I Make Memes to Cope
The Gen Z art form is helping the writer process a global pandemic and a history of emotional abuse.
During quarantine, the physical and emotional abuse that my father and stepmother exchanged for years finally came to a head, resulting in an arrest, a restraining order, threats of divorce and ultimately—as the cycle of abuse dictates—reconciliation. It also resulted in my decision to estrange myself from them.
I already live at a great physical distance from my father, so we acted out this separation on a virtual plane, beginning with what I now refer to as the paternal breakup text. In the seemingly endless stretch of time between hitting “send” and receiving my father’s response, I found myself scrolling through my camera roll in search of a particular meme template featuring the endearingly existential troll Moomin. I reached for the Swedish cartoon not to distract myself from the emotional turmoil at hand, but to use as a sort of personal exercise in interpreting it.
As a member of Generation Z, I am well acquainted with the vast array of means to overshare on the internet: sexually explicit TikTok videos, overly comfortable friends-only Instagram posts, the classic emo Tumblr blog. But as soul-rendering as a perfectly lip-synched TikTok may be, it could never carry me through the abrupt parental estrangement and expedited processing of years of emotional abuse that the novel coronavirus has put me through. Memeing, with its strikingly introspective creative process, has done just that.
Memes Have Meaning; They're Aren't Just Punchlines
The internet meme is often misunderstood as a flippant joke—funny images and quippy captions thrown together in seconds, with little thought for anything but momentary viral potential. In reality, the meme is a concentrated memory, and whether you’re recalling a universally understood reference to the human inability to remember names or a niche nod to polycule antics is irrelevant to the craft. To create a meme is to heat and compress the coal of experience until, through pressure of sheer will and wordplay, it forms a diamond. Distilling an experience into a meme can be cathartic, even therapeutic.
When I started my ultra-specific sapphic meme page a year ago, I was taken aback by the amount of time each wisecrack demanded from me. I’d spend days turning one over in my mind, carefully curating the language to optimize succinctness and accessibility. By the time I’d painstakingly selected an image to accompany it and tapped the share button, I’d had a long time to think over the deeper implications of the issue in question, whether it was why I want a girl with a safety pin earring to put her fingers in my mouth or why my ex may not know she’s my ex. I often emerged from a night of memeing with a clearer understanding of the complexes underlying my freshly illustrated thoughts. But although I relished boiling down my personal issues into an image and a punchline, I was still memeing for the product, not the process.
I came to cherish my meme page and the pearls of grainy introspection I squirreled away in it. So it was to my great distress that, upon moving halfway around the world a year ago, Instagram locked me out of the account. With no way to share my gems with the account’s five loyal followers, I simply stopped memeing—at least, by the most modern definition.
Making Memes Helped Me Connect Offline
In a more traditional sense, however, I now realize that I never took a break. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the lesser-known, now-outdated definition of a meme as “an element of a culture or system of behavior passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.” By the time my brother—my relationship with whom I am still rebuilding in the aftermath of our childhood—visited me in the months after my move, I had thoroughly dissected our family culture and amassed a stockpile of elements ripe for inter-sibling exchange. We lost ourselves in hours-long walks as we examined memory after painful memory, tooling them over until they took the form of somewhat recognizable experiences.
The first memes I made about my father’s abuse were choked out between laughs as my brother and I traded stories of his transgressions and riffed off of his most fantastical threats. We resurfaced from our conversations with precious booty: legible shorthand we could use to talk about our family and inside jokes to soften the blow. It brought a clarity not unlike what I had experienced while toiling over my queer memes. The punchlines were even sweeter.
When my brother’s stay ended, our conversations ground to a halt under the pressure of the time difference between our two countries. But the itch to work through this trauma, so long repressed by my certainty that these were not wounds that required tending, endured. In the months that followed, I would return to pacing circles in my head, fruitlessly ruminating until my father gave me the opportunity—and, to his credit, the transparency—that I needed to pen the parental breakup text.
Memes Are My Therapy
As I lay hunched over my phone screen at 3 a.m., muttering to myself as I tried to clip, “When your dad punched another hole in the wall, so you hike up your diaper and do a grown man’s emotional labor” into an appropriate caption for a Russian Doll outtake, it struck me that I was making memes that I would never share. Even if I managed to jailbreak back into my sapphic meme page, these were far too intimate to post on the internet, even anonymously and for a tiny following. That didn’t stop me from churning out a personal record of seven memes that night as I rushed to detangle the whirlwind of emotions that were tearing through me. It hasn’t stopped me from adding to my collection as I continue to excavate the trust issues, conflict aversion and internalized toxic masculinity with which my father has left me.
Today, these memes—which, it must be said, are far from my best work—have claimed their own ever-expanding folder on my phone. Some of those conversations with my brother have reappeared in the portfolio, translated from tear-ridden trauma jokes shared between siblings into digital artifacts that immortalize our distress and comradery. I’ve even sent him a few. He finds them uproarious. My mother, not so much.