Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Beauty in the Beast

This broke my heart today.

It's an advice column, written by the anonymous Sugar, with letters coming in from all over the place. This letter is from a man who signed "Beast With a Limp":

Dear Sugar,

I’m an average 26-year-old man, exceptional only in that I’m writing to an Internet advice columnist and that I’m incredibly ugly. I don’t hate myself, and I don’t have body dysmorphia. I was born with a rare blood disorder that has had its way with my body from a young age. It has left me with physical deformities and joint abnormalities. One side of my body is puny and atrophied compared to the other.

I would not have been a beauty even without this illness, but it’s impossible to remedy the situation with normal exercise and physical therapy. I’m also overweight, which I admit I should be able to fix. I’m not an unhealthy eater, but like anyone, I could consume less. I’m not ugly in a mysterious or interesting way, like a number of popular actors. I look like what I am: a broken man.

My problem—and my problem with most advice-outlets—is that there’s not much of a resource for people like me. In movies, ugly characters are redeemed by being made beautiful in time to catch the eye of their love interest, or else their ugliness is a joke (Ugly Betty is NOT ugly). In practical life, we’re taught that personality matters more than physicality, but there are plenty of attractive (or at least normal-looking) people who are also decent human beings.

What is there for people like me who will never be remotely attractive and who are just average on the inside?

I’m a happy person and have a very fulfilling life and good friends. I have a flexible job that allows me enough free time to pursue my hobbies, with employers who understand when I have to miss work for health reasons. But when it comes to romance, I’m left out in the cold. I don’t want my entire life to pass without knowing that type of love.

Is it better to close off that part of myself and devote my time and energies to the aspects of my life that work, or should I try some novel approaches to matchmaking? My appearance makes online dating an absolute no-go. In person, people react well to my outgoing personality, but would not consider me a romantic option. I’m looking for new ideas, or if you think it’s a lost cause, permission to give up. Thanks for your help.

Beast With a Limp

Is that not the most painful and poignant letter? What a beautiful writer. I'm rather fascinated with advice columns, because it seems like such a naked thing to do. Asking a total stranger for help in a public forum! No matter how anonymous, it is still laying your soul bare before someone that does not know you at all.

Most advice columns have flippant, silly questions. How do I get him to like me? Why aren't I getting the promotion? What color is best for me? 

This is one of the rare, the few, the exquisite letters that grabbed my attention and forced me to think using my whole brain, rather than just the half that I regularly use for reading fluff. I pondered. What would this person look like, scrunched over their keyboard, picking out words to convey his emotions accurately to a stranger?

Then I read the reply, from Sugar:
Dear Beast With a Limp,

Once upon a time I had a friend who was severely burned over most of his body. Six weeks after his 25th birthday, he didn’t realize that there was a gas leak in the stove in his apartment, so he lit a match and his entire kitchen blew up. He barely survived. When he got out of the hospital four months later, his nose and fingers and ears were burnt nubs and his skin was more hide than flesh, like that of a pink lizard with mean streaks of white glazed over the top. I’ll call him Ian.

“I’m a fire-breathing monster!” he roared to my kids the Thanksgiving before last, crouched beneath them near the edge of the bed. They shrieked with joy and fake fear, screaming, “Monster! Monster!” Ian looked at me and then he looked at the man who has taken up permanent residence in the Sugar Shack and together we laughed and laughed.

You know why? Because he was a fire-breathing monster.

My kids had never known him any other way and neither had their dad and I. I think it’s true that Ian didn’t know who he was before he was burned, either. He was a man made by the fire.

A rich man, thanks to the accident, having received a settlement from the gas company. He’d grown up lower middle class, but by the time I met him — when I was 27 and he was 31 — he reveled in being a bit of a snob. He bought exquisite food and outrageously overpriced booze. He collected art and hung it in a series of hip and tony lofts. He wore impeccable clothes and drove around in fancy cars. He loved having money. He often said that being burned was the best thing that had ever happened to him. That if he could travel back in time he would not unlight that match. To unlight the match would be to lose the money that had brought him so much happiness. He had an incredible life, he said, and he was grateful for it.

But there was one thing. One tiny thing. He was sorry he couldn’t have love. Romantic love. Sexual love. Love love. Love.

“But you can!” I insisted, though it’s true that when I first met him I was skittish about holding his gaze because he was, in fact, a ghastly sight, his body a rough yet tender landscape of the excruciatingly painful and the distorted familiar. I met him when I was a waitress at a swank French bar where he was a regular. He sat near the place where I had to go to order and collect my drinks at the bar and as I worked I took him in bit by bit, looking at him only peripherally. We chatted about books and art and shoes as he drank twenty-dollar shots of tequila and ate plates of meticulously-constructed pâté and I zipped from the bar to the table and back to the bar, delivering things.

After a while, he became more than a customer I had to be nice to. He became my friend. By then, I’d forgotten that he looked like a monster. It was the strangest thing, but it was true, how profoundly my vision of Ian changed once I knew him. How his burnt face became instead his bright blue eyes, his scarred and stumpy hands, the sound of his voice.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t see his monstrosity anymore. It was still there in all its grotesque glory. But alongside it there was something else, something more ferocious: his beauty.

I wasn’t the only one who saw it. There were so many people who loved Ian. And we all insisted over and over again that our love was proof that someday someone would love him. Not in the way we loved him — not just as a friend—but in that way.

Ian would not hear a word of it. To so much as contemplate the possibility of a boyfriend was unbearable to him. He’d made the decision to close himself off to romantic love way back when he was still in the hospital. No one would love a man as ugly as him, he thought. When I argued with him, he said that I had no idea about the importance of looks in gay culture. When I told him I thought there were surely a few men on the planet willing to love a burned man, he said he would make do with the occasional services of a prostitute. When I said I thought that his refusal to open himself up to romantic love was based on fear and conquering that fear was the last thing he had to heal from the trauma of his accident, he said the discussion was over.

And so it was.

One night after I got off work, Ian and I went to another bar to have a drink. When we sat down he told me it was the anniversary of his accident and I asked him if he would tell me the entire story of that morning and he did. He said he’d just woken up and that he was gazing absently at a sleeve of saltine crackers on the counter the moment his kitchen flashed into blue flame. He was amazed to see the crackers and the sleeve disintegrate and disappear in an instant. It seemed to him a beautiful, almost magical occurrence, and then, in the next moment, he realized that he was engulfed in the blue flame and disintegrating too. He told me about falling down onto the floor and moaning and how his roommate had awakened but been too afraid to come to him, so instead he yelled words of comfort to Ian from another room. It was the people who’d been on the sidewalk down below and seen the windows blow out of his apartment who’d been the first to call 911. He told me about how the paramedics talked to him kindly as they carried him down the stairs on a stretcher and how one of them told him that he might die and how he cried out at the thought of that and how the way he sounded to himself in that cry was the last thing he remembered before he lost consciousness for weeks.

He would never have a lover.

He would be happy. He would be sad. He would be petty and kind. He would be manipulative and generous. He would be cutting and sweet. He would move from one cool loft to another and change all the color schemes. He would drink and stop drinking and start drinking again. He would get a strange kind of slow-growing cancer and a particular breed of dog. He would make a load of money in real estate and lose another load of it on a business endeavor. He would reconcile with people he loved and estrange himself from others. He would not return my phone calls and he would read my book and send me the nicest note. He would give my son a snappy pair of ridiculously expensive baby trousers and sigh and say he loathed children when I told him I was pregnant with my daughter. He would roar at Thanksgiving. He would crouch beneath the bed and say that he was a fire-breathing monster and he would laugh with all the grown ups who got the joke.

And not even a month later — a week before Christmas, when he was 44 — he would kill himself. He wouldn’t even leave a note.

I’ve thought many times about why Ian committed suicide and I thought about it again when I read your letter, Beast. It would be so easy to trace Ian’s death back to that match, the one he said he would not unlight if he could. The one that made him appear to be a monster and therefore unfit for romantic love, while also making him rich and therefore happy. That match is so temptingly symbolic, like something hard and golden in a fairy tale that exacts a price equal to its power.

But I don’t think his death can be traced back to that. I think it goes back to his decision to close himself off to romantic love, to refuse to allow himself even the possibility of something so very essential because of something so superficial as the way he looked. And your question to me — the very core of it — is circling around the same thing. It’s not will I ever find someone who will love me romantically? — (though in fact that question is there and it’s one I will get to) — but rather am I capable of letting someone do so?

This, sweet pea, is where we must dig.

You will never have my permission to close yourself off to love and give up. Never. You must do everything you can to get what you want and need, to find “that type of love.” It’s there for you. I know it’s arrogant of me to say so, because what the hell do I know about looking like a monster or a beast? Not a thing. But I do know that we are here, all of us — beasts and monsters and beauties and wallflowers alike — to do the best we can. And every last one of us can do better than give up.

Especially you. Anyone who has lived in the world for 26 years looking like what he is — “a broken man” — is not “just average on the inside.” Because of that, the journey you take to find love isn’t going to be average either. You’re going to have to be brave. You’re going to have to walk into the darkest woods without a stick. You aren’t conventionally attractive or even, as you say, “normal-looking,” and as you know already, a lot of people will immediately X you out as a romantic partner for this reason. That’s okay. You don’t need those people. By stepping aside, they’ve done you a favor. Because what you’ve got left after the fools have departed are the old souls and the true hearts. Those are the uber-cool sparkle rocket mind blowers we’re after. Those are the people worthy of your love.

And you, my dear, are worthy of them. By way of offering up evidence of your didn’t-even-get-started defeat, you mentioned movies in which “the ugly characters are redeemed by being made beautiful in time to catch the eye of their love interest,” but that’s not a story I buy, hon. We are way more ancient than that. We have better, truer stories. You know that fairy tale called Beauty and the Beast? Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont abridged Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original La Belle et la Bête in 1756 and it is her version that most of us know today. There are many details that I’ll omit here, but the story goes roughly like this:

A beautiful young woman named Belle lives with a beast in a castle. Belle is touched by the beast’s grace and generosity and compelled by his sensitive intelligence, but each night when the beast asks Belle to marry him, she declines because she’s repulsed by his appearance. One day she leaves the beast to visit her family. She and the beast agree that she’ll return in a week, but when she doesn’t the beast is bereft. In sorrow, he goes into the rose garden and collapses. That is how Belle finds him when she returns, half-dead from heartbreak. Seeing him in this state, she realizes that she truly loves him. Not just as a friend, but in that way, and so she professes her love and weeps. When her tears fall onto the beast, he is transformed into a handsome prince.

What I want you to note is that Belle loved the beast when he was still a beast — not a handsome prince. It is only once she loved him that he was transformed. You will be likewise transformed, the same as love transforms us all. But you have to be fearless enough to let it transform you.

I’m not convinced you are just yet. You say that people like you, but don’t consider you a “romantic option.” How do you know that? Have you made overtures and been rebuffed or are you projecting your own fears and insecurities onto others? Are you closing yourself off from the possibility of romance before anyone has the chance to feel romantically toward you? Who are you interested in? Have you ever asked anyone out on a date or to kiss you or to put his or her hands down your pants?

I can tell by your (articulate, honest, sad, strong) letter that you are one cool cat. I’m pretty certain based on your letter alone that a number of people would consider putting their hands down your pants. Would you let one of them? If the answer is yes, how would you respond once he or she got there? I don’t mean to be a dirty smart ass (though I am, in fact, a dirty smart ass). I mean to inquire — without diminishing the absolute reality that many people will disregard you as a romantic possibility based soley on your appearance — about whether you’ve asked yourself if the biggest barrier between you and the romantic hot monkey love that’s possible between you and the people who will — yes! without question! — be interested in you is not your ugly exterior, but your beautifully vulnerable interior. What do you need to do to convince yourself that someone might see you as a lover instead of a friend? How might you shut down your impulse to shut down?

These questions are key to your ability to find love, sweet pea. You asked me for practical matchmaking solutions, but I believe once you allow yourself to be psychologically ready to give and receive love, your best course is to do what everyone who is looking for love does: put your best self out there with as much transparence and sincerity and humor as possible. Both online and in person. With strangers and among your circle of friends. Inhabit the beauty that lives in your beastly body and strive to see the beauty in all the other beasts. Walk without a stick into the darkest woods. Believe that the fairy tale is true.

And my heart broke all over again, this time for Ian.

I admit (grudgingly) that I was (and still am) a very sensitive person. As a child, I could burst into tears at the slightest provocation. (I've gotten better with that, I promise.) I took offense to every single comment, no matter how flip. I agonized constantly. My insides were always twisting and knotting, then unfurling and relaxing, only to seize up again the second someone looked at me.

My sister asked me earlier this year "imagine what it was like to live with you back then!" while we were having a conversation about a very sensitive person that I had lost my patience with. My immediate reaction was hurt, then anger, but then (through forceful concentration and willpower), I realized that she was right. I was able to live as the painfully shy introvert because my sister was a bit of a tomboy, brash and fearless. I had more than enough fear for both of us, so we balanced each other out. I would not have been able to survive with a sister that was just like me- all we would done all day was cry, read, draw, giggle, and then cry some more.

I remember being ten or eleven and wondering why I wasn't "normal," why I wasn't brave, why I couldn't speak to people, why I just stared at everyone running around while I stayed frozen. Even at that age, the idea of oblivion seemed perfect. I didn't know what drunkenness was, and I certainly had never heard of drugs, but I had heard of suicide. I knew it was a sin, and I knew that I shouldn't think about it, but it fascinated me, this idea of ending myself.

I carried around this vague, childish idea of suicide for a long time, all through my school years. I don't think I would have ever committed suicide; a naive little girl might think dark thoughts, but however would I have carried out such a deed? Bleeding is so messy, and my mother would have had to clean the carpet for ages. Taking pills might be an agonizingly slow and painful death. Drowning is pretty much impossible for someone to inflict upon themselves. Being dark is all well and good, but being practical saved me from any attempts at suicide.

I was such a depressed and depressing kid, when I think back on it.

Once I started working, living on my own, and taking care of myself, I realized how childish I had been. I realized how much denial I had cloaked myself with. I forced myself out of my bad habits, mostly. One big thing I learned was to ask myself what I was feeling whenever I got that hot, burning sensation in my chest. Was I angry? Sad? Upset? Depressed? Confused? Reversing denial is tedious and frustrating, but it's something I've been working on for years, and it gets easier every year. I talk to myself, like a total loon, when I can't figure it out, and that helps at times.

I express my anger more now; I'm much less passive-aggressive, though I still have quite a big streak of it. I get along with my sister better than when we were in high school and college, because I'm not afraid to tell her what I think. I used to think that if I told her off, she would hate me, and that fear made me incapable of just telling her what I really thought. So rather than being openly hostile (which she had no problem doing, even as a very small child), I was passive-aggressive and snarky. That was so detrimental to our relationship, because someone sensitive refuses to understand someone bold, and vice versa. We're in a good place now, open and argumentative and loving and sisterly. Very different from our high school and college years.

This whole advice column took me back to my childhood in an almost disorientingly fast whoosh. I remember that feeling, I remembered the wallpaper in the bathroom that I used to sit and cry in. I remember the taste of those hysterical tears. I remember everything, because remembering is what makes me less likely to slide back into that sort of tailspin.

But I also remember how alone I felt, like no one could possibly be going through what I was going through. That I was the only person to ever feel that way. It's all hogwash, of course, but it's so real at the time. Now, when I slide into a bleak place, I know that I'm just feeling sorry for myself, and I can usually snap myself out of it after a couple days of wallowing. I am so glad for that awareness, because it makes things easier.

I remember what it was like when I thought I was Beast. I remember what it was like when I thought I was Ian. My heart breaks for them both because I had the appropriate people around me to help me, even when they were exasperated (my ever-loving sister) or totally thrown off by my crazy mood swings (my poor father) or even sympathetic but without the words to comfort me (my dear mother). I always had these people, and I went through this time in my life while relatively young, when I lived with these people. I went through my nervous breakdown over the course of my pre-teen and teenage years, under the watchful eyes of people that would never let any harm come to me. I am eternally grateful and incredibly lucky.

I know that Beast will find love. He is a gifted writer and obviously sees the world with very clear eyes. Those characteristics go so far in life, I think. I cannot wait for him to experience the full range of emotions he has missed out on.

I am so sorry for Ian. He was stoic and moody, like a lot of depressed people, and ultimately couldn't live inside his own head anymore. That is a very sad thing, the only redeeming quality being that life is so much better after the lows.

One of my best friends was telling me how she was in a dark spot once. She has had many dark spots, and will continue to have many dark spots. I told her that life is like playing connect-the-dots. If you don't have the dark spots, there's nothing to connect.

Some people really need those dark spots to keep them on track. I think I went through so many dark spots as a kid that I've been lucky as an adult, and know where my path leads. I stay the course pretty well nowadays, without too many of those dark spots to guide me.

All I would wish for anyone is that they find their paths and are able to walk them without too many of those dark spots interfering. I hope Beast gets there.