Professor Pamela Macfie discusses her Sewanee Review piece “Each Is Me”

By Claire Smith
Executive Editor

As a scholar of Medieval and Renaissance English and Italian literature, Dr. Pamela Royston Macfie has spent her career investigating the role of influence in literature, studying the ways Renaissance poets transform and are influenced by the work of their classical predecessors. The “poetics of allusion,” as Macfie calls it, have guided many of her scholarly works, delving into Medieval literary appropriations of Ovid, Shakespeare’s rewritings of Marlowe, or Spenser’s use of Greek myth.

In these investigations, Macfie puts two works in conversation, asking how the contemporary and the past shape each other. When Macfie was invited to write an essay comparing Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor with a contemporary play, Anne Page Hates Fun, a piece written by Amy Witting centuries later in order to be performed in tandem with Shakespeare’s comedy, she planned, as in many of her other works, to investigate the ways that a past work found voice in the present. Instead, as Macfie watched Anne Page, she was haunted by the ways that Anne’s character echoed her own. 

“What happens,” Macfie asks, “when a performance cracks open memories you have suppressed for more than forty years?” In a flashback to Anne’s senior year in high school, Witting’s audience discovers she was sexually harassed by her English teacher. Her smile flattens to a hard line; a memory becomes a haunting, a ghostly possession that Anne carries throughout the play. In the audience, Macfie remembers her own experience as a graduate student at Duke, when she  too, was harassed by her professor, whom she calls X. Macfie writes that as she watched the play, “I felt out of sorts and utterly alone. Riven by the past. Possessed by a ghost only I can remember.”

When Macfie presented her first essay on Anne Page to the Sewanee Review, it was a scholarly work. “Highly descriptive, yet deliberately aloof,” her essay denied the presence of this haunting, the way that Anne Page had spoken to her personally. With the title “Shakespeare, Me Too, and the New Contemporary,”Macfie acknowledged the importance of the Me Too movement to understanding the two plays. What the first essay deliberately skirted was Macfie’s personal experiences: “But what about me too? Me — Pamela Royston Macfie — too?… I’m always telling students that great theatre sends us deep into ourselves, why was I not willing to express how the play had sent me into myself?”

At the Review, Macfie’s former student Hellen Wainaina (C’18) picked up on Macfie’s absence in the piece: “I kept looking for you, but couldn’t find you.” Then, in the Review office, Macfie explained how Anne Page’s story seemed to bleed into her own, how her experience in graduate school made her see Anne Page and “feel as if I were watching myself.” Macfie emphasizes the importance of that moment, commenting, “I’m so grateful for Hellen and Eric and Adam at the Review for saying where are you in this? I haven’t asked them this but I wonder if they sensed that there was something else that wasn’t there, that wasn’t being told.”

What resulted from this conversation is Macfie’s personal essay “Each Is Me.”The most impactful part of Macfie’s writing is her ability to move between different stories — past and present, fictional and real, the said and the unsaid. Macfie doesn’t move through events chronologically, but through connected meanings and subtexts. As a professor, Macfie says, “I tell my students writing is a process of discovery,” and she carried that advice to her own writing: “This was a profound discovery, that now is the time to go and write this.” That process is clear as one reads her essay, as little bits of information and reflections come together to form a narrative that is uniquely her own. 

In her essay, Macfie recounts her reluctance to sign a Jane Doe statement she was asked to provide against X at Duke. She remembered counsel from her mother: “Don’t put anything in writing that you wouldn’t want everyone to read.” This statement was the product of two hours of questions and answers, anonymously given. Objectively, the statement was correct, but did it say what she needed it to say?

Macfie’s own writing is comfortable with the unspoken meanings and little details that her Jane Doe statement couldn’t account for. X did not only harass Macfie in the physical realm or with openly degrading remarks, but also in their intellectual discussion, in the words he carefully chose, in the readings he assigned. For example, “Influence, X taught me, comes from the Latin influere: to flow into. Initially, the verb signified an influx of flowing matter; by the Middle Ages, it signified also the influx of ethereal fluid that shaped human destiny.” Macfie shows that influence also lies in that other-worldly sphere, marking us in ways that can’t be explained so easily.

In the best sense, Macfie’s essay evades easy summary. While it has a clear focus, the essay’s forty-four vignettes build up to a point with little glimpses of memory and insight. “Each Is Me” takes one thread of experience and tugs at it, making connections across forty-four years of silence. As one little moment is recounted or a word’s meaning is explored, Macfie tugs more at that thread to unravel the impact X has had in her life. It is in the details that Macfie can really explore the depth of her experience years ago. As she reflected over her piece, she noted, “Sometimes the thing that is just barely told is the thing that needs most urgently to be told.”