What Is the Personal? An Excerpt from Wendy S. Walters’ ‘Multiply/Divide’


The below essay, which brilliantly examines the idea of “the personal” through the lenses of race, sex, and history — both personal and collective — in American life, is drawn from Multiply / Divide: On the American Real and Surreal, Wendy S. Walters’ incisive new collection of fictions, nonfiction essays, and lyric essays, out this month from Sarabande Books.

—Jonathon Sturgeon


The Personal

I find other people to be more interesting than me, and in their company I can lose the loneliness that interferes with my expectations of adventure and opportunity. I am drawn to intimate stories, especially accounts of suffering or disadvantage, because they help me to understand the risks in being a person. To hear an account of the personal is a curious phenomenon, because for me, the tale must reflect on my own experience to feel relevant. The story must engage my empathy by creating a space for me to witness and recognize. An account of the personal illustrates an evolving consciousness, one that might be instructive even though it is neither fixed nor certain. The personal must be true, though that does not mean historically accurate.

To write the personal uncomplicates history, gives it a theme and direction. The speaker’s demeanor during the telling alters the past. To share the personal is to pay homage to optimism, to the idea that one has the same opportunity to rewrite the past as one does to be bound by it. The effect is spectacle or theatre, both essential means for filling empty space.

Beginners to the stage, please.

One night when coming home late from a bookstore I worked at in Washington, DC, I parked my car a block from my apartment. A man approached. He gestured that I should roll my window down, and when I refused, he grabbed at my door, which fortunately was still locked. I managed to maneuver the car out of the parking space, and he jumped in his car to follow me as I sped down the street. I turned the corner and found another spot three blocks from my apartment, then ran though two alleys to get to my front door.

Even when I could not escape, I have been lucky. I avoided the groping aggressions of a high-school football player by sputtering out a warning that my parents, who were sleeping upstairs, would surely wake if I screamed. He left, seeming somewhat embarrassed for having tried anything at all.

When I lived in Los Angeles, I used to run before work. One morning, I was assaulted by a man dressed as a house painter. He came up behind me on a bicycle just as I was cresting the steep hill up North Western Avenue at Los Feliz Boulevard. He pushed me against a wroughtiron fence, rubbed his hands all over my buttocks, and tried to drag me into the bushes. I screamed and managed to push him off. I was surprised when he jumped on his bike to speed away. Rage or adrenaline made me chase him. I shouted to other joggers on the path to stop him, but they looked at me with disdain and suspicion. At that point, I still had about two and a half miles to go, so I picked up my run again, though I was crying and shaking. About a half mile down the road, I saw my assailant standing at the edge of a driveway facing the traffic on the busy street, pants down to his ankles, masturbating. He looked at me but did not stop pleasuring himself. I sprinted the rest of the way home.

My father’s father was from Belize, and I suspected he was part Mayan, though my speculation would never be confirmed. The only evidence that supported my estimation was my birthmark, a blue nevus mole, rumored to be common amongst native people there. My mole, about the size of a dime, was on my backside until a dermatologist removed it as a precaution during my last year of college. That same season, I ended up pregnant by a boyfriend I was fairly certain was not in love with me. I was not bothered by his intermittent affection as I had already experienced disappointment in love.

I’ll admit I spent a lot of my twenties and thirties in intimate relationships with men who weren’t in love with me yet didn’t want me to date other people, either. I am not sure what to call that kind of condition, but it made me feel stupid. Later I learned to address my failure in sensibility by ending relationships in which a person wanted to share their feelings but not their body with me.

My pregnancy ended in an early miscarriage, but I was bereft for more than a year. Though I had begun graduate school, instead of talking about my feelings with potential new friends at a bar called The Chanticleer, I drank alone in my apartment to avoid confessing my sadness or sleeping with anyone who was gentle. I avoided people to my best ability until their burgeoning affection turned to indifference or hostility. Graduate school was difficult for me because I was still depressed. Though I always completed the required reading, I often would fixate on the narrative contradictions I could not reconcile. During large discussions, questions would get stuck in my mouth. In that environment, a long pause sounded like hesitation or uncertainty, which seemed to convey I had no idea what I was talking about. I did not fare better with my written assignments. I liked to do fieldwork and interviews, but as I was studying literature I was advised to avoid primary source material because it could not be vetted. A few professors refused to work with me because they didn’t believe I was capable of completing the degree.

One time I was asked to chauffeur a visiting literature professor from a southern university for the weekend. I drove him around campus and to and from his functions. Though he was more than thirty years my senior, we had similar critical concerns. Our exchange enlivened me. A few weeks after our first meeting, he mailed me an envelope of articles, which I found quite helpful. I called to thank him, and he asked me to meet him for a weekend affair at a hotel in New York City. When I refused, he cussed me out, told me my research was mediocre and that I would never succeed in academia. In the personal, something about the word “I” intimates youth or, at the very least, youthful aspiration. Mishaps narrated in the first person tend to be more compelling for listeners, even though the “I” strives to keep the character distant and somewhat unknowable. Perhaps this is because the “I” always resides in the past, no matter how actively she speaks in present tense.

One looks back with a narrowed focus, a spotlight on the self imagining isolation in a crowd of potential companions.

I still wince when I remember ninth-grade girls calling me out for sitting at the lunch table with boys. The name “slut” stuck. In my sweater dresses and red highheeled pumps with long, fake pearl necklaces or miniskirts and plunging V-neck sweaters with patterned turtlenecks, I was maturing conspicuously. Things didn’t change once I switched to wearing men’s flannel shirts and jeans. By then I was sexually active and quite proud of my developing skills in that area.

Would it be too personal for me to say that I grew less confident about sex as I got older, in part due to a number of disappointing relationships in which I was criticized for being too sexual or not sexual enough in the eyes of my romantic partner? There were many nights I behaved like I had no idea what I was doing— for instance, one evening in my difficult first marriage, I narrowly avoided bringing two English soccer coaches home with me, though I did buy them a last round of drinks before slipping out of the bar. By the time I reached my apartment, I was weeping myself back into another sinus infection.

After my marriage failed, I worried about my status as the lonely divorcée, a negative connotation reinforced by my father’s habit of raising his eyebrows whenever he spoke the word. I tried to blend in by mowing my lawn and planting seasonal shrubs and flowers. I chatted with neighbors across the street who invited me over for tea or a glass of wine in the evening. They spoke of their courtship thirty years ago, how they struggled to have children and how driving a truck up and down I-95 as a couple strengthened their bond. Once they confessed their concern that a lot of black people were moving into the neighborhood, and I reminded them that I was black. To this they responded, But you don’t seem black.

Sometimes I would get so lonely I would masturbate all day. The longest episode lasted for four days. I didn’t answer the phone, go to the market, or visit friends. My pleasure dwindled with each orgasm until the whole exercise felt like planting seedlings into potting soil. When I told my therapist about it a week later, he asked—didn’t I have a friend I could call when I was having those sort of feelings? A friend with whom to enjoy a brief affair? I told him I didn’t, and that was the truth.

I got used to drinking at home because if I went out I might accidentally fuck a stranger and I had never successfully managed my one-night stands. Because I had evolved into a “good listener” some of these entanglements went on for years. By my mid-thirties, it became clear that these relationships were more about me wanting to be understood than sex though I can’t think of one time in which I was successful in explaining this.

My behavior confused many others. Once I attended a party at the Argentinian Embassy in New York. Though I studied Spanish in college, I found it impossible to speak to people even as I was being introduced. Silence, without sound or air, prevented me from reaching the first syllable, in either language. After a few failed attempts at chitchat, I retreated to the coatroom. For the rest of the night my dear friend, who was not fazed by my awkwardness, brought me empanadas along with a stream of new people to meet. When we left the party I could not explain to him why I chose to sit amongst a pile of damp coats rather than talk with strangers.

The personal requires abjection so specific to the “I” that the only way to make it tangible is for the speaker to exaggerate her character. This can be accomplished by embellishing certain events in her life while leaving other details out. The audience anticipates its own likelihood to misperceive the personal due to a natural distance from the speaker and is forced to recognize how poorly the facts add up. While they wonder what these confessions are leading up to, the speaker lets slip some detail she will not be able to take back.

I did not make this choice consciously, but to hide my stutter, I got in the habit of starting sentences over again when I got stuck. I got in the habit of starting sentences over whenever I had to speak in new or unfamiliar situations or if I had to reveal something I had not before spoken of. I had a habit of remaining silent until I couldn’t bear to not be a part of the discussion, and then when I did speak, I let loose all the words I could think to say. I would talk for too long, and others would lose interest. I would lose track of what I meant to say but worry about making sure I completed my speech so that I would not have to talk again for a very long time.

My family had become so accustomed to my strange and halting speech patterns that they could not hear my disfluency. But I did not have to speak long before a speech therapist acknowledged he could hear instances in which I could not get the words out.

One of the ways I learned to hide my stutter was to spout brief halting phrases as if I was trying to figure out what to say. This kind of control was not always within my reach, especially when I was nervous or speaking to someone for the first time. I would often choose to speak in a flat tone, suggesting my lack of interest or displeasure.

My manner fails to invite further exchange, though I do wish you would stay a little longer.

The lights in the house flicker. Time to decide: to stay or to go?

In the end any disclosure of the personal becomes ordinary. But isn’t this always the way with accounts of a life? Ultimately what matters is the sound of the speaker’s voice drawing attention to the light behind the curtain as it goes up. The audience sees what signs might be revealed. How odd it feels to share space with strangers, each of us sitting shoulder to shoulder, facing the same direction. Everyone here and somewhere else at the same time.