A chapter in Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd: The Story of My People describes the use of childhood nerdiness as an inner defense against a disordered home life. Nugent cites Dungeons and Dragons, a quite orderly role-playing game, as one of the tools used by a childhood friend to cope with the chaos of a dysfunctional family living in a cluttered home.
A chaotic home life wasn’t a prerequisite to D&D play among my small group of friends in the late 1980s, but an acute sense of “otherness” certainly seemed to be. Yeah, yeah, all teenagers get the feeling that they don’t “belong” at some point, but some of us really didn’t blend into our surroundings. Whereas our classmates were content with pegging their jeans and listening to love songs by Chicago, a few of us were striving for hair colors that didn’t exist in nature and digging around for older stuff from the Violent Femmes and the Sex Pistols.
That’s not to say we didn’t have our Bon Jovi moments, but we didn’t get stuck there. We went all out to discover exotic-to-us bands like Marillion, and a couple of us were even accused of being Satanists after choreographing a talent-show dance routine to a particularly dark Depeche Mode song. (Note to accusers: I bet you’re still cretins.)
Our home lives weren’t what you would call chaos, though some might be termed “loosely structured.”
We belonged in our D&D group, our fates determined by our imaginations and dice rolls. To our parents, it was a safe, acceptable weekend gathering (there was just a bit of intergroup dating, most of which ended amicably). It’s probably the No. 1 reason that I have more male friends than female friends to this day – I had so much fun with the boys (there were usually only two girls in the group) that the girl stuff held no appeal.
Not belonging stinks. But when you ultimately find your people, it’s a better feeling than pretending.