April 2016

Rebecca Hussey


Violation: Collected Essays by Sallie Tisdale

The power of Sallie Tisdale's writing is that even when she's saying things I don't like, I listen to her, ready to be persuaded. After reading her new collection of essays, Violation, which spans three decades of her writing, I realized that even though I resist, she's probably at least partly right, and I'm at least partly wrong. As I read, I fought against her worries about how children don't interact with nature freely, how they grow up too quickly, how they spend too much time recording their lives instead of living them. These complaints felt clichéd, too inflected by nostalgia, and perhaps crankiness, to be convincing.

But the power of Tisdale's intellect, and even more so her ability to see the world clearly -- on display throughout this masterful, vibrant collection -- made me realize that I resist her worries about younger generations because I'm worried too and don't want to admit it. Of course she's right, or at least partly so.

If there's anyone capable of observing the world and reporting back with clarity, it's Tisdale. This is true when it comes to the natural world, in essays on elephants and on flies; to writing, in essays on teaching and on writing memoir; to family, in a series of autobiographical pieces; to culture, in essays on Disneyworld, dieting, and how it feels to work in an abortion clinic.

What gives these essays their power and what inspires trust in Tisdale's voice is her attitude, in true essayistic tradition, of trying ideas out and working toward truth. We see her mind at play, considering ideas, rejecting them, moving on, circling back and reconsidering. Writing is a way of working at a problem, and there is room for failure. In fact, failure is a benefit, as she writes in the book's introduction:

[I]t is as important for writers to fail as it is for any inventor. [...] If you don't know what to do, and finally you don't know so completely that the entire world seems to be the question -- well, then anything is possible. When we don't know the way, a thousand paths exist.

Truth is something to be reached for but never quite grasped. In the title essay, she struggles with the question of what it means to write the truth about oneself and one's family. She is responding to her sister's anger at her revelation of family secrets. Her sister is also upset about her own portrayal on the page. Autobiographical writing is an act of betrayal, Tisdale claims, but the writer has an obligation to tell the truth and not to change any details or dialogue or create composite characters. But a few pages later she tells us she has doubts about her own adamant claims:

In the last few years, I've begun to tell my students that we can only say so much about the truth, and the facts, vital as they are, are not exactly the point. What we really want to write down are the unprovable facts, the experiences that can never be defined but demand to be considered, truths that seem to contradict each other and therefore can't be true.

She hasn't exactly contradicted herself -- she does believe adherence to the facts is important -- but the "truth" is too complicated for any writer to ever say they have told it.

Her essay "Fetus Dreams" shows a similar willingness to dwell in uncertainty. She worked for a time in an abortion clinic and describes her feelings about the women coming through the office every day, a mix of compassion, solidarity, worry, and resignation. She enjoys the job, the chance to spend all day in the company of other women, the bonds she forms with some clients, but there is also a numbing sameness to the days and a lingering feeling of inadequacy in the face of the job's demands.

The essay is about how she and her co-workers create boundaries around the ethical complexities of abortion. Some physicians create their own personal rules about how far into a pregnancy they will abort or how many repeat abortions they will do, although these guidelines are fluid and sometimes renegotiated. For herself: "The limit is allowing my clients to carry their own burden, shoulder the responsibility themselves. I shoulder the burden of trying not to judge them."

She describes the "fierce tenderness" a fetus evokes when looked at directly and taken for what it is, but then explains: "When I am struck in the moment by the contents in the basin, I am careful to remember the context, to note the tearful teenager and the woman sighing with something more than relief."

Tisdale wants to see abortion for what it is, as honestly as she can, and to describe her own ambivalences with a clear vision. As she writes in an explanatory note at the essay's end, readers have sometimes taken her honesty to mean she is not pro-choice, which, she asserts, she most definitely is. But her ability to look at a subject from all angles and to acknowledge her own doubts might confuse a careless reader. A careful one will come away thinking about the world a little more deeply.

Tisdale is brilliant at describing the strangeness of the world, or what humans see as strange from their own limited viewpoint. Her observational powers are on their fullest display in the essay "The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies," which contains some extraordinary sentences and also much more information about flies than most readers want to know: "The fly is grotesque and frail and lovely and vigorous, quivering, shivering, lapping, flitting, jerking, sucking, panting: theirs is an exotic genius, a design of brilliant simplicity and bewildering complexity at once."

Tisdale sees what is so grotesque about flies from a human standpoint, but she studies them and is fascinated by them. She loves them, in fact. They help her see human nature from a different perspective:

Humans are a nightmare; we tear the earth apart. We trepan mountains and pour them into rivers, take the soil apart down to its atoms, sully the sea, shred our world like giants rutting after truffles. We poison our nest and each other and ourselves. We eat everything, simply everything, but we turn away from flies.

Who are we to call flies grotesque? The essay moves into a contemplation of Buddhism -- Tisdale is a longtime practitioner -- and its call to look at the world as it is, and to look at ourselves as we are, openly and without judgment. All things are part of an ever-changing world, and all things are related, and there is ultimately not much separating us from the 120,000 species of flies in existence. We would be happier as a species if we could accept this, perhaps even marvel at it.

Violation is an important contribution to the essay genre. Tisdale takes the underlying principles of the form -- a questioning mind, an openness to the world, a companionable voice, an ability to find the profound in the seemingly mundane -- and uses them to probe into subjects both familiar and new. Her writing is beautiful, lively, earthy, and elegant. Hers is a voice you will want in your head, helping you to see your life in the world a little more clearly.

Violation: Collected Essays by Sallie Tisdale
Hawthorne Books
ISBN: 978-0990437086
352 pages