The Female “I”

To "I" or not to "I"?
To "I" or not to "I"? // Creative Commons

In her memoir “I Love Dick,” Chris Kraus writes that young women who wish to be taken seriously do not use the first person. I do not use the first person. The first person is immediate and raw and I’ve never even liked the look of it. The uppercase “I” is too tall and the uppercase “I” demands an honesty I cannot provide.

A woman who writes about herself is easy to dismiss and even easier to diagnose. Her talent is incidental, secondary, irrelevant. It’s just a symptom of psychosis, they say. We rarely separate the woman from her “I”, I think, and when we read her pieces we cut through form and go straight for the content. We pathologize. The woman isn’t a writer — she is a woman writing. She’s building castles and moats and armies with words. She’s crazy and she’s scared. Readers demolish her castles and wade through her moats and slaughter her armies! Prescribe a few pills, the writing might stop. No one wants another Sylvia Plath.

In high school, I thought I would act for a living. I’m 19 now, and know that I won’t be able to — but I remember the rehearsals, the costumes and the stink of sweat. I remember the advice our director gave. She cared a lot about body language. On stage, we hovered near chairs and took faltering steps, and the ambivalence drove her mad. “It just looks so awkward!” she’d exclaim. “When you’re on stage, you’re always standing near a couch or a stool. You look like you’re playing musical chairs or something, like you’d better have a place to sit when the music goes off or the lights go out. Don’t do that. The audience gets uncomfortable. The audience wants you to either sit down or get up, but don’t stand with the backs of your knees against the seat.” I often feel as though I never learned to choose, as though the backs of my knees are still up against a seat. I can neither sit down nor walk away: I squat somewhere between fiction and nonfiction.

And so I write in the third person mostly. I fashion ciphers with names like Anna and Clara and Sue, each one sad and plain and shy. I am a young woman who wants to be taken seriously — please do not tell me how to be.

I spent a lot of time with my old English teacher this summer. We walked around the park and talked about Woody Allen. She wanted to discuss women in the modern age, and so I said a few cautious things about blind sex and self-hate. She blushed and stammered. She confessed that she’d only just discovered the Brazilian wax, and the idea was appalling. “Porn is the problem,” she said, and I smiled. Clara and Anna and Sue would have smiled, too.

We also talked about a story I’d only just finished, a short piece about a girl named Bess. Bess has trouble with the male gaze. Bess thinks about the men who’ve “wanted to undress her.” Bess might be me. I let my teacher edit until the story was tight and spare. But my teacher is good friends with my mother, who heard I was writing again and said: “Jane, I love your work. Could you send me the story?” I sent her the story, and the next day we drank coffee and I left California. We never spoke of it again.

That Sunday, the Sunday before classes began, my sister came up to visit. She took the MetroNorth from Grand Central, and we got pizza and beer and talked about her plans and her new apartment. Mom had called Kat a few days ago. She wanted to talk about me. “I don’t think Jane’s having fulfilling, consensual relations with guys, pumpkin. I read that thing she wrote and just felt so sad, you know? I wanted to tell her right then and there that she doesn’t have to go down on anyone. D’you think she’ll figure it out?”

Even though the story contained no trace of that tricky, female “I,” my mother read each “Bess” as if it were Jane. Perhaps mothers will always find clues to our secret lives in curious places. Perhaps she’ll continue to collect fragments, cobbling together an intricate, imperfect idea of my life from emails and essays.

But I am a young woman who wants to be taken seriously. And in “I Love Dick,” Chris Kraus writes with an “I.” She rolls around in her feelings like a pig in a mud bath. But the feelings aren’t messy or dirty when you’re as discerning as Kraus, Kraus who reappropriates the language of lit crit to examine and legitimize her own fixation. (She’s fallen in love with Dick Hebdige, a popular sociologist.) Kraus subverts a feminine trope with masculine rhetoric. But still I fear that my own “I” is trite. I am not Chris Kraus. I write with small words in small rooms, and I am only brave enough in the briefest of moments.

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