My Problem with Mary Miller: In Defense of Reports from the Field
By Alison Balaskovits
On May 21st, Mary Miller wrote an essay on Vol.1 Brooklyn website, detailing her problems with Vida’s Reports from the Field, a blog that allows women the space to call out sexism and misogyny in the literary field; in other words, a place for women to narrate and document their experiences. Miller’s piece was published with incredibly unfortunate timing, as on the 24th a young man who felt entitled to the affections and bodies of women murdered seven people. In his manifesto, a one hundred and forty one page screed that details his journey from cradle to fantasylandia, he ends with his vision of a Utopia: a world without love, where women are forced to starve to death in concentration camps and a select few are kept underground in breeding chambers, all of which he witnesses above from a tower, where he can observe this suffering for his own satisfaction. On the 26th, another man shot at three women who were leaving his residency because they refused to sleep with him.
Yes, Virgina, the boogeyman does exist.
Miller denies that the culture of the literary community harbors and manifests such men, even on a much less sensationalist level. For her, when man behave badly at poetry readings or in a car when they tell a woman to “shut the fuck up”, that’s an individual making a wrong choice. She can deny it, because she has not seen it herself:
I’m not discounting Melnick’s experiences, but this has not been my experience at all. Not at all.
Partially, Miller is correct; plenty of men do not act like that, but that does not mean that every time women are told to “shut the fuck up” or have to listen to the fantasies of a man reading a poem about a young girl seeing her father’s cock, it’s that we are too often told to shut the fuck up, and too often being told about witnessing the cocks of our fathers whether we want to hear about them again or not. It has become a trend. It becomes habit. It is incredibly lazy when the mere point is to shock.
But to deny outright that if your own experience does not account for this sort of behavior, therefore it simply must not exist, is a privileged attitude and, worse, a poor defense for a writer of fiction. As writers, we are charged with imagining our reality in a way that speaks to our larger cultural experiences, and then interpret them to our audience in a way that is believable to their lived reality. Yet, fiction is false, lies we tell that reflect a truth, so how can we make up stories that ring true to people if they are not our own memories, our first-hand knowledge? You cannot write fiction and deny an experience that differs from your own as unbelievable.
I have never been at a train station with a man and had to speak in code about my potential abortion, but I do believe such a moment has happened and, if not exactly like that, that women have to consider those choices in lonely spaces. I have never been the victim of a racist attack, but my unfamiliarity with the premise does not mean that it must be make-believe. Had you asked me before, I would not (have wanted to) believe that an individual would be so consumed with his entitlement towards the bodies of women that he would literally kill because he could not have them. Yet here we are, living in this bizarre state.
Miller is missing the point of the Reports from the Field. It is not supposed to be, as she says, a place where women can call out the names of their oppressors and have things magically fixed with the divine righteousness of a million angry female voices:
In each of these instances, no names are given. I’m sure there are numerous reasons for this, but not naming these individuals, not calling them out, makes it seem like these men are everywhere. You might be Facebook friends with Male Poet; you might have just sent the editor of a major poetry journal a batch of poems about motherhood; you may be hesitant to get in a car with a group of male writers you don’t know very well for fear that one of them will tell you to ‘shut the fuck up’ or comment on your body. By not naming these men, they could be anyone; and in essence they become every man, which I find extremely problematic.
It is problematic, but that is the culture that we must experience and live with. When women do name the men who have wronged them, they are questioned, told they didn’t interpret the situation correctly, and informed how they should have experienced it. In other words, their own lived experiences are performed through the eyes of another and fed back to them as the true reality. And if they do not accept this version of events, they are hysterical. A bitch. They are told to shut the fuck up. And if we do accept this reversion of events– that is even worse. Because then, we feel that we can no longer trust our own interpretation of our lives.
Reports from the Field reminds me of Carol Hanisch’s famous article, The Personal is Political. In it, she writes:
I’ve been pressured to be strong, selfless, other-oriented, sacrificing, and in general pretty much in control of my own life. To admit to the problems is to be deemed weak. So I want to be a strong woman, in movement terms, and not admit I have any real problems that I can’t find a personal solution to … one of the reasons I participate in these meetings is not to solve any personal problems. One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time.
Writing during the second feminist wave, Hanisch and others argued that even being able to voice or express personal problems was considered a political act because women had no platform in which to discuss their lives. It also helped these women understand that there were others with similar problems who were suffering in silence as well. Too often, we have to resort to secret, “safe” spaces in which to discuss our fears, desires and lives, because it is dangerous not to do so. Reports from the Field fills a digital version of these old spaces – these are places for women to talk to one another, to tell each other that we’re not imagining things, and we have one another. It is not the place for call-outs, it is a space for catharsis, for the symbolic release of the tension we hold that we might be standing alone at a reading, hearing vile words, and being the only one who thinks, Not This Again.
Finally, Miller questions whether or not we can hear about men behaving badly anymore – is this the new feminist taboo of the digital age?
So what if the woman in Male Poet’s poem saw her father’s cock? Can a man not write in a negative fashion about a woman anymore?
Of course you can still write about it; I encourage you and everyone else to do so, because that behavior is a reflection of how real people act. The entirety of literature, with the notable exception of Utopia, is about people behaving badly. The problem is when men are celebrated for behaving badly in real life. And, if not celebrated, they get a pass or dozens of excuses for why that kind of behavior is tolerated. Boys will be boys, it’s just in their nature, and all that whole tired song and dance.
Notes from the Field is not, I believe, asking that we summon the pitch-forks and prop up the kangaroo courts for our vindication, but a catalogue for references, for when we do see bad behavior in real life and are swept away at the spectacle and defense of it all, there is at least one space to turn to and see: we are not alone.