Sunday Morning~ Blantyre
November 13, 2016
I grew up with a father who referred to women as “dumb broads”. He had two daughters and three sons. He treated my mother as his personal servant and for the life of me, I cannot recall one kind word he ever uttered to her in our presence. I grew up thinking that was normal. I grew up thinking she was dumb. She thought she was dumb.
It was the 60’s. The women’s movement was in full swing and I listened to my father denigrate “these women’s libbers” as if they were ax murderers. My father was a powerful man. He could be charming and flattering and funny. He was incredibly intelligent and articulate. My ex-husband referred to him as a walking thesaurus. English was his second language, and he used it beautifully. He had control of the room, no matter who was present. Control. He HAD to have control. He’d go crazy otherwise. He used all sorts of tactics to control us. Of course, when we were small, it was physical. We were all afraid of him, even, I believe, my oldest brother, whom I worshipped. Seven years my elder, he was handsome and strong. He was my protector and I would have walked through fire for him (and it wasn’t a stretch to think he may have asked me to). He was the strongest person I knew, but I could smell his fear when my father was around.
As we got older, my father controlled us with money. We lived with the threat of being kicked out of the house if we did not comply with whatever the rule of the day was. “You’ll be out on that street before you can blink an eye!” he would yell. His tone was menacing and you knew he fucking meant it. It was just so much easier to comply, but I didn’t always. There were times when I thought I’d die if I complied. I’d weigh the risks and decide how important something was, and then I’d calculate how to go about it. Options included: 1. Sneak (risky and possibly fatal if caught),or 2. Fight (often successful but the price was high). If I chose option two the entire family would groan and usually run for cover. My mother often said to me with disgust, “You just had to fight with him, didn’t you?” And I would answer, “Yes. I did. I just had to.” Like I said, the price was often high.
I am the third child, the first girl. The brother two years older than me is very smart. He got all As in school. My father loved that. All As. The teachers loved that. I did not get all As, in fact I got very few As. When people saw my last name they always asked if I was Richard’s sister. The next question was always the same: “Are you as smart as he is?” It got to the point where I’d just give my name, flatly state that yes, I was Richard’s sister, and no, I’m not as smart as he is. I hated it. But I kept trying to get all As, because I really, really wanted my father to like me as much as he liked Richard. I could just never do it. Never.
But I could fight and Richard couldn’t. I had that on him. Needless to say, we all grew up a little angry. We may have expressed it in our own ways, but, yeah, angry.
I went off to Boston College, a Jesuit university, where the professor for my required Philosophy course was a bisexual, Jewish, lawyer PhD student named Gary Orgel. He terrified me while challenging everything I was taught about a woman’s place in the world. I had thought that since I fought the beast, I was somehow liberated. Yet, I carried with me, not the notion that I was dumb (or broad) but that I should follow orders. Obey the rules. It’s easier that way. People suffer otherwise. Family suffers. Get an A. Just do what he tells me, because I need an A. Well, to even pass that Philosophy course, Gary made me question everything about everything I ever believed in. I would go back to my apartment crying about this course. My roommates were worried about me. They wondered if they should call someone at the school. They thought he was overstepping his boundaries as a teacher to upset my beliefs to this extent. I reverted to my default setting: fighting. I fought with Gary! I used to challenge him. And he listened to me! He actually listened to me! I was a college freshman, from a crummy mill town known for it’s poor school system, sheltered and oppressed, and regurgitating ridiculous dogma as if it were scientific fact, to a bisexual Jewish lawyer from New York City. And he listened to me! He didn’t agree with any of the bullshit, but he listened and then calmly argued back as if I were his equal. There are no words to express how valuable that experience was or how grateful I am to that man. I had so many walls built around myself. I think I started constructing them at birth, understandably; I needed protection. But Philosophy 101 with Gary Orgel was when they started coming down. It is terrifying to question what you’ve been led to believe is true. To think that your whole belief system, the world as you know it, is wrong? It’s hard. I fought it tooth and nail, but slowly, cracks began to appear in the walls, and through them I could see a brighter light. And I went toward it.
Didn’t go over well with dad. My newfound perspective on equality wasn’t met with pride and wonder at what I was learning at college. There were threats of stopping tuition payments if I “ever, EVER, talk like that in his house again.” I tried to understand where he was coming from. I tried to forgive him, after all, he was abused and discriminated against. He was an immigrant and had suffered. God almighty help anyone who uttered a racial slur in his presence. I thought I understood.
When I was a junior in college, bussing to integrate the Boston schools was happening and the air was filled with controversy and discussion. Sitting with a group of friends, I was recounting an exchange I’d had with my father about it. He’d gone off on me for something I’d said, which he’d misheard and misinterpreted, and started in my face yelling, “Do you know what it’s like to be called a WOP? Do you? DO YOU?” I sat quietly at the kitchen table as he lunged across with his finger a millimeter from my nose. “No.” I said. “NO! Of course you don’t!” he said, sitting back down (a clear sign that I had given the correct answer). So, I was telling this story, and the guy who would become my brother-in-law said, “Did you ask him if he knows what it feels like to be a woman?” And I stopped dead in my tracks and said, “No. I didn’t.” And then started thinking, I have grown up thinking it is normal to berate women but not minorities. I internalized that. I always believed my father was an asshole, and an abusive control freak, but I always thought he was a champion for the underdog because of his reaction when someone would make a disparaging comment about a minority. That was not okay. But to trash women? Always open season. And it never occurred to me that was discrimination. How fucked up is that?
I chose a profession that has been traditionally female. I chose a career as a woman’s advocate and have been dedicated to it with my whole being. I’m frustrated when women act in their own worst interests, but I understand it. I hate it, but I understand it. It’s survival.
On Tuesday of this week I was jumping out of my skin with anxiety and excitement. I’d been seeing the posts on Facebook about women who were beyond words with pride at voting for our first woman president. I realized it was the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death and thought she’d be smiling down on the day from heaven. She always worked the polls. I wished I was home to be with my friends to celebrate this momentous event together. In Malawi, the time difference is seven hours later than the east coast, ten from the west, so I knew there would be no results until Wednesday morning and I went about my day. I traveled to a district hospital 21 kilometers from Blantyre to teach fourth-year students in labor and delivery. On the way I told the driver about my anxiety about the election. He said, “Oh, Hillary Clinton will win, I know she will. I don’t know how I know it, but I do.” And I was comforted as if he were Jesus Christ himself talking.
The day was exhausting and upsetting. A baby was born in distress and as we were doing the resuscitation the power in the hospital went out and we had no oxygen. The baby later died. His sixteen year old mother had a postpartum hemorrhage. I watched women wailing in agony, alone, waiting to go to the operating room for obstructed labor. They’d run out of sterile equipment and couldn’t do surgery. There are no options for pain relief aside from human contact. I told the students to get over there and comfort her.
We went to bed that night before any results were in. We had friends bringing breakfast over at 5:30 so we could have a celebration before going to work. I was giving a lecture at 7:30 a.m. I barely slept. The foreboding started when George opened his computer and the “Oh my God!” he yelled was not in a happy tone. I immediately got sick to my stomach. No. It can’t be. Results were just beginning to come in. It wasn’t good.
Our friends came over and began cooking. I watched the computer screen as if taking my eyes away would be harmful to her chances. Someone put a plate in front of me and I ignored it. I thought I’d never eat again. “This cannot be happening”, I thought. And then went into denial. It was too painful. I could not accept that the most brilliant qualified candidate in history was going to lose to a man who treated women worse than my father. Not in 2016. Not after all we’ve been through. No.
I had to leave for work before it was over. I did not want to go. I couldn’t function, surely. I kept repeating to myself, “Get up. Dress up. Show up.” the mantra that got me through my divorce. I still was holding out hope, but knew in my heart it was lost. I felt like I was wading through water to get to campus. It’s a short walk. Everything seemed to be in slow motion. I did not know how I would get through a class. I had no idea if I could even talk. There has been only one other day in my life when I so desperately wanted to believe something was not true, and that was the day Hannah Shaw died.
The students were all seated and looking at me when I walked in. I wondered if they knew? I began, “I need to tell you that my heart is very heavy and I am very upset. You need to know why I am not acting like I usually do today. I am upset about the election in my country. I had believed that we would have our first woman president, a woman who deserved to be president and would have worked to improve women’s lives everywhere in the world including here. But it appears she may lose.” I felt energy as I said that and continued, “I spent yesterday with fourth-year students at Chiradzulu and I watched women suffer. You students in front of me are the only thing giving me hope right now. I didn’t think I could come and give this lecture, that’s how upset I am, but you are making me see that you are the hope for the future. You have the responsibility to complete your education and work hard as midwives to improve the lives of women in this world. You are the generation who can do this. So let’s go. We’ve got work to do.” I was shaking.
I begin each class with a writing exercise, which is not something they are accustomed to. I told them to take out a paper and pen. I told them we would all write for seven minutes on this topic: What I saw on my way to class. This is what I wrote:
What I saw on my way to class this morning were white petals on the ground. The frangipani trees that I have watched bloom over the past weeks had given me hope. I thought the future was bright, but this morning when I saw them on the ground it seemed to me like the tree was crying for the world; it’s flowers were falling like tears. I saw a man smoking a cigarette. I had never seen this before on my walk to campus. He was standing off to the side of the road and smoking and I didn’t like it. I wanted to tell him smoking is bad for you; it will hurt your lungs. It’s like the world went black and white and evil. I walked by looking at the petals on the ground. The road is the same, the gate into campus is the same. I see the faces of the students and they give me hope for the future. I wonder how to stay positive. I think of all the women who need us. I want to believe we can make a difference and that sometime in my lifetime women will get the respect and treatment they deserve. My key got stuck in the door to my office. I thought nothing is working, the world has stopped working, and I realized I was shaking. The door finally opened.
I got through that day the way many of us did, in shock and denial. I thought I’d have to hide. I couldn’t imagine what this would mean for the world. I couldn’t fathom how the country I came from could elect a person with a platform of such hatred. I was terrified. Truly, terrified. I’m terrified about what this means for our world, but also for how deep the hatred of women goes. Like my father, my country is more sexist than racist. This is so hard for me to accept, but it’s like that day in my college dorm when Mark asked, “Did you ask him if he knows what it’s like to be a woman?” I knew it existed, but to this extent? I just didn’t believe it.
So, what to do now? I keep waiting to cry and I can’t understand why the tears won’t come. I choked when watching her concession speech, but haven’t really cried. It’s one of those times when I may be afraid if I start I wont be able to stop. I need to cry for all the women who suffer now and will suffer needlessly because of what my country has done.
I felt better on Thursday when I heard she won the popular vote. The majority voted for her. I keep thinking, she won. She won. Even with all the tactics to prevent minorities and the elderly from voting, she got more votes. I repeat that to myself and others like a prayer.
There’s so much I have to face and it has to come in spurts. It’s too painful otherwise. I didn’t want to believe it, but women, white, educated women voted for a candidate who mocked them. And for some inexplicable reason, I am not angry at those women. I used to be angry at my mother for not protecting us, but over time I came to understand that she was trying to survive herself. She had no where near the resources I had as a married woman. As she said to me when she was divorcing him, “Linda, when someone tells you you are stupid for thirty-six years, you believe it. You just survive the day.”
I feel my depression about this election turning to anger. But it’s not really anger. It’s rage. I feel rage starting to bubble in me. It feels like when you try to keep yourself from vomiting. Keep swallowing until you get to a place when you can let it out; don’t puke in bed. I read angry comments from the right: “Get over it. The pussies and bitches voted for him.” That’s a quote I read. An actual quote in response to someone’s frustrations about the outcome, and I think, no. Not yet. Don’t let it out yet. It’s as if my rage is a finite source of air to breathe and I must use it wisely, carefully, strategically, collaboratively. I must find a way to plant it in fertile soil where it will grow in a healthy way. I read these hateful, vengeful comments and think, no, that’s not who I want to be. I tell myself, “Don’t fight back that way. It’s a waste of your precious air.”
I was estranged from my father for many years. Six years ago his second wife called me at work to tell me he had ridden his bike to the library where he died of a heart attack. She was distraught and I felt genuinely sorry for her. When I got home an hour later, I found a letter from my father in my mailbox. Freaky. He had written it two days prior and it arrived in my mailbox on the day he died. He wrote as if he were still married to my mother. He wrote about how sorry he was about her death and what a remarkable woman she was. He wrote that he was proud of what I’d accomplished in life and how much respect he had for me for being such a fighter. He came as close as he was capable of to an apology.
I will not “get over it”. I will not “get over” the abuse heaped so heavily on one of the most brilliant women of our time. She is Joan of Arc as far as I’m concerned and I will fight back. I promise this with every cell in my body. I will fight for my mother and my sister and my daughter and granddaughter. I will fight for every woman who has been abused. I will fight for every woman in this world, especially those who voted against themselves.
I want to show those women what the world is like on the other side of the wall.