The shame we carry forward from youth, and the empathy of writing
“I’m a novelist, not a memoirist.” It’s what I keep saying, in defense, when people ponder dubiously, sometimes viciously, in online book reviews, whether I (as a 40-something-year-old mostly-straight woman) have the right to write a novel about a 25-year-old bisexual male. Or someone from another country. Or someone with a disability I don’t have. Or any other difference you might name. I still stick to the defense that writing about people different than ourselves is the exact point and the exact job description of being a novelist, and that the empathy gained in the experience is wonderful for all of humanity. Same goes for reading novels. But, today, because it’s been on my mind, I’ll be a memoirist for a bit.
They say, “You don’t have the right to talk about what it’s like to be disparaged for who you are, your identity, your sexuality, because you don’t know.” But how do they know if I don’t know? Granted: right, Molly, how would they know your background when you haven’t told them? I haven’t told them because I didn’t want to talk about it, put it all on display. I didn’t want to be a memoirist; I wanted to be a novelist. Maybe I thought that was safer. Well, it clearly isn’t, in terms of being judged (nay, crucified at times), so I might as well put it out there.
In first grade—I barely remember this; I’m going by what my mom tells me—I had a teacher who was so strict she terrified me. My folks talked to the principal. They collectively decided that, since I could do the work just fine, they’d move me up into second grade. (Was there no room in other first-grade classes? I have no idea why this was the best idea. Personally I think it was a terrible decision.) Nonetheless, I got transferred to a second-grade class, to the surprise of me and the second-graders, and adjusted reasonably well and got on with life. OR DID I?
I have an August birthday, which, as you fellow summer-birthday people know, means I was already among the youngest in my grade. Getting moved up a grade meant I was now at least a year and sometimes almost two years younger than everyone else in my class. I was also physically small; always have been. I’m still only 5’2”, and I didn’t cross the five-foot mark till around ninth grade. My smallness and youth weren’t too huge a deal in elementary school, to my memory, but then came middle school.
Oh, middle school. I don’t have to tell you what it’s like. But I can tell you that it’s worse if you’re tiny, intimidated by all the suddenly-huge 7th and 8th graders around you, intimidated also by the daunting new level of academic work you’re expected to do, and it’s all made worse when you don’t have any close friends at the school. (My closest friends from elementary school went to a different middle school.) Boys who loomed over me and must have weighed twice what I did called me “Smally Molly” (so clever!), and stole my lunch tickets when I was naïve enough to leave them semi-visible in my open binder’s zippered pencil pouch, then they insisted to the teacher with wide-eyed innocence that they hadn’t done it. Popular girls stared at me and my dorky clothes as if I were a slug they’d just stepped on (I have NEVER gotten the hang of dressing fashionably), and whispered to each other and giggled. The one friend I hung out with gave in to peer pressure from a more popular girl and dumped me. I befriended a couple of fellow nerds eventually, and we three hung out at lunch, glumly relating the horrible things people had called each of us that day. Nice boys I developed obsessive crushes on eventually got tired of my leaving them cutesy shy notes and making moony eyes at them, and passed me notes that said “LEAVE ME ALONE! STOP LOOKING AT ME!!”
When I write about someone being rejected, being constantly picked on for who they are, for who they in their awkward cluelessness can’t help being, do I perhaps not understand what I’m talking about?
Then came high school. Things improved! I mean…they improved compared to middle school, but…
My obsessive crushes continued, transferred to now slightly more mature boys. They were even mature enough to start being nice to me—kind of. At the end of my freshman year I started going out with a sophomore, who, because of my extra-youngness, was almost two and a half years older than me. He seemed to view me as a fixer-upper, though one he did honestly love. He’d tell me, with sympathy, that some of the other kids were wondering why I wore the same jeans all the time. And that those scabs on my arms weren’t very attractive (marks from nervously picking at my hair follicles until I gave myself constellations of tiny scabs). And I held my silverware like a little kid; had no one ever taught me better? And also, my writing was okay, but there was no way I could, like, go professional with it. Babe, grow up, he’d say.
But at least someone loved me! It was intoxicating. I still didn’t have any other real friends around—those two fellow nerds from middle school had gone to the other high school in town—so of course I improved myself to please him. Not to mention, HORMONES, hello. We were teens. Kissing and fondling each other were the wildest and most exciting activities we had ever experienced in our lives. I was learning A LOT here.
“What a slut,” another girl said about me, because I kissed my boyfriend frequently in the halls. Never mind that he was the only person on Earth I was kissing or doing anything else with—apparently being amorous at all, as a girl, meant you were a slut. For that matter, my boyfriend himself really, really didn’t like it when I started becoming friends with other guys. “He wants to get into your pants,” he’d scold, in a drama-filled argument we had over and over for basically every one of said friends. “You shouldn’t hug him.”
I couldn’t control what THEY thought, I defended. “You WANT to be sexy,” he accused. And he was right: deep down, I did want that. I didn’t want to have sex with loads of people, but I did want to be seen as sexy. Which reputable girls weren’t supposed to want. I was filled with guilt and shame, and tearfully denied his accusation.
When I write about someone being sex-shamed, scolded and put down for having sexual interests at all or even for being SUSPECTED of having sexual interests, do I maybe know what I’m talking about?
I broke up with that boyfriend, after way too long, after it had gone much too far into dysfunction. I blundered ahead into college and felt out of place once again, not cool enough to want to drink or smoke or party, too introverted to be social like the “fun” students, yet teased by friends in a rather sex-shamey way when I shacked up with my (new) boyfriend. I married him eventually, I kept writing, we had kids, and here we are.
But those scars—man, they still ache during certain weather. When I write novels, I’m being far more of a memoirist than I would have people believe. Even when I’m undeniably writing about people who are different than me and are undergoing specific hardships I’ve never faced, the emotions underneath are mine. Fear, isolation, grief, heartbreak, rejection, love, lust, shame, anger, confused pride.
I have this paranoid suspicion that people see my smiling author photo and read my whimsical-but-well-educated bio and think, “Yeah, I know her type. Girl who’s always gotten everything, had lots of friends in school, whose idea of a rough day was that time she got a bad perm.” I grant you, that WAS a rough day, but that wasn’t the worst of them by any means. I put all of the above out there to tell you that when I write “one of the quiet, weird kids” in my bio, I really mean WEIRD, and that it hurt, for years on end. And that when someone hates my novels and decides that what I deserve is for them to shred me and my work as if I’m no more worthy than that slug they just stepped on—yep, that does throw me right back to the popular kids slamming into me from behind and knocking me over, then breezing past snickering without pausing to help me up.
Is it worth it to keep writing novels? Absolutely. I love the writing part. The sharing part: goddamn, that’s scary. And it will never not be.