Dealing with Toxicity: Tough Relationships in Lara Lillibridge’s GIRLISH: GROWING UP IN A LESBIAN HOME

You do not owe toxic people a place in your life.

Whoever they are, whatever they tell you, whatever strings they think they can tug on, you don’t owe them.

This is something I thought about a lot while reading Girlish.

Lara’s life looks nothing like mine, but a lot of the feelings resonate. I know what it’s like to be gaslit. I know how confusing, disorienting, and infuriating that can be, when you love the person doing it, when you want to believe they love you. I know what it’s like to be told you’re creating drama when you’re trying desperately to avoid it. I know what it’s like to give in to it and explode, since if they’re going to call you dramatic anyway, you might as well have the satisfaction of emotional release. I know what it’s like when that satisfaction just makes you feel worse.

And I know how that experience can become a pattern, a cycle that it’s tough to shatter your way out of.

The thing about toxic relationships is that the scars they leave run really, really deep. You might not even notice them bleeding at first — though other people who love you might. By the time you do notice, you’ve lost a lot of what’s inside you. And you can bandage it up and stop the flow, slap concealer on it while the scar is still angry and red, shrug it off as a thing-that-happened-once by the time it’s old and faded… and then still be astonished by sharp sudden pain much later on.

Toxic relationships damage how a person learns to love. They teach you to flinch rather than trust. They teach you to couch your words in apologies and your needs in concessions. They teach you to devalue yourself. They utterly warp your worldview, until you no longer know what behavior is normal or appropriate or expected. It can be a shock, when you make it to the other side, to realize just how far mistreatment was from what you deserve.

I’ve been on the unfortunate side of an abusive equation in more than one interpersonal dynamic over the years, and sometimes, that made reading Girlish a little uncomfortable. The story was so different from what I knew, but the underpinning emotions were all too familiar. I remember messaging Lara after one particularly raw passage and telling her I just wanted to give her a hug.

Girlish, Lara shares her a unique story of growing up with lesbian parents, an absentee father, and an oft-shifting network outside of her family. Throughout the book, she takes care to remind us that no experience is universal and that she cannot and does not speak for children of LGBTQ families on the whole. Whatever the shape of the family, though, the challenge of navigating family ties remains — something we can all relate to in one way or another. Throughout the book, Lara offers counterpoints to her own memories — on the one hand, we read the experience, rendered in third-person, a story she tells; on the other, her reflections, written in first person with a bit more distance and a lot more experience. The result is a book that does precisely what a good memoir should — gives you a fascinating, even voyeuristic, view inside someone else’s life, but also leads you to consider your own. I know it had me thinking a lot about mine.

Get it. Get it now.

I’m so proud of the work that Lara’s done and of her courage in opening up her heart to the world like this.

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Cass Morris lives and works in central Virginia and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She completed her Master of Letters at Mary Baldwin University in 2010, and she earned her undergraduate degree, a BA in English with a minor in history, from the College of William and Mary in 2007. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart.

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