By Lindsey Crittenden
A few years ago, after giving a reading, I invited questions. My friend Bonnie raised her hand. “You’re so private,” she said. “But you write so personally! You’re so open in your book!” She smiled, her voice affectionate, and yet in her question I heard astonishment and a twinge of hurt, as though I’d confided more in the blank page than I had in her.
And I had.
As a child, I found in writing and drawing not so much a friendly audience—which posited the Other—as a welcome reprieve from the Other. We lived in a neighborhood of kids and dogs, tricycles and backyards, and I loved to stay indoors, in my room, making up my own worlds. The integrity of those worlds—their very existence—depended on my being alone.
Sure, I played make-believe with others: my best friend and I devised elaborate stories that we’d “send” to one another by leaving each installment in the roots of a tree across from her house. Sharing brought fun and often praise, but also danger and betrayal. Connection, sure, but connection fraught with risk.
Over time, friendships—such as Bonnie’s—provided safe havens more than obstacle courses, but my tendency to hold back remained, often hurting those I love. And even though my work was getting published, and thereby read by Others (most of whom were strangers), I continued to find freedom and even imperative in writing down what I didn’t say—even to people I’d known for thirty years. So, when Bonnie read my book, she could read only a few pages at a time.
“It’s too intense,” she said. “Emotionally, it’s hard for me to read.”
Reading about my losses, I knew, reminded her of her own. But that wasn’t all. Bonnie knew, for example, of my battle with depression—she’d witnessed it—but she hadn’t known until she read my book that for days I didn’t go into my kitchen because I was afraid of the knives.
Over the years, I’ve dated men who’ve read my work. One fellow asked me, over tacos, how Dylan was doing, and I almost choked on my guacamole. How did he know my nephew’s name? Was he some kind of stalker? And then he reminded me: he’d read my book. The rest of the date, I avoided eye contact, creeped out that he knew intimate details of my life when I couldn’t even pronounce his last name.
With others, I felt a kind of greasy, exhibitionist’s pleasure in knowing they’d read my words, followed the logic of my syntax, witnessed the drama of my past. I got to reveal without having to do any revealing—the book did it for me.
So, five months ago, when C and I fell in love, I handed him a copy. Not only did I want him to know about me, but he and I had met at church, and my book had as its theme a growing relationship with prayer. Giving him a copy felt like a gesture of trust, an act of intimacy. He thanked me, and put it aside. “I want to read it, but I want to get to know you first, through you.”
A week or two later, he went to a mutual friend’s house for dinner. (I had other plans.) When C told Ed that he’d started seeing me, Ed asked quickly, “Have you read her book?”
Later that night, as C reported this to me, I nodded. Then I saw from his face that he and I had interpreted Ed’s question differently. To me, it seemed natural, even innocuous. To him, it felt more loaded, suggestive—as though Ed were hinting at deep, dark secrets buried in the pages. Don’t get too serious until you’ve read that book. Ed’s question, like Bonnie’s comment at the bookstore, implied the ways in which my book revealed more than I did.
“I’m nervous to read it,” he admitted. I knew why: the details of a past relationship, passionate but doomed.
“That’s only one chapter,” I said, and added, not very reassuringly, “there’s nothing in there you don’t know about.” Easter morning, I decided to disempower the imagined bogeyman. I read aloud the first chapter. “It’s really good,” he said, and we got ready for church. Weeks turned to months, and the book sat untouched by the bed. One day, I told a writer friend that I’d made a surprising discovery: I no longer needed C to read my book.
“Of course,” she said. “You’re not the same person who wrote it.”
She had a point, of course, and yet there was more to it. By giving C my book, I had given him a piece of myself. But as the taco guy helped me to realize, someone’s having read my words doesn’t mean he knows me. And it tells me nothing about him. Sure, the book reveals a lot—but with C, I’ve done that myself, the old-fashioned way, step by step, just as C has revealed himself to me.
I want the book to continue to find many readers, but for now, in my house, it’s back on the shelf.