ON ‘THE RULES DO NOT APPLY” AND PRIVILEGE

There’s something about the internet’s quickness to reach for the ‘check your privilege’ card that makes me very uncomfortable. Take this piece, reviewing Ariel Levy’s heartbreaking memoir about the loss of her baby, marriage and home. I read and loved the book, though I think the article captured something more viscerally arresting. (As you would expect it to - the article was a short piece written in close proximity to her experiences. The book was editorially sculpted to make an argument.) I enjoyed the book, but it hasn’t lodged itself in my brain the way the article did. 

Privilege has become such an easy, predictable argument. If you don’t like something written by a person with a relative amount of privilege (as almost all authors have), the line of attack is to undercut their authority to speak to their pain at all. 

The reviewer quotes a statistic that one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage. Because it’s so common, she argues, it’s not a particularly worthy subject for a book. The fact that miscarriage is heartbreakingly common doesn’t make it any less devastating for the individual woman involved. You don’t get to say that women who’ve suffered a loss that is profoundly female in nature just need to get over it already and stop whining. We should encourage conversation about something that has historically been considered a shameful, private loss. You don’t need to be suffering more than everyone in the world to say that you are suffering.

Levy has done us all a great service in writing about the pain of having a female body that just won’t do what it’s supposed to do. (Obviously, female bodies are for more than baby-making but that is one of its biological functions.) By sharing that particularly female trauma, she expands a conversation that’s often held at an antiseptic distance. 

It’s worth mentioning too that though what Levy experienced was technically a miscarriage, giving birth at 19 weeks alone on on the floor of a Mongolian hotel room following a placental abruption is rare and deeply tragic. It’s not the same as a woman quietly miscarrying at home in the early weeks of pregnancy. One is not necessarily less devastating than the other but the scientific term (‘miscarriage’) keeps both experiences at a safe, clinical distance. Getting into the gory reality of female bodies is something we rarely do in polite conversation, and to me, it’s a profoundly feminist act. 

Because it’s a well-written memoir, this book reaches beyond the personal to touch on broader societal trends. But, it’s not supposed to be a seminal feminist text. Many reviewers have tried to jam this book into an idiotic ‘can women have it all?’ conversation where a memoir about loss really doesn’t belong. Surely it’s not because it’s written by a woman and about “female” experiences that it must be judged against some idiotic “is it feminist enough?” metric. Or is it because the protagonist is an independent women who didn’t orientate her life around a man? I’m sure there’s some dude writing about breaking his leg in timbuktu that isn’t required to speak to the broad political realities of being a man. I can’t believe we need to say it, but maybe we do: just because a book is written by a woman doesn’t mean that it needs to be explicitly feminist in order to be considered worthwhile. 

There’s more than one way to write about privilege. You don’t need to hit us over the head with it the way the privilege police seem to want. Sure, you can cherry pick lines to illustrate Levy’s obliviousness or you can acknowledge that her privilege (no matter how extensive) doesn’t protect her. Privilege isn’t a static thing, it ebbs and flows. And regardless of how it insulates you, you’re still at the whim of life. This is a book about our essential human vulnerability, about the limits of our control.

I do understand the impulse. It drives me round the bend to see people so full of privilege and opportunity be so oblivious to it. But, they are no less deserving of their own pain and they are certainly no less entitled to talk about their experiences. You don’t have to read them, obviously, but they’re just as valid. There aren’t many male authors in my reading lists, for very good reason. Men get enough of a say in life, so I devote my reading time (& book buying budget) to women’s voices. I try read diversely too, but because I try to be interested in lots of things and not because the privilege police will get me if I don’t. 

A richter scale of privilege/suffering is not a useful metric to judge the value of creative work. Writing (and in particular writing by people who identify as women) deserves a more thoughtful critique than that. A book should be reviewed on its own merits, measured against what it tried to accomplish and the extent to which it achieves that goal. Levy’s book is well written, thoughtful and reaches beyond her own experiences to make broader arguments about the nature of life on this planet. I really recommend it.