Two Ways To Stay

I have been virtually inarticulate with anger, nauseated with rage, over the revelations that Rob Porter, White House secretary and special aide to White House Chief of Staff Marine General John Kelley, had a long history of apparent violence against women.

A former wife. Two ex-wives, in fact. Two ex-wives plus a former girlfriend. As I write this, news breaks that a fourth woman may have come forward.

I’ve been so livid over this, and over the White House reaction, that I couldn’t find my way “in” to write about it. So many, too many, elements of disgust. Some commentators focused on Porter’s lack of a security clearance despite his handling of the most sensitive classified documents—because the FBI wouldn’t grant clearance to a man with a history of such violence. We now know the White House knew about Porter months ago. This man is now dating Hope Hicks, a former fashion model who is now “communications director.” (en garde, Hope Hicks!)

Then there was the Orrin Hatch angle, since Porter had once served as an aide to Hatch. The seemingly senile senator from Utah, who is nothing if not consistent, earned his first national notoriety for denouncing women who tell the truth with Anita Hill; now he leapt in to attack the women who came forward in the Porter case, without knowing them, the details, or anything—except that Porter was a Mormon and an excellent man of great integrity. (The wives were Mormon, too—but sequential, not concurrent.) The Church of Latter-Day Saints has been suddenly silent on this scandal. At least Hatch followed his gushy statement on Porter with the cautionary hedge “I do not know the details of Rob’s personal life. Domestic violence is any form is abhorrent and unacceptable.” That statement from Hatch looks almost feminist compared to Trump’s.

Trump, when he finally said anything at all, focused sympathetically on Porter, with not one word about the women or even a general statement condemning domestic violence. Expectable, after all, since Trump has previously expressed sympathy for and belief in the “innocence” of Roy Moore (child sexual abuse), Corey Lewandowski (physically attacking a female reporter), both Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly (former CEO and anchor of FoxNews, respectively; serial sexual harassment and serial sexual assault), former President Bill Clinton (when under impeachment for lying about his abuse of Monica Lewinsky); and even Mike Tyson (who served prison time for rape). Trump himself has been accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault by at least 22 women, and infamously bragged about himself as a sexual predator—on tape.

But then there’s John Kelly, once regarded as the “grown up” who could control Trump, who turned out to be as staunch a bigot and liar as the worst member of his co-worker menagerie. Kelly, who lamented publicly that when he was growing up “women were held sacred,” who then proceeded to lie about and attack Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (D. FL), with racist and sexist insults for which he has never apologized, despite his accusations having been publicly proven inaccurate on every count. Kelly really went to the mat for his buddy Rob Porter, praising Porter’s integrity, denouncing women who would “smear him,” and refusing to believe such accusers. This, despite one ex-wife, Jennifer Willoughby, having obtained a restraining order on Porter, and the other ex-wife, Colbie Holderness, having presented a photo of her battered face with a swollen black eye courtesy of Porter. When the picture of her pulped flesh went public, Kelly was forced to backtrack and claim shock—but leaks from inside the White House noted that Kelly had known all along and, once the story broke, still tried to keep Porter from resigning. As of this writing, although Porter has formally resigned, he still is working at the White House, and still without security clearance. Both Kelly and Porter should be ridden out of town on a rail—Kelly en route to a dishonorable discharge and Porter en route to prison.

On the heels of all this came yet another departure, Trump speechwriter David Sorenson, whose ex-wife, Jessica Corbett, told FBI agents doing their background check of him that during their marriage he had run over her foot with their car and extinguished a cigarette on her hand during an argument.

Both Porter and Sorensen had been pressuring their ex-wives to lie to the FBI and not divulge what happened in their marriages. In other words, both men pressured their wives to commit a Federal crime.

Well, you see my problem. I ramble, I repeat what you probably already know, I careen from one aspect of this to another. I babble with fury about these cruel, controlling men, and about the White House response to survivors who are speaking clearly of having endured verbal, psychological, emotional, and physical violence.

So I decided simply to let one of the women speak for me—and for herself. On April 24, 2017, Jennifer Willoughby wrote a blog about her marriage to Rob Porter, but did not name him. She wrote about their relationship with such scalding honesty, detailing the intimate outlines of her suffering in such a classic description of domestic violence that there is no possibility she hadn’t learned those particular stations of the cross from his having carved them into her flesh. Porter called her last year when he was hoping to join the Trump regime, and demanded she take down her blog posts. Nevertheless, these are her words.

The first time he called me a “fucking bitch” was on our honeymoon. (I found out years later he had kicked his first wife on theirs.) A month later he physically prevented me from leaving the house. Less than two months after that, I filed a protective order with the police because he punched in the glass on our front door while I was locked inside. We bought a house to make up for it. Just after our one year anniversary, he pulled me, naked and dripping, from the shower to yell at me.

Everyone loved him. People commented all the time how lucky I was. Strangers complimented him to me every time we went out. But in my home, the abuse was insidious. The threats were personal. The terror was real. And yet I stayed.

When I tried to get help, I was counseled to consider carefully how what I said might affect his career. And so I kept my mouth shut and stayed. I was told, yes, he was deeply flawed, but then again so was I. And so I worked on myself and stayed. If he was a monster all the time, perhaps it would have been easier to leave. But he could be kind and sensitive. And so I stayed. He cried and apologized. And so I stayed. He offered to get help and even went to a few counseling sessions and therapy groups. And so I stayed. He belittled my intelligence and destroyed my confidence. And so I stayed. I felt ashamed and trapped. And so I stayed. Friends and clergy didn’t believe me. And so I stayed. I was pregnant. And so I stayed. I lost the pregnancy and became depressed. And so I stayed.

Jennifer Willoughby finally chose not to stay. She chose to live. She left Rob Porter.

The day after the Porter story broke, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D. CA), took to the floor of the US House of Representatives to speak. But then she stayed.

She is 77 years old. She had been the first woman Speaker of the House in the history of this country, second in line for the Presidency, and she may well be so again. Raised to dress “like a lady,” she wore a (skirted) suit and four-inch-high heels, on which she stood, perfectly still. For 8 hours and seven minutes. She looked fragile, she spoke softly but intensely, she never raised her voice. But she stayed.

“Oh no, Mr. Speaker,“ she smiled, around the third hour. And the fifth. And the seventh. “No,” she smiled, “I’m not ready to yield the floor.”

The Senate has a filibuster procedure, but the House does not, although she invented it on the spot. She knew her parliamentary rules inside out, and she simply was availing herself of the privileges afforded to leaders of the party caucuses, she was just giving a speech, that’s all.

Except she stayed. She wouldn’t stop. It didn’t end. It went on and on. She would not yield the floor.

What did she say for more than eight hours?

She told stories about the Dreamers, the young people brought here as babies by immigrant parents desperate to come to the shining dream that was America. They had been far too young to know what was happening, but they’d grown up feeling they belong here, because this has been their only home, because in their memories they had never seen Mexico or Guatemala or El Salvador, never known China or Uganda or Libya. The foods of such places tasted foreign to them, despite their parents wheedling them to “please, at least just try it!” They’d grown up on Raisin Bran and pizzas. In their memories, they’d never fled juntas or drug lords or totalitarian governments. They studied hard and worked hard and planned to become teachers and doctors, poets and painters, engineers and farmers. They were Americans. That’s what they’d thought. That’s what they’d been told when the Obama Administration created DACA: the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that let them come out of the shadows and live openly, working toward full citizenship—until Trump demolished the program.

Pelosi talked about Dreamers she had met and spoken with and cried with and embraced when they trembled in terror of deportation. She read their letters, one after the other. She read their diary entries, with their permission. She read their report cards and college applications and grad school dissertation abstracts and employer references.

Probably not since the founding of this country, since the earliest convocations in that House chamber, have the words of those who fervently wanted to engage in this great experiment been so clear. In her quiet voice, Nancy Pelosi stayed on her feet, giving voice to those words.

Seventy-seven years. Eight hours. Four-inch heels. Not a single sip of water.

Her forehead became beaded with sweat. She implored the current Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, to pledge that the GOP-controlled House would in fact take up and resolve, compassionately and fairly, the status of the Dreamers. Her normally well-powdered face was shiny with exhaustion now, and slick with sweat. Her skin was gray. But not a hair was out of place. Nor did her voice waiver, nor was she ever impolite. “No, Mr. Speaker,” she smiled again, “I’m still not done yet.” And she stayed.

I’ve never forgotten that when Pelosi first took a stand for the right of a woman to choose to end an unwanted pregnancy, her Italian-American Roman Catholic mother refused to speak to her for six years. Yet she stayed with that position. I’ve also never forgotten her kind pretense that she remembers me whenever we meet.

Pelosi is as short as I am, 5 feet tall. I recognize the judicious use of added height, no matter how painful, when it’s imperative to act with power, and I know the cramping that follows, sometimes for days. But I’ve never worn four-inch-high heels for eight hours. She’s my age, too, and I doubt I could have stood that length of time in those shoes, or talked that long without one sip of water.

I have sometimes disagreed with Nancy Pelosi, who is more of a pragmatic pol then I am——my luxury, her burden. Yet watching her perform this extraordinary act was thrilling: watching her model for younger people how leadership really works, watching her embody the strength of women, the strength of old women, watching her defy both ageism and sexism, defy cynicism, even defy pragmatism for once, since the pundits immediately proclaimed, “But the speech will have no effect or real impact.” It certainly had none on the Republican members.

And as I watched her, I loved her passionately. Because she stayed. Because standing there, she embodied the last words of Susan B. Anthony: ”Failure is impossible.” Because she made me remember that though neither Nancy Pelosi nor I will live to see it, Anthony was right.

Because together, Jennifer Willoughby’s refrain and Nancy Pelosi’s actions charged the connection that lit my brain and gave me the way in, the path to write these words. Because why you choose to stay makes all the difference.

Then, realizing that, I could finally let my incoherent anger go, my resolve return, and my tears fall.