A Writer's Case for Privacy

I won't let it all hang out. You don't have to, either.

Hi writers, if this looks familiar it’s because I’ve moved it over from the now defunct “Strictly Writing” section at my sister blog, Constant Commoner. You may have read it there. It fits much better here!

A note to the men in our group: I’ve addressed this particular post to women but it could very well apply to men. If you have thoughts about it, feel free to comment. I’d love to know what you think.

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I’m a liberal, a feminist, a proud supporter of the #MeToo Movement, and a writer of political opinions guaranteed to bring out trolls and bots and creeps. I’ve never been afraid of sparring, especially with people I don’t know on an online platform where I use my own name but the scaredy-cats won’t.

I’ve written about rape and sexual assault, about abortion, about depression, about anxiety, about cancer, about what it means to be a woman who came of age in the 1950s, but I can’t, I don’t, and I won’t reveal any more about my private life than I think is necessary to show my bona fides.

I’m a notoriously private person but I knew going in that to be an effective writer of opinions I would have to project my own self into everything I write. I write most often in first person and, in order to be honest, a good portion of who I am has to be in there.

But, because of who I am, when you come to visit my page, my piece, my story, expect that I’ll let you into my parlor or my office but never into my bedroom. You’re not allowed in my bathroom, either. (As you might have guessed, I lock the bathroom door behind me even when nobody’s home.)

I have a husband but I’ve rarely mentioned his name and you won’t be privy to the intimacies of our long, long marriage. Its ours and ours alone to inhabit.

I have children and grandchildren but you won’t know anything more about them than the fact that they exist. The closest I’ll come to naming a friend or family member might be, “someone I love”.

I’m a writer who has every opportunity to exploit everyone I know in order to juice up my stories, but I won’t. Even when I’m sure I have nothing more to write about, I won’t use their stories. It’s tempting sometimes. Everyone has friends and family with fabulous stories begging to be told, but in my circles nobody has ever had to say, “Don’t write about me.” Anyone who knows me knows that won’t happen.

On the other side are the people close to me who ask me to write their stories. I won’t do that, either. Our emotional ties require that I back away. Any story I wrote with their blessing would be dishonest. I would take their side and I would write it as if I were inside their heads, when I have no idea what’s really inside their heads. I would only know what they tell me, and what they tell me would be left to my interpretation. It’s begging for trouble. We need to write our own stories, in our own space, in our own time.

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We’re living in a time when women, especially, are finding their own voices and writing their own stories. They’re disowning shame and freeing themselves from past self-imposed bondage by writing honestly about the events that caused them such anguish and self-hate. I applaud them. I want them to get it out, to revel in our support, to feel the love, because there’s nothing more therapeutic than a cleansing of the soul after a long, dark period of secrecy.

But secrecy is different from privacy. I say this because in these days of new-found openness we women are feeling pressured to let it all hang out. People like me who prefer to keep our private lives private are accused of being dishonest or disloyal because we won’t lay our lives bare. I can handle that. I can brush it off. I’m at an age when my own self-image anxieties are behind me. My age empowers me. I know, at long last, who I am.

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I worry, though, about the women who aren’t ready to tell their secrets. Will the pressure force them to expose something about themselves they’ll never be able to take back and will live to regret? I want them to know they don’t have to. Nobody can make them tell their stories if they’re not ready.

Feminism is a movement, not a cult. It’s not even a club. We come at it from our own places, with our own beliefs, with our own judgments. Our only goal is, or should be, to promote equity and give support to other women. There are no rules to feminism.

When women open up on their own and share their secrets in order to give other women the courage to do the same, we need to be right beside them. It takes guts to do that. But when we infringe on their privacy and push them to tell their secrets before they’re ready, we go too far.

We women fight interference in our lives every minute of every day. We, of all people, shouldn’t be part of the problem.

(This essay appeared in slightly altered form at Indelible Ink/Medium)

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