Confessions

[CN: sexual assault]


“I’m telling you stories. Trust me.” 

~Jeanette Winterson, The Passion


My friend S recently had several poems accepted by Storyscape Journal, which asks its authors to classify their work as Truth, Untruth, or We Don’t Know And They Won’t Tell Us. I love this concept. At the same time, I wonder: would I struggle to commit publicly, if given such a selection of boxes?

S, who cites “confessionalist and post-confessionalist themes” as prime influences on her writing, checked Truth. She struggled a bit on her own path, but decided finally that poems could be judged within more flexible standards of truth-telling than memoir. She, like I, often wrestles with the genre implications of her work—that selection of setting that best allows a gemstone to gleam.

Another of her poems (forthcoming elsewhere) is titled, “I want to write a memoir.”

“except all I remember are dreams,” is its opening line.

* * *

When I write out these stories of my life, I am very careful never to lie.

Is that the same thing as choosing to be truthful?

* * *

When the memoir boom began in the late-’90s/early-’00s, I was just beginning a doctoral program at a graduate school of education, in its Reading/Writing/Literacy department. I enrolled simultaneously in a masters-level program through the English department, partly due to my interest in post-secondary literacies and partly out of an enduring adulation for Lit Crit not yet relinquished. (Faculty in both schools had enthused over this coordination when I was applying, though it proved bureaucratically challenging once I’d actually arrived.)

I had unknowingly selected an ED program heavily steeped in feminist theory, and much of my time I spent devouring all I could—especially anything related to embodied knowledge (and other new-to-me ideas of epistemology) and its implications for writing, the ways it justified first-person eruptions into even the most rigorous of scholarship. The rest of my days I buried myself in literature: postmodern novels, reimagined fairy tales, women’s memoirs.

The “boom” was still young enough that these books fascinated not only in their own right. They also represented that most prized of academic arenas: the as-yet-untheorized text. I recognized this, even as I knew my heart’s clamoring had little to do with scholarly potential.

If I had been in a better mental state (for reasons unrelated to my studies), I’m sure I could have made a viable project out of these intersecting spheres. As it was, I found myself tongue-tied and stammering when my adviser raised a perfectly reasonable challenge: “But what does any of this have to do with education?” 

“It has to do with my ability to breathe,” felt a meager response to being queried about the marketability of my proposed Grad Ed dissertation.

I ended up taking a year’s leave-of-absence, once I’d completed my coursework, to ponder my way into a viable dissertation idea. At the very beginning of my hiatus, I met the man I would later marry. At the very end, he talked me out of returning. He had completed his own doctorate a few years before and assured me: nothing good would come of it, if I went back.

“I’m telling you the truth,” my not-yet-ex said. “Trust me.”

* * *

I find myself having conversations everywhere about storytelling the self:

I.

I correspond with another poet who deals in personal and familial confessions. We talk about memory and invention. About the ways stories can be both inherited and ruptured across generations. How facts are lost and emotions restored.

What it is to sing with our own voices. What it is to call out in the voice of another.

Y tells me: “I don’t feel like it’s my job, as the poet, to capture all the detailed facts. It is my job to preserve the idea, and the emotion of it all. I hope that I’m doing my grandmother and mother’s stories justice.” 

I wonder—not for the first time—about my own insistence on writing in prose.

II.

I hear about a friend’s MFA classmate, a woman who writes life-narrative—work definitely marketable as “memoir”—yet who chooses to enroll in every class as a writer of “fiction.” I understand this tension.

I myself would publish volumes of mythology as Nonfiction before I would allow even a roman à clef of mine to fall under any rubric hinting that it contained Fiction.

III. 

I have an extended meditation with D, another blogger of personal and embodied stories, that stretches through snippets of comments exchanged on both her blog and mine: What does it mean to write about sexual pleasure? About sexual shame? 

On one post, I thank her for writing in a deeply vulnerable way about masturbation. On another, she remarks that my writing has a “trademark fierce honesty.” I ask about an early piece where she describes how and when she came to own her own voice. She reflects on how that claiming is never simple:

“I know that I’m hiding still even if the ways are more subtle. You definitely are someone who strikes me as unabashed and direct when it comes to saying what you mean and believe.”

I want to explain: the directness she perceives is itself a creation—a willing-into-being—more than any uncovering. Absent words, I feel mere rawness and pieces. To hide would require building first a wall and then a self to crouch behind it, though my materials for both are limited…and of the same stuff.

I don’t know how to say this. I leave no comment in response.

IV. 

A college classmate I haven’t spoken to in 25 years finds my blog online and writes to tell me so.

“Much of it is powerful writing,” his email says, “even if in some cases it’s painful reading. You’re brave to put this out there. You should write more—about being a rape survivor, and about other topics.”

At first, I am startled. Have I called myself a rape survivor? Then I take a breath and remember: yes, of course. 

Many times. 

* * *

No language is truly naked. Every story has been clothed and taught manners—even those that read like a feral child brought to a dinner party.

How could I possibly tell you memories that only howl?

* * *

At the beginning of our relationship, the ex and I collaborated on projects. A musician, he was deep into composing his first opera and concerned the libretto had problems. I was a writer; would I take a look? I did, and it did. Would he mind if I rewrote it? He would be forever grateful.

He courted me through admiration of my words.

Which made his eventual destruction of those words especially bitter. I said everything wrong, he began telling me—and I learned to be silent whenever we were in public. He agreed to stop yelling after every phone conversation I had with my parents—once I agreed to lock myself in the bathroom for the duration of each call. In the final months, he permitted me to sit with my journal at a local café—on the understanding that I would no longer refer to the scribbling I did while there as “writing.”

Writers have value.

I—he made me understand—did not.

* * *

When I was still a doctoral candidate, I said to a therapist: “I will know I am well, once I can write this all down in a memoir.”

“And I will know you are well,” he replied, “when you no longer want to.”

* * *

I wonder if readers ever know which are the stories that most protest being written? The stories I begin drafting, only to find myself once again unable to sleep in the darkness. Certain memories turn to snakes when handled: writhing coils of muscle and fanged venom. Only craft can tame them.

Rape stories, for instance, are always snake stories.

Last fall, nearing completion on a piece that had kept me awake for a near-month of nights, I read the draft out loud to myself, again and again, noting every time my tongue tripped over words or the logic seemed lost. Each time, the same two sentences never worked: So I say 12. I say, “This happened 12 times.”

You see? How the second sentence hinges on a demonstrative pronoun lacking a clear antecedent?

On a late afternoon in early October, I asked a writer friend to meet me for coffee. Quietly, haltingly, I read to her my revised phrasing:

So I say 12. 

I say, “I was raped 12 times.” 

As I spoke that afternoon, the words became true: this was, at last, a thing I said.

I posted “The Window Bangs” at 1 am that night, after adding a lengthy and pedantic second postscript about memoir-writing and the trope of the unreliable narrator.

I slept until almost noon the following day.

* * *

I am telling you stories.
Trust me.

I am confessing you truths.
Forgive me.

~a.i.


“Confessions” is part of an ongoing memory project.
The entire series can be found here.

[Featured image: Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting. Artemisia Gentileschi (1638-39). Via.]

18 thoughts on “Confessions

  1. If you go the memoir route, I think “I was raped twelve times” is a pretty good opening line. As long as you follow it up with “I am here.”

    This was a powerful piece of writing, which really resonated with me. My own work has always taken more of a fiction curve, expect for my poetry, which was my first love but which, for some reason, I don’t write anymore–my confessionals now take the form of blog posts I assume–and they are softer and more rounded–as am I. That is not to say quieter or less prone to anger and frustration, simply more curved. As if I, like my body, have grown into my womanliness–or more accurately, my perception of what womanliness can be. My youthful Doc Martens have been replaced by metaphorical steel-toed boots. Yet none of that metamorphosis would have been achievable without being able to name those feelings early on in college. I did not continue my studies past my BA, but would have in a heartbeat had my life taken a different turn. There is nothing I like better than sitting in a classroom of lively debate, of passion and even anger. Other than writing about it.

    I feel there are more familiarities to discover in these pages–and what better than a collective unconscious of women to tap into?

    I shall keep digging.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Okay, that just gave me shivers. “I am here” is a sentence that features prominently in a post I am just finishing up for next week.

      It’s a very short post. It’s a very significant sentence. *shivers again*

      I have so enjoyed all your comments. If I had a snake to spare, I’d send it to you in thanks!

      Like

    1. Oh I get it! No need to apologize! 🙂

      I’ve thought a lot about the implications of this comment over the years: which are the therapeutic issues that we move through, and which are the ones that are so big — or so foundational — that they forever after change how we make sense of ourselves. In context, I don’t think he intended to be dismissive; he just mistook something foundational for something transitory.

      Like

  2. Whew, you sure know how to get inside my head. I struggle with so much of this (as I procrastinate writing a post that is gnawing at my insides – as much as the anticipated response is). I struggle with voice, with confidence, with worth – all of it. And if I am totally honest, I’m sitting here jealous – damn it, I want to be having these conversations! I want awesome people (yeah, that’d be you) in my life asking me about my writing as if it were a real thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for this comment! I’m glad the piece spoke to you. And I totally understand — I worked on a number of projects last year (this blog among them) out of my own “damn it, I wanna be having *those* conversations!” impulse!

      I really want to get into your blog, too. The recent pieces I’ve looked at have got me feeling all nosey and interested to dig around more. I actually intended to get to that before I replied to you here! Afraid I got too pulled into a new piece — one of those pushy, demanding posts that will not permit authorial procrastination! — to do much reciprocal reading this week. But that one went up this morning (100th post! I’m still doing a triumphal happy-dance!), so look to be seeing me nosing around your place quite soon… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow.. so much truth and beauty.. and so much really. The gorgeous writing, the words that pierce.

    Rape stories, for instance, are always snake stories.

    How could I possibly tell you memories that only howl?

    “… even those that read like a feral child brought to a dinner party.”

    And from our own exchanges “a willing-into-being — more than any uncovering.”

    I sense what you are saying, you embodied on the page through your words, into form. This piece had so many layers and unexpected rhythms going into so many unexpected places. And not to mention your trademark bravery… you have stories to tell for sure.

    Like

    1. Thank you! I’m glad it was resonant — and that my “embodied response” to you made sense.

      I am having such fun writing pieces like this! Like a collage in words. After so many years focused on academic writing, with its need for both explicit argumentation and justified relevance within a defined field or profession, I find it liberating to craft something that is so open and layered — where I lay down snippets of memories and shards of sharpened thoughts next to one another because they just “go there” best. And even I do not have a confirmed sense of what interpretations are “correct.”

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this stunning post. I’m so happy to discover your blog.
    “How could I possibly tell you memories that only howl?”

    and this vignette:
    When I was still a doctoral candidate, I said to a therapist: “I will know I am well, once I can write this all down in a memoir.”

    “And I will know you are well,” he replied, “when you no longer want to.”

    (Wow.)

    Everytime I write a post about my life, I think of this quotation from William Maxwell’s So Long See You Tomorrow: “What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory –meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion– is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.” When I was in college, I used to feel anxious writing nonfiction essays, nervous that I was telling untruths. Remembering this quotation helped freed me, to some extent.

    But, still, there are some stories that I haven’t shared (or I did and then I deleted or hid them) because I’m afraid that my story will be misread as representative of a country or a culture. I know that they’re important but, in this political climate, I’m afraid of what the repercussions will be.

    Like

    1. Yeaaah, I’ve been thinking about that interchange with the therapist for over a decade now. Each time it resonates for me slightly differently, though I think it’s fair to say that while I’m sympathetic to the positions we were each expressing, I also mostly disagree with us both. (Which probably means I’ll keep turning this over for years yet to come.)

      “in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw” — I really love that. I think it’s important to have some means of grounding ourselves when we tell the personal stories of our pasts: both to free ourselves from fear, as you point out, and also to sustain our confidence if those stories are met with denial (far too common for women, especially women of color, sexual or gender minorities, etc.) or with the equally destructive aggrandizement that you mention, where the story of one is taken as the story of all.

      I’m so pleased to have found your blog as well. Looking forward to what lies ahead!

      Like

  5. there are tears welling up in my eyes right now, because I remember reading that post; because you write in a way that is never a lie, yet with words still haunted by a pain of what raw truth will reveal; because no matter how much I want to truly understand I will never be able to understand; because I am angry that so much was taken from you yet hesitant to voice that emotion as you work to move beyond; because there is nothing to forgive…

    In response to
    “When I write out these stories of my life, I am very careful never to lie.
    Is that the same thing as choosing to be truthful?”
    I ponder this:
    Is it possible to tell truth…as a human being influenced every moment of every day by sights, sounds, touch, emotions…can it be possible to completely separate minute aspects of those influences from a strict narrative of truth? Truth is what we make it to be in the presence of our individual reality. I don’t think that truth *is*…truth *becomes* and even if the individual sits alone devoid of material things and experience in the here and now, doesn’t the mind search to create a form of truth from what has been experienced before…

    Like

    1. “I don’t think that truth *is*…truth *becomes*” — beautifully put, and I certainly agree.

      While I don’t mention you specifically in this piece, I wonder if you realize how much of it is in conversation with you? Your comment on my last post, when you asked if I ever thought about publishing this work in a broader format — I almost responded “oh Deb, if you only knew for how long!” 🙂

      And I remember you reading the piece last October, too. You were the only person willing to respond to that post in writing. Even good friends, who already knew the story, didn’t say anything. Not even through other channels than the blog itself; too afraid to say the “wrong” thing, some have since told me. Your comments that day seemed to take their tone from that academic-y postscript, and — you may recall — we exchanged ideas about traumatic memory and public response to sexual assault *in general*. I don’t know how purposeful that was, on your part? but it was perfect. And so very much the kind of response I wanted and needed to that post on that day. I couldn’t say that, or thank you, then — so please let me thank you now.

      Liked by 1 person

Let's make it a conversation! Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s