Paul Revere and the Academic Essay
The first moment I became aware of essay writing was in fifth grade. We were learning paragraph structures and how to organize writing to tell cohesive stories/ arguments. I was given the assignment in my social studies class, write an essay where you imagine yourself as a child in the American Revolutionary War. It was a very simple test, and they couldn’t have expected much in terms of storytelling from a classroom of fifth graders who had rudimentary writing knowledge. I remember vividly writing a story of myself working with Paul Revere, a story of a child helping this key historical figure in American history, with plenty of imagery and sparse dialogue to impress my reading audience (the teacher). The very next day, the teacher had made a point of praising my work in front of the class, by reading it aloud for all my classmates to hear. I remember showing this piece of writing to my parents; and my mother, being a writing professor, I was very eager to impress. Whether the fifth-grade teacher wanted to make the new transfer student feel welcome in the classroom, or if she genuinely was impressed with the writing I submitted, this writing had taken ahold of me and filled me with a newfound passion of creative writing. This was my first dive into the world of personal essay-based writing.
As an English Literature major, I have had plenty of opportunities to write academic essays for classes. These essays are primarily an analysis of the text, applying related research to help understand an author, and putting text in contrast with one another. I do really enjoy the act of writing these essays. Applying social lenses like gender, race, and class can help in breaking down a text and understanding the author’s purpose of writing. This writing is the best way for me to engage with literature, because there is active communication between myself and the author’s work. I can apply my own perspective and understanding to make an academic argument either for or against an author’s work. When writing these essays, I am focused on the audience of the piece: and the audience is very limited. I am writing for the professor to assess my analysis and grade my rhetoric. I am not writing for an interdisciplinary audience, only for a singular audience, the professor in this instance, to be the sole reader of this piece of work. I often will feel limited in this aspect, I am not writing for the world to see but merely a singular person. I will also ask myself what it would even look like if I did write academic essays for a larger audience outside of the classroom setting, and I always feel discouraged because I understand that I need a strong background in a subject to be taken as an authority figure worthy of reading. Though academic essays very much interest me, I feel as though I haven’t had the opportunity of moving past the teacher-student relationship of essay writing.
I am currently working as a tutor at Keene’s Center for Research and Writing. This will be my second year working for them, and I have worked with many students in essay crafting and editing. I have learned that students most often feel frustrated in starting the process of writing the essay, it is like they are about to paint on a canvas but the blank page and countless options of what to paint scares them so badly into never putting anything on the page. I have felt this fear of where to start before in writing essays, the fear of how to express my arguments and organize my thoughts to keep the audience of the piece interested. Creating strong outlines, I have found, is what makes some of the strongest of essays. Knowing what you want to tackle before jumping into an essay will give you enough framework to focus on the topic rather than breaking off into stream-of-conscious type tangents.
While I have been at Keene State, I have taken part in a book club hosted by the Writing Center. For the last semester, we were assigned the reading of Kiese Laymon’s essay collection titled How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. This book club was very eye opening in understanding how an audience breaks down a text and how they are responding to essay writing (a basic form of reader-response theory). The essays delved into race and community, how identities are formed and evolve as we grow as people. Hearing how others responded to the essays, not only from a personal account but also how Laymon structures his prose, helped me in understanding the purpose of essay writing. Laymon had found a way to connect to most readers, all being from different backgrounds and audiences, and yet had something to say to elicit a strong emotional reaction from everyone. Laymon drew on human experiences and told pieces of his life’s story through the essays. I strive to someday reach the level of essay writing that Laymon crafts in his writing, and being a reader of Laymon’s writing, I feel that I have already taken the first step in that process.
There was only one class in which I had a strong reaction against how the professor was using essays. It was an intro to a writing course, and the professor was trying to have the class reach an understanding of what essays are. The professor was delving into defining genre and the text we used was the Best American Essays of 2020. The professor created rules for the genre, rules like “truth” and “lies”. I found this thought exercise to be reductive for thinking of essays. In the text Essayists on the Essay, by Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French, they argue, “the hopelessness of trying to classify essays: ‘There are as many kinds of essays as there are human attitudes and poses, as many essay flavors as there are Howard Johnson ice creams.’” (Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French, xxii). To attempt to classify the genre doesn’t give it the proper ability to be whatever the author envisions for the piece, a perfectly flexible piece of writing that is individually shaped to the author’s purpose of writing.
The Lovely World of Bears
When I think of bears, and of course being from New England, the first thing to come to mind is what to do when confronted with these wild creatures. If it’s brown, lay down. If it’s black, fight back. A fun little rhyme that I have tucked away in the back of my mind that only comes out when I see a real live bear on the side of the road or rummaging through a dumpster.
While mindlessly scrolling through social media, trying to fill empty time, I came upon a post that showed several pictures of bears. These bears, who most people see as deadly and dangerous animals, were photographed as sitting down reminiscent of a person, and just staring into oblivion. This scene of quiet contemplation spiked an interest in me. What do bears see? What do bears think? From all the research I could find (which consisted of a few google searching deep-dives), scientists cannot seem to agree whether they are simply resting or if they see aesthetic beauty while staring at landscapes by themselves.
I like to imagine that they can see a hidden beauty in the world, it would be too boring and simple to brush off this peculiar phenomenon as bears just simply resting. So if we imagine, for just a moment, that when bears wander upon beautiful landscapes, they will actively choose to sit for hours on end to think about what they are seeing; to truly absorb all the sights in front of them and let their mind run away from the present responsibilities. This obviously raises the question of what even bear’s responsibilities are. They eat when they’re hungry and rest when they’re tired; but they don’t have to work a nine to five office job or attend school for the purpose of getting a better job. A bear has the freedom to act on the urges that come to them, the privilege to sit and watch landscapes to find the secret beauty that can only be unlocked through the payment of hours on end.
You hear about famous painters and writers that stare at landscapes for hours and write the most beautiful passages. I remember reading Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway and having this short story stick with me all these years. The language is beautiful and the descriptions of the landscapes around Hemingway are crucial for contextualizing this text. Hemingway can afford the privilege of traveling to other countries, the free time allowed to develop these stories. I’ve got the life experience to talk about the scenario Hemingway writes, but I’ve never been to Spain and stared at the hills and let my mind wander on the stories I could write. How can I ever hope to become a great writer if I can’t even find the time to sit and stare at the hills to write these stories?
I would give anything to live like a bear, to have the free time sit down and stare at landscapes for large chunks of time. I originally planned to write this essay after going to the nearby park and observing nature, writing on everything I see and hoping to uncover what the bears are seeing. This never, and could never, end up happening. I have to work two jobs on top of classes, and so the privilege of free time was something I couldn’t find. The realization of this is what led to the basis of this essay: if I cannot find the free time to live like a bear, then I will use the time I have to see the world through a bear’s eyes
I began the process of the bear’s perspective while at work on a Saturday. My weekend job is as a salesperson for HVAC units at Home Depot, a not so glamorous job with not so much an impact on what I want in a future career. As a salesperson, my primary job is to wait for customers to approach me and answer their questions, and so often I find myself staring into oblivion until anyone will grace me with a conversation. On this day, because the weather is particularly mediocre, I decided to work outside of the store in front of the parking lot. While I stand awkwardly by the sales display, I let my mind wander at the landscape I see before me. It is not one I have chosen like a bear would, but I can at least pretend, for a moment, that this is a beautiful landscape before me. And with that mindset, I begin to ask myself all the things I can see and what secrets they might hold.
A gentle fog rolls over the mountain nearby, the mountain I believe being very close, maybe two or three miles down the road. What would it be like to hike it, to get to the top, and see everything I see but from an unbothered and distant spot, where customers can’t reach me, and life feels so unreal as if all my stresses and anxiety could fit in the palm of my hand
The trees, shades of green and yellow and orange and red, when did they get like this? I never even noticed the change in color, something I realize I have taken for granted how fast things are changing unnoticed around me. A loud bird, maybe a robin or woodpecker, has made a nest in the tree closest to me. Why would that bird choose to make its house in the middle of the parking lot, doesn’t the bird understand that this is a dangerous place to raise their young, that this isn’t a real forest for them to settle down but rather a heavily busy industrial parking lot. This tree could very well be a literal family tree of birds, spanning generations upon generations, and this bird’s family has been here before the parking lot. Was this a tree that has stood the test of time and been here for decades; or was this a new tree planted here to add to the aesthetic beauty of a Home Depot parking lot. Why do the leaves even change color? I know this is something I could look up on a whim but isn’t it more fun to see it as a mystery, and so I seem to find myself in some sort of stability of naivety.
Maybe this is the mystery that bears see the world through, maybe not knowing the answer to everything and finding peace in letting the mind wander on the beauty of life is truly the most beautiful idea that bears have developed. Even though I don’t have the privilege of free time like bears, I can at least make the most of how I see the world, which has to be the first step in truly living like a bear would.
A Rhetorical and Holistic Analysis on David Foster Wallace’s Essay Writing
David Foster Wallace (DFW) is one of those rare writers who elicits either the most extreme love or hatred in his writing, there seems to be no middle ground between readers of his. He is best known for his rather large novel Infinite Jest, published in 1996, being just over 1,000 pages long and chronicling both tennis and drug addiction. It is DFW’s essays that offer some of the most interesting analyses into his writing craft. The writing of DFW is synonymous with the use of footnotes, footnotes being extra information being found at the bottom of the page, these traditional footnotes are often used as afterthoughts to the subject, offering more information to the curious reader. DFW disrupts this tradition of the footnote by making them integral to the narrative of the essay. Often, the text can only be understood if the footnote has been read in tangent with the original narrative of the text. Some of the greatest essay writing will go into tangents, often rambling and wandering around a subject but staying in just enough proximity to add layers to the writing. This is exactly what DFW’s footnotes are, they work as tangents to his writing which offer valuable layers into his own consciousness and background. When reading DFW’s essays, one must often retrain their reading abilities to read footnotes as tangents necessary to the writing, rather than afterthoughts to be saved for later.
The most essential part of DFW essay writing is the structure of his writing. He employs different types of styles to both control and disrupt the flow of his writing, often using the footnote as a tool for controlling the chaos of his writing. DFW encapsulates the idea that essays are streams-of-consciousness, but it is the writer’s job to organize the chaotic tangents into a cohesive narrative. This analysis will focus on several published essays of DFW, from his collection of essays titled Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays. The structure of this analysis essay will be broken into distinct sections, so as to do DFW some justice in how he would possibly approach an analytical essay.
“Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think” (Wallace 51-59) (1998)
This first essay revolves around the most recent novel of John Updike, titled Toward the End of Time, both its reception and an analysis of Updike’s writing as a whole. The title is very DFW style, long and confusing until after having read the entire essay piece, in which the reader can see both the humor and style used in crafting titles. The essay describes how Updike is revered by the generation that grew up with him (of the sixties) and hated by the current generation (of the nineties), how both groups seem to come to understand the writing of post-war American fiction. The essay makes larger remarks on how challenging it can be to write for future readers, because the current experiences of one’s generation will have different difficulties than the next, and how this can distance future readers from the text. This is obviously only one element of the text, the larger one being that Updike’s writing is far too misogynistic. As someone who has never read an Updike text (and after reading this essay, doesn’t plan on it anytime soon) the critics made of Updike’s hyper-masculinity are very much valid after examining his writing in this essay.
In terms of structuring this essay, where does DFW choose to include footnotes? Well, he only really uses a total of two whole footnotes throughout this essay. A rather small amount from a DFW perspective. The first footnote made is an abbreviation of the term he coins “Great Male Narcissists” or GMNs (Wallace 51). This use of footnotes is much closer to the traditional use of footnotes as being afterthoughts to writing. The second footnote is an expansion of a statement DFW makes about the masculine writing of Updike, using quotes from Updike’s texts that highlight his objectifying view of women. So then, why choose to highlight this essay at all? The answer to this is simple, and that is how DFW uses the statistical list as a structural tool to highlight the misogyny in Updike’s latest novel.
The summary DFW gives of Updike’s latest novel goes like this:
- Total # of pages about Sino-American war—causes, duration, casualties: 0.75
- Total # of pages about deadly mutant metallobioforms: 1.5
- Total # of pages about flora around Turnbull’s New England home, plus fauna, weather, and how his ocean view looks in different seasons: 86
- Total # of pages about Mexican repossession of US Southwest: 0.1
- Total # of pages about Ben Turnbull’s penis and his various thoughts and feelings about it: 10.5
- Total # of pages about what life’s like in Boston proper without municipal services or police, plus whether the war’s nuclear exchanges have caused fallout or radiation sickness: 0.0
- Total # of pages about prostitute’s body, w/ particular attention to sexual loci: 8.5
- Total # of pages about golf: 15
- Total # of pages of Ben Turnbull saying things like “I want women to be dirty” and “She was a choice cut of meat and I hoped she held out for a fair price” and the quoted stuff at the bottom of p. 53 and “The sexual parts are fiends, sacrificing everything to that aching point of contact” and “ferocious female nagging is the price men pay for our much-lamented prerogatives, the power and the mobility and the penis”: 36.5 (Wallace 55-56)
It is this summary that highlights every point DFW makes about the misogyny in Updike’s writing as clearly as possible. DFW disrupts the text by breaking down statistically what Updike focuses to touch on in his novel. Many of these statistics revolve around the topic of sex (or the whole 15 pages on golfing) while neglecting the more nuanced and interesting topics that a reader would want to be learn about. The humor of this statistic is very DFW-esque, where this structure highlights all the points he needs to make on the misogyny of Updike’s writing. Without relying on footnotes, DFW has found another way to use structural tools to the benefit of his essay writing.
“Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed” (Wallace 60-65) (1999)
This second essay focuses on how DFW teaches Kafka in college classes, and how students cannot seem to grasp the inherent humor in Kafka’s writing. As a fellow college student, the humor was also lost on myself in beginning this essay. DFW begins with a short story of Kafka’s, titled “A Little Fable” and moves through breaking down the humor of this piece. He acknowledges that often when trying to analyze the funniness of a joke, the humor will fall flat (and this is applicable to breaking down DFW’s humor in an analytical essay).
The most noteworthy use of footnotes comes at the end of the essay, where DFW has explained that the comedy of Kafka’s writing is often seen in the face of tragedy. The argument is that we all live in some sort of tragedy, but it is in acknowledging this situation is the reason we can find some sort of comedy in the situation. DFW breaks down the conventions of comedy, how an American perspective will seek comedy as forms of entertainment (as escapism) and makes claims of absurdism in comedy.
The digression of looking at how Americans understand comedy is developed through the largest footnote seen in this essay near the end. The placement of this footnote is crucial in understanding how DFW feels about comedy in writing, who understands and who its lost on. An interesting note about this footnote is that there is another footnote describing the function of the previous footnote (very meta). This is not the only time DFW has done this in his essay writing. In this specific example, DFW using the example of American college students and how they seek forms of escapism in their entertainment, rather than their entertainment reminding them of their current inescapable tragic situations. This example being raised is crucial in developing DFW’s point of how comedy is engaged with on a cultural level. Footnotes, as used by DFW, work as tangents, and as seen in this example, there are often tangents within tangents of DFW’s writing. There is some level of control to these tangents however, none overstay their welcome as sidebars to the topic stated above, and without them, most readers would not be able to understand the larger points DFW is making throughout the essay (I for one am one of those readers).
“Authority and American Usage” (Wallace 66-127) (1999)
This is one of the quintessential DFW essays (I would argue) because of how it uses both a specified structure and the tangents of footnotes throughout. The essay is a review of a recently released dictionary, titled A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (ADMAU), by Bryan A. Garner. This essay is, in DFW fashion, not just a review of the dictionary and what it gets right/wrong, it however focuses on the history of prescriptivism vs. descriptivism in grammar, the authority of dictionaries, and concepts such as “correctness” in Standard English. The essay highlights the politicized background of dictionaries, how they often seem to have some sort of agenda pushing them. The essay also describes the SNOOTiness involved with high-brow keepers of grammar, how grammar can be used as a political tool.
The title page of the essay is worth noting for what it adds to the structure of the essay. It is a page full of fragmented, incoherent phrases (link to the article here, so you can see the chaos which is the title page for yourself: https://web.ics.purdue.edu/~drkelly/DFWAuthorityAndAmericanUsage2005.pdf). Trying to make sense of this title page before reading this essay would be pointless, because DFW doesn’t give you the clues of understanding his titles until after you have dived into his writing. The explanation of this title is not given until several pages into this essay, in a footnote that describes that the fragmented phrases is a list of incorrect grammar phrases that DFW has heard recently. The list of phrases adds a layer of chaos to the title page, further proving DFW’s point that once you begin to notice grammar mistakes, they are often in your face every time you see them next. Another important note that must be made regarding the title page is that the very title of the essay has a footnote for it, the footnote being (or, “POLITICS AND THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE” IS REDUNDANT). Having a footnote for the actual title of the paper is very DFW’s style, the usage of this is much rather as a subtitle than it is a full-on footnote. The footnote also furthers the statement DFW is making that the use of language will forever be a political act, it is simply unavoidable which makes this a redundant argument.
This is the first of DFW’s essays in this collection to follow some sort of titled structure. The topics of this essay’s structure look like this:
- THESIS STATEMENT FOR WHOLE ARTICLE (Wallace 72)
- COROLLARY TO THESIS STATEMENT FOR WHOLE ARTICLE (Wallace 77)
- INTERPOLATION: EXAMPLE OF THE APPLICATION OF WHAT THIS ARTICLE’S THESIS STATEMENT CALLS A DEMOCRATIC SPIRIT TO A HIGHLY CHARGED POLITICAL ISSUE, WHICH EXAMPLE IS MORE RELEVANT TO GARNER’S ADMAU THAN IT MAY INITIALLY APPEAR (Wallace 82)
- INTERPOLATIVE DEMONSTRATION OF THE FACT THAT THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A PRIVATE LANGUAGE (Wallace 87)
- INTERPOLATION: POTENTIALLY DESCRIPTIVIST-LOOKING EXAMPLE OF SOME GRAMMATICAL ADVANTAGES OF A NON-STANDARD DIALECT THAT THIS REVIEWER ACTUALLY KNOWS ABOUT FIRSTHAND (Wallace 99)
- EXAMPLE OF HOW CONCEPTS OF RHETORIC AND DIALECT AND GROUP-INCLUSION CAN HELP MAKE SENSE OF SOME OF THE USAGE WARS’ CONSTITUENT BATTLES (Wallace 105)
- ANOTHER KIND OF USAGE WARS-RELATED EXAMPLE, THIS ONE WITH A PARTICULAR EMPHASIS ON DIALECT AS A VECTOR OF SELF-PRESENTATION VIA POLITENESS (Wallace 110)
- ARTICLE’S CRUX: WHY BRYAN A. GARNER IS A GENIUS (I) (Wallace 118)
- WHY BRYAN A. GARNER IS A GENIUS (II) (Wallace 120)
- WHY BRYAN A. GARNER IS A GENIUS (III) (Wallace 120)
- BONUS FULL DISCLOSURE INFO ON THE SOURCES OF CERTAIN STUFF THAT DOES OR SHOULD APPEAR INSIDE QUOTATION MARKS IN THIS ARTICLE (Wallace 125)
What is interesting to note about the use of these structures is that they often go into tangents on their own. DFW will title some of his footnotes as “interpolation”, indicating to his reader that he will be going on a tangent of his current point, either with experiences of his past or evidence to support his argument. The titles of this essay beg there to be a certain level of structure to what is being written, but even these titles go into tangents of what is being said.
There are a total of 81 numbered footnotes in this essay (and that is not including when the essay goes into footnotes of its own footnotes). These footnotes can be as short as a sentence or as long as two pages with multiple directions it moves towards. There are digressions within digressions within these footnotes. Some of them will have full titles that section them off from the rest of the text. This essay is the most prominent example of how DFW will disrupt the narrative of his text with frequent tangents in the form of footnotes, building upon each other to the point of the reader forgetting where they started until DFW takes them back in a circular motion.
“The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” (Wallace 128-140) (2001)
This final essay describes where DFW was on the events of 9/11 (a moment in which everyone can describe where they were when they heard the news) and how he was nowhere near NYC when the news broke. He begins this essay in a non-linear fashion, starting with the day after 9/11 (a Wednesday) and how everyone seems to be grieving, focusing on how every person has tiny flags outside their houses and how he didn’t know about this unspoken rule, and so we follow him as he tries to find mini flags to put out and learn to grieve with the events of the previous day.
There is some structure to this essay, with bold titles to section off the text. The titles of this essay look like this:
- Aerial & Ground Views
It moves in a non-linear structure, offering different perspectives on what is being discussed and hovering around the topic. The essay makes the assumption that every reader will know about what is being discussed (which is true) furthering the reason as to why DFW chooses to begin this essay where he does.
In terms of footnotes for this essay, there are only three, which is significantly lacking in this essay. The first further describes a conversation had between neighbors and all the responses. The second describes the type of accents people around the area have. The third describes the setting of the living room in which he watches the news broadcasting the events of 9/11. The lack of footnotes is a purposeful style of DFW, where the essay is no longer disrupted with tangents of footnotes (except when it is absolutely necessary). There are many moments where DFW uses longer parenthesis to explain certain statements he makes and offer some of his insight, where in other texts, these parentheses would simply be included as footnotes at the bottom of the page. The text is purposefully unbroken to add to the effect that this event is happening all at once, with nothing to distract either the reader or those who lived through it from the event.
Wallace, David Foster. Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays. Black Bay Books, 2007.
Objects and Relationships: The White Flannel and My Body
(Trigger Warning: Body Image, Food Insecurity, Weight)
I was 19 years old when I got an L. L. Bean flannel from an Eddie Bauer in an outlet mall. It was white, with a gray and brown striped flannel pattern. Size: large. My mother had seen it while we were looking for winter clothing over the college break season, and I begged her that it would be absolutely essential for the harsh New England winters.
I loved the way it looked, it felt, but mostly, how I felt in it. It became a consistent piece in most outfits I wore during my freshman and sophomore year of undergraduate school. I paired it with so many outfits, it would be rare to see me out of it. A quick note must be made of the outfits I wore at this point in my life, they never fit right. The clothes were always too small and too tight for the largeness of my body. I remember when for a time in high school, for two years, I would alternate between sizes medium and large. I hated the way my body looked, and this could be seen through the clothes I wore. I squeezed myself into smaller sizes, because in my head it was easier to imagine myself as thin and lean like the other boys if I wore the same clothes. I spent years “dieting” as a vegetarian, an excuse I had come up with so my family wouldn’t look twice when I ate smaller to smaller to near extinct portions of food.
We grow up in a world of performativity, developing a sense of self in relation to the expectations of the outside world. How do you tell a child that the body they occupy is one worthy of love, while that child will inevitably develop their identity in a space that prioritizes a singular image of the body. I remember being maybe five or six years old and being shown the type of body I should grow into. It was 2006, in a Boston shopping mall, and as I waddled next to my mother, I saw up ahead an Abercrombie & Fitch store. Outside of this store, there were several men hovering at the entrance of the store, taking pictures with all sorts of people as if they were the mall Santa during the Holiday season. They were all wearing the same outfit, a red winter coat exposing their shirtless chests with blue A&F jeans. Their bodies were all the same, chiseled in a way a child couldn’t conceptualize being unattainable. I couldn’t seem to look away from these models. As a child seeing these bodies, I had dreamed of what my life would look like with that body, and especially how the positive attention given to these models would be the same attention I would receive if I only looked like that. As I grew older, my body looked less like the childhood dream I had imagined it would.
This memory is not one I share alone, it can be seen in how a generation of people learned what their bodies should look like, and so I (as well as many) took up the unrealistic expectations required for such a performance.
This flannel was the largest piece of clothing I had ever allowed myself to own. Looking back on the outfit, it was rather embarrassing. I wore skinny jeans from American Eagle, because all the boys my age seemed to shop there. The irony of choosing to wear skinny pants (which only accentuated the unwanted space of my body for the world to see) is not lost on me, I actively chose to wear these pants because I thought that’s what was expected of me. A fashion trend built around the skinny body image, one in which I was swept up with for a large part of my life. Skinny jeans paired with the L. L. Bean flannel, just like how cartoon characters always have the same outfit for every day of their lives. This combo of skinny jeans and flannel also worked doubly as camouflage. The heteronormative masculine outfit: skinny jeans and a flannel. Flocks of men wearing this could be seen travelling in packs in the fall/winter New England seasons. It was an easy, simple outfit, and I can’t blame them for gravitating towards it. I guess I also wore it because I wanted desperately for other men to like me, and the first step in this I decided was to dress like them.
During my junior year of undergrad, while working for one of the college’s clubs, I had let a coworker borrow the flannel. Borrow is not exactly the correct word to describe this transaction, it went more like this: I had left the flannel on a coat rack while grabbing food, she grabbed it on her way out the door to walk home in the cold and asked me once she got back to her place if it was okay to return it tomorrow. She didn’t return the flannel for three months.
Everyday going into work, my coworkers would suggest I bring it up with her, to just ask for it back, because at this point she was wearing the flannel consistently and it had become a staple piece in her wardrobe. I always would respond that I would, and yet, I never did. At the time, it was because I didn’t enjoy her very much, and seeing her wearing this article of clothing as if it was her favorite had put a negative effect on me whenever I pictured it. I couldn’t picture myself wearing something that she had made a part of her identity.
In the time I lost the flannel, I realized I would need new clothes. I don’t know what changed, whether it was some grandiose epiphany or if I had just grown tired and worn down from adhering to skinny standards of clothing. Whatever the reason was, I had finally bought clothes that made me feel more comfortable in my body.
This was the real reason I had not wanted to ask for my flannel back, I didn’t want to be reminded of how I used to view my body. I was finally dressing for myself, and I figured that if she just kept the flannel then I wouldn’t have to acknowledge that part of me and I could try and move on. A coworker I was closer with, who meant well but could never understand my relationship with this flannel, had fought with the thieving coworker for the flannel and won it back for me. She gave it to me as a victory, and I took it back in defeat.
I think often of a recent documentary on the harmful practices of Abercrombie & Fitch’s marketing, titled White Hot: the rise & fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, released in 2022, which highlights how the company pushed beauty standards to the point of blatantly only making clothing sizes for thin adolescents. The chief executive of the company at this point, Mike Jeffries, has made comments about who he is marketing towards such as, “That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.” If this is the standards of the man running one of the most sought-after fast fashion companies of the early 2000’s, then how are children, who don’t fit into the image he has laid out, supposed to live in peace with the bodies they have. This is not the only company to practice exclusionary marketing to plus sized individuals, the process of othering bodies can be seen in almost every aspect of the world we live in.
The flannel has been hung in the back of my closet for over a year now, hidden behind winter jackets, out of sight, collecting dust. I occasionally try to wear the flannel, but after putting it on, I can never make it farther than my bedroom. I hate the way it feels, how the fabric seems to squeeze my body, how I see myself in the mirror, imagining how others see me how I see myself, and what it represents in regard to my body, a part of my identity I was hoping to forget. My journey with how I see my body cannot be boiled down to learning to love my body, this essay is not simply a pre and post flannel metaphor for accepting my weight. I still feel like parts of me are living in the world of the two sizes too small flannel, while other parts of me want to keep moving away from the flannel. I still struggle with the space in which my body takes up. I can’t say that I love my body, just yet; instead, I have grown more accepting of the body I occupy.
I figure the only thing I can do, rather than blaming myself for not being there in the past, is to be as present as possible in the present. Every person’s relationship with their body is different, and I can’t just give her a solution to learning to love her body, but what I can do is be present. I rarely open up to family about these personal issues (and most people agree that family is often the hardest people to be vulnerable with) but if I begin to break down those barriers of my life, then hopefully I can begin by showing those around me that I can empathize with them, and that I am there for them, offering a person that cares for them when that was all I ever seemed to want when I had struggled.
Objects and Relationships: The Starship Enterprise and My Father
The first toy I remember having as a child was a replica of the Starship Enterprise, a spaceship from the tv show Star Trek. The design of the toy is something I remember very well, how the gray plastic paint was peeling off in certain sections, how one of the ships thrusters was cracked and would cut your finger if you weren’t gentle, and how the sticker decals were faded and torn to the point of unrecognizability. And yet, with all the toys flaws, I still loved it as one of my favorites. The toy was a hand-me-down from my father. He was given the toy as a child from his mother, because Star Trek was something he has always been very passionate about. In all honesty, I have never really gotten into Star Trek. I’ve certainly tried, countless times. It has everything in a show I know I would love, but all the effort I put into it seems to be pointless, because it has never held my attention for very long. So then why would I have such fond memories of this toy? The answer is rather simple, I used the toy as a medium to reach for my father’s love.
I often think about how my father played with this Star Trek toy. Did he pretend to go on the same adventures I did as a child, fighting imaginary aliens and exploring new worlds? How similar was our imagination? Did he pretend that he was the captain of the ship and reenact some of his favorite specific scenes with his siblings? All these questions must be understood in a crucial aspect of my father’s identity, and that was his medical condition.
He was born with a very serious condition of heart disease, one with very little treatment at the time and was more expensive than his parents could even imagine affording treatment for. The stress of growing up under these conditions, with a crippling medical condition in a rather large, impoverished family, feeling as if the problem surrounding finances stems from the situation of you simply being born. At what age did my father begin to think like this, to come to realize the debilitating situation he lived under.
Was this toy a form of escapism for him? I don’t think I will ever truly understand his relationship with this toy spaceship, because all of this is merely speculation on his true feelings, and if he ever decided to share this part of his identity (which I hold some hope for, but like most fathers, he is very emotionally distant, and seems to lack the language of storytelling) I worry that the story of his life would not be too distant than the image of his childhood I have created in my head through the small moments of his life he has shared. This seems to be the way distant fathers form connections with their children, assumptions about each other instead of simply sharing an emotional conversation.
Over the winter of my third-grade year, my father was offered a new job position in a different state, meaning that we would have to relocate and settle in a new home. The experience children have with being relocated seems to be a universal experience, one that is shared collectively, and that is the anger and resentment children have of the world for moving so suddenly. How is a child supposed to rationalize the importance and necessity of moving, that the stress of it is not just on them but also weighs down on the parents who try their best for their children and hope they can understand when they are more mature that they did what they had to for the child’s betterment. The adult nuances of moving were very much lost on me as a child, and I rebelled as most kids do.
This anger, which stemmed from the frustration of being uprooted from the only environment I had known, had manifested itself in the relationship I had with my father. I would act out in childish ways, rejecting parts of my identity that I saw as too personally connected with his own. I had quit playing sports at this time, telling him that I only did them because he couldn’t as a kid (an intense accusation to make as a child, I am well aware, but I had truly come to the conclusion that playing sports was my father’s way of living vicariously through me). This was the biggest argument we had over the moving process, and due to the fact that we were packing all our belongings, I had thought the biggest statement I could make was telling him I didn’t want to keep his hand-me-down Star Trek spaceship toy. I had very dramatically placed it into a shoebox that I wrote “donations” on and placed outside my door for him to see. I don’t know how my father reacted to seeing his son give away a toy that he cherished for so long, after all, I hid behind my door so I wouldn’t have to look him in the eyes. Did he think of all his memories he shared with the toy? Did he take any of the accusations I made against him to heart? Or did he simply ignore this as a phase in my developmental learning, that whatever I said in an emotional state was not truly meant, and that like most children I was just testing the boundaries of our relationship for some sort of attention I would have gotten from my father.
These are all very potential possibilities that may have occurred, maybe he thought all of that the moment after I had tossed aside the spaceship toy, or he came to understand the moment much differently than I could imagine much later in life.
This argument between my father and I seemed to have no conclusion, no clean-cut resolution where I apologize for the things I said or where he says he forgives me for all that’s happened; instead, I get overwhelmed by the argument and snatch the Starship Enterprise back into my bedroom and clutch it tightly while crying. After this moment, life moves forward. Neither my father nor I bring this up ever again, as if addressing it would be acknowledging speaking it into existence, where we both would rather remember this as some sort of restless dream to be forgotten of the next day.
And as the days moved forward, I kept the Starship Enterprise toy in the same shoe box with “donation” written on the side for the rest of my adolescent years tucked away in the back of my closet, occasionally taking it out to hold and admire, but often forgetting it was there.
I can remember the times my father would take me to the movies as a kid, we did this often, seeing all the new releases of movies that he grew up loving (Star Trek, Star Wars, Indiana Jones). This seemed to be the easiest way for us to connect, utter silence while we watched a screen together. These were some of my favorite moments together, where he would take me out of school early and we would see the newest movie out, just the two of us together. I would give anything to go back and simply live in these moments, it has been quite some time since the two of us spent longer than an hour in a room together. Why is it that the thought of asking him if he would go to the movies together like we used seems so impossible, as if he wasn’t just one phone call away, as if he wasn’t just a few hours down the road, as if I didn’t stow away the Starship Enterprise in an old box of toys hidden in the back of my parent’s garage.
In 2009, the reboot film for Star Trek was released, featuring a fresh take on the now in-depth sci-fi franchise. I was eight when this came out, and this was one of the movies my dad called me out of school to go see with him. I remember being wowed by the flashy action and the fantastical futuristic worlds, but children are very easily impressed by often the simplest things. I tried rewatching it recently, because I remember the feeling of watching this movie more than the actual plot of the movie.
Trying to go back and watch this movie was certainly a challenge, the dialogue is campy, the script is subpar, and the whole movie feels hyper-masculine to the point of embarrassment. I really tried to push myself to finish this movie, but could barely get through the intro “origin” scene without having to take an indefinite break. I got everything I needed out of the opening few minutes of the movie, and that is the main character’s father sacrificing himself. The sacrifice in question is very epic in scale (but somewhat comical when thinking too much about it). In the briefest of summaries, the spaceship is attacked by an unknown enemy. The father is forced to pilot the ship as the wife (who, for some reason, is giving birth for the movie’s convenience at the exact moment of the battle) escapes with the other passengers. The scene takes itself very seriously, stacking almost every single dramatic element it can in order to tug the heartstrings of its viewers and create some sort of sympathy for the main character moving forward.
I see this scene, being an adult, as goofy; however, what did my father think while watching this? Did he feel some sort of overwhelming catharsis as he watched the father figure die to save his family. Did he imagine himself in this scenario, facing down an unstoppable enemy and inevitably dying in order to save his family. The everyday sacrifices my father gave up raising his four children cannot be understated, we weren’t the easiest kids to deal with and so he often took a backseat role while our mother handled us. Is this why he had given me the Starship Enterprise toy, because this was the only way he knew how to say he would sacrifice everything in a moment if it meant helping his children? I wish he would show his love in less subtle ways, but it seems fathers have a funny way of showing that they care, and if someone someday ever cracks the code to their language of love, I ask kindly to be the first one told of this.
Objects and Relationships: The Protein Shake, Dieting, and My Sister
During junior year of high school, I was a “vegetarian”. The word vegetarian certainly carries a lot of weight for me. I (as many people can relate to) hated the way my body looked. The only solution to the problem of my body seemed clear to me; I needed to diet. To avoid suspicion from those around me, I had made it clear that my intentions were to go vegetarian, and so no one questioned when I ate only chocolate flavored protein shakes on sparse occasions.
An important note must be made of the chocolate protein shakes, they tasted disgusting. They had a very chalky taste, as if this drink was meant to be dry but had somehow melted into this indigestible soup. It was very difficult to drink all of it in one sitting, as if it was a battle every time you opened the cap to it. How those obsessed with the gym and all things working out will drink these beverages on the daily will forever be lost on me. I could at least ration that I needed to drink them to stay alive, but if things were different, I would have avoided them like the plague. So, my junior year of high school was filled with memories of chalky aftertaste and consistent headaches.
There was a rather large factor that went into why I had pushed myself so far into dieting, a conclusion that I did not just reach on my own, and that was because of a boy I liked. We had almost every single class together, and with it being a small-town high school, it was impossible to avoid certain people. He was thin and lean, played on the varsity soccer team, and was generally loved by everyone (he was my polar opposite in almost every sense of the word, everything I ever wanted to be growing up). It was a classic queer coming-of-age story: boy one likes boy two, boy two doesn’t like boy one, and so boy one waits for the day that boy two will change his mind, but boy two will never change his mind because he does not have the same accepting family boy one does, and so boy one waits for a day that will never come.
Just like every relationship, there were nicknames given. He called me “big mike” and I called him by his name. I liked a boy that would constantly remind me of my own weight, to make me feel shame about my body for his own personal enjoyment. I hated that name he had given me, and yet, I loved so much the attention I got from it, the way he was finally noticing me, how this felt like the smallest of victories in an unwinnable war. I still physically cringe when someone calls me “mike”, as if I’m hearing it through his voice all these years later. It was this nickname that was the final push for dieting, figuring that if I could look more like him, then he would change my mind and see me as beautiful. I did all that I did so I could lose the “big” associated with my name, and for quite some time after this I survived on only drinking the chocolate protein shakes, punishing myself for the reward of someday being noticed positively by a boy that would never have feelings for me.
During this time of dieting, my weight would yo-yo back and forth, gaining several pounds one week, losing several pounds the next. I remember talking to a friend recently, and how he described wrestling in high school. He was forced to binge eat and diet every few weeks just to be able to play for the team. The rules around weight classes in wrestling were very harmful for young boys, requiring their weight to yo-yo the same way mine had. I often wonder today what could be so alluring about this, why go through all this pain for the sport, and I realize that the same way he liked wrestling I had liked this boy, and there would be no obstacle that couldn’t be overcome when chasing this goal. I wish someone had checked in on me, a parent or a friend, who noticed what I was doing to my body, and helped me in getting better, but no one was there for me, and I realize most people don’t have anyone there for them; either the boy who starves and binges to wrestle for a high school team or the boy who diets for a crush, masculine food insecurity is rarely acknowledged in a toxically masculine world.
The time to leave for college had finally arrived, and I had slowly gotten better with my food insecurity (the reason for this being multiple, because it would be too simple if there was only one universal cure: I had seen the boy I liked less and less and so I stopped hearing “big mike” as an everyday occurrence, I had grown more comfortable with my queer identity and this made me more comfortable in the body I occupy, and my mother had finally sat with me and explained how she was worried for me. These are only three reasons in a multitude of factors of learning self-love, and even though these helped me, the simple truth is that they are not universal applications of healing, and everyone must eventually find their own terms to settle on). I still struggled with food and my weight, like there will always be a voice in the back of my mind (a voice of self-hatred and fear), but at least I have learned ways to keep this voice as quiet as possible, where it is now an echo of what it once was.
Over this first year of college, I learned that my little sister, a freshman in high school, had been diagnosed with an eating disorder and was currently in the hospital. I did what every older sibling does when something like this appears, I sobbed and wept and tried to reach out to her. I was over two hours away from home, not the farthest distance away, but I didn’t have a car to get home, and with all the stress back home, no one had the time to come pick me up so I could be there for my sister. I didn’t know what to do in this situation, there aren’t many rulebooks that tell you exactly how to be there for someone in this situation. The same food insecurities I struggled with she was now facing, and it felt like the same self-love I gave to myself could be applied to her situation. And so, I would call her constantly, doing the best I could offer was often just being a person who listens to her.
At the same time this was happening, the world was struck with the Covid-19 pandemic, another obstacle on the journey of recovery. As quickly as the first year of college began for it, it had ended. I was sent home, like the rest of the world, over spring break to begin lockdown procedures. When I got home, I immediately went to find my sister, to hug her and hold her and try to comfort her, but she was not home. Right before the lockdown began, she had been admitted to a psych ward to help treat her mental health and eating disorder. I wasn’t told about this until the drive home, with just my father and I in the car, as he described the whole situation that I had been absent from. I wished so badly that I could have been home during that year, that if I was there then maybe I could have helped her, and seen the signs of her struggling, and let her know that there is a way out of all this struggling but often it just takes time; however, I couldn’t do any of this because I was not present in my families lives while off at college.
When I get home, I go to my family’s fridge to find something to eat for lunch, and that’s when I notice something that makes my heart drop. The same chocolate protein shakes that I survived on my junior year of high school stacked in the fridge door, staring me down. Asking who’s they were, I learnt that they were my sisters, that they were practically the only thing she would eat at this point. All the thoughts come flooding in, the hindsight thoughts, the thoughts of “if only I was here, I could have noticed the signs, I could have helped her get through this”, and I wonder what my parents think about this pattern, if they recognize how I once gravitated towards these chocolate protein shakes, whether they gave her proper medical attention so she could be helped by professionals, and finally, I begin to blame myself; if only I was there home and there for her, and what if I was the one that taught her this behavior in the first placed, was this something she had learned from watching me? These thoughts terrify me. There was nothing I could do with these questions, who would listen to this chaotic, rambling ranting?
I figure the only thing I can do, rather than blaming myself for not being there in the past, is to be as present as possible in the present. Every person’s relationship with their body is different, and I can’t just give her a solution to learning to love her body, but what I can do is be present. I rarely open up to family about these personal issues (and most people agree that family is often the hardest people to be vulnerable with) but if I begin to break down those barriers of my life, then hopefully I can begin by showing those around me that I can empathize with them, and that I am there for them, offering a person that cares for them when that was all I ever seemed to want when I had struggled.
Objects and Relationships: The Norton Anthology of American Literature and My Mother
When I was 16 years old, my mother gave me a copy of the Norton Anthology of American Literature. A rather large tome of a college textbook that highlights the North American canon of literary texts, ranging from the founding of the nation to the beginning of the 21st century. It was definitely a unique gift for a mother to give to her son, but that was just the type of mother she was.
My mother had worked for the university system her whole life, teaching as a professor and managing programs as faculty. She has taught mostly in composition writing, both online (while she raised her four children) and in person. The college she worked at was like a second home to me, playing computer games in the classrooms and reading books in her small office. My mother would tote me around during the summer when I was young because it was easier (and cheaper) than sending me to daycare. I was a quiet kid, and like all children, the adults loved having me around to make jokes with.
I have had a large amount of privilege growing up with a professor for a parent. She has always valued my education, putting it above most things to make my success the most realistic option. While growing up, she would remind myself and my sisters that college was the only option for us, because she described to us in blatant detail that the only way to make a well-paying career in this world would be to get a college degree.
She graduated from high school top of her class, got a full ride scholarship to community college, and worked her way into a masters and eventual PhD program, and she did this mostly on her own without the support of her family. In this way, she has always been an academic role model for me, someone who was consistently beaten down by the system but still managed to rise up to every challenge and overcome it. Her accomplishments are impressive; however, it is the same standards she put on herself that she puts on her kids. The constant expectation (often unsaid) she has of academic success is a pressure that I have felt since learning what college was (I can still remember the often serious lessons my mother had taught me in the first grade when we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, and my mother would sit me down and explain all the grades I would need to get and the paths I would need to pursue to make this dream realistic). Going to her and admitting that you were struggling with academics was not even plausible, she oftentimes took the role of professor over mother while raising her children.
Which brings us to the gift of the American Literature textbook. She had found an extra copy lying around that was free from another faculty, and she thought this the perfect idea of a gift to give her so. Don’t get me wrong, I honestly did enjoy the gift quite a bit, but this isn’t the only occasion she has given me textbooks before or after as ways of connecting with me. It was clear that even the little presents she would give me were usually always connected to her expectations of me getting a college degree.
I both appreciate and despise how she went about teaching me the expectation of getting a college degree. On the one hand, I can very much acknowledge my privilege of having a parent who understands the college system so well, who can help me with FAFSA, and in picking classes, and understanding how to take out loans effectively and pay for college and apply and all the other smaller things to think of when it comes to the university system. These were all definite advantages for understanding college, but again, it was the pressure that she instilled that was often crippling. I had a constant fear of failing classes growing up, getting anything below a “B” in a class was often grounds for her to be disappointed, asking if I would be trying harder next semester and asking what went wrong in the class. I constantly tried to overachieve and overextend myself in high school, not for my own satisfaction but because that’s what she expected.
During junior year of high school, I was lucky enough to go on a school trip to Europe (which I had worked as a dishwasher for a year to be able to pay for). During this trip, I had brought one book to keep me occupied on the long plane ride and the constant train rides during the traveling, and that was the Norton anthology of North American Literature my mother had given me. I brought it because I was enrolled in an AP U.S. History course, and I thought it best to study some of the text for the exam coming up in a few months. It was somewhat comical, seeing this American tourist with a rather large textbook on American texts in Europe, but that was something I wouldn’t realize until much later on. Even while on this trip, a fun little vacation overseas, I am still constantly studying per my mother’s expectations. What should have been a break was often interrupted with studying for an exam that if I passed would have given me several college credits (I ended up doing very well on the exam, whether that was because the high expectations my mother had put on me or the constant studying I cannot tell, probably a mix of both). This moment is how I often see my relationship with my mother and education, that even in times of enjoyment and relaxation, I cannot escape the fear of failing her expectations of me, and so I have often pushed myself to the point of exhaustion in hopes of impressing her.
A Kaleidoscopic Portrait of a Distantly Present Father
By the third grade, my father and I’s relationship could already be described as rocky. To paint the clearest portrait of the man, I couldn’t describe him as either an absent or present parent. He was simple that way: kept to himself, rarely showed emotions, and asked superficial questions to fill empty spaces. As a child, I had difficulty contextualizing my father and I’s relationship (as all kids will eventually do); however, by the third grade I had come to the first realization of our differences.
We lived in a small town in Massachusetts, one of those towns where the neighbors spend their weekends with each other, every kid is on the same sports team, and somehow everyone had a grandma that lived just down the street. I was one of those kids that took up playing a sport. I was too young to remember why I had done it, maybe because my closest friends had talked me into it, maybe because I thought my father would want me to. For whatever reason it was, I had chosen to play baseball from the time (it felt like) I could walk.
Baseball is (something even my child brain could understand) a very masculine sport. I didn’t enjoy the sport so much, rather I enjoyed going to Pizza Hut’s with all my friends after every game on the weekends and I especially loved that my father was the coach of the team we played. He had been coaching me for several years now, and this felt like the easiest way to connect with him. At home, he didn’t know how to start conversations, emotional distance seemed to be my father’s closest friend growing up with him, but out on the baseball field: he would talk to me. The feeling of having him pick me up when I achieved some amazing baseball feat (for a child, which was probably catching the ball) or when I needed to be scolded for messing something up (again, for a child, which was probably not catching the ball). The simple acknowledgement of my presence was like a drug for my tiny developing brain. I felt like the only real way to build a connection with him was only when I was on the baseball field. This also felt like a balancing act, for I was both craving for any piece of my father’s love while also hating anything related to sports.
There is an important note to be made in context of sports and my father and the crushing need to want my father to like me, and that is my father’s heart problem. He was born with a very rare heart condition, limiting most of his childhood to hospitals and resting. He lost out on having a normal childhood. Sports (in particular, baseball) was something he had loved since the time he could talk, but never something he could ever do. His condition never allowed him to play sports, and so he was relegated to the sidelines before he even knew what it was like to play. Could this be why he began to form a stronger bond with me through baseball, was he just living his childhood vicariously through me for all those years? I don’t know, and I’m not sure I want to, but it was exactly this line of thinking that dawned on me by the third grade. This realization hurt, more so because I had begun to make the connection that my father only wanted to speak with me through the medium of his own childhood dreams. I didn’t know how to process these emotions as a child, and so I pushed against my father, putting the same distance he had used so long but now in my hands. I had a deep hatred for all things I assumed he expected of me (which coincidentally happened to be many masculine expectations).
The journey of my playing baseball ended abruptly after the realization of my father’s expectations, and not in a simple way but more of a dramatic explosion of built-up energy. The house we lived in was rather small, and my bedroom was attached to the left side of the kitchen. The whole house was in motion, we were moving to a new state because my father found a good job opportunity in New Hampshire. I don’t remember where my mother and sisters were, they could have been upstairs packing or out in town grabbing something, but essentially, they weren’t present to keep a conversation buffer going between my father and me. I had ended up putting all his old toys (star trek action figures and spaceships) that he gave me in a box and leaving it outside my door with written on it ‘donation’. He obviously saw this, because he was keeping himself busy in the kitchen, and tried asking me about why I would want to donate these toys that I loved “We have plenty of space in the moving truck for them” he would say with an exhausted smile. This led to me, having built up all the fears and pressures that he wanted me to grow up in the image of himself when I knew I was not going to be the same person he is, to releasing all these emotions at once but directed through the rejection of his old toys (even as a child, I seemed to be living life through metaphors). We began to argue that we should keep them just a little longer, and the fight eventually got me yelling that I never wanted to play baseball and I only played because he couldn’t. And then silence. I don’t remember if he said anything after, tried to fix the situation I had put on our already unstable relationship. I could feel the immediate tear in our bond, and not knowing what to do next, grabbed the box of toys and slammed my bedroom door behind me. I spent hours sitting by the door and sobbing, cradling each and every toy I had threatened to donate, imagining that instead of holding the toys it was my father who was holding me close to him, reassuring me that everything’s going to be okay and that I shouldn’t worry about something as trivial as playing in an elementary baseball team; but he never held me afterwards, and the story of my father and I’s relationship was centered around this expulsion of sports and distancing on both ends. It was a mean thing to say as a kid, and I don’t know why it overtook me, but my fears of being unloved off the baseball field seemed to be coming to fruition, because without the middle ground of a baseball field, my father and I would speak only in passing for quite some time.
During the summer of my senior year of undergrad, I worried I would not be able to complete my coursework in time for graduation. Mental illness had taken a serious toll on my education, and I came to the realization of changing programs from the safe career option to something I had genuine passion for, a risky move for sure. I hadn’t told my mother of this plan yet, mostly because of the shame (she is a college professor, a role model; trying to explain to her that my mental health severely took away any opportunity of success these past few years would be an arduous task to undertake), but I knew if I began this conversation with my mother then it would require me to acknowledge my failure. With this option being off the table, and with the urge to have to tell someone of my current situation, I went to my father.
We rarely talked about our problems with each other growing up. Conversations had no weight between us, and we rarely knew what was happening in each other’s lives. This strained relationship took its toll on me daily; wanting to reach out and hold him like a son should, but not knowing how. When I first began noticing how severe my mental health was at 16, I began rebelling against my parents (as most kids eventually do, trying to make sense of the rules and structures around them). It got to the point where I would end all my nights in my parents’ bedroom, yelling, screaming, pleading for help. I begged for therapy, but their relationship with mental health was more complex than I could have imagined. My mother has a PhD in psychology, a woman with extensive knowledge of the brain; and yet, wouldn’t acknowledge when her own son was struggling. I was too young, and maybe still too young, to understand why she didn’t help me when I was so clearly reaching out for her. I know she tried her best but often her best wasn’t what was needed.
My father understood my mental health in completely different terms than my mother. He ignored them for two whole years, pretending they didn’t exist seemed to be a coping mechanism I learned best from him. He remained quiet while my mother would attempt to calm me down, always in the room but never acknowledging my present, never meeting my eyeline. It wasn’t until I was 18 that he finally acknowledged my struggling. He sat me down alone (a foreign concept to our fraught relationship, a new environment neither of us truly knew how to maneuver) and described how he also suffered from severe mental health issues. He didn’t say much, only that he takes medicine for it and that he’s been struggling for a while, but neither of us needed to hear what was unsaid. The unbroken silence of a conversation could be understood like a second language to both my father and I, we understood each other best in the things that remained unsaid. My father had finally let me into his world, had let me into his own life, and I’m not sure why he waited so long to tell me he struggled with the same things I did (maybe he feared acknowledging it early would become a prophetic sentence of the future pain, maybe he figured leaving it unsaid it would naturally go away, but I cannot believe that he was ever ignorant of it). The simple acknowledgment, the feeling of being seen by my father, was something I had been craving for so long that it felt like I had finally learned to breathe. This revelation from my father was not some triumphant fix to our relationship though, but it was something we were both yearning for: a first step.
It is this memory of the emotional catharsis between my father and me that led me to speak with him that summer of senior year undergrad, when it felt like life was falling apart. I told him everything, unloaded emotions on him and laid my heart out bare for him to see. We sat on opposite ends of the bedroom. I sobbed, he listened. After I had finished explaining everything, he comforted me. It was such a simple ask, but something I had rarely known before this instance, something I was never sure I would receive from him. He told me a story of how he took a job that he hated, simply because it paid more, and that he abandoned his dream career. How he used to check on that job posting every day for the next year afterwards, imagining what his life would be like if he just followed his passions. Looking back feels so cliché, but in the moment, seeing the pain on my father’s face and hearing it in my voice, it made me want nothing more than to get up and hold him in my arms; but I didn’t get up, neither did he, and so we sat in silence for a few moments and thought about what to say next. Our shared pains of following our passions, his too far gone to reach, and mine just within grasp. He eventually broke the silence, “You know whatever you chose I’ll be proud of you. Always have been and I always will be.” Again a very cliché line, but hearing him say this I didn’t care if hundreds or thousands of people had heard this before, the only thing that mattered to me was that he had finally said it.
- Academic Awards
While in middle school, I had won an award given by the English department. The award would be given by the end of the school day, a Friday, and parents were invited to attend. It was held in the gym, with all the bleachers set up to house everyone. My father had left work early to surprise me there. He sat in the bleachers before everyone got there, and I hadn’t noticed him until I stood up to receive my award at the front of the gym. He was seated with all the older kids, and he was only one of two other parents that showed up to cheer for their kids. I remember seeing him there, surrounded by other students, with his phone out taking pictures. I was a kid, and like kids obviously do, I was embarrassed and ignored him for this. It was a very simple thing he had done, attended an awards show when he didn’t have to, but it means so much more to me now than it ever could have at the time. Looking back on it, I wish I had learned how to hug my father, I wish I had run up to him through the crowds of kids in the bleachers, and felt what it was like to be held in his arms; but this is not how our story went. We are slowly learning how to break down the walls of silence that surround our relationship, showing each other that we both want to feel loved by the other but neither being brave enough to make the first move in healing.
Tolstoy as a Didactic Figure
When looking at the writing craft and stylistic choices, few authors can compare with the level in which Tolstoy builds fully realized characters and complex portrayals of the world we live in; however, his critiques of cultures and people often reflect harmful stereotypes on women and family. Tolstoy’s views on women can be traced to the women present (and missing) from his development as a human and writer. The women in Tolstoy’s stories are often met with some form of punishment, while it is evident Tolstoy is attempting to critique how society punishes women for their actions, it is clear he doesn’t fully support the concept of women having complete autonomy over their bodies, health, or love. Tolstoy as a writer often attempts to take the role as teacher, for the sole purpose of showing readers his personal view on the ‘dangers’ and ‘transgressions’ faced when deviating from a traditional approach of femininity, the roles and responsibilities of motherhood, and the destructiveness of sexuality without self-control.
The death of Tolstoy’s mother, occurring when Tolstoy was barely younger than two years old, left drastic effects on Tolstoy’s views of women and mother figures. Tolstoy was of an age where he couldn’t remember his mother, but she was present enough during the infant stage to leave an impression on the baby. The other women in Tolstoy’s life that played a significance in his upbringing, which he details in his work Reminisces, was his grandmother and a close aunt. By the age of ten, Tolstoy had lost both his father and grandmother; but being the child of a wealthy fortune, he could live comfortably raised by his three elder brothers. In Armstrongs novel The Unsaid Anna Karenina, they offer the response to a child’s loss of parents as a hyper fixation on perfection; and this perfection manifests itself in Tolstoy’s drive for sexual purity. This obsession with sexual purity manifests itself in his diary writing, where he creates rules of his life to achieve this perfection. His diary entry of April 18, 1851 recounts his sexual encounter with a serf woman, in which he blames her for acting as a temptress. “I couldn’t refrain; I beckoned to something pink which, in the distance, seemed to me very nice, and opened the door at the back. She came in. I couldn’t see her, it was vile and repulsive, I even hate her because I’ve broken my rules on her account” (Christain 21). Tolstoy does not allow himself casual romance as he puts love on an unrealistic pedestal; his concept of a truly good love is how he imagines his parents would love each other if they were still alive. Tolstoy guides his life through a moral code that goes against the norms of gender and sexuality at the time.
Tolstoy viewed his mother as a saintly woman, the ideal moral perfection in which one could possibly achieve. Through descriptions of Tolstoy’s mother and her writing, he created the self-imposed rules of life which plagued him until his death. This obsession with his mother’s spirituality led him to refuse seeing even a portrait of his mother. He believed if he saw an artistic rendering of her then he believed the image she held as a moral goal towards spirituality would crumble before him because he would notice her physical flaws. The distancing Tolstoy creates from his mother is commonly found from children processing and coping with their emotions. In Tolstoy’s fictional story Childhood, he creates fictional characters which represent autobiographical moments in his life; an example of this being, the child narrator loses his mother at the age of eight and is not present at his mother’s deathbed, only being told about his mother’s death from a close friend shortly afterward. Tolstoy uses writing as a coping mechanism for the trauma he lived through, creating fictional worlds where he has a mother he can talk to but ultimately expressing his emotions in a cathartic release of absence during his mother’s death. Without the ability to write, Tolstoy would not have found viable coping strategies for dealing with his grief.
Tolstoy’s larger novel, Anna Karenina, reflects both his own moral code and his views on women. The novel’s three primary female characters are Anna Karenina, Kitty Scherbatsky, and Dolly Oblonsky, each of these women representing some form of love and each punished in unique ways. Tolstoy portrays Anna as a character who represents a life without self-control, a warning to the readers on the dangers of giving in to sexual urges. Tolstoy portrays Kitty as a character who represents men’s idealized image of wives, showing his readers the effects of servitude women go through for the comfort of men. Tolstoy portrays Dolly as a character who represents silence women face in context of their partner’s infidelity, teaching his readers that men should be allowed to cheat in relationships without repercussions. These women play very different roles in terms of their genders, but in every instance, Tolstoy takes upon himself the role of teacher, guiding his readers to his own warped morality.
The first clear example Tolstoy makes in teaching is how he writes Anna’s affair with Vronsky in Part Two. These characters’ temptations and flirtations lead to them inevitably having an affair. Tolstoy excludes from this scene the release of positive emotions, refusing to describe how the characters love each other; instead, he begins the scene after the act of cheating and juxtaposes the emotions the characters feel with a metaphor of murder. Anna clutches herself and begs anyone who would listen for forgiveness, “’My God! Forgive me!’ she said, sobbing… She felt herself so criminal and guilty that the only thing left for her was to humble herself and beg forgiveness; but as she had no one else in her life now except him, it was also to him that she addressed her plea for forgiveness” (Pevear 149). It is interesting to note that Tolstoy puts both God and Vronsky, the adulterer, on the same pedestal for listening to Anna’s forgiveness pleas. Tolstoy is teaching his audience that those who lack self-restraint and indulge in their sexual desires will lose their audience with God and be forced to live with the sins they commit. Tolstoy then compares their love to that of a murderer, “And he felt what a murderer must feel when he looks at the body he has deprived of life. This body deprived of life was their love, the first period of their love” (Pevear 149). Tolstoy purposefully frames this scene as a violent murder because he doesn’t want to give nuance to his audience, if his characters felt anything more than disgust at following their passions then it would drastically taint his idealized sense of morality that he wants the reader to part with.
Tolstoy writes of Anna’s dreams of wanting a love so passionate and intense that it sweeps you away, but he grounds this love by showing the mundaneness of everyday living. This can be seen in Anna’s flight with Vronsky from her husband Karenin, where Anna expects her problems to be resolved now that she is separated from her old world. Tolstoy breaks down Anna’s expectations of happiness while simultaneously shutting down the reader’s own desire for Anna’s fulfillment. Tolstoy follows the thread of adultery and violence by giving Anna the metaphorical feelings of “a drowning man who has torn away another man clinging to him. That man drowned. Of course it was bad, but it was the only salvation, and it was better not to remember those dreadful details” (Pevear 464). The purpose of this is to remind the reader how the only result of women’s adultery is suffering. Tolstoy paints their romance as completely superficial, because they both carry with them heavy feelings of guilt and regret. Tolstoy is also commenting on the wanting of desires in this section. Now that Vronsky has finally gotten Anna, “He soon felt that the realization of his desire had given him only a grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected. It showed him the eternal error people make in imagining that happiness is the realization of desires” (Pevear 465). The message is being spelt out for his readers that chasing desires leads to undesirable resolutions. The moral code that Tolstoy creates for himself can be traced throughout this section as a warning to his readers of the dangers of releasing yourself to your desires. If it is true that Tolstoy frames this scene as a morally wrong set of actions, then the opposite must also be true: people in marriages (especially women) must live without desires or else they will be punished by a Tolstoian morally correct God.
Anna’s final scene at the train station reflects how her growing mental health issues has ultimately culminated in her taking her life. Tolstoy is noticing a serious issue within the marriage construct, and while he is not critiquing gender politics, he is merely pushing his flawed agenda that women who pursue adultery cannot escape punishment. The moral thread that follows throughout this novel can be traced up until Anna’s demise, ultimately being the cause of Anna’s death. Tolstoy inserts himself as both God and author of this universe, choosing paths for his characters that reflect how he sees the world around him. This premise can best be understood in how he frames the epigraph of the text: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” This quote is a translated verse from the Bible, drawing on themes of both punishment and the spirituality of religion. The purpose of this quote reflects Tolstoy’s use of didacticism in his writing. Tolstoy may not see himself as a God figure; however, he does view his moral code as a cosmic sense of justice. Tolstoy is clearly noticing how the sins Anna commits throughout this novel must be understood through the context of her gender, but he fails to recognize how his male characters do not fall victim to the same moral judgment as the women in the novel.
In Mary Evans novel Reflecting on Anna Karenina, they reveal a key feature lacking in the novel Anna Karenina: “any account of Anna’s diminishing, or even changing, desire for Vronsky. We know that initially she is deeply drawn and attracted to Vronsky, but we are given no further indication of whether this desire is maintained, developed or even reconsidered on Anna’s side. It is taken as read by a male nineteenth-century writer that what matters in sexual relationships is the desire of the man for the woman. The reverse is not considered…” (Evans 80). Tolstoy has crafted Anna as a physical representation of men’s sexual desire, her relationship with the men around her is rarely nuanced. The purpose of her existence to Tolstoy reflects his paranoia and fears towards women. Evans draws more on this concept of Anna as a physical representation of female sexuality: “But to Tolstoy, Anna is the original Eve of the nineteenth-century bourgeois male mind. Growing up in a society in which sexual relations with women were shaped by norms that separated ‘good’ women from sexual pleasure and personal initiative, Tolstoy worked out his morbid fantasies of female sexuality in the character of Anna” (Evans 81). Anna as a character could have been a scalding critique on gender norms and female sexuality, but instead, Tolstoy chooses to tell this story as a moral tale, letting his male readers fantasize over Anna while his female readers find no pleasure in how Tolstoy clearly guides Anna to her death.
Another representation of femininity and motherhood in the novel Anna Karenina is the character of Kitty. She is a representation of innocence in the text, often shocked at the realistic events of life. Tolstoy created the character of Kitty based off his own wife, once again where his autobiographical writing style bleeds into his fictional prose. Kitty is a figure that Levin, a stand-in character for Tolstoy himself, chases after in an obsessive attempt for marriage. This character clearly connects with Tolstoy’s self-imposed rules of life, how Tolstoy wishes to obtain purity by marrying someone he sees as ‘innocent’. Kitty nearly faces death from childbirth, and this experience haunts the relationship of Levin and Kitty. It is Kitty who is forced to assimilate into Levin’s world of farming and peasants, never given the opportunity to live with her own choices. This is a chilling parallel Tolstoy accidentally makes on how his perspective on gender and family dynamics is understood in contrast with his wife. Tolstoy’s wife must deal with a man who preaches his views which only attempt to serve his needs of reaching perfection. Kitty is less punished than Anna by Tolstoy, simply for the sole fact that she obeys the role she is given as wife and mother, and Tolstoy sees this relationship as idyllic and harmonious for (ironically) both partners.
The final complex representation of femininity in the text Anna Karenina is of the character Dolly. This character is put through the most severe of sub servitudes in the context of men. Dolly’s husband, Stiva, begins the text with an affair. Stiva promises he will change but throughout the text it is evident he still hides his countless ongoing affairs from his wife Dolly. It is clear that Dolly is aware of these affairs, but she is trapped in family life to react in any way beneficial for her. She isn’t given the option of leaving this relationship because women lack legal authority at this time period, she would also have to abandon her role as mother and leave her children who she adores. Amy Mandelker draws on Dolly as a heroine figure in the novel through her examination of the text Framing Anna Karenina: Tolstoy, the Woman Question, and the Victorian Novel. Mandelker reflects, “In depicting Dolly, Tolstoy drew yet one more portrait of the victimization of woman: in this case a spiritual rather than a physical death, a life based on lies, self-deception, dissimulation, and ultimately, on cowardice.” (Mandelker, 55) Tolstoy is once again noticing the issues women face in marriages and motherhood, but he fails to reflect on reforming these issues and will instead teach his audience that when men cheat it is excusable and doesn’t require any severe punishment similar to how the women are punished for adultery.
The concept that women are treated far more harshly than men are in the novel Anna Karenina cannot be stated enough. Evans reflects on this, stating,
But whilst the central male characters – Levin, Vronsky and Karenin – do not escape unscathed, it is the women who are more harshly punished. The inequality of their respective fates tends to support the view that Tolstoy’s attitude to women was one of suspicion, fear, and retribution. Anna has sinned most, so Anna must die. Dolly has ‘failed’ to maintain her husband’s affections and so she must be punished. Kitty is young and innocent, and so she must be made aware of the realities of life by a harrowing experience while giving birth to her first child.(Evans, 75)
The women in the novel are punished by Tolstoy simply for existing, because he sees himself as a teacher who must pass on his worldview. The men in the novel face their own forms of torture, but Tolstoy positions their struggles as philosophical rather than physical. Vronsky and Levin both struggle with their mental health and the purpose for their lives, but they also have the freedom to serve in the war and live happily with family. The novel is written as a cautionary tale for Tolstoy’s audience, while women see through Tolstoy’s use of creating women as merely accessories to men, Tolstoy expects his male audience to view themselves in relation to the women of the novel.
Tolstoy’s later work, titled The Kreutzer Sonata, was a radical departure from Tolstoy’s previous works, but his morality can be traced as it slowly evolves through his writing. Tolstoy creates a character which goes on long rants and tangents on the dangers of society, blaming all issues as stemming from mostly women. Tolstoy may not be a stand-in necessarily for this mad man, but his writing proves he wishes for his readers to feel sympathetic to his cause. This text would eventually require a postface to be written by Tolstoy, because many readers and critics didn’t know how to interact with the text. It is in this postface that Tolstoy describes there is only one specific way to understand and interpret the text, and so he spells out the points being made in the text for the readers.
The first point Tolstoy is making is that sex has become too permeated in mainstream culture that it is leading us to our downfall. Women position themselves in relation to men’s sexual desires. Due to oversexualization of society, Tolstoy argues for a celibate world, free of sex completely. Tolstoy makes the comparison to overindulging on foods and drinks to that of sex and argues if we can stop our consumption then we can just as easily stop having sexual desires. “Abstinence is possible, and is less dangerous and injurious to the health than non-abstinence: every man will find around him a hundred proofs to this” (McDuff 300). Tolstoy’s radical views on sex and consumption fit into his moral compass, if sex wasn’t valued so highly then Tolstoy wouldn’t have to fear his sexual desire.
The second point Tolstoy is making is that marriage infidelity will not occur if sexual desires were confronted in positive and healthy ways. Tolstoy is making a strong point that families should be encouraging healthy restraints regarding sexual desires. Tolstoy claims, “that men and women be educated by their families and by public opinion in such a way that both before and after marriage they view desire and the carnal love that is associated with it not as a sublime, poetic condition, as they are viewed at present, but as a condition of animality that is degrading to human beings” (McDuff 300). Tolstoy is pushing his views on love as something like a transaction, the examples of pleasurable love should be seen as something lesser. Tolstoy is making the point that marriage should not be this chasing of sexual desires, but instead a job performed by a couple.
The third point Tolstoy is making is that having children has gone through a dramatic shift. Women are taking contraceptives to avoid pregnancy and experiencing more casual forms of love and are essentially given more sexual freedom. Tolstoy disregards this, “It is a bad thing for people to use contraceptive devices, in the first place because it frees them from the care and hard work which children bring and which serve as an expiation of carnal love, and in the second place because this is something very close to the act which is more repugnant to the human conscience than any other: the act of murder” (McDuff 301). Tolstoy blatantly disregards the sexual liberation women were given with the newfound access to contraceptives. Tolstoy believes doctors to be evil for distributing contraception to women, promoting sexual desires. It is by this point of Tolstoy’s postface to his text that he becomes fully radical to the point of misogyny, spouting his ideals of a world where women’s only role was that of the mother. It is also interesting to note that Tolstoy acknowledges the physical and mental toll that childbirth and raising a child can have on a woman, but he still can’t conceptualize the rights of women.
The fourth point Tolstoy is making is that children are brought up for the purpose of the enjoyment of their parents. Tolstoy argues the effect of this is, “the children of men are raised like the young of animals, and the principal concern of their parents is not to prepare them for an active life worthy of human beings but (and here the parents receive the support of that mendacious science that is called medicine) to feed them as well as possible, to make them as tall as possible, to make them clean, white, replete and attractive” (McDuff 301). Tolstoy believes we are raising our children like that of animals, valuing how we perform versions of ourselves rather than focusing on growth and development. The purpose of this point is that children are raised to value appearances over education, this leads directly into Tolstoy’s grievances with modern consumerism and gluttony while also describing how Tolstoy cannot control his own sexual desire to the ability he wishes to.
The fifth point Tolstoy is making is that young people are too focused on sexual desires, every action they make and every thought they have is in relation to the opposite sex. Tolstoy believes this to be harmful to society, but this is clearly his own sexual desires manifesting itself in his writing. Tolstoy believes this time could be better spent in research or religion rather than the unhealthy obsession of chasing poetic love. Tolstoy states his reason for this as, “Because of this the finest energies of human beings are wasted on work that is not only unproductive but also harmful. This is the source of most of the mindless luxury of our day-to-day lives, and it is also women who think nothing of parading, in fashions borrowed from prostitutes, those parts of their bodies that excite men’s lust” (McDuff 302). Tolstoy’s thoughts on writing are harmful for the vast amount of devoted followers he has attained. No matter how close Tolstoy gets to noticing how women are mistreated and abused in the real world, he still cannot realize how he adds to the issue.
- Armstrong, Judith. The Unsaid Anna Karenina. New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1988.
- Cruise, Edwina. “Women, sexuality, and the family in Tolstoy.” The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, edited by Donna Tussing Orwin, Cambridge University Press, 2002, 191-205.
- Evans, Mary. Reflecting on Anna Karenina. London, Routledge, 1989.
- Jajja, Muhammad Ayub. “Unmasking the Alternative Micro Feminist Narratives in Anna Karenina: A Postmodernist-Deconstructive Perspective.” Global Social Sciences Review, vol. 4, no. 4, Fall 2019, pp. 42–52. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.31703/gssr.2019(IV-IV).05.
- Mandelker, Amy. Framing Anna Karenina: Tolstoy, the Woman Question, and the Victorian Novel. Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1993.
- Tolstoi, Lev, et al. The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories. Penguin, 2008.
- Tolstoy, Leo, and Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Anna Karenina. Penguin Books, 2004.