I missed the Salem witch trials, but I well remember Anita Hill at the Clarence Thomas hearings. How could I forget the fire in her eyes or the cool precision of her responses to that phalanx of old white men so titillated by her answers as they pressed her for more salacious details? I remember, too, how the proceedings climaxed in Thomas’s intimidating rant, the one in which he cast himself as the righteous victim of a “high-tech lynching.” After that, women standing by to back up Hill’s testimony with charges of their own were told to go home.
I remembered it all as I watched the recent immolation of Christine Blasey Ford by another pack of old white men jumping out of their shorts to replace their hired gun — a “female prosecutor”– with top-volume tantrums of their own. Brett Kavanaugh himself whipped up that hysteria further with his prolonged self-pitying reprise, by turns tearful and threatening, of Thomas’s historic tongue-lashing. (Alas, such male posturing always reminds me of Joel Steinberg, a New York lawyer who, having beaten and tortured his partner into oblivion and killed a child, voiced this anguished, belligerent courtroom lament: “I’m the victim here!”)
Such staged public spectacles are now called “teachable moments.” But what exactly is being taught? And to whom? If the proceedings are not transparent as advertised, the takeaways surely are. Big white men (financed by bigger white men) who scramble to positions of power are not to be called to account. Especially not by their inferiors. Especially not by women.
Some women, like Christine Blasey Ford, still believe in older lessons that taught us to do our civic duty, to tell the truth for the sake of the common good. Most women stand with the truth-tellers, even knowing that President Trump smacks down truth every day. Most of us also know that we live in a dystopia and, believe me, it’s on our minds. If you want proof, go to the bookstore and pick up Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Sophie Macintosh’s The Water Cure, Joyce Carol Oates’s Hazards of Time Travel, Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, Christina Dalcher’s Vox, Idra Novey’s Those Who Knew, Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male, Bina Shah’s Before She Sleeps. Then sit back and rerun the video of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale before plunging into Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad. That last one is not fiction.
Such Kavanaugh moments raise big problems for the teachers among us. What’s a teacher to do with a teachable moment that runs counter to all that American youngsters have customarily been taught to believe? TomDispatch regular Belle Chesler and her students faced the most recent such moment together in a high school classroom in Oregon. Her moving account of what they made of it could teach the rest of us something, too. Ann Jones
Anita, Christine, and Me
The Media’s Moving On, But I’m Not
By Belle Chesler
It’s been three weeks since Dr. Christine Blasey Ford gave her testimony before the nation and I’m still struggling to move on. As talk turns toward the impending midterms, I find myself mentally pushing back against the relentlessness of the news cycle as it plows on, casting a spell of cultural amnesia in its wake. I’m still mired in the past, shaken by the spectacle of the Kavanaugh hearings, and pulled across the decades into the darkest crevasses of my memories.
In October 1991, I sat perched on a stool in Mr. Bundeson’s seventh grade woodshop class listening with fascination as Anita Hill testified about her experience of sexual harassment by then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. To a seventh grader, the details, both surprisingly specific and appealingly lurid, were especially intriguing. What 13-year-old could have resisted the simultaneously bizarre and gross testimony regarding a pubic hair placed on a can of Coke? We were riveted. Who could make something like that up? Over the course of the hearing, our teachers rolled out TVs on carts and let the proceedings play during our classes. It felt like we were sharing a significant national moment and watching together meant we were all a part of history being made.
The full import of that experience wouldn’t hit me, however, until the week I turned 40 and watched Dr. Ford telling her story in front of another judiciary committee. This time, I was looking at the computer on my desk at the suburban high school in Oregon where I’ve taught visual art and film studies for the past 14 years. Taking in her testimony, I found myself growing distraught. As her voice quavered, I felt a surge of emotion so strong it seemed to paralyze me. I couldn’t stop looking even though I knew something inside was tearing me apart and that, no matter my emotional state, I would still have to pull myself together to face my first class of the day, only moments away. As the camera zeroed in on Dr. Ford’s face, her nervous gesturing at her hair, and the tears shimmering in the corners of her eyes, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a woman sacrificing herself before the nation, just as Anita Hill had done so many years before.
As she recounted her experience with Brett Kavanaugh and Mark Judge, the internal wall of fortitude I’d built up over the years started to crumble. That wall, which had bricked in so many experiences — the catcalls, the comments from a high school teacher who praised my muscular legs in front of the class, the years spent with an abusive boyfriend, the boss who liked to show me his favorite porn, the men who exposed themselves to me in a park, on a bus, from a van — all started to spill out. There were too many experiences to catalogue so many years later, but they’d been there the whole time, ever present yet totally unmentionable. I had no idea how I’d make it through the day.
Walking into my first-period class on the history of motion pictures, it was clear that many of my students had been watching Dr. Ford’s testimony as well. Looking at them as they huddled around their phones, I was transported back to the seventh grade. I remembered how, during the Hill-Thomas hearings, we chatted at our small table in that woodshop class, making jokes, both confused and titillated by the spectacle. It was surreal to hear adults recounting interactions both intimate and grotesque in the most formal setting imaginable.
At that time, I’d never so much as kissed a boy, but I intuited that the nation’s fascination with what had transpired between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas had something to do with the way that older men had started to look at me that year. My absorption in the hearings ultimately manifested itself in a project I created that fall. I designed and made a cutting board with a silhouette of a fish carved out of black walnut surrounded by a sea of white pine. I named that cutting board Anita Hill.
The Messiness of the World
Teaching is often a balancing act between revealing enough of yourself to be seen as approachable and genuine and maintaining the privacy and distance that is part and parcel of professionalism, while keeping personal boundaries clear. Much of my teaching philosophy stems from the belief that individual and community relationships are the foundation upon which all learning should take place. Students, I’m convinced, learn best when they feel comfortable in your classroom. Delivering content is sometimes less important than creating an environment in which they feel visible and know that their voices are heard. In order to establish that sense of community, I start each class with a circle as a way to connect. We put down our phones, make eye contact, and simply share what’s going on in our lives. Sometimes we chat about the inconsequential details of our days: our weekend plans, what classes are stressing us out, funny anecdotes. Sometimes we go deeper.
As we gathered in our circle that morning, I looked out at my students’ sleepy faces and that veil of professionalism and privacy unexpectedly fell away. Suddenly, I was saying out loud what I’d only told a few close friends and family members: I, too, had been sexually assaulted. I’d spent a lifetime, I explained, being brave and strong, moving on with purpose and determination, and ensuring that the experiences I’d withstood had been formative yet not definitive. My students sat in stunned silence. I told them that sometimes the messiness of the world seeps into the classroom and that today, despite my best efforts, I’d been unable to shut it out.
What I didn’t tell them were the details of my story. That it happened in Peru. My friend and I were staying at a small guest house in a surfing town on the northern coast. We’d been there for a few days, enough time to become friendly with the owner, his wife, and their small child. So when I ducked into our room one afternoon to get something — what, I can’t remember — and found that man suddenly in the room with me, I was taken off guard. He quickly pinned me against a wall, one hand on my breast, the other clutching the machete he had been using just minutes before to hack away at overgrown shrubs around the property. He told me that my eyes were the color of the sea. He pushed his hips against mine. Without thinking, I used all of my strength to shove him away. The rest is a blur. I know that somehow I ran from the room and found my friend, but I don’t remember how we left, who packed my things, or how we got to the bus that would take us from that town. All those details are gone. His face, his smell, and that machete are not.
Will It Matter?
As the Kavanaugh hearings went on, more and more students became invested in watching them. Some asked to listen on headphones while we worked, some just wanted to talk about what they’d heard. As each class began, I addressed the fact that I’d been crying all day — no point in pretending, teenagers notice everything — and explained why. As I talked, I noted certain students around the room crumpling. Bodies pulled in on themselves, heads lowered. Some students shyly wiped away tears. A few of them asked to leave the room to get some air.
One student, bubbly and cheerful as she entered, became despondent when her peers told her about what was happening in Washington. Unable to listen to the descriptions of the hearing, she swiveled so that her body was facing away from the circle and put her head down on a table. I waited for a quiet moment to sit down next to her. Without any pretense and in a no-nonsense monotone, she informed me that she was just one of a group of girls who had been assaulted by a senior boy the previous year. She was unwilling to tell her parents, fearful that they’d never let her out of the house alone again. While I was sitting with her, our school security officer came into the classroom to get her so she could be interviewed by someone already investigating the case. The timing was impeccable.
The hardest part of that day wasn’t sharing my story or opening up to groups of teenagers about the intimate details of my past. It was listening as my students argued about whether or not Dr. Ford’s testimony would even matter. In their comments, I heard echoes of my own internal struggle. The experience of watching Anita Hill being picked apart and ultimately dismissed by those male senators in front of the entire nation had a powerful effect on my burgeoning seventh-grade sense of how to conduct myself as a woman: that even though I now had a name for what I, too, might experience — sexual harassment — if I called that thing out or made too much of a fuss, I would be the one who paid the price.
One of my students came up to me after class and told me that, though her stepbrother had assaulted her when she was younger, no one in her family believed her. She assured me that she was fine now because she had moved away and didn’t have to see him anymore. As she was telling me this, I couldn’t help imagining her, 10 or 20 years down the line, reflecting with startled pain on the way her own family dismissed her, the way the people charged with her love and care wouldn’t or couldn’t believe her.
Those Laughing Faces
At a rally in Mississippi on October 2nd, President Trump made a point of mocking Dr. Ford’s testimony, joking about whether or not she had really consumed only one beer and highlighting her inability to remember certain details of the night she claimed that Brett Kavanaugh had assaulted her. What fascinated me was not the obvious cruelty of his series of low blows, but the beaming smiles and laughter of the men and women in that crowd of supporters in Southhaven, Mississippi.
I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them, beneath that veneer of laughter, had felt a twinge of something familiar in the pit of their stomach as they listened to Ford’s testimony. How many of the men in that crowd had given a passing thought to that one beer-soaked night in high school they barely remembered, the one that might have been the single most painful night of someone else’s life? How many of those laughing women were secretly reminded of something painful buried deep in their own pasts? How many of them would not or could not dredge up experiences long suppressed, fearful of the personal toll that such a reckoning might take? How many of them would be shocked to know about assaults suffered by their own children?
I wish I could say that, while the hearings consumed the nation, I stood in front of my students and made powerful speeches about moving forward with hope and courage, about telling the truth and respecting one another. I did try, but I have no faith that I did a particularly good job of it.
Instead, in a sometimes halting, sometimes teary voice I talked about consent, about kindness, about how compassion and empathy can be transformative. I told them that I would listen, even when it seemed like no one else would. I believed what I was saying and yet there was still that enormous emotional weight in my chest, the weight of Anita Hill’s legacy, of Dr. Ford’s testimony, of a lifetime of unwanted encounters, of the rapes and attempted rapes of loved ones and friends, of the stories my students shared with me during the hearings, as well as in the years that preceded them. It was a weight that made it hard to speak, let alone lead my students. In the end, I ran out of words and fell back on silence.
Ultimately, of course, Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, though deemed credible by those on both sides of the political aisle, didn’t alter the course of Judge Kavanaugh’s trajectory. He will sit on that hallowed bench, the residue of those hearings fading into an inconvenient stain on the CV of an otherwise charmed life. For those of us still struggling to move forward, the memory of the hearings, and all it represented, will be seared, as Dr. Ford might have put it, into the hippocampus, never to fade.
Belle Chesler, a TomDispatch regular, is a visual arts teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, and John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands.
Copyright 2018 Belle Chesler