Breathing Fire

How a book ostensibly about dragons lit a metaphorical flame in my heart.

Breathing Fire

I remember Christine Blasey Ford’s congressional testimony about soon-to-be Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh like it was yesterday. Well, maybe not yesterday — time has blunted some of the excruciating pain and replaced it with a simmering rage. It felt then, and still feels, uncomfortably close to nihilism: the creeping realization that if Blasey Ford’s words changed nothing, perhaps there really was no limit to what powerful men could do with impunity.

Then I read When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill. As she notes in an interview, the main character, Alex, “is not based on Christine Blasey Ford, but she would not have existed without that woman’s bravery, her calm adherence to the facts, and her willingness to relive one of the worst moments of her life to help America save itself from itself. Her actions didn’t work, but they still mattered.”

And there, suddenly, was the distinction — and comfort — I was looking for: Just because something doesn’t work, or have the immediate impact we hoped for, doesn’t mean it didn’t matter.

What I didn’t know I was looking for, and what also came to the fore as I read Barnhill’s book, was an acknowledgment of the red-hot anger I’d been storing somewhere deep inside and the transformation of that anger into a glorious narrative involving “dragoning.”

Alex has grown up in a world where the seminal event of her childhood, the Mass Dragoning of 1955, is shrouded in secrecy, shame, and silence. During the incident, writes Barnhill, “642,987 American women — wives and mothers, all — became dragons. All at once. A mass dragoning. The largest in history.”

Because those left behind don’t know how to cope with such a massive upheaval, they choose not to. But their denial is complicated by the fact that, over the years, women continue to dragon, and some of the dragons attempt to return to their former lives.

This is where I started to realize the genius of Barnhill’s narrative: I identified with those dragons! In many ways, they wanted no more than we humans: the chance to love and be loved for who they were.

Which brings me back to Blasey Ford and her valiant attempt to breathe fire during a dangerously corrupt Senate hearing. I remember how helpless I felt while watching her get shouted down over and over, as though mere yelling could silence her. Maybe it did in the short-term: The emotional, indignant Kavanaugh ascended to the nation’s highest court, while she, unable to retreat back into anonymity, endured escalating threats that forced her family to leave their home.

In the long-term, however, it’s clear that Blasey Ford is part of a larger movement of women fighting back. From the #MeToo reckoning to the recent spate of legislation enshrining abortion rights in state constitutions, we’re all learning to breathe fire.

So, naysayers, take note: There may be no spontaneous dragoning in America’s future, but we women are more willing than ever to burn down the status quo. 

Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights of varying quality on Twitter at @hapahaiku.

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