I remember a party in the early 90s where I met a woman who, within three minutes, was recounting her recent abortion and breakup with her boyfriend. Even against a backdrop of feminist camaraderie, this instant revelation was startling enough to make me wonder if she was drunk precisely because it is a social violation to share too much tragedy or vulnerability too quickly. The rules urge us, rather, to guard our soft, sad, secret centers from the eyes of strangers, only gradually meting out access like precious backstage passes at a rock concert. “I will show you who I REALLY am,” the script insists, “but only when you’ve proven yourself in the preliminaries.”
That this whole loosely choreographed scenario is pretty strange is something I especially noticed after working through memoir-inspired exercises with my students. Why are so many of us attracted to the tragic or sordid revelations that the memoir genre promises to supply? In addition to prurient curiosity and voyeurism, it seems that permission to peer into another’s vulnerabilities and damage feels like an invitation to consort with their most sacred, secret selves. Don’t I feel specially chosen when another shares with me what seems to be a preciously guarded revelation or hidden shame? And isn’t part of why it can feel so off-putting when another shares “too much too soon” that it steals away that suggestion of having been singled out from the crowd as an especially worthy confidante?
The perversity of this intimacy ritual is highlighted when we consider that when someone shares facets of their supposedly dark, shameful tragedies, we are often inclined to assume that they are disclosing their “real” essence. That is, this is thought to be the “authentic” self which underlies the mundane version that they present to the rest of the world. It’s a game that rests on the assumption of a naive depth model of self, according to which, like an iceberg, the substantive “core” of one’s identity — the good stuff! — is mostly hidden. And it seems to reveal an ongoing attachment to a romantic, tragic identity model according to which the sad, or otherwise abject aspects one’s identity are assumed to be more authentic, more truly them, than their more happy-go-lucky expressions.
Of course, being presented with someone’s supposedly innermost self can feel like either a gift or a burden. If I’m eager for greater intimacy then I will probably treasure it, carrying it with me as a poignant, proud symbol of having been singled out and trusted by you. But if I want to maintain distance from you, your sharing will feel like an imposition or even a violation, as if you just thrust your newborn baby into my arms and walked away. Whether we want such intimacies or not, though, the entire ritual is based on the pretty weird premise that we’re all meant to be walking around guarding secret selves and testing one another’s worthiness before will agree to share them.
In the U.S., the tendency to assume a kind of tragic psychological depth is so overwhelming that when I first raised these questions, many of my students heard it as a recommendation that they should engage in even more soul-baring, not at all what I meant. In fact, I am not even sure I’m capable of raising these issues without simply being heard as urging more “bravery” or “openness” with respect to shining greater light on our “vulnerabilities.” The closest I have come to asking the right question may be this: Why do we so often assume that when someone shares tears it’s more authentic than when they share their satisfaction? Isn’t it partly that being wounded and brooding is thought to be complicated, mysterious, and real as contentment, health, and optimism are not? As a former colleague put it: Only stupid, uninteresting people walk around smiling.