i’ve been writing this essay about kim kardashian for so long that it feels like i have never not been writing this essay about kim kardashian.
and that’s saying a lot coming from someone who’s been writing a book about jackie onassis for the last 20 years.
i’ve such a vivid memory of being at the HOTCUS conference in june 2015 and talking to someone about how amazingly wild it would be to write biographically about kim kardashian. in large part, because i couldn’t imagine how it might be done.
i couldn’t imagine how you could bring in the game and the bacardi adverts and the show and all of the paratexts and all of the transmedia.
it seemed impossible.
we were in some concrete structure at the university of east anglia, maybe a roller rink? though that seems unlikely. what college has a roller rink?
but saying that, commenting upon the impossibility, i thought fucking hell. god, do not let me be the one anointed to write this thing.
but then, i’m convinced i only ever operate in a john the baptist capacity. i am here to light the way, yo. i am here to herald whoever is coming next, the one who’s going to do the thing i want to do so much better than i ever could.
the messiah complex is a thing. is it possible to have a john the baptist complex? and can i have that without sacrificing my head?
i’m writing about jane seymour’s guide to romantic living and i’m all like, OMG THIS IS JUST LIKE SELFISH.
a book of which i have two copies—the original and then the “MORE ME!” 2016 reprint.
writing-wise, i’ve a firm belief that the road best taken is the one that seems most impossible. the one where you’re like, no, i’ll never be able to do that. that’s the one. dear people, you know you want to go to there.
but then my relationship with writing has always been pretty abusive. so maybe you’d do better not to listen to me.
how hilarious that my career is teaching people to develop a writing process rooted in self-care and passion. and i’m over here like what is the thing that will most hurt me to think about? i’mma write that. i’mma go live there for six years.
in writing about kim kardashian, i’m writing about kim kardashian and myself and sexual violence and american media and the inadequacies of language.
this is the thing about writing women’s lives. you are never just writing about a woman’s life. you are trying to find the language to describe a lived experience for which language does not adequately exist.
increasingly, i believe this is the thing that is different in writing women’s lives—you are never just talking about the details of the life. for the language that is used to construct the story of that life is inadequate, full of failures.
this is why i increasingly feel it is a violent thing for men to write the lives of women. (just as it is an act of racial violence for white people to write the lives of people of color. because everything i am saying here in relation to gender also applies to race.)
because an assault becomes a robbery, abuse becomes a bad relationship, a rape becomes a surprising first sexual encounter in an elevator.
a person in my life the other day was telling me how his instructors in grad school told him he had to get more immediately to the point. he needn’t show his thinking.
i tell my students this, when i’m teaching persuasive writing. because such writing—where you take the audience on the journey of your own discovery—isn’t persuasive. but it is illuminating.
there was a task i was asked to complete some months ago. i’ve reneged on so many things this year, i don’t even remember, specifically, which one this was. but they forbade the word “illuminates.” because it is trite, overused.
and, seeing that, i thought, THIS IS UNJUST I CANNOT BE INHIBITED IN SUCH WAYS!!!
whatever it was they were asking me to do, i declined. i pled “compassionate leave.” which isn’t even a thing that exists in the US but i am here for it, because what i need this year is loads of compassion, because i am trying, but also i am barely even here and i am, accordingly, failing in all kinds of ways.
but back to the matter at hand. (clearly, i am paying homage here to the person in my life who wants to wander in their writing…)
the other thing i tell my students is that some of us—quite possibly, the cursed among us—use writing as thinking. so we are thinking through the writing, which is why we must be amazing editors of ourselves, which is where the abuse comes in.
i can cut my own words with more wild abandon than i can do most anything else in life.
as a writer, that’s a necessary thing.
as a human being, i remain unconvinced.
i am writing about kim kardashian.
ostensibly, that is what i am writing about here.
but really i am writing here because i want the first post my students see not to be “men have raped me.”
that really sets a mood.
ditto for the men who want to date me.
ditto for the people who run the organizations i am trying to hold accountable for the sexual violence in their own ranks.
i’d rather prefer it if no one ever again say “well, i know you’re dealing with a lot personally right now” when i’m trying to get them to take the matter of sexual violence seriously.
i’d rather not be diminished in that way.
i’d rather not have my own experience of violence used against me in that way again.
i have my students write weekly rants. this semester, i instituted a new rule: that they have to, at least, start with something related to class. and then they can spin off into whatever.
this is a means of helping those who have a hard time getting started and also of saving myself. the former seems effective, the latter less so. they will bring it to me and i will take it all in.
my therapist and i have come up with a new strategy. when students disclose upsetting material, i’m now to journal about it.
i’ve, somewhat incongruously, put these writings in a separate notebook from the one where i write about my own life and my own feelings.
it’s a small notebook, a gift from a friend, with FEMINIST printed on the cover in gold.
it seems somehow appropriate that the early pages of this notebook are dedicated to agendas for 2017 brunch discussions with an american friend in london.
and then… and then… it is who has a relative who just died of covid and who is in the hospital and who has disclosed something that made me cry upon reading it. something i need to extract from my brain asap.
i’ve struggled with endings during the pandemic.
i’ve struggled with endings always, in life and in writing.
in airports, i have, historically, physically pushed away the people who love me.
in writing, during the pandemic, i’ve been embracing mic-drops. on blogs and in conference presentations.
i’ve yet to do this in a submitted article but i can feel it coming. people, that moment is brewing within me. i just don’t know how to transfer the sequin vibe to the page. the screen, i’ve got. but not yet the page. i do not know how to glitter there.
i’ve written here before about the john berger quote (multiple times, it seems), about how the mouse is caged in an experiment, and it takes him a certain number of hours to realize he is trapped and then, after that realization, even after his release, there is something in him that never stops trembling.
i read that passage on the tube in london, at the height of my immigration insecurity, so i always associate it with the threat of my forthcoming self-deportation and the resulting total implosion of my life.
but i’ve been thinking about that passage a lot in recent weeks, what with the doom that has been the pervasive emotional climate of teaching in fall 2021 and in coping with the fallout of sexual violence in my own life, the fallout of attempting to hold people and organizations accountable for the sexual violence that they have enabled or, if not enabled, NOT MADE BETTER.
bad things do happen, i have been told. we cannot prevent all of the bad things, they’ve said.
and, hi, i am not an idiot. i may be crying as you tell me this, but i know this. i know it, but i am not content with it. i refuse to accept it. i refuse to be content. i fundamentally cannot understand how you are ok with this.
what an illuminating conversation.
i am illuminated.
are you not illuminated? are we not all illuminated?
this is a post about kim kardashian.
i am being sour.
you are put off by my tone, are you not?
but when i write about kim kardashian, i am almost always writing about language. it’s angering imprecision, its infuriating boundaries and inadequacies and allegiances and violence.
so i’m being sour, but also on brand.
last semester, i asked my students to describe their anger in 300 words. here i am using 1400+ and i’ve not even begun to scratch the surface of mine.
i am a horrible hypocrite. you mustn’t take your audience on the journey of how you arrived to the idea. you just need to tell them where you wound up, i say. even though i rarely ever write that way.
because i never know where i’m going. but also, do we any of us, ever?
i started writing about kim kardashian in 2016.
on pearl harbor day, 7 december 2016. i was sitting in the middlesex south reading room of senate house library, at one of the big tables in the middle, and i wrote an abstract for the IABA conference that would be taking place that june.
“Because hers is a story still developing in real time,” i wrote, right before lunch, “its liquidity is extreme— a state which makes it an especially challenging (and, therefore, compelling) case study for life-writing in the digital age.”
all the way back then, obviously, i had no idea that i would spend the entirety of the trump presidency working on this same stupid piece.
we never know what will happen next. which is the premise of all of my scholarship while also being so hilariously obvious as to be a completely ludicrous thing around which to have built an academic career.
but then there’s a solidity to life that it seems other people feel, which i never have. which it’s maybe important to point out.
the mouse never stops trembling.
the word “illuminate” is forbidden.
i would like to illuminate the fact that i am always over here, quaking in my beautiful clothes and boots.
in order to be persuasive, you have to start by telling your audience what it is you want them to believe.
i want you to believe that kim kardashian matters.
for reasons i cannot fully express beyond the fact that writing about her has been there for me in the midst of all the trembling.
when i interviewed gloria steinem for the jackie book, she described a theory of celebrity in which there is a human being tethered to a balloon. and no matter how much the human tries to guide the balloon, the balloon floats free.
as a biographer, i recognize the value of the human.
as a human, i really, really need the balloon.
the balloon helps. the trembling, it never stops, but the balloon helps.
the balloon makes clear we are not alone.
the balloon makes clear we are legion. or, at the very least, two.
i’m a humanities person, but i respect that there is value in numbers. there is value in not being the only one.
there is value in having a community in which to forge the language. there is a value in having a community.
a community in which to forge a future in which the violence is unacceptable, where we are free to illuminate all the injustices, a future in which the language, it bends, like a plant, towards the light of our experience, our hurt, and we build something new out of this devastated world we’ve been gifted.