My favorite YA author [not going to fangirl, not going to fangirl] Nova Ren Suma is celebrating the release of her newest work, 17 & Gone, all week by asking fellow authors to blog about what haunted them at 17. Her first YA novel, Imaginary Girls, is to-date the greatest YA novel I have ever read, and it single-handedly renewed my faith in the genre (go read it or else we can’t be friends). So I’m very happy to have the chance to participate in one of her blog series! Admittedly, I’m also pretty nervous, too. So, here goes…
Being 17 wasn’t a bad time really: I was dating an older boy (+1 cool point) from a different high school (+1 cool point), who was the lead guitarist in a decent rock band (+100 cool points). I had my night license and a hand-me-down $500 car from my older brother, so I could drive anywhere, anytime, and that’s what we did most weekends. We’d drive out to haunted roads and cemeteries, or to rock shows downtown, or to out-of-state Denny’s where we would sit in the smoking section burning through soft packs of cheap cigarettes, drinking bottomless cups of coffee, thinking we were so damn cool.
So what haunted me at 17, you ask, when I was so clearly living large and loving life? Well, like most hauntings, it was complicated, vaporous, and hard to define. The past haunted me. A moment in time haunted me. Being silenced haunted me.
Being silenced still haunts me.
A little back story: I’m the youngest of three (well, 3.5 but that’s a tale for another day), and one of the most unobtrusive people you’ll ever meet. I learned from a young age that if I wanted to get a word in edgewise at the dinner table I had to shout, or cry, which itself never produced any desirable outcomes. Instead, I learned to be quiet and patient, and to bite my tongue instead of raise my voice. Among my friends, I was known as the quiet one–the shy one. I disappeared in the classroom, in the halls. And in high school, even with dreadlocks and piercings or bright green hair, I somehow managed to pass unnoticed, unheard.
I filled notebooks with the words I didn’t say. I wrote essays to give voice to the thoughts I never spoke aloud, and novels to tell the stories that my friends and family didn’t have the attention span to hear. By the time I was in high school I was used to my words going unheard. But there came a point when being unheard became absolutely unsustainable–only, I wouldn’t realize that for nearly a decade.
I was 15, and I’d just broken up with my first longterm boyfriend. And, as 15-year-old douche bags are wont to do, he was telling people we’d had S-E-X, because at 15 nothing is more interesting to others after your breakup than that one big question: did you guys do it?
I was so angry, but I was powerless to do anything but refute it–as if they’d believe me, the girl, who would of course not want anyone to know what a slut she was, because that’s what everyone thought (/still thinks) of girls who had (/have) sex in high school. And there I was, the girl no one ever noticed, suddenly the topic of scandal.
I had to tell someone, I had to make somebody hear me, because I hadn’t spoken back when everything happened, back when I should have broken up with him, back when my life fell apart for the first time in a long series of breakdowns. So I told my best friend, in the locker room, after gym class. I told her the hardest thing I’d ever forced myself to give a voice to: “The truth is, we did have sex. But I said no. And he didn’t listen.”
“So what?” she said, dismissive, shrugging, looking away, turning and talking to someone else like I hadn’t just carved out my guts and held them up for her appraisal.
At a time when I needed to speak, and to be heard, more than ever before in all my life, I had never felt more silenced. And I wondered if…maybe she was right? Maybe it was no big deal, after all? Maybe he hadn’t heard me. Maybe I was a slut. Maybe it was my fault. Believing that felt slightly better than believing I was someone else’s victim. Blaming myself, and hating myself, was infinitely easier than accepting the truth.
He transferred schools shortly after, and I didn’t dare mention it to anyone again. Those awkward days when I ended up in the guidance or social worker’s office at school, I told them my “irrational crying” was just stress, hormones, that I’d been sleeping poorly–anything but the truth, or what might have been true, or even an approximate version of the truth.
Then, the summer before our senior year, he came back to town. 17 would be the last year of my life that I would have any contact with him, but it was a hard and bitter year of silence, shame, and insidious ghosts. I ran into him at parties, his pupils dilated, tripping on cough syrup or god knows what. He tried more than once to corner me and talk to me, ask me about my new boyfriend, tell me how much he missed me. When fall came, he was back at school, sliding notes into my locker that told me in excruciating detail about his time in the psychiatric hospital, his drug-induced suicide attempts, his visions of God telling him how I still loved him, that I would be with him again in time. And even then, I was haunted by a kind of guilt–guilt that he was destroying himself under the guise of loving me, and guilt that I honestly felt he deserved to suffer.*
I survived. I graduated, and life went on. I fought hard to forgive him (yes, I did forgive him eventually), so that I could have my own life back. But in the end, as life after high school changed everything about my world, I realized it wasn’t a loss of innocence that haunted me at 17, or the ruins of a boy I once loved falling at my heels. It was the years and years of allowing myself to be silenced, of allowing my anger and sadness to go unheard. It was his betrayal, yes, but it was also the betrayal of the friends I had given my heart to as well, and a family that didn’t realize they were nurturing my silence. Every time my friends joked with him in class and I had to hold back my anger, every time he scared me with his horrific notes in my locker and I wanted to tell someone, but couldn’t–every time I wanted to shout or cry out, but didn’t–that was the thing that haunted me the longest, the deepest.
And on my darker days, it still does.
But, true to form, I don’t like feeling like a victim. And I’ve realized, finally, so many years later, that it was my own betrayal that hurt me most of all. I betrayed myself by buying into the silence, by buying into the lie that what I had to say was not worth saying, not worth taking up the lesson I had learned as a child, at the dinner table: that I could be heard if I shouted, if I cried. But learning to raise my voice–allowing myself, now, to be seen and heard–that’s probably the hardest lesson I’ve ever had to learn.
(So that this doesn’t end on a totally dark note, enjoy the caption my husband gave me on this picture of me climbing through a window when I was 17.)
*I haven’t seen him since I graduated from high school ten years ago, but I did hear, about 7 years back, that he’d been shot point-blank in the chest during a drug deal (or a robbery because of drugs? I don’t remember/care), and I actually laughed. He survived, but… I didn’t know that when I laughed.