Discover more from Adventures In "Journalism" by Sari Botton
When Merely Blurring a Dude Might Not Be Enough
Taking care to portray even my monsters with car.
(^^^ “Outdoorsy Sari” atop a Catskills peak in the fall of ‘98 with What’s-His-Name)
In the final weeks until my book deadline, the Universe has been messing with me, and I do not appreciate it.
Mostly it’s been gaslighting me with mixed messages. Like, first it shows me a tweet about how important it is to stay focused and finish your book project, which makes me feel extra committed. Then it shows me a tweet with a link to a 2019 Guardian piece about why Michelle Tea has renounced the memoir genre, which makes me want to jump ship.
Of course, it’s not the Universe showing me tweets, it’s Twitter, and that’s only because I am showing myself that website again and again, ad nauseam, a bad habit I’ve mentioned before. Maybe the Universe is just trying to tell me to stay the hell off it.
But I’m pretty sure this other frustrating thing that has been happening is totally on the Universe, though:
A person who was absolutely, indisputibly terrible to me—about whom I have been writing a piece for the book—has reappeared in my life, and it has become painfully evident that this person is psychologically unwell, and likely always has been. It’s forcing me to reframe the story and consider dropping the piece altogether. To recognize that in a relationship where I once felt powerless, as a public-facing writer I am now the one with much more power.
I had already reframed the story to a large degree, even before this person relocated to my area, reached out, and began exhibiting signs of mental illness—not new behaviors, but old ones, now exaggerated. In the March issue of Writer’s Digest, I wrote about trying to write this book as bloodlessly as possible, focusing on my choices and reactions to things, leaving in only as much about other people’s actions as was necessary for context. Blurring people is making things, well, a little blurry, but I still think it can work.
So this particular piece that involves this particular person had already been adjusted. I’ve written many versions of it over many years, and where it was once much more about this person’s cruelty toward me, it has since evolved to being about something else: my questionable choice to keep engaging with and hanging onto a person who treatedy me cruelly, and the ridiculous things I did in the service of that, including my mythical creation of Outdoorsy Sari, a rugged, unfussy, low-maintenance version of myself I very much wanted to believe was real.
But now the piece needs to change some more, or get ditched. In recent months, this person has been through significant trauma, some of which is new, but much of which seems like the culmination of decades of trauma. Also, he went from being a-hermit/luddite-I-haven’t-interacted-with-significantly-in-decades-who-probably-never-sees-my-writing to a person who has reappeared in my life and regularly contacts me asking for help and advice. Someone who sat across from me over lunch recently and mused aloud, “I wonder why I pushed so-and-so away,” and also so-and-so, and so-and-so, and so-and-so. “Why do I push people away?”
The unasked but implied additional question was why did he push me away, again and again, most perplexingly almost immediately after he would draw me in close. Now I know the answer: Dude is deeply fucked up. Pushing people away is what he does. He wasn’t just doing it to me. Not for the first time, I took someone else’s psychology personally.
There are many other unasked questions. He didn’t ask me a single thing about myself—and so he doesn’t even know I’m writing a book, or anything about the work I’ve been doing since we stopped speaking 21 years ago. Now I know better than to be offended by it. Honestly, I’m also a little relieved, because I’d rather not tell him about what I’m writing.
So, for a few days I wrestle with the piece. One minute I decide I need to add my latest realizations. The next I decide to just omit the story from the book.
Then the Universe (aka Twitter aka my addiction to Twitter) goes and shows me a tweet with this Rebecca Hazelton essay in the Kenyon Review about alluring, messed up men who manipulate women into silence by playing on their sympathies, and damnit, it’s exactly what I need to read.
I’m reminded of a day in 2003 when I bumped into the man in question on the street, and he introduced the woman who was with him jokingly as “my next victim.” Ha ha ha, we all nervously laughed, knowing it wasn’t actually funny. I think, No, I do need to write about this. Otherwise my sympathies and protection are being extended in the wrong direction.
Still. Memoir is not about deliberately hurting or protecting anyone. At least mine is not. The real story here is about my own sick behavior—creating a false version of myself, twisting myself into a pretzel to hold onto someone whose sickness I took personally.
Of course, if I keep the piece in, I’ll blur the dude as much as humanly possible. He’d probably still recognize himself if he saw it. But the piece won’t be so much about him as about me. I don’t know if he’d realize that if he read it, or be able to see me, through my writing, in ways I once wanted him to. It’s really nice to have arrived at a place in my life where I no longer even vaguely want that.
Do you subscribe to the Memoir Monday weekly newsletter, featuring personal essays from Catapult, Narratively, The Rumpus, LitHub, Guernica, and Granta? I’ve taken the reins from founder Lilly Dancyger (who will keep hosting the quarterly reading series by the same name). I’m considering expanding on it in a few ways, after I meet my deadline. Stay tuned. In the mean time, sign up! Also, follow Memoir Monday on Twitter at @memoirmonday.