The Multiple “I”
In White Girls by Hilton Als
by Megan Mills
My first impression of Hilton Als – writer, theatre critic, a man about town in New York City – is that I like him, but am extremely intimidated by him. I’ve never met the guy personally, but after reading White Girls, I feel like I have. His writing and voice are just so powerful; it’s this power that intimidates me. His voice jumps off the page like he’s in the room with me, speaking the words to me like it’s slam poetry. And I like him because I feel an intrinsic connection to him in the fact that he is a black man and I am a white girl. I remember being called “white girl” in high school, when I was the only one in my homeroom. I remember being told I was rejected from my top choice school because lots of other qualified “white girls” from the region had applied. Yet, all I can picture when I think of “white girls,” are thirteen-year olds in Ugg boots, North Face jackets, drinking Starbucks, shopping at Abercrombie and Fitch, complaining to their friends about some guy named Matt on the lacrosse team. All I can do is cringe. Stereotypes are a bitch. And Als gets that.
His most recent book, White Girls, begins with a contradiction: Sir or Lady. The phrase is not a question, sir or lady? It isn’t a choice, pick whoever, sir or lady. Rather it is one thing, a name, and admittedly a fitting one once you find your way into the essay. The essay is “Tristes Tropiques,” or Sad Tropics, and it is the first in White Girls. Throughout the essay, the longest in the book, Als details his relationship or “twinship” with Sir or Lady, SL for short. The concept of twinship is complex, but at its base is the idea that a relationship is a “we” or an “us.” As Als explains, his sense of self is embodied by this twinship more than it is by his individual “I.” He sees, finds, and constructs his self through his twin, in this case SL. The twinship and thus Als’ subsequent sense of self is based on two key elements: external, cultural references, such as movies or books shared between the two, and white girls. Their relationship, even at its Platonic level, engulfs you. Als’ writing in this first essay is deeply personal in its vulnerability and insecurity. But it’s also beautifully powerful in its intimacy. “That’s how you recognize love,” he reveals, “you’ve never met it before.” This range in writing is captivating; you don’t know what to expect – in style or content – and that keeps you flipping page after page until the essay ends tragically with the death of a white girl, Mrs. Vreeland as Als called her, who was central to their twinship and whose death helped mark its end. You flip the page expecting more, wanting more, needing to know how Als went on without his twin. Instead, you flip the page to Truman Fucking Capote.
There’s probably nothing wrong with Truman Capote. But the shift from personal essay to critical essay, from Als being everywhere to seemingly nowhere, is shocking, even upsetting. I had just started to at least feel like I was getting to know him. But then, I realized, maybe a few chapters after my anger over Capote subsided, that getting to know Als is exactly what I was doing all along. In the chapters that followed, I felt a sense of déjà vu. Having been consumed by not only the twinship itself, but the mere idea and novelty of twinship the first time around, I missed themes central to the book that in the moment seemed irrelevant to the twinship. They resurface in those moments of déjà vu – you read a phrase and realize you had encountered it earlier on in that first essay. These themes, or threads as I like to think of them, weave in and out of the book, tying each piece to one another. Perhaps, they come together to construct the sense of self that Als began talking about in that first essay, a self based on people and things external to that self. Perhaps this book is the construction of the self of Hilton Als.
In addition to Als and SL’s twinship, something else blinds you: the trifecta of Race, Gender, and Sexuality. No doubt these constructions are central to Als’ book as a whole and to each individual essay. Each essay, with the exception of “GWTW” in which Als discusses his relationship to pictures of lynchings and Gone With the Wind, portrays or is told from the point of view of a person who exists across boundaries of Race, Gender, and Sexuality. The individuals in these depictions are more often than not creative personalities and appropriately, the essays show how the individual’s life and art was shaped by their inability or unwillingness to identify with their prescribed set of categories. In some instances, Als leads you to believe that they refuse to be confined. It is partially true. However, he shows the other side of that, the side where the pressure of that confinement becomes too much. Many readers will point, and have pointed to, the essay on Richard Pryor, but I find the best example of this to be the essay on André Leon Talley. The essay titled “The Only One” begins by portraying Talley as fabulousness embodied. His peers revere him. He lives in Paris. You know Anna Wintour, but André Leon Talley is who you should really be concerned with. His theatricality is his power:
"André Leon Talley has been the creative director of Vogue for six years. During that time, he has seen
many looks come and go – the grunge look, the schoolgirl look, the sex-kitten look, the New Romantic look, the reconstituted-hippie look, the athletic-wear-meets-the-street look. In the years I have known him, though, Talley’s own look has consistently been one of rigorous excess. In his way, he has become the last editorial custodian of unfettered glamour, and the only fashion editor who figures at all in the popular imagination."
But. (Of course, the ominous, “but.”) As you read further into the essay, Als slowly unfolds the struggles faced by Talley. At the essay’s conclusion, some daughter of a model has the audacity to insult Talley in terms of his race, his gender, his sexuality. In response, Talley, “shuttered his eyes, his grin grew larger, and his back went rigid, as he saw his belief in the durability of glamour and allure shatter before him in a million glistening bits.” Still, he smiled. But the image shatters your heart even more than the image of Pryor lighting himself on fire because Als had you convinced that nothing could break the larger-than-life Talley.
Talley and Pryor are not the only individuals in White Girls to face scrutiny because they exist above the limitations of their Race, Gender, and/or Sexuality. Claiming that these constructions are the overarching theme of the novel, however, is to simplify the complexity of Als’ work. To say that his book is centered around Race, Gender, and Sexuality would be to undermine part of its purpose, which is to show how these individuals existed, even thrived, in spite of these labels. Instead, there are more meaningful threads that connect each piece to the next. These threads lead you out into the essays following the first and remain to draw you back in, reminding you of where you’ve been, and where Als is taking you.
As I was really digging into White Girls, getting over that Capote angst and seeing beyond Race, Gender, Sexuality and what it meant that a black man was writing about white girls, I thought a lot about Hemingway. Having discovered Hemingway relatively recently, I find that I am doomed or destined, depending on the day, to see a bit of Hemingway in everything I read. (Please don’t pity me; his writing won me over instantly.) Als’ writing was no exception. Hemingway was hiding partially in the idea of twinship, the writer often using the theme of love as sameness himself; but mostly, I found him in the strategic repetition of the book. In many of his novels, Hemingway repeated key phrases that recalled earlier passages and moments, asking you to return, see how the moments were related. Hell, in For Whom the Bell Tolls, it feels like Robert Jordan is laying on the pine-needled floor of the forest more often than not. This shrewd repetition floats just beneath the surface in White Girls. If it’s possible, the subtlety in this practice that Als has mastered could last rounds in the ring with Papa.
To steal a leaf from Als’ book, quite literally, “I should like so much to begin with an idea, would you mind?” He uses this lovely phrase to begin the essay “Philosopher or Dog?” in which Als wonders what it would have been like to be Mrs. Louise Little, Malcolm X’s mother and through her introduces the “mask of piety.” There’s a lot to be said about mothers in the book but the idea of a mask of piety is particularly central to their overarching role and connects them to other characters who aren’t mothers. The concept is introduced before this phrase that Als coins to identify it. In “GWTW,” Als discusses the idea of a modern, metaphorical lynching that he feels in the way people look at him. He uses that feeling to talk about the opposition he would come up against as a writer for not doing “that woe-is-me Negro crap.” This idea persists, the idea that white editors, audiences, people expect and therefore force not only black writers but black men to write and act a certain way that’s fitting for them. Als says shortly after that he knows “many, many colored people who exercise a similar sensitivity where white people are concerned, anything to avoid being lynched by their tongues or eyes.” I wonder if Als is breaking out of that mold in this book, risking this metaphorical hanging so that he can just write. But then he opens up about the time he felt forced to walk on the other side of a dark street late at night in New York City to avoid scaring a white girl, so really, it’s hard to tell.
The concept reappears, if not by name, in later essays. In “A Pryor Love,” for instance, Als says of Pryor that, “being black has taught him how to allow white people their innocence.” Pryor, as others in the book, had to censor himself so as not to offend white people and, inversely, to protect himself from their misunderstanding him. Protection was the original purpose for the mask. Discussing mothers, Als defines it as “the one thing standing between her children and death. Yes sir, yes ma’am, she says from behind the mask. And, with eyes lowered, Please sir, do not kill my children.” As I encountered this idea throughout the book – worn by Als, by black mothers, by Pryor, and noted both by Als and Als’ personification of Pryor’s sister – I realized it’s a mask I’d seen before. To describe SL, Als used a reference to something Flannery O’Connor had said: “[The Negro] is a man of very elaborate manners and great formality which he uses superbly for his own protection and to insure his own privacy.” The mask expands in meaning here and seems less violent, probably due to the use of “manners” and “formality”; the mask has done its job even in words. Thought of in this way, every figure Als describes or personifies in this book is forced to wear a mask, forced to act a certain way to protect themselves from the scrutiny and criticism of those expecting a “narrative [that] preceded” them. The mask raises many questions for this book: is Als wearing the mask, or is this book his big reveal to the white world? How much does this mask destroy the sense of self? What do Als’ white editors and publishers think about this mask and their role in its existence? Was the moment of fear I had for him his intention?
Repetition continues. The idea of self and particularly that evasive “I” act as the antagonist to the preferred “we” of twinship in Als’ first essay. Als struggles with having an “I” while remaining a part of his “we” with SL and additionally worries that SL’s “I” is too strong to be a part of their “we.” With a sign of relief, he admits, “I, you, me, us, words let alone concepts I struggled with as well.” He’s in good company, both with others in the book and his readers by the essay’s end. The chapter on Eminem, “White Noise,” shows the complexity of addressing this “I” head on. Als devotes the beginning of this essay to unraveling the significant relationship between Eminem, or Marshall Mathers, and his mother. The relationship has a fascinatingly eerie dynamic, at least the way Als describes it:
"Mrs. Mathers-Briggs’s identification with Marshall was, from the first, complete, and, as they say, 'inappropriate.' This is not an uncommon phenomenon if one has given birth to a child while still a child…. For the male child of a single mother, Mother quickly becomes synonymous with Wife, and the child is thought of as Husband. Or, at least, the kind of husband she can identify with, since he is small and defenseless and feminized by the tyranny of poverty and Daddy need, too. Just like Mommy."
In the language here, I felt that struggle with words again, only now it’s the struggle of Mommy, Daddy, wife, husband, parent, child. The relationship had a great deal of impact on Mathers’ life, something Als notes looking at a few select lyrics. His “I” becomes mixed in with hers. Looking at lyrics for “Cleaning Out My Closet,” Als comments that “as autobiography, this is interesting. Mather’s ‘I’ doesn’t declare itself until the fifth verse.” Up until that point, he can’t help but talk about his mother. Her self is too much for the two of them.
Other ideas of “self” resurface throughout the book. There are constructions of self, like in Talley’s case, a figure who was constructing his self long before he entered the fashion industry proper. Louise Brooks appears to possess the strongest “I” in the book. In her essay, “I am the Happiness of This World,” she – through Als – repeats “I am Louise Brooks.” At first, this repetition seems confident, as though Brooks is assured in her sense of “I” like no one else Als describes. Look again. Look in the context of the rest of the book, at the struggle of all of these figures to claim their “I,” their self, in a world that is telling them who and what to be. The repetition of this mantra, then, seems forced and hysterical in its insistency, as though Brooks isn’t claiming her “I,” but is defending it, trying to convince herself and the reader that she actually possesses a sense of self. Does anyone in this book truly possess this “I”? Does Als?
The essence of the book comes together in the unlikeliest of places: the essay titled “You and Whose Army.” In this essay, Als personifies Richard Pryor’s sister, an unlikely choice because her identity raises questions throughout the essay. Who is this speaker? How much of her is real? Fabricated? Unlike her counterparts in the book, she’s not famous and she knows it. She never made it and she never struggled in the spotlight like her brother or Talley or Michael Jackson. Actually, this places her in the best position to comment on what she sees, as someone on the periphery, both within and without. The way she addresses the lofty “I” is the novel’s click, suddenly everything makes sense:
"'I' is a sitcom. 'I,' at best, is a pratfall in slow motion. I am an actress, which is to say a woman who pretends to be something other than herself. Risking exposures and not. Richard would never do that. He could never be someone else’s text. He’d always fight to be Richard instead of trying to inform the part – Hamlet, whatever – with the deepest parts of himself.
That’s not what I do. Honor that. Honor the fact that you’ll get more of what you want from me by allowing my 'I' to speak through other characters, scenes, events. Allow me metaphor even though I’m not supposed to dally there."
Pryor’s sister explains what Als had tried to tell us from the very beginning: that the “I” is made up of things external to that “I.” Except she praises this. Expressing yourself through something else – in her case, acting – is the most telling way to express that self. She might as well be addressing every single figure in the book. Her words reaffirm what many of the others struggle with, starting with Als: the idea that the self exists through external entities is valid.
The idea of existing externally in this sense is one of the main themes that Als begins the book with. His twinship with SL is based on metaphor. “SL gave me those gifts,” he reveals, “the movies and books and so on – because he knew, too, that I was like everyone else, except him: I identified with other people.” This kind of relationship existed was in no way flawless. Als, frustrated, thinks to the reader, “and yet SL wants to know each and every one of those persons who had gone into the making of my me. How dare he stand there waiting for my I of selves?” Als in this relationship both relies on the people and references that go into his shared self with SL. Yet this very aspect of the relationship causes him to feel vulnerable, not only in having to share the pieces of himself, but in worrying about the pieces of SL and whether or not they pull him out of their twinship. The connection between this thread in the story, and through the other figures in the essays in between and finally to the prophetic statement of Pryor’s sister is the brilliance of the book. Yes, all of the pieces are connected in a way that’s hidden upon first glance. Even more so, the pieces are connected to create Als’ self. By the end of the novel, he’s realized and revealed his “I.”