I’ve been thinking back a lot lately on who I am. Like, what is it about my past that illustrates who I am. When you grow up in a dysfunctional family, you get fed a lot of cruel untruths about yourself. It’s not just the untruths that are harmful but the denial of reality that distorts your worldview and keeps you off balance. There are a lot of family legends that get retold to reinforce the untruths. You start to question if anything you feel is real. If your memories are based in reality at all. Sometimes, the only way to know you’re standing up straight is to feel gravity pulling you in a certain direction. Is it holding you to the ground? Yes. Once you have a plumb line, you can ask what else you know to be true. What was always true about who you are?
In sixth grade, I watched the start of the Iraq war on TV in the bedroom I shared with both my sisters and I cried. No one saw me cry because that would have become a feeding frenzy for my mother and my sisters, whom she was very good at using as attack dogs. I love them. I know they are grown and they’ve become their own people. But I was 11 and they were six and four and they could not be trusted from around that age until long after I’d left home.
I cried, tucked between the bunk beds and the sliding glass door to the porch. No one told me that this was wrong. There was so much jingoistic nonsense going on at the time that everyone was waving the flag like we were living in the universe of Red Dawn. Honestly, I think it was a combination of Mad Magazine, my dad’s experience as a conscientious objector sent to Vietnam as a helicopter medic, and my gifted program teacher, Jackie Scott that tuned me into Reagan’s bullshit presidency and Bush’s encore. I pulled out a sheet of Avery labels my grandfather had given me and I drew on every single one the words “No Blood For Oil” with little oil rigs spewing blood. I intended to share them the next day at school. I put maybe four or five of them on my three-ring binder. But nobody wanted them. Everyone just wanted to sing “God Bless The U.S.A.,” that horrible song about being proud to be an American, where at least they knew they were free.
Eighth grade was the year of the first Take Your Daughter To Work Day. I made my mom take my out of school and leave me with my dad. It wasn’t like I didn’t have an intimate awareness of what my dad did. He’d never not taken me to work with him. I did it because Linda Ellerbee had talked about how important it was for girls to see firsthand what their parents did and to be seen in professional settings on Nick News. I didn’t do it for me. I did it so that every kid in my class would witness me getting out of school and wonder why. I did it so they would ask me about it later and I’d have an opportunity to discuss it with them. No one did, of course. No one hardly ever talked to me at all. And, of course, I spent the afternoon in the secretary pool at my dad’s office. It was not air conditioned and I was bored. But I did it because I thought it was important.
Between junior and senior year of high school, I made another stand…probably several stands down the road, but the next that I remember. We were living in La Jolla that summer. My parents got excited to take us to Del Mar to watch the horse races. My dad had a friend who hooked him up with box seat tickets. Both my parents had been a part of horse racing and horse life in general. My mom had dated a trainer and my dad had worked with John Wayne as a cowboy after he got back from Vietnam. Horse racing has a history in Nogales. Bob Baffert, the triple crown winning trainer, is from Nogales. I was…not excited to go anywhere with my family, but especially not to a horse race. I brought a philosophy book to read and visibly register my defiance. I was that teenager.
The first race…the very first race…a horse stumbled at the finish line, and threw the jockey. Everyone ran to the jockey while the horse flailed around with a broken leg. I got sick and ran to the bathroom to throw up. I knew they were going to kill the horse. And I couldn’t get the image out of my head. I went back to the box only to tell my parents that I’d be sitting in the stairwell if they needed me. They told me I was being ridiculous. I sat in the stairwell, crying, for probably ten minutes when my mother came to get me. She told me I was ruining a fun day. I refused to budge, and the whole family went home. Nobody was happy with me.
I stopped eating meat after that for six months. Nobody noticed. There was a lot that went under the radar that year. Well, nobody except Norah Joffroy, the daughter of one of my father’s best friends. At dinner one night at P.F. Chang’s she asked me about it. “Even fish?”
“Yeah. Fish are killed inhumanely. They suffocate to death. But before they do that, they release all these stress chemicals into their flesh. So do pigs. I don’t want to have anything to do with that.”
I eventually started eating meat again because I started experiencing terrible anemia. But Del Mar is still a place where horses die unnecessarily. I’m not linking to any articles. You can see for yourself.
There were a lot of more unpopular stands to come with my family. When I became a punk (17). When I refused to be a debutante senior year (my mother got my aunt Marcia to team up on me about that and I was forced to do it). When my friends started to come out of the closet during college. When I vote for Nader (21). When I stopped being Catholic (13…but not officially until college). When I forced my mom to buy a fake Christmas tree because it hurt me to see a live tree cut down so we could watch it shrivel in the house over the course of a month as some barbaric tradition (21). When I decided to officially move in with D (22). When I told my family I’d had an abortion in order to deflect some of the heat a family member was getting (the abortion was at 19 but the reveal was much later). When I decided to move to NYC.
To my family, I was a problem. I couldn’t just be happy to do what they said. To think like they thought. I always had to be contrary and make life difficult. But somehow, they came around to my way of thinking. I wasn’t wrong about the important stuff. My instincts were right on. But somehow that part got lost in the mix. All that got remembered were all the times I was obstinate and made everyone unhappy.
I’ve been a royal twat my share of days. Don’t read this and think I’m submitting my nomination for canonization. But yeah, I stood my ground on things that were important to me. And I know people benefitted from some of those really hard and isolating moments. My sisters mostly. But all they remember is what a horrible teenager I was. I wish we could have had a better relationship. But I was in no state to mentor them. My family dynamic was so fucked up.
Coulda, woulda, shoulda, I guess.
Me at 13, seemingly unimpressed.