Living Lies, Losing Heroes
So, I was planning on writing a blog about how to overcome your homicidal tendencies and learn to coexist peacefully with the morons that surround you… but then I realized, “Hey, it’s National Poetry Month, and I haven’t written a single blog about poetry!”
This may be it. I make no guarantees.
The news of Adrienne Rich’s death finally reached me this week. I was looking up feminist poetry in the hopes of finding some names I hadn’t heard before — some more contemporary names, potentially of peers my age — and this was one of the first stories that appeared: “Adrienne Rich, Influential Feminist Poet, Dies at 82.” Of course, I had to read it.
But although I was inspired to somehow obtain a copy of “21 Love Poems” — quite the expensive investment at no less than $120 a pop on Amazon — I was more disturbed by something Margalit Fox (the Times writer covering the story) touched on briefly toward the end of the article:
“By 1970, partly because she had begun, inwardly, to acknowledge her erotic love of women, Ms. Rich and her husband had grown estranged. That autumn, he died of a gunshot wound to the head; the death was ruled a suicide. To the end of her life, Ms. Rich rarely spoke of it.”
Now, Adrienne Rich is definitely someone I respect as not only a poet, but a figure in the feminist movement. She repeatedly rejected awards imbued with hypocrisy and impacted not only the literary world, but the one beyond it with her political work and writings. However, I now found myself experiencing some dark sentiment I think may be somewhat unique to me in my generally self-righteous state of mind: I was profoundly disturbed that Adrienne Rich no longer seemed “all right” to me. Here I thought I’d found a crusader for absolute truth and pure justice, someone who could do no wrong, but what if the lie she had lived with her husband was what inspired his suicide?
Things to remember while continuing on in this blog:
1) I have no problem with anyone’s sexual orientation — period — and I will not argue about when anyone becomes aware of his or her true orientation.
2) I do not blame anyone for the actions another takes in his or her life; in other words, I don’t blame one person for another’s suicide.
3) We can only speculate as to why Rich’s husband killed himself; regardless, this will not really be my focus. I mostly intend to explore this happenstance as an example of something that made me question my own thoughts and beliefs about “heroes” and the like.
4) These are all complicated issues about which I’m sure we all have opinions. Here’s mine.
If you’ve seen “Brokeback Mountain,” you may understand where my train of thought is going with this. While certainly this movie highlights the incredible horrors of living in a homophobic and oppressive society, I remember always being struck most by the part where Alma sees Jack and Ennis kissing (forward to 2:40 and keep on mute for the full impact of the acting) in what was intended to be a discreet place. This is the moment where she realizes the whole life she’s built with her husband Ennis is a total fraud. She thought it was real. Her feelings for him were real. And yet he was masquerading with her, using her, yes, somewhat justifiably in the sense that he was protecting himself from what happened to homosexual men of his time (a choice I think we can all to some degree understand), but it doesn’t change the fact that someone else became the fallout of this decision and got majorly hurt — all because the other signed that person on in the lie as the unknowing accomplice.
I’m not saying Ennis never felt any affection or caring for Alma; that’s really not the argument or point here. What is is that choices like these — justifiable reasons behind them or not — have consequences, some of which are pretty severe, some of which others never find ways to recover from. Now, yes, it’s still everyone’s responsibility to heal themselves, ultimately, but in the same way we can understand and justify people’s longing and striving to protect themselves, I think we can understand and provide equal justification for how difficult living a healthy, “normal” life is later made by people who’d wrapped others up in entire lie-lives — and I mean any lie, not just one related to sexual orientation.
I myself have been in such a position. I’m sure to this day I’ll never know the full extent of the lie I was living with one particular ex, whose problem had symptoms but no cause visible to anyone’s eyes. Think about how difficult it must’ve been before modern science and medicine to diagnose a disease from symptoms you had no means of testing or associating with any particular system in the body. You can see the consequences (e.g., bleeding, coughing, lacerations, etc.) of something, but you have no idea what’s causing it (a virus? bacteria? a tumor?). And you don’t even necessarily know the bleeding or coughing isn’t normal to begin with, just something this person has to live with or that everyone experiences at some point. You don’t know until you know. This is what it’s like to live a lie with someone before you realize it’s a lie.
After you realize the lie, you can’t really un-know what you now know, and life becomes something else entirely. It’s usually not very pretty, either, for quite some time, if it ever gets back to some semblance of normalcy. I’m not saying it can’t be done, that people who’ve experienced something like I or Alma have can’t ever truly be happy; I’m just saying that even if you do heal, even if you do move on, even if — like me — you find a life that truly brings you joy — you’ll always know something dark and despicable about the world and about the everyday lives we all fashion, about people who truly mean nothing when they use words like “love,” about the limitations of trust and each one of us. And then — terrifyingly — you realize you can now spot these things almost a mile away happening to some of those around you, and you try to reach out to them in their time of need, knowing you are uniquely qualified to at the very least be someone who can understand and sympathize with the plight — but this is a club no one really wants to belong to.
Truth is, for some, all of this is just simply too hard to live with. I make no excuses for suicide, but I can understand it to a degree from this perspective. I found myself stepping away from the article about Adrienne Rich thinking mostly of her husband, wondering if this is what he knew, if the truth of his life was just too much for him to bear. None of us will never know, of course. But I see Rich so differently now because of this husband she’d taken in spite of being a lesbian. I can and do still very much admire and respect her work, but I can no longer think of her decisions as wholly benevolent or correct. Granted, no one is perfect, I know, and it’s my own concept of what a champion is or should be that I suppose in my case is limited and limiting. But this is far too gray an issue for me, too ominous and looming a cloud for me to have standing over someone I call a hero. And so it goes I lost one of mine this week.