Happy Fall! It’s hard to believe we’re already here! I’ve spent September at work on an essay that’s a kind of pendant to The Law of Complementarity – my essay on love, grief, religion, a little bit of politics and a tiny bit of sex. The Law of Complementarity is the story of the tender side of me.
Leaving the Bitch Behind, which I’m finishing now, is about my intense career at the dawn of the internet, my relationship to power, to anger, to the corporate world and the men in it – it’s the story of the ferocious side of me.
I’m guessing you have some opposites in you too! I hope you enjoy this taste of my newest work, Leaving the Bitch Behind.
The beginning of the essay:
When I got my first job in public relations at 25, I was proud and terrified to be starting a real profession. I had come to New York City at 21 on a round trip plane ticket from Los Angeles that was my college graduation present.
I didn’t take the return flight. I was not going home in defeat, no matter what. Even though I barely graduated from college with a 2.6 GPA, I could type 120 words a minute. I could always be a secretary. I was going to make a life in New York!
The employment agency I found through the classified ads placed me at Christie’s, the venerable auction house. I started in October 1984, in the Old Master Paintings Department, as the team secretary.
After a chaotic but instructive year at Christie’s, I went back to the same agency and got placed at PaineWebber, as the assistant to the head of government affairs.
Every time I had to admit that I was an assistant I felt a hot pang of humiliation. Most of my friends in New York had professional track jobs. They had plans. But I’d never given a moment’s thought to creating a career.
When I went off to college in 1980 my parents assumed I’d enjoy four years of college while finding a husband. After that, I’d become a stay at home mom, like my own mother. Because that’s what Mormon women did.
But the life of an obedient wife and dutiful mother were impossible for me. Inside of me was a bag of bees and lit candles and delicate eggs and crystalline jewels and razor-sharp knives and mud-caked horse hooves and who knows what else roiling around with an unquenchable power I always struggled to control.
In college I used all of my energy pushing away what I did not want to be. There was nothing left to imagine what I might want to be instead. My future was blankness. I had come to New York with no thought other than to get away – away from home, away from my culture, away from the life I did not want to lead.
Even though my self-esteem was battered by my incapacity to be who my culture told me to be, I was a hard worker with a powerful sense of responsibility. We Mormons are a productive people. My religion both defeated my ambition and prepared me to succeed once I found it.
OK! That’s the beginning of the essay. Fast forward to the middle of it . . .
My agency asked if I’d be willing to relocate to California for a new client we’d won in Silicon Valley.
Carving out a measure of success in the country’s most demanding city had been a massive achievement for me. It was one of two things in my life that made me feel genuine pride. I may have started as a secretary, but I had become a competent and worthwhile professional. With each purposeful step down New York’s streets I pushed down the worthlessness that had cloaked me in college.
The other thing that gave me deep joy and foundational self-regard was my relationship – my fiancé and I loved and supported each other so well. With great effort and integrity, we had created something beautiful. But he was killed in a helicopter crash two weeks after we got engaged. And now, just a few months after his death, my boss was asking me to give up the other thing I valued most.
Grief had ravaged my desires. It burned off my fingers and left me with no capacity to hold onto anything. It had melted my eyes and I couldn’t see any form of a happy future.
I sat in my boss’s office, considering. ‘I hate change,’ I thought, ‘but my whole life has been destroyed. I’m only grasping for ashes if I insist on staying here.’
If there were ever a time to start over, this was it. I said yes.
On January 2, 1995, the dawn of the first Internet Boom, not long before I turned 32, I flew to California with two suitcases and went straight from the airport to Sun Microsystems in a rented metallic teal Pontiac Firebird.
Sun Microsystems, a candy store of ideas in Palo Alto, was founded by Scott McNealy, a huge hockey fan. If you couldn’t give a better hip check than you got, you would never survive in the culture he created. Sun was not a stab-you-in-the-back environment. Everyone stabbed each other in the face. Body armor, weapons and the guts to slash someone’s jugular without hesitation were job requirements.
Sun’s culture suited me just fine. Deep in angry grief, bereft of my friends in New York, my soul and my hope were in ruins. In their place I wanted tangible things – money, respect, power, autonomy. So, steel and blades it was.
For the first time in my life, I had real power. I was no longer the aspiring agency girl, I was running PR for the hottest technology around. I was also drowning in responsibility and pressure to deliver. I was angry at the world, angry at lesser men who were alive while my magnificent man was dead, angry about the humiliations of a decade of professional life as a young woman, and angry about a lifetime of pressure to be an obedient Mormon girl. I was a volcano, and I erupted.
The end of the essay is about putting down my weapons, walking away from a career in PR that I spent 25 years building, and Leaving The Bitch Behind…