Last Wednesday I was ecstatic to read my writing professor's critique of my final long essay, which I wrote about Noah being a cop. My professor was hugely encouraging--he told me I should stick with nonfiction, because I have a talent, he says (do you hear that? it's my bell, and I'm ringing it)--and that he wants to help me send out that particular essay for publication. A wonderful, terrifying prospect.
I'm a professional writer and editor. I've had my work in print for several years now, but never anything really personal. I've had poetry published, but in poetry, using symbolic language can cast a protective veil. In personal essay and memoir--at least good personal essay and memoir--honesty, transparency and self-awareness are not optional, they're essential. It is the most vulnerable flavor of writing there is, because criticism and argument and backlash aren't just about your craft or your opinion, they're about you. (Yes, this subject warrants this many emphatic italics.)
Jim over at Sweet Juniper wrote a post that in part discussed how some urban activists criticized his work documenting the city of Detroit, accusing him of painting a portrait of the city they simply didn't like. My essay incited some similar sentiments (say that three times fast).
Everyone in my class is supportive, constructive and heartfelt, so I didn't feel personally attacked. But I was surprised. They know me, and they even know Noah. I wasn't expecting my personal truth to threaten and incense like it did. Maybe now I know a little of how Noah feels every time he puts on a uniform: People stop seeing him, so flooded are they by their politics, their prejudices that police officers are politicized and prejudiced. Everything stereotypical about a cop? Noah is none of those things. And it doesn't matter one bit. I'm sure this will be a controversial statement, and at the least an unpopular one, but here goes: Police officers are just as discriminated against as any minority.
There's a neighborhood that Noah used to work which is ravaged by drug culture. People in my class had a problem with how I depicted that neighborhood, with ramshackle dwellings, addicted citizens, neglected children--even the fact that I used the term "drug culture" itself--and turned a scene where I literally described exactly what I saw into a derogatory commentary on race and class. But...it's all true. I wasn't commentating on a race of people or a class of people, I was speaking the truth of one street in our city. And the most frustrating part is, Noah has a stronger bond and more meaningful relationship with the residents of that street than any of the "activists" do. He's been in their homes. He's talked with them. They have confessed their sins as a parishioner to a priest, compelled by his willingness to bear honest witness.
He sees the people of this city at their worst, their lowest moments, in their most vulnerable personal circumstances. They confide in him, they rail against him; they thank him, they threaten him. Noah has arrested people who are more friendly toward and respectful of him than average citizens pulled over for minor traffic violations.
In the community at large, there is little empathy for police officers until there is tragedy.
One of the suggestions made to me by a critic was to incorporate some more "self-awareness" into that scene. That I should acknowledge my whiteness, my class; in short, to be apologetic for being the one to speak the truth of that neighborhood. Another critic referred to that scene as a place where "cop culture" was showing. Thankfully, someone else spoke up and pointed out that using the term "cop culture" was just as problematic as anything I wrote might have been. I can say from experience, until I was part of it, I knew nothing of real cop culture. And neither does anyone else who isn't a part of it.
It's exhausting to always be on the defensive, to be forced to overcompensate for other people's misconceptions. Why should I, when writing about my personal experience, have to acknowledge that there are cops who have made terrible mistakes, who are corrupt, or who just aren't good people? There are people in every community who make terrible mistakes, who are corrupt, who just aren't good people. Nobody should have to write an apologia for their entire race, their community, their species, as a precursor for being listened to. Everyone knows those stories, and they aren't ours. Few people know our story. Few people want to know our story.
Sometimes, the truth is ugly.