On Authorship and the Self (a reflection on the public “Cat Person” debate)

I remember reading the New Yorker short story “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian when it came out in late 2017. It was a good story. Some of it even sounded familiar, in a way. Yet, I was not sure why everyone else suddenly had the same thought. It’s okay to like what most other people like, I guess. What fascinates me is the question to what extend our reasons for doing so are shared and really ours, or what else creates such a seemingly sudden cultural event. The story hit momentum at a time when its core theme, the uneasiness of growing into the feeling of consent in romantic relationships, resonated with larger public awareness about the sometimes varying perspectives on consent between two people. #MeToo, and all that.

The story’s success cannot be explained simply by its own merits, as it is primarily about the conversational bond it created between its readers. It was the perfect proxy to talk about one’s personal experience in a social setting with a cultural weight that was seldom given to women. The last years have certainly changed that scenario. Meanwhile, the author later mentioned that she had received various letters containing threats and insults by some male readers, who felt that the main male character was portrayed far too negatively. Sure, he was not the most likable guy. But, believe it or not, I’ve known some friends to behave like that. (They received clapback about their attitude, and in some cases, we’re still friends.) Not everyone is thoroughly agreeable. So why feel he was misportrayed? Because Robert, the male character, soon became a representative for a particular type of guy in relationships that now became public property to talk about. And many guys may have imagined that this talk was, in some sense, also about them. That surely must have felt uncomfortable, especially when realizing how some behaviors were judged when thrown into the harsh light of public opinion. This may have felt like girl locker room talk under a magnifying glass to some. (Look at him, this guy’s an arse!) There’s lots to be said about the fragile sense of consent, ambiguous signals, and the uncertainty about general norms and individual mind-reading between men and women, and other relationships. But not here, and not today.

I was reminded about this story today when I read a Slate article by Alexis Nowicki. It’s a good piece as well. And it created a similar social stir. What catapulted her writing into public awareness is that it serves as yet another proxy, this time a proxy for a conversation about the cultural norms surrounding the authorship of our own lives.

At least in half, Cat person was about Nowicki’s relationship with an older guy in college. Unbeknownst to her, the author of Cat Person knew her former boyfriend (on which this story was based), and had also gathered details about Nowicki from her social media profile. Some of the details of Cat Person thus felt eerily personal to Nowicki — personal in a sense different from the connections that other readers had formed with this short story. Public opinion now soon showed outrage about Roupenian (surprise!). Was Roupenian wrong in using the details she had gathered from someone else’s life and social media to write a semi-fictional account of a relationship that resonated with so many others?

That kind of (often extremely moralized) dispute misses what makes Nowicki’s essay truly special — and quite remarkable in my view. It ironically drowns out her voice and experiences… much more than Cat Person could have ever done.

Literature is full is stories that were pulled from real life and reimagined in new ways. Sometimes much to the dismay of the people these stories were pulled from. For example, Klaus Mann’s “Mephisto” (great novel) is about the German actor Gustav Gründgens, who was in a ménage à trois with Mann and his sister Erika. Gründgens was an opportunist, who switched alliances from the Bolsheviks to the Nazis to become the star on the theater stages of the Third Reich. Mann wrote a long prohibited novel because Gründgens’ family sued for its resemblance to the real person. The story behind Mann’s book is a fascinating tale in its own right. And this kind of legal grey zone has been a long-known phenomenon in the art world. (A former lecturer of mine in Berlin had written a book about this issue.)

Nowicki’s case is so much more noteworthy because her response is not a reaction to the resemblance itself or a wild attempt to reclaim the narrative about how things really were. Instead, hers is a profound response to the ambiguity of our own experience — and the fragility of our memories once these memories meet an outside view.

How we experience and remember events often does not match up with the descriptions of others. This can cause severe distress. But it’s also part of the reality of human life.

And so it is this penultimate paragraph by Nowicki that stands out to me:

“We are all unreliable narrators. Sometimes, to my own disappointment, I find myself inclined to trust Roupenian over myself. Had Charles actually been pathetic and exploitative, and I simply hadn’t understood it because I, like Margot, was young and naïve? Had he become vengeful and possessive after we broke up, but I’d just blocked it out in order to move on with my life? The story is so confident and sure, helping the reader to see things Margot herself does not. In December, David told me that Charles kept his old iPhone even after he got a new one so that he could look back at his old messages with Kristen from time to time to see whether he had actually been an asshole. Sometimes it feels easier to believe the story that everyone knows than the one they don’t.”

I’ve experienced many situations which led me to question my memories. Rather often have I found the tales of others that included me foreign to my recollections of those events. Sometimes these tales showed me some characteristics I was not aware of (the good, the bad, the fabulous … and, well, the ugly). It can be upsetting to see an image of yourself thrown back at you that is not curated, that does not mirror the image you wanted seen in the minds of others,… and that certainly gets you different reactions that may not always be understandable. Because it’s quite often simply not about you. (A good reminder I now set myself regularly like an alarm clock.)

At other times, these tales of distortion might be upsetting for different reasons. I think these reasons are what also unnerved many readers of the Cat Person backstory. In some cases, like this… your story is not simply a reflection from another perspective with which you may disagree. Having different views from others does not result in a loss of this intimate sense of authorship that connects you with your own experience. But what if your story becomes a disembodied public good?

The story behind Cat Person gives a glimpse behind the scenes when your sense of authorship about your experience loses its connection to your own memories and instead becomes a reaction to the interpretations of others. That is a highly disorienting feeling.

I sometimes think this is what must happen to some people in the public eye. Their sense of authorship about themselves becomes disintegrated once their self gets reduced to a mere reaction to the perception of themselves by others. Some are born mad, perhaps. But others are being made. (Free Britney!)

It’s about time we stop believing the old Cartesian myth that the self is a subject of its own essence and volition. I prefer Hume’s conclusion that the personal self is an organic and dynamic collection of co-occurring perceptions and impressions over time. Add the social sphere as the primary realm of human experience and interaction, and it should not surprise us that some social interactions can help us flourish… or rob us of this intimate sense of authorship.

Such a perspective on self-authorship carries weight in a world where human interaction becomes increasingly digital. Human interaction turns more and more into a reaction to the outputs of others (let’s jump on another viral trend to be seen!). But it should be more about the creation of something with which we can connect our own experience, and our sense of self.