The Misfit’s Manifesto
1 Not All Hope Comes from Looking Up
Aspiration gets stuck in some people. It’s difficult to think “yes” or “up” when all you know is how to hold your breath and wait for horror to pass.
There is indeed a relationship between hope and misfittery, but it doesn’t come from looking up, or rising, or climbing. Some misfits are drawn to the outside of things because they feel best when they feel different. But others of us were born through dirt and mud, trauma and violence. To forge hope, we had to invent it at ground zero.
Not all misfits are born up and through violence, but large numbers of us are.
Before I talk about trauma though, I’d like to take a moment to recognize the fact that at least some misfits emerge from happy families, from supportive environments, from lives and worlds that, at least from the outside, appear to be relatively stable. The girl who begins to carve lines into her arms, faint enough not to get caught, deep enough to bring tears to her eyes, but only when she’s alone. She wears them like wrong bracelets in front of everyone. The boy who begins to adorn each wrist with bangles—more and more bangles—enough bangles to make his arms ring—just because he loves the sound they make
when he reaches up to twirl his locker combination. Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club. Her glorious dandruff decorating her drawing with perfect snow. Those kids and teens who veer away from the central be-like-everyone-else path, those beautiful creatures forging weird little roads into the unknown, they remind us that beauty doesn’t always come from mirroring the universal. It can also come from the weird on its way to becoming original and transformational.
Still, I’ve noticed from the stories fellow misfits tell me that many of our life paths run from rough beginnings. Perhaps it is true, or true enough, that trauma figures in our lives in a way that disfigures our understanding of the world and others. My colleagues in other disciplines have certainly told me enough stories over the years to support that idea—in psychology, sociology, anthropology. Then again, the older I get, the more I’m left feeling like trauma touches everyone in the end.
Here is a scene I’ve been writing and rewriting most of my adult life. It seems pivotal to my experience—like if I could just truly and finally figure one of these origin scenes out, I’d know something about life and how to live it. The setting is an ordinary kitchen in the 1970s. The scene is an ordinary argument between my parents. There were so many arguments they became normal even as I never stopped being terrified. I simply learned to endure, which left me with something akin to PTSD in the face of male anger as an adult. My sister’s strategy was disassociation, and she was an expert at it, I’ll
tell you. I became an expert at taking it. Some people will understand that.
I’m eight. I’m sitting at the kitchen table. My sister is sixteen. She’s washing dishes. My mother is sitting at the table with me. My father is in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. My father and mother are both smoking and drinking coffee. The house smells like nicotine and caffeine and anger and child fear. I can see my sister’s back, the motion of her forearms as she makes circular soapy patterns on each dish and places them one at a time—painstakingly slowly—into the dishwasher. At the zenith of their argument, both of them yelling, my father’s voice the low-rage baritone of a rage-o-holic and my mother’s the singsong screech of a Southern drawl, my mother stands up and slams her coffee mug on the table. Those big, extra-thick off-white ceramic coffee mugs. Coffee goes everywhere. Some splashes onto my hand, and it’s hot, but I don’t make a sound. Everyone is wearing bathrobes. My mother walks past my sister toward the other end of the kitchen, on her way to exit through the other doorway, and my father—who once had a walk-on tryout with the Cleveland Indians—hurls his mug at the wall, missing my mother’s head by a centimeter. The bottoms of those extra-thick off-white ceramic coffee mugs are dark.
We are in the eye of a hurricane that does not come every season, but every other day, relentlessly.
There are so many ways to read this scene once I put it on the page. For one thing, what was my sister thinking?
What did my mother think?
What did he think, coming so close to her head with that powerful arm, that could-have-been-an-athlete arm?
Did anyone love their children in that moment, or any of the other endless moments? Or does love have nothing to do with it?
The hole in the wall remained for a very long time.
What I’m saying is that this moment is one in a series of paradigmatic scenes in my memory. Misfits, we all have such scenes in our memories. It is nowhere near the worst thing that happened to me, or my sister, or my mother with my father. In that house. But it rises up like an image that won’t die. Sometimes I think everything about who we were and who we all became has its origins in moments like that.
Hope was nothing about that scene.
In place of hope, underneath my terror, which I had my entire childhood, was something else. That something else was the ability to endure, to stay quiet like a still animal close to the ground, and perhaps something even more important, the art of waiting for the right moment to act. I was, without knowing it, building a form of agency. I was, I know now, learning the art of agency in the eye of a storm, the art of understanding energies, the art of understanding that everything in life—violence to be sure but also everything else—is energy.
In my house, my father’s rage incarcerated my mother, my sister, and me. His abuse threaded through our bodies, through our language, through every experience we could imagine, until that abuse seemed like part of everyday life. That’s an important idea to consider. People who come from abuse or trauma or poverty don’t
exactly know how to see it in the world when they leave home and become adults, if they make it that far. You want to know why? It’s familiar. So familiar we cannot recognize it. What I mean is, you can escape an abusive household, for example, and then step right into different abusive situations out in the world because they look and feel like something we are good at; it’s what we know how to do. We gravitate toward the familiar. Couple that with the fact that our media representations and media realities are supersaturated with violence, trauma, and socioeconomic struggle as entertainment, and, well, there’s no seeing to see, is there? So what we become experts at is endurance. We can, so to speak, take it. We’re like Purple Heart combat veterans of a unique domestic and social variety. But it may be more accurate to call us ghost people who are a little haunted and always in danger of being dragged under . . . by depression, or fear, or failure, or our unusual relationship to reality.
I can imagine the terrible macro version of my micro story. Consider for a moment the legions of refugees fleeing the wars we’ve made worldwide: How will they fit into not only new countries, but also the stories we tell ourselves about identity and unity? I worry about them the same way I worry about individuals escaping violence in our own communities. In fact, considering our current administration’s openly racist, homophobic, sexist, and xenophobic rhetoric and policy plans, there is an urgent crisis at hand: How will we tell the story of ourselves in America in a way that does not directly harm the most vulnerable among us? Who do we want to be?
But I’m sure even reading this you can see another side to the
story I am telling about people born of difficulty. The broken side of coming from violence, war, abuse, trauma, or poverty. Misfits, we’re also always expecting the fist, or the transgression, or the betrayal, or the bomb, or any one of a hundred smaller forms of violence. Even when they’re not there. We carry with us the intense stare of someone who is ready at any moment to scrap to the death or surrender unto death—two sides of the same game—which can, in some cases, make us seem too quickly defensive or cranky or hard to work with or be around. We’re often hard cases. In school, at jobs, in relationships.
What if there is something else inside there, something of value?
Several events in my life have caused the traditional definition of hope to be sucked out of my body. I’m not saying I’m proud of this, but it just happened. For me, what became important in moments of trauma or despair or fear was learning to breathe differently. The word aspiration has a breathing sense to it. It dawned on me that we have to breathe and to find reasons to stay alive on our own terms.
There were two otherworlds that saved my life.
Swimming and art.
It’s no great mystery why the swimming pool was my secular salvation. Four to six hours every day but Sunday I could leave the hell of home and enter the waters with other bodies. I could belong to something larger than myself that didn’t involve a father or a godhead. And in the water, my mind freed itself. From
the age of six to the day I left home for college, the only time I felt like my body and life were mine happened in chlorinated pools all over the country.
The otherworld I could escape into was art. I believe in art the way other people believe in God. I’m not trying to be dramatic here. It’s just true. I have found reasons to breathe again by living in communities of people who choose self-expression over self-destruction. It’s another way to form hope, without hierarchizing it so that you’re looking up toward a father, or a god, or someone smarter or more famous or more heroic than you. I mean sure, that’s one way to find inspiration, but it doesn’t work on all of us. Our hope happens between ordinary people inventing their own ways of doing things. It’s a lateral definition of hope, one emerging from the edges of things, where you just need to find each other, and you need to stand up and not leave each other hanging.
I found my story inside books and movies and paintings and music. I found my fellow sufferers, sure, my fellow weirdos and outcasts and misfits, but what I also found were stories of survival and beauty.
The first time I met my friend Sean Davis, we had a beer together in Troutdale, Oregon, near the community college where we both had jobs. We talked about how community colleges are like petri dishes of America. Each classroom speckled with people who might not choose to sit next to the person they are near were it not for the fact that everyone needs to learn to read,
write, and think critically. I’d already read Sean’s great book The Wax Bullet War. So I already knew that “on September 12, 2001, a year and a half after finishing his military service, Sean Davis strolled into the Oregon National Guard’s recruiting office and re-enlisted.”2
I already knew he came home with a Purple Heart, but also PTSD. What I learned sitting with him drinking that beer is that Sean is a father, a teacher, and an artist, and that his commitment to helping others is bigger than the Pacific Ocean. This is the story he told me:
From an early age I felt pushed to the margins because of how young my parents were when they had me (sixteen and eighteen), coming from a broken home, being the poor kid, and just ending up strange. At first being a misfit was very difficult for me. As a kid I felt sorry for myself all the time because of it, but as I grew into a man I realized that growing up a misfit was a positive aspect in my life. It was freeing. I was given a free peek behind the curtain in some weird way. I came to realize how hard it was for everyone to fit in, how difficult it was to maintain facades, and how lucky I was that I didn’t have to be that way. The hardest part of it all was to find my feet. Confidence isn’t an easy thing for the misfit, but once you find it, you can turn being one into a force. Now, it’s my steadfast belief that history is made by the misfits.
Since I can remember, I’ve been responsible for someone. My first brother was born when I was two, my second brother when I was four. I looked out for them through an abusive parent, relatives’ homes, poverty, school, the trailer parks, everywhere until they grew up. Then I had kids before I even grew up, and I raised them.
Then I was a leader in the military. Responsibility wasn’t a choice; it was just always there. I say this because I believe to be a misfit, in how we’re using the term, you need to have something in your core that keeps you going. I could have easily fallen into drugs, crime, or just stayed in a dead-end job ignorant of my own silent desperation. So yeah, when I was little I didn’t choose to be different. As I get older it seems like it might be more of a choice, but I think it’s ingrained, a learned behavior from a lifetime of experience fueled by something deeper that will always be a part of me. I think the real choice is choosing to be proud of who I am instead of ashamed for being different.
When I was a kid I tried very hard to fit in for a long time. I remember being in my room studying library books on cars. I really didn’t care about cars, but the other boys in my school did. So I tried my best to care about them too. I would memorize the names and years made, the body styles, facts about the engines. I did this for days. Finally, I felt confident enough about it to enter a conversation on the way to school. An old truck passed the bus and I listed off every fact in the encyclopedia about Ford Falcons, Plymouth Valiants, and Chevy Novas. In the end the kids I tried to fit in with just thought I was so much weirder for my efforts. I think that is a microcosm of the plight of misfits.
My dad was very abusive when he was drunk. When sober he always, I mean always, had a book in his hand when he wasn’t working. The difference between drunk and sober Dad was blaringly apparent. He’s the guy who would knock my tooth out or break my nose (did both before I was eight), then apologize for Mr. Hyde the next morning. I mean sincerely apologize, tears and all. Physical
abuse wasn’t all he did when he was drunk. He robbed a liquor store with me and my brother in the car, he’d write bad checks, steal other people’s rent money, fight all the time, crazy shit. He went to rehab a dozen times maybe. I say this because my two brothers and I said we’d never take a drink or do a drug because we saw what it did to Dad. We were convinced one sip of alcohol or one hit of a drug turned a person into a raving lunatic. My youngest brother, to this day, still doesn’t drink. In fact, he doesn’t even let the dentist give him painkillers. He won’t take anything that can alter his consciousness.
I didn’t drink or smoke until I was twenty-one and in the military. I joined the infantry in the early nineties; it was where you put poor black kids, poor Mexicans, poor white trash. It was really hard work so we played really hard too. There weren’t any nondrinkers and very few nonsmokers in the regular army infantry. Of course, I didn’t do drugs. We were piss tested every one to three months without warning, but I did drink myself black several times. It was a kind of test of manhood. Stupid for sure, but we did it. Burned through women, too. That was just as much of a vice.
I’d never had self-confidence being a beaten kid, not until the military, and it was a strange kind of confidence. The root of it came from not giving a fuck if you lived or died. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. Imagine a young kid, in the best shape of his life, training to kill people and blow shit up for his job, with a very destructive drinking habit fueled by the macho need to defy death.
Then throw in a divorce, a revolution in Haiti, a war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, Dad dying, PTSD . . .
In 2005 on New Year’s, I made a resolution to either stay drunk
all year or drink myself to death. I made it to Easter Sunday. Every day, if I didn’t black out before dark, I’d go to the Belmont Inn and get into fistfights in the back with random people. Showed up to army drill drunk. Burned through women again. Bad person.
I’d say I turned it around that Easter. I woke up next to a woman I didn’t know with bad tattoos. Thought about how much I was like Dad. And that’s when I started painting and writing again. It was a question of identity, I think. I didn’t have to be the army guy anymore, or the beat kid, or the self-destructive asshole.
I really think that’s where my life started. Before that, my life was being lived by people I hardly knew or wanted to remember.
When I read Kurt Vonnegut for the first time I felt like a door opened. A really big door. A door to a life I never even imagined possible. The first time I wrote a story I felt my own heart beating differently. The first time I painted a painting I understood that I was much more than my dad—because I could feel possibilities for expression all around me. Now I teach other people how to write in the hopes that they can find expression too.
My friend Sean Davis? He wound up running the American Legion/Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 134 in Portland on Alberta Street. In addition to the pool table, he organized literary readings of all sorts there, an LGBTQ bingo night, and a weekly discussion group for vets. He has also ushered several vets toward artistic practice, helping to produce and stage original plays and operas in addition to writing their own stories and poems. He has an MFA in creative writing. He teaches college English courses in writing and literature at more than one
community college. In the summers he fights fires. He ran for mayor and not only did exceptionally well, but also changed the tenor and discourse of the entire election.
Sean Davis earned a Purple Heart.
That’s an incredibly high honor. Maybe even the highest. A truly heroic accomplishment. But I think the more important heart is in his commitment to other people in his community, no matter where he is, no matter what he is doing, being a misfit gloriously and without apology. He excels partly because he did not fit in. He knows how to help other people exist and find something culture doesn’t: Self-esteem. Worth. Even when your past or your culture says you are nothing.
Our life stories? We made them up from nothing.
So one kind of misfit is the child who grew up and through one kind of violence or another, and what we have to give is this: We can endure. We know how to breathe differently in a crisis, with calm and presence. And even as we felt none or were robbed of it along the way, we know how to illuminate a path to self-worth based on helping others, based on recognizing that you belong to something besides the violence around you.