Posted on April 19th, 2012
When most delinquent girls were practicing sneaking out in the middle of the night and stealthing liquor out of their parents’ stash, I was up to far worse. When I was 15 years old, I became a member of PETA.
This did not sit well with my father. Teenaged girls were already his worst nightmare. He grew up with four brothers, no sisters, and as far as he (and his traditional Volga German family) was concerned, there were two types of young women: good Christian girls and whores. I hadn’t been to church in years, but that wasn’t really the problem. The worst thing I could do (besides getting pregnant by a black guy) was to become a vegetarian. His deer tag and “I’m the NRA” bumper sticker couldn’t abide a traitor.
“God made animals for our use. It’s in Genesis, for fuck’s sake. Not eating meat is an abomination of God!” My father had a talent for the hyperbolic.
To punish me, my parents made me buy my own groceries and cook my own meals. They thought I would give up, that the burden would lead me back to the dark side. Boy, were they wrong. I quickly learned to prepare the staples of the vegetarian diet: bean burritos, supplemented with tofu-dogs on grainy buns and veggie burgers from bulk-bin mixes. I read the Moosewood Cookbook. Stir fries weren’t far behind.
Having already developed precocious control-freak tendencies, I loved shopping for my own food. I obsessively studied ingredient lists for anything “inhumane.” Rocky Road bars, a favorite way to blow my babysitting money, were now off-limits (cow hoofs in the marshmallows!). My beloved Ghardetto’s were off-limits for containing Worcestershire sauce (those poor, tiny anchovies!). Cheese was an iffy proposition, thanks to my new knowledge of something called rennet, which HOLY FUCKING SHIT, COMES FROM THE STOMACHS OF BABY COWS.
At Taco Bell, I demanded to see the package when they insisted the refried beans were vegetarian, and was doubly taken aback to see that a) they were indeed lard-free, and b) they were dehydrated. Thankfully, seven-layer burritos were safe.
The first Thanksgiving after my newfound vegetarianism was challenging, to say the least. What would I eat? Fortunately, it was the dawn of the golden age of processed vegetarian convenience foods, and Morningstar Farms had my back. My grandmother tried to understand why I wanted to eat a “chik” patty instead of real poultry. “What do you mean you don’t eat meat, dear? You always liked my turkey,” she’d say, with earnestly hurt feelings. I apologized, mumbling “thou shalt not kill,” and poured canned vegetarian mushroom gravy over my mashed potatoes instead of the Cruelty Sauce she’d prepared from scratch from the turkey drippings.
That spring, the circus came to town. I knew I had to put a stop to it. I hadn’t yet learned that it was easier to ask forgiveness than permission, and although I wasn’t really surprised when my dad forbade me from joining PETA in protesting The Three Rings of Abuse, I was still teenage-level indignant about it.
Predictably, I skipped class that sunny Friday. Wearing a Meat is Murder t-shirt that I silk-screened in art class, I held up signs showing sad elephants and humiliated bears. I tried my hardest to look sufficiently militant. Carload after carload of blithe families entered the gravel parking lot, undeterred by my exposure of “the saddest show on Earth.”
When I got home that afternoon, my father was waiting for me. One of his coworkers had driven by that day, had seen me in that parking lot, had recognized the 12 year-old version of me perched on my father’s desk.
My father was incensed at my defiance, which was exacerbated by the fact that there had been witnesses. He grounded me for a month. A whole month! For civil disobedience! (My 13 year-old brother had, meanwhile, begun experimenting with marijuana, which went unpunished.) A nuclear family blowout ensued, and in anger, I screamed at my parents that I hoped eating animals made their asses rot out. I ran to my room and played Rage Against the Machine’s anthemic Killing in the Name, turning the volume up as loud as my boom-box would go. (This song would prove a fitting soundtrack to most of my teen angst, but was strikingly appropriate in this particular instance.)
In my career as a teenaged animal rights activist, there would be other, quieter acts of disobedience. Once I put stickers about lobster feelings on the crustacean tank at Safeway; another time I super-glued the locks of a neighborhood taxidermist shut, macing the doorknobs for added effect.
I started eating meat again ten year later. Five years after that, my mother died of colon cancer.
I haven’t spoken to my father in a very long time.