by Kelly Oliver
As a painfully shy child growing up with a short-fused mother, I learned early on that the question “what do you want?” was a test of how well I could guess what she wanted me to want. I developed interpretation skills, watching her body language and verbal cues, to discern what it was that she wanted. As a consequence, when I grew up, I never knew what I wanted, or if I had any desires of my own. Even when I struck out on my own, I felt like an empty shell being moved through the world by other’s desires.
Always a late bloomer, my rebellious phase wasn’t in my teenage years but later when I was in graduate school, getting my PhD in philosophy. A hick raised by wolves in Montana, I was out of my element at Northwestern. The Ivy League-educated boys (yes, they are almost all boys) thought my naïve wonder at everything in the big city (Chicago) was cute. They fed me whiskey until I puked and laughed at my red cowboy boots. My professors (all men) didn’t think I was so cute. They verbally abused me, and downright sabotaged me. For my entire seven years in graduate, one of them didn’t ever learn my name, but simply called me “the pasty-faced blonde girl.”
Luckily, my Montana upbringing gave me grit. My logger father’s favorite refrain was “finish what you start,” and I was determined to do just that, and get my PhD, no matter what it took. And I did.
But, decades later, I still have scars to prove that for me graduate school was a red in tooth and claw, life-changing experience. I became a feminist in self-defense so I would have an alternative narrative to explain my experiences there. No, I wasn’t stupid, they were misogynist assholes.
Success is the best revenge. I became a publishing machine and have a great career in philosophy. But, in university circles or academic journals I wasn’t allowed to really tell my story. And quite frankly, it was too painful to recount. Even with my academic achievements, I still felt hollow. That is, until I discovered writing fiction.
In fiction, I was free not only to tell my story, but also to make it funny and entertaining, a story of overcoming, where I could create the world the way I want it and not the way I found it. For me, writing mysteries has become a form of therapy—even an addiction—that eases the pain of the past and gives meaning to the present. Instead of being bitter or resentful about sexism, I can exact my fictional revenge on the misogynist assholes.
Writing fiction has filled the void, and taught me that I’m not empty at all.
I’m full of empowering stories and the words to tell them.