An Excerpt From "Something That May Shock and Discredit You": The Opposite of Baptism
Thus having pass’d the night in fruitless pain,
I to my longing friends return again,
Amaz’d th’ augmented number to behold,
Of men and matrons mix’d, of young and old;
A wretched exil’d crew together brought,
With arms appointed, and with treasure fraught,
Resolv’d, and willing, under my command,
To run all hazards both of sea and land.
The Morn began, from Ida, to display
Her rosy cheeks; and Phosphor led the day:
Before the gates the Grecians took their post,
And all pretense of late relief was lost.
I yield to Fate, unwillingly retire,
And, loaded, up the hill convey my sire.
—The Aeneid, Book II, translated by John Dryden
This is the final chapter of the book. I rewrote it, along with several other chapters referencing my family of origin, in haste and distress in a hotel room in New York City on a single afternoon in November, one week before the manuscript was due at the printer’s.
Fellas, is it gay to bear the tired Caesar from the waves of Tiber on your shoulder, as our great ancestor Aeneas carried old Anchises from the flames of Troy? You’re literally a wretched creature who must bend his body if this man, now become a god, do carelessly but nod on him…
There are two accounts of how persons came to be in the book of Genesis, as it retells the making of them: first as a pair (Gen 1:26–28), later in sequence (Gen 2:7–24). The first is, perhaps unsurprisingly, my favorite. The story of creation is full of the pleasures of accuracy-in-naming—not quite “I calls ’em like I see ’em,” neither so idiosyncratic nor so defensive an attitude, but in taking correct measure of and full responsibility for things. The pleasures of the person Eve-and-Adam, who was both a community and a worker, came in cataloging, in identifying, in recognizing, in naming, in affirming—God’s work among God’s creatures. Labels that suggest vocation, rather than labels that restrict ability, if one is skeptical of labels.
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them,
“Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Let us call this act empersoning rather than impersonation. God begins the task of empersoning by speaking to himself, by making a delightful announcement and establishing the number of gifts he plans on giving someone else, then lists all the things he has already made in a pleasurable recitation. Persons are unlike creatures, in this account of creation, and yet they are recognizable and known to one another, bear different kinds of responsibility to one another. Persons have been given the task of creating more joys and pleasures in an already pleasurable world, of exploring, of establishing meaningful authority, of establishing care, of identifying life and offering it the rights and privileges that are all life’s due; one might spend a great deal of time examining the word “subdue” but I don’t especially care to. One might summarize this portion of Genesis as: there are many good ways to relate to everything that experiences life differently than oneself; persons have been tasked by a creative principle to explore them all.
I don’t remember who first claimed that the voice one uses to talk to animals is the voice one would like to use to speak to oneself; it sounds vaguely plausible in the way that most of my horoscopes do, but also a bit too neat to provide the whole story. But every dog I have ever lived with has made it clear to me that my desire for cheerful narration as I perform the tasks necessary to self-replication (cleaning, eating, stretching, drinking, walking, doing the washing-up, ignoring my mail, hormone injection, making tea) is immense, and it requires a dog in order to work; if I say those things to myself I feel ridiculous and infantilized, and if I say it to another human being, I’d likely (and rightly) be begged to knock it off. But a dog’s capacity to absorb repetition is equally immense, and in this way persons and dogs are uniquely suited to one another. There is no end to a dog’s ability to receive acts of affection and reassurance throughout the day. A dog delights in establishing comfort and meeting its physical needs in ways I often forget, avoid, attempt to draw out, or manipulate in myself.
In the second account of the creation of persons, God “causes a deep sleep to fall on Adam so he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place,” which is both too on-the-nose an analogy for top surgery to be worth bothering with, and too obvious a reference to Marilyn Manson supposedly getting some of his ribs removed so as to more efficiently suck his own dick; an effectively contentless Bible reference. This version, too, so often seems to cause people to lose their heads and attempt to draw conclusions about why, say, men are hardwired not to notice the little blinking light that means the dishwasher is ready to unload, the better to serve the Lord, or why women make especially good part-time social workers, because the rib is the most compassionate and curved of all the parts of the human skeleton, or similar nonsense. But it too is a story of a shared body, of like and unlike, of bones and flesh held in common, of naming and separation and distinction and community; there is good in this telling of the story, too.
Grace, who has previously appeared throughout this book first as an unnamed friend, then as my girlfriend, is now my wife; we were married shortly before I finished the manuscript. At the time, I understood our wedding as the crowning (or at least penultimate) addition to an already-large family; she is now the only family member with whom I have a relationship, a development that has been both completely devastating and entirely necessary. We both took public steps toward transition within a few months of each other, and hers has been consistent in a way mine has not. Every so often we seek reassurance from each other that it is not necessary for our transitions to serve as equal and opposite reactions to each other, that we are not violating a strict one-in-one-out policy, that what we hold in common is a commitment to autonomy, moral sanity, and pleasure. The fear that one day I will affirm a commitment to pleasure and autonomy that finally and inexorably alienates me from the approval of my family is now gone. I find the absence of this fear exhilarating and deeply disorienting, as it has acted as a counterweight on me for my entire adult life.
I fear—how could I not?—that I will merely replace one error with another, that I will take avowal of desire in itself as an unalloyed, uncomplicated good in all places and in all situations, that no matter what I try to make of my life, I will never be free of that counterweight, whether I ever speak to another member of my family of origin again—always reacting, equally and oppositely, to someone else’s commitments. I have changed my name, first, middle, and last, several times over. At present I have taken my wife’s last name as my own and have said, a little desperately, “No matter what happens between us, I’m staying a Lavery,” more than once. There are many good ways to relate to the world, except the way I was raised in—where then to begin seeking out new forms of relation, and against what should I try to rate these methods, having no organizing basis of comparison?
As a child, I belonged to a denomination that discouraged infant baptism but encouraged “adult” baptism beginning at the age of twelve; it perhaps goes without saying that I was not encouraged to make any other “adult” decisions on my own behalf at that age by either my family or the church to which we belonged. Plenty of twelve-year-olds spend a little time in a lake, of course; in a very real sense there’s nothing particularly unusual about my having been briefly dunked underwater the summer after sixth grade, and subsequently I have little to complain about. But I cannot shake the sense that I have only recently sprung from being held underwater, unsure whether I have been released or struggled my own way out or simply found myself, like all human beings, naturally and instinctively buoyant. If one finds ground to stand upon, it so follows that the rest of the river is but shallow; thus we get over.