There is an epic scene in episode 5 (“Room Service”) of Hotel, the fifth season of the American Horror Story series, where Kathy Bates’ character, Iris, murders an obnoxious couple while screaming, “I MATTER!” Iris had spent her entire life up until that moment feeling invisible and being overlooked or belittled by everyone, including her own son. The scene is a cathartic and life-altering moment for Iris, and a powerful example of amazing acting by Kathy Bates.
That scene in particular has always stuck with me. I have virtually nothing in common with the character, Iris. Although there are times I have felt invisible, as an adult, I never really have been. I am generally liked by most people I encounter. For the most part, people listen to me when I speak. I have been afforded great access and proximity to power in my professional life (even if I didn’t want it and actively tried to reject it). I thankfully haven’t murdered anyone or become a vampire either, but I digress.
For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to “be somebody.” To matter. And for me, I have defined “matter” to mean someone who influences and inspires other people. It is why I loved acting, or the accoutrements of acting — the attention and the applause, not the art of the performance. It’s why I am drawn to politics and still think I may run for office someday. It’s also one of the many excuses I have used to not write, or to not consider myself a writer. Amongst the many, many excuses I have used throughout my life to not write, my fear of my own ego, arrogance and narcissism has been ever present. My own fear of success and of becoming a leader has been fueled by my fear that I will somehow get lost in my own quest for recognition. That my mission will eventually be overshadowed by my quest for applause. So rather than allow that to happen, I have stifled and swallowed my words, feelings, and thoughts and remained static.
I know that my quest for attention is rooted in my childhood. I am the youngest of ten children, and as far back as I can remember, I was constantly and desperately seeking more attention. If there was a camera, I was in front of it. I fantasized about being on stage and put on musical performances for my parents while draped in imaginary evening gowns made of knitted blankets. I was called a “ham” by my siblings constantly. While this could be part of the cliched backstory of any now-famous actor or musician, it is not. My performances were tolerated, rather than encouraged, and my musical engagement came to an end after just two performances because my father made it clear that he had already watched me enough and wanted to return to his comfortable evening habit of falling asleep on the couch in front of the television before retiring to bed.
Yes, I was my parents’ tenth child, but I was born nearly seven years after my closest sibling, and being so much younger than my siblings, most of them didn’t want anything to do with me. Each day, I watched them go off to school, and I would spend hours in the living room listening to their records and playing “school”, where I rode the bus like they did, and hung out with them and their cool friends (there wasn’t any education in my school; just social interactions apparently.) I repeated things they told me to repeat, like pretending to smoke a joint and say, “oh, I’m soooo stoned”, because I loved their laughter and attention when I did it. I listened to their stories and lived vicariously through them, unconsciously placing myself in them, but I was never really there. My memories of actually being with my siblings- truly with them as a sister, are few and far between. Mostly, I followed them around; trying desperately to be with them, but the age difference and where we were in our lives were just too different. I spent most of my life waiting for that magical day, “someday”, when we would be close and actually share common events and conversations and good times.
While I was desperately trying to get the attention of my siblings, I was simultaneously desperately trying to avoid the attention of my mother. My mother was the dominant force in my household. All of my moods, thoughts and actions revolved around her emotional gravitational center, which always seemed to be positioned at angry and miserable. Whatever I thought, felt, or expressed was wrong, and she made that crystal clear. If I said I was hungry, she told me I wasn’t. If I was happy, it better not be because of a boy, but because I got a good grade or something “wholesome”. If I was unhappy, I had no reason to be, and I better smile. If I said I was tired, she told me I was lazy. If I expressed an opinion about something she didn’t like or agree with, she told me I didn’t care about anyone by myself. Not only could I never do anything right, but I couldn’t ever feel anything right, either. My very existence was wrong. She may have never said the words, “you don’t matter”, but that is how she made me feel every day of my life growing up and well into adulthood.
It has taken me decades as an adult to stop hearing my mother’s voice in my head. I still fight the negative thoughts she filled me with every day. I am fighting them right now as I write this. Each minute of each day of my existence is a series of battles in the ever-present tug-o-war inside my brain, where my soul screams, “I MATTER!” and the ghosts of my mother, and my siblings, and the persistent voices of the patriarchy and misogyny whisper incessantly, “No you don’t, and you never will.”
As I push past my fear of being a narcissist and my need for attention, and as I claw my way out of my own head and into my body, and into the present, and as I sit down to write, I am faced with my biggest fear about writing my story which is that I am remarkably ordinary. My mom was mean, but not abusive. I had a bad childhood, but I also had a great childhood. I am smart, but not a genius. I am okay looking, but definitely not gorgeous. I make enough money to pay the bills but am nowhere near rich. I am fat, but not morbidly obese. I am even middle aged — neither too young, nor too old. I am, for all intents and purposes, absolutely, positively nobody special.
But I also have a secret and persistent thought rising up from my soul, that says that being ordinary might actually be my superpower. This country is filled with hundreds of millions of fabulously ordinary people living remarkably mundane and ordinary lives. So many of our parents made us feel like we don’t matter (often because their parents made them feel like they didn’t matter), and so much of our American society tells us we don’t matter unless we look a certain way or do certain things or especially if we don’t own the right things. Every day we are all bombarded by a litany of messages telling us we don’t matter. So many of us are filled with so much pain and sadness and fear, while living in a society that tells us constantly to “buck up” and swallow your feelings and go, go, go because if you make enough money you can buy happiness and meaning in your life. We are all moving so fast, we barely have time for ourselves, let alone one another. Very few of us will become an instantly famous and rich YouTube star or Instagram influencer or the next Kardashian, but I think not so deep down inside everyone has the desire to matter, it just means different things to different people.
For me, “matter” means “ to influence”, but if I drill down deeper, what it actually means is sharing myself — my whole self, in hopes of reaching other people and helping them feel like they matter, too. To a lot of people historically and intentionally denied access to power and basic human rights, “matter” means the very right to exist; to live; to be considered human; as well as the right to thrive.
The desire to “matter” can also become hideously distorted by abuse, neglect, racism, sexism, classicism, misogyny and toxic masculinity and drive people to commit atrocities. Iris may be a television character, but she murdered two people who belittled her because she felt like she didn’t matter. The desire to “matter”; to be known; to be heard can also be exploited to drive hate and division and to hold on to (what I hope are) the last vestiges of white, colonial, heteronormative, patriarchal power.
I fundamentally believe — despite and because of my own journey toward allowing myself to matter, that we all matter simply because we were born, and we are here. We are all human, and we all matter (which should absolutely not be mistaken to mean “all lives matter”. All lives do matter, but not as an answer to Black Lives Matter.) All of the reasons we create to justify some people’s existence or importance over others are just that: creations. They are false. They are lies, and my goal before I leave this life is to make as many people not only feel like they matter, but know that they do, starting with myself.