My Problem with PronounsPosted June 2nd, 2013 by Lauren Reichelt
I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with pronouns.
When I was a teen-ager, somebody taught me how to use them. She sat me on a chair next to a pillow and told me to talk to the pillow about how I felt. Instead, I pretended I was the pillow and I told Sheila, “She feels this. She feels that.”
We began again, (and again and again). But every time I tried to say, “I feel,” I first became angry, and then, if I worked through it, experienced a floating sensation, growing strangely disconnected from my body, as if I were dangling in the air above my own head.
So Sheila rubbed my back gently and taught me to breathe from the bottom of my belly. Yoga breath. And in time, it became easier to say, “I feel” and “I am.”
When I was in my mid-twenties, I moved to Japan. Many of my American friends experienced Culture Shock but I had a very different reaction. I felt a sense of peace. I didn’t have to struggle with pronouns anymore. The Japanese consider them rude.
In Japan, the subject is dropped from the sentence. To say “I” or “you” tells the listener, “There is no we here.” And it also tells the listener, “I think you are too rude to understand my meaning.”
In Japan it is assumed that feelings reside within nature. Humans strive for sensitivity, and the sensitive man or woman is quiet enough within to experience those feelings.
But my problem with pronouns didn’t go away. It manifested itself in my writings.
Like every other graduate student of my generation, I was taught to write using the generic “he.” And I went to synagogue and prayed to the Lord, another “He.”
I found it impossible to follow the instructions my professors gave me for finishing my thesis. I would either ignore them, or do the opposite of what I was told. When I tried to write, I became overwhelmingly angry but I didn’t know why.
Professors grew exasperated with me. “This is just an exercise,” they’d tell me. “Everyone is able to do this. You’re one of the best students we’ve ever had. You have the talent to do whatever you want. Why are you picking silly fights? Why can’t you just follow directions?”
Frankly, their guess was as good as mine.
I’d try but I’d get angry. They finally allowed me to do it my way, graduating me with a B minus on my thesis but A’s in virtually everything else.
The problem was postponed, not solved.
I have always loved to write, but have never kept a journal. In Japan, I began writing stories about myself. I noticed something startling. When I tried to write about childhood, which included tales of sexual assault, nothing came out but the F word. I wrote paragraph upon paragraph of “F*CK YOU! F*CK YOU!” and nothing else.
I tried again, this time eliminating the generic He.
Words flowed out.
I couldn’t write about my own experience using the grammar forms I was taught because I am a She. How does one write about rape using the generic He? The grammar invalidates the content!
I kept on writing. I started working on a book. But I got stuck. So I engaged Anya Achtenberg as an editor.
“I see the problem,” she told me. “At first glance, your chapters seem completely unrelated. Nothing hangs together. It’s disorganized. But I read it again and saw that they are related. The problem isn’t the content. It’s that you haven’t found your voice. You’ve written this in the third person. I want you to switch to the first and to see what happens. Write about ‘I,’ not about ‘she.’
One would think that switching around a few pronouns is a mechanical editing task but it wasn’t. It was a spiritual journey. I had to rewrite my understanding of Torah, of my Jewish culture and of my role in it. I had to write new myth. And I had to reinvent myself.
I realized some things along the way. Torah says that man and woman are sacred because we are made in the image of God.
Every sentient being in the world is an ‘I’. There is no ‘you’. Nobody has ever experienced being a ‘you.’ ‘You’ does not exist.
The experience of being an ‘I’ is qualitatively the same no matter who ‘I’ is. Race, culture, gender, and even moral status don’t alter the fact that an individual is an ‘I’.
I must honor God by helping every single human being to free her voice.
Anya’s blog is called Writing Story/Finding Poetry/Freeing Voice.