A Letter To My Step Daughter
When I told you about the Christine Blasey-Ford/Kavanaugh hearing, we were inside an enormous fort that you built in your room. You made the fort so large that it contained three rooms: one for you (and the dog), one for your mom and one for me. In a simple, child’s honest gesture, you made clear who you consider your family to be, who belongs in your heart. You also made clear that we each need our own privacy and space. You make it clear every day that you hold yourself free to have your own opinions, wishes, boundaries. You don’t see family as a place to merge, to disappear into one another. In that, you exist on the far end of the spectrum from another ten year old girl, Judge Kavanaugh’s daughter, who supposedly urged her family to “pray for the woman.” She must have been told that “the woman,” nameless though very nice and vulnerable, was wrongly accusing her father. It sounds like she did not ask questions, neither about the woman nor about the efficacy of prayer in this situation. Or so he says. You can never know, it’s what people like him call a “he says, she says” situation. Big bad bully men are allowed to hide behind a sentimental image of innocence they project on to ten year old girls, whether accurate or not. He already made clear that the true, authentic subjectivity of girls and women is none of his concern. Your mother has raised you differently, and now that I am your parent too, so do I.
Honoring your need to choose how much of the adult world you want to, or can, take in, I reminded you of a past conversation we had about how some kids like to hear a lot about what’s happening in the news, while others do not. I told you that something big was happening in the news these days, and asked you if you wanted to know about it. Your mother and I had already spoken about telling you about what was happening, and this intimate and relaxed moment, you and me each stretching out in our respective fort “rooms,” seemed like as good a time as any to have this talk. You and I agreed that I’d start telling you, and that if it felt like too much, you’d tell me and we could stop at any point. I felt proud. I felt that this was part of teaching you about consent, clearly a project your mother had already begun with you when you were very little, as you have never hesitated to say, for as long as I have known you: “My body, My rules...”
So, I told you, in simple, stark terms, about his claims of innocence against her story of hurt. I started by asking you what you thought the qualities of a judge on the supreme court should be. You thought that all judges should be honest and kind, and should strive to treat everyone equally regardless of their “color” (I am ever uncomfortable that this is how you think of race, but you know what, it is honest. It is what many adults think, too, and simply don’t say), their gender, their age, their... you were trying to say their “sexual orientation,” but when I offered you those words you said you were not comfortable with saying the word “sexual,” so we just left it at “orientation...” I asked you if you thought it would be okay for someone who had done something very mean, many years ago when they were still in high school, to still be nominated to this position. You didn’t think so. You wanted to know what he did, and since you objected to the word “sexual”, I simply told you that what he did was called an “assault,” that he had trapped her in a room, tried to force her clothes off and put his hand on her mouth when she screamed for help. I said he was very drunk and was making very bad decisions. You already know that that can happen when people are drunk. I told you how brave I thought she was, how much courage it took to tell her story to all the senators, to the whole nation in fact. You said sadly that you hope he won’t be confirmed as a judge, but that you didn’t even want to express this wish out loud, because every time you hope for someone good to win, someone bad does instead. Did you mean Trump and Hillary, I asked? You just nodded sadly. I told you that even if he gets confirmed, that what she did was enormously brave and important, a game changer. But what I said felt a little hollow, even to me. There was no consoling you. This sadness and loss of innocence is part of your coming into maturity, into the complicated and compromised world which is the only one we have on offer for you.
In the years to come, as you grow into political consciousness, you will hear well-meaning people try to assuage your sorrow over this, because they will fear it will turn into apathy. They will tell you that in the end, we will rise. They will tell you that truth has a way of coming around, that bad guys won’t stay in power forever, that we have to stay engaged and vote and protest, and in many ways they will be right, we must do all those things. But we must not fetishize your innocence, we must not delude ourselves that bullies don’t run the world. We can rather be honest with you about their vacuousness, their cowardice, their complacency. We can teach you that you never succumb to a bully and that bullies must be confronted with a strength equal to and greater than theirs. We must teach you that justice is worth fighting for whether it prevails or not, because if we stop fighting, we become not exactly the bullies but easily their bystanders, the people who forget about the party and the muffled screams they heard on the other side of locked doors, the people who don’t ask, who don’t want to know, who forget and teach their daughters to forget too, to “pray for the woman” rather than listen to her. We don’t have to dull you with saccharine optimism and canned truisms.
The truth is, the world is careening on its axis. They treat mother earth like they treat our bodies; with scorn and derision, she doesn’t matter to them any more than we do. But their scorn and degradation does not make her any less holy. Nor will your body be ever less holy than it is for you right now, protected in the care of two parents, one woman one genderqueer, who know to teach you to love and advocate for your body fiercely, to live from it and to cherish it. We will not be always able to protect you as much as we can now. You will leave us and go into the world of parties and booze, of adolescent yearning and with it, adolescent manipulation and isolation. And it won’t do to deny that this is the world that you are growing into, that inevitably you will come across some Kavanaughs along the way, in all likelihood more than one. We can help you walk into that world clear-eyed and honest. We can help you know what to expect, and support you in cherishing your body and spirit to the best of your ability. We can help you know that you can say “no” always, that you can trust yourself, your instincts, your desires. That we will be there for you no matter what. That you should never be ashamed of what happens to your body, with your consent or not, or some confusing combination of the above.
And the truth that I knew even as we were talking in that fort, was that Kavanaugh was always going to win. Before Flake, before Collins. Before the lone brave dissent of Murkowski. Before there was a vote in the senate, before Christine Blasey-Ford ever spoke to the world about what Brett Kavanugh had done to her. This is why we marched the day after this president was sworn in, millions of us all over the world. Because the Kavanaughs of this world were coming for us, to snatch our rights, our voices, our votes. They had always been told that if ever confronted, to act tough and to rage, especially in the face of women confronting them, and also at the same time to appeal to women’s sentimentality; he spoke directly to us, to women and girls (especially middle and upper class white women and girls) when he urged us to think of him as a soccer coach, a husband, a father. He didn’t know we already knew that “father,” “husband,” “coach” were also names of those who preyed on us. That those who come after us, who lock us in rooms and force themselves upon us, who laugh with their friends and forget the whole ordeal, forget our very existence in fact, do often look and sound exactly like him. He forgot, but we remember. Kavanaugh was going to win long before the president ever knew about him as a potential candidate for this post. He was going to win before this president even presided over us, before he knew anything about groping, grabbing, or “pussies.” Before he was even born, Kavanaugh was always going to win, or someone else very much like him. He was going to win when the president’s father built on empire of money and power based on lies and exploitation, when white men looking very much like the judge, the president, their fathers and forefathers all the way back to the first fathers whose genocide of this land’s first people did not slake their thirst for more power, more land, more money, found an ingenious way to import and buy other humans, African humans, to enslave and exploit in service of their cotton- and land- generated amassing fortunes. Kavanaugh and all he stands for has been winning for a very long time.
And they have been hating us for a long time. By “us” I mean not only women and girls, but also everyone who threatens their (ever endangered) sense of power, derived utterly from contemptuous dominion over others. They know nothing of the power that comes from a genuine sense of authority, of dignity, of integrity and self-knowledge. The kind of power that can never be given but rather earned, through fighting for it through all the ugliness and hardship and beauty that growing up throws at you. And by “hate” I don’t only mean enslavement, genocide, rape. I also mean all the little ways that they fear, mock, belittle and avoid people like us. People like your genderqueer mother, who scrambles their notions of male dominion over female bodies, who shows them a version of potency and virility that far surpasses theirs, yet resides in a body they refuse to recognize as masculine. Twenty years ago today, they beat up and mutilated the face and body of a beautiful young gay man, Matthew Shepard, because he dared to visibly carry in his body femininity, softness, sensitivity, and worst of all, a yearning for other men’s bodies. The people who populate your life, the beautiful gay men who are my friends, the trans men who are your mother’s friends, all these people carry an implicit threat to the Kavanaughs. Women like me, feminine and soft but also opinionated and strong-minded, and worst of all not interested in colluding with the histrionics of any fathers, husbands, or coaches, drive them utterly mad. We are the witches that they fear, the women who will not cow to them or even desire them, the women who speak our truth, and they will mock and belittle and ignore us in every way they can. It is obvious already, for anyone who cares to see, that you are well on your way to becoming your own brand of confident, opinionated, uncompromising woman. You will certainly scare them, and they will undoubtedly lash back at you.
I can’t and won’t tell you that the righteous always win, that the meek shall inherit the earth, that the revolution is coming and that we are on the right side of history. I’d rather feed you grainy, hard to chew pieces of reality, at least reality as I have come to see and know it, than softer, sweeter, more delectable versions that may nevertheless break your heart in the end. The world you are coming into is in very bad shape, in more ways that I can account for right now without drowning in sorrow. Bright, staggering sparks of hope are bursting open all around us, too. All I can tell you is this: I love you, and your mother loves you. I believe in you, in who you are and who you are becoming. Don’t ever side with the bullies; the allure of protection and relative power under their supposed sheltering care is elusive, fleeting, unreal.
Assaults of the kind you are too young to really know about, the ones with the word you feel uncomfortable with, “sexual,” happen in and onto bodies, most often those of women and girls. But their real purpose and effect is theft of soul, the breaking up of spirits. This is how they achieve their dominion, and how they further maintain it. Christine Blasey-Ford showed the nation a living image of someone whose soul, or at least a small but important shard of it, was stolen from her when she was a young girl on the edge of womanhood. And she also showed us what it is like to earn that stolen shard of soul back, with support and hard work, courage and love for that ravaged self. My soul had pieces of it stolen too, when I was just about the same age as she was. And I, too, have worked long and hard to get them back. You never become fully whole again, nor do you remain broken. You become something new, broken and whole at once, something that is so beautiful and unbreakable and true that people like Kavanaugh and the senators who voted for him cannot even look us in the eye. But here is what I can tell you, what they will never admit: soul theft goes both ways, and it damages the thief far greater than it does the one who’s stolen from. In my work, I listen all day to people who had pieces of them stolen in this way, and witness them as they piece themselves together, one slow painstaking step at a time. Not everyone heals well, these stories are not always pretty. But no matter how far the damage, that these people can still yearn and love and relate, that they can see themselves as the worthy recipients of support and help, shows that something fundamental in them did not break, something that is evidently utterly broken in people like the new supreme court judge, let alone our current president and his posse of yes men (and, sadly, women.) They don’t have a heart. Whatever they had of it they killed in themselves with their despicable violence towards the feminine, the queer, the disabled and the poor. They have killed the light inside themselves and they don’t stand much of a chance for repair because they have not arrived at the first step, remorse, which can only come with full acknowledgment of what they have done. Having a soul and having a heart will not necessarily mean that you will always “win.” Often the “bad guys,” as you say, will win. At least just as often, you will find how vacuous their “wins” are. Even if they seem to be the rulers, they are the masters of a cold, crumbling house. Their wives and daughters will never love them in the way we know love in our family. Not with abandon, not out of choice. They will love them out of fear and coercion, and that is not truly love. And they themselves will never taste what you already know: kindness, generosity, consideration. Power that comes from love, from reality rather than an infantile fantasy of endless potency, underlining their fear of their endless, unfathomable impotence.
When you encourage me to do something that’s hard for me, usually an athletic feat that comes to you as easily as breathing air, you tell me you “believe in me.” I believe in you, too. You are coming into this world. The Kavanaughs of this world better take a step back. They have no idea what’s coming their way.