I have spent a lot of the last 36 hours submerged in the memoir Excavation by Wendy Ortiz.
I anticipated reading this book for a long time. I read an essay by Ortiz and most recently someone discussing how she does something miraculous with this memoir - Ortiz talks about having an affair with a teacher in his late twenties while she was a teenager, without casting him as a perpetrator or herself as a victim.
I was intrigued. At first, this was a personal memoir study/feminist theory kind of intrigued. Then the end of June, and the beginning of the Shambhala blowout happened, and I got even more intrigued. So I finally put it on hold and got it from the library. Still, I sat on my loaned copy for three weeks, and finally, up against the due date, I started to read it.
Just as I was cracking it open, i went on a walk with a close friend, and she mentioned that she had just finished that very memoir and asked if I'd read it yet. I replied that I hadn't but I was just starting. My friend's teenaged daughter, who had also read it, deemed it wasn't written very well. My friend and I talk about this kind of thing often, this tender thing of critiquing/judging art. What did she mean by “Not well written?” My friend reflected for herself that she agreed with her daughter, and in her case, not well written meant “Not well held,” “Without the right container,” “Unprocessed in flavor.”
I've just finished the book - and I'm not sure how I feel yet.
Some parts were deeply arousing, and I let them be - I let fantasy take over, I let myself feel her and his arousal then, and mine now, even if all three are confused. This felt volatile and I was angry at feeling aroused - alternately at him, then at her, then at myself. He should have controlled himself, she shouldn’t have written it in an arousing way, I shouldn’t have been aroused. So many shoulds.
The arousing parts are well written. Lots of the book is well written - processed, held, interesting to behold. Substantial parts of the book felt slapped together, too surface level, unexplored, unprocessed.
A few weeks ago, I read the memoir Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot and I struggled with similar issues. Both of these memoirs are experimental in form; Mailhot's writing is far more lyrical, and her processing seems deeper than Ortiz’s. But also some parts of Mailhot's book felt too easy, not thought through enough. I felt a heat rise up in my jowls as I finished. Was I judging her writing this way because she is Native and doesn't fit my white, even though not scholarly and generally pro-lyrical, gaze?
Mailhot’s memoir has an interview at the end, which I gulped up. In it she says parts of the book may appear effortless, but those are the parts she had to work at the hardest. Ortiz cites Lidia Yuknavitch (Chronology of Water); Mailhot, Sherman Alexie (You Don’t Have To Tell Me You Love Me) - both people who wrote more lyrically looser memoirs that I thought could have been tighter despite their brilliance.
So is this a newer form of memoir? Am I missing something here - the modernity my peers and near peers (all four of these authors are in their 40s and 50s) have picked up on? All four are higher educated in writing, or at least have workshopped with professionals, so who am I to say anything about how tight or loose their writing should be?
I feel a little small and unsure. I question whether my assessments of published, much less in-process work - my own and/or my clients’ - are accurate. They - I are/am not perfect. There's always more to learn. And yet. As I reconnect to my memoir and try to write about abuse and sexuality in nuance ways, I feel i want to do it differently - somewhat like they did, and yet different still.
Early on in writing, I wrote a review that never got published of a hip hop book for a magazine. The editor, who had specifically commissioned it from me, said even after a few revisions they found I was too focused on trying to make the book I was critiquing into another book. “You can't seem to review the book you read,” he said “You are reviewing how it compares to a non-existent version in your head.”
That accurate critique of my critique comes back to me now. I realize now this is actually less about credentials or self-doubt, and more about trying to expand and learn, absorb possibilities, while still getting clear about what I prefer and what I need to do. I don't need to decide on whether one person's work is better than another's - I simply need to take from it what is worthwhile for my own writing and that of those I work with, and leave the rest. I am developing the resilience to not make conclusions about value or merit for things I don't understand. Instead I can rest with them, be curious, keep studying.
It's been a hell of a few weeks. There have been incredibly difficult times in the Shambhala community (read all about it here), and just recently, someone posted an article I found related more for me to memoir than to our current situation in Shambhala.
In the article, memoirist Wendy C. Ortiz discusses her own memoir, Excavation, as well as numerous novels and her own experience as a psychotherapist. A lot of what she says resonates with my own process of telling about my childhood sexual abuse, and with the complexity of books I have discussed here, such as Zoe Zolbrod's The Telling as well as Claire Dederer's memoir and my discussion of it here in On Victimhood.
Because things are so difficult and full at my end, I am not going to say more than this for now. I am giving myself permission to simply post things I find interesting, without much commentary, and link them to other writing I have done at depth. I look forward to what reading Ortiz's memoir will do in terms of affecting my own telling about abuse, as well as conversations I have with clients I work with in terms of how to tell about their own experiences of abuse.
I have so many things to say about Claire Dederer's memoir Love and Trouble* that I can't possibly fit them all into one blog post. Mainly, I find I just want to highlight her words and share them. So I will focus this post on the most highlighted part of the book - her final chapter - "On Victimhood."
One of the things I struggle with the most in my memoir, currently titled Not Alone, is how to talk about sexuality. How to write about it? Really. Really really. When I first started writing about it, it seemed clear - because it is clear - that I was strongly shaped by a couple of young victimhood experiences with sexuality. Older boys - not yet men, but certainly with more agency than me - taking advantage of me sexually. These were both traumas, the two sets of experiences, and at first I thought my memoir was all about how they affected my sexuality. Then I thought, "Well, losing my dad at age 12 certainly affected my sexuality as well." That's true, also.
The fact is, the more I wrote, the less focused on victimhood I was. The more interested in nuance, in exploring all the subtle effects of growing up, socialized female, being cisgender and bisexual. Some traumas, some beautiful explorations. It's possible my young body enjoyed some of the victimizing encounters - that's not uncommon, even if they cause trauma - but that doesn't mean I "asked for it" or even that they are less traumatic (pro tip: if your body enjoys something traumatic that happens to you sexually, it makes it EVEN HARDER to unpack all the shame).
So when I came upon this final chapter in Dederer's memoir, which I was already relating to strongly for its exploration of how her sexuality came up for question again in her mid forties, I was blown away by statements like these. I feel like I am phoning in this blog post just quoting a lot from Dederer, but the fact is, in this final chapter she says so much of what I have wondered about, including feeling icky writing it.
I only wanted to tell stories of how sex had happened to me. Mary Karr has said that the reason she wrote Cherry, her memoir of teenage lust, was that teen sex was never written about, just teen victimhood. Now that I’ve had a whack at it, I can see why—it is easier to write the victimhood. The victimhood was like a vehicle that took me closer to what really interested me, what was obsessing me in middle age as it had done in youth: sex. But if I wrote only about assault and predators, I didn’t have to face myself as a sexual person.
Sex was a home and a site of purest simplicity. You just were. It pains me to write these words more than any other words in this book: I liked it. It’s still so hard to say it. The premise of this book is that I was wild and unhappy as a teen, and my unhappiness stemmed from my sex-crazed nature. But what I really felt was what I feel now: Life was hard, and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and I was profoundly, near-fatally afraid of failure, and sex was the only thing that made me feel better. And who doesn’t want to feel better?
The conflation of victimhood and desire is very hard to talk about, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real, at least for me. Even writing that sentence makes me afraid, as a feminist, that I am saying something wrong. But for me the freest and purest expression of sex has come with the playacting removal of volition. Being constrained in some manner, whether by hands or ties or just the physical weight of another’s body.
Of course the moments—and there are more than I’ve told here; a list—when I’ve actually been assaulted were the opposite of pure and free. This is the complication. We all understand that rape isn’t really a sexual act.
Two facts, in conflict and simultaneously true. I can be excited by the idea of victimhood and still have been victimized. Even if I’ve turned into grist for the sexual mill, nonetheless, I didn’t get to choose to be victimized that first time, that first among many. I didn’t get to choose the historical circumstances that have complicated my life. I get to own and even enjoy my excitement over being dominated or punished, but I also get to be pissed at a culture that didn’t protect me.
In this #metoo moment (or, to be more accurate, white female popularization of #metoo, which began long ago under the guidance and care of women of color with less public awareness paying attention to it), words like this feel all the more risky and also essential. Unpacking the complexity of sexuality, especially victims' sexualities, is not only respectful but also crucial. We cannot rest in the place of polarization and dualism, as tempting as it is. Not only do we wind up dismissing those who victimize others, we other the victims themselves/ourselves.
Dederer's book has upped my own game in my own memoir.
*I also want to name that this title is almost the same as a brilliant short collection of fiction from 1973 by Alice Walker, In Love and Trouble, Stories of Black Women. Please read this as well. It's a memoir blog, otherwise I'd discuss that, too!
Trigger warning that he talks about being the victim of severe sexual abuse as a child, and how he re-enacted many of those same dynamics - only now as the perpetrator - as an adult with his female partners.
I have been thinking about victimhood a lot lately, as a part of the whole #metoo situation, but also because there are parts of my sexual history that, in my opinion and in some of my readers' opinions, fall into a strictly grey area. Places where my relationship with someone perpetuated my own victimhood, and I didn't make a conscious choice to continue that, but somehow I was also choosing to be there and not saying no.
I am struck by this same ambiguity - without evading responsibility - in Diaz's article.
I struggled with Diaz's fiction for a long time. I knew in my heart his male characters' machismos were about more than being players - they had some deeper resonance of disconnection and possibly trauma.
About a year ago, I saw him give a talk at UW Madison, and he blew me out of the water. He was frank, open, direct, and clear. At one point he said something he mentions in this article - he stated directly there is a long legacy of sexual abuse in Dominican families. He says in the article that this was his answer for a long time - a way of pointing to what he experienced without stating it outright. After he said that in the talk, I turned to the friend I was attending with, and we both agreed - he had been abused sexually as a child. We could just feel it.
So it is powerful to have him name it. And I am grateful to that friend, who is Mexican-American, for helping me parse through my white experience of his Dominican-American descriptions of relationships with women, to find deeper, more nuanced understanding past my knee-jerk judgements. It helped me stay open and appreciate his work, even in the middle of discomfort. That openness feels paid off reading this article, where I see validated the understanding that even being a perpetrator is far more complicated than we want to acknowledge.
I hope to see many more stories like this emerge - not as apologies, not as exploitation of having been abusive, but so we can really feel the richness of the legacies of sexual abuse in so many cultures, and start to understand all the ways we inadvertently keep them alive.
*As I wobble my way back into blogging regularly, some weeks I am letting myself lean on posting links to something I have read recently that I think you will appreciate, with just a few comments. I'm trying to find balance and sustainability in blogging - imagine that!
‘Imagine,’ I said, back then, to some friends, in an earnest attempt to explain, ‘imagine your whole family is in a room. Yes, all of them. All the people you love. So then what happens is someone comes into the room and punches you all in the stomach. Each one of you. Really hard. So you’re all on the floor. Right? So the thing is, you all share the same kind of pain, exactly the same, but you’re too busy experiencing total agony to feel anything other than completely alone. That’s what it is like!’
-Helen MacDonald, H is for Hawk
Today is the 28th anniversary of my father's death. My father. Before I revised my memoir to make the naming of various characters consistent - always calling my mom's dad Bapa, always calling Dad by that name instead of "my dad" or "my father," a reader noted that whenever I referred to Dad, I used the first person possessive. "My father's death," I would write, as if the death happened to only me, or to only him and I was the only child.
Only, I am not. I am the youngest of three. And my siblings definitely suffered.
My memoir is about my loss, not about theirs. But I still found it an uncanny consistency that I didn't call him, "our father." It's how I tell my story - this is my loss, and not just because I am owning my story, but because in my story, I am alone.
In fact, this is the new, focused, working title of the memoir: Not Alone. The process of figuring out I am not alone in loss, in death, in trauma - that process/those processes have saved my sanity. That is really what my journey is about, where the survival is.
For a long time, my experience was exactly that of the Helen MacDonald quote above, and I am pretty sure it was that way for my brothers. I know it was like that for Mom. I know she and I fought all the time in my early teens, competing over who missed Dad more. Because we felt alone, we felt the other didn't understand, couldn't understand our loss.
It is somewhat the nature of loss in a society like the one I live in, North American predominately patriarchal, capitalistic, and white. Loss is something you suffer alone. It is stronger to do it alone. But it is also part of how I personally perceived I could get by - by isolating. And, in the end, I think it caused me more pain than good, as so many of our survival mechanisms do.
Not that I blame myself for that. I am very resourceful and did the best I could do, just as I am doing now.
Not all death anniversaries are hard. This one is medium so far. I feel tender and highly sensitive, wary of social interaction and as if I am a small child. But not so shut down that I don't remember my newer, more recent wisdom: to remember others have suffered similar losses, to bring them to mind and wish them love and relief from suffering, to see not that I have it "less hard" or "more hard" but simply that I am "not alone."
This is the key to all of our stories - finding where the universal and specific meet and diverge. And finding how to own our stories without excluding all those - familial, cultural, social - who also were a part, in direct or indirect ways.
Recently, we've been reading Life Work by Donald Hall for Read and Write. I chose this book for a few reasons.
1. It is a "quiet" book - very little drama, mostly reflective, and not really about a specific happening but more the intersection between life and work for a famous poet.
2. Donald Hall is an amazing poet - his collections on his wife Jane Kenyon's death and after are powerful poetry memoir (Without and Otherwise) and his memoir about her death is a beautiful and also quiet reflection on loss. But what happens if this same poet reflects on simple family memories (we-moir) and contemplative topics?
3. During the writing of the book itself, Hall is diagnosed with liver cancer; this is after he and Jane both lived through bouts of cancer previously (and Kenyon dies of cancer two years later, which he doesn't know will happen as he writes this book). In other words, the memoir is both about the past and present, but also includes a dramatic happening as it occurs in real-time. Real-time memoir is a powerful experience - not looking back - or in this case, not just looking back - but living with a major event as it happens. He recovers, as we know because he published this book over 20 years ago and still lives today, but he doesn't know it at the time - and so he believes he is facing his own death square on and writes from that place.
Aging. Facing death. Impermanence. Work and when it is boring and joyful. Creative process as a daily practice. These are topics which can be dramatic and plot-driven, but are, for the most part, actually quiet when it comes to ordinary lives. So quiet we can overlook them as "something to write about" and instead go for what is big and stands out - a marked and traumatic loss, when we stop creating all together or finally put together the award-winning book and publish it.
Books like Life Work remind us that the meat of our lives - and work - is actually what we would construe as boring - simple, repetitive, daily, routine.
But this is where the magic is: in routine and ritual, in relationship and regard. Its good to read memoir like this especially when you doubt the worth of daily life as topic. Granted, Hall could publish something this simple because he was - and still is - well known. I am not talking about a strategy for publication. But if you doubt the worth of your daily life and doubt its worth as topic in specific; if you believe you need to have lived an amazing life (to the positive or negative bent), or have an exciting daily life to even write about it, think again. Read the quiet memoirs, the essays that lean more towards truths like death and loss, inspiration and connection in quiet, regular, daily ways.
Let it be detailed. Let it be tedious, even. Explore the details in your writing, and you will begin to wake up to them in your life. Let your work influence your life in this way, and vice versa. This interfusion strengthens your writing and your life both.