(Trigger warnings for discussion of child abuse and suicide below.)
For various reasons, I am a person who doesn’t own a lot of stuff. Just for example: I have three pairs of shoes. One pair of flip flops, one pair of ballet flats, and one pair of Batman Converse high tops, which explains everything you need to know about the current state of my right Achilles tendon, according to my podiatrist. I own a bed, a lamp, a small book shelf, a card table, and about 150 books. My car is 15 years old. The most valuable thing I own is my Macbook Air, which was a gift from my literary agent. And while I would like to, say, own more clothes (and therefore do less laundry) I am mostly okay with all of this. When you’re poor and you have to move a lot, minimalism is convenient. But when you’ve lost things you care about, it makes you more materialistic, not less. Everything I own is important to me, because I had to make an effort to keep it.
My books are the best example of this. When I became homeless in 2012 I didn’t have much, but I had a personal library of about 700 books, and giving away so much of it was nothing less than heartbreaking. Every gift of money I got as a kid went into my book collection, every Christmas and birthday, every $20 bill I wheedled out of my parents. My library was to me what a varied and stylish quality wardrobe is to some people, a way of presenting to the world the image of myself that I wanted to project. I often sat and looked at my books and took pleasure in the thought that a stranger walking into my room could get a sense of my personality, my interests, even my abilities, just by looking at my book cases. I dreamed of the day my own published novels would join them. The books in which my name appears in the acknowledgments had a special shelf of their own. Ego and memory and history and sentiment and accomplishment were all wrapped up in that book collection. Disbanding that carefully curated bibliography felt like an act of self-harm.
(The author, age 6, Christmas 1988. The box was full of books. My 3 year old cousin is baffled and intrigued. What do they do?)
But it was also an exercise which exposed my vulnerabilities to an uncomfortable degree. The criteria by which I selected books to keep was simple: if I could get the same book from the library and have essentially the same experience reading it, I cut it loose. What this left me with were books that were beset with memories, books that had been gifts, and books I simply couldn’t imagine doing without for even the space of time it would take to hunt down or borrow a new copy. In other words, what I ended up keeping was my comfort reading. Gone were almost all the highbrow books on psychology, society, religion, philosophy, philology. Gone were my ancient Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, and Quenya grammars. Gone were my art books and most of my graphic novels. Gone was everything that would make me look really educated and interesting and impressive to a stranger.
The books I kept were books I needed, books I didn’t necessarily want to admit I needed. My ego would prefer a stranger to think that I drew deeper consolation from the collected essays of French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas than from the complete Anne of Green Gables collection, but it was the Anne books I kept. I kept Sherlock Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey, Jane Austen and Jane Eyre. All of Tolkien, all the Harry Potter books, with my over-excited underlining and marginalia, all of Terry Pratchett. I kept the books that kept me alive when I was a child, when reading was an exercise in survival, not vanity. There weren’t any bookshelves to display them in when I was sleeping in my car. I wasn’t showing off for anyone anymore.
I’ve lost so much over the years that my attachment to the things I’ve made the effort of keeping has assumed an intensity proportional to the size of the gaps the lost things left behind. And this has been true my whole life. I have a small collection of valueless objects, relics from my childhood, that I don’t remember ever having made a conscious choice to preserve, except that they never seem to go missing. This includes a pencil that I bought from an art supply store when I was 12, back when I still entertained the delusion that I had any talent at drawing. There’s also a black headband that has been too small for my head since the day I bought it in seventh grade, but which reminds me of how badly I wanted to be the kind of 13 year old girl who had the emotional resources to actually care about hair accessories. And I remember getting very emotional the day I was going through a box from my parents’ house and found a small eraser from a stationery set I’d had in fourth grade; I never lost track of that eraser again. Those mementos are proof that those years in my life were real. They really happened and I really lived through them. That’s very comforting to someone who occasionally experiences periods of depersonalization and wonders if maybe she’s just a character in someone else’s novel, born on the first page with a complete yet intangible backstory.
(The pencil. Yes, I chewed it, that’s what pencils are for.)
And what’s funny to me about all of this is how different my priorities have become as I’ve grown older. In college, for instance, when I was training to be a Serious Writer who wrote serious novels about The Human Condition and believed the personal had less artistic validity than the “universal”, I had all kinds of fantasies about the perfect apartment I would one day have. It was barren, stripped down, just a clean room with a mattress on the floor. No worldly distractions from my art. No attachments. Nothing to lose, nothing to suggest that my existence on this planet was anything but transient. It was a very comforting fantasy. Serious Writer Brittany didn’t care that she was alone in the world, since she had no intention of living past 35. She didn’t need anything.
It’s very important not to need anything when everything keeps getting taken away from you.
When I was a kid, my ability to do without things was empowering. It’s really hard to control someone you can’t threaten. My mother couldn’t effectively ground me because she’d never let me leave the house when I was a kid, so I learned to bury myself in books and make the inside of my head my own happy place. Maybe when I was 10 I desperately wanted to play with the other kids in my neighborhood, but by 15 I just wanted my books. I was occasionally forbidden to go to my room or read, but that was such a ridiculous punishment that not even my mother could demand it often with a straight face. “Don’t go to your room!” just doesn’t have the same weight of parental tradition, you know? But it started even earlier than that. By the age of 11 I had learned to stop responding to corporal punishment. It got harder for my mother to justify hitting me with tree branches when I held perfectly still and didn’t change expression. Even my allowance was an acceptable sacrifice for more agency. “You don’t deserve this,” followed by a ten dollar bill with which I was supposed to purchase my school lunches for the week, turned into, “That’s okay, you can keep it.” Hunger was better than a gift given in that spirit.
Eleven was the age at which I first began considering suicide, as a function of the exact same principle. For me, it didn’t feel like depression, but a relief from depression. The first time it occurred to me that I didn’t have to endure, that I could just leave the party early, I was euphoric. And that was a card that I never discarded from the deck, even if it got shuffled to the bottom sometimes. Through all the years when life seemed little more than suffering, the awareness that I could, at any point, choose to give it up created a kind of serenity. I understood this better when I began reading trauma studies that asserted that sometimes the suicidal impulse is life-affirming rather than the opposite, especially for people in situations of captivity—political prisoners, trafficking victims, people in detainment camps. Child abuse and domestic violence victims fall into the same category, where suicide is an act of protest against intolerable conditions.
The trick, as I’ve grown older, has been to learn that just because I sometimes still feel as powerless as when I was a child, I’m not. Poverty and cruelty and loss trigger the same mental state, but it’s just a sad illusion. I’ve learned that while I have to work much, much harder to keep my seat at the table than people who aren’t laboring under the weight of trauma, the fact remains that, with work, I can do it. The difference between me at 11 and me at 33 is that when I was 11 no amount of work or effort on my own part could stop what was being done to me. And sometimes really horrible things still happen to me that I can’t stop, but my life is my own now. Every moment that I continue to exist in this world I am volunteering. And once that long-delayed realization became properly lodged in my forebrain, I discovered something I never thought I would feel when life was something I only clung to grudgingly to avoid bringing pain to other people: gratitude. I am alive because people have loved me. I rarely feel that I deserve that support; often, it felt like the more honest thing to do was explain to my friends that I was a lost cause, and it was fine, I wasn’t that sold on seeing 35 anyway. But my friends stubbornly refused to hear it, and I survived, and for a long time I was resentful that life had been demanded of me, that I was being firmly steered away from the emergency exit.
But I am beginning to discover gratitude now. It’s kind of bewildering and embarrassing, and I feel a lot of shame for having been so ungrateful towards the people who have helped me. But it also feels really nice. Kind of amazing, actually. Because I was never as detached as I liked to believe. I’ve been clinging to life all along, and one of the reasons I know that is because I have all these artifacts I’ve gathered to remind me that my life belongs to me. Has always belonged to me, even when it didn’t seem that way. And always will.