Double exposure

I wrote yesterday about exposing myself by sharing my postpartum depression story as part of The Blank Monologues (TBM) at Millikin University. But there’s a part two to that story. Not only did I expose my own truth, but I also exposed myself to new perspectives, experiences, and understandings that were shared as part of the show.

I had never attended The Vagina Monologues (TVM) before — that’s the show that TBM was adapted from. If you haven’t either, let me tell you that this is not a she-woman, man-haters occasion. The Blank Monologues (and I assume TVM,) was a platform for sharing some of what it is like to be a woman today and sharing hopes for what that experience will be like in the future.

Being a member of the TBM cast was a powerful experience for me. Not only did I get to watch my daughter practice her craft (proud mama here!), but I also took a closer look at a topic (femininity) that I usually just gloss over without thinking too much about it.

I hadn’t read the entire script all the way through before I got to Decatur for dress rehearsal, but I’d heard a few of the monologues during the rehearsal that I’d attended via FaceTime, so I knew that I was going to have to steel myself for some language that I’m not used to — or entirely comfortable with — hearing.

You know what happened? I was so struck by the authenticity and the power the women in the cast projected that I didn’t even think about being uncomfortable. The opening monologue was original to this performance and was delivered by the young women in the cast (that is, everyone except me and the three professors who were also in the show). It was called “My Feminism” and was a sort of feminist manifesto. And it made me re-think feminism.

I should probably point out here that I don’t usually get too riled up about gender equality and pink hats and marching on capitols. I like to be agreeable (at least on the surface) and choose not to rock the boat. I am not comfortable with anger, but this devised manifesto helped me to better understand what people are angry about.

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Yet, my experience of womanhood includes certain joys — feeling a baby moving within me, being able to talk about my feelings, and wearing dresses with pockets. I would love to see them included to fully represent the experience of womanhood.

The show included music performed by a transgender woman. It was not my first encounter with a trans woman — you might remember Emma, but it’s not something that happens every day. Mel, the musician, talked briefly about her experience living as a woman in a world that doesn’t always acknowledge that and I was most struck by her humanity. She is just a person who wants to be accepted. Aren’t we all?

Another group monologue was called “Why I Didn’t Report.” Some of the “whys” were statements that have been given by others over time and several of them were these brave young women’s stories — stories that made me sad, and shocked, and has me re-thinking what constitutes assault.

“These Are My Sisters” spoke of all the women in the world and how much we are connected, how much we owe to each other. My favorite from that monologue was “The teachers that pushed us to the top, and not over the edge, are my sisters.” WOW.

I looked around the room, especially at these amazing young women who believed in this project so much that they gave up dozens of hours over two months to bring these stories to light. I looked at these Millennials, who I have at times judged as loud, hysterical, and inexperienced, and though I might not agree with everything they believe in, I thought to myself, “This generation is going to change the world.”

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Exposing myself

I just spent the past two days exposing myself and I am exhausted. No, not THAT kind of exposing myself. I’m talking about revealing truths about myself that, in the anticipation of it, left me feeling vulnerable, nervous, and maybe a little scared.

Annie and three of her closest friends put on a show at Millikin University last night called “The [Blank] Monologues.” It was an adaptation of The Vagina Monologues. They had seen a production of TBM in St. Louis earlier this year and knew right away that they had to bring it to their campus. In less than two months’ time, they put out an audition and submission call, casted the show, scheduled and held rehearsals, and promoted the show, all culminating in two performances at Millikin on Friday night.

What made this show different from The Vagina Monologues is that they wrote and accepted submissions of original content, to be performed alongside some of the original TVM content. That’s where exposing myself began.

When Annie told me about their plans and that they were asking for people to submit original content, I suggested that maybe I would submit something, which I assumed would be immediately shot down. It wasn’t.

But what did I have to say that would fit in with the spirit of The Vagina Monologues? I don’t have a bikini wax story. I don’t claim a place in the #Metoo movement. What exactly would a heterosexual, Catholic wife and mother of three have to say to the world (or at least to 150-ish people) that would be remotely connected to her vagina?

When I sat down to write my submission, my story spilled out onto the page as if it had been waiting for a long time to be unleashed. I wrote about my experience with postpartum depression and postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder. Without much editing, I emailed my story to Annie, with a firm directive that I did not expect them to accept it and that my submission should be viewed with neutrality, not as a something Annie’s mom wrote. The next day, I got the call: I was in.

I FaceTimed in to the first rehearsal. Hearing the scripts for show’s other monologues, I felt like mine didn’t measure up. I wasn’t sure it belonged in the show. I told Annie as much after the rehearsal. She insisted I was wrong, my story needed to be told, and it would be.

Rehearsals went on without me, though I promised to be at dress rehearsal the night before the show. True to my word, I showed up and immediately became intimidated and a bit overwhelmed. These young women are AMAZING at their craft. They delivered their monologues convincingly, naturally. During a break, I told Annie I was feeling uncomfortable, especially because I would be using notes to help tell my story. She assured me that two of the professors in the cast would also be delivering their monologues with the help of a script. This girl was not taking no (or even maybe) for an answer.

I’m not afraid of public speaking; in fact, I enjoy it. But this was going to be the first time I had told this very personal, very vulnerable story to a large group of random people. Annie had told me that many cast members cried when they read first my piece in the script, which is what happened when I delivered it during dress rehearsal. I was surprised. For some reason, I didn’t expect my story to resonate.

Even still, their reaction did not prepare me for the reaction of the audience when I delivered the monologue. First, the girls in the cast (yes, they are young women, but they’re 25+ years younger than I am, so they seem like girls to me), applauded me to the stage in an audible show of support before I even opened my mouth. They knew I was a little unsure. As I told my story, I looked out into the audience and saw that people were completely dialed in to my story, many with tears streaming down their faces. When I finished, there was a standing ovation. It was, as my castmates would say, FIERCE.

After the show, several people came to me to thank me for sharing my story. A professor complimented my writing and suggested that I submit my piece to The Moth, a storytelling podcast. I think the most meaningful feedback I received was from a student who told me that she’d always wanted to be a mother, but that she deals with depression and didn’t know if she could be a good mother. My story, she said, gave her hope.

That made all the uncertainty and hesitation to expose myself and my experience with postpartum depression worth it. I write to make connection. Because I was willing to risk putting myself out there — and because my daughter could see the importance and pushed me to own it — that connection happened. And I am so grateful.

Blank Cast