In the late 1980s, after struggling for years to write fiction and poetry, I stumbled on the possibilities of the personal essay. I was inspired and energized by the possibility of telling the truth about my life and experiences. It was a challenge to see how honest I could really be – how far I would go. There were things it seemed impossible to discuss in public. What the hell, I thought, and did it anyway. And once I did, I experienced the redemptive and sometimes thrilling powers of confession, which is what this essay celebrates. Later, after “Telling” became the title essay of my first collection from Random House, I experienced some of the less fun aspects of baring one’s life and soul, like being criticized for being exhibitionistic and seeking only to shock. Reading this essay 30-plus years later, I think I may in fact have gone a little overboard. Welcome to the “Oy Vey” edition of Telling, with illustrations.
Last summer I snapped the tip off my friend Anita’s new ninety-dollar chef’s knife by trying to use it to pry open a tin of Japanese horseradish. A triangle of metal flew into the mysterious void where small shiny things sometimes go.
I stared at the huge gleaming broken knife in my hand, and went into some kind of weird sociopathic state. I walked over to the sink, plunged the knife into the suds, pulled it out and exclaimed, Oh God, look what happened to the knife. It must have broken somehow in the sink.
Anita looked at me in a funny way, and then everyone rushed over to see what was going on. Don’t worry, Anita, they said, surely the store will replace it. A knife like that should stand up to a little use! You barely even had it one whole day.
If they don’t, I said, I’ll buy you a new one.
Why? asked Anita.
Oh, I just feel bad about it, I said.
Why? asked Anita. It’s not your fault.
I guess not, I said in my weird sociopathic voice.
I had a lousy time that night, then went home and suffered some more. As soon as I got up the next morning, disasters began to befall me with alacrity. I sprained my ankle, misplaced a savings bond, and spilled coffee grounds all over the kitchen. I knew it was just my bad karma for telling such a big honker lie to my friend and then sitting down at her dinner table with that lie between us like a dead fish on a platter with its yellow eyes staring.
The next morning, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I called Anita and told her the truth, which she of course had known all along. You are so silly, she said, and we both laughed, I perhaps more nervously than she. When I got off the phone, my ankle was miraculously healed and I found the savings bond right underneath my nose.
It was the perfect confession experience. I was off the hook, so to speak, precipitously pardoned and paroled, transformed from a bad person to a good person, just like that. My despicable crime had become a funny story, which I repeated to anyone who would listen.
I’m not claiming to be a truly honest person. If I were, I wouldn’t have lied to Anita about the knife in the first place. There’s a difference between being honest and telling. Where honesty is pure, telling expects results. At the very least, a bond between the teller and the tellee. At best, the big stuff: amnesty, redemption, grace.
As a child, I was jealous of Catholics, who had a beautiful lady in a blue robe to watch over them and forgive them no matter what. In my own religion, God did not have a mother or a girlfriend or female representatives on earth. Every girl in the Hebrew school pageant had to be Queen Esther or a pillar of salt.
When I did my best friend Carolyn Mahoney’s catechism homework for her, I was amazed. Saints, angels, babies in limbo, medals that could protect you against things: was this a religion or a magic show? What about this confession thing? Did they really go into a little booth, get down on their knees, describe their sins to a disembodied voice (Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!), say a few prayers and come out clean?
Just in case, I memorized the words to Hail Mary. I would say them over and over until the humming went straight down into my soul. But Hail Mary or no, I was not a Catholic. So who was going to give me absolution for trying to have sex with my cat?
If I couldn’t be redeemed, perhaps I could at least be understood or loved. To this end, I always found a special moment to confess to new acquaintances that I had tried to commit suicide when I was twelve. Not only did I feel that this explained my entire personality, but I also imagined it would bind my new friend to me inextricably, for life. If only out of fear that I would kill myself otherwise.
Unfortunately, the Awful Secret approach to interpersonal relationships often fell short of producing the desired result. For example, back in grade school, I was a compulsive wiggler. This was my word for it at the time. Every night in bed with my tattered stuffed bunny rabbit underneath me, I wiggled like a maniac. I couldn’t stop. The headboard of my bed banged against the wall, my sister across the room couldn’t get any sleep, and my mother would come in and say Jesus Christ, Stop that now!
The bunny’s ears fell off from all the abuse. One day I stayed after school to confess my problem to my beautiful blond-haired fifth-grade teacher, Miss Daly, perhaps confusing her with the Blessed Virgin. Her reaction was distant and embarrassed; she suggested I see the school psychiatrist. Didn’t she understand that I wanted to bond with her, not some strange man with a beard? I was glad when she left our school before the end of the year.
Years later, three high school friends of mine plotted and carried out the robbery of a convenience store. One of them was Alan Jacobson, infamous homecoming float coordinator and my personal impregnator. No matter what had happened between us, I was still in love with Alan; no matter what happened between us, he still didn’t love me. So I phoned in an anonymous tip to the police, and they got caught. Part of it was that I couldn’t keep a secret, part of it was revenge, but mostly I believe it was that I thought if he were in trouble he would need me more. When that didn’t work, I took the next logical step — I confessed to him what I had done.
Though you may think it unsurprising that this, too, failed to win me his adoration, it was a great blow to me at the time.
In elementary school, I had a subscription to the magazine Calling All Girls. One of my favorite parts of the publication was the department called “Was My Face Red!,” which featured descriptions of embarrassing experiences contributed by humiliated readers.
I sent ideas to this column frequently, though my letters were never published. I described the time I had walked in on another little girl sitting on the toilet in the basement lavatory of Wanamassa School. The green cinderblock walls, the light filtering through the casement window, the thin wooden door of the stall, the white anklets in their black Mary Janes dangling inches off the floor. I never even saw her face. Was it as red as mine? In another letter, I chronicled the mortification I had suffered the time my mother chaperoned our class trip to the Franklin Museum in Philadelphia. As we waited on line to get in, she spit on her finger to wipe a smudge off my cheek with the entire fifth grade watching.
By my pre-teen years, I had realized you could tell virtually anything to anyone if you put it in literary form. Forget Calling All Girls; I started my career as a poet right away. My primary themes included suicide, depression, insanity, unrequited love, the insignificance of human life, the cruelty of nature, and the Vietnam War. For my pen name, I chose Tracy Beth Richardson. My father had his secretary type up all my poems and bind them in a black three-ring notebook so that I could display my twisted little psyche to unwitting victims at a moment’s notice.
As the years went by, I expanded my range to include sex, swear words and shocking religious references. I discovered the poetry reading, the perfect vehicle for my exhibitionistic tendencies. At my first reading ever, I got on stage with several friends and their dogs. They held up large charcoal drawings of tampons and spaceships. The performance dealt with my sordid one-night stands, my hopeless romances, and my period. People loved it.
Dizzy with success, I replied to a classified ad seeking topless dancers. Could exposure redeem my imperfect body the way it had my flawed personality? I arrived at my audition with nothing to wear but my cotton underwear and high-top sneakers, had to use scotch tape instead of pasties, and selected some unbelievably slow Rod Stewart song for my music. It was probably the longest and most ridiculous six minutes of my life. Was my face red.
Even when one explains something as best one can, one can’t be sure what the listener actually heard. It is terrible to think one’s confessions have been misunderstood. One wakes up the next morning feeling marred, as if the person in the mirror is someone else. As if one were driving a personality with a broken windshield. As if there is something wrong with the light. These invigorating feelings are often combined with a hangover.
Yes, once again one has had too much to drink and could not be shut up all night long. One has lectured one’s friends about their faults. Criticized the way they treat their girlfriends. Chided them for not confiding their troubles, while boring them to tears with one’s own. Wound up the evening by sharing the exact price of their birthday presents.
For days, the half-remembered conversation looms large in one’s mind. Thinking, endlessly thinking, too much, too loud, too thoughtless, too silly, too dull. Plotting, endlessly plotting to be reinstated. Calling, endlessly calling, to rehash the thing on the phone. Writing, endlessly writing, newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, books of personal essays.
Finally one starts to feel a little better.
I think I should tell about the grocery store. Sometimes when something seems a little overpriced, I consider just slipping it into my bag. Then I picture myself being driven away in a police car, my children standing on the curb with tears on their cheeks. Later, in a cell, one arm cuffed to the bed, I write a letter to Dear Abby with the stub of a pencil. Sometimes this works, sometimes I find a mysterious tin of anchovies in my purse.
I make long-distance personal calls at work. Run letters through the postage meter. At one job I took home a bookshelf and a bunch of folding chairs. No one noticed. Sometimes I don’t wear my seat belt. Once, I made up a big lie about getting robbed in a taxicab and went on about it for days. I can’t even remember why anymore.
A long time ago, a counselor at camp used to play a song her brother had written on the guitar. I learned all the words and the chords. For years afterward, I told people I had written that song.
I was waiting in line to order a tall half-caf, half-decaf lowfat latte at an espresso bar in Boulder, Colorado. The hip-looking businessman in front of me — white shirt, shoulder-length hair, wire-rimmed shades — ordered an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie with his coffee. The barista raised his eyebrows knowingly. Back for that again? he asked.
It’s the best cookie in the world, the man told me as he turned to find a table. Don’t have one. It’s like a shot of cocaine in your arm. Once you do it, you can never stop. Never.
My eyes widened, in what probably appeared to them to be innocent amazement, though it was, on the contrary, informed amazement. It is a comparison you would never make unless you knew, and here he was, with his James Tayloresque receding hairline, saying he knew.
Naturally I ordered one, but the caloric little frisbee was not the same for me as it was for him. For me, the shot of cocaine is the act of revelation, be it mine or the cookie man’s or that of the mild-mannered marketing consultant who told me, as we sat waiting for the check after an ordinary work-related round of cocktails, how he managed to eliminate his main rival in winning the heart of the woman to whom he is married.
After asking him personal questions for several minutes, I had wandered onto the subject of how he met his wife. His detailed response surprised and pleased me, but what I will never forget is what he described as ” the turning point.” Kristy and I were in the bar where she worked, and this guy who she used to date was sort of hovering around us, insulting me and trying to get her to leave with him. Very calmly, I just reached over and put out my cigarette in his hand.
Jesus, what a rush. I could hardly believe this guy had ever smoked, much less that he had mutilated someone for love, or that he would tell me about it, with that unmistakable mixture of pride and nonchalance and irony and sheepishness and need. I looked back into his eyes and gave him everything he wanted. Suddenly, we were not alone.