Friday, August 30, 2013

The "girl next door" in hell; or, you can't tell by looking

Shirt: GFY Press; Shorts: Reitmans; Clutch and sunglasses: thrift
To break with my own general style trend, I tried to look tough on this day. Though I've always been a rebel in my own way, I've never been very good at looking the part.

Boots: thrift
This day's look started with the boots, which I got for $5.00 from a street vendor. Sure, I know, Nike isn't very "street" but it put me in mind of a kind of rocker chick, street look popular in my youth in the 80s.
Chris Walter
I thought I'd toughen up the look with a shirt that bears the logo of my friend Chris Walter's press: Go Fuck Yerself, or GFY, for short. A flaming typewriter and a swear word? On a t-shirt? Now I was street!

Okay, Chris is punk, and I was going for more of a rocker look, but both looks have a rebel spirit to them. Besides, I was going for what I thought a rebel looked like when I was a kid in a tiny mill town. My scope was still pretty limited back then.

Diamond ring: Birks; Dragon rings: a vendor where I work; Stackables: two bespoke, one boutique; Costume ring: vintage
I tried pretty hard to look scary tough...

... but Chris will always look tougher than I do, no matter what he wears and no matter what I wear. Trust me: I've seen this guy in fuzzy slippers and you still wouldn't want to mess with him.

It's not just his tattoos and height that make him seem so different from me. It's about how we move. My mannerisms have always been extremely feminine, in an old-fashioned kind of a way. His? Not so much.

Crystal rocks: found by Beau's son
Yet, the simple fact is that, to survive my life, I've had to be tougher than anyone I know.

Looks can be deceiving. 

Bracelet: vintage
Throughout my childhood and teens, I experienced horrendous brutality and violation which I don't think anyone could survive --  spiritually, mentally, or physically -- without being stronger than strong and tougher than tough, whether it shows or not.

By the time I was eleven, I had been subjected to sexual abuse so severe that my back was permanently injured, eventually leaving me disabled and in chronic pain as an adult. 

Not to mention the inevitable PTSD.

Earrings: Jessica
So, yeah, I'm tough like you can't even imagine, regardless of how sweet I might look and how sweet I looked as a kid. I am sweet -- sweet and tough.

I always wanted to be the obvious tough kid, the one who wore his pain and anger in his clothes, his face, his actions, and his mannerisms. Like John Bender in The Breakfast Club.

I sure as hell could relate to his emotions and I knew why he acted like he did. At the time, I thought I lacked the courage to be that way. Now I think I had a different kind of courage.

I was deeply drawn to such characters and I also wanted to be like them but it just wasn't me.

Me, at about fourteen.
I looked like this, and I had the grades and even the personality to match.

The worst part is that I thought I looked tough and cool in this photo. See that curl over my left shoulder? "Tails," longer bits in shorter hair, were all the rage then. That cute little curl was my failed attempt at a tail. The mismatched earrings? Street, man, really street. The stripey shirt? I could have been in a rock video? Right?

Again, not so much.

I could just never could pull it off.

People were always shocked if they saw me do drugs or smoke a cigarette. "You?!" they'd say incredulously. They said I looked like the Ivory Girl or "the girl next door." They were right. I did. A Jewish Ivory Girl but, yeah, pretty squeaky clean.

My face and body did not betray anything I was going through, or any of my rebel spirit, even when I was being kind of wild.

And, yes, I sometimes was pretty wild at a very young age. I did drugs, I partied, I had sex too young. It all seemed normal to me and fine. It was going on in my home. Why shouldn't I do it too?

But I was always too sensible to really go crazy and behave as people thought rebels behaved. It wasn't really in my nature.

See that little girl on the left? That's me at fifteen.
I really always was too sensible to be a complete rebel of the sort generally recognized as rebels. I saved most of my anger and rebellion for political action, fighting for the oppressed but not for myself.

Yet I sure did know how those more obvious rebels felt.

I wanted to be like Kristy McNichol in Little Darlings: angry, a little butch, scary, visibly old beyond my years. Watch the above video to about 1:20 and you'll see what I mean.

I did not want to look sweet and innocent. But I did.

I wanted to be like this.

Me at about fifteen.
But I looked like this. I don't think anyone ever looked a me and thought, "Something is wrong in that child's life. That child needs help." I wish they had.

In psychobabble talk, I was and am what they call "high functioning." There are a lot of kids and adults like that out there: we seem normal but we've lived through, or are still living through, hell.

In other words, you can't tell by looking.

The fact is that as much as I was tempted by the forms of rebellion I saw around me, I just couldn't bring myself to that level of self-destruction, no matter how much relief it would have brought me in the short term. 

Some kinds of rebellion, some kinds of acting out, can destroy one's future and I just couldn't do that to myself.

Believe it or not, this is actually a burn that I got from a flying popcorn kernel catapulting out of my popcorn maker. But it looked so much like a track mark, I just had to use it in a post.
I knew and know that many with backgrounds like mine self-medicate with heavy drugs. How many junkies were abused children when they began shooting up? Christ, how many people were, like me, given drugs by their parents and elders? There were drugs in my home, and I did take some drugs, but I never got very serious about it. It's not my style.

I just had plans for myself, I guess.

I wouldn't let my past defeat me. I wouldn't rebel in ways that would ultimately ruin me. 

I couldn't look the part. But I couldn't be the part either. I wanted too much for my future. My rebellion just had to be more constructive.

The rebellions I'd seen in others ended up hurting them, not their abusers. I was damned if I'd destroy myself. That would be letting my abusers win and there was no way that was going to happen.

I think at some point I realized that my power was in my brain. I was smart, and I knew it from a very young age. I was arrogant about my intelligence but I think that arrogance helped me have both confidence and plans. I wanted to go to university. I wanted to write. I loved study and I did well in school. 

All this, I thought, would take me somewhere I wanted to go. I didn't think so much about money or security, not then. Instead, I thought about the world of the mind and of learning, and of writing. That was the place I wanted to go.

Somewhere inside myself, I decided not to run away until I finished school. I graduated from high school with academic honours. Five days later, at seventeen, I left home. 

It was not easy. I was very very poor. I worked my ass off for a good education, good grades, and a resume in writing and editing. I was an editor at my student paper and at a local gay newspaper. I was a good, if confrontational and opinionated student. I became an ESL teacher, and, then, after getting an MA in my thirties, I became a college English instructor. 
Lately, I'm becoming a writer again, after a fashion.

I did all of this with PTSD.

I will admit that these days, as I realize that my disability is probably permanent, I do feel somewhat defeated. Because of callous pedophiles who used me when I was a child, my physical pain prevents me from reaping the full benefits of my achievements: I can't work full time so I'm again poor; and my active life is gone. Sometimes, I do feel like my abusers won. 

Still, this doesn't change what I accomplished and what I may still accomplish in my future. Most of the people I work with and most of my students know nothing about my past, though I guess now some of them will. I think most people believe that those with pasts like mine can't achieve much, but we can, and we do.

You can't tell by looking -- at a face, or a lifestyle, or a resume.


Even Chris would agree that the street life and the junkie life aren't very constructive forms of rebellion. He was on the streets and doing hard drugs for years and years, but now, he too is a writer.

We can bang our drum with our words, not self-destruction.

Instead of turning my pain, anger, and indignation inwards, I can direct my words outwards, in my teaching and in my writing, perhaps even making a difference in the lives of others. Ultimately, it's a much better form of rebellion than the ones I so admired when I was a child.

So, oi, you nasty abusers! Take that!

I'll leave the final words to another tough chick whom I could never resemble: Pat Benatar, singing something of an anthem for me: "Hell is for Children."
(Since this post is all about being invisible, I'm posting it over at Visible Mondays.)



  1. I fuckin' love your blog. This is a great photo essay. Love the pics.
    P Pow

  2. Thank you for sharing this, and for sharing it with Visible Monday too, Charlotte. What a terrific writer you are.

    1. Thanks to both Patti and Patti. I've wanted to be a writer since I was about seven years old. My whole adult life I've earned my living writing, editing, reading, teaching literature and composition, etc. I wonder if I even know anything else.

  3. Very cool blog. Love it. thanks for putting it out there just like this!

    Bernadine Fox

  4. Thank you. Tonight I was broken trying to find someone anyone who got it. I have JIA. I also have permanent injuries due to abuse as a child. One of many forms was medical neglect- I am trying to cope with no longer being able to do much of anything I used to and having to change hopes and dreams while people give me blank looks about my medical issues ....because parents don't do that. Your blog was the sunshine in a very very rough week. Thank you so much for posting.

    1. I'm glad my blog seems to be helping you. I know how isolating it can be, both to have suffered such severe abuse and to be in chronic pain. And if the pain was caused by the abuse, that's a whole higher level of isolation and emotional suffering. There are others like us out there. If you're on Google+, there are some groups there whose members have suffered as you and I have.

  5. I keep wondering what would be the best way to help high-functioning folks like us. Both as kids and later as recovering adults, we kind of get glossed over because we're not the highest need.

    Thank you for sharing this the way you do.

    1. I really don't know what the answer is. I think, when it comes to children, people need to learn to look for more than the obvious signs of child abuse. Anyone who had bothered to really look at my art, for example, would have seen that something was horribly wrong. And I think people also have to let go of their stereotypes about what an adult abuse survivor looks like. When I was still working as a college instructor, I'm quite sure it never occurred to my colleagues that a trafficking survivor could be in the office next them, successful and accomplished, but hurting terribly nonetheless. Stop thinking of us as "them" and notice that we might be part of "us."