Traversing the Ruptures

FullSizeRender (8)

In a recent piece  in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times author Susanne Antonetta writes of her desire to speak of her hallucinations in a way that breaks through enforced secrecy, a silence which she finds almost as disorienting as delusion. She says “I ..believe that hallucinations hold truth, though a hard truth to stay with for very long.” { Susanne Antonetta ,“Even When I’m Psychotic I’m still Me” New York Times 2-23-20 Sunday Review p 10) To view the interruptive events in her life as debilitating is not the full truth for Antonetta; they also hold meaning and need to be unpacked.

Our lives do not have to be invaded by psychotic incidents to become familiar with rupture. Many people have experiences that cut into reality as we think we know it, making us face the task of unpacking and deciphering their meaning.  I was asked a few months ago by a friend to talk with her about the ruptures in my life as they have affected my gender and about the light they cast on my thinking about misogyny, my fears and hopes for the lives of women. The invitation forced me to face three major periods that broke into my existence in way that caused a “before,” with the result of an  “after” that steered me in a specific direction. They shared with Antonetta’s experiences the quality that all were in their own way debilitating and also that all hold meaning and that by unpacking their meaning I may come to a more profound understanding of my self in relation to the world.

The first rupture of my life and the most cataclysmic was the one created by the Second World War. Still in my mother’s womb when in 1940 war broke out in my country, The Netherlands, I was almost five when it ended in May 1945. The period was one of great duress and deprivation for everyone, and I grew into my teenage years and young adulthood in the wake of the devastations created not only in my country but in all the countries surrounding us. While my family suffered no losses as shattering as those of the hunted and murdered Jews and other groups targeted for extinction in our midst, no one in our communities escaped the effects of five years of occupation and all it brought about. For everyone life was suffused with fear and in addition the twelve years of the Third Reich’s domination cast a long shadow once they were over. When the war ended revelations began about mass murders and death camps, and I grew up surrounded by the story, the song and the photography documenting what had befallen us.

I have told the story of the effects of this war on me and my world of thought in an early book called Reformed and Feminist, in which I considered my feminist commitments through the lens of my life as a young child. I wrote that my eventual view of women as a dominated group was forged under the Nazi boot and that I learned how crucial alliances are needed to bring about change in conditions of hatred and discrimination. “….the child that grew up carried with her forever the consciousness that structural injustice brings about the worst kind of oppression and that the battle against injustice must always involve systemic change.”(Reformed and Feminist [Westminster/John Knox, 1991], p. 14]   Not until I was in my late forties could I begin to consider the ways in which the rupture of war and domination had shaped my outlook on the world and the human community.

While I was a young child during the war without awareness or participation in what overcame her, the second rupture took place with cooperation and even eagerness on my part. As a young woman I married an American citizen, left my home country and settled in the United States, for many years living as a resident alien and eventually as a citizen. For a long time I did not consider this step a rupture because I had agency in it and I undertook it with enthusiasm. There was no way that I could foresee the enormous changes it would bring about in my existence.  I was adult when I crossed the ocean but still young and heading into maturity. At a time when the separation by ocean and continents was far more of a radical break than it is today, I left behind not only a loving family and friends, but a culture that in many respects was alien to the ways of my new home. Emigration is a radical step whether taken willingly or out of desperation.

My difference was the more difficult because I spoke English fluently and the push to assimilation from my context was powerful.  It took years before I could articulate at least in part the meaning of what I had undertaken. I belong here, in this country, in this town where I buried my husband, where our children and grandchildren live, but a sense of difference and not belonging always remains.  By extrapolation this rupture has helped me to develop a deeper understanding of people who are forced by winds of war or other deprivations to leave their homes and head for different shores. My own experience is useful insofar as it helps me to raise my voice in harmony with the biblical ethic of welcome to the stranger and to resist the talk and the practice of barring and ill-treating immigrants and refugees.

The third rupture happened when I became a female member of an all-male faculty more than forty years ago. This engagement too I undertook willingly and even eagerly, setting my feet on the path of my chosen career. It was, all the same, an experience that more than anything that came before shocked me into awareness of the patriarchal dominance of my world. We come to our convictions in different ways. I had lived my life until my mid-thirties having survived the tsunami of the Second World War, recovering from the loss of my country, absorbed in my studies and family, largely unengaged with the turmoil of Second-Wave Feminism. Once I started working outside my home, it made all the difference. The discrimination I experienced in my work environment was minor compared to that of other women, especially women who were less privileged , a fact pointed out to me frequently by my male colleagues. What escaped them and what became clear to me is that in an environment where being white and male is normative I could not escape the constant pressure, the “psychic battering,” coming the way of one who did not fit the mold. My main support at the time came from the women students who had pressured the Faculty to hire me.  For the past forty years I have devoted my energy to uncovering women’s history, celebrating our accomplishments and advocating for change in the patriarchal order of things.

Ruptures are chasms that need to be traversed and examined. The rupture of war taught me that the path of dehumanization and discrimination inevitably leads to annihilation; the rupture of emigration put me on the side of the stranger, the one who does not belong; the rupture of functioning as a female in an all-male environment brought home to me the reality of the inequalities that dominate women’s lives, and how far we still have to go in terms of recovering women’s full humanity and dignity. All three of these experiences taught me the life-saving value of alliances, the need for support across the lines that divide us, lines of class, race, occupation and other borders we construct to keep us apart and divided. . It will always be the woman who suffers already from being declared “less than” because of class, ethnic origin, religion, gender identity, who will carry multiple burdens. The how of bringing change is not always clear, but I know that there is one thing we cannot do without: Only through making life-saving alliances across borders that separate us and ultimately serve patriarchal ideas and practices are we able to create a rupture in the way things are, bending the path away from the destruction of “before” toward an “after” in which all humanity will flourish because a woman’s dignity and full humanity is no longer questioned.