Our graffiti

Lately because of Emily Books I’ve been trying to anatomize my own taste. It’s not that I have to figure out why I like the things I do but it would probably be helpful to understand my impulses as I try again and again to explain what these books do that’s different from what other books do. (You know: “branding.”) To market Emily Books, in emails and blog posts and interviews, I’ve used words like “gross” “kinky” “transgressive” “feminist” “weird” “strange” “fascinating” “riveting” “first-person” “autobiographical fiction,” “weird sex” “sexual weirdness” “queer” “mind-blowing” “consciousness-shifting” “druggy” ”outsider art” “documentary” “druglike” “life-changing” “funny” “hilarious” “oddball” “lesbian” et cetera. All of these words apply but none of them really convey what I mean.

I read a blog post over the weekend that reminded me about the idea of a continuum that connects all the different writing that I like. The reason the blog post triggered this obsession was that I felt like the writer either didn’t know her work was part of a tradition or was willfully feigning ignorance of that tradition. I want to locate her story in a tradition because for years I didn’t understand that my own writing was part of a tradition. Maybe a name exists in literary theory but outside academia there is not a mainstream accepted satisfying name for this tradition. But there are exemplars of it and I want to force the world to read their books, so I have to figure out what this tradition encompasses and what to call it.


Toward the end of my doomed stint at Kenyon College I spray-painted the word “slut” on the dorm room door of a boy who, for the purposes of this story, I’ll call Dave (okay, that was his real name, but it’s also the name of almost all other white dudes his age so I feel okay about using it). It was green spray paint, and I remember thinking that almost any other color would have been more appropriate, more violent and emphatic. “Slut” the color of springtime leaves. Like everything else about the gesture, it needs a lot of context to make any sense.

I had taken the paint from the Art Barn where I was failing a sculpture class that semester. It seems ridiculous that I was failing sculpture but I was. I came to class and did the assignments but the professor, an Ohioan famous for his large cheery site-specific installations in Columbus office park atria, just really hated my work. My work was pretty bad. In a previous art class I had mostly gotten around the limitations imposed by my lack of technical skill by working with appropriation, pastiche and performance, ie I had put on a bikini and smeared myself all over with lipstick for the midterm and built a giant fake wedding cake topped with doll heads and surrounded by bowls of Karo syrup fake blood for the final. But in this class we had to carve and weld, and I lacked both the patience and the innate knack that you need in order to be good with tools. I made two Easter Islandy heads out of wood and metal which were intended to be realistic but came out more impressionistic. Around the time of the “slut” incident I’d been working on a landscape that I’d carved out of insulation foam that I’d sprayed into a plaster mold of my own naked torso, which I’d then painted green and decorated with little sculpee trees like the ones in a model train set. This was my masterpiece and I think it also got a D, or maybe a C-. The professor circled my work like Tim Gunn and pointed out its flaws with one outstretched finger. I guess I was still at the stage of life when I thought I could potentially be good at anything I liked doing.

Another thing I thought I could potentially be good at around this time was acting, so I was taking an acting class, and though I wasn’t failing that one I ought to have been. Maybe I had never considered that great actors have a chameleonic quality—a genius at concealing themselves, “losing themselves in a role,” or maybe I hadn’t noticed yet, about myself, that I am much less good at concealing myself than most people are. I only knew that I loved to get onstage and cry or scream or tremulously declare myself, to generally chew the scenery. Part of it was just the pleasure of being allowed to say the lines. The class had a greatest-hits type curriculum so I had little bits of Shakespeare and Chekhov to memorize for it all the time. I thought I was the best actress in this class for sure. The best actor in the class was Dave and we had a lot of scenes together, I began to look forward to our scenes, we sometimes had to meet outside of class to rehearse.

I am skipping over the part where we draw closer and eventually fuck a) because it’s obvious and b) because I don’t remember anything about it.

I want to also step back from making fun of myself a little bit here and acknowledge that what was happening to me and around me at time was often terrible. Many things were happening, some were great, others were terrible. After a strange period of not fitting in with any of the cliques I’d tried to join freshman year – straitlaced nerds whose nerdiness was not the intriguing kind, sad pretty girls whose habit of eating meals together was forged around what I realized belatedly was mutual avoidance of actual eating – I was finally finding the people with whom I could take bong hits and watch Annie Hall repeatedly. It wasn’t quite my dream of going to school in New York City but it was as close as I was going to get that semester. I also met Val and she became my roommate. Basically things were looking up, with a few exceptions. I still had the frat boy boyfriend I’d acquired early freshman year, who, consciously or not, I’d started dating so that I could be protected from rumors about my “sluttiness.” We were at that point in the protracted end-stage of our relationship that consisted of: we would get drunk and he would yell at me and I would cry and we’d have sad drunken sort of violent sex, repeat. This was my first experience with this relationship dynamic so I guess I can be forgiven for not recognizing it for what it was and shutting it down immediately.

I wrote about this in my book so forgive me if you’re hearing this story twice, but this is also around the time that a girl from our school was found, badly decomposed, rolled up in a carpet in a mobile home miles away from campus. She’d worked at the campus pub/pizza restaurant and a coworker, not a student, had murdered her. Until the body was found, months after her disappearance, everyone thought she had committed suicide. The suicide theory was based on journals she’d kept that the cops had found when they’d searched her room. They said that in the journals she’d seemed depressed.

The weirdest thing about this girl’s murder, besides its having happened at all, was how little of an overt impact it made on this tiny—like fewer than 2000 people tiny—community. I worry that I’m misrepresenting this because it does seem incredible that her death was so downplayed, that there weren’t candlelight vigils and busloads of students attending her murderer’s trial et cetera. Maybe the administration suppressed attempts to discuss what had happened or memorialize the murdered girl. Maybe people were ashamed of how willing they’d been to accept the suicide story.

I was going to school in the middle of nowhere and it was now clear that a girl could die there and no one would really care. Though I’d known this in some abstract way before the murder it was different to know it for sure. I was young and inexperienced and incredibly self-absorbed and on drugs a lot of the time, and I hope that’s why it took me another six months to get the fuck out of there. I had conflicted feelings. Part of me wanted to stay. But another part, a self-preserving part, or at something that functioned as a self-preserving part in this context, set about making it impossible for me to stay. The “slut” thing was the first step.

When I was 19 I spray-painted the word “slut” on the dorm room door of a boy who had flattered me, fucked me, then abruptly dropped me for another girl – a boy I was cheating on my boyfriend with. Why “slut”? Maybe I indulged myself with the thought I was protecting other women with a warning (this is a common form of self-indulgence). I don’t think I was consciously doing anything as complicated as inverting an insult that had been applied to me, peeling something unwanted off my own body and slapping it onto someone else’s.

The act of spray-painting the word slut was less important than its consequences. One of them was that Dave got really angry at me, which was exhilarating. It also became a public enough incident that word of it got back to my boyfriend, who (sorry, again I’m repeating myself but it’s what happened) read my diary to confirm that I was cheating and then confronted me with the evidence. I wonder how much of my diary he read, also whether in another context a reader of that diary would have concluded that I seemed depressed. Also, my “diary” was a school notebook that I left lying around his bedroom.

Another detail of this incident that seems, in retrospect, like a seed that later germinated into some variety of showy, smelly flower is that the girl Dave moved on to was the first person to ever write a mean anonymous comment on any of my blogs. She wrote it on my now-defunct first blog, The Universal Review. This was the blog where Bennett and I wrote reviews and assigned letter grades to various institutions, substances and experiences, and on my review of Kenyon College (I gave it a C) this girl wrote that no one at Kenyon had liked me, et cetera. I don’t know for sure, of course, but something about the details and the context made me suspect it was her. Of course, it could also have been lots of other people.


In the time between my getting obsessed with the blog post and my writing this, it has been transformed into “fiction” – it’s been relocated to a different place on the internet, references to real people and institutions have been removed, and the subject, an Internet writer who the narrator says she seduced via email, has been stripped of his real name (per his request?) and rechristened “Adrian Brody.” In the post, the narrator, a woman in her early twenties, describes in detail how she arranged to meet with the fortysomething Internet writer for sex. She quotes what she implies are his emails, describes her emotional responses, draws out the tension – will he or won’t he make the ethically dubious, self-destructive (because, based on the circumstances of their meeting, it’s impossible for him to be unaware of her intention to write publicly about the experience) decision to have sex with her? Will he have sex with her despite his having a girlfriend (“How old is she?” “Like mid 30s.”)?

Spoiler alert: he fucks her. They fuck in various ways and have conversations about Spinoza, Gramsci, waves of feminism and ways men and women are socialized, Marxism, and porn. He says a lot of things that sound familiar because they’re the same idiotic things men tend to say when they are trying to assert a version of themselves that has sex with beautiful young strangers.

Just to be clear: when I originally read the post, before it became “fiction,” it contained the Internet writer’s real name and even a picture of him and also a blurry cell phone photo of the post’s author with, she writes, the Internet writer’s cum on her face. The next day I was scrolling through my Tumblr dashboard and I saw the Internet writer’s name; he had written a review of a new book by an author who is famous for hating women.

I left the original version of the blog post open on my laptop on Sunday and when I came back to read the rest of it my boyfriend was reading it. He was sitting alone in my parents’ living room in the dark with the light of the laptop making his face blue.

My boyfriend doesn’t love the idea that I could write about having sex with him. Lucky for him I think it’s impossible or at least extremely difficult to write about sex with someone you love, who loves you (also possibly not interesting). That kind of sex automatically precludes any kind of analysis. Not that it wipes your memory clean the moment you roll away, but if you’re standing outside yourself and observing your experience and mentally transcribing your noises and dialogue and remembering what parts touched what other parts in what order, you are by definition not having the kind of sex I mean when I say “good sex,” which submerges the judging, thinking, observing layer of the brain the way drugs, exercise, and (I hear) meditation do. Of course sometimes I am outside the experience and still noticing. But it’s harder to do the kind of noticing that leads to writing when you compassionately mutually love someone. It’s easy to do that kind of noticing when you’re having highly intellectualized sex with someone who exists for you much more as an idea than as a person. Noticing has to have an object, or at least the kind of noticing that leads to writing has to have an object.

The point of writing “slut” on the door, I imagined as I was writing it, was to warn other women to stay away from Dave. The point turned out to be that it (indirectly) forced me to leave Kenyon. So I’m not saying you have to know why you’re doing what you’re doing while you’re doing it. You don’t have to know what the object is while you’re noticing but you do have to figure it out somewhere along the line.


The person who emailed me the blog post wrote “I Love Dick related” in the subject line of her email and sure, I would locate this blog post in the tradition of I Love Dick. I Love Dick is Chris Kraus’s novel about a narrator, Chris Kraus, who falls in love with an art critic named Richard and becomes enmeshed in an art project that entails Chris and her husband Sylvere’s writing the art critic letters which leads to their marriage’s unraveling and then Chris goes to California where Dick lives in order to have sex with him and I won’t spoil the rest if you haven’t read it because you really should.

One of the most powerful things about this book is how Chris uses a variety of both explicit and subtle tactics to illuminate the problem which, at its most fundamental level, is the power imbalance inherent in heterosexuality. “I’ve set myself the problem of solving heterosexuality,” she writes. When I think about this book the first non sex thing I remember is her description of an art-world party that Chris attended as her husband’s plus one – her name, like most of the female guests’ names, not even on the invite list. Late in the evening of this party, the playlist turns to disco and Chris realizes that those songs—Upside Down, Shame!, Le Freak, et cetera—were

“the songs that played in topless clubs and bars in the late 70s while these men were getting famous. While me and all my friends, the girls, were paying for our rent and shows and exploring “issues of our sexuality” by shaking to them all night long in topless bars.”

These are the conditions. Why wouldn’t women want revenge? And why wouldn’t they also, simultaneously, want love?


I was in the car most of Monday and I wanted to write an email responding to the woman who’d emailed me the blog post. At one point I was just going to write a list of the other things the blog post reminded me of:

Katha Pollitt’s Webstalker essay

You’re So Vain by Carly Simon

The Buddhist by Dodie Bellamy

I stopped typing and started having a conversation about the blog post with my boyfriend. He said he’d liked the part where the narrator had explained that, while she was disturbed by the revelation that the Internet writer had a girlfriend – because that meant he wasn’t the pure ethical person she’d perceived him to be via reading his literary criticism (which, !) –she was flattered and aroused that he was overcoming his principles in order to be with her.

Keith said, “It’s like he can do no wrong. I thought that was nice.”

I surprised myself by turning to him and shouting. “It’s a SLAVE MENTALITY. IT’S A SLAVE MENTALITY!!!”

I tried to explain what I meant.

I talked about how Ellen Willis had a theory that women didn’t know what their true sexuality was like, because they’d been conditioned to develop fantasies that enable them to act in a way that conforms to what men want from them, or what they think men want from them. And I thought about how Eileen Myles described the difference between having sex with men and having sex with women, how having sex with men was more about forcing yourself into what their idea of what sex was supposed to be. I told him that in my experience men do not often become suddenly charmed or intrigued by aspects of women that they have also perceived as off-putting or scary. Men, heterosexual men, don’t tend to make excuses for women and find reasons to admire them despite and even slightly because of their faults, unless their faults are cute little hole-in-the-stocking faults. Whereas women, heterosexual women, are capable of finding being ignored, being alternately worshiped and insulted, not to mention male pattern baldness, not just tolerable but erotic.

People might say, you know, what about this guy’s right to privacy, his right not to be written about. Or maybe they would think it was okay for him to write about what the experience was like from his perspective. Do you feel bad for him, in all his bald vulnerability? Maybe a little. But mostly you feel bad for women, who are in this and cannot escape and especially can’t escape themselves. At least they can describe their situation and I guess that’s what part of what I like, when people do that.

36 comments to Our graffiti

  • Aero

    I am continually blown away by both your thoughtfulness and turns of phrase. This was a great piece (post?) and I am positive I’ll come back to this post for years to come. Thank you.

  • Whoa! That’s a really good essay, kind of scattered and intense but very interesting and thought-provoking. I agree that heterosexual love is inherently imbalanced, but why? Hmm. Maybe another Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup will make it all clear. ML

  • Enjoyed your thoughts, thank you.

    “it’s been relocated to a different blog”

    Muumuu House is a magazine =P

  • I loved this so much. I always love your writing and fail miserably trying to comment something deeper than that. But just know that your words always make me think and feel .

  • Unico

    What’s the tradition? I mean, how would you describe it?

  • Hanna Levy

    Slave mentality as your boyfriend’s to you or the girl’s naive acceptance of the internet writer’s abuse of power on her by the perverse logic?

  • emily

    @Hanna, the latter, I think (if I understand your question correctly)
    @Unico, uh, I’ll get back to you!

  • gay

    I saw the connection with I Love Dick also, but not in a positive light. If Calloway is trying to locate herself in the same tradition as I Love Dick it can only be as a terrible regression of the kind Kraus has already criticised:
    “The word ‘confessional’ is not a good descriptor of my work… “I” in this case isn’t the point – That would be memoir. The story of “I.” And mostly I hate that – everything else becomes merely a backdrop to the teller’s personal development. It’s an utterly false, uninteresting view.”

    In short: Chris Kraus is an interesting person who wrote interesting things about interesting things, some of which were things which may or may not have happened to her.

    By contrast, Marie Calloway seems an uninteresting person with nothing to write about but banal situations she seems to get herself into just to have something to write about.

    It’s just like if I Love Dick were gutted of all the insight and analysis which made it more than simply ‘confessional memoir’.

    The greatest insight I’ve gotten out of Adrien Brody is the 2nd from last paragraph of this post, and I had to wade through thickets of Emily Gould’s own personal history to even get to that.

  • gay

    I’m not exactly pleased with the way her involving herself so fully in her work acts as a kind of preventative disarmament either. It feels like criticisms can’t be broached because 1. it would be more ‘mean’ than criticising a more impersonal work and 2. criticisms like the one in my previous comment are going to be taken as attempts to deny her right to the a-personal exploration of self which, as Kraus also points out, men have been granted for years.

    Denying her that isn’t my aim, I’m just saying the strait between revelatory ecriture feminine and tiresome navel-gazing can be a trecherous one which Calloway in particular fails to navigate.

  • [...] Emily says, “People might say, you know, what about this guy’s right to privacy, his right not to be [...]

  • Museum

    Do you ever notice how many times you use the word “I” in your writing? Are you at all curious about the world? Don’t you want to learn anything that doesn’t pertain to yourself and personal experiences? No, seriously. I’m not trying to start shit, I just want to better understand people like you.

  • emily

    @Museum, uh, sure you do. Just like I want to “better understand” anonymous blog commenters

  • Ruth

    @museum: Hey, are you familiar with a POV called “first person”? It’s generally considered quite effective (I mean, by writing instructors, textbooks, writing guides, and other ‘authoritative’ teaching tools) for memoirs, autobiographical essays, and other forms of writing in which the author also functions as a character in the piece! Additionally, it’s widely thought to be an effective tool for bridging the narrative gap between personal experience and the world at large. It can be used both well and poorly. In my reading of this, Emily probes/utilizes both of those poles (well: Chris Kraus; “Our Graffiti” itself; poorly: Marie Calloway) honestly and respectfully.

    Or maybe there’s just something inherent in reading about women’s own experiences in their own words that makes you scared and uncomfortable.

  • tao

    @ruth i don’t think emily said or implied anything about marie calloway using 1st-person ‘poorly’

  • Ruth

    Perhaps that’s just my own opinion creeping in.

  • Rebecca Stern

    Blown away and grateful everytime women (and men) tell the truth about their lives in a way that is enriching, smart, funny, and broad-minded. Actually just telling the truth is enough for me, but the rest makes it extra appealing. Maybe the genre is the miracle of someone actually telling the truth!!

  • katie

    whoever anonymized the essay did a terrible job. you can identify the writer in about five minutes

  • Emily

    This was great.

  • jess

    Katie, I thought the same thing. I’m surprised that muumuuhouse didn’t make more of an effort to attempt to protect the writer’s privacy. As Emily pointed out, his privacy isn’t the point here, but I can’t imagine he’s okay with being written about in this way and it must be pretty terrible for him to have this out there. You’d think that the minds involved would have recognized that even if Marie Calloway didn’t because of her youth. I do think that’s what this is, too, plain old youth. She doesn’t understand her own context, which is sort of crushing.

  • gay

    Speaking of Marie Calloway’s context, Adrien Brody was posted around the same time that peaceful protestors at UC Davis were sent to hospital coughing up blood after having military-grade pepper spray fired down their throats, around the same time that protestors in Egypt were having their eyes shot out at demonstrations… the same time that Calloway and Brody complain there won’t be a revolution because the leftists they happen to have encountered are inauthentic. The anti-intellectualism and political renunciation implied by the entire style and approach of a piece like Adrien Brody is the exact inverse of what we need right now.

  • museum

    Sorry Ruth, as a woman I am not frightened or uncomfortable by a woman’s own experiences in a first person narrative. I tend to read a lot of female writers, I just don’t understand the appeal of this particular one. It sounds like you are acting a bit defensive and making excuses for your friend. After reading that piece I did not feel a connection with the world at large. Stop intellectualizing and just admit Emily has nothing important to say. And I’m sorry Emily doesn’t like “anonymous blog commenters”, maybe someone shouldn’t have put a gun to her head years ago when she started “oversharing” on the internet. My apologies.

  • Ruth


    “as a woman” — internalized sexism is a real thing. It’s sad.

  • Sarah

    This is really, really well done.

  • Tricia

    You know, before i read the MC piece, i was feeling this essay a lot, but what bugged me a bit was the overly descriptive sections about your failed college art works (no one wants to see, let alone read about, sad first year sculptures!). Now that i have read the MC piece, i sort of see those parts as one of the cruxes of this piece and a potentially devastating critique of the MC project.

    Because let’s be clear — this proto-sex work as college art project really needs to be unpacked a lot further than tracking down an internet writer to sleep with and document the process while prostituting yourself for a hotel room and gewgaws from Forever 21. MC is a long way off of Laurel Nakadate or Sophie Calle at this point.

    And to the “I” complainers: Really? You’re bringing that issue to this essay? Sorry, no. Wrong door.

  • Claire Keaveney

    I actually had a man point out a tiny hole in my stocking once (way back when we wore pantyhose to work). He was a middle-aged, paunchy recovering alcoholic. I was 30 at the time.

  • hi

    i am glad a pov of a woman’s (girls’s?) sexual experience is being shared, whether its universal or not, whether you/i agree or not. it’s called oversharing now but isn’t it really just sharing? maybe you have such contempt for “i” statements because you don’t understand we all have a right to them, not only sexually but especially sexually.

  • [...] a review tomorrow due for this other novel called Beauty & Sadness. Meanwhile, T pointed out this on another media platform, and it’s all I really want to read, and reread, and think about [...]

  • katie

    I had sex recently with a guy I met at a party and after I described it to my friends as “third person sex”, ie I couldn’t stop noticing. Thanks for articulating that kind of sex so succinctly.

  • [...] Gould writes really well about the sexual power dynamics that surround these kinds of relationships and writing. What really [...]

  • Dodie

    Great post, Emily. I’m getting excited just thinking about male pattern baldness.


  • Caryn

    I am personally amazed at Emily’s ability to hold a gun to people’s heads and force them to read this blog post against their will, especially given its length and how the tone and use of “I” early on gives the reader a reasonable sense that this is a personal essay.


    I don’t know what to think about all of this except that I don’t think it’s gone as far as it can go, and I’m curious to know what that final point is, that point at which we stop sharing/writing/exploring, and I wonder if it’s good or bad and I don’t know. I wonder how much of it is my own set of rules about what I will and won’t do on the internet, based on now-ancient reactions (ancient = 1995).

    I have been berated about oversharing. I have been berated about “not letting people get to know me”. I have had my words saved and used against me.

    I don’t know what is brave and what is pitiful. I don’t know what “too personal” is and who gets to judge that.

    I do know that I can stop reading anything I don’t like or care about reading. I wish more people would do that. I am kind of befuddled, still, when people read something they clearly hated in line one by someone they do not like or respect.

    But here I am, doing it with Marie Callaway.

  • [...] Stephen Elliot, who I think is the best, got me obsessed with the Marie Calloway / Adrien Brody story. I know i’m very behind the curve on this: that’s the internet. Stephen was late getting to it, two weeks ago, which means that by now everyone is watching some animated video of cats wearing sunglasses and singing an auto-tuned version of Mein Kampf that I will hear about in three months. Whatever. It caused a lot of controversy. Ish. Here’s a roundup from one of Stephen’s email-blog-things: Emily Gould has a long, meta-not critique, something else, on Marie Calloway. [...]

  • [...] Emily Gould wrote a response to the original nonfiction blog post, in which she says that she couldn’t tell if Calloway [...]

  • [...] read Emily Gould’s response to the whole Marie Calloway affair and really enjoyed this [...]

  • [...] Calloway, you may remember, is the author whose story “Adrian Brody” for MuuMuu House caused an internet firestorm for its graphic and thinly veiled account of sex with a New York literary personality. Among the best reactions to the commotion at the time was from Emily Gould for Emily Magazine. [...]

  • I think I had a similar reading of the “sex” in Adrian Brody, but didn’t see the author’s emotions or experiences as so much as “trapped” as willfully having the kinds of experiences she wanted to have. I agree with the point as far as the author’s account evinces evidence of her feeling “conflicted” “compliant” or even, in some sense, “servile,” but that it was also, at least in part, these feelings which made the encounter “exciting” or “erotic.” The way you characterize these strange attractions as characteristic of the heterosexual female, but not the hetero- male, though, caused me to reflect further upon your meaning. I identified with the author’s feelings about the situation in “Adrian Brody”, and I am a hetero-male, but I could not directly recount an experience even roughly analogous to hers. Rather, I identified with the “eroticism” inherent in a situation in which expectations are tenuous, and what is “known” about another person slowly gives way to a slipperier understanding of their desires and motivations…or, the turn-ons of hetero sex. I may even agree that men do not eroticize the same types of flaws that women do, but I could, I think, testify to the inherent hetero-male attraction to a situation in which what is “expected” of one, socially and morally, is difficult to ascertain, or that one is not sure whether one is being “good” or “bad.”

    I am not sure if, overall, this is a concurrence to your point, or the attempt to refute a small part of it. I do think that the variety of responses to “Adrian Brody”, many seeming to allude to, or directly confront, issues of gender and of sexual desire that most would consider “tricky”, should leave little doubt as to the “artistic” merit of the piece. I enjoyed reading your reactions to it, and I hope that the author’s subsequent work continues to stir this kind of discussion.

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