Paul Weekly E-mail

Weekly E-mail: Who’d Have Thought That She’d Become a Jedi Knight?

April 15, 2024

There’s a quote that I’ve hung in my cubicle at work: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” It’s from Bryan Stevenson. The paper hanging on my wall is from a page-a-day calendar that I got last Christmas, but I first heard the quote in July 2017. I was attending City Year’s Summer Academy, the annual gathering of all staff and senior AmeriCorps members in Boston. Stevenson was delivering a lecture summarizing, in part, lessons learned from his work at Equal Justice Initiative. The organization provides legal representation to those who may not have received a fair trial, which is – unfortunately – a rather large number of Americans. His words were a revelation.

Beneath that quote, I spend my days working to support young adults in finding employment. My teammates work with people who may have dropped out of high school, single parents, and other young adults who are facing systemic barriers to jobs. My cohort consists of students with disabilities, so I get to go into school classrooms a few hours each week. For someone who has been interested in teaching since he was sixteen years old, it’s been a joy to be returning to that world.

During my lunch breaks at the office, I read. Last week, I finished Toxic by Sarah Ditum. It’s about nine women whose fame in the aughts represented different dimensions of identity: fame, invasion, apocalypse, possession, indecency, reality, beauty, power, freedom. In the context of the book, they appear to be specifically female identities, but Ditum is a great writer – and great writers understand that such things transcend the limitations of gender. I have seen myself in Britney Spears, in Janet Jackson, in these human beings who were venerated and then dismembered.

Of all the women profiled, Kim Kardashian is the one I had least empathy for before reading the book. Beautiful and rich? Get the fuck outta here. This was the sentiment for a lot of people; the chapter on Kim makes clear that she has been consistently criticized for being famous based not on talent or skill, but on a sex tape and celebrity itself. This criticism implies that fame should only be bestowed upon those who have something tangible to contribute to society. Like, say, athleticism.

I was too young to remember this part of the story, but the Kardashians entered public consciousness in 1994. Robert Kardashian was a key figure in the O. J. Simpson murder trial. Formerly Simpson’s best man at his 1978 wedding to Kris Houghton, Kardashian became part of the so-called “Dream Team” of lawyers who led O. J.’s defense.

On Saturday, during a meeting of the Nonfiction Writing Group I joined in December, someone brought up how Simpson’s trial captivated the nation. She remembered how her eighth grade teacher stopped class so they all could watch the verdict on TV. We didn’t do that in my class at St. Helena’s – probably because I was in fourth grade. Still, the trial was an ever-present part of my world. I remember coming home on the day of the verdict, throwing open the door and seeing my dad. I excitedly asked, “Did they find him guilty?” I’m not sure which is the greater disappointment: what I felt in October 1995 or what I feel now, knowing that I wanted O. J. locked up.

The thing about fame is that it fractures you. Or, more specifically, your existing cracks are easier to find by the millions of people who spend their days searching your body, reviewing your actions. It is easier, after all, to avoid mending our own broken forms. So we crawl into the spaces of others, trying to find the comfort we cannot provide to ourselves. Imagine what this is like for the famous person, the terror in knowing that millions of people are crawling over you, burrowing inside of you, becoming part of you. Because one day, they may decide that you’re no longer a person. You exist as a vehicle for them. Your body, your mind – they are not your own. And when you no longer function, you are hauled off to the junkyard where the best that you can hope for is that someone sees you as useful for scrap materials.

I have seen this happen over and over and over again. I know what we can do to those who dare to peek over the trench, to allow themselves to be seen by entities unknown. So I have cowered, and hesitated, and kept myself low. But I know that these battles are beyond my control, and if I am going to have any role in this world it must be above ground, in the space where human beings roam. It still terrifies me.

I recognize that the only defense I have is awareness. If you are looking for a crack to crawl inside, I welcome you in. If you find a flaw to fixate on, I will understand. If you attempt to take control and drive me off a cliff, I will understand. We both are more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.


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