Morgan Jerkins | Longreads | May 2018 | 11 minutes (2,609 words)
This past February, during the book tour for my essay collection, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female and Feminist in (White) America, one of the recurring questions I received most frequently from readers was about how I pushed past the fear to write about the most intimate aspects of my life? I assumed the crowd expected to hear about some grandiose regimen I followed — half an hour of meditation followed by an hour-long chat with a therapist, combined with some amount of whiskey drinking, or chain-smoking. Nevertheless, I told them the truth: I never did fully push past the fear when I wrote about my internalized anti-blackness, my surgically-modified labia, or my indulgence in pornography. Fear was ever-present as I worked on my book. I found it was best to acknowledge it, but not let its presence stun me into paralysis.
Fear is the little sister my mother never gave birth to. She appears and reappears in the furthest corner of the room in which I write and inches closer and closer as I approach the heart of a confession. I’ve discovered throughout the years that the best approach to meddlesome siblings is to acknowledge that they’re there, because if you don’t, they will wreak havoc and derail whatever it is you set out to do. This essay is the longer answer to that question.
The inevitable follow-up question about fear was more complex: Was I worried about what my loved ones, especially my parents, would think? And how would I know whether or not I went too far with what I revealed about my innermost life? Whether or not my interlocutors realize this, I know why the questions come in tandem — because my honesty in writing as a woman is linked to familial responsibility, or rather familial honor.
If you turn to the Acknowledgments section of my book, you’ll see that I dedicate the first few lines to my parents. I thank them for their love, then I apologize for divulging details about my personal life that might embarrass them. It was during the time I was deliberating over how to acknowledge my loved ones that my mother expressed trepidation about what I would reveal in my book. During a quiet afternoon at my childhood home in South Jersey, my mother admitted she was worried about how she would be able to show her face at Sunday church services depending on what I had written. Because I had moved away from South Jersey almost three years before, I was less concerned about what I confessed and more concerned with leaving my mother to fend for herself and remain strong for the both of us in the face of potential side-eyes and gossip as soon as the benediction concluded.
Fear is the little sister my mother never gave birth to. She appears and reappears in the furthest corner of the room in which I write and inches closer and closer as I approach the heart of a confession.
My mother is the daughter of a bishop and a first lady. The second of four children, my mother was raised to love God with all her heart, to be an active church member, to be a good wife and mother. Growing up, she was not allowed to listen to secular music or wear jeans to church, the latter a tradition I still follow to this day. Evangelists, choir directors, and Bible study and Sunday school teachers, the women in my church were quite vocal. If they spoke about their wayward behavior, it was usually in the form of a testimony, a swift crescendo carried them from descent up to deliverance. Perhaps this is where I first learned about the power of a public confession — the earnest performance, the narrative arc, and the anticipation of the spectators’ emotions.
But my own confession was different. It would not be within the confines of a church, deliberately planned before or after the sermon — several minutes, tops. Mine would span close to 300 pages and there would be no swift crescendo. The narrative arc would be more jagged and less sure, frank about my uncertainty. I wasn’t sure what my mother would think of me as this public writer who could inevitably put her in harm’s way.
I began writing as a place to hide. In high school, as a victim of constant harassment who harbored suicidal ideations, I wrote fiction as a way to create new worlds and people, to ameliorate my loneliness. It was only toward the end of my senior year of college that I began writing nonfiction, after I became more politically conscious of my place as a black woman and a newly minted feminist.
Later, during my time at Bennington where I earned my MFA, I studied fiction while writing nonfiction for a public audience, and it was at this institution that I found my actual voice. My earlier writing life had been a mechanism through which I could be a joker of sorts. Through invented prose and scenarios, I could create the most graphic of situations and conversations, which arguably revealed the creator’s psyche, and yet my imagination allowed for me to slip through trap doors whenever I intuitively felt my words getting too close to unveiling my face to my readers.
Fiction was a practice I took both seriously and unseriously because I fell into it while still harboring dreams of becoming a doctor and impressing my father by taking over his medical practice someday. As a child, there had been nothing I wanted to do more than impress my father. I was always quick to show him my report card and my research on MD–PhD programs. After many visits to his office, I would ask questions about what being a doctor was like. I didn’t want to live in my father’s shadow, but rather believed the best way for the light to find me was to become exactly like him. You can imagine his disappointment when I decided to take a series of literature and language classes instead of molecular biology and chemistry courses once I matriculated at college. When I declared my major as comparative literature, he facetiously referred to it as “basket weaving” but nevertheless supported me in my choice. As nonfiction became more of a priority in my writing life, I wanted him to see me clearly without my ever having to physically confront him, and writing was the only way to get my point across while maintaining some form of control.
Truth be told, when I started to write the first few chapters of my book, I was not thinking about my parents or anyone else, for that matter. When you plunge that deeply into your most traumatic experiences, everything else collapses, and such an obliteration is necessary when you’re trying to do the work. I had distanced myself for so long from what pained me because that’s what survivors do. But now I had the distance and institutional support to unpack those memories. People who know me often describe me a “Type-A,” “perfectionist,” and “workaholic,” and I often wear those badges with pride, especially when I think about my professional trajectory. But these labels come with side effects: “too hard on herself,” “not open with her emotions,” “doesn’t put herself first.” In my personal life, I minimized my negative experiences, rarely allowing anyone to know when something was bothering me, yet I expected people to just “get” me.
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So much of that, I realize now, developed through my mirroring my parents. I have been lucky in the sense that my mother and I “get” each other. When I visit home, we have our routines: we eat breakfast together, talk for a bit, part ways to opposite sides of the house for the entirety of the afternoon, then reconvene in the evening. Sometimes, though, I joke with her about how she’ll get upset with me when she asks for what she wants in roundabout ways. Then I remember that someone else could say the same about me. I now understand why: Neither my mother nor I were raised in an environment where women could say whatever they wanted in a blunt way. Like many black women, we were conditioned to be overly conscious of others’ feelings and to plan for the infinite results of what could happen as a result of our frankness. Either we take the risk or air our frustrations to other women later, as my mother and I would do with each other in the late-night hours, under the lamps whose incandescence competed with that of our faces.
I descend from a long line of women who were masters of circumlocution. Maybe I perfected my circumlocution through fiction. But with nonfiction, neither the public nor my editors would allow me any space for ambiguity.
If you turn to the Acknowledgments section of my book, you’ll see that I dedicate the first few lines to my parents. I thank them for their love, then I apologize for divulging details about my personal life that might embarrass them.
Where my father is concerned, my inclination to hide my feelings was further reinforced by my fixation on making him proud. I never wanted to say or do anything that might upset him and disrupt the reputation he built in our community. In addition, my family was prominent in a couple of spheres: my mother in the music industry and my father in medicine. There were no other nonfiction-writing relatives to whom I could turn, and that made the risk seem steeper, the potential to fall much greater.
Although I never spoke to my parents in detail about my book while I was in the midst of writing it, there was this tension with my mother and father about the scope of my writing, but for wildly different reasons. When I’d written about my labiaplasty in an earlier, shorter-form essay that was published online, my mother lamented that I would ward off potential suitors who would have an idea about my genitalia before ever having met me, thus robbing myself of my own mystique and the thrill of being pursued. Our modes of femininity were very much bound in secrecy — it’s how we protected ourselves. Some parts of us had to be inaccessible. If a suitor wanted to cross certain checkpoints, he had to endeavor toward that goal, and here I was boldly proclaiming experiences that my mother thought required more of an effort on another person’s part before they had the privilege of knowing.
As for my father, he always wondered if there were other topics I could have explored alongside race and gender. I would lovingly tell him that just like in medicine, everyone has a specialty and the aforementioned were mine.
I’m not sure if any of my reassurances resonated with either of my parents. There was a distance between us, in part because I wasn’t being vocal about the biggest undertaking of my life. In fact, at certain junctures, I felt like my editor became more like a parent to me, helping to redirect my focus — and my sentences — in order to prepare for some new, mature place.
Once I learned that bound advanced reader copies were being dispersed to media and the literary elite, I knew I had to give one to each of my parents. I did not include a note on the inside. I did not ceremoniously hand a copy to either of them after telling them how hard this book had been to write. Instead, I passed it off to them and refused to bring up the book in conversation, even while they saw me promote said book on all of my social media platforms. On the one hand, I had a bit of spunk: It was too late to change anything now. The ball had begun to roll. Buzz was building. On the other hand, I wondered if all of this anticipation would come at the expense of my parents’ comfort and love that they might withhold.
My fears were informed by countless literary precedents. For example, in a Guardian profile, Aaron Hicklin wrote that after Emily Gould published her memoir, And The Heart Says Whatever, her parents stopped speaking to her for a time because they were hurt by her characterization of their dynamics. For a long time, Rebecca Walker did not have a relationship with her mother, Alice Walker, because of what the younger Walker divulged publicly about her childhood alongside the politics of motherhood and feminism in her memoir, Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self. Although my book would not talk about my parents’ relationship, they still made appearances. What if those appearances were not enough? What if they were too much?
Much to my surprise, my father texted me one afternoon after I’d given him the book and told me that he could not put it down. When I read those lines, my chest expanded further than it ever had. My father has always held high expectations whether it was for his career, his leisure, or his daughters. To know I’d captured his attention while being unapologetically honest was a dream fulfilled, a childhood desire that returned itself to me in full bloom.
As my pub date approached, I still hadn’t heard from my mother. A rush of pre–pub day interviews and e-mails had thrown me into both mental and physical exhaustion. I resigned myself to the fact that if she never brought it up, I would be OK with it — as long as our relationship did not suffer. Maybe my book could be one of those “family things” that everyone knew about but did not bring up, those family secrets that turn into lore for generations to come.
But finally, a few days before my book’s release, my mother messaged me at midnight. Rarely does anyone message me at midnight, and if they do, I assume it’s an emergency. My mother loved my book too. Furthermore, she praised me for my bravery and said she’s just now finding that same kind of courage in her 50s.
My parents’ support gave me the gust of wind I needed to move forward with my launch and that monthlong book tour. They sat in the front row at one of my earliest events, my father even asking a question as part of the Q&A. When I faced tens if not hundreds of people who were concerned about the stability of my relationship with my parents, I smiled before they would even finish their questions.
I had distanced myself for so long from what pained me because that’s what survivors do. But now I had the distance and institutional support to unpack those memories.
If I had time, I would tell them that my book has caused a positive ripple effect on my mother’s side of the family. My mother now has conversations with her parents about the memories she buried for everyone else’s comfort. She is more brazen, more aware of misogyny than ever before. When she walks into Sunday church service, no one questions her parenting skills, no one ostracizes her. When I join her, everyone greets me with open arms.
As for my father, I might not have taken over his medical practice, but the poster from one of my book events hanging in his office reminds me that he’s proud of my career choice and my work. My presence is always there, even if I am not seeing patients. Every time he speaks to me, he wants to know about my book-writing life. He asks me more about that than whether or not I’m dating.
Sometimes, I wonder, why did it take me 25 years and a book deal to be this honest with my parents? I wonder whether I could have done it sooner and in a less public way. But perhaps radical honesty demands radical acts. Although the writing life can be very isolating and at times self-centering, my debut book has only reaffirmed my place as my parents’ daughter. It was ironically through that shattering of conditioning and expectations that I further honored and lived out their legacy.
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Morgan Jerkins is the author of This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female and Feminist in (White) America. She is based in New York.
Editor: Sari Botton