For the past few days I have been reading, and then practically re-reading My Life so Far by Jane Fonda. Like many of my generation, the only thing I knew about Jane Fonda when I started the book was the fact that my Mom had one of her workout videos in the 80s.
I found it to be powerfully touching and insightful, maybe because I had no expectations when I started the book. I was amazed at how many of the realizations I’ve had in the past year leapt back at me in the pages of the book. So many of the same thoughts and feelings (except, thankfully, an eating disorder) that I thought only belonged to me. Since I was 11 or 12, in my analytical way, I would frequently trace the roots of these experiences to having a hearing loss and how I coped with attempting to pretend to be a hearing person in a hearing world.
For most of my life, my silence, exclusion, feeling unseen and unliked (not disliked, just not liked) always seemed to come back to the fact that I could not hear well enough in crowded hallways and cafeterias and dances and get togethers of my adolescence. I was, and still am in certain situations, completely imprisoned by silence. I chronically compared myself to the girls who were always talking, laughing, and surrounded by friends, and found myself to be painfully inept.
Jane wrote “I didn’t know where the anxiety came from, I just thought that was how life felt for a girl once she hit the you’re-supposed-to-be-feminine age- feeling like an outsider, nose pressed against the windows, hungry to get in, not knowing that it was myself that I was outside of; but then, how could I be inside myself when I had discovered I was not perfect?” (p 83).
Jane wrote about personas, how she borrowed aspects of others’ personalities while inside feeling convinced that she was boring and hoping no one would find out. From this, I begin to think that my hearing loss didn’t so much create this anxious, painful experience as it actually stripped me of a disguise. I did not have the ability to borrow and create myself that most girls, like Jane, had.
Even though many had these feelings of anxiety and exclusion, and many were coping in much more secretive and self-destructive ways, they could cover up in trying on different personas. They could be talkative or flirtatious, a goth or a druggie or whatever else, and through that, be validated (as girls learn to do) through being part of a clique or having a boyfriend. This didn’t necessarily help anything, but the appearance was very deceiving. I could not try on any persona, let alone my own. I endured silently, waiting it out and hoping for when it would get better, and deeper, and more real.
Or until somebody invited me to a party or something. Either way.
Repeatedly, throughout my teenage years, I had dreams with the theme of being in a large clothing store or standing in front of a closet. I would walk around and around, picking out clothes, trying on clothes, trying to find an outfit that felt right, that was me. In my dreams, I never found it. Either I was fruitlessly searching, or to my horror, I ended up in an outfit that was ludricrous and all wrong. Unlike many girls at that developmental age, I could not find different personas or ways to be. I was acutely aware of how imprisoned I was and couldn’t pretend.
Then the words, the same words I used in a recent entry, popped up. “Not taking myself seriously, I gave myself away- to films that weren’t very good and to people I didn’t really care about.” (p 134). I think it is most painful when women give themselves away emotionally to men, because men do not and cannot reciprocate or understand the extent of what is being given to them. The experience then becomes for the woman like that of having an addiction, dependency characterized by extreme highs and lows. Sometimes, consciously or unconsciously, men encourage or need this kind of power trip at the expense of the woman. (Not to be “male bashing” here, this can also happen the other way around.)
I agree with Jane when she writes that feminism is not male-bashing, it is recognizing that both genders are suffering from socialized gender roles. Men also are affected in other ways besides having power or privilege, and suffer for it while being cut off from certain feelings and experiences.
Ultimately we reach a point, in transitions or in therapy, if we stick with it long enough, when we manage to cast aside defenses that no longer serve us and our feelings of hurt, anger, anxiety and confusion. What remains is the work of mourning. Mourning is not simply tears but felt throughout the body.
Mourning entails not only letting go of others or accepting one’s self, past experiences, what was or never was. Mourning is also reconciling the universal ways we have been shaped and hurt by society. Mourning means learning what does not belong to you, and letting go of unresolved issues that is passed on through the generations in the family. I am not my parents or grandparents. I cannot carry, re-enact and fix anything for another, as much I as I would like to.
I am inspired by all the work Jane has done and still does for causes she believes in and to help others. I wonder if I could do that someday. The immediate fear that jumps out at me is that, outside of a quiet room or the writing medium, I will not be comfortable enough with myself and my hearing to lead or to work with groups of people. But that is perhaps an excuse. Maybe I am just afraid. Risks need to be taken in order to find out.
The outfit I have on now is pretty good.