This month’s Guest Star is the excellent Kaitlin Tremblay. Content Warning: self-harm, emotional abuse
My roommate and I are obnoxious in the way that only best friends who live together can be. We have more inside jokes than books we’ve read (and as two girls who work in publishing and with five degrees in subjects focused on books between us, that says a lot). I like to think it’s endearing. We have a house rule for our apartment: we are delightful. (And we are, I promise.)
One of our most enduring inside jokes, though, is Laughing Hour. Laughing Hour came from Star Trek: The Next Generation, when Alexander, Worf’s son, takes lessons on how to laugh. The episode is riddled with bursts of “HA!” from Alexander at the most importune times, and in true 90s comedy fashion, to the utmost annoyance of his very serious and very noble father. It is delightful.
Now, whenever either my roommate or I happen to let out a genuine “HA!”, it is almost unfailingly met with the other echoing a “HA!” back. This will go on for way longer than an hour, especially if wine or scotch is involved.
This isn’t just to say we love TNG. I mean, we do, but for me, our shared love of TNG means a whole lot more than just a fandom we can share and revel in and critique and enjoy together. But to explain that, I have to go back a bit, to when I first started watching TNG (which was admittedly, only three or so years ago). It’s the show I have the most complicated relationship with, because I was introduced to it by my previous long-term partner of five years, a man whose emotional abuse drove me almost to the point of suicide for the one and only time in my life.
There’s this thing that happens to people who are emotionally abused. We stop seeing ourselves as whole people. So much of our sense of identity is eroded away, through either subtle jabs or quips or more overt gaslighting, that trusting yourself becomes entirely impossible. We’re taught to not even see what’s happening as abuse, that we’re just “over-sensitive.”
One of my ex’s, who we’ll call Harry for the sake of anonymity, most enduring tactics was to undermine my every interest until I had nothing left but what he gave me or showed me. When I was with Harry, anything I liked on my own or from before having dated him, didn’t count and was automatically considered awful. The music I listened to that he didn’t introduce me to was “terrible” and the musicians were “talentless.” The movies I watched when I wasn’t with him were horrible (and if I saw it with another guy, I would have to deal with a tirade of jealous and possessive remarks).
This music thing was so ingrained that once I caught him enjoying a song from a band I liked that he hated. (The band in question here is Black Keys.) The song happened to play during a television show we were watching (his choice, of course), and he liked it. I told him it was Black Keys and he said I was wrong. I Googled it and when I told him that, yes, in fact, the song he was enjoying was from a band I liked that he hated, he got mad at me and told me I only looked it up to start a fight. We then proceeded to fight about me supposedly always trying to instigate fights with him (the fights were usually stemmed from me not liking something he liked or daring to like something on my own).
Books I liked that he didn’t introduce me to were the worst. I once had him read a book I adored, and after he read it and decided it was the Worst Book in All of Canadian Publishing History, I had to endure an entire tirade about how there was nothing of value in the book. And when I tried to discuss what I liked in it, I was told I trying to start a fight with him.
One of our biggest fights was when I started my own blog to write about whatever I wanted. He accused me of only writing about things that he liked. (This was our fourth year together and by this time, I had a learned to stop discussing things I liked with him in order to avoid the inevitable fights and put-downs of my intellect and taste.) He once got mad at me because I published a post without consulting him first about it. He said I was flat out wrong in what I had written. He said I misinterpreted everything and that I should always talk to him before I posted articles. To that I actually said, “But then you’ll say I stole the idea from you.” And to which he gave no response, except to continue to force me to walk a tightrope between his control of me and my dwindling ability to see myself as a whole person
My interests, in academia, in books, in games, in the X-Men, in horror movies, in painting, in writing, no matter how long I had held them and no matter that they were what brought us together in the first place, were not my own. And if they were my own, they were worthless. To him, I was just a pale copy of his personality.And after having been told it for almost five years, I started to believe it also. To a certain extent I was. He stole everything I had within me: my passion, my ambition, my intellect, my strength, my happiness, and my ability to be happy. He stole it all and replaced it with an endless abyss of such extreme self-loathing I hated myself every time I looked in the mirror. I was nothing because he convinced me I was nothing without him. It was a control tactic, a way to assert his power over me and to undermine my belief in myself. After we broke up, I confronted him about it. He admitted to doing it to make himself feel better and because he thought I was strong enough to “take it.”
This was the atmosphere I was introduced to TNG in. The relationship dynamic Harry had created was volatile, hostile, and the show became intimately associated with someone I’ve barely even been able to think about without spiraling hard back into old, bad, self-harm habits. It wasn’t until my therapist told me this was an abusive relationship that I’ve been able to accept it wasn’t my fault and begin healing. Reconstructing a stable sense of self is difficult work, especially when you begin the foundation you’re working from is worthless.
When I finally had the strength to leave him, in no small part to my amazing roommate, I was in the fourth season of TNG at this point. I had just watched the first half of “Best of Both Worlds,” and I don’t think there will be another moment in TV that hit me as strongly as seeing Locutus for the first time. It had quickly become my favourite show, but I would begin to have panic attacks whenever I watched it. I couldn’t. It represented all five years of emotional abuse he had put me through and I had no idea how to navigate it. There was no course I could set to even begin healing from the damage he done, let alone watch anything that was so bound up in all that baggage.
Until one night, when my roommate and I were on the GO Train, heading from Toronto to our place in Burlington. We were drunk from a good night out with friends. A night that reminded me why I was loved and the damage he had done was in no way a reflection of who I actually was. I was rambling to pass the forty-five minute train ride, and so she asked me why I liked TNG. She, an avid fan, I should say. Drunk and vaguely happy, I went on a rant about how the relationships between characters evolve beautifully and that the character development was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
But it was more than that. It was Data’s keen interest in what makes humans human, and his attempts to fit in to a community that he does not understand, but yearns to be a part of. Data, wanting to be more than his programming, and Worf, wanting to connect to a family and culture he had never known, except in a very textbook way. And the way Picard’s intellect and ambition to explore were questioned and put into a dark, terrifying perspective when he learned of the Borg. The Borg. The way their mere existence put fear into the hearts of the most brave and intelligent characters. Guinan’s effortless mystery that never needed to be solved, because to solve her would take away from the effect of her.
It has its problem, of course. Troi will always be doomed to be violated, both physically and psychically, and Riker will never fail to elicit the heebie jeebies from me (and yes that is the technical term for the way Riker just makes my skin crawl). But TNG’s cast is so human, and its episodes, while problematic at times, and other times just straight up awful, never failed to elict at least some form of meaningful conversation.
I talked for almost half an hour. And none of the reasons I enjoyed TNG involved Harry. Not a single one.
She started to watch it and it became a thing she and I shared together. We shared anger at Riker and the sexist/racist episodes. We shared joy when Alexander had laughing hour and fury whenever someone mistreated (or mispronounced) Data. And we talked for hours, days, weeks. We’ve shared texts, emails, Facebook messages about what episode we were currently on and how we felt. We shared episodes we adored, and cautioned each other on episodes we were hurt by. While she didn’t share it, she took delight in my love of the love affair between Troi and Worf. We fought over characters and what we liked/didn’t like about them. We agreed, and shared in that delight. We disagreed, and we learned from and about each other.
She let me talk, at first for that half an hour on the train, and then for as long as I wanted after she started watching it. She taught me that I could talk and what I had to say had value.
Now, TNG no longer represents the man who almost killed me. It represents the woman who saved my life through her friendship, love, and support, and how I am so much stronger than I ever thought I could be.
Kaitlin Tremblay is a writer, editor, and gamemaker who focuses on horror, feminism, and mental health. She is the co-author of Escape to Na Pali: A Journey to the Unreal, which features essays about Epic Games’s 1998 game, Unreal. Her own games include Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before and Lights Out, Please. She writes poetry and tweets about Godzilla (a lot). You can follow her on Twitter as @kait_zilla and check out her games, writing, and more on her website, That Monster Games.