The Review had the honor to speak with Margot Parmenter, whose essay “Amongst Reasonable Men,” which was chosen by Melissa Febos as the winner of the 2020 Nonfiction Contest, appears in our Winter 2021 issue. In this conversation, Parmenter touches upon the beginnings of her writing career, an emphasis on a certain kind of performance, and the importance of one’s own interior.
—Jennie Vite, Assistant Editor
SR: “Amongst Reasonable Men” focuses on the end of your legal career. But—if it’s okay to say so—that ending also served as a catalyst for this essay. When did you first know you were going to write about these experiences? What, if anything, did writing the essay resolve for you, or clarify?
Parmenter: I wrote the original draft of what would later become this essay during the spring and summer of 2018, several years after I left my law firm job but before I realized that I would be leaving the law entirely. It was the first thing I ever wrote out of a conscious desire (admitted, at that point, only to myself) to be a writer, and I did it in afternoons spent at my hometown’s local library, in between bouts of panic over whether I had ruined my life by hitting eject on the only (albeit underdeveloped) life plan I had ever really had—which was to graduate law school and become someone who spent her time striding purposefully about shiny-windowed corporate offices.
At first, I wrote about my experiences in the law because they were the most immediate thing to hand, but as I continued putting words on the page, I became aware of the reality this question intuits, which is that I needed to write it down to understand it. My time at the law firm was bewildering, disappointing, and infuriating, and I had, quite frankly, spent a few years simply running from it. In the act of writing, I found the safety to process what had happened. Once the piece was written, I also found that I was able to set that part of my life down—to stop lugging it with me everywhere like a too-bulky backpack that knocked stuff over whenever I tried to move. This essay gave me my first taste of the singular sense of peace that arises from satisfactorily explaining things to myself through writing, and I think I’ll be chasing that magic for the rest of my life.
SR: I was struck by the use of performance in this essay: “act pleasant,” “performing as advertised,” “‘I realized that all of my colleagues could pull their faces off.’” Was this repetition intentional?
Parmenter: I don’t think it was conscious at the time of initial drafting, but it definitely emerged as a theme upon later revision. And detecting this pattern in the essay also illuminated it in life: I became aware of a certain elision between different types of “performance,” one that I have been wary of ever since. It’s the collapsing of performance as accomplishment into performance as staging appropriate behavior, and I can recall so many instances in which it was deployed against me, typically by white men. The first was in high school, during a mock trial competition: a white male judge ostensibly reviewing my performance told me I wouldn’t have worn those sparkly earrings; they’re kind of distracting. He believed, apparently, that my physical appearance’s acceptability was either a prerequisite to the exercise of my legal skill or a part of that exercise. I wish I could say that he turned out to be wrong, but the pattern repeated: at the law firm, white men would discuss my “performance” without referencing a single exhibit of my actual work. The content of my memoranda never entered into it; instead, such “performance reviews” always revolved around vague suggestions that I didn’t seem happy or wasn’t responding eagerly. This sleight-of-hand cultural merger between the two meanings of the word is frustrating not only because it adopts the pretense of meritocracy to effect its opposite, but also because of the crazy-making, obfuscating, and insidious way in which it exploits language and thereby distorts reality.
What I mean by this is that once I saw it on the page, I realized that my reliance upon shared language in daily life had sometimes led me away from fidelity to my own experience: even as I racked up experiences in which this elision was on full display, I continued to believe, because of the conventional use of the word “performance,” that the content of my work was under review, and I think that many of the men involved did too. Of course, parsing the distinction between the different kinds of performance was not a priority for them—it was not something that affected them in the same way as it affected me—but I think (and this is something I explored in the essay) that some of them were just as confused as I was. The elision blinded them to their own biases, and that was detrimental to everyone.
I hope that by emphasizing this “performance” slippage in my essay, perhaps I might counter its invisibility in daily life—because that’s one of the best things about the written word: it lends space and time for puzzling with language, space and time that we often don’t get when we use language in daily communication.
SR: You repeatedly describe the importance of space, of one’s own interior. However, during your career as an associate attorney you write: “I was unaccustomed to being asked to yield space within myself to the outside.” Has writing this essay helped you reclaim that part of yourself, this space?
Parmenter: When I wrote the essay, I was still operating under the shock I felt when I first entered the world of work and discovered that it was, seemingly by the internal logic of its very design, intent upon cannibalizing me. I realize now that I had been extraordinarily privileged and was therefore sheltered from some harsh realities: the only mandates for production to which I’d really been exposed were those associated with education, and I found them to be discrete and relatively easy to cordon off—I could meet them and still have time for myself.
The law firm was my first experience with being constantly on-call, at the whim of a company email account that could drop demands into my existence at any time without warning, and I had a lot of trouble reconciling that with being a person. I did not know how to be someone who cried, who called her mother, who occasionally laid on the floor stuffing M&Ms into her face, and also respond—consistently and immediately—to those emails. Turning on a dime like that struck me as difficult to the point of impossible. On top of that, I felt an extra pressure to perform the particular sort of pleasantness that is often exacted from working women under the guise of requiring professionalism. Because of this, I felt a lot of jealousy over my personhood, and I thought that I could maintain that personhood only in the negative: I saw it as a matter of withdrawing from others or eliminating demands, rather than a function of actualizing or creating some positive entity. I was very much in thrall to the notion that I needed to maintain a sacred space in which I could be myself.
These days, while I still believe in the importance of interiority—and think that everyone is entitled to a space, internal and external, in which they can be left alone—I realize that the ongoing negotiation between self and world is an unavoidable element of the human condition (one that comes to an end only with death), and I’m working to cultivate the courage to assert myself upon the world. This essay is a big step in that new direction, so in a sense, yes: in the writing of this essay, I rediscovered myself, and with the publishing of it, I claim the right to be that self in the world.