The first diary I bought was pink with flowers and teddy bears on it. It was small enough to fit in my pocket and, most importantly, had a lock and key. I picked it up at the book fair, along with a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Star Wars book, a How-To-Draw Monsters book, and a Roald Dahl cookbook. Throughout the day adults made gentle remarks about how “unusual” my diary was, but I was excited to have a place to write my secrets.
At home I was forced to give the diary to my little sister because, “Boys don’t keep diaries, they keep journals.” I was given a red spiral with no lock and key as a replacement. My sister returned the diary when we were alone, but I never wrote in it. I hid it under my toys, along with a dress I started wearing whenever I could lock myself in my room. I wrote in the red spiral to keep up appearances.
I still own nearly every journal I’ve ever written. They’re currently in a large box tucked away in my closet, but I still read them from time to time when I want to be embarrassed. Most of them are from my teenage years or early adulthood, but my earliest one is that first red spiral. I wrote in it while my parents got divorced during my Fourth Grade, but you won’t find anything about divorce or gender confusion in there. There’s just superhero fanfiction, complaints about adults who act like children, and notes about my favorite characters in books.
There were once pages about Ryan, the older boy down the street whose amorous advances confused but intrigued me. But after Ryan’s dad caught us spooning in his bed during a sleepover and sent him to gay camp, I ripped out those pages for fear of self-incrimination. I would go on to destroy many more pages from journals, and even more would go unwritten.
By middle school I was at least somewhat aware of my need to perform gender “correctly”, so I extended my performance to my journals on the off-chance someone might spy. These journals are my frequent insistence I am a normal Christian straight boy who gets confused sometimes. There are a lot of nice things about Jesus, a lot of thinly-veiled self-hatred wrapped around Redemption, disguised worries about my home life, and passionate daydreams about girls I was sweet on. These are almost-daily entries in which I make frantic attempts to figure out how I and the world around me work, while hiding my sneaking suspicion I’ve been given the wrong owner’s manual.
But nowhere will you find older boys exploiting me by acknowledging my girlhood. Nowhere will you find struggles to know if I was turned on by a girl or just wanted to be her. Nowhere will you find terror at growing breasts along with facial hair and the angry god believed to be responsible. Nowhere will you find repeated physical, psychological, and eventually sexual violence. Nowhere will you find the first battle with severe depression and suicidal ideation, nor victory over them. Nowhere will you find usage of drugs to numb the pain and cope with life.
Compartmentalization was the name of the game for maintaining functionality as a child. I became extremely skilled at locking problems in mental boxes so I could ignore them until I was ready to deal with them. Or when they intrusively demanded my attention. But the true goal was to annihilate those thoughts and feelings and anything associated with them. I threw away everything worn in moments I refused to think about. I cut off ties with loved ones too close to my pain. I ripped out pages and burned them as acts of contrition. Now the journals are frayed, damaged, and thinned out in odd places. There are large gaps, sometimes over the course of several months, destroyed for fear of being discovered.
By high school the performance involved in journaling must have become tiresome, as I wrote less frequently. There are the beginnings of acknowledgement of my “perversion”, as I called it then. But I still see it as something I must overcome to be worthy of love. Or even more childish, something that can only be overcome through love. These journals are convincing myself how madly in love I am with one girl or another and how True Love will cure me. There’s age-appropriate melodrama, sarcastic remarks about authority, hilarious attempts at masculine posturing, and bragging about rather minor sexual conquests with girls.
But nowhere will you find distressing and intrusive fantasies about being raped and “forced” to be a girl. Nowhere will you find growing guilt about stealing clothes from other girls. Nowhere will you find strong sexual attraction toward women but complete repulsion at my body being touched. Nowhere will you find devastatingly escalated reactions to boys’ sexual harassment. Nowhere will you find conflict between performing masculinity “correctly” and maintaining strong feminist values. Nowhere will you find ever-growing knowledge of transitioning from lurking in already-dated transsexual websites and forums late into the night.
There came a point in my life when I realized all memories are at least partially constructed based on countless factors beyond anyone’s control. Memories are not movies we pull off a shelf and play in our head, but stories we tell. And like all good storytellers, we fill in the gaps and flesh things out. We adapt the story to fit our mood. We eliminate plot holes and tie loose ends. We frame the story as part of a much larger narrative explaining who we are.
Luckily a lot of our important memories have some grounded frames of reference: Other witnesses, photographs, newspaper clippings, or even journal entries. But when you have none of those for your worst memories you start to wonder how much of it is real. You start to wonder if your memories have been sanitized to help you cope or exaggerated to reinforce fears. Then you have the sickening epiphany it’s probably both. Then you acknowledge that real or not real, the effects of those memories cannot be ignored if you want to survive.
So you take control of the story you are telling and you give it a purpose. You write a new draft based on the pages you still have. You hire an editor to help weave the narrative into something functional and cohesive. You make yourself the protagonist of your own story. Sometimes as the tragically misunderstood hero. Other times as the understandably vengeful villain. But you learn to tell your story with confidence as you become more skilled at writing it. You ignore the hacks and critics who find it easier to tear down stories than construct new ones. You love your fans and listen to their constructive criticism. You train yourself to pick up the red pen rather than rip pages out.
And if you are lucky, your new journals remain whole, regardless of whether they have a lock and key.
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