I have never recognized my own face

The author in July 2013, and the author today.

The author in July 2013, and the author today.

I don’t have prosopagnosia, otherwise known as face blindness. Recognizing other people’s faces has never challenged me. In fact, I tend to remember and recognize others’ faces rather well, just as I also learn names fast. There is, however, one face that I can rarely look at and say, “Oh, I know who that is.” This face is my own.

The revelation never struck me until this summer, when I was taking a full inventory of my various psychological oddities in preparation for a new phase of therapy. Amidst a host of other questions I asked myself, I wanted to get to the root of why I am someone who can’t stop staring in mirrors and, yes, taking selfies. What I have concluded is that I can functionally identify my own face, my own person, when viewing a reflection, a photograph, or a film/video recording— but that is only because, since time immemorial, all evidence has pointed to those images being of yours truly. In the meantime I have always felt dissociated from that image, not in the sense of body dysmorphia but in the sense of literally feeling as if the person reflected or recorded is not really me. My inner self-image is not of somebody real.

Sometimes this does lead to vanity, or giving off the impression of vanity. In my constant quest to connect with the person I look like, I ceaselessly examine my favorite features to affirm to myself, “Yes, this is me, I like how this part looks,” and I stare in disappointment at other features as I try to process the fact that no matter how much I don’t like how x looks, it is actually me as well. And I loathe having any photo or recording taken of me that I don’t control from start to finish. When I look at a recording someone else has taken, or even a photo taken from a bad angle, I don’t just hate it because it fails to adequately flatter me; I hate it because it frustrates me by making me stare at it while I perform mental gymnastics to accept the fact that it is me. Half of my Instagram account, as my friends know, is selfies, and I have this habit because it helps me practice acceptance of my appearance, plus it gives me a chance to get photos of myself that come closer to the version of myself that I see when I close my eyes.

I don’t think this is unusual for someone who was both raised in a body-negative society and came to identify as trans over time. But I do think it’s important to distinguish that at the end of the day, I really don’t consider myself ugly. I have a fairly realistic understanding of how much fat is on my bones, too, and I’m confident that I have no features that look bigger or smaller to me than other people would imagine. And when I’m just feeling my body, feeling my body’s place in space, I don’t experience any of the dysphoria I used to.

My confusion and even anguish are just tied to the fact that my mind’s eye is not in agreement with the sensory information I get, when it comes to my looks. This, I suspect, is the strange thing— the thing that makes it less typical for my upbringing and demographics. But maybe it’s really there for a lot of people like me. I don’t know.

In fact, while other trans people’s mileage may vary, I have concluded lately that a portion of my lifelong gender challenges has been that no adherence to any standard gender presentation can help me recognize myself better. The photos at the top of this post are respectively from three summers ago and this summer. When I took the first photo, I still identified as a binary trans man, albeit with some genderqueer leanings, and I was about eight to nine months from a total collapse of my effort to maintain such a gender. In the second photo, you can see a nonbinary, fey leather-femme, who has dyed xir hair bright red and is now embodying a much more iconoclastic imag than before. I know that these are both me. I do not feel that they are both me. The second photo comes a lot closer to the mark, but not because it is more recent— just because it is me doing a better job at making myself look like something I can recognize.

I don’t know if I will ever do a completely adequate job. There are some things I will never be able to change. My face is just all wrong, even though I think it’s reasonably attractive now. Beyond my face, I’m so much shorter in reality than I am in my head, it’s somewhat absurd. I feel as if I probably stand about 5’7″ or higher, and I absolutely don’t. By some laws I am a dwarf (and I’ll take that word over little person, by the by). Maybe I should start wearing six-inch heels. I don’t know.

There is no special point to this piece. It is an observation, an explanation of something about myself, and probably not much else. I will probably write similar pieces over the coming months, if I find the energy and time. In the meantime, whether you like my selfies, don’t like them, or didn’t know I took them all the time, now you have the story behind them.

D. Llywelyn Jones

A play, and a story

I feel somewhat stupid for not doing a proper blog announcement about this at some point: earlier this year, my adaptation of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus achieved what I will call its performance-ready form. I think I shied away from formally declaring anything because in my opinion (and in others’) the script would benefit from a public staged reading before a full production. I also have been dithering on whom to approach as a potential local producer, although an interested director does exist. Nonetheless, I do think of the play as “done”— ready for action. Immense thanks are due to my beta readers, as well as to Lucas Commons-Miller, J. Deschene, and Ally Matteodo of the Boston theatre scene for serving in a multiplicity of roles during last December’s private reading. When I figure out how to really move forward, I will be better about updating here.

Worth noting as well, I suppose: while it is now in beta, I completed my first sci fi short story, “O Fortuna,” earlier this summer. I consider this a personal success because it has been a long time since I truly finished a short story, and while some bodies would classify it more as a novelette, the fact remains that it is not a full novel, and yours truly the master of verbosity managed to tell a concise tale. I also suspect this is the first sci fi story of any kind that I’ve written without just a two-paragraph beginning. When it is out of beta, I’ll be querying magazines, or whatever else seems like a good possibility.

Until next time.

D. Llywelyn Jones

Edit: Oh, right. I also joined Medium. Follow here, if you’re a Medium person. I consider myself fairly useless at Medium so far, but if I figure out something to do with it, I will.

Once again, not dead

Once again, not dead… but this has definitely been a very preoccupying couple of months. I do hope to post some nice or at least important news, not just crotchety ramblings, but I will warn in advance that I don’t think it’s likely to happen this month. Now is as good a time as any to note that if you are not following me on Twitter, that is often where little tidbits of my life wind up when they don’t feel like they deserve a proper blog post. If you are not on Twitter, meanwhile, I can’t say it’s for everyone, but I will recommend it 10-1 over Facebook any day.

D. Llywelyn Jones

Survival, So-Called, Part 1

Immediate warning: This entire post repeatedly mentions and describes emotional, sexual, and financial abuse.

I didn’t wake up planning to write this, but I also wasn’t born with the expectation of one fellow human singlehandedly and nonconsensually breaking down who I was and spitting out a remade version of that self. I did not expect to be shaped by abuse.

The reason I feel like writing about my abuse right now is that I have lately meditated a lot— and, yes, occasionally worked with my therapist— on some personal challenges that I didn’t think really connected to that abuse. But, as seems to be fairly typical, of course those things did connect. I also dislike being misunderstood, and since virtually all of these particular problems impact my interactions with other people, this evening I was suddenly moved to write at least once on why I have turned into the sort of friend, relative, etc. that I am. Which is to say, I’m not a terribly “good” friend or relative in many traditional senses, and I feel alternately guilty or frustrated by this. In writing this, too, I hope that maybe I will have a chance at finding other abuse survivors who face what I face, who struggle how I struggle, because we are by no means a monolith, and I can tell that my remaking clearly deviates from the Standard Victim-Survivor Model in some respects.

Here are some things for you to know first. One is that my first novel, Tiresias, does derive large portions of the storyline from my own abuse experience, which anyone knowing me during my junior or senior years of college could clearly recognize; but it is not a connect-the-dots roadmap for exactly what happened to Devon Llywelyn Jones the young scholar. Though it undoubtedly qualifies as a roman à clef, the protagonist Quinn narrates from a crossroads of gender and politics that I once did inhabit but is not my situation any longer, and even in the past I was not identical. The wholly accurate details of my abuse— and of how I really feel about it these years later— have only been disclosed to a few people, and these details were highlighted differently in the novel than what I wish to highlight now.

The second thing, which leads right to my main point: I have encountered and sometimes conquered a number of psychological hangups that relate to how I cohabitate with people, how I navigate my gender, and how I have sex, all of which absolutely derive from being abused; I don’t think that those hangups affect me so greatly nowadays, especially since around autumn of last year when my economic circumstances took a substantive turn for the better. So I’m sure that I could lend my voice to the chorus of survivors describing how we’ve each been affected by someone putting us into debt, by someone exploiting our altruism while collectively sharing our poverty, by someone’s poor impulse control leading to a hoarder household where you couldn’t even fucking breathe, by codependency leading to a mutual willingness to allow shirked responsibilities, by someone using your gender crisis as an excuse to map their own gender crisis onto you in the bedroom, by someone putting their hands where you don’t want them to go on your body, by someone physically hurting your sexual anatomy, by someone coercing you into sex acts that cause you nausea and disgust. But honestly, truly, I think that most effects from those elements of my abuse… they’re now rather marginal. I’m lucky. I’m relieved. I really did survive those things, and I can now live with the ways that Devon Llywelyn Jones was irrevocably remade before and after that survival.

What I am quite sure that abuse damaged in me long-term is: my ability to form, maintain, or even give a shit about most kinds of social attachment; my comfort levels with environments or aesthetics that probably a lot of people consider “pure” or “soothing”; and my interest in existing within certain social arenas at all. Of course, when I say that I was damaged, I mean this in a highly specific sense, not to broadly say that something is now horribly wrong with me. Frankly, though I have long called myself an extrovert insofar as being around other human beings (physically or digitally) is preferable to being alone, I would definitely qualify this as a “closet” extrovert because I’ve always compartmentalized the when, where, and how of most personal connections, e.g. if I know someone as “the friend who holds parties” then I am pretty content just seeing them at parties, or if I enjoy a coworker’s company in the office then I feel very weird seeing them outside of it. In the meantime I’ve also harbored a lifelong gravitation to the macabre, the morbid, the violent (all nuances of that word), etc., and I grew up as an outlier, a brooder, an iconoclast, and a cynic. If I had not been abused, I am fairly certain that I would still have spent a life embroiled in various countercultures, exploring things that are fundamentally queer, Dionysian, even occult. I feel no shame about this. I feel no drive to cloak myself in irony. I am wired unconventionally, and so are plenty of other people, really, and that’s all right. But by being abused, my existing peculiarities were fermented and magnified into something I don’t think many people who currently know me understand. Something that gives me a difficult model for the kind of connections I do want, and something that I suspect makes me a difficult fit for the model of connections that others might expect from me.

I do not think I can lay out the whole history and effects in just one post, even if I had time tonight. For the moment I will just try to focus on the attachment aspect.

To the best of my knowledge, my ex, whom I will call Cat, had been abused in multiple ways by three out of her four immediate family members before I met her when I was a college sophomore. I know this instantly complicates my own abuse narrative because I did not have an archetypal abuser. A young woman, hardly some classical sociopath, in fact impossible to diagnose consistently in terms of her psychology. Depending on which professional she saw, she had bipolar I, bipolar II, major depression, borderline personality disorder, PTSD, or some combination, all of which resulted in a totally new drug cocktail every six months. To say the least, I think that Cat was suffering emotionally on a profound level, and this is more important than classifying a condition or judging how much was borne by her own failings.

(An aside: while I think borderline personality can in fact be a meaningful profile to use for analyzing someone’s behavior, including Cat’s, it does rather frequently seem to be deployed as a way of saying, “You have PTSD symptoms but you’ve brought it all on yourself.” Never mind the gendered components. And the name is grossly misleading.)

Cat’s suffering perpetuated itself into my own life. The abused became the abuser, which I suppose is archetypal in certain spheres, but I couldn’t recognize this for a long time, partly because the ways that she abused me usually didn’t resemble the ways she had been abused. She must have learned that you always hurt the one you love, insofar as she rapidly proved incapable of relating to me in a way that wasn’t harmful, exploitative, manipulative, and alienating; and yet, she was not hitting me, forcing her body physically on mine during sex, doing sexually humiliating things to me in public, and so on. She just started, within months of first sleeping together, to force me into creating an environment where she never had to face anything that she was afraid of.

I won’t make “safer spaces” analogies. There is total validity to the concept of safer spaces and to their underlying logic of expecting people to treat each other with basic human decency. What Cat tried to do was make our shared life something I’ll call an innocent space. First she excoriated my tastes in virtually all media and pastimes because they were not always cute, gentle, optimistic, binary-femme, or sexless. Sometimes they were what you might call “problematic,” but she embraced plenty of problematic media herself so at most she was hypocritical in that regard; generally it seemed like if something were merely dark, intense, butch, or sexual, she could not tolerate it. Over time she extended this daily or weekly coal-raking to my presentation, my pronouns, my creative pursuits, my spirituality, and my social circle. I was not allowed to transgress my assigned gender because choosing something remotely masculine or butch threatened her even despite what a femmy, flamboyant guy I was at the time; if I couldn’t naturally become her partner in twee lipstick lesbianism, she would berate and verbally assault me until I was at least willing to forget or erase the most discomforting parts of myself. And yet gender was really just one part of it. Her gender policing belonged to such a broad package of identity management that I suspect I only zeroed in on the gender for years afterward because it was the most obvious form of oppression, a cis person telling a trans person how (not) to be trans.

Overall, I was systematically isolated from my friends because Cat temporarily convinced me that all of them were useless, unoriginal people, and that I needed to expend all of my emotional energy on her. Not simply because my friends called me “him.” Overall, I stopped doing anything that made me happy because doing it distracted me from her, because it shattered the innocent and calm sphere that she wanted to be in, and because it cost me money that was barely there in the first place (and that she was all but stealing from under my nose). Overall, we stopped having sex because Cat could not compute healthy sexuality into our relationship, because I believed at the time that if we never really had sex then we would still be saved by “love,” and because the sex we did manage quickly became bad and/or encompassed the sexual abuse I did experience. Not simply because she didn’t want to have sex with a “him.”

My abuse was so complex that I already feel like I need to pause and note how deeply I understand why Cat treated me how she did. It was not right for her to do, but the rationale is easy to trace, and it seems impossible to blame her for wanting a cozy, domestic existence surrounded by nice material possessions and some assurance that she would never ever have to experience anything more intense than a fuzzy blanket, or to experience anything more sexually and sensually stimulating than cuddling amid a marijuana high, or to be around men. Whenever I feel severely depressed, even suicidal, due to the state of my life or the world, my first recourse is certainly to go home, have a good meal or buy something nice to wear, and have a long snuggle with my husband, who is literally the only man I can cope with under those circumstances; a good shag would also make me feel better, but my libido isn’t really up to the task for at least a few minutes after a good cry.

I am quite sure that a dividing line between a healthy need and an abusive behavior is when you demand that someone else compromise virtually all their own healthy needs in order to satisfy yours, and when you force them into compliance through guilt or the feeling that you are the only person who can validate them. Cat crossed this line with me too many times to count. I’m sure it was hundreds. It blurred together into two and a half years of utter hell.

Friendships that once mattered to me were shunted aside to such an extent that I was only able to pursue perhaps half of them when I finally escaped, and then I suspect that even half of that half got irrevocably stunted. It had taken me twelve years of grade school to learn how to attract and nurture friends, to acquire the types of connections that I did desperately want— and it took me a sixth of that time to not only drop so many people by the wayside, but also to get shaped into such a cynically judgmental and bitter person that I saw most of these collapses not as losses until I was free. I have even retained that cynicism up till today, though the reasons for which I now find myself judging potential companions are fairly different than what Cat drove into me. This is the most obvious effect of my abuse on my attachment skills. Now, I just tend to back away fast from social connections because they remind me too much of her; because the ways we’re not so compatible are too daunting for me to feel capable of spending energy on getting along anyway; or because of what I will explain next. But I do back away. A lot.

The less obvious effect on my attachment skills has arisen more obliquely. Let me talk for a moment about empathic investment. I am very empathic. I don’t feel like starting some contest for who is the most empathic person I know, but whatever mechanism you would use to describe the cause of empathy, I have that mechanism overclocked. Obviously this made it easier for Cat to manipulate me in the first place— if she was suffering, I felt absolutely awful on raw principle— but beyond that, if I do value and respect someone enough to regard them as what many people would call a friend, those feelings of valuation and respect are strong. They are often quite equivalent to what many people would also call love, even though I don’t feel much of an impulse to live together or send flowers or exhibit a lot of stereotypically romantic behavior. I might find them sexually attractive too, and I might harbor some latent hope that they find me the same, though these feelings aren’t some kind of default. I will get to sexuality more soon, but my point right here is that it is hard for me to feel unmitigated admiration for someone else and not experience it as a kind of crush. This feeds into why precisely I am queer, I believe. It’s also a grotesque emotional inconvenience. I cannot go through life with starry eyes for virtually every person who’s moderately interesting, trustworthy, or socially relevant.

So: this is certainly one factor in my closet extroversion, for even if I prefer the company of others to the company of merely myself, I would be empathically exhausted if I made an effort to regularly spend time with anyone who was more than a very casual acquaintance. But also, post-abuse, I find that my basic threshold has dropped for growing emotionally overwhelmed, so more than ever, I feel as if I need to invest my energies strictly in personal connections with the people to whom I do feel magnetically drawn. My social experiences over the past several years have increasingly dwindled to spending time with “kindred spirits,” much as I hate that phrase, or to satisfying my extroversion by simply going places where there are going to be a lot of random strangers. I love long, soul-searching online conversations, and I love ritually scheduled parties, performances, and nightclubs. I can no longer cope with spontaneous “hanging out” or keeping track of important friends’ lives via sporadic status updates or annual e-mails.

That troubles me, because before my abuse, I was never too spontaneous and I was never good at obligatory correspondence. Worse, the general sexlessness of what constituted my ex’s comfort zone (apart from the few times that she decided to abuse me in bed) has repulsed me from connections where I know or imagine I need to walk on eggshells regarding sexuality. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with being open about how the enforced vanilla non-sexuality of life with my ex eventually pushed me to feel most fulfilled as somebody kinky and highly sexual. I never feel as if sexuality rules me in some addictive fashion. It is, however, a severe challenge for me to conduct myself around asexual, minimally sexual, or sexually ultra-private people, and I am not exactly proud of this. I have literally no disagreement with others inhabiting a less sexually-focused existence than my own, but I am directly triggered (yes, in the clinical definition of the term) when I discover myself in the company of people who don’t enjoy sex, don’t experience sexual attraction, are themselves triggered by sexuality, view sexual desire as a corrupting force, or would simply prefer not to talk about sex in general. I can be around these people, but I need to leave the room or take a break from the Internet if such qualities become a discursive focus. I am not terribly afraid of behaving like a genuine creeper, though I certainly hope someone would point it out to me if I ever did; my visceral reaction centers purely around the fear of being judged for something very benign. I don’t like how this has caused my blood pressure to pointlessly spike around people I otherwise would want to spend time with. It’s embarrassing. It’s stupid. Abuse can produce the strangest triggers imaginable. Abuse has hampered my ability to nurture friendships with more than a handful of hugely compatible, equally sexual people.

With that thought in mind, I will leave this alone until I can summon the time and capacity for a post on the next logical topic of this abuse that I seem to have survived in name only.

DLJ

Like magic, “The Witch” succeeds based on expectations

I have seen The Witch. Before I talk about it, I should warn that I will discuss most major plot points, up to and including the ending. Normally I offer such warnings as a tiresome courtesy, because I don’t usually find that knowing the end of a story before watching or reading it precludes my ability to fairly evaluate or enjoy it. Often, what happens happens, and what happens means the same thing to me whether or not it’s a surprise. In the case of this film, however, I had read the ending in advance online, and I don’t precisely regret that choice, but I do think it had a substantive impact on my viewing experience. Therefore: consider yourself genuinely warned if you do read further here.

Now, again, I have seen The Witch. Is it a revolutionary film? No. Is it an important one? Yes. Is it a flawless masterpiece? No. Is it wonderful in some respects, and at least quite good in others? Yes. It is something I badly needed to see at this particular point in my life. I think it is a film that some subset of its audience has also needed or wanted. The challenge of heaping accolades on this darling of horror critics: I’m fairly sure that I, Devon Llywelyn Jones, experienced this important, necessary film as I watched it, but I’m not convinced that all audience members will experience the same thing. If I wanted to simply lay the blame at those viewers’ feet, I would say, “Fools be damned, it’s a beautiful movie and that’s it,” but unfortunately the filmmaker tells a story that is so easily interpreted from multiple value systems that its light doesn’t shine as brightly as it should. A good story favors subtlety and nuance over preaching; it should still say something.

To explain what I mean, let me first place you in my own head as I sat watching the final sequence, which was without question my favorite part of the whole thing. Thanks to Wikipedia, I knew what was coming, and this tidbit of information had arguably been what convinced me to watch the film at all. So here I was in the theatre, staring with rapt attention as all the eerie moments and flashes of violence came to their resolution. I watched as young Thomasin walked across the dark farm to speak with the goat, by now an unambiguous manifestation of what both family and film alike regarded as Satan. I watched as she spoke to the goat, heard nothing, then was suddenly answered by a sinuous, tempting whisper, offering her pleasure and freedom. I watched as she was offered the Devil’s book to sign, as a shadowy figure loomed behind her and touched her shoulder, as the whisper promised to guide her hand in writing her name. I watched her proceed naked into the woods, accompanied by an alien choir, finding herself on the approach to a picture-perfect rendering of women consumed by ecstatic dance, lustfully writhing and chanting in some diabolical ritual. I watched the women rise into the air, flying, and I watched as Thomasin rose with them in her mad laughter. The film cut to black, and to the credits. I was, in a word, intoxicated. I had viewed the entire storyline as a historically grounded depiction of how the Puritans (and their ilk) conceptualized witchcraft, virtually ripped from primary sources, and the ending to me felt both natural and game-changing— because instead of allowing the Devil to be defeated, forcing the Puritan characters to lose their belief in pure evil, or clumsily decoupling belief in witchcraft from grotesquely patriarchal politics, The Witch dared to let the Devil win, and to suggest that in comparison to the religion that Thomasin knew, perhaps sinfulness should be embraced. As a feminist and as a privately practicing ritualist who also grew up raptly studying the details of Salem and other witch trials, I saw the whole film from this perspective and walked out of the theatre utterly thrilled.

My husband was not thrilled. I’ll note right off that he has a strong, close understanding of feminism, gender theory, and the significance of misogyny in the politics of witchcraft; we largely have the same mind on these things. Also, we talked about the film for several hours afterward, and just as his opinions convinced me further of certain flaws, he admitted that I wound up convincing him of some virtues. As of tonight, he said he liked it more and more in retrospect. But at first he didn’t “get” the ending, and as our conversation evolved, we realized something rather crucial. While an atheist now, he had grown up in an extremely conservative religious environment, not with modern Calvinists but certainly within a strain of Christianity that has comparably negative attitudes toward women and women’s sexuality. I did not grow up this way at all; I was raised as an atheist, and my spiritual explorations have been completely self-motivated. So as we spoke further, it became clear that when I watched the ending, I kept a distance from the subject matter, recognizing what it was on a scholarly level but forming my emotional response out of intellectual excitement— and out of watching the whole movie in a search for the thematic moments that would lead to the final payoff. Conversely, as my husband had watched, he knew that there was nothing morally wrong with Thomasin actually being welcomed to a witch coven, but years and years of cultural conditioning left him with the instinctive feeling that everything Thomasin suddenly underwent at the end was supposed to be very wrong. Seeing the film’s faithful adherence to primary source Christian portrayals of pure evil, he couldn’t help but form the impression that Thomasin was not being shown as liberated, and she had rather become a tragic horror victim.

Was my interpretation more valid than my husband’s? I would like to say yes, I would like to claim I was gifted with a more objective viewpoint, but aside from that doing a huge disservice to the man I live with, I also just don’t think one interpretation is more valid, having thoroughly considered both. The strongest stance I can take is that the ending, as a short cinematic work in its own right, is aesthetically and psychologically powerful, and that if I had made the film myself, I would have created nearly a shot-for-shot version of the same events— because I would personally like to take the things that many people today find laughable or objectionable about witchcraft, devil worship, etc., and present them to others with utmost sincerity, posing the question, “Is this not, in fact, something beautiful?” But that assessment of mine takes the ending out of its complete narrative context; in that context, too much of the earlier storytelling allows for an ambiguity of audience sympathies. And I don’t like that ambiguity, because it means Robert Eggers either created something spectacular or he created something supremely unnecessary. It means that I watched something rightly unsettling while my husband watched something wrongly unsettling.

To pull The Witch out of that Schrödinger’s box, let’s first enumerate what works in favor of the film being a meaningful liberation narrative.

  • In my understanding, Eggers himself has implied this is the preferred interpretation, so there’s some stated authorial intent.
  • The Puritan culture as depicted is widely known in contemporary anglophone society as an example of highly oppressive patriarchy. So: someone deliberately turning her back on Puritan values can easily appear as a positive development to many viewers.
  • Plenty of incidents and lines suggest or state that Thomasin is growing mistrusted within the family because she is becoming sexually mature.
  • To the film’s credit, a highly patriarchal environment manages to be portrayed without anyone being raped— not even offscreen— and without even other forms of tastelessly framed violence against women. Look! It’s an oppressive historical setting that isn’t Rape World! I found a few moments vaguely questionable, but mostly, I felt as if a male screenwriter/director for once didn’t go over the top to make his point.
  • To the film’s further credit, female sexual maturity is presented as an obvious “no no” for the Puritan family without then casting the entire development of Thomasin’s character as some cissexist nonsense about her needing to connect with her magical moon womb. Of course, to the best of my knowledge, all the women depicted in the film are cis and intended to be read that way, but as with Mad Max: Fury Road, I was pleased that the story offered no cheap shots.
  • Arguably, the ending is rather queer. After all, Thomasin becomes a witch. And what do we all know about witches? They’re… lesbians!

As for what seems lacking, here are my thoughts, though I would be remiss in pretending my husband didn’t make some of the same observations. (This might be my own blog post, but it’s also “amalgamated drivel from the other night.”)

  • I don’t think the film strictly “needed” to pass the Bechdel test, but there is little initial affection shown between Thomasin and her mother. After losing baby Sam right at the outset, Thomasin’s mother immediately turns cold. Thomasin also has a poor relationship with her younger sister Mercy; the female protagonist’s only obviously affectionate relationships are with her father and one brother. And at the end, of course, Thomasin has killed no one so far but does kill her mother. These dynamics position Thomasin as a girl whose future disaffection with patriarchy somehow derives from problems with other female characters and not with male ones. The only exception seems to be when her father grows convinced that she is a witch, and that takes a while— nor does she herself kill him.
  • Along these same lines, maybe instead of Thomasin simply overhearing that she needs to be sent elsewhere to learn housekeeping now that she’s reached menarche, there could have been an early scene where we do witness her mother’s real kindness and a direct revelation of the menarche then serves as a means for Thomasin to be treated differently by her mother and the rest of the family. We could maybe have gotten a few less shots of her “tempting” neckline that way. I believe any further attention to the fact of her menstruation would then thematically threaten the relative absence of cissexist tropes, but if we were shown this existing character development rather than discovering it in a piece of dialogue, the film would both provide context for the mother’s affection to wane and a clearer focus on exactly what living in a patriarchy means— still without anyone being raped in the process.
  • There are no indications given prior to the ending that becoming a witch could actually be positive. The probably anti-Puritan modern audience may support Thomasin leaving the faith of her birth, but anti-Puritan doesn’t translate immediately to pro-witch. Witches are still villains in contemporary media, so without giving Thomasin some scenes where she experiences witchcraft as a boon, I completely understand how someone conditioned like my husband could assume that the ending is meant to be the protagonist’s downfall. I also understand that Eggers may have desired a surprise finish and presumed the audience would supply anti-Puritan, pro-witch logic themselves, but would all audience members really do so? Really? It would be such a delicate balancing act to provide some pro-witch moments in this film’s beginning and middle without turning heavyhanded, but since the film otherwise works with such artful care, I think Eggers could have been capable and just didn’t think it out.
  • The Devil is, well, a seemingly male entity. For an “accurate” Puritan concept of Satan, something masculine makes sense, even observing that many depictions of the Devil also rely on gender deviance. But here, it’s a probably-male Devil, and that calls into question Thomasin’s liberation— she’s in his service, after all— as well as the ending’s queerness. “Progressive” Satanism in this day and age often just trades women as chaste objects for women as totally available objects, and if that mindset influenced Eggers at all, that’s unfortunate.
  • Generally, there isn’t a huge sense of the female characters’ inner lives. Male gaze rises to the top at some points in the film by giving us father-son bonding moments, showing us a man and a boy who are speakers, doers, thinkers who converse with each other, while the mother belongs rather squarely within the archetype of “religious hysteric” and Thomasin’s communications largely exist for her to be misunderstood rather than for us to learn the truth about her. I do not object necessarily to the filmmaker keeping this sort of distance from his protagonist, but because this is juxtaposed with male characters who do struggle and communicate in an overt way, the imbalance leaves Thomasin as less central to the story than she should be.

When you add up all of the above, it’s perhaps easy to see why the film is too open-ended. The Witch does want to leave some things up to the audience, and I admire it for choosing that route over what I’ll politely call the Aaron Sorkin school of storytelling, but if you try to balance this subtlety with an attempt at authentically presenting “real” Puritan notions of good and evil, you do skirt perilously close to a fairytale that isn’t quite brave enough to totally contradict those notions. If you have an anti-patriarchal belief system and you want to suggest it subtly in your movie, you could always try to just… do that. Not to leave things so subtle that there is a possibility of your audience exiting the theatre with the impression, “Looks like evil won, and that’s bad.”

But having made my point about how The Witch could be seriously improved, I would like to end on a positive note, and to encourage that people watch it, watch it again, and talk about it plenty. Aside from at least having a strong plot, the film is a marvel in many respects— exquisite cinematography (Caravaggio interior lighting, be still my heart!), good pacing, fantastic actors, spot-on attention to the period setting, believable dialogue, and a score that I absolutely adored (despite/partially because of its glaringly obvious Ligeti-esque tributes to 2001: A Space Odyssey). Everything you may have already heard about a chilling atmosphere is correct. Comparisons to the original The Wicker Man are probably valid, though I must shamefully confess I haven’t seen that movie yet. But The Witch definitely belongs to an important, fringe breed of the cinema of the occult, and despite being historical fiction, it has its finger on the pulse of what I myself have witnessed of the contemporary “dark pagan scene,” for lack of a more respectful term. If it doesn’t completely succeed, it’s still making a bold, ambitious attempt at the sort of horror that’s always needed to exist— and will continue needing to exist in the future, despite what some surprisingly liberal Puritans in our own era would ask of witchcraft. This is not the pretty, fluffy occult of New Age magick shoppes. It’s something older, something raw, and something that you only find in the woods.

DLJ

Poem: What it is I wear

It masquerades,
stolen word for a creature
that cannot name itself,
for an entity
that existed before there was life as we know it
will continue to exist when life as we know it
has perished.
Phonetics evoke more than etymology—
it is no tribes,
no tongues,
no buildings.

It does wear black,
it does paint its face,
it does garb itself in certain patterns
and certain cuts.
It does smoke and it does drink.
It does bedeck its bony places
in silver and leather, gems and lace,
silk and velvet and latex alike,
and it does bedeck its fleshy places with ink.
There are songs that it knows,
there are songs that it readily learns.
These are not the meaning,
not the cause.

It does belong to the young,
and to the unchallenged,
and to the first time struggle,
and to hormones fertilizing follicles and erections.
It does belong to the aesthetes.
It is a dalliance.
And then it belongs to the old
aging alongside or returning to it
like to a childhood home.
It belongs to the seasoned,
to the lifelong fighter,
to the bitterness of time.
It belongs to the activist.
It is a commitment.

It survives without humanoid embodiment,
without earthly music,
without reasons,
without memories.

Dry leaves. Grubs that strip the skull.
A rip and a shriek.
Standing alone on a barren mount.
The tightness in the throat
before salt spills from the eyes.
The last waltz. Pleas and refusals.
Eulogy. Memento. That half-cooked heart.
Drowning (always, of course, drowning).
Faint snaps and clicks
over a deeper thud.
Extinction and forsaken hope.
What words are cried through the rain.
Tombs, and sleep gained only after sobs.
Night, not as idol but as compulsion.
Sliding denials. Smudged reflections.
The home that was burned
and the forest razed.
Ash mistaken for snow. Tubes sprouting from skin.
Subterranean transit. Doors closing.

“Fuck,”
every instance of that perfect word,
“fuck.” And yes, bleeding, and yes, pain,
the sort of pain conjured by slicing metal.
Prostration before whatever force drove the first hands
to bring the first paint
to the first cave wall.
(The oldest known cave dwelling holds a bear skull in it, an altar to decay created thirty millennia past.)
A legend, a cult. Nightmares of fire from the sky. Writhing.
Covering ears against the horns of the wild hunt,
only to uncover them.
Bodies without wills and wills without bodies,
only to mock the foolishness
of all who imagine bodies and wills are distinct.
Pomegranate. Cold. Crawling through mud.
The walk to the executioner.
Rust and tarnish.
Screaming as the deer is skinned.
Bastards birthed and gods ingested. Hordes.
The night wind drying sweat from the neon-bathed face,
as the body leans against the brick wall
and finds breath after deafening rhythms.
Shots of vodka, bottles of rum.
Mutilation. Yes, what they call the devil.
Collapsing at ill news.
Electronics under skin,
electronics surrounding skin.
The shuttle at the loom. The rising chorus.
Gunfire and thunderclaps.
When the fabric tears.
Hunting in the snow.
The sinuous body caught in the tryst.

Candlelight. Bells. Chimes. Vigils and silence.

Kindled stars over grey seas.
Must walk to the beat funneled to your ears.
Pennyroyal. A hand pulls the cord.
That woman stands at the dulcimer, quick-fingered.
Final cries and exultations. Moons and milk.
A rush and a murmur. Lying in stupor.
Madness and steadfastness.
They’re gone; they’re gone.
Conjuring. Hymns. The bar is closed.

Those black figures grind themselves over the sidewalks,
fueled by such tokens.
They loiter and linger like crows
with a stolen word
for their world,
lurkers for something’s loyal opposition.

DLJ

Bowie

It’s been precisely a month since Bowie died, and in that month my life has puttered in a comparably smooth state, but I have also been in greater mourning than I’ve yet experienced for a blood relative. This could be surprising to some. Or not.

His absence still hurts. I cried several times after hearing about it, and weeks later I started to sing “Heroes” alone at home and I broke down in the middle, and I can’t think about him being gone without wet eyes. The best I can manage is to listen to as much of his music as possible and pretend that he will never stop writing it. Even though he will. Since I was nine years old, he was one of the most important people I knew of. He explained gender to me, without ever talking about it. He explained my sexuality to me, without ever talking about it. He helped me understand what’s beautiful. Some of his music I never loved, but much of it I did, and I find that in being an adult I love more of it. When I say “being an adult” I mean that until he died I did not really see myself as an adult. I saw myself as a consciousness that had experienced childhood, adolescence, and then some strange chaos of adventure, abuse, and constant financial struggle; I saw myself as a consciousness that had been several genders and several individuals and was starting to come full circle back to something I should have predicted when I was sixteen or seventeen. I didn’t understand “adulthood.” Now I do, a decade after legally holding that identity. I am an adult because one of the few gods I had is dead.

Only the other day could I bring myself to watch the “Blackstar” video; watching “Lazarus” the very day after he died was arguably a mistake. I still have not listened to the entire new album. Soon I will.

I suppose this is an in memoriam post, something to recognize the influence of whom I call the Man Who Fell to Earth (and Returned to the Stars). It is important for me to clarify that I do not regard him as flawless. To me he feels like a family member, and that can mean negative as well as positive. I simply wish for this to serve as a meditation— a digital space to lay a few thoughts and links in response to his mere existence. From what I know about his views on the Internet, this seems especially appropriate.

1. Jes Skolnik, on Bowie as an icon who, yes, had sex with somebody underage: Human/Alien/Human (trigger warning)

2. My favorite song of his:

3. I must, at some point, compile my thoughts on his complete discography once I’ve finished reviewing it. Not this day, however. I need more distance and time.

4. This, presented without further commentary:

DLJ