Writers Resist: Writing Truth to Power
Voices of Dissent on MLK's Birthday
This Sunday, January 15, on the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., writers will gather across the country in a public expression of resistance against the inauguration of Donald Trump. From Seattle to Decatur, Omaha to New York, America’s poets, novelists, journalists, and storytellers will raise their voices against the rising clamor of intolerance, greed, and cruelty that threatens to define this nation’s next four years (and beyond). The main event in New York City will feature former poets laureate Robert Pinsky and Rita Dove leading an impressive cohort of writers and artists—Laurie Anderson, Alexander Chee, Masha Gessen, Roseann Cash, Jeff Eugenides, Amy Goodman, Jacqueline Woodson, and many more—in a united show of resistance to the incoming administration. In anticipation of that day, and beyond, Writers Resist has invited contributions from across the country, asking writers what resistance means to them. Today and tomorrow (as we did yesterday), Lit Hub will publish a selection of those contributions.
Call for a Testudo Formation at the Gates of Day
David Thacker, Nov. 9, 2016, 7:12 a.m. ET.
If the eyes are balls of liquid that fill with light,
and if the light
from the bedroom ceiling fan, rocking gently
across the eyes of my daughter,
who is seven and looking up at me
for more than I’ve just explained
about the now president-elect whose words
she knows we’ve shielded her from,
knows their substance as she knows
shadows out her window in the unknown
houses, the neighborhoods,
are cast by men that are not shadows,
looking at me, waiting—maybe I’ll take it back?—
the puffed sweeps below those eyes,
the cheeks, the mouth
sag, and I am made to understand
she knows her parents have always been small shields,
her knowing her girl her body her unjust
her heavy knowing looks back at me
something rocking there other than light.
David Thacker is the father of two brilliant and strong girls, David Thacker is a PhD student in poetry at Florida State University and holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Idaho. A finalist for the Berkshire Prize, and a recipient of the Fredrick Manfred Award from the Western Literature Association, his poems appear in Best New Poets 2015, Ploughshares, Subtropics, The Colorado Review, and elsewhere.
When I was seven years old, my parents escorted me into a room in a retirement home in Carmel, CA, to meet an old friend of the family. She was a slight elderly woman with a friendly face and a clear strong voice, and she knew how to set a fidgety, slightly precocious boy at ease. We talked for a few minutes about what I was doing in school, and the books I liked to read. She shook my hand, and we moved on. There was something about her that was memorable, I couldn’t forget her. Her name was Jeanette Rankin.
Years later I learned that she was the first woman ever elected to Congress, in 1916, from the state of Montana, four years before passage of the 19th Amendment which enshrined universal voting rights for women (Montana was an early state to adopt suffrage). An ardent feminist and pacifist, she voted with a small bloc of representatives against entry into World War I, and subsequently lost her seat. Re-elected to the House in 1940, she was the sole legislator to vote against entry into World War II. In and out of office, she fought for gender equality and civil rights for six decades. She said her proudest achievement was being on the floor of Congress to cast an affirmative vote on the original House resolution for the Nineteenth Amendment as “the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.”
I’m 56 now, and it boggles my mind that I had the opportunity, within my short lifespan, to shake hands with first woman who ever stepped onto the floor of Congress as a legislator, exactly one hundred years ago. I’ve thought a lot about Jeanette Rankin during this recent brutish election cycle, the prejudice and intimidation she must have endured as the first woman in an all-male bastion, the patience and endurance she needed to persevere in the struggle for universal suffrage, for civil rights, for peace. I look at Hillary Clinton’s tortuous campaign, the obstacles and the misogyny that she had to endure, and it seems like this nation, which appeared to be on the verge of electing its first woman to the Presidency, has come a long way in the last hundred years, and yet hardly any distance at all. I’m proud and sad and disgusted all at once.
When I stepped into the booth on November 8th to mark my ballot, I was thinking about Jeanette Rankin, and all of us, women and men alike, who got to stand on her courageous shoulders, trying to break up that damn glass ceiling. The ceiling is still intact, but the fissures run deep, and I draw inspiration from her example of chipping away and speaking out over the long haul, not losing hope despite the setbacks of two world wars and countless other abominations, believing that justice and peace and equality will prevail if we continue to work for them.
She once said, “If I had to live my life over, I’d do it all again, but this time I’d be nastier.” Let’s keep going, nastily if need be, and with determination.
Robbie Gamble is currently completing an MFA in poetry at Lesley University. He works as a nurse practitioner with Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program.
Resist is too gentle a word.
A tug of an impulse.
Something one does a second serving of cake.
A dog at the end of a leash.
I am more interested in refusal.
In facts, which still exist and carry the weight of centuries.
I refuse to unsee what I have been shown.
To pretend something is not what it is.
This sounds small.
I reject anyone shilling the noxious murk of counterfeit ambiguity.
I recognize who benefits if we are confused, if we are unclear, if we are off-balance, if we
are afraid, if we are split from the herd by our otherness.
Hint: not us. (Not anyone, really.)
I regard the mirror.
Promise to never stop seeing myself.
To remain visible.
This sounds indulgent.
I make a list of lies.
Refuse those words in my mouth.
I make a list of truths.
Sing them to the heavens.
Even as I am said to be, “overreacting.”
(Women are always overreacting.)
I listen to my husband.
“The so-called hysterics are the ones who survived,” he recalls of his ancestors.
“They want us to feel crazy and threatened so we can’t function,” he adds of our queer peers.
We joke a lot about “the camps.”
I embrace my teenaged daughters.
Who bought Hillary stickers, and gave their birthday money to Planned Parenthood, and marched at BLM protests.
Who don’t want to have children anymore.
I hold on.
When they are most frightened.
When they thrash and gnaw about bad times to come.
I hear every fear and correct none of them.
That, I resist.
A magazine journalist for 20-plus years, Allison Glock’s writing has appeared in: The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, Marie Claire, GQ, The New Yorker, and many other publications. Her poetry has appeared in The New Yorker and the Portland Review. Glock was the recipient of the Whiting Award for her book, Beauty Before Comfort, (Knopf) a memoir of her grandmother’s life in West Virginia.
Facebook wouldn’t stop reminding me that it was my rapist’s birthday.
I know that’s a ridiculous sentence. You would think that, if anything would disqualify someone from being your Facebook friend, it would be rape. I don’t have to grapple with this too often. He has yet to post something in the six years since we’ve met, and he only occasionally gets tagged in pictures. But this year, on his birthday, when Facebook sent me a notification about him every time I opened it on a new device, and kept suggesting to me throughout my newsfeed that I write him some well wishes on his wall, I had to stop and think about why I was even in this position. The best I can come up with is that it comforts me, in a way, to be able to keep tabs on him. While knowing that he moved to New York City shortly after I did turned him into this specter lurking right around every corner, I liked knowing that I would’ve at least not been caught off guard had the unthinkable happened and I ran into him one day. I also know that he’s been in a relationship for the past few years, but I don’t think I like knowing that as much. They seem very happy.
I don’t think about him too often anymore. Yet, after his birthday, I couldn’t shake him. For weeks I found myself gazing off while watching TV or reading to instead relive everything surrounding that day. I’d rest my head on my pillow or the wall of the subway and let myself cry over him. Six years later and suddenly my heart felt as raw over him as it did then.
I had met him at a party in my last year of college. He was a regular at a house we frequented that held illegal concerts in its basement. We got to talking at one point and I realized he was my type. He still is my type. Creative and snarky and smart and damaged. When he invited me over one day, I was excited to hang out with my new crush and get to know him a little more outside of a drunken mass of people. I hoped that, if it went well, maybe we would kiss goodbye. He fixed me a drink and we sat down to watch a movie, and before the opening credits were over he kissed me. I was giddy, and leaned my head on his shoulder to keep watching.
Moments later, he pulled my face up to his to kiss me again. I pulled back. He grabbed my shoulders and kissed me again. I tried to pull away, but couldn’t, but when he lunged for my breasts I managed to wrest myself from him, sliding a few inches down the couch. He stood up, paced around the room, and turned to look at me with a strange stare. He bent over and grabbed me by both my wrists. I tried to sink all my weight into the couch but he jerked me forward once, twice, then pulled me off the couch and dragged me across the floor to him, my knees burning on the carpet. That’s when I froze, my brain shut down, I felt limp. He shoved my dress down around my shoulders, undid his jeans, and pulled my head towards him.
After a few minutes, he pulled me up and sat me back down on the couch. He took off his clothes, gripped me by the shoulders, and moved to lay me down. Somehow, I found my voice again.
“I don’t think so.”
“I thought you weren’t allowed to say no. Isn’t that how this works?”
“Actually,” I said, “it’s illegal for it to work that way.”
He pushed me down and turned me over, dragging my underwear down to my knees. He climbed on top of me and clamped his hand over my eyes. Halfway through he moved it down to my mouth. When he was done, he went over to the kitchen and I saw him examining himself as I gingerly sat upright and weakly fixed my clothes.
“Were you a virgin?” He asked, his back to me.
“Because you bled a lot.”
I walked home, shaking and heart racing. A few friends were at my apartment, and when they asked me how it went I manically told them we had sex and how excited I was about it and raved about his big dick. They seemed taken aback by my rapid-fire pace and wild gestures, a 180 from my typically low-energy demeanor. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I feel so weird. I don’t know why I feel so weird.” I went to the bathroom, sat on the toilet, and saw my bloodied thighs and skinned knees. I calmly washed the blood off in the sink, and returned to my friends to continue gossiping.
I had been an outspoken, card-carrying feminist for years at that point. I knew the vocabulary. I knew the theories. And yet, somehow, I didn’t know that I had been raped. I rationalized it in a thousand different ways. I had had a particularly sexually adventurous year. I had slept with people I’d known for far less time. I enjoyed sex that left marks on me the next day. Why was I freaking out over this one time? Even when I started thinking there may have been something untoward about it, I caught myself sometimes wondering if maybe I deserved it, that I must have been so obviously a slut that no wonder he thought he could do whatever he wanted with me. When I heard he was a casual user of hard drugs I was relieved, because it seemed like an explanation. It was just a weird experience because he was a kind of high I didn’t recognize, I thought. I Googled “Can heroin be transmitted in semen,” even though I knew the answer, because I figured maybe that’s why I acted so strangely afterward.
Sure, I thought, maybe I was a little coerced, but I couldn’t have been raped. I went there on my own. I wanted to be there. I wanted to kiss him. He invited me over to watch a movie, what else did I expect? Yeah, I didn’t want to have sex that day, but I was hoping that at some point we would. I didn’t say “no,” specifically. I didn’t fight at all. I didn’t leave. Why didn’t I leave? I could’ve just left.
A few weeks later, I went on a trip to Paris on my own as a graduation present. I was used to street harassment, but it had been feeling particularly threatening lately, and since I was alone in a city where I only somewhat knew the language, it had been especially wearing me down during my trip. One day, I was on my way back to my hostel after a really wonderful trip outside the city, and I was in such a good mood that I was almost able to entirely tune out the man that had been chattering at me on the metro and was following me up the stairs and down the sidewalk. When he stuck with me at the crosswalk, I turned to him and said, “No.” He threw up his hands and stormed away. The light changed and I went to cross the street, but I saw a flurry out of the corner of my eye and turned to see the man rushing back to me, yelling. I held up my hands and he grabbed my wrists, shaking me and spitting words in my face. I yelled back at him in a mangled combination of English and French, struggling against his grip, looking around wildly at the people around us who all averted their eyes. Eventually, I broke free, and ran across the street, cars screeching to a halt in my wake. As I ran to the hostel, all I could hear was, “I thought you weren’t allowed to say no.”
The next day, I was going to a concert, and I decided to make myself look as unappealing as possible. I needed a break. I back-combed my hair and piled it in a massive, messy knot at the back of my head. I wore no makeup. I didn’t put on deodorant. I wore a baggy T-shirt, my loose-fitting denim shorts, and the rubber flip-flops I brought along for the showers. I got there early and was right by the stage. It was a giant summer concert and I lost myself completely in it, dancing wildly in the crowd. I forgot about everything. Until, during a slower set, when I was standing still, and I felt hands on me. I brushed it off at first, understanding that I was in a huge group of people and surely at some point we were going to bump up against each other. But then, it began to feel deliberate, rubbing the back of my shorts. I froze up and seconds later, the hand shot down between my legs and I felt their fingers scuttling up into my shorts, slipping past my underwear. Without thinking, I jammed by elbow back again, and again, and again, and again. I felt them trying to get away, but the crowd was too packed for them to do it quickly, so I continued harder, and harder, and each time bone connected with bone, elbow to rib, his face flashed into my head with the same look he gave me as he loomed over me on the couch. And that, finally, was when I admitted to myself that I had been raped.
When I got back from Paris, I had a week before I was moving to New York, and there happened to be a concert scheduled at the house where I met him. I didn’t know what, exactly, I wanted to do, but I got it into my head that I couldn’t move away without confronting him about all of it. I barely spoke to my friends as I clutched my beer, scanning the party for him. I spotted him, and didn’t let him out of my sight as I downed a few drinks, preparing myself. Later, feeling ready, I walked up to the group he was in and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around and looked confused to see me. “Can we talk?” I asked. “What,” he said, “are you mad at me, or something?” I saw red but I kept calm. It hit me what I needed to do to get him alone. (To do what? I don’t know. I could’ve probably killed him in that moment.) “What? No!” I said, smiling. I stepped closer to him and touched his arm, looking up at him with the gaze that said all I needed it to say. “I was just hoping we could, you know, be alone for a little bit. Let’s go back to your place.” He stepped back. “Yeah, that’s not happening,” he said, and turned away from me, leaving me to stare dumbly at his back.
Rejected by my rapist, I ran home without saying a word to anyone, threw myself over the toilet, and vomited violently for the rest of the night.
I had cycled in and out of depression and anxiety for most of my life, but the phase I sunk into upon moving to New York was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I was having panic attacks nearly every time I stepped outside, which eventually led to a two-month period where I left the house twice a week: once to get groceries, and once to see the therapist I had recently deemed necessary to start seeing. Between working from home and having yet to find friends in the city, sometimes, at my appointments, I’d realize that the last time I’d spoken was at my previous visit. I spent entire days lying in bed staring up at the ceiling, consumed by thought exercises where I tortured myself with the absolute worst things I could possibly imagine. A lifetime of sleep issues had folded in on itself so that I essentially never slept, and I started having near sexual fantasies of getting anesthesia, or of falling and hitting my head just so I could get some rest. I knew it wasn’t just the rape and the assault. It was a whole bunch of things that had been building that year (and, I suppose, my entire life) and had compounded into a breakdown. I was just a shell, endlessly shifting between numbness and despair and fear.
Eventually, I pulled myself out of it, bit by bit, until I realized that I had the strength to be happy again. It was about halfway through the following summer, which I was spending in Costa Rica as a way to throw myself into the deep end of healing, shaking myself out of my fear of leaving my house and being around strangers in the biggest way I could think of. I even had sex, something I was unsure I’d ever be able to do again, let alone enjoy. I had tried a few times the previous year, and each time I had intense vivid flashbacks to that afternoon, triggering panic attacks that I’d try to suppress and hide by turning over and pressing my face into the mattress, masking my gasps for air as ones of pleasure, not fright. I had decided it would be best to abstain from sex altogether for a while, and I was thrilled when I was able to do it again without collapsing into a panic. When I returned home from my trip, I thought it was all over. I felt free.
I thought it was all over until months later, when I was on a great date with a nice guy and he suggested we go back to his place, and I told him sure, after I got one more drink, and I calmly walked past the bar, out the door, and all the way home, never to speak to him again. I thought it was over until a year later, when I was waiting in a dressing gown for a new gynecologist at a time-sensitive appointment, and they came in and I remembered with horror that men can be named Lesley too, and I started yelling that I wanted a female doctor so loudly my voice echoed down the halls. When I was told there weren’t any, I sobbed through the entire exam, shoulders shaking, as the female nurse they offered to have by me looked the other way. I thought it was over until Steubenville, until Roger Rivard, until Todd Akin, until Elliot Rodgers, until Emma Sulkowicz, until Bill Cosby, until UVA, until Brock Turner, until Donald Trump. I thought it was over until Facebook wouldn’t stop reminding me it was my rapist’s birthday. I will never be free.
It should be over. I have moved on with my life. In my mind, that experience doesn’t define me at all. My sex life is active and healthy and happy. I will often even forget that I have been raped. What was once so consuming is now relegated to just another bullet point in a long list of trauma that I have endured. But in those weeks that followed his birthday, I was troubled, deeply, by how easily that veneer of normalcy could all come tumbling down. For all the other instances, I was able to shake him off fairly quickly, but he was sticking with me this time and I couldn’t understand why. It hit me that, no matter what, I will always be a rape victim. That is a part of my identity, a part of my psyche, forever. I will never be free.
And I hate him for that. I hate knowing that he doesn’t think of himself as a rapist. I hate knowing that he probably doesn’t think of me at all. I hate knowing that he probably doesn’t even remember that afternoon, or my name, or my face. I hate knowing that he got to live his life, have the career he wanted and a picturesque relationship, blissfully unaware of the six years of torment that followed for me. I hate knowing exactly how the system would have failed me had I decided to press charges, all the way from the police station to the courtroom. I hate knowing exactly how my case and my character would be torn apart by the news and the internet and the trolls on Twitter. I hate knowing exactly why he would’ve been let go, why it would have been deemed my fault, why I would’ve been called a liar. I hate knowing how my experience is dismissed by Men Who Know Better Than Me when I use myself as an example again and again to illustrate why the conversations around rape are flawed, how our society remains permissive of it, why concerns about protecting the emotions of survivors are valid and not PC Culture run rampant.
A month after his birthday, with all of this fresh on my mind, the Access Hollywood tape leaked. The nation debated whether grabbing a woman by the pussy was something to be appalled by or shrug off or laugh at, and I thought about Paris. I was too weary to be surprised. I was too weary. I waited to see which direction our country decided to take. Would we go in the direction towards those that acknowledge the existence of rape culture, or would we go in the direction towards those using my being triggered by it as a punchline?
I will never be free.
After the tape was released, there was a lot of equating casual camaraderie over sexual assault with unpresidential but not monstrous locker room talk. It was to be excused because that was how all men talked when they were alone, as if that were a comfort. I thought of the contrast with how women talk when we are alone. Throughout the election, we’ve been talking about our rapes, and our assaults, and our harassment. We’ve been talking about being followed down the street and followed to our houses and fighting off catcalls that were totally just compliments. We’ve been talking about being threatened. We’ve been talking about being pressured out of reporting our rapes and our assaults and our harassment by police, teachers, family, friends. We’ve been talking about how we’ve had to heal ourselves because we knew no one would believe us, or no one did believe us, or they did believe us but it’s not that big of a deal, right? We’ve been talking about how long we’ve had to deal with this (since we were 11 or 12, usually). We’ve been talking about abusive exes and being manipulated and intimidated and gaslit and left with shattered confidence and trust. We’ve been talking about being belittled and humiliated and harassed at work. We’ve been talking about this because we’ve been talking about politics. We’ve been talking about this because we’ve been talking about Trump.
I understand, now, why I was so vulnerable to my rapist’s resurgence in my life and in my psyche.
Now, we and the millions of women like us who have been raped, assaulted, and harassed are facing a future where he is our president, armed with an administration that hates us. Our country has betrayed women. It has betrayed minorities, the LGBTQ community, Muslims, Jews, and immigrants. And it continues to do so as white men from both sides of the aisle insist that the only way to save our party is to return to ignoring us and getting back to the issues that are Real And Important because they are the issues that affect them. This is an acceptable and applauded stance to take, and it is an embarrassment.
They have turned on us so quickly that it’s clear to me it will be up to us, alone, to resist. We have a responsibility to unite against whatever forces will overtake this country, whether through what this administration and this congress legislates or through what their supporters are emboldened to do. We have to use what little power we have to protect those with even less power. We have to bring our own people to the right side of history. Back when Trump was first gaining credibility, I said that he and his supporters were nothing but the embodiment of the death rattle of white supremacy, one final temper tantrum before our country can continue on its slow and steady crawl in the direction of justice and equality. My mind hasn’t changed.
I came across an e.e. cummings poem at a particularly crucial point of an early state of depression. It contained the phrase “unbeingdead isn’t being alive,” and it was, perhaps, single-handedly responsible for me ending my self-destruction. I was 14 at the time, and that motto of sorts has carried me through ever since, my inner rallying cry for pushing through pain, rage, despair, fear, numbness. I have been devastated over feeling like a rape victim again, but I refuse to succumb to this presidency without a fight.
I will never be free, but I will never stop trying.
Celeste Kaufman writes about culture, women’s issues, and the arts. Her work has appeared in Elle, Bust Magazine, Time Out NY, and elsewhere in print and online. She lives in Brooklyn.