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Authors: Meghan Daum

The Unspeakable

 

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CONTENTS

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Introduction

Matricide

The Best Possible Experience

Not What It Used to Be

Honorary Dyke

Difference Maker

The Joni Mitchell Problem

The Dog Exception

On Not Being a Foodie

Invisible City

Diary of a Coma

Notes

Acknowledgments

Also by Meghan Daum

A Note About the Author

Copyright

 

INTRODUCTION

For more than twenty years now I have been making something of a specialty of writing about myself. I still have mixed feelings about the whole genre. In some respects, serving as my own main subject has been a great convenience. It saves me money on travel, research fees, and even potential litigation (I cannot sue myself for libel, though once or twice I've imagined confronting myself at a party, asking, “How could you say those things!” and throwing a drink in my face). In other respects, though, it feels lazy. We all have a few good yarns in us, but I tend to think most of the best ones make the narrator a peripheral character rather than the star of the show. The best ones come from the outside world, where careful listening and a resistance to preconceptions can yield stories that do all the things we want and need stories to do—split sides, break hearts, open minds or even change them.

I've written a lot of outside stories, too. For nearly a decade, I've been a newspaper opinion columnist, covering subjects ranging from national politics to sexual politics to the cultural significance of the U.S. Postal Service. I've done magazine reporting on military spouses caring for veterans with traumatic brain injury, and on young people throwing themselves into the bacchanal of spring break in Cancún. I've written profiles of celebrities I'd previously never heard of. Years ago, I wrote website copy for a line of feminine hygiene products, a job whose requirements included making cold telephone calls to accomplished businesswomen asking if they would be willing to be featured as the site's “Woman of the Month.” I could offer them no monetary compensation, though one candidate asked if she might be paid in the form of feminine hygiene products—alas, she could not.

But for all my ambivalence about mining my own life for material, I can't seem to quit for very long. In the end, the work I always come back to, the work that seems best remembered and draws the strongest reactions, is the work in which the “outside world” forms a vital partnership with that
I
narrator. And this book is nothing if not a testament to that partnership. All of these essays have been written in the last few years, not on assignment for any periodical but for the sole purpose of appearing in this book, in the company of one another. They were not published elsewhere before this book came into being, not even in a “slightly different form,” the phrasing often used to describe material that has been repurposed from short to long form or vice versa. Prepublication sneak previews aside, you're seeing them here first.

For much of the time I worked on this project, when people would ask me what it was about I would say that it was a book about sentimentality. I would say that the essays covered a range of subjects—death, dogs, romance, children, lack of children, Joni Mitchell, cream-of-mushroom-soup casserole, to name a few—but that collectively I hoped they'd add up to a larger discussion about the way human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses. I wanted to look at why we so often feel guilty or even ashamed when we don't feel the way we're “supposed to feel” about the big (and sometimes even small) events of our lives. I wanted to examine the ways in which so many aspects of contemporary American life—where we live, who we love, when or if we choose to settle down with a partner, what we eat, why we appreciate the art and music and literature that we do, how we expect to die and what we expect of the dying—seem to come shrink-wrapped in a layer of bathos.

For all the lip service we pay to “getting real,” we remain a culture whose discourse is largely rooted in platitudes. We are told—and in turn tell others—that illness and suffering isn't a ruthless injustice, but a journey of hope. Finding disappointment in places where we're supposed to find joy isn't a sign of having different priorities as much as having an insufficiently healthy outlook. We love redemption stories and silver linings. We believe in overcoming adversity, in putting the past behind us, in everyday miracles. We like the idea that everything happens for a reason. When confronted with the suggestion that life is random or that suffering is not always transcendent we're apt to not only accuse the suggester of rudeness but also pity him for his negative worldview. To reject sentimentality, or even question it, isn't just uncivilized, it's practically un-American.

As I wrote more of the book, however, I began to realize that sentimentality and its discontents were only part of the picture. The primary subject, if there can be said to be one, is simpler than that. At its core, this book is about the ways that some of life's most burning issues are considered inappropriate for public or even private discussion. It's about the unspeakable thoughts many of us harbor—that we might not love our parents enough, that “life's pleasures” sometimes feel more like chores—but can only talk about in coded terms, if at all. It's about the unspeakable acts that teach no easy lessons and therefore are often elbowed out of sight. In some places, the book is about literally not being able to speak. It's about what happens when words fail in the truest sense.

This book also recounts some pretty unflattering behavior on my part, not to mention a few disclosures about my interior life that some readers will probably find depressing or even alarming. That is fine. I wouldn't have it any other way. In fact, I suspect this is the kind of book that winds up being loved and hated in equal measure. I'd be thrilled if that was the outcome, actually. When I teach writing students, I often tell them that nobody will love their work if some people don't also hate it. They always look stunned, even terrified, as if I've just told them they'll never meet their soul mate unless they also make a mortal enemy of someone. Then more often than not they have a “breakthrough” and start handing in stories about certain bodily functions involving the lower digestive tract. Fortunately, most writing workshops are pass/fail.

Back in 2001, also known as light-years ago, I published an essay collection called
My Misspent Youth
. In the foreword I reminded readers that the essays were not confessions, that the material I was plumbing was “about me but also a lot of other things.” The same is true of this book, and while I don't need to point out that the essays can be filed under all sorts of categories apart from “author looking in the mirror” (and, for the record, there are no stories heavily featuring either the upper or lower digestive tracts), I do feel compelled to say again that, as frank as they are, they aren't confessions. Not even close. They're events recounted in the service of ideas. My aim was to judiciously choose and arrange episodes that might build upon one another and add up to something interesting enough to warrant the time it takes to read about them. And while some of the details I include may be shocking enough to suggest that I'm spilling my guts, I can assure you that for every one of those details there are hundreds I've chosen to leave out.

Speaking of leaving things out, just so we're clear, I've changed the names of most of the people I write about in these pages. This is primarily for the sake of their privacy, though I think most of them are good-enough sports that they wouldn't mind (or in some cases might even have preferred) if I'd disclosed their identities. The handful of celebrities who show up in these essays appear under their real names, as it seems a bit pointless to try to disguise Nicole Kidman as someone named “Jane.” This is not, obviously, a book of straight reportage. I am recounting events to the best of my memory. I have not tried to reproduce conversations and quotes verbatim, though I made a point of resisting the temptation to reimagine situations and lines of dialogue as anything simpler or snappier than they actually were. To have done so would not only have made my work more complicated than it needed to be but also betrayed the central duty of most of these essays, which is to examine the tension between primal reactions and public decorum. This book is about the spin we put on our lives. So I'm giving it to you as straight as I can.

 

MATRICIDE

People who weren't there like to say that my mother died at home surrounded by loving family. This is technically true, though it was just my brother and me and he was looking at Facebook and I was reading a profile of Hillary Clinton in the December 2009 issue of
Vogue
. A hospice nurse had been over a few hours earlier and said my mother was “very imminent.” She was breathing in that slow, irregular way that signals that the end is near. Strangely, I hadn't noticed it despite listening for the past several weeks (months earlier, when her death sentence had been officially handed down but she was still very much alive, my mother had casually mentioned that she'd noticed this breathing pattern in herself and that I should be prepared to walk into the room and find her gone at any moment) but apparently it was here now and when I reached the third paragraph of the second page of the Hillary Clinton article (this remains imprinted on my brain; I can still see the wrap of the words as my eye scanned the column; I can still see the Annie Leibovitz photo on the previous page) I heard her gasp. Then nothing more.

“Mom?” I called out.

My brother got off the couch and called her name, too.

Then I said, “Is that it?”

That was it. I found suddenly that I wasn't quite sure how to identify a dead person—it didn't occur to me in that moment that not breathing was a sure sign—so I picked up her hand. It was turning from red to purple to blue. I'd read about this in the death books—
Final Gifts
,
Nearing Death Awareness
,
The Needs of the Dying
—that I'd devoured over the last few months. Medically speaking, I'd found these books to be extremely accurate about how things progressed, but some put a lot of emphasis on birds landing on windowsills at the moment of death or people opening their eyes at the last minute and making amends or saying something profound. We weren't that kind of family, though, and I harbored no such expectations. I had been slightly worried that when my mother actually died I'd be more grief-stricken than I'd anticipated, that I'd faint or lose my breath or at least finally unleash the tears that I'd been unable to shed all this time. I thought that in my impatience to get through the agonizing end stages I'd surely get my comeuppance in the form of sneaky, shocking anguish. Perhaps I would rage at the gods, regret all that had gone unsaid, pull an article of clothing from her closet and hold it close, taking her in. But none of that happened. I was as relieved as I'd planned to be. I picked her hand up a few more times over the next two hours while we waited for another hospice worker to come over and fill out the final paperwork and then for the men from the funeral home to take her away. I did this less for the sake of holding it than to make sure she still had no pulse. She'd chosen cremation but had said once that she feared being burned alive.

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