Photograph: Sally Mann, At Warm Springs, 1991, From the Series Immediate Family
Sally Mann, At Warm Springs, 1991, From the Series Immediate Family


In  kindergarten, I am in love with a boy named Alexander. He has tan skin and glasses and he can count to ten backwards. He is my only friend: we touch lips under the monkey bars and read books about polar bears together, taking turns to flip the pages. We sleep next to each other at naptime. He comes to my birthday party and gives me a coinbox he made himself, plastered in paper hearts. His mom is a pharmacist, and she tells me I look like a  doll. Her approval cements our love, and I assume we will be wed.

One day, Alexander and I get into a fight. I can’t remember what it was about, but it must’ve been serious. I chase him onto a piano and bite his eyebrow off. He comes back the next day with an eye patch and bruises all over his face. We are separated. No one else reads with me. I sit by myself, clutching my knees to my chest. I am a pariah. Alexander never speaks to me again.

Hysteria: noun, coined in 1801, from the Greek hysteria or “womb” – defined as a neurotic condition particular to women and thought to be caused by a dysfunction of the uterus. 


I switch schools, for matters unrelated to Alexander. My first grade gym teacher organizes a sumo-wrestling tournament for the boys and the girls in my class. It is the first time I win anything sports related, and I bring home a laminated certificate. My parents look at each other, tack it onto the fridge, and cut my after-school snacks.

I become aware of my body, then. I stop feeling like having long blonde hair makes me a girl. When I flex my arms, little rolls form in the crease of my elbow. I pull at the skin. I am six or seven years old, and I ask the other girls in my class when, like them, I can expect to grow out of my baby body. I pick at my food, stop eating almost altogether.

In the bathroom with other girls, I am intensely aware of the sound of my pee. It is loud, mastodon, masculine. I pee up a storm. I learn to angle my hips so the stream hits against the toilet bowl and not the water, to attenuate the sound. I whisper this to a friend: she tells me I am crazy.

There is a boy named Lucas in my first grade class who likes to eat sticks of glue and to pin girls down to show them his penis. He isn’t ever told that he is crazy.

I decide that if only girls are crazy, I will be a boy — I start wearing exclusively black sweatpants and oversized fleece sweaters. I shake my hair in front of my face. I sit in the back of the classroom with boys and I hide my grades from them. I talk back to teachers. I play soccer during recess.

I worry that if I pass the ball to girls, people will think I am gay, and if I pass it to boys, people will think I am flirting. Passing the ball becomes too much work. I don’t pass it. It never gets back to me. I stop playing soccer.

Instead, I start telling stories. I imagine there are supernatural things going on at school. I tell people about a hand, reaching out of the ground. I tell them that the stream outside of school is bubbling over. I roam in the bushes and avoid the soccer pitch.

One day, I find a dead porcupine. I am crying because it is belly-up and it smells bad, kind of sour, and it is missing an eye. A boy in my sister’s grade finds me like this. He helps me dig a grave. We are solemn. We topple the porcupine over so its quills point up, sharp and proud.

My nails are black with dirt.

Nobody believes me when I tell the story of the porcupine.

This boy becomes one of my best friends.

Lunacy: noun, coined in the 1540s, originally in reference to intermittent periods of insanity, such as those believed to be triggered by the moon’s cycle and coinciding with menstruation.


My sister is two years older than me, and boys love her. A boy draws a picture of her and gets every detail right, down to the color of her hair tie (green). My parents put it up on the fridge. I tear it down and replace it with a picture I drew myself: her nose, crooked and pimpled, her eyes, close-set and evil, her face, purple and blotchy. I give her a stomach the size of a planet and forty chins. She cries when she sees it.

I am still jealous.

My family and I spend a week hiking in the Sahara desert, and I bury her bikini bottoms in a sand dune.

When we get to our Marrakech hotel, we shower and head to the sauna. My sister discovers she is missing her swimsuit and has to wear underpants instead. She leans against the wooden paneling of the sauna and cries, folding her arms over her white cotton briefs.

I am wicked.

Bitch: noun, applied as a term of contempt toward women since 1400, “spiteful, catty, bad-tempered”, perhaps echoing the Middle English bicched “cursed, bad.”


I start at a new school and grow into a new body. I know the words to OK Go songs and I wear ripped purple fishnets and yellow converse. I have pink streaks in my hair.

It’s a whole new world for me. In the space of a day, three separate boys ask me to the school dance. I say no to all of them.

The gym floor is packed and people are grinding to Flo Rida. My skin is coated in vanilla body butter, and I am wearing more black eyeliner than ever before. I came alone, but the boys fight for me. One gets kneed in the balls. I hug the winner of the fight, as though he has just won me over.

Diva: noun, redefined in 2008 by Beyoncé as a female version of a hustler.


to the boy

who took me on walks along the Seine,

who pushed me up against the banks and sang into my hair,

who let me drag him to a Best of Québécois rock concert,

I wish I knew how to balance affection. You wanted me so close that I pulled back by instinct. The more you liked me, the less I wanted to be with you.  There’s no reason for it. I want to take some of what you felt for me and spread it between us; it would’ve been enough. That sounds so conceited, to presume to know how much you liked me, to presume it was that much – but in moments where I feel like we only get so much allotted love or affection and that I’m maxing out, I turn to the memory of you.

Frigidity: noun, coined in 1580s for men and applied to women in 1903, from Latin frigidus “cold”, in reference to sexual impotence.


Toward the end of high school, I meet a boy named Mozes. He puts his hands on my thighs. He whispers, let me part the red seas.

I laugh in his face.

Slut: noun, coined in 1400, probably cognate with dialectal German schlutt or “slovenly woman,” meaning dirty, slovenly, or untidy woman.


In recent weeks, I have been hurt by a boy who I thought inoffensive. It is because I thought he couldn’t hurt me that I liked him. I thought of him as kind, generous, grounded. When he held me in the mornings, I stayed longer than

I should have.

I deleted his contact information but he texts me at 2am when he is drunk. I know it’s him because I have his number almost memorized now. When I don’t answer, he lashes out. Afterward, he apologizes.

I try to be understanding and graceful. We get coffee. We talk through everything. We clear the air. To his face, I say I want to be his friend. Behind his back, I am fuming.

One night, a friend in his frat helps me throw snowballs at his window. We run away laughing. I am drunk and I am angry. I am vindictive. I anonymously subscribe him to eight different cat newsletters.

I feel crazy. I am crazy.

I confess this to two friends: one says I should talk to someone because that is concerning behavior; the other hails me as the genius of our generation. I confess it to him: he says it’s weird that I did that.

The next night, he texts me again.

The next morning, he says he is sorry.

Crazy: originated in the 1570s, initially meaning “diseased, sickly”, and later, “full of cracks or flaws.” Maybe I’m just a little cracked.

Do you enjoy reading the Nass?

Please consider donating a small amount to help support independent journalism at Princeton and whitelist our site.