Friday, September 24, 2010

That feeling of badness. That I am in some way, a "bad person." I know it's ridiculous but I can never quite shake it. A constant kind of guilt and shame for the crime of--what? Just being. Guilt and shame are the hardest monsters i have to slay and I am not sure if they are slayable. It may be that the best i can do is try to turn them into house-pets.

All this is probably why I find it such a relief to create fictional male characters who have actually done terrible things, like kill other people. It's probably what drives me to write so much about war, which brings out the terrible (and occasionally the noble) in people. I don't identify as a helpless victim. i identify with the perpetrators, with the villains. I know that if I had been born male I would have been tempted to abuse the power given to me; I know that I have abused what powers I have at times.

Years ago I was a featured poet at the Logan poetry festival, along with Jimmy Santiago Baca. Jimmy had done hard time himself, and the organizer of this festival, Alan Cohen, had us visit a men's group at the local prison.

First we gave a reading in the main auditorium. The place was jammed--talk about a captive audience--men were practically hanging from the rafters. And they were rapt, attentive. I felt them drinking in every word we spoke.

Afterward, at the group where we shared our work more intimately, and talked to the men, and listened, an inmate said to me that what touched him about my poetry was that I seemed to believe that people were fundamentally innocent. That everyone deserved a second chance, that everyone could be forgiven.

I was so moved to hear him say that. I didn't respond with what the other half of that coin is: except for me. I believe everyone is fundamentally innocent--except I have a hard time seeing it in myself. Maybe because I can't feel every throb of other people's hearts where all the mixed motives and unpretty emotions are lurking the way I can feel my own; maybe because of the intensity with which my mother struggled with her own feelings of guilt and shame and the way she passed that unresolved battle down to me. Maybe because of internalized sexism or internalized anti-Semitism, or the right and true knowledge that as a middle-class American i consume an unethical share of the world's resources and contribute an unspeakable amount of waste and pollution to satisfy my wants and desires. Maybe all of the above, in varying degrees.

I don't know. What I do know is that this feeling of badness persists. Prozac quells it, hard exercise mitigates it, love soothes it, community assuages it, but it never quite goes away. When I interrogate it back to its source I often find relatively small things, petty social blunders, an unkind word here, an unwritten thank you note there, patterns of laziness and selfishness and wastefulness which are offset by bursts of energy in the opposite directions; attempts to clean up my act, which are heartfelt but unsustainable.

I think of this in an unconscious way all of the time, but when I read Jonathan Franzen I become conscious of it. The main character of his new book Freedom is a woman named Patty, unlike me in most ways--she's a jock turned stay-at-home mom, determinedly apolitical, fixated on her kids, doesn't care for the arts. But what's at her core is the same thing as what's at mine--this conviction of her own badness.

Franzen makes me see another aspect of the issue; that this feeling of badness may be part and parcel of self-awareness, self-consciousness. And also that part of what women label as "bad" and feel guilty about--in Patty's case, her competitiveness on and off the playing field for example--is merely a human quality that has been declared off-limits to women.

Patty is married to a very "good" man, as I am (although thankfully, Christopher is a lot more well-rounded and human than Walter Berglund, and I was physically smitten with him from the start), and her "good" husband keeps telling her that she too is "good" although Patty never completely believes him. She knows better. She knows the darkness in her own heart, the cracked places which can be papered over when you're in your twenties, but which emerge and split the house down to the foundations when you are in mid-life.

This is why I read Franzen, although I find him almost unbearably sad. His work hurts me so good. He's singing my song. Even though his song is of middle America, the big flat Midwest, of which I know little to nothing, even though his characters have followed different paths than my own weird trajectory, he gets something about the human heart that is painfully accurate.

I don't get the sense that he has transcended these questions himself. I think he's writing from the same tangled knot of confusion and failure and pain that informs most of his characters' lives. He's no Rumi in other words, and reading him does not alleviate my angst, it increases it. His books leave me simultaneously elated and depressed. I'm elated because he's put a finger on some of my murkier emotions, he's named a portion of the unnameable. I'm depressed because it's all too true and where do we go from here and God help us.

But I'll take him over any of the novelists who bring their characters around to fake resolutions and pat cheery endings. Not because I'm a masochist, (well, maybe I am, a little), but more because fake, forced "enlightenment" makes me even sadder.


Ponygecko said...

Alsion, thank you so much for this beautiful entry. I too suffer from what I call "soul sickness," and pretty much blame it on the coincidental ocurrences of a horrifying breakup and menopause.

To know that someone as deeply compassionate, sharply articulate, and accomplished as yourself should likewise suffer is such deep comfort to me, as horrible as that sentence may read.

Thanks again...

Ponygecko said...

typo--Alison...sorry. See how we almost fly, indeed.


laurie b said...

it does seem we find it hardest to forgive ourselves of real or perceived "crimes". i am looking forward to reading JF's new book. thanks for a preview.

Anonymous said...

these are words
to not be forgotten
to ponder
to relate to

it is in the best interest
of my heart and soul
to read your words


Anonymous said...
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Lily said...


i was just going back through your blog and LOVE your comments on FREEDOM here... but we have v. different responses to his work.. somehow franzen pops some pustule of unexpressed low-grade malaise inside me and makes me feel lighter. like he nails the shadow side of the human condition, illuminates it, and just the act of illumination relieves it... or something... but thanks for being just such an all round awesome darling and writing about this and all things so beautifully.