reading the signs

The Fraternity of the Twilight Zone

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

We have to talk about The Twilight Zone — the 1960s sci-fi television show that the GOP settled on as their preferred metaphor-weapon for contemptuously dismissing all sexual misconduct claims against Brett Kavanaugh. In response to Julie Swetnick, and her horrifying allegation that Kavanaugh participated in — or abetted — “train” rapes of high-school girls, Lindsay Graham could only express disgust — not at the alleged crime–but at the accusations, calling them “a bunch of garbage,” telling CNN: “This is getting into The Twilight Zone. You’re talking about Brett Kavanaugh being a serial rapist in high school.” At the judiciary committee hearing, Graham reprised his theme: “We’re in the Twilight Zone when it comes to Kavanaugh,” he sneered. Kavanaugh himself echoed this refrain, sputtering: “This is ridiculous and from The Twilight Zone. I don’t know who this is and this never happened,” at his hearing. Later, Graham, reacting to still a fourth charge against the judge picked up the Twilight baton yet again, telling reporters: “It’s been a complete Twilight Zone moment.”

At each turn, the tactic seemed to be: invert the horror that might reasonably be elicited by such crimes, project it onto the accusers, then discredit the accusers by likening their stories to something outrageously unbelievable — cue up The Twilight Zone.

Clearly, some backroom Republican cabal decided that this old TV series would code instantly with the American public as the quintessence of delusional nonsense, absurd science fiction that no sane person could believe. The Twilight Zone, after all, dealt with the supernatural or rather the paranormal — bizarre, inexplicable events that crept into and upended the lives of ordinary people. According to the logic implicit in the Republicans’ metaphor, the “ordinary people” here would be Kavanaugh and his supporters, and the “twilight-y” events encroaching on them would be the claims of Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and Julie Swetnick (so far).

Well, The Twilight Zone is an excellent metaphor for the current situation, but for reasons utterly at odds with the GOP’s. In fact, rather than bolstering the Kav-clan’s blinkered view of this situation, The Twilight Zone actually provides an ideal way to illuminate not only the utter believability of Christine Ford and her fellow accusers but, in a way, our entire culture too. The Kavanaugh allegations illuminate a very deep rift between men’s and women’s social experiences, a kind of emotional fault line whose existence we repress and whose damaging effects we rarely acknowledge.

The Twilight Zone was all about the uncanny, the disquieting intrusion into everyday life of something unknown, normally hidden, or invisible to us. In one famous episode, for example, a man acquires the power of hearing other people’s thoughts. In another, a poor married couple mysteriously realize their dream of acquiring money and power, only to encounter the terrible burdens that come with such privileges.

In Freud’s famous essay on the uncanny, he listed varieties of this eerie feeling, including the uncanniness arising when secrets are revealed. “This uncanny,” he wrote, “is nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old, established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression.” By way of example, Freud offered the uncanny effect in observing an epileptic seizure, when we witness the electrical processes normally hidden within the brain: “The ordinary person sees in [epilepsy] the workings of forces hitherto unsuspected in his fellow-man but which at the same time he is dimly aware of in a remote corner of his own being.”

In other words, we can be plunged into eerie discomfort, into the uncanny, when we are compelled to witness aspects of life that — while always around and inside us — we manage usually to overlook. That was the rich premise of The Twilight Zone, and that is precisely what is happening with the Kavanaugh affair — NOT because the allegations against Judge Kavanaugh are outlandish, but precisely because they are not. On the contrary, to use Freud’s words, they are “familiar and old” — aspects of life that have always been there, but remain repressed, for some parts of society.

For women, the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh are utterly recognizable. But to many men, they seem to come from a hidden realm, of which they are but “dimly aware” — a social reality they hold at arm’s length — psychically speaking — most of the time. The Kavanaugh hearings are the return of the repressed truth about women’s lives.

A male colleague I was introduced to this week dismissed the entire Kavanaugh matter with a single sentence: “There’s nothing to investigate,” he said simply — sweeping away Dr. Ford’s entire disturbing story — with all its vivid details — with just a single word, “nothing” — a perfect condensation of the repression Freud wrote about.

On the other hand, every adult woman I’ve talked to about this in the past week has recognized some part of her own life in the Kavanaugh allegations, and personal memories have come spilling out. In just a few days, I have heard dozens of examples of the sexual gauntlet we all walk: not just the tragic actual assaults (though I know of plenty of these just among my own acquaintances), but the many strategies we concoct constantly for avoiding rape or harassment; the close shaves, the steady thrum of dread we feel when walking alone at night, encountering a stranger, traveling solo in the “wrong” neighborhood, navigating an empty parking lot — the automatic and ceaseless micro-adjustments that are second nature to us. All of this has been front and center in women’s conversation lately.

I also talked about the Kavanaugh allegations with the (mostly female) college students I teach. When I asked if they could identify with the experiences described by Dr. Ford, two dozen young women’s heads instantly nodded in unison. Then, spontaneously, they began to offer disturbing stories of their own recent lives — of their high school and college experiences with assault or near-misses, of prosecutions or inaction, of fear and shame, of the challenges of telling their families. Several people cried. These young women live in the present, not 1982; they come mainly from midwestern public high schools, not rarified East Coast academies; and they attend a state university, not Yale. It does not matter. There is little variation across time or geography.

To these women, to most women, there is nothing remotely uncanny or Twilight Zone–y about what’s happening. But Judge Kavanaugh and his many supporters — in the Senate and around the country — are apparently encountering what Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone, called “the fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man.” Neither side is wrong, exactly. It’s simply that, in a profound way, men and women have long co-existed in one physical world but two distinctly separate social and sexual universes. And that is the true “twilight” aspect of it all — that we as a society occupy these adjacent but unconnected realms.

Women know of this double reality, but only some men do. Now, the current volatility of our political landscape — ignited not by Kavanaugh, but really by Trump — is pulling women’s alternative reality out of the shadows, shifting the tectonic plates of a divided culture. I don’t know what the FBI will discover about Brett Kavanaugh’s past. But I am sure that nothing being alleged about those drunken days 36 years ago is remotely bizarre, incredible, or uncanny. What is uncanny is that anyone thinks it’s uncanny.

We are living the cultural equivalent of a grand mal seizure, an electric explosion of all that patriarchal culture keeps hidden and requires women to absorb, cope with, and somehow smile politely through. Let’s try to use the discomfort, the pain, even the eerie disbelief provoked by this moment to move us out of that shadow dimension. Let’s make it a convulsion of truth from which we do not turn away.

The Fraternity of the Twilight Zone