Content warning on this one, pals: mention of sexual assault, lots of F bombs
A long time ago now, I wrote a zine and published it under a fake name. It was an obviously fake name, a bit rude, and I picked it because it made me laugh. I won’t tell you what it was because that zine is still out there in the world, and if you knew—if anybody knew—that I was the one who wrote it, it wouldn’t feel the same to me anymore. To tell those stories properly I needed to pretend to be someone else.
On the surface, the stories were not that big of a deal. Just some childhood memories of a spooky religion and adults who weren’t very nice to kids, turned into funny stories by someone who was still mad about it. Since the writer of that zine had an obviously fake name, the stories could have been written by anybody, which had a way of making them larger than themselves. This was fitting, because I am not the only person these kinds of things have happened to.
I made an email address for that pseudonym, and she got letters from people who read the zine and wanted to share their own stories. Those stories were pitiful, too, but they were also always a bit funny. We weren’t talking about abuse or terror, after all—just the daily grind of boredom, befuddlement, and shame, the little indignities of life that we all suffer to some extent or other. I’d say that reading, writing, and talking about this stuff was cathartic for everyone involved.
Some months after I put the zine out I went searching for it online. I don’t remember why now; I think I was trying to see if any of the shops that carried it had listed it on their websites. What I came across instead, to my surprise, was a review of the zine on someone’s blog. I don’t remember most of what the review said anymore, just that the writer related to the stories and enjoyed reading them—and that they thought I was a fuck-up. The way they said it was something like, “this is where a fuck-up comes from” or “this zine is like the fuck-up’s origin story.” I will tell you right now that the moment I read this was one of the most satisfying in my entire life as a writer, or the public aspect of that life, anyway. I am not even kidding. It meant that something I had written had been a success in the realest meaning of the word: I’d set out to be completely honest, and someone had recognized it—they’d felt the “cut of truth,” as Natalie Goldberg calls it in Writing Down the Bones, her classic book about learning to write.
The truth cuts, and it heals. Since I had made up that ridiculous name I could say anything I wanted, the way you can in a diary. It happened that the things I wanted to say were insulting, a bit immature, and very angry. And wow did it feel good. I was surprised by how freeing it felt to write this zine, in fact, since I write about my life all the time and I’m always trying hard to be truthful; I mean, that’s the whole point of doing writing like that. But this little experiment of mine taught me that I can always dig deeper.
I have thought about this many times over the years, this idea of me as a secret fuck-up. By secret I mean that I probably don’t seem like a fuck-up to most people. In fact I might even seem like the opposite: Hard-working, stable, fortunate, my middle class background written all over my face. I’m polite and my house is tidy. I did well during those years I wrote about in the zine, even—I was the fucking valedictorian of my high school class! But I hated the way I felt sitting in those classrooms, humiliated and trapped. I hated most of my teachers, thought they were stupid, and felt suffocated and insulted by the oppressive religion I was subjected to every day. I hated the kids who believed in it, their prissy smugness, and the adults who let themselves be bullied by these weird authoritarians who’d convinced them they had heaven to offer. I hated it all until it made me sick to my stomach, but I balled up my bad feeling and used it for the energy I needed to study hard and get good grades. I did this because I understood that being angry all the time would somehow mark me as a fuck-up—the fuck-up I thought I was, even though I had so much going for me.
When I read that review of my writing I felt seen, and I know you know what a glorious feeling that is. It’s so rare, so precious, that when it happens you’re usually about a minute away from falling in love. I’m sure it helped that the writer of the review was using the term fuck-up affectionately—or, I guess, knowingly: From one fuck-up to another was the general feeling I got. But I would have treasured that comment even if they’d said it to be mean. I had shown my real self—one of my real selves, I should say—and someone has seen it. A split inside myself was healed. Or if not quite healed, at least patched up a little.
I’ve been going through some personal turmoil over the last few months, something very hard. It’s brought new ideas to the forefront of my mind, ideas about family and belonging, safety, secrets, and shame. About what it means to tell the truth, and how hard it is to actually do that. I’ve been thinking a lot about what honesty is and where it is, where in the body. When something feels too painful for you to look at, where do you put it? And if it’s been tucked down in there for a long time, how do you dig it out?
I don’t know much about the various schools of psychoanalysis and have tended not to be very interested in them as a subject, like intellectually, but as I say, I’ve been doing some searching. I read an essay recently about the Shadow Self, Jung’s idea of the Id. It’s the part of ourselves we keep hidden from ourselves but is there anyway, motivating some of our behaviors. Those hidden aspects of our personalities are usually things we consider negative, but positive stuff can get tangled up in the Id too. It’s a jungle in there.
I warmed to the idea of the Shadow Self instantly. It reminded me of my inner fuck-up, that poor, pissed-off girl who thinks no one can see her. The one who was so split from the rest of me, I had to give her her own name. She’s been tagging along behind me all this time, after all, and I really do love her. She tells the truth and makes me laugh. I need to recognize her, integrate her more—I need to do some shadow work—and even though I’m not quite sure how, I’m on a path, and I’ve been seeing signs to guide me as I go.
Like: In the car last week I passed a street called Moonshadow Lane. Later that afternoon I found a jigsaw puzzle at a thrift store that had the word moonshadow in it, too. Like: “Dark Morph,” the new song by Jonsi and Carl Michael von Hausswolff, who made an album out of sounds they collected on a research vessel: whale song, the sound of bats flying, gorgeous and terrifying. It conjures half-seen things moving elegantly, slowly, deep beneath the ocean’s surface, where the light barely reaches. It’s as if everything in the world has a dark side, a shadow self, but I’m only able to see that now for the first time.
One of the things that has always drawn me to Wicca, though I don’t practice it as a religion, is the idea of embracing the darkness, or at least accepting it as the balance of the lighter aspects of life. Wicca is a nature-based religion, and with nature as a framework for understanding ourselves these ideas are easier to conceptualize. Life is a cycle, the year is a wheel, and every season is necessary. The seed of death inside the heart of every summer day—you can feel it there. The green life tucked underneath the frozen ground in winter—you can feel it there. Everything is everything.
Poking around the library the other day, I found a small book called Two or Three Things I Know For Sure by Dorothy Allison, a writer who I have loved for her brainy and fearless truth-telling. This book is too short to be a proper memoir—less than 100 pages long—but it is about her life. Allison, who grew up very poor in rural South Carolina, always writes about her own life in some way—and because of some of the details of her life, she also writes about secrets, shame, stories, and truth. In this book she writes that her stepfather raped her, beginning when she was five. She writes here, and has written in other essays and books, that she refuses to feel ashamed of who she is and where she comes from. But reading her writing, something more powerful even than that proclamation comes through: She very clearly just isn’t ashamed. Her honesty and love—love for her mother and sisters, her partners and queer community, as well as for herself—make that apparent.
Allison also writes that she didn’t tell the story of her abuse for a long time because stories like that have a way of defining their teller. She didn’t want to wear the coat of many colors, the one in the Bible that’s so brilliant no one can see the person wearing it—they can only see the coat.
“Behind the story I tell is the one I don’t.
Behind the story you hear is the one I wish I could make you hear.
Behind my carefully buttoned collar is my nakedness, the struggle to find clean clothes, food, meaning, and money. Behind sex is rage, behind anger is love, behind this moment is silence, years of silence.”
I think this is excellent, this image of stories like matryoshka dolls, one inside the other. In a sense this is the hardest part of writing, figuring out when the story begins. You have to strip away so many layers to get to the truth, but when do you stop? Do you need to tell them all for the picture to be complete? I don’t know yet. I do know that one way or another, we need to find a way to integrate all of our stories if we want to become whole.