“I never imagined that anyone would ever find me an evil person, declare me a suppressive personality, so corrupt that they would lock me on a ship for months, pounding me everyday to make me compliant with their belief system,” said a mother who followed her child into Scientology so that he would not have to disconnect from her. She spent five years putting herself aside to keep the family together, knowing from the beginning that the cost of failure would be the destruction of her family in the service of what the masters at Scientology called the greater good.
She couldn’t imagine that anyone would declare her so corrupt and evil that she had to be beaten into compliance or frozen out, stripped of her connection and personhood, her love shattered.
In my case, though, from as early as I could remember, I couldn’t imagine anyone embracing me, finding me delightful and wonderful, being there with love and affirmation.
For me, I knew that I was seen as evil, corrupt and suppressive from a very young age. I asked just the wrong questions, saw through the manipulations, and refused to be compliant with the demands of others when they tried to demolish and erase me.
I suspect that most people have the childhood experience of being seen as good, as sweet, as cute, of being valued, liked and even adored. That’s why they go into relationships expecting the best, believing that their own essence will be seen and liked, that the will get what they desire and what they need, no matter how many warning signs come up beforehand.
Their belief system doesn’t include the idea that others may be vicious and manipulative to them, doesn’t encompass the belief that they need to be smashed and broken just to fit into others expectations and demands.
This was never the assumption I made when I looked at the people around me. I was always suspect, always defended, always questioning, always looking for the way that I was going to be hurt “for my own good,” as they tried to teach me why my nature was wrong, corrupt and evil, why I had to have my spirit broken so I would be compliant, docile and unchallenging.
Theology saved me, not later, but as a child. Understanding what was right and what was just coercive was at the heart of my private world, from the time when I was three and tattled on the bus driver’s rule breaking, when I was five and called out “Mrs. Hughes, The Burnt Out Fuse” they brought back from retirement to teach our kindergarten, when I was nine and excelled in a confirmation course dripping with theology, when I was twelve and sent to the therapist who finally told my parents to stop using “Stupid” as my name in the family.
The believer is happy, the doubter is wise, goes an old Hungarian proverb. “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” Phil McGraw often asks his television targets.
Happy, well, it never seemed to be an option for me. If Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy, goes an old bit of southern wisdom, and in my house, well, Momma weren’t never happy. She carried the pain of growing up as a woman with Aspergers like a crown of thorns, always ready to lash out against anyone she saw as not doing what she wished, causing her distress and making her life miserable. Everything was about her, and in her view, we were all failing because we weren’t making her happy.
My brother ran, choosing flight, my sister froze and I fought. As the oldest child, the scapegoat, I don’t think I really had any other choice. There was family I loved to be protected. Even to the end, fifty or sixty years later, I became a full time caretaker not to be nice to my mother but to protect my father from her demands as he got less and less able to meet them. I helped him take care of my mother.
There are so many reason why people found me challenging over the years, too hip for the room, too intense, too questioning, too x-ray, too everything, that there was no time or place for me to learn how to trust, how to believe in the possibility of love.
Barry Humphries, Dame Edna’s creator, said recently that he always had the confidence that if he did what amused him, the audience would follow. I always had the trust that if I did what amused me, the audience would be lost and angry.
My life has been based on willpower and performance, yes, but always in the cause of struggling to find ways to speak the truth that I could get past the rage, bitterness and fears of the people around me. If they wanted to see clearly, they already would see that way. Instead, they wanted to be comfortable, to find healing that tasted good, was easy to swallow. Sugar truth up, make it sly and camouflaged, letting it build over time rather than coming in one hard swallow.
I knew that people were more than sanguine to brand me evil, corrupt and suppressive and throw me out, which meant I knew that if I wanted to get anything done, I had to be a guerrilla fighter. Manipulative was my method, though I was always clear to make my true intent known.
Learning to let go of my needs, though, to stop trying so hard to fill the holes torn into my soul was very hard, but I knew moving beyond desire was the only way to relax and not be so prickly. The ego has to shrink, even if releasing my deepest desires meant I had no more hope of having them come true.
The very process of letting go, though, ended up removing another level of social connection between me and other people. Most people are defined by what they desire, forming bonds over shared wanting, usually for reasons of identity and status. I think of cliques of high school girls who roam the mall, each only slightly varied in their uniform, finding comfort and power in a pack identity.
We know who others are by knowing what they desire, so if they have renounced desire, walked away from it, they seem weird and impossible to manipulate. Shared interests, usually shared impulses, form bonds, so when someones interests are baffling, queer or non-existent, how do we trust them, connect with them?
This is the social pressure that organizations use to enforce compliance, the desire to not be seen as aberrant, to fit in as one of the pack. No matter how hard Scientologists pounded on that poor mother, she was beyond the point of surrendering to their coercive demands for compliance with the expected norms, so they declared her suppressive, an outcome she could never imagine before she joined in.
My move away from desire, not shaping my choices to please & delight a social group, but instead standing alone, relying on my own hard work to resolve and clear my choices, lead me always to know that I was vulnerable, likely to be attacked and abused in a way that was justified by my inability to comply with the immense pressure to be normative.
I learned very early to suspect the people around me, and in turn, the people around me learned to suspect me. It was a relationship based in distrust and fuelled by the x-ray vision I needed just to survive parents without theory of mind.
My distrust wasn’t vindictive or nasty, rather it was protective and useful. I needed to stay safe and if I used my insights well, I could actually make family life better for everyone, working for change and enlightenment. The older I got the more I learned how to act for good, but that intention was there from the first. After all, I was just a kid and a kid wants & needs love in their life, wants to make things better.
When they sent me to that counsellor in eighth grade, I only agreed to go if they would help my parents. They did promise, but of course, they lied to me for my own good, because how could I have any awareness of where the real problem was when I was such a challenging kid that I needed mental health assistance? Having people lie to me “for my own good” was so typical though, that I learned how to evaluate everyone. This later angered salesmen, including an old boss, who were very frustrated not to find an unfiltered port they could manipulate me though.
Other people, I guess, never saw the lie coming, never sensed the manipulation and sickness that others tried to hide. They couldn’t imagine that anyone would find them so challenging that they would try to beat them into compliance. I could imagine, though, because as a nail which stuck up, I felt it pound down on me so many, many, many times in my life.
People love Scientology because it offers “certainty,” the absolute promise of absolutely definitive answers, allowing them to be certain of their standing. Straight or gay? Man or woman? Broken or blessed? Good or evil? They demand a definitive answer.
Childish awe and wonder, blind trust in something bigger and more powerful than I am, well that never felt safe to me. Instead, it felt infantilizing, oversimplified, and reductive in a way that was never, ever open to me.
After the crackpot pastor who loved my fifth grade theological bent — a pal’s father and someone who ended up institutionalized for a while — the next pastor was an ex Marine chaplain who felt the need to attack those who protested against involvement in Vietnam from the pulpit. He hated me, sure I was cheating, angry that I could stand against the institutionalized power he climbed the ranks to embody. Why couldn’t I just show him the respect and fealty he deserved, obeying rather than challenging?
To me, answers had to be validated, checked and compared, shown to be consistent and connected across views and experiments. No one person or group held the truth, no one book or tradition was perfect, rather only the threads running across, transcending singular subjectivity and the demand for separation held essential meanings.
I learned to live in the question rather than the answer, so the questions of “What do these people want, what are they willing to do to get it, and how much are they in their own delusions?” were the first things to go through my mind when someone started to play out their own game on me. There were always things I could learn from the stories and choices of other people, but they weren’t always about what they wanted me to see. Rather, my vision was of how their actions connected with others I had met in the past, finding patterns which were often unconscious for them.
The hardest thing about trans is doing it alone. (2002) How can you be other than alone, though, when there is no one you can trust to be safe and delicate with what you share, understanding it deeply and holding it tenderly?
The best way to capture what you need is to invoke it in the world. Becoming a mother and creating an empowering, joyful and loving world was the right way for me, but it wasn’t a way that was open to me. Spinster was the best I could manage, so spinster was the way I shared my heart in the world. It wasn’t really a satisfying or rewarding role, but it was the best suspect & isolated old me could ever manage.
I know what people want from me. They want me to fit into their current understandings and capacities, want to be able to offer understanding and compassion within their context. If I am challenging and queer, well, that makes me suspect, identifies my failure to understand and respect where they are right now. They want to be kind, but if I can’t come to the common, normative place, well, who is then failing?
If I can’t share in a way that supports and affirms their expectations and beliefs, well, then what can I be but suspect?
And suspect, well, suspect is separated, isolated, distanced, alone, lonely.
I imagined people could find me suspect from my earliest days. I knew the cost and risks of being held suspect.
At this point, how can I imagine anything else?
In this postscript, Nora explains why I will always be a 1.1, because my challenge to the norm means I must be full of covert hostility, be sick and broken, so I have to always be held as suspect.