Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My Parents Put My NYTimes Article on the Fridge

On Sunday, I had an essay in the Modern Love column in the Style Section of The New York Times -- about my ex-therapist who wrote me a love poem.

I've gotten some very odd responses from strangers. One man accused me of vanity -- didn't I know my therapist was in love with me? This email included the word "duh." A therapist whom I don't know weighed in to tell me that I was right and my ex-therapist was wrong. A psychoanalyst wrote in to ask me to read and offer a critique of her essays on getting banned as a result of some major (undisclosed) indiscretion, because I seemed to really understand and forgive humans -- as if I were the new spokesperson for screwed-up therapists.

Going public as a writer has always been hard for me. Fiction allows me the thin veil -- which I appreciate. But essays, even benign essays, even humor essays, but especially very personal psychological essays (that are supposed to have a humorous bent) leave me wide open to be misunderstood.

Quick illustration: I had a guru in college. He was a security guard and patrolled campus. He once asked me if I'd rather be loved or understood, which has become a recurring theme in my work. I said I'd rather be understood -- what is love without understanding?

But over time, I've seen examples of love without a deep understanding -- and it can be pure in its way and sometimes very comforting. I don't know that my 90-year-old grandmother and I understand each other in some fundamental ways. Our generations are so very different, and yet our love is whole and good and maybe purer, in fact.

In general, though, I write to overcome misunderstanding. I write to communicate. Communication banishes loneliness -- in the best scenarios. And yet when I write -- especially if I've dedicated myself to an entire novel -- and it's misunderstood, I feel an incredible ache and loss. If I cannot bridge the gap from one human to another with this much communication, with this many words, how will we ever connect to each other?

I suppose I'm forgetting something very fundamental. Readers don't come to MY HUSBAND'S SWEETHEARTS, for example, to communicate with me. They come to communicate with my characters ... And they really come to the novel not to understand someone else more deeply -- or not necessarily -- but to understand themselves more deeply.

I always respond to my emails. I love the ones that I get from kids -- scads of them. (I write novels for the younger set under the pen name N.E. Bode.) But the adults who write emails to authors are a different breed. Some write beautiful emails, grateful ones, in fact. But often my job with the emails I get from adults is to remind them that I'm not an author, but a human being. They want to tell me what I've gotten wrong, to their mind. And, well, a lot of the time, they want my agent info, an in with an editor, or for me to read their work in my spare time -- as a mother of four with a full-time gig as a professor and a full-time gig as a writer.

I haven't written back to all of the strangers who've written in this time, but I will, one by one. I'll say maybe I am vain. I'll say thanks, but I think I got the part that my therapist was wrong. Check. I'll say, I don't know what you did wrong to get fired, and it's none of my business, and I can't really save you. Sorry, but I'm not a therapist myself. Only a writer.

Or maybe I'm really a translator. This is the world in all of its complications. And I turn that experience into language. And I turn to the reader and hand it over -- line by line. In doing so, have I banished loneliness? No. Loneliness is elemental to the human condition -- and maybe that's one of the things I'm translating ... here.

--Julianna Baggott's latest novel MY HUSBAND'S SWEETHEARTS was written under the pen name Bridget Asher.


Karin Gillespie said...

I didn't know that was YOU! I usually look at the byline. Great essay. I love Modern Love.

mgushuedc said...

What a great post, thank you! You've brought up a bunch of things I've been trying to think about for a while, mostly brought on by two quotes from Walter Ong, which suggest that there isn't an opposition between love and understanding, but that love *is* understanding, or makes it possible. Please pardon the length of these quotes in a comment box, but I think they're worth it.

"Every human being lives in loneliness. You don't know what it feels like to be me, and I don't know what it feels like to be you. … And yet such isolated beings are the only ones on earth who can communicate. This is what a mere animal can't do. He can't say "I," can't enter into himself in isolation. So he has nothing to say. We can communicate, paradoxically, because we are completely different from one another. We do know one another by a kind of empathy, it's true. We know and we don't know what it means to be the other person. … When knowledge gives out as a bridge, we make up for it with love. That is what you have to call it—love. Not only between husband and wife, or friends, but even in the more casual or routine kinds of social situations, love must be present. If I am going to communicate with anybody at all, in language or otherwise, there must be a certain love between us or communication won't work. … It's seldom that the love is pure, unmixed with other attitudes or reactions. But some love must be there. You have to give yourself to the other person, assuming that the other person understands you and that you understand him." —Why Talk? A Conversation About Language with Walter Ong

"We cannot directly enter into one another's personal awareness. I cannot share your direct knowledge of yourself, nor can you share my direct knowledge of myself. The gap between our two inner selves cannot be closed. But we can bridge the gap, as we have seen, by love. All human communication, even the most vapid, involves some kind of love, communion, union, some regard for the other person as a person. This love may be so mingled with other attitudes, disdain, fear, brutality, that it becomes itself cruel. But it is there. Even shouted hostilities show some kind of union or affection between the clamorous enemies. Indeed, shouted hostilities are perhaps most common where there is most clearly an admixture of affection in the hostile relationship, as among members of a family group. When total hostility sets in, as has been seen, verbal communication ceases and the person is 'cut,' no longer addressed at all, treated as a thing.

"It is precisely this isolated, closed human person, thrown back on himself or herself, who is also paradoxically the most open of beings. For persons have intelligence, are capable of intellectualized knowledge, and through such knowledge are open to the entire universe, to everything. Through their intelligence, women and men can take into themselves, in one way or another, all there is - which is not of course to say that they all do so or that even one of them ever does so, but only to say that the possibilities of knowledge open them to all the universe and all the universe to them. A human being is open closure - and thus is more than a 'system,' for no system can have such openness and such closure."-Walter Ong