Adrienne Rich Tells The Truth, The Whole Truth, And Nothing But The Truth And But Robby Wideman’s Truth is a Lie
When I first came out as gay, first to myself and then to the people in my life, I experience a time of complete upheaval and turmoil. Suddenly, there was this truth about myself that I never knew I had held, and that I now had to share with people in my life in order for them to fully know me, in the way that I wanted them to. I spoke to a lot of different queer people at that time, trying to navigate this new identity, trying on different labels, like trying on too many bras, none of which quite fit, until you find one that does the job, keeps ‘the girls’ in place, in the way that social standards expect of you, so you can empty your wallet for something just barely adequate. Two of the people I spoke to at that time were my Rabbi, Nancy, and, Judy, her partner of 30 years, legally married and recognized everywhere in the U.S. only a year ago. In my angst, my brow furrowed with pleading questions about ‘tell me how to be who I am’ and the my uncomfortable writhing in this new identity, this new bra that doesn’t quite fit, Judy gave me a piece of advice, a beautiful sentiment that I can only describe as being like the best goddamn bra you ever found. One of those bras that you almost never find, the miracle bra, if you will, that does the job with a grace, comfort and style that gives you the confidence to take on everything in your life with just a little more ease. She said “Joie, don’t ever let an older queer person make you feel like your struggle is less-than, because it’s not. Your struggle is your own and it’s real.” And all of a sudden, my truth, this new truth that I had to add to the many truths I have stitched into my body and name like a patchwork doll, became something I could grapple with. Something I realized would someday become just another patch. Not the giant fun house mirror that it was at the time, a massive distorted reflection of my whole self, but a patch that I could add to the others that make up me. Perhaps it is more colorful, slightly larger than the other patches. Maybe it’s rainbow while none of the others are, but with that one piece of advice, Judy not only allowed me to understand the overdeveloped value that I imposed upon this one truth at the time, but allowed me the space to acknowledge that by evening the plane on which we were talking. She and Rabbi, two queer women at least two generations removed from me, who had lived through more as queer women than years I had been alive, deliberately tossed the power structure that had imposed out the window and essentially said, ‘share your truths with us because we are on the same level.’
Adrienne Rice speaks of the power of truths in such a way. According to Rich, the honesty it takes to share one’s truth within an interaction has the power to ignite and cultivate and nurture meaningful relationships in a way that interactions in any other fashion simply lack. Rich then expands this notion with the claim that it is the only possible method of interaction that can lead to empowerment among women.
Rich’s “On Lies, Secrets, and Silence” posits an ideal of honesty in the global community of women. She asserts that a woman lying, under any circumstance, is a direct product of our inability to break free of the patriarchal shackles that hold all women, and that truth, pure unadulterated uncensored truth, is the necessary tool that women must wield for freedom. By truth telling we (read women) create a web of relationship politics that actively resists the default of relationships built upon lies, relationships that perpetuate the patriarchal norms under which we have always existed. Truth telling and honesty not only allow women to build meaningful relationships that resist normative structures but complexify and deepen relationships to be truly meaningful connections.
However, there are two major considerations that Rich lacks in her analysis of truth in relationships, which my conversation with Rabbi and Judy produced. First, that each person assigns different value to different truths, and second, that when two people interact, inherently a power structure surrounding a truth emerges. In my conversation with Judy and Rabbi, my greatest truth in that moment was my sexuality, all of my energy was poured into understanding that truth, and if either Rabbi or Judy had not understood that struggle, my truth would have fallen flat, been indeed perceived as less-than, and the shared understanding that Rich asserts only comes from truth sharing, would have been reversed. Additionally, both Rabbi and Judy sat on a plane of power different from mine. Older, more experienced in the world, and long out, they both could have chosen to ignore that power difference. Instead, they acknowledged it and dissolved it so that all three of us sat on a relatively equal plane. Rich’s argument can’t address that, especially when the truths that we choose to share or not can put us in physical or emotional danger because of the space of power that we occupy or because of the value that we assign to certain truths that others may not, and in many cases cannot, understand or accept.
I do not wish to cast Rich’s analysis aside as useless or obsolete. I posit that Rich’s theories on truth sharing can be an ideal that is worth working towards, but it must be tempered with an acknowledgment of the reality in which we live, and a more complex understanding of truth and what that means.
This analysis of Rich’s ideals can be applied to John Edgar Wideman’s account of his brother, Robby’s experience as an incarcerated black man and the paths and lives and circumstances that led him to this place in his life. On one side of it is the ideal, the truth telling that John purports, touts as his truth and the truth of his brother. The way that John exposes his own transgressions, the wrongs that he has committed, the blemishes and marks that he carries as a man who is not clean and who bares them in an attempt to share his own truths. And Robby, his brother behind bars, the subject of John’s pathologization has his truths exposed through John, truths that are assigned value by someone who does not hold them, an approximation of value is the most John can hope to achieve. Perhaps Rich would say the truths that John and Robby shared are imperative to building a bond stronger than the structures working against them, a reprieve and vitality in the prison. However, as John acknowledges, he is on the outside, and Robby is on the inside. That power structure cannot be dissolved or tempered by the truths shared by both men, it can only be reinforced because of the nature of the truths shared, and the vastly different spaces of power occupied by each man. It is not just that Robby is on the inside and John is on the outside, which at it most basic is a hurdle that cannot be cleared. But it is also the appropriation of Robby’s story, the ownership that John can’t help but to build because John is not writing the story of Robby, he is writing the story of the Robby that he think he knows and thus Robby’s truths are skewed, altered, assigned a different value by John, and then by the reader.
John attempts to smooth over this power inequity by explaining himself. Explaining his choices, acknowledging the fact that he is outside and Robby is inside. Offering up a few of his own truths, but how much value are those truths of his compared to the number of truths that Robby exposes throughout his time with John? And beyond that, at the heart of this power difference is the voice that John controls that denies Robby who he is and instead tries to explain why he is through John’s analysis. This becomes abundantly clear very early on in the book, when John refuses to acknowledge the new person that Robby may be by never even attempting to understand Robby’s new name. Faruq. No longer Robby, not the Robby that John knew or thinks he ever knew. But a person who’s identity is immediately inaccessible and foreign to John because John denies Robby his name.
“An inmate called up to me. ‘You Faruq’s brother, ain’t you?’
I thought, Yes. Robby Wideman’s my brother.” (p49)
And in this act, Roby becomes not the Robby that he is now, as Faruq, but the Robby that John wants to see and wants to believe that he knows. The truths that John so fervently pushes as Robby’s truths and his attempts to ameliorate the power imbalance are negated by his complete lack of acknowledgment of the false Robby that he has constructed for himself and for this book.
Rich claims that honesty and truth telling are the only things that can build meaningful relationships to break down structural barriers of injustice. Because this claim does not leave room for complexities it cannot address a power dynamic that is built by the very sharing of truths that Rich asserts will break down power structures. However that is not to say that Rich’s assertions cannot be used as an ideal that is useful to strive towards. John strives towards Rich’s ideal, but he falls short. That doesn’t mean that his book was not worth writing or sharing because there are positives that came out of the publication of Robby’s story that could not possible have come to fruition had John’s versions of Robby’s truths not been published. But just as Judy took the time to acknowledge and dismantle the power division that lay between us by acknowledging my full identity as a person unto myself, with truths that are entirely my own and cannot be fully understood or translated by another, it is imperative to create a space such as that one before we begin bearing our truths to create the dynamic that Rich hopes to build.