Sometimes I’m tempted to go where all the successful young lady writers seem to be going these days. I know I have it in me: I could write a damn intense essay casting a glamor on the parts of my life that the lascivious world probably wouldn’t mind reading about. Sex, drugs, despair, abandon, adventure. You know, the good stuff.
It would be a bigger story than that, of course. The pinnacle so far of this emerging genre is Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life.” Strayed’s story isn’t just the tragedy of a woman who deals with a major loss by sleeping around and doing a lot of drugs, breaking her partner’s heart and alienating her friends; she’s the ideal postmodern poster child navigating a world that’s suddenly revealed to be incredibly shallow. She celebrates her newly discovered loneliness by embracing it wholeheartedly. The reader might even aspire to it. If it’s a parable of anything, it’s of attachment to the act of letting go, a fable without a moral at the end.
Or there’s Chloe Caldwell, who writes over and over in a hundred different ways the formative details of an out-of-control era of her life. It’s partly a way to get control of it, and partly, I suspect, a way to impress us readers with her out-of-control credentials.
When I fantasize about writing like this, I believe that it would be easy to publish, that it would gain me acclaim, that it would — perhaps most appealingly — be a way to process those wild lost years of my own life. It’s art, it’s therapy, it’s got to be personally empowering. Just like it’s empowering in a weird way to read because look, this person has been through these things and now she’s a writer, she’s getting a little famous, it’s okay.
Two recent events have cast a shadow on this genre.
One is the death of Amy Winehouse, at that astrologically significant age of 27, the age when talented, lost women are entering into the daunting process of extricating ourselves from the morass that came before. The general tenor of commentary that I’ve seen tipped heavily towards “she had it coming” and less, though still vocally to “she was brilliant and skilled.” It’s always easiest to go down the path of least resistance in our actions and our interpretations, and the path where self-destructive behavior, drugs, and relationships defines the lives of young women is a well-worn one.
The other recent event is the fall, hopefully not permanent, of Mac McClelland, a talented journalist who’s risen quickly to fame and awards through her scrappy braininess and raw determination. She recently wrote an older, more worldly version of that tempting essay, published it in a prominent national magazine. It had the intended effect of shock, of telling us something about her and about ourselves and about trauma.
Unfortunately, her essay about diving into the deepest part of her own trauma and emerging stronger on the other side, while eloquently and bravely told, rested on someone else’s story. The trauma at the center of the essay is McClelland’s indirect experience, in the seat of a taxicab, of a woman’s reaction to the aftermath of brutal rape. The essay has been criticized as characterizing Haiti as an archetypal place of sexual violence. Moreover, the woman whose direct experience this particular trauma was, and who did not make the choice to deal with it by broadcasting it to the world, didn’t take her essay-outing sitting down. She got a lawyer and pointed out that she had been endangered by McClelland’s in-taxi tweets that named names and times and places. She let it be known that she had asked McClelland’s editors not to publish anything about her.
Like so many dynamics that cross international lines of poverty and privilege, McClelland’s public attempt to heal herself from what she’d seen on the other side at best disregarded and at worst exploited who she’d met there.
It’s not entirely surprising that a writer’s story about a time in her life when she made bad decisions is fraught, itself, with bad decision making. But this emerging genre of essays by young women all, underneath what is essentially a sexual coming-of-age narrative, exists in a world where only the narrator has dimensions or depth. This ruthless self-examination is all about self-empowerment, but it’s accompanied by a failure to consider the agency and power of others, for good or ill. All the supporting characters in these essays, whether partner, a stranger, or a country, lack any literary purpose but to be the foundation for the author’s personal psychological development. This is nonfiction, and these are real people. It’s by nature exploitative, and in some contexts, it’s colonial.
There’s another thing, too: these are essentially tales of sex, often sex that hurts and is meant to hurt, even if it’s written as consensual. When it isn’t self-destructive sex, it’s drugs, it’s alcohol, it’s self-starvation, it’s abusive relationships.
These narratives are powerful, but not because they’re innovative. After all, this is the same old story you see everywhere, in the newspaper and in the paperback novels at the grocery store — but told from a perspective of distance and privilege. These young writers have escaped their fates, retreat to a place of relative peace where they can recover and write it all down. From any perspective but their own, they’ve been exploited in the most traditional, ugly ways. Their stories’ motive force is that they see their self-destruction as their choice and that this choice is an empowering one.
What they don’t see, or find it understandably more empowering not to see, is the typicalness of their stories, the social forces that make that path so easy for us to choose — and so difficult for the less lucky to walk away from. The dark side of the ideal of freedom of choice is that it blinds us to the social and economic forces that often limit that range of choices and distribute our options unequally. It can be personally empowering to see our circumstances as choices, and ones that make us stronger and more whole; but by the same token, for everyone out there writing lyrically of their own tragedy, there are many more silently being blamed for theirs. The more powerful we are–and these young writers’ voices are extremely powerful — the greater potential we have for disempowering others.
I still want to write this personal essay, of course. I would feel better, you would be in awe of me and maybe aspire to be just like this former unhappy self. But this public airing wouldn’t be fair to me, or you, or to the young women drawn to my story like moths to a lightbulb. For one thing, I have many other things to say. For another, you’ll also be better off, too, if you know and the world knows that young, female writers like us have more to say than the same old story in new, enlightened packaging.
I want to challenge everyone to do it better. By all means, tell your story. But when you do, don’t forget that the minor characters in your life are the protagonists of their own. If you respect their voices and honor their stories, they might just be there for you next time, helping you through the shit the world throws at you and giving you new worlds to write about outside of your own life.