I’m sure there are downsides to being exposed to emotionally complex films too early in your life, but I can’t think of how any show up in my life. Maybe Waiting to Exhale, The Joy Luck Club, and Imitation of Life shouldn’t be films you watch, love, and memorize before your tenth birthday, but I have no regrets. Those movies, and more like them, the costumes, colors, and light made up some of the first times I longed for other worlds. I loved the idea of new lives to live in for just a little while. Less than three hours in most cases. When a skeleton broke into song, dancing for adoring crowds, then slinked off to disappear in an enchanted forest, I watched him with reverence and recognition. It always felt good to believe they love you for as long as you can hold onto that belief, then find a way to get lost when you couldn’t anymore.
For many years I would visit my youngest aunt to see the movies I liked the most. My mother rented movies, my grandmother waited for them to run on basic cable, but my youngest aunt bought movies, and kept them in her home. I would come over, and as soon as I could find myself alone with her VHS tapes, and later DVDs, I would comb through them until I found Dracula. This was the cover:
If you’ve seen the movie, you know all the relevant information. If you haven’t seen the movie, I’m not going to tell you anything other than it stars Winona Ryder in her early twenties, and at one point, a giant man of a bat retreats into the darkness of a candlelit room and disintegrates into at least one hundred rats. Even if you’re the kind of person who likes rats, the shiver one might catch from watching this scene is sure to make you forget that is true. The same way I’m fond of snakes, but every time I watch the drifting characters blow up the wall in Anaconda, I pull the blankets or my own clothes closer around me. The fear of being overwhelmed by a group of something smaller, faster, and coded as evil is an old fear. But it’s potent. The chill it leaves in the air around me lingers. My absolute certainty, even if as I attempt to convince myself I’m wrong, that I’ve just seen something move in the corner of my eye. It all lingers.
A few days ago, just for fun, I tried to take account of every memory I have of my body being violated or belittled. Strange activity, I’m sure, but it was sparked by a conversation with my husband. In some way or another I began telling him the story of being sent to the office of my school because a teacher said she could see my brown nipples through my white shirt. He shook his head, and asked,
“That was your freshman year of high school, right?” I stopped and looked at him for a moment, wondering if I should correct him. I could tell he was confirming the grade I was in because, not only was he disgusted by the situation, he was also sickened by how young I was when these comments were made to me.
“No,” I said. “This happened to me in the third grade.” I wasn’t even ten when my breasts started developing. I barely noticed, but every woman in my life found a way to point them out to me, and remind me that they meant I was different now. That I was dangerous and in danger now. Kel balked at my words, and I winced because sometimes I get tired of seeing how the common details of my real life make people squirm. Despite my discomfort, I continued talking to him about being sent to in school detention for my clothes, being ignored when I complained about boys touching me, being followed, and the whole time being blamed for it all. Then, I wanted to write it all down because I realized, I’d never thought about it all at once before this conversation. Never considered when I put it all together, just for myself, it might show me something.
You know what happens when you’re not allowed to be a whole person for a long time? When the parts of you that make you who you are are devalued by the people who are supposed to love you and teach you how to love? When you are diminished to the outline of your flesh, and whether or not someone wants to touch you? I know what happened to me. I know how afraid I am of being a person who doesn’t hide, even as I actively choose to be a person who doesn’t hide. I know I routinely gave up on whatever I was good at, and that it was a great way to never have to find out how limited I am, and also a great way to practice breaking my own heart. I know being the best and winning are more like cousins than twins. And winning things you never even thought to want can be as destabilizing as disappointment. I know I loved to sing, act, and dance, and I still do, but only behind a locked door. I know that I don’t mind being seen, but I’ll do a lot to keep from being watched.
All the things I loved about performance became triggers for my worst fears and insecurities about myself. Did I want to do the work, or did I just want attention? Did I want to be good at it, or did I just want to fuck around? If I couldn’t be the best, then why be anything at all? Why let them all watch me fail to become something better than whatever I was? If I got hurt, it would be my fault for wanting to be free. At times, I see my past in blocks of memories, dusted with the unencumbered joy of playing and making art. But the blocks don’t build anything. They’re just there. Pieces and parts of me with no common thread, compartmentalized, and still hiding from one another. It wasn’t always like that. I wasn’t always this way. What was once a body, a whole and creative and curious thing, matured in unsafe conditions, and exploded into a hundred desperate rats.
A friend of mine said my mother should have never allowed me to watch all those movies. She said it was so important to let kids be kids for a long as possible. I get what she meant. What she means. I just hope no one forgets the part where it’s just as important to let kids be who they are. Whoever they are. Even if it’s like no other kid you’ve ever met. Even if it’s a kid who hides.
Was there a movie you loved to watch alone as a kid? If so, what was it?
I popped In from Twitter, the tweet spoke to me. Then I saw the title and I instantly knew exactly what you were talking about. The scene, the move, the rats. As I read this it’s like you’re writing for me but it’s my dad with the movies. I’m not entirely clued into the exact situation with your mother but I know for me there’s been no more destructive forced in my world then mine. My breasts came in and at 4th grade I was a full C cup. Worse still I had a male teacher who talked to my chest for the next 3 years I was in elementary school. That same year I went to a gym with my friend for the first time. I’m clueless, a child. I went to dance class, gymnastics and ice skating, that was my world so I show up in a leotard. Give me a small break because it was the 80’s but I didn’t have tights or stretch pants. We get out of the car and my friend’s dad gives me a up and down look over and focusing on my chroch, points and says “you know you’re supposed to shave that off, body hair makes girls look dirty”. I look down and a few tiny pubic hairs are peeking out. He was over 40 and I was 9 or 10? Mortified, I don’t think I have ever been more embarrassed to that moment. We went in and I went into the bathroom and ripped them out. It hurt and I cried. I called my dad and he came and picked me up. That night I shaved everything off. Every body hair, arms, pits, legs, pubes, everything. I had to swipe one of mom’s razors to do it. She got mad I got in trouble until I told her what happened. His wife got a call, and I’m sure he got in trouble. To this day I have trouble letting my body hair just be. He wasn’t the first man to cause damage, he wasn’t the last he was just many in a list of men who point or push, touch, or punch. They mold us, and sometimes I’m just play dough.
Once again, speaking directly to my heart. The fear of trying to be my best in case I should fail runs deep within me to this day. Luckily, I have newsletters from amazing women to help remind me that I am not alone.