Who am I?
My twitter bio claims that I am a “Writer of Fantasy . . . and the tortured soul.” While this is accurate, it is, like every face I’ve ever shown the world, incomplete, revealing only a portion of who I am. Writing is a fundamental part of my identity. I don’t remember a time when I wanted to be anything other than a writer. For the most part, I have written about tortured souls. My characters certainly have hard lives. But recently, I have come to realize that I don’t merely write of “the tortured soul,” The tortured soul I was referring to my twitter bio is partially myself.
Telling stories is a fundamental part of who I am. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t entertain a host of characters whose stories played out in my mind. I even turned my own activities into stories. When I did just about anything, I was simultaneously writing a mental story about it. Occasionally, I wrote these stories down. When I was seven, I began a series about the Man from Mars for my older sister. But most of the time, these stories were never shared with anyone. I believed I was the only one who ever did anything this bizarre. For years I thought that my near constant story telling was a sign of some deep moral or psychological flaw. Why couldn’t I just weed the garden without thinking about how to turn weeding the garden into a story?
What disturbed me even more was how often my stories contained torture. The characters I created, and identified with, were frequently the victims of extreme abuse. One of my most developed childhood stories involved a boy named Max who had an abusive stepmother. (Yes, I was told a lot of fairytales as a child, and elements common in fairy tales, like abusive stepmothers, made their way into my stories.) Except the abuse Max suffered, and that I experienced vicariously through him, was more extreme than anything I ever heard in a fairytale. Max was abused so badly that he had extreme injuries, staring with broken bones and deep scars on his back. The abuse was so intense that he ended up in a wheelchair. Nobody ever acted to protect Max from this abuse. Although any real child treated as badly as Max would have little hope of becoming anything other than a broken adult, Max eventually triumphs over this abuse and wins the gold medal in the Olympic decathlon. This eventual triumph was inspired by Bruce Jenner’s 1976 Olympic win. To give you an idea of how young I was when I wrote Max’s story, I was only eight when Jenner won that medal. While Max did eventually escape his abuse, I spend far, far more mental energy imagining the abuse than I did the triumph. I wrote and rewrote abuse scenes over and over again. One of my most productive story telling times was when I was trying to fall asleep. When I reached puberty, rape and sexual torture were added to the physical abuse my characters suffered. I also read voraciously and was drawn to reading about victims of abuse. I was sure this obsession with being tortured was a sign of deep psychological problem. What kind of child falls to sleep by being vicariously tortured?
I was ashamed of this aspect of myself, so ashamed that I am now fifty-four years old, and this is the first time I’ve ever shared this aspect of myself with anyone. Although I’ve shared tiny pieces of this obsession with my husband and a therapist, I’ve never told anyone the detail I reveal above. I feared if anyone knew how often I imagined horrible abuse, they’d be sicken by me and would reject me. Even as now as I am writing this, I cannot fully escape this fear. I won’t allow it to stop me anymore, but I still feel it.
To answer the obvious question, no, I was never personally a victim of abuse. My parents were loving, and the worst abuse they inflicted on me was making me weed the garden or pick bugs off the tomato plants. Despite this being true, I have recently come to realize that I have been tortured for most of my life, not by other people, but by cognitive dissonance. According to Wikipedia,
In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the perception of contradictory information. Relevant items of information include a person’s actions, feelings, ideas, beliefs, values, and things in the environment. Cognitive dissonance is typically experienced as psychological stress when persons participate in an action that goes against one or more of those things. According to this theory, when two actions or ideas are not psychologically consistent with each other, people do all in their power to change them until they become consistent. The discomfort is triggered by the person’s belief clashing with new information perceived, wherein the individual tries to find a way to resolve the contradiction to reduce their discomfort.
Cognitive dissonance is so mentally uncomfortable that people will perform the most amazing feats of mental gymnastics to make the disparate beliefs align.
I was raised in a deeply religious Mormon family, and I was a feminist before I even knew what a feminist was. Few can imagine the cognitive dissonance suffered by a Mormon feminist. Mormons and feminists are enemies. Even the phrase “Mormon feminist” is an oxymoron. Mormons teach that feminists are one of the greatest dangers of modern times, and feminists thinks Mormons are repressive and patriarchal. How is it possible that one person could be both a Mormon and a feminist? No matter what setting I was in, I believed that, to be accepted, some portion of myself needed to be concealed. When I was in a Mormon setting, I hid how deep my feminism ran. Although for years I raged underneath about the patriarchal values taught in the Mormon church, I shoved this rage down and hid the extent of my feminism from Mormons. When I went to graduate school in California, the feminist side of me was embraced by my teachers and peers, but the Mormon side wasn’t. Just as I hid my feminism from Mormons, I hid my Mormonness from the feminists. No matter where I was, I knew that part of me was unacceptable to the group I was with. Despite colossal efforts, I could never perform the mental gymnastics necessary to align these disparate parts of myself, nor could I reject either the Mormonism nor the feminism, so for about forty years, I lived with the torture of cognitive dissonance. I didn’t safe enough to be completely, authentically me in any setting. Even though I am no longer Mormon, the trauma cognitive dissonance inflicted on me still remains.
I recently shared some of this with my therapist, stressing that my parents weren’t abusive. She told me that something doesn’t need to be abusive to cause trauma. She is right. The constant fear of rejection was traumatic. The belief that the full me would never be acceptable to anyone was traumatic.
Cognitive dissonance and the fear of rejection has tortured me for most of my life. I have now decided that it will no more. I will be completely, authentically me. I won’t hide some portion of who I am to please others. This new direction in my blog is the first step in publicly claiming all of myself. In future posts, I will explore various aspects of the dissonance that has tortured me and, hopefully, put that dissonance to rest.
Few people have ever read my blog, and since this is my first entry in years, there’s a good chance no one will read this. But I’m undisturbed by this. I am writing primarily for myself, to own all of who I am. Writing this is part of the path toward healing my personal trauma. I don’t plan on making entries in any particular order, but will address aspects of healing my own cognitive dissonance as I am moved to do so. If no one ever chooses to follow me on this path, it will still represent a triumph in owning my complete, authentic self. But if someone does choose to follow my journey, I welcome you and hope that you can find something of use to you in reading about my struggle. If you do, I would love to hear from you in the comments.