Since I was a child, my family has treated my sensitivity as a symptom of self-centeredness, a way of privileging my own emotions over others’ by, in their view, exaggerating them, inflating them, even inventing them.
Sarah Bernhardt was a late 19th-century dramatic actress from France, earning her moniker, The Divine Sarah, for her celebrated performances as a tragedienne. She was, according to Wikipedia, the best known actress of her time, even once playing a “voluptuous” Judas in John Wesley De Kay’s ultimately banned production, Judas, but admittedly, I’ve not much looked into her acclaimed stage and silent film career. For me, her name represents not an artistic dossier ahead of her time, but an accusation, a dismissal, a compartment into which women are stuffed.
“Sarah Bernhardt” is my family’s nickname for me, and it’s not one meant as the compliment it ought to be.
In fact, it’s a legacy nickname, my mother’s before it was mine. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, Sarah Bernhardt’s name was the response to nearly every show of emotion any of us (but primarily I) had, accompanied by a laugh and the wave of a hand. It was code for, Don’t worry, she’s just being dramatic.
The nickname always stung, though for years I didn’t know why. My family likes to “bust chops,” as we call it, and I certainly wasn’t the only one on the receiving end of the ribbing. For the most part, I ignored the nickname or even laughed along, but the thing about family is that their mere presence can cram you back into a mold you’ve worked years to shimmy out of, and being returned to a person you’re not, maybe never were, makes so many visits home fraught, filled with the land mines of old wounds. As I’ve gotten older and moved away several times over, I’ve longed to come home at the holidays and be allowed the changes I’ve struggled mightily to make, not to mention accepted for the behaviors I default to under pressure: crying, defensiveness, obsession.
In my family, the words “sensitive,” “emotional,” and “dramatic” are used interchangeably. It’s a problem of semantics to lump these terms together, but doing so reflects a familiar cultural attitude. Sensitivity actually refers to a nuanced perception, which means I’ve long understood the subtext of being called “sensitive” in a culture that values a more stoic response to suffering. The quieter you bear your burdens, the stronger you’re seen as being, and expressing one’s pain is equated with an affect, a hyperbole of feeling. In the end, they treat my sensitivity as a symptom of self-centeredness, a way of privileging my own emotions over others’ by, in their view, exaggerating them, inflating them, even inventing them.
According to biographer Robert Gottlieb, Bernhardt’s critics, such as George Bernard Shaw, made similar accusations of the actress. Shaw characterized Bernhardt’s acting as “childishly egotistical,” and yet, Bernhardt’s life was marked first by familial rejection, and then a rejection of women’s oppression. Her mother, a Dutch courtesan, abandoned her at a Catholic convent to be raised, and it was one of her mother’s lovers who allegedly pushed Bernhardt into a reluctant acting career. She never knew her father. But as a young adult, already famous, she took a series of prominent, benefactor lovers (Napoleon III, for instance), and had an illegitimate child, Maurice, whom she openly claimed.
Is it any wonder, then, that Bernhardt might have used amplification as her personal brand of Hamlet?
In her essay “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” author Leslie Jamison attempts to untangle our culture’s fascination with and revulsion to women expressly suffering. In a section about cutting, Jamison analyzes the vitriol encoded in describing the act as an “emo” display: “A cry for attention is positioned as the ultimate crime, clutching or trivial—as if ‘attention’ were inherently a selfish thing to want. But isn’t wanting attention one of the most fundamental traits of being human—and isn’t it granting it one of the most important gifts we can give?”
We recently returned from spending two weeks in my hometown for the holidays. It was the first time my family had had such a significant visit with my almost 2-year-old daughter, Benna, who is also frequently classified as sensitive. Benna generally enjoyed herself on the trip, but there were, of course, hiccups. Unaccustomed to dogs and a higher-traffic, more stimulating house, Benna had daily meltdowns and was clingier than usual to her dad and me. “Hugging,” she would say in a little voice when she was afraid, and one of us would pick her up and hold her. Experts say to use distraction at this age, but this strategy has never worked for my girl. You can’t tempt her with a toy or whisk her to a window in order to turn her attention away from what hurts—she’ll only cry harder, longer. I recognize myself in these moments, recognize the need to have the hurt seen.
“Methinks the drama queen is starting to come out in her,” my mother said one day. And I could hear the unspoken words, the renewed legacy: Sarah Bernhardt.
Jamison describes our cultural backlash against what she calls “wound-dwelling” as the shift of women to abhor and deny themselves self-pity. “The post-wounded woman,” she says, “conducts herself as if preempting certain accusations: Don’t cry too loud, don’t play victim, don’t act the old role all over again.” In other words, we fear that talking too much about our feelings will make people take us less seriously, or earn us the ultimate dismissal: being melodramatic. And yet we wonder where the persistent stigma against treating mental illness comes from, and we call women who eschew pain medication in labor “birth fanatics.”
Sensitivity has been simplified to mean easily wounded, but the real definition has to do with receptivity. Sensitive people pick up shifts in the atmosphere, in others’ feelings, even when those shifts are only subtly communicated. My mother often thinks I manufacture the judgment inside the jokes my family makes, for example. Perhaps she’s right. I often have a hard time describing the evidence my claims of judgment are based on.
But I don’t think sensitivity and logic are the binary we sometimes make of them. Perceiving gathers evidence, and thinking processes evidence. Just as “sensitive” does not necessarily equate to “emotional” or “dramatic,” neither should “logical” necessarily equate to “detached.”
I don’t know what my mother was like as a child, why she was also once nicknamed Sarah Bernhardt. I do know that, years later, she brought her mother—my grandmother—to a therapy appointment in which my mother told her parents how their criticisms of her had made her feel. And I know that my grandmother sat on the opposite couch and said, “Well, I don’t know why you feel that way. You shouldn’t feel that way.”
I’ve always wondered if my grandmother was more upset by my mother’s actual feelings, or by her insistence that they be articulated and examined (by a professional, and a man, no less). My mother, perhaps defeated by such memories, now joins in the joke. Sometimes we perpetuate legacy as a sort of indoctrination, but that’s where I find myself torn: I want my daughter to know her family, but I do not want my parentage to be a liability for her. I do not want her sensitivity to be overwritten with her mother’s nickname. Bernhardt, too, lived her mother’s legacy with a powerful succession of lovers, but discontinued that legacy when she chose to keep and openly love her illegitimate son, Maurice.
For me, the problem isn’t that I can’t go home again; it’s that going home means sitting in the same place at the old family dinner table, squirming into an identity that’s taken me years to remake, and trying to protect my daughter from an inheritance of shame.
The other day, I posted a photo of a sick and feverish Benna wearing a deep pout on her Cupid’s bow mouth. A friend commented with the words I wish we applied to all sensitive children, words to teach them that perception can be a key precursor to reason, and that feelings are real even when they are performed: Your girl feels things so hard, I can tell. It’s wonderful.
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.