On Wanting to Be Liked

Sometime in the late 90s I got the erroneous idea that Jana Finkelstein was interested in me.

She was a writer who was just coming up, and I was an established writer in the lesbian scene at least, and when it became clear that Jana was impressed with me and had a strong desire to network and hobnob with me, I became somehow convinced that Jana wanted to fuck me.

My erotic radar had never been very good. Its mechanisms had been smashed by a hasty forklift turning sharply in the factory, and I had hardly ever been able tell whether there was a spark between someone and me or I just had too many frankfurters that day at lunch.

In particular, I had often been confused about the difference between someone liking my work and thinking I was smokin’ hot. There was the horrible time a sweet young staffer at a gay rights organization in DC had gotten me tickets to Bill Clinton’s inauguration, and I had assumed that rather than just being nice to a journalist, the girl was ready for a night of love. Then there was the lissome woman in Queer Nation who’d exclaimed, “Wow, so you’re Donna Minkowitz! I really love your journalism,” and I’d thought we’d definitely be eating spicy crab and playing footsie in a week or two.

It wasn’t simply that I was a cad, although one effect and perhaps cause of my confusion was that I was. More than that, though, I was spectacularly clueless, erotically colorblind.

I guess I had been brought up with two fundamentally contradictory but powerful assumptions about myself: that I was a stinking, livid turd freshly emitted from the ass of a sewer troll and the brightest human being in New York City.

This was what my mother had always told me — both things. First one, then the other, alternating.

This impacted the whole of my relations with other people. I suppose it’s natural that I saw the entire sphere of the social as subject to manipulations or inducements, like whether I could get someone free tickets to a play, or increase their cultural cachet by having their friends see them with me, the famous lesbian Village Voice writer. (By extension, if I ever exhausted the pool of free theater tickets, or if my writing ever stopped being published, I thought that no one would ever want me.)

In all fairness to my mother, she had made a similarly vertiginous assessment of her own value as a person. What she painstakingly taught my sisters and me as soon as we could hear was that the dividing line between paradisic charisma and worthlessness was horrifically narrow, and that it fluctuated in a strange and dizzying fashion. We could do hardly anything to affect which quadrant the needle fell in, but we must affect it, must perfectly and unerringly affect it at every moment and steer it into the right corner, at the cost of an unnameable terror.

So I was both desperate and “utterly confident,” naked and clothed in a fake armor of perfection — so that when Jana came by and remarked that she used to live in the same apartment building as me and had always been tickled to be my neighbor, I felt buzzed, anxious and under terrific obligation all at once: Here was some of this mysterious current of being liked, which alone — in the form of praise, sexual attention, publications, awards, and coffee dates — could certify me against the fecal.

The psychoanalytic theorist Julia Kristeva defines “abjection” as a confusion between subject and object, which results in thinking of oneself fundamentally as a thing, indistinguishable from “shit,” “pus,” “refuse, corpses… decay,” anything that might make humans nauseous.

Nearly every moment I’ve been alive has been a struggle to escape this abyss, which might be the oldest psychological abyss in the world.

(The way I’ve most often tried to do it is through sex.)

So. Let the record show that Jana sat in at a meeting at the publisher she worked for (as an editorial assistant) about my proposed book, and made enthusiastic suggestions. Let the record further show that though I eventually went with a different publisher, Jana later interviewed me and wrote a glowing review of the book for an important online publication. Let the record even further show that we spoke on the phone several times and had many friendly conversations running into each other on Park Slope, Brooklyn’s homey yet hip main drag, Seventh Avenue.

Somewhere in there — after the meeting at her publisher, but before my book came out — I realized that Jana was not sexually interested in me at all. The truth finally dawned on me when, in the course of a couple of weeks of asking her to coffee (and getting noncommittal replies), I ran into Jana having what looked exactly like a romantic lunch with a cute, butch-looking young woman at an outdoor café.

I felt pain, but not so much because of the sexual rejection. It was because I finally saw myself.

I wouldn’t have known sexual attraction if it had hit me in the head.

Mine to anyone, or anyone’s to me. For so many years, I had not been having longings but anxieties. Anyone who aroused my genuine sexual feelings terrified me.

I hadn’t even been attracted to Jana. It was simply that I thought she might be attracted to me. (She liked something about me, after all.)

It was like in college, when I had manufactured a crush on a depressed and homely straight woman named Anna Zeigler because she thought I was smart and didn’t terrify me as much as Phred, a gorgeous activist with soft, soft, short blonde hair who was one of the most out women on campus and made out with her girlfriend in the dining hall.

It was just like, years later, in the sexy AIDS activist group ACT UP, when I wound up dating one of the only women among the 50 in the organization who did not excite me, and nursed a corrosive hatred and resentment (for years!) of P. and K. and E, who did.

I felt a thick lava of shame. Shame that I knew and grasped my own sexuality so poorly. (And I was supposed to be some kind of sexpert!) Shame that I had weirdly tried to conjure up something nonexistent with Jana — just because I hoped her being a fan might lend me a handy rope toward getting out of the abyss.

My shame was such that, though I continued to run into her on the street for a couple of years after that, I eventually became quite visibly nervous when I saw her. I would start to tremble inside when I saw her from 10 feet away, turn bright red, stare pathologically at her and stammer “hello.”

Why was I nervous? Again, because I saw myself.

My demeanor evidently made Jana uncomfortable, because she abruptly stopped speaking to me after that. That is to say, I would run into her on Seventh Avenue just as frequently as before, usually inside the same little grocery, and say “Hello, Jana!” and she would just look straight ahead and pretend I wasn’t there.

This kicked in my very successful hatred-and-resentment mechanism (see above), and I took to capturing her gaze and saying in a mean voice, right in her face, “HI JANA!”

It’s one thing if I manufacture a stupid crush on you because you like my writing, and another if you reject me as an acquaintance!

I depend so much on what other people think of me that if someone literally acts as if I don’t exist, I feel as though I’ve died.

And so, for a couple of years I grimaced at Jana. Snarled at Jana, almost growled at her like a wolf. Contorted my face with disdain while saying “HELLO.”

She looked kind of discombobulated.

Eventually — just a few months ago — I realized that punishing Jana for snubbing me was not something I could really get behind ethically at all. In fact, she did not deserve my sadistic tones or my grimaces, or that crazy-angry gleam from my eyes when I was really getting into the punishing. In any case, all that punishing was no longer something I wanted to spend my time doing.

Sorry, Jana! Wasn’t that a weird run!

If you are reading this now, please join me in celebrating my excision of this particular monkey from my back. And please forgive me.

As for myself — a little pagan prayer: Let the waters cascade over me and let the motherly cleansing and warming begin. Let the Great Parent’s arms hold me, let her wisdom infuse me with the knowledge that I am sufficient, already as I am. Let the inner and outer sunlight penetrate to the very stuff of me, the true material, and the Hermaphroditic Principle of Benediction come shining and whisper to me that I am its daughter and I shall never want for the sacred thread inside.

Shantih, Shantih, Shantih.

(c) Donna Minkowitz 2012

2 Replies to “On Wanting to Be Liked”

  1. wow, powerful and uncomfortably familiar. Except the alternating parental knocking down followed by lukewarm support (if you could call it that) would have been my dad.

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