Write me: rjn@richardjnewman.com
<span class="dquo">“</span>You’re a Man. Why Are You Teaching Women’s Studies?”
For me, the most dif­fi­cult part of refus­ing to be silent about the fact that I am a sur­vivor of child­hood sex­u­al vio­lence has been fig­ur­ing out when and under what cir­cum­stances to reveal it to my stu­dents at the com­mu­ni­ty col­lege where I teach. Some of you read­ing this may think that noth­ing could jus­ti­fy such a rev­e­la­tion, and, for at least the first half of the near­ly thir­ty years I’ve been teach­ing, I agreed with you. Not only did I see the fact that I am a sur­vivor as part of my per­son­al life and there­fore not at all rel­e­vant to who I am pro­fes­sion­al­ly, but I also wor­ried that telling my stu­dents would, by reveal­ing myself so inti­mate­ly and vul­ner­a­bly, vio­late the pro­fes­sion­al bound­ary it is my respon­si­bil­i­ty to main­tain, poten­tial­ly under­min­ing my author­i­ty as a teacher and threat­en­ing the integri­ty of my class­room. Then, in 2001, I changed my mind, decid­ing to share my his­to­ry with two stu­dents, each of whom chose to trust me by reveal­ing that she was her­self a sur­vivor and then ask­ing me to help her learn how to make that iden­ti­ty and that sub­ject mat­ter part of the writer she want­ed to be. I wrote about that expe­ri­ence and how it changed my life here.

 

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.

  1. 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. []

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: