I Don’t Know If This Is About Trans Stuff, or What

Critical Dialogue / KJ Cerankowski, curated by M. Milks

:: Introduction ::

A lead­ing schol­ar in the field of asex­u­al­i­ty stud­ies, KJ Cer­ankows­ki has been writ­ing on the inter­sec­tions of asex­u­al­i­ty and queer­ness for near­ly a decade. Here, what begins as a crit­i­cal engage­ment with Cris Mazza’s new hybrid film Anor­gas­mia unfolds into a com­plex­ly thought and deeply felt inquiry into Cerankowski’s own rela­tion­ship to asex­u­al­i­ty, desire, trans­gen­der iden­ti­ty, and writ­ing as a tool for uncov­er­ing trau­ma. As KJ Cer­ankows­ki writes, “I read and tell in order to be upset, in order to live. I gath­er the frag­ments that will nev­er fit togeth­er to make a whole. I want the trau­ma to be poet­ry, but I can­not find the right tim­ing, the right words, the right image.… I ask how this con­stel­la­tion of events makes me—makes me desire or not desire, makes me desir­able or unde­sir­able, makes me like a man or a man.    

— M. Milks, Fic­tion Edi­tor

:: I Don’t Know If This Is About Trans Stuff, or What ::

I’m not talk­ing about fuck­ing; I’m talk­ing about inti­ma­cy. One used to fade into the oth­er, and some­times I for­get I’ve learned the dif­fer­ence.”
—Sarah Man­gu­so, 300 Argu­ments

In many ways, heal­ing from trau­ma is akin to cre­at­ing a poem. Both require the right tim­ing, the right words, and the right image.”
—Mark Wolynn, It Didn’t Start With You

I am watch­ing Cris Mazza’s film Anor­gas­mia, the “fic­tion­al sequel to her real-time mem­oir Some­thing Wrong With Her,” a book that lives out her reunion with a boy from her past while inter­ro­gat­ing her past rela­tion­ships and her cur­rent expe­ri­ences with “sex­u­al dys­func­tion.” The film, on the oth­er hand, seems, to me, less about elu­sive orgasms and explo­rations in asex­u­al­i­ties and more about gen­der. Of course, the wor­ries over gen­der and the body cir­cle back to sex­u­al­i­ty, desir­abil­i­ty, and desire. But gender—and its atten­dant dis­sec­tion of body parts—is where we begin. Just about two min­utes into the film, we see Cris on the floor of what looks like her base­ment, tak­ing pho­tos of her­self in front of a mir­ror, when Mark walks down the stairs. Mark is the boy—now man—from her past, whom we first meet in Some­thing Wrong With Her. He has recent­ly moved to the Chica­go sub­urbs to be with Cris after some thir­ty years estranged. Mark nev­er stopped lov­ing Cris; Cris, I think, is learn­ing how to love Mark.

In this scene, Cris tells Mark, “I’m gonna do a trans­gen­der makeover. I’m gonna go trans­gen­der and do self-por­traits that way.” I watch and rewatch this clip: “I’m gonna do a trans­gen­der makeover. I’m gonna go trans­gen­der… I’m gonna go trans­gen­der… I’m gonna go trans­gen­der.…” The phrase echoes in my head. Mark looks per­plexed if not a bit dis­pleased. I am both per­plexed and intrigued. I can­not help but think that Maz­za imag­ines trans­gen­der as some kind of mask or cos­tume to put on. “I’m gonna do a trans­gen­der makeover. I’m gonna go trans­gen­der.”

Through­out the film, Cris asserts that she doesn’t like the word “woman,” can­not apply it to her­self, that she hates when Mark talks about her “fem­i­nin­i­ty,” and that she feels “not female,” but maybe also not quite male. At the same time, she wants to know “what it feels like to be looked at as some­thing that’s not female,” think­ing that the expe­ri­ence might be some­how lib­er­a­to­ry. So she embarks on what she calls a “trans­gen­der exper­i­ment,” or what her friend Dan calls a “tem­po­rary tran­si­tion,” or what her col­league Chris calls a “cos­tume switch.” She also says to Chris, “hope­ful­ly it won’t be per­form­ing; it will be beingbeing male.” At what point does Cris shift from per­form­ing to being? I think of Diane Torr, whose drag per­for­mances and “man for a day” work­shops were designed to draw out the com­plex ways we embody gen­der norms, to help women real­ize how they are often “giv­ing their pow­er away” through the per­for­mance of gen­der. Torr also used drag to memo­ri­al­ize and hold close the men in her life that she had lost. Her per­for­mances as a man for a day or an evening were always called “drag” and “per­for­mances,” nev­er “trans­gen­der.” One might do drag for a day, in a sense be a “man for a day”; one might go out in drag, but to “do a trans­gen­der makeover,” to “go trans­gen­der” for a day?

Cris cuts off her hair, buys men’s cloth­ing, and, dressed as “Dave,” she goes to her friend Dan’s house to meet his fam­i­ly. The whole exper­i­ment goes “bad­ly” by Cris’s account, and the evening was “rather awk­ward” accord­ing to Dan’s wife, Mol­ly. Cris then over­hears Mol­ly spec­u­lat­ing about whether or not “Dave” is trans­gen­der or asex­u­al, seem­ing to not quite under­stand how vast­ly dif­fer­ent the two iden­ti­ties are. So Cris returns home and decides to do some research, first on asex­u­al­i­ty. She comes to under­stand asex­u­al­i­ty as an absence of a phys­i­cal need or desire to have sex. She won­ders if she might be asex­u­al. Through­out the film, she grap­ples with this ques­tion as she tries to under­stand the dif­fer­ences between sex­u­al­i­ty and gen­der, and how to sit­u­ate her poten­tial asex­u­al and non­bi­na­ry iden­ti­ties. What, we might ask, does one have to do with the oth­er? But in this moment fol­low­ing her first trans­gen­der makeover, Cris also won­ders how she could have been more “con­vinc­ing” to Mol­ly and her chil­dren. So she also finds a “trans­sex­u­al” site on the Inter­net. She tells Mark, “I was try­ing to fig­ure out what I could have done that was more, that would have helped more to be con­vinc­ing. Now, noth­ing on there says any­thing about how to act, what to say.” I am not sure if Cris is look­ing for a guide­book on how to play a man or on how to play at trans.

Mark replies, “I think that’s because being a man isn’t real­ly inside you.” Cris resents when Mark calls her “fem­i­nine” or a “woman,” but she does not direct­ly object to Mark’s idea that being a man isn’t real­ly inside her. Cris will lat­er artic­u­late her­self some­where in the space between female and male, non­bi­na­ry per­haps. With this shift to the in-between spaces of gen­der, I won­der then what it means to “be con­vinc­ing”? What does it mean for “being a man” to be “inside you”? What does it mean to be a man? What is a man?

In Man Alive: A True Sto­ry of Vio­lence, For­give­ness and Becom­ing a Man, Thomas Page McBee writes of the pan­ic, a “new PTSD,” that sets in when he encoun­ters men who can­not see the man he is (or the man inside of him?), men­ac­ing men who instill fear and threat­en his safe­ty and bod­i­ly integrity—the fear of enter­ing gas sta­tions in unfa­mil­iar areas, the moments when his body says, turn around, leave, run! He remem­bers how his first girl­friend com­pared him to oth­er boys. “You’re like a boy… but bet­ter,” she said. I read and reread these words: you’re like a boy, but you’re not a boy. You’re like a boy, but you’re bet­ter than a boy because you’re not a boy. I am like a boy; I am not a boy. I am not like a girl, but am I a girl? I am not a girl. I am not a boy. I am like a boy. I am not like a girl. I am a boy. What am I? Is there a man inside of me?

***

R and I are hik­ing in Maine, and I am walk­ing in front of her. “You’re like a guy,” she says. Just moments before, she told me there were times in her life when she ques­tioned whether she real­ly want­ed to be queer. In response, I told her that some­times I am afraid she is going to decide I am not the kind of man she wants, that I’m not real­ly “man enough” for her. It is after I say this, fol­low­ing a short peri­od of silence, that she tells me I am like a guy. I am caught off guard, pause in my tracks. I turn to look at her; I am not sure what to say, so I push out a “huh?” She repeats her­self, “You’re like a guy. I mean… you even walk like a guy.” After a beat, I sim­ply say, “Because I am a guy.” I am like a guy. I am not a guy. But I tell her I am a guy. Then I tell her I have stopped using she/her pro­nouns. She nods her head but con­tin­ues to call me “she” right through the time we break up, and for all I know, I am still “she” to her, will always be her “ex-girl­friend.”

Almost a year lat­er, I am dri­ving through Oak­land with TT as we head out to din­ner. I have just come from a ther­a­py ses­sion in which I talked about how I wasn’t sure if I should keep on the testos­terone, maybe up my dose and become a (pass­able) man or stay some­where in the mid­dle space I cur­rent­ly occu­py—like a guy, not a guy. It’s not that I want to be more con­vinc­ing; I just want to be me, but I am unsure what that means. I tell TT how these ques­tions are weigh­ing on my mind, my body. I say I wor­ry if I become a man then I won’t become the man I think I am. What kind of man is inside me? I joke: will I be too “fag­gy,” not the burly lum­ber­jack of a man I imag­ine myself to be? But I also like the affects and sen­si­bil­i­ties I embody, those that cause peo­ple to do a dou­ble-take, to tell me that I’m part gay boy, a lit­tle bit of a fag. At the same time, I car­ry a fan­ta­sy image of myself as anoth­er kind of man, a man whose wrist nev­er goes limp. What does it mean to be a man? Can I embody all these mas­culin­i­ties in one? TT will lat­er thought­ful­ly mark this con­ver­sa­tion by giv­ing me a card dec­o­rat­ed with a lum­ber­jack dressed in high heels. But in this moment, she turns to me and says, mat­ter of fact­ly, with­out miss­ing a beat, “What do you mean ‘become’? You are a man.” My eyes pool. I near­ly cry. Not “like a man.” “You are a man.”

How did I go from being like a man to being a man? Is being a man inside of me? Or is it in the eye of the behold­er? Why is it that TT sees me as a man where R could only see me as being like a man? The day before R and I break up, we are talk­ing on the phone late into the night. We hadn’t spo­ken in a cou­ple of days. Dur­ing that time, I went to my doc­tor to inquire about testos­terone. My doc­tor wrote me a pre­scrip­tion and sched­uled me for a return vis­it at the end of the week to learn how to admin­is­ter the shot. I am ter­ri­fied and excit­ed, anx­ious and ner­vous, and eager to tell R about this. On the phone, I tell R that I am mak­ing a life-chang­ing deci­sion, but before I can say more, she cuts me off. “Look,” she says, “I don’t know if this is about trans stuff or what, but I’m try­ing to be real­ly patient with you. You haven’t giv­en me com­pli­ments, like I love how you impro­vise or I love how you take care of your dog. Some­thing. Any­thing.” We hang up the phone, both in tears, she because I won’t com­pli­ment her at that time, me because she nev­er asks to hear about my life-chang­ing deci­sion. I feel utter­ly alone in the jour­ney I am about to embark upon. Lat­er, S will remind me it is not that I am doing this alone, but that I am doing it with­out inti­ma­cy. Togeth­er­ness and inti­ma­cy still fade into each oth­er. I need to remem­ber that I am learn­ing the dif­fer­ence.

It will take me months to make sense of that phone con­ver­sa­tion with R. But the next day, R and I break up. The day after that, I go for my first shot of testos­terone. Three months lat­er, I meet TT. Sev­er­al months after that, TT tells me that she nev­er saw me as any­thing oth­er than a man. Is this about trans stuff, or what? Sure­ly, it can­not be the testos­terone in my body that allows TT to see me as a man where R couldn’t. My dose is low. I have only told a hand­ful of peo­ple that I am tak­ing testos­terone, and most peo­ple, espe­cial­ly those who don’t know, can­not see or hear any change in me. Every­thing seems out of sequence: I meet ES before I even start testos­terone, and he says, “I just don’t get it. I don’t see how any­one can see you as any­thing oth­er than a man.” But then, ten months on testos­terone, I am sit­ting in a dive of a gay bar in Oma­ha with TC. The bar­tender is curi­ous about us: “What brings you ladies to Oma­ha? You ladies gonna sing some karaoke tonight? Can I get you ladies anoth­er drink?” TC turns to me and asks, “Why does he keep say­ing ‘ladies’? Can’t he see that you’re obvi­ous­ly a guy?” No. No, he can’t. Most peo­ple can’t—except the stranger at the book­store who called me “sir” and “man” for the entire­ty of our inter­ac­tion (on T), or the cashier at the gro­cery store who called me “man” and “bro” for that entire exchange (pre T), or the man in front of me in line at the Space Nee­dle in Seat­tle who turned to his wife and, ges­tur­ing toward me, said “Ha, did you hear what he just said?” (on T) or the woman who walked into a crowd­ed women’s restroom at the San Fran­cis­co Opera, saw me before she saw any­one else and in a pan­ic shout­ed, “Is this the women’s room?!?” (pre T). Maybe the ques­tion is not how did I go from being like a man to being a man; rather, I might ask, when, where, and to whom am I like a man or sim­ply a man? And does testos­terone have any­thing to do with it?

I vis­it a psy­chic who tells me that the testos­terone is like med­i­cine for my body. I think she is right about this, but call­ing it “med­i­cine” comes with its own set of com­pli­ca­tions. In Testo Junkie, Paul B. Pre­ci­a­do demar­cates when the drug, testos­terone, shifts from being med­i­cine to being a sub­stance to be abused. Such a dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion also defines the psy­chosis of the user: “I must choose between two psy­choses: in one (gen­der iden­ti­ty dis­or­der), testos­terone appears as a med­i­cine, and in the oth­er (addic­tion), testos­terone becomes the sub­stance on which I am depen­dent.” Am I a self-med­icat­ing addict, or am I being med­icat­ed for a psy­chi­atric dis­or­der? When my doc­tor writes my pre­scrip­tion, I watch her update my med­ical chart: the diag­no­sis of “gen­der iden­ti­ty dis­or­der” I received years ago when I sought approval for top surgery now becomes a diag­no­sis of “gen­der dys­pho­ria.” Whichev­er we call it, I am still diag­nosed and med­icat­ed. Pre­ci­a­do is on the oth­er side, with no pre­scrip­tion for the Testo Gel; he writes, “I would have liked to have fall­en into a depen­dence, have the secu­ri­ty of per­ma­nent­ly and chem­i­cal­ly cling­ing to some­thing. Deep down, I was hop­ing that testos­terone would be that sub­stance. To be attached, not to a sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, but to the change pro­duced by the inges­tion into my organ­ism of a sub­stance with­out will.” After my first shot of testos­terone, my thigh is sore for days at the site where I plunged the nee­dle into the mus­cle. Push­ing my palm against that spot on my thigh becomes addic­tive. I become attached to the sore­ness. I begin to fan­ta­size about admin­is­ter­ing my next injec­tion, feel­ing the sore­ness again. I become attached to the point of pain that serves as the somat­ic reminder that this is where I am putting a sub­stance into my organ­ism that will some­day, some­how change my body in ways I can­not know. The testos­terone is both med­i­cine and addic­tive sub­stance; I am both a med­icat­ed sub­ject of the phar­ma­co­porno­graph­ic era and an addict. But what, exact­ly, am I addict­ed to?

I read and reread McBee’s Man Alive. I make my stu­dents read it; I buy copies for my friends. I can­not quit the book. I am addict­ed to the tears it always brings—the qui­et pools in my eyes that nev­er quite spill over, the silent heav­ing of my chest. I cry in my silent way because McBee’s anxieties—of stop­ping at restrooms in small towns, of fear­ing the man he may become or the man he already is, of run­ning both from and toward the trau­mas of his past as he con­tin­ues to become who he always was—are too famil­iar. They rat­tle around my chest, pick up crush­ing weight in my ster­num. As I read, I feel the inevitabil­i­ty of nee­dles in the thigh, crack­ing vocal chords and deep­en­ing voice, a 5 o’clock shad­ow, anoth­er puber­ty on the hori­zon. I am fright­ened, but I also want it so bad­ly, enough to won­der if it is the only way I will con­tin­ue to sur­vive here. I always thought I would start the injec­tions when I final­ly felt ready to run—to run away from my life, to start over some­where alone as some­one new. But I haven’t run away. Instead, I run toward the past even as I am ever hurtling toward some unfore­see­able future. And now, in this moment, I push my hand to my thigh, which has become accus­tomed to the week­ly injec­tions, and I long for the ten­der­ness that no longer lingers after a shot.

***

While read­ing Mazza’s mem­oir Some­thing Wrong With Her, I get stuck on one scene. I read and reread it. Maz­za nar­rates a moment when, as teenagers, Mark pushed her onto a bed and got on top of her. She fled. Mark scold­ed her, “Girl, you just don’t give me enough, you don’t put out.” Her brain has stopped chant­i­ng, “You’re sup­posed to like this.” Instead, this is the moment she decides she is frigid. She writes, “It was the scold­ing that had pen­e­trat­ed me. I was marked.”

I am sev­en­teen years old. I spend the evening drink­ing with friends. We are at the apart­ment of a boy I am dat­ing. He is nine­teen years old and just moved out of his par­ents’ house. Late into the night after many beers and whiskeys, he turns to me and says, “Just sleep over here. We can share my bed.” We go down to his bed­room and as we fall into bed, we begin kiss­ing. I am on my back. He is on top of me. His hands are all over me, his tongue in my mouth. I pull away. “Let’s just sleep,” I say. “You’re such a tease,” he says, just before he pins my hands above my head with one hand grip­ping my small wrists. With the oth­er hand, he guides his cock into my mouth. “Keep it in your mouth,” he growls. “Use your tongue,” he pants, as he thrusts in my mouth. He comes quick­ly, in less than a minute. I am gag­ging on his come, spit­ting it out of my mouth. “Just swal­low it,” he snarls as he lets go of my wrists and lets me up. I go to the bath­room to wash the come from my mouth and hair. The next morn­ing I go home and rinse my mouth over and over. I stand in the show­er until my moth­er tells me to hur­ry up and get the hell out of the bath­room. Lat­er that day, he calls me and says, “I real­ly like you. I had a great time last night. You didn’t have to do that, you know, unless you want­ed to.” I qui­et­ly tell a lie back into the phone, “I want­ed to.” The next time I see him, he goes down on me and sticks his fin­ger inside me. I feel pain at inser­tion, but oth­er­wise I am numb. “Tell me when you’re done,” he says. “I’m done,” I say. “My turn,” he says. A year lat­er, I move across the coun­try and try my best to for­get any of that ever hap­pened. Sarah Man­gu­so writes in Ongo­ing­ness, “Nothing’s gone, not real­ly. Every­thing that’s ever hap­pened has left its lit­tle wound.” He pen­e­trat­ed me. I am marked. I will remain numb, and I will choose to be celi­bate for years. And I will learn that wounds, even the lit­tle ones, can always be reopened.

In an inter­view in The New Inquiry, M. Milks asks Maz­za about her resis­tance to a nar­ra­tive of trau­ma and vic­tim­iza­tion in telling her sto­ry. Maz­za responds that to “cry vic­tim” would make Mark one of the vic­tim­iz­ers. “We weren’t rapist and vic­tim,” she asserts. “We were two kids.” I think back to that night. We were two kids. I nev­er thought of my 19-year-old boyfriend as a rapist; I still can­not call what he did rape. I nev­er thought he was respon­si­ble for my numb­ness or my celiba­cy. I can­not real­ly know if I was already numb when he touched me or if his touch made me go numb. I can­not real­ly know if I chose celiba­cy because of that expe­ri­ence with him or for some oth­er uncon­scious rea­son. These are not the ques­tions I am ask­ing, nor the answers I seek. I think of Joan Did­ion: “We tell our­selves sto­ries in order to live.” I think of Hanya Yanag­i­hara: “Don’t we read fic­tion exact­ly to be upset?” I read and tell in order to be upset, in order to live. I gath­er the frag­ments that will nev­er fit togeth­er to make a whole. I want the trau­ma to be poet­ry, but I can­not find the right tim­ing, the right words, the right image. Like Ann Cvetkovich, I want to explore how “trau­mat­ic events refract out­ward to pro­duce all kinds of affec­tive respons­es and not just clin­i­cal symp­toms.” I want to know if it is pos­si­ble “to name a con­nec­tion while refus­ing deter­mi­na­tion or causal­i­ty.” I ask how this con­stel­la­tion of events makes me—makes me desire or not desire, makes me desir­able or unde­sir­able, makes me like a man or a man. A ques­tion, a refrain in McBee’s text hits me in the gut every time: What are you run­ning to? With every step for­ward, I find myself turn­ing back for answers. In Ten­der Points, Amy Berkowitz writes of the pain in her body, of rape, of her body’s bat­tle with fibromyal­gia. So much of the advice doled out to the chron­i­cal­ly ill, the chron­i­cal­ly pained, the trau­ma­tized is to “look for­ward, not back­ward. Focus on what you need to do to get bet­ter, not what caused your ill­ness.” Berkowitz can­not look for­ward; she needs to know the “tan­gled chain of events that got [her] here.” “Look­ing back,” she writes, “is what I need to do to get bet­ter.” I keep look­ing back in order to find myself here.

You have to let peo­ple love you,” McBee’s ther­a­pist says. R says, “Let me love you.” “I see you,” she says. But to her, I was her girl­friend who is like a guy. I tell her that all I’ve been ask­ing for is for her to love me, to see me. I tell her that I am a guy. I tell her that I am not “she.” I tell my ther­a­pist that every time I try to con­front R with my “bad” feel­ings, I feel bull­dozed. My throat clos­es up, my heart pounds, my brain goes fog­gy. All I can do is say that I am sor­ry for hav­ing feel­ings; I am sor­ry for hav­ing needs. I tell my ther­a­pist that I feel like that scared lit­tle girl again. (Was I ever a girl? Was I ever a boy? Am I a girl? Am I a boy or am I like a boy? Am I still that fright­ened child?) My ther­a­pist reminds me that what I am feel­ing is not what every­one feels when they remem­ber being a child. She tells me I am expe­ri­enc­ing com­plex PTSD symp­toms that are like­ly acti­vat­ed by R. She sug­gests that I talk to R about this, that I ask her to form a strat­e­gy with me, in which I can tell her I am expe­ri­enc­ing these symp­toms and she can hold space for me to breathe and gath­er my thoughts and feel­ings. R says “Yes, of course, of course.” But, mov­ing for­ward, when I can­not speak, she will tell me I am act­ing like a “petu­lant child”; when I final­ly find my voice, she will tell me that I need to learn to say some­thing soon­er; when I tell her I feel alone in this rela­tion­ship, she will tell me I have aban­don­ment issues; when I tell her I am hurt by some­thing she said or did, she will say “that is just the sto­ry you are cre­at­ing,” and she will tell me I need to “get over it already.”

Empa­thy is not just a shared emo­tion,” Kristin Dombek writes, “but [it is] an expe­ri­ence of the place, the per­spec­tive, from which the other’s emo­tions and actions come.” Dur­ing one of those moments with R, I ask her to try to put her­self in my shoes, to imag­ine how she would feel if I treat­ed her exact­ly how she treat­ed me. “That’s not help­ful to me,” she says. “Empa­thy,” Leslie Jami­son writes, “means real­iz­ing no trau­ma has dis­crete edges. Trau­ma bleeds. Out of wounds and across bound­aries. Sad­ness becomes a seizure. Empa­thy demands anoth­er kind of porous­ness in response.” When R refus­es my request for empa­thy, to make her­self porous, I seize; I bleed from all the old wounds.

I remem­ber one night hold­ing TT in my arms as we talked about how we might best love each oth­er, make space for each other’s pain. She says, “Some­times the ques­tion we should ask is not ‘what’s wrong with you?’ but ‘what hap­pened to you?’” In trac­ing the mul­ti­ple ways we inher­it trau­ma, Mark Wolynn explains, “Dur­ing a trau­mat­ic inci­dent, our thought process can become scat­tered and dis­or­ga­nized in such a way that we no longer rec­og­nize the mem­o­ries as belong­ing to the orig­i­nal event. Instead, frag­ments of mem­o­ry, dis­persed as images, body sen­sa­tions, and words, are stored in our uncon­scious and can become acti­vat­ed lat­er by any­thing even remote­ly rem­i­nis­cent of the orig­i­nal expe­ri­ence. Once they are trig­gered, it is as if an invis­i­ble rewind but­ton has been pressed, caus­ing us to reen­act aspects of the orig­i­nal trau­ma in our day-to-day lives. Uncon­scious­ly, we could find our­selves react­ing to cer­tain peo­ple, events, or sit­u­a­tions in old, famil­iar ways that echo the past.” In Heal­ing from Hid­den Abuse, Shan­non Thomas sug­gests that sur­vivors of abuse and trau­ma devel­op a bio­chem­i­cal depen­den­cy on tox­ic rela­tion­ships. They become addict­ed to the highs and lows, the push­ing and pulling. Do I find myself, yet again, an addict? Am I addict­ed to trau­ma and abuse? Do I actu­al­ly crave this odd famil­iar­i­ty and com­fort brought on by the echoes of my past?

Before I start see­ing my ther­a­pist, I tell R that my dynam­ic with her reminds me of the dynam­ic I have with my father. I am infi­nite­ly await­ing his apol­o­gy; I spent two years wait­ing for an apol­o­gy from R, and I am still wait­ing. R snarls at me: “I am noth­ing like your father. I resent that you would even say that.” I tell her that I didn’t say she was like my father; I said we share a sim­i­lar dynam­ic. But in that moment, she is more like my father than she even real­izes. The psy­chic tells me that R is actu­al­ly like my moth­er. She tells me that my father was just mean and aggres­sive­ly abu­sive. My moth­er, she tells me, is a nar­cis­sist and is emo­tion­al­ly abu­sive, but with sub­tle­ty. I remem­ber the last con­ver­sa­tion I had with my moth­er. I tell her I can­not stay at her house when I am in town because of what she and her hus­band said to me the last time I was there. “Like what?” she asks. I say, “that homo­pho­bic and trans­pho­bic stuff you said.” “Well I don’t remem­ber that,” she says. And we leave it at that. I remem­ber one of the last con­ver­sa­tions I had with R. I tell her that, about a month pri­or, I was hurt and felt demeaned by some­thing she said to me in front of her friends. “I don’t remem­ber that,” she says. “What do you want me to do about it now? You can’t bring stuff up a month after the fact.” We leave it at that. My ther­a­pist says R and my moth­er are wrong—if I am still hav­ing feel­ings about some­thing, then I can bring them up, and just because they don’t remem­ber it, that doesn’t mean it didn’t hap­pen. The psy­chic says, “Thank Jay-sus you didn’t shack up with her and have babies. It’d be like rais­ing kids with your moth­er.” The psy­chic is a lit­tle rough around the edges and a straight shoot­er. I nod. “Yes,” I say, “yes.”

I see you,” R says. In the end, I don’t think R ever did see me, and I can­not be sure she ever even loved me. I real­ize that dur­ing the year I was with R, I couldn’t real­ly see her. But the peo­ple who cared about me did. N said R is a nar­cis­sist, and she wor­ries that I am stuck in an emo­tion­al­ly abu­sive rela­tion­ship. E said that R seems inca­pable of lov­ing me, and that I seemed much hap­pi­er before I start­ed dat­ing her. DM said R is ver­bal­ly abu­sive toward me, that a lov­ing part­ner would nev­er say the things she says, at least not with­out apol­o­gy. M hand­ed me a book by Sandy Hotchkiss: Why Is It Always About You?: The Sev­en Dead­ly Sins of Nar­cis­sism. The book will lat­er shake me to the core. Every­one else could name what I could not. Rec­og­niz­ing the abuse as abuse is some­thing I will come to months lat­er, but I will remain haunt­ed by the pos­si­bil­i­ty that I did actu­al­ly see R, and she did actu­al­ly love me to the best of her capa­bil­i­ties. I am stirred by Bombek’s inter­ro­ga­tion of nar­cis­sism: “It is some­thing you’ll come to months or years lat­er, if at all: the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the way [she] was with you was real, and that it was love… You might under­stand this in the mid­dle of the next time you fall in love with some­one else, and find your­self, still, in love with [her]. You’ve just spread your love out in time, and [she] has spread it out in space.” Some­times, I still want to believe in R, just like a part of me still wants to believe in my father.

***

I go through a phase where I decide to write poet­ry in a more fran­tic voice. I only real­ize now that all the poems writ­ten in this voice hap­pen to be the only poems I have writ­ten explic­it­ly about abuse. (Is heal­ing trau­ma like writ­ing a poem?) I end up pub­lish­ing those poems in a series. But I hold on to one:

How to Make Me Dis­ap­pear

Step one: turn it
click door­knob jig­gle jig­gle.
He will yell—open
this door, mis­sy, lit­tle lady, girl
you bet­ter now right this minute ’til
the count of ten
nev­er nev­er nev­er
but you do

Step two: nails to the quick bite
if the screams try
to wrig­gle loose, inhale
lungs­ful throatchoke
tight tight tight

Step three: hold
it in. breath off. you do not
exist if he can­not hear you
whim­per whis­per wail wait
belt­snap lights­black

Step four: rip
the bead­eyes off all the dolls—
nobody sees a thing

In “A Child is Being Beat­en,” Freud writes of the phas­es of move­ment through the beat­ing fan­ta­sy. In the third phase, the fan­ta­sy becomes, “My father is beat­ing the child, he loves only me.” The child being beat­en, Freud claims, is almost invari­ably a boy. I am being beat­en. My father does not love me; he loves only me. The child being beat­en is almost invari­ably a boy. I am the child being beat­en. I am a boy. (Was I ever a boy? Was I ever a girl? When did I become a boy? Did I ever become a man? When did I become a man? Am I becom­ing a man? Am I a man?) Freud will say my ideas about being a boy are a prod­uct of my mas­culin­i­ty com­plex, that when girls turn away from their inces­tu­ous love of their father, they want only to be boys. I want­ed my father to love me, but he only loved me as a girl. I am a boy, so my father beat me. My father beat me because I was a girl. My father beat me because I am a boy. Why did my father beat me?

Read­ing Hanya Yanagihara’s A Lit­tle Life, I return again and again to one scene. Jude, one of the main char­ac­ters in the book, is just a young boy, liv­ing in a monastery where he expe­ri­ences mul­ti­ple types of abuse at the hands of the broth­ers and the Father. In this scene, Jude has just spilled some milk, and after clean­ing it up, he has been com­mand­ed to go to his room. As he runs down the hall to his room, he notices that the door to his room is closed. It is usu­al­ly left open unless one of the broth­ers or the Father is pay­ing him a vis­it. He paus­es in the hall­way, unsure of what is wait­ing for him behind the door. But if he turns around, he will face the wrath of the broth­er who just sent him to his room for spilling the milk. Frozen in the hall­way, young Jude must make a choice: return to cer­tain pun­ish­ment or take his chances open­ing the bed­room door. He final­ly works up the courage and opens the door with a slam, only to find nobody else in the room, just his fur­ni­ture and a new­ly placed bou­quet of daf­fodils. He falls to the floor, engulfed in sad­ness. As I read and reread this scene, the ten­sion always builds. My breath­ing quick­ens. I feel the pan­ic that fails to dis­solve in the anti­cli­mac­tic open­ing of the door.

I am nine years old. I am stand­ing at the end of the hall­way, and my father is com­ing toward me with his hand raised. I am par­a­lyzed with fear until I make the snap deci­sion to run into my bed­room. I jump into the bed and pull the cov­ers over my head. My heart is pound­ing; I can­not breathe; all my mus­cles are tensed in antic­i­pa­tion of the crack of a palm on my back­side. I wait and wait in my pan­icked state, but the beat­ing nev­er comes. I cau­tious­ly pull the cov­ers from my head and sit in the qui­et. My father has retreat­ed to the liv­ing room where he is smok­ing a cig­a­rette, drink­ing a beer, and watch­ing tele­vi­sion. I can­not know why he did not hit me that day. I have won­dered if see­ing my fear of him shook some­thing deep inside him and he relent­ed, or if he just didn’t feel it was worth the chase. I am haunt­ed more by this silence and still­ness than I am by the crack of a belt and the mem­o­ries of red, sting­ing flesh.

I am stand­ing in R’s hall­way. I am col­lect­ing my things that she held onto after our breakup. She leaves them in a box out­side her apart­ment door. Against my bet­ter judg­ment, I knock on her door. To my sur­prise, she opens the door. “What do you want?” she sneers. My heart is pound­ing, my throat is clos­ing up. I am not sure what I want, real­ly. Some short dis­cus­sion fol­lows, and by the end of it, I have backed away toward the build­ing exit. She is com­ing at me down the hall­way, her fin­ger in the air, ges­tur­ing and shout­ing at me. I am grow­ing small against the exit door. I am that shrink­ing, frozen lit­tle girl. (Am I a girl? To R, am I still “like a guy”? Am I a boy? Am I a man?) In a moment, I find the capac­i­ty to move my legs again, and I walk away, let­ting the door slam on her shrill words. This is the last time I see R. My last mem­o­ry of her, of us, that I hold: her face twist­ed in anger, she is shout­ing and ges­tic­u­lat­ing, mov­ing toward me as I shrink away like a fright­ened child. In this moment, she is more like my father than she even real­izes. But, this time, instead of hun­ker­ing down in antic­i­pa­tion of the beat­ing, I walk away from it.

Berkowitz writes, “I have a wolf in my sto­ry. But he will not inter­rupt my walk through the for­est. Which is to say he’s already inter­rupt­ed it: He’s the rea­son I’m here, sort­ing out the after­math. Which is to say the wolf is eter­nal­ly inter­rupt­ing my walk through the for­est: emerg­ing from behind the same tree again and again to block my path. Imag­ine it repeat­ing like a GIF.” Who is the wolf in my sto­ry? How did I get here? Which is the path I am walk­ing? Is the wolf my father, the boy who pushed him­self into my mouth, my moth­er, R, the diag­no­sis, the drug, the man I am like, the man I am, the PTSD symp­toms them­selves? They all repeat, like a GIF. They all either block my path or reroute me onto new paths. “But to solve this kind of mys­tery, it seems, you need to walk alone into a for­est. You need to walk until you meet a wolf.”

If my ther­a­pist tells me my part­ner is acti­vat­ing my PTSD respons­es that come from the emo­tion­al abuse I expe­ri­enced as a child, does that mean my part­ner is emo­tion­al­ly abu­sive? I can­not name it; I can­not say it because I imag­ine R’s teeth bared like a wolf; I hear R’s voice still echo­ing in my head: “Don’t you see that’s the sto­ry you cre­at­ed?!? Don’t you see that’s the sto­ry you choose to tell?!? Can’t you see that’s just your ver­sion; that’s not real­ly what hap­pened?!?” “Just get over it!!!” But her voice is not the only one that rever­ber­ates. The echoes of my past: “Come here right now, lit­tle mis­sy”; “I don’t remem­ber that”; “That didn’t hap­pen”; “You’re such a tease.…” I can­not name it. I will remain in denial for months, for years, for what seems like a life­time. Only now, as I write this, do I final­ly dare to name it: my rela­tion­ship with R was emo­tion­al­ly abu­sive; I was sex­u­al­ly assault­ed at the age of sev­en­teen by my boyfriend; my par­ents are emo­tion­al­ly abu­sive; I devel­oped a pat­terned response to abuse and became what Mar­galis Fjel­stad calls a “patho­log­i­cal care­tak­er”; I have been numb, I have been celi­bate and asex­u­al, but now I am not; I inject testos­terone into my thigh every Fri­day, but I am not sure if I am a man or ever will be; I am unsure of how or if all these things con­nect. I am still walk­ing through the for­est; the wolves are still emerg­ing from the trees.

***

I return to Cris, sit­ting on her base­ment floor, pick­ing her­self apart. After she tells Mark she is gonna go trans­gen­der, she dis­sects her body into pieces of meat and bone. “Every sin­gle part of me, there’s some­thing wrong,” she says. She describes her thigh as a ham but not a very good one, her knee as a dis­col­ored, scab­by cir­cle. I know the drill. I have picked my body apart in so many ways: the breasts and the scars that mark where they used to be, the curves of my hips, the bud­ding hairs on my chin, the mus­cles of my shoul­ders. Even the parts that are sup­posed to feel right still feel wrong. Maybe Cris and I aren’t real­ly all that dif­fer­ent. Maybe Cris is not actu­al­ly try­ing to be con­vinc­ing to any­one else. Maybe we are both try­ing to con­vince our­selves that we can be at home in our bod­ies, that we can heal our grief, that we can col­lect the frag­ments and let the lit­tle wounds scab over.

A piece of Bian­ca Stone’s “Ele­gy” from Some­one Else’s Wed­ding Vows: “I real­ize grief wants me to stay a child, nego­ti­at­ing a stream of atoms, pick­ing flow­ers. Grief wants me in good con­di­tion. Grief wants me to remem­ber every­thing. Imper­fect. Clear.” I am griev­ing for the child who nev­er held the flow­ers; I am griev­ing for the child who was nev­er in good con­di­tion; I am griev­ing for my inabil­i­ty to remem­ber every­thing, imper­fect and clear. Grief does not want me to stay a child. Grief wants me to learn how to be an adult, to mourn and heal the wounds. But how do I heal these lit­tle wounds, the ones I can­not sim­ply “get over”? As Eli Clare writes, it is “hard­er to express how that break becomes healed, a bone once frac­tured, now whole, but dif­fer­ent from the bone nev­er bro­ken. And hard­er still to fol­low the path between the two.” To reclaim the bro­ken, stolen body is to walk the path between the wolves, between the wound­ing, the weapon, and the heal­ing. Clare asks, “How do I mark this place where my body is no longer an emp­ty house, desire whistling lone­ly through the cracks, but not yet a house ful­ly lived in?” The tim­ing still feels off, the words all wrong, but I am find­ing my desire; I am find­ing the lan­guage to fill the cracks: if I break myself open, will I be able to place the pieces anew, to rebuild the home of my body?

 

Bib­li­og­ra­phy

Anor­gas­mia: Fak­ing It in a Sex­u­al­ized World. Direct­ed by Frank Vitale, per­for­mances by Cris Maz­za and Mark Ras­mussen, 2015.

Berkowitz, Amy. Ten­der Points. Time­less, Infi­nite Light, 2015.

Bot­toms, Stephen. “Diane Torr Obit­u­ary.” The Guardian, 29 June 2017.

Cer­ankows­ki, K.J. “From go-go dancer to drag king: Liv­ing gen­der through per­for­mance.” Gen­der News, 6 Aug. 2012.

Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride: Dis­abil­i­ty, Queer­ness, and Lib­er­a­tion. South End Press, 1999.

Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feel­ings: Trau­ma, Sex­u­al­i­ty, and Les­bian Pub­lic Cul­tures. Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2003.

Did­ion, Joan. The White Album. Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.

Dombek, Kristin. The Self­ish­ness of Oth­ers: An Essay on the Fear of Nar­cis­sism. Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.

Fjel­stad, Mar­galis. Stop Care­tak­ing the Bor­der­line of Nar­cis­sist: How to End the Dra­ma and Get On with Life. Row­man & Lit­tle­field, 2013.

Freud, Sig­mund. “A Child is Being Beat­en.” Inter­na­tion­al Jour­nal of Psy­cho­analy­sis, vol. 1, 1920, pp. 371–395.

Jami­son, Leslie. The Empa­thy Exams: Essays. Gray­wolf Press, 2014.

Man­gu­so, Sarah. 300 Argu­ments. Gray­wolf Press, 2017.

—. Ongo­ing­ness: The End of a Diary. Gray­wolf Press, 2015.

Maz­za, Cris. Some­thing Wrong With Her: a real-time mem­oir. Jad­ed Ibis Press, 2013.

McBee, Thomas Page. Man Alive: A True Sto­ry of Vio­lence, For­give­ness and Becom­ing a Man. City Lights Books, 2014.

Pre­ci­a­do, Paul Beat­riz. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopol­i­tics in the Phar­ma­co­porno­graph­ic Era. The Fem­i­nist Press, 2013.

Stone, Bian­ca. Some­one Else’s Wed­ding Vows. Octo­pus Books/Tin House Books, 2014.

Thomas, Shan­non. Heal­ing from Hid­den Abuse: A Jour­ney Through the Stages of Recov­ery from Psy­cho­log­i­cal Abuse. MAST Pub­lish­ing House, 2016.

Wolynn, Mark. It Didn’t Start with You: How Inher­it­ed Fam­i­ly Trau­ma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle. Pen­guin Books, 2016.

Yanag­i­hara, Hanya. A Lit­tle Life. Dou­ble­day, 2015.

—. “Point of View: Don’t we read fic­tion exact­ly to be upset?” The Guardian, 4 March 2016.

 

 

KJ Cer­ankows­ki is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of com­par­a­tive Amer­i­can stud­ies and gen­der, sex­u­al­i­ty, and fem­i­nist stud­ies at Ober­lin Col­lege. KJ co-edit­ed the book Asex­u­al­i­ties: Fem­i­nist and Queer Per­spec­tives (Rout­ledge, 2014) and has pub­lished poet­ry and crit­i­cism in Short, Fast, & Dead­ly; Fem­i­nist Stud­ies; and WSQ (Women’s Stud­ies Quar­ter­ly). KJ is cur­rent­ly com­plet­ing a book that is most def­i­nite­ly about trans stuff in rela­tion to trau­ma, pain, and plea­sure.

 

M. Milks is the author of Kill Mar­guerite and Oth­er Sto­ries (Emer­gency Press, 2014), win­ner of the 2015 Devil’s Kitchen Read­ing Award in Fic­tion and a Lamb­da Lit­er­ary Award final­ist; as well as three chap­books, most recent­ly The Feels (Black War­rior Review 42.2, 2016), an explo­ration of fan fic­tion and affect. They are edi­tor of The &NOW Awards 3: The Best Inno­v­a­tive Writ­ing, 2011–2013 and co-edi­tor, with KJ Cer­ankows­ki, of Asex­u­al­i­ties: Fem­i­nist and Queer Per­spec­tives (Rout­ledge, 2014).