In May 2017, Hillary Clinton gave the Commencement Address at her alma mater, Wellesley College, and said to all of the young women in the audience, “Don’t be afraid of your ambition, your dreams, or even your anger.”
I recently started reading Hillary Clinton’s post-mortem book, “What Happened.” In the first few chapters, I cried, I laughed out loud in a public space, and I had to pause because bitterness and regret had overtaken me. In the world of trauma (or even just regular bad stuff happening to us), we often think if we push it out of our minds and don’t address it, we will get over it naturally. And make no mistake, the 2016 election was a moment of collective trauma for millions of people.
But most of us know logically that not addressing something does not make it go away. We watch characters in movies and TV shows repeat the same behavior cycles because they have never addressed something we know as viewers was upsetting, painful, or scary for them. And yet, in my life, I did exactly that starting on November 9th, 2016. Up until the election, I had been engaged in enthusiastic conversations and debates with those who agreed with me as well as those who didn’t. I posted on social media, voted in primaries, donated whatever small amounts I could to campaigns, but even while doing all of this, I did so with the false assumption that this country could never, ever actually elect a bigoted, sexist, incendiary, incompetent moron.
On the night of November 8th, I was at a bar wearing my “I’m With Her” t-shirt under my Samantha Bee blazer, with my “I Voted” sticker and “Hillary ‘16” pin on it. When it became clear what was happening, friends started leaving one by one, quietly mumbling goodbyes. It was as if the air had been sucked out of the room. I left in a cab with a friend and we both started and stopped sentences of disbelief, letting the horror hang in the air. We cried and hugged each other and both went to our homes to sit and contemplate in silence.
The next morning, there were subdued texts and phone calls, consoling one another as if there had been a death in the family. To many of us who had not yet experienced traumatic loss personally, this felt worse. I mobilized with friends to attend the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. and held my breath during President Obama’s last few months in office, hoping for a miracle. Then, so slowly I didn’t even realize it until many months later, I began to shut down.
I stopped engaging in conversations about politics writ large, let alone about the President. I refused to say his name or think about him unless forced to, at which point I usually found something to distract myself with very quickly. My Time magazine subscription went largely unread because every week it was some new indignity that usurped the week before’s. Political podcasts I had previously enjoyed piled up in my “unplayed episodes” because by the time I listened to one, the information was outdated and some new danger was threatening us.
When others brought up anyone related to the administration in conversation, I jokingly said things like, “He’s not invited to this conversation” and quickly changed the subject. I’d like to think I was slick, but I’m sure many people gave me strange looks as I hijacked the conversations to talk about nonsense. I set up recurring monthly donations to so many organizations that I lose track until the amount shows up on my statement. I wrote a thank you letter to Hillary Clinton and mailed it to her headquarters. (A few months later, I got a response, because she is the best.) I downloaded a Chrome extension that replaces any image of the President’s face with kittens. (Okay, that one is actually awesome and I’m going to keep it forever because it surprises me every time and then I laugh.) In short, I used every classic avoidance technique to prevent myself from truly processing how the election and its aftermath had impacted me, those around me, vulnerable people I’d never met, and even children yet to be born who would have to live with the consequences of the damage already being done in a few short months.
And then the book came out. I knew I would read it, as I have read every other book Hillary Clinton has ever written, starting with “It Takes a Village.” I read that one when I graduated college and began working in a program called Early Intervention, which provides services for families of children with developmental delays and disabilities. Hillary Clinton’s passion for the welfare of children, particularly underserved children, galvanized me in my work, and I spent the next 10 years working directly with children and their families.
Picking this one up, however, would be a lot harder for me. I had spent the better part of a year burying this pain as deeply as possible. Now I was going to willingly rip off the bandage to see how the wound had festered in my absence of care? Maybe it would be better not to know. But alas, ever the masochist, I preordered the audiobook and downloaded it the second it was released. The moment I heard Hillary Clinton’s familiar voice, something inside of me broke. All of the sorrow, helplessness, powerlessness, disillusionment, and anger I had been repressing since that fateful day came zooming to the surface. It was as if my diligent ostrich-like avoidance of those feelings never actually made them go away, but rather simmer just out of reach, waiting for the moment I was ready to confront them.
And once the floodgates were opened, I devoured every interview and article I could find. I read and reread the same information from different perspectives. I stopped feeling alone in my trauma, stopped feeling like I was being dramatic for calling it that, and I realized others had experienced it the same way I did. I cheered internally when she described “overlearning the lesson of staying calm — biting my tongue, digging my fingernails into a clenched fist, smiling all the while…” because every single woman I know has learned this lesson and finally, FINALLY, she was naming this insidious way in which women are taught to take up less space than men, particularly in the public sphere.
Reliving all of the implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) sexist and misogynistic remarks and experiences she had stoked the fire within me. I have always been angry. I am angry that in 2017, we still have segregated education. I am angry that in 2017, a woman was murdered on US soil by actual Nazis. I am angry that we still have lynchings. I am angry that anyone perceived as “other” by a select group of entitled white men is in physical danger for their lives every single day. I am angry that this much time, energy, and money has been spent on where people are allowed to go to the bathroom, as if it affects ANYONE besides the person trying to relieve themselves. I am angry that the right to vote for millions is regularly suppressed. I am angry that men on the street think my body is their property and that they have the right to comment on it or touch it however they see fit. I am angry that this experience inevitably fills me with shame, no matter how strongly and fiercely I react in the moment. I am angry that women’s health is a pawn in a game of tax cuts and backroom negotiations. I am angry at all of the lost productivity in 2017 because we have to keep calling our fucking Congresspeople and asking them not to kill us.
Most of all, I am angry at the millions of people whose voting philosophy was, “As long as it isn’t me.” The definition of privilege is being able to look at a problem and say, “Well, it isn’t problematic for ME, so I don’t have to worry about it.” Too many people voted for someone who said, “I will fix all your problems by taking rights away from someone else,” as if basic human rights are pie and there are only so many slices to go around. What those voters did not realize, and some are finally coming to see, is that they ARE the someone else. No manufacturing jobs are coming back to the US. No wall is being built between Mexico and the US. No taxes are going to be leveraged to increase the take home pay of hourly workers. Those voters were the sacrifices, not the beneficiaries. And now there is only one option left, which is to fight.
Thank goodness Hillary Clinton never heeded her enemies’ cries to “just go away already.” She needs to process her trauma and so do millions of us along with her. She has every right to talk about this, which likely ranks among the worst experiences of her life. We encourage everyone else to share their feelings; share with your partner, your family, your friends, your therapist. Share because bottling them up only means they come out in sneakier ways, like snapping at your kids when you are really upset with your boss. And personally, I needed her to share so that I could figure out how to share. If, after all that, she could once again offer herself to public assault, then who am I to withdraw? What right do I have to concede defeat?
Feminist author Rebecca Traister writes in her New York Magazine interview of Secretary Clinton, “And perhaps the reason the press, and some of Clinton’s critics on both right and left, react to her legitimate, if arguable, critiques by furiously wishing for her silence is the same reason women’s public airing of fury has long been discouraged and cast as irrational: because if we allowed women’s resentments the same bearing we afford men’s grudges, America would be forced to reckon with the fact that all those angry women might just have a point.” Oh shit. I am reminded of my absolute favorite sign from the Women’s March that said, “We get it. You’re afraid of women. You should be.” Imagine what would happen if we stopped dismissing women’s legitimate emotions as “hysteria” or “stress.”
So thank you, once again, for the millionth time, Hillary Clinton. You have been inspiring me for my whole life, not just for your beliefs and platforms, but for all the times over those years when I watched you get battered and bruised, and I screamed internally. I am angry again, and I’m done trying to tamp it down. I am a nasty woman for life and I am just getting started.