Archive for December, 2012

I am (not)

Posted in Small Epiphanies on December 19, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 18

Back to the DNA for a just a moment:

I think the ways in which the discourses surrounding the idea of being of Native American descent have affected me in ways far more subtle than the idea of being Italian or German,because I wasn’t raised in any sort of Native American culture. This, at one and the same time, created in me, wrote on me, an awareness of being other–other than of some sort of Western European descent, like the rest of my family, other in the sense that we so often write Native Americans, culturally, ethnically, as other, and other in a third sense–other from very own my Native American descent, if that makes any sense at all.

I was Native American without ever really being Native American. And now I am not Native American at all.

But I think that doesn’t change the ways in which those discourses nudged and jostled and prodded my various subjectivities into certain shapes.

Happy Birthday, Adge!

Posted in Small Epiphanies on December 18, 2012 by chateaucone

The other night I wrote about bringing my Native American headdress to kindergarten show and tell. The only other memory I have of kindergarten show and tell is a tell–telling the class about my new cousin Adrienne the day after she was born. That was thirty-nine years ago.  Adrienne is no longer a baby. I no longer participate in show and tell*, and I am no longer of Native  American descent.

The times, they are a-changin’.

Tomorrow, when I am less tired than I am now, we will talk about truth–small t, p/s, local, contingent truth.

*Who am I kidding?

Wounds, Agency and Ethics

Posted in Small Epiphanies on December 17, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 16

One of the small things the dissertation committee wanted me to do to revise was to talk a bit about what, exactly, I mean by “breaking the narrative.”

The need for this part of the revisions is all my fault.  I wrote this paragraph:

But I think it’s not until you need the freedom that you can break the narrative. I didn’t break the narrative until years after I wrote that first essay, until I needed to break it. Living within a comfortable narrative is easier, sometimes, than breaking out of one.

And underneath it I wrote myself a note that said, “MORE ANALYSIS HERE.”

And although I have a distinct memory of deleting that note in the final draft I sent to the committee, somehow, it was still there, staring us all in the face, during the defense.

My committee members thought it was meant to be there–part of the dissertation disrupting itself. My face of course gave it away, and then it was decided that clever although that might have been, more analysis was indeed needed.

So here I am. What do I mean by “breaking the narrative?”

Do I mean, simply, changing the stories we tell about our lives? Not all the stories, though–just the ones that are preventing us from moving forward, from making meaningful, positive change in our lives. I do mean that. But then, why “breaking” the narrative, and not simply “changing” the narrative?

I think “breaking” speaks to the power of narrative, to the hold that narratives, ideologically-bound stories, have on our lives, reinscribed as they constantly are by all the communities of which we are a part. For me, “breaking” evokes shattering, not just modifying or adjusting but becoming free of something. Burning a bridge, even. Seeing something in such a new way that you can’t even imagine how you used to see it differently–or how you didn’t see it before. An epiphany of sorts.

Re-seeing. Revising. Revising yourself, your life, your story. Writing a new story that changes how you think about who you are and what you can do. Agency. Freedom.

And I’m back to Pollyanna. But this is a nice segue to tomorrow, whcn I will write about whether this is ethical, desirable, in the classroom.

William H. Epstein, in Contesting the Subject, tells us, “Traditional biographical narrative habitually enacts the scene of an abduction because, in order to discursively repair the biologically irreparable fracture (the alterity, the otherness, the discontinuity) between any two human individuals (reified generically as biographer and biographical subject), biography recesses the broken parts and causes the gaping of a wound.”

My dissertation argues that breaking the narrative is exposing Epstein’s wound. There is discontinuity among our subjectivities; when we represent, even momentarily, a subjectivity in language, we recess all the others; we shove them aside, or push them down; we hide them. Our self-narratives recess the parts of our lives that don’t fit. When we break the narrative, we expose the wound. We expose the parts that don’t fit. We expose the 23-year-old single, pregnant woman who surrendered a child and who was subsequently silenced. We expose that being chosen implies that someone was left behind, or that your position, as a chosen baby, is/was precarious. We expose the chaos, and the possibilities, in stories that seem inevitable and natural.

Is it ethical to push students to expose the wound in their stories? When is it ethical? And if it is, how might it be done with the least amount of risk?

DNA vs. The Discursive Production of Identity; or, Holy Crap, Can That Be Right?

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 15

(Although this is a rather large epiphany, as epiphanies go, and not so much an epiphany as a discovery.)

Since I was small, my parents have told me, having been told, themselves, by the adoption agency, that I am of Italian, German and Indian ethnicity. And while I guess we were never quite sure about the Indian part, we were sure enough that there was at least one Native American headdress in my childhood, which I brought to kindergarten show and tell.

Later, the adoption agency told me that my birth mother was Italian; her parents had emigrated from Italy to Canada to the US; I found her last name in the New York City birth records and it seemed to confirm her ethnicity. The alleged birth father, as the adoption agency called him, was Indian-German. Last year, I wrote to Angel Guardian to ask what they might have meant by “Indian” in 1967–because my parents assumed it was American Indian–but they never wrote back.

Meanwhile, I grew up in an Irish-Italian family, that primarily identified itself as Italian American, at least in terms of food.

Today, I got the results of an DNA ethnicity test I took recently. Turns out, my ethnicity is 83% British Isles, and 17% Middle Eastern.

My first thought was that it was a mistake–that mixed up my saliva with someone else’s. But the whole thing was barcoded and registered and tagged and secure. I mean, sure, someone could have just mixed up the test tubes. Who knows?

My second thought was that I must have been, not only adopted, but switched in the nursery, because while I could see my birth mother reporting my alleged birth father’s ethnicity wrong, she seems pretty damn Italian. And how would she get that wrong? Unless she just lied. Again, who knows?

My third thought, in order both chronological and degree of outlandishness, was that it suddenly made sense that for the past nine years, ever since I first set foot in Edinburgh in 2003, I have been saying that Scotland is where I was meant to live. I must, therefore, be Scottish. My very blood was calling out to the land, my DNA recognizing itself in everyone around me.

The truth is, I have no idea what to do with this information. And before you say, “What does it matter? You are exactly the same person you were before you got this information, back when you were Italian and German and Native American,” I get that.

And that’s not what I’m talking about.

Nor am I having some sort of identity crisis.

But I am, I guess, sort of, like, “Hmm. . .”

I’ve just written 375 pages about the discursive production of subjectivity, and how we are written by narratives inscribed and reified by our nationalities, our ethnicities, our local communities, our religious beliefs, and so on and so forth.

What does it mean that I grew up believing I was Italian, in an Italian family? What does it mean that I am in fact English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh, instead? How would that have changed the stories I told about myself as I grew up? How does it change the stories I tell about myself now?

Maybe the Italian part is a bad example; being Italian in an Italian family, your various kinds of traits sort of disappear in the crowd, into naturalness. Being Native American in my family, though, was a difference, a difference that made a difference, that made me special, and interesting.

And now I’m not that anymore.

My dissertation doesn’t look specifically at ethnicity and adoption; perhaps that’s because it seemed like a non-issue. My father cheerfully called us the United Nations; of course, we were a United Nations made up entirely of European nations. How does someone of Middle Eastern descent fit into that family?

I am, though, of Middle Eastern descent much the way I was of Native American descent–in name only, in ways that I would never claim on a census form. Still, how will the discourses of the Middle East, the wide and varied discourses we Americans write and subscribe to about people of Middle Eastern descent, now begin to change my narratives?

Part of my story, the story I tell about who I am and where I come from, has shifted, if only because new historical and ethnic narratives have become relevant; new discourses have become available to me.   And that changes things.

I’m just not sure what.

My 18-Year-Old Self Writes Autobiography: Or, How (Not) To Drag Poststructural Thought, Kicking and Screaming, into the Classroom

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , , , on December 15, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 14

During my dissertation defense, I was asked to consider the ways in which breaking the narrative–learning to tell stories about our own lives in different ways–could be disempowering, instead of empowering, as I had been claiming, in a rather Pollyanna-ish way, for 375 pages.

The thing is, I don’t know. By which I mean, I can’t think of any specific examples. I can only use, as I have been for 375 pages, myself and my own experiences. And I can tell you this–that if some English professor had asked me to rewrite, or even reconsider, one of the ways in which I described/defined/narrated my life at that point, I would have said that there was nothing to rewrite, nothing to change. It was all good.

And if that professor had pushed me to write about being adopted, I would have resisted mightily. Or, I’d have written some beautiful (by which I mean trite and sappy) ode to adoption as the most wonderful, uncomplicated practice in the world.

It wouldn’t have been disempowering so much as un-empowering. Lost on me. Thumbs parallel.

Of this I can be fairly sure, vague and indistinct though my 18-year-old self is. People have reacted with fascination to the news that I was adopted all my life. And I have reacted with something like fascination to their fascination. Why were they so fascinated? I was adopted. Big deal. No, I’m not curious about my birth parents. I have parents. No, I’m not searching. No, I don’t have abandonment issues. No, no, no to most of their questions.

But I often said no to those questions with a vague sense of guilt, as though I should have more to say, since the people asking were so obviously invested in hearing more. But to me, there was no story. There was no narrative to break. There were no holes in our adoption story. It was all there. My parents told us everything. What else could I possibly need to know?

(Of course since then I’ve spent years in therapy rewriting stories, learning to think in different ways about issues and experiences. But that’s another blog post.)

Interestingly, it was my 18-, 19- and 20-year-old selves that were writing journalism stories, reading Hunter Thompson, Michael Herr, Truman Capote and George Orwell, and Tom Wolfe’s The New Journalism, and wondering about truth in writing, truth in reporting. It was those selves who took a course called “Phenomenology” as a junior and learned about how we perceive and experience reality, and who took, for six credits,  “Propaganda,” and learned all about manipulation and persuasion and ideology, and argued at some point that all writing was propaganda because it was always trying to persuade, always coming from a specific viewpoint–and that it wasn’t all evil. Those selves wrote about the connections between phenomenology and journalism and how no writer can objectively reproduce an experience in language; no writer can represent the essence of anything.

And so the seeds of poststructural thought were being planted–the idea that Truth and the subject are contingent, partial, multiple, fragmented. unstable, shifting and contradictory. I could see it in other writers’ work, in all communication. But it never occurred to me, I never took it so far as to reread the adoption story, to start to rewrite it.

Had some well-meaning, all-fired-up English professor attempted to help me to see that the my subjectivity and my stories are discursive, and that certain discourses dominate certain communities, and that maybe there were other ways, even innocuous, tame, safe, ways, to talk about being adopted, I would have resisted. I would have said, politely, “No, really, there’s nothing to talk about.” Because I didn’t think there was.

So, I don’t know. Is the lesson here to start outside the self, the subject? To introduce students to these ideas in ways that do not ask them to step outside of the safe zone and to break the constructed narratives of their lives that are at best unnoticed, invisible, and at worst, harmful? And what would that mean?

I had all kinds of fun in college writing about the atrocities of mainstream news coverage of the Vietnam War and our protests of it, and even, sometimes, the circumstances, the dominant discourses, the unexamined ideologies and political realities that prevented THE TRUTH from being told. I had fun thinking about how objectivity can’t exist. I had fun thinking about how we can never know the truth of any experience, how democracy was its own form of indoctrination, and how power shaped everything.

I never extended any of that thought to myself and my own stories, though, which remained whole and complete and pretty and unexamined until a catalyst in my own life forced me to reexamine them. Was it enough that the seeds of the idea that stories might be told in different ways, from different perspectives, was there when I needed it?

Is there some college professor of mine out there now, reading this, saying, “Oh. My. God. She finally got it!”?

And would that be considered success?


The Post Defense Re-emergence

Posted in Small Epiphanies on December 14, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 13

It strikes me now, at 11:21 pm, when I have yet to think of something to write about, that a better Advent project than posting once a day would have been to hang up one of those Advent calendars with the little bits of chocolate behind each number.

Too late.

I am still recovering from my dissertation defense. Or maybe from the whole dissertation process. My advisor, JM, was amazing and kind and thoughtful and brilliant throughout the whole process, and most of course during the defense, especially in the moment I shot her a look of utter panic at a question that had been asked, and she jumped in to assure me that these questions were life-work questions, and not something I had to answer immediately and definitively. Very reassuring, since my head was about to explode.

JM tells me the whole thing went well, and I guess it did, because I passed. I’m going to have to take her word for it, though, because I never once got to that point in the discussion where you forget where you are and just talk, and be in the moment, completely engaged. I never for one second forgot I was in the dreaded dissertation defense, and that’s kind of a shame, looking back, because if I could have relaxed just a bit, and worried less about giving perfect answers, I might actually have had a good time.

But it’s done, and I have only the tiniest of additions to make as far as revisions go, and for that I am grateful.

I’m grateful, too, for my family and friends, who listened to me  talk, bitch, moan, procrastinate, rejoice in new ideas and then immediately doubt them, for the past two years. And to those who officially, or unofficially, shared my office, or had the adjoining one, or who generously shared their experiences at TC–you know who you are–you should really get some sort of co-degree for all your help. Love you guys.


The Post-Anxiety Brain

Posted in Small Epiphanies on December 13, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 12

Successfully defended my dissertation today.

And those are all the words I have left.

This is your brain on anxiety.

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , on December 12, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 11

I have two brains.

One of them is uneducated and superstitious and would be better suited to someone living in the dark ages. It thinks I can control the world by appeasing the gods, by which I mean never assuming things will go well, never assuming good things are coming, never being overly confident, or, for that matter, even a little bit confident, without expecting swift and decisive punishment from the universe.

Annual mammogram? If I expect the worst, and have a panic attack while waiting for the results, I will surely be spared. If I go on with my life like a normal human being, happily ignorant of the radiologist reading my films, marking them with a red asterisk, rushing them to wherever they get rushed to for further consultation, I will surely have cancer.

Monthly breast self-exam? Always on a Monday morning at 9 am, so I can immediately call the gyn the very second I find a lump, and arrive, within minutes, at the office to be reassured. The idea that my breasts might one day betray me? Waiting for the betrayal, assuming it’s coming, keeps me safe.

My other brain, the intellectual one, the one that’s been in therapy for years–that one knows that it is impossible to control the universe with excessive anxiety and worrying. But that brain rarely wins. It hasn’t been tested, and the worry-brain has.

While the worry-brain is winning right now, here’s hoping it has nearly worn itself out, and the intellectual brain turns up tomorrow morning at 11.

And then clearly, it’s back to therapy.

Collapsing Boundaries Among I’s; Collapsing Time

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , on December 11, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 10

I am re-reading my dissertation in preparation for the defense on Wednesday.


And I like it.

There. Now the gods will smack me down. Narcissus all over again.

My car will break down on the way to Columbia. My book bag will spring open, of its own will, and my single copy of my dissertation will fly out, page by individual page, and float down W. 12o St. like giant snowflakes getting run over and turned to grey slush by car tires.

I will arrive at the defense out of breath, sweaty, dissertation-less, discombobulated, and ready to write one of those Worst Case Scenario Survival handbooks.

But let me first ask you this: Is dementia an epic metaphor for post-structural notions of memory?

Smith and Watson tell us this:

Readers often conceive of autobiographical narrative as telling unified stories of their lives, as creating or discovering coherent selves. But both the unified story and the coherent self are myths of identity. For there is no coherent “self” that predates stories about identity, about “who” one is. Nor is there a unified, stable, immutable self that can remember everything that has happened in the past. We are always fragmented in time, taking a particular or provisional perspective on the moving target of our pasts, addressing multiple and disparate audiences.

We are always fragmented in time. Our selves, our subjectivities are decentered, unknowable, fragmented. Is dementia a loss of the ability to impose culturally acceptable narratives, to stay put in one time, to stay put in one narrative? To stay put as one’s present, in-the-moment I? It dementia a collapsing of the boundaries between all those momentarily-existing I’s?

Shrinking, Belated Epiphanies

Posted in Small Epiphanies on December 10, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 9

Still digesting the Psychic Sisters experience. And the resulting evidence of my rather fragmented psyche.

Still trying to figure out what to talk about during the first ten minutes of my dissertation defense, during which I am supposed to say something intelligent. And probably relevant.

Still unpacking the car from four months of living and writing on the east end of Long Island, with two collies and one cat, and all the various paraphernalia needed to keep them, and the writing, alive.

Still, on a related note, climbing over half-unpacked bags and boxes and suitcases, unwrapped Christmas presents and rolls of wrapping paper,  and sprawled, sleeping dogs and cats, as I try to clear a path through my apartment.

Still catching up on episodes of Glee instead of rereading my dissertation to prepare for the defense.

Still late and still short.