In school I sought escape from the nightmare of home, but found neither refuge nor solace, for I was Clint Baker, the boy who played with dolls. So I turned to the church for love, but its love was like chocolate to a dog, a delectable poison. Still, it so mimicked my father’s love, conditional yet capricious—can I be blamed for being so horribly mistaken? I dutifully enrolled in Bible College, where the staff discovered my misplaced diary, and therein the crush I had on a fellow student (years before the crush on the aforementioned Mr. Shaw). Thus I was given the ultimatum: if I was to remain in school, I had to enroll in therapy to convert to heterosexuality. Even after I transferred to Indiana University, I remained in the treatments so as to merit the love of God and man—when all I longed for was the love of a man. When I, wishing to no longer commit the sin of lying, dared to speak the truth that I was most definitely not turning into a heterosexual despite my best effort, I lost nearly everyone.
Then the state of Indiana slashed my funding for school and eliminated the insurance that I needed in part to treat the effects of having suffered a decade under the quacks who failed to transform me into a perfectly acceptable heterosexual. I packed my maximum four bags onto a Greyhound bound for Minneapolis, a place I knew only by reputation—the best decision, aside from abandoning the quackery, I have ever made. My worst day in Minnesota is better than my best day in Indiana because I can breathe free.
I come from strong people. I am Strong. Could I really have any other name?”
As far as I knew, no one knew about Return to Oz . I can’t even recall an origin story, how the movie actually showed up in my hands. My sister claims we just found the VHS somewhere, maybe in an overlooked bin, at some video store that may have been Blockbuster. I do remember looking at the cover and knowing immediately that I wanted it. We went home and watched it. And watched it again. And watched it again. And watched it. Again.
This is an Oz you might unfamiliar with. The film begins with Dorothy Gale—the same Dorothy character previously played by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, but now played by a younger Fairuza Balk—shortly after her return to Kansas. Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are growing concerned with Dorothy’s inability to sleep, and what they see as her obsessive delusions, this odd fixation on a place she’s created in her head. In order to help cure her, they bring her to a mental institution to be treated overnight via electroshock therapy. It’s nighttime, it’s raining, and Dorothy can hear the howls of other patients in pain.
This unexpected premise resonated with me as a child. At that age, I felt just as Dorothy did—misunderstood to the point of feeling like an alien, finding home only in imagined worlds. I was brought to see a psychiatrist for similar reasons. Why this obsession with the imagined? Where was reality? I was always more concerned with my inner world than socializing with the other kids around me. So prone to fantasy, I hardly even noticed my peers. In pictures, always looked both meek and haunted. My eyes darted elsewhere.”
I live in Boston now and she lived in Hisarya, Bulgaria, and I could not afford the plane ticket. This is the equation every emigrant tries to solve: distance times the cost of travel equals helplessness equals heartache equals guilt.
I carried my grief like a bruise on a part of my body hidden from others. I told my husband about my grandmother’s passing but did not want to discuss it, and I didn’t tell any of my friends except one, weeks after the fact, in a text message. I could not bring myself to talk about losing my last living grandparent, because talking about her would mean talking about the literal and figurative ocean between where I come from and where I am now.”
There are three things you should know. First: I have been suicidal twice in my life—at the age of twelve and again at the age of thirty-six. Second: Although I have never attempted suicide, only flirted with it in extreme ideation, I am a suicide survivor. Third: A fifteen-year-old boy named John, the first-born child and only son of a dear friend and my oldest daughter Lily’s first crush, saved my life. He did this by taking his own.”