Mitochondria, patriarchy, gender and what bodies know


This morning I had my doctor check up. It’s been about three or four years that I’ve gotten regular checks as an adult. The mix of having health insurance (thank you MinnesotaCare) and hitting my mid-50s has meant that I want to keep track of the shiftings and changings in my biology. Happily, I have a doctor who believes that healthcare should be preventative and recognizes plant medicine and other forms of traditional healing as being powerful forces of healing. She also often makes snide comments about drug companies. I like her.

We’ve been talking about menopause and the shifts and changes in bodies that were born with ovaries. Menopause is one of those things that varies in shape and form and hits all bodies with ovaries, whether through the process of aging, through having your ovaries removed, or because of the use of testosterone as part of gender transition. Recognizing that this is something that hits all bodies with ovaries one way or another, I surprisingly didn’t know a lot about it, outside of hot flashes and mood swings. Turns out it’s as radical for the body as that change that happens at the other end, when bodies with ovaries move into the ability to give birth. For those who went through it or who have raised and loved those who are going through it, remember the physical intensity of that adolescent time? The sense of not knowing who you are and how things fit together? Of becoming a different person and having to sort through whether or not you accept it, even though you have no control over it? Yeah, like that. On the other side of the whole thing, there are a lot of benefits. Menopause has helped me understand why so many traditional communities have those who have gone through this process as their community elders and leaders. But that’s for a different blog post.

So as my doctor and I were talking about menopause and all of the things that happen, she then said, “So you know, a lot of this is about the mitochondria.

Head swoon moment and just a pause. The first time I ever heard the word “mitochondria” was when reading A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle as a child. Charles Wallace had some kind of disease which attacked his mitochondria and meant he was drained of energy. I had never heard the word before and it felt like some kind of futuristic science thingie, this ability to see into the cells and to determine that these magical wonderous parts could be wounded. It was also beyond pleasurable when the story had Meg going within Charles Wallace’s body to meet and talk with the mitochondria. Many years later, while learning a deeper biology through my study in Global Somatics, I learned more about mitochondria, learned of the moment around 2 billion years ago when a single celled organic being cooperatively joined with a bacterium called mitochondria and out of this cellular handshake, the evolution of complex cellular beings (or eukaryotes) began. We are complex cellular beings, we are eukaryotes, as are all of the life forms that we can see and build relationships with.  I’ve loved them ever since, this intimate bacterial center of our universe.

And by the way, stay with me. I am getting to the patriarchy thing in a minute.

The mitochondria are bean shaped organelles (the organs within your cells)  inside cells that are responsible for cellular respiration or energy production. The mitochondria provide fuel for cell survival. In addition to cellular energy production, mitochondria control cell death, the management of the minerals our bodies need to function such as calcium, copper and iron homeostasis and the formation of our natural steroids. Mitochondria are the foundation for cell survival which means the survival of our species and the species of our relatives. When the mitochondria is damaged, the cell is damaged. The fact that we are alive is because mitochondrial DNA and nuclear DNA (what most people think about when they think about DNA) work together. Mitochondrial DNA was only “discovered” by Western biology in 1963, the year that I was born, so I figure this is part of the relationship I feel: we were both named at the same time.  

A few cool things: mitochondria in animals and chloroplasts in plants (the sun eaters within a plant) share a common origin, in the way that all life shares a common origin. The two are super different but there are some basic things they have in common: the conversion of one kind of substance into another kind of substance that is a form of energy and communication for the whole organism. I imagine them in the way that I imagine what happens when a total outsider comes in to a room where there is a chaotic conversation taking place, the same kind of chaotic conversation that has taken place for a very long time. The outside looks at all of the information swirling around in the room and then is able to just name what is happening in the way that only a somewhat separate outsider can. You know, kind of like the way people of color start working in a historically white organization and start to notice all of the contradictions between what is being said and what is being done. It’s also what children do within family structures before they are socialized or shamed away from telling the truth. It’s about new mind, outsider mind, the mind of difference. We exist because of a partnership between two life forms that did not fully merge but instead figured out a way to co-exist for, well, 2 billion years. This is why I like to learn about bodies, about organic life forms, about our relatives: there is ancient wisdom here about living with profound difference and power in ways that our movements and justice work are hungry for.

So when my doctor said, “mitochondria,” everything in me perked up. Next she said, “well, you know that it’s the mitochondria in our cells that creates all of our hormones.” Ok, that was it. I am gone, done and happily overwhelmed. Hormones, people. The fluid signals that we experience as emotions, as the felt sense of connection between ourselves and the world around us, other people, other relatives, other life. Hormones are literally the communication system within our body, they move through the blood to direct our feelings of hunger, our breath rate, our heart rate, how we sleep, how we respond to stress, how we poop and pee, and so much else. Hormones, hormones, hormones. Think depression and anxiety and falling in love and getting that belly sense that you shouldn’t trust someone and raging hunger and insomnia and what happens in your heart when you feel the hot sun on your face after a really long winter and you are thinking about hormones. As another groovy side note, hormones are primarily produced by glands and the glandular system of the body, a system that almost exactly lines up with the 3500 year old Vedic wisdom called the chakras.

And finally, here is what lies beneath everything I have already said. Our cellular DNA, the thing we think about when we think birth parents and eye color, is passed down to us from both of our birth parents. Mitochondrial DNA, however, is only passed through what a binary system calls the maternal line, or the mother*. Think original Eve, think of all of those lesbians in the 1980s (I was one of them) doing deep reclamation work on matriarchal belief systems. Think of every single learning we have that remembers that all life begins with the body that is able to grow it, honor it, nurture it, until the new life emerges and goes through the process of learning how to move on its own.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the origins of things, the original wounds that caused the evolution of survival strategies that show up as systems of dominance, systems of survival, cultural beliefs, and body practices. I love chaos theory, am grateful for understanding the butterfly effect, or the chain of micro-events that can result from what happens when a butterfly flaps its wings and, over generation after generation after generation, leads to the formation of a tornado. We are all connected and every single action and inaction has impact on all life around it.

The biological truth is that all animal life depends on bodies with ovaries, that the literal spark that makes who we are as wolves, as heron, as snakes, as you, is held in the bodies of those with ovaries, many of whom identify as I do, as women. These are also the bodies who, for those of us who are mammals, form and nourish within themselves and then bring forth from our own bodies the descendants to come. There are ways to center this truth, to deeply honor and respect this truth, without getting lost in a hierarchy of who is better and more important.  So what the fuck happened?

Over the last year, I have been having conversations with women and transfolk about sexual violence and have noticed a pattern that shows up, even in a meeting I was in last night. Very often, when attempting to look directly at the truth of sexual violence, of rape culture, a graying out happens, a dissociative response, among many in the room. It’s similar to what happens in a room of white folks who are new to talking about their racism or who are just being confronted in ways that make them feel out of control, it’s what happens in a room of rich folks who are trying to talk about or listen to the truth of where their money comes from. It’s a form of freeze but a generationally cellular one. Life stops and the oxygen in the room thins, with the brain coming in to make meaning until the discomfort passes.

I am not interested in a competitive conversation about which oppression came first or is worst, but I am interested in evolution. Every moment of action or inaction impacts what is around it and, after enough microshifts, a butterfly flapping its wings can turn into a tornado. At the core of each of our cells, there are two intelligences that billions of years ago learned how to work together. One of those intelligences comes down through the lines of both of our birth parents, the other only comes from the body of the one who birthed us. Somewhere along the line, someone turned away from this truth and began to say, this doesn’t matter. Not only does it not matter, but the person who has the sperm in their body, they are the power source here, they are the ones who should make decisions, who should be the holder of what needs to be created and passed on.  And so patriarchy* was born. Not everywhere on this planet, mind you, and not all in the same way, shape or form, but still, patriarchy was born.

Now stay with me for another layer.  Conflict is what happens when differences comes up against difference and has to wrestle and wrangle to figure out how to exist together. Violence is what happens when one party wants to use its power to erase, destroy, harm, minimize or control the other. Conflict is the process of finding a new kind of balance between differences. Violence is the process of erasing difference. Sometimes conflict can include rage and sudden acts of violence, but they are not the through line or the strategy. Instead, they are a reactive hormonal response to a moment. Within conflict, when an act of violence happens, it is always followed by repair because without repair, a new balance can’t be found. If there is no repair, then the violence ends up defining the outcome and the experience moves from conflict to violence. Violence also has acts of rage but in this case, there is no repair, there is only living with what the violence has created which is, in most cases, a chain of violence,, a reaction and response, one after another. And then this unfinished thing, this violence, is passed along and becomes one form of generational trauma. Humans, like all other life forms, have always had conflict. We are the same as the emergence of spiderwort in the spring, that gorgeous purple and pink flower that, dependent on the amount of snow and rain and the timing of the heat of spring and a whole range of other factors, either blankets the Greenway near where I live or, sometimes, barely peeks out from the tall grass. The emergence of spiderwort is dependent on the resources available and the other resources that the life forms around it needs. Some years, spiderwort sits back and waits until there is enough to come bursting out again. Other years, those tall leggy stems are sprangled all over the sides of the Greenway’s  banks, falling all over each other in their abundance. This is about conflict, a word whose origin means with/together combined with struggle.

So about 2 billion years ago, a life form emerged as a collaborative union between two different life forms. Over over hundreds of generations, this life form struggled and adapted and changed, evolving into thousands of variations, each one defining a range of what we would call gender roles and expressions or languages  (flower scents, coloring, shapes, movements) to ensure that it carries forward with descendants and can survive among other life forms that are different. This means it evolved ways to ensure that it survived. Culture is a community’s collective survival strategy that shows up in the stories and values and belief systems it passes on to its descendants. All living beings including plants have culture, even if the word is most often only used in western culture for humans. Gender expression is a dance between culture and, certainly for humans and maybe for all others, a life form’s inward sense of who it is. Us human folk, over a period of generations, probably hundreds again, evolved gender roles and expressions or languages tied to child rearing and to food production, spiritual communication, community leadership, sexual expression, cultural production and more and more. Oh the number of gender expressions we recognized, with gratitude to those cultural spaces that still recognize more than two. Gender expression in its glorious diversity emerges out of conflict and change.

More generations passed and some subset of those human folk began to use the part of their brain that also evolved to form abstract thought to shift and change those gender roles and expressions or languages to benefit one life expression over the other and, again, thus was patriarchy born. Violence, and not conflict, is how patriarchy is protected because within patriarchy, there is no space for the conflicted struggle that allows the emergence of new and balanced ways of being. There is no room for evolution and change.

We all exist because 2 billion years ago, two separate life forms learned how to come together and co-create, each one growing wiser and living in a range of balances with each other, but never forgetting their specific uniqueness. The knowledge of how to do this is passed down through the one many call mother, the body with ovaries, who carries the mitochondria that shares its secrets of how to communicate across difference and how to sense how life flows around you. The mitochondria, the mother passed to each one of your cells, provide the fuel for cell survival. They also support the production of hormones, the part of ourselves that can sense, feel, know another. They are one part of the production of empathy. The other part is culture.

And so I wonder about the evolution of dominance and oppression. I wonder about the layering of sediment that allows some forms of violence to become so normalized in a culture that we act as though they are only conflict. I wonder about how and when conflict turned to violence and what repairs, so long awaited, are needed in order to end the cycle.

We all exist because 2 billion years ago, two separate life forms learned how to come together and rather than destroy each other, to create something new that does not depend on the disappearance of the other. This is wisdom we all carry, every one of us, ancestral wisdom that whispers in each and every cell. It’s our original value system, our original blueprint, and at one point, many generations ago, some part of us began to evolve violence as a form of culture to turn away from it, and thus was patriarchy born, which set the blueprint for violence as a form of culture and thus was white supremacy and christian supremacy and earth supremacy, all forms of domination culture, born.

Currently, drug companies are super excited about mitochondrial research. It’s all happening in the language of advanced healthcare but its strategies depend on the use of human egg cells, the ovaried one, the mother where the mitochondria lives. And so, as in the ways of eugenics, as in the ways of medical research that uses the bodies of those deemed inferior or disposable, eggs are being harvested without consent or from those who are so poor that the money is more of a draw than the truth of ongoing health risks as a result of the drugs used to hyperspeed egg production. This is the same trauma pattern repeating itself, in the ways of trauma patterns, again and again.

Mitochondria is directly harmed by harm upon the environment around us: by pollutants in the air we breathe, by the manipulation of seeds and the use of hormones to fast grow animals for meat, by the impact of too much stress, too much food, too much stimulation on our bodies. Some of our beloveds are, right now, experiencing a range of things that get called “environmental illness” because their bodies are responding more quickly and fully to what has become a barrier to the nourishment of life.  Our survival as a species is dependent on nuclear DNA, the raw material of life, and mitochondrial DNA, the engine that supports life to connect, to respond, to draw nourishment into itself and turn that into relationship and repair.

In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg goes within Charles Wallace and has a conversation with his mitochondria and the mitochondria explains to Meg what it needs in order to survive. If you are someone who prays or uses an altar, spend a minute watching, listening to, creating an image of, or sensing in to your own mitochondria. Sing to it, remember it, wonder about it.  And don’t be afraid if they start talking back, as shimmers and sensations and whispers in your dreams. After all, they are you and you are them. There’s nothing strange or new about listening to them. Their shapes and the shapes of other aspects of life show up in indigenous art all over the world. It didn’t take an electron microscope to know that they exist.

Mitochondria are the foundation for cell survival which means the survival of our species and the species of our relatives. When the mitochondria is damaged, the cell is damaged. When this reaches scale, the species are damaged. Mitochondria is passed down through the body that carries ovaries within its belly. End patriarchy. Recenter the multiple gender expressions that support the body that carries ovaries to know herself, themselves, as central to our collective survival.

In the meeting I was in last night, the one where the issue of sexual violence came up, I said to the room, I want the experience of (cis) men fighting for me, fighting for my life and my child’s life in the deepest unrelenting of ways. I want to know what that would feel like, as a physical depended upon thing. I woke up this morning after a night of strange dreams and what I said - and didn’t say - last night was swirling through my brain. When my doctor said “mitochondria,” those swirling thoughts got clear. It’s not me I want those men to fight for, it’s for this, this crystalline structure that swirls through every cell, this 2 billion year old wisdom that knows how deeply life depends on coming together. Every system of supremacy is a form of stress that acts upon the body, weakening the mitochondria. Every act of violence we don’t repair directed towards every species on this planet including the earth who holds us all is an act that weakens the mitochondria. Every god-damned ACES study is saying the same thing: if we don’t center the children, then we can not protect the adults. This goes deeper yet, if we don’t protect the mitochondria and the bodies that pass them forward, then the species will suffer.

I am working to talk about bodies and gender in a way that bridges ways of knowing and that doesn’t essentialize one gender to a specific body but, at the same time, recognizes that there are ways of knowing or culture that have come down through some specific body/gender relationships. I recognize in saying this that because of gender violence, we have access to some of those ways of knowing and others have been destroyed or lost. I am always open to and looking for suggestions on how to talk about this in a way that holds and bridges everything.

*Very recent research is finding a few cases of mitochondrial passing through the body that holds sperm, what many call the father. This, to me, does not disprove anything here but instead makes me curious in all kinds of ways about all of the reasons why gender expression is so gloriously varied and makes me remember that a central core of evolution is that we are always changing and that biological diversity is core to our survival.

*patriarchy is not a way of naming or describing (cis)boys and men. All gendered peoples are harmed by patriarchy. Every single one of us. And, at the same time, all those who are defined as boys at birth and who grow into naming themselves as men face the life choice of how they live in relationship to the dominance behaviors that patriarchy gives to them. Shifting these patterns and conditions is a form of life’s work, just as shifting the messages the rest of us received and/or claiming our true gendered selves is about a life’s work.

Susan Raffo