By Maria Padhila
There’s a theater / performance art / storytelling project called Mortified that I heard about a couple years ago through a young woman who has become a regional producer for the events. What happens is, you bring your journals, diaries, poems, art, etc. from your adolescence and read these aloud in front of an audience.
“Hear grown men and women confront their past with tales of their first kiss, first puff, worst prom, fights with mom, life at bible camp, worst hand job, best mall job, and reasons they deserved to marry Jon Bon Jovi,” Mortified puts it, calling it “personal redemption through public humiliation.” It has grown into productions around the nation and a cable series.
Part of the appeal lies in seeing how much has and hasn’t changed in each person. You may no longer believe you deserve Bon Jovi, and you might have learned how to give (and ask for) better hand jobs. Now you might be happily married to a woman who has a beautiful bluesy singing voice. Or you might be a singer yourself. Your young dreams and views of the world shape what you love and what you want and what you believe, but unless there’s something quite wrong, you’re not trapped within them. You change. You — excuse the term, my Evangelical friends — evolve.
Both our president and the leading Republican presidential candidate have had their Mortified-style moments recently, with incidents and writing from their younger days surfacing. A long Washington Post article went over Mitt Romney’s propensity for “pranks” at his tony prep school in the 1960s, such as leading a mob to attack and forcibly cut the hair of a fellow student the boys believed to be gay.
Although Mortified disallows content produced after age 21, on the basis of a quick read of excerpts in the Vanity Fair article, President Obama’s recently released love letters to an Aussie girlfriend, written when he was 22, would certainly qualify. That convoluted explication of T.S. Eliot, designed to impress his literary girlfriend — embarrassing!
While many express uncertainty regarding Obama’s birthdate, time and horoscope, I’d come down on the side of anyone who sees Leo and Capricorn prominent. When his girl said, “I love you,” he said, “Thank you.” That’s so Leo. Tribute must be paid. (And can you believe that? How long would you have stuck around with a dude who said such things? If you’re me, the answer would be “quite a while, if he’s hot and interesting,” because I don’t put much stock in the typical romantic stuff. But a lot of women I know would have shown him the door at that statement.) And the professorial, condescending tone of his letters, as well as the “distance,” “coldness,” and feeling of his being “old” that his girlfriend references are very much young Capricorn. They reverse-age, and it’s easy to mistake their depth for reserve (and sometimes reserve is just reserve).
For myself, I loved how damn normal it all was. A young man and woman meet at a party, warily circle each other, and hit it off. They’re smart, passionate, international, but this is no early-80s disco coke party, it’s at someone’s apartment where she can’t find a glass and just decides to drink out of the bottle, which is her usual habit anyway. A date or two and he cooks her dinner at his freezing apartment; they wake up together.
And it shows what he was struggling with at the time. Seeing his friends go into the mainstream business world of the 1980s, he wondered:
“Caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me. The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions [and] classes; make them mine, me theirs.”
Also from the David Maraniss book excerpt:
Looking back on that period from the distance of the White House, Obama recalled that he was then ‘deep inside my own head … in a way that in retrospect I don’t think was real healthy.’ But the realization that he had to ‘absorb all the traditions’ would become the rationale for everything that followed. ‘There is no doubt that what I retained in my politics is a sense that the only way I could have a sturdy sense of identity of who I was depended on digging beneath the surface differences of people,’ Obama said during an interview. ‘The only way my life makes sense is if, regardless of culture, race, religion, tribe, there is this commonality, these essential human truths and passions and hopes and moral precepts that are universal. And that we can reach out beyond our differences. If that is not the case, then it is pretty hard for me to make sense of my life. So that is at the core of who I am.’
This glimpse into his younger self gives depth and conviction to the announcement the president made last week that he supports gay marriage rights. His personal life is a testament to how deeply held feelings can change over the years. People who scoff at his profession that his thinking on gay marriage was “evolving” and don’t believe that there was a personal change there tend to gloss over the actual changes his life evidences. Here’s a real biggie: He has had close, long-term relationships with women of different races. How many people, whoever their parents, have done that? Many of us imprint on a type and stick to that. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but I would like to claim a certain sincerity for those like myself, for whom change is the only eternal.
I’m not saying I support every last thing Obama does and says, nor that I don’t believe there was any strategy in the announcement. He’s a politician, for heaven’s sake. And I spent most of my journalistic life working in majority-African-American communities. I know the political power of the conservative black churches — and the depths of their anti-gay bigotry. (Plus the depths of the closets, as well. Silence=death is still an operative equation in some worlds.)
At the same time, I respect the evolution of his thinking. He used to say: This is the LGBT community’s struggle and battle to fight. It’s not mine to lead. It’s essentially a “nothing about us without us” style of leadership, one I’d like to see more of. But can there be such a thing as a FUBU president — or must that role encompass all the diversity of a nation? That’s the paradox he spoke of as a student, and one that continues today.
I believe that changing one’s views, particularly about relationships, is not evidence of insincerity or lack of conviction, but evidence of life and compassion. It has to do with the difference between integrity and paralysis. What direction are you moving in? What’s guiding you? Convictions are for navigation.
Which brings us to another accused of flip-flopping. Romney’s ‘pranks’ sound to this reader like they run the gamut from creepy (using Eric’s definition, which includes “knowing violation of boundaries”) to full-on assault (the ‘haircut’).
Romney and his people didn’t comment to the Post, but, the paper reported: “In a subsequent interview Thursday morning with Fox News Channel, Romney said he didn’t remember the incident but apologized for pranks he helped orchestrate that he said ‘might have gone too far.’”
This is the quote from Romney on Fox News:
“I don’t recall the incident myself, but I’ve seen the reports and I’m not going to argue with that. There’s no question but that I did some stupid things when I was in high school, and obviously if I hurt anyone by virtue of that I would be very sorry for it and apologize for it.”
This would not to my mind be an example of an evolution in thinking. Nor of a person who thinks, reflects on life, reflects on himself, the world, or others. It’s flat thinking. The ‘if you were hurt, I apologize’ non-apology is so common these days that I fear we’re used to it and just go with it. It doesn’t count. It doesn’t work. I don’t accept this apology.
I have been bullied pretty much as long as I can remember, and there are still some who would like to continue the practice today, but I’m good at evading those types now. I didn’t start getting bullied for my sexuality as early as did others, however, which might be a fortunate thing for me. It was almost with a sense of relief that my tormentors (who changed as I changed schools and environments) were able, as adolescence dawned, to pin their hatred for me on my being a ‘slut’. Before that, I was just weird and unsettling and they couldn’t say why.
This was in the days before there were Goths in every small town. I was lucky to run away to a city where I could find some artists and musicians and weirdos as well as some mainstream types who liked crazy young women like me. Certainly some used me, but could I submit that this was mutual? And I was never bullied among them.
The bullying for being perceived as genderqueer, is, I think, probably the worst kind. I think this even though I haven’t been the victim of it. Those who are bullied because they’re poor, or have a bad time at home, or have a disability can still have the grain of hope and sanity at their core that this is not happening to them because of something they are, but because of their circumstances. Bullying because of gender identity strikes at the heart of who a person is.
But I don’t want to get in a victim competition. I’m saying this only to say how deeply horrifying it is that such assaults as Romney was said to be involved in happen so often and that they happen at all. And I’m mortified that we’d consider it so inconsequential that we’d be OK with electing someone who had done such a thing to run our country.