July 6, 2018

An Essay by Angel Grubbs: "What Kind of Freak am I?"

Angel Grubbs resides in the Midwest with her new husband Philip. Together, with their Blue Honda CRV, they embark on philosophical adventures traced through their favorite avenues: Tarbox Cemetery, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and CookOut. Her poetry has appeared in her university’s undergraduate journal Cedarville Review.

What Kind of Freak am I?

Growing up, I never understood why people were afraid of clowns. My grandma was a clown. Her name was Jinxie Bell, and my little sister and I would help put her face makeup on. Given we were in kindergarten, we only got to help with the base coat of white, but we still felt important helping Mama get ready for work. My memories from living with them include her clown hat that sat atop a Styrofoam head model she kept in this back closet. Hers was a wool bowler hat the color of a rainy day, but rather than remaining a sullen gray, the hat was decorated with bright yellow yarn strands that acted as her clown hair. I can’t remember exactly what her outfit looked like, but I can imagine her with an apple-red clown nose, short fat rainbow polka-dotted tie, clompy boots, and chunky blue bloomers. She took me and my siblings and cousins to the shows. I remember her and the other clowns piling into the little car, her getting squirted by a flower full of water. I remember the clown who wore all purple, my favorite color: purple Christmas string hair, purple striped pants, purple eyeshadow and lipstick. She was beautiful. I believe her name was Tinsel.
My grandma's clown closet also hosted my grandpa’s Halloween mask collection. The only one I remember was his favorite: The werewolf mask. It was movie-quality and had impressive fur, wrinkled features, a snarling snout, and it stunk so bad when I put it on. I liked seeing Papa wear it better. We would watch The Mummy movies and a show I learned only people from Chicago know called Svengoolie. I only remember that the narrator Sven wore a top hat, thick black eyeliner and black cheek-liner, and rubber chickens were thrown around during his segments narrating oldies monster movies. My most prominent recurring dream from living there was monsters came and took my grandpa in a knapsack. I followed them to a canoe, and my grandpa in his knapsack, these monsters, and I all sat in a canoe that sailed on an endless dreamscape river. We passed dark blue islands where silhouetted men juggled fire. And I would wake so confused. I’ve had my husband, a Psychology graduate, since try to interpret the dream, and he claims I let the monsters in my life distract me from what’s important and also I’m afraid of people leaving. I can see where he’s coming from, but I try not to take dreams too seriously. I just can’t understand why monsters permeate both my dreams and my daily life and why culture seems obsessed with them, too: Frankenstein, Dracula, the royal ogres Shrek and Fiona, Sully and Mike Wazowski from Monsters Inc., the Monster high dolls marketed as the new Barbie, Godzilla, the anonymous monster under the bed and its relative the monster in the closet, Chupacabra, manticore, Kraken, Banshee, gremlins, zombies, the yeti, the Loch Ness monster “Nellie,” mummies, orcs, the three-headed dog Cerberus guarding the gates to Hell, and the devil himself.
I could go into an in-depth study on monsters and culture’s historical fascination with them, but that’s not what I want to figure out in this essay. It’s the monsters, freaks, I’ve faced in my waking life that I’m concerned with. I’ve come to realize most children don’t grow up with a clown grandma and a grandpa obsessed with monsters, and my love of them has gotten me into social and psychological trouble. The label “Monster” works as a warning in social circles, like “Ugh, that guy is such a monster or creep or outright freak.” I hear monster, and I wonder if the person is like Shrek, an ogre with layers and people keep judging him for his outside appearance. The appearance of a monster perplexes me, because who do I get to decide looks like a monster? Some obese people are called monsters, like “Look at the monstrous woman.” Huge. But does large size make one a monster? Is it a cause for personal fear going against what would be expected in a woman: a “pleasing” petite frame? I’ve gotten called a freak in my gym class, because I was actually competitive and wanted to win the field hockey game, rather than make my gym shirt tighter around me with a rubber band so I could show off my fit self to the boys. That’s freaky to me. Why not play? Why market myself as a product? That’s monstrous.
I’m a freak in Biology Class. I know most siblings look more similar to one another than I do to mine. We’re half-sisters, but does that label matter? It does in genetics class; it doesn’t fit the family tree. My teacher had to look up the dotted lines, slashes, and empty squares that made up my “family tree.” It was freaky-looking, not like the normal family trees in my class. But what was told was “freakiness” was my normal. Yeah, I was raised by clowns and monster-lovers. So what? I also have an autistic brother, who some consider a monster because he can’t always control his temper. He gave the bus driver a black eye when he threw his boot at her. I don’t know why he did that, and I don’t think he did either. But we all have our bad days and his are a little bit worse because he literally “can’t even.” He gets hyper-focused, hyper-sensitive. I do, too. I don’t react the same way he does, but there’s a way to help calm him down, not make him feel worse about himself.
And I wish there was a place where he was allowed to act outside of what is perceived as “normal.” Because calming him down can look like a wrestling match, or blasting country music on high while he rocks his entire body so hard, I worry he’ll get full-body whiplash. I don’t know if that’s even a thing, but it’s something I worry about. And I wonder if there’s a place outside of writing where I could act outside of what is perceived as normal. I mean, I end up doing that anyway, but where I could do it and maybe feel normal because I keep getting told I’m a freak. I keep getting told I’m not normal. But I think being and doing anything besides what I’m doing, what I am is weird. I can’t be someone I’m not. I’ve tried that.
I hoped the church would be the place I could be me in the fullest sense. But I’ve been treated like a freak in my church, too. Most Christians aren’t raised by a pantheist mother. A lot of Christians I’ve met don’t have close relationships with the “non-believers.” It must be so hard. I mean, what’s hard is I feel ostracized in the church and ostracized at home. My mom asks how I can possibly follow a religion that has an institution known for so much violent history in the world. It’s freaky to her. And being the only atheist converted to Christianity in my church made me a spectacle. I didn’t know who Abraham was. I “freaked out” trying to find the right Bible quote to follow along with sermons. Pastors moved on to the next point without waiting for me to catch up. Everyone else had the Bible passages either memorized or had years of Sword drills where they’d be asked to flip to a passage the fastest and the fastest would win a prize. That’s freaky to me. What does the speed of finding a passage have to do with living for Christ? Regardless, the books of John frustrated me the most. Not only are there four, but there are two prominent Johns I could never get straight: John the Baptist and John the apostle. They’re different but lived around the same time. Didn’t I learn that in Sunday school? No, I never went: freak.
To top it off, I was raised poor. My mom was a single mom for a while, and she worked as a maid, vacuum saleswoman, candle maker, seamstress, and telemarketer. We moved in with my grandparents because of it. I’ve been told it’s very Chinese or Hispanic to live with extended family. I’m an American freak. Most people aren’t that close to their grandparents. They can’t imagine having more adults than children in the house. I loved it, and the adults got time to take naps. I’d like to blame that on my siblings, but I have to admit that I was the handful. My grandpa worked at the steel mills. Jinxie Bell also worked at Burger King— not dressed as a clown, though. She called herself a Whopper Flopper, and I was proud of her. What a fun title. I didn’t hear the name-calling or notice the finger pointing until I took social work classes in college.  Poor people need to pull themselves up from their bootstraps. Someone’s gotta make the fries. It’s institutionalized inequality. I didn’t realize then that being poor could be bad. So what I only got leftover Burger King toys for Christmas, maybe a Barbie if everyone chipped in. So what that my family’s pastime was hiking, because it’s free to hike? Yet I’ve realized poor people are treated like freaks, monsters. Stay away, they might be contagious, it feels like. Consider the homeless man on the highway: freak. I’ve been scorned by my mother-in-law. I don’t try to force my husband to become a lawyer or a doctor. What’s wrong with being a Grounds worker? He likes it. Eghad. I like shopping at Goodwill. I don’t need makeup. I don’t even shave my legs, and I’m not trying to make a statement by dying my armpit hair turquoise. I just don’t feel the need to, and girls tried to bully me into it: freak. I’m a freak for being comfortable with myself.
I’ve come to realize it’s not fun to be considered a freak. But my life doesn’t seem freaky to me for those things. What becomes freaky is that a lot of people don’t want to be near me when they found out each aspect in turn. I unnerve people. And, I regret that in turn, I get unnerved by people who give me weird looks or vibes. I notice when people think I’m a freak. They shuffle a little, refuse to keep eye contact. Patches of red grow on their face. The less polite, or less disciplined outright raise their eyebrows as if expressing their opinion will somehow normalize me. I hear the whispers, too. The moms who point me out to their kids: “That’s a hippie, or feminist, or slut.” I guess not shaving your legs automatically places you into one of those categories. And I want to yell at them, like, “I have feelings!” It makes me feel freakish to be stared at, whispered about. And it hurts. I usually like myself, and it’s hard enough to stave off everyday doubts that grow in my head without other people making negative remarks. We all struggle with doubt and finding our identity, more if we matter that if we fit in. Somehow the two get interchanged.
And it all makes me wonder how I still call anyone else a freak because I have to admit that I do. I think those girls— here I am generalizing— in Aeropostale with perfect “Maybelline” hair and with plenty of money and with a nice car are just freaky. Those girls who’ve never known the lack of a father or the lack of money to do sports simply unnerve me. Those girls who aren’t familiar with screams throughout the night from a hypersensitive, autistic brother who gets tired and agitated at the same time and can’t tell himself to calm down if he’s even so much as hungry because hunger is too complex an emotion to face when mixed with weariness or laziness. He can’t function with more than one emotion in place. And the poor guys also knows it’s wrong to wake up Mommy and Daddy to help either comfort him or get some food for him, so he ends up feeling guilt on top of everything else. So he screams. It makes sense when you understand who he is and what he’s dealing with, but it is freaky, especially when the neighbors only use their ears to hear the screaming part. Which is a real shame.
It’s a shame because there are good parts, great parts, utterly phenomenal parts of my dubbed freakishness that make me realize others miss out on what’s my normal. Those other girls lack the rainbows of hand-me-down boxes of clothes from the Plezak family, the Maypole festivals and Irish punk jams with Mom, the monster masks and movies with Papa, and the clown costumes with Mama. Those girls don’t get to know the love of letting your autistic brother rub his nose against every window of Handley elementary school so he could see how the teachers arranged the books. I like books, too, he’s just not afraid to show how much he loves them.
And I wish I discern between who the real freaks are and who I’m simply depreciating, too. That’s what calling someone a freak does; it depreciates them, degrades them, dehumanizes them. Man, I wish girls in Aeropostale who can’t help that they have their dads and that those dads have money could feel normal to me. I wish I could pair up with them, get to know the good parts of their normal. I also wish I could help them face the real freaks. I had one female friend, a true friend, in middle school. That friend, my fellow “freak,” got raped in eighth grade by a real freak, and it made me reconsider everything. I became scared, not just embarrassed or doubtful around others. And I couldn’t be friends with her anymore, either, because we didn’t relate anymore. I didn’t want to stop relating to her, and yet I did. I so wanted to be close to her again, but those real freaks present real danger that’s not so easily solved.
And I want to be able to recognize them, stop them somehow. But I’m a Christian because my faith answers where the evil in the world is, who the freaks are. My faith gives a solution, and it makes me so angry because it means we’re all freaks, dormant freaks, all capable of becoming monsters. Real wolves, real monsters, live inside a human heart. Goodness, if we could see souls instead of bodies, compliment hearts instead of charm… If freaks weren’t called so because of cultural background or quirks. If I could just pinpoint and call out like God, “Cain! Sin is crouching at your door and desires to have you!”
What would a congregation of people who understood they’re all harboring a monster look like? If we knew we carry the “old man” with us. He needs to be put to death? Harsh. He needs to be put to death or he’ll kill you and his desire it is to kill you. Time to fight. What if rather than pointing fingers at the non-believers, they were seen as the broken without hope. The monsters just biding their time trying to pretend they’re not being ravaged on the inside. It’s easy to pretend I don’t have truly monstrous tendencies. I want to make fun of people sometimes. I want to hit people sometimes. I even want to steal sometimes. Part of me enjoys being angry. What would a congregation who admitted that and only called freakish what it actually deemed freakish by the book we claim to live for look like: Breathtaking?
What’s the theology for determining the heart, because I see all sorts of fruits. I’m not afraid of clowns; I’m afraid of people dressed as clowns swinging axes. I’m not afraid of werewolves; I’m afraid of the metaphor they stand for. I’m not afraid of my brother’s disability; I’m afraid of how others react to him because of it. He still has feelings. You know, people tell me getting married at 20 is “weird,” but I think not marrying someone that you love and desire to grow with your entire life but won’t commit because you’re only 20 is actually weird. Why give the impression of forever but hold off until other people approve? Promise rings are charming and pointless. Covenants are intense, real, and lovely.
So what kind of freak am I? I’m one who is learning to recognize what parts of me are actually freaky and which ones are just called so. I need to stop calling people freaks who look like freaks to me because freakiness is a lot like how my brother feels: complex and not easy to handle.

~Angel Grubbs
Angel Grubbs

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