Out of Necessity: On Christine Hume’s “Everything I Never Wanted to Know”
By Juliana SpahrApril 13, 2023
Everything I Never Wanted to Know by Christine Hume
It’s been too much and yet it also has been a needed and necessary reckoning. What has been consistent about these moments as I have experienced them is that everyone involved wants to do right, and yet there is no consensus about what is the right thing to do. I am fairly certain that few have felt that the callout adequately resolved anything. The reasons for this are obvious. The callout arises out of necessity as an alternative to the legal system’s inadequacy to support even the most clear, articulated, and detailed narratives. But as the National Sex Offender Registry gets replaced by the ad hoc community version, the latter faces the same problems of overreach and underreach. While usually anti-carceral in politics, the callout so often turns carceral because it is not clear what to do otherwise. It is not that Christine Hume’s Everything I Never Wanted to Know (2023) maps a way out of this dilemma, but she does recognize the terrains. And that is part of what makes this book feel so mesmerizingly articulate.
Hume is, among many other things, an academic at a large Midwestern state college, a mother to a daughter, and also, as she explains in this book, a survivor. She is a poet, too, and as I read this book, I could not stop thinking about the ways that #MeToo has changed the small literary and political circles that Hume and I might share. Readings for sure feel different now. They are soberer events. There is less tolerance for sexual advances, and the hegemony of edgelords has loosened. The poetry is also different, less consistently sexist. I have fewer worries when I suggest a reading to a young female student. It used to be that it only took a few readings before someone hit on them.
All of the changes that have come with #MeToo were hard-won; nothing about the last five years has been easy. Hume’s writing reflects this difficulty. Everything I Never Wanted to Know is a collection of essays that combine the analytical, lyrical, and experimental to explore the continued resonances and limitations of the discussion around sexual predation. Nothing is simple in this book, and there are no heroes. For instance, Hume tells the story of Howard Weinblatt, her daughter’s first pediatrician, who was accused in 2011 of masturbating while “surveilling an unclothed person” (as the legal system put it), the person being his tween neighbor. There would be an easy way to tell a simplistic, angry version of this story in which Weinblatt is treated as an exception, another bad apple who gets his due. But the story Hume tells is one of systemic inescapability. She is at the movie theater waiting for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (2013), a movie that she did not want to see, when she realizes she is sitting next to Weinblatt, a sexual predator at “a sexual predator’s film about sexual predation.”
From this story, Hume ponders a series of questions: Is sexual predation a mental illness? What does calling it a mental illness disguise or enable? How do one’s abolitionist concerns understand Weinblatt’s eventual plea deal (which results in him avoiding a felony but requires him to move from his home, register as a sex offender, and pay a fine)? Hume returns to these questions about sexual predation and mental illness later in the book, but with a complicated turn. This time the question is one she asks about herself. “Consider the Sex Offender” is an essay that begins with Hume recounting her own sexual abuse by her grandfather and the callous reaction her mother had to that abuse. When she first encounters “cycle of abuse” theories, she encounters them through fear. She was “haunted by the fear of repeating my history, reenacting it in a kind of zombie trance.”
Ypsilanti is the geographic location of this book, and Hume returns to it again and again. The city is in Michigan, which, Hume says, has “the third largest number of registered sexual offenders in the country and the fourth largest per capita.” Ypsilanti, she adds, “claims far more per capita sex offenders than the two ‘most dangerous’ cities in America.” But the version of Ypsilanti that shows up in the National Sex Offender Registry is in so many ways an example of how inadequate carceral logic and the legal system are at dealing with sexual violence. As Hume is well aware, the registry represents the same “racist, classist, xenophobic, homophobic” tendencies that define contemporary culture because it disproportionately includes Black men as well as gay men who had consensual sex. And while the registry was supposedly created to protect communities from sexual predators, there is little to no evidence that it does this. Besides that, it tends to overreach, like how individuals included on it can be guilty of a wide range of offenses, such as public urination. But as Hume also notices, it is equally characterized by underreach: “[N]ot a single man who has harassed or assaulted me or anyone I know is on that official list.”
This carceral logic is described glance by glance in “The Unregistered: Glances Toward and Away,” a sprawling essay that defines the first section of the book. Carceral logic is, she points out, illogical, defined by “false solutions, unevenly applied and rigged toward dehumanizing already marginalized men.” In this essay, Hume presents 15 “glances” at our contemporary moment dealing with #MeToo. The registry comprises but one story included in this piece. There are also stories about her own doctors’ appointments and about dropping her daughter off at summer camp, where her cabin is named after Lewis Carroll. But I was most fascinated by her attention to the registry because of the way it mirrors the callout. In spite of having a long run in many milieus as the carceral-alternative, the callout, a community-driven response to the narratives that #MeToo authenticated, is a much-debated form of cultural shaming.
After “Consider” comes “Yes, But.” While the first part of the book moves through the complications of state responses to sexual violence, the second section, “Yes, But,” charts the lived experiences of sexism. It includes essays on Frozen Charlotte and on nylons. The second section is dominated by “All the Women I Know,” another series of poetic prose pieces. Each line of her stanzas begins, “No woman I know”—and then is juxtaposed with photographs by Laura Larson of the backs of women’s heads. The series begins with Maude, living in what is likely the early 20th century, and the story of her abortion. Subsequently, each section adds a woman, adds more “fragments of a communal story.” Here, it’s the negation that provokes. The series, of course, echoes the book’s title, which negates the classic self-help formulation of “everything you ever wanted to know about …” It plays with the homophones “no” and “know.” It suggests that we cannot know woman, refusing to affirm or assign a singular meaning to gender. It draws attention to the everyday—“No woman I know disappears into yawning or atrophied hours”—and the not-so-everyday: “No woman I know, when it turned out she couldn’t type, passed herself off as a princess from a tiny country on the other side of the ocean.” It is a fitting ending to this book, an autobiography about being multiple and yet unknowable to oneself, because, as Hume is well aware, there’s nothing consistent to know, nothing easy to understand.
Juliana Spahr’s most recent book was Du Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment (2018).
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