My dad died of lung cancer during my senior year of college. I remember the day I learned he was dying, that the hoarseness in his voice was not bronchitis but rather a tumor that had wrapped itself around his vocal cords and crushed them. I remember how that day they were repaving the streets outside my East village apartment window. How the smell of tar filled me. How every movement stuck. I walked outside to see Avenue A stripped of its skin. “I know how you feel,” I said. I said it aloud, because no one in New York ever looks at you like you are crazy, even when you are. Or maybe everyone in New York knows that sometimes things happen, and talking to the asphalt is the only rational response.
Social scientist Brené Brown tells us that “grief is perhaps the emotion we fear the most...as a society we have pathologized it and turned it into something to cure or get over.” After my father died, my doctor, who was also my father’s doctor, recommended I be put on antidepressants, unprompted by any complaint of symptoms.
Recently, I’ve been reading Judith Butler’s book Precarious Life, which she wrote in the wake of the September 11th attacks, and whose relevance has continued to echo in the years since. In the book, Butler writes that grief is not a thing to be feared, not a private emotion to be suffered in silence and gotten over alone. Grief, says Butler, is a political feeling, one that has the power to transform, to awaken us to the ropes that tie us to each other. Grief, says Butler, illuminates “the thrall in which our relations hold us...in ways that challenge the very notion of ourselves as autonomous and in control.” In grief we find ourselves beside ourselves, undone in a way essential to who we are. Grief lays bare, “the ways in which we are, from the start, and by virtue of being a bodily being, already given over, beyond ourselves, implicated in lives that are not our own.” Grief forces us to ask, what is left of me now that you’re gone? “Let’s face it,” says Butler, “We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”
In grief, we can no longer imagine ourselves impenetrable, although this does not stop us from trying. After September 11th, 2001, William Safire, quoting Milton, wrote in the New York Times that we must “banish melancholy.” On September 21, 2001, president George W. Bush said that, “we have finished grieving and that now is the time for resolute action to take the place of grief.” In the aftermath of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, President-Elect Trump tweeted: “What has happened in Orlando is just the beginning. Our leadership is weak and ineffective. I called it and asked for the ban. Must be tough.”
Butler tells us that “when grieving is something to be feared, our fears can give rise to the impulse to resolve it quickly.” By attempting to resolve it quickly, we attempt to maintain what Butler calls our “fantasy of mastery.” By fearing grief, we are asserting we must remain impenetrable at all costs.
I understand the impulse. In life and in writing, the only emotions I have ever felt comfortable expressing are enthusiasm and anger. Those two emotions allow people like me and Trump to maintain our fantasies of mastery, our fantasies of impenetrability. This is a trick we learned from our fathers, and from many other fathers.
My father was hit by a truck when I was five months old. The doctors told him he had six months to live. He survived for twenty-one years as a paraplegic. He spent those years in and out of hospitals, trying to pretend nothing had happened, teaching, writing, traveling the world, trying to pretend he was not in constant pain, getting angry with my mother because her steady caregiving reminded him of his dependence.
Growing up my takeaway was: be impenetrable. Needing other people is to be avoided, or at the very least, not acknowledged.
This, of course, is the fantasy of mastery. A fantasy, because, as Butler says, “at the most intimate levels we are social; we are comported toward a ‘you’; we are outside ourselves.” Which is to say that we are vulnerable. We can and will be penetrated. By a white truck running a red light, by bullets, by cancer, by unjust laws, by our desire and grief for one another. As Brown says, “We’re hardwired for connection. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.” To assert invulnerability is to deny our inborn need for connection, the ways in which we are made up of, in Butler’s words, “the enigmatic traces of others.”
In Trump’s rise to power, we see the seduction of the fantasy of mastery. In spite of all the political missteps, including being caught on tape bragging about committing sexual assault, Trump managed to seduce enough votes in the right states to upset every pollster’s prediction and win the election. Why?
When we in the West come under attack, as we were on September 11th, as we were in Orlando, as we are when we lose our manufacturing jobs to the forces of capitalist globalization, we feel the loss of what Butler calls our “First Worldism,” our sense of entitlement to be the transgressor of borders but never to have our borders transgressed. What we feel at these times is vulnerable, which we have been taught to understand as weakness. Our response to this perceived weakness has been, as Butler said about our response to 9/11, “a shoring up of borders against what is perceived as alien.” Our response is to assert over and over that we are impenetrable.
Another possible response is suggested by Brown’s definition of vulnerability as “the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of outcome.” Yes, she says, vulnerability is “at the core of difficult emotions like fear, grief, and disappointment, but it’s also the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, empathy, innovation and creativity.” If we let it, our deep, vulnerable, grief could illuminate our interdependence, compelling us, as Butler writes to “consider the place of violence.” By giving ourselves permission to be vulnerable, we can “develop a point of identification with suffering itself.” This can then push us to “critically evaluate and oppose the conditions under which certain human lives are more vulnerable than others, and thus certain human lives are more grievable than others.” This shift in perspective, it is easy to imagine, would have a profound effect on our political landscape.
It is in this way I believe writing can be politically transformative. As writers, as art makers, as content creators, we have a tremendous power (and a tremendous responsibility) to shape the global narrative. If, as Butler says, obituaries are “the means by which a life becomes, or fails to become, a publicly grievable life,” then we must acknowledge “the obituary as an act of nation building.” If this is true of the obituary, then why not the essay, the novel, the poem, the screenplay? As my screenwriting professor at NYU once said, “We didn’t vote for Arnold Schwarzenegger, we voted for the Terminator.”
To write in a way that is politically transformative, that expands the definition of a grievable life, or even, I would argue, to write something good and worth reading, we must avoid the impulse to close ourselves off from our inborn vulnerability. This is the most humbling and rewarding lesson I have learned as a writer.
After my father died, I responded like Trump. I got even angrier at the world and its many threats. I vowed even more vehemently never to need anyone, so as never again to be thrust into grief’s cold grip. I wrote about angry people who hated each other and never needed anyone. When I showed my writing to friends and members of my MFA cohort, they said, you have some beautiful lines here and there but it’s so dark. Does it have to be so dark? This made me and my writing even angrier.
Then, one day, the writer Willy Vlautin came to read at the University of Arizona, where I was getting my MFA. His book The Free had knocked me over in the way we hope to be knocked over by every book we read. It’s a dark book, but I haven’t heard anyone say “why does it have to be so dark?” It’s the sort of book that transforms you, expands your definition of a grievable life. While he was here, I asked him “When people tell you your writing is too dark, how do you know when they’re right and when you should tell them to fuck off?” He looked at me and asked how old I was. I said I was thirty. He said, “Oh, okay, I was going to say maybe you’ll get less dark as you get older, but no, you’re thirty, you are who you’re going to be.” Then he said when I look at you, you don’t look like someone who hides out in her apartment all day with the lights off listening to heavy metal and never showering. You clearly have some lightness to you too. You just need to figure out how to add some of that to your writing, so people have a way in.” I think we were all a little bit in love with him by the end of that lunch.
But what he said stuck with me long after our collective crush faded into memory. When Willy Vlautin talked about my “lightness,” he was talking about my vulnerability. He was telling me to let go of my fantasy of mastery.
I started writing about people who were angry sometimes but also sad and frightened sometimes. I started writing about people who needed each other. I started writing about people who face the ways we’re undone by each other. Suddenly, instead of making readers say, “does this have to be so dark?” my writing was making people cry. This felt like an improvement.
So as 2016 draws to a close, I’m letting myself grieve. When close friends ask me how I’m doing, I’ve been making a point of not defaulting to “fine.” I’m letting myself drink too much and spend too much time watching Netflix, but I’m also just sitting quietly, learning what pain feels like. The slow collapsing weight in my chest. The churning, slightly sick feeling in my stomach. I’m letting it show me the ways we are implicated in lives that are not our own.
Lela Scott MacNeil was born in Los Alamos, same as the atomic bomb.