Lately the idea of—the fact of—emotional repression is popping everywhere I look. It’s something I’ve been doing some hard work on recently, learning to feel and name my emotions and not hate them and not be too scared to express them to another person—but the more awareness I have of this, the more I realize how common this problem is.
For instance. I wanted to tell you about this book I’ve been reading, an old RE/Search book from 1991 called Angry Women. The RE/Search books contained long-form interviews with fascinating artists of different kinds; some of my favorite people in the world have been profiled and probed in those books. I’ve got a framed picture on a shelf of the one and only Billy Childish, standing with Tracey Emin (his ex lover who went on to make a career out of more or less making fun of him) in a kitchen. It looks like a snapshot taken at a party in someone’s house, in the middle of some joke that’s making them both laugh. She’s wearing a 40s-style halter-tie bathing suit as a dress and he’s smoking a cigarette and smiling with his eyes. Point is, the photo is on the back cover of a RE/Search book that included an interview with Childish, and I loved the picture so much I tore the cover off the book and stuck it in a frame.
A few months ago I ordered this Angry Women book from my friend Karen who runs an excellent secondhand books business, knowing it was the kind of book that would have made a massive impression on me if I’d read it as a young woman when it first came out. Sure enough, it’s packed full of enough ideas, photos, and inspiration that I think I’ll be carrying it around with me and picking through it for some time to come. One of the conversations is with the writer Sapphire from before she published her devastating novel Push, which inspired a bidding war and sold hundreds of thousands of copies, when she was still an underground poet whose “uncompromising writings deserve much wider publication,” as the RE/Search editors put it. The poem they reproduced alongside her interview, “Mickey Mouse Was a Scorpio,” which describes childhood sexual abuse, is so blistering it will melt the hair off your head, but in this context it feels like a natural extension of the zero-bullshit interview she gave, in which she aired dark family secrets that the people in her family still actively denied.
(It’s superficial and me-centric, I guess, but I feel so proud and pleased to look at the pictures of Sapphire in this book and see that I have a long black dress and a wire-wrapped quartz necklace just like she wore here, in 1991. Like, Sapphire saved her own life with her art and her bravery, you know? And maybe in some small way I am like her. I like the thought of that.)
But yeah, the most refreshing— and frankly useful, even life-giving—thing about these artist interviews is their emotional honesty. I’ve always needed this from art: Songs, stories, poems, and essays in which the creator tells me just exactly how they feel. It gives me life. And yet talking about my own feelings can sometimes feel impossible to me. The word feelings, the word emotions: These have felt like such embarrassing things to say. Isn’t it loserish to be sloppy like that? Aren’t me and my big brain above that sort of thing? As I come to recognize this kind of thinking as a problem, I’m also realizing that I didn’t come by it naturally. It was passed on to me and has been reinforced on many levels, and it has hurt me badly, at times even sapped my life-force. And you know how that makes me feel? PISSED!
When you learn a new word, it has a way of showing up everywhere all of a sudden, as if for the first time. Similarly, when I opened the book just now to see which artists I wanted to tell you about, what did I see but this big pull quote from the performance artist and writer Karen Finley on heart v. brain:
“That’s the ‘male’* way of dealing with suffering: ‘thinking’ about it instead of feeling it. And my way is to feel it, acknowledge it. As a culture we kind of have the thinking part down pat, but not the feeling…”
It’s true, I think. (I feel that it’s true. Ha.) As a society, we really have a hard time feeling our feelings and not hating ourselves, or other people, for having them. Intellectualizing them is easier for a lot of people, as it takes the edge off the discomfort and pain—and doing so is often rewarded socially, while showing an honest emotion might well get you shamed or mocked right out the door.
Intellectualizing is one of those things that sounds kinda good but really isn’t, like perfectionism. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a creative type brag about being a perfectionist, as if it’s a good thing to be so afraid of making a mistake that you never let a piece of work out into the world or even start working on it in the first place. It’s really just more fear: Fear of messy human stuff, like emotions and missteps and having an outburst when you were trying so hard to be polite. If your idea of being polite is never saying how you really feel because you’re “expected to sit and take some lesser man’s shit” (thanks Kevin Barnes), then cut it out! Name those feelings and get ’em out there!
*The conversations in this book are a little heavy on the gender binary approach so prevalent in 3rd-wave feminism, except for when the queer artists are talking. For instance, a performance artist and playwright named Holly Hughes, who I’d never heard of before I read this interview with her, talks about her public identity always being tied to her identity as a lesbian, and how reductive that can be for an artist when they are trying to express a range of ideas and feelings, including more “universal” life experiences, like her waitress job at Red Lobster. Andrea Juno, the editor who conducted most of the interviews in the book, says to Hughes, “It’s a trap for women to think they’re that separate. If you start defining what you ‘are,’ you start getting so many exceptions that any argument can be whittled down. Actually, there’s nothing you can say that women are, that men aren’t (and vice versa).”