For a long time (probably since I was about eleven or twelve) I have had two different styles of behavior. At that age, I began swearing, and other behavior that adults would have deemed inappropriate at the time, so I kept that behavior private from them, only swearing and acting out around other kids. As far as I can tell this is fairly standard for kids that age.
At some point—probably in my early to mid twenties—the line separating those two behaviors started to blur. My absolute “best” behavior—I put that in quotes, because I don’t believe there is anything wrong with the other, but I’m in the minority on that— was reserved basically for my parents and my grandmother.
I started letting what I really think of as the ‘real’ Mike slip in front of aunts and uncles, and in front of my cousins. I don’t think my aunts and uncles cared too much, except when it was in front of their children. I started to get yelled at for this behavior, which did two things, first it encouraged me, and secondly it pissed me off.
I remember one Thanksgiving, I was probably about twenty four or twenty five, and one of my aunts said “Michael, have you been working out? Your arms are looking big!” I smirked and replied, “just the one arm.” Two of my cousins who were already well into high school giggled—again this only encourages me. Of course I got yelled at, and I remember thinking “if I’m being that subtle and they get it, then they already know about it, and if they don’t get it then what’s the harm?” I still think my line of thinking was correct, but since then I have learned that it is not my place to determine what is appropriate for other people’s children—I feel like this is a form of maturity, but I don’t feel like that word ever describes me!
I continued to open up and be myself more and more, I was now being largely myself in front of my mother too, and then I met my wife. When I met Sarah, I pretty quickly knew that she was the one, and one of the things that I liked about Sarah was that in many ways she was what I wanted to be, and in other ways she challenged me. Many of you don’t know Sarah, so you may not know what the perception of her is, but it’s that she is very sweet—everyone thinks so! And she is sweet, but she does get away with a lot because of her sweetness. She said the word ‘fuck’ in front of both of my parents long before I did— and they didn’t seem to bat an eye at it. (I should mention that Sarah probably swears less than most other adults, and I think this is because she was allowed to swear growing up.)
Other than Sarah’s being sweet, and getting away with saying ‘fuck,’ Sarah is one of the most real people that I know. I mean that she is the same person in front of my parents, that she is in front of hers, or her boss, or in front of her group of friends. The only difference I ever see in her, is when it is just her and I, and even in those moments she is pretty much the same, she doesn’t increase her ‘fucks’ per minute, or anything, she just drops a little bit of the pretense that we all have.
Sarah has really inspired me now that I have seen how she is herself in any given situation more than almost anyone else I’ve ever known. So, when in the last seven years that I’ve known her, I’ve began to work on my own transformation. The first place that I thought this was important, was my writing. For a long time I was writing things that I didn’t like, and I didn’t feel passionate about, and I think that was because I felt as if I was sanitizing them in fear that they would upset the people whom I hadn’t fully transformed in front of. I wasn’t happy with my writing, and I had a hard time feeling connected with it. So finally, I decided I had to start writing what I felt like writing, and not what I felt that people wanted me to write.
My book was the first big step toward this, I published a book that a poem about the glories of the word ‘fuck,’ a short story about a guy preparing for his first orgy, and another about a virgin having to photograph a nude model for a photography class. When I published the book, my parents bought a copy, and an aunt, and my grandfather, all of the people whom I was most worried about—my grandmother passed away before I could publish it.
My parents called me the first weekend day after having received the book, they both had read it, and they loved it. It was the most free I had ever felt emotionally in my entire life. I had been so afraid that they were going to hate it, that they would be mad, or ashamed, and when they weren’t—both have shown it to friends and coworkers— I felt as if I could finally just be the writer I had always wanted to be. I’ve written more in the last year and a half, and enjoyed it more, than the fifteen years prior.
Now, having moved to where I feel comfortable being myself both as a writer and as a person, I have to start juggling those things with being a parent. I think ultimately being myself will teach my son (and any future hypothetical children) to be himself, and I just have to impart in him that in some contexts we have to conform a little bit (i.e. no swearing in school).
Do you feel like there is a big difference between who you are in public vs. private? Or with authority figures vs. peers? How do you deal with it?