representing others; or, a partial response to The Help and Facebook conversations

I graduated from college almost 13 years ago, right at the start of the Harry Potter craze. When I began working in Boston, I took the Orange Line in from Medford. It was a long ride, and every day I noticed more fellow commuters reading one of the first three HP books. At first I resisted, it was a children’s book! I read literature! Finally, I gave in and read all three books in two sick days in February, while I was bedridden with a bad cold and laryngitis. I was hooked and bought the rest of the books and saw each movie on the day they were open.

Since then, I’ve rarely resisted a book craze. I knew I would eventually read The Help, but I also felt fairly certain that I wouldn’t like it. Far too many of my historian friends–particularly those who work in African American history–had criticized it and I  trust their critiques. So, when I decided to pick it up as the last in my binge of novel reading this Spring Break, I tried very hard to keep an open mind. I tried to think of it as “light reading,” but it was a slog. Far more articulate, educated, and informed reviews have been written, so this one is my personal response.

I couldn’t stand her use of dialect. First, it was incomplete. Second, it was selective in ways that bugged me. Why did Minny and Aibileen use dialect in their chapters, while Skeeter did not? As a Northerner living in Mississippi, I can absolutely tell you that Skeeter’s speech would not sound like the grammatically perfect, unaccented words I read on these pages. Nor would my own to a Mississippian. I’ve already posted about how difficult I find it to be understood by locals here.

The author, Kathryn Stockett, is a native Mississippian, who spent time in NYC but currently lives in Atlanta. She didn’t make an abnormal choice in representing Minny and Aibileen with what we would recognize as a black dialect or sociolect. And Southern literature is known for its use of dialect and sociolect–it’s a point of pride dating from at least Faulkner (I’m being lazy in not thinking about making a more careful list).

I appreciate that Stockett was struggling to represent African American women, and I wouldn’t agree that she had no business writing about race or trying to develop sympathetic, realistic characters of another race and background. The failings of the novel are to me primarily in the narrative and the language. The story seems somewhat forced, some of the characters leaden.

I probably found Celia Foote to be the most interesting woman in the book. I knew immediately what was wrong with her, why she rested in bed all day. But I was unsatisfied with the incompleteness of her story. It was just a tiny peak into the horror it must have been to lose child after child in the 1960s, with no real medical options available. I would read a novel about that, would love to see that story make it into people’s consciousnesses right now while we fight over women’s health. That said, Stockett didn’t have to tell any story she didn’t want to tell.

The novel’s weaknesses are easy to ping, because she chose to wrote about one of the most difficult and complicated topics in this country: race. Would it have been better if she hadn’t written the novel at all? Or better if she’d stuck to writing it from Skeeter’s point of view? Or kept it in interview form? Do we always fail at representing other people realistically, but we just don’t notice it when authors’ characters are more like themselves? I am sure literary scholars have written a lot about that. I think that Stockett meant well, and therein she got herself in trouble.

When you put yourself and your words in the wide public sphere, you begin to speak for others. That’s a hard thing to do, and when you begin to do it flippantly and with tremendous confidence in your wisdom, as many of our news and talk radio commentators do, you become dangerous. Right now, I can see I have a few comments to read on Facebook based upon a story a friend posted about breast feeding. It’s a crappy article from ABC News titled, “Breastfeeding: Balancing Idealism with Realism.” The video’s more useful, but the article underneath it focuses on how hard it is to breastfeed and on reasons why women quit before the recommended 6 months. The article, I think, misses the point of what the women in the interview are saying.

Few of the women in the article say they found it unrealistic to breastfeed. An expert reported, “There are many competing demands on new parents: lack of sleep; crying, unsettled babies; other children to look after; and work commitments.”  The expert focuses first on demands mothers have always had: difficult babies and other children. He lists work commitments last.

Yet, in the article, the women say different things first. One woman says she hated pumping. Another woman said she couldn’t make it work with her job as a waitress. Another woman said her baby wasn’t gaining weight–that would be an example where we’d need more information to understand.

My lord, I hated pumping. Hated hated hated it.  And I was in a sympathetic environment at the University of Michigan. So I breastfed Samuel until he weaned himself. After he was mobile, he just never wanted to sit or stand still long enough to feed. We went to morning and night feedings, when he was sleepy, and that was the end. Easy. It didn’t always feel easy at the time, but looking back and hearing other women’s stories, I definitely think that after a few rough weeks in the beginning, I have little to complain about when it comes to breastfeeding.

How are women in countries with better maternity leave policies doing at breastfeeding? That’s what I’d want to know.

In the discussion on Facebook (Hello if the friend who posted it is reading!), a familiar discussion emerges, with not a few comments blaming mothers–believing the headline that women just find breastfeeding too hard. It is so hard to understand another woman’s motivation, but I always, in all settings, try to avoid primarily blaming people for their misfortune. Certainly I believe in personal responsibility and that in most cases the daily drudge of parenting will be harder in your baby’s first year of life than it ever will be again, but usually it is far more complicated than just a woman being selfish or lazy.

What I really don’t understand, though, is why people so easily think they can understand others’ motivations. I don’t. I really don’t. I used to think I did, but if I have learned anything about life in the past five years, it’s that no one is simple.  No one is an open book. Much of what a person says is as complicated as any of the poems from my Romantic poetry class in college. What they do is even harder to understand.

I don’t know if Rush Limbaugh, Bill Maher, and other men and women who’ve made the news for their offensive comments (Yes, I will condemn Maher’s calling Sarah Palin a c*nt) believe what they say. In a sick sense and to an extreme, they’re just doing what we all do daily–filtering their interpretations of others’ words and behaviors through their own experiences and expectations and judging them carelessly. For most of us and usually, it’s fine. Often, it’s the start of empathy. Sometimes, it’s useful. But too frequently, it’s mean-spirited and myopic. And as I’ve said over and over, I think intention matters.

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