By my sophomore year at Penn, I decided I’d done everything wrong. As a person who has almost always felt I’d rather be anyone but myself, I’d tried to capitalize on the opportunity provided by college to become someone else, but felt that I’d failed, and was more lost than when I’d started.
My high school friends, who knew me as an outspoken theatre kid, made fun of me when they found out that I was going to Penn, suggesting that I should immediately trade my ripped baggy jeans for tight black pants and accessorize my standard wife-beater tank tops with a Tiffany necklace.
I told them they were crazy, but within a year, I had given up theatre and joined the crew team. My new (and first) boyfriend personally and profusely thanked the teammate who took me shopping and forced me to buy jeans that fit and a push up bra. He got me a Lima bean necklace from Tiffany’s for Christmas.
The necklace briefly made me feel that I had assimilated, but I was becoming an increasingly unhappy and straight-up inconsolable human being. When we broke up that February, he said, “I’m with you because I’m worried about you, but if I don’t have to worry about you, I’m leaving.”
“You don’t have to worry about me,” I assured him, more indignant than confident. Then, I set about restoring my life to what I thought it should be, which is how I ended up at auditions for a play produced by the campus Jewish theatre group, Wendy Wasserstein’s Isn’t it Romantic.
The play features two women coping with the unmitigated terror of being nearly 30, and having not yet established their careers, thrilled their parents or satisfied themselves. There’s Janie, a short, chubby, awkward, hilarious, sarcastic, Jewish freelance writer. And there’s Harriet, a tall, blond, attractive, driven WASP who is desperately trying to rise through the ranks at her super corporate job. Although I desperately wanted to be Janie, I got the role of Harriet, assuming that I was (unfairly) typecast because I was the closest thing to a WASP that the Jewish theatre company could find. I was excited to have a leading role, but I couldn’t relate to Harriet. I wondered, what kind of vapid sociopath wants to have a successful career in advertising?
I suppose that’s the joy and absurdity of being 20 – thinking you know enough of the answers to pass judgement. The woman who directed the play, however, was a real adult. Her job was to teach two strong-willed young college students to have empathy for their future selves, and even worse: to accept that their future selves might be no smarter than they were – and more stuck.
Both characters desperately wanted to please their mothers. Both characters felt conflicted about work and love. Janie is a plagued by guilt because a nice Jewish doctor wants to marry her, but she’d rather be independent and focus on her writing. Harriet is has internalized the pressure to be married and desperately wants to excel in her capital C Career, and along the way lands herself in a horribly inappropriate affair with a misogynistic, narcissistic older executive at her company.
I don’t remember much about playing Harriet; I distanced myself because I was so appalled by her boring take on life. But I often think back to the evening when our director tried to explain us what it really felt like be a grown-up and confronting the impossible task of making yourself “happy.”
“The best advice I ever heard,” she told us, “Is that if you’re trying to figure out what you want, you should take a look at what you have. They’re probably going to be pretty similar.”
The phrase was so poetic that it seared itself in my brain, even though I didn’t entirely understand what it meant. But in the years to come, when I would start to panic about “What To Do With My Life,” I would remember her words and think, “well, whatever’s supposed to happen next, you’re probably already sort of doing it.”
That said, when it first occurred to me this past year that I might have grown up and turned into Harriet, I was beyond horribly disappointed. I might even have cried at the irony. I feigned innocence and shock, thinking, “how on earth did this happen to me?” But when I was done berating myself for being a lifeless sellout with whom my 20-year-old self would have refused to speak, I thought back to what it was really like doing the show.
I remembered that when I was playing Harriet, I became best friends with the girl playing Janie, and our real-life friendship mimicked the one we had on stage. I was fearful, I wanted to fit in, I wanted to be too skinny, I wanted to get good grades, I wanted to get back together with the asshole boyfriend. She was highly intellectual, fierce, eloquent, full of conviction, marched to the beat of her own drum and had an exquisitely beautiful soul. I thought maybe somewhere deep down I could be a Janie, which is why I loved being friends with Janie. But I also loved the safety of being Harriet.
I recalled my director’s words: “If you’re trying to figure out what you want, you should look at what you have.” I had to laugh at how much that turned out to be true. 13 years later, I was still Harriet wishing I was brave enough to be Janie. But after all that time, I had to wonder, did I really want to be Janie? If I did, wouldn’t I have done something about it by now?
The answer, I think, is that there is no Harriet and there is no Janie. They’re both characters that Wendy Wasserstein created as canvases for her own uncertainties about all the options we have in life, as well as all the guilt, inadequacies and ideals we’ll never meet. In reality, I didn’t grow up to be Harriet or Janie. I couldn’t, because they’re both archetypes. Having a full-time job doesn’t make me Harriet and just as being wildly neurotic with frizzy hair doesn’t make me Janie.
What I have in common with both characters is that I’m trying to do the best that I can with the information I have, and it never quite seems like enough information. All I can do is look at the life I have and hope that even though it’s sure as hell not perfect and some days it’s not even close to good, I can find the story a little bit romantic.