A Freedom is a freedom is a free DOM
Ren Powell (an essay for the now defunct VIDA project Lady in the House).
“A diary means yes indeed.” – Gertrude Stein
Sixteen months ago, the man who abused me for a decade, and who robbed me of my extended family in the almost thirty years since, committed suicide. He drove his car into a semi. I watched a stream of coverage from the local news station, in what was once my hometown, just to reassure myself that it was true.
At that moment, watching the computer screen, I anticipated relief. I expected some part of me to be reborn like a phoenix from the wreckage strewn across the highway, half a world away. Or at least some spell would break, like at the end of a fairy tale. Ding Dong, the witch is dead.
I thought I would finally have my freedom.
In my first semester of college I managed to wriggle my way into an advanced special topics course in Philosophy: Technology & Human Values, 4-oh-something. It was a course that put ethics into praxis through thought experiments. I loved it. All the thinking. Imagining. Writing.
Second semester, I took two big steps back – trying to catch up – and I took an introduction class that covered everything from Plato through Arne Næss at breakneck speed.
I got sick around Being and Nothingness.
And I got married.
And I wrote my first play.
And I burned my first manuscript.
And I got divorced.
And I started taking lithium.
In 2005, I was one of three European women to attend a women writers’ conference in Kyrgyzstan. The writers in Bishkek told us a story about a poet who published a book of sensual poems that her in-laws interpreted as evidence of her infidelity. Her husband left her. The translator tried to paraphrase: She says that, if she had lived in Europe, it wouldn’t have been a problem.
Freedom is a fluid and free signifier. Context is everything.
Last winter I took an improvisation workshop with my colleagues from the high school. We were partnered and told to give each other small tasks to mime. “Say the first thing that pops into your mind. Don’t censor yourself!”
The first thing that popped into my mind? Masturbate.
Last Friday I saw a performance work that featured an actress with Down syndrome. “Anti-abortion themed Agit prop theater,” I complained. “Not my thing.”
My colleague said, “But she is free to express her opinion.”
When I worked for PEN I came to realize that there is a sea dividing the right to free speech, and the privilege of being heard.
And that no one is free from consequences:
- I know a writer from Eastern Europe who is living in New York and teaching at a reputable university. He has dinner parties with his respected colleagues, but is not able to return to his homeland to work. Because he exercised his freedom of speech.
And his government didn’t like it.
- I know of a once-respected writer from Kyrgyzstan. Her colleagues don’t know where she is living today.
Because she exercised her freedom of speech.
And her relatives didn’t like it.
When I was an undergraduate, one of my professors invited me to stage three of my own performance pieces within the larger context of a series of storytelling projects that he was working on for the autumn production. About a week before the premiere, I heard rumors that there was trouble. Another professor in the theater department had asked the dean to stop my work from being produced.
It wasn’t the word fuck that was the problem. It wasn’t the subject matter of sexual abuse. Or even the blasphemous texts. The professor was concerned about the work being too personal. He wanted the university to protect me from myself.
This was the same professor who, in playwrighting class, would raise his voice and gesticulate like a Shakespearean actor, declaiming his slogans: “Write to the Pain”, “Never Censor Yourself”.
In 1933, Gertrude Stein published someone else’s autobiography.
I have written things.
I have written things that I have lived.
I have written things that I have lived to regret.
My chronology is never explicit.
Ask me, while I am staring at a blank page, and I will tell you that freedom is a value-neutral state.