“This is What We Have to Do”: Robin Cartwright’s Exploration of Privilege and Pollution
Feb 26, 2021
By Colorado Review associate editor Mike Moening
The scope of essays that we receive at the Colorado Review is broad—that’s part of what makes the work as rewarding as it is. Even more rewarding is finding a piece that is firing on all cylinders—one that is sure to make a splash—and then seeing it transform from manuscript onto the page. I remember reading Robin Cartwright’s “On Daughters and Direct Polluters” months ago, excited to know it would be published in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue. Cartwright’s essay pulls the reader in from the first line as she writes, “You should not listen to me. I have failed and I continue to fail every day.” These two sentences set the scene for an essay that deals with a handful of important ideas, including privilege and who we hold responsible in a society. In writing that she fails every day, we see a narrator who is both reliable and admittedly unreliable, as well as one who has been raised to take responsibility, something that so many others in the piece—and the world as a whole—do not do.
In “On Daughters and Direct Polluters,” we are given a collage of scenes that relate early cholera outbreaks to The Bachelorette, a Supreme Court hearing on pollution to Nicki Minaj—seemingly disparate strands that are expertly woven together to discuss how we are taught about power structures from an early age and how privilege seeps into every element of our lives. The “boys will be boys” rhetoric is introduced at times in this piece to show just how deeply ingrained in our society the idea that men deserve second chances at every turn is. Yet when women speak up, they are silenced; their struggle normalized, expected even. Cartwright writes:
I was in eighth grade when I told my mom that I had been raped by my boyfriend. My mom was concerned but careful not to show too much concern. She wanted me to feel OK . . . She told me that all girls are fondled or raped at some point in their lives, usually by boys who are experimenting and do not know better. Did I know better?
At each moment in the essay, Cartwright examines how we are raised, what we are taught, and how the benefits of privilege don’t extend to many.
But it would be reductive to say that this piece merely observes power structures and discusses privilege. Cartwright also works to flip the script or to create a new one. While the “direct polluters” section of the title refers to both corporations and toxic rhetoric and masculinity, the “daughter” portion of the title refers to Cartwright dealing with trials of motherhood: “There is this job to do—raising a daughter to be a feminist, a job that no good feminist should agree to do.” Throughout the piece, we see the difficulties of raising a daughter in our world when we know what that world is capable of. We see the importance of treading lightly, of trusting one’s daughter, but also of knowing what that same daughter stands to lose just by existing in a world that is still so full of polluters.
The collage format of the essay invites the reader to live in the moments that Cartwright brings to light. Through personal experience, stories about her daughter, near-speculation, and court cases, we see that polluters are everywhere. This essay asks us to look inside, to analyze what we’ve been told, but also what we tell. And throughout the whole piece, Cartwright refuses to focus on the polluters, instead giving a voice to the daughters, ending the essay: “But I have failed so many times. You should listen to my daughter. This is what we have to do.”
Mike Moening is a second-year MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Colorado State University and an associate editor at Colorado Review.
Photo (top of page) from Schwabe, Williamson, and Wyatt’s website.