Around the time I was four, my mom decided it was time to start breaking life’s harsh truths to me. I was her strange little semi-adult buddy, after all. I deserved only the purest honesty. She handed down the first revelation just after Thanksgiving that year.
“Listen, your cousins and your brother are going to go around getting SO excited about Santa for the next month. And probably their parents will even trick them into behaving themselves by pretending that Santa actually cares about whether or not they stayed in their seat during dinner at Pizza Hut. But I’m going to be honest with you, because you are too smart for this nonsense: There is no Santa.”
I opened my mouth to ask her how EXACTLY she knew that for CERTAIN, but the look on her face told me that issue was not up for debate.
“Now I expect you to spend the next few years being really, really excited and playing along for the benefit of the other kids, because they aren’t as smart as you.”
And so for the next several years, I squealed with forced delight every time “Santa” arrived at my grandma’s house on Christmas Eve. I now knew that it was really her childhood friend Jake (a member of the slowly dwindling cadre of old men that had been smitten with her since she was a teenager) and somehow I could even recognize the scent of irish coffee on his breath. I labored over long letters addressed to the North Pole because I realized that it was the best way to make my gift requests known. No one suspected a thing. Once, in an ill-advised attempt at first-grade rebellion, I hotly asked my mother if I could be Santa for Halloween. Her response was a plastic Smurfette costume that smelled like nail polish.
Tiny unnecessary tidbits of truth were dispensed for the next few years. I knew which of the grown-ups around me were drunks, yo-yo dieters, and adulterers. I knew which of them were “bad with money” (one of my mom’s most dire insults) and who “couldn’t keep a job.” Around this time my mom made me solemnly swear (GIRL SCOUT’S HONOR) that I would never ever EVER get married. “You’re too smart to waste your time being someone’s wife.”
In third grade my mother said she had something very important to discuss with me. I both hoping and dreading that it might be a puberty conversation. I had recently read Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret so I had an inkling of the outline of that conversation. I could barely imagine hearing the phrase “maxi pad” spoken in our house. Still, it would be thrilling to recount the details to both my actual friends and my super secret best friend, a Ramona Quimby-themed diary (a gift from “Santa”).
Alas, rather than learning the answers to the burning questions like “When will I grow boobs?” and “Do I have to start wearing a bra?” I was given THE TALK. The talk that would start my lifelong (so far) spiritual journey.
My mom was an educated woman so she knew the best way to present an argument.
The introductory sentence caught my attention. “There are a lot of theories about what happens when you die.” I immediately realized that neither my friends at school nor my Ramona Quimby diary would need to hear about this conversation.
The strongly expressed thesis was “There is no God.”
And the final paragraph just sealed the deal. “Now people are going to try to tell you that you’ll go to heaven if you’re good and hell if you’re bad. You’re too smart to believe in that sort of nonsense, so here’s the real truth: when you die, you get buried in the ground and worms eat your body. Unless you choose to be cremated.” I had recently read a tasteful description of cremation in a copy of Reader’s Digest, so there was not need for elaboration.
Are you seeing a pattern yet? Specifically…my mom’s ironclad conviction that I was “too smart” to believe in anything that she didn’t like.
As I grew older, the brutal honesty turned to her strange set of beliefs regarding sex. It’s important to note that I was miles and miles away from puberty when these gems began to pop up in regular conversation.
“You’re too smart to go around just having sex with people. That kind of behavior is for dumb girls.” This made sense to me mostly because my intelligence (and its accompanying nerdiness) made me very unpopular with the opposite sex. Obviously the idea of sexual feelings for individuals of the same gender was not even on the table yet. But even girls rejected me because of my weird clothes and terrible mangey hair. That year I had been corned in the girls’ bathroom at school by a gaggle of my pubescent, Esprit-clad peers. “You know, you’re not ugly. Boys would like if you would just stop acting so smart.”
“The basic truth is that men are dumb. And sex is something we use to get things from them.” For some reason, an image of Santa appeared in my head when she said this.
“Sex will ruin your life. You need to spend the next years focusing on school, so you can get into a good college. And in college, you have to focus on getting good grades. And after that, you’ll need a good job because no one will be able to take care of you. Sex will ruin all of that. You’re too smart to get married.” Well, that cinched it. I knew that getting into a good college was my only ticket out of Central PA, since a visual survey of the women in my family indicated that I would be neither tall nor beautiful enough to be a famous model/actress/rock star.
I have met many people of the years that have grown up in very strict religious households. When I tell them that I was raised atheist, they assume that I lived in a groovy, braless free-love environment. Not at all. Make up and dating were forbidden until I was sixteen. Even then, I wasn’t supposed to ever “be alone” with boys. I wasn’t allowed to get my driver’s license until I was 21 because my ability to operate a car might somehow lead to sex. I’m still confused about that one. Growing up without God can be just as repressive as growing up with him/her. My Catholic friends lived in fear of God knowing their dirty, sexy thoughts. I lived in fear of my mother discovering that I had secretly read Tropic of Cancer one summer in a dark corner of the town library. While God might forgive my friends for giving blow jobs by the cemetery, I was certain to be the subject of my mother’s disdain for the rest of time if she learned about that night I frenched someone during a semi-thrilling game of Seven Minutes in Heaven.
There is some comfort to be found in guilt. It makes the difficult decisions somehow easier. And it adds an incredible sheen of glamour to the “wrong” decisions. Yeah, we can argue that most of the actions and thoughts that induce guilt (especially sex) are just average animal behaviors. But who will disagree that “being bad” is so much more fun than just “being normal?”
It’s important to note that my younger brother lived free of all of these burdens. He never received the atheism talk, he was allowed to get his driver’s license the day he turned sixteen, and it was a given that because my mother deemed him “handsome,” he would be scoring with dumb girls all over town.
Because remember, only men and stupid women enjoy sex.
<Get ready for an abrupt transition…I promise it will all make sense in a few paragraphs…>
Last summer, I was so in love with a fellow here in Portland, that I might have actually gotten his name tattooed across my chest in 4” Olde English lettering…or at least, I would have given it serious consideration after three drinks. Our relationship was dysfunctional in no less than 35 different ways, but he was still my favorite person in the world at that time. The major source of frustration (and my own self-loathing) was our inability to have decent, non-awkward sexual encounters. This made me feel especially horrible, because I had seen him hook up with countless unsavory women in the past few years. I reasoned that something must be terribly, irrevocably wrong with me. Almost every day, I harshly scrutinized my reflection for clues. My nose was a bit strange. I was maybe a little too chubby. I did have short fingers. My feet were a mess. I did have some bad tattoos. And so on.
One night we finally talked about it, just before we platonically fell asleep (again).
“Amanda, I can only sleep with dumb bitches. Skanks and hos. Girls that will never have anything interesting to talk about.”
Where did that leave me?
“You’re smart and cool and awesome. I love you. I can’t sleep with you. I would feel too bad about it. You’re too smart for that.”
I covered my head with a pillow, hoping that I might be the first case of successful non-erotic sexual frustration-induced auto asphyxiation.
Ahhh…don’t you love when things come full circle like that?
UP NEXT: PART THREE…GUILT IS HABIT-FORMING.