Undercover Agents

Dr. Rosemary Hennessy, English

Since watching the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, I have thought a lot about undercover agents. Not actual spies, but forces that do policing without actual police. The agents I am thinking about also serve the interests of property and state power, and they work best when unnoticed. I started thinking about them as I pondered the question ‘what makes a hearing not a hearing?’ What hidden material might we have missed that helps insure a woman’s public testimony of sexual assault is not heard?

Last week Lacy Johnson gave a reading of her new book The Reckonings. The section of the book she read recounts her kidnapping and rape over two decades ago, and it mentions other recountings of this event she has given publicly. Repetition seems to be her strategy for getting a hearing, as if each retelling might accumulate and eventually break through deaf ears.

A man in the audience raised his hand to say he didn’t understand her point that men are taught they can always get what they want. He said, “When I was a boy, I was abused by my mother. When I was older, I hung out with a group of guys. We were wild.” He continued, “we said nasty things to the girls, but they didn’t mind.” A ripple went through the audience and I felt we were all back in the Kavanaugh hearings. I wondered if this man and Kavanaugh had been altar boys.

Afterward I kept thinking about the undercover elements of the man’s story. There is evidence of suffering here, but also of joy, a joyful wildness claimed from becoming a guy and proving it by calling girls nasty names. His response testified that as a child he was not given the promise a boy is supposed to receive. It carried a note of shame, a feeling his masculine self would expel onto girls.

One lesson I take from his story is this: many who are promised they can get whatever they want rarely do. The promise is betrayed, even as it is offered, but it lives on powerfully and with broad and brutal consequence in the education of the senses, the undercover agency of our collective training. Sometimes that promise is so loud you can hear nothing else, more often it is an undertone in stories repeated to children and to ourselves.

Thinking about the hearing that was not a hearing, I was reminded of Gayatri Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Published in 1985, it was still raising a lot of discussion in 1991 when Anita Hill testified before the Senate. Spivak’s point is that if the subaltern woman does speak it is in a language that is not audible. We have evidence of that language in Anita Hill’s testimony, her steely demeanor and occasional laughter, in her hair and blue dress, in Christine Blasey Ford’s hair, too, and in her silent searching through her papers for adequate answers. Like Spivak’s example, Bhubaneswari Bhaduri, whose suicidal protest against an arranged marriage was misconstrued by her family, what their bodies are saying is not always hard. But they confirm the education of a woman’s senses nonetheless, an education in managing the need to be heard.

This training in handling one’s needs and desires and those of others entails learning to control the uncontrollable weight on your body of another’s abjected suffering as it tries to penetrate, covers your mouth and threatens to smother you. It means learning to minimize the absorption of another’s pain while also attending to it, recognizing the false promise, the betrayal and shame while their cost seeps into your body.

This fall I excavated the Anita Hill documentary, Anita: Speaking Truth to Power. It was chilling to re-watch her sitting before a bank of white men in dark suits in her bold turquoise, saying in the midst of the hearing, “Senator, you are not hearing me.” I was struck by her poise and control, her measured maneuvers in the narrow space allowed her. Christine Blasey Ford occupied the same space with different inflections. A space that aimed to dispel the confirmation that a hearing is not hearing. As the days after the hearings unfolded, I watched Bret Kavanaugh’s furious snarls and sneers, sometimes with sound, eventually mute screen shots. When the newscasters read his body, it was usually in visual terms as a performance of righteous defense or a pose of outrage. But what could be heard in it? Betrayal of the promise? Shame unmasked?

Christine Blasey Ford is sworn in to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)
Christine Blasey Ford is sworn in to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)

Bodies make noise but not of their own making. Some are trained in wildness, in absorbing it, or in monitoring the noise of other bodies as an act of survival. Accompanying these lessons is an education in desire that is just as vexed and contrary: expect to get whatever you want, or don’t expect to want at all.

“I longed for someone to confide in,” the former enslaved woman Harriet Jacobs wrote of her violation. The narrow space for her as she waited for that someone was her grandmother’s attic crawl space where she hid for seven years from the man looking to repossess her. Was her published story recompense for those years of monitoring confinement or adequate to the confidence she craved?

To confide is to relieve oneself of the burden of suffering by sharing it with another, as if the very act of being heard could lessen pain. There is something fundamental here about humans as social animals: our survival is based in our dependence on others, on being in relation. Our desire too. A judicial hearing that is not a hearing denies that fact and the accountability of justice to it.

Patriarchal power remains the base note of our democracy, its structural violence at times audible only in what is unsaid, in asides, muffled screams, confinements, or quiet deaths. Its costs and false promises run deep and wide. I want to think that the Kavanaugh hearing is a wake-up call, a noisy alarm that is rallying women to run—for public office, to the polls and into the streets, to the men in our lives, to our phones, and to each other, insisting to be heard.

I want to believe in an awakening and to trust that from this hearing and the tribunal of #metoo we can find in our dependency the organized strength to dispel the violence and its undercover agents, to make a new world.

I woke up this morning thinking of Muriel Rukeyser’s poems. “Ann Burlak” is one about a woman known as the “red flame” whose charismatic speeches and compassion helped people forge their dependency into a moving force against miserable working conditions and the racism of the Jim Crow south. “Her words live,” the poem assures us and speak through others “the desire of worlds moving unmade/saying ‘Who owns the world?’ and waiting for the cry.”

Another Rukeyser poem is about the artist Kathe Kolwitz and includes the often-quoted proposition:

What would happen if one woman told the truth about

her life?

The world would split open.

Well, she is telling it. The cry is out. Our challenge is to make it heard.