The Non-Bravery of Bearing Witness

It’s happening again: I’ve published a highly personal essay and well-intentioned readers are calling me brave.

It’s meant as a compliment, I know, but I can’t help feeling what I always feel when I hear this comment: confused and a little bummed out.

As a woman who writes personal narrative, I get called “brave” a lot. Which makes me wonder: do male writers get called brave? What about fiction writers? How about a male fiction writer who breaks boundaries and cultural silences like say, Junot Díaz? The designation of a work as “true” seems to do something to readers’ expectations: they expect something less bold, perhaps, less willing to dig into the guts of a story. And implicit in the idea of female writer bravery seems a similar expectation of silence, a polite hand-folded silence that I’ve somehow shocked readers by breaking. Calling a writer “brave” seems to have more to do with the reader’s expectations than with the writer herself.

But though I may not be silent, this is not the same thing as brave. Case in point: I’ve lived in Asia for over two years and am still too terrified to drive a motorbike. Further: I barely know how to ride a bicycle. Even further: I’m so scared of emotional intimacy I haven’t been on a date in three years. These qualities are not exactly hallmarks for courage. And while I realize that the telling of one’s story can be one of the bravest acts of all, I don’t believe that publishing personal essays on literary websites totally qualifies.

Bravery, as I understand it, involves risking something for a greater good. Brave people aren’t solely war heroes and revolutionaries; whistleblowers are brave. Anita Hill was brave. The Cambodian women who’ve spoken out against the corrupt Somaly Mam Foundation are brave, and my journalist friends who have helped those women tell their stories are brave. But let’s be honest: in publishing an essay about an abortion I had ten years ago, I’m not risking anything more than a couple shitty troll comments, and I’m achieving no greater good than adding one more story to the cacophony of stories that clutter the internet.

My motivation to publish stories that reveal my ugliest moments has less to do with bravery than with bearing witness. There’s a responsibility one has, or at least that I feel I have, when I’ve seen some crazy shit and lived through it. Such as, my childhood best friend’s father killed her mother then himself; such as, the first boy I loved was an alcoholic speedfreak guitar genius with Tourette’s Syndrome, who died in obscurity; such as, whatever the hell happened to me in Cambodia; such as, I got pregnant after using a condom and taking the morning-after pill, and after the abortion the dude who knocked me up called once then pulled a ninja-vanish.

I write these stories not because they’re titillating, not because they pack a punch, not because I am brave, but because these are the moments when the cracks have appeared, when I’ve glimpsed something dark and true. I don’t even really believe that I choose to tell these stories; these are simply the ones I have to tell, the experiences I have lived. And because I’ve been lucky enough to make it out of these experiences more or less intact—which I can’t say for all of my fellow travelers—I feel a debt to tell these stories are truthfully and unsentimentally as I can.

My suspicion is that these stories get confused as brave because, like most stories, they have a surface layer that tends to obscure the deeper story that tentacles beneath. It’s easier to stay on the surface, to play the victim or call something brave. But part of bearing witness, I believe, is being honest about who I was in the experience and the role I played.

Such as: we all knew my childhood best friend’s dad was abusive but never talked about it, so much so that we were only half-surprised when they died, so much so that my old best friend and I can’t remember most of what happened at her house when we were kids. Such as: despite his struggles, the kid I was in love with was a really good guy who refused to take advantage of me and actually kinda looked out for me, and that there was a whole gang of us who stood by and watched as he crashed and burned and killed himself. Such as: even as a foreigner, you cannot live in a corrupt, violent society without compromising and negotiating with that corrupt violence. Such as: even though homeboy basically disappeared after the abortion, I was the fucked-up one in the relationship.

I don’t think telling these stories is brave. Largely because I am not brave in these stories. I am the “survivor” in these stories, the one who gets out—and survival, I have learned, is a dirty game. I write these experiences because they are the ones that have taught me the most about life, including my own capacity to be shitty and to fail the people I purport to love and the morals I purport to have. I think that if I were succeeding in telling these stories correctly, and if people were reading them the way I intended, they wouldn’t be thanking me for my courage. They’d be seeing that dark glimmer, and they’d probably go running the other way. The way we’re all running the other way—or at least a lot of us are, a lot of the time.

Carolyn Forché’s idea of poetry of witness has to do with inhabiting the space between the personal and the political, locating the former within the latter and using that interaction to strengthen both. I don’t have any political agenda with my writing, but I do believe in witnessing: in writing stories that pinpoint personal pain within a collective pain—the larger experience of being a messy, conflicted person in a world of messy, conflicted people. Or at the very least, of saying, “Hey, this thing happened, and before it slips into the cracks, I want to say that I was there and other people were there; that it was real and we lived it.” Or in other words: “The poem [or personal essay] might be our only evidence that an event has occurred: it exists for us as the sole trace of an occurrence.”

This isn’t bravery, but something quieter and lonelier than that: the life I’ve lived and the people I’ve let down. This is cowardice, gift-wrapped in an honesty that people confuse as courage.

Or, as a writer friend of mine says, “Calling something brave is really just another way of saying, ‘What you wrote scared me.’”



  • You made some great points about the reader’s expectations vs the writer’s bravery. At the same time, I don’t think you give yourself enough credit here. Bravery is a broad and strong word to use in any case, but bearing your personal feelings and intimate stories to the rest of the world is still brave.

    Writing about an experience that you’ve went through that could leave you in a very vulnerable position, which as the writer, I’m sure you’re aware of. Having said this, I suppose that the perception of the reader will play a huge part in determining your ‘bravery’. Like you said, would the same story had been deemed brave if a male were to have written it?

    I think a lot of this lies in the person’s understanding of bravery. What’s deemed ‘brave’ by one person may not by another. Does that mean that the person isn’t brave for doing what they do? That’s up to the themselves to decide.

  • As always, your words delight my brain.

    I don’t like “brave” either. For a start, I grew up watching the political satire “Yes Minister / Yes Prime Minister”, where “brave” was a synonym for “reckless” and “political suicide”.

    >>”Or, as a writer friend of mine says, “Calling something brave is really just another way of saying, ‘What you wrote scared me.’”

    Yep, that. But it’s also something with a layer of glamour on it. There’s something cosmetic and sanitized about “bravery”, something a bit too RAAR to fit real-life, something false. Everyone has bouts of internally-engineered courage, but nobody is really brave because that’s unachievable, like trying to hold your breath forever. And bravery is always subjective. If you feel you have absolutely no choice but to do a “brave” thing? How can that have a value attached, other than “pragmatic”?

    I much prefer “honest”.

    For a start, you can admire someone for their honesty and still have a blazing row with them. ;)

  • Sarah says:

    Or maybe they’re just trying to be nice?

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