[Published in Growing Up Transnational, Ed. Silvia Schultermandl. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.]
“I know this and you don’t” (Steedman 1991, 2). These words written by Carolyn Steedman regarding her “unique” access to working class experiences elicit anger, indignation, dialogue, or even silence from many readers of her autobiography. It seems to me that as readers of an autobiographical text, we assume a position of author-ity twice removed, subsuming a space in which the reading of the text becomes not merely an act of critical interpretation, a dialogic interaction with the author as other, but rather engenders a response of perpetual synthesis, an overlaying of our individual experiences, utterances, thoughts, a superimposition of our subjectivity between the lines, the pauses, the unspoken/unwritten, often obfuscating the subjectivity of the author. Yet, in as much as autobiography is discussed in terms of a “minority voice,” there seems to be a critical move here, if not altogether unconscious, to challenge and even negate Steedman’s own minority voice, the paradigmatic basis for her autobiography, which is essentially her subjectivity, her knowledge, her experience, in order that we might interpret the text through our own empirical initiative, trying to make her individual experience our own, to know what Steedman claims we simply cannot.
I find that much of the interpretation of autobiography today tends towards disseminating and disguising the individual utterance under the meta-narrative of “minority” in order that the “majority” not only understand difference, but also be able to assimilate these voices within the various master narratives of Autobiography1: Working Class, Homosexual, Latino, Black, Woman, AIDS, rather than an autobiography of a woman raised in the working class, a homosexual man, a Latino youth, etc. We purport that the experience of an other must somehow be equated to that of the masses, ourselves, or as Antonioni’s Blow-up (1966) or Delillo’s Mao II (1991) demonstrates:
This isn’t a story about seeing the planet new. It’s about seeing people new. We see them from space, where gender and features don’t matter, where names don’t matter. We’ve learned to see ourselves as if from space, as if from satellite cameras, all the time, as the same. As if from the moon, even. We’re all Moonies, or should learn to be (Delillo 1991, 89).
As Lyotard’s postmodern condition confirms the breakdown of the master narratives of the world into a plurality of petits récits (1984, 60), Foucault’s panoptical structure embraces these récits as narratives of legitimation or of resistance, the “antagonistic articulatory practices” (Laclau and Mouffe 1985, 128-137) whereby the utterance, including the resistant voice, is already inscribed within a certain monolith of knowledge/power. Thus, the individual narratives of experience end up legitimating their respective master narratives, orbiting the moons of the Gay, Black, or Chinese American experience. The individual voice is positioned, consumed, fetishized, and shelved in Women’s Studies, for instance (because the author is a woman before an autobiographer), and her life/text becomes part of the master narrative of Minority Voice where we can confirm that we are really, after all, the same. Yet autobiography is never only about the self and instead tends to use self-narrative as a means of relating a story that is often identifiable within society at large.
In a general sense, autobiographies have also taught us that identity politics in the United States and Canada are deeply problematic discourses that do not hold any one single truth valid for a group experience at large. We may refer back to Delany’s autobiography of being queer and African-American wherein the supposed contradictions of sexuality and raced emerge. However, as we know from more recent autobiographies, there is no collusion between whiteness and homosexuality any more than between blackness and heterosexuality; hence any such perceived “contradiction” is in itself problematic (i.e. that somehow homosexuality in the African American communities is less tolerated than in other communities). Moreover, many publications—and to a large extent—academic institutions have struggled with the notion that identity politics of the individual somehow correlate to that of the perceived group. Hence we see courses offered and texts published that deal exclusively with communities of African American, Latino, Gay, and woman as if these nomenclatures really could speak to “the group.” Even on an international level, as Hans Massaquoi’s memoir, Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany (1999), demonstrates that notions of race or nation are simply not reducible to any monolithic formula of comprehensibility as his text chronicles his experiences of being raised in Germany during the Third Reich and his fascination with the Hitler Youth. Hence the “minority” experience that Massaquoi experiences is, in fact, not one of difference, but of assimilation wherein difference is sublimated in favor of the more relevant and temporal narratives of his childhood, namely his dream of joining the Hitler Youth as a “German,” even as a second-class citizen by virtue of his color (“Neger, Neger, Schornsteinfeger!” [“Negro, Negro, chimney sweep!”] were the words he was taunted with as a child). Eventually, Massaquoi’s self-revelation critiques the very delicate if not problematic terrain of identity politics through his personal struggle of living between two worlds, the conflicting histories of nation in which he was brought up and lived (Germany, Liberia and later the United States of America). Massaquoi’s autobiography ultimately interrogates various discourses of race—fictions of racial purity and racial mixings—whereby identity is always postured after some ideal fiction of “pure identity” and being.
Thus, just as writing autobiography, reading also engenders an act of synthesizing difference negatively so that we might see the differences, the mirror held up to our eyes where identity, like difference, becomes the centrifugal force that separates the text within a pre-ordained self/other, difference/resemblance context. Likewise, the experience of the “minority” voice is exorcised and often revealed to be not so minor. In fact, autobiography often creates communal strength in shared experiences whereby the narratives of identity are not in the least unreal or “minor,” but instead transcend the silence of shame or invisibility while likewise breaking barriers that are presumed to be common grounds (i.e. race, gender, nationality) while creating newer spaces for identifying with an other. Because subjectivity presupposes that we can know and understand difference, we are thus empowered to use this perceived difference to sieve out the remnants, these fragments of resemblance. And in so doing, we name them. But does this naming make identity? Does identity have a full stop or is it something always in progress, never fully representable? Massaquoi’s autobiography would certainly argue against pure identity as his life represented a series of collapses between nation, race, time and place. In fact, it is through Massaquoi’s transnational life that he is able to put together the pieces of his identity; inasmuch as he is a product of the places he had spent his life, he is equally not interpretable on the level of pure identity, nor through the looking glass of one particular nation or culture. Massaquoi’s autobiography renders bare the fictions inherent within discourses of race and nation and likewise attempts to corrode the possibility of seeing difference simply because he posits himself as that very difference as the only black boy in his neighborhood who did not join Hitler’s army.
So what is autobiography for the reader if not the ritual act of seeking both difference and similarity in the life of a person the reader does not know. Benjamin writes that “The fight of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else. . .” (1977, 333). Here, Benjamin suggests that representation and interpretation are the art of becoming the other. Furthering Benjamin’s theory of the mimetic faculty, Taussig asserts that the act of thinking is simply “the ability to discern resemblance. . .” (1993, 33) whereby one maintains, as Hegel contends, “pure self-identity in otherness” (1977, 111-114). In this way, interpretation, like representation, is an act of becoming other, of utilizing difference to “discern resemblance[s],” to attempt to view ourselves in the text, the text as mirror, ourselves as other. The act of reading autobiography embodies our desire to become the other, in part, to author, to identify, to understand, or perhaps, to resolve or better comprehend emotionally.
This paradigm would necessarily change the act of self-representation, of autobiographical writing, and of reading an autobiographical text because implicit within the rendering of any given text is the monologic voice, the authorial intent, the subjective account of a life that the author freezes, frame by frame, meticulously accounting for the past. Within the empirical foundation for analyzing autobiographical discourse we tend towards a reading of a “life,” a narrative that mimetically, linguistically, attempts to mold some simulacrum of the past, a fragment of an existence, the memory of a hidden, deeper pain. We concern ourselves with the notions of “betrayal,” narrative distance, and “truth,” as if, living in the present, we were actually in a better, more objective position to discern the truth through the act of writing or reading autobiography, inscribing a life onto a blank page or lifting it off the page through the steady strokes of our eyeballs sweeping the text.
In Mimesis & Alterity (1993), Michael Taussig describes the act of storytelling that plunges the reader into a textual-temporal continuum whereby one is removed from the “self” and forced to become other:
The fundamental move of the mimetic faculty taking us bodily into alterity is very much the task of the storyteller too. For the storyteller embodied that situation of stasis and movement in which the far away was brought to the here-and-now (archetypically that place where the returned traveler finally rejoined those who had stayed at home). It was from this encounter that the story gathered its existence and power, just as it is in this encounter that we discern the splitting of the self, of being self and Other, as achieved by sentience taking one out of one-self—to become something else as well. . . It is at this point that the freedom and foreboding bringing the traveler home insists on audience and attains voice, and it is here, in this moment of apprehension, that the listening self is plunged forward into and beyond itself. The storyteller finds and recreates this staggering of position with every tale. (1993, 40-41)
In this way, the autobiographer as storyteller is positioning herself within the meta-narrative, her life, as well as within the discursive moment, the text. Through allochronic distancing, the author is both a discoursing subject and the object of her discourse. The author as self also seems to struggle with the “truth” as a measure of her own honesty and representational authority (as if one static representation could ever be said to be truer than the next). The notion of temporality seems to be a point of disjuncture in which the subject represented maintains an ideal, historic status while the subject representing seems to imply, through the act of representing, a kind of renewed interest in the represented. The subject representing thus calls upon her transcendental powers to overcome the consciousness, the space, the time of the represented—to rise above (somehow) the faults, fears, confusions, or anger that she once embodied, once felt. The act of writing autobiographically implies, even asserts, a distance while overcoming the antagonism, the feeling whose resolution is signified by the act of writing. Autobiography holds the writer captive, the simultaneous subject and object of her own desire for both a literary and extra-literary resolution.
Reading autobiography reproduces this same process allochronically, superimposing the reader’s subject-ivity/object-ivity onto the text, as he/she meets the page in a different time and space, interacting with the subject/object of the autobiographer from the reader’s own vantage-point as object, the identified within the text, and as subject, the readerly, the scholarly, the identifier. From the title of this essay, “What is an Autobiographical Author?,” I am taking cues from Foucault from his essay “What is an Author?” in which he predicts the end of the author as an “ideological figure” and where “fiction and its polysemous texts will once again function according to another mode, but still with a system of constraint—one that will no longer be the author, but which will have to be determined, or perhaps, experienced” (1984, 119). I believe, then, that the function of the autobiographical author is one of transference whereby the act of experience is what ultimately authors the narrative, mediating the status of both the writer and reader in relation to the text in which they are in a sense both authors positioning their subject-ivity, the power of authorship, between their lives and the text. Just as in writing, reading autobiography is performance—we identify with the other of the author and thus “discern the splitting of [our] self,” we “stagger,” positioning our other within the sphere of the storyteller’s other. Discarding the Hegelian purity of identity, we nonetheless realize our “self-identity in otherness.”
The idea of authorship that I am questioning is ultimately linked to the power of mimesis which, according to Taussig, when “sprung into being, a terrifically ambiguous power is established; there is born the power to represent the world, yet that same power is a power to falsify, mask, and pose” (1993, 42-43). This power of falsification is one that we prize dearly in writing and reading autobiography—we are obsessed with notions of accuracy and truth that are threatened by the lapse of time between the moment experienced and the moment recounted. The idea of time then, is to be held up as static, atemporal, through the ontological position of the subject represented, yet synchronously fluid, temporal, through the act of story-telling, a narrative that reveals the pauses, the anger, the forgiveness. The use of time, like truth, is something that can be twisted, melted, yet consistently framed and seems to locate the narrating subject in a more advantageous relationship than the subject narrated—it is the narrator who ultimately decides the “truth” or her “truth” and thus frames the route through which she overcomes the past and transcendentally marks the present as the position of author-ity, of mimetic supremacy, of her otherness.
Autobiography is the act of seeing resemblances, of becoming the other, through the mimetic faculty of language and through historical and cultural articulations. Autobiography could be viewed as the space between incongruent truths such as Samuel Delany’s two memories of his father’s death: “My father died of lung cancer in 1958 when I was seventeen. My father died of lung cancer in 1960 when I was eighteen. The first is incorrect, the second is correct.” Autobiography is the domain where, as Delany states, the “wrong sentence still feels . . . righter than the right one” (1988, xviii). As historical or cultural criticism, autobiography is the space between “difference and particularity,” what Carolyn Steedman calls the “landscape” that serves as the sphere of mediation between the universal and the autobiographical “I” (1991, 16). Autobiography is ultimately performance, a dialogical continuum cultivated within the symbiotic domain shared by the universal and the individual, the public and the private, the writer and the reader, the self and the other, the empowered and the disempowered. Autobiography is an act of terror that attempts, through allochronic positioning of the subject, to distinguish the true from the false and memory from experience, while re-inscribing a new truth, a new story, a new memory. Autobiography engages both the living and the “disquieting” souls of the deceased within the space of death (Hertz 1960, 35-37).
7 December, 1990.
I just don’t know where to start. You may have been told this is a priority search which means usually “not good news.” In this case the news is not as bad as it sounds. Mother, I have “AIDS,” yes this is in most cases deemed to be fatal. I feel with my strong mental convictions, this condition can be controlled and eventually beaten!
My desire to meet you has been strong ever since I knew I was adopted. My life is comfortable. I have a good pension. The majority of my life I have split between living in Windsor, Kitchener, Detroit, and New Orleans. My favorite city was New Orleans. I still like to return from time to time.
I am excited and scared [about meeting you]. This is something I have wanted to do for a very long time. I am listening to music to help me write this. My interests in music extend far beyond just listening. I love to play too. I am a somewhat accomplished trumpet player. My new interest is now keyboarding. I hope to hear from you soon.
This is the letter that my brother Mark wrote to his natural mother after having been given a priority search by the Canadian adoption authorities. He found his mother in December, 1990 and a year later, Mark died at twenty-four of complications resulting from AIDS. I have as many problems stating that he died “of complications resulting from” AIDS as Delany has in stating his age and year of his father’s death. Whenever I say, “My brother died of complications resulting from AIDS,” I wonder, did he die as a result of AIDS, from AIDS, or with AIDS? Then I realize that he, in fact, did not die because of AIDS. The space of death has made strange, in the true fashion of ostranenie, the concept of my brother’s death and its relationship to AIDS, a narrative whose construction from the early eighties as the “gay disease” is still widely, monolithically understood within the context of sexual aberrance or (over)activity. For me, the silence, the invisibility of my brother’s death, of his dying, cannot escape the underlying narratives of which AIDS was as much a symptom as were my brother’s sexual practices, “race,” family, and society. I will always understand his death in terms of AIDS as a physical metaphor (and I am not referring to Sontag)2 for the underlying, much more terminal illnesses, diseases, rot that our current society represses in favor of more wholesome, straight projections of the nation, the community, sexuality, the family, and childhood.
For me then, autobiography is the process of writing in which I use words, language, to grasp the past, restructuring my memories and pulling them into the present whereby my childhood no longer seems so distant, so silent, so invisible. In his book Close to the Knives David Wojnarowicz describes the power of language upon memory and history:
Words can strip the power from a memory or an event. Words can cut the ropes of an experience. Breaking silence about an experience can break the chains of the code of silence. Describing the once indescribable can dismantle the power of taboo. To speak about the once unspeakable can make the INVISIBLE familiar if repeated often enough in clear and loud tones” (1991, 153).
Like Wojnarowicz, I hope that my words will break a code of silence — rupture a taboo that bars access to certain experiences and memories in order that the invisible not only become familiar, but also that the invisible interact dialogically with the visible: that the “once unspeakable” interrogate both the collective, homogenizing narratives of the majority as well as the emergent minority voices that in their attempts to become less invisible, often become marked — they are often generalized, stereotyped, and then, easily forgotten. Autobiography is the movement between the domain of the visible and the invisible, the self and the other, in which identity hinges not on the ability to represent but, as Peggy Phelan contends: “Identity emerges in the failure of the body to express being fully and the failure of the signifier to convey meaning exactly. Identity is perceptible only through a relation to an other — which is to say, it is a form of both resisting and claiming the other, declaring the boundary where the self diverges from and merges with the other” (1993, 13). Contrary to its conventional definition, autobiography is the performance of seeing and becoming the other in order to represent and reproduce ourselves to ourselves.
I was one of three children—all of us were adopted from different families, from various parts of Canada. Our parents remained married for a short time after we were adopted; they divorced and the next eight years were spent being pushed around from one parent or grandparent to the next until we moved in with my mother and her second husband who then moved us all to New Orleans. I cannot really describe my childhood, nor do I wish to. It just sounds like a cheap paperback. . . (but so may this). But that is the difficulty in describing one’s life: once the words are committed to paper, or even to a virtual screen, they no longer resemble what they once were thirty years prior. In fact the pain has slowly diminished and time has in many senses washed away the bitterness of the tortures to which I was subjected. Likewise, there are other moments when I recount my childhood and I focus solely upon a few surreal situations that involve Mennonites, a potato field and Bible camps, stories our father told us of the Mogul Empire, and I realize that my childhood was surreal in most every way. So I beg the reader to allow me the gaps, the non-narrative fogginess and the irreconcilable nature of descriptions here. What I can offer are blips, momentary glimpses into a life that I still cannot believe is my own.
I did not realize how terrible my childhood was until university when I was with a group of friends watching the movie Mommy Dearest. Everyone started laughing when Joan Crawford pulled the “Tina, bring me the ax” routine. I remember thinking about how my mother made us get up at 2 am to clean the bathroom with toothbrushes, among various other acts that only an ABC Monday night movie of the week could truly depict. But is memory usually not like this? We tend to reject certain experiences in quick jerking responses to some outside stimulus, some seemingly trivial moment, which forces us to recognize, re-view, and restructure the past. . .a past that childhood orders as normal, a past that now appears unreal: the normalcy of syringes, cruel tasks, unthinkable punishments, fear. To see a mother smiling, the white, perfectly straight teeth shining, can be the most horrific, foreboding vision in the world. In rewriting these moments, however, words cannot fully represent the experience: language cuts the yoke between memory and kitsch: one’s life vaguely resembles another’s; one’s pain becomes everyone’s; one’s death is owned and maintained by a collective and often popularized narrative. Language becomes the commodity that lays itself bare to the masses’ attempt to find the one common denominator that makes it bearable, acceptable, twelve-step treatable, co-optable, sellable, and sometimes conquerable.
Growing up in Canada in the 1970s, adopted with other adopted siblings, living with a series of different parents until the age of ten, there was simply nothing but difference in our households: a blonde-haired sister, a black brother, an Indian father, a red-headed mother. Hence I gave the name “the Benetton family” to my own family because we were just like the Benetton publicities of the 1980s and 1990s without the smiles. There were many moments before the age of ten when suddenly my sister, my brother and I were sent upstairs to pack our bags to move in with a different parent (and new spouse) or a different set of grandparents. Our childhood was constantly and dangerously marginal from each of our births–from the egg-producers and womb-holders who gave birth to us (I dislike the term “natural mother” as anyone can copulate and push out a child), to the Canadian government’s mismanagement of our adoptions to parents who were clearly unfit, to our many composed families thereafter, most of whom did not care for us in the least. I recall mostly feeling tolerated as a child. So, our move from Canada to the United States was brought on by our father and second mother giving birth to their daughter. Within months we were shuttled off once again to our mother’s and second father’s home and we were moved to the United States shortly thereafter.
In many respects I realize that it was this transition from Canada to the United States that allowed for the final rupture of my family. Perhaps certain things became visible to my older sister and she felt suddenly able to leave home? And maybe this had an indelible effect on us all and each in our own time? Inevitably we would all leave the home that was never really ever a home, able to finally recognize that we had never been home.
In her article, “The Politics of Location as Transnational Feminist Critical Practice,” Caren Kaplan analyzes Adrienne Rich’s notion of the “politics of location” which functions as a “marker of Western interest in other cultures and signal[s] the formation of diasporic identities” (1994, 138). Emphasizing the dangers of Rich’s theory, Kaplan goes on to warn about the aporia of historicizing and specifying difference in contemporary critical practices:
A politics of location is also problematic when it is deployed as an agent of appropriation, constructing similarity through equalizations when material histories indicate otherwise. Only when we utilize the notion of location to destabilize unexamined or stereotypical images that are vestiges of colonial discourse and other manifestations of modernity’s structural inequalities can we recognize and work through the complex relationships between women in different parts of the world. A transnational feminist politics of location in the best sense of these terms refers us to the model of coalition or, to borrow a term from Edward Said, to affiliation (1994, 139).
I find this passage relevant to the story I here present, this series of realizations with which we were faced as children in our passing through and confronting various families not to mention our having to adjust to the quickly-paced changes of our own races, sexualities and nations. On the one hand we were presumed to be well-treated coming from the home of a doctor, a wealthy family, and were perceived as having a family that “loved us enough to adopt us.” The stereotype of the loving, selfless, wealthy family were all markers that actually kept the abuse coming, although all of New Orleans and later Picayune looked on at our parents in admiration of their courage for adopting three “helpless” children. Indeed the signs served to deflect all criticism and even blind the onlookers who mostly saw the plasticity of a loving family and selfless parents who cared enough to adopt three children, never the putrid stench of abuse rotting, simmering beneath the surface.
It was this relationship between various familial and societal abuses and transnationalism that served as the means for us to accept the conditions to which we were exposed. Changing countries simply provided yet another form of destabilization that went perfectly hand in hand with the bizarreness of being bumped from Mennonite country in southern Ontario, to Alcoholics Anonymous and Parents without Partners meetings in New Orleans, to sitting on school buses listening to other children either lash out at me with racial slurs, or worse, assume I was white and would feel comfortable to share their bigotry with me (thinking that I would simply nod my head in agreement). The domestic abuse seemed to fit right along with the social abuses of racism in the south and each violence bled into the other to such a degree that everything began to feel completely normal; however, I felt that something was not right as did my brother and sister. Hence the sense of not belonging (i.e. I did not understand many of the English expressions used in the deep south like when a classmate told me to “scoot over,” I just stared), the idea of coming from a place that was not “here” ushered in this sense of normalcy all around because both my person and my everyday life was out of place, even unevocable. Kaplan inevitably argues that stereotypes of identity are problematic because they presuppose knowledge and certain constructions of identities that can only really be known by the subject herself. Yet, when translated from the feminist paradigms to the autobiographical/transnational narratives of children, there are simply no models to follow, no stereotypes to mimic, especially because children are still considered objects—not subjects—in their own lives in most parts of the world today to include the United States and Canada. Acknowledging psychological abuse is still a legal hurdle that most governments in the world have yet to confront and as such, children are expected to be the only interpreters of difference having barely the experience to recognize their own thoughts and experiences.
For instance Mississippi’s laws recognize children who run away because of abuse, but if the abuse is psychological in nature the child will be treated as a delinquent by the system and will eventually be returned to the parents because mental abuse is not grounds for helping the child by naming her a “child in need of supervision” whereby the court system intercepts parental abuse.3 In fact, in Mississippi as in most parts of the United States and Canada, children who are mentally abused go unacknowledged, their parents are not redressed, and the abuses continue until these children grow up and eventually leave their “homes.” When faced with Youth Courts, these children are often labeled as “lacking discipline,” “disrespecting their parents”—even labeled “willful”—and they are eventually handed over to the very people who have been abusing them. So what Kaplan’s critique of a “politics of location” does for an understanding of the polemics of “first” and “third” world feminisms, I would argue can also be applied to the judicial paradox of “good child”/”bad child” that is often at work in child welfare cases across North America and across many geographical boundaries from which the many unmarked identities are seemingly non-existant simply because nobody speaks up for the children whose voices are silenced by such facile Manichean schemes of “justice.”
It was moving between geographical boundaries that over time allowed my siblings and myself see the reality, the horror, of our every day lives. To think of the word “transnationalism,” one can easily conjure the idea of a physical moving between two spaces. However transnationalism for us as children meant not only moving between Canada and the United States as a physical experience, but it ended up serving as both the metaphorical and symbolic markers of our childhoods whereby we were forced to change everything quickly: we were expected to become adults overnight taking on adult responsibilities and even more swiftly we were ushered from one home to the next for fear that our presence as the “unwanted children” would scar the biological fantasies of each passing parent giving birth to their newer and more “legitimate” children. Moreover, the constant change of geographies kept us from having any constant childhood friends, and hence no interaction with parents who would likely have been shocked at our treatment at home, no witnesses to decry the actions of our “keepers.” And so transnationalism became our new “skill”—we were able to adapt as quickly as we packed our bags and the specificity of location took on less and less importance as we became masters of adjusting to new schools every six months. Eventually this translated into the transnational affiliations that I would later have to explain when my classmates in New Orleans would inevitably ask me if I knew “how to speak Canadian.” “Yes, I do,” I would answer. Every question had an answer and it did not necessarily have to make sense.
Adapting to our surroundings—be it a new family, a new country, and new abuses—served in both positive and negative ways. First, were taught to accept everything that came our way as “pure difference” and we never questioned the abnormality or unhealthiness of the situations into which we were put; abuse became normal to us because everything else was equally odd, and thus equally acceptable. Conversely, after years of moving around and accepting abuse as “normal,” we were exposed to so many other stories of people whose childhoods (even those described as “horrible”) were so much healthier than our own. Hence transnational passages both obscured the strangeness of new abuses while also forcing us to see up close new situations that were markedly different and healthier than our own.
Soon after moving to the United States, my sister Laura ran away at the age of fourteen and kept running away every time the police would bring her home for several years thereafter. I was ten at the time. Mark was nine. From the time my sister ran away, Mark and I used to plan to run away together. Being so young, we were not quite sure what was wrong with our parents, we did not have the language to name it all, but we were aware of being incredibly unhappy as children. To be totally honest, we were really never children, we were child slaves. My mother fancied herself a woman of high society despite her and my father’s addictions to alcohol and various illegal and legal drugs, including Vicodin, which reigned high on their list. As a result of their being constantly “indisposed” we were left to take care of everything. It was a magically and torturously real childhood: a father who would squander his salary on drugs, alcohol and horse racing bets, while quoting us stories from Indian history, telling us about when, as a young dental student in Mumbai, he cleaned Raj Kapoor’s teeth, recounting us his time in Birmingham, Alabama and his witnessing the civil rights movement as a young immigrant to the United States and his eventually sitting us down in front of the television to watch Roots as he would scream in Gujarati at each scene of cruelty (later assigning us a series of books to read including Martin Luther King’s and Ghandi’s autobiographies). Those were the good moments. But in all truth, we never had a childhood: our every waking moment was spent in the service of our parents’ needs for us to go to the store to pick up prescription drugs or six-packs of Dixie beer or both while completely running the household from cleaning, cooking meals each day, to taking care of the natural children who were permitted to eat freely while we were given older food, less food and only powdered milk. It was the kind of childhood that I only found in Dickens and other cruel narratives of the sort. It even seems unreal to describe it here simply because in the almost thirty years that have transpired since I left home, of all the hundreds of people whose personal horror stories I have heard, I have rarely heard a story that matched mine in terms of sheer cruelty. So was it so surprising when Laura ran away from home? Not really. I remember picking up the telephone and hearing a police officer telling my mother that my sister was arrested for “solicitation.” I remember thinking that she must have been selling Girl Scout cookies door to door without a license as I remembered those signs often on neighboring homes to discourage door-to-door salespeople: “No Soliciting Please!”
Less than a year apart in age, Mark and I usually attended the same schools. Fearing our mother, we dreaded coming home at the end of the day and would prolong the school day as much as possible. I grew to love school so much that the last day of school before summer vacation I always ended up crying hysterically. Mark, on the other hand, hated classes but managed to escape home through band rehearsals and trumpet lessons. Summer was a time when we did not have the reprieve from our chores with the school day. Summer meant that we would be full-time parents to our younger siblings and servants to our parents. This was the hardest time of all as we were routinely kicked out of the house for forgetting to unload the dishwasher, or even more typically, given 20,000 lines to write. “Writing lines” as our mother liked to call it went something like this: writing 20,000 times “I will not forget to take out the garbage on Tuesday night.” Our weekends were often spent in our rooms doing such literary tasks. And if the line was too short and too much white paper was available at the end of the line, our mother would have us add “Mother”—always capitalized—to the sentence just to give us one more word to write.
Quite often, on the way home from school we would be harassed by neighborhood kids who ran around yelling “Zebra” and “Nigger” at us. One of Mark’s natural parents was black, and with my very short, curly hair, nobody ever thought we were adopted from different families. The curly hair, the darker skin, and our Indian father marked us. To everyone we were both visibly black. Soon, Mark stopped telling certain friends that he was black, which got us into even more uncomfortable situations because his white friends who thought he was white and his black friends who thought he was black collaborated one day and beat both of us up. Just when being black was problematic for us, being both black and white proved even more dangerous. I was actually thrilled when I started middle school the next year: I would have one year of invisibility before my brother came along and I was eventually able to get into a high school that his grades prevented him from entering. At this school I was viewed as white. Today, my memory of passing as either “black” or “white” is quite haunting: the visible inscriptions that society marks onto the body through language necessitates the individual’s choice to accept or reject a pure race—one is compelled to be either “black” or “white.” My brother’s insistent re-construction of his race affirms, in much the same way as Adrian Piper’s video installations demonstrate, that to understand race as skin color, the visible, is to be “cornered” into a static, homogeneous identity.
My mother got divorced from our second father and married yet again, so we moved to Picayune, Mississippi. The family and racial troubles grew even worse. In Mississippi, our mother felt freer to publicly discipline us: she rented us out to neighbors to clean their houses in addition to the domestic chores we had to do at “home,” a huge estate with hundreds of pine trees on it. So Mark and I were inevitably always raking pine needles, especially in Mississippi’s hot summer days. Our mother would lie next to the pool and yell down to us “You missed a spot!” pointing as if we could see where she was indicating from fifty yards away. After about a year in Mississippi Mark finally did run away. He was fourteen at the time. He did not have any friends to turn to in Mississippi because he was ostracized by the community because he was not white. More so, nobody in the town thought we were abused because we came from a wealthy family: our mother worked with Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” Program in Mississippi; our second father was a doctor; our third father a psychologist. To them, we could not have been abused. Mark left one morning without saying a word to me. He returned a week later and told me that he had run away after our third father had made racist comments to him about the “nigger ducks”, referring to the American Black Ducks on the lake behind our house. When my mother found out Mark had returned she called the police to arrest him and, as was typical in small town Mississippi in the 1980s, the police obliged. Yet, when they released my brother the next day, my mother refused to pick Mark up telling the police to make him walk home because it would “teach him a lesson” (a mere ten miles). Instead Mark hitchhiked back to New Orleans and I would not see him again until five years later.
I finished high school early because I transferred from a college prep school in New Orleans to a pretty pathetic high school in Mississippi. I had no courses left to take after my third year except meat cutting. Owing to my mother’s interference and her determination to keep me near, I went to college fifty miles from her house. And she told me a few days before I left home: “As you know, we are perfectly capable of paying for you to go to school, but we don’t want to.” I went back home that Christmas vacation so she would co-sign a student loan, but because I made a B in a history class, she locked me in my room for three weeks. I left to finish the spring semester and never returned home. College became my refuge: I took on several part-time jobs and I even joined the Army and became a military intelligence officer. I buried myself in my studies and my military service and throughout college I slowly came to see the horror of my childhood. Yet, even the knowledge that my mother was a despicable person never completely sank in until I found out what Laura and Mark had done in New Orleans. What they did was to escape home, while I, by comparison, was somewhat comfortably gaining refuge from the past within the covers of books, in battle dress uniform, jumping out of airplanes, planning my future. I remember my mother calling me up one day at school to say that Mark was working as a busboy in a New Orleans restaurant. She added, “But you know what he was doing before. . .he’s going to get AIDS I bet.” The excitement in her voice was as if she was guessing the answer to a “Jeopardy” question, waiting to hear the winning bell.
When I returned from Central America in 1989 I found out that my mother had hired detectives to find me. I had painstakingly distanced myself from every member of my family. I did not want to be in contact with my mother, my past. I received a phone call from a friend in Mississippi telling me that my mother had called her to say that my brother had a brain tumor and that my mother was trying to get my phone number from her. I laughed knowing that my mother was lying. My friend called me back the next day and said, “No, he doesn’t have a brain tumor. He’s sick.” The tone in her voice, the simplicity of the phrase: “He’s sick”. . .I knew the “sickness”. . . I had no choice but to call my mother to find out where my brother was. She picked up the phone and with her newly cultivated southern accent said, “Hi, how’s your hair?” My hair? “Yes, your hair. . .is it short, long?” “It’s long,” I said. I will never forget the sound of her driveling on about her nose job, face lifts, oil wells somewhere in Texas. I got the necessary information from her and flew to Canada to see Mark. Mark with tubes, potassium, and more drugs than I care to remember, than I can remember. Mark recovered from the spinal meningitis he had in the fall of 1989 and was released from the hospital. I visited him almost every month and we spent most of our time filling in the past, playing chess and talking about our mother or, as he referred to her, Sheila. Mark had a much better sense of humor about her than did I. He laughed when he recounted the story of her hair turning green in the swimming pool and he reveled in the thought of her face lifts causing her jaw to snap open whenever she sat down.
Mark talked openly of his experiences on the streets of New Orleans describing to me in depth the bars and baths in the French Quarter, the men he would pick up, the men he would fuck and get fucked by. Crisco, towels, blow-jobs, rimming, animals, old, fat, bald, un-circumcised men. At times he was able to avoid prostitution by running drugs, but usually ended back on the streets until he returned to Canada when he was sixteen. Even though he was a prostitute, he never denied his attraction to both men and women. I always felt guilty about only visiting my brother once a month. . .I guess I still do feel terribly guilty. . . I was in college studying biochemistry. . .my brother was rolling over for money. . .I had no idea how he survived until I was nineteen. . .I had found my escape: books. . ..I used to avoid my family by going into my closet and reading, reading everything, entering the world of words, words that eventually captured my pain and diverted it into something with which I could better understand myself. . .theory is personal, words are personal, words are pain. . . Even these words that I so reluctantly type are words of privilege, circumstance, resistance to not be like my mother, not be like my brother. I escaped both fates, yet I embody the resistance to both, the phallic and the mother — I identify with both. I flow fluidly between the self and other, and am left staggering between the two.
There are so many things that amaze me about my brother. . .even now. Yet, as I was transcribing tapes he had left, I found myself angry with him. He says:
I didn’t agree with my mother’s way of doing things. . .and I chose to leave. I wasn’t comfortable with her rules and it was my choice not to stay there. ..Being a runaway at thirteen, I experienced a lot of street life. But, I always thought I could do it my own way and that I could make my own mistakes. I feel that I’m a strong person because of it.
Mark took complete responsibility for what he did, not what happened to him. I cannot believe this! I do not want to. He left me cassettes that record what he felt and thought at the end of his life and in one of them he talks about New Orleans as if he loved it there. He mentions that it was his choice to leave home — that he was not “comfortable” with her “rules”? He speaks of these “rules” as if there were allowances, as if there were little or no fear, as if he had never written “I will not forget to unload the dishwasher” ten thousand times! How can he love the place of our childhood, of his prostitution? How can he take control of the passive voice, turning it into the active, demonstrating his decision? He even states that he was thirteen, not fourteen when he ran away from home. More than this, my brother talks of forgiving my mother! Forgiving her? I have had reinvented JFK dreams of gunning her down in her First Baptist Church. I actually had to create her death while living in South America. All my friends there would ask me about my family. . .I once tried once to say, “No hablo con mi madre, ella esta loca.” But they simply looked at me as if craziness and cruelty were not sufficient excuses to break that eternal cordus umbillicus. . .I soon learned to create accidents, world-wide tragedies. . .”My mother died on the Avianca flight from Caracas,” I say. They look astonished. . .. I go into further detail explaining the wrecked body of the jet, the burned bodies, and finally, my mother, charred to the bone screaming out for help. I seem to always get too engrossed in the details of her death. . .to the point of pleasure. I soon realize that the family is looking at me in horror because I am smiling, practically drooling as I continue my tale. Mark was able to demystify our mother — to refer to her by name, “Sheila,” and after finding his natural mother, replaced Sheila with his newly found, newly born mother. My brother was able to create his mother, his sexuality, his race, his life, his death. I saw Mark dying because of the situation we were put into where I simply do not see choices, but only recourses, desperate necessities. My brother, however, empowered himself with the ability to act and not to be acted upon; even if it meant forgiving my mother, accepting and authoring his sexuality, his race, and the physical manifestation of AIDS. My brother was able to accept what I reject, what I loathe. . ..
Just as we cannot accept the monolithic construction of truth, of the VISIBLE, neither can we accept any monolithic representation of the INVISIBLE — we cannot understand difference as singular, but must recognize the plurality of voices, bodies, and lives that intersect, move, and shift. For many of us know how the invisible has a curious way of inhabiting a very large, a very crowded, a very homogeneous, and a far too often accepted CLOSET. Autobiography is the interactive terrain for the polyphony of individual utterances, a multitude of minority voices that cannot be aggregated into one identity, one easily acceptable or dismissable whole. Autobiography is the absolute space of difference whereby the autobiographer, the simultaneous subject and object of her own discourse, uses language not only to reformulate her own experience, but also the experience of others. The mimetic faculty engenders, according to Taussig, a “terrifically ambiguous power. . .to represent the world” as well as the power “to falsify, mask, and pose” (1993, 42-43). Autobiography, therefore could be viewed as the act of taking the “indescribable” of experience and evoking the discontinuities, the antagonisms, as well as the closure — it is representing the difference within difference. No longer can we be strangers to our past, our sexuality, our race, our desire, ourselves. No longer can we be strangers to the voices of others. We are the other. Or, as Diamanda Galas’ tattooed fingers read: “We are all HIV+.”
Until his death, I had a recurrent dream for more than two years: Mark and I are in his dark hospital room, he on his bed, and I am on another bed pulled next to his. The tube running from his aorta is not hooked up to an IV, but is attached to me, to my aorta. We touch each other’s hands and stare at each other’s bodies. I stopped having these dreams in February 1992. It was then that I learned of Mark’s death. I had asked him not to tell anyone my phone number or address for fear that my mother would contact me again; thus, no one could reach me when Mark entered the hospital. Mark, delirious from the pain and drugs, thought I was in Africa, a place we talked of escaping to as children. I found out he had died and I was not there. However, his natural mother and I became acquainted after Mark’s death and she described the whole scene to me:
Mark was very quiet that night. Then abruptly, a few hours before he left us, he sat up and drank apple juice and ate ice cream. He laughed and talked with us and all of a sudden, he got really quiet and reached out. There was nobody in the direction of his arm. I think he saw angels, the other side. Then he laid back down. Visiting hours were over and we told him we would come back tomorrow. He died a half hour later. . ..But you should be glad that you weren’t there. He was wearing a diaper and every time they changed it they made us leave the room. They kept it dignified. He didn’t want us to see him like that.
And so I was spared the absolute space of my brother’s death. The shit. The diaper is the dignity, the space that separated my brother’s death, his own death, from the rest. The shit is what the diaper covers up: the hidden narratives of family, racism, prostitution. They did not see the shit.
I had a different dream in June of that same year. It is like a film: Mark and I are in a room and I am holding him in my arms and he says, “I’m going to die.” No, it is not over till the fat lady sings, I assure him. He replies, “But, she’s singing.” Cut. A big, fat woman standing next to a mahogany piano, sings one note, strung out over several seconds, several lifetimes. Cut. I am holding my brother, lifeless. I scream over indefinite, immeasurable time. Cut.
My brother died of complications resulting from AIDS in February, 1992. My brother died from complications resulting from our family, racism, and child prostitution in February, 1992. The first is correct. The second is equally so. What is this autobiographical space for me? Is it where I cannot accept his death, the death that my brother accepted, the death that was his alone to construct, his autobiography? Is it where I reject the categorization of AIDS as a cause and instead locate it as a symptom of his death? Am I not attempting to alter his voice, to see the resemblances of our shared experience, to enter into his experiences that I can really never know, to identify and name what was underneath his diaper, his narrative, his “space of death,” the only thing separating his death as he wanted it, as he constructed it, from the death that I have just violently created for you, my own?
1 I refer to Autobiography as a “master narrative” of identity politics under which individual voices of autobiography are often, though not always, subsumed.
2 Sontag’s “AIDS as a metaphor” refers to the violence that occurs in the metaphorical packaging of this disease which serves to increase the suffering of those inflicted by dehumanizing these patients and rendering them either “victims” or “survivors”, while also creating unnecessary mass-cultural anxiety amongst the general population.
3 According to West’s Annotated Mississippi Legal Code, Code 43-21-607. Authorized dispositions, children in need of supervision, designates a “child in need of supervision” as:
(a) “Youth court” means the Youth Court Division.
(b) “Judge” means the judge of the Youth Court Division.
(c) “Designee” means any person that the judge appoints to perform a duty which this chapter requires to be done by the judge or his designee. The judge may not appoint a person who is involved in law enforcement to be his designee.
(d) “Child” and “youth” are synonymous, and each means a person who has not reached his eighteenth birthday. A child who has not reached his eighteenth birthday and is on active duty for a branch of the armed services or is married is not considered a “child” or “youth” for the purposes of this chapter.
(e) “Parent” means the father or mother to whom the child has been born, or the father or mother by whom the child has been legally adopted.
(f) “Guardian” means a court-appointed guardian of the person of a child.
(g) “Custodian” means any person having the present care or custody of a child whether such person be a parent or otherwise.
(h) “Legal custodian” means a court-appointed custodian of the child.
(i) “Delinquent child” means a child who has reached his tenth birthday and who has committed a delinquent act.
(j) “Delinquent act” is any act, which if committed by an adult, is designated as a crime under state or federal law, or municipal or county ordinance other than offenses punishable by life imprisonment or death. A delinquent act includes escape from lawful detention and violations of the Uniform Controlled Substances Law and violent behavior.
(k) “Child in need of supervision” means a child who has reached his seventh birthday and is in need of treatment or rehabilitation because the child:
(i) Is habitually disobedient of reasonable and lawful commands of his parent, guardian or custodian and is ungovernable; or
(ii) While being required to attend school, willfully and habitually violates the rules thereof or willfully and habitually absents himself therefrom; or
(iii) Runs away from home without good cause; or
(iv) Has committed a delinquent act or acts.
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