Escaping an angry photograph

By , February 10, 2010 12:53 am

Something has been bouncing around in my head. From Picture Frames, a post from Cedar’s blog Taking Up Too Much Space, written in response to my show Trans Form :

What I realized, when I heard [in Trans Form] about the photo albums, and the pictures on the walls of her [Rebecca’s] parents’ house, was that these were the memorabilia of an occupation, held onto and commemorated by its collaborators (witting or unwitting). Yes they represent a historical “truth,” a “past” one does not want to “deny”–but so do guns and chains and whips and bombs, and you don’t see them in the family photographs. Well, not if you were on the receiving end, anyway.

That concept, viewing photos or keepsakes of my past as “the memorabilia of an occupation,” finally clicked with me today.

This past weekend, my dad and I were talking about my depression. I was saying that I regretted not transitioning earlier, and he was saying he was sorry for not doing something when I was younger. Seeing something, noticing my unhappiness and its cause. And he said that, with the more tangible problems my older siblings had, it was easy to see me – with good grades, friends, a voracious apatite for books, no small skill at playing piano – as the ‘normal’ child. The child who didn’t need ‘fixing.’

And I realized, as Cedar indicated, that where we find ourselves today is not simply a result of the “truth” of history. It’s a result of how that history is viewed.

I’m angry at my parents for not knowing I was trans earlier. For not hearing my hints or cries for help before I officially came out to them. For not finding an active, participatory role to help me transition when I did come out to them. But I’m working on expressing that anger about things past, and they’re working on expressing their regret. It’s a process I very much need to keep at, but it’s one that has already begun.

What I realize now, what finally fell into place today, is that I’m also angry at them for celebrating the “occupation,” as Cedar puts it. I’m angry at them for remembering as joyful (or even merely placid) the time I felt as painful and turbulent. I’m angry at them for happily framing and mounting photos that remind me of how horribly trapped I felt at all times. I’m angry at them for mourning the loss of someone who was never really there, regardless of how ‘normal’ he was or how little ‘fixing’ he seemed to need. And that anger, I haven’t really even started to address.

My therapist said, earlier tonight, that I can think of pre-transition life as a sort of war prison: not something whose time is to be celebrated, but an experience from which strength can be drawn. Her thought was that I don’t need to be proud of having been a prisoner of war, but I can damn sure be proud I came out alive.

Except it’s difficult to find pride in that when no one else sees you as having been imprisoned. The people I value in my life have all acknowledged the validity and importance of my transition. But I’m still having such huge difficulty in grieving for the life I didn’t lead, and mourning the one I did, in part because I’ve (mostly) tried to do so alone in my understanding of that grief and loss.

I worry that asking my parents to take down old photos of me will simply mask some deeper discomfort I have with myself. And yet, from where I am right now,  I don’t want them to celebrate or commemorate those memories due to how painful they are for me. And that’s not simply because it brings up anger at them, but also anger toward myself: why didn’t I transition earlier?

“Why didn’t you transition earlier?” I ask my younger selves, trapped in those photographs.

9 Responses to “Escaping an angry photograph”

  1. TeenMommy says:

    Goddamn, your writing is touching. It is so intense, beautiful, honest, that it makes me sort of trembley.

    Ask them to take the pictures down. I can imagine the sorrow of a parent who didn’t even realize at the time that they participated in a prison, but it’s sorrow *about* your sorrow, and therefore I really think you should be the one whose needs are taken care of first.

  2. Jonah says:

    I can really relate to that. I read Cedar’s post too but it didn’t resonate as much as the way you write about it does; and it resonates with me even more as a person whose autism was undiagnosed for fourteen years. My parents tell all these stories about me being an absolutely miserable little kid- but they took pictures of every happy moment they could find, and as a result, you can’t see my autism in my baby pictures, which is really really weird. And I resent their removal of such an important part of my narrative.

    I gave the book, The Transgender Child, to my father to read, and said he could skip the first chapter, “Is my Child Transgender?” because I thought we were past that stage, and he said that while I might be past that, he’s not.
    Sigh. It took him about four years past my autism diagnosis to accept that I’m autistic, and I am trying to remember that.

    Anyways, I just meant to say that the way you wrote this resonates with me and made the concept more understandable. I don’t think I understand exactly how you’re feeling but I do think I get how the mistelling of one’s narrative by parents is wrong and upsetting.

  3. Rebecca says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, TeenMommy and Jonah. I think what I’m going to end up doing, at the very least, is tell my parents how I feel about the pictures. I’m not sure I’m willing to actually ask them to take the pictures down, but you’re right that they do need to know how the pictures are viewed by me.

  4. Cedar says:

    I really like this post. 🙂 Given how my mom insisted on the other framing, it was good to read this and get the affirmation/mirror of it, and the moving-forward of it.

    pre-transition life as a sort of war prison: not something whose time is to be celebrated, but an experience from which strength can be drawn. Her thought was that I don’t need to be proud of having been a prisoner of war, but I can damn sure be proud I came out alive.

    Yes!

    Except it’s difficult to find pride in that when no one else sees you as having been imprisoned.

    Yeah…. And I think this speaks to the need to create and spread a new frame for understanding our pasts, that doesn’t do this ‘you have to choose between hiding and celebrating’ loaded choice thing. Because if no one else wants to acknowledge that it’s a prison, it really saps our ability to draw strength from it. The ‘you should embrace your past’ narrative serves precisely to prevent us from doing that, because it demands we embrace their version of our past, and thus to embrace being imprisoned. …But where I didn’t go in my piece is that we deserve to get to draw pride and strength from having survived, and the narrative of the pictures prevents us from being able to do that/enables others to erase that.

    I’m glad my pictures-related insight has been helpful for you!

    • Rebecca says:

      The ‘you should embrace your past’ narrative serves precisely to prevent us from doing that, because it demands we embrace their version of our past, and thus to embrace being imprisoned.

      That’s what I’m starting to realize, and trying to grapple with. I think that one line really succinctly says something I’ve felt, but not found the words to express.

  5. […] post by Rebecca articulates a lot of things.  She writes compellingly about the anger she feels at her parents for […]

  6. […] a boy. Didn’t want a penis. Did want a penis. Sex change. Was one way, now the other way. And the pictures….Lord…the pictures. This is what the miracle of science can do! “You […]

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