I have a cousin that goes by the nickname Lonely. It is a sweet nickname, as it suggests he has embraced an identity of solitude. He is a man on his own. Ironically, his nickname has an interesting effect on people: they are endeared to him because of it, and as a result he has many friends. I sometimes wonder though if Lonely is actually lonely. He lives with the rest of my family and many of my childhood friends in Arizona, so outwardly there is no reason to be lonely, right? Wrong.
Loneliness has been on my mind this week. It is an emotion that few people admit to feeling. In fact, our society makes no room for the emotion in our many rituals — we hang out with friends, take family vacations, explore dating — but loneliness is a silent, even embarrassing, emotion that no doubt many of us have felt at some time. In a city like D.C. where many young adults live away from their families and hometowns, loneliness can be quelled by finding people with whom we can identify at work, at the gym, at church, at school, or somewhere in the gay community. Loneliness can exist even within these groups, though.
This week my students are watching and analysing “Middle Sexes: Redefining He and She.” The documentary argues that there is a variance of sexual identities between the binary identities of he and she, and straight and gay. As one professor claims, “There are as many sexual identities as there are faces.” Director Antony Thomas interviews intersexed individuals, people who were born with ambiguous genitalia, who had “corrective” surgery in their infancy. He also interviews people who have had sex changes in their adulthood, as well as scientists and professors who study what can be a complex disconnect between the brain and the body.
While my students were analysing the documentary’s argument, I found myself thinking how lonely some of the interviewees must feel. Max Beck was born a male pseudohermaphrodite. His parents chose to raise him as Judy, a girl who later struggled with her attraction to both boys and girls. She tried relationships with both, and after one of her girlfriends observed that her body was “weird,” she decided to settle down with a man. But they divorced after Judy fell in love with Tamara, a lesbian. In the film, Tamara describes the night Judy told her about her body. Wiping her tears, Tamara says, “I just remember feeling so sad that she must have felt so lonely all these years, to have nobody to help share the weight of that.” Judy, however, began to question her lesbian identity and after a deep depression, for which she was hospitalized, she emerged, after yet another sex change, as a man: Max.
Max died in 2008 of Mullerian Cancer, a condition that effects only the female genitalia.
Max’s story and Tamara’s words struck me. To have nobody to share the weight of life often means finding no one that can understand or identify with you. This is loneliness, and it can manifest itself in all areas of life. I sometimes fear my own family do not fully know who I am. At Christmas, I went to Arizona to visit them, and it was wonderful. There was lots of laughter, tons of food, and many strolls down memory lane. There were moments, though, when I wanted to say, you remember me as the boy I was, but I want you to know me as the man I am. I want them to see me in the classroom, lecturing over texts, writing papers, presenting at conferences, making decisions about literature, leading a life that I value. Feeling this way at Christmas, surrounded by family, made me feel lonely.
There was a magical moment though when my brother Adrian, my cousins Antonio and Frances, my friend Adam, and I were sitting in my grandmother’s family room talking about the GRE and graduate school. All five of us had gone to Arizona State University and completed our undergraduate degrees. All five of us had done this remarkably well despite not having the many resources others might have had. At the end of our conversation, I asked my cousin Tony how we got through it, and he said, “We have amazing mothers.” In that moment, I felt so connected to my family. I didn’t feel lonely.
Also on this trip, I visited my cousin Chris, who was training my 8-year-old niece to ride a horse. I realized loneliness can start early in life. My niece is mixed, like me, and has very fair skin. She said the kids at school tease her about her “white” complexion. I hugged her, told her she was perfect and beautiful, and said the same kind of teasing happened to me and my siblings, too. Those years at elementary school were often isolating, and it mattered so much to find someone who was like me. I hope I did this for her.
Finding someone like me is the key to quelling loneliness, and I think this is why I value literature so much. In stories and poems we can see characters and hear voices that reflect ourselves and our own. Consider Tayo from Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony. Tayo is half white and half Laguna. He returns to the Laguna Pueblo reservation after fighting in the Philippines during World War II. His best friend and adoptive brother Rocky dies during the war, leaving Tayo depressed, sick, and lonely. He comes out of his isolation only to drink and fight with fullblooded Indians who never liked him. His grandmother suggests that he see a medicine man to help him with his sickness (likely PTSD). Old Ku’oosh, the first medicine man, cannot cure Tayo, because he cannot identify with Tayo and cannot create a new ceremony for him. He directs Tayo to Betonie, a mixed Navajo and Mexican medicine man who is fully aware of the kind of loneliness and isolation Tayo suffers. Betonie claims people are suspicious of him because of his mixed identity and because of his understanding that a changing world needs new ceremonies. He makes a ceremony for Tayo, and then instructs him to do something important for his late uncle Josiah.
The story is as much about loneliness and identity as it is about suffering from PTSD. What Betonie gives Tayo is a path out of loneliness and sickness to healing and wellness through doing something for someone else. The act of selflessness is a new ceremony. When Tayo comes back from his journey-task, he feels like himself again, returning home feeling valued and welcomed, to share stories with his grandmother by the fire. It is a beautiful story.
Loneliness is taboo. To talk about it and to share it with others is not done. We don’t admit to feeling lonely, because that could mean we have a character flaw, one that works antithetical to finding fulfillment in companionship. We all want people, as Tamara Beck says, to help us carry the weight of our lives. Like storytellers and poets, who share their voices, it is all right to give voice to otherwise unapproachable needs.
I don’t know if my cousin Lonely is actually lonely, but I know that part of me wants to know him and the rest of my family so much more. For me, text messages, phone calls, and chats are new ceremonies in a changing world. I no longer picture him eating his Christmas dinner, after all of us had already eaten, sitting at the table by himself. Instead, when I imagine him, he is smiling with my brothers and my cousins, sharing the weight of their lives, reminding me that I have a place there.