The Price of Revelation
This week, I read an article in the New York Observer that baffled, bothered and bewildered me. The article tells a story about Marie Calloway, a “part feminist, part fame whore,” young woman writer (pseudonymous) who e-mailed a much older Internet writer in New York she admired, told him she was coming to the city and wanted to sleep with him, slept with him, and wrote a 15,000 word “story, “Adrien Brody,” about the experience. None of that is necessarily shocking though some of the details (his relationship status, for example), make the assignation a bit sordid.
We are in the age of Internet confession. Have blog, will reveal, memoir, pixilated for a hundred random strangers to read. Or more. I wonder about the cost of confession these days, and the reach.
“Adrien Brody” held my interest in a prurient way. I wanted to know how the “story” would end. Anyone, and particular a woman, who has been that age can find something to relate to—admiring an older man (or woman), wanting to have a perfect, connected encounter, dealing with insecurity and anxiety, the inevitable disappointment. The story is definitely written in the “Tao Lin aesthetic,” the near obsessive chronicling of one’s (or a character’s) thoughts, emotions, motivations, and actions in a highly detached manner. I’m probably a decade too old to appreciate this literary style but it is a style and one that seems to have gained purchase with a certain audience. There’s an interesting vulnerability to this writing at times, but on the whole, it doesn’t feel like writing. It feels like a writer confessing to a mirror, transcribed e-mails included. I suppose that might be the point.
Mostly, I found “Adrien Brody” sad because people (all of us) are awkward. I cringe whenever I see young people doing things they will probably regret in 20 years. When you’re in your late thirties, you will too. It’s kind of inevitable. I was also uncomfortable. I now know there is man out there who will talk about Gramsci during sex and say ridiculous things to sleep with a much younger girl and who doesn’t read the books he says he reads. I know he has a girlfriend who keeps nail polish at his house and that he’s insecure. I know he disappointed Calloway and, in the end, treated her the way the other men she has slept with treated her. That feels like knowing too much. But I want to know! But I don’t! I do! I don’t!
The vulnerability of the writer sharing how she felt about the affair was readily apparent. There’s something to be said for the honesty in the “story.” But is the story honest? Or is it a deliberate performance in service of the “story”? It’s hard to say. In the Observer article, Calloway said, “I wrote to express my worldview/subjectivity because it felt then that no one had any idea. I guess ultimately I wanted to connect with others in order to feel less alone.” I have no issue with that. Writers, and women writers in particular, have long written in deeply personal, explicit ways for any number of reasons from wanting connecting, to wanting to achieve some kind of fame to wanting to explore a certain aesthetic.
I don’t need to deliberate the literary merits of “Adrien Brody.” I don’t need to get into whether this is a feminist expression of a woman’s sexual experience. This story is what it is and we’re all going to take different things away from it. I do, however, think it would be interesting to have a conversation about the ethics of “Adrien Brody.” Calloway working through her “expression of subjectivity” affects people. There are consequences.
When you write personally and intimately, difficult questions arise. Whose stories do we, as writers, have the right to tell? To what extent do we have the right to write about the people in our lives? What are the limits of good taste? Do we have to consider good taste and ethics when it comes to writing from our lives? These are not new questions. I don’t know if they have answers but “Adrien Brody” certainly makes me think such questions are still worth discussing.
And there’s the pseudonym. Writing pseudonymously is seductive. You can say whatever you want without consequence because no one knows who you really are. That freedom makes it easy to be daring, to write openly or even transgressively. Some of my favorite writers do so pseudonymously. Marie Calloway wrote about her life and her desires and her attraction to this “Adrien Brody” writer as is her right but she did so behind the safety of a persona and did not afford the same courtesy to the man she writes about so intimately. His identity is thinly veiled, at best. However flawed he may be, did he consent to being written about in this manner? And so publicly? Would Calloway have written “Adrien Brody” if she had to use her given name?
More than that, I keep thinking about the girlfriend of this writer. His relationship is certainly not Calloway’s problem. If he doesn’t value the relationship enough to respect it’s boundaries that’s his failing. But. The girlfriend is still affected. Did Calloway consider that? This story is all over the Internet. The people who know this writer and his girlfriend, who also read this “story” know he cheated and how he cheated. Relationships overcome infidelity all the time but it seems like a vastly more uphill battle when the explicit details of an infidelity have been left in the hands of a narcissistic, exhibitionistic writer who doesn’t display the maturity to consider consequences, particularly those consequences for the people in her story without the shelter of a pseudonym.
Calloway recently deleted her blog, said she doesn’t like being watched. That’s not quite the impression she gives, though, through her confessional writing. She wants to be watched so long as she is in control of how she is watched. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to extend that courtesy to the other people she writes about or who might be affected by what she writes. That is revealing, too.