Acknowledging Reported Emotions Before ‘Explaining’ Them

Suppose you say, “I’m <angry, sad, disappointed, anxious, irate,….> because of X <my neighbor’s behavior, my father’s letter, my mother’s language to me last night, my husband’s antics….>.” As an example, “I’m sad because  my brother ignored my birthday this year.” Now, suppose your respondent immediately launches into an ‘explanation’ of, or ‘apologia’ for, X: Your brother didn’t really ignore your birthday, it’s just that he was traveling and didn’t have WiFi, and so wasn’t able to call you on the day. Or something like that. This response by your interlocutor attempts to fit the actions or events that have caused you some emotional pain into a causal arrangement that makes your acquaintances’ behavior more explicable; it makes the case that the action was not personally directed, that it was not malevolent, and so on. Your interlocutors are attempting to defuse and remove the sting of the hurt; they are attempting a therapeutic maneuver, devising a narrative that will allow you–as if in the clinic–to tell a story that ‘works better’ for you.

This, more often than not, turns out to be a mistake; such ‘explanations’ and attempts to ‘mitigate’ the hurt, the anger, the pain, simply do not work; you remain as angry, perplexed, or irate as before; indeed, these emotions might have been exacerbated, and you might have an entirely new conflict, one with your interlocutor, on your hands. The problem, of course, is that the original statement has been misinterpreted;  it is a confusion to think these kinds of statements are attempts to assign causal blame; rather, they are reports of feelings.  When the person we are talking to starts to address the causal relationship they think they have detected, they have moved on past the original emotions that actually prompted the report. Contextualizing the reported emotion so that it fits into a wider nexus of actions and reactions and emotions is a worthwhile task; it may indeed make the sufferer feel they are not being persecuted, that they are not alone, and so on. But this sort of amelioration is best carried out after an acknowledgment of the feelings at play. These sorts of reports are calls for help; they report discomfort; they seek relief. But like any good healer, we must first make note of the symptom reported and only then attempt a diagnosis. To begin by offering apologia is a surefire method of negating and dismissing the initial report, which seeks, first and foremost, a hearing.

This kind of interaction is exceedingly common; I have participated in many myself, both as offender and victim. It is often reported as the kind of conversational play between men and women that sets the two genders apart distinctively i.e., men jump to ‘solving the problem presented’ while women ‘process the emotions reported’ (though I think gender lines cannot be so clearly drawn here; there are exceptions aplenty on both sides.) It derails more conversations than might be imagined; and it only needs the simplest of conversational maneuvers, an acknowledgment that we have been listening, to ameliorate it.

On Encountering Resistance And Lovin’ It

This morning my four-year old daughter marched into our living room, and clutching a ‘storybook’–a collection of tales based on Disney’s Frozensaid, “Papa, this is my favorite storybook. I like it a lot. I know you don’t like it, because I know you don’t like princesses.” Having made this announcement, she walked over to the couch, sat down, and thumbing through its pages, began ‘reading’ aloud to herself. (My daughter cannot as yet read, but she likes to make up her own versions of the stories she has had read to her; needless to say, some rather interesting plot twists result in her recountings.)

I listened to her announcement and watched her ‘read’ with some pride.

She was right in surmising that I ‘don’t like princesses.’ I’ve often said uncomplimentary things about ‘princesses’ in front of my daughter: they dress up too much; their clothes won’t allow them to play in the playground, or go climbing or hiking; they seem to spend too much worrying about what they look like. When we see a video of a sportswoman or a female performing artists, I make sure to point out that the athlete looks nothing like a ‘princess’; princesses don’t play guitars or the drums; and so on. You know, the usual things a parent concerned about the relentless ideological assault of the pink princess advertising machine–the toys, the T-shirts, the make-up kits, the stories of being rescued by princes, the unrealistic body images of skinny, blond, white girls–would do. My daughter has clearly been listening and watching; she knows her father doesn’t ‘like princesses.’

But she does like the adventures of Anna and Elsa, and all the excitement, magic, monsters, and animals that seems to enter their lives. (I’ve still not seen Frozen and I don’t think I ever will but I’ve read out a couple of the stories from that book to her so I have some idea of what entertains my daughter.)

But over and above the fact that my daughter is capable of spending time by herself with a book, what about her remark made me regard it with some pride? Well, she does seem to have established some crucial distance between what I want and what she wants for herself; she doesn’t seem to be entirely reliant on seeking my approval–she did not, after all, walk up to me and plaintively ask me for permission to read her book. Rather, she acknowledged a disagreement between the two of us, and then went ahead and did what she wanted. (I would like to think she regards Anna and Elsa’s adventures as showcasing activities that the princesses I don’t ‘like’ don’t seem to engage in–those two get up to considerably more action than the typical princess–and so, in some ways, even her liking the tales in Frozen reflected my interactions with her.) I’ve often told my daughter that she should ‘do what she wants’ and not ‘worry about what other people say.’ Today, she did just that, and what’s better, she didn’t care about what someone in a position of authority had to say about what she liked and wanted to do.

On Being Advised To Not Take A ‘Girl’s Role’

Shortly after I began attending a boarding school in the ninth grade, I was approached by our ‘senior master’ and asked if: a) I could ‘act’ and b) if so, was I interested in trying out for the annual school play. I had done some acting in school and youth club plays in the sixth and seventh grades, so I answered in the affirmative to both questions. On  hearing this, the senior master asked me to attend a ‘reading’ that night where we would go over the play’s script. I agreed. When I told my classmates about this invitation, I received many congratulations. Acting in the school play was a prestigious business; being invited to act in it was an honor not accorded to many. I was suitably pleased, and resolved to write home to my mother as soon as I could that I had begun to rack up laurels here in my new school.

That night, I showed up at time in the school library for the reading. I was handed the play’s script, and the reading began. (If I remember correctly, that year’s play was Joseph Kesserling‘s Arsenic and Old Lace.) The senior master pointed at me and asked me to read–again, if I remember correctly–Elaine Harper’s part. (I do know it was a young woman’s role, and Elaine Harper is the young woman in Arsenic and Old Lace. My school was a boy’s boarding school, and we did not import actors or directors for the school play.) I did not mind being asked to play a woman; I vaguely remembered my father telling me that: a) in Shakespeare’s time, boys and men often played girl’s and women’s roles and b) that he himself, in college, had played a woman’s role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the college Shakespeare Society. If my father–a man who would go on to fly fighter jets and fight in two wars–could do it, so could I.

Our reading went on for two hours. By the time I returned to my dorm, it was after ‘lights out;’ everyone in my dorm was in bed, and seemingly fast asleep. I quietly changed, went over to my bed, and lay down. As I did so, my neighbor stirred and spoke.

“What role did they offer you?”

“I”m supposed to be a young woman.”

“Are you going to take it?”

“Yeah, it sounds interesting.”

“So, this is just something I want to tell you. Every year there is a school play, and every year, someone has to play the female parts. The boys who play those roles, they become the sissies in school. No one ever lets them forget it. They get teased and bullied all the time. They get called ‘girls’; people copy them walking and talking and putting on make-up. Last year, X did the girl’s role, and no one has stopped teasing him since. You’ve just joined this school; you still haven’t made that many friends. Some people don’t even like you because you’re from the Rector’s old school, and they think you’re his pet. I wouldn’t do it. This is just my friendly advice.”

[Or something like that.]

I lay there in bed, listening to that seemingly disembodied voice whispering at me in the dark. The vision it conjured up for me was equally gloomy; I knew exactly what he meant. I had already seen examples of how quick and efficient and cruel my school’s bullying and teasing was; many boys were permanent outcasts, shunned and sent off to the margins for faults imagined and real. I knew X was an outcast; now I knew why. I lay under a thick blanket, but I shivered nonetheless. I didn’t want to be a girl in a boy’s school.

The next day, I told the senior master I couldn’t do the role. It went to a boy a year younger than me. He was a wonderful actor and brought his role to life. For the next year and a half, every time my class mates and I walked past him on campus, someone would wiggle their hips, giggle, put on a falsetto, and call out his name. He never returned our gaze.

Men Writing As Women, And Vice-Versa

A few days ago, I excerpted a passage from James Baldwin‘s If Beale Street Could Talk (Bantam, New York, 1974)  in which the central character, a young woman named Tish, describes her–and her boyfriend, Fonny’s–perceptions of Bell, the policeman who has sent Fonny to jail.

Tish:

But I was beginning to learn something about the blankness of [Bell’s] eyes. What I was learning was beginning to frighten me to death.

Fonny:

When their paths crossed, and I was there, Fonny looked straight at Bell, Bell looked straight ahead. I’m going to fuck you, boy, Bell’s eyes said.

My annotation concluded:

Only Baldwin, I think, could have captured–in quite this way–the aura the black man feels radiating out at him from a policeman: the resentment, the sense of being marked as a target, the implicit and explicit violence, the desire to destroy whatever it is that makes him into a man who can hold his head high. The policed see and experience the police very differently; they know they are looked at through a different lens.

Except that in the passage I noted, Fonny’s perceptions–that of a black man–of Bell are actually those of Tish–a black woman–for she is the narrator of the story. Baldwin, a male writer, has written a novel in first-person where the gender of the narrator is not his. This, as might be imagined, is not a task that novelists often attempt. Our own interiority is hard enough to ‘capture’; the description of another kind of subjectivity is particularly intractable task. Third-person descriptions of another gender are a little easier than first-person perspectives, even if only marginally. (As Meg Toth noted in the discussion I make note of below, “Inhabiting a different perspective is not the same as writing well about it in the third person….So many authors write sensitively and insightfully about main characters of the opposite sex, but using first person to do so is rare.” Baldwin even provides us an explicit description of Fonny and Tish’s love-making; it is a remarkable scene, powerful and sensitive.)

What makes Baldwin’s novel particularly interesting is that our pre-encounter-with-the-text expectation is that we will read Baldwin as one of the most vivid male articulators of a distinctive ‘literary black rage.’ (Richard Wright would be yet another.) But instead, Baldwin turns his attention elsewhere. In the case of my reading of If Beale Street Could Talk, considerable anonymity preceded it: I had never heard of it, a sad commentary on my knowledge of Baldwin’s work; I found it a battered paperback copy on a stoop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and intrigued, brought it back home with me; when I opened it to read, I had not even read the jacket description; this made the little shock I experienced on finding out that Tish was the narrator especially distinctive and pleasurable. There is something to be said for skipping reviews.

Note: After reading Beale Street, I made the following query on Facebook:

Favorite novel written in first-person where the author’s gender is not the same as the central character’s?

The response to this quest was gratifying; I will post the list that emerged–including novels that are actually written in third-person–anon. It is very rich; I’m looking forward to the reading that lies in store.

The Perils and Pleasures of the Scatological

Warning: Please do not continue reading if scatological references and language upset and offend you.

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled with some friends to upstate New York. We were on a Members’ Appreciation trip organized by the farm that supplies our local community supported agriculture collective (CSA) with its beef, pork, chicken and lamb. As we sat together on that early morning MTA train, suitably fueled by caffeinated concoctions, it quickly became apparent that stories of urination and defecation–sometimes public, sometimes spectacular, sometimes embarrassing–were gaining considerable mileage, provoking considerable chuckling, guffawing and chortling. I spun out a few stories myself; indeed, I may have been one of the ‘worst’–or ‘best’ depending on your perspective–offenders. And as our train rolled on, and through, the bucolic landscapes of New York farmlands, the air turning blue–or perhaps brown and yellow–in our corner of the coach, I was reminded yet again of the curious attraction of the scatological tale and joke.

Talk of shitting, pissing, farting, sharting, and the like comes easily to some; equally facile are the offended responses of others. It is still not quite clear to me what accounts for this difference. One conventionally drawn line has been between men and women’s tolerance for this species of conversation. A dozen or so years ago, after a friend and I had finished laughing our heads off at a suitably shit-stained joke, my girlfriend asked, “Why is it that men find such jokes funny?” My friend responded, ‘What is it about women that prevents them from getting the joke?” But it is not clear to me such genderized lines can be easily drawn. My company during my ride upstate was a mixed sex group, with contributions and appreciation roughly equally shared, so conventional stereotypes about the relative tolerance for, and indulgence in, this variant of humor certainly seemed up for contestation and redefinition. And neither does class or income explain the relative differences in tolerance. The rich–in the right company and circumstances–talk of their shit and piss just as much, or as little, as do the middle-class and the poor. (Based on some rather unscientific sampling.) So do the young and old. And of course, even the supposedly highly cultured and sophisticated, like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, no less, have been known to give wings to their scatological flights of imagination.

Perhaps reveling in the scatological provides relief and release from daily, clenched-cheek, full-bladder, strictures on conversation and expression; perhaps tales of answering–in staggering variety and manner–nature’s many calls are one more way of emphasizing our sometimes malodorous connections with it; perhaps in recounting our incontinences, we make ourselves more human; perhaps as Freud noted, we are still proud of our ‘productions.’ Those of us that do indulge in these walks on the wild side might be entitled to look askance at those who refuse to let go and hold on tightly, veins popping, reluctant to acknowledge the ubiquity of the arse-wipe and pee-stain, desperately hoping to maintain the carefully crafted image of the pristine human, well above the fray and the spray. If only they’d relax and let the ease flow over–and under–them.

Note: While my diaper changing experiences in recent months have certainly induced new appreciation in me for scatology, they have not been my sole inspiration for this post. But they do deserve a post of their own. On which, as for many other issues, more anon.