This letter was written by Virginia Cornue to herself at age 23.
She was living in a NYC westside brownstone with her fiancé who was nine years older. The stylish NYU village apartment of former college mates was filled with their family and friends, waiting for her to emerge. She sat on her friends’ bedside moments before the ceremony. Wearing an elegant Fred Leighton Mexican lace dress, long blond hair streaming down her back, tears threatening to stream down as well, her brother offered a choice that might have changed her life in unknown ways. “Is there something you want to say?”
She had an anguished choice to make. Should it be, “Go tell them the wedding is off!” Or look at him with a calm equanimity she certainly did not feel, rise, straighten her dress, pat her hair, take his arm and go face her chosen fate?
Bound by a southern code of honor ‘your word is your bond,’ her duty to carry through, embarrassment at facing and possibly disappointing family (Who knows? They all might have been relieved), and an inchoate fear of her fiance’s response, Virginia rose, took her brother’s arm, and stepped forward on the first of many questionable paths. Those paths have led her to where she is today: a senior single mother of a wonderful daughter adopted from China, a PhD, co-founder of a small publishing company, a burgeoning and published writer who is at last gaining mastery of her voice.
Had she validated her true voice, the voice which desperately wanted to say “No!” she believes she would have begun writing then and been very successful—financially, with love, with tons of kids, and especially in work. So. dear Ginny (only a very few are invited to use that nickname). here is some advice to you at age 23.
You look lovely sitting there in your lace dress. Everyone is waiting for you to emerge. You look terrified because you’re faced with a decision you want to make and you dread its repercussions. These opposing choices have grabbed your young throat and strangled you. You know what you want to say and you cannot. “Is there something you want to tell me?” your brother Frederick asks. You know he means, “Do you want to call this wedding off?”
You want to say, “YES, please go out there and tell them she says ‘No.’ She is not getting married. Enjoy the refreshments, but there will be no wedding today. Enjoy the view of the Village, but there will be no wedding today. Admire the Picasso sculpture, but there will be no wedding today.”
I want to tell you, Ginny, you are not obligated by your mistaken and misplaced sense of honor: “But I gave my word,” you tell yourself.
Give your true word to yourself.
I know why it is so hard for you to speak in your best interests. You don’t know and won’t know until you are nearly 60. You don’t know all the evil details of your father’s abuse. You don’t know that you cried out, “No, no, no, no,” to him in the dark in the middle of the night when you were just a baby.” You don’t know that he violated every precious part of you. And you felt ever afterward at your deepest core powerless to say no on your own behalf. No wonder you were/are such a valiant warrior for women.
But darling Ginny, you do need to know that you must speak your truth. You always know what it is. So say ‘No’ to this step and to any step that does not fill you with joy, with contentment, with satisfaction, with pride. I promise you, embarrassment, self-denigrating duty, and wrong-headed obligation will be fleeting.
What will be yours to gain is your power to speak for yourself; for your right to decide. Do not worry. You will be fine. You will be beyond fine—you will be happy and filled with confidence. You will have true integrity—because your word will flow from your truth. Everything will unfold well for you. Your creativity will flow out and enrich you and others.
I love you with all my heart. Say no, no, no to decisions that do not serve you. Attend the little niggle, the hesitation, the prickles, the mental red flag, the floating sense of dread, the sick feeling in your stomach that tell you all is not well. And say yes to yourself. Hold tight to this truth.
All my love and support, your older self,