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Ladies and Lying

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Ladies and Lying: Some Questions about Honor


“Women have been driven mad, “gaslighted,” for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience.  The truth of our bodies and our minds has been mystified to us.  We therefore have a primary obligation to each other; not to undermine each others’ sense of reality for the sake of expediency; not to gaslight each other.  Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience.  Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other.”


--Adrienne Rich, “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying”, p. 190



When we are told that the truth will set us free and that lies will drive us insane, the only choice is to celebrate the former and demonize the latter.  Adrienne Rich makes that choice in “Women and Honor” but in doing so, she fails to bring a greater depth to her discussion of honor.  Whether this issue is a result of a choice to present a stronger argument for the truth (which Rich certainly does) or some other reason, Rich does not ever define the terms on which she bases honor: truth and lies, nor does she extensively discuss the myriad of reasons that women have chosen and still choose to lie.  One particular section, reproduced at the top of this page, exemplifies many of the reasons that this piece of Rich’s, from her otherwise excellent On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, does not work for me.  In looking at the silences in these paragraphs, which extend their ghostlike presence in the rest of her piece, as well as the choice to frame the truth as a question of sanity, one can better understand how the truth and honor diverge from Rich’s definitions.

Before one arrives at the question of honor, this selection first introduces the issue of sanity; another false binary Rich poses in her piece in statements like, “Our future depends on the sanity of each of us,” that she fails to complicate.  Like truth and lies, or honor and the unspoken dishonor, women are either sane or insane.  And of course, truth and sanity go together as well as any clichéd pair.  “Women have been driven mad,” Rich begins, with an interesting use of the passive voice that initially seems to contradict her profound belief in women’s agency.  Also, this begs the question, who is doing the driving here?  Not surprisingly, the answer is men.  And, because insanity is a process that occurs in the brain, Rich’s choice of language indicates that women are not in control of their own minds.  Instead of pointing to some deficiency in women, Rich instead is suggesting that the perpetual invalidation of women’s experience leads to a circumstance where women exist, or rather women have existed because men impose the situation, in a state of constructed insanity. 

Moving beyond verb tense, Rich’s next significant language choice is her use of the term “gaslighted.”  Mostly found in psychological discussions of emotionally abusive relationships, gaslighting is an encounter between gaslighter and gaslightee, the former being male and the latter almost always female (in literature about the subject).  Robin Stern, a psychologist who writes extensively about the subject, defines it as, “the systematic attempt by one person to erode another's reality, by telling them that what they are experiencing isn't so and, the gradual giving up on the part of the other person.”[1]  Rich offers a different situation in which gaslighting occurs when women deny each other’s experience and thus make it even more difficult to tell the truth.  Gaslighting is certainly an effective term to use, but it ignores the situations that create these truths that must, according to Rich, be told.  The truths that are the most painful to tell are often the ones we do not create but that are created for us, circumstances over which women have little or no control.  In such a situation, it seems that the focus should both be on the creation of these truths and the telling of them.  In that women can be both gaslighter and gaslightee, Rich offers the agency she previously denies, but she also touches on, not only a term probably unfamiliar to a great number of people, but another incredibly complex topic that is inadequately explored.

“The truth of our bodies and our minds has been mystified to us,” Rich writes but despite the power in her words, she is again pronouncing an issue throughout “Women and Honor,” the idea of the truth.  How can we understand our truth when it is mystified to us? When we’re not certain of our truths, many women are afraid to speak them for fear that they are in fact lies.  Rich may be trying to point to the conclusion that anything in women’s experience is true, but she is working in a discourse of the truth that denies the plurality and complexity of honor.  While some women may have single truths, most have many.  It is incredibly difficult to speak the truth when we don’t know which one is the truth.  And if it is, as Rich says, our “primary obligation,” then how can we not fear that we’ll tell the wrong one?  This piece continually perpetuates, even as it tries to refute it, is the misconception about the truth because, as Rich is writing about subjective experience, there are obviously many.  Furthermore, all truths and all lies are not created equal, even if they are all created.  Women’s identities are amalgamations of many truths and many lies, and just as there is no the lie, there is no the truth. 

Telling the truth is very much a “project,” a work in progress and one that requires a great deal of work.  But Rich shouldn’t assign this project without acknowledging that telling the truth often is a privilege.  Just like men are allowed to speak their truths, certain women have a much easier time and risk far less than others.  The absence of truth is not always a lie, and the decision not to speak the truth is a complex one.  The calculation of a woman's honor is too complex to ever state with any authority.  The truths we value are a direct result of discourse about what needs to be spoken and what is assumed through silence.  In her position of privilege, Rich could speak to the many complicating factors in her piece that she instead silences.  Where do women who actually struggle with mental illness fit in to her piece?  How does one tell the truth about trauma when it’s an experience that shatters language, memory, and the self?  The people who need to tell the truth are often those whose truths are most painful.  Yes, that pain may be a result of the shame we create, but that doesn't make it any less real.

I’d rather have Rich explore, what I’d prefer to have been her thesis, “When a woman tells the truth, she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.”  Her piece fails to achieve what could have been a larger discussion about privilege, honor, truths, lies, and silences.  Though I love Rich as a person and poet, I think she unintentionally gaslights other women in her piece by denying the complexity of our truths that, spoken or not, are never as simple as their dictionary definitions would suggest.





Works Cited

1. Rich, Adrienne. "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying." On Lies, Secrets, and

             Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978. New York: Norton, 1979. 185-194. Print.


2. Stern, Robin. "Mental Health - Gaslighting: Psychological Manipulation to the

Extreme." EmpowHER. N.p., 11 Mar. 2010. Web. 25 Nov. 2012. <>.


[1] Stern, Robin. "Mental Health - Gaslighting: Psychological Manipulation to the Extreme." EmpowHER. N.p., 11 Mar. 2010. Web. 25 Nov. 2012. <>.



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helpful information

Thank you for sharing.