So do I get to be a private person, too?

That’s the thought that’s been going through my head lately, since a partner in another online group for partners I belonged to recently commented that she was feeling hesitant about reading She’s Not the Man I Married because Betty stepped in to defend me on some occasion on the message boards.

& I was a little surprised, for two reasons: (1) because the idea of someone deciding I’m not independent enough or that I’ve hidden behind Betty’s skirts (as it were) kind of confounds me in general, considering the criticism I get more often is that I’m such a ball-buster who is exploiting Betty for the fame & fortune, and (2) because it never occurred to me that others wouldn’t recognize that while I have a public life as a partner & as an author, I’m also still also just one of a gazillion partners of trans people who is trundling through this experience.

That is, I never thought I’d hear it argued that because of things I said on the boards (or things Betty said, in my defense) would come to color someone’s opinion of me as an author/advocate.

Surely I understand there’s an intersection.

I read a little piece by Audacia Ray about the whole public/private issue that she wrote not long after our reading together at McNally Robinson:

One of the questions this raises is to what extent a writer should jump into the fray when her work is being discussed, especially when its being misinterpreted. I know you aren’t “supposed” to read/obsess over reviews, but with the Internet and especially Technorati and Google alerts, its really hard not to. Mmmm, instant.

Which has come up for me, now & again, but in this case, it wasn’t my work being discussed; in general I think I’ve only ever “jumped into the fray” unless a criticism was particularly egregious or mean-spirited. But in this case, it was my behavior, and Betty’s (or our dynamic as a couple), that was mentioned. & I’m still kind of floored by the idea of being seen as someone who lets her partner fight her battles for her, but also by the idea of someone bringing that up in the context of my books.

So, what say you? I feel like I’m a little between worlds, that type of oldschool writer who expects smart readers to be able to make a public/private distinction, and a high-tech writer who pays attention to what people are saying.

By now you’d think this experience had burned me often enough that I’d quit putting my fingers in the fire, but I do still need support, as a partner, & I do still get a great deal of that even while just reading/lurking in online communities. Now I’m thinking that that loss, if anything, would be the greatest sacrifice I’ve had to make as a result of the books: I ended up writing them, after all, somewhat as a result of getting kicked out of so many groups, & now to feel like I have to remove myself – well, it’s a sobering thought. But I’d really rather not have my work devalued because I was having a bad day on the message boards or in other online communities I’ve been a part of. But I suppose what I’d rather not have happen isn’t often up to me.

I’m suprised, too, at how wounding it felt to have a fellow partner dismiss me so summarily. Surely what I need is thicker skin, but then my writing would suffer. I don’t think my writing would be as intimate if I were to be a bit more aloof, and I don’t think I’d be as much help to people if I kept everyone at an arm’s distance. The most important writing advice I’ve ever read is Dorothy Allison’s, who said you should wear your skin as thin as you can. Some days that’s harder than it sounds.

5 Replies to “Public/Private”

  1. I’ve experienced that sort of distancing in the trans community; I got to a certain place wherein I was the pillar of strength and stability, and had a certain level of visibility (notoriety?) within the community. And then – I had to go outside of the trans community to find my own support. Kind of sad. Maybe file it under “we eat our leaders”. Where are my elders? They have all fled for the woodwork years ago; I’ve been one of the senior members of the local support spaces for a while now, and I am visible mostly because I am there for other reasons than my own well being.

    I’m actually having the same sort of experience in yoga – get too embedded into the practice, with connections to the business end of things and teaching, and one’s individual practice becomes complicated. Hard to clear one’s mind when one is paying attention to a teacher’s techniques…trying to learn or pick things up. I’m actually working to develop a personal practice because its much purer than what I can do at the studio these days.

    As for Betty’s staunch defense; I don’t really see it as a sort of patriarchal “knight in shining armor rescuing the lady faire” thing at all; the boards get pretty rollicking and sometimes there is a need for two voices to enforce, cajole, calm, steer. I see the two of you as a sort of “good cop / bad cop” – you’re in the fray often and that tends to temper your authority (familiarity breeds contempt and all that) whereas Betty is a bit more removed and therefore when she steps in, it carries GREAT WEIGHT and AUTHORITY.

    On a list I moderate, I deliberately post infrequently and stay out of the day-to-day chit-chat, because when it comes time to step in, I need to have a bit of gravitas on my side.

  2. The Audacia Ray piece made me think of a story that Isaac Asimov told me (I had a chance to eat lunch with him more years ago than I’d like to remember):

    When he was writing “I, Robot” the character “Susan Calvin” had a different last name in honor of a teacher he liked a lot. When he was reviewing the galleys he realized that the teacher might not appreciate having the character named after her, so he called his editor to change it. “Okay,” said the editor, “but the name has to begin with a C”. “Calvin,” Asimov said quickly on the phone.

    Several years later he stumbled on a talk where someone was talking about symbolism. He was surprised when the speaker said that he had chosen the name “Calvin” to rail against the Calvinistic tendencies in our society. Asimov just stayed in the background and listened. At the end he walked up to the speaker and said something like, “Great talk, but I’m sorry, I really think you reading too much into what Asimov wrote in “I, Robot”.”

    “And why do you say that?” the speaker asked.

    Asimov stuck out his hand. “I’m Isaac Asimov,” he said.

    The speaker paused for a second, shook his hand, and said, “Well, then, it’s obvious that you don’t understand what you wrote.”

    I remember him saying something about how he learned that there are always people who read the wrong thing into something, and that this helped him realize that any review that tried to get into his mind and find the deeper meaning was a load of hooey. Didn’t stop him from writing a couple of more books or being vocal about what he thought about in his books (or even about those who didn’t like his writing style).

    I would hate to see you chased away from your own forums just because someone tried to take you and Betty’s online interactions as an excuse to not read your book. It’s a sample point of one. I think that most of people appreciate your presence and your honesty and don’t feel a need to say “keep going” because, well, you’re already here.

    As to you “hiding under Betty’s skirts” this just doesn’t make any sense to me. From what I’ve seen of the two of you that’s the last thing I’d ever accuse you of. I think if you were to probe that partner you’d probably find that her reticence has nothing to do with you or Betty and everything to do with the partner and/or her relationship with spouse. For example, I don’t think most of us trans-people do a good job of recognizing the hardships we inflict in our spouses, let alone supporting them when we start to explore our trans side. Could that be the real reason? Or am I “reading too much into” her motivation as well?

  3. You’re wonderful…”thin skin” and all. Don’t change. Keep writing and commenting in your own forums because you give voice to the things that many of us are hesitant to mention.

  4. an anonymous person sent me this gem:

    I think if you don’t have an instinct to defend your partner, your relationship is in trouble.

    which i appreciate muchly.

  5. I have always wanted a partner who would stand up for me. Anyone who finds fault with Betty watching your back knows nothing about love and relationships.
    You have every right to be ” just a partner ” anytime you need to.
    What that has to do with being a good writer ?????? From my point of view, nothing.


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