Recently, I've been re-watching The X-Files, the now-classic horror/sci-fi drama (and sometimes comedy) that aired from 1993 to the early 2000's. It was one of the few shows we watched as a family--my mother, stepfather, sister and I--as my mother was obsessed with aliens, bigfoot, ghosts, and various other paranormal things, all of which she believed in with a fervency that made her treat every episode as a piece of one long documentary about the invisible danger all around us.
I loved The X-Files, too, though I didn't like my mother's insistence on post X-Files searches for lights in the sky or bigfoot in the forest (we lived in the woods, on ten acres of land, and at night, the sky was busy with stars, the woods full of strange sounds). I didn't believe literally in that parade of monsters-of-the-week and big-eyed aliens, but I liked what they stood for: possibility. Look at how large and strange the world is, the show demanded. I needed the world to be larger than my isolated, unhappy family. I liked Mulder and Scully, too: they were a couple of glamorous, smart weirdos.
(My sister and I plus kittens)
So I turned to books and television. I hid in them, planning to be only half-present until I turned eighteen and could escape. So I shifted my focus to the future. When I was an adult, how would my life look? I imagined I'd be like Scully: I'd have an exciting career and a low-level romance with a co-worker. My work and life would be dedicated to understanding what was shadowy. I liked the idea of being a detective because it meant I would spend my life making hazy things clear. I watched The X-Files and Prime Suspect and Homicide: Life on the Street for a sense of what adults did all day.
(Helen Mirren as Jane Tennyson in Prime Suspect)
As we all sat on the small couch, pressed together tightly (I remember distinctly, one hot summer, feeling my mother's sticky arm against mine and looking down to see her dime-sized, puckered smallpox scar), we were in our own heads, dreaming of completely different lives. My mother both wanted and feared some peek into the mysteries of the world. She had the strange, double belief that aliens might someday come to teach us all how to be better inhabitants of the earth and also that they might come and abduct and murder us. I don't know what was in my stepfather's head: he so rarely revealed his thoughts or hopes. My little sister was probably afraid: The X-Files gave her nightmares. I was thinking about my adult self, far in the future. I was dreaming of my way out.
Watching the X-Files as an adult, I notice how lonely Mulder and Scully seem, their family members and ex-lovers constantly disappearing or dying, their lives devoted to something that isolates them from other people. How badly we all wanted Mulder and Scully to kiss, to declare their love! This was partly because they seemed so damned alone. Poor Mulder, his desire to understand the complex conspiracies all around him blinding him to the one reality that could have made him happy. And poor Scully, full of contradictions and full of loyalty to a person who rarely seemed to see her as anything but a part of his own conspiracy drama.
(this is what comes up when you google "skeptical Scully")
The more I think about it, I realize that I looked to figures who were already much like me and my family: isolated, strange, driven people who seemed unable to function well in everyday life. I watched many shows about "regular" teen life--My So-Called Life, for example--but they never seemed possible. They seemed far more like science fiction than The X-Files. I watched them as one might watch a documentary about another culture: how strange, I thought, to go to parties, kiss boys, and have parents with jobs and houses with indoor plumbing. I could better imagine myself a detective investigating a killer cockroach infestation than I could a regular teenage girl hanging out with friends in my room. Maybe that's not such a bad thing. I'm still a little bit weird, a little bit prone to enthusiasms not shared by the general public, and a little bit antisocial. But I also like those things about myself. There was wisdom in my role models at the time. They taught me to accept my own eccentricities. The X-Files had an underlying argument: people living "regular lives" are not seeing the greater and stranger mysteries that obsessives like Mulder and Scully can see. It was a useful belief at the time for a person living at the margins.