AN ESSAY ON AUTHENTICITY
Disclaimer: I am not a healthcare professional, a psychologist, or any kind of doctor. This essay is based on my own anecdotal lived and witnessed experiences with regard to authenticity and creative integrity, and based on the dozens and dozens of conversations I've had with my psychologist about this topic. The articles and sources linked are, to the best of my knowledge, reputable studies and essays by trained professionals in their respective fields.
Take what I say with a few grains of salt. Do not listen blindly to any one source, and most importantly: do your own independent research and come to your own conclusions.
The essay written below is an opinion piece, and is not meant to be used as a scientific or academic article.
I'M AFRAID TO BE MYSELF - HOW DO YOU DO IT?
The denial of what I really wanted to do with my fiction was going to kill me from stress if I kept trying to hide it. That's honestly what has propelled me into the person I am now, who is as open as I am now. That's not hyperbolic, unfortunately.
You might find it silly, or maybe preposterous. I really wish I did too. If you do, then I'm glad for that - I don't want anyone else to experience this kind of psychological stress and anxiety from squashing themselves into a creative dead-end because what they love in fiction is deemed wrong for adults to play-pretend with.
Between ten and fifteen years ago, I didn't pay the impact my fiction had any mind. There was no impact to be had. I'd been told my whole life up until that point that I should draw Pretty things, Girl Appropriate things by most of the adults around me. Not monsters, blood, death, and gore. I should be drawing flowers and kitties, rainbows and puppies.
I liked the monsters though - not the flowers. I liked the things that went bump in the night, because there were things in my life that went bump in the night that I couldn't escape like I could escape in fiction. Parents fighting often, an absurdly destructive divorce that I wouldn't realize until fifteen years too late I'd ended up on the wrong side of. An abusive, controlling, alcoholic parent. More that I care to not expose online.
You know. The usual shit when you conjure up the idea of a "troubled kid". Maybe you were that kid too. I'm sorry we both went through hell - but we survived. That's worth something.
So, I wrote and drew whatever I wanted to. I watched and read plenty of horror, both age appropriate and not. I tamed the monsters in my fiction, because having the ability to put it down if I needed to, or keep drawing and writing if I needed to, was a powerful feeling that helped me feel in control of circumstances I otherwise had no control over. I vented all of my anger, confusion, and isolation through art and writing, a lot of which I never shared on the wider internet because... Well, the internet wasn't what it is now, and what I wrote and drew was for my own satisfaction. It was for no one else.
Keep that in mind: What I drew and wrote was for no one but myself.
I was a kid with no platform to speak of when I started sharing my work in ye olde 2006, and everything was still for my own satisfaction. Even when I had a bit of a platform after a few years, I was satisfying only myself, and I was never met with the same "You can't/shouldn't make that" that I got from well-meaning adults when I was a younger kid. Looking back, it felt nice to be utterly ignorant of the kind of force-fed shame that still squeezes me a little too tightly to this day. I wish I could go back to that sense of security in myself, even if it was one of the only things I was secure about.
I'm not sure when it all started to shift. It's like the frog in slowly heating water until it's boiling; you don't know what's happening, exactly, until it's too late. I didn't realize until too many years too late that I'd fallen into a social circle that condemned any kind of self-expression that was not Moral, not Just, not Proper Representation. Nevermind that the goalposts always, always kept moving for what was proper and decent and good. It was exhausting to try and keep up. For a while, it was easy - but when things started to feel wrong, I shoved it down as far as possible and tried to keep pretending, while more and more of myself kept slipping through and being seen.
You could not be messy, brutal, or romantic in the wrong way. You could like gore fiction, but not rape fiction. You could like snuffing "shitty people who deserve it" in your fiction, but you could never consider exploring the nuances of that "shitty person who deserved it" and how they came to be that. You could like the taboo - but it had to be the right kind of taboo. An acceptable amount of taboo.
You could like romance and porn of any gender or number configuration - of course, there's nothing wrong with that - but god help you if there was a shred of anything untoward about it.
"You don't want to hurt people, do you? Of course not, dear. Let us help you be a good person."
Abuse in your fiction was fine, but only if you portrayed it in the worst, most explicit possible ways imaginable, and made clear every few minutes that it's A Bad Thing. You could never trust that your audience wasn't as dim-witted as a doorknob and couldn't read subtext or context, or that your work wouldn't be exposed to kids who did not know better, no matter how hard you made it clear you were an adult catering to an adult audience.
Your protagonists were victims and never perpetrators. You don't want abusers to use your fiction, surely - so you must take every. Single. Exhausting. Precaution. Necessary. To ensure that your work could not be twisted and misused by abusers. That made you an accomplice to malicious intent, that made you responsible, that made it your fault if someone got hurt. If you're going to make something controversial - keep it to yourself. Keep it private. Keep it under lock and key, and feel shame for it.
It's amusing that these attitudes are never turned on large media productions featuring everything that is ugly with the same amount of fervor. It's always vulnerable people that can be reached, who can be touched... Who are eventually clawed at. Slapped, punched, beaten, driven out of social spaces and called a perverted pariah.
"You wouldn't want to be like my abuser, would you, darling? Of course you didn't mean it. Give me a hug."
Eventually, your arm got twisted enough to the point where you couldn't explore anything the group deemed worthless and disgusting, and no matter how you tried to do it, any portrayal meant approval of the real-life counterpart. It meant you were the real-life counterpart. Fiction became a place of repression and no longer a place of freedom and exploration. Any thought that did not align with the group was smothered in the cradle, self censorship of your own mind commonplace and expected.
This was a celebrated quality. This meant you were on your way to becoming a good person. You internal pain at pushing all of yourself, whatever that might mean, into a too-small box did not matter. All that mattered was being good, and safe for everyone within the in-group, and showing piety to those that would spit and call others monstrous for daring to be themselves. Mistakes were punished swiftly beneath the guise of protection. Protection of the group and of you from yourself.
You didn't want to be a monster... Did you?
"We don't talk about that here, that's disgusting, that's predatory. You're going to hurt someone. It's going to be your fault."
Silence and shame were the weapons wielded against any who disobeyed. Threats of callout posts being shared on viral sharing platforms like Twitter and Tumblr, of smearing your name to the entire social group and beyond, and of total ostracization from the group were in your future if you stepped even a fraction of an inch out of line. If that was all you knew, then it was terrifying to consider the alternative without the group. Would everyone leave you, and if they did - did that mean anyone new you met would hate you too? Would they see the stains of shame and grime on you too? Would they know you were tainted?
If you're an artist online, one who makes this your living, perhaps because you have no other options - did this mean your entire career was ending? Would you be able to survive at all if your thoughts or your fictional exploration got out? Would anyone want your work if it was tainted with so much dirt?
I liken the mentality to a cult because the kinds of personalities that these cliques form around read much like cult dynamics between leaders and followers. Lions and lambs. Steve Hassan's BITE Model is eerily similar to the dynamics at work on a smaller scale in my social circles from this few-year-period of my life. Obviously, not all of the BITE Model is an accurate reconstruction of the dynamics at the time, but enough of it fits to send a chill down my spine.
You had to be safe for the group. You had to think with the group, assimilate into the group. You were not taught how to think - you were taught what to think.
"We just want to protect you -- from yourself. You're going to hurt yourself. You've already hurt others... You already hurt me. Why did you hurt us? Why do you hate us?"
I feel like, despite how deep I fell into the dynamics at play, I had a tiny inoculation that would eventually lead me to the person I am now: I liked the monsters, not the flowers. I liked the dark, not the light. I liked the horror, and a small part of me already knew that the espoused safety in rigid purity was a lie.
This is deeply funny now, considering the website aesthetic of where you're currently reading this very personal essay I've written.
It took me years to become inundated into the social group I'd found myself in, the group that swiftly punished thought crime and any questioning of the group at every turn, and so it's taken me years to trudge my way out of it. The shame and anxiety comes home to roost, and it roosts deep in your psyche, eating at you from within.
The people left years ago now. Most were gone in a flashbang of disgust and betrayal, and a few straggled behind until none were left. What has remained are the psychological scars of what I've gone through, and those are what's propelled me so far forward into becoming the person I am now. Spite is a good starter for a fire, but compassion is what's kept it burning for so long. Compassion is why I'm writing this essay.
Compassion is why I'm still here.
"You're a lost cause now. Brainwashed and manipulated by freaks and degenerates. I trusted you, we trusted you to be one of the good ones - and you betrayed us. You're just like my abuser."
I had what a lot of people don't when they get cut off from a social group; I had my spouse and I had a small, intimate, close-knit support network of like minded people who were going through the same struggle I was. We were all in it together, fumbling through dark water and untangling the messes that had been made of our individual senses of self. We'd all outlived our usefulness, so we were tossed aside like broken toys.
It was both easy and impossible for me to escape the ghosts. When I'm low enough, they'll come back full force and hiss all of the horrible things I'd been told and seen said about people like me. I'd been told, repeatedly, that good people looked good. Good people looked like moral artists and people who turned up their noses at anything Problematique in fiction, loudly decried fiction that they found morally repugnant from their fellow indie creatives, and started or participated in targeted harassment campaigns against those indie creatives.
I'm almost shocked that I'm not more bitter about the hypocrisy of it all. The people who scream the loudest usually have the worst skeletons to hide. Or, at the very least, are the biggest hypocrites. I know the type: they can only accuse others of actions they themselves have taken.
"Big media won't hold itself accountable. But we can hold other independant creatives to task for their disgusting fiction - the fiction that made our abuser do it. We can hold you accountable for our pain, you freak."
Bad people, I was taught - in this upside down world where the morally just thing to do was to tell people to kill themselves and hurl abuse accusations over fictional characters doing The Wrong Things - were people who wanted to explore "disgusting" things in fiction. Abuse, rape, torture, criminal characters, violence, childhood sexuality, incest - if you had to dirty your hands at all with these complex subjects, you had to be as tight-laced as possible. You could find no comfort in any of it, for any reason, and god help you if any of it was a fictional fetish, for any reason - for no reason.
God help you if you took something grotesque in reality, maybe part of your reality, or maybe something that fit how you felt, and tried to make it something beautiful and erotic. If you broke apart something that broke you, and rebuilt it into something that would mend you. If you defanged cruelty dealt to you, and made it tender and romantic.
If you took something you had no control over and abstracted it into a scenario you had all control over, and it was as deep and dark, ugly and sinister, horrific and evil - mixed into a cocktail of high octain, high pressure pleasure and pain - god help you. If you tried to share any of this, for any reason, to find any kind of community, to feel less broken, less ashamed, less evil - you're accused of emboldening predators to abuse vulnerable people. You're accused of being a predator yourself.
If you have no reason, no justification for your crime of finding the wrong thing arousing, titilating, lovely, and perhaps fascinating... God forgive you for your crime, because you're a monster in the eyes of people who are more than happy to toss their fellow queers under the bus. Who are more than happy to fling their abuse history as a cudgel, as if we all haven't experienced some kind of abuse in our lifetime. As if that behavior isn't abusive in itself.
At least let me make myself whole in an imaginary world, if I can't have this one. - @Amberite
There are bad actors everywhere. What I've learned, now that I can critically think for myself after years of therapy and my own experiences, is: it's how people treat each other. It's about showing kindness and respect to your fellow human beings. The content of your character and the actions you take with regard to real, living, breathing humans are more of a reflection of your morals than the erotic, pornographic, romantic, horrific fiction you create or indulge in.
Attempting to link the minutest amount of correlation to causation with regard to predatory people who are into Bad Fiction obfuscates the predators lurking in your own community, right under your nose.
If all it takes to be A Good Person is to appear moral, just, and good - then you've already become a haven for wolves hiding in sheep's clothing. You see, hear, and speak no evil while the people around you viciously harass and smear other indie artists. But those artists, they are the bad people who deserve it -- right?
They won't come for you, you're one of the good ones, you don't hurt people... Right?
"We're telling you to kill yourself for your own good, you pathetic, abusive fucking freak. You're the one hurting people and enabling abuse, not us. We're protecting people, vulnerable people."
"You're not vulnerable, valuable, or wanted -- you're just a MONSTER. You're NOTHING. You're WORTHLESS."
"Listen to ME when I'M speaking to you."
It's another darkly amusing thing for me. Those quotes that I've interspersed are paraphrased from people I used to know and concepts they espoused, but what you won't know until right now, is: a few of them are paraphrased from the woman who abused me for most of my life. Authoritarian rhetoric knows its own companions when it sees them, no matter the window dressing, and the abuse I endured from my mother sounds eerily similar to the perpetual motion puritan hate machine online.
How did I beat back everything telling me I would be monstrous if I explored fiction as it was meant to be explored: brutal and messy and playful and fantastical, then? If I dared go against the group and begin to think for myself? How did I let go and not stay silent? How did I become myself? A lot of therapy and hard work within myself. A lot of unlearning, a lot of exploration. A lot of cutting out toxic influences.
But mostly, it started with this: I said Fuck It, and Fuck You.
I let myself be monstrous. I let myself be ugly and raw and beautifully brutal. Trip and fall a few times, get your hands dirty with mud and blood and broken glass. Betray the people who thought you were "one of the good ones", and you will be happier for it despite the terror of going against the group. I've lost hundreds of followers overnight, but I gained back more in integrity and emotional wellbeing than numbers could ever mean. Follower retention does not matter, but do not be reckless in your newfound rage.
If you let the flames consume you, burn you to ash, you will become the very thing that destroyed you. Don't let them control you after they're already gone.
What is hard to understand now in the thick of it, is: this too, shall pass. It is a temporary state of chaotic change. You will lose people that you thought were your friends, rumors and whisper campaigns and flat out harassment might ensue from the shift towards your personal authenticity. You will feel unsteady on unknown ground, but know that this ground is the most solid you've ever set foot on despite your equilibrium tossing you end over end.
Like anything else in this lifetime: change is inevitable and expected. It won't take long at all for you to forge connections with people whose companionship is not conditional, and who can see all of the nuance in what is you at your most authentic, creative self. You will find folks who might not love everything about fictional expression (I certainly don't), but who are more than willing to leave you be without implied judgement or explicit harassment because of how you want to play pretend with art and writing.
Because, for goodness sakes, that's all it always is. It's abstract, adult play-pretend. Comfort and sex - sex and connection being a comfort - are not new and unique qualities of human beings. No one is a degenerate for a fucking piece of art, no matter how crude the art.
It is your actions that matter. It will always be your actions that matter.
Like I said earlier: I had an intimate support network of people who were going through the same thing. We were - and have been - weathering the same storm together. Support networks are vital in getting out of abusive situations, no matter if the abuse is from a spouse, parent, friend, or friend group. Online or offline, abuse is abuse.
I am not an authority, I have never claimed to be an authority, and you are free to disagree with anything and everything I've said here in this essay. My word is not law, and I am not your judge, your jury, or your executioner. I am not telling you what to think, only asking that you consider how to think. I don't know who's reading this, or why, and I have no control over who sees this essay, but I can only hope that you're not a person with malicious intentions to harm other living, breathing human beings.
Take care of yourselves, and be good to each other. The world is dark enough without this kind of insidious cruelty.
I will leave you with this thought, before I go: If someone disagrees with you, it shouldn't feel like they're judging you. If someone says they love you, they shouldn't be putting you or something you like down in the next breath. If someone says they're trying to help you, but it only ever hurts instead, something is very wrong.
Day One Services
"Over time, verbal abuse can make you feel insecure and doubt your self-worth. Verbal abuse tends to get worse over time. The longer you stay in this type of relationship, the more intense the violence will likely become. You've done nothing wrong. You have the right to a healthier relationship."
Healthline - Abusive Friendships
"Whenever people speak about abusive relationships in the media or with their friends, more often than not, they're referencing romantic partnerships or family relationships. While in the past, I've experienced both kinds of abuse, this time it was different. And if I can be honest, it was something I wasn't fully prepared for at first: It was at the hands of one of my very best friends."
Very Well Mind - Emotional Abuse
"Feeling insulted and wounded. Never measuring up. Walking on eggshells. If these statements describe your relationship, it is likely you are being emotionally abused. In general, a relationship is emotionally abusive when there is a consistent pattern of abusive words and bullying behaviors that wear down a person's self-esteem and undermine their mental health."
MENTAL HEALTH HOTLINES
If you're struggling with your mental health, with thoughts of suicide, feelings of helplessness, or an abusive situation - you are not alone.
"Our highly-trained advocates are available 24/7/365 to talk confidentially with anyone experiencing domestic violence, seeking resources or information, or questioning unhealthy aspects of their relationship."
Crisis Text Line
TEXT: HOME to 741741
"Every texter is connected with a Crisis Counselor, a real-life human being trained to bring texters from a hot moment to a cool calm through active listening and collaborative problem solving. All of Crisis Text Line's Crisis Counselors are volunteers, donating their time to helping people in crisis."
Suicide Prevention Lifeline
"The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week."
"Lifeline Chat is a service of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, connecting individuals with counselors for emotional support and other services via web chat. All chat centers in the Lifeline network are accredited by CONTACT USA. Lifeline Chat is available 24/7 across the U.S."