Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Scar Tissue
    I've always admired the actor James Earl Jones for his dignity and his deep-voiced diction, but there was something about the way he spoke that subtly distressed me. I felt an uneasiness -- which  was almost like a mild fear response -- and I couldn't figure out why.
   Then, a couple of years ago, an interviewer asked him how he had developed such a refined elocution, and he replied that he had endured a terrible stuttering problem in his youth. Even now, he added, he had to speak with care and control to avoid relapsing into his old impediment.
   It was a revelation to me to realize that I -- a former stutterer myself -- had been so attuned, subconsciously, to his ongoing anxiety and that it produced anxiety in me.
   Although I haven't seen the film "The King's English," the clips I've watched that show the king struggling impotently to get a sentence out have a strong visceral impact on me. I feel a combination of pity and panic.
   I think my stutter was relatively mild and short-lived, but it still lurks there, ready to emerge, if I get angry, excited or tired. I am still afraid of it.
  Mild though it was, it scarred me. I don't remember anyone ever ridiculing me because of it, but I was constantly afraid that someone would. I kept my head down, and I turned inward.
    Growing up as a non-Mormon in '50s Salt Lake City -- which at that time was insular and overwhelmingly LDS -- made me unusually susceptible to humiliation. As a "minority," I felt alienated and often lonely in what seemed to be a quasi-hostile environment. When my elementary school friends invited me to their homes, the first question that virtually every mother asked was, "What ward do you go to?" The first time this happened, I replied, "We're not Mormon," and I was immediately driven home. I began answering the question by making up a ward. "We go to the 45th," I would say, eliciting a puzzled look. Then I went to the opposite extreme: I would snort derisively and exclaim, "I'm not a MORMON!"
   In those days, believe it or not, the teachers asked us on the first day of class, "Is there anyone here who isn't a Mormon?" Like a fool, I raised my hand. I can't claim that I was treated unfairly by those teachers, but I did feel that a Scarlet Letter or some other symbol of shame had been permanently affixed to my sleeve. There were cliques of darling Mormon girls who would huddle together at recess, whispering and laughing. They wore the most beautiful, lace-trimmed, flowery polished-cotton dresses, and their shoes were patent leather, with little spool heels. I wore serviceable pleated wool skirts and corrective oxfords, as if I were in the Salvation Army. 
   I made up for it by whipping their asses academically. And I whipped them good.
   In my junior high Utah History class, which was in truth a Mormon history class, my teacher remarked that Unitarians are Communists. Although my family didn't go to church regularly, it was the Unitarian Church that my parents chose, because it had no real doctrine; it was all about being ethical, tolerant and just. But this was a time that to be labeled a Communist was worse than being a serial killer or a whore. The specter of the Kremlin and "we will bury you" and nuclear annihilation was the chilling backdrop of our lives. So when Mr. Bigler said Unitarians are Communists, my face got red, my chest was tight, everything was blurry. I was sure people could tell that he was talking about me. The boy sitting next to me, who knew which church I attended, had the extraordinary courage to blurt out, "They are not Communists. Some of the most important people in American history were Unitarians." (I'll never forget that, Jon Goodro.)
   (In later years, I was so determined to defy this prim and sour-faced LDS Establishment that I took up smoking, drinking and swearing just to show them I didn't care what they thought, and I was THRILLED not to be a part of their sterile culture.)
   This was a defense mechanism, obviously, but the injury that had been done to me was real, and the scar tissue remained for a long time. I have loved many, many Mormon people and respected their beliefs and the way they lived their lives, but the little girl inside of me still remembers eating lunch in the school bathroom, because I was too embarrassed to sit alone in the cafeteria.
   When I think about it now, I realize that at school there was rejection going on all over the place, and religion wasn't the only criterion. If you were ugly, poor, fat -- or if you were an effeminate boy --  or even if you had RED HAIR, you got a lot more crap thrown at you than I did. (I am ashamed to admit that I was in on some of the snickering. I am so sorry.) I wonder if those people still have the scars, or if they got their revenge by building wonderful lives for themselves. I hope they made it, big time.
   I developed an overwhelming fear of being repulsive as I grew out of my teens. I hid, quite successfully, behind stylish clothes (I got rid of the Salvation Army wardrobe) and layers of makeup, but I had this terrible secret of Profound Underlying Homeliness, and I was always braced for the veil to be lifted and my hideous real self to be revealed, inciting widespread vomiting.
   I saw a therapist briefly in Denver, who was particularly intrigued by the "repulsive" thing, and she pressed me to think back and identify when it began. With her sensitive guidance, we traced it to the period (so to speak) when I reached puberty, and the two men in my life -- my father and my sixth-grade teacher -- pushed me away, without explanation. We had had a playful, affectionate relationship, and I often ran up behind them and smacked their butts. They both told me, very emphatically, to "stop doing that."
   They were prudent to establish new boundaries, but I wish they had told me why. I was hurt. I was confused. It must be that I had become repulsive.
   More scar tissue.
   Do these early injuries linger in most people, or was I just a particularly weak person, deficient in maturity and resiliency? We know that many abusers, criminals and mentally disturbed people are still suffering from damage done to them long ago. But what about those of us who are living relatively normal lives? Do most of us have scar tissue? If we do, are we likely to be conscious of it?
   Even after I moved to New York, I would immediately feel a pain in the pit of my stomach if I heard a group of people laughing, whether I was getting into a bus or walking down the street or entering a room. My brain told me it was very unlikely that they had even noticed me, but my gut wrenched with the fear that they were ridiculing my walk or my clothes or just my whole unglamorous self.
   I believe I was in my forties before the sound of uproarious laughter or shrieks of derision did nothing whatsoever to my stomach. I finally came to assume that it had nothing to do with me, and if it did, I didn't care. What a relief.
   What's ironic is that they may really be laughing at me now: This scrawny old lady in an aggressively morbid Megadeth T-shirt, who walks like O.J. Simpson (joint pain) and maintains her anonymity behind the biggest sunglasses you've ever seen.