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Policing My Mouth: On the Art of Self-Censorship

My second grade teacher, the truculent Mrs. Dunham, masking-taped my mouth shut. She pulled the shrieking roll of tape all the way around my head thrice in front of the entire class. My crime? Announcing in the middle of math drills that the Bookmobile was circling and circling the parking lot because its regular spot was blocked and it had nowhere to park.

My classmates’ faces silently told me they were on my side and that I had shared news they needed immediately. What would the driver do? Why was that truck in the Bookmobile spot? It was almost Bookmobile time, so time was of the essence! Someone needed to go do something before the Bookmobile drove away!

Mrs. Dunham didn’t want to do anything except punish me for talking. Again.

So while the Bookmobile looped like a man without a country, the class beheld the new spectacle of me called to the front of the class while Mrs. Dunham attempted censorship via brown tape. Around it went, sticking to my hair but not truly adhering in a way that would hold my mouth shut. Knowing the tape’s hold was tenuous, I was able to loudly say, “But what about the Bookmobile?” forcing the tape to break away from my mouth so that it flapped with my lower lip.

As a result, I spent my library time parked in the principal’s office, slowly removing the tape that remained in my hair while my audience enjoyed the Bookmobile after it finally found a parking spot. I regretted nothing, and that day convinced me that censorship was obviously regressive and ridiculous whereas shouting the news was right and just. I pledged that I would never be censored by a teacher, or anyone else, again, and indeed it was far from the last time I landed in the principal’s office for, as the teachers called it, talking out of turn.

I fought the good fight against censorship in its many forms for years to come. As a Gen-Xer, I came of age as an activist when “speaking out” could become part of your identity. From learning to call out the patriarchy in women’s studies classes to petitioning on behalf of imprisoned journalists for Amnesty International to working as a professional advocate for rape and domestic violence crisis centers to writing for national publications about social issues, I figured out how to make talking out of turn a full-time career.

My mouth, as Mrs. Dunham predicted, also landed me in plenty of trouble. Speaking the truth is a weapon that needs to be tempered with discernment and cradled with a grip that accommodates multiple points of view. Oh, you experienced a different version of my very absolute truth? Huh? All too often, I used my words as a sledgehammer instead of learning how to slice with intention and precision — or in my own best interest. Many former bosses and an ex-partner or two come to mind. So does a bellowing Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men.

I pledged I would never be censored by a teacher, or anyone else, again, and indeed it was far from the last time I landed in the principal’s office for, as the teachers called it, talking out of turn.

But silence was death, right? Fighting censorship and imposed silences was my guiding principle. It was also a sly psychological cover-up, masking that I was the instrument of brutal self-censorship about the one thing I never spoke up about: my abusive father and neglectful mother.

It took me many years to figure out that my grade school crusades and years of activism were proxies to the silences I held about my family’s dysfunction. Lacking a window of discourse back then, I choose to self-censor about my own well-being while papering the streets about everything else. I sat in the principal’s office, peeling masking tape from my hair but never imagined telling her the really big story while I was in there.

No one had to tell me to hush about what happened in our home. In wartime, every citizen knows that important news is embargoed for everyone’s good, and if there is one thing that sick families know it’s how to live combat-ready. I kept our family’s secrets sealed under boulders and booby-traps I leveraged of my own accord. I censored myself as a matter of survival or in shame or in denial or because no one asked why I got so whipped up about things like displaced Bookmobiles. I didn’t need an exterior censorship board because I knew, down to the silica of my bones, that our family’s truth was obscene — unfit to print forever.

To heal from that abusive childhood, I was encouraged to speak out. And bit by bit, I have moved out of my way as my own worse censor. Further, as I writer, I have always been encouraged to worry less about my family and more about my own choices with my words. Own your story; that’s what writers are told to do. But I don’t feel free to write everything yet. My story is bound to the stories of many others.

If you angst about how much of your history is fair to write about, people will invoke Anne Lamott, but I think her quote against self-censorship is bullshit. In Bird by Bird, she wrote, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” But that’s like when hatemongers try to invoke their First Amendment rights. Sure, you have a right to write anything you want without risk of governmental censorship or imprisonment. But you have to live with all sorts of other social consequences after you do so. How many family stories only have two players, the writer and the less-than-well behaved person they are writing about? If I don’t censor myself, I’m taking the power away from others to control their own narrative or privacy.

Now that we are all publishers, at least of our own Facebook imprints, the grey lines of soft censorship are even blurrier. I’ve worked hard to balance truth telling with restraint, to discern when to break silences and when a little soft censorship is politic or polite but not dysfunctional. Like the rest of us, I’m learning that balance all over again now that social media has put publishing tools at our fingertips. When to speak out? When to honor a (self- or societal-defined) boundary in taste or privacy? Speaking my truth could jump from my children’s or friend’s Google or Facebook feeds to the search results attached to their names, so what are the ethics there? When do we have the right to try to censor each other, and when should self-censorship kick in?

A few months ago, my brother died alone, undiscovered for days. A few weeks later, my cousin was found dead, his own gun at his side. I have many details, thoughts and feelings about these losses and the memories they invoke. Many truths beg to be spoken, and in the immediate aftermath of these events my first impulse was to say these men’s names on Facebook, to grieve in front of digital witnesses in this new ritual that feels a bit like throwing pixels of light against the darkness of death and to voice my uncensored truth.

Quickly, on the heels of that, I felt I needed to batten down my social hatches. There was the real danger of renewed interest in my public words by people Anne Lamott told me I shouldn’t worry about, and there was the rubber band of old shame and wartime thinking. Was speaking about their deaths, their lives, our childhood and my pain really my story alone? I was more than overwhelmed by the way ghosts in the machine create exposure and at just how many social profiles are connected by one death, not to mention two.

And then, on the heels of that, I fought with my own desire to self-censor in a new version of the White Bear Problem: The more I try to suppress the desire to speak about a topic on social media, the more my inner rebel fights the censoring hand. Why shouldn’t I say whatever I want to say? I know I’m not alone because I see others struggling with this, too. I see them fighting with beloveds in comment sections. I see them blurting and deleting. I see them staging beatific tableaus to disguise that they are flailing. I see them leaking and speaking in subtext and code. Go ahead; try to censor social media. It will be like putting masking tape on a living, breathing, second-grade mouth. Befriending and taming self-censorship might be the only thing we have going for us.

Sometimes I worry I’ve blabbed too much; sometimes I worry I’ve willingly swallowed the diary key and shut myself away permanently. I don’t think there is an answer to this tension. In my case, a few months ago, self-censorship felt like privacy and that felt like safety. But now (or soon), it might be time to open the windows an inch more. Embargoes lift, tape doesn’t hold and censorship becomes less essential during peacetime.

I think, though, that all of the silences and shouting we balance on the day-to day-tend to work themselves out. One way or the other, we find ways to say what we need to say while protecting the still tender. We speak out or deploy a coded proxy until we can self-censor less. With defiance, we require the uncensored truth, and eventually we get there. The Bookmobile circles and circles the lot until finally enough space is cleared. It pulls in, lays on the brakes and opens the door to more free words than we can wrap our arms around.

(Photo credit: Jennifer Moo/Flickr.com)

Tell Us in the Comments

What do you think?

19 Responses

  1. Jenifer Monroe

    Brilliant. xo

  2. Amanda

    I was fully along for this ride. Thank you. Bookmobile to not-yet-shared stories, you speak a powerful truth.

  3. elithea

    if it helps, one of my colleagues was recently removed from his classroom position and spent the rest of that year down at the district office tracking down truants before finding another teaching position, for merely threatening to do this in jest (the tape, not the speaking.) no jesting with the 21st century five-year-old.

  4. Pam

    Dang, you’re brilliant Deb.

  5. Helen Jane

    This is so, so good.

  6. Nancy Kho

    So heartfelt and considered, Deb. Wishing you peace and clarity. Xoxox

  7. Alexandra

    This is why i want to live close to you. When someone shares a past that even intersects by a tiny touch of lines, you want to be near them. Because there is a vibration of being seen and known that does away with words. It’s in the eyes the exchange of a smile that losts longer than it does for others. We somehow know and that makes it so we don’t have to mary karr our life. I never agreed with the lamott quote. It punishes people and Id rather work through my own craptastic past. Thats where yiu feel the triumph. I love you.

  8. Tina Cruz

    So very, very good. Poignant.

  9. Debbie A-H

    Holy heck. This is some spectacular writing about a very difficult subject.

  10. Linda

    “…censorship becomes less essential during peacetime.”–POWERFUL!

  11. Rita Arens
    Rita Arens

    What you’ve so powerfully identified here is indeed the need for face-to-face friends. We’re stuck behind our screens in a way that leaves no way to have a conversation that can’t be forwarded, screenshotted or otherwise used against us. Really good food for thought, as always, and beautifully written, again as always.

  12. Suzy Q

    You never cease to amaze me and open my mind. xo

  13. LL

    Thank you for this. He did it to me too, and she was just as neglectful.

  14. Jenny Kanevsky

    I love you. Social media is one thing, and then there is friendship, where you hope not to censor. Ever. And having those people in your life. Beautiful.

  15. Arnebya

    This was so thought provoking and honest and true, Deb. I often wonder whether my story deserves ears when it can potentially negatively affect someone who doesn’t necessarily deserve that label or criticism. I’ve shut my mouth often, both forced and chosen.

  16. Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com

    Hi Deb! I appreciate this post because it asks big questions and leaves the thoughts to us alone. For me, as a daughter of a family with three sisters, I am an open book. What’s so interesting is that every one of us daughters has a different story…almost as though we were raised in different families. It doesn’t really matter what story I tell, their’s is so different. So who’s story is mine, except for me? I also noticed years ago when I gave up smoking that I had used it as an excuse not to speak my truth. When I could no longer justify the “pleasure” I got from smoking as opposed to the health detriment it caused, I gave it up. The biggest difference is that I was no longer content to sit quietly anymore. I HAD to speak up or at least walk away. I think we all come up with whatever excuse we “need” to stay quiet about what’s burning inside of us. But the only real way to put out the fire is to speak (or write) up! ~Kathy

  17. pia

    So beautiful. And I am so sorry about your brother and cousin.

    I have a rule. I will say anything about politics, but family? People know that I have a sister; that’s it.

    It’s more than us involved. She has a daughter and I never want my feelings–petty or big–to color hers as she
    looks up to me. I never want her to hate me either.

    Of course I can say anything about politics because my whole family is on “one side.” But I live in an area where my religion that I don’t practice and my politics are different than most others. I found that my friends, my real friends here, like my political posts because I’m open to learning about their views and their religions.

    And it’s not family. Family is sacred. Oh I only write about my friends in the past. What we did 20 years ago can be told now. What we do now—that we’re incredibly boring right now has nothing to do with it!

  18. Cathy Chester

    Brava! Aside from your gorgeous writing you hit a nerve on a topic many of us wrestle to the ground every day. And while we skirt around the issues we most want to put into words we raise our blood pressure over the inability to hit PUBLISH. Yup. There are so many subjects I feel I can’t write about for fear of hurting or angering someone….

    If I met you IRL in FL (where we visit often) I would give you a big bear hug just for writing this piece! I am now a fan. Thank you. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  19. Debby Carroll

    It’s a tough call, what to expose and what to keep within. Sometimes I lean toward Ready, Fire, Aim when it comes to communicating and that’s not always okay. I did write a memoir which did seem to some like a tell-all about my wildly dysfunctional family. I have friends who understood my choosing to public this personal business, after all they’ve been telling me for thirty years, “You ought to write a book.” Others said they understood but since many of the people I wrote about are still alive, they seemed a big aghast about the stories I told. While I get that, I chose to tell the truth for a few reasons. Not revenge, I’m past most of the anger now. I wanted people to know a bit about how to handle siblings bent on destruction. I wanted them to be forewarned. And, if I do say so myself, it’s a really good story. That’s what writers do, we tell what we hope are good stories. Yes, we must act in self-censorship but ultimately, we are writers and stories are how we communicate. Excellent post, though, really well done.


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