Why I Marched and Why I’ll Keep Marching
| by Laura Davis |
I have been on the front lines before. In 1963, my parents, my brother and I took a bus to Washington DC. I don’t remember where we stayed or where we ate or what we did, only that I was there, a little girl, my name still Laurie, my family nickname, Poopatonamosti. I had just celebrated my seventh birthday and my big girl teeth were still coming in. I dragged my feet in the water of the Lincoln Memorial, a pair of Keds nestled in the grass beside me, as Martin Luther King stood and said the words, “I have a dream.” I was there. My parents made sure of that.
Three months later, President Kennedy was shot and we drove back to Washington DC. My father carried me on his shoulders through the line that snaked through the rotunda. He carried me all night long, my heavy sleeping body draped around his neck. That’s how much my parents wanted me to be there, to see the flag draped coffin, to be part of history.
When I was 13, after a summer of funny full page ads in the back of the New York Times, advertising a music festival, I went with my parents and my best friend, Mindy, to Woodstock. We slogged through the mud and the hippies hawking acid to watch Janis Joplin, to see Jimi Hendrix sing the sunrise.
When I was 15, I woke up each morning to cinnamon pop tarts and the Vietnam War Report on WBAI. I wrote a service for the Jewish Temple Youth Group, a peace service protesting My Lai and the Vietnam War. I gathered up my friends and we took over the temple one Friday night. It was my first independent protest.
As a young adult, I wrote for Matrix, Santa Cruz County’s monthly women’s newspaper. I used my words and my byline to report on issues that mattered. On Saturday nights, I’d stand up at the women’s coffeehouse, wearing a skin-tight shiny blue Danskin with a plunging neckline, lots of cleavage, a purple felt hat with a peacock feather. I read about coming out and lesbian sex. I was funny and outrageous and told it like it was. I was 24 years old.
At 28, a year after remembering the incest with my grandfather, I organized a “What should Laura do with her life?” party in Santa Cruz. Ellen Bass, my former writing teacher, now friend, was there helping me figure out my future. “Let’s collaborate on a book about healing from sexual abuse,” I said to her.
“No way,” she said. “I know what’s involved in writing a book and you don’t.”
Ellen had a child and a spouse. I was single and on fire. But I promised to do the lion’s share of the initial work, and my passion and insistence finally won her day. Two months later, I got a Hallmark card in the mail, embossed pastel balloons on front. Inside was a single word in her cursive, a handwriting I would come to know intimately in the years to come. “Yes,” was the only word.
With The Courage to Heal, Ellen and I helped to break the silence of women who’d been raped and sold and touched and beaten–whether they were black or white or brown or native, young or old, able-bodied or disabled. We gave them voice and we gave them hope. And as our book flew off the shelves, passed from hand to hand and woman to woman, I stood on stages in faraway cities, alone with a follow spot on me, a battery pack strapped to the waistband of my pants, a lavalier mic on my lapel, and told auditoriums full of women my story. I used my words to weave a web of belief and hope and power. My breaking silence, our breaking silence, cracked open the world. Women believed that they could heal. That they could reclaim their lives. That they could fight back and make a difference. And then the backlash came.
And because Ellen and I were visible, we were the targets. We were sued. We were reviled. We got hate mail. We were sued again. The false memory syndrome society was set to sue us in all 50 states. And HarperCollins, in a move that would never ever happen today, offered to hire a first amendment attorney to defend us and said they’d pay half our legal fees. They went to bat for us.
But I was terrified. And I was pregnant. Because you see, standing so far out there, when there was still such a hole in my heart, when I was only half healed or a quarter healed or a third healed, being that visible, that public, wore me down. Being the role model all those women put on a pedestal made me feeling invisible. They saw me as a beacon instead of as a human being. After a few years, I just couldn’t do it anymore.
I wanted a baby. A family. I wanted to settle down. By the time the backlash came at us full force, I’d met Karyn and we were living together in Santa Cruz. I was growing our baby inside of me. I couldn’t face the hostility, the hate, the rage of the perpetrators. The denial. The questions on live TV: “So what exactly did your grandfather do to you?”
So it was Ellen who wore the mantle. She stood on those stages and sat in those TV studios, knowing she was going to be attacked mercilessly, but she ignored the men who challenged her and instead, looked at the cameras and spoke directly to the survivors she knew were watching at home. She spoke to those women watching in their living rooms, as the interviewers and naysayers came at her with denunciations and anger and male privilege and rage.
And six women, survivors all, started a defense fund in our honor. This was years before the internet or email or wifi. That small group of determined survivors put up signs on bulletin boards and small notices in the back of mimeographed newsletters, asking for donations to help us. And thousands of envelopes came in the mail, many with two or three wrinkled dollar bills, sometimes a five. They came with notes and thank yous and “you saved my lifes.” Eighty thousand dollars came in small bills and that was just about our share of the legal fees required to get our case thrown out on first amendment grounds. The rest we gave to survivor organizations.
That’s when I stepped out of the limelight. I stopped standing on stages and telling my story. I stopped being a public lightning rod. I didn’t ever want to be that exposed to people’s hate again. I pulled my energy in, raised my family and chose a more domestic life. In a quieter way, I did my work. I wrote more books–about reconciliation and parenting–and I began teaching writing, opening the door for women, mostly women, to speak their truths and their minds.
During my years as mother, I didn’t march against nukes or the GTO. I didn’t march against Iraq although I was against the war. I didn’t march for all the good causes that were worth fighting over the next 25 years, but I did march at the Women’s March. And while I marched, I could feel my own history rising up, my own legacy, those younger selves who knew what it meant to stand up for a cause. But it wasn’t just me marching that day; it was my parents, too. They’re gone, but if they’d been alive, they would have been marching. Dad would have been singing Pete Seeger songs. Mom would have been chanting. So I carried them with me, their voices in my ear, their songs in my heart, just like my father carried me on his shoulders that day.
And it wasn’t just me and my parents. I carried all my Jewish ancestors who never had a voice, those who died, those who survived, those who thought everything would be okay, that it could never happen, that things in Europe couldn’t really get that bad.
Marching down those Oakland streets, I thought about all the generations that have risen up in resistance to give me the life I have today. The freedom to work as a woman and to vote. The freedom to walk down the street openly as a lesbian and a Jew and to not have a target on my back, a star on my chest. There is so much at stake now–these freedoms and so many others are being decimated or threatened. It is time to take a stand.
Some days, I despair that it’s too late. Other days, my own trauma is triggered by the cascading assault of bad news and I spin into hopelessness or frantic activity. Daily, I am heartbroken at the unbearable rollout of repression and bias and lies. But then I gather myself up and I tell myself to remember what I have already done. How my own history informs, no assures me, that one person, that two people, that a wave of people, that a movement can change the way we view the world. Can change the world. Can move us out of oppression and closer to freedom.
My own history also informs me that the strength of the backlash is directly proportional to the depth of the transformation, proportional to the threat it poses to the established order. I have felt the weight of that backlash directed at me personally, and now millions of us are feeling it. Some, the most vulnerable among us, are already being crushed under its weight. The pendulum is swinging back against all the progress we have made and it is time for us to take a stand–whatever that means for each of us–to resist. This is what we’re here for. This is what we’ve been training for. This is why and how I was made. I cannot let despair undermine my capacity, my clarity or my strength. I can’t let my horror and shock distract me. I no longer want to stand up there on that stage alone, but I don’t have to. We are millions, we are legion, we have awakened, and we will fight.
Laura Davis is a six-time HarperCollins author whose books have been translated into 11 languages and sold 1.8 million copies. Among her books The Courage to Heal, The Last Frontier, Becoming the Parent You Want to Be,
and I Thought We’d Never Speak Again. Davis leads writing workshops that help people heal and find transformation, in the US and internationally.