Last Saturday I took an acting master class with Constance Macy at Cardinal Stage Company. In one of the exercises, two people took the stage with a set of keys. Person A was supposed to try to get the keys from Person B. Their only line was, “Give me the keys.” Person B could speak if they wanted, but they were not to give up the keys. It was an exercise in seeing how many interpretations could be brought to a single line. It was also an exercise in responding to what your partner gives you, similar to the “Yes, And” improv game.
There were two pairs who went before me and I saw them being clear, powerful, wheedling, seductive, and threatening. But nobody was doing what I felt in my gut. I jumped up at the next chance and took the keys. I would be the “no” character. My partner was a tall, middle-aged, talented man who is currently working on Les Mis at Cardinal. I felt a little intimidated because I’d seen him in a few things and he definitely knows his stuff.
Unlike the people before us, he’d come up with a reason for wanting the keys: I had had too much to drink and he didn’t want me driving home. This was a good reminder to me to give lines a context. But I was immediately belligerent. “No fucking way. You want the keys, come and get them!” He circled around me (everybody did that, it must have been the most obvious character choice) but I stayed hostile and kept my distance.
Then I followed my instincts and got right up in his face. He was yelling at me and I was giving it right back. I felt adrenaline coursing through me and I was on a kind of high as I prepared to fight him. I held the keys in my right hand up near his face, taunting him. He grabbed that arm really hard and stared me down, really angry, really wanting the keys, yet not willing to take it to the next level and hit me. I then did something quintessentially me: I tossed the keys from my right hand to my left hand right in front of his face. No words, just the motion that said, “Ha ha, I am in control here, I’m going to show you how puny you are.” I felt like I was a teenager. He squeezed my arm even harder (Method, anyone? I thought for sure I would bruise, it hurt all day) and we just continued staring each other down, right in each other’s faces, until the instructor called “Enough!”
I found it fascinating that it was so easy for me to go back into that part of myself. After I was molested by a friend’s father when I was between 8 and 10, I started beating up boys. I had all this rage inside of me and I resented the societal order that gave all the privileges to men. I never beat up girls; rather, I was their protector. Especially as we got older and the boys started making unwanted sexual advances on the girls, I would call them out after school or at the football games (I eventually was banned from the games for fighting so much) and I would beat the crap out of them.
I was under a lot of pressure to stop fighting. My parents, the principal and vice-principal, the teachers—all the adults in my life wanted me to “stop acting like a boy.” They wanted me to be “ladylike.” My vice-principal said, “Carol can’t decide if she wants to be a boy or a girl.” The pressure just mounted and mounted. I still feel it as a physical weight, pressing me down.
And so I snapped. The same year I stopped fighting boys, I started cutting myself. That was acceptable. That was ladylike.
For most of my life, people have been uncomfortable around me. I have been a polarizing figure. The way I look, the way I talk, the way I move, the way I think, the values I hold dear, are all threatening to a lot of people. And they try to disappear me. Self-mutilation was a good thing for them because it could always be ignored. I could come to the dinner table swathed in bandages and not a word would be said, but if I punched a boy in the face there were his parents to contend with. Better that I should be docile.
When I was 17 I started fighting again, only this time it wasn’t physical. And it was against injustice in general, not just men. I protested with words and deeds but I had been converted to non-violence and civil disobedience. My family didn’t respond well to that. We were a classic alcoholic family and I was threatening to disrupt the lie that we were happy and normal. They turned against me in the end. It got physically violent. My therapist says that was their fault but I still feel responsible because I was so provocative.
There was one time where one of my brothers and I were in a room yelling at each other. He reached his limit and tried to flee. I dashed over to the door before he could get there and, just like on Saturday, got right in his face and taunted him. He grabbed me by the throat and threw me across the room. I got up in a flash and charged after him down the hallway, screaming, “You’re shit! You’re shit! You look down inside yourself and all you see is shit!” It was true and I was reveling in the freedom of finally yanking the rock up and exposing the sordid underbelly of our family dynamic. By “forcing” him to be violent towards me, I had exposed him. And I was on cloud nine.
There were other incidences, all following the same pattern. It was not pretty. But I actively wanted them to be violent towards me, to break the lie that said we were a happy family. I hated the deceit of the dysfunction we were living. There came a moment where my life was in danger and all I could think was, “Do it.” Not just because a part of me wanted to die. More than that, it was so that it would prove, once and for all, that we were not the controlled, polite family projected in Sears portraits on the wall. I would rather die than perpetuate the lie.
And apparently that impulse is still somewhere inside me. Don’t piss me off. 😉