In John Irving’s novel Until I Find You (my favorite of his many wonderful works, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute), there’s a passage about a man with a semicolon tattoo. In fact, if you’ve read Until I Find You, you may think of it as Irving’s “tattoo book,” because it includes an incredible amount of information about the art of tattooing, the history of the art, and the various reasons people get tattoos. After reading it, I was certain of one thing: I’d soon be getting some ink.
But Until I Find You is so much more than a tattoo story. You see, although Irving had already written several novels about young boys being seduced by older women, in Until I Find You, he takes that theme much further, as the main character is sexually abused, repeatedly, by an older woman. And when Irving gave interviews about the novel, he also spoke out publicly—for the first time—about his own childhood sexual abuse, something he’d never felt comfortable doing before.
Now when I read Until I Find You—in the summer of 2010—I had two unpublished novels, one of which was about a bulimic woman trying to break free of her disease and find love. The book (titled Leaving the Beach) was almost complete, but I felt extremely conflicted about it, because I’d never told anyone—aside from doctors and a few close friends and family members—about my ugly and extensive history with bulimia. But I knew that if I did publish Leaving the Beach, I’d probably have to talk about all that, and I was scared and embarrassed. Bulimia, after all, is not a glamorous illness.
Reading Until I Find You, though, gave me the strength I needed to finish Leaving the Beach and start looking in earnest for an agent and publisher. I also found the courage to write a long blog post about my bulimic past, and once that was out in the open, I was able to talk about my eating disorder with just about anyone. I couldn’t believe how easy it was after taking that first step.
But back to John Irving and my desire for a tattoo. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I wanted to get a semicolon, both as a tribute to Until I Find You, and as a way of remembering how Mr. Irving’s writing had inspired me to go public with my secrets. (John Irving has had a long and public love affair with the semicolon as a punctuation mark.) So I got that tattoo, and even had the opportunity to communicate about it with John Irving himself. That’s a long story for another day, but let me just say that Mr. Irving was extremely gracious to me, and I’ll be forever thankful for his kindness.
So now let’s fast forward to early 2015. Both of my novels had been published with Booktrope, and I was working on a third for Booktrope’s Gravity Imprint.
Then one day, I read a blog post about an organization called Project Semicolon. Here’s a quote from their website: Project Semicolon is a global, faith-based, non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and love to those who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction, and self-injury. Project Semicolon exists to encourage, love, and inspire.
Project Semicolon chose its name because in the punctuation world, a semicolon is often inserted in a place where a sentence might end, but because of the semicolon, the sentence continues. Thus, the semicolon has become a symbol for a life that could’ve ended, but didn’t. And Project Semicolon encourages survivors of depression, suicide, addiction, and self-injury to get a tattoo of a semicolon somewhere on their body, as a sign of hope and strength.
How’s that for irony? There I was with my semicolon tattoo, but I’d had it for years before the advent of Project Semicolon. And although I got it primarily because of my admiration for John Irving, one reason I admired Mr. Irving was because of his strength and courage. Not to mention that he’d inadvertently helped me take a literary risk. Hence, in a crazy, twisted way, my tattoo could be seen as a symbol of strength.
The more I thought about it, however, the more uncomfortable I became. Project Semicolon was doing a fantastic job getting their message out, and semicolon tattoos were turning up everywhere, taking on lives of their own. And, because my tattoo was on my forearm, it got plenty of visibility. Sometimes I’d feel like a fraud when I caught a stranger looking at it.
Have you ever seen the episode of The Larry David Show in which Larry hires a cook because he has what appears to be a Holocaust tattoo on his forearm? Then, at the end of the program (spoiler alert) the cook reveals that it’s not a Holocaust tattoo at all, but a lottery number, written on his arm with a Sharpie? The cook never meant to mislead anyone; it was just his way of remembering the number. And yet, it was misleading. On The Larry David Show, of course, the incident turned out to be funny, but in the real world, my tattoo didn’t feel funny at all.
I talked to my daughter about perhaps altering it. Since the semicolon can be used as a symbol for a “winking eye” on the internet, I considered having a tattoo artist draw a circle around my tattoo, maybe even adding a nose and mouth. It wouldn’t be so bad to have a winking face on my arm. My daughter thought that might be a good idea. “Although, Mom,” she said, “you did have bulimia for all those years, and that’s a mental illness.”
Well, yes, and bulimia is certainly a form of self-harm. It also put my life in a pretty bad place for fifteen years. But still, I didn’t feel right about the tattoo. In light of all the great work Project Semicolon was doing, I felt dishonest.
Recently, though, our town lost a beautiful boy to suicide. And several months ago, a friend’s sister took her own life. Those two tragic cases, so close to home, have left me both heartbroken and far more aware of the widespread effects of suicide in our society. Yes, we’ve made huge strides toward increased awareness and prevention of this epidemic, but obviously, we can do so much more.
I’ve decided, then, not to alter my tattoo. From now on, if people ask about it, I’ll tell them I got it for a literary reason—and will be happy to go into more detail if they care—but will then explain that I keep it to show support for suicide survivors. And if that starts up some conversations, all the better.
Mary Rowen is a writer, music lover, and Boston area mom to teenagers. All of her novels focus on women of various ages growing up, or at least becoming comfortable with themselves. She grew up in the Massachusetts Merrimack Valley, and is a graduate of Providence College.