Miranda’s Trumpy Doll House
Well, here’s a Rorschach test for this blog’s readership. My guess is that people are going to feel passionate about this article, and that we’re going to have eleventy-jillion comments.
Stephanie McCrummen of the Washington Post profiles Miranda Murphey, a 39-year-old high school English teacher from Augusta, Georgia. She’s been married to Philip for 12 years. By this story’s account, he’s been a good husband to her. She wasn’t a conventional pick for someone like him, from a society family, but he loves her. He’s a churchgoing Trump voter, but doesn’t seem to much care that she’s come to hate Trump, and has stopped going to church. Here’s how McCrummen describes him:
He did not chafe at her independence. He never complained when she decided to pursue her doctorate instead of having children. Never asked where his dinner was. He was kind to her older sister, who was born with mental disabilities, and who Miranda referred to as “my heart” and “my girl” with an air of fierce protectiveness.
He also supports her friendship with Liz Hahn. This, alas, is going to mean the end of their marriage, I predict.
Liz — a divorced woman and liberal activist — has led Miranda to a Great Awokening. Excerpts:
And then came Liz, a new English teacher in her district who was outspoken and had a sticker on her cellphone with an image of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the word “Dissent.” She was not like anyone Miranda had met before, a Republican who’d become a Democrat and who described her Trump-era self as a “full-on rage machine.”
A “full-on rage machine” — like that’s a good thing. Miranda’s unhappy experiences with other Southern white conservatives in the Trump era had begun to alienate her from that world, in which she was raised. Liz articulates her alienation and anger well. More:
Miranda listened. She was by now used to how Liz talked. Women in bondage, the white male establishment. Liz, the daughter of a minister, now described the evangelical church as a “fear-based cult permanently intertwined with a patriarchal power system.”
Miranda was surprised by how often she found herself seeing what Liz meant. She had come around to Liz’s view that being pro-choice did not mean being pro-abortion, for instance. She had stopped attending church partly because her Sunday school had turned into one long baby shower and she did not have children, and partly because of the day a teacher had gone on a rant about the growing Muslim population.
“The message to me was, ‘They’re here to out-populate us,’ ” Miranda said now. “I took it as: ‘Wow, I guess I’m not doing my job having white children to add to the fight.’ ”
“It’s like this way of life is threatened,” said Liz. “This white way of life.”
They stopped for a moment for water, and Miranda thought about that. She thought about how her husband’s friend had kidded her about her friendship with Liz, and kidded Liz about the bumper stickers on her car — “Tolerance” and “Coexist” and “READ” — and how she had laughed it off until one day it wasn’t funny anymore.
“Exactly which one of those do you disagree with?” Miranda had said sharply.
“It’s like they’re wondering, ‘Are you changing?’” she told Liz now. “It’s a subconscious thing of, ‘What’s next?’ Meaning, if my mind can be changed, what else could happen?”
Here’s one more passage:
Phillip’s friends had been the same since high school. Hers had expanded to include a group of female teachers that Liz called “the coven,” who often met at Liz’s house to drink wine, and talk about school and how stifling life could be in suburban Augusta.
“Love you,” Phillip said, dropping Miranda off on one of these evenings, pausing for a moment to wave at a group of women he barely knew.
“Love you,” Miranda said, and the wine was poured.
They talked about codependent female characters in movies, which somehow led to a conversation about the actor Tom Hiddleston, and Liz played a recording of him reading a racy E.E. Cummings poem.
“Y’all,” said Miranda. “I’m going to have to take a shower.”
There was more wine, and they talked about the night they all went to a downtown Augusta club to see a fellow teacher who moonlighted in a burlesque troop called Dirty South. She had performed as Marie Antoinette and smashed cake all over her body.
“Liz kept saying, ‘Look at Miranda’s face!’ ” one of the teachers said now.
“I kept pouring wine for Miranda,” Liz said. “I joked that she was out of her comfort zone, but actually it was me — I still have that evangelical Christian girl in there.”
Here’s where the future is foretold:
[Liz] had told Miranda about her first marriage to a conservative Christian man with whom she had two kids and “this cute little family,” and how it started falling apart when she began reading Dostoyevsky, pursuing a teaching career, making different friends, having different thoughts, and how “this internal voice got louder and louder saying, ‘this is not a role I can play anymore’ ” until she finally got a divorce, after which she felt guilty for years.
Liz tells the story in the mode of a religious conversion, in which she loses everything in her life for the sake of her new Truth, leading to a dramatic moment of deconversion that is straight out of a liberal Hollywood script. Now she exults in her new freedom, and the progressive activism that gives force and purpose to her life.
Read the whole thing. Seriously, do. Every paragraph is pregnant with meaning.
Here’s what I think is going to happen: Under the influence of the coven, especially full-on-rage-machine Liz, Miranda is going to leave her Trump-voting, Rush-listening husband, and start a new life as a liberal activist who takes as her mission turning the school where she and Liz teach into a vector of progressive values injected into this horrible, hate-filled white Southern suburb. Poor Philip, who is a good ol’ boy in the best sense of the phrase, is not going to see any of this coming (unless he reads this Post piece and has an awakening of his own). Liz is a Pied Piper figure, exploiting Miranda’s understandable alienation from Trumpworld, and politicized Southern Evangelicalism, and turning it into rage against everything that has given Miranda’s life meaning till now.
The thing is, I get why Miranda is put off by the conservative politics of her community, especially how those politics express themselves in her Baptist church. Why don’t they find a different church? Why stop going to church altogether, as if Trumpy Evangelicalism was the only option besides disaffiliation? If she’s bothered so much by the kind of politicized racial talk around her, well, talk to Philip about it. Talk to your friends about it, tell them that it bothers you. Decades ago, my family in Louisiana and I pretty much quit talking about politics because we found that we got on each other’s nerves — and I’m a conservative! But you know, that was no big deal. It was manageable. They loved me, and I loved them, and we weren’t going to let politics separate us. It sounds like Liz is encouraging Miranda to make politics the be-all and end-all of her life. I’d bet my next paycheck that Liz is every bit as exhausting in her political harangues as the right-wingers who get on Miranda’s nerves — but she’s a pain in the ass for the Left, so that makes her a Prophet.
I genuinely think this is a powerful story, one with almost mythic force, and I’m glad McCrummen wrote it. But note well: you will never, ever read a profile of a woman who gets fed up with the hyperpoliticization of her left-wing society, makes a conservative Evangelical convert friend, and starts to feel the impulse to escape her life. And if such a thing did happen, if the Evangelical friend were to urge her, even implicitly, to leave her otherwise kind, loving secular liberal husband for the sake of “freedom” and self-realization, she would be a terrible friend.
But the story of Miranda’s deconversion from conservatism, Evangelicalism, and marriage, into a world of self-discovery and self-realization, and divorce, is a narrative with immense power in our culture. In the late 19th century, Henrik Ibsen caused a scandal with his play A Doll’s House, which told pretty much this same story. In the play, Nora Helmer is a bourgeois housewife married to Torvald Helmer, a bank manager. They have a nice house, with kids, and a seemingly perfect life. But Nora feels stifled within it, as if she were playing a role. Over the course of the play, a domestic crisis reveals the cracks in their marriage, and causes Nora to spite Torvald, who can only think of her as a wife, mother, and homemaker. In their confrontation, in which Nora says she’s leaving him and the children, she says that during their eight years of marriage, “We have never exchanged one serious word about serious things.” Off she goes, never to return.
When I first saw this play, as a single man, I sympathized with Nora. Torvald really is a stuffed shirt, the product of a society that taught him to see women as totally dependent on men, and as their servants. I re-read it last year, and was surprised by how much I hated the play, even as I did not like Torvald any more the second time than I did the first. The fact that Nora walked out on those children in search of “herself” was repulsive to me. Second, she did not give Torvald the chance to change, to turn away from the false ideas that society had given him, and that he had accepted blindly. Nora saw herself as only a victim of Torvald, and of hypocritical bourgeois society — and as a victim, she had the right to do whatever she felt she needed to do to discover her True Self. Even leave her husband and children.
Again, I can’t stand Torvald any more now than when I first encountered the play, but I am inclined to see him as a different kind of victim of stifling bourgeois society (Kierkegaard blasted the hypocrisies of this same society from a Christian point of view). Torvald is a rigid man, but not a cruel one. I think A Doll’s House is a hateful play now; the story of how Miranda is being seduced away from her marriage to a good, but in some ways limited, man, into a life of self-exploration and political activism, reminds me of how much I despise that play.
There are no children in Philip and Miranda’s marriage — for that, I guess, thank God. They won’t have to pay the price if their mother decides that becoming an activist Democrat is more important than their family’s life. To be clear, if I were Miranda, I too would find the life she describes as stifling. But is Liz Life any better? Sitting around with women bitching about their husbands, then heading off to a strip club to watch a fellow teacher demean herself sexually in public, on a pole? That’s freedom? Notice the theme of sexual liberation in the words and deeds of the coven. Liz is a wicked, wicked person. Nobody needs to be friends with a self-described “full-on rage machine.” That woman is a destroyer.
If Philip wants to save his marriage, he needs to tell Liz the Tempter to hit the road. If Miranda wants to save her marriage, she needs to stand with her husband on this, and end that toxic friendship. And then Philip and Miranda need to work on their marriage. Based on what we see in this story, he is too caught up in a middle-class suburban Southern narrative to see the crisis into which his wife has been drifting for a long time. Her decision to stop going to church was a warning sign. He sounds far too passive — remember, he doesn’t even know the “coven” — thinking that to be a good husband is to give one’s wife maximal freedom to do what she wants. As if marriage were nothing more than a contractual agreement between two autonomous individuals.
Bottom line: it sounds like Philip and Miranda have been caught up in one inauthentic social narrative, and that Miranda is being tempted to escape from it by embracing a rival social narrative that is no less inauthentic, but which is privileged by the dominant culture. Like I said, you won’t see Washington Post profiles of women getting fed up with progressive culture, and tempted to escape from it into a more traditional, even religious, rival culture. Nor would you see a Washington Post profile of a man who decides that he’s bored and stifled by his loving, conventional wife of 12 years, and is tempted by his divorced, fun-loving male friend to reconsider whether or not he’s getting the most out of life by staying with her.