Cat Pierro

Afterthought on “...or be eaten”


This article responds to Dora Nesakani’s piece, ...or be eaten.

North Carolina shellfish farm, 1979

For the last issue of the Hypocrite Reader I wrote two articles. Both were sincere, of course, but the first (“eat the person”) became increasingly unsatisfying to me after I wrote it, so I responded pseudonymously with “...or be eaten.” The concerns in “eat the person” were abstract; the difficulties it suggested lovers face were totally unlike the hardest parts of relationships that I or my friends have known; its account of romance managed to overlook power, gender, pride, anger, weakness, fear, and failure. That’s why my response drew upon “Clams,” which portrays those things so vividly that it kind of makes you want to die. Or anyway it made me want to die, and somehow I felt it would be valuable for other people to have the same experience.

Why, though? Why give such an apparently undesirable gift? I don’t think I had a good answer for this question at the time the article was published. To motivate what I was doing, I talked about “Clams” in terms of a failure of ethics. I said that Nate was negligent and that “eat the person” lost sight of the other subjectivity; I said we can’t dismiss and ignore the needs of the weak. I spoke to the Nates of the world and exhorted them to be better people. In short, I joined the discussion of the powerful. I channelled my feeling into a message for them, a plea that they make a sacrifice by bestowing their attention upon those more vulnerable. But hardly anyone fits easily into this category, “the powerful.” Letting my readers believe they belong first and foremost to such a category, addressing them on the other’s behalf only, giving them a choice between their moral conscience and their own fulfilment—all of these undermined my purpose. Anne’s problems are universal.

It is the Annes to whom I would rather speak -- that is, everyone, in their capacity as Anne. It’s worthwhile to recall that we are not the experimenting subject described in “eat the person,” that we are not Nate. Forgetting this allows us to build an illusion of self-determination and disinterest that is hazardous individually and collectively. Individually, because it sets us up to fall apart like a house of cards the second the wind changes. Collectively, because it establishes an unrealizable norm and requires other Annes to build the same illusion. With this in mind, I have rewritten “...or be eaten.” It’s below.

By the way, Megan Boyle has since written another story that I really like because it expresses some of the same range of emotions but shows how they can actually be part of a relationship that’s working. It really made me feel a lot better about everything. It’s called “How To Write ‘How To Shit on LSD’” and you can read it here.

...or be eaten

“Now she loves him and looks ahead with quiet confidence—like a cow.”

Just glance at “Clams,” by Megan Boyle and see why the article preceding this one is ridiculous. Pick the first words that jump out from the page:

“Okay,” she says. “I feel really shitty right now. I feel like a piece of shit.”

Everybody knows what that’s like. Romance is not all sugar and sweetness. It’s not all about trying to figure out what you want from the object you want. At least, not for everyone. That’s the privilege of an autonomous subject interacting with static objects.

“Clams” is the story of some other kind of subject. To be specific, it’s the story of two piece of shit characters who have the misfortune of meeting each other. The first piece of shit is a girl who wonders what everyone else’s opinion is all the time, well in advance of figuring out her own. The other piece of shit is exactly the kind of boy the first piece of shit would be attracted to, an uncannily direct boy whose tactless honesty continually evokes her own shame for not knowing where the world ends and she begins. In the beginning of the story she’s drunk enough to persuade him to dance and in her right mind enough to notice that kissing him makes her feel “like she has swallowed a small, energetic frog.” But after flying back home (1.5 days after meeting him) and getting into the habit of sending daily cross-country texts and emails, she completely loses her bearings:

Anne has small superstitions which she uses to dispel anxieties. For instance, if she can make it to the fourth stain on the carpet by the time the elevator door closes, that means Nate has thought positively about her today, and there is a future where they know each other. It becomes a one-sided competition when a negative consequence is imagined: if she cannot touch two different kinds of tile with her feet by the time the toilet flushes, that means she said something crucially “wrong” in an email, and Nate will never contact her again. She doesn’t keep track of which side is winning.

There remains no vestige within her of the remotest possibility of determining what she wants from the object she wants—she’s much too thoroughly caught up in determining whether it wants her. She notices that her feelings for it seem “logically unjustifiable,” but this information is not particularly relevant to her course of life. When they finally reunite and talk it is clear that she has sacrificed any personhood she may once have had in this asshole’s name. When she can’t even manage to make eye contact, he says,

“It seems like you really like me.”

Anne feels exposed and vulnerable and desperately wants to convey the opposite, but knows that Nate will feel alienated if she is any way but honest. She wants to run into her closet and scream the word “confidence.”

“I like you, I mean, sure, I. Don’t you like me?”

“Yes, I like you.”


Nate looks at Anne and moves his eyebrows together.

“It seems like it really matters what I think of you.”

“Well. I think I worry about what everyone thinks of me. I think it matters what a lot of people think about me. It matters what you think about me, yeah.”

Nate exhales and looks in the opposite direction. Anne thinks he has looked in the opposite direction so he can roll his eyes at her without her knowing. She thinks of every word for “god” and “shit” she knows.

Of course she can’t be direct with him the way he wants—that would entail confessing that, at that moment, he is the beginning and end of her speech. This boy has become the bearer of honesty and truth. That makes him someone she aspires to be and someone with the right to judge her, her greatest hope and her greatest shame. That’s why her attachment escalated while he was far enough away to let her escape her immediate surroundings by inconsequentially hoping for him. That’s why she saw in him the objective gaze that could determine the reality of her being, which she was unable or unwilling to do for herself. Now I’d love to be some kind of Superfeminist and say that if women are inclined to be socially defined, so much the worse for autonomy and self-realization. But the trouble with handing someone else the right to interpret your reality is that there’s a fair chance he might do it brutally.

After they have sex that night, it is completely dark in Anne’s apartment. Nate rolls over and doesn’t say anything.

“What, what are you thinking right now,” Anne says.

“I was thinking... I don’t have feelings for you, I don’t feel emotionally attached to you, I just had sex with you.”

I’m sorry to say that I was unable to read this story taking it for what it was: the pitiful, everyday comedy that occurs when two shitballs collide. I’m sorry to say that my heart followed the girlshit character the whole way through. The result of which was that by the end, I was in a rage. I hated Nate’s guts. I hated the author’s guts. How can this have happened? I kept asking. What happened? Anne’s problems became my problems, and then the problems of women everywhere, and then the problems of all human beings who have ever encountered humiliation of any kind.

Anne drives for a long time, intermittently lighting cigarettes. She wants to have an interesting conversation with Nate. She considers several topics and decides that attempting conversation would show defeat in some way. She is strong. She does not need to talk. She wants Nate to know that she is having fascinating private thoughts that he could know if he asked her a question, any question. She directs the thought “ask a question ask a question ask a question” out of the right side of her head. It is too quiet. She needs to say something. Her throat tries to say something before her brain can think of something to say. She chokes a little, and swallows.

“I’m really tired,” she says.

I guess “Clams” happens all the time. I guess if you wanted, you could probably just laugh it off. But humiliation like this—humiliation that knocks the personality right out of you, humiliation that makes you think you’re nothing but a shit—it’s not really humdrum, is it, and it’s not really funny. I would even say that it really, really sucks. And it sucks that Anne is actually a smart person, someone who I bet could go on to write “Clams,” but this can happen to her anyway; it sucks that Nate is earnest and attentive, but he can be a cause of this anyway. If there’s one thing romantic relationships teach us, it’s that for all our made up problems in our carefully groomed lives, something can still be truly and definitively awful. We’re vulnerable. All the more so when faced with the immense hope love provides: we’ll give all we have to it, outside and in. Ironically enough, the resulting pain will just make us need a hug badly, so we’ll keep coming back. But remember Anne, reader, when it happens again. It happened to Anne too. You are not a shit, not always. And you are not alone.

The Hypocrite Reader is free, but we publish some of the most fascinating writing on the internet. Our editors are volunteers and, until recently, so were our writers. During the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, we decided we needed to find a way to pay contributors for their work.

Help us pay writers (and our server bills) so we can keep this stuff coming. At that link, you can become a recurring backer on Patreon, where we offer thrilling rewards to our supporters. If you can't swing a monthly donation, you can also make a 1-time donation through our Ko-fi; even a few dollars helps!

The Hypocrite Reader operates without any kind of institutional support, and for the foreseeable future we plan to keep it that way. Your contributions are the only way we are able to keep doing what we do!

And if you'd like to read more of our useful, unexpected content, you can join our mailing list so that you'll hear from us when we publish.