“An honorable human relationship—that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’—is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.
It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.
It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity.
It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.” —Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence
When we say something or someone is “being vulnerable,” we sometimes mean that they’re divulging heartfelt inner truths without self-censorship. This word choice, however sensitively we dispatch it, also connotes that they’re exposing themselves to be attacked: Its Latin root is vulnus, which translates to wound. Some of us have learned, growing up, that hermetically sealing your thoughts inside yourself is a mode of self-protection. At the risk of sounding logically flimsy: This is right and wrong.
Of course, it doesn’t always serve us to be vulnerable, especially as members of a gender too often dismissed (by mow-rons) as shrill, hysterical, overly emotional, and frivolously heart-motivated by those who would like to see their MALE-ASS PROFESSIONALISM AND STOIC SELF-CONTROL as some indication that they’re better leaders than we are. Not only men do this—how many times have you heard a would-be sister in arms say, “I can’t hang out with other girls. Too much DRAMA,” as though Henry VIII didn’t straight-up decapitate his wives when he didn’t get his way, not a single college football Man Fan has ever rioted in the streets because a ball didn’t go the direction they wanted the ball to go in, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton never squared off with pistols at dawn, and every song by a dude on the radio isn’t called, like, “Bitch (I Think You Are One, and I Want to Kill You Because You Don’t Love Me—Hurt Feelings Remix)”?
Still, it’s women who are condemned in high-school tropes, studies on professional affect, and maligned in novels by guys (named all sorts of interesting things from the gamut of “John” to “Jonathan”), for being JUST TOO GODDAMN TALK-A-BUNCH, JEEZ, LADY, STOP CRYIN’ ON MY HYPER-ASTUTE DICK WHILE I’M TRYING TO BE SMARTER THAN YOU!! Those who buy the lie that dudes are the sole containers of the world’s allotment of power and intelligence are also buying into a mass selfishness that says, “Your inner knowledge doesn’t matter. Shut the fuck up, you oversharer—you have no right to talk about your own life.” That selfishness comes from the fear that there is only room for one kind of experience in this world, and that, in talking about lives lived aberrantly from that dominant default one as valid, the dominance of that default will be toppled. This is exactly why you need to do it. It’s the opposite of “self-indulgent,” the main criticism that is often leveled at people, and especially women, who speak. It is an agitation for more room for everyone, men included, to live more freely and generously as their exact selves.
It’s hard to get started when you might not have good references of when this has worked out well in the past. The idea that talking frankly about feelings = bad implies a distrust of the people in your life, and life on the whole—it’s an implicit way of expressing the thought, How could anyone POSSIBLY have the empathy or wherewithal to get the staggeringly complex work of genius and cool-guyism that is me? I don’t doubt that you ARE a complex person, but that’s because so too is everyone else.
No one starts out as a kid wanting to be cruel or lacking in understanding for others, and many of us (I hope) still valorize kindness. So when we think of love and friendship and just how to be a decent, empathetic person in the world, are we thinking, Oh, I got it! Relationships should be a petty system of slamming the crypt door on a potentially edifying and sweet interaction with an acquaintance, methodically not texting someone you care for back to convey that they aren’t a priority to you (even though they are), and/or subtly insulting a person in our friend group to place ourselves on the winning side of a power imbalance, or are we thinking, I would like to find someone who understands me (and vice versa), to whom I can be helpful and sweet (and vice versa), and who makes me feel happier and more supported just by virtue of being themselves (and vice versa)? The latter…r-right?
I think the problem is that the examples of LOVE: A USER’S GUIDE some of us are given as children and teenagers by our friends and families so often evince the former. That is so sad to me. I always assumed I would be hurt by other people rather than understood by them, so I preemptively shut down those I wanted to impress or otherwise prove myself to—these were known, collectively, as “everyone on Earth.” I decided that I would never lay my tender or “deviant” truths open to potential besiegement—even to myself—after a particularly bad raid on my fifth-grade journal. One day in class, a jerkulux swiped my notebook and performed a recital of my innermost thoughts at the front of the room, giving a new and exciting theatrical voice to my mammoth, private terror about some…trouble my family was going through.
Rather than an egregiously cruel and morally dubious breach of privacy, this was apparently considered the most uproarious comedic revue that had ever taken place at Washington Elementary, based on my peers’ reactions (even though, just the year before, I had performed a lip-synched dance routine to Smash Mouth’s “All Star” at the school variety show that I was convinced was pretty bitchin’ at the time). As the room howled about the idea that my family was reeling with sadness and trauma, the message was clear: You are a puny feelings-haver who can’t hang—plus, you come from bad stock, and your low and dented-up life is worthy of our scorn and hatred. I felt really fantastic about it!! Nah, I ran out of the room and cried myself ragged in the girls’ room, much to everyone’s horror and embarrassment. This, of course, only amplified their laughter—like, THAT’S what happens when you cop to having an emotional response to hardship and then get found out? I GUESS I HAD BETTER JEER REALLY HARD AT IT SO THAT I NEVER HAVE TO STANCH THE FLOW OF MY OWN TORMENTED CRYFEST WITH SCRATCHY TWO-PLY.
From Wayne Koestenbaum’s life-ordering (his and mine) essay “My 1980s,” in which he recounts the autobiographical facts of a decade he spent as a young-o, and his reticence to speak plainly about what his life has been:
“Too many of these sentences begin with the first-person-singular pronoun. Later, I may jazz up the syntax, falsify it.”
As an adolescent, my methods of interpersonal self-curtailment and -decoration became the same as Wayne K.’s jazzed-up syntax: I cultivated the nasty habit of gulping back whatever it was I was feeling when it would have served me well to be a little more forthright. When I was 15, I went to a party at a nearby college, where, stoned out of my gourd, I leaned against a pitted pool table in someone’s wet-feeling basement. I was intimidated at how easy everyone else could access the fun going on all around us and enjoy one another, but instead of risking being unveiled as The Girl With the Perpetual Nervousness, I didn’t even try to engage with anyone, lest I fuck up. Of course, this has a certain draw to it—when you hang back at a social function, there are those who find fun and sport in trying to FIGURE YOUR MYSTERIOUS ’N’ BROODING ASS ON OUT, especially if you’re a girl. This type of social attaché loves to “solve” people, especially a surly or aloof female one to whose errant attentions they feel entitled. This is not a method of hearing your truth as a matter of honoring and allowing room for it, but instead, of harnessing and owning it. This person wants to be its sole master, as though you are an impetuous horse to be broken.
But…I still think that the guy who came up to me that night and started a conversation was just being gregarious and trying to draw in the drugged little cretin examining a cue ball as if it would suddenly swirl with her fortune and reveal life’s greatest truths. I probably want to give him credit because his face was an arrangement of perfect, wrenching geometry, and I was coming to the realization, watching it swim up to me, that I didn’t actually hate math—a miracle unforeseen in my pool-table soothsaying. “How do you know the guys in Sea Creature?”
High and insecure (how I spent the whole of my teenage years before I figured out that the two conditions were in bed with each other and stopped smoking pot), I had no idea what to say back. Instead of responding simply—“the singer is my friend’s brother”—I was terrified of sounding facile, so I decided to clam up, an oversimplified sea creature myself: “I don’t.”
He persisted as I looked away, locking my bloodshot eyes to the pockmarked topography of the pool table’s dirty green felt and putting up my hair with my hands (a nervous habit that I decided was sultry-looking as a kid and now understand, too late to break it, is semaphore pointing to my own skittishness). A few minutes into this rudeness, Math Mouth tilted his head and said, with a crescent or parenthetical of a smile (I was seeing the connections between the shape of the universe and the mathematical order of operations SO HARD, you guys, fuck a cue ball, this was an EPIPHANY and also I was so so so faded): “You hold yourself a certain way. You’re always posing.”
It sucked that he was right. I was literally hitting marks as I mimed the construction of a ponytail! (I have an unerring and innate understanding of what “look seductive” means—turns out it’s been obsessively feigning hairstyles all this time!!) “What a weird thing to say,” I drawled, but we both knew the conversation was over. The guy at the party excused himself a few moments later when I still couldn’t break out of my clamshell—the hardened part that seals away the living thing inside. I might have had a nice conversation that night, but instead, I was relegated to watching an atrocious band and some billiard balls by myselch. How radical, laid-back, and not-at-all pathetic, to choose to spend the ever-winnowing amount of time that you get to be conscious on this planet that way!
I felt exposed—and, bizarrely, relieved by this chance meeting in the cellar: There was the un-jazzed-up truth of my misleading and cowardly brittleness, at last. I know that in retrospect, this interaction was…look, it was real dumb and hackneyed, and Math Blaster seems like a presumptuous dick for trying to break down the truth of me, to me, if I squint a little harder (or a little less hard). Still….he had something of a point. I wasted so much of my life misunderstanding a similar kind of, “ONE DAY I’LL FIND SOMEONE WHO CAN SEE THE REAL ME” revelation as the kind of inborn closeness and affection I pined for—in friends; in family members; in undergraduates with celestial-grade Golden Ratio faces—without realizing that, nah, everyone can see it. That the “real you” is being standoffish and gruff to them, and that it’s coming from fear. Justifiably, no one wants to love someone who’s always posing (unless you are a glamorous fashion model who makes their living doing just that—people probably want to date you. After all, you can do all the sexiest “assembling your hair into a temporary pretend updo” moves and other nervous-tic/catalog favorites). How is a person supposed to identify with and/or appreciate the unique personality of a mannequin? And: Isn’t it a little lonesomeness-inducing to try in the first place? (I’ve never seen that one Ryan Gosling movie, but if anyone tries to brandish it as a twee little answer to this question, I will bite you on the hand.) Intimacy isn’t, after all, “inborn”—it’s carefully, reciprocally earned.