Tethered to the Closet
It’s been out for months, but I do spoil pretty much all of Jordan Peele’s Us in this piece. So thar be, like, spoilers and stuff ahead….
“Once Upon a Time there was a boy…
I started writing this on March 23rd, the night I saw Us. While people have debated how successful this followup was compared to Get Out and whether it was brilliant or a mishmash of themes that ultimately fell flat was immaterial to me. No, on my long commute home, the movie left me quiet and introspective.
I didn’t listen to the latest Horror Queers or Dead for Filth episode like I normally would. I just drove in silence for 45 minutes, thinking. Because, you see, I knew from the very minute we met adult Adelaide that she was a fake. A phony. That she was what we’d ultimately call a Tethered.
It wasn’t just because of the little Easter eggs Peele sprinkled through the film. It wasn’t the lack of rhythm or the fact she ate strawberries and drank water (rabbit food) while her family feasted on fast food and soda. No, it was because she was me. Adelaide had a secret. And as much as she didn’t want to admit it, she knew that her time hiding would eventually end. That someone would find her out.
That she’d have to leave the closet.
You see, in the “twist” ending of Us, it’s discovered that the woman we had been rooting for was actually an escaped Shadow who took Young Adelaide and imprisoned her with the rest of the Tethered. When she sees her new parents talking with a therapist about how different she was, this mostly catatonic Shadow Adelaide realizes she has to pretend and learn to be “normal” so that she’s not discovered. So her dirty little secret wouldn’t be revealed. So she won’t be thrown back into the dark underground with the rest of the Tethered.
Even as an adult, Adelaide still has to mimic other people to fit in. You see it in the car ride, when “I Got 5 On It” plays and she looks to her husband’s rhythmic bopping to see the appropriate response before nodding, mostly in time, with him. But when she has to be the mirror for her son to learn to snap in rhythm, she fails. She didn't have a "normal" person to copy from. She couldn't fake it.
…And the boy had a shadow...
Before I even knew what “gay” meant, I knew I was different from the other boys. I was a late bloomer and my looks, particularly as a preteen, were definitely from my mom. This was further impressed upon me in sixth or seventh grade when a girl down the street snidely told me, “You look like a girl.” Until that moment, I didn’t really think about it or my looks. But it soon became all I could focus on.
“You look like a girl” meant “you don’t fit in.” You don’t seem like you belong to normal society, especially as other boys were hitting puberty. And so like the young Shadow Adelaide who escaped the underground tunnels, I learned to adapt. I built a wall around myself and didn’t let anyone get too close. I tried to keep people at arm’s length because if they got too close or if they asked the right combination of questions, I was afraid they’d discover that I was gay.
So when I saw Adelaide at the beach, failing at small talk, I saw myself. She answers in short, small words. Yes. No. Whatever moves the conversation along and takes the attention off her. “I have a hard time just…talking,” she says. And it’s laughed off as introversion. But it’s actually a wall built high and impenetrable to deflect interest and scrutiny. Even now I don’t like talking about myself. Sometimes the walls we build are too high and well-guarded. But I’m trying to break it down, brick by brick.
“When I was a kid, I went to the boardwalk with my parents,” Adelaide tells her husband Gabe when she realizes she’ll soon have to face the truth. “I ended up in that hall of mirrors. There was another girl in there. She looked like me. Exactly like me…I ran. As fast as I could. My whole life I’ve felt like she’s still coming for me.”
“I can’t believe you kept all this inside for so long,” Gabe responds.
But I can. Because I did.
…The two were connected. Tethered together…
When I was in high school, I internalized my homophobia. I tried to rationalize my feelings. “It was a phase,” I’d think. “Maybe I’m bi?” Anything to make myself seem even remotely like the other boys around me. But those thoughts and fears that followed were tethered to me like a shadow, always in the back of my mind.
I vividly remember watching Clue with some friends, including a guy who would eventually come out. Even though I wouldn't know for sure for a year or two, I always had a feeling he was gay. Sometimes we can sense people like us. Clue was the first time I saw a gay person on screen. And while Mr. Green would say he felt no shame in being gay, it was presented as his dirty little secret. When Mr. Green revealed to the crowd he was gay, I unconsciously used it as an opportunity to distance myself from my closeted friend and the troubling fact that I felt the same.
I acted like all of the homophobic kids at school did and pushed him away. To show, I guess, that I wasn’t like him. I believe I said something to the effect of “ewww.” I thought it was expected of me. That it was the thing “normal” boys would say.
When that friend finally graduated from the cesspool of high school, he came out. But whispers still passed through the halls where I was a senior. And because I hated myself, I feigned ignorance and shock. “He was?!” It became another way to distance myself even further from him and the terrifying truth that I was just like him. My friend would later tell me he was scared of coming out to me because of that night watching Clue.
…The shadow hated the boy so much. For so long…”
I won’t go into the specifics, but it wasn’t until I was 30 that my own facade came to an abrupt end and I had to come out to a small group of friends. I was immediately transported back to that night when I saw the look of terror on Adelaide’s face upon seeing the Shadow Family in her driveway. She knew she could no longer run from herself…from that shadow that hated her, so much. For so long.
Adelaide called the police, but I didn’t have anyone to call to try to help me. And anyway, the police couldn’t help save either of us from the simple truth that petrified us. We were both scared of what we’d find, when we finally had to face ourselves in the mirror. In that moment, I was Adelaide: chained to the coffee table, knowing that what would happen next would completely change everything. The shadow that had been chasing me for years finally caught me. I was terrified.
Us ends where it begins. In the closeted underground where Adelaide is able to confront her truth, kill it and make peace. When she delivers the killing blow, she unleashes a guttural scream of rage and pain…and triumph. A terrifying yet heart-wrenching sound that had been building for over 30 years.
When the words “I’m gay” left my mouth to my best friend, a similar dam broke and the tears exploded uncontrollably. When you’ve hidden from yourself for so long, that final release feels overwhelming and absolute. It’s a moment of pain, sure. Of anger. Fear. But it also screams a single truth.
We are finally free.
When I finished writing this article, I started crying at my desk. This month has been so amazing, curating all of these wonderful articles, but it's also been exhausting, mentally and physically. This was probably the most personal thing I’ve ever written. It only felt fair, after seeing so many articles over this last month tackle very difficult aspects of life. Seeing everyone else get very personal and vulnerable helped me write these words. Hopefully they help you.
Thank you for taking this journey with us over the last month. And thank you for helping us raise money for LGBTQ+ youth so that we can continue to celebrate Pride Month decades down the line. The fundraiser, I believe, will stay open. So if any article touched you or taught you or helped you over the last month, please consider donating today.
Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for making this month one I'll always remember.