On Joseph Osmundson's Inside/Out

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Inside/Out by Joseph Osmundson
102 pp. Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018. $17

Joseph Osmundson’s book Inside/Out is a book about connection.

In 76 brief fragments, Osmundson peers inward, examining his life, his feelings, and his history as a source text to understand the dissolution of an emotionally volatile relationship. This is the story of Osmundson’s romance with Kaliq/Tariq/F—, a man whose real name we never learn, and by extension, a book about Osmundson’s relationship to himself.

The book opens on Osmundson in childhood: in rural Oregon, closer to poverty than middle class, yearning for the attention of a boy in his class. But more than attention: connection. When connection fails, leaving Osmundson ostracized from his peers, he realizes any kind of connection means survival. “I remember thinking, ‘Chad R. is your last link to cool.’ Which meant, let him use you. Which meant, don’t let go. Cling desperately to him. He has something you don’t.”

From this point, Osmundson’s fractured reverie cracks and branches like lightning. The lightning makes contact with earth in the form of Kaliq, “the type of man I never imagined myself with: beautiful, charming, easy, tall stylish.” Over the course of most of the book, Kaliq’s presence becomes known to us mainly as negative space: we see everything around him, though his face—his true identity—remains obscured. And, in the honesty of Osmundson’s writing, this seems to be the way the author himself came to know Kaliq—or to discover he never really knew him at all. And then, to learn much more than he wanted to know about Kaliq.

Osmundon’s writing is well-suited for the form of Inside/Out. The brief, often lyric musings operate like a stone skipping across water: where they make contact, Osmundson’s emotional intensity and Kaliq’s emotional absence scrape against each other. Some sections in the book read only the word “Redacted” in capital letters, enclosed within brackets, to indicate the author has removed a key element; in this case, the redacted pages once held images, which now remain only in descriptions included as footnotes: “Image of Adam4Adam profile with his picture. One of many such images of profiles he promised he didn’t have—not any more—over the years we were together.”

Osmundson acknowledges repeatedly that since this is his own book, we can only know his pain; the function of memoir is to tell one’s own story, not the whole story. In the same footnote referenced above, he closes by saying, “He’d certainly tell this story differently, but this image, and the ones that follow, are facts; they happened, and they happened to me.”

The book unspools what becomes a deeply uncomfortable portrait of emotional abuse. Kaliq’s ongoing manipulation of Osmundson both ties the author more closely to him even as it pushes this narrative toward its inevitable conclusion: isolation, an echo of that early memory that opens the book. The book’s structure makes it very difficult to follow a chronological through-line, but this disorientation in the reader is a kind of performance orchestrated by Osmundson, a way of approximating through the reading of the book what it is like to be with a man like Kaliq, a man one feels unworthy to have, a man who himself feels—in the end—unworthy of being loved. “He talked about our partnership in terms of battle, strategy, and punishment. A war embodied…If he was upset, he punished me by disappearing—or worse, by cheating—but he would only admit to that later, much later.”

Osmundson’s strength as a writer comes through an almost academic study of the facts—the facts of his lived experience and the facts of his feelings. Interspersed among his recollections are collaged tidbits from Sontag, Maggie Nelson, a website about healthy relationships, and even a recipe Kaliq liked Osmundson to cook for him. More than a memoir, what Osmundson presents to us is a treatise, and like any argument, it has much to teach us. Through his examination of what it means to be inside and what it means to be outside, readers should learn to identify what makes relationships like this so toxic. In Osmundson’s view, it is not just Kaliq’s error, but Osmundson’s own failure to value himself enough to embrace a healthy self-image—to love himself first. Over the course of the book, it’s this element that seems to keep Osmundson flipping back and forth between feelings of outsideness and insideness.

Inside/Out is a quick-paced read, but one whose images, confessions, and meditations echo for days and weeks after. As much as Osmundson seeks to uncover the truth of his experience, he, too, warns us about the danger of putting too much of our self-worth in the hands of someone who has none.