HOW I BECAME AN OUTSIDER

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I was born in Willimantic, CT, in 1966. My father was a professor at the University of Connecticut, and we lived in a house my father had had built from a design he had found in a magazine. 

I remember only a couple of things from my first few years. I remember excitedly running up to my grandfather (a veteran of both WW2 and Korea), and him, enraged, knocking me violently to the floor. I remember my grandmother comforting me as I watched him through the windows, pacing on the slope behind the house, visibly struggling with his anger. I think I was three and my sibling was being born.

I remember waiting on the tire swing as we prepared to go to England. I had just turned seven. My father was going to be a fellow at King’s College, Cambridge and my mother was going to get her PHD at Lucy Cavendish college. I was going to attend school in Cambridge and we would be there for two years. 

From then on the memories are frequent and vivid. I remember our first afternoon there; my father let myself and my sibling (four) wander off and explore the streets. I remember Cambridge vividly. The school, where the teacher was allowed to rap your knuckles (it happened to me once), and where we would sing hymns and Three Dog Night songs on Fridays. The meadows that started at the end of our street and went to the next town, Grantchester. The medieval buildings. The market square, with the alleys leading off to used bookstores and theaters; the cleverness everywhere in the air, the history, the art, the humor. Cambridge was intoxicating and being there changed me. I was the right age for it to have a profound effect. 

I came back to America aged 9, a different person, and found it impossible to adjust. The way the products of mass media dominated everything in American life (Fonzie and Grease), and the way everyone seemed more depressed. Cleverness was hated. Humor was suspicious. I started to become more depressed myself. Everything I’d grown to love was valueless in Mansfield, CT. The professors that were my parent’s colleagues seemed dull and fatuous. People in general were mean-spirited. And my father was impossibly distant. 

My dad could not deal with anything emotional; he could not relate to me at all. My mother did try, but she could only see things through her own experience. When my body fat grew enough so I became self-conscious, she introduced me to calorie counting, and a lifetime of insecurity about my own body. My father, upon discovering a copy of Playboy in my room, screamed at me with great intensity. It wasn’t until a year or two later that he tried, awkwardly, to have a father and son discussion about sex with me, an offer which I curtly declined.

You can see the smile slowly get wiped off my face over these years in my school pictures, like an awful magic trick. After a certain age I couldn’t smile properly and, moreover, I didn’t really want to.  

When I was fourteen, my parents (who now had two incomes) made the decision to send me to private school (Loomis Chaffee, in Windsor, CT). I believe it was partly because we had been fighting so much, but maybe that’s unfair. They thought I would get a “good education,” whatever that is. I think my father believed I’d be molded into a proper gentleman and be welcomed into a rarefied social strata (a lot of his ideas on how society worked, I think, came from cliches of the 1940s).

One big problem was that my parents had not prepared me for polite society, or any society at all. Their home life had a distinctly slobbovian aspect. I was utterly out of place among these callow rich kids. The school was very American, in that art was utterly despised. They had a theater where the kids were allowed to do what they wanted, but that changed after the theater teacher’s drunkenness became too conspicuous, and the new guy wanted 50s musicals and 30s farces, and nothing else. Theater became something else I wasn’t allowed to do. In the one drawing class I took, I got a ‘D.’  Worst of all, my painful adolescence in this bad environment was dragging me down into self-hatred. 

I was very out of place, but I wasn’t homesick, because I didn’t really have a home. I had never even owned a stereo. I had never had any privacy. I was completely unaccustomed to being touched by another person.

I somehow survived four years there, but my self-esteem was permanently damaged. Inside, I knew I wasn’t as good as other people. I was awkward. I was ugly. People didn’t like me. I had a fat face. I could draw, but who really cared about that. It was worthless, not something anyone could really care about. 

I wasn’t beaten, but these things festered inside me. They still do. And a lot of human interaction was still very mysterious to me. I was ignorant from my nine years in Connecticut, trapped among dull, privileged-but-unhappy white people. The least helpful and interesting people in the world.

From there, in a move that’s truly mysterious to me, I went to Syracuse University. Same thing! I stayed there one year. I had had too much America.

The next place I went was in America, but also outside it: New York City, to the School of Visual Arts. They had no dorm, and housed students in the 34th St YMCA, a truly wild and memorable introduction to mid-80s NYC. I was surrounded by freaks and eccentrics, in a chaotic and unpredictable environment. I attended classes, explored the city, and worked as a freelance electrician on the piers late at night. Life started not to seem so bad. I was in The World. There were possibilities. I’ve stayed here ever since. 

My becoming a parent has made me more aware of what my parents did right and what they did wrong. They did a lot wrong. They meant well, but they weren’t really able to grasp who I was or what I needed. And they made moves they thought would insert me into a special class, but that backfired. I don’t like or trust those people, and I resent that I look like them. My parents thought they were bringing me into polite society, but in fact they created an outsider.

I hug my son everyday. I tell him I love him and he’s beautiful. I look out for him. I try to always see his perspective and help him grow as a person. He’ll be better than me, not weighted down with self-loathing and awkwardness. He will feel easily capable of giving and receiving love, he will feel good about himself. He’s not going to be like me. And I envy him.