Before discussing David Olimpio’s elegant, painful, often funny book, This Is Not A Confession, we have address the title. Is it in fact, not a confession, or is it a slyly winking confession after all? Only David knows and it’s up to the reader to interpret. While reading and writing this review, I chose to take it at face value. I think it’s best to tackle important issues without irony, if not without humor. And there are important issues within, especially trauma.
Trauma is not a topic that is easily talked about, not with neighbors or friends or, god forbid, loved ones. No, trauma is too close to the heart for the people we trust and respect. There’s so many feelings tied up in the pain we feel to risk the series of emotions that we know loved ones will experience if we unburden ourselves of our pain. They can feel the gamut of negativity, from simple boredom (oh god, I have to listen to this) to defensive pain (oh god, I caused this). It’s easiest to tell strangers or those whose job it is to forgive us. And of course, it’s easiest to confess our own part of it and be absolved. Yes, that’s easiest.
It’s wise then, that David Olimpio explicitly clarifies that his book—about trauma, yes, but also sexuality and death—is in no way a confession. This Is Not A Confession, instead of taking the easy way out, tells the world about David’s inner space, his pain and memories and idiosyncratic view of life. Because of his refusal to confess, to admit fault or shame, he soars clear of any messy fallout. Instead, he simply states facts: what happened, what he feels about what happened and who he has become as a result. It’s up to the reader to interpret their reactions.
This Is Not A Confession is unflinching in its exploration of the trauma of abuse. It’s deeply uncomfortable to read, although not without its own lyricism (it’s telling that even writing this review took many hours of staring at the screen). But when confronting the darkness that humans inflict on the weak, it’s best to open your eyes wide, as Olimpio does early on in his work, in the elegiac essay “The Numbers We Know By Heart.”
My next babysitter, Barry, didn’t drink. But he did do sex to me. Many times, over the span of many months, and in many different places. On the gray carpet of our living room floor. In the game room upstairs that had my train set in it and a red-felt pool table, and an orange couch where I would come to kneel in front of Barry with the TV on behind me, and his pants down around his ankles in front of me, and my Spider-Man pajama bottoms in a heap on the floor beside me.
The baldness of the image is intentional and is what takes our breath away. There’s a lot of this painful stare within the book.
Thankfully, not everything in This Is Not A Confession is about rape or death and certainly not everything is as heavy and disturbing. Olimpio wisely breaks up the pain and heartfelt non-confession with essays like “Emergence,” a not-quite playful exploration of 17-year cicadas or “Landing Punches,” about a pair of boxing gloves and learning about pain, inflicting and receiving and how much we can all stand. These essays, while not fluffy pieces, are palette cleansers. They’re concerned with the mortar in our world-constructs And they’re beautiful constructs:
It makes me feel tough. To inflict this hurt on you. And on me. The feeling of movement. OF affecting change. Of leaving. The carrying our of a combination. The spitting of breath and words. It’s always a couple of days later that I’ll feel it: The real pain. The real ache.
Hurt and intention is an oft-reflected on theme. How our intentions, so mixed up from our inner selves, conspire to emerge at inopportune times. Later in the book, there is a series of essays that explore this, by delving into Olimpio’s non-monogamous marriage and his and his wife’s intentions. How many of his friends and partners have their own preconceptions about what a non-monogamous relationship is, how weird it is, how impossible it is to divest such a thing from hurt. These essays, the titular “Not A Confession” among them, might seem disconnected from content and tone. I know I wondered: how does this inform and reflect what’s gone before?
Although the essays on sex and marriage seem like a tangent, they are of course related, in that everything we are is connected. Seemingly meaningless events can compound like interest and find outlet years or decades later. As Olimpio writes, “…I wouldn’t blame me being molested as a child for me being the way I am toward sex or relationships today any more than I would blame a boy showing up at my door in a Big Bad Wolf costume on Halloween. I am a lot more than that single experience.”
This Is Not A Confession is such an honest look at pivotal moments in a man’s life that the reader has to take a look at their own. What deep trauma did we undergo as children? Most of us did, in one way or the other. Does that experience define who we are now? We’ve all lost loved ones, many of us have lost our parents and, eventually, we all will. Does that loss damage us irreparably?
Olimpio would, I assume, say no. He’d likely say that while of course we are changed, we are ever-evolving creatures, informed by the past and molded, but allowed at any point to make our own decisions and to adapt ourselves however we want. This Is Not A Confession is a powerful book, filled with self-reflection, but it is not a masturbatory work of navel-gazing. Instead, it can function as a mirror that we can hold up and gaze into, to try to ferret out our own demons and reconcile them.
And I’m not going to confess unless I have to.