The Limits of Ownership, The Vagaries of Possession

By Jessie van Eerden

March 1, 2019

The Limits of Ownership, The Vagaries of Possession

Mine by Sarah Viren

Winner of the 2017 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize

Sarah Viren's debut collection explores the concept of ownership. It begins with an essay on the ownership of material goods—the narrator’s landlord lends her the furniture that belongs to a man on trial for murder. The essays that follow ask what it means to own one’s body, one’s family members, one’s language, even one’s story that is inextricably intertwined with the stories of others.

Varied in form, infused with layers of careful research on topics such as hands, folk songs, biblical history, and ancient myths, the essays also document Viren’s journey from her work as a reporter into her work as an essayist. Indeed, throughout the book Viren investigates the nature of possession with both the tenacity of a savvy journalist and the instincts of an essayist, hungry for the story beneath the story. This combination makes Mine an energetic and thoughtful read. Viren risks a deeper inquiry with these essays, beyond journalistic investigation, and, as she puts it, she lets her subject in. She has a stake.

In one of the book’s most powerful essays, “My Choice,” we follow the young reporter pitching and pursuing a story for the Galveston County Daily News, the paper where she works, to cover the Focus on the Family “Love Won Out” conversion-therapy conference. We follow her objective inquiry and respectful reporting, and—what is unique about this essay—we also follow the essayistic narrator who is looking back and interrogating the journalistic assignment, a narrator with personal stake as a lesbian, examining the nature of choice, of change, of reportage itself. Even in fact-based reportage, Viren shows that there is always subjective choice in where the light is shone: at the close of this essay, as she is leaving the conversion-therapy conference, preparing to file her story for the next day’s issue, she knows she will end the feature by highlighting two protesters she meets, two girls who infiltrated the conference so they could rush the stage and kiss. “That was my choice,” she writes.

The collection moves in loose chronological order through shifts in the restless narrator’s life as she moves from Tampa to Galveston to Guatemala to Iowa to Lubbock, pursuing a writing career, as a reporter and a freelancer, and a relationship—and then, once in a committed partnership, pursuing motherhood. As the book unfolds, we have a narrator who is ceaselessly trying to understand others, herself, and her world as she seeks to own her own life, fully inhabit and love it—indeed, take possession of it.

Possession is a subject here, but not a simple one; Viren questions the limits of ownership, of claims over even our own children and our own bodies. She asks how her wife can become her not-wife merely by crossing a boundary into a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage. Who has real jurisdiction over what she can call “hers”? She asks how this child that has incubated in her as part of her body for so many months can then become not hers, no longer part of her. “These things pulse up against each other,” she writes, “life and death, beginnings and endings, what we call ours but is never really ours to begin with.” She suggests that we are perhaps more so stewards, or caretakers, of the people and things that belong to us than we are owners.

And as Viren seeks a family and home and job she can call her own, she also asks what to make of her obligation to others? To what degree is their suffering also hers? Or their stories? When Viren parallels her sister’s birthing story with her own, she not only examines the territorial nature of family stories, but she also enters into the stories of strangers.

She becomes obsessed with a woman who posts free stuff on Freecycle, “fascinated by the way her posts could construct a life”; she writes to a woman who is serving life in prison for killing her children; she listens regularly to the advice radio show of Doctora Isabel—self-described as the “‘Latina version of Dr. Laura, Dr. Ruth, Ann Landers, and Dr. Spock’”—ostensibly to work on her Spanish vocabulary but, eventually it’s clear, she’s seeking advice, seeking connection with lives outside her own.

Reading the riveting first essay “My Murderer’s Couch,” I was drawn in by the series of strange events that landed Viren sleeping on a futon that belonged to Robert Durst as he went on trial for the well-publicized murder (and dismemberment) of Morris Black. I was further taken with the quality of the narrator’s perspective: this was a narrator for whom the jury was always still out on people who were quickly condemned and neatly categorized by others.

As Viren covers the police beat in her new job with the Galveston County Daily News, she must fraternize with police chiefs who are obsessed with Durst, primarily, from her perspective, because he dressed in drag, not because he was accused of chopping up a murder victim. “But for me,” Viren writes,

Durst’s redeeming quality was the fact that he had cross-dressed. It made him an outsider, which was something I understood—as a journalist, as a woman, and, though I told none of the chiefs, as a lesbian living and working in a place where local politicians still remained in the closet. . . . All this, coupled with the fact that I slept on Durst’s futon, ate at his kitchen table, watched his TV, meant that I found myself taking Durst’s side, in small ways, in brief moments like this one where someone like the chief asked me to call Durst a freak.

She excuses us neither from responsibility for our actions nor from owning up to our own capacity to do harm. Later, as a college professor teaching a course on true crime, she asks her students why we read books like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood: “[T]hey quite smartly say, ‘So that we can know that we are not murderers.’ But after a pause one of them adds, ‘Also, to remind us that we might have been, or could still be.’”

Mine is a strong debut collection. At turns funny, brash, heartbreaking, Viren is always, it seems to me, honest as she crafts essays that reveal to herself, and to us, that one of life’s main lessons is that nothing we so badly desire truly belongs to us: “Least of all, this fleetingly small and insignificant life.” Viren’s essays do what the best nonfiction does: they transform the story that is hers into a story that becomes all of ours.


Mine by Sarah Viren
University of New Mexico Press
$19.95 paperback | $9.99 ebook | Buy Now!


Jessie van Eerden is author of two novels, Glorybound and My Radio Radio, and the essay collection The Long Weeping. Her work has appeared in Best American Spiritual Writing, Oxford American, Willow Springs, Gulf Coast, and other magazines and anthologies. Jessie directs the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College.
(photo by Michaelanne Helms)

Keywords: book review
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