Miles to Go: Feminism and THE MAD ONES

It's a weird week to be going Behind the Lyrics on any song I've written because I'm not interested in looking back right now. I want to walk the streets of New Jersey one district over from my liberal neighborhood (the town's motto is "a stigma-free town," if such a thing exists) and explain to white women why we need to get our shit together and vote for our own interest and agency.

But maybe this is just as important. I guess I wouldn't write it if I didn't think it was.

Two years ago, Brian Lowdermilk and I decided to open up The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown like a pair of surgeons and find out what its essence was. In order to do an off-Broadway production of a show that had been kicking around for as long as ours had, it felt necessary to distill to why the show mattered. More than anything, we wanted to make it more overtly feminist. We changed the title to The Mad Ones to signal that shift in the narrative.

For me, this show has always been feminist. It's always been about redirecting the mythology of 'suicide as a feminist act' (from The Awakening to Thelma and Louise and let's not get me started on Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton...), and instead arguing that a woman choosing to take an uncertain path because it feels right to her, and her alone, is the true act of bravery. 

The Mad Ones was always in a dialogue with On the Road, Kerouac's drug-aided criss-cross of America. It was always a comment on the sexist story that everyone was forced to read in high school because it's considered quintessential, "canon."(For more about my feelings on the canon, read this.) I was never writing a love letter to Jack Kerouac. I was writing about the way a young girl finds her inspiration in a boy's journey and wants to claim it for her own. I wanted to talk about what it feels like to try to claim that journey.

The thing was I didn't want to make Sam's dad the obstacle. It felt obvious. I didn't want to talk about men more than I had to. Adam was enough. I loved Adam's selflessness in saying "run away with me" when he was a guy who didn't want to go anywhere. I loved Sam being unable to find the words to express why going with him wouldn't work. I loved that Adam was essentially our ingenue— great guy, a prize. For once, his story is not the story of the show. For once, the guy getting the girl is not the point. 

We cut the father. It gave us more room for Beverly, Sam's mom. And we learned that her character could absorb any room we gave her. We wanted Beverly as single parent to be a non-issue, something that Sam and her mother both took for granted. I extrapolated on my own experience. By the time I was a senior in high school, my parents' separation when I was a baby was old, obvious news. I figured if you go one step further, it becomes even more matter-of-fact. Sam has so many issues in this show, but being raised by her mother alone is not one of them.

The issue between Sam and her mom is generational and it's based in feminism. If asked, Sam and mother would both call themselves feminists but their ideology is wildly different. And then there's Kelly, Sam's best friend. She represents the loud-proud wear-your-feminism-on-a-t-shirt current wave of feminism. Bev represents the generation who steadily maneuvered through the patriarchy, naming and then breaking the glass ceiling. Previous waves of feminism chipped away at issues. This new generation says dismantle the whole system. 

I have vivid memories from my Barnard days of my generations' critique of Dr. Shapiro, our college's president. We all likened her to Hillary Clinton and we vowed we would never become her. We didn't like her shoulder pads, her power suits, her short coiffed hair or her husky demeanor. We respected her, but we didn't want to be her. A friend of mine recently talked about Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton in those terms. We respect Clinton, we want to be Obama.

You respect Beverly, you want to be Kelly, but you're neither of them. You're Sam. The everywoman, the indecisive, the one who's somewhere in between, trying to weigh the balances of the world. In order for the audience to want Sam to throw away her "smart" opportunities for something unstructured and risky, it's my job to explain why going on a road trip alone is still, to this day, maverick for an 18-year-old woman. 


Krystina Alabado as Samantha Brown and Leah Hocking as Beverly, Sam's mom,

Which brings me to "Miles to Go," the song we wrote for Bev. My first draft of lyric-first. I wish I had a pretty handwritten copy of it, but, alas, I wrote it on my phone on the subway like some damn millennial. 

You see a lone boy on the highway
(And) you know he's running wild
(He's) the town rebel who got away
And left you all beguiled
(You see) a lone boy on the highway
You've seen his face before
Two paths diverged and you went right
But he's left wanting more
and where he'll land, you'll never know—
he's got miles and miles and miles to go

His worn shoes on the pavement
This daydream he can't name
Now substitute a lonely girl
And tell me that's the same
They're both out on the highway
But the girl— she's running scared.
The world is harsh. The world's unfair
And she's so unprepared.

A lone girl in the headlights
A target on her back
You wonder what befell her to make her wanna pack
Did a boyfriend break her heart?
Are her parents gone?
Cause you know a girl's at risk
once she leaves her parents lawn
wheels of change are moving slow.
we've got miles and miles and miles to go

You see a lone boy on the highway
And you think that could be me
But the fact is if you're born a girl
you'll never be that free.
A girl has to be smarter.
I didn't make it so.
I hate to be the one to deal that blow.
But we've got miles and miles and miles to go.

But what if she's just singing Janet Joplin at the top of her lungs?
She's trying to express herself but speaking in tongues
She dreamed she'd be the hero,
not the damsel in distress.
She dreamed of wanting more and more
but now she's dreaming less and less.

The world isn't ready for her yet
And that's something the world won't let her forget.

In November 2016, when my daughter was just a year old, my husband and I took her to vote at our local polling station. We believed that we'd be able to tell her that we brought her with us for the historic moment when a woman became president.


Lucy Kerrigan Tysen, one year old, wearing a Hillary Clinton onesie with an "I voted" sticker on it. We had to zip up her hoodie to hide her shirt at the polling station.

Even now, as I type this, I get choked up at the extraordinary backslide that the country has taken away from equality and justice since then.

"Miles to Go" is a mother making a case. In a way, this song is for my daughter, my explanation, my apology?

Beverly starts by painting a picture:

A lone boy on the highway
A future undefined
The rebel soul that got away and left his past behind.
A lone boy on the highway
You've seen his face before
Two paths diverged and you went right
But he's left wanting more.

And where he'll land,
This town will never know-
He's got miles and miles and miles to go.

This is a painting of the American dream. It's rugged individualism and quite literally it's Sal Paradise, Jack Kerouac's alter-ego in On the Road. It's what Sam has romanticized. 

His shoes that pound the pavement,
The daydream he can't name.
Now make that boy a lonely girl
And tell me she's the same.

And you can't, can you? Sam may roll her eyes but immediately she gets it. And you do too. You see a guy standing on the highway and he's hitchhiking— you might think he's on drugs, you might think he's stupid, but you don't think he's inherently in danger. But now make it a girl. She's lost and, seriously, tell me your first thought isn't a fear that she's going to get raped. What does that tell you about American and "freedom" in America? This is 2018, folks.

The boy you call a rebel
The girl— she's running scared,
Cause any girl who's on her own
Is out there unprepared.

I was sad to lose the idea that I put into the original lyric— that when you see women on the side of the road, you know they're running from something. Sure, a man could be running from something, too, but he could also be chasing a dream, running towards something. Psychologists say that one of the hallmarks of a dysfunctional family is when the role of a family member is static and unchangeable. The way we view women is dysfunctional.

She looks away.
She keeps her profile low.
She's got miles and miles and miles to go.

Yes, this is about our perception of her, but she also has reason to be scared. One in three women is sexually assaulted in this country. A man's miles and miles to go is filled with mystery and romance but hers is filled with danger and dread.

Lest we kill the messenger, Beverly has to defend herself. She knows that the rules aren't fair and that's why—to her mind—a woman has to be better. It's the classic feminist determination to beat men at their own game. 

The game has been rigged but I learned to play.
And I'm not the enemy. I paved the way.
I stood in my own mother's kitchen
The door slammed behind me.
I blink and I'm you again-

I'm singing Janis Joplin at the top of my lungs.
I'm cursing like a sailor and I'm speaking in tongues.

The whole song changes when she says, "I blink and I'm you again." The feel shifts. The sentence structure shifts. It's wild and flowing. Allowing Beverly to get to the lyric "freedom" almost hurts. Mothers are always trying to tell their daughters "we're the same" but here we enter one of those rare moments where, as a daughter, you look at your mother and you realize that you are the same, but something happened to your mother. Something broke. And you vow that won't break for you.
You say:
SAM: It's different now.

And your mother says:
BEVERLY: Some things are. This isn't.

And that's terrifying, because you're scared she might be right and you can't bear to live in a world where she is.

I never had this exact moment with my mother. But I do remember a moment when I felt her doubt—not in me—but in the world, and her inability to protect me. It made me more angry than any fight we've ever had. I was making good decisions, she knew I was making good decisions, and still we were talking about how she couldn't give me the freedom to do what I wanted on prom night. She trusted me and no one else. It wasn't fair. The world as it was, as it is, took away my freedom. It's a tiny example but it lives with me.

A lone boy on the highway.
You think "that could be me."
But you were born a woman and you'll never be that free.

If I could make a film of The Mad Ones, we would cut to a close-up of Sam in the final moments of this song. I want to be looking at Sam's face when her mother sings the lines above. Because at this moment, Sam realizes, not that her mother is right, but that the idea planted by Kelly is more complex and charged than she had realized. She realizes that if she is to go out on the highway, the way she dreamed, it is a feminist act. She carries the weight of generations of women with her. Her choice becomes heavier. With great freedom comes great responsibility.

The glass cracks in the ceiling and women swell with pride.
But when a woman breaks the rules
The world's not on her side.

It's easy to be feminist AF when you're talking about Oprah, Shonda Rhimes, Marie Curie, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. These are the success stories. We celebrate those women. But women who break the rules are vilified, shamed, and dismissed. We give female filmmakers one film to get it right. We look down on Stormy Daniels. We're still making Hillary Clinton pay for her husband's sins, and only recently have we come to consider that perhaps Monica Lewinsky was just a young, smart intern whose career was derailed by the most powerful man in the country.

The wheels of change
They move so goddamn slow.
Yes, we've come miles and miles and miles...

We've had the right to vote since the 1920s. We've been able to safely and legally end a pregnancy since the 1970s. We won the right to apply for our own credit cards around then too. We've had legal recourse when someone sexually harasses us at work since the 1990s. We've ever been allowed to serve in combat since the 2000s.

But we've got miles
And miles
And miles and miles
And miles and miles
And miles
To go.

Unless you've been hiding under a rock since November 2016 (and I wouldn't blame you), you've been exposed to the underbelly of the official timeline. A sexual predator was elected president over a highly qualified (vilified) woman. A Supreme Court nominee's sexual crimes and misdemeanors against three credible women did not stop him from attaining a seat on the highest court in the land where he may very well overturn Roe v. Wade. (Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh together overturning a woman's right to choose what she does with her body? There's some bitter irony.

I didn't write an anthem about how strong women are and how we can do anything we set our minds to. That idea felt pretty hollow to me. Sometimes you need a battle cry, but sometimes you need to sober up and ready yourself for the marathon.

Until society has finally taught our boys how to respect women, "boys will be boys" and mothers will fear for their daughters' safety. But that doesn't mean our daughters have to accept that. It'll be scary, and at times it will feel awfully dangerous to the mothers, but you must be mavericks now. 

At the end of The Mad Ones, Beverly says to Sam, "The things we do to our girls... What would it look like to let all that go? How could you even—what would it feel like?"

Let's find out.


About the author: 
Kait Kerrigan is a playwright, lyricist, and bookwriter. Off-Broadway: THE MAD ONES, and HENRY AND MUDGE. Other musicals with Brian Lowdermilk include: THE BAD YEARS, REPUBLIC, UNBOUND, ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER AND FRIENDS, and two top-charting albums OUR FIRST MISTAKE and KERRIGAN-LOWDERMILK LIVE. Plays include FATHER/DAUGHTER, DISASTER RELIEF, IMAGINARY LOVE, and TRANSIT. Work has been developed at Goodspeed's Norma Terris, Aurora Theatre, Theatreworks/Silicone Valley, Chautauqua Theatre Company, Lark, Primary Stages, La Jolla, and others. Awards: Kleban, Larson, Theatre Hall of Fame Most Promising Lyricist. Alumna of Dramatists Guild Fellow, Page 73's I-73 writer's group, Barnard College, BMI Musical Theatre Writing Workshop. For more on Kerrigan's work with Brian Lowdermilk, visit their website. Sheet music for "Miles to Go" can be purchased here.