Slow Violence


First Person

The US Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC.

The day of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings two years ago, I was applying thinly sliced yellow-dyed marshmallows in the shape of daisies onto cupcakes for my daughter’s sixth birthday party. I’d been watching Christine Blasey Ford speak—I’d moved from the couch to the floor—but I’d turned the TV off around the time that Lindsey Graham appeared to start crying.

I went running. I was angry. Worse than angry: I had that feeling that I’ve felt so often the past four years—but also, my whole life—that what was happening was deeply wrong, and that was why it was happening, and that was just the way things were.

Running, I tripped on something and I fell, hands and elbows first, on the hard dirt. I got a nasty gash on my left arm. I smashed the lower half of my phone. I got up, though, and kept running. My elbow stung, burned, but I didn’t stop to look at it. I felt the warmth of blood, a few drips on my fingers. It was only later, back at our apartment, that I saw how wide and deep and bloody the cut was.

I showered quickly, and poured half a bottle of hydrogen peroxide over my arm. I put on the short-sleeved shirt I think of as my mom shirt. It was humid, mid-September, but I put on a cardigan to cover up the blood. I put the cupcakes into a cupcake carrier. I put the cupcake carrier into our old stroller and walked them to my daughter’s school. I listened to the hearings as I walked. I was shaking by the time I got to our daughter’s first-grade room.

The party was for all the kids with September birthdays and another mom read a book to all the kids. I sat quietly in the back. When it was my daughter’s turn to walk six times around the sun, I stood up. I had begun to sweat and I pulled the sleeve of my cardigan up over my elbow. I saw another mom blanch at the site of my cut, avert her eyes, and I pulled the sleeve back down. We clapped and sang as my six-year-old danced around in circles. My daughter wanted me to bring her home with me but I left her there. I sat on someone else’s stoop close to the school until it was time to pick her and her sister up.

Rattled is what I felt, rickety. Standing there, clapping, trying to smile. A low roiling under everything. The burn, but also the shame, the mess and gore, but also the absurd stupidity of that cut stuck now to the cardigan’s thin wool.

I was glad about the gash, though. I did not want to show it to those other mothers I did not know, but I talked about it to friends. It felt like proof that something happened that day, a concrete marker for what has felt true in my body for so long.

Now the Kavanaugh hearings are so many atrocities ago as to hardly register, an abhorrent man in a line of abhorrent men so long that they’ve come to meld together in my brain. We’re living in a pandemic now. Ruth Bader Ginsburg just died.

I had still been lucky back then, feeling such deep pain and anger over that awful man on TV. I still had the obscene privilege of being able to throw my kid a birthday party, was still able to feel safe enough outside. And yet I knew then, as I always have, that people might claim to hear what I say, as they had Blasey Ford, might even let me speak, but that hearing wasn’t the same as listening, speaking wasn’t the same as being heard and understood. I’ve known that almost my whole life.

The night of the debates my husband went to bed and I stayed up and watched them. I’d just taught for three hours, had taught another class that afternoon while also remote-schooling our kids all day. I was worn out but I couldn’t look away. Something happened, that whole time, to my body. I was clenching, scared that Biden would misstep. Willing that man to just stop. I kept checking Twitter to see if it was as bad as I thought it was. I didn’t trust my body’s reactions. I didn’t trust how much of the clenching was the past eight months, the past four years; the exhaustion and the fear and the horror was residual, vestigial, just the way we all feel now.

The next morning I sat on the floor as our older daughter had a tantrum under the kitchen table because she didn’t want to do her math assignment, as our younger daughter climbed onto my shoulders because her twenty-minute online check-in with her teachers had ended and she was bored. I was texting with my mother, who was in the hospital with COVID-19. I was trying to read a book for a class I had to teach that night.

I can hardly look right now at what’s happening with Amy Coney Barrett. I know what’s happening: the futility of it, knowing that there’s nothing we can do. It’s different because she is a woman. And yet she is a woman who does not value or respect other women’s rights to make choices about their bodies, who doesn’t value or respect the bodies of so many of her fellow human beings.

There are lots of reasons not to talk about any of this. Brett Kavanaugh did not assault me. I’m still healthy. My kids are, too. As a woman, there is the fear, really there is just the knowledge, that if you say too much or too often that something feels hard or violent, more often than not you’ll be told to sit back down. You’ll be told you’re whining. Depressed, privileged, not worth the time. It feels particular to being female to walk around aware, on edge, primed to hide your cuts. To be told you should be grateful for all the ways the world has found small ways to make space for you, for all the ways that you’ve been given time or space to speak, even if no one has worked to listen or to understand.

In Elisa Gabbert’s The Unreality of Memory, she discusses the concept of “slow violence,” an idea offered up by Rob Nixon in his book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. As Gabbert describes it, one of the difficulties in talking about all the ways violence is being enacted on the climate is that we can’t hold what’s happening within a single word, a single space or time, or a single clear event. It can’t be siphoned off and pointed to and packaged the way other, clearer violences might be. Climate change is not one concrete thing, one big scary cliff, but a long, slow path toward unfathomable destruction.

It feels uneven, uncomfortable, for me, a woman, who is comfortable enough, to compare the experience of being in my body to the experience of the way the world is slowly being destroyed. But when I read about this slow violence, which, according to Nixon, “occurs gradually and out of sight … dispersed across time and space,” it felt so wholly in line with what it feels like to walk around inside my body everyday.

I thought about how the impact of climate destruction is often understated simply because it cannot be easily pointed to or explained through a singular destructive human action. I thought about the way being a woman feels like this. The way we are worked over, run down, reminded again and again to shut up and sit back down. The way the news of eight hundred thousand women dropping out of the work force seems hardly to register. The way that, eight months in, there are no real solutions for most women to get help with our kids.

My husband and I both work and we make the same amount of money, but his job has asked him to come back into the office and mine has not. In six months they have not once asked him who is caring for our kids. He leaves every morning at seven and gets back every night at six. He is a good and present partner and the minute he gets home he takes over. Because I’m alone with the kids all week, he takes them all day both days of the weekend so I can work. I have not had a day not working full-time or parenting full-time since May. I work early in the morning, late into the night. Most women, all over this country, have it much worse than I do.

My job is, first and always, language. In thinking about the idea of slow violence, I’ve been thinking about how we might get better at containing, packaging, explaining what it has been like, what it is like, to have the world act upon our specific female bodies. What it is like to spend so much time holding tight to feelings no one wants to hear or see.

Violence is a word associated with the body, associated with the loud, the immediate, and the concrete. But it is also a cut bleeding through a cardigan, that rickety beat-up feeling we’ve had our whole lives. What’s happening right now to so many female bodies isn’t visible. It isn’t loud or immediate. It’s unrelenting, an accumulation. Like the acidification of the ocean, which Rob Nixon warns is unfolding just slowly enough that it “can hinder our ability to mobilize and act decisively,” it is happening mostly silently.

Our older daughter has started biting her lip because she’s anxious and she misses school; she misses her friends. She gnaws on the skin below and around her lip late into the night. She’s overwhelmed, she says. She’s eight. The gnawing sometimes turns to redness and then it begins to chap and harden over. Sometimes it is an open wound. When I see it, I always want to get something to fix it, to find a different ointment, to hold my hand on top of it so she can’t chew it, to make it go away.

Slow violence can’t be stopped. There is no single fix to stop it. It is both banal in its subtlety and unfathomable in its scope, in the sheer sweep of the change. We are proceeding slowly toward inevitable destruction. We are watching as our chances for survival disappear. I am talking about the climate here, but also about all the female bodies that are trapped, beat down, undervalued, that might not make it to whatever other side there might be.

Perhaps language can stretch to hold us. Perhaps it might free us from the systems that have no care or want for us—of which, of course, language is one. If we find new words for what we’re already losing, we might spin clear enough images that people will finally hear and see. If we can’t see slow violence, says Gabbert, “we can’t remember it, nor can we really imagine its future.” What systems might we upend and attempt to reimagine, what words might we give ourselves so that our daughters do not grow into women in a world in which people like Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett decide what their bodies might want or need or be.


Lynn Steger Strong’s most recent novel, Want, was published this year by MacMillan. Her previous novel is Hold Still. Her nonfiction has appeared in GuernicaLARBElleCatapult, and elsewhere. She teaches writing.