“Whatever is true for you is the most important thing.
To hell with the rest of it.” —Susan Chernak McElroy
By Cat Saunders
A reader e-mailed me to comment about something I wrote in “The Secret Value of Silent Days.” In that column, I mentioned using a calculator to estimate how much time I’d spent in silence in the last 20 years since I started doing regular silent days.
To support her criticism, the reader offered a quotation by Sam Keen that was published elsewhere in the same issue:
“I find the public revelation of intimate sexual and spiritual experiences increasingly distasteful. I suspect that true saints and great lovers don’t advertise their prowess, parade their tenderness or exhibit their compassion to be seen by all. There is something I admire about the nearly obsolete virtues of shyness and modesty. Strong and silent go together more often than not. It is not seemly to speak too much about sacred things in public. Words of endearment, like prayer, are best spoken in a whisper.”
The humor was not lost on me that someone wrote to complain that I’d said too much about being silent. Irony aside, I responded by agreeing that Sam Keen may be right. In any case, I certainly was no saint, so there were no worries about that!
Later I noticed something was still bugging me about that email exchange. It wasn’t that a reader had criticized me. After all, criticism comes with the territory of being a writer. Rather, I realized how much I believe in the power of truth-telling, even if it’s about sexual or spiritual subjects. And even if it includes numerical calculations. In short, I realized that I questioned the sentiments expressed by Keen.
First let me say that I’ve respected Sam Keen’s work for about 30 years now. Regarding the above quotation, I understand and sometimes share Keen’s objections. Even so, I rebel against the idea that it’s “distasteful” to disclose intimate details of a sexual or sacred nature. Despite my personal penchant for silence, I reject the idea that “strong and silent” is necessarily good for everyone. I also refuse to believe that it’s necessarily best to whisper prayers.
There are countless ways to pray. Different religions have wildly contrasting styles of prayer. Some forms of prayer are downright boisterous and loud. In a cosmos as outrageously mysterious as ours, I can’t imagine that everyone should whisper sedately when they pray.
As for publicly exposing intimate sexual or sacred information, I hear what Sam Keen is saying. However, I personally feel uncomfortable when I find myself judging the “humility quotient” of other people’s self-disclosures. How do I know where they’re coming from? How would I know why they said what they said? And who am I to judge how much it cost them to expose the soft underbelly of their vulnerablity?
What may seem like exhibitionism to me may be a profound act of courage for someone else. Who am I to say what kind of details other people can share before their self-disclosures become “distasteful”? Who am I to say that others should be strong and silent? I mean, whose comfort does that serve, and who says comfort is the goal?
When I started writing this column, I kept seeing the image of a photograph in my mind’s eye. It was a black-and-white photo that became famous many years ago (see end of article for information). It shows the torso of a naked woman whose right breast is missing from a mastectomy. Her arms are outstretched to the sky in an expression of innocent and exuberant celebration.
While researching the Internet to find that photograph, I came across other photographs of women with missing breasts. One of these photos was by model and photographer Joanne Matuschka. Matuschka’s photograph shows a full-frontal shot of her wearing a white dress. The right side of the dress is cut away, exposing her mastectomy scars. The photograph was first published on the cover of The New York Times on August 15, 1993. At that time, it generated more mail than any other cover in the magazine’s history.
Now you tell me, was that photograph distasteful? Was it exhibitionism? It appeared before a circulation of two million people when it debuted. Was Matuschka inappropriately parading the intimate wounds of her sexual and sacred body? Was she lacking virtue when she revealed the detailed contours of her missing breast?
I don’t know your answer, but I’ll tell you mine. I think Matuschka’s photograph is awesome and earth-shaking and deeply important. I’m grateful she had the guts to show what others hide in fear and shame. In Matuschka’s case, she later described in explicit detail exactly why she did what she did. The truth is, only she knew the truth behind her actions.
Move over, all you strong and silent types. There are lots of us who know the strength of living out loud.
This article was originally published by Evergreen Monthly (October 2004) and updated in June 2017.
To learn more about Joanne Matuschka’s work, please visit www.matuschka.net.
Special thanks to Sonya Lea and Wendy Zieve, who contacted me after this column was originally published. They let me know that Deena Metzger is the woman in the photograph I remembered from years ago (photograph by Hella Hammid).
The photograph of Deena Metzger is available in a poster designed by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville (see “Tree Poster” at www.deenametzger.net).
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).