EMU professor Christine Hume faces “Everything I Never Wanted to Know” in her new book
“Do I even know one woman who hasn’t been subjected to male violence? Do you? Why doesn’t that admission stop us in our tracks?” asks EMU professor Christine Hume in her new essay collection, Everything I Never Wanted to Know.
Hume in turn does just that—she stops in her tracks to examine the violence and the imperfect structures meant to address it. She takes a critical lens to the ways that women’s bodies have been controlled through expressing productive outrage and through creating a mapping of this issue in our community. Her persistent questioning illuminates the injustices by compelling the reader to consider a response.
Take the National Sex Offender Registry: “Not a single man who has harassed or assaulted me or anyone I know is on that official list. How many men is that? How many men not on the registry does it take to make that registry itself an offense? How many men are we talking?” Hume accentuates the failings of a system that is supposed to contribute to safety. She goes on to scrutinize the laws that prevent offenders from living near a school or passing out Halloween candy, the design of the water tower in Ypsilanti, and a sexual assault case at Eastern Michigan University.
The essay “Icy Girls, Frigid Bitches, Frozen Dolls” looks at the implications of the once-popular Frozen Charlotte dolls in conjunction with a health issue that the author endures. Dolls in general are of interest, as Hume wonders, “What draws me to the doll is the vague but persistent sense of having lost my true and best self. A feeling of having once been more free, disciplined, attentive, athletic, daring, intelligent, and attractive.” The doll becomes a reflection of oneself:
Perhaps I am remembering a time when I identified so strongly with dolls, I joined their ranks, perfectly fulfilling the needs of others and my own fantasies. I left that person behind in an indistinct and instinctive decision to be alive. I let myself cleave in two, splintering first and second person: a doll and child, a writer and a reader. I cannot remember a time when I have not chased both a better tomorrow and looked back for my better self. The now comes into focus as an idealized stereovision of the past and future. The doll holds the self on the brink of awakening into a dream realized, a well-worn Romantic motif.
The essay sits with the moments when society or individuals treat women collectively or individually as something to be managed or even expended. This issue leads Hume to ask, “Are we all dolls to them? Do we all belong to anyone who picks us up?” We can guess the answer to those rhetorical questions, even if we don’t want that answer.
The second to last piece in the book takes the form of a 53-page lyric essay, “All the Women I Know,” which includes pictures of the backs of women in collaboration with photographer Laura Larson. The lines all start with “No woman I know….” (You can read an excerpt of the essay at the end of the interview.)
Hume also asks another question: “Who hasn’t thought when looking at a photograph of themselves: Is that really how I look?” Not only do women have to contend with the violence inflicted against them but they also have to consider their appearance in this world.
Q: The first time we talked was in early 2021. The pandemic was still raging, and you had reached your twentieth year of teaching at EMU. What is new in your life since then?
A: This is a daunting first question! The biggest life change is that in eight weeks, my daughter will be going to Pomona College in California. We are thrilled for her, excited for her adventure, super proud of her achievement, but also trying to reimagine our lives with her so far away. Probably gearing up for this moment, we now live with the best kittens in the world. Since we last talked, I’ve also discovered the sweet, obsessive joys of tennis. I’m on 10 USTA teams this summer and loving every minute of it. At EMU, I’m preparing to teach a fully credited class, “Memoir and Auto-Writing,” at a prison, Women’s Huron Valley, in the fall. With an amazing team of other faculty, I’m trying to initiate programs and supports that will help end rape culture and meaningfully support survivors.
Q: The title of this book is fitting for the topics it contains. Sexual assault, criminality, and ideas of justice are some of the words that the description of the book uses. How did you decide to write about these topics despite them being under the category of Everything I Never Wanted to Know?
A: I started writing the book with the first chapter—though it’s not otherwise chronological. This essay was my entry point. Once I opened for the first time the window to the Sex Offender Registry in Ypsilanti, I entered the rabbit hole, the portal, the matrix, the rat trap, the glass darkly. My daughter was 12 and we were about to go to a neighbor’s party, and I had about 15 minutes and a whim. I had heard rumors about the jaw-dropping numbers of sex offenders in Ypsi, but I had not given it much thought beyond the socioeconomic realities in America. Of course, Ypsi had more sex offenders than Ann Arbor, the same way our air fields more flight traffic from the airport and we receive less funding for schools.
When I looked at a five-mile radius from my house, I found there were hundreds of registered offenders living in very close proximity. I looked up some other numbers and did a little math. Realizing at the time, that one in 56 citizens of Ypsi was on the Registry, sent me reeling. That essay became a conversation with myself, contending with my horror and the horror at my own horror. It indexes my crisis in reconciling how to live with this information and my baseline understanding that the Registry is just another way to criminalize people without racial and economic privilege, just another piece of the empty theater of safety in our country, like Trump’s wall—and just as ineffectual.
The more research I conducted, the more strange and awful I found the Registry and the general attitude toward sex offenders in our country. There is a complete lack of regard for their humanity, which in fact, on a purely strategic level, has a paradoxical effect on recidivism. I wrote that essay, published it with photographs by the love of my life, father of my daughter, a book designer, Jeff Clark, in a beautiful chapbook [Question Like a Face] that Image Text Ithaca published in late summer 2017, just as the #MeToo movement was taking off. I had never written directly about my own experiences of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment, and now the national context compelled me to process those experiences in a different way, one that fully acknowledged the epidemic of gender-based violence in our country while at the same time recognizing that the systems we have in place seem to perpetuate the problem rather than help reduce harm.
At first, my aim was to write an entire book of essays on our Registry and sex offender problem, but then, I hit a limit. The material was extremely difficult and exhausting. I had other essays I planned to write, one about the sadistic, archaic, and frankly, cynical “remedies” that our so-called justice system uses to “cure” sex offenders. I may still write that essay someday, but I was also interested in thinking about another thing that America hates: women’s bodies. I thought this has to be part of the conversation about sex offenders, who tend to be predominately men. Anyone can be a victim of sexual violence, but the problem is overwhelmingly one of men harming women and girls.
Honestly, I don’t love the title [Everything I Never Wanted to Know], but it does do the work titling, warning readers, and creating a bit of intrigue. My first title for this book was Throughother, and I wanted to put a note in the book about it, but my editor thought I should cut it. Here’s the three-paragraph note I cut from the prefatory material:
The title is not Throughother, though for a long time it was. This is the book’s ghost title, a phantom never seen in the pages but felt nonetheless. As a word, though, it gestures towards what you likely don’t know instead of what I never wanted to know.
To be throughother is to be beside oneself, out of sorts, or in state of confusion. It is a word I used to say when I lived in Pennsylvania Dutch country in the 1980s and a word I now think more than I used to say, feeling all throughother when the world is a mess. The word’s onomatopoeia expresses the perverse feeling that definitions only glance toward.
On the surface, the word situates itself between vicariousness and radical empathy. Its compound character might signal their simultaneity. The real title, Everything I Never Wanted to Know, embraces this word’s complexities as well as owns up to willful and cultural ignorances.
Q: Parts of your new book were written already at the time that your earlier book, Saturation Project, was published, as you mentioned them in your last interview. How did you decide which essays to include in Everything I Never Wanted to Know?
A: Saturation Project was a very distinct project, tonally as well as conceptually, and was accepted for publication in 2017. Though it was supposed to be published in January of 2019, it didn’t actually come out until January 2021! I still don’t know why, but I had moved on a long time before then.
Q: In particular, "All the Women I Know" was published in Tupelo Quarterly before this book. Do you consider this a lyric essay or another form? How do you define that form?
A: I’m so glad you are asking about this piece—it was a late addition. I had another essay, a very long one, in its place initially. I wasn’t sure it really fit or belonged in the manuscript, and one of the first things my editor said, which made me feel a lot of trust in her, is that it should go. Sometimes you need a reader/editor to confirm a feeling that you’ve talked yourself out of!
I started collaborating with the photographer Laura Larson in the summer of 2020. We had met at MacDowell in 2003 and recently reconnected via social media. I loved a project she was working on, an exhaustive collection of portraits from behind of all the women she knows. It immediately generated language for me, and I proposed collaborating. I had written to mothers in the weeks after Trump was elected about their responses to his presidency via trying to raise children in this context. How do we talk about sexism and sexual violence to our children and when? How much and when do we show them the world as it is and how much and when do we show them the world we want to live in? These are not the specific questions I asked, but I sent everyone the same six questions and told them I would write a collective letter to our daughters, who seemed in most danger, with the language and stories they sent.
In the end, I used some of this language to write “All the Women I Know.” I’ve excerpted the project in Everything, but it’s a book-length work, currently in progress. We’ve had the good fortune to try out various excerpts and iterations, different ways of presenting the work online and in print, as poetry, text-image, hybrid writing, and nonfiction, in Boston Review, CRAFT, Denver Quarterly, Detroit Skool, Feminist Review, Hoosac Institute Journal, Ninth Letter, Seneca Review, Three Fold, and the MacDowell Conversation on Social Justice, as well as Tupelo. The essay in Everything is not a reprint because it includes different women—portraits and profiles—and a new form. We have orchestrated an experimental performance of the piece on Zoom and made a couple of sound pieces to accompany the images in live performances. It’s an endlessly generative project, and working with Laura has been one of the most inspiring creative experiences of my life. I’m not answering your question maybe on purpose.
Let me try again. We are interested in nonfiction engagements that aren’t confined to traditional modes of “objective” witness and argumentation. By avoiding excessively naturalized literary forms, we hope to recover strangeness, lived affect, queered angles as we challenge conventional ideas of selfhood, narrative, and time. I have called the project many things, not wanting to nail it down too much: documentary essay, text image essay, collaborative litany, for instance. Lately, I have been calling the work speculative nonfiction made of “sapphic shrapnel”—Cathy Park Hong’s word—or more mundanely “profiles” that accumulate into an archive of women resisting.
Q: Would you tell us more about collaborating with Larson on this essay, “All the Women I Know”?
A: The photographs came first, so there was no essay before the collaboration. This essay is pulled from about 160 pages of work, but much of it isn’t in the final version of the book, All the Women I Know, and what will be part of the larger book project will be radically recontextualized. The project evolved out of vital conversations Laura and I had every two weeks via Zoom during the lockdown days of that first pandemic summer. It was such a raw and scary time, full of uncertainty and community care—and I am deeply grateful for the collaboration which has led to an essential and beautiful friendship. Over the past three years, we’ve discussed myriad presentation modes—gallery, recording, performance, workshop—always keeping the book as its primary goal in mind. Every time we publish an excerpt or imagine the work say, as a deck of cards or a video, we understand something new about what we are doing, about the tensions between collectivity and individuality, about our audience, and about where our desires as artists and activists enrich one another.
Q: Why did you begin each line of “All the Women I Know” with “No woman I know…”? Tell us about these lines.
A: This phrase came to me immediately after looking at Laura’s photos. While the project’s title reads like the beginning of a sentence that begs completion (what can be said about “all the women I know?”), the text reverses the equation (what can be said of “no woman I know?) in order to critically reflect on erasure and gendered denial such as gaslighting, mansplaining, and not believing survivors. The phrase is meant to flicker in the reader’s understanding between positive and negative assertions. “No woman” becomes a character—or protective self-naming like Nobody in The Odyssey—as well as the absence of character. The phrase “no woman I know” also grammatically mirrors the small-scale black-and-white film portraits of women, captured turning away from the camera, troubling the promise of disclosure in portrait photography. It also allows me to explore the subjects, always variable, contingent, cumulative, as collective and individuals, vulnerable and autonomous. Formally, the litany asserts complex identities as it challenges the limits of representation, narrative, and legibility within the gendered scripts and postures available within patriarchy.
Q: About your own writing, you write:
Long ago, a teacher told me that my greatest strength as a writer, the capacity to inhabit many perspectives at once, was also my greatest weakness. At the time, I resented the convenience of this quandary, but it’s true, I’m always on-the-one-hand / on-the-other-handing myself. My ambivalence, I came to understand, both embodied the essence of my teacher’s formulation and was, in itself, the problem. Opposites often inhabit one another; knowing coincides with not knowing.
This book serves as an example of ambivalence as an asset, though there are moments when you as an author are firm on a topic. Do you think you have evolved in your approach to writing since hearing your teacher’s observation? When is ambivalence an issue and when is it a gift?
A: Fantastic question. I certainly hope to have evolved as a writer in the last 30 years! Though I could probably fill volumes parsing what has sustained me as a writer and what has fallen away, ambivalence is one aspect of writing/thinking that I think has grown with me. We tend to think of ambivalence as equivalent to complexity and empathy—being able to hold different perspectives and ideas in the same thought and being unable to decide between them. However, ambivalence hinges on binary thinking. It means to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time. What if being ambivalent actually shuts us off from considering responses other than opposites or two sides? Binary thinking is pernicious and incredibly reductive to human experience, and yet it’s very deeply ingrained in all of our thinking. Uncertainty is often a good place to be, but are there two equal sides to thinking about fascism, sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.? Are there only two genders? No.
Q: What classes are you teaching at EMU? What do you learn from your students in them?
A: I love my students and I do learn a lot of surprising and necessary things from them, but I don’t want to think about teaching during the summer! It’s difficult to break the mental hold teaching has on my brain each spring, but it’s important for a revitalized sense of my own writing and ultimately to bring a fresh, energized investment into the classroom each fall.
Q: What is next on your reading pile?
A: I just finished an ambitious review of fourteen feminist image photobooks for the Cleveland Review of Books, and I am eager to get to, in no particular order, The Furrows by Namwali Serpell, Lilana’s Invincible Summer by Cristina Rivera Garcia, Pushing the Bear by Diane Glancy, The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevesen, How Far the Light Reaches by Sabrina Imbler, Francisco by Alison Mills Newman, Mild Vertigo by Mieko Kanai, Depression: A Public Feeling by Ann Cvetkovich, Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism by Lauren Fournier, and a couple of manuscripts I’m reviewing for presses.
Q: What is your next endeavor?
A: In addition to the collaborative book, I’m working on with the talented Laura Larson, I also co-edited a special folio on "the walk" for The Hopkins Review. Anna Maria Hong, my marvelous co-editor, and I gathered about 30 mostly BIPOC, queer, gender minority, and disabled writers into a special issue that features walking as its theme. Writers and artists have long embraced the walk as a way to spur and expand thinking and creating, as an activity that enables immersion in the anonymous crowd or the delights of nature, and to awaken the senses and rhythm. Of course, many turned to walking as release and grounding during the pandemic. However, the tradition of the walk essay as meditative inquiry has also been long dominated by straight, white men, mostly young and non-disabled. This is in part because the tradition of walking alone entails physical and psychic risk and greater danger for many. We were interested in gathering mostly essays, but also some poems and short fiction, to explore walking as leisure, as a creative and conceptual practice, and as a place where private reveries and public perception intersect from underrepresented subject positions that take into account these risks and vulnerabilities. This folio will launch in late summer, and we are planning events for it in Detroit and L.A.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.
No woman I know got ready with her sisters.
No woman I know went to the party with her cousin.
No woman I know went to the party a little buzzed because she was aware of the dangers of drinking at a frat party.
No woman I know on the way there slipped and hit her head on the sidewalk.
No woman I know became separated from her friends when she went upstairs to the bathroom.
No woman I know went with him to his room because she had already known him for a couple years.
No woman I know agreed to wait for her friend in the living room, but was escorted to a bedroom, where a man locked the door behind them.
No woman I know with her face full of needle ice and her body crushed by snow falling from a giant fir.
No woman I know only wanted to cuddle during the movie.
No woman I now only wanted to play e-sports in the dark.
No woman I know felt something in her chest freeze when he called her a tease and a prude.
No woman I know saw his friend blocking the door.
No woman I know saw herself from above, as if looking down through a glacier.
No woman I know pinned and flattened like a blue shadow on the bed.
No woman I know felt her shirt being lifted so he could take a picture.
No woman I know splintered or crystalized on the spot.
No woman I know felt her body being lifted into the air like a child.
No woman I know felt herself being pulled by her ponytail as if it were a leash dragging her back into the room.
No woman I now felt his hand palming her head like a basketball.
No woman I know felt like a puppet being jerked into positions.
No woman I know upon information and belief, when she realized his uncle was the police chief.
No woman I know trying to breathe made her mind as smooth and new as snow throwing off tiny rainbows like alerts where no one ever walks.
No woman I know felt trapped under him, inside an iceberg, under ultramarine light, the colbalt blotches hardening around her.
No woman I know shifting out of time said she wanted to go home.
No woman I know with icicles for vocal cords.
No woman I know thinking of her mother to keep herself in the before.
No woman I know slowed herself down like hypothermia, like hibernation, like whatever it takes.
No woman I know as he squeezed and slapped her breasts.
No woman I know could pull her underwear and pants back up.
No woman I know walked back to her dorm alone and freezing without her coat.
No woman I know agreed not to speak of what had happened.
No woman I know nodded when he asked, “You okay?”
No woman I know still waiting for the shock of sun on her skin.
No woman I know tries to recognize the selfie she took as she got ready that night: her eyes glassy and unshattered.
No woman I know wished she could stay frozen like that in her own memory.