rm (rm) wrote,

a particular relationship with filth

When I was a little kid, I had an imaginary friend named Noody. There was even a knitted finger puppet that represented him, but he wasn't Noody. Noody was invisible, which didn't mean I couldn't tell the difference between when he was or wasn't holding my hand or reading over my shoulder.

Noody, as is the function of imaginary friends at that age, got blamed for things. He ate the cookies and broke the vase. When mishaps happen in my parents house to this day they blame Noody, which is, predictably, often easier than finger-pointing between my mother and father. They don't tease me about Noody. I put my foot down about that around 14 and it was never mentioned as regards me again.

In recent years, I've learnt there is apparently a children's book about Noody and it's a contraction of "nobody" -- that's why he gets blamed for things. I have no recollection of the book though, and have no idea if this is where I got him from (for he was definitely a boy), or if I just came to the same fairly obvious conclusion as the authors and no doubt tens of thousands of children around the world.

The notion that imaginary friends cease to be when we turn eight or when we stop sucking our thumbs or whatever other symbolic leaving of childish things behind occurs is one I, as I'm sure all of you know, find patently absurd. Our imaginary friends persist, if not in the hope we find in narratives or in the crushes we have on fictional characters, then in our internal monologues -- the ones where we berate ourselves or build ourselves up, the ones we recit when we look in the mirror and say "I'd do me." Is the I speaking really the same as the I listening? Surely not.

Perhaps oddly and perhaps obviously though, it is a rare thing for me to read a book and find in its characters an imaginary friend. This was surely not the case with my passion for Anne Rice’s Lestat. But it was no literary crush either, as erotic as I did find her books to be at thirteen. And I certainly didn’t see myself in Lestat – I wasn’t that blond or that brave. I wasn’t that well-dressed and I was certainly neither as cold nor as cool. But in him I saw my own potential – what would it be like to live fearlessly? And traits I’d often been criticized for, such as an excess of emotion, celebrated. What would it be like, I wondered, to have the freedom to be exactly what I was? And what if, I thought as all young teens must, I was meant for something more than merely being smart, dutiful, apologetic and sad?

So when I say The Vampire Lestat saved my life, this is what I mean: It saved me from convincing myself I had no desires. It saved me from making everything about how I looked be for other people. It saved me from never questioning my natural tendency towards excessive and inappropriate endurance. And it saved me from never shining and thinking this body was limited and sad. And it taught me that while the idea of destiny is oppressive, listening for it around corners is an exhilarating act of imagination. In many ways that book was the beginning both of my real life, and my current life, the one I affectionately and playfully call my fictional life, because look at all the neat stuff I get to do!

There are, in my perhaps overblown way of speaking, dozens of books that have saved my life. V for Vendetta, Imajica, Aestival Tide, Gates of Fire, Cyteen come first to mind. Well, those, and Harry Potter, and it’s my relationship with the Harry Potter series that this essay, and that’s what this is as it’s one of the only LJ posts I’ve ever written offline, is about.

It would be perhaps too easy here to recount my history with the books. How I got into them, what I thought of each one, which apartment I was living in at the time – banal things that while part of the map of my life aren’t probably very interesting or very relevant to anyone choosing to read this. It would also be very easy here to give you the brief summary of Severus Snape’s arc in the books, since, somewhat ridiculously considering what the comparison chart would look like, he has mattered to me the way Lestat has mattered to me. But literary summary this is not, and I’m still actually trying to get through this without spoiling a couple of dear friends who are not caught up with the rest of us who have indulged in this world.

Instead, I’m going to tell you more about me. About the time on the metro in DC someone said I was grey. About being followed around my freshman year dorm by floormates hissing at me to take a shower. About a particular childhood memory, of myself, age six and my mother holding me down and smearing aloe cream on my throat to use the oil in it to rub the dirt off; it hurt and I kicked. I speak often of my father refusing to come near me when I had colds as a child and his angry complaints to my mother that I smelt like milk, as if we had both chosen it to make him furious and uncomfortable. I have had, my whole life, a particular relationship with filth.

And just as it embarrasses me to look directly at any photo where I feel I can meet the gaze of its subject (how dare I have the courage to look in the eye even the representation of a person worthy enough to be so represented?) it is something that was often nearly impossible for me to engage in a way that was anything but sidelong. Which was fine, I didn’t have to engage it directly, the world did that for me, whether I deserved it or not, in the typical childhood humiliation of head lice and in the typical female adolescent humiliation of bleeding through a pad.

Filth, though, was as easily metaphorical as concrete. It wasn’t just my dirt that might rub off on other people, but my awkwardness, my shyness, my unattractiveness. No matter how many flaws I had, I knew teeth could be cleaned and a nose straightened, but I became convinced I had a taint, a scent that never reached the conscious mind that said I was a rat from a foreign nest and therefore that people avoiding me was a good thing. If they came to close, they might want to kill instead. And when people desired me, they for so long had always seemed to be full of shame.

So my first reaction to the character of Severus Snape was not that he was evil or that the actor potraying him was sexy, but that the character was like me. Precise, impatient, and as I had learned from Lestat, overly dramatic. And filthy. And carrying a taint. He could change everything about himself, and it still wouldn’t matter. I was sure of it from the moment he entered the first book, and became justified in what had been a fairly baseless opinion by the time his childhood was revealed to us in the fifth. And while Lestat had caused me to ask what would it be like to be courageous, Snape caused me to wonder what would it be like to be certain I was, and so I became certain that I was so that I might find out.

That was probably about six years ago. And in that time I have learnt how to be alone. And how to love. I’ve learnt that being fearless often means dealing with really boring crap. And I have discovered that I did carry a taint, my celiac disease – my teeth were off, I always seemed tired, too thin, my skin the wrong color. People avoid illness instinctually, so it is strange now not only to have and be capable of having plans every night, but to have strangers chat kindly with me on the subway or say hello when I enter a store -- normal interactions that by and large I had never experienced before, that feels like redemption earned through force of will.

And I’m still a precise soul, and a harsh soul and a demanding soul of no one so much as myself; something else I do believe we see in Snape in the later books. I’ve wasted a lot of time in my life, and when I was done doing that, I pretty much decided to do everything as if there were 48 hours in a day. And, yes, I’m also still an angry soul. Although less so, I also know some of that may be insurmountable in this lifetime; we’ll certainly see.

Certainly, my lifetime will, barring freak accidents, probably be longer than Severus Snape’s, because let’s face it, he’s probably going to die in the last book, understood if not redeemed. And that’s a strange, bittersweet thing for me, the woman who doesn’t believe in the idea of linear time in fact or fiction. It makes me think, oddly, of when I was 22 and in love with two men and so desperately unsure of how to navigate it. I spent a lot of time fantasizing about either of them dying in car accidents, mainly because then I’d get to say what I really felt. This is the thankfully fictional and somewhat funnier version of that moment.

I got over my idea of filth not by getting clean or deciding it was all a lie; I’d tried that my whole life and it had never worked except to make my skin raw and my eyes red. I got over it by dressing up in silly costumes that required me to severely over-condition (or yes, just not wash) my hair and then have people tell me I was beautiful both in those clothes and without them. Because what I realized in the layers that would hide my grey skin and the hair that would cover my imperfect smile is that we’re all filthy. It seems like the most mundane thing in the fucking world, but it is a shocking, tear-inducing miracle to me that I can sit around and talk to fencing people about how to get sweat stains out of our whites. Lestat was about learning that I wasn’t merely human, that I wasn’t negligible; Snape about learning that I was gloriously human and all the more powerful for it.

All these things may well have happened had I not read or latched onto these books. Maybe it would have been a different book. Possibly, but less likely, as I do know myself keenly, it would have been no book at all. And although I’m still a terribly reactive soul, certainly more than I’d wish, it ultimately it matters very little to me if other people see what I see in canon or think the books are well-written or not. I don’t care if you like Snape or not, anymore than I care if you are horrified at the contortions I’ve gone through in my life to see and solve myself.

What I care about is this: I care that you get that this has mattered, regardless of its extensibility to anyone else, and that for me that’s been a great good thing for which I happen to owe thanks in very strange places. This too is the shape of my life, and this too is why I sometimes put my hand to my heart when I read books, breathless at these moments of grace in which I am able to see myself like almond slivers between the pages – paper thin, real and just a little bit dirty.

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