Read it on Salon
British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
Fifteen years ago, I stood alone outside a building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, staring at a second-floor window as my heart beat hard in my chest. It was my first AA meeting, and I knew that once I walked through those doors, things would never be the same. Once I said I was an alcoholic, I could never un-say it. I might drink again or I might not (though at the time, I found that hard to imagine), but whatever I did going forward, the context would have changed.
This scene came back to me earlier this month when my reflections on long-term unemployment began flying around the Internet, shared by friends on Facebook and Twitter, and then by friends of friends. In Salon, the piece carried the headline “Even Harvard Couldn’t Protect Me,” but in my mind I retitled it “The Essay Wherein I Out Myself as Being Unemployed.” Since my last job ended, I’d grown accustomed to describing myself as a freelancer, which was true, but just not the whole truth. While I was indeed doing writing for hire, including some very cool projects — a speech for a Harvard dean, essays for Salon — the fact is these assignments didn’t come close to covering my expenses.
Still, no one challenged me. It was easy enough to pass. So why did I decide to drop the mask — and in such a public way?
You could say it’s because I’m a writer and this is what writers do, but I don’t think that’s really it. I am not, by nature or by nurture, an avid self-discloser. I grew up in the conservative Midwest, in a world where appearances matter and where, as the old saying goes, you don’t air your dirty laundry in public. A few years back, when a friend asked what religion I’d grown up with, I quipped, “Our religion was good manners.” (The real answer: Congregationalist mixed with some Methodism, thanks to the appealing activities of a neighborhood Methodist youth group.)
But if going public with unemployment didn’t come naturally, it also struck me as the right thing to do, what AA and other 12-step acolytes describe as “the next right action.” Indeed, it was in AA that I first learned to talk openly about my life — about things that had hurt me, things for which I felt shame. It was in AA that I first learned the healing power of simply telling my story. (In fact, some research suggests that the primary reason for AA’s success may be its capacity to foster social bonds through shared experience.)
And yet, enlivening as such exchanges are, they still run sharply counter to mainstream American culture. We often seem almost phobic about acknowledging the truth of how things are, at least when they’re anything short of A+ picture perfect. In a recent radio interview about his new memoir, “Life Itself,” film critic Roger Ebert talked about refusing to conceal the disfiguring results of a cancer that cost him his lower jaw. “I was warned not to be photographed looking like this,” he said. “But this is what I look like, and there’s nothing I can do about it. We spend too much time as a society denying illness. It’s a fact of life.” The inspiration drawn by listeners from Ebert’s example came through in their admiring letters: “Thanks for having the courage to still be in the public eye and inspire the rest of us to keep living life,” wrote one. “I’m glad to be in a world with [him] in it,” wrote another.
There’s a lesson here. Our most meaningful connections with other people are often rooted in shared pain and vulnerabilities. When I think of the human stories that have touched me most deeply, they almost always reflect a defiant disregard of appearances and convention. I think of feminist powerhouse Katha Pollitt’s New Yorker piece on cyber-stalking an ex-lover, a fearless foray into the psychic terrain of passion gone awry, and one that helped me enormously in making peace with certain episodes in my own romantic past. And I think of the late Caroline Knapp’s best-selling “Drinking: A Love Story,” the potent and beautifully wrought memoir that introduced me to AA, changing my life profoundly and forever as it did those of countless others.
In my admittedly unscientific study, I’ve found that the pain of the Great Recession (as so much else) abates some when it’s shared. In this era of lost homes, lost jobs and lost hopes, forging human connections can be transformative. By contrast, when we conceal the reality of our lives — try to “pass” as happier, more secure, or more successful than we are — we feed into a culture of private suffering and isolation, a lonely and disheartening place where failure equates with shame. This is what Buddhists call the “the second arrow,” the pain of self-judgment compounding the pain of actual experience.
Of course, this isn’t to say we should disclose our secrets with indiscriminate abandon. The decision about how and when to open up is a deeply personal one. By now, we’re all aware (or should be) that the Internet is forever, and in my own case, I thought long and hard before writing about unemployment. I doubt if I’d have opted to speak so publicly at an earlier stage in life, before paying my professional dues and finding a community of friends that loves me no matter what.
That being said, when we’re willing to take our place among the ordinary, flawed, anxious and wondrous inhabitants of planet Earth, we may find ourselves awakening to new possibilities. Our vulnerabilities can become our strengths — and not in the way of the saccharine cliché of making lemons out of lemonade but rather in a way that calls on all of our ingenuity, strength and courage. Telling our stories can be both a creative and political act.
As I started to think about writing this essay, I wasn’t sure how to begin. While my AA experience leapt to mind, I didn’t know if I was ready to out myself yet again. Clearly, it was time to do a little more “research.” (That’s what we writers call Net surfing intended to postpone writing.) I did a Google search for “AA” and “stories,” and was stunned to stumble on Roger Ebert recounting his own AA journey. Once I got over my initial surprise — while I’d just heard Ebert talk about cancer, I’d known nothing of his AA past — I could see how it was all of a piece, this facing up to what is. And I thought about how one thing leads to another and how some truths are worth the risk.
Amy Gutman served as a special assistant to Harvard Law School Dean (now U.S. Supreme Court justice) Elena Kagan until April 2009. She now lives and looks for work in western Massachusetts. More Amy Gutman.
British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
Gillian Anderson, aka Scully, with a conger eel.
British actor Nickolas Grace with a red mullet.
French actress Aure Atika with a parrotfish.
French-Portuguese actress Barbara Cabrita with a herring.
French actress Caroline Ducey with a barracuda.
French actor Emmanuel de Brantes with a barramundi.
British DJ Godlie with a redfish.
French/American actor Jean-Marc Barr with a mako shark.
BBC star Jeany Spark with a seabass.
Opera singer Joanna Bergin with a mackerel.
Japanese fashion designer Kenzo Takada with a bonito.
French actress Mélanie Bernier with a European eel.
British actor and director Serge Hazanavicius with a thicklip grey mullet.
French jazz guitarist Thomas Dutronc with a dusky grouper.