Your Attention is Holy – “No One is Talking About This”

About a quarter into Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This , a character declares “[y]our attention is holy.” This is true, but it doesn’t seem like it in the portal – Ms. Lockwood’s term for the internet. That’s because everyday your “attention must turn, like the shine on a school of fish, all at once, toward a new person to hate. Sometimes the subject was a war criminal, but other times it was someone who made a heinous substitution in guacamole.” This is among the most apt and poetic descriptions of the internet. And the first half of this thoughtful and engaging story examines the internet’s weird vagaries and addictive adrenaline. And at times you will think you are reading poetry.

The main character, who is never named, is a woman who became famous in the portal (a “communal stream-of-consciousness”) for a single five-word post. After it went Corona-viral, people from all over the world invite her to lecture about the “new communication.” Frequently, her comments are inane, but so is the portal – so it works. She travels everywhere, shares bizarre opinions about everything, and because the world is connected, her name (whatever it is – perhaps it doesn’t matter) is now recognized everywhere. Still, oddly, she feels disconnected. “This did not feel like real life, exactly, but nowadays what did?” It brings her to that universal question asked by anyone who has been on social media for more than one hour straight. Have I been wasting my time? Probably, but let’s see what Twitter has to say about that.

Reality (in the form of a text from her mother – because reality these days always arrives as a text from your mother) soon intrudes on virtual reality. Her mother writes “[s]omething has gone wrong . . . How soon can you get here?” Suddenly, our nameless expert on everything is jolted out of the portal. “She fell heavily out of the broad warm us, out of the story that had seemed, up till the very last minute, to require her perpetual co-writing.”

Indeed, something has gone dreadfully wrong. Her pregnant sister learns that her baby has a rare disease and will probably die in the womb – which also puts her sister’s life in danger. Against all odds, the baby and mother survive the birth, but everyday thereafter the baby’s survival is at risk. So what’s more real than the portal/internet? A baby with a congenital disease. And no one in the real or virtual world (is there a difference?) is talking about it.

The baby now has the nameless aunt’s whole (and holy) attention. “Through the membrane of a white hospital wall she could feel the thump of the life that went on without her, the hugeness of the arguments about whether you could say the word retard on a podcast. She laid her hand against the white wall and the heart beat, strong and striding, even healthy. But she was no longer in that body.” Eventually, the issue of whether the baby will survive is resolved. Then, gradually, the connected world calls our nameless friend back. But how connected is she to it now?

The internet says Patricia Lockwood is a poet, and the internet gets that one right. Her metaphors throughout are incisive and wondrous. Her style is a choppy stream-of-consciousness that would give James Joyce a happy little boner. The style suits an examination of social media’s impact on society. This is a poetic novella filled with humor and sadness. It is a smudge-free mirror reflecting what passes for real life these days.

Thank you for reading. Your attention is holy.

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

A Brilliant and Funny Priestdaddy

In her memoir, Priestdaddy, Patricia (Tricia) Lockwood’s father is a walking “exception to the rules.” He is, in fact, a priestdaddy. He was a Lutheran minister when he married Tricia’s mother, who is Catholic. Subsequently he converted to Catholicism, and the Vatican allowed him to become a priest. So he is not just a father, who wears nothing but worn out boxers around the house, he is also a Father, who wears nothing but worn out boxers around the house. “All fathers believe they are God, and I took it for granted that my father especially believed it.” Her view of motherhood is more earthly. “A mother, as I understood it, was someone who was always trying to give you sixty dollars.” Her father believes in clear rules and boundaries – for other people. Her mother has never seen a boundary – not even on a map.

When 19 year old Tricia meets Jason online, they become fast friends. So fast that Jason soon shows up to take her away. As is typical, her father disappears “upstairs to fondle his guns and drink cream liqueurs.” Her mother is convinced Tricia will be found murdered on the roadside. But Tricia is unconcerned, because it turns out Jason is tall. And she has always trusted tall men.

Surprisingly, the relationship does not end with murder (maybe there is something to this tall man thing). They eventually are married by her father; however, health issues and a lack of money mean Tricia and Jason must move back in with her parents after leaving 12 years earlier. That is where this raucous and hilarious story starts.

And while there is much humor, there is trauma too. When she was in her teens, Tricia was raped by a family friend. Years later, she wrote an incredible poem, Rape Joke, about this horrific event. The poem went viral and contributed mightily to establishing her as a successful and respected (not always the same) writer. However, that is in the future. The rape, and everything that happens immediately thereafter, is soul crushing.

When she is examined by a pro-life doctor (the only kind her parents would allow), he tells her in a voice without charity or sympathy: “well, now you’ve learned that you can’t trust everyone, can you?” So that’s less than helpful. Plus, is it necessary to be raped to learn that lesson? Couldn’t we just learn it when (inevitably) a friend borrows $5.00 and never pays it back?

Her personal trauma aligns with the global trauma of the Catholic Church’s child sex abuse scandal. As with Tricia, the abusive treatment continues well after the children are raped by priests. Her father is moved from church to church to “heal” the community after a priest accused of sexual misconduct is transferred to a different parish. Her father is either unaware or refuses to see that he is being used to help the church cover-up of the scandal. When Tricia meets the bishop, who will later go to prison for shielding pedophile priests, she sees “[t]he compassion in [his] face, that flowed toward the sinner and never the sinned-against, that forgave before justice had even been meted out.” This is a recurring theme. Where is the empathy for the victims? Why is it reserved only for the powerful and/or corrupt? Why is the reporter revealing the rot discredited as if “publication of the facts is the real crime?” Would we sue a building inspector for telling the residents that the foundation is crumbling and the building about to collapse? Actually, yeah, we probably would.

As with any good memoir (and this is an excellent one), the narration of specific life events (no matter how interesting) is secondary to the search for meaning. “Part of what you have to figure out in life is, who would I be if I hadn’t been frightened? What hurt me, and what would I be if it hadn’t?” Would Tricia be so intellectually curious and honest? Perhaps. Would she be as irreverent and funny? Maybe. Would she be such an insightful and powerful writer? Would she know exactly where to punch us so that all the air runs out of our lungs screaming “what just happened?” We suspect the answer is . . . . Well, fortunately, our suspicions don’t matter here.

This book is a delight. Where Tricia could have been bitter and cynical, she is loving and kind. But most of all she is honest. It is quite a feat. Despite being raped. Despite trying to commit suicide. Despite being unable to get pregnant. Despite having a narcissistic, remote, and strange father, this strong, sarcastic, independent, thoughtful, and deeply-funny person is able to simply and wonderfully conclude “I understand that what I have is enough.” We wish the same for ourselves and for you.

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans