yelled pointlessly at the screen, and “Check the transcript! You’re wrong!” The minutes ticked on.

In the last twenty minutes before midnight, as we in orange began to congratulate ourselves, tentatively, for having outlasted them, Sen. Duncan again and again tried to steamroll past the legitimate questions raised about what was quickly becoming a parliamentary nightmare. Sen. Van de Putte called out to be recognized and was ignored during a roll call for a vote on a motion to who-the-hell-knows-what, and a few minutes later, after the vote was counted, she delivered one of the final crushing blows to SB5 by stating in a calm, quiet, voice. “Mr. President, parliamentary inquiry. At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?”

This time, when the gallery erupted, it never died down. Sen. Duncan reached for his gavel, picked it up, looked up at the gallery, and then put it down. Women in the gallery and the Capitol, women all over Texas, were sick at this point of not being heard: not being listened to during the public hearing, being ignored in the House hearing, not being permitted to filibuster in the Senate, not being recognized by the President, and, most of all, not being heard when we yell at the top of our lungs that we want the right guaranteed to us by the 1973 Supreme Court decision that, germane or not, gave us the right to a legal abortion. Duncan banged his gavel and said the precise wrong thing at the right time, “If this continues we will have to suspend the vote,” at which point the yellers in the gallery went berserk for a solid 5 minutes. In the auditorium, someone started a call-and-response chant, “Whose House? OUR HOUSE!” And for a minute, it really felt like it was.

And then, a few minutes after midnight came the astounding announcement that the bill had passed.

What followed—the tampering with date-stamps on the Texas lege website to “prove” the vote happened before midnight, the AP reporting the bill passed, since no major national news outlets had covered it were there to contradict it, the violence by some of the DPS officers in the gallery, who put one young activist’s arm in a sling (and having seen the video, I can tell you she wasn’t resisting, in truth she was bawling her eyes out after being awake for nearly three days straight)—I found, once again, that I had been appallingly naive. Again, I am saying, I hope I never lose the ability to be astonished by lawmakers in Texas who ruthlessly abuse their power. Because the more blatant the abuse, the more I want to stand up and never sit down, to talk and never go silent.

Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards and daughter of Ann Richards, Texas's second female governor

Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards and daughter of Ann Richards, Texas’s second female governor, rallies the troops Monday night at The Rattle Inn

* * * * *

I think the reason so many people identified with my previous post is that we’re afraid. We’re afraid of being “policitized,” afraid of the time it will take away from our already busy lives, afraid of having to learn that we understand even less about the process than we think we do. We’re afraid of boring our friends and of making new enemies, people we have not wronged but who seek us out to wrong us. We are afraid of being called that most hateful of words, “babykiller”—when our beloved President, on whom we pinned so many hopes, has allowed drones to kill babies and children in countries we’d prefer not to think about.

But most of all, and I’m speaking for myself here, we are afraid to care. We are afraid to get invested because we are going to lose again and again, many losses for every hard-won victory, and it’s going to hurt so much. After the House voted to approve SB5 at 3:30 a.m. Monday morning, I found myself crying and saying, “those bastards” over and over again as the legislators on the floor looked up for the first time and grinned at us up in the gallery. Tuesday I cried tears of joy at midnight, followed by tears of rage, and by the time I learned we had “won,” I could only think about when Gov. Perry would call the inevitable second special session to show us that our voices still don’t matter. No matter how loud we scream for our rights, he will always have the upper hand, and because of the relentless gerrymandering in our state he or someone like him probably always will. It hurts so much when something you love hurts you, and I love Texas, guys, I really, really do.

The only other time I have been involved in organized protests, it was in graduate school. I briefly became active in the Graduate Students United movement at the University of Chicago, where we hoped that we could improve stipend support, working pay, and living conditions for students who often became stuck in their graduate programs for a decade, indentured servants unable to finish because they had to support themselves on extremely low pay. Those meetings were long and often grueling, filled with the quibbling and in-fighting over fine procedure and large ideology that so often divides movements from within. I would drag myself home at 2:00 a.m., sometimes without even getting to vote on the main point of the meeting, because I had to get up and write a paper the next day.

I was, at the time, one of perhaps two humanities students at the meetings and the only one from the English department; the majority were from the social sciences. I remember one guy, a very young Marxist in an olive drab hat, who knew my name but called me “English” instead, which made me feel like I was simultaneously on a barracks and in a Cary Grant movie. Whenever he noticed me sighing in frustration at yet another point of order, or yawning and rubbing my dark-circled eyes, he would lean over, tap my shoulder, and say, with a smile and a clenched fist, “It’s democracy, English!”

It was, and is. The fight in a democracy is not always as exciting as it was Tuesday night. It involves canvassing on foot and registering people to vote and following local government initiatives that most media will never begin to care about. But because of all those groggy, boring meetings, GSU succeeded in doubling the pay of graduate student TAs whose wages had been stagnant for 18 years. And I have no doubt that all the sitting and waiting and standing and yelling and walking and slogging and quibbling and chanting I am prepared to do with my newly politicized peers alongside those who have been there the whole time will eventually turn Texas into the state it was always meant to be.

Pro-choice protestors in the Texas State Capitol rotunda sing “The Eyes of Texas” after the defeat of Senate Bill 5 is announced in early Wednesday morning.

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