The perks and perils of a very honest relationship.
by EJ Dickson
A few weeks ago, I attended a family party in Long Island. I was enjoying a latke and a bottle of Canadian beer when one of my uncles cornered me, demanding to know why I had published intimate details of my sex life on Nerve. The piece in question contained references to, among other things, me having intercourse in an elementary-school gymnasium, and wondering if I looked fat during sex with my boyfriend, and he wanted to know why my parents weren't embarrassed that I'd divulged such personal details. "I bounced you on my knees and sang 'Electric Avenue' to you when you were a baby," he said reproachfully. "How are your parents okay with you writing that?"
Of course, I knew exactly how my parents felt about the piece; after it was published, my mother posted it on her Facebook wall, where she'd once also proudly displayed a story I'd written about fisting and porn stars. And my father was the one who had sent it to my uncle in the first place, along with my grandparents, his college friends, and his colleagues, with the message, "This is something that my foul-mouthed slut of a daughter wrote" ("foul-mouthed slut" being something of a term of endearment in my family).
I didn't tell my uncle at the time, but I had faced similar questions before, from friends and fellow writers who couldn't believe how freely I divulged intimate details from my own life in my writing, or how almost comically supportive my parents were of such work. I suspect the question of how family members react to risqué content is one that many writers face on a daily basis, particularly those who use the first-person to often-uncomfortable effect.
Yet contrary to what most people would think, my writing about sex online doesn't embarrass or offend my family. I come from a family of loud-mouthed, ill-mannered, high-strung oversharers; we're like the cast of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, except we're not Greek and we use the word "cunt" a lot more. If anything, my foul-mouthed sluttiness — or at least, my ability to write semi-coherently about it — is evidence that I'm carrying on an illustrious tradition of public inappropriateness. I don't have a problem with my parents reading about my personal life because I've been telling them way more than they needed to know for years; and even if I didn't, I know they would find out anyway.
Of course, our relationship hasn't always been like this. Like most teenagers, I spent my first years of sexual activity desperately trying to conceal the fact that I had a vagina from my parents, let alone what I was planning to do with it. I was going through what can only be described as a Giant Asshole period, which was kind of like Picasso's Blue Period, except instead of painting The Old Guitarist, I swigged vodka in class and fooled around with boys during camp bus trips to Cleveland. I spent most of my pubescence squirreling away all evidence of this phase in drawers and e-mails, text messages and shoeboxes, hoping my parents wouldn't notice that I was moving farther and farther away from them like the spectral line of a distant, angsty galaxy.
Of course, my parents did notice, and like most parents of rebellious teenagers, they had some trouble reconciling the bookish, quiet little girl they remembered with the sullen asshole stomping around their apartment, her angry little heart on her sleeve and her shoplifted thong hanging out of her pants. They reacted by embarking on a quest to unearth all evidence of my sexual activity, like archaeologists hell-bent on discovering the remains of an ancient civilization.
One by one, they found the condoms I'd hidden in a pencil case long before I started having sex; the 7-Up bottle filled with vodka at the bottom of the freezer; the instant message describing the Cleveland bus incident; the vibrator I'd purchased on a lark with my friends. Upon finding the latter item in a shoebox, my father spent a good ten minutes screaming at me, wagging the offending object in my face. "Get this fucking thing out of my house," he shouted over and over, as I sat on the floor, humiliated, finding only the tiniest bit of humor in the image of him brandishing a dildo like a parade-goer waving the American flag.
The final stage of their investigation was the discovery of an e-mail I'd written to my friend while I was at summer camp, detailing the loss of my virginity to my co-star during our performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream. During intermission, we'd snuck off to make out against a tree on the side of a road in the Catskills; one thing had led to another, and he'd briefly entered me before we rushed back to start the second act. I'd written a graphic account of this experience to my friend, explaining that I did it because I "just wanted to get it over with." I was fifteen.
At the time, my parents had been sitting in the audience, waiting for the second act to start. They were unaware that the show was running late because their firstborn was being penetrated against a yew. By the time my mother unearthed a copy of this e-mail, however, they had learned that their little girl had evolved into a trollop who spoke brazenly about having sex in wooded areas. Understandably, they did not take this news well, and when my mother confronted me, she did not use the word "slut" as a term of endearment.
I don't blame my mother for reacting that way. In her position, I'm sure I would've been as upset. But as I sat with my eyes to the ground, listening to her tell me what a disappointment I was, I wished I could tell her what I hadn't written in the e-mail: that I'd felt like my insides were being torn apart by a pair of hot tongs, that when he asked me if that's what I really wanted, I instantly regretted my answer; that I had gone to his room after the show ended, hoping to find him for whatever reason, only to be told by his roommate that he had gone home with his parents; that only a bookish, quiet girl in a convincing asshole costume would honey-glaze the desperation of such an act with "I just wanted to get it over with."
But I was so upset that all I could think to say was, "I can't believe you violated my privacy again." And of course, she was so upset that all she could say was, "I'm your mother. Whatever you do, don't think I'm not going to find about it." As it turned out, she was absolutely right.
Over the course of the next few years, I entered a begrudging détente with my parents over the issue of my sexual activity. They still made it their business to know the business of my business, but they were not naïve enough to think they were going to be able to stop me from having sex. They just wanted to know as much as they could about what I was doing, mostly because they wanted to make sure I was being safe.
So we started having real, heart-to-heart conversations. We no longer fought like characters in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, violently, bitterly, and eloquently detailing the myriad ways we'd disappointed each other. Instead, we started talking, and once we started I found that it was difficult to stop. I told them everything: what birth control I used, the boyfriend who'd been cheating on me with my nemesis, the physics lab partner or improv teammate or almost-definitely-gay theater buddy I was aggressively pursuing.
Eventually, I started to feel weirdly grateful that my parents were so insistent on knowing every detail of my personal life. I had friends with parents who didn't root through their drawers or read their diaries, but they also had no idea if their kids were trading blowies for crack on the G train, or if they'd even been kissed yet. Every time my parents reported on something they'd clearly only learned from snooping around, I couldn't help but feel thankful that someone cared about me enough to do so. Every violation of my privacy was them telling me they still thought I was the same girl who'd sat on her uncle's knees, rocking out to "Electric Avenue;" that they loved every part of me so fiercely, they wanted to be sure they weren't missing out on anything important.
Now, my parents are still able to keep tabs on me on the internet without having to hack into my e-mail, and now their friends are able to keep tabs on me too. Every time I publish something, regardless of whether I tell them not to, my parents will proudly send it to everyone they have ever met in their lives, advertising it as "something [their] foul-mouthed slut of a daughter wrote."
It is these words that reassure me my parents no longer feel I am a Giant Asshole. What was once a cutting invective, a way of highlighting the yawning chasm between the sweetness I once was and the disappointment I turned into, is now — oddly enough — an endorsement of the person I have since become. I don't know if writing about myself on the internet merits as much parental pride as, say, founding a children's hospital. But the days when I was so sure they'd hate me if they knew who I really was are still so clear in my mind, that the fact that they have pride in me at all both shocks and strengthens me.
I no longer abandon my underwear in the woodlands of upstate New York, and my parents no longer act like angry, red-faced caricatures from ethnic family comedies. I now have semi-functional, adult relationships, and my family is there to guide me through every single one. So, all apologies to my uncle, but I can only hope to continue to do them proud by advertising every sexcapade and heartbreak in as loud-mouthed, ill-mannered, self-indulgent, high-strung, and profane a manner as possible. Because as long as there's a foul-mouthed, slutty bone in my body, I know they'll want to hear about it. And because — who am I kidding? — they'll find out anyway.