Skeletons in the Closet: On Mad Men and White America’s Willful Amnesia
I’m watching Mad Men again. It’s early March, 30-some degrees out there and dark. I sit in the crook of the couch with a wool blanket on my lap, second glass of wine coming to room temp on the wobbly end table to my right. My husband Ben sits to my left, legs outstretched, the dog curled in the shape of a crescent between us.
On screen, it’s 1962. Don Draper, creative director at his ad agency, and the rest of his team are at work on a Sunday preparing for a meeting with American Airlines. One of their planes just went down, and the airline is in crisis. The agency is doing everything in its power to come up with a campaign that will win their business, but no one can figure out how to address the recent tragedy.
Suddenly, Don comes out of his office, a trancelike look on his face. He stands in the middle of the room—fluorescent lights overhead, secretaries at their typewriters, workers milling about—and announces: “American Airlines is not about the past any more than America is.”
On screen, everyone stops what they’re doing and listens.
“Ask not about Cuba. Ask not about the bomb,” he says. “We’re going to the moon.” The staff has been drafting potential campaigns all week, but Don tells them to throw everything out. He’s regarded as something of a creative genius, and everyone realizes they’re witnessing one of his epiphanies unfurl in real time. It’s this: if America can pretend it’s pastless, why can’t American Airlines?
“There is no such thing as American history,” Don says. “Only a frontier.” Then he walks back to his office and closes the door behind him.
“I need to see that again,” I say, already rewinding. Ben pets the dog patiently while the frames reverse on screen. We could be spending our evening doing so many other things, but these days, all I want is Mad Men.
This is my third time watching all seven seasons. The first time, I felt heartbroken and angry over nearly every plot point, totally swept up in the story. But the second time, already aware of what was coming, I found myself studying characters’ private pasts, traumas, and secrets—cultivating compassion for their motivations and mistakes. Now, my empathy is magnified by a broader view: I can’t stop thinking about the political climate and cultural norms under which characters buckle, buck, and succumb. I see a chaotic and uncertain America and a web of connection between history, culture, place, time, and identity.
Ben and I are both in our sweats, as we have been all winter. The latest pandemic wave ebbed a couple months ago, but our nightly routine remains: slouched side by side on the couch, eyes on the screen. Tonight I’m bloated and crampy; it’s the first day of my period. For the past few months, we’ve been trying to get pregnant. Ben’s optimistic, but I’m scared of what I don’t know about my body—if, at 36, I’m too old, or if something’s wrong with me. I haven’t gone to a doctor yet or tried any of those fertility tests. What if I find out something inside me is broken?
I press play, and Don’s speech starts again from the beginning. I hold up my phone to record. The next day, I watch the 53-second video again and again. I can’t stop thinking about how no one had ever said Don’s words to me—There is no such thing as American history—but how I knew them anyway, like a skeleton in the closet.I can’t stop thinking about how no one had ever said Don’s words to me—There is no such thing as American history—but how I knew them anyway, like a skeleton in the closet.
I palm my lower stomach where the cramps are starting to fade. In twelve or so days we’ll try again to create a new life. We’ll look ahead. But every time I think about the future, I only see the past.
As a kid, I wasn’t allowed to watch the news on TV, and we didn’t talk about current affairs or politics at home. My world was strictly curated by my parents: family, school, church, sports—a confined bubble I suspect was typical of a conservative, white family like mine. It was meant to protect me, to keep away anything controversial, from the O.J. Simpson trial to Bill Clinton’s sex scandal. I internalized the message that I wasn’t supposed to worry or wonder or ask big questions. When I did anyway, I felt like something was wrong with me. I was the oldest child, and I wanted to be good. That meant having the right manners, playing sports, and going to Catholic Mass on Sunday.
For me, it also meant overachieving at school. “Adulthood” was an unknown land, but I wanted to be independent and self-sufficient. I brushed off any thought of marriage or family. I didn’t know anything about feminism, but I feared domesticity, which had always seemed fraught for my mom, and divorce, especially after my parents split when I was in high school. Throughout my twenties, every night at 7 p.m. I pushed the flat disc of a birth control pill through its foil packaging and swallowed.
It’s April, and winter won’t quit. Ben and I are blanketed on the couch again. Twenty minutes ago we were in bed together, naked, swimming through the familiar choreography of our intimacy. A new month. A new cycle. A new chance. But for now: Mad Men.
In the first episode of season two, Don sits at a bar alone eating lunch. A few stools down, another man wearing a corduroy jacket and plaid scarf reads Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency, a slim volume with a gray cover. Don, in a suit and tie, hair slicked in place, asks about the book. “I don’t think you’d like it,” the younger man says.
From the couch, Ben and I smile. “Another scene making Don look like a square,” Ben says. Even though Don is only in his mid-thirties, younger twenty-somethings routinely scoff at his conservative appearance and turn up their noses at his career in advertising. “How can you sleep at night?” asks one of these characters in an earlier episode. “On a bed made of money,” Don says, mouth full of smoke.
As the series progresses, Don’s life is contextualized by scenes from his past. We learn that his mother, a sex worker, died during childbirth; that his father’s wife resented Don; that when Don’s father died (kicked in the face by a horse, in front of an adolescent Don), the family took up residence in a brothel, where one of the sex workers cared for Don when he got a fever—the only scene of tenderness we witness from his youth—only to crawl into bed with him afterwards and “take his cherry,” as she put it afterwards.If Don Draper is a metaphor for white people’s version of America I can have compassion for him, for us, but I can’t believe in it.
Don doesn’t know how to escape his past, which has become a prison of shame. His most daring attempt at creating a new life for himself—assuming the identity of his Army commander, whom he was responsible for accidentally killing in the Korean War—is another shameful secret he must continuously work to hide. Throughout the course of the show, Don remains entirely oriented toward the future, as if on the run. He gets his bed made of money, a successful career, a big house in the suburbs, a wife (or two) and kids, and is bewildered when he can’t enjoy any of it.
Later, Don buys O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency, the book of poetry he’s not supposed to like, and reads it. In the last episode of the season, he recites lines from a poem called “Mayakovsky.” Now I am quietly waiting for / the catastrophe of my personality / to seem beautiful again, / and interesting, and modern, he reads. Don, by reinventing himself, wants to be beautiful, interesting, and modern. But he fears he’s actually a catastrophe: a bastard, a liar, a thief—unlovable. He wants to believe he can outrun the past by forgetting it. He can’t. It haunts him to the end.
For a long time, I had an idea about the past. It had happened. It led to now. What more did I need to know? To me, the past was like the ocean. There it was and always had been: salty, murky, enormous, blue-green. I could smell it and see it. I knew it; I’d always known it. But what did I actually know of its contents, its chemistry, its cycles and tides? What could I tell you about the ocean? Almost nothing.
When I watch Mad Men, I see ghosts. When Freddy Rumsen gets laid off in his fifties for drinking too much on the job, I wonder about my maternal grandfather, who also found himself jobless at that age. When Peggy, a young secretary, becomes pregnant, I picture my paternal grandmother, who concealed her pregnant belly under petticoats while she worked as a legal secretary in 1960s Manhattan. And when Pete, a young account executive, has a meltdown after he learns his wife has made them an appointment at an adoption agency, I imagine my adoptive grandparents making the same decision. My dad was adopted from the very same agency, Spence Chapin, the summer of 1960.
We live in the land of forgetting. Ask not about Cuba. Ask not about the bomb.
Mad Men sometimes feels like my family’s past—a past I only have fragments of, a past I’m increasingly hungry to understand—playing out before me. Storylines escalate, crescendo, and resolve. There is relief in the narrative arc, and comfort. In real life, storylines fray and split. My grandfathers, both WWII veterans who struggle with alcohol, die before I get to know them. My dad discovers the identity of the mother who gave him up for adoption just three months after she passes away. The half-sister he finds won’t talk to him. The narrative does not arc. We lose the threads.
But Mad Men reminds me that the threads are not just personal. Before, it wasn’t that I thought there was no past, but I could sense what Don Draper knew: my life—my family, my country—was not supposed to be about the past, or at least not its ugly parts. Don Draper said aloud why, today, so many white Americans can’t tolerate “critical race theory” or comprehend the costs of an overturned Roe. We live in the land of forgetting. Ask not about Cuba. Ask not about the bomb.
For much of my life, it was easier to pretend the past didn’t matter than to contend with reality, which could be devastating and shameful. I felt ill-equipped, and I’d learned it was okay not to go there. In my America, our country’s greatest myth might not have been spoken, but it was clear: while we may have done the unspeakable—seized land, enslaved our kin, oppressed and exploited and destroyed innumerable lives—all that was then. We have no need to repair, repay, apologize, reflect, or even look. We’re going to the moon.
I’ve been taking a prenatal vitamin every day for almost a year. I’m trying to take care. To be fertile. Most of my friends my age already have small children. For a long time, I was too scared to try. I couldn’t make a single plan; I couldn’t pretend to know what the next year looked like. I changed jobs. I moved cities. I traveled. Ben and I broke up, got back together. I went to grad school and I put off marriage. I was scared to lose my sense of my own independence. I didn’t know what it meant to put down roots, or even if I should. I kept moving ahead.
Recently, I read a book about fertility to know how my body worked, to understand its cycles. There was so much I didn’t know. Two decades managing a period didn’t mean I ever knew why or how or what about my body. For ten years I took a pill without reading a single thing about side effects or risks, without even really knowing how it worked. I’d never learned how to listen to my body, how to notice its fluctuations, how to nurture it. The way I’d viewed my body was just as I had the ocean or the past—reductive, distanced. I wasn’t just missing out on complexity and context; I was missing out on myself.
In the series finale of Mad Men, Don tries one last time to evangelize his way of moving forward, this time with Stephanie, the niece of the real Don Draper, whose identity he assumed. The two are at a retreat in California, both in the midst of personal reckonings. Stephanie has a child she’s struggling to raise; she seems riddled with unspoken trauma and shame. Don wants to help. He wants to teach her to forget.
“You can put this behind you,” he tells her. “It’ll get easier as you move forward.”For much of my life, it was easier to pretend the past didn’t matter than to contend with reality, which could be devastating and shameful.
It’s an echo of what he told his then-secretary Peggy in season 1, when he urges her to “move forward” from the unexpected birth of her child. “This never happened,” he says. It’s Don Draper’s refrain—for himself, for the people he loves, for American Airlines, and for America. But this time, Stephanie knows there’s nothing about pretending or forgetting that gets easier.
“Oh, Dick,” she says, using his real name. “I don’t think you’re right about that.”
Long after we finish Mad Men, I’m still not pregnant. Every few weeks, the past repeats and the future arrives, but not the one we want. So much is uncertain.
And so much is not. On my third watch of Mad Men, I can’t stop thinking this: if Don Draper is a metaphor for white people’s version of America—a place where we don’t look back, where we want to forget—I can have compassion for him, for us, but I can’t believe in it. It never worked. It doesn’t now.
I have become a person who borrows history books from the library by the armful, who loses hours of time in digital archives, who is building a family tree, who wants to understand her body, who is learning about the people who first lived on this land, who craves a better understanding of this troubled country, who wants to know more. Every time I watch Mad Men, I’m reminded that I’m part of a long, complicated story. The show helps me see how I, and we, got here. Understanding the story is unsettling—often disturbing—but it’s also empowering. There are clues to discover the truth about who I am, where I come from, and what I can take responsibility for, or disrupt, or heal, or become.
Sometimes, Ben lifts one eyebrow and makes an expression that looks exactly like his dad. I’m sure he looks at me and catches glimpses of my mom’s furrowed brow, her long face or large eyes. What pasts live inside us like nesting dolls? I cannot know all of it. I will never understand the whole ocean, but I can feel my body in the water now, can recognize the tide, can point to some features and name them.
Only by wading into the past did I begin to envision a different kind of future, one where I could imagine myself a mother. Before then, I was afraid to move forward; I didn’t know what I was moving forward from, or even who I was. That way of living felt empty, and it made me dangerous to others. I wish I’d learned this earlier: not knowing what haunted me—and what haunted us—was worse than the haunting itself.