Around this time two years ago, I was huddled up on the stairs behind Friedl with tears running down my cheeks, shaking uncontrollably. I remember calling my dad at work as soon as I got out of class.
“Dad, I’m so sorry… I just can’t do this. I worked so hard, and I did horribly. I don’t think I can do this anymore. Pre-med is making me miserable.”
I had just gotten back my first organic chemistry exam, and, after days of lugging around that big, fat, purple book and drawing out stubborn reaction mechanisms, the curve wasn’t just out of reach, it was nowhere to be seen.
The next week I withdrew from Orgo 2, and I took my very first women’s studies class—two in fact. I felt alive again, staying up late with piles of readings and forgetting what it meant to “study” only to read, read, read and write, write, write.
I never questioned my choice to abandon pre-med after I mourned my losses that afternoon on the phone with my dad. It was, in all sincerity, the best failure I could have ever imagined, if only because it was jarring, stopping me dead in my tracks. Doing so poorly on that exam forced me to confront the fact that I had no “real” intentions for wanting to be a doctor, except for wanting what everyone around me seemed to want.
That was my second epiphany, following on the heels of another equally charged epiphany only a few months prior that could be summed up in three words: Dear Duke Guys.
I wrote “Dear Duke Guys” late one night near the end of the Fall semester. I was frustrated with social culture on campus, so I channeled it all into a short little piece about our non-existent dating culture under the reductive model of the “open letter.”
A few weeks later, I published it on Duke’s feminist blog, and within a matter of minutes it began spreading like wildfire. People were “liking” and “sharing” and less than 24 hours after it was posted, it already had thousands of hits.
Now, in retrospect, as the ever-impassioned feminist that I am, I can’t help but look back at the article’s problematic heteronormativity (Dear Duke Guys, signed Duke Girls) and the dismissive and fear-ridden tactic of distancing from the so-called feminist stereotype (“I’m not an angry feminist, but…”) without feeling a bit impatient with my former self.
But for where I was at the time, it was bold and fearless—a product of my own inner awakening. The only problem was, it preceded me. In other words, I was the girl who wrote that article on that feminist blog, but I had yet to conceive of myself as “Danielle, the feminist.” I was in the process of becoming—and writing that piece was the spark, my jolt into consciousness.
It’s important for me to admit that I wasn’t fully identifying as a feminist when I first experienced my feminist epiphany, because no matter how sharp and urgent these moments reveal themselves to be, it’s not as if we can just assume a new identity on the spot. It takes time to grow into our new selves and resilience to work through the discomfort that comes with such transitional pauses. Perhaps the best way to explain it is that “in-between” feeling where you don’t quite know where you belong. You have one foot in and one foot out of certain groups, organizations and friend circles. Epiphanies change your relationship to everything and everyone around you. Before long, you begin to feel changed too.
In her essay, “Coming to Writing,” Helene Cixous writes, “Don’t ask yourself, ‘Why… ?’ Everything trembles when the question of meaning strikes.”
Sophomore year was, in this respect, my “Why?” It was a time of growing and learning, and somewhere in the mix I stopped trembling. I gained my footing and the “question of meaning” soon revealed itself to be a site of endless opportunity. It turns out that accidentally stumbling into writing helped me to find my voice, and by finding my voice, I matured as both a feminist and thinker.
But without writing “Dear Duke Guys,” I wouldn’t have ever known to ask the questions that ultimately brought me to women’s studies—the sorts of questions that “answered” themselves by proposing a new set of questions and so on. And without my first epiphany, I most certainly wouldn’t have had my second epiphany.
I needed both.
Shortly after posting the article, I happened to reconnect with one of my childhood babysitters. When I was a little girl, I looked up to her as a smart, driven and sophisticated college student. Now, she was this successful and highly acclaimed writer with a family of her own and a life brimming with creativity.
From time to time, I ask her for advice, and in one of our most recent exchanges, she told me, “If you're ‘where you belong’ all the time, you don't find tension and conflict. And you need that to find a voice.”
I know this now. I know now what I didn’t then. I think it’s what they call “perspective.” Or maybe it’s just being open to an ever-changing life.
These days whenever even a hint of self-doubt slips into my mind, I remember this little pearl of wisdom. It reminds me of the untold power of our epiphanies and our unforeseen potential to rework tension and conflict into uncovering a new sense of self. But more importantly, it reminds me how grateful I am for all of my epiphanies, my year of the “Why?”
Danielle Nelson is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Send Danielle a message on Twitter @elleeenel.