I have been trying to write this essay for so long. Trying to tell my story and get it down just right, to explain how I got here. But there are too many beginnings and a story is supposed to have just one.
Last night I tattooed lines from a Tori Amos song onto my back.
Here’s what you need to know:
I was raised in a Christian church and for a long time I believed in Jesus. I believed in God. I maybe even felt like I loved God and also maybe that HE loved me, as abstract as those concepts were.
I identify as a lesbian now, but for a long time I believed I would marry my high school boyfriend. Brian and I dated for many years — more on than off all throughout high school and the first year of college. I was 14 when we first started going out and I was 20 when we finally broke up for good. In some ways this was a good relationship for me and in other ways it was quite destructive. It lasted too long and I carried too much guilt when I walked away. About those two things I have no doubt.
But I’m already getting ahead of myself.
At age 5, I had two boyfriends. I used to kiss them behind the couch at “Good News Bible Club” after school.
I cannot pinpoint exactly when it was I realized that I also liked girls. For me it was something I just kind of knew without knowing that I knew. Do you have anything in your life like that?
Looking back on my childhood I can identify having had certain kinds of feelings for girls, mostly celebrities and older girls I knew. But it wasn’t until I was 20 years old and at a 10,000 maniacs concert watching Natalie Merchant sing that I actually thought, “I might be a lesbian.” The thought terrified and excited me at the same time.
I have spent years thinking about how that part of myself was so stuffed down, it was almost squashed completely. No wonder it took 20 some years to come out.
Growing up I was taught that I was a child of God — that God made me, made everything. And yet I was also taught that I was somehow never good enough. I felt and believed that was true for many years. Much of my relationship with God was about asking to be forgiven, over and over again. Sometimes when I tell this story to people who did not grow up this way I think it sounds like God is an abusive spouse.
I was taught that because I was human, I was flawed — disgusting even, at my core. I was taught this implicitly and explicitly by the people in my church and by members of my family. I believed it.
I may have been awful at my core but because I was willing to ask forgiveness (and I was willing; I asked repeatedly throughout my childhood and teenage years) there was good news: God was willing to overlook how wrong and horrible I was. He was willing to love me because Jesus had paid the ultimate price for my sins by dying on the cross.
There are some serious narrative flaws in this story. I don’t know why it took me so long to question them. Jesus dying on a cross and that act absolving me of being the awful creature I naturally was? What did the two have to do with one another? I still don’t know. It’s not a narrative I can make sense of. And yet I bought it for so long. Sometimes it takes years to undo the narratives we’ve been told our entire lives. Sometimes I think I’m still trying.
One day in the spring of my senior year of high school I was riding the school bus home — a horror for most high school students, let alone seniors — when someone (a friend of my sister) put a tape in a boom box and played it loud. It was Tori Amos’ “Little Earthquakes” — her first album. Unable to make out many of the words, I was at first captivated by the sound of her voice alone. I asked the person playing the music what it was and if I could take a look at the liner notes. As I started to read, I felt some intense combination of panic and passion ripple like a wave inside my body. That night I borrowed my mom’s car and drove to the nearest record store (30 minutes away) and bought the cassette copy of “Little Earthquakes” for myself.
Tori’s early albums are all about sex and religion and shedding your guilt and shame. Her music is about throwing off other’s expectations of you and finding your own voice. At 18 I got it, even if I couldn’t articulate why.
I was in the shower the first time I heard the title track, “Little Earthquakes.” (Sometimes the bathroom is the only place to find privacy when you’re growing up in a small house and sharing a bedroom with your sister.) The track is long — nearly 7 minutes. And the combination of Tori’s haunting soprano and the images she evokes (“Yellow bird flying, get’s shot in the wing.” “We danced in graveyards with vampires til dawn.” “Black winged roses had safely changed their color”) all work to create the kind of anthem that smart, sensitive, angsty teenagers go crazy over. It was all so compelling. But when Tori sings the lines in the bridge “give me life, give me pain, give me myself again,” and the other voices join her, it is intense, haunting. It was too much for me. I had to get out of the shower and turn it off.
At that point I was just beginning to wrestle with what I believed about God, and not even in the context of being gay, just in the context of being human. I had doubts.
Mostly I could not get over how guilty I felt for being sexual. Not homosexual, but sexual. “Got enough guilt to start my own religion,” goes one of Tori’s most famous lines (from the song “Crucify).
The fact that I was repentant, despite my repeated failure at “being good,” that was what it meant to be a Christian. To give one’s life over to God. To supplicate yourself to Jesus. To give all your feelings, energy, and love over to him and let him have all that you were.
Eventually I would come to identify this as an erasure of the self. In the type of Christianity that I was raised in there was no room for self. The self was inherently bad, so of course it had to be erased. What other hope did we have?
One of the most important things I ever did for myself was to give myself permission to find out who I am.
The only way I was able to leave Brian was by physically leaving home. When I was a sophomore and 20 years old, I transferred from a community college near my hometown to a Christian college in Chicago. Leaving home for the first time was exhilarating and terrifying. It must be that way for most people. But having grown up in conservative, rural Pennsylvania, finding myself in Chicago was wildly liberating. I cannot imagine my life or who I would be if I had never left home.
In January 1994 the same month that I got to Chicago, Tori released her second album, “Under the Pink,” which was somehow even more incredible and resonant than the last.
Do you know what it is to understand something in your bones, but to have no words for the thing you understand? This is what I felt when “Under the Pink” was released. Like finally someone was explaining me to myself.
One track from that album, “Icicle,” opens with a few bars of an old hymn that I remember singing in church when I was growing up:
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.”
Tori, who grew up in the church herself, the daughter of a minister, doesn’t sing any of the words to the hymn. She starts with a few dissonant chords and then morphs into the hymn’s melody. When the song begins, it’s pretty. But it quickly distorts back into something dissonant, dark, angry. And then she starts to sing. . .
“Icicle icicle where are you going?
I have a hiding place when spring marches in.
Will you keep watch for me,
I hear them calling, gonna lay down, lay down”
The entire song is a metaphor for childhood sexuality and masturbation, for having to hide yourself and find ways to protect and love yourself when everyone around you tells you you’re wrong.
“And when my hand touches myself
I can finally rest my head
And when they say take of his body
I think I’ll take of mine instead.
I could have, I should have, I could have flown.
You know, well I could have, I should have, I didn’t….”
It’s about the ways that all of the voices in our head can keep us from flying, keep us from being our true and beautiful self. The first time I heard it something in me shattered. Something that had needed to break for a long time. To have someone so completely articulate my experience was beyond anything I had known before.
During my first week in Chicago I met Jon, another Tori fan. We bonded. That spring Tori was in town and we got tickets. My first show! Jon picked me up at my dorm that night and as we walked across campus to his car the bell tower on the top of the chapel started to play that hymn… those notes! “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus Christ my righteousness…All other ground is sinking sand.” I had never before heard that hymn coming from the bell tower and I never heard it again after that night.
For years — now decades — I continue to come back to Tori’s music. She is the one artist who has consistently captivated me for over 24 years. And I have always known that one day I would tattoo her lyrics onto my skin. There were dozens of lines I considered. But the line from” Little Earthquakes” feels absolutely fitting for me on many levels.
In my scholarly and academic work I have focused on autobiography and memoir. The writing of the self. It is one of my obsessions — how it is that people come to tell the stories of who they are. Autobiography theorists, like many post-enlightenment philosophers, understand the self as shifting rather than fixed. And self representation even as something that changes with perspective and time. I turned 43 this week. Not a particularly extraordinary birthday. But the last few years of my life have been incredibly so: I ended a 17 year marriage to the mother of my child, thereby losing my best friend as well as the little bit of financial security I had within our relationship. We have spent the last 4 years working hard at our co-parenting relationship and trying to staying in each other’s lives in a healthy way. I had my heart broken into a million pieces by someone I never should have loved in the first place. I found love again only to lose it due to nothing other than the impossible circumstances of geography. All of these things have shaken me to my core. Even as I continue to struggle financially I have made the decision that during this next year I will cut down on some of my part time jobs, spend more time with my son, and return to finishing my dissertation. Through all of this I know that the relationship I have with myself must be primary. But sometimes it feels like I’m starting over again and again, constantly trying to figure out exactly who I am.
“Give me life, give me pain, give me myself again.” Listening to the song, it almost sounds like a chant. I have always thought of it as a prayer or a meditation. That longing for the self. The permission to search for oneself, to figure out who you are. That is so important. But it turns out that it’s something you have to do repeatedly throughout your life.
A storm was brewing that night as my friend Jon and I walked across campus, on our way to our first Tori show all those years ago. The sky was heavy and dark gray, about to crack open and pour. The wind was a kind of wild like I’ve never felt anywhere but in Chicago. I was on my way to hear Tori Amos play for the first time and I knew finally that I was OK, that God — whatever God was — was not mad at me. That I had nothing to atone for when it came to my sexuality or the core of who I was. Breathlessly, we sprinted to John’s car, racing the rain as the bell tower played that hymn, and I knew. I knew that moment was meant for me somehow, that my sexuality, whatever it was — whoever I was. . . was good.
The self may change over time, but Tori’s music has helped me understand that the self is not a thing to hide from, detest, or fear. In some very real and tangible ways her music has given me back to myself time and again. This tattoo is a way to honor not only the influence her work has had on my life but also the idea that the process of searching for the self is ongoing, that it must be engaged with again and again.