"I want to look at The Best American Essays 2011 by considering a single essay, but first, there’s another essay we need to discuss. Earlier this month, in the aftermath of the shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, The New York Times published a piece by Susan Straight, who lives ten miles from the site of the carnage, in Riverside.


"What I’m talking about is empathy, what I’m talking about is writing between the lines. What I’m talking about is framing everything through the filter of the human, both victims and perpetrators alike. For Straight, the key element is less terrorism than proximity; 'Wednesday,' she tells us, 'I watched as a mass shooting unfolded on the street where my mother had recent heart surgery, where yards and fences looked so familiar from the aerial view. A place I know.' The essay ends with her ex-husband, calling from a street in San Bernardino, where he is waiting to be picked up by his company’s van. 'I get scared,' he says. 'I wanted you to know where I was, in case I get shot. Out here, I never know. A black guy thinks I’m in a gang, a Latino guy thinks I’m in a gang, a cop thinks I did something. It could be a white guy who just doesn’t like me. … Then I get in the van and have to hear the radio turned to Rush Limbaugh, and I know he hates me.'"

"'Travels with My Ex' involves the same man, the same relationship, the same unspoken fears. After their daughter gets pulled over, Straight swings into action; 'My job,' she writes, 'is to be the short blond mom.' She approaches the officer, explains the family caravan. 'We’re on our way to the beach for a birthday party!' she chirps. 'Her dad and I didn’t want to get separated, ’cause we might never see each other again!' We’ve all been there: this move, or assertion of parental status, this stepping in to take care of our kids. But Straight is also walking directly into a minefield of race and privilege, which has ramifications beyond what is happening alongside the road. 'The little women,' she confides, 'hate when I do this. They imitate me viciously afterward. They hate that I have to do it and that I am good at it.' To help her kids, in other words, she has to bear the burden of their approbation, their disgrace."


"One of the requirements of essay writing is to bare these moments, to show our vulnerability and our shame. This, too, is part of the mechanism of empathy, the way it opens up a territory we all share. When I read such a passage—as when I read the expression of her ex-husband’s fear on that San Bernardino corner—I identify, even though this is not my experience. I identify because I have done the same thing for my children, presented the same face to authority, the same uncertain grin. This is what an essay does, uncovers the commonalities between us by revealing the specificity of the author’s life. The universal particular, let’s call it, as in: The more specific or particular an essay is, the more universal it becomes. I think of Straight, trying to make sense of the massacre in San Bernardino or trying to protect her daughter, and I see myself. In that act of revealing, she turns the mirror back on us."

Read the rest here!

And by the way, I just saw we have three bonus days of BAE advent after Christmas! In the words of Cousin Eddie Griswold, "Clark, that's the gift that keeps on givin'."

AuthorJohn Proctor