When I was in high school, I plotted a murder—my own. The murder was never actually meant to happen, because there was no real murderer, and even the so-called plot itself was never plotted; it just kind of happened. I felt bored one day during a free period at school, and I taped a Polaroid of my smiling face on the first page of my new spiral notebook. Then I defaced it with curse words and death threats.
This is so disturbing to look at now, but at the time, for some reason, I thought it was hilarious. I took it a step further on the next page, where I, playing my own killer, fantasized in writing about murdering me. I found this even funnier.
I showed the notebook to my best friend, who shared my morbid sense of humor, and we chuckled over it in class. Then I accidentally left it on my desk and went off to my next class.
After school I headed to a friend’s apartment to hang out. It occurred to me on the way that I’d forgotten my notebook at school, but I didn’t worry about it—I’d just retrieve it the next day. My nonchalant attitude would not last long—when I got to my friend’s house, her father told me I needed to call my parents. When I did, I learned that a couple of students had found my notebook and had apparently not found it as hysterical as I did. They thought the threats on my life were real. So did the principal, who had called my parents immediately and told them that someone at their daughter’s school was planning to murder her. He had already made copies of the pages and sent them around to the faculty so they could help figure out whose handwriting it was.
I confessed immediately. The following Monday morning I sat in the principal’s office with my mother while she leafed through my notebook. “It’s so…graphic,” she said, tears rolling down her face. It was the first time I ever saw my mom cry.
My parents loved and supported me the best they could, but our home wasn’t a peaceful one. I would characterize it as volatile. I was angry with my family with no way to express it, so I shut them out. Even though I thought of the fake murder plot as a joke at the time, it’s obvious to me now that it was also a kind of indirect self-harm. No one with a great self-image would imagine her own violent death, much less fill pages with elaborate, explicit plans for same.
It wasn’t long after that day that I became addicted to pills, then dropped out of high school. My mom and dad had long grown tired of trying to shape me into the good daughter all parents hope to have. They wanted me to behave well, but they finally realized they could not make me change. So they sent me to an institution that promised to do that for them—a therapeutic boarding school.
I didn’t want to go, but I also felt like I’d wished it upon myself. When I was in middle school, I saw a movie about girls in 1960s Ireland who break too many rules and embarrass their families. Their scandalized parents send them to an asylum, a grim convent run by cruel and abusive nuns. I may be the only kid who saw that movie and thought, I wish that would happen to me! I was hungry for something—anything—different from the life I was living, and I longed for some way to make visible the private emotional prison I was locked inside.
There were few freedoms at reform school. Every window had a screen that was rigged to an alarm, to prevent students from running away. We had no cellphones or computers; our only contact with the outside world was a one 15-minute phone call, monitored by school staff, per week with our parents. Our lives were defined by countless rules and regulations, and the girls—only 25 percent of the student body—had an extra set of specific gender-based rules. High heels, makeup, and thong underwear were contraband. Girls with big breasts were asked to wear oversize shirts to conceale their silhouettes. Kissing, holding hands, and sitting on a boy’s lap were all forbidden, as were love notes, fashion magazines, hairdryers, straightening irons, and, strangely, any books by Chuck Palahniuk.
If a staff member suspected that you’d broken a rule, they would ask you to write a truth list: an accounting of every rule you or your friends had violated. You could never be sure if the staffer knew what you’d been up to, but if they knew you were omitting something, your punishment was more severe. Sometimes the staff would bluff. You’d hand back your list, and they’d tell you, “No. There’s more. You’re not telling us everything. Keep going,” to see if they could get more information out of you. Truth lists were nerve-racking—even the smallest infraction could earn you restriction, which meant you would spend your weekends performing senseless manual labor and your weeknights in a silent white room, writing essays about how you regretted your wrongdoings. This punishment lasted from a few days to six weeks, depending on the severity of the transgression. I went on restriction four times: once for playfully spanking a friend, another time for making out with someone, a third time for not telling staff members about a friend who had broken some rules, and once for reading a book by Chuck Palahniuk.
But somehow, the lack of freedom was liberating. With nothing left to hide behind, we had no choice but to be ourselves, completely. We all knew it would be a long time before we’d see our old friends and our old lives, so we had to be there for one another, and sometimes we were able to help each other in real ways. One time I noticed that my roommate had long red marks across her arm. Our rooms were regularly raided for things like scissors and razors, but she must’ve had had something sharp hidden away. When I asked her what had happened, she started crying and begged me not to tell anyone that she’d been cutting herself. Then we got into a long discussion about whether or not she wanted to continue cutting. I pointed out that, as bad as it felt to get in trouble at the school, letting people know might ultimately get her the help she needed to stop. Later that day she came clean to her therapist. Years later, she ended up getting a degree in social work. The bonds I made with my reform-school friends are stronger than steel—I have lived with them, moved to new cities with them. I have turned to them when I needed help, and vice versa. I consider them family.
I’m not saying the school had a 100 percent positive effect on me. The administration justified their harsh practices with one constant and cardinal contention: We were bad. That’s why we were there. We’d messed up, we’d pissed off our parents, and we’d proven ourselves to be burgeoning blights on society. After 15 months of hearing how awful I was, I started to believe it. Earlier this year an article came out bashing that school and others like it for the cult-like practices they used break students down psychologically. A couple of months later, the school shut down. My former classmates rejoiced, but I had mixed feelings. Reform school was a place where I had grown, learned, and felt so much, and suddenly it was gone. How should I feel about my time there, or what it taught me, or how it shaped me? Was the school as bad as I thought I was?
Today I am still troubled by the gnawing belief, instilled in me at that school, that I am a bad person. At times, I’ve overcompensated by doing unnecessary and even self-destructive things just to be seen as a “good girl.” But lately I’ve discovered a third path: Instead of constantly worrying whether I’m good or bad, I am trying to just be. I learned this tactic from Rachel Simmons, a self-help writer who came to the education center where I currently work to conduct a workshop for young women. It was called “Be Who You Are, Say What You Mean,” which sounded good to me, so I attended.
There were 20 of us sitting on the floor in the classroom. Our first activity was to come up with an all-inclusive list of “good girl” qualities—traits that society tells us any respectable girl ought to have. We came up with at least 30, including:
• flirtatious but not overtly so
• not outspoken
• doesn’t sleep around
• straight hair
• extroverted and playful
• career-driven but not overly ambitious
• intelligent but not intimidating
• no farting
Even as we talked about how these expectations limited us, I worried that I didn’t inherently have enough of the qualities on the list to ever be considered truly good, no matter how hard I tried. I’ve always had some pie-in-the-sky vision of who I should be, and my real self always has always come up pitifully short. Rachel’s workshop taught me to consider other kinds of qualities that I might aspire to. I thought about it and decided that my utmost goal as a person was to embrace the grand mystery of life and everything it took to actually live a good one, which I determined included a sense of compassion, openness, and vulnerability. This feels like a wildly desirable but totally attainable goal, and it’s what I’m still working on today.
The workshop also gave me practical tools to help me tune in to and then broadcast my “authentic,” non-judge-y inner voice: the one hidden underneath my shouting people-pleaser and my haranguing inner critic. Listening to that neutral part of me without trying to call it “good” or “bad” was my first step toward learning to be genuine around my family, friends, teachers, and colleagues. Here are the tools that got me there, and might help you get there too:
1. How to Not Freak Out. The next time you feel overwhelmed with emotion, after a fight with your parents or when a friend lets you down, ask yourself: How do I feel? What you show others (the eyeroll, the door slam, the silent treatment) usually masks a more vulnerable, painful emotion. Giving that mass of neurochemicals a name won’t make it go away, but it will help you stay sane.
2. How to Drop the Shrinking Violet Act. The word sorry is for genuine remorse—say it when you knock over a glass of cranberry juice on someone’s carpet, not when you express an opinion. The same goes for: “What I’m about to say might not make sense…” or “I don’t know if I’m saying this right, but…” etc. Don’t ask for permission or forgiveness for having an opinion.
3. How to Be Cool in the Face of Conflict. You share this world with other people, and sometimes they will piss you off. Your job is to face conflict in a smart, healthy way. Say what’s on your mind, but leave out the accusations. Step back and recognize something you did—even something tiny—that contributed to the situation, and acknowledge it. “I realize that I joke about my taste in guys, but I still felt embarrassed when you said that my love life was like a Lars Von Trier movie. I can make an effort to be less self-deprecating—can you not make jokes about whom I date?”
4. How to Be Your Authentic Self.” Write down three “good girl” qualities you try to live up to. Pick one and write about how it restricts your life. Do you have trouble letting loose because you’re too focused on appearing composed? Or maybe you force yourself to be a party animal when you’d actually prefer to spend Friday nights in bed reading Jane Austen in your pajamas. Write it down and do the math: What would the sweet sum of your life be if pleasing someone else didn’t enter into the equation?
Once you get there, being true to yourself is like that awesome feeling when you get rid of unworn clothes in the back of your closet. There are still moments in the day when I’m just not prepared to be authentic, when I get too mired in self-judgment to even try. The difference is that instead of spiraling into a place where I think of myself as eternally damaged, I accept that all of this, including the setbacks, is part of being human. I still come back to this list from time to time to remind myself that my goal isn’t to be good anymore. I’m happy to just be. ♦