I spend almost as much time being fascinated by people as I do trying to figure out why I'm fascinated by people. This has not been a lifelong thing for me. When I was a kid, in fact, I thought other people were incomprehensible, arbitrary, boring, and mostly mean. When I was a kid, they kind of were -- adults don't really bother to explain much to young children, and assume kids don't have eyes and ears and basic reasoning skills with which they can figure this stuff out partway for themselves. The other kids and I didn't have much to talk about, which in kid-speak translates to them picking on me for being weird.
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I probably could have gotten over that if not for my home life, which was mind-bogglingly screwed-up. I don't hold any grudges against the other kids, really; at that age, they're not really humans yet, and their behavior is some bizarre mix of Lord of the Flies and whatever crap their parents have been shoveling into their heads. I'm still fairly pissed at some of the adults at school. A few of them did take me seriously when I told them what my social life was like, but most of them jammed their fingers in their ears and went la la la la la la, hoping the problem (i.e., me) would just go away.
I was livid at my mother for quite a while, but the longer I don't talk to my family the more it fades into a sense of bewilderment and loss. My mother is one of the most narcissistic people I've ever met in my life -- and one of the other ones is my sister. I cannot recall my mother ever evincing the slightest bit of interest in the inner life of any other human being. She is a champion at gossip; she kind of has an attention span and she can remember words she thinks are interesting, so she can repeat how someone said they reacted when something rumor-worthy happened, but I've never heard her speculate on how someone else felt. She has favorite actors and musicians, but I know more about them than she does. I used to come home from college armed with People-type entertainment news about celebrities she liked, in an effort to actually have something to talk about with her, only to find that she had absolutely no interest whatsoever in any of them as human beings. She doesn't want to know about the people who acted in her favorite movies or wrote her favorite books. She's probably the only person I've ever met who's heard the song "You're So Vain" and hasn't the least little iota of curiosity about who Carly Simon was ragging on. She just wanted to tell me, in excruciating and usually inappropriate detail, all about the sex lives and mundane medical problems of her dwindling group of friends.
She had a special kind of contempt for people who did things "just to be like" someone else. I'm perpetually hunting for a nice pair of John Lennon granny glasses -- Ozzy glasses, for the under-30 set, although as it happens Ozzy wears them because of John -- and I went to great pains to never let her find out that I wanted them in the first place because I have the same great Irish boat keel of a nose that Lennon did, and I figured if they worked on him, they'd probably work on me. Any suspicion that anything you were doing was not wholly your original idea, and unfettered by the opinion of others, earned you an eye roll and a sneer. It wasn't just that it was okay to not conform; that's a good message, and I get that. It was that other people were not to be looked to for anything, not even suggestions and inspiration. Only the incomplete and inadequate needed to learn from other people.
My mother's refusal to acknowledge that other humans beings had thoughts and feelings of their own also led to an oddly sort of colorblind childhood; although the school periodically handed out sheaves of worksheets detailing Important Things Invented By Hyphenated-Americans, my parents did not. I didn't get books lauding Women in Science, or Americans in Science, or Left-Handed Mormon Apostates in Science, or whatever. I got books about science. I was an adult before I had any idea what any of these people looked like -- barring the occasional icon like Einstein -- or thought about when they weren't science-ing. I don't even really assume 'old white guy', I just kind of assume 'amorphous brain'.
I had a hell of a time whenever someone wanted me to write about my "hero". They give you that assignment a lot in public schools in America -- we've got a very blithely-hero-worshiping culture here, you may have noticed. I just didn't know that much about anyone else, much less any public figure anyone at school might recognize. I always wrote about my father. He's an engineer, and me being the resident smart kid the school people just slobbered all over themselves with excitement whenever I talked about wanting to do science-y things. I still appreciate that my father is a damn good engineer, but considering that he's been my mother's number one goon for over thirty years, I think there's a lot of other stuff in life he probably never quite worked out.
The one thing that my mother did speculate on, loudly and frequently, was that people were talking behind her back. I don't think she was paranoid in the traditional sense -- I think she just assumed that since she did it constantly, other people were the same way. I grew up expecting that everyone would be nice as pie to each other, all the time, until they were out of earshot. It sounds wonderful until you realize that this also meant that I was expected to be nice to people, and I was to expect other people to be nice to me, regardless of what either of us thought. (My mother certainly operated that way; a particular favorite was to agree to carpool with someone else so that one parent took everyone to school and the other parent retrieved them, and then as soon as the non-relatives were out of the car she'd start grumbling about people who couldn't be bothered to transport their own children.) So I was also required to be on my toes at all times, alert and scanning for those super-secret signs that other people didn't like me, wanted me to shut up, wanted me to go away, had stopped listening to me ages ago, etc. You can't just ask about it, of course -- everyone has to pretend to be nice, so a direct question would just get a direct lie in answer. Everyone had a hidden agenda; people were self-centered and ready to screw everyone else over for personal gain.
The problem with this was that no matter how hard I scrutinized people, I really had no idea of what their hidden agenda really was. As far as I could tell, the kids who acted like they didn't like me weren't jealous of my [putatively positive quality], they really just didn't like me. The few people who acted like my friends weren't just tolerating me until I got some subtle hint and went away, they actually thought I was okay. This made me the worst conceivable nervous wreck, because I knew this couldn't possibly be right. My parents told me so. Obviously, every single last instinct I had about people was dead wrong. My mother called me her little absent-minded professor my entire life, and sounded so pitying when she told me that my sister was the social one, that I was going to have to try nine million times as hard to dig up whatever people were really thinking, so that maybe someday I could scrape by on my own.
I consoled myself by noting that if this was true, I could at least rule out whatever I thought was going on, because it was clearly wrong.
It took me moving out for college, having a nervous breakdown, and fucking up so many friendships so very badly for me to decide that the only thing left to try was trusting myself. Because god knows I could not possibly have gotten myself into any more trouble than I was already in.
I still don't have any good idea how much interest it is appropriate to admit to having in other people. There must be a pretty fair range, because biographies and autobiographies are published all the time, but that doesn't stop me from looking over my shoulder whenever I go pick another one up. I can buy huge nerdy stacks of fine Doctor Who-based paperback literature without the slightest tinge of embarrassment, but I feel like I have to keep a lid on this whole people-watching thing. I can't not type all of this out or it'll circle in my head forever, but I don't think I'm interesting enough for anyone to watch the way I watch other people. I get the rather uncomfortable feeling I'm delivering a monologue to an empty auditorium sometimes, only I don't know it because none of the house lights will ever come on.