Invisibility has always been my shield and my curse. I can recall just a few images from my very early childhood — the shape of the living room in our Buffalo home, the black Labrador puppy we fostered for a year, the bunk bed I shared with my oldest sister. What I remember most were my feelings, especially a general sense of wariness about other people. I decided early on that most of them were not to be trusted. I figured out at a very young age that if I kept myself as quiet and unnoticeable as possible, I was way less likely to earn a beatdown from our alcoholic dad. And if that was how I needed to behave inside my home, it only made sense to me that I must be even more careful outside my home in a world full of strangers.
After we moved to suburban Detroit and I began kindergarten, I suddenly found myself in a situation where I had to interact with strangers. I was too shy to know how to make friends, and most of my classmates lived in a neighborhood on the other side of Michigan Avenue — a scary, high-traffic road that pretty much dictated where you hung out and who you played with after school. So I only saw those kids in class, unless our moms scheduled a play date (which wasn’t as much of a thing back then). There was a girl in my class who lived around the corner from me and so we started walking to school together. She could either be really fun or really mean. She was also prone to highly dramatic tantrums that reminded me of bad days when Dad was home from work. In other words, it seemed perfectly natural that I would be friends with someone like her. Plus she sought me out. What other choice did I have?
As I grew up, I struggled with mixed desires to be seen and appreciated while also craving the safety of invisibility. School became an outlet for positive attention. I dutifully completed all my homework and received good grades. I eagerly anticipated quarterly report cards because that’s when I got to read nice things teachers would say about me. “Tara is a joy to have in class” was a common one. “Thoughtful,” “conscientious,” and “does great work” seemed to come up a lot, too. Constructive critique usually appeared in the form of “Tara is very quiet and I would like to hear her speak up more.” This confused me. Wasn’t my being quiet a good thing? I didn’t cause problems like other kids did. If I got all the answers right and didn’t cause problems, wasn’t that winning? This was the problem with resting all my self esteem on report cards. Those couple sentences of handwritten praise never felt like enough.
I also had to wonder if the teacher actually liked me or if they were rather swayed by an affection for one of the five older siblings who came before me. “Oh, you’re one of the McComb kids!” was something I often heard on the first day of school. We were all smart, attentive, well-behaved children, so this was usually a positive association. I would blush with pride every time a teacher said this, knowing that I was already making a good impression. I thought all of my older siblings were very cool and sophisticated, and I liked that these grown-ups might assume I was just as interesting as they were. But then I worried I might disappoint them in the end. They might wind up finding me boring and forgettable.
As much as I admired my older brothers and sisters, I felt pretty invisible to them, too. In my experience, there’s not a lot of love for the sixth of seven children. After my little brother was born, I stopped experiencing the novelty of being the baby of the family. I was just another annoying little kid who always wanted to tag along when they were trying to hang out with their friends, another person to fight for control of the TV or the good spot on the couch. But I did notice that they liked when I listened to their stories and laughed at their jokes. Everyone in my family is witty and sharp, great at telling a funny story. My big brothers and sisters — who were three to eleven years older than me — shared this lore about the old neighborhood where we’d lived before our family moved to the upper Midwest. They would tell stories about Buffalo so often that it almost seemed like I could remember the people and places they referenced. But I didn’t remember, so I couldn’t share in their reminiscing. I just had to be an audience member.
So that’s the gist of my formative years. I was a scared, shy, lonely kid with a bullying best friend. I wanted to be seen and loved, but saw too much risk in bringing attention to myself. So I kept quiet and learned to be a very engaged audience member. Now I go through so much therapy trying to undo all of that! I don’t want to be invisible anymore. And yet I am a woman over 40 with graying hair i.e. the world’s most invisible demographic. Unless you spend a lot of time and money trying to look hot (never a priority for me), you will be ignored. In recent years, I found a modest platform for my wit on Twitter. And I found a sense of community in my local DSA chapter. And because I’ve recently quit both of those things, I feel my presence fading fast.
My husband is well-known in our community. He’s a sociology professor and core member of a housing justice group. His name and face frequently appear in local media. Sometimes in my community organizing experience, I’ve met other activists and academics who were standoffish toward me until the moment they realized who my husband was. Then came the warmth and friendliness. Ick. I mean, he is an incredible guy so I kind of get it. Celebrity just brings out the crass sycophancy in people.
Though that housing justice group is part of our DSA chapter, I was never much involved with it, because we’ve found our family life flows better when we keep our organizing activities separate. And since I just recently went through a really tough harassment grievance process, my interest in local organizing has plummeted. I pay membership dues and share org content on social media. Otherwise, I prefer to be left out of it.
This weekend I met one of our comrades at the park. Our kids have become friends, so we do this periodically. I was in the midst of telling him about the harassment grievance (a sensitive subject) when a woman approached him. She was a tenant he’d assisted on behalf of the housing group. So they started talking about housing issues throughout the city. And there I sat again as an audience member, hearing all about these organizations from which I have estranged myself. At one point we noticed our kids had wandered away from the playground, so he phoned his daughter to see where they’d gone. He said, “I’m sitting here with… with… sorry, I’m blanking on your name.” He could not remember “Tara.” I have known this person for years.
I’m ready to give up on people completely. Yet I feel a need to express myself. So I’m just going to keep writing and sharing my essays, doing my therapy, and looking at trees. I’m hopeful I might find a better society in the forest. I feel more visible there.