Good and Proper Affect in a Broken World: Heartbrokenness as Feminist Practice – The Feminist Wire

Good and Proper Affect in a Broken World: Heartbrokenness as Feminist Practice

On the night Troy Davis was murdered by the state of Georgia, I watched a girl, who appeared to be about twelve years old, cry. Together, we sat in the social hall of a local church to hold vigil.

Waiting and witnessing on the night of an execution is not unique, and Davis was only one of two being executed that night in these “United States.” But details of his case were particularly unsettling. All but two of the state’s witnesses eventually recanted their testimony, calling Davis’s conviction into question. And yet, we waited for the word that he was dead. The glaring injustice of the Davis case made for a palpable despair. As this girl anxiously nuzzled into her mother’s side and steadily wiped tears from her face, I could not stop watching her. I also noticed, by contrast, that I was not crying.


The very experience of noting my own emotional response (or lack thereof) was so striking to me, especially because I remember being that girl. As a sixteen year old, I stood silently on the Governor’s Mansion lawn while the stated time for Governor Foster to pick up the phone, dial into the death house at Louisiana State Penitentiary, and demand a stay of execution passed. That prison is colloquially known as Angola, a name that blatantly bears witness to the racialized and racist effects of the criminal injustice system. In those years, I showed up with friends, watched adults who were members of social justice-y organizations give interviews to local news outlets, and held my candle. Often, I cried. What had happened in the time since? Why was this child the only one of us who cried that night from the very beginning until the very end of that awful moment?

At St. George’s, my Catholic grade school, holidays followed a predictable pattern. Throughout days in December, we spent part of homeroom period lighting the Advent wreath. In early May, we brought flowers from home, the stems sadly wrapped in wet paper towels and tin foil. Grade by grade, we approached a four foot ceramic statue of the blessed mother Mary and lay our flower at her feet. Lent was truly a time of sacrifice even for third graders. Some days during the season, we ate lunch in silence. This was penance elementary school style, preparing us for the most important day in all of Catholicism—Easter.

But before Easter comes Good Friday. That’s the day that Jesus was crucified. We use that word so casually, similarly to how we talk about the “death penalty.” But crucifixion is violent—Roman Colosseum violent, Salem witchhunting violent, Georgia lethal injection violent (but we are getting ahead of ourselves).

As school children, before leaving on Easter Break, we trekked to the church that adjoined our classroom buildings to watch the eighth graders enact the Stations of the Cross.

The stations begin rather benignly. Jesus is convicted. He begins to walk. He falls. He meets his mother. Veronica washes Jesus’ face. And then he falls again.

As a child, my church restlessness gave way to unsettledness which was ultimately overtaken by anxiety which was finally subsumed by palpable grief. By the time Jesus was stripped of his garment (in this case a loincloth tied over a thirteen year old’s boxer shorts) I would be crying. In the fourth grade, my teacher escorted me outside because at the moment in which the sound of faux hammering of the eighth grade boy’s hands to the plywood cross echoed throughout the church, my silent sniffling gave way to audible tears.

This was, from my teacher’s perspective, very disruptive. But this parochial school play was, from my perspective, very violent.

Much of childhood socialization is about learning “appropriate” affect. We are taught that laughing, a very human reaction to discomfort, is a response that “good” people keep in check. We learn to apologize when something sad happens to someone else, whether or not we feel anything about that news at all.

Before we learn all of the rules, we simply have emotional responses to the world around us, and we react accordingly. Someone says something shitty, and we cry. But at some critical moment, we learn to hear shitty words and not to cry. We learn to have no visible response. We learn to save any conspicuous emoting for the moments we find ourselves alone. From a child’s perspective, it must seem that emotion is something adults just grow out of.

We learn to listen to the day’s headlines containing stories about mass executions propagated by totalitarian regimes and/or deaths of soldiers who are just barely the age of consent (many of whom joined the military out of financial desperation) and/or aging folks who worked as teachers for all of their lives but whose pensions are insufficient for covering their health care expenses. We learn to hear these stories without emotionally reacting to the violence and pain and heartbreak that characterizes the day’s events. Instead, the “news” comprises the backdrop for commuting, waiting in the carpool line, chopping vegetables for soup. These devastating headlines almost never elicit what is truly the most authentic but decidedly not the “good and proper” response—which would be crying.


Non-violent communication is a practice developed by Marshall Rosenburg to facilitate conflict resolution and deep human connection. The approach which relies on the use of empathy has been deployed to resolve war—between nations and within families. Rosenburg’s own life began in Detroit, where as a boy he experienced wounding anti-Semitism and witnessed horrifying acts of racism. As a psychologist and later in his work on conflict resolution, he posited the idea that behaving violently and tolerating cruelty depend upon sustained emotional detachment.  His deep desire to counter violence—physical, emotional, cultural, and spiritual—led him to craft a method to facilitate greater emotional connectedness both with ourselves and one another. The world has been successful in manufacturing “nice, dead people,” he writes. Essentially the status quo depends upon witnessing, experiencing, and enacting violence as an unremarkable (which is to say unemotional) part of our days.

Of course, Rosenburg is not the first to note that we must emotionally reckon with the costs of social relations in order to transform those relations. Marx was an economic theorist, but he was an affective one too. Alienation is a byproduct of an economic structure through which we become divorced from working—the very activity that most of us spend the majority of our time doing. We lack control over the process and the product—its conception and design. Deli workers make sandwiches according to protocol not culinary sensibility. Teachers teach classes increasingly guided by institutional mandates not instinct. The commodification of our labor, or the pricing of our living breathing time divorces us from the process of working. We clock in. We make sure to have enough face time. These concerns overshadow the experience of working. We are always worrying if we are doing a good enough job. Perhaps most concerning is that alienation penetrates our relationship with ourselves. Marx argues we do have an essence, and it wasn’t built for this.

For those of us embedded in such economic structures, we understand that alienation is a feeling. The hopefulness in Marx rests on the moment in which in the proletariat—the 99% as Occupy Wall Street suggests—transforms from “a class in itself” into a “class for itself.” That process may not be forged through thinking about or theorizing labor but rather through the collective emotion and deep empathy spurred by the very experience of alienation.

After the anti-gay ballot measure was recently passed in North Carolina, I recalled some of the strategies that were used to defeat the legislation. During phone banks, volunteers called thousands of voters to ask if they might be willing to call their state legislators. At public events, folks were approached and asked to sign a postcards, which would be sent to Raleigh as a symbol of state-wide resistance to this legislation. 50,000 postcards were presented on the NC House floor. Constituents met with state legislators and explained why such legislation was bad for North Carolina.

In reflecting about the strategies used as we tried to defeat Amendment One, What struck me was that these encounters so rarely entailed a vulnerable, emotionally charged conversation about the violence effected by this policy for queer North Carolinians. We described how institutionalized discrimination makes instances of hate like the recent vandalism at the North Carolina State GLBT Center more likely, but we did not share how events like this one make us feel. Sharing those feelings is not an “appropriate” way to conduct one’s self, and it is not the “good and proper way” to do politics. But maybe it should be.

As I sat and listened to the North Carolina House debate the anti-gay Amendment, I cried—ugly, snotty crying. I listened to representatives equate the couples I know who are adopting children from the foster care system with those who sexually assault children. I even heard those who ultimately voted against the Amendment assure their colleagues that they are resolutely against “gay marriage” but that altering the Constitution to reflect their own bias was probably, for history’s sake, a bad idea. I listened to the representatives of a state for whom I work and whose students I educate collectively agree that I am not a citizen who matters and that those I call chosen family deserve systematic exclusion. I listened to it, and in the privacy of my own home, I sobbed. And I wondered if we should have done more of that. Maybe what were called for were actions of public grieving, cry-ins, that served as a catalyst for the conversation about the effects such policies wreak on human lives. Maybe the task of becoming a class for itself is less about consciousness-raising via education and more about connecting over the deeply emotional experience of living in this culture of violence.

The girl sitting in that church fellowship hall grieving Troy Davis had a response that sharply diverged from the good and proper affect of adults, who overwhelmingly sat quietly, faces despondent—sadness effected. Effected. To produce an impression. And yet, it was not as if the adults in that room were not feeling sadness. It’s just that most of us weren’t showing it.

Bill O’Reilly is decidedly not Tom Brokhaw. Ted Koppel never began his newscast with the kind of biting sarcasm deployed by Rachel Maddow. These days, you can turn on primetime television to watch young women emotionally disintegrate in a cocktailed fueled rage via reality programming. One might conclude that emotion is all around. But any good therapist will tell you that anger is a gateway emotion, as are depression and guilt. There is always another feeling underlying anger. It is usually sadness.

I wonder about the transformative potential of those emotions that lie beneath the effected affect, the emotions that bubble up from way inside, the ones that a twelve year old girl hasn’t yet thoroughly learned to keep hidden. Tapping into, publicly displaying, interrupting our regularly scheduled events for that grieving might be the thing that saves us from ourselves.

What strikes me most about the posts on We Are the 99% is how vulnerable they are. I imagine that the process of crafting those messages, making those signs, and assembling the webcam was, in many cases, accompanied by tears. And as I click through those photographs, I am aware of my own feelings of hopelessness and sadness. In those images, I recognize my own anxiety about not saving for impending emergencies and putting off needed health care. I resonate with the disappointment over wading through years of education and working dead-end jobs only to remain financially insecure. Life is not what we dreamed it would be. I am heartbroken that this is the case. I am hope-filled by seeing others who feel the way I feel.


Feeling the headlines is not something we do very often. Missiles have been dropped in Iraq and Afghanistan. What does the collective grief of thousands of families whose loved ones were dismembered by a weapon stamped “U.S.A.” feel like? And what does it feel like to return home from that war to rampant joblessness and record corporate profits? What must Occupy-ers be feeling to settle in public parks and beneath bridges in tent cities as the cold months are soon upon us? North Carolina’s anti-gay Amendment comes on the heels of a state Supreme Court ruling that dissolved adoption arrangements made between same-sex partners. What will it feel like for the parent who will lose their child to in-laws upon the death of the sole state-recognized parent? What does it feel like for Troy Davis’ mother to watch her son die by a needle placed in his arm by a state employee? She is a taxpayer too. And did the family of Mark MacPhail, the police officer Davis was convicted of killing, feel the revenge that is offered to victims’ families as compensation for their suffering? Did they feel righteous anger? Anger is a gateway emotion.

What happens if we feel rage about the state sponsored murder of Troy Davis, devastation over the systematic exclusion of our colleagues and friends, or heartbreak over the alienation of laboring for an inadequate wage? How does our likelihood of joining Occupy Wall Street or registering North Carolina voters or paying living wages change if we push ourselves to feel the violent effects of the status quo?

Our good and proper affect is a coping skill that insulates us from not feeling everyday injustice. But the not feeling may propagate that very injustice.

After sitting in silence, those who attended the vigil for Troy Davis were invited to speak. One person told the story of Joe Hill, a labor organizer who wrote songs chronicling the violence of working conditions. After seeking medical treatment for a wound (on the same evening of a nearby killing), he was charged and convicted of murder in highly contentious trial. In November of 1915, he was, in turn, murdered by the state Utah. Folklore has it that his final words to those in attendance at his execution were: “Don’t mourn. Organize.” While I appreciate the sentiment, I think, or should I say, I feel like the practices of mourning and organizing are not mutually exclusive.

Someone else had words that night. Ed Chapman, a man recently exonerated from North Carolina’s death row, spoke. The night of an execution, he noted, is a fundamentally unnerving night for others on death row, particularly the men who had lived next to Troy Davis for years and years. Those who had known Davis—guards and infirmary nurses and spiritual advisors— were suffering too. It is how most of us, despite ourselves, respond to death. The Davis family was certainly grieving, and even as the MacPhail family might have felt vengeance, they also felt severe loss. No one was insulated from the emotional effects of the violence of both a murder and a state sanctioned killing. No one at that vigil was immune from feeling heartbrokenness either, but when the time came, we filed out displaying appropriate affect.

As things go from bad to worse, I am aware that organizing efforts so often encourage solid resistance, standing firm, being proud. Perhaps, it is time for strategies of heartbrokenness though, strategies that bring the mourning that many of us are doing privately into the public sphere. Feminist organizing has a deeply entrenched history of doing change through doing emotion. Consider the Mothers of the Plazo de Mayo who gather women to mourn and demand an accounting of the whereabouts of their abducted children from the Argentine government or the breast cancer movement that at its founding radically resisted the notion that women should succumb to the culture of rational detachment that pervaded the institution of medicine. Feminist activism demonstrates the power of mournful organizing, speaking suffering to power, balancing strategy and action with feeling the feelings. Disrupting good and proper affect might be just what the world has been waiting for.