MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
I WAS LOVED. If love could prevent pain, I’d never have suffered. My leather baby book with Glennon branded on the front is one long poem written by my father and filled with pictures of my tender-faced mother holding my pink, flaky, braceleted hand. About my birth, my father wrote:
It really wasn’t
That first noise
It was a fanfare
Announcing a marvel
That will never
There are no satin sheets
There are no handmaidens
No emissaries with jewels
No trumpets or announcements
Where are they!
Don’t they know what
A princess has arrived.
I was loved. Just like my daughter is loved. And still, one evening, she sat on the edge of my bed, looked up at me with naked brown eyes, and said, “I’m big, Mama. I’m bigger than the other girls. Why am I different? I want to be small again.” Her words came out jagged, like she hated to break this to me, like she was ashamed to reveal her hidden truth. I took in her tears, pigtails, lip gloss, and the dirt on her hands—left over from climbing the banyan tree in our front yard. I scanned my mind for a response worthy of her, but there was nothing to find. Everything I’d learned about bodies, womanhood, power, and pain scattered upon hearing how my little girl said the word big. Like big was her curse, her irrefutable condition, her secret, her fall from grace. Like big was something inevitably unfolding inside of her that threatened her contract with the world.
My daughter was not asking: How will I deal with my body size? My daughter was asking: How will I survive being this particular type of person in this particular type of world? How will I stay small like the world wants me to? And if I keep growing, how will anyone love me? I looked at my daughter and I did not say But you do not look big, honey. She didn’t, but neither do I. I’ve never looked big a day in my life. No matter. My daughter and I pay attention. We know what the world wants from us. We know we must decide whether to stay small, quiet, and uncomplicated or allow ourselves to grow as big, loud, and complex as we were made to be. Every girl must decide whether to be true to herself or true to the world. Every girl must decide whether to settle for adoration or fight for love. There on the bed, in her pigtails and pain, my daughter was me—the little girl I once was, the woman I am now, still struggling to answer the questions: How can I be expansive and free and still be loved? Am I going to be a lady or am I going to be fully human? Do I trust the unfolding and continue to grow, or do I shut all of this down so I fit?
* * *
I am four years old and my father is a football coach at our neighborhood high school. On game night, my mom bundles me up in a fluffy coat, earmuffs, and mittens. When she’s done, she kneels in front of me and admires her work. She is pleased. She moves her hands to my cheeks, pulls my face toward hers, and kisses my nose. Together we wrap my baby sister, Amanda, in a puffy snowsuit. Amanda is our gift, and my mom and I spend all day wrapping and unwrapping her. When she’s dressed, we take turns leaning over and kissing her cheeks while she kicks and giggles—her arms jutting straight out from her sides like a starfish.
We pile into our van, drive to the high school, and listen as leaves crunch under our boots during our walk toward the stadium. As we climb the popcorn-littered stairs, the drum of the marching band fills my chest, the smell of hot dogs fills my lungs, and the roar of the crowd fills my head. The night is thumping chaos, but my mittened hand is safe inside my mother’s and she guides me forward. When we reach the entrance, the ticket ladies smile, put their hands over their hearts, and say, “Aren’t you three the most precious things?” They wave us in, because we are the coach’s girls, so we don’t have to pay. Mom and I smile at the ladies, say thank you, and together we join the crowd under the bright stadium lights. When they see us, the students and parents collectively hush and step aside. A path appears. Quiet reverence is the world’s response to my mother’s beauty. When people see her, they pause and wait, full of hope, until her eyes rest upon them. Her eyes always do. My mother takes her time with people. Strangers give her their attention and she returns it. She is a queen who reigns with kindness. This is why people stare. They look because she’s lovely, but they stare because she’s love. I am always studying my mother and I am always watching other people watch my mother. She is such a beautiful child, strangers say to my mother daily. I have to learn what to do because beauty is a responsibility. People expect so much of it, it seems.
My childhood beauty is apparent in pictures: golden brown ringlets to my waist, porcelain skin, a smile as wide as the horizon, and bright hazel eyes. When strangers admire me, I practice returning their attention. I understand that beauty is a form of kindness. It is for giving away, and I try to be generous. In an attempt to maintain balance, my parents often remind me that I’m smart. I’m an early reader and, at four, converse like an adult. But I soon realize that smart is more complicated than beautiful. Strangers come close and pat my curls, but when I speak to them with confidence and clarity, their eyes widen and they pull back. They are drawn in by my smile but repelled by my boldness. They recover quickly by laughing, but the pulling away is done. I have felt it. They wanted to adore me and I complicated things by inserting myself into their experience of me. I begin to understand that beauty warms people and smart cools people. I also understand that being loved for beauty is a tenuous situation for a girl. Years later, when I become less beautiful, when I no longer have regal ringlets to pat or perfect skin to admire, when I’m no longer small and simple and precious, I wonder how I’ll ever be worthy of offering or receiving love. Losing my beauty will feel like a fall from grace, rendering me useless. It will be as if I have not kept my end of the deal and the whole world is disappointed in me. Without beauty, what do I have left to warm people with?
But for now, the three of us are still perfect. We snuggle into the stands and cheer for our team together. When the game is over, I run onto the field because my dad is looking for me, always looking for me. I run through the players’ padded legs toward my father and he lifts me up above his head. His players step aside to give us room. We spin until the stadium lights and the crowd blend together and the whole world is a blur. All that’s clear is my dad below me. He puts me down, and while I steady myself I see that my mom and sister have made their way to us. As she approaches, my mom shines all her brilliance at my dad. She is brighter and more powerful than all the stadium lights combined. My dad hugs her with both arms and then takes our starfish baby and kisses her cheeks. The four of us are an island. This celebration happens after every game, whether we’ve won or lost. We are my dad’s victory. We turn and process out through the crowd—no longer an island, now a parade—and people smile and wave and the four of us hold hands and sing the high school’s fight song all the way back to the van.
* * *
I’m ten years old and trying to disappear into the corner of the velour couch in my grandmother’s living room. My cousins chase each other from room to room, a tornado of squeals and skin. It’s summer and most of them are wearing bathing suits, as if that’s easy. Their bodies are light and wispy and they seem to float and flit together, in a unit—like a school of fish. They play together but playing requires a loss of self-consciousness and togetherness requires a sense of belonging. I have neither, so I can’t join them. I am not a fish. I am heavy and solitary and separate, like a whale. This is why I stay sunken into the couch and watch.
As I clutch my now-empty bowl of potato chips and lick the salt off my fingers, an aunt passes by and notices me. She looks from me to my cousins and says, “Why don’t you want to play, Glennon?” She’s noticed that I don’t belong. I feel ashamed. “I’m just watching,” I say. She smiles and with kind amusement says, “I like your eye shadow.” My hand goes to my face as I remember the purple eye shadow my cousin Caren applied that morning. On the car ride from our Virginia home to Ohio, excitement swelled in my chest because this would be the year I’d return a different girl. During this trip, Caren would make me over, change me into someone who looked like her, smelled like her, flitted like her. She would make me beautiful again. So that morning I sat on Caren’s bedroom floor surrounded by curling irons and makeup, waiting to be transformed. When she finished, she held up a mirror and I tried to smile while my heart sank. My eyelids were smeared with purple and my cheeks were pink, but I just looked like me wearing my cousin’s makeup. And that is why my aunt looks amused instead of impressed. I smile and say, “I was just about to wash it off.” I put my bowl down and pull myself up and off the couch.
I climb my grandmother’s stairs, walk into the bathroom, and lock the door behind me. I decide to take a bath, because the bathtub is my hiding place. I start the water and the downstairs voices fade. When the tub fills, I peel off my clothes, climb in, and float there for a while. Then I close my eyes and sink beneath the surface. I open my eyes to my underneath, underwater world—so quiet, so far away, so safe. My hair swirls around my shoulders and I reach up to touch it. It feels like silk, and I imagine I look just like a mermaid under here. I come up for air and then back under, back underneath. Eventually the water gets cold, so I let it drain out slowly and watch my body reappear. There it is again. I can never keep myself from reemerging. I start to feel heavier and heavier against the porcelain tub, as if gravity is increasing exponentially, as if I am being sucked toward the center of the earth. The water is only inches deep now and my thighs are spread out wide and huge and I wonder, Is there another girl in the world this massive? Has anyone ever felt this heavy? Eventually I’m pinned to the bottom of the dry tub—naked, exposed, beached. Being underneath never lasts. I pull myself out, dry off, get dressed, and go back downstairs. I stop in the kitchen to refill my bowl of chips before I settle back into the couch.
The television is on, turned to a show about a woman thirty years older than I. She kisses her children good night, climbs into bed with her husband, and lies with her eyes open until he falls asleep. Then she climbs out of bed and walks quietly out of the bedroom and into the kitchen. She stops at the counter and picks up a magazine. The camera zooms in on the skeletal blond cover girl. The woman puts down the magazine and walks to the freezer. She pulls out a carton of ice cream and a large spoon and she starts eating the ice cream, frantically at first, spoonful after spoonful, like she’s starving. I have never seen anyone eat like this before. She eats the way I want to eat, like an animal. Eventually the madness on the woman’s face is replaced by a faraway look. She keeps eating, but robotically now. I look at her and with shame and joy I think, She’s just like me. She’s going underneath. She finishes the carton, wraps it in a bag, and shoves it to the bottom of the trash. Then she walks into the bathroom, locks the door, leans over the toilet, and vomits up all of the ice cream. The process looks painful, but afterward she sits on the floor and seems relieved. I am stunned. I think, This is what I’ve been missing: the relief. This is how to disappear without getting bigger. This is how to make the underneath last.
Within a few months, I’m bingeing and purging several times a day. Every time I sense my unbelonging, my unworthiness—every time my sadness rises—I numb it frantically with food. Then, instead of sadness I feel fullness, which is as intolerable as sadness. So I purge it all out, and this second emptiness is better because it is an exhausted emptiness. Now I’m too tired, too wracked, too weak and worn to feel. I feel nothing but light—light-headed, light-bodied. And so bulimia becomes the place I return to again and again to be alone, to go underneath, to not feel so much, to feel it all, safely. Bulimia is the world I make for myself, since I don’t know how to fit into the real world. Bulimia is my safe, deadly hiding place. Where the only one who can hurt me is me. Where I’m far away and comfortable. Where my hunger can be as big as it is, and I can stay as small as I need to.
* * *
There is a price to pay for sinking into bulimia, and that price is sisterhood. Until I choose bulimia, my sister and I share one life. There is nothing that is mine or hers. We even share one security blanket. I lie in bed snuggling my corner while the blanket stretches across the room to her bed, where she snuggles her corner. We sleep like that, the blanket connecting us, for years. One night she lets her side fall to the floor and I scoop it up, but she never asks for it again. She doesn’t need our blanket anymore. She is less afraid than I am.
My sister’s legs are long and she uses them to move through the world easily and beautifully and confidently. I can’t keep up, so I build bulimia and live there. Like our security blanket, bulimia is mine and she can’t have it because she doesn’t need it. If there was a picture of my life’s path you would see our footprints side by side and then you’d notice that one day I sat down in the sand and refused to travel any farther. You would be able tell by her footprints that she stood still for years, wondering why I was too afraid to keep walking. Wondering why one day we were together and the next we were each alone.
* * *
Now I’m thirteen and I’m in the front seat of my dad’s truck. He’s looking at the road and explaining that he and my mom found more cups in my room. Each night I bring two cups to bed with me—one filled with food and one to fill with vomit. I leave the cups underneath my bed, and their stench is a constant reminder to all of us that I’m not better. My parents’ desperation is growing. They’ve sent me to therapy, medicated me, pleaded with me, but nothing is working. My passenger seat is pushed up farther than my dad’s seat, so all of me feels huge and thrust too far forward. I feel bigger than he is, which seems like a breach. My hair is frizzed and orange and my skin is broken out so badly it’s painful. I’ve tried to cover it with makeup, and now the brown liquid drips down my neck. I feel ashamed that my dad has to drive me around, claim me as his own. I want to be small again, small enough to be taken care of, small enough to disappear. But I am not small. I am big. I am unwieldy. I feel obnoxious and impolite for taking up so much space in this truck, this world.
My dad says, “We love you, Glennon.” This is embarrassing to me, because it simply cannot be true. So I look at him and say, “I know you’re lying. How can anyone love this face? Look at me!” As the words burst out, I hear them and see myself say them. I think, Glennon. This performance is embarrassing. You’re even uglier in your angst. I wonder which voice is me—the one feeling the feelings or the one scoffing at my own feelings? I have no idea what is real. I just know that I am not beautiful, so anyone who says he loves me is saying it because it’s in his contract. My dad looks shocked by my outburst and he pulls the truck over and begins talking to me. I do not remember what he says.
I survive middle school the way a whale might survive a marathon: slowly, painfully, with great effort and conspicuousness. But then, over the summer between middle school and high school, my skin clears up a bit and I find clothes that hide my barely existent heft. That summer I have an epiphany: Maybe I’ve studied schools of fish long enough to pretend to belong to one. Maybe the beautiful girls will have me if I just wear the right costume, smile more, laugh right, watch the leader’s cues, and show no mercy, no vulnerability. Maybe if I pretend to be confident and cool, they’ll believe me. So every morning before I walk into high school I tell myself, Just hold your breath ’til you get home. I throw back my shoulders, smile, and walk into the hallway like a superhero in a cape. To onlookers it appears that I’ve finally found myself. I haven’t, of course.
What I’ve found is a representative of me who’s just tough and trendy enough to survive high school. The magic of sending my representative is that the real me cannot be hurt. She is safe inside. So, as someone else, I have finally arrived. I hold my breath all day at school, and then when I get home I relax with pounds of food and the toilet. This rhythm works. I become popular with the girls, who sense that I know something they don’t. Eventually I begin to notice the boys noticing me. As I pass them in the hallway, I practice carrying myself in a way that announces: I am available to play the game now. And then I set myself down on the chessboard and wait to be played. As pawns inevitably do, I get picked up.
* * *
I have one vivid memory of the first time sex happens to me: Camel Lights. One day after school, I find my sophomore self lying in my senior boyfriend’s twin bed, trying to catch my breath underneath his heaviness and wondering how long sex will take. The Eagles play on his plastic boom box and the first few notes of “Hotel California” make me feel hollow and afraid. As my boyfriend squirms on top of me like a huge, frantic toddler, I scan his bedroom and see a pack of Camel Lights on the dresser. There is a green lighter lying diagonally across the pack, and for a moment the lighter and cigarettes remind me of the two of us, tossed haphazardly on top of each other, meant to be of quick and practical use to one another. I understand that I’m the lighter. Eventually he stops squirming but remains lying on top of me. “Hotel California” plays on. I wonder if the song’s length is part of its message: Life is not only eerie and hopeless but also entirely too long. After that afternoon, he takes me to the laundry room in his parents’ basement. He was just trying to make our first time special.
One hot morning in the summer after tenth grade, my best friend and I go to the local pet store to visit the animals. My friend is considering having sex with her boyfriend and she asks me to tell her what it’s like. I watch the kittens play in their cage and notice one pouncing on a nearby scratching post. I point to that kitten and say, “Sex is like that. I’m the scratching post and Joe pounces on me when he gets the urge. My body’s a toy he likes to play with, but he’s not all that interested in me. It’s like, he’s touching me—but he’s not really touching me. Sex isn’t really personal. It’s just that I happen to be his girlfriend so my body is his to play with. It feels, like, childish to me. Like cats pouncing on scratching posts or kids playing with each other’s toys but mostly ignoring each other. But I learned this trick: I just leave my body there to get it over with and I slip out and think about other things. I plan outfits and stuff.” I turn away from the kittens and look directly at my friend. “Sex isn’t something that I have, really, it just happens to my body while I’m up here, waiting for it to be over. But I don’t think Joe knows. Or cares.”
My friend stares at me silently. I can tell by her face that I’ve shared too much. This is not the me who is allowed to speak. This is not my representative. I wait. She says, “That’s so weird. It looks like fun on TV.”
“I know,” I say. “It’s not really like it is on TV. Not for me, at least. But, whatever, you know?” She goes back to her dogs and I go back to my kittens. I’m sixteen years old and I want my world to be small again—just kittens and dogs and my best friend.
A few weeks later, my friend has sex for the first time. She calls and says, “I don’t know what you were talking about. It’s the best thing in the world. It’s totally amazing.” I stop talking about sex after that. I just pretend, to my boyfriend and friends, that it’s all totally amazing. Sex, friendship, high school, being me. Yes, it’s all totally amazing.
* * *
One summer evening I watch Joe walk across a stage and accept his diploma from our high school principal. While he and his friends throw their caps in the air, I stand against the wall, thrilled to be a peripheral part of this celebration, to belong here, with them. After the ceremony, he drives me back to his house with Van Halen blasting from his car speakers. There, in the passenger seat, being driven by this graduate—looking up at the stars through his sunroof—I feel free and important and lucky and powerful. That night, at Joe’s graduation party, his parents give him a present: a box of condoms. He is leaving for beach week with his buddies the next day so he’ll need these, his mom says with a wink. He laughs and his family laughs, too. No one glances at me to check if I’m wondering why my boyfriend needs condoms for a trip he’s taking without me. I smile. So funny. Condoms! Boys, you know.
Joe kisses me good-bye and heads off to beach week with his buddies and his condoms. Two days later, Rob, a boy I’ve known since second grade, knocks on my door. I step onto my front porch and Rob stammers a bit and then announces with a nervous smile that he needs to tell me something. He visited beach week and learned that the night before, Joe slept in jail. He was arrested because another senior girl accused him of rape. Everyone at beach week is talking about it, so Rob wants me to hear it from him before the news gets back home. He tells me that Joe was released without any charges early that morning because of “inconsistencies” in the victim’s report. I thank Rob, send him home, and wait for Joe to return. I ask him about the rape and he laughs and tells me the accusation isn’t true. I do not break up with him. My friends and I handle this by agreeing publicly that the girl who accused Joe of rape was drunk, stupid, jealous, and lying. I don’t think that anyone actually believes she was lying, but we never admit that to each other. I don’t know if this is because we just don’t care or because we are adhering to the understood but never acknowledged rules that govern high school life. This one is: Disbelieve and betray other girls to remain in good standing with the popular boys. A few weeks later I run into the victim in the locker room of my mother’s gym. As we pass each other, I hold my head high. She lowers hers and looks away. I feel an electric sense of defiance and victory.
Joe and I continue listening to Van Halen and drinking and laundry-room sexing for another year. When I finally break up with him, he cries while I stare at him in disbelief. I think to myself, Why are you crying? What are you losing that’s worth having? But I say nothing. I find another boyfriend, a new basement, same parties, different brands of booze. I know how to stay underneath at night; in the light of day, hiding is harder.
* * *
Early in my senior year, I stand at the end of the lunch line, hold my tray steady, and look out at the sea of cafeteria tables. I try to decide how to appear aloof as I search for an empty chair. How will I make it across the slippery floor while wearing these heels? How will I keep my skintight dress from riding up, while carrying this tray? How will I cover my acne in this fluorescent light? How will I look cool while I’m sweating profusely? This is the impossible moment I arrive inside of every day. Hundreds of us have been sent to this cafeteria with two contradictory duties: Be invulnerable while doing the most vulnerable possible things—fitting in and eating. This room is like Lord of the Flies, and the only way to survive is to keep weakness hidden. My weaknesses are my needs: acceptance and food. These needs are entirely too human for high school. So I stand there in fear that this will be the day the real, hungry, sweaty, needy me rises too close to the surface and the sharks circle. Before I take a step forward I wish vehemently that we had assigned seats. I look out at the sea of faces and understand that we are all drowning in freedom. Where are the adults? We need them here.
I’ve taken too long and someone’s behind me now. I pretend to spot a friend waving me over, and I send my representative toward no one. Eventually I find an available seat at a table of B-list high school celebrities. This table is not too far above or below me—a good, safe fit. I sit and try to make small talk, but it’s so hard. I feel ridiculously exposed. I don’t want to be beached here in public. I want to be alone and underneath. My anxiety convinces me to eat far too much for the tight dress I’m wearing. I throw away my tray and teeter out of the cafeteria and toward my relief: the bathroom stall. When I get there, I see a long line of girls. No privacy, won’t work. I continue down the hall toward another bathroom. It’s packed with girls fixing their makeup, laughing, gossiping, hiding. The third bathroom I find is out of order. The food I ate is settling in and it will be too late soon. I’m sweating and my heart’s pounding and I watch myself take off my heels and start running through the hall. People are turning from their lockers and staring. I am making a scene. I look at them watching me and something breaks inside. Instead of looking for a fourth bathroom, I turn into the school office. The secretary asks if I have an appointment. I look at her and think, Who has an appointment when she’s this desperate? Desperation is not planned. If you only help kids with appointments, you will never help anybody who needs help. I walk past her, open the door to the guidance counselor’s office, and sit down in front of her. She looks up from her paperwork, alarmed. I say, “I’m so tired. I’m so uncomfortable. I think I’m going to die. Call my parents. I need to be hospitalized. I can’t handle anything. Someone needs to help me.”
I don’t know what I mean. I don’t know if this is a suicide threat or just a passive observation. I think I’m requesting a hospital for my body, because my suspicion is that my body is broken. But I can tell by the way the counselor looks at me that she suspects my mind is broken. She calls my parents, and that afternoon I am driven to a place for people with broken minds.
* * *
In the mental hospital’s intake room, my family and I silently watch the nurse search my bag for anything I might use to hurt myself. She takes my razor and my granola bar, holding each one up, smiling apologetically, then placing each inside a Ziploc bag with my name on it. My parents hold their faces steady, but I can tell their tears are right beneath the surface. My tears are there, too, but mine are tears of relief. Yes, please, I think, take everything scary. Yes, yes. Keep me from hurting myself. Let me hide here. Tell me what to do, how to live. Yes. Take it, take it, take it all.
My sister is watching, too. Her eyes are wide and she is so confused, so afraid. I can tell she is trying to be brave, but no one knows what brave looks like inside this particular moment. Does brave let me go with this woman or does brave take my hand and bust me out of here? No one knows. The nurse tells me to hug my family good-bye and I do, first my dad, then my mom, then my sister. She is trembling and I have to steel my heart so I don’t crumble from the horror and shame of what I’m putting her through. I do what I have to do. I let go of her and follow the nurse down a small hallway. My family stands in the doorway, watching me go. I stop and look back at them and I feel frightened by how small they seem huddled together in the cold, white, fluorescent hallway. They stay there together and I go alone. This is how it has to be. There is them and there is me and I can’t fit into their world and they cannot, should not, go with me into mine. They don’t need what I need. I turn a corner and they disappear completely and now it’s just me, in my world. I enter my new room and unpack again. Underneath my clothes I find a piece of paper scrawled with my baby sister’s handwriting. It’s the lyrics to a song.
There’s a hero
If you look inside your heart
You don’t have to be afraid
Of what you are
It will take me another twenty years to understand what my fourteen-year-old sister is trying to tell me. How is it that she was the only one who knew what was wrong with me and how to fix it?
When I wake up in the morning at the hospital, the only thing I have to do is brush my teeth. I don’t need to shower, get dressed, or do my makeup because costumes are not required here. So I brush and then stand around in the hallway, waiting for the first bell to ring so I can line up with the other patients to get our meds. We don’t make small talk in line. Everybody seems comfortable with quiet. There are no unspoken social rules we’re supposed to adhere to, and as the relief of this sets in I feel my muscles relaxing, my shoulders dropping, my inhalations deepening. After we take our meds, we meet for group therapy. We sit in assigned seats around a circle and look at each other. We tell our stories. If we don’t feel like smiling, we don’t. Most of us don’t feel like smiling. We’re here because we’re tired of smiling.
One day a girl with sliced-up arms says, “My mom sent me here because she says no one can believe a word I say.” I look at her and I want to say: Does she see that you tell the truth on your arms? Like I tell the truth in the toilet? By the time we landed in the hospital, most of our families considered us insensitive liars, but we didn’t start out that way. We started out as ultrasensitive truth tellers. We saw everyone around us smiling and repeating “I’m fine! I’m fine! I’m fine!” and we found ourselves unable to join them in all the pretending. We had to tell the truth, which was: “Actually, I’m not fine.” But no one knew how to handle hearing that truth, so we found other ways to tell it. We used whatever else we could find—drugs, booze, food, money, our arms, other bodies. We acted out our truth instead of speaking it and everything became a godforsaken mess. But we were just trying to be honest.
My roommate’s name is Mary Margaret. Mary Margaret is anorexic. Unable to speak with my little sister, I allow Mary Margaret to take her place for a while. We whisper long into the night, every night. One night, after lights out, I tell Mary Margaret about my great-grandfather. I explain that he was a coal miner in Pittston, Pennsylvania, and that every morning my great-grandmother packed a lunch pail for him and sent him down into the mines. It was dangerous work because there were deadly, invisible toxins in the mines, but the miners’ bodies weren’t sensitive enough to register the poison. So they carried a canary in a cage down into the mines with them sometimes. The canary’s body was built to be sensitive to toxins, so the canary became their lifeguard. When the toxin levels rose too high, the canary stopped singing, and this silence was the miners’ signal to flee the mine. If the miners didn’t leave fast enough, the canary would die and, not much later, so would the miners.
I tell Mary Margaret that I don’t think we’re crazy, I think we’re canaries. “Could it be,” I ask, “that we aren’t making any of this up—we’re just sensing the very real danger in the air?” I tell Mary Margaret that I think the world is more than a little poisonous and that she and I were built to notice that. I tell her that in lots of places, canaries are appreciated. They’re the shamans and the poets and the sages, but not here. I say, “We are the ones on the bow of the Titanic pointing and yelling ‘Iceberg!’ but everybody else just wants to keep dancing. They don’t want to stop. They don’t want to know how broken the world is, so they just decide we’re broken. When we stop singing, instead of searching the air, they put us away. This place is where they keep the canaries.”
I talk about canaries for a while and Mary Margaret is silent, so I assume she’s sharing my epiphany. But after I finish, I look over and realize she’s asleep. I climb out of my bed and walk over to her. I pull her sheets over her tiny body and kiss her forehead. She is seventy pounds and she looks like a bird who is too tired to sing. Right then I wonder if my friend is going to die soon. I wonder if dying is the only warning Mary Margaret has left for the world. I let myself hope that maybe in here we are out of the mines. Maybe in this little bare room together we are safe from the toxins.
One night, very late, Mary Margaret and I write vows promising to take care of each other forever. We both sign the vows in crayon because we aren’t allowed to have pencils. Mary Margaret makes me promise not to eat the crayons. I tell her maybe she should. We laugh. Here, we feel safe enough to laugh. But when it’s time to be released, we stop laughing.
* * *
If I could go back to the morning of my release, I would say to my parents: I know I have to leave here—but I don’t want to go back there. Not back to high school. There are too many toxins and I can’t breathe. But I say nothing. I assure everyone that I’m fine now. It’s homecoming week at school and I’ve been nominated to the Homecoming Court and voted “Leading Leader” of my senior class. Soon after my release from the mental hospital, I sit on the edge of a convertible in a pretty blue suit, waving to crowds of people lining the sidewalks for the homecoming parade. My mother and grandmother drive me through the crowd and I can feel their hope. We’ve been through so much and here I am, being admired. It feels like victory to them. But I know the truth. You have to be known to be loved, and none of these waving people knows me. They only know my representative. This is not a victory parade for me, but for her. She is the one waving. I am the one holding my breath again, underneath. She is the star; I am the mental patient.
As I wave, I think about my superlative: “Leading Leader.” It makes perfect sense. I am a good leader because I am a good rule follower. I understand there are two sets of rules in high school: the surface set that the adults profess and then the hidden, unspoken but understood rules that are truer and irrefutable. The hidden, truest rules about how to matter as a girl are: Be Thin. Be Pretty. Be Quiet. Be Invulnerable. Be Popular by Following the Powerful Boys’ Lead. Sex and booze and eating disorders are simply ways for a high school girl to honor the hidden rules and to get from here to there. From childhood to adulthood. From invisible to relevant. There is a certain kind of life a successful girl is supposed to build, and bulimia, booze, and sex are simply the tools she needs to build it. My homecoming sash says: You’ve followed the hidden rules by any means necessary. You sacrificed your health and your body and your dignity, and you looked good doing it. You did not disrupt the universe with any of your feelings or your questions. You stayed small. You did not take up too much space at all. You never surfaced, and when you needed to—when you needed oxygen—you left and breathed away from us. We never even met you. Well done.
* * *
As soon as I arrive at college, I search for a school of fish in which to hide. I find it in Greek life. The game here is both new and old. The rules, of course, are: Thinness is Beauty. Beauty is Power. Power is Being Chosen by the Boys. The interesting difference between college and high school is that here the hidden rules are publicly acknowledged. Guys from a nearby fraternity occasionally hang a sign above their party room that reads: NO FAT CHICKS. Since I was ten, I’ve known that No Fat Chicks is the hidden rule, so it’s a relief to see it made visible. Since the men have stopped hiding this rule, we women stop hiding our efforts to follow it. There are so many openly bulimic women in my sorority that there is an announcement one afternoon, “When you throw up, please flush the toilets. It looks bad when people come to the house and there’s puke everywhere.” As long as you flush it away, bulimia’s okay. It shows dedication, adherence to the rules. No Fat Chicks, you know. I go home after freshman year and through a disciplined regimen of restricted eating, excessive exercise, and bulimia, I lose fifteen pounds. I bleach my hair, buy a wardrobe full of skimpy clothes, and go back for my sophomore year, ready to play. Once again, I am picked up.
I start dating a boy from an exclusive fraternity. It is the ultimate victory to be a girl handpicked by a member of this discriminating group of boys. I have fooled everyone into believing that I am one of the beautiful ones. I follow this boy around and the frat brothers take care of me and provide me access to every secret place I want to be. I am in again. Every weekend hordes of women wait outside the fraternity basement in anticipation of getting to the front of the line, where a boy will look each one up and down and then check to see if her name is “on the list.” Of course, her entry will never depend upon whether her name is found. It will depend upon her looks and her reputation. She needs to be hot or she needs to be easy. One of those two things is required for entry. I wonder now, Why did we wait in that line? Why didn’t we just get our own damn beer and dance in our own damn basements?
Because of my boyfriend, I get to skip to the front of the line—past all the other less powerful, less thin, women. Access into yet another dark basement is everything, and I have it. There I can drink myself into a stupor and be carried to bed to have sex that I will not remember.
My frat boy is good and kind. Away from the matrix of campus life, we love each other. During vacations I visit his midwestern home, where we talk and laugh late into the nights. Off campus we are allowed to be human together. He writes poems for me and we plan the music that will play at our wedding—the anthem from our favorite Quentin Tarantino movie. But back on campus, there is no room for love. One evening, he leaves a tender message on my answering machine and his frat brother steals the tape. His brothers play it at a meeting with the entire fraternity present. When the men hear my boyfriend say “I love you,” they collectively fall into hysterics and call him a pussy. So my frat boy learns to play his part, which is to keep me in the basement. To not be a pussy. My job is to only be a pussy. I pursue no interest in college, other than booze, boys, and getting ready to go booze with the boys.
Getting ready is my constant; it is the ritual that grounds me. The process begins around four o’clock, when I’m steady enough to get out of bed and begin drinking again. I take a beer into the shower, close my eyes, and let the water run over me, washing away the previous night’s grime and sex and shame. Then I dry off and gather my tools—hair dryer, straightener, makeup, stilettos, tube top, short skirt, more beer—and begin the hard work of transforming myself from a sick mess into my shiny, beautiful, bulletproof rep. I am so proud of this process, so sure of myself here, that if I’m ready too early, I begin all over again with another shower. When I’m fully armored, I head to the basement and stay up late with the boys and sleep in with the boys and I beat them in drinking contests and out-cocaine them line for line. I am following the rules. Winning again.
Ten years later my fraternity boy will marry a woman I adore. She’ll say that it took him some time to get over our relationship. She’ll say that one night they were in an argument and he became distant. She’d said, “What are you thinking about?” and he’d replied, “Glennon. She just didn’t give a fuck.” His wife understood this to be the ultimate compliment for him to bestow upon a woman. She also understood that it was no compliment. Any woman who doesn’t give a fuck is simply abandoning her soul to adhere to the rules. No woman on earth doesn’t give a fuck—no woman is that cool—she’s just hidden her fire. Likely, it’s burning her up.
Copyright © 2016 by Glennon Doyle