In the Name of Being Honest

by dhaaruni

On my last birthday, I tore off all my black acrylic nails one by one; my nailbeds were bleeding and I could barely text or type or hold a pencil for a week until I got them redone. The reasons for this fit of self-harm are layered but ultimately mundane: a boy didn’t love me, a boy loved me too much, my statistics class was disgustingly difficult, and I was fed up. But what I remember the most from that evening is wanting to be hurt because I couldn’t feel anything else and I didn’t even feel any real pain when I tore my nails off which frustrated me even more. I was bleeding so why didn’t I want to cry, why didn’t I care that blood was getting on my cognac leather jacket, why didn’t I want to stop doing it to myself? I share a birthday with Oscar Wilde who wrote “A sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of emotion without paying for it.” Very clearly, I have paid for my emotionality and I’ve been trying to find a purpose to it except to validate my humanity and I don’t know how successful I am.

Taylor Swift released “1989” this year and the most disturbing reaction I’ve seen is “I like Taylor Swift so much more now that she’s jaded and not singing about love.” I find it telling that what we deride Swift and her fellow female singer-songwriters like Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco, and Fiona Apple as being too much: too emotional, too sad, too angry, too much of an open wound, to use Leslie Jamison’s phrase whose collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, inspired this piece. I remember that a lot of the so-called feminist criticism of Swift was concerning the song “Fifteen,” which details the events of her freshman year of high school and includes the line “Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind.” The internet blogosphere went wild, “Taylor Swift thinks that young women are worth nothing more than their virginity.” I believed these critiques when I first read them because I internalized what society had told me about what it meant to be an emotional woman: your feelings are silly, your pain is unimportant, so grow up and stop being sad about things that don’t matter. I conveniently ignored that when I lost my virginity at 15 years old, the day after I took the SAT for the first and only time, I didn’t get out of bed for three days, so traumatized I couldn’t even cry even though the act was fully consensual, convincing myself it was because I mixed up rancor and rumination on the verbal section and would have to take the exam again. When I got my scores back three weeks later, I missed one math question in all, scoring a 2370 which was 99.96% percentile, and the only thing I could ask myself was “If I’m so smart, why did I have sex and why am I so weak that I feel bad over it?”

I’ve realized that the issue isn’t necessarily about Taylor Swift but with society as a whole: we hold emotionality and rationality as mutually exclusive entities and we find it difficult to respect those who are affected by their emotions and for better or worse, so many of us are driven by them. But in order for humanity to progress, we have to care. We must commit ourselves to a set of behaviors and sentiments greater than the sum of our natural inclinations because for all the talk about politics and ideologies, to quote Che Guevara, the revolution is an act of love. We must actively force ourselves to love what we aren’t instantly attracted to; it’s not necessarily romantic but it’s imperative in order to become more ethical than the society we were raised in. There has been so much uproar about the validity of rape victims’ claims, in Steubenville, in UVA, and no matter how many times detractors are given the statistics regarding rape versus false accusations of rape, the structure of the legal system forces us to have these arguments ad nauseum. It frustrates me that while so many people can acknowledge that rape is bad, and that rape victims have suffered an unspeakable crime, we’re so reluctant to condemn rapists since we don’t trust the source of the accusation. The empathy we feel towards rape victims doesn’t come across as truly genuine because we want them to prove that their suffering is real, and even when there is concrete proof of the crime such as in Steubenville, instead of extending our unwavering support to the victim, we go through the motions of “if she hadn’t been doing _____ this wouldn’t have happened” or worse, simply gain a voyeuristic pleasure in punishing the perpetrators, reveling in the fact that “well brought up boys with promising futures” lost the game of life. It disgusts me as a young woman, it disgusts me as a person, and most of all, it disgusts me that it doesn’t disgust people the way it disgusts me.

My friend asked me a while back what the bravest thing a guy I know had ever done, and my answer was a half-serious, “Me.” Don’t get me wrong, on some level I’m utterly a coward: I broke up with someone our one year anniversary because he told me loved me and I dragged him through the dirt for another year and a half until our relationship was unsalvageable;  I haven’t replied to a text for four months now that will eat me alive until I achieve a semblance of closure on it. In a twisted way, my blatant acknowledgement of my vulnerability and my weaknesses makes me braver than those who brush them to the side and those who externalize it. I’m not Hannah Horvath or April Ludgate or the character Taylor Swift plays in the “Blank Space” video, “Darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream”, but in some way, my acceptance and embracing of “the girl in the dress who cried the whole way home” inside of me, to continue the Swift-isms, is a bravery of its own. The balance that has to be struck when writing about the wounded woman is between acknowledging the voyeurism associated with female pain but also realizing that no matter how reductive the image may seem, we must acknowledge the various needs and sufferings that yield pain and attack them at their cores instead of focusing on the unsavory ways they may be displayed. With regards to Taylor Swift, “Dear John” and the image of the girl in the dress, I can understand how the refrain “Don’t you think I was too young” may come across as petulant or cloying, but at the same time, that doesn’t invalidate the sheer nerve shown by a teenage Swift in calling out John Mayer by name as emotionally abusive and singing that song in front of millions since she’s absolutely right: 19 is too young, he should have known better, and it’s a testament to her own strength and growth that she held herself over him, fireworks over his sad empty town.

My favorite line from Jamison’s “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” is “Keep bleeding but write to something beyond blood.” In some way I guess that’s my purpose in this essay because I want there to be record of the pain I’ve endured and moreover, I want it mean something.There are two kinds of pain, pain that you can grow from and that makes you a better person and pain that cripples you. Sometimes, I am bolstered by negative experiences and want to do better, whether academically or interpersonally, and sometimes I’m so run down that I can’t do anything but cry on the phone to my father asking him unintelligibly why I don’t deserve to be loved and at that point, I have to metaphorically walk away. Put myself back together, uncrumple the mess of papers I’ve allowed myself to become, accept that I won’t ever be the person I used to be but also allow myself to grow.

On some level, I think my personal experiences are universal and my take on them is objectively accurate but they also feel private and shameful because I still haven’t fully been able to cast off the sexist idea that a woman who believes her feelings are valid must be crazy and not living up to some imaginary Gestalt Whole. In reality, the self, both male and female, is contradictory and discordant, rife with sharp edges that cut anyone imprudent enough to probe it. I don’t think I’ll ever be in full control of myself because let’s be real – I’ve run on anxious death drive since the day I was born, but I’m coming to terms with the mortal coil I live by. It’s a work in progress.