I am at an age where I look back on my younger self with great tenderness. I wonder what happened so early in my childhood that my confidence was completely wiped out. There are of course institutions and people to blame: parents, adults, church, school, advertising, TV, other children, teachers – I could go on.
What happened though was no one person’s fault. It was a system, a tsunami of cultural messaging that I couldn’t untangle from, that wrapped its tendrils around my feet with every step I took, that pulled me backwards, or down, or away from my own heart. I knew my heart then, but I could not speak what was in it without ridicule, or arguments, or someone denying its truth. I became an extremely silent child, a child afraid of being wrong, a child afraid she was wrong. A child who felt stupid, and bored, and who retreated into herself more and more as time went on.
But time did go on, and the demands of childhood went on too. There were things I wanted: Attention, no attention. To shine, to not be seen. To be pretty, to fade away. To be loved, to not be noticed. For someone to be proud of me, to disappear. To be popular, to be totally alone.
I loved the woods. In the woods no one asked me to point out Taiwan on a world map, and no one asked me to recite multiplication tables, and no one asked me to give my life to Jesus. In the woods I could trust something. I could trust the woods.
I used to fantasize about living in a cave – a furnished cave with a bed, and rugs, and a cat, and books. But what would I eat? Cereal would be good, I thought. I could sneak back home and steal boxes of cereal. But I’d need milk. How would I keep the milk from spoiling? It was the lack of refrigeration, not the lack of a good cave, that tripped me up every time. So I stayed where I was.
I stayed with my family and I stayed in school and I became a teenager with the usual teenage concerns. One day a boy said to me, “You don’t talk much, do you?”
“I guess not,” I answered, taking in what I perceived as criticism. The only thing that allowed me to be there at all, in his presence, the only thing that gave me any sort of social life was that I smoked pot. I was a hippie and I smoked pot, and hippie pot smokers hung together so I’d been let into a club. But I didn’t talk much.
“It kind of pisses me off,” the boy said.
So it was criticism.
I talk now. I’m 62 years old and I’m a novelist and I have a public life. Some days I wake up a little panicked over this. I always wanted to be a writer. When I was a child I knew that books were written by writers, but I noticed that I didn’t know anything about the writers themselves. If I ever saw a picture of a writer it was on the book jacket. So becoming a writer seemed perfect for me. I could present a book, but not be seen. Well, things changed, and here I am, a writer with a public life. It’s not bad though. It’s helped me gain some confidence, but I sure didn’t start out with it.
So these days, I look back on that child, the child I was, the child with her confidence-slate wiped clean and I look at who I am now, and I see that tender skinny child with the long, gangly legs and the soft hair on my young arms, the arms that I never raised in school when a teacher asked a question, and with which I hugged myself down in the woods, and I see myself trying to please everyone by not existing, and I feel sympathy and also a smidge of pride, because I think, damn girl, you did a lot with a little.
I wonder though, if I’d had confidence, if I’d been allowed to think even one good thought about myself, what would I be? Would I be Norman Fucking Mailer, or Nancy Peacock tenfold, or twenty-fold, or infinite-fold? Or was it the lack of confidence that helped make me who I am?