Content warning: Discussion of sexual abuse against children
I don’t think that 16-year-old me would be a fan of who I am today. Friday nights sitting in bed — with dead, overbleached, un-styled hair — and dramatically overemotional. I’m just fine. No more, no less, just sensationally average.
At 14, I picked up my first copy of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” at the Bloor Street and Spadina Avenue BMV Books. After cashing my first paycheck, this purchase began a years-long devotion to buying and never reading iconic literature.
But I did read “Howl.” I consumed it. I hungered for the emotions within: that desire to be free, to rebel, to feel young and restless — mind you, my 14-year-old self didn’t yet know about perspective, so this was a big, big deal. Ginsberg spoke to me — directly to me. This young, shy, hard-working girl who had a knack for repressing pain and suffering. This poem meant everything to me. It inspired expectations of a life beyond reality, of a constant quest for something more.
My dramatic love for “Howl” and my deep, longing desire to fit in created this disturbingly anxious dynamic that caused me to wear high-waisted jeans, crop tops, and listen to the Arctic Monkeys. But I hated myself every step of the way, and used “Howl” as a guide for why everything and everyone around me was lame and dishonest.
I loved that my coworkers called me an old soul, and I emotionally distanced myself from my friends, unable to feel like I fit in. Instead, I feigned maturity in the warm embrace of pseudo-revolutionary vibes.
Last year, I read an article that explained how, in the late 1980s or early 1990s, Ginsberg joined the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), a group that advocates for people with pedophelia. It aimed to abolish the legal age of consent and release people who had sexually abused children from prison. Ginsberg became one of their biggest, most unapologetic proponents. Sitting in Robarts Library, I sifted through article after article as disbelief turned to anger, and anger turned to pain.
I was understandably gutted. Memories of my teenage self are agonizing even without the knowledge that I was pining over the works of an author who was morally fucked.
I’ve always been a collector of precious things — of feelings, emotions, and objects that hold within them memories of times too overwhelmed with the majesty of their own meaning to simply remember. I crave tokens, evidence of obstacles overcome, tears shed, adventures lived or imagined.
Like a relic, I easily shatter. The wrong touch disintegrates my very understanding of the world. I’m known to panic. Irrationality is my conscience, unable to process dread and unease.
When I learned Ginsberg wasn’t the person that I had painted him to be, I crumbled into a million misspelled verbs. That guiding light that had led me through the confusion and sorrow of puberty was suddenly made filthy by truth. But these are growing pains that we may never stop feeling; society makes white men better than they are.
Jenny Slate did an interview once where she said that she was better at being a teenager as an adult than when she was actually a teen. I spent my teen years pretending to be an adult, and as an adult, nothing brings me more joy than the hit album Hannah Montana 2: Meet Miley Cyrus.
I’ve grown out of “Howl.” My relationship with this poem charts my life as an individual who is inclined to dedicate herself entirely to things that barely matter, and who grips tightly to memories of a luminous past. Just as I am no longer that 14-year-old girl — occasionally, I even save my paychecks — Ginsberg is no longer that idyllic, creative genius that I thought he was. He was a myth of bohemian perfection whose truth proves to be just as convoluted as adulthood has been so far — another reason for my crippling trust issues.
As a former wannabe Arctic Monkeys groupie spiraling into a mid-life crisis at the age of 20 at 1:00 am on the second floor of Robarts Library, I wanted to strangle Ginsberg. First comes anger, I guess. But it’s what comes next that matters.
Icons remain evidence of our past — of how we ignored people’s misdeeds, celebrated their achievements, and continue to preserve their legacies. His influence persists. Ginsberg remains an icon — U of T even owns the world’s largest collection of his photos.
We can’t ignore his legacy, but we must change the way that we talk about Ginsberg. He didn’t live in a vacuum, and the same patriarchal biases that allowed him to escape prosecution allow people to escape justice today. Truly awful people can still create meaningful works of art, as much as we wish they wouldn’t.
So let’s make a collective decision to forgive ourselves for complacency, so long as it remains a thing of the past — even if that means I have to get over myself, grow up, and move on.