After reading Aimee Levitt’s Reader cover story on rape at the University of Chicago, I sent her a note to say how much I admired it. What followed was an exchange of e-mails that exposed differences of perspective rooted in age and sex. I wondered if Aimee was beginning to think I actually didn’t like her story much at all.
But the story’s greatest virtue was that it didn’t tell me what I had to think about it. Some writers put their heads down, snort, and charge the reader. If ambiguity gets in their way they trample it out. Although rape invites didacticism, Aimee didn’t do that.
Other writers love ambiguity so much they refuse to sully it by coming to any point at all. Aimee didn’t do that either. She empathized with her characters’ traumas and struggles but she allowed them to be complicated and inconsistent. In our e-mails we sounded like two people arguing over mutual friends whom they both feel they’ve come to understand better than the friends understand themselves.
A journalist can’t afford to be an unreliable narrator, and Aimee’s reporting is meticulous. Yet she’s reticent. She gave me space. It’s the literary device of allowing the reader to write the story as he or she reads it.
I saw this device at work a second time this week, in an essay in the Tribune. (It ran previously in the Washington Post.) “I gave my daughter up for adoption. Then I tried to be her mom,” is the title of the op-ed by Stephanie Andersen, a creative writing teacher in Pennsylvania who became pregnant at 16 and gave up the baby to a couple who couldn’t conceive.
What we’re told: She stayed in touch with her daughter’s new parents, read their letters and studied their pictures. And when her daughter Eli was ten, Andersen welcomed her for a visit. These visits multiplied; when Andersen married, Eli was a junior bridesmaid. But when Andersen gave birth to a second daughter, Sophia, Eli’s disposition changed and she became sullen and angry. She announced she hated her family, and—Andersen tells us almost in passing—”after her mother moved out, she said she felt even more alone.”
Eli actually moves in with Andersen when she turns 18. She enrolls in a local college, waits tables, and warms to Sophia. Andersen finally feels at peace. But it doesn’t last. Eli drops out of school and heads north to find her adoptive father. And now, Andersen admits to herself, “I knew I would never be her mom, not in the way both of us hoped I could be. That chance, I understood now, had been lost 18 years ago.” She got to learn “how to love her while simultaneously letting her go. Maybe that’s what motherhood is about after all.”
One way of responding to Andersen’s piece is to say she’s blind to her own material. But another way is to say she knows what she’s doing and she’s counting on readers to see past the story she says she’s telling to the ghastly story she hints at.
Motherhood! an attentive reader is apt to think. This story isn’t about motherhood. The real story here, the one we glimpse between the cracks, is about a little girl who grew up with two mothers who both abandoned her. She probably would have been better off if she’d never known her birth mother existed. Does Andersen understand that the boilerplate sentiments about motherhood she recites to wrap up her piece are vapid and off-point?
Maybe not, but I want to think she does. As a final ironic flourish to a piece of ingenious creative writing they’re hard to top. I want to think that Andersen, like Aimee Levitt, knows her stuff and trusts her readers to find what’s there.