The Power of Testimony

Why personal narrative has displaced fiction

Vivian Gornick

An excerpt from Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments on the cover of The Village Voice in 1987. Courtesy The Village Voice

I once wrote a book about the great nineteenth-century suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I did that because I’d become embroiled in an argument over whether the women’s movement could produce literature as well as testimony, and I’d gone looking for the poetry in the movement. In Elizabeth Stanton I found it. When that remarkable person sat down to explain women and equality to her government, testimony achieved poetry.

She was born in 1815 in upstate New York into a rich and distinguished family of conservatives who opposed slavery but dreaded social disorder. Elizabeth, alone among the Cadys, was possessed of a radical temperament. When at the age of twenty-four she fell in love with Henry Stanton, an impassioned abolitionist, she married him against her father’s will, and the two went blithely off to England to attend the first international anti-slavery congress ever held. To her amazement the congress refused to seat her, as women were to be seen, not heard. Afterward, Stanton would often say that it was here in London in 1840 that for the first time in her life, she realized that in the eyes of the world she was not as she was in her own eyes; she was “only a woman.”

As an abolitionist she’d been a fellow traveler; now as a budding feminist she discovered that it was this cause that aroused her strongest feelings. She further discovered that for her, feeling strongly was associated—as it had been for men from time immemorial—not with falling in love but with agency: agency come to life through devotion to some large unmet human need that might have gone unaddressed for decades at a time but would not be permanently stilled.

In 1848 Stanton, along with Lucretia Mott and three other progressive-minded women, held a two-day convention in Seneca Falls (the town in upstate New York where Stanton lived) calling for social and political equality for women. The event was life-changing. Thereafter she was defined by the intellectual excitement that the cause of women’s rights aroused in her. She’d always known she had a good mind, but now, as the years after Seneca Falls wore on and she found herself writing petition after petition on behalf of equality for women, she discovered that she was a visionary thinker, one who saw hidden in the discrimination against her sex something of humanity writ large: its unholy predilection to aggress against itself, to inflict hierarchies of privilege and deprivation on one’s fellow beings, to countenance with ease ourselves living contentedly in the light while others flounder and go under, living as they did in the dark. It was as though the human condition itself stood revealed in feminism’s reawakened call for social justice.

The more alone in the world she felt, the more philosophical she became.

As the decades wore on—the 1840s giving way to the ’50s and ’60s—and the feminist cause, long defined by the struggle for suffrage, made no real progress, the movement itself grew increasingly conservative. Stanton, however, remained unrelentingly radical and experienced a growing split between herself and her movement; very soon she found herself isolated. The more alone in the world she felt, the more philosophical she became. In 1892 she stood up to deliver her final public address, a speech that to this day remains one of the great entries in the canon of American personal essays. Its title: “The Solitude of Self.”

The thing she wanted her audience to consider, she said, was the individuality of a human being: that which Protestant American culture held as a first value. In one sense, the idea of the individual is a declaration of proud independence; in another, it is the recognition that we are, in fact, a world of Robinson Crusoes, all of us alone on the island of life, but none more so than women:

No matter how much women prefer to lean, to be protected and supported, nor how much men desire to have them do so, they must make the voyage of life alone, and for safety in an emergency, they must know something of the laws of navigation. To guide our own craft, we must be captain, pilot, engineer.… It matters not whether the solitary voyager is man or woman; nature, having endowed them equally, leaves them to their own skill and judgment in the hour of danger; and if not equal to the occasion, alike they perish.… In the long, weary march, each one walks alone.… This is a solitude which each and every one of us has always carried with him, more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea; the solitude of self.… Such is individual life. Who, I ask you, can take, dare take on himself the rights, the duties, the responsibilities of another human soul?

The long, rich devotion to women’s rights had given Stanton many extraordinary insights, though none more powerful than this one about the fundamental loneliness of the human animal. How unspeakable then, she concluded, that worldly arrangements—those deciding on citizenship, for instance—should contribute to the forlornness of one’s natural state! Politics, she thought, was meant to mitigate the misery to which the human condition consigns us, not add to it.

“The Solitude of Self” was my first encounter, late in the 1970s, with Stanton’s capacious mind and spirit, and its effect upon me was lasting. The essay represented from the first the kind of writing that emanates from a well of shared experience, addressing itself intimately to the existential in women’s condition. From here on I worked my way back through the thousands of letters, articles, speeches, and petitions Stanton wrote over the course of her fifty years in public life. I could never have dreamed that such repetitious complaint of an ancient but ongoing grievance, presented in the homeliest of literary forms, could in instance after instance remain fresh and alive, often breathtakingly so—but it did. It did because in each and every one of these essayistic presentations there is an original line of thought, an image that haunts, a metaphor of genius: the familiar recovers its mystery, the homely its beauty, the pedestrian its pain.

Sometime in the late 1970s or early ’80s someone described the liberationist movements as politics that originate in “one’s own hurt feelings”: a sentiment that would prove remarkably useful as decade followed decade with those same hurt feelings neither diminishing significantly nor losing strength. It was in these years that I too paced the floor reviewing my own life in the light of Stanton’s wisdom, and found myself in a kind of fugue state, reciting as though from some previously inaccessible recess of my mind a list of memories that began to sound in my own ears incantatory.

I remembered my mother and my aunt beaming when, as a child, I performed intellectually, at the same time telling me that I’d soon have to put a lid on it, since no man wants a woman to be that smart.

I remembered a classmate at City College taunting me with Aristotle, repeating the ancient’s assertion that women are the first deviation in nature—creatures deprived of the defining genitalia.

I remembered an eminent physicist telling me that women could be good scientists but not great scientists: it had to do with a crucial difference in the nervous system.

I remembered an analyst saying to me, “You don’t want to marry the great man, you want to be the great man”—as though he had discovered my dirty little secret.

And then I remembered thinking, Who says such things to a person one considers a fellow creature?

Who, indeed.

When it came my turn to commit to the written page the depth and breadth not only of how it was but how it felt to be a person who was a woman, I too found it most natural to make use of the essay and the memoir. While it is true that literary nonfiction proved to be my particular bent, it is also true that hundreds (and then thousands) who wished to express similar thoughts and feelings were drawn to the same essayistic forms. And in fact, while the women’s movement has not produced many distinguished novels or poems or plays (these are mainly works of dogma and didacticism), it has produced a considerable number of exceptional memoirs and meditations and personal narratives, many of them achieving literature simply by bearing unadorned witness to the shocking inequity under which women have lived for centuries. It would appear that the greater the insult, the greater the directness.

Throughout history, liberationist movements, one and all, have relied on the strength of those who have volunteered to place the flesh of lived experience on the skeleton of collective demands. In our own time, and with our own movements, it was practically foreordained that naked testimony would carry the day for women and Blacks and gays, as ours is a cultural moment when the authority of words like “based on a true story” have edged out the authority of works that originate in the imagination.

There are many reasons why the popularity of the personal narrative has displaced that of fiction. Two of them, I think, can be traced to the demise of modernism and the occurrence of the Holocaust, each in its own way having contributed heavily to the developing hunger for “true stories.” So long as modernism, which dominated the arts in Western culture for a century and more, held sway, the novel was revered as the literary genre. But as the twentieth century wore on, the ability of a fictional narrative soaked in the emotional disconnect of an ungrounded voice speaking from the middle of nowhere gradually but steadily lost the power to make readers experience their own lives while reading. The alienated voice in literature became the cliché of the century, and novel writing slowly began to lose its cachet.

Eventually the bloodletting ends, the race finds itself still alive—and what we do to one another still matters.

Then came the Nazis and, ironically enough, what followed after the Second World War was not the silence history might have expected in the wake of such raw barbarism but an outpouring of compelled testament bent on recording the unimaginable horrors that had been survived. (After Auschwitz, Theodor Adorno said, there could be no poetry, but he didn’t say there could be no personal narrative.)

The full dimension of what had actually happened under the Nazis seemed to resist fictional dramatization—no Holocaust novel, for instance, achieved anything like the power of Primo Levi’s work—and as human beings cannot live without narrative any more than they can live without air or water, this turn of historic events thrust the memoir into an unexpected pride of literary place. It was only the memoir that seemed to leave emotional disconnect in the dust. So far from giving up on itself, the human race, through memoir, was demanding that it account for itself, pay up for having so horribly abused the precious idea, alive since the Enlightenment, that a single life is of supreme value. From there to the liberationist movements of the 1970s and ’80s was one uninterrupted shot.

For the past seventy years, ours has been a period of almost unremitting testament on the part of one have-not or another: millions feeling the necessity to impart in words that defy euphemism or metaphor exactly what happened at one another’s hands. It most often has turned out that one part of humanity has inflicted on another enough emotional savagery to fill a stadium. Yet it also turns out that eventually the bloodletting ends, the race finds itself still alive—and what we do to one another still matters. To paraphrase Albert Camus when he began to choke on his own Principle of the Absurd, When the telephone rings it matters that I answer it. It all matters. And soon enough, I’m sure, if his life had not been cut short he would have written a memoir to dramatize that insight.

When I sit down to write a piece of nonfiction that originates in my own experience I invariably feel I am committing an act of the imagination whose literary influences can be traced most directly to those who have felt compelled to make poetry out of testimony.

Vivian Gornick is an essayist, memoirist, and literary critic. Her works include Fierce Attachments, The Odd Woman and the City, and Approaching Eye Level. A longtime contributor to The Village Voice, she is a former fellow at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in New York City.
Originally published:
December 1, 2021

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