Thursday, September 24, 2015

Angels and Demons, Strengths and Weaknesses

by Annabeth Leong

Garce gave me the start I needed for this post by referencing that Tennessee Williams quote: “If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.” I’m not sure what Williams meant, but I read it as a reference to how demons and angels can so often be one and the same.

When I was younger, I thought I was in the grip of personal demons, and I spent lots of time apologizing for it. I thought I was crazy because I was wounded. I thought I was fucked up because I couldn’t fit into mainstream narratives of who I was supposed to be and become. I thought I was sinful because I was curious.

I don’t accept those things as demons anymore.

I was raised in a sort of thinking that divided things into good and evil, acceptable and unacceptable. At a certain point, the reality I lived in and observed began to strain out of that categorization. I didn’t solve the problem by simply deciding everything is permissible, though.

Now, what I think is that my flaws and strengths are different sides of the same human coin.

Take lustfulness, for example—a classic member of the traditional list of deadly sins. I’ve gotten myself into trouble over lustful urges. By which I mean I have behaved rashly, without sufficient care for myself or others. I’ve been hurt, and I’ve sometimes hurt others. I used to feel terrible about my inability to control myself, my need to experiment, the fact that I couldn’t seem to settle down and be anyone’s proper girlfriend. That later, I couldn’t be someone’s proper wife.

On the other hand, my curiosity and urge toward exploration has led to so much self-knowledge. I strongly believe that my sexual impulses have led the way toward my becoming a more authentic person, a person who is more accepting of myself and others in all our various mixes of feelings, desires, and needs, and in all our various forms.

It is hard in mainstream society to live with the sort of sex life I have. I often hear about how ashamed I should feel. I often hear my identities and practices discussed by people who don’t realize that someone who “would do those things” is sitting right there in the room with them. But that has forced me to learn courage. It’s a sort of courage that goes against my nature, too.

If it were up to me, I would never cause a ripple in the water. I hate making people feel uncomfortable, and I’ve always been willing to twist myself into knots to avoid it. This, too, is an angel and a demon. I am kind. I am aware of the feelings and needs of others. I love that about myself. On the other hand, I am willing sometimes to let others bully me in the name of keeping the peace. I am willing to suppress myself so no one else has to see parts of me they might not like. Sometimes I hurt people through silence because I can’t bear to face them and hurt them through what I may have to say.

I used to feel a sort of darkness at the idea of myself as tormented by personal demons. Sometimes, I liked that and sometimes I feared it. I used to see myself as a battleground—angels versus demons, sane versus crazy, normal versus weird.

I don’t see it that way anymore, though. I like being a person, not a battlefield. I like seeing things in this complicated way that feels more true to me, where strengths are jumbled together with weaknesses and there is sometimes a fierce and fragile beauty within a thing that looks like a flaw, or a streak of ugliness within a thing that might otherwise be a virtue.

It is easier for me to grow as a person when I feel love and compassion for my whole self, rather than trying to excise a “demon” and later realizing it is my own hand.


  1. There's tremendous insight here, Annabeth.

    Sometimes I feel as though I can't be much of a writer, because I seem to have so few demons. I'm not tormented by guilt or anger or even lust. I'm comfortable with sexuality and my sexual history. I have a stable, happy marriage. I'm shallow and boring, or so I feel.

    My stories are well-crafted, enjoyable, entertaining, but they don't have the emotional impact of yours, or Garce's (just to pick two of my favorite writers). That could be lack of skill or imagination...but sometimes I think it's a lack of demons.

    1. Personally, I look sharply askance at the proverbial wisdom which holds that a good artist is necessarily a "tortured" artist. The whole essence of art, as I see it, is that the artist evokes his or her desired effect out of various kinds of talent and skill. Artists draw on all sorts of things, of course, not least personal experience, personal concerns, and personal struggles... but ultimately it's about artistry, in my view, whatever the raw materials might be for a given artist.

      I think some of my own work has plenty of emotional impact; and I am a very happy person. True, the emotions in my work are also on the happy side—but this is an artistic choice.

      And I'll go so far as to say that the "tortured artist" model—though of course examples are plentiful—is, insofar as it's taken as a general rule rather than merely a particular paradigm, a dangerous myth. The idea that only very troubled souls can produce good art is an insult to artists, an incentive for poseurs, and an explanation for the abundance (imho) of disturbing but not particularly inspired music, art, and literature all around us. The idea that "it's disturbed, so it must be good"—and, especially for someone like me, the corollary that "it's upbeat, so it must be worthless" have gone a long way to distort our culture, I think.

      (Apologies for the rant, which is not in any way directed at Annabeth's post—which I found breathtakingly wise and eloquent.)

    2. (And apologies also to Lisabet! It's not directed at you, either, but at this "proverbial wisdom" that I've had a real problem with for a very long time.)

    3. I agree that the "tortured artist" idea has lots of problems. I think writing ultimately comes down to skill, which you have lots of, Lisabet.

      I do comfort myself sometimes by thinking I've gained wisdom from struggling, and I hope that comes through in my writing. But everyone has struggled, I think. Everyone understands grief and confusion and all the rest of it. We haven't experienced the same things, but that's part of what makes writing interesting.

  2. So often I see otherwise sensitive, creative people wasting their lives trying to please everyone but themselves.

    1. Yes... I'm one of those people, too often. Still working on that!

  3. This is beautifully written, as usual, Annabeth. I hope you continue to feel love and compassion for your whole person.

  4. The part about the beauty in a thing that looks like a flaw makes me think of a Japanese form of art (i should have looked up the name before writing this!) where things like broken pottery are mended with valuable materials like gold to highlight their intrinsic beauty and the way time and experience have enhanced it.


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