Just as my family desperately needed an adult to shepherd it through our tough times, this country needs civil servants who are willing to set aside avarice, partisanship, and ambition to take control in Washington.
When I was a child, I cared for — and mostly raised — my younger siblings. My father was often away on business, trying to keep our immigrant family from sliding further down the rungs of the lower-middle class. My mother, who suffered from severe bipolar disorder, usually confined herself to a rumpled bed in a cigarette-smoke filled room, drinking vodka out of a scratched champagne glass and emptying cloudy bottles of psychotropic drugs.
During her manic stages, my mother would deck herself out in rhinestones and velvet to shop for perfume, lingerie, and evening gowns, ringing up credit card bills we couldn’t pay. She pawned her wedding rings and withdrew the scant funds from our children’s savings accounts. My youngest brother, meanwhile, ran the streets until he landed in juvenile detention. Though my father tried to give us a normal childhood, his absence mixed with her illness to create turmoil.
My mother suffered from “nerves,” I was told. When she was taken away to mental institutions for shock treatment, we were told she “needed a break from the kids,” which gave the impression it was our fault.
Once, I was told that she was gone permanently, demanding a divorce, and that peace would finally settle on the house. Just as I stepped into my role as primary caregiver at age 12 and realized that life was often easier without her, she reappeared and it all reverted to the way it used to be. Nothing made sense.
Whatever the reason for the absence and neglect, some things I did recognize. If I didn’t cook, there would be no dinner. If I didn’t grocery shop, there would be no food. If I didn’t do laundry, we went to school in smelly clothes. When my brother lost his coat, I’d have to find him a replacement or he’d leave for school on cold mornings in only a flannel shirt, shivering.
The question I didn’t know how to ask back then echoes in my head now: Where were the adults? My father was doing all he could, but he was gone a week or two every month tending to his customers. What about the neighbors, the teachers, the priests we saw each Sunday at Mass, the psychiatrists who cared for my mother and knew she had five small children at home?
That tension — the feeling of living in a family with one out-of-control parent and one absent parent — resurfaces when I watch what the current administration is doing in Washington. While the president acts capriciously and fitfully, spewing angry words and blatant lies, Congress essentially ignores what looks to be, if not actual mental instability, clear incompetence to serve as president.
When I started checking the New York Times online at three in the morning to assure myself we hadn’t plunged into a world crisis, I knew I was in trouble. Barely 50 days after the inauguration of our 45th president, I am fuzzy-headed from lack of sleep. I keep my phone and laptop fully charged and within arm’s reach. The phone numbers to my senators’ offices are programmed into my speed dial. I have their fax numbers, too, in case the phone system is overwhelmed and I can’t get through. I send letters and postcards and sign petitions by the dozens. I even flew from LA to Washington to attend a Writers’ Vigil for Freedom of Expression in February. But no matter how much I do, I feel I’m not doing enough.
My work as a professor and writer has come to a skidding halt. All I can do is read obsessively and surf online news outlets about ties to Russia, the Muslim travel ban, the destruction of the Affordable Care Act, the immigration sweeps, the disparagement of judges, the nomination of unqualified cabinet appointment, and especially the barefaced lies.
With each lie, my blood pressure spikes, my jaw clenches, and my fists curl. I’ve been upset about politics before — the Iraq war, Citizens United, “Mission Accomplished — but nothing like this.
Recently, I was telling a friend about my anxiety and all the steps I’m taking to fight for what I believe in when I broke down into a weeping, sniveling mess.
“Maybe you should step away from the news cycle for a bit,” she gently suggested.
“But if I don’t stop him, who will?”
In the moment those words tumbled from my mouth, the situation swung into focus. What I’m experiencing is not simply a response to the pandemonium of this administration — though clearly it is that. It’s also a replay of my childhood. Decades have passed, but here I am, falling back on old, defensive reflexes: You need to act now, before things get more out of hand. You need to stop this madness from touching those around you.
My amygdala, that part of the brain that controls our autonomic response to fear, particularly fear of things outside of our control, is on high alert. I’m convinced, because of my chaotic childhood, that I’m personally accountable for containing the insanity. And no one in Washington wants to acknowledge that things are as out of control as they so clearly are. I wonder for a moment if I’m the crazy one.
But I’m not crazy now, and wasn’t when I was a child.
Just as my family desperately needed an adult to shepherd it through our tough times, this country needs civil servants who are willing to set aside avarice, partisanship, and ambition to take control in Washington. We need adults who will speak the truth and acknowledge there are objective facts in this world. The more the news cycle is muddied with the dissonance of “alternate facts,” the more dishonesty and dissembling will become the norm.
Every time the mayhem and discourtesy of this administration are condoned and normalized, the more it deteriorates the social contract. This creates, in effect, a nation of wary and abandoned latchkey kids. Adults, please step up!
Bernadette Murphy is the author of, Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life (May 2016, Counterpoint Press). She has published three previous books of narrative nonfiction including the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting, is an Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Department of Antioch University Los Angeles, and a former weekly book critic for the Los Angeles Times. Her website is Bernadette-Murphy.com.