Thanks to the long-term outage of the SFF.NET service which has taken down websites of numerous writers, Mindy Klasky sought out one of her older websites from the Internet Wayback Machine. I can’t link to Mindy’s current site – because it’s still unavailable!
I found copies of my original AOL website (during the time I didn’t realize I could have “amysterlingcasil.com” among many other things). There was plenty on there I’d forgotten. But this? This, I did not forget. This was written around my birthday in March, 2002. Unsurprisingly, I received criticism from individuals about this, mostly along the lines of “It’s no big deal to be shy and takes no courage whatsoever to overcome” and “it doesn’t matter what society tells minorities they are supposed to look like, they are a bunch of whiners.”
This documents the ACES before I knew what those where. This documents a form of self-recovery. This was written 3 years before I was diagnosed with complex PTSD (multiple precipitating incidents). This was written shortly before what truly was the high point of my life until the past 18 months, when I went to Kansas City for the Nebula Awards and John Starr and Zubin Contractor took care of me for a week. When I had for that brief time, people who cared about me, taking care of me, paying attention to me, listening to me, no additional outside worries or responsibilities.
Yes, it’s true. I was unbelievably shy as a child and had the self-esteem of a wet napkin. I felt ugly, unloved, and dumb. Not at all quick and smart. In fact, I felt most comfortable “making things” (as in my homemade books, forts of branches and rocks, and rickety treehouses). I enjoyed the sports I participated in, especially softball (I wasn’t BAD at any position and I was a pretty good hitter and shortstop), and dance classes. I spent countless hours scouring the countryside for exciting adventures, either alone with my BB gun (You’ll shoot your EYE out!) or with my friends. I remember finding the giant pack rat nest. He had built a little hut out of branches and rocks (sound familiar?) and I was positive that a small person lived in there.
Crouching in front of my pals, I peered into the door to the “little house” and saw light dancing off dozens of shiny things. As my eyes adjusted, I realized they were bits of broken glass, pop-top can tabs, and bottle caps. These were nested in a woven mat of old string and rubber bands. And it smelled nasty! Then the “little man” came out, rearing on his hind legs, reaching up with his arms, and baring what looked like three-inch, dark orange sabers. He was hissing! He came staggering out, and I shrieked and we all screamed and ran off. That was Pack Rat. As I ran away, I heard a familiar voice saying, “Surprise, surprise, surprise.” That made me laugh; it wasn’t so scary any more.
I fought – well, this is so feminine, isn’t it? – my first victim was a 5th grade boy who got “smart” when I was in 3rd grade, and I pounded him because that was what I’d seen the other kids do. But after that, I mostly got into it trying to defend my friends. I don’t recall ever initiating any trouble, but I do recall “defending” my friends from teasing and harassment. It wasn’t “teasing” by Junior High. I have to laugh these days when they talk about the problems in the schools. When I was in Junior High, I knew kids who would ditch and go across to the orange grove across the street and engage in what they now call “inappropriate sexual behavior.” We had a teacher who sat at his desk and smoked pot. In LA, I went to a Junior High where we had another pot-smoking teacher who assigned us to read SIDDHARTHA by Herman Hesse (in Junior High!). The “fights” were nearly all gang-related. It is true that back then weapons were mostly knives. But I knew what a switchblade was; I guess what amazes me is that now, people freak out about everything. I’m not saying that these fights are right. They’re not. But it is a completely false impression to suggest that there was “no violence” in schools during the 70’s, whereas now it’s a zone of armed warfare, teachers in terror over students bringing Uzis in through the metal detectors. I went to school during the 70’s, so that should provide some insight into my knowledge of “America’s Drug Problem.”
Years later, when I came to Family Service, the agency in Redlands where I was the director for nearly ten years, I saw a lot of my schoolmates: yes, as people coming in seeking help. I remember one dramatic fight in Junior High with a girl everyone was terrified of. She was much bigger than me, and her gang (race-related, but I won’t feed that to say “which race”) was after my best friend, looking to seriously hurt her. As in switchblade, broken ribs, etc. Many years later, her sister came to Family Service and I learned that the girl who’d led the fight was doing 20 to life in the State Penitentiary, a heroin addict, with six children she’d never see grow up.
This may seem rough. This may seem ugly. But I have never had a “sheltered” life. Parents today may wonder, “How can I protect my children against this type of thing?” The answer is: you can’t. They’ve got to live life just like the rest of us. I don’t think that I had a whole lot more self-esteem than the girl who ended up in the State Penitentiary. My age: her life is now, for all intents and purposes, over. People might say, “Amy, you’re a rich white girl, blah blah blah.” Yeah, I ended up as the director of the agency to which so many of these other kids ended up going, out of money, out of jobs, out of food, addicted to drugs, involved in domestic violence, running from the law. Their children are orphans, being raised by overwhelmed grandparents. I was raised by my grandparents. Rich? I never went hungry. Compared to people in economically stressed countries, every individual in America is “rich.” They have multiple pairs of shoes, television sets, and not one single person in this country needs to go hungry. If they do, it’s because they don’t know about the resources that are available, or because pride, or lack of transportation, or disability, prevents them from taking advantage of them.
I worked for so many years with people of all backgrounds that I almost sometimes laugh when I hear people lecture or hector about “diversity.” That’s not what this is about, but I guess that everybody can understand what “shy” is. It doesn’t matter what you look like or if your name is easy or difficult for others to pronounce — if you’re shy, you’re shy and that’s that. Shyness will prevent you from taking the initiative in doing so many things you want desperately to do. Being there for my friend during all those terrifying gang fights was a large part of helping me to overcome my crippling shyness. I discovered that I had physical courage; it’s not like I thought about it too much at the time. I think that’s what physical courage is: just not worrying. Things you have to think about in advance, like bungee jumping or skydiving? The way to get past that is to turn your brain off and just do it. I used that same process, little by little, in every aspect of my life. Dealing with friends, being in a group and saying more than two words? Turned off the “shyness fear.” Suddenly, everyone thought I was extraverted. Speaking in front of a group? Same thing. I found a way to just turn the fear off and focus on the audience. Maybe part of it is forcing yourself to stop worrying about what others think of you, and instead focus on others — what’s going on with them? How are they reacting? What do they have to say and offer? Rejection fears: I can’t tell you how horrible it was for me to put my work into an envelope and receive those rejection letters back. But after a while, I became able to use the very same process, telling myself each time, “If you don’t try, you’ll fail for certain.” Don’t be shy.
Another part of it was thinking, “Nobody’s better than anybody else.” Shyness is a natural personality trait, but it’s made so much worse by poor self-esteem and inner fears.
As far as the racial thing goes, I guess it makes me really angry. I truly feel that all people deserve the opportunity to do what they want to do in life — pursue the career of their choice, have the family life they want, attend the church they want to be a part of – or no church at all -, live where they want to live, and live free and happy. Because I am who I am, Family Service Girl, always having talked to and been with whomever I got along with, never having given more than a second’s thought to “he or she looks different, sounds different, is different from me,” my friends and acquaintances seldom, if ever, bring up topics of racial or ethnic denigration. I suppose, and as I said to one of my good friends the other day, “We can’t see ourselves as others see us.” You see, I recently realized that “Not everyone feels the same way I do.” I recently heard of a group of middle-class Caucasian individuals “going off” about “Mexicans” with stereotyped, ignorant comments galore. Not just one or two people, an entire group just having an “anti-Mexican” fest. I guess that’s like Cinco de Mayo in reverse. I occasionally hear people using the “N” word, and not in jest. When I was growing up, I desperately wanted to look like Snow White. Well, you can see my picture and see how “likely” that was to happen. I felt sluggy and hideous, a little chubby-cheeked blond girl who wanted to be tall and willowy with long black hair. But what’s that compared to a black or brown woman who constantly has pictures of blond, tall, willowy, blue-eyed women shoved in her face and is told, “That’s beautiful?” A young black man who’s snowed under by images of successful black athletes and entertainers — but what if he isn’t a great athlete, and he can’t sing very well, and what’s more — wants to do something different? I believe that everyone can relate to overcoming shyness, but I don’t know about these other things. It just makes me angry to think about it. I often hear the term “ignorance” used to describe bigotry and prejudice. I think that’s right. I think also that it’s willful ignorance. I believe that it does make bigoted, prejudiced people “feel better” when they put others down with no knowledge whatsoever of what they’re so cruelly babbling about.
What I believe most about this, what I see, is that when people categorize others this way, descending to the lowest, stupidest, most ignorant stereotypes possible, they are committing the ultimate act of disrespect. They are literally throwing other people away as if they were pieces of trash. When I teach, I see the shy student in the back of the class. Often, that student produces the very best work. Because of his shyness, the other students have absolutely no idea what their fellow class member is capable of. The shy student also loses access to what the others are doing and saying. The same process occurs on a larger scale with people who are ethnically bigoted and prejudiced. They automatically cut themselves off from ever being friends with, working with, or having their lives enriched by people who are of the groups they fear, disrespect and hate. As a society, the members of groups who are considered “minorities,” or have endured prejudice and bigotry, are enforced into that position of the shy student in the class — and in many cases, it doesn’t matter if they’re shy or not. I grew up in the day — along with the switchblades and gang free-for-alls at the flag pole, all race-related — when Diahann Carroll was the first black woman to star on a television series. I remember Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura on Star Trek. She was so beautiful and poised. They both were; in fact, I remember them the most of any women on television during those years when I was disturbing Pack Rat and struggling with my own shyness and self-esteem. I loved both shows, and they were my favorite female actors at the time. I believe that they were not just pioneers and role models for black American women, they were role models for all women. But prejudiced and bigoted people would not be able to see through that; to them, they would be “tokens” or there would be resentment against them based on some other racially-motivated “favorite.” In my home, I was encouraged to watch Diahann Carroll, because she was exactly as I said — beautiful, poised, and she played a professional woman and a single mother. Now — where am I today? Certainly not as lovely as Diahann Carroll, but I am a professional woman and a single mother. And when I have to, I can behave with poise and dignity. Today, I look at Halle Berry and often I hear comments about her gorgeous physique, but she has also proven herself as a talented actress. Maybe Halle Berry is the best actress working right now in films. Her beauty and her race receive a lot of comments, but she has definitely “overcome” those stereotypes. I look at her success and I feel incredibly proud. A whole new generation of young women can look at her, watch her films, and see someone who is not just beautiful, but a deeply-perceptive performer with class, talent, and intelligence.
For me, overcoming shyness only occurred when I was able to get a better sense of who I was, as well as deciding who I wanted to be. That does cross all barriers, and — I suppose on a small scale — as a non-Snow-White “dumb blond,” I understand what it’s like to be judged based solely on appearance. And judging based upon appearance is part of human nature. No one can escape that. Now I get to deal with being called “ma’am” and “Mrs. Casil.” Heaven love my students calling me by my first name without asking permission. Like Diahann Carroll, I have to quietly address issues of respect and dignity without causing hurt to others.
I’m still painfully shy. I feel ill every time it’s time to teach a class. I’ve heard other people describe “butterflies” in their stomachs. With me, it’s more like a clenching fist inside. But it’s been a long, long time since I’ve given in, wimped out, or otherwise sidestepped situations where I was uncomfortable or fear-filled. The fear never goes away. It does grow less as time passes. Familiar situations do make things easier.
Looking at brain theory and the theory of the mind (hey, I am a science fiction writer!), it’s now understood that we each “deconstruct” the world as we perceive it, then reconstruct it in our minds. No two people perceive the world in exactly the same manner. But even so, I do believe that we all perceive the world in ways that are similar, and we share common experiences and perceptions that are very like, if not identical, to others. Everything I’ve written about, from the “freaks” in “Chromosome Circus,” to Mel in “To Kiss the Star,” — Mel, there in her wheelchair, looking at her face in the horror that I dread; her face in that story is the face I see in my own mirror each day, because that’s what shyness and low self-esteem is — is really about accepting who you are and overcoming fears, self-doubt and the brutality of others. I suppose my anger derives from the brutality most of all. In the same way that people approach their environment and their lives, with no “intelligence,” but rather selfish, self-interested, “of the moment” reactions and decisions, so, too, are people discarded with no thought whatsoever. It seems to me that those who live their lives this way “deconstruct” the world, but they never put a thing but their own selfish concerns back together.
Overcoming shyness is not about brutalizing or hardening yourself. It’s about perceiving who you are and what you’re capable of doing, and not allowing the shyness to rule your life. Above all, it isn’t about telling yourself that you’re better than others. It’s about telling yourself that you’re a human being, just like everyone else, and that you can and do have something to offer. Real courage, not just blind physical guts, comes from recognizing who you are and making choices based upon your firmly-held inner beliefs and values, regardless of what others say about you, do to you, or even if they ignore you or mock you.
Amy Sterling Casil
Redlands, CA March, 2002