A life of many roles
Source: Mark O’Connell
Dear Kid Self:
Good news! Your life as an adult is a thousand times better than it is now. Mostly because you get to be you—everything you are and have the potential to be. Openly.
I know this is hard to imagine. Right now most of your impulses, desires, and dreams are hiding for dear life in the darkest reaches of your mind. Whenever your fellow humans catch a glimpse of you through the cracks, they beat you further out of sight–like a frightening game of whack-a- mole. You are greeted with ridicule, repulsion, and aggression for simply speaking, playing, or making the slightest gesture. Your nearest and dearest wince in painful embarrassment when you try to enjoy yourself in mixed company. You are made to believe it’s your fault for being you—for causing everyone around you great discomfort by your mere existence. “Can’t you turn it down a notch?” you are told, when you’re not threatened, mocked, lisped at, and called “faggot” (among other words, “fairy,” “pansy,” words that almost sound like flattering descriptions of you, if the deliveries weren’t so palpably dehumanizing). “How did I get so wildly unlucky,” you wonder, “to somehow be all the things everyone hates the most?”
Your only option is to make futile daily attempts to hide what everyone can see: that your interests and expressions tend to be a bit “girly”–which also somehow damningly implies to people, accurately in this case, that you are attracted to men. Your efforts to cover your queerness only humiliate you more, as you try and fail to play sports you don’t like or understand, and shamelessly pay the shame forward to others (“I’m not the queer, he is…”), moving further and further away from the person you actually want to be. A genuine, playful, generous person. But in what ecosystem might that person actually exist, when every move you make sets off alarms? How can you be free when even the most curious and compassionate people around you keep you in a bind of lose/lose by saying things like, “I don’t care if a person is gay, as long as he doesn’t act gay.”?
Listen up. Years from now you will unpack the problematic concept of “acting gay” in multiple pieces of writing (e.g., here, here, here, here, and here) and encourage people of all sexualities and gender expressions to claim their own self-narratives. But in the meantime, I want you to focus on the word act. This is a magic word for you. Acting will allow you to not only survive, but to live. The word, act, does not mean to be fake, but rather to express a vast spectrum of truth. Through your love of acting you will discover and rediscover what it feels like to be you, in all of your authentic multiplicity.
That’s right. There is no one you, no one self, waiting to be uncloseted. In the words of Louisa May Alcott, you are “a great many things.” As you use your body, voice, and imagination to tell stories about various lives, you will get to inhabit myriad versions of you. Some of the roles you play will be within your familiar range, but many more will be thrillingly beyond your everyday self. These portrayals will feel like escapes at first, but eventually you will come to realize and accept that all of these selves are you—parts of you that had been waiting in the wings all along, and mercifully brought to life in the spotlight through creative play.
In college you will discover yourself to be a mischievous Hamlet. And then you will play Hamlet again and drop deeper into his underlying grief and loss–feelings you know all too well, but had never before found a way to share. You will get to be unapologetically intimidating, funny, sweet, sadistic, masochistic, hotheaded and hopelessly romantic—and have the opportunity to be in love with men and women. You will experience being the object of desire, which must be completely unfathomable to you now, as you have been taught to hate everything about your physical form. You will see the world through the eyes of an ambitious, wheelchair-using law student who struggles to be seen, as well as a gun-obsessed teenager whose emotional suffering and isolation lead to fantasies of attacking his high school, but is redirected by a friend who takes an interest in him. (The Boston Globe will write of your performance that you are a “good macho lunkhead,” which is gratifyingly ironic, having been tormented by so many guys of that description for most of your life). You will recognize that your years of private self-loathing– which led to a suicidal gesture at age 16–will be repurposed artistically and pro-socially, as you breathe every lash of pain into your characters, and bring both them and you to life. You will develop your capacity to be a wide variety of people, who may at first seem very different from you on the surface.
You will also gradually integrate the qualities you explore as an actor into your everyday self, and appreciate that absolutely everything you couldn’t be as a boy can be fully embodied by you as a man. Your effeminate/ “queeny” voice will live alongside your deep and commanding voice, as well as your vulnerable, empowered, nurturing, seductive, jovial, silly, awkward, rageful, brave and guarded voices. They are all yours. Other people will laugh and say, “You don’t sound like yourself today…” but you will have the last laugh, because you alone will know that the voice they hear on this day is just as authentic as the one they heard on the last. Your voice/your self will eventually become a cohesive mosaic of every fear, failure, and disappointment, every desire, dream, and ambition, every ecstatic achievement and devastating loss, and every conflicting fragment of joy, despair, pride, and shame that makes you you. You will eventually answer the question, “Are you a top or a bottom?” with a simple, unconflicted, “Yes.”
But the greater reward is that this journey doesn’t end with you. Your broader motivation is to embolden other people to find creative and meaningful ways to live their lives and relate to one another–to both see and be seen. You will start a theater company that gives audiences, actors, writers, directors, and various artists opportunities to experience and express themselves through characters and stories that transcend norms, traditions, and expectations. You will take your ceaseless interest in the complexity of human life further, and become a therapist. (After all, who says we must be defined by only one identity, one career?) As a clinician, you will participate in “scene work” with multitudes of clients, each one of whom you will invite to become a versatile performer of their own life, while they in turn challenge and inspire you to do the same. Some of your clients will be queer like you, some will be queer not at all like you, and many of them will see themselves as “straight” but feel liberated by your queer sensibilities.
Much like your characters, you will have preconceived ideas about your clients at first. But you will be delightfully surprised and enlightened by them, through the playful explorations you embark on together. You will walk some of them back from the edge–just as significant people recognized and cared for you at your darkest hours. And you will endlessly seek ways for both you and your “scene partners” to live and play, openly, in the light.
You will also reflect on this creative, collaborative life of yours and recognize how all of the agony of not “fitting in” those first few years as a boy is directly responsible for the full and rich life you will live as a man–complete with empathic, reciprocal relationships. You will marry the love of your life and experience the miracle of being a parent. You will truly know what it is to have and to be a friend. You will create a job for yourself that you love. But you will also appreciate that you cannot be defined by any one of these gifts; that there is no one linear narrative of you waiting to bust the closet door open. You are a combination of diverse flickers of life–many of which are yet to be discovered–that you will gradually realize and incorporate into a work of art you will call a self. (Please trust me: I write this only months before your book, The Performing Art of Therapy, will be published–a project that integrates your years of practicing empathy and self-expansion as an actor, therapist, and complex human being.)
I don’t want to minimize your fear, doubt, and misery right now. I know you feel more alone than anyone on the planet, and I understand why. But please believe that your capacity to feel and to be “a great many things” will allow you to breathe, to live, and to connect deeply with a spectrum of different people, for years and years to come.
Your Older Self
Copyright Mark O’Connell, LCSW-R, MFA