Happy Birthday to Me: Self-Reflection and Self-Love

still-alive45 years ago today, I was born during a snow storm to a single mom who had every reason to be afraid of her new role. She was about to get divorced from her abusive husband, my birth father, and she was a young white woman living in rural Pennsylvania who just gave birth to a bi-racial baby. The doctor, believing that she was a threat to herself given her choice in sexual partners, gave her a tubal ligation so she couldn’t have any more children. I’m sure he believed he was doing the right thing, but he never bothered to ask her what she wanted. In fact, her parents gave the doctor permission to perform the procedure, “for her own good.” That’s how I came into this world. Born on Valentine’s Day 1972 in a blizzard to a woman who was subjected to physical and emotional abuse, sexism, and racism.

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Despite our rough start as mother and child, we’ve both survived and have many interesting stories to tell. She wasn’t always prepared for her role as my mother, and I don’t hold that against her because I struggle as a mom, too. Being a mom isn’t easy, but it’s especially difficult when you do it without any help from a partner. My mom was a single parent until I turned five, when she remarried. She worked full-time, but lived at home with her parents who not only condemned her choices in men, but also treated her like a child until I turned four and we moved out. So, for the most part my grandmother raised me. I don’t doubt that she loved me, but she was often misguided in how she showed her love. For instance, one of her first nicknames for me was “my little nigger.” Shocking, right? Well, here’s why I think it’s shocking. She genuinely believed that since people were obviously going to call me “nigger,” if she used that word as term of endearment my feelings would never be hurt. I’m just going to stop right there and let you soak that in.

Why am I dredging up these painful stories on my birthday? Well, because birthdays should be about taking a look back at the previous year or years of your life to get a sense of where you’ve been and where you might be going. Birthdays should have a certain level of self-reflection, so that we gain a better understanding of who we were, who we are, and who we hope to become. And, if like me, your birthday is on Valentine’s Day, you can spend a lot of the day wondering why you’re still single.

People often tell me how much they appreciate my dark sense of humor. Here’s a little secret, without my dark sense of humor, I never would have made it this far in life. Laughing at the things that make me and other people uncomfortable and finding beauty in darkness and the things that dwell there have been a part of my survival toolkit for as long as I can remember.

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I have suffered from depression since I was a child, but it was never officially diagnosed until I was in college. I’ve been in and out of therapy ever since then and plan to stay in therapy, because I don’t think there will ever be a time in my life when I don’t need it. It is only recently that I have begun to look closely at the events in my childhood that shaped me into the person I have become. A sensitive woman plagued by self-doubt who constantly fights to keep the shackles of low self-esteem from pulling her down into the depths of a depression she cannot claw her way out of even if she wanted to. My past experiences and relationships with family, friends, lovers and strangers have made me strong and taught me lots of valuable life lessons. I use my wit and creativity to interact with a world I often want to hide away from. I am an introvert with a desire to meet new and interesting people. I have MAJOR trust issues, so if I allow you to enter the wall I’ve built to keep pain at bay, don’t take that lightly, because I have a supply of bricks to shut you out at a moment’s notice. I am a loyal friend, a generous lover, and my love extends to ALL of humanity. I’m often disgusted by the behavior of my fellow humans, but my understanding of the darkness that dwells in our hearts has given me a solid appreciation of monsters and how they sometimes behave better than we do. We shouldn’t fear monsters; we should fear what creates them.

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A few days ago, I had a tarot reading done by a friend who envisions me as being trapped in a circle or cycle that is preventing my next stage of growth. But she reminded me that all I need is a small crack in that circle to let the light of creativity and hope into my life. She told me to try some different ways of approaching my writing, which I’ve been struggling to do lately. She told me to remember to breathe, and take time to take deeper breaths so that my brain and body can function properly. She also reminded me that I am strong and have faced many obstacles and overcome disappointment and heartache many times. I already have the tools I need to figure out what happens next. She told me to use the following mantra and imagine myself opening up to the endless possibilities that life and the Universe have to offer:

I am a powerful creator. I manifest with ease.

I’ve been saying this to myself regularly over the last few days and I’m beginning to feel better. I’ve been trying to reconnect with my power source, and pay closer attention to how I’m feeling and why I’m feeling that way. She also reminded me that I can choose what I give power to – people, situations, objects – I can decide how to feel about whatever is happening to me. She recommended that I sit down and list my intentions, the things I want most to happen in my life and the kind of people I want to attract and spend my valuable time with this year and for years to come.

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I haven’t started writing that list, but I’ve been thinking about it. I’m going to spend some more time drafting and editing that list over the next few weeks and months. This is a time of healing and growth for me. I know I need to schedule time alone and do the things that comfort me and make me happy. I need to give some serious thought to how people make me feel. If they are a constant source of stress or anxiety, and take more than they give, they can no longer be part of my life. I’m cleaning house – my heart, my mind, my body, my soul.

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While those early experiences, and other horrible experiences I don’t feel like mentioning right now, had a hand in shaping the person I have become, I am choosing to move forward. I want to leave as much of that negative bullshit behind me as I can. It has no place in my future. I don’t want to be a prisoner of my past. I have too many important things to do with my life. I have stories to write. I have adventures to plan. I have new friends and lovers to meet. And right now, I want to channel my energy to healing my heart, to writing and publishing, and finding a career that matches my passion and doesn’t simply pay the bills. I want to be open to receiving the love I want and deserve. I want to travel and discover new stories to tell. And, I want to show myself the same amount of love I give to others. I’m going to keep believing in true love – even if my true love turns out to be me. Actually, I’m hoping my true love is Tom Hiddleston, or Michael Fassbender, or David Tennent, or Tom Ellis, or at the very least someone with a sexy accent. But honestly, I’d prefer one of the fictional characters they portray. Just kidding. Sort of.

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So, on the first day of this forty-fifth year of my life, I am ready to live the life I crave. A life I have the power to create for myself.

Fear Is the Mind-Killer: Barriers to Love

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“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” — Rumi

I stumbled across this quote attributed to Rumi this morning, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just a coincidence. Last night I had a moment of clarity while lying in bed waiting for the chorus of “what if” to quiet down. I realized that I had never given 100% of myself in any of my romantic relationships. There are pieces of myself I keep hidden, because my fear of rejection usually outweighs my desire and willingness to give someone my love. I have given some people – the anointed few – a peek behind the curtain. Most of those people know who they are, because they have bared their souls to me too. These glorious and often unholy alliances mean more to me than all the professions of love from people who have fallen out of my heart and been buried in the graveyard where I hold imaginary funerals in a dark corner of my mind. People who have hurt me beyond the point of redemption and still hoped to keep me on a shelf for emergency purposes. However, I’m not an object or a “someday” placeholder. I’m a living, breathing human being full of passion, dark humor, rage, intelligence, curiosity, fear, hope, aspirations, goals, childhood dreams, nightmarish memories, and yes, love.

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Regardless of what you may think of me, if you know me at all, I am full of love. My close friends, people who have touched me in some meaningful way, and my family will tell you that. I believe some people are able to see that the moment they meet me. I’ve actually had people tell me that I glow. And sometimes, I see it reflected back to me. But in several of my romantic relationships, people have seen that as a sign of weakness and exploited it until they broke me. The ability to love after be broken time and time again is not weakness. Each time I have fought my way back out of a deep depression to resurface as a reconstructed version of myself, I have learned to love my stitched-together parts a little bit more.

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Typically, when people have broken my heart or been so unspeakably shitty to me in a relationship I choose to end, I make a point of never speaking to them again. Of course, there are exceptions, but those relationships are still tainted in some way. When I was younger and naïve enough to believe that if you keep showing people kindness they’ll treat you the same way, I attempted to remain in the lives of my exes. And, almost 100% of the time, all that did for me was keep a wound open for continual doses of pain and grief. Yet, I am ever hopeful that someday I will be able to maintain a friendship with someone even after I have handed them my heart and they decided to keep the receipt in order to return it. Time will tell, but my ability to confront my fears is the key.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” ― Frank Herbert, Dune

Right now, I’m more concerned about the realization that I have never felt safe enough to give myself completely to someone. Maybe we’re not really meant to do that. Maybe the fear of losing myself, not just simply of being rejected, keeps me from opening myself up to being loved as a whole and wonderfully flawed person. Intellectually, I know that fear should never be stronger than love, but nothing is ever that simple. Like physical injuries, emotional and psychological scars teach us to fear being hurt again. Today I wrote the following words in my journal:

I want to meet someone who allows me to feel safe enough to give 100% or more.

I’m not sure that person exists, and each year I doubt it more and more. But, even if that person does exist, it’s up to me to trust them enough, to trust myself, to give them all of myself. Or at least, all that is left of me after years of being disappointed and broken. Whatever I have to give that I’m not giving to my son. My friends know and love me enough that they’re often willing to spare a little of the love I give them to share with the new people who come into my life. I try to do the same for them. I’d like to think that love is a renewable resource that we can all accept and give without end. I hope that’s true.

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Whether or not I meet someone worthy of all my love, and give them an all-access pass to my soul, I still have to work on what is preventing me from being open to that possibility. I need to gain a better understanding of my fears. Heal the wounds left by the people who weren’t worthy. Love is a fire burning inside me, and like a phoenix, I will rise from the ashes.

Ghosts of Valentine’s Days Past

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I’ve been nursing a slight case of melancholy for the last few weeks brought on by a recent heartbreak. I say mild case because I seem to be pulling myself together much faster than I did the last time I found myself in this state of mind – this state of being characterized by self-doubt and a deep sense of hopelessness. Of course, the last time I found myself here, I was not only suffering from the grief associated with the loss of a romantic relationship, but also the after effects of being manipulated by a mind-fucking, lying, narcissist. If I can survive what my therapist called “a mild case of Stockholm Syndrome,” then I can pretty much get through anything, right? Right.

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February has always been a bit of a turbulent month for me. Primarily because it is my birth month. I was born on February 14. Valentine’s Day. A day characterized by grotesque gestures of forced affection and inflated expectations of being showered with insincere overtures of love and romantic gifts like heart-shaped boxes of candy and grocery-store-bought bundles of roses.

Having your birthday land on a holiday is a pain in the ass for most people. I feel sorry for the folks who were born on Christmas who often get cheated on the gift front, but since my birthday falls on Valentine’s Day, I can only express so much sympathy.

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If I had a dollar for each time a romantic relationship ended on or near my birthday, I’d have…well…$5.00. I seem to be perpetually single on my birthday. Some years have been worse than others. Some years I wished I was single, because the relationship I was in at the time was absolutely miserable. Watching someone you used to care about scramble to impress you with gifts and acts of kindness to prove their affection for you on Valentine’s Day is like watching firemen pull charred corpses out of a burning car crash. You hate to look, but morbid curiosity gets the better of you.

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I once dated a guy, a vegetarian, who cooked me a whole duck for my birthday. Before you get all weepy and think’ “how romantic,” this guy was a vegetarian because he hated animals and refused to “eat their dead corpses.” I had two cats at the time that he barely tolerated and constantly threatened to kill. He put a lot of time and effort into preparing that meal, but each time he did something nice for me, whether it was my birthday or not, there always seemed to be an undertone of resentment. Even though he was a good gift giver, the gesture was always spoiled by his nearly psychotic need for gratitude. The duck was delicious, but his expectation for me to give him my undying appreciation made it a bit hard to swallow. You see, we dated for nearly five years. Lived together for three. And each time someone asked him when he was going to pop the question, he’d say “I do all the time, when are you going to clean the cat box.” He cracked himself up every time he said it. Yeah, he was a real keeper.

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I should have left him after the first year we were together, because in hindsight, he was a textbook abuser of the emotional and psychological variety. His specialties were back-handed compliments, comparing me to other women in his life, and making me feel like my goals were pipe-dreams. But he had no problem taking credit for all the thankless support he claimed to provide when I reached those goals time and again. Goals I reached despite his constant stream of bullshit geared toward making my self-esteem non-existent.

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What was the final straw that broke the camel’s back? Seeing him, a 41-year-old man, throw a temper tantrum because he couldn’t get his Oomp Loompa Halloween costume together fast enough. Watching a grown man cry over a Halloween costume kind of cuts off the last shred of desire for him you might be clinging to. FYI, temper tantrums are a HUGE turn off. And just for the record, so are Oompa Loompa costumes. Everyone knows Willy Wonka is the sexy one.

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Perhaps the fact that I am single most years on my birthday, or wished I was, is one of the Universe’s cruel little jokes at my expense. Or perhaps the Universe has been trying to show me a different path that doesn’t involve romantic relationships. At least, not until I am stronger, more confident, and completely in love with the person I am becoming – or perhaps always was. I was just too busy fighting against men who were trying to steal my strength to make up for a lack of their own.

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This time feels different. I’m not nearly as angry as I used to be when a romantic relationship came to an end. I don’t feel completely alone and helpless. Maybe that’s because the relationship itself was good. You would think that when a good thing comes to an end you’d be more upset about it than when a terrible thing comes to an end, but no. It’s weird, I feel more hopeful about what happens next whether I have a significant other in my life or not. I’m trying to learn that I am enough on my own. I still hope to find someone who wants to stay in my life to share and grow, and build something together. But before that can happen, and be a real thing, I know I have to be ready to welcome that person into my life. I’m getting closer to that, but I’m not quite there. I still have a lot of personal demons to confront, but rather than condemning myself for having those demons, I’m going to embrace them and try to figure out how to turn them into positive aspects of my life.

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My birthday is 11 days away. This year I want to use this time for reflection and planning. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve been living my life on too small of a scale. There are much bigger goals I’ve had in mind since I was a child and before I allowed people to do their best to crush my dreams. I want to see more of the world. I want to reconnect with my old friends who live in other parts of the country and in Europe. I want to write more. I want to push myself to become the healthiest version of myself ever. I want to make new friends and build stronger relationships with the ones who are already close to me, the ones who are always there for me no matter what.

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And, while I’m doing these things and making more plans, I’ll continue to work through the events in my past that have left deep, shadowy scars on my psyche by seeing my therapist and writing about my life, my fears, and my dreams.

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I’m sad that I lost my lover, but I’m going to be okay. I always manage to pick myself back up and move forward. I fully expect to have days where I cry unexpectedly because the melancholy that took roost in my heart and mind when I was a child demands to be heard.

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But I’m not going to allow that melancholy to be my compass. I want my goals and aspirations to be my guides, with the hope that the successes that follow will keep leading me toward the person I want to be. The person I believe to be my true self. My happier self. My whole self.

10 Things I’ve Learned While Walking Life’s Path Alone

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Next month, (in 19 days to be exact), I will turn 45. In my mid-40’s, my identity is as malleable as it is fixed, and transformation is not only a process, but also a goal. My identity is also complex and for the first time in my adult life I am beginning to truly appreciate that complexity, because that complexity is what makes me uniquely me. 2017 is still in its infancy, but a lot has happened since the beginning of the year. Not only in the world, but in my personal life as well. As I ease into this new year – still walking this path by myself – I’ve taken some time for self-reflection rather than burdening myself with resolutions I may not be able to keep. I mean, seriously, why create additional heartache for yourself when there are plenty of opportunities for it to find you out in the world?

Pain is a symptom of transformation, and pain is a fact of life if you’re actively living it. Like it or not, pain teaches us how to become better people if we are willing to learn its lessons. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve lived through my fair share of pain. And, because I am a sensitive person, a loving person, and willing to accept others into my life, sometimes things get messy. I’ve had lots of different kinds of relationships and this variety of relationships has taught me a lot about humanity and more importantly, myself.

I am a divorced, middle-aged, three-time college-educated, feminist, left-wing oriented with a heavy dose of secular humanism, single woman of color writer raising a young boy alone. These identifiers are only a small cross section of the other aspects of my life that make me who I am. People are always telling me how strong, interesting, and amazing I am, but despite all of my wonderful and complex attributes, I am still single. I continue to walk my life path alone. Am I happy about that? No. But, I’m beginning to understand that this is my life and if I don’t accept it, embrace the reality that I will most likely be walking this path alone for quite some time, I will never be happy with myself. So, in the nearly 45 years of my life, I have learned some things that I’d like to share with you, if like me, you find yourself walking your path alone.

Be kind to yourself. Self-care is important because it allows us to be healthy enough to deal with whatever is coming our way. Taking steps to maintain your best level of health enables us to not only do the daily things that are expected of us and take care of the people we love in our lives, but it also helps us build a reserve of strength in order to manage our lives better in times of crisis and loss.

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Be kind to others. Everyone experiences pain. Their pain might not be the same as your pain, but they are still learning how to navigate the unexpected disappointments and hurts that life throws our way. It isn’t necessarily your responsibility to help people get through their pain, but a kind word, a smile, or a thoughtful gesture may be all they need to get through the rest of the day, or in some cases, through the next moment. You can’t solve everyone’s problems or rescue them from whatever it is that is hurting them or blocking their progress, but you can treat them the way you wish to be treated. Kindness is free (unless you allow people to abuse it). And here’s the really confusing part that has taken me my whole life to appreciate – and I’m still working through learning this lesson – even the people who hurt you deserve kindness on some level. That’s sometimes a hard pill to swallow, and it may require a lot of bourbon to choke it down. It will definitely take time for some of us, depending on the level of hurt we’ve experienced, to even be willing to pick up that pill before putting it in our mouth.

Do not settle for less than you deserve. When you go through a break up, lose a job, or experience any kind of significant loss, your closest friends will usually tell you that you deserve better. Guess what? They’re right. Your friends, if they are true friends, should know you pretty well and have an appreciation for all that you have to offer. Sometimes they know us better than we know ourselves. They are the people who, even on your worst days, will always be there to tell you that things are going to be okay. They will hold your hand, give you a hug, pour liquor down your throat, find voodoo spells for you, and talk smack about the person or situation that hurt you. You should probably reciprocate whenever possible. Knowing what you want in life is important, but knowing your own value will help you gain a better understanding of why settling for less isn’t good enough. At least, it shouldn’t be.

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Crying is not a sign of weakness. Crying is a natural reaction to the physical and emotional pain in our lives. Healthy humans cry when they experience loss or what feels like unmanageable stress. Crying allows us to heal and is actually a sign of strength, not weakness. Regardless of what The Cure says, boys do and should cry, because crying as a reaction to pain is never gender specific.

Friends are more important than lovers. As I mentioned, I have a widely-diverse and rich network of friends who have either known me for a long time (more than 30 years) or who are still getting to know me, and vice versa. Having a lover or lovers can be wonderful, and if you’re lucky enough to find one (or more) who wants to stay in your life long term, even better. When our physical needs along with our emotional are being met, that can be a really sweet time. For most of us, those sweet times don’t last forever. When someone we have been emotionally and physically intimate with decides to end that relationship, it can sometimes feel like the world is ending. Or maybe, in some cases, we might wish that the world would end in order to avoid the pain we’re feeling. When we become not only emotionally and mentally, but also physically attached to certain people it might feel like part of us is dying when they choose a path that no longer connects to ours. If we’re really lucky and choose lovers who are emotionally stable and genuinely caring people, we may be able to maintain a different kind of relationship with them given enough time to heal and process our hurt emotions. In my experience, friendships have always lasted longer than love affairs or long-term romantic relationships. I mean, duh, I’m still single, right? But, many of my friendships have stood the test of time, some lasting through childhood into adulthood. I am a healthier person because of those relationships. And knowing my friends as well as I think I do, many of them would tell you that being a close friend of mine is a good thing. They love me, flaws and all. And, I feel the same way about them. Lovers come and go, but my close friends are usually around long enough to be considered family.

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People who are meant to be in your life will stay. I’m not just talking about lovers and significant others here. Lots of people will come and go in your life. Family, friends, lovers, acquaintances, and a whole host of other major and minor personal interactions that make up the map of relationships in your life. I am fortunate enough to be blessed with many friends. I am proud to say that I have been able to maintain and nurture some of my friendships, regardless of distance and life situations, for more than 30 years. My marriage didn’t last 30 years. It barely lasted 4. My husband was not my friend. I never should have married him. Fear and unmet desires forced me into that situation, and it took me a long time to dig my way out. Sometimes though, no matter how much we care about a person, the best thing they can do for us is to walk away.

Maintaining friendships with past lovers or boyfriends is rare for me. It happens sometimes, but typically it has taken me years to regain the trust that was lost when those relationships ended. The few people who fit into that category who are still choosing to be in my life, even at a distance through social media, are probably going to stick around for the long haul. Relationships, like everything else in our lives, go through periods of transformation. Having faith in the fact that someone you care about deeply, even though they have hurt you in some way, can still be welcomed into your life not only says something about your willingness to forgive, but also that they are worth the effort. Sometimes that transformation will take time and effort on behalf of both parties to make it work. But, if you both care enough, value, and respect each other, it should work out. Patience and understanding are key ingredients, as well as the ability to give people the space they need to shift from one role to another in your life.

You are a whole person without a life partner or significant other. I’m not going to lie; this is something I still struggle with on an almost daily basis. As a single parent who receives zero support from my ex-husband to raise our child, all responsibility to raise my child rests on my shoulders. For those of you who are in the same situation and do not have the benefit of co-parenting/shared custody, you know how hard this can be some days. It can get seriously fucking lonely. Raising a child with two adults in the house is difficult enough, especially if the responsibility isn’t shared equally. Many women and men find themselves in a situation where they may be the only responsible adult in the house. Sometimes, it is better to take on the responsibility of child-rearing alone than be stuck in a relationship with someone who prevents your growth, or worse, your child’s. Yes, it is hard. Miserable even. But, with the right amount of support (sometimes support is simply kind words from friends and strangers) you can do it. Having a partner doesn’t make you a better person. Surviving and thriving without one makes you stronger, albeit a little crazier in the process.

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Time does not heal all wounds. There’s an old saying about time healing all wounds. Bullshit. The wounds that cause emotional and psychological damage usually stay with us forever. The pain will lessen with time, but the wounds never quite heal. Recent research into psychological trauma has shown that in some cases, the trauma experienced by our relatives is passed to us genetically. Studies of Holocaust survivors and their offspring, as well as the ancestors of slaves in America have shown that extreme trauma can be passed down through DNA. Some physiological and psychological scars go as deep as the molecular level, and these painful experiences get coded into our DNA. So, if it feels like it’s taking you a long time to get over something painful in your life, take the time you need, because sometimes pain lasts through multiple lifetimes.

Believe in your ability to heal. Even though we now know that we not only carry the wounds we incur within our own lives, but also carry the pain of our ancestors in our blood, we still have the power to heal. Given time and the right tools, we can still go through painful experiences and come out on the other side with a new sense of who we are and what we can do. Friends, family, therapists, hippie herbalists, voodoo priestesses, and bartenders can help you through the rough times, but ultimately you must be the one to heal yourself. And, if you’re willing to face the pain head on and do the work to heal yourself, you will be stronger for it.

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Be willing to admit that the path you are walking may not be the right one. Change, while scary and often painful, can be good for us. Change allows us to grow and evolve into the people we are meant to be. I truly believe that. In fact, in my opinion, when our lives remain on the same path for too long without change, we become stagnant. Change is not always a negative thing. Change opens new doorways to opportunity and experience. Don’t be afraid to take risks and go on a few adventures. And, be willing to leave behind the things that are preventing your growth.

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Transformation: My First Tattoo

This weekend I got my first tattoo. This was no impulse body-modification trip to the tattoo shop after too many drinks. I made plans ahead of time with my friend, Dan, to go get tattoos together. Not only did we schedule our sessions a few weeks in advance, but we were both getting tattoos we had contemplated for nearly two decades.

Like myself, Dan is experiencing a time of growth and transition. I won’t go into the details of Dan’s journey, because it isn’t my place to do so. But I will say that his current path has allowed me to gain a treasured friend who is a constant source of strength and inspiration. He insists on showing me a good time when we’re together, and in many ways has gently nudged me to become an even better version of myself. This includes transforming my body through exercise, healthier eating, and now ink.

Dan lives in Pittsburgh, and had gotten his first tattoo from the same artist at Armature Tattoo Co.. First of all, it’s a beautiful shop with lots of interesting artwork on the walls (there’s a mixed media portrait of H. H. Holmes) and on the skin of the four tattoo artists – two men and two women. The shop is well lit, clean, and full of positive energy. I felt comfortable and welcome right away.

Originally, Dan was supposed to get tattooed on Friday night and I was supposed to get tattooed on Saturday night. But when we arrived, the tattoo artist, Jessi, talked to Dan about the fact that his tattoo would need a bit more time for layout and she wanted to suggest some changes to the original design. That meant I was going first. In hindsight, I’m glad things worked out that way, because I didn’t have time to build up any extra fears about getting tattooed. For years, people have been trying to explain what it feels like, but the only way you’re ever going to know is to get one yourself.

Did it hurt? Well, sure. But nothing like I anticipated. I’ve heard people compare getting tattooed to giving birth. Of course, these people have been men who have zero fucking clue what it feels like to have a period, much less the pain associated with labor. I don’t know what that feels like either, because I had a C-section when my son was born. However, I do know what an epidural feels like and the tattoo needle is nowhere near as large a gauge as an epidural needle that gets inserted into the base of your spine.

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To be honest, it was less painful than some of the dental work I’ve had done, and I chose a fleshy part of my body for my first tattoo. There’s quite a bit of blackwork, which was more painful than the line work, but in the hands of a skilled tattoo artist who also has a knack for interesting conversation, the experience was actually pleasant. What really surprised me was the fact that there were certain areas of my skin that felt pleasure in the midst of the pain. My emotional response wavered between joy and catharsis. And, even though the pain wasn’t overly taxing and my session only lasted about 45 minutes, I felt slightly fatigued. I wondered if it was a chemical reaction to continuous pain, regardless of how low-level it was. I mean, was adrenaline being released into my bloodstream in small doses? According to an article on tophealthnews.net, “This Is What Happens To Your Body When You Get A Tattoo!,” I was:

When needles penetrate your body, this is a form of trauma and your body responds in kind. Your Sympathetic Nervous System kicks your fight-or-flight response into gear in response to the pain. The result is a rush of adrenaline.

And, that weird emotional feeling I experienced was probably caused by the release of endorphins.

Endorphins, your body’s natural pain relievers, are also released. These chemicals come directly from the brain, flooding your body. When those endorphins are released, it’s a heady feeling that is sort of intense yet relaxing at the same time.

While fascinating, I wanted to talk less about the science of body chemistry in relation to getting tattooed, and more about why I decided to do it at this point in my life. And, why I chose the image that now decorates my skin.

Like I said, I am not Dan’s publicist, so if you want to know the story behind his tattoo(s), you’ll have to ask him. But, I can show you his before and after pictures from Saturday evening.

You’re probably thinking, “That’s a big fucking tattoo.” And, you’d be right. This first stage of Dan’s tattoo, an artistic spin on Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, took just over 3 hours, and two snacks from the coffee shop up the street, to complete. He has at least one more session to add details to this back piece, but possibly more sessions depending on how detailed he wants the final version to be.

During his 3-hour session, we made jokes about Francis Dolarhyde, the fictional serial killer from Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, since the character has an enormous back piece taken from William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon Paintings. We debated about watching Red Dragon, but settled for the first few episodes of season 1 of “Hannibal”.

So, now that you’re super impressed, and potentially creeped out about Dan’s tattoo, let’s talk about mine.

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I first saw the image in a book of essays that deconstruct the various versions of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, aptly titled The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, edited by Jack Zipes. The book is dedicated to the late Angela Carter, one of my writing heroes who happened to write one of my favorite stories about werewolves, “The Company of Wolves.” If you haven’t read it, I strongly suggest that you do. She is famous for her versions of fairy tales, rewritten with an adult audience in mind. If you’re looking for something new to read, and think you might enjoy some erotic literary fairy tales, I’d suggest stopping by your local library and picking up a copy of her collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories.

I found Zipes’ book in the library at Hull University. I was studying abroad through an exchange program during my junior year of college, and lived in Hull, England for a year. While I was there, I started becoming more interested in myths, legends, fairy tales and folktales. About the same time I found Zipes book, I also was introduced to The Morphology of the Folktale, by V. Propp. The next thing I knew I was writing all these papers about rape narratives, and cannibalism, and other sexual taboos in fairy tales. That was nearly 25 years ago.

In that time, the meaning of the image has changed for me. When I first saw the drawing in Zipes’ book, I simply saw a woman being held by a werewolf. Sexy, right? I mean, vampires have their sex appeal, but there’s something deliciously primal about werewolves. Not only is the woman being embraced, rather than ravished in the image, but she appears to be happy about it. In fact, it looked as if she had found peace in his arms.

The original artwork was done by Catherine Orenstein (1990), who later wrote Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale. If you’ve ever read any of my other blog posts, you know that I have a special place in my heart for monsters. In fact, monsters can be extremely sexy. Werewolves embody the aspect of the psyche where our signals sometimes get crossed — fighting, fucking and eating all seem to serve the same purpose in the mind of the werewolf — pleasure-seeking at any cost. And the cost may be your life. But in Orenstein’s image, there’s something different happening. The woman isn’t just being held by the werewolf, she’s accepting it in all of its monstrous glory. If she is in fact accepting the werewolf, that also looks a lot like a shadow or darkness itself, brings to mind the idea of making peace with the darker parts of ourselves. Making peace with our demons.

This isn’t my first attempt at transformation in my life. I’ve been trying to reshape myself since I was 12 years old. Weight gain, loss, and regain has been a constant pattern in my life. A few years ago after I gave birth to my son, I lost 70 pounds on Weight Watchers. During one of my meetings I described myself as having a beast that lives inside me that wants to eat all the time. And, sometimes it gets out and loses control. Not unlike a werewolf. It was at this point that I searched for Orenstein’s drawing, because it had a new meaning. I considered getting it tattooed on my body then, but for some reason never went through with it. That was almost ten years ago.

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Back in April I rejoined WW, and since then I have lost 30 pounds. I’m proud of myself for doing that. And, I have made a commitment to myself to continue my journey. I am learning to accept myself — fat, wrinkles, white hair, and all. And, I am relearning what my body is capable of doing. I started running using the C25K app on my phone. I forgive myself when the scale goes in the opposite direction and shows a gain rather than a loss. I am not perfect. I never will be. And, I’m beginning to understand why that’s so fucking amazing. I love my demons. I embrace them. Make peace with them. And by doing so, I am learning to love myself. Now, when I look at the drawing, I see a woman accepting herself. And now is a perfect time for my skin, the skin I am becoming more comfortable in each day, to tell that story. This tattoo is a reminder of my strength. The progress I’ve made. And the journey yet to come. Of course, there will be days when I still do battle with my darkness, but now I’m going to own it and show it some love.

Self-Reflection: 2016’s Shit Show

Remember how last week I was all like “I’m gonna blog every day in December and bullshit, bullshit, bullshit…”? Well, it is December 9 and I haven’t written a new post since last week. To be honest, I feel a bit hung-over. Not only do I feel like a zombie as I slog through my day job, maintain my household as a single parent, recover from NaNoWriMo, and gear up for the holidays, but 2016 has been a confusing and soul-sucking year so far. Over the past few years, I have had some monumentally shitty things happen to me, but in the grand scale, I feel like I’m on par with most people. Shitty things happen to people all the time. I don’t think I’m any worse off than others, and I certainly don’t view myself as a special snowflake that deserves extra attention or sympathy. At the end of 2014 and 2015, I invited both years to fuck off to make way for the coming year. I feel like I owe 2014 and 2015 a heart-felt apology, because despite all the improvements I experienced in my personal life – better health habits, better self-care, more creative projects completed, and better friendships cultivated – 2016 was a colossal shit show. Or, the year that was a dumpster fire.

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At the beginning of 2016, I was doing really well. I felt better about myself and the world in general. I was feeling stronger. More confident. I decided to take better care of myself and took action to lay the groundwork to do so. I was beginning to appreciate my own company after months of grieving, perhaps ironically, the loss of a toxic relationship. And then, 2016 said, “I think you’re feeling too good about yourself. What can I do to fuck that up royally, and maintain a consistent flow of complete fuckery to keep things interesting?”

What makes 2016 a shit show? Here’s my Calendar of 2016’s Dick Moves that kept me emotionally unbalanced from beginning to end.

January – November 2016

January 10: David Bowie Dies

January 14: Severus Snape Dies

April 21: Prince Dies

June 24: Britain Votes to Leave EU

July 7: Huffington Post Reports 194 Black People Killed by Police

August 28: Willy Wonka Dies

November 7: Leonard Cohen Dies

November 8: Donald Trump Wins the 2016 US Election

November 18: Sharon Jones Dies

And here we are, almost two weeks from Christmas Eve. The holidays are quickly approaching and it’s time for some self-reflection before 2017 shows up. I’m not going to get into New Year’s resolutions just yet, but I do want to take a closer look at some of the things that did go right this year that don’t require additional grieving. Happiness is totally still a thing and within your reach.

Self-love became a priority.

After several years of feeling like I had almost no control over where my life was headed, and feeling like a prisoner in my own mind and body, I made a decision to take my life back. I had been making strides in the right direction since 2012 and 2013, but then I got sidetracked by things that weren’t good for me. Namely, a 15-month toxic relationship that made my self-esteem drop to an all-time low. After 3 months of therapy, I found the courage to walk away from that relationship in June of 2015. It took several months of slowly weaning myself away from that emotionally destructive situation, but after 21 months of therapy and a lot of personal growth, I feel like a new person. Not quite my old self, but perhaps a better version of her.

Through therapy and LOTS of self-reflection, I made some decisions to change my life for the better. One of the first things I did was disable my OKCupid and FetLife accounts. There was too much noise coming from both of those accounts, and because of the nature of the relationship I was in, I was attracting a lot of people I didn’t really want to meet. And, even if I wanted to meet them, I wasn’t in any emotionally safe state to put myself out there and open myself up to new wounds. Second, I started spending a lot of time by myself. On purpose. And then I listened to my inner voice until it started saying nice things about me. Third, I rejoined Weight Watchers for like, I don’t know, the millionth time in my life. The difference this time was that I was only doing it for me. I didn’t have a special occasion or person that I was working toward. I wanted to lost weight and become healthier to impress myself. Crazy idea, right? So, in April I joined Weight Watchers, made a commitment to attend meetings, or at least weigh-in every week, which I have, and I’ve lost 30 lbs. In the process of making better choices and evaluating my habits, I started getting up at 5:00 AM and going for walks at least 3 times a week. A few weeks back, I decided to ramp up my walking and began using the Couch to 5K program to increase my activity and try running. I’m not pushing myself or condemning myself when I can’t keep up with the program. I simply tell myself, “Hey, maybe you can’t run as far as you’d like right now, but you’re making progress and you’re out here in the dark and the cold making an effort to improve your life.” Positive self-talk actually works. Who knew?

So, aside from feeling better and losing 30 lbs., I also made a decision that I would start trusting people again. When people I didn’t know very well showed an interest in getting to know me better, rather than building a wall around myself, I opened myself up and let them in. Was it scary? Fuck yeah! Is it still scary? A lot of the time, yes. But allowing those people into my life has taught me some things or reminded me of some things I forgot about myself. Good things. And now, I have a few more really cool friends who care about what happens to me and look forward to spending time with me. Without imposing any weird or destructive expectations. They’re genuinely good people. Genuinely good people I love.

I cleaned my bedroom and clothes closet.

This may not seem like a big deal, but my bedroom had become a constant source of stress for me, because it was a dumping ground for everything that I didn’t feel like getting rid of or putting away. Between donating clothing and throwing away items that were no longer of use to me, I purged 13 garbage bags worth of burden out of my life. And, since I was steadily losing weight, I got rid of a lot of my plus-sized clothing. Last year at this time I was wearing a women’s 2XL winter coat. This year I’m wearing a women’s large. It’s not a plus-sized coat. It buttons without being tight. I’m calling that a win. I found boxes of smaller-sized clothing that I hadn’t worn since the last time I lost a lot of weight. I’m glad I kept them, because I have great taste in clothing. Jeans, sweaters, dresses, shirts, and of course, coats.

Writing became a priority (again).

This year I have written more than 250 haiku poems. Three of which were selected from publication in a new feminist literary magazine. Hopefully, I’ll have more concrete details soon. I wrote nearly 42,000 words during NaNoWriMo last month and have gotten close to completing my second full-length novel. And, I’m working on a short story for an anthology set in a RPG world. So, I’ve been keeping busy with creative projects. But, as always, I feel like I should be doing more.

My child made me a prouder parent.

My son has a full plate this year with Kung Fu, basketball, STEM club at school, and he’s learning to play the viola. His grades are great, he’s reading above his grade level, and he’s becoming an interesting individual with quirky personality traits that I love and hate simultaneously. We don’t always get along, but it’s just the two of us. As a single parent, I understand that sometimes I have to carry the burden of misplaced animosity and negative feelings that might not actually have anything to do with me. It’s just one of the many services I provide as a responsible adult.

I’m sure there are other things I could talk about, like how much fun I’ve been having lately visiting with friends and trying new things, but maybe I’ll save that for another post…that may or may not get written this month.

Okay, so maybe 2016 hasn’t been a complete shit show, but hey, it ain’t over yet.

While you’re thinking about your own year in review and planning your New Year’s resolutions while getting ready for the holidays, you can make this lovely dumpster fire ornament for your Christmas tree or Hanukah bush.

Top 10 Haunted Holiday Movies

There is a time-honored tradition in Britain of gathering around the fireplace at Christmas to tell ghost stories. In fact, one of the most famous ghost stories of all time is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A few years ago, BBC Radio 4 featured a series of 20th century vampire stories read by David Tennant. In my opinion, there’s no better Christmas treat than listening to Doctor Who read vampire stories.

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Vampire hunters: sexier than vampires? Discuss.

As a long-time fan of ghost stories and horror fiction in general, and a writer of dark speculative fiction, December is one of my favorite times of year (aside from Halloween) to watch scary movies. Let’s face it, any time of year is a good time to watch horror movies, but there’s something about this time of year that brings out the desire to contemplate the supernatural. Maybe it’s because winter is the metaphorical death of the year, or maybe it has something to do with the veil between worlds being thinnest on the Solstice, or maybe the long dark nights cause our imaginations to run wild with inherited fears of hungry wolves lurking at the edge of the woods.

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Whatever the reason, it has become a tradition in my house to watch horror-themed (or at the very least black comedy) movies this time of year. I mean, sure, we watch the classics too – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, and The Year Without a Santa Claus – which, if I’m not mistaken all have some form of monster or element of dark magic. That’s right, dark magic. No one is going to convince me that the black top hat that brings Frosty to life doesn’t contain black magic.

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So, rather than trotting out a tired old list of holiday classics, I thought I’d share my top 10 picks for holiday films that make you laugh uncomfortably, raise the spirits, and possibly the hairs at the back of your neck. Whether you prefer suicide humor, serial killers, demonic possession, mental illness, or just a good old-fashioned ghost story, my list has something for everyone.

  1. Black Christmas (1974): If you hate sorority girls and love serial killers, then this is the holiday film for you.

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  1. Gremlins (1984): A traveling salesman buys his son the worst Christmas present EVER.

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  1. Scrooged (1988): A modern retelling of A Christmas Carol starring Bill Murray. What more do you need to know?

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  1. Better Off Dead (1985): One of the funniest movies about teen suicide you’ll ever see. Happy holidays!

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  1. The Conjuring 2 (2016): Just in case you weren’t sure, The Conjuring 2 is totally a Christmas movie.

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  1. Krampus (2015): Want the kids to stop acting like sugar-fueled psychos before the holidays? Skip “Elf on the Shelf,” and show them this movie.

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  1. 12 Monkeys (1995): A time traveler is sent to the past to prevent the release of a deadly virus and gets a stay at a mental institution for his troubles. Holly jolly!

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  1. Edward Scissorhands (1990): A Frankenstein-like man with scissors for hands has his heart broken after leaving the safety of his home to mingle with monstrous suburbanites.

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  1. The Polar Express (2004): Children are stolen from their homes and taken on a terrifying train ride to the North Pole.

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  1. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993): A heart-warming tale about cultural appropriation gone wrong.

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Holly Fucking Jolly, December Has Arrived

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On this first day of December 2016, I’m feeling a bit dazed. How the Hell is it December 1 already? I mean, Christmas is 24 days away…if you celebrate that holiday. If you don’t celebrate Christmas, here are some other dates that might interest you:

Yule/Winter Solstice: December 21
Hanukkah: December 25 (ends January 1)
Kwanzaa: December 26 (ends January 1)

Whatever Winter celebrations you partake in, there is usually some level of preparation needed in order for these tradition-filled holidays to happen. I don’t know what your role or level of involvement is in the planning and execution of the upcoming holiday season, but I have a lot of work ahead of me. I’m a single mom, I work full-time, I’m a freelance writer working toward becoming a published fiction writer, and I have sole custody of my child. I am the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and most importantly, I am Santa Claus. And possibly Krampus.

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While I prepare for the holidays – I celebrate a few this month – I intend to keep writing. That means making time to write, which is no small task this time of year. Between the manic house cleaning, cookie baking, decorating, shopping, wrapping gifts, writing Christmas cards, and visiting friends and family, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of time to sit alone and write. Typically, I would put everything I just mentioned ahead of my writing, but not this year. This year I am going to make writing a priority, and I will be updating my blog on a daily basis…at least that’s my goal. Each day I will talk about my writing process, holiday preparations, and most likely the extra stress that comes with being a single parent during the “most wonderful time of the year.”

So, I encourage you to share your own holiday delights and traumas in the comments section of my blog and we can support each other to make it through yet another holiday season in order to welcome the new year. Holly fucking jolly!

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5 Things I Learned Writing a Novel During NaNoWriMo 2016

Today is the last day of November 2016. It is day 30 of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This year I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo with the intent of “winning” – writing 50,000 words within 30 days. SPOILER ALERT: I didn’t accomplish my writing goal. I was 8,905 words short of reaching that goal. But, I did manage to write 41,095 words in one month.

This wasn’t the first time I attempted to participate in the annual writing challenge, but this was the first time I nearly reached my goal. During the 30-day writing extravaganza, I learned a few things about myself, my writing process, and how I work under a strict deadline. I don’t know if what I learned will help you, but the lessons I gained this year will help me “win” NaNoWriMo 2017.

  1. You Have to Write Every Day. It doesn’t matter how many words you write each day, but you need to put words on the page so that you can update your word count daily. Whether you write 50 words, 1,667 words (the recommended number of words prescribed by NaNoWriMo to achieve the 50,000-word goal), or 6,000 words, you need to update your word count EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. How do I know this? Because I didn’t write every day, and I believe that is one of the main reasons why I didn’t reach my 50,000-word goal.
  2. Perfection Cannot Be Your Goal. The goal is to write 50,000 words in a month. In order to do so, you have to be willing to turn off your inner editor. Just get words on paper. It doesn’t matter how shitty those words are, because once you’re done writing them at the end of November, you’ll need to go back and edit those words. In the immortal words of Chuck Wendig, “Writing is when we make the words. Editing is when we make the words less shitty.” I’m not going to lie, I wrote my share of shitty words. In January I plan to edit and revise and write the missing pieces and edit some more.
  3. Connect with a Writing Community. Belonging to a community of writers can not only provide the support and encouragement you need to keep writing, but it can also make you a better writer. If you belong to a writing community and are lucky enough to have other writer friends participating in NaNoWriMo, you can support each other and cheer each other’s successes each day of the process. And, if you want to get competitive, you can give each other writing challenges in order to reach your daily, weekly, and eventually monthly goal. Writing is typically a solitary pursuit, but that doesn’t mean you have quarantine yourself during the month of November in order to reach your goal. Join a NaNoWriMo writing group and get the support and encouragement you need to keep going.
  4. Make Time to Write. If you don’t already have a time of day scheduled for writing, you should figure out when you are most productive and make an effort to write at the same time every day. Life can be busy. I’m a single mom who works full-time, and I also make an effort to have a satisfying social life. I’m no June Cleaver when it comes to housework, but I try to make my house clean enough to avoid a visit from Children and Youth Services. I often struggle to find time to write. My days start early and end late, and as you can imagine, there’s a lot that has to get done between 5:00 AM when my alarm goes off and 10:00 PM (if I’m lucky) when I turn off the lights and travel to Dream Land. If I am not selfish about making time for myself to write, guess what? I don’t write. And, unfortunately that happens a lot in my life. Take my advice. Be a dick if you have to, and make time for your writing.
  5. Be Kind to Yourself. Sometimes when we set big goals for ourselves, we fail. Failing after trying to reach a goal is still better than never trying in the first place. Am I disappointed that I didn’t reach my 50,000-word goal? Well, sure. But I wrote 41,095 words in a month. That’s nothing to sneeze at, and now I know that I can write more than 40,000 words in a month. In fact, now that I know why I didn’t reach my goal, I’m pretty sure I can also reach 50,000 words in a month, which I plan to do next year when I participate in NaNoWriMo 2017.

Wait, can I add this blog post to my final word count?

Battling Our Demons: Fighting the Influence of Evil

The other day, while looking through some of my folders of old writing and abandoned projects, I stumbled across an essay I wrote back in May 2015 for my Readings in the Genre: Contemporary Mysteries course at Seton Hill University as part of my MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program. Of late, I’ve used this blog as a way of kick starting myself into writing on a more regular basis; something I struggle with on an almost pathological level. My friends will tell you that I’m writing all the time. This year, since February I have written a total of 27 blog posts about fictional characters I find sexually appealing, and since around May, I’ve written over 120 haiku poems. I’ve drafted chapters in a novel I’m writing, and I’ve written a few short pieces of fiction here and there. So yeah, I guess I have been writing. But, I don’t feel like I’m writing enough.

And, although I had a short story published in an anthology back in November 2014, I haven’t been able to sell my first novel, Invisible Chains, acquire an agent, or get any other bites on the poetry I’ve been submitting. I currently have poetry out to three publishers and I’ll be submitting three short stories within the next month to different publishers. I’m going to participate in NaNoWriMo 2016 in the hopes of completing that second novel I mentioned, A Marriage Made in Hell. I WILL finish the first draft of Marriage by November 30, come Hell of high water.

Anyway, if you’re interested in reading some of my writing that doesn’t involve lewd comments about my favorite fictions characters, read on…

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Battling Our Demons: Fighting the Influence of Evil in Charlaine Harris’s Dead Until Dark and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

In his famous study on human behavior, Beyond Good and Evil, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche warns us to take care to not be influenced by the intrinsic and often seductive nature of darkness when confronting our demons. He proposes, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you” (Section 146). Sage advice, but is it possible to confront Evil and not be somehow changed by it? Can you keep company with monsters without becoming like them? This is the dilemma faced by both Sookie Stackhouse in Charlaine Harris’s Dead Until Dark and Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Each character must face her demons. Tempted as they may be, each character still manages to avoid becoming Evil.

Evil can be a very subjective concept. Each of us defines it a little differently based on our own personal experiences, but we can usually agree on the difference between “right” and “wrong.” The mystery genre uses this dichotomy as one of its central themes or plot points, and while an amateur sleuth or police inspector may be driven to solve a crime in order to uphold the law, at the heart of most mysteries is the desire for Good to win out over Evil. “Crime fiction in general, and detective fiction in particular, is about confronting and taming the monstrous. It is a literature of containment, a narrative that ‘makes safe’” (Plain 3). The battle between Good and Evil has been fought in fiction since before written communication. In the oral tradition, people told tales of epic battles between men and monsters – Beowulf, The Epic of Gilgamesh. With the advent of writing, the popularity of monster tales never waned – The Odyssey, The Iliad, and The Inferno. Monsters have always been with us. They are creatures of myth and legend, and they often stand in as metaphors for the less palatable human behaviors and emotions. Judith Halberstam suggests in her book, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters that even though our desire for stories about monsters and villains never seems to fade, the appearance of those monsters evolves to meet cultural needs. She says, “The body that scares and appalls changes over time, as do the individual characteristics that add up to monstrosity, as do the preferred interpretations of monstrosity” (8). Monsters change as our society changes, and the monsters of our current fiction, which is especially true in the mystery genre, tend to be humans more so than the beasts of Homer and Dante’s creations.

Like Sookie and Lisbeth, we sometimes find ourselves in less than ideal situations and come face to face with monsters. For some of us, the monsters we must face are people we thought we could trust who later betray us, or worse, cause physical as well as psychological damage in the form of abuse, rape, and ultimately murder. In her essay, “Vivid Villains,” Sandra Scoppettone tells us that “the nature of the villain, and how absorbing a character he or she is, will affect the flavor of the whole rest of the story” (86). The nature of the villain should definitely determine the nature of the protagonist. Whether we’re talking about a serial killer, someone seeking revenge, or jilted lover who commits a crime of passion, as we gain a better understanding of human psychology, we also understand that we are the monsters represented in the fiction we read. Darkness lurks within all of us, but for most people, it will continue to lie dormant until some violent act or traumatic experience awakens the beast within. The real challenge then for any protagonist facing such a worthy opponent, as Nietzsche warns, is to avoid becoming a monster. Sookie and Lisbeth are sexualized others who both fall victim to violence at the hands of human monsters.

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“Forty-six percent of women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man” (Larsson 139). In his novel The Girl with Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson wishes to make it very clear to his reader that violence against women is a cultural reality in Sweden, and to most Swedish women, much like his protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, the threat of violence, sexual or otherwise, is an expectation if not an inevitability. Lisbeth is a ward of the state and becomes the victim of rape at the hands of a man assigned to her case. She is an adult, but due to her designation based on a history of aberrant behavior as a youth, she is treated like a child, mentally deficient, and then taken advantage of due to her abuser’s belief that she is somehow stupid. While Lisbeth has experienced quite a bit of emotional and psychological trauma, some of which is not revealed to us, she is far from stupid, and definitely not mentally ill. In fact, she is uncannily smart and more than capable of looking out for herself, except at the hands of the sadistic monster Advokat Nils Bjurman. Over the course of several meetings, Bjurman makes it very clear to Salander that she is at his mercy if she would like access to her bank accounts. Each encounter with Bjurman becomes more and more inappropriate until he forces Salander to perform oral sex on him in his office. Larsson reinforces his point about the violent nature of Swedish society by making Salander another statistic. “In her world, this was the natural order of things. As a girl she was legal prey, especially if she was dressed in a worn black leather jacket and had pierced eyebrows, tattoos, and zero social status” (249). Later, when Salander seeks revenge for this assault, Bjurman restrains and rapes her at his apartment. It is this second act of violence that pushes her to her limits and flips a switch that begins her own transformation. She falls prey to the desire to do monstrous things herself. “Bjurman felt cold terror piercing his chest and lost his composure. He tugged at his handcuffs…He could do nothing to resist when Salander bent over and placed the anal plug between his buttocks” (282). Salander reverses the tables on Bjurman. She assaults and humiliates him much like he did to her. She attempts to restore balance through an act of revenge, pushing her closer to the edge of the abyss. Lisbeth unleashes her darkness to reclaim her power and walks a fine line that could easily transform her into a monster worse than Bjurman. She threatens Bjurman with blackmail and bodily harm to prevent him from hurting her again—an act of self-preservation. By marking him, she hopes to save other women from becoming his victims. Justice is served.

On the surface, Sookie Stackhouse and Lisbeth Salander couldn’t be more different as protagonists go, but when you take a closer look at these two strong female characters, you’ll begin to notice some commonalities. First, they are both amateur sleuths with unique abilities that allow them to have access to information others aren’t privy to in the narrative. Salander’s abilities are half-heartedly explained through the eyes of Salander’s lover, Mikael Blomkvist, who assumes that the young hacker has a form of Asperger’s. Since Sookie’s world has paranormal elements, she has the benefit of being able to hear other people’s thoughts. Calling this ability a benefit is debatable, as Sookie herself sees it as a handicap.

Second, both women often find themselves at the mercy of men who threaten them with violence. Or, at the very least, objectify them sexually. Although they come from very different cultural backgrounds, they both have “zero social status” (249) in the economy of sexuality and gender equality. In Dead Until Dark, a serial killer targets young women who seek out vampires as sexual partners. Sookie not only shares this in common with the victims, but she also fits the profile with her high school education and minimum wage job.

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Monsters exist in Sookie’s world – vampires, weres, and shifters – all of which can be quite dangerous. In fact, her boyfriend is a vampire. Despite the fact that there is trend in fiction romanticizing relationships between vampires and humans, vampires are still monsters. Even if they don’t kill you outright, there is always the chance that things might get out of hand, and a moment of passion may end with the human’s funeral. Even if the vampire poses no direct threat to his partner, the secret lives of vampires seem to be violent by nature – ancient enemies, unresolved love affairs, power struggles with other supernatural beings. All of this adds up to danger for any human who meddles in the affairs of monsters, much less falls in love with them.

Sookie could literally become a monster if she continues to drink vampire blood. Bill Compton gives Sookie his blood several times to speed up the healing process. But when Sookie is recovering in the hospital after her encounter with the serial killer, she refuses to accept Bill’s blood for fear of losing her human qualities. “‘I’ll heal you,’ he offered. ‘Let me give you some blood.’ I remembered the way my hair had lightened, remembered that I was almost twice as strong as I’d ever been. I shook my head” (Harris 310). Sookie resists the urge to become monstrous by refusing to act like one. Sookie reclaims her power by maintaining her humanness.

Sookie and Lisbeth are victims of violent crimes. Both women fight back to protect themselves. They are survivors and each play an important role in vanquishing the monster, or at the very least, identifying the villain. They both realize there are too many villains in the world to fight. Even though they have temporarily restored the balance in their worlds, they know the fight between Good and Evil will continue. Not only externally, but internally as well. Each time you gaze into the abyss, the abyss changes you. So, to answer my earlier question, is it possible to associate with monsters and not become Evil? Yes, but only if you remain vigilant to protect your humanity, and in Salander’s case, the humanity of others.

Works Cited

Halberstam, Judith. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. Print.

Harris, Charlaine. Dead Until Dark. New York: Ace Books, 2009. Print

Larsson, Stieg. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2009. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good & Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1989. Print.

Plain, Gill. Twentieth Century Crime Fiction: Gender, Sexuality and the Body. New York: Routledge, 2014. Kindle.

Scoppetone, Sandra. “Vivid Villains.” Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America. Ed. Sue Grafton. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2002. 86-90. Print.

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