Here is the second installment of Sarah’s blogging about Dr. Jane Danielewicz’s ENGL55H: Reading and Writing Women’s Lives course. For the first blog post, see here. Thanks to Sarah for providing these continuing reflections about the progress of the course and her experience with it.
The students read Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted to learn about the genre of autoethnography. This text served as a guide; it is one of many examples that they might use as a model as they write their own autoethnographies. Dr. Danielewicz reminded the class that autoethnography is a genre of autobiography that, as Francoise Lionnet argues, “opens up a space of resistance between the individual (auto-) and the collective (ethno-) where the writing (graphy) of singularity cannot be foreclosed” (391). After students completed the opening writing exercise, Dr. Danielewicz asked them to break off into small group discussions to ensure that everyone would have a chance to share their ideas about Kaysen’s story. As usual, wearing my GRC hat, I walked around and listened to snippets of conversations.
One group focused on senses and visceral reactions. Based on close textual scrutiny, they thought they really knew that it felt like, looked like, and smelled like to have been in Kaysen’s place: a 1960s Boston hospital where many great artists and thinkers were diagnosed and treated for mental illness. These students were particularly struck by the sight of the hospital that Kaysen depicts – the patients on the left side of the halls, the nurses on the right – and the smells of patients in isolation, covered in their own excrement. I considered throwing myself into the conversation, as usual, but I was too impressed by the maturity that they brought to the discussion to say much of anything.
As the students considered the themes and perspectives that are presented in the memoir, they grappled with a variety of binaries: “crazy”/not “crazy,” ill/not ill, man/woman, nurse/patient, and more. A student pointed out that Kaysen is an unreliable narrator, and one group debated about which character in the memoir is the most “normal.” As a class, the students considered how Kaysen is “technically crazy,” yet simultaneously “somehow sane,” which makes her both an outsider and insider in her various communities – the hospital, Cambridge (MA), her parents’ home, her home with her husband, etc. I wanted to bring up the multivocality of the text, which is peppered with psychiatrists’ notes and other records and further complicates the insider/outsider deliberation. But I waited, knowing that this will be addressed next class.
Thus, the students used Kaysen’s story to think through binaries present in their own autoethnographies. As they peer-edited their working drafts near the end of class, the students seemed to take a step back. Kaysen prompts us to wonder if we, too, would be considered unreliable narrators and if outside readers would think our experiences were normal. She negotiates intellectual and physical border crossings that inform her identity and prose. One student, who was writing about her experience as an African American woman with happily married parents, chose not to think about outside audiences in this writing stage. She planned to think about her writerly authority in future drafts. Another student was writing about how growing up as an only child molded her perspective. She worried that some of Kaysen’s ill behaviors were too familiar. As a GRC, I think about encouraging the students to think about their audiences and be critical of their narrative arcs. As a researcher, I think about how an intersectional approach and early black feminist theory might be useful starting places for some students. As a writer, I think about the fun of playing with binaries and how they can help frame and balance a text. As a human, I think about how much I want to believe Kaysen’s version of her truth and that it will be hard for me to be critical of any of the student’s truths. But above all, I realize that I’m lucky that I get to play so many (opposing?) roles.
Kaysen, Susanna. Girl, Interrupted. New York: Random H, 1993. eBooks file.
Lionnet, Francoise. “Autoethnography: The an-archaic style of dust tracks on a road.” Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Henry Louis Gates. New York: Meridian, 1990. 382-413. Print