It has taken months for me to figure out how to write this post. At first I ran away from it, avoiding it, burying it, rejecting it. Then I spent a long time trying to find a way to wrap it in a pretty bow and make it nice. It was always there in the background haunting everything I did. Eventually I couldn’t hide anymore and I decided that I just had to be honest and raw. That’s something I’ve lost in the last few years as I have adjusted to this new environment. I used to scare people like a monster with my mouth and the things that came out of it. So I learned to codeswitch and say it with a smile. But it wasn’t enough, my edgy-ness, my having-lived-life-ness was unprofessional and it was no longer socially acceptable for me to say what I thought. I began to see myself as something that I had to hide and when I couldn’t hide it, I hid from everyone.
So here it is. As honest as I can say it.
When I was a child I would walk through my house and get hit and ask why and the sociopath I pretended to be my father would tell me it was just for gp, general purpose. I got accustomed to it, it was actually one of the less terrible pieces of my existence. Being hit, I could deal with that. I could deal with the insults causally said to me in the house, slut, fat, bitch, whore. The best part of my years were my trips to my grandmother’s house where at least we’d have enough to eat, and instead of the beatings I just got called fat. These were the easiest parts of my existence, so when people ask me why I was successful in school, I don’t know how to tell them that school, with all its ridiculousness, with the lack of books and the food and the never fitting in, was the thing I fantasized about, because at school, I was undeniable.
My mom used to hide my test scores from my siblings to spare them the comparisons. I was the family scapegoat. When I asked her why she was so hard on me in particular she said it was because I could handle it and because she didn’t want me making the same mistakes. This is why my mother never felt the compulsion to tell me that there was anything I did well, she was afraid that if I knew my power that I would be an uncontrollable nightmare. When the sociopath went to jail I was 14, the beatings and the names didn’t stop, though the attempted rapes did and for that I felt blessed. I took the blows and the words from my sister and my grandmother because I knew that it was the only way for them to express their anguish. I’ve had people tell me that they were cruel to me because I was only one who could take it, a lot. That’s why by the time college rolled around, I could survive any critique. And I could also survive that treatment from the people who called me their girlfriend. I survived it by making myself numb, so numb, in fact, that I don’t really remember my childhood and now don’t even know when I dislocate my jaw or hip.
I was weird for a Stanford student in many ways, but the one that seemed to interest people the most was that I was not an outcast in high school. I wasn’t universally loved, either. When I was 14 a group of girls decided that they were frustrated with my popularity and confidence and they shouted whore at me in the hallways and wrote me letters in which they told me how terrible I was. They threatened to beat me up shortly after I had finally escaped someone that had been beating me for the fun of it. I wish I could tell you that the adults intervened but in my neighborhood the only real adults were the more competent kids. So as my now former friends attempted to dethrone me, the black girls at my high school came to my defense and said “if you touch her, then you deal with us.” I was surprised to say the least. I was used to using that line to defend people, just 2 weeks before the mean girl shenanigans started I had a guy beat up for sexually assaulting one of the girls that now threatened me. For six months, this torment continued but it ended up just back-firing and making me more powerful, mostly because they were never able to get me to admit that they had hurt me. Instead I sent their letters back written with comments in impeccable satire. By sophomore year, I was undisputedly running things, and I was doing it from my home because my health forced me into independent study.
People at Stanford didn’t seem to have an explanation for my experience in high school. I never had the heart to explain everything to them and I don’t think they would have heard it if I did. My first boyfriend in college spent one night calling me a whore and telling me it was because I was the kind of girl who dated the kind of guys who beat him up. But I was not that girl, I had more power than any of the men at my school did. I had no way of translating that to anyone and it made people uncomfortable and so, once again, the people around me tore me down to make themselves feel better, and I let them because I was used to being the sacrifice. By the time I reached Stanford, I had no self-esteem. Unlike my peers, I had never had a point in my childhood where I was simply safe and loved. When I was an infant, my mother’s husband held a gun to my head and threatened to kill us all if my mom left him. No one was even at my birth except my teenaged mother and there are almost no pictures of me from my childhood because my grandmother was angry with me for being born. I never developed a basis of worth or a belief in myself. To this day, I only think of myself as having the right to exist if I am doing something for someone else, which is why it has been so hard for me to be ill. My fiancé has faced the uphill battle of teaching a stubborn, brilliant, and profoundly wounded creature to believe that she is a human.
My junior and senior year of college I dated a very confident and happy young man who was the picture of California’s finest. Behind closed doors, he hated it when I upstaged him. When we took classes together, I would spend the evenings afterwards trying to make him feel better about the fact that I was the stronger academic. In the logic class, I solved all of the proofs and he stole my solutions and was happy when a slight mistake in transcription of sentences, not the proofs-mistakes that I was making because my headaches were so severe-would cause him to get a higher grade. I met him after returning from China, an experience that had been painful for me. The people on the trip with me often made me feel excluded, the girls fed on my bodily insecurities and the most banal statements about my childhood disturbed them. I was drinking, heavily, 4 nights out of the week and waking up with tears streaming down my face. I was hurt by the first boy who understood where I came from and called me beautiful even as he fucked other girls to prove to me he could. When I got back from China, my little brother got his girlfriend pregnant while still a senior, and my 13 year old sister was raped. I hid these facts from everyone and so I found a boy who would take joy in my doing so and who hated me when I was most myself. My life only continued to spiral out of control as time went on, and by the time I returned from my first summer in Germany, where I acted as my boyfriend’s house wife, my one positive female role model was dying and I knew that was not going to be able to finish my honors thesis. Instead of understanding that this happened because I was human, I took on all of the culture, exacerbated by all of the abuse, that said that if you didn’t do something it was because you didn’t work hard enough. “No excuses”, I learned, only applied to poor children. For me there is no safety-net, there is no gap year, no rehab and no help getting jobs. It made me constantly aware that despite all I had done, I was always one bad day away from hunger. My failure to write this thesis conveniently made my very insecure and very privileged boyfriend feel much better and he continued to feed the fuel by calling me lazy and picking on my weight with his friends the summer after I graduated in Germany. Of course, he got a lot of help from me when it came time for him to write his honor’s thesis.
Do you see the pattern yet? Do you see how I’ve been torn down by so many people who hated my fire? So many people and so many times, that people made sure I had no idea what I was capable of so that they could feel better about what they weren’t. But this isn’t just a personal story, because I am a woman in a world that does that. When men are sold something it is in order to make them feel and be great, and when women are sold something it is to cover up their inadequacies. Advertising is fundamentally an abusive boyfriend no matter what your background is. I feel the sting of irony as an exceptionally talented historian, who pointed out that Disneyland was bullshit at 4, succumbing to this. On the outside, I was the snarky bitch who smoked cigars while wearing a trench coat and short skirt and told people exactly who they were. On the inside, I was a profoundly damaged little girl who had no self worth. And I wish I could tell you that the turning point happened after breaking up with that boyfriend, and in some ways it did, and in the more surprising ways it didn’t.
When I broke up with him, I promised myself that I would never let anyone do that again and for a while the only way I knew how to prevent that was to become cold and untouchable, so I started letting the image of me as a sassy cat lady build. I put into place what I needed to be in the right relationship, but I hadn’t yet found the way to build a life that would allow me to be my best self. I entered Stanford’s Teacher Education Program (STEP) and suddenly found myself in a program that had a fundamentally core belief that required them to make me feel like shit about myself, because you see in education ideology, people who have an easy time performing do so because they are more confident and take away from the learning of others. It is why as a little girl, I had trained myself to count to ten before answering questions. It was why as a little girl, teachers would relish in my failure, and wouldn’t accommodate me when I was sick. It was why as a little girl, I would get perfect scores and be told it wasn’t enough. Very few teachers were supportive and kind to me in school, which is why my behavior was often atrocious.
STEP got on me early. They would refuse to call on me. Take me aside and tell me that I was hurting the other students. Call me domineering when my adult classmates handed over group assignments to me to finish for everyone. Refuse to give me any credit for any group assignments. Relish and then refuse to help me when I struggled. Pick on me and tell me I would never be good enough. My classmates would come to hate me and tell our supervisors that I was making it hard for them to do their best. They would report when I was sick and take pleasure in tearing my assignments apart. The few who stood up for me would find themselves shut-down. I became a complete nervous shadow of myself, and at precisely the same moment, my body hit its limit. STEP was merciless. It was everything that I was promised would stop when I entered Stanford and when I was an undergrad, Stanford lived up to that. Most professors seemed to love having me in the classroom and encouraged me to be successful. And I wish now, that I had been more open about my childhood and that I had had more support because if I had, I might not be as ill as I am now. Unlike my friends, I had no direction and no networks to figure out what to do with my Stanford degree. I have always been able in the classroom to hide my insecurity with my intelligence, so I never let on that I was confused. I could be ignored because I was white and helping me wouldn’t result in the same kind of public relations coup. I went into STEP because even though I desperately wanted to write and do research, I was dealing with too much and didn’t know that I was good enough to get a PhD. I thought that my failure to write my honors thesis meant that I was incapable because I unable to get past the 3 deaths that happened in the fall of my senior year, while also being forced to run the first-generation low income community group, First Gen Low Income Partnership. But I had no support, no community, no help because I was poor white trash. The only people I ever knew that had college degrees were teachers and everyone kept telling me that I needed to continue my activism for poor students. My boyfriend at the time encouraged me to teach because he was the “better” fit for PhDs. So I went into education.
Education is a female dominated field, and I thought because it was going to be a bunch of people who cared about children that we were all going to be super nice to each other. Which made the shock of reality even more difficult for me. This time it wasn’t one professor, it was a program. It wasn’t one group of girls, it was nearly everyone except those that had to work closest to me. I was ignored, ridiculed and then made to sit in meetings where I was told to apologize for the honor because I was making people feel bad with my presence and words. They took a very badly wounded soul and pushed me into the ground. I guess that’s how I ended up in work environments that replicated the pattern. That’s why I had to leave the classroom prematurely.
My body paid the price for this. It took the damage, quite literally. It took the damage when I was beaten and when I fought as a little girl. It took the damage as I struggled through Stanford, fighting the whole damn way for everything I got. It took the damage when I taught four classes, vomiting in between each one and then sat in class vomiting in secret every half an hour, because I was too afraid to let anyone know that I was sick. It took the damage when a very scared little boy injured me. It took the damage all year, as I struggled to climb up the stairs and into my classroom. It took the damage when I pulled a 14 hour day to prove that I was teaching the kids because some of the women on staff felt the need to tell my supervisor that I was bad at my job because I showed them up. It has taken the damage, being the only consistent protection I’ve ever had.
It has taken it everyday that I’ve hated it for not being thin enough. It has taken it everyday that I joked about how grateful I was to be smart because I was not beautiful. It took it when a boy told me to lose weight because I “could” look better. It took it when a boy told me his friends thought I wasn’t thin enough. It took it when I didn’t stand up for myself when a boy fucked another girl because I thought it was what I deserved. It took it every night I drank so that I could endure the social interactions with my peers who thought appropriate party chatter included bigotry. It took it when I rushed to class after my weekly toradol injection so that I didn’t have to deal with any emails from my supervisors at STEP about how I couldn’t possibly be sick because I could come to class and perform. It took it when I went to work limping only to have to spend vital work time responding to constant emails demanding to know why I wasn’t failing the students like everyone else on campus. It took it every single fucking time.
And what bothers me most, is that my story is not isolated. It is trapped in context. My story is the story of a gifted woman being torn down so as to not offend men. My story is the story of a kind, gentle soul being made rough by women who were scared to find out what her existence meant for them. My story is the story of a passionate, caring individual being isolated because the color of her skin didn’t fit into the narrative. My story is the story of a beautiful, womanly young girl hiding her body because she wanted to be taken seriously.
And I wonder how many gifted, kind, passionate, beautiful people we’ve ruined because we were scared of their power.