Self-Care And Survival: An Interview With Janet Mock

by Fariha Roísín


I was introduced to Janet a couple of years ago by a friend; we shared her blog posts from Musings On Love with each other, a blog where Janet wrote about her life in love and lamented her struggles. I was struck by the way she talked about love and loss, or even herself — there was this resilience that harnessed her, and that was something that I deeply craved to have for myself.

Strength is something I am incredibly drawn to, and I have been drawn to Janet’s power for quite some time. When I see her I think of the Mohadesa Najumi quote: “The woman who doesn’t need validation from anyone is the most feared individual on the planet.”

Last year she released her memoir, Redefining Realness, where she explored her life and her experiences of womanhood. It is a beautiful and cathartic read which ultimately asks us to change all the things that we accept and know about ourselves and those around us.

She is someone who has been supportive of me on my journey, and I wanted that chance to sit down and ask her life, her work, how she drives herself — and, of course, how she practices self-care.

For me, self-care is that Ralph Ellison quote from Invisible Man — “I am nobody but myself.” What does self-care mean for you, Janet?

I think self-care is something deliberate, something that I do to take care of myself in a world that tells me I shouldn’t necessarily exist. That my body and my identity don’t necessarily matter — especially in systems that weren’t built for me to really thrive. We can say that the ways in which we survive are ways in which we take care of ourselves — but I don’t really think that’s care — that’s us trying to survive in systems that weren’t built for us.

Writing is a part of my survival, for me to sit down and tell myself the truth about my experience, but I’m a writer so that’s also work. It’s rare that I have writing just for me. When I sit down in the morning and I’m writing I release myself from these thoughts.

Also, the home of my own creation, having a partner of my own choosing who takes care of me and who I also take care of, my dog who is so selfless and the embodiment of unconditional love and attention and affection. I choose to have [them] in my daily spaces and they take care of me.

Being in a community — being with the people that I can be the most intimate with — people who don’t necessarily think of Janet Mock the public person/writer/thinker, but Janet Mock, my girlfriend. If I’m empty, and I show up empty, they can accept empty on that day.

How do you self-care?

It’s become even more necessary to ensure that I define my space and friendships really clearly. I don’t call everyone my friend anymore. I have people who I’m in sisterhood with, and then I have my deep, deep friendship and love with.

Boundaries are a way in which I take care of myself. By putting up very clear things about what I will talk about, what parts of my life I will put out for the world to see, what parts of me will not be content, what parts of me will just be for me and not for the world to take for themselves, what parts of my life will I not let to be objectified content.

What are things that you do that are specific to your self care?

Deep conditioning my hair! Sitting with that cap on my head and taking care of some part of myself that is very important to me — like my hair. Also reading! To be able to sit down and flip through my magazines, my New Yorker, my New York magazine. Sometimes when I don’t have time I realize I don’t read and I feel really guilty because I have stacks of them around the house. I really appreciate to be able to take in this content that I really love and enjoy and interact with, but also to be able to shut down my brain and just watch mindless television with a big glass of water with a little bit of apple cider in it and just be quiet. Also, I don’t have a problem sleeping and that really helps re-energize me. Even when my battery is empty I get the seven or eight hours of sleep that I crave.

When are you most with yourself?

On the couch, in the morning, with coffee and my dog sitting on top of the cushions of our couch and Aaron (Janet’s fiancé) sitting next to me. My home is the one safe space that I believe I have in this world. That’s when I feel most at self, and at safe.

When do you find self-care is really hard to practice?

I can’t fulfill the role of counselor to everyone, so I have to constantly tell myself that I’ve done enough. When people that have read my book come to me, I can listen, but I can’t help with anything else and I have to be okay with myself and not go home with guilt. I can’t travel on the plane ride home and bring that home.

How do you function when you’re moving from one city to the next? How do you self-care when you’re on the road?

I don’t really know if I’m mastered that, but I do think boundaries have helped a lot. I have an agency that handles all my talks and we have very specific guidelines. I have a rider to make the spaces comfortable, as they aren’t always safe spaces. Also, I’m just thinking of the TSA and how traumatizing it is every time I have to go through that — like the policing that is involved there, the stripping of the agency over your body and hair. The scanning machines, and the lines, and these random people you’re forced to be with that you normally wouldn’t choose to be in a line with, or listening to people’s conversations that are triggering. Travelling can be great — with a private jet — but a girl’s not rolling like Oprah.

I feel like a lot of your journey of being and fully becoming Janet was unlearning certain things. You’re assigned something at birth and you have to take it with you as you continue to live, like an identification key, because it’s a way to be able to categorize you, it makes others feel secure about you. What was the biggest battle you had in unlearning certain habits that you’d developed about who you “were” as opposed to who you are?

I think one thing is the limitation of labels, like performing labels — as in performing the actions that are associated with a label — trying to prove certain stereotypes based around the identity that you have. That is the thing that I’ve been challenged with the most. Especially with someone who is trying to create portraits and new spaces of conversation in mainstream media and knowing that people with the same identity markers have not necessarily been in the same spaces or navigated those same spaces. So, for me, anything from the label of activist, trans (and what people think a trans person is capable of doing or what trans people look like or speak like), growing up poor, having been a sex worker — all of these things I’ve had to unlearn to perform from, and to challenge the expectations of what people think I can do. I feel like I’m battling this intra community and outside of community because even as a trans woman of color I refuse to be seen as a symbol for everyone’s liberation within the “trans community.” So, I think the unlearning part is this sense of default obligation to anyone because of these labels.

I feel like siblings are often forced into comparisons at an early age, so you’re always grasping. That’s the best explanation I have — I’ve always felt like I was grasping for something because ultimately, from the youngest age, it was planted in me that who I was — as in Fariha and all that encompasses — wasn’t good enough because I always compared to everyone around me. When that happens it breeds a grass is always greener affliction. You can’t sit with what you have and be happy, you’re always grasping for what you aren’t, or what you don’t have. Maybe not in the same way, but to an extent, you were looking towards Chad (Janet’s brother) as this beacon of masculinity (and probably also your dad) and you were trying to fill in the gaps within yourself. We’re all masters of disguise to an extent, right? We’re all trying to fill in gaps. Is that a good summation?

What was interesting for me is that I noticed that Chad could be who he was and that was fine, we could accept that, but there was always a conversation with the way that I operated and navigated the world as a young person. And so, for me, instead of going and hiding myself, I negotiated spaces where I could be myself with my friends.

I knew that in my home, in front of dad, that’s not where I could be myself. It’s not that I necessarily thought that I was performing for my father in his presence but there was a part of me that would not be fully myself around my father. I just noticed there were no conversations with Chad that he had to be more masculine, whereas with me there was.

How did your safe spaces come about and that you realized you had a right to be who you were?

I think from a young age I saw my parents as human beings. I never saw them as people to protect me, and provide for me — I saw them as flawed human beings going through their own journeys. The moment in which, as a young person, I had with my father and his drug use and his unapologetic self-centering, no matter how dysfunctional it was, it did teach me: holy shit, you’re on your own. So the only thing I had in this world was my sense of self. If I was going to go out and not have this safe home and then pretend to not be myself, I really had nothing. The least that I could do was go out in the world and be myself and that was a form of having some kind of resource because I at least was telling myself the truth about who I was and I wasn’t going to perform in my unsafe home and then go out into the world and perform some more.

I feel like sometimes, and if you’re lucky many times, you’ll read something that so profoundly articulates e x a c t l y what you’re going through, and you’ll have a light bulb moment. I think that’s what human connection is; and I feel that’s the duty of art. What materials — books, or films, paved the way for you. What art made you feel alive, and less alone?

I came of age in the early 90s and back then there was a lot of black TV on. I felt like I saw myself in so many different spaces…Family Matters, Martin, Living Single were all on, and so even though I may not have exactly understood all of it, I still saw myself to a certain extent. There were people on TV that had the same skin color as me, and they had their own shows — those were the kind of spaces in which I grew up.

Then from there, I started reading stories that reflected me like Maya Angelou’s work. I think I read her in 8th or 9th grade and that blew my mind, I didn’t know books could be that way. I didn’t know that people could write about their life experiences in such a literary, novelistic way — but also be this space of healing for the reader. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was the first experience in my life where not only was there this woman that looked like me, who wrote beautifully, but she also had these really deep life experiences that a lot of people weren’t necessarily writing about. She was writing about child sexual abuse in a way, as a experience like one that I went through, and I didn’t know other people went through that. It probably begun my spark of being able to talk about what I went through and that it was trauma. Maya Angelou helped me with that. The next layer of that was seeing The Color Purple — and seeing that again being played out in a mainstream portrait written by a black woman. Then my favorite book of all time, it’s still my favorite book, is Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. What that book still gives me is the license, as a woman of color, to center my quest for self.

Pop culture seemed like a powerful influence on you.

Pop culture raised me, it helped me see myself. When it’s done well it can be transformative.

What have the important women in your life taught you about self-care and putting yourself first? What kind of women do you look up to and turn to?

Audre Lorde would be one. I love the women from This Bridge Called My Back — it’s an anthology from women of color. There are some women in there writing about being first generation women and not feeling like they had a space in their communities when they went off to college. But it was also from women who didn’t feel like they had space in social justice movements, or in feminist movements, or in the gay and lesbian liberation movement — so they created their own space to sit with one another. Barbara Smith, Cherríe Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua are all in it. I also think about Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, I’ve read their biographies — and even Oprah. They provide me with lessons. That’s what I’m constantly seeking in books: how can I learn from women who have done it before, who made it out.

Who has been the most important influence in your life?

Zora Neale Hurston.

Why did you write Redefining Realness? I’m sure in large part for catharsis — but why else?

I wanted to tell the truth about my experience and have a space where I could have the record of my girlhood, to declare that my girlhood mattered — even if it wasn’t a normative girlhood. I frankly did it because not enough of our stories are being told. When I had access to books for the first time I was craving to see a portrait of myself. So as I was writing Redefining Realness I was very cognizant that what I was writing would provide that for that 7th grade girl that I was. I wrote it to show up and be accountable to her.

What’s the single best advice that you got from somebody on how to be your full self?

Shut out the noise and listen to yourself.

What’s been the most important part of your journey so far?

Being able to go through the experiences that I’ve gone through — survive them — live to tell it and write it and to give other people a mirror for them to see themselves and then to still be able to say that there’s so much that I dream and accomplish and live for and to show up authentically as I’m pursuing those goals and those dreams. That’s the most important of my journey so far.

Fariha Roísín is a writer extraordinaire. Follow her rambunctious tweeting @fariharoisin.