My Life So Far

When I think back upon my twenty-seven years of life two things come to mind.  Oh, dear god, I’m nearly thirty!  and the fact that I have been living openly as a gay and gender-fluid person for a full decade now.  The last ten years have not been easy but I count them among my happiest yet because I was able to live them as myself.

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Often a Mistress but Never a Bride

When I look back on my love life prior to meeting my husband I cannot help feeling uneasy about discussing it. My love life was almost void of physical interactions yet it was filled with emotionally intense interactions that shaped how I perceived and evaluated myself. My first boyfriend lived many miles away and over the seven months of our relationship (and the year of strained friendship that followed) we only spent three weeks within touching distance. A friend of mine at the time dismissed it, insisting that the distance did not make it a real relationship, but despite my friend’s objection, it felt very real to me. We were emotionally involved and committed to a relationship, even if it was primarily long distance and dramatically shortened by mutual discontent. It may not seem like much to other people but these experiences have had a significant impact on my life. Strangely, it was the lack of activity in my love life was a part of a more complex and personally painful problem.

I got off to a slow start. I wanted to date more than anything after I came out but I was rather shy about. The internet helped to compensate for my social anxiety and connected me to many people I would never have known without it. However, even as I was making friends, I wasn’t having much luck meeting guys and it was largely due to my purposefully androgynous appearance. I did not fit the masculine type these men wanted. That I preferred to wear skirts instead of pants was enough of a reason to reject me outright. This kind of rejection is always painful to me and has frequently intensified my gender dysphoria. On a number of occasions, I was bluntly told, “If I wanted to date a woman, I wouldn’t be gay.” The fact that I was and intend to remain physically male did not make a difference to them.

My first boyfriend was not exception. He liked me at first and flattered me with many compliments but all throughout our short relationship he frequently tried to turn me into the kind of man he actually wanted. He openly told me that he thought I wasn’t cute enough and discouraged me from wearing women’s clothing. f course, he wasn’t always as mean as this and we had our good times but our problems never went away. It became increasing clear to me that he would never accepted for for what I am and this hurt me considerably because I sincerely believed there would be no one else for me. The pain became so bad that I started cutting myself, punishing myself for not being the person he wanted me to be, and even spent two nights under psychiatric observation after I stabbed myself with an X-Acto knife.

The only men (apart from my ex) who expressed an earnest desire for me were what are colorfully known as “tranny chasers.” These are men who are specifically attracted to transgender women or crossdessing men. At the time, I thought little of it. I was young, inexperienced, and eager to make a connection. Their attention gratified my need to feel attractive and wanted by men but interacting with these men quickly became unsatisfying and even humiliating.

Our interactions were pretty simple. They would send me a message, complementing my appearance and bluntly asking for pictures or for an exchange erotic emails. I was young and assumed this was typical for gay men. After a while, it became clear to me that the exchange was unequal, tilted forever in their favor because I was eager to gratify their desires for the mere promise of reciprocity. Many of these men became hostile when I refused to continue with these types of communications and several harassed me online for months afterward. (That’s in addition to the daily onslaught of harassing messages I got at the time from perfect strangers on social networking sites.) One man, in particular, pursued me for more than year. Of all the men I interacted with online, he was the only man I ever met in person or slept with. I took his consistent interest as a positive sign and, fortunately for me, he turned out to be very nice. Even when I broke promises to meet him again, he never became hostile or angry. However, as nice as he was, his interests were still exclusively sexual and was, to me, just one of many reminders of my undesirability. I was the mistress and nothing more to these men, without much hope of ever becoming the bride.

When I talked to a few of my friends about these experiences, they encouraged me to take it as a compliment. To be honest, I dearly wanted to take it as a compliment. To some extent it was nice, as sex often is for many people, but at the end of the day, it was all that I had or felt that I could expect. The inevitable disappointment this type of sexual contact entailed haunted me every day but I could not entirely draw myself away from it because my loneliness always returned. Although I stopped interacting with “tranny chasers,” I still sought out casual sexual encounters. Since I lived with my family at the tome, could’t drive, and had little money, I rarely ever met any of men with whom I made plans. When I look back now, I’m glad my circumstances had prevented me from taking on easy hookups. At the time it frustrated me but I do not doubt that the alternative would have been much worse.

Memories of my sexual past still evoke some pain but the wounds I once carried with me have healed. Time can heal some wounds but love is by far the stronger remedy and I found that with me husband. He gave me all the things I had always wanted but could never get from other men—romance! He took me to restaurant and bars, gave me gifts and introduced me to his friends. He wasn’t embarrassed to be seen with me. For the first time, I felt genuinely and completely appreciated and loved. He did not make me feel ashamed of my appearance as my first boyfriend had but embraced it. Before I met him I did not think I would ever find such a person, and I couldn’t be more grateful to have him in my life. With him by my side, I can finally close an unhappy chapter in my life and live as I always wanted to, a valid person worthy of love.

Moving On …

After four challenging years, my time at Orange Coast College has come to an end. Tomorrow I will be completing my AA and receiving my degree. Next year I will be continuing my education at CalState Fullerton and working towards completing a BA in psychology.

When I began college, I had many reservations about my academic potential but my experience has taught me that I was quite wrong. Many of my elementary and high school instructors were very discouraging and it had a profound effect on me but, as many of us come to realise, high school is just awful.

Over the last four years I have learned a lot, not only in an academic sense but in a personal way as well. Perhaps that comes naturally to psychology majors. The again, I have met some psych majors who seem to absorb little or fail to understand how what they learn has practical application in their own lives.

I’m very grateful for the education I received from OCC. My instructors, with few exception, were thoroughly committed and competent in their work. Not only have I come to better understand human psychology in its many complexities but I have learned to think scientifically and to overcome my once debilitating social anxiety.

My elementary school educators misunderstood my anxiety, misidentified it a Attention Deficit Disorder, and placed in a remedial class. My experience was eerily similar to Bart Simpson’s in You Only Move Twice. The stated purpose was to help me catch up academically with the other students but by going slower than everyone else. In actuality, I never did. It wasn’t until I entered high school, when I could no longer be covered by the program, did I managed to develop academically. Unfortunately, the transition was intense humiliating and traumatic. I consistently underperformed other students, not because I was stupid but unprepared by my previous years in remedial classes, and came to see myself stupid and undesirable.

Thankfully, at that is now in the past. I graduated high school with an average GPA and have gone on to perform very well in college. Well enough that I can count myself a member of Psi Beta, the National Honors Society in Psychology for COmmunity and Junior Colleges. By graduating, I’m not only moving on to fulfilling my next educational goal but moving beyond my old fears of failure and living up to the unreasonably low expectations my past educators had for me. I am happier now than I have ever been in my life and I owe much of it to my experience at Orange Coast College.

Frank Lloyd Wright (Book Review)

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Last summer I managed to read a number of novels I had wanted to read for some time (Frankenstein, Pompey the Little, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, Dracula) but amid of these various titles I also read Meryle Secrest’s eponymous biography of Frank Lloyd Wright. If I had chosen to read Wright’s autobiography, my summer reading would have consisted entirely of fiction.

Secrest’s book read like any other biography and excel in all the qualities we come to expect from good biographies: it’s thorough, insightful, and unafraid to present the reader with an unflattering portrait of the subject. To be fair, Wright’s poorer characteristics were never a secret and, much in the style of Quentin Crisp’s self-evident queerness, Wright set out early in life to make his greatness abundantly clear to the world. Even when he was a mere draftsman, he lied to prospective employers about other job offers, giving them the impression that he was in great demand, and managed to secure himself higher salaries because of it.

As an architect, he was notoriously difficult to work with and frequently underestimated the total cost of his projects, much to the dismay of his many frustrated clients. Nevertheless, he appears to lulled many of his clients’ worries with his charismatic personality and convinced the, to give him more money. However, this didn’t always work. His first concrete block house, the Millard house in Pasadena, CA, went well over budget and nothing Wright could say would convince his client to fund the project to completion. In the end, Wright had to finance it himself. Critics did not care much for the house but Wright was utterly pleased with himself, and today the house is much admired.

A lot is said about the power of his personality and he was indeed quite forceful but I suspect that many of his clients, though they admired his architecture very much, simply put up with his temper and egotism. After all, a complete house is better than an incomplete one. Nevertheless, this didn’t stop Aline Barnsdall, a wealthy oil heiress, from hiring to build her two home. Only the first of these properties, the Hollyhock house in Los Angeles, CA, still stands and is now a part of an art school designed in a fashion reflecting the aesthetic of Hollyhock. Barnsdale was unlike Wright’s other clients and did not easily submit to his decisions. Wright frequently became frustrated with her requirements because she would tell him she wanted a room to feel green but wouldn’t want the room to actually be green. The house was successfully built but Barnsdall did not live in it for very long until she gave it to the city.

Being Wright’s friend was just as frustrating as being his client but in some cases more devastating. Darwin D. Martin was a client and longstanding friend of Wrights. Throughout the course of their friendship, Martin loaned him substantial amounts of money to help fund Wright various project, very little of which was ever repaid to him; despite this and warnings from his family and friends, Martin continued to give him money until he had exhausted much of his life savings. Martin was spared during the 1929 market crash, losing everything overnight, and did not have any savings to depend on.

Not all of his relationships were as tragic but they were generally tumultuous. I was struck by just how dependent he was, throughout much of his life, on other people–his wives, children, and the various architects who worked for him at his Taliesin residences. From his own testimony, we are given the impression he was utterly independent but in actuality he benefit greatly from technical support and much of his success later in life was due to the tireless effort of his family and the Taliesin architects.

Few people today would doubt his talent, despite the various engineerings flaws that have plagued his more inventive designs. He was a deeply flawed man in numerous ways but he never gave up on his goals. Despite many serious setbacks, he never gave up in despair and managed to cement his legacy in American architecture over a nearly 70 year career. His work and influence have been and continue to be extensive. As much as I admire his work, from reading about him I am left with the realisation that I would have found his personality just as infuriating as his many clients did. From my own distance perspective, I can look back at his life and laugh at the excessives of his behavior, but only because I never had to know the man himself.

I would highly recommend Secrest’s book to anyone interested in Wright’s life or architecture. Though it covers the same territory as Ken Burns’ documentary, it goes well beyond it and is less sycophantic. My only complaint about the book are the uneven pages on the hardcover editions. Publishers only do it for some esoterically aesthetic purpose. In the case of this particular biography, this rather functionless decoration seems rather appropriate but frustrating all the same.

A (Most) Dangerous Method (Book/Film Review)

41h3GLZ1EHL._SX940_When I first saw the trailer for A Dangerous Method, I was both excited and worried. I was excited because I had read about the professional relationship between Freud and Jung in The Denial of Death and was thrilled to see it portrayed dramatically. However, I was worried because the trailer gave me the impression that the plot would focus overwhelmingly on the sexual relationship between Jung and Spielrein. As it happens to be, the film focuses on the relationship, both professional and romantic, between Freud, Jung, and Spielrein and how each contributed to the development of psychoanalytic theory.

I saw the film for the first time in a small theater in Los Angeles. Whenever I tell people about the film, my husband reminds me that I was as giddy as a child on Christmas morning when I saw Freud experience his first fainting spell. Though I am far from a Freudian or a Jungian, it nevertheless was a great moment for me as a student of psychology to see this on the silver screen.

Actually, I may have enjoyed the film a little too much. Not long after viewing it, I had an erotic dream in which I merged my husband, Freud, and Viggo Mortensen into one. Also, I was physically female. Moments like these make me glad dream analysis is no longer a primary mode of psychotherapeutic inquiry.

Anyway, I digress.

AMDMSeeing the film inspired me to learn more about the film and what went into its making. A Dangerous Method was based on a stage play of the same name, which was based on an history by John Kerr called A Most Dangerous Method. (The title comes from a letter penned by William James, wherein he described psychoanalysis as a “most dangerous method.”) When I watch historical films, I frequently wonder how accurate they are and how much was creatively filled in. While the film and play leave many details out, it captures the essence of the book very well. Aspects of the sexual relationship between Jung and Spielrein were filled in. Existing letters don’t make any explicit reference to sexual intimacy but the content clearly suggest that their relationship was romantic and likely sexual. Whether they ever engaged in BDSM is not known and probably a dramatic interpretation of their relationship and its relevance to the life and death instinct theory.

Some have questioned the manner in which Jung’s personality was characterised, as shy and rather prudish, Kerr’s history is fairly consistent with the film in this respect–even down to Jung rather greedy consumption of food at Freud’s family home. This does not mean that it is entirely fair or accurate but, unfortunately, my knowledge of Jung begins and ends with Kerr’s work.

The book is considerably more detailed than the film and is roughly 512 pages long. Kerr’s narrative follows not only the careers of Spielrein, Jung, and Freud but the development of psychoanalytic theory within the psychological community at the time. Kerr paints a vivid portrait of the early twentieth century, a time at which psychologists were beginning to abandon nineteenth century materialism for a psychology informed by more subjective concerns. The “talking cure,” the forerunner to what is now known simply as psychotherapy, emerged as a solution to an ever growing awareness that the aggressive curative techniques of the previous century weren’t working as well as they were supposed to. People may malign Freud and psychoanalysis now but it was an important step towards contemporary theories and techniques. It was the first time psychiatrists used conversation as a curative method. Prior to this, psychiatrists would talk to their clients primarily as a means of understanding the symptoms and for giving directions.

Kerr’s book also does something else. It verifies the important role Spielrein played in shaping the life and death instinct. At the time, women weren’t easily welcomed into the sciences and those who were have been largely forgotten. Spielrein might have been entirely forgotten if it had not been for the the discovery of her private correspondence in the 1970’s and now, with the help of historians like Kerr, we can confirm her place in the history of psychology.

A (Most) Dangerous Method is both an excellent film and book. For those who are not familiar with psychoanalytic theory, Kerr’s book might be difficult to follow, He goes into detail regarding how psychoanalytic theory developed in its early years and this could be daunting to some. In addition, the details he includes about the state of psychiatry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries might come off dull but I found these details both interesting and highly rewarding overall. It is a relatively long book but one that pays the reader back in the end. For those who are not keen on reading detailed histories, I would highly recommend the film as an alternative. Otherwise, I would highly recommend both.

Love’s Prophet (Book Review)

80Sometime in 2009 I read Erich Fromm’s To Have or To Be?. In it Fromm criticized the materialistic values and consumerism common in the US throughout the twentieth century and argued that if people did not change that Human happiness would be thwarted. He conceived of two modes of personality, the “Having” and “Being” mode, that represent how relate to our possessions. In the Having mode the individual uses the acquisition of material possessions as a buffer against existential anxiety. They experience their own self-worth through the amount and kind of commodities they own. In the Being mode the individual’s source of self-fulfillment is derived from the activity of living. They have faith in their productive energies and enrich life with their spontaneous creativity. Both are solutions to existential anxiety but only the Being mode transcends the limitations of materialism and offers a broad, more fulfilling source of meaning and value.

Fromm’s work has since become an important influence on my perspective on life and psychology but, nevertheless, when I discovered Lawrence J. Friedman’s new biography The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet on Amazon my first thought was: “I want it! I want it! I want it!”

Friedman eloquently discusses the events of Fromm’s life with insight and clarity, and often explains his theories as they developed throughout his career. This gives the reader a good sense of where Fromm’s ideas stood within the cultural and intellectual context of the twentieth century and the problems they addressed. Fromm’s life is dissected according to his various occupations or “lives” as a clinician, political activist, social critic, and writer. Friedman’s extensive research and probing narratives reveals a man deeply affected by the horrors and hatreds of two world wars, the threat of nuclear war throughout the Cold War, and the prevalence of consumerism, materialism, and conformity within Western society. As a response to his departure from Freudian meta-psychology, Fromm was shunned from psychoanalytic institutes and these disagreements frequently ruptured his professional relationships with other psychologists and philosophers, and because he lacked a medical degree he was never fully accepted by professional psychiatry. Despite this, he managed to found his own psychoanalytic institute in Mexico, authored many successfully and popular books, and was in high demand to lecture at universities or to speak at political conferences. Throughout the 1960’s Fromm dedicated considerable effort to politics and influenced several presidential candidate. Perhaps more notable, his perspectives on foreign policy and nuclear disarmament influenced John F. Kennedy’s attitude towards the Cold War.

In the last two decades of life, ill health caught up with Fromm and compelled him to move to Switzerland for the good of his health. There, he completed The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, the first in a series of books he wanted to write propounding his general theory of Human psychology, and a considerably smaller volume, entitled To Have or To Be? He never finished his series of psychological texts but nevertheless left behind an impressive legacy of written work.

Although many people may not be familiar with the name Erich Fromm, there can be no doubt about his significance in the twentieth century. Even now, his work remains significant. His theories on hoarding behavior, the creative power of love, and the destructiveness of hate, fear, and alienation are all relevant to the problems of today. His work lives on through the study of Terror Management Theory and has been quoted several times on the television show Criminal minds. The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet validates his position in history as one of the most important psychologists of the twentieth century (second only to Freud) and will remain among my treasured books for many years to come.

Fatal Purity (Book Review)

Portrait of RobespierreWhen I was a junior in high school I took a quarter-long course in psychology. One of our assignments required that we write an essay on someone who we admire. My initial choice was Maximilian Robespierre, the French Revolutionist and incorruptible Jacobin so widely reviled for the Reign of Terror, but my father expressed concern that my earnest admiration for Robespierre’s steadfast virtues might be misunderstood, and so I settled on Ed Wood.

My fascination with Robespierre has never died and upon recalling this little anecdote a few months ago, I searched out and discovered a 2006 biography about the man, appropriately titled Fatal Purity. Ruth Scurr, the author, is a journalist and because of this infamously dubious occupation one might suspect her loyalty to the facts but she abundantly demonstrates her allegiance and a mature understanding of history. In the introduction she explains the difficulties that befall the biographer and informs the reader throughout the book where and from whom information was obtained, whether the information is consistent with other accounts and reliable or if it came from Robespierre’s sister Charlotte. In some instances she offers multiple versions of an event if neither account can be fully substantiated, such as the two different stories explaining how Robespierre injured his jaw.

When I was younger I was attracted to Robespierre because his virtuous character inspired me towards an ideal morality free from doubt but as Ronespierre’s life certainly proves he was more than merely certain, he was uncompromisingly so, and misinterpreted disagreement as disloyalty and responded to it first with condemnation and eventually with execution. So far as we know, he was indeed incorruptible (in the height of his political power people did indeed try to scandalize his reputation but to no avail) but his purity definitely proved to be fatal. He was not quite the villain I was led to believe he was; the violence he later condoned (despite years of pacifism and opposition to the death penalty) was all at one with the violent turbulence of the revolution but what most impresses me about his life is the astonishing strength of the social forces that shape history and the actions of it actors.

They say history is written by the winners (now it is written by Hollywood) but, at least in this case, it is more accurate to say that it is written by whoever survives the guillotine.