How can you tell someone the truth about your past when there’s a good chance they won’t believe you?
I am part of a minority group that I call “People with a Big Story” for lack of a better term. People with Big Stories have two things in common. First, something has happened in their lives that is so outside the range of the ordinary that it seems unbelievable to most people. The second thing is that this unbelievable event impacts their lives so greatly that they cannot keep it private.
For People with a Big Story, the most private and painful part of our lives, the stories we would want to share only with those we trust the most, cannot be hidden from people who know us. They are so big, so life-consuming that we cannot go beyond being an acquaintance, a casual friend, or a fuck-buddy without having to tell the story. It is like having only two clothing options: a nun’s habit or pasties and a g-string.
For me, the Big Story is that I spent my childhood and most of my adolescence in an isolationist apocalyptic cult. To give you some perspective on the level of crazy: When I was a toddler, my mother started preparing me for the End Times. She would sit me on her lap facing her, cock her finger like a gun and place it against the downy curls at my temple and say: “Now when the soldiers break down our door and say to you, ‘Deny Jesus or I will kill your mother!’ What will you say?” I would have to dutifully answer that I would rather watch my mother get murdered than commit heresy. Then we would pray that if the situation were reversed, I would have the courage not to try my mother’s faith by begging for my life.
What makes my sojourn in the cult different from other traumatic life events is that it created such a gaping hole in my personal history that I do not have a choice to keep it private. What makes it necessary for me to tell the Big Story is not the trauma of drills or the physical abuse that I survived. It is all that I missed.
I am 44, and I have never danced and I have no lifelong friends. This is because growing up in a cult meant that I learned all of life’s basic lessons while in a bubble, completely cut off from the culture around me. I grew up without television, popular music, and without any of the books and stories most kids hear or read. I have never seen the Brady Bunch or Scooby Do, and I did not even know who the Beatles were until I was in my mid-20s.
You cannot know me very well without having to know this. You would be surprised at how hard it is to go more than a few good conversations with a person that I like without hitting on a subject where an honest response would require knowledge of The Big Story. It may be something as simple as my companion saying, “I used to practice moonwalking in front of the mirror when I was a kid” and expecting me to reciprocate with a similar story.
Faced with such a seemingly innocuous remark, I have three choices: I can say, “I was raised in a cult so I would have gotten beaten within an inch of my life if I even looked like I might be dancing. And I never knew anything about Michael Jackson until I lived near his ranch as an adult.” Alternatively, I could lie or I could hedge—give some sort of a non-response response.
Blurting out the complete truth is, at best, incredibly awkward. People are unsure how to respond, and most cannot help but question your veracity, your sanity, or both. I don’t even drop that bomb on a new therapist anymore. Too many have asked to talk to a relative to rule out the possibility of psychosis.
The problem with hedging is that relationships are built on trust, and building trust requires that you demonstrate both trustworthiness and trusting behaviors. So over time, friends stop sharing confidences because I seem closed off or distant. If I outright lie, I run the very high risk of eventually being found out. And the only thing worse than being the weird woman who grew up in a cult is being the weird woman who has a cult secret in her past.
It is as if Big Stories come with a tell-by-date. If you wait too long in the friendship, the Big Story becomes the All Encompassing Story. You then not only have to deal with the person’s reaction to the story, but also to the fact that you were dishonest or you were withholding in the relationship. I have often heard, “I trusted you enough to tell you x. But you felt you couldn’t trust me with something this big!?”
No matter when or how you tell the Big Story, no relationship is ever the same thereafter. There is no going back. All too often, telling the Big Story makes people see me as a crazy-bomb just looking for a place to go off. I can easily become a charity friendship or something of a curiosity. Only the most mature and level-headed people are determined to get past the circus freak aspect and get to know me as a person.
Big Stories are an enormous barrier to friendships and relationships of every kind. And people who have experienced them are stigmatized and marginalized in way that most people cannot imagine. As one of my friends says, “I learned quickly socializing is mostly people telling their stories. But the fastest way to ruin an entire party is for me to tell one of mine.” Even in activist groups where we might reasonably expect a safe space, our stories are often not welcome.
To add another level of complication, people who have Big Stories almost never wind up living with a nuclear family behind a white picket fence on the corner of Normal Street and Respectable Lane. Normalcy is blown to bits with the event that creates the Big Story. After that, many of us either have no sense of what normal is or it feels utterly unattainable.
For years, I had no sense of what most people considered normal. For example, I thought that the word damn and the c-word were equals on a social acceptability scale. For many more years, I felt so fundamentally fucked up that I didn’t think I deserved normalcy even if I by some miracle I achieved it.
The result is that my life story is considered deeply “interesting,” a term I have come to loathe. But it is well deserved since I have been both ordained, and a guest at an orgy. I witnessed teenage girls being tortured in a group home. I have been a patient in a nursing home and hidden in a domestic violence shelter. I have also been a Senator’s aide and had Thanksgiving dinner with the CEO of one of the nation’s top ten corporations. If one of those interesting little tidbits comes out first, I fear that the Big Story will be just that much harder to believe, or that it will be the crazy straw that breaks the friendship’s back.
The sad truth is that in most cases, being a person with a Big Story means being a person without community. There is no place where it is safe to be “out” as a liberated sex slave, rescued kidnapping victim, unwilling star of a political sex-scandal, former cult member, or an exonerated former death row inmate.
Even when Oprah made Big Stories fashionable for a brief time, we were treated as the oddities, as one step removed from the tabloid tales of a woman who gives birth to an alien’s baby. Yes, it brought some awareness, but it also gave the impression that Big Stories are as incredibly rare as two-headed snakes, when we are probably as common as Type 1 Diabetes.
Progressive communities are making significant progress in creating safe spaces for people of different ethnicities, body types, sexual orientations and gender identities. But we haven’t been very successful doing the same for people with Big Stories. We still haven’t really learned how to respect and even learn from people with Big Stories without making them objects of pity or folk legends.
I will admit that even though I am a person with a Big Story, I don’t have a lot of answers. I don’t know how to make People with Big Stories feel welcome without making us feel on display or how to acknowledge the defining impact of such Big Stories without making it a person’s only identity. But what I want is for people in mainstream progressive communities to at least start listening to Big Stories. Perhaps in the listening we can learn how to be sensitive and welcoming to those who have them.