The letter below is part of an ongoing series featuring letters from authors to their teen selves. If you're a published author who'd like to participate in this series, we'd love to have you. Just click here and let us know you're interested. Today's guest is Lisa Allen-Agostini, author of Home Home, which came out today.
Dear Little Lisa,
Look at you, so fly! That hair. That makeup. That outfit. Tonight, at your graduation, you’re beautiful and elegant. It feels like a costume you’ve put on, a self-confidence costume to make people believe you’re the person they think you are. But you don’t think you’re that person. You think you’re a fake.
I’m here to tell you that you’re not a fake. You’re genuinely beautiful. It has nothing to do with the hair and the dress and the makeup. You’re actually a good person. And you, Lisa Allen, are beautiful.
You’re 16 now. It’s May of 1990. You’ve just graduated from one of the top ten schools in Trinidad and Tobago. You don’t know it yet, but you’ve passed all your exams – even Maths and Chemistry, which you felt sure you would fail. You’re not done with school, not by half. You are smart. It’s not an illusion or a trick. Take yourself seriously and give school a chance. Stop pretending you don’t care about it.
Look at that outfit! It was your design, wasn’t it? Don’t shut that part of yourself away. You can draw, do you know that? If you keep at it, you’ll be very good at it. Give yourself a chance to try it. I promise you’ll love it. Oh, and buy a camera. You’re a good photographer, too.
By the way, your current boyfriend, your grad date, is gay. Not a shocker. Everybody told you that but you were so in love with him that you didn’t hear them. Turns out he loves you, but not that way. You never would have fallen in love with him in that way if you’d listened to advice. You don’t like to take counsel. You think you have to figure out everything by yourself. That just wastes time. Listen to advice and consider it before you run off like your hair’s on fire.
Most of the things I want to tell you have nothing to do with the things I’ve just said, but also everything to do with the things I’ve just said. There’s a reason you feel like a fraud and give up on yourself so often.
Right now, nobody knows what you are going through. They see your rage at home; they hear the doors slamming. They see that you don’t care about yourself: you drink, you smoke, you stay out all night with men. They see that you appear not to care about your family because you roll your eyes when they talk to you about your behavior. They don’t understand that you’ve been damaged.
You haven’t told anybody about it other than your mother, one brother and one sister—two siblings, out of the ten you have, two siblings know that your eldest brother sexually abused you six years ago. (Well, three out of ten. The perpetrator knows, even though he accused you of lying when you disclosed it to your mother.)
You haven’t told anybody else and you never talk about it with the people you have told. This is like eating poison every day of your life. Small doses. Every time you see the kitchen window. Every time you wear those panties. Every time you lie on the couch. The poison is the feeling that this was your fault. In your head, as a ten-year-old child you somehow made your adult brother, a grown man with children nearly your age, sexually assault you.
This is the poison that softens your bones and hardens your heart, seeping into every part of you that believes you deserve good things. Two years from now you will try to kill yourself. Not for the first time. This time your mother will see, and she will do nothing about it. You will feel abandoned.
Don’t, Lisa. You are never alone. In the first place, God is always with you. He will give you such a rich life. You’ll have wonderful children. You’ll get married – more than once. You’ll write books and you’ll read your poetry in front of some of the best poets in the world. You’ll create things people will talk about for decades. You’ll travel. You’ll work with famous artists and writers and they will respect you and admire you just as you are. Your life is only beginning. Don’t get off the train at the first stop. It’s a wild ride, through terrible terrain sometimes, but God will get you through it. Hold on to Him.
God is also in your body. Stop treating it like if it’s garbage. Lisa, right now you’re starting to believe that the only way boys will pay attention to you is if you have sex with them. That’s not true, but you’re going to try and prove that hypothesis over and over. It’s not worth it. Sex is great, but the way you’re having it – with anybody who even looks at you – is setting yourself up for a disaster. Also: Hello! There’s an HIV/AIDS pandemic going on. Lots of people live with HIV; but there’s also many people who’ve fought and lost the battle against AIDS. You’re needlessly taking risks with your emotions and with your health.
God is with you also in the people you have around you. Your friends, your siblings, your teachers, your neighbors. Trust them. Tell them. Talking will help. You don’t have to spend the next 30 years with a big stone in one hand and a broken bottle in the other, spoiling for a fight. You can share your burden and some of the rage will go away. You can love, deeply. And you are loveable. You are. You are. Trust me.
All my love,
About The Author: Lisa is a writer and editor from Trinidad and Tobago. She's written for The Guardian and The Washington Post. Her background includes poetry and theater. Home Home was originally published in 2018, winning third prize in the CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Literature. It is now being republished with Delacorte Press.