Flying across the country to begin the West Coast leg of my recent book tour, the airplane TV showed CNN reporters discussing the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court; a clip showed Mitch McConnell-- his eyes darting, the multiple folds of skin beneath his chin quivering—vowing the GOP would ‘plow through’ the nomination whatever it took.
As I watched from 35,000 feet above, it seemed as if the elephant that symbolizes the Republican party had transmogrified into a giant elephant that sat heavily on the coffee table of the American landscape, stretching from one coast to the other—refusing to budge, crushing the voice of the people, determined to have its way.
As a woman, as a writer, I was speaking a lot on my tour about finding my voice, how for years as a literary editor I had been coaxing stories out of others because I didn’t believe in the power of my own voice, and how I had wrestled blindly for years, as if in the dark, to trust my own words, to believe they had impact and to tell my own personal story in a memoir. As a woman, as a writer, how was I to address the elephant now bearing down on our national psyche?
Meanwhile across the country, in Massachusetts, my 18-year-old daughter was beginning college, struggling to find her voice in the large, impersonal world of university life. She too was watching women be silenced on the national stage as she negotiated classes, professors, students, as she learned to advocate for herself in a new environment. By the time I reached Portland, Oregon, the NYRB, New York magazine, and Harpers all ran pieces on notable men accused of sexual abuse, all three tone deaf stabs at redemption.
By the time I reached San Francisco, Ian Buruma, the editor of NYBR had resigned over the reaction of outrage, and in the political sphere Dr Christine Blasey Ford was set to testify. It was a full year after the dawn of the #metoo movement, two years after the Access Hollywood tape, and yet in the wake of all this the elephant had grown enormous.
When I reached LA, I watched on a friend’s television as Dr Ford raised her right hand, and raised her eyes upward. Hers was a look I recognized, a woman terrified, yet speaking her truth, aware of the backlash she would inevitably face. She was followed by Judge Kavanaugh, red faced, spitting rage and defensiveness, then spiraling into self-pity and tears. This is a look I recognized too, a man dangerously wrapped up in his own story, his alcoholic denial, his blatant self-interest.
By the time I returned to NYC, Dr Ford had been silenced by the giant elephant on the coffee table and Judge Kavanaugh was being sworn in to the highest court in the land. Why did it take you so long to tell your own story? I was asked again and again on my tour. Why did she take so long to tell her story? conservative pundits said, attempting to cast doubt on Dr Ford’s testimony. In bookstores, in living rooms, on airport lines, I listened as women told me their stories in hushed tones. It was my mistake to stay silent, I tell them. Speak, write, use your words.
Similarly, I tell my daughter as we Facetime, she at her desk in her dorm, me at my desk at home, If you don’t speak, you can’t blame them for not listening. Your words have impact. She sighs. And then what, Mom, she asks, because, this all seems so hopeless right now. The night is falling over the city as my daughter and I look at each other through our computer screens. My daughter, fiery feminist; was losing hope. We have to scale back the elephant one slice at a time, I am thinking, and our words are our power. Use your words, I tell her. We start there. Speak.