The Intersection of Queer Literature & Ghosts
We all live haunted lives.
I'm not necessarily talking about spirits lurking around corners (although for some of us, I'm sure that's the case). What I'm referring to is the acute sense of loss & mourning that lingers after we pass from one phase of our lives to another. It's that familiar ache as you look around your empty apartment for the last time. It's the heart break, the joy, as we lose & gain new friends or relationships.
I was first introduced to the concept of a haunted life when I read I'm Looking Through You by Jennifer Finney Boylan. It was one of those books I impulse-bought while perusing Indigo with a Starbucks coffee in hand. I was not disappointed.
I have an expensive habit of designer coffee & books. I often cannot leave a bookstore without at least one title tucked under my arm, most of which will likely be lost in my ever-growing TBR (To Be Read) pile. I cannot tell you how many times we have purged our bookshelves to make space for more current titles, only to find a small hoard of bookmarks, paper clips & receipts peeking out of the pages of forgotten volumes. But this was not the case with I'm Looking Through You.
Jennifer's book was the first memoir I ever read in its entirety. While it is currently one of my favourite genres, this wasn't always the case. I used to struggle with non-fiction, preferring the easy escapism of fantasy. I still read a lot of fiction, but as my own life's experiences have broadened, I have found comfort & wonder in other people sharing their own truth. Memoir is an important genre. It helps us explore perspectives we have never had the chance to develop, challenges the inherent prejudices we all hold, & offers us the opportunity to hone our empathy.
Plus, some people can just be really funny in a sardonic, dark way that is born solely from lived experience. If I can offer readers one piece of advice it's this: if you hate non-fiction, please don't give up! There is hope for you yet.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for I'm Looking Through You
I consider Jennifer's book a masterpiece. She effortlessly tracks the feeling of being haunted throughout her life to eventually expand on her haunting as a metaphor for her own journey in discovering she is transgender. In this case, she is haunted by the ghost of her true self, a self she was in the process of discovering, embodying & breathing life into. Always there, but just out of focus. It is beautiful, genuine, & full of a self love I find both humbling & admirable.
Her book has stayed with me for many reasons. Not just the lovely way she captures her experience externalizing the femininity she had always held within her, but also because it was one of the first pieces of queer literature I had ever read. It came at a time in my life when I too was discovering my queerness.
I am a cis-gen woman & I am also bisexual-- a fact I was discovering about myself when I first read it in the 2010's. Jennifer's book may always be near & dear to my heart because it sparked my love of queer literature (honorable mentions to In the Dream House by Carman Maria Machado & Greedy by Jen Winston). But after all these years, the thing that I keep coming back to, the thing that has made this particular work stand out so strongly to me, is her ability to capture a uniquely human experience: that we all live with ghosts, everyday.
Because what is our nostalgia, our memories-both good & bad- if not ghosts?
I think the trick to living comfortably in our haunted lives is to learn to differentiate between a ghost we can live with & a ghost that needs to be exorcised.
I'm haunted by 13-year-old Cassandra. She is skinny, awkward, with ill-fitting glasses & shiny purple lip gloss. She is obsessed with unicorns, horses, & sports a Super Princess t-shirt that she is convinced is the coolest thing in the world.
The year she starts 7th grade she transfers to middle school, sure she is going to meet the love of her life (spoilers: she doesn't). One day her brush gets caught in the waist length, blonde tresses, so she impulsively cuts it off when she goes in for a trim. With a new hair style, comes new clothes. Everyone was wearing Campus Crew, so she begs her mom to drive her to the nearest city & stocks up on preppy pastels with oxford collars. Mascara doesn't happen for another year, but she does ditch the glasses & wears concealer for the dark circles that are no longer hidden by her thick frames.
A few months later, she's standing by an open locker next to a boy she maybe-kind-of likes. Her potential soulmate suddenly leans past current-her, & points to past-her in the front row of the class picture hanging on the door. He jabs the photographic image, his fingerprint smearing the Super Princess t-shirt memorialized in the glossy print.
"Ew," he says, "would you look at that." She watches his eyes scan over her image. The scraggy, long hair, the lip gloss, the way the flash of the camera reflects across her glasses.
This is when she realizes how different she looks with her short hair, her contacts, the crisp downturn of her pastel collar. It's her first sense of unreality, the first time she becomes aware of her past-self infiltrating on her current well-being. She studies her ghost, the boy now squinting at the image in utter disgust. She could have said nothing. Pretended the girl was gross, which, perhaps she was. But her pride was wounded & she still was that awkward girl at heart. So, she went with the truth.
"Yeah...well, that's me."
His eyes dart nervously to her & then back to the picture, trying to find the resemblance between the two of them.
"Ah.....well....you look better now."
It was not happily ever after for Super Princess & Prince Not-So-Charming.
I look at 13-year-old Cassandra with a fondness it took years to cultivate. She was awkward, lonely & desperately afraid that she was gay (she was partially right on one account). She wouldn't realize until much later that all of these things feel easier with experience, that none of them should be feared. She lives on in my heart, taking up a baby blue room complete with a unicorn poster and all the Harry Potter & V.C. Andrews hardcopies she could ever want. I keep her around because she reminds me how a little self love can go a long way. I don't feel the need to exorcise her the way I do some of the deeper things that haunt my subconscious.
We all have things we would rather forget, experiences we wish we could have avoided or changed the outcome to. Some of mine are definitely cringe-worthy. But something I would never try to banish is my sexual orientation.
I could say something like "I wish I had known sooner," or "it was a lot to admit to myself," but neither of these statements are entirely accurate. Hell, I didn't even have a huge “a-ha!” moment where the reality of my orientation struck me like a lightning bolt. Nope. It was a lot more mundane than what you're likely anticipating.
I had crushes on boys when I was really young because I was socialized to believe that male attraction is the ultimate goal. Be pretty, be sweet, attract the boy. Boy gets girl by desiring girl from afar, pursuing girl, winning girl over after persistent wooing. It was a simple, clear heteronormative narrative that permeated the 90's pop-culture I was submerged in during my youth. In fact, I remember just picking boys sometimes & actively deciding “this is the one I have a crush on now,” because I believed that’s what girls do. They have crushes on boys, and eventually a boy will have a crush on you, too.
When I was a pre-teen, girls were easier to talk to, to connect with. I was about thirteen the first time I had an impulse to kiss my beautiful childhood friend when she did something particularly adorable. I didn't. Not because she was a girl, but simply because I lacked the gumption to make the first move with anybody at the time. The impulse did momentarily freak me out but after a brief anxiety attack, I assured myself it wasn't a big deal. I also wanted to kiss this boy in my class so, clearly, it was just a weird fluke. Since I liked boys, I was straight, duh. No need to worry.
When conversations around sexuality & dating entered the scene in my teens & 20's I was always quick to point out the men I was attracted to & the women I had "girl crushes" on (which, by the way, is just a regular crush). When a boy broke my heart, I would half jokingly say "well, I can always date girls!" to which my friends would say "yeah, if only that were an option." This is when it kind of clicked for me that maybe it simply wasn't an option for everyone.
Not everyone had the desire to connect with a person of the same gender expression. Some people actually did care about the gender of their partner, whereas I just.... liked who I liked. Sometimes they were girls, sometimes they were boys. Now I have language to include non-binary & trans people in a way I could not back then. Trust me--I flip flop every day on whether “Pansexual” is a better identity for me because it does not rely on the binary language implicit in the term “bisexual,” but that is a debate for a different article.
The first time I spoke the words "I'm Bi" I felt the blurry ghost of my sexuality rear into focus. After all, there is power in names, in the act of naming. It's how the peasant girl defeats Rumpelstiltksin & saves her first born child from his clutches. It’s why Fairy tales warn us not to give the mischievous Fair Folk our names. To give up your name is to give someone power over you. But the reverse is also true. By giving this part of myself a name, I gave it power. It took nothing from me, but rather, the act of naming fortified my sense of self. It's shocking how so many of the scary specters haunting our peripheries are actually just friendly Caspers waiting to be recognized for what they really are: harmless, misunderstood shadows.
Now, not all my shadows are misunderstood. Sometimes they truly are monstrous & are the result of my own cruelty towards myself & others. When I reflect on the intentional harm some of my actions have caused, it's hard not to feel like my spectral nightmares are undeserved. They jolt me out of peaceful slumber, coating me in cold sweat. A devil on my shoulder that screams lists of short-comings in my ear.
These are the spirits I wish to toss into Pandora's box--only to be opened when I feel the need to torture myself, to unleash havoc on the world. But I’m learning that even these have a purpose. Sometimes, as painful as it can be, a ghost can be a reminder to continuously push yourself to be a better person. They remind us of who we were & to not slip back into behaviors that ultimately hurt more than healed.
The key is learning to live with the painful parts, because these parts are where the most growth occurs. It’s where we get stronger. Broken bones may always ache with damp weather, but the limb will remain the most stable around the fault line. So, rather than banish the parts that we hate, I truly believe recognizing & incorporating them into consciousness is the superior ghost hunting tactic.
Meditation, therapy & my love of mysticism have introduced me to the concept of Shadow Work. If you don't know what that is, you're not alone. I'm still learning about it.
But in essence, it is the idea of openly & honestly exploring the deepest, darkest, corners of our minds--not just the parts we like, but the ones we hate, the ones we are scared of or embarrassed by. Once confronted, we ask these parts what they need. The idea being once we know what they need, we can explore how to make their hunger for self destructing behaviours (negative thoughts, self harm, addictions) less demanding.
It isn't about feeding the behaviour that is harming you but rather about finding out why the beast needs this thing in the first place. We ask: what do you need? Why do you need it? How can I support you in this need while honoring my current self? Then finally, we end off by expressing our acknowledgement & acceptance of that part of ourselves.
Obviously, this is an extreme cliff-notes version of a very complex concept, & a quick google search can show you a multitude of ways to incorporate this radical self-love practice into your own life, if you are curious.
I am intrigued by the idea of learning to live with my ghosts peacefully, rather than fear their hauntings the rest of my life. It's not foolproof. I know there will be times I'll be exploring the haunted mansion of my body & will discover a hidden passageway with a new boogey-man around the corner. But I am hopeful this practice may help me confront him bravely & that perhaps in time, we can become friends. Or at least casual acquaintances that both hate small talk, so we'll keep it blessedly brief.
Because in the end, these are all just parts of ourselves. All of the places, memories & experiences we carry within us may exist in the past, but that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped living them. We live & re-live them everyday. Every time we think of a memory our bodies may be here, but our minds are in another dimension, time or space. In this respect, we are all time travelers constantly confronting the spectral versions of our past selves. The versions of ourselves that helped shape us, inform us, & yes, sometimes unfortunately surprise us with a jump scare.
If I have learned anything so far, it’s that these ghosts of ours deserve to be heard & if not loved, then at least understood. Because if horror fiction has taught me anything, it’s that ignoring a restless spirit will just anger it & cause it to lash out. We don’t deserve that.
But we do deserve to live & rest in peace.
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