Adrienne Rich, Women and Honor

Just a quick post (I’ve had endless mechanical failures at my end, ranging from the dishwasher to the computer) to note the passing of Adrienne Rich.   I actually don’t read much poetry, but Rich also wrote essays.  There’s a book called On Lies, Secrets and Silence that includes an essay called Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying.

It’s an essay I read with some regularity and it sets forth some principles I try to live by.  What Rich suggests (as I recall) is that we typically lie for selfish reasons.  We may say that we lie to protect others, but what we really mean is that we lie to protect ourselves from having to deal honestly with others.  If we are honest we may have to deal with difficult issues and messy things like hurt feelings.  Lying allows you to evade the messiness.

I don’t take Rich’s essay to mean you should never lie.   It does seem to me that there is a place for what we often call a white lie–the “yes, I like that picture you just bought for your living room” sort of lie.   But I do take it to mean we should always be mindful when we consider lying and we should appreciate the extent to which it is selfish and self-serving.   Most of the time the better course is to be honest and then deal with the consequences that follow from honesty.

I mention the topic of lying here because there have been many conversations about honesty here.  I have more than once been accused of lying or at least supporting lying here.   It’s an accusation that always gives me pause.   I suppose people may disagree about what it means to be honest or what honesty requires.  (Remember that I don’t think honesty requires me to tell the  soccer coach how my child was conceived, though I wouldn’t actively tell a lie about it either.)   For the moment, though, I just want to pause to pay tribute to Adrienne Rich and what she has to teach us.  It’s worth finding a copy of that essay to read–or to reread, as the case may be.

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8 responses to “Adrienne Rich, Women and Honor

  1. Glad to have stumbled on your blog while looking for other folks writing about their experiences reading Adrienne Rich. I’d forgotten about this essay but I’ll look it up again.

    • I am reminded that Rich also wrote about secrets. (Indeed, the title is “On Lies, Secrets and Silence.”) As I recall it, as critical as Rich was of lying, she also believed in keeping (other people’s) secrets as a part of honor. Thus, if you tell me something in confidence, it is not mine to trade or pass around. I have been trusted and honor requires that I keep the confidence.

      Just as I have tried to live by Rich’s call to honesty, so I have tried to live be her call to be honorable. When people tell me something in confidence, I will keep their secret. (And I cannot help but think of the role of the secret keeper in the Harry Potter books.)

      This doesn’t always fit together perfectly. Keeping someone else’s secret may put you in a position where you have to decide whether to lie. (If you have told me X in confidence and someone asks if I know about X, what am I to do?) But it still seems to me that the call to be truthful and the call to be honorable are aspects of the same virtue–perhaps one of personal integrity.

  2. I read that essay years ago and saved it in a file to re-read periodically. Lying is also a form of trying to control other people — what other people think of us, how other people will feel about something, etc. Perhaps that’s the same as (or overlaps with) “trying to protect ourselves” but I think it’s slightly different. I was talking to a friend about the father-in-law sperm donor scenario and his response: “If you’re going to play God, things are going to get messy and you should be able to deal with the consequences.” He also said, and I agree, that having a confusing genetic link (the baby is the son and also the grandson) does not automatically mean the kid will need therapy. I don’t think genetic links that are more difficult to wrap our heads around automatically result in emotional or psychological trauma to a child. Seems to me it’s more important for the kid that the parties be as honest, up front, nonjudgmental, and loving as they can be about the situtation.

    • I totally agree with you–honesty is what we can give the people we love, even though it demands a lot of us (and of them.)

      I agree, too, about lying being a way to control other people (and that this is a different thing from protecting others). If we do not tell them about reality, whatever it is, then we reduce their ability to make their own choices.

  3. The fact that they are interacting not as siblings but as father and child means that they are roll playing and that the outside world will believe something that is not true and if they are honest with the child he ends up living an inauthentic existence where he is not who he seems to be in relation to the people raising him. Even if its nobody else’s business, few of us know what its like to live an existence where we are not who others think we are in relation to those raising us. Nobody else has to deal with that if they are really their parent’s offspring its a non issue. Being honest with a child about not being a biological parent is wonderful but if you ask them to go about life as your child your having them participate in a farce for your benefit, not theirs. The fact that you have chosen to take responsibility for raising them should not mean they owe you the cookie of living life as your child rather than living life as the child of the person who created them. They don’t owe it to the person raising them to be that persons child. Being honest with the child but expecting them to still perform as if they are the child of the brother for instance is almost worse its asking them to help perpetuate a false reality for the benefit of the mother and her husband who in this case is the kids brother. its f’d up.

    • I’m not sure what factual scenario you are addressing here, but I’m pretty sure I disagree. (I’m going to guess it’s the father-in-law sperm donor one, but if I’m wrong parts of this will be off-target.)

      First, some general points: You may think I’m dicing it fine, but let’s suppose I have an adopted child who looks a fair bit like me. I go to the store with the child. I think people might assume that the child isn’t adopted but is genetically related to me. If I’m an honest person, do I have an obligation to tell them they are wrong? I don’t think so. I do not think it is dishonest to just go about my business and let them make their assumptions.

      In addition (and perhaps more importantly) it isn’t a dishonest to enact our relationship as parent and child. We are (in my view) parent and child. And it’s not (in my view) because we have a court decree that says so. It’s because our relationship is that of parent and child.

      In the same way, I know step-parents who act just like parents. Given the role they play in their kids’ lives, that’s not a lie.

      Now to go back to the father-in-law scenario. If the son and his wife have a child using the father-in-law’s sperm, that’s their child. The son is the father. So acting like father/child isn’t dishonest. I think you see it that way because you think the defining characteristic of the relationship is the genetics. But I don’t think that and the son and his wife don’t have to think that. And I don’t think the son and his child have to walk around announcing their genetic relationship on the chance that this is what some other people find most important.

  4. OK Julie let me try this without the contentions words mother, father or parent.
    The married couple wanted to produce and raise their own biological offspring. They really want to raise their own biological offspring the Plan A child.

    The plan B child and the husband are the offspring of the same man. They are not the offspring of the same woman. The plan B child is the offspring of his wife and they will raise the plan B child together acting as if the plan B child was the offspring of the husband.

    The world they interact with will assume that the plan B child and the husband are not the offspring of the same man. The world they interact with will assume the plan B child is the offspring of the husband, which is what the husband wants. The gets to live life as as the offspring of the man who created him but the Plan b child does not get to live life as what he is, the offspring of the man who created him, he must live life as if he were not related to the husband as a peer he must live life as if he were the husband’s offspring. So even if the plan B child is told the truth he still has a job to do and a life to live serving and performing as something he is not.

    I was able to say all that without using the word father or child or even brother and it still sounds unfair to the kid and it still quacks like lying only the kid is expected to help perpetuate the falsehood.

    • I’m going to skip the Plan A child because I don’t know that there’s much to say about that except that you make an interesting point that the Plan B child is second best. There’s something to think about there. But I’ll leave it for now.

      I think it is correct that the world will assume that child B is the offspring of the husband, just as the world might assume that the adopted child I take to the store is my offspring. And in that, the world will be wrong. I don’t know that I care much about that, because for me the identity of the progenitor isn’t terribly important. What’s more important to me is that the world will see and recognize the social/psychological relationship between B and the husband. I don’t think the progenitor/offspring stuff is much of the world’s business. I don’t think you have an obligation to affirmatively inform the world of who the progenitor is.

      I do think I ought to tell my adopted child that she is adopted. She can tell people or not as she chooses. I would explain to the child (in some age appropriate way) that this didn’t mean I wasn’t her mother. It did mean I wasn’t genetically related to her. I suppose I’d better tell her that to some people this would seem terribly important, but that it didn’t matter to me–she was my daughter. I’d expect/hope for some similar conversation in the home of child B. And I’d hope husband and wife would help B formulate a relationship with progenitor that worked for the people involved.

      The key place I part company from you, I think, is that for me there is nothing to perform in the role of progenitor/offspring. It’s not a social relationship you need to enact–it’s just biology. You can know it and live your life however you choose and still have integrity. You can have whatever relationship with your progenitor that want.

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