It’s a question that keeps coming up in interviews. It’s why titling a book is no small thing, why titling ours took over 100 e-mails. What does it mean to be “talking taboo?” And more specifically, how do we as a culture decide where we will not go in polite company or public conversation?
I come from a family who will go almost anywhere. Maybe it’s the Midwestern in us that makes typically tacky subjects commonplace. I remember climbing the steps to my bedroom at Grannie Annie and Grandpa Bob’s house as a young girl and seeing the vandalized “No Parking Zone” sign turned into a “No Farting Zone” with a little bit of gumption and white out. My mother was the first to tell me about the mechanics of sex, and I, in turn, was the first to tell my elementary school friends. When I married Rush, I informed him that he would be coming with me to my gynecological appointments because it was important that he knew “how it all worked.” My body was his business now.
It’s not surprising that when we “talk taboo” so much of what we’re talking about has to do with the body. Anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote about how the regulation of the social body always plays out in the regulation of the human body in her classic book, Purity and Danger. It’s no wonder then that the margins of our body, the orifices that are responsible for letting the right things in and keeping the wrong things out, are so hotly contested. The margins of any system are a threat to its stability and thus the most susceptible to being controlled – whether by force or cultural coercion. Even a cursory look into the systematic regulation of black bodies in America – from slavery to Jim Crow laws to mass incarceration – proves as much. (Watch the recent PBS series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)
In Talking Taboo, there are many essays that address what happens at the boundaries of our body – in the form of breast milk and menstrual blood, in the act of masturbation and sex. So, too, though are there essays about what happens at the borders of our social body – in the debate over immigration reform and in the silence on domestic violence victims in prison. Taboo is not just something that is considered off-limits. It’s something so powerful that it must be contained.
In a recent interview for God Complex Radio (click here to listen), I explain that taboo is not something dirty. It’s something sacred. We see this in the purity laws of the Old Testament that carefully laid out rules for protecting the “life-force” of women’s blood or men’s semen. While these rules are often perceived as antiquated or oppressive, they nevertheless show reverence for the body’s ability to create and expend life, a power that is God-like in its mystery . Some things are circumscribed from public conversation not because they are impolite but because they are intimate. Some things are meant for a community no bigger than the trinity.
It is a lesson I am constantly negotiating as a writer. I have had many frank conversations with friends about if I can write about what they said to me, what I thought about that conversation, or where I am challenged. Some have said, no, that was private. Others have said, yes, change my name first. One friend altogether disagrees with my writing publicly about my personal life. Then there is my dad who when I say, “I wish I could write about you getting handcuffed last week,” says “My life is an open book.”
Where I will not go is never just about me. Taboo is never entirely personal. There are always communal constraints – deforming ones, yes, but good ones, too. My body is not my own. Neither is my life. It’s yours, too. Ours. Tend to it.