The NoSleep Diaries Entry 5: Garbage

Please welcome guest contributor Lindsay Moore. Lindsay has written for us before, sharing her experience putting together an all women horror anthology. In this series, she'll share her experience writing horror stories that were adapted for the NoSleep Podcast.

“Garbage” got its start back in 2012. It was originally an 8-page comic featured in Hellbound, Volume III. My relationship with the people involved with the comic-version of “Garbage” is a complicated one. I’ll discuss the inspiration for “Garbage” before going into why it’s a weird, bittersweet story for me.

“Garbage” was inspired by Amy Chua’s memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and the outrage that it sparked. I haven’t read Chua’s book in its entirety, but the excerpts that I did read bothered me a great deal. In the book, Chua describes raising her two young daughters; her methods are extreme and unorthodox and -- to some people, myself included -- abusive.

In an excerpt I read, Chua describes handing her young daughter some brand-new piano music. She set the little girl (who was in elementary school) down at the piano and would not let her get up until she could play the piece perfectly. Chua described browbeating her daughter, ignoring the little girl’s tears and pleas for a break. She threatened to get rid of her daughter’s cherished toys and referred to her as “garbage” when she made mistakes. Finally, after being at the piano for hours, the little girl’s muscle memory kicked in and she played the piece perfectly. Only then was she allowed to get up.

The excerpt upset and angered me a great deal. I felt that this woman’s behavior toward her young daughter was abusive. I have vivid, upsetting memories of being set down at the kitchen table and forced to do “math minutes.” A “math minute” is where you hand a small child a bunch of math problems and see how many they can solve in one minute. I could never complete the task because I was too focused on the ticking clock. I would sit there, anxiously kicking my legs, sweating buckets, unable to solve a single math problem. When I was unable to perform “math minutes” in the classroom, my parents decided that I should practice them at home. Their frustration when I couldn’t do it was similar to Chua’s frustration with her daughter’s inability to play the piano perfectly -- although I was never threatened, forced to sit with the math problems for hours, or referred to as “garbage.”

(Fun fact: years later, when my siblings and their classmates encountered “math minutes,” my mother was suddenly and vehemently against them, as she felt the ticking clock gave children anxiety and that the primary focus should be on completing the math correctly, not quickly.)

After Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother hit bookshelves, an old news story suddenly became relevant again. In 2005, a teenage girl named Esmie Tseng brutally murdered her own mother. After her arrest, it was discovered that Tseng’s mother was mistreating her...and that her actions were eerily similar to those that Chua chronicled in her book. Tseng’s mother would threaten to sell her possessions if she displeased her. She would relentlessly browbeat her, and would refer to her as “garbage.” The abuse was physical as well; Tseng would be forced to stand naked in the corner for minor infractions, like receiving a 95% on a test instead of a 100%. The general consensus was that Tseng had endured a lifetime of abuse from her mother and had finally snapped, brutally stabbing her to death.

I took this idea -- a mild-mannered teenage girl who lashes out at her abusive mother -- and turned it into “Garbage.” In the story, the protagonist (Brenda, played on the NoSleep Podcast by Alexis Bristowe) is a Chinese-American high school student who does not fit the studious stereotype at all. Brenda is an angry teenager with a face full of piercings, a leather jacket, and a tendency to not do her homework. When another student calls her a ‘dyke,’ she punches him, breaking his nose and setting the story in motion. Her classmate, Doris (played by Addison Peacock), is a shy, bookish white girl with straight A’s, who asks Brenda for a simple, yet strange favor: please break my fingers so I won’t have to practice piano after school.

Brenda embarks on a mission to figure out what’s wrong with Doris and to try and help her, but she’s thwarted by adults who won’t listen. For me, that’s where the majority of the horror in “Garbage” comes from: Brenda is trying her hardest to aid Doris, but the adults around her -- the people capable of stepping in and helping Doris -- refuse to take her seriously. The story’s bloodsoaked climax could have been avoided if someone -- anyone -- had listened to Brenda instead of brushing her aside.

Not being listened to is something that we can all relate to. As a woman, I’ve been in situations where I’ve raised a valid point and been dismissed by the man in charge. I’ve been criticized for speaking up, for raising my voice, for trying to improve situations. This is where “Garbage” takes a personal turn for me.

As I explained earlier, “Garbage” got its start back in 2012 as a short comic. It was illustrated by a woman who (at the time) was my best friend, but with whom I am no longer on speaking terms. We were both part of a local group of comics creators. In 2014, after a string of sexist and misogynistic incidents, I left the group. Before leaving, though, I complained about it, and I chose to do so publicly. I had discussed the rampant sexism with the man in charge, who had hemmed and hawed and made excuses for not stepping in when he was needed. For all his flimsy excuses, he had always assured me that next time sexism reared its ugly head, he would step in and rectify the situation. He never did.

When I attempted to pitch my all-female horror comics anthology to the group, this man joined in ridiculing me and trash-talking my project. When I left, I called him out on his sexist behavior, and I did so publicly. I was tired of not being listened to. I was tired of his broken promises and empty words. Part of me wanted to shame him by exposing his enabling behavior, but a bigger part of me wanted to force someone -- anyone -- to pay attention to what was going on.

I was told my multiple people -- both men and women -- that I was no longer welcome in the group and that I should not tell anyone else about the sexism because it would make the group look bad.

My former best friend -- the woman who had originally illustrated “Garbage” -- was among these people. She told me that I was hurting her by complaining about the sexism and that it would be wrong of me to discuss the various sexist incidents. I informed her that if this had happened to her -- if her project had been ridiculed by a bunch of misogynists -- I would have defended her. We never spoke again, and we never will. I have no interest in rekindling a friendship with someone who doesn’t think I’m good enough to stand up for.

After this, my “Garbage” comic became tainted. It was one of my favorite comic scripts, but I couldn’t bear to look at it because of how horribly I’d been treated by its original illustrator. In 2017, I rewrote it as a short story. By this point, I was a huge fan of the NoSleep Podcast and had felt welcomed by the fan community. After reworking “Garbage” as a prose piece, I posted it to the NoSleep subreddit and later submitted it to the podcast.

I like to think that I was reclaiming “Garbage,” that I was washing away my negative experience with the creator group and my toxic former friend. It was mine again. I personally think that “Garbage” works well as a prose piece; in writing it all out, I was able to really get inside of Brenda’s head and give her a lot more depth than I could in the comic.

Alexis Bristowe’s performance gave Brenda another layer. Like many of the NoSleep players, Alexis has a unique voice and is a versatile actor. She managed to make Brenda sound like a frightened, insecure, vulnerable teenage girl who is trying her hardest not to be any of those things. Brenda is trying so hard to be tough and badass, trying not to care about anyone or anything, but deep down, she’s just as scared and insecure as the rest of us, and Alexis brings that to the surface perfectly.

Alexis makes Brenda’s story about more than an act of violence. She gives Brenda a sense of vulnerability that makes her emotional state almost akin to survivor’s guilt. Brenda is unable to stop something terrible from happening, and Alexis’s voice brings a blend of anger and guilt into the forefront of the performance. We’re angry because no one listened to Brenda, and we’re upset because she was unable to prevent a tragedy -- even though it we know it isn’t her fault.

I think that a good horror story is able to spark more than just fear in the reader. “Garbage” isn’t a traditional horror story. For all its violence and bloodshed, it’s a subtle, multi-layered story, one that I’m proud of. I’m proud to have written “Garbage,” and I’m grateful to the NoSleep Podcast for helping me reclaim it from the toxic people who helped spawn it in the first place.

The NoSleep Podcast, season 9, episode 3, “Garbage”:

Classic Alexis Bristowe episodes:

  • “Christina Took Things” (Season 4, episode 2)

  • “Follicles of Fear” (Season 6, episode 15)

  • “Video Footage” (Season 8, episode 2)

  • “All Present in 219” (Season 8, episode 18)

  • “The Nutcracker Town” (Season 10, episode 7)

  • “The Dirt Road Man” (Season 11, episode 24)