This post contains discussions of sexual abuse, grooming, and the circumstances that surround those two things. It’s okay to skip it if reading about those things will hurt you; you can go read about lasagna instead.
I often say that I never thought I’d make it this far. The dedication of Upright Women Wanted, which comes out on Tuesday (and which I am obligated to remind you to preorder), consecrates the book to people like me, who thought they’d be in the ground or scattered to the wind or eaten by carrion birds long before this particular sunrise.
So imagine my surprise upon looking at my calendar and seeing that today is yet another birthday. It’s a birthday I never once imagined I’d see. I’ve been surprised by the last few (surely my time’s up by now, I think every year, but no one has come to fetch me yet) but this one is a landmark, a milestone, a horizon I never anticipated cresting.
I’ve decided, with this birthday, to let some things go. Chief among them is a weird hang-up of mine, one I’ve clung to for the last decade or so: a refusal to disclose my age to new people. I can cite a lot of reasons for this; usually, I tailor what reason I give to the company I’m in.
People I don’t know very well get a saucy, winking sidestep: I’m old enough to mind my own business, how about you? People only I know professionally get a segue into how strange my industry is about age: young people are either Kid Wonders or Bumbling Rookies, older people are either Past Their Prime or Wise Veterans Of Publishing, and I don’t want to be any of those.
It’s true that I’ve spent most of my professional life dodging people’s urgent desire to find a way to dismiss me because of the age they think I am. When I worked in an office setting, I had a boss who assumed I was in my thirties and said that it was a sign of my ineptitude that I hadn’t advanced farther in my field; when she found out that I was actually in my early twenties, she shifted tactics, calling me an inexperienced baby who didn’t know anything about the work.
This kind of interaction has been a constant white-noise in whatever work I do: people trying to winnow out how old I am so they can decide whether I’m worth listening to, whether my opinions have merit, whether the weight of years is dragging my perspective down or, conversely, giving my perspective added gravity.
When I bring up that reason for not mentioning my age, I’m telling the truth. It’s exhausting to deal with people who can’t back up their ideas with data and must thus resort to an age-related “because I said so” tactic, so I have spent the last several years opting out of that kind of interaction. But of course there’s more; one doesn’t spend the majority of one’s adult life hiding one’s age just because it’s a pain in the ass to deal with in a professional setting.
I spent my teenage years and my early twenties having my age cracked open by predators. There was so much value in it for them: it was something to be dismissed as a means of undermining my identity and personhood. My youth was tantalizing to them, and my yearning to be told that I was special and worthy of love was something to be exploited. “You seem so much older, I keep forgetting how young you are” is a favorite lie of the pedophile, a means of framing age as an unworthy obstacle that stands in the way of otherwise-appropriate affection.
But of course, that affection isn’t appropriate; age is more than just a number. Age is vulnerability and power, dependence and freedom, access to resources and life experience. There are some people to whom the words “I am fifteen” indicate I should be protected, and I am still learning about the world and myself, and also I can’t vote. There are other people to whom the words “I am fifteen” indicate I don’t know how to protect myself from you. The latter taught me that my age was a liability, and a problem, and a danger.
It took me a long time to learn that lesson, but in the course of learning it and in the process of escaping those who would have liked me to stay young and afraid forever, I stopped disclosing my age. I didn’t want to give anyone that I am powerless in this relationship signal. I didn’t know how to keep myself safe in the face of predatory attempts to sweep through my boundaries, and one of the first steps in avoiding those battles was a refusal to acknowledge inequalities; I thought that maybe if they didn’t know my age, they wouldn’t be able to decide that I was young enough for them to get away with hurting me.
The world had too many hands in it, and for a very long time, I did not know how to tell that hand-filled world that I was not for grabbing.
But today is my birthday, and it’s a significant one, and the significance of it has pressed me into a place of reluctant reflection. I have remade my entire life twice in the past decade, once to escape those hands and once to become the person I am when I’m not escaping anything. I’ve become a person who loves boundaries, who seeks them out, who enforces them. I’ve learned to recognize the sign of someone who doesn’t respect my boundaries — the red flags I used to blithely paint green, until I had a whole field filled with fluttering warnings to ignore — and I’ve learned to remove those people from my life. I know how to protect myself.
That knowledge is hard-won and painful. It’s knowledge I often don’t want; I desperately miss the days when I didn’t know the things I do now about the world of adult men. I’ve hurt people in the process of coming to this knowledge. I’ve hurt myself, many times and many ways, often without realizing that there was pain at all until long after the injury had healed wrong.
But I’m not in danger anymore. I’m not afraid of anyone. My age is part of who I am, and I can accept it, and goddamn it, so can everyone else. I never thought I’d make it here. I was sure I’d die because I’m sick, or I’d die because I’m queer, or I’d die because I told a man ‘no, you’re not supposed to do this to me.’ But I didn’t, and I’ve decided: that’s not how I’m going to go.
This is terrifying to say, but I’m braver now than I used to be.
I’m thirty years old. I’m proud I’ve made it this far. I can’t wait to see what comes next.