Friday, May 8, 2015

The Long Silence, Part 1: Writing to Survive

The Silence

The long silence began at age eleven and continued until I was twenty-eight.

For almost twenty years, my parents- Mom especially- unwittingly sent the message that everything about me was wrong. In particular, my self-identification as a tomboy and corresponding gender expression were subject to extreme scrutiny which in turn was a huge source of mental anguish for me.

As I entered adolescence,  Mom began pressuring me to mature into a "young lady". She didn't understand why I so vehemently refused to wear low-cut shirts, short shorts, and other "girly" clothes like the rest of the girls. I tried telling her that I was a tomboy-- I figured it was just another accepted way of being. I didn't realize that it was something that most people considered a stage, something that I was expected to outgrow. I should mention that when I called myself a tomboy, I didn't mean in the tongue-in-cheek way that some people use it when saying, "Oh, I like sports, I'm a tomboy" (I hated sports at that time, anyway). I meant that it was where I fell on the gender spectrum (though such terms did not yet exist, or were at least not well-known) and Mom kept telling me that I was growing up and needed to learn how to be more feminine. We often got into intense fights that left me feeling scarred.

Eventually, it seemed clear that the word "tomboy" was a dirty word-- when Mom did say "tomboy" it was laced with disdain. Time passed. I was 13 years old. Then I was 14 years old. Then 15, 16, 17... and I was not outgrowing it. I knew that I never would. But how in the world could I tell Mom this? She sounded so damn sure that she was right and that I would "change my mind someday". Even though I was sure that I was right and that Mom just didn't get it, I lived in abject terror that I would have to eventually change and conform. After all, it's a tired cliché that children grow up to say, "Mom was right. And I thought I knew everything." If that didn't happen, what would it say about me?

Even though Mom understands better now, I don't think she knew how much mental anguish this whole thing caused me. It was something I thought quite deeply about as I suffered in silence, knowing that I couldn't talk to them about my thoughts, and I don't think she or Dad were even remotely aware of it. They certainly didn't know that I wrote about it. It seems that they just saw me as a fish that was aimlessly swimming around, crashing into the side of the fishbowl.

Writing Throughout the Silence

How in the world could I handle this series of rejections from my own parents who honestly and sincerely thought they were helping me? I wrote stories. The great thing about writing is that you can say what you want without people interrupting you to question, correct, or criticize. This cathartic writing started when I was twelve. Maybe when my parents read this blog post, they'll realize how deeply I was thinking about certain issues when they dismissed my viewpoint and awareness of who I was as me not understanding the world and just being a teenager who thought she knew everything.  

Cathartic Writing #1: A String of Events

I often came up with odd ideas for cartoon characters, stories, and jokes. If I showed them to my mother, she got upset about everything that was off-color in any way. She always threw in my sex as a factor as to why such ideas were inappropriate for me to write about and draw. It became clear that I could not predict what would set her off, so I stopped showing her anything for a decade. I felt asphyxiated in so many ways that seemed related to-- to put it bluntly-- what was between my legs. 

I wrote and illustrated a story, A String of Events, in which a character goes through a similar asphyxiation. I had a cartoon series, Radioactive Squirrel, which was my answer to the children's cartoon Darkwing Duck. Just like in Darkwing Duck, Radioactive Squirrel has an adopted tomboy daughter, in this case a girl named Slick. There are some differences: Radioactive Squirrel's brother/sidekick, Flash, has an adopted son named Spunkster. Coonster, Radioactive Squirrel's pilot (a raccoon, of course), has an adopted daughter named Ghouler, who is a bit like Wednesday from The Addams Family. All these characters live together.

In this installment of my series, Slick gets the lead role in the school play. This role is in a Western that requires her to use a gun. Radioactive Squirrel does not want Slick to be in such a role in the play because he thinks it's inappropriate for girls. But she tricks him into thinking that she has been assigned another role. On opening night, a movie director sees the show and invites Slick for the lead role in his upcoming movie.  Radioactive Squirrel, already fuming that Slick has tricked him, does not want her to be in the movie because it might be too violent, have foul language, and make her play a role that is too masculine. Flash takes matters into his own hands, allowing Slick to be in the movie.  

Here is a scene from the story, with minor grammatical errors and all. The dialogue from Radioactive's mouth is eerily similar to the kinds of things my mother said-- and how she said them. You'll see Radioactive stutters from his upset in one line:

"Well, I got the leading part in the school play! They called me 'one heck of an actress'!" [said Slick]

"Really?" said Radioactive. "Who do you get to be? A princess? An angel?"

"No," said Slick. "This is a play about the old west. I am a teenage cow-girl who fights a desperado and saves the day."

"WHAT?!" said Radioactive. "My little girl has to be a-a fighter! That is not suitable for a little ten year old girl!"

"BUT DAD!" said Slick. "That part required a girl, and Ghouler gets to be the phantom who is the desperado's assistant!"

"I don't care what Ghouler has! Besides, for her, the phantom part is very inappropriate! But I won't say anything to Coonster, because Ghouler is not my daughter and you are! Besides, for them to decide a girl should get this part is very wrong!"

If you think I didn't know what I was doing, the title page of this story reads "This is dedicated to those who feel the need to blow off a little steam." 

Cathartic Writing #2: All Right Now

Okay, so I'm probably not the first kid to write about their parents' yelling into a story as a way to vent. But these feelings about gender policing did not go away, despite Mom's insistence that I would change my mind as I grew older. Not only did they not go away, but they also grew more complex. As my teen years rolled by, it became increasingly clear to me that I was never going to feel or even want to be more feminine, no matter what Mom said.  But I felt frightened, wondering if she was right. I mean, look at all the movies about tomboys. In Now and Then, for example, the tough tomboy, Roberta, becomes feminine and dresses girly as soon as she gets her first crush. Mom often told me that I was the only girl who didn't want to be feminine. My cousin, Melinda, who was well-read in gender issues, assured me that it was not uncommon, that I was not alone, and that some people are actually do more than gender-bend, and are actually transgender. Mom's response when I worked up the nerve to tell her this? "Melinda has a lot of radical beliefs."

Silence reinforced, time to write.

What if, I thought, there was a story where a tomboy didn't turn into a princess after getting her first crush? What if, instead, the person in question understood her, just like my friend Jonas (a camp counselor and my first crush) did? What if he became her friend, just like Jonas did?

The story, which takes place in the mid-'80s, features Rachel, a 12-year-old tomboy who spends time primarily with boys (something I wish I had done as I probably could have been spared a lot of the duplicitousness of teen girl friendships). Rachel's mother, who had accepted her tomboy ways over the years, suddenly starts pressuring her to change. She wants her to dress more feminine, act more feminine, and play with girls-- not other tomboys, but feminine girls. Much as I found sanctuary at my left-leaning summer camp, Rachel finds sanctuary at the house of her best friend, Jake. She develops a crush on Jake's 23-year-old brother, Bernie. In this story, the two families have known each other for her entire life, so it is a bit odd that Rachel suddenly gets this crush. But get it she does, and she finds herself spending hours talking to Bernie about the way her mother keeps pressuring her to change. She says many of the same things I said to my cousin and camp friends at the time (sounding more 16, the age I was when I wrote the first draft, than 12). Unfortunately, I can't find the original draft (though I'm sure it's on a data CD somewhere), but here is some dialogue from another draft I wrote a year later:

“You need to talk to your parents. You can’t continue having fun this summer if you have to do it behind their backs.” [said Bernie]

“I can’t talk. They won’t listen.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Tried it in the past. Never worked. Besides, I feel almost obligated to their views.”

Yes, I wrote that as a teenager. This isn't a bit of 20/20 hindsight on my part; it is what I was thinking at the time. I also said these things to my friends from camp and to my cousin. Yes, I did indeed say that I felt obligated to my mother's views. Again, when you are a kid and one of your parents sounds so damned sure, you question your own sanity even though you know that you will never change your position on a particular issue. And on top of that, many adults, such as my teachers, often commented that people get more conservative as they get older--  I didn't realize this meant fiscally conservative. I thought it meant socially conservative. That also greatly terrified me, especially when Dad would say things like, "What are you even fighting for?" as if I was a rebel without a cause.

Here's another scene, which I think aptly illustrates the discomfort I felt when my parents got on my case about gender issues. And the very last paragraph bluntly illustrates just why I thought enforced gender roles were absurd, and what it ultimately came down to:

“Rachel,” said my mother as my father turned onto Solar Drive to exit the development. “I want to see you act like a lady tonight.”

I looked back at the children on Sunset Drive. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I willed my heart not to race.

“It means you are to behave like a lady. You are to keep your voice down and you are not to play physical games with Jake.”

 “Whatever,” I said, just to keep her happy, though there were no guarantees.

“Don’t talk to your mother that way,” said my father. “She and I are looking out for you and with your best interests in mind.”

I said nothing. I concentrated on my breathing pattern. I would talk to Jake when I got to the harbor. He would laugh with me and let me get some frustration out of my system.

I didn’t get it, anyway. Why wouldn’t my parents just let me be who I was? I liked being loud with boys. I liked wrestling with Jake. I liked skateboarding. I liked being with my friends and they liked being with me.

But why? Why was it that last summer, I was allowed to wrestle and allowed to be loud? Why was it that now that I had a thick bushel of pubic hair and what I called “Japan Flag Syndrome” I had to limit my behavior? Why?

And a similar one:

“You can’t let your reproductive system constantly determine your behavior,” I said.

It confused me even more when other kids at my camp supported me and my gender expression (which without Mom there to scrutinize me sometimes even included flattening my chest with sports bras). They also said things like, "Your parents should be supporting you in your beliefs." Many girls didn't even shave their legs because they didn't believe in it, and their parents supported them. I thought to myself, Would Mom think these other kids' parents are too permissive? That they're bad parents? That they're radical? That they're not bringing their kids up right? And then of course I began to wonder if my parents were just plain conservative. In fact, I remember thinking that whether gender-bending was okay was a controversial issue, every bit as controversial as euthanasia, for example.

This line from Rachel came straight from my thoughts about my family: 

"...and here I am cooped up in this old-fashioned Victorian household!”

And another:

"You don’t even know me. I am a human being, and human beings make mistakes. Deep down I am a good person, and I also think that my degree of femininity is irrelevant and none of your business.”

There was Rachel, saying things to her parents and others that I could rarely work up the nerve to say to my parents.

Incidentally, I still want to write a novel with these characters, but I also want to come up with a different storyline.

Cathartic Writing #3: Survival of the Fittest

By the time I was 17, my thoughts about gender issues became even more complex. It was devastating to hear Mom tell me over and over that I had to start being more feminine, that someday I'd change my mind about these issues, bla bla bla. I don't think she knew just how deeply I was thinking about these things. I thought about them so deeply that I came to the conclusion that the reason people are so hung up on gender roles is based on the instinct to reproduce (years later I would learn that this sort of thing is called evolutionary psychology). Thus I came up with a story to illustrate this absurdity and how it hurts people. I wanted to write it as a dystopian graphic novel but unfortunately I had a really hard time with story structure and never finished the script, let alone a full fledged graphic novel. This is the synopsis of the story (which perhaps I will write someday, but I suspect a similar tale has been told), Survival of the Fittest:

Experimental mice live a secret science lab miles below the Earth's surface and, despite the experiments, have pretty decent lives. They are even friends with the cat that lives in the lab. Then there is a nuclear war that annihilates the entire human race, except the scientists in the lab. They realize that they are probably the only humans left and commit suicide. The mice realize that they, too, are likely the only mice left. But they try to figure out a way to both survive and repopulate their species.

In order of the species to continue, difficult decisions have to be made since resources are limited. First thing's first: The mice eat the bodies of the dead scientists. Soon, the food in the laboratory kitchen is gone as well, and the mice resort to killing and eating the cat. The main character, a teenage mouse named Renata (I chose the name because it means "rebirth"), can see where this is going, and is already horrified that the mice have killed the cat for food.

The Enforcers, a group of Nazi-like mice, comes to power. Renata's own 12-year-old brother even joins this group. In order to ensure reproduction and that the mice are well fed, the Enforcers kill for food anybody who cannot reproduce-- that includes mice that have passed reproductive age, mice who are gay, and mice who do not fit into their gender roles (because how can you reproduce if someone of the opposite sex doesn't even know WHAT sex you are?). Mice are pressured to start procreating as soon as they reach reproductive age.

Renata knows that this cannot end well, that ultimately everybody will be killed, not just those deemed "unfit". She leaves the lab and sets out on a two-week journey. She eventually finds a patch of land that was not affected by the nuclear war. There is some food and water-- enough to start over. So she journeys back to the lab to tell everybody. But when she gets there, her worst fears are confirmed-- just about everybody has been killed in the constant warring. She sees a mouse kill her brother, and in a fit of rage she grabs a gun and kills that mouse. She looks around and sees that she is literally the only one left. Exhausted and ultimately resigned, she carves a stone tablet that says "Never, ever forget." And then she turns the gun on herself.

Final Thoughts

It hurt that my parents couldn't see that I was a deep thinker and that I intensely entertained many issues. It seems that they just saw the potpourri of superficial behaviors and points of view as evidence of me not understanding the world rather than simply evidence of who I was. I know what you're thinking-- what if I had shown my parents the stories I had written? It sounds like a good idea, right? The written word is powerful, after all. In fact, transgender musician Ryan Cassata wrote this song to try to get it through to his father that he wasn't just going through a phase, that his identity as a boy was there to stay. But, as I've stated before, I was afraid to show Mom any of my stories. Secondly, I don't think she was ready to hear it. I don't think she would have understood what I was trying to tell her and what kind of mental anguish I was experiencing any better than before. If anything, I think it would have raised more questions than answers, and that's just a shame.

Fortunately, some people did understand what I wanted to say, and they listened. I remember in the summer of 1998 being up until 3 AM with one of my counselors, telling her about Survival of the Fittest and the ideas behind it. I recall that she told me that she was going to think about this story for days, because it really gave her pause. Yes, at age seventeen, I got someone seven years older than me to think deeply about something that she hadn't thought of before. She could see that I was a deep thinker. Many of my peers at camp also knew I was a deep thinker, and my old friend Jenna knew this as well. I know they appreciated that about me and just how deeply I thought about certain issues.

I can only hope now that my parents also appreciate it.

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