Review by Laura Gill
There are two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two types of people and those who don’t. Many of us would probably like to think we are the latter—people who don’t use categories or classify people into groups because humanity is expansive—even if most of us accept we are often the former: we do group people, and sometimes there’s worth to doing so. We ask our friends and lovers: are you an Order Muppet or a Chaos Muppet? Are you type A or type B? All of us are probably a bit of both, or something different in between. Sometimes, we have moments when we do need to divide the world into two (or at least four, six, eight) types and moments where we see humanity as infinitely complex as possible.
In the world of essays, one might be able make a similar point. There are two types of essays; essays that explore questions and essays that want to answer them, and to answer them too quickly. In many of Mary Laura Philpott’s essays in the recently-released collection I Miss You When You Blink, we get the latter. Topics sometimes go unexamined, and simple metaphors or colloquial language soften what might be more complicated moments—the result of which makes it feel as though the narrator is attempting to simplify a much messier truth.
Mary Laura Philpott admits she’s Type A early on, and the essays mirror what we are meant to assume comes along with a Type A personality: a tendency to control an experience, to walk through life (and an essay) checking things off the list. Even though she questions with that impulse in herself, as it has been both the driver of her success and the reason for her stress about those successes, her essays don’t dig in deeply enough to the underlying issues that might participate in what has lead her to not just feel frustrated by her own perfectionism but also guilty for it. Often, it seems like she’s driving towards a predetermined end without interrogating the process to get there, a technique deployed often with deflecting remarks like this one: “I had my health, my youth. I was not yet forty. I was not dying of insidious cancer, and I had not accidentally gotten hooked on meth, like those soccer moms I saw on the news.” Since when did being forty indicate some terrible end? And when did getting “hooked on meth” become a barometer that made any sense for this narrator? While what she is saying is true—all of us are no worse or better off than millions of people (or I guess older or younger?)—it feels to me like a way to get out of digging more deeply into what that psychology means for those who do seemingly “have it all.”
Deflection on pops up in other moments in the book. In one essay about moving frequently as a child and having multiple fainting spells, she closes with: “I do know that learning to give in to sudden fainting spells and weathering the end of friendships severed by childhood moves gave me practice in accepting, without struggle, the unexpected. Don’t make a big deal, let it pass, everything’s fine.” In the margins, I wrote, “wait, what?” next to those sentences. As a child who moved a lot and experienced fainting spells, I wanted more. “Everything’s fine,” she declares. But, wait—what about when it isn’t? Though she doesn’t state it, she clearly feels the need to offhandedly say “no biggie, it’s all ok,” lest the reader think she’s complaining. Don’t look to closely, she seems to be asking; really, it’s nothing. Then why write an essay about it at all?
There are moments when Philpott deflects, and others where it feels like a detail or metaphor gets too much attention, almost diluting the material. In her title essay, she writes about where the phrase “I miss you when you blink” came from. It came from her son who says it to her while he’s doodling. She is stunned by it, as most writers would be—it’s a beautiful phrase, and it speaks beyond a simple gesture to a kind of longing; it acknowledges the pervasiveness of loss, and is made more moving because it comes from a voice that does not yet know know the true expansiveness of what that loss means. Philpott repeats the phrase to herself “as she lays awake in bed” and then again as she is in traffic the next day, and then she thinks: “How cute.” How cute?! No! How profound! How beautiful! She goes on of course: it isn’t just “cute, it “helps her be more “patient” and it “captures the depths” of her love for her son. But a strange thing happens as she continues to examine the phrase, she weakens it instead of enhancing it, writing that it “captures that universal experience: the identity crisis,” specifically the one where “you feel sure you can’t go forward and you can’t go back and you absolutely, positively cannot stand still one minute longer.” It is also a mantra: “I say I miss you when I blink to myself,” she writes, “and it means, Get a grip. Don’t panic. To figure out where to go next, look at where you came from. If you got here, you can get to the next thing.” And there, perhaps, is the problem. If the phrase means so many things, does it really mean anything at all?
Philpott is at her best towards the end of the of the collection when she writes about her depression. In saying that, I don’t mean to imply that essays that focus on personal struggle are intrinsically more interesting. In Philpott’s case, it’s that these essays are simply where one gets the strongest sense that the narrator has a universe of questions about the experience she’s trying to unravel, and in her unraveling, opens up to some poignant ideas about what it means to live with depression. She writes that she needed to leave her family for a few months because she “wanted to be unwitnessed for a while.” That phrase is moving, especially in light of her role in her family, as a mother and wife, often (and perhaps always) being witnessed. In this moment, and among those essays, it feels like she’s truly essaying, which is to say: making an attempt and trying to explain an experience she doesn’t completely understand.
In such essays, she also resists deflecting with off-handed comments about how she knows she doesn’t have it as hard as other people. This comes as a relief...but we are not relieved for long. In her essay, “Ungrateful Bitch,” she makes the point, again, that she is fortunate, but still, sometimes, distressed:
I know how fortunate I am to have my health and my family and my jobs and my roof and my car and my democracy. I do know. I promise. And I know that saying out loud, ‘I think I might want a different life,’ when you already have a perfectly good life is sort of like holding a half-eaten chocolate chip cookie in your hand while saying, ‘I don’t want a chocolate cookie.’ I know some people have no cookies. Unfortunately, having a fine life doesn’t exempt anyone from existential anger...
Here, it feels like the is pushing the reader away again. “I promise” she seems to pleads with the reader: I get it, I am fortunate. And because she gets it, she really needs us to step off, or step back, from a platform we weren’t on until she put us there. She then goes a step further to say that not only does she understand her own privilege, but she understands what it might be like to not have privilege, explaining that if she were homeless, she might not “give a damn about things like personal satisfaction or personal fulfillment because [her] greater concern would be not freezing to death.” To assume all homeless people have the same needs is an issue in and of itself, but what is more concerning, is that it perpetuates the type of of white guilt that keeps people complacent. In an article for the New York Times, Eula Biss wrote about white guilt as a “potential prod, a goad, an impetus to action,” asking, “isn’t guilt an essential cog in the machinery of the conscience?” I think the answer is yes, it can be, but in Philpott’s essay the guilt essay does not serve as a cog, or if it does, it is doesn’t function in the way it needs to. Instead of turning the magnifying glass on herself, she turns it away, further distancing herself from the complexities of her reality. She starts to blame herself for considering herself ungrateful, instead of examining the realms of that ungratefulness, and why gratefulness, in the end, really isn’t the point. In that same essay, Eula Biss writes that “being white is easy, in that nobody is expected to think about being white, but this is exactly what makes me uneasy about it. Without thinking, I would say that believing I am white doesn’t cost me anything, that it’s pure profit, but I suspect that isn’t true. I suspect whiteness is costing me, as Baldwin would say, my moral life.” In the end of the essay, Philpott seems to be suggesting it shouldn’t cost us anything—all thinking about whiteness does is lead to guilt. And for her, this guilt feels like useless self sabotage, something she needs to get rid of so she can simply be happy in her privileged life. The way to do that is, she suggests, just writing down the words“ungrateful bitch,” and staring “at them until they are just squiggles and shapes.”
Here’s the thing: I’m all for exploring layers of distress, and I’m all for exploring what the psychology of “having it all” means for all of us living in a country focused on striving, above all else. It’s a pathology that is clearly detrimental to society. But it’s worthy of a much better diagnosis than the one Philpott is able to give. James Baldwin comes back to the forefront; he who wrote so extensively about how the privileged in this country have just as much to reckon with as those that they’ve oppressed also strenuously argued that the delusions and the myths that we carry are not only making us sick, but perhaps do demand scrutiny and an honest reckoning. Of course, one can’t assume that Philpott and Baldwin are necessarily speaking to each other in a meaningful sense, or that this country’s past is the reason for her struggles, but if someone is going to offhandedly mention their privilege, it would serve them well to dive into it. The book takes place in the South, which is to say it takes place in America, and so much of it feels particular to that place and our country's relationship to success—who gets to have it and who defined it in the first place. And given that she doesn’t, there’s a rather awkward hole left in her work, waiting to be filled.
Laura Gill is a writer, editor, and photographer. Her essays and photographs have been published in Agni, The Carolina Quarterly, Electric Literature, Entropy, and Memoir Mixtapes, among others. She is a contributing editor of nonfiction at Hobart.