I’ve noticed a strange parallel between my writing life and my waking life.
The writing side is often busy gathering data about my family’s experience of World War II in Central Europe. As you might imagine, it was not a happy time. Most of us know the broad outlines of the Holocaust: The cattle cars, the camps, the crematoria. But that overwhelming story is made up of many millions of individual moments, many of which were captured in personal recollections, anecdotes, and photographs. They’re painful, even sickening to encounter, these glimpses of an experience so different from my own, and yet embedded somewhere inside me.
At times, I wonder why I’m doing it, immersing myself in such awfulness. But I want to know the truth—my truth—and like it or not, these horrific moments are part of my story too. What shaped me? What was that quiet and insistent voice whispering it is not safe here, better to hide yourself away?
So it was strange to find those feelings of alienation rise up in my waking life around—of all things—the announcement that a band from the punk scene I was a part of had reunited to play shows again. Bikini Kill were fierce and inspiring, the speed at which their upcoming shows have sold out a testament to the power they generated.
No, I am not equating Bikini Kill with the Holocaust. Though they were a pretty ripping band.
But what arises for me now is a queasy sense of unbelonging. Yes, the scene I was part of was like any other, based on perceptions of coolness, cred and status. But that was 30 years ago; why had those tender feelings returned now?
In delving into my family’s story, a theme that arises again and again is our need to conform. In a time and place in which being Jewish was a death sentence, they tried desperately to hide themselves. Just as their forebears shed their surname—I have no idea what my family name once was, but it surely was not “Lorinci,” a small town near Budapest to which we have no known connection—my grandparents converted to Catholicism and desperately renounced their own heritage in an attempt to hide their truth.
And so too had I, when I was a part of the punk underground. In theory, the scene was about self-expression; non-conformity; making challenging art and music. And all these things were true, up to a point. But I noticed early on that certain tastes, orientations—even body types—were going to have a much harder time finding a foothold here. More to the point, demonstrating feelings—especially the complicated ones generated by this alienation—were the kiss of death.
It hadn’t always been this way. I began working at a downtown bar, restaurant, and performing arts venue called D.C. Space in 1988, when I was still in high school. The sense of discovery, of having found a strange, alternate universe filled with brilliant weirdos was electrifying, a mind- and heart-expanding salvation. For the first time, my awkwardness and damnable sensitivity no longer seemed like a deficiency.
A few months later, when the group house I lived in was renamed the Embassy—after much of the band Nation of Ulysses moved in—I was crestfallen to find myself back in a twisted version of high school, complete with cliques, uniforms, and alliances. Once again there was a “right” way to dress, to speak and to act. I couldn’t hack it; or did not yet have the wisdom to know that I didn’t want to.
Don’t get me wrong; I met some of my dearest and most beloved friends in that scene, and the art and music they created still inspires me some 30 years later. I want to celebrate it, and the brilliant weirdos who made it, but it’s complicated. It would be easier if I could just pass by flashing my scene card, but that wouldn’t be completely honest. (Nor is there a card; I checked.)
If this sounds like a complaint, I haven’t made myself plain. I feel deep love and gratitude towards the people I traversed those rough waters with, even those I saw as adversaries at the time. They all helped lead me to something whole, something genuine and all the truer for its complications and its inconsistencies.
Maybe that’s what my family story gives me: The inability not to see the holes in the story, the places where non-belongers are left out of the picture. If I scan my memory, I recognize it’s always been there, this persistent vision. When I was young, and unsure of my place, it felt like some terrible burden I couldn’t squirm out from under. These days, it feels more like a gift.