(Editor’s Note: content warning for child abuse)
Lacking a better judgement to defer to, I shall take the advice that the King of Hearts gave to Alice: “start at the beginning, continue through the middle, and when you get to the end, stop.”
I will say only this before I begin: I regret pretty much everything, but there’s only a small handful of things I apologize for.
I spent the first years of my life in the town of Priest River, Idaho. I have fleeting memories and half-remembered impressions up until I was six, specifically that winter. I have a distinct memory of being at my grandma’s graveside and understanding that immortals can die. It wasn’t in those words, but that idea. Something everlasting, something dependable, the foundations of reality… end. All things end. I rejected this idea even as my grandma’s absence forced the truth upon me. I don’t remember much from before this because nothing had happened to me that was earth-shattering like this was. Sure, my parents had beat me, and ya I had gotten hurt running around the forest around our house, and at school kids were mean and I often had cuts and bruises from one of these sources if I didn’t have them from all three. But that was normal.
The angelic being that gave me the miracle of books had been removed from existence. People say the young mind can’t grasp death. That’s a lie. It was the concept of living afterwards I had trouble with. Still do.
I spent a year praying every day, every night. We were a Christian home and the faith of a child is a terrible thing when grappling with trauma. After a year of this, my dreams began to turn dark and I began my lifelong dialogue with depression. My grandpa died and I hardly noticed. I was still busy grieving his wife.
After fighting so hard against all things coming to an end, I finally accepted that I would die. I think this is what made it so hard for me to accept my grandma’s death. I wasn’t just having to let go of the one and only spot of light in my life, I had to let go of my own life.
Once I accepted that, I started to move forwards in small ways. But I was also angry. I still pretended everything was okay, just like the adults around me were doing, but it wasn’t okay. Elohim (God) was a liar. I began to see the edges of where my life had been curated by my parents. I could see that things had been edited out. I did not know what was missing. So I began reading the encyclopedia. I started with the letter A and worked my way through. It helped. I would spend hours upon hours upon hours in the woods with a book and some snack, reading. If I snuggled up in a blanket while reading, it was almost like grandma was holding me in her lap as I learned about anteaters, architecture, and arpeggios.
Then Ray Mercer died. A wonderful old man that ran Mercer’s Memories Antiques in Priest River who often babysat my sister and I.
My faith gave way to an icy rage. I wasn’t just angry with Elohim; there are no words for what I felt, in any language. If you invented a new word that got closer than any other word in any language, it would still bend and break under the absolute pure intensity of my feelings toward Elohim at this point in my life. That is the gift of the young heart: emotions are so deep and pure that even knowing how to talk through my feelings like I do now, there are truly no words for the sheer intensity of feeling one has as a child.
This intensity of feeling led me to begin to lash out and demand my opinion about my life be respected by my parents. I didn’t want to feel all the hate and anger and shame and pain and sorrow I felt every time they took me to the church of a God that had been destroying my life. It was so much effort just to go somewhere and be told all about how I was destined for hell and feel miserable.
One morning I refused to get out of bed for church. I’m not going to talk about what my parents did to me because of that choice, for multiple reasons. Mostly because I’m not ready to talk about it and I don’t know if I ever will. No kid should go through that.
I continued to act out, and this was compounded by my being punished for things that I did not do. I was constantly being told the reason I was being beaten was because I didn’t do as I was told. Because I was obviously lying and back talking if I said “you never told me to do that.” I got very good at being whipped. If I screamed loud enough I couldn’t feel the leather hit me.
After over a year of this, the doctor realized that I had been effectively deaf for a year and a half from a major ear infection. Nobody noticed. I was a very articulate child –something about being up to the letter c in the encyclopedia — so no hint of a “deaf accent.” Highly observant and quick to adapt, I was subconsciously reading lips, my mutant brain automatically perceiving lip shapes as sound without me realizing it until after my hearing began to return. So on the one hand, my ability to make it seem like everything is normal and okay even when completely confused or in crisis makes it so that, looking back, I can’t entirely blame the adults around me for not realizing I was deaf. I didn’t know being deaf was a thing at that point. But I can totally blame our family physician; I had that ear infection for 3 checkups and that quack didn’t have a clue.
It didn’t matter that the antibiotics they put me on were a miracle in pill form. I recovered to have 95% hearing in both ears but the damage was done. It did not help that at the same time as all this the family was getting ready to move to Spokane, or that I was held back and had to repeat 3rd grade. I passed it the first time, but apparently my behavioral record showed a lack of maturity. So they held me back. I was deaf, grieving, and had been betrayed by my parents in the most vile way possible. I was going through some shit. Of course I was acting out!
All adults were the enemy.
So, remember me saying something about my story not holding up to the riggers of a linear narrative?
That is the beginning, true. However, it is all about death and silence. Nothing about gender issues like (I assume) one would expect in a tale asking for help to get gender-affirming surgery. If you didn’t notice, I decided that I can’t afford to care about that if I’m going do this. I am being charged 17 cents per 6000 characters by JPay. If I let my story out into the world for any reason, I have to let my story out, not a sales pitch. I have no idea if I will ever get a another opportunity to do so.
My first sleepover was with my cousins. They had come up from Florida because my grandpa was in the hospital technically dying of lung cancer and liver failure, but actually dying of a broken heart. For some reason we decided to have an opposite day and do rainy day games. I am hazy on the details, not being privy to the inner councils of the adult world at 7 years old. I assume it was something along the lines of everyone needing a break from the pressure of watching Grandpa die by inches almost exactly a year after Grandma was suddenly taken from us in a car accident. The first real frost was yet to show up that year and outside there was a slow drizzle of freezing rain. The house I grew up in was originally the home of the overseer for the logging of the north Idaho logging district in the late 1800s. Safe to say, our property was all first growth forest, as is the national forest/wildlife preserve next door. The original building was the kitchen, my bedroom, the bathroom opposite my bedroom and half the dinning room and half of what was my sister’s bedroom at one point and an office at another. Over the course of a century, there was a remodel or two adding the 2nd half of the dinning room and bedroom mentioned above, plus a large living room/parlor, entry hall, another bedroom, plus a complete master bedroom suite upstairs. Later my parents added a full daylight basement. It was one of those houses that was only big and rambling because there’s been plenty of time for different generations to say “well, with just a little remodel we can have a real nice…”
With hardwood floors and an open floor plan it was perfect for skits and games and such. So we did an opposite day fashion show. I had been jealous of my sister for years because she got dresses and hair clips and cute shoes and I got, well, boy garbage. I didn’t think of it as “boy stuff” and “girl stuff” back then. I realized that showing an interest in trains and cars got me approval from my parents. Not so much for ponies and glitter. And it’s not like I was completely lying — I think trains are romantic in that 1920s Tiffany jewelry kind of way, and my first love has always been mud (but only if you can shower after). I was still grappling with the concept of there being more to the world than my small corner of it, so the difference between boys and girls being more than manners and fashion was still beyond me.
In any case, I knew exactly what I wanted to wear for the fashion show. A black tutu with fairy wings and a bow for my hair. My sister and I have basically always been the same size even with her being 3 years older than me. So it even fit and I was loving it and hamming it up. It was very camp, especially for a bunch of religious conservatives. And then for some reason it went from everyone having fun to everyone just mocking me. I was devastated. For the rest of my life in their house they alluded to that day by calling me “Bree-Ann Patricia” (feminized versions of my first and middle names at the time) became a shorthand for “quit acting so girly or else.”
While our parents were house shopping in the Spokane and Bellview areas, my sister and I got dragged along. People would see us both wearing purple tie-dye “Huckleberry Fest” t-shirts and blue jeans, both having long mousy brown hippy hair, both being skinny as all hell, and they would assume we were twin sisters. To have a family member call me Bree-Ann was gender policing. But a stranger, freeing.
Thanks to the magic of confirmation bias, my parents didn’t catch on for almost 6 months even though it was happening right under their nose.
Eventually we were at Sea-First Bank getting a loan to buy a house in Spokane and the loan officer, after 2 hours of boredom said “you have 2 wonderfully behaved daughters.” My parents froze, looked at me expecting… something. I’ve never been good at taking a compliment, so I said “well, we do try,” not realizing that a totally different response was expected. On the way out my mother interrogated me about the loan officer calling me a girl and the only answer I could come up with was “Why? Am I supposed to care about that?” when the reality of the matter was that I cared. I cared very much. I was just terrified to say so.
That night there was a discussion between my parents in which the phrase “your son” was shouted many times as if I were an affliction that neither of them could bare to claim. Then their tone would suddenly drop off, ruining any attempt at eavesdropping.
After that my parents no longer introduced us as “our kids Jessica and Bryan” but as “our daughter Jessica and our son Bryan.”
No more being accidentally correctly gendered for me.
I find I must iterate over the same time period once more to tell the story of my early years in full. Is this useful? Does this give you an idea of where I began? Or is this, as the zen koan says, so many black marks on otherwise perfectly good paper?
My sister and I attended HLCA, House of the Lord Christian Academy, a K-12 Protestant private school that I still curse to this day. I hated it there. I was completely isolated while surrounded by kids and teachers that reminded me every second of every day that I didn’t belong. It didn’t even provide any escape from my parents because while I was in 2nd and 3rd grade, my mother was the math teacher for the middle schoolers. I avoided the boys because they would beat me up and blame me for starting it if we got caught. With four or five against one, I didn’t stand a chance against them physically or in convincing the adults of my innocence. I couldn’t play with the girls because the school administration saw that as “unseemly” and I would be punished for that if I did it too often. One teacher, Mrs. Craddic, was particularly cruel when it came to keeping me back from recess and making me write lines. I must have killed off a whole forest of trees serving detention. “Slow obedience is no obedience.” “To submit to your elders is to submit to God.” She trained me in how to lie by assumption while having me write “honesty is best, confession is good.”
I say “by assumption” because it is different than telling a white lie and building on it with truth, or omitting certain key details and leading someone to a false conclusion.
Lying by assumption requires you to understand the worldview of the other person. Their faith, their psychological blocks, their personal confirmation biases. You only tell them truths that fit in with their world view. The hardest part of lying by assumption is that you can only do it if you love the person you are lying to. Otherwise you can’t know them well enough to pull it off.
“Love thy enemy as thyself” is written in red isn’t it?
I read Genesis, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, the Gospels, Romans, and Revelation more times than I could count. It gave me no comfort. I had accepted that I was damned because I hated Elohim. I read it to avoid punishment at home and school. Even now, for over a decade I haven’t looked at a Bible except on the odd occasion that someone I am talking to wants to reference it, yet I can still quote it at length and speak on the Christian doctrines of various denominations better than most who actually proclaim that as their faith. It took me a very long time, but I have grown to appreciate having in depth knowledge of a religion that I don’t believe in. Spiritual truths are universal and knowing Christianity the way I do helps me guide people toward the path of loving-kindness and away from the path of inquisition.
But I digress. I spent so many hours upon hours hiding in the woods. It became my refuge and my temple. I stood face to face with wolves, coyotes, elk, and deer on multiple occasions.
Once each I stared into the eyes of a bear and a cougar. While these encounters were terrifying and awe-inspiring, they did not scare me, not really. I could feel the fear pumping through my veins, but there was a sacred peace that came with it. A euphoric terror. The elk, deer, and bear would either see me as a threat, or not. The wolves, coyotes, and cougar would either see me as food, or not. I had faith in something I could not articulate at this point in my life that these encounters would play out exactly as they were meant to and I would walk away afterwards, or not.
I told no one for fear that I would be forbidden to go out into the woods alone. They had their church and I had mine.
While I was unknowingly slowly going deaf, I began to “hear” the whispers of the woods and “feel” their presence upon my skin. I didn’t know fairies were a thing. Hans Christian Anderson’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” and the collected works of Edgar Allen Poe was as close as my reading got to fairy lore. So I began following where they lead. I cleaned up fifty to one hundred year old garbage in the area of woods that I could walk in a day in any given direction. Shoveling paint-contaminated dirt into cans, leveraging a rusty 50 gallon drum out of the creek, dragging a half full oil drum miles to the side of a paved road, these were the epic tasks I set for myself. And for a scrawny 7 year old, they took multiple days of planning and sometimes up to a week of work to accomplish. But they made the woods happy which made me happy. The woods themselves were my only friend.
When we moved to Spokane I again found myself grieving. I did not need the Lorax; I could hear the trees just fine and they were sad to see me go. Moving to the city was a shock for me. I had regained my mundane hearing, but lost my spiritual ears. That was a gift of being tied to the land. I still have a sense of spiritual touch, that being my own gift from the divine.
So that was my early years. Physically, socially, spiritually. They are all muddled together, yet are three distinct stories. The limits of human language separate them, and I hope I have not given the impression that they are separate within me. Because they’re not. They all spiral together making a mockery of any semblance of linear narrative while I experience each memory in the eternal Now of my perception.
Forgive me if this seems overly mystical. It is how I make meaning of the world.