Why the Personal Matters

As someone who writes poems and essays that mine and share personal experiences, keeps a personal blog, and is still revising that essay for Modern Love about the worst thing that ever happened to me, I found Laura Bennett’s Slate piece (about the popularity of women’s personal essays online) mortifying. I briefly wanted to lay my head down on my desk. And then I got that kind of queasy feeling I used to get as a child when grown-ups would say to me, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Years ago, my friend worked at an inpatient psychiatric ward for women recovering from severe trauma. (“Did it have yellow wallpaper?” I wanted to ask.) One morning she was walking down the hall and one of the patients held up a newspaper and pointed to a headline. “Hey!” the patient called out, “Who wants to see something really triggering?” My friend was amazed to see a horde of women flock around the newspaper. These women were all in the most difficult stages of processing their trauma, so fragile they needed hospitalization. Yet they wanted to see something described to them as triggering.

Why do we do that? It’s not as simple as this, but I can imagine a Stone Age ancestor looking at a body at the bottom of a ravine; we see the rockslide, the twisted limb; we realize what happened and program ourselves to avoid the same fate. And then we tell the story to the rest of our tribe.

What if you’re the one who slid down into the ravine, but you made it out? That’s a story that needs telling too. We need to know that it is possible to make it out of the ravine—and how. That we’re not alone, that it’s survivable. Why do we write our stories of trauma? Sometimes the worst thing that ever happened to you is the best thing that ever happened to you—not because you can monetize it, but because you survived it. You kept going.

We’re not in the Stone Age anymore, but we still need stories. Our families and tribes are atomized in a way they’ve never been. We look to the internet as a medium for connection, and often find shaming instead. In a world full of snark, should we be surprised that sincerity is currency?

I don’t think we need to make excuses for the personal essay. I have great hopes that they can break down stereotypes (and, yes, taboos) and create empathy and connection. One story at a time is the best way to do this. When we see one Syrian toddler washed ashore, or one teenager dragged out of her school desk by a police officer, we can no longer ignore their humanity and the fact we are all in this together. Now, finally, it’s personal. Our humanity pushes past prejudices and fears to do the hard work of forging real community. Homophobia, xenophobia, racism are all fed by our separation from each other, our silence (this is why coming out was important and Harvey Milk knew it). Desegregation movements receive such violent pushback partly because segregation allows us to demonize one another.

And one more thing—I’m tired of everything I write about being dismissed asmommy blogs and women’s lit and food porn. People have been coming together and feasting around tables for thousands of years, but we’re going to dismiss the power of a shared meal? Let’s stop pretending that’s some kind of social critique and see it for what it is—an attempt to belittle and silence the domestic sphere, still largely animated by women.

You know what I say to my kids? (And I got this from a blogger, actually, Glennon Melton of Momastery.) I tell them: We can do hard things. Because I want them not to be afraid to tackle things that seem difficult. Reader, we can do hard things. We can tell stories that are hard to tell, that have a cost and a benefit. We can empathize with people in situations very much unlike our own. We can survive, find our voices, and use them to make change.

>We can do hard things, like changing the world our kids will grow up in to be a more tolerant and civil place, a more empathetic place, a place where it’s safe to be ourselves. The personal essay is one small but important part of a larger social justice project. It’s a Truth and Reconciliation commission, a reckoning for rape culture and racism and misogyny and transphobia and fat-shaming. We are taking our confessions outside the lockbox of the confessional because we don’t need the priest’s power to forgive us. But we do need each other.

Great reads this week:

Poet Deborah Landau talks about Authoring one’s life “line by line,” beautifully articulating the need to stay present, without simplifying the hard parts.

Anne-Marie Slaughter asks, Why do we devalue someone the minute they care for others?