Rebecca Lehmann | Copper Nickel | Spring 2019 | 11 minutes (2,188 words)
I rediscovered the music video for Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More” in the fall of 2015. My son was less than a year old, and I’d just returned from maternity leave to my job as an English professor in upstate New York. On Fridays, I’d put in my headphones, walk to campus, keep the light in my office turned off so nobody knew I was in, and write poems.
Sometimes a song I listened to on my walks would get stuck in my head, an earworm, playing over and over. This was the case with “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” and watching the song’s accompanying music video on YouTube only pulled me in further. The video, like many of Petty’s music videos, has seemingly little to do with the song. The song, from the 1985 album Southern Accents, tells the story of a breakup. Petty croons about a relationship gone bad, imploring a former lover to stay away, leave him alone: “I don’t feel you anymore. You darken my door. Whatever you’re looking for — Hey! — don’t come around here no more!” A creeping sitar riff repeats throughout the piece.
The video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” also released in 1985, departs pretty dramatically from the love-gone-wrong narrative of the song. Set in a Wonderland tableau, it opens with an adult Alice, played by actress Wish Foley, emerging from behind a toadstool in a room full of fog. Dave Stewart of The Eurhythmics, who co-wrote the song with Petty, sits atop another toadstool, dressed as the caterpillar.
In the end, perhaps having had enough of watching his female-self fumble and fall around the psychedelic chamber, he consumes her, literally swallowing her away, like a man might push aside a bothersome glance of himself in a hallway mirror in someone else’s house.
Alice eats a slice of mushroom, then falls into a black and white checkered room, where Tom Petty, dressed as the Mad Hatter, offers her tea, and women in black and white checkered full body leotards straddle cellos that they play with pink flamingos instead of bows. After a sequence of characters shrinking and growing, the whole production ends with Alice, transformed into a body-shaped cake, being eaten by the band. The closing shot is a transposition of Alice’s head disappearing down the back of Petty’s throat. He burps and wipes his mouth with a napkin.
What struck me about the video was not the clichéd Wonderland motif, but rather how much Wish Foley, the actress playing Alice, looks like Tom Petty. The resemblance is uncanny. Both are thin and gangly, have long, pale faces, blue eyes, straight blond hair. Foley moves through the video in a blue taffeta dress, a sort of Petty anima, a bewildered female version of the famous rocker, set up in contrast to his jaded Mad Hatter persona. He entertains this she-Petty, albeit with some annoyance, then, in the end, perhaps having had enough of watching his female-self fumble and fall around the psychedelic chamber, he consumes her, literally swallowing her away, like a man might push aside a bothersome glance of himself in a hallway mirror in someone else’s house. He catches his reflection in profile in his peripheral vision. Who is that lanky woman, standing hunch-shouldered in a butch leather jacket in the entryway?
But no, it is him, mistaking himself for herself.
* * *
The first Petty album that caught me, that hooked me into listening day and night, that I couldn’t shake, was Wildflowers. Released in 1994, Wildflowers was Petty’s second solo album. I’d heard the album’s single, “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” on the Top 40, and bought the CD at a Walmart for $10 with my saved-up allowance money.
That summer, my mother, stepfather and I moved from the bourgie tourist town where I’d grown up, to a rural, farming community just outside of Green Bay, Wisconsin. While my parents were at work, I spent my days eating Little Debbie snacks right from the box and watching junky daytime TV. I gained twenty pounds, and started the 8th grade with a D cup. Embarrassed by my feminine curves, I assembled a back to school wardrobe of baggy t-shirts and loose-fitting pants, with the intention of hiding my body.
Embarrassed by my feminine curves, I assembled a back to school wardrobe of baggy t-shirts and loose-fitting pants, with the intention of hiding my body.
Nonetheless, on the first day of school, as I bent over to latch shut my trumpet’s case in my last period band class, one of the boys sitting next to me hissed out, “Slut!” He was joined in muffled laughter by two other boys, each with a face carved up by acne. The boy who’d called me a slut was wearing a Beavis and Butthead T-shirt and sported thick, coke-bottle glasses. The dismissal bell had just rung. Humiliated, I avoided eye contact and hurried out of the band room.
The next day, the taunts continued, and the other boys joined in. “Slut,” they called me. “Whore.” “Finger fuck slut.” I didn’t even know what “finger fucking” was. I was a shy, bookish girl who had never kissed a boy. The harassment continued, day after day, week after week, sometimes varying in vulgar descriptiveness. I dreaded going to school, and spent my lunch hours crying in a bathroom stall.
Skipping lunches made me lose weight. Losing weight made my breasts smaller. I began skipping breakfast as well, throwing away the cereal bar I told my mom I’d eat on the school bus. The more weight I lost, the less feminine I looked. I’d catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror in the morning. Who was that lanky boy, standing, hunch shouldered, in a butch jean jacket?
But it was me, growing thinner and thinner by the day.
* * *
“You were so cool, back in high school, what happened?” Petty sings on the closing song to Wildflowers, “Wake Up Time.” “You were so sure, not to have your spirits dampened.” When I listened to this song on repeat, in the 8th grade, I was not cool, I was wasting away. I was becoming nongendered, non me, nonwoman, and therefore not a problem, unproblemable, unharassable, unreachable, unpersoned. I dropped pant sizes. I dropped caring. No matter, the boys in my band class still called me a slut and a whore every day. I learned to put on a steel face. To look forward. To pretend I couldn’t hear them. To shut off the part of myself that hurt and got angry.
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“Ooooo, I keep crawling back to you,” Petty sings in “Crawling Back To You,” but I was not crawling back to any “you,” not to myself, not to anyone at all. My body and sexuality were set on repeat as topics of ridicule by three boys who were probably still ejaculating in their sheets while they slept at night. How much care the educational video we watched that year in health class had taken to point out that night emissions were nothing for young men to be ashamed of, but simply a natural biological phenomenon. How much care is so often taken to make sure young men don’t feel ashamed of their bodies or desires.
* * *
I did what I could to stop the sexual harassment. At first, as young women are often instructed to do in the face of abuse, I ignored it, believing that if I didn’t give the boys attention they would stop harassing me. I practiced staring straight ahead, expressionless, as the boys shout-whispered lewd names at me, three, four times a class period. When that didn’t work, I talked to my band teacher, a young woman just out of college. But I was too ashamed to repeat the vulgar names the boys were calling me, and, not understanding the sexual nature of the taunting, she looked annoyed, ran a hand through her short hair, and said she’d talk to them. I don’t know if she ever did.
At a middle-school dance in November, one of the boys asked me to dance with him. I’d made a couple friends by then, and one pushed me onto the dance floor. The boy and I swayed awkwardly to a Green Day song. He put his hands on my thinning hips, and asked me to go out with him. Although I feared this boy, although his touch made me sick with discomfort, I said yes, hoping it would stop the harassment. And it did, for almost an entire month. All I had to do was hold hands with this boy in the hallways between classes, give him a closed mouth kiss, my first kiss, outside the buses hiccoughing exhaust into the cold, December parking lot. As soon as he broke up with me, the harassment began again. I started exercising in secret in my room at night, quietly running in place, doing jumping jacks and pushups, shaving off pound after feminine pound.
How much care is so often taken to make sure young men don’t feel ashamed of their bodies or desires.
At my lowest, a year later, I weighed less than 90 pounds. I’d been hospitalized briefly, for the two weeks my stepfather’s health insurance would cover, but it had done nothing to stop the whirring twin-compulsions of restricting food and obsessive exercise. I quit band class when I started high school, giving up the trumpet I once loved playing, which no longer brought me any joy. I still saw the three boys who’d harassed me, though not nearly as often. One went on to play first trumpet in the band. The one I’d briefly dated graduated with a barely passing GPA, shuffling to and from classes in a pair of cowboy boots and a series of Metallica t-shirts.
The ring leader became a stoner. Near the end of high school, he started washing dishes at the restaurant where I waited tables. One cold spring night, as we sat on the staff picnic table behind the restaurant after our shifts were over, I confronted the boy about the harassment. He’d been friendly and solicitous since starting his job, and I couldn’t reconcile this boy, mild stoner with a dopy smile, with the boy who’d so mercilessly harassed me a few years earlier.
When I asked him about the harassment, he claimed not to remember it. He pushed his glasses up his nose. “My older brother committed suicide the summer before eighth grade,” he said. His breath made small clouds in the night air. Behind him, constellations hung limply over a line of trees, fat with spring buds. “I don’t remember most of that year. I’m sorry.”
* * *
Petty sings about despair in “Don’t Fade On Me:” “I remember feeling this way, you can lose it without knowing. You wake up and you don’t notice which way the wind is blowing.” In the song, the “you” is both self and other. Petty, troubadour philosopher, sings about his own profound sadness, then projects it onto the “you:” “Well your clothes hang on a wire, and the sun is overhead, but today you are too weary to even leave your bed.” At the height of the harassment, I’d play the song over and over. I could relate.
Why had this boy projected his despair onto me, in the form of ruthless sexual fixation and taunting?
When my tormentor told me about his brother’s suicide, I thought about despair. One of my grandfathers, an abusive drunk, had committed suicide when I was five, and the despair of his final, violent action hung over my mother’s family for years, as he was there and not there at each Christmas, at each Easter, at each summer barbeque. I tried to imagine the despair this boy felt in the year after his brother’s suicide. Had he known why his brother killed himself? Why had this boy projected his despair onto me, in the form of ruthless sexual fixation and taunting? These were questions I never got answers to, although I forgave this boy for harassing me, and, by the time I left for college, even considered him a friend.
* * *
When Tom Petty died, in 2017, after a sudden episode of cardiac arrest, my reaction was visceral. “I’m so sad,” I told my husband. October’s early twilight crept over our backyard. We sat on the couch, our son, almost three, tucked into bed with a small pile of stuffed animals. The heartbeat sound machine we ran in his room echoed through the baby monitor we still used, even though he was outgrowing things like baby monitors. “Wildflowers got me through the 8th grade. I listened to it almost every day.”
We curled up together under a blanket and watched videos of the Traveling Wilburys, the supergroup Petty joined in the late 80’s, on my husband’s laptop. In one, Petty, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne take turns singing into a single microphone dropped down between them like the peduncle of a daisy, or like the erection, suddenly erupted and gone flaccid, of a teenage boy wearing a Beavis and Butthead shirt, dreaming of the curves of a chubby, shy girl’s large breasts, his dead brother’s bed empty across the room, blankets still tucked in place.
The next morning, I caught a glimpse of myself in the hallway mirror, now a woman, wearing a butch jean jacket and carrying a two-year-old out the door to preschool. Now, out of the corner of my eye, back turned—the reflection, hair cut short. Who was that slight man rushing through my house, holding my child?
But it was me. It had been me all along.
Rebecca Lehmann lives in South Bend, Indiana, and is primarily a poet. Her second collection of poetry, Ringer, won the 2018 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, and is forthcoming from University of Pittsburgh Press in September of 2019. Her poems have been published in Tin House, Fence, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Boston Review, and other venues.
This essay first appeared in the Spring issue of Copper Nickel, the biannual print journal founded by poet Jake Adam York in 2002 at the University of Colorado Denver. Our thanks to Rebecca Lehmann for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.
Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath