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I’m scared about tomorrow. Waiting is the worst part. The closer it gets the more unhinged I am. I try to stop picturing it. At least I’ve kept myself from Googling.

Since I scheduled the appointment two weeks ago, I’ve tried to press the thought into the furthest corner of my mind. There is nowhere in my mind for the thought to hide. Instead, I count down. Twelve more days. Seven days. 36 hours. This time tomorrow…

My gynecologist discovered it at my annual exam.

“It’s not a big deal,” he said. “I see these every day.”

My gynecologist could not pick me out of a line-up. He would not know my name if he didn’t glance at my chart before an exam. I have seen him once a year for the past decade but ours is a shallow relationship. Routine exams. He ticks off answers to my questions on a yellow pad. “No surgeries.” “No medications.” “No pain with intercourse.” Sometimes he asks the same question twice. Can’t figure out if he’s absentminded or trying to trick me. He always says “how’s your better half” just as he cranks open my vagina to insert a long swab.

This was the first time a check-up veered from routine.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” he said, seeing me turn green as a kid stumbling off a carnival ride with undigested lunch in her belly. “Take your time,” he continued. “Think about it. It’s not urgent. I’m just suggesting you do this for your own convenience.”

Out of the room he sailed. Leaving me in a paper robe with gooey genitals and a swath of fuzz wrapped around my head. All that was left in the room were me and his words. “In 99% percent of the cases it’s benign.” “I’m not worried.” “It should stop the long stretch of mid-term bleeding.”

His last words: “Just suggesting you do it — for your convenience.”

“FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE” I fixated on those three words. “For your convenience.” I imagine a butler tipping forward from the waist saying, “Here you go, madam. Your bumpershoot — for your convenience.”
“I have a polyp on my cervix,” I shouted into my cell phone, yelling over the Fifth Avenue bus’s squealing breaks. “The doctor says it’s not serious but he thinks I should have it removed. For my convenience.”

“You’re breaking up,” my husband said. “I’ll see you in a few minutes.”

Crisp autumn leaves swirled on the ground. Tree limbs were thin with nakedness. I stood in the bus stop motionless, me and my polyp. I’d let two buses go by so I could call my husband on my cell phone. I didn’t want to say aloud ‘I have a polyp’ while riding on the city bus. Even though it is not a medical term you need to whisper.

My husband knows a gynecologist.

“Can you please ask Michael to tell you all about this procedure,” I requested that afternoon.

Michael says “It’s like having a scab pulled off?”

“Did you ask him if it was painful?”

“He said they numb you; it’s like going to the dentist.”

That was not the best image for me because when I was 17 years old and I was driving with my mother on the Belt Parkway to a clinic in Manhattan she said something I will never forget. She glanced over at me, sheet-white and quivering, and said, “Think of it as a dental extraction.”

My mother was not one to fabricate but let me tell you there was nothing about climbing on a table and putting your legs in stirrups that is similar to the dentist. The searing pain from the injection that started in the vein of my hand traveled like a cigarette burning down to ash. I was too young to become a mother but left with sadness nevertheless.

So I’ve been told this procedure is “no big deal” and really it’s just “for my convenience” but still… I envision being cranked open like a soup can and ladled with clunky metal tools. It makes me think about the women in my family. My grandmother’s mother who died in childbirth. My grandmother who lost a breast. My mother’s carved out uterus. My sister’s tangled fallopian tubes. My womb.

The sun is going down. The sky is orange and red and purple. It looks like a beautiful serape floating outside my window. Sometimes I think if the sun never set, I would never be afraid. Twelve hours to go.

 

My father turned on the speakerphone, then dialed the number. His long, recently dyed hair shone black against the sunlight streaming through our Los Angeles apartment windows.

I glanced at my stepmother, Natali. She winked, a pair of golden teeth gleaming at me. She loved meddling, gossiping, trouble of any kind. So did her teeth.

Lyda–a retired hair dresser from across the hall–stood behind my father, arms crossed at the elbows, lips moving in worried waves.

I couldn’t believe they were actually doing this. But they would not listen to reason, so I hoped nobody was home. And then it came, the answer on the other end of the line. “Hello?”

Natali jumped in her seat. Lyda looked like a ripe tomato at a food festival, happy and terrified at the same time.

“Bless me, Boris,” my father said, motioning for us to stay quiet.


A pause. Then, “Who the hell is this?” Boris sounded like an unhinged cemetery gate.

“I am a man in love, Boris.”

Another pause. This one longer, testosteronier. “And I don’t give a damn, asshole.”

Well, this Boris was not an overly polite fella’, but I still felt sorry for him. He had no idea what was coming. He should never have answered that phone.

You might wonder to yourself why, why would a sixty year old man (dad), crank call an eighty five year old man (Boris)? Well, as I enlighten you, keep in mind that love, as is obvious from many Hollywood blockbusters, knows no common sense.

It all started with Lyda the hairdresser, who at seventy, had discovered a renewed zeal for coquetry. The first time Lyda saw Boris, she knew he was the man for her. They flirted shamelessly for the next three months, and soon their friendship grew into something which the American Idol contestants try to sing about every week at eight sharp.

Lyda and Boris became inseparable. But no matter how Lyda tried, she failed to move the relationship to the next level-marriage. Boris, the rascal that he was, preferred long matches of backgammon with his many friends, to the doldrums of matrimonial existence.

The couple began to quarrel until one day Boris packed up and left.

Lyda shared the sad news with my father and stepmother who quickly devised a plan to teach Boris a lesson.

So here we are. The phone call.

“Who is this?” Boris demanded.

“I need your help,” dad said. “My woman won’t marry me without your blessing.”

“Oh, really? Who’s this crazy broad?”

“Her name is Lyda and she’s my sunshine.”

This pause was indignant with a forecast of outrage in the near future.

My father gave Lyda an all knowing smile along with a nod of a man who was winning. “Please brother. Bless me. I love her and I want to make her mine–”

“You son of a bitch. Lyda’s my woman, mine, and I won’t let some Casanova schmuck like you, take her away from me.”

Lyda blushed. One wrinkled hand flew to her chest. Her eyes watered.

“Boris, all I want is a blessing,” dad said, motioning for my stepmother to cease her giggling.

“Well, you’re not getting it so shove off,” Boris shouted. “My Lyda is a flower that only I can pick, you got me? You touch her and I’ll feed your entrails to my dog.”

I had to cover my mouth to keep from laughing out loud. A flower? Really? I gave Lyda a once over. Standing there in her half rolled up stockings, a floral Mumu, and lipstick red enough to stop traffic, she reminded me of my grandmother minus the stage makeup. I began to doubt Boris’ sanity and his eyesight.

But as the man fought for his flower with ardency of a Shakespearean Romeo, I forgot about his age and hers. My amusement slipped behind something that surprised me very much. Wonderment, and a tiny drop of envy. Despite the crusty exterior, Boris turned out to be a helpless romantic, a knight defending his princess, Rhett battling for his Scarlett. I was nineteen and absurdly sentimental. To me true love was a religion. But I had never expected to see it demonstrated so feverishly between two people who, I had thought to my greatest shame, were too old to feel passion of any kind. So I stopped assuming, I listened, and I learned.

The conversation ended with Boris hanging up. My father was unperturbed by the other man’s hostility. In fact, he welcomed it as a good sign. “Don’t worry,” he said to Lyda. “It turned out better than I had expected.”

Are you sure?” Her face lit up around the edges.

“Like the sun in the sky.”

The next day Boris came back, a bouquet of daises in one hand and a ring in the other.They were married inside a week, and they are still together.

Bless me Boris!

Sometime in the 1970s before my father became a voluntary mute, before my mother started going to the nude beach and growing marijuana, before my sister, Becca, was anorexic and before my brother, Josh, created a second home for himself on a platform three-stories high up a eucalyptus tree, we were a contained, orderly little family. I was six, quiet, and afraid of chaos and loud noises when Becca became friends with Alice Richter who lived in what was then the wildest house in the neighborhood.

Alice Richter, one of five kids, was Becca’s age, nine, but about a foot taller with white hair, eyebrows and lashes. She had hipbones that jutted out like boomerangs from below her flat belly. Her mother reminded me of Lucille Ball with her curly “done” hair and a voice that sounded like it had been born off the tip of a cigarette, which it had in fact. However, unlike my mother who suckled her cigarettes with a cup of coffee, Mrs. Richter puffed her two packs while sipping from a plaid, wool-lined canteen that hung on a shoulder strap, and which she carried with her continuously. Like the other women in the neighborhood, Mrs. Richter stayed home, cleaned her house and did laundry. So the “mess” in the Richter house was psychological—like a perfectly polished labyrinth set up for an anxious mouse.

When it was time for my sister to come home for dinner, it was up to me to summon her. The Richter phone was always busy when I called. I would hang up the yellow wall receiver, pick it up once more and redial over and over again while sitting on a stool at the counter in the family room looking into the kitchen at my mother cooking dinner. Eventually my mother would tire of my efforts and insist that I run down to their house, saying something like, “For crissakes! They’re not going to kill you! You’ll survive, go get her!”

I’d hop off the stool and often pick up Josh, if he was playing nearby on the family room floor. He liked to grasp onto me face-forward as I carried him toward the front door with all intentions of bringing him with me—a turtle shell against my vulnerable belly. But more often than not, Josh squirmed out of my arms and ran off before I could get him outside.

There were Five Stages of Terror at the Richter house. Stage One was the garage where the oldest son, Roger, hung out with his friends. Roger worked at an auto body shop painting mod designs on hot rod cars: sunsets, unicorns, blond ladies in red bathing suits. The garage door was always open, a car or two parked inside. Roger and his friends, who were the height of my father, or larger, huddled near the coffin-sized freezer in the back of the garage, drinking beer and smoking what I, at six-years old, could identify as marijuana (my mother’s pot habit, which at the time was only occasional, had been clearly explained to me so I that I would know to keep it a secret).

“Who you looking for little girl?” someone would invariably shout, and whatever I answered (“my sister” or “Becca”) they pretended not to hear for someone would walk out of the garage to interrogate me, asking questions like, “You looking for beer? You want a smoke?”

Once I’d made it past the garage, I’d knock on the front door that no one opened. (Honestly, there never was a day when I knocked and the door was opened.) I could hear top-forty radio playing inside, I could hear Mrs. Richter whistling so perfectly and purely that she could have done the opening tune for The Andy Griffith Show. I could hear the fluffy, dust ball-looking dog, Frank, yipping. And there, on the porch, I was faced with the Second Stage of Terror: the decision of how to proceed. Should I just open the door and go in, or go back to the garage and ask Roger if I could go in through the garage door? On the odd occasion that the front door was locked, I had to face the boys in the garage again. But usually the front door was unlocked, so I would eventually open it, stick my head in, and then step inside.

The yapping dog’s noise would build to a frantic crescendo. I was not afraid of dogs, but this one made enough racket that I didn’t bend down to pet it or do anything else that might calm his hysteria. I just waited for someone to come see what all the ruckus was about and find me.

If it was the youngest of the three brothers, Thad, who found me, he would look at me, say nothing, then walk away. If it was the middle of the three brothers, Marcus, or if it was Marcus and Thad together, the Third Stage of Terror, The Taunt, would begin.

The Taunt was something I had never encountered before and it was something that was, during my childhood in California, unique to the Richter household. Marcus Richter was, I believe, the composer of the taunt and the one who seemed to take the most joy in doing it. With a clear, high-pitched voice, a blond shaved head that looked like velvet, and sharp blue eyes, Marcus would lean in toward me, his shoulders weaving like a boxer’s, as he screeched, “Hee hee Jessica. Heeeee Heeee Jessica. Heeeeeee Heeeee. . . .” The Hee part of the taunt would grow louder and more maniacal the longer Marcus went on. He’d circle me, his lean, snaky body bending and twisting as he chanted, “Heeeeeee heeee Jessica . . . .” Eventually the taunt would grow to a rhythmical “Hee hee, ho ho, hi hi, hee hee, ho ho hi hi . . . .” And if that went on long enough it merged into a song that was shouted in my face and went like this, “Viva la viva la viva la WAH, viva la viva la WO, viva la viva la viva la WAH, viva la viva la WO . . . .” The coda was the most musical part of The Taunt. Marcus often got down on his knees and looked up at me as if he were pleading while he sang, “Cry for you, I’m going to cry cry cry for you, I’m going to cry for you . . . . ” When Thad joined in he was just another voice, as he never became fully immersed in the choreography the way Marcus did. According to Becca, this chanting taunt went on all day long, indiscriminately, to anyone who entered the house and it didn’t bother her in the least. (I must point out here that Marcus Richter grew up to be a Hari Krishna. Yes, a chanting Hari Krishna.)

If Marcus or Thad were not the ones to find me on the entrance hall landing, then it was usually Mrs. Richter. She spoke so rapidly, I never quite understood what she said and was always unsure if she was even speaking to me. She’d touch my elbow at some point and direct me to sit on the blue wing chair besides Mr. Richter in his blue wing chair while someone fetched Becca. Mr. Richter read the newspaper without speaking or looking at me, thus creating Terror Number Four as I uncomfortably tried to figure out where to look, or how to sit, while I waited for my sister to appear. And since Mrs. Richter usually sent Marcus or Thad Richter upstairs to get Becca and they never seemed to follow her orders, if often seemed as if I had to endure the Fourth Stage of Terror for as long as twenty minutes until Mrs. Richter entered the room again to refill Mr. Richter’s glass and was reminded that I was there waiting. Of course it always occurred to me during this waiting period that terrors two through four could be avoided if Mr. Richter, whose chair faced the front door, simply got up, opened the door when I knocked, then walked upstairs and retrieved my sister, or bellowed from the bottom of the stairs (the way my own father would) for her to come down immediately.

The Fifth Stage of Terror occurred when I had had enough of either waiting in the blue wing chair, or when I had gathered up the courage to walk away from Marcus in the middle of The Taunt (in which case the Fifth Stage of Terror would be the Fourth as we’d skip the other Fourth Stage of Terror: sitting in the living room with Mr. Richter) and took the unnerving walk upstairs to find Becca on my own.

Alice Richter’s bedroom was the last room down a long a hallway of Richter children bedrooms. Just before her room was her sister Mary Jane’s room. Mary Jane was a year younger than I and had the energy and spastic movements of the Richter boys. She was as skinny as a rope, as blond as the sun, with big gaping teeth that were too big for her face. If she spotted me, she would run and leap on top of me like a crazed tree frog, her stringy arms and legs all over my body. Once, she even bit me on the shoulder to try and convince me to stay and play with her. She was feral in a way that Josh wasn’t as there didn’t seem to be even a glint of prudence behind her wild blue eyes. (By the time we were teenagers Mary Jane was freakishly beautiful with her sun-browned skin and silky white hair. But people found her disturbing as she seemed to have an old person’s aphasia and could never find the words for what she wanted to say, often grunting and using hand signals for a simple sentence like, “I burned my arm on the iron.” By this time I had a great affection for her and would often speak for her at parties and dances at school.)

Once I had fended Mary Jane off my back I would run to Alice Richter’s room where the suspender-wearing James Taylor poster covered the door. I’d knock and then open the door it if it wasn’t opened for me within seconds.

“Becca,” I’d say, my voice in line with my pumping heart, “Mom said you have to come home for dinner NOW.” I’d turn and rush down the hall, past Mary Jane leapfrogging off the end of her bed, down the stairs, past Mr. Richter in his chair, past the sounds of Mrs. Richter in the kitchen and the rumbling sounds of Thad and Marcus riding a bare mattress down the rumpus room steps, out the door, and past the men-sized boys drinking beer and smoking pot in the garage and up the street to our cul de sac where everything seemed peaceful, calm, orderly.

When I entered our house with my mother quietly cooking dinner, a camel cigarette bobbing around her mouth, the sunlight streaming in and highlighting the mown-grass pattern in the green shag family room carpet, the sliding glass door looking out to the perfectly patterned, precisely geometric lemon orchard, I felt so happy that this was my family, this was my life. I was not a Richter child.

Of course I had no idea how quickly things would soon change in my own house.

We are not exhibitionists.  We are confessors.  We express excruciating moments with carefree wit.  We use writing as a means to an end, the end being someone else.  If we laugh – if others laugh – those things will leave us.  We can rename those things as if they never were the way they were.

I would not have been so shy that the first day of school was the worst day of my year because my parents named me Lauren, but called me Laurie, and I had to tell my teacher when she called attendance.  I would not have been so afraid to ask to go to the bathroom that I peed in my pants in the library.  I would not be the one who came home on the first day of seventh grade with her bra up around her neck because she didn’t know how to ask her mother how to adjust it.  I would not be the one who asked, mortified, only to hear her mom laugh while telling her friends about it later.

I would not be the one who stole candy from her babysitter’s car.  I would not be the one who was certain that no one liked her.

I would not be the one who ate her way through law school instead of leaving.  I would not be the one whose dad’s cousin raved about her mother’s beauty, then told her she looked just like her father.

I wouldn’t be the one who found a napkin stuck to her boot last night after walking across the bar to the restroom.  I would not be the one who won’t finish writing the novel that tells the truth.  I would not be the one who worries that nobody will comment on this introspective nonsense.  I would not be the one who worries that people will judge.

You won’t be the one who didn’t go to your prom.  Or who was beaten up by a younger kid when older meant stronger.  You will not have been short, fat, frizzy-haired, tall, skinny or a late bloomer.  You will have had perfect skin and teeth.  You will have been friendly with puberty.  You will not be surprised when people like your writing, or think you are pretty or handsome or want to spend time with you.  You will not be the one who ate lunch in the library, or played fantasy games, or collected stamps or could not talk to boys or girls.  You will not be the one who read words but could not say them.

I will be the one who Brian chased on the playground so he could kiss my hand in its red mitten.  I will be the only freshman to have had a part in the school play.  I will be the one whose first submission was published.  I will be the one who makes people laugh when I tell them about the worst things.  The things I think of 20 or 30 years later.  The things that still don’t make me laugh. Not really.

We write ourselves into different stories and then edit.  And edit more.  Until the original is disappeared.  Mostly.  Run your fingers across our scars, knotted and raised.


I just saw Richard Kelly’s recent film The Box, and was happily surprised: it was a bad movie, but it wasn’t Southland Tales bad. Just average bad. In it, Kelly tried his Donnie Darko formula of 1 part character drama, 1 part horror, and 2 parts inexplicable dreamscape, and since it fell short, it got me wondering just what exactly it was about Donnie Darko that made it so successful?

Because it is successful.

It’s that rare kind of narrative that makes great use of genre but also breaks away in critical moments to reveal… what exactly? Something, well, inexplicable. Oh sure, there are “answers” provided in the film for the kind of double-helix time signature of the story line, but really, the great part about it is that you’re left scratching your head. There’s an aura about Donnie Darko that transcends one’s need to understand, and lets one just bask in the charming, quietly unsettling mystery. So why is all the head-scratching caused by his two subsequent films so dissatisfying? Can he possibly ever top Darko?


[I]t is more important than ever for scholars of sexuality and performance to scrutinize the political and cultural implications of those offering a “cure” to gays and lesbians. While conversion therapy may seem like the only viable option for those struggling with their queer identities, activists and allies should not lose sight of the diabolical motives of those offering the antidote, the disdain and contempt they hold for LGBT life, and the world they envision without us (Bennett 2003, 348-49).


1. Abstract

Despite widespread opposition from the psychiatric and psychological communities, reparative or conversion therapies, geared at “changing” sexual identity from homosexual to heterosexual, continue to appeal to a population “struggling with their queer identities” (349). Even after years of treatment, however, “ex-gays” often still end up experiencing same sex desire. What, then, if anything, do they change? This essay unpacks the logic behind some of these therapies, and answers the question: When someone tries to “change” their sexual identity from homosexual to heterosexual, what exactly is it that they’re trying to “change”? I posit that “homosexuality” is a socially constructed identity, or map, to the experience, or territory, of same sex desire, and that the two are in fact dissociable, but have been culturally and personally conflated. Trying to “change” oneself from homosexual to heterosexual is a displacement of social identities under the erroneous belief that by changing one’s map, one’s territory will also, oftentimes Divinely, “change.” Such a “change,” however, is destined to fail, with the resulting dissonance between identity and desire ensuring the individual either “tries harder” at changing themselves, or breaks the cycle, like an addict, once and for all, and addresses the conflation between their map of identity, and territory of desire.

2. Introduction

When I was 24 years old I entered the care of a psychiatrist, Dr. Alfonzo, soon after coming out as gay and being rejected by my family. Initially, when I first sought Alfonzo’s help, all I’d wanted was to find some way of reconciling who I was with how my family, and the world, perceived me. Alfonzo’s treatment—primal regressions, followed by “reparenting” sessions with a surrogate mother—quickly turned into a form of reparative therapy geared at trying to “change” me from homosexual to heterosexual. Three years into the therapy I suffered a physical and mental breakdown, precipitated by prolonged, near fatal doses of five concurrent psychiatric medications, one of the many ways Alfonzo tried to suppress my sexual desire, my same sex desire, and “flip me over to the other side.”

As I recovered from the breakdown, while continuing with Alfonzo’s therapy, two things became clear: 1) despite our combined efforts to “change” my sexual identity, my same sex desire remained virtually unaltered; and 2) a core belief that I was “not homosexual” overwhelmed my primal regressions to the point that I became convinced, paradoxically, dissonantly, of my “non-homosexual” identity. Alfonzo would quickly reframe my “non-homosexuality” as proof of my innate heterosexuality and assure me that my same sex desires were the result of “faulty parenting,” and from having trained my own body, through years of “homosexual activity,” to respond only to men. My goal, therefore, was clear: unlearn my unnatural sexual responsiveness to men, and return to my “innate” heterosexuality.

I left the therapy in 1995, six years after I began. But questions lingered; a contradiction remained whereby, sexually, I had never not been attracted to men, while mid-point in the therapy I believed myself to be, resolutely, “not homosexual,” that I was, in fact, “changing.” How could I have experienced both to be true? If it had not been my same sex desires, then what, if anything, had I been “changing”? Had I been living in a state of dissonance?

In the 2004 film, Save Me, a young gay man, Mark, begins treatment with a Christian Ministry, not unlike “Exodus International,” in order to “save” himself from his drug and sex addicted “gay lifestyle.” As one of the other men in the Ministry says before a therapy session early in the film, “We admit we are powerless over our homosexuality, and our lives are unmanageable. We have come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.” What is this “homosexuality” over which these men claim to be powerless? And how has it caused their lives to become “unmanageable”?

Complications arise when Mark falls in love with one of the other men in the Ministry. When his friend leaves, choosing instead to live his “gay self,” Mark follows. The two embark on what appears to be the beginning of a relationship. The film’s message, however simplistic, is clear: gays don’t need to “change”; they can find love. But the underlying issues as to what drove this man, or others like him, to want to “change,” or how they could have come to believe that such a change was possible, are never addressed. Neither is the conflation, suggested early in the film, between Mark’s self-destructive “lifestyle,” and his homosexuality. Is there a correlation between the two? Mark, after all, enters treatment to “save” himself from his homosexuality. Why does he not enter drug rehab? Why an ex-gay Ministry? Is the only message we can glean from his “failed” treatment that gays don’t need to change? That love, the promise of a relationship, cures all? How about the possibility that all these men had displaced the ways in which they’d experienced their same sex desire with this other thing called “homosexuality,” so that when their “sexual lifestyle” became “unmanageable,” their only recourse seemed to be to not be homosexual? Maybe, if homosexuality and same sex desire are, in fact, dissociable—two divergent roads that have been culturally, and personally, conflated—an individual could come to believe they were changing one, all the while experiencing—paradoxically, dissonantly—the unalterable other.

3. The Invention of Homosexuality, and its Conflation with Same Sex Desire

In The History of Sex: An Introduction (Volume I), Michel Foucault writes about the “discursive explosion” (1978, 38) throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with whole groups of individuals, including “those who did not like the opposite sex,” (ibid) suddenly scrutinized, as they’d never been before. “It was a time for . . . these figures, scarcely noticed in the past, to step forward and speak, to make the difficult confession of what they were. No doubt they were condemned all the same” (39). Such confessions, one could say, began their long night’s journey from the proverbial closet toward not solely their liberation, and not merely their prohibition, but a “closer supervision . . . an incorporation of perversions and a new specification of individuals” (42-43; italics in original).

The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a type of life, a life form, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle; written immodestly on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away. It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature. We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterized . . . less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility, a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself. Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species (43).

The “homosexual,” as a socially definable identity, was thus birthed into being. State-sanctioned power was exerted over him—his subjugation and vilification was necessary within the domain of the “matrix”* in order to normalize and reinforce its counterpart, the heterosexual—but in the naming of him, in the demarcation of his sensibilities, his own sense of agency also emerged. The discourse of homosexuality made possible “the formation of a ‘reverse’ discourse: homosexuality began to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or ‘naturality’ be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified” (101).

Individuals with same sex desire named themselves; they transmuted their previous “‘[c]losetedness,’ itself . . . a performance” (Sedgwick 1990, 3), into the naming of themselves as “homosexual”—they “came out,” and in their necessary coming out, conflated their experience of who they were and what they desired, with the category that had been created on their behalf, oppressively, to describe who they were and what they desired: “Homosexuality” became the closet into which they stepped in order to escape the invisibilizing effect of cultural unintelligibility.

One could say that homosexuality, as a category, is a map, “a representation . . . of the whole or a part of an area” (on-line Merriam-Webster Dictionary), to the territory, the “indeterminate geographic area” (ibid), of same sex desire. The danger with maps, with all maps in general, is that they are sometimes confused for the territory they represent. Maps, as individual positionalities, point to one’s territory; they are signposts; they should not take the place of who or what one is. Maps also change over time, and not always for the better. In the case of the social construction of homosexuality, they become medicalized, legalized, moralized, even politicized. Language, as representation of the object it’s meant to signify, sometimes “forgets” itself, too, and we are left with the belief that words themselves are what they point to—that words are the thing, and not the representation of the thing. As long as one remembers that one is not, indeed, never has been, one’s map, that one is not the word that’s used to point to oneself, all is well. But most soon forget; they forget, then forget that they’ve forgotten. Though not without consequence.

Feminist scholar Judith Butler postulated the construction of gender as a type of “performativity,” “. . . not a singular ‘act’ or event” (1993, 95), as in the case of a conscious performance, “but a ritualized production, a ritual reiterated under and through constraint, under and through the force of prohibition and taboo, with the threat of ostracism and even death controlling and compelling the shape of the production, but not, I will insist, determining it fully in advance” (ibid). How might a similar theory of performativity, not as a conscious “singular act . . . but a ritualized production,” apply to homosexuality?

I would postulate that an individual, upon being born into the heterosexual matrix, and while (unconsciously and consciously) struggling to ascribe meaning to their otherwise meaningless, incoherent, same sex desires, is, as described by philosopher Louis Althusser, “hailed” into the ideological self-identity of “homosexual.”

[I]deology “acts” or “functions” in such a way that it “recruits” subjects among the individual (it recruits them all), or “transforms” the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing . . . (1971, 174).

The individual in effect ascribes the map of “homosexual” to their territory of desire, their same sex desire, by “learning the ropes” about what it means, what they’re citationally taught it will mean, to “be gay.” They are not, to use the right-wing pejorative vernacular, “recruited” into their same sex desires; they, like “heterosexuals,” apply form to the formlessness of desire—in this case, same sex desire—by internalizing, as a sense of identity, the social construction of homosexuality. Were it not for others who had, in citing those previous to them, self-identified as “homosexual,” individuals born into the matrix with same sex desire would have no means of “formatting” their unintelligible desires into consumable self-identities. This culturally cumulative citationality remains like a wave indistinguishable from other waves within one body of water, the hegemonic civilization, with most unable to “see” the source material of their newly formed identity: the ways in which they’ve attributed meaning to their same-sex desires, the ways in which they’ve “become gay.” The performativity of homosexuality, then, refers not to the individual’s same sex desires, but to the ways in which the social construction of homosexuality has been ideologically interpellated, is ceaselessly, citationally reiterated, and ends up “produc[ing] the effects that it names” (Butler 1993, 2).

Deepak Chopra has written that “[c]hasing symbols is like settling for the map instead of the territory. It creates anxiety; it ends up making you feel hollow and empty, because you exchange your Self for the symbols of your Self” (1994, 84). One such way of “chasing symbols,” I would add, is through the “exchange,” or conflation, of the territory of same sex desire with the map of homosexuality. Many individuals, of all sexualities, conflate their social map with their inner territory and end up, as Anne Sexton wrote in her poem, “The Play,” “running after the hands and never catching up” (1975, 38). The hands toward which these individuals run, ceaselessly, reiteratively, are their citations—their socially projected maps to who they think they are, or want to become; and they never “catch up” because the hands, being citations, “are out of sight—that is, offstage” (39). Others, such as those who try and “change” themselves from homosexual to heterosexual, enact on the stage of their life a displacement of maps under the erroneous belief that by rearranging their social identity—by learning how to “throw a football,” for men, or “apply makeup,” for women—their desires will also, oftentimes Divinely, “change.” When it doesn’t change, when they become “ex-gays” while continuing to experience same sex desire, they exist in a state of cognitive dissonance. Both groups of individuals are, to a greater or lesser extent, “running, running to keep up, but never making it” (ibid).

The consequences of fusing same sex desire with the construct of homosexuality cannot be undermined; for many, the two remain undifferentiated. To illustrate how this conflation engenders confusion, and considerable harm, I will draw on the following case study of John and Anne Paulk, two “ex-gays” who were at the center of debate about the “curing” of homosexuals during the late 1990’s.

4. Becoming “Ex-Gay”: Extricating Homosexuality from Same Sex Desire

The institutionalization of homosexuality performs three distinct functions: 1) it divorces same sex desire from the experience of many by projecting it into the experience of few, thereby maintaining a binary view of sexuality generally, and a normative view of heterosexuality specifically; 2) it reinforces the either/or mentality that sustains a hegemonic patriarchy, and relieves a cultural anxiety over what it means to be “male,” a “man,” “masculine”—in other words, as long as I am on the side of the fence marked “straight,” I am safe, loved, accepted, all-powerful; 3) it promotes the implicit idea that “changing” sexual identity from the category of “homosexual” to the category of “heterosexual” is not only possible, but highly desirable—after all, who wouldn’t want to be “safe, loved, accepted, all powerful”?

In his essay, “Love Me Gender: Normative Homosexuality and ‘Ex-Gay’ Performativity in Reparative Therapy Narratives,” author Jeffrey Bennett examines the Paulks’ co-autobiography, Love Won Out, in which the two juxtapose their early immersions “into homosexuality” to their later involvement with Exodus International and “entrance into ‘heterosexuality . . . [in order] . . . to pursue a ‘normal’ life of marriage and children” (2003, 332-34). Their stories spawned national attention, with articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, Newsweek, as well as with guest appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show and 60 Minutes. Can gays “change”? Should gays “change”? These and other questions were raised amongst media, and public. Unfortunately, there was little, if any, inquiry into what the Paulks, or others like them, were attempting to “change,” when they said they wanted to change their sexuality. While the implication always seems to be a change from same sex to “opposite” sex attraction, this is precisely what does not occur, as I myself can testify, for those who undertake such therapy. How, after all, does one change desire? In practice, the locus of attention in reparative therapies becomes less about desire, about changing one’s desire, than it does the obligatory avoidance of same sex temptation, engagement in “opposite” sex scenarios, and modification of behavior to reflect a normative stance on male and female gender roles.

As detailed by Bennett in his essay, the Paulks’ memoir “attempt[s] to reconstitute the discourses that shape and stabilize abstract notions of the self . . . [by] . . . relegate[ing] identity and authenticity to a system of anticipatory acts that can be modified by altering the conduct of the actors” (332). Nowhere is it claimed the Paulks end up changing their desires; rather, they reduce themselves to actors, playing the part of the “homosexual”: In order to play the part of the “heterosexual,” they simply modify their performance. “If Anne can learn to wear make-up, and John to throw a football, they are taking the necessary measures to redefine and stabilize their heterosexuality by employing an illusory ontological identification” (ibid). In a reversal to Butler’s theory on gender performativity, the Paulks have reframed their collective “homosexualities” as the normative, and their modification to heterosexuality, its subversion.

Throughout their book, the Paulks point to the unreality of “gay life” as justification for “replacing . . . the unnatural homosexual self with the ‘true’ heterosexual identity” (335). This statement alone necessitates delineation. If “homosexuality” points, as I’ve suggested, to the territory of same sex desire, then in one respect the Paulks, or all advocates of such therapies, are correct in their description of an “unnatural homosexual self.” Homosexuality, as with heterosexuality, is the symbol for the thing, and not the thing itself—symbols are, to a large extent, “unnatural.” However, as the Paulks also evidently conflate their map of homosexuality with their territory of desire, their same sex desire, they illogically deduce that if homosexuality is unnatural, heterosexuality must consequently be natural. The “naturalness” they, and others like them, seek lies not in a different map, a different symbol, but in a consciousness, an awakening, to their own, incontrovertible territory of desire. Maps, if lived as territories, will always disappoint: sooner or later they will always be experienced as unnatural, inauthentic, unreal.

What becomes evident throughout Bennett’s essay is the urgency with which the Paulks attempt to reconstitute themselves as heterosexual is in direct proportion to their former identifications with the construct of homosexuality, and the displacement of that construct with their lifelong pain. If they perceived themselves as obsessive compulsive, their obsessive compulsiveness was rooted in their so-called homosexuality; if they immersed themselves in meaningless one night stands, in prostitution, drug and sex addiction—even mention of Anne’s childhood molestation—all of it was spelled out as either the cause, or effect, of “being gay.” Homosexuality was the culprit, plain and simple; and to the Paulks, since they’d identified as homosexual, their only salvation lay in becoming not homosexual, in becoming “ex-gays.”

In the following passage from an essay about my own six years in a similar therapy, I describe part of an intensive therapy session lasting two 10-hour days, during which time I “worked” my feelings about “being homosexual”:

Moreover, my homosexuality was the result of the sexual abuse. Or so I screamed while lying on the mattress. It never occurred to me that my promiscuity and episodes of dissociation were forms of acting out abuse, regardless of my sexual orientation. Instead, promiscuity was the nature of homosexuality. All gay men dissociated while having sex. Shame and a lifetime of lovelessness were synonymous with desire. Homosexual desire. There were no shades of gray. My life was black and white.

Better yet, there was someone I could blame for my life’s unhappiness: my parents. If it had not been for my parents’ poor role modeling, their lack of intervention, I would not have spent my teenage years in public toilets and bathhouses, behavior I still equated with homosexuality. My parents were the cause of my misfortunes, as surely as if they’d walked me downtown and into the arms of every man I’d encountered. Years of shame and isolation, of praying to God to take me in my sleep—it had all been because of my parents. My body was a grave and I was falling deeper into it, word by word, as I talked without interruption about the sickness of my homosexuality, digging myself deeper into the pit of my self-hatred (2009, 119).

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, not only had I conflated the map of homosexuality with my territory of same sex desire, but also the impact of that abuse, the ways in which I ended up compulsively and addictively expressing my sexuality, with my so-called “homosexuality.” Thus, when I “talked without interruption about the sickness of my homosexuality,” what I really was attempting to articulate was the sickness of my soul as expressed through my sexuality. Not my “homosexuality”—my sexuality. The “gay lifestyle” from which I was attempting to flee, by trying to change, had nothing to do with my same sex desire, but with the crippling effects of being sexually violated as a child.

For the Paulks, as described by Bennett, their “‘homosexuality’ . . . [remained] . . . seemingly unaltered by the actions undertaken by reparative therapy” (334). I would add that it wasn’t simply that the Paulks’ “homosexuality” remained “unaltered,” but that their same sex desire remained unaltered. They had tried to enact the identity of heterosexual, but in not achieving it—in not experiencing “opposite” sex attraction—they ended up, instead, as liminal “ex-gays.” Yes, the Paulks had children. But if coupling and having sex with the “opposite” sex were all it took to live one’s truth, millions of men and women around the world would never have thought it necessary to “come out” and leave their “opposite” sex spouses.

Of agency, Jana Sawicki has said that “[the] subject does not control the overall direction of history, but it is able to choose among the discourses and practices available to it and use them creativity. It is also able to reflect upon the implications of its choices as they are taken up and transformed in a hierarchical network of power relations (1991, 103-4). If agency is an act of “creative choice,” the Paulks were certainly free, as choosing agents, to subvert their homosexual identity formation, yet one can’t help but wonder why, to what end? What drove their subversion? What drove mine? Was it individuation, one’s “Auseinandersetzung (‘coming to terms with’)” (Hollis 2003, 88). Or was it their harmatia, their “wounded vision” of having conflated “opposite” sex desire with the construct of heterosexuality, and believing that by changing their behavior to align with set strictures of heteronormativity, a change to their desires would also, hopefully, follow?

[T]he classical imagination identified a condition they called harmatia, which has been translated as “the tragic flaw,” but which I prefer to define as “wounded vision.” Each protagonist believed that he or she understood enough to make proper choices, yet their vision was distorted by personal, familial and cultural history, dynamically at work in what we later called the unconscious (2001, 14).

Not all “proper choices” lead to happy endings, or are in fact choices, especially when one considers the tendency, from within the invisibilizing effects of the matrix, to belie.

Eighty years ago, British psychoanalyst Joan Riviere wrote that “. . . what appears as homosexual or heterosexual . . . sexual manifestations, is the end-result of the interplay of conflicts and not necessarily evidence of a radical or fundamental tendency” (1929, 303). In other words, the ways in which individuals end up expressing their sexuality, and even self identifying, may have less to do with their actual desires than with their ability, or inability, to reconcile themselves with their territory of desire. Trying to “change” one’s homosexuality is an attempted harmonization of this “interplay of conflicts.” Such an attempt, however, is destined to fail, with the resulting dissonance between self-identity and desire ensuring the individual either “tries harder” to change themselves, or breaks the cycle, like an addict, once and for all, and addresses their conflation between identity and desire.

As I wrote near the end of my (unpublished) book manuscript, Crossing Styx: “There was no heterosexual in me waiting to emerge; instead, I’d become more like a shell with its innards scooped out.” It might have been more accurate if I’d written: “There was no ‘opposite’ sex desire in me waiting to emerge,” for I had done all that could be expected in order to become, performatively, “heterosexual,” and still the role I played, dissonantly, was a performance.

Today, twenty years after beginning that therapy, I would say that any prolonged attempt at trying to “change” an individual’s sexual identity is akin to a psychic lobotomy, whereby the “surgeon” probes into the psycho-sexuality of the individual, cutting and scarring their way toward the desired establishment of a different sexuality, while the “patient,” already severely undermined by lifelong messages of heteronormativity, becomes co-conspirator in their own loss of agency. But there is hope. As Tolle, in The Power of Now, reminds us:

[I]f you . . . develop a sense of identity based on your gayness, you have escaped one trap only to fall into another. You will play roles and games dictated by a mental image you have of yourself as gay. You will become unconscious. You will become unreal. Underneath your ego mask, you will become very unhappy. If this happens to you, being gay will have become a hindrance. But you always get another chance . . . Acute unhappiness can be a great awakener (1999, 174).

Whether or not Tolle was reflecting on reparative therapies when he wrote the above passage, his words do make reference to a universal, ontological displacement of one’s cultural map, one’s ego mask, for one’s desires. It took me six years of therapy trying to “change” myself, and many more years unpacking my experiences, to arrive back to what was common knowledge a hundred and fifty years ago before the “invention” of “homosexuality”: There is no a priori identity called “homosexual” from which one “changes” and becomes “happy.” Neither is heterosexuality the Promised Land for those who abandon their “gay lifestyle.” Forgetting that we are not who the culture that tells us we are, that our maps are not our terrain, begets the notion that we can change desires, like a pair of pants or performative utterance, when what we’ve needed—dare I say, desiredall along is to find some other, perhaps more meaningful, map of self expression.

5. The “Acorn”

The Introduction to the spiritual text A Course in Miracle concludes with: “Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God” (1975, unnumbered page). With respect to the materiality of sexual identity, this “realness” points not to a regulatory categorization of homosexual and heterosexual—to the idea that “my homosexuality” is what’s real, or “my heterosexuality” is what’s real—but to something far more ineffable, perhaps to what James Hillman, in his book The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, calls the mythological “acorn”—the individual image that belongs to each person’s soul.

The acorn theory proposes . . . that . . . every single person is born with a defining image. Individuality resides in a formal cause—to use old philosophical language going back to Aristotle. We each embody our own idea, in the language of Plato and Plotinus. And this form, this idea, this image does not tolerate too much straying. The theory also attributes to this innate image an angelic or daimonic intention, as if it were a spark of consciousness; and, moreover, holds that if has our interest at heart because it chose us for its reasons (1996, 11-12).

Within one’s “acorn,” I would add as a caveat to Hillman’s theory, are the ways in which individuals express their innate image sexually in order to fulfill the promise of their lives. And “acorns” will not, as Hillman writes, “tolerate too much straying.” Unfortunately, sex, especially “gay sex,” is more often than not viewed simply as an act of the body, a narcissistic compulsion. But sex, so says Thomas Moore in Dark Nights of the Soul, “reaches deep into [our] soul, and the desires and anxieties connected to it touch [our] very foundations. Sex represents life . . . [it] has the potential to do nothing less than make [us] into a person and . . . create a world that is sensuous and alive” (2004, 170-3).

The world that I had created by remaining in that therapy—taking toxic doses of psychiatric medication, for example, in an attempt to suppress my sexual drive and “reorient” myself toward heterosexuality—was laden with despair and dissonance. It was eviscerated of all sensuality and aliveness. When those who are “struggling with their queer identities” turn to any type of conversion or reparative therapy for hope, when they become “ex-gays” in an attempt to assuage their inner turmoil, they are doing nothing short of betraying the needs of the soul by silencing its daimon. Acceptance of one’s “homosexuality,” however, is also not the answer. When we instruct others, through the discourses of “coming out” literature, to accept their “gay self,” that a denial of their homosexuality is the root cause of their self-hatred, we are really meaning to help them accept the means by which their soul is needing to express itself, but instead, are circuitously reinforcing the very conflation that resulted in their so-called “self-hatred” to begin with. Again, same sex desire should not be confused, conflated, or displaced with the category of “homosexual,” yet this is precisely what has occurred. No one hates their true self; they hate only what they have been told they should be when they know, if only intuitively, that it’s not who they are. “[A] Foucaultian perspective,” writes Butler, “might argue that the affirmation of ‘homosexuality’ is itself an extension of a homophobic discourse” (1991, 13). “Gay self” is, in fact, an oxymoron, since “gay” points toward one’s map, while “self,” one’s territory.

Similarly, in using the notion of a “gay gene,” the language that one is “born gay,” as defense against any mindset that says homosexuality is a “choice,” the gay movement as a whole is reiterating its own subjugation by reinforcing the conflation between their shared experience of same sex desire—which is, after all, their movement’s goal: personal and cultural egalitarianism for who they desire—and the illusory identity of homosexuality. No socially constructed identity—neither homosexual, nor heterosexual, nor any other—will ever materialize in one’s genes, and we must be wary of anyone who ever tells us it has.

The problem is not that there remains a minority of people who continue to turn to reparative therapies for “help,” and not even that such therapies still exist; the problem, from one who spent six years of his life in a similar therapy, is that we have conflated who we are with a socially projected image of what we think we are, and continue to generationally reinforce this construct, this closet of homosexuality, as what anyone who experiences same sex desire must “be” before they can go about living their lives.



*Judith Butler first described the “heterosexual matrix” as a “grid of cultural intelligibility through which bodies, genders, and desires are naturalized.” This “matrix” was based on the similar “heterosexual contract” and “compulsory heterosexuality” postulated by Monique Wittig and Adrienne Rich, respectively, which “characterize a hegemonic discursive/epistemic model of gender intelligibility that assumes that for bodies to cohere and make sense there must be a stable sex expressed through a stable gender (masculine express male, feminine express female) that is oppositionally and hierarchically defined through the compulsory practice of heterosexuality” (1990, 208).



References

Althusser, Louis. 1974. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Monthly Review Press, New York and London.

Bennett, Jeffrey A. 2003. “Love Me Gender: Normative Homosexuality and ‘Ex-gay’ Performativity in Reparative Therapy Narratives.” Text and Performance Quarterly. Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, Volume 23, Issue 4.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

——. 1991. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. New York: Routeldge.

——. 1993. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” Routledge, New York.

Chopra, Deepak. 1994. The Seven Spiritual Law of Success: A Practical Guide to the Fulfillment of Your Dreams. Amber-Allen Publishing and New World Library, San Rafael, CA.

“Exodus International” website www.exodusinternational.org

Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. Vintage Books, A Division of Random House Inc., New York.

Gajdics, Peter. 2009. “Chora.” New York Tyrant. New York, NY. Vol. III, No. I.

Hillman, James. 1996. The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. Random House, New York.

Hollis, James. 2001. Creating a Life: Finding your Individual Path. Inner City Books, Toronto, Ontario.

——. 2003 On This Journey We Call Our Life: Living the Questions. Inner City Books, Toronto, Ontario.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary (on-line version) www.merriam-webster.com

Moore, Thomas. 2004. Dark Nights of the Soul. Penguin Group (USA) Inc, New York, NY.

Riviere, Joan. 1929. “Womanliness as Masquerade.” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 10.

Save Me. 2007. Dir. Robert Cary. Mythgarden.

Sawicki, Jana. 1991 Disciplining Foucault: Feminism, Power and the Body. New York: Routledge Press.

Schucman, Helen. 1975. A Course in Miracles . Glen Ellen: Foundation for Inner Peace.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1990. Epistemology of the Closet. University of California Press, Berkeley, LA.

Sexton, Anne. 1975 The Awful Rowing Toward God. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.

Tolle, Eckhart. 1999. The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. New World Library, Vancouver, BC.

Now that the “holiday season” (Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, the release of Avatar) is finally behind us, I can say with finality that I never got around to visiting the Charmin public restrooms here in NYC. I certainly had my chances, but it just would have felt too strange for me to see the final results of the process that took place on November 5th.

Let me tell you about the events of that day. What I am about to share with you is a completely true, accurate report. I know this because I was the one shady-looking participant standing around with a little notebook, writing down every single ludicrous thing I heard and saw.

Every year around the holidays, Charmin—yes, the toilet paper company—sets up these really nice public bathrooms in Times Square. They exist to serve all the desperate shoppers who can’t find a place to pee when they’re running from Bloomie’s to the M&M Store. This year, for the first time ever, they decided to hire five people to be greeters at the bathroom and blog about the experience. When I told my mother about this on the phone, she was unimpressed. But then I added, “It pays $10,000.” That sealed the deal for getting parental encouragement.

In order to choose the lucky five, Charmin held an open audition. The online posting for the job had been sent my way by three different friends along with notes like “You gotta try out for this!” I should mention here that “toilet blogging” was my own derogatory moniker for the post. The official title Charmin had adopted was a lot more highfalutin: “Charmin Ambassador.”

Charmin’s description said that Ambassador candidates should “Have a resume on-hand, have an outgoing personality, exude enthusiasm, and possess social media savvy.” I felt that I had all of these, in spades. At the very least, I was certainly capable of printing out my resume. The ad continued: “Auditions will begin promptly at 10 a.m. on November 5. Interested applicants may line up at the New York Hilton starting at 8 a.m. Only the first 1,000 candidates in line will be guaranteed an audition.” Since I’m a complete idiot, I assumed barely anyone would show up. I even laughed at their delusional hope of attracting 1,000 people.

I had forgotten about a sizable group in New York: the unemployed. Arriving at 8:25 put me at #182 in the line, which was a harrowing sight that snaked along the outside wall of the hotel. In addition, it turned out to be (how grand!) the first truly cold fall morning of my three months in New York. While I and the other 184 losers stood shivering, peppy assistants with headsets ran around handing out yellow sign-in sheets, to which they stapled Polaroid snapshots they took of each person.

I examined the form and found pretty standard questions about my profession (none), my age (young), and my agent. Wait, they were asking me for the name of my agent? I didn’t have one.

I quickly learned that most of the people in line were not bright-eyed journalism students, but out-of-work actors. In fact, Charmin had hired a casting director to run the auditions. Some people were even practicing lines from plays. I was out of my element.

“Don’t worry, lots of people here are amateurs!” a cute casting assistant told me after I expressed concern. “Yeah, I’ll bet that guy doesn’t have an agent,” I quipped, pointing to an old man leaning on a cane. I found it somehow mortifying that a person over forty was trying out to be a toilet blogger. This man looked about seventy. Sporting a giant silver beard and a trucker hat that said BEAST on it, he looked like he could have been the drummer for ZZ Top. When a cameraman rushed down the line to get reaction shots and people waved or whooped, the old man shouted at the camera, of all things, “Good to see you!” which seemed to me a bizarre choice.

Everywhere around me were more people to ridicule. The girl directly in front of me had brought along a small ukulele, and was singing a song she had written about toilet paper. “My favorite thing about the go,” she crooned, “is I get that time for me!” I should add here that the online job description instructed that applicants come prepared to explain, “Why you love the go.”

Still, I wasn’t really thinking of the audition in those terms because I assumed that they really meant, “Tell us why using a public bathroom could be a good experience and how you would make it one as our greeter,” and not, “Tell us why you love urinating or evacuating your bowels.” Of course, to my horror, a good number of people in line had prepared serious answers to that very question.

Meanwhile, a girl in line behind me had forgotten to bring a resume and was now writing one by hand, using a crayon. This was my competition—people who seemed to have walked off the set of Glee.

And boy, people were excited. A chubby, likable guy who must have been around 25 had informed everyone that he was a comedian, and from then on I took everything he said to be a shtick. He especially hammed it up as he told us about the time he took his grandmother to the Charmin restrooms a couple years ago. “Have you guys actually seen them? They’re unbelievable! My grandma said it was more fun than Disney World!” Oh, god.

We learned from our yellow info sheets, which were decorated with that adorable Charmin grizzly bear character at the top (you know, the one who adorably wipes his ass on tree trunks in the commercials), that this job would run from November 23rd to December 31st (so that’s $10,000 for 5 weeks of work) and would require 40 hours a week, including weekends. In truth, I knew as soon as I saw this detail that logistically I could not take this job, were they to offer it to me. For my graduate program I had class all day on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays. Even if I worked all day on weekends I wasn’t sure I’d be able to fulfill the 40 hours. Still, I stayed. ‘Go big or go home,’ right?

We were finally allowed to come out of the freezing cold and go into the building at 10:15, but not before I had managed to successfully offend everyone in my near vicinity by announcing, “Why would actors want to try out for this?!” The answer, as many were all too happy to tell me, was money.

Once inside the giant reception room, I came into contact with a host of other misfits who seemed to think it was still Halloween. One woman had dressed in a toilet paper gown. A tall, bald guy had written ‘CHARMIN’ on his skull with a Sharpie pen.

We all sat down in plush hotel conference chairs and began to chatter amongst ourselves. The young woman who sat beside me had brought along an illustration she had done. The drawing depicted a stick version of her, standing in a room before a panel of judges. They were all holding up signs that read ‘9.5’ or ’10.’ I strongly wished that the Charmin judges would not be wooed by unsolicited artistic gifts. When this same girl looked up from her drawing, which she had been examining proudly, she asked me what I could possibly be doing with my iPhone. It had been glued to my hand for quite some time. “I’m tweeting the shit out of this,” I said. And I was.

Another good-looking casting assistant entered the room after forty minutes and finally announced, “We will begin calling numbers shortly. You will head upstairs in groups of ten. Once it’s your individual turn you will enter the room and have no more than 90 seconds to tell the casting people why you should be the Charmin Ambassador!”

After this warning terrified everyone, I witnessed several “routines” in the works, including the same comedian from outside practicing what he called “my TP rap,” a gorgeous Italian girl practicing a dance routine that looked like she had lifted it from Grease, and two siblings juggling toilet paper rolls. Their plan was to audition as a pair.

I found myself extremely fucking annoyed. I felt pretty sure that a woman using the Charmin bathrooms would not want a greeter to get all up in her face, playing ukulele to herald her toilet trip. The innocent visitor would want a warm, normal “hello” with no tiresome shenanigans.

I had a grand plan to say exactly this, to tell the casting director in honest terms that I would make the perfect greeter because I was the common man (in my Timberland boots and un-tucked flannel shirt) and that I had come with no gimmick, no song and dance, just my friendly demeanor and marketable blogging skills.

I grossly misjudged myself, and the event. By 3pm, almost 700 people had shown up. I had sat in the waiting room for nearly five hours, and had consumed two Clif Bars and a Turkey sandwich.

At last the time came for #182. After an elevator ride of pregnant silence with the other nine people in my group, I stepped into the room and a man behind a table, flanked by two women on either side, called across the vast space between us, “Hello. Please stand directly in that circle, directly under that spotlight.” It couldn’t have felt more unnatural. He pressed record on a camera and said, “Ninety seconds, and, go.”

I did not ‘freeze,’ exactly. I said what I had planned to say, but the entire speech was painfully artificial. I found myself making these strange exaggerated hand motions. I could feel that I was giving little forced laughs after each statement—ha!—and that my face was twitching with fake smiles.

I watched all of this as though through a window. It was abundantly clear after only ten seconds that it was not going well, but I kept digging myself into a deeper hole. “Welp, ya know,” I yammered, “I saw a lot of these other people out there [motioning with my thumb like a cartoon character] practicing elaborate songs and dances, and lemme just say I just think that’s kind of fake. See, I’m [pointing to myself the way one might while saying ‘this guy!’] just a down-to-earth, friendly dude. I’m a real people-person [oh no, not that] and I know how people would want to be greeted.”

It was a train wreck. I had heard before my turn that if you were chosen for a callback audition, you would find out on the spot. The man would hand you a blue slip. After I finished speaking, I said with whatever desperate energy I had left, “So that’s it; I’m your guy!” The director looked up from the camera and said sweetly, “It was nice to meet you.” I walked out.

I had spent that day ridiculing the most outlandish freaks there, but they were probably the ones to receive callbacks. Part of me—the bitter asshole part—is still sore that Charmin apparently did not want the outgoing, social media savvy everyman they clamored for, but actually was looking for ebullient, over-the-top clowns.

But that’s not a fair conclusion. Mostly I’m just humbled. I could feel a little silly for wasting a whole day, sure. But the experience was worth it, if only for this mildly entertaining story at parties. I left with a new awareness of my performance limitations. Oh, and I have that coupon they gave everyone for a free 10-pack of Charmin toilet paper. Maybe I’ll mail it to my mother.

Sometimes my mom sends me packages filled with old photos or Most Improved ribbons or other things she finds around the house that she thinks I’ll want back. Recently, she sent me a letter my grandmother sent to her in 1978.

Here’s a photo that was included in the letter. Can you guess who this little bad-ass might be?

I’m eleven here, and it was the year I flew by myself to California to stay with my grandparents.

There were a number of memorable things about that trip – one being that my mother packed a small bag for me that I wasn’t allowed to open until I was on the plane, and inside were things like flavored chapstick and lifesavers and a tiny notebook and a pen with a panda or some other wonderful thing stuck to the end of it.

And on the other side of that flight, I found that my grandparents had a special fondness for quiet. The telephone had cardboard jammed into the ringer so it never actually rang but sort of ticked. And conversations were very whispery. I remember noticing all of these things, and still making the choice to wake up early each morning so I could play several games of pop-up Perfection.

But the point of this post is actually to share the letter my grandmother sent to my mom after that visit.

I don’t know if you can imagine what it was like to read this note all these years later, and in the throes of editing my first book – to hear my grandmother, who’s been dead for decades, cheering for me. Not sure when, in between rounds of Perfection, I was so interesting or funny. But it means a lot to me that she saw something and that she said so and that my mom thought to send this letter to me when I needed it most.

Along with the letter and that first photo, is this one that frightened Mr. H when I showed it to him. I’m not sure where the wig came from, but it would have been just like me to wear it the whole day for no reason. And only a grandmother would write this on the back of the photo:

TNB TV 
Don Mitchell reads an essay entitled “Is There Really a Hawaiian Word for Christmas?” at The Nervous Breakdown’s Literary Experience in New York City on 11 December 2009. Filmed live at the Happy Ending Lounge.


TNB Hall of Fame
In an essay entitled “A Thousand Words: And You Wonder Where I Learned How to Party?”, TNB Executive Editor Jonathan Evison remembers his beloved grandparents, Owen and Sweetie. “These are my grandparents,” he writes, “Grandma Sweetie and Papa Owen, standing on their porch in Inglewood, not eight blocks from the Forum, where they lived for thirty-odd years. Allegedly, a white picket fence once stood in front of the house. But as far back as I can remember, the white picket fence just sort of laid there. And it wasn’t white. For the last ten years or so, their house had no front door. Don’t ask me why. Just a screen. No lock. This is Inglewood we’re talking about! But nobody ever gave Sweetie and Owen trouble, and I’m pretty sure that had nothing to do with the fact that Papa Owen looked like a juice man for Santa’s mafia.”


1.  Swell

SHE WENT on one car date with her older cousin’s friend from the Army—six months prior to going out with the guy who becomes her serious boyfriend, Talon “T-bird” Blaze.  She had a night off from babysitting, and Army boy picked her up in his dad’s sedan and took her to Shoney’s.  It is the date place.  After dinner, it was night and dark.  They parked on the bluffs above the beach.  It is the make out place.  Music swooned from the speakers in the doors.  Army boy put the moves on Janine McQueen.

The newspaper and the TV weather lady both say that it is supposed to get to thirty degrees tonight here in Miami Beach. It’s raining. Yes, if the news is correct, it may snow in Miami Beach.

Our house was built in 1950. They didn’t feel a need to put in heat in houses back then. For the past few days the temperature in our house has been hovering around fifty-five degrees, INSIDE our house. If it gets to below freezing, I have no idea how cold it will be in here.

We are wearing long underwear, long pants, socks, shearling slippers, a short-sleeved shirt, a long-sleeved shirt, another long-sleeved shirt, a fleece sweatshirt, gloves and a hat, in bed.

The water has not turned to blood yet, however, my pee is day-glow orange, which I had earlier attributed to a urinary tract infection.

We did get a frog in our house a few days ago, but we were able to scoot it outside again with a 5 x 6 card. So far there have been no frogs in our bedchamber, our bed or, God forbid, in our oven. We don’t have a kneading trough.

We have not yet discovered lice, although our heads do feel decidedly itchy. We do have quite a few cockroaches coming inside trying to get warmer.

There are no regular houseflies in the house, although there are fruit flies in the kitchen, due to the cantaloupes that are sitting on the windowsill.

There has been grievous murrain visited upon our fish, as some of you may know if you were recipients of my missive.

Thankfully no boils breaking forth with blains have visited us, or our animals, although the lady who cleans our house has a husband who had a colonoscopy yesterday during which the doctors found numerous polyps.

It is raining like the dickens outside, but so far it is still water and not snow nor hail as yet.

Although we have seen no locusts, the cold itself has already killed all of our flowering ginger, our lipstick palms and our countless orchids. We won’t know until morning what tropical plants, fruits and trees have survived. Therefore, the result is indistinguishable from a visit by a swarm of locusts.

As I write this, it is very dark.

Do any of you blame me for being agitated about the health of Sara, my firstborn? (Or Lonny, if God was only speaking of boys, which he tended to do back in the day?)

I do not think I will be able to sleep tonight. No. I do not think I will.