I’ve be re-learning how to cry. Or rather, I’ve been crying uncontrollably in public while I walk down the streets of Los Angeles because apparently when you repress everything for 28 years to survive, eventually your body rebels and betrays you.
So as I was sobbing uncontrollably after an acupuncture appointment in the middle of day, in yoga pants and wearing the kind of sunglasses that make New Yorkers long for their dungeons, I thought a lot about how this probably looked.
What did she have to cry about?
This little white girl in her yoga pants.
It’s only been ten months since I left my PhD program and started getting called a trophy wife. I think about this as I lie in bed sobbing because its been days since I’ve been able to move. And worse still, days since I’ve been able to read and write.
But if you looked at me on the street you wouldn’t know this. And if you saw me crying, you wouldn’t know that its because for the last few months, as I’ve been working my way up Maslow’s hierarchy, I’ve finally had to face the painful realities of my life. Twenty-seven painful, brutal years, that I can never get back.
How bad could my problems have been?
Well I was born the bastard of a meth addicted teenage mother with a sadistic streak. And she married a man that held a gun to my head when I was an infant and she threatened to leave. And he kicked her down a flight of stairs while I was still in her arms because I was the constant reminder of his failure. And this only half the times I know for a fact that an adult tried to kill me. She left him for beating her , only to move on to a pedophile that the D.A told us was a “2 percenter” in the seriousness of his crimes and pyschopathy. She didn’t leave him until I made it about my sister, she had long known and was complicit in what he’d done to me. I put him away when I was 13 after 10 years of sexual, physical and verbal violence. Which makes it sound nicer than it is, because its better described as torture. And when he left, my big sister took over the physical abuse and the rest of my family? They kept up the verbal abuse. The systematic hate they heaped on me because I was the constant reminder of what we were. They kept it going even while I was in college at Stanford (ever got called a whore by your grandfather before trying to deliver the eulogy of your prematurely dead grandmother during midterm season? I have).
All this time I was living the most ridiculous stereotypes you have of the poor. If the poor person were in a third world country. Like the fact that I now have permanent nutritional deficiencies because of what I didn’t eat in my youth. Or the fact that I almost died from a disease we eradicated in the 1960s. Or the fact that I went to a high school with no textbooks, where violence was the norm and where my counselor told me “people like [me]” didn’t need to go to college. I know the exact procedure for a drive by and how to make a prison shank. You wouldn’t know this by looking at me, and if I tried to explain, you’d say, “but she’s white.”
But don’t worry. It’s happened hundreds of times. I get that it’s not what I look like.
I should, statistically have been a crack whore, and I’m not.
No, I’m a Stanford grad. Twice.
And you wouldn’t know that by looking at me either. You wouldn’t know about how alone and alienated I felt. About the work I did to make sure no one who was poor like me would ever have to suffer like I did. You didn’t watch me dedicate my few healthy days to research and to advocating for the poor. You didn’t see me dragged in on administrative meetings designed to silence me. And you didn’t watch me fight behind the scenes all those years to be included in discussions about oppression. Or to be called what I was, because the administration tells you they expect you to be ashamed of what you are. Not first gen. Not even low income, as if you can sanitize reality to make it go away. “I’m poor white trash.” I tell the admin this before they introduce me at a Stanford staff training.
I do it because the look of horror has begun to amuse me. I do it because I know how lies lead to oppression. I do it because of the words, “what happens in this house stays in this house.” Words I heard after a beating because Child Protective Services is investigating. You wouldn’t know about the nights I woke up crying in my sleep in my dorm room, unable to speak because I knew if my classmates knew the real reason, it’d only”make them uncomfortable.” I start to enjoy their discomfort. I get very good at never telling anyone what is actually going on because I’m so afraid they can’t handle it. I try to find positive pathways to manage the two pieces of me, I go into education. Eventually I’m ripped into more than two pieces.
I made sure no one was around when I worked at the high school and they expelled a boy who was “living under a bridge doing meth” because “he’s an adult now.” He was sixteen. He loved Black Flag. He still had his baby fat and fear in his eyes. He reminds me of my brother. You didn’t see me as I privately went to go cry when there was nothing left I could do. And when I get into grad school that year my boss will question my right to a fellowship for the poor who want to be teachers focused on saving those kids.
“But she’s white.”
I finally enter the classroom and no one sees me throw up in-between classes. Because I’m good, I’m so good at covering up what I’m feeling because my mom laughed at me when I cried. And if it isn’t safe to cry in front of your mom, its not safe to cry in front of anyone. And because you don’t know this, you don’t know how much I’m struggling in graduate school. How many times I’ve been dragged into meetings because my classmates don’t like that I make them feel inferior. They didn’t know that I had spent my whole life feeling inferior. And when they look for an excuse to kick me they’ll use my health even though they admit I’m excelling academically.
“We don’t see how you could be doing so well if you are that sick.”
“I can perform under just about any conditions, I’ve been doing it my whole life.”
I’m a walking and talking cause of cognitive dissonance. I learn how to identify when it is happening and to push through. It’s my secret weapon in the classroom.
You can’t tell from looking at me, how bad my health is. You can’t tell that I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 25 because my family told me I was making it up and because my doctors don’t believe uneducated trailer trash women. When I’m finally diagnosed, it’s a genetic condition, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome Type 3. Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia adds to my fun. When I’m finally diagnosed, my doctor is angry because the damage and conditions are so obvious. Just like that time my mom almost let me die from pneumonia because I was being dramatic when I told her I couldn’t breathe. I was prepared to “fake” my way right to my death, but then it becomes visible. And before long, I am in a wheelchair, braced up, and told it’s game over. This is my new normal. This is my new normal because no one believed me because of what I looked like. I learn that my class matters when my aunt dies the summer before Stanford. She was 50. They caught her cancer too late to stop it because they didn’t believe in her pain. I learn that too, when my cousin kills himself that summer and I go to grief counseling only to be told it was “expected for someone from his background.” It’s not until I can wear my Stanford shirt to the doctors that I can finally start self advocating because they finally start listening.
And when I stay in the classroom after the repression and years of neglect to my health takes it toll, you didn’t see me struggle to stand while I taught my students complex historical thought. When I finally have no choice but to leave, I spend three years in recovery. Not working was never an option for me, despite what my advisors and more privileged friends seemed to believe. Because you see, to heal in a safe space, I would have needed a safe family and that was never an option. So instead of healing, I bounce from one explotiative relationship to another. First my parents torment me and under feed me until I get a concussion, then my fiance crosses the line into what my friends called rape, and then a former teacher exploits my labor. By the end of my “year off” I’m still profoundly sick. I’m off to a PhD program in battered conditions.
I leave because I can’t imagine it’ll ever be any different.
I leave because I don’t know how I’ll be safe if I don’t find somewhere to hide.
I leave because god damnit, I miss an intellectual life.
They apparently couldn’t tell from my application that I had applied in a post-concussive state with spotty internet and money I raised from friends from undergrad. They didn’t see it in my application, when my mother mocked me and my step-dad told me to give up. They didn’t see me write my personal statement about school segregation while unable to walk and they didn’t see the experiences I had drawn from, the ones so familiar to me that to talk about them sounded like a fish talking about water.
And so I move away to grad school and not long after I drop out. And lots of friends have lots of opinions about it. But they didn’t see how sick I was. That my hair was falling out. They didn’t see how bored and tokenized I felt. They didn’t see the professor who was inappropriate, again. They didn’t see me get excluded from the very thing I was there to study because I was white. And when they called me white, they didn’t see a bastard from a multi-ethnic family, or the Indian blood that flows through my veins as a result of interracial marriage. They saw a white girl in a PhD program who went to Stanford. And so they were wrong about half of me.
And you wouldn’t know it from looking at my husband, but it’s him that’ll finally save me. You wouldn’t think he sees beauty from pain, just from looking at him but he falls in love with my pain all the same. If you just looked at our demographics, you might be confused as to how we got together, even though we are both certain it was fated to be. Neither one of us believes in fate. We’re both atheists. You wouldn’t know that by looking at us either.
You didn’t watch us plan a wedding around a strong desire to avoid my family. We elope instead because I’m too scared to be in public with any of them. And some folks judged me when I got married and moved to Los Angeles and cut off my whole family. Because they didn’t see the continuing abuse and boundary violations. And they didn’t watch my husband find me a new number and address. And its because you don’t know how badly I wanted to escape my name and my past, you judged me when I took his name. They didn’t have to walk me through repressed memories as I began to deal with my life, they didn’t see how expertly he did it.
And if you saw me on the street today, you’d have all kinds of cute labels. None of which would tell you how I continued my activism even when I was homeless. They won’t show you the hours I continued to mentor former students while I was incredibly sick. Lots of people assume I’m stupid because of what I look like, because boobs and intelligence are somehow mutually exclusive.
I tell you all of this, so that no one will have to go through what I went through. But also because I am afraid. I am afraid that we live in a world that no longer sees the virtues of breaking down the walls that divide and hide us. I am afraid that we are hurting everyone who doesn’t look like our statistics by demanding that they justify their existence, as I often have to do. “Where the fuck are you from” and “What are you” because my origins don’t fit into the preconceived narratives we’ve allowed to define us. But I’m also sad, because I want all of you to actually see how beautiful life is outside the bounds of these walls. The places of complexity and nuance. The places and people that cause cognitive dissonance, that make our civilization more complex and real by showing the absurdity of our systems. Because humans aren’t statistics and because demographic data doesn’t define reality And I’m afraid we’ve bowed to absurdity because we can’t stop yelling and hating and excluding. I learned one thing from being in a house where everyone yells at you, no one can hear you when they are yelling.
Every time someone points out that the walls are ultimately constructed, we are forced to remember that they can be torn down.
And if the only good that comes out of my experiences is that I’m part of the wrecking crew, it will have been worth it.