I remember thirteen. I was withdrawn, dark and heavy. The early trauma of my life like weighted stones strapped to my growing limbs. I was alone, trying to navigate the jungle of loss and abuse along with the new curve ball of puberty.
My sexuality felt like a nuclear weapon I was in no way equipped to manage with my bare hands. And one I did not want; I’d been vaulted into the terror dome of adult sexuality with barely a warning. One day I was all gangly legs and clumsy steps, and overnight it seemed grown men came to leer at my thirteen year old body sprouting at curvy horizontal angles with the baggy, boy clothes I wore doing little to mask them. I- all southern Baptist and attending a Catholic school full of skinny, flat white girls- felt deeply ashamed as kids ignorant about puberty called me a whore and men found ways to stand too close and touch too much.
And so I decided to lean in. I felt helpless to stop the leering and jeering, so I felt my only recourse was to become what they said I was. Overnight I lost the baggy jeans I hid in and traded them for skirts already short that I’d roll even shorter when I left home to show long, shapely legs. Loose t-shirts with cartoons on them went in the trash and were replaced with v-necks in clingy fabrics when I could get away with it. Gone was black. Everything was red and pink and purple and hugging all the places I knew everyone was looking anyway.
But still it felt like a farce. A part I was playing. I held my head high when men twice my age remarked about how “fine” I was, the things they would do to me if I were there age, did I have a boyfriend? I pushed lipglossed lips into a smile I hoped was part sexy and part demure. But inside felt terrified. Powerless. Small.
And then came The Velvet Rope.
It was fall. And my daddy bought the CD for me the first week it came out because he ALWAYS bought me Janet CDs. I remember looking at the cover and thinking the way her head was bowed- hair falling over her face, eyes unseen- that’s the way I tried to hide when someone’s words slid over me like slime in the street. That maybe if they couldn’t see me, they wouldn’t see me.
I stayed up until the sun came up listening to it over and over. On first listen, I was satisfied as any good stan would be at my idol sounding great, the songs at once new and different but familiar.
But the second listen is when things changed.
The second listen is when the album started talking to me. Telling me about the things I’d swallowed and wouldn’t throw up, letting them poison me. The uncle I’d lost to the four-lettered dark lord whom no one would speak it’s name. The sexual urges that made me feel dirty but wouldn’t go away that I thought somehow earned me the harassment I received daily. It called to the secrets I kept hidden, tugged at their folded ears. And spoke life into the rough sketches of who I thought I might come to be.
I sat there, thirteen and afraid, my headphones stuck into the old boombox on my headboard, listening to the album over and over for hours, studying every lyric and note, saying them to myself like a séance over the woman I wanted to be when I grew up, determined to raise her from the pits of my trauma.
Who would I be- how would I be- if this album never reached into the din of dogma and insecurity and sat with me where nothing else could reach me?
Twenty years ago, The Velvet Rope was released and it changed my life. How grateful I am that it found me when it did.