A Normal Family

The last post I did was, ostensibly, about meeting Misty’s birth mother. Misty themself only met their birth mother for the first time a year and a half ago, and came back from the experience a changed person. The meeting wouldn’t hold as much significance for me since it wasn’t my mother I was meeting, but I still looked forward to it with deep curiosity. And then, three weeks after we met, I wrote a blog post about our meeting that turned out not to be about the meeting at all, really, but about how I was frustrated because we’d stayed in Portland longer than we’d planned. I realized a few minutes after posting it that I needed to do it over entirely. I need to honor the weird but perfectly sensible origins of the person I want to spend my life with (and who, I’m happy to say, wants to spend their life with me).

Misty was adopted at age six; for those first six years, they were raised first and briefly by their birth mother, who was known then as Donna, and then by a friend of Donna’s named Scott, who lived on the streets, and then by a series of foster homes. Remembering practically nothing of Donna, Misty was pleased to imagine that they popped into the world basically from nowhere. They felt like the allegorical Martian anthropologist on Earth, detachedly observing a bizarre species that did nonsensical things.

It was an assumption that made decent sense. There’s no one quite like Misty. It’s not just how they’re willing to pack up and go on a hitchhiking, low-to-no-budget cross-continent journey with me. That’s not even very uncommon; a lot of couples hitch together. It’s—to start in one of many possible places—the larger matter of Misty’s penetrating perception of the deeper causes behind the things we do. In emotional and spiritual terrain that makes me toss up my hands and call things mysterious, Misty forges ahead as if with a torch, compass, and machete; it almost seems these realms make more sense to them than this physical one. But far from making Misty feel as though they’re an enlightened master of reality, this perceptiveness makes them all the more puzzled by what people do day by day, because so little of it makes sense. When something Misty’s expected to do isn’t right—when it feeds into systems that make us unhappy, or systems that damage nature—Misty can feel immediately that it isn’t right. And constantly struggles to understand how other people are unable to feel that, how they can continue unthinkingly to do all the things that are destroying our lives and our planet. The sense of isolation that comes from being the only person visibly paying attention to these feelings is what made Misty feel like a stranger from nowhere.

But a couple Novembers ago they discovered they’re not alone. They took my car—I had a car then1—and drove out to Portland to meet the person who created them. They left for Oregon confused, distressed, feeling like “a bird that keeps hurling itself against the walls of its cage.” They came back clear-eyed, smiling, and with a sense, for the first time, that “I make sense in this world.” And on this trip to Portland I finally got to discover why.

Mike—that’s formerly-Donna’s name now—has never had anything very similar to what would be called a “normal” life. His father started abusing him when he was a little girl;2 his mother blamed Donna for that and sent her away. So she spent most of her childhood in a group home, alternately running wild and running away.

The same inability to understand hypocrisy that makes life so puzzling to Misty is what made Donna a rambunctious and disobedient little girl, and it kept her always behind a glass wall, on the other side of which were the Acceptable people, leading their Acceptable lives. During his childhood he was largely uninterested in what was going on behind that wall, but when he grew up he discovered that on that side of the glass lay nearly all the “real” jobs, the ways most people knew of for living a comfortable life.

With Acceptable jobs difficult for him—because of the same emotional perceptiveness that Misty has, and because of the allergy to obedience that results from it—he figured out a job he could do where he could make people happy. He became a prostitute in California.

Sex is one way to make people happy, and although it’s often a transitory high, Donna became a master of it, honing intuition into a guru-like knowledge of the body—not just its erogenous zones, but eventually everything: where to massage sore muscles, what pressure points will relax someone, where to touch someone who’s having a nervous breakdown to stop it cold. But it wasn’t just sex and touching that Donna gave. Far more often than you’d expect, Mike says, he would end up just sitting and talking with someone. Once, Donna explained to a man how to make his wife satisfied, and the wife later took Donna out to dinner to thank her for saving their marriage. Not every prostitute can claim to have saved a marriage. And Donna also became a mother to all the younger, more vulnerable people of the streets she frequented—the younger boys and girls, many of whom sold themselves out of pure desperation and not by way of the more deliberate decision that Donna made. She taught them to travel in pairs, to keep condoms handy, to get themselves checked regularly—she kept them emotionally and physically safe.

At sixteen she ended up in a relationship, which turned into a marriage, and had three children by the same man: Misty’s older half-siblings. Aware that she was in no position to raise them, she gave them to her husband’s mother to raise. Sometime after that relationship ended in abuse, she met a charming man while camping in a park, and later found herself pregnant one more time. She tried, for a little while, to raise Misty. Tried, in fact, to move to a Buddhist ashram in California with Misty—but the ashram, reasonably, required a long acquaintance before it would invite anyone to move in, and Donna couldn’t yet muster the stability to last that long. Soon she admitted that she still wasn’t ready, and entrusted Misty to her friend Scott.

As Donna tried to get her life together, Scott moved around the country with Misty. For Donna it was a time of upheaval, turmoil. She tried to commit suicide at least twice—once with antifreeze, once with HIV. Both have left their marks on the Mike of today. Not long after the antifreeze left him in a wheelchair, he began living as Mike. One day, he says, a friend of his told him a joke, to which men and women have very different strong reactions. And he—the friend explained—had definitely had the man reaction. That was when it occurred to him for the first time to try living as a man. When he did, he realized: This feels right. And he’s lived that way ever since.

And he found love. In fact, he and his wife Michelle must have been one of the first instances of transgender dating success on the internet. Back in the old BBS days of the early ’90s, they would both get on and post messages, and somehow or other they zeroed in on each other—kindred spirits in the same region. After a while they met in real life and became friends. And when Michelle saved Mike from a lightning storm one day, they realized there was something more than friendship to their friendship. They’ve been living together now for nearly twenty-two years.

Once they found each other, Mike began, at long last, to feel like he might actually have a handle on how to live a stable life. And that he might be able to raise a child. He called to find Misty, to take them out of the foster system and finally raise them—perhaps at the ashram, perhaps elsewhere.

He was told, then, that Misty had finally, at age six, escaped from the foster home system into a permanent home. (Misty relates that the agency gave them a choice: One family has a really big nice house, and the other family has a little bit smaller house. Misty asked: Which family has animals? The agency folks said the people with the smaller house had three pets. Misty chose that one immediately. If they can be nice to a dog, they can be nice to a kid.)

Mike was crushed, but respected the adoption, and has lived happily with just Michelle since then. But all four of his children have, eventually, found their way back to him. Misty, the youngest, was also the last. All of them live too far away to be a part of Mike’s everyday life. Travel is difficult for Mike. To an extent that’s because of the paralysis in his legs, but it’s more the overwhelming social anxiety he’s developed over the last twenty years. He can only be around strangers if there are known, safe people nearby, and even then has to take frequent cigarette breaks and doesn’t last more than an hour or two before panic sets in.

Now, on our visit over two decades later, all of us were able to wonder how different Misty’s life might have been. As things really happened, Misty was raised in Minnesota in a single-family, middle-class household, with a postal inspector and a criminal-youth therapist, and went to public schools: that is, they had what a lot of the U.S. would call a normal upbringing.

What if they had been raised in an ashram in California with two transgender parents—one of them their biological mother—as well as many other community members, and been schooled by that village, and had friends who also lived there?

Or for that matter, what if the ashram had never worked out, but Misty had still been raised by Mike and Michelle? The perspectives on life that come from being transgender, from having worked as a prostitute, from having been always outside the system—these would have defined “normal” for Misty. And, Misty believes, they would even have had the experience of feeling normal themself.

All we could conclude was that it would have been a very different life.

(Misty speculates, though, that they still might have found me. If you’re perfect enough for someone, you may just end up in the same place as that person eventually, regardless of the distances and the probabilities. You gravitate toward the same streams. You find your tribe, wherever they are.)

I had some cause to reflect on normalcy while I was at Mike and Michelle’s house. Those of us who try to live inside that glass bubble of the Acceptable—who stick to the norms that are handed down to us in everything from fairy tales to TV commercials—usually do so out of a fear that we rarely look square in the eye. We fear that if we don’t stick within Acceptable bounds, something bad will happen to us. What that is, we can’t quite say. But I think it may be that we’re somehow afraid of losing our very selves.

We believe, at some level, that being the kind of person we’ve been taught to be is what makes us a person at all. We fear to step outside the boundaries, because we were raised to believe that sticking inside them is what it means to be a person.

Imagine living as a homeless person for a month. You can keep going to your job, if you have one; you just have to sleep on the streets. Does that idea terrify you? If it does—is that because you believe something bad will happen to you out on the streets? Or is it because you’re afraid that at the end of the month, you won’t be able to get back? If you’ve never been homeless, the prospect of it seems like a bridge you can’t cross back over—you can never claw back up, you can only spiral further down from there, and that spiral awaits, a whirlpool that you step into with your first step anywhere outside the glass wall.

We don’t even have to imagine something as drastic as being homeless before we get that creeping sensation of losing who we are. Imagine you’re staying in a motel in a city far from home, and it’s hot, and it’d sure be nice to just walk around in your underwear. So go do it. It’s perfectly legal. You’re not going to lose any friends over it—they’re in another city. Yes, all that is true, but the thought of it still freaks you out, doesn’t it? What about the stares? What would people say?

The feeling goes: I’m just not the sort of person who does something like that! And why not? I don’t know—because that’s not something decent people do! But it doesn’t hurt anyone. I know, but, well, I was raised to believe that’s just not okay, and if I did it, I’d be some kind of—freak! But I’m not! I’m good!

But at Mike’s house, I came to appreciate all over again, by seeing it firsthand, that if you let go of the idea that, at all times, you have to act in a way that makes people perceive you as “normal”, you don’t collapse. You don’t undergo total ego death. In fact you find an incredible liberation. Once you resign to the fact that you’re weird and people are going to know it, you can stop worrying so much about how to look normal. Wear absurd clothing, dye your hair psychedelic colors, cover yourself in tattoos, or more subtly, just speak your mind at times when you’re expected to keep the peace and let things slide. People will look at you askance and talk about you behind their backs. Let ’em! Who cares?! You’re weird, and you’re living your weird life whatever they say!

There’s a whole world outside that wall! Know what normal people do? They don’t hitchhike. They don’t quit their jobs and travel the country. Or, to bring this back to Mike’s house: if they start noticing that they feel like a gender that the delivery room doctor never said they were, they just keep that to themselves.

And meanwhile, weird people hop the glass wall, never come back, and still live complete lives. They have happiness, they have a sense of self. Mike’s not usually going to be mistaken in public for someone normal. He intentionally cultivates the image of Uncle Fester; he’s full of unusual opinions that he’ll definitely tell you about even if they make you uncomfortable; he’s not afraid to dive into a deep heart-to-heart with someone he’s just met. And he’s still here, shamelessly being who he is. He’s untouched by the dreaded ego death that seems to await us like a monster under the bed: he still has a savant-level knowledge of human bodies, memories of his past and his children, and the ability to feel joy and sadness. His life is every bit as much a life as the life of a middle-class, business-casual, daily-commute person: different, but one hundred percent a life. Michelle, his wife, has transgressed norms flagrantly too, living as a woman after being raised as a boy—and is entirely able-bodied and able-minded and has friends and a stable job. She’s been a tremendous force in the political scene of the town outside Portland where they live; she’s worked with Bernie Sanders (among plenty others) to realize her dream of what the world could be. What I’m getting at here is, there is life after weird.

If Mike had been able to raise Misty, it certainly wouldn’t have been a normal childhood. But then, no childhood is. That glass wall, as far as I can tell, really only matters for job interviews. And those matter to life far less than we imagine: yes, they determine your earnings, but they don’t determine your identity, your happinesses, your loves. For those things, the wall is imaginary; there are no “normal” parents just like there is no “normal” hair color. But I can say beyond any inkling of a doubt that Misty’s childhood would have had love in it, as it did with the parents who did raise them. And for childhood—or for anything, really—that’s really what matters more than anything else.

  1. And what a load off now that I don’t! 

  2. I’m going to use “he” for Mike (and when looking back on previous years from the viewpoint of Mike), and “she” when telling about things he did while living as Donna, to match the name he used before transitioning. 

File under: family, Year of Transformation · Places: Cascadia

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From my admittedly comfortable position of tradition and orthodoxy, your lives seem to have found themselves in an alternate universe. A place where everything and everyone is the contrarian place, position, or person. We see each other in equal shades of dysfunction, blind to the ‘real’ reality. Most curious how we all experience the same world and come to such different conclusions.



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