You keep writing in the second person. Why do you keep doing this? I keep writing in the second person. Why do I keep doing this? Interesting, how a shifting pronoun can turn a question into an accusation—transform a benign enquiry into a bludgeon. Does this give insight into my habit of writing as you? Perhaps. Let’s see. Let’s see just who the second person can be.
Looking inwards, you is the first person in disguise. You is a mind, talking to itself. A mind, looped on itself. A subject, making an object of itself. You is trapped inside you—with you—forever. What could be more intimate? (So many secrets.) What could be more terrible? (Too many secrets.)
Secrets? Be careful. You has a fetish for unspeakable wounds—for scars petrified by taboo like tiny hearts stopped in amber. You likes to pick at half-healed hidden things, whispering, Don’t worry. Ignore what the doctors say. Disassociation isn’t pathological: self-detachment is powerful. Without me you’d never have survived. Without me you couldn’t travel back and forth through time rewriting, revising, rehearsing, rewiring the memories that plague you (that make you). I give you total control. You owe me your life. (I own your life.)
Looking outwards, you is a magician. You can help two people merge into one: a different kind of intimacy; a whole new entity. I love you. I want you. I need you. Just which you is who, here? It ceases to matter: there lies the joy, the horror. You lets two people transform into that singular paradox: a twosome; a couple (that loaded, royal we).
Looking outwards, you can enact severance: another kind of intimacy; another kind of entity. I hate you, don’t want you. We fear you, can’t stand you. This is you rejected, isolated, alienated. This is you blamed and shamed, transformed into anyone’s—everyone’s—scapegoat. This is you who’s lost its we. This is exile (pure agony).
See how clever you can be? How it moves so naturally between the singular and the plural, subjectivity and objectivity, past and present, inside and outside, pointing and beckoning, including and excluding, loving and hating?
Yes, you adores paradox and contradiction. That’s why you is both a rabid individualist and a naive universalist. For instance, the second person yells at the third person: Why are you so damn popular? You don’t suspend my disbelief! You’re nothing more than parody, puppetry, conformity (style). I don’t care who you think you are. Quit performing your Self at me!
You is a little neurotic. (There’s a reason you is so unpopular.)
Yes, you chucks fixations, fetishizations, weaponizations, and demonisations of identity straight into the bin, believing we are only—all of us—flesh-wrapped psychology. Ultimately, this is exactly what we have in common… But you is not a fool. You sees how different bodies are treated differently: which is why it loathes categories that reduce a person to what one sees or believes, as if perception serves anything other than egocentric fantasy.
Joan Didion says writing is ‘a hostile act… the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.’ I feel this most when I read and write as you. The second person transforms me into a dominatrix. I usurp the reader’s you and replace it with my narrator’s: thereafter, reader-narrator must do exactly what I tell them to. You is a body snatcher, soul catcher, nightmarish doppelgänger.
Being hijacked like this can make readers angry, defensive, claustrophobic. You sees this and says, Good! You’s too jealous to allow textual co-creation (readerly interpretation). You wants readers to enact, witness, feel—react—then think. Like life, see? Do you know what I mean? (You know what I mean!)
What Didion ignores is that, if writing is an act of aggression, reading is a willing act of submission. The reader chooses to be the M to the writer’s S. Why? What do you, reader-masochist, get out of this?
Entertainment? Escapism? Titillation? Distraction? Affirmation (ammunition)? The self-soothing comfort of mirrors and echoes? Will you admit to any of this? (Not if you’re ‘literary.’)
More likely the reader will claim, with noble solemnity, that they read to develop empathy: to understand others (thus better understand themselves). Empathy. That increasingly maligned word. Here is the complaint: My stories are mine. Let them be. Let me write me.
Even in the world of fiction—the world of unreal people—the third person trembles in the face of this argument. Why? Because, though the third person knows it’s a dodgy thief, it (being so vain) won’t admit it.
The second person, however, simply shrugs at this complaint and asks, Is anyone so unique? You accepts that, for better and for worse, theft is the stuff of stories: to walk in another’s shoes, one must steal them, mustn’t they? You asks, What’s the alternative? Endless autobiography? And why, you wonders, do people think they know themselves so well? ‘The authenticity of personal experience.’ That modern mantra. That viral dogma. This seems a dubious notion to you—who can’t even tell its insides from its outsides!
You believes that empathy is not a thing (a goal) one can achieve. Think verb, not noun. Think doomed-to-fail process. Think insight, not truth. You lives in a messy world of provisionality (mortal amoral reality). That’s why you wants to change minds (especially its own). That’s why you befriends parentheses: together (anxiously) they can clarify, qualify, amplify and (re)contextualise all meanings and experiences.
You thinks that the problem lies less in who says what, than with inequality (power): that is, whose voices are amplified and whose are heard. You says, I cannot fix society, but I can offer you this: the means to do a super sneaky switcheroo. (Fight fire with fire.) If writers and readers steal your stories, why not use me to rob them of their minds?! That’s right. Kick them out of their own heads! Make them feel what it’s like to live trapped in their lies. Make them see the world from your flesh and your eyes. Yes, marginalise them (from themselves). Make them be what they’ve forced you to be (diminished, dehumanised, despised).
You knows it’s futile to wait for people to care about facts, stats, and arguments: if we felt what we knew we’d be different animals. (We are not so evolved.) You tries, instead, to use the body’s ancient wired-wisdom, believing mirror neurons know more than highfalutin cognition. What does Natalie Diaz say? ‘Bearing witness is an interesting term. Most people don’t bear it at all, they just look, they just look with their eyes and write with their eyes, and go to sleep.’ She might be right (though how can anyone know who does, or doesn’t, sleep at night?). But bodies do not lie. The flesh always bears witness, even when our minds try to turn a stubborn blind eye: sweats, shivers, knots, churns, tears—stopped or galloping hearts.
All of this is to say, I keep writing in the second person because, when you tells me to (compels me to), I simply must obey.