I Write. A Neighborhood Reacts.
|Underwater Mouse 1 by Adam Stennett. |
2003, oil on linen
My writing is marked by a rawness and an honesty that I have been told is both startling and off-putting. I usually shrug off such criticism because I write not to tell a story but to make you see, to make you feel; that you feel something—even discomfort—tells me that I’ve done what I set out to do. But I try never to be mean.
You see, years ago when I young, I moved to Washington, DC. I’d never lived on my own before and I didn’t have much money but I found an apartment I could afford. It was, in a word, a dump. Soon after moving in, I discovered I had a roommate, Mouse—no that’s not a cute nickname; he was an actual mouse. I was grossed out and terrified. After weeks of terror, I caught him—in the very box my new Kermit the Frog telephone came in. Now, I knew I had to dispose of him. Terrified, I upended the box over the toilet and flushed. I watched his confusion as he struggled against the rush of water. Once he disappeared from view, I threw up in the sink. When his angry cousins showed up, I let them share my apartment. I could not bring myself to hurt another one. That’s pretty much the way I am in general. I try not to hurt anyone deliberately.
As I said, I’m used to reactions to my work but I was not prepared for the shitstorm of reaction my last blog post engendered.
As a writer, one of the first lessons you learn is the story you write is not always the story people read. Reaction to that blog post reminded me of that lesson. Reactions were split along generational lines: the younger were quite vocal in their approval; the post, which was my most read post ever, was met with stony silence from older neighbors. But whenever I ran into one of them, the language of the body—the sharp intake of breath through pursed lips, the squaring of the shoulders—said: How dare you!
Still, nothing was said until one neighbor confronted me. “I have to ask you—what did you intend to accomplish with that post?” she asked.
“People were hurt by what you wrote.”
I was confounded. I knew people were mad, but hurt? Why? She soon made it clear why. I’d thought of that particular post as literary caricature—that is I took a fundamental truth and exaggerated it to make a point. In so doing, I, accidentally, came too near one truth. What I saw as a quick sketch, a few words to throw light on the kind of community I was describing, others saw as me passing judgment, or, worse, inviting others to pass judgment. Neither is true of my intent. Love can be messy; it can be inconvenient. What it should not be is denied. It’s too rare.
Furthermore, we cannot change the past, we cannot deny it or hope it remains behind us. I don’t believe in revisionist history. I believe we can change our story at any point—start a new chapter, if you will—but the story that has already been written, cannot be rewritten. And we shouldn’t try to. What we can and should do is own our past. That strips others of the power to hurt us, to use it against us.
With the post, I’d meant to defend the council I was a part of—the bad behavior of neighbors is not the fault of the council. And bad behavior isn’t unusual. On social media what I heard most was: you could be talking about my town. One person tweeted “You’re describing Rye, New York, aren’t you?” For me, for others, the post wasn’t only about my neighborhood; it was a story about any town USA.
This was the very reason there was a disclaimer at the end of the post. Yet the disclaimer did not stop people from taking to guessing who I was talking about, did not stop others from assuming I was talking about them.
I keep thinking about the conversation I had with the neighbor who finally clued me in about why some people were so mad. She said, "I was fond of you...” The past tense did not escape my notice. I can only assume that the idea she had of me has been replaced by the messy human truth of me. And I can live with that. What I find harder to live with is the idea I hurt someone, however unintentionally.
In closing, I will leave you with a song: I Am Not America’s Sweetheart by Elle King, which seems a fitting ending. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHO4ctwCWJU