Voice is identity, writes prize-winning essayist Penny Wolfson in this essay. But what creates a voice? Genes, experience, a life still being lived, those whom we know, those whom we love. Perhaps you think you have some control over these things or, at least, knowledge of them. Wolfson knows otherwise, for all of them have shaped who she is in ways she never expected—and in some ways she never desired.
“Every existence speaks a language of its own.” So wrote the poet Adrienne Rich in her 1969 book, Leaflets. I used the line in 1976, when I was a graduating senior, in an essay I wrote for the college newspaper about Rich, who had come to Sarah Lawrence to speak about Emily Dickinson.
I won a small prize for that piece. I suppose I should have just gone on to write in that language, the language of the essay, and perhaps I would have had a more linear life. But I was ensconced in poetry then—even though I was not a very good poet, even though Jane Cooper, in an end-of-year evaluation, had urged me to take up journalism—and perhaps too young to grasp the grammar of my mother tongue. Instead, for the next decade and a half, I searched for a language of my own, feeling so insubstantial, so shaky about my identity, that all I could think of was that someone might take it away.
I did a lot of stumbling in those years, my twenties and thirties, though the stumbling was always around words. I worked as a proofreader (one of my first jobs was for the Soho Weekly News, in the middle of the night—when Spring Street was still very dark and empty). I attended and dropped out of journalism school. I worked as a magazine and book editor. I considered an academic career in history. I wrote newspaper articles for New York City weeklies. I spent three difficult years on an Indian reservation in Arizona, while my husband paid off his government loan. And I suffered periodically from intense episodes of depression. There were moments, in fact, when my identity threatened to become one simply of a depressive or an ill person.
Although I didn’t recognize it then, I was beginning to forge my own language during the years in Arizona, where, utterly isolated, miles from a library, bookstore, café or park, I began writing sketches of the scenery: cactus, mountain and sky. I thought of this writing as completely impersonal, documentary; but now I see that I was beginning to understand that a description of landscape—and it was a harsh, alien landscape—is usually a description of inner reality.
If that was when and where my language was born, or at least was reinvented, my voice did not arrive till later. Voice is a part of writing that can’t be taught; voice is instinctive, our most natural expression. Voice is identity. When my voice arrived, or was recovered, or was set free, finally, in the spring of 1988, it was under circumstances I would not have predicted.
I never thought my identity would be about children. I hadn’t wanted them, though my husband Joe did. In fact, I was sure that having a family would rob me of whatever fragile identity I did have. I vividly remember enrolling in and later dropping a developmental psychology class in college; I just could not tolerate listening to a bunch of young women talk about babies. I wanted to be an artist, for God’s sake, not a mother! For the next decade, I postponed and avoided the decision to have children. Finally, still on the reservation and still unclear about my direction, just on the brink of 30, I became pregnant.
In 1984 I had a beautiful son, born in Arizona, whom we named Ansel, after the photographer, who had just died. Of course I was enchanted by my child, and many of my fears of motherhood subsided. But in early 1988, back in New York, after a year of evaluation spurred by a preschool teacher’s concerns, our Ansel was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a neuromuscular disease that is genetic, crippling, and ultimately fatal.
Such a diagnosis can be emotionally catastrophic. To hear that your child may die before you, to imagine that you will watch him go through the process of deterioration, to know that he will become more dependent rather than less—these are frightening and painful enough thoughts to blot out any hopeful vision of the future. Genetic disease, in particular, brings up profound issues about the nature of the self. Does the child represent a hidden flaw made manifest, a powerful and negative secret exposed, a metaphor for one’s own feelings of fragility? Had I unknowingly handed my son a bombshell?
Yet I had always anticipated catastrophe. I grew up in a Jewish immigrant’s home—my mother had left Poland as a child—and even in our nice brick house in the New York suburbs in the 1960s, there was always a feeling of anxiety, as though the rug could be pulled out from under your feet at any moment. My Hebrew schoolteacher had been a concentration-camp escapee, and I thought of the Nazis pounding at my door in the middle of the night as a real possibility. If not that, something equally bad. In my mother’s almost mythic and always tragic family stories, twins were separated at birth, a boy of thirteen died of appendicitis in the back of an uncle’s milk truck, his unused bar mitzvah suit hanging in the closet, a grandmother died, literally, of a broken heart when the family sailed for America. Bad things just happened; and even if they didn’t seem to be happening, they would, eventually. My baby had seemed beautifully perfect; but that was an illusion. That he was instead marred, that something unexpected had befallen him, was expected.
So the news was shocking, numbing, and yet, strangely, a relief. Now I knew. The terrible thing with my name written on it had happened. Now I had to cope.
One of the ways I coped was by writing. I wrote about Ansel immediately, the day after his diagnosis, at the counter of a coffee shop a block away from his special ed nursery school. I wrote about him furiously, in a way I never had written about anything. I wrote about him to create art from his small existence, which I was told would be short, I wrote about him because I thought I would drown in the identity of disabled-child’s mother, in the endless cycles of doctor’s appointments, and the ugliness of clinic corridors and the devastating prospect of my child in a wheelchair. I wrote about him because I knew my own life would be limited by this disease, by this increasingly dependent child, and writing was something I could do, at home, where he needed me. I wrote about him to savor his life, to save his life; I wrote about him to save mine.
And suddenly I had a voice, a much louder and clearer voice than I’d ever had. I may have been crafting a language for a long time, perhaps the 15 or 18 years that I’d been writing, a language that had its roots in poetry, was at times as curt as reportage, was grounded in the logic of the academic paper. But it wasn’t until I knew the name of Ansel’s disease that I somehow found the center of me.
Life with Ansel became my subject. Some of this new writing was angry, some compassionate, some fearful, some funny; some was a record of my own denial. Much of it I suffered through; I had never written easily, and I still don’t. But occasionally—I am reminded of the way we move the dial along the radio—there were moments of grace, when my voice crackled and then flowed, suddenly picking up the right frequency.
For a long while I had much rejection and only tidbits of success. Perhaps my voice was still uncertain. In 1998 I returned to the College to pursue a master’s degree in nonfiction, and my writing life began to accelerate. In the years since then, my writing identity has solidified, as I have sold articles and a book, begun to teach (at the college), given readings, participated in panels and workshops. That, in itself, is a vast identity shift for someone who for years saw herself as pathologically shy. And it is an irony that, by revealing my very personal side, I have finally become a public person.
I will turn 49 this spring, and I enjoy being noticed after all this time. I have been writing for so long, and I love the writer’s identity. Yet this work about Ansel is emotionally complicated. I don’t view Ansel’s life as tragic, but writing about him does remind me of loss, constantly. When I won the National Magazine Award in May, sitting beside the managing editor of The Atlantic Monthly, he and I, notably undemonstrative people who had never met, threw our arms around each other, and I cried.
I didn’t even cry at my father’s funeral. Though success is grand, this writing about my child never loses its intrinsic sadness.
I am writing this as Ansel is entering college, becoming more independent, finding his own voice. He is much more aware of his own identity than I was at that age. I don’t know if this is because he is male, because he is of this generation and not of the ’60s, because he has been given the identity of “disabled person,” or because he expects his life to be short—although he has already, at 18, lived longer than the vast majority of boys with Duchenne.
So what story will I write? And how will I write it? There are moments now of trepidation, as I embark on a writing life beyond the subject of Ansel, anxious that I may lose my voice, like a close friend of mine who, suddenly, in her twenties, could not sing and was never able to get her operatic career back on track. Will my voice, so long suppressed and arising so specifically out of the need to write about my son—will that voice hold?
I went walking with my husband last night, worrying aloud about this subject, and he reminded me of something Ansel Adams once said. An interviewer had asked him, “Why are there no people in your photographs?” And Adams had answered, “There is always a person in every one of my pictures: me.” Just like Ansel Adams, he said, “You are always the most important person in the picture. The subject might have been your son. But the voice is yours, forever, no matter what you write. Your voice is your identity.”
In my better moments, I believe that. I am pushing forward now on plans to write another, very different book, which will touch on popular culture and sexuality. I have many ideas for essays, on everything from teenage drinking to bigamy. I would like to write a novel someday. Writing—like living, like parenting, like any form of creation—is always an act of faith anyway, a struggle, a dare to somehow get onto a blank sheet of paper some approximation of experience in a single, unique voice.Penny Wolfson’s prize-winning essay “Moonrise,” originally published in The Atlantic Monthly in December 2001, has been published in the anthology Best American Essays 2002. Her memoir of the same title will be published in March by St. Martin’s Press. She is currently teaching at Sarah Lawrence.