On Mansplaining and Memory

Photo by Roel Dierckens on Unsplash

By Christy Lee Barnes

I have only one clear memory from our seminar sessions on Kristin Lavransdatter in graduate school. It seems impossible that I read such a tome but retained only this one memory, but it’s true. Here it is: 

I’d plucked up the courage to share something with the class. I have no memory of what I wanted to share, but I remember feeling nervous about sharing it. I remember leaning forward in my chair—physically pushing myself to speak. 

I’m not particularly shy, but this classroom didn’t lend itself to free-flowing discussion. We were mostly there to absorb what the instructor felt about the book. And when he did pose a question, students who took the bait did so at their own risk. 

So I blurted out my observation. Our instructor responded with a chuckle. A chuckle. Then something along the lines of, “Let’s revisit that thought when you’re a bit older.” (Did he add a “sweetie” on the end? Probably not…that would have been too much, right? But it sure felt like it.) 

Even in that moment, as I blushed to my eyebrows and blinked back tears of embarrassment, I knew that this wasn’t about me. You can’t fault somebody for their age.

As a teacher, I forced myself to remember that moment, that awful feeling. I wanted to remember that whoosh of humiliation, because I never want to be tempted to shame or shut down a student when I’m teaching. 

Maybe he meant his comment as a kindly joke. It didn’t feel that way, but who knows? What I do know is that after his little jibe, I never listened terribly closely to what that particular teacher had to say. 

As I re-read The Wreath, I really couldn’t believe how little I’d retained from my first read nearly ten years ago. But it’s funny—Kristin also absorbs very little from the lessons the adults in her life keep trying to push on her. The phrase “she understood none of this” echoes through the first section until it has an almost biblical ring to it.

Also, Kristin herself gets shut down pretty frequently by some of the men in her life. Even her lover Erlend, upon hearing the plot she’s devised for a secret tryst, responds not with thanks or even enthusiasm, but rather bitchily observes: “‘Tis strange you are so quick-witted. I had scarce believed it of you.” (Maybe he meant it as a compliment. Who knows?)  

In any case, I think I like that my singular memory of my first go-round with Kristin involves both patchy comprehension on my part and a condescending comment from a man. I feel it gives me a kind of kinship with Kristen. 

Maybe I just had to be a bit older to notice all that. 

Christy Lee Barnes is a poet and educator from Los Angeles who now lives in Seattle with her husband and toddler son. Her publications include Prairie Schooner, Spillway, Cream City Review, The Seattle Times, McSweeney’s, Tin House’s “Broadside Thirty,” and other journals.

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