A.N. Devers | Longreads | May 2017| 9 minutes (2,206words)
When the first episode of Twin Peaks aired, I didn’t see it. It was the spring of 1990 and I was in shock. My grandfather and grandmother had just died unexpectedly of different causes less than twenty-four hours apart, on April 1st and 2nd, respectively. I was 12 years old and felt as if I was in a fever dream. Their deaths were ghastly and remarkable and strange and heart wrenching and I felt like for two weeks my body had left the earth, a pre-teen balloon, floating above their home of Ft. Worth, Texas watching streams of mourners as they arrived with potato salad and Ricky’s BBQ and chocolate cake.
My papaw died of sudden complications from a lifetime of smoking although he had quit finally. My mamaw, from a stroke at the funeral home while making memorial service plans, the next day. Both were surprising. No one was prepared. Not an hour before I was snuggled under Mamaw’s arm while she wept, steeling herself for a lifetime without him, trying to envision a life for herself where she could manage, which, surreally, involved buying herself a Cadillac. And the day before that, I was on a plane from Virginia to Texas trying to see my grandfather before he was gone. I was too late. She married him at fourteen. He was seventeen. They saved each other during the Great Depression and supported many others. Her heart didn’t see a way without him.
Seven days later, when the first episode of Twin Peaks aired, I didn’t know it existed. I wouldn’t have even known to look out for it. I had been dropped off at my first cousin’s house (she is a decade older than me and had three kids of her own), and left to melt into the sofa while the adults of the family dealt with their unexpected dual funeral attended by hundreds for the two wildly popular senior citizens that were my grandparents.
We didn’t have cable television yet installed at our home in Virginia and it was an incredible gift those two weeks I cried and couch surfed. I consumed MTV and hour after hour of cheerleading national championships on ESPN. I had never seen cheerleading championships before and they were perfectly deadening. I could watch without feeling. I might have also decided at that moment to never become a cheerleader. I might have dreamed of being thrown high in the air and caught by strong arms. I might have dreamed about being thrown in the air and never coming down. I played my little cousin’s super Nintendo late into the night.
Like most cultural discoveries those days, it was provided to me by my brother, a freshman in college. Twin Peaks became the first thing we shared together as a mutual love that I can remember.
The other thing I did that week was read and reread a copy of Sassy magazine that I’d found at a grocery store news stand. I had never heard of Sassy before but plucked it from the shelf because of a cover story that said, “Are humans exploiting dolphins?” This was something I was deeply invested in. I was head over heels for dolphins and had sent letters to Greenpeace and wanted to be a marine biologist at the time, because, I was twelve. Dolphins were my horses. Inside the magazine I discovered a large fold-out poster and profile of the cast of a new television adaptation of The Outsiders being produced by Francis Ford Coppola and I was entranced by how well this magazine knew what to feed me. At that moment, no one I knew had read The Outsiders. It was a secret affair I was having with S. E. Hinton, while all my peers read Sweet Valley High and Babysitter’s Club, which made Sassy’s cover story seem like a personal manna gift from mythological teen goddesses haunting Texas supermarkets. When I got home I tore out the subscription card and subscribed.
Sassy, a magazine packaged to look like a mainstream teen magazine, with ads for OB tampons and Debbie Gibson’s Electric Youth perfume and Lip Smackers lip gloss, and the infamous Teen Spirit deodorant, as in Nirvana’s “Smells Like…,” was actually far more provocative, as close to a direct line to the underground alternative girl culture of New York City and America as I would find for several years. I didn’t know there was an alternative to cheerleading and New Kids on the Block and hair scrunchies and Seventeen magazine, which I was deeply suspicious of, and YM magazine, which I was equally suspicious of, and Tiger Beat and BOP which had been interesting for a month when I was ten before I decided I wasn’t a bedroom teen heartthrob kind of girl. I hadn’t known about an alternative at all, but I realize now I’d yearned for one.
My discovery of Twin Peaks wouldn’t happen that week I sprawled on a sofa in Texas. It had to wait until August back home in Virginia, and like most cultural discoveries those days, it was provided to me by my brother, a freshman in college. He had come home for the summer and I still remember him trying to get me out of my bedroom to watch the first episode, which was beginning an eight-week summer rerun. “It’s supposed to be great,” he said. “Weird.” I remember lying on the floor with my feet up on a small wooden stool which I then would lift and flip and over and over like a bored circus performer.
Twin Peaks became the first thing we shared together as a mutual love that I can remember. My brother had spent every moment preceding my grandparent’s death having very little to do with me. I’d spent every moment trying to have everything to do with him. I wonder if he noticed a change in me. A loss of the puppy dog following. A shift in his hyperactive, annoying little sister. The sadness. What I remember about myself that year was a nearly complete jettison of my former personality, a somewhat goofy, awkward young girl. And my guess is I was entirely less annoying to him post-grandparent’s death, which is sad really, that it took an experience of brutal grief and loneliness to find some calm and some edge.
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Shock was the only experience between April and August of 1990. I was in shock from adolescence. I was in shock from my parents’ and my family’s shock. I was in the shock from a growth spurt that left me the tallest person in school for two years and therefore subject to ridicule. I was in shock from childhood spent meandering around America as a military brat before settling into a brand new suburban neighborhood on a far fringe of the Washington D. C. metro area that felt too Disneyworld and not enough world. It was shiny and the houses were much bigger and boxier and the lawns were newly striped with neon sod and there was nothing to do. I had been free to roam on my bicycle for hours on the Utah air force base we’d moved from. But in this new suburb there were rules because we weren’t surrounded by fences and checkpoints. There were rules because there were disappearing girls. A body of a missing girl was found in a ditch on the side of a road across the county. There were concerns about child snatching nationwide. It was around this time that unsupervised child play was relinquished by Americans. I was in shock that teachers and friends at school expected me to be happy all the time. It was all shocking, everything seemed sickeningly off.
For the first time I was watching a television show that showed suffering was a part of life that didn’t get smoothed over at the end of an episode.
And then I watched Twin Peaks and felt the relief of my shock. Twin Peaks for the next two years became my best friend. I have no critical perspective from which to look back with, I don’t care that the show was edgy or quirky or ground-breaking, though it was. I don’t care about its flaws or its holes or its unanswered questions. I saw it as a breath of fresh dark honest night air. I could live in my grief and be weird in my grief. I could handle losing friends because I didn’t dress the right way or own Benetton sweatshirts that engulfed my entire body or want to prank call boys at sleepovers and spray my bangs all the way to the ceiling. The veneer of the perfect town was as thin in Twin Peaks as it was in Centreville, Virginia.
For the first time I was watching a television show that showed suffering was a part of life that didn’t get smoothed over at the end of an episode. But seeing Laura Palmer’s mother’s scream helped me contextualize my family’s grief. And yet my relationship to the show is more complicated than that. It wasn’t just a salve for the grief of losing my grandparents; it also offered me a way to grieve and let go of my girlhood.
The raw sexuality that oozed from Audrey Horne, Laura Palmer, and even the far more chaste and reserved Donna Hayward, was an awakening I might have not quite been ready for, but which allowed me to feel much more aware of what was happening to me and the girls around me over the two years Twin Peaks was on television and ever since.
I would learn my best parlour trick, how to tie a cherry stem into a knot with my tongue, from Audrey Horne, a trick she demonstrates to Blackie, the madam who runs One-Eyed Jack’s her father’s secret brothel across the Canadian border. I would only discover my clitoris after reading the Twin Peaks spin-off book written by David Lynch’s daughter, The Diary of Laura Palmer, a book that is disturbing and tawdry and was written off as terrible, but which I read again and again through high school, as I struggled to comprehend the woes of womanhood.
It was such a great relief to see the plight of women and mothers and teenage girls so clearly articulated on television. Critics have said Twin Peaks capitalized on dead girl navel gazing, but Twin Peaks helped me cope with the pain, and sometimes agony, of being a teenage girl. I had a sheltered childhood and was unprepared for the unwanted gaze and actions of men. It was all happening concurrently, my watching the women of Twin Peaks be brutalized, be murdered, be beaten, be cheated on, be disregarded, be dismissed, and my learning that some men, and boys, were going to do the same to me and the young women around me.
It was at that time that male strangers walking past me in parking lots began to ask me if my “red hair matched what was downstairs.” It was around that time that I was flashed for the first time. It was around that time that the boys in gym started pulling all the girls’ shorts down with impunity. It was around the time that a classmate confessed on the gym steps that her older stepbrother was sexually abusing her, becoming the first of many similar stories I would hear. It was around that time I received an anonymous phone call asking if I would like to be set up on dates with men who lived nearby. And it was not long after that I would date a boy for nearly a year before he took my virginity after I told him I wasn’t interested in losing it at all. He called for weeks after we broke up, whispering, “Slut,” when I answered.
I would not be the bubbly teen. Unlike Laura Palmer, I wouldn’t even pretend. I would not try out for cheerleading. I would not be twirled in the air like I didn’t care have a care in the world to weigh me down to the earth. I would regard any amount of school spirit with cynicism at our megaschool that felt more like a church in which to worship jocks. I would eventually be let into a small group of older misfit teens, solely based on their learning I watched Twin Peaks.
I would listen to Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtrack over and over again on my Walkman. I would listen to the tape of Agent Dale Cooper giving wistful notes into his handheld recorder for his secretary Diane to transcribe and fall asleep to his love of pine trees, coffee, and cherry pie laced with observations and clues about the murder. I would play the sheet music to Laura Palmer’s Theme on the piano every morning before school as a dirge for my day. I would pore over the October 1990 issue of Sassy which featured a fashion spread directly inspired by the show and dig through storage boxes of my mother’s clothes from the sixties and pull out her woollen pleated plaid college skirts and pair them with combat boots and get pushed up the school steps from behind and get called a dyke for wearing something other than pegged jeans and Hard Rock café t-shirts. I would read The Diary of Laura Palmer alone in the bathtub and learn about pleasure and pain.
Instead of falling apart, because of Twin Peaks I would shatter into black glittery particles and love the world more than I had before, however much it hurt.
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A.N. Devers is a writer and editor. She lives in London.
Editor: Sari Botton