Unraveling the Knot

When my book, The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, was first published in 1997, my friend Michael Kimmel had this to say on the back cover:

As any knitter will tell you, the way to untangle a knot is not to pull hard on one end, but gently shake the entire skein until all the threads are loosened. In this book, Allan Johnson gently and patiently shakes the patriarchal knot until each of the constituent threads becomes analytically clear. In so doing, he gives men a way to be part of unraveling that oppressive knot, rather than simply tugging defensively on their end.

This meant a great deal to me because it was one of those rare moments when someone really sees and understands what you’re trying so hard to do, more clearly even than you might see it yourself.

I think I’ve been working to unravel knots my entire life, big knots, little knots. There are the knots that appear in the news, from capitalism and racism to men’s violence, and there are the ones that show up in the middle of the night when I lie awake, unable to sleep, wondering what it means to live and die as a human being. And all the knots in-between.

My dictionary tells me that a knot is an ‘interlacement of parts,’ a joining of ‘flexible bodies’ to form a whole, a bond, a cluster. It can be strong as in the knot that joins a branch to the tree or the tie between partners in a marriage or a friendship or what makes a community cohere.

We human beings are nothing if not the joining of flexible bodies in all kinds of bonds and clusters in relation to one another, to Earth and sky, to the mysteries of time and death that define our coming and our going. Knotting is at the core of who we are, what makes us possible. We create societies, cosmologies, and selves, families and political economies. We make up stories about who we are and where we came from and what’s the point.

The knots hold us together, but can also become a source of constriction and pain and great injustice and suffering. They may grow rigid and hard, so tightly bound that it’s hard to see how they’re put together, making them seem impossible to undo.

To unravel the knots of our existence is to shake the terms of our lives, all the things we think we know and the world in which we think we know it and our investment in leaving it undisturbed. Unraveling the knot is an act of undoing and being undone that is both liberating and, at times, terrifying, to encounter new ways to see, to be. It is not for the faint of heart.

I am not a knitter, but we do have these window blinds in our house whose cords have a way of turning themselves into great tangles. There is some gentle shaking involved, but also holding the knot up to the light to see how the threads weave together, the interlocking pattern that makes the whole more than the sum of its parts. Sooner or later I find the way and it comes undone. But there will always be another.

Holding the knots of our existence as human beings up to the light, I have wanted to know for as long as I can remember, What is this? a question I will continue to ask in this space about things large and small and in-between.

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