On Friday, xoJane published a most necessary confession. The women’s site that brings you the “It Happened To Me” first-person essay series (“It Happened To Me: There Are No Black People In My Yoga Classes And I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable With It,” “It Happened To Me: My Gynecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair in My Vagina,” “It Happened To Me: I Live With My Abuser,” which the site fucked up royally by posting the name of the writer) ran a piece by xoJane editor Amber Rambharose that reads like an explainer of the confession industry in which xoJane traffics. “Editors Don’t Cry in the Office — I Still Can’t Believe I Did Last Night” isn’t exactly a warts-and-all self-exposé, but a fine piece of meta-journalism that captures the difficulty of having to perform your life in front of strangers when you aren’t quite comfortable with doing so.
Rambharose shares a story about a brief emotional breakdown and the work stress that contributed to it:
We talk a lot in meetings about the spaces we occupy as writers at xoJane. Sometimes, Jane and I talk about the fact that I don’t occupy a space yet. I’m here and there. I’m ether amber. Jane calls it an “air of mystery.”
I’m not mysterious. I’m closed off. As I write this, I think that’s actually too easy. I’m not closed off. I’m hyper conscious at all times of the “optics perspective.” I’m a meticulous, ambitious, young editor until I completely inevitably lose my shit. Last night, I lost my shit. I sobbed. I couldn’t breathe.
Since the late ‘80s when she was running Sassy, xoJane’s editor-in-chief Jane Pratt has filled her staff with personalities expected to perform their designated roles. Here’s how New York magazine explained it in a 2012 profile of Pratt:
At Sassy and Jane, writers were “cast” for their roles in the magazine, making it more like a sitcom with characters that readers could become invested in. It’s harder to do that with so many people filing from all over at xoJane, which can at times feel more like an all-talk-radio program (tune in and hear the overshare!) than a plotted television program. “I hope that there’s enough written by who I consider the key characters that I’m wanting to build,” she says. “So that people feel like they do know the main characters and are following their trajectories.”
You can see, then, why the space a writer occupies would be of particular concern to Pratt and Rambharose. The trouble is that Rambharose doesn’t feel particularly comfortable airing her laundry on xoJane’s line as it involves mental illness, medication, and a host of tragedies:
I staunchly refuse to “go there.” I don’t want to write about sexual assault, incest recovery, self-harm, suicide attempts, hospitalizations, eating disorders, and so on and so forth. It’s so, so ugly. I don’t want to be ugly. I want to be beautiful. I want to be surrounded by beautiful things.
It would appear, then, that Rambharose has been miscast. For the site, she’s also written about books, makeup, hair, Scream Queens’ problematic racism, and mistakes she made in her ‘20s. Those topics don’t deviate from the xoJane’s normal mix of beauty and culture writing, but they aren’t the tough revelations that drive traffic, the ones that made feel like former xoJane full-time editor Mandy Stadtmiller feel like a “roving predator bent on turning other people’s lives into 1,200-word essays on the human experience” as she solicited them from freelancers.
Rambharose’s piece maintains its grim tone throughout, seeming to suggest at its conclusion that she is writing against her will:
I don’t care about my feelings or my blood sugar or my mental illness, but Jane does. Jane wants me to write. So I’m writing and I’m feeling and, quite frankly, it’s embarrassing and it sucks, but I’m doing it for her because she told me to breathe in and breathe out and she called the car and told me I could go home. I’m writing this way for her. If it sticks, maybe I’ll keep at it for myself. We’ll see.
Once commenters responded by accusing Pratt of editorial vampirism, Rambharose left her own comments in defense of her employer. “The Jane-blaming here is totally absurd,” she said in one. “I reviewed the language in this piece and nowhere does it say, ‘JANE MADE ME WRITE ABOUT TRAUMA.’ Jane has never pushed me to write about trauma. She encourages me as a writer to be honest and not veil my work in jokes I don’t think are funny or trite tweeness I don’t feel or mean,” she wrote in another.
Rambharose also shared a story about Pratt dissuading her from writing about trauma:
I confided in another coworker about some of my published incest poems (this was before the pushcart nom. and me feeling stronger about my poetic voice) and she brought it up in a staff meeting to Jane as a possible traffic driving IHTM. Jane wouldn’t hear of it. She spoke with me afterwards and told me that I am in control of my voice as a writer, my work as and editor, and my future and that I should never feel like I have throw myself to the wolves for clicks.
That stuck with me and that’s why I’ve stuck around and why I could finally write this piece and feel like a bad ass.
Perhaps the pressure to confess that Rambharose seems to feel comes more from the site’s mission than directly from Pratt. In that case xoJane may not be the right platform for her. (She’s good and could really use a platform, too.) Perhaps the confessional essay just isn’t the right medium for her to share her trauma—as she says, she’s written poetry on the subject—but for now, the confessional essay is the primary medium through which people consume the traumas of others, and xoJane is an industry-leading producer.
But as troubled by her job as she appears to be, Rambharose’s description of her misgivings is a refreshing read at a time when it’s very easy to take for granted just how brutal the experience of pouring your life onto the internet can be. Besides, reluctant xoJane staffer is a much more unique cultural space than victim/survivor.
I reached out to Time Inc. (which now owns xoJane), and Rambharose for comment. Time Inc., declined to respond and I have yet to hear back from Rambharose. If I do, I will update this post.
[Image via Getty]