“We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
Step 4 of the 12 Step Program
I am focused, busily listing my sins on a small piece of lined white paper that rests on top of the blond wood and metal desk in my Catholic school 5th grade classroom.
“Lying, 5 times”
“Being mean to brothers and sisters, 4 times”
“Talking back, 1 time”
“Thinking bad thoughts, 7 times”
These are the kinds of things I write while the black-clad nun at the front of the room is talking. I am preparing for confession later this week and want to make sure I don’t miss anything I need to tell the priest.
A boy to my right reaches over the aisle, grabs the paper and announces, “Look at her sins!”
I am mortified, ashamed. Good Catholic emotions. And I vow never again to risk exposing my most egregious shortcomings and wrongdoings.
Not that I vow never to do those things again. THAT doesn't occur to me. But making my sins, my faults, visible? Never.
Not, that is, until I am 42 and in grad school
I am enrolled in the English Language and Literature program at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. I want the MA so I can teach at the college level. I already have a BA in English, so this is the wise choice for an advanced degree, even though I dislike literature. Or rather I dislike literary analysis. I want to write, not talk about other people’s writing.
I fall in love with Critical Theory and take enough courses to have a concentration in it and Women’s Studies. I also enroll in a course called “Creative Writing: Non-fiction.” I LOVE this and convince the department to allow me to write a personal narrative for my thesis.
This form enables me to apply what I've learned in both Critical and Feminist theory to analyze my early conditioning as a female, my sexual relationships and my failing marriage. It also requires that I bare my soul, to tell "secrets" about my life I seldom reveal to anyone, not even myself. More importantly, it facilitates reframing my behaviors, emotions and experiences so that I can see what I've learned and how they fit into the narrative of who I am: a white-middle class American female who is both a product of the Eisenhower Era and a Child of the ‘60s.
Writing my thesis is writing my past. Passing that past through a theoretical, socio-cultural lens is an investigation of circumstances that is in fact quite different from the “searching and fearless moral inventory” of the 12-step program. Nonetheless, this reframing of former behaviors that deeply shame me becomes a way of taking responsibility for my actions, but in a less onerous and more palatable fashion.
Reframing myself as a cultural artifact has some of the same distancing effect that meditation brings. It assists me in accepting what I’ve done and helps me acknowledge another’s pain when my actions have clearly caused suffering. But it also says “There were forces at work in your life of which you were unaware. It’s no wonder you did what you did.” In cases where it was only myself that I hurt, I am able, with this perspective, to eliminate shame and get on with my life.
Writing my thesis transforms me. It also teaches me that shining light into the shadows, "fessing up" to "our sins" is good for the soul and necessary for growth.