The events of your childhood can have a huge effect on you as an adult. I know this because last week my therapist told me that the events of your childhood can have a huge effect on you as an adult. At first I dismissed the sentence as a vague platitude but after remembering the fact that I pay over a hundred dollars an hour for the therapist's advice, I started to give it some more consideration. Had the things that happened to me when I was little really shaped who I am now? Are the decisions we make today just a trickle down of the choices we made when we were younger? Am I writing questions into the intro of this piece because I think it's a strong opening or is it because my idea of a writer has been shaped by countless adolescent hours secretly watching Carrie Bradshaw?
Lately I've been giving it some more thought. Like perhaps my fear of small spaces is a result of getting trapped at the bottom of ball pit during an ill begotten trip to Santa's Pioneer Village. Maybe my fear of water comes from a boat trip where my father convinced me Jaws was set in Lake Ontario? Maybe I have trouble staying overnight with a partner because my brother used to play the fun game of let's punch Graham in his sleep? Whether or not these things have had any real impact on who I am today is up for debate but rather than diving too deep into my own shit, I decided to ask a handful of people about their biggest event from childhood and the impact that event has had on them today. The answers ranged from serious introspection, to light hearted musings, to deeply revealing secrets.
I grew up in Sri Lanka. My dad was doing some work for the Canadian government. There were a lot of expat kids in my area and we had free reign of the neighbourhood. Our parents mostly let us do what we wanted, but we were told to stay away—never go near—a large property that bordered my house. When we asked why the reasons were always vague.
There were some rumors that someone very famous or maybe powerful lived there. We all got the sense that he was ...a danger in some way. One day I was home sick from school. My grandfather was visiting from Canada and he was assigned to watch me. I remember that I was in pajamas. We were in the backyard and my grandfather was painting peacocks. Out of our hedges this man appeared and approached us. I instantly knew it was the man from the property.
The man from the property wanted something from my dad, who of course wasn't home. My grandfather was star struck by the man. Grandpa could barely speak. The two began chatting. The man flattered my grandfather's painting. He said he also liked to paint but only people. The man looked towards me and said let's paint the boy.
I was placed on a stool in front of the two men. I was eleven years old. Very quickly the neighbour said the clothes were spoiling the beauty of me. He asked me to remove my clothes. I looked at my grandpa and did as I was told. Soon after I was on the stool, naked, and crying. I don't know how long this went on but at some point my father arrived home. He quickly reviewed the scene, saw the man from the property, and...went ..nuts. He just lost it on them: raising his voice. Getting in people's faces. I honestly thought he might kill them both.
Within a couple of hours my grandfather was gone and they never - ever - spoke again. Although in some circles it was common knowledge, the man from the property was a famous British science fiction novelist. Apparently he had been banished to (then) Ceylon from postwar Britain rather than face prison for being a pederast. I think about that day sometimes. My father didn't have a temper and rarely ever even raised his voice but the man he became in that moment while essentially unrecognizable. While we've had our ups and downs from that moment forward I never questioned his love for me again. Ever. I knew he'd kill for me. I learned how important it is to protect your family and those more vulnerable than you.
I spent some childhood summers learning Shakespeare/vaguely dangerous fight choreography at drama camp. The camp was held in an abandoned church, and we sat on carpet samples because there weren't enough chairs. When I was ten, the camp threw a talent show and we were asked to perform something that wasn't theatre, so I thought I would try to be a comedian. A great comedian. A universally beloved comedian. I performed Jerry Seinfeld's routine about splitting the bill at a restaurant, verbatim. I don't know if you've ever been a 10-year-old trying to do stand up for a bunch of other pre-teens, but let me tell you: it's not as fun as vaguely dangerous fight choreography.
About halfway through I realized I wasn't landing any of Jerry's signature laughs. This confused me as I'd just seen this bit kill* (*make my parents laugh), so how could a jury of my 10-year-old peers not find this incendiary take on restaurant culture hilarious? Flushed with hot shame, I finished bombing (verbatim) and took a carpet sample. I thought, "Oh shit, I'm stupid." Then I thought, "No - Seinfeld, with his hit TV show and ability to make my parents laugh, he's the one who's stupid." Then I considered maybe jokes about a restaurant bill aren't great coming from someone who has never paid a restaurant bill. They're also probably not that relatable to other children.
Two truths emerged from that set, and I keep them with me to this day. One: know your audience. Two: create material from an honest place. They're solid bits of advice for anyone—marketers, sous chefs, practitioners of metallurgy—but they're especially solid for comedians. Anyway, take my wife, please!
My relationship with my father was always been kind of distant and awkward. He was an alcoholic and always wanted to spend time with me when he was drunk. Honestly, he scared the shit out of me. I remember us arm-wrestling. He'd constantly tell me he could break my arm through the table, it would be easy, but he loved me too much to do it. I think he was trying to prove a point but I was just a kid. Looking back I can't seem to figure out what that point was.
When my father said he loved me, I would always say I loved him back, but really it was out of fear of confrontation. I'd wipe away my cheek after he kissed me as a child—my step siblings still do the same—because he just seemed so loud and physical. It was always very loud and very physical.
By the time I was four my parents were more or less separated. My mom had tried to keep him around, thinking it would be better for me, but after numerous infidelities and assaults she realized that ultimately it would be better off with him out of the picture. There were these late nights when my dad would drunk dial my mom trying to convince her to let him come over. The fights on the phone got exhausting and eventually my mom stopped picking up. Sometimes if my mom ignored the call my dad would simply show up. He'd knock on the door and we'd pretend not to be home until he went away.
The night the incident happened started off more or less like that. Phone rings, don't answer, knock on the door, don't answer, be quiet. But this time something different happened. After one of the knocks there is this crash. My father broke our door down with one of the stones laid out in our garden. My mom walked outside of the bedroom to see what was happening. I heard yelling: what the fuck are you doing/if you call the cops I'll slit your fucking throat. I peaked out from my bedroom and saw my dad pressing my mother up against the wall in our hallway. He began to beat her across the face. He just hit her again and again. Mom's face was covered in a mixture of blood sweat and tears. I wanted to do something but I was so scared. I didn't know how to make it stop. Eventually the two disappear from the hallway into the pitch black living room. I didn't see what happened in there, but eventually the cops arrived. I didn't see my dad again for the next couple of years.
For a long time after the incident I would blame myself for not intervening with the fight. A decade after the event I was diagnosed with PTSD, among other things. To this day I'm incredibly flinchy. It makes things difficult. I can't really do things like sports, since I tense up and cover my face whenever a person/ ball comes at me. I often blink and wince uncontrollably, or turn my whole body quickly whenever something moves in my peripheral vision. Things that remind me of him make me anxious. Beer (especially Molson Canadian), cigarettes, incandescent lighting in a dark room. I made a promise as a child to never drink or smoke for all of my life. I have a bet with one of my best friends worth $1200 that I'll make it to the age of 28 without drinking.
My relationship with my parents is still in repair after the incident. My mother gives me a huge sense of survivor's guilt and I often get tense or snappy whenever I feel like I'm disappointing her (which as an aspiring artist, is quite often). As for my father, we rarely talk. I've come to see him less as a monster and more as a person over the years, but we're still not on good terms. I can't address the elephant in the room.
I spent most of my childhood living in Venezuela. My family had a house in a gated community, we wore uniforms at school (like most schools did), we went to every Sunday Mass, we had a nanny (like many families did). Everything seemed to be quite easy growing up. Then came President Hugo Chavez. To over-simplify it: he made drastic changes to the Venezuelan economy and Venezuelan political system. Only those loyal to him were allowed access to political positions and labour markets. Particularly, in the nationalized Venezuelan oil company, Chavez fired and blacklisted 20,000 people over a combination of live television and newspapers. My parents were on these lists. My mom eventually found work, somehow, in a city 10 hours away by car. For a year or so we would only see her on certain weekends. One of the strongest memories I have is of her leaving to catch her bus as soon as I blew out the candles on my 10th birthday cake. She did what she had to do; I can't imagine her memory of this moment.
I was ten years old when we left Venezuela. We got very lucky. Canadian companies were looking for qualified engineers, my parents applied on whim, and both got jobs. I still remember the old white lady long-distance calling my mom. I remember my sisters and I laughing about how the old white lady anglicized my mother's name. From there things happened very quickly. I knew that we had to leave. I understood that our home became unjustly unlivable. But I had zero idea what exactly was going on past that. I remember giving away a lot of our things. I remember getting into arguments about what we took with us and what got left behind. Most vividly I remember my mother's reaction. We lived in this beautiful, country-yellow dollhouse that was her dream. I watched her: alone, whispering a prayer and saying goodbye to the front door, tears streaming down her face. I think she was the last one out of the house. And then we took all of our things and headed off to an exciting land they called Alberta
Fort McMurray differed from my previous home in almost every way. We moved in early December. We went from 40º C to -40º C in two five-hour flights. We went from a tropical climate to knee deep snow. We came from one of the biggest, most dangerous cities in the world (Caracas) to a minute, expensive, quiet town. It was all a lot to take in. Everything seemed so still and adjusting to the silence and the safety was the longest process of all.
There is not a single part of my life that has not been impacted by that move over a decade ago. I am never not in-relationship to both Canada and Venezuela. I love my motherland, but I love Canada, too. It's complicated. Because of my age I was shielded from some of the uglier adult stuff about leaving home. The pressure my parents were under. The threats of violence. This has led to waves of survivor's guilt and of feeling not Venezuelan enough almost daily. There is also a cultural chasm of sorts between me and my parents. For instance: my understanding of sexuality was molded by North American media and verbiage, and being LGBTQ+ in North America is very different than being queer back home. It just is. So, it's completely reasonable that the concept of my queerness would baffle my beautiful immigrant parents. Same with working in the arts. I would not be an artist if I stayed in Venezuela. Although there are some amazing artists back home, it has become even more of an unfeasible career in light of the crisis. As Arístides Vargas—an Argentinian playwright—said of his own political exile, the largest irony of my life is believing so fervently that such a perverse and violent country is the best place in the entire world. But it is. It really is.
I started acting when I was nine years old. There was an agent that owned a community theatre program I was a part of. She kept telling my parents that she wanted to put me up for auditions and get me out for things. My parents were very hesitant at first but eventually I convinced them. From there things just kind of took off. It was a lot at once for a kid. There was a TV movie called Haven with Natasha Richardson. It was about the Holocaust and a group of survivors in a boat. I had a whole big scene: everyone sang you are my sunshine and then my character died. On the last season of Jonovision I played Jonathan Torrens' co-host. My story was that I just wanted to take over the TV show and was constantly trying to undermine everything. (As a side note: I invited Jonathan Torrerns to my bar mitzvah but he never came.) I kept getting all of these one offs and small parts. Anyways, things went on like that for a couple of years until there was an audition for the Lion King.
My agent put me up for the audition but it was also one of those cattle calls. There were like two hundred people, a bunch of little kids and their stage parents, all lined up all around this huge auditorium. I was one of the first people to be seen and I got a call back. Then there were other callbacks. Then more. It was all very exciting but my parents kept everything as grounded. They reminded me that this was just a fun hobby of mine and I should be very thankful for the opportunity to learn how to be a professional, how to be around adults, how to be polite to everyone. Still every callback I was like what does this mean? Like what happens next?
When I found out I got the part I was in Grade Six. I was in a fight with one of my tablemates when there was this tap on my shoulder. I turned around and my parents were standing their with a bouquet of flowers. They were like: you got the part. The whole class clapped. It was all very exciting. We didn't know everyone's lives were about to change.
After that I was at the theatre almost every night. Wednesdays had matinees so I did a half day at school. I was a very good student and I tried to keep everything together but my family's life all centered around the Lion King. Someone constantly had to be taking care of me at the theatre or driving me or looking after things. There wasn't time for much else. Kids at school would call me Nala all the time and I got bullied a lot. The Lion King seemed like a negative thing to everyone who wasn't apart of it. I got this thing I wanted but I also felt like at a pretty pivotal age I wasn't getting to just be a kid. I don't know. At the same time I got to go up in front of three thousand people each night and perform. I had this incredible second family in the cast. I felt fearless on stage and at a young age I got to accomplish something so many people strive to do.
There is this joke in my family that I "made it" when I was eleven and everything has all just been downhill from there. It's a funny thing to say but I don't know if it's "haha" funny. Now I just want to be working [as an actress]. I'm happy to just get the work and do the work, but it's weird knowing I got that big thing as young as I did. I think one of the reasons I keep going back to acting is because of that feeling I got as a kid. It's amazing to stand in front of that many people and fearlessly do your thing. It's something I keep trying to get back to.
*Name has been changed.
These interviews have been edited for length.
Graham Isador was a difficult child. He is also a difficult adult. Follow him on Twitter.