Navigating the Pod People

by Margaret Donovan Bauer Issue: Spring/Summer 2020

“At first glance, everything looked the same. It wasn’t. Something evil had taken possession of the town.”
—Invasion of the Body Snatchers

I once dated a guy who voted for George W. Bush. His excuse? Bill Clinton got a blowjob in the Oval Office.

Ummm, you say, George W. didn’t run against Bill Clinton. My response too. But he contended that Al Gore should have stopped this indiscretion from happening.

Now let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Al had foreknowledge of the pending liaison. What man tells another man not to get a blowjob? And really, did this guy think Bill gave Al a (pardon the pun) heads up on his plans with this intern? That Slick Willy said to his V.P., “Hey Al, guess what? That hot intern Monica Lewinsky is going to give me head in the Oval Office.” No. Bill’s blowjob was just the best excuse Mr. Right-Then could come up with to explain his Bush vote to a liberal. He wanted me to believe it wasn’t about voting for a member of the anti-choice, anti-healthcare party, but rather that he had voted against condoning or turning a blind eye to behavior unbecoming of the presidency.

I knew better. He’d asked me about pro-choice bumper stickers on my car. I told him they were my small but public statement against the conservative ideology I’d grown up around. My mom worried about my safety driving in the South with those bumper stickers. This guy worried about my soul. Abortion is a sin, he wanted to say. But he also wanted to have sex with me, so he didn’t.

Instead, he argued that a lack of decency was evident in Gore’s failure to stop Clinton from desecrating the Oval Office—as if John Kennedy had not already exchanged bodily fluids with some not-his-wife-female in there (or at least somewhere in the White House)—not to mention what Richard Nixon’s mere presence, all by himself, did to the Office, if you want to get into what really undermines the presidency. I didn’t care what lewd acts went on in that particular room (or wherever), as long as all was mutually consensual, of course. If sexual propriety is so important to the presidency, how would Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt have done in their elections? (And of course, since the 2016 election, it is pretty clear conservatives don’t really care about the president’s sex life, however tawdry it is.)

So go ahead and vote for George the Second a second time, I’m thinking back then. Vote for the guy who claimed he would bring integrity back to the White House (after Bill’s blowjob) and then lied to us about weapons of mass destruction to justify a war that would pour money into his vice president’s bank account. Support the party that killed the Clintons’ efforts to revise our national health care system so fewer mothers would be compelled to choose abortion because they are unable to afford to take care of the children they already have. But you don’t get to make that voting choice and have sex with me. I’m out.

 


Fast forward to 2016 (though it’s not that fast—feels like lifetimes ago since I made such poor choices in male companionship). When I questioned Christian conservatives about their support of Donald Trump for president—you know, the guy who bragged about grabbing women by their privates—many responded with a reference to the adulterer Bill Clinton.

Ummm, I’d reply, Trump isn’t running against Bill Clinton. And I’ve heard no stories of Hillary enjoying oral sex anywhere (poor dear). To them, however, Hillary standing by her philandering man somehow justified voting for an adulterer who cheated on Wife #1 with (at least) Wife #2-to-be, on Wife #2 with (at least) Wife #3-to-be, and on Wife #3 with (at least) a porn star. Indeed, from what Trump admitted to Billy Bush during the pussy-grabbing conversation, he cheated on Wife #3 while she was pregnant with (at least) child #5. And don’t get me started on how he revealed his sexual attraction to Daughter #1 on national t.v. (“She does have a very nice figure…if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.”) Eeuuww. Hillary offended women for her “I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies, and had teas” remark back when Bill was running for president, but they’re okay with the actual candidate for the presidency lusting after his own daughter and asserting that women allow him to sexually assault them because he’s rich?

This time around, however, it was not a fling trying to explain his vote but family members and old friends from way back when, calling up Bill Clinton’s adulterous behavior to justify their votes against his wife while ignoring Donald Trump’s record of adultery. So how do you respond to such hypocritical double standards when shared by people you love? You ask, how can a brother to sisters brush off Trump’s bragging about assaulting women? And you weep over whatever it is you don’t know about your brother’s life that could inspire his angry disrespect for people who think the way you do—that is, for you.

Perhaps to justify compromising their moral compasses to vote for an unqualified degenerate over a qualified woman, many assert their view that abortion is murder and they cannot support any candidate who is pro-choice. It is hard to argue against this particular one-issue voter, who equates abortion with killing babies. But if you are pro-life, I say, be pro-life. If you are against legalized abortion, be for Planned Parenthood, affordable health care, a livable minimum wage, and welfare, other issues these same “pro-life” advocates rail against in social media. Even if the majority of adults on public assistance were exploiting the system, as some so-called “news” sources contend, we are still talking about feeding children. It seems that once a fetus becomes a baby born into a family living in poverty, that child is viewed by the “pro-life” right as a burden upon the state, wasting their tax dollars on such “luxuries” as food and medicine. If you don’t want pregnancies terminated, provide as much support for women’s access to birth control as you do to men’s access to Viagra.

 


Back in the 1990s, I dumped the guy who found an Oval Office blow job more offensive than Republicans blocking health care reform, so I never got to ask his pro-life self how he felt about all the lives lost in George W.’s war, fought, it seems, more to avenge his father’s unfinished business with Saddam Hussein than the lives lost on 9/11.

But it is not so easy for me to let go of family members and lifelong friends, as advised to do when I wonder aloud how people I know to be good folks can be so callous toward people much less fortunate than they obviously are. (In addition to rants about undocumented immigrants stealing jobs, they post photographs from their exotic vacations, evidence that their own jobs are stable and lucrative.) Yet their acceptance of the fallacious propaganda of “Faux” News often feels like a personal affront when they ignore articles I share from reputable sources. I am an English professor. I teach critical thinking and critical reading. I do not deny that I live in a liberal bubble, as university communities tend to be, but we vet our news sources, I point out, in response to my brother’s suggestion that liberals are all naive. Indeed, he often criticizes “libtards” in social media postings, and that stings. Don’t you know I can see that? Would you call me that to my face?

Who are you, and what have you done with my sweet baby brother?

I try to understand. Perhaps his angry tone, like my sadness, is inspired by how divided we are. I reach out to him and others like him, ask questions, express how baffled I am by the uncivil discourse of people I remember as kind and generous. These efforts only make them angrier. Others ignore or unfriend me.

I’ve been gone a long time. Did something happen to change the sense of morality of these people, who went to the same Catholic school I went to, where we all memorized Bible verses about feeding the poor and taking care of the sick? Or does distance provide perspective on a dark side that was always there? Has my view from the outside given me a clearer perspective on the Deep South than living there allowed?

Which brings me to why I left—and why I stayed away after leaving, with longer and longer intervals between visits back. Once I moved out of state, I realized that my career ambitions never fit in with the expectations for women in my tiny hometown in south Louisiana. I recall how many of my parents’ closest friends dumped my mother after she left my father in 1979. They seemed personally offended by her dissatisfaction with the limitations of her life. Like my father, they did not understand her desire to go back to school to study art, be an artist. She was supposed to be content as a housewife, to appreciate her good fortune that she did not “have” to work.

Similarly, many people from home cannot comprehend my devotion to my career, would not understand that I have no regrets about remaining child-free, and if I were to go back, I would find few old friends who share my political views. After revealing my liberal ideology openly in social media (today’s bumper sticker), I might even be shunned as my mother was after she gave up tennis tournaments, bridge clubs, and cocktail parties to pursue ambitions beyond what was expected of her. My brother reports that, indeed, folks from my hometown have asked him, “What happened to your sister?” a polite way of asking, What is wrong with her?

Did you defend me? I want to ask. But he’d likely respond, “And say what? What did happen to you?” He wonders too, I know.

I am not shy about sharing my political, social, and ethical views on Facebook, my small act of rebellion against the closed-minded provincialism I witness in the posts of people I thought shared my sense of morality. Indeed, what happened to them? is what I’m asking. I question their double standards and the illogical fallacies in their arguments: pro-life while a fetus is in the womb, but anti-welfare and health care once a baby is born; small government, except when it comes to women’s rights over their own bodies or the sex lives of anyone who is not heterosexual.

And God forbid that a woman dares to defy traditional expectations for women—wife and mother, helpmate and nurturer. Hold a job if your family needs the money, but prioritize your career? What are you trying to prove? Run for US President? Heresy. Better to vote for a philandering, self-centered sociopath whose whole life has been fraught with corruption, than a qualified woman who has spent her entire career trying to improve conditions for other women, from helping them to provide food and healthcare for their children to encouraging them to pursue their dreams without apology, even the highest office of the land. As the 2016 presidential election was debated on Facebook, I was horrified by the unjust, uninformed reaction to Secretary Clinton expressed by people I had never known to be so palpably hateful.

Such vitriol feels like a personal attack sometimes, though I realize no one intends to insult me. Hillary haters are certainly not thinking about me in comparison to her. But like her efforts to adapt so as not to hurt her husband’s political ambitions (sadly ironic, right?), in my young adulthood I tried to adapt myself so as to both pursue my career and fit into the community that ostracized my mother. That effort led to a terribly mismatched mistake of a marriage. And even in the less confining community my career brought me to, I have lost awards and positions to less qualified men and women, either because I am a woman or because I don’t act like someone’s perception of “womanly.” I know what it feels like to have assertiveness and ambition characterized as shrill and bitchy.

 


And here’s the rub: even as I vowed I would not dump friends and family over politics, in spite of what it revealed about their priorities (their own tax burden and health insurance costs seem more important than feeding the hungry and providing health care for the sick), I lost my oldest friend shortly before Trump was elected. She was not the first to “unfriend” me on Facebook, but her rejection was as disappointing as the revelations in my brother’s angry political posts. I’ve known her since preschool days, and though we didn’t run in the same crowds in high school and college, we maintained a strong bond. Like sisters, who often disagreed but had each other’s backs when others criticized us.

In high school, she was the girl everyone feared because she had no fear. An overt nonconformist while I was still trying to fit into the boxes designed for Southern girls, she would say whatever was on her mind, a big no no at our school. I’d always admired her courage. And given her tendency to voice an unpopular opinion, I felt comfortable speaking my mind in response to a post someone made against Hillary Clinton on this friend’s Facebook page, suggesting Hillary was a bad example for young women. In reply, I wondered if this woman (whom I didn’t know) would leave her granddaughters alone with the candidate who bragged about sexually assaulting women. My childhood friend saw my question and proceeded to attack me, her first playmate besides her siblings, both publicly on Facebook and in several blistering private texts. I was shocked. She had never been shy about questioning what she did not understand, which is what I had done in my response to that post on her page. Ironically, I thought when doing so, I might be saying what she was holding herself back from saying, as I’d noticed that the person I responded to was an in-law of one of her siblings. I could only account for her failure to question a woman’s condemnation of a strong woman like Hillary Clinton as familial diplomacy (albeit diplomacy was uncharacteristic of her). It had not occurred to me that my old friend might be a Trump supporter, even though I knew she was a Republican. I simply could not believe a woman like her could plan to vote for a man like him.

I should have called her, I know, but I was cowed by her anger. She could be daunting with her ability to ignore the politeness filters we’d been taught to use. I’d rarely been on the receiving end of that intimidation, but I had often been discomforted by witnessing her fearless fury released upon others, even when I believed her anger was justified. Still, I had envied her ability to express her outrage so openly and had often defended her to critics of her outspokenness, pointing out to them when she was not wrong about an injustice she was railing against. I guess I expected her to do the same for me that day, rather than choose a Facebook friend over me.

I responded carefully to her texts, asking questions and explaining my views while suppressing my horror upon realizing she, of all people, supported that misogynist for president, that she was attacking Hillary for some of the same points of criticism I’d often heard directed toward her back in our youth (toward me in the present). If anyone from “home” could see the offensiveness of the misogynistic comments about Hillary Clinton, I thought, surely it would have been her. Regardless of our differences, I have no idea what would lead her to lash out at me so vehemently for supporting Hillary for president.

This first friend and I have been on opposite trajectories since high school. She studied business, while I studied literature. She launched a lucrative career as a trader in the oil and gas industry, right out of college; I entered a doomed marriage. Then she got married about the time I left my husband and home state to pursue a PhD. She set her career aside for several years to stay home with her children about the time I was launching my career as a professor. She never moved very far outside of our hometown, and eventually, it appears, the Pod People got her.

One of her last texts to me crowed about how Trump would “drain the swamp,” and then I’d see “how great America would be.” I wonder now whether she has seen the light since he took office and drained that swamp right into his Cabinet and staff. Is she as appalled as I am by what we find out daily about him, his cohorts, and his family, what we read and hear spewing from him? But she went so far as to block me after our texting exchange, so I have no idea—except that I’ve seen no mea culpa from anyone I know who rooted publicly for Trump during that election. And many are clearly supporting him for reelection.

I was taken aback during this exchange with my oldest friend when, with obvious disgust coming through her text, she accused me of “playing the woman card” in my defense of Hillary, “a copout,” she called it, asserting, to my further surprise, that she had never experienced inequality at work. Perhaps I should have reminded her of a story she told me back when she first entered the oil business: in response to her strong, highly rated performance in her new job, some apparently resentful “colleagues” left used condoms inside her car door handle. That was over three decades ago, but how do you ever forget putting your hand out to open your car door, feeling the sticky wetness ooze out onto your fingers, and then recognizing what you just grabbed? Maybe she now applies the “locker room talk” analogy of those who defended Trump’s sexual harassment “banter” to this memory and has redefined her own harassment as harmless hazing?

But this is the woman who, while we were in college, responded to my concern I might be pregnant, “Well, if you are, we’ll go to New Orleans and take care of it.” Realizing I did not have to have a baby if I didn’t want to, that someone would be there with me if I chose not to, I started my period the next day. She is the first person I knew to challenge, with this offer to take me to New Orleans, the view promulgated in high school that abortion was akin to murder.

I never forgot how she showed up at my apartment to catch up that particular day, as though she had intuited I needed her. (I could not have imagined then that even she would help me to get an abortion.) But it appears that she has forgotten her offer (she is now virulently anti-choice). I do admit that my irrational panic (I’d used birth control) is not as vivid a memory as grabbing a handful of sperm when you open your car door, and if you can forget that horrific incident, you can certainly forget a friend worrying needlessly over a pregnancy that never was. Still, I have always appreciated how she was there for me, sans judgement.

 


As time passed after Trump’s surprising and devastating victory, I noted a frequent resurrection of anti-Hillary and anti-Obama social media memes, shared by other old friends and family from back home, which sought to distract the new president’s supporters from his embarrassing antics and the implications of the numerous indictments of his cronies. Ummm, I found myself reminding those who posted such memes, Hillary lost; Obama is no longer president. But I’m curious how you think Trump’s doing as President. How are you reconciling your pro-life stance with caged children, divided families reminiscent of the darkest chapter of America’s past? They don’t answer. They do still equate believing in women’s rights to make decisions involving their own bodies with condoning baby killing. How can you think that of me?

“There’s no need for hate now. Or love,” one of the new Pod People says in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Just let go of your resistance and accept the new normal: today’s morality is determined by one’s political party, and I find myself in a sister against family, friend against friend civil war as detrimental to community relations as the Civil War. Just as my old admirer tried to justify his vote for Bush, people like my old friend and my brother may need to justify their vote for Trump, to themselves more so than to me. They don’t need me reminding them of their part in the current national outrage, but I need to argue with them, especially those among them whom I love. I can’t give them up as easily as I walked away from a dead-end relationship with someone I’d known only a few months. But I also can’t be silent—or nice.

I would like to be loved and accepted back home. It hurts to feel my accomplishments are not respected there. I feel sad when someone unfriends me; some I even mourn. But I cherish all the more the friends in my new home—as well as those from way back when—who like and appreciate who I’ve become.

I have used the line “I once dated a guy who voted for George W. Bush” as an entertaining story opener in my life among liberals. Eyes widen; eyebrows go up. People who know me in this life cannot imagine. “It didn’t last,” I assure them, and then regale them with humorous tales involving my previous poor taste in men. But I can’t make a joke of my brother’s poor taste in presidents or the loss of my very first playmate over someone like Donald Trump. I tell those sad stories to illustrate why I know I can’t go home again. 



Margaret Donovan Bauer

Margaret Donovan Bauer has served as editor of the award-winning North Carolina Literary Review at East Carolina University for going on 25 years. The author of four books of literary criticism focused on Southern writers, she has turned in recent years to writing memoir. Her previous Cold Mountain Review essay was selected Reader's Choice in creative nonfiction and Best of the Best: Favorite Overall of the fall 2018 issue. Her essays have also appeared in storySouth, New Madrid, Deep South, Eclectica, and Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.