How Women Survive and What We Remember

AOC and Katie Porter share the hard-earned ‘gift’ for noticing what others can’t yet see

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

This week, I opened my phone and watched Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tell a story that managed to be both shocking and familiar. The congresswoman is an unusual individual, and her hour-long Instagram Live broadcast regarding the attempted coup at the Capitol was extraordinary. It was also horribly, painfully, and sadly ordinary.

Given her celebrity status and the seemingly endless cheers and jeers sent her way from all corners of the internet, it’s easy to forget that Ocasio-Cortez is also an actual human. She is not simply an amalgamation of some strangers’ hopes, dreams, and nightmares. She occupies an unprecedented place in American history as one of the youngest people ever to have served in Congress — and she is the youngest woman to have ever done so. She is one of the relatively few women of any age to have been elected to the House of Representatives. As a woman of color, she’s even more of a rarity in her particular line of work.

Ocasio-Cortez is also a compelling storyteller. Along with nearly 150,000 viewers at any given moment during the broadcast, I watched her describe the growing sense of unease she had experienced in the days leading up to January 6, with the specific, well-honed anxiety characteristic of someone who takes the temperature of a room and displays excellent situational awareness.

This sixth sense is not the exclusive provenance of girls raised in cities, although it emerges frequently among those who have what is favorably described as “street smarts.” I hear it to some degree in the stories of many women who’ve been disempowered or had to live in fear for an extended period of time. I know country girls who hear a car coming down the road or footsteps approaching the house when everything sounds absolutely quiet to me.

There is always a girl in the group who knows where all the doors and windows are as soon as she enters a room.

Maybe they call it “women’s intuition” because we have to appear to make survival look like magic. If they think it’s supernatural, maybe they’ll be at least a little afraid of us. Maybe they’ll get distracted while we make them think not killing us was their idea.

Ocasio-Cortez knew something bad was coming, though she didn’t exactly know what. She recounted how the attempted coup played out in her world, including the moment on January 6 when she heard “huge, violent bangs on my door and every door going into my office… like someone was trying to break the door down.” She hid in the bathroom, listening to a man scream, “Where is she? Where is she?” She caught sight of him—a “white man in a black beanie.” He did not identify himself or shout any useful information about the situation. The 31-year-old lawmaker fought back tears as she spoke about how she prepared herself to die, reflecting in the moment that perhaps she had served her purpose on this planet.

Eventually, the man explained he was a Capitol police officer, and her staffer encouraged her to come out of the bathroom because it must be safe. But it didn’t feel safe. Ocasio-Cortez described what she perceived as the undisguised venom with which the man stared at her and how she second-guessed her gut reaction, wondering if she was somehow projecting something onto him.

I thought about the way I’ve heard Black and Brown friends talk about countless instances of harassment and abuse at the hands of police officers, and how Ocasio-Cortez’s story also carries those terrifying implications. I’ve heard stories from Black and Brown women who sought help from police after an assault or robbery and were often treated with utter disinterest at best. That Ocasio-Cortez was in her own office in the U.S. Capitol does not seem to have counted in her favor.

She was understandably confused when this man ordered her to go to another large building without telling her what room or even what floor she should go to. Her own building was being evacuated due to a bomb threat, and amid the very obvious impending entry of screaming, racist white hordes who were right then trying to break down the doors and windows, Ocasio-Cortez was not given specific directions to any secure location.

After running up and down flights of stairs in two buildings with a staffer, desperately trying to gain entry to a room and find a safe haven, Ocasio-Cortez came upon Rep. Katie Porter, holding a cup of coffee and walking into her own office. Attempting to give context to the women’s contrasting mood states, Ocasio-Cortez added that at this point in the day, different members of Congress had different levels of awareness and information about the threats to their safety.

By her own admission, Ocasio-Cortez was in full fight-or-flight mode. She repeatedly praised Porter’s unflappable demeanor. Porter later told her identical version of the story from her own perspective, adding that she welcomed Ocasio-Cortez in, saying, “Well, don’t worry. I’m a mom. I’m calm. I’ve got everything here we need. We could live for a month in this office.”

Ocasio-Cortez switched out of her heels into a Porter staff member’s extra sneakers in case she had to run for her life. Porter said that Ocasio-Cortez told her, “I just hope I get to be a mom. I hope I don’t die today.”

They barricaded themselves inside Porter’s office and waited for five to six hours in the dark as the shouting grew louder and closer. Law enforcement never contacted them, never checked in, never accounted for the safety of each member of the House.

Those are just a few details in a story that matches reputable mainstream reporting about the egregious security lapses and almost certain collaboration between MAGA law enforcement goons and the pale mass of traitorous phlegm known as Trumpers. Five people died, including one police officer. At least one insurrectionist brought zip ties commonly used for hostages and prisoners. Others had weapons of various kinds. I do not doubt that they would’ve attacked Ocasio-Cortez, and possibly Porter, and that they may have sought to kill them.

In listening to both of these women talk about violence and trauma, I was reminded of so many of my colleagues, friends, and former high school students. There is an awful kind of kinship that only people who’ve endured abuse and terror can really understand, and there is a special shorthand that women in particular share.

There is always a girl in the group who knows where all the doors and windows are as soon as she enters a room. There is always another girl who clocks that information as well as the ventilation ducts, the location of the fire extinguisher, and the outfit and hairstyle of every man in eyesight. From what they tell me, these room scans are not usually a conscious choice.

These women generally didn’t grow up in a castle that was constantly being stormed. They had the wrong kind of dad. They had the worst kind of mom. They were left in the care of cruel adults. They were beaten up every day at school. They were told the sky was green and beaten when they pointed out that it was bright blue. They were molested. They were raped.

Maybe they call it “women’s intuition” because we have to appear to make survival look like magic.

I have nothing but respect for Ocasio-Cortez’s decision to disclose that she was sexually assaulted when she was younger and to discuss how new danger can awaken and compound old traumatic memories. It was her considered and measured choice to reveal her private pain. Given the great thought and care that she puts into her speeches — and into her Instagram Live broadcasts — I do not imagine that was a spontaneous revelation.

Jealous Republicans call it “manipulative” because they hate that a woman like Ocasio-Cortez can make people feel the empathy Republicans lack. Note that I didn’t say “Republican men.” This deep envy combined with bitterness is a characteristic of Republicans of all genders. Republican women in particular relish using their own unhealed trauma as a cudgel against others. You see it in the way they write policy. You see it in the way they vote.

Some other Republicans may claim to dislike the racist, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene because she’s outwardly irrational and rude, but she has simply pulled back the curtain to show what all the other girls in the world’s worst club are doing.

But back to the real leaders in this story, the ones with compassion, strength, and dignity. Since I first watched the representative from New York on Instagram Live and the representative from California on MSNBC, I have learned that January 6, 2021, was not the first time Katie Porter had to barricade a door. She described an abusive situation in her marriage to a HuffPost reporter in 2018:

Four years before law professor Katie Porter launched her campaign for Congress, the single mother of three was flossing her teeth in the bathroom of her home in Irvine, California, when her then-husband barged in.

Matthew Hoffman grabbed his wife’s hands, ripped the floss out of them and threw it away, and then punched the wall so hard that he shattered the faceplate on the light switch and knocked the lights out. He would later tell a judge he was angry because his wife was brushing her teeth too slowly…

He pushed her into a wall, threw things at her, called her a “dumb bitch” in front of their three young children and would bang so loudly on her bedroom door at night that she had to prop a chair against it to keep him at bay. She said he shoved their 1-year-old daughter across the kitchen in her high chair, threatened to kill himself and once held the door of Porter’s car open to stop her from driving to a school meeting.

We all know the short, violent menu of options for what would’ve happened if Porter and Ocasio-Cortez had been exposed to former president Kraft Dinner Palpatine’s violent sycophants. As a white woman, Porter may well have been able to disappear into the crowd if necessary. But like the other Democrats of color in the U.S. Congress, this would not have been so simple a task for Ocasio-Cortez.

Thankfully, the congresswomen stayed awake and aware. Along with their staff members, they made the right call. They sheltered in place, in the dark, together.

In reviewing each woman’s recent remarks, I am reminded of how a successful team working in emergency conditions often features individuals with contrasting yet complementary approaches to addressing a problem.

I am reminded of people who’ve seen combat in the military, worked as part of a search and rescue team, or done emergency medical treatment in collaboration with others. Some look incredibly tense as they engage in dangerous work. Others appear serene. Both styles can be appropriate at the same time. One does not indicate weakness and the other strength. In fact, they can mesh well together.

I am reminded of all the women I know who can go from preternatural calm to “can I survive escaping through this window” in half a second. There are a lot of nice unfamous girls out there who can flip from student council president energy to finding the nearest makeshift weapon so fucking fast. It’s not because they think this is cute, or fun, or cool. It’s because they’ve had to do it before.

Trauma can give women the tough “gift” of noticing what others don’t see, anticipating risk, solving a problem before it occurs. Sometimes people imagine the folks who do this are magically strong. They’re not. They’re just experienced in managing harm. And just because they seem miraculous under fire doesn’t mean they don’t break.

I worry about women as they go through a frightening experience. But I worry about them a lot more afterward, especially if they don’t or can’t receive appropriate mental and physical care for the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

I especially worry if somebody goes through a terrible incident and immediately tells me they’re doing absolutely fine and that everything is great. They may be lying, or that may be their real emotional experience at the moment. All I know is that when pain is not acknowledged, it doesn’t go away.

Trauma can give women the tough “gift” of noticing what others don’t see, anticipating risk, solving a problem before it occurs.

Give it six months. Give it three years. Pick a calm, quiet moment somewhere further on down the road. A vacation. A day spa. A beautiful afternoon picnic in the park. The tiniest trigger — a sound, a smell, the sight of a stranger’s T-shirt — and the pressure builds, seemingly out of nowhere. Something’s going to break, and it’s going to hurt.

For many people, that is when the wound finally begins to bleed. Sometimes it gushes out in a flood that temporarily overwhelms unprepared friends and family. Sometimes people with trauma feel left alone, clinging to an eroding island of personal identity in a sea of pain.

To say the thing out loud is not a requirement or an obligation. The work of healing does not entirely play out in public, anyway. It cannot. It is sometimes slow going, and it is not glamorous. But sometimes sharing the details — even in a small group, on a limited basis — can help build bridges from island to island.

There is a wonderful book called The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. The author, Bessel A. van der Kolk, MD, was raised in the Netherlands by a father who survived internment by Nazis and a mother who carried her own legacy of pain. He has devoted his career to the study of what came to be known as PTSD, a condition he and colleagues worked hard to understand and to treat. His book has become a lifeline for trauma survivors, as well as an indispensable guide for psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers.

He writes, “As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself… The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage.”

To share one’s story, if the time is right and the need is clear, can be a great act of healing. We take control when we recount a time when we were not in control.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez knows what she knows. Katie Porter does, too. So do I, and maybe, so do you.

Author, REAL ARTISTS HAVE DAY JOBS (and other books). Writer of scripts. Host of WELL, THIS ISN’T NORMAL podcast. Patreon.com/SaraBenincasa

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