Controlling the Ali beneath the masks is very easy. Second nature and barely noticed, in fact. Perhaps the question is more about who made the masks and why? Who crafted them so perfectly, painted them so that they became a convincing facsimile of what lay beneath – and what is that level of internal control designed to achieve?
I did, of course. But why?
Emotionally, I tend to be both untrusting and almost rigid within a corset of self-control.Underneath, I am oceanic creature, shell-less and soft, more jelly than bone. Or so I fear. If I were not – or so my inner logic goes – I would not attract sharks. But the masks give me back the illusion of spinal strength when I feel floppy and weak. It is not even that I truly believe myself to be an invertebrate. Clearly I am not in the literal sense – and, in the metaphorical meaning of the word, I am stronger than many, including me at times, would like to think.
Some symbols are of vital importance to me, and I feel it necessary to solder, or paint, them on to each mask I so painstakingly make: My orange-haired look is one prime example. It is not precisely vanity, nor is it denial of my age: I am always open about how old I am as well as the fact that I was not born a red-head. No, it is something about the associations with bright coppery curls that fires me; something about wanting to stand out and be noticed in some physical ways so that the inner tremble is not noticed.
I am trying to remember when I started dyeing my hair in various shades of red – and what that degree of control over my follicles meant back then. I have a hunch that it was to do with extreme fear and lack of control in my love life. I have a memory that it was all about a desperate desire to be attractive, desirable, beautiful in the teeth of genuine threat around other women. I wanted, literally, to stand out from the perceived competition, not, at that stage, realising that the bond I sought so desperately to control was not worth the effort and that colouring my hair sunset bright could not prevent devastation, rejection and, five years down the line, sexual assault by a stranger. Not seeing then that, though never conventionally pretty, I was beautiful in a Pre-Raphaelite way.
I think, now, that this represented a huge – and, in many ways, unhelpful – shift. That fall to the pavement, one dark September night in 1988, that prodding and poking and hurting, that terrifying silence and that final rock-hard slap, splitting a tooth right down the middle, closed a significant part of me down for a very long time – and caused the masks of emotional control to multiply.
Accentuating the masculine side of my nature (with which I have always been in touch);fearing weakness and obvious femininity (whilst also craving it); fearing any kind of physical contact (yet longing for it too); hiding behind my ready wit, articulate manner, bawdy humour and larger than life ‘personality’ (designed to hide my suspicion that, actually, I had no personality at all); allowing elements of sexuality with which I was, by nature, uneasy into my life in order to prove that I was courageous, open-minded, up for anything, not a prude; desperate to please anyone, but especially men; drinking and smoking to excess in order to force back the vulnerable moments; posing with cigarettes in my left hand so that no one would see the tremors or sense the utter misery and fear beneath the swagger and confrontational rudeness.
Why, you may ask, do I willingly go back to this time? To this particular trauma? To the start of panic attacks and disassociation and unwise choices?Funnily enough, I do not blame the guy who attacked me for what happened afterwards because, when all is said and done, the masking was my decision and the duration of it all was always in my control: I could have ripped off the sheltering face and looked the world in the eye naked and open at any point. That I did not is, ultimately, my choice – my bad, if you want to use more modern terminology.
To answer the questions posed at the start of the previous paragraph is hard, not just because of the time that has passed, but because my habits, and my mask, have solidified since then, have become melded so firmly to me that it is, at times, hard even for me to separate out the two.
I think I return to that night because the masks represent an answer – albeit a wrong-headed and unhelpful one – to the troubling questions thrown up by my post-assault fragility and nakedness. Because, for the first time in my life, I had some protection from certain levels of bullying; perhaps because I thought – wrongly, as it transpired – that the more formidable mask would intimidate predators and frighten them off; that this level of control would allow me time and space to pick only safe and good people and to fend off the toxic.
I did not understand then that the attack itself caused such a huge rent in my soul that no mask could cover it entirely and the clever manipulators were able, in any case, to see beyond my tremulous metallic attempt at control.
What is it I am protecting, though? What is all this mask-related control in aid of? What am I so scared of? Is it, actually, very simple? The fear of being touched, heart, body and soul, by another to such an extent that I can no longer run away, blazon it out, evade that most frightening of emotions?
Is it, at the deepest level, that I have come to associate the word ‘love’ with control by another, with betrayal and pain and loss and replacement? Are the masks in place to prevent entry by others so that I do not have to face that which I fear so much?
Is it really that simple?
The attack was, ostensibly, about sex – but I knew, instinctively, even then that this was just a cover for something much darker: Hatred, twisted lust, power, need for control. The guy was not aroused in any sense I recognised – but he was aflame with gleeful rage and loathing.
This was the dark side of love. Not, you understand, that such an action can be called love. But the urge hovers on the very edges of what is acceptable and safe sexually, doesn’t it?
I think I knew, even then, that ‘I love you’ can open a very dark and poisonous can of worms – and that submitting, unmasked and utterly open, to declarations of love could be a very dangerous game indeed.
What withered was the trust in the bright side, the good side, the magnificence of other human beings.
But now my masks are crumbling. My control of certain emotions is slipping, like decaying skin, from the corpse of my former self. Control is little but illusion. Love is not the enemy. It never was. Fear is the baddie. Fear and a stubborn refusal to recognise cruelty and will-to-power in others until it is too late. And, let’s face it, no mask can save me from that.