Dear Hannah Gadsby,
Thank you first and foremost for existing. Thank you for existing in the margins. Thank you for your jokes, your “lesbianing,” your non-binary gender in a binary world, for being a “quiet gay” who likes the sound a teacup makes on a saucer, your art history degree, for hating baby headbands, for your tension, for your anger, for your unwillingness to punch down at your own place in the world anymore.
Thank you for your comedy and your special on Netflix, called Nanette.
Hannah — I hope it’s okay if I call you Hannah — most of all I thank you for the searing sense of validation I feel in my chest right now.
No doubt you’re thinking, who the hell is The Sin City Siren and why should I care about her feedback? (Feedback.) I am a syndicated feminist blogger in Las Vegas, because I like a challenge. I’m also a wife, mother, Christian, award-winning journalist, and screenwriter. But if you ask the internet, I’m also a bitch, baby killer, godless, fake-news peddler. Or to use the parlance of your comedy, a lot of people call me a lesbian. (Watch the special, people.)
I really wanted to write to you because I’ve been feeling stuck lately and watching your special made something finally feel un-stuck. You say in your special that laughter and anger both unite people, but anger spreads fear. Oh anger: I’ve been wrestling with that. That and the fear.
I’ve been doing The Sin City Siren for 11 years. Or rather, I’ve been The Sin City Siren for 11 years. It’s like my drag name, my persona. My actual name is Emmily Bristol. Not a very good show name. But also, when I started, I didn’t think Emmily Bristol was enough. Emmily Bristol is not a firebrand. Who wants to listen to Emmily’s ideas? I mean, really. The most famous Emmily in America is Auntie Em on the Wizard of Oz and what does she do besides make fried chicken? No, when I started my blog, I wanted to be a bigger, better, bolder version of myself. The Siren! It’s an alarm! It’s a group of sea witches that lure misogynist, cisgender, straight, white men to their death! Perfect.
I had righteous anger and I wanted everyone to be moved by it. Like you, I am a rape survivor. I say survivor, both because I survived extreme torture and because I am not a victim. I never wanted to tell that part of my story and now I’ve told it so many times — here, in newspapers, on the radio, on tv — I might as well put it on my business card: Professional Rape Survivor. (There are some jokes there, but I’ll digress.)
Before I was The Sin City Siren, I was an award-winning journalist in the straight journalism world. By straight, I mean mainstream and traditional news outlets. But I think there are some other implications there, too. I never came out as bi in any of the newsrooms I worked in and only worked with one out gay man or woman in 10 years. So, there’s that.
I always feel weird putting “award-winning” in front of journalist. It’s 100% true. I won the Outstanding Journalist of the Year award from the Nevada Press Association in 2005. It’s the single highest honor given to an individual journalist by the NPA. It was the first year I was eligible, as I had not worked at an eligible publication before that. You have to be nominated for it. I didn’t even know it existed or that I’d been nominated. I found out that I won a few months after there was a corporate merger. Two newsrooms had just been ripped in half and then stitched painfully back together. It was not a team room, yet. I was the only member of the old staff that was (a) still at the publication, and (b) asked to go to the awards banquet. At the event, I sat at a table with my three new bosses. Awkward.
After I got home with the award, I wrapped it in a towel and put it in the back of my closet, under a giant pile of old blankets. I never talked about it. I didn’t add it to my resume to keep it up to date. When people mentioned it to me, I would blush and change the subject. I did not feel worthy of this award, or the others I had won that night.
And then, years later, when I was writing the bio section of this blog, I decided I should live my feminist ideals and own my success. Every male journalist and blogger I knew didn’t fret about listing their accomplishments. They didn’t ask themselves if it made them look like assholes. So I wrote “award-winning” next to my occupation. The next morning, I had an email from a college student who found my blog because her Women’s Studies professor had handed out a print-out of one of my posts. (If I had a dollar for all the free Women’s Studies subject material I’ve given, I’d be rich! Not white guy rich, but definitely feminist rich.) The student remarked how I mentioned winning awards in my bio. “It’s really refreshing to see a woman own her accomplishments. I wish more did.” And from that moment on, I never hesitated again. For the aspiring whatevers in the world: I will not diminish my flame so that you can aspire even higher.
Cut to 11 year later. I’m still here. I’m still writing about rape, because #MeToo damn it! But, like you, I’m also taking stock. I’m in my 40s now. I don’t need to hide behind a moniker or a persona to feel firmly in myself. Like you say, I’m in my prime now! I dare you to fuck with me! I am Emmily Bristol, and well, people do care what I have to say.
So the past several months I’ve been writing a book. In some ways, I feel like I’ve been writing this book for 11 years. I’ve been workshopping bits and pieces right here, without knowing it. But a couple months ago, I just had to stop for a break. The writing has been hard and writing is never hard for me. My newsroom editors always loved how fast I could crank out a story. I often feel like I don’t really know what I think until I am typing. And all the typing I’ve done here for the past decade has helped me meet my true self, to learn, to grow, to come into my own power. So where have all the words gone?
When people ask me what the book is about, it’s simple. It’s everything I’ve learned being a feminist blogger and activist in Las Vegas. It’s everything being The Siren has taught me about myself and other people, even my so-called enemies. What do I want to accomplish? I want to help people. Truly, it’s that simple. I want to help people, not because I have 10 easy steps, but because I was so alone and so scared on so much of my journey. It would have been like angels singing if I had someone to just hold my hand and walk a piece with me during some of those days.
But the words stopped. And I knew it was not for lack of actual words. Something inside me was stuck. There was a nagging voice inside me. What if I tell my story — the whole story without flinching, without witty quips, without my Righteous Anger Persona — and nobody cares? What if it doesn’t matter? What if Emmily Bristol is not enough?
Worse yet, I know there are parts of my story that are ugly and messy and brutal. There are parts that will shame people who have hurt me on the deepest level you can hurt someone. And there was a part of me that didn’t want to tell those parts, because I was scared. Because I thought if I told the truth about the parents who threw me away and the grown man who raped me off and on for nine years, that it would still somehow be my shame, my worthlessness that everyone would see. Not the bad parenting or inhumanity. My shame.
I tried for a little while to write the book without the parts that make me feel that way. But it doesn’t work. For one, I’ve already talked about it here and loads of other places. It would be weird to pretend that’s not part of my backstory or the story of The Sin City Siren. For another, it would make me a hypocrite. I’ve said countless times here, on social media, and in straight media, that I am not the one who should feel ashamed for what was done to me. The shame belongs to my perpetrator and those who enabled him. But it’s like you say in Nanette, what happens to a child when the seed of shame is planted so early and so deep? I can’t just switch it off.
Your comedy special reminded me that I deserve to tell my whole story. And it deserves to be in the world. I am not responsible for resolving other people’s tension. I deserve to take up space.
I’m so grateful you decided to tell your story. It’s going to touch countless people. It’s certainly helped me remember I am more than my anger and my shame. And I’m ready to let people know what that is.
With best wishes,
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons