July 16, 2012 § Leave a comment
It’s hard to remember the first six years of your life, but according to Oliver James in They F*** You Up – How To Survive Family Life, those first years and how our parents relate to us, define us more than genes.
Parents are often limited in their ability to connect with us in all stages, such as the competitive adult who lacks understanding for the fantasy life of a four year old, but strongly relates to the adolescent. Other parents are short on empathy due to problems with depression or lack of proper care in their own upbringing.
If our parents lacked empathy, were abusive or absent, there’s a very large chance that we will end up struggling with depression, narcissism, or personality disorder. If those issues aren’t dealt with, we’re at risk for repeating the exact same cycles in our own children.
What our parents value in us and encourage determines to a large extent who we become as people. From infancy on, we are treated a certain way on the basis of a complex weave within the mind of the parent. What do we remind them of, do we bring back memories of negative experiences in their own childhood, do we remind them of their own failings. The cycle repeats itself when we become parents ourselves.
“Each parent treats each child so differently that they might as well have been raised in completely different families (James, 8).”
Though obviously, I can’t remember how I was treated as an infant, the one thing I do know is that my mother does not like babies at all. She has difficulty relating to them, and is bored until they get to the toddler stage of being able to talk. She was also unable to breastfeed. Our Old English Sheep dog, Big Boy, guarded my crib religiously and growled at any unfamiliar person who dared to enter my room. All through my childhood, I was often much closer to animals than to people.
When I was older I lived at the pool with the girl from next door. My skin was a dark chocolate, my hair a golden mushroom. I don’t remember if there was an adult with us. It was normal back then for small kids to run rampant through the neighborhood without supervision. My mother hated parks, possibly because it meant she had to talk to the neighbors.
My parents didn’t really interact with me in playtime, and my sister was too old for most of my games. What I remember is that my mother seemed like an ever-present figure in front of the kitchen sink. Always washing dishes. I would look up at her from my spot on the floor, next to the record player, chewing small square ice cubes and listening to children’s albums from the 1950’s.
She always loved us, was always caring, if not strict due to a desire to ingrain us with her beliefs. But she was a distant, foreign presence until my teens. My father didn’t really know how to deal with being a dad. In fact, he is still figuring it out. As a parent, do you ever stop figuring that out? Especially since your children are constantly growing, changing, evolving – hopefully. Once stern and emotionally unavailable, he is now more loving and affectionate than I ever thought possible.
I remember having a fear of using the toilet. I was afraid that a giant snake would come up the pipes and bite me in the ass. I washed my hands before flushing, then pressed the lever down and went running, flailing my arms down the hall, certain the snake would get me. There was also an angry tiger that lived in a massive empty oil tank in the basement. I could hear him groan within the metal. I pictured him pacing, muscles flexing beneath his orange and black striped fur.
My sister told me they opened a McDonald’s in Africa, but since they didn’t have cows there, they just used six-foot long worms that they sliced into patties. She said the patties were kind of rubbery and grey. I actually believed her, and then held a grudge for years when I realized she’d made it up to prove my gullibility.
I find it lame that some people think children are not sexual creatures, and that you wake up at twelve suddenly aware. All children are sexual, and their levels of inhibition all depend upon how adults handle their sexual expression. There was enormous embarrassment around my constant desire to stimulate my genitals. It was a humiliation for my mother. I found ways to hide it – hands hidden in pockets, the edge of a chair.
When I was four or five, I was at someone’s house, and a boy pulled me into a bedroom for the classic, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” With our pants pulled down around our ankles he pointed at my crotch and said, “I can almost see it. Don’t worry, you’ll grow one soon.” Suddenly, I felt incomplete. I was missing something. But that something looked kind of funny and I didn’t get why it was so important to have one.
I didn’t have a crush on a boy until the first grade. Below age six, my crushes were on beautiful women, particularly, my preschool teacher. She carried a Gucci purse, and always wore purple with lots of make-up. I craved her attention, wanted to be close to her, wanted to be like her.
At four, I was so shy that when people asked me my name all I could say was “Hi”. For a while, that is what they called me. “Hi.” I stuttered and could only speak after literally spitting it out. From the very beginning, I was behind in school. Maybe my sister struggled too, but she was an over-achiever. My parents always treated her with respect, like an adult, while I was always, and still am, the entertaining fuck-up.
“From the moment we gather on Christmas Eve or the day itself, our parents and siblings demand that we enact our appointed role. Never mind that we may have long since ceased to be the clever one or the fatty, the attention-seeker or the moaner, our family treats us just as they always did and within minutes of walking through the door we are back in the nursery. The achievements and independence of adulthood are swept away and we find ourselves performing a role that we thought was long obsolete (James, 35).”
Going back a generation, it seems that everyone in my mother’s five child family needs therapy. “Offspring of families with five or more children are significantly more likely to be delinquent and to suffer mental illness (James, 4).” My grandmother had depression. She was not really suited to having so many children, and would have been happier with a career. She loved fashion, and later in life, liked to write. But to her children, she lacked empathy and was prone to negative outbursts. My grandpa was emotionally distant and had trouble expressing affection. He was reserved and stern – does that sound familiar?
Growing up, my father had very little emotional support. His mother died when he was three, his grandmother who helped raise him after, died when he was eleven. His sister ran away from home at fifteen, and his brother died in a car accident at eighteen. To cope, my grandfather was an alcoholic, and he married a woman who never accepted my father as a son. So for a long time, my father struggled to emotionally connect with people for fear that he would lose them. He’s had moments of irrational fear and outbursts, particularly, when I learned how to drive.
Something about the whole environment of repressed feelings has turned me into a fighter for speaking my mind. When I came to adulthood, I was the first in the family to speak directly and honestly and openly. It was an enormous shock, I think, for everyone. When they attempted to close up, or retreat backwards, I kept marching forwards with my banner raised. Now when an issue lurks beneath the surface, it is always bound to come out at some point, and we are all happier for it, even if my mother blanks out the things that she doesn’t want to remember.
At this stage of my life I have a very healthy, strong relationship with my parents. I work through the way things were in the past through my writing, and I find understanding and forgiveness for the course we were all on that we really had no control over. The mind is made up of maps and patterns that can only be broken through vigorous insight and awareness. My mother can afford a therapist. I can afford a pen and a pad of paper.
As I think about having a baby, I have become even more aware of breaking negative patterns. In some ways, I feel prepared because I have already done a lot of work within myself. I’m looking forward to the possibility of the challenge. And despite a few hiccups, I’m extremely lucky that, growing up, I had a strong and loving family life, and still do.
Oliver James refers to many studies that have proven genes play much less of a role in us than we have been led to believe. I appreciate this stance, and have witnessed to a great extent, that we do have the ability to change our reality completely, even working through the deficiencies in our early development that are inevitable no matter how wonderful our parents.
I’ll always be the entertaining fuck-up to my family, and that’s okay with me. But as a result, there is always the feeling that I have to prove someone wrong. I know within that I am a winner, and I’ll just keep doing what I do regardless of what the rest of the world thinks. The main thing is – I’m okay with myself. Once you achieve that, others are okay with you too.
July 2, 2012 § 2 Comments
Last Sunday, at the bookstore, I saw the name ‘Emily Gould’ in red letters on the spine of a book in the memoir section. I don’t forget the names of editors I worked with briefly as a literary agent. Back then Emily was an editor at Hyperion. She has since worked at Gawker and is now on her own doing freelance. Her memoir, And The Heart Says Whatever, is a snapshot account of her life from college through young adulthood in New York City.
“I felt the vacuum of the empty suburbs surrounding me like a black hole in which my body was suspended, as though I were the only warm alive thing left in the world (Gould, 27).”
After her childhood in the burbs, Emily only lasted one year at Kenyon, a university in the Midwest full of loser frat boys, where women end up objectified or abused. It’s obvious that she does not fit – the same way that I did not fit at small, conservative George Fox University. While all of my roommates were out with their fiancés, I was sitting alone in my bunk bed with a stray cat, eating Chinese take-out and watching old Fellini films. I dreaded the moment when they would return, “What is this crap you’re watching? It doesn’t make any sense!”
Once in the city, Emily pays her way through writing classes with a series of server jobs where she suffers from anxiety. She feels exhausted from performing, leaves her feminism at the door, and puts up with being treated like a dimwit.
My first job in New York was in Soho at an Italian restaurant. The manager wanted me to stand outside to try and draw people in. I was not even a host, and I was not getting paid. Around 9pm, a band started to play, and the manager asked me to sit with some rich businessmen. I have to admit, though he was turning me into some kind of unpaid escort, I enjoyed the conversation, since one man owned the art gallery across the street, and bragged about how he had worked with Andy Warhol.
The manager said I would be serving at another location that was just opening up in the Lower East Side, where my commute would take twice as long. On my first day there, the owner only came upstairs to yell at us then disappeared into the basement for hours.
The other two servers were actors and called me “babe,” in a condescending tone that I found irritating. There were no sections, and they viciously fought for tables. Being the newbie, I had one lone table, and ended up bussing the other 49, spinning in confusion.
When it was time to go, I went downstairs to find the boss. Down a long hallway, he was sitting in a grimy office smoking a joint and counting piles and piles of money. There were at least twenty stacks over six inches high. I’d been in New York for one week, and already I was working for the mafia. I’ve since learned that in Jersey and New York, restaurants are backed by mafia money, while in Seattle they are backed by drug dealers – same thing, different titles.
I walked back to the original location and told the manager that I wanted to work in Soho, but he didn’t have a position for me. It was a good thing. I was the only person there who wasn’t right off the boat, and all the money was under the table with no salary. I was beginning to think that the entire city was outside of the law.
A year later I ran into the manager again at a party thrown by a flamboyant Italian man. At all of his parties, the host hired a model to walk next to him carrying a sign that read, “Stefano Is Here” with an arrow pointing down. The manager was working as the DJ that night, and I had been hired as a dancer with a percussion band that I performed with. We were at a swank restaurant uptown, called Zanzibar, and the party had a tribal theme.
The ex-manager/DJ was completely shocked to see me. I was no longer shell-shocked and outside of my element. In fact, I was getting paid to be the life of the party. Things moved fast in New York, so fast, I can’t believe it all happened.
After a series of serving jobs, Emily Gould found herself working as the Editorial Assistant to a Senior Editor at a publishing house.
“I was realizing that the production of book-shaped products had very little to do with “books,” the holy relics that my college education had been devoted to venerating (Gould, 99).”
Once at the literary agency, I imagined myself taking on literary clients and life-changing books, but I couldn’t halt the constant stream of fluff being thrown at me by my boss or the pressure to find a sale that could meet current trends. I didn’t feel strong enough, or maybe nothing seemed good enough, and everyday was a pressure cooker to make that deal happen.
Being let go was a tremendous relief. For all that time I’d never been able to read my own books, or write my own words. So every morning for the next six months, I was up at 6am to write for an hour outside the coffee shop, with people rushing past me to work. After writing ten pages, I would begrudgingly join them, and go to my shitty job in the city, numbering every single piece of crap artwork that came out of Peter Max’s factory. Like that first restaurant I worked at, only recent immigrants lasted in his exploitation-fest. He was donating millions to charity, and I couldn’t afford to live. But as long as I got that writing in every morning, it seemed okay.
Emily Gould still lives in Brooklyn, and I have to admit, I feel a sense of envy that I am not still in New York too. There is always the sense that I am missing out on something – connections, parties, shows. You can find all that in Seattle too, the problem is that I really haven’t yet.
I also have a theory – that when you leave New York you get slightly weak and introverted because the pressure is finally off. I hadn’t realized how much energy it took. I’ve watched as friend after friend left the city and completely went into reclusive mode. One friend even took to the mountains, and never lasts for more than 24 hours when she comes to visit me. In New York she was a tough, angsty, goth rocker chick in platform boots. Now she is a peaceful hippy, who prefers to live in a yurt, pee in an outhouse, and grow vegetables.
Five years since my move back, I’m teaching myself how to refind my New York energy. I’m remembering that in New York, amidst all the crazy, I learned how to live, how to survive, and how to love exponentially. Not the fake romantic love of adolescence, but real love for all of my friends and my community.
Instead of complaining about how I lost that when I left, I’m now remembering how to be what you wish others would become. And surprisingly, I’m finding what I’ve been looking for. Friendships are flowing naturally, the way they should be. I sense I’m growing closer to the pulsing beat of energy. Life takes a turn, once again.