You know what ruined documentaries for me? Being in one. Because now I grok how that particular sausage is made. What Upton Sinclair is to the meatpacking industry, I am to cinematic verisimilitude.
The doc in question — about my transsexual partner, Jane, who was preparing for sex-reassignment surgery — did well on the American and British circuits. They probably loved it in Thailand too. Those crazy ladyboys!
Small parts of the movie represent reality; the rest is total bullshit. To wit: the filmmakers told us to be ourselves and to forget about the cameras. We weren’t and we didn’t. Neither did they. They’d started the project with a standard “woman-trapped-in-a-man’s-body” trans narrative: Jane was born a boy named Jim. See this childhood photo of Jimmy getting a train set for Christmas? Watch as it morphs into Jane putting on lipstick!
“So THAT’S where my fucking Crimson Glow SmileSlick went,” I muttered to Jane as we watched an early draft of the film. “I mean, I’m happy to share, but I just wish you’d leave it where I can find –”
“Shhh,” Jane said, re-loading her bong as the scene switched from our bathroom counter to the city skyline.
Early on, Jane had refused to give the filmmakers a photo of herself pre-transition. They found one online, e-mailed it to her and asked if they could use it. She went into the bathroom and puked; the same reaction she had the day I found an old electric bill with her former name on it.
“Damn, Jim forgot to turn off the lights,” I said, holding the bill aloft. “This thing reads like the defense budget.”
She froze. “If you ever find anything like that in the house again,” she said, “destroy it and don’t tell me. It’s in the past.”
I apologized and promised. Her pain was terrible — I could only imagine the cognitive dissonance, and I didn’t want her to be sad for even a moment. I would have crawled on my belly across a field of leeches to make her happy (and, by the end, I felt like I had). So, when she told the filmmakers that everything between us was great post-surgery; just absolutely awesome, I let it go. Even though I knew that a credulous viewer would come away with a false understanding of how transition affected her sexuality and our relationship.
And I wondered: How can one* hate a part of oneself so much and still be whole? How can one redact one’s own history like a North Korean censor and not marinate in shame? Shame not only about the history, but about the act of erasure? Doesn’t treating the past as though it were shameful create new and deeper shame? Wouldn’t it rob you** of your own experience as a tool for healing? Isn’t the past, in some ways, all we’ve really got?
The past. Ask any historian or survivor of violence: There’s no such thing. Everything that ever happened to you is still happening. The past has a vote; a wallet full of ticket stubs; its own apartment. The past is a fundamental ingredient in the recipe of our humanity, and omitting it means a cake without flour that you insist is pudding but only tastes like pudding if you eat it drunk and in the dark.
*Yes, “one” is pretentious, elderly teacher-speak. Am doing the pronoun dance.
**I give up.