Kathleen Rooney & Writers’ Loyalties

Is anybody following Kathleen Rooney’s situation?

I felt legitimately shaken up earlier this week when I found out Kathleen (I should probably do a full disclosure thingie clarifying she’s my future publisher, right?) had been fired from her job working for Senator Durbin’s Chicago office. Without fully realizing it, I think I looked to Kathleen as a model of a writer with an interesting life and career beyond/outside academia, as somebody who, like me, was  trying to find a way to balance her artistic impulse/compulsion/calling/whatever and a commitment to social change work.

Although I’m mostly in favor of anything that helps more readers find Kathleen’s excellent essay collection, one of the more unfortunate things about her firing being treated by the press as a “scandal” is it potentially overshadows the artistry of her writing and, in particular, the idealism with which she writes about the American democratic tradition and her political work. I’m pretty far to the left, generally quite distrustful and critical of the State, but Kathleen’s vision of “Whitman’s America” — and her analysis of the role of language (the relationship between her writer-self and senatorial aide self) in political discourse — how language, its clarity, its honesty (or lack thereof) shapes our policies, our reality, moved me to believe more ardently, even if only for the duration of the essay, that this country is more than its history of domination and oppression.

Of course, Kathleen also writes about her “unrequitable but not unrequited” attachment to her boss. It’s an essay I love — and I do find myself wishing folks first encountering Kathleen in these news items in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, etc, could first read this essay as I did — as a gorgeous and startlingly honest story about regret, about processing the loss of paths we do not, cannot or should not choose to travel, relationships we will not have, as an essay that implicates and compromises its author far more than her employer.

That said, it probably shouldn’t have surprised me Durbin’s office was unhappy about Kathleen’s honesty. It would be super naive to think they wouldn’t be.  So I find myself thinking about the split loyalties of writers who choose to commit ourselves to institutions (or other collectives) in addition to our writing. I find myself wondering if there came a moment where Kathleen, while assembling this collection, thought to herself, “My employers may not be happy about this essay, but I am going to include it anyway, because the quality of this collection is more important.”

And what similar decisions do or will the rest of us be faced with? Yes, politicians’ public messaging is especially tightly managed, and frequent firings are, as I understand it, par for course in political offices, but all institutions and even less institutionalized groups and collectives put some degree of effort into managing their public profile, and have certain notions and norms regarding confidentiality, about what should or should not be discussed, with whom and in what spaces. When I told my partner about Kathleen’s situation, he said something along the lines of, “You should never write about your employer while still employed by them. Period.” Is this set in stone? Should it be? Have any of y’all found yourselves in similar situations? What boundaries do you choose to set?  Where do or should our primary loyalties lie?

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13 thoughts on “Kathleen Rooney & Writers’ Loyalties

  1. As par for the course, the comments section is full of facepalm-glory:

    “She obviously went in there with an agenda to do some sort of expose, and all she got for it was a little bit of flirt time. (As an aside, what is there to “research” if writing a collection of first-person essays?…)”

    “All that for a lousy $4K advance? I made more than that in advances when I was writing paperback romances*!”

    &c.

    Sorry to hear about this; you hit it spot on with this comment: “one of the more unfortunate things about her firing being treated by the press as a “scandal” is it potentially overshadows the artistry of her writing.”

    You can tell by the commenters on the site, they’re not particularly interested in what she actually wrote, just their own opinions as to her character. Oof…

    • She is. Essays and nonfiction came later for her. …She had to teach a creative nonfiction course somewhere and became more interested in the form while preparing.

      Her relationship to poetry and language are all over the essays, both in terms of content (she references particular poets a lot and uses their words to shape the essays) and her own prose, which is not heavily stylized or anything — not anything like what that term “lyrical essay” makes me imagine (I haven’t actually read any “lyrical essays,” so I might be imagining wrong), but in a much more subtle way, it’s clear you’re reading somebody who chooses words incredibly deliberately. Her sentences are deceptively simple such that I’m not sure more shallow readers fully realize how masterful her use of language is.

  2. I was BUMMED reading about it in the Washington Post (“Style” section) yesterday…hadn’t heard about it until that point. They had it under “Another Page Scandal” (a tenuous reference to that page scandal a few years ago, the one with the Congressman from Florida and young pages).

    I remain bummed I didn’t get to see her and Kyle read last summer.

    • I wondered that too, Paula. She’s so friggin smart, it’s hard for me to imagine the thought never crossed her mind. She has said she will probably write more about this eventually.

      But she has also said that the Chicago office had a very different vibe than Washington, that they worked hard but it was a much looser, more honest, less by-the-book-type environment. Everybody knew she was a writer, came to her readings, were very supportive until suddenly they weren’t, etc.

      • I don’t mean that question as a put down at all- I admire all sorts of risks. That thought came to my mind and I put it out there.

    • Everybody everywhere has at some point done something that would make it possible for them to lose their job. Even if it’s only coming in late more than once. Quick vote: who checks their personal email while at work? Or leaves early? Or steals office supplies? And so on.

      It’s just like how everybody everywhere breaks laws all the time. People speed, run stop signs, jaywalk, smoke marijuana. Etc.

      More relevant to Kathleen’s situation: politicians run their mouths all the time, violating nondisclosure agreements, when they think they’re in private. hell, a lot of them violate their nondisclosure agreements to journalists, as leaks, in exchange for puff pieces and acclaim. Etc.

      Society for the most part tolerates these kinds of things until circumstances change, for whatever reason, and then suddenly you’re out in the cold, in trouble for what you’ve done, or have been doing.

      Then, most of the people around you snicker and ogle, and pretend that they’ve never done anything like it themselves.

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