Today, as you likely know, is Thanksgiving in the States. It’s also my 33rd birthday, and the first birthday I have celebrated since becoming estranged from my family of origin. I cannot quite settle on an appropriate term for what these people are to me right now. ‘Biological family’ seems to imply a historical lack of closeness, which isn’t true in my case. ‘Family of origin’ is perhaps the most accurate, but strikes me as clunky and oddly evasive. I could refer to them simply by their names, of course, but there’s something about attempting to eliminate relational language completely that strikes me as wishful thinking: Look at how much I already don’t care about them. Our only connections are haphazard, arbitrary, and genetic. Lucky me, I’m already self-actualized.
In my other job I often find myself in the position of giving advice to other people on the verge of becoming estranged from their own family. While I don’t offer that suggestion lightly, I do think I’ve approached it from a sort-of mathematically perspective – If they do X thing Y times a year and show Z remorse, you should start considering cutting them out of your life, at least until such time they demonstrate an interest in real, good-faith change. The assumption there is that the family of origin has always shown their hand, that you have time to see the estrangement coming and do your level best to avoid it or at least batten down the hatches in advance. I on the other hand, was caught completely off guard. Two weeks ago I learned something I could not live with – asked what had been done about it – learned that nothing had been done, nor would ever – was chided for suggesting it was, in fact, morally necessary to take action immediately – estrangement from my family of origin, which had the day before been the furthest thing from my mind, became a matter of the keenest urgency.
In the last week, I have been able to hastily rewrite the portions of my book concerning my family of origin, and have taken Grace’s last name – feeling, I think quite naturally, a little tired of how many times I have changed my name in the last two years. I have made choices I know I can live with, choices that prioritize loving accountability over secrecy, and encouraged my family of origin to do the same. I am spending my birthday-Thanksgiving with people I love and trust and know myself to be safe with, which I’m enormously grateful for. Now that I’m in a position to slow down and catch my breath, sift through what’s been done and what remains to be done, and assemble my priorities, I find myself with a number of things I cannot so easily estrange from myself—formerly happy memories which now cause me great pain, an impossible desire to remove all mannerisms and habits and turns of phrase that remind me of my origins, a sense of disequilibrium as I reassess the foundation of my existence. Also grief. Also anger. Also a desire to go back in time and do—something. To take new knowledge out of the present and into the past, and so redeem it. Also the flat realization that transition, the act by which I set such great hopes for future models of relating, is of no help to me in this present moment.
There’s an interlude from my new book about Bugs Bunny and Rilke I’ve been revisiting often in the last two weeks:
Rilke Takes A Turn
We cannot fathom his mysterious head
Through the veiled eyes no flickering ray is sent;
But from his torso gleaming light is shed
As from a candelabrum; inward bent
His glance there glows and lingers. Otherwise
The round breast would not bind you with its grace,
Nor could the soft-curved circle of the thighs
Steal the arc whence issues a new race.
Nor could this stark and stunted stone display
Vibrance beneath the shoulders heavy bar,
Nor shine like fur upon a beast of prey,
Nor break forth from tis lines like a great star—
There is no spot that does not bind you fast
And transport you back. You should have taken
a left turn at Albuquerque.
Hey, Doc, you’ve got a slight problem.
Just between the two of us, it’s duck-hunting season.
Have you ever had the feeling you were being watched?
Like the eyes of strange things are upon you?
Look, out there in the audience. My,
I bet you monsters lead interesting lives.
I said to my girlfriend just the other day—Gee,
I’ll bet monsters are interesting,
I said. The places you must go and the places
you must see, my stars! And I’ll bet
you meet a lot of interesting people, too. I’m always
interested in meeting interesting people. You should have taken
a left turn at Albuquerque.
The thing I had not realized about my own family estrangement until it came was that it was not an act of punishment or anger I could either decide to take or not. It was a moral and emotional reality that I could choose to accept or deny, but the estrangement exists with or without my consent. Many people, many queer people I love and admire, do not spend the holidays with their families of origin; I draw great strength from that and know there is great joy and goodness ahead for me. The loss is real, the wound is deep but not mortal, and I am not alone; today will be a good birthday, and unlike any I have ever had before.
With great affection,