Tuesday, December 8, 2015

BAE 1993 as read by Jill Talbot: Context and Observations

I. Context

It wasn’t until The Best American Essays 1993 arrived in the mail a few weeks ago that I stopped to think about what I was doing in the fall of 1993. I was in my first semester of graduate school at Texas Tech University, studying History with an English minor, living in the University Arms apartments across from campus (they have since been demolished--there’s so much to say here), and dating my boyfriend of two years, the one I met at Baylor, the one who insisted I stop teaching high school in my hometown and apply to graduate schools. He followed me to Lubbock, lived in an apartment across town and coached football at one of the local junior highs. Our plan? I would get my Masters and a job teaching at a community college, and he would rise in the ranks of Texas Football as a coach, and we would marry.

The Best American Essays 1993 was published before I decided to pursue a PhD at my professors’ urging. Before I was accepted for the Film Studies program at Oklahoma State University in the fall of 1995. Before my boyfriend called in June of that same year to ask, “PhD or me,” one month before our wedding in Dallas. Before I sat in the Lubbock airport bar, sipping a white wine (before I knew wine) and watching him shuffle toward me in a yellow shirt and maroon sweats to find in his face that the flight I had taken to Lubbock to change his mind had been a waste of energy and money.

This was all before I knew there was such a thing as an essay beyond the Thoreau and Emerson I read in my college survey classes. When I only thought of an essay as what my first year writing professors had assured me I couldn’t write when they banished me to the Writing Center.

But for me, this is not about what BAE 1993 came before; it's about what came before it, something, something I’ve never written about: Best American Essays 1993 was published on November 22. Three days before, on November 19, I had an abortion.

II. Observations

In his introduction to the 1993 edition, Robert Atwan notes, “Essays are also one of the best means of forming a close acquaintance with a culture.” Here I set out not only to show how these essays reflect early 1990s culture and what guest editor, Joseph Epstein, recognizes as “the main preoccupations of the past year,” I also show the ways in which “I sat on the couch working my way through the [anthology] to find much of what I’d been moved by so long ago coming back to me with remarkable force.” [1]

“The self of the writer is in good part what the essay is about,” notes Epstein in his introduction, and while essayists writing about issues or other people does reflect the self of the writer, there are only six personal essays in this volume.

Once I looked up this edition’s publication date and remembered November 19th, I could not read these essays through any other lens, and so, I underlined passages for my twenty-three year old self, because “certain moments in one’s life cast their influence forward over all the moments that follow.” [2]

In Cynthia Ozick’s “Alfred Chester’s Wig,” (The New Yorker) she recalls her professor at NYU extolling Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. This was one of the texts in my 20th Century British Literature course that first semester of grad school at Tech. According to my transcripts, my courses also included Modern European History and Studies in British History. My aim, at the time, was to specialize in Military History, particularly French Military History, specifically Plan 17, a military strategy that had disastrous consequences for the French in World War I. I was drawn, even then, to trying to figure out what went wrong. 

“There is more to be seen at any crossroads than one can see in a lifetime of looking.” [3] My boyfriend drove into the empty parking of the clinic early that morning, but when we left, he pulled slowly through a storm of protesters, their signs waving, the bloody images I turned away from as I ducked down into my seat.

In Lawrence Otis Graham’s “Invisible Man,” an essay about Graham going undercover as a busman at an all-white country club in New York, a fellow worker mentions seeing O.J. playing at the club. Graham asks, “And what about O.J.?” (125). Less than a year later, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered on June 21, 1994.

Twenty years later, in Best American Essays 2013, William Melvin Kelly’s “Breeds of America” (Harper’s), examines a similar phenomenon recounted by Graham, when the African-American assumed white on the phone shows up in person to be disregarded, or dismissed. “We have a long way to go,” is the closing line of Graham’s essay.

Epstein’s selections favor the academic, the historic, and the polemic, and some essays bear stilted language that leans heavy toward the loquacious in lieu of the lyric gift of so many of today’s essayists. Two examples:
...encapsulates the iconographic challenges to an aesthetic that is gradually relinquishing its hegemony over the popular imagination as the vapid artificialities of its conventions are burlesqued in our culture’s recent attempts to purge itself of its antiquated religion of infantilism.
First there was collective entitlement to redress the grievances, which in turn implied a sovereignty for the grievance, since sovereignty is only the formalizations of collective entitlement.
“When they make women’s control of their bodies the very centerpiece of their argument for choice, they are making the fact of pregnancy the exclusive terrain of the women, despite the obvious role of men in conception and despite the fact that the vast majority of married women deciding to have abortions reach their decisions with their husbands,” argues Shelby Steele in “The New Sovereignty.” I can still see the waiting room full of couples, all ages, all races. While I rested my head on my boyfriend’s shoulder, slumping down into the Valium I had been given, I noted the affluent couple across from us, their gray hair and their look of shock, as if their bodies had betrayed them by continuing to produce. And while my boyfriend had agreed to my decision, he remained regretful. Our relationship never recovered. But I can look back now and know: “It was ambition. It was my secret self.” [4]

“As is becoming more and more evident, nothing has been the same since.” [5]

Only flashes of experimentation appear in this edition:
  • Anthony Burgess’s “Mozart and the Wolf Gang” includes an imagined dialogue between Wolfgang and his father; a play complete with a Greek chorus (of servants); Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 in G Minor in language; and a film script. 
  • Lawrence Otis Graham’s “Invisible Man” features diary entries with some bullet points. 
Joseph Brodsky takes Montaigne’s “dear reader” to the nth power. Or to the 23rd power, because that’s how many I counted in “Collector’s Item.”

When we left the clinic, the nurse instructed my boyfriend to keep an eye on me for the rest of the day and into the evening, in case I started hemorraghing. Back at his apartment, I crawled into his bed while he stood in the doorway, his eyes averted, to tell me he was going to school for the rest of the day. I pulled the blue blanket around me, asked what I’d do if something happened to me. “Call the school,” he answered. “I was angry at him then, but I am getting over it.” [6]

With the exception of the essays by Marcia Aldrich, Shaun O’Connell, and Philip Weiss, all would be contenders for Longform. Joseph Brodsky’s essay clocks in at 38 pages. James Salter, 30. Most of them in the twenty-something range, years before the 1999 publication of Judith Kitchen's and Mary Paumier Jones's In Brief: Short Takes on the Personal (W.W. Norton), and four years before Dinty W. Moore founded Brevity in 1997. The average page count in the 2015 edition, edited by Ariel Levy, is 10.

In Jacob Cohen’s “Yes, Oswald Alone Killed Kennedy,” he rails against conspiracy theorists and Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991). Cohen describes the film as “fabricated footage gussied up as documentary fact; fictional characters and scenes offered as proof of perfidy...outright lies.” I wrote about JFK in a Film and Politics graduate seminar and won an award at a national conference for the best paper written by a graduate student. Here again, I show evidence that my proclivities, namely how I am besotted by the overlapping of fact and fiction and how early it showed up for me as a reader and remains for me as a writer.

In 2013, I watched a news report on the closings of twenty-two clinics that performed abortions in Texas. When I saw a red dot over Lubbock, Texas, I put my hand over my mouth and wept for those women in Lubbock and in the surrounding small West Texas towns who will never have the right I was given twenty years ago. “The distance between the moment and today is hardly a hiccup.” [7]

In an essay bemoaning the proliferation of “Self-and Universal Love” messages, Barbara Grizzut Harrison mentions Leo Buscaglia. When that essay was written in 1992, I was teaching senior English, and one day while my students silently read 1984, I read Buscaglia’s Living, Loving, and Learning. I came across the line, “If you don’t like the scene you’re in, paint yourself a new one.” I put down my book and watched the students read theirs, knowing I was ready to start filling out graduate school applications. That’s how I’ve always told that story, the line I’ve quoted, but I just looked it up, and my memory abbreviated it. The line on page 53 reads: “If you don’t like the scene you’re in, if you’re unhappy, if you’re lonely, if you don’t feel that things are happening, change your scene. Paint a new backdrop.” I was all of those things, and I would continue to be for years, and I would continue to trust that trading one scene for another would allow me to paint a new backdrop. But we’re the backdrop in our scenes, are we not?

“I left my hometown in search of something.” [8]

Three writers of color appear in the Table of Contents of BAE 1993.

Oprah is mentioned twice. From 1984 through 1997, The Oprah Winfrey Show won the Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show nine of out eleven years.

The 1992 presidential election comes up twice.

Ronald Reagan is mentioned once in an essay that speaks about Alzheimer’s twice.

A line from Ward Just’s “When It’s Over Over There”: “In September of 1986, the terrorists arrived in Paris.” A New York Times article from September 17, 1986, quotes a news anchor who begins a broadcast: “'It was the kind of night when we would prefer not to have had television news.'' On November 13, 2015, the news stations, for hours and hours, showed nothing but Paris under siege.

Floyd Skloot writes an essay about his Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I first learned about this disease from one of my favorite Golden Girls episodes, “Sick and Tired” (1989, a two-parter), and reading Skloot’s essay, I understand how the show failed to address the realities of CFS. It’s much more than Dorothy Zbornak being “too tired to talk.” During these years, I watched Golden Girls reruns daily. Still do when I can.

The Frugal Gourmet (Jeff Smith) gets his own essay by Barbara Grizzut Harrison, one that originally appeared in Harper’s Magazine. At the time, The Frugal Gourmet aired on PBS. Harrison’s criticism (and at times, downright ridicule) of Jeff Smith’s lack of cultural knowledge and rhetorical vapidness is included on Smith’s Wikipedia page, followed by this: “Smith brushed aside such criticism: ‘Not many people read Harper's,’ he said. ‘That's a very small audience.’” This from a Los Angeles Times article titled “Critics Turn Up the Heat Over Frugal Gourmet's Style,” yet it was the heat from the six young men who filed suit against Smith for sexual abuse, alleging they were molested when they were teenagers while working at Smith’s deli in Tacoma, Washington and a seventh who claimed he had been assaulted at the age of fourteen when Smith picked him up as a hitchhiker, that ended Smith’s television career. Now we have former Subway spokesperson Jared Fogle.

“I had no desire to write, and didn’t.” [9] I wouldn’t begin writing until 1996, when I took a poetry workshop at OSU, and for years, I wrote poems, struggling to fit all my longings and misgivings into lines. When I took a workshop in the personal essay in 2002, the pressure of a surge held back for too long broke free, and I spilled myself across the pages.

Four of the essays in the 1993 edition are from Harper’s. Thirteen of the 134 Notable Essays credit Harper’s. In 1970, guest editor Joseph Epstein wrote “"The Struggle for Sexual Identity,” for Harper’s and claimed homosexuality to be “a curse.” Responses by gay readers and writers in the New York Times Magazine and a sit-in at Harper’s by the Gay Activists Alliance have been identified as significant turning points in the gay rights movement of the 1970s. In December of 1993, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell went into effect. It was repealed in 2011. The only mention of homosexuality in this issue is found in Paul R. McHugh’s “Psychiatric Misadventures” (from The American Scholar, the journal edited by Epstein from 1974 to 1988), in which McHugh labels sex-change surgery as “confusion tied to homosexuality," and “a manifestation of mental disorder among homosexual individuals.”

I asked Marcia Aldrich how she viewed the 1993 volume against the 2013 volume (she appears in both and writes about the 2013 volume in this series). She writes, “I am saddened that I never bothered to see that I was just one of five women represented in the volume.”

“I groped for words to describe what I had felt, as I grope still.” [10]

Robert Sherrill points out that Derek Humphrey’s Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying is a best seller (in 1992, when these essays are being written). He also references Jack Kevorkian, who would be tried for the first time for murder in 1994. This year, California became the most recent state to pass a law allowing assisted suicide, joining Oregon, Washington, and Vermont.

“The personal essay frequently presents a middle-aged point of view,” Phillip Lopate tells us in his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay. This anthology exaggerates that argument.

Robert Sherrill, in “The Truth About Getting Old,” attends a Grateful Dead concert “as fast as you can say Jerry Garcia.” Garcia died two years later.

The final essay is titled “How to Get Out of a Locked Trunk” and details the author climbing into trunks to test his ability to unlock them. According to federal law, internal trunk release, requiring all new passenger cars with trunks be equipped with a release latch inside the trunk compartment, went into effect September 1, 2001.

“I was as conscious of my youth as if it were a sealed envelope and I myself a coded message inside it, indefinitely encased, arrested, waiting.” [11]

“But we can teach the lessons of our past.” [12] Not if we don’t speak about them.

[1Gerald Early
[2] Scott Russell Sanders
[3] Ibid.
[4] Cynthia Ozick
[5] Thomas Palmer
[6] Ibid.
[7Thomas Palmer
[8] Shaun O’Connell
[9] Ward Just
[10] Scott Russell Sanders
[11] Cynthia Ozick

[12] Paul R. McHugh


Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren't: A Memoir from Soft Skull Press. Two of the essays included in The Way We Weren't were named Notable Essays in Best American Essays 2014 and 2015, and her work has appeared in journals such as Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Normal School, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, and The Rumpus.


  1. Reading through the lens of your own experience of 1993 makes the essays salient in a new way. Thanks, Jill!

  2. Reading through the lens of your own experience of 1993 makes the essays salient in a new way. Thanks, Jill!