The poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote in 1968, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
For four hours on September 27, 2018 the world listened to one woman’s truth. Christine Blasey Ford publicly testified at a U.S. Senate hearing about being assaulted by a man nominated to the Supreme Court. And for a time, the world did begin to split apart.
The Washington Post reported that the offices of the New York Stock Exchange went quiet. The halls of the Pentagon and Congress were silent. People watched or listened at home, in cafes, on the subway, on airplanes, in college dorms. They were at a computer or a television, watching and listening. It was apparent that this was something rare, obviously on Capitol Hill but perhaps anywhere: a voice uncensored and undesigned. A voice of true presence.
It was a woman's voice. She told the story of her assault, and her listeners had to reckon with the slow, excruciating details. A hand over her mouth. Believing she might be accidentally killed. Knowing precisely, as would anyone attacked by someone they knew, who her attacker was. In her candor, a light came around her, and it seemed clear to me that her soul was protected.
Then, as quickly as the chatter stopped, it began again, even more loudly. It was begun by the man she had named as her assailant. He ranted and cried the story of his life, as if the myth he had built of himself had the power to exonerate him. The contradiction between his reckless past and his carefully constructed present were too much, and he broke down before the world. He was jeering, aggressive, self-pitying. He insulted and verbally attacked U.S. Senators. After his testimony, 2,400 law professors, and most remarkably a retired Supreme Court Justice, stated publicly that his lack of control betrayed a temperament unfit for the Supreme Court. But a great cry rose up to protect the privileged, rich, white male who was, by some invisible right, entitled to a place on the high court.
Still, a dam had been broken. Congressional offices were flooded by women calling in with their own stories of assault, harassment, rape, terror, belittlement. Male senators spoke of the onslaught of phone calls with bewilderment and something close to awe. Many female public figures spoke or wrote of their own experience of sexual assault. A friend told me that week that he had no idea all women have stories like Blasey Ford’s. His own wife of forty years had just told him stories she’d never shared with him before.
Men might be surprised by this, but women are not. Most of us haven’t told the full truth of our lives. We’ve been ashamed. By habit and training, we’ve been protecting the patriarchs. We didn’t want to be defined as victims. We wanted to make a life, a career, a family. We wanted to make art, find a voice, move on.
In a patriarchal culture, the fear of women’s power and women's voices is habitual and ancient. We have all been bred to protect the patriarch, both women and men. We’ve been taught to believe in our deep cells that everything will disintegrate into dust if the empowered patriarchs are revealed to be weak, amoral, self-pitying. Thus the great outcry in the dominant culture on behalf of the privileged man, once the calm voice of the woman stopped speaking.
Still, for all the clamor there was Christine Blasey Ford. She was, in those four hours, pure candor. The chairman of the committee, who would later insult her, could only, in her presence, thank her for her bravery.
I hold on to the vision of her calm, unfettered voice as a path forward. For before us now is another kind of reckoning--or, the same reckoning with a slightly different face. Within days of the man’s swearing-in to the high court, the United Nations released its new climate change report. The New Yorker described it as nightmarish. We are at the due date, and society must make a radical change within twelve years in order to avoid overwhelming climate disruption—an impossible timeline given our current political and economic systems.
Governments and social services worldwide will soon be pushed to the brink--and many already are--by drought, wildfires, floods, tsunamis, mega-storms, rising sea levels. Loss of human life, loss of animal life, loss of property will become so extreme as to threaten the survival of humanity and all living creatures.
As if to underscore the point, within weeks of the United Nations report, California was yet again on fire. The Camp Fire destroyed an entire Northern California town, called Paradise. The fire has become the deadliest wildfire in state history, with over seventy people confirmed dead, with the numbers rising daily, and over 600 still missing. The loss of wildlife and domestic animals is also catastrophic. On the same day, the Woolsey Fire broke out in Southern California, consuming massive canyon lands and suburbs, with thousands evacuated, massive obliteration of homes, wild lands and communities, several human deaths and untold loss of wildlife.
Here is the world split apart. Here is the life-altering reckoning before us. The political and economic systems which run our world, which make it possible for Christine Blasey Ford (and for nearly all women) to be assaulted and denigrated with impunity, are the same systems which have brought about our current climate catastrophe. And, it is these very systems which make it impossible to solve this imminent threat to all life, though the solutions are clear and straightforward. It bears noting that these world-wide systems, which are war-oriented, competitive, zero-sum and profit-obsessed, were created by and are still run almost entirely by men.
Still, in all the din, there is Christine Blasey Ford. She showed us in her public testimony the path of the calm, ethical, candid human. A human able to look directly at the embedded violence in our culture, able to bear her own pain, and to reckon with her past. A human able to show vulnerability while maintaining poise, integrity and fortitude. Blasey Ford's strength, lack of self-pity and candid truth-telling is a way we can together face the extremity of our shared losses. Eschewing bravado for candor, listening to women’s voices, making space for other ways of speaking and knowing, we can find a path forward.
For men, this is a moment to take a step back, take a breath, and admit that the path of the patriarch has failed our world. Listen to the women in your families, communities and workplaces, particularly women of color and indigenous women. Welcoming women’s ways of leadership is a way we can together broaden our ways of thinking, and save our world.
And there is new hope, for the same week that the wildfires began, national elections meant that over 100 women were elected to the House of Representatives. They are women of diverse ethnicities, religious faiths and life experiences. This is an unprecedented increase in women's representation, and a real reason to celebrate. While there are 435 members of the House, and the profound under-representation of female U.S. citizens continues, these new leaders provide hope and energy. Thankfully, new and diverse voices will be added to the Congressional conversation.
The task now for women everywhere is to allow our unique voices and ways of seeing, thinking and leading to shine. Wherever we are, in all aspects of life, we need to tell our truth. Our world badly needs new ways of communicating. Christine Blasey Ford provided us a path to follow. For those four hours, she told the truth of her life. And the world did split open. It is easy, given our world, to fall into the assumed voice of the patriarch. In Blasey Ford, we saw a different way. She was clear, self-contained, authentic within herself. She spoke calmly from her own core experience, and did not doubt herself. She did not follow the way of the patriarch.
May we see her as an example. May we all, women and men, follow her lead.
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