Does A 14-Year Old Run Your Life?

Based on this photo my one and only high school dance could have been worse. Image via Metromix Chicago

When I was 14 a girl named Liz asked me to the Turnabout Dance (aka Sadie Hawkins Dances, where the girl invites the boy to be her date).  I jumped at Liz’s offer.  I was new to my high school and completely incompetent with girls.  I missed Homecoming and the Winter Ball, relegated to staying home alone, searching for nipples in the scrambled images of the Spice Network.

Fate and genetics conspired to have Liz pull me out of my dungeon of isolation.  Like me, she was a gangly 14-year old.  She was 6-foot and I was a couple inches taller.  This specious bond constituted sufficient cause for partnership.

I bought a corsage and was dumped off by my brother at Liz’s place before the dance.  Her father, a 6’7”, barrel-chested, grey-buzzed-haired monster with a voice as deep as the Marianas Trench, greeted me upon arrival.   Despite his appearance, he didn’t intimidate me.  I had no devious plans with his daughter.  I wasn’t attracted to her.  Ours was a relationship of mutual beneficence:  I would serve as a date she didn’t tower over and she would get me on the first rung of our high school’s social ladder.  Liz, being a field-hockey player, was far more popular than I was.  Though she wasn’t terribly cute, she was well-liked.  A glaze of associative affection couldn’t help but improve my nonexistent social sheen.

Her dad drove us in his Lincoln Town Car to the Tivoli restaurant in Chicago Heights, the south suburbs go-to joint for octogenarians and pre-formal dancing teenagers.  We had an innocuous dinner before being driven to the dance.  I had never danced before, so all I could muster were a few awkward turns during the slow dances.  The night went as well as could have been expected, until the end.

Every Monday morning at my high school, there would be reports from the previous weekend’s parties.  I would listen longingly as other kids recounted how they were drinking and screwing at these parties, how they had such great times.  I would hear of these parties, but never be invited to them.

After the dance, Liz and I were invited to one of these parties.  She was tired and wanted to go home.  She had been to many parties, so declining the offer was not a big deal.  To me, the invite represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  Finally, the cool kids would get to know me.  They’d learn that I was cool like them (even though I now realize that I was not).  Fuck yeah I wanted to go.

I asked Liz if it was okay if I went to the party without her.  She said, “No, it’s not a problem.”

Remember, this was my first date ever.  I believed her.  I escorted her to her dad’s waiting Town Car and tossed myself into the backseat of an overstuffed car with kids I didn’t know (nor seemed to want to know me), en route to a party that would be busted by the cops within 5 minutes of arriving.

The next day, I was reflected on the night.  It wasn’t quite the triumph I’d hoped.  Amidst the cops’ searching flashlights and scurrying teens, I made little impression on the minds of the cool kids.  But it was a beginning.  Kids would start to get used to my presence in the Homewood Flossmoor High School social pantheon.  Then I got a call.

It was Jamie, Liz’s best friend.  Strange.

“I just want to let you know that Liz and all her friends think you are a complete asshole.”  Click.

I was floored.  I didn’t know what happened.  My body was overcome with heat.  I phoned Liz but she wouldn’t take my call.  I thought of what this meant:  all my social credentials were gone.  I was ignored before, but now I’d be actively despised.  I instantaneously fell into a deep fever, missing the next week of school.  It wasn’t an act, I was really sick.

Now I can see that in the moments following Jamie’s call, I created an interpretation about how the world operates.  I decided that women, despite what they say, are angry at me and to be feared.  Much of the following 10-15 years was spent proving this knowledge true.

I bring up this story to illustrate the power and peril of memory.  Memory is just another form of knowledge, a topic I discussed yesterday.  Memory is knowledge that we carry about what happened in our pasts.  The knowledge is based on interpretations made at the time.  My 14-year old mind knew I made Liz angry.  I knew I screwed up.  I knew I should be afraid of not doing this again.  But is this knowledge the same thing as what happened?

What happened was something different.  A lonely and depressed 14-year old boy, lacking any non-maternal experience relating to women, inadvertently pissed a girl off, most likely a sensitive 14-year old who was negligibly more experienced dealing with the opposite sex.

What memory does is conflate facts (i.e. what happened) with interpretation (i.e. women are angry at me and to be feared).  My long-held memory of this event was, “I screwed up because I left, making Liz angry.  I must be afraid of never doing that again.”  And memory dictates what I knew about myself.  Even if a million things happened to contradict this interpretation (and they did, starting with a windy, but sincere written apology to Liz), I knew different.  I knew who I really was—a fearful, girl pisser-offer.

I perpetrated many internally and externally directed crimes before I divested myself of this knowledge.  I would be servile, obsequious and dishonest, dishonoring myself and the women in my life, in hopes of not pissing them off.  In the avoidance, I invariably set up ripe conditions for majorly pissing them off.

I can now see what happened with Liz, not as my teenaged interpretation dictates, but as a series of events with multiple interpretations, not of them true in any objective way.  My memory has changed.  I no longer remember, much less know, that I made Liz angry.  My memory is now a compassionate view looking upon a desperate 14-year old.

The reason I disentangled the interpretation from what happened was exasperation.  I was sick of repeating the same pattern.  Most of us have many memories that shape what we know about the world.  If you find yourself sick of limiting patterns, it might serve you to look at the memories shaping what you know about reality.  Ask yourself a few questions:

  1. What is a central limiting narrative I hold?  My narrative used to be that women are angry with me and to be feared.  Most of my adolescent and adult life was governed by this narrative, proving it true.  Yours might be something different:  People don’t like me, no one understands me, I can’t count on anyone, etc.
  2. What event established this narrative?  We know mine.  Look back through your past and examine where has your narrative played itself out before?  Go back as far as you can, to the foundational memory.  It might be fairly recent, but more likely it happened when you were quite young.
  3. What was your interpretation of this event?  This is probably the same thing as point #1.  What did we decide about the world when this event occurred?
  4. What actually happened in this event?  Make it as objective as possible.  Leave out opinion and psychoanalysis.  For example, “I left Liz at the dance,” not “I was an asshole who ruined Liz’s life.”
  5. Having separated interpretation from what happened, can we know that our narrative is true?  Yes or no?

If we don’t want to be slaves to the past, we have to divest ourselves of false knowledge.  We have to look beyond childish interpretations of events and see what actually happened.  If we are to truly grow up, we have to dismantle memory.  For many of us, it was bad enough being a 14-year old when we’re 14.  It’s even less appealing to be one when you’re in your twenties, thirties and beyond.

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