My Story, and “We the animals”: Justin Torres at TEDxStanford (Full Transcript)

The story I’m going to share shares a lot with the story we just heard.

When I was 17, I was at the mall with some friends. I was stoned; I was in a head shop, and I saw my father. And I haven’t seen him in years – my parents had divorced – we had a very strained relationship, and there’s my father. He’s a very macho guy. He’s a cop. He kind of grabs me and he says, “You’re coming with me, we’re having a family meeting.” I don’t have much time to tell you about my family, but I can say, as an illustrative point, we’ve never had a family meeting. We don’t talk like that. I said, “All right.” So he puts me in the car.

My mother’s there, my brother’s there. They’re both very upset. They won’t tell me where we’re going and where we are going turns out to be the evaluation ward of a psychiatric mental hospital. I’m in there and – at this point, I should back up and say that I was a very depressed teenager. I grew up in a small town. It was a very homogenous town. I was queer. I was struggling with that a lot. This was 15 years ago. It was – I think it’s getting better.

But I wasn’t suicidal. I had a fellowship to NYU. The city was there. I was going to make it. The other thing is that I’d been keeping a journal. It was kind of the baby steps of a fiction writer. It was a lot of fantasy, a lot of my desires. It was very angsty. It was very personal. Anybody who came across it, would think this is a troubled mind. And that is exactly what happened. I’m in the waiting room and my mother starts talking about this journal. I hadn’t come out yet. It may have been obvious, but I hadn’t come out yet to my family. I looked at my father. Did you read it? He says, “Yeah.” I look at my brother. Did you read it? And I just lost it. I’m going to give one piece of advice during this talk and that is: if you’re going to have a meltdown, if you’re going to throw furniture if you’re going to cry and really let yourself go, scream, don’t do it in the evaluation ward of a psychiatric hospital. It’s not the place to do it.

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As you can imagine, I’m strapped to a gurney. I get committed. They put me with the adult population which they said I was too mature for ‘juvie’ which I guess is some kind of compliment. And it was horrible. I wasn’t going to kill myself, but after a couple of months, I decided that was a valid option. The people that I met there had been there for years. They said, “I was your age when I came in here.” I felt betrayed by my family. I felt like I didn’t have a family.

When I got out, I took an overdose. I was in a coma. Sorry, I got distracted by the timer. It took me years to get over that experience. Eventually, I got out. I decided to make a novel, make a narrative out of my experience. And I started writing about my family as a way to get back to my family. I wanted to return to them. And people ask me, was this a cathartic experience writing this novel? I was like, “No, it hurt.” It was painful. It was really difficult, but I think of the beauty, the grace.

I had to visit the trauma again, I had to go back and think about my childhood. I had to understand my characters. I had to understand that my parents loved me. That they were concerned for me. That you can want to protect your family and also punch your children. That there are all of these complexities that you have to – that I had to, as a writer, as a storyteller I had to get them all in there and I had to make it messy. It had to hurt. If I have anything to say about storytelling and the grace of storytelling it’s that, for me, I’ve learned to keep it messy, to keep it painful, and to try and make it beautiful. That’s it. Thanks guys!

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