Saturday, October 10, 2015

Plain Talk

by Jean Roberta

Oh dear. As usual, most of the things that are important to me are also important to the rest of the crew here, so it’s hard for me to find a new approach to the topic du jour (or du fortnight).

I’ll try this: communication is important to me. So much of what has been said to me (and what I’ve said to others when I’m afraid to let out the truth and possibly offend everyone around me, as though truth were a pungent fart) consists of clichés and platitudes. I’m not really complaining, since many of the cliches I’ve heard have been well-intended.

When my parents each died within six months of each other, I had to help arrange two funerals, then accept the condolences of person after person (friends, acquaintances, colleagues of my father) saying quietly, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

I was tempted to ask, “Seriously? Isn’t it also your loss? Are you 100% sorry to see them go, or you a little bit relieved? Let’s talk.” I couldn’t say that aloud, of course, without confirming my sisters’ belief that I’m mentally ill and inappropriate wherever I am. (Writing about sex is, of course, another sign of my inappropriate nature.)

Honest communication seems so rare for various reasons that I tend to remember the times when someone has said the right thing to me.

For example: while married, I sometimes managed to have a private conversation with my best friend Joan, usually in her modest but cozy apartment. Unlike everyone else I knew, she didn’t tell me I just needed to learn how to persuade my jealous husband that I wasn’t really having orgies with other men. She didn’t tell me his jealousy was a cultural thing that I just had to accept.

On one occasion, I told her that he was tending the baby for the afternoon, and that I planned to go back to work and save money so that eventually, I could move out.

Joan said: “You can’t stay there with that man, and you can’t save money that way. You need to leave as soon as possible. Borrow money if you have to. You can always pay it back later.”

I saw the truth of that. Staying with a ticking time bomb, hoping it wouldn’t go off in the next few months, would have been much more reckless than escaping and coping with the negative fallout. I agreed with Joan, and we agreed on an escape plan, in which she would drive the getaway car.

Several weeks later, I was discussing my situation with Joan and a male friend of hers. Male Friend asked if my husband ever hit me when he was in a rage. I answered honestly that he never did, not even once. Male Friend said: “He was probably afraid that if he ever started, he wouldn’t stop until he killed you.” Bingo! The fact that I wasn’t actually a “battered wife” had never felt reassuring, and in fact, my husband’s use of force was a constant reminder of how much worse it could get. (He tended to keep me confined in the house, and haul me around by one arm while outside). I didn’t expect anyone to understand my sense of living with an axe hanging over my head, and knowing the thread that held it could snap at any moment.

Being understood usually feels miraculous.

While grading student essays, I have to explain as clearly as possible why most student essays are not clear enough. I always hope my students will understand that I’m not playing a guessing game to encourage them to say whatever will confirm my beliefs. I want them to say what they actually intend. If they don’t really know what they intend, that’s the root of the problem.

Often, while reading the work of several fellow-Grippers, I think, “That’s it! That’s the best way to describe that experience.” Having mini-epiphanies is a large part of the pleasure of reading.

Several years ago, one of my star students (named Marvin, but I thought of him as the Marvel) asked me to explain my written comment about a dangling participial phrase in his essay. (If you don’t recognize this term, here is an example: “Walking around the corner, the Grand Hotel came into view.”) I told him that in general, his essay was well-conceived, well-organized and well-written, which is why I wanted him to know about one little flaw that impeded the flow of ideas, even though the real meaning of the sentence was clear enough.

He didn’t seem at all resentful. He seemed intrigued. He told me that no one had ever explained sentence construction to him the way I had, and he was grateful for my advice. I couldn’t be sure he was 100% sincere, but I was willing to accept the compliment! I also couldn’t be sure whether his hard-driving Chinese parents (as he described them) were responsible for his impeccable manners, but whatever the cause, I enjoyed dealing with a male student who behaved so differently from most of the ones I had met.

Communication that works is probably the most important factor in my continuing existence. It seems rarer than many people will admit, and in the long run, it's more comforting than flattery or false comfort.


  1. A worthy conclusion to this fortnight, Jean! I love the way you've pulled in so many different life-strands to weave your argument.

    I notice your keywords include both "communication" and "language". Sometimes, though, the latter gets in the way of the former (despite our being writers). Still, it's worth striving for that elusive clarity that lets you say exactly what you mean, exactly what you believe to be true.

  2. If they don’t really know what they intend, that’s the root of the problem.

    How true! I've often noticed that muddled writing is a symptom of muddled thinking.

  3. Good that you got out of that relationship, Jean. Sounds scary.

  4. Thank you for commenting, all. Daddy X, it was scary, but before I left, almost everyone I confided in (by giving little hints that all was not well) assured me that all marriages improve in time. After I left, almost everyone I knew advised me to rush back for the sake of the baby, and "have a good talk" with my husband, because that way, we would resolve our differences. For a long time, I felt as if I had such an unusual voice that very few listeners could hear me when I spoke.

    1. That sounds like a form of "gas-lighting", but it was probably more a case of people keeping a desperate grip on their own rose-colored glasses so they wouldn't have to face up to distinctly non-rosy reality.

  5. Oh yes, Sacchi. Part of the problem was that most of my friends & acquaintances at that time were white leftists who were proud of being anti-racist, and my hysterical husband was a bona fide African. No one I knew had heard of Nigerian scams at that time. (Interesting coincidence: in the mid-70s, no one knew yet that Ike Turner had been an abusive husband to his wife, Tina, and their music was popular.) No one I knew wanted to hear my bad news. :(


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