I’m thinking about this issue now because it is the beginning of the semester and, while the Women’s Studies course I was scheduled to teach did not run, I nonetheless have been prepping myself to answer a first-day question I have been asked in that class twice before: “You’re a man. Why do you even care about this subject?” By which she meant not just women’s studies, but feminism as a whole. Given the overall state of the world, it’s not an unfair question, but I still have to prepare myself to give not so much the answer, but the explanation that inevitably goes with the answer, which is: my commitment to feminism is a direct result of the role feminist thinking played in helping me heal from sexual violation.
The other class in which I am sometimes confronted with the question of how much about myself to reveal is creative writing. Students, especially those who are serious about being writers, occasionally google my name and/or get a copy of one of my books of poetry, either The Silence of Men or Words for What Those Men Have Done. In either case, once they do so, the fact that I am a survivor is hard to miss. It says so, for example, in the marketing copy on the front inside flap:
Becoming a poet was, for Richard Jeffrey Newman, a matter of survival. “The Taste of a Little Boy’s Trust,” a poem in this collection, dates from the author’s mid-twenties. In it, by naming what the poem names–his experience of child sexual abuse–he defines the difference between thinking of himself as insane and accepting that he is not.
The answer I give when students ask in creative writing, however, where the critical focus is on making art out of language, starts from a very different place than the one I give in Women’s Studies, where the focus is on social and cultural politics. Each answer ends up, however, in the same place: the power of naming.
In the early 1980s, when no one was talking about the sexual abuse of boys, and people were just beginning to speak openly about the abuse of girls, the way feminism helped me name my abuse–because I essentially coopted the language feminists used to describe men’s sexual violence against women–also helped me see in my experience a structure that included a way to fight back, to begin to see myself as a survivor, not a victim. Talking about this in a Women’s Studies class, then, in addition to being a direct answer to my students’ question, is also a way to demonstrate feminism’s power as an explanatory framework, one that makes visible, and therefore potentially changeable, the sexual politics not only of an individual life, mine, but also of a society organized around male dominance. I will mention feminism when I talk in a creative writing class about the connection between my writing and being a survivor–because not to do so would be to leave out an important part of my own experience–but my focus is more on the power and politics of naming itself, on what it means to see language not merely as a way of expressing one’s feelings, but also as a way of knowing the world, as material out of which to make something that names your world.
In these creative writing discussions, I often refer to this quote from Sam Hamill’s essay, “The Necessity to Speak,” from his book A Poet’s Work:
The first duty of the writer is the rectification of names–to name things properly, for, as Kung-fu Tze [Confucius] said, “All wisdom is rooted in learning to call things by the right name.
At this point in my career, I tell my creative writing students, what “the rectification of names” means to me is pretty much inseparable from my commitment to feminism and my identity as a survivor, but it was not always the case. I started writing poetry long before I consciously saw feminism as something I needed even to pay attention to. I don’t tell them this story quite the way I am going to tell it to here, but the gist is still the same.
I couldn’t have been older than fourteen or fifteen when I took Conrad Aiken’s Selected Poems down from the shelf in the library and started to read the first poem, “Palimpsest: The Deceitful Portrait.” It was, I’m sure, the first book of poetry I’d ever even opened, having read till then only those poems assigned to me from my textbooks by my teachers in school. I didn’t get much further than the first eighteen lines or so when I realized I was holding my breath. I sat down on the floor in the middle of the stacks and read them again, and again:
Well, as you say, we live for small horizons:
We move in crowds, we flow and talk together,
Seeing so many eyes and hands and faces,
So many mouths, and all with secret meanings,—
Yet know so little of them; only seeing
The small bright circle of our consciousness,
Beyond which lies the dark. Some few we know—
Or think we know. Once, on a sun-bright morning,
I walked in a certain hallway, trying to find
A certain door: I found one, tried it, opened,
and there in a spacious chamber, brightly lighted,
A hundred men played music, loudly, swiftly,
While one tall woman sent her voice above them
In powerful incantation… Closing then the door
I heard it die behind me, fade to whisper,—
And walked in a quiet hallway as before.
Just such a glimpse, as through that opened door,
Is all we know of those we call our friends.
The image of the woman whose music others could hear only if they bothered to open the door to the room where she was singing held me captive. On some level, I felt, she was me, I was her. Aiken’s poem gave me the experience of being known, being seen, being, in other words, recognized in a way that allowed me to recognize myself, and I understood something I had not understood before: that I experienced myself as voiceless, not because I had nothing to say, but because I didn’t think anyone would listen to me, or even that anyone who tried to listen would ever really hear me.
Now, of course, I understand this feeling of voicelessness–however much it may also have been a common experience of adolescence–to have been deeply rooted in the fact that I’d been sexually abused, that, no matter what else I might be trying to say, there were things to which I simply could not give voice because I did not yet have words for them. They were, at the time, for me, literally unspeakable. All I knew while I sat there reading Aiken’s poem, was that I had something to say, or at least that I wanted to have something to say, the way the woman in his lines had something to sing–and, most of all, I was determined to be heard. I didn’t know quite how, and didn’t know by whom, but Aiken’s lines named this desire for me, and I wanted to learn how, without even knowing me, he had done that. That’s when I started writing poetry, and, years later, when feminism helped me name my abuse as abuse, this second act of naming did not merely dovetail with my emerging identity as a poet. It gave that identity a form and substance I continue to explore to this day.
For my creative writing students, the main point of this revelation, I hope, is that they need to find what gives their desire to write form and substance, what matters to them enough that the time and energy they devote to naming it will have been worth it. For my Women’s Studies students, besides demonstrating on a personal level that my interest in the content of their course is not merely academic, and certainly not prurient, and in addition to whatever lessons about the explanatory power of feminism it might teach, I hope revealing that I am a survivor makes the feminist adage “the personal is politcal” come alive for them in a way that broadens the impact of the work we are going to do togther.
I don’t have these discussions with my students unless one of them asks a direct question to which revealing that I am a survivor is the only honest way to answer. I tell them that I’m going to reveal something very personal, which for some of them will likely fall into the category of “too much information,” but that it is the only honest answer I have to give them.1 I tell them I think they deserve that honesty–that, in fact, they should insist on it whenever and wherever possible, especially from anyone who presumes to have something to teach them, or who sets themselves up as a role model, or as a leader. Not only do I think students can learn from that kind of honesty lessons that will impact their lives far more profoundly than anything that comes from a textbook or class syllabus, but I think teachers, when we are willing to give those kinds of answers, learn lessons of our own that are just as profound. That has certainly been the case for me.
- Some of you may be wondering about whether, in the spirit of trigger warnings, I offer students the opportunity to leave the class if they need to, or some such thing. On the one occasion when my students wanted to discuss in class a piece of my writing that deals quite explicit with my own abuse, I did. I told students they did not need to come to class that day if they felt they couldn’t, and I told students who did come that if they felt like they needed to walk out during the discussion, they should feel free to do so. However, when it’s simply a matter of my revealing that I am a survivor—when the discussion, in other words, does not get graphic, and I am simply stating a fact about myself—I have not done the same thing. I simply warn them, as I described above. If the subsequent conversation were to develop beyond that, I would stop it and offer people the chance to leave if they felt the need to.