The tenacity of truth in a small town

Okay, here goes.

This is a story that I have not told to any living soul. My mother and I spoke of it when it happened. My Aunt Vera spent countless hours discussing the event and the situations surrounding it as a means of helping me cope and put my life back together afterwards. Both of them are now gone and I have not thought about this in over forty years.

It comes to mind now because, as some of you may have guessed based on some of the things I have been writing or posting, I have been doing a lot of thinking about celebrities and how instantly, anonymously and ubiquitously the internet allows objectification to supersede human dignity and encourages the reduction of people into commodities. Once a collection of, say butt gifs, goes out into the ether it bounces around the cloud forever, reaching potentially 3 billion users. What happens is what always happens with false statements and unkind words: you can never take them back.

This story, then, is about a lie, said about me, said in a small town that encompassed my entire universe at the time.

When I reached high school more people knew me then whom I knew in return. I had always been creative, always writing, always putting together with some new thing or another — a play (about cross-dressing, put into production during 7th or 8th grade but cancelled when the principal realized the content); a multitude of short stories; a walk-out on Earth Day (10th grade, sanctioned, everyone got an A); an assembly about avoiding the draft (junior year, high school, Vietnam); and on and on. I had won an international award and been interviewed for the local papers several times. When I walked down the hallway at school, people knew who I was. On the few occasions when I walked down the sidewalk in town, people I had never met, people I had never seen before in my life, would recognize me and stop me to talk.

My parents were not well educated. My mother in particular carried a lifelong disdain for formal education and she repeatedly tried to stop me from writing. Mentors for me came in the form of teachers, and then only sparingly: one in fourth grade, another in high school.

The high school mentor was a young man whom I first met when he was a student teacher. He was successful enough that the school hired him to be on staff the following year. (As far as I know, this gentleman is still out there in the world, so no, I will not tell you his name.) He quickly garnered a small entourage of students who liked his modern, freethinking methods. He took an interest in my writing and often provided advice and encouragement.

That small entourage of students, however, proved to be his undoing as an educator. The school asked him to leave mid-year. That fact that he had mentored me brought additional suspicion on him — but while the principal questioned whether he and I were having an affair, the accusations went no farther than that interrogation.

The inexplicable rise to fame on the foundation of a lifetime of criticism and belittling, the sudden loss of my mentor, combined with the natural angst and anxiety associated with being a teen-ager, plunged me into a depression. I became suicidal. Desperately needing a way to hold on, I decided to leave school — no argument from my parents on that because they didn’t care much for schools anyway.

Therefore, as I junior, only a year from graduation, I walked out the door of my high school, never to go back. That action almost completely severed my contact with friends, classmates and the only life with which I was familiar. I did not live in town, but rather quite far out in the country. I did not own a car. It was not close enough to walk anywhere. Only one friend even bothered to phone me after I left.

That’s how I found out. That friend called to let me know that people were saying that the teacher who mentored me had gotten me pregnant. The rumor was that I had quit school to have his child.

He and I had never been alone together, or seen each other outside of the school except for a farewell dinner where we were in the presence of several students and my grandparents. I was a virgin, and in fact, I remained so for a number of years afterwards.

It was totally not true.

Moreover, it was indefensible. I was no longer in school. There was no way for me to combat the rumors, outlive the lie, or do anything else to clear my name or his.

At this point, my Aunt Vera convinced her employer to give me a job as a receptionist. She would pick me up and we would drive together to and from work. It was on those rides that she eventually got me to start talking about things. Slowly, bit by bit, I started to put the lie, the rumors, the distress, even the thoughts of suicide behind me. I took up photography. I started buying cool clothes. I even started going to the club on weekends (it was legal drink at 18.) Eventually I received my high school diploma and then an associate’s degree.

Fifteen or so years later while I visiting my parents, I walked into a restaurant in that same little town. Someone called my name and I turned to see Fran sitting at one of the tables. Fran was in the same circle of friends I was; we attended the same sleepovers; she was there when a mutual friend, Karen, pushed me off a dock and I nearly drowned; Fran knew me. I walked over, happy to see her. She smiled her best smile and asked, “How are you, Vera? How’s your daughter? She must be in high school. How many children do you have now?”

“Ah, none.”

“But I thought . . .”

“No.”

That lie lived all those years. That lie is probably still alive in that little town. I can imagine the old farts nodding with certainty as they caution their granddaughters: be careful now, that happened to a girl I knew when I was your age.

Except that it didn’t.

Today, what is particularly troubling to me is that technology has raised the bar on rumors. The internet would not only increase the quantity of people hearing the story well beyond the original few thousand; it would increase the quality of it also: someone would take the time to create photos of the daughter I do not actually have, there eventually would also be photos of that daughter’s children, and 3 billion users would keep forwarding the lie.

 

Autograph

When I was in my late twenties or early thirties, two of my friends moved to New York City, and after learning how much I loved that city; they welcomed me to visit whenever I could. Riding the Staten Island Ferry was the most fun, I think, but I also savored the art galleries and the museums. I did a great deal of touristy things, and I am especially glad now that I went to the top of the World Trade Center (although at the time I was mostly impressed with the vast multitude languages spoken there.)

One afternoon, when my hosts were both working, I decided to roam around on my own. Laurie Anderson had just published a book and there was a book signing scheduled, so I settled on that as my eventual goal — I was planning to purchase the book anyway, so, hey, why not get an autograph, too.

In rural Michigan I saw few well-known people, let along famous celebrities. I was completely unprepared for the intense swarm of adulation. A few of the fans were funny — for instance, one person handed the musician a blank check from his checkbook. Most of the fans, however, declared that she was the singularly most important thing in their lives and they eagerly pledged their undying love to the stranger with a pen in her hand. The fan who was only two or three people a bit ahead of me in line, handed paper to the poet and implored:

My friend is going to commit suicide if I don’t get your autograph for her.

It was a very long time before the line moved again.

Ms. Anderson did provide the requested autograph, but also, in the most gracious and caring voice you could imagine, quietly and repeatedly explained to the young admirer that he needed to encourage his friend to seek professional help.

Simple inertia carried me to the front of the line with her book in my hand, but I have never asked another famous person for an autograph.