Ex-boyfriends and ugly feelings, family skeletons and panic attacks, choking self-doubt mingled with soaring grandiosity: this is the bread and wine of confessional blogging.
At xoJane, Cat Marnell describes her pettiness toward her co-workers at the website and details her struggle to kick her addiction to Adderall in real time. In a personal blog that eventually became an e-book, Dodie Bellamy draws on art and theory to explore the emotional aftermath of a romantic affair with a Buddhist teacher. And on Tumblr, writer and PhD student Kara Jesella archives the detritus of her relationship and breakup, including a miscarriage and a stay in a psychiatric ward—and analyzes the feminist underpinnings of the entire endeavor.
For me, this is a gift. All I have ever wanted is for interesting people to tell me their stories – the messy, honest ones that normally come along only after a few drinks. That’s why I love memoirs and Sylvia Plath and Audre Lorde and PostSecret and Joni Mitchell. The confessional voice, done with attention to craft, is one of the best antidotes I know to isolation. Not coincidentally, as far as I can tell the majority of the bloggers currently practicing it are women. Also not coincidentally, the confessional voice—both historically and in the present—has haters without end.
I believe that women writers are drawn to the confessional voice because they are not supposed to speak their pain. The same goes for people who are nonwhite or GLBTQ or disabled or otherwise on societal margins.
Confession is only necessary where there is repression, where it serves the interests of those in power to persuade those who aren’t to maintain their silence. And so confessional blogging, like confessional poetry and confessional novels before it, is a political act. Lorde expounds on the necessity of personal disclosure, writing, “Your silences will not protect you [. . .] What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language.” Lorde’s criticism applies to the personal just as much as the political, because the two are inseparable in her life and in everyone’s.
Enter the ex-boyfriends.
Bellamy’s blog and book The Buddhist is rife with the embarrassment of personal disclosure. It is embarrassing for her to admit how often she thinks of her former lover, a Buddhist teacher. She tries to stop writing about him over and over again: “So, I’m saying goodbye to the buddhist vein here,” she says, with half her book still to go. “I already said that, but I mean it this time.” (She doesn’t.) It’s embarrassing for her to continue mourning the relationship long past its expiration date, and even more embarrassing to blog about it. Whereas the mantle of what she calls Real Writing might lend her heartbreak cultural credibility and make writing about it more acceptable, blogging won’t protect her from judgment. In fact, it exposes her further. Yet she grows committed to documenting the relationship and breakup when she considers who and what culturally-imposed silence on personal drama serves. Bellamy writes,
“This business of women not suffering in public, of having a gag order when it comes to personal drama, such as a break up, connects back to larger histories of suppression [. . .] a harkening back to the whole notion that domestic space is private, what happens behind closed doors stays behind closed doors, and somewhere buried in there is the history of the wife being owned by her man and therefore she better keep her trap shut, and bourgeois notions of suffering with dignity—or dignity itself, how oppressive a value is that?”
Bellamy gives her Buddhist anonymity, including few identifying details, but she painstakingly refuses to give herself the false comforts of dignity. A dignified person, after all, appears assured of herself and her place in the world—low on self-doubt, slightly elevated above the ordinary scrambling of humanity. Gwyneth Paltrow-esque. But Bellamy wants to be honest about her desperation and confusion, the waves of longing and fury and acceptance that crash over her without end. So she replays past conversations with the Buddhist, the contradictions between his beliefs and actions: how he gave money to a homeless person who asked for it as his spirituality says he should, but how afterward he complained about the likelihood that the man would use it for drugs. Their awkward lovemaking is on the table, as are his lies about his relationship status and his attempts to keep the relationship on un-solid ground and thereby maintain control. (A tiny detail to which Bellamy, rightly, assigns great meaning: after signing many emails in a row with love, he switches to “with warmest regards,” without warning, just to keep her guessing.) She’s an emotional detective trying to solve the mystery of what exactly happened between them, who he was, who she became with and after him.
The Buddhist struck a chord with many readers. There are plenty of reasons why, but among them is the fact people feel messy inside with great frequency, which makes them feel alone. This is particularly true when they don’t hear anyone else admitting how messed up they are. To find a writer talking eloquently and openly about their 3 AM fears and bête noires and interpersonal despair is to find a friend in the wilderness — not least because Bellamy, in refusing dignity, finds a new form of it, one that’s large enough to encompass all of her.
Kara Jesella’s Tumblr gives a name to the project both she and Bellamy undertake: radical vulnerability. Jesella explains the genesis of the term: “radical vulnerability, here, is about questioning the self-contained liberal subject, not about self-disclosure, though i think there is something about admitting that other bodies are a part of you that makes it related to self-disclosure after all.” In other words, when Jesella brings other people into her Tumblr narrative—most notably her ex-boyfriend, but also her parents and brother and friends and professors and colleagues and feminist/queer theory heroes—she challenges the idea that it’s even possible to tell your own story without telling the story of others too.
In Bird By Bird, Annie Lamott tells aspiring writers, “Remember that you own what happened to you.” In this spirit, Jesella posts Gmail correspondences between herself and her ex, recounts past fights and scans old birthday cards. He comes off pretty badly, I have to say, but it’s his own words and actions that incriminate him. (Confessional writing has to be committed to telling the truth to the best of its ability; otherwise it’s just a libel lawsuit in sheep’s clothing.) Reading her Tumblr is a reminder of how unfair it can be for a person to maintain an unblemished public front while acting callously and cruelly in private.
Of course, this kind of disclosure isn’t for everyone, and there are any number of sensible reasons why a person might elect to keep quiet about personal drama, particularly the kind that involves relationships. But Jesella’s defense is completely legitimate. “‘[Y]ou’re hurting me’ and ‘ethics’ and ‘discretion’ are such obvious coverups—by self-identified feminist men—for behavior both atrocious and foolish that they don’t want exposed or theorized.” In that vein, she offers the example of a fight she has with her ex about her blog:
last night he told me he has tried to be ethical in the wake of our relationship; the implication being that i have not. i told him that earlier this week i found an email from him sent exactly a week after my miscarriage, when i was home alone with gynecological pains, with the all-caps subject line “YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY ONE WHO GETS TO BE HURT.” it proceeded to tell me that i was not proactively looking out for his post-miscarriage feelings (actually, i really was). he also refused to tell me when we could see each other that week and then accused me of not wanting to spend time with him when i replied that though i really wanted to be with him, if he couldn’t tell me, i would make plans with other people, because i was feeling really fragile, not to mention i was scared about what was going on physically, and didn’t want to be alone right then. what is unethical, to me, is his thinking it was okay to treat me this way ever, but especially after a fraught surgery. what is ethical is my talking about it. i didn’t get to the psych ward all by myself and i’m not the only person who has been in a situation like this. [. . .] and i guess i was really in love with him once, which counts for something when making decisions, but i will always be in love with my feminist ethics more. and i meant what i said: i would feel fine if he talked about our relationship. i have nothing to hide.
No doubt, there are risks that come with radical vulnerability–particularly online, where anyone can read what you write and names and identities are eminently Google-able. Jesella risks alienating people in her life, although the fact that she’s in a feminist academic community means that she’s more likely than most to be around people who will understand the reasoning and intent behind her project. Heather Armstrong (aka Dooce) lost her job at a software company because she wrote about the higher-ups. Blogger Hysteriarama summarizes the risks and rewards of confessional blogging: “over-sharing is totes a legit political tactic and super necessary and repression is booooooring (I know there’s another side to this where over-sharing marginalizes you and you compromise to survive and work through systems that will get you closer to something that isn’t totally alienating but right now I’m bleeding and hungry and broke and my house is annoying and I’m feeling really negate negate negate).”
With these risks in mind, Jesella and Bellamy show that confessional blogging, at its heart, is about transgressing social boundaries. That’s certainly part of Marnell’s rock star anti-heroine aesthetic as well. Among the writers in this article, though, Marnell is the outlier. Jesella and Bellamy, if they don’t already read each other’s work, would very likely feel an affinity with one another. My guess is that Marnell wouldn’t be an easy fit for either of them. Her article on practicing unsafe sex was met (understandably) with protests throughout the feminist blogosphere. Another post on losing weight through a juice cleanse drew criticism from bloggers who noted that the subject gets really complicated when it’s being written by a woman with a history of eating disorders, particularly without acknowledgment of that history.
The objections to Marnell are also her draw. Not only is she willing to talk about any number of taboo and highly personal subjects, she’s quick to take an unpopular position—though not, I think, just for provocation’s sake. As a beauty editor, it’s Marnell’s job to talk about products that women use to maintain or enhance appearances. The energy in her writing comes from the tension between the products she’s writing about—black eyeliner and detanglers and coconut-scented body lotions—and the way she writes about them, which constantly exposes and discloses massive contradictions.
Most beauty copy is chipper and sprightly, with no acknowledgment of the complex social histories brewing within a tube of pink champagne lip gloss. But Marnell’s confessions unleash conflict. There’s the contrast between the classically pretty surface of Marnell herself—blonde and slim and doe-eyed—and her chaotic, egomaniacal interior. There’s the discontinuity of the punk-rock look of her designer-made boots and purses. She’s both a high-achieving professional with a dream job, having dutifully worked her way up the editorial ladder at a number of top fashion magazines, and a nightmare employee who writes regularly about crying in HR meetings, blowing off work, missing deadlines, and jotting off notes on the plane to let her boss know she’s taking a working vacation in Miami, effective immediately.
By burying the beauty product lede beneath thousands of words on her stays in mental health clinics and her estranged relationship with her father, Marnell opposes the beautification of her own life and personality. But at the same time, she acknowledges that she’s still creating an image of herself as she wishes to be seen. She writes, “Also part of being an editor is editing your own Narrative, your own Truth, and I am always presenting a Cat that is far more loveable, generous and charming than who I really am lately.” Though Cat makes this confession in an article that tries to expose her own worst impulses, it also points to her skillful technique. Confessional blogging sheds so many protective layers—the overcoat of the fiction label, the sweater of print, the hoodie of experimental form – that it’s easy to believe writers are simply pouring themselves onto the page without premeditation or revision or considerations of style. But a good confessional blogger knows how to give an online community the sense that they’re gaining private access to her most visceral feelings while still shaping the story.
There’s a level of privilege that comes with confession. Marnell, Bellamy, and Jesella are all white, middle-class(ish) women in creative and intellectual communities where they can feel confident enough to expose themselves (selectively) without fearing that they’ll lose everything. Writers with less privilege surely use the confessional voice as well, but as a platform to speak truth to power it’s hobbled by the question of who ends up paying for it.
Still, the idea behind confessional writing, as expressed by pioneers like Lorde and Adrienne Rich, is to work toward a world that doesn’t punish people for revealing the full spectrum of their humanity, for telling how and where they’ve been hurt. “There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep,” Rich writes, “and still be counted as warriors.” That’s what I love about the stances taken by Marnell and Bellamy and Jesella. At first glance, it may look like they’re lying on the ground in tears. And maybe they are. But take another look, and you’ll see that they’re heading toward something dark and roiling. They’re not afraid of it, because they know what’s inside. Now they’re sprinting.