That Time You Let Down Your Hair — When we are the villain in our own story


Tangled, 2010. Walt Disney Pictures, Walt Disney Animation Studios


I was bringing rice to a boil in the kitchen when I noticed how quiet the adjacent living room had suddenly become. There appeared to have been a mass exodus, but signs of life lingered -- abandoned toys, cups with sips of milk left behind, and a collapsed blanket fort in the corner. Down the hallway I could hear toy trains chugging along wooden tracks, plastic dinosaurs growling, and a sing-along-caterpillar being pulled from one room to another. The natives were close, but if I could keep a low profile, I might just steal fifteen minutes of my favorite trash tv. I grabbed the remote and was about to switch channels when the screen caught my attention. It was the opening scene from Tangled -- Disney’s version of Rapunzel. No wonder the kids had scattered. In those days, if it didn’t involve a steam engine, a dinosaur, or wild animals, it didn’t exist. We’d missed the Tangled bandwagon entirely, but that early evening, alone in the living room, the opening of a fairytale caught my attention. A kidnapping, a ruthless old woman, and a saga in a small kingdom?! Maybe I was deprived of quality programming after seven years of Nick-Flipping-Junior and snippets of trash tv, but I was hooked. I slowly sat down, the remote still in my hand, dinner bubbling on the stove, and my children a distant memory.


I burned dinner. And I shushed the kids when they walked into the room hungry.


“Y’all shush,” I sounded like my mom circa 1984 when she’d put me outside so she could watch The Guiding Light.


“Mama’s watching her stories,” she’d say.


Following her lead, I tossed my kids some goldfish and a few boxes of apple juice and gave them the order to scram: “Go play!”


But at least The Guiding Light was intended for mature audiences. Meanwhile, here I was in my thirties and glued to a princess story. Still, I watched the whole damn thing that evening and then became obsessed with it, downloading the soundtrack and singing along to it between errands, ordering Mother Gothel and Rapunzel costumes for me and The Girl to wear for Halloween, and playing the village scene over and over -- that part when Rapunzel and Eugene make it to the town and Rapunzel sees everything she’d missed over the sixteen years she was locked in the tower. That was my favorite part. I was a Tangled superfan, no different than when I was seven-years-old and so obsessed with the Challenger mission that I kept a Challenger-dedicated journal under my pillow and knew the backstory on every crew member on board. When I was seven, I was obsessed with the NASA mission because I wanted to be an astronaut, but when I was thirty-four-years-old, an overgrown Disney princess movie megafan, what was my motivation then?


I am of the belief that we don’t just like certain books, movies, and productions. We are drawn to them. Something in a melody, a storyline, or a performance makes us see the world in a new light. Maybe it's a contagious dance number that sends us off, tap dancing out the theater, or a song with a melody that touches a misplaced heartstring, or maybe, as in the case of an animated story about a young woman held prisoner for the sake of another’s vanity, we see our reflection in the most unexpected character.


*****


In the years between the Challenger and this blog, I was a great many things. I was a singer, an actress, a speech writer, a director, a producer, a public relations director, an editor, a copywriter, a teacher, and a marketing director. I’ve worn more hats than there are hooks on an average hat rack. And it began a few weeks after the Challenger explosion when Mom placed me in front of the television for the PBS afternoon movie, Brigadoon.


I think she did this as much for herself as for me. She needed a break from my incessant paranoia and fact-finding in the aftermath of the botched space mission, but it was I who benefited from the break. That schmaltzy MGM musical launched me, so to speak, into another chapter. Poor Mom. Another obsession ran rampant through the house, much louder than my space one. MGM studios set up production in our little house in the burbs as I tapped, belted, and embodied old Hollywood from dawn till dusk and with little care for how I sounded or what I looked like. I like to call these years, from roughly 1986 to 1990, my first peak, when I put caution to the wind as only a child does -- free from self-loathing, insecurities, and unaware of the norm entirely. This is when I routinely sat my family in the living room as I put on shows, recorded myself singing show tunes and mailed them off to out-of-town relatives, and convinced all of my friends to get on board with my razzle-dazzle. There would be other peaks, but none with such wild liberty. First Peak-Annie was living her best life. But with every peak comes a valley.


*****


Me and The Girl, Halloween 2013

“She’s afraid of herself.”


I remember the first time I heard Mom say this. She was talking to my oldest sister. I was twelve-years-old and had been selected to sing the solo in the choir's performance at the school fair. Admittedly, I was terrified, but because I could only sing the high notes well if I belted them. Seventh grade girls didn’t belt like seven-year-old girls. Seventh grade girls are aware that such behavior draws attention. But afraid of myself? Hell no.


“I’m not afraid of myself! I’m afraid that the microphone will make that weird noise when I get too loud and everyone will laugh at me,” I said this to Mom, to my choir director, and to myself until I believed it.


Years later after I experienced a most excruciating audition, one in which I clammed up after the first eight bars and my sweet soprano turned into pitiful squeaking, I heard Mom say it again: “She’s just so afraid of herself.”


She was in the kitchen and I was lurking in the hallway. Dammit, Mom! I’m not. Give it up.


And I guess I was eighteen or something the last time I heard her say it: “She is still so afraid of herself.” It was after I left the music school in college and bounced around from department to department for three semesters. By then, I was a snotty college kid and over her theory. Don’t use your psychotherapy language on me. I’m not one of your patients. I’m not afraid of anything other than missing all the cliché experiences of college like the ones I missed in high school when I was always stuck rehearsing.


Then after another few years when I’d stopped auditioning in New York, I sat snugly in a production office job and too far away from New Orleans to hear Mom say it again. But I wondered if she thought it, and I became so irritated with myself for even thinking it that I made a personal vow to never bring the subject up again. So imagine my surprise when even more years passed, and after I watched a cartoon about a girl held captive in a tower by an old woman, who hoarded the girl’s magical golden hair for herself, I blurted out, “Holy hell! Mom was right!”


*****


It doesn’t feel good when you admit your Mom was right along. You realize that you acted like a complete shithead to the one person who could have helped you. This makes you feel like a turd, which is exactly how I felt when, while stuck in the Covid-19 quarantine, Tangled popped up on my television for the first time in years, and I forced my now eight-year-old daughter to act out the “Mother Knows Best” reprise with me because I think it's fun to irritate her, and as I belted out my best Donna Murphy, I choked.


“Rapunzel knows best

Fine, if you're so sure now

Go ahead, then give him this

This is why he's here!

Don't let him deceive you!

Give it to him, watch, you'll see!”




The realization hit me hard: I’m terrified. I’ve been terrified for years, and it’s because I’m. Mother. Gothel! Not to my daughter (although give it a few years of forced singing with me and she may beg to differ) but to me! I was so sure of everything but myself for so long that I was my own abductor. At some point, I began to slowly build the structure -- one doubt at a time, one lie at a time -- that would eventually be a sort of prison of my own making. Mom might have associated my fear of myself with singing, but my performance history showed that it was never just a singing matter. While I had long since made peace with leaving a professional relationship with music and theater behind, old habits died hard -- or hadn’t died at all. When I was twelve I was suddenly afraid that belting my heart out would make me look stupid, and in my forties, I can look behind me and see a winding road of deserted efforts, each one tossed aside for the next as I continued to put off the inevitable: facing her. That girl, who lived without caution, is still inside me, bursting to come onto the scene. Her razzle-dazzle may no longer be that of a musical, her aspirations may be entirely different, but her sparkle’s the same, still there, hidden away, and far from focus. And I, her kidnapper, had held her captive for so long that I’d forgotten what it was about her that frightened me.

Why after all these years does she scare me? Why are you afraid of who is inside you? Why does any of us put the focus on everything and everyone but our most fabulous selves -- what we could do and who we could be if we chose to truly honor ourselves. There’s a whole world out there to see, and taste, and explore -- a world that needs our razzle-dazzle more than ever before -- and yet we’re determined to keep us all to ourselves. Mother Gothel in the Disney version is afraid of losing that which keeps her youthful. Her vanity causes her greediness. In the Grimms’ version, Dame Gothel fears loneliness. But what are we so afraid of when we are the villain in our own story?


I know enough to know that the answer won’t be solved in a single blog. Not today, kids. Not today. But I do believe it has something to do with another form of vanity -- pride. If I don’t commit fully to something, then I won’t fall on my ass as hard and subsequently, I won’t look like an ass -- as much. Or so I think. I’d love to travel back in time, to whenever it was that I began to feed myself the lie that the opinions of others -- including my mother’s -- mattered more than my opinion of myself. I wish I could go there, yell, “cut!” and do the scene again. I also know that if I don’t admit what I want, then I can avoid the hard stuff, like rejection and disappointment. But I wish I could also go back in time to shake the confidence out of teenage-me, young-adult-me, and young-mom-me. I’d tell them to try anyway. I’d tell them to try sooner because I wish I could get them to see that giving something your all is scary and hard, but what’s scarier is realizing that you never gave your all to anything, at least not enough to keep the best of you in focus. Commitment issues aren’t confined to romantic relationships. Sometimes the person with whom we have the hardest time building an honest relationship is ourself.

And I suppose only then can we let go of our vanity, and let down our hair.



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