I believe that authenticity matters; hiding who we are stifles growth opportunities for the individual and collective. So in this blog I write about all things that genuinely fascinate me: art, spirituality, the puzzles of personhood--and their ongoing interplay. For some, learning the artist's thoughts contaminates the experience of the art, and I respect that. It might be best to avoid this blog and visit only my gallery pages. Personally I can't get enough of the stories, ideas, and people behind art, so this blog is most appropriate for an audience similarly curious and open-minded, and who won't take offense at challenging perspectives and taboo topics. It's especially for those who are aware they're undergoing a spiritual awakening and seek to feel less alone in that process. I wouldn't be at this better place in my life if it weren't for the wayshowers I found online who helped me understand what was happening to me and to the world, and I hope to pay it forward by doing the same for others on the awakening path. But most of all this blog is for me, as writing helps me clarify my thoughts and record my progress like nothing else.
All names have been changed. Also, I would have included relevant family and personal photos in this post, but several years ago I threw away almost every photo from my childhood and teenhood (not hard to understand why when you read on).
It's a cliché title, isn't it. But sometimes things we consider trite hold profound truths that we resist because we're not ready to face what they mean for our lives and the lives of others. Contempt is often a cover for vulnerability. And I can tell you that this ego-based facade falls away in a true healing process. To heal requires complete honesty about how memories and words feel to us.
When I was growing up, my mom and I weren't able to have real, honest conversations, but once as a young teen (I don't remember the context) I said, "We are shaped by our experiences." She thought that was so profound. In hindsight, it was clear that neither of us appreciated the extent to which it applied to both of our lives, as what could have been a very uncomfortable conversation ended there. But it was a concept I felt compelled to explore many years later because the truth of it had started to pick at old, unhealed psychic wounds that I routinely covered with sterile bandages of I'm fine.
In this post I provide a history of the circumstances that I feel had enormous impact on the person I became and what I would later consider to be my purpose in life. If you are struggling to make sense of your past or suspect that your behavior today is somehow connected to that past (spoiler alert: it is), you might be interested in this personal narrative and the things I learned from it, which will follow in separate posts. It's my intention to inspire others on their own journeys of self discovery.
There’s Not Enough, and I’m Not Enough
The messed-up middle kid. It’s a common enough claim of dubious validity, but in my house it definitely turned out to be true, though it wasn’t obvious at all as we were growing up. Why? Because I was quiet. I tended to just fade into the background, doing what I was told, so I wouldn’t get in anyone’s way. In a family where the parents decided that it was absolutely not ok for children to indicate that they were not ok, my naturally empathic nature ensured that it was easier for me and others if I suppressed my bothersome rights and desires so that everyone else could feel as good as possible. I had two sisters who definitely did not possess the empathic wiring I did, so they stood up for themselves in whatever creative ways they could under the circumstances, as any normal human being would--much to the chagrin of our mom June, who nearly burst arteries every day because she couldn’t fathom why her children didn’t behave exactly the way she wanted. I felt that it was my duty, out of three incredibly unhappy kids, to deny my needs for June’s sake. Over and over and over again.
I was born into a family built around the common story of people who marry and have kids to fulfil the reigning societal expectation of the times. (As a woman of my parents’ generation told me about this knee-jerk decision, “Back then, it’s just what you did”). My dad is a native of southern India who grew up in a huge family in the kind of material poverty people in developed countries can barely imagine. He managed to acquire an education, earned a medical degree, and joined the wave of Indian doctors who came to the United States starting in the late 1960s. My mom is a white American of mixed European ancestry and came from a thoroughly broken home where her father was an alcoholic and her mother was in and out of mental institutions--a situation that at some point caused her grandparents to step in to help, and that eventually prompted a high school teacher to take June under her wing.
My parents met in Michigan, my mom’s home state and the place where my dad completed his medical training in the U.S. They eventually moved to a small town in east-central Illinois where Dad established his medical practice and Mom became a homemaker. I was born in 1974, just 18 months after my older sister Jillian, when June was 23. I was born several weeks premature (six, I think it was?), and almost died, I’m told. Two years later she had my sister Sia.
I don’t think my parents were ever actually in love. I certainly never saw them affectionate toward each other. In my twenties I asked my dad why he had chosen mom, and he mumbled something about her being the “quietest” of prospective wives. I sensed early on how much June resented my dad for the fact that he was rarely around to assist with parenting but also because she genuinely didn’t enjoy his company when he was. Dad was so completely focused on working and earning money in the stock market that he almost never made time for his family. Constant work and lack of informal social interaction also make one behave in strange ways--e.g., speaking too loudly in public and saying inappropriate things. Not only was he completely uninterested in us as people, he also seemed incapable of this interest--so we kids didn’t enjoy being around him, either. He almost never ate meals with us and was generally gone before I got up in the morning and came home after I went to bed. But he did provide us with all the financial support we could ever want.
There wasn’t much affection among my sisters and me, either. Sibling rivalry is common enough in families, but our family took it to an extreme. Sisters tend to share adventures, clothes, make-up tips, secrets, and an abiding love. But among us there developed over time a toxic brew of annoyance, resentment, disdain, jealousy, and even hatred that I eventually realized occupied the extreme end of the sibling conflict spectrum.
To this day I’ve never known anyone as possessive as Jillian. One memory that my mom would laugh about was how when I was a baby, Jillian would pile up her toys, sit on them, and howl if I crawled near. Jillian’s possessiveness persisted well beyond toddlerhood. Out of a rainbow-colored set of mugs, she decided that she was the only person in the household allowed to use the green one because it was her favorite color, and would throw a fit if anyone else used it (interestingly, I just realized, neither Sia nor I exhibited the same bizarre territoriality about the mugs in our own favorite colors at the time, blue and yellow respectively). When Jillian brought back several quart jars full of thousands of beautiful shell buttons from a yard sale, she refused to let me use even a few for a sewing project. Jillian was the only one of us allowed to have horseback riding lessons as a child, and June even leased a horse for her. But in all those years, not once did Jillian let Sia or me ride that horse. Even in her twenties, when she visited home and mistakenly thought that June had bought a beautiful new Le Creuset saucepan for her, Jillian started crying when she realized June had bought it for herself. She was able to laugh at herself through her tears at the ridiculousness of her own reaction, but that incident and many others betrayed her bizarrely selfish core.
Jillian even felt entitled to her sisters' own things. For example, she didn’t feel the need to return money she had borrowed from me even though I asked. And although she made sure to tell me how ugly the clothes were that I made when I learned to sew (beratement quickly became her only form of communication with me), I did make an irresistibly cute tiered skirt that she promptly took for herself and never returned. I never even had a chance to wear it. I suppose I could have stolen it back when she wasn’t looking, but by then I had learned my place in the family, reinforced daily by June’s consistent favoritism: Jillian’s needs and desires take priority over all.
June liked to recall that Jillian and I were close as children, but I rarely remember feeling like it was a loving relationship. And that wasn’t just my own perception: when I went with Jllian to a week-long camp away from home at age eight, a fellow camper, a girl several years older than us called Jillian a “slave driver” for the way she noticed her treating me. I’ll never forget that girl, who was more like an angel, or the sister I wished I had. As she held me with such loving attention I felt like she was the kindest person I had met by that point in my young life. Even today that remains the rare memory from childhood of something resembling unconditional love.
The Stress of Isolation
As June would tell us when we grew older, she had experienced a great deal of stress serving as the sole caregiver of such young children, without anyone else around to help out. After I was born she hired a woman, Mrs. Moss, to come over to our house to assist with childcare and housework, and later another woman to clean the house every other week. But as anyone from a multi-generational-family-all-living-under-the-same-roof-in-a-developing-country will tell you, that’s actually not enough support. My dad came from such a family in India, and from what I gather, he had wanted to start something similar here, with his brother and his brother’s eventual wife. But it was clear that my mom didn't enjoy their company. She also took little interest in Indian culture with its food she did not want to learn to cook (though my aunt could have taught her), weird music she poked fun at, colorful and ornate clothes a far cry from the drab denim and corduroy she preferred, and odd customs. Dad didn't seem interested in sharing aspects of his culture with his kids, either. So I grew up without without really connecting to that part of my heritage.
June’s stress of shouldering all the burdens of childcare were compounded by her deliberate choice to isolate herself socially. She had little interest in getting to know our neighbors or fellow church-goers and tended to view pretty much all people with suspicion and spite. She barely had any friends during my entire childhood and almost never any social engagements. My dad, the workaholic, had no friends to speak of, either. My parents had people (relatives included) over for dinner maybe twice during my entire childhood. My aunt and uncle and their two kids lived across town but I barely ever saw them. The formal dining room table was so rarely used that we eventually turned it into a sewing table.
The Tyrant’s Domain
A strange irony about June is that while she refused to associate with people, she cared so much about how other people perceived us that she regularly denied her daughters’ own best interests to satisfy some external opinion of her own imagining. For example, all of us ended up taking both piano and stringed instrument lessons for which we lacked genuine interest and talent, and shortly came to loathe. But June didn’t care what her daughters really wanted and persistently shuttled us to six music lessons a week and paraded us around town as we played in the local youth symphony concerts or at church events. I remember her describing to someone all the musical activities we were involved with, and she declared that in our house, “It’s music around the clock!” That is, if you could call “music” the pathetic scrapings of my little sister’s violin, or my piano pieces always full of anxious mistakes from nerves chronically fried by knowing I wasn’t good enough at something I couldn’t even admit I didn’t care about, or Jillian’s persistently limp-postured, vibrato-less violin.
The interesting thing is that none of us blatantly stated, "I don’t want to play these instruments anymore!" or refused to go to lessons. I used to marvel at scenes in movies and TV shows depicting parent-child conflict, where the kid somehow was allowed to shout back at the parent in righteous anger as they stood up for themselves, slamming the bedroom door and shouting a brutally honest line that would suddenly bring the parent to their knees as the camera zoomed in on their face, staring into the middle distance in self-aware epiphany. Because that never, ever happened in our house. We learned from an early age that it was unsafe to voice our opinions that contradicted June in any way. She was stocky and preternaturally strong, and when angered turned into a raging monster that absolutely terrified me. I remember once during the summer when I was seven June was mad at me for one reason or another (although not once did I do anything to rebel or deliberately anger her), and had sent me outside. Eventually I had to use the bathroom but was so scared of June that I didn’t dare enter the house--and I ended up peeing my shorts in the yard.
I felt that I had reason to be scared, because physical abuse made a regular appearance in our household, sometimes administered through a wooden spoon. I was a coward and tried to stay on her good side, but my younger sister tended to act out in increasingly subtle ways, like sullenness to the point of just ignoring June--and took quite a bit of physical abuse. Hearing someone getting abused was worse for me than receiving it myself. I remember sitting at the dinner table with my older sister as I heard Sia screaming in another part of the house, and in true empath form, the energy of a powerful nausea overtook my body and I crumpled in my chair. Jillian registered just a brief expression of annoyance, and continued eating as though nothing were happening. I hated myself for feeling so strongly and wished I didn’t have the capacity to, like her.
Usually we would just be threatened with violence if June perceived behavior she didn’t approve. She would growl rhetorical questions like, "Do you want to go to school with my handprint across your face?," "Do you want me to haul off and smack you?," or, grabbing our chins, "Have I made myself explicitly clear?" Yes mom, you have. But...have we kids made ourselves explicitly clear? Do our perspectives matter at all? Or only yours? And why, exactly is that? Are we not humans, too? Do you really have everything to teach and nothing to learn? These were, of course, questions we could never ask and indeed couldn’t even have formulated at that young age. Only later as teens did my older sister point out to me that when June yelled at us, we never could “get a word in edgewise,” and that this was unfair. Most people will think I’m exaggerating when I say this, because, again, of the common scenes in movies and TV shows where parents display post-argument contrition toward their kids--but my sisters know this to be true: not once during our childhoods did June apologize to us for the physical and/or emotional abuse or even acknowledge that there was anything problematic about her actions and reactions.
June’s constant need to control extended into every aspect of our lives, and with zero checks on her behavior from any external source, it spread like an insidious disease. I learned to run every choice I made through the filter of, would mom approve? I made “mistakes” early on before I realized how important this filter was. When I was eight years old one of my classmates invited me to the local arcade to play games. Our family never went to such places, but I thought it sounded like fun, it was something my peers did, and I liked Dana. So I said yes--and then told my mom. June turned livid, and shouted at me something like, “If Dana Miller asked you to fly to the moon, would you do it?” Her anger shook and confused me; I hadn’t realized the gravity of my crime. All I knew was that Dana’s parents were friendly, well-liked, active members of the community: her father was an administrative official in the public school system and her mom was the physical education teacher in my elementary school. We all went to the same church. But as I grew to learn, June didn’t want us socializing with people who participated in mainstream leisure activities like arcades and sports games. She did end up letting me go to the arcade with Dana and her family that one time, though she was not happy about it. My main memory from that experience was not so much the arcade itself, but how much I enjoyed hanging out with the Miller family, which was totally unlike my own. Dana’s dad was so funny and made me laugh, and I felt I could relax in a way that I couldn’t at home. But I got June's message loud and clear: I was not to exercise agency in choosing my own social activities--especially things June didn't personally like.
I learned which books June liked and which ones she didn’t. I remember panicking at the local public library because I had already read every book in the special section that I knew she liked me to read from: the books about good little girls who lived in the olden days (you know, Little Women, Little House on the Prairie, Betsy-Tacy and Tib, etc.) My solution was not to branch out into other parts of the library lest I choose a book that drew her disapproval, but to check out again one I had already read from what I felt was the safe section. When I won a biography of Harriet Tubman as a prize in a reading contest in fourth grade, I gave it to a classmate instead of taking it home because I had learned by then that June took a rather dim view of black people.
Our own house was full of books, way more than I had ever seen in any other house. We always received books as birthday and Christmas presents. June took a great deal of pride in this. But the odd thing is, aside from reading to us from children’s books, I literally--not figuratively--never once saw her reading a book for herself. Neither did my sisters, and eventually we found that to be very strange. But of course we could never point this out. As with music, she seemed to place great value on things that fit some higher ideal of social status (look how cultured we are!), yet that she herself had no genuine interest in.
One would think that part of such a “cultured” upbringing would involve travel. But we never did as a family, aside from that one trip to Disney World when I was five and a couple more to Michigan and Chicago. That last one was a disaster; Dad ended up losing his way and driving on the city’s south side--an innocuous event in itself, but something over which June nearly lost her mind in fear, sputtering, her eyes wide as saucers as she stared through the car windows at all those black people...just going about their business in their own neighborhood.
I didn’t travel to India until I was 15, even though that’s where dad was from, and we had tons of family there that I had never met. I went with Sia and dad. June apparently wanted nothing to do with India. There was an Indian community in town, and those families frequently went back to India for visits, often for weeks or even months at a time. This was a great way for these kids to keep in touch with their extended families and cultures--but June derided them as “jet-setters,” and proudly kept her family plunked in the Midwest, never straying beyond a 35-mile radius from home for years on end, though we had the means to venture out. Ironically, she liked to call herself a “pioneer woman” (at which we kids rolled our eyes), although the only thing she actually had in common with that archetype was the spiral into psychosis from (in her case, self-imposed) social isolation.
“Doctor’s kid,” some of my peers sneered in school, as though children of M.D.s were spoiled rotten by our families. Maybe this was true for some, but it sure wasn’t for me, and I was confused, when I was the one envious of the very kids who said this, their cool clothes that their parents bought them from K-Mart and all the things they got to do, like go to the mall and play miniature golf. June instructed us that the proper response to such taunts was, “We spend money on good things, like books and riding horses.” Oh. I hadn’t realized there were moral absolutes when it came to disposable income, but June was certain of her superior parenting and lifestyle.
Our movies were just as restricted as everything else. For the most part we could watch only old movies, like pre-1950s. Apparently those films were somehow wholesome and good for us, no matter that the plots--Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Bing Crosby play actors who make it big in Hollywood!--were completely irrelevant to our own lives. Nope, couldn’t watch any of the iconic 1980s John Hughes movies that validated the lives and emotions of young people in a way never before addressed in film, like Sixteen Candles or Some Kind of Wonderful (which even a middle school English teacher urged us to see). No Footloose or Flashdance, Ghostbusters or Gremlins for June’s kids.
It naturally followed that as young children we generally couldn’t wear clothes that were in fashion for girls our age. I used to regard with envy all the shiny pink and blue nylon jackets other girls were wearing on my elementary school playground and wish I could have one. Instead June preferred to dress us in frumpy clothing of her own choosing, much of which she bought from this local shop called The Doll’s House. I remember her dressing us all in identical sweaters from this store knit of purple rag yarn, and she remarked approvingly, “you kids look like you’re in poverty.” This was a quirk of hers: spending larger sums of money to buy high-quality yet dowdy goods that only served to deny our own preferences and separate us from our peers.
One of Jillian’s memories that raised her ire even as an adult was when June forced her to wear a pinafore--a garment straight out of the Victorian era--to her fifth-grade Christmas choir event. No, Jillian wasn’t portraying a character in some period costume. It’s just something June preferred and required her daughter to wear even though Jillian vehemently did not want to. A few years after this instance and others like it--surprise, surprise--Jillian entered a goth phase, wearing lots of black. And grew out her hair so it hung in her eyes. And turned surly. And started using improper grammar. All behaviors that silently screamed, I’m a troubled teen! And all of this much to the complete surprise and chagrin of June. (I have a clear memory of June, after an unpleasant interaction with Julia during this phase, turned to me quizzically and said, "She has such a harshness about her.") Hmmm...do you think there was a connection between this behavior and the curbs on personal freedom she experienced as a child?
Music was a sore spot for all of us. Not only were we forced to play instruments we didn’t want to, for much of our childhood we were allowed to listen only to classical music. While other kids were discovering the pure magic of 1980s icons like Madonna and Michael Jackson (and their wonderfully subversive messages about honoring self-expression), the most we could hope for was a cassette tape called Hooked on Classics, a medley of classical pieces set to a rock beat. This was compounded by our family’s move to the Baptist church, which taught that any music that wasn’t church-based or classical was not suitable or downright evil (as a pastor at church camp explained, John Denver should have written his famous lyrics like this: “God, who made the sunlight on my shoulders, makes me happy”--and that is why we shouldn’t listen to John Denver). I remember when we once stopped by someone’s apartment I noticed a Simon and Garfunkel album lying on a table, and figured she must be a bad person.
Jillian eventually rebelled full-force in her teen years, and until she moved out, our house was a battleground between my older sister blasting angsty songs from groups like Depeche Mode, New Order, and The Smiths, and June shouting at her to turn it down. There was an unspoken understanding that I couldn’t have my own music, since Jillian’s rebellious self-expression was always more than June could handle. I remember one day sitting in my room and feeling this upwelling of sadness as I listened to Jillian blasting her music, knowing that I had no right to my own, remembering June’s scolding accusation she hurled at me on a regular basis: "You always want what Jillian has!"
But there was another part of me that grew stronger throughout my teen years that is hard for me to talk about because in hindsight it was so weird: I felt that since I was physically ugly, I didn't even have the right to participate in popular culture, including enjoying mainstream music or wearing pretty clothes. This was reinforced by my older sister's behavior, as she often let me know how ugly and undeserving I was. Instead of ever sharing her disproportionate bounty or recognizing the validity of her sisters’ own desires, Jillian jealously guarded her privilege in the meanest ways. I remember once when June went to pick up Sia from school, Jillian told me that she had found a cassette with rock music on it in Sia’s room, and, noting that magnets in speakers could ruin tape, proceeded to rub it on a speaker.
When June sent me away to summer camp in New England at age 15, the suggested packing list included a Walkman (kids these days won't know what that is: a portable cassette tape player), and much to my surprise, she actually bought one for me. The cassettes I took were some new-age instrumental piano music by George Winston--something middle-aged people listened to. It’s funny, I can’t remember who chose the tapes I’d listen to on my trip. But of course by then my preferences were so closely enmeshed with June’s that even if I directly chose from our tiny selection of acceptable music, it was no different than her picking them out for me. At the time it didn’t even occur to me to listen to the radio on that thing. Fifteen years old--and I lacked enough of a sense of self to discover music that I genuinely enjoyed, rather than what June believed I should like.
I learned from a young age that it was generally not ok for me to ask for anything directly; June had scolded me on too many occasions for expressing wants and desires. So I learned to do without, or just wait for June to pick things out for me, like clothes, summer camp, and tennis lessons. I also developed the skill of indicating my wants in subtle, indirect ways that would influence authority figures to fulfil those desires as though it had been their own idea, instead of mine. Once when I wanted to go out to eat after church, I said, “It’s been a while since we went to McDonald’s,” and when she looked over at me, I quickly said, “I’m just saying…it’s been a while.” And we did end up going to the restaurant. But generally I found safety in being as invisible as possible. My third-grade teacher remarked to June during a parent-teacher conference that while I was a good student, I never went beyond what was asked of me. June of course told me of my teacher’s criticism so that I would shape up and please my teacher--never realizing that this passive behavior had roots in my home life where it wasn't ok for me to assert myself.
Sia’s teachers were having a different sort of problem with Sia, whose behavior grew increasingly problematic in elementary school. Her mean streak, long in full effect towards me, started to manifest in her interactions with other children and even toward her teachers. I remember overhearing a conversation with another girl on the phone, making fun of a classmate who had a physical deformity that made him walk abnormally--just as she made fun of the way I walked. In an incident whose details are hazy because our family didn’t talk about such things, Sia apparently slammed a glass door on another child who was running in the hall and he ran into, and broke through, the glass. There was another incident in which she was disrespectful towards a teacher (calling her fat, apparently) and got in trouble for it.
At home, interestingly enough, Sia was on the receiving end of such treatment. In one incident I remember sitting at the dinner table and June was exasperated with Sia, who sat sullenly and silently in her chair during the scolding (because, after all, there was no point in talking since June repeatedly had shown no interest in listening to her perspective). At one point June picked up Sia’s plastic mug and flung the water in her face. Sia started crying. Instead of apologizing or asking her daughter for her input on the situation, June told Sia she was glad that she had done that.
Even the most innocuous things would incite June. For a while there she would pound her feet around the house while demanding that we "Motivate!" I was constantly on edge, worried about what would come next if I didn't appear to be actively doing something. All kids get bored at some point--but we kids quickly learned that June had zero tolerance for boredom; admitting it meant hell to pay. I remember once when we were fairly young, Sia said she was bored, and June flew into a rage, grabbed her by the arm, flung her body on the kitchen floor in front of the cabinet that held our craft supplies and shouted that we had shelves full of books and cupboards full of paper and crayons, so how dare she say she was bored!
June’s domineering took on slightly different forms with each of us; for me, it was more psychologically shaming. She repeatedly singled me out for what she perceived as my stupidity, with: “Come on, Jenny, think!” Or, noting the mismatch between my performance in school and my cognitive deficiencies that, interestingly enough, manifested often in her presence: “You’re book smart but you have no common sense!” Decades later I would learn the scientifically-verified developmental basis for why my brain would falter under pressure: the hair-triggering of the freeze response in a stunted nervous system unable to respond properly due to the frequent stress and abuse that shaped it since before I was even born. But as a child I didn't have this understanding, so these scoldings only made me hate myself.
I learned that my natural reactions, though grounded in childhood innocence, generally were wrong. One night when I was about five years old our elderly next-door neighbor had a health crisis, maybe a heart attack, that summoned an ambulance to his house. But he died. At that young age I had never been exposed to death before and since our family had barely interacted with this elderly couple, I didn't even know the man. But apparently I didn't register appropriate, grown-up mourning behavior, because June--who was oddly upset for someone who hadn't shown much interest in these people before--scolded me with something like: "Our neighbor dies and you don't know what to do or say?!" Instead of insisting that my natural feelings and reactions were valid, I experienced what would become all-to-familiar waves of confusing shame.
June would twist even the most trivial situations into opportunities for rebuke. Once when I sat on her lap as a young child and was laughing so hard about something, I lost my breath. For some reason that I still can't fathom, her mean switch instantly flipped and she snapped something like, "If you laughed more often that wouldn't happen!" I felt instant shame and slunk away outside. I clearly remember at that moment coming face-to-face at the edge of the patio with a magic lily, its pink, multi-flowered head in full bloom. I'd never seen it before and didn't know someone had planted it. Today it seems like it might have been a gift from spirit to cheer me up.
In another instance when June's reaction far outweighed the circumstances, I sensed that she was in a bad mood--which always scared me, putting me on edge so that my brain failed to work properly--and I nearly forgot to attach a Christmas card to a gift for a music teacher. This somehow incited not just irritation but rage. Her eyes took on that terrifying glassy look that told me what was coming next: a sickening torrent of shame. I was standing at the kitchen counter at the time and, like in situations of physical abuse, I felt powerful nausea and dizziness overtake my body as the blood drained from my head. I grabbed onto the counter and doubled over. "Feel sick? So do I!" June thundered, and stomped out of the kitchen. As usual, instead of entertaining the idea that maybe she was way out of line, I pivoted into self-hatred, confused at how weak I had become in the moment. Of course, only today do I understand the physiological processes at work behind my utterly normal reaction.
One day when I was maybe 12 June sat me down to have a “talk” about what was wrong with me. There had been no inciting incident; she just disapproved of my awkward existence. I wish I had a recording of it because I can’t even begin to explain how bizarre this episode was. As usual, she talked at me instead of to or with me, in a vaguely menacing manner, with no desire whatsoever to truly see and understand me. No compassion for the obviously scared and confused child sitting in front of her. At that point June was in the midst of what turned out to be a decade-long attempt to earn a degree at the local community college. She was not academically oriented, but presented the facade of being so. During this “talk” she asked me, as some sort of test, why I thought she was in school. At that young age, all I gathered was that going to college was helpful for getting a job, and that June didn’t want to live with my dad anymore and needed to be independent. I’m pasting below something I wrote to her in an angry email in my thirties about that incident and others, as for the first time in my life I fully allowed myself to feel the injustice of it all:
When you asked me during that "talk" why it's important that you go to school never mind that you spent most of the time there flirting with [your professor] and I never saw you reading books, and you ended up with such a massive divorce settlement you didn't need to work), and I said something simple about how it will help you get a job, you said, "I think you're just parroting." Um...what? "Parroting"? WHAT THE GODDAMN FUCK IS A LITTLE GIRL SUPPOSED TO SAY? YOU EXPECTED ME TO SPEAK EXTEMPORANEOUSLY ON THE ECONOMIC PROSPECTS OF WOMEN IN POST-MODERN AMERICA, BASED ON MY OWN QUALITATIVE RESEARCH OF A RANDOMIZED SAMPLE FROM THE MIDWESTERN COHORT AND CRITICAL REVIEW OF RELEVANT LITERATURE ON GENDER-BASED ECONOMIC SOCIOLOGY? "Parroting"??? Did we ever talk about culture and politics and the economy like NORMAL families at the dinner table? Did we do volunteer work at the local women's shelter so that we could understand societal problems? The worst thing about this was that my little warped brain figured you must be right, and I was stupid, AND SO I BEAT MYSELF UP INSIDE FOR NOT HAVING THE RIGHT ANSWER.
In another emotionally devastating incident, June turned a teachable moment on project management into withering condemnation. My seventh-grade history class required us to create models of castles for one project. Looking for something that was gray and resembled stone, I chose potter’s clay as my material. What I hadn’t accounted for was how clay can crack when it dries--and my castle turned into something more like castle ruins, with no time to remake it. And...June...flipped...out. It’s hard for me to convey the hostility and anger she exploded at me. All the way to school she glared at and scolded as I cowered in the car. “Where was your plan B?!” She shouted, although she had never discussed with me what a plan B was. In decades worth of hindsight I was able to recognize that her behavior was outrageously disproportionate to the incident, but at the time, as usual, I felt that I somehow deserved this abuse. On top of feeling terrible that I had ruined my project, I faced the wrath of someone ironically tasked with the important job of parenting who couldn’t accept that children are just learning how to be human, and will make mistakes--which are just learning opportunities--along the way. As always, such compassion was too much to ask of June.
Once in middle school a group of girls in my neighborhood and I somehow all managed to miss our bus, and we walked home from school instead. None of us even thought to phone home first. When I arrived home, Joan turned into something like the the Looney Tunes Tasmanian Devil. It was clear she had assumed the worst, but instead of being just relieved I showed up again and reminding me to phone ahead first, she released a torrent of screaming rage at me. "You're so irresponsible you're going to get pregnant with three babies!" she inanely sputtered. Me, the ugly good kid with no social life? Wow. And...wait...how many kids did she have, again? Yep, we're looking at this in Lesson Learned. (For the record, the next day at the bus stop I asked the neighborhood girls who had walked home with me if their moms had flipped their lids like mine, and they all said no.)
No Sibling Support
As a child I wasn't really close with Sia and had an underlying resentment toward her that I didn't fully understand, as is common for older siblings to feel about younger ones (it turns out there is a very good reason for this which I’ll get into in Systems Busting). Unlike most younger siblings, she didn't look up to me in any way--and in fact was cruel toward me, calling out my flaws like a schoolyard bully. I disliked having to share a room with her for much of our childhood, until June allowed her to take dad’s unused den for a bedroom. (Jillian, privileged as always, had her own room right from the start, with a queen bed, no less.)
I did look up to Jillian somewhat, if only because I craved closeness with someone, as is the human condition. I knew that Jillian didn’t like me much to begin with and even less over time, which was to be expected under the circumstances of our dysfunctional family--but that didn’t stop me from doing things for her. For example, I would do the work on her assigned school projects (which neither of us should have gotten away with). I remember creating a diorama depicting General Robert E. Lee's surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomatox court house for Jillian’s history class. And for her English class project I created a pottery mask based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, "The Masque of the Red Death," painstakingly printing black-lettered text excerpted from the story on the face that I’d first covered in an appropriately lurid red glaze. I genuinely loved being creative, so doing these projects was not a sacrifice for me--but it was definitely a unilateral effort. Jillian clearly wanted nothing to do with me if I wasn’t benefiting her in some way. When I hand-embroidered a plaque for her with the words, “A sister is a forever friend,” she just looked at it in disdain. So I took it back, embarrassed and feeling like shit.
Finally, Family Counseling--or Not
At some point June must have sensed that things weren't quite right with our family because I remember going to a family counseling appointment involving June, my sisters, and me. It was a disaster. A therapist named Katie was present but she didn't do a whole lot. In fact, I had seen Katie alone a couple times before and hadn't felt like she did much for me during those sessions, either. I had sensed that she wasn't capable of understanding how I felt. I had wanted to convey to her that I felt stupid all the time and wished I could be smarter and more like my sisters. She just sat there and offered me nothing--no words of wisdom, no perspective-shifting. I just felt hollow and unseen when I left her office. Years later Jillian told me she felt similarly about Katie, who, during her private sessions with her, took Jillian into another room and directed her to hit a pillow with a baseball bat to release her frustrations about life with June. Jillian thought that was stupid. (Yep, I've got a dedicated post on the massive failings of conventional therapy coming up in Systems Busting.)
During that family session it was like we were still at home: June expressed her frustration with us, Julia protested, I condemned my sisters for making June's life more difficult, and Sara sat there silently with her eyes downcast, ignoring everyone. We were all crying as we drove home after what I'm pretty sure was our first and last family counseling session. And our dysfunctional household continued as usual.
My family life was a mess but I wasn't able to turn to friendship for social connection, either. The Dana Miller/arcade episode taught me that I could choose from only a narrow social stratum of prospective friends. I sensed that they had to meet June’s criteria, and it was exhausting trying to figure out what looks, backgrounds, personality traits, and activities fit her standards. I intuited that it was ok if our friends were more or less social outcasts who were unlikely to involve themselves in dangerously mainstream activities like popular movies and music that she considered a slippery slope to sex, drugs, and alcohol. This wasn’t difficult for me, since my increasing awkwardness as a child in looks and personality naturally made me a social outcast--and like attracts like. There were rare occasions where I had girls from church or school over to the house or I went to their houses, but this happened only a couple times, and those tentative friendships never fully formed. I had one somewhat steady friend in middle school and the first couple years of high school. I’m pretty sure that the only reason why we hung out is because nobody else wanted to hang out with either of us. But I don’t remember having any of those deep, real conversations or meaningful experiences together (as Jillian had with her friends) that would have made it a significant friendship offering either of us much benefit.
All normal kids have birthday parties, but I never had a birthday that involved a party and friends until my 12th--and June managed to turn it into a nightmare. My older sister and I had become friends with two other sisters of similar age who, like us, played stringed instruments in the youth symphony. When they came over that day, it was clear that June had developed this paranoia that Dahlia, who was rather shy, didn’t like her. June grew visibly angry and hostile and we girls grew uncomfortable. We wanted to go hang out in my room but June somehow took offense at that and demanded that we sit in the family room and play a board game while she folded laundry on the couch and glared at us. When she called me into the kitchen she mocked me in a menacing way and demanded to know why I hadn’t praised her up and down for how she had set the table. I was so embarrassed and scared about what she might do next.
The bizarre thing is that on the evening after the “party,” June sat on the couch and started crying about how Dahlia ruined my birthday. "Jenny will never be 12 again!," she wailed. Her anger festered and a couple days later she marched over to Dahlia and Shona’s house to complain to their mother about her daughter's attitude problem toward June. Surprise, surprise, once again I lost friendships. If I suspected that this wasn't appropriate behavior for a grown woman, I suppressed those thoughts to avoid June's wrath and agreed with her that this shy girl indeed harbored ill will against her, and that June was fully justified in confronting Dahlia’s mother. But this incident only made me shrink from friendships. And for decades thereafter I felt a sense of dread around my birthday, as memories like this left me feeling sick and sad.
There was one girl who insisted on hanging out with me even though we had little in common. This was Norah, who was Jillian’s age and had been her best friend in elementary school. As Jillian’s interests started to change in high school, she let go of Norah as a friend, and after one encounter at our house in which I listened to Norah talk on and on--an obligatory attentiveness that I deliberately cloaked as interest, since nobody else was paying attention to her--she adopted me as her new best friend in our family.
Have you ever met someone who was scary smart, so genius-level that it seems like all their brain’s resources are devoted to intelligence and they have little left over for social skills? Norah was like that. She would talk for hours on the nerdiest topics--Byzantine history, linguistics, textile fibers--that my far-below-average brain couldn’t comprehend, never noticing how lopsided our conversations were and that I had little to contribute. I usually sounded something like, “Mm-hm...oh...really? Ok...mm-hmm……haha, yeah….” I actually tried very hard to engage myself intelligently but I could never keep up with her, and besides, these topics just didn’t interest me. But I kind of felt bad for her because for years she had been severely bullied in school for her eccentric behavior and then abandoned by my sister. I knew her to be a very big-hearted, generous, and rather innocent girl who I felt deserved to have friends. So I patiently listened to her for hours in person and hours on the phone during calls that I couldn’t admit I grew to dread.
Norah’s favorite language was Latin--something she could talk about, well, ad nauseam. Jillian recalls that once she even witnessed Norah following her Latin teacher into the restroom so she could continue talking at her about the language. The summer right before high school started for me Norah decided that I should learn Latin. I felt that I didn’t have a valid enough reason not to (although I was naturally more drawn to the French language, loved the sound of it, had studied it a little in middle school, and thought I’d continue studying it in high school), so I agreed to let her teach me that summer. She brought over a Latin textbook and commenced lessons. I remember a handyman was at our house fixing something at the time, and as he passed our living room where Norah was teaching me he said incredulously, “It sounds like school in here! I thought it was summer vacation!” Not for me, unfortunately.
Although I had no genuine interest in Latin, I had consciously decided at that point in my life that since I fit into none of the main social categories of, e.g., pretty people, sporty people, funny people, etc., I might as well try to be one of the nerdy people. Everyone around me taught that intelligence was just a function of how hard one worked (boy did they turn out to be wrong), and my family members constantly let me know how stupid I was and that it was purely my fault. So I figured that if I just worked at becoming smart, I could finally find a niche for myself in the world. Latin was the official language of nerds, so that was its only appeal for me. Of course, I did poorly at it--yet I felt that since I had started learning it that summer, I had an obligation to continue studying it well into high school and even college.
Glimpsing Another Parenting Style
Mrs. Hale was my Latin teacher during my first two years of public high school. I struggled in her course but I liked Mrs. Hale, whom I also knew as Rochelle’s mom. Rochelle was a girl in my grade starting back in middle school--a pretty strawberry-blonde with extraordinary writing and speaking abilities far beyond her years. Her mother was very interested in sociology and communication, so that’s likely where Rochelle picked up her interest and skill. From what I observed, Rochelle and her mom had a healthy relationship; I could tell how Mrs. Hale highly respected her daughter as an independent human being and spoke with her as an equal. Clearly she not only allowed but wanted Rochelle to explore in life and form relationships with other people and listen to whatever music she wanted to and wear whatever she wanted. It was also clear that Mrs. Hale offered Rochelle genuinely useful guidance and feedback in her schoolwork that enabled her to excel in writing and verbal communication, things I desperately wanted to be good at myself. While in middle school I grew extremely envious of Rochelle.
Once when Mrs. Hale handed back one of my Latin assignments during my freshman year I noticed that she had written these words on it: “You deserve to be happy and to be here.” I was surprised and embarrassed; there seemed to be no context this, as she and I had never talked about anything personal before, and wouldn’t after. But in a life where I chronically felt like I wasn’t worthy and didn’t belong, maybe Mrs. Hale served as a conduit for a message from the universe reminding me of what I much later would learn was an inviolable truth for everyone--even awkward misfits like me.
It was only in middle school when I learned how supportive and respectful Rochelle’s mom was to her that I suspected I had been seriously missing out in the mom department. June did not even know how to provide, nor seemed to have any interest in providing, us with the emotional support that is crucial for functional human development. I never felt comfortable talking to her about anything. It’s hard for me to explain how June had a way of behaving that felt distanced, like she not only didn’t want to really listen and connect, but didn’t even know how. Moreover, I never felt like she offered any guidance that resonated with me. She was ill-equipped to deal with basic emotions that arise in childhood. If something bothered me, she often would dismissively say things like “lighten up” or “stop being so sensitive.”
When I was maybe 13 or so, June decided that maybe travel was a good thing for herself, and signed up for guided trips in the U.S. and internationally offered by the local community college. (Jillian was lucky enough to accompany her on her trip to England--the very place I had dreamed of visiting for years.) During one of those trips she arranged for Mrs. Moss’s daughter Jodie to come stay with Sia and me at our house. Jodie was close to my mom’s age but very different, with a friendly, bubbly personality that lit up a room and made everyone feel comfortable. She taught at a local elementary school and she would sit at the table with me while I used the sewing machine and tell me stories about her students and the funny things they did. I genuinely enjoyed our conversations and realized how rare that was for me. While Jodie stayed with us it’s as if the whole house exhaled and we were allowed to relax. I guess it was hard for Sia and me to hide our disappointment about Jodie leaving when June came back from her trip, because sometime later June laughed with Jodie on the phone about how we kids wanted her back. Of course, June never reflected on why.
Jodie was the kind of mother figure who I imagine could talk openly to teens about things like puberty and sex, unlike June. Although June had wanted only girls in the family, she had made no plans for how to deal constructively with what happened when girls got periods and became interested in boys. It became apparent that her greatest fears revolved around teenage sex. Her solution? Never talk about puberty, boys, or sex! Although it was the 1980s, June seemed to think that the 1950s-era secretive, shame-filled approach to menstruation was best, so we three were left to fumble our ways alone through figuring out how to deal with the horrors of periods, which no girl should have to do by herself. June would admonish us to only “have boys as friends” if she suspected we were in danger of experiencing normal romantic attraction. As usual, we learned that our natural feelings were not ok. But, lucky for my peers, other mothers held a different perspective. I remember in fifth grade listening to my friend Tiffany talk on the school playground about how she had a crush on a boy in our class, and she asked her mom what she should do. Tiffany’s mom advised her to talk to the boy and tell him how she felt. It’s pretty telling how restrictive June was when even a girl from a fundamentalist Baptist family (!) had a mom who could acknowledge the validity of romantic feelings in childhood and respectfully engage her daughter in conversation about it.
What was the fallout of this shame and secrecy around puberty? Long story short, 16-year-old Jillian paraded her sexuality in front of everyone, leaving her first pack of oral contraceptives on the kitchen counter, which infuriated June (well at least Jillian knew about birth control), and Sia--attending a Baptist school that offered no sex-ed class--apparently became sexually active at an even younger age and eventually ended up pregnant in late teenhood--actualizing June’s worst fear in life. The universe sure has a sense of humor.
If Jillian and Sia exploded when it came to sex, I imploded by completely disowning my sexuality. To some extent I adopted June’s fear-based, puritanical prudery--but more than that, felt the deepest shame for what had become my undeniable physical ugliness, by any standard.
Ugly Kid in an Ugly Social Order
Ever since I can remember, I never felt comfortable in my body--like something was trying to make me ugly when all I wanted to be was pretty. I had a very visible mustache starting at age eight for which kids at school teased me mercilessly until June allowed me to use a hair removal cream that chemically dissolved the hair (and painfully burned my skin--but it was worth it). Eventually I had hair growing down my neck like a werewolf (not even the men in my family had that) that I eventually had no choice but to remove with expensive electrolysis, and hairy arms that were a constant source of embarrassment. Once I shaved my arms and June and Jillian both ridiculed and scolded me for doing so. Of course, the average person will recognize that it’s incredibly arbitrary to declare that shaving legs is ok but not arms. In my 20s I started shaving my arms and relished the freedom of not looking like a gorilla and finally being able to reveal my arms, one of my few bodily features I actually liked.
Another constant source of embarrassment was my sway back--something Sia enjoyed making fun of. I was also pigeon-toed which caused excessive wear on the inner sides of my shoes as my feet constantly knocked together as I walked. As I'd later find out in my research as an adult, these two problems were symptoms of a skeletal deformity called femoral anteversion that I would finally have surgically corrected in my early 30s after the joint problems and hip flexor tendinitis it caused became unbearably painful. But adults seemed to think I had control over my crooked posture as a child, which was so frustrating for me. I wanted to be a ballet dancer when I was very young but my ballet teachers constantly told me to tuck my butt in and turn out my toes farther, which I just couldn't do. And in high school, my riding instructor would make similar requests. As in other areas of my life, I grew so tired of trying to comply with demands without the ability to do so. Just last year I found out the likely origin of this bone deformity, and it floored me to learn of its emotional and social roots, which I'll explain in Systems Busting.
I was always the least attractive kid in the family, but as the years progressed things somehow worsened. My fifth grade school photo was the last time I looked somewhat normal. After that, my nose seemed to grow out of proportion and my chin receded alarmingly, as though the whole lower half of my face was shrinking and retreating. In my thirties I started investigating why, found the answers, and I’m going to write at least one dedicated post on the subject. Here’s the gist: I had tooth extractions and braces starting at age 10, and then all wisdom teeth removed around age 15. That's 25% of my teeth removed for no medical reason (I had zero problems eating, talking, sleeping, breathing--essentially cosmetic surgery that made me ugly). If you don't think teeth provide important scaffolding for the rest of your face, look at how caved in an older person's face looks when they've lost their teeth due to dental disease. Tooth loss for any reason causes the underlying bone to dissolve, which drastically changes the face.
Jillian also had tooth extraction/retraction, but the effects were not as bad on her face as on mine, although she did develop the hooked nose that is a common byproduct of the procedure. And Sia was luckiest of all: she had horribly crooked teeth (just wait until I share the real reason behind the epidemic of jaw and tooth deformities in humans) and an overbite/retruded chin as a young child, which Jillian of course made sure to make fun of to me. But when it came time for her orthodontic work, she was given a Bionator--an appliance worn in the mouth that, as I later found out, caused a recessed jawbone to grow forward in the face, producing a more natural, proportionate, and aesthetically pleasing profile. Sia didn't have a retruded chin anymore by the time her braces came off. I don’t know why the orthodontist didn’t allow me to use a Bionator, because I also had a slight "overbite" as a child and could have benefited from it (technically "overbite" is a misnomer based on an illusion: the upper jaw is not too far forward, the lower jaw is too far back). Instead, the orthodontist smashed my perfectly-fine upper jaw backwards into my face to match the position of my slightly recessed lower jaw, with devastating effects on my nose and facial proportions.
Although at the time everyone (including me) just thought I was just growing into a naturally ugly person, my alarmingly disproportionate nose was so bad that even June agreed I needed plastic surgery to correct it. When I turned 16 she took me to a local plastic surgeon who had never performed a nose job before, but since he was willing to do it free of charge (apparently a privilege granted to the families of fellow physicians, as my dad was a surgeon in the same city), June was happy to proceed. I'll discuss this more in a later post, but I'll just let you know here that the surgeon's first words upon taking off the bandage were, "Wow, it's really up there!" Botched. (Of course, most plastic surgeons don't know that you can't restore normal facial proportions by simply making a nose smaller when the original problem was tooth removal and associated bone loss in the lower face. I didn't need a smaller nose; I needed my teeth and jawbones restored--something orthodontists are now doing. More on that later.) Over the next two decades I'd end up getting countless more plastic surgery procedures in a desperate attempt to reclaim the natural face I had before all the unnecessary orthodontics work. As usual, I strangely seemed to have the worst luck.
Strangest of all, shortly after getting my period at 14, my body went into oligomenorrhea: a condition where periods become few and far between. I would go for months at a time without a period (I didn't mind this part at all, actually--what girl would?) until my 20s when a doctor told me this wasn't healthy and prescribed hormone therapy to normalize my menstrual cycle. I was a medical mystery, diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome, where loss of periods is often a symptom--yet I never had the telltale ovarian cysts (for which the disease is named) that would have been the source of the hormonal imbalance. Just recently I’ve learned the scientifically-observed reason for my period loss, and, again, it floored me because it revealed how incredibly damaging social dynamics can be.
The pain of my growing ugliness routinely sent me into despair with nowhere to turn for relief or support. Normal sisters tend to play with makeup and encourage each other to look their best, but Jillian’s territoriality, cloaked in ridicule, always let me know I wasn’t allowed to rise above my official station of loser to experience the joys in life that she did, like being allowed to date and go to dances. I remember once putting some skin-tinted medication on the zits that regularly covered my face, and she sneered “makeup girl” at me in that ugly way of hers, as though healing my acne somehow threatened her queen-bee status. So I just accepted that I would always be ugly and never have any kind of romantic experiences. I was growing to dislike the company of other people anyway as so many I met treated me with indifference or unkindly, so the prospect of being alone didn’t make me feel sad so much as relieved.
No Place for Me in the Family--So Wanting Not To Exist
It’s hard for me to pinpoint when exactly my suicidal impulse consciously began, because I feel like it had haunted me all my life. June says that one of the first things I ever said was, “I want to be ‘lone.” I rarely enjoyed the company of my family members as it almost never felt good to me. I remember at about eight years old of standing by my bedroom window and feeling so incredibly worthless and unlovable that I did not want to exist anymore. I didn’t know about suicide at the time but the sentiment was the same, and would return again and again. Every mistake I made--no matter how big or small--would automatically elicit a desire for self-annihilation. When as a teen I accidentally broke a glass at the house of some children I was babysitting, I blurted out--in front of the kids, no less--“I want to kill myself!”
Ever since I can remember, I felt that there was something wrong with me that made me essentially unlovable, unlike my siblings. It wasn’t just my perception, but the clear and unequivocal feedback I witnessed of how adults reacted differently to me and the two siblings. Thanks to my sisters’ examples, I quickly learned what made a person worthy of expressions of love, positive attention, and material things. From Sia’s example I learned that beauty mattered. Sia was pretty and cute, which people naturally find irresistible in a child. The woman who helped us out with childcare when we were very young, Mrs. Moss, clearly preferred Sia over Jillian and me for this reason, and gave her special gifts and invited her over to her house and out to lunch. (Jillian, always hyper-focused on getting her share or more, actually complained about this to June a few times, so it wasn’t just my own suspicion.) The woman who cut my hair went on and on about how cute Sia was, oblivious of how that might make me feel.
And in one of my most sickening memories, late one night my mom was talking on the phone with her brother Roy after a (rare) trip we made up to Michigan to visit him. On that trip my usual sense of not belonging was reinforced when I noticed how Uncle Roy was utterly charmed by Sia. He even gave her his own hat as a parting gift. I suppose my mom thought we kids were asleep during her late-night phone call with him after we returned home, but I clearly overheard her say something like, “Yeah...I like the other two but there’s just something about Sia....” At the time I didn’t know why this hurt so much because I had always known that June preferred Sia--but it did. It turns out there is a biologically-driven reason why, which I’ll get to in Systems Busting.
Our childhood was riddled with examples: Sia was allowed to have long hair while June cut mine short like a boy’s, which I absolutely hated (As a child I was mistaken for a boy all the time--devastating for a girl drawn to traditional femininity); On one trip to The Doll's House, June bought Sia a beautiful royal blue umbrella with ruffles on it and gave me an ugly beige one; when June decided to allow her two youngest kids a couple of riding lessons at the farm where Jillian rode, she made sure to select a diminutive pony because it was the perfect size for Sia. By that time I had grown very tall and looked stupid on that pony. As we watched Sia ride, with her hair specially trussed up in beribboned ponytails just for the occasion, June said to me dismissively in that cold way of hers, not one bit sorry, “Sorry Jen there’s no horse for you.” I tried to hide my eyes as they welled up with tears. It wasn’t so much about the pony as knowing that I was fundamentally undeserving of goodness, unlike my sisters.
Still trying to figure out how writer/director Todd Solondz so eerily and accurately portrayed my own experience through the character of Dawn Wiener, protagonist of Welcome to the Dollhouse, the bleak '90s cult hit about the unrelenting social alienation some of us have known. Maybe because there were more of us out there like me than I thought possible?
It was the rare occasion when I had enough and acted out. Once for Easter, maybe at age seven or eight, I decorated some green plastic strawberry baskets by weaving ribbons through them. I made three, gave one each to June and Jillian, and kept the last for myself. But June made me give mine to Sia. That instance contained a goldmine of information about the fallout of biased parenting, but June lacked the curiosity and capacity for self-reflection. I was livid, but, as usual, was forced to deny my feelings and acquiesce to authority.
June constantly made me feel that I had to sacrifice for my sisters. If I went to a birthday party and brought home candy, I had to share it all with them. Even if I had only one lollipop, June forced me to give licks to my sisters (when Sia was a gross, drooling toddler, having to do this disgusted me). If Jillian was ever held to the same standard of fairness, it wasn’t for long, as she enjoyed years of horseback riding fun and not once allowed either of us even to sit on her horse. It's as if June was training me to believe I was undeserving.
If Sia’s example proved to me that adorable appearance and charming behavior are everything, from Jillian’s example I learned that being first-born, smart, and extroverted also made one more worthy of various expressions of love--and possessing the opposite traits earned one scorn or neglect. Whenever we would play board games that required skill, Jillian always won--and she always made sure to point out the stupidity of the moves I made and leave me feeling like an idiot, instead of offering encouragement as a kind sister would. Jillian was the only kid in the house allowed to listen to her own music, and when we visited my mom’s brother Paul in Michigan, he was able to carry a conversation with her about music with her while I awkwardly sat at the same table in silence, with nothing to contribute. One of my earliest memories of Jillian was her singing fairly often as a young child, “I’m more popular, I’m more popular!” I don’t know where she got that from--but she sure was more popular and was determined to keep it that way, no matter whom she had to trample in the process. I remember once she went on a hike in the woods with her friends and found a deer skull, and June suggested that she let me draw it. Jillian made sure to report this to me with disdain, fully expecting that I would appreciate the inanity of June’s request on my behalf. How stupid that June would even think Jillian could do something kind for Jenny to acknowledge and nurture her artistic talent!
Naturally as a very young child I was drawn to things that Jillian did. Any family with multiple children will tell you this is normal. I saw her enjoying activities like horseback riding and camp far away from home at the University of Illinois, and receiving social connection from them. But whenever I behaved in such a way as to suggest that I wanted to do the things Jillian got to do, June would scold me: "You always want what Jillian has!" This observation/accusation managed both to expose and deny a fascinating corridor of family psychology that June had no inclination to explore. She clearly favored meeting Jillian’s needs, and nowhere was this more apparent than in Jillian’s interest in horses. June arranged for Jillian to have her own horse and riding lessons every week. Jillian participated in horse shows and enjoyed all those doting people--her trainer, the horse farm owner, the owner of the horse she leased, the woman who owned the local riding tack store, her family--showering her with attention and all the things that went along with this expensive sport: beautiful show outfits, rich leather saddles and bridles, endless supplies for horse care, even fancy hair-dos she’d have specially done in a salon before show-day. June took so many photos of her that Jillian had entire albums devoted to those happy, horsey memories. Jillian was so inspired by those experiences that she wrote stories and poems about them for her English classes and the local Young Authors writing contest.
There were no corresponding activities during that period of time for Sia and me (aside from the couple days of riding that pony), where we could experience the joy of perfecting a skill we actually wanted to learn (unlike the musical instruments we hated), for years on end, with the massive expenditure of family resources (to the detriment of other siblings), and the routine attention and adoration of other people. Instead, we were dragged out to the farm, week after week, the inconvenient others, always lumped together in the back seat of the car while Jillian sat up front, always watching behind fences through those humid midwestern summers and huddling in the barn during those freezing cold winters as our toes turned numb. Sometimes we would get restless, tired of always watching and never being allowed to experience the thrill of riding a horse, tired of being dragged to the local equestrian store where Jillian’s riding needs would be endlessly discussed and catered to. We were children for fuck’s sake, not soldiers. But if June detected a whiff of discontent among us she would glare or shoot us a verbal warning. So to cope, I perfected the skill of pretending to be fascinated by pegboard walls full of snaffle bits, martingales, and other horse tack I didn't give a shit about.
Being the (Desperately) Nice Kid
I knew that I was the least likable kid (let’s face it: children who behave themselves might be easy to live with and control, but they sure are boring)--yet I consistently felt compelled to do the most for June. I remember June sobbing in her room at night because Jillian pissed her off in some way. Jillian of course ignored her--understanding on some soul level that June needed to think about the choices she made in parenting and life and then blamed on her kids. But I headed down the hallway to comfort June, trying to fill the void in her life with the support I felt she deserved and was my duty, since my sisters were 100% out for themselves and June had no spousal help since my dad was always away at work.
This behavior persisted well into teen- and adulthood. During my first semester at college I spent $200 on a hand-knit sweater for my mom as a birthday present--a huge sum for a college kid, especially 30 years ago. That school year was unbelievably stressful for me, and in the final exam period before winter break I had no time to shop properly for Christmas presents--so I just bought a music tape and a Bryn Mawr sweatshirt for June from the campus bookstore before leaving to catch a plane. Needless to say, Sia hadn’t bought her anything nice, and so June was upset on Christmas day. I felt terribly guilty, and the following year I made sure to start shopping early and buy her multiple nice presents. Shopping for June had always been difficult; aside from collecting books that she never read and mountains of pottery from one local artist, she had no genuine interests of her own--no hobbies like sewing or gardening, no fondness for jewelry or perfume like everyone else’s mom.
There were two reasons for my excessively solicitous behavior as a child: first, knowing that other people felt sad, angry, or anything else along the negative emotion spectrum felt equally awful to me. Something purely emotional going on outside of me could feel oddly physical in my own body. Therefore I would do everything I could to help someone else alleviate the negative emotions they were experiencing--because it was also a way to make myself feel better. Second, I hoped for the longest time that showing kindness to June and making her difficult life easier would make her love me the way she loved Jillian and Sia, who were fortunate to possess attributes I didn’t (beauty, charm, charisma, intelligence) that automatically made people like them and do things for them, without their needing to grovel for it.
In one incident that now feels straight out of a sitcom, Jillian’s middle school put on a poetry reading one night. Jillian of course read a poem she had written about a horse. Her friend Dahlia read a poem about her own mother, with lines like, My mother is a cool breeze and My mother is an ocean wave breaking against the shore.... When we all got in the car to go home, June exploded at Jillian in a sobbing rage because Jillian didn’t write an adoring poem about her. One line she yelled during her fit stuck with me, something to the effect of, “I do more for you than Dahlia’s mother does for her!” She would blurt similar things on other occasions, but bringing it even closer to home: “The daughter I do the most for appreciates me the least!” Even at the time she could admit favoring Jillian.
But why? Later in life, in apologetic communications to me, June would blame Jillian for taking all her time and energy. This--from the most powerfully controlling person I’ve ever known who could fight for her interests like nobody else. The interesting thing is, not once did I hear Jillian directly make demands of June. None of us kids could do that--not even the most confident one. There’s more to the story than June would allow us--and maybe even herself--to believe. To an outsider it would appear that June did more for Jillian simply because she loved (Or admired? Wanted to live vicariously through? Felt obligated to meet the needs of as firstborn?) Jillian more. But any of these reasons could be only partial truths, because, interestingly, Jillian’s preferred activities just so happened to align with June’s not-so-secret personal desires. It was obvious to us kids pretty early on that June had a big crush on Jillian’s riding instructor, Buck, who apparently didn't share the same feelings. It wasn’t hard to see how Jillian’s years of weekly riding lessons provided pretext for June's visits with Buck.
A similar thing happened several years later, when June fell in love with one of her professors, Tim, at the local community college. Tim happened to have a daughter, Stella, who not only was Jillian’s age but shared her interest in horses, and the two girls became instant best friends. I remember watching Jillian and Stella riding off together on horseback while I had to wait back at the farm, secretly wishing I had a real friend with whom I could do the same. It seemed that June made sure Jillian and Stella spent as much time together as possible because that way she had more chances to see Tim outside of the classroom or at least could stay at the forefront of his awareness as the mom of his daughter’s best friend, despite the fact that Tim already had girlfriend, whom June jealously derided as a “ditz.” (If it sounds uncharitable of me to speak about June's desires like this, know that I share a much more understanding and compassionate perspective in Systems Busting.)
No Place Out in the World, Either
One day, out of the blue, June suggested that I could go to boarding school for my final two years of high school. I felt no real connection to my current high school or home, and both Joan and I liked the idea of boarding school with its whiff of prestige, so it sounded like a good plan.
June knew of my interest in art, and initially chose a couple of prospective schools to visit--Interlochen and Cranbrook-Kingswood, both located in Michigan--that were dedicated to the arts. At Interlochen, students generally focus on one area at which they excel: vocals, violin, studio arts, etc. But since June had chosen for me to excel at music (even though I had little real interest in doing so), and to a much lesser extent, studio art, she had arranged for me to meet with people from both the music and studio arts programs. During our visit I had to perform a piece of piano music, which, as usual, was full of anxiety-driven mistakes, and I could see that the program representative was not impressed with me at all. I also had to show examples of my artwork to one of the art teachers--who was similarly unimpressed. I don’t remember applying to that school, likely because everyone involved knew I wasn't Interlochen material.
I remember feeling more excited when visiting Cranbrook-Kingswood. The school is one of the top art and design academies in the world, and I can only imagine the different, more aligned path in life that would have opened up for me if I had actually attended. I learned that in an introductory studio class, an assignment was to artistically reinterpret the iconic, Art Deco-style railing that adorned a flight of steps in one of the campus buildings. During my visit the wheels already started turning in my head about the approach I would take to this assignment: I thought it would be so clever to depict the object as a negative space, a railing-shaped void inside a solid block of material that maybe the viewer would have to trust existed inside the sculpture (only today as I’ve delved into art history can I appreciate that this was some pretty sophisticated conceptual art for a 15-year-old to come up with...way to go, younger self; how very Michael Heizer of you!). But things were awkward in the admissions interview. I had poor verbal communication skills when put in the hot seat, and remember stumbling badly in my responses, not really knowing what to say. The interviewer was naturally unimpressed.
We did take an application form back home and I tried to fill it out, but got stuck on the essay part. The requirement was something like: Write about a significant experience in your life. I was stumped. I was a simple kid who had led a very sheltered life. I liked to read, I used to play in the woods behind our house, I didn’t really like piano or viola though I pretended to. I liked art pretty well. I was massively affected by family dysfunction, but at the time I didn’t realize it, and felt that the emotional abuse was largely my fault anyway--so I lacked the awareness and insight to even consider writing authentically and coherently about the very thing that has proved to be the most interesting aspect of nearly anyone’s existence: the social forces that shaped them as children (need proof before I get around to Systems Busting? Read When The Body Says No by Dr. Gabor Maté or watch Teal Swan videos).
I couldn’t think of an experience in my life to write about for that essay question, so I wrote something like, “I haven’t had any significant experiences so far but I’m sure my experiences at Cranbrook will be something I’d want to write about.” Jillian noticed this admittedly crappy response lying on the kitchen counter and laughed her signature mean, loud laugh. “They’ll see right through that!” she triumphantly declared. A kind older sister would have said, “Hey Jen, it looks like you need some help with this. I can sit down with you if you want and we can brainstorm some ideas for you to write about.” But Jillian always chose to tear me down, no matter the circumstances. I didn’t dare ask June to help me, either, as she seemed too busy, and something in me never felt comfortable with what she considered helping, anyway. So I threw the application away in shame.
The last school which somehow ended up on our list was a girls’ school on the east coast that I’ll call Morrison Woods here. They offered only the obligatory arts classes any general curriculum would have, with a tiny, poorly funded, one-teacher art department that was nothing to be proud of. But they did have something I had secretly coveted for years: a stable full of horses and riding lessons right there on campus. Even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to want/do things Jillian did, I made it my goal to get into that school just so I could finally have the chance to ride horses after years of that unfulfilled desire building up in me. And that’s exactly what I did. I think June was so happy to have one less kid around the house that she didn’t mind that I overstepped the boundaries she had arbitrarily constructed around each child’s interests.
I’ll cover my experiences with conventional schooling in a separate post dedicated to our grossly flawed education system, but I’ll just note here that boarding school ended up a stressful and lonely experience that only made me spiral even further into suicidal self-hate. One of my earliest memories there is of an evening in the dining room shortly after I had arrived on campus. I felt this wave of sadness overcome me, and the woman assigned as my mom-away-from-home (all new boarders had one, though she eventually ignored me because I was so boring) must have noticed, and much to my embarrassment, came over and hugged me and told me it was ok to be homesick.
Homesick? It sounded plausible, but didn’t describe what I was feeling, because I could sense that I didn’t actually miss home. What I really felt was this inability to connect with all the happy girls talking and laughing around me who had been allowed to develop their personalities and have their preferences honored, who had stories and memories and friends and music and style and likes and dislikes and senses of humor and lots to say and people around them who were eager to hear them say it. I was a creature utterly unlike them. But this woman, like all adults in my life, had zero interest in actually listening to me, so I let her believe that she knew what was going on. Which made me feel even more alone. And for the duration of my time at that school, that feeling never left me.
At this school I became haunted by the presence of one particular girl in my class, Buffy, who seemed perfectly placed by the universe (because, decades later I realized, she was) to amplify my pre-existing insecurities about myself in this necessarily pain-filled stage of my incarnation. Buffy was white, blonde, beautiful, popular, respected, intellectually brilliant beyond belief in every academic subject, involved in everything from volunteer work to Model United Nations, and she played all varsity sports, including soccer, lacrosse, and polo. She could be funny in social situations, yet her poetry and short stories revealed so much introspective depth it was hard to believe someone so young had written them. As though that were not enough, she played piano and cared for and trained her family’s racehorses. She won a slew of awards from the school, including the biggest of them all for the graduating class: Best Student, or whatever it was called. Every day I mentally tortured myself for not being Buffy. No matter how hard I worked, I could never even hope to achieve in the way that she did.
Except...maybe...in art? Art class required that students draw self portraits in charcoal, and these portraits were hung in the hallway of the main classroom building. The expectation at the time was, of course, that this would be an exercise in realism: how closely can you portray how your face actually looks? I carefully studied the relationships between my facial features, determined to get it right. I worked hard on that drawing, even outside of class, truly enjoying the rare activity in my life where I felt a natural sense of competence and confidence. And when my portrait went up on the wall, even people who never bothered talking to me gushed over how good it was and how much it looked like me.
When Buffy took the art course I was thoroughly surprised to see that her self portrait actually looked nothing like her; the only way I recognized that it was hers was by the name card. I couldn’t believe it: there was something Buffy wasn’t head-and-shoulders above the rest of us at doing? And how strange to me, that the one thing I excelled at was apparently the only thing she didn’t. Even at that unawakened time in my life I recognized that a grand cosmic message for me was involved….
Despite having artistic talent that could have taken me in more personally gratifying directions, I adopted the prep school’s priorities as my own: earn excellent grades in all subjects, involve myself in endless extracurricular activities, achieve high SAT scores, and win acceptance at prestigious colleges and universities. I never stopped to think about whether I really wanted to go to college; it just seemed like the next logical thing for me to do. Yet I had no idea what I wanted to study in college or where I wanted to go. I liked art, but understood that it was not an appropriate thing for me to study in college. For my senior project I obtained an internship in scientific illustration at the Smithsonian’s Natural History museum, and I clearly remember my dad, who drove me to Washington for it, gazing absently off in another direction on a street corner as he told me that this art activity was ok for now but I couldn’t pursue anything art-related in college or as a career.
During my junior year a senior in my dorm went on and on about how much she wanted to go to Bryn Mawr--a prestigious women’s college outside of Philadelphia--and convinced me it was somewhere I should apply because she thought I looked like a Bryn Mawr student. So I made this particular college my focus for nothing more than that superficial reason. I did end up getting into Bryn Mawr, and only Bryn Mawr. It was to no one’s surprise that Buffy was accepted at all of the places she applied. She selected Princeton.
In my school’s yearbook each senior received her own page which she could design as she pleased with photos and text. As I flipped through the yearbook for my senior year, I couldn’t help but notice how Buffy and I had both chosen words written by famous authors, that used pathway metaphors to indicate the degree of confidence we had in our futures. Our passages each conveyed a very different sense of agency. Buffy used the first stanza of Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”:
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
I used a piece of dialog from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland:
Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don't much care where...
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn't much matter which way you go.
Alice: ...So long as I get somewhere.
The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you're sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.
Persistent Family Patterns
What was going on at home while I was gone at school? June actually relaxed somewhat over time, enough to accommodate Sia’s preferences for fashion, make-up, and sports. Of course, this was much to Jillian’s bitterness over the “unfairness” of it all since June was more strict with her when she was that age (never mind that Jillian had moved out long ago and had experienced privileges denied to her sisters well into childhood; we could always count on Jillian to invalidate or diminish all experiences but her own).
But June’s tyrannical tendencies would still easily flare back to life. At the end of my senior year of high school I brought home some of my artwork. There was one particular piece that I was very proud of: a blue ink drawing of bamboo using Chinese-style brushwork. It had been my first attempt at this style of painting, and the teacher was blown away by my natural skill and artistry of composition. June took one look at it and folded it in half, creating a big crease that ruined it for display purposes, and stuffed it in a folder. What the hell...?! I knew that June had always disliked art from non-Anglo cultures (any art that my dad brought home from India she later threw in the basement; aside from portraits of my sisters and me, our house contained only depictions of white people in paintings and book illustrations, the Hummel figurines, all the dolls we ever owned), so that was likely her reason. But couldn’t she respect that the painting was actually mine, had meaning to me, and that I took pride in the accomplishment that it represented? I turned uncharacteristically angry and let her know. June wasn’t sorry at all for her hurtful act and just gave that dismissive wave of her hand I had grown used to that indicated: Your opinions and feelings don’t matter, only mine do, now buzz off.
The deeper into our teen years we progressed the more my dad grew to regret his absentee parenting approach--not because he had missed out on really getting to know and spend quality time with his daughters, but rather because he realized in dismay that June somehow had not steered his kids into becoming the three-pack of doctors he had assumed would happen. When he drove me to Bryn Mawr for my first semester he insisted on attending my meeting with my academic advisor. During the meeting Dad was visibly agitated at the idea of me choosing anything other than a pre-med course of study. I had never done well in math and science, no matter how hard I tried (and God knows how incredibly hard I tried). But, knowing that Jillian had disappointed him (she reluctantly went to college and studied anthropology, not medicine) and Sia didn’t seem destined for college at all, I felt that it was my duty to help Dad realize his dream of a doctor-daughter. Even though medicine did not interest me and in fact disgusted and scared me, I acquiesced and registered for pre-med courses. These and all the other hard courses for which, let’s face it, I had no intellectual aptitude, coupled with the iron grip of perfectionism that prevented me from turning in papers on time, ended up nearly destroying me. This perfectionism confused me; it had manifested sometime around the beginning of high school and I felt utterly helpless to this dark master. As with every other mysterious aspect of my early life I would eventually find out why.
I lasted one year at Bryn Mawr. I felt guilty for continuing at such an expensive private college if there was no way I could fulfil dad’s dream, so I decided to transfer to Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, where I could get a cheaper (and frankly easier) education. My decision on what to study there focused on this set of constraints: if I were to live and work in a society that valued math and science above all things including art (unfortunately, the only thing I was somewhat good at), I should try to find a course of study that was as science-y as possible, yet something my embarrassingly deficient left-brain capacities could handle. I decided to major in environmental science and management. After all, I cared about the Earth and had donated to and followed Greenpeace and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and worried about factory farming and the ozone layer since my early teens (despite my older sister opining how dumb my concerns were).
June let me borrow her car to move my stuff into the house where I’d be living for the summer in Bloomington since at the time she would be traveling with a group from her community college. My summer classes didn’t start for a while and I had some free time. Any normal college kid would have gone crazy with a free set of wheels to use for a while, but I didn’t know what to do with myself. What should I do for fun? I wasn’t sure. I drove to a park. I sat in the grass. Am I enjoying myself? After a little while I got in the car and drove home. For most of the time I had that car it was parked in front of the house until I returned it to June. The only other time I drove anywhere was to take to the local animal shelter a fledgling mourning dove that a gang of starlings were trying to jab to death with their beaks on the sidewalk.
Is There a Natural Order?
Thinking back on this clear memory, I’m now wondering why the starlings would bother attacking an innocuous juvenile dove. A quick search turned up this: “[Starlings] are naturally aggressive birds that won't hesitate to injure or kill other birds as they seek out the best food sources and nesting sites.” So it’s about competition for perceived limited resources. There isn’t enough. There’s never enough. I have a hard time meeting my needs, and I can only see you as a rival for resources. So I’m going to attack and prevent you from taking what I need, whether you pose a realistic threat or not. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it. This describes not only my childhood home life, but the reigning social paradigm that we’ve been led to believe is just the natural order of things. It’s survival of the fittest, announced smart people like Charles Darwin--so it’s a dog-eat-dog world, we all shrugged. It’s endless systems of grading, contests, and competitions from the day we’re born. It’s that poisonous, anti-humanitarian book, The Bell Curve, that gripped the media in the mid-1990s and gave us the “scientific” greenlight to further abandon one other and ourselves if we don’t fit a narrow definition of intelligence.
But now I’m reminded of a different perspective on this idea that is steadily gaining credence as more and more scientific evidence of it emerges: how there exists much more cooperation in nature than we’ve been led to believe. Contemporary scientists are discovering many examples, including the fungal-and-tree-root networks detailed in German forester Peter Wohlleben’s 1915 work, The Hidden Life of Trees, through which trees of the same and even different species cooperate to share nutrients, warnings, and other life-bolstering substances and communications.
The modern-day understanding of cooperation in nature (something indigenous peoples have known for millennia) has roots in the early 20th century with Russian scientist and philosopher Peter Krapotkin, who, in his 1902 essay, “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution,” offers a rebuttal to Darwin’s dominating theory of the day. Krapotkin, after spending five years observing nature in the Siberian wilderness, identified two different forms of struggle: organism against organism for limited resources, which he acknowledged generates competition, but also organism against environment (e.g., climate, terrain, etc.), which he found clearly leads to cooperation.
Krapotkin's ideas were later championed and expanded upon by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. Gould’s multiple award-winning 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man--required summer reading for my entire freshman class at Bryn Mawr--debunked the junk science that many in positions of power had used to justify racism and gross socioeconomic inequalities throughout history. In an essay on Krapotkin, Gould muses on the possible implications for human social order of the undeniable evidence of cooperation in nature: “Neither the crushing powers of the centralized State nor the teachings of mutual hatred and pitiless struggle which came, adorned with the attributes of science, from obliging philosophers and sociologists, could weed out the feeling of human solidarity, deeply lodged in men’s understanding and heart, because it has been nurtured by all our preceding evolution.”
But Gould closes his essay with a warning about seeking our moral compass in nature: “There are no shortcuts to moral insight. Nature is not intrinsically anything that can offer comfort or solace in human terms – if only because our species is such an insignificant latecomer in a world not constructed for us. So much the better. The answers to moral dilemmas are not lying out there, waiting to be discovered. They reside, like the kingdom of God, within us – the most difficult and inaccessible spot for any discovery or consensus.” This dovetails with an idea I came across a few years ago, when Bashar--an incredibly wise channeled being from another dimension--answered an audience question about why the animal world displays so much aggression: “Because you do,” Bashar tersely replied, meaning humanity. He was referencing the quantum-physics concept that the outside world is actually a mirror for the dominant collective level of consciousness. As within, so without.
So it’s possible that nature somehow reflects human psyche and behavior, and not the other way around? This might be why we see variants of this idea attributed to Buddha, Gandhi, and Rumi: Change yourself to change the world. Bashar then noted that in the great evolutionary shift humanity is undergoing right now, there are increasing examples of unlikely animal friendships where former predator and prey peacefully coexist. Social media is full of such stories (there's even a TV show, Animal Odd Couples). And, of course, the Bible’s book of Isaiah predicts that in the coming era of peace, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (I don’t subscribe to any one religion, but I know that they all contain kernels of truth, and that this coming peace has been heralded by all major and minor religions.) If a quantum physics-based reality applies, and the outside world indeed reflects our collective level of consciousness, then animals finally getting along is an indicator of humanity’s upward moral trajectory.
The dysfunctional, lack-driven social order in which I was raised and, importantly, had internalized as my own guiding philosophy, had devastated and would continue to devastate my most immediate physical world--i.e., my own body--and psyche for years. But I didn’t know this as an unawakened young adult. I believed that my health problems were random, that any instances of abuse I had experienced in my family were best forgotten and never mentioned, that I largely deserved to be an outcast anyway for not being smart/pretty/charismatic enough, and that people’s meanness toward me had no lasting negative effect beyond making me hate myself so that I would strive to become a more acceptable person. Decades later I would find medical confirmation tracing my mysterious and chronic health problems, suicidal depression, and burgeoning rage back to the various forms of stress and abuse--now recognized in scientific literature as trauma--that I had experienced since conception. My sick body and mind were just messengers to change course. Finally understanding this would ignite my mission to help expose and change the underlying beliefs, assumptions, and conditions that produced toxic families such as my own and the mainstream institutions (social, economic, educational, healthcare, etc.) that work to perpetuate this dysfunction, producing an endless stream of broken children like me.
That day in Bloomington nearly thirty years ago, some little spark in me identified unfairness on that sidewalk as I instinctively acted to save the fledgling; allowing nature to “take its course” didn’t even occur to me. Maybe because there is no intrinsic course beyond what different aspects of our multidimensional selves (the ego, subconscious, inner child, higher self, etc.) project into the hologram that is our world, an ever-shifting panoply of perspectives that mark our evolution in consciousness. If we're starting to feel unfamiliar impulses and see patterns of evidence in the outside world contrary to what our egoic minds have believed is true, it's because some quiet power in us knows its time to adopt and act upon a different perspective.
Yet clearing out beliefs that no longer serve us takes time. It was easy to feel kindness toward a helpless bird, but it would take decades for that inner spark to rekindle my damaged sense of compassion toward myself and toward humanity as a whole--with surprising effects on how I perceived my family’s and my own behavior. In the spirit of alchemizing my personal trauma in service of a better world, things I learned from my upbringing and dispatches from my healing journey follow in the next posts.