Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Riding the train of thought to the end of the line, with musical accompaniment

And I can see our days are becoming nights
I could feel your heartbeat across the grass
We should have run
I would go with you anywhere
I should have kissed you by the water

You should have asked me for it
I would have been brave
You should have asked me for it
How could I say no?

"I Still Remember" -- Bloc Party

So I’ve got this song stuck in my heart. I keep hitting the back button on the CD player so I can hear it again. While I was recovering from surgery, on of my BILs gave me a mixed CD with some cool music. I have no idea what’s going on in the world of alternative or any other kind of music, so I didn’t’ recognize any of the artists. Among the songs was one by Bloc Party called “I Still Remember.” You can hear it (and watch it) here. If YouTube drives you nuts sometimes, you can go to their MySpace page and select it. What is it about this song? I have no vocabulary to talk about music, but the chorus . . . shimmers. It’s wistful, regretful, but celebratory too: You may be the one that got away, but I can sing about it. The victory of art.

What do I think about when I listen to it? My own adolescence. The song is happy, and my adolescence was crap, so I don't know why it takes me in that direction. High school was a bad time for me. I can remember willing myself to not remember portions of it. Just don’t’ remember—-some day everything will be different and you won’t need this anyway. “This” could be an incident at school, or emotions, or my mother’s craziness and my dad’s temper. I don’t remember, so I suppose my experiment was at least partially successful. What I remember, what I don't remember.

I remember that I was always boiling over with tension from anger and loathing, which I kept under control by cutting myself. This makes me sound as if I were a very dour kid, but when I look at photos of myself from that time, I can’t believe the discrepancy between my self-loathing and dislike of almost everyone around me and how wholesome and sweet and even sunny I looked. I smiled a lot. Well, you're supposed to.

I was an outsider and I hung out with everyone else on the fringes. Being an outsider has its advantages. I could observe the various courtship/mating rituals around me. I had been raised to be good. For girls that means silent and sexless. At the same time, I knew this moral code was nothing more that what they had heard from their parents. Still, I didn’t approve of my classmates. I thought they were nuts, getting obsessed over each other as if it mattered. Fumbling around secretly as if there were nothing more important to do. I’m sure I had the requisite hormones, but I didn’t like the idea of “natural” urges, as they called them in sex ed. “Natural” was such a crock.

Sometime around 15, I became obsessed with Brideshead Revisited. I think I reread that book every year until I was into my 20s. I still own the miniseries. The religious theme didn’t much interest me then. I thought the protagonists took the religious thing a bit too far, and I didn’t really like the second half of the book, when everyone grows up and gets serious and pious. But the first half, which is about the adventures of Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte living it up in Oxford and dreaming away months at Brideshead--it was enough to make me want to become British. I thought Charles and Sebastian belonged together forever.

In fact, I wanted to be Sebastian Flyte. And I did try, within the rather limited means at hand. My hair was already short. Silk shirts were out of the question, so I had to settle for button downs with flannel trousers and wing-tip oxfords. I did not look even remotely androgynous, which was what I was aiming for. I was stubbornly curvy and feminine. Not that I actually wanted to be a man--I didn’t feel I had been born with the wrong body, to the extent that I thought about having a body at all. Usually I felt like ectoplasm in a casing. But every once in a while there was an unpleasant reminder that I did in fact have a woman's body--being pinned to the wall by some guy staring at me, or whispering, or whistling, or whatever.

I told my best friend that I would rather be a gay man because it was much better than being a woman. At least two men would be equals, and men already wielded more power than women, not to mention they got the better stories. How could a woman submit to her body being invaded by a man? Were they crazy? It was . . .icky, I mean, demeaning.

I also adored the films If... and Another Country, which got me thinking about the collusion between the petty authorities in schools, and The Authorities, like the loser president sending money to the Contras. I wasn't eloquent in my thinking. Probably something along the lines of: all adults are petty tyrants and yet they are also puppets and they don't know it but I do, so Hah! I see through it all! I am so perceptive!

I did have a “boyfriend.” He was remarkably useful because I was not in the least attracted to him, and if he was attracted to me, well he was too conflicted to deal with it. I didn't have to worry about any advances from him. So, as I said, he was useful. Everyone thought he was a freak, so I had that stand-up–for-the-underdog impulse. But mostly he kept me from having to worry about dates or other boys or the pity of the other girls. He was gay, of course, although how much of that he understood at the time I don’t know. Everyone else knew instinctively, so he was tormented on a pretty consistent basis. That sounds very premeditated, that I found him useful, but really it was unconscious. I’m sure I was very useful to him as well, particularly after that British boy enrolled.

But I didn’t spend all my time in self-destruction and pondering the balance of power between the sexes. I spent a good amount of time giggling with my friends over the cutest rugby players (we watched a lot of Australian football) or--I cringe admitting this--Rick Springfield. We had a list of the three most gorgeous actors (we called them the Triumvirate). Who were they, I wonder? These were safe, since I wasn’t going to encounter any of them in real life. Then there was a my mad, unrealistic crush on the boy in my Latin class, unfortunately unavailable but such a tease, and my first kiss, which I thought was. . . icky.

In the larger world there was the strange man who approached me during a school field trip, a man old enough to be my father. And the man who exposed himself when I visited my brother in Philadelphia (this I don’t remember—-my sister-in-law filled me in several years later). Every day of school I could hear how the boys talked about the girls, crudely, openly, as if it were a great joke. Then there was my father, who filled me with such inexplicable revulsion that I used to hide when he came home from work and hope that he would forget I existed.

Don’t make too much of that last sentence. When I was in the poetry program in NY, I remember how a teacher's comment startled me and I felt like cold water had been dumped over me, because I realized that everyone sitting around the table thought I had been the victim of sexual abuse. I had to go back and reread all my poetry, and yeah, there were a lot of images of grown ups violating kids. Violation of the mind and heart I knew, that was an everyday occurrence, but nothing else.

Revulsion is such a strong word, but it's the right one. The moment I heard his car I jumped up in a panic and hid in the closet or under my bed. And yet he never did anything to me. I just flat out loathed him and tried to stay off the radar. I’ve heard of a term called “emotional incest”--I’m sure someone made some money thinking up that one. You too can be a victim--incest isn't just physical anymore. But I suppose it describes my house of origin as well as anything else. Being utterly powerless, knowing that my mother would go through my drawers and read my diaries, the constant tug of war between my parents for my affection and loyalty. The invisible doctors who spoke to my mom. Her tirades about being the subject of a joint CIA-Russian experiment, and her certainty that my friends were conspiring against me, or we were conspiring against her. My father’s threats to have her locked up, or to walk out. His disgusting attempts to win my allegiance so that we could gang up against my mother. Accusations flew around that house that I still don’t understand to this day. There was no getting away from any of it.

Not long ago a therapist suggested hypnosis as a possible way to work through some of this, but I cannot be hypnotized—I’m too well defended.

And this is the last station. Isn't it odd where you can end up listening to a happy little pop song?


  1. sweetie -- you write with such honesty about your crappy adolescence. I wish it had been better - because the scars it left are not lovely at all - but Jesus pours oil onto and into them and wants to make you whole.

    it's a process and yes you can eat chocolate along the way :)

    hugs - have a good weekend.

  2. I am out of breath reading your story! I had a relatively wonderful adolescence in spite of being gender dysphoric. My parents were great! It blows my mind when I read of people with dysfunctional families. I hope things are much better for you now. God's Peace.

  3. Wow. What a history. I think your selective amnesia was probably a good defensive move.
    Best of wishes.

  4. I too, appreciate your honesty, BA. And the Brideshead thing...totally get that. I still read that book every year, own the miniseries AND the soundtrack (on vinyl). But I wanted to be poor, sad Julia. (Mostly so I could do Jeremy Irons on the QEII...but that's another story).

  5. I empathize with you, Bad Alice. I too am no stranger to repressed memories and depression. Luckily, I have G-d, although my faith isn't as strong as it could be, I'm afraid to admit.

    Anyway, I loved your post. It's as witty and insightful as always. I hope to be as wise as you seem when I'm your age.