Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Animorphs Revisited: #3 - The Encounter

In which I dispense entirely with the usual format of these posts and instead develop the “hawk!Tobias as trans* metaphor” theme in detail. 
My name is Tobias. A freak of nature. One of a kind.
This book complicates the reading of hawk!Tobias as a trans* person, but in a way I find really personally resonant. I kind of wish I'd reread it back when I was first wrestling with the decision to transition, because I think there's a painful honesty here that would have meant a lot to me. In this children's book. About kids who turn into animals to fight brain-controlling alien slugs. No, really. Transitioning has, I think, made me a better and happier person, but it's painful and difficult: I truly believe it's the best decision I've ever made, but I still wish I didn't have to do it, and I don't like it and I wish it wasn't part of who I am. It's vastly more complicated than those simplistic, outmoded “trapped in the wrong body” narratives suggest. I can't help but have an ambivalent relationship with my transition. After all, on a purely logistical level, my life was easier when I was living as a woman. I didn't have to feel like I was disappointing and hurting everyone who loved me just by existing; I didn't have to stare down bartenders and airport security officials who can see the mismatch between my gender presentation and the name on my ID; I didn't have to despair over medical bills I can't afford (admittedly, that last wouldn't be a problem if I'd stayed in the UK). I have hated my transgender identity and I have hated my trans body. Even though being a man makes me feel fully alive in a way I couldn't have imagined before, I still have days when I wish I could return to the cocoon of denial and live a “normal” life.

Let me clarify upfront that I am not mapping “male/female” directly onto “hawk/human.” Rather, I am suggesting that Tobias' journey toward accepting and making the best of a body that does not adequately reflect who he is, or who he wants to be, can be read as loosely analogous to the process – which begins as you start to really question your gender, and may continue as transition – of learning to live fully in your trans* body, even though that body is not and may never be precisely the way you feel it should be.

Tobias is undergoing the fragmentation of identity that can sometimes happen during the early stages of transition, when you're struggling to reconcile your past self with the self you want to be. He talks about “the human in my head” and “the hawk in me,” refers to them in the third person, and seems to envision them as conflicting entities, neither of which is his true self. It distinctly reminds me of my pre-transition gender struggles, when I was beginning to accept that I couldn't be a woman, but felt as though I somehow hadn't earned the right to consider myself not a woman. It's incoherent, but it's emotionally truthful to my experience.

He has talked in the past about loving the hawk morph, and he certainly still recognizes the practical upsides: Flying, free entry to concerts and sports events, freedom from routine. “There were millions of things I could do as a bird that I couldn't do as a human.” On the other hand, “It's strange the things you miss when you lose your human body. Like showers. Like really sleeping, all the way, totally passed out. Or like knowing what time it is.” There are pros and cons to being both human and hawk, both trivially and in the broadest sense of one's self-conception; but Tobias will never be simply and unambiguously one or the other. In the same way, at this relatively early stage of transition I struggle to feel simply and unambiguously male, just as, before transition, I never felt simply or unambiguously female. (Of course, many trans people do feel their gender simply and unambiguously. I don't completely rule out the possibility that maybe one day I will too, but right now it's still an ongoing battle.) I am a person complicated by a knotty history of maleness and femaleness, which means that I do not fit the societal norm of either and I have had to wrestle with the expectations and experiences of both. Saying “I am and have always been a man trapped in a woman's body” would, I feel, elide the very real experiences that have formed my past and present self. (Though, again, that is how I personally feel. Other trans* people may and do feel differently.)

Just so, saying “Tobias is a boy trapped in the body of a hawk” is an oversimplification that elides the lived realities of what he is going through. And, since – unlike with medical gender transition – there really isn't anything he can do about it, it's not a narrative that helps him come to any useful sense of self-understanding. If he understands himself solely as a human trapped in the body of a hawk, all he can do is hate himself and be miserable. Indeed, he fairly explicitly attempts suicide in the text, at the lowest point of his struggle for self-actualization, but it is his friends who save him.

Friends – community, people who sympathize and are willing to listen, people who can ground you and support you – are, in my estimation, the single most crucial component of any major life event. If you're going through a big change, though, you will have a lot of complicated feelings about the friends you nonetheless rely on. That's okay. It's legitimate to feel those things, and you simply need to process and work through them. Tobias couldn't do without the other Animorphs, but he still feels both envy of their “normalcy” and resentment of their pity. It hurts to be around them, and yet they offer him the support and love he desperately needs. It's painfully relatable.

“I hated the way they all felt sorry for me.”
“I suddenly saw myself as they all must see me: as something frightening. A freak. An accident. A sickening, pitiable creature.”
“'Because what counts is what is in your head and in your heart,' [Rachel] said with sudden passion. 'A person isn't his body. A person isn't what's on the outside.'” (WHAT? NO, OF COURSE I'M NOT CRYING. SHUT UP. YOU'RE CRYING.)

Tobias' dysphoria tilts him toward the twin fears of (i) losing himself and (ii) being forced to be what his body seems to be. If you focus too much on the externals of who you are, do you not risk losing your internal sense of self? But if you deny those physical externals completely, do you not risk living only half a life?
I was Tobias. A human. A human being, not a bird! … I was human. I was a boy named Tobias. A boy with blond hair that was always a mess. A boy with human friends. Human interests.
But part of me kept saying, 'It's a lie. It's a lie. You are the hawk. The hawk is you. And Tobias is dead.'
I'm reminded of a point that Gayle Salamon makes in her essay “Transfeminism and the Future of Gender”: “Transition is framed as if it is akin to a death or as if the post-transition subject will, with hir emergence, enact the death of the pretransition subject.” Salamon rightly critiques this framing for its image of violence committed against the self, when in reality transition is a radical act of self-love and a healing of the psyche rather than the fragmentation thereof. And yet it is an image I have, I admit, found myself using sometimes. Horrible thoughts and terrible feelings are part and parcel of the agonies of self-discovery.
Suddenly I desperately didn't want to be there. I felt an awful, gaping black hole open up all around me. I was sick. Sick with the feeling of being trapped. Trapped. Forever! I looked at my talons. They would never be feet again. I looked at my wing. It would never be an arm. It would never again end in a hand. I would never touch. I would never touch anything . . . anyone . . . again.
Tobias swings to both extremes before being able to find a way to reconcile the different parts of himself. He tries succumbing to the worst, most hopeless agonies of irremediable dysphoria, and he tries denying his inner human entirely and living solely as a hawk. Neither option suffices to fulfill him as a truly actualized self. His redemption lies in his recognition of the analogy of his situation with that of the Yeerk-infested humans, trapped and powerless in bodies they can't escape, and his pledge to strive for their freedom. He may not ever gain freedom for himself, but he can sure as hell fight for the freedom of others.

In its own way, this decision enables him to reach a new, performative self-understanding: <I am a human, yes. But I am also a hawk. I'm a predator who kills for food. And I'm also a human being who. . . who grieves, over death.> “Human” and “hawk” are rough blueprints, not discrete prescriptive categories, and Tobias belongs to both insofar as he is and does them.
I am Tobias. A boy. A hawk. Some strange mix of the two. … Be happy for me, and for all who fly free.

Next time: Cassie goes all Sam Winchester on us, the gang acts out a real live Lisa Frank design, and we meet my most favorite character.

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