Zoe Mendelson is the type of human that one would call striking. Yes, she’s beautiful—but that’s not quite what takes your breath away. Rather, it’s her unabashed sense of curiosity and innate ability to laugh at herself and the mistakes that she’s made that really make you want to pay attention to what this girl has to say.
Zoe lives in Mexico City where she researches, talks, and writes about cities, emojis, tech, language, data, maps, mushrooms, and other semi-related topics. For our interview, Zoe chats with me from her grandmother’s house in Point Reyes, California. This is the third or fourth interview that Zoe and I have attempted to have. After much conversation about what she wanted to share with the audience, Zoe has landed on the topic of victimization: where it stems from and how it can impact one’s intuition and the choices that one makes for herself. As Zoe has had a lot of experience embracing the victim narrative, she is drawn to explore what happens when individuals hold tightly to a narrative that has gone stale and what can unfold when they decide to let it go.
Growing up, Zoe lived in a nice, suburban Jewish neighborhood outside of Chicago. Her father was a lawyer and her mother a photographer. For many years of her childhood, she lived the life of an upper middle class family. At some point during her growing up, however, Zoe’s father got into trouble in his profession. The series of events that followed included: her father being put on house arrest, her family losing their house, her parents filing bankruptcy, and her mother working a million jobs. What had started as a decently happy-go-lucky and fortunate childhood turned very quickly into a different reality. However, amidst all of the change, she still attended her old public school in a wealthy suburb where she would get made fun of for wearing last season’s styles. She remembers, “[I developed] this really big chip on my shoulder for being the poor kid.”
After her parents divorced, Zoe, along with her mother and sister, moved into a low-income neighborhood in Chicago. There she attended a public school where she was made fun of for being the rich white kid. Not fitting into the box that she was being placed in, she began to grow an even greater resentment for not getting credit for the struggles that she had been through in her life. Basically, she was living in between the many different realities of socioeconomic status and race, not totally sure of where she fit into the mix.
After high school, Zoe received a full ride scholarship to Barnard College in New York City. When she got to school, she was surrounded by a group of privileged women who she felt both intimidated by and resentful of. When I ask Zoe to explain more, she takes a deep exhale and admits her feelings of jealousy.
This conversation leads us to explore the idea of perception and self-comparison. Our realities are merely the lens through which we see the world, yet we so often feel like we have to prove our worth, or value, or intelligence to those around us in order to feel like we fit in. As a means of self-protection, Zoe began to use her story of growing up poor as legitimization for her actions, behaviors, and way of being in the world. Her struggles were her “insurance against failure,” a story she told herself that influenced her to take on multiple jobs while being a full-time student in order to make ends meet. Doing so, however, wasn’t actually necessary for her to stay financially afloat. Instead, it allowed her to play the role of the victim. She couldn’t do as well as her peers in school because she was exhausted from working—a result of her coming from a low-income background. It was a vicious cycle based on false perceptions of reality.
All of this came to a head during the end of Zoe’s senior year of college. She was writing her thesis, taking a full course load of credits, moving apartments, and working all over New York as the market manager for local farmers markets. She was barely sleeping and running off of fumes. She hadn’t gotten her period in months, had an ongoing respiratory infection, had lost a lot of weight, had pimples covering her face, and she was flailing wildly at her job. As she reflects on that period in her life, she notes, “I was terrified of graduating and I think part of it was [that I didn’t] want to face the fear, so I just [didn’t] want to stop moving.”
The story reaches a crescendo when she was asked to come into work on her day off to learn how to drive. Unable to create healthy boundaries for herself and say no, Zoe went into work with a fever, got behind the wheel for her driving lesson, and wound up driving the company truck into a wall. When she slept through her alarm the next day (as she was fighting off a terrible infection), she was fired.
While listening to Zoe share, I can’t help but feel how much of her ego was tied to this story. In her words, she needed to feel “exceptional, except [she didn’t want to be] measure[d] on the same scale as everyone else because [she had] a different situation.” Instead of giving in and letting go of a story that no longer served her, she remembers thinking, “I will suffer. I will entirely self-sabotage. I was a martyr to my own victim narrative.”
After Zoe reached rock bottom, she had no choice but to engage in self-care. She took time off in Northern California to sleep, eat healthy foods, recharge, and plan what her next steps would be back in New York. Zoe was scared to return to a place where she had fallen so hard and was ashamed to face the people, places, and things that had watched her fall. However, what took her by surprise was that her failure was simply a launching point. Zoe notes:
“I had this huge asset which was that I knew I could reach a terrible point and fail and then be resilient. I knew that I was capable of that . . . And it gave me this freedom of [being] willing to try. And I trust myself and I know what I’m capable of. I know my strength. I know my resilience. And I think that gave me part of the courage that it takes for me to be a freelancer and try a lot of things that I don’t know how to do.”
“I really felt worthless and then showed myself—I don’t care about showing other people—I showed myself that I was capable of rebuilding.”
At the end of our interview I ask Zoe if her old victim narrative ever creeps back in and if she has learned any tools to help her manage it more quickly. She reflects, “I’m very grateful for all of the experiences that I’ve had that other people don’t have. I’m much more grateful for the weird course that my life took now because being comfortable with uncertainty is a huge tool.” Continuing she states, “I don’t know if I’m still creating this narrative. I think I probably have new ones that I’m not aware of yet but I’m just waiting to be sabotaged by.” She finishes this thought poetically by claiming,
“Now I look forward to when all the tiny lies I tell myself all [of] the time burn my life down. [In those moments] I hope I’ll be like ‘oh, great’ and just dance while I watch it burn. Wait[ing] to be able to start fresh again and learn and keep growing.”