For some, the very sight of an onion can lead to a bout with severe nausea. For others, onions are a necessary condiment that compliments everything, including Fruity Pebbles. Onions a powerful root and I give onions the respect they deserve, especially when I’m in a meeting with someone who ate them for lunch. But, I have to take issue with them because I think they’ve become overvalued as a vehicle for something that’s layered.
My issue with the onion’s misuse began long ago when I was a beginning writer. One of high school English teachers liked to say, “Keep writing until you’ve peeled back all the layers. Like an onion, you have to keep pulling them back until you get to what’s important.” I liked her and did well in her class; therefore, I took her onion metaphor as a good way to think of writing. But, I’ve learned now that she was wrong.
Since those high school days of yore, I have worked with countless editors who, like my valued but misguided English teacher, have used the onion to describe something that amounts to, “getting to the heart of the matter.” I had come to accept the onion cliché as a normal symbol in the writing world and didn’t think to challenge it. But, the time has come for me blow up that metaphor because it just isn’t right.
I had a conversation the other day with a social worker with whom I was working. We needed to determine the best course of action for a client who was about to be released from jail after her arrest for possession of a controlled substance. We finished the plan and got to talking about general approaches to substance abuse treatment and challenges we each face. Towards the end of our conversation, she said, “You know, sometimes you have to approach clients like they’re an onion and keep pulling away the layers until you get to the real issue underneath it all.” And that was it for me. I was no longer going to tolerate the onion-as-metaphor.
“Well,” I said. “We gotta do something to figure out what drives folks. But I think we should leave the onion out of it. See you in court.”
Though I get what she and dozens of editors are trying to say, the problem I have with the onion is that, when you peel away layers of an onion, all that’s left under the each layer is: MORE ONION. I recognize that substance abuse is layered and prone to “chicken vs. the egg” scenarios, but in my experience, when I’ve pulled away one layer I find something completely different. There’s usually some combination of factors like anxiety and/or depression that coincides with the substance abuse and each factor has its own mechanics at play. It takes time and work to dig into each factor in order to find the root cause, if there is one to be found. Often, there’s just more and more different stuff going on underneath each preceding layer. I wish it was more of the same and sometime it is. But for a metaphor to work, at least for me, it has to make sense all the way through its application.
In terms of the onion as an onion, I’m middle of the road. I like onions, but not on everything and in moderation. If there’s too much, onions can lead to bad things for me and so I’m neither pro-onion nor anti-onion. However, as a metaphor for something layered, can we please find another way to describe it? The onion is just an onion, regardless of its layers and substance abuse is complex and there’s too much for it to be about one thing.