Turning Purple: The Year of the Defector


When my first marriage ended, he picked the East Village and I moved my little pile of things into a Philadelphia loft above a restaurant called Golden Chopsticks, a name that felt hopeful and shiny and new. When I looked around and realized that I was living alone in a city without anyone who really knew me, I bolted the door and didn’t come out.

Whenever I stood, my head felt lopsided and fuzzy. Sometimes it slid down my shoulders and made my back ache. I was frightened in a way that embarrassed me. The rent was too high. I drank too much. I slept at all the wrong times.

I called my brother in Atlanta. “I thought leaving would feel different,” I cried. “Maybe I made a mistake.”

“You’ll be fine,” he said gently. “You’re never alone for long.”

Alone wasn’t what scared me.

My ex-husband knew that I loved women when were were married, but before him, every girl I dated felt inaccessible in some way. Taylor wanted beach vacations, but I was a reading tutor and had no health insurance. Whenever my hands moved toward Ciara’s waist, she sobbed in a way that spoke of hands before me, so I let her do my nails instead. “Look at my baby’s hands,” she said, and held my arm out like it was something to be adored. Billie would only love me behind closed doors. Rachel wanted her boyfriend to watch.

I needed love big enough to make my own hunger seem small. When do we first understand what sets us apart? Does everyone question their right to belong? By eight, my knees and elbows were scratched raw from the fastening and unfastening of selves. Marrying my best friend made me feel rooted. Leaving him meant facing the possibility that I didn’t belong anywhere.

After a few months, I got tired of myself and went out in search of soup. I was leaving the Whole Foods parking lot when I bumped into a six-foot-five action hero, like if a Viking had reincarnated into a body-building pharmaceutical salesman. He looked at the pile of books next to my bed and said, “I’ve been known to crush a few books.” Whenever we hooked up, I patted him on the back like a giant baby while he cried about how much he missed his ex. We spent weekend afternoons sleeping behind closed blinds.

In the only photo taken of me that New Year’s Eve, I’m standing on top of a table wearing a rhinestone paper tiara, looking manic and terrified, trying so hard to seem hopeful.

Lately, I’ve been feeling that same sense of dread.

What if 2020 is just a bigger, dumber, and more dangerous version of the year we left behind?

After the impeachment build-up, instead of feeling relief I fell into a week-long depression. Despair makes people do strange things. One day, I watched back-to-back episodes of Toddlers and Tiaras and told myself it could be worse, at least I’m not putting hairspray on a two-year-old. I watched historical documentaries and told myself that at least I have a roof over my head, at least we’re not starving. Before bed, I deliberately infect myself with the very worst earworms to drown out the political noise: “Fine, fresh, fierce / we got it on lock.” Essayist Megan Stielstra picked up ax-throwing to manage her rage, and like her, I’m a stress singer. Thanks to her essay “Course of One’s Life,” from her 2017 collection The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, I’ve added Heart’s “Barracuda” and The Bangles’ “Hazy Shade of Winter” to my earworm repertoire. 

On the darkest day, I watched and rewatched the escape video of a North Korean soldier. When Oh Chong-song stole a military Jeep and made it to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, he was shot at more than forty times times by his fellow soldiers as he ran, men he called friends. “I would have shot me, too,” he told journalists. “If they don’t shoot, they will be severely punished.”

Doctors described Oh as a broken jar. He was riddled with bullets and infested with parasites.

It could be worse, I told myself. At least we don’t live in North Korea.

Everyone I know is feeling some version of political dread. Even my Republican cousin, my childhood best friend, is weary. While we are unified in our belief that 45 is a dangerous moron, our fathers haven’t spoken in three years. Six months after the election, my Fox News-loving Evangelical Christian uncle told my father that even though Trump was his seventeenth choice out of seventeen candidates, he now “firmly believes” that Trump is the best president of his lifetime. My father told my uncle that he was an idiot and an asshole, and we haven’t had a family dinner since.

What will we become by November 2020?

This era in our nation reminds me of what evolutionary biologists call “punctuated equilibrium.” In 1972, MacArthur fellow and scientist Stephen Jay Gould rocked the scientific community when he challenged Darwin’s hypothesis that the evolution of a new species is slow and gradual, with subtle changes to the gene pool. He posited that the problem with Darwin’s theory is that he didn’t have the fossil trail to prove it, something Darwin shrugged off: the evidence just hadn’t been found. Gould pressed that the reason the evidence for gradual evolutionary change wasn’t there was because that’s not how evolution works. Instead, he theorized, evolutionary change occurs when the equilibrium is upset. The same animals can live, breed, and die in the same way for ten thousand years, but when a sudden environmental change like rising water levels or bush fires force them to adapt quickly, “rapid speciation” occurs.

We grow wings to survive.

At the same time that Stephen Gould was challenging Darwin’s theory of evolution, philosopher Thomas Kuhn released groundbreaking work that urged scientific communities to rethink the accumulation of scientific knowledge, something he later applied to systems of social change. Although Kuhn didn’t coin the term “paradigm shift,” his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions brought it into popular use. His research showed that much like scientific evolution, political and social theory tends to remain unchanged for long periods of time. Once a paradigm is accepted, it stays until something challenges the status quo.

To take a page from my own life, at twenty-three, I believed that marrying a man would lead to a family and the kind of stability that I craved, that this paradigm would save me from a lifetime of heartache and fear. All evidence around me confirmed this at the time. My queer friends were beaten up outside of bars. I lived in daily fear of being outed and fired from my job. The media said that being gay was a “lifestyle” that could be pulled on or off at will, and that loving who we loved would lead to “gay cancer,” the name scientists gave to the mystery illness that we now call HIV/AIDS.

When I was twenty-three, straighter was safer. In the Kuhn Cycle, this period is called Normal Science, the assumption that the scientific, social and political communities know how the world works. When something challenges that theory, Model Drift occurs. In my case, it was becoming a nanny to lesbian couples with kids and dogs and houses and kickass jobs. This new information led me to begin to question what I had previously accepted as truth.

Model Crisis is when the understanding of what’s normal has drifted so far that people begin to question what has previously been accepted as fact. When there are too many questions or anomalies that challenge the central theory, after a period of flux and rapidly shifting beliefs—punctuated equilibrium—a revolution occurs. A new paradigm must be found. In my case, the evolving worldview that favored marriage equality affirmed what I had always hoped was true: that I belong.

The period before any paradigm shift can be a dangerous time, and social scientists suggest that Model Crisis is the world’s greatest form of social control. Our current form is the Politics of Fear. For two hundred and twenty years, a democracy led by cis white men with laws that favored them was our normal, and when that framework was disrupted by the first black president, it threw half the population into a state of anger and uncertainty. When the model was challenged again by the near victory of a woman, what had been driven into the shadows came out to brawl.

“You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right?” Trump asked his staff about the whistleblower whose revelation catalyzed the impeachment investigation. “The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”

Punctuated equilibrium is born of chaos, and as Americans, we are facing a terrible and exhilarating point of change. Although the United States’ democracy was built to be led by the people, for the people, our short history has been dismally Darwinian. Survival of the whitest, the straightest, the cis-est, the loudest, the richest. The question at stake now is whether democracy will hold up under pressure. Do we perform emergency surgery on a model that was never one size fits all, or do we defect?

The night before the impeachment vote, I put on my boots and rode the train to Thomas Paine Plaza outside Philadelphia’s City Hall. Thomas Paine, writer of pamphlets, fierce abolitionist, the eponymous Father of the Revolution. I once dated a girl who claimed to be descended from Thomas Paine. Philadelphians are weird like that; we love to claim that rebellion is in our blood. I loathe colonization propaganda, but I am willing to overlook Paine. He was the original defector. We gather in his plaza when we need to scream.

During the impeachment hearings, everyone was quoting Paine. In one of the most moving speeches of the day, Congressman John Lewis called out: “Our nation was founded on the principle that we do not have kings, we have presidents!” I’m partial to this quote: “To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.”

As I sat down to write this piece, the newly impeached President Trump launched a missile into Baghdad, killing Major General Qassem Suleimani, the mastermind of military operations across the Middle East, an act that is tantamount to war. Within hours, the Pentagon confirmed that the US thousands of additional troops are being deployed to the area. Since then, #TrumpWar is trending on Twitter. Teenage boys are asking their parents if they’re going to get drafted. Instead of screaming, I’ve been singing Elton John’s “Border Song” loud enough to crack my throat:

I’m going back to the border
Where my affairs, my affairs ain’t abused
I can’t take any more bad water
Been poisoned from my head down to my shoes

The earworm thing drives my wife crazy.

My brother was right. I wasn’t alone for long. I was remarried the following summer. Not to The Viking. Not to Taylor or Ciara or Billie or Rachel. For nine months, I was old-school courted by a man my friends called The Politician.

His first proposal was on top of the Eiffel Tower six weeks after we met. The wind hurled itself at my face, purpling my lips, and I knew from the way he leaned forward and reached into his pocket what was about to happen. If he was disappointed by my answer, he was undaunted. He just kept asking, month after month, until I finally thought, “How bad could it be?”

By August, I was saying yes in front of the mayor-soon-to-be-governor, a handful of senators and one of the founders of the Peace Corps—and you know liberals don’t mess with the Peace Corps. It was a marriage of acronyms: CNN, MSNBC, IUI, IVF. The day after the honeymoon, he decorated our house without me while I was at work, and left my boxes in the basement. A month later, I cried when I realized that he had given away Jelly Bean, the tiny black hatchback I scraped and saved to buy. In her place was a shiny silver SUV. (Whatever the commercials make you believe about surprising her with a brand! new! car!—don’t.) At a fundraising ball, a blue-eyed president shook my hand and smiled at my boobs. When a famous Cajun political pundit ran his fingers down my back and told my husband, “Boy, you done good… ral good,” I gritted my teeth for the camera.

Four more years.

Today, The Politician’s Facebook profile shows him standing on stage with Joe Biden. Every so often I see him around the neighborhood, and the next time I do, I’ll tell him what I did when I left him:

It’s time for a woman.


Rumpus original logo by Abbey Ryan. Additional original artwork by Dara Herman Zierlein.


TURNING PURPLE believes that the personal is always political. Leigh Hopkins writes this column for The Rumpus with the goal of acknowledging the rage many of us feel while confronting the borderland between right and left, red and blue. Send us a note about the issues that most challenge you, or reach out to Leigh on Twitter and she may include your stories in future pieces.

Leigh Hopkins left a career in social policy to move to Brazil, where she founded an online institute by rigging a satellite dish to a boulder in a banana field. Now based in Philadelphia, her writing has appeared in many places, including Longreads, McSweeney’s, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Corporeal Writing, ENTROPY, and The Manifest-Station. Leigh is writing the revolution one method at a time at the 3.5% Project. More from this author →