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Some other guy

On the discontinuity of my adult life


Emily VanDerWerff

Nov 15 2021

11 mins read


When I began transitioning, I assured my loved ones of one crucial thing: I was the same person. They were just going to get to know me a little bit better.

For the most part, I think that's been true. I still find the same stuff funny, mostly, and my feelings for my loved ones have grown deeper if anything. And I love the pop culture things I love just a little bit more fiercely. But I can't shake the sense that I misled everyone, because even as I can find a continuity with my old self, I struggle to feel like that guy lived my life. Instead, I woke up one morning and was living his.

This experience is not uncommon for trans people. Before transition, we often will follow the path of least resistance into a career or a marriage or an entire life that allows us to rock the boat as little as possible. We are so often running scared of our own shadow. If we acknowledge a thing buried deep inside (or, in my case, a thing I could barely keep hidden), we might have to see what pieces of that life will remain. So we keep pushing our chips on what worked, in hopes we won't lose everything. And that strategy is so often informed by harsh reprisal of gender exploration, often in childhood but sometimes just in the overall reality of a world propped up by cis-centric thinking, a world where being trans is seen as a weird curse to be pitied.

And then we come out, and there's a person in our brain who's been on ice. They wake up, and they want things, and we don't know how to be them and our old selves. So we say we'll be our old selves because we know how to be those people, and that's how you rattle the fewest cages. But the longer you let yourself be the person who was on ice, the longer you have to reckon with the fact that maybe they didn't want that career, that marriage, that life. And what then?

And of course when I say "we," what I mean is me. I am sure there are trans people who feel a perfect continuity between past and present. I never have, and the longer I'm out, the more the discontinuity grows, even as I'm supposed to be keeping this train on track.

It's impolitic to say that I'm not the person I was. A lot of the rhetoric trans people present to the world is designed to create a sense of continuity. We are who we were, just more honest. That continuity reassures sympathetic cis people (who often struggle to imagine something so fundamental and hard-wired as their gender being anything but what it is). But it also reassures questioning trans people. I know if you had told me in 2018 when I was just coming out to myself, "Hey, Emily, you are going to develop a deep ambivalence about a career that has been great for you. Oh, and also, you'll still love your wife and women more generally, but you're also going to start crushing on dudes," I would have freaked out.

Now, identities are always shifting for everybody. Things that were incredibly important to you at 18 might not be incredibly important to you just a few years later. The career you start in your 20s might end up being unfulfilling, so you find yourself in a different one in your 30s. (That journey more or less applies to me.) You don't have to do anything so dramatic as undertake transition to understand that the life you thought you were going to lead might turn into something else entirely.

But it feels especially stark for trans people, and it's felt incredibly stark for me in the last couple of years. And what's frustrating is how hard it is to explain what's happening to anybody. I feel like even this article, where I am taking many, many words to talk about it, reads like some kind of unhinged whine. The life I'm in is a great one. I love my wife, and I have a job I enjoy, and I have found friends that bring me great happiness. But all of the above feels like I carved it out around the edges of something that was built for me by someone else who stole my identity.

And down at the bottom of everything, I feel like I've betrayed someone. When I said I would always be the same person, on some core level, that wasn't ultimately the case. I want so many different things for myself now, and I feel stymied by my attempts to get them. And what's worst about this stymying is that it's built atop choices somebody who was putatively me made. I supposedly had a say in the matter. Except I didn't.

Let me try to explain this another way: In terms of my writing about television (the most likely reason you know who I am), I very frequently run into people who love the recaps I wrote about one show or another at The A.V. Club. I'm glad I brought something into their lives with those recaps. And I always love talking to people who loved my work. (Trust me, as a writer, it's always welcome.)

But I fundamentally don't feel like I wrote those recaps. What memories I have of doing so are trapped beneath layer upon layer of dysphoria, and even the pieces I remember writing with fondness (like this one) are pieces where it felt like I was puppeting some other person pretending to be me. And considering those recaps are the foundation of my entire career, it's uniquely destabilizing to feel like some other person wrote them. (I wrote a bit about this phenomenon in re: my Community recaps here.)

So what do you do with that? How do you function within a life that feels built for you by somebody else? I suspect that this feeling isn't uncommon for adults who wind up somewhere off-track of where they thought they would end up, but the very act of transition puts such a stark before-and-after on the process that it's almost impossible to separate the more generalized malaise from the creeping feeling of already having lost your life.

There's an upcoming TV show I adore where one character cries out to another, "I don't want to live the wrong life and then die!" It's a melodramatic moment, but it's handled perfectly by everyone involved. Needless to say, the moment struck me deeply (especially once I realized the episode was written by a former TV critic colleague whose work I always deeply admired, no I'm not jealous). I did live the wrong life, and I didn't die, and now I'm in the right life. But the wrong life is still following me around like a ghost.

You never entirely escape the choices you make, no, and once you've made your bed, you have to lie in it. But somebody else made those choices, and somebody else made that bed. Somebody has to deal with those choices, and somebody has to sleep in that bed. And, well, I'm the only one here.

Programming note: When I posted the first entry of "Kirsten and Natalie" last week, I forgot how hectic the following days were going to be. I'll hopefully be able to launch the series next week!

Talk back to me: Who are you now that you never imagined you might be? Post a comment or send me an email and reveal your innermost secrets!!!

What I've been up to: I published two really cool pieces at Vox this past week! First up, can I recommend my teen girl cannibal friends the Yellowjackets to you? I'm kind of obsessed with this show, and I hope you will be too.

Yellowjackets is a teen show, one where the characters are already in a community that immediately begins fraying in the wilderness. It’s a show about how bonds that seem unshakable usually are quite shakable, and it’s a show about how teen girl friendship isn’t all that far removed from cannibalism if you think about it. In Yellowjackets’ best moments, the girls circle each other warily, and it’s never totally clear if they’re going to start making out or murdering each other. Both outcomes happen across the first six episodes, and the series manages to make both feel inevitable.

And then I dropped a GRAND UNIFIED THEORY OF SUCCESSION on everybody's heads. Spoilers: It's about how I think Succession is about abuse.

That might sound a bit silly, but “uh-huh” functions as a kind of stealth reflection of Succession’s power dynamics. Logan Roy (Brian Cox) says those two syllables all the time as a way to fill space in conversations where literally anything more loquacious might go, and Cox’s very specific cadence in how he says “uh-huh” ripples throughout the rest of the cast. The more loyal a character is to Logan Roy, the more likely they are to say “uh-huh” in that specific cadence as a conversation stopgap.

What you missed if you're not a subscriber to Episodes: This Tiffany Babb piece on Bo Burnham's slowly shifting relationship with his audience is really terrific writing on a topic that I hadn't really thought about as much as Tiffany has.

Over the last decade and a half, YouTube and Youtubers have turned the “creator-audience relationship” into a commercial machine, but Burnham has never really seemed comfortable with that move. In an early song titled “art is dead,” he sings, “So people think you’re funny, how do we get those people’s money?” He also doesn't seem comfortable with what it means to be on stage and face people who expect something from him. But that ambivalence hasn’t kept him from making things and putting them out into the world. This paradox of discomfort has only grown more central to his work as time has passed and expectations of his skill have grown alongside his art. 

Read me: As some of you know, I am married to a woman named "Libby Hill," who writes for the site Indiewire. She is a woman and not a seafood restaurant. We used to host a podcast together. Anyway, I loved her look at the sheer weirdness of Squid Game's current awards campaign. A show about the brutality of the wealth gap is being feted at events that are elaborate money vacuums.

“There is such a huge and worsening wealth gap that so many people unfortunately have to go through. So I made ‘Squid Game’ in hopes that it’s not just going to be a show that you watch and you’re just done with it, but that very last scene, when Gi-hun looks directly into the camera and it’s almost like he’s asking you this question: ‘Do we really have to live in a world like this? And is there anything we can do to change that?'”
And then people headed to the roof for free drinks and K-pop under the hazy Hollywood stars. The dissonance was real. At least for me. But guild members seemed thrilled, clamoring to peek at the show’s leads and finally able to take off their masks — the event mandated vaccination and negative COVID tests, as well as masks indoors — and relax in a fashion that has been absent for years.

Watch me: I don't know why it took me this long to watch Patrick H. Willems's early 2021 video on pop music needle drops in movies, but it was extremely my shit. Highly recommended.

And another thing... Was Emily on a podcast this week? You bet Emily was on a podcast this week! The new series Feeling Seen featured me on their very first episode to talk about Midsommar.

Remind me I'm going to write sometime about how Midsommar discourse has shifted in recent months, because I think it's really interesting. Okay? Remind me. Put a note in your calendar.

Opening credits sequence of the week: I love how often '70s game show opening sequences just feature a man BELLOWING something at you. "WHAT ARE THE ODDS???"

A thing I had to look up: It took me forever to remember which Sopranos recap I always thought had the best opening. I think I did a reading of my work once that included that recap. I do love that opening paragraph...

This week's reading music: "Down by the Water" by PJ Harvey

Episodes is published three times per week. Mondays feature my thoughts on assorted topics. Wednesdays offer pop culture thoughts from freelance writers. Fridays are TV recaps written by myself. The Wednesday and Friday editions are only available to subscribers. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

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