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  • Jan Flynn

What’s Wrong With Me?

I’m grieving — for my country

I’ve felt this, on and off, since 2016

There were intimations of it even long before that; waves of disquiet and dread during the second Bush administration as it used the national tragedy of 9/11 as an excuse to plunge us into a baseless war for oil in Iraq. Indeed,ripples of my civic angst ripple back through time to my sense of foreboding the day Ronald Reagan was elected.

In each instance, I’ve had the chilling recognition that the ground beneath me was shifting. That my understanding of the country I live in, and my place in it, rested on foundations that were far less solid than I’d been taught. They seemed to be rubble rather than granite, permeable to the seepage of corruption, bigotry, and the abuse of power.

The America I grew up in, the one that I believed worked according to the rules I learned in my high school civics course — back in my day, nobody graduated without passing civics — wasn’t perfect. But it was a place that enshrined progress, a country that might move in fits and starts but that gradually tended toward more tolerance, more inclusivity, more justice.

Senator Joe McCarthy and the blacklisting of suspected Communists in the 1950s were history by the time I was old enough to understand how democracy worked. The hysteria and repression he whipped up seemed as antique to me as the state of Tenessee prosecuting a teacher for violating its irrational law against teaching evolution in the Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925.

Like the Salem witch trials, these were aberrations in our history. Hiccups. Mistakes we had come too far to ever repeat. Joe McCarthy was censured by his Senate colleagues, and died three years later, forsaken by both his party and the press. Democracy and the “sense of decency” that attorney Joe Welch called upon in his public take-down of McCarthy prevailed.

The forces of narrowness and bigotry still reared their heads — I’ll never forget my horror at the televised images of Bloody Sunday in 1965, as people who were peacefully marching for their right to vote were brutally beaten by Alabama state troopers.

The public outcry resulting from that day played a significant role in motivating Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Again, American justice proved that while it might wobble, it would eventually balance its scales fairly.

I was 19 years old when Roe v Wade passed

It was a scary time to be a young woman, not that being a young woman has ever been easy. The messages coming from popular culture were deafening: women’s lib; free love; drop out and drop acid; peace, love, and understanding. We ditched our bras and madras tent dresses in favor of bellbottoms and black armbands as we protested the Vietnam war and went to see the musical Hair.

But all this alleged freedom, all this societal push I felt as a woman to raise my consciousness, to reject being uptight — lest I earn the dreaded label of “frigid” — came with no safety net. I was lucky enough to live in California, where I could access birth control pills through Planned Parenthood, without a doctor’s note, without my parents’ permission.

But if I messed up on the dosing schedule, or forgot, or found it too hard to tolerate the side effects (the hormonal load of the birth control pills of the early 70s was staggering compared to today’s), then I faced the same plight as women down through the ages.

Unplanned, unwanted pregnancy. With no legal recourse.

It was a constant, low-level terror that hummed in the background of my life back then, and in the lives of all my female friends. In high school, we’d all known girls who’d “had” to get married, or who had disappeared from school under whispered circumstances, whisked off to some institution or hideout where they could bear shameful birth in secret, their babies tidied away through private adoption or appropriation via some member of the extended family.

Even if the guy involved — the “guilty party” as my mother put it — did the right thing and made an honest woman out of her, the likelihood of that girl ever getting her life back on any kind of trajectory that led beyond housework, child-rearing and at best a succession of entry-level jobs, was next to nil.

And we knew of other girls, girls whose families had no such resources or who would forsake them to the streets. These were the darker horror stories: the coat hangers; the back-alley butchers; the desperate abdominal pummeling by a freaked-out boyfriend trying to dislodge the pregnancy.

Not all girls who resorted to these measures survived.

Socially, economically, or literally, a girl who “got herself in trouble” faced the erasure of her life.

But in 1973, America proved itself again

With the passage of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court recognized a woman’s fundamental right to govern her own body without excessive restriction. It was the end of compulsory pregnancy, of forced birth in the United States.

I don’t know if I can fully convey the relief I felt — and that every woman I knew felt.

We had climbed out of the dark ages. Many of us would never choose to have an abortion, but the fact that we had a choice meant that our children were wanted and welcomed. Pregnancy and childbirth, though physically challenging and sometimes debilitating, even life-threatening, were freely-made life decisions. Motherhood was elevated to a calling instead of an imposed duty.

Surely we would never go back

That sense of the ground shifting under my feet that I mentioned earlier? It escalated to nearly continuous seismic tremors with Trump’s election in 2016, punctuated by teeth-rattling convulsions at certain points: the bald-faced, bench-stacking hypocrisy of the Supreme Court nominations of Kavanaugh and Barrett, for instance, and of course the hideous spectacle in our nation’s Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Outrage piles upon outrage, with barely a breath even after Trump was voted out of office. The Big Lie marches across our country like the zombie apocalypse, unkillable with facts or reason because it has no brain, only the impulse to devour. Voter suppression metastasizes, barely bothering to disguise itself.

Senator Rick Scott’s gobsmacking “11-point plan for America,” a proposal so wigged-out that even Mitch McConnell wants nothing to do with it, followed by the Texas GOP embracing a party platform that makes Scott’s look mild (think: Trump won, LGBTQ rights are blasphemy, secession is on the table).

As for Roe v. Wade, we knew what was coming

We knew the Supreme Court was stacked with “originalist”, aka reactionary, justices by the time Kavanaugh and Barrett were confirmed. And in early May, when Politico dropped its bombshell of a leaked opinion written by Justice Alito that Roe v. Wade would be overturned, there was little question as to the fate of reproductive rights in this country.

There was huge outcry. Thousands upon thousands — including me and my husband — marched in the streets. Polls consistently demonstrated overwhelming disagreement with overturning Roe.

It didn’t matter.

For the first time in our nation’s history, on June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court abolished a previously recognized constitutional right. A disingenuous majority of the justices, using the pallid reasoning that they were returning decisions about reproductive rights back to the voters in each state (never mind voter suppression in said states), decided that the most intimate aspect of a woman’s life is not hers to determine.

Five people — all of whom share a set of personal beliefs that does not reflect the majority of people in this country — have thus enshrined minority rule.

It won’t stop there

Justice Clarence Thomas has already called for questioning other rights that fall under what he terms “substantive due process.” Here’s what he’d like to see reviewed and possibly tossed out:

The cases he mentioned are Griswold vs. Connecticut, the 1965 ruling in which the Supreme Court said married couples have the right to obtain contraceptives; Lawrence v. Texas, which in 2003 established the right to engage in private sexual acts; and the 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which said there is a right to same-sex marriage.

That’s right. We’re talking about an America in the not-too-distant future where the government sees no obligation to provide you with a social safety net, but it will eagerly insert itself into your bedroom.

As for the nonsense about returning abortion decisions to the states, forget it. Republicans are already calling for a nationwide ban.

I think of the young women I know and love, and shudder. How long until a visibly pregnant woman requires a note from her doctor, affirming that she’s not seeking an abortion, in order to travel out of state? Or will a woman of childbearing age be required to take pregnancy tests before getting on an airplane that might land in some region or country that thinks she should have autonomy over her own body? Without bodily sovereignty, what does the future hold for these women?

I have symptoms it’s taken me days to recognize

Numbness. Foggy head. A physical and energetic malaise, as though in the midst of these glorious early summer days I am wrapped in an invisible, suffocating blanket. A lack of focus. Deep, deep weariness.

It’s grief.

Not mere disillusionment, not just disgust or frustration or anger, although I am certainly feeling all those things. This is sorrow.

Not for me personally. I’m well past my childbearing years.The remnants of the country I grew up in will probably remain, if increasingly tattered, into my latest days — assuming the planet holds out that long. But it saddens me beyond words to think that I will spend my old age as a memory keeper of a vanished America.

It’s a confusing subset of bereavement, one that is very hard to name. The closest I have come to it is the idea of “migratory grief” as explained in a March 30 article by Sheon Han in The Atlantic.

Migratory grief refers to the complicated sense of loss experienced by those who have left their homelands because of war or severe political upheaval: those who have had to flee Ukraine, for example, or Afghanistan, or Hong Kong. One could extend the term to those who are economic refugees — those who struggle to cross borders into countries that may not welcome them but where they hope they and their children will at least have a decent shot at life.

People who have lost their homelands have a recurring, ill-defined constellation of things to mourn, including the idea of what their country of origin represented. Meanwhile, that country still exists, a merciless reminder of what was once home. It’s a home to which they may never be able to return, despite their longing for it.

I haven’t left my country

I haven’t migrated anywhere, and I don’t intend to. America is my home, my children’s home, and if I ever have grandchildren, it will likely be their home too. There is no other nation I can blithely threaten to run off to if things get too repressive or authoritarian here. I’m too old, too invested, and too stubbornly American to seriously entertain expatriation.

I’m sticking it out and sticking around. I’ll keep making phone calls and writing letters and marching and pleading with everyone who is at all sane and reasonable to vote. I hope I don’t end my days in some Gilead-style dystopia, but if I do, I’ll go down making noise.

But I need a little time first. My country has broken my heart. It’s my home, but I’m not sure I recognize it anymore. I haven’t left America, but today America feels as though it’s leaving me.

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