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They Called Me Ugly!

There is a saying that “beauty is wasted on the young.” This is so true. Over the years, I’ve looked back at old photos of myself from a time when I thought I was too fat, short, crooked-toothed, thick-waisted. Holy crap—I was gorgeous! Even now, when I look back at photos from four years ago, when I was a size 6 and at least three bra sizes smaller, I think, “Damn! What was I complaining about?”

My beautiful thirtyish daughter is going through something similar right now. She had a baby 17 months ago. Disappointed that she doesn’t look the way she did before her pregnancy, she has recently been bemoaning her perceived “mom body.” Maybe the fear of being outdated and out of shape is a universal phenomenon among new mothers, or possibly it’s hereditary, because it sure plagued the hell out of me.

I was 26 when I gave birth to that daughter. She weighed in at 10 pounds 14.5 ounces, and when I stacked her up next to her Cabbage Patch doll, they matched like a couple of book ends. Not knowing I had developed gestational diabetes, I gained 50 pounds during my pregnancy. The weight hijacked my face, leaving me looking like a squirrel with nuts packed away in its cheeks. Not only that, but my ankles were as thick as piano legs. Yes, I developed kankles.

I felt miserable and invisible, and I needed a quick fix. My hairstylist was a former roommate and a good friend, and he assured me that all I needed was a fresh, new, un-mommy hairstyle. I have always been a slave to fashion, and—I’m reluctant to say—also a bit vain. I was feeling immensely fat and frumpy, so the thought of looking cute again was exciting. All I needed was a new ’do. I was clearly under the delusion that a simple new hairstyle would fix me.

 

My First Nations heritage meant that I was born with dark, straight-as-a-string hair that lacks even a hint of a bend or cowlick. It was the mid-’80s, when spiked hair was in vogue. My friend had been my hairstylist for years, and I trusted that he knew what he was doing. Excited to be fashionable again, I let him go to town, but to my utter horror, he cut off my entire perm and gave me a short punk style that accentuated my squirrel cheeks. Pat Benatar meets Mama Cass.

I had an appointment for my new baby’s first checkup the following morning. I jumped out of the shower and attempted to spike my bangs with gel, like my friend had done at the salon.

I was mortified by the result.

There in the mirror was my high forehead jutting skyward beneath a wall of hair that shot straight up, like a rocky cliff on a sandy beach. I panicked. I was going to be late if I tried to fix it. My only other option was to wet it down and go to the doctor with my hair plastered to my head like a drowned rat. I opted for the sheer cliff look.

I entered Kaiser Hospital and went straight to the appointment without making any eye contact. I went up the elevator and down the long hall to the doctor’s office, cursing my former friend under my breath and hoping I didn’t see anyone I knew. I felt the stares on the back of my neck like a cool breeze.

My embarrassment reminded me of a similar humiliating experience from a few weeks before. I had been getting situated in the hospital room I was to share with three other new mommies. My husband was sitting just outside the door when one of the mothers rushed into the room gushing like she had just spotted Jon Bon Jovi. She looked at her friends and said, “Who’s that hot guy sitting in the hall?”

“That’s my husband,” I said.

All incredulous eyes turned to me. They didn’t believe that I, the bloated one, could have such a good-looking husband.

The witch said, “That’s your husband?”

They had completely ignored me when I’d entered the hospital room about 10 minutes earlier. It was obvious that they had already formed a new mommy click and I was an unwelcome addition. They didn’t want anything to do with me—that is, until they spied my husband. I felt like Cinderella, being shunned by the homely stepsisters who assumed I would never have a chance at the handsome prince. I wanted to say, “If you had only seen me nine months ago, bitches!” But really, I was just humiliated. I kept my head down and said nothing.

I drove home from my baby’s check-up, bangs still sky-high, in what was probably the ugliest car on the planet at the time, an AMC Spirit. (Its only competition might have been the AMC Pacer.) Not only did it look like a space ship, but it was also beige, the color of an anemic mannequin—the most uncool color known to automobiles. I was sitting at a traffic light, probably thinking about how stupid my hair looked, when I heard and felt a ping as an empty pop can bounced off my car and rolled across my hood.

At first I paid no attention. Then I heard yelling. “Hey you! Ugly!” There was another ambush of pop cans and laughter. I looked over my shoulder. Behind the vehicle next to me was a car full of teenage boys hanging out the windows and yelling, “Yeah, you! Ugly!”

They were yelling at me! I was incensed. How dare they, the little bastards. I’d been a babe just a few months earlier. If they’d seen me then, they would have been gawking instead of mocking my space mobile and Joan Jett impersonation.

I raced home and called the police because a serious crime had been committed. A very understanding highway patrol officer came to the house, where I explained that I had been assaulted and insulted. I can imagine how hard it must have been for him to keep a straight face while looking at me in all my gel and indignation.

“They called me ugly!”

He kindly agreed that it was wrong for the teenagers to throw cans at my car, but it didn’t go much further than that. After I gave him the plate number, what else could he do but assure me that he would call the little pricks’ parents? But I think that he really did pity me. After all, I had a new baby and I was ugly.

 

How a Coworker Hurt My Feelings

One of my coworkers is a middle-aged screenwriter, a former sports editor, and a nice enough guy with a dry sense of humor and sarcastic wit. Let’s call him Ben. Great life, great wife. You know the type. During the fifteen years that we’ve worked out of the same branch office, we’ve chatted a number of times. When I began writing my memoir, I approached him for his take on the whole writing thing.

We sat in the lobby of our office building, a crown of skylights overhead, cool ceramic tile floor at our feet, and rays of sunlight streaming in on the leather couch where we sat. Ben had just read an early draft of my essay “A Lousy Lay,” which is about being raped as a fifteen-year-old virgin and will eventually become a chapter in my book-length memoir. I was anxious to hear if he thought I had potential as a writer.

Ben looked directly into my eyes, as if he was seeing me for the first time. He said, in a seriously concerned voice, “Have you had therapy for this?” It wasn’t his words that hurt but the way that he looked at me—not so much with pity but as if I was the victim of a debilitating internal burn, like I was permanently scarred on the inside. His eyes showed me how “normal” people view those of us who have experienced violent trauma and messy pasts.

Or was it just my imagined perception, filtered through a thin veil of shame, that made me see it that way? Regardless, I was embarrassed by his concern. I had never felt like a victim; if anything, I blamed myself for the rape. My ego didn’t want his pity—or was it compassion? I couldn’t tell. I felt like I had scabies. I wanted to say, “Oh no, it’s not contagious. I’m OK. What you read on the page, that thing, it didn’t really hurt me.”

Ben didn’t know that I had been unable to see the truth until I put my words onto the page. Through writing, I let go of the lies my emotions had told me and I finally saw the raw facts about the rape. Once I started writing, I saw that shame had been hovering in my subconscious, influencing many of my life decisions.

Over the following months, I wondered why my feelings about that conversation kept nagging at me. Eventually, I realized that what I’d seen in Ben’s eyes was true: I had been scarred by my rape. Anyone would have been. I just didn’t want to admit it.

For decades after the rape, my egocentric mind kept saying, “No, I’ve got this.” I’d pressed on with my life, proving to everyone else—and to myself—that I was OK. I’ve had a lot of success, and on the surface, it seems as if I’ve always had my life together. That’s the image I’ve presented to the world. But I saw from Ben’s look that he had a different assessment.

I assured him that of course I’ve had therapy. “You know,” I said, “it was 43 years ago.” But I didn’t tell him that my therapy had been for the other difficult stuff that I’d experienced, not for the rape. How could I? I already felt like a freak.

Months later, I consulted with Ben again, this time about starting a blog. He agreed that it was a great idea for a new writer to build a following, and he shared one of his favorite blogs with me. It was raw, funny, and slightly vulgar. Weeks earlier, he had read another piece I had written; it was also in a funny, vulgar vein but not a part of my memoir. He said, “You can call your new blog My Crazy Fucked Up Life!”

My immediate thought was, “Ouch.” The next thought was, “You don’t get it. It’s My Beautiful Fucked Up Life.” It’s because of all the shit, the muck, the sludge that I am who I am. Not because I survived it, but because I somehow emerged from it with compassion for myself and others who are seemingly damaged goods. My wonderful mom said it best: “From cesspools and slimy things come beautiful flowers.

 

Knee Deep in Drama

OK, I’m going to tell on myself. Something has been on my mind all week, eliciting a cringe every time I think about it.

We’ve all known people who go on and on about the drama in their lives, getting so wound up in talking about it that it makes you wish you could pole vault into another state to get away from them. I don’t ever want to be that person. Unfortunately, I have been that person—as recently as this week.

When I was at my favorite lunch spot, I ran into a woman who had been my neighbor twenty years ago. She is one of those artsy, slightly reserved, seemingly grounded, natural types. In other words, my neighbor is my complete opposite. She holds workshops and art classes for Empowerment and Freedom Through Emotional Healing in her home, for Christ’s sake. We quickly caught up with the “what are your kids up to?” pleasantries. I asked her questions about her life because I was genuinely interested, but then she made the mistake of asking me what I’ve been doing.

If you’ve been reading my recent blog posts, you know that I’ve been working on a memoir that includes a chapter about being the victim of an abduction attempt when I was fifteen, an event that followed right on the heels of my rape. I have rewritten it about eight different ways during the past year, dissecting and investigating what happened, approaching it from all different angles in an attempt to discover who my abductor was and what he planned to do with me.

So basically, I’ve been in obsession mode for the better part of a year. While speaking with my old neighbor, I started out in a slow roll, telling her about writing my memoir—and, of course, the abduction chapter. I felt the wheels of obsession gaining momentum, but I ignored them. It wasn’t until I was knee deep in the drama that I caught a glimpse of panic in her eyes. It might have been there for a while, but I don’t know for sure because I was too busy talking.

Horrified that I’d become that person, I quickly snapped out of it, muttered that I probably needed her services, and asked for her business card while I tried to excuse myself without further invading her personal space and increasing my humiliation. I can’t clear from my mind the image of her slowly opening her purse, retrieving her card, and handing it over like she was parting with a winning lottery ticket.

I hoped to never run into her again.

But then I called her. I learned decades ago that if someone or something is bothering me, I should write about it and examine my role in the situation. Where was I at fault? Did I owe her an apology? Ugh.

To my surprise, my neighbor sounded genuinely happy to hear from me and was very sweet. (She may have been hoping I would sign up for her Cellular Release Therapy.) I apologized for invading her space and she assured me that it was fine, not to worry about it, that she had just been distracted at the restaurant.

At first, I wondered why I cared so much about what she thought. I hadn’t seen her in twenty years and we had never been close. But, after spending this last year writing, I’ve learned that what I feel influences what I think, which in turn changes what I feel. My feelings are then overlaid with a myriad of invisible layers of crap, most of which have no basis in reality. There is a well-known saying: “Don’t believe everything you think.” I think I should practice that more often.

When thinking about the incident with my neighbor, I searched through twenty years of my memory banks and wondered why my perceived intrusion on her personal space bothered me so much.

I recognized that the judgment I felt from her at the restaurant was familiar. I recalled that I hadn’t liked her twenty years ago and had felt judged by her even back then, but I couldn’t remember why at first. A while later, I remembered that my then-twelve-year-old daughter and I had taken a Coming of Age workshop from our neighbor, complete with a moon circle and the crafting of medicine bags.  It was in that setting that my daughter revealed some of her painful personal history. I also flashed on another incident—my neighbor didn’t want her kids, particularly her son, to play with my daughter based on that personal history. Never mind that her son was the same little shit who shot my darling angel in the leg with a BB gun. This all happened during my Birkenstock and hairy-leg years.  Maybe that’s why it initially slipped my memory. It’s no wonder I hadn’t liked this woman. I realize that she is probably a nice enough lady and that I may very well need her Cellular Release Therapy, but I won’t be calling her any time soon.

I know that self-awareness is a good thing. As I write and revise, I peel back the flaky skin of the onion to reveal what may turn out to be a sweeter onion, like those Vidalia onions that you can eat raw. The onions that don’t make you cry when you chop them up and put them in the quesadilla you’re about to eat because your now-adult daughter has put you on a diet to help you lose the twenty pounds you gained while writing your memoir and the only things left in your fridge are two corn tortillas and some Parmesan cheese. And maybe an onion.

 

 

 

Why I Gained 20 Pounds While Writing My Memoir

Monica Against Wall

Anyone who knows me well can tell you that I’m pretty much an open book. That’s what I thought, too—until I started writing my memoir.

I’ve told my kids many crazy, entertaining stories from my past, but I’ve also told them about some of the bad things that happened to me when I was a teen. Initially, it was my daughter who urged me to write my memoir. I have kept a journal on and off since I was twelve, and I’d published some industry papers in my entrepreneurial years, but never had I considered writing a book, least of all a memoir. Even so, my daughter insisted that my life would make fascinating reading. I thought, how hard can it be?

I began writing and almost immediately felt an urge, like the bearing-down pains of childbirth. This story wanted—needed—to come out, and nothing was going to stop it. As I wrote, I discovered that some memories stay buried for a reason.

I had been working on the memoir for almost a year when, through a series of seemingly unrelated events, I happened upon a developmental editor, Signe Jorgenson, who earned her master’s degree in Anchorage, Alaska, where I grew up and where much of my memoir is based. She lived there many years after the wild oil boom that was the backdrop for my eventful childhood and teenage years, but she had heard the stories.

I’d been told that if I wanted to publish my memoir, I should create a few standalone pieces and submit them to magazines and literary journals so I could accumulate some publishing credits and develop an audience for my work. I wasn’t quite sure how to do this, so I sent my editor one of the more difficult and painful chapters, the one about the 1972 rape that I had kept secret for fifteen years, and worked with her to turn it into an essay.

Working on the essay was like therapy, only deeper. I did about five revisions, each of which was met with six or more pages of developmental notes and a corresponding annotated version of my manuscript. I once asked my editor if she had a background in psychotherapy. She didn’t, but because of her training and years of teaching writing, she knew the deeper questions to ask. An example: When I wrote, “I hung my head in shame,” she asked me to write about why I was feeling shame. Strangely enough, the why had never occurred to me. Deeper and deeper I dug, uncovering memories that I had buried in my subconscious for decades.

My meditation practice, spiritual connection, family, and recovery friends were not enough to get me through this process. I quit drinking thirty-three years ago and I don’t take medications. Instead, I ate many, many times when I wasn’t physically hungry while working on this essay. I knew what I was doing as I sat on the couch with a fat bag of chips, temporarily numbing my pain, but I did it anyway. I would tell myself, “It’s OK. You’ll get a handle on the eating and lose the twenty pounds when you finish the essay.”

Memories are funny things. When I began writing about my rape, I still felt the shame and guilt I had felt when I was a fifteen-year-old girl. I was transported back to that time and place, and to that mindset. I would write my memories and then talk them over with my sweet 91-year-old mom, then write some more. Once I had it all on paper, every single detail of that night, from what the room looked like to the way my rapist smelled and the words he used to shame me, my mom walked me through it from an adult’s perspective.

Gradually, I began to see the rape with my grown-up mind and not my fifteen-year-old feelings. I discovered that I had never directed the blame, rage, and judgment toward the perpetrator. I had placed it all on myself, the victim.

I doubt that I will ever mend completely, but the writing and revision processes have allowed me to gain a much deeper level of healing. I’ve also found compassion for the fifteen-year-old girl who was forced to grow up way too fast.

Now I’m at work on another essay, this one about an abduction attempt that occurred just months after I was raped. I’m going through that same process of mining my memories and reconciling my teenage perspective with my adult understanding. But this time, I am not eating my way through it.