by McKenna Kelley, Gurls Talk Ambassador

Growing up, I was always one of those kids who read for fun. My working mother who was often late picking me up after school, would ask me to meet her at the library close by. I would sit on the second floor waiting, sometimes until closing, finishing up a book I couldn’t check out, because of my overdue library fees. As an only child, reading became a way to fill my time alone, and books were my friends. As I grew older, and the required class reading lists grew longer, and more demanding, I found myself replacing fiction novels with the fashion magazines at Barnes & Noble. The extracurriculars at school cured my loneliness and I swapped my old inanimate friends with real ones I hadn’t had. 

It wasn’t until years later, when I was well into my time at University, that I found myself leisurely re-acquainted with my familiar companions. Now, older and more aware of the world around me, I looked for literature that didn’t just entertain me, but enlightened me. Books that didn’t fuel my childhood longing for escape, but allowed me to feel seen in the reality I’d been living in. So when I was given the option to read Animal written by Lisa Taddeo, to help aid the Gurls Talk podcast, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Animal, Taddeo’s debut fiction novel is the portrayal of unaddressed female rage, explored through a dialogue of passionate description. Though I’ll leave the rest of the plot to your imagination (please pick up this book), Animal gave me the courage to revisit some dark places of my mind I thought I’d left behind. 

I’ve always regarded myself as a free spirit. However, as much as I’d like to pretend I was unhindered by societal acceptance or approval, I often struggled with whether my likeness was hypocritical to what society dictated me to be. Despite my multifaceted character, the world around me has always condensed my emotional expression into one box: The strong black woman. This woman sees pain as a challenge, she confidently uses rage as her persona, and laughs at those who struggle with anything that she deems a weakness. Yet, despite all society has force fed to me, I have never felt this way. If anything, for a long time, I saw my shadows as a detriment, and tried to minimize the full range of my emotions to make others feel comfortable. Perhaps it’s because some part of me always knew that the societal illusion of my strength did not exist. We all, regardless of any socioeconomic class, or race wear our strength in different ways. We each have our own stories and traumas, that give us the grace to accept our uniqueness. Individual strength can’t be condensed into a singular, universal definition of identity. I thank Joan, the protagonist of Animal for reminding me of this (Just get the book already). In actuality, our humanity exceeds stereotypes. Regardless of race or class, we all consecutively feel on a deeper level. We have each, at least once felt pain.

I’ve always been in a constant dispute with myself on whether or not my strength was innate or falsely adopted. Afterall, like most, I’ve never had the power to choose what has happened to me. I never asked for my circumstances. I once believed that struggle was a prerequisite to happiness, and never told of the road less traveled: acceptance. Accepting the past I couldn’t change, the behavior I displayed, or the people I may have unknowingly hurt when I was in a state of survival mode. The most difficult part of my road to acceptance was the demanding realization that I couldn’t outsource self love. At times, I used my free spiritedness to self sabotage. I felt the need to look for approval in the wrong places in order to satisfy an insatiable inner need for understanding. In doing so, I found myself still longing for the escape I craved since childhood. 

I presented myself to the world in half truth, yet constantly wondered why I was seen as a single layer by those who barely knew me. I was more than just strong-willed, but at a point was only praised for the toughness in my demeanor. My to the point way I would dismiss criticism, and how I’d approach any confrontation, supportive, or pessimistic with the same cynicism. Still, it wasn’t until now, that I realized my so-called austerity was a shield that falsely protected me from my own self-doubt. My lack of self love. I was adopting a narrative that I didn’t even align with, only fueled by a lifetime of running away from sharing my truth. In a longing to feel understood I never confronted my rage, but allowed it to form a flawed shield around my broken heart, that endangered me more than it protected me. This armor that I thought was impenetrable, only drove me into a spiral fueled by insecurity, presenting itself as self-absorption. It allowed me to settle for lovelessness from myself and the world alongside me. It deceived me into accepting less than what I deserved, because I believed that maybe I was always supposed to suffer from the wounds of my past. 

I thought that perhaps there were only two types of women. For a long time all I knew was that there were the women that I perceived to have ended up with care-free lives and storybook endings. The ones that had perfectly manicured nails, and flawless personalities you could fall in love with. Those I had envied my entire life, and then there were the women like me. Rough around the edges. Those whose solidity was always regarded as inherent despite a past that haunted us, and regardless of our best efforts to accept it, even on days when we didn’t want to be seen as strong, contributed in some way to our character. The women who found companionship in fictional characters, to try and make sense of the very nonfictional world we were living in. A world that praised overt masculinity, but overlooked any woman who asserted her femininity in a way that challenged the status quo. 

Time and maturity have blessed me with the ability to understand that we have the capacity to dictate our own identities. We have choices, despite a society that has tried to diminish our multidimensionality into boxes, and tell us otherwise. There is no escape from the world we live in, that doesn’t aid in self destruction. To harness our power is to redefine what others have told us about our own potential. It is in understanding duality. Embracing the strength we carry, but also unapologetically expressing our vulnerability. Power lies in shifting our personal narratives from searching outside of ourselves, to confronting our own darkness. It

is so very easy to stay stuck in the same damaging life cycles, when we confuse seeking answers with searching for a justification of our existence. 

Now, acceptance of self has given me the ability to affirm that individual grit is something we may unknowingly carry but ultimately choose. Resilience is a choice, as is self-realization, and personal evolution. The inability to accept ourselves before we question others or the world around us, makes it nearly impossible to forgive our pasts. How can we, if we do not first forgive ourselves? Our mistakes, traumas, and fears can either spark an ignition inside of us, or hold us hostage. The fire inside of us for more is only ignited by courage. Bravery decides who we want to become, even though we can’t change situations or alter time. To face our rage, is to face ourselves. 

While I still do read for some form of escape, mainly from my New York City subway commutes or rush hour traffic, I am more confident in knowing that I am the protagonist of my own story. Now, I channel my feelings into healthy mediums, and use them as fuel to create or help others. I no longer run, but try my best to search for answers that will provide me with the knowledge I feel I need, rather than to pacify my internal complacencies or inadequacies. I choose myself much more than I used to, and am no longer afraid to embrace both strength and softness. My resiliency, once a product of my rage, is now a true component to my character. My emotions, once a form of self harm, have now unlocked a world of self compassion and empathy. 

Also not sure if you were wondering but yes, I still go to Barnes & Noble. I believe I settled my debts with the library, and I’ve finally gotten my fashion magazine to novel ratio down to a science. They are more alike than you’d think. Never judge a book by its cover.