CHILDHOOD TRAUMA OVER SEXUAL IDENTITY
“Conventional wisdom” is the body of ideas or explanations generally accepted by the public and/or by experts in a field. (In religion, this is known as orthodoxy.) The term was popularized by the economist John Kenneth Galbraith in a 1958 book. Its usage dates back to at least 1838, in a benign or neutral sense, as a synonym for “commonplace knowledge.” Galbraith used the term pejoratively as representing commonplace beliefs so acceptable and comfortable to society they enabled resistance to facts that challenged “conventional wisdom.”
Conventional wisdom is analogous to inertia that opposes introduction of contrary belief by persons strongly holding an outdated but conventional view. The conventional wisdom in 1950 even among most doctors was that smoking tobacco is not particularly harmful to one’s health. Today’s conventional wisdom is that it is….
— c/f Wikipedia
For as long as my 77-year-old brain can remember, conventional wisdom has held that a common feature of senescence is increasingly vivid recall of earliest memories all the way back to early childhood. The oldster who can’t remember where he put his car keys or forgets doctor appointments — while able to reminisce at length and in vivid detail about childhood experiences either happy or traumatic — is almost a cliché. Personally, I have observed this phenomenon even in family members stricken with Alzheimer’s, which can be heartbreaking when they sink back into the shadows as the dread disease progresses.
My present rumination, which led me to look up “conventional wisdom,” are exclusive of such brain damage, and focuses on the commonly held belief that, in unafflicted brains, earliest memories crystallize in our dotage, real as yesterday. Being a writer, with the off-again, on-again habit of journaling as an aid to creativity, and a memory diagnosed as “photographic” when I was in the fourth grade, I am accustomed to accessing early memories for story-telling. A more formal approach than the oldster sitting on the porch and spinning yarns of long-ago that sometime bore the younger generations to tears. After a lifetime career of writing, I pretty much thought I had mined the entire continuum of my life. I was wrong.
A precipitating event that proved me wrong was recent news about tribulations of what these days are called “trans” people. There was a video clip of a legislator about his struggles accepting a trans child among his offspring, and his epiphany. He refused his child permission to go play with neighbor kids because the child was wearing his sister’s dress, something he frequently did and which upset his father. When the child asked could he go play if he changed into boy clothes, he realized he was trying to compel his child’s compliance with commonplace knowledge: born with a boy’s body, you’re a boy, period. And for love of his child, he abandoned conventional wisdom. The man’s testimonial was moving, and put me in mind of Jennifer Fox, a stripper and burlesque dancer born a boy who initially performed as a female impersonator until she made enough money for Scandinavian surgery that aligned her body with her brain. I met her and wrote her story for a daily newspaper back in the seventies.
Having watched the clip of the legislator’s remarks about his now-daughter, irrespective of surgery, led me to reading news stories about a Canadian actor who made his first film appearances as a girl. He reported the enormous emotional stress of being misidentified by the conventional wisdom, and the vast relief he felt after a double mastectomy and restructuring of his chest into male configuration. It was kind of a reverse version of Jennifer Fox’s journey.
His very personal revelation of the almost-horror he endured every time he was required to don female attire unveiled my own personal horror, so long buried in my brain I had forgotten. The memory came crashing back so vividly I got a stomach ache. Shakespeare famously said one touch of nature makes the whole world kin. The actor’s courage in revealing his childhood traumas around sexual identity resonated with me. My own was objectively trivial in comparison. But when were emotions ever objective?
My little drama began when I was a Cub Scout in a pack sponsored by my church. I have written elsewhere about Cub Scout experiences — the most vividly recalled being ripping out the crotch of my pants on a barbed-wire fence escaping an angry bull on a field trip. And celebrating by eating tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches the grownups left on the shelf under the back window of the car in 90-degree temperatures. And damn-near dying from food poisoning because the mayonnaise had gone bad.
And how I blamed tomatoes and refused to eat them for thirty years or so.
But my trauma revolved around a costume skit the pack was scheduled to put on in church. I have no recall of what it was about. All that remains seared in memory — and suppressed all these years — was the issue of hula skirts. We were supposed to dress up like Hawaiian dancers with grass skirt and leis. My grandmother plumbed the family collection of artifacts collected by her far-ranging sons and produced a genuine Hawaiian skirt for me to try on so she could adjust the waist to my nine-year-old frame.
I thought I would throw up.
The very notion of pretending to be a girl made me literally ill. I told her I didn’t want to do it. She waved away my complaint and said I’d make a good hula dancer. I felt betrayed by one of the most important people in my life. I could not articulate what felt so very wrong about dressing as a female. I just knew I was a boy, full stop. But the die seemed cast in the several days before the skit was to be performed. I used every excuse to avoid another fitting. That damn grass skirt seemed to grow and grow, dominating the room. I could feel it lurking there from every other room in the house. The grownups’ casual acceptance I had to do this made me physically ill.
I developed a high fever. Aspirin and honey-laced hot tea failed to cool it. The morning of the day the skit was to be performed, I awoke with excruciating pain in my right side. The skin over the pain was tight as a drum. The lightest touch caused paroxysms of pain. Doctors still made house calls in the fifties. Doc Mathis, who delivered me in the front bedroom because my mother distrusted hospitals, arrived to examine me. I had a sneaking suspicion my grandmother believed I was malingering. I hurt so bad I could barely think.
The doctor harbored no psychosomatic suspicions. He verified the fever, listened to heart and lungs, gently palpitated the rigid abdomen with his giant gentle paws. He gave me a shot of something, probably penicillin, to thwart possible infection and said I needed to be kept in bed under observation. If the condition worsened I needed a hospital; his tentative diagnosis was appendicitis. I spent a miserable feverish afternoon as the time for the skit approached. Dared not ask if they intended to take me there despite my illness. That damned grass skirt dominated my feverish thoughts.
Finally, finally I overheard my grandmother on the phone to the scoutmaster, saying I was really sick and could not attend. It is difficult to overstate the gush of pure relief I felt. I relaxed into the deep sleep of the innocent. Next day my fever was gone and my abdominal pain and rigidity had gone. My boyhood was saved. My grandmother looked askance, but did not accuse me of creating an illness to dodge wearing a hula skirt. She tucked it back among her souvenirs and we never spoke of it again.
When I announced I was quitting the Cub Scouts there was no demur. I was taking no chances on any more such nonsense. Feel free to go ahead and laugh at my little long-forgotten drama. But vivid recall now says it was an enormous trauma to the boy I was. The benefit for me is how it engages my total empathy for the outliers of this world, trans people trapped by conventional wisdom in a body that does not match their private brain. May they have the luck of a parent like that legislator, and the family of Jennifer Fox who accepted her differences long ago, and the courage of that Canadian actor.