Review: Rebecca Solnit’s anti-confessional memoir
The great intellectual autobiographies — “Leon Modena’s Life of Judah,” both Augustine’s and Rousseau’s “Confessions” — charted the interplay of each man’s learning and ideas and reflected on how life experiences strengthened or challenged their understandings. Rebecca Solnit’s new memoir, “Recollections of My Nonexistence,” strives to do the same, putting her most compelling observations about cultural and political power in a personal context.
Solnit grew up in Marin County and moved to San Francisco as a teenager in the late 1970s. She has become one of America’s most prominent political essayists and a keen observer of modern culture. In 23 monographs (some of them co-authored) and essay collections, she has demonstrated a sharp intellect and a wide-ranging curiosity. Her topics have included studies of specific artists, such as Eadweard Muybridge; environmental concerns; language and gender; a history of walking; how communities recover from disaster; and the impact of urban geography on creativity and quality of life.
And now Solnit puts herself under the microscope, tracing her ideas through her lived experiences and testing them too. As a white, cisgender, heterosexual woman, she is cognizant of the ways that our identities and the facts of our bodies affect the messages we hear and do or don’t respond to. Much of her most recent work has focused specifically on the structural — and more insidious — ways that power mutes women (and not just women). In examining the intersections where power meets race, gender and sexuality, she obtains a clearer view of misogyny. She is especially eloquent on the mechanisms of what we’ve come to call gaslighting:
“One thing that makes people crazy is being told that the experiences they have did not actually happen, that the circumstances that hem them in are imaginary, that the problems are all in their head, and that if they are distressed it is a sign of their failure, when success would be to shut up or cease to know what they know. Out of this unbearable predicament come the rebels who choose failure and risk and the prisoners who choose compliance.”
And yet Solnit seems to choose a third path in this memoir. She alludes to violence in her family home, as well as multiple incidents of harassment; she mentions a friend who was stabbed by a boyfriend. But she makes a conscious choice not to provide extensive details of her own trauma.
A strong rationale for reading memoirs (beyond bald curiosity) is that by learning of individual horrors, the reader can expand her empathy and understanding. Undoubtedly, such memoirs have also brought some measure of healing to their writers and helped to remove stigmas. But as Solnit makes clear, power structures operate on a much broader level. As Soraya Roberts wrote recently in an essay about the controversial novel “American Dirt,” too often the message of trauma narratives is one of individual triumph, rather than collective responsibility.
Solnit’s memoir provides multiple examples of moments when she was quelled by personal pain. “The threat of violence takes up residence in your mind. The fear and tension inhabit your body,” she writes of her experiences as a young woman. “[T]he weight of it crushed me … when I was trying to make a life, have a voice, find a place in the world.”
But she recognizes that her pain is not unique: “I tell all of this not because I think my story is exceptional, but because it is ordinary; half the earth is paved over with women’s fear and pain, or rather with the denial of them, and until the stories that lie underneath see sunlight, this will not change.”
By continually emphasizing that the focus should not be on her individual stories but rather on the ubiquity of these experiences, Solnit rejects the idea that hers is a story of personal triumph. Instead, she locates power in solidarity. While each of us as individuals can make the leap from experience to politics, collective action is necessary if we are to dismantle systems of violence.
Early experiences with the AIDS community in San Francisco help Solnit recognize that individual pain could be harnessed into collective action. It taught her that “everyone is interdependent. Everyone is vulnerable.” In Nevada to participate in environmental protests, Solnit becomes aware of other forms of muzzling. There she sees Native people protesting their erasure from the present. “Symbolic annihilation” occurs when communities have no representation in popular culture or official histories.
Solnit’s memoir is suffused with such moments, in which reading and bearing witness bring further understanding. But does an acknowledgment of shared pain absolve one of personal responsibility? Even someone as aware as Solnit reveals gaps in her own empathy, blind spots that prevent her from reckoning with her own responsibility.
The most striking example is Solnit’s recollection of the circumstances that led to her moving into a beautiful, low-rent apartment in a building where everyone else was black. Economically insecure but sociologically advantaged, she gets her mother to sign onto the lease. And when she moves out years later, all of the people in the building are white and middle-class. Despite her own work on the destructive effects of gentrification, she spares only one parenthetical sentence to the question of whether she might be implicated. The paragraphs that follow offer a broader discussion of how racism and environmental destruction played out in the neighborhood.
Still, these jarring moments are rare in a work that continually looks for the sources of systemic violence — and the collective power to alleviate it — in common experience. Overall, “Recollections of my Nonexistence” is a powerful examination of the way small moments can accumulate in a brilliant mind to formulate big ideas and even help conceive a better world.
Berry writes for a number of publications and tweets @BerryFLW.
Viking: 256 pages, $26
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