(Content note: There’s some talk of sexual abuse in today’s piece. Just be easy with you, ok?)
Good morning, good morning. It’s chilly this morning, and there’re some scatters of overnight snow on the ground, but at least our 80 mph winds with the below-zero windchill have died down for the moment.
Today is my birthday, and I am out here writing. Today I will do several things I love the most: write by candlelight before dawn, walk on the beach at the ocean with my dog, cuddle with my wife, read a book, talk to my family, and dance. Do we have to be more than that?
Yesterday I finished watching Hulu’s The Path, yet another show focused on cults, which we seem to be obsessed with in America – there are hundreds of options to choose from when I am in the mood to sit down with something focused on coercive control and psychic manipulation and emotional violence and delusion and cognitive dissonance. I am drawn to shows about cults because I want to spend time with people like me sometimes, people who have been entrapped by another person’s reality, forced to believe, to convince ourselves over and over that we believe if we want to be able to stay with our family or be loved and welcomed and safe or reach enlightenment.
I didn’t live in a cult, but I lived with a psychotherapist who had studied and wielded on his family all of the tactics of a cult leader (love bombing, shame and guilt, manipulative and coercive control, stripping you of your identity, breaking you down to build you back up again). In seeking out shows about living in and escaping from cults, I see characters who remind me of my mother, and who remind me of my sister and myself.
People who follow charismatic leaders are not stupid or brainless or hollow. They tend to be seeking something real and connected and loving: this is normal and this is a good thing, a human thing. It is a human thing to feel broken and sad at times, it is a human thing to feel vulnerable. It is a human thing to seek connection with others, to seek purposed, to want to do good works in the world during our short, short lifetimes. And then what happens is that this fullness and humanity are taken advantage of by people who believe that they have the right to control others, that they have the right to make reality.
And when we are living in another person’s reality, we risk running into cognitive dissonance. My understanding of cognitive dissonance is that it’s trying to believe two different and opposing things at the same time, maybe two different realities. It’s a deeply distressing experience: reality is meant to be singular, not multiple. When we are confronted with the possibility that our reality could be other than what we’ve been made to believe, we can find ourselves terrified and alone.
I’ve been thinking recently of that moment when one reality breaks, fractures, cracks even just the slightest, and I’ve been able to see that there’s light on the other side of the despair and fear that I’ve been living within, that what I’ve been believing isn’t all that there is to the world. I’ve had this experience several times in my life, and it can be as devastating and terrifying as it is revelatory and freeing.
When it happened to me as a young adult, after ten years living under my stepfather’s control, it was such a small thing. I was on the phone with him, as I’d been hundreds of times before, on a payphone in a dorm on campus, and he was talking to me about the nature of our relationship, as he’d done hundreds of times before, and he admitted that what he was doing with me, with my sister, was incest, but there was nothing wrong with it, because … I can’t remember now what happened after that, because I was stuck inside that word, like being inside a bell that’s just been struck, and something inside me was ringing. I had not been wrong.
I had not been crazy. I had not been a liar or unenlightened or mistaken about what he’d been doing to us. He had just used the word. It wasn’t anything enlightened or spiritual he was doing, nothing educational, nothing therapeutic. It was just the same story as with all the other father-rapists: a man wants to have sex with a child, and so he makes a story and feeds it to the child and makes the child repeat the story back to him so that he can account for his own behavior.
In that moment, on that payphone, in a beige hallway, all of his stories, his excuses, fell apart, and I could see the truth. But that vision only added to his violence: it was two more years from that phone call before I could finally start the process of breaking away, and many terrible things would happen in the interim, things I never could have imagined at the moment that I was hanging onto that receiver and a bright voice inside me said, you are not crazy – he’s just a liar and a rapist. I had to hold on tight; something inside felt like it was about to freefall. It was almost more terrifying, understanding that he had in fact known what he was doing all along, and he’d actively chosen to lie to all of us and forced us to parrot back to him those same lies.
Knowing the truth isn’t always enough to get us out, though is it? It’s still a long process when we are threatened with death, when those we love are threatened with death if we leave, if leaving means separating from the people we love the most in the world, from all the safety we’ve known.
I had another experience of cognitive dissonance at the end of my second marriage. After years of struggling to prove to my then-husband that I was a good partner, I was a good femme, I was a good ally, I could sublimate my needs, I could be trustworthy, I could be what he needed to feel safe and accepted and welcome. I stood in my bathroom after a shower and I stared at the copy of “wild geese” I had taped up on the wall next to the mirror and the thought pushed into my head, I’m going to leave, and it’s going to be ok. I can leave, and he can hate me if he wants to, and he can tell whatever stories about me that he needs to – I don’t have to accede to his reality anymore. Once again, I experienced that sense of something snapping, something slipping away. For all the work I did in service to him, I didn’t feel safe, I didn’t feel trusted, I didn’t feel accepted or welcomed or understood by this person, no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much of myself I shoved aside, no matter how much I bent over backward; no matter what I did, it was never enough, and it would never be enough – and I deserved to feel safe and loved in my own home.
The thought was like a feather that drifted in through an open window and settled gently at the base of my soul. And I let it lie there; for the first time, I didn’t blow the thought away or try and stamp it out. I don’t have to break myself open and die in order to create a place where he feels safe – especially when it’s clear that even that isn’t enough for him. I am and have been a good enough partner, a good enough woman, a good enough femme, a good enough ally, and yet continued to feel, when I was in his presence, like I was less than, like I was wrong – and I didn’t have to keep living that way. I could make another choice. I am not worth less than he is.
Cognitive dissonance is a normal human experience. We all have moments when we realize that what we’ve been living, what we’ve been taught, is incomplete or is different from what’s out there in the world. Maybe you grew up in a religion that taught you that being gay was a sin or hateful or meant you were an evil person and were going to suffer horribly in life until you repented and returned to a straight life – and then you went out and met other gay people and found that they were flawed and beautiful and human and loving and you began to question what you’d been taught. And once you question, then the bell is rung. And once the bell is rung, it cannot be unrung.
Maybe it happened to you in your parents’ house, or in college, or in a group of friends, or at work, or in a marriage – you begin to question something you have been taught, something that you had believed deeply was true about yourself or the world, something that shaped your identity and your reality. Imagine: something that shaped your identity and your reality begins to come apart. This is a terrifying moment, even if it’s about to lead to freedom and possibility. It is a fearsome thing when that bell rings and we understand, deep inside, that what we thought we were, that what we thought was real, that maybe what we had torn ourselves apart trying to prove was real, is not in fact real. We might experience deep shame and humiliation before we get to the place of freedom and possibility. And that shame is painful and constricting and shows us all we gave up in service to someone else’s lies, to someone else’s story, and asks whether we really want to give up now.
The phone call with my stepfather was almost 30 years ago, when I was 19. The moment in the bathroom when I decided, again, that I could save my own life, was 10 years ago, when I was 39. Today is my 49th birthday, and I’m wrangling with cognitive dissonance again these days, torn between two stories about writing ourselves whole (the business): one, the story sold by the internet gurus and coaches, is that I failed because I didn’t do enough, didn’t hustle enough, didn’t want it badly enough, didn’t think the right thoughts consistently enough, and so the fact that I could never sustain myself with the workshops is entirely my fault and my failing. (Hustle culture is a cult in and of itself, and I’ve got more to say about that later.)
The second story is quieter and smaller and gets less traction in memes: that I was running workshops primarily for queer survivors of sexual trauma in the middle of and in the slow recovery from a recession in one of the most expensive places to live in the world, and I wasn’t interested in becoming an “influencer’ or a guru or a brand, and so what I was selling wasn’t going to fit well with the way the online world was turning – and, given all that, I was able to run hundreds of workshops for hundreds of people and write a book about the process and there are many who would call that successful, and I could call it success, too.
Today I am looking at the two stories I often tell about my life: the loud one says that I am a failure because I “let” abuse take over my entire life and I had to spend almost 30 years focused on it, writing about it, getting free from it, and so here I am now at 49, still trying to figure out who I am as a writer and as a person. (Why is the shaming, shitty voice always the loudest one? We could ask that about the internet as a whole, I guess.) The second story is one that has perseverance in it, and a love of words and dogs and the sea, and an unwillingness to stop reaching and stop writing even though the work is hard and I get lost in self-doubt some days (weeks, months). The second story, the bell I’m trying to allow myself to listen to, is one with a different idea of success wrapped inside of it, one in which success isn’t all about online fame or getting my face on the cover of my college alumni magazine, but has love in it, and spaciousness, and words and a dog and a beach and daily choices I get to say yes and no to. In this second story, I get to love my body and I get to devote a day to reading if I want to and I can make as much popcorn as I want. In this second story, success is bigger than money – as, of course, is true in much of the rest of the world, outside of America. In this second story, I am not just surviving, and I am no longer hustling: I get to be alive and free and beloved for all that I am, even though I am flawed and still learning, even though I still live with flashbacks and am shaped by trauma, even though I am still learning to trust and lean into the reality that I get to be ok in this lifetime.
We get to live into the reality of our wholeness and our humanity, and this living is a process. Releasing the stories that have shaped us into another’s control is difficult and painful; it can be like unrooting kudzu from our psyches. But we can choose to live in wonder and curiosity, in investigation and trust in our senses and our lived experience. We can choose to live ourselves free.
This is my birthday wish for you today, and for us: to listen when the small bell rings inside us, to allow ourselves to welcome a reality in which we are enough, we are whole, and we are free.