I was going to write an essay about anger. For months now, it’s been what I think about the most. It’s what I talk about with friends in quiet corners, mulling in the halls before or after faculty meetings, on our couch over orders of Thai food.
All these friends I talk to are women. All these friends describe sitting silently and seething, not sure how to shape their anger, not sure where to place it, not sure if there’s room for it amidst the other anger, not sure how not to be mad. They describe getting up to take a shower, get dressed, feed the children, go to work, all the while full of rage. They describe lashing out at partners or at men at bars or parties, seething silently at home again before they go to bed.
It’s so pervasive right now, anger, so much The Thing that people are saying, it’s started to feel like a thing I want to break open, turn upside down, refract. I was going to write an essay about anger, but I also want to figure out what’s inside of all that anger—what it’s covering over, how we might get it out. I want to write about space and time and feeling like somehow we’ve always had less of it than our male counterparts; about thoughts, feelings, and concerns, the worth of which were always viscerally, painfully evident to us, even as they could be ignored wholesale by the males in our midst.
The summer after my second year of grad school, my professor, a Vaunted Novelist, wrote me a letter about how I needed to take more time to think and give my work, my brain— the muscle— space. Walk around, he wrote, take in the world. I almost spit, I was so angry. I had a job, a traveling husband, and a newborn; I went for long walks with our baby strapped to me when she wouldn’t sleep, yelling at my professor inside my head for thinking there was room inside my tiny life for “space.”
That semester I had used the office of the Vaunted Novelist as a pump room every day I was on campus; I was pumping every two to three hours to keep up with our baby’s needs while I was away. Sometimes, when I was there to pump, waiting for him to leave or for another office to become available, he would call me in to talk to him.
I was on a tight schedule, teaching a class and working in the writing center to fund my program. When I didn’t pump, my breasts got hard and I leaked and was in pain for the entirety of the two-hour class I had with this professor; I leaked sometimes, straight through my shirt, as he talked of Henry James. He didn’t know what I meant when I said his office was my pump room; he didn’t know what it meant for those thirty minutes to be accounted for in ways that did not make room for him.
In graduate school, I was always running: I had class, then pumped, then worked, then pumped, then taught a class, then pumped, then rushed home to see my husband and our kid. At some point, my friends started coming to my pump sessions, sometimes one and sometimes four of them, so we could talk.
We’d all crowd into the office of the Vaunted Novelist; I’d pull my shirt up, unhook my bra, attach the plastic horns to both my breasts, the machine would start to whir; we’d talk. We sat together talking while the milk dropped from the little tubes attached to the horns into the plastic bottles. Sometimes we’d talk so much I’d let the machine run too long and the bottles would begin to overflow. I would cap the bottles, wipe my breasts and the horns and place them back inside the plastic bags I kept them in, my breasts still bare to air out while we talked and talked.
My agent used to let her office be my landing space when I was in the city. If I wanted to pop into MOMA on my way home; if I was running errands and needed a place to empty out. Almost any time of day, she’d make a space available inside her fancy offices on Fifth Avenue, a conference room or office; she’d bring me sparkling water and a couple of galleys. We’d catch up. I’d pump. It was one of those perfect lovely parts of early parenthood, physical production, time already accounted for, space I had no choice but to make, space still wide enough that others could get in.
I was going to write an essay about how there is no space for women, how our voices are silenced, how no one believes or values what we say. But instead it might be worth considering how we’ve found other ways to make the space we need. How we have worked to care for one another, and how might that be replicated in a more public space.
In the last year, I’ve lost a job and at least 100,000 words of my own work watching C-Span and CNN and reading Twitter; feeling slaughtered, gutted, worn out; feeling victimized, acted upon. I’ve felt helpless and I’ve felt angry. I’ve felt very, very sad. I’ve also gotten two more jobs, trained for and run a marathon, finished another novel, cared for my children, sat in classrooms and coffee shops and restaurants talking with brilliant, angry women.
I used to teach a class that revolved around concepts of the body. We spent the first half of the semester talking about bodies being acted upon by outside sources, and the second half talking about bodies as forces that can act out themselves.
Having our bodies acted upon has always been a fact of being female. All of us remember all the ways our bodies have felt small and vulnerable, open to destruction—like they are not ours at all, but objects for which we have to always be on the defensive, apologetic, abstractly and consistently afraid. Our bodies, though, are also actors, strong and unrelenting. When we are close, when we act together, we can be undeniable and sure.
When I saw the Vaunted Novelist the year after I took his class, I was pregnant with my second daughter. This wasn’t necessarily on purpose, but my husband and I liked our baby and were looking forward to having another one. When I came into his office, he looked happy to see me. Then he looked down at my stomach.
Another one? he said, looking scared.
I laughed. He’d never had kids. That summer, when I’d brought mine to his house in New England, I’d been both intimidated and impressed by the way in which his whole life seemed to have been built around his work. We’d sat in his gorgeous office with a fireplace and watched my baby go from sitting to standing.
She’s so . . . , he said. She’s resilient.
I smiled and nodded. It’s because of all that milk I pumped, I thought.
Resilience is another thing I thought I’d write about in this essay. My mom is a resilient woman. She’s a lawyer and incredibly successful. She’s run more than twenty marathons.
Every night, my whole life, after she worked, she cooked our whole family dinner. Every night, my father sat on the couch and called to her from the other room to bring him a glass of water and dessert once dinner was over. My mother loves this about herself. She is powerful. She is resilient. She does more than men do. She does it better than they could.
But this makes me angry. I am like her; I have a hard time ever stopping—I can’t stop working, stop running, stop trying, no matter who I’m with or where I am. My mother taught me to be this way, largely because it was the only way she was ever going to get what she got. She didn’t have time or space for anger. She had want. And not a lot of ways to get.
About the marathon I ran: I ran it pretty fast and then I carried our three-year-old on the subway home. I’d gotten a medal, which she wore around her neck. My husband had to go to work, so I spent the evening parenting. I piled both our girls on top of one another in the single stroller when we got off the subway and pushed them up the steep hill from the subway to our home. I thought I’d write about that, and what it might say about resilience, except that moment also made me angry. The fact that I had just run twenty-six miles and somehow, life, the world—or at least my version of it—did not have sufficient space to give me a break.
In an essay last year, Claire Dederer asked if part of the anger women feel right now might have to do with the necessity of monstrousness in art-making: to be selfish, to be ruthless, to shut out other people’s needs and wants. That maybe part of the reason women are so angry is that we aren’t monsters and are jealous of those who are, or that we might be monsters and sorry for it. That we aren’t as good at monstrousness.
A few weeks ago, over a shared cheeseburger and beers, an older female writer and I admitted to one another the ways in which we’re monsters. We’d been friendly acquaintances for years. We’d been warm to one another, shared photos of children and grandchildren, hugged in University halls. That night, though, we admitted all the ways we’d let other parts of our life suffer, made other parts of our lives give way to our work. It was one of those wonderful moments between women; we spoke more quietly, leaned in close to one another, our faces heated up.
The Vaunted Novelist used to urge us to do what we wanted in our fiction writing. It’s all made up, he said. You can do anything you want.
When I got a round of rejections for my first novel, I sent him some of the rejections, asking for counsel. But it’s good, he said to me. They’re saying it’s good? He was baffled by the fact that was not enough to get the book past a sales and marketing department. They’re assholes, he said. Creeps.
You can do anything you want, he used to say to us in class, his face so sure—he’s a good, sweet man and he was urging us to make something of value; to not be afraid to take chances; to just say the thing. Sometimes I wanted to stand up on the table, my breasts hard and leaking, and scream, No, you. You can do anything you want.
Maybe our anger has to do with expectations that seem impossible and the feeling that whatever we do, we’ll do it wrong. That when everybody said we could be anything, they didn’t exactly mean it; they meant it with contingencies: if we were pretty, if we were apologetic later, if we promised to be nice.
No one ever told us we would almost certainly be punished, called monstrous, be pitted against one another. No one ever told us we would pay a price if or when we tried to get .
And so we put our heads down. We work harder. We whisper quietly to one another behind closed doors. We let ourselves think we are monsters. We let the monsters carry on.
Maybe it’s internal, this anger. Maybe we are angry at ourselves. At one another. Maybe we’re mad that we just took it. Maybe our fury has to do with how we are not all monstrous enough to burn the actual monsters down.
I met a writer friend for coffee the other night. I'm writing something about anger, I said. Oh, she said, that makes sense.
I said, I thought it was about resilience for a while. I think maybe it’s about our silence, the way we didn't speak up all those times we should have.
This friend is elegant and lovely. She is one of the women who used to sit with me in the office of the Vaunted Novelist. She is five months pregnant with her first baby now. This friend thinks I'm strong. She always tells me this when I see her, and I always want to tell her thank you, but sometimes I wish I could be a little less resilient. I wish life would make more space for me not to be.
We’ve known each other a long time, this friend and I, and we have shared stories: of men in bars, in classrooms, in the dark corners at parties. She said, Maybe we didn’t have the language. We didn’t know or didn’t feel we were allowed to be angry, not out loud.
We thought it was part of what it was to be a woman, maybe, she said.
Language is our job, though, I said. Maybe we just didn’t think anyone would take or believe whatever words we might have offered up.
There is a pack of us from grad school, of which this friend and I are two. We meet once a month now, sometimes more often, and order Thai food. We talk about our lives and books and anger and frustration. When I accidentally had a baby halfway through school, and then another after that, these women saved my life. They organized food deliveries, showed up at our house at six a.m. and learned how to change a diaper and warm up breast milk so I could go to work. They walked and talked with me while I had a baby strapped to me and sometimes screaming; they sat with me as I cried in the university offices or in their small uptown apartments while I tried to dry my shirt or pumped.
A few weeks ago, for my birthday, they gave me a handful of cards that promised to come watch our kids so I could work. Every time my friend tells me that I’m strong, I don’t know how to tell her that I’m only strong because they’ve been here through the mess of all this anger. Because of the space we’ve made together, all these years.