Life Story Interview
Age that’s an easy one. Yeah, I’m a 43 year old. I’m a social worker, clinician to kids and their families. I uh, get them to try and be successful and help the kids. Who am I? I have a 21 year old relationship, and I probably should say with a woman. I’m now at 43 so the early 40 questions of how did I get here, how did I get to be somewhat middle class, because I mean our family was right there, not quite middle class, I mean it’s interesting. I’ve been a licensed clinician since, well, graduated with a Masters in 91 in Michigan and then licensed….. so then traveled a little bit before I ended up in good old Maine. I went to a small college called Grand Valley University, and um, I was credentialed a year before I started graduate school. When I graduated with my bachelors in 84 I knew I’d go on to get my masters in social work, although I had my background in Therapeutic Rec., so I knew, Sarah describes it (my partner) as I just came home one day and said I’ve applied for graduate school. I think there was a little more talking than that, but that’s how she remembers it so, I did a long 4 year track. Part time and worked. At the time the school I worked at in Michigan required everyone to go back and get there Masters, even case managers who had several years experience. So I went to school with people who had 20, 15, 10 years of practice in social work, but being in school part time you don’t get to spend as much time with your fellow student, but we learned a lot in class.
I grew up in a small community in Pennsylvania. Near Lancaster, Harrisburg, that is where I was born. A farming community, now it’s a bedroom community, but when I grew up it was a farming community, where my school was a regional high school. They’d have a farmers market set up, so it was interesting growing up in a pretty you know… you were either catholic, mostly catholic or a few Protestants. All white people, so it was interesting, it was. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents lived in the same town as I did. So growing up it was mostly my grandmother Doll, Everyone called her Doll. Cute story about that, the story goes when I was a little child my grandmother used to go in where my crib was and say “Oh hi Doll, you’re such a Doll” and I thought that was her name, so the name stuck for generations and generations, or decades I should say. Friends, everyone knew my Grandma as Doll, nobody really knew her real name.
So I grew up in an interesting family. German background, with a mix of everything else. But we were Catholic and the first family in my small community to get divorced. So it was very interesting from that element. Both my parents had affairs on each other and my Grandmother liked to get her hair done and heard all kinds of rumors at the salon about my mother so it’s very interesting family stuff. My Dad was an Alcoholic. It runs rampant in my family. My Dad growing up, he was working or drunk so I really didn’t know him much. So when I was 12 he came home, my Mother decided she wasn’t going to cook for him, well she had cooked for him but had thrown the food out and I had a friend over and he went through the garbage. So that piece, the alcoholic piece, and my mother after they divorced raised four of us singly, and I was the oldest and alcohol was just part of her life. But I grew up in, my first four years of school, my kindergarten was a basic school and the next four years I went to a catholic school. I got shamed in catholic school because I wore a dress above my knee, I was sent home, you know in front of the class, “Jody your dress is too short”. So it was pretty uneventful just full of chaos I think, just around you know my family being alcoholic, my parents running around on each other behind the scenes. This was like the mid seventies, divorce wasn’t talked about and we were the first, and catholic. My dad was not raised catholic but my mother’s whole side was, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but I’ll pre-empt that by saying I was the first person in the immediate or extended family to leave the Catholic Church which was a huge deal. So there are a lot of firsts here. But I think while all the chaos was going on with my parents, my maternal grandmother, uh, my grandmother’s brother who we later found out was actually her sister’s son, but they grew up as brother and sister and once he died the skeletons started to come out. Spent a lot of time with my Aunt and Uncle, they had a child the same age as me, so we went to school together, there are two others that are older than Tim, but, so we did a lot with them. They had us over a lot. Things were crazy but I think one thing my parents did an O.K. job at was not letting us know all the crazy things that were going on until we were older. I remember at like 10 I realized the man I was visiting on this farm wasn’t just a friend of my mothers. So then about 12, and I would say, I always describe myself… in the book “Women Who Run With the Wolves” I don’t know if you’ve ever read it but she (the author) talks about growing up in the wrong home. I truly believe…I look at my family and go “how did I get here, I have very different values than they do, very different way I look at life very differently, and that was always the way it was. Always.
It’s interesting that I said things were uneventful, but I forget I should say I grew up with a suicidal mother, probably at that point was a manic depressant, bi polar today, not on meds until later in life. I was the oldest and as far as suicide, she would take her pills in her room and lock her door and say don’t come in here any more. There were lots of nights like that. It’s interesting how you remember these things when you really think back but when you think globally you forget them. When I was probably third grade, well maybe a little older, not much, my parents fought like cats and dogs, they never hit each other but my mom would…It’s funny going back now and talking to Dale and the sibling stuff cause most of them just think I’m crazy because they don’t remember, it was crazy this last Christmas my Mother goes “you don’t remember me throwing dishes?” O.K. so now it’s interesting, her being sixty five and her thinking about her life. No they don’t, because a lot of that I shielded them (brothers and sisters) from. I was the oldest and I was like in their lives, and in many ways I feel like I was parenting them, definitely my youngest brother who was nine years younger than me, um, but he was nine and I left at eighteen, and the other two who are just eighteen months apart, we were all eighteen months apart so every eighteen months over three years. We were all protected, well I wouldn’t say protected, but we were trying to get left together. But I was certainly the discipliner. (Laughter) “The wrath of the older sister.” You know so my backyard when I was a kid, we played baseball or whatever and we’d hear yelling or whatever and we’d all scatter.
So, I knew I was different, uh, I very much grew up as a tom boy. I knew that I wanted, I wanted to be a boy, like early on. Not, and it wasn’t really about being trans-gender, it was about being a boy because early on I realized that boys got things that I didn’t get. Boys got respect, boys got listened to, so I wanted to be a boy just because of that. So, I probably dressed in some ways like one, you know with the baseball cap, and jeans and a sweatshirt, and I never thought of myself as a boy but knew if I acted like one I got things. When I was maybe 11, this kid, well I had flipped a baseball card, we were trading them one day and we were on the stoop of this house and somehow is Mom came out and said something like “you know Stewart don’t take her for a ride” and he goes “her?” He always thought I was a boy. He thought like his friend who liked to play tackle football and I wore my hair short or whatever but you know I didn’t see it then. I think in sixth grade is when I began seeing the difference between the genders. It was like O.K. I’m a girl but I really don’t fit in with girls and I really don’t fit in with boys so you know that was interesting. But at the same time at twelve I knew, well I wouldn’t consider myself married but I knew I wouldn’t be married to a man and pregnant. So at 12 I knew that. Growing up in my small town, the only…there weren’t any, I didn’t know any lesbians. But I knew, I’d hang out with boys but they just didn’t do it and so…I think because of my home life was so crazy pretty much during high school, well junior high and high school I just sank my life into sports. I just lived for sports and you know they pretty much saved my life back then because I didn’t have to deal with the whole spectrum of family issues. You know, it was just space. I could be away from home, but come home late at night take care of what I needed to and it was just a good escape. Plus I was in the girl scouts, I volunteered. I volunteered a lot throughout high school, which is interesting because I don’t know any of my relatives who volunteered, at least I couldn’t say, but I was sixteen and trying to get people to register to vote (laughter) so there was some political piece there. My Girl Scout troop got me in touch with the outdoors. I love the outdoors. So I’d find solace in camping trips and things, because my mother being suicidal, she was also very critical, whatever you did wasn’t good enough so if I could get out, like with the girl scouts we’d go camping or in high school the sports. I happened to be a pretty good field hockey player, I played basketball and ran track but field hockey was my sport. So in that, I think there were coaches that I really liked. You know from the time I was 12 I was very independent. Sorry if I’m jumping all over the place here, but I always earned money for myself. My parents got divorced when I was 13, you know separated. So I was the first to work and so at 12 I bought my own clothes and was expected, did give money to the family, there was four of us and my Mom was trying to make it on a secretaries salary which wasn’t much. You know she accepted that things didn’t look good on the outside and you know my parents bought a house, or built a house to try to save their marriage in this exclusive place, and my Mom was just a secretary and my Dad did various jobs, he pumped gas, he was a salesman, he never made a lot of money. So it was in this exclusive development and it looked great on the outside but there was no furniture on the inside. It would have been a great place to have a wedding reception. (Laughter) It was so wide open. I think because I, I mean I really saw myself as different, I mean when your in high school and going through that period, I wasn’t dating, I didn’t experiment, I wanted to but didn’t. I really didn’t have friends. I wanted to talk with them and I mean I was very friendly. I think I probably had tons of acquaintances but not many friends, I was pretty closed off. Cause also I didn’t really want to invite people over to our place, because you know I had one friend come and I knocked over the milk and I got called a dumb shit. So I really didn’t want people over.
You know I knew I was different, I wasn’t really feminine, I mean I was a girl and I was fine with being a girl. There were a few of us jocks that you know we kept our hair short and back then it wasn’t like today where I see a lot of girls who don’t wear short hair playing sports. I mean everybody, there were 24 people on the team I can’t believe all of them wore their hair like that, you know unfeminine. I don’t think the homophobia, it’s weird because no one was ever really out there. I think because it wasn’t dealt with, you know the murmurs. So you didn’t have to worry about the team. There was none of that “who is, who isn’t” stuff. We were all out just to play a sport. Nobody really in my high school, well, there was certainly people who graduated together and you know in my time you got married and had children right after high school, in fact my cousin married like that.
So, then, my Grandmother gave me a lot of opportunities. I signed up to go to this camp for girls who were all across the country. We would do backpacking trips and horseback riding and whatever. I think I was sixteen, maybe I was seventeen…that’s where my sappy love story starts. Though we didn’t know about our sexuality there. I guess I just knew that I was different. I did go out with boys and I even had my little boyfriend then, but I knew I was different. So I went away on these adventures and my grandmother made sure I had money for that. She was someone who believed in me when my mother didn’t. So I would say that she was someone who was very powerful to me. My mother also as I grew older there were a few things interesting that I believe she did subconsciously, like she had me meet these older women. I think she knew that she couldn’t provide for me emotionally. She wanted me to be independent, she wanted me to have my own mind and speak my own truth. You know my grandmother and my father used to say I was the truth teller. But my mother interestingly enough would hook me up with these women, older women who would just take me under their arms. One was a doctor, I spent lots of time at her old farm house. I would do odd jobs for her. I also spent time with these two sisters, Christian right sisters actually (laughs) Yeah, I went to church with them a few times. It was interesting that she did that for me, it was like there was always somebody there that I could pull from. I think I always knew this. I mean it’s fairly sad that I never really wanted to be my family whatever that means. Not wanting to be angry, and not wanting to be an alcoholic, and not wanting to be, I don’t know, not from that world. So you know, I went off. I was eighteen. I remember it was in January and on one of my last trips home and my Grandmother said to me, and it got real quiet and she said “you left the house when you were 18 and you never came back” I remember there was dead silence and also at 18 my Mother and my three siblings sat me down, and this was one of my last trips back home before college. I mean I’d been home I just never stayed. But they said, “You don’t want to be a part of this family, you don’t love us.” I mean they sat me down and did this like it was an intervention. I was like “whoa” and then for me it was like I was free of that responsibility that I had given myself.
So I went to a college, Slippery Rock College and I was a jock. I went to school to play field hockey and get an education second. Most people thought I was a P.E. person because I was always hanging out in the gym. That was a good experience, I still wasn’t dealing with, well I should say that when I was 16 I was a lifeguard and this guy, and I think I was meant to be a social worker, because this older guy would tell me his problems. He befriended me and was always telling me about his girlfriend and yada yada yada. So I listened to him and then he broke up with her and wanted to go out with me. So I said as friends and he gave me a diamond necklace and I went out with him for like a year, you know like friends. Then around a year I broke up with him. Interestingly I went back to my Mothers house and I said “Oh, you’ll never guess what I just did Mom.” I told her and she was so upset because she thought that I had had sex. So I think my Mother knew or had always known that I was a lesbian. You know I think she’s always known that. Around this time, I think I was a junior no maybe a senior, my Mom got married to this guy named Charlie who worked on the Alaskan pipeline. He was going to move to Canada and we were all going to move out there. It was my senior year and I wanted to play field hockey so I was just going to stay with a family I had know through school. A week after they got married, they had gone away to get married, he went away and called and said don’t come. Meanwhile my Mom is with us getting everything ready and selling the house, I mean I remember being ready and in a car waiting to drive up. That house was a decent house so it sold right away. So my Mom was crushed, and more suicidal stuff came with that. So then we ended up with my Grandmother you know sleeping on a floor and a couch.
So when I was in college I was never really home much. Even when I was a kid I had all these extra cool things that I did and kept myself busy but I’d always come home and make sure everything was O.K. You know I felt a responsibility. But when I was in college it was a relief not to have that responsibility though I still had conversations with my family. So I played lots of field hockey, I started my freshman year on the varsity team. You know we did some great playing, it was really good. In college I knew a lot more gay people, and like I said I was born to be a social worker, so people would always want to discuss things with me about girlfriends or whatever and I kept thinking I’m straight am I straight? So I dated these guys at the time and I mean it was a big nothing I mean nothing sexual…yeck. Anyway, I won’t get into that, I mean, I have a revulsion to straight sex like people have to gay sex (laughter). I mean oh my god. So then, Sarah and I throughout, well we were 15 and I graduated at 18. So then we went to college and we tried to get together a few times and it didn’t work and then the summer between our junior and senior year I would go to internship in New Jersey. They had a program there and I was there all four years. We became really emotionally attached then but I was still straight then. Actually my Mother told me I was gay so I wasn’t going to be anything my Mother told me I was. So I was like what is this? I mean I had dated a little and maybe kissed a guy but again I just sunk myself into sports and avoided it. So Sarah came to a camp I was at my junior and senior year. Sarah’s sister at the time was like ten minutes away. So we decided to get together and I hadn’t seen her since we were 15. That’s five years. We had kept in contact writing, I don’t even think we talked on the phone once. It was all writing. So, I don’t know if you’ve ever been to camp but that’s where everybody’s always buddy’s and getting to know people cause it’s kind of an intimate setting. I’m thinking I don’t even know this person, I haven’t even seen her in like five or six years. So then she came and I was wicked tired and she gave me a back rub, and all summer long I had been trying to get people to sleep out under the stars with me. So Sarah says I’ll do it. So we found this place and slept out and that was the first night. Then we did it again and that night it was kind of like, we just kinda talked and got really close. I don’t remember this but she says our sleeping bags were zipped together. But I remember the next morning I had this intense guilt feeling, and going into the women’s bathroom and wondering did people know? I mean it was just this incredible “who am I what’s going on.” So what it really was then was dealing with the who am I. So then our senior year in college comes and I’m in college and I’m trying to figure out what’s going on. So then Sarah came to visit and I was like “well we’re not sleeping in the same bed.” I mean this was the early eighties and you still didn’t talk about it. I mean at my college there were lesbians and they all got together but it was very secretive, and I wasn’t in that community. So Sarah said that she had been to a workshop for gay people and she started to talk to me about it and I was like “Oh my God I can’t deal, I’m not one of them, I’m not.” So it was just like this hard thing to think, though I had left the Catholic Church, I was still holding on to all this guilt. I was just like “what is this all about” So it was interesting exploration with two women who were trying to figure out what certainly seemed natural. After we graduated I was looking to go into the Peace Corps but because of the experience I had had at camp Outward Bound was hiring and I took that job. So I’m driving down to Florida, I’m twenty two and I’m realizing I’m gay. That Lionel Richie song “Hello” was on and I’m thinking that I’m in love with this woman. I mean it’s all hitting me on this ride down. So Sarah was in Alaska and I was in Florida, we couldn’t have been any farther apart but I think for me, probably not for Sarah but for me I needed that long distance to kind of figure things out. So we were together even though we were far apart. For Sarah, church was really important and she broke up with me a couple of times because of religion but we never stayed apart. So in June of 87’ Sarah gave me an ultimatum. Cause I had the best of both worlds. I was still dating men although I wasn’t touching them, but then on my vacations I would go and visit Sarah. So Sarah gave me an ultimatum to say either you move in or we’re done. So we ended up in Michigan where Sarah’s from. It was an interesting time in our lives, it was a community that was just emerging so it was a wonderful place for us to try and figure out who we were and meet other people. It was just a great communal spirit. It was an interesting time working through those things there. Coming out to ourselves.
At this time I had not come out to my family. I remember my brother was getting married to a black woman, and in my family some people still use the N word to this day. Not everyone, but some still do. So at the reception there was this huge separation of the black people and white people. I had not come out yet so seeing that reaction to my brother’s wife did not make me comfortable. So at that reception my Mother gave me this look like “I know”. So I approached her and all of a sudden she was like “you brought that fuckin bitch here,” and I was like let’s find someplace to talk. So we went upstairs and talked for like an hour, and that was really the start of me coming out to my family. So then I thought that in my family my sexuality would be this huge issue, but it’s not just because I’m a lesbian but because I don’t go to the catholic church. And interestingly enough my brother who was married to the black woman beat me up one night. He saw no parallel between his experience with his wife and my situation. So my family at first was not very accepting. I remember this one time that my mother called me up and was just berating me and that was it. I remember I went out on this rock and I just prayed that he would take this burden from me. I promised I wouldn’t feel guilty because of her and I wouldn’t give her any more money. And I haven’t. I have remained true to those two things. That was a very powerful thing. So I think for me…they’re not my…well, they’re family by blood, they’re people who I feel some obligation toward, but I know what strengths they have and what they don’t, and what they’re capable of. So I’m sort of resolved on that issue of my family and being all happy because it’s never going to happen.
It’s interesting being an adult now and having a conversation with my Mom my brother and sisters and what it was like growing up. I mean I was looked at as the caretaker. That wasn’t my responsibility but I took it. When I left it’s like there was no one there to protect them. It’s just weird this different perspective on life we all had.
I must begin my part of this paper by saying what a tremendous experience this was for me. I felt so privileged to be a part of this process. As I sat down to transcribe this story I just kept thinking about how intimate a thing the story of one’s life is. Could I tell my story this way? Would I be as open as my friend Jody was. Would I lay it all out there for others to see and hear? Those questions kept popping into my head. What I do know is that this is not something that should be taken lightly or looked at as just another assignment. People’s stories are important. They’re important to them and they should be important to us.
The first thing I should mention is that the interview that I transcribed in no way reflects the moment in which it was conducted. We had a lively, sometimes funny, sometimes serious interview that flowed so smoothly we were done before you know it. I feel like those moments were lost in the written translation. The tape does not help in that the sound quality was poor and bits and pieces were lost because I was unable to decipher them from the recording. That being said, there is plenty here to take in, and I was proud to be part of it.
My friend Jody is a 43 year old lesbian who has been in a relationship with her partner for over 20 years. She is a strong, independent, and decent woman who says what she feels. Jody has been a social worker for several years, a profession that she seemed destined for even as a teenager. My first thoughts while I was conducting this interview were of amazement at her ability to conduct her life through some times of utter chaos. Jody as the oldest of four was often the focal point of anger and abuse. Often her siblings did not know such things were happening as she protected them from it. Instead of giving in, Jody got out. She poured her life into sports at a time when other things were falling apart. She volunteered, she worked, she did anything that could provide her with an outlet. As if things weren’t crazy enough, Jody was struggling with her sexuality.
It’s hard for me to comprehend everything that was going on for her while she was growing up. Like Jody, I come from a family that dealt with the breakup of our parents. I went through the chaos and the fighting and the bitterness and I hated every minute of it, but I never felt like I was alone. That is what struck me about this interview. Jody dealt with this stuff on her own. Her parents were too involved in their own stuff to be of any help to her and her siblings were for the most part oblivious. She didn’t have a lot of friends. Jody took care of Jody. She saw things for what they were and she moved forward. Where do you learn the skills as a kid to do that? I think perhaps certain skills are just part of your being. Part of what makes any of us a unique person. But our lives often shape and hone the gifts we are born with. I believe Jody’s life has done this for her. She is a good friend, a good social worker, and a loving partner…and none of it was easy.