Open with a distantly related anecdote.
When I was 12 years old, I spent one week out of the summer before the 7th grade at our local Catholic Diocese’s camp. It was six days of non-stop wholesome fun with constant supervision and I hated every minute of it. Once my parents divorced, I grew up in what I like to describe to strangers who I don’t want to make uncomfortable as “a hands off environment.” I pretty much did whatever I wanted and it sure as heck didn’t involve church on Sunday mornings. So, for six days, I was combative, moody, and uncooperative with people who were nothing but nice to me and who came from homes with 12 other children who also thought camp was the greatest thing ever. I refused to swim, explaining that I’d done the math and there were too many people in the pool for it to be sanitary, drew a picture of a burning cross during crafts, brought up the birth control thing with a bunch of 11-year-olds, and called a girl a bitch and threatened to push her out of a canoe. Yeah. I’m lucky an exorcism wasn’t involved. Surprisingly enough, I wasn’t the most difficult person in my cabin, for a few bunks down, there resided two girls with the last name Hill. They claimed they were sisters and told elaborate stories of family events where they were bestest friends for four days until one of them flipped out one night, because she was away from home for the first time and couldn’t handle it. When the camp counselors pulled her sister in to comfort her, she hysterically started screaming that they weren’t even related. I slept through the whole thing and got this story secondhand and I have no idea why I remember it.
A part of me, however, must have done so with the intention of storing the occurrence for future reference, because at 23, newly divorced with the whole world having watched my life fall apart, creating a pretend identity was an apparently irresistible subconscious desire. Having aged far past the camp stage in life, I really didn’t have the opportunity to plan out an intentional week-long charade. At the time, I worked at the local community center, where I had met some of the most supportive and reliable friends I’ll ever have. They knew all of my secrets and loved me just the same. But they knew all of my secrets. They’d received the drunken phone calls, seen me burst into tears at random, and heard about the days at a time I’d spent throwing out all of my belongings in an insane life purge. This was on top of my dear, dear sisterfriend Gail, who had been with me since we were 15 and knew all of my mommy issues and details of my marriage I won’t even tell a therapist. Though it’s beyond comforting to know that these people have seen the most fucked up parts of my soul and still want me in their lives, nothing will ever make me feel quite as raw as having known so many people were just recently worried about the massive amounts of Everclear I’d been consuming. So, when the opportunity arose for me to get a job in my field, where I could work my way up, the last thing I wanted was for these people that I would be working with in a professional capacity, to also know what I looked like inside out. And so… Winifred was born.
Oh, the times I went to the fake beach with my color-coordinated family…
To clarify, my coworkers know me by my actual name and Winifred is just the codename Gail has given my work persona to make it clear that she not only disapproves, but thinks I’m completely insane. I maintain that Winifred’s creation was unintentional. When I got the job at the library, I’d finalized my divorce months earlier and had barely gotten all of my documentation put back in my maiden name. I just didn’t feel like talking about the event that had so thoroughly broken me when I had barely begun to pick up the pieces. Luckily, as a 23-year-old graduate student, it never came up. Even at 25, no one ever asks me “Have you ever been married?” unless I’m on a date or filling out a form. I assume it doesn’t occur to people that someone with such academic tunnel vision could have had the time to fit in a failed marriage. I look quite young as well, often mistaken as a student when I substitute teach, with most guessing 21 or 22 on an average day.
In addition to my age and academic standing, I had just recently moved back to my hometown of Shetland. It was a place to lick my wounds and, as much as I hated it at 16, it is home and I’ve taken comfort in my view of the city water tower from my patio. Most of my coworkers live in the city and Shetland is an outlying wealthy suburb. Because women are catty and competitive, my elation at returning home was taken as a challenge. I couldn’t simply be happy where I was without comparing it to where my coworkers were, or so they assumed.
Finally, I come from wealthy, self-made people, who worked their asses off for everything they have. I greatly admire this and I’m proud of them for it. So, I’ve said so. Combine these factors and my coworkers see me as a spoiled and sheltered 25-year-old who’s truest hardship was her parents’ divorce, goes to lunch with daddy every week, and has everything handed to her in her wealthy little hometown. They think I’m conservative in my views, because I’ve never struggled. In actuality, it’s because my ex-husband used to try to get me to go get him food stamps when he refused to work and had already stolen all of the money in my wallet. They think my contentment with Shetland is a reflection of my being “uppity” (direct quote) when it’s just the place that welcomed me back after life kicked my ass.
One time, pre-Winifred, I shared the story of Grace, Gail’s daughter. Precious, perfect, with the lungs of an angry baby elephant, I sat by Gail’s side as she died at 8 months, 5 days, and 15 minutes. I was Aunt Belle and my heart broke as I watched Gail shatter. It was truly awful. It took me one year to share this with my coworkers. It was Gail’s heartache more than mine, and therefore the perfect tester. S compared it to losing her son’s girlfriend, which she repeatedly said was the most pain anyone could feel.She said Gail owed it to the children of the world to track down every woman her ex-husband ever dates and make sure they know he was interested in little girls. It was the first and last piece of myself I shared.
When I discovered the beginnings of Winifred’s existence, she had not yet been accepted or named. A coworker simply told me that everyone felt that I thought I was better than they are because I live in Shetland (ironic, since I started a hate website based on this town at 16.) I spent a week or two mulling this over. I’ve been through my own Hell and worked my butt off to get the things I have, but they don’t know that and give me no credit for it. I didn’t mean to lay the foundation for a new identity. I saw it two ways, though. I could A) correct this misunderstanding and give them undeserved information on my life, with which to gossip or B) run with it.
I think it was here that the issue became psychological. I have this tendency to think that there’s a point where I may as well make things worse. If there’s really no coming back from something, why not just go with it? At least it’ll make for a good story. My coworkers are never going to shake that feeling that I’m entitled and full of myself. Why bare my soul in the attempt to change that? Finally, I heard a coworker make a joke that is apparently regularly spoken at my expense: “It’s always 85 and sunny in Shetland.” My mind was immediately made up.
Once my psyche truly fissured and I fully embraced my alter ego, I began to encourage the misunderstandings. ENCOURAGE THE MISUNDERSTANDINGS. Not lie. A coworker and I argued over marriage.
Me: “I just don’t think that I ever want to give anyone that much control over my happiness.”
S: “I don’t feel like I’ve given my husband any control over my happiness.”
Me: “Yeah. Because he hasn’t taken advantage of it.”
It’s funny, because she thinks I’m talking out of my ass about things I don’t understand. She thinks I base this on my parents’ issues, at most. It’s likely she doesn’t even give me that qualifier, because I never talk about my parents’ divorce either. She just knows I have step-parents.
S: “Well. I just don’t think I’m fond enough of marriage to ever try it again, anyway.”
Me: “Yeah. Me neither.”
N: laughingly “You never tried it in the first place.”
Me: hearty laughed tinged with a little madness.
Later, I discovered that N thought I was a virgin. I don’t know why he thought this. I never said that, because there’s no way that is even a carefully laid truth.
Me: “I’m not saying yes or no either way, but I never said that.”
N: “Yes! You did! It’s not a big deal or anything.”
He thinks I’m embarrassed that I’m a virgin. I was married for four and a half years and have managed to accidentally convince a coworker that I’m pure as the driven snow. I’m assuming I mentioned that I was “inexperienced” and he concluded an exaggerated version of that. However, upon realizing this, I’d fully accepted Winifred and thought it was funny, so I encouraged it. It’s not like I owe him clarification. On another occasion, I verified that I could count on one hand the number of people I’d kissed. It’s true. It supports his assumption. It’s funny for me.
As time goes by and I tell stories of happy family moments, I purposefully skip over the tragedies with complete truth.
S: “I think the house fire was probably one of the worst days of my life.”
Me: “I can imagine. That would be awful.”
N: “Did you know women who miscarry actually blame themselves sometimes.”
Me: “I bet that would just be heartbreaking.”
S: “Well, my mother was really abusive.”
Me: “Oh. I’m sorry.”
I have a degree in education and therefore the required basic understanding of psychology. I have, indeed, done some introspection in regards to Winifred, at Gail’s prodding and insistence that this is unhealthy. I realize now, that what started as an accident has become a defense mechanism and an escape. I recently read a memoir in which the author talked about wearing a red wig to help with anxiety. That’s Winifred. I slip behind her and pretend my life is made of family dinners and apple pie. If my coworkers don’t like me, it’s because they think I’m uppity, not because I grew up in a trailer house, in my brother’s hand-me-down clothes and have whopping mommy issues. Winifred is the uppity one and I don’t have to face rejection if I don’t let anyone get to know me. When Belle fails her graduate portfolio, I get to put on the mask of Winfred, to whom everything comes easily. When I’m under attack, Winifred is the one who gives calm and professional responses, rather than getting weepy, my eventual reaction to every strong negative emotion.
Not pictured: Tears
I’ve also realized, however, that some things cannot be escaped with a fiery red wig. I can’t truly be Winifred and it hurts every time I’m forced to acknowledge this when I just want to pretend. When I’m overwhelmed by the fact that I still can’t sleep through the night without experiencing a pulsing of terror and nightmares about marriage, I break just a little, because I’ll never be the girl with the apple pie life. I am suddenly the shattered 23 year old sitting in a judge’s office alone, asking for a divorce, a little hungover. In reality, I’ve actually begun to develop some of my made up characteristics. I work hard and refuse to get angry in a confrontation, clinging to passive commentary such as “I’m sorry you’re so unhappy. I’ll pray for you.” I feel making actual changes for the better must justify the illusion.
Sometimes, it’s tempting to kill off Winifred’s character, such as when a coworker told me that I’d never be successful at marriage if I couldn’t make mashed potatoes. But I swallow the urge, because how funny is that? Yes, THAT was the gaping hole in my marriage. Mashed potatoes.