A woman must continually watch herself. In the introduction to her new book of personal essays, The Unspeakable, Meghan Daum issues a caveat: “I have been making something of a specialty of writing about myself . . . [but] I still have mixed feelings about the whole genre.” She quickly lists all the non-autobiographical writing she’s done, as if to prove she is also a “serious” writer.
This self-conscious twitch and the essays that follow set lines from John Berger’s lecture-series-turned-book, Ways of Seeing, ringing in my ear. “From earliest childhood, [a woman] has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually,” he writes,
And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another . . . A woman must continually watch herself.
Berger’s being a tad polemical; he’s writing declaratively not just to point out what he believes to be true, but to satirize the circumstances forcing this behavior: women’s situation and subjective experience has been—and still is, often—written by men in declarative statements. Women are relegated to the role of subject, and often a woman’s power stems not from her skill to author her own experience but from her adeptness at anticipating and fabricating her image so she will be found pleasing by those who do. Authority isn’t inherent for women, Berger suggests. It’s granted from the outside.
I teach Ways of Seeing to undergraduates, and my current students were very startled by Berger’s nerve. “I don’t watch myself,” one young woman protested. “He’s a man,” another said accusingly, “He can’t make blanket statements about what women experience.” They are bright and engaged. Every day before class, hoping to fool myself as much as them, I put on what I call my “teacher drag”: black, heels, blazer, glasses. My teacher drag looks similar to my “resident of New York” drag.
One of the things I am tasked with teaching them, ironically, is how to command authority on the page when they have, comparatively, very little knowledge of the fields within which they’re writing. We look at essays together and I ask them, What makes you believe that the author can be trusted to talk about this? What makes you believe that she is worth listening to?
As Daum acknowledges, finding oneself believable as a legitimate subject of inquiry, thought, or art —and, more to the point, a legitimate author of that inquiry— can still be a fraught undertaking for women. “I have mixed feelings about the whole genre.” She also reminds us, quoting her first book, My Misspent Youth, that the essays “are about me but also a lot of other things,” and that they “can be filed under all sorts of categories apart from writer looking in the mirror.”
When I mentioned this to my friend Fannie, a PhD in Religion, she pointed out to me that men’s introspective writings have often taken form as “essay,” whereas women’s have been “diaries.” The essay is, of course, more rigorous, intellectual, authoritative. The diary is confessional, girlie, and embarrassing. (One ex used to snicker when I pulled out a notebook to jot something down for a story. “Oh, are you writing in your diary?”) In the essayistic tradition, a (traditionally male) writer can try on ideas, voices, and rhetorical styles, and then jettison them if they fail, retaining a kind of authority without having to be personally accountable, consistent or (to use the irritating word of the moment) “likable” at every turn. Conversely, the diarist is wholly accountable—the diary is assumed to represent her truest, most exposed self—and yet not quite authoritative: diaries are, above all, subjective renderings of reality. Women writing in the “I” fight the specter of the diary, which saps their authority and saddles them with the obligation to be both a good author and a good subject. Put another way: women writing in the “I” are more easily dismissed as narcissistic, exhibitionistic, or niche.1
Whether this perception still prevails (and anyone who has read Woolf, Plath, Angelou, or Daum for that matter, knows better) it’s a hurdle many women memoirists feel they have to clear up front. While women’s essay collections dominate bookstore shelves (off the top of my head: Leslie Jamison, Roxane Gay, Rebecca Solnit, Ann Patchett, Lena Dunham, Nora Ephron, and others) many still exhibit self-consciousness about being a woman writing in first-person.2 “I got so sick of synopsizing the plot, whenever people asked what it was about, I started simply saying women and their feelings,” writes Jamison in The Empathy Exams. “When I called myself a DJ mixing angst, it was a preemptive strike. I felt like I had to defend myself against some hypothetical accusation that would be lobbed against my book by the world at large.”
Still, it was surprising to see Daum flinch this way. Her glorious trademark has been her unabashedness. Throughout her career, Daum has seemed to delight in ruthlessly subverting the female impulse to be looked at and found, in whatever way, attractive. She has exposed and manipulated the cultural tendency toward unreasonable and uncharitable scrutiny of women by exploding it, by holding herself accountable on the page for every unflattering thought and gesture. At her best, she comes across as irascible, searching, radically honest, occasionally unsympathetic, and ultimately humane—a combination that takes nerve to attempt and talent to execute.
I should admit here that I have pressed copies of Daum’s writing insistently into more unsuspecting hands than I can count, promising, “It’ll light your hair on fire.” Her first book of essays, My Misspent Youth, reads in some parts like a giant, joyful “fuck you” to the notion that women should watch themselves. There is the essay in which she declares that carpet is not her “oeuvre” and follows up with the observation that this is about class, that “people who must have wood floors are people who need to convey the message that they are quite possibly better than most people.” There is the essay where she admits to having begun an internet affair with a self-professed fan boy out of some mixture of ego gratification, loneliness, and need for control. But I am thinking most of “Variations on Grief,” in which she considers the death of her oldest friend.
Brian is someone who accomplished nothing in his life but his death. This is an ugly admission, a brutal interpretation of facts I have not been able to process any other way. . . . His life had been a string of failures: an unremarkable education in suburban public schools, an abandoned college career, a less than half-witted attempt to become a writer. . . . When he left this planet he left me and very few others, and if those Christian alternatives to life really exist, then he must know by now that we will never be reunited. If those opposable H’s are true, then he is in Heaven for never committing any crime, and I’ll find myself in Hell for the spin that I have put on his death. My spin is this: I believe that he couldn’t do anything other than die.
What’s exhilarating about this essay is not just the sheer horror of some of the thoughts put to paper—that she admitted to having them at all and then made them irreversibly public—but the fact that, in it, Daum seems to be genuinely grappling with their implications. She is essaying in the truest sense. She’s accounting for herself to herself. It’s like watching a live wire act: there’s an audience, but that isn’t the reason to keep balance. The writing is riveting.
The Unspeakable promises to continue this project and even more boldly. Daum writes in the introduction that the book addresses “the ways that some of life’s most burning issues are considered inappropriate for public or even private discussion. It is about the unspeakable thoughts many of us harbor.” There are plenty of moments in The Unspeakable that deliver on this promise. She turns an unsentimental eye on her childhood, her careerist impulses, her perceived failures as a wife, her disinterest in motherhood, her ambivalence about her miscarriage and aging, and so forth. She also cops to a whole range of what she terms “pretty unflattering behavior”: lecturing a foster kid about financial responsibility, semi-hysterically hijacking an adoption information session, toying with some hopeful lesbians, letting her ego and neuroses run roughshod over dozens of interactions. Daum is better than ever at riding the edge between radical—and admirable—honesty and making herself so unappealing you put the book down. (Of her mother’s death, she writes, “I was as relieved as I planned to be.”) She clearly enjoys dancing near the vanishing point beyond which an unreliable narrator just turns into an asshole. Because she is sharp, funny, and good at her craft, I enjoy watching the dance. The book is lively and capable. But the high wire act feels close to the ground.
Later on in Ways of Seeing, Berger considers classical paintings of women in varying states of undress and makes a critical distinction between the female subjects who are naked and those who are nude. “Nakedness reveals itself,” he writes, “Nudity is placed on display. To be naked is to be without disguise. To be on display is to have the surface of one’s skin turned into a disguise . . . Nudity is a form of dress.” With the nude, the woman addresses herself to the viewer. She watches herself being watched. She “offers up her femininity as the surveyed.”
Once my students got comfortable with Berger’s language, they enjoyed applying the naked-nude question to other essays and other art. The White Album, naked or nude? Francesca Woodman, naked or nude? What about Rihanna’s album covers?
What about Daum? If I were to give them an essay from The Unspeakable—which I might—a few might say that we trust Daum because she exposes herself even when the portrait is unflattering (naked). Others would point out that she’s still designing not just the stories but her persona as their protagonist and author, so the impression of radical honesty is just another assumed disguise (nude). This impression gives her cover to subtly exploit the shortcomings of the genre: memoir is faulty just as memory is faulty. Presenting a “self” is always a kind of lying.
To me, the issue isn’t that Daum is watching us watch her—of course she is; nearly all writers who intend to be published do—but that she seems more interested in presenting a self than interrogating herself. The pieces rarely vibrate with the essayistic impulse, what Charles D’Ambrosio calls “capturing the conflicted mind in motion . . . representing failure on the move.” For the most part, they relay insights already gained. About working with foster children, she writes, “I thought I’d undertaken this volunteer work because I was, above all, a realist. I thought the thing I felt most guilty about could be turned into a force for good. But now I know that in some ways I was under the sway of my own complicated form of baby craziness.” Another essay, on her outsized affection for dogs, concludes: “Our love for our pets is what separates us from the animals. Our love for animals is what makes us human. Which I guess is another way of saying it makes us both totally pathetic and exceedingly blessed.” (Nudes.)
In her self-presentation here, Daum is satisfied with, or at least reconciled to, the kind of woman she is. She even lists what “kinds of things” she likes (lesbians, dogs, bourgeois creature comforts) and what she doesn’t (cooking, games, leisure travel. “Clearly, I am a killjoy”). When she admits to unattractive traits and behaviors, or gleefully voices some taboo thought or feeling—which rarely seem truly unspeakable so much as politically incorrect—one gets the sense that she’s already held herself to account and feels fine. The work has been done. Daum’s authority in this book is not that of the essayist, or even the diarist, but of the practiced storyteller.
There are exceptions. “Matricide,” which opens the book, details in excruciating terms the chain of antagonistic mother-daughter relationships in her family, in which Daum intends to be the final link. Much of this essay is painful and breathtaking, especially the moments when Daum reckons with how she felt and acted as her mother was dying.
A few times she lay there in her own shit. . . . I know this because I was in the sleeping chair on the other side of the room, listening to it all while pretending to sleep. I tell myself now, as I told myself then, that if things had gotten really bad, if she had cried out in pain or called my name or if a serious amount of time had passed before a staff member came, I’d have gotten up and helped her. I tell myself that I closed my eyes to protect her dignity. . . . I tell myself I did it out of compassion, but the truth is I also did it, as I had done so many other things where she was concerned, out of rage. . . . When I was finally allowed to return to her apartment and order Chinese food and drink from the wine stash she hadn’t touched in ten months I wouldn’t even be able to call my fiancé in Los Angeles and say what I’d done.
There’s an unsettledness about this, an earnest questioning that’s both frightening and moving. To look at yourself—not to watch yourself but to really, unsparingly look—is excruciating. In doing it, Daum manages the difficult and generous feat of making a space for us to do the same. “Up to the instant [of nakedness] the other was more or less mysterious,” Berger writes. “The loss of mystery occurs simultaneously with the offering of the means for creating a shared mystery.”
“Matricide” ends with Daum in a tenuous truce with herself: she will not herself be a mother, which is a kind of peace-making with her “fragile maternal line.” But it also ends with uncertainty, the kind that calls back to Montaigne, godfather of the essay, who wrote famously, “What do I know?” Its final lines feel like her greatest admission, a dispatch from her nakedest self and from ours: “Not that I’ll ever know what this story is about. I know only that I’ll probably never finish telling it, and it most certainly never will be whole.”
The Atlantic Wire reported last year on the meteoric rise of the pronouns “I” and “we” in American literature over the past fifty years, and blamed “the rise in women’s writing” for both the new narcissism and birth of the ‘feelpinion.’ “Part of this female first-person fascination is pushed by the women themselves (think mommy-bloggers),” writes the author, Eric Levinson. Levinson then cites Courtney Martin and Hannah Seligson’s 2008 op-ed from The Huffington Post, titled “The Carrie Bradshaw Effect,” in which Martin and Seligson scoffed, “We know, we know, men have been writing about their lives for centuries and it’s been called great literature. So why are we picking a bone with a fictional character that’s made writer’s block sexy? Because we can’t turn a page, web or paper, without reading about a young woman over-sharing details about her love life. And frankly, it’s creating a scary Carrie Bradshaw ghetto for young women writers, a ghetto that places a high premium on appearances and how fast you can blog about your latest sexual escapades. Carrie’s spawn are everywhere, yet serious women writers remain terribly under-represented in most of the field.” ↩
Essays written by women have had such a banner year that, in October, the New York Times Sunday Book Review asked “Is This a Golden Age for Woman Essayists?” to which Cheryl Strayed responded, “I’m of the opinion that as long as we still have reason to wedge ‘women’ as a qualifier before ‘essayist,’ the age is not exactly golden.” ↩