Oh yes, that

On writing a book in 2020

The contract for the book I’m writing arrived in February of this year, with what is in retrospect exquisitely strange timing. I was going through some painful emotional things in January that got worse in February, which culminated in a global pandemic. Yes, well. That was an unexpected twist.

The manuscript is due in a couple of months and I have been chipping away at it steadily, like a monastic in her cell, except the cell is the small room where I teach, write, talk to friends through the computer and “live,” or whatever it is that we’re doing this year.

(I am hugely grateful to Stefanie Kalem and Elizabeth Costello, brilliant writers themselves, who have read this manuscript in bits and pieces in and helped shape my ideas, to my editor, Lil Copan, who signed me to Broadleaf Books, and to my agent of many years, Michelle Brower of Aevitas Creative, for helping make all of this happen… and to my colleagues at UC Berkeley, and, of course, my students, for understanding that writing maybe matters more than ever right now.)

Very, very, slowly, I am writing a book about women, about women and social expectations and how we defy them, about not fitting in to social expectations, about women and being caught in between expectations and reality, particularly when it comes to religion.

As you can imagine, this has made the past couple of weeks’ spotlight on the very unrealistic lifestyle of Amy Coney Barrett acutely difficult to watch getting more and more intense. Twice I’ve been asked to write things about her — this is my beat, after all — and twice I’ve said no, because of teaching and because of the book. But I wanted to share something of what I’ve been working on, which was actually written before RBG died and ACB went to a superspreader event with her kids and, you know… what was that, last week? A day ago? Yeah, I have no idea. But this felt like the right thing to share with you, for right now.

The book — title TK, because everything is TK at the moment — will be out in November 2021.

As I sign off every message to my students these days, stay safe and healthy.

From a chapter on women and anger:

In 1906, the tectonic plates below the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Francisco tilted, slipped, and ground into one another, destroying most of what was then a city of 400,000 people, more than half of whom instantly became homeless as the city’s wood buildings burned and the mortar in its brick buildings liquefied, turning a city built on dreams of gold into a pile of smoldering rubble. 3,000 or more people died, and those who survived streamed into Oakland and Berkeley across the Bay, moving into makeshift shelters and encampments, scattering across beaches and parks throughout the Bay Area. 

In 1906, Dorothy Day was a girl of nine, living in Oakland with her family, who led an itinerant existence as they followed her father’s career as a horse racing reporter. They only lived in Oakland for a few years, and their timing was arguably terrible. The quake put a stop to horse racing and ended her father’s career at the newspaper, but it also sent floods of refugees from San Francisco into the city where she lived. She had nightmares about the quake for the rest of her life, imagining “a great noise that became louder and louder and approached nearer and nearer to me until I woke up sweating with fear and shrieking for my mother.” 

In her autobiography The Long Loneliness, Day wrote that the quake began, as they so often do, late at night with an audible rumble, and that  “the convulsions of the earth started afterward, so that the earth became a sea that rocked our house.” Her family home was “cracked from the roof to the ground,” with objects knocked over, but Oakland did not buckle as badly as San Francisco. In a self-revealing moment she drops into the text before swiftly turning the focus to others, Day notes that her father and mother snatched her brothers and sister from their beds to stand protected in the doorway, but left Dorothy behind, where she lay terrified “in a big brass bed that rolled back and forth on a polished floor.” 

Scholars of Day and many others who view her with a kind of reverence she would probably have disliked in her deeply seated pragmatism have written about the quake and its aftermath as the incident that began her slow transformation into a life given over to service. Her mother and neighbors rushed into helping the refugees in Oakland, cooking, cleaning, giving away “every stitch of available clothes,” an occasion she would remark as showing her the potential for human generosity. 

But as a fourth-generation Californian who has lived through many earthquakes, from tiny night shakers to the massive Loma Prieta quake in 1989 that took down the Bay Bridge and flattened a section of freeway not far from own my family’s home, I think about nine-year-old Dorothy left behind in her bed in Oakland, rolling back and forth across the room, consider the nightmares she’d have about the quake for the rest of her life, and understand she was very likely suffering from internalized trauma. And trauma can make women very angry. 

In 2008, a group of scientists published a paper revealing that their research demonstrated children who had survived the Dutch Hunger Winter had epigenetic markers, which demonstrated that the long-held hypothesis that “early-life environmental conditions can cause epigenetic changes in humans that persist throughout life” could, indeed, be empirically proven. These children were more likely to have increased comorbidities, more so than their siblings who had escaped the Hunger Winter. Much of the research on epigenetics since then has focused on World War II and the Holocaust, and there is also a growing interest in links between the history of slavery and inherited physical and mental health issues in Black Americans. 

Of course, we have long been aware that trauma alters people psychologically, something women were reminded of again during the #MeToo movement when woman after woman talked about the mental and physical damages of abuse. But the idea that our DNA itself can be permanently changed by trauma is something people who have survived violence or abuse can understand intimately. We don’t know if Dorothy Day’s struggles with anger as an adult were a direct result of her childhood experience in the earthquake, or of being left behind while it ravaged her home. We do know that she could be cantankerous, short-tempered, difficult and emotionally distant, and there is no reason not to argue that a cause and effect relationship between a vulnerable trauma in childhood and anger in adulthood might be part of this. 

Centuries of women restraining their anger, pushing it down or smoothing it over may well have changed the ways our minds and bodies work. As a Californian, I’ve spent most of my life hearing that I am “chill,” “mellow” and “easygoing.” As a woman, I’ve also spent most of my life working very hard not to get angry. I was born and raised in a landscape regularly riddled by natural and man-made disasters, and I wonder if the legendary Californian propensity for being laid back is not in fact a product of beaches and sunshine (nevermind that half the Northern half of our state’s beaches are actually clamped down under a layer of fog much of the time) but a product of repetitive exposure to quakes, fires, floods, riots, mass murders, and rampant poverty and homelessness grinding up against obscene displays of privilege and wealth. Why get angry when something near you is very likely to break, burn or explode, when the very land you sleep on regularly tries, with varying degrees of success, to kill you and your neighbors? Our anger can’t stop any of those things from happening. It’s not a coincidence we were one of the first states to legalize marijuana. It’s homegrown medicine for putting our fear and anger on mute. 

When I was a college student, a friend gave me a copy of an anthology by the local avant garde book publisher RE:SEARCH. It was called Angry Women, and there was a cover depiction of a rigid-faced Medusa. The book contained a variety of essays by performance artists, experimental musicians and writers, all talking about the ways in which they channelled anger into art, lived with anger, cultivated it and made it part of their creative process. But in my early twenties, I was already learning that anger was a luxury. I had an angry father, and anger made him drink, and drinking killed him, so anger had to be carefully meted out in small doses, like a homeopathic remedy. It was okay to get angry about social injustice; in the early 1990s, AIDS was already killing some of my friends, and it was fine to lace up my boots and march with ACT-UP and shout about the Persian Gulf War and to go to shows by the local all woman band Tribe 8 and scream and jump up and down with hundreds of other angry women. 

But at work, in class, with boyfriends, and walking down the street, it was not okay to get angry. Guys I dated thought that their job was to get angry on my behalf. Whenever I’d get close enough to a guy to tell him about a sexual assault I’d experienced, he’d say he wanted to punch, choke or kill the man who did it, and I was supposed to appreciate this, to consider it an honorific. I worked in retail to pay my way through college and grad school, and while it was probably within the customer’s rights to get angry at me when I made a small mistake, the reaction to these mistakes was often disproportionate to the scale of the error. Twenty five years later, I can still vividly recall a red-faced guy in North Berkeley screaming that I “didn’t deserve” a job in a bookstore because he was mumbling and I’d misheard the word entomology for etymology. I had to provide “service with a smile” and was not allowed to talk back for risk of being fired, which I occasionally was. When men would tell me to smile, “actually” me in class when my points were in fact correct, grab my breasts and ass on public transit, follow me home or on one occasion, grab my wrists and twist them so hard one was sprained because he “just wanted to talk,” getting angry in response was a huge mistake, because it would only amplify and intensify their anger, like upending a vat of gasoline onto an already raging  fire. Better to soothe and mollify than risk making things worse. 

Where does it go, all of that women’s anger? In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we are told that when anger turns to wrath, it becomes a mortal sin, one that will follow you after your death, unforgivable and as much as a marker on your soul as those epigenetic changes are in the ladder of your DNA. “If anger reaches the point of deliberate desire to kill or seriously wound a neighbor,” the catechism says, “it is gravely against charity.” Women get angry enough to kill, but hardly at the same rates that men do; street homicides are primarily male on male crimes, whereas domestic murders are overwhelmingly examples of men killing women. This doesn’t mean women don’t or can’t murder people, or feel wrath, but that the “deliberate desire to kill” doesn’t necessarily have a gender. The act of killing, however, does, and it’s not female. 

But women are also “cute” when they’re angry, spunky and sparky and every other adorable adjective you want to layer on in order to avoid the fact that women can get as angry as they want, but their anger isn’t really frightening, because it always so quickly dismissed that it never has the capacity to develop any consequences. If women’s anger were allowed to be frightening, that would also mean facing the realities of letting it be unleashed. Women’s anger may have, as Rebecca Traister says, “the power to change the world.” But we have to admit that it has yet to be set free and channeled to any degree that is truly world-changing. 

In her landmark book of feminist theology, She Who Is, Elizabeth Johnson tells us that “a passion that often accompanies action on behalf of justice is righteous wrath,” the response to the violation of human beings. Women, including the women in her own religious order, the Sisters of St. Joseph, who were investigated by the Vatican in 2012 for espousing “radical feminist themes,” have not only been taught to supress their anger, but that anger is “something to be avoided, not nice, even sinful.” But righteous anger, the anger Dorothy Day knew so well, can help women to “unleash energy for change.” 

Perhaps righteous anger in women is in some ways more acceptable. After all, caring for the oppressed and downtrodden is built into the foundational values of every world religion. But the real threat is the irrational, everyday kind of anger that boils up from hormones and misogyny and racism and body-policing and constantly being told that you are getting everything wrong: wearing the wrong bra size and washing your hair wrong and having the wrong kind of eyebrows and wearing the wrong jeans for your figure/age and wrongly assuming that those years and years of perfecting your “I’m not angry” face have actually worked, because every woman apparently has a “bitch face,” and nothing turns a woman into a bitch faster than expressing her anger. And what is a bitch, after all, but a name for a female dog: bred and born to be brought to heel. This is the kind of anger we turn against ourselves, and it’s why we drink and take drugs and punish our unruly bodies and minds in all kinds of ways, so that we can bring them to heel. 

In my experience, nothing causes more anger than the breaking of trust, and that’s intertwined with our experiences of religion, particularly in this era when the failures and abuses perpetrated by religious leaders are regularly laid bare for the world to see. Throughout the Bible, it is trust in God that brings people to safety, that shepherds them away from danger, that escorts them out of this life with grace. But when churches you invest faith and trust in victimize the most vulnerable, anger seems like a perfectly logical response. I write about clergy abuse, and one day I found myself screaming uncontrollably in the parking lot of a pet food store just after hanging up on a phone call with a man who had been raped by a priest, in a confessional, when he was seven years old, a priest who was “rehabbed,” only to do the same thing over and over again. This kind of anger is just a regular part of my work, but in my case, because I’ve also been the victim of sexual abuse, sometimes I can channel it into empathy, the feeling that what enables me to keep doing that work is my capacity to share their experiences of shame, humiliation, and pain. I have felt those things, too, and I have been angry that anyone has been made to feel that way. 

But my anger has never changed anything on a large scale, in the long run. It has perhaps moved people to re-examine patterns of behavior, but institutionally? No. My devotion to Dorothy Day as a model for living a  life of faith is not just the sense that she is a model of self-abnegation, of the kenotic self-emptying modeled for us in the life of Christ, but also in the sense that she was angry, and particularly angry on behalf of the vulnerable. Perhaps  that kind of anger only changes one person at a time. Perhaps it shifts things in increments.

I understand women’s vulnerabilities with a particular acuteness. When my female students tell me about being groped, dismissed, mansplained, date-raped, talked over, passed over, silenced or erased, I know that anger. I have held it closely for fifty years, getting to know it with an intimacy that sometimes startles, but the righteous anger felt behalf of other women, the poor, immigrants, queer people, everyone marginalized and trampled upon by “this filthy, rotten system” has also fueled the best of my work. Has this anger changed the world? No. But it has changed me, and to the best of my knowledge, that is exactly what God wants.

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