Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A New Nightmare

Ever since I wrote CHALKED UP, I’ve had fantasies about being on talk shows like Larry King, talking about the sport (“I don’t follow it”), how I came to write the book (“it was a story I felt compelled to write, my coming of age story”) and what I’ll write next to transition from memoirist to legitimate novelist (“I’ve got a few things in the works, Larry”). I talk about how my true aspiration in life is to become a real writer, someone who can invent stories, pen prose that are more than just personal experience, ultimately proving my literary mettle. The fantasy quickly transitions into a nightmare when my former coaches and current gymnasts are brought out for a he-said / she-said style confrontation. The civilized Larry King tête-à-tête transforms into a Jerry Springer fashioned brawl, replete with chair throwing and name-calling. It goes something like this:

Coach: How can you believe her when she says she was anorexic? Look at this picture? She was fat! A fat pig!
Me: --- (sad face)
Gymnast: And she sucked! I mean look at the film! Now look at me! She was awful compared to me!
Me: ---- (tears while a chair whizzes past my head.)

All my teenage insecurities about never having been good enough, never having been thin enough to actually have deserved the kudos I received as a gymnast, have been brought to the fore once again with this horrific vision. Oh the irony! Those unresolved feelings prompted me to write the book in the first place. The mere writing of the tale was supposed to be just the antidote to cure me of these haunting ailments – self-doubt bordering on self-loathing, anxiety over not being good enough, unconcluded past relationships. What a cruel twist of fate that these things are only brought to the surface once again, completely raw, more complex and nuanced with age.

When I actually managed to get myself an agent and then sell the book, these anxiety dreams became more frequent, interviews a potential reality, however unlikely. My former anxiety dreams – having to get weighed in, trying to go back to gymnastics as a late 30-something, 130 pound marketing executive with two kids – were replaced with this talk show fiasco. Any time I experienced any conflict or unease at work, I dreamed the dream, waking in a panic, sweaty and fretful, pulse-racing preventing the rest of the night’s sleep.

Now that the book is near release, I am preparing with my own grass roots marketing efforts. As a marketer for Levi’s - one of the world’s best-known brands - I am well equipped to sell something I REALLY care about. Me. I’ve got a youtube channel, facebook page, email list and a web site under construction, all thanks to my tech savvy, software developer husband. I keep these digital assets updated and ready for the book’s launch, hopefully prepared for the onslaught of interest and compliments. Imagine my despair when, one early Monday morning before work, upon perusing my youtube channel, I found a mean-spirited slam in response to my fictional short film entitled, The Gymnast. (The film is not based on the book. I made it three years prior as an experiment, bringing to life my endeavors in screenplay writing. It is a made-up story about a young woman struggling with her past life as a champion; while it echoes my book in feeling, the heroine in the film is far worse off than I’ve ever been. Deadbeat, abusive boyfriend, addiction, going nowhere job in a nowhere town. Her life is quite different than mine.) But young ambermarie0x3, shielded by her self-perceived anonymity, wrote: “I think that this was horrible. Why do you need to blam others for your life? Can’t take responsibility?” Yes, ambermarie0x3, I’m “blam-ing” others because I can’t take responsibility. So much so that I taught myself how to make a little movie, taught myself how to write a book, support a family of four and take care of my sick mom who was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. I hate taking responsibility. I wrote something to that effect in response, realized it was defensive and childish and promptly removed it.

After discovering her comment, I trolled for more. Hers appeared on my channel, permitting me the liberty of removing it if I cared to (I didn’t; the purpose of these types of sites is free and open debate no matter how inane). What I found off-channel, was far more ugly and malicious. Beneath a video of me from some meet when I was well past my prime, deep in the throes of injuries that were beyond repair and depression beyond easy abatement, were the following comments by hard hearted strangers:

No1zmeskalfan: “…this girl is probably the worst US champ ever. She’s terrible.”
WHATTHEBUCKSHOW: “it was an off year!”
Metsdudenj: “Someone pls explain to me how this girl managed to win the 86 US title. Did everyone else have a broken leg?”

It goes on. And on. It brought me to tears. They are right, I am certain. I wasn’t any good. And it’s too late to fix it now. I’m nearly 40. I can’t go back and prove I was good enough. A heavy sadness sunk in, deep and abiding. I carried it with me through my busy day at work, my harried evening of preparing the next day’s lunches and studying spelling words with my son. Throughout the week, it rested heavy on my back; I dragged it through my days, plagued with the feeling that people hated me and that I deserved it for being pathetic and unworthy. Unable to effectively carry on my demanding day job with this unwieldy burden dragging behind me, I vowed not to look on youtube anymore. I recognized that I wouldn’t even have known that these vindictive comments existed if I simply hadn’t encountered them. They would have had no impact on my head, my heart, my soul because they would simply never have been.

But I was addicted. The damage was done and I was rubbing salt in the 22 year old, putrid wound. I couldn’t stop looking. There were occasionally new posts, but I obsessed over those cited above. I figured ambermarie0x3 was a gymnast who felt I was trying to demean her beloved sport with what she perceives to be an exposé type book. (Not so! CHALKED UP is my personal story, not an indictment of the sport. If you read it ambermarie0x3, you’d see. I loved the sport and miss it all the time.) This insight helped, but not a lot.

I wanted to respond with aliases. “She was great! What are you guys talkin’ about!” But I resisted. I didn’t delete or respond to any of them, after that first impulse. Instead, I got to the work of readying myself for the intensity of the potential backlash. People are unkind, especially when shielded with anonymity, when it’s easy. On the internet, you don’t have to face the person, you don’t have to look them in the eye when you are attempting to bring them down, make them cry, pierce their spirit.

I hope the book prompts forthright debate rather than petty derision. Because really, what does it matter if I was any good as a gymnast at this late date? I turned some cartwheels twenty years ago. I make no claims to having been the best; I simply won one meet on one night that would shape the way I feel about myself forever in good and not so good ways. But my life is here and now – a professional, a nascent writer, a wife, a mom, a daughter. If there’s talk about gymnastics instigated by the book, it should be about whether or not the conditions I recount still exist. Are girls emotionally abused? Do adults put the needs of children aside to accomplish their own aspirations? Do eating disorders run rampant? Do the athletes put their physical and emotional health and well being aside to win? Does our culture put everything else aside in prioritizing winning? Ultimately, though, I hope the discussion is about the book’s merits. Is it well-written? Compelling? Emotionally resonant? Does it have relevance beyond gymnastics? This book is not an exposé. I intend for it to be my first endeavor towards becoming a writer that constantly strives to tell the truth, whether factually through non-fiction or emotionally through fiction. And I’m unflagging in my belief that through writing about my tribulations, I can someday resolve these issues of exacting self-doubt, transforming them into self-belief tempered with a healthy dose of humility and poise. In the face of cowardly, mean-spirited aspersions, this will be required, as I choose to put myself out there and open myself up to criticism. Thank you ambermarie0x3 and metsdudenj. Because of you both, I’ve realized, I am not yet there. I am not yet over this. Though hindered by a persistent need for approval, and easily knocked off my game when desired validation is withheld, I am armed with courage and confident that I can prevail.

© 2008 Jennifer Sey


kkm96 said...

Wow, I just heard about your book thru my daughter who is a level 8 gymnast and desparately wants your book. I was a gymnast myself and now a compulsary coach. I grew up in a world of gymnastics and it was my life and all I knew only to have it taken away way to early, not that the later would have made a difference. You are truely courageous!!! to put your feeling out the for all to see. I have thought of doing so myself many times and actually started, to think, who cares what I fell or have to say. Please do not be discouraged from people who are niave, I have even read your book yet and you have already helped me to know if nothing else I am not alone.

Sweetie said...

I am a BIG gymnastics fan. I also remember when you won the US championships. At the time, I was a figure skater and going through the same thing.

I had a coach tell me I "skated like a bear" because I was "heavy". I quit skating not too long afterward. It resonated with me; I was 15 at the time, I'm in my 30s now.

I bought "Chalked Up" and read it in one night. You're an excellent writer, and I loved reading it.