Why Honesty is Risky, Sometimes

I started my Memoir Generator class. There are 12 of us aspiring memoirists. All women identified, all pretty quirky. I have decided after our first meeting we are all hiding something. That’s why we want to write. We are trying to figure out how to unhide. 

PC: Hauke Morgenthau

We read two memoirs before the class so we could tear them apart. I don’t mean in a bad way, like a really tough movie critic- I mean we dissected them, made lists of characters and objects and places, and honed in on the authors’ strategies for effective writing. The books we read were When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (which I wrote about a few months ago) and The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham. These memoirs are both about death- the first is about the author’s battle with cancer and his understanding, as a surgeon, of exactly what is happening inside him, and the second is about the author’s father committing suicide and her family’s quest to pick up the pieces for years. Literally, years- Wickersham worked on this book for 14 years. Kalanithi died about a year after he started writing the book. 
I felt so alive in our first class, even after a long day of work, even as the sun set and the bands of gold light turned pink and purple and then darkness flooded the window outside. I love learning, and what’s more, I loved being in a room with writers interested in understanding writing as a deep spiritual, artistic process. We agreed that writing a memoir takes time, reflection, and the final product will leave out quite a lot of what we write. “Don’t think every scene you write isn’t sacred,” our instructor told us. “But don’t think it’ll all be publishable either.” I admit, that statement scares me. But I’m still willing to try the process. I have stories and people and pain to unhide. 
In this first class, I learned something crucial about telling the truth amongst my new classmates. As we delved into the character list for Wickersham’s memoir, someone asked, “Why do you think she only mentions her sister once in the whole book? That seems strange to me. We don’t even know her name.”
It did seem strange- I suddenly wondered if the author was trying to tell us that her sister wasn’t very important to this whole experience, which I found unbelievable. My sister would be, if that ever happened in my family. Before that train of thought could spiral out of control, another student responded, “her sister probably asked not to be in the book. She probably wanted to be private.”
Oh. Yes, that makes sense. I realized in my quest to begin telling my own story how difficult telling the truth is, especially to the world who doesn’t know you and the people you love. Because “the” truth is actually your own truth. We have great power in our hands (literally) when we write down the stories we tell ourselves and share them. We are exposing brokenness and pain and memory that may be locked away for good reason. Someone in my class mused, “you’ll never please everyone when you tell the truth. The truth hurts. And usually we are writing because we are hurt, or we hurt others, and we write about the people who have caused us pain or for whom we have caused pain.”
I thought about my family and our collective secrets. What will happen if I write them down and share them? Even the stories we have exposed are told in a way that everyone feels they have agency. We’ve told these stories over and over, and drafted them in a way that confirms and contributes to the greater narrative of who we are. What if my writing challenges this narrative, shatters our story of “us”?
So I begin by asking “why.” Why do I feel such an ache to tell my story, even though I risk upsetting the people closest to me? For now, the answer is that sharing my story could also put forth the beginning of an honest conversation about our shared family pain that we’ve never addressed before. Telling the truth is risky- and maybe it’s a way for me to build stronger relationships with my family. I hope the memoir process helps me unhide from my own truth, and that I learn to listen for others’ struggles in sharing theirs. 

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For the Women, and Everyone, that I Love. 

Most of us have heard and or read Trump’s sexual harassment comments and if you’re like me, have subsequently read plenty of articles floating around Facebook and Twitter that explain why these comments, this “locker room banter”, is so harmful. Many of these articles I can’t even read all the way through because they feel so invasive. I find myself sobbing uncontrollably, reliving, remembering, and trying to reimagine. I am so in awe of any woman, regardless of who they are voting for, that shares her story of sexual assault with me- especially if I’ve never met her. 
I’ve been struggling with this blog being “not political”, especially in the last year. Realistically, not a few hours pass without hearing a reference to the election in some way. It has not been my intention to ignore the pain and polarization I blatantly see, but I recognize that I have. My default mode of expression on this forum has been stories of my own experience and how they give me hope even among the atrocities in the world. People working together, talking together, laughing and crying together, despite their differences. I am sorry for not speaking more bluntly about the horrifying abuse that black, latinx, undocumented and documented immigrant, Muslim, Sikh, and other people have endured from a single man and his words. So, I will not speak for anyone but myself, and I will tell you my truth. This week I need to tell you why this “locker room banter” matters to me- as a survivor of sexual assault, yes, and more directly, as someone who lives in a woman’s body every day. 

PC: Jairo Alzate

When I wake up in the morning, I put on the outfit I picked out the night before, turn the coffee pot on, and shower/brush teeth/pack my lunch. Sometimes I forget to scoop the coffee into the pot and that adds a few minutes to my routine. I check the T schedule so that when I arrive, I won’t have to wait too long to get on. When I’ve got everything all together, I grab my backpack and head out the door. It’s scowl-face time. There’s a building across the street from my apartment that is under construction. Often, men are working when I walk to the T. I’ve seen them staring, at me and other women. Sometimes, they yell things like “hey, smile!” And “why so serious!?” I practice my therapist’s method of escaping the catcall trigger: name the discomfort (“a stranger yelling at me”), name what’s happening (“I’m shivering, my face is red, I’m walking faster”) and say your calming mantra (“I own my body, I own my mind, I am an agent”). Ignore the comments. It works better some days than others. 
When I make it to the T station, sometimes men will follow me closely so they can enter the platform without a ticket. For whatever reason, this makes me upset and I want to say “if you ask me, I would buy you a ticket” but I don’t because it’s safer to just ignore them. On the T, I try to stand where other women are standing because a few weeks ago the train was very crowded and a man held on to one of the handles with his elbow out and he touched my chest. I tried to move, but there was no space. We passed two stations with his elbow wedged into my chest. 
When I arrive at work, I try to make eye contact with everyone I pass on the way to the office. Self-defense classes taught me this in order to show that you’re aware of another’s presence. Sometimes I make eye contact with someone, usually a man, for a little too long and I feel my face turn bright red. Quickly, my eyes avert and I walk faster. I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea. Once at work, I usually start my day answering emails or checking in with my coworker. Often we share experiences of micro aggressions that occurred on the train or walking to work. This is 9 am. Our bodies stay on alert for at least 8 more hours before we go home. 
Almost every day, I see women students whom I love that have experienced some kind of gendered micro aggression. Much of the time they don’t even call it that: they’ll say, “I wish I wasn’t scared to speak in class. I guess I just need to stop caring about what people think and speak up.” They’ll say, “I couldn’t tell him I was on my period, that would have freaked him out.” To my heartbreak, they’ll tell me that they should have called a guy to walk them home, their bad for getting followed or catcalled at night. They’ll admit that their male professor makes them uncomfortable and they feel bad about that, they’re just being “overly sensitive.” And I see them interact with classmates, staff, and faculty, and I watch them get interrupted, body shamed, and sometimes even harassed without even recognizing what is happening. This is magnified enormously by their race, their gender, their sexual orientation, their ability to speak English, their religion. And I want so many times to draw these women close to me, cradle them near my heart and in my arms and say, “let’s stay like this forever.” 
I am outraged by Trump’s comments, and even more by his lack of remorse. I can’t say I’m all that surprised, given the systemic non-apologetic oppression women experience every day for the bodies they live in. What scares me the most is the “normalizing.” The fact that people, not just men, live thinking that this kind of behavior is “how it is,” and that this dictates how we live our lives in almost every moment. It terrifies me that people live without the agency to name when someone treats them poorly because of who they are. And I absolutely cannot claim to fully understand this experience, even in my own body and mind. 
I write this because it is my truth, and believe that telling stories helps us make sense of experiences that are painful and traumatic. I also hope we will name our pains and our harms more. My hesitancy is always “people don’t want to listen” or “they’ll feel uncomfortable.” That is not my experience. More often than I have realized, the most intimate and open conversations start with one person’s honesty that they’re living in pain or anger or sadness. Even if we don’t relate, we can build trust this way. I commit to speaking up more, because silence can only hold me where I am.