Jess Zimmerman: Anger That Can Save the World: On Justice, Feminism, and the Furies

16 October 2019


Fifteen years ago, my mother passed out from altitude sickness, hit her head, and temporarily lost her sense of smell. The problem wasn’t damage to her nose, or to her brain. It was to the connections between them: the nerves that transmitted olfactory signals, that turned air molecules into smells and smells into memories. To get it back, she had to retrain those connections, to take a great whiff of what felt like nothing and say to herself: This is gasoline. This is rotten meat. This is a rose.

Learning to be fluent in anger was similar. I knew how to experience the emotion, and I opposed injustice on principle, but I’d trained myself out of connecting the two; I had to rebuild the pathway between grief and grievance. That meant learning to recognize the smell of abuse mistreatment, to see it and name it and recognize it as a cause for anger and not for deprecation or self-blame. I listened when other people told me their outrages, and took second looks at things I’d laughed away. I took great whiffs of what sometimes felt like nothing: This is misogyny. This is rape culture. This is abuse.

Finding anger was like building a sense, but not the sense of smell—more like a sixth sense. Telepathy, or maybe even telekinesis: a sense of how to move, with my mind, with my words, what had formerly seemed solid. A superpower.

And one of the first things I was able to perceive, with this new sense, was how much it frightened men. Their reactions varied—matching anger, mockery, calls for calm—but the message was clear: Stand down. All the self-protective laughter, all the excuses, all the making myself a concave bowl to hold an insult where it would not hurt: Had those been to protect someone else all along?

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