The Very True Story of the Last Four Years
She grew up small. Small town, small dreams, small personality. I suppose there was a time when she fancied herself a good deal bigger, but that was long ago, a time now forgotten by any and all privy to it. You might say she was sensible now, only after a series of disappointments brought about by her own shortcomings. She had gleaned a truer sense of herself, of her limitations, and this contributed to a certain practicality in the way she lived her life.
When she was eighteen years old, she went away to school, as is the expectation for girls of a certain status. She was by no means excited for this transition, for she had concocted in her mind a fairly accurate picture of what it would mean for her in the long run. She was not of the conventional temperament to truly enjoy the years of false independence and reckless spontaneity. You see, she was a prude, dreadful girl. She was a goody-goody, never-have-I-ever, Father-forgive-me-for-I-have-sinned sort of person. And as we all know, that’s absolutely no fun, especially when fraternizing on a university campus. But darn it if she didn’t try. She did make friends, and they will remain in her memory as some of the finest and dearest of her life. But it took an exceptionally long while to find them and a longer while to trust them, so we shall continue our story as it was in the beginning.
We open on a dormitory bedroom, you know the sort. With the bunk beds and twin desks, the closets that are much too small. This is where we find our heroine in the throws of despair. It was at this point in her life that she began having panic attacks with alarming frequency and fervor. Worse still, she couldn’t place the cause. It was as if her entire person was in atrophy, destroying itself against her wishes. But as time wore on and her life became a stretch of monotony and isolation—apart from a few short, forced interactions with schoolmates—she saw her wishes begin to change. What was wrong with a little atrophy? A little decay? It happens to all of us at some point or another, why not now?
She was a sad sort of girl, I suppose. Very romantic, to use the term both in the historical and popular context, and as such was given to daydreams and pining and entirely too much introspection. One of her favorite authors, Louisa May Alcott, once wrote a book entitled Little Women, and she had always resonated with it very much. She had believed it was on account of the character Jo, an ambitious writer and woman of magnificent fortitude. Our girl had written a number of personal novels and liked to imagine herself as a Jo, a real force to be reckoned with. But in those early days at college, an underlying fear she must have always carried with her began to bubble to the surface rather violently. She was not Jo but Beth, who is famously quoted as saying the following just before her untimely demise:
“I only mean to say that I have a feeling that it never was intended I should live long. I’m not like the rest of you. I never made any plans about what I’d do when I grew up… I couldn’t seem to imagine myself as anything but stupid little Beth, trotting about at home, of no use anywhere but there.”
You must understand that this is a troubling perspective to be adopted by one so young and not at all afflicted by a terminal illness. It points to certain psychological complications, which propriety mandates we not speak of openly.
So she spoke of it privately. As with all her words during that unfortunate era–for there were in fact periods of several days at a time during which she would not audibly speak a word–she spoke into her books. She wrote it all down, every unhappy feeling and unsanctioned wish. And in an early draft of what would become the greatest triumph of her career, she let a character die. She let a character die of their own volition as an act of mercy.
She was at her worst. She had no interest in academia or the social world of her contemporaries. She had only her books, meaning she was alone with her destructive thoughts for goodness knows how long. This was the first two years of her college experience.
Then came the choice. She was poor at the time, unable to find a job that wouldn’t conflict with her course schedule and mortified by the idea of asking for assistance from anyone. Once moved into her apartment, she would be living on a budget of twenty dollars a week after rent expenses, but we aren’t quite there yet. Perhaps it was the money, perhaps the glory, but she found the means to publish those darkest thoughts she had written down, though they were now considerably more polished with the pretty happy ending to boot. And so she gave it away and made five thousand dollars, which disappeared entirely in no time at all due to the costs of academic living.
Now that it was very public, this uncomfortable darkness which had come to possess her, she felt the need to try even harder to throw the world off her scent. She joined a singing group and did art projects and made terrible jokes and kept every aspect of her life in perfectly organized order. Except of course those aspects outside of her control. In the story of Peter Pan—the Disney version at least, it’s the one with which I’m most familiar—Wendy Moira Angela Darling gets into trouble and says something along the lines of “I’m growing up tomorrow.” That was more or less what our girl was feeling. She had a deadline for the commencement of adulthood, a date upon which she was expected to magically transform in to a contributing member of society. She was frightfully unprepared.
What had she learned in those years of study? Other than perfecting the art of lying and pretending, she couldn’t recall any sort of valuable knowledge being gained. It was all theoretical or else common sense or else completely irrelevant to the life she was destined to be living. What sort of life was that? Quiet. Simple. Practical. Something that made sense and had a tangible result. At least, that was what she hoped for. But suddenly it all felt so impossible. These were to have been formative years for her, yet she felt no more ready for the working world than she had in high school. So the question naturally arose, what had been the point?
She had managed to complete her four-year sentence in three and a half (good behavior), and now it seemed the logical, conventional, proper thing to do next was be paraded around a graduation ceremony so that her school might claim her exceptional performance as their own. Why would they even want to claim a thing like that? Her performance had been lackluster and amateurish. Sure she had earned good grades and “high distinction,” but she had put such littler effort into the work itself and absolutely everything into getting out quick as she could. That didn’t feel like something to be celebrated.
Her mother didn’t understand when she declared she wouldn’t be walking at the graduation ceremony. Her father had argued that she wouldn’t be doing it for herself but rather for them, which she found an absurdly backwards instance of parental generativity. In the end, she decided, as her first official act as a bonafide, certified, degree holding member of the academically minded upper echelons of adulthood, she didn’t give two figs what was expected of her. She’d had a terrible time of it, and maybe part of that was due to her own neurosis, but a portion of the blame could certainly be placed on the world at large for imposing such universal standards on a vastly diverse and individualistic population. It was an act of protest so to speak, really the only thing she in her limited power could do to express her non-complicity. It was a small act to be sure, but she was a small girl, and as such it was these tiny victories that made her feel enormous.