To Be Read, and To Be Understood

Recently, I noticed a flurry of views on a post I wrote in January. The post was my reaction to an article in the Washington Post Magazine, an article about a writer, Cynthia McCabe, who was e-mailed by a man, a complete stranger, announcing his intention to commit suicide. The reasons this man gave were that he, as a writer, had “said everything I wanted to say and consider my work finished.”

It was an article to which I had a visceral reaction, and I don’t mean a positive one.

I won’t summarize my reaction–you can read it for yourself–except to say that I felt McCabe, as the writer of the article, was missing the bigger picture. I also figured that she had said what she needed to on the subject and that the story would be laid to rest.

Not so.

I was curious about what was behind the uptick in views of my post, so I decided to find out. The recent increase in views, evidently, was provoked by the story reappearing on the radio program Snap Judgement. Don’t get me wrong, I like the program and have listened to it on several occasions. But I question the resurrection of the story in a new format, the motives behind it, and the approach taken by the producer of the piece, Julia DeWitt.

Julia DeWitt, exercising questionable judgement.

Julia DeWitt, exercising questionable judgement.

The story, in my opinion, should have been that a person named Dennis Williams (aka Katry Rain) had dedicated a lifetime’s worth of energy and effort into a body of work that has been essentially ignored, and that this emptiness led him to end his life.

I’m not alone in this. One commenter on the NPR website had this to say about the handling of the story:

I found this story very troubling. Not because the writer committed suicide, but because the producer, Julia DeWitt, seemed to so completely fail to respect or understand his decision…. It doesn’t sound like Ms. DeWitt read a single thing he wrote beyond the letter. How is what he died for not the story here?

And a commenter on my January post said this:

My uneasiness with reading The Washington Post article…was [from] the writers’ callous tone (listing her course of options rather than expressing genuine sympathies, or her semi meta-judgmental of the publishing world, yet failing to recognize her part in it).

It appears that McCabe has not given any further thought on the matter.

In the radio show, however, Dara Horn–the one who called the incident an “emotional mugging”–says this:

You know, I’ve been very fortunate to have had a fair amount of success as a writer. And so perhaps it’s not fair for me to say this because perhaps I would feel differently if I weren’t as successful as I’ve been, but it would never occur to me that my writing was the most important thing that I had contributed to this world.

Interestingly, many writers–successful ones–have felt exactly what Williams felt, that their writing was vitally important to their lives. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “On the other hand, for a shy man it was nice to be somebody except oneself again: to be ‘the Author’….”

John Updike observed that the embodiment of the New Yorker, Eustace Tilley, “was like a god to me, the guardian of excellence; he weighed my mailed-in words and paid a grand or so for tales he liked. A thousand dollars then meant we could eat for months. A poem might buy a pair of shoes. My life, my life with children, was a sluice that channeled gravelly water to my pan; by tilting it, and swirling lightly, I at the end of day might find a fleck of gold.”

Here’s the thing: why did DeWitt feel the need to re-warm this story for the radio? Was it because it really needed to be told again, that radio would provide something that print could not? I doubt it.

Yes, Dennis Williams has received a boost of attention from these events. But DeWitt seems to have no interest in Williams, and she admits that the people interviewed for the story don’t either. I rather think it was because it was a nifty story to tell, and DeWitt would get some feathers in her cap for doing it.

Williams was not looking for fame per se. He just wanted to be read, and also to be understood. DeWitt and McCabe and Horn clearly don’t understand.

[updated Jan. 31, 2017]

Just Have to Say

Yesterday, I finished reading an article in the Washington Post that has really stuck with me, and not in a good way.**

The article, written by Cynthia McCabe, is about man who e-mailed a dozen or so writers–all strangers to him–of his intention to commit suicide. The reasons he gave were that he, as a writer, had “said everything I wanted to say and consider my work finished.” He goes on: “I believe I have an immense amount to give, not only from my mind but from my heart, and there are just no takers.”

It was a suicide note from a writer who had failed to find an audience.

Sadly, I found that McCabe’s reaction, and that of some of the other writers, showed an appalling lack of compassion.

Writers, in my experience and from anecdotal evidence, are all too happy to sacrifice their own as they claw their  way to the top. McCabe has the privilege of being allowed to write and publish about this failed writer. Instead of saying how she may have felt similar feelings at one time or another, she voiced her disdain and that of the other writers for this failed writer and his tactics to bring his work to the world.

The suicidal writer, a man named Dennis Williams (or his pen name, Katry Rain), is described by his ex-wife, who perhaps knew him best, as a philosopher, a thinker, a writer of both prose and music, and a popular teacher.

But in McCabe’s article, he is called narcissistic and selfish. One writer who received Williams’ e-mail said she felt emotionally mugged. A Washington Post reporter basically said that Williams should have called someone who cared, implying that he didn’t.

McCabe herself calls Williams’ writing clunky and not particularly noteworthy. If whether your prose is impressive or not is the benchmark against which we should measure success as a writer, then “Fifty Shades of Grey” and countless other commercially successful but otherwise unremarkable works would be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Williams is in no position to defend himself. McCabe’s article, written from the point of view of an author who has tasted some success, feels like bullying.

This is exactly why he took his life.


**NOTE: For an update on this topic, see here.

The Ghosts of Loneliness

The month after the September 11th terrorist attacks, my wife and I decided to visit the harvest festival at Cox Farms in Virginia. She’d heard about it from our neighbors so we took a Saturday to see what it was all about.

It was a windy fall day with clear skies, and the festival area was already busy when we arrived. From the parking lot, we walked through the entry gates into an open, gently sloping area bordered by corn fields. Pumpkins, straw bales and gathered cornstalks decorated everything.

Our two-year-old daughter, bundled in layers, ran to the first activity area. It was a small stage with percussion instruments for the kids to play. Some music was coming through a sound system and my daughter picked two drum sticks and banged along on a log. My wife and I sat on some hay bales and watched the somewhat chaotic “music.”

My wife and daughter at Cox Farms in 2001.

My wife and daughter at Cox Farms in 2001.

I carried our younger child, not quite one year, in the carrier backpack. He was bundled too and hunkered down against the wind. He peered out at the activity around him but seemed content to stay in his nest.

Our daughter next wanted to try the long slide. Built into the side of a slope, I thought it would be daunting to a small child but she was game. At the bottom we waited and as she slid to a stop in the soft straw, she looked as if it were a bit much.

“Would you like to go again?” I asked.

“No,” she said. So we moved on to the next thing.

My wife and I had come to Cox Farms that day looking for something. It had been a rough year for us. Our son had been born through an emergency caesarian section when my wife had suffered a ruptured aneurysm while pregnant. The subsequent brain surgery, while saving her life, caused trauma that required months of rehab and supervised care. And all while we tried to raise two small children.

The aneurysm was an event that divided our lives into “before” and “after,” a clear marker that separated what we wished for our future from what was now actually achievable. The brain trauma also created a separation between “us” and “them”—those who understood what brain injury was all about and those who could not.

These twin difficulties worked in tandem to create a feeling of isolation for us. And the September 11th attacks only added to our desire to find connection with others and with a normal flow of life.

But we didn’t find it that day, nor for several years to come. The loss and the resulting loneliness were with us constantly, a formless presence that acted out when least appropriate, seeping into our daily routines and interactions. It seemed to live in our bones.

Honesty Is Not Always the Best Policy

Promise?

When I was 18, I was naïve about many things. Prominent among those things was how to behave around girls. While most boys were busy learning the social rules, I blundered along in my ignorance. So the day when a pretty girl in my grade offered to give me a back rub, with my shirt off, I accepted without reading anything into it. Sometimes a back rub is just a back rub.

She had me lay face down and, using some lotion, she began the massage. Honestly, I wasn’t enjoying it much. I was having trouble relaxing as I wondered what to say when she was done. I’d had better massages before and I’ve had better since. I decided that I should just be honest.

“How was that?” she asked as she sat back.

“It was okay,” I said.

“Okay?!” she said, with a look of amused surprise, and perhaps a trace of hurt.

In hindsight, I should have lied. I should’ve said it was great, fantastic even. Anything but what I said. But I said what I was thinking. And I’ve regretted it for decades.

I guess that, sometimes, honesty is not the best policy.

Just to be clear, I’m not advocating deliberate deceitfulness. I’ve been around enough liars and truth-benders to know that it’s never a sustainable way to be. What I want to consider instead is the value of sticking to unvarnished honesty at all costs. Perhaps there is room for a place that exists somewhere between a hurtful lie and the brutal truth.

My dictionary defines honesty as “truthfulness” and truth as “honesty,” but perhaps it’s not as simple as all that. Gandhi understood that there exists a distinction between truth and full disclosure. “Who can say how much I must give and how much omit in the interests of truth?” he wrote in his Autobiography. To focus overly much on bald-faced honesty ignores that there are more subtle forces involved.

The Biblical Ten Commandments include the following: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” All my life, this has been interpreted for me as “never lie.” Strictly speaking, this would require unvarnished honesty at all times. Under this scheme, the so-called “white lie” is still a lie and should not be tolerated.

Technically, though, the commandment is less universal than that, requiring only that no “false witness” be used against your “neighbor.” What about when talking with your husband or wife, for instance? If you tell them you are happy to be married in a moment when you are not entirely convinced of the truth of that statement, is that false witness? What about with your child? When you tell them their popsicle stick collage “art” is beautiful, is that false witness? Maybe an occasional dishonesty is okay, even in the eyes of God.thou-shalt-not-lie

In the farcical movie Liar, Liar (1997), Jim Carrey plays a man condemned to always tell the truth. Quickly, it becomes apparent that all honesty all the time leads to awkward situations and hurt feelings. Even when people say “be honest” they often don’t mean, literally, honest. The story implies that a little dishonesty once in a while acts as a type of social lubricant, easing the friction of our daily lives. Take that away and we are faced with the loss of a measure of civility.

Does this suggest that we will all descend down the slippery slope as we abandon honesty? I don’t think so for a few reasons. For one, with the exception of young children and those with mental health problems, people normally understand when a small lie cross the line into more sinister territory. As long as we have some kind of value system, we can maintain a distinction between the two.

For another, many people frequently find themselves in situations where they feel they have to “fake it.” As the author Susan Cain points out in her book Quiet, this is often true for introverts. It also can be true for those stuck in an unsatisfying line of work or difficult family situation. The trick is not mistaking a surface level of feeling false for a deeper-rooted inauthenticity. The inner compass should remain true, despite of moments of uncertainty.

Truth, honesty, lies, and deceit—there’s plenty of all of them to go around. So what is the best policy? In the end, I suggest a better guide is “Be polite and be authentic.”

Helping Hands

Near my home, there is an intersection of two busy roads where people beg for money. I drive through at least weekly. It is a rotating cast of characters. You have the disabled veteran, or the older guy who has “lost it all,” or the woman with the multiple kids she must feed. I can’t tell if they’re drawn there because it’s a particularly lucrative spot, or if panhandling has now reached the suburbs and intersections are the new street corner.

Only occasionally do I give some money. But I am always moved. I just don’t know how best to respond.

Sometimes what’s needed is a helping hand. Sometimes what’s needed is a hand to hold.

Often, it’s hard to tell, at any given moment, which is needed more.
Helping hands

Last July, a friend of mine lost her partner to cancer. They’d been together only a few years, and both were married before. Essentially, she had stopped communicating during the last month of his life, and in the months following. I struggled to discern whether she needed help, and if so, what kind? What was the right help to offer?

Recently, a couple I know who are the parents of one of my son’s friends were struck by a car while crossing the street. When I first heard, my reaction was to be a part of their support network. But as each day led to the next, and the struggles of my own life claimed my attention, their need became less pressing. They have mostly recovered now, and I didn’t even stop by their house. Was that the best thing to do?

Twelve years ago, my life derailed when my wife suffered a ruptured aneurysm while carrying our second child. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t repeat the details. With hindsight, though, I can see that during her recovery, I was facing  grief, traumatic stress, the normal demands of raising small children and earning a living, and serving as my wife’s primary care-giver, all mixed together. My needs changed constantly, even several times a day. I could never, while immersed in it, say with any certainty whether I needed a helping hand or a hand to hold. Honestly, at times it was probably both simultaneously, while at other times neither. Often, when people asked if there was anything they could do, I couldn’t say because I just didn’t know.
sadness

What is the “right” response? How can anyone tell what another person needs, and when they need it?

In the book How Can I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service, authors Ram Dass and Paul Gorman say that while it natural to want to help, compassion is not without complication.

“We needn’t go deep beneath the surface before we encounter our ambivalence,” they write. “We note the interplay of generosity and resistance, self-sacrifice and self-protectiveness…. There are clearly many ways in which we hesitate to reach out or we get confused when we try.”

In spite of the complete mystery of it, sometimes people do do the right thing. That December, when it all began to unravel for me, my wife’s former employer brought us a Christmas tree. I could not have said at the time that I needed it, but I deeply believe now that it was exactly the right thing for us.
Holding Hands

Contrary to what many may think, the helping transaction requires something from each party—both the helper and the helped are giving and getting. I was very bitter and angry when I was in need of help. I probably asked for less than I needed, and was less gracious than I could have been.

In contrast, I see a cheerful gratitude in the couple recovering from the car accident. They feel lucky to be alive, which says so much about their approach to the event.

What had I to offer them? Maybe very little. Should I have done something? Probably.

Action is required, and compassion, and luck. “On this path we will stumble, fall, and often look and feel a little foolish,” say Dass and Gorman. But in the end, we’ve done what we could, and we “trust the rest to God, to Nature, to the Universe.”