Hell — its contours, qualities and contested existence — is an enduring source of fascination for many of us mortals. Saint Augustine, the fourth-century bishop and philosopher, wrote that “hell, which is also called a lake of fire and brimstone, will be material fire.” A thousand years later, poet Dante Alighieri wrote the Inferno, in which his narrator travels through nine concentric circles of Hell. In this depiction, however, it grows ever colder as they approach the core, where they find Satan trapped in a block of ice up to his waist. Several centuries after that, Robert Frost considered both fire and ice as a means of torture; “either would suffice,” he concluded. (The Bible, for its part, suggests neither.)
During the Kavanaugh hearings this past week, which have been, for many of us, unbearable, I’ve thought of Frost, Alighieri and Augustine.
Fire requires stoking; to establish eternal flame, wood, gas or brush must be continually available for consumption. Ice is less high-maintenance; the climate just needs to be cold year-round. You can, as 1990s telemarketers enthused, set it and forget it. This week, I learned: it’s ice, not fire, that the GOP is after.
Republican leaders, particularly Sens. Charles Grassley, Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, don’t hate us — and by us, I mean those who have been assaulted, those who wish to control our own reproductive futures, and so on. Not exactly. Hatred involves engagement. Their most fervent wish is to legislate us into a space from which we cannot be heard, and then forget us.
Of course, we never forget them. They’re so loud; they take up so much space. Brett Kavanaugh turning red and demanding our respect. Graham sneering and pointing and later waving a survivor off, advising her, “Go to the cops.” President Trump telling us women, who are assuredly not doing great, that we are doing great. He demands to be heard more than any other modern president. As if his irascible tweets and cruel rallies weren’t enough, now he’s popping up on our phones without our consent; there’s no unsubscribe for the Presidential Alert System.
Regular men too force us to acknowledge them. When walking alone early in the morning or waiting for the bus late at night, they whisper or shout things. If we ignore them, they escalate. They demand to be seen, even as they terrify us. We exaggerate, right? This doesn’t happen all that often, right? Men can’t see street harassment because when you are with us, it rarely happens — I’ll repeat — because you are with us. The fact that it is invisible to you does not negate the fact that it happens to many of us every week of our lives.
Then there are the faces of those who directly abused us. I am fortunate in that, while I can queue the memory up immediately, I don’t experience regular flashbacks of my most traumatic assault. There are many women who are forced to acknowledge their abusers years and decades later, as they unexpectedly see their faces in the reflections of windows and in nightmares and in people they pass on the street. Of course, there are others whose abusers run in their social circles or within their own families, always present.
Christine Blasey Ford remembered Brett Kavanaugh’s face for 35 years. If we’re to believe his testimony, he either never met her or forgot hers.
As progressives, we don’t hammer home enough that the abortion debate writ large is about social control. If you have children young, before you make a substantive living, you’re more likely to leave the workforce or discontinue your education. You are more likely to not be seen in the worlds in which these powerful men operate: in the boardrooms, in the Senate, in the Supreme Court.
So women feel angry, yes, but we also feel invisible. I feel like printing T-shirts that say: “I bared my trauma and all we got was this lousy Justice.” Because who could listen to a person who told you she was assaulted, abused or mistreated and, after a sham “investigation,” elevate the accused to a lifetime appointment in the highest court in the country? You wouldn’t treat a person like that unless you didn’t see them as a person at all. You could only treat them like that if, to you, they were a passing inconvenience, a space where a person goes.