He Said. She Said.

“Why would he lie?”
That’s what Chris Matthews asked Elizabeth Warren this week about the numerous accusations against Mike Bloomberg and his company over the years: sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and sexist and harassing comments that contribute to a hostile workplace. Anna North, in an article in Vox, refers to at least 65 women making accusations against Bloomberg and his company in about 40 cases.

“Why would he lie?” Matthews asked Warren about Bloomberg’s denials that he had told one pregnant employee to “kill it.”

“And why would she lie?” rejoins Warren. “That’s the question, Chris. Why would you assume. . .?” And then he interrupts her.

He said. She said. Why would you believe her? Why would you believe him? He’s innocent until proven guilty. Bloomberg, with his dozens of non-disclosure agreements with women. The president, with twenty-seven accusations of sexual assault. Kavanaugh, with his three accusers, one at a public confirmation hearing. Why would you believe her? Why would you believe them?

And that’s just it. The women’s stories are always accusations. Always awaiting that adjective: credible. Always waiting to be proven, always a likely or possible lie, until proven. Sexual assault. Sexual innuendos and crude talk that create hostile and unsafe environments. Pregnancy discrimination. She has to prove he did it, said it, suggested it, made it unsafe. And he is always innocent until he is proven guilty, and until then, she is a liar. She is guilty. Guilty of lying until she can prove he’s the liar.

And he is (usually) white. And he is powerful. And he is male. He is (often) wealthy. He is the default for all the power dynamics: for truth and believability, for threatening posturing, for the pay-off.

Innocence until guilt is proven is an important tool in our legal process. In an ideal world, you are protected from conviction without strong proof of your guilt. It’s backbone, foundation, bedrock.

So what do you need in order to prove guilt? Tears? Hidden cameras? Secret recordings? Semen? Blood? Twenty-seven women coming forward with similar stories? (I’m looking at you, Mr. President.) How many women’s truths does it take to outweigh one rich man’s lie? What is the tipping point when we suddenly stop seeing Cosby, America’s dad, and start conceiving the possibility of Cosby, sexual predator? How do we go from Bloomberg or Trump, wealthy and powerful political leaders, to sexual harasser and sexual predator?

What does it take to believe the woman in the story? Why would you believe her? Why would you believe him? She is the accuser. Always. She is always the accuser in the story, and so her burden is proof.

In the secret stories that women and girls tell each other, he has groomed her for silence, or intimidated her to silence. He has gaslighted her until she can no longer separate his false reality from her truth. He has stepped over so many boundaries with such deadly skill that she no longer knows where the first boundary lay. He has paid for her silence. He has cajoled, intimidated, forced her to sign the non-disclosure agreement. He has told her the devastating truth that no one will believe her anyway.

I am not necessarily advocating for the elimination of innocence until guilt is proven. It’s foundational to our understanding of legal justice in this country. But I think that there is something terribly broken about the way we use it. It privileges the powerful, the wealthy, the white man, the abuser; it makes eternally possible Chris Matthews’ question: “What would you believe her?” It is a cloak behind which the rapist, the predator, the hateful misogynist boss can hide, with a fair degree of certainty that no one will believe her anyway.


Gratitude List (Beauties I See on Saturday Morning):
Saturday mornings are for birding-watching from the kitchen table.
1. That cardinal is the purest scarlet I may have ever seen.
2. A flock of goldfinches has claimed the thistle sock. They’re beginning to glow gold around the edges, gold shining through the olive, leaking onto their wings. They look so delicate and faerie-like next to the muscular house finch who has zipped in to share the thistle.
3. I heard the doves call this morning. Haunting.
4. The ground under the feeder seems to be alive until you let your eyes focus on the little flock of sparrows, juncoes, and doves feeding.
5. Something in me flies, too. Something sings. Something rises in the cool dawn.

May we walk in Beauty!

An Old, Old Story

gator

About a week ago, I had an extremely unsettling dream, which is not uncommon during stressful times and times of seasonal change. I wrote about it the following morning:

In the dream, we decide that our car is amphibious, so we drive it through the pond. Surprisingly, it works, and only starts to sputter when we get to the other side. On the way, we see a phainopepla, a shining blue bird with a little red on its crest. It’s sitting on the water in a short of moon shape, break in the air. It’s very thin. As we approach the other side of the pond, we see an alligator in the shallows! This is exciting!

We start to climb the hill on the other side and the alligator follows us. The hill is steep and rocky and the alligator is FAST. We’re not really worried. Ellis sort of jumps down toward the alligator to see which way it will take. Ellis is on a sort of a sled. Suddenly the alligator leaps up and catches Ellis and they zoom down into a rocky hole.

Just like that, they’re gone. I can’t believe it. I try to rewind the dream. I try to make a different thing happen. I try to make him come shooting out of a hole at the base of the hill, but my dream won’t let me take over. He’s just gone. I throw rocks into the hole to try to kill the alligator so it can’t hurt Ellis, but then I realize that the rocks will hurt Ellis. We cannot find him. He’s just gone.

I’m weeping in my dream. People want to talk to me, to comfort me, but I won’t look at them. I keep trying to rewind, to go back, to make it be different, to hold him, to warn him, to know the danger before it happens, but nothing works. As a last resort, I wake myself up, and lie there waiting for the dawn.

Friends offered so much wisdom. My son is growing up. At every single stage of his development, my pride in his developing independence has wrestled with my anxiety about letting him go. This has some obvious connections in the story.

Another friend simply wrote to me, “Demeter. This is the time Persephone descends.” This hit me like an arrow. The thing that rode on my back all day after the dream was the sense of un-comfort-able grief. I refused to be comforted. I felt like I was living in Demeter’s heart.

Grateful that I can feel myself so connected to the goddess of the season, and grateful that I have images for my anxiety about my own child growing up, I began to look at other layers. In the days before my dream, we had first begun to hear of allegations of sexual assault against a man running for one of the most ethically-based jobs in our country, an assault that occurred when they were both teenagers. In my daytime world, as a teacher in a high school, I have hundreds of daughters: young women who are wide awake and speaking their minds; young women who are sleeping, unaware, lulled by cultural signals about who they “should” be; young women who are actively trying to stay in the relative “safety” of their cages; young women who are dawning, awakening, bursting forth. I cannot protect them all.

And this story we are living in the US today, it’s as ancient as the oldest myths and stories, isn’t it? You know the story? In brief, Hades, the god of the underworld, kidnaps and rapes Persephone, the teenaged daughter of Demeter, goddess of cereal grains and fields and farms and the earth’s abundance. Demeter cannot be comforted. She is distraught. She wanders the world in her anguish, seeking her daughter, but her daughter cannot be found. Finally she approaches Zeus, god of the sky, leader of the Olympians, to ask for justice for her daughter. But Hades is Zeus’ brother, and Zeus is hesitant to upset his brother. Finally, he acquiesces, but only after Demeter refuses to make things grow, and the people start to die. Unfortunately, because Persephone has eaten six pomegranate seeds in the underworld, she must stay with Hades for half of every year, and can only rise to the upper world with her mother for half of each year.

Here is how it happens: A man who lives according to his shadows, according to the instinct of his reptilian brain, attacks a young woman. He has taken something essential of her Self captive, claimed it as his own. She may walk again in the sunlight, but part of her will always reside in the halls of shadow. Her mother (the women) wander the world in grief and rage, demanding justice, but the one to whom they can go for justice in a patriarchy is a brother to the attacker, and he’s more interested in preserving his power and his relationship to his brother than in meting out real justice for the woman. Hades continues as a powerful god. Demeter grieves and rages in her cycles. Persephone continues to be held captive by her memories and the trauma that now resides in her body.

Are we strong enough to break the cycle?

Cognitive Dissonance

In a way, this whole bit of surreal weirdness that is the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation kerfuffle is the obvious ending to the story of the evangelical Christians’ love affair with politicians who can lip-sync their anti-abortion theme-songs.

Having become ever more entrenched in the language of anti-abortion and anti-choice, evangelicals began their dance long ago with any politician who could repeat their growing rhetoric back to them verbatim. While the community itself may have begun with a tenderhearted desire to protect life as they saw it, the politicians (and many church leaders) with whom they were dancing were wolves in sheep’s clothing.

The church and the world have both operated on the basis of patriarchal assumptions for so long that the time has come when they’ve both had to show their hand. If you’re really against abortion–if that is REALLY and truly the reason that you are anti-choice, then the absolutely only logical choice you have is to make sure that young people are educated about their bodies and about consent, and that predators are held accountable, prosecuted, and given jail time. You must defend the women from the predators, not the predators from the women.

But time and time again, the politicians and the church keep excusing the predators and blaming the women whom their “pro-life” ethic would logically demand they protect and care for. You simply cannot dogmatically call yourself pro-life if you can’t support a traumatized victim of rape, and call her rapist (or attempted rapist) to account. The Kavanaugh nomination has thrown the story into detailed relief: You cannot claim that you are pro-life and support those who commit sexual assault.

And these people–politicians and celebrity church leaders–are not simply denying the credibility of Dr. Blasey Ford’s claims. They’re normalizing sexual assault. It’s one thing not to believe the accusation, however credible, but to go on to say that even if it did happen, it was only¬†“horseplay” or “seven minutes of heaven” or “boys being boys” shows not only ignorance but a depth of cruelty that cannot be reconciled with a sound pro-life ethic, or anything that resembles the way of Jesus.

The only way to interpret the tone-deafness of the evangelical and “christian” political leaders who speak like this is to say that their “pro-life” stance really and truly has nothing to do with a true life ethic and everything to do with keeping women in their places, subject to the whims and power of men. It has always been, at the level of the male leadership, about maintaining the patriarchal status quo–and the teenaged Brett Kavanaugh, thirty years after attempting to rape a girl at a party, has forced them to show their hand.¬†Franklin Graham and his ilk have proven in recent days that it was never really about a pro-life ethic. It has only and always ever been, for them, about controlling women’s sexuality and women’s bodies and women’s agency.


Gratitude List:
1. These young people who are not waiting until they finish high school to become Worldchangers. They’re doing it now, and they’re showing us how.
2. Reminders to get in touch with the primal grief, the primal rage, to converse with these emotions, to learn from them.
3. Cool days.
4. Synaesthesia. I do not have it in any noticeably discernible way, but I have a student who regular tells us what color the words and letters are, and I love to be a listener to that extra-sensory story.
5. Weekend!

May we walk in Beauty!