Sixteen years ago, while hiding out in academia recovering from three dramatic events that occurred within a twelve month period, the greatest of which was the death of my older brother, I took a creative nonfiction writing course in which we were to write responses to the stories we read.
One story was Reading Lolita in Tehran, which I strongly suggest you read if you’ve not already done so.
This is what came from that.
I see myself as both villain and victim.
My apartment, and I’ve lost count as to how many of them in which I have lived, is lined with boxes of various sizes and misplaced furniture. I do not know if I move because the villain knows the victim is getting too close to knowing herself and insists that this not be the case. Or because the victim is too afraid of what and who she is. Or because she struggles to be free of the villain’s constraints and thinks, foolishly, if she moves, she will be rid of them.
I take them both with me — the villain and the victim.
The only thing I do here in this cell, with its pricey kitchen appliances, garden-style tub and Berber carpet, this cell I have stuffed with pieces from Restoration Hardware and Storehouse Furniture — I do not know who chooses the pieces, whether it’s the villain or victim attempting to make my prison seem more livable — the only thing I do here is sleep.
I am like the butterfly — or moth — nailed to a wall. For awhile I was innocent, carefree, happy, beautiful. Then at the age of eight I became aware that I was not beautiful because my peers were kind enough to point out my many physical short-comings. I became aware that I was fragile, clumsy, easily scarred both mentally and physically. I learned that my body was not made like everyone else’s and being different, however unintentional, was wrong.
Eventually I learned not to wonder at the differences. I learned to hide them as best I could. I learned what things I should like and what things I shouldn’t. That even if one has all of the things that are “cool”, she is not necessarily so.
Nabokov wrote: “Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form.” Why is it, upon reading this sentence, curiosity immediately seems wrong? Then, I think about it further and realize it isn’t wrong at all. It’s fabulous, really. My mother jokes that the first words I learned weren’t “Mama” or “Dada”, but “What would happen if…?”
To this day, I wonder.
I wonder what it would be like to be better. To be some character in one of my idol’s romance novels, like Margo, whose perfectly sculpted physique hides an amazing amount of insecurity, or Laura, whose femininity hides an amazing amount of strength, or Kate, whose abrasive persona hides an amazing amount of femininity. I have reread the tales of these three women numerous times, not because I see myself in any of the characters but because I like them the best and because, just for a second, I can escape the monotony and ugliness of my own colorless world.
But I am not myself when I read. I am a ghost, a shadow, a voyeur of some contrived reality.
I am only myself when I write. But the villain only lets me see so much of me at once. Or is it the victim that does?
You describe Lolita as a “small, vulgar, poetic, and defiant, orphaned heroine.” I read that and thought, briefly, you might be describing me. I can’t be certain, because, of course, I am not certain of who I am, but there are times I would use most of those words to describe me. I am small. Not physically, really. I am nearly 5’8, which is fairly tall for a woman. But I am* the smallest person in my family — the shortest, the lightest — and so I feel small. Few people in this world could doubt the vulgarity of my tongue and actions. I have done things in my life I feel an immense hatred towards myself for doing, the most vulgar of which is having given in to the constraints of society’s whims and, thus, losing myself. I like to think of myself as poetic though I wonder if this is true. Defiant? Sometimes I am certain I can be. Orphaned? I would say yes to this as well, though my parents still inhabit this Earth, still claim me as their own. But the world has rejected me, and I have rejected myself. So I am no heroine.
Manna identified Nassrin as a “contradiction of terms”. I am a contradiction, too, but only because I do not know who I am, and, thus, my identity changes, as do my moods, on a daily basis. You describe Nassrin as a Cheshire cat. And so am I.
You say a person becomes a villain because he or she never wonders, never is curious about anything but himself. That is another reason why I say I am a villain. Because I can be selfish. Because my curiosity can be quite limited to things that concern me and only me. I do not wonder why the world turns so much as why mine turns in such an ugly way. I have to remind myself to ask my friends how their worlds turn after having vented for many minutes as to how mine does.
You write: “They invaded all private spaces and tried to shape every gesture, to force us to become one of them, and that in itself was another form of execution.” I feel, much of the time that I died many years ago. That my body clings to this Earth simply because it is stronger than my soul. I died because I forgot what it was to be myself. Because I chose to value others’ definitions of me as opposed to my own. I was talking to my mother about this book earlier. Asked her to pick one word to define me that encompassed every aspect of my personality. Her word was “effervescent”, because when I’m in a good mood, I’m bubbly. When I’m in a bad one, I’m still bubbly, but the bottle is corked and bound to explode. I told her that I didn’t know if I could choose one word that sufficiently described me because I don’t know me. She reminded me that a counselor I’d seen in the seventh grade had said I knew myself. Maybe I did then. Maybe. But somewhere along the way I’ve forgotten. Somewhere along the way, my soul grew weary and eventually slept.
You say, often, throughout the second part of the book that you felt irrelevant. I have felt irrelevant since I was eight years old. Nothing, nothing I do seems to matter. Nothing inspires me to feel that my life is worthwhile. For decades I have struggled to find some reason for my being here. Always trying, always reaching. Always falling short, always failing. How does one cope with this?
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster” — Nietzsche. I fought monsters as a child: my peers, who thought I was worthless and told me so at every opportunity, that the world would be better off without me in it; my teachers, who had no idea how to reach me and, sometimes, gave up, recommending that I be placed in special education classes. Had I not been so intelligent, had my parents not had so much faith in me, those few teachers would have gotten their way, and I would never have graduated from high school, never gotten a college degree, never had the opportunity to consider going to graduate school. I would have found a way to let my body sleep with my soul a long time ago. But I forced myself to go to school every day and fought them. I was not so careful, though, in protecting myself from becoming one, for I am as judgmental, as shallow as my peers were, and bitter, too.
Now I see myself as an irrelevant, monstrous, villainous victim.
Perhaps the only reason my body survives is because somewhere, in some cell, there is this notion that eventually, my soul will wake and rejoice. But as I grow older I become more resolved to my former peers’ insistence that I am, in fact, worthless.
I take these thoughts home, to my cell, each night.
And the only way I sleep is by taking two Tylenol PM tablets.
*At the time this was written, this was true. Now? Definitely not.
I was thirty-one when I wrote this. I am forty-seven now. I wish I could say I felt differently about life but the only difference between that version of myself and this one is that my cell is now a room in my parents’ house because solitary confinement was killing me.
Originally published August fourteenth, ‘sixteen.