The worst part is the feeling of the strain, the empty weight of impotence in your throat. Your mouth opens again – if you try harder, someone will hear, someone will help.
Most of us know that dream, the one in which you are in mortal danger, trying to scream for help, or in protest, or simply to speak to explain, yet no sound emerges – you are voiceless.
The real-life analogue is less dramatic than the scenarios spun by the horror-writer of the subconscious, but no less disempowering. And waking up is more difficult.
The disconnect between the instructions we receive and the realities we face rob each of us of our voice – of our right to be heard, to speak, to share, to be understood.
As children we are told, “Speak up so I can hear you,” but also “Don’t be so loud.” Those of us who are introverted get told, “Get out of your shell, socialize more,” but we often find ourselves faced with confused looks that fade into disinterest when we attempt to reach out, to offer our opinions, because no one really wants to hear the in-depth explanation. “Vote,” we are told. “Your voice matters.” So we cast our ballots. And nothing changes. “Be yourself. Be authentic.” But, the subtext implies, “Make sure your authentic self isn’t too different from the culturally accepted norm.”
I was hushed in the delivery room. In labor with my first child, my voice crying out in the primal vocalization of mothers throughout species and millennia, I was hushed. “You’ll upset the other patients,” I was told. The natural cry of my body wasn’t acceptable.
I gritted my teeth, silenced my voice, and retracted the authenticity of my moans.
Women were institutionalized for libido. The very term hysteria derives from the notion that madness in women is connected to the womb.
When I was small, I made stew from my plastic alphabet letters. Not soup, which I guess would have made sense in the greater social context, but stew. I liked stew better. It never occurred to me that to make soup, or WORDS, with the letters would have been more “normal.” There were toys, and I was playing. This moment of random play somehow became family shorthand for “Christy is different.”
I deleted the painting from my Facebook page, agreeing to censor myself rather than enter into conflict or cause concern to those I love.
Emily Dickinson wrote it well, “Much madness is divinest sense, to a discerning eye. Much sense the starkest madness, ‘tis the majority.”
A good friend once described me as having a perspective that is “rotated slightly from that of the collective norm.”
We all hold individual perspectives – rotated, spun, warped, askew, inside-out. Yet there is a pretense that everyone agrees on certain things, that there is a collective consensus on matters of morality, social acceptability, even esthetics.
At the same time, we acknowledge the ills in our society – racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, able-ism, income disparity, relationship dysfunction.
I submit that those ills are born of the tacit collusion to conform. The only people who have ever effected real change to society’s sicknesses have been those who speak the truth of their individual experience, those who stand up and paint, write, speak, sculpt, protest, sing, or research from the basis of their unique thoughts, beliefs, and feelings.
Avoiding subject matter that strikes at the viscera buried beneath our collective comfort isn’t sanity, it is mass denial.
A keystone of this pretense of majority standards is one unspoken, yet persistent, rule: “Only those who are famous, dead, or otherwise special may break with the group. Anyone else who acts as an individual or rebels against homogeny is disturbed.”
It takes courage to stand up and declare oneself “special” enough to break with the flock. It’s hard not to bend under the shame of the implicit hubris of daring to declare individuality. For those of us who love our families and friends, there is the added burden of knowing that our individual truths touch on and stem from the experiences of those we love.
Every personal essay I write risks exposing those I love to pain or embarrassment. Visual art that acknowledges human (or hominoid) anatomy or that pokes into dark or uncertain places of the psyche may break through the comfort zones of my loved ones.
I’m not famous, dead (yet), or particularly talented. And that is why I write and paint. I use the “voice” of art in hopes that my doing so will give others some sort of permission to share their own truths.
Sometimes that truth comes about by accident. My “shocking” painting wasn’t intended as social protest. The off-scale genitalia resulted from poor technique rather than any sort of fixation. I hadn’t painted a male nude before, and as an exercise in reducing my perfectionist tendencies, I have been experimenting with sketching in pen rather than pencil and forcing myself to share my imperfect work.
But, I’m going to file this particular imperfection under “Serendipitous Greater Meaning.” That screwed up painting and its aftermath made me think deeper about what I do and what responsibility art bears.
Only through displaying our individual perspectives and flaws can we ever change the collective norm.
Note: I recognize that my use of the word “voice” is, in itself, a form of ableism. Word choice and metaphor also need to be examined. At the moment, it is the metaphor that is lodged in my brain, but I welcome conversation around that and suggestions.