Thomas R. Smith is a poet and teacher living in River Falls, Wisconsin. His many books of poetry include The Foot of the Rainbow and The Glory. He has edited three books on Robert Bly, most recently, Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer. For several years he has taught poetry with his compradre poet Timothy Young at the Minnesota Men’s Conference.
CAITLYN, HELEN, AND US ALL
By Thomas R. Smith
By now most of us have noted, with varying degrees of interest, the drama of the Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner who has become Caitlyn in her new life as a woman. Tabloid fodder for months, Jenner’s transition is commemorated with a glamorous Annie Leibovitz portrait on the cover of the Vanity Fair currently on newsstands as I write. Soon, perhaps by the time you read this, a “reality” TV show centered on Jenner’s odyssey will have aired.
The intense media focus on Caitlyn Jenner is only the most visible manifestation of a wave of public attention to and interest in the subject of transgenderism unlike any we’ve yet witnessed. No doubt building on growing acceptance of same-sex marriage, this dawning awareness represents in the eyes of some another important step forward in human freedom and in the eyes of others a new level of descent into immorality.
Even open-minded people may experience a sense of dizzying disorientation: In certain matters our society can change with astonishing speed. My purpose here is not to expound on the general subject of transgenderism, which is dauntingly complex and of which I’m as ignorant as almost anyone, but to bring the discussion closer to the heart by way of an example that has touched me personally. I will then try to relate the current transgender awareness to men’s mythopoetic soul-work and the challenges that lie ahead for us in a time of apparently expanding gender diversity.
I often joke that I was born without the sports gene, so my interest in Bruce Jenner as athlete is minimal. My knowledge of him as a member of the publicity-seeking Kardashian clan is even sketchier. Given a general disdain for the American cult of celebrity, it would be easy for me to reflexively dismiss Jenner as simply another pampered One-Percenter hell-bent on media attention whatever the cost.
However, in a good-faith effort not to succumb to my own knee-jerk prejudices without a fight, I read the Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissinger and came away from it with a more nuanced and sympathetic sense of the person now known as Caitlyn. Jenner, we learn, has been a life-long sufferer of gender dysphoria, the deep-rooted conviction that one has been born into a body of the wrong gender. Jenner, in his incarnation as Bruce (for which, for the sake of clarity, I will use the masculine pronouns by which he was known at the time), makes serious mistakes in navigating the complexities of his marital, family, and career life in the secret storm of his gender confusion. Like most of us in our own ways, he struggles along as best he can with the hand nature has dealt him, and it’s hard not to feel the genuine torment of that struggle as we read of an aborted attempt in the late Eighties to bring Jenner’s physical self more into line with the woman he internally knows himself to be. Finally last year, in his mid-60s, Jenner carries through with his interrupted project, a medical process that can be horrifically painful and harrowing at certain stages. Clearly Jenner suffers profoundly, both physically and mentally, before and during the transition.
It may be difficult for most of us to imagine a state of dissonance between one’s internal and external selves intense or extreme enough to compel a person to willingly undergo the sort of ordeal described in the Vanity Fair article. Most of us are lucky enough not to experience that particular dissonance, though other dissonances are common enough to the human condition, frequent among them an aging man or woman’s difficulty in identifying with the older person who has replaced their younger self in the mirror. Still, as mentioned in Vanity Fair, it’s estimated that over 700,000 Americans suffer from gender dysphoria, usually silently and despairingly, misunderstood if not outright despised by “normal” society.
No one really knows how many of our friends, neighbors, or relatives live with this sense of the wrongness of their physical gender, but we can be fairly sure from the statistics, tentative as they are, that someone we know is at this moment experiencing the psychically disruptive turmoil of the body/mind alienation that propelled Bruce Jenner’s radical transformation to Caitlyn.
In my own life it’s my distant cousin Helen.
In the 1960s, we were classmates in our hometown and attended the same church. We were fellow science fiction connoisseurs and, when the “British Invasion” arrived, fanatical Beatles enthusiasts.
Understand, I never met Helen as Helen; I knew my old friend only as Hal. Hal had identified us as third or fourth cousins on our dads’ sides, and sometimes addressed me as “Cuz.” In high school, Hal was one of the more physically mature boys, already heavy-bearded at 16. The bear-like mat of hair on his back and shoulders made him the butt of many jokes most of them — but not all — good-natured. He was large though not fat, which should have made him a natural prospect for sports in our town. Yet a glance over my old yearbooks reveals, somewhat to my surprise, that he didn’t much go in for athletics, nor in fact many other school activities.
Looking back, I recognize a certain passivity in Hal’s character that probably turned him off to competitive sports. Our friendship revolved around non-curricular pursuits of reading and music, trading paperback novels and huddling conspiratorially over the newest forty-fives coming out of England. There was an appealing mischievousness about Hal that made him a ready co-conspirator in pranks and hi-jinks. Once during our senior year when I was in trouble at school for my long hair, the principal gave me a couple of bucks and demanded I get a haircut before returning the next day. Hal, who kept his hair short at his parents’ insistence, suggested a solution: “Cuz, come on over to my place. We’ve got a clippers, and I can clean you up.” To my relief, Hal did a presentable job trimming about half an inch off the back without seriously altering the length overall. Then we went downtown and enjoyed a pitcher of beer at our blustery principal’s expense.
Even then I sensed something thwarted in Hal’s desires, without knowing what it was. With the benefit of hindsight, I would venture that the missing element was a creative connection to the interior feminine, denied in Hal’s upbringing as it was for most boys of my generation. Hal’s father, a tough Navy veteran, ruled with an iron hand, and I’m sure it was by his doing that, after graduation, when most of the more academically gifted of us were heading off to college, Hal went into the Navy. Paradoxically it would have taken what we think of as a stronger psychological masculinity than Hal possessed to buck those paternal expectations. Hal’s manifest lack of enthusiasm for that choice made me suspect some violence to his destiny wrought by outside forces insensible to requirements of his basic personhood. The suppression of one boy’s artistic aspirations by his strict, militaristic father in the Robin Williams film Dead Poets Society, brought Hal’s situation to mind when I saw it many years later.
Unlike the boy in the film, Hal did not commit suicide; still I’ve come to believe that he paid for the suppression of something “core” to him with a serious interior death. At graduation our paths diverged, and came together again only once, briefly, twenty-five years later at a class reunion. There’s a long middle stretch of years in which we may passively accept such separations, only thinking to renew ties when age and a gathering sense of mortality revives the urgency we felt earlier in our lives. Hal and I were firmly in that stretch at the time of our last meeting.
It was one of those reunions where various people who’ve been missing in action for decades may reappear in unexpected new re-inventions of themselves. One classmate, for instance, had become a coal miner in Illinois and was now mostly deaf from the explosives and spoke with a Southern accent. Another had come out as gay and sported a dapper white suit. And there was Hal, whom I hadn’t seen since we were eighteen: sitting funereal and stiff in his black suit over his drink, Hal struck me as the most drastically altered of my classmates. One could see at a glance that all the fun and joy had gone out of him. I tried to initiate conversation: working for Coca Cola in Atlanta, married with children, my puckish old friend seemed reluctant to venture any further into details of where life had led him or how he felt about it. No spark of our former connection caught the tinder of our exchange.
Whatever the reasons for Hal’s utter flatness (of which I confess ultimate ignorance), I left with the mournful conviction that an old friendship had died.
At our forty-fifth class reunion four summers ago, I learned from one of the organizers that Hal had become Helen and was living very near our old hometown. This classmate had been in e-mail contact with Helen, who chose not to attend the reunion. Hal/Helen was a recurring topic of conversation that evening. She was retired, divorced, and taking care of her aged mother. No one seemed to know much more about her situation than that.
Though I wanted very much to check in with my old friend, I decided that some delicacy was required in approaching this new persona. Helen’s emotional or mental state was unknown. Treading lightly, I opted to send Helen a recent book of mine, hoping to use that as a good-will gesture to break the ice. I knew that good will could not be assumed in the backwaters of Chippewa County. And in fact, almost everyone I queried around my hometown, quickly changed the subject and admitted no knowledge of Helen whatsoever. Was I the only one who cared about our old friend?
Helen did not respond to my overture. Nor did she respond to subsequent attempts to connect by mail or e-mail. Apparently she wanted to be left alone. I conjectured fear of hostility or ridicule, and possibly depression or mental illness. So it went, with Helen’s contact information lying dormant in my address book, and I intending someday to take the further step of cold-calling. Obviously I felt some ambivalence based in my fear of awkwardness and discomfort. Driving by Helen’s town on the way to visit my brother in rehab in a nearby care facility last winter, I came close to making that call once or twice but talked myself out of it for lack of time.
This spring I learned that Helen had died at age 66. The family had held a private service, and no one I’ve talked with has heard the cause of death. The one obituary I’ve found on-line is maddeningly minimal, listing military service, jobs, and family without mentioning Helen’s time as a biological male. Helen’s life was clearly one of struggle, but the struggle and its meaning remain hidden between the lines of the single account of her life available on the Internet, that imperfect cultural memory of our era.
I feel a kind of poverty in the ostensible facts of Helen’s life as set down in the obit, the loss of some unknowable richness Helen’s mature presence might have brought to the aging, scattered aggregate of Cornell High’s Class of 1966. It seems likely to me that Hal’s inner turmoil wasn’t unlike Bruce Jenner’s, and that, like Jenner, Hal had come to some dead-end in living as a man, demanding radical change if life was to continue. Based on my last encounter with Hal, I would guess that nothing less than the joy of living was at stake.
An old high-school acquaintance who professes to know nothing about Helen nonetheless has forwarded me the one photograph of her I’ve seen, apparently from Facebook. My old friend is not recognizable in the photo, though perhaps not due to the physical transformation alone. Yes, the makeup and what I assume to be a wig by themselves suitably disguise the person I once knew, or thought I knew, ostensibly a plump, sixtyish woman whose small-town style isn’t out of keeping with that of one of my old aunts in northern Wisconsin. What really distinguishes Helen from Hal, though, is some focused determination around the eyes and mouth, an unapologetic declaration to the world saying, This is who I am. It is an almost frightening self-declaration, a fierceness of resolve suggesting less the boy with the bear-like body hair I knew in high school than some mother bear you wouldn’t want to tangle with in the woods. In the absence of specific information, the photo encourages me to believe that my “cuz” Helen, at least for a few years, lived on her own terms as the person she knew herself to be.
If you’ve read this far, you may be asking, What has all this to do with the mythopoetic men’s work in general and the Minnesota Men’s Conference in particular?
In attempting to answer that question, it may help us to recall the beginning of the mythopoetic men’s work in the early 1980s. Those of us who attended the foundational early Minnesota conferences still remember the mass media’s laughable confusion over what we were actually about. One of the most ironically wrong-headed charges leveled against us was an assumed intent to perpetuate traditional patriarchal domination of women, supported by the retrenchment of a stereotypically aggressive style of American masculinity. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth, which one look at our movement’s spiritual leader and father, Robert Bly, would establish for those who were willing and able to see.
In fact Bly’s grounding in poetry and psychology puts him fundamentally at odds with prevailing images of masculinity that ruled his generation and persist in American society even to this day. From the very beginning of his raised visibility as an artist and intellectual in the 1960s, Bly took on the mantle of outspoken defender of the feminine in both women and men. His approach drew heavily on anthropology — the studies of ancient matriarchal societies by Johann Jakob Bachofen and Erich Neumann — and on psychology, especially the ideas of C. G. Jung. Bly’s approach grew out of psychoanalytical models by Marie-Louise von Franz and James Hillman, among others. It’s often been noted how the psychotherapeutic method tends to favor women who are generally more comfortable with verbal reflection than are men. (Bly used to joke that the corpus callosum, the connecting bridge that facilitates language communication between the two halves of the brain, in women is “a superhighway” but in men “a dirt road.”)
Certainly Bly’s greatness lies partly in his refusal to allow his audience to remain comfortable in their beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions. When Bly began working with men in the 1980s, a major element of his mission was to push us beyond our masculine comfort zone into a recognition and direct experience of what Jung identified as the anima or interior female that exists inside the male psyche. In the men’s work, the inclusion of poetry, myth, and psychological exploration contributed to a conscious effort to include the inner feminine. Such work wasn’t to everyone’s liking, but for those who agreed to undertake it, the rewards in personal growth were enormous.
A comment Bly made in 2000 to the Minneapolis Star Tribune gets to the heart of his concern. Asked to propose activities for a national day for boys equivalent to Take Our Daughters to Work Day, Bly answered that fathers could take their sons to the library and show them the books they love. Women have often been shut out of the work world, said Bly, but “it’s just as likely now that men will be shut out of the inward world, the literature world.” Where traditional masculinity has fixed its sights on external pursuits, Bly has consistently championed interior discipline, insisting from the beginning that his work with men has been psychological in nature.
Now that Bly has withdrawn from active involvement in the mythopoetic work, we can only guess how he would respond to current challenges. We who would carry this work on into the 21st century face a social landscape hardly recognizable from the one to which Bly and comrades such as James Hillman and Michael Meade responded in the 1980s. Some of the changes — especially the positive increase in American fathers’ involvement with their children’s lives — are developments that Bly and his colleagues themselves have helped to bring about. Other changes, such as the growing acceptance of same-sex relationships, may have more to do with a shift in generational attitudes than with any direct influence of specific ideas or persons. And of course some things have changed very little or for the worse. After almost a generation of war in the Mideast and a hyper-militarization of American society, men — and increasingly women — are too often locked into the rigid musculature, both figurative and literal, of the perpetual warrior.
Now visible on the horizon is the growing recognition of transgender identities, and we in the Bly wing of the men’s work need to recognize that reality. Even now there are men among us, especially younger men, I suspect, who fear declaring their position on the slippery inner scale of gender identity. It’s those younger men I’m most concerned with, since the suicide statistics for transgender youth are off the charts compared with those of young people more firmly rooted in their biological gender.
We might reasonably inquire: Given lingering societal misperceptions of the Bly mythopoetic work as a quixotic hold-out of stereotypical masculinity, would a transgender youth even be attracted to the conferences? I think some would, perhaps from a recognition of an implicit generosity toward inner androgyny cultivated as a necessary component of the work. It seems likely to me that we have already had among us men who experience, whether they express it outwardly or not, an agonizing dissonance between their physical and interior gender identification. If not, we will surely see their appearance among us in the future. Given today’s rapid social change, it’s not inconceivable that someone identified as female at birth but self-identifying as male, for example, might turn up at a conference. And it may be in such an event that we would not know the difference.
Foremost, we should remember that, with our poetry, storytelling, art, and ritual, we still offer a powerful alternative to the box in which mainstream culture would confine both men and women. With the possibility of transgender youth (not to mention adults or even elders) in our midst, we can signal a general open-heartedness and willingness to welcome differences by honoring the feminine within ourselves as Robert Bly has taught us to do, by way of stories, poems, and psychological ideas that free rather than imprison the spirit in stereotypes.
We are beginning to understand that this matter of gender identity is far more subtle and complex than we have traditionally believed. Whatever our personal view on this matter, we are up against huge unknowns, huge questions, in the face of which a measure of humility is appropriate. I have wondered if at least some of the more mainstream thinking about transgenderism is fed by a psychological literalism of the kind often critiqued by Bly and Hillman. In the case of reassignment surgery, especially for the very young, we might question the wisdom of more extreme measures to right the body/mind imbalance experienced by those tormented by gender dysphoria. Yet the Leibovitz photos of Caitlyn Jenner powerfully suggest the emergence of a new creature from the chrysalis of a discarded stage of self. To many of us, the sheer strangeness of the new creature may be off-putting; I suspect that a fear of being avoided by others may have contributed to my distant cousin’s avoidance of her old classmates.
As society at large begins to adjust to and accommodate increased visibility of transgendered people, we’ll surely feel some ripple effect in the Minnesota Men’s Conference. Interestingly, our explorations of indigenous spiritual traditions may prepare us better than more mainstream associations for the acceptance of the transgendered, keeping in mind that many traditional societies have valued the androgynous or what we would now call the transgender person as a sacred figure with an honored place in the tribe. Our great teacher Martín Prechtel, for instance, has beautifully honored them as “necessary, sparkling gatekeeper people.” As with many another piece of indigenous wisdom, we may yet come around to that position once more.
Twenty or thirty years from now, our understanding of gender identity may be far different from what it is today. For now we can listen with open minds and hearts to the stories of transgendered brothers and sisters and understand that they may be closer to us than we think, perhaps no farther away than a member of our own family. The fact that Caitlyn Jenner will undoubtedly continue as a player in the tabloid circuses shouldn’t deter us from considering her story with its broader human and mythological resonances. In my own sphere of association, I can’t help wondering if access to the mythopoetic work would have made a difference in Helen’s life. Would that have given Hal/Helen tools to better navigate the terrain of inner androgyny? Who knows? In the Vanity Fair piece, Caitlyn Jenner says, “If I was lying on my deathbed and I had kept this secret and never ever did anything about it, I would be lying there saying, ‘You just blew your entire life.’” And maybe my distant cousin Helen would have said the same.
Whatever the complicated and probably unknowable truth of all this may be, rest in peace, Helen, and good luck, Caitlyn. I know that I have opened many questions for discussion, while providing almost nothing in the way of answers. I offer my remarks in hopes that we as men of the Conference can maintain a spirit of openness even in the face of these vast upheavals and unknowns which are not isolated from the wider fates, dooms, and challenges of our times. As men of good will addressing this issue, we’d do well to abide in what Keats called negative capability, “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason,” which also happens to be the state in which we most fruitfully receive poems and stories that enrich and enlarge our souls in their mysterious way.
[This essay is for Helen—friend, relative, and now ancestor.
Robert Bly In This World, ed. Thomas R. Smith, with James Lenfestey
Praising the Soul in Women and Men http://www.minnesotamensconference.com//wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Thomas_R_Smith_Robert-Bly-book.pdf
FRONTLINE: Growing Up Trans