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?