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The Rock Pile In the Swamp

ISSUE:  Summer 2003

I want to speak against the grain of assumption, the assumption that memoir has no aesthetics, that it’s a second-rate genre, a wanna-be novel with neither the guts, nor the coherence, nor the dramatic focus to be a novel. I want to suggest that the memoir does indeed have an aesthetics, one based on the very paradigm of confession, i.e., transgression, abnegation, atonement, and reconciliation. Or to be more specific, the writer begins a memoir with a transgression, a sense of something gone wrong, something out of whack, awry, painful to the point of protestation. Some little murder of the soul. It’s a thorn buried just beneath the skin, and the writer must dig deeper, not merely to pluck it out, but to find its source, the hidden story beneath the wound. In essence, there is always a more difficult quest behind the confession, a hidden truth, seemingly unknown and unknowable, but there, always there, like the pale new skin beneath a blister. The search for it is intimate, critical. It is the source of all mixed feelings, of the conflicted heart. In trying to find this deeper truth, the writer surrenders to the quest and seeks imaginatively to repair the damage with the hoped-for result of reconciliation.

These are the terms. Confessing, in imaginative work, means seeing past the obvious trauma or disaster to the inner confusion and constraint. We read to understand character, to grow wiser through the wisdom of the author. We read not as surrogate “witnesses” to the car wreck, the rape, the brawl, but to discover the inevitable tensions and conflicts that attend such human situations. As in the novel, in the memoir it is human nature we want revealed and it is the astuteness of the writer’s take on his own and that of the characters he brings to us that we attend to. This is what counts. The imaginative art—its ability to convey through clarity of vision and beauty of language—is all that counts.

In the memoirs I will discuss, the thing confessed, the fly in the ointment, is the narrator’s enthrallment with a mythic personality, a parental figure whose bigger-than-life persona overwhelms and confuses the narrator. What lies beneath this confession of enthrallment is the much more difficult and ambivalent road to autonomy . . . what the 20th-century mind has come to label identity. It’s this search for identity that is, most often, the organizing principle in memoir, this intense need for self-definition. In Half the Way Home (Adam Hochschild), And When Did You Last See Your Father? (Blake Morrison) and Fierce Attachments (Vivian Gornick), the narrator is up against the force of a demanding parent, a competitive bully, a fierce contender for the shape and direction of his/her life.

In order for the narrator to see the invisible trip wires surrounding such a relationship, he/she must do two things: (1) step far enough back to see retrospectively the power structure of the relationship— how power is manifested and maintained in the parent—and how submission is enforced and endured in the child/adolescent; and (2) move very close in, showing dramatically how this transaction of power leads to a numbing of the self, a diffusion of will. What the narrator is ultimately confessing is the psychological conflicts that come with the complicity of enmeshment: the creation of a false self, a self that is “passing” as a dutiful son or daughter, and the slow, angry march towards separation. What is so disturbing about this relationship is how compelling and terrifying the pull of the mythic figure can be and how much the child wants the gratification of approval. Such intimacies, as Vivian Gornick noted, are “ruthless intimacies,” ones which, in psychic ways, are a fight to the death.

At the beginning of Half the Way Home, Adam Hochschild muses that perhaps Tolstoy got it wrong. “Happy families are not all alike,” Hochschild says. “They are alike only in being difficult to describe.” In his own family, the mother and father are deeply in love, wed late in life, both in their 40’s, both of wealth and status, two independent people whose coming together was so unlikely, it must have seemed like a miracle. The father, Harold Hochschild, was remote, tenacious, authoritarian, “a world traveler who spoke five languages, a businessman of unusual liberalism,” a man who headed a corporation that owned mines in Africa, Mexico, and Colorado and had subsidiaries and affiliates and joint ventures in many other corporations. He was Jewish but disliked Jews and insisted that Adam have gentile friends. Adam’s mother, a gentile, was in many ways the opposite: warm, engaging, given to hypochondria and empathy for the underdog, a painter good enough to sell pictures through New York galleries. After marriage, she gave up painting and devoted herself to her husband and son, but what was most memorable about her was her undivided allegiance to her husband’s point of view. Adam Hochschild grew up an only child in this most privileged of circumstances, and yet the story of his childhood is the story of emotional tyranny and a resulting fury disguised as detachment. The subject of Half the Way Home is the unhappy relationship between a father and son.

This world unfolds to us at Eagle’s Nest, the family estate in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. It is a beautiful world of lakes and dark evergreen groves, of horseback riding, waterskiing, tennis, landscaped lawns, and homes of dark paneled wood and many-paned windows, dusted and cleaned by a half dozen maids. A summer residence of the rich and powerful. A landscape of plenty and pleasure. But also the site of intense disapproval and repression. It is here in particular that the father has outbursts of displeasure at the young child.

Like bouts of a disease, these episodes always followed a set pattern. First was my crime itself.

As Hochschild relates, the crimes themselves were frivolous: a hobby the father disapproved of (a shortwave radio), a minor social peccadillo (not being polite enough to a guest; not showing enough enthusiasm or the opposite, being too animated). It was difficult, Hochschild states, to know the correct posture, the required amount of participation. Expectations changed from week to week, and the child became anxious, worried, uncertain of his behavior. The second phase was the confirmation of the verdict—Adam was too loud—and the announcement of a meeting for his reprimand. The father never did anything spontaneously or casually but required a formal appointment in which he always presented Adam’s crimes to him in a reasonable, rational voice, his commanding authority suggesting unquestioned obedience. After the third phase—the charge given and then Adam, the culprit, required to respond—Adam was asked to kiss his father’s cheek as a final acknowledgment of his father’s correction and his own aberrant self. It befitted the end of the session in which this child was made to feel gratitude for the parent’s scorn.

Why did this process seem all the worse for his never raising his voice, never striking me? I think because I therefore had no chance to get angry back. I never doubted that he was merciful, and that I was guilty.

With his mother, Adam never felt such guilt. With her, he was a beloved child, a delight and wonder. And yet what tips the balance of Adam’s guilt is the mother’s sanction of the father’s oppression. If the father says Adam has been too loud, then the mother agrees. The noose tightens.

The fear Adam feels is the fear of a mythic parent’s wrath and of how quickly this disapproval merits his own erasure and numbness. Family togetherness becomes cloaked in dread. What Adam learns is to be wary, apprehensive, to seek avoidance and protective coloration. Submission is only one form of protective coloration. Silence and erasure are others. Detachment becomes style, temperament, persona while beneath such disengagement lies rootless rage. A rage unacknowledged, imprisoned, turned inward towards guilt.

How does the son get free of such a disapproving parent? We all know that, in the normal course of events, parents die and the son lives on, but it’s not the parent himself who we must fear, but the inscription of his will inside ourselves.

The fork in the road for Adam came, as often happens, through a casual interaction, one that would not have seemed providential. After his first year at Harvard, Adam accompanied his father to Africa on a business trip and then ventured alone to South Africa, where he had the good fortune to meet what he called “an aristocratic revolutionary,” Patrick Duncan, a man, he was later to understand, who taught him a very important lesson: the idea that he didn’t have to deny his origins (of wealth and privilege) to be weighed down by guilt but could live “by a burning passion for justice.”

One night in South Africa, Adam finds himself a bed in a local YMCA where he meets a young man not unlike himself: white, well-read and liberal on the race issue. In the way of conversation he asks the young man what he’s going to do with his life because Adam, at 19, is trying to figure this out for himself. It begins in just such an innocuous way, how the young man answers that he’s probably going into the executive-training program at Anglo-American (the country’s largest mining corporation) because he wants the best prospects for a solid career and to raise a family. The young man also mentions that one of the executives has a fine vacation home on the beach at Plettenberg Bay. It’s the upbeat, resonant sound of expectation and entitlement that suddenly floods the young Adam’s mind. He, after all, is heading to his family’s vacation home at Eagle’s Nest. What he hears are the voices of his parents and their friends. “And when are you going up to the mountains? To the Cape? To the Vineyard? July? Oh, yes, it’s so lovely then.” And for the first time he knows in his bones that he’s not following the path of his father, the head of a multinational corporation that oppresses so many people, the patriarch and statesman, the formal rule-maker and breaker, the father who has so little pleasure with his son. Suddenly the iron ring of subordination is broken. For the first time, the narrator sees a way out, even if escape is only a rejection of the expected route. The expected route has never been abstract. His father had defined a life plan for him: He was to go to Yale and on to law school. After law school he would work in one of the big New York law firms, then as an aide to one of the bright young rising—WASP—politicians, and from there further into the political world. To reject the plan was to reject the father.

To claim autonomy in this world is heretical, a stab to the heart. In such situations, the only source of strength is a focused rage and the tantalizing glimmer of another life. As Jung noted, the opposite of fear isn’t anger but the will to power. For the first time, the reader believes the narrator just might have the will to stand up to the father, to say no to everything he’s been groomed to become. For the first time the narrator has not only a passion, but a point of view. Only now can he invert the hierarchy; only now can he choose passion as a galvanizing force.

A son’s dread also permeates Blake Morrison’s memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father? The father is conniving, bullying, but with a vital energy that makes him titanic, engulfing, the kind of man who expects to overcome not by intellect or emotion but by the sheer force of his energy. The son, in response, learns to hide within himself, to show only the minimum of emotion, the required response to an invasive force. The father, a British middle-class professional, a GP, loves to cheat in a small way and is trusted because of his “innocence, confidence, and hail-fellow cheeriness.” Always the father sets the agenda and his agenda is optimistic, determined, a decision that implies it is communal, reciprocal rather than enforced and required. A perfect example is the camping trip the father insists on taking during his son’s half-term from school when he is twelve. The chapter is titled “Camp Cuba” because it occurs during the Cuban Missile crisis and the tension between father and son is underscored by this larger cultural tension.

After driving up a hill near Lake Windermere in Yorkshire under a surprising blue sky (it rains almost every day here), they get ready to set up the tent, only to discover the father has left the tent poles at home. Instead of “a night under the stars . . . just us!” they spend the night in a hotel and drive halfway back to meet the mother with the poles. The next night, they find a field near a stream in a farmer’s lot and set up the tent. At 7:30 they’re off to a nearby pub for supper and it’s here that the father begins to drink, begins to insinuate himself at the bar with the locals, buying beer after beer. He listens to the men hail Kennedy a hero for standing up to that bugger, Castro, then talks legends and family stories with them until midnight while the son sits alone, bereft, waiting only for it all to end. They return in wind and drizzle to the soggy tent, then wake early to two inches of water, the nearby pond having overflowed its banks in the downpour. They leave quickly and spend the day in a nearby town, waiting for the rain to stop, hoping to dry out the tent. But the rain doesn’t stop until 4:00 and it’s too late to dry out the tent, too late to go home, so it’s another night in a hotel, another night of the father’s drinking, the son’s isolation, the father’s carousing with the locals, the son’s abandonment. Another night of the Americans in a stand-off with the Russians. And yet at the end of this night, the Russian ships have turned back and to celebrate the father buys the 12-year-old son a whiskey mac. They clink glasses, saluting the triumph over the communist bully, as quietly, unnoticed, the son cries.

The table is set. The father demands and bullies, almost always cheerfully, optimistically, and the son grudgingly complies, at least until adolescence when competition rears its ugly head. And yet here too, the son errs, thinking he will finally beat the old man, show his own mettle, only to discover that the father is still sexually and athletically triumphant, one step ahead in the game.

After a vacation in which the father monopolizes the pretty young rep for the holiday—a young woman close to the son’s age whom he fancies—the son realizes that the father has been competitive with him for the past five years.

I learned to water-ski; so did he. I invited friends down to our North Wales caravan; somehow on those weekends, he always happened to be there. I talked them into going for midnight swims; he was the first out into the night-cold in trunks and towel. . . . It isn’t just a matter of his not letting go, but of needing to prove himself better. When is the old bugger going to admit he’s old? Why does he make me feel, and behave like, the old one? . . . Next thing my father will be telling me he’s given up medicine and applied to read English at Nottingham.

The son can admit his affection for this man only when the father is dying, when there is no longer either competition or invasion, when the father is weakened, defeated, his appropriating power newly dead. Now the father is the needy one. His great fund of energy, as well as his sexual power, is gone. And in the end, the son grieves, realizing that the father is the wall between himself and death, that this towering figure is the last barricade before total autonomy.

I used to think the world divided between those who have children and those who don’t; now I think it divides between those who’ve lost a parent and those whose parents are still alive.

With death, the close conspiracy is over, done with. There can be no more fights, no more withdrawals, no more resolutions except through the filter of memory. But for those of us drawn to such people, the conspiracy itself has been the breath of life, the source of a ruthless struggle, a symbolic cleansing. Death brings no expiation.

The absent patriarch, the orphaned child: there’s no end of possibilities, no end of plots to this one story.

The struggle for Vivian Gornick in Fierce Attachments is with a powerful mother, and yet unlike the other two books, both mother and daughter are equal contenders in the fight from the time of the daughter’s adolescence. What keeps them bound is none other than the force of the mother’s personality, her ability to convert gossip into knowledge, to know instinctively the character and proclivities of her neighbors, to “stamp” those in the tenement as “developed” or “undeveloped” according to her rules of higher thought and feeling.

This pair lives in a Jewish tenement in the Bronx surrounded by immigrants—a scattering of Irish and Italians and Russians—but most of the residents are Eastern European Jews, working-class communists, storytellers, crude philosophers about the political and sexual battlefield of their time. Sexual rage, the daughter declares, is what’s made the women in the building so crazy. “Absolutely,” the mother says. “The European men. They were animals. Just plain animals.” But it is not the men who make up the plot in this book, for men are mostly absent; when present, they’re flat characters, place holders for the action between the women.

Most of the action takes place either in that Bronx kitchen or on the streets of New York where the adult women walk as a way to exercise their hostility. Regardless, in each place there is verbal violence or the threat of violence, an emotional pitch that suggests an explosion, or at the very least, a quiver at the nerve ends.

Rage comes up between them, bad times in which the mother accuses the daughter,

loudly and publicly of the truth. “You hate me,” she says. “I know you hate me!” I never answer. I know she’s burning and I’m glad to let her burn. Why not? I’m burning too.

Like the fathers in the two previous books, this is a mother of great energy and determination, and yet what she touts isn’t fierce ambition but the idealization of romantic love. [H]er instruction to me in hundreds of ways, over thousands of days was that love was the most important thing in a woman’s life,” the narrator tells us. The mother is not just happily married “but magically married. Definitively married.” And yet there’s suspicion about this marriage, about its lack of sexuality and the sacrifices the mother makes (she gives up both political and economic work because the husband requests it). When the father dies suddenly, the narrator is 13, the mother 46. Now the plot thickens as the mother slips into a bereavement that is as complete and suffocating as a winter blanket. Depression accompanies her to work two weeks after the father’s death and follows her home to the sofa where she sinks into a bleak despair. It is a despair that lasts so long—seven years—that it becomes self-indulgent.

Papa’s death became a religion that provided ceremony and doctrine. A woman-who-has-lost-the-love-of-her-life was now her orthodoxy: she paid it Talmudic attention.

What relieves the daughter, distracts her, is the beautiful, red-haired Russian shiksa whose Jewish husband has recently been killed overseas in a brawl. While the mother is all mouth and anguish, criticism and mourning, Nettie is a walking advertisement for sex. Everything about her is sensuous, seething, and though she agrees with Mama that a man is the center of a woman’s life, her route is through seduction, not romantic love. She becomes, as Gornick says, “the whore of Babylon.”

Gornick stands between these two women, enthralled by both, divided inside herself, convinced that love and sex must be mutually exclusive. To give up either woman is to give up her options. The spell is broken not by a specific incident, an epiphany of belief, but by the daughter’s entrance to City College where she first understands the dramatic difference between “hidden and expressed thought.” City College

. . . it did more violence to the emotions than either Mama or Nettie could have dreamed possible, divided me from them both, provoked and nourished an unshared life inside the head that became a piece of treason. I lived among my people, but I was no longer one of them.

The last sentence might have been uttered by Adam Hochschild or Blake Morrison. Neither left his family and yet each carved out a radically different life for himself, inverting the hierarchy of values in order to separate from the powerful parent. Each found a passion that pulled him away and galvanized the force of resistance. Each moved from detachment to engagement.

In my 40’s, I too have an obsession, a fatal figure in my life. I begin to write about my mother. The words don’t come easily or simply. It seems to take years. From childhood I watched my mother from the sidelines—the back seat of the car, the frame of her dressing room door—and from very close up when she let me touch her hair or watch as she put Chanel #5 lipstick on in the mirror. She was very dark, very pale, her hair a raven black, her throat so white it reminded me of lace. She so rarely smiled it was a torture to wait for any such welcome. Joy, if it came, burst out in a frenzy of busyness, a quickening of interest. “There’s so much to do,” she’d say if she got excited, especially when that excitement involved new clothes— which surely had to be altered or fixed—or new furniture that made the rooms brighter, prettier, more saturated with color. When she was pleased, she frowned with such intensity you might mistake it for worry. But then the frown softened and she hurried off to cook another meal, to counsel a former student, to mail a package at the post office.

And yet what I must tell you is a discovery. What I wanted all my life was to tell my mother to stop. Just stop. I knew, without understanding why, that busyness was a deflection and beneath her hurry and bustle lay a pool of rage so thick, so hot it would burn at the touch. To avoid it she collected shoes and lipsticks, taught biology and Sunday School, wrote diets for the hospital, visited foster homes and nursing schools, wrote recommendations and thank-you notes, cleaned the closets and the refrigerator, cooked gumbo and baked pound cakes. She ate standing up, better if it was a peanut butter and banana sandwich washed down with a Coke, a piece of cake pinched off as she picked up her keys. She woke every morning with her hands clenched, went to sleep every night as if she’d fallen into a black hole. She couldn’t stand to be touched, flinched at every embrace. What I always imagined was that the inside of her head looked like a tilt-a-whirl, everything in motion, circling and swirling, high-pitched screams muffled by the constant grinding of the gears.

What she wanted was immunity from the world’s harshness. What I wanted was immunity from her. But of course, that was impossible. She was my mother and I called every week. A dutiful daughter. The one she had groomed. Busy. Tense. I woke with my fingers cramped, a fist beating inside my chest. I rushed from city to city, clocking in ten cities in six years, hauling my stuff in U-hauls all over the country, eating peanut butter crackers in Holiday Inn bathrooms, then quickly getting back on the road. I took the family pattern to heart: became a whirligig of motion. If I stopped I knew there would be nothing there.

And then one day I looked out the window. I noticed the hibiscus blooming a bright flaming red. The sky was blue, serene, a puff of clouds drifting towards the horizon. A bird fluttered nearby, its wings spread like a triangular fan. It occurred to me in an instant that I had no knowledge of pleasure. What was it? Could I have it?

This happened over many years, but in my mind it is a single instant. A stopped moment in which I understood that stillness was both pleasure and resource, terror and engagement. I did not know pleasure. I did not know how to be still. But I had turned a corner. I recognized that the imaginative life was a larger life than anything I’d ever encountered, anything I’d known. And in that moment I wanted it. Wanted it enough to sit very still and ponder the direction of my life.

Unlike the authoritarian expectations defined by the mythic figures in the other memoirs I have discussed, my mother’s authority lay in the power of withholding and repression. In All the Lost Girls, I wrote about another type of struggle, the rush to get the mother’s attention, to turn absence into presence. It was the story of maternal abandonment I wanted to unravel, the story of a daughter emotionally abandoned by her mother, and a mother abandoned by her mother, and so on down the line as if the story were a series of Chinese boxes that fit neatly inside one another, emptiness inside a smaller and tighter emptiness.

My story began in a mining town in Alabama with a scene of my mother at age 12 walking home from Girl Scouts with her 16-year-old brother. He had been sent to escort her on the five-mile walk through the woods to Praco, the mining community in northern Alabama where they lived. My mother was daydreaming about what the scout leader, Mrs. Elgin, had revealed about etiquette—a word she’d only recently learned—about cocktail forks used to pierce the tiny shrimps in a shrimp cocktail and the need to chew food thoroughly before swallowing.

I guess I was dawdling, catching glimpses of dead grass poking through the leaves, lifting that shrimp to my mouth, feeling the tiny prong of the fork on my bottom lip. I couldn’t wait to grow up! I closed my eyes, already tasting the salty brine, about to swallow it whole when I stumbled over something. I didn’t know what, only that I was thrown to the ground. And there was my brother.

Taken completely by surprise, my mother was straddled and raped. Although this trauma was victimizing—my mother’s innocence sacrificed to a brother’s lust—it was intensified by silence. Very early in her life with 11 bothers and sisters, she’d learned that trouble was not tolerated and knew that the revelation of her molestation would provoke wrath. Against whom she couldn’t be sure. Her only hope was that her mother might intuitively see that something is wrong when she walked in the door:


“Get in here and get busy. I’ve got supper to finish and clothes to iron.” “Mama?”

“Now hurry!” She never turned around.

There was nothing to do but get out the silverware, napkins, the hard, mismatched plates. Each fork felt clumsy, stupid. Only the knives felt good. Sleek and clean. I ran my finger down the edge, feeling the rounded curve, then the little grated section. I wanted another kind of knife, sharp, spear-shaped, pointed. I was too ashamed to think of my brother, so I imagined moving towards Mama, quietly, on tiptoe, thrusting the knife deep into those red-raw hands.

The only source of comfort was silence, a silence that lasted 62 years. And yet this act of violence proved pivotal. It was the catalyst for her ambition to get an education, to drop the private self and embrace the public self, to leave this mining community at age 16 and never come back. But it did more than that. It sanctioned repression, made the pleasure of touch suspect, initiated numbness. Why feel when feelings can destroy you? Why not deflect, deny, seek the cloak of immunity?

What I’ve learned from this story isn’t just the horror of my mother’s early life, but an archetype in our cultural stories: the sacrificial daughter and the tendency for sacrifice to be encoded in the family norm. It has taken me a long time to understand how the transference works, how girls become enthralled with a mother who can’t protect them because that mother has never been protected. It is an endless cycle, perpetuated over generations. This feeling of being discarded, removed from the center of power, is so familiar to some women, it is similar to sleep. We don’t consciously notice it because — and here’s the secret—we pretend not to know it. It takes an enormous effort to wake up to the war.

Literary landscapes are as prone to power struggles as the family. Genres fight for superiority, struggle against subordination. The novel in many ways has had the clout of an authoritarian parent while the memoir is more akin to the inferior child . . . or a rebellious adolescent. The memoir, as a genre, feels that it has to toe the line, seek approval or create a splash of scandal. And yet there are these beautiful memoirs, from St. Augustine to Vivian Gornick, from Rousseau to Mary Karr.

And what makes these books beautiful is that the writers have distilled a life, selected from both the torment and the ordinariness what is necessary and insistent. Writing a memoir might be compared to reassembling a rock pile left precariously in the middle of a swamp.

As a memoirist, you look at the rock pile, study its size, texture, density and shape. You think, “So, this is the situation, the context, the stuff of my life.” There are days when you complain that the rock pile is too puny, too paltry. It’s no more than a fistful of rocks. A handful of gray pebbles. Barely enough to stumble over as you walk out the door. On other days you wake to see it as a landslide, a violent mass of sharp-edged boulders, dangerous and slippery and unsteady, likely to collapse, burying you in debris. In either case, this is what you have to work with, and for the moment it doesn’t occur to you to look over your shoulder at the swamp. Your task is to re-imagine this rock pile, to give it a new shape, to re-structure it so that there is inner coherence to the form, clarity to the progression. This means you will have to toss out many rocks, lug the better ones to the front, carving and hammering them to fit, spit-shining as you go.

When finally you do look at the swamp, you notice that it is encroaching, that whatever is spongy and wet is seeping towards you, silently, stealthily, with something like raw cunning. The swamp reminds you that time is running out, that the forces of the world are demanding, aggressive, and have little tolerance for your play. If the rock pile is the situation, the psychological constellation from which you can form your memoir, the swamp is the world and everything that overwhelms and restricts you. It is your family, your job, your insecurity, your doubt. It is a conflagration of forces that keeps you asleep, lulled in a dream world of history. It says you are insignificant, irrelevant. You will discover nothing valuable. You are simply self-absorbed and narcissistic. Go sit on your rock pile and shut up.

But the truth is that once you have finished your memoir, you have changed the world. Your world. You have caused a small revolution, redefined how you see the past and its influence on the present. You have inverted the invisible hierarchies of your people and set yourself on a new path. To some you will be an outlaw. To others a hero. Both groups might be in your own family.

To write autobiography is to be both architect and detective. You look outward for clues, for shape, but simultaneously, you look inward for motivations, allegiances, for the trail that leads to defection and murderous rage, to unwarranted pleasure and the heat of desire. You confess. You meditate. You assess the patterns of your life. What you end up with is a kind of striptease, a chance to come face-to-face with the naked self. In essence, you discover who you are.


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