In the past couple years, I’ve written essays about writing bondage erotica at the age of thirteen, suffering from bipolar II, and idly standing by while my Nazi cousin nearly killed a man for being black. Once, I wrote an essay on bisexuality in which I was tied to a bed having trouble climaxing while being attended to by a man, trying to prove to myself that I could just be gay, but the problem was that I only could finish when I thought about Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
In other words, I write about the kinds of things parents love to read about their children.
Long before I was a writer, editor and teacher, I was a grad student in political science and a lackey for the Democratic Party. I was going to singlehandedly save the world, if I could, because it was the Bush years, the world was in apocalyptic shape, and I’d watched way too many superhero movies.
While working for a congresswoman, it was beat into me that everything I did in my life was a reflection on her. Every story we told and every action we took had to be approved of in writing by her Chief of Staff. It all had to be a part of a carefully orchestrated campaign to shape an image.
As part of the job, I met some soldiers and Marines coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injury. I saw men with dents in the sides of their skulls, missing limbs and eyes and ears, so angry—and justifiably so—that I was sometimes afraid to be in the room with them, who kept asking me to help them, to fix this. Men who really didn’t know what to ask for because what they wanted—for this never to have happened—was impossible
I quit that job to go to grad school in upstate New York, but those stories stayed with me. I hid from the Syracuse snow in an old bomb shelter they’d turned into student offices, torturing regression analyses to show how America uses war to get each new generation involved in civic engagement—how we have gotten to a point where we need war to survive as a polity. It may or may not have been true, but I was doing this not to get to any sort of scientific truth but to craft compelling propaganda.
One May, I climbed out of the bomb shelter to take a week-long creative nonfiction course with a writer named Minnie Bruce Pratt. The first day, she laid out our project: we were to write, and we were to write honestly. She told us stories from her history: in the 1970s and 1980s, in a time when same-sex love could land you in jail and cost you custody of your children, she was leading lesbian-themed poetry readings that galvanized communities everywhere from New York to the deep south. In many places, these readings were not embraced by the authorities.
Can you imagine police breaking up a poetry reading?
She also told us to remember something else: everything we put on paper has the potential to be read by someone, has the potential to be read by the wrong someone, and this could have dire and real consequences for our lives.
This was the power of the personal narrative, I realized. It can create and mold and heal, and it can destroy.
I quit politics and started studying creative writing.
I sent my mother the essay about bisexuality before it was published. I was not expecting it to be well received. I told her she wouldn’t want to read it. She wanted to read it, she said. When I saw her response in my inbox, I turned off my computer and spent an hour stress-eating Cheez-Its. I was expecting a lecture on how I was ruining my job prospects, how I might be ruining my future, how I should’ve taken the job offer the congresswoman had given me rather than saying fuck it and paying to go to graduate school.
But she wrote back this instead:
“Seth, this is wonderful, powerful work. Mainly, I have this mix of being proud of your courage and sad that you have had to suffer… Our brains just need to get better and bigger to enlarge the either/or to AND. ”
I’d been terrified to send this to her, expecting smallness out of her, expecting the worst. Instead, I got the best sort of wisdom. Instead, I got the best reason I’d ever heard for writing about the most intimate details of our lives.
A few days later, when it was published on the Internet, I heard from nearly 1000 people, all saying “Thank you for telling this story. No one is telling my story. I feel like maybe now I can tell my story.”
And that, quite possibly, is the thing I’m most proud of in the world.
One of the men on the Traumatic Brain Injury Unit, Lance Corporal Jason Poole, once said to me:
“I walk around, and a whole bunch of strangers are just staring at me. Because I look like a war. My face is all scarred up, you know? Scars all over my body. So this stranger, he’ll look at me, he’ll look forward, then he looks at me again. ‘Sorry,’ and then he walks on. But he’s thinking, ‘I wonder what happened to his face?’ … But I’m a very open person, so if anybody is just like, ‘Hey, what’s wrong? What happened to your face?’ you know. I would love to tell them.”
Jason is way ahead of most of us because he’s an inspiration, but also because he has to be. Most of us walk around telling sanitized versions of our lives because no one can see our scars. Every human I’ve ever met has manipulated their image in order to succeed and survive. We have to. I’m not about to mention my bipolar disorder in a job interview. My essays have cost me clients, and some day they may cost me more than that. Some people can’t tell their stories honestly because it could cost them their lives, careers or children, which is why this has to be a choice that each of us makes for ourselves. But I also think sometimes, we’re more afraid than we need to be. Often, though not always, we will find that the world is much kinder to us than we would expect, that it will move to fit our truth once we tell it, because we are making it safer for other people around us to tell the truth, too.