Featured image by Blythe King from Issue Seventeen.
She made the empty rooms roar with accusation and shake down a fine dust of guilt that was sucked in their nostrils as they plunged about.
— from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451
The mayor of the city where I live recently decided that a sidewalk needed to be installed on our street. He sent a foreman here on Saturday morning to tell us what was happening. At sunrise Monday morning, before we could protest, a truck full of men sliced through the yard, a pine tree, and our walkway. A concrete moat surrounds me.
Rapunzel was locked away in a tower because, before she was even born, her father promised her to a witch.
The witch caught Rapunzel’s father stealing rampion out of her garden. He was stealing it, of course, because his wife was craving it and told him she would die if she didn’t have it. So in the way the story gets told, it is her fault the baby gets taken away. Except that really, he agreed to let the witch take the baby in order to avoid his own death. And this means somewhere in a stone house Rapunzel’s mother was left grieving for the loss of her child. She was punished for wanting.
Beautiful Rapunzel, locked in a tower, her hair growing in ropes strong enough to hold an adult, is then courted by the king’s son and she falls in love (at age fourteen). When the old witch finds out, she banishes the pregnant Rapunzel to the desert. She was punished for loving. (Somewhere someone is thinking, But don’t forget the poor prince—he fell into the brambles and was blinded!)
As the story continues, we learn that the blinded prince wandered the forest until he found his lost love in the desert, her newborn twins in tow. Childbirth and early motherhood are not mentioned, though her swooning collapse into his loving arms is. In the end, Rapunzel’s tears renew the prince’s sight and they live happily ever after.
This is a fairy tale about three women: a mother, a crone, and a virgin who becomes a whore but is redeemed by motherhood. Though the story is centuries old, we know that women are still flattened into these roles. Rules are built like walls around women’s words and bodies in an effort to keep them under control. There’s no place for stairs or nuance in these towers.
Once upon a time, I got trapped in an elevator that was going up to the top floor of a hotel. That night, I had used a fake ID to get into a concert with my roommate and afterwards one of the band members invited us back to his room. My roommate and I had had a lot to drink. I don’t remember how we got separated. But somehow I ended up in an elevator with the (older, married) singer, and somehow the elevator buttons were out of reach. The man had a thick brogue, a thick wool sweater, and thick curls framing his face. He grabbed the back of my head with thick fingers and stuck his thick tongue down my throat in an act that felt not like a kiss, but like a gag.
When women find themselves trapped, whether in sealed towers, elevators, or the confines of laws and mores, they often become disembodied. To be trapped like this is to be simultaneously watching and watched, spectacles and spectators of their own bodies. Yet for most men, these rules are different. Elevator buttons are seldom out of reach. Towers aren’t traps, they are platforms to rule from. When men are placed on high, it is more often to stand in judgement. To look down upon the subjects and cast rulings, shout power, be heard.
I listened to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony on the radio last Thursday. Though I was not watching, I knew what she looked like because the commentator told me she appeared “stricken.” When her voice trembled, my stomach turned. She sounded like me for a moment, and I knew that waver could impact her credibility, that her words and her looks would be judged and written about for years. I imagine they’ll be studied in university courses the way I studied Anita Hill’s in the ‘90s.
Dr. Ford’s voice filled my car as I sat in a parking lot. That morning, I taught a roomful of college freshmen Amy Tan’s essay “Mother Tongue.” In class, we spoke about language and power, considered the impact of cognitive bias and what happens when those with power don’t (won’t?) listen when words become difficult to understand. At first I thought about how often language fails people. Now I wonder how often people fail language.
As I heard Dr. Ford’s voice grow stronger in the face of frivolous questions about finances, I imagined her on a witness stand, though I know this isn’t a trial. The commentary of the reporters seemed invasive; the recapping felt like a sports replay. I only wanted to hear her, to thank her.
When Serena Williams lost the U.S. Open in early September, the media was divided. Some tried to defend the umpire, blaming Williams for being “out of line.” But she wasn’t. Williams, whose every move and wardrobe choice is criticized in ways that are unquestionably tied to her gender and race, was chastised from on high by a man with power. The umpire, a man sitting physically above her, judged her body and language and it cost her. She did not lose control, she has been under control. She lost because she was emotive.
Women get trapped in towers, powerful men get to shout from them. These stories are not new.
Brett Kavanaugh opened his speech with an assertion that his statement was his and his alone. As if he could stake a claim on language. He pleaded for the people to consider the power of the word “evil.” (I used to think there was power in the word “no.” I don’t think that anymore.) Then his voice cracked, and although I was not watching, I knew that he was crying. My stomach turned. I knew this would be perceived by some as sensitivity. When he steadied himself, I understood that he would be seen as a strong and capable man. I have heard men’s voices do this before.
A text came through my cellphone, and as I looked at it I realized I was I tired. The text was from a friend: “The world is a dumpster fire.” I told her I was having a rage flare in the seat of my station wagon, and she sent me a gif of the earth in flames. I thought about these images and the metaphor of fire as anger. Flames are tongues and rage comes out in words, but want I really want is quiet. A reprieve. But there is no sleep and there is no fire, not yet.
When it comes, how will we describe it?
In 1977, a woman named Francine Hughes was divorced from, but still living with, an abusive man—a man who beat and berated her in drunken rages. He moved back into her house after they divorced because he’d had an accident and she had empathy. Hughes’ ex-husband raped her and humiliated her. Do you know what else he did? He burned her books.
One night, after he drunkenly raged and raped her, she lit his bed on fire. Mickey Hughes died and the house was destroyed. With her children in tow, she drove to the police station and turned herself in. Francine Hughes is the reason domestic violence is a viable defense. In court, up on the witness stand, Hughes told the truth, and a jury of her peers deemed her innocent by reason of insanity.
A little like Bertha in Jane Eyre, Hughes was a madwoman in the attic. Unlike Bertha, however, Hughes’ fire destroyed her monstrous husband. Also unlike Bertha, Hughes lived to tell her side of the story. Her voice changed American Justice.
And yet, after her death last year, Hughes’ granddaughter told USA Today, “She didn’t feel like it was something to be proud of. She never felt justified. She never felt free. I think that’s kind of why she kept it low key because I think she was ashamed and haunted by it.”
Burning everything down helped Hughes get rid of her abuser, but his abuse never left her. That she died without ever talking about her abuse, that it was a source of shame for her, reminds us that even when justice happens, trauma haunts like a ghost. What words can there be?
My description of what happened to me in that elevator years ago is not well-written. I did not—could not—adequately portray the spinning, trapped feeling of my fear or the in-between temperature of my body. My language is repetitive. In repeating the word “thick,” I hope you will understand the scene—not only the way he looked, but the feeling that followed.
When people began to question (threaten) Dr. Ford, they came for her memories. They said her narrative was wrong. They said if it really happened, she would remember more, be able to tell us more. Like Dr. Ford, like so many women, I do not know what I was wearing that night in the elevator. I do not know what the hotel lobby looked like. I do remember the name of the band, but I can’t recall how I got to the hotel. It is a story that is both mine and not mine because it is lost. The story is flawed as I am flawed, and there are no words for that.
Kavanaugh’s words did fail him. He ranted, shot fiery language at those who asked him the pressing questions that must be answered. The words he was so sure of at the beginning of his speech became evasive, insulting, unstable. It seemed as though the platform he thought he was standing on disintegrated beneath him. This might be enough to make him fall. As I write this, I hear that the GOP has agreed to postpone the nomination for a week.
He will, I hope, be barred from further power. He will be chastised for his actions. He will be judged for his performance. Of course, Dr. Ford will be judged for hers, too. Her trauma won’t go away, but she has impacted Justice. Memory is fallible, and so is language. Trauma stays. It is to be believed. Perhaps things are changing. As I write this, though, I hear the President say of Dr. Ford, “She looks like a very fine woman.”