Woody Allen on Humor: Exhibitionism, Narcissism, Aggression

In Hebrew, the word  “smile” literally translates to the poetic phrase  “the daughter of laughter,”  according to an article I was reading in an academic journal today.

The first comedian referenced in the article is Woody Allen, which made my own smile fade into a raised eyebrow. It’s striking how the news can change the way you read a piece of social science.

To back up,  over the weekend I read Dylan Farrow’s disturbing story about childhood sexual abuse at the hands of Woody Allen in the New York Times. Today, while doing entirely unrelated research, I came across Woody Allen, quoted in The Social Function of Humor in Interpersonal Relationships.

The article’s author, Avner Ziv, summarized Allen’s  four-part view on what motivates a person to become a comedian, i.e., someone who wants to go on a stage and make people laugh.

1) Exhibitionism and narcissism;

2) The need to form relationships and be accepted.

3) Aggressiveness: “Comedians often talk about their wish to have an audience die from laughter,” .

4) People look better when they’re laughing.

Interesting, in a stomach-churning sort of way, to read this list after  Dylan Farrow’s accusation.

Now, let me be clear, lest I’m taken out of context!  Although numbers one through three on this list seem relevant in the Court of Public Opinion, where this matter is currently being tried, and although this court lacks all standards of evidence, in my view this list of Allen’s is merely of interest, AND not determinative of…anything.

It’s a list that probably fits most comedians (and artists)  and obviously there are plenty non-abusers in those professions. Also — I looked it up — it seems there really isn’t an agreed upon psychological profile of child abusers. (Other than having experienced abuse themselves, and  “some evidence indicates that perpetrators are shy, weak, passive, and nonassertive, with low self-esteem.” (Psychological Profile of Pedophiles and Child Molesters. )

I also substantially agreed  with a point that was made in The New Inquiry’s analysis of the response to Farrow’s blog post, and especially that her accusation was being discounted more because she was accusing a celebrity.

Here’s something else that Allen said that also seems relevant to that point. In Conversations with Woody Allen: His Films, the Movies, and Moviemaking (Vintage), by Eric Lax, Allen said: “The audience worships the celebrity and on the one hand cuts the celebrity much more slack than the celebrity deserves, merits, or earns. On the other hand, the audience loves it when the celebrity is denigrated…”

Rats Giggle, The Importance of Play, and a Night at the Rubin

Here’s how I define “interesting”: an experience that leads me to ask (and seek to answer) compelling questions; causes me to plan follow-up experiences that would have never occurred to me otherwise; and (at least slightly) alters the course of my intellectual, creative or physical life.

So, last Friday night was interesting.  I went to the Rubin Museum of Art, which is for the seventh time, hosting Brainwave. This is a series of staged conversations, films and other events, all focused on answering this question: what happens in our brains when we attempt to overcome adversity, survive tests of endurance and stay focused under pressure?

The conversation I attended was between the highly acclaimed ballet dancer, Wendy Whelan, and Mark Solms, neuropsychologist and South African vintner. Although my guess is that most people in the sold-out crowd were familiar with Whelan or Solms or both, I wasn’t. Maybe you’re not either, so here’s a video of Whelan’s dancing, and a TEDx talk by Solms.

Their conversation was exactly the kind I like to have, jumping around from one topic to the next, making me want to know more.  Here’s some of what stood out:

Injuries as a learning experience.  Whelan referred almost immediately to a physical injury she was recovering from. She never specified what it was, and no one in the audience asked during the q&a –  but she said that she’s found the injured times in her life among the most rich and valuable.

This is a topic I’ve been dwelling on, of late –  the value of adversity, which, let’s face it, is a totally annoying fact of life. I’d much rather skip the hard stuff, but there’s no doubt that it’s all been valuable in the bigger picture.  As an example, she  mentioned that she decided to get married during a time of injury, which came up in the couple’s Vows profile.

She said she never harbored the desire to marry until an injury last year kept her home for four months, where {husband-to-be} Mr. Michalek tended to her. The leave forced her to be “a wife in a weird way,” she said. “I really enjoyed it, so I just knew I could be myself and not be a dancer with this person. I could look ahead into the future, and I was just so happy being me with him.”

Rats giggle.  This came up during a conversation about the nature of play, which Whelan and Solms concluded was essential to creativity. I don’t recall that either quoted Picasso, as is clearly required by law on this topic: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

But the conversation went along those lines — that children have the belief that they’re special, and what they learn and how they express that is important — which is a form of healthy narcissism.

This gets beaten out of most people as they age, so, as Solms observed, “we all start like narcissists, and end up like Englishman — except for artists.” Artists retain that childlike state. (Childlike, as distinguished from the pejorative childish.)

Whelan remembered her introduction to dance as a child, and spinning and spinning around and around, simply because she loved to do it. And how she retains that love of movement today, after more than forty years of dancing.

This quality of love is in fact is how she separates artists from the workaday artist. “Doing it because it feels so fucking good, versus for money or reviews,” she says.

This was also on my mind, as I was in the home stretch on my recent essay Against Self-Discipline.  We do tend to overlook the fun of creativity, especially when we do this creative thing for a living.

This led into a learned riff on play from Solms, which included the observation that all juvenile mammals have an instinct for play, in fact, they must play. (Even rats, which laugh when you tickle them: diagram, if you’re not keen enough on rats to watch the video.)

Solms also pointed out that play is often rough and tumble, with a switch-off between dominant and submissive roles.  (And he said, I believe, that you have to be dominant no less than 40% of the time for that play experience to be fun for you.)

Also, play is a way of testing boundaries, and sometimes the line gets crossed between being playful (say, playing doctor) and unwanted touching (really playing doctor.) Which is why all children will tell you they love playing, and why most episodes of play end in tears.

I’m not so interested in children, frankly. (Heresy, I know! But do remember I have a proudly unused uterus.) However I am interested in how teasing works in adult communication, which to my mind is precisely about saying uncomfortable things and pushing boundaries.

I’ve now added these items to my upcoming agenda: seeing Whelan perform Restless Creatures at The Joyce this Spring, reading Solms’ book Brain and the Inner World: An Introduction to the Neuroscience of Subjective Experience and tracking down a documentary called The Edge of Dreaming, which features Solms. (And hey, if I find his wine, too, all the better. ) All in all, a perfectly interesting night.

Against Self-Discipline: A Braver, Gentler Path Around Writer’s Block

A Better Way Around Writer's Block, by Alison J. Stein“What’s your advice for writer’s block?”

This is a question that I get in almost every writing class that I teach, and so as is required by law, I start my remarks by saying that I don’t believe in writer’s block.

I know the part I’m playing at the front of the class room well. Like all professional writers, I’m to display a certain world-weariness with the notion of having trouble getting oneself to set words down on the page. “Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands,” offers Jodi Picoult.  “I’ve never heard of anyone getting plumber’s block, or traffic cop’s block,” adds Allan Gurganus.  “One must be pitiless about this matter of “mood,”  Joyce Carol Oates told the Paris Review in 1978.

If there is no block, then what is there? Lack of self-discipline, obviously. The preternaturally productive Oates  (40+ novels, and essays, and short stories and criticism) says she forces herself to write even when she doesn’t feel like it, or, as she put it: “I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes . . .”

Wow, is she a badass or what? Students love this sort of thing, love the idea that it’s possible to just push through pain, to grit it out, and get to the writing and become Joyce Carol Oates.

And here’s where what remains of puritanical fervor in this country resurfaces – it’s an opportunity to self-flagellate. Usually several students confess their sins against writing: they prefer an extra hour sleep or reality TV or spending time with their kids to working on their writing. I know I need to do something different if I want to write, they’ll say, mournfully, but expectantly, since they believe that I know the secret to never experiencing a struggle to write writing, since I have after all made a living as a writer for almost twenty years and clearly I keep winning the battle they keep losing.

“I don’t believe in writer’s block, I don’t believe in self-flagellation, and I don’t believe in self-discipline either,” I’ll say, and watch their faces register bewilderment.

Self-discipline sounds really good, but it’s ineffective —  if you look closely at any writer that is consistently productive, like Oates, like Picoult, I’d argue that self-discipline rarely has anything to do with it. And since self-discipline is another way of saying self-punishment, I believe it’s immoral as applied to any kind of creative endeavor. Or actually, applied to anything at all.

“But I do believe in anxiety,” I’ll say, so that my students don’t start to worry that I also don’t believe in oxygen, chairs, the government, reality.

Anxiety is entirely rational when you’re doing something you’ve never done before. Which, by definition, is what every piece of writing is: even if you’ve written a million words, published novels, short stories, screenplays, articles, greeting cards — you’ve never written what you’re writing now. That’s scary.

All writers feel this fear or anxiety, whether they want to talk about it or not. Professional writers usually don’t have a lot of trouble starting on a routine writing project that’s paying the bills, but we often have a lot of trouble starting on a “passion project,” something we feel strongly about. This is both good and bad news for aspiring writers. Good news, they’re not alone in their anxiety. Bad news, it doesn’t go away when you get published.

More bad news: the way around this anxiety isn’t easy.  And in fact, it can be lot harder than entirely ineffective self-discipline, at least at first. But once you do it a few times, the process itself becomes easier, and then writing becomes much less of a big deal.

After all, let’s remember what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about writing. That’s not jumping out of airplanes, or wrestling with giant cobras, or balancing a thin glass vial of airborne Ebola virus on your nose. It’s just putting words onto a page. Once you get through the anxiety, it’s just putting words on a page.

2. Is Hitler Really Your Role Model? Why Self-Discipline is Ineffective

The concept of self-discipline as it relates to writing, or anything else, depends on the idea that we can divide ourselves into two: the part that punishes and the part that receives punishment, the part that wants to write and the part that doesn’t.

The part of us that wants to write is usually characterized as good, and pure, and true – the part that is aligned with our higher good, the grown up. The part that doesn’t want to write is usually characterized as lazy, shortsighted and weak. The immature child.

The typical approach that many take to this conflict can be summed up like this: Weakness must be hammered away.

So, when I have a commitment to write three pages of my novel to show to a writing partner on Monday, and I’m feeling resistance to doing it – this lazy, short-sighted weak side of me can be incredibly strong – I go on the attack.

I think: Jesus Christ, Alison, it’s only three fucking pages. Why can’t you do just three fucking pages? You can write three pages in your journal like it’s nothing.

And the part that doesn’t want to write says: I DON’T WANT TO, LEAVE ME ALONE! I want to watch Girls. Or how about vacuuming? Have you seen how much cat hair is on the rug?

And the part that does: Don’t try to distract me. I don’t care what you want, WRITE THE THREE FUCKING PAGES.

This is not what can be called a productive conversation.

There’s a book called The War of Art  by Steven Pressfield, which I have recommended often in  my writing classes. He tells the story of how, in his late twenties, he rented a house to “finish a novel or kill himself.”

He’d already failed to complete two novels, and had screwed up a marriage plus two careers. This time he was determined to finish the novel, and he did. “I felt like a dragon had just dropped dead at my feet and gasped out its last sulfuric breath. Rest in peace, motherfucker.”

The book talks about the struggle with the part within that does not want to write,  which he calls resistance, or, “the enemy within.” An insidious enemy who will do anything to keep you from doing your work.  He describes it thusly:

Resistance is always lying and full of shit.

Resistance aims to kill…when we fight it, we are in war to the death.

This is war and a deadly business. You can give no quarter to the enemy, show no mercy, because if you coddle the enemy, they will murder your children, rape your women, burn your houses to the ground and salt the earth.  This is why you must be, as Joyce Carole Oates said, pitiless on this matter of mood.

Although now I will confess that I am quoting her out of context, as many people do on this subject. This is a situation I will soon remedy, but first, I’m going to really up the ante.

Let’s be clear, the one with whom you must be pitiless is yourself.  The immature child within to whom you must show no mercy.

Weakness must be hammered away, right? But do you know who said that? Adolf Hitler.


And indeed we are talking about destruction. We are attempting to destroy and silence the part of us that doesn’t want us to write, a part of us that is stopping us for some reason.

The problem with being at war with yourself –- which is what happening when you yell and scream at yourself, and try to drag yourself to the page by the scruff of your neck if necessary — is that there can be no winner.  You are at war with… you. We can’t “beat” the part of us that doesn’t want to write, without doing damage to our own psyche.

A damaged psyche is a problem, for life most importantly, but also for the writing.

For if you somehow manage to grit out a piece of writing in this manner, you’ll probably have trouble summoning the energy to bludgeon yourself into this act repeatedly. You’ll have to keep hitting yourself harder to get the work done, and only the most masochistic could keep that act up indefinitely. This is one reason why I say that self-discipline is over the long haul ineffective.

3. Why Self-Discipline is Immoral and Dangerous.

As I’ve already pointed out, the part of us that doesn’t want to write seems childish and immature, and so it should be troubling that our instinct is to crush this weaker part of ourselves when it raises an objection to a new course of action, simply because it doesn’t immediately fall into line with our grown-up plans. It seems a basic point of morality that the strong ought not beat up on the weak.

In For Your Own Good, the psychologist Alice Miller wrote very eloquently about the damage that children sustain from physical punishment and humiliation.

She points out that children have a very hard coping with the fact that pain is being caused to them by the very people on whom their lives depend. And that this confusion becomes even worse when parents don’t allow their children to express their full feelings of pain, anger and confusion at being treated in this manner.

“If there is absolutely no possibility of reacting appropriately to hurt, humiliation, and coercion, than these experiences cannot be integrated into the personality; the feelings they evoke are repressed and the need to articulate them remains unsatisfied, without any hope of being fulfilled.”

And this leads to psychological problems, as well as to adults who are inured to their internal sensations of discomfort and pain.

“The scorn and abuse directed at the helpless child as well as the suppression of vitality, creativity, and feeling in the child and in oneself permeate so many areas of our life that we hardly notice it anymore…Almost everywhere we find the effort, marked by varying degrees of intensity and by the use of various coercive measures, to rid ourselves as quickly as possible of the child within us – i.e, the weak, helpless, dependent creature – in order to become an independent competent adult, deserving of respect.” [Emphasis added.]

Sound familiar? Destroy the childish part of you that doesn’t want to write, coerce it into writing, and you’ll be zipping your way to a completed manuscript in no time. Except for that this makes no sense at all: you really do need an intact self to create. Your internal defenses can’t be eliminated by forbidding them to exist. Or by yelling at them.

Also, you also really can’t eliminate your internal defenses — this childish part of you is there for the long haul. That’s a fact, not a problem.

And the part of you that’s stopping your writing isn’t doing so because it’s mean and cussed and hates you. It’s doing it because it’s trying to protect you…from something. The strength of the resistance that you feel to writing is a measure of exactly how much protection some part of your brain thinks you need from this writing act you’re about to undertake.

And here’s why you disregard this message at your peril. The brain takes this protective role very, very seriously. In his book, The Divided Mind, Dr. John E. Sarno has written about how the brain creates physical maladies in order to divert attention from something troubling happening in the unconscious.

To the layperson, this sounds absolutely bonkers, until you consider all the ways that mind does directly affect the body — for instance, blushing, when you feel embarrassed, or sweating when nervous. Sarno found that the brain can restrict blood flow to certain body parts, creating

“physical symptoms…intended to divert attention away from the emotions in the unconscious so that they will not become overt and thereby known to the conscious mind.”

This includes back pain, knee pain, headaches, to irritable bowel syndrome, frequent urination – all excellent distractions.

These maladies serve a protective purpose, he writes, “since the repressed emotions, should we become aware of them, be in some way to dangerous to normal existence, or too emotionally painful to deal with.” And this all happens without conscious decision.

My point here is that you can try to override this part of you that is trying to stop you from doing something it perceives as harmful – in this case, writing — but the psyche has lots of tricks up its sleeve. The better approach would be to try to shine some light on this resistance, to gently approach this scared part of you with kindness and appreciation…and curiosity. Why is that you don’t want to write? What is going on here?

4. Objections, Or What Self-Discipline is Not

At this point, you might argue that without self discipline, everyone would just do whatever they want. Give into every impulse. Civil society would break down.

This is confusing the issue. Discipline is about achieving obedience through punishment, which is not the same thing as behaving in your own self-interest. Behaving in your self-interest involves taking action to avoid unpleasant consequences, or to receive pleasant ones.

As an example, I have been working for myself and from home since I graduated from college. When this comes up in conversation with people who have worked for others, in an office, I am often complimented on my self-discipline. “I could never work from home, I’d just watch television all day.” Often this is followed by examples of situations where this person has worked from home for a few days and got absolutely nothing done.

I usually say that self-discipline has nothing to do with this, for a few reasons. Mostly, that if I avoid my work for any reason, the only person who’s there to pick up the slack is me. And if no one does it, then the only person available to have an unpleasant conversation with an irate client is me.  And the person who will not be able to invoice for the work and won’t be able to pay the bills, is, again, me. None of these things really happen to an employed person who works from home. If you goof for a day (at the office or at home) The worst thing is that you fall a little behind, and then you catch up, and your pay check still appears in your checking account.

And then I say that I’m not sure how anyone gets up every morning and puts on binding clothing to go to the office, because I don’t think I could do that ever day. The response is generally something about needing to earn a living.  Exactly.


Life is full of things we don’t want to do in the moment, but we do it because the consequences would be less pleasant.  Generally, you don’t experience a huge amount of inner turmoil about the decisions you make in your self-interest. (Yes, of course, there’s a little bitching and moaning, but nothing close to something you’d describe as a block.) You’re doing the dread task for a good cause: keeping your home, putting food on the table, keeping up with the company gossip.  It’s possible also to delay gratification of some need, or to endure discomfort, for a goal you’d really like to achieve. You might also put off some momentary pleasure for an even greater future pleasure.

To return to Joyce Carol Oates, and her advice about being pitiless on the matter of mood. What she really meant was being very clear about identifying and acting in your own self-interest – deciding on your greatest pleasure and going after it full-tilt. The full quote from the Paris Review:

One must be pitiless about this matter of “mood.” In a sense, the writing will create the mood. If art is, as I believe it to be, a genuinely transcendental function—a means by which we rise out of limited, parochial states of mind—then it should not matter very much what states of mind or emotion we are in. Generally I’ve found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes . . . and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.

The activity of writing changes everything for her because knows she loves it. In another interview she said: “I love to write…it’s a fascinating experience to deal with language and to tell stories involving people who are, for me at least, fascinating.”

And so she acts in her own enlightened self-interest, if she’s tired, depressed, sick of it all, she knows from experience that doing something she loves will lift her out of that, in the way that people who like to exercise do the same. This is not much of a struggle, this is not a “block,” this is not a serious objection from her unconscious mind. This also is not self-discipline. This is self-interest.

And what’s more, she doesn’t stick to a regular schedule. Earlier in the Paris Review interview she said this:

I haven’t any formal schedule, but I love to write in the morning, before breakfast. Sometimes the writing goes so smoothly that I don’t take a break for many hours—and consequently have breakfast at two or three in the afternoon on good days. On school days, days that I teach, I usually write for an hour or forty-five minutes in the morning, before my first class. But I don’t have any formal schedule, and at the moment I am feeling rather melancholy, or derailed, or simply lost, because I completed a novel some weeks ago and haven’t begun another . . . except in scattered, stray notes.

Eventually she will pull herself back to what she loves, her writing, because she is taking care of herself, not because she is punishing herself. And Jodi Picoult, too, makes the point that it’s love, not punishment, that brings her to the page: “What you need to remember, however, is that there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than writing.”


Now it’s true that we humans don’t always reliably act in our self-interest. Sometimes we take the easier choice in the moment because the consequences aren’t clear, or even real,  to us. (This is also called “being young.”)  Sometimes we take the easier choice in the moment because we figure our future self can take the heat. But for the most part, we’re pretty good at playing out what will happen if we do or don’t do something today and deciding whether we’re willing to accept or not.

The equanimity with which we accept those consequences is a measure of maturity.

The problem that we’re dealing with in “writer’s block,” or its associated problems, is that is we’re attempting to delay gratification of our immediate needs, or  endure some discomfort for something that we’re not really sure we want.

If you’re not convinced — on all levels — that this writing is something that you really want to do, of course you’re not going to do it. And punishing yourself isn’t going to make the desire more keen.  Morale does not improve if the beatings continue.

The further problem is that when we think about “what we want” we only take into account the goals of our ego — the mature, grown up part of us, the one who makes decisions about things like wanting to write.  We do not take into account the goals of the rest of our psyche, but just because we ignore them doesn’t mean they’re not there, exerting their influence over us, and causing what we perceive as trouble.

Again, if you are experiencing “writer’s block,” some part of you really, really does not want to write.  What is it? And what are its objections?

5. Moving Forward Without Self-Discipline: The How-To Part

Sometimes, the process of inquiry can take just a few moments of quiet thought. The objections come to mind quickly: Maybe you don’t feel like you have the technical skills to tackle a certain project. Maybe you’re afraid of what your ex-husband will think of what you’ve written.

But generally, if your answer to the question “why don’t I want to write?” pops easily to mind and is something you’d be willing to say in front of your writing class, it’s probably not the issue that’s strong enough to go up against your strong, competing urge to write.

The good news with this problem, as opposed to so many others, is that its resolution is obvious. When you figure out what the problem is, you’re able to sit down at the screen or at the page and the words do start to be written.

To get there, I suggest an escalating strategy of inquiry. First, take a few minutes to think about what your problem is. See if you feel any more motivated to write. No?

Okay, then, try to write about what the problem is. (Oh, so sneaky…here you are, writing about why you can’t write.)

Try to zero in on the problem by asking yourself to describe where this block lives. Where in your body do you feel this? Does it have a color, a shape, a texture? When you concentrate on this block, what thoughts come to mind? Does that help you to understand the problem any more? These are good moments to try some of the cognitive-behavior therapy techniques outlined by David Burns in his seminal book, Feeling Good.

Still nothing? The unconscious is a complicated place and you may not be able to resolve this issue so easily. It can be helpful to discuss this with another human being that you trust. Sometimes, just the act of talking about a problem and being heard by another human being can lead to its resolution. And if not, you may need to consult an expert of your choice. Yes, a therapist, an analyst, psychologist, a priest, a rabbi. You are in a conflict with yourself that you can’t resolve, and you need a referee.

I should say that the problems you uncover don’t tend to just go away –but knowing what they are makes them easier to handle. For instance, in going through this process myself recently, I realized that I was deeply worried about returning to a period of workaholism that I experienced several years earlier. I worked until it hurt, and it took a lot to extricate myself from that situation. I know that tendency is still alive within me, to get into a project and disregard my bodily needs. And so I have resisted sinking into a larger project, as a kind of self-preservation. Until I addressed that issue, my own block was very powerful. Now that I know this is there, I can work with it.

This process which I’ve recommended here is rather Un-American, by which I mean: not guaranteed to be quick and easy. You’ll probably turn up things inside you that you don’t like very much. It will seem easier to just punish yourself for not writing, rather than going through all this. But actually when you identify where the actual problem lies, you’ll have a degree of freedom that you haven’t had before. You won’t be so mean to yourself, which will make yours a nicer life to live.

And, if you want to, you will write.

Retreat Into Silence

People who know me will find this hard to believe, but I abstained from speech, texting and all forms of communication on New Year’s Day, which I spent at the Kripalu Center in the Berkshires.  I made this the subject of my last essay on Perceptive Travel. A fire alarm went off during my day of silence, and the center was evacuated — which freaked me out a little.

I’ve been a professional writer for my entire career, which is to say, for nearly the past twenty years. I’ve written for international publications with large readerships, and  for tiny niche publications with smaller ones. But in that moment, wrapped in that blanket on New Year’s Day, I realized that the small group of people who would care if I got stuck in a blanket during a fire drill at my New Year’s yoga retreat, the people who would appreciate the joke I’d make out of anxiety an oblige with a good ol’ LOL, the people with whom I am the most intimate — they are my home. They are the people that make it possible for me to leave home and travel, and to tolerate being alone, and yes, lonely, on a holiday when most people naturally congregate with their beloveds.

Read the rest.

I read “On the Ethics of Writing about Others” in Phillip Lopate’s anthology, To Show and to Tell, only after I wrote my own piece on bile and spite.

If I had tackled these tasks in reverse order, I would have saved myself a lot of time, because I could have just written this sentence: Read Lopate’s essay, I agree with it.

Oh well. But read his essay, I agree with it. My favorite bits include his rules on this tricky topic for himself, which are:

1) Never write to settle scores.

2) Write as beautifully as possible.

I also liked that when he wrote about his family, he changed the name of his siblings but not his parents, “reasoning, I suppose, that my parents were elderly and their lives were nearly over, whereas my siblings were still in the midst of the struggle.”

Bile, Spite, and Pot Shots: On Writing About My Divorce

My ex-husband would like me to please stop writing about this divorce, which he sees as me writing about his life.

Maybe this is the first problem, or actually, the threshold problem here: that he sees our divorce as only being about his life, and not mine. It’s funny…for some peculiar reason I feel like all of this happened to me, too.

But okay, I’m already getting distracted from what I want to write about here, which is:

Why I am writing about this divorce at all;
what my motives are for this writing.

For he has asserted that these writings of mine are pot shots, acts of bile and spite, and while I immediately thought he was full of shit, I also wasn’t sure why I thought this. And so I’m doing what I’ve done my entire adult life, which is turn to the page to sort it all out.


Well, first I turned to Facebook to get some advice. Because to understand this inquiry, it’s important to understand that after a brief experiment, I decided to break off direct communication with him. For one thing, I don’t trust him. For another, in our few exchanges, I found his tone nasty and sarcastic, and entirely unhelpful to me and my peace of mind.  So on any matters relating to our divorce agreement, of which my writing is a part, I will only communicate with him only through my lawyer.

I wasn’t aware until recently that he remains an avid reader of my work. Still, it was an unpleasant surprise to receive a text from him the other night, after he’d read something I’d written. It was less what he wrote, although that wasn’t so nice, than the realization that I’m likely to receive a nastygram from him whenever I publish something relating to our divorce. This made me want to stop writing about the divorce entirely, which then annoyed me — a chilling effect was his goal, should it really be so easily accomplished?

And so I asked Facebook– and especially my many writer friends– to weigh in on whether I should allow my strong aversion to hearing from him stop me from writing about this divorce.


This is a version of a question that comes up often when I teach: what will happen if I write honestly about the people in my life? I always say that writing about people in your life has consequences. Words have power and they matter. Relationships can be affected, indeed, they can be ended by what you write. While I am not so worried about the quality of my ongoing relationship with my ex-husband (as we have none), hearing his annoying feedback is a real consequence of my writing about our divorce. So I have to decide if it’s worth it to me.

Facebook overwhelmingly told me it was worth it: to let him whine and to keep on with my writing.


But leaving aside my ex-husband for a moment,  let me just say that there are people who have serious doubts about the benefit of this kind of writing. It’s personal, and emotional and it makes some people uncomfortable. The narrator that I’ve used to write about this (and all nonfiction writers understand that the “I” in a piece of writing only is based on the whole version of oneself) is often pretty fucking pissed.

In fact, if I were to have given myself some writerly advice over the past year, I would have said, Alison, it would have been better for the writing to have gained some more distance on this experience. And by distance, I do mean time: the divorce hasn’t been final a year, I was still married just over a year and a half ago. My hyperventilating-in-the-street phase, my scare-away-homeless-people-with-the-rivulets-of-plum-mascara-running-down my–face-which-made-it-look-like-I-was-bleeding-from-my-eyeballs phase (it was a bad time to start wearing plum mascara), my nauseous-feels-like-I’m-being-beaten-with-spiked-sticks phase  – that’s all over now, but it’s still in my near term memory.

But I did start writing about the divorce quickly, because in the immediate throes of separation I was unable to write at all. I also couldn’t read, or sleep, which meant that the world had become entirely unrecognizable to me. I greeted the return of each of these activities of my normal life with great relief. When I could write, I wrote. And I wrote about the divorce, because that was on my mind.

Very quickly, I began to hear from readers who encouraged me to keep writing on this subject. I heard that it was important to read honest writing about this divorce experience, which certainly isn’t the prettiest life has to offer. I heard that my writing has given others in similar situations some comfort.

So that’s all very nice and of course that is the reason why I now could declare this subject closed, affect a pious stance, toss my hand across my brow and declare: I do this all for my public! For my readers!


That’s one part of it, but it’s not all of it.  Ex asserts I’m doing this writing out of bile, which is anger. I have been very angry at him, and the fact that he considers my anger remarkable, is in its own way astonishing.

But anger is one emotion that doesn’t actually propel me to the page – if anything, it propels me to the gym.

Just try writing when you’re really really angry. All you end up writing is FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU YOU FUCKING FUCKITY FUCK.  Or something like that. Writing is an activity that is very hard to do in the grips of rage; absolutely nothing I’ve published on any topic has been written in anger. (N.B.: an angry narrator is not the same thing as an angry writer.)

He also says I write out of spite, which is a desire to hurt, annoy, or offend someone. Hmmm. Annoyance is the easiest motive to dismiss first –-I’d consider his annoyance at my writing about the divorce a side benefit if it didn’t provoke communication from him; the fact that it does this actually makes it more annoying to me.

But have I wanted to hurt or offend him with this writing? Have I wanted to hurt him at all?


I will admit that there were certainly times, and especially during the divorce negotiations, that the thought of punching him very hard in the face did occur to me. But that’s a very abstract thought, I’ve never actually punched anyone in the face.

No, my motive for writing about this divorce isn’t to create any particular emotional response in my ex-husband – as I said, I didn’t even know he was reading what I wrote until very recently. Besides, it’s not generally my instinct to want to create pain just because I’m feeling it. I definitely know I wanted my pain to stop, but even in the worst moments, I didn’t think that causing him pain would accomplish that.

I write about this divorce for the same reason I write about anything: to lay out the facts so I can see them, to discern the pattern between these facts, to find the story, yes, to find what’s funny about it, and finally to gain an understanding of the world.

And it is also true that by writing about the divorce, I’m shaping the public narrative. But then again, no one is stopping him from writing his own story.

But that gets to something else that’s happening here, in my writing about this particular topic. Every time I write about the divorce, I feel a greater sense of control over what happened to me, a greater sense of personal power. When I write about the few facts I have, and the meaning that I can find in them, I feel more ownership over these circumstances, and in fact I feel powerful.

Every writer knows this feeling – when you start to put facts of your life down on a screen and move them around, it saps even the most painful circumstances of their emotional strength. Trauma becomes material, to be arranged on the page for the greatest effect.


Now, I suppose if you had a certain kind of a mind – a paranoid mind, given to zero-sum thinking — you might say that any way in which I become strong makes my ex-husband weak. He was at the height of his power over me when he unilaterally ended our marriage, and categorically refused to respond truthfully to my most basic requests for information. I was at the nadir of mine. Every fact I’ve been able to determine, and every step I’ve taken sense to regain autonomy over my life has restored my own sense of personal power.

It hasn’t occurred to me until this moment that he might see my recovery of a sense of power and agency as a problem for him. But if that’s the case, then so be it. Writing is my strength. And I’m not going to make myself weak so that he can feel strong.

De-Storyed: On Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

When I type the word “destroyed” –which I have had reason to do a lot in the past year, as I’ve written about my messy divorce–I often mistype it as “destoryed.”

De-storyed is actually an apt description of what I experienced. With the end of my marriage, the major stories of my adult life were obliterated. The stories that l would tell about my life, about my husband’s life. The story of how to spell my name: “one L in Alison, but two Ls in my last [married] name.” The joke I used to like to make about our marriage at an early age: “I was a child bride.”  The story of how I changed colleges three times (to be near him); the story of why we’d moved every two years (his job). All of these stories changed.

The cruelest part of my divorce, though, was not that my stories had changed, but the critical story to which I had no access: the true story of why my marriage had suddenly ended.

The facts I have are these: Ours was not a marriage of fighting, screaming, yelling, or of long chilly silences. On one night my husband was a man I would have described as impulsive, yes, but also someone whom I would have described as smart, loyal and good. We had recently made our weekend house our full-time home; we were preparing for him to start his own business.

The next night, this same man came home from work, packed his bag and within a half an hour was out the door. The few explanations he did make that night were either flimsy or untrue, as evidenced in bank records and such.

Within three weeks, we had stopped communicating except through lawyers, and mutual friends either stopped communicating with him, or him with them. And so a person I’d been with for more than half of my life, and my entire adult life was simply gone, and without an explanation that made any real sense to me.

At first I seriously wondered whether he’d had a stroke, or an aneurysm, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Very gradually, I began to accept that I would never learn the true story, or at least from him.

The brain is adept at finding a coherent causal story that links the fragments of knowledge at its disposal. – Daniel Kahneman

At first, I thought that being de-storyed in this way was especially cruel to me, because I make my living as a writer. I live for stories. But when I read Daniel Kahneman’s book book, Thinking Fast and Slow, I understood that this situation would be uncomfortable for anyone — and my strong urge to knit my broken pieces into a coherent narrative, a reflex.

Our brains automatically create causal, plausible stories out of limited information. We fill in the blanks when a cause isn’t provided. For example, in the book, Kahneman describes an experiment in which people are asked to read this sentence:

After spending a day exploring the beautiful sights in the crowded streets of New York, Jane discovered her wallet was missing.

When tested later, people are more likely to recall the word “pickpocket,”  than the word “sights” — even though “pickpocket” did not appear in the sentence. He explains:

The event of a lost wallet can evoke many causes. It could have slipped out of a pocket, left at a restaurant. However, when the ideas of a lost wallet, New York and crowds are juxtaposed, they jointly evoke the explanation that a pickpocket caused the loss.

In the absence of facts, the mind creates a plausible story — and then, this is Kahneman’s major point — it’s really hard not to believe that story. But the key word here is that the mind “creates” the story, or maybe “conjures” is a better word for it. The mind tends to discount random events, the inexplicable, and come up with a story that identifies a cause, whether or not there is any proof. The mind, he writes, is a machine for jumping to conclusions.

We are pattern seekers, believers in a coherent world. – Daniel Kahneman

Absent an explanation from my husband, I took the fragments of information that I had and a coherent story began to coalesce. The night he left, one of the few things he told me was that he wanted to have a child and not with me. (Childbearing was a topic we’d discussed often, and hadn’t come to a definitive conclusion.) Within a few days, after I confronted him with evidence in financial records, he confessed that he was involved with a woman he’d dated in high school.

Six months later, they were engaged, bought a house in the suburbs, and a baby was on the way. Forgive me this vanity, but it’s germane to the point that I’m making here to say that it was universally agreed, even by people who do not hesitate to tell blunt truths, that I was more attractive compared to his new love, and certainly the more worldly. Usually, the story would go that a man would leave someone like her for someone like me, not vice versa.

Anyway, the narrative that I developed to explain my divorce to myself was this: he wanted a different life than the one he had with me. A more traditional life, with a woman who would make him the center of her world, and have his babies, and not care a whit about writing, traveling, the life of the mind. I didn’t want to live in the suburbs and think about municipal rules and regulations, that was never going to be me.

Plus, I’d read that first loves, those connections you make in high school, have special resonance, so possibly some part of him had been in love with her all the time of our marriage.

In any event, if that was what he wanted, fair enough. It was terrible that he couldn’t have told me that flat out, that we couldn’t have come to the decision mutually. But hey. Most marriages don’t end gracefully. He would have his suburban life with his new love, and I, relocated to Greenwich Village, would have my life. I liked my life better.  I was recovering, and in fact, I was easing into a satisfying new relationship of my own.

Just over a year after he announced the end of our marriage, I emailed to congratulate him on the birth of his child, and in the process of these congratulations, inadvertently summarized my understanding of the events that had transpired.

Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our own ignorance. – Daniel Kahneman

He didn’t correct me, but here’s the thing: I recently learned that the story I had created for myself was wrong. After a few months of suburban life, and possibly by the time my congratulations reached him, he was no longer in a relationship with his high school love with whom he’d fathered a child. He’d moved on, both romantically and literally, and was with someone else entirely.

When I learned this news, I sat with one of my closest friends and tried to figure the whole thing out, which is to say, to make a new story to accommodate the new facts. What in the world is he doing? If he hadn’t destroyed our life together for true love, to be in a traditional family, or just to have sex with lots of women, then why had he done this at all?

She told me not to bother trying to construct a narrative, that I would never understand what he was doing, because what he was doing makes no sense. A man who has lived three different lives in the space of, oh, 19 months is most likely not a man making considered choices. He’s behaving randomly, in the truest sense of the word. (Definition of random: made, done, happening, or chosen without method.)

We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence that should be critical to our judgement is missing — what we see is all there is. – Kahneman

I obviously had to retire the explanation that I’d made for my divorce–that he wanted a more traditional life than I did. This retirement had some extra relief for me in it: on some level, I had been wondering what I know many acquaintances were whispering: if I had somehow managed to be a more traditional woman, if I had used my passport less and my uterus more, would I still be married today?

Perhaps if his relationship with his daughter’s mother had lasted, the answer would have been yes. But that relationship didn’t last. He didn’t want my kind of life, and as best as I can tell, he didn’t want the life he walked into when he walked out on ours.

Of course, I realize that what he does with his life now is no longer any of my business, outside of how he handles the payments he’s legally required to make to me. But my mind’s story-making reflex still sprung right into action, and now I have a new one.

It involves me feeling sorry for him, and actually feeling concern for the apparently haphazard way he’s running his personal life. It involves me thinking that despite the undeniably shitty way he’s behaved towards me, he will always be my first husband, always be a person with whom I spent all of my twenties and most of my thirties, and it includes the hope that he finds some peace.

This new-new story makes me feel good, because it makes me feel more compassion and sadness than anger. (And also, yes, because this story makes me an entirely blameless bystander to his meltdown, innocent victim being the role I much prefer to play here.) But I also realize that it’s just another theory, based on very few facts.

Kahneman points out that it’s incredibly hard to sustain doubt in a coherent narrative that seems to make sense, even when you know, as I do, that I’m missing most of the true story. And he’s right. Although I know it’s based on precious little, at this moment I really do believe this version of the story of my de-storying. And I suppose I will believe this until something new emerges. If it ever does.


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