I don’t keep a journal. Of all the bad days I’ve had in the past decade, there are many I don’t remember. Trump got elected; I was sad, then furious, then numb, but these are broad, watercolor swaths of feeling. COVID descended; I took some of my things home from work and never returned to that office again. What else happened? Who did I talk to? I’m not sure. Everything else is somewhat of a blur that I have been lucky to emerge from, dusty and careworn.
But I remember September 28, 2018. That was the day after the hearing where, for eight hours, Christine Blasey Ford testified that now–Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were in high school. Ford was maybe 15 years old at the time. Ford said she “had never told the details to anyone” until three decades later: She recalled being in couples counseling with her husband, talking about renovating their house. “I insisted on a second front door, an idea that he and others disagreed with and could not understand,” she said in her opening remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “In explaining why I wanted to have a second front door, I described the assault in detail."
Thirty years she spent with a locked box inside her, a memory so painful, a fear so great, that it informed the logic of her life. After experiencing hurt like that, she wanted to know — even in her own home — that there would be more than one way to escape.
I’m not special for remembering that day. But given what many of us who live in the United States have experienced since then, it probably doesn’t register as more than a blip to most. LGBTQ people’s rights are being steadily eroded. Thanks to the pandemic, caretakers have been forced to do so much with so little. Elders of my community have been attacked in the street with impunity. I’m not the only person I know who has had COVID twice; millions of people have died or been impaired by that virus and its complications.
But I remember that day vividly for two reasons. First, I wrote about it for the magazine where I worked at the time. I had arrived at the office dressed inappropriately, and I hadn’t really noticed until I went to the bathroom midmorning. What too many of us know now is that my executive function had probably gone offline. Grief and trauma are thieves of competency and awareness. That day, many of my friends also found they could not operate at the level required by everyday life. Normality had collapsed, and we sank into the rubble. I remember feeling struck by the communality of that experience, the care we took of ourselves and of each other, the way we weren’t physically together yet endured the burden as one. I now have a record of every nuance of feeling from that day, a record that helps me access the sense memories, of how I could not cook or gesture or walk.
It almost feels like a joke that things have become so much more dire since 2018.
The other reason I remember it is because it was the day I realized the theater of accountability meant nothing. By no means did I have whole faith in any system — when you’re a person of color in an Anglophone country, you learn quickly that objectivity doesn’t exist and that so-called neutrality is shaped by power’s protective bias. But I think I still believed in story, and truth, and persuasion. When Ford’s testimony was greeted with national derision, and Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court regardless, I felt physical pain. Ford was a white woman, a psychology professor, a sympathetic figure with a lot to lose and very little to gain from saying her piece, and very little changed as a result of the hearing. Her bravery and the magazine covers and think pieces celebrating her hadn’t done anything except, perhaps, to make some of us feel understood. It wasn’t enough, really. The scales fell from my eyes, and I felt my last fantasy about the world and its fairness dissolve.
We can draw a line from that day to the SCOTUS decision that felled Roe v. Wade, eliminating people’s federal right to abortion in the US. Kavanaugh was one of the six justices who upheld Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban. The day before, the conservative-majority court limited a citizen’s ability to sue police officers and overturned a law that had restricted handguns in public.
Together, this suite of decisions vanished rights that have protected people from harm for decades. Survivors of gun violence, people who can become pregnant, and prison abolitionists have expected some of this for a long time and have long expressed grief and fear about the future. The people who will be most affected by these changes — poor people, people of color, people who can get pregnant — have already been mistreated by structural, generational inequity and a pandemic that cracked open existing fault lines. According to the Wall Street Journal, two-thirds of Americans support Roe. It does not matter to the courts. Some of the anti-abortion laws being proposed around the country are so broad as to criminalize miscarriage. It does not matter to the courts. More people than ever openly identify as LGBTQ. It does not matter to the legislators trying to suppress them. Disabled people do not have to wonder where the fall of Roe leaves them; the consequences are devastatingly clear. It does not seem to matter at all.
It almost feels like a joke that things have become so much more dire since 2018, in the sense that a joke overturns expectations to reveal a shocking but equally possible outcome. “All of the horribleness of our society that compelled tens of millions of people into the streets has not only not changed but has become worse,” Princeton professor of African American studies Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor tweeted about the fall of Roe v. Wade. “The SCOTUS has effectively created a new tier of citizenship and belonging to which it has consigned nearly half of the population. Without the right to control one's reproduction, the social, economic and political status of women will change.”
It’s true that we cannot put our trust in courts, in government, in purported leaders. Some of us cannot even trust the people we love and who love us. Roe v. Wade is not just about abortion — it is about people with control doing everything they can to maintain it. As we saw with the Amber Heard trial, a frighteningly large number of people do not recognize how hatred of women manifests in events big and small, nor what continued, mindless, socially reinforced support of patriarchy begets.
Feeling safe is a luxury. Working to keep each other safe is a responsibility.
Today, I feel the same shadow of failure and self-recrimination that haunted me four years ago. I am furious at myself. Did I dare to lie down while everything fell? I feel helpless. What more can I do? I remember thinking in 2016, in 2018, in 2020 that I had not done enough to avert catastrophe, that I had not done anything. Now, having struggled to take care of myself during serial illness and job loss, I still feel I have not done anything. That’s a lie, and I know it: Survival takes work. We must not weaponize these foul events against ourselves. We internalize our greatest threats as feelings of worthlessness and keep ourselves in line. People socialized as women know that guilt and responsibility are cultivated in us since birth, and we’re encouraged to disregard our own needs. But I do not want to hate myself. The people making these corrosive decisions hate me enough.
Abolitionist Mariame Kaba popularized the saying “Hope is a discipline.” It manifests through organizing and collective action, even as we suffer the emotional and material effects of oppression. This will certainly not be the last such tectonic shift. But there are ways forward. We must do things differently, and with a quickness: We must continue to communicate the urgency of our needs in public. Some warn that we must even change the most basic things about how we communicate, understanding that records about things we used to do legally may now become evidence against us. We will give our efforts and resources to those who need them. Some of us will still advocate through existing political channels for lasting change; there will be protests. Feeling safe is a luxury. Working to keep each other safe is a responsibility.
I honor the people who have been doing the work for as many years as it has been needed. I recognize that some of us never had the luxury of fantasy — that many of us have never had access to these rights in the first place. For them, none of this is a surprise. That does not mean many of us have not withstood trial after trial, bending like trees in the wind, wondering if this is the gust that will finally tear us down. This time, as has always been the case, it might. But it is not a time for delicacy. It has been, and will always be, time to try. It is time to love each other; it is time to help. ●