In Defense of Jen Caron and Honesty

Jen Caron is a good soul — at her worst, perhaps, an hysterical ninny, but still a very decent person at (skinny, white) bottom. This, I insist, is a fair takeaway from the piece she wrote for xoJane’s “It Happened to Me” section titled “There Are No Black People in My Yoga Class And I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable with It.” It’s an inelegant title, and sad to say the piece delivers exactly what it promises.

At her yoga studio, Caron finds herself working out “directly in front” of a “fairly heavy” black woman, apparently a novice, who begins the session looking “wide-eyed and nervous,” and ends up “crouched down on her elbows and knees, head lowered close to the ground, trapped and vulnerable.” As the woman hunkers down in this ungainly posture, Caron feels her “resentment and contempt…directed at me and my body.” It triggers a moral crisis that builds as Caron breezes through her downward dogs. Rushing home, she ” promptly broke down crying,” and decides:

The question is, of course, so much bigger than yoga—it’s a question of enormous systemic failure. But just the same, I want to know—how can we practice yoga in good conscience, when mere mindfulness is not enough? How do we create a space that is accessible not just to everybody, but to every body? And while I recognize that there is an element of spectatorship to my experience in this instance, it is precisely this feeling of not being able to engage, not knowing how to engage, that mitigates the hope for change.

God knows there’s plenty wrong with this piece. The language is florid, packed with cliches and jargon that Caron seems to mistake for real English. One phrase — “I saw the fear in [the black woman's] eyes snowball” — is so awful on so many levels that it’s hard to imagine any editor, or even any beta-reader, letting it slip through unless she had a vested interest in seeing Caron embarrass herself. And, of course, in reading this person’s mind (and expecting us to credit her reading), Caron’s being presumptuous. Ogcheeky, an xoJane reader who deserves to be named, comments: “I eagerly await the follow-up piece: ‘IHTM: I was Just Trying to Do My Fucking Yoga and This Weird-Ass White Girl Kept Staring at Me with Tears in Her Eyes’.” Thwack.

Still, it’s clear Caron yearns to be on the side of the angels. For all her talk of systemic failure, her most earnest hope is that people like her could make a difference, if only they could figure out what in hell to do. There is no irony in her. Some will disagree, but to my ear, when she speaks of her “skinny white girl body,” she sounds like she’s regretting this accomplishment in all sincerity, not bragging on it in a backhanded way. Caron also seems to be running low on vanity; indeed, it’s fair to say that nobody could have written that piece who put much stock in the quality of her self-presentation. Come the revolution, Caron might be a little fragile to man a barricade, but she seems like she could be trusted to pass out coffee and donuts to the wounded.

On Flavorwire, Michelle Dean proposes that everyone “quit writing and publishing pieces like this under the guise of ‘being honest’.” If by “pieces like this,” she means first-person stories written by rookie writers, then I have to protest. Yes, as we’ve seen, some of them are shabbily written, and yes, there’s something manipulative about them. They seem to dare the reader: “Dislike me, and you’ll dislike the author, giving yourself away as an uncharitable prick.” And, judging by the comments I’ve seen in Salon’s Life Stories section, they’re irresistible to Statler and Waldorf types who are only too happy to take the dare.

But let’s agree, at least, that pieces like Caron’s are the bastard, midget children of the personal, or autobiographical essay, which can a respectable form. In the words of Philip Lopate, who wrote (or at least compiled) the book on the subject, essayists go beyond confessing, becoming “adept at interrogating their own ignorance.” The best ones use these moments of self-contradiction, ambivalence, and failure to illuminate a greater truth. For testimony on the distorting effects of authority and privilege on a ruling class, you can’t do better than George Orwell, who shoots an elephant so as not to be laughed at by the Burmese he’s ostensibly in charge of.

Caron’s no George Orwell, but she does at least try, bless her heart, to grasp the implications of her own memsahibhood, and to interrogate her ignorance. She admits not knowing whether it would be more tactful to avert her eyes from the foundered black woman, to offer a word of encouragement, or to ask her “to articulate her experience.” She keeps to herself but never says why — whether she’s shy in general, or around all black people, or perhaps fearful, at some level, of catching a beat down. (Is anyone in my Catholic base not thinking of Flannery O’Connor?) Had she explained her (in)action, she might have succeeded in sketching out a compelling scene, one I suspect many of us could have related to. Instead, she switches gears, asking rhetorical questions about “the system.” Her problem isn’t self-absorption, it’s not knowing how to turn self-absorption into self-knowledge.

Caron’s piece might not even qualify as a nice try, but it was a sincere try. Even if she couldn’t analyze her emotions so as to make them intelligible, they were genuine, and she rendered them faithfully. Her moral epiphany might read like a big, fat “Duh,” but it wasn’t contrived. If she decides to keep writing, she shouldn’t be less honest, but one hopes she’s learned there’s no art or profit in being merely honest.

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