the destroyer > reviews > On Confession and the Blurring of Autobiography / Andrew Schenker
Part of the problem with confessional writing or any writing that lays bare your humiliations and aberrant behaviors for public consumption is the potential it has to negatively affect your social life. While you’re unlikely to turn off family or friends of longstanding association, newer acquaintances are generally less inclined to be so forgiving. Once, for the sin of having committed a questionable, though hardly earth-shaking, transgression, but more so for having compounded that sin by writing about it, I was consigned by an ex-lover to something like the realms of the subhuman.
I offer the following evidence not to win the reader’s exoneration, but to point up the dangers of documentation: One time, while highly intoxicated (an explanation, not an excuse), I started a verbal argument with a girlfriend at a bar in front of her friends. When I reached a sufficient level of anger, I started screaming uncontrollably, causing the woman, who had never before seen me in such a state, to run into the bathroom where her friends blocked off the door to prevent my entrance, and causing me to be ejected from the bar. Upset, I ran directly to her apartment, which was around the corner, and let myself in with the extra key she had given me. When she and her friends arrived, they immediately kicked me out, confiscating the key in the process, and I spent a good half an hour yelling and banging at the door to be readmitted before the cops came and escorted me out of the building.
I later used this material, presented semi-fictionally, as a throughline in a literary piece I did. The project consisted of a series of numbered passages, made up of various generic materials, all centered on the theme of dating and sexual politics. My goal was to use the incident, augmented by quotations, anecdotes, essays, song lyrics, and film reviews to show the way that dating, as currently practiced in supposedly enlightened corners of the world in the 21st century, still unfolds as a capitalistic struggle for male possession of the female object (or something like that).
Shortly after completing this project, I started seeing a new woman, a fellow writer, although one far more accomplished than me, and I ended up talking at length about the work and about my process. I did not, however, offer to let her see the (unpublished) piece, despite her repeated requests to do so. After a couple of weeks, she decided that our lifestyles weren’t compatible (She was very active, I’m a slug; she wanted kids, I rather detest them.) and called off the nascent relationship, adding, sincerely, that she wished to remain friends. While this was not the course I had hoped things would take, I agreed to attempt to pursue a friendship with her and acceded at last to her request to send her a copy of my piece.
After e-mailing her the document, I waited several weeks for a response, anxious to see what she thought of the work’s literary merits, but when she finally did answer, it was with a disgust that made any such objective concerns as the quality of the writing irrelevant.
“The truth is,” she wrote, “that I did find your piece a little off-putting. I know that you are not the same as the narrator of the essay, but even if not everything in it is true about you, I just don't know the other sides of you all that well either, and I don't feel like I can begin an honest, comfortable friendship with you right now.”
And with that, the association was over, which didn’t itself bother me so much as did the implication that she didn’t see me as a fit member of the human race––at least not the portion of the species that she wished to have any association with. But what was really shocking was that her decision was not based on any behavior I exhibited or any action I took which she had directly observed, but simply on what I described in my writing––a piece of prose whose actual level of resemblance to what occurred in real life was, as she herself acknowledged, rather uncertain. Even when we write as fiction, people take it as fact. The lines between the two modes are forever and hopelessly blurred.
Often such a blurring can be an intentional strategy, a refusal on the author’s part to be confined to the strictures of either fiction or biography. Frederick Exley, who labeled his book A Fan’s Notes a “fictional memoir," begins that work with an introductory message to the reader disclaiming responsibility for any of the narrative’s fabricated characters and events while noting that the book nonetheless bears a similarity to his actual life. He is deliberately tricky in suggesting which elements are supposed to be considered “real” and which are to be taken as fictional and thus regarded as bearing no relationship to any persons living or dead. By the end of the introduction, he concludes simply, a tad disingenuously, by asking to be judged as a “writer of fantasy.”
Barry Hannah’s Boomerang, a similarly tricky undertaking, is billed as a mixture of autobiography and fiction, offering up the disclaimer that “names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.” There is no shortage of examples of this type of thing to be found throughout the literary world.
Oftentimes, people are uncomfortable with this type of slippage. A few years ago, I attended a screening of Lisandro Alonso’s 2001 film La Libertad at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Considered in some circles a landmark movie that set the tone for a cinematic decade rife with minimalist-minded fiction/non-fiction hybrids, La Libertad is short on dialogue and conventional action, consisting plotwise of little more than a woodcutter cutting down trees, stripping their bark, and bringing the lumber to market. Although nominally fictional, the film is the result of a close association between director and subject and it observes its non-professional actor going about his business with a documentarian’s sensitivity to process.
At the screening in question, my attention was continually interrupted by two women who sat in front of me and complained loudly the whole time, making declarative statements such as “this is not a movie.” When I asked them to be quiet, they noted that the film contained no dialogue, a fact that apparently gave them license to converse freely. When I suggested, since they were enjoying the movie so little, that they should leave, they told me that I should be the one headed for the doors if their presence bothered me. Eventually, though, they did exit the theater, leaving me to enjoy the film’s final third in silence.
It’s debatable whether or not these disaffected moviegoers were specifically annoyed by––or even consciously aware of––the hybrid nature of the work. More likely, they were turned off by the lack of “anything happening” on the screen, but the fact remains that what gives La Libertad its unique power and what makes it such a challenge to unsuspecting viewers is precisely this documentary-like attention to detail within a fictional framework. When films (or books or paintings) don’t adhere to standard expectations, the viewer (or reader or observer) either makes a mental adjustment or simply, as these women did, utterly refuses to engage with the work at hand.
Earlier, I noted that the experience of showing my literary project to an ex-lover and being rejected made me feel like I was not a fit member of the human race––at least in her eyes. But this feeling of expulsion from humanity is relative. Take the example of a recent letter to the website Gawker written from a Texas prison’s death row; shortly before he was executed, inmate Ray Jasper expressed surprise that anyone would be interested in hearing his perspective. “You’re talking to a young man that’s been judged unworthy to breathe the same air that you breathe,” he writes before going on to deliver a long excoriation of the prison-industrial complex in which young (mostly black and Latino) men are incarcerated in massive numbers because those in positions of power, lacking empathy, see only profit.
Now, granted, Jasper was a convicted criminal who took part in a murder/robbery, so whatever your take on the death penalty may be, he’s clearly not just an innocent victim. But what about those hundreds of thousands of young men who are picked up and locked away on minor drug charges or, setting the example of the prison system aside, all those people who are simply ignored and sentenced to miserable lives of poverty and exploitation? It is, as Jasper repeatedly notes, the result of a lack of empathy, a refusal to engage with the person in question as an actual human being. (If you can’t share the experience of an impoverished Argentinian woodcutter––“fictional” or not––when it’s presented so vividly on screen, then you’re off to a bad start here.)
There’s a name––or probably many––for this sort of thing. In his book-length musings on the subject of humiliation, Wayne Koestenbaum coins the somewhat questionable phrase “Jim Crow gaze” to describe exactly this unwillingness to engage with another person’s humanity. Referencing the experiences of blacks in the pre-Civil Rights era South, Koestenbaum describes a way of looking at another person that reveals an absolute deadness in the eyes of the gazer, an unwillingness to view the person being looked at as part of the same species, generally because the individual belongs to a group viewed as being so far inferior to that of the looker that he or she might as well not exist. Once a person’s humanity is in this way denied, visiting humiliation and physical violence on the individual becomes inevitable. There is us and there is them. Again, it is a question of refusing to see beyond binaries.
As it turns out, my ex-lover was perfectly correct. What she misidentified as the “narrator” of the “essay”––no doubt meaning the unnamed third-person protagonist of the central throughline of my piece––was––in fact based very closely on me, and his misadventures mirrored almost exactly my own. So why then did I (why does any writer?) portray my experiences as fiction, or at least allow them to unfold as semi-fictional narrative, instead of fact? Is it an evasion, an unwillingness to fully own up to aspects of myself I would rather not publicly acknowledge, while still mining my insecurities and foibles for presumptive literary gold?
Undoubtedly that’s part of it. But I hasten to add that even if I had presented the material as memoir, it would be absurd to take my account as some sort of factually-precise recounting of real-life detail. Memoir is a slippery thing best viewed, at least to a large degree, as fiction. As it were, by taking the opposite step, by presenting my material as made up, I wasn’t fooling anyone. Everyone seemed to understand that the narrative was based on a real incident from my life, even those readers that weren’t friends who had already heard the story from my lips.
And, yet, I did view my decision to write that part of the piece in the third person as a sort of self-protective maneuver. Other sections of the work, after all, were written in the first person and were clearly meant to represent my “actual” voice. Yes, one of my goals in the piece was to incorporate a variety of modes, types of materials, tones, and styles of narration, but my choice to present the central incident of girlfriend-harassment in the manner I did, nonetheless represented a certain unwillingness on my part to take full public ownership of my past actions.
I show my piece to an acquaintance, a queer-identified woman with whom I’ve made out on two occasions. She texts me back with her reaction. “Really, really interesting. I enjoyed reading and couldn’t stop,” she writes, while assuring me that she wasn’t offended. This is something of a vindication, especially as the piece contains an account of my unsuccessful attempt to try to sleep with another woman who was interested in both guys and girls and which hinted at some still lingering assumptions I had about the erotic proclivities of bisexual woman.
But here again, my recounting of that incident was a bit of a dodge. One of my strategies in compiling the piece was to include guest essays from friends about their own dating experiences which I presented anonymously, the author identified only by age, gender, sexual preference, and relationship status. The account I wrote of my unsuccessful sexual conquest was written as if it were one of these essays, passed off as the woman’s personal recollections of an aggressive encounter with a man who was not identified as or indicated to be me. I can only wonder if my acquaintance saw through the ruse.
On their latest record, veteran pop-punk group Against Me! practice a similar, if less dubious, form of displacement. Their first album since lead singer Laura Jane Grace came out as a trans woman, Transgender Dysphoria Blues deals largely with her experiences living as a member of the opposite sex, sensitively and sometimes brutally outlining the uncertainties, longings, and misunderstandings that she presumably has encountered over the last couple of years. And, yet, many of the tracks, and the majority of those dealing most directly with the experience of crossing the gender divide, are sung in the second or third person, as if Grace doesn’t yet feel quite comfortable acknowledging that the feelings she sings about so forcefully are her own.
This is most evident on the album’s best song, the title track, which details the longings of a trans woman to be seen like “every other girl” instead of simply as a “faggot.” Grace holds nothing back in terms of her full throttled vocal performance (having only recently begun hormone therapy, her voice still sounds like a man’s) and her willingness to deal with the ugliest details of the bigotry she no doubt encounters daily. And, yet, the entire song is sung in the second person. When you can’t be seen for who you are, when you’re viewed as something less than fully human or at least met with (at best) uncomprehending stares, it is no doubt tough to directly acknowledge your position with the use of the first person singular pronoun. As for me, I have no such excuse.