You don’t want to be judged? You won’t be. You don’t think you’re strong enough? You are. You’re afraid. Don’t be. You have all the weapons you need.
– Sucker Punch
Anyone who follows me on the Twitters or the Facebooks or here will know that I spent this past weekend in Madison for WisCon, which is sort of My Con, because it’s almost more like an intersectional revival meeting than anything else, and it makes me have a lot of emotions. Or rather, it gives me a space in which I can feel those emotions safely.
That usually means that Wiscon, while it’s an incredibly positive, energizing, communal experience, is also often draining, and I come out of it mulling over some difficult, painful things. That was especially true this year, in significant part because it coincided with the Santa Barbara shootings, which reminded so many of us – as if we needed reminding – that we live in a culture that is not only hostile to us but lethally dangerous. Where we are not safe in any meaningful sense of the word.
(I should note that although I identify as genderqueer, I consider being raised as a girl an important part of the development of my identity, and in most important contexts the rest of society would consider me a woman. So I’m putting myself in that category for practical purposes. Anyway, GNC people are in that kind of marginalized Other space in any case to varying degrees for various reasons.)
So this was all going on, and emotions – again, many of them not negative ones – were running high, at least in me. And right at the apex of it – sitting in a panel on mental health, ironically enough – I had a very upsetting exchange via email with a member of my family about the shootings, which left me feeling deeply, deeply hurt.
And also something else. It took me a few minutes to really grasp what was happening. I was shaking hard, my palms were sweating, my heart and thoughts were both racing, and my breath was shallow. In other words, I was having a classic fight-or-flight response.
And I was like Oh my God. I’m being triggered.
I have a difficult past with this family member, and a very fraught relationship which we are only now – and very slowly – beginning to try to repair. The peace is fragile, and it doesn’t take much for it to slide back down into ugliness. In fairness, this is not one-sided; they were not the only one who participated in emotional abuse during the period when things were at their worst. I know they have experienced and do experience their share of pain, and that pain is real and legitimate.
But for me, that moment was a revelation. It wasn’t even really about the email and the nastiness that was in it. I was having a physiological reaction to past trauma. It was a reaction that I had experienced many, many times before, and for whatever reason I had not recognized what was happening to me.
This made me realize two additional things: 1) It wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t control it, which in the past I had believed; and 2) I could ask for help.
So I did. I texted a friend and she took me out for ice cream. And then later I Floomped (dance party) in a furious manner and went to a Jem vid party and I had a great time and by the next morning I had mostly recovered.
But again, this was a revelation, about my right to my emotions and my pain and my right to take care of myself, and to reach out to others for assistance in doing that. I didn’t have to wrestle with it alone, I didn’t have to blame myself for not being able to just calm down or let it go. It was okay to not be okay, and that actually made it possible to be okay in a way I’ve never experienced before.
So that happened. It meant that I had to miss NK Jemisin’s amazing GoH speech, which saddened me a great deal, but then later, sitting in a noisy, uncomfortable airport terminal waiting for a late flight home that had been delayed over an hour, I read the speech, and what others have very properly characterized as a call to arms also felt to me like an embrace. You’re all right. And someday you’ll heal. But in the meantime you have the right to defend yourself, and you have the obligation to come to the defense of others.
I wrote an email to my family about it, and in some respects it was a direct response to the member of my family who triggered me. It was the only kind of response I felt able to make, short of no response at all. But silence is painful, and it didn’t feel like it would protect me from anything. I have no idea if they read it. I sincerely doubt that they did. But to me, that didn’t really matter. What mattered was speaking out. So among other things, I said this:
I decided a while ago to make 2014 the year I started doing what Anne Lamott says we have to do as writers and as humans, and dig down into the truly ugly stuff hiding in my psyche, the stuff we’re told – especially if we’re gendered female – that we’re supposed to keep hidden. I’ve decided that I have to do that because that stuff is true, because it’s real, and because the best writing is the writing that tells the truth. I’ve written a few stories that go a long way toward doing that; they’ve been purchased by editors and you’ll see them soon. But something else I’m dealing with, as I consider what it means to write about pain, is that I’m entrenched in both a genre of fiction and a culture that contains many people who are clearly and unambiguously hostile to me and people like me, doing the work that I’m doing.
And how difficult it is to turn and face that and demand recognition of that hostility.
Because without that recognition, there can be no healing, and there can never be reconciliation. Broken bonds won’t be repaired. People will remain strangers to each other.
Me and people like me have been told, repeatedly, to chill out. To get over it. To stop reading too much into things. To sit down. To shut up. To stop making people uncomfortable. That we’re overreacting. That we’re hysterical. That we’re crazy. That we’re looking for things to get upset about. That if we laugh it off everything will be okay.
It’s not okay. And I’m not crazy. And I won’t shut up.
All of us suffering, all of us walking wounded, we have a right to ourselves and our safety. We have a right to be protected and to protect others. We have a right to self-care, and we have a right to ask for help in caring for ourselves. It can be so difficult to recognize and accept that right, because I think often we have a harder time seeing ourselves clearly than seeing others, but also because we’re just straight up taught that we don’t have a right to any of that. We exist in a context that denies our right to be good to ourselves in that way.
We need to claim it. It’s vital that we do that. Without that, we won’t heal.
And we also have a right to fight back. Nora speaks true.
Arm yourselves. Go to panels at Wiscon and claim the knowledge and language that will be your weapons. Go to sources of additional knowledge for fresh ammunition — histories and analyses of the genre by people who see beyond the status quo, our genre elders, new sources of knowledge like “revisionist” scholarship instead of the bullshit we all learned in school. Find support groups of like-minded souls; these are your comrades-in-arms, and you will need their strength. Don’t try to do this alone. When you’re injured, seek help; I’ve got a great list of CBT therapists, for any of you in the New York area. Exercise to stay strong, if you can; defend what health you have, if you can’t. And from here on, wherever you see bigotry in the genre? Attack it. Don’t wait for it to come directly at you; attack it even if it’s hitting another group. If you won’t ride or die for anyone else, how can you expect them to ride or die for you? Understand that there are people in this genre who hate you, and who do not want you here, and who will hurt you if they can. Do not tolerate their intolerance. Don’t be “fair and balanced.” Tell them they’re unwelcome. Make them uncomfortable. Shout them down. Kick them out. Fucking fight.
And maybe one day, when the fighting’s done, then we can heal. On that day, all of us will dream freely, at last.