The Goldfish Reminders series examines the impact of (repressed) childhood sexual abuse on my mental health and life. I recount these experiences from a place of gratitude for therapy. I am not claiming victimhood. I am reclaiming my narrative.
Today I want to talk about journalism.
Because I want to talk about sex, but I’m not ready yet.
The following dots did not connect by themselves or overnight:
- How I became a published writer at the age of twelve
- How questionable parental guidance shaped my work/worth
- How ghostwriting went from healing to hurting me
Before the Ghost
Going to the Goldfish kindergarten, I was sure of three things, in order of conviction:
1) I like the attention I get when I talk to adults. Talking is fun. Words are friends.
2) Sofia Rotaru is the most amazing singer in the world. She has nothing to do with this story, but it was a fervent fundamental belief.
3) I want to talk to people all over the world. I used to talk to everyone everywhere.
Then two things occurred, equal in their profound impact:
A) Childhood sexual abuse and its subsequent repression severed my connection to an authentic self at the age of five. Disassociation became my superpower. Turns out, there is no “i” in self.
B) I grew up in an emotionally volatile household. Tell your father this. Let your mother know that. Children’s psychological needs were collateral damage in parental proxy wars. Fawning became my coping strategy.
A + B = C. I stopped talking to adults.
I missed words, though.
Then I discovered libraries, books, newspapers, and magazines.
Writers could speak without talking. Writers could be and not be at the same time.
Oops, I Did It… For the First Time
I begged for a typewriter for my birthday for several years. The old rusty model with jammed keys was perfect. Every night, I sat it on my bedside table. I loved that it was the first thing I saw in the morning. My fingertips hurt for weeks until I got a hang of it. I practiced by retyping newspaper articles, Mayakovski poems, and Hemingway stories. When I retyped the A volume of the Soviet Encyclopedia, I felt ready.
At 12, one day after school, I walked by myself to the office of the local newspaper and asked to talk to the editor. It was a big crowded busy room awash in multiple conversations. There were holes in the cheap linoleum and you could see old wooden floors underneath. I can still hear how the space creaked and squeaked as people walked around. There were typewriters. This will work.
I was pinballed to a door, knock-knock, someone shoved me in. A woman sat at a desk. Good afternoon. The editor’s office had no plants and I was taken aback. My father was a head of a clinic. With plants in his office. I’ve been to the offices of other “directors” and they all had plants. I liked plants, because I could always ask about them. It was my conversation starter. I was planning to ask the editor about the plants. Creak. Maybe this won’t work. Squeak. She wore a big shiny necklace over a turtleneck.
Who taught you to wear a necklace that way? She laughed. [A fashion reporter was born]. I said I wanted to write for the newspaper. Did she want to see me type fast? I wasn’t sure – if she wasn’t sure – if she wasn’t being pranked. What could I write about? Anything, but my family had tickets to a concert… My very first pitch got greenlit.
I took notes at the show. I typed up a storm.
There were my words in the newspaper!
There was my name in the newspaper!
I was paid my first honorarium!
It felt great. I felt great.
I did not tell my parents about it.
A part of me already knew family was not a safe space.
Over the next few months, I clipped a few more published stories before sharing the big news with my parents. Look, I was a reporter. See, I made a few rubles. Their reaction was… concern. If this would negatively affect my studies (how?!) how the readers would feel if they found out they were reading opinions of a twelve-year-old because the newspaper did not print an age disclaimer (huh?!) if this could affect our family reputation (wtf?!) I thought I had accomplished something, but it seemed I was somehow in trouble.
After deliberation, I was informed I could continue with this hobby, but I should not take money for my writing. It was a privilege to write for the newspaper. The newspaper was doing me a favor by letting me write for it. The best reward for a job well done is an opportunity to do more. You should not profit from a gift. Whatever that meant. Oh, and maybe I should consider using a penname. A pseudonym. Not be me.
In therapy, I defined my parents’ parenting style as “reassuring discouragement”. Once, I was in the running for an editorship of a Russian fashion magazine. When I misguidedly shared this professional development with my mother, she was incredulous. “There are so many stylish women in Russia, why would they consider a man of your simple tastes?!” I gave up trying to figure out why our parents could not support their children’s attempts at success. First, we learned not to share anything important for us. Second, we learned to doubt if anything was important at all. Lastly, we began to doubt if we ourselves could ever be important to anyone.
I wish I could tell you otherwise, but-
I took the pseudonyms. I did not take the money.
This defined my relationship to writing for the next thirty years.
The Arrival of the Ghost
I’ll fast forward through other heartbreak and opportunities I had (in)voluntarily given up because my repressed trauma made it nearly impossible for me to function in public. A part of me still pursued the “talking to the world” mission. A part of me could not stand it. Compliments gave me severe anxiety. Flirting gave me panic attacks. In the creative industries built on attention seeking and sex appeal, my mental health was coming undone. My wounded psyche was desperate for safety. I’ve been a practicing Alcoholic since the dawn of adulthood straddling the abyss between what I thought and what I felt. I craved invisibility. Ghostwriting was godsent.
I remember my first ghost story. It felt liberating to just work with words and not have to embody them. It felt exciting to learn a new tone, to shapeshift into a new point of view. I loved the intellectual challenge. I was offered twenty dollars, just to see how it goes. If it works, if all goes well, this could be a regular gig. It went really well. Over the next couple years this person built a persona that landed them an executive position at a media brand. I ghost-wrote everything on their way there. For twenty dollars. They liked to joke it was my “martini money”. This clearly wasn’t work-work. A little hobby, a little help. A twenty here, a twenty there. Casual stuff. When I finally asked to review our agreement since they were in a position to offer me work-work, they told me my services were no longer needed since they had an entire fulltime writing staff now.
This pattern would be repeated ad nauseam with multiple people for over a decade. Always framed first as a favor, a call to rescue, an only-you-can proposition. Always underpaid if paid at all. My traumatized brain normalized this. These people were ambitious, driven, charismatic, leaders, visionaries, etc. I was a lucky nobody. It was a privilege to use my gift to help people get what they want. I could not connect to an internal source of power that allows people to want things. My wishing well was welded shut by trauma. I sent flowers to congratulate someone on an accolade they received for the writing I did for them. If you’re ever in town, the lunch is on me! I’ve been in town several times. There was never a lunch.
Over time, I internalized the idea that while my words were valuable, I myself was worthless. If only I could produce content on demand without the inconvenience of having needs or desires of my own. This sentiment reigned across the spectrum of my lived experiences with family, friends, and romantic/erotic partners. I do whatever you want therefore I am.
Call me by your name?! Oh please.
There was not even a pseudonym.
Just a pseudo me.
On cruise control.
The Ghost Becomes a Bully
A fashion week in a fashion capital. I am “representing” an influencer who could not be there in person, but got paid for “content”. I am there to generate said content. I am not being paid. Organizers cover my travel. This would lead to paid opportunities. I know the drill. A rowdy press dinner. A round of jokes about possible reasons for the absence of the influencer. Alexey is what you get when you can’t afford the real deal. LOL. Cheers! I am overwhelmed with anger but I can’t direct it anywhere. I can’t locate the “i” that’s being wronged. I have no ground from which to mount a defense. I laugh and drink until I blackout. I represent the influencer at a number of other events. It never leads to a paid opportunity. I never even get to meet the influencer, not even online. When I finally quit, I’m told I’m ungrateful. I’ve heard that one before.
But you have a professional network, said my therapist.
My therapist is a hopeless optimist.
But you’re right!
I do have trouble seeing the obvious sometimes.
Maybe there was a way to salvage this decade of writing, yet.
I used to contribute as myself (!) to a fashion blog that got kinda big in the 2010’s. I decided to recover at least those stories. Meanwhile, the editor “moved on” and deleted the blog without an archive or a notice to any of the contributors. Alexey, no one cares about articles from yesterday, let alone years ago! They were right.
I DID NOT EXIST
I asked an editor who had commissioned me various ghostwritten stories over the years if I could start writing as myself as well. They said NO. Being a reputable industry publication, all the authors had to be experts and I did not have a portfolio to qualify for a byline. My writing boosted the expert portfolios and the reputation of the publication on multiple occasions. It did nothing for me. I had no counterpoint.
I DO NOT EXIST
I asked another editor for references. I’ve done ghost-work for them personally. I was told they couldn’t take the risk, because I was an untested writer. I can’t recommend people off the street. Literally, “off the street” was their choice of words. – But I wrote your column! …is what I should have said. Off the street I was, onto the street I went.
I SHOULD NOT EXIST
Gradually, I stopped taking ghostwriting assignments.
Eventually, I got ghosted by the “professional network”.
I had been a willing participant. I agreed to this. Every time. It was all my fault.
This process devolved into a festering mental health crisis.
Compounded by the resurfaced trauma of childhood sexual abuse.
My brain and spirit broke.
Luckily, I knew to seek help.
To have-been or not to have-been. I blew that one.
To be or not to be. That’s where we are at.
Ghost, Be Gone!
Goldfish reminder: I am a writer. I am. A writer. Hello.
Astrologer Rob Brezsny reminds me that “Gemini writer Nikki Giovanni reminds us, “It cannot be a mistake to have cared. It cannot be an error to have tried. It cannot be incorrect to have loved.”
It was alright to ghostwrite when I could not be fully myself.
It was not ok to endure abuse.
It is right to let the ghosts go now that I am becoming myself fully.
It is ok to set the terms.
In words of Sofia Rotaru… Hmm, ok maybe she does have something to do with this story after all. In words of the most amazing singer in the world (according to me at five years old) “whatever used to be, used to be, used to be, is now gone, gone, gone.” I remember seeing her 1987 performance on our one-channel television set. For weeks afterwards, I would wrap myself in a tulle curtain in our living room and lip-synch that chorus with its signature catchy oooh-oooh-oooh. Ah, the myth of goldfish memory. Maybe it’s time I got some tulle again.
Words are still friends. I still want to talk to people all over the world. Just maybe different people.
Adios, ghosts! Hello, Alexey!
If you would like to support my personal recovery and professional pivoting:
P.S. PostParis.com has a body of work. I do have other credits. I’m not starting from scratch. I’m excited to see where my writing can take ME over the next decade 🙂