Identity and Resilience, Part Three: My Collegiate Crisis

Okay, so everybody goes through an identity crisis in college, right? These are the formative years, a time of nascent adulthood and three-drink bisexuals.

I’ve been thinking about college not only because my oldest daughter is about to embark on her search for one, but also because of my recent explorations with identity and resilience. It’s been a long time since I figured out who I am—although it hasn’t been all that long since becoming comfortable with certain aspects of what I figured out.

Who and what am I?

Well, I’m mixed-race black and white. I can be shy, I see myself as an extroverted introvert, and I’m a filmmaker, wife, mom, and lover of solitude. These are all aspects of myself that are and were easy to appreciate. I’m also a queer chick who spent about 18 years drinking heavily then stopped (pretty much cold turkey—I’ll save the crazy AA stories for another time).

The heavy drinking, quite honestly, actually helped (for awhile) with the “uncomfortable” part—specifically, being around those of the queer, female persuasion. I came out in 1990 but spent the next many years overcoming this anxiety. Although I came to understand other parts of my identity, my evolution into a shiny, happy lesbian was a slow one.

It all went down (so to speak) in college. It started in a drama class with Anna Deavere Smith and ended with lesbian sex in a passenger’s seat.

It was my senior year at Stanford, 1991. Anna Deavere Smith, who was about to bask in the theatrical limelight of Fires in the Mirror, was teaching a drama class. It was a popular class and I knew it’d be hard to get in, but I showed up to the first session to try my luck. The criteria were simple enough: precedence was given to drama and American studies majors. Everyone else had to provide a convincing argument for being in the class.

We went in a circle, offering hard-hitting and deeply sociopolitical reasons for wanting a coveted spot. “As a Black female,” started one student. Others had similar, self-prescribed labels of identity: Black man, Asian woman, gay male. (Among those who made the cut were Omar Wasow and my friend Alice Wu.)

My answer to the identity question: “I don’t know what I am. I just thought the class sounded interesting.”

So, yeah, I didn’t make it into the class. Right afterward, however, after I wandered out of the drama department in a daze and headed toward The Claw in front of the Stanford Bookstore….I ran into her. She was the unofficial Big Dyke on Campus. Like me, she was mixed-race. We talked for probably four hours about ethnicity, our families and backgrounds, identity, and sexuality.

Cutting to the chase: about a week later I had my first lesbian sex in her car. She interned for the police department and knew the nighttime beat, so we were supposedly safe in the parking lot near the Stanford Museum for the time being. I think Joni Mitchell was playing on the car stereo. (Of course Joni Mitchell was playing on the car stereo.)

I promise I won’t dredge up a fake scandal if she’s ever nominated to the Supreme Court.

And with this—along with my years of heavy drinking—I was brought into and eventually became comfortable in the world of my own skin, at least to the extent that I avoided any major, life-threatening catastrophe. Was it easy? No. Did I make it to the other side with a better understanding of myself (and a new if unfortunate lesbian wardrobe)? Yes.

What I learned from all of this: For anyone going through any sort of identity “crisis,” or any process of bringing into greater focus those things that lead to “me,” it always feels like the first time—not unlike sex in a parked vehicle with a time limit.

In the next and final installment of identify and resilience, I’ll share a few of the finer moments with my now estranged friend, alcohol.

Identity and Resilience, Part Two:
Points of Light

In the last Cinemulatto post I discussed Eartha Kitt’s life-long identity crisis and difficult childhood, and her ability to nonetheless enjoy a successful career. I’ve been fortunate to experience my own level of success and contentment: I consistently got straight A’s until my junior year of high school (when I got a B in math), I was the valedictorian of the Duarte High School class of 1987, I was the first in my family (and I believe city) to go to Stanford University, I’ve been the recipient of multiple creative awards, I have a great job, I’m surrounded by wonderful friends and a tight-knit artistic community, and I have an amazing and loving wife and family. I often describe myself as “blessed”. I also often wonder—because of good fortune, not bad circumstances—why me?

Again, in Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed, there are a couple of key findings—from years of research in neuroendocrinology and stress physiology—that have changed the way I view certain pivotal moments of my childhood:

  • If a child receives nurturing and emotional attentiveness from a parent or caregiver, particularly during the first year of life, that child is more likely, as an adult, to avoid depression, drug abuse, chronic unemployment, and unsuccessful relationships. Conversely, children whose caregivers respond to their emotional needs during the first year are much more inclined to deal effectively with stress and adversity.
  • Getting a child to think of character not as a set of fixed traits but as something that’s constantly developing and malleable instills confidence and drive in that child.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, my mother was schizophrenic. The first time she was admitted into an institution was in 1965; records I uncovered during my childhood indicated she’d been at Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, California. I don’t recall the dates of her time there, but 1965 was the year of my older brother’s birth. He’s not someone I discuss openly very often, and only to close family and friends. After he faked his death in the summer of 2010, I cut off contact with him. He’s an alcoholic in an abusive relationship who’s never been able to hold down a steady job. He spends his waking hours creating enemies on the message board of a very famous English rock band.

I now realize that there’s no way my mother could’ve provided the nurturing and attention my brother so desperately needed during the first year of his life. My father was also pretty checked out during this time, working long hours at a janitorial job and showing the first signs of his abuse toward my mom. On top of that, my brother’s having to contend with a coming out process during his teen years, the indignities of my father (who called my brother “dummy,” among other things), and the absence of any significant role models all apparently took a lasting toll.

My brother David has wrestled a few demons, for sure, but now he’s living his life mission, doing important work around compassion.

And me? I’m certainly not without my issues. As an adult, I spent ten years in therapy to develop strategies for addressing these issues. Still, I remember the first years of my life as being positive ones, and stories from my aunts throughout my upbringing confirm that my mother was lucid, positive, and loving during the time when I most needed it. She didn’t know what my gender would be before my birth, but after the doctor recommended that she have an abortion due to the health threat, she insisted, “I’m going to have my daughter.”

It was this foundation that created a child, who as a student of Head Start, had the deep confidence that she could run faster than her teacher. When he won the race, I was confused and thought something had gone wrong—not that I had done something wrong or lacked any inherent talent. I went on to be high school league champion in the 300-meter hurdles. In one memorable race, the mile relay, our star athlete was injured, and my coach decided to put a couple of the faster girls in the first two legs to try and gain an early advantage. I ran first. As I approached the 200-meter mark, I thought I’d slow down. Something in me, however, thought, “Speed up.” I gained a wide lead for our team, which was unfortunately lost during the course of the final three legs.

As for constant development, I never lacked positive role models who advised me on character: in addition to my mother, there were teachers, my aunts (“Bad things will happen; it’s how you handle them,” my Aunt Blos told me), relatives, and church members who provided small flashes of hope and insight along the way. I’m no longer affiliated with organized religion, but the effects of the church when I was a child were significant—Sister Mary Esther bringing me a new pair of shoes to replace the one pair I had, or another woman whose name I can’t recall giving me a job cleaning her house when I was in third grade. My fifth grade teacher, Mr. Sheehan, was also a member of our church. At one parent-teacher conference (the only one I recall from so many during my childhood), he mentioned to my parents that he saw no reason why I couldn’t go on to attend a four-year college. I didn’t fully understand what this meant at the time, but from that moment on, I wanted to go to college, simply because he said I could.

The sense of importance and purpose that these people and experiences instilled in me all contributed to good grades, will power, a strong desire to escape from my family situation, and an enthusiasm and love of life that I note and appreciate daily. Maybe “blessed” is an appropriate label after all. I’m still not sure. Regardless, I’m grateful for those moments that my mother was able to respond to my emotional needs. I’m thankful she gave birth to the daughter she knew she’d have.