I Want to Believe: Discovering the Inner Scully

by Sarah Marshall

I’m twenty-five. Twenty-five is a big deal, right? I mean, I’ve thought about this. Twenty-five is when your early twenties end. Twenty-five is when you really have to start thinking about calling yourself not a “girl” but a “woman,” regardless of what the women on “Girls” say. Twenty-five is when you should, essentially, have your twenties figured out, as a decade, or something. I think.

I don’t know if there’s an equivalent age for your teen years, which officially begin when you’re thirteen, but could maybe be more accurately said to begin when you get your first period, which means that some of my friends became teenagers when they were nine and some when they were fifteen, and that some girls now become teenagers when they’re about four, if I’m to believe what I read in the Daily Mail, which of course I do. I don’t know if there’s ever a point at which you figure out how to be a teenager, which, as a concept, strikes me as analogous to figuring out pregnancy, i.e. it’s just not going to happen. Horrible and/or weird phases end only to be replaced by other horrible and/or weird phases, and at the end you either get a baby or enter your twenties (or both, depending on how the timing works out).

Of course, I don’t know how accurate this metaphor actually is, since I’ve never been pregnant. Which is another thing about twenty-five: twenty-five is, I think, the first year at which you can say, as a college-careery-type, “I’m having a baby!” and not have people say “But you’re so young!” People will, instead, say “Oh, okay.” Of course they will probably be nicer. But they will not be shocked. And for some reason, this alarms me.

Now, I don’t think I’m going to go off and have a baby just because I have (according to my inarticulate internal scale) reached the age at which it is no longer surprising to do so. But still: what if I did? What if taking on these tremendous responsibilities is like turning thirteen (or getting your first period, whichever) and not being too young for makeup anymore? Suddenly your mother starts buying you little drugstore palettes of eye shadow and telling you you’re probably an autumn, and one day you say, Well, okay, and spend twenty minutes standing on the upstairs bathroom toilet seat and smearing on turquoises and amethysts and seafoams, and end up looking like a deranged old-Hollywood starlet/peacock. If anyone thought you were ready for this responsibility (and who can call eye makeup anything but a responsibility), you have just proved them wrong, but at the same time you are doing something. You are dazzling in your tiny, tiny bra. You are becoming, and not in a serial killer kind of way. You are displaying your rough progress to the world. Your eyes will look faintly bruised and extraterrestrial for days.

I suppose the assumption I have now is that, at twenty-five, you’re too old to display your rough progress to the world. You are a big girl with a big bra (or at least a flattering one). You have to have your shit together. And even though a lot of my anxiety about reaching my mid-twenties is based on that assumption, I also have to say, now that I’ve written it all out here: Fuck that shit.

If this seems like a deeply unoriginal statement, I’d like to clarify. Very few people will argue that being in your mid-twenties or your mid-thirties or your mid-forties preclude you from carrying on in many teenagerish ways, such as hooking up with strangers and dropping acid procured from unreliable sources and obsessing about your butt (all activities that Elizabeth Wurtzel, now forty-five, has recently written a great deal about her relish for). But acting like a teenager isn’t what I’m talking about here — for one thing, plenty of people have made that argument already. For another, I didn’t even act much like a teenager when I was a teenager: I went through brief party animal phases, but even then I was never much of a party animal. I was a deeply committed introvert pretending to be a party animal. I was a party minnow, a party nematode, a party tardigrade.

In high school, I spent most of my energy senior year writing and directing a play loosely based on the life of Ted Bundy. It was fearless and bad art; it had lots of long soliloquies and a pair of party store handcuffs, and I was completely in charge of it, and completely allowed to make my own mistakes, partly because I was seventeen (with a big, unflattering bra) and allowed myself to make them. That’s what I mean when I talk about acting like a teenager: not chalking up your out-of-control personal life to a philosophy (those who wish to do so are welcome to it, but I have a tardigrade personal life, and it was even smaller before), but allowing yourself to be a work in progress, to try thinks you’re terrible at, to get obsessed with things and show your undignified enthusiasm to the world. To accept that there isn’t much you’re good at, or much you know, because there’s no other way to learn. To try adventurous things with eye makeup, and then look weird all day.

What I miss most, when I think about high school — more than the impassioned talks, the trips to Dairy Queen before play practice, or the clove cigarettes — is the Lying on the Bed and Listening to Music (or LoBaLM) component. Remember the LoBaLM component? My LoBaLM artist of choice was Bruce Springsteen, partly because I had Darkness on the Edge of Town on vinyl, and I could prop the album up and stare at the young, bruise-eyed, t-shirted Bruce during my LoBaLMing. There was a world out there, I thought, somewhere out there in the wild blue yonder, but at the same time that world lived most completely within my crazed adolescent psyche, which, I was sure, contained enough love and compassion to save every troubled male soul in the world, or at least in New Jersey. I lay on my bed and had a notion deep inside that it wasn’t no sin to be glad I was alive.

I don’t know if teenagers — or at least introverted teenage girls — can really survive without the LoBaLM. It’s an hour straight when you are essentially allowed to purge yourself of your most yearning, inarticulate feelings, like a mother expressing breast milk or an Elizabethan being purged of bad humors. And if it’s so essential to teenage life, and if I’m not so different now than I was as a teenager (I still have a notion deep inside that it ain’t no sin to be glad I’m alive, and I still have no idea how to shop for bras), then why don’t I LoBaLM any more? Do I have fewer feelings, or do I give them less credence? Am I less inclined to believe that the ridiculous murmurings of soul are relevant to my path in life? And is it possible to reap the rewards of your twenties (relationship experience! stabilized hormones! the ability to concentrate on dull but important tasks!) and still listen to your inner LoBaLMer?

I have never asked more questions in a piece of writing. I feel like Carrie Bradshaw, but without the biceps or the screaming or the mysteriously clean apartment. (Side note: doesn’t Carrie HAVE to have a maid? A secret, shameful maid? Or a helpful ghost, like Cordelia did on Angel?) I would like you to answer these questions, and to please show your work, becaue I am still figuring them out. And I would also like to say: please ignore anything I say that you disagree with, because my twenty-five is not your twenty-five, nor is my imaginary twenty-five your imaginary twenty-five, and because really, what the fuck do I know? I’m only twenty-five.

And yet, I feel I’m not falling too deeply into the whole Joyce Maynard-Elizabeth Wurtzel-Lena Dunham-voice of a generation continuum when I say that many people around my age — namely, people far enough into their twenties to realize that they are not, technically, teenagers — complain of feeling “old.” Certainly nearly everyone I know has, at some point or another. And obviously this isn’t entirely new, or specific to this generation, though I’m sure we feel “old” for reasons all our own. It’s often less a complaint than an expression of surprise: my best friend, who just turned twenty-three (and who people have been mistaking for a twenty-five-year-old since she was fifteen) is applying to nursing school, and was talking the other day about how strange it was that she would probably finish nursing school at twenty-six. Twenty-six isn’t old, but it’s something; how is it possible to be an age that means something? And is it more or less possible than somehow, by some bizarre system of tests and classes and internships, becoming a nurse?

Here’s something I think I do know: when we talk about “feeling old,” we really mean we have a sense of history. We have lived through more than one significant phase of democracy or foreign policy or R&B, and we have been cognizant enough to understand the shift. This doesn’t mean we’re old, but it means we’re old enough to recognize that the way things are now isn’t the way things always will be, and that, someday, our children will borrow our pants to wear to their ironic parties, unless irony has disappeared by that time, because we will have ruined it for everyone for at least the next thirty years.

Turning twenty-five has made me think about Columbine, which I end up doing pretty much every year: Columbine happened two days before I turned eleven, and we have, impossibly, just passed its fourteenth anniversary, along with the twentieth anniversary of the Waco Siege and the eighteenth anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing. I don’t remember those events, but I remember Columbine, and if you’re reading this you know what I mean when I say “Columbine happened,” not “the Columbine massacre” or “the shooting at Columbine high.” People who were born around the same time as Columbine — and who will be starting high school this fall — might not know what this means; people fourteen years from now almost certainly won’t.

I’ve been thinking about Columbine a lot lately because I begin to feel more and more, with every atrocity I see in the news, that Columbine helped to make me who I am, as much as an event to which I have no personal connection possibly could have. I won’t speak for the rest of my generation, whatever that is, whoever you are — but when I think about Columbine happening when I was ten, I think about September 11th happening when I was thirteen, and the Virginia Tech shooting happening when I was eighteen (again in mid-April, where so much atrocity is huddled). I can’t help feeling that these events shaped me, made me somehow less shockable than the generation right before mine: I entered high school knowing it could easily become a war zone, and began to consider America’s place in the world just as America began to feel unsafe. I am aware, maybe more than many who grew up just a few years before me, that horrifying acts of violence can be committed with horrifying ease: that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, who had no trouble obtaining guns or bomb materials or privacy or the good faith of their community, were held back from committing mass murder by nothing but their willingness to view other people as targets, and that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris resembled typical teenage boys far more closely than many of us would like to admit.

Maybe I am uniquely jaded. Or maybe that’s just bullshit. My mother’s generation lived through Vietnam. Every modern generation witnesses atrocity, even if it’s only on television. Maybe calling ourselves special is just self-aggrandizement; maybe our knowledge of how horrifying the world can be is the oldest news of all. Maybe we develop this sense of history — and let ourselves feel “old” — so we can feel like the world started to matter when we started paying attention to it, and that we’ll someday — when we’re really old, and have really big bras — be able to see the end of the story, the big finale, when everything gets resolved and we all get our coats and go home.

There was another ’90s phenomenon I thought about during my last days as a twenty-four-year old: Gillian Anderson. Gillian Anderson was twenty-five during the first season of “The X-Files,a show I didn’t actually watch when it was on TV, because it was too scary for me. (Twenty-five, for those of you keeping count — and you know I am — is a year younger than Lena Dunham was when “Girls” started airing, and the birthday Keri Russell celebrated during the third season of “Felicity.” If that doesn’t make you realize that age is surprisingly hard to pin down, let alone define, then I don’t know what will — except here I am, still obsessing about age, the pinning down of). I reasoned that, if Gillian Anderson was twenty-five when she started playing Dana Scully, then twenty-five would be when I’d uncover my inner Scully-ness: resilience, intelligence, grace under fire, and the ability to look sexy in a trench coat bit enough for Christo to wrap a coast with. I didn’t aspire to become, at twenty-five, a doctor/FBI agent/Duchovny babe, but Gillian Anderson wasn’t any of those things either: she just knew how to emulate the qualities that made such a role possible. If she could do it, then I could do it. This was what twenty-five started to mean to me.

(I should note here that, after doing some research today, I realized that Gillian Anderson actually filmed the pilot episode of “The X-Files” when she was twenty-four-and-a-half, but we will just ignore that and move on.)

And, for better or for worse, I have settled on Scully as my role model for this year. If I could do better, I don’t really see how. Scully is a pragmatist, and not just because she has to keep Spooky Mulder from going off half-cocked. She focuses on what she knows to be true, and it’s her grunt work that usually ends up saving Mulder’s ass. Even if she doesn’t know what the hell’s going on, she can convince herself she does — except when the time comes for her to open herself up to the impossible, and then she does. She knows how to keep a clear head and make use of the facts, but she also accepts that what’s really going on is often outside her comprehension. She knows that the truth is out there. And she gets to kiss Mulder at the end.

Sarah Marshall is still accepting belated birthday gifts, in case you would like to send her some shoulder pads or a beige pencil skirt.