Writing

Sarah Hepola — The Things I’m Afraid to Write About

This post is a remarkable essay by Sarah Hepola, which appeared recently online at Atlantic.  Here’s a link to the original.

I’m posting this for two compelling reasons.  First, it’s a simply stunning piece of writing, which provokes in me feelings of both awe and jealousy.  If only I could write this well.

The other is that she is exploring an incredibly important problem for writers and other public figures in the currently period of over-heated cultural conflict.  We’re living in a time when social media have made it dangerous to address certain fraught topics from the “wrong” perspective.  To do so risks public shaming and possible loss of livelihood, both of which are of overwhelming importance to people like Hepola who write for a living.  If only I had her courage.

I hope you revel in the writing and wrestle with the problem.

The Things I’m Afraid to Write About

Fear of professional exile has kept me from taking on certain topics. What gets lost when a writer mutes herself?

A photo illustration of handwritten words laid over a black-and-white photograph of letter being written on a table.
H. Armstrong Roberts / ClassicStock / Getty; Gabriela Pesqueira / The Atlantic

One evening, I sat on the brown-leather couch of a younger man who admired me for my writing, and maybe other things, if the salty text messages were true. He came from a different generation, but I was pleased to discover that he shared many of my unconventional opinions and favorite authors, that taste and perspective weren’t necessarily a matter of the year you were born. Joan Didion, Carl Sagan, Christopher Hitchens, though I had more reservations about that last one. Books were a common pleasure point, and I was eager to tell him about a literary party I’d recently attended in New York City, where I’d once lived and often visited in the Before Times.

This was 2018, and the party was an informal gathering at the sumptuous Brooklyn brownstone of a writer deemed problematic, even before that word went mainstream. Her place was filled with hardback books and writers who had been invited because they danced on the precarious edge of what was considered appropriate. A New York Times columnist who would eventually be publicly excommunicated. A journalist whose delightfully combative Twitter account I read regularly, like an episodic novel.

I didn’t deserve to be there, or at least that’s how I felt as guests exchanged war stories about the scolds on social media, where I mostly posted upcoming appearances, like a bot run by a PR firm. But in 2015 I’d written a memoir that introduced some controversial ideas about women and drinking, and I badly wanted to be a part of their rogue outfit, even as I clung to the more doctrinaire one I’d long considered my own. I was so proud of this small, private act of civil disobedience that I brought it home to Texas to show it to the younger man like a prized pelt. But the conversation didn’t go as I’d planned.

“So why were you there again?” he asked.

“Because I wanted to talk to other writers about the things you can’t write about anymore.”

His eyes narrowed. “What things can’t you write about?”

“Gender, sex, politics. The things you and I discuss.”

He ran a hand through his hair. “I’d think those would be the most interesting things to write about.”

I gave him an exasperated look. “Are you kidding? I’d get killed!”

His look wasn’t judgmental. I’d say it was disappointed. What he said was slow, and careful, and I’ve never forgotten it. “But I thought that’s what writers do.”

Like me, the younger man had fallen in love with art because it was the place where people told the truth. I grew up reading Edgar Allan Poe (alcoholic, married his 13-year-old cousin), dancing to James Brown (domestic abuse, alleged rape), watching Woody Allen movies (is Woody Allen). Artists were the weirdos and the scoundrels, the square pegs who never fit the round hole of society, and the result was typically a bucket of addictions, perversions, and bizarre predilections born of life on the outskirts. But my cohort and I had grown up wanting it both ways: a safe career, and an artistic one. We wanted the premium Scotch and the bragging rights of being an outsider.

I carved out a journalism career during an era when that was not so hard to do. My friends and I at the alternative paper in Austin, Texas, sat around long communal tables at dive bars arguing about pop culture, trying to one-up one another with off-color jokes as we downed pint after pint. When I quit drinking in 2010, bringing to an end a dark history of blackouts and tumbles down staircases, I thought I might lose my writing career. It’s kind of mind-boggling to contemplate—that not pouring a beer on a stranger’s head would be the bad career move. But such was the fierce community forged by booze that I feared exile. Instead my writing grew better, stronger, more clearheaded. And the writing community changed. Fewer open bars, more closed DMs.

But admitting what I really thought, what I really believed about these complicated issues, I feared a similar exile. As jobs in the industry diminished, journalism had become even more cutthroat. Writers gathered around the long communal table of Twitter, and some days it felt like the last scene of Reservoir Dogs—everyone turning their guns on one another.

I’d spent the past five or so years watching celebrities, pundits, friends, and internet randos fall from grace for reasons as varied as sharing dumb jokes, making clumsy writing errors, accidentally showing their dong, and expressing controversial (though often widely held) opinions in the public execution chambers of social media. There had been more grievous allegations, of course—rape, pedophilia, physical abuse. But so many of these spectacles could be grouped under a more mundane heading. You can call it cancel culture. You can call it justice. All I know is that I hated it, and for five years, I kept very quiet about it.

Everyone kept quiet (save for the brave few who did not). My writer friends and I huddled backstage at panels in green rooms filled with chocolate-chip cookies and veggie platters, whispering about everything we couldn’t say out there, in the scary beyond. During the resistance movement of 2016, a friend’s book about feminism got dropped in part because her feminism wasn’t the right kind for the Trump era. In the pandemic madness of 2021, a journalist friend who enjoyed sounding off on science and homeopathy decided to stay the hell away from COVID. All around me, people were folding. Not that project, not that story, not that controversy.

The reasons were simple, at least for me. Careerism. Fear. A nagging sense that I did not know enough about any given controversy to weigh in publicly (though that never stopped so many others). Back in 2015, I was putting out my first book, and then I was promoting that book, and then I was struggling to write a second book, and I could not risk the personal and professional blowback that might accompany stepping into the wrong lane. I’d long considered myself a liberal and a feminist, but I’d grown terrified of being banished for views I considered reasonable, or at least worth discussing—but maybebut what aboutbut actually. Every day, I scrolled the endless river of outrage and all-caps, watching people express similar views to mine only to be pounced upon. Once-celebrated writers were being publicly rebranded as ghoulish, pieces of trash, red-pilled. The unwritten rule of elite media tribes seemed to be this: You spout the company line, or you shut up. And that’s why, midway through a career built on speaking out, I shut up.

A writer’s life is financially precarious. A single woman’s life, also precarious. There were the pressing matters of rent, exorbitant insurance, and the occasional glitter heels. I simply could not gamble with my future. “I’m not going to die in that ditch today,” I often said to a like-minded friend when we spoke about these scandals, which was daily, both of us getting in a lather because the topics were so rich. Consent, complicity, moral trespass, power dynamics. This was the stuff of doorstop novels, and yet people were working it out in 280 characters dashed off in line at Trader Joe’s.

Privately, I worried I was wrong. That was another reason for the silence. Perhaps I had internalized my own misogyny, whatever that means. Perhaps my thinking, steeped in the classic liberalism of ’90s slacker culture, was unevolved. One of the great mistakes of our moment is being deemed “on the wrong side of history.” But has anyone read ahead in the book so they know how future generations will see this stuff? If so, can they please tell me, so I can choose my stance accordingly? Gender, sex, morality. Everything is guesswork.

I grew up in a conservative part of Dallas, in the conservative ’80s. My parents were Yankee liberals, only one of many ways we didn’t fit. Movies and books became a refuge, along with the Top 40 radio I listened to at night in my pink-and-red bedroom to drown out arguments between my parents, who were going through a rough patch. In the sixth grade, I did a six-week research project on the PMRC, the Parents Music Resource Center, and you might call that lengthy, impassioned report my first long-form story. I was galled by the PMRC, a group of concerned mothers led by the then-wife of Al Gore, Tipper Gore, fighting the cultural rot of songs about masturbation, virginity, BDSM, all the topics a curious girl might find irresistible. They targeted lyrics by Prince, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper—in short, every artist I loved—and their public blacklist even turned me into a fan of the questionable heavy-metal band W.A.S.P., whose name was thought to be an acronym for “We Are Sexual Perverts.” (I had no idea!)

I understood such moral panics to be the product of generational hand-wringing and the religious right, which was then gaining ground. And so it came as an unwelcome surprise to watch the intolerance that my liberal friends once decried on the censorious right flood to our side of the street. Public scolding, all-caps hyperbole, a stubborn refusal to understand another point of view—intolerance, once perceived as a conservative problem, was fully bipartisan now.

From 2015 to 2021, my private conversations were some of the best I’ve ever had. Taboo subjects have always been delectable, but suddenly we were living in a time when so much that was once considered fair game for discussion (education, biological differences, the benefits of policing) had become dangerous. Phone dates with writer friends in other parts of the country stretched to two and three hours as we worked out essays we would never write, toggling between outrage, despair, and armchair cultural analysis of the latest dustup. Louis C.K. and Al Franken became Andrew Cuomo and Dave Chappelle. I hadn’t gossiped so enthusiastically since middle school. The #MeToo movement, which felt like a necessary corrective when it began, was starting to feel like an arrow pointed at our own agency. I couldn’t always tell the difference between activism and protectionism, valid critique and frivolous complaint. The notion that men were the ones who needed to change—not a bad idea, in my opinion—had a stubborn way of relinquishing women from the burden of their own choices and behavior. And though the area of expertise I’d staked out as a writer was the complications of women’s independence and the nuances of sex, and my own personal brand was blunt honesty, I could not bring myself to say word one about these episodes in public. What was I, a rape apologist? A bigot? Some kind of moral monster?

Maybe that’s why I held so fast to the younger man I’d met on Tinder, of all places. Early in our correspondence, he’d expressed great affection for Jonathan Franzen.

“It’s a shame the Internet hates him,” I messaged.

“The Internet hates Franzen?” He was not an online creature, despite being 29. He worked in a factory, with his hands. “Well, has the Internet read The Corrections?”

I was charmed, and would continue to be.

The younger man and I could talk in an antic way I’d come to find quite valuable. Was the gender wage gap a myth? What was trauma, really? If women wanted equality in the bedroom, why did so many confess to being turned on by domination and rough sex?

I was not writing much about this stuff, except in the journals where I always stowed my secrets. Every once in a while, I’d get a head of steam about some scandal, and I’d start a big-swing essay only to bench myself a few days later. Not gonna die in that ditch today.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to conduct an interview at the Texas Book Festival with Malcolm Gladwell. He had a book coming out, Talking to Strangers, which included a well-researched chapter on alcohol and blackouts in the context of a college scandal I knew better than most, having met some of the people involved with the legal case. Often called “the Stanford rape” (although the ghastly episode was, under California law at the time, considered a sexual assault but not a rape) it became famous after the young woman at the center wrote a blistering victim’s statement that was published on BuzzFeed and went supernova. She eventually identified herself as Chanel Miller, but at the time of the statement’s publication, it was anonymous, and identified only the other key figure, a swimmer named Brock Turner, whose ubiquitous mug shot helped turn him into the poster child for every smug athlete, every entitled douchebag the world has ever known.

Miller’s account is searing. She writes of waking up in a hospital with no idea how she got there and only a handful of clues—a grim scenario that is nonetheless a familiar one for blackout drinkers like me. (I have no reason to suspect that Chanel Miller is a chronic blackout drinker, but my research taught me that blackout drinking can be chronic in college environments. And I knew blackouts so intimately that I literally wrote the book.)

I sympathized deeply with Miller. My book opens with an episode in Paris where I came out of a blackout in the middle of having sex with a man I did not recognize. That shook me. Blackouts might be the freakiest neurological occurrence that also happens to be casually categorized as another Friday night. “Let’s get blackout” has been a college rallying cry for many years. But the social and moral and criminal consequences can be grave. While researching my book, I spoke with Aaron White, a leading expert on blackouts who is now the chief of epidemiology and biometry at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “When men are in a blackout, they do things to the world,” he told me. “When women are in a blackout, things are done to them.”

Miller’s victim’s statement evokes the confusion, the shame, the soul trespass of this harrowing moment. If you’ve never experienced a blackout, it might be hard to understand the icy wrongness of waking up to find a blank space where three hours should be. But central to Miller’s despair is this: She could not remember what happened.

And so I watched from afar as the person whose memory had not recorded the incident came to control the narrative. It’s very unusual for sexual assaults involving a blackout to get a conviction, partly for this reason. Miller’s account was one of the most affecting pieces of writing I read that year. It was also, as Miller acknowledged and like every story ever told, incomplete. We are all unreliable narrators.

And the unsavory truth is that, as someone who has done Very Stupid Things while drinking, I also sympathized with Turner. The unsavory truth is that I sympathized with many of these men: Johnny Depp, Ryan Adams, Brett Kavanaugh, every booze-soaked dumbass who has been accused of doing or saying things he may or may not remember, may or may not regret, may or may not have done while under the influence. But being sympathetic to these fallen creatures—a trait instilled by literature, my mother, and Oprah—had been declared a sin. I toyed with the idea of writing about Brock Turner. Maybe it would get me into The New Yorker! But I was swiftly counseled away by my let’s-not-die-in-this-ditch partner in difficult conversations. Ours was not a moment to explore The Other Side. The fast-typing egalitarians of the internet age wanted social change, vengeance, a megaphone for their righteous anger. Going against the online outrage machine could be career suicide.

So I was relieved that someone of Gladwell’s stature had broached the topic. He could take the hits. The reviews were mixed, but the hits didn’t really come, maybe because by the time his book came out, during the cresting wave of Black Lives Matter, the culture had moved away from #MeToo discussions, or maybe because nobody felt like tangling with Malcolm Gladwell. He skillfully reframed a “rape culture” narrative as a tragic misunderstanding fueled by the distortion of booze. Oprah had him on to talk about the book, and exactly two weeks later, she sat down with Chanel Miller, whose own memoir, Know My Name, had become a sensation. Oprah managed deep conversations with each of them, never pointing out that one account brushed uncomfortably against the other. (I had to imagine that Oprah, queen of empathy, was having a hell of a time in this day and age.)

Backstage at the Texas Book Festival event, I chatted with Gladwell. “I’m dying to talk about the Brock Turner incident,” I said. “I have a million things to say, but we’ll talk about it after the event.”

“Let’s talk about it out there,” he said, gesturing to the corridor that led to a packed audience, and I gave him that look, the same look I’d given the younger man who asked why I didn’t write about these things.

“Oh I can’t,” I said, and it’s hard to read Malcolm Gladwell, but his body language expressed something like: Then what are we doing here? Perhaps he was disappointed in me, or in an environment where writers saved the best and juiciest controversies for private conversations. I just thought this was how it was done—we said one thing in public, and backstage we said what we really thought. Also, I’d fantasized about having lunch with him, and then later being able to say that Malcolm Gladwell and I were friends.

But there would be no lunch after the show. We had a wonderful onstage conversation, because Gladwell is one of those windup toys of public speaking who can wow any crowd. Outside on the sidewalk, he thanked me politely and sauntered off in the other direction, and I was left wondering why, indeed, we do these things. The selfie with Malcolm Gladwell I posted to Instagram did get a ton of likes, though.

In the two years since, I have tried to drum up the courage to be someone different from the writer I had become. But the world kept exploding, and I only retreated further into my hidey-hole. I listened to podcasts on which controversial figures interviewed controversial guests, engaging in those delicious conversations I held so dear. I would thump the kitchen table. “Yes, exactly!” Or I would pause the recording to offer my own opposing view, like I was part of this conversation, and not the passive listener. I was so hungry for this luxurious taffy pull, where we all gathered together and tried to sort out something closer to the truth. But in my professional life, I wrote about apolitical subjects such as dating and travel, and on Instagram, I mostly posted about my cat and whatever seltzer I was currently enjoying.

Last year marked a low point for me. I was stuck on my second book, stuck on projects I’d taken to cover the expenses of not finishing that book. I was stuck. And I was broke, but I had no idea what to do about it. At my core, I was a people pleaser, and the culture had reached a moment when any opinion worthy of expression ran the risk of losing half your audience. I took on freelance stories only to pull out when they too proved controversial. A story about sex workers during the pandemic written by a non–sex worker who didn’t even frequent strip clubs? Too fraught, no “lived experience.” Three guys I met on dating apps who refused to get vaccinated: Eh, never mind. I wrote private messages to writers whose work captured my particular agony, but I never tweeted about those stories, which felt like the equivalent of dating an unpopular guy in secret because your friends might not approve.

I grew so deeply uncomfortable, so roiled with shame, that I began plotting new careers. How long does it take to become a therapist? Can you actually support yourself as an Uber driver? I applied to pick up groceries for Instacart, and each time I scrolled through the latest batch (seven items, two miles away), I was seized with the fear that I’d fail at that too. What if I picked up the groceries and I got the wrong ones? What if I had to substitute strawberries for raspberries and the customer didn’t like strawberries? I was screwed.

In the end, I did what I have done for the past 25 years whenever I hit some crisis in my career. I kept going. I stayed on a podcast about the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders that I feared everyone would hate, and I braced myself to be unpopular, to take the hits, which never really came. I surrounded myself with people who reminded me I was loved, no matter what the firing squads on Twitter said. One of the common arguments made, at least about #MeToo scandals, is that the men (and women) behaving badly rarely face legal punishment. No jail time. It’s a fair point, but me, personally? I’d choose a lot of gnarly punishments before I’d choose to lose the status and career I’ve built over more than two decades. Public shaming is the worst kind of shaming. Ask the Puritans. But the way I was doing business had become a prison of my own making. And a lot of us are trapped in that sorry place. Silent, fearful, aching to be heard, petrified of being misunderstood.

The tragic result is a disturbed public forum where it often seems like no adults are in the room. Prickly issues that deserve a full airing are being treated as settled law. A human life is morally complex, filled with ambivalence and uncertainty, and accepting the quickly assembled dogma of social-media feeds lets us bypass messier realities that we ignore at our own peril. Staying silent as writers in this fractured world is understandable, maybe even wise; it’s also a disservice—to society, the career we fought so hard to claim, and ourselves. Nobody wants the bad guys to get away with it. But in silencing our own moral compass and strongly held beliefs, we’re hanging ourselves out to dry, rendering our wisdom and insight useless. We’re missing the chance to learn. To listen.

So this is my resolution as I trudge from this dark place: to speak out more. Not to engage in callouts, or scolding, or eye rolls, which are not my style, but to express my own deep ambivalence, my own point of view on subjects that matter to me. Not because anyone asked for it, but because this is the career I’ve chosen, and if I’m not doing that, then what are we doing here? I suspect I will lose followers (I don’t have that many), but perhaps I will gain self-respect, which I’ve been sorely lacking lately. That might be why I’ve so desperately sought the validation of people on Twitter I’ve never even met. I still wanted it both ways: the respect and admiration of strangers without the hard work of earning that respect. I wanted people to love me without really knowing me, which isn’t love. It’s projection.

Maybe I’ll write something great this year. Maybe I’ll write something lousy. Maybe I’ll meet the love of my life, and maybe come April, I’ll be picking up groceries for the good people of North Texas who need those seven items, pronto. You can’t predict these things; it’s all guesswork. I know this: I’m finally ready to have a conversation with the world.

Sarah Hepola, the author of Blackoutis a writer at large for Texas Monthly.

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