Emily Rapp didn’t always speak up, but finally finding her voice was thrilling and liberating.
If I had to choose a word to describe a large portion of my current life it would be “aloud.” I talk a lot. In front of a classroom, on the phone, to students, to friends, to my long-suffering therapist, to my boyfriend, to my parents, to the nurses and doctors and other people who help care for my son, and occasionally to myself. I have a loud voice, and it carries.
In college I was often in trouble with the junior counselors for talking too loudly on the phone in the dorm hallway, the cord maneuvered under the closed door and twisted around my wrist. “Rapp! Quiet down!” I’d hear from the corner room. This felt like an odd request, because during my first year of college—although I read every word of Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, the Bible (yes), those strangely racy medieval letters between Abelard and Heloise, and many other deliciously dense books from cover to cover as part of my religion major—I did not say a single word in class. I was that archetypal student all teachers dread: the one who sits and stares at you, betraying nothing (Hatred? Boredom? A mix of the two?). When I tell my current students about my silent life they say we so totally don’t believe you. All you DO is talk! My classes are full of noise. I like it when people crack jokes, laugh, ramble, deviate, debate, speak.
This story I tell them is the truth. At 18, I weighed 92 pounds and checked this number every day on the scale after my pre-dawn jaunt to the moldy gym where I rode the Stairmaster for an hour. I wore baggy thrift store jeans and men’s pajama bottoms and oversized sweaters; I rarely washed my hair and believed that wool socks with Birkenstocks was a legitimate (or, as one of my students might say now, for realz) fashion statement. I did not look at my body in the shower, in the mirror, or at all. I was a virgin.
I was thrilled to be in college but convinced I was not smart enough to be there, terrified that I would fail, and if I failed at the task of college, I would fail at the enterprise of life. I was popular among the girls I lived with in my dorm, but I did not date or think about dating (there was one date to the MegaMall in Minneapolis, about which I remember almost nothing except ordering a chocolate milkshake that I didn’t drink at a drive-thru window at a fast food joint off the interstate). I did not participate in class discussions or raise my hand. The only time I vocalized outside of social interactions was during voice lessons, when I belted out Italian arias and German folk tunes until my face was damp with sweat. I wanted to be an opera singer, a dream that ended during that otherwise quiet first semester when my voice strangely shifted from soprano to alto and limited my range, wiping out a whole row of top notes. Maybe your ribcage doesn’t have enough space in it, another singer postulated. I worried, briefly, that my project to remain “tiny” had succeeded at the level of my bones.
My teachers may have believed that I was giving them the stink eye, or not paying attention, or unprepared. The reverse was true. I thought my professors were gods and goddesses, and I wrote down just about every word out of their mouths and then typed them up in the computer lab and saved them on a floppy disc. I still have boxes of those printed out notes. I lived for the hours spent reading in the library by a window, watching the sun set behind the oak trees that were slowly dropping their leaves in the twilight sky of autumn. I wrote my papers weeks ahead of time, obsessively revised them, and always received good marks, although I always panicked as my eyes raced to the grade on the last page that it would read “F” or “S” for stupid. For realz.
I was brimming with ideas, questions, and felt, every day, that feet-off-the-ground feeling of being overwhelmed by knowledge, insight, wonder. But I didn’t know how to express it, or how to connect with the way in which I was absorbing it. Later I would learn that women often “go silent” around 18 or 19, just when the world should be opening to them, to their unique views and ideas and concerns.
When I stopped eating in high school, it was part of a valiant if misguided attempt to be what I thought the world wanted me to be: contained, controlled, obedient. All my life I’d been told that I was “too much,” and when I was floating through my days like a silent skeleton girl, nobody said I should “settle down” and be quiet and stop making a scene. Instead they said, “You’re so pretty.” At the time, that was enough. When I looked around in the world, the evidence I chose to privilege was any indicating that physical beauty was paramount for a woman, and vital for her to get anywhere interesting in her life, and I desperately wanted out of small town Nebraska. I shared these conclusions with nobody (except, weirdly, Jesus, for whom I briefly kept a journal after joining the Fellowship for Christian Athletes. He never responded to my earnest letters).
And then, a miracle happened, or at least I remember the event as if it occurred under the startling sheen of the miraculous. On one of my blue book exams in philosophy, the teacher wrote, “You are far too intelligent to be so silent in class.” I was seized by adrenaline. My throat felt hot and tight. I re-read all the sentences I’d written in that lined book, products of intense study and writing and thinking. I was in the library as usual, and it was November and snowing for the first time. The bare trees were sparkling with ice and snowflakes tumbled to the ground to the delight of bundled-up students who looked up into the sky as if awestruck by this gift. I had a sudden jolt of gratitude, which was wrapped up in two distinct realizations: first, I was smart; second, I was never going to understand St. Anselm’s ontological principle or anything else if I didn’t eat a bagel with some butter on it. And so I fed myself. Not just with words, but with actual food. I was starving. I walked through the falling snow and hoots and hollers of the students to the cafeteria, where I filled my plate with Tuna Surprise, which felt, to me, like a four-star gourmet meal.
“I’m eating now,” I told my roommate, Ryann, who had long been concerned about my abstemious ways and my drawn face, sweetly puzzled by my little plates of carrots and lettuce and precisely arranged kernels of popcorn. She was ecstatic, and began leaving me brownies and other treats on my pillow at night. I think she nearly cried the first time she saw me eat an entire slice of pizza. The day before Christmas break I had my period for the first time in three years. “That is awesome!” Ryann exalted, and gave me one of her famous close-press hugs.
I left the next morning to drive across country from Minnesota to Colorado, where my parents had moved. I filled my rollicking Oldsmobile with other students who were heading west down the same interstate and helped me pay for gas in exchange for a drop-off at a Denny’s in Lincoln, Nebraska, a Sheri’s in Omaha, a truck stop in Sidney. Many of the students were in the Great Books program with me, and we talked about our recent exam. I, especially, jabbered on into the stunned silence of my peers who probably thought I hadn’t been paying attention before or was simply over-caffeinated now. I was getting in touch with being too much, and I was loving it.
During the last hour of the drive I was alone, singing along (but with the alto part now) to the most recent Indigo Girls album, feeling my belly cramp and quicken, and I felt connected: to the road, to the future, and especially to my body, which was a way of opening to possibility, to change and chance.
Snow swirled around the car, falling so thickly that at one point my car felt singular and magnificent on that road that cuts across the long, flat Midwest like a carefully planned scar. My vision was restricted to a small circle rubbed in the steam of the windshield. The car shook in the wind. I didn’t care. A few times I slid around and without fear, straightened the wheels again. I was not afraid. My intentions felt clear, my heart lifted, my brain, for the first time in years, alive. I felt full, literally and metaphorically, and ready to spread out, keep moving, and finally give myself permission to be epic, to take up all the space I could manage.
Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (forthcoming from Penguin Press, March 2013). She is professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.