I am plagued by so much guilt and shame that people can feel it in the air around me. Born three days late, I thought I felt guilty enough until I learned my mother spent seven hours delivering me. And then, I felt ashamed for not feeling guilty enough.
Jewish guilt, person-to-person guilt, wasn’t guilt enough; I started committing religious adultery years ago when my DNA was infused with Catholic guilt, person-to-deity guilt, complete with an imagined sin wheel for my spinning pleasure.
I spent my junior year abroad, at a school in Durham, England and took religious studies. Admittedly, my original impetus for this was that one afternoon a week we’d be field tripping.
Our first visit was to a 300-year-old Catholic Church with hand-carved stones that seemed a beacon of religious composition that radiated benevolent confidence. As I walked through the heavy wood door with large, etched pewter handles, I felt overwhelmed by a certain sense of intimacy. Faded red glass candle holders with flickering chubby white candles and a dozen narrow pews made of swirly marble faced an altar of traditions I knew little about.
What intrigued me the most were the confessionals; two tiny closets, side-by-side with velvet burgundy robes, a wooden bench for kneeling and a mesh opening to reveal sins in exchange for redemption. Being raised a Jew; I atoned only annually, on Yom Kippur. By the end of each year, my list of things to atone for is twice the size of the Dead Sea Scrolls. If I went Catholic, I’d only need a post-it since I could atone weekly, if I needed. As a guilt addict, I was susceptible to a medley of new options and only too pleased to do so. Nonetheless, I managed to exaggerate my guilt in the eyes of God and ensure my chronic affliction.
Aside from the debacle of being born, I have an impressive list of guilt and shame.
While apologizing to my grandmother for not calling her the previous week, I walked into a stationary bike, sober, and broke two toes. Not that sobriety factored into it that much, being an accomplished klutz and all.
At ten, I felt myself up and asked a friend to do the same, to confirm what I suspected, that I had lumps instead of simply nipples. I alerted my parents, who took me to a doctor; they were convinced I had breast cancer. I didn’t. I was just developing— a slutty act in all 10-year-old circles. Forced to wear a bra to avoid putting boys at risk of head trauma, they really preferred to watch me jiggle my way through tetherball.
I believed my father when he said we were descendents of Dewey Decimal until I was fourteen.
When I was sixteen, I peed on myself (and, worse, I admitted it) when my father put plastic wrap on the toilet seat six months after April Fools Day.
I rear-ended the Los Angeles district attorney in a rental car, totaling it, because I was so preoccupied with staring at a fireman’s ass that I forgot to brake. Across the street, moviegoers poured out of the painfully-cliché-even-in-that-moment summer blockbuster “Titanic”. After the district attorney handed me his card, I, Queen of Shame, stood begging for mercy, crying my eyes out. And when he said, “Don’t you worry your pretty little head, sweetheart.” I did not drop to my knees to use his testicles as a punching bag. Rather, I gratefully nodded, and waited on the curb for a tow truck.
At eighteen, I overcompensated for my virginity by blowing three different men on a Saturday night. On the hood of a Cougar on a lively street, I sucked on the rod of an Alaskan sea fisherman. Later, sitting on a park bench, I provided the city’s homeless community with a live show by consuming a gun-toting, flannel shirt-wearing, trucker named… Glynn with a y! Finally, I raced into a bathroom during a party with a Yugoslavian and welcomed him to the states by oralizing him. Provided I was a decent cocksucker, my low self-esteem choice was another person’s good fortune.
I’m ashamed to admit my phobia of anything -legic (quad or para) and blindness to the point I believed my blind neighbor was a sign of my blindness to come and actually said once to my sister, “I can’t believe the nerve of that blind boy flaunting his blindness in my face with his fucking blind accessories.”
Each time someone mentions an illness, I feel so anxious I could hyperventilate. I’m not a hypochondriac, I fear death. There is a difference. I don’t even bother with learning the symptoms—the name of the disease is enough for me to extrapolate what I need to convince myself this is a disease I have. Who the fuck cares what the symptoms are? I know I fucking have it.
In my free time, instead of gratifying my dairy addiction vicariously by salivating over macaroni and cheese recipes online, I diagnose myself with my Physician’s Desk Reference. I create names of diseases I am sure to acquire if I have not done so already, only with the convenience of acquiring them in groups, like, Lukabetes: Leukemia and Diabetes. It, I reason, will surely turn my marrow into taffy. Glawner: Glaucoma, Cancer and Yaws– the tumorettes growing behind my eyeballs that’ll turn my vision into an opalescent mood ring accompanied by a head-to-toe bumpy rash so abrasive that I’ll become a walking book of brail. Nickimsons is the diseaseapalooza: Pneumonia, MS and Parkinson’s disease– I’ll be forced to wear my lungs as an accessory strapped to my chest and without warning, my body will jump into “Thriller” dance moves, catapulting me from my (I’m sure) wheelchair. On a good day.
I stole salt and pepper shakers, place settings and ashtrays from a restaurant, by way of my own cleavage because I could. My late grandmother, my dad’s mother, used to lift the set-ups on tables at coffee shops. During one of our many outings, I followed suit and quietly lifted a bag of M&Ms, stuffing them into my pocket. When I proudly showed her, she dragged my ass back into that store and paid the man for my candy. I asked her why. She said, “Because that’s stealing and stealing is wrong.” I asked, “Aren’t you stealing when you take place settings from restaurants?” She paused, and then exclaimed, “That’s not stealing, that’s lifting.” It didn’t make sense then or now, but the occasional lift reminds me of her. I assuage my guilt by adding an extra twenty bucks to the check.
While in stirrups, I asked my gynecologist if my vagina was too “lippy” and then accused him of lying when he said, “No. All vaginas have labia majora and labia minora”. My vagina and I felt so marginalized by his canned response, I barked, “Minora? Did you just declare my vagina a Hanukah accessory?” He yanked the speculum out of my box and asked me to find another gynecologist. I sent apology flowers the next day and received a thank you voicemail with three referrals from his secretary. What bug crawled up his ass and killed his sense of humor?, I thought.
My neighbor, green-with-envy because I happened to be dating someone at the time, instigated an argument with me about dogs. She rescued a mongrel in a wheelchair with a collapsed lung, mange, tumors in its mouth and arthritis, and then had the nerve to call me a bad humanitarian for owning a pure breed dog. I went too far, and I knew it, when I said, “If you’re so fucking philanthropic, shouldn’t your personal ad say, SWF seeks deaf hypertensive male with a harelip and one testicle. Those with sleep apnea, conspicuous neurosis and adjunct disorders preferred…?”
At twenty-three, while inhaling my way through San Francisco’s finest dick, I suddenly found myself at the pinnacle of shame, stranded in a marriage I didn’t want any part of and drowning in guilt as a result. My ridiculously low self-esteem preempted reason and deferred to matrimony. At twenty-three, I didn’t know myself, so how could I possibly know what I needed?
My ex-husband was a pleasant person with an affable demeanor, a good heart, and was a community activist, not to make him sound beige. On the contrary, he had many fine qualities worth appreciating. He was a quirky guy who loved women, cooking, eating, playing music and spending time with his family and friends. We just never quite got each other enough to create or sustain a friendship.
It was as if we were continuously three beats apart, never measuring up to the other’s expectations. He wanted intimacy while I didn’t know what that was or what it meant, or why I would need such a thing and wanted autonomy instead. Like everyone, he deserved a partner who understood and fulfilled his needs. Unconsciously, I made him feel badly for having needs at all.
Pre-matrimony, or at least, pre-him, I loved my multi-orgasmic jingle bell, bundled in the folds of my labia. Once we were married, our inability to find common ground sent it, and my sex drive, into hibernation, along with every orgasm I, ahem, sacrificed during our Starter Marriage. I watched my sex drive croak; something I didn’t know could happen, especially to me. This pulverized my self-esteem. I felt stuck and trapped and like I would suffocate, yet shackled by fear from an antiquated idea that if I left him I would be viewed as damaged goods.
I am a child of divorce, the daughter of a divorce attorney who put herself through undergrad and law school, a feminist with irrepressible drive, a role model and an inspiration for what it means to be a woman in every sense of the word. And, despite that sensibility ingrained in my head, I couldn’t shake the idea of this “damaged goods” stamp if I ended the marriage. My Jewish mother often says to me, “Get off the Cross. Trust me a wayward Catholic needs the wood.” Does my Ma know me, or what?
My mother planned and paid for a spectacular wedding for me, an event that so many broads dream of having— I was proud of my Ma for planning such an affair and miserable because I was a wife. I didn’t want to get married. Period. My parents assured me that my hesitation was completely natural and normal before a wedding, which, let’s face it, is the right thing to say. So, on my wedding day, after my parents reasoned with me, as any good parent would, I was, quite literally, dragged down the aisle. I stood there and wished I had the moxie to say “I don’t”. Instead, I said, “I do.”
For reasons all routed in the aforementioned low self-esteem, I kept all of these feelings a secret from my then-husband, my family and everyone else. That is, until the day, so distracted emotionally and psychologically, that upon leaving a coffee shop, I tripped over a curb and splashed coffee all over SuperPeen.
They, whoever the hell they are, say that signs are everywhere, if we only choose to look for them. My sign was SuperPeen. Something as subtle as the chemistry of the moment with him was all the impetus I needed to remind me of who I was before becoming Starter Husband’s wife. Go figure my sign had a penis attached to it. I plead with him to take me home and fuck me stupid. SuperPeen, naturally found my request not only not-hot but downright insane. But, that I made the request, nay demand, at all was an eye-opener. I never thought I was capable of saying such a thing. Up until this moment, I was convinced I was the type of woman who would speak up about my unhappiness or desire to be with another man before acting upon it.
My rejuvenated awareness after meeting SuperPeen commissioned me to build a bridge and schlep my damaged ass right over it, and the fuck out of that marriage. I realized on my way home from my moment with SuperPeen that I only felt like damaged goods for not loving my husband the way his life partner should.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. As the dust cleared, thoughts, feelings and (surprise) guilt arose. Anxious to negate my guilt, I indulged in many appetizer soirées for party of one. My motto was: If you can feel something, eat something.
And food guilt is a whole other story.
The enormity of my guilt due to my relationship with food was larger than life and most surely genetic. My great grandfather, Louie, who moved from Romania to grow up poor in the slums of Brooklyn, lost an eye while inhaling a lobster. My father, the son of a baker, was so overcome with titillation that on three separate occasions while eating steak, he forgot to chew and choked. My Aunt Jubilee was married for forty years yet had a passionate, long-time affair with food. So devoted, she swelled to five hundred pounds by the time she was fifty, resulting in the necessity of a round’ the clock respirator. Fatapnea was the diagnosis. My Aunt Ariella ate herself out of three toes and into a diabetic coma. My cousin, Hadassah is an anorectic lesbian. Me? I could’ve graduated with honors in binge eating and minored in purge archery.
When my grandmother died, my Ma asked me to deliver the eulogy. She was too grief-stricken to do it herself. As I stood at the podium in eulogy mode, surrounded by family and friends, Hadassah, anorectic lesbian, raced over and smugly said, “I’m a lesbian”.
How could I take that seriously? Hadassah communicates with aliens by riding her bicycle through the city in handmade two-feet high aluminum hats. Hello. Shame salad. And, oh, I don’t know, how about an iota of respect for the newly departed and deeply distraught?
To avoid a scene, I whispered, “If you wanted to kill her, you’re a day late and a lesbian short. Seeing you with a lover might’ve thrown her for a curve, but only for a minute because she had Alzy’s. Anyway, that’s not the kind of news that would’ve killed her. Can I get back to my eulogy now? Please?”
My Aunt Gili turned to my cousin and said, “You don’t call. You don’t write. You don’t visit for 10-years. What, a lesbian can’t wait 5-minutes?”
Aaaaand action! “I prefer being called a dyke,” Hadassah said. I couldn’t hold my tongue any longer. “You’re debating the semantics of lesbian etiquette with an 80-year old?! She doesn’t know what a lesbian or a dyke is, or what it does.”
The befuddled grieving masses sat crying, anxiously waiting for the funeral to resume. My grandmother genially waited to be buried while Hadassah took the family on a 30-minute cultural tour of dykeism.
I turned the dirty business of closet eating into a refined art form, perfected by creativity and gumption. I’m the broad who places pick-up and delivery orders by creating a party like atmosphere, replete with a blaring television and a radio talk show in the background and talking over “everyone” by saying “We would like” and, “Hold on, let me double check with the others to make sure I got the order right.”
To diffuse my paranoia of being under constant surveillance and ridicule by the check-out clerks, since most people shop weekly and I shop daily, I justify my fattening purchases by saying things like, “Have you ever seen so much food?! I got stuck cooking for the holidays.” Even if there is no holiday, I will confidently make one up. My reigning favorite is Hannum. It’s like Friday night Sabbath, except that it pops up at my discretion.
I learned how to champion a successful binge from my father and feel a culmination of victorious fullness and tormenting emptiness. My cousins taught me the hollow acquiescence of self-starvation.
When I was a tweener, it was Ina Polzwowski, the neighbor that I shared a brick of Parmesan cheese with one afternoon in the woods on Long Island, who taught me how to exorcise the worthlessness I felt and gain control by vomiting. On that day, I was inducted into a secret society and became a 12-year-old consumed by unstoppable power. Regardless of how much pain I stuffed away, I could easily purge it with a finger and a toilet. Fat chick vomits. Cliché, I know. This was different. I felt whole and complete and totally in control each time I emptied the rancor from my belly. It was invigorating and glorious, sophisticated and romanticized, until a year later when I saw some Semicolon Her Story movie and learned my teeth would rot right out of my head. Being an inappropriate floss freak, I knew I had to forego my yen for vomiting. I was so forlorn I binged and immediately felt guilty for wanting to vomit, and ashamed because I did.
My father once said to me, “Katie, what’s with you and all of this guilt, huh? Where the hell is it comin’ from?” I was dumbfounded. “Are you new?!”, I wailed. Imagine, the man who invented sport eating, to perhaps abscond from his own childhood pain, asking me about the origins of my guilt.
My grandparents and great-aunts invented The Art of Guilt: Eat. Don’t eat. I slaved over a hot stove all day so you could drop dead from starvation? If you don’t stop eating, you’ll wind up alone. You want to wind up alone? Keep eating. You’re not gonna eat the last one are you! I didn’t want it anyway. You have it. You had to eat the last one? No, really, don’t bother, I’ll get it. Sit. Relax. You’ve had a hard day. You can’t help an old woman schlep a few bags up the stairs! You give him sex and pay half the rent? Fine. Don’t expect a ring. With all of the baked goodies he’s getting, why should he buy the bakery? That hair cut makes you look like you need a mop and a pail. Did I say I didn’t like you’re new hair don’t? Would it kill you to wear a little lipstick and eye shadow? My granddaughter is not walking out of this house looking like a hooker.
My gene pool was a road map to forge pristine dysfunctional relationships with food, with guilt and with myself. Somewhere along the way, I was also given an itinerary to redemption from enough guilt and shame, to manage it instead of it managing me…Theoretically, that is.
— Performed at Sit-n-Spin