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 being. . . being 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
tight tight tight
Step three: hold
it in. breath off. you do not
exist if he cannot hear you
whimper whisper wail wait
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?
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.
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Didion, Joan. The White Album. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.
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Fjelstad, Margalis. Stop Caretaking the Borderline of Narcissist: How to End the Drama and Get On with Life. Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.
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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.
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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).