Owning the Ugly, Part 2

Running in circles, http://www.carolineallen.com

I was listening to NPR the other day to an interview with Eve Ensler who in 1996 wrote the Vagina Monologues. The monologues led to the development of V-Day, a global non-profit movement that has raised millions for women’s anti-violence groups around the world.

Ensler was being interviewed on On Point, discussing her new book “I Am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World“ about the years she’s spent traveling the world performing the Vagina Monologues, in the Congo, India, etc. She opened with a monologue on women’s intuitive/emotional power and made an impassioned plea against the rape and mutilation happening to girls and women all over the world.

When she’d finished, I could tell that host Tom Ashbrook felt she’d gone too far. I could tell he thought she was exagerating the pain women feel. I could tell he felt the world SHOULD be a safe place for girls, that in his experience it WAS a safe place, so why can’t we all just say it’s a safe place and be done with it. Later, Ashbrook through a caller’s question confronted Ensler about being too “negative” about what women have to go through.

Listening to the program had a profound affect on me. I’d personlly witnessed that kind of denial before.

I flashed back to when I moved back to the States in 1993 from London. I’d been a journalist abroad for years, editing for Tokyo newspapers, working as a travel writer for a year through Asia and finally as a journalist and editor in London. When I came back to the US, when I moved to Seattle, I noticed immediately that people wanted to put a politically correct spin on any difficult story I had to tell. These weren’t difficult stories about me, but tales about what I’d seen happen to women in the Orient, Asia and Europe. Everybody seemed to want to clean the stories up. If they listened at all, they’d retell the story after I’d finished, and revise them to make them more palatable. Soon I started to shut down. I became the smiling quiet girl in the corner of the table. I couldn’t compete with the white wall of smiling happiness that seemed to preclude any real dialogue around world issues.

I went on a date with a well-educated liberal man, who seemed on the surface to be fit and sane. When I discussed women’s plight in the 3rd world, he shut me down, said women had it better than men anywhere in the world, that he knew that from experience, his experience being having never lived anywhere but Seattle.

I stared at him across the table at the Greek restaurant in the Fremont district. What would it take to reach over and puncture the bubble he’d put himself into? Why was he, and so many people in America putting themselves into smiling happy bubbles?

There’s a short story I love, whose name and author escape me at the moment, where the whole town is smiling and happy, and you discover that they keep one “crazy person” in a locked room across town. The town inhabitants go to stare at the person. The moral being that if we don’t own the crazy, if we lock it away, the whole town goes deeply mad.

I know there’s a lot of bad news out there. I was a newsroom journalist – I know firsthand how toxic and horrific these stories can feel. But I also worry about what happens to us when we protect ourselves from the truth, from the suffering that people go through, from the 13-year old girl gang-raped in the Congo to the person sitting across from me on the bus in downtown Boston.

What danger is there in denying the ugly? When I refuse to see others’ pain, what sort of lopsided scary world am I creating? How can we possibly be full-fledged writers or artists? Won’t our work suffer? Won’t such denial turn our novels and memoir sickly sweet like a bad bottle of wine? Can’t we own the ugly and weave the texture of ALL of humanity’s experience into the pages?

I just know that I’m exhausted with sitting around smiling and nodding.

I’m a writing coach and offer a free initial consultation, http://www.artofstorytellingonline.com


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