Fall 1975: Suicide Failure
I couldn’t even kill myself right.
During a summer spent in a fantasy world called theatre camp, I freed the wild, wanton, and want-able boy I’d kept locked inside me. When it was time to return to the torture chamber reality of my small-town junior high school, I knew to survive it I’d have to lock away all the qualities I’d liberated: no more fabulous, shockingly bold homo behavior, no more sex, no more 1930s black and white film, gesticulatory smoking, no more endless cups of coffee all day long, doping and drinking at night, no more of the experimenting with who I could be that had made me celebrity-popular and scandalous in my summer theatre camp world. It was over, and the rigid roles a male was allowed to play were few in Walkersville, Maryland, where I was miscast in every one except target. Not only was I in mourning for the summer me, I was terrified he would leak out and mark me for even worse abuse than the locker slamming and toilet dunking and name calling to which I had regularly been subjected.
This loss of me, this self-hatred of me, this fear of me and for me caused me to descend into what I now recognize as the first episode in what has turned out to be a lifelong journey of dysthymic despairing.
I had a visit this week with a friend who also experiences depressions, and we wondered about the points in our lives where we might have up-ended these patterns we’ve been told have permanently cemented their holds on us, chemically altering our brain functions. How, we wondered, did we come to this?
I was — by all reports — a wonderfully happy, positive child. My mother often shares that of the six children she carried to term, I was the easiest pregnancy and delivery. I was a delightful infant, easy to get to bed (Boy, oh boy, has that ever caused me some trouble, and then some!), slept through the night very young (Man, oh man, and stopped sleeping through the night very young, too), practically potty trained myself, read before I went to school, sang like an angel, and legend has it, stopped crying the day my father died.
Of course I remember none of this and am positive some (much, likely) is the sort of exaggeration and wishful thinking indulged in by those same people who with all good intentions created the fiction my father was a saint. He was no saint. I was no angel. And it seems impossible I ever stopped crying.
But I do remember being happy.
Prior to starting first grade, my world was rural nirvana back a country road, no other houses visible, there with my widowed mom, four sisters who made me feel the fifth of them rather than the second of my one brother who was either absent or locked in his room with his cigarettes, Playboys, and guitar. This was a closed, controlled world inside the boundaries of which I was cherished, encouraged, and allowed. On Sundays, we’d head into Libertytown where we visited St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, after which we’d head to the house of Pop-Pop, Mom-Mom, and Sissie, the parents and sister of my dead father, another disappeared man, like Jesus, about whom I was fed much gospel I later discovered to be as mythological as the legend of my father. The family home — also, confusingly, called Libertytown — was full of un-used rooms where treasure and imagination, along with Pop-Pop’s stubborn determination not to spend one penny more than he absolutely had to and Sissie’s determination to make a home for all the family, were part of the structure holding the decrepit, already hundred-year-old stone manse together.
It was never meant to be a home. It had been built as an academy in which were schooled wayward boys. When my grandfather bought it, 1917, it was already a hundred years old and the plan was to tear it down and use the stones from which it was built to construct a new home, further back on the acreage. Pop-Pop was Pop-Pop before he became Pop-Pop and decided it was foolish to spend money tearing down a perfectly good building just because someone thought it might soon collapse into the ground. He was right. It’s still standing today although the foundation is now sinking to such a degree that the imminent collapse about which they warned him in 1918 is now visible, the stone structure leaning in on itself. I can barely stand to drive by and see it now, the decrepitude into which it has fallen breaks my heart. It looks, too, untended, uncared for, unloved, and while Pop-Pop (and the rest of us, after he died) might never have invested the money and effort into it we should have, we filled it with love, our passionate, unquestioned devotion to one another wrapping its walls then like weedy ivory and scaffolding surround it now.
It was in the rooms of Libertytown where I had practiced the personalities I would let loose at theatre camp. Sissie had been my father’s most ardent supporter, investing in him an unconditional love and belief, seeing only the Light and Love and the pure soul of him. No matter how inexcusable his behavior in real life, no matter the extent of his drinking, the cruelty to his family, Sissie saw only Saint Joe, who she believed he would be if the world had not been so cruel to him. When he died, she transferred that same belief and devotion to me.
Sissie sent me to theatre camp. In every way. Those weekends I spent with her in Libertytown, wandering among the pieces of lives family members had left behind. We only used six of the seventeen rooms, those neglected others were where all the branches of the family stored their pasts, stacks of books, piles of furniture, wardrobes and trunks full of clothes, all treasures which became sets, props, and costumes for the elaborate worlds I made there. Worlds real to me, to which I retreated with increasing frequency once I was forced outside the safe borders of family into the harsh reality of school and society at large.
I had always tacitly understood that my character play — in particular when I became Dolly or Mame or Carrie Pipperidge — was to be hidden from the disapproval of Pop-Pop and the uncles and my brother because they were those mysterious and slightly defective, less evolved creatures one tolerated but largely ignored: Men. It was a surprise to me when elementary school/real world sensibility turned out to be dictated largely by those same, awful creatures and their inability to imagine, to dress up, to sing, to be kind and warm and cry and hug and love.
The first time I spoke my anguish was late at night, an earlier summer when I told my sister, Peggy, how afraid I was to begin third grade. She was the first person I trusted with my shame. Yes, shame, because somehow, even at seven, I had gotten the message that the problem was mine, me, who I was. I can recall the heat of embarrassment as I wept to her how other kids didn’t like me, the names they called me, the awful tricks played on me behind the backs of the teachers and how I was more hated when I’d told on them, the teachers, too, telling me not to tattle so much. Poor Peggy, though in my memory she is grown, she must only have been fourteen at the time, and had many problems of her own with which she was unequipped to cope. Still, I remember the hurt, the hopelessness born in me when she said, “Well stop acting so much like a girl. You have to be a boy.”
You have to be a boy. In one or another incarnation, that, “You have to be a boy” and its variations, “Stop acting like a girl,” and “Do you have to be so [fill in the blank meaning not male enough or too female]”, was said to me, barked at me, jeered at me from my earliest recall.
But, this “boy” I was supposed to be? I didn’t know how. It wasn’t just that I loved sitting next to, cuddling with, holding hands with my Mom and sisters. It wasn’t just that I loved musicals and hated sports. It wasn’t just that I loved pretending a bath towel was long, luxurious blonde hair. It wasn’t just that I wanted to be Dolly Levi, Mame, and Fanny Brice — really, really wanted to be Fanny Brice! It wasn’t just that I wanted to wear striped pants and shoes with heels. It wasn’t just that I was the best at jump rope and hop scotch. It wasn’t just that I was the smartest in the class and loved reading and studying and learning. It wasn’t just that I’d been caught reading Nancy Drew. It wasn’t just that I’d saved up quarters and sent off in the mail for an Adonis Book from Tiger Beat with shirtless pics of male teen singers and actors. It wasn’t just any one of those apparently damning details, but all of them combined with somehow the way I walked and talked belonging to a girl and not a boy.
What was wrong with me was what made me Charlie.
I didn’t have an option. I couldn’t successfully pretend to be “a boy” like they wanted me to be — and I tried. I really tried. But no matter what I did, I radiated whatever it was that invited the names and the hate and the ostracizing and the shame. My shame: I was this, whatever it was, that everyone saw and no one wanted me to be.
Imagine then, the miracle of theatre camp where, at long last, all the things I could not hide were valued. I was a personality. I could sing. I could act (sort of). I was marked as one who had gifts. I spent those weeks filled with such joy, busy in discovering all the many possibilities of the me’s for which I’d been beaten down and derided. I was part of THE popular crowd. Everyone wanted to be invited into the group of which I was one of the leaders, the deciders. We spent our nights frolicking, debauching, indulging in sybaritic excess and carousing experimentation to a soundtrack of Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and our goddess, our heroine, our idol, Patti Smith.
It was heaven. I was good at it. I starred in shows and scenes during the days and I was the show and made scenes during the nights. It was my introduction to the intemperate, licentious glories of the arts world and the gay world, and the fourteen year old Charlie was as happy as he’d been since he’d been forced out of his safe family-home circle into a world where he hadn’t ever again felt safe. In theatre, I was home again. Safe again. I had sex with every male in the workshop and one drunken night with five members of the basketball team with whom we two male theatre borders were sharing a quad.
Then, I went back to Walkersville.
Returning to an environment where I was a pariah, to a school where a group of popular jock boys who called themselves The Board of Directors put out the word that anyone who talked to me would be blackballed (in the next two years I would have secret-sex with three of those Board of Directors, by the way, which shows you how little dignity or self-respect I had), to a drama program where I was considered troublesome rather than talented, to a school I hated so much I would smoke openly in the bathroom so as to be suspended but, instead, knowing I wanted to be kicked out, the administration told the teachers to pretend not to see me, to a stepfather who hated what I was, who I was, to that world I returned. I tried to make it. I tried to hold on, dreaming I had only a few years left before college where I could again be that miracle of a Charlie I had been all summer.
I tried. Then, I was cast in the high school show. It was Harvey. And I was not Elwood P. Dowd, at which I might have had a fighting chance being decent. Rather, I was cast as the romantic male, Dr. Sanderson, at which I could do nothing but fail miserably. Still, I imagined I could bond with others who wanted to do theatre. These should be my people. I brought my copy of Patti Smith’s iconic album, Horses, and shared it backstage.
It was the day after the show closed when I went backstage to pack up my stuff. I picked up Horses and the album fell in shards from the sleeve, on which had been written, “Fags get shattered.”
I couldn’t tell anyone. I never told anyone. Because, just like the teachers told me not to tattle, just like Peggy told me to stop acting like a girl, just like even Sissie had made it clear I should hide my playacting from the male relatives, whatever had been done to my Patti Smith album was my fault for being me.
The next day, I skipped school. I got into my mother’s Valium. I took them all.
And it wasn’t enough. Not even close. I had failed at that as well. I was found out. Taken to a doctor. He asked a few questions and I claimed not to know why I had done it. He suggested I not do it again. My drama teacher told me I should try harder to fit in. My mom asked me what I wanted and I said the latest Barbra Streisand album which she bought me and said she knew I smoked and maybe I should stop and please don’t do this again.
I didn’t. I also didn’t finish school. I quit as soon as I could. I wandered. Like I had done with the detritus of other lives left behind in Libertytown, I made a life of the junk I found and lucked into along my way — much of which path was dictated by my need to run, always in search of a safe place, a home.
I never really found one. I have been running and trying to alter myself to make others happy for my entire life.
I try to embrace not fitting in. I try to remind myself that the system is rigged, the measurements bogus bullshit, the game afoot.
When might I have made choices, changes to become again that happy Charlie I was before I went out into the world? How might I have fixed this dysthymic pattern? How many times do I (and all the other me’s out there, I know this is hardly a unique experience) have to find my shattered record with its threatening note? Every time I think I have become strong enough to bear it, every time I think the world is changing, someone like the current Republican front-runner comes along and gives legitimacy to the spewers of hate. Again.
It makes me tired. It makes me feel unsafe. It makes me want to run. Instead, I am giving away all my records. I am keeping nothing of value for them to destroy. I am letting go of as much baggage as I can. I am trying to make my home a safe place in my heart, not dependent on any things or any ones — but sometimes, dear ones, like this long weekend alone, contemplating what next to do with my life as I am once more up-ended, the temptation to connect a hose to the tailpipe and breathe in the exhaust becomes almost an erotic longing.
I’m giving things away, my darlings. What is it that you want as souvenir?