The Introvert’s Survival Guide
In a film about that summer with Richard and Francine, Margaret O’Brien would not play my part. She would be too put upon, too injured, too absurdly brave about it. Natalie Wood would play me, because she never stepped over the edge into cuteness. She was never put upon and if she were, she handled it. She was silent, she was taking it in. She was the introvert role model.
In the early 1950s, movies provided the main role models for girls growing up in the shadow of the cold war. But by 1955, 67 per cent of us were seated in front of a television set watching fifties families like the Cleavers and the Nelsons bring up their children, those children were not like us, not like me. These children were products of the times: innocent, well-dressed, well-nurtured, over-parented. Their problems were small and solvable. Daddy showed them what to do. This kindly man who knew what was best prevailed.
Our family kept up appearances.
We kept to ourselves.
We did the expected.
I assumed everybody else lived just like we did. But television began to make me doubt. We were not in tune. Since the life I lived or the lives I saw being lived around me were nothing at all like television lives, I imagined another world out there to which I must make adjustments, come to terms. I was always slightly off-base, getting tagged out, out of kilter in my forays into that world, but I would come back with data to be sorted. My reality was what I knew in my gut, what my sensory apparatus sent back to me, how I felt. It was danger vibrations when Richard and Francine were nice to me. It was living in a world beneath the real one, a world that was not acknowledged. I lingered on the edge of puberty, falling into the larger culture of the new decade, the 50’s.
We rented a cottage at Newton Lake for the summer. It smelled of must and bad sewage. Bats fluttered into the living room from under the rafters as it grew dark, galvanizing us into a light-and-shadow show of pillows and brooms and newspapers, all of which we waved trying to drive the bat from our domain. Finally, the broom or the newspaper would prevail and I would hold the screen door open and the ill-omened visitor would escape. My mother wondered what the neighbors would think was happening as we terrorized the poor bat who undoubtedly was blinded by the light. Mom often worried about what people would think, but I usually knew what they were thinking. That’s what set us apart. Each of us is blind about one point or another.
In the cottage next door lived Richard, a year younger than I. Next to him lived Francine, about a year older than I. Sometimes they let me play with them and sometimes they ignored me. I never worried about it much. That’s the way these things go. Moving every year or so kept me always an outsider. I was used to being alone and could entertain myself, though after dinner in the long summer twilight before we fought the bats, I longed to join the games of tag or catch that took place behind the row of shrubs that divided our lot from Richard’s. Sometimes the group needed an extra and they’d call me over. I was reluctant to join unless I was asked. Trying to join where you weren’t wanted was dangerous and I didn’t like to be in danger. Given the choice between danger and my own company, I’d take my own company.
Born introverts are like that. We can filter the emotional plane of a room or a group and adapt the necessary camouflage.
Want us to be weak? We’ll play weak.
Sense ominous behavior? We’ll play tough.
Come at us from the front? We’ll strike for your weak point. Don’t worry, we’ll find it.
I had that sense about Richard and Francine, so I should have expected treachery when they came over and asked me to join their treasure hunt. They were a shade too nice, like they’d had an overdose of Shirley Temple movies. They took me prisoner, used chains to tie me to the post that held Richard’s tent upright. The idea of chains is worse than the actuality. You can’t tie chains very tightly. It was surprisingly easy to escape back to the safety of my porch where I could sit on the glider and color or read through the piles of old Outdoor Lifes and Saturday Evening Posts I’d discovered stacked on the back porch.
“Hel – en, Hel – en,” they called in sweet lilting voices, “Come on back and play! We were only kidding.”
“Fat chance,” I’d yell back. I believe they were afraid I’d tell my mother or their mothers about my capture, the rough handling, the chains around my wrists and ankles. It was all a bit much.
“Do you want to come over and color on my porch?” Francine would ask in a voice dripping with a parody of sweetness.
There was no reply from me.
My parents were driving into town to get groceries and I said I wanted to go along. There was no way I wanted to stay alone with those two plotting next door.
As we pulled out on the dirt road in front of the cottages, Richard and Francine stood and waved as if posed in a picture of niceness worthy of Norman Rockwell. I looked out the window on the other side of the car and ignored them.
My mother turned around and said accusingly, “You’re lucky to have such good friends!”
She took things for what they seemed. She never understood what was really going on, always questioning my observations, my interpretation of reality, I was always confronted by her denial, her reversal of the facts. I assumed that something was wrong with me. The data my sensory apparatus took in were flawed somehow.
What I saw as an imitation of friendship, she took for the real thing. Couldn’t she see past that corny pose? Couldn’t she see it was a third-rate performance? No. Only introverts process the data behind appearances. Introverts understand the world by a careful filtering of the subjective data. Nothing is objective. Nothing is what it’s supposed to be. My mother would never understand it. Richard and Francine over-acted, they were too cute. They were nothing like Natalie Wood and her counterpart, James Dean.
In 1955 James Dean starred in Rebel Without a Cause, the movie of the decade for teenagers at war with how things were. Here was permission, a deep understanding, the first existential hero I saw, understood, in the way of a beginner, the moves, the new school, the dread, the trials of fitting in, the anguish, the demand of ourself to be ourself, not to sell or deal away too much of our personality, the wanting to stand alone, the odd balls, the loners, the American introvert struggling to grow up, wanting desperately to fit somewhere, to be liked, God forgive, be popular.
Under the thin slick film of what passed for reality, there was another reality, and this was the dark ground of the poem that I was to call my life, the one true introvert cause. James Dean bodied it forth for me. But because I had to choose, I chose Natalie Wood. Not the hero role, but as close as you could come in the 50s, the faithful girlfriend.
In the 1950s, movies started in theaters in the big cities and moved their way down to the big towns and finally the neighborhood theaters and when Rebel played at the Favini in Peckville, I saw it at least eight times. We wrote down the dialogue. In the halls at school, someone would say a line and we’d reply and we’d keep on as far as we could until the next class or we forgot. James Dean died almost as we watched. The day of Jimmy Dean’s funeral we wore black to school, no makeup, heavy with grief. It wasn’t that we loved him, but that he was the one who exemplified our suffering and so it was only natural that he would be sacrificed. Rumors that he was alive, brain dead, in some sanitarium, circulated and died. We worshiped the ghost. America’s token introvert sacrificed just as he came to his power. But the religion lived on.
Just as every left-handed person knows by the time they reach the age of seven (when Jesuits said we can reason) that they are out of kilter with the rest of the world, the introvert knows about the same time. Lefties know the name of their condition, but introverts usually don’t. They have to figure it out later on. They’ll read Hamlet, years after the fact and say, Wow. There’s a man after my own heart. He knows what lies below the surface of life. Hamlet hates his mother because she doesn’t get it. No one in the entire kingdom seems to acknowledge the evil. That’s Elsinore.
If James Dean had lived, eventually, I’m sure, he would have gotten around to playing Hamlet. It would be a wonderful performance, all brood and self-absorption, a prince of introverts. Echoing the despair we felt at being stuck in the fifties, the depression and the hot war at our backs, stuck up to our armpits in the paranoia of the cold war. How could we extricate ourselves. How could we be happy? But introverts are meant to exemplify unhappiness. That’s our job.
The past exists only in thin calcium traceries that inhabit my brain, hold pictures that I pull out on the stereopticon and adjust into 3-D like a bad movie. I see at the side of the road an overweight nine-year-old and a thin 11-year-old girl with long brown hair. Richard raises his right arm in a wave. Francine waves with her left. This could make the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
The other picture is more complex, surrealistic, uncomfortable to look at. In the lighted square of a window huge shadows lunge and retreat. One waves a broom, one a pillow, one a newspaper. They appear to be running in circles. The neighbors think they are chasing another bat. I think they are a metaphor. The little one. She is afraid. She absorbs the bat’s terror, the dark side. She is guilty of everything. They are trying to drive her out. She has dreams. She knows what she knows. She is a receptacle. She sleeps in stone.
Helen Ruggieri has 3 recent books – Butterflies Under a Japanese Moon, The Kingdom Where Everybody sings Off Key, and The Kingdom Where No One Keeps Time. She lives in upstate New York and teaches a writing workshop at the African American Center. This essay is part of a longer memoir with the same title. Visit her website, http://helenruggieri.com.