Since Donald Trump was elected president on November 8, 2016, women in the United States have embraced an unprecedented anger. The emotion has consistently connected and mobilized them in opposition to Trump’s presidency: upstaging his inauguration with a Women’s March, participating in airport demonstrations across the United States to protest his Muslim travel ban, and electing more women to the House of Representatives than ever before. Anger has been an emotion that women can organize around and harness to sound the alarm on Trump’s ever-escalating behaviors that particularly harm marginalized communities.
Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era, an anthology coedited by writer (and Bitch contributor) Amy Roost and psychotherapist Alissa Hirshfeld, aims to capture how anger became and continues to be a motivating force for those resisting Trump. The essays in Fury are dispatches from women across the United States who are figuring out how to make sense of this new normal. Whether they’re struggling to speak to their children about this political moment or tracking the month-by-month progression of the country’s descent into authoritarianism, the pieces in Fury serve as a time capsule of a deeply consequential moment.
Roost spoke to Bitch about the importance of documenting Trump’s presidency, tapping into anger and using it as a tool for social change, and fighting for the soul of this country.
How did you get the germ of an idea for an anthology about women surviving the Trump era?
In all honesty, I thought I was losing my marbles after the election and needed some validation that my response wasn’t outside the bell curve. I should add that I was also in the midst of some personal trauma at the time. My 22-year old son, who had suffered two hemorrhagic strokes and had undergone brain surgeries, was living with us while attending rehab. My husband, a clinical psychologist, was able to provide the validation I needed by sharing with me how many of his patients were experiencing stress over the election; [he said] that women, in particular, were expressing emotions similar to my own-—sadness, anger, and disbelief. Once I realized I wasn’t crazy—or, if [I was], I wasn’t alone—I figured others without the benefit of a psychologist in their lives might be seeking validation as well. I wasn’t wrong. I received more than 200 inquiries after posting a call for submissions on a Facebook Binders (women writers) group in February 2018.
In the introduction, you write that you had two purposes for releasing this anthology: to help readers understand and develop more empathy for women, and to “create a record for posterity.” Can you say more about these as the guiding light?
We Knew was an early working title for Fury. By “we” I meant women. There’s an essay in the collection titled “It’s Been There” that addresses this: Many women and people of color knew before the election that Trump was a misogynist, racist, and con artist. All the evidence was there. If you are hypervigilant (which is just another way of saying you were paying attention) like women who’ve been sexually assaulted, then you knew.
On the morning after the election, I saw a Facebook post [from] a millennial white male that said “Apparently, lots of women like having their pussies grabbed.” In the days following the election, I also heard a lot of people—mostly white men—saying things like, “Let’s give him a chance. Let’s see what he’s got.” As if everything he’d ever said and done leading up to the election could simply be dismissed. I recognized these tropes for what they were: magical thinking. You don’t miraculously become a decent human being or develop empathy when you get a promotion. If anything, the power and the mandate that came with being elected reinforced Trump’s negative traits.
I wanted men—and the 52 percent of white women who voted for Trump—to understand what the rest of us had seen all along, what they had missed. Not in a nasty, I-told-you-so sort of way, but in an interpersonal, “let me tell you my story” kind of way. I think a Trump supporter with empathy would find it difficult to dismiss most of the essays in Fury because they read like conversations with a neighbor you know to be decent, even though you may not belong to the same political party.
[As] far as creating a record for posterity, I believe future generations will look back on this era and question how and why a hateful, divisive human being like Trump could have been elected the leader of a country that ostensibly stands for justice, equality, and sometimes even decency. How did we let conditions ripen to the point that a malignant narcissist could possibly grab the mantle of power? I hope Fury withstands the test of time as a record of what it was like to live in America when our leader and his followers wore their hatred like a medal of honor.
Just as people still invoke “never again” in relation to the Holocoust, I hope Fury will be some small part of the canon of literature that convinces future generations that we should never again elect a someone with a psychopathology like Trump’s—someone who will always choose to put his own personal interests above those of the greater good. What comes of all this has yet to be written. I’m hoping that I’ll live long enough to look back on the Trump era as a catalyst for change that brought about greater social, gender, and income equality and helped the country reckon with and account for our historical trespasses. And I hope the era teaches us lessons in interdependence and humility, with respect to both other nations and the natural world. I realize these are tall orders.
Talk to me about empathy: Why is that an important trait to develop, especially in this time? What does empathy allow us to tap into and understand about our political moment?
With this collection, I was hoping to instill empathy in the reader who might otherwise have trouble understanding a woman’s perspective—how and why our response to Trump is unique. The essays also reveal how the feminine ethos of caring and humane treatment of others, role modeling for our children, and, in short, empathy—suffered a direct hit in the form of Trump, the ultimate self-aggrandizing toxic male.
I saw a survey recently that asked [about] the trait [people] most desire in a president. Empathy ranked number one. I may be wrong, but I don’t think empathy would rank as high during a different presidency, because up until Trump, empathy from our leaders was a given. I remember how Obama comforted the parents and families of the Sandy Hook massacre; and while it was beyond touching to see his response, I wasn’t surprised. [It] was not only consistent with how he presented himself, but also consistent with the public’s expectations of a leader during a calamity.
Contrast Obama’s presidential demeanor with Trump’s, which Melanie Brooks writes in her essay, “The Biggest Hole Is Where the President’s Empathy Should Be.” She bemoans Trump’s “shockingly inappropriate responses in moments of national crisis.” [She points] to “his vulgar and hate-filled comments about Haitian and African immigrants on January 11, 2018, when he reportedly used the word ‘shithole’ to describe their countries of origin. His striking lack of compassion in that moment was startling, but no words can describe the added cruelty of maligning Haiti one day before a painful anniversary when memories of trauma and unfathomable loss inevitably resurface.”
Another contributor, Lorraine Camenzuili, also addressed Trump’s [lack of] empathy:“…subtler feelings like empathy, curiosity, doubt, sorrow, or tolerance are rarely on display; to wit, hurricane victims are offered paper towels in the context of underfunded disaster relief and asylum-seekers are separated from their families and put in cages rather than offered safety. His presentation seems geared toward a relentless show of strength laced with intimidation and deflection.”
Did you learn anything particularly impactful or significant as you put the anthology together?
Definitely. It was like an upper-division course in humanity. My biggest worry when Trump came to office was what would my kids—both with pre-existing conditions—do for health insurance if the Affordable Care Act was scuttled. By the time I’d read everyone’s essays, I realized my troubles were relatively small compared to the existential challenges faced by several of the contributors. I learned more about hypervigilance, intersectionalism, the Catholic Church, challenges faced by members of the LGBTQ community, discrimination and bigotry directed at Jews and persons of color, multigenerational trauma, suicidal ideation…the list goes on and on.
I learned from Pamela Woolford, whose essay was originally included but later withdrawn, that people of color experienced fury and disappointment toward presidents—even Democrats—long before Trump. I learned that there is room in my heart for everyone’s experience and that no one’s experience can be “wrong,” which is a powerful realization.
In the end, I came to understand that all roads lead back to empathy. My co-editor Alissa put it best: “People on different sides of the political divide, as well as people of different cultural backgrounds and faiths, seem unwilling and sometimes unable to empathize with others’ perspectives. But when we listen deeply to one another’s stories—meaning we practice seeing things from another’s perspective while silencing the voice inside us that wants to disagree or tell our own side—we learn that we all want the same basic things: a good life for ourselves and our families, good health, an adequate income to provide for our needs, and a sense of meaning and purpose.”
Emily Sinclair wrote a really poignant essay titled “Panic Drapes the Look of the World: Literary Treatment for Anxiety in an Uncertain Age,” which is broken down into literal months and years. One thing it highlights is how time under Trump is simultaneously moving slowly and at breakneck speed. How can we get our bearings and really take it day by day?
I’m so glad you called out Emily’s essay. It’s a stunning piece of writing, and I think so much of it applies to what we’re currently experiencing with COVID-19 and the various stay-at-home orders. Time seems to evaporate into thin air while paradoxically moving slower than we previously thought possible. Living in the time of Trump is like living in a house of mirrors, not only because so many regulations have been rolled back but because of all the gaslighting he does. He says one thing, then another and another, all of which seem to contradict each other. We’re led to believe we’re either mistaken or crazy, which contributes to our growing anxiety and has us constantly speculating and worrying [about] what’s next. That we can’t get our bearings is a feature of his administration, not a bug. We can’t effectively punch back if we can’t get our footing.
While we’re distracted, he and his enablers loot and pillage without [consequence] or even detection. He’s destroyed our capacity to be outraged and our ability to respond appropriately. We’ve learned he has a financial stake in unproven treatment for COVID-19 he touts against the advice of his medical advisors—a violation of the emoluments clause. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was caught conducting his re-election campaign out of the White House—a violation of the FEC. He’s firing government watchdogs, like the Inspector General, and he’s replaced his acting secretary of the Navy and the White House Press Secretary. Meanwhile, a key enabler, the GOP chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is suspected of dumping stocks based on insider information about the virus. All of this is intended to exhaust the public with rage, despair, and fury. He wants us to just give up and his message is “I have no shame and know no bottom.”
On a macro level, I have no answer to your question. On a micro level—when I find myself getting sucked into the minutiae—I follow the advice of Audre Lorde, who famously said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” I also try to zoom out to 30,000 feet and see the big picture. I’m not always successful, and that’s when I put myself on a news diet and up Vitamin N (for nature) intake. When I’m really stuck, I listen to my “Songs that Make Me Cry” playlist.
I especially loved the essays are from parents who are trying to explain and contextualize this moment for their children. Jaimie Seaton’s essay, “Can We Reassure Our Kids Monsters Don’t Exist When We Know They Do?” really gets to the heart of that. What should we be telling children—both our own and those in our orbit—about this time in U.S. history?
There is no one answer to this question, and I think a lot depends on the developmental stage of the child—while simultaneously acknowledging that the Bully-in-Chief’s example is accelerating childhood for many. On the one hand, I believe parents should shield younger children from pain and suffering that the child is not old enough to make sense of. Shannon Brescher Shea talks about this in her essay, in which she’s deciding whether to go to a march protesting Trump’s migrant policies. But kids are also far smarter than we give them credit for. Lea Grover’s essay addresses active shooter drills with her kids, and Krystal Sital uses the pussy-grabbing video as an opportunity to address agency with her very young daughters.
Unfortunately, as much as we’d like to, I don’t think we can just refrain from explaining what an active shooter is if your child is being taught how to respond to one. I recently [had] a similar situation with my 8-year-old grandson, whose teacher instructed him to choose a hero to write about. He chose the [comic-book writer and publisher] Stan Lee (over Barack Obama, his second choice). Prior to his death, Lee was accused of sexual assault by a number of women, and so I suggested to my stepdaughter that she may want to redirect her son. That wasn’t popular, so I then suggested that she at least turn it into a teachable moment by explaining that being a hero doesn’t mean the person lived a perfect life. A lot of parents were recently presented with this same dilemma when Kobe Bryant died.
My boys are grown, but I was never into whitewashing or sugarcoating. Any time the topic of sex came up, I’d blurt out, much to their embarrassment, “Remember, no means no!” Did I force them to watch the collapse of the World Trade Center on repeat? No. But I also didn’t shield them from the fact that other people and countries don’t always think of Americans as nobly as Americans think of themselves, and a small percentage of those who don’t like us also believe that violence is the only solution. That’s scary but true. And the truth always wins in my book.
You don’t miraculously become a decent human being or develop empathy when you get a promotion.
There’s a lot about our current moment that feels familiar for people from marginalized communities, which is the reason the “Our People” section of Fury is so impactful. But what is it about the Trump administration, specifically, that activated so many people for the first time?
It’s pretty simple: Trump says the quiet part out loud. Many white people, including myself to a certain extent, were naive enough to believe that racism and bigotry had diminished to the point we could begin to imagine a post-race future for the country. We were wrong, and I for one would like to apologize for ever believing such a load of crap.
What do we most misunderstand about the righteousness of women’s anger?
It’s not new. It’s only that now more women are voicing it. And the media is finally giving it coverage—thank you Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, Ronan Farrow, Julie Brown, etc. Traditionally, being a woman has been a long, slow process of swallowing your anger until it poisons you and you die. I know this because I’ve watched angry women die—my mother, [for one]. She was born and raised on a small Iowa farm with no running water or electricity. She escaped to Chicago after high school [and] was hired as the executive assistant to the American Postal Workers Union boss. She “ran the joint,” according to her sister, who also worked for the union, “but could never take credit for that.” She quit her job when she married my dad and helped him start and build an expanded metal business. She wasn’t paid a salary, and when they divorced, she wasn’t awarded any part of the business. After launching the business, she became a full-time doting mother, not only to her own children but to every other child in the tidy cul-de-sac where we lived.
In 1962, she and my dad adopted their third child, who they named Rebecca. Rebecca was spindly with a ruddy complexion, but to Mom, who’d waited nine years for a daughter, she was perfect. When my parents discovered they’d unknowingly adopted a biracial child, my dad insisted [she] be “returned.” Mom, who by then had bonded with Rebecca, had no say in the matter. The only reason I know how bitter she was about these events, and my dad’s womanizing, and her struggle to establish credit after the divorce, was because I discovered her diaries after she died. Fury is dedicated to Mom. It’s no surprise that the #MeToo movement and Women’s March were begun by Black women. Women’s anger has been segregated for far too long, and white women have finally joined the chorus.
How can we tap into our anger and discontent and use it to fuel social change?
The same way Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights movement leaders did, by purposefully directing the heat generated by our discontent for the greater good. I’ve learned the hard way that throwing punches in the air dissipates my anger and, while I may feel better, [those punches] do little to benefit society. But if I direct my passion and energy at injustice and get others to join me, there’s no injustice we can’t incinerate.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.