by Jordan E. Rosenfeld
Recently, at a birthday party for a friend of my son’s, I heard myself refer to a child I encountered as “too sensitive” after a dramatic emotional display. The moment the words left my mouth I felt a strange crushing sensation inside: an echo, a memory, as if my very cells were chastising me for my judgment. You see, I was also a “too sensitive” child, cringing against the odd behavior of adults and the expectations of my peers, trying to navigate a world of unclear boundaries and uncertain outcomes. I was the one who called her parents to pick her up early from slumber parties; the one who fled in terror as my older brother pretended there were ghosts in a room; the one who believed the claim from another child on the playground that God was going to strike me down for not sharing my candy.
When I began writing the novel, Forged in Grace in 2005—which for years was called “Little Alien” because it was, for a while, more about alienation—I didn’t realize that I was going to be tapping back into the deep well of sensitivity that my own tender self survived. The character who came to me first was not my deeply sensitive protagonist Grace, but her dominating, willful, manipulative former childhood best friend Marly, a darker presence than Grace’s gentler self. But when Marly first whispered into my ear, I didn’t see her as any of those things; I felt a strong, magnetic, powerful and attractive force all too familiar to me. Marly is a composite: she is Tanya and Andrea and Lena and Marissa, friends I had over the years who were strong and wild, bold and defiant, who rebelled against their parents and dragged me along for the ride until they no longer thought me useful or practical and then tossed me away.
For many years, I had a twisted idea of what it meant to be or have a truly good friend. I knew not to hurt someone’s feelings, not to gossip behind someone’s back. I understood that friendships had to be tended to regularly—that too much time apart led to schisms and negative assumptions. But I was continually drawn to the kinds of friends who overpowered me, who burned bright and big and dangerous as flames, who found my sensitivities annoying, my precocious tendencies threatening. They blazed their own path with no regard for me unless I could help them burn brighter.
It started early, with Andrea, a good friend at the age of 10. Her method of getting rid of me when I became too boring and didn’t want to take risks — like stealing alcohol from her parents and lighting things on fire — was to call me out in public and slap me in front of mutual school friends over a fabricated “lie” I allegedly told about her.
I grew up in Marin County, California, where it seemed everyone I knew was either from a wealthy family or on welfare, the perfect cliché from those 80′s John Hughes movies. And yet, although I shopped at Clothestime instead of Macy’s, I had a small, tenuous cluster of friends — until I didn’t. One day, halfway through the year, Natalie and Marissa took me aside and told me they couldn’t hang out with me anymore.
“It just looks bad for us,” Natalie said with an apologetic smile.
“It’s not personal.” Marissa picked at the chipping nail polish on her nails..
Not personal? I felt like I’d been tied with cinder blocks and sunk under water.
All I had left was my childhood best friend, Sacha, a year older than me. I turned to her for advice, half-hysterical. She put her hands on my shoulders, inhaled deeply and delivered the verdict, “You’re just so mature,” she said.
The word was a fist in the gut. I wanted to toss “maturity” off like a stinky old blanket.
It wasn’t maturity; I was just poorly socialized—an only child raised among adults whose 1970′s urge to turn on and tune out had led to broken families and rehab programs—I didn’t know how to talk to other kids. Or more specifically, I didn’t know how to be a kid, what the rules were. When I went to my few friends’ houses (friends forged by my parents, and kids I did not go to school with), many times a friend came downstairs wondering where I’d gone only to find me talking to their parents as if they were my peers.
I wish I could say that high school was the last time a friend and I had a painful ending, but there were several more to come, even into my thirties, though by then I had grown some thicker skin, and soon learned to trust my instincts.
And here’s the thing, even though I know it’s a cliché — I’m glad I was that sensitive child. I’m glad I struggled to learn the rules, and I don’t regret running after all those big personalities; it was the first series of lessons in friendship, about getting burned and being a good friend, that has allowed me to both be and have the quality friends I do now.