Writer, educator, and podcast host Ashley C. Ford is both gifted and prolific. From intimate profiles of celebs like Serena Williams and Missy Elliott to moving personal essays on queerness and sexual violence, she’s had bylines in Allure, The Cut, Slate, ELLE, and more.
In June 2020, Ford published her first memoir, “Somebody’s Daughter,” about growing up poor in Indiana with an incarcerated father. She sat down with YR Media’s Merk Nguyen and Nygel Turner to discuss why she’s done with secrecy and shame.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. Check out the full conversation on YR Media’s Adult ISH podcast (Season 5, Episode 9 – Hiding ISH In Plain Sight).
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Merk Nguyen: You wrote an essay for The Guardian that I came across last year at a time when I no longer wanted to hide parts of myself, namely my queerness. You talked about being queer and being with Kelly, who’s your now-husband, saying “my queer identity is not defined by who I date.” That changed my own assumptions about what queerness meant. And you helped me see that I don’t have to prove my sexual identity to anyone. I can exist as I am.
Were you always this confident in embracing your own queerness?
Ashley C. Ford: Absolutely not. You know, I have never to this day had a steady girlfriend of any kind. Hopefully I never will, because … Kelly is my person. It took me a really long time to realize that I didn’t have to make a choice, that it wasn’t like, you know, “Oh, I like people of so many different genders, like I should pick one and go with it,” right? I thought that that was the choice that I had, because let’s be honest, society and the world don’t really let us know that we have more choices than that, at least not initially. And we have to find out for ourselves.
MN: You know, despite me coming forward with this truth, I do still feel like there are days where I struggle with self-acceptance …
AF: You know what that is? That’s you being a human being. That’s you being connected to your humanity. That’s you not pretending to have answers that you don’t have like some people do. Nobody has all the answers. Nobody’s out here calm. Nobody’s so secure in these things every single day that it just doesn’t pop into their head … and they don’t feel the confusion or the anger or the rage or the pain. That doesn’t happen for anybody, anybody.
Nyge Turner: In your memoir, you write a lot about family secrets. A big one was learning why your dad was in prison for 30 years. How did those secrets shape the overall story that you tell?
AF: Secrecy, in my definition, is about shame. It’s about hiding things from people, because you don’t want them to know, because you are afraid of how they will see you, judge you or treat you if they know this thing about you. And my father being in prison and the reason he was in prison was treated as a big secret, a very big secret. It wasn’t just like, “it’s a private thing.” It was, “If you tell people about this, they will feel this way about you. They will judge you this way. They will treat you poorly.” So it’s a matter of survival, almost, to hide it.
Now, privacy to me is about what is yours, because it is sacred to you and it is just simply not for everyone else to have access to. So I would consider, you know, when my husband and I sit on the couch and talk for hours … and we share all these details and small things, those moments are sacred to me. I would never sit and live tweet a conversation I was having with him in that moment. Those are private things … that intimacy is sacred.
Now, if he called me a bitch a lot and I didn’t tell people about that because I didn’t want them to know and I would be afraid of how that would make them view me or how that would make them view him – that’s a secret. So I don’t do secrets anymore.
MN: It’s really good framing. And also there’s just so much agency behind knowing something is private to you because you make that choice. You control the narrative.
MN: And shame doesn’t do that. Shame doesn’t allow for that.
AF: It doesn’t. Shame is only corrosive.
MN: When did you decide that it was time to distinguish those secrets and actually bring them to light?
AF: I think when I was in college … I was in the second half of a really bad relationship. I was in this class where I had to write essentially about me and about my life. And I was seeing a counselor who was trying to get me to understand that I could not be responsible for other people’s actions, especially when there was no intent there. Like, I cannot be responsible for my mother’s anger. I cannot be responsible for my father’s crimes. How can those things shame me? Why should I have to hold those things as shameful secrets when the shame is not mine? It is not mine.
I saw how nervous and anxious I was to fully be myself with anybody. And I kind of had to ask myself, am I going to live like this forever, am I going to just, like, have all these secrets and shames and all of these things forever? … Can it be true that I am unlovable when all these people love me, when my husband loves me, when my family loves me, when my siblings just call to tell me they love me, when I have friends who seek me out and reach out for me and who love me, can it really be true that I’m unlovable? I guess not. I guess not, so once I figured out that telling the truth helped get rid of the shame, I started walking in that direction and I didn’t want to turn around.