BY LYDIA A. CYRUS
In her essay "Identity: Skin, Blood, Heart," Minnie Bruce Pratt writes about the cultural barriers she has experienced as a white woman in the South. She asks the reader if by chance would they speak to each other if they met on a sidewalk in Washington, DC. The answer, she says, isn’t easy. There are many things that keep people apart. Pratt grew up in Alabama in a well to do family that touted white supremacy. Later in life, she comes out as a lesbian only to lose her children in court to her "liberal" husband. The essay explores the concepts of culture and how we come to invest in it. She writes about all the things her father said, all that he taught, and how she didn’t know it was wrong. It was where she was born and raised and it isn’t until she becomes an outcast to the major society at hand that she experiences the isolation and personal devastation that other minorities have. Essentially, Pratt is born twice: once as the daughter of a white man with strict beliefs and later as a lesbian woman who walks down a busy street conscious of class, race, sexuality, and all of their intersections.
In every essay I’ve ever written I’ve had to find a way to introduce my life in the opening paragraph. Introduce the shock of the Southern Baptist culture I was raised in. The poverty, the abuse, the mental health issues, the pain and anguish. Even when I want to write about anything other than that, there it is. I think about that all of the time, about the way I can’t get out of this pit. The ways in which I’ve tried to get away from it and it always sucks me back inward. I keep slipping up and falling down, busting my chin on the way down and feeling like I’ve had the air knocked out of my lungs.
I am the first person in my family to go to college. My father is a welder and carpenter like all the other men in my family. My mother worked various jobs for years before she became disabled. The most educated people I know are the people I spend time with on campus. I grew up in a "holler" where I’m related to every person there. If we aren’t related, we grew up in church together or I got off the school bus at that person’s house. The point is that I was never able to afford the anonymity of just being someone’s neighbor. There are few places—if any—that I can go to that I am not "Tommy’s daughter" or that people don’t see my face and say his name. I’m not sure they mean harm. When relatives die or I meet people for the first time it usually devolves to that: you look just like your dad! You must be Edna’s middle grand daughter! More recently, I had a professor meet one of my uncles at a soccer game. Her son played against a cousin of mine.
"Don’t tell them that you know me. They won’t talk to you if you do," I said to her not wanting her to be treated differently on my behalf. That’s when she said that she introduced herself to my Uncle Raymond and he turned from her when she said she loved me. My Uncle Raymond with his grey hair and hearing aid. The same uncle I used to have contests with the see who could get a deeper tan during the summer. The same uncle I loved dearly until he accused me of being an idiot for voting for Hillary Clinton. The same uncle that has not spoken to me for so long now that I doubt he would even admit it out loud that I was his niece, that he were my uncle.
But that’s just how it is now. I am living two lives now: the one in academia and the one at home. I’ve done it for so long now that I hardly noticed it before now. It feels like being a blur. Like an old photograph where the subject was moving too fast and left only traces of a hand or their hair but mostly resembles a wisp. I can hardly tell what parts I’m leaving behind in each place but I know that I’ve lost the best pieces. Truly, I know that the better parts of me have been left behind in church pews and desks. The textbook definition of "the cost of affiliation" is something like the things you lose when you become a part of an institution. I would define it as simply sacrifice. That’s all it is really: deciding what you’re willing to miss out on, what you’re willing to let die in exchange for something else.
I remember in high school when I told my English teacher that I wanted to go to college. It was a short conversation but it sticks out. Of course she wanted me to go, how could she not? I had been one of her "babies" for four years. She got to watch me grow from a freshman to a senior in English 101 right in front of her. She had no idea what home was like and I can only guess now what exactly she thought about me. Her guidance and friendship was the last time an English teacher would know me very vaguely. Every professor after that would not be that lucky.
In class, I can discuss with ease concepts of feminism or post colonial theory. I can explain almost anything to my classmates and to myself. I’ve found that I need little instruction sometimes but want it anyway. I wonder a lot now what I appear to be to the people I have sat next to all this time. This semester, my final fall semester, has been a time to sit back and be quiet. I haven’t said a quarter of what I would have last semester or the one before that. This time, I’ve waited for someone else to speak. Waiting for them to say what I was thinking. It never happens. Maybe I’m just smarter than everyone else. That’s what I think my classmates would say. I think they think I’m smarter than they are. They don’t realize I’m trying to transition from into being a student just then. As we’re working on group work, as we’re talking about Edgar Allan Poe, I’m trying to shift everything just right so that I am protected enough not to be Tommy’s Daughter for a few hours.
I used to think it was so bizarre that a professor should care about their students. I still do. Even though I have benefited from it, I don’t always trust it. I come from a place in Appalachia where everyone keeps it to themselves. Yes, you are supposed to be kind and outreaching but you aren’t supposed to share your life with strangers. Especially as a young woman, I have never thought my voice warranted an audience. Why should it? I grew up in churches where women were forbidden to preach. I grew up in homes where the women were expected to be bent over the stove around four in the evening every evening. Why should I believe that I deserve to be outside of that home and away from that stove?
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It’s been four years now. Four years that I have been a college student. Four years that I have lived a double life. I know so many things, unconventional things. Things you won’t hear about from Jean Baudrillard doesn’t teach, things my professors haven’t quizzed me on. I could butcher a chicken if I were asked for instance. I can dig a splinter out of your hand with sewing needle. I know how to remove stains from almost anything. Just this past Sunday I was outside hanging clothes on the line. Would anyone have guessed, if they saw, that I was a scholar? And when I tripped over a piece of junk left behind by someone else and fell underneath a line of wet towels, did anyone wonder if I could explain to them the term "subaltern"? And this deep gash on my left knee, do you think I could make something philosophical out of it? How charming it must have been for my father and his mother to watch me hang those clothes out and then to watch me fall down and bleed. To watch the red blood come spurting straight down onto my sandals. And I stood back up and finished hanging those towels. I never cleaned up the blood because I knew that I had failed. I have always failed. To be the housewife, to be the good daughter, and to be the good student. I deserved that gash and I know my family got a rise out of it. I know they see me fail and they enjoy it. I’ve been getting above my raisings so to speak. It was time something knocked me down and leveled me. Time that I got off my high horse and felt the humiliation my culture thinks I deserve.
Although these lives are separate, it seems I’m not doing a good job of keeping it that way. Last semester, a writing professor said that I "always made her cry" with my work. It wasn’t supposed to be anything other than a superficial comment. I wasn’t angry about it but it made me think about the choices I have made. The choice to write non-fiction instead of anything else. The choice to write about things no one wants to know. My abuse, my depression, the anxiety, the deaths I have been witnessed to. These were things I know better than let out. Things I was supposed to stick on a shelf and ask God to keep them dusty for me. And yet, I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t leave the past alone and dead, I dug it all up and made art out of it. Some people even said I was good at it. I remember once when a classmate asked me if I could teach him how to write the way I do. Can I beat you with a leather belt? No. Can I sit you down in church and let the people talk about the ways in which people of your gender should be submissive? No. Can I tell you every day of your life that you know nothing, that you are in fact a worthless piece of shit? No. So no, I can’t teach anyone shit. I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore, let alone how to give it to someone else.
It isn’t all bad here. I hope everyone knows that. I hope everyone could grow to love the walnut trees that line my driveway. Love the tea that everyone drinks here. Love the way that I have always been amiable and able to talk to strangers on a basic level. I’m not sure that I have accepted these things are beautiful or good yet. This place, my place, has left me so empty that I cannot call it home. I’m trying to love it without thinking about the horror I have seen within it. But can you do that? Can you leave it behind? Everyone must think I hate the state of West Virginia and its people. My family thinks so. They call me Miss Lydia or Lydia Alexis when they feel that I’m being snotty. They think I hate them all. Some of them are right.
In January, I marched in the streets of my home state’s capital. I went on a bus with professors and other students, with my best friend of seventeen years. It was a defining moment for me that I thought I wanted. I thought I wanted to walk with these people who seemed to be doing the right thing, who believed the causes I supported. And even as we all rode home tired and fulfilled I knew I had done something wrong. Even as I sat behind the two non-fiction professors who had been nothing but great to me—who had been everything I needed and more—as they said I’m proud of you I knew I made a mistake.
We got off of that bus and I immediately ran for the car. My best friend, Kinsey, couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t say "thank you" or "goodbye" to my professors. Especially after they had said such nice things to me. I didn’t know how to say to her what I felt then. That I was scared to go home or that I don’t know what to say when someone is kind because I have not been afforded the chance to hear that often. Instead, I asked her to please take me to get my ear pierced. I wanted something physical to remember the day by. I think now that maybe I wanted to bleed a little, to feel something other than fear and confusion. So we did. I have a small little earring on the top of my left ear that I touch everyday in the car as I drive to class. But that wasn’t enough. Can we go somewhere to eat? I’ll pay for your food. I couldn’t stay out long enough it seemed. Couldn’t stay away from the holler long enough.
When I finally did come home I brought my father leftover food. I always did that for him. I didn’t know what to say to my grandmother then as I sat across from her. In a white and red girl power shirt. Wearing dark red lipstick that I know she doesn’t like. I asked her if she saw me on the news. She had. That was when she berated me for what felt like ten minutes calling me stupid. Stupid. And I cried. Twenty one years old and I cried. I don’t remember anything else about it, that day. I remember sitting on a bus with academic people and being told that I had done something good. Then I remember going home and being screamed at and called stupid. I’m sure everyone can guess which of those two things I remember best, which part wounds the most.
That’s how every conversation goes at home. They love Donald Trump here. I live in the heart of Trump country. I remember when my grandmother said that she didn’t care what happened to Muslims, that they deserved to be rounded up like the Jews in Auschwitz. I remember my small voice saying Granny that’s wrong. The way she said that she thinks the government should start castrating drug addicts because everyone knows that taxpayers pay for drug babies. I remember thinking about eugenics and the way the Germans rounded up handicapped people and old people and exterminated them. I thought about how, by that logic, taxpayers had paid for me at different times in my life, had paid for her because of her alcoholic father. But you aren’t supposed to think like that. At least, that’s what I’ve come to understand. You shouldn’t think like a scholar or a historian. You shouldn’t empathize with people who aren’t like you. The Catholics, the feminists, the gays, the blacks, the Mexicans…the academics.
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I don’t usually have a good answer when relatives ask about school. I do very well in school. Very well. But I’ve never been allowed to be proud of that. My granny and even some of my aunts used to tell people that I actually fail classes a lot and don’t do well. Once, the university forgot to put my name in the paper for the dean’s list and everyone called me a liar. I try really hard to connect with them, these people who seem to hate me so much. I pick green beans in the garden and snap them too. I hang clothes out of the line too. And yet I don’t. I’m not one of them because I went to college instead. Because I’m not married yet. Because I stopped going to church when I was sixteen. Because I’m a democrat. I’m not one of them.
I’m not an academic either. Sure, I could talk theory with the best of them. I have enough publications under my belt to be thought of as someone. But I’m not. I’m not wealthy like some of my peers or professors. I’m not articulate. The furthest I’ve ever been from Wayne County was Wisconsin. I didn’t know how to pronounce Camus until I was a junior in college because I didn’t know anyone who had read Camus. I’d never heard someone say it out loud before. I struggled through four semesters of French and couldn’t get the accents right because my own accent is so thick. Because of the long "I" sounds and the twang. I’m embarrassed to ask how to say certain words, like assonance. I’m embarrassed to ask about it.
When I was little we were told that children are to be seen and not heard. We were punished for crying, for asking for help. So when I sit in on a class on contemporary literature and I don’t understand what’s going on I can’t ask. Instead, I’ll go home and buy books on theory to help. I’ll read twice as much as I should. I have to do so much just to be on the same level as my peers. I work so hard and it’s all for nothing. I’m still not like them. I still feel other to them. That’s called alterity. I know that. I really know that.
Like Minnie Bruce Pratt there were so many things I didn’t know. I grew up listening to words like "colored" and didn’t know it was bad. How could I have known? But isn’t that just an excuse too? To admit that you didn’t know better until you were older feels fraudulent. I’m not like my family, I share so many things with them but I do not share ideologies with them. I’m not like the academic people I’ve spent four years with now. I share ideologies with them but not lives. I’m walking on a thin line where I have to remember to hold my breath so as not to tip over the balance I’ve worked so hard to create. What do I want? No one’s ever asked. It’s not their fault though. I’ve been so good at being so many different women lately that I bet no one knows I feel this way. I bet no one thinks I’m a fraud yet. And yet it’s unraveling before me: the act. Come undone like a loose thread. I haven’t been good lately. To me, to my family, to my educators. I’ve cried in front of professors and callously told off family members in arguments over political beliefs. All things I should never have done. What business do I have dragging my life in hand to Southern Lit? To Medieval literature? What business did I have believing that this professor should care for me? Should help me?
What business do I have explaining how democracy works to my forty seven year old father? I had none. That’s where I am right now: I believe I have no right to say these things, to stand for any one position. The issue of my identity is that it doesn’t exist right now. The problem is that even though I feel okay today I have a gash on my left knee. It’s feverish and it sticks out like a knob on my knee. It hurts to walk, to bend, and it reminds me of the way of life I am trying to leave behind. Is that what I want? To leave this place and these people and don a tweed jacket and drink La Croix? To be an academic. Is that what I want? I wish I knew. I wish I could say that the sacrifices I have made have brought me wealth and happiness. Sometimes they do. If I could just have a moment to myself to clear out the negative thoughts—if I could give this gash time to heal—maybe I would see that. I’m adjusted enough to know that not everything I have said just now is fair. There are people who have sacrificed for me so that I may have something. There are professors who have stood up for me at soccer games and told my Uncle Raymond that they loved me, knowing that my Uncle wouldn’t say the same. I hope I haven’t hurt them too badly. Both my family and my academic peers. I hope I haven’t hurt them the way I think I have and I hope that I can get past all of this.
It feels like I have to give it all up. I have to either quit school and walk away from it and live an average life and leave Camus on the shelf. Or I have to pack it all up and move on. It doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t feel empowering or kind. It doesn’t feel fair. I wonder why it is I haven’t been as talkative lately. But I guess I know why. Minnie Bruce Pratt knows why she doesn’t speak to others too. There are barriers between us. Barriers between me and the world at large. I am a lonely person right now and I’m trying to scale the barriers and bring them down but it’s not a job for one person. Especially one person who hasn’t figured out yet how to ask for help. No amount of research or drafting is going to fix my home life. Just as butchered chickens and splitting wood by hand won’t get me my English degree. Those are two different lives and I am living both.
Lydia A. Cyrus is a creative nonfiction writer and poet from Huntington, West Virginia. Her work as been featured in Thoreau's Rooster, Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Albion Review, and Luna Luna. Her essay "We Love You Anyway," was featured in the 2017 anthology Family Don't End with Blood which chronicles the lives of fans and actors from the television show Supernatural.
She lives and works in Huntington where she spends her time being politically active and volunteering. She is a proud Mountain Woman who strives to make positive change in Southern Appalachia. She enjoys the color red and all things Wonder Woman related! You can usually find her walking around the woods and surrounding areas as she strives to find solitude in the natural world. Twitter: @lydiaacyrus