The Professional Veneer Versus Revelation
Stripped of all but its basic idea, Richard E. Miller’s essay “The Nervous System” is an attempt to challenge and eventually reconcile the separation between the public and the private in writing. As a scholarly article published in the journal College English in 1996, this piece represents the struggle of the personal in the academic. Miller wrestled with the socially acceptable public academic discourse and the often-unrecognized personal experiences of authors’ that shape how they enter that discussion. In many cases, writing for the academy attempts to strip away anything personal, leaving behind only unbiased knowledge for the reader to digest. However, at times, the unacknowledged personal becomes a liability and only through honest and open disclosure can it turn into a strength.
While Miller struggles with how to imagine writing as a place where the academic and personal, among other layers, could be “inextricably interwoven” readers do not sense that conflict at the start (Miller 267). Instead, we are immediately wrapped up in a compelling personal narrative. This is how Miller begins this essay: “For his second attempt, my father selected a set of kitchen knives…” (Miller 265). As a first introduction to the topic, and potentially Miller as an author, this is a bold use of the personal. I defined this revelation as a confession – one of the few of the essay – due to its deeply personal nature and the apparent disconnect between the writing that follows it.
However, my decision to define that move as a confession likely says as much about society and myself as it does Miller’s essay. Suicide is a controversial subject – one that makes people uncomfortable for various reasons. The stigmatization of suicide and related subjects are not the point of this analysis – only that their very existence shapes a reader’s reaction to the text. The taboo-ness of the subject, the cultural unacceptability of openly discussing suicide, is why I classified Miller’s opening move as a confession. Despite the rather distant tone, he is speaking of something that is viewed by many as a source of shame, as something to feel guilty about. Not only does he commit the sin of incorporating the personal at the very start, Miller goes even further by making it a deeply personal and uncomfortable confession.
And yet, in hindsight, this breach of etiquette is an extremely tactical decision. Because despite how stigmatized suicide is by society, our culture feeds on drama. The easiest way to capture someone’s attention is to speak of something taboo. If the speaker has special insight into that subject, all the better. The use of confession as the first rhetorical move of the personal serves two main purposes in Miller’s article. The first, to hook readers into his argument and the second, to demonstrate how the academic and personal are, indeed, “inextricably interwoven” (Miller 267).
Equally as masterful as his confession is Miller’s usage of withholding or more accurately, the reason the confession is successful at all is because he withholds. Miller gives just enough for the reader to piece together the events and no more. The first words of the essay show Miller’s exclusion of details – this was, after all, the father’s “second attempt” (Miller 265). If that is the case, then there must have been a first time. A first time that the reader knows nothing about. Nothing of how Miller or his family reacted to the first attempt, nor the effects it had on relationships outside of it. But the reader doesn’t need to know about these things or other details. They are not pertinent to how this story fits into Miller’s larger narrative argument about the personal in academic writing.
Details within the actual story of this confession also show how Miller withholds. He chooses to mention community support but no specific details were referenced. No names used or what the “services” offered were (Miller 265). This recitation has been stripped of all but the necessary details. By only giving the bare bones of the story, Miller has stripped away any extraneous emotional response. Despite its confessional nature, this story is one of the most clinical pieces of personal writing I’ve read. Because, as mentioned before, the personal is often seen as a cardinal sin in the arena of academics. Without being analytical, Miller would have lost his target audience – academics – at the very start.
This analytical distance, while ingenious for this paper and topic, is also one of the strangest strategies I’ve seen utilized. The snapshot that began this essay seemed cold and professional. Before I began this in depth analysis, that felt like the most aloof Miller could be about this topic. He then proved me wrong by removing himself – and his father – from the location of the crime. Instead, Miller states that “we have the scene in the garage with the knives” (Miller 266). Because of the reader’s only experience with a garage in the essay was from the first confession, we know that this “scene” was the aftermath of the attempted suicide (Miller 266). The reason that Miller states this in such a way, is due to the fact that he is comparing and contrasting two different stories. “On the one hand” he subtly reminds the readers of his starting story and then contrasts it “[o]n the other” with a story of an academic presenting to his peers at a conference (Miller 266). The distance helps provide the illusion of impartiality, and allows me to accept Miller’s comparison and analysis of ‘evidence’ without questioning how unbiased his statements may actually be. The matter-of-fact writing is streamlined so that a reader can picture “the scene” and yet not feel overwhelmed by what could have been an emotive recollection – despite the present tense (Miller 266).
The removal of Miller’s personal presence from this confession continued, as the next time the tale is used, the father is referred to as “the man” (Miller 269). Unlike “the scene” just described in this analysis, Miller chose to keep his father on the page but remove himself from the situation. The first time reading this passage, I stumbled to a stop. This sentence continued for an absurd amount of time, though likely not for academics. The usage of several more technical terms which caused myself fatigue may not have been a problem for academics. I had to backtrack several times to ensure comprehension. Then there was the added confusion for the chosen address. It seemed odd for an author who has previously proudly claimed his suicidal father to distance himself and use only “the man” (Miller 269). I paused and questioned at this point – that’s supposed to be his dad, right? Why not just say that instead of “the man” (Miller 269)?
Even while I was asking these questions, Miller answered them almost immediately by stating “[h]e is also my father…” which denoted that, yes, Miller was referring to his confession (Miller 269). It offered clarity, this acknowledgement that it wasn’t a random man – but still Miller’s father. However, the lucidity does not address why Miller would choose to lay out this section in such a way. Why did he pull back into an impersonal third person before immediately reclaiming that narrative as his own private story? The largest reason is that it helps reinforce his credibility to his target audience of academics. Impartiality and distance is necessary in the academic world, even if it is only a temporary illusion. In fact, the professional veneer for this story must be fleeting. Otherwise it calls Miller’s ethos into question. If it had remained as a distant story, then I would have questioned what his intentions were and how honest those intentions were if he could not reclaim his personal narrative.
A more minor reason for pulling back was that it allowed for symmetry within Miller’s article. He was comparing and contrasting this story with another again. By allowing both of the main characters of the tales to be theoretical strangers – the other was a “kid face down in the swimming pool” – it allowed for more balance within this section. By immediately claiming his father, however, Miller acknowledges the inherent complications of practicing such an analysis.
The second to last usage of this story is unique within the essay. It is one of the few sections that is made up entirely of personal disclosure, and the only place that consisted solely of details relating to this personal narrative. Because of the previous passage where Miller refers to his father as “the man in the garage” I was prepared to read this section, especially since it occurred only a scant page later (Miller 270). Miller placed this portion so close to the preceding passage to ensure that his audience was in the correct mindset to read it. That is, so I was ready for the use of distance due to having just read something like it. It didn’t even jar me when Miller spoke of himself in abstract terms as one of the “four children” the man raised (Miller 270).
The final usage of this story is when Miller discloses some of the aftermath of his father’s attempt how it, finally, relates back to his larger argument. It was obvious to me that this confession wasn’t pointless – everything about it was calculated from the start, but it is only at the end that Miller addresses why he was using such a private memory within an academic paper. I had to infer that the relationship between the father’s struggle to re-familiarize himself with living and Miller’s argument, though that inference wasn’t a large leap of reasoning to make. The fact that the father must “learn how to tell the stories he has never told in order to escape the terrible power they” hold couldn’t have made the relationship any clearer to me (Miller 285). If academics do not “learn” how to incorporate their own stories, their own private lives into their academic careers then the personal will continue to hold “terrible power” over them (Miller 285). The unreasonable standard of complete separation will continue to be the norm, and the power of the personal at the university level will continue to remain unexplored.
While there were other points in the essay of personal disclosure, the story of the father’s attempted suicide is the most evocative and also – in my opinion – the best handled. Miller’s choice to withhold details and emotions allowed me to implicitly trust his judgement instead of question every statement he made. The self-awareness it took to be able to pull back into the third person and then return a first-person account must have been exceptional, and yet it felt effortless. Miller’s deeply personal confession could have easily been a liability to his argument, but he turned what could have been a weakness into one of the strongest components of the piece. This expert handling of the personal in a scholarly article shows the possibility to incorporate it into an academic arena. It requires the omission of sentimentality, the stripping of any extraneous detail but the personal can be used as evidence within an article. Instead of ignoring our stories, the integration of them into scholarly work can add another layer of complexity to the discussion, instead of lowering the level of discourse.
Miller, Richard E. “The Nervous System.” College English, vol. 58, no. 3, 1996, pp. 265-286.