Monday, June 23, 2014

Amy Monticello: In Defense of the Confessional - Parenting, Inclusivity, and J.D. Schraffenberger’s “Dropping Babies”

When my now five-month-old daughter was born in January, I spent our first snowbound weeks together doing mostly one thing: nursing. My baby had lost almost 15% of her birth weight, and needed round-the-clock nourishment for her blood sugars to stabilize. Her appetite was voraciously up to the task, but her mouth was miniscule, and so breastfeeding took most of the day and a good portion of the night. In the upper Midwest, a polar vortex coincided with my newborn vortex. Each day crept along timelessly inside my nursing station: Boppy pillow on lap, water and phone on coffee table, and laptop computer balanced on knees. I mastered one-handed typing—lots of congratulatory emails to respond to—and spent hours mindlessly clicking, reading aloud to my daughter whatever I found to read.

Though the hours together were long, my attention span was short. The combination of exhaustion and adrenaline made it difficult to concentrate on anything longer than a page or two. In addition to the circuit of parenting sites I visited daily (the rabbit hole of BabyCenter must be circled cautiously), I began reading my daughter back issues of Brevity, with its maximum 750-word essays. This is how, somewhere in my second or third week of parenting, I worked my way back to Issue 39, and J.D. Shraffenberger’s "Dropping Babies".

The title alone almost made me skip it. My postpartum hormones had already sworn off Animal Planet (polar bear cubs starving in the Arctic, cheetahs picking off baby impala in the East African plains), Children’s Hospital commercials, and Jezebel, which, for some feminist reason, seems to report on every grisly infant death in America. Fears that something would happen to my daughter (or to me, or my husband, leaving her without a mother or father) were already keeping me up at night, my two selves—parent and writer, one horrified to imagine, the other compelled to imagine—locked in battle for my thoughts.

But I was too intrigued, and so began to read aloud Schraffenberger’s braided meditation on babies dropped or dangled from the heights. Yes, literal heights.

The opening section of the essay recalls the now-disproven belief that babies don’t feel pain. Schraffenberger describes how they were once subjected to surgery without anesthesia, their bodies “open to the light of medical wisdom, a revelation of human anatomy in miniature.” That babies reveal what it means to be human is further explored by subsequent sections, where two dominant strands emerge: an examination of a five-hundred-year-old tradition in a west Indian village where babies are dropped from the temple’s fifty-foot tower and caught, unharmed, on a bed sheet, and a confession about the night Schraffenberger, frustrated with his own baby’s inconsolable crying, dropped her onto her crib mattress.

“I want to say it was only a few inches,” Schraffenberger writes. “I want to say I wasn’t myself, but babies, especially your own, have a way of showing you exactly who you are, or at least what you’re capable of in the middle of the night.”

What we’re capable of is often found at the heart of confession in creative nonfiction. Among the most common criticisms of the genre, nothing seems to fan the flames of controversy like the confessional. While I agree with practitioners like Vivian Gornick and Michael Steinberg that successful personal narrative must push past anecdote, as Schraffenberger’s does, I also believe the confessional is still important, and not because it’s brave or courageous to show our uglier selves to the world, not because those uglier selves require absolution. The term “confession” suggests something invalid about the action or urge confessed, but in cases like Schraffenberger’s, where the narrator’s actions are meant to be representative, confession becomes inclusive, offering a way out of isolation. It presents us with a mandate to sanction human experience.

Let’s face it: on the judgment front, parents have it rough out there. Those who admit to formula feeding, or sleep training, or, as Kim Brooks recently did on Salon, leaving their toddler unattended in a vehicle for a few minutes in moderate weather, are likely to find themselves crucified in the comments, called negligent, abusive, unfit. There is no room for error in an age when your parenting may be recorded on someone’s cell phone and submitted as evidence to police.

Which makes Schraffenberger’s confession indeed brave. The comments on Brevity were refreshingly non-judgy—most praised the stark honesty and quality of the writing (and curiously, some assumed Schraffenberger was a woman—that’s another conversation we should have). But Brevity’s audience is mainly literary. When I imagine Shraffenberger’s piece appearing in a more general interest venue, I shudder to think of the comment thread.

It’s hard to isolate mixed feelings about confession in nonfiction from the cultural response to confession online. Last week, The Atlantic reported that people who “overshare” on Facebook often find themselves ostracized from the very people whose approval and attention they seek. Culturally speaking, it seems we’re put off by those who bare-all in public, whether on social media or in literature.

The study reminded me of a Facebook conversation I read while pregnant with my daughter. A friend posted a confession she’d heard from a woman who was so dissatisfied with parenthood that she once considered putting her child up for adoption. My friend didn’t name names (presumably, the other woman was not on Facebook), and maintained a strictly nonjudgmental stance, showing remarkable empathy for the woman’s feelings. But she openly wondered about the woman’s predicament. When it comes to the intense commitment and emotional gravity of parenthood, how can you “fake the feelings you’re supposed to have?” she wrote.

Over 150 comments followed. Many commenters similarly empathized with the woman in question, and thought it healthy that she articulated her feelings. But others were shaken by the woman’s confession. Even in confidence, these commenters said, she was doing harm to her child by verbalizing her real feelings. One commenter made the interesting claim that the woman’s admission may have come from “the psychology of the rise of narcissism in an evolving American (and at times other) culture built of audience, confession and self absorption.”

My friend’s friend was not, of course, composing an essay about her dissatisfaction with motherhood. But the idea of her confession as narcissistic echoes the most common criticism lobbed at memoirists and personal essayists. In his post over at Bending Genre, “Uncertain Certainties”, Mike Scalise compiles responses to the question, “What is your least favorite thing about the nonfiction reading experience (besides writers who lie)?” Some of the answers he received largely underscored the narcissism complaint, but one response surprised him. A friend Scalise calls Annie said it was “the performance of certainty around massively complicated life stuff.” In other words, nonfictionists too often try to make the meaning of their narratives concrete, rather than leaving meaning to more abstract implications.

Scalise wonders if the “digestible” forms of nonfiction pervasive on the Internet may be to blame:

But there’s a brand of creative nonfiction that has seemed to thrive more than any other: a kind of blunt confessor’s tale, a one-thousandish-word personal story of often high, earnest stakes and utter danger, where a writer unveils a painful scenario they’ve either survived or endured or been implicated in. You’ve seen these pieces. They’ve shown up in your feeds with accompanying comments like “thank you for writing this,” or “beautiful” or “so brave” or just simply “this.” They’re very often pegged to a news item or pop culture strain but just as often stick to the deeply, deeply, personal, offering a firm, closing insight or a revelation. Its almost a genre, formed in close response to its medium—what to call these pieces? Micro-memoirs? Candids? Unburdenings?—and there are many reasons for their success.

I recognize the kind of click-bait pieces to which Scalise is referring, the ones that are heavy on “honesty” and light on inquisition. And I agree with Annie and others that meaning in nonfiction should generally serve to complicate our most deeply-held convictions. But that’s why I find the confessional so integral—it asks for acceptance, but not approval. The best we can often feel about someone else’s confession is ambivalence, and ambivalence can be the gateway for empathy.

I’ve always been leery of an art for art’s sake approach to writing of any kind, but perhaps especially in nonfiction, I see the work as representative, and therefore discursive. If we think of the confessional as an act of inclusivity—a statement of “this is human, too”—then we challenge the shame that surrounds the act of confessing. Rendering visible what was shameful helps to remove the sanctity that supports the kind of black-and-white certitude that makes for both bad politics and bad writing. In this way, confession becomes political discourse, directly interrogating cliché. (Of all the parenting blogs out there, two that do this particularly well are Emily Rapp’s Little Seal and Heather Kirn Lanier’s Star in Her Eye.)

Back to that Facebook thread. One of the participants was Lidia Yuknavitch, whose memoir, The Chronology of Water, opens with the harrowing, yet gorgeously-written scene of Yuknavitch delivering her stillborn daughter, and goes on to explore the ramifications of growing up with an abusive father and alcoholic mother. She chimed in with this:

Um, you do all realize the definitions of "motherhood" are variable, multiple, mutable, made from a variety of discourses (cultural, biological, psychological, sociological, etc...) that sometimes reinforce each other but sometimes contradict or interrupt each other, right? And that they vary widely from culture to culture and person to person? And that some stories of "motherhood" get demonized or repressed while others are sanctioned and legitimized? Anyone? All our motherstories are worth a look at… I think they all count and illuminate the human condition for us. Even the darker harder ones. I've learned much from reading about drunk mothers, abandoning mothers, absent mothers, depressed mothers, tortured mothers, prison mothers, rich mothers, poor mothers, addicted mothers, and happy and loving mothers. We are all of them. There's no us and them.

One of the moves I most admire in “Dropping Babies” is Schraffenberger’s willingness to leave open the question of why the villagers in Solapur drop their babies from the temple’s tower. “I want to say the villagers are culturally backward,” he writes in the penultimate section. “I want to say they’re barbarous and superstitious. I want to say this ritual is another example of the stupid things a belief in god or gods compels otherwise reasonable people to do. But I know the truth is something else.” What that “something else” may be is only hinted at in the final section, when Schraffenberger returns again to the night he dropped his daughter into her crib. The brief fall “shut her up for a second…but the surprise hovering in her eyes, like a sudden illumination of this dark new world, stripped all the hush of its silence.” There is no sanctity here, and no certainty. Only ambivalence and human frailty. Only a world where the most common and most sanctified love is also the most primal, and therefore, the most revealing.

Amy Monticello’s work has appeared in many places, including Salon, Brevity, Iron Horse Literary Review, and Redivider, and was listed as notable in Best American Essays 2013. She is an assistant professor at Suffolk University in Boston.

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