“What do I get?” I put on my best photo smile, an ear to ear grin.
Steve was a jovial looking nurse, with rosy cheeks that reminded me of a leprechaun crossed with Santa on a diet. “I love it. You’re leaving tomorrow, right? Maybe I’ll take a picture tomorrow. I’m gonna miss that, Smiles.”
It was a very odd feeling, trading my smile for DVDs. My strange, temporary clique had sent me as an ambassador because, not falsely, they believed that the nurses liked me because I was a pretty girl. I wasn’t like those patients. I had never really been asked to smile on the street or at the bar. Here though, in the psych ward, I had never been so aware of my gender and my race - and how the perception of me as an Asian woman was impacting my experiences.
When you’re on the outside, "the system" can feel amorphous, pervasive, and intangible. In reality, that world is small. You are physically confined to what amounts to a huge high school detention hall. You live in what are essentially dorm rooms. You are at the mercy of the kindness of a team of nurses to receive your anxiety medications, a golf pencil, toiletries. (And in this ward, it was the nurses who doled out “shots,” what we termed fast acting sedative injections, and decided who would be held in the seclusion room and for how long.)
The machinations of oppression operated on such a small scale in the psych ward, and their latent manifestations were so immediate and apparent. There was nowhere to escape to. There were no safe spaces. There was no place to hide from the vagaries of that tiny world.
I could never forget my womanhood in the ward. It wasn’t just the constant sexual harassment or the ongoing struggle to keep men’s advances at bay. I had been at this hospital a few years back, when another patient had managed to walk into my room and jumped on me in what would best be described as attempted rape. Eventually, some nurses and mental health workers ran in and tackled him off of me, but my attacker remained in my ward - in direct opposition to what the nurses had told me. They informed me he had been moved, but another patient told me he was down the hall in seclusion. On my way to an EKG in the physician's office, I saw his face peering out from one of the seclusion rooms. He stared. He said simply: "Hello." He smirked.
I didn't make it through the EKG. The treatment team said I was creating a bunch of hub bub for no good reason, placed me on some blood pressure medications to prevent PTSD, and moved me to the geriatric side of the unit for a couple of days until he was finally transferred elsewhere. I remember sitting on the floor of the “happy room” in the geriatric ward as I sobbed, glowing lights and stuffed animals around me, as my then-boyfriend held me as long as he could. Until they made him leave.
There was also a very literal race divide in the ward. I have been to some that have been almost exclusively white; these hospitals tend to have more empathetic nurses and more amenities. But this hospital was a pretty even mix of Black and white patients - in addition to, of course, my lone, strange Asianness. And Black and white patients were treated differently.
There was a seriously deranged patient, a scrawny white male, who would literally run out of the seclusion room naked and try to punch people. Another older white male threw a chair. A tall redhead tried to punch a nurse. These patients were placed in seclusion for brief periods of times. But there was also the skinny Black girl next door to me who kept getting shots - for no reason I could figure out. There a tall, husky Black man who was picked on and put in seclusion over and over for behaviors that I never found that obtrusive.
White people are the blank slate that are allowed to have malfunctioning synapses and thought processes. People of color have broad strokes painted over their every behavior. Because we are expected to act a certain way, we are not allowed to deviate without punishment. When we are able to act “abnormally,” it is because of what society has delegated as our problems.
I have had psychiatrists repeatedly assume that I am depressed or anxious because my parents put too much academic pressure on me. Anything outside of the assumed parameters causes discomfort. When Tanisha Anderson was having a manic episode, when Deborah Danner, Joseph Mann and Alfred Olango were acting erratically, when Charles Kinsey was taking care of an autistic child, it was the police that intervened, even when emergency services were called and/or the 911 call noted that the person in question had a mental illness. In these cases, shots were fired, most of them fatal. It has been noted that police are particularly poorly equipped to handle mental health crises when the victim is Black, and while Black Americans do indeed lack access to mental health care and have fewer resources, the larger picture is that people of color, particularly Black people, are simply not afforded this “privilege.” When a Black person acts outside the confines of “normal” behavior, these actions are viewed as acts of aggression.
When you are a mentally ill woman of color, the world tells you that many of your identities and struggles are invalid. The mentally ill are often not believed; "it’s all in your head” or “think positive” are phrases that echo back to us that we are not trusted to tell our own stories. When recounting micro-aggressions or even overt racism, people of color are seen as exaggerating small incidents or simply making a big deal out of nothing. When women recount sexual harassment they're told it was "just a joke," and they're accused of lying when coming forward with their stories of rape.
In an age where the President-Elect chooses a white nationalist to be his Chief Strategist, where the face of our country condones sexual assault, I have become increasingly worried about what people of color, especially women, will face - and what suffering will be demanded of us. Will we have to be on “best behavior” even more?
I am a mentally ill person of color. I try my hardest everyday. As with many Americans, I have been struggling to prevent myself from feeling further dehumanized. But even if we cannot be afforded our dignity, I only hope that we may be able to heal and recover with our lives intact.
On Monday, Laura Bennett’s Slate piece on the boom of first-person essay writing sparked a fierce online debate between editors and writers: how can one best work between the vulnerability of a writer and the traffic goal of an editor? What’s the line between publishing someone’s personal experience and exploitation?
In response to Bennett’s piece, we asked senior editors at several publications known for publishing first-person stories about what they value in them, how they look after their writers, and why it is that so many confessional stories seem to be written by women, and not men.
Doree Shafrir, ideas editor, BuzzFeed
It’s a mischaracterization to say that first-person essays have “traditionally” been written by women. (A quick glance at Philip Lopate’s canonical anthology The Art of the Personal Essay should dispel that myth.) But the internet’s democratization of voices – allowing writers, particularly women and writers of color, access to platforms and audiences previously unavailable to them, and the ability to tell their own stories – has led to anxiety among some gatekeepers of culture.
So when I assign essays like Jennifer Chen’s Why I Didn’t Want My Miscarriage to Stay Secret or Kristin Chirico’s My Boyfriend Loves Fat Women, both of which are incredibly thoughtful, smart explorations by women of formerly taboo subjects, I’m also thinking about how I can give people access to the huge platform that BuzzFeed offers.
I don’t keep track of the gender breakdown of our personal essay pitches – I’m more thinking about whether the writer is telling a compelling story that we haven’t heard before, and/or telling a story in a unique voice or with a perspective we haven’t heard before.
Latoya Peterson, editor at large, Fusion
We are not interested in people searching for meaning in their navels. There are plenty of otherlife experiences to explore that do not get enough attention.
This overshare, gross-out phenomenon of “first-person writing” is generally a door that leads to more fame and work for white women. It is selling pieces of yourself to get bylines. This route to publication and a book/movie deal simply is not open for non-white women. Society sees women of color’s shameless writing as proof of deviance, not a relatable and fun story to share on social media.
This route to publication and a book/movie deal simply is not open for non-white womenLatoya Peterson
The backlash, when we do open up in that way, is normally immediate and often includes a Twitter referendum on how we are failing the race.
I may have missed it, but I can’t think of a woman of color who became the belle of the literary ball by simply writing about her sexual transgressions. (The closest piece I can think of in recent years is Helena Andrews-Dyer’s Bitch is the New Black, but the lingering notes from that work are not sexual, but rather about friendship and hollowness and the vulnerability of black women.) We always have to bring more to the table.
Where are the men is also an interesting question. Men write these kinds of pieces all the time. They just aren’t seen in the same, marginalizing light. A man writing about his drug addiction or squandered nights in sweaty sheets is just considered normal. Interesting. Literary. Tom Chiarella wrote about being sexually abused by a teacher for Esquire – but the piece wasn’t framed as a gross-out confessional piece. It was given the consideration it deserved. For some reason, the lives of men are inherently more serious affairs than the lives of women.
I often think about Katha Pollitt’s Learning to Drive (I think it’s being made into a movie). I remember the shock in some corners of the internet, that a thinking woman like Pollitt would actually be subject to the same human struggles as the rest of us. I mean, here’s an excerpt from the New York Times review:
And now Pollitt’s up at bat. Her three previous essay collections gathered brilliant commentary on welfare, abortion, surrogate motherhood, Iraq, gay marriage and health care, mostly from the pages of The Nation. But with “Learning to Drive,” she gets personal, and shameless. She has decided to wave her dirty laundry (among which she found unidentified striped panties) and confesses to “Webstalking” her longtime, live-in, womanizing former boyfriend. (Take that, you rat!) It’s hard to tell if she’s coming into her own, trying to sell more books or has lost it entirely. Or perhaps she’s giving up her dignity in a generous motion of solidarity toward the rest of us who have already blown our cover? Whatever the reason, she’s entitled.
As if Pollitt earned the right to be a full human because she spent most of her career as a serious woman. Imagine that.
Emily McCombs, executive editor, XOJane
I can’t tell you how often I have encountered the attitude that because these stories are about women’s lives, they are somehow superficial, silly, or unimportant. Women’s lives – our stories – are not unimportant. They often reflect the feminist maxim that the personal is political.
For every story we publish, there are three that we choose not to runEmily McCombs
The whole language of “oversharing”, “TMI”, and “confessional blogging” is condescending and dismissive. Nobody uses that kind of language when men write memoir.
As editors, we try to warn writers who choose controversial topics that backlash that may occur, and offer them the opportunity to publish anonymously. We never want to put anyone’s safety or livelihood at risk. For every story we publish, there are three that we choose not to because the writer doesn’t seem mentally or emotionally ready, or lacks perspective or self-awareness.
Of course there are consequences to what personal information you put on the internet, but to suggest that adult women aren’t fully capable of deciding when and where to share information about themselves denies them an awful lot of agency.
I write about my own personal life because I want to lessen shame and encourage connection. If people read a piece I wrote and say: “This writer has had this experience, done this thing and felt this way so maybe I don’t have to feel ashamed of who I am,” it’s worth it.
That happens whether I’m writing about something silly like back fat all the way to serious topics like addiction and rape. And the best reaction is when someone emails me to say: “I didn’t know I had been raped (or was an alcoholic, or needed to go to therapy) until I read your piece.”
Even the stories that may seem silly or lurid are forging a connection among a group of women who are often not encouraged to speak out about our own lives and bodies.
Haley Mlotek, editor-in-chief, The Hairpin
Since I took my current job, the word I use more than any other is “more”. I am constantly talking with my writers about why they should write more, once we’ve spoken about whether they should write at all. I always tell them yes, write, write it all, write as much as you want, and then it’s my job to figure out the rest.
I don’t agree that there is something inherently easier about writing a personal essay, or that they are by nature exploitative, because it’s just like any other kind of creative labor: it depends! But I do know how many brilliant writers are sitting on their work because they believe it’s somehow cheap or reductive just because it’s about their lived experiences, while editors are scrolling through inboxes stuffed with men who have no hesitation about demanding that their voices and their stories come first.
There’s never going to be a time when we, as readers, are going to say: 'No thanks, I’ve heard and seen it all'Haley Mlotek
I have my personal taste when it comes to personal essays, but here, too, I find the word “more” is the best descriptor. I think we need as many people as possible writing about as many different experiences and telling as many different stories as they want to, because that’s how we find out what we like!
That’s how we find writers who speak to our exact same experiences, or to wildly different experiences – writers who can show us something unexpected or familiar. There’s never going to be a time when we, as readers, are going to be like: “No thanks, I’ve heard and seen it all,” and there never should be. More is more.
Emma Carmichael, editor-in-chief, Jezebel
I think a balance of empathy and patience goes a long way in working with freelancers on personal work. We know better than anyone how a wave of response can feel for a writer, so we want someone new to it to be as prepared as possible – both mentally and through the strength of the work – for the onslaught. We can’t prescribe a writer’s belief in her work, but we can make that work as strong as possible before we put it on the internet. At the times when I’ve felt we’ve faltered in that goal, we’ve attempted to pull off the clumsy editing acrobatics required to tie a personal essay to a news story.
Yes, we are publishing things that we want people to read. If we do so with empathy, no one should feel exploited.Emma Carmichael
Bennett touched on this in her piece and I think it’s actually the bigger issue with the “unreported hot take”, where you’re trying to squeeze someone’s experience into a news angle. It doesn’t work that way. The best writing that, in Bennett’s words, “[doesn’t] merely assert the universality of their experience” but “[arrives] at it by guiding us through the precise arc of their self-reckoning” justifies itself. You can’t rush that.
That said, I am also reminded here of Deadspin editor Tim Marchman on the reflexive reader’s “clickbait” insult: “If journalism were as easy as tricking people into pushing buttons, it would have been automated by now.”
We’re not over here mindlessly pressing big red “Publish Without Consequences For The Writer!” buttons and cackling, but yes, we are publishing things that we want people to read. If we do so with empathy, no one should feel exploited.
Bella Mackie, commissioning editor, the Guardian
Recently, a pitch came through from a writer dealing with their mother’s alcoholism. The story was interesting, but the author hadn’t thought about what publishing might do to their family. In those situations, it’s best to err heavily on the side of caution, and turn it down.
If the subject is a very personal one, it’s my responsibility to make sure the writer understands that the reaction may be negative, that online commenters may be brutal about their lives, and that social media might opine on their story in a way that they are not comfortable with.
Although there have been many pitches that I would have liked to have read more about, common curiosity is not a good enough reason to commission an article. It has to be an angle that may help others, foster a new sense of understanding, or explain a little heard perspective. You want to be able to learn about body confidence, or living with cancer as a young person. For this reason, I turn down more pitches than I say yes to.