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Elegy in Long Form
By A.D. Carr
..But writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.
-Joan Didion, “The White Album”
When it became clear that there was no path to victory, I collapsed in tears.
It was sometime in the middle of 1998 that the details which would later be known as The Starr Report were first leaked to newspapers. It was around the same time that I, a young teen who craved the attention of adults, resolved to incorporate the newspaper into my morning routine. I remember how sophisticated I felt spreading the Kansas City Star across the table at breakfast: sunlight streamed in from the leaded windows at my back, bathing the dining room in a soft glow and illuminating the lurid details of our President’s Oval Office dalliances. I wonder what my parents thought, if they noticed that their fifteen-year-old daughter was reading about what he’d done with his cigar, the manner in which he’d soiled her dress.
Some months later, in the fall, I received a 9”x11” mailer with The White House address listed in the top left corner. Its contents: signed 8”x10” glossies of Bill, Hillary, Al, and Tipper, and a generic note thanking me for the letter I’d written to Mrs. Clinton in the intervening summer.
I think about this letter often, now. I don’t have a copy of what I wrote--this would have been before the age of computers enabled or compelled us, depending on your perspective, to save every word we’d ever written. But some details stick with me. It was a simple letter, introducing myself and some relevant details about my biography: namely, that I was a child of divorce. Chelsea was only a couple of years older than me, and in the letter I begged Mrs. Clinton to stay with Bill, to work it out. Though I can’t remember specific sentences, phrases, I do remember vividly how alone I felt as a teenager, how ostracized from my peers, how alienated from the idea of “normal,” and how all of this accumulated into an urge to write to our First Lady, to connect with her, somehow, via pen.
Maybe every teenager experiences periods of alienation. My parents loved me; I had nice friends; I went to a good school. But still, my teen years were dark; I was in a more-or-less constant state of simmering and abstract rage, which I suppressed because I knew it not to be polite or becoming. I didn’t want to draw attention to my emotions, so I tried not to have them. I only succeeded some of the time.
I read the paper, and I thought about the betrayal Hillary must have felt. At fifteen, I’d barely been kissed, much less humiliated on a global scale by a smooth-talking philanderer of a husband, but I think I had the capacity to understand how deeply that hurt must have been felt, how foundation-shaking that pain, that shame. Reflecting back as an adult now, I think my empathy ran deeper. I think I saw something of myself in her: ambition, certainly, but also a restraint I coveted--a trained posture and visage that hid an inner storm.
I wrote to her and I asked her not to divorce her husband. Not because Bill deserved forgiveness (a relationship complexity not on my radar), but, I think, as a matter of national duty. I don’t know why the Clintons’ marriage felt so important to me. But I asked. I wanted her to be better. To be something nobody else in her situation could imagine being. To be braver than I would have been. I know it is silly, and I know it is unfair to expect of others what we do not expect of ourselves. I was fifteen. I didn’t know that, then.
Almost twenty years later, I watched former Secretary of State and Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton debate Donald Trump for the first time. At the end, Trump “graciously” noted that he could have said some terrible things to and about Hillary--would have if, what? Her family hadn’t been present? But he didn’t, because “it’s not nice.” Maybe he will anyway, he implied, if he’s not treated better in the future.
In my living room, I think of that letter again. I look at Trump’s smug face, his air of beneficence, and in my mind, where it is possible to see a total history and all of its individual parts at once, Hillary’s life in the public sphere flashes before my eyes. Leave her alone, I growl in my thoughts, imagining all that she has weathered.
At the end of the debate, they move toward a polite politician hug, and I say aloud to the TV don’t you fucking touch her. I am surprised at the fierceness of the feeling. This must be what women mean when they describe their “mama bear” instincts. Don’t you fucking touch her you philandering slob.
Like most millennial women, I was slow to embrace Clinton as a candidate. I wish I could say that my hesitation was logical or at least defensible, but it was more complex than that. I vote in Iowa, so early in the primary, her positions were more conservative than I wanted them to be. But I also bought into the narrative that, because she wasn’t a “natural campaigner,” because she didn’t have the charisma of her husband or Barack Obama, or even the unhinged righteousness of Bernie Sanders, she somehow wasn’t deserving of my support. I knew her progressive detractors, men and women alike, were probably motivated (at least a little) by a latent sexism they believed themselves to be above; it took awhile for me to realize that my own opinions were shaded by an internalized misogyny as well. Fuck the patriarchy.
The morning after that first debate, I woke up feeling buoyant. In the time since she’d won the party’s nomination, my allegiance to Clinton had felt entirely political. I am a sane and mature person, I reasoned. Clinton is a no-brainer. But the morning after the debate, I felt proud to support her. That woman slayed, and I felt seen. Heard. Cared for. I was startled by the depth of my feeling for her. I hadn’t thought of myself as someone who cared much whether our President was a woman or man, so long as they worked to advance policy that jived with my values. But suddenly, it mattered. It mattered that she looked like me. It mattered that I could see my own ambitious drive and my own exhausted restraint in her face. It mattered that when I imagined what voices I’d hear on public radio in the morning, one of them was hers, speaking as our President.
Two days later, one of the late night programs showed a supercut of all the advice offered to Clinton by news pundits in the days and hours leading up to that first debate: Be three-dimensional; show humor; be personable; be authentic; don’t cough; don’t laugh with the distinctive “Hillary” laugh; don’t shout; don’t condescend; don’t show contempt; have more levity; don’t lecture; provide substance with the entertainment; enjoy it; be a happy warrior; have a little lightheartedness; show some warmth; humiliate him with a smile on your face. Smile. Smile. Smile. Smile. These are actual quotes. As comedienne Samantha Bee put it: “Save us from fascism, but don’t be a bitch about it.”
In 2008, in the midst of a similarly long and tense primary during which we voters had to choose between the first black president and the first woman president, my housemates volunteered for the Obama campaign, and a few months before he would be elected, they got to meet him after a rally at the university where we were all graduate students. They got to take a picture with him: he stands in the center, jacket off, tie loosened, grinning broadly, towering over my friends who stand on either side of him, arms wrapped around his back. Despite his magnetism, momentum, and record-breaking crowds, it seemed so unlikely, impossible even, that he would win. After the rally, after the picture, one of them said they could feel his Kevlar vest beneath his shirt. We knew he wore one--it was a matter of public suspicion if not public record. But the first-hand confirmation made the fact more real. On the night he was elected, after the champagne settled and the joy subsided, I became overwhelmed with fear. Someone is going to kill him, I thought. He is going to be taken from us.
Late in the summer of 2016, Trump and his surrogates suggest that the second amendment people will “do something” about Clinton, should she be elected. This is not the first nor the last public call for the armed and deplorable to take aim. Because rage takes too much energy which is difficult to recoup, I have resigned, on many occasions, to fear and sadness. I hope she wears a vest is all I can manage. I am grateful and relieved when, after pneumonia causes her to faint at the 9/11 memorial service, she is photographed later exiting Chelsea’s Manhattan apartment in a suit jacket that appears one size too big.
Of course, I think to myself, my heart aching. It is tailored for fourteen pounds of Kevlar.
Thinking about her past, a history I have spectated from afar, I fall down a Wikipedia hole. How gruesomely ironic that even here, her biography is overshadowed by incompetent men.
It’s Kenneth Starr whose name is most closely connected to the publicizing and prosecution of the Clintons’ troubles in the nineties, but Newt Gingrich was there in the background, enabling the investigation.
Gingrich was married to his first wife, Jackie, for eighteen years when, two months before she would be diagnosed with cancer, they divorced. (Who initiated the paperwork is a matter of some dispute in the public record; the rumors that Gingrich served papers in the hospital are circumspect.) Only six months after his divorce from Jackie was finalized, Gingrich married his second wife, Marianne, in 1981. Nineteen years later, in April 2000, Gingrich divorced Marianne and, four months later, married Callista, who remains his wife to this day. Several years later, Gingrich admitted to having an affair while leading impeachment efforts against the President.
Starr, for his part, has been married to the same woman for forty-six years, and this fact has insulated him when it comes to his professional treatment of women. Initially retained to investigate the suicide of Vince Foster, Starr gained notoriety when that work expanded into the Lewinsky case, for which he was widely criticized when it appeared his effort to publicize the affair (and to humiliate the young intern) went outside the bounds of his prosecutorial charge. Long after the dust settled, in 2010 he was named President of Baylor University and, in 2013, he acquired the additional title of Chancellor. In 2014, however, Starr again found himself under scrutiny amidst findings that Baylor University had failed to respond to allegations of sexual assault by two members of the football team (both of whom were convicted and sentenced). Starr was stripped of his position of president, and soon resigned the title of Chancellor, as well.
I am, of course, pulling at a tapestry I know will never be fully unraveled. There will always be more twists, more turns, more men proudly strutting across the moral high ground while betraying their espoused values with a laughable absence of sound judgment. So long as they could point their fingers at someone else, their own behavior could be excused or made invisible.
Trump’s woman-hating surrogates on the campaign, including Corey Lewandowski, Roger Ailes, and Stephen Bannon together represent a truly stunning array of documented and alleged abuse of women, to say nothing of the candidate himself. In the second debate, he excuses his own abhorrent boasts of sexual assault by suggesting that Hillary’s crimes against women were worse, that staying with her husband after he humiliated her was shameful and weak, that her disparaging comments about the women introducing charges implicated her as an equal perpetrator of assault. “No one has greater respect for women than me,” he says, over and again, to increasingly audible laughter. At least we, the spectators, agree on this.
One day after the third debate, I find myself arguing loudly with an acquaintance, we’ll call him Nick, in the bar area of a favorite pizza joint. It started when he asked whether those of us at the table, all women, were voting for Hillary because we didn’t want to vote for Trump or because we actually felt Hillary was a qualified candidate. In a matter of minutes, it is just the two of us yelling over each other, our friends having used the convenient excuse for a cigarette to duck out of what we know will be a fruitless exchange. Nick presses me for policy specifics, which I am unprepared to recite, demanding I “prove” her worthiness while dodging my counter request that he do the same for his candidate. It’s a rhetorical deflection that I know well, allowing a person to appear as someone who values logical argumentation while shirking responsibility to it himself. Of course, the argument I want to make--it starts and ends with a detailed description of systems of power and oppression that historically and irrevocably privilege rich white men regardless of qualifications--doesn’t really land when I wage it outside a classroom environment. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. By this point in the campaign, nobody is looking to be persuaded. Instead, we’re all looking for any and every opportunity to justify our choices.
Nick is a big guy with a big voice, so after five or ten minutes, I resign to the argumentative void with a “fuck off” and “this is pointless.” I leave feeling like a failure. In the car, I am fuming. How have we gotten here? How have we arrived at an historical moment in which America’s ugliest prejudices have earned position alongside our highest ideals as if the choice between the two is somehow evenly weighted? And why am I the one having to explain myself? Why is Hillary the one having to play defense? Our shared public history shuffles before my eyes again, like a deck of cards. This is not new. This is what we have done to her for her entire career in public life. Whether it is a panel of philandering men demanding that she answer for her husband’s abuses of power or whether it is a voter base begging her to advance the feminist project while at the same time hedging and disclaiming our support of her as contingent upon her meeting an impossible set of expectations: it’s a strange sort of victim blaming to ask others to answer for the wrongs wrought against them, for the systems and structures we ourselves have created or enabled that hold them back. “Save us from fascism, but don’t be a bitch about it.”
Jesus fuck! I yell at my steering wheel. Doesn’t anybody realize what the fuck is going on here?!
On a Friday afternoon two weeks before the election, Hillary returns to my mid-sized Iowa city and I wait in line for 2 hours to see her. She is dressed in black pants and a deep blue boucle jacket that makes her look like a futuristic galaxy leader and I can’t take my eyes off of her. This woman is going to be my president I think. I am so seduced by her poise and confidence that I don’t even care when she tells the same bad jokes I’ve heard in her stump speech going on four months now. “If fighting for women’s healthcare and paid family leave is playing the woman card,” she pauses so the audience can chant along with her: “THEN DEAL ME IN.”
We are going to have a woman president. We are going to have a woman president. This woman right here--she is going to be my president.
When I get to work the following Monday, I’m still high on what feels so possible. I don’t even care about the Weiner/Comey bombshell that broke while she was rallying Iowa voters to take her over the finish line. With every leak, every attack, every stupid zinger, I love Hillary more. I put more faith in her. It’s a dangerous pattern of behavior. I am now, as I did when I was a young teen, asking her to be better than I am capable of being. I do so knowing that it is unfair, but I am thankful all the same--from the depths of my capacity to feel that feeling--that she has agreed to try, that she has been stronger and more practiced and more patient and more committed than most of us could ever be.
I look up her mailing address and find a little bit of stationary in my desk drawer. I write the date at the top: October 31, 2016. “Dear President Clinton,” I begin. “I’m sorry we made it so difficult. Thank you for doing it anyway.”
“I’m sorry,” my husband says to me as I crawl into bed, exhausted, drained, discovering new depths to my sadness with each passing minute. “Me too,” I reply, crumbling into a pile next to him.
“I’m sorry,” she says, the first candidate ever to utter those words in a presidential concession speech. I am weeping in my office watching a shitty live-stream on the computer. It finishes just as my first class is set to begin.
Unsure of how I’m supposed to face my students--all freshmen, all of them having just voted for the first time--I’m transported back to my first presidential election in 2004, when John Kerry lost to the incumbent George W. Bush. Another shock. Another disappointing defeat. I went to class eager to be distracted by the poems of John Milton. When our professor appeared in the doorway, she looked, in a word, rattled. The memory stands out because in the lead-up to the election, she’d been extraordinarily disciplined and reserved in the face of our efforts to learn about her political allegiances. But here she appeared unguarded, clearly thrown by the outcome of the previous night’s news. I suppose we tried to talk a little bit about Milton, but mostly we sat together in shared bewilderment, uncertain of what the future held.
I walk to my classroom with this memory at the front of my mind. I’d been excited to vote before the Bush/Kerry election; I knew it to be my duty as a citizen. But it wasn’t until that morning, seeing its weight on the face of someone I admired, someone I would go on to model myself after, that I grasped the gravity of this responsibility.
I hear Hillary’s words echoing in my head as I make my way to the whiteboard. I un-cap a marker and begin writing: “Our constitutional democracy demands our participation---” I swallow down the lump in my throat. “---not just every four years, but every day.” Pause. Line break. I can feel my students staring. They are silent. My own sighs are the only audible sound in the room. “Please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.”
I sit at the head of the table and tell them I’m sorry. I am apologizing for not having a lesson plan, for not being in any kind of state to teach, but I suppose I am also apologizing for what has happened, for the world they had to wake up in today.
“Do you remember how we talked about layers of privilege,” I ask, which is a thing we are still allowed to talk about in liberal arts schools. “Now is the time to use your privilege for good.” They nod. “Men: protect women. White people: protect people of color. Straight people: protect queer people.” And on and on. They sigh heavily, fear in their eyes, and I tell them not to give up. Your voice matters, I say, my own voice trembling. Your vote matters. I promise.
Four days later, one of my advisees texts me to say she’s been verbally harassed at a Wal-Mart in town.
“I’m sorry,” I write. “Tell me how I can make you feel safer.”
I have never felt more inadequate, more uncertain, in my life.
“You’re good,” she says. “Thank you for asking.”
Another four, eight, twelve, twenty days pass and I have yet to emerge from grief. I’m not even positive I’ve found the bottom of it yet. I have called my elected representatives; I have made donations to civil- and human-rights organizations; I have offered my time and brain to local political coalitions and I have talked with students about promoting equality on our campus. I have gotten into arguments with colleagues over whether or not the nearby protesters should have blocked the interstate and whether or not it is fair to call people racist just because they elected an openly racist person to office. When people say “How are you” I reply “I don’t know” because it is the most truthful answer I can give. Every day is, in some ways, more bewildering than the last, but this is a feeling I welcome because it keeps any idea of normal at arm’s length. It is not normal that the president has no political experience. It is not normal that he won on a platform of open bigotry. It is not normal that his cabinet appointments are applauded by neo-Nazis and other varieties of bigotry. None of this is normal. NPR’s Morning Edition airs an interview with a senior editor at Breitbart who somehow manages to suggest that NPR itself is the racist news organization and I am unraveling, mentally.
I feel sick in my soul. One of my mentors texted me that on the night of the election. Me, too. I feel sick in my soul.
Doesn’t anybody realize what the fuck is going on here?!
On election day, by simple chance of syllabus arrangement, my narrative nonfiction students--sophomores and juniors--discussed Joan Didion’s masterful essay “The White Album” from the collection of the same name. We’d spent the entire semester reading layered and artful renderings of painful, tragic, or otherwise disorienting life experiences, and here was Didion questioning her--and our--faith in this most human of instincts: storytelling. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” the essay begins. We reassure ourselves. We arrange incoherent images and encounters so as to make them stable, coherent. We twist and contort them until they take a recognizable shape in narrative.
“The White Album” undermines that effort. Taking as its subject the chaos of the late sixties, the essay offers brief glimpses of a huge and disconnected collection of notable events including the Manson murders, the Mai Lai massacre, and the protests at San Francisco State, as well as Didion’s own paranoia, depression, and an eventual MS diagnosis that comes about when doctors seem at a loss to attribute her health condition to any other better understood ailment. The result is an accumulation of chaos that refuses to be brought into order.
It’s my favorite essay to assign, because it so fundamentally dismantles the stability of what we (writers) must believe in order to do our work. We tell ourselves stories in order to live. We tell ourselves stories in order to live. We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
As the essay unfolds, the reader is made to confront again and again the untenable nature of our faith in this mantra from the vantage point of Didion’s dutiful and removed journalistic position. The sum total could be described as the scribbles and false starts left in the notebook, edited out of future drafts for lack of focus, lack of clarity, irrelevance, indulgence. And yet, here they are, these things, these bits, gathered together.
“...but writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.”
With these words, the essay ends, and the reader is propelled back to the beginning. If we take both statements to be true and honest--a description of our craft from one of its most prolific practitioners--where does that leave us?
The students are not into this essay. Our discussion is punctuated by protracted silence. “Here we are on the precipice of something,” I say as the clock ticks closer to 1:50, November 8, just about five hours before the first polls close, before my guests will arrive. I wonder if I remembered to put the champagne in the fridge.
“Tonight will either offer us the satisfying conclusion of a well told drama or… what? Things fall apart?”
They laugh. The minute hand clicks to the 10.
“See you on the other side,” I say.
Dear Mrs. Clinton,
I’m sorry we made it so hard.
Thank you for doing it anyway.