This is an essay in a series of b-sides to The Texas Review All-Essay Issue. (More info at the end of this post.)
I have this ongoing fascination with people who lead secret lives.
My mother led one. From the time I was small, I could sense it—something sinister that breathed beneath the mothering. Certain untoward behaviors were permitted to live in the light—her binge drinking, for instance, her wild anorexia. Then there were other habits shoved beneath the surface that comprised some dark, Morlockian life.
I recently learned that after supervising my math homework with a strictness that bordered on cruelty, my mother left to snort cocaine off dirty toilet tanks in dive bars with her best friend, Merilee. Merilee was heiress to a chewing gum fortune. She was a mother, MENSA member, and cocaine user on the fast track to a crack habit. I mention her here because she was also the compartment where much of my mother’s secret life was kept.
In my twenties, I began probing the underbelly of my mother’s secrecy in earnest, but I was no match for its bottomlessness. My every intimacy was infiltrated by the knowledge that human beings are unknowable. We all have secrets or, at the very least, edits of ourselves. We attempt to curate the way we’re perceived. And it is remarkable, the extent to which we are able to lie to our own damn selves.
A true point of fascination: the trope of the man who gets dressed for work every morning despite having lost his job. The way he performs the rituals of employment for his family as he becomes a specter to himself. The initial secrecy, the doubling here, seems a means by which the inevitable is prolonged. But too, I think everyone carries within themself a desire to disappear.
This past week I was listening to a podcast about secret keeping. A researcher elucidated several studies, experiments, and recorded data on the topic. Turns out, the hardest part of keeping a secret is not speaking or maintaining the lie or even the anxiety that the lie might be discovered. It’s the loneliness you feel once you forfeit your ability to confide.
In your last letter, you wondered how, in the context of the pandemic, people have the energy to live another life online. I think there is an incredibly nuanced answer, a generation’s worth of dissertations that will emerge on the topic. But my first instinct is to say that some people cannot bear to be lonely. They honestly cannot bear it. So they stack lives to get the satisfaction they need.
So my mother did me a favor. She taught me that disconnection and loneliness were unavoidable. And my own experiences teach me that secrecy damages the keeper. I’ve told lies to protect myself from the people who wouldn’t love me if they knew the truth. But then no one knew me, which complicated the degree to which I felt I could be loved.
As a writer, I’ve learned to fall in love with loneliness. And I wonder how you feel about being lonely. I should say specifically, how you really, truly, deep down feel. Because I know you’ve got it down from the outside.
I wonder if you’ve ever carried on a secret or a double life? I’m interested in asking you more than anyone because I always wonder, when a person is married to someone who leaves for months or even years at a time to go to war, which life feels like the real one? I’m wondering if that marriage dispelled the notion of a unified self?
I’m both fascinated with secret lives, and I also embrace it in some ways. For instance: me. There are parts of myself I give to certain people, whereas other people, like my family, get a revised edition. Very few people get the whole me (you do, if you were wondering), but when different worlds converge, how do we not feel split? Or like we’re hiding?
I hide my writing from my family. No one in my family has read my first book, at my choice. My mom knows I have had a variety of small successes, but she knows I’ll share when I’m ready. I invited her to one of my readings early on, in undergrad, and I knew then she wasn’t ready. Can you imagine hiding your whole identity, the force that drives you, from the people who created you?
Your sentence—we all attempt to curate the way we’re perceived—what a truth. It’s a fallacy because this is a force beyond our control, but damn if we don’t try hard to polish and perfect / perfect / PERFECT that image. This coming from a Virgo. At the beginning of 2020, perfectionism died inside me. A mental vigil was held, and from then on I have embraced the mantra that perfection doesn’t exist, is unattainable, and is utterly boring. Does it appear that I have it down from the outside? (curator of perception + high functioning anxiety). Over the last few years as I’ve attempted to make my writing name known, I’ve also, not intentionally but not NOT intentionally, branded myself in many ways. In undergrad I wanted people to know me as “the emerging experimental poet” who would drag projectors all around Tacoma to put together an projection poetry chapbooks; in grad school this continued, I wanted to be known for experimentation, for RISK, for bold vulnerability. As I made my way through our literary community, this reputation grew, I think, but so did my appearance of keeping it together. Full face of makeup; the straightened black bob and bangs so recognizable, people shout across AWP book fairs at me. I’ve branded my image, I think, and the image of keeping in control and on the cusp of something experimental- so is that what it is? Is this keeping it together? When can I let my hair down and straight up struggle? What version of me is this and who gets to see her?
Loneliness however? Yes. Do you feel like loneliness comes with different flavors? Like, being lonely and disconnected from the planet and those around you is a different kind of lonely from being heartbroken and your body is not with the body of the person you long for. Being married to a man in the military was a cocktail of emotions: When he was gone somewhere in the middle east, as he missed birthdays and special events, I felt lonely. I only let myself cry alone, in our empty house. If no one witnessed it, it didn’t happen. I was afraid he would be killed, that this loneliness that felt like rot in my gut would go on forever if the universe decided, and that made it multiply. This experience also bred resentment, more for every deployment. The resentment wasn’t the ultimate cancer, but I think loneliness swept in for the final blow. In all the time he was gone, months and months, we lived separate lives as separate people. I knew less and less about him, and I learned more and more about myself. Before thinking about divorce, I felt alone in the marriage, thinking I was trapped to be with someone who wasn’t a stranger, but wasn’t someone I could stand by. I think you have stood in a similar place.
I’ve been having a reckoning trying to absorb this idea that I write for me and my writing is important and that it truly does not fucking matter how the world embraces or rejects my work. That’s hard for us, though, isn’t it? I feel whole as I work in a work in progress, me and my art—but sometimes being in the literary community, locally or nationwide, is fucking lonely. I remind myself that we cannot exist any other way and that art and our writing is not a luxury. This, we recognize, is what feeds us. It’s how we survive.
I have always loved the B-side of records or cassettes, being let in on the secret/unreleased or more unexpected strangeness that awaited from artists. The B-side, in its essence, offers a singular delight in a promise that you, the audience, will not (or may not) be able to recreate the experience the B-side offers anywhere else. It says welcome, stay here a while, and put it on repeat.
In the spirit of the B-side, The Texas Review asked contributors of the All-Essay Issue (Vol. 40, #3/#4, 2020) to contribute essays to a B-side compilation. We want to offer, here, a moment of singular delight as accompanied unexpected strangeness or echo location or dancing and braided conversation in conjunction to the contributors’ essays featured in the All-Essay Issue.
Please enjoy the following B-sides by: Mary-Kim Arnold; Piper J. Daniels and Nicole McCarthy; Lily Hoang; Vincent James; Michael Martone; Ander Monson; Katrina Otuonye; Danielle Pafunda; Monica Prince; Addie Tsai; Julie Marie Wade; and Nicole Walker.
Thank you (and genuflection) to all of the contributors featured in our pages: Danielle Pafunda; Sejal Shah; Addie Tsai; Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint; Temim Fruchter; Raquel Gutiérrez, Muriel Leung; Monica Prince; Ander Monson; Janice Lee; Piper J. Daniels; Camellia-Berry Grass; Wendy C. Ortiz; SJ Sindu; Dinty W. Moore; Michael Martone; Lily Hoang; Nicole Walker; Mary-Kim Arnold; Katrina Otuonye; Vincent James; Julie Marie Wade; Caroline Crew; Diana Khoi Nguyen.
Thank you to Ander Monson for giving us the space of Essay Daily, and as ever thank you to Nick Lantz, Editor of The Texas Review.
Welcome, stay here a while, and put it on repeat.
Katie Jean Shinkle, Guest Editor, The Texas Review
If you would like to order a copy of the All-Essay Issue: http://www.thetexasreview.org/issues/
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