Judy Elsley (Ph.D., University of Arizona) was born and raised in England. She is a professor in the English Department at Weber State University where she is also one of the coordinators of the First Year Experience Program. In 1997, Jumping Cholla Press published her book of personal essays, Getting Comfortable, about living in the American West. She has also co-edited a book of academic essays on quilting: Quilt Culture: Tracing the Patterns, published by the University of Missouri Press in 1994. Read other essays by Judy Elsley published in Weber Studies: Vol. 9.2, Vol. 13.3, and Vol. 23.2.
My mother, a middle-class English woman, divides the world between those who write thank you notes after receiving her hospitality, and those who don't. A phone call, or a direct word of thanks doesn't really do it. Only the note counts. For many years, my parents lived next door to an ecclesiastical bishop and his wife whom my parents would invite for dinner or tea periodically. Within half an hour of leaving, we would hear the letterbox creak open, the soft plop of the envelope, and there was the hand written thank you note from our next door neighbor. That note was proof for my mother of their breeding and class. They passed.
Americans, of course, don't know these English rules, but they're damned by them all the same. No thank you note, no second invitation. Or, if it's family and a second invitation is unavoidable, much grumbling about the lack of class and breeding. I learned the lesson well, and try to cover my bases as best I can these days by always writing thank you notes whenever I'm invited somewhere. Sometimes, my hosts are charmed by my good manners, but sometimes they laugh at the quaint formality of it. What they don't realize is that I'm acting entirely out of fear. I saw what happened to guests who didn't write thank you notes after visiting my home, and I don't want to be written out of someone else's book of life for a social gesture I can manage so easily.
Extreme though it may seem, my mother is just doing what we all do: making sense of the world by dividing it into two categories: black and white, yin and yang, day and night. The list is endless and various, but each of these pairs shares some common characteristics. The pairs are a form of essentializing to what's really important, and each side of the pair is both opposite and dependent on the other.
Literary theorists describe this need to divide the world into two parts as "binary opposites." One side of the binary, they would say, is dependent on the other, and yet almost always there's a favored, or to use the literary lingo, "privileged" term. Light, for example, finds its binary opposite in dark. How do we know what light is? Because we experience the opposite, dark. And of the two terms, light is usually favored over dark. Binary opposites underlie a good many philosophies, including Marxism and Feminism. At the simplest level, a Marxist divides the world between the haves and the have-nots. It's clear which is the privileged group in this world view, for the entire organization of western society is based around the privileging that division entails. A Marxist invites us to recognize, interrogate and sometimes challenge such a way of organizing the world. Feminists, on the other hand, focus on the male/female binary, searching for ways to equal out those two categories so that male is not always the favored status. Some feminists are also Marxists because the male/female binary dovetails so neatly with the have/have-not binary: to question the one is also inevitably to question the other.
This kind of division has gone on for a very long time. We have good Biblical precedent for this way of thinking. Jesus, for example, divided people into sheep and goats, although like so many of his examples and parables, it's hard to come up with a definitive meaning. Goats versus sheep could mean the domesticated versus the wild. Or the willing versus the unwilling. Or the more useful versus the less useful. Or the teachable versus the resistant. It's a clever division because of its versatility.
My mother-in-law, who sent me newspaper clippings three times a week until she died, once gave me an article that summed up her divisions: the world is divided between radiators and drains. Radiators are givers, and drains are takers. Certainly, I know if I've been in the company of a radiator or a drain, and I can attest that my mother-in-law was one of the warmest radiators I ever snuggled up to, but I've always been uncertain which category I fit into. I aim to radiate, but I expect I sometimes drain.
I divide the world between tortoises and e-bunnies (named after the energizer bunny who goes on and on in all those ridiculous advertisements). E-bunnies bounce around in an efficient sort of high energy way getting things done, as compared to tortoises who plod solidly through life. While e-bunnies tend to act before they think, tortoises think before they act, which means that bunnies often fail to take care of the details, whereas although tortoises think things through thoroughly, they may be slow to take action. I'm an e-bunny married to a tortoise which on most days makes for a pretty good team, but occasionally causes friction and frustration. A similar way to cast that particular binary was suggested to me by a long-married friend who described his wife and himself as the rock and the yo-yo. "Usually, I'm the rock and she's the yo-yo," he explained. "But the roles get reversed, too. That's fine. What's bad is two rocks or two yo-yos at the same time."
My husband divides the world into the groups I find most endearing. For him, people are either piglets or pugsleys. Piglets are shy, retiring souls who don't complain about slow service and cold food in restaurants, who rarely return unsatisfactory purchases, and who'd rather shop somewhere else than call for the manager. Pugsleys rise to the challenge. They always call for the manager, return the unsatisfactory item, and let the waiter know exactly what's wrong with the food.
A pugsley in one situation can be a piglet in another. My husband, for example is a social piglet, but a physical pugsley. On the other hand, I am a social pugsley, but a physical piglet.
When we recently went shopping for trucks, we soon discovered that as my husband is almost a foot taller than me, a bench seat couldn't accommodate both of us comfortably. If I was driving, my husband would have his knees in his chest. "Well then," joked a young salesman standing in the middle of the showroom floor, "your husband will have to do all the driving."
"That's a sexist joke. This is my money, and I'll take my business elsewhere," I responded in my teacherly projecting-across-the-classroom voice. The showroom fell silent, while the poor young man mumbled an apology and defended himself feebly with, "I was only joking." As a piglet, my husband finds these encounters excruciating, but he knows how pointless it is to resist me because nothing stops a pugsley with a cause.
However, put me in a slightly risky physical situation like skiing, or white water rafting, or hiking off the trail, and I become an instant piglet, whimpering and complaining, and sometimes even crying. I don't like that characteristic in myself. I wish I were a courageous, risk taking woman who skied black diamonds and rowed her own boat through the rapids. But I'm not. I carefully check the sign at the top of the run to make sure it's blue or green, and I'm the one clinging to the ropes at the bottom of the boat as someone more fearless than I rows through the rapid. Actually, I embody the worst possible combination of piglet and pugsley characteristics. I'm a Jewish piglet with pugsley yearnings: I feel guilty about not being more courageous.
The metaphors I employ to divide the world say a great deal about me, as they do about all of us. The e-bunny distinction shows that I value efficiency and speed. The pugsley/piglet division demonstrates how large a part fear plays in my life. Like Alfred Brooks in Defending Your Life, I suspect that when I die the ultimate judge will be more interested in how many fears I overcame than how many good deeds I did. My mother, on the other hand, values good manners and social breeding, and my mother-in-law looked directly at the warmth of someone's heart. The binaries that these metaphors represent are so deeply, and often unconsciously, fused into our lives, that most of the time, we're unaware that we see the world this way.
Sometimes these binaries are charming and useful, but often they can get us into a lot of trouble when we fall into the convenient cultural binary opposites so easily available to us. What is racial prejudice, after all, but the privileging of white over black? We encourage our students to take tests that will determine what kind of personalities, what kind of learning styles, what kind of careers would best suit them. We map out circles which we divide in four, or we give them the Myers-Briggs and then assign them four letters that tell them who they are. It's handy, and it can be useful, but it can also be a way to make someone different from us, "other," foreign, and ultimately nonhuman. At its extreme, that kind of thinking led the Nazis to justify the extermination of six million European Jews. The problem with binaries is that they slip into stereotypes if we're not careful, and then they become damaging limitations instead of an enriching way to make sense of the world.
The binaries themselves work in a binary way. On the one hand, they help us to categorize the world in a way that makes life knowable and comfortable for us, while on the other, they highlight what most frightens us. Does the process of making categories show that we're confident people, dividing up the world, or does it rather demonstrate our insecurity about our own identity and worth? When I shared this essay with a few friends, they took opposite sides on that question.
Often, though, life just doesn't work in binaries. Living is a lot more confused and untidy than the neatly divided, controllable world binaries suggests. Last summer, my husband's 15 year old daughter, Amy, came to live with us because her mother had kicked her out of the house. She'd dropped out of high school, stopped attending the family church, stayed out hours beyond her curfew, and then slept till mid afternoon. It turned out she was using drugs. Amy was a sad looking kid when we took her in: baggy jeans hanging off her hips, the hems dragging on the ground; chipped purple nail polish; badly dyed red hair held back with a couple of plastic barrettes; a pallid face and a sour expression.
At first, of course, the binaries kicked in: there was the bad mother who had kicked her out, and then there was her father and stepmother who would rescue her. It was pretty clear which side of the binary was privileged there. But the more we tried, the less successful we were. We set her up with correspondence courses so she could catch up on the classes she'd missed in school, but the books didn't get read, the papers weren't written. We kept her more-or-less under house arrest to prevent any contact with drugs, but even when she went for a walk, she came back smelling of cigarette smoke. We found her a job working with the local theater company, but she'd skip out at lunch and not return. We let her stay at a friend's house one weekend, but when we picked her up on Monday, she had the "fried eyes on ghost" look James Joyce describes in Ulysses that indicated late nights smoking dope.
As the weeks wore on and our efforts were confounded, I grew increasingly sympathetic to Mom. She was no more bad than we were good. We were all frustrated with Amy. I didn't know quite what to do with the idea that my husband's ex-wife was a lot like mejust struggling to do her best in an out-of-control situation. It was much easier to think of her as mean and me as kind, or her as weak and me as strong, or her as short-sighted and me as wise. Amy showed me that none of those comforting binaries was true.
When we finally pushed past the denial and realized we had a drug problem, we were faced with the old stereotype of what a drug addict looks like. There are emaciated drug addicts lying on flea ridden mattresses in crack houses, and then there's us, a middle class family living in a comfortable home doing professional work. Another binary broke down as it became painfully clear that Amy was an addict even though she came from an environment of loving, professional parents. When we finally put her in a residential treatment center, we saw a lot more parents like us. If you'd looked at the assorted group of parents and children that gathered on a Thursday evening for family night without knowing the context, I doubt you would have guessed our common bond was drugs. We were social workers, teachers, business men, construction workers, all of us with a child in trouble and just enough awareness, love, and medical insurance to get help.
Perhaps the most frustrating breakdown of the binaries was around the drugs themselves: was she using or was she clean? A clear enough distinction in theory, but almost impossible to verify. For a while, we kept urine analysis kits in the fridge, but she found ways round that, peeing in a cup before the weekend when she anticipated using with her friends. After the "fried eyes on ghost" weekend, when she came home exhausted and monosyllabic, we confronted her. She vehemently denied using, and then cried. We pushed, she cried more. Neither side gave an inch. "I've done everything you asked me to do," she said between sobs. "This is so tough for me, and I'm trying so hard, and now you guys don't believe me. How can I have any self respect if you don't trust me?" She was a breathtakingly adept liar, and a canny manipulator at the same time.
Amy's drug use raised the problematic issue of my relationship to her. She lived in my house, my husband is her father. Was I a parent or not a parent? I don't have any children of my own, and have never perceived myself as a parent, but here I was cast as primary care taker of a child whose home was temporarily with us. For that summer, I was playing the role of mother without the authority of the role, the years of shared experience, or the emotional connection it requires. On family nights at the treatment center, I would introduce myself as "Alan's second wife, and here to support Amy," a descriptor that let me off the parent/not-parent hook, but for that summer, mine was an amorphous, ill-defined role, and I limped along making one mistake after another.
At first I was too authoritarian. I made all sorts of house rules: no TV before 5:00 p.m.; up and dressed by 9:00 a.m.; help with dish washing and laundry; eat evening meals with us. The rules all seemed reasonable to me, but they made little sense to Amy. Moreover, they all had baggage attached to them. No TV before 5:00 p.m., for example, is a legacy of my English upbringing when programming only began in the evening. The unspoken e-bunny assumption is that a productive person should have better things to do with his or her day than to watch TV. But Amy wasn't an e-bunny, nor was she raised in England in the 1950's. She didn't understand my prohibition, and we had neither the awareness nor the intimacy to unpack the baggage on both sides, so she broke the rule. I would storm down to the basement to find her watching soaps in the middle of the afternoon, and turn the TV off. "Do some work on one of your correspondence courses," I'd urge her. She'd look hurt and resentful, and retreat to her bedroom, closing the door behind her.
Then I felt guilty, so I'd take her out for coffee, or buy her a cute journal. I'd try to strike up friendly and cheerful conversation, and I urged my husband to let her spend the weekend at her friend's house. Of course, when she returned, looking so strung out, I veered back into distrust and rules.
My time with Amy was a humbling experience for me that made the world much more complicated, a place filled with the messy business of living from day to day in an uncertain and often uncontrollable situation. In my anxiety and need, I clung to those familiar binaries, but they didn't serve me well because they were incapable of reflecting the reality I was actually living. Instead of making efficient, e-bunny progress through the experience, I bumbled and stumbled through feeling like a failure.
Of course, I still believe the world is divided between those who will use someone else's toothbrush and those who won't. Or is it people who do like cats and those who don't? Or, perhaps one of my students is right when she says something to the effect that at a party, there are two kinds of people: those who smoke and those who don't. Those who don't, stay inside; while those who do, go outside for a smoke. Since she stopped smoking, she tells me, she misses going outside with her friends. She didn't realize how much of her identity was connected with smoking, and so she's pretty much stopped going to parties.
My student has articulated what dividing up the world is really all about: identity. The most elemental division consists of those who are like me, and those who aren't. I feel comfortable with those like me, approve of them, privilege them. It's unavoidable to seek out those who are similar to me, I suppose, but I'm finding that life is full of people not like me, and whether I'm comfortable with that or not, I have to deal with the not-mes. I'm hoping to come to a place where I can feel in my heart, as well as realize in my head, that the richness of life so often occurs in the ambiguous spaces between like-me and not-like-me. It may be that the not-me is also the me; I just haven't acknowledged it yet.