...Brenda [Reimer] was now living a life in which every instinct had to be denied, repressed, hidden: at dances, at parties, in the classroom, and on the street. "I was like a robot," he [Brenda, now David Reimer] says, describing the playacting that his day-to-day, moment-to-moment survival now entailed. "You're so careful to look normal, but you don't want to go overboard. You're saying to yourself, This looks like an appropriate time to smile. So you smile. This looks like an appropriate time to cross your legs. So you cross your legs. You're always thinking one step ahead, like in a chess game."
It was a chess game Brenda was losing.
This passage is from the book As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl by John Colapinto. This book tells the true story of David Reimer, a genetic male who was reassigned and raised as female named Brenda after a botched circumcision destroyed his penis. Dr. John Money, who championed the idea that gender identity is learned, not innate, supervised then-Brenda's sex reassignment and trumpeted this grand experiment as a success. It was, however, a terrific failure. Despite the fact that Brenda was reared as a girl from just under two years of age, "she" never felt like a girl. Even when "she" tried to fit in as a girl, "she" failed miserably. When Brenda learned that "she" was biologically male, at age fourteen, "she" immediately reverted to living as a boy.
The point of today's post is not gender identity specifically (but that will be addressed somewhat) but rather something in the above passage that resonates with me: "Brenda was living a life in which every instinct had to be repressed, denied, hidden..." This has been my life with Asperger's Syndrome, particularly growing up. By the time I was a teenager, I got the message that who I was was not okay. I tried so very hard to be socially appropriate, but each time I failed miserably. People told me that I joked around too much, so I tried to be serious. But then if I tried to be serious I would inevitably say something that "makes no sense" and end up making people uncomfortable. In the best case scenario, I would do neither and end up being a total stiff, doing my best to keep the real me hidden so I wouldn't put people off. But I put people off anyway: who wants to be around a stiff?
Every day in school, no matter what I did, I was shunned, taunted, and sometimes even physically attacked. Telling my parents made the situation worse. They tried to fix me. That is, they nitpicked every little thing about me because, hey, every little thing about me somehow rubbed people the wrong way. Often, my mother in particular told me what not to do:
"Don't talk about Alan Arkin movies. You can't expect the other girls to be interested in Alan Arkin." So? The girls can't expect me to be interested in makeup.
"Don't talk about cartoons. That's not what kids your age are interested in. It's juvenile! You're fourteen years old!" But that's what I'm passionately interested in. I'm going to be an animator when I grow up. I'm going to make the kind of weird, absurdist cartoons that you aren't thrilled that I enjoy watching.
"You can't go to school dressed like that. You look like a boy!" But I want to look like a boy. Well, more like a tomboy, because that's what I am. But girls are expected to outgrow that stage by age twelve, so I'd better keep my mouth shut about it and pretend I have no idea what Mom means by that. I'd better not tell anybody that I know this is never going to change.
Then came my mother's advice of what to do:
"Why can't you talk about what the other girls talk about?" Because the other girls talk about boys, clothes, and makeup. They flip through Teen magazines going, "And he's cute. And he's cute. And he's cute. And he's cute..." Snore.
"You need to learn how to make small talk. Talk about the teachers and ask what the other kids think of them." So on the first day of 8th grade I asked some other girls, "What do you think of Mr. Henry? It was so funny today when he went on about chewing gum in class and made those noises like he was cracking gum." But it felt so phony coming out of me, like I was reading from a script. And I think the other kids knew it.
"You need to learn to wear what's in style." What's in style are low-cut shirts and super-tight jeans. Wearing those things makes me feel very mortified and self-conscious. I like T-shirts and looser-fitting jeans.
From both of my parents came this gem:
"You have such a great figure and such beautiful hair. Girls would kill to look like you." I'm glad that I'm skinny, but not for reasons that you think. Skinnier people live longer. And it fits the tomboy image I have of myself. As for my hair, I hate it. It sticks out like Doc from Back to the Future. It takes me an hour to wash it and dry it. I want to cut it off and get a more tomboyish looking haircut. But I'm not allowed to because as a fourteen-year-old girl, I should love my hair and do my best to look like a model, because that is the normal psychology of a fourteen-year-old girl.
My parents tried their best to fix me, and when I resisted, they called me stubborn. They chalked up my resistance not to strength and self-awareness but to my being a teenager who thought she "knew everything". And it wasn't that I didn't try. I tried out Teen magazine in fifth grade. I couldn't get into the articles about the latest teen hunks and fashion tips. As I said, I tried the small talk about the teachers, but it was phony. And it was exhausting. In some ways this isn't terribly different than what poor David Reimer went through when he was growing up. How can you live your life when everything you say and do is subject to scrutiny and judgment?
Or how about what you think? Stay tuned for "Part II- Thoughtcrime".