There are many excellent comments below yesterday's post about "wild oats". I'll respond to more of them in the days and weeks to come, time permitting, but want to focus this post on those commenters who were troubled by the lack of analysis I provided of one particular anecdote. Alice wrote:
In discussing your post-30 wild oats days, you said that you'd told a woman you were with that you'd have to stop because you wanted to be a father. Describing her response, you said "[t]he gal took a step back as if I had slapped her. Her eyes welled up, and she stared into the distance. She shuddered once, and then looked back at me with a firm gaze ..."
I know that this post (and this blog) are about your life and your thoughts, but I was expecting more exploration of her reaction - that's a pretty evocative description, and the lack of any further discussion seems very abrupt and dismissive.
I know that my response to this is heavily influenced by my own experiences (female friends feeling that they don't have a 'right' to be a parent because they don't fit into the monogamous model, feeling that my parents' marriage was threatened by my father's possibly infidelity, etc.). I freely admit that her reaction intrigued me, and so there's a bit of pure curiosity that's driving my interest.
However, I really was (and am) surprised that you wouldn't at least explore her reaction a bit more, or acknowledge that you weren't exploring it. You recognize that she had a powerful response, but don't seem to recognize her as a person here, just as someone/something that had an effect on you. It struck me as uncharacteristically dismissive, and I think that's what's been nagging at me.
I wasn't expecting your discussion to center so exclusively on the male perspective, since you started out talking about the effect of the wild oats theory on women. I know that you can't explore *every* aspect of a theory, but this exclusion felt wrong to me, because it evokes so many narratives where women are simply acted upon, and their responses ignored. That's definitely not the norm here, which is what makes it so striking in this instance.
Alice has me thinking. I write about my past frequently, usually in order to make a specific point about faith or personal transformation or grace or male feminism. Three ex-wives get mentioned periodically, and when necessary for the post (as here), I make allusions to periods of promiscuity. Of course, the voices and opinions of the figures from my past don't appear on this blog. I describe and lament my innumerable shortcomings and petty cruelties, but the perspective is mine alone. This is part of blogging, of course, and really of writing of any kind: the narrator constructs the narrative as he or she sees fit, and the various players in one's past get reduced to numbers, anecdotes, and ciphers. It's not fair, of course, but it's inherent in the writing process.
I also am conscious of the feelings of my family, friends, and wife. This is a very public eponymous blog. Many of my students read it. My mother reads it. My siblings read it. And my wife reads it. My wife's co-workers read it. Our Pilates instructor reads it. A large and growing readership is lovely, but it imposes a tremendous responsibility on me, particularly to balance the need to "tell the truth" and the need to honor my current commitments. My wife knows my past; she trusts my transformation and my conversion. She knows I am not who I once was. And she understands that blogging about my past is part of making a larger point about grace and conversion. But there are only so many details of that past which I am willing to make public, largely because I owe it to my loved ones to spare them the visual images that a more explicit and accurate narrative would conjure up.
This is part of the reason why I rushed so quickly through the story about the young woman with whom I had that pre-dawn, post-oats-sowing conversation that Alice quoted. Why provide more details than necessary about her? But as Alice makes clear, by only considering the impact that this woman's reaction had on me, I did something classically male: I recounted a narrative in which a woman functioned only as a prop. Years later, I've never forgotten how her reaction made me feel, but I haven't expended much energy on considering the reasons why she behaved the way she did. It's a kind of masculine narcissism to which I was -- am -- particularly prone. I appreciate Alice calling me on it.
I know a couple of women whose life patterns were similar to my own. I've got some female friends today who are adult converts, who prior to "comin' to Jesus" went through multiple marriages or prolonged periods of promiscuity. Like me, they aren't filled with shame at their past, but they don't gleefully relive it either. Of course, as women, they've had years and years of being called "sluts" and "whores" -- terms that were only occasionally applied to me, and then usually in (mildly reproachful, or envious) jest. The "reformed sinner" narrative is an old and familiar one in Christianity, and it includes great figures of both sexes. But culturally, turning from a life of promiscuity/wildness to a life of monogamy (and parenthood) may be perceived differently for men and women. Some of my female friends, now well into their thirties or forties, still struggle with their own internal feelings of shame, feelings less rooted in their actual behavior than in cultural double-standards and our national penchant for "slut-shaming."
It makes me wonder -- if I were a woman blogger who wrote about her past in the same way as I do here, would the reactions be the same? No one calls me a "slut", after all. The worst I get called is "self-congratulatory", which is hardly at the same level of insult! My past, in whatever degree of detail I choose to relate it, becomes an asset for me. It gives me a certain credibility on specific issues (like male transformation). Would a woman benefit as equally? If a female professor wrote about her past in the same way, would she not take greater professional and personal risks? I wonder.
I still haven't answered the question as to what the woman to whom I confessed that I would "have to stop doing this" was really thinking. I know that she and I shared similar lifestyles at similar ages; like me, she was (at that time) no stranger to "oat-sowing." I can't tell her story, though, not through lack of interest or concern, but through lack of knowledge. I don't know where she is today, or whether her life has changed. Late in the last century, she and I spent a few hours together, the actual details of which are blessedly all but forgotten. (Part of living a radically monogamous life is being intentional about "erasing the mental videotapes" of all prior experiences. That's a future blogpost, actually.)
All that I recall, all that stays with me, is the intensity and passion of her reaction when we said goodbye at her car. And it's haunted and challenged me for many years.