My life, of late, is a bowl of cherries. Often with a dollop of vanilla yogurt on top. I steal them at the grocery store, just one per bag, to avoid the crushing disappointment of learning too late that they are sour. Unlike soured humans, who tend to advertise their disgust, cherries conceal their true nature. They can be firm and fat, dimpled at the stem, colored the shiny, bright-dark red named “cerise” in their honor—yet enter your mouth like a squirt of vinegar.
They are solidly in season now, though, and not a single bag has let me down. Daily I reach for my favorite kitchen gadget, the cherry pitter, and enjoy its pleasing violence, the crack and spurt that drives its rod straight through the heart of the cherry and shoots the pit out the other side. After a brisk round of pitting, I find a mist of pinkish-red dots on my counter and backsplash. This is because cherries are juicy and lush—the opposite, in fact, of virginity. But when did Western culture ever get sexuality right? Men focused on the spot of blood, not the bloom of pleasure.
Cherries are about desire, not chastity. We pick them carefully, cherry pick them. Tasting and choosing, we graft our hunger to their reality.
• • •
Sexing the Cherry is a brilliant novel, written by Jeanette Winterson with her usual candor and edge. “Lies 1: There is only the present and nothing to remember,” she writes. “Lies 2: Time is a straight line.”
Before I read Sexing the Cherry, I thought she had invented the phrase as erotic, but it refers to a botanical grafting that makes it possible to grow a female cherry tree with neither parent nor seed. Ah Bing, a Chinese horticultural worker, used the grafting technique to help cultivate the cherries I have been gobbling up. He sweated over his namesakes in an Oregon orchard for decades, then went home to visit his family and found he could not return. We had passed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, barring Chinese workers from entering the country so we could cherry-pick our labor force to our own citizens’ advantage.
We cherry-pick in greed, or to win. Doctors cherry-pick healthy patients when their reimbursement is a flat fee per patient. Coaches cherry-pick talent. Clerics cherry-pick passages from scripture. Politicians cherry-pick stats. Lawyers cherry-pick precedent. And in writing the majority opinion in the recent Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, Justice Samuel Alito was accused of cherry-picking from our history and our Constitution.
The issue is a painful and complicated one. If grafting joins tissues from two different plants so they can grow as one, abortion does the opposite, separating tissues to stop their growth. The country does not agree about this practice, and a legal rationale can be mustered in either direction. But the swings pro and con have been politicized, and that colors the argument.
In “The Dangers of Judicial Cherry Picking,” Cari Jackson, a United Church of Christ minister with a law degree and a doctorate in Christian social ethics, notes the backhanded, double-negative compliment that women are “not without electoral or political power.” Alito makes no mention of the overwhelmingly male majority of lawmakers or the economic disparities that still constrain women’s resources, because in this instance, it is more expedient to emphasize women’s power. The majority opinion insists that it is taking no position on the legal rights of a fetus, yet hands states the power to prefer those rights to those of the pregnant adult. The opinion criticizes Roe as based on rights not found in the Constitution, but Jackson points out that “the Constitution is intended to include more than the rights enumerated,” and the framers fully expected the nation to “enacte, constitute and frame shuch just and equall lawes, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete and convenient for the generall good of the Colonie.”
She also writes that “in its judicial cherry picking, this majority opinion completely ignores ‘right to privacy’ as the inherently common context for contraception, abortion, same-gender, and interracial relationships.” As for freedom of religion, the framers left it, as James Madison wrote, “to the conviction and conscience” of each individual—not to the differing moral codes of fifty states.
Watching from Italy, Maurizio Valsania, a scholar of American history, adds a few more instances of cherry-picking. “Justice Samuel Alito appears spellbound by the 19th century,” Valsania writes, noting that Alito relies on that century’s criminalization of abortion but fails to ask why.
Legal authorities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries condoned abortion, frowning “only when the procedure was carried out after ‘quickening,’ the moment when the mother realizes that the fetus moves in her womb, approximately the fourth month of pregnancy.” While the methods were less safe than they are today, there were many. When Ben Franklin edited and reprinted a British manual in 1748, he made sure to “touch upon a common Complaint among unmarried women, namely The Suppression of the Courses,” offering the recipe for an herbal abortifacient and urging the young woman to then “ride out every fair Day, stir nimbly about your Affairs, and breathe as much as possible in the open Air.”
The founders “had a rather democratic understanding of the female body,” Valsania notes. They did not see the female body as inferior; indeed, their belief that conception was aided by mutual orgasm made seventeenth-century husbands attentive to their wives’ pleasure.
What changed in the nineteenth century was that women were now expected (and instructed) to be weak and chaste and have decisions made for them. An important bit of context to ignore.
We are not obliged to buy sour cherries (though my local supermarket might take exception to my covert taste tests). But when it comes to issues this weighty, we—in this nation whose capital is lined with cherry trees and whose first president lied about chopping one down—must find a way to see things whole.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.