It was Sunday, the day that Miranda Murphey always took long hikes in the woods with her best friend. She looked forward to them, and when she heard Liz pulling up the long gravel driveway, she came downstairs and out through the garage, past the deer heads on the wall, the rifles in the gun safe and all the things that led her to call the home she shared with her husband “manly land.” Phillip Murphey was working on a truck outside.
“Hey, Liz,” he said, as Elizabeth Hahn got out of her car.
“Hey,” she said to Miranda’s husband.
In the unfolding life of Miranda Murphey that afternoon, any number of people claimed to know her best – Republicans, Democrats, presidential candidates and all the strategists and pollsters looking to her as a key to winning one of the most consequential elections in recent American memory. But none were more certain they knew Miranda than the two people watching her toss her hiking gear in the car and pull her long blond hair into a ponytail.
“Tame the mane,” Phillip said, watching his wife of 12 years.
“OK, babe – see you later,” Miranda said to him, and soon she and Liz were heading down a two-lane road on the suburban fringe of Augusta, Georgia, where Miranda had grown up absorbing the conservative values that had led her to vote Republican in every presidential election except the last one, when the rise of Donald Trump had forced her into a reckoning that often took the form of conversations with Liz on Sundays like these.
“Was it raining last time?” Liz said now, looking out at the blue sky.
“No, it was cold though,” Miranda said.
They passed farm fields and a sign that read “Does your life please God?” They passed the church Miranda no longer attended, a subdivision where her pro-Trump in-laws lived, and a gas station where a man usually stood selling President Trump flags and posters of Trump as Rambo holding an M-60 rifle. This was suburban Augusta: mostly white, mostly evangelical, mostly Trump. The rest was Target, good schools and prayer groups at Panera.
Miranda played some music from her phone. Randy Travis, Weezer, Tupac, and soon, she and Liz were pulling into the empty parking lot alongside the woods where they’d talked their way through the past three years since Trump’s election. They stood at the edge of the pines, deciding on a path they had named the Robert Frost, after the meditative poet. Miranda adjusted her backpack; Liz got her water bottle.
“You ready?” said Liz.
“Yep,” said Miranda.
– – –
She is 39, a high school English teacher with a PhD and part of a voting demographic whose rebellion could upend the political map of the country: not just suburban women, not just white suburban women, but white suburban women in the South, whose loyalty Trump will need to remain in power.
It is the kind of loyalty that has always been expected of white Southern women, who have long played a role as allies of the status quo. This was true during the days of slavery, then the days of segregation, and held true when the women’s rights movement arrived and white Southern women joined the conservative movement instead, rallying to the slogan, “Stop Taking Our Privileges.” In all the decades that followed, it has been the votes of white Southern women that have defined and shored up the modern Republican Party.
Black women and Latino women consistently deliver huge margins to Democrats. And in the 2016 election, 52 percent of white women outside of the South voted for Hillary Clinton, according to a study by the University of Arkansas’ Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society.
It is white women in the Deep South who have remained the loyalists, the research showed, giving Trump 64 percent of their vote in 2016, a figure that did not include Miranda Murphey, who had first started reevaluating her politics after the election of Barack Obama, even though she had voted Republican.
“It was all the comments I kept hearing, like, ‘Change the channel, I don’t want to see that black face,’ ” she said. “It was always that he was black, not that he was liberal, not that there was a problem with some policy. I always thought being a Republican meant supporting the military and lower taxes, not being racist and ignorant.”
Then came Trump, who Miranda found so morally repugnant that for the first time in her voting life she wrote in the name of the Libertarian Party candidate and went to bed expecting that good and decent conservatives would do the same. She woke up realizing she was wrong. Church members had voted for Trump. Her parents had gone for Trump. Phillip: Trump.
And then came Liz, a new English teacher in her district who was outspoken and had a sticker on her cellphone with an image of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the word “Dissent.” She was not like anyone Miranda had met before, a Republican who’d become a Democrat and who described her Trump-era self as a “full-on rage machine.”
Miranda was not sure how to describe herself anymore, other than at odds with a world she thought she knew, in an America that felt more fragile than ever, and now, a mile into the woods with Liz, that is what she began talking about.
“You don’t find too many marriages around here where the husband is one way politically and the wife is another,” Miranda said.
“Living outside expectations is like running a marathon – it’s like being exhausted all the time because you have to work so hard,” Liz said.
They trudged through damp leaves, and Miranda brought up a recent dinner with a relative who’d said that Trump should just “drop a bomb on the entire Middle East” and how hard it was for her to remain polite.
“It’s those kinds of conversations. I’m looking around thinking, ‘Am I the only one who thinks this is not OK?’ ” Miranda said.
“You just want to scream!” Liz said. She brought up a confrontation she’d had at school, over a white speaker who she felt was unfairly criticizing black activists. “I was like, ‘Oh hell no.’ But it’s painful not to fit in. There’s one woman I know at school, it’s clear she questions things, but she is still in captivity.”
Miranda listened. She was by now used to how Liz talked. Women in bondage, the white male establishment. Liz, the daughter of a minister, now described the evangelical church as a “fear-based cult permanently intertwined with a patriarchal power system.”
Miranda was surprised by how often she found herself seeing what Liz meant. She had come around to Liz’s view that being pro-choice did not mean being pro-abortion, for instance. She had stopped attending church partly because her Sunday school had turned into one long baby shower and she did not have children, and partly because of the day a teacher had gone on a rant about the growing Muslim population.
“The message to me was, ‘They’re here to out-populate us,’ ” Miranda said now. “I took it as: ‘Wow, I guess I’m not doing my job having white children to add to the fight.’ “
“It’s like this way of life is threatened,” said Liz. “This white way of life.”
They stopped for a moment for water, and Miranda thought about that. She thought about how her husband’s friend had kidded her about her friendship with Liz, and kidded Liz about the bumper stickers on her car – “Tolerance” and “Coexist” and “READ” – and how she had laughed it off until one day it wasn’t funny anymore.
“Exactly which one of those do you disagree with?” Miranda had said sharply.
“It’s like they’re wondering, ‘Are you changing?'” she told Liz now. “It’s a subconscious thing of, ‘What’s next?’ Meaning, if my mind can be changed, what else could happen?”
– – –
She didn’t enjoy making people feel uncomfortable.
“You were always a rule follower,” Miranda’s mother was reminding her one day when they were having lunch, as they did most weekends at a place near where she had grown up.
Her father was a retired drill sergeant. Her mother was a special-education teacher who had taught Miranda what she considered the most important lesson of her life: to always try to understand someone else’s perspective, even if that person was antagonistic, even if Miranda herself was at the heart of the conflict.
“Especially if you are,” her mom said as they finished lunch.
She had gone to public schools, joined the ROTC and earned the nickname “Commando Barbie” for her ability to cross a rope bridge and dreams of becoming a military intelligence officer, which asthma cut short. She went to college at Georgia Southern, where she was ambitious and studious and earned a new nickname, “Bombshell,” which is what Phillip called her when they first met in a geology class. As she tells the story, the teacher asked a question, Miranda answered wrong, and everyone in the class laughed – except Phillip.
“He was the only one,” Miranda said.
He was from a prominent Augusta family whose parents had once lived in a wealthy Augusta neighborhood called the Hill, before moving to a house with a swimming pool in a subdivision called Camelot. They had cocktail hour every afternoon and tickets to the Masters golf tournament many springs. His mother was the sort of Southern woman who was aghast when Miranda wore a skirt that she deemed too short to a reception at the Pinnacle Club, one of Augusta’s elite venues. Miranda was by then the sort of woman who called the Pinnacle Club the Pineapple Club; she could ridicule Southern pretensions even as she conceded to them.
The wedding was beautiful. Black tuxedos, red roses, a Southern Baptist church. Miranda relented when the preacher insisted on “obey” in the vows, which Phillip had laughed off, saying he was “definitely not in charge” of Miranda, and this was why she had chosen him.
He did not chafe at her independence. He never complained when she decided to pursue her doctorate instead of having children. Never asked where his dinner was. He was kind to her older sister, who was born with mental disabilities, and who Miranda referred to as “my heart” and “my girl” with an air of fierce protectiveness.
They settled into life together in the house at the end of the long, pine-shaded driveway. Phillip had his own construction business. Miranda felt a sense of deep satisfaction teaching literature to students including some so poor their shoes flapped open, and for 12 years the assumption had been that their days together were based upon shared values, right up until the arrival of Trump. For the first time, Miranda felt what she described as “resistance.”
They used to talk about everything, and now Miranda began avoiding politics. They used to watch Fox News together, and now Miranda was recording the Democratic presidential debates to watch when Phillip wasn’t around. They used to attend church together and now Phillip went alone to a men’s prayer group each Sunday, and Miranda and Liz went for their walks in the woods. Her interior life was changing; their exterior life was the same.
“Hey babe, I was going to pick up Olive Garden,” she would say driving home.
“Sounds good,” he would say.
“Love you,” she would say.
“Love you,” he would say.
Phillip listened to Rush Limbaugh at work. Miranda had been rereading “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the dystopian Margaret Atwood novel about a near-future America in which women are subjugated in a theocratic, patriarchal state, and thinking that the reason it was so frightening was that “there wasn’t some cataclysm that changed everything.”
“It all started with a return to conservative values, with a rejection of what the world is, and a return to what they thought the world used to be,” she said.
Phillip’s friends had been the same since high school. Hers had expanded to include a group of female teachers that Liz called “the coven,” who often met at Liz’s house to drink wine, and talk about school and how stifling life could be in suburban Augusta.
“Love you,” Phillip said, dropping Miranda off on one of these evenings, pausing for a moment to wave at a group of women he barely knew.
“Love you,” Miranda said, and the wine was poured.
They talked about codependent female characters in movies, which somehow led to a conversation about the actor Tom Hiddleston, and Liz played a recording of him reading a racy E.E. Cummings poem.
“Y’all,” said Miranda. “I’m going to have to take a shower.”
There was more wine, and they talked about the night they all went to a downtown Augusta club to see a fellow teacher who moonlighted in a burlesque troop called Dirty South. She had performed as Marie Antoinette and smashed cake all over her body.
“Liz kept saying, ‘Look at Miranda’s face!’ ” one of the teachers said now.
“I kept pouring wine for Miranda,” Liz said. “I joked that she was out of her comfort zone, but actually it was me – I still have that evangelical Christian girl in there.”
“I would just like to clarify,” Miranda said. “I did not go to a strip club. I went to a burlesque performance.”
She went along with the jokes but at times wondered where all this was going.
More wine, and they talked about another burlesque show based on Disney princesses, called Distease, and not long after that Miranda decided it was late, and headed home.
– – –
When it was Sunday again, she and Liz went hiking.
It had rained the night before, and now they crossed over flooded gullies and fallen limbs.
They talked about what it meant that Amy Klobuchar’s voice seemed shaky in the last Democratic debate. They talked about a short story they’d both read, in which a woman finds out her husband has died, feels devastated, then exhilarated as she realizes she is finally free, then finds out her husband actually survived, and then dies.
“All the promise of life without him,” Liz sighed.
“Yeah,” Miranda said, and soon the conversation trailed off as Miranda walked ahead.
They had talked about so many things in three years, including some things they’d hardly told anyone else.
Miranda had told Liz that she felt she’d never really fit the mold of what a woman was expected to be in Augusta. About her internal debate over having children. About men she dated before Phillip, including an African-American man, and how she had gotten spit on when they were in public. She had told Liz about the minister who’d slid his foot up her skirt and then warned her to keep her mouth shut about it. She had told her about a time before that, when she had been sexually assaulted by a man when she was 8 years old, how she did not want to be defined by that, and how she still walked across parking lots with keys in her fist like a knife. She’d told Liz how all that had rolled into her feelings about the president, and how hard it was keeping those feelings to herself when she was around Phillip, his friends and his family, and how she wondered if that made her a strong, understanding woman or an enabler of Trump.
Liz had listened. She had told Miranda about growing up in a strict evangelical Christian home believing that being anything other than a dutiful wife upholding conservative values would lead to eternity in hell, and how the tension between the person she was expected to be and what she was had made her suicidal at one point.
She had told Miranda about her first marriage to a conservative Christian man with whom she had two kids and “this cute little family,” and how it started falling apart when she began reading Dostoyevsky, pursuing a teaching career, making different friends, having different thoughts, and how “this internal voice got louder and louder saying, ‘this is not a role I can play anymore’ ” until she finally got a divorce, after which she felt guilty for years.
She had told Miranda about how the rise of Trump had forced her not only to clarify her values but to start expressing them, and what she felt that expression had cost her. Her father, a Trump supporter, wrote her out of his will. Her oldest son, a Trump supporter, left Augusta to live with her ex-husband, a Trump supporter. Her pastor had avoided her when she asked to have a meeting about her moral problems with Trump, a situation that culminated on the Sunday before the election, when he all but exhorted the congregation to vote for Trump. Liz was in the choir then, still feeling guilty and afraid in some corner of her old mind, and now she was supposed to stand up in front of the church and sing “God Bless America.” Only when the music started, she found herself shaking with anger. She raised the microphone but instead of singing she looked out at the faces of a few people she knew had the same unspoken reservations she did, then put the microphone down and walked out.
She had told Miranda how unimaginable this new life of hers had once seemed. Her new husband was a libertarian from Delaware who took her to death metal concerts. She joined an Episcopal church. She had become chair of the county Democratic Party, gone to the first Women’s March in Washington, and although she was sure that this had cost her a teaching contract at a private Christian school, she had decided her freedom was worth it.
She told Miranda what she told herself: “I will not live in fear any more. I am not going to be that person in the room anymore that hides who I am so I don’t have to be uncomfortable or people around me don’t have to feel uncomfortable.”
Miranda had listened. She admired Liz’s bravery, even if she was not sure whether she wanted to follow her example into the unknown, and she was thinking about all this as they hiked deeper into the pines. They stopped to catch their breath.
“Should we keep going?” Liz said.
– – –
At times, Liz felt Miranda was somehow hiding from her true self. She wondered if she was pushing Miranda too far, such as when she asked her to walk with the Democrats in the county Christmas parade.
When Miranda declined, Liz decided to let it go, and on a bright afternoon lined up for the parade with the only other people in the county who said yes: an African-American woman, a married couple, an Indian American man, a retiree from Nebraska, a gay woman, a 12-year-old transgender boy and his nervous father who kept saying, “It’ll be fine, it’ll be just fine.”
They held up the blue banner of the Democratic Party and when Miss Columbia County Fair gave the sign, headed toward the waiting throngs lining both sides of a two-mile route.
“Merry Christmas!” Liz began, waving to the crowd.
“Booo!” yelled a man in a Santa hat. “Booo!”
“Snowflakes!” yelled a woman in a plaid shawl next to him.
Liz kept waving and smiling.
“MAGA! God Bless! Make America great again!” yelled a man in a visor stamped with an American flag.
“Bunch of retards,” said a man under his breath.
Another raised his right arm straight in front of him, palm down, fingers stiff.
“Troll! Troll!” yelled a man in a fleece vest.
“Is that a jackass on your shirt?” said a man cradling a baby, and through it all, Liz kept smiling, and kept waving, and meanwhile, Miranda was home with Phillip.
She was grading papers; he was working outside, and it was the kind of quiet and predictable day that gave Phillip the feeling of contentment he prized.
“It’s just – easy,” was how he described his relationship with Miranda.
They’d been through so much together – her graduate school, his new business, the deaths of his parents, serious illnesses, a thousand good times – and of all the things he was sure of in his life, he was surest of Miranda.
“I know I didn’t marry a traditional woman,” he said. “She’s not Southern Living. She’s very career-oriented. She’s not lazy. She’s a worker. She’s a go-getter. I tell her all the time, ‘Miranda, you are determined.’ “
He accepted her, and he knew she accepted him, as he had always been accepted as the favorite son of parents he admired and never wished to disappoint. He had been a Boy Scout. He had never had a curfew because he never got in trouble. He had never lived anywhere but Columbia County, Georgia, except for college and a brief stint after, which left him so out of sorts that he moved back into his boyhood room and saved money until he and Miranda married. He had never touched alcohol because he didn’t want to like it. He had become a man who said of Miranda, “She’s the only girl I ever kissed.”
“I didn’t know I had any feelings until I met Miranda,” Phillip said.
Besides her, his world had been a world of men. He kept the deer heads on the garage wall because they reminded him of some of the best times of his life hunting with his father, his brothers, his friends and the bonds they formed then. He went to the Sunday men’s group at the Baptist church and prayed the prayers of men who wished to be “godly,” by which Phillip meant “honest” and “responsible,” the sort of man a neighbor could call if a limb fell on his driveway and he needed help removing it. He kept guns not just because he liked to hunt but because he felt that being a responsible man meant protecting his family, and protecting his America from a rogue government if things came to that.
“All it takes is for the wrong guy to get in there,” he said. “I want to be in control. I don’t want to be defenseless.”
He preferred an America that left him alone: one where government was small, gun rights protected and borders secure, all of which he had felt was threatened during the presidency of Barack Obama, and all of which he felt was restored by the election of Donald Trump.
“I feel like I got somebody on my team,” Phillip said. “Someone to look out for me in the world. I feel I have someone on my side, helping me look out for the safety of my family.”
He knew that Miranda had some issues with Trump’s behavior.
“She finds Trump sometimes a little off-putting with his personality,” he said. “She does get kind of like, ‘I wish he wouldn’t say that.’ But I’m more of a results guy. I’m not as concerned about his brash statements as Miranda. I think he’s probably grown a lot as a man in a good way. I see him as being a gracious man.”
He thought about why he and Miranda might see things differently.
“She tends to run on emotion,” he said. “Not to make a sexist statement, but a lot of women do. I run more on logic. I think that balances us well.”
He was not worried about Miranda’s worries about Trump, Miranda’s friendship with Liz, or whatever they were talking about in the woods.
“As long as she and Miranda get along, I’m happy with it,” Phillip said.
And so on another Sunday, he watched Miranda heading off to hike with Liz, and he watched her come home later in the evening, when he was outside under a carport, showing his nephew how to gut a deer carcass.
“Hey Miranda!” he called out to her across the yard. “What’s the best part of a deer?”
It was dark, and she looked at him for a moment under the light.
Things Miranda had never told Phillip:
That she thought Trump was racist, and when he questioned the legitimacy of the first black president, she thought about her black students and how wrong it was to rob them of pride.
That she thought Trump was cruel, and when he mocked a reporter with disabilities, she felt the same surge of blind rage she had once felt when a boy called her sister a “retard.”
She thought Trump was immoral, and when she heard Christians defending him, she wanted to say, “How? How do we worship the same God? There are so many things that we as human beings should not condone, should not excuse.”
She had told Phillip about being sexually assaulted by a man when she was 8 years old, but she had not told him that when she heard Trump boasting about how he could kiss women “without even asking” and “grab them by the p—y,” he had reminded her of the man who had grabbed her when she was walking to school, and the feeling of hands forcing themselves on her, and the feeling of struggling to break free, and the feeling of running for her life, and of “exactly that fear, that helplessness,” and that when Trump got elected, she felt none of that mattering.
She had not told Phillip that when she saw Trump smiling on a screen in her living room, she felt physically ill. That she found him “revolting” and “vulgar.” That Trump was the opposite of everything she had always believed her husband to be: decent, honorable, Christian, the sort of man who would find Trump offensive.
She had not told Phillip what she wanted from him: “I want to hear him say, ‘The way he talks about women is not OK. The way he talks, period, is not OK.’ “
She had not told him what she wanted to say to him and all Southern men who believed in some chivalrous ideal: “I need you to stand up for me.”
She had not told him any of those things because she was afraid to hear what he might say back, and what that might reveal, so when Phillip asked about the deer, she answered as the woman he knew her to be.
“The backstrap!” she yelled across the yard.
– – –
“I tell you, it was vastly different from the Christmas parade,” Liz was saying. She and Miranda were having dinner, and Liz had just gotten back from walking in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in downtown Augusta.
“I think we were the only white people there,” she continued. “People were shouting ‘Democrats, woo!’ A woman yelled ‘Dump Trump!’ and I’m like, ‘Get that man out of the White House! Woo!’ “
“Really?” Miranda said.
“Yeah,” said Liz. “I’m telling you, it was great. This woman was like, ‘I love your shoes! You look so cute out here today!’ I’m telling you, I was beloved.”
“That’s funny,” Miranda said.
“Yes, I was beloved for my politics,” said Liz, and as their dinner went on, they drank sangria and talked about work and books, and Miranda told a story about her grunge music period, confirming Liz’s view of her as a closet rebel. They talked about how Liz always positioned her phone when she met with parents, so they wouldn’t see her Ruth Bader Ginsburg sticker, and about the most recent Democratic debate and the candidate Miranda would vote for – Warren, probably; Buttigieg, definitely; Sanders, maybe; Klobuchar, interesting; Biden, sure – and they continued talking, seeming in harmony about all of it, right up until Miranda began taking issue with a candidate’s position on gun control, which struck her as too extreme, and as she continued, she noticed Liz’s face changing.
She stopped herself.
“I’m not making you mad, am I?” Miranda asked.
There was a pause.
“No,” Liz said. “You’ll never make me mad.”
Later, on her way home, Miranda was still thinking about the pause.
It was dark, and she passed the empty parking lots of strip malls, the neon signs of chain restaurants and the quiet of so many subdivisions on a Sunday night in a place where there were so many expectations of a woman like her.
Maybe Liz was mad at her, she thought. Maybe Liz thought she wasn’t liberated enough, or brave enough. Maybe she was disappointed.
And what about Phillip? If she finally told him what she thought about Trump, maybe he would feel she was judging him. Maybe he would judge her. Maybe he would think she was “crazy” and “off the deep end.” Maybe he would not understand at all, and then what?
She looked out the window at a place that had felt so familiar for so long, and which now looked so different, so accepting of cruelty and racism and vulgarity. She exited the highway and drove along the two-lane, a white, Southern, suburban woman who was not accepting of that. She was lost to Trump, lost to a Republican Party still embracing him, and for the first time in her life, she was thinking not about what was expected of her, but what she expected of herself.
The inner thoughts of Miranda Murphey about Miranda Murphey:
“I struggle with this,” she said.
She passed the familiar fields, and the church lit up in the dark, and soon she was turning onto the long gravel driveway.
“So,” she said, not finishing.
She pulled up the little hill and glanced at the yard.
“One truck, two trucks,” she counted.
A light was on upstairs.
“Phillip’s home,” she said.