Letters

Jane Smiley and others defend Ayelet Waldman from "overheated" readers.


Salon Staff
March 22, 2005 11:58PM (UTC)

[Read "Living Out Loud -- Online," by Ayelet Waldman, and readers' responses to the story.]

Gosh, your readers got a little overheated about Ayelet Waldman's column. They projected all sorts of their own experiences and fears onto her and her children, and then condemned her for them. Maybe this is a sign that lots of people, both men and women, can't stand it when women speak up and are honest about their feelings. In my view, the strength (and in some cases, the viciousness) of their reactions is an index to Waldman's honesty. If they don't like someone who has self-confessed flaws and worries and actually explores them, maybe they should continue to consult interviews of Laura Bush for "insights" into women. Grow up, ladies and gentlemen!

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-- Jane Smiley

I implore you to publish this letter so that your readers will know that Ms. Waldman's reprehensible selfishness is neither typical of nor acceptable to the majority of us who have bipolar disorder, however overwhelming. I have a severe case of it, exacerbated by post-traumatic stress disorder, and have been hospitalized four times for making the plan (suicidal ideation) and being ready to carry it out.

As a writer I know the ethical conundrums of involving one's friends and relatives in the creative process, but to let the beast out in a public forum for one's children's schoolmates, teachers, etc., to read is unconscionable. Ms. Waldman, if your four children are yours biologically, then chances are at least one of them is, or will be, bipolar. Besides the anxiety and pain they will face from the disease, you have abused them mercilessly, then regurgitated all in your latest column.

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There are many of us who have been where you were, and our decency never left us. If you have the wherewithal to get online, you can bloody well pick up the phone to the crisis line instead. In the 25 years since my diagnosis I've met, cried with, comforted and been comforted by hundreds of people with bipolar disorder. I've battled the stigma of this frightening disease in every arena I have found and at great personal risk, and for the first time in my life I look at a fellow sufferer and say, "I am ashamed of you."

-- Kate Van Sant

I was shocked at the negative comments that resulted from Ayelet Waldman's wonderful essay. As a bipolar mother who is essentially Waldman's Delawarian "twin," I found myself identifying not only with her struggle, but realizing that I was myself in serious need of a doctor.

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Waldman's piece was a wakeup call to my own medicinal juggling. To say she saved my life is not exaggerating -- and I would like to hope there were countless others who, upon reading her brutally honest struggle, had a "lightbulb moment" and saved their own children, spouses and loved ones the horrific torture of losing a loved one to mental illness.

Kudos to Salon for publishing such a moving account. To feel that one is "not the only one" is of great comfort to so many; it is a shame that so many of the responses of other readers show how an insensitivity and bias about mental illness is still prevalent in our society.

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-- Susan May

I have been a daily Salon reader for years and have rarely felt the need to write in about anything. Yet the responses to Ayelet Waldman's first column bear a response of my own.

The idea that a mother should deny herself for children, that she should bear herself with composure at all times and never let her raw "self" to show through, is ridiculous.

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Ayelet is an artist, and like artists throughout history -- historically, men -- she is selfish and navel-gazing. I cannot believe that the idea that this is wrong, that she should not reveal herself, has more to do with her being a woman than it does with anything else.

Should we begin to list the artists who have inflicted pain on their families for the sake of art? Who have felt the need to go into themselves, or use those around them, for their work? The list would be near-endless.

Yet, as mothers, we are to set ourselves aside. Ridiculous. Believe me, families grow stronger, children grow stronger, when honesty and love rule the way. I hope Ms. Waldman continues her honest exposure of herself and indeed does not hide this from her children.

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They will understand, and grow strong, with the knowledge of her struggle, her survival and her love.

-- Maria Pranzo

I recently read the letters concerning the Ayelet Waldman article about her mental illness, her traumatized child and her blog. The previous columns she'd written made me feel uncomfortable; this made me feel like I was reading a child-abuse victim biography. I found myself agreeing with the person who felt that Salon ought to refuse to publish any of her columns that so plainly invade the privacy of her children. As minors, they don't have the same rights; we need to look after them collectively, especially those whose parents are not always able to determine social boundaries because of mental illness. Publish her writings on herself or other topics; kindly refuse when it focuses on the anguish of her children. You'll know it when you read it; they (and us) will thank you for it.

-- Michelle Stiennon

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Although I'm a writer who steadfastly avoids writing about my children in both my blog and published work, I was shocked by the level of vitriol Ayelet Waldman received for her new column. I'd read her log a few times, read this column, and saw no indication that her plan was to focus on matters that would humiliate her kids. It seemed to me that her writing would focus far more on her own growth, exploration and challenges than anything else, with mention of her children only as they contributed to that increasing self-awareness. Go ahead and call such a column extreme navel-gazing if you want to, but let's not call Child Protection Services on an honest, talented writer who is clearly, despite her self-mocking tone, a loving and decent mother.

-- Andrea Sarvady

Regarding all the "perfect mothers" out there that are just shocked, shocked that she would write about her children and who would never do anything to hurt their own precious darlings: Get over it, please.

I for one am glad to read from writers who are honest about their struggles and triumphs either on blogs, in books or, as in Ms. Waldman's case, this new column. I like knowing that there are other women out there who will be joining me in mommy hell for some of the not-so perfect parenting that can happen around here.

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I do maintain a blog and on it I refer to my son as The Boy and my hubby as Mr. J as a way to preserve some of their privacy, but I would never presume to tell another how to write.

-- Julie W.

I am a licensed clinical psychologist working at a psychiatric hospital, and have read some of your readers' responses to "Living Out Loud -- Online."

Having seen this illness (bipolar disorder) in all of its permutations, I am taken aback not only by your readers' seeming lack of empathy but by their apparent absolute lack of information about this disorder. Ms. Waldman will surely read the many unkind responses spurred by her column. I am therefore hoping to both educate some of your readers about this disorder and to soften the blows that come so easily from those who have not been exposed to the agony that this illness can inflict.

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Although we currently know less about the causes of bipolar disorder than we do about schizophrenia, we do know that it is the most heritable of all mental illnesses. Approximately one in four children of a bipolar parent will eventually develop the disorder.

This is a brain disease, not a character flaw. It is a brain disease that causes both dramatic episodes of emotional dysregulation (hence the former term "manic depression"), and temporary lapses of judgment. In fact, impulsive lapses in judgment (perhaps contributing to the content of an Internet column?) are a hallmark of the disorder. When in the throes of a manic episode, those who suffer from this illness may squander family fortunes, engage in promiscuous sexual behavior with strangers (thereby ruining their marriages), or behave in an entirely uncharacteristic manner that destroys their careers. Then (if they are lucky enough to receive adequate and appropriate help and to regain emotional equilibrium), these people are left to pick up the pieces of their lives, often needing to deal with the consequences of behaviors that occurred when they were simply not capable of making good decisions.

In addition to impulsivity, risk-taking behavior and altered judgment, there are debilitating episodes of depression, which are agonizing and recurrent. It is no accident that the suicide rate in this population is as high as it is. Those who suffer from bipolar disorder, if it is not well controlled with medication, often live both with the shame of past behavior and the fear that they could, unpredictably, destabilize and cause further harm to themselves or their families. And then, of course, there is the depression, which always looms on the horizon. It is agonizing, and it comes back, again and again and again. No matter how hard people struggle to recover, they must live with the specter of impending emotional agony, which they know will inevitably return.

This is a brain disorder. It is often debilitating, and it has a physiological cause. Although your readers may not approve of the content contained in Ms. Waldman's column, I do hope, for her sake and for all those who suffer from this disease, that the tone of future letters is a bit softer.

Ms. Waldman did not choose this disease, and she walks a difficult road. I entreat your readers to remember to be kind while still maintaining and expressing their thoughts.

There, but for the grace of God, go you or I.

-- Jennifer L. Woehr

I really cannot believe the rude and nasty responses to Ms. Waldman's column printed in Letters. Perhaps it is my fault for continuing to be astonished at how many people assume that their opinion or belief is correct and all other ideas may be squashed. This seems especially prevalent when it comes to parenting. Get this through your heads, people: there is not one right way to raise a child.

For one example, one reader states that Ms. Waldman is wrong because her children's friends and school might learn something about their family. Well, one could argue that Name Withheld's childhood would have been more happy, not less, had she actually had friends and participated in extracurricular activities. Or had an adult who understood her situation, and could provide support and counseling. But that's just my opinion. I don't see the need to denigrate Name Withheld or her choices in life.

I could easily say to Rebecca Burke that her letter contributed nothing to the debate except her own need to express her feelings. Yet, that seems to be exactly why she criticized Ms. Waldman! Ms. Burke, tell your outrage to your therapist -- all I want to hear from you is how your parents raised you so that I don't raise my children the same way. But, such a statement is purposeless. Unless your desire is simply to degrade the other, foster feelings of failure. I just don't see the point in that.

Ayelet Waldman's column raised some very true and difficult issues of being a mother, a writer and a human being. If you don't want to read about those issues, then don't. But take a good look at yourself, and think about why you feel the need to be so hateful.

-- Kathleen Boergers

I agree with all the writers that remarked that Ayelet Waldman's article and blogs are perilously close to child abuse.

Beyond that, the article isn't very good either. It meanders all over the place: how an entry in her blog constituted a suicide note, to the role of bloggers vs. journalists, to why she writes the blog and articles, to the effect of both on her kids.

I thought you were interested in publishing well-thought-out columns that made readers think. So just why are you publishing this crap, which Waldman herself admitted in her blog that she "browbeat" you into?

-- Stephanie Bodoff

Good Lord, you're actually going to enable Ayelet Waldman's passive-aggressive child abuse? Are you mad? I already felt sorry for Anne Lamott's no doubt terminally embarrassed teenager, and now someone who's actually so irresponsible she'd put her suicidal thoughts online under her own name -- when she has children, for god's sake -- is going to be allowed to do further damage to those around her in pursuit of examining her precious, precious self and all around her, who she seems to believe are only extensions thereof?

Please don't do this. I can promise you I definitely won't read her column now anyway. How selfish can one person be?

-- John Linton

Many people seem to have written in scolding Ms. Waldman's piece.

"Oh," they scream, "think of the children! Think of how embarrassing it is to have a mother who's ill!"

Which is what this is: an illness. Maybe if we all talk about these things more, they won't become items of shame. Maybe, then, people will be able to ask for help, instead of using whatever outlet they can find.

Would you have denied this woman this one last chance? Would you rather her children discover her dead on the floor?

Would that be less embarrassing?

-- Rob Oakley

I found Waldman's column about blogging her suicide note and the uncomfortable details of her children's lives to be an utterly appalling read. This woman is obviously functioning without any sense of perspective or propriety. To flog her emotional breakdown and the terror that it inflicted on her husband and children demonstrates her lamentable lack of discretion and a deep inability to understand the long-term consequences of her own actions.

It is a failing on her part to expose her family to this sort of public scrutiny, especially given the effect that these revelations have had on her 7-year-old son. To continue to allow her to vent these personal failings in your magazine is an error of judgment on your part. While there is nothing you can do to instill in her a sense of privacy and perspective, you can stop providing her with the means by which to shred her own and her family's privacy. Clearly she cannot stop herself. Therefore, you must.

-- David Ferguson

I read Ayelet Waldman's article when it was posted, but I didn't realize that it was intended to be a recurring column until I saw the letters in response to it.

Do you seriously mean that you intend to publish even more of her self-indulgence?

-- Jim Kasprzak

While I agree that the privacy of one's children is a serious issue for writers to consider -- as does Ayelet Waldman, or else she wouldn't have written the column at all -- I worry about the notion that a woman owns no rights to the stories that unfold in her life once that life includes children. I am disturbed by the idea that writing to each other -- to other parents, other humans -- about our suffering is the literary equivalent of mooning. Aren't we past the mid-20th century idea that dirty laundry should be hidden at all costs? Aren't we beyond thinking that in order to be "generous," mothers must be selfless? Perhaps this, above all else, is what's so hard to take about Waldman's column: No one is selfless, not even Mom. Finally, I'm saddened by what these letters show me -- that a woman openly grappling with her shortcomings (as a writer, as a parent, as a person) still gets met with scorn, derision, accusations of child abuse. Show me a mother who has no outlet for her anxiety, her resentment, her confusion and her rage, and I'll show you half a dozen kids drowned in a bathtub. Silence does not equal love, and talking, writing about our lives does not make us selfish. It helps us stay sane, something Waldman bravely admits she's trying to do in lots of ways.

-- Melissa Crowe

Please reconsider giving Ayelet Waldman a public forum to degrade and humiliate herself, her family and those who accidentally or intentionally read her column. In a society that gratifies the prurient with the most excruciatingly private details of the lives of celebrities and others transfixed by the public eye, this sort of column is a personal indulgence that Salon, and its readers (this one especially), can do without.

Ms. Waldman could easily (or, perhaps, not so easily) restrain herself to blogging once every two weeks, leaving room on Salon for a column more about the world, and less about one woman's navel.

-- Anthony Hauck

I just read the first article by Ayelet Waldman as a result of reading your "Letters" section.

There are two things that a mother with normal psychological and emotional development feels in almost equal measure with regard to her children: On the one hand, there are times when she fears her child will be harmed or killed; on the other hand, there are times when she fears that something will happen to her and she won't be able to take care of her children well into adulthood. Both feelings are terrible. I can't know this for sure, but I suspect these feelings are almost universal and biologically based.

Accordingly, I truly don't understand how Ayelet could do this to her child. It is like threatening him with the most horrific abandonment. It is cruel and deeply self-centered. I see this as a kind of emotional terrorism.

-- Leslie Smith

So Ms. Waldman has exchanged her blog for a Salon column. How sad that she didn't also ditch the self-centered exhibitionism. How doubly sad it will be for her children one day to realize that she knew she was hurting them, but really couldn't be bothered to stop -- not when it would gain her a column.

She has my sympathy for bipolar symptoms. Doubly appropriate, then, that she should step back from what she is doing and stop.

-- Robin Burk

I rarely comment about things I have not read or experienced, yet I feel compelled to respond to the comments about Ms. Waldman's column. I am a 56-year-old woman and my mother, until the day she died six years ago, felt compelled to share the most intimate details of my life with strangers. Her need to expose me to others was a reflection of her own insecurities, yet my understanding of the "why" has not lessened my feeling of betrayal and hurt that she caused me over the years. If Ms. Waldman wants to write and share her personal experiences with an audience, she should do her children a favor and write under a pseudonym.

-- Allene Swienckowski


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