Thursday, September 1, 2016

Passing For Normal

Welcome to my life and blog. I see Marina Nemat has come out with another book. Her first book, Prisoner of Tehran, I had read with the safely channeled emotions of a survivor, like a “wartime” reader would. Her latest, After Tehran, is much harder on me. Partly because, living for decades in “peacetime,” I am processing my past. I myself, without actually having my fingers broken, lived through the last scene of Bladerunner, something I only disclosed, “war is over,” to a friend as recently as January of 2016.

Reading her book, I felt sad for Marina, my fellow peacetime Canadian who, after years in this country, years of passing for normal, began to discard the “false self” and unfreeze her emotions, began to remember and to break the silence… of surviving two years in a torture prison. Now she’s come alive… and my life?

Today I’d like to blog that one of my joys in life is “passing.” Not passing for being heterosexual, no, I mean passing for normal: As if I’ve always been healthy and happy… just the way I (almost) am now. In fact, a young student who knew me at university and Toastmasters, asked me twice if I was always as happy as when she saw me. (No) No one ever asks me if I was ever in trouble, and occasionally someone even asks me if I was ever married. And then I go home and my heart swells with happiness because “I must be doing something right.” Of course I don’t tell anyone this. They wouldn’t “get it.” Even the experts don’t.

This I know because I recently read of experts interviewed for a newspaper article about tracking survivors of childhood Leukemia. The news leaves me feeling blank, perhaps because various emotions are canceling each other out. The experts noted that statistically the survivors would marry “a lot later” and a large number would not marry at all. (My boss’s son, now cancer free, has told her he would marry late) The experts said this was because their hospital time caused them to fall behind other kids in terms of socialization. I disagree, but I hope they’re right. I hope I’m wrong because, for me, thinking the experts “just don’t get it” would feel too lonely.

My optimistic view is that kids are always changing to new schools, towns and time zones. I remember how Sarah Connor’s boy John, on his first day in a new town, complained to his mother how the other guys in his school all wear cowboy boots. Of course the Connors had to move again, yet if John had stayed around, I’m sure he would have blended in and worn in his new cowboy boots just fine. After all, how long does it take to learn the local slang, who the newest teen heartthrob is, or what you’re “supposed to” think about last year’s “Hollywood has-been?” Part of youth, for sure, is believing in “friends” and “teenage conforming” which means pressuring all friends to swiftly conform and swiftly get socialized too.

So it seems to me the issue for leukemia survivors would not be the “socialization time missed during hospital,” something to be swiftly made up, but rather, the lonely conformist survivor time “after hospital.”

The problem with conforming, for me, is you have to be “passing” which means … pretending something that was so excruciating to you, something that left dear friends at the hospital “forever young” … never happened.

I once passed for normal by keeping silent as my college department head told me she laughed—she laughed!—during the scene in Judgment Day where Sarah Connor gets white hot with anger and leaps over the desk to say, “It happens!” My professor thought it was real funny. I couldn’t laugh one little bit; I have silently shared that same anger (It happened!) all too often.

Ah, anger. I remember once talking to a blond  “acquaintance” in a corner of the college cafeteria. Our relationship changed to “friend” as soon as I said, “I bet you would go to bed and need a block of wood between your teeth.” And she said, “Yes! I use to squeeze the sheets so hard I’d put holes in them. Mother got mad thinking I wasn’t cutting my toenails.” We talked a little more—then we went home together.

Years later, at university, I had a dark, dark semester from taking a class in Survey of Emotional (not physical) Disabilities. I couldn’t bring myself to say how I had known people, socially, from not some, not most, but from every single one of the disabilities we were studying.

One of my classmates was struck by, and had to tell us all about, her practicum where she rode around in a van that offered help to prostitutes. (Our city has a number of  “strolls.”) I couldn’t bring myself to tell the class that I, along with two sex trade workers whom I liked, had found a safe place to move in together.

I couldn’t tell about my best friend. (O.K, I did try to, trying to disguise stuff about my friend, and just making a mess of things.) I didn’t say how my friend was a survivor of various sorts of abuse, including long-term incest, yet now she was raising two young children, while divorced on welfare, and happily collecting memorabilia of her hero, Marilyn Monroe.

I didn’t feel the least bit angry at my classmates for being innocent. No, I just felt sad.

And throughout that semester, that night with no candles, I wouldn’t have ever “chatted up” (hit on) a glamorous “normal” Marilyn Monroe. But I would have firmly hugged Norma Jean.

Sean Crawford
God bless the beasts and children
On the lone prairie
Summer, 2016

Footnote: Actually, I guess I can’t really speak with authority about how much teenagers peer pressure each other: I got through those teen years by being quiet and solitary. (Like Max and Lain in my essay Silence and Three Nerd Heroes, archived May 2013)


  1. Sean. I'm not sure I have the words to describe how this article moved me. I can only say that the "real" me was laughed at as a child and a teenager so I learned to conform to the expectations of others. It nearly killed me. It certainly killed my spirit. I am returning to the "real" me after 60 years and it feels grand! I so love your insight and I love you in all your quirky ways. You are a grand human being.

  2. Thank you Cindy.

    As a writer, you may like to know that when Marina, above, attended her first ever night school class in writing the teacher did the thing where you go around the class one at a time telling your name and why you are here. Marina rocked back the teacher when she said was here to write a book about being tortured for two years.

    What I like about Marina is she didn't start right away after her class, but took the time and classes to get good at writing before finally knuckling down to her book. That is the sort of humility and dedication to craft that I try for too.

  3. I was really moved by this essay, Sean. I too, can identify having to "fit in". Thank you.

  4. Thank you, word goddess, for your kind words.