The "I" is the great compass pull. It attracts me to the page/screen, corroborates me, defends me, embarrasses me, renews me. The tension (hopefully interesting and not indulgent) occurs when I go somewhere else, toward the third-person, or the second-person. It's easy and healthy enough for a personal essay to look outward — through research, curiosity, the desire to see the larger historical or cultural or regional or whatever context. What interests me is where the "I" and "You" might overlap. That matrix point must be important in autobiographical writing; it's a kind of magic trick and it's also where a renewable source of energy is found, what makes the essay a perpetual motion machine. Is the job of a personal essay to move from I to You to He/She? It seems to me, yes.
It's not a question of where I am in You (or Her). Do you have to "relate" to an essay's subject? God forbid. I'm always most interested in those essays or autobiographies that show me the world in unexpected ways, that allow me in to an emotional, gender-specific, culture-specific place (though It's best when those hyphens collapse under their own weight, thanks). Virginia Woolf: "A good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out."
Where "I" resides in "You" has much to do with where (and whether) you reside in "Him/Her." That is, I matter if you matter and if you believe that he matters. And he does, of course.
"Reflective Perspective" courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons. "Lame Intersecting Circles" courtesy of me.