Friday, May 29, 2015

The Long Silence, Part 5: Getting Affirmation from My Parents

Besides the gender roles/expression issue, there were other ways I needed affirmation from my parents Most were in terms of the way I perceived and still continue to perceive certain situations. Let's look at a few:

1) There was the situation in which I told Mom that one of my non-camp friends, Jenna, was into Wicca. For some reason, Mom was always wary of Jenna (but oddly enough not the "friends" from middle school who had stabbed me in the back and ultimately ditched me), but Dad had liked her. Mom had never had a kind word for Jenna, saying that she "lived on the fringe" and was a "lost soul", and this was long before the Wicca incident. Mom's disapproval of Jenna haunted me for years. Sadly, Mom doesn't remember Jenna, so I have no idea what she thought she was seeing when she looked at her. As a teenager, this really confused me. I thought, well, Mom is an adult so she theoretically must know better, so why can't I see what Mom is seeing? Years later I told my parents that Jenna had understood me. Mom said, "Well, you probably never told me that." Well of course I didn't! What difference would that have made? It would have raised more questions than answers. Besides, how do you tell your own mother, who doesn't understand you in a very profound way, that a friend of yours does? I don't think it would have been taken seriously. 

2) In terms of the Wicca incident, I didn't believe and still don't believe that, as far as religions go, Wicca is particularly dangerous. I have my own opinion in general of religion, but I won't go into it here. I think that if anything Wicca is among the least harmful religion, not necessarily because of the beliefs but simply because very few people follow it. Large herds are dangerous. 

2) I still don't see what was wrong with my drawing violent Addams Family cartoons at age 11, as long as I didn't draw them in school (which I didn't). But my parents, Mom especially, were so damned sure that what I was doing was simply wrong and needed to be stopped. 

4) Not voluntarily showing Mom any of my creative work (drawings and writing) until college because I did not know what to expect from her, whether or not she would blow up. 

5) Thinking that people were fucking with me, while my parents (again, usually Mom) were skeptical. Even as an adult, I still say that I was right 99 times out of 100.

6) Not telling Mom about my crushes because I knew she'd bring my gender expression into it, saying, "If you would dress more feminine they wouldn't be so put off by you." And yes, when I did start confessing in my early 20s, that is pretty much how she reacted.

Recently, I discussed all these issues with my parents. In a real twist to the whole, "Mom was right" cliché, my parents have admitted that they were not just wrong, but profoundly wrong and made a lot of mistakes in the past. Mom said that I was right about Jenna, and she said this because now she finally listened to what I said about Jenna. Mom and Dad admitted that Mom probably freaked out about the Wicca incident because she knew nothing about Wicca, not because she was right and had adult experience that I didn't. They also have said they were wrong to prohibit me from drawing my cartoons during my Addams Family phase. They also said that they were usually wrong when they thought people weren't fucking with me when I knew they were. This was something I especially needed to hear from Mom; Dad generally was more able to see when people were fucking with me or screwing me over in some way.

Then Dad and I had this conversation, which was something I really needed:

Me: Dad, isn't it understandable that I didn't show Mom much of my writing and artwork until college because I never knew how to expect her to react?

Dad: Yes, absolutely.

Me: Isn't it understandable that I wouldn't tell Mom about the crushes I got because I knew she'd flip out and lecture me about my gender expression?

Dad: Yes, of course.

So how and when did things finally change? In 2009, at age 28, when I was visiting my family in Pennsylvania, Mom and I got into, yes, another fight about clothes. And it was a screaming fight. She was screaming, "I'm sick of your tears! For fifteen years I've been telling you what you need to do to make your life easier, but you won't listen!" I told her I was fed up with her treating me like I was a little kid, and she insisted she wasn't. We were in the car at the time, and as soon as we got home, Mom went upstairs, and I left the house to go for a walk. I was shaking, and I took out my cell phone to call my brother and to call my shrink. Neither were available. After about ten minutes, I heard a honk. I turned around, and there was Mom in the car. Very calmly, she told me to get in. I told her I'd only get in if she promised not to scream at me. She promised.

We drove around in silence. Mom apologized. She said she had just had an epiphany. She realized that she hadn't been treating me like an adult, and that she had been blind to the fact that I was an adult. She said that she had also been blind to the fact that my reality, even if different from hers, was real and not just some immature view of the world. We started of what became a series of conversations and my coming out-- as I've said in many posts, there's a lot of coming out with Asperger's-- that still continues to this day. I have been slowly telling her and Dad things that I haven't before. Even though I know now that Mom won't flip out-- that she can't flip out, because I'm an adult--  I still am gun shy about my idisyncracies. I have to have a talk with myself and remind myself that Mom and Dad have evolved, and that Mom won't scream if I have a thought that is odd or a perspective she doesn't agree with. In fact, their evolution sometimes seems too good to be true because, as I've said, there's that old "When I was a teenager I thought I knew everything" and "Mom was right" cliché. Besides, after decades-- formative decades-- of hearing that you are wrong about everything? This new affirmation still feels too good to be true. And sometimes I don't even know which of my parents' perspectives have changed and I have to check in with them on that.

For example, in 2011 I got interested in Dr. Jack Kevorkian, less because of his euthanasia work but more because of the brilliant man he was, a unique and fiercely independent man who taught himself several languages to fluency; a man who was a writer, an artist, a musician, an inventor, a historian, and a philosopher; and a man who I was (and am) near certain had Asperger's Syndrome. It had only been two years since Mom had her epiphany, so I was still a little gun shy about how she'd react to this interest. Fortunately, she didn't give it a second thought. Then when Dr. Kevorkian died, I had tears in my eyes. Because I was so used to getting feedback that my idiosyncratic feelings were wrong, I felt like I had to come up with excuses as to why I had tears in my eyes. But then after talking myself down, so to speak, I realized that my parents wouldn't freak out about it, and I decided that if they did that it was their problem not mine. I was 30 years old, and I shouldn't have to justify any of my feelings to them. In fact, once I showed my mother this video of Dr. Jack Kevorkian:

I pointed out the intensity of his facial expressions, saying, "This is one reason why I think he had Asperger's Syndrome." Mom said she wasn't sure if his expressions indicated anything about Asperger's, but she commented, "He's someone you can identify with in a lot of ways." And boy was that something I was glad to hear. Had I been interested in Dr. Kevorkian as a teenager, Mom would have freaked out, no question. But just little affirmative comments like that, which I wasn't used to hearing? I really needed that! It's nice to know, too, that I can draw pictures of Dr. Kevorkian, have all of his books, and have prints of his work hanging in my apartment without my parents wondering why.

When I got fired from my past two major jobs, Mom said things like, "You deserve better than life has given you." Years ago, she and Dad would have been up all night wondering where they'd failed as parents. Again, it's these little things, these little changes. They make not just my life easier but my relationship with my parents better.

One thing my parents tell me is that hindsight is 20/20. Except a lot of what I am telling them now that they say is me looking at the past with 20/20 hindsight (the ridiculousness of conformity=maturity, the absurdity of social roles based on your genitals, etc) is what I tried to tell them years ago at the time these things were happening. They just hadn't listened much.

I do feel better these days about my relationship with my parents, and some people might even think I should feel victorious that the world is beginning to affirm things I've been saying for years. But I don't feel victorious. Why? To quote Al Pacino as Dr. Jack Kevorkian in the biopic You Don't Know Jack, "This isn't a victory for me; it's just common sense!"

The Long Silence, Part 4: Needing Affirmation from my parents

I've always said that I probably would have had a much easier time handling the bullying I experienced in middle school as well as the other setbacks I experienced throughout my life had my parents affirmed me instead of telling me I needed to change.

I started to get affirmation at Camp Negev, the only place I had ever felt comfortable when I was a teenager. I remember that throughout the years I was there the kids in my age group told me that I was "refreshing" and that I was "strong". One of my fondest memories was in the summer of 1996 (age 15), when my friend and mentor, Jonas, and his girlfriend (now his wife), Netya were putting my bunk to bed. We were all talking, and somehow I started talking about the one day, just a few months prior, when I had reached an epiphany and summoned the strength to stand up to the kids who were bullying me. I remember saying things like, "I finally realized that it wasn't my fault." Everybody in the room listened, really listened. When I had tried to tell my parents about it when we were in yet another fight about the clothing issue, they didn't want to hear it. But everybody in the bunk at camp that night was impressed.

Netya was one of those who was impressed, so impressed that she Tributed me a couple days later. "Tributing" was a camp tradition where one person writes a Tribute to another person-- often in the form of a poem-- and reads it in front of the entire camp. Nobody knows who that person is until the very end of the Tribute. Then the person who receives the Tribute has to Tribute someone else. In the Tribute Netya commented on my independence-- my creativity, my weird sense of humor, and even dressing tomboyish-- in a positive way. I thought to myself, "Jonas and Netya appreciate me for who I am. So do the other kids in the group. Why not my own parents?" Well, imagine how hard it was for me to go home at the end of every summer. And by the way, I still have the Tribute. Fond memories, that.

And of course the following school year was a lot of the same old, same old. I wasn't being bullied (I was now in high school, and most of the kids who had been in my middle school were zoned for another high school), but my parents-- Mom especially (how many times can I say that?)-- were still hovering over me and trying to tweak me in terms of my gender identity and expression. They didn't seem to see the growth I'd experienced by being able to stand up to the bullies-- how could they? They had never let me tell the story. They had just kept cutting me off. Another problem was that they didn't seem to believe me when I told them that people at camp appreciated the fact that I was different, and admired me for not succumbing to peer pressure in terms of gender expression. They seemed to think that people were just telling me what I wanted to hear in order to avoid conflict.

And whenever I had an opinion about anything if my parents disagreed with it, they didn't treat it like a difference of opinion. They treated it like the opinion of someone who just didn't understand how the world works. This was especially true with gender roles, and Mom's statements on this issue were always punctuated with, "You will change your mind when you get older." In other words, what you're feeling isn't real, but rather just a phase that you should have outgrown long ago. When you'll older, you're realize that you need to conform or else there's something wrong with you." Well, that's what it felt like I was hearing.

It was horrible not to get this affirmation from my parents. It is cliché for an adult to say, "As a teenager I thought I knew everything and that my parents were wrong. Well, I realize now that they're right." But I knew that there were certain things I would never change my mind on-- ever. So what did it mean? Was I destined to change my mind and "grow up", falling into the trap that many people do when they conflate conformity-- particularly gender conformity-- with maturity? And what about the fact that I rarely felt like I could tell my parents anything? Well, my parents insisted they were "always there for me" and yet I couldn't tell them much, so did that mean I was the problem?

In the spring of 1998, Dad finally said something me that I had desperately needed to hear. It started with yet another day where I was in a battle with my parents over clothes. I blew up and screamed, "You won't let me be a tomboy! You just want me to fit into this narrow-minded mold you have set for me!" Later, Mom lectured me that "tomboy" was an inappropriate word to describe myself at age 17, that tomboys were "little girls who act like boys." I said something to the effect of, "I'm proud of who I am, and you just keep telling me I'm wrong!" The next day, Dad and I had a long talk about the whole tomboy issue. Loosely quoting Inherit the Wind (and confusing "gene" with "chromosome"), I said, "Yes, I have a second X gene. It's a gene. It's a determining gene, but it's not the only gene!" Dad listened, and said that I had made a valid point. He said, "You're right. We have been too restrictive on you." At the end of the conversation, I asked, "Mom says I'll change my mind about these things. Will I?" Dad said, "No, because it goes against everything you believe in." I don't think he knew how badly I needed to hear that.

It got better, but I had to wait another eleven years for that to happen. And that will be discussed in the next and final blog post.

The Long Silence, Part 3: Pushed Further into the Closet

Towards the end of my teenage years, I really began to feel that my home was not an emotionally safe place for me. In actions reminiscent of "love the sinner, hate the sin"(although religion had nothing to do with it), my parents, despite thinking they were helping me, drove me into a closet. This was especially true in terms of my mother. Like a religious person who thinks the "sin" of homosexuality is merely a superficial behavior-- divorced from core personality and identity-- that needs to be corrected, my parents seemed to think that a lot of what were core aspects about my personality and identity were superficial behaviors. Not only that, they thought they were marks of immaturity and signs of being unable to understand the real world.

A Tomboy in the Closet

I've mentioned in several other blogposts that I've always used the word "tomboy" to identify myself and my slightly lopsided gender identity, rather than in a tongue-in-cheek way that people usually do ("Oh, she likes to do woodwork. She's such a tomboy!"). But it seemed that my parents-- again, Mom especially-- were inordinately focused on this aspect about me. The way I wore my hair-- for almost 4 years, almost always in a ponytail because it was thick and made me look like a "bombshell", which was not me at all-- was a constant topic of conversation. Phrases I repeatedly heard were "Why can't you wear it down?", "You're the only girl who doesn't like looking pretty!", and the sarcastic "Fine! Cut your hair like a boy!" And what hurt was that I secretly did want to cut my hair in a tomboyish way, but I wasn't allowed, so pulling my hair back was the next best thing. How in the world could I talk to my parents about how I felt if Mom said such dismissive things about my insistence on not wearing my "bombshell" hair down?

Then there was the one time when Dad asked me to wear my hair down for him as a Father's Day present. That was just humiliating. Of course I didn't do it.

Pushed into the closet.

And then there was the clothing issue. I hated wearing shirts that were even slightly girly. I wore polo shirts, flannels, sweatshirts, T-shirts, and military fatigues. But my parents constantly commented on this, telling me that I was too old to dress like that. It made no sense to me that being androgynous was a sign of immaturity to them. When I tried to tell them that in some ways I felt more like a boy than a girl, they just told me I didn't understand how the real world works. They didn't hear a statement about who I was, but rather a statement coming from naivety and immaturity.

I repeatedly had nightmares about being forced to dress in what I call "boob-neckline" (low-cut) shirts. When I had to dress up for family occasions, I felt extremely uncomfortable. I looked in the mirror and didn't see myself. I saw someone wearing an elaborate disguise. It was even worse when my parents put me on display for each other and commented about how I was dressed. It usually went like this:

Mom: Doesn't she look great in that?
Dad: Yeah, she looks like a girl."

If my brother were there, forget it. He'd throw gas on the fire and add, "For once" to one or both of those statements.

Instead of the comments having their intended effect and encouraging me to dress the way they wanted me to, all I heard was, "The way you dress is wrong. I don't approve of your being a tomboy. This is what we want to see, and you'd better learn to like it."

Pushed further into the closet.

In fact, there was one time when I was eating at a restaurant with my family and we ran into one of my mother's high school students. The girl had long blonde hair, was wearing makeup, earrings, a boob-neckline shirt, and short shorts, revealing perfectly shaven legs. I remember at that moment thinking, "This is the kind of daughter Mom wants, and I can't give her that because it's not who I am."

When my brother graduated from high school, my mother submitted "To thine own self be true" as a comment for his yearbook graduation photo. I remember thinking, "Yeah, she can say that to him because the way he is naturally fits in with her expectations."

Pushed even further into the closet.

Asperger's Sexuality

I've mentioned in numerous blog posts that I rarely get crushes, but when they do they are very overwhelming and intense. Mercifully, my last one was seven years ago, and I've never been in a relationship (although I kissed one guy, and that was in summer 1999, age 18!). I got my first crush very late, just a few months before my fifteenth birthday. Prior to that, I would have embraced the word "asexual" had I heard of it. The problem was that I hadn't heard of it, and neither had Mom.

Figuring out my sexuality was another issue my mother seemed inordinately focused on. At the most random moments, Mom would ask me, often in a panicked voice that she unsuccessfully tried to disguise, "Do you have a crush? Have you ever had a crush? Do you like being around boys? Do you get a 'special feeling' around boys? Do you get crushes on girls?" Years later Mom told me that I was "insulted" when she asked me these questions, but really, I was just uncomfortable: she asked these questions frequently, at the most random moments, and in the most awkward ways. When I gave her an honest answer-- first "no" when I didn't have crushes, and then "yes" when I finally started getting them-- she just pressed further. It seemed that she was less interested in getting an honest answer than my telling her what she wanted to hear. If I were gay she would have been fine with it, but it also seemed she wouldn't rest until I told her what would have been lies. To get her to stop grilling me, I would have had to lie and say things like, "Yes, when I walk into a room full of boys (or girls), I'm overwhelmed at how cute all of them are." I wasn't like most girls. I didn't "get that special feeling" when I was around boys as a whole, but rather if there was one particular person whom I liked "in that way", which was rare.

I finally did open to Dad about my issue with obsessive crushes, right after I came back from my CIT summer at Camp Negev and had had my third obsessive crush. I remember very clearly telling him, "Don't tell Mom about this, because then she'll see it as yet another problem that I have that we have to focus on." Sadly, keeping that secret was my only option. And it probably spared me a lot of pain until the day eleven years later (more about that in Part 4), when Mom was finally ready to learn and accept the truth. How do I know? Around the same time I made the serious mistake of telling Mom that one of my friends was into Wicca. She freaked out. Years later, she told me that she doesn't remember this but had probably thought to herself, "Great, this is yet another problem that my daughter has."

In this regard, I was pushed further into the closet, at least in terms of Mom.

So who did affirm me? That is discussed in the next post.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Long Silence, Part 2: Confessing Secrets

As my last post illustrated, I kept a lot hidden from my parents. I could tell Dad a little, but there was still a limit to his ability to understand me. As for my mother, forget it. Over the past few years I have slowly begun to tell them about the emotional and mental turmoil I experienced as a teenager, especially in terms of trying to navigate crushes. It is not much different than the coming-out process that LGBTQ people go through, confessing feelings and thoughts that most people think are "wrong". Even today it is still awkward telling my parents about things that I had kept from them for so long, because I am so used to being told that my feelings are "wrong" and that my actions are "immature." This operant conditioning is a result of what I heard in my formative years, over and over again: I was too old to be a tomboy and that I should like typically feminine clothes; that I should have crushes, but not so intensely; I shouldn't feel devastated if someone hurts me, because I probably brought it on myself or am just misinterpreting them... and so forth.

This blog post has two confessions about the summer of 1998, when I was in the CIT program at Camp Negev. On the first day, the head staff broke the shocking news to me that I was not allowed to work with the kids. I also developed a crush on one of the counselors, Omri. Although the summer was mostly good, both of these aforementioned circumstances caused me a lot of stress. When I was hit with the bombshell that I was not going to get to work with kids until possibly 2nd session (and fortunately they did let me work with them 2nd session), they essentially had told me, "You made your bed, now sleep in it." Had I made some really stupid mistakes in the past that they were right to be concerned about? Yes. Did I have some growing up to do? You betcha. But both then and now I felt their concerns were hypocritical because these people were guilty of their own appalling inappropriateness: smoking weed on camp premises, leaving kids alone in cabins, yelling at kids who were a little "different"... But just imagine the stress I felt, with little sympathy from most of the staff. In fact, I was expected to repress any frustrations I felt and keep a Wendy Wright smile plastered on my face. How could anybody be expected to work under that kind of pressure?

This is where the secrets come in. Mom, Dad, I have something to tell you. Two somethings, actually. I vaguely alluded to the second one at the end of the summer of 1998, but I refused to elaborate because I knew I would be lectured about how I couldn't blow up and I had to keep my cool... even under that horrible pressure. Now you will finally know these secrets, and I'm sure by now you've figured it out: The Monster visited me that summer, twice as a matter of fact.

The Monster's First Session Visit:

During first session, I did the math and figured out that the only reason that I even got into the CIT program was because my friend and mentor, Jonas (who that summer was working at one of Negev's sister camps in upstate New York), persuaded the staff to let me in. One day, Jonas came to camp to visit with the sister camp he was working at. As soon as I saw him, I ran and practically jumped him as I gave him a hug. I said, "It's so good to see you!" Then I said to him, "I figured it out-- you talked them into letting me in." Jonas gave a non-committal shrug and laughed awkwardly.

And then the pieces fell abruptly into place. Think we Aspies can't read between the lines? I concluded then that I had misunderstood-- Jonas didn't fight to get me into camp, but rather he made sure I didn't get to work with kids. When I realized what had happened, I felt shocked and horrified, and that my friend had stabbed me in the back. This was the guy who I thought understood me and who was always there for me, only to betray me in one of the worst possible ways. In short, I felt humiliated. I said, "Wait a second. You didn't want me to work with kids. Some friend you are!" And I stormed off.

I tried to keep the tears in because I knew I couldn't be visibly upset-- after all, mature people don't have emotions, right (yes, dear, that was sarcasm-- you see the ridiculous standards people held me to?)? But one of my counselors could see that I was upset and forced it out of me. I cried and screamed because I was in such horrible pain. She tried to calm me down, but neither she nor anybody else understood what this was doing to me. They just saw the superficial behavior of having an emotional outburst, not the devastating buildup that had led to it, with my realization about Jonas being the catalyst.

I tried to find Jonas again but he was nowhere around. Turned out he was taking his kids tubing on the Delaware, so I had to wait for him to get back. When he finally did get back, we sat and talked. It turned out that I was right the first time-- he had fought to get me into camp because he knew it would damn near kill me if I couldn't go to camp that summer. And while I may have jumped the gun about him making sure I didn't get to work with kids, it wasn't entirely unfounded. He agreed with them that I wasn't ready yet. After he explained this to me, I felt somewhat better. But of course I was still hurt that for months he and others had known I was not going to get to work with kids and that I didn't know until the first day of camp. I was still very upset that he had kept this from me for several months. But the bombshell? He thought I had known. He thought the camp director had told me months ago.

I also told Jonas that I didn't like one of my counselors-- we'll call him David-- and that I got the feeling he didn't like me and had no sympathy for me. Jonas, naively, said that David cared about me-- cared about me so much that he had driven down to the river to tell Jonas what was going on with me. Sorry, I call bullshit on that one. David had had it in for me then. He was nasty to me on several occasions, and I don't think by driving to the tubing site to talk to Jonas he wanted to do anything except rat on me.

So there you go. The first visit from The Monster. And of course nobody forgot it, and it was just another mark on my Chalkboard of Mistakes that prevented them from hiring me as a counselor the following summer.

The Monster's Second Session Visit

Mom and Dad, you probably don't remember this. But I had vaguely alluded to getting "a little upset" on a three-day, twenty-mile-hike camping trip during second session. I refused to elaborate, and you kept unsuccessfully trying to force it out of me. This is what happened:

The night before we had left for the camping trip, I was in the shower... OK, I admit it; I was just standing in the girls' shower because I knew that my crush, Omri, was showering with some guys on the boys' side (it was a bathhouse-- girls' and boys' showers were separated by a wall). So of course I hoped to accidentally/on purpose run into him when he came outside. What happened? I overheard my name being dropped a few times. When Omri came out of the shower, I asked him what was said. He said that he and others had said that they were tired of hearing me "bitching", complaining about things. In some cases some things that I had said as a joke were misinterpreted as me complaining-- and sadly that still goes on with me today.

 Omri and I had a very tense talk, and I knew that he was done with me and that he was tired with me (another note-- it wasn't that I couldn't  pick up on these cues, it was more that I didn't know what the fuck to do with them!) and that with only a week of camp left I still had a lot to do to prove that I could come back as a counselor the following summer. I went to bed that night, crushed that Omri was tired of me and crushed that my chances of being hired as a counselor the following summer were essentially zero. I may have been given kids to work with 2nd session, but I knew damn well I wasn't out of the woods yet.

The next day I was very quiet until I confronted one of my close guy friends who had been in the shower the night before when my name was dropped. He said that someone had made a passing reference to me "bitching", but my friend also had told others that I wasn't given enough credit for the good things I did for the campers I was in charge of and that people seemed to only notice my mistakes. Would have been nice had Omri told me about that part.

The rest of the day, walking mile after mile, was quite a bit tense for me. That evening, as we set up camp, I accidentally knocked over a box of cereal, its contents spilling on the ground. The other CITs who were around said, "Julie!" Of course it was probably a momentary thing, something they would have laughed about ten minutes later. But I was like a soda bottle that had been shaken over and over, with finally someone taking the cap off. I snapped. My emotions, which had to be put on the back burner in the name of "maturity", spilled out along with that cereal. Another visit from the monster, screaming, crying... I hurled someone's flashlight across the clearing, and the damned thing broke (fortunately its owner forgave me-- the kids in my group were generally very accepting and nice and understanding towards me). My counselor-- the one I liked, not David the Dickhead-- was trying to calm me down, just as she did first session when the incident with Jonas happened. But I was in hysterics. I was hurting because Omri wasn't my friend. I was hurting because I couldn't be a counselor. And I knew that my outburst was the nail in the coffin, and that I absolutely wouldn't get hired the following summer. I was right.

Nobody, nobody, nobody understood how devastating it was to have strong feelings for someone only for them to want nothing to do with you. Nobody could understand the confusion I felt that things had turned out like this after Omri had treated me like a friend in the beginning of the summer. Nobody understood how hard things in life were for me that everybody took for granted.

And back then nobody knew the name for my condition. I was simply a "behavior problem" and I was "immature". My visits from the Monster were seen by others not as overwhelming frustration that I could no longer keep bottled up, but as childish temper tantrums. Needless to say, these two incidents were the most cited when Camp Negev explained why they wouldn't hire me as a counselor.

Nobody understood me, and I didn't even understand it myself. So Mom and Dad, why would have I told you about these things back then?

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.