What’s Wrong With the “I” Word?

October 29, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Elisabeth Hanscombe

When I was a child the nuns taught us never to use the word ‘I’. It was too self-seeking. Better to slip into the passive voice, the way our university lecturers taught when writing up psychology experiments. A form of language that troubled me, even then. The idea that some mysterious person made things happen.

In English classes, it wasn’t easy, for instance, to write about what happened on the weekend, without inserting the word ‘I’. Even in fact-based subjects such as science, I could not help but notice my part in whatever project we undertook.

During second-year psychology classes we itemised the number of people in the class who could roll their tongues. It was a genetic fact. Some could do this and others not. A point of difference that thrilled those of us who rolled our tongues effortlessly and saddened those whose tongues were not so flexible. The task was to write down the results in the form of laboratory tests and use the correct language of sample size, controls, and variables. Do a statistical analysis. All of which I passed, but only just.

It made no sense to me. This search for objectivity. This insistence on facts, on knowledge that exists only because it can be observed, synthesized into bite sized chunks, and then recorded for further experimentation.

Why not begin my research statement with the personal pronoun? I collected the sample. I put people through their paces. I wrote this report. 

Writing memoir has changed my view on this. The ‘I’ of memoir writing allows me to go into my mind, to shape its contours, to ponder those agonies of personal failure, and to create a new order on the page. Even as my writer’s mind works against a hot hand on my shoulder, the internal voice of authority, the one who tells me I have no right to write and no right to exist on the page.

So, what’s wrong with the ‘I’ word?  Is it that each one of us, is an ‘I’, and we dislike the thought that one other person’s ‘I’ might dominate and thereby interfere with our positioning?

Another word from my university days comes to mind. ‘Solipsistic’. A word that speaks to the nun’s abhorrence of all things self-centred. ‘Selfishness’. The greatest sin of all. As a child I added it to my list for confession. Two counts of selfishness, alongside stealing, telling lies and disobedience. Selfishness meant putting yourself ahead of another. You took the biggest piece of cake. You spent too long in the shower. You hogged more than your share of ice cream from the tub. You dared to make a claim, your words on the page, and thereby spoke for the universal, even as it was couched behind an ‘I’.

Although memoirists write of their own experience, they must take care not to insert too much of their own selfish interests, but somehow root it in the universal. Otherwise, they‘re guilty of writing boring prose that no one wants to read. Because every person’s ‘I’ likes to see themself inside another’s.

The question of identity is further charged. Identity gives us authority to speak (or not speak) on certain topics. Yet we still have real trouble with the ‘I’. Either it’s nothing or everything. What about the in-between? And what of Mark Doty’s idea that ‘memoirs operate under the sign of truth’ but are less ‘about what happened so much as the experience of what’s happening.’

We live in an age of self-exposure. We live in an age of personal revelation. We read memoirs till they pour out of us and think nothing at learning the most intimate details of another person’s life. Even then as Jacqueline Rose in her thoughts on ‘cult of celebrity’ writes of our ruthless tendency to take possession of another, to get our celebrities to be perfect and then strip them bare. We revel in their failures. We enjoy any shaming that can take place in the life of a celebrity.

As for the academics, there are many who study autobiography from a theoretical perspective, but few academics embark upon their own autobiographical writing. Instead, they examine the memoirs of others. A safer bet, perhaps. They can analyse and think through ideas. They can question their memoirist’s perspective and motives. They can challenge the level of truthfulness or otherwise, consider the extent to which the writer has abided by or broken Paul John Eakin’s ‘rules for self-narration’.

As a theorist of all things autobiographical, Eakin suggests we live lives filled with our efforts at what he calls ‘self-narration’. Some of this gets onto the page. From earliest days, parents begin to teach their children to create an identify for themselves and this is reinforced when we go to school in events such as ‘show and tell’. Despite the nuns’ insistence on self-avoidance.

Eakin writes about the link between narrative and identity, the way we spend our lives constantly speaking and reformulating our stories as part of our identity formation. We do it so naturally we don’t even notice we’re doing it. Only when it breaks down in instances such as Alzheimer’s, or autism, or situations where people refuse to engage in the process, do we notice. We notice the process through rule breaking as well. But this applies particularly to the business of more literary forms of autobiography, the writing of our stories and putting them into the public domain.

There are three primary rules that govern the writing of our lives. One to do with the rules of privacy, the other to do with truth telling and the third, the one that applies essentially to the everyday practice of living autobiographically, deals with the extent to which we present ourselves as normal. These rules are monitored by our readers, by the public and there are repercussions, even sanctions, imprisonment, confinement, financial losses, if we break them.

The academics might offer a personal reflection to add to their experience of reading another person’s personal account of their journey. But they do not offer their own journey, their own story, or thoughts about their own lives. They leave that to us, the memoirists. And we must shake off the injunctions of our forebears who, like the nuns, tell us not to begin our sentences with an ‘I’. 


Elisabeth Hanscombe is a psychologist and writer who completed her doctorate in 2012 on the topic ‘Life writing and the desire for revenge’. She has published a number of short stories and essays in the areas of autobiography, psychoanalysis, testimony, trauma and creative nonfiction in magazines such as Meanjin, Island, Tirra Lirra, Antipodes, Southerly, and Griffith Review as well as in Life Writing and in psychotherapy journals and magazines throughout Australia and in the United States, such as Brevity’s blog. She is winner of the 2014 Lane Cove Literary awards for her memoir, ‘A trip to the beach’ and was short listed for the Australian Book Review’s 2009 Calibre essay prize, longllisted in 2011 and 2014, with several book chapters on subjects such as complicated grief, the therapist in film and television, motherhood in midlife, feminism and women’s writing. Her childhood memoir, The Art of Disappearing was published in 2017. Her second memoir about her life as a psychotherapist, The Museum of Failure, is yet to find a home. She blogs at http://www.sixthinline.com.

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§ 4 Responses to What’s Wrong With the “I” Word?

  • Kay Souter says:

    Really interesting, Lis.

  • Khoon Tha says:

    On Fri, 29 Oct 2021 at 5:36 PM BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog wrote:

    > Guest Blogger posted: ” By Elisabeth Hanscombe When I was a child the nuns > taught us never to use the word ‘I’. It was too self-seeking. Better to > slip into the passive voice, the way our university lecturers taught when > writing up psychology experiments. A form of langu” >

  • […] What’s Wrong With the “I” Word? Author ElisabethPosted on November 2, 2021Categories Uncategorized […]

  • Margaret says:

    Enjoyed reading your post Elisabeth and can identify with a lot of it. Perhaps it was the nuns from age eleven years and not my primary teachers who drummed into me the wariness of using the word I especially at the beginning of a sentence.
    I studied psychology to degree level with the open university whilst working full time as a Health Visitor to families of children under five years and get what you say about evidence based information.
    I have a draft copy of my memoir and if I ever get around to publishing it the word I will feature wherever in a sentence wherever I think it should.
    Thank you for allowing me that reflection.

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