Letting Down Our Guard

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One day in my English 197 class at the University of Washington, which was called something like Writing in the English Discipline and was a required course for English majors, we were having a discussion about reading, and different ways of reading. Most likely we were talking about the differences between reading for entertainment or pleasure and critical reading. I can’t remember the details of the conversation, really, but at one point I said something about my father, who read a lot of John Grisham paperbacks. I shared that he and I had a conversation about reading and he admitted, “I don’t like to think when I read.”

Once these words left my mouth there was a wide-eyed gasp from a girl a few seats away, a non-verbal exclamation which seemed to have the whole room’s disdain for such an idiotic thing to say, way to read, way to be a person behind it. This was a room full of English majors who had college educated parents and who spoke only when they could demonstrate that they were smarter or more well read than the person who spoke before them.

The instructor watched the class’s reaction with what seemed a mixture of fear and sympathy. I think he realized my transgression and sensed my immediate regret and shame, and felt sorry for me. When I think of it now the pity in his eyes only makes me feel more ashamed, and I wish I could go back to that room, and shake that girl until I could make her understand that my father wasn’t stupid. My father wasn’t stupid.

At the end of Brenda Miller’s interview for “The Dog at the Edge of the World,” she says that in writing we must let down our guard. How does this work when we’re writing about other people? How can we let down a guard for those loved ones who need our protection, especially when we’ve already failed to protect them so much in the past?

In another class at the UW, this one in the American Indian Studies department, I wrote something about my family’s issues with drug and alcohol addiction and the co-dependent relationship that counselors told me I had with my parents. The professor wrote a note in the margins next to the word “co-dependent” which said, “Why do we allow these authorities to narrate our lives, our relationships?” As an American Indian studies scholar, it was important for her to think about how American Indians could be empowered to narrate themselves, or narrate their own stories, as a group who have been criminalized and pathologized by the dominant cultural narratives placed on them. This idea of narrating the self has become important for me, too, and is part of why I value my own writing as well as helping others learn to write.

But those narratives I took from psychotherapy were useful to me, in some ways, and when they weren’t useful, they were the only things available. The horrible counselor who told my mother to forget her parents because they were abusive alcoholics and the apathetic social worker who told me never to go into social work (even though, in her heinous words, I would be good at it) were the only avenues I had available to try to keep myself and the people I loved alive.

In some ways they worked for me. They didn’t for my parents, and so far they haven’t for my brother. Why?

In “The Dog at the Edge of the World” Brenda writes, “Maybe that’s what healing is, a kind of remembering. An ancient remembering that can’t be done with our misfiring brains alone…” Our misfiring brains. Does my brain fire in some way that is different from my family’s? Is there some difference in my neurology that allows me to take advice from counselors and use it to become stable, that didn’t work the same way in their brains? How did I learn how to function within middle class bureaucratic institutions but my brother can’t? How did I learn to be self-preservational from suicidal parents? Do I have some neurocognitive capability they didn’t, or am I just more willing to accept the authority of therapists and teachers to impose narratives onto my experiences?

Brenda’s essay leaves us with the sense that we can make use of uncertainty in trying to understand our lives, ourselves, our relationships. Maybe I don’t need to have concrete answers to these questions. Maybe even if I do create some narrative with which to make sense of what went wrong, remaining open and okay with the possibility, the likelihood, that I may not really ever know isn’t the most important thing. Maybe that narrative doesn’t have to be assured to be healing.

I think in order to engage in that process, we have to accept some measure of vulnerability. As Brenda writes, we have to let down our guard. How do you do this in your writing? How do you let down your guard?

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4 Responses to Letting Down Our Guard

  1. While I believe it is always a mistake to judge others before examining our own faults, in the real world people presume much about other people, without even realizing they are doing so. I enjoy the way your post illustrates the American culture’s need for intense competition and status, as well as the way it validates an average reader’s motivation for picking up any written material-and it does this subtly. I think many of us enjoy a piece of writing that helps us to escape the confines of our daily lives, and this is possibly what your father actually meant when he said “I don’t like to think when I read.” I also am a child of alcoholic parents (both of mine self-medicated), and so I was raised primarily by my grandmother. I think, as writers (as well as human beings), we must at times allow ourselves to become vulnerable, allow ourselves to risk taking the chance of opening up to varied responses from others. I know that whenever I have jumped off the deep edge of the mountain (not literally) it has made a positive difference in my life. It helps me to think that although my experiences seem mine alone, that some other people out there have had similar experiences, and that they will appreciate my honest rendering of emotions. Perhaps it is enough to remain true to one’s own vision (emotional, memory, philosophy)? I try to remain true to my own feelings when I write.

  2. brownc67 says:

    Hi, Diane. Yes, you’re right that that’s what my dad meant – and what is inherently wrong with reading for pleasure, entertainment, even escapism once in a while? None of us would be readers if we didn’t read that way sometimes. I guess from a Marxist point of view, reading in that way would be seen as a tool of class oppression, but I’m not sure we always need to separate pleasure and analysis. So is the idea that something you write will encourage someone else how you “take the leap” and write something that makes you vulnerable? Also, part of why I write about my parents’ chemical dependency issues is that I think it’s really important to change the stigma around what should be seen and talked about as a mental health issue – that it is self-medicating should go without saying.

  3. zoeedithcohen says:

    Wow, thank you for sharing this, Chanel. I think your question, how to let down your guard, is such a fundamental concern of this genre. As you illustrate so poignantly, it’s hard enough to let down your guard and share personal material, leaving yourself vulnerable, but when we write about people we care about, are we also putting them at risk, leaving them vulnerable to misinterpretation and judgement even? It can be kind of a paralyzing thought for me… (As a card-carrying over-thinker, this is the kind of thing that stops me from even starting- even putting pen to paper…)

    • brownc67 says:

      I liked how the author of Silence dealt with this issue of “exposing” other people you love. She is obviously angry at her father and criticizes him, but she is also compassionate about why he wanted everything to be good and right, and I didn’t feel as though she really demonized her father or portrayed her mother as saintly. They both just seemed like people – people who were flawed, but sincerely wanted to do better. I really loved that piece.

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