How having our story challenged can solidify things for us—on and off the page.
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” ~ Anne Lamott
The times I’ve had to fight for my stories, even suffer for them, have either made me who I am, or reveal the core of my character, depending on where you fall on the nature/nurture debate. They’ve made me a better writer, and a more thoughtful, empathetic person, and taught me that I’ve got to fight for my own heart: that this is no one else’s job before I make it my own.
One of the first lessons came was when I was seven years old. All of the adults around me professed to believe in G-d, but they didn’t seem entirely sincere. The reticence of certain of my adult relatives to support my newfound interest in prayer was suspiciously akin to the doubt expressed by some of these same adults when I told them about my sighting of the Tooth Fairy. I had woken from from a deep sleep, and seen her for just an instant before she flickered away like a hummingbird. She looked exactly like Walt Disney’s Tinkerbell. I was getting old enough to know the difference between fairy tales and reality. Soon, I would write a letter to the Easter Bunny, receive a response in my mother’s hand, and lose the rest of the pantheon in short order. It seems strange to me now, that G-d fell first.
The absence of dinosaurs in Genesis became a critical factor in my doubt of every part of the Bible: the Creation, Jesus, a personal G-d who cared whether we were good or bad. The deciding moment came while engaged in prayer. I was crossing the street, walking to a friend’s house and talking to G-d. I had often done this: I was at that time in the habit of casually conversing with Him. This day was no different, except I looked up at where I always focused my prayers and I thought, for the first time: “This is dumb. I’m just talking to myself.” The blue sky was empty.
I attended a weekly Catholic instruction with other children my age, which was held in the home of a church member. The next time I went, I broke down weeping in that nice lady’s bathroom. First I locked her out, but either I let her in or she got in, anyway; I don’t remember. “I don’t believe in G-d,” I finally told her through guilt wracked sobs. I don’t know who I thought would punish me, only that I felt outside the comforting circle of belief and believers. When I had admitted my sin, she gave what was supposed to be a reassuring response. “Of course you do.” It did not make me feel better.
Growing up, I was always making up games for my sister and friends and I to play. One summer day, not long after coming out as an atheist, I made up a game called Knock the Man Off the Gate. I climbed up onto the three-foot high chain link fence that surrounded our suburban back yard, grabbed hold tight with my hands and legs, and invited my playmates to take turns swinging the gate shut, to try to throw me off.
I went flying, of course. I landed on the concrete path that wound around the side of our house, under a pine tree and between the driveway and the gate to the backyard fence. As I lay there, I could feel the gritty pavement, hot against my cheek, but I did not care. One part of my mind still thought I could get up if I wanted to, and that I was choosing to rest there a moment. My sister and our friend seemed very far away. I heard a screen door slam. Then, I was being picked up.
The next thing I remember is squinting at the clock on top of the television set. I was lying on the living room couch. I could hear the silverware ringing against their plates as my parents and younger sister ate dinner in the kitchen.
They took me to the emergency room after they’d finished eating. A kid with a head injury, I was seen without much delay. A doctor asked me if I was nauseated. I wasn’t sure what the word meant. “It means sick to your stomach,” he explained.
I don’t know what happened after that, only that my parents became very angry with me and I didn’t know why. I assumed it was because I wasn’t taking the ER visit seriously enough, was wasting the doctor’s time. We went home and with the sun still shining, I put myself to bed, thinking, uncharacteristically, “Maybe tomorrow this will have been a bad dream.” I was usually far more pragmatic.
The next day, it got worse. I found out what my parents were so mad about: they claimed I’d told someone I was just fooling, that I hadn’t actually fallen from the gate, had not hit my head and been knocked out. None of the facts I could marshal—that there were witnesses to the accident, or that my mother had carried me inside—seemed to make any difference. I held to my story, and they to theirs. My mother took me to see a child psychologist, and together, over the course of a couple of hours, they attempted to break me down. Each time I refused to tell the story my mother insisted was true, I was sent out into the hallway to “think about it.” I asked to go to the bathroom and was denied. I could pee, and go home and have dinner, when I told them “the truth.”
I never relented. I didn’t remember the whole day, and behind the terror at being punished for something outside my control was the knowledge that I had screwed up: I’d made up a dangerous game. I’d joked in a serious situation. But I knew I was telling the truth about what I did remember. No one seemed angry at me for inventing a game where the idea was to throw someone onto a concrete path from a swinging gate. It never occurred to me, until years later, that my parents were invested in their version of events, or why.
Almost ten years later, my mother wrote about this event for a college English class. She let me read her paper. I don’t remember a word of it, only how it made me feel: a nervous stomach, tight, like it felt in the car on the way home from the hospital that evening. Nauseated. This was her version of events.
Today, more than twenty years later, I’m proud of how I was able to stand there and reasonably, quietly challenge her version of the truth. She just shrugged and walked away. “It’s already been handed in,” she said. The assignment was over: that was where it ended for her.
Last winter, I wrote an extremely personal essay, about times when I have felt too weak to defend myself, and how these have affected the way I see myself as a man. The story was accepted into an anthology of stories by trans men, called “Manning Up.”
In June, I read my story at an event to promote the book. I’ve published online, and in magazines, and had my work performed on stage. This was the first time I have held a book in my hands, that had my words in it. It was a Tuesday. The editor I met at the book launch told me they were going to reprint the book, because of the many printing errors. I bought one of the first edition copies at the event, to have until I got my official copy from the next printing.
Friday, the other editor told me they’d received a complaint. Had I used someone’s real name in my story? he wanted to know. I had; I explained the rights and responsibilities that pertained, as I saw them. The agreement I signed made no mention of the need to change names. I had not revealed damaging or embarrassing details about anyone but me. I had not written anything about anyone else, that would allow a stranger to identify them in their private lives.
That evening, I spoke to the publisher for the first time. He sounded tense on the phone. “Is she litigious?” he asked me of my ex-girlfriend, who had lodged the first of two complaints: the second would come the following day from our mutual friend, also mentioned in my story. I made no contact with either of them, as I was repeatedly asked by my editors and publisher. By Sunday, the publisher had decided the safest thing to do was to remove my story altogether: it was the only way to protect the privacy of the individuals who had complained, he said.
I take writing seriously, because writers were the first voices I could trust. I believed in books to tell me the truth, even in fiction, about what people are like, so I could know them, but more importantly, so I could know myself: who I was, what I was capable of, what I believed in. One of the truths that has been squeezed and proven durable is that I am a writer, and good at my job: I know my professional responsibilities and rights. And they do not extend to the regrets of other people, for what they have said or done in my presence, when I write about them.
I explained online, why the book I had been promoting for months no longer had my story in it. I felt that having it removed, without explanation, could reflect poorly on me, and that in this case, I had done nothing to be ashamed of. It was possible I had been stupid, and even that some people would feel uncomfortable with what I shared. But my story was true. I accepted the initial decision to change the names in future editions as a tolerable censorship: a compromise.
The publisher could have printed a new edition with corrections, as he’d planned to do before receiving the complaints, and left my story as it appears in the original. As I see it, he has no obligation even to change the names. Or, he could have done what he initially said he would do, and change the names in future editions, as a courtesy to those who complained. I didn’t expect he would conclude by removing my story from the anthology, but between Friday, when I was first notified of the complaint, and Sunday, that is what he did.
Since our agreement was terminated by the publisher, the rights to the story reverted to me. I have published the story as a solo piece on Kindle: an experiment in self-publishing, to see whether I can market my work well enough that readers will pay for my work in this format.
It’s from practice at telling stories and reading them, with a critical eye for the unsupported fact, the vague or passive phrase, that I’ve learned the talent for not simply accepting everything the author wants me to believe. I try to just say enough that the reader can put it together and draw their own conclusions. I don’t want to waste your time or my reputation by writing meaningless tangents, titillating details, or other people’s secrets. I write to inform, to share my own hard won truths and be understood, and to give that sense of recognition to others when they read my story and think, “I’ve been there,” “I feel the same way” or, “I get that.” It’s worth doing for any one of those reasons.
The act of writing helps others, and at the same time, helps me, by making me translate the urge to be heard into a story that is clear enough to the reader. There is the story I tell in “Heartbreak and Detox,” and there is the story of its publication. I’m still telling myself the latter. Why was my story published, and then almost wiped out of existence? What parts of that story might not be mine to tell? In what stories did mine create dissonance, or make some other contribution? What happened next?
There are other stories I could tell you, of ways in which I have stood fast in what I believe in, not rigidly, but with awareness. The story of prayer to an empty sky continues: I found faith again, and lost it, more than once. Instead of defining myself as an atheist, as I did then, I identify myself with the struggle for faith. There are many ways I’ve found to tell a story: with a hidden crucifix, a tattoo, or a necklace made of baby teeth. I have given myself stories of how I have made my life, of who I am. They fortify me for the times when I’ve had my personal myths challenged: told that “of course” I believe in G-d, that I was faking my injury, that I was not a man, that my marriage is less sacred than other people’s marriages, that I have been an unscrupulous reporter, a bad writer.
That last one is the most ontologically dangerous. Since I know myself from the stories I tell, my own personal mythmaking, if my stories are poorly written, I am possibly ill constructed, of low quality ideas. Everything I know might be wrong. It’s this kind of universalizing that I fought against when my story was pulled from the anthology. My critics are not always right about me. I know myself better: I have done the figuring and can show my work. Stories contain their own truths, can be their own proofs. “Heartbreak and Detox” is one. This essay is another.
Good writing should make you feel something, should challenge your capacity to understand something new.
Writing that takes risks will upset some people. Unfortunately, most people respond to cognitive dissonance with violence fueled by fear. They protest or shut down. But we’re all capable of responding with greater insight and compassion. I keep on challenging myself to write what is difficult. I believe it’s worth the risk.