Saturday, May 27, 2006

Anne Lamott vs. Her Critics


Anne Lamott isn't the kind of writer whom I ordinarily like; I prefer gloomy European eggheads. But during the first few weeks of Liko’s life, Shelly and I took turns reading aloud Lamott's classic memoir Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, which we found to be hilarious and helpful.

Since then I’ve taken to reading her columns in Salon.com and I’ve really started to like the woman. It’s worth noting that Lamott does seem to be a little bit of a high-maintenance loon, but her writing is so amusingly human and relentlessly honest that I (for one) am willing to take her as she comes.

On May 22 she published a column in Salon detailing an “ugly and insane” confrontation with her now-17-year-old son Sam. Rather than quoting, I’ll let you read it. Sufficed to say that the column is full of anguish and pain at her son’s bad attitude and the turn their relationship has taken in his teenage years, and pivots on a slap Lamott delivers in a moment of weakness. It’s a common story – I was Sam, once upon a time, maybe even a little bit worse – and Lamott tells her side as candidly as she can. She doesn’t make herself look good, either. That’s part of the point.

The column provoked (at this writing) nearly 400 comments from Salon readers, many of them sanctimonious (“it takes a lot of something -- hell knows what -- to slap another person in the face”), laughably misguided (“what would people be saying if he’d been the one who slapped her in the face?”), self-righteous (“you’re a beater”), and sometimes even misogynist (“someone really needs to take this cupcake out behind the shed and slap her around”). Other Salon readers ably rebutted the worst comments, so I won’t add to the chorus.

But here’s what most struck a nerve with me: many commentators also condemned Lamott for writing at all about her son. “Lamott… has made a habit of cannibalizing her son's life for profit,” writes one person. “Violating your son's privacy by sharing this story here is a bigger mistake,” writes another, “and one that I don't think I would have EVER forgiven my parents for had they ever written about my foolish adolescent misdeeds in a public forum read by millions of readers.”

Since starting Daddy Dialectic in March, I’ve received two emails from people who called the blog “exploitative” for writing about my experience taking care of Liko; my critics even seem to be under the impression that I write Daddy Dialectic for some kind of financial gain. To which I reply: Ha! You have no idea what you’re talking about.

And so my first instinct was to side with Lamott; the first draft of this blog entry consisted of a defense of Lamott’s right and even duty to write honestly about her experience as a single mom.

However, in the process I thought a great deal about the limits, real and potential, that I impose on what I share and don’t share in Daddy Dialectic. Liko is still a toddler and so there is nothing I can write here that will reverberate in his social and emotional life; he’s just a little guy with little-guy problems, like learning to sleep through the night. The point of the blog is to document my own responses as a primary caregiver and think politically about my experience, based on the assumption that a dad-at-home is still a relatively new social phenomenon and therefore worth writing about.

However, there is a gigantic no-fly zone in Daddy Dialectic: my wife Shelly, who seldom appears except in passing. The reason is simple: she doesn’t want me writing about her. She and I have never discussed this, but after 14 years together, I instinctively understand that Shelly doesn’t want me talking about her or our relationship in any depth with a bunch of strangers, or even with friends.

And so you’ll never read in Daddy Dialectic about an argument we just had and any of my petty dissatisfactions as a husband. If, God forbid, one of us slapped the other in a moment of rage, you, dear reader, will just never hear about it. And I think that as Liko grows older, you’re probably not going to hear about our most painful growing-up moments. (There are, incidentally, ways to write about parenting in the teenage years that are respectful and appropriately distant. See, for example, the Daddychip blog.)

In the end, I guess I have to agree with some of Lamott’s more thoughtful critics, that in writing about an altercation with her teenage son, she might have showed poor judgment.

But here’s the thing: anything I write about my relationships with my wife and son, or any member of my family, is between me and them. Reading about one isolated incident in the life of a family is not license for the reader to judge an entire person or entire relationship, the way Lamott’s critics have done. Lamott showed courage in writing so frankly about her experience, and that should be honored even as we politely question her judgment.

Writers who share and explore their experiences perform a socially necessary task that our society rewards in various ways, through pay and prestige. It’s hypocritical to read Lamott’s writing and derive meaning from it, and then turn around and criticize her for writing at all. Lamott might (we’re not in a position to know for sure) have damaged her son and her relationship with her son by writing about their life together, but it can be simultaneously true that the column is useful to us as readers. Certainly, as the father of a future teenager, I read it very carefully, as a warning. For that, Lamott has my respect and gratitude.

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One last, different note. Like many of you, this morning I read details of the latest massacre in Iraq perpetrated by American troops: “The 24 Iraqi civilians slain on Nov. 19 included children and women who were trying to shield them, witnesses told a Washington Post correspondent in Haditha this week and U.S. investigators said in Washington. The girls killed inside Khafif's house were ages 14, 10, 5, 3 and 1, according to death certificates.”

Imagine, right now, soldiers kicking down your door and murdering your children before your eyes. All of us as American taxpayers helped murder those girls; we paid for the guns. Wherever you are and whatever the circumstances of your life, do what you can to speak out against the war. It has to stop.

10 comments:

Mom101 said...

Oh the poor memoirist. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. It's so easy for people to condemn authors for mining their lives for the stories everyone wants to read. and yet what they don't understand is that to a writer, speaking one's truth is an imperative.

As for part 2, I can hardly comment without getting all angry and riled up just before bedtime. This war sickens me for every reason. We just finished watching Jarhead (solid B) and while heavy-handed, the line one Marine uttered to celebrate the end of Desert Storm, "Yay! We'll never have to come back to this shithole ever again" - well that punched me right in the gut.

chip said...

thanks for the props! Part of what motivates me is knowing that if I blog about anything that would embarrass my kids they would kill me! Seriously though, this is one of the reasons my blog is totally anonymous, no one knows about it except my wife and kids.

I think the Lamott piece is powerful writing and really hits the nail on the head so much about living with your teenager. And all writers draw on their real lives. But on the other hand, once your kids hit teenage years especially I think we as writers have to respect them and their privacy. Since she is not anonymous, I'd hope she at least got some kind of okay from her son about this ...

On part two, I second mom101's sentiments.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Actually, in retrospect I might have launched Daddy Dialectic anonymously -- this thought came to me when I was a finalist for a fellowship, and the fellowship director (who had, of course, googled me in the course of due diligence) brought up several blog posts and even said that she had forwarded one to her boyfriend! I didn't ultimately get the fellowship, but I doubt the blog had anything to do with it.

But the blog affects all my relationships, personal and professional, in ways I hadn't expected. I guess I could scrap it and start over, but so far the impact on my life has been mostly positive.

I might, hee, blog about this in the future.

For the record, Lamott has said elsewhere that she always checks with Sam before she publishes anything with him in it. I think you have to assume that at 17 his opinion on what to publish is legitimate. He (and his friends) might even think it's cool, which doesn't seem to occur to Lamott's critics. However, I still think that, even with his explicit permission, it's very, very risky to publish such intimate details, which can have unintended consequences.

Incidentally, someone (in real life, which does exist) asked me why it was "laughably misguided" to draw equivalence between Sam slapping his mother and Lamott slapping Sam. I just don't think it's the same thing at all. Corporal punishment has been part of childrearing since time began and only in the past 50 years has it been called into question in any widespread way. It's still a common practice outside of affluent urban areas. Whether you agree with it or not (and for the record, I hope I never strike Liko in any way), you have to admit that it is a part of many cultures, and no matter what, a 17-year-old son striking his mother is simply not OK, on so many different levels. My parents smacked me and my brother from time to time, when we were being jerks. Each case differed. Maybe it was right, maybe it was wrong, but if anyone called my parents "beaters" (as her critics have called Lamott) I would be the first to tell them that s/he is wrong.

It seems to me that Lamott's error in this case was that she struck him in anger and then fled the scene weeping. It was an emotional collapse and failure in parenting. She should have walked away, cooled off, and come back to deliver whatever punishment fit the crime. In saying that, I'm not really criticizing Lamott; instead I'm trying to draw a lesson out of her story that will help me in my life as a parent.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

What a thoughtful post.

In retrospect I wish I'd used pseudonyms for my kids, who are 4 and 2. I live in a fairly small town and every time I meet someone new, I think: will they recognize my kids names & put me together with my blog? I do write things on the blog that I wouldn't tell strangers. Also, it wouldn't be hard to find out who we are and, you know, stalk us or something.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

There's a good comment by Toronto Star reporter Andrea Gordon on Lamott's essay at http://thestar.blogs.com/parenting/2006/06/the_slap_heard_.html.

Lela Davidson said...

I loved your post and the comments here. As a writer who's called to write about personal life, it is a tricky balance to know just how much is too much. However, I think Lamott's essay provoked so much anger because people are in denial. We all screw up, but some people admit it more freely than others. It can be scary to think of the ways in which we might fail.

Anonymous said...

My son and his best friend joined the Army together one day after playing with their RC cars. Just kids. One needing to get money for college. He was blown up by an IED in Iraq on my son's birthday. Offensive war is wrong and all war is bad. But do be kind.

Anonymous said...

You are a good writer, Jeremy! Maybe as good as Annie LaMott. You might end up doing a book on your dad-at-home experiences!

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

I don't know if you're kidding around, Anonymous, but in fact I am writing a book about stay-at-home dads--it's less about me, however, and more about twenty or so dads and moms that I interviewed, as well as the larger trends that made reverse-traditional families possible. It's called "Twenty-First-Century Dad," and it will be out from Beacon Press sometime in late 2009. You can learn more about it at http://www.jeremyadamsmith.com/work4.htm

Anonymous said...

You may be receiving this years after you write it but here goes. I am taking my MDiv and Anne Lamott's book Plan B was required reading for a course. After one very vivid description of an argument with get son I quite literally had to put the book down as I felt physically sick. I could not believe that she would behave like that and feel completely free in sharing it. At one point she calls her thirteen year old ruined. I now have to write a paper knowing that my teacher idolizes this woman while I loathe her. My judgement if her comes from her description of her abuse if her child. No amount of humour can wash away the words and actions she has taken against her child. I am very challenged by this.