Gender Confusion

Ever wonder why Baby Boomer women are not all hip to gender dysphoria and its complex new requirements? Most of us have had our own bouts of confusion. Being female had so many pitfalls. What Freud called Penis Envy came from varied experiences, most of which proved that we would never be equal to the men who orchestrated our worlds. . . .

There we were, stuffed into Mark’s MGB – Mark in the driver’s seat, Michael in the passenger’s, and I curled onto the shelf in front of the back windshield – headed east across Route 40.

Somewhere between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Iowa City, Iowa, I got my period. . . . and my first glimpse of what might have been a moment of mild gender dysphoria.

It was April 1966; I was nearly 18.  My boyfriend Mark and I were on our way to celebrate in NYC.  Our plan was to drive to the city, spend a day, and drive back to Albuquerque in time for the last months of our second semester at the University of New Mexico. 

In many ways, the trip was more like an acid trip than real life.

It came about late one Friday night. We were at Mark’s with another friend, a guy named Michael, who had a mad crush on Mark.  I was just beginning to catch onto the vibe that Mark was actually more interested in Michael than in me, but I was still a virgin in every possible sense of the word, and while the information processing through me induced anxiety, I didn’t acknowledge its significance.

Mark and Michael were probably stoned, definitely mellow, They had either eaten small portions of shrooms or drunk large draughts of Romilar CF.  As one who hated feeling high, I was the designated straight man, so to speak, listening to a staticky jazz station on a transistor radio.  A woman’s voice covering Sinatra’s New York anthem caught my ear, and I dissolved into homesickness tears.

Mark and Michael stopped ogling each other to ask why I was crying, and the next thing I knew, we were stuffed into Mark’s MGB – Mark in the driver’s seat, Michael in the passenger’s, and I curled onto the shelf in front of the back windshield – headed east across Route 40.

“ First stop: Iowa City,” Mark announced. “Robin’ll be happy to see us.”

Robin, my counterpart in Iowa City,  had been Mark’s girlfriend when he was a freshman at the University of Iowa before his mother tugged him back to UNM, where, thanks to his Zuni ancestry, tuition was free.

A small fact that Mark failed to disclose was that his little car wasn’t actually his.  It was registered in both his and his twin brother Kent’s names.  He hadn’t told Kent what we were planning, so technically we were committing Grand Theft Auto. But had that occurred to any of us that night, we would not have cared.  We were on our way to New York City.

I desperately needed to get away. Spring Break gave me extreme agita, too much time to think. I didn’t know what to do with my growing awareness that Mark was not just a polite young man who respected me too much to ask for you know what.  I had no idea what my feelings were and no clue what I should do if I figured them out.  

If only, I thought, I were a boy.  Or better yet, a man.

I had often felt that I’d have been better off as a guy. I was a big girl – 5’7  “, 185 pounds. When I did dress up, my friends called me a beautiful drag queen, and I took that as a compliment, but I usually dressed as androgynously as my size and shape would allow. For this trip, I had brought my manliest outfits – baggy khakis, oversized sweatshirts, a huge trench coat borrowed from a friend.  I could have been my own brother, a linebacker or a shot putter out of uniform.

So there I was in Kansas – or some proximity thereto – without anything feminine.  I had entered a time in my life when denial was the only state I could bear to be in, so I was able to disavow any connection to womanhood.  How I could have ignored the fact that I’d eventually need feminine napkins and tampons eludes me now, but I was shocked when we made a pit stop, and the mess in my drawers reminded me I actually had an assigned gender. 

“I need to get to a drug store.  Pronto,” I told the boys as I climbed back onto my perch. 

Mark winced.  He was inordinately close to his mom and recognized the urgency in my tone. 

“Fuck,” he whined.  “We’ll. Have to detour off the highway.”

I felt the same rush of humiliation I’d been feeling since my cycles began when I was 9.  I muttered an apology before I closed my eyes and wished fervently for a Deus ex machina to swoop in and free me from the bonds of female fecundity.  Being a woman was embarrassing.  Nothing but trouble.  Worst of all, already undesirable to the boy I loved, I had become downright repugnant.

Had I ever liked being a girl?  Probably not.  My parents punished me for everything my brother got away with. I hated dolls and wanted to be a race car driver.  All the male cousins in our family made my mother and her sisters smile; when the boys were around, the tone in my grandmother’s voice turned dulcet.  When they left, she reverted to her shrewish self.  I was not pretty or delicate, and I could not relate to flirting.  No. I hated being a girl.

We stopped at the drugstore in some small hamlet near the highway. 

“Get me a pack of smokes while you’re in there,” Mark ordered.  “Montclairs.”

“Yeah,” barked Mike.  “And a Snickers bar for me.”

I roamed the store for a few minutes before I found what I needed.  Then, at the checkout, I pointed to the cigarettes, grabbed the chocolate bar. 

“Anything else?” the clerk asked me.

I shook my head.

“That’ll be $5 even.”

I put the money on the counter and, as I turned to leave, I heard him say without any irony in his voice, “Thank you, sir.  Come again.”

Every prickle in my uneasy personality stood up in my craw.  It startled me that I was angry.  How dare he?  Didn’t he get . . . .

I opened the door and turned around.

“Thanks, ma’am,” I said in my softest, most feminine purr.  “See ya.”

Sixteen hours after we left Albuquerque, we arrived at sweet Robin’s, where she gave us blankets and pillows so we could sack out on the floor of her living room.  In the morning, she let Mark use the phone to call his mom long distance. 

“Make it short though,” she pleaded.  “My parents’ll have a cow if the bill’s too big.”

Mark went into her bedroom to use the baby blue princess phone on the floor next to her mattress.  He closed the door behind him, hoping for some privacy.

A female voice shrieking epithets crossed all state lines and burst through the phone into the living room.  Then we heard Mark sobbing.

“He is such a little girl,” Michael sneered.  “He should ’a’ let you make that call.”

When Mark joined us, he said, “She told me if I’m not back by day after tomorrow, she’ll put out an APB.  She already told the tribal cops. She’s not kidding.  We gotta go back.”

Michael snorted.  “You are such a little girl.  What could the cops do anyhow?”

“Arrest us.  For stealing the car.  You know.  Kent can file a complaint. It’s as much his as it is mine.”

“Screw it then,” I said.  “Let’s go back.”

We folded ourselves back into the little toy vehicle and buzzed on over to Route I-80. 

“No stops except for gas, water, pee,” Mark proclaimed. Everything else would have to wait till we got to Albuquerque. 

Only we never did.

Michael was driving.  It was well past midnight, and we were a few miles out of Fort Morgan, Colorado on a deserted stretch of highway.  It was Mark’s turn to sleep on the ledge, and I was soundly snoring in the passenger seat when a deafening clunk, followed by a throbbing grind woke us up.  The car shimmied, then convulsed.  Michael pulled over as smoke began to pour out of the engine. 

“We gotta get outta this thing,” Mchael screamed, and we all jumped out and pulled as far away from the snorting machine as we could. 

“Shit,” Mark said, laying his head on my shoulder. “My mother’s gonna kill me.  And she’ll blame you.”

“Me? Why me?”

“You’re a girl.”

He was right.  Our escapade ended that night.  Mark called his brother.

“You asshole,” Kent said. “Just leave the car where it is. Greg ‘n’ I’ll drive over ‘n’ get it.”

Kent was a certified mechanic.  He’d know what to do with it.

Mark, Michael and I hitched a ride into town and found a room that Mark’s mother paid for, and we slept till it was time to catch the morning’s first Trailways back to Albuquerque. 

Mark’s mother never invited me back to their ranch.  She never spoke to me again.

“That’s what you get,” she told Mark, “for loving a girl.”

It’s Still Tolling

. . . any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
John Donne 1624

Back in December, 2014, the day after the Newtown Massacre, I wrote about my own experience with a shooter in the building and the trauma I experienced from the anticlimactic event (“It Tolls For Thee,”). At the end of the piece, I lamented, “”This is not going away.  The people of Newtown, the people of Connecticut, the people of the East Coast, and by tomorrow, the people of the entire country will live in the shadow of this day forever. Question is, how can we protect the other Newtowns to come?  It’s already too late to begin, but better late than never. . . ”

Since then, there have been 201 more shootings in this country. When do we say E N O U G H??

Evangelicals, anti- or pseudo-intellectuals on left and right, special interest groups of all kinds, and untold millions of influencers put pressure on our legislators to ban books and art, outlaw drag shows, curb women’s rights, thwart equality for LGBTQ, legislate the teaching of science and history as myth and fairy tale. They succeed. All across America, poor Atlas is having a really hard time keeping the world balanced on his back as it threatens to topple over.

What feels like the final blow, what seems to be the thing that could push Atlas and his precious cargo right into the abyss forever is the problem of guns in our midst. All the marching for lives that matter, all the canceling of professorial opinion, all the revisionist rhetoric on both sides have ignored a REAL problem we ALL face. The one thing that should bind us together: finding a way to end the oppressive hold guns have on all our lives.

Every day parents send their children to school with no guarantee they’ll return. Every day children are forced to rehearse for the possibility that they will be targeted by an angry someone with no better outlet for their anger than kids in a school. Every day we throw up our hands and say, “What can we do?” And we blame the lawmakers and the NRA and the gun-toter machismo that seems to have a stranglehold on our collective sanity.

We can point fingers all we want. We all know who is really to blame. We are. We throw up our hands and sigh, we write thoughts and prayers and Imsosad on social media, we shake our heads and tzikkash, and we even send money to the coalitions of survivors’ parents who are out there trying to make it stop. But we don’t do enough.

We need to follow the example the French and Israelis have set this month. They shut down their countries to make their wishes known, and they are succeeding. Why? Because a country without services is a country at a standstill. A country at a standstill needs to appease those who are shutting it down in order to get it back up and running.

We need to shut this country down. To show our government — from the top down — that we really are at a point where we just can’t take it anymore. If every service provider said simply, I am not going to work until the government finds a way to rein in the violence, to control these weapons of mass destruction, to make our children safe not just from the bullets themselves but also from the anxiety of expecting to be hit and the trauma of the aftermath.

If we could the people could set aside our differences for just a few days and figure out a way to get the whole country on board to stop the trains, block the runways, brake the buses, close the schools, refuse to open clinics for well visits, how long do you think it would take before legislation would be in place to protect our kids?

I know. Dream on. I have to. The nightmare wants to consume me.

I have a grandchild who lives overseas. Whenever I go to visit him, people shake their heads and say, “Aren’t you scared for your kids there?” The State Department issues warnings about the country where he lives, suggesting that it’s not safe to go there. Yet the only people who carry guns there are the military, who stand guard at schools, airports, bus stations, et al., to ensure that no reign of terror succeeds in taking hold. No child is forced to spend valuable educational time practicing ways to avoid being shot by a maniacal interloper.

Every year I beg my kid to come back, to be near enough so my hugs don’t have to rely on Zoom for most of the year. The answer is always the same. “Not until I can feel safe sending them to school. . . . “

Can’t we make that happen?

From Motherless to Motherer

Rachel Louise Snyder’s Women We’ve Buried, Women We’ve Burned

One of my favorite workshops to teach is something I call “Acting for Writers.” It’s a class that investigates how to put ourselves in closer touch with our sense and emotional memory, the way actors do. After all, I explain, actors and writers are artists of the same cloth, who share clear objectives: to tell stories, to entertain, inform, enlighten, even sometimes warn an audience or to unburden themselves of secrets too heavy to hold onto.  In doing so, they seek to be authentic, honest, and believable.

Rachel Louise Snyder could teach my class simply by sharing her work.  What distinguishes that work is the way emotion emerges without being manipulative, the way observations and revelations illustrate how deeply a skilled writer can cut into the very center of human existence and bring it to life on the page.  I never fail to believe Rachel Louise Snyder. I never distrust her.  She is among the most reliable narrators I know. I take in her confidences, and I resolve to keep them in a safe place where they can continue to enlighten me.

So it is with Women We Buried, Women We Burned, Snyder’s soon-to-be-published memoir.  The story of Snyder’s life, beginning with childhood trauma – her mother’s death, her father’s embrace of evangelical fundamentalism – that led to hard-driving self-destructiveness, and then to total self-transformation might seem calculated and farfetched from a less ingenuous writer.  But Snyder’s writing is so stark, so clear, so unfettered by hyperbole of any kind that the saga resonates with irresistible urgency.

Snyder’s narrative journey begins when her mother dies. She hears her mother call out, “I can’t breathe,” and she recognizes even at the tender age of 9 that her mother desperately wants to live but has lost the battle with her disease. Rachel’s father, confused and helpless at the death of his young wife and the responsibility of raising two children nearing their teen years, tells Rachel that her Jewish mother has happily surrendered to death and resides now with Jesus in Heaven. He has almost immediately devolved to a religious self he never was before, and from that moment his young daughter intuits that she cannot trust her father to be the man her mother married, the father she used to know. 

Without warning, Rachel’s father submits himself to unforgiving religion, which he imposes on his family and enforces through the use of corporal punishment.  He loves by force of will and shows affection by exerting dominance. He marries a woman he easily controls, and Rachel’s only defense is willful defiance of everything he stands for. After she is expelled from the Christian school he has forced her into, he turns her out of the family home and refuses to let her back in. 

Endowed of remarkable resilience and empowered by ever-improving survival skills, Rachel wanders through her adolescence and experiences sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll until she finds herself in college, where she gets by, thanks to her superior intelligence and a little help from her friends.  To her surprise, she discovers a love of learning, fascination with history, and, most importantly, commonality with other women – battered and buried women, who have survived or who have been defeated. Then she binds herself to an abiding faith that she can make a difference. 

Ultimately, Rachel Louise Snyder’s story is one of evolving maternalism. The motherless child becomes mother of herself. The self-motherer becomes mother to her stepmother, to her remarkable daughter Jazz, and to the women whose stories without her might never be told.  Her story is a guide for us all.  She models the liberating power of self-acceptance and exemplifies the need for self-love.

I believe her. Every word.


It’s an odd thing to be a sister whose little brother has died.

The sister is not the wife who tended to him for 42 years, who devoted her existence to making sure he lived longer than anyone could have predicted.  The sister is not responsible for orchestrating his diabetes care, his two kidney transplants, his quintuple by-pass, or for guarding his limbs with her life so that he would die with most of himself intact.

The sister is not the adopted son, the boy-now-man who needed a father and found in the brother a gently adamant hand that guided him through the tumult of adolescence and into an altruistic career.

Nor is the sister the granddaughter he took in at her birth, whom he nurtured, fed, coddled, and adored while his wife, her grandmother, worked to support them all when he had been forced into early retirement.  The granddaughter who ran to her Poppi whenever her feelings were hurt or her path confused her.

Or the 9-year-old niece who came to visit and stayed till she graduated from college, married a surgeon, attended law school, and settled in the heartland.

The sister is peripheral.  She has no rights to the mourning.  She knows that the wife, the son, the granddaughter, and the niece own the wailing rights.  And who is this sister to suffer from his loss?

After all, all this sister is is the grown-up child into whose hands her grandmother placed this brother when he arrived home from the hospital on his fourth day of life.  She is the person who hardly remembers life before there was this brother, whom she didn’t always like but never failed to love.

It was she who caught him when he fell off the neighbor’s garage roof pretending to be Davy Crockett on the trail of Big Bad Mike Fink. She is the one who ran to get Daddy when little brother climbed a telephone pole in the aftermath of a hurricane and tried to use his new tool kit to fix a live electric wire.  It was she who walked him to school on his first day of Kindergarten, when his hearing was still returning from near-deafness. She stood guard over him while he played with gusto, alone and jubilant, on the playground. When the principal called them in, and he didn’t hear, the principal grabbed his ear to pull him inside.  It was the sister who pushed the woman’s hand away.  “Don’t you dare touch my little brother,” she screamed.  “He didn’t hear you.”

No. She didn’t always like him.  At times she hated him. He could be a tyrant, barging in on her bathroom time, teasing her about her appearance, robbing her of time alone when she wanted to write. Then there was her abject jealousy. He was more popular.  He had a broader grin.  He was cute and funny.  Which she was not.  And he got sick.  A lot. Which meant people took care of him.  That’s why she crawled into bed with him and licked his breakfast fork when he had the Asian flu. It was her turn, and though she nearly died for her trouble, she was never sorry.  For once the brother tended to her and brought her soup and news from the schoolyard.  He found her shivering and brought a cover from his own bed. 

She coaxed him to read, to write, to expound his wisdom.  In his last year in high school, he spent a week with her in her New York apartment working on an essay and a speech he was to give in a competition.  He won the contest and got an A on the paper, and she was not the least bit surprised.  She always knew he was smarter than he thought he was.

The sister’s life did not depend on his, but then she always thought he’d be somewhere she could reach him. He could be a great comfort . . . and he could be a painful cyst. Either way, he was there. She always knew he might precede her into the void. She just never believed it.

So odd to be the sister whose little brother has died. 

Rejecting the Father

Few people knew of my family as well as the denizens of Saranac Lake, our hometown in upstate NY.  We were eminently recognizable, especially to our fellow congregants of the First United Methodist Church.

There was no missing us.  Every Sunday, with the consistency of a Swiss train, we arrived for services.  Unlike that Swiss train, we were never on time. We were wont to arrive ten to fifteen minutes after the minister made his welcoming address.  The choir would be putting away hymnals, the congregation rifling through prayer books looking for the Apostles Creed, and we would make a grand entrance.  All nine of us. 

Each week, the same usher, an elderly man with a large red mole that sat like a laser pointer on the top of his bald head, would lead us to the nearest empty pew, and each week, Dad would ignore the designated bench and lead the way to one closer to the altar.  That way we could parade by the entire congregation.  Dad would step deliberately, serenely, looking neither to the right nor to the left, fixing his gaze on the cross and squinting his eyes in pious prayer.  His children would follow him like biblical offspring – Carla, David, Helen, Alfred, Elizabeth, and John – the issue of his begetting – and we always made a scene. I scolding the young ones in harsh whispers, the youngest ones squealing and climbing onto the back of the pew, the middle whining about someone picking on her, and others cowering close to mom, who had brought up the rear. 

I was perversely proud to be part of the disruption.   These people were my posse.  An exclusive club to which only a Swett could belong.  Long after I knew it to be untrue, I believed that to be a Swett was to be superior in every way. We were imbued with God’s favoritism.

Until I was eleven, which is when I learned that things were not as they appeared.

I was in  7th grade when against the advice of my English teacher, I read Exodus, which made me dizzy.  I began to piece together the German, Italian, and Serbian fragments I’d been hearing all my life,  the hushed despair as telegrams arrived, the silent brooding.  Reports of my grandmother’s mysterious trip to Vienna when I was a toddler. I knew they were Jews. But it never occurred to me . . . . 

 “God is love,”  my dad insisted. And I believed. But how does a loving God . . . ?

My mother was a deeply good person.  She never denied Jesus, and she never rejected Christianity. When I was little, she told me about the adored sister she lost to meningitis and the beloved brother who died of anaphylaxis. She agreed with Daddy when he explained that God took innocents to be with Him as a reward for their goodness, that they were happily in Heaven reaping their rewards. 

But this new information was unjustifiable.  God is love, but God permits genocide? 

I read the book in a single Friday night then spent Saturday processing the revelation.  I cornered my mother as she stood at the stove frying our weekend breakfast pancakes.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Tell you what?”

“About Hitler.  About the camps.  About Europe. . . .”

“What’s to tell?  I lived.  Not interesting. “

The next day, when my Sunday morning alarm rang, I pulled the covers over my head and burrowed more deeply into my pillow.  Dad knocked on my door, and the sound was muffled, but I heard and did not respond.

“Come on, Carla. It’s getting late.”

“Go away,” I called through the door.  “I’m not going.”

“My father laughed. “Of course you are.”

“Nope.  I’m done with church.”

“Stop being ridiculous.”

I got up and opened my door.  Dad had already descended to the landing of the grand stairway that was right outside my bedroom.  I stood at the doorway and watched him for a moment. He was waiting for me, examining the snow on the roof outside the small window.

I shuddered and addressed him in a near-whisper.

“I am not going, Daddy.”

He got very quiet.  I knew what was coming.  I had experienced it a few times, and I often watched my younger brother endure it.

 The belt. 

Dad pivoted, climbed the half-flight of stairs, and went to his bedroom.  I ducked back into my room, back under my covers.  I was a big girl.  He would leave me alone if I held my ground.

But he didn’t. 

Dad entered my room and dragged me out of bed, out of the room.  I tried to escape by bolting downstairs toward the front door, but I tripped on the third step and fell onto the landing.  Dad was already there and stood over me, staring, the belt poised.

I could not take my eyes off his knuckles. 

Suspended above his head, poised to strike, the knuckles were ominous. Bulging, red, striated by the bleeding cracks wrought by repetitive frostbite. His oversized, gnarled hands, scarred by physical labor, yellowed from cigarettes trembled under the strain, misleading in their appearance.  I knew those hands as the ones that soothed my night fears when he rubbed my head as he chanted the Canterbury Tales in sing-song middle-high English.  I braced myself and looked at his face.  He seemed about to cry. I sighed. He was not the kind of man who would beat a child for disagreeing with him.

I whispered desperately, “I won’t do it. I can’t.”

“Silly girl. Just get ready.  God will forgive you.  God is love.”

“No, he’s not,” I screamed at him.  “If God were love, mommy’s family would still be in Vienna. They’d still be Jewish. They’d still be  –”

Now, Dad’s face reddened and glistened with anger. His temple throbbed.  His April blue eyes darkened to a sinister gray.  I was sure the thrust was coming, so I jumped back,  thinking to break away. He caught me, and we struggled, locking one another in a desperate kind of wrestle hold.  If either of us let go, we would likely both fall down the steep stairs, undoubtedly to our deaths.   I held my breath and silently submitted.

He relaxed.

He calmly grabbed my shoulders and righted us both on the landing.  His face calmed.  The light returned to his eyes.

I heard my mother call us from the kitchen,  “Breakfast is getting cold.”