Jessa Crispin Speaks From the Heartland

Jessa Crispin Speaks From the Heartland

Jessa Crispin Speaks From the Heartland

The author’s latest book, My Three Dads, blends personal memory with American history, offering incisive cultural criticism that turns to small-town values to understand American ideals.


Despite rejecting her childhood upbringing decades ago, Jessa Crispin has found herself needing to confront some old ghosts. As far as she may have run from her Kansas hometown—to New York City and Berlin—she suspected that to understand the genealogy of America’s present moment, she’d have to return to its heartland. Crispin started out as an early Internet book reviewer, founding the literary blog Bookslut and making a name for herself as a snarky feminist writer. Her latest book, My Three Dads: Patriarchy on the Great Plains, blends personal memoir with cultural criticism to explore the ghosts that haunt not only her rental house, but also her head, the city streets, American classrooms, and presidential debates. Since no amount of sage burning could expel their presence, she wrote a book instead.

The collection contemplates the best way to participate in our society as inheritors of American history. If the country swarms with people eager to make rules about what we should say, study, read, and buy in order to return to what they consider equality, Crispin takes a more measured analysis. In three essays, she turns to the past, critiquing the three “dads” she sees as emblematic of American identity: John Brown, Martin Luther, and her childhood art teacher.

Using these “dads” as case studies, Crispin discusses the way men use violence against women and enact rage through politics, as well as America’s enduring Protestant values. She picks apart the politics that divide the country today using stories like that of Dr. George Tiller, a physician who first gained national attention in 1975 as one of the few doctors providing late-stage abortions in the US at the time. Working in Kansas, he became a symbol for Christian fundamentalists and their battle to control the heartland.

Crispin may be primarily concerned with the Midwest, but its history, she argues, belongs just as much to the coasts, even if people from those regions try to distance themselves from it. Compare the rage Tiller incited with the woman Crispin refers to as a “twenty-four-year-old Marxist Gemini,” for example. This young woman believes the answer to our political problems could be solved simply by having blue voters move to red states. Build a leftist movement on the plains, she says. If the Senate doesn’t serve us, we can move to towns with disproportionate representation in our government. My Three Dads drills down on and picks apart these opinions, offering a concentrated look at a divided white America.

In this interview, Crispin and I talked about the bisected country, the American tendency to shop for one’s politics, social systems we desperately need, and how the Midwest figures into the American legacy. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

—Brianna Di Monda

Brianna Di Monda: You frame this book around figures who you call the “three dads.” There’s your childhood art teacher, Joseph Pianalto, who shot and killed himself, his wife, and two daughters; the abolitionist John Brown, who served as a violent martyr; and Martin Luther, who shaped American values with his seminal role in the Protestant Reformation. Why did you choose to frame the book this way and call these figures “dads”?

Jessa Crispin: These are intellectual dads. Obviously, everybody has different sorts of men that occupy intellectual space for them, but they’re generally men who influence and create the structures for our thinking. There’s an influence that’s almost inborn. We may not look at it that often because we’ve been raised in [a patriarchy], and it’s been in the air and your brain and your family and your school for so long. Trying to pick that influence out of your life and look at it is a bit like trying to snip your father’s influence out of your existence. It’s commingled, blended, integrated. It’s not clean-cut. So I framed the essays around my “fathers” or “dads” because I wanted to be kind of a dick about it. It’s a way for me to understand the extent of that influence.

I also wrote this book as my husband was going through his citizenship process. We were watching movies about the Revolutionary War, and we were going through questions about the Constitution and reading the amendments to one another. It became so clear [to me] that America has daddy issues because we refer to the founders as our “Founding Fathers.” The father and the patriarch and the dad have such a huge sway over our [cultural] imagination.

BD: Your book dissects the tension between American society and community. You write: “There is no American society, there is only American family” because “outside of marriage, family, or romantic love, it is difficult to find the same sustaining warmth and legal infrastructure.” You relate this to our definition of freedom, and how it hinders our ability to help each other, which you contrast to Thomas Moore and Fourrier’s visions of a utopian society. What infrastructure could we borrow from history—that Americans might actually adopt—to help build a better society in the US?

JC: Subsidized child care would be a great place to start. Melinda Cooper’s Family Values is a really good examination of how much of our so-called social safety net is purposely oriented around the family and maintaining that structure. People outside of that structure have a very difficult time accessing assistance. Growing up in such a small Midwestern town is a very extreme version of what is “American.” If you fall out with your family, you’re on your own. No one is going to help. You can’t even go to the next major city over: you have to go to Chicago, you have to go to Dallas, Houston, Denver. You have to leave the state. Given the way that those towns and the Midwest function, your worth doesn’t have that much to do with you. It’s where you come from and who your people are. There’s a level of vulnerability knowing you can be pushed to this extreme point of having to leave. I was lucky, but there were a lot of people that I grew up with who weren’t. And that’s actually how this country works: If you don’t have your people, and you don’t manage to find new ones, then no one’s coming to help you. So there’s meth, there’s prison, there’s the army. You wash out in one of these places, or you desperately marry the first person you possibly can in the hope that it will work out.

The town that I come from was settled in the mid-19th century, and a lot of people who still live there are descended from that group. There is very little new blood. If you don’t come with a context—as in, my great uncle sold a cow to your family and it was a good transaction, and now you can trust me as a descendant of that transaction, that kind of stuff—there’s really nothing to sell you to people other than charm or skill or talent or money. And those things are pretty cheap.

You can’t just show up in this region and expect to be integrated. It’s arrogant. “These people are voting against their interests” is my favorite way people describe the Midwest. “These people don’t know what they’re doing. They’re misguided. We’re going to move in and create a better system for them on their behalf, or just override what they have set up.” That idea doesn’t have any value.

BD: Let’s turn to the work that you believe people can do to create a stronger society. You say that killing and martyrdom can be cowardly acts because they’re “much easier than the constant uncertainty that plagues those who go about their work of tending to others.” What about tending to others is, by contrast, brave, and what is confronted by this work?

JC: When I wrote the abortion chapter, I didn’t know that the whole [country] was going to fall apart, although I guess it’s not that surprising. Kansas now being the Midwest provider of abortion does help my heart. That was a good day when Kansas voted not to amend the constitution, keeping abortion legal. I think a lot of people got exasperated with revolutionaries. It’s so purely American to not do anything until the revolution. To not start building systems, creating free schools or food pantries, or participating in any way. Americans treat politics like shopping. They want to buy the world they would prefer to live in, rather than participate in it. To just wait until the revolution happens, and then find your perfect little place—this is a very American thing.

This was made obvious to me when the Supreme Court outlawed abortion. Scott Roeder, John Brown, Timothy McVeigh—they’re not good at anything. They’re not good at life, so they decided that their contribution would be violence. I know a couple of guys who started talking about assassinating Supreme Court members. I don’t think we should assassinate a Supreme Court Justice in the hopes of making the world better, because I guarantee you it will make it worse. But I have these conversations with my friends and realize this is a type [of person]. Why don’t we ever talk about this type? Why are we emulating violent people rather than those who actually kept other people alive? Or moved bodies through space when they needed it? Or hid people when they needed it? That’s not who’s on our murals or our money. That’s not even who takes up space in our history books. We’re only excited if somebody dies, kills somebody else, or blows something up. That’s what it takes to get our attention.

If we’re going to have a revolution, and I just hope that we don’t, then maybe we can start creating the systems that will be necessary after the revolution to make sure that it’s not just militias and dictators.

BD: We see war as only an inconvenience: paying more for gasoline, waiting months for a new appliance to arrive, going without certain produce until the supermarket restocks. When we were in Vietnam, Iraq, World War II, those wars were all so far away. Your book argues that the Iraq war wasn’t seen as righteous because the enemy wasn’t the Nazis. Do you think the US has lost control of the narrative of itself as the good guy in wartime?

JC: It’s also that a smaller and smaller demographic of our country fights [in] those wars, and the people who enlist are so isolated. So it doesn’t impact anybody’s life outside of those circles: military families, working class families, etc. And nothing good happens when a small part of the population carries the entire burden of war for us.

It would be good for America to learn how to be powerless for a while; to learn that Vietnam was not an anomaly. That we are not the protectors and the world’s police, and that the world really doesn’t see us like that anymore. Because at this point, it’s just our country insisting that this is the role that we have to play. The rest of the world isn’t so sure anymore. [Many countries] think it’s weird that Donald Trump was president. Are we ever going to talk about that? Until America learns to be powerless, we’re either going to keep lashing out in stupid ways or forcing other countries into proxy wars, and it’s not going to help anything. And you’ve seen it over the years how fewer people are believing the story that America is telling, including Americans.

We have got to get better at doing community work. And I know some people already are—people are forming groups to distribute the abortion pill, mutual aid groups, sex worker advocacy groups, and the like. We have to decide that this work is important because, for the most part, it’s ignored by the media. We don’t turn these people into heroes—though maybe nobody’s ever benefited from being called a hero, personality-wise—but we don’t emulate them, and we don’t look at them as being an example of how we could be. [They’re] thought of as this incredible anomaly—that we’re in the presence of greatness, and if you need me, I’ll be at the bar; and I know fatigue, and I know exhaustion, and I know, coming up against corruption and evil and boredom and all the rest of it. But systems are made up of people, so we can do something about them.

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