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Two decades ago, Sallie Tisdale published an essay titled “The Basement,” in which she remembered visits to her grandmother’s house, with its smell of face powder and cigarettes, and the adults’ endless drinks and hushed voices upstairs. The essay is enchanting and nostalgic and mildly sinister. But, when Tisdale’s sister read it in an anthology, she felt “wronged,” as Tisdale explained in a later essay, called “Violation.” Her sister did not like the way she had been described; eventually, she insisted that Tisdale not use her name in print again. And Tisdale, in “Violation,” more or less concedes her sister’s point. “Objectivity is the biggest lie a writer tells,” she writes. “My sister’s anguish is that of the silenced defendant, listening to the eyewitness tell lies. We all know how unreliable eyewitnesses are, but we listen anyway. We believe—we condemn.”

Tisdale has now given that same title, “Violation,” to a collection of her essays, one that comes across as both a career-defining book and as something like an apology. The collection’s major theme is a complicated and often traditionally female sense of responsibility. Tisdale, who was born in 1957, earned a nursing degree in 1983 and then began to write in her off-hours: about being a daughter, being a nurse, being a mother. She published her first book, about medical miracles, in 1986, and a second, on daily life at a nursing home, in 1987. The same year, she published an essay in Harper’s titled “We Do Abortions Here,” a calmly heart-rending dispatch from the abortion clinic where she worked. The work of caring for others is at the center of Tisdale’s writing, and it proves an endlessly complex and engaging subject; so much emotional labor, these essays remind us, is still hardly understood as work at all.

When Tisdale was starting out, few writers had shown much interest in this subject. (Julia Stephen’s 1883 “Notes from Sick Rooms” is an early precursor to her work; there aren’t many.) Today, though, her carefully observed essays read as literary antecedents to a whole slate of books about sickness and treatment: Sarah Manguso’s “The Two Kinds of Decay,” Eula Biss’s “On Immunity,” and, in particular, Leslie Jamison’s “The Empathy Exams,” which presents the patient-caretaker relationship as exemplary of the general effort to understand—and to feel—the experiences of others. (Like Tisdale, Jamison recognizes the hazards of this closeness: “Empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion,” she writes.)

Yet Tisdale has not received much recognition for the path she beat in this particular subgenre. She has eight books to her name, but no Wikipedia page; there is no long interview with her about the art of nonfiction. Several of her essays have been included in college textbooks, but her body of work as a whole remains underappreciated—in the essay “On Being Text,” Tisdale recalls finding herself described in one of those college anthologies as “a nurse, not a professional writer,” who “doesn’t structure her essay in any formal way.”

That description is laughably inaccurate, especially in its judgment of Tisdale’s technical skill: her essays unfold their subjects and stories with remarkable precision, allowing us, gradually, to see and feel for the people she describes. But while she is unmistakably a professional writer, her other profession matters, too: care is always a discipline in these pieces, never a romance. In “We Do Abortions Here”—retitled “Fetus Dreams” in the new collection—she emphasizes “the numbing sameness lurking in this job: the same questions, the same answers, even the same trembling tone in the voices.” The numbness is a learned response, a kind of specialization; she acknowledges that there are always unwieldy feelings that must be pushed to one side. “I prepare myself for another basin,” she writes, “another brief and chafing loss.” There is even a hierarchy among staff that determines how much emotion you are expected to show or disguise. Some maintain a professional distance throughout, while others must toggle between restraint and display. “The doctors don’t cry in front of the patients,” Tisdale observes in another essay, “because the nurses do it for them.”

Her experience as a nurse also informs her understanding of the ethical questions addressed in her essay “Violation,” about who really owns a story and who should tell it. “I don’t have the right to know what I know about others,” Tisdale says about her patients, “to see what I see of their secrets.” How do you write about being a caretaker without damaging the caring relationship? How can you convey the realities of that work without undoing some of it? Tisdale’s job as a nurse is analogous, in some respects, to her job as a writer—but there are also ways in which the two sharply diverge, as becomes evident when Tisdale describes the duties of an oncology nurse. “Part of my job is to cause pain,” she writes, “and a bigger part is to treat it, which means to witness it, ask about it, talk about it, listen to all the things people want to say about it.” Listening, witnessing, and asking questions are all things a good writer must do—but here Tisdale emphasizes hearing rather than telling, understanding someone else’s experience without trying to draw one’s own meaning from it.

The lessons of that work surely help explain Tisdale’s sensitivity to the pain of those around her. In the essay “Falling,” Tisdale tiptoes around her brother, who has fallen on hard times after a work injury. “Sometimes I find myself being careful around Bruce, afraid to upset him, because I can’t take him for granted,” she writes. “I’ve nurtured a seed of doubt about my place in others’ hearts.”

What is harmless to one sibling, Tisdale realizes, can open a “river of old pain long staunched” for another. How else to understand why her sister reacted so strongly to “The Basement”? In that essay, Tisdale characterizes her sister, in passing, as “chubby” and “left out”; elsewhere, perhaps more hurtfully, she described the many mornings that their mother coaxed their alcoholic father out of bed with a Bloody Mary. Whatever the offense, her sister’s command—“Don’t use my name in a book again without my permission”—accomplishes little, even when obeyed. Removing that detail, Tisdale knows, won’t defang the narrative. It will never be a story that could unite them.

It shouldn’t have to be, one wants to say. But Tisdale’s seeming response not only to her sister’s complaints but to possible future criticisms is surprising: she has covered her writing in warning signs. The essays in “Violation” are mostly unaltered from their first publication. But each piece is followed by a short, sad-looking note in italics, explaining what Tisdale was thinking when she wrote it or what she wanted it to mean, as though to mark it as merely her tentative, inevitably imperfect version of events. Even the book’s title seems to imply that, collectively, these essays amount to an ethical breach, an uncalled-for advance onto other people’s territory. All of this runs counter to the writing itself, at once tender and assured.

“This essay is indubitably pro-choice,” Tisdale insists in the note following “Fetus Dreams.” After the essay “Second Chair,” she adds, ruefully, “I intended it to be sad, and I’m sometimes surprised that people assume this is the whole story. You can never tell the whole story.” Of course you can’t, and of course she shouldn’t be sorry about any of it.

Essay/Term paper: Two wrongs don't make a right?

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Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right?

David Todd
Eng. 102
Essay #5

The question of whether capital punishment is right or wrong is a truly
tough choice to make. Capital punishment (death penalty) is legal because the
government of the United States of America says that it is all right to execute
another human being if their crimes are not punishable by other means. There
are many different forms of capital punishment. Some of the most popular ones
have been hanging, firing squad, electrocution (the chair), the gas chamber, and
the newest lethal injection. In the readings of George Orwell, Edward I. Koch,
and Jacob Weisberg, there are incites to capital punishment that are not usually
thought of or expressed aloud. Also in the movie "Dead Man Walking," the act of
lethal injection, a form of capital punishment, is presented and made visual for
one's eyes. Both the readings and the movie hit on emotions that some people
have never thought about feeling. With the many people in the world there are
many different feelings on capital punishment. Upon reading George Orwell's "A
Hanging," the reader can obviously see that the writer is against capital
punishment. Orwell brings out many of the points that are considered for
argument against the death penalty. Orwell writes "It is curious; but till that
moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man.
When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the
unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This
man was not dying, he was alive just as we are alive." In this quote Orwell
brings out the emotion of knowing that what is being executed may seem like a
monster, but the fact remains that the prisoner is still a human being. Orwell
also brings out the point that when we were a society that conducted hangings,
the executioner would put a bag over the prisoners head. This was basically to
make it so we didn't have to watch the facial expressions of the dying because
it would make society feel guilty.
Another writer against capital punishment is Jacob Weisberg. In
Weisburg's "This Is Your Death," the reader must take into account that most of
the public is immune to seeing violence on the TV and that broadcasting
executions live would just be another form of entertainment. Weisberg writes
also about the inhumane and cruel death penalties we have devised to kill
criminals. Weisberg tells of the pain and suffering of the prisoners that goes
on during an execution. Even if one was watching, one may not always be able to
see what is really going on. Weisberg goes into a deep explanation of the many
death penalties. Upon reading, one may be shocked as to what really goes on in
an execution. For example, the gas chamber kills people by hypoxia. Hypoxia
means "the cut-off of oxygen to the brain." One can't understand the pain they
are feeling unless one has suffered a heart attack which has many of the same
sensations. Weisberg explains that "all methods of execution can be botched."
If an execution were to be botched, then that would only mean more pain and
suffering for the one being executed. Weisberg states that "electrocutions go
wrong frequently and dramatically." An example is while a prisoner was being
electrocuted, the voltage had been lowered to 100 volts because of a synthetic
sponge. At a 100 volts one's body is simply tortured until death. This might
seem to come under cruel punishments.
Another opinion on capital punishment is conveyed by Edward I. Koch. In
Koch's "Death and Justice," he yields the position of being for capital
punishment. He tries to counteract all of the points brought about by the
arguments against capital punishment. Koch says "it's not the method that
really troubles opponents. It's the death itself they consider barbaric." He
relates the barbaric act of the death penalty to radical surgery, radiation, or
chemotherapy in attempts to cure cancer. This is a pretty far stretch. Koch
also is the first to bring out the fact that the Bible says it is wrong to kill
another human being. Koch disproves this by telling the reader that the Torah
says the death may be used as a punishment. There are many different religions
so the topic of religion is a hard one to use as an argument for or against
capital punishment.
Another opinion on capital punishment is the neutral position. This
position is covered in the movie "Dead Man Walking." The director helps you to
visualize both sides of the argument without telling you which one to choose.
The movie fairly and accurately depicts both the emotions of the victims family
members who are for the death penalty and also the feeling of the criminal and
his family. This is good because it leaves the observer still in question of
what the right choice is if they didn't have an already formed opinion. In
today's society no one can tell you how you feel. This is a touchy subject and
people will try to influence others, but it all comes back to the person making
the decision for themselves.


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