Last year, I wrote a confessional essay in honor of the 2015 Lenten season about a time I nearly killed my ex-husband. It was recently published in The Cresset. Several of my friends read it, discovering that, at one time, I’d had a murderous heart. You never know, of course, if anyone will read your work or if it will go unnoticed. I had hoped for oblivion for this one mainly because it was difficult to know how friends and colleagues would react. I do a tolerable job of helping others think I’m homespun, normal—I think we all do this. It helps us gloss over the messiness of life and makes day-to-day interactions easier.
The day after the essay was published, one colleague congratulated me for the publication, while another, joking, said he had no idea his office was right next door to a “psychopath.” Earlier in the day the same co-worker stood in my doorway looking a bit astonished and perplexed. He said he’s realizing there’s a darker side to me. He’d always thought of me as Talented and Nice Jen, rather than this dark, more complex person that rears her ugly head in her essays. I didn’t do anything to reassure him in the moment, but it’s not like I sit in my office plotting the deaths of others—though it’s true that my temper occasionally gets the better of me and I lash out in ways that are unexpected, even to me.
After the hubbub over the essay died down, I began thinking about why I’d wanted to expose myself (and family members, since I often write about them), laying bare my terrible tendencies. Much of our lives are spent managing others’ impressions of us, curating our public identities on social media and beyond; why would I show others my darkness? Why would any writer do such a thing to herself, whether through creative nonfiction, fiction, or poetry? Artists work to expose what is real, creating pieces that act as mirrors.
Some might say that in my work I’m making excuses for myself, trying to justify my behavior. Others might say I would do well to leave the past in the past; no harm, no foul. They might believe that the past, exposed, only causes more pain for those in the present, or that “living in the past” leads to self-pitying misery. But I don’t believe that revisiting the past means you’re living in it.
A friend of mine, poet and essayist Sarah Wells, commented on my essay, mentioning her own penchant toward the dark. She explained that a fleeting thought sometimes comes to her as she’s driving: jerk the wheel toward the guardrail. She’s not unhappy or suicidal or depressed. The thought simply arrives as a breath might. She could inhale, hold her breath, and let the thought become her. Or she could exhale. Exhaling it is her “willful turn toward the light,” she said.
Of all the characterizations of my essay, I think that one is most apt. Writing is a way of making sense—this is nothing new, of course. But I find that when I write so personally, exposing myself in the ways that I often do, I need to remind myself of this. Another friend commented that the essay made me seem normal, human—the highest compliment. When we try to white-bread ourselves, to present ourselves as caricatures of so-called normalcy, we reduce our lives to shadows of what it means to be human. In the writing we make a conscious decision to turn toward the light rather than stay in the darkness of our murderous, suicidal, thieving, conniving, cheating hearts. Rather than self-pitying, the writer learns to know herself, smile, wave goodbye to all that, and become a better version of herself. It’s also best to keep on speaking terms with our dark selves, acknowledge them, and even accept them for helping us to become the people we want to be.
Jennifer Ochstein has published book reviews with Brevity and River Teeth Blog. She’s also published essays with Connotation Press, Hippocampus Magazine, Evening Street Review, Lindenwood Review, and The Cresset.