Refugees At Life's Door: Learning About Transgender Trauma From Joy Ladin

A friend of mine attended a TED Talk by poet and Yeshiva University English prof Joy Ladin in Boston early last year, and recommended it to me when I saw her over the holidays last December. I told her I had read and liked Ladin’s memoir, Through the Door of Life, and would definitely check it out. For whatever reason, I couldn’t track it down then, and only managed to find it on YouTube this spring.

Encountered virtually, Ladin was much as I expected her to be from her memoir: articulate, thoughtful, muted but resolute, melancholy but not grave – a survivor who had achieved a measure of comfort in her own spirit. But not in her own skin. The thing that immediately struck me as I watched her was how physically awkward she was. Granted, speaking in front of a room full of people will have some such effect on most of us. And as I observed to another friend who I sent the link to, many of the talk’s attendees were visibly uncomfortable, and a few seemed “openly hostile,” a response unlikely to encourage an open, relaxed mien. Still, the stance that Ladin adopted, and held almost without variation through the 12 minutes of her talk, made me physically uncomfortable after a while: shoulders slumped, arms dangling straight down her sides as if they were alien grafts she had no control over. “After about ten seconds,” I told my friend, “I started saying to my computer screen, ’Stand up straight, girl!” “OMG Posture Police have been called,” was my friend’s initial remark. Then later in the exchange: “She seems very nice and kind” (her emphasis), but “posture is so important. In her it just exacerbates her humility. I just want to give her a hug.”

These observations about posture resonated. Throughout my life, different people – my mother when I was growing up, my first ex when I was in my 20s, of late my sister – have been on me to square my shoulders and stand tall. When I was younger, my relationship to my body was fraught by the gender dissonance that I was experiencing (Julia Serano’s term: see Whipping Girl, p. 85). As I’ve come to understand it, the perpetual slouch I then presented to the world communicated two complementary desires: on the one hand, to dissociate myself from the being who confronted me in the mirror each morning, and on the other, to police but also protect the girl inside who I at some level knew myself to be – crouching over her both to hold her in check and to shelter her from a world that (I’d known since I was a toddler) was hostile to her.

Now in my early 50s and three-plus years out as female, I’m gregarious and warm with others to a degree I never felt I could be pre-transition. Yet many of the toxic feelings that developed around my gender dissonance are in large measure still there. I still mistrust cameras (though I’ve grown comfortable with mirrors). I still inwardly flinch right before strangers put a pronoun on me, fearing I’ll be misgendered (even though it’s been a while since that happened) and worse. And I find myself frequently falling into a protective posture when I’m talking with people I don’t know well, in particular men: shoulders curved inwards, arms and legs crossed – a human citadel. When I was in counseling, it was suggested to me that such defensiveness is a perfectly understandable and even rational response to a world that continues to be unfriendly to trans folks, and especially trans women. But over time it has become clear to me that the source of these feelings, and the responses they activate, isn’t reason but trauma.

The connection between trauma and anti-trans discrimination seems to have only recently been afforded much attention, but when one pauses to consider the kind of crap we go through, it’s a no-brainer. Being the target of frequent, ongoing verbal and physical harassment is going to leave deep scars. Even those of us who haven’t experienced that much overt abuse suffer from the effects of gaslighting, the psychological phenomenon in which others force on you the belief that what you know to be real is in fact not. I was told in no uncertain terms from the age of three by everyone and everything around me that the gender identity I was driven to express was wrong, bad, unnatural, etc. – that I was to obey the command Nature had so patently stamped on my crotch, and not live as the person she had hardwired me to be in my brain. This conflict between our awareness of who we are and the insistence of those around us that we’re someone else is a significant source of the dissonance we experience around gender. Indeed, others’ (often aggressive) refusal to believe us about something so central to our identity is arguably as responsible for the trauma we experience as is the incongruence between spirit and body that’s at the core of the trans condition. And it was Ladin’s memoir that first articulated clearly and forcefully for me what a specifically transgender trauma looks like.

I started reading Through the Door of Life in early August 2013. This was a period of intense self-scrutiny for me: I’d just come out to my parents about a week before, and a few months later would begin outing myself to my extended family, my old friends, and the world at large. As I recorded in the journal I was then keeping, Ladin’s descriptions of her trauma resonated strongly with some of my own experiences. Her reference to “recreational self-mutilation” as a means of dissociating herself from, and even exacting “a kind of revenge” on “the body that was always hurting” her (pp. 28, 25), for example, recalled past instances when I hit myself, and an episode in college when I almost broke my hand punching the cinderblock wall of my dorm room. In another journal entry, I recount a “restless, anxious night” filled with bad dreams, one featuring a tornado, then go on to note: “Ladin’s book is exhuming some long repressed feelings – read her chap. ‘Suicide’ last night. My dysphoria was never as acute as hers (thank God), but still: the suffering was there.”

The mostly general responses I left about the majority of the book gave way in the last 50 or so pages to the copying of extended passages that spoke to me. The first few pertain to Ladin’s conflicting feelings about attending her first Trans Pride march – her strong desire not to go, but recognition that she would never see herself as fully human until she could recognize the full humanity of her “trans sisters” (pp. 200-1) – feelings that resonated with my own when I started group counseling earlier that year. The other passage I copied centers on her “primal sense of ugliness:” “my lifelong belief that, as a transsexual, I was a monster” (p. 227). Again, these sentiments had clear antecedents in my lingering anxieties around sex and intimacy, feelings that an earlier, unspecified passage in the memoir had also triggered.

Reflecting now on the dearth of direct quoting from the earlier sections of Ladin’s book in my journal, I’m struck by what it communicates about my response to Through the Door of Life. In the first place, it confirms how confronting those earlier sections were. I imagine myself lying in bed those August nights frowning in consternation like the troubled attendees of her TED Talk, resistant to surrendering myself to what she was telling me. The first observation I recorded about the book was that the writing in the early chapters felt “stiff at times” – pretty much the same response I had when I began watching her talk. The rawness of their contents, though, was on the contrary summoning tornados from my unconscious. That it took me until page 200 to embrace her through her prose suggests to me not that there was a lack of quotable material earlier in the book (viz. “recreational self-mutilation”), but rather that I needed time to process all those triggered feelings so that I could begin to distinguish their outlines and contours and put names on them.

Actually that’s not quite true. It’s not that I hadn’t named at least most of these feelings, or stood naked before them. The novelty for me of Through the Door of Life, I think, lay in the sweep and sustained force of Ladin’s avowal of her pain. A couple of passages from the first part of the book, which I flagged in the margins but didn’t copy to my journal, strike me as a propos here:

I joked compulsively but rarely laughed. Laughter dissolves boundaries. I was afraid to laugh. (p. 31)
My commuting friend, watching me dissociate from overwhelming pain – one moment I was sobbing in her car, the next moment I was joking – said, “That would be useful. Can you teach me how to do it?” “No,” I told her. My voice had the ironic, emptied-out quality that goes, for me, with dissociation. “The only way I know involves years of trauma.” Even if I could have taught her, I wouldn’t have. It’s better to suffer than to choose, as I always chose, to split into anaesthetized fragments. (p. 86)

I too knew the feeling of dissociation, and almost never truly laughed before I began transitioning, but I’d long considered both of these things as simple failings in me. As for my fondness for irony, I’d sussed it with marginally more self-awareness as a defense mechanism. What I studiously avoided recognizing in each of these diagnoses was the degree to which I was trying to fool myself as well as others about who I was. This is most obvious to me in the form that my emotional dissociation took: an attempt to deconstruct the category of gender. If I could convince myself that “man” and “woman” were nothing more than social constructs, I felt, then perhaps all of my struggles would be intellectualized out of existence. (In the meantime, I could use irony as an opiate to kid myself that these struggles were absurd anyway.)

How well that strategy worked can easily be imagined. Throwing up barricades in our own paths can delay our day of reckoning only for so long. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, choosing life,” Ladin observes in another early passage that I marked (p. 82). Through my teens and early 20s, and periodically after that, I debated with Death about whether the world would be better off without me. And I lectured myself over and over that no matter how hard things got, suicide was not an option. At the time that I read Through the Door of Life, I was still (with some pride) thinking of my performance in this debate as my having chosen life. One of the important things Ladin’s memoir helped me recognize was that what I’d chosen was not to die. Under the circumstances, that was no small thing – there are very good reasons why the attempted suicide rate among trans folks is so high. But life is of course so much more than a persisting pulse, and choosing it, I was seeing with increasing clarity, didn’t mean doubling down on the part I’d learned to play as a young child to make everyone’s disapproval go away. (For the record, I’m not dismissing the performative dimension of gender: indeed, like so many trans folks I am of necessity acutely aware of it.) It meant choosing to live as the girl inside me. And to do that, I had to lower my defenses and admit without equivocation that having my truth overwritten for four-plus decades by almost everyone and everything around me had left me deeply scarred. I had to embrace a quality that all the lessons I’d learned about gender from my tight-lipped yankee hometown had taught me to shun, the quality my friend so perceptively observed in Ladin herself: humility.

That reading Through the Door of Life proved therapeutic for me is in some measure by design. Ladin says in her “Acknowledgements” that the book “wouldn’t have been written without the prompting of Susan Loud, my therapist.” To what extent writing it was therapeutic for her is not for me to say, but what she herself goes on to say in the “Acknowledgements” suggests a way in which it might have served that purpose for her. Loud, she says, “urged me to write autobiographically despite my lack of either a life or a self to write about” (p. ix). That sense of lacking is something that I think most trans folks experience in some fashion, in particular those of us who come out later in life. Surviving the trauma that we experience growing up trans necessitates the sort of fragmentation of self that Ladin describes, and transitioning further complicates things by creating a breach between our past and present. Surely a major goal she set herself in writing her memoir was to overcome, or at least come to terms with, these feelings of fragmentation and lack.

How she sets about achieving this goal is signaled in the memoir’s subtitle, A Jewish Journey Between Genders, which casts her deep dive into her past as a religious odyssey. And the resolution she provides us centers on her acceptance that any hope for restored continuity and individual wholeness must be placed not in the self but in God. This is no copout to convention, for her God is neither cozy nor avuncular, but a figure who seems at times “inhuman,” “a righteous or sadistic jailer” (pp. 167, 174), and who is always silent. Her God is also, however, the figure whose “presence” faith “detect[s]…in absence,” the figure “whose silent face is the only point left on the compass when existence becomes unendurable” (pp. 169, 167). And this figure’s silence communicates to her, whether “smiling with satisfaction” when she returns to her childhood home and experiences a moment of communion and release with “the tortured boy” she remembers herself being, or answering her questions and doubts about her life with a “silence like a shrug” that she translates into brutally simple declarative sentences (“You are alive…Life is this. Expectation is irrelevant. You live what is”), or simply stonewalling her towards the recognition that “to love is to live” (pp. 186, 167, 168). Her God is the figure to choose whom is to choose life. This is perhaps the hardest lesson that Through the Door of Life leaves us with: that behind or beneath or beyond “the small complicated secret” that we remain to ourselves (p. 171), our lives are in their essence nothing more – though nothing less – than the sum of our choices.

Revision, July 4, 2017: The two sentences in paragraph five, “This conflict between our awareness of who we are…at the core of the trans condition,” have been changed to soften my earlier claim.

Revision, August 4, 2017: The phrase, “a ‘silence like a shrug’ that she translates into” added to the final paragraph.

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