READ: Dazzling Darkness by Rachel Mann
, January 20th, 2013 15:14
The Quietus presents an extract from Rachel Mann's Dazzling Darkness, a personal revelation and social study on sexuality, change and God
Perhaps more poignant than ever in the present moment, in a week where Transphobia and gender issues have come to the forefront of public debate, Dazzling Darkness: gender, sexuality, illness and God is a stunning rumination from Rachel Mann - The Quietus's own Metal Vicar - on the nature of being and the nature of God when 'being' is complicated by identity. In this extract, from the chapter 'Working it Out', Mann contemplates the art and necessity of acting, on and off the stage, and the transformative power of darkness.
Working it out.
Then a girl, a teen,
tangerine in cheap spray tan
clicks onto the bus
and sways towards the back,
her arse a rolling fleshy pendulum in retro jeans;
her ease in four inch heels, the hypnosis
of that arse she wields like a weapon,
playing with her body as if she were a
puppeteer adjusting a new doll’s strings;
a girl trying out what it’s like to be a girl
trying to be a woman.
Watching her from a distant evening
where I’m twenty four again,
conscious of those twin mounds on my chest
secretly raised over months, a pioneer
shovelling earthworks at night, afraid to be seen;
my stinging eyebrows thin as stiletto tips,
the too bright lipstick huge on my lips,
my eyes fixed ten feet ahead;
and I’m flicking my own weak tight male arse out
far and wide, side to side, picking my way
down the street as if to a metronome’s click;
as if this will grow it fat and round as an orange.
Flicking it like a boy working out
what it is to be a girl working out
what it is to be a woman.
There is truly something extraordinary, horrifying and painful, in identity terms, about being ‘caught between’. It is a land of shadows, of twilight, and sometimes of almost complete darkness. Perhaps many of us have had that kind of experience in some form of other – the experience of unemployment say – but the trans person’s experience can represent its very acme. I have always been the kind of person who has sought out and been hungry for the applause of others. In some respects that no doubt reflects some essential aspects of my personality – which I’ve long since discovered are basically unshiftable – and my love of theatre and acting. I spent a huge part of my teens pretending to be other people on stage: Falstaff in Henry IV part 1, the narrator from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Hobson in a radio production of Hobson’s Choice and so on. I devoted endless hours to learning to play flash metal and rock guitar and loved playing the theatrical rock and roll ‘star’ on stage. And I was sufficiently talented as an actor – perhaps because of my need to cover myself with fantasy faces/masks – to be invited to join the National Youth Theatre . Like so many acting types, I’ve always been inclined to see the world as a kind of stage with me as a central actor who should be offered the best parts in all circumstances. This need for affirmation has perhaps made me acutely aware of the slights, rejections and abuse that come when a trans person makes the decision to ‘be true to themselves’. It also made my experience of being ‘caught between’ in those early months especially, and ironically, painful. For attention-seeker that I am, the last thing I wanted during that time of androgyny, was to be noticed – and to be laughed at and pilloried - for looking ‘in-between’. For looking – to borrow the funny phrase used by the transsexual Barbara in the TV comedy, The League of Ordinary Gentlemen – like ‘neither summat nor nowt’.
It is hard to forget that two year period of my life. I began transitioning in 1993 – taking hormones, experimenting with dress, playing with my voice, trying to reconfigure my body. And, though I flatter myself that as a result of some natural gifts as an actor I could figure out what I was doing with my body, there was a huge amount of reconfiguring. The typical hunger of the trans person, especially in the early days, is to ‘pass’ and to be unnoticed. Sadly, that is not always possible for many transsexuals, even after years of transitioning. Nonetheless, if I was in some sense ‘acting’, I was basically improvising - and often improvising badly. I looked to other women’s behaviour – their dress, speech patterns, body movement, all the things unconsciously absorbed since childhood - as my guide and then trying to work out how to actually live a life or (to borrow a phrase of Michel Foucault’s) ‘discipline my body’ in unfamiliar ways. All this while seeking to live in reality. For this improvisation was not taking place on some protected soundstage, but as I tried to hold down a job and maintain my sanity. This was no mere ‘theatre’.
I remember one particular sunny evening in about 1993 on the main one-way system in Lancaster. I have no recollection of what or where I was going exactly – probably to smoke some weed with a mate – but I remember one moment which summarized the cringe of being ‘in-between’. I’d amateurishly slapped on a faceful of make-up, making me (as one friend rather cruelly pointed out) look like Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the ‘90s Batman movie, was wearing a loose mid-length blouse and (God have mercy on my idiotic misjudgment) some very tight black leggings. Max Wall would have looked classy next to me. And I was ‘sashaying’ down the street. I say sashaying – I was (as in the poem) swaying my boyish butt around in what was such a pathetic attempt at walking like a woman that someone might see it as a sarcastic parody. I was self-aware enough to know that I was hardly a plausible woman. My breasts had hardly begun to form - all I had was an itch in the chest, a slight adolescent soreness. I suppose that at the time I thought that I looked ok or, if not exactly ok, that I simply had to get on with it. That is, having decided on my path, I simply had to start living it.
To walk down that street – utterly conscious of my feeble attempt at public womanhood – even under the cover of night, took pretty much every ounce of energy and sheer bottle I had. I had to keep my face, my eyes, braced and staring ahead. The street – even if it was the main one way – was basically clear of pedestrians, though such was my self-absorption that I barely noticed the few people on the street. And then I spotted her. A young, pretty woman walking towards me, dressed simply in jeans and t-shirt, with long straight brown hair moving with the simplicity and ease of someone who does not have to think about who she is. She seemed, to my anxious eyes, utterly whole, utterly relaxed – body and soul moving as one. The very opposite of me. I remember thinking, ‘It is so easy for her’. I remember feeling that she was who I wanted to be. She was how I wanted to be. I remember her coming towards me and smirking. She didn’t laugh. Our eyes met for the briefest moment and she smirked.
During that period of transition and ambiguity I experienced much worse than that smirk. I was living on quite a tough council estate and I got a huge amount of abuse off the local kids. Kids can be staggeringly cruel. I had things thrown at me. I had threats from adults. I’m just glad I was never beaten up. Some days I found it almost impossible to leave the house. And yet this woman’s almost innocent, guileless reaction to how I looked and behaved stays with me and defines that period. Perhaps because that young woman symbolized all that I thought I wanted and thought I should be. It was as if the ‘idealized me’ was laughing at the ‘real me’; the person I ‘should’ be (a kind of Superego) laughing at what was actually the case (my Ego). And my ego was slapped harshly about the face.
I could not live that time again. Some trans people claim they could not withstand sex reassignment surgery again; the experience is too painful. I’d happily face it again if I had to. It was so worth it. But I still sometimes dream of that transitioning time of ambiguity and it has the character of a nightmare. It became so clear to me that what freaked others out and, indeed, freaked me out was the convention-breaking power of androgyny and of indeterminacy. Being ‘in between’ deprived those who looked upon me of ready-made, and mostly unquestioned, gender dimorphic categories. That is, of the unspoken visual assessment that ‘x’ is male or female. The simple fact is that we live in a culture which is conditioned to look for the ‘either/or’ rather than the ‘both/and’ or the ‘not quite’. In philosophical terms one might say that being human is typically marked by an unthinking belief in The Law of the Excluded Middle.
At a personal level, during my time of extreme ambiguity, I felt deprived of the simple affirmation I was looking for: the visual and often verbal affirmation that I was a woman. It is interesting that I am now so very well established as a woman that I have no fear of playing with androgyny, but that ‘play’ is grounded in the simple fact that a) I know very clearly who I am at an internal level and b) I am clearly a woman playing with a boyish look. This does not freak people out like my appearance did in the early ‘90s. Then I was both visually, verbally (I was playing with my voice, trying to find my female voice) and physically a human ‘platypus’, a seeming combination of incompatible bits; a bizarre boy-girl or girl-boy. I could not live that time again.
I felt deprived of a significant part of my agency. And the discomfort generated was in part chosen by me – at one level, I could have continued on with my usual male life and experienced the undoubted benefits of identity and power that confers. Even in our modern age, feminism is correct to point out that the male perspective is our default position. Being male confers an ownership of reality and a possession of public space which women, through social conditioning and the exercise of male power, are traditionally deprived of and have to fight to possess. My stepping into the world of ambiguity and the ‘in-between’ was a stepping away from self, into death and darkness. It was also a stepping into ‘otherness’. That is, I took upon myself what is sometimes known as ‘the Other’: the one who is most definitely not seen as belonging to the dominant or normative groups and so can be dismissed as less than fully human, or stereotyped as a ‘threat’. It is a profoundly uncomfortable place to be, especially if one has a huge desire to belong. But much as I could not live it again, I reckon that period as a kind of gift now. A dark, uncomfortable gift. But a gift nonetheless. A gift from the dark, living God.
Let me see if I can clarify. To feel as if one is losing one’s agency and self, indeed feeling like one has become a kind of non-person is uncomfortable and something most of us quite reasonably avoid. And yet it is revealing. At a head level – a level that genuinely matters to me as a thinker and intellectual searcher – there is simply no doubt that the experience of being ‘in-between’ reveals, in a truly visceral way, the extent to which our gender and sexual categories are constructed and, in an important sense, arbitrary. I am not suggesting that these categories don’t matter nor that simply through ‘living as x’ makes one a man or a woman. There is such a thing as an inner dimension to being a man or a woman. But there is simply no doubt that there is a huge performative dimension to who we are, shaped unconsciously from birth and which many people do not like having their attention drawn to. Part of the reason the gender ambiguous disturb many people is because they expose reality: rather than being like hard and fast mathematical laws, our identities – our human practices, behaviours, beliefs and so on – are more like sediment thrown down on a river bed. This sediment runs very deep in places and is almost impossible to dislodge, but in others it is laid more thinly. This does not mean that the foundations of our gender and sexual identities are any less real or substantial only that we should not imagine that gender is governed always and forever by timeless laws. At the risk of sounding absurdly self-congratulatory, I want to say that for exposing this alone, gender outlaws are worthy of our praise.
If the above seems too highfaluting and cerebral, I invite you to consider the following. My journey into the ‘in-between’ will always feel like a dark, unsought for gift because of its impact on my sense of compassion and generosity. It is very easy for many people not only to present their life stories as journeys primarily of triumph and success, with minor setbacks, but to actually experience the world in that kind of way. I may have been born into a working-class family, with the attendant social and financial disadvantages which go with that, but my upbringing was relatively simple and settled. And the kind of people I hung out with had mostly experienced such settled lives, though from a middle-class perspective. Our lives lacked the pain that comes from being on the outside or being alienated. These were easy, simple lives. And, since becoming a Christian, my experience of many people who end up as ministers has been similar: I’m sad to say that so many of those who minister are well-intentioned and lovely but lack any comprehension of life on the outside or edge. My life had, for the most part, been simple and smug. To become ‘in-between’ was a painful experience of revelation and alienation. To become the kind of person who is pointed at and avoided – even as this was softened by the fact that I had a number of wonderful supportive friends – was bleak.
And yet there is a kind of knowing that works only by suffering, by alienation and pain. It is easy to imagine that knowing things is an intellectual matter. Clearly that is true for many kinds of knowing. But it shows a failure of imagination to suppose that one can truly know love or tragedy at an intellectual level. Sometimes suffering is a kind of practical recognition or perception. That is to say, it is, for the sufferer, revelatory. It is an expansion of the world, partly constituting a person’s correct understanding of her situation as a human being. This is the pathei mathos of Greek Tragedy: the wisdom which arises from suffering. And this wisdom is no mere intellectual apprehension but a shift in our way of being. To journey into the ‘in-between’ was, for me, revelatory and deepening – bringing a shift not only in sympathy but empathy and solidarity with the ridiculed, the broken and excluded. It was gift, but one that was unsought and one which in most circumstances most sane people would not choose. Perhaps it has to be unsought. There is no direct path to compassion through pain and suffering. Pain in its many forms – psychological, physical, spiritual etc – is, in my experience, primarily nasty, brutalizing and pointless. A sane person will – as a rule – naturally seek to avoid pain, exclusion and marginalization. And the truth is that much of the time one’s experience of such things does not constitute any particular kind of revelation. For example, when I have been lying on a hospital trolley in absolute abdominal agony it has been very far from a ‘learning experience’. I have not been thinking, between agonized gasps, ‘Well at least this is deepening my practical wisdom about suffering’. And yet there is a mystery here. The experience of passion may open the heart to compassion. This is part of the glorious darkness of God. It is constantly tempting for people of faith to present the ‘object’ of their faith in a wondrous shining light – as a kind of divine ‘vestal virgin’, pure, unsullied and shimmering in white. And, in truth, there are plenty of images not only in the Bible, but in all of the major religious traditions to support something akin to this picture. But – even as it captures something many want to assert – it misses the deep mystery of the God in Christ. For the God in Christ is all about passion: he becomes our victim, handed over to us, the subject of our jealousies, fears and our desire to be in control. This is a god who gets filthy in the dust of Palestine. This is a god tortured at the end of a whip. This is a god who is mocked and killed. This is no clean, unsullied immortal. This is a man thoroughly caught up in and destroyed by the violence of the world. This is a man who is intimate with the world’s darkness. And in this ironic world it is the perpetrators of violence who claim to be agents of light: the keepers of the peace, the protectors of the faith and the saviours of the nation. And on any human calculation these claims are reasonable: to wish to protect the nation from further violence or from one’s occupiers is humanly commendable. These people are wearing metaphorical white hats.
It is only the one who is unafraid of darkness who embodies God’s way. Christ is the one who discovers in the darkness the hope for the world and who takes the darkness into his being. He is the rejected one who travels down into the darkness of the dead, who walks in the company of the dead and the lost and yet is not completely destroyed. He is the one who takes death within himself and offers new life and hope.
We are not called to be Christ, but we are called to walk with Christ - to share in his story, his wounds, his life as he shares in ours. To step into ‘the in-between’ and the attendant darkness was, for me, a step of both hope and of pain. The hope of new life lay somewhere in that darkness, for the darkness was transformative. It was the darkness of possibility, like the darkness before the world began. And to have walked that path I understand now was a gift - a painful one and one I should have preferred not to have received. Yet, such are the gifts from the living God: they are gifts of life, not of ease and comfort. And in a world where so many are so readily scapegoated as ‘The Other’ and who suffer the depredations of marginalization, I believe we need more, not less, people who can embrace the transformative power of darkness and come through changed and renewed.
Dazzling Darkness is available now, published by Wild Goose Publications. (The poem 'Working it Out' was first published in Magma Poetry Magazine No 39, Winter 2007/08