Sunday, December 13, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar: Dec 13, Scott Morris on Sarah Viren's Generosity


If you have not yet read Sarah Viren’s essay “The Accusation,” then you should do so now. Right now. Seriously, don’t read any further because the post below will contain spoilers—I know, spoilers aren’t usually a thing in the essay world, but Viren’s essay is clenching-your-jaw, holding-your-breath, cringing-into-your-cushions gripping—and I don’t want to ruin any of her masterfully crafted suspense. But also, if I’m being entirely transparent, my highest priority here is for more people to read Viren’s essay (and buy her book, Mine). So, go read, or re-read, or re-re-read.


Okay, so you’re back, you’ve read the piece, unclenched your jaw after reading how Sarah and her wife, Marta, were harassed by a one-time friend intent on defaming them so he might secure the job Sarah was offered. You’ve told your friends and coworkers and family how aghast you are that such crimes happen, that such evil lurks even in our little community of essayists where everyone always seems so personable and nice. You were, of course, in awe of Sarah’s effortless weaving of narrative scene, essayistic rumination, and journalistic doggedness. You were amazed that the simple mention of an email that was probably spam creates such foreboding and how even the children’s guileless honesty about torn toilet paper and loose teeth returns as a moment of both true-crime clue-solving and personal reflection. And now, coming down from the highs and lows, you’re ready to talk about the piece itself, not as a salacious story, but as an essay, which is what this Advent is meant to celebrate. So, let’s begin celebrating.


Especially for those of us who know Sarah and who might also know J., it’s hard not to talk about him when discussing “The Accusation,” but let’s not. J. has probably gotten enough attention (especially given the Twitter storm of amateur sleuths who quickly deduced his actual identity), so let’s talk instead about Viren since it is the essayist who is the heart of the essay, a fact Viren reminds us of near the end of the piece, after the court case has been settled and we learn that J. will not be prosecuted for his crimes, but that Viren is free to write about J. so long as she does not name him. She says,

I think about all the people — friends, colleagues, students — whom J. will most likely continue to fool. I think how we never really know who is behind anything we read. Unless we have a physical person to pin it to. But then I realized this story isn’t about J. It’s about us.

The second and third time I read the essay, that last phrase, “It’s about us” (meaning Sarah and Marta, but also about writer and audience, as she makes clear in the next paragraph) really stuck with me. Because Viren is a master narrator, because she is balancing the needs of the essayist with the excitement of the true crime writer (Viren, a journalist by training, has also taught classes on true crime stories, so she is well aware of the conventions), there is something of a magic trick. Given the salacious details of the case, we the readers become obsessed with J., with his crimes, with the terrible ways he has hurt and is continuing to hurt his victims. But then, with this ending, we realize that, unlike other crime stories, there was never any other suspect and that we all knew it was J. The real mystery and reward for the piece is instead with seeing Viren and her wife shifting their perspectives, taking some power back for themselves. 
     And the pleasure of this progression is laid carefully. Early on, as Viren sets up the narrative, there are some small details that seem to be there merely to establish character. Introducing herself and her wife, talking about their early relationship, she says:

What most attracted me about [Marta], besides the way she looked in a leather jacket, was how little she cared about what anyone thought of her.

What she liked about me, she said, was my independence. That and the fact that I’m generous, even when I get mad.

This moment of introduction is so quiet, so cute and lovely in all the ways that a romance should be, that it is easy to miss that Viren is telling us exactly what is at stake here. J.’s misconduct is entirely aimed at how people think of Marta: her reputation is exactly what he attempts to take down in fabricating a Title IX accusation against her. And Viren’s generosity, even as her situation worsens, prevents her from speaking her fears and complicates her shift in perspective to that of the victim, a shift that ultimately gives her some small power to fight back against J. 
     This bent towards generosity mingled with self-reflection is exactly what I have always loved about Viren’s work. We see it over and over again in her collection, Mine, where she looks to others with an open heart, willing to take what is good about them, to see the humanity even in murderers, and to examine her own connection to that humanity. But the triumph of “The Accusation,” though it reads like a crime drama (gripping enough to be a blockbuster movie), is that the essayist’s goal of self-examination merges with the journalist’s clue-finding so that we find not just whodunit, but a deeper understanding of Viren’s relationship to herself, to her wife, and ultimately to her audience, who she obviously cares for, enough not just to give us the facts, but to offer us honesty, a trait she laments J. will never learn.
     The ending of her essay, then, is another example of her generosity: After telling us that she has been honest because she is aware of and honors the writer-reader relationship, she goes a step further and hands us the story: The final line of the essay: “Now the story belongs to you” is not just an injunction to be honest, to differentiate facts from lies, and it is certainly more than just the tight, curt ending of one who is clearly tired and worn down from pain, it is, though she is justifiably angry, an offering, a gift of understanding.


Scott Russell Morris is an Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Utah Asia Campus. He is a writer, foodie, photographer, board gamer, and over-all enthusiast. Scott earned a PhD in English from Texas Tech University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University. With his wife, Kirsten, he has two children, but no one has ever asked who watches the children while he is at work. You can find him online @skoticus or

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