I Was A Self-Mutilator Before It Was Cool

Wouldn’t that be a great title for a book? All the others on the subject are such downers. So many played-out plays on “edge” and “skin.”

Cutting works. It isn’t crazy. It’s an effective practice in the short term, and women are good at surviving. That’s why my “Girls, self-mutilation is not the answer” speech — and if you work with teens, you should have one ready — differs from the copperplate.

Whether or not cutting is the answer depends on the question. If you’re asking, “Will cutting temporarily relieve my inner pain by relocating it to a designated outward locus rather than letting it weave, unfocused, through an amorphous emotional landscape?” the answer is yes. If you’re wondering, “Can I show other people how badly I’ve been hurt via a keloid roadmap?” again, it’s yes.

These questions are the ones teenage girls know how to ask. Here are some others they don’t always have words for:

How do I become a woman in a world that hates women?

What are some choices besides “virgin” or “slut”?

My boyfriend says he hits me because I make him mad; is that true?

Am I in love with my best girlfriend; is that wrong?

How fast can I run? How hard can I throw? How hard can I kick a soccer ball?

Why do the women in magazine ads look unconscious? Why are their mouths always open?

Why do ads for violent porn pop up onscreen out of nowhere? 

Why can’t I walk down the street without being bothered/leered at/propositioned? Why do I feel like it’s my fault?

Who can’t I say “no” to? What would happen if I said it?

What kind of work would bring me real joy?

Why am I never skinny enough?

Does anyone else — ?

Will you listen long enough to hear me?

Evolution of a Lesbian Radfem, Part the Second

September 1988: I am 14, composed almost entirely of frizzy hair and socks. Because hair products haven’t yet gone beyond Aqua Net and Dippity Do, I am bullied and invisible by turns. One day, I catch the flu and lose several pounds. I feel light and airy. How much lighter and airier could I get? By spring, I weigh 86 pounds. My parents check me into a private psychiatric hospital , where I talk about my “control issues” and develop a huge crush on my female therapist. One day, a male orderly says I have big legs, so I throw pieces of my lunch under the table and lose a “level,” e.g. they confiscate my Walkman and I can no longer listen obsessively to my Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars cassette (“I quit/I give up/nothing’s good enough for anybody else/it seems“). When I get out, my family goes on a cruise to Barbados. The ship rocks back and forth with food, and I am the only person who eschews, rather than chews,* the midnight buffet. I feel powerful. I do not want to talk and I do not want to play shuffleboard. Neither does my mother. My father is furious. They are both unhappy with the suffocating constancy of bad wallpaper.

June 1989: I develop a huge crush on Dana, my outpatient therapist. I tell her I don’t know how to be a girl; I want to escape into the woods and never come back. I wrap and unwrap the fingers of my right hand around my left wrist to show her how thin I am. She lends me a scholarly book about women as “relational psychosocial auxiliaries” to men that makes a lot of sense after I look up “psychosocial” and “auxiliary” in Webster’s. I find other books: Geneen Roth’s Feeding the Hungry Heart, Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue, and everything I can find by Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Susan Brownmiller, Robin Morgan, Mary Daly. An old copy of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” proves simultaneously informative and titillating. Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse: ???. Marilyn French makes my head explode, so I give a copy of “The Women’s Room” to my mother. She doesn’t read it. But her mother, my grandmother already has — plus she subscribes to Ms. magazine; odd for a 65-year-old Mormon and military wife. Ms. magazine’s back page shows good advertisements that show women climbing mountains and ruling boardrooms, and bad ones that make women look like animals or something to eat. My grandfather rolls his eyes and says something about “strident bitches.”

July 1989: Sullen and inarticulate with everyone except my grandmother, I get sent to The Mormons in Mesa. The Mormons are my extended family — dozens of aunts and uncles and cousins who rise at 4:30 a.m. to pick vegetables for their End Of The World stashes. Stumbling through the cornfields, I sing 19th-century labor songs like “Solidarity Forever.” I really project. When I call God “She” — I’ve just read a book about patriarchal religion called “The Skeptical Feminist” — one of my eleven great-aunts freaks out. “What man has hurt you?” she asks. I don’t answer. It’s not like I can narrow it down. Hasn’t she read Marilyn French? The abortion wars are all over the news, all summer. I know enough to take it personally. When I go home, I start volunteering at Planned Parenthood even though I won’t have any kind of sex for another several years. As we seal envelopes together, one of the older volunteers asks me, if I’ve started my “moon time” yet. I don’t get it.

Sept. 1990: My parents divorce. The texture and flavor of their grief makes me think of Luminol sprayed on crime scenes — everything looks fine until OH DEAR GOD. I cannot stop eating. I drive to the drugstore for chocolate-covered cherries; jars of peanut butter; six-packs of soda — then eat in the car and throw up at home. My mouth tastes of chemicals. My gut cramps with laxatives. I’m 25 pounds heavier than I was in the hospital, and people are starting to express “concern” about my dating possibilities: Don’t I know men don’t like fat women? That if I keep on this way, I’m going to be unhappy? The difference between their concern now and their concern when I was thin is, they blame me. I am no longer fragile. I am offensive.

Shortly thereafter, I get hit with a severe bout of obsessive OCD. I have Bad Thoughts, primarily about religion and sex, and they scare me senseless. There is obviously something Very Wrong. I start praying and join Young Life (the evangelical high school youth organization). I try to live for Jesus; to have a clean mind and a spotless soul. I get baptized, but I also start cutting a lot of school because I can’t concentrate. I’m pretty sure Jesus is coming back soon. My best friend, Kaylee, has the most beautiful red hair I’ve ever seen and I want to be with her all the time. I hate her boyfriend. He’ s an idiot. I’m always having to wait for them to finish making out before Kaylee and I can go anywhere.

August 1992: I’m a freshman again, this time at a Southern Baptist university. I find myself looking up Women of the Bible and trying to figure out how they managed to be so righteous. I have a boyfriend two hours away in my hometown, primarily because a girl needs a boyfriend. A husband. Feminist books still buzz in my head, and I’m pretty liberal as far as students here go — I don’t, for example, think all Democrats are baby killers — but I feel terror at the thought of displeasing God. The OCD gets worse. Then I meet Amy, a walking collection of Darwinian estrogenic markers. My father says she looks like a TV star — and indeed, many years later when the WB network debuts, I’ll be reminded strongly of Amy’s perfectly symmetrical face. Every guy in our brother dorm goes nuts, in a Baptist gentleman sort of way. There are flowers, invitations, “God told me to marry you”s galore. I seethe and have no idea why.

Next, in Part Three!: I decide to marry a guy I’ve known for five months.

*Yeah, I know. Sorry.

I’m at an awkward age for a lesbian

…too old to wear a fauxhawk and start becoming a man; too young to have made spin art out of my menstrual blood at the Moonwomon Collective. I did hand-mirror my cervix at MichFest a few years ago, but it felt self-consciously retro, like watching Reefer Madness or making a meatloaf from scratch.

I enjoy the company of vintage lesbians online and at 70th-birthday potlucks. These dykes* can eat and talk and eat and talk for HOURS. That’s hard for me because sitting down too long aggravates my obsessive-compulsive tendencies.** The only time I ever stayed seated voluntarily from 6-10 p.m was election night 2004, and I was higher than shit for the duration.

This seasoned company means great presents. One couple, L. and A., who’ve been together as long as I’ve been alive, gave me a box of books left over from the women’s bookstore they owned together in New York. The back jacket blurbs are full of coy ellipses and weird butchy nicknames. Most fit neatly into the following subcategories:

1. 1980’s lesbian detective mysteries: “Jazz Gordon, cynical socialist lesbian feminist journalist, begins a relentless pursuit of a killer at a a down-and-out English girls school, and discovers that lovers and friends all have something to hide…”)

2. Bar dyke romances set in Greenwich Village: “Chris cannot satisfy the alluring, capricious Dizz, and now Dizz has become interested in George. But Dizz knows very well her power over Chris…”

3. Science-fiction novels set in a future where all males die: “America is under forcible quarantine by a world desperate to protect itself from a virus aptly named the Red Death. But one enclaves, a mysterious, uninfected women’s community known as the Gaians offers sanctuary…if they can be found.”

4. Earnest books about sexuality, such as Pat(rick, now) Califia’s “Sapphistry”: “When some lesbians have sex, they may see patterns or colors or hear snatches*** of music.”) There seems to have been political controversy re: dildos and leather. One copy of “The Joy of Lesbian Sex” has a long, carefully-written note on the flyleaf, but I can only discern a word or two (“Kat” and “forever”) because SOMEONE GOT ANGRY AND SCRATCHED OUT EACH LINE WITH GREAT FORCE. So, you know — not always dolphins and flowers back in the day.

5. Out-of-print poetry collections that make me weep: “I’m not a girl/I’m a hatchet/I’m not a hole/I’m a whole mountain/I’m not a fool/I’m a survivor/I’m not a pearl/I’m the Atlantic Ocean/I’m not a good lay/I’m a straight razor/look at me as if you had never seen a woman before/I have red, red hands and much bitterness” (Judy Grahn).

Knowing older lesbians is a better gift than any book. They whacked their way through homosocial territory before there were maps. No Internet, no Curve magazine, no Daughters of Bilitis, even — just themselves; their friends; their hopes and fears. Because of them, I’ll never have to watch my butch lover be humiliated on the sidewalk outside a dyke bar — “How many items of women’s clothing are you wearing?” Hideous as that story was, the whole room laughed hysterically when L. and A. told it — because how very, very long ago! How very, very far away! A cartoonish anecdote to tell from the head of a beautiful table; as made-up-sounding as the Red Death Gaian quarantine.

Their partnerships comfort me, too — someday, I can celebrate a long life with a lover in a home of our own.

I don’t want to “stand on the shoulders of giants” when it comes to my older friends and mentors — I want to stand WITH them. They can’t be replaced, and they should never take a backseat to anyone.


*Sometimes they don’t like that word, because it was hurled at them so many times before we sort-of reclaimed it. They prefer “Lesbian” — pronounce it with a capital L, like you’re reading the back flap of an Ann Bannon paperback — and “woman-loving-woman.” Yeah, it’s a lot of syllables, but it’s the least you can do.

**Like, I’ll start counting the number of words in people’s sentences, and then the number of sentences per person divided by the number of people at the table.

*** Hee hee omg lol snatches

Evolution of a Lesbian Radfem, Part 1

Here be overarching themes! ~ Devotion and displays thereof; the power of language; women who are good at what they do; women who grok me; athletes; empaths; honesty; justice; humor; ability to put legs over head. What else is there?

1976-1977, inclusive: Every morning at six, I pad into the living room to see Yoga Lady on TV. Yoga Lady has a long, dark braid, and she can put her legs above her head. “Hello, class,” she says. I steeple my hands; bow my head: “Hewwo, cwass.” I understand about TV not being real; still, Yoga Lady and I are doing this bendy thing together. I don’t yet have the words, “She looks into my soul,” but that’s what Yoga Lady does. “Namaste,” she says. “Namaste,” I reply.
May, 1978: Last day of preschool. My mother is standing over me, explaining that it’s summertime, and we’re going to swim and go to the zoo and do all kinds of fun things; won’t they be fun? but I don’t care because I’m having a meltdown over leaving my teacher, Ms. Howe. My snotty face is buried in her lap, and she’s stroking my hair. I love Ms. Howe because she understands things, like why I always choose a cot instead of a mat at nap time. I don’t yet have the word “contempt,” but that’s what I feel towards the kids who choose a mat. Who would sleep on flat sweaty plastic when they could have a cot? From a cot, I am three inches off the ground and can watch everyone else sleeping. I don’t yet know the word “suckers,” but that’s what I feel towards the kids who choose a mat (and the ones who fall asleep when they could stay awake). Ms. Howe understands this, and I love her. I want to make a case for living here at preschool forever, but I am three-and-a-half and my language is unequal to the task. I shut my eyes tight so nobody can see me.
June, 1983: I’m obsessed with Mrs. L., my third-grade teacher. I want to be near her and I also want to be her, which is confusing. Why I am so into her is this: She is hilarious; tells jokes and stories just a little bit above our heads, and often I’m the only one who gets them. She talks to me with a frankness that I appreciate, because it means she takes me seriously. Also, Mrs. L. calls me on obnoxious behavior such as stomping around the classroom when I’m in a bad mood. Those times, she refers to me as “Lucy” — the tough, butchy Charlie Brown character — which I love, but I also get the message. Also, Mrs. L. is good-looking — not pretty exactly, but with interesting bones and kinetic energy. Sometimes she takes us outside to show us different birds. One day I see a red one and ask her what it is. “It’s a cardinal,” she tells me. She knows everything! I don’t yet have the words, “Goddamn, it’s amazing to know a woman of your caliber,”so what I say is, “Let’s name it ‘Frank.'” On the last day of school, I hand her a letter on my best blue stationary. It says “I love you,” hidden in the middle of lots of other words thanking her for everything. I am a little freaked out about giving it to her, but I do. Fourth grade stinks from start to finish. I watch the third graders with obsessive jealousy.
August, 1984: My camp counselor is named Sandy. Big-boned and blonde, she coaches all the team sports, which I hate, but she also has a special talent: She can tie a string around a Junebug so it flies in circles around her head. I’ve never seen anything cooler or more brave: Junebugs are huge, click when they fly, and smell like dungeons. Sandy is also in charge of the camp newspaper, so I try out for the editorship. She chooses a blond, athletic, adult-sucky-up boy over me. He’s a big fake and I hate his stupid guts, so I ask Sandy how come he got picked. She tells me she evaluated us “on a point system,” and he got more points than me. I am crushed. Betrayed. I don’t yet have the words, but what I think is, “Fuck your bullshit point system.” After that, whenever I see her on the softball field, I don’t know whether to start crying and run away — would she come after me and comfort me and maybe pet my head? — or to be tough and cold, like I don’t care. When camp ends I go home, immediately take over the elementary school newspaper and start bossing everyone around. I write a lot of nascent pop-culture articles about Madonna.
September, 1985-August, 1992: Every time it comes up, I smoosh it down. No one can know. There are a couple more teachers in here; a friend’s sister; a Young Life advisor who looks just like Amy Grant, etc.
Next, in Part 2: My across-the-hall freshman dorm neighbor has eyes like…like big pools of eyes.