...you WILL be misunderstood. But you can't let that knock you off balance.
|Sep 16, 2018|
Earlier this month, I was thinking about Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera, a woman who sought the Republican nomination in the race for a House seat in Miami, Florida. She had an endorsement from the local paper, but it came with a caveat—she took all the right stands for a would-be GOP Congresswoman, the editors at the Miami Herald said; you just had to overlook the fact that, nine years ago, she went on Spanish-language television and described how she’d been abducted by aliens when she was a child and had been in intermittent telepathic contact with them for some time afterwards. Set that aside, they said, and she’s a very sensible Republican at heart.
You can imagine the merriment that ensued among the online commentariat.
For her own part, Rodriguez Aguilera was careful to say that her childhood encounter with aliens was real but that it didn’t define her, and that she wanted voters to consider her positions and her track record in local politics—exactly the right stand to take under the circumstances, I thought. I might have a private opinion as to the validity of Rodriguez Aguilera’s account of what happened to her as a child, but clearly something happened and this is how she has framed it. But as long as she’s not claiming that her political ideology was handed down to her by the aliens, I don’t see any need to quibble over it. (If I even lived in her district, I wouldn’t have voted for her anyway, because I’m not a Republican, but that’s another story.)
Even after Rodriguez Aguilera lost her primary, though, I kept thinking about how we have stories to tell—in many cases, we have stories to tell about ourselves—and as much as we would like the world to see those stories the way we see them, we can’t control other people’s responses. A memoir, for example, can be seen as an effort to guide others to what you believe is the “correct reading” of your life, but you’re always going to encounter someone who looks at the same set of facts, ignores your interpretation, and sees it through their own lens.
They won’t just see it through their own lens, though, they’ll talk about how they see it—and, these days, that means you need to be prepared to see other people talking about your memoir (or whatever kind of book you write) in ways you think are just wrong. If you can’t wrap your head around that possibility, if you can’t stand the idea that somebody out there isn’t going to share your vision, then perhaps you aren’t quite as ready to share that vision as you think you are.
Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera knew that most people would likely side-eye her over the alien abduction thing, but she didn’t let that stop her from being the political candidate she wanted to be, the candidate she was convinced she could be—and, ultimately, the candidate the Miami Herald recognized she could be, too. For all my political differences with her, I’m impressed with the way she owned and took charge of her story.
I’m also impressed with the way Geoffrey Owens owned and took charge of his story not long after Rodriguez Aguilera had faded from the headlines. Owens, who you might remember as Dr. Huxtable’s son-in-law from The Cosby Show, had had his ups and downs as a professional actor since that sitcom gig, and by 2018 he was working part-time at a Trader Joe’s in New Jersey to make ends meet. A customer recognized him, snapped some pictures with her smartphone, then sent them to the Daily Mail, and from there they ended up on the Fox News website as well.
That initial “coverage” had a distinctly savage glee to it, standard “look at the washed-up celebrity” stuff. But a lot of people refused to take it that way, calling Fox News, the Mail, and the original customer out on their efforts to humiliate Owens. Professional actors came forward and testified to how hard it can be to scrape by between gigs; working class people were rightfully infuriated at the effort to characterize a job at a grocery store as shameful. It only took a few days for sympathetic media to invite Owens out to talk about how he took the job to pay the bills, how he specifically liked working at Trader Joe’s because it gave him the flexibility to keep pursuing acting gigs, and how he’d actually been recognized just about every day that he was there—most people just showed more class about it.
In one interview, when he was asked if he hoped that all the attention would get him some acting jobs, he said that he hoped it might get him some auditions, but that he didn’t want to be cast in a project out of sympathy—he wanted to be cast because he was the right actor for the part. (By the way, he’s landed supporting roles on two TV shows. Which is nice, because an unfortunate side effect of the publicity was that he could no longer work effectively at the Trader Joe’s and had to step down.)
Geoffrey Owens wasn’t even trying to tell a story about himself; he was just keeping his head down, doing the best he could, when somebody decided to tell a story about him. But he rose to meet that story head-on, and he had a different story to tell, and he wouldn’t let that other story shake him.
I admire both Owens and Rodriguez Aguilera for their conviction, and I’ll keep it in mind the next time I put something I’ve written out in the world and people start layering meanings onto it that I never intended, that I specifically didn’t intend. That’s not to say that we can’t ever learn from what other people tell us about our own stories. But if you know what you’re here to do, and you’re doing it, you don’t have to worry when somebody doesn’t get it. You just have to believe that someone else will.