At twenty-one I shaved my head for the first time, came out as a lesbian, and was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, specifically with intrusive sexual thoughts. Because the lesbian label didn’t seem to fit (I was more interested in being a man having sex with a woman than being a woman having sex with a woman, though I couldn’t have admitted that to myself at the time) and because my attraction to men persisted, I backpedaled, told my friends I wasn’t actually queer, attributed all the pain of my life to OCD. It’s true that I have OCD, true that I’ve often felt like a malfunctioning computer engaged in too much internal processing to execute external commands (stop ruminating on the disturbing mental image that won’t go away, do your laundry, wash your face), but I’m starting to untangle gender dysphoria and OCD, childhood trauma and OCD, to see how my mental illness developed as a safety valve for what I couldn’t accept as true.
I moved back to Ann Arbor this September, after a summer at home in the Chicago suburbs, to be with the person I was dating at the time, a bisexual man who has a history of sexual trauma. Dating him raised many questions internally: why was I so much more attracted to queer men than straight men or even gay women? Why was I almost more aroused by fingering him than by him fingering me? Why did most of my fantasies involve having a penis and being the penetrative partner? Why did I start hyperventilating and weeping one night in June when, both of us stoned, he put more fingers inside me than usual? Why did I have such startling, disturbing dreams about my father?
My boyfriend and I broke up shortly after I moved, begging the further question of why I’d been so eager to make life-altering decisions based on a relationship of only four months. Instead of engaging in potentially productive rumination, I Facebook messaged an attractive straight man I’d flirted with at a party. We started seeing each other. Our ritual has consisted of watching Westworld, eating risotto and having sex. Although in the past I had trouble understanding how a casual arrangement could involve care and mutual respect, I am grateful for the cleanness of what this person and I share, for the way he held me while I had a panic attack on election night, held me until my breathing slowed, for the lack of expectations between us. Grateful that he knows I am grappling with what transitioning means for me, and doesn’t treat me like an alien, or else a confused girl, the sum of my parts: small tits big ass weird brain.
Though he is much taller than my father, who I haven’t spoken with in several years, they share the same silky parted hair, the individual strands fine though growing in abundance, the same flaking dry scalp, the same austere elegance to their clavicles and shoulder blades, the same moles, and I wonder why I keep sleeping with him, if I want to be haunted, to always be malfunctioning, processing and ultimately rejecting unacceptable data- myfather’sbedroomintheoldhouse- rather than accepting the lacunae- tulipsreversiblecomforterwithtulipsskylightgrayskystopstopstop- in my memory, accepting the charity and terror of uncertainty.
HBO’s Westworld asks questions about power differentials, the human inclination toward sadism in the absence of societal checks, the nature of consciousness, the nature of memory. In the show, people pay to enter a theme park modeled after the Wild West, a first-person shooter game brought to life with sentient robots who bleed when killed but can always be re-booted, their drive wiped. The robots are treated as a foil for players’ desires, either for sex and violence or for adventure and the thrill of saving someone in distress; the players behave much like ex-pats and humanitarians in the developing world, projecting their own psyche, their own frustration and pain, upon a landscape ravaged by their solipsism.
As the robots are updated, the park technicians’ ability to overwrite traumatic memories still stored in the hardware begins to erode. Dolores, played by Evan Rachel Wood, starts to question the nature of her world as fragments of her past- of rape, of violence- flicker in and out of her mind, difficult to pinpoint as electrons. Maeve, played by Thandie Newton, lifts up a floorboard to discover a trove of drawings, all of the same thing: the men in Hazmat suits who hose the blood off of re-booting robots.
The poetry I’ve written in the past few months, disturbing and fragmented, functions in much the same way: drawing and re-drawing the monster I can’t quite believe I haven’t just imagined. As a different kind of information than memory.
Because, after all, if what I suspect happened during my childhood indeed happened, wouldn’t I remember it in a more straightforward way than intrusive thoughts, than compulsively masturbating during my teen years, than nightmares that render me unable to get out of bed many mornings? From Google, I’ve learned that the psychological community largely regards repressed memories as Freudian bunk. Many OCD specialists consider the content of obsessions to be more or less arbitrary, the result of faulty brain function.
Rose Bretecher, the author of Pure, a memoir about OCD and intrusive sexual thoughts, like me spent a large portion of her life alternately convinced that she was a pedophile or a lesbian. Unlike me, she is a straight cisgender woman. She didn’t start having sex with women and realize that she actually enjoyed it, that this pleasure was nothing to be afraid of. She didn’t peel back her OCD and find internalized homophobia, gender dysphoria or weird feelings about her father underneath. She just found OCD. That is valid. Everyone’s journey is different. I don’t want to trigger readers with OCD into thinking that my experience means they are all actually gay or going to commit an act of violence. I don’t want to trigger unproductive rumination.
I don’t think that all people who suffer from the intense misery and shame of intrusive sexual thoughts necessarily have a history of trauma or are truly queer. I also don’t want to conflate these things (mental illness, sexual trauma and queerness) which are so often conflated in the straight, cisgender imagination, although I can’t say the assumption that queer and trans people are unhinged predators hasn’t deeply hurt me, from my grandmother who said the sexual desires of homosexuals made her question their mental health, to my father who told me employers shouldn’t hire queer people because they commit suicide more frequently and that lesbian sexuality is a form of masturbation, to my former friend who doesn’t understand the difference between peeing next to a cis-man and peeing next to a trans-woman. (My father also, perhaps presciently, once recalled an NPR episode he’d listened to about “a woman who thought she was a man but still wanted to have sex with men. These people, they make no sense!”)
My greatest fear regarding medical transition is that testosterone will turn me into a monster. Into my father, the man who programmed me, writing and over-writing my software. Thomas Page McBee’s memoir Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man details both the author’s abuse and transition. He recalls being molested as young as four. I only remember being a small child when I’m asleep and dreaming, or when I’m having sex with a man whose body reminds me of my father’s after watching a TV show about sentient robots, and maybe these aren’t memories at all, these intrusive and unspeakable flashes. Honestly I have a hard time clearly remembering much of anything before the age of thirteen. Trying to visualize either of the houses I lived in with my father incapacitates me, leaves me clutching at my gut on the floor, trying to breathe. I blocked out a lot of my freshman year of high school too, when my father devised and enforced an exercise program for me. Why did an exercise program upset me so much I moved out of his house and into my mother’s? Why do I feel like so much of my life has been lost to me, submerged underwater?
“Do you mean when he went bike riding with you?” my grandma asked me when I asked her why she hadn’t stood up for me when I was being emotionally abused, and I wondered again if I’d made up my memories: the chair he said he never threw at me then explained I’d provoked him into throwing at me, the time he threw my body against my bed screaming spittle onto my eyelids, the time he threatened himself with a knife in front of me, all the times he’d drive around interrogating me, not letting me out of the car until I confessed that the dissolution of our relationship was my fault. Part of me believed him when he told me I was exaggerating, creating fictions.
My other great fear is that he’s right: I am a liar, manipulating fact, seeking attention, like Abigail Putnam and her clique demonizing Tituba, like when I was nine at summer camp and told the counselors I couldn’t sleep in my cabin because a ghost was trying to choke me, because I’d convinced myself this was true.
If I choose to express my gender identity without seeking hormone replacement therapy, I am afraid this is what people will think too: that I’m just a strange girl playing out some psychodrama. I’ve realized lately how much of my self-consciousness, my concern over other people’s perception of me, comes from confusion about gender. I am not supposed to admit to this, to being confused, not supposed to offer ammunition against queer people, especially those of us with fluid identities, but what is more human than confusion? Than contradicting selves, both longing for incarnation and shying away?
The characters in Westworld are trying to get to the center of a maze which is at the center of the park. Dolores, a robot who doesn’t fully realize she’s a robot because of her humanity, says that she would like to know the truth of who she is, that when she knows who she is she’ll be free.
I never thought of myself as someone who represses anything. Often people are struck by how unusually open I am, by my unhealthy lack of boundaries, the way I repeatedly expose myself to hurt in romantic situations, vulnerability which could be alternately read as bravery or masochism. Still it’s become clearer to me how I’ve allowed myself to be ruled by my own fear of uncertainty. When my OCD was at its worst, it felt like running inside a maze, desperately searching for its invisible, intangible center.
For me, freedom lies in not knowing, in dressing more comfortably, in overcoming my shame and ordering a packing penis to see how wearing it makes me feel (answer: peaceful, affirmed, slightly smug), in not overwriting this data because it frightens me, in loving whoever I am and may be tomorrow. In accepting the drawing of the monster, inscribed and re-inscribed, as valid information, so I don’t have to draw it anymore. In knowing that the monster and I are separate entities. In accepting the grace of what’s been drowned, that loss that’s also a gift. In knowing that I’m not a robot, that I’m very much human, not in spite of but because of being Trans, and that I have the rest of my life to write my own scripts.