Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
The vision of John Lennon’s song and eponymous album Imagine feels very far away right now. During this especially-contentious month of this divisive phase in U.S. history, it’s difficult to picture this divided country living as one, much less the world.
I cannot help but interpret John Lennon’s 1971 album Imagine through the particular lens of what it is to be an American woman in this moment in time: October 2018. Perhaps the reading that follows is a poor one because it is so personally informed. This political moment is all-consuming for many women, and some men, especially those who, like me, are survivors of sexual assault. Lately, almost everything has filtered through that lens. It’s a lens through which the personal and political are blurred together, just as they are in Imagine, which is both a deeply inward-looking and an expansively outward-gazing album. Though its tracks were recorded nearly forty years ago, the sentiments the album conveys feel relevant today. The American people were angry in 1971 and we are angry now.
Lennon’s vision feels almost impossible to realize in the aftermath of the contested confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who has been accused of sexual assault by multiple women. Of course, Kavanaugh has denied everything. Of course, most Republican leaders back him, making him out to be the victim of slander against his good name. This time is particularly difficult for women who have experienced sexual assault because we are seeing the naked truth: the assaults we experienced mean nothing to many lawmakers; a man’s name means more. Those in power do not care about what happens to women. That realization feels like yet another assault.
In the midst of a national debate about the value of women’s stories—in a moment in which people flooded the Supreme Court’s steps to protest a Justice’s confirmation for the first time ever—some of Imagine’s songs are especially resonant. In particular, “I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier” comes to mind. Notably, these lyrics: Well, I don’t wanna be a lawyer mama, I don’t wanna lie. / Well, I don’t wanna be a soldier mama, I don’t wanna die. I didn’t ask to be assaulted when I was nine and again as an adult, just as other women didn’t ask for their own assaults.
But it happened, and now we survivors have the opportunity to fight for those selves that didn’t have a say. We don’t want to have to take part in this battle—the fight to be heard and believed—but here we are, drafted now. We wanted the truth from a thorough FBI investigation into the accusations and didn’t get it. Our request to gimme some truth was denied, and a man who likely has a history of sexual assault at worst, and belligerent drunkenness and perjury at best, is now a Supreme Court Justice, now able to steer this nation’s legislation for decades to come. As in 1971, but for different reasons, Americans are sick and tired of hearing dismissals, broken promises, and lies from politicians.
(Let’s take a moment to enjoy the way Lennon characterizes politicians in “Gimme Some Truth”: uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocritics… neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians… tight-lipped, condescending, Mama’s little chauvinists.)
I have never felt myself less valued by the government that is supposed to represent me. And that makes me mad. (As a relatively privileged, straight, able-bodied white person, I recognize that many people have felt this way for decades or generations.) I’m mad, too, because I didn’t report my assaults at the time and because my story doesn’t matter to the politicians who have the ability to make it matter now. I didn’t report it when I was nine because the man who assaulted me was an authority figure (and because I knew I wouldn’t be believed). I didn’t say anything as an adult because I thought it was my fault—that I deserved what happened to me. I’m mad as hell now to learn that so many women and men have felt the same way. I’m angrier still to see that the experiences of millions of women effectively mean nothing. No wonder we didn’t disclose. No wonder we’re still haunted.
The bitterness filling “How Do You Sleep?” was directed at Paul McCartney—the song contains numerous references to and digs at Lennon’s former Beatles bandmate—but it’s a question many of us are asking now because we, too, feel betrayed. To the men (mostly men) who assaulted us: how do you sleep? And how do you sleep? to the people who think nothing of what we have endured: the assaults that give us flashbacks, and/or nightmares, and/or a fear of certain places, and/or an inability to trust, and/or depression, and/or anxiety, and/or an impulse to constantly look over our shoulders. Think of Utah senator Orrin Hatch recently telling sexual assault survivors to “grow up,” as if they were harping on a petty old injustice. As if they should just get over it.
You must have learned something all those years, Lennon writes to his former friend. Clearly Kavanaugh, Trump, Hatch, et. al. have learned nothing about compassion in their lifetimes. The one mistake you made was in your head, Lennon sings, and I would add that many Republicans (and Democrat Joe Manchin) also made mistakes with their hearts. Actually, their votes to confirm Kavanaugh are more than a mistake; they are a failure of empathy.
These people in power, and others like them, have learned little about the sorts of trauma that haunt many Americans, the things that leave us feeling crippled inside, sometimes for a lifetime. Imagine’s second track, “Crippled Inside,” illustrates how some traumas feel impossible to shake—as if they’re always clinging onto us, no matter what behaviors we undertake to suppress them.
Lennon faced traumas as a child, including the death of his mother, that scientists now call Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. Research shows that children who experience multiple ACEs are more likely to develop certain diseases and causes of death in adulthood. Early trauma changes the way our DNA is expressed. No wonder those of us who’ve experienced trauma, especially in childhood, feel crippled inside at times. What happened has literally changed the fabric of who we are.
Even if you try to deny or hide your traumas from yourself—you can hide your face behind a smile, Lennon sings—the body and the soul remember. After what that man did to me when I was nine, I began to hate my body. I forgot about the assault itself for a while, but it contributed to a feeling that there was something intrinsically wrong with me. It has only recently occurred to me to be mad at the man who assaulted me as a child and at the man who assaulted me as an adult.
Now that the #MeToo movement has gained steam, more survivors of sexual assault are speaking out. We won’t hide the fact that we were assaulted because it’s important to tell our stories. We will use the telling to heal and our newfound power to put an end to the fucked-up way generations of men have gotten away with treating women.
But the way to a more equitable society will not be easy. How can I go forward when I don’t know which way I’m facing? Lennon sings in “How?” Perhaps this song speaks more directly to our current state of affairs than any other on Imagine. It’s a series of questions: How can I go forward?, how can I have feeling?, how can I give love? Most strikingly: how can I have feelings when my feelings have always been denied? This is a question with which many women are currently grappling.
“How?” stares uncertainty in the face. Though its verses consist of questions, the act of asking them approaches a solution. From the first stanza to the last, the questions shift from How can I to how can we?—and therein lies the power. How can we go forward when we don’t know which way to turn? / How can we go forward into something we’re not sure of? One question at a time. Together. The song ends with oh no, oh no, but I like to think that the nos speak to uncertainty, not to an inability to go forward.
The album’s subsequent and last track also provides a glance at a possible solution. Delightful in its simplicity, “Oh Yoko” reminds us that love is not just found in the sweeping, dramatic moments, but in the minute and the routine parts of daily life. In the middle of the bath…in the middle of a shave…in the middle of a dream. Lennon sings that my love will turn you on, which has obvious sexual connotations, but I think he’s also singing about how Yoko Ono’s love sustained him through moments big and small.
Imagine alternates between deeply personal and unabashedly political songs, but ends in a place of peaceful, joyful love. The album begins with “Imagine” because ending with it would force listeners to be left with, and thus sit with, the title song’s revolutionary notions. I think John Lennon knew we weren’t ready for that. So instead, he leaves us with love.
Yet “Imagine” will always be the song for which this album, and possibly Lennon himself, will be most remembered. Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can / No need for greed or hunger / A brotherhood of man / Imagine all the people / Sharing all the world. The world “Imagine” offers is the antithesis of what American and global society has become fixated on in the decades since Lennon’s assassination in 1980. The song pictures an end to our nationalistic, divided, materialistic way of living. It proposes an erasure of borders of all sorts (national boundaries, religions, capitalism), which would signal an end to a society that pits people against each other so that a handful of individuals can profit. Eliminating the structures that shape most of the world would leave us open to a way of living that maybe can’t be clearly envisioned until we see what life on the other side is like.
Instead of taking the easy route of asking listeners to examine our limitations, “Imagine” challenges and compels us to lift our gaze upward and outward. To close our eyes and feel other possible ways of being. That’s what makes it such a radical song—the fact that it asks us to consider a way of life from which the confines of this one have been removed. Instead of believing in the social forces that currently shape our lives, we’d have to believe in each other and in ourselves. Right now, that may feel impossible.
But then I watch the footage of women filling the Hart Senate Building, demanding to be heard. I see women running for all levels of political office in the upcoming midterm elections. I call congressmen and find that the Capitol’s phones are ringing off the hook. I hear story after story like mine and watch those tellers find their power through their voices.
We are not only imaging something better than this, but millions of us are letting our outrage—and, more importantly, our hope—drive us to actively work for a better world. Imagine that.