This essay was originally given as a talk during the 2018 Summer Workshop.
My daughter comes home from school at least once a week and announces to me that no one likes her. She has done something that is too weird, or bold, or has said a thing with which others disagree. She has had to sit alone during lunch or play alone during recess. She even sat on the buddy bench, she tells me, and no one came. At the moment she says or does the weird bold thing, she doesn’t care what anyone thinks or whether they agree or disagree. It’s only afterward, after she has felt shunned, ostracized, and completely alone with her decision that she begins to question it.
She is eleven and a half. When I was eleven and a half, I liked to play the Commodore 64 and read Choose Your Own Adventure Novels and I liked making tapes of my favorite songs that I recorded off the little radio my parents let me have in my room. I liked New Kids on the Block — I liked them so much I called it LOVE — and I liked sitting next to my friend on the long bus ride home when we could talk for hours about who we liked better, Joey or Donny. I liked Joey. She liked Donny. (Wrong.) I liked to climb the row of mulberry trees that grew beside the long driveway to our farm. I liked to wander into the woods and eat blackberries straight off the vine. I liked being alone sometimes, but not always, and I liked how my arm hair glowed in the sun.
When I was fourteen, two and a half years older than my daughter is now, I liked a boy who was a few years older than me. He played on the basketball team, was over six feet tall, had chest hair, and on his upper lip grew what was, in retrospect, a very sad excuse for a mustache. I liked that he wore Drakkar Noir, stood with his hands in his pockets, drove a fast car. I wanted him to like me back, so I agreed to sneak out of my friend house, where I was supposed to be spending the night, and I agreed to meet him down the road, and when he picked me up in his fast car and drove to a liquor store that mostly disregarded the state’s liquor laws, I agreed to drink from the bottle he handed me. I liked how it tasted, how giddy and free being drunk made me feel. I agreed to sneak him back into my friend’s house, to the basement. I didn’t like what he did to me. I didn’t like how he kept kissing me after I told him to stop, or how he overpowered me, held me down, put a pillow over my face so no one in the house would hear me crying for help.
I agreed to doing things I didn’t really want to do that night because I had been taught somewhere along the way that it was a blessing to be liked by a man, that I should be flattered by the attention: from the grown men who called to me on the street while I was walking home, from the one who kept calling even after I asked him to leave me alone, from the drum major who wanted me to suck his dick in the backseat of his car. I learned, soon enough, that being liked meant favor, meant preferential treatment, meant I was safe but only in certain ways. I was supposed to be flattered that my Spanish professor liked me enough to invite me to his apartment while I was still his student, to his bed, that he invited me to live with him. He was the one who taught me that it actually didn’t matter how likable I was, there was always the threat of violence or punishment for saying or doing something he didn’t like. We could be at the market choosing fish and fresh tomatoes for dinner and his hand would be resting on the small of my back and the next moment it would be raised to strike me. I tried diminishing myself in such a way that I wouldn’t provoke him, wouldn’t anger him, tried to bend myself according to his pleasure so that he would like everything I did and said and thought. It didn’t matter, because no matter what I did, it was never enough. I kept at it anyway, until there was almost nothing left of me, of the person I had been. And that person I became, who was barely a person of her own, is the version of me he liked best.
I wrote a memoir about that, about how that happened, about how a man convinced me to give away all of my power and authority and to reject everything in the world that brings me joy without even realizing I was doing it. It wasn’t easy to write that book, and I knew that if he ever read it, he wouldn’t like what I had said. The first time I read from The Other Side, it was here, in the amphitheater at Tin House. I am not exaggerating when I say I thought he might show up to shoot me with a gun. But what actually happened is that my story found an audience instead.
After its release, a criticism waged against my memoir was that my “narrator” (which, spoilers, is me) isn’t likable, that I write things that make my readers uncomfortable and that I make choices with which my readers disagree. As if my most important job in finding language for a story that had none were to please. As if by labeling me unlikable, they don’t have to listen to the story I needed to tell. Raped women are unlikable, apparently. So are strong women. Women who survive. Ambitious women are unlikable, women who are good at their jobs, women who tell the truth. Women who don’t take shit are unlikable, women who burn bridges, women who know what they are worth.
Why shouldn’t women know their worth? Just because we’re not supposed to? Just because people don’t like it when we do? I know that I am good at lots of things — I am not good at singing (you’ll hear what I mean at karaoke tonight) but I know I write like a bad motherfucker. I am very funny in person. Also, I just ran a marathon. It wasn’t pretty or fast but I persisted and it is from small confidences like these that I draw courage to tell the truth, without regard for my likability.
As a woman, I have been raised to be nurturing, to care for others feelings’ and wellbeing often at the expense of my own. I have been taught that to be liked is to be good. But I have noticed that certain men are allowed to be any way they want. They get to be nuanced and complex. Adventurous and reclusive. They can say anything, do anything, disregard rules and social norms, break laws, commit treason, rob us blind, and nothing is held against them. A white man, in particular, can be an abuser, a rapist, a pedophile, a kidnapper of children, can commit genocide or do nothing notable or interesting at all and we are expected to hang on his every word as if it is a gift to the world. Likability doesn’t even enter the conversation. His writing doesn’t even have to be very good.
I am still talking about writing, though there is an uncanny resemblance to current events in the wider world. Let us consider, for example, our most recent presidential election. On the one hand, we had such a man as this: an unapologetically racist, sexist, homophobic, serial sexual assailant — a grifter, a con man — and on the other hand we had a woman many people didn’t like. That election cycle reminded us of all the words for an unlikable woman: she was a bitch, a cunt, a hag, a harpy, a twat, a criminal — she was unbearable, unelectable, unlikable.
Unlikable to whom? I’m saying women are told we are unlikable, but let’s be honest, this pressure isn’t exclusive to women, especially not just to white women. The world tells black women they are unlikable when they are angry, even though they have the most reason to be angry. I find it unlikable that more of us aren’t angry alongside them. The world tells black men they are unlikable when they are too confident, too intelligent, when they behave like kings, when they are not men but children who reach into their pockets or stand together on corners. People who have immigrated to this country are told they are unlikable when they “take American jobs”; they are just as unlikable when they do not work. They are unlikable when they cross the border in the desert under the cover of night and when they come through a checkpoint in the middle of the day. We put their stories in cages.
This is not a metaphor.
There is no end to the reasons people are labeled unlikable — because of the way they look, or the configuration of their bodies, or the choices they have made about how to live their lives, what kind of family to build, how to love, how to worship God, or not, or the language they speak, or the country where they were born, or because someone does not like the things they have to say. At some point, we must acknowledge that the question of likability is not one about craft, but about sexism, racism, homophobia — it’s about bigotry.
The pressure to remain likable exerts power over us and the stories we feel it is safe enough to tell. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously writes in “The White Album.” Stories are how we know ourselves, how we understand our relation to others; stories are the lenses that allow us to look at the chaos of the world and see with clarity and wisdom. We remember our past through the stories we tell about our mistakes and successes, and through these stories, we teach our children lessons for the future. We resolve conflict through stories, especially those of us inclined toward a tidy narrative arc. Stories keep us sane; they give us meaning. As a writer of nonfiction, I understand that if some of us tell stories in order to live, others must tell our stories in order to survive.
In my own life the stories I have told have created paths for me that did not previously exist, have helped me to escape from prisons of my own making or another’s, have become the form through which I have made the case for my own humanity, or another’s. What I have found to be most powerful about these kinds of stories is that they are almost impossible to deny. This is not to say that people haven’t tried to negate, or degrade, or defame the stories I have told — they have, which is my point — but my point is also that when I tell a story that is mine and true they cannot simply say no because the truth is not a request, is not a question, requires neither permission nor forgiveness.
If you come to the page to ask for forgiveness you have come to the wrong place. Forgiveness asks everything from the forgiver, asks her to give her pain away, to act as if the harm never happened. It’s the wrong question to ask. I’m not interested in letting go of my pain, but in transforming it into strength instead.
I have made so many mistakes. And I experience those mistakes I have made as a burning shame. But I can tell a story that transforms that too, not by taking your pain away — because it isn’t mine to take — but rather through understanding the harm I have done, the pain I have caused in you. This is what I mean by “a reckoning”: it means I take responsibility for that pain I have caused. It means that I feel that pain in myself and that I also feel it in you. This is, to me, the first step toward reconciliation. Forgiveness comes only after.
The pressure to be likable keeps us from doing this hard work, keeps us from telling the truth. Not just on the page, but in the lived experience of our bodily lives. Every day we go to great lengths to be likable. Some of us spend hours altering our bodies so that we can be better liked: we starve ourselves to be thinner, we bind, we constrict, we take up less space. We make ourselves paler or darker. We cover up or show more skin. We tell lies to survive and to fit in.
We feel pressure to disfigure ourselves on the page in these same ways — we constrict our stories because we are told they do not deserve to occupy space in the world, we tidy up our histories to make them more presentable to others, we carve up lifetimes of mistakes and wrong choices until the story we tell is only a shell of the truth, which isn’t really any kind of truth at all.
The truth is: sometimes I am afraid of what I write. You should be a little afraid of the story you are telling, too. And if you’re not afraid that someone won’t like it you’re still not telling the truth.
Think of all the emotional labor that requires: planning each of your actions and weighing them against the emotional consequences they might have on every person, and bending yourself in anticipation of what others might feel — always scaling back your own desires and rejecting your own needs. It requires a constant negotiation of what you can say and do in the world, constantly diminishing yourself because of the effect it might have on other people — which you cannot actually control or predict.
Think for a moment how much time you have spent in your life replaying conversations where maybe you said the wrong thing, or how you were maybe too curt with that person in the checkout line, or too forward with that dude you met on Tinder; how maybe you speak too much in meetings or make your views too known. How much time you have wasted fretting about whether other people like you? Just do a quick calculation: how much of your life, do you think, you have spent this way? An hour? A whole day? A week? Maybe entire years? What masterpieces could you have made by now if you directed your energy toward writing like a bad motherfucker instead?
There will always be some people who won’t like what you have to say. I recently spoke on a panel at a conference in Iceland and I told the attendees (a room full of mostly women, and a handful of men), that I don’t actually care whether men like my writing. There are specific men whose opinion matters to me — my husband, several friends, the men running this conference, the men in this room — but as a demographic, no, I don’t actually care at all whether men like my work. After the talk, two of the men who were in that room approached me (one of whom was the conference organizer) because they wanted to tell me they didn’t like what I said.
Imagine, for a moment, the luxurious freedom of being so appalling unselfaware!
Maybe now those men call me “that bitch” (which is fine, I’ll put it on a tote bag), maybe they call me a cunt, a hack, a whore. I don’t have to answer. That’s not my name. I know my name. I know my purpose. I know my place, and it is rising.
I think, perhaps, one reason — maybe the primary reason — that the world tries so hard to pressure us to be likable (and to punish us when we aren’t) is because they are afraid we will realize that if we don’t need anyone to like us we can be any way we want. We can tell any story. We can tell the truth.
We can be wrong sometimes. We can make mistakes. Sometimes really big ones. We can be crude and vulgar. We can change our minds. We can say something wrong — or better yet we can say something that is unpopular but right. We can admit that we have sometimes loved the wrong person or gave away too much of ourselves in exchange for fame, or favor, or fortune. We can tell the stories of our addictions, our falls from glory, our kink, our abuse. We can tell the hard truth we learned at rock bottom, and we can admit that it is precisely by climbing back from that lowest place that we have drawn power and strength. We can let ourselves be vulnerable enough to admit our most unforgivable errors, to find our way back from the brink of oblivion, and even if no one likes the story we have to tell, there is no story — none at all — that makes any of us unworthy of love.
I want to tell you this: There is a truth that lives inside you and no one can give you permission to tell it except yourself. You can tell the whole thing, the full truth — and you deserve to. You deserve to tell the story of your anger and heartbreak and regret, your foolishness and apostasy and your unquenchable thirst for revenge. You deserve to admit that sometimes you behave in ways you later regret, that sometimes you hold back when someone needs you to give, that sometimes you take more than you need. You deserve to name the harm that has been done to you by others, and you have a responsibility to name the harm you have done. What I am asking is that we make space for these stories of our failures, our ugliness, our unlikability, and greet them with love when they appear.
I’m almost forty now. These days, I still like being alone sometimes, but not always. I like running. I like the feeling of my legs moving and my feet on the ground. I like how working my muscles makes them feel tired and sore. I like learning how to swim. I like setting small goals and achieving them. I like singing to pop music with my children in the car — especially when it is very loud and very bad. I like it when my daughter talks back to me, even though it also makes me mad, and I like it that she is so bold and so weird. I hope she stays bold and weird forever. And I like it when a piece of writing comes across my desk that is brave and vulnerable enough to tell the hard story that is underneath the easy story people like, that shows me the ugly truth that has been wearing a beautiful mask. I like it when a writer confronts my assumptions and biases and I realize I have been wrong. I like to change my mind. This is the work that stories do in the world and stories are how we will save it. I like feeling so ready for your stories to arrive in my mailbox and on my desk. I will love reading them.
Lacy M. Johnson is a Houston-based professor, curator, activist, and is the author of THE RECKONINGS(Scribner, 2018) and THE OTHER SIDE (Tin House, 2014).