pulitzer prize-luminary commended author
BY LIA BRIGANTE
I have given a lot of thought to the concept of being normal. I have had to, considering I was treated as if I was totally abnormal for most of my life, for various reasons, including being gay, and a communist, and a witch, and a long list of Who Knows What the Hell Else.
I also had an extremely unstable life characterized by many upheavals both emotional and geographical. Further, as far as things looked to me, the way other people were living, and whatever they were getting out of life, I never felt like a normal person. The only people I fit in with were other people who didn’t fit in. Those of us who know about that? Enough said already. A band of pirates and miscreants.
I spent many years in therapy hoping to turn myself into a normal person. Why? Because living like a normal person is just easier. You get asked on dates, people’s parents like you, and much, much more. However, all that said, not only did I not get far in trying to make myself normal, but found that things only went from bad to worse as far as therapy was concerned.
It started when my mother sent me for an evaluation by a psychologist when I was about 10 years old. The Psychologist asked me a lot of questions and gave me a lot of tests. I was thinking to myself, This woman must be kidding, this is torture disguised as something legitimate, but of course I was too young to give expression to this belief and, anyway, my mother wanted the evaluation for reasons I didn’t understand, and she was in this thing called Therapy too, even something called Psychoanalysis, and had been for most of HER life, so there really was, unfortunately, no arguing my case in front of any Court. My case would have fallen on deaf ears and, as anyone who has ever really needed a sympathetic ear can tell you, saying nothing at all is mostly vastly better than getting a deaf ear.
Just when I thought it was all over, and maybe I was in the clear, I found out that the psychologist thought I was very ill in some way that totally escaped me, and I ended up face-to-face with this psychiatrist who asked me, during the first session, Would you rather be a boy or a girl? I thought Oh No, they are After Me About My Sexuality. After I figured out what was going on, I refused to speak to him. However, as torture usually works, I was forced to go weekly for two years, sitting in front of this guy to whom I refused to say one single word. First he took out the male and female dolls and tried to get me to play with them: sorry, no way, I know what that crap is all about. Then he tried to teach me to play chess: stick that up your ass, too. Obviously, we had loads of fun together and became lifelong friends. Not.
I would say that this did my cause absolutely no good whatsoever, but it was really much worse than that. We could ask some other people from the 50’s and 60’s, but I can tell you from First Hand Experience that two years of conversion therapy during which you will refuse to Convert is enough to send anyone into a nervous breakdown and, at the end of the two years, I was deemed to be a candidate for the loony bin at Valhallah Hospital, which was across the Hudson from where we lived, and which had quite a reputation among those-in-the-know for ensnaring and ruining the lives of youth such as myself employing such techniques as medications and electro-shock therapy. Everyone knew what was going on at Valhallah and believe me, it wasn’t good. Such were the threats facing those youths Refusing to Convert. (By the way, being a “refusenik” never wore off – if that was their intention, they were totally successful.)
Around about the End of my Therapy, I thought to myself, Self? I think it is time that you had better figure out a way to scram out of this town altogether, even if it means stealing money from your mother’s purse and running away, because you are about to come to a very bad end. Fortunately for me, my mother – despite her many years in Therapy – was a very decent person, and did not, in fact, want to send me to Valhallah, so we brokered a deal in which I went to a boarding school eight hours away in upstate New York. That met the criteria of getting me out of town, with which everyone, particularly Yours Truly, was very satisfied.
This is the beginning, not even the middle or the end, of my story; the rest will unfold over time. However, let me say this. One day a few months ago, I was sitting in my apartment feeling quite maladjusted and crazy, which, as you may be able to imagine if you think about it for one short minute, can be quite an uncomfortable feeling, in fact, enough to make one have thoughts of Doing Something Rash. And then it came to me, as ideas often do soften up while in a pressure cooker, You’ve been feeling maladjusted and crazy all of your life, because that’s how people have treated you. This is what feeling “normal” looks like for you. So just calm down, and pat yourself on the back in appreciation that you are still alive, which I did. And I have not been plagued by those feelings since. Sometimes they come and buzz around my head like flies: I swat them away.
So this is what I have to say about being normal, and certainly if you have ever felt abnormal in your life, you will understand what I am trying to Get Across here. If you have never felt abnormal, you may miss out on the point, but, as far as I am concerned, I can’t do a thing about that. The interesting contradiction is that, for me – and many like me – being normal would have meant having to learn to act like you were normal even though you weren’t and, further, never would be. Given how “normal” people treated me, they could hardly expect me to embrace it and yet, somehow, they did. Before I went to boarding school, and before I left home at 17 and disappeared into the streets, I often wondered, “What is WRONG with all these people around here?”
So screw being normal and the horse it rode in on. This is all I can tell you.
Lia Brigante is a gay woman who has been gay since she was six years old and has been living in New York City since she was 16 years old. She has lived in the Lower East Side for a Very Long Time. She began writing in 7th grade, however, because she was at an exclusive private prep school and she wrote on subjects in and the style close to what she does currently, her work was not well received at that time. In fact, she was ejected from many schools, only to go on to get her Social Work degree at Columbia University. She is currently semi-retired from Social Work and focusing on her writing while she works a minimum wage job (just like half of the people in the rest of this country. Nothing like being in good company.)