the legacy of reading and identity

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During my senior year of high school, I had an independent study with my longstanding English teacher. The design of the course was a collaborative effort, with the two of us selecting our own must-reads, books from abandoned reading lists, and books that would prepare me, a tentative English major, for the future of my academic career. One of these books was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, pulled from my teacher’s suggestions for essential, classic reading. I wasn’t thrilled—I didn’t know much about Shelley as a writer and I dreaded dense, Gothic prose—and yet I came to cherish the text with an immediate sort of admiration. My empathy for Frankenstein’s creation was unbounded; I read furiously as it became a monster before my eyes, wounded by the monstrosity of regular people and their unflinching disdain for the thoughtful and gentle creature. Victor Frankenstein was a tortured genius, intelligent beyond the consequences of his own designs. He denounced his own creation, horrified at what he had shaped and molded with his own hands, born from stolen gore and flesh. His dream—his creation—exceeded all expectations for what it could become, and that made it dangerous.

In high school I didn’t know that I was trans and yet Frankenstein’s monster gripped me with an intangible intensity that I couldn’t place. I had always felt outcast, misunderstood, but surely I aligned more closely with Victor Frankenstein himself, the brooding creator hungry for knowledge and some sort of sweeping academic exceptionalism (I was diagnosed with OCD when I was twelve and with that came a throttling, and at times, devastating drive for perfection). Years after reading Frankenstein I would return to it, plucking it from my bookshelf to read at work, now a senior in college. I was only joking when I jotted down the note to myself: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is an allegory for transphobia. Of course, Susan Stryker had verbalized this revelation long before I did in her essay, “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage,” the monologue of which begins:

“The transsexual body is an unnatural body. It is the product of medical science. It is a technological construction. It is flesh torn apart and sewn together again in a shape other than that in which it was born. In these circumstances, I find a deep affinity between myself as a transsexual woman and the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Like the monster, I am too often perceived as less than fully human due to the means of my embodiment; like the monster’s as well, my exclusion from human community fuels a deep and abiding rage in me that I, like the monster, direct against the conditions in which I must struggle to exist” (Stryker 245).

My suspicions were true! That inexplicable affection I held for the monster had transformed into something that I could grasp between my fingers, our monstrosity bleeding together within the cadence of a trans theorist and scholar I so admire. When I first realized what—or rather, who—I was, I spent months ogling my own unnatural form, worrying that other people would fear what I had become. Stryker, however, reminded me that I am not innately monstrous; instead, just like Frankenstein’s monster, I have been declared monstrous by a hegemonic society that sees me as a threat to so-called natural order. The monster was hideous in the same way I am, built of mismatched pieces and expunged from community, and yet, the monster was thoughtful, eloquent, kind, and sought love for as long as it could bear to be turned away. It was taught through rejection—over and over and over—that it was impossible to be both monstrous and beloved, and so it grieved its differences. The miracle of its existence—a triumph of science embodied—was overshadowed by the cruelty of the world, held together by hegemony and prescription. Finally, the monster turned to rage: rage at having ever been born, rage at having been brought into the light just to have it all ripped away. As Stryker describes, the more the monster learns of itself, the more it is overcome with pain:

“At first it knows little of its own condition. ‘I had never yet seen a being resembling me, or who claimed any intercourse with me,’ the monster notes. ‘What did this mean? Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred, but I was unable to solve them’ (Shelley 116, 130). Then, in the pocket of the jacket it took as it fled the laboratory, the monster finds Victor Frankenstein’s journal, and learns the particulars of its creation. ‘I sickened as I read,’ the monster says. ‘Increase of knowledge only discovered to me what a wretched outcast I was’ (Shelley 124, 125)” (Stryker 248-9).

This act of self-articulation is dangerous, Stryker explains, as it “risk[s] a revelation of the constructedness of the natural order” (254). Frankenstein’s monster challenges the hegemony of the world in the same way that the trans body does—again, an embodiment of groundbreaking scientific prowess, doomed in its opposition to natural order. Transness is demonized, spurned for its unnaturalness not because of some inherent truth of biology, but because of the social structures that depend on control and domination bound to unwavering categories of classification—categories that can be dictated and enforced. The existence of trans people threatens to tear down these foundations, revealing the complexities of biology and the fluidity of identity, both of which transcend traditional western colonial ideals. Shattering the notion of a binary of men and women, fixed to their bodies and gendered working roles, makes possible a flexibility of identity so grand and immense that it is impossible to regulate and thereby dominate. The gendering process, as Stryker calls it, “sustains the illusion of naturalness” (254).

Stryker appeals to the agency sustained by transness—something I find myself often thinking about. The horrors of my transition are not rooted in my transness, but in the responses to my transness: the constant need to justify and explain myself, to educate other people on my identity and my body, the unending object of their fascination and for whatever reason, supposed entitlement. See, even as I have broken free of the constructions that oppressed me, I am demanded to speak for them and my reasons for extrication retroactively, still tethered by the ridicule of society—as if my identity is something for which I should seek permission and validation beyond my own. Like Frankenstein’s monster, like Susan Stryker, my rage coincides with my rejection and the devastation of being denied my own self-creation. My rage, like theirs, is immovable and intent.

“To encounter the transsexual body, to apprehend a transgendered consciousness articulating itself, is to risk a revelation of the constructedness of the natural order. Confronting the implications of this constructedness can summon up all the violation, loss, and separation inflicted by the gendering process that sustains the illusion of naturalness. My transsexual body literalizes this abstract violence. As the bearers of this disquieting news, we transsexuals often suffer for the pain of others, but we do not willingly abide the rage of others directed against us. And we do have something else to say, if you will but listen to the monsters: the possibility of meaningful agency and action exists, even within fields of domination that bring about the universal cultural rape of all flesh. Be forewarned, however, that taking up this task will remake you in the process” (Stryker 254).

The agency of transness is to rebuild the self in its purest truth, separate from the impressions and expectations that shape children into what they become, in spite of who they want to become. My transness exists beyond the false promises of an overtly constructed world settled atop capitalist greed, genocide, racial oppression, and militant violence. My transness is inseparable from the undoing of white-washed history and the lies fed to young students about American imperialism and patriotic origin. My transness was born out of beauty, warmth, kindness, and a dream of what—or who—I could be, born entirely from myself and not the expectations I was born into. People fear transness for its resoluteness and certainty because identity arrives there through the hard and thorough interrogation of the self, not the blind consumption of everything you are told to be, left unchecked and unquestioned as some sort of inflexible truth. To be trans is to grit your teeth and allow for your own creation, to brave the consequences of your courage in exchange for a body and mind unthinkable within the natural order—something limitless, daring, and fluid. I refuse to be defined by anyone other than myself ever again. I’ve spent twenty-one years being told what I am and now I am angry.

In a way, I think I have always seen myself as Frankenstein’s monster—it’s just that I am not afraid of my monstrosity anymore. Monstrosity affords me subversion, freedom, self-creation, and infinite possibilities for becoming, and thus I want to reclaim it. If I am a monster, then perhaps monstrosity isn’t to be feared after all—and perhaps rage is the perfect tool for abolishing the ways in which we see the world, colored by rules and categories we designed for exploitation.

Enough of that for now. Dear reader, I will leave you with Stryker’s lovely conclusion:

“By speaking as a monster in my personal voice, by using the dark, watery images of Romanticism and lapsing occasionally into its brooding cadences and grandiose postures, I employ the same literary techniques Mary Shelley used to elicit sympathy for her scientist’s creation. Like that creature, I assert my worth as a monster in spite of the conditions my monstrosity requires me to face, and redefine a life worth living. I have asked the Miltonic questions Shelley poses in the epigraph of her novel: ‘Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay to mould me man? Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?’ (12). With one voice, her monster and I answer ‘no’ without debasing ourselves, for we have done the hard work of constituting ourselves on our own terms, against the natural order. Though we forego the privilege of naturalness, we are not deterred, for we ally ourselves instead with the chaos and blackness from which Nature itself spills forth.

If this is your path, as it is mine, let me offer whatever solace you may find in this monstrous benediction: May you discover the enlivening power of darkness within yourself. May it nourish your rage. May your rage inform your actions, and your actions transform you as you struggle to transform your world” (Stryker 254).

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