It was the summer between my junior and senior years of college. I was working at my uncle's bowling alley during the day and doing a lot of reading at night. My brother lent me the slender book. "Science fiction," he said. Looking back, I realize that not many girls my age were into science fiction.
It was called Anthem by Ayn Rand, an author I wasn't familiar with. It was that genre of science fiction that emerged out of fear of the Communist threat from the Soviet Union, like 1984 and Animal Farm. It was about a socialist society in the future where progress had regressed to an agrarian society and individuality had been suppressed to the point that no one was ever alone, but people weren't actually allowed to talk to each other. All activities revolved around loyalty to the state. If a student showed any interest in learning, he was assigned a menial job for life, designed to eradicate those anti-social tendencies.
The book was written in the first person, but the protagonist used the pronoun "we" when referring to himself and "they" when referring to other individuals. It was a little disconcerting at first. I would sometimes forget and wonder who they were, but I got used to it. His name was Equality 7-2521 and he wanted to be a scientist — knowing that ambition was an egregious sin. So they made him a street sweeper. He accidentally discovered a subway tunnel and started sneaking away from the propaganda movies at night and experimenting with artifacts he found in the tunnel. Eventually he figured out how to make an electric light. Thinking that the government would be thrilled with his discovery, he made the mistake of showing it to the misnamed World Council of Scholars. They, of course, were not pleased, and immediately attempted to destroy it.
Our hero ran away. Taking his invention, he fled into the Uncharted Forest, knowing he would not be followed. No one had ever returned from the Uncharted Forest. Eventually he came across a house in the forest, left over from the ancient times (our times). The house was full of books and a chapter ends as Equality begins to devour this treasury of knowledge.
The next chapter begins with the words "I am. I think. I will." These words hit me like a ton of bricks. Equality and I shared an epiphany. He discovered a word that filled a void he had never been able to identify. I discovered a self-worth that, had I ever known it, had long been buried.
This is a story I have shared with very few people. I thought it sounded corny. Yet, it changed my life. I spent a long time afterwards thinking about the experiences that had taken me to this point, that had made me feel so unworthy that I spent my life acting the part of the good daughter, the good sister, the good student, all the while hiding my true nature, knowing that the real me would not be loved.
We are the products of the combination of our experiences and our innate nature. Mine conspired to produce a person who both wanted to be different and strove to please everyone around me. My Catholic indoctrination terrified me, yet instead of rejecting the church, I embraced it – certain that I was evil and in need of salvation. At home, I received mixed signals. My parents and my sister loved me, but my grandmother and my brother didn't. In school, I was less than unpopular. I belonged to the outcast class. I was taller than most of the boys, painfully thin, and homely to boot. Boys were not interested in me, unless it was to ridicule me. My schoolwork was the only thing I excelled in, so I buried myself in my studies.
What was it in my nature that let these experiences define me?
I knew I was different at an early age. I spent an inordinate amount of time contemplating the world. I thought about everything, especially during my adolescence — life and death, religion, love and marriage, children, the nature of the universe. I couldn't read fast enough to satisfy my need for different points of view, my search for answers to all the questions that were beyond understanding.
I didn't want the things in life that I was supposed to want. I didn't want to get married and have children and keep house. I wanted to travel the world and see every wonder that existed, all the exotic peoples inhabiting all the exotic lands. I grew up just ahead of the sexual revolution. My parents were unconventional, but when it came to family values, they could be downright old-fashioned, especially my father. I was supposed to go to college, but after that I was supposed to get married and have babies. Although I suspected that my mother wasn't as rigid as my father, she felt that it wasn't her place to speak out. She followed my father's lead.
Like my friend Equality 7-2521, I knew that my thoughts were heresy and I tried, like him, to conform. But I was a mass of contradictions. I wanted to want what I was supposed to want — but I didn't — and a part of me resented that I should have to. As a consequence, I never felt like I belonged anywhere. I was out of place in my family, in school, in society.
After I left the Catholic church, I sought another religion. I joined a Methodist church and I attended services religiously. Until that Sunday morning when the alarm rang and I sat up in bed and realized that, not only did I not want to go to church, but I didn't even believe in God. Another epiphany of sorts, though the opposite from what most people experience.
I suffered severe depressions during my adolescence, but I didn't know they were depressions. I never shared my feelings with anyone but my sister Holly. She was totally confounded by me. She loved me with all her heart, but she didn't have a clue what made me tick. She never judged me. I knew I could let her see my dark side without losing her love. When I was depressed, I went about the business of daily life as if nothing was wrong. I acted completely normal when it was necessary. There were times when I felt as though I was standing across the room from myself, watching myself act normal and marvelling at what a good job I was doing. But when there were no obligations to fulfill, I would retreat to my room where I often sat in a chair for hours staring into space, paralyzed by my demons.
I had nightmares – some recurring. I would wake up shaking, with my heart beating so loudly, I was sure it would awaken Holly in the next bed. And I had episodes that lasted only a few seconds where a feeling so horrible would wash over me without warning, that I was certain that if that feeling stayed for ten minutes, I would kill myself. For want of a better word, I thought of it as despair. But the word isn't strong enough. I have never found one that is. I have heard people say many times that they don't understand people who commit suicide. But I do. I do.
There were good depressions and bad depressions. During the good depressions, I could read. I would bury myself in books every spare moment of the day. I would find an author I liked and read everything I could find – Isaac Asimov, Doris Lessing, James Baldwin. There were times when I was manic – acting high as a kite, doing things totally outside my norm. It never occurred to me that I was sick, that anyone could help me, that what I was going through was not evidence that I was irredeemably defective.
But when I read those six words – "I am. I think. I will," it was like the clouds parted and let the sun shine through – a true revelation. Why then? Why this book when I had read hundreds that might have contained more wisdom? I don't know. But from that moment, I saw myself differently. I saw that it didn't matter if I didn't fit in. That there was nothing right or wrong about my desires and dreams, that being different was not being defective.
This was an intellectual epiphany. My attitudes and thoughts changed on that day. It took longer to change my behavior. That struggle lasted for years. But it was a struggle I never doubted I could win. And I see that, in spite of all the bad experiences, there was much in my life that was good — and those good experiences accumulated in a reservoir somewhere inside me. And there were loving people who were nourishing me in ways that I didn't recognize. So that when those clouds finally parted, I had the resources and the strength I needed to banish the demons from my soul forever.
April 2004 — dianne johns