By Barry Maxwell
In the detox facility at Austin Recovery, TV was a big deal. Literally. The flat screen monster hung larger than our shrunken lives, dominating the cozy, comfortably furnished common area with a wall of eye-magnet images. Our viewing options were curated to avoid triggering cravings or high emotions, but something shiny was always on.
I don’t remember what I watched, and it didn’t matter at the time. Detox was a 7-day soft landing before the move into residential rehab; I felt I’d stepped from homelessness into the pleasure dome, where the staff’s primary goal was to keep the clients calm, medicated, well fed, and to gently introduce us to AA-based life scripts while we dried out. The meds they chilled me with were mind erasers; I could’ve sunk into that comfy sofa and watched a Ginsu infomercial for the entirety of my allotted stay and never cared about anything more than slicing tomatoes paper thin, first time, every time. But the high was invisible, peripheral. When I tried to catch sight of the buzz, it would disappear in a flash of video static, like editing room splices interrupting a lucid, hypnagogic state. The drugs wedged a space between the self-conscious meta Me and the directly experiential Me—or possibly the opposite; they may have merged the two in a temporarily mindful union. Or maybe I was just really, really high. Regardless of mental nitpicks, I stared at the big screen pondering where blissful Barry went after the drugs wore off, and tried to figure out which of my minds was doing the pondering.
Samuel Peterson’s memoir, Trunky (Transgender Junky), triggers fuzzy recollections of my old rehab mindfucks, and settles me back onto the comfy couch, puzzling over whether I’d seen that evening’s programming already, and if I had, exactly who was I when I did?
In a purely personal and addictive sense, rehab was a transitional experience, a struggle toward releasing the drinking and drugging homeless dude I’d come to identify with, and the beginning of a search for the truer version of myself I’d put so much energy into suppressing. Insecurity and paranoia came as part of the package, and my greatest fear was the revelation of my own cowardice. I felt exceptionally alone. Wounded by my own hand. I sorted as best I could what I’d reveal (not much), what I’d hide (as much as possible), and how I would behave (as a mirror to almost anyone around me). My boundaries blurred; my barriers weakened; my performance shifted to suit the situation. Malleability was the strongest wall I could build, and I inhabited an ongoing bluff to avoid unmasking the coward I believed I was. And yet, I was there. I didn’t run, and if I’d had I the presence of mind, I would’ve known most of my fellow clients shared these issues.
Is it possible to claim I can relate to Sam’s psychic and physical wounds, as either heroin addict or transgender, while I am neither? In the times he writes about, those wounds were both figuratively and literally bleeding. How can I presume to understand any of that, to claim I know how it feels? Well, I don’t understand. I don’t know. I don’t have a fucking clue, but thanks to Sam’s peeling back the veneer of his experiences, I can try. My struggles to find any wholesome sense of humanity within seem so mundane, almost trivial in comparison, but in reading Trunky, I am not dismissed or belittled for my dime-a-dozen drunken problems. I’m not forced into a contest of hardship, nor rendered inhuman for my own self-centered vision. Samuel extends the same compassion to the reader that he does for his characters, folks in a confined and compressed mini-society where roles are claimed (honestly or not), labels are attached without consent, or are assumed for the sake of survival. In the rehab environment I experienced, bullshit is expected, lies are the norm, and vulnerability is by accident. It comes as a surprise. The surprises in Trunky come in kinships that defy those expectations.
In the here and now, more than 6 years later, I’m post-drunkenness, post-homelessness. I’m 57—older than I imagined I’d ever be, and about the same age as Sam. My roommate enjoys watching the nostalgia networks, the ones featuring black-and-white movies, 40-year-old game shows, and sitcoms playacting at reality. The Munsters were on earlier (Grandpa took the wrong pill and turned himself into a billy goat), and there are syndicated reruns of Three’s Company, Night Court, and Little House on the Prairie. I usually just listen from the kitchen—I like to pretend I’m above all that simplistic sentimentality—but I’m not immune to the lure of laugh tracks and remembering when. I’ll take a break from the dishes, or put dinner on hold to sit and watch.
This evening, Roseanne Barr tempted me away from stirring the Ragu. The episode was from Halloween of 1990, “Trick or Treat,” and Rosie appears costumed as one of the guys, complete with plaid flannel, hunting vest, a gimme cap, and a beard, drinking beer from the bottle in the pool hall. Conveniently, no one notices her higher-pitched voice, or looks closely enough to question her identity as “Bob.”
Roseanne is privy to the clattering pool hall conversation of men in their natural habitat, smirking at their Penthouse Forum-style fantasies, and giving them grief when they kowtow to the alpha braggart, reliving his latest imaginary threesome: “And then her roommate comes in and says, ‘Can I join you?’ … and then the roommate takes off all ‘er clothes, and I got both of ‘em to deal with!” Their camaraderie in swaggering tales of conquest and eroticized abuse doesn’t hold any real friendship, only misguided hero worship and hypermasculine domination games. In the land of beer and bluster, these boys truly must be boys, in order to consider themselves men.
The fun of the show is her sarcastration of the loudmouth bullshit, and I’m guessing it was a risky stance for the times. Certainly, her undercover presence in the midst of the men would be enough to alienate some die-hard macho viewers. Her social statement might have succeeded by simply exposing such casual and low-brow misogyny, but Roseanne’s spot-on wit nails it down tight.
There is a lot of wokefulness in that episode, despite its falling occasionally into dismissing those it intends to celebrate and affirm. Humor, and the false world behind the TV screen, give the gender tourism of “Trick or Treat” a comfortable distance, an arm’s-length opportunity for inclusion, or better, a mirror to one’s own behavior. When Rosie speaks truths that come too close to emasculation, Andrew “Dice” Clay’s “Bada-boom Bada-bing!” is her safe word—that’s all it takes to reassert Bob as a member of the he-man club. Her cover is reestablished, and the big boys fall for it without question. Unfortunately, to any member of the club watching the show, the phrase might also serve as a pause button for self-examination, rendering the truth as harmless as a prime-time punchline.
Roseanne’s concept was revelatory for the 90s, but Samuel, as Trunky’s third-person narrator, grants us access to a more authentic human than any sitcom writer could offer with authority, however noble the intent. “Trick or Treat” gives us a spy’s eye view of stereotypical maleness; it would be beyond the show’s episodic scope to attempt an examination of gender transition. Samuel, having been labeled like a specimen, as this, then that (and all too often othered), uses these various angles to open relatable entry points for his readers, regardless of their gender, biology, or sobriety, and without any of the bitterness I would likely put out there if in his place.
Compartmentalization and subterfuge are essential components of a successful drunk’s skill set. I’ve spent plenty of time living two-faced lives as an alcoholic. That’s child’s play compared to Sam’s necessary survival strategies, and, speaking as an aging cisgender white guy who’s trying to get woke, I know my position is one ignorant of realities I haven’t experienced. I might understand a fraction of Sam’s situation, if only in that if I let on what I am, or have been, in “normal” company, I risk being shut out, dehumanized, and reduced simply because of peoples’ tendency to label. But, as Sam writes, “It is tricky and even heretical to suggest that transgender is somehow like alcoholism.” I can only watch from the outside and try to meet Sam in his story, to try to step up from armchair cheerleader to ally. Reruns from decades past might help closed-minded old-schoolers realize how deeply they’ve been sleeping, but I, we, can’t rely on that sort of haphazard alarm clock. The snooze button is too close at hand.
In the confined society of rehab, Samuel is closeted in a manner and to a degree that’s near solitary in the silence required, while still walking free among the general population. How does one manage to keep girlhood a secret? How does one not let slip a damning story, when stories are so much a part of recovery? We readers are told of “the soft brutality of his first period,” and how his “joy at the tangible passage into adulthood was marred by its clear move towards womanhood,” but he doesn’t dare mention these milestones to his rehab cohort. Short of an unlikely acceptance of who he is, the odds are slim for any good outcome in the case of an unguarded word, favoring consequences from verbal assault to violence, and being shunned by the small community that is, by nature, already built of outsiders and chemical misfits.
Paradoxically, Samuel in rehab is uncloseted. I don’t mean he is a gay man under wraps, or a woman playing at maleness like Roseanne Barr’s Bob. The dilemma is not in hiding his true self, but in hiding the secret machinery of a biological shell he was born into. As a man, he is undisguised, and yet it’s an intolerable degree of nakedness: being openly yourself, while hiding the route you took to get there, hiding the fight to establish what you know of yourself versus what others expect, or choose to see. “Addiction coils one inward, while transition unfurls one outward,” Samuel writes in his afterword. He is the center of a spiral spinning in all directions, and shares the trials of dealing with it. Samuel takes us with him as transgender and junky, as a human relating to others as best he can in an unnatural situation, and as a writer, revealing what those around him cannot see. In his openness, he renders dehumanization impossible.
“Gender vigilance” is a term I’d never encountered, and the stress of it, the constant checking of one’s behavior, must be challenging in ways I can’t fathom. “He got up to pee and went into his room,” Sam writes, as we follow his thoughts into manly mythology: “I can’t sit down to pee. They’ll hear it. It sounds nothing like that heavy man-jet stream. Fuck my life.”
Roseanne explores the men’s room like a journey into the worst of the unfiltered (and unsanitary) male subconscious, and soon stands at the urinal beside a stoic stranger. She maintains the piss pose, and attempts conversation until she realizes, “Oh! I get it; it’s like being in an elevator.” The situation is an apt metaphor for the required male silence in vulnerable states. According to that antiquated etiquette, we don’t dare even speak when exposed, limited to expressing ourselves through grunts and nods in our unzipped moments.
Sam isn’t immune to the myths. Alone in his bathroom, but within earshot of others, “he decided to stand over the basin and make his piss sound like it was traveling some distance. Urine splashed dots on his calves and little oases on the steel rim. Well, at least it sounds better.” Sam’s need to even consider such details recalls the toxic horror of David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, in a scene where Willem Dafoe, as the uber-creep, Bobby Peru, powertrips and psycho-rapes Lula, played by Laura Dern. He invades her safe motel room, and from the offscreen bathroom he orders, “Y’all take a listen,” as he unzips and urinates. “Ya hear a deep sound come down from Bobby Peru.” He breaks Lula down in a mental and physical assault, like that of some sexualized and predatory alien, and laughs at her tears of fear and self-loathing. The scene closes on Lula’s feet, clicking her red heels in a vain wish for home. The most disturbing thing about this scene is not just the action itself, but that it’s so damnably believable. I suppose I share with Samuel the conflict of living in the mind of a man, yet knowing that men can, and do, behave like Bobby Peru. The task we face is to shed the skin of the sociopathic tropes attached to manhood, and find for ourselves what a real man is.
When I advanced from detox into the 28-days of rehab proper, I joined a cast of actors sullenly participating in a small production, one where even those who wanted to be there often wished they weren’t. Some needed clean time for the courts, or to prove to their familial keepers they could straighten up. Some reveled in the month of 3 hots and a cot. Most took it seriously, though, sincerely wanting to quit. There were no fences or locked doors. Anyone could walk away at any time.
My ensemble of housemates at Austin Recovery spanned ages 18 to ancient, spanning a wide range of social strata, and a fully represented continuum of intelligence, depth, and degrees of criminality, all based upon how they chose to present themselves. There were times of authenticity, but we tended to insert ourselves into ready-made roles. It was more comfortable to hide than to risk exposure, and wise to discreetly size up any new patient. Our eyes, too, “were pickpockets,” as Sam writes, “accidentally bumping into you and taking your ID.”
I was older than most of the pickpockets in my group. A stock character, like Otis, Mayberry’s town drunk, though I was also opportunistically addicted to other substances and mindsets. (Meth or coke would’ve been close runners-up to alcohol, but homelessness didn’t have that expansive a budget.) I entered the program unprepared, asking myself what I’d gone and gotten myself into, my tongue dry from nerves, my throat constricted, choking on my lines. I reminded myself hourly that I’d volunteered for this shit, and had no right to complain or collapse.
One of our exercises was to write our life stories, especially as related to our addictions. The third-person voice worked best for my assignments; it was a cop out that made it easier to include the worst of my history without truly owning it. Samuel’s use of the third person doesn’t dodge ownership, though. His voice is bold enough to hold his inner workings to the light like a candled egg, with the interiority a first-person narrative might only hope for. We witness and participate without over-identifying, experiencing the details he observes, and living with him through shiveringly intimate post-hysterectomy junkie problems. I found my habitual linguistic patterns shaken at first, then willingly retrained to accept the juxtaposition of masculine pronouns with female anatomy:
He pushed, gently. A little more. Blood began to drip into the bowl. He couldn’t let go, which was weird for an addict in withdrawal, but he knew sometimes his guts did the reverse of any expectations. The straining had pushed something inside, in his vagina, from the hysterectomy…He watched his mind decide to believe it wasn’t a problem.
My assigned recovery counselor, David G., called me and two other guys in for an office sit-down during the first days of our stay. We gathered at his desk, and he handed us each a page printed with the aphoristic advice: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you always got.”
David passed out pens, and asked that we take a minute to write what the words meant to us. He had us read our thoughts aloud. Our responses were typically trite and optimistic. We did stupid things and our lives got stupid in turn. We would learn our lessons and change our ways, we said. We would strive to be good boys in his care, in the hope that goodness would result.
“Excellent,” David said. “You all get it.” But then he asked, “Okay. Why do you think I had you do this?”
We each came up with slightly different answers, all about becoming more aware of our behaviors, assuming he meant to drive home the lesson.
“Nope,” David said. “You’re all wrong.” He took our pages, wadded them and tossed them in the trash. “I just wanted to know if y’all could read and write.”
We laughed, and he didn’t. He’d tricked us.
“Don’t ever think you can read anybody’s mind,” he explained. “Or think you know why they do what they do.” He asked for his pens back, and settled into paperwork, looking up only to say, “Thank you, gentlemen. Now go away.”
Any book impacts each reader differently—passages I may breeze through could well be the ones that stop you in your tracks. I can’t presume to read your mind (or the author’s), and can barely keep tabs on my own. Samuel Peterson’s intent, though, is readable, if not his mind. Trunky isn’t a “look at me!” vanity memoir, a travelogue of addictive hardship, or a plea for attention or sympathy. It’s a hard, heart-filled, and hopeful story of one transgender man, and opens wide a world that I haven’t seen up close. It’s also a lesson in the puzzles of relationships, the way people reshape themselves to fit together, and it leads me to question which pieces are missing from my personal picture, or fit nowhere because of my judgmental whims. Trunky forces me to note where I let thoughtless bigotry exist as a default state of mind. Samuel Peterson cracked my head open to let some light in. He taught me to be more aware of my thought patterns of casual cruelty and “Bada-boom! Bada-bing!” and of the too-easy dismissals of our instincts for compassion, inclusion, and understanding. I can better watch my mind decide that there is a problem, and in the third person, become a meta-mechanic, and get to work on fixing it.
Barry Maxwell is the founder of the Street Lit Authors Club, which provides books and creative writing workshops to Austin’s homeless community. He is a 56-year-old native Austinite, a former bar band drummer and drunk dude under the bridge, and a late-out-of-the-gate writer and student. Barry holds a GED (Class of 2011!) and an AA in creative writing from Austin Community College, and is a soon-to-be graduate of UT. In the autumn of 2017, he’ll be heading north to the University of Montana to pursue an MFA in fiction. You can find his work online in Split Lip Magazine, Crack the Spine, the Open Bar @ Tin House, the Mud Season Review, and at PitheadChapel.com. Visit barrymaxwell.net or streetlit.org, and feel free to say hi.