What Kids Know and We've Forgotten

by Talia Billig
Originally Published: 

And that was that.

Fast forward a couple of years to a small town elementary school. Shockingly enough, I’m having trouble in school. I am eight years old now and already a royal pain in the ass. My saga began when neither I nor my parents took well to my kindergarten teacher’s insistence that I play the way “little girls should.” Three years later that wench is fired, but by some cruel twist of fate I’m still being forced to play with dollies. This time it’s in therapy, which my parents signed me up for around the time of the kindergarten debacle.

Therapy hasn’t really worked except to sharpen my wits and bolster my arsenal of eight-year-old neuroses. I have enormous authority problems and the mouth of a sailor. If skinny jeans and cigarettes were available for youngsters, they would be my daily uniform. In other words, I am an asshole.

I’m standing in a small-town gymnasium auditioning for The Hero Play, the brainchild of one of our town’s best writers and our elementary school music teacher. There is a distinct smell of lysol, urine, and little-kid fear. I notice that my hands are shaking. Something to discuss with my “very qualified” analyst next week, to be sure.

Being selected for The Hero Play is nothing short of being inducted into second-grade royalty. No matter. I potty-trained myself at 2, dammit. I’m ready.

I’m dreaming of being chosen to depict my personal hero, 1920s abolitionist and suffragist Lucy Stone. Her name never really made it to the front pages of the history books, but I have pored over all the other pages of those books and Lucy resonates. She was a badass. She toured the country as a single woman speaking about dress reform and women’s access to property rights and divorce. She was the first woman in recorded history to not take her husband’s last name. Most importantly, she was excommunicated by the church. I find this fact deeply compelling, having been threatened already with excommunication from my current school.

We probably would have been friends, I think.

The Second Grade Theater Gods smile upon me and I get the part. I am also given a solo in the big climactic number “My Hero.”

Being selected for ‘The Hero Play’ is nothing short of being inducted into second-grade royalty.

I dance around the house practicing the song. “My hero isn’t big or tall. My hero isn’t blonde or beautiful…” As far as I’m concerned, scoring this solo puts me on par with Barbra Streisand.

In school we rehearse. I have finally found an activity that doesn’t instantly get me into trouble, and I excel. Steeped in this new excitement and the prospect of an audience considerably larger than my living room, I make a decision right then and there: I will become a singer. No. I am a singer. My phenomenal teachers, no doubt excited by the fact that I’m no longer a second-grade pseudo-beatnik-terrorist, encourage my new calling. They open my young ears to classical, folk, and jazz music.

The big day comes. My parents, hard-earned feminists themselves, dress me for the part. 1920s suffragettes aren’t exactly the typical choice for eight-year-old costumes (you can’t buy those at Ricky’s or CVS). The main issue is how to get my rat’s nest of curly hair into a bun. In the end I am dressed in brown suede loafers and an unbearably itchy plaid jumper. I tell myself that this is the pain and suffering all stars go through. I’ve been told it’s work, this life. But I’m ready.

The high point of my solo falls in the opening number with my third sentence: “My hero doesn’t sing or dance on the stage or screen.” When the music finally swells I am moved almost to tears. The note stirs a deeply emotional truth. Singing in the chorus of out-of-tune second graders, I finally belong. I lift my eyes, I fill my chest with air, and every cell in my body sings to that audience of parents.


I groggily blink my eyes open to a dirty window in what appears to be a bus. A cheap one. It smells like its last passengers either died or were farm animals on their way to a farm animal convention. Maybe both. That bus was probably a lot more fun than this one.

This isn’t the first time I’ve regained consciousness in a moving vehicle with no idea of its destination. I’m 20 years old now and I’ve grown used to blackouts that feel more like black holes. My muscles rebel against me on my first attempt to stand, but on the second try I succeed.

I shuffle down the aisle to the bus driver, bent like a 90-year-old hungover human pretzel, and burp out just enough words to ask him where we’re headed.

We’re en route to New York City, and apparently I’m coming from Philadelphia. Great. My flip phone has a slew of phone calls in its history—all numbers I don’t know. Even better. The cherry on this sundae is the lovely Chernobyl hangover I’m enjoying, originating with a cocktail of cocaine, ketamine, and alcohol (possibly disgusting, definitely cheap).

Many of the drugs racing through my system have come from my current employment, working bottle service in a popular Manhattan night club. I make a truckload of money serving ludicrously overpriced bottles of liquor to coked-out thugs and other unsavory figures. It’s their chance to prove to the world and the ladies they want to take home how much money they have. All in all, a great scene.

“I’m not a prostitute,” I whisper to myself each night before I enter. But many of my tables are spending upwards of $4,000 a night, and they consider their “bottle girl” to be a part of that package.

I serve Sodom and Gomorrah circa 2008 in a tiny dress and four-inch heels. Every week I see public sex, drug use, potential date rapes and unbelievable amounts of violence. I come home with my ears ringing and my stockings burnt through with cigarette holes.

The club has hired five “niche” girls. I am cast as the curvaceous, ethnic hostess for wealthy artists and foreigners. “I’m not a prostitute,” I whisper to myself each night before I enter. But many of my tables are spending upwards of $4,000 a night and they consider their “bottle girl” to be a part of that package. I’m slapping away hands creeping up my skirt every step I take. When I’m finally dragged into a bathroom by three men and have to kick myself out of it, I’m awarded the personal security guard I’ve been begging for for months. Though the club isn’t legally allowed to encourage actual prostitution, I am still admonished and docked shifts every single time I reject an offer from a client. Needless to say, I am admonished a lot.

I spend all of my money trying to forget what I see every Saturday. This pattern begins one morning after a particularly horrific fight among a large group of patrons. I am picked up, thrown like a weapon, and nearly fly over the balcony. I avoid the precipice, but land, face down, three inches from a pile of broken glass. When I feel safe enough to look up, I see a man wavering from his left foot to his right. His face appears to be melting. I learn that faces look like that when bottles are smashed against them.

At 6:30 a.m. the shift has miraculously ended. The sun has risen and I am in a project parking lot in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Leaning against the wall and rehashing my terrifying night, I inhale breath after breath of marijuana until it all floats away into billowing freedom. This self-medication quickly progresses to include substances that do the trick quicker and harder and, seemingly inevitably, start landing me in cities with no recollection of how I got there.

I know, I know. It seemed really storybook for a second there earlier. I’d love to tell you that it was all gravy and vocal chord bliss after The Hero Play, but I took a couple of wrong turns and this is where I ended up.

Back up

After my Hero Play success I grow noticeably taller and sprout an enormous afro of crazy Jew hair. My fellow students capitalize on this easy weakness and torment me mercilessly. The next ten years are spent in characteristically dramatic fights with teachers, students, and myself.

I graduate high school, somehow, and crash land in a jazz conservatory in Manhattan on the kindness of a legendary bassist present at my audition. Despite that bassist taking a chance on me, I continue to turn further and further inward. I sing because I can and feel I must—but all the joy has been stripped from it.

My old authority problems rear their ugly heads and I butt horns with many of the female teachers in the conservatory’s vocal department. Around this time I get my job at the club. I begin to drastically abuse substances to cope and even to be able to make it to recitals, which is all I’m performing at this point.

I’ve always been the crazy one in any group, so few take notice of my current downward spiral, or feel like broaching the topic. But a family friend catches drift of this internal tidal wave of mine. She has known me since I was a child, when I could sing on stage without the slightest hint of terror. She senses something is up—perhaps because she is a hypnotherapist—and invites me to her house that week to try hypnosis.

I am 22 now. By this point I’ve survived a drastic solitary detox and watched a friend nearly die in the hospital as she bled out from a botched egg donation surgery and her own considerable drug abuse. Hypnosis? Why the fuck not. Besides, I have the first big performance of my life in Manhattan coming up. I can barely think of the word “stage” without needing one of the diapers I threw away years ago. I end up across from her in her living room, fully cynical and expecting it not to work.


Trudy’s Brooklyn living room is decidedly not what you’d expect to find when you think hypnosis. No billowy curtains, no candles, not a tassel in sight. Instead the room has two couches, an afghan, a piece of nondescript art on the wall. Its completely normal appearance is throwing me a bit, in fact. It’s hard to mentally rebel against something when it just looks so tame.

I’m alarmed by how comfortable I feel already. To her credit, Trudy just looks like someone you should trust. She radiates kindness. Her eyes, set like little blue-green gems against her distinctive cheekbones and dark hair, are piercing and honest. She dresses unassumingly and moves through the world gently.

Perhaps she can tell that I’m a nonbeliever, so we begin with what seems to be a regular ole therapy session. Having done this for nearly two decades, I can talk about my childhood and feelings in my sleep while riding a bicycle. I begin regurgitating the script I’ve read for years.

Two hours later she is telling me to open my eyes.

I am washed over with the most profound comfort I have ever felt in my life. I stare back at her in disbelief. With no metronome, crystal, or watch being swung in front of my face, I have successfully been hypnotized.

“How do you feel?”

I feel…free.

Over the next few weeks Trudy encourages me to console a little girl with curly Jew hair and dramatic flair through hypnosis. That little girl is terrified and wounded. She has lost her love for music, her ability to feel joy, her ability to feel at all. Trudy lets me hold that girl and tell her it will be okay. This step seems simple, clichéd even, but—it works. I begin to gather the shattered pieces of myself off the floor. I may not look as good as I once did, but in the end I will be a mosaic nonetheless.

I realize I don’t always need to be a star if I am part of a constellation of other fabulous ones.

My new closest friend is a singer and composer too. She encourages me to bring some of my painful past into my own songs instead of sticking to the standards I’ve been singing. I sing for her timidly while playing the old Wurlitzer in her Harlem apartment. She is the first person to know exactly what I’m going through. It is a revelation.

I remember how good it felt to raise my voice in a chorus and surround myself with other confident, willfully creative individuals. I curate a video series featuring songs written by them, performed by them, recorded by them, filmed by them. I direct their music videos and perform many of their and my own songs. I realize I don’t always need to be a star if I am part of a constellation of other fabulous ones. If at times I don’t shine, the constellation will still be there while I take a break or nurse myself back to health.

I begin to lift my eyes to see the world again through the eyes of eight-year-old me on my first stage, dressed in an itchy plaid jumper.

“My hero isn’t big or tall. My hero isn’t blonde or beautiful.”

Many of my heroes sing and dance on the stage or screen, but that’s beside the point, right?

My heroes are diverse. They are men and women. They are hypnotherapists and second grade teachers and legendary bassists and singer­-songwriters from Winston Salem, North Carolina. They are old, young, creative, not creative. Many are glorious Grade-­A nut jobs. But I believe in them, and I am enormously thankful that they believed in me, even when it was no easy feat to do so.

I am 26 now. My past wasn’t left behind in Trudy’s living room. It didn’t disappear when the club’s doors closed behind my battered body for the final time. Nothing will erase some of the shit I’ve seen, and sometimes I shiver when I see reminders. But above all, I remind myself persistently that I am doing what I love.

At difficult times I think back on a little kid with a mop of crazy Jew hair, unencumbered and brave. She didn’t have big kid problems, she just wanted to fucking sing. And I’m fairly certain she would have given me two very simple choices to handle my struggle: Continue doing what you love or stop. Then she probably would have gone off to do something more important, like eat a Choco Taco or gleefully play with the newest pog.

I work every day now to experience and maintain that joy. We all have it as children, in whatever we do. The universe presents it and almost all of us look that gift horse in the mouth. But our memories are vast and our brains are powerful. That joy remains, sitting patiently. Buried underneath our years of cynicism and experience it is always there, waiting to be unlocked by a hypnotherapist or a relative or our own volition.

I am free now. To act as my first hero Lucy did, and to sing as courageously as I once did in The Hero Play. Eyes up, chest filled with air. Every cell of my body singing.

This article was originally published on