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On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. Selected Prose 1966-1978

On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. Selected Prose 1966-1978

Adrienne Rich


I was brought to this book through one of the essays in it, Claiming an education, that talks about the need for students (and especially women students) to actively claim their educations rather than passively receive them. I still think this is the most powerful element of this collection, but there's lots more to engage the reader.

It's not an easy collection for a man to read, not least because of the sense of powerlessness it evokes – which is ironic, given that many of the essays are replete with the power of patriarchy and men's dominance of women. But there's a powerlessness too, a sense that, as a man, there's no redemption, no way to help or bridge the gap, no way to avoid being an obstacle that women must struggle against despite your own individual actions and intentions.

Some of the essays are nearly fifty years old, but they're aged well, and the issues they address are still very much alive. In many ways they've broadened beyond being purely women's issues. It's easy to read in many of them a rage that any powerless group might feel against any establishment. In some ways Rich's arguments are occasionally almost weakened by their feminism, in that many men in powerless roles would identify with the feelings she examines. But they give a powerful insight into a feminist perspective on life and education (important for me as an academic), even to elements one might like to think were purely objective.

Some of these perspective don't translate well to me, for example the notion of women (especially gay women) often having no sense of real identity because they haven't been realistically represented in literature – the idea being that a gay woman would have no literary role models against which to judge her own feelings and value. As a science-inclined young boy, there were very few good scientist role models in literature either: plenty of "mad scientists", "evil scientists", and even overly dedicated and over-rational scientists, but none who did what it is we actually do as scientists. I'm not convinced that this literary lack did much to impact my sense of identity, I can accept that better models might help to make people's choices more comprehensible to those around them.

4/5. Finished 21 February 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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