In between reading about physics, dictators like Pol Pot, Underground Railroad/slavery, addiction, and theology/comparative religion, I throw in easier reads. Last week it was the autobios of Kim Gordon and Carrie Brownstein, Girl in a Band and Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, respectively. I refer to them first of all by their names, even if they are not known to everyone, because… well, I don’t like it when I see something like “Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon”. Even if she is primarily known to the world as a member of Sonic Youth, I wonder if that is how she would want to be defined. Carrie Brownstein, by extension, could be identified with several different things, but for me, it’s just going to be the names by which they are known to the world, but not their associations. Sure, I get it that without these associations, these books wouldn’t have been published.
What I took away from these books was not the cheap thrill of some kind of name-dropping exposé or a glimpse behind the scenes into some dubiously glamorous life. In both cases, I got a confirmation that most of us are awkward bombs of iffy self-esteem and comical self-doubt, right on the edge of lighting the fuse. Each of us trips through life, having our experiences, feeling silly and out of place, believing everyone else around us is so much smarter, more sophisticated, having it all together.
It struck me in these cases because Gordon makes a point, at least twice, of describing the mismatch between the persona and the person – people have perceived her as cool, standoffish, aloof – and that is, without a doubt, the image projected. But reading what she writes about herself, that illusion crashes down.
And in the case of Brownstein, it was all the more revelatory. She and I were classmates at The Evergreen State College, both during our first year. I can’t remember a time in my life that I felt more awkward and less like I belonged somewhere. I marveled every time she spoke during seminar because she seemed to have well-formed and passionate opinions. In the years since, I have sometimes looked back on that school year, and she stood out (not as a media image, musician, comedian/actress or all the things she has become since, but as a fellow student within that moment in time) in my mind as someone who appeared to know her opinions and was able to articulate them. Maybe we all have those “people” in our minds – they were not our friends or people we knew well, but from afar, we create an image of how cool we think they are. And for me, she represented that image.
Imagine my surprise, then, to read that she was nearly traumatized by the experience of having to speak up in seminar (she, like me, was told by professors that she was too quiet, not participating enough – and our professors knew we had valid, well-considered opinions because they read our papers). In class, her voice would take on the fever pitch of what most would interpret as conviction and passion, but as she wrote, it was nervousness at just trying to get the thought out at all.
“At Evergreen, I was too nervous to speak up in class. I knew what I wanted to say but didn’t know how to interject or insert myself in a conversation. By the time I got up the nerve, my voice would be shaking, so even if I was saying something relatively innocuous or factual, I sounded like I was full of passion, emphatic, on the verge of crying. It was humiliating and my professors often noted my lack of participation.) It took a very long time to catch up with my performer self, to draw from that strength.”
I can remember very clearly sitting next to her in one of the early seminars, when she spoke quite fervently about how and why she did not relate to particular passage in one of our readings. I admired this so much, being a shy, unassuming, invisible marshmallow myself. How could I have known that she was struggling just as much as I was to say what she wanted, when she wanted to?
She wrote about trying to impress people and ingratiate herself to people she met during those years.
“…showed up to Olympia a wanderer. I had about two months until school started. I spent the first few weeks walking around downtown stopping in at the State Theater or thrift stores or the Martin apartments, places I knew people I wanted to be friends with worked or hung out. I lingered and muttered, I waited around. I was desperate to insert myself into situations, to learn, to observe. I was an archaeologist of sorts but I wanted to be a participant, to be connected and engaged. I was shy, which didn’t help. Underneath that nervousness, however, I had a cunningness and intentionality, or at least a cluelessness that was intrepid enough to get the job done. I cared too much about what people thought but also not enough. I didn’t mind that I was just hanging around. I didn’t want to be discovered, I wanted to be part of the discovery.”
I could relate; I, like many of us, I went to college essentially friendless and was starting over again. I was constantly doing stuff like offering people rides (I gave her a ride somewhere once), hoping that they’d see that I was not as lame and awkward as I seemed on the surface. I was just barely treading water (as it turns out, so were they).
Maybe this should not surprise me, but at the very least, reading both books reminded me that we are all riding the same choppy waves, sometimes in really deep water.
Photo by David Forsman