People in grief think a great deal about self-pity. We worry it, dread it, scourge our thinking for signs of it. We fear that our actions will reveal the conditions tellingly described as “dwelling on it.” We understand the aversion most of us have to “dwelling on it.” Visible mourning reminds us of death, which is construed as unnatural, a failure to manage the situation…. We remind ourselves repeatedly that our own loss is nothing compared to the loss experienced (or, the even worse thought, not experienced) by he or she who died; this attempt at corrective thinking serves only to plunge us deeper into the self-regarding deep. (Why didn’t I see that, why am I so selfish.) The very language we use when we think about self-pity betrays the deep abhorrence in which we hold it: self-pity is feeling sorry for yourself, self-pity is thumb-sucking, self-pity is boo hoo poor me, self-pity is the condition in which those feeling sorry for themselves indulge, or even wallow. Self-pity remains both the most common and the most universally reviled of our character defects, its pestilential destructiveness accepted as a given.
—Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
Once, toward the end of the eighteen years my mom spent dying, my Aunt Brenda and I were in a food court. My aunt—my mom’s sister, my mom’s best friend, my second mother. We were commiserating, bracing ourselves for our next “errand”: a drive to the nursing home where we would visit the still-living body of a deceased brain. By this point, neither my mom’s younger sister nor her father would visit her anymore. My grandfather told me, “She’s not there. To me, she’s a child running in a field. A blonde girl with pigtails, laughing.”
Only, she’s not. And now Brenda and I are about to finish eating our fries; any minute we will get up and be on our way to see her. I ask my aunt, in a moment of self-pity, “Why am I the one who visits? Why am I the one who must, over and over again, see her this way?”
Her bloated, purple, mottled cheeks; her bulging, staring, terrified eyes; her puckered mouth; the endless tremors that distort her face, twist her hands into claws.
When I describe my mother here, I’m talking about myself—what I see when I look at her, the horrors I’m processing. My own loss is nothing compared to the loss she’s experiencing (or, even worse, not experiencing). But I’m the filter through which I process the event of my mother’s deterioration; I’m the camera lens. My mom once put tobasco sauce on my tongue as a punishment for sassing her; I ran upstairs to scream into the bathroom mirror, watched as my face turned red, my eyes runny and raw. I relished the drama—not the pain itself but the image of pain. Likewise, when I detail my mother’s appearance now, the decay of her flesh, I’m not sure where the reality of her body’s torture ends and my experience of that torture begins, let alone where my experience stops and the story of my experience begins. It’s her pain or it’s my pain or it’s an anecdote about pain.
One thing worries me: was writing an entire book about grief a way of indulging, living for a long time in the self-regarding deep? Locking eyes with the girl screaming in the mirror?
Yes, I suffered self-pity, endured self-pity, lost a decade to self-pity—one of my refrains: Mommy was mean to me and then she went crazy.
But is that where the poems came from? In a recent article called "Confessional Writing is Not Self-Indulgent” for The Guardian, Leslie Jamison writes,
There are many ways to confess and many ways confession can reach beyond itself. If the definition of solipsism is “a theory holding that the self can know nothing but its own modifications and that the self is the only existent thing,” then little pushes back against solipsism more forcefully than confession gone public. This kind of confession inevitably creates dialogue.
Reading memoirs, and reading others’ writing about confession, has caused me to hope that confessional writing contains the possibility of calling an end to self-pity through disseminated sympathy—sympathy that connects a writer with her subject and, through a shared investment in the subject, to flesh-and-blood readers. Vivian Gornick emphasizes that such sympathy is integral to the functioning personal narrative:
What I mean by sympathy is simply that level of empathic understanding that endows the subject with dimension. The empathy that allows us, the readers, to see the “other” as the other might see him or herself is the empathy that provides movement in the writing. When someone writes a Mommie Dearest memoire—where the narrator is presented as an innocent and the subject as a monster—the work fails because the situation remains static. For the drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent. Above all, it is the narrator who must complicate in order that the subject be given life.
In the personal narrative, we strive to give the subject life. In the memoir on grief, we strive to give the experience of grieving grounds for communion. It’s a re-routing of the self-focussed energy that causes one to “dwell” within personal tragedy. One of the reasons grief is so entwined with self-pity is that, in Joan Didion’s words, “We are repeatedly left… with no further focus than ourselves, a source from which self-pity naturally flows.” She quotes from C. S. Lewis who wrote after the death of his wife:
I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had H. for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on through habit fitting an arrow to the string, then I remember and have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead thought to H. I set out on one of them. But now there’s an impassable frontierpost across it. So many roads once; now so many cul de sacs.
Our dead ones won’t return, but by setting our words out into the world we re-route the energy that once cul-de-sac-ed back, again and again, to the self. Leslie Jamison “loved seeing the way [her] words travelled beyond the pages and became about so much more than what [she’d] lived, or what [she’d] felt.”
I visited Mom because I missed her, miss her, will always long for her. The tragedy was hers, but it was ours too, those who loved her. My self-pity has slowly been replaced with tolerance, with an ability to cope. I realize now that it’s not heroic to love, to witness the horrors of mortality. Moving beyond the self, confession builds roads to confidantes, to new connections, to the living moving on, sadly but with acceptance, to the rest of our lives.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
Brecken Hancock's poetry, essays, interviews and reviews have appeared in Event, CV2, Grain, The Fiddlehead and Studies in Canadian Literature. She is Reviews Editor for Arc Poetry Magazine and Interviews Editor for Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. Her first book of poems, Broom Broom, was published by Coach House Books in 2014. She lives in Ottawa. Visit www.breckenhancock.com for more information.