How do I talk about my own life while respecting the boundaries of others? What if, say, I wanted to write about a relationship with someone who is an abuse survivor, and the many things I might have learned from that? Do I have the right to share details of that person’s life in order to write about myself? If I don’t have that right, is that then a silence about my own experience being forced upon me? Where is the line between sharing, oversharing, trust, and betrayal?
I wish I had an easy answer, but I don’t. The paragraphs below are from a longer essay I wrote about Chana Bloch’s book Mrs. Dumpty, in which she chronicles her painful marriage and eventual divorce, both driven by her husband’s mental breakdowns. These are first person, autobiographical poems, and they are powerful and beautiful and so well-crafted, and they left me with a lot of questions.
But there is a larger issue for me at play here, especially after reading the essays in section three, “Degrees of Fidelity: Ethical & Aesthetic Considerations” in After Confession—what does it mean for her husband, and for how she relates to him after these poems, that she has written so beautifully her emotional reality of their marriage? She couldn’t have written her truth without revealing his mental illness, the violence, distance, and institutionalization, but still, those are intimate, and potentially damaging, details of his life. What are the limits of how much of that story was hers to show and to tell? Did the ways that she was harmed by him grant her permission to reveal all of this, in the ways that victims have the moral right to say who did what? Or is the telling itself a kind of emotional payback with a manipulative edge? (In all of her work she seems honest and caring, so this doesn’t feel like the case with her, but god knows there are poems and memoirs that exist for that reason.) I’m struggling hard with this issue right now, as I consider what to do with my own break-up poems, the “you” of which will be furious about when or if she sees them. What, if any, responsibility do I have to share or not share with the world intimate details about her? I’ve tried to protect her (way too much, too often, methinks), to conceal her identity, to not go into stories she revealed to me in intimacy that I think explain her behavior. But, ultimately, where does our right to tell our own story violate another’s right to privacy?
Mrs. Dumpty asks this question, and doesn’t answer it in any way. These are exactly the kind of poems that make male critics lose their minds and start flinging accusations of man-bashing, of some kind of conspiracy of women writers to bring men down (to reveal the nakedness of the fathers?), a trend always at its most hysterical frothing peak when certain African American male critics confront Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. “Who is she to say these things about him?” they scream. As a woman, a feminist, I answer, “She is a writer, and compared to what men have said about women for century after century, I think men are still getting off easy.” But as a poet wrestling with my own balance of honesty and integrity, I don’t have an easy, confident, self-justified answer. And maybe I can’t, or shouldn’t.