Reviewed by Joshua James Amberson
Violation: Collected Essays
Hawthorne Books, 2016
Sallie Tisdale’s thirty year career has been wildly varied. It spans from a history of salt to philosophies of sexuality, a sociological study of food to the lives of women Buddhist masters. Her books and essays are so wide-ranging that she should be mentioned in the same sentence, and as often, as writers like Rebecca Solnit or Geoff Dyer—as part of a group of modern writers who are willing to write about anything that captures their imagination and create work that exists just outside of the doors of classification. But usually Tisdale doesn’t come up in the same sentence, somehow hasn’t gained the same level of name recognition, the same reputation for risk-taking that Solnit, Dyer, and others have.
Enter Violation, a career-spanning essay collection out this month on Hawthorne Books which (one can presume) aims to change that. While it takes a moment to sink in to some of the early-in-her-career essays that begin the collection, once the book gains traction it becomes clear that this is a goldmine, a windfall of finely-tuned essays that manage to maintain a certain spontaneity. Each essay has layers beyond its ostensible subject matter, making connections that feel both surprising and strangely inevitable. The world’s seemingly-infinite variations of flies leads to her long relationship with Buddhism. The walls of her childhood home lead to a consideration of passion versus talent. Bad teeth lead into philosophies of pain. She looks at the allure of Disneyland, the chaos of the education system, and—again and again—at the complicated bonds of family.
The title essay, and the book’s centerpiece, is perhaps among the greatest essays about truth in nonfiction ever written. In an expansive braided form, Tisdale considers the ways writers violate the privacy of others—especially their loved ones—and what responsibilities this implies; what larger implications this has. “We fall between cowardice and kindness in our desire to be fair; between courage and cruelty in our need to tell the story,” she writes. “We are betrayed by our own amnesia, by the fact that one can never be sure.”
Tisdale likes considering grey areas like these, lingering in the in-between zones. “Long before I knew how to describe it,” she writes, “I liked ambivalence. Certainty has always seemed a bit dishonest to me.” And often her style of ambivalence feels almost subversive, somehow more radical than so-called radical writers. She’s open to possibility, to seeing life as complex, and is perpetually working toward finding a place where dogma ends and the daily lived reality can step into the light.
Even in essays about elephants in captivity or the work done in abortion clinics, she tries to make us feel the routine of it, the mundanity that comes from doing any one thing—even a highly-politicized thing—every day. The essays may have brief moments where they’re flashy, sweeping, making big, broad statements. But she always pulls back, provides a counterbalance, reminds us that every issue is more complicated than its surface, that reality doesn’t often match up with political rhetoric.
In the book’s introduction, Tisdale writes that the questions she comes back to are “about the nature of the self, what it means to live in a body, why we are all lonely, [and] how to use language to say what can’t be said.” It’s in the final essay—an almost lyrical, structurally loose piece called “So Long as I am With Others”—that we best see these themes melding together, becoming part of a larger whole. The essay doesn’t spend much time reflecting on when she was younger and didn’t have life figured out, but instead focuses on life as a middle-aged woman, with full grown children, still having daily existential dilemmas. It’s a raw, emotionally complex piece; a meditation on the inherent loneliness of being human. “A beloved friend tells me that I hold myself apart,” she writes, “and it feels like a death sentence. It doesn’t matter that she’s right.” The essay is odd and unruly—largely philosophical, fluidly darting between sadness and celebration—and at the same time a perfect distillation of everything that came before it.
At her recent book release at Powell’s Books, she said that this final essay was the one she couldn’t find a home for—the one all the editors she had worked with in the past said was, in different ways, “too weird.” She also said that it’s an example of the direction she’s going in, which suggests (to me anyway) that—as great as the essays in Violation are—the best Sallie Tisdale essays are still to come.