jlink
Tuesday, October 24, 2017

For those who of you who only clicked this link because it included the word “confessional,” you can go ahead and stop reading right now, because you’re not going to learn anything about me that you didn’t already know. Since I am not Catholic, the English word confession is not necessarily a word I associate that often with religion, except for it as a common translation for the viduy prayer we say before Yom Kippur and at deathbed moments, when possible. It’s a word I associate most with jail time and criminals. But in this [social media] day and [oversharing] age, the impetus for women to “confess” has somehow become associated with positivity and good mental health. People who “tell their story” to the world with the stated goal to somehow “make someone’s else’s suffering just a little less lonely,” has become the cheapest therapy of the millennium. But guess what? You might be getting exactly what you pay for it.

Don’t get me wrong, this style of writing is not new; tell-all memoirs have been bestsellers for years: many a movie starlet and spurned ex-wives of famous men have spoken their “truths” to ghostwriters and collected well-earned paychecks. I guess that’s honest money and their business. But we seem to have entered a new age of the “common woman” memoir; everyone and their daughter/sister/mother must unburden themselves somehow in order to “help others.” But are we proud of this in every case? Is this activity always to be applauded, and does “going public” with a private story somehow make it more legitimate or relevant to all? Is it possible to share too much? Is anyone else a little embarrassed by all this TMI?

The central prohibition against unethical speech is Leviticus 19:16: “Lo telech rachil b’ameicha” — do not go about as a talebearer among your people. When journalists report the news, we go through (or ideally go through) a process of fact-checking and editing to make sure the information is correct as much as possible. The efficacy of this differs among publications, but I know my organization does its very best, though we do still err. However, with personal stories and people “bearing witness” to events or experiences, the truth is sometimes more difficult to discern. A common example of this is people who have witnessed car accidents from different perspectives will often tell the police they saw the incident happen one way, when another person will say the exact opposite.

There are exceptions to this, of course: Certainly, breaking one’s silence about sex abuse, harassment and child abuse, is right and appropriate. Individuals and groups, in advocating turning in such abusers without exception in the Jewish community, has been an important move forward in what has, in the past, been a communal problem fraught with too much silence. Similarly, individuals who have gone public in the wake of a family suicide or near-miss in order to help others, have likely saved untold lives.   

However, it is my sense that it is not always appropriate to shout all personal issues from the figurative rooftops. “Letting it all out” has a darker side that few people seem to consider, and even fewer seem to understand. Also, one can always find someone to agree with, if one is seeking legitimacy or to be heard, but public fora are risky and th internet may not always provide people with the forum they hope for. I have learned three things in 15 years in journalism; 1) You can’t untell a story, 2) you often only get one chance to get it right, and 3) you can’t erase the internet.

Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (1:17) says, “Rabbi Shimon, the son of Rabban Gamliel, said: All my days I have grown up among the Sages, yet I have never found anything good for the body except silence.” Mefarshim (commentators) question this. Certainly silence has often been touted as good for the neshama, the soul. But why did Rabbi Shimon remark that he had not found good for the body except silence?

Having been barraged with examples of recent missives, I have begun to agree with Rabbi Shimon, that confession might actually be bad for both body and soul: “I Won't Go to Shul This Yom Kippur,” I Didn’t Fast On Yom Kippur,” "Why I'm Eating This Yom Kippur," Why My Cat Told Me Not to Fast This Yom Kippur...” well, you get the idea. Three of these headlines were actually posted articles in my social media newsfeed last month… (though I certainly think the last one would have been quite a lot more interesting, at least for the animal lover psychics among us), and these are good examples; there were more confessionals that I liked much, much less.

Aside from the obvious headline concern, that of the flaunting disrespect for God, Judaism and the laws of Yom Kippur in print, a few other things bother me about these types of articles (which I did not read in any great detail), which go viral faster than you can say bird flu.

While I understand it may be interesting or useful for the woman herself to write and justify her medical reason for her heter (exception) against fasting on Yom Kippur, going public with such information does not automatically make that heter relevant for everyone who might think it applies to them. It also has the potential to create more unintended problems for the women and families of women who share, who might not want details of their wives’ or daughters’ medical history out there in public for all to see. 

My greatest concern is that people who take comfort by hearing other people’s tales of woe are women (and maybe men) who have decided that reading articles on the internet has taken the place of asking one’s own shailah (halachic question), not to mention missing the opportunity to have contact and create fellowship and in-person commiseration with others, perhaps making advances toward useful, perhaps life-saving medical care or cognitive behavior therapy. Virtual (self) diagnoses might have the weight of the paper they’re printed on.

My other lesser concern is that confessional articles such as these common woman memoirs have cropped up, and in many cases, replaced other types of journalism related to Yom Tovim. It concerns me that one woman’s experience of a holiday takes the place of what could be researched articles about family recipes, divrei Torah, history, features about our communities and stories of our sages. Why does it seem that everything has to be a tell-all memoir to be current? What does it say about us that we only click on these stories, and not others?  

My colleague in Israel, Leah Aharoni, wrote the following recently on Arutz Sheva (on a similar theme but reacting to an entirely different level of confessional writing): “Our Sages [have] told us not to judge anyone until we are in his shoes, and since we will never be exactly in his shoes, we cannot judge the way someone handles his situation. But these rules change the moment private actions are boasted of in public with the intention of receiving legitimacy and public support. At that moment, the discussion ceases to deal with the person and his actions, and turns its focus to the society in which we live. And we cannot ignore the desecration of God's Name.”

A timely example: The only entity that wins when a newly divorced woman tells her tale of woe about taking her Orthodox Jewish tween son out for a non-kosher slice of pizza, is the New York Times, and of course, the publisher of her upcoming memoir. The scandal one creates by “bearing one’s soul,” by “living one’s truth,” by being one’s “most conscious self,” in this instance, is objectionable to many people who might care deeply about the laws of kashruth, or childrearing, and mildly entertaining to others who regularly consume voyeuristic tales. The only people giving it “public support” are those who have lived the same types of experiences and feel happy that this lady had drawn the same conclusions they did. These people would have bought the book anyway. Everyone else is just a number on the pageviews.  

Also, say this was a real incident. Say a divorced mother really did take her Orthodox Jewish tween son out for non-kosher pizza? How does the son feel when he finds out his mother has outed him in the New York Times, and turned him into a vignette? What about when that son’s friends at yeshiva ask him about it? What does he say to them? What will he think about the experience five, 10, 15 years down the line? And perhaps, most upsetting: how does it feel to the ex-husband, the boy’s father, the very thought of whom makes me want to shrivel up with horrified empathy? When have we all become characters in our own (uniquely Jewish) Nora Ephron novel?

What is so bothersome about this particular story? It is, I think, the empathy I am made to feel about the real world implications of such a public talebearing: The very thought of this very real, potentially sad or spurned former spouse, being raked over the coals by a an ex-wife who simply must write.every.word.she’s.ever.thought.  Here’s what this incident illustrates to me. For this man, who is an unintended, collaterally-damaged victim of his wife’s writing: Nothing is sacred, one can’t trust even one’s spouse, and there’s simply no such thing as privacy.

What to do

Telling stories are important. I love reading stories, and I even love writing great stories. It’s why I do what I do. But it’s important that my articles are as true as I know them to be, and I also work hard to not embarrass people by what I write (least of all myself or my family) and if writing something will mean I will embarrass anyone knowingly, I hold it back.

When I name names or break the third wall and speak directly to my readers, I do so because I believe I can’t tell the story any other way, that the story must be told, and that I am the person to tell it. There is certainly an element of ego inside every writer, and I am no saint and no better than any other. But I take as many precautions as I know how and I ask many more people to read my articles before I publish than I need to. To guard my own tongue, and my own tzniut, I can’t and don’t tell all great stories I hear, and I don’t write all stories I want to write. While I have written hundreds of articles, there are hundreds more I have written and never published. And hundreds more in my head, unwritten. Some of the best ones I’ve been told are secrets.

A writer knows that there are sometimes stories that should not be told. Sometimes silence is better. If being my “true self” as a writer means hurting people I love, I think I have to make the choice for the people I love. I choose silence for my body and my soul.

I have always loved reading stories that make me understand the experiences of others. But I look for these stories in the fiction aisles of my libraries and bookstores. Because what I don’t want is to ever meet these people I just read things about, things that their own family just read as well. Art may imitate life, but life is meaningful and important on its own; why would we ever want our own lives to resemble works of fiction?

A great novel or article may be great or even life-altering; and it is truly wonderful to step in the pages and experience Hemingway’s Paris. I would love to just be a fly on the wall in David Sedaris’ apartment, just listening to him talk to his sisters and be hilarious. But at the end of the day, we all go home to our own lives. Would I still want to sit with David Sedaris when he’s having an off day? Is the Sedaris I know from his articles in The New Yorker the same Sedaris at home? Would Ernest Hemingway's work have been less impressive had I seen him every day at the cafe before his work entered the canon of great American literature?   

 I understand the voyeuristic aspect of this kind of writing. It sells (and people click). But is it right? And again, who are the beneficiaries? If it provides catharsis, is it possible that such writing could be done in a more private way, in a way that would not be publicized to the entire world, forevermore? I propose that silence, which comes as a result of refraining from gossiping or in “unburdening oneself (which could be viewed as gossiping about oneself), indeed might be healthier for all involved.

We know we can grow from examining our own thoughts and actions. If we must write down our thoughts, we can keep them in a diary, like in the old days. Has anyone who has unburden themselves recently considered writing it down, waiting a year, re-editing it, and only then consider sending it to a publisher?

We do not have to always shout our deepest, darkest secrets by publishing them for all the world to see and comment on (comments are the worst, and mean ones are the worst of the worst). Putting one’s deepest, darkest stories out there opens one up to the darkest trolls of the internet age. We can keep maintain more respect for ourselves and others and guard our own tongues; not just for our families, for our God, but to retain our own honor.