Four Years Since My Trans Adoptive Dad’s Death

Today is the four-year anniversary of my father’s death. I’ve been dreading the day for the way it reminds me of our shortcomings. He died a woman and left a daughter who could never accept the anomaly. Gender was one more dysfunction to add to the avalanche waiting to bury me, and so I refused to see Joann when she drove from her home in New York to Hilton Head, South Carolina for a surprise visit.

No longer a child rolling with the punches, kicks, and angry outbursts, I needed some warning to help me see Joann. Perhaps, had she let me know she was coming, I might have witnessed her bent posture in the old lady frock, as she limped along with a cane. Truth says, “Not so.” I would not have seen her. No matter how long one considers a coming tsunami, it will never be welcome.

Once, we danced, my tiny shoes atop his feet to Daddy’s Little Girl, and I was whole. Then it was crap. A battle fought too hard by a child too small. I could not get him to be the man I needed, for she lurked there under the calloused skin and hard edges. She did not love me for the daughter I became, but for my girlish things and female life. She wanted to be me.

Writing this today is so different than writing my memoir The Killing Closet. Our story is tragic and yet I have painted a thousand mental pictures of it in heroic beams of survival. Turning beatings into strength-building, honor. Truth says, “No. The character-building benefits do not surpass the suffering.”

It was a childhood no one would choose.

Joe was the father no one wanted.

Joann was a secret and we all suffered for her existence.

What have I learned in these four years since Dad’s death? I have learned that I loved my father. I have learned that he did not exist. I have learned that forgiveness comes with a price. One must pay with regret. I can’t forgive a man that never was but have come to forgive the woman tucked beneath the cloak of masculinity.

I have learned that the madness that was my childhood was born of a broken adoption process. That too requires a heavy mask of introspection. Love your captors. Love your saviors. Love the system. The adoption message bleeds for the childless. Forgiving them is distant, remote, untouched, as were the infants they placed in hell. Our fate makers were social worker Helen Steinman, Children’s Aid Society, money, income, the barren womb.

Four years and tears still run at the loss of innocence. My brother’s and mine. My father, miscast in a gender strict world, had no escape for Joann. They were beaten before he took a breath, or twirled in a sister’s skirt, or underwent the knife to make the gender correction.

I have learned that who we are inside often collides with exterior appearance. That we can never really know the heart of another human, and that to assume heartlessness is to deny the human condition. Joe’s heart was born with Joann’s being, or so I have heard.

I gave my father an opportunity to admit the way gender devastated our lives. She declined, blaming my mother for the violence instead. Joe spoke then, in defense of Joann. I did not know it was the last time. I got no closure, no admittance, no apology.

I have learned that Joann and Joe melded into one and that in the end, the angry man took up the cloak once worn by the woman. Hiding, blaming, hurting internally and externally was my father’s life fate.

I have learned that no relative has visited Joann’s grave.

I have learned to move forward, tip-toeing around Father’s day and the lucky ones born to men who put them first.

I have learned to breath when the thought of my father tries to steal my air.

Rest, Dad. I am still learning.

V.L. Brunskill

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Jekyll Island Club Resort – A Writer Retreats

Last week, I retreated to Jekyll Island Club Resort where I completed my book about growing up in an abusive home, having a transgender father who hid his truth until he reached his seventies, and finding a way to forgive her and myself.  I had planned to share a pictorial of my writing residency and not get too wordy. However, when I opened WordPress this morning, I found a draft of this blog entry. So it is with gratitude beyond measure that I share my Jekyll retreat.

There is grace in an ancient oak tree, creaking entry doors, and floors so old they weep and moan as you pass over them. I arrived at Jekyll Island Club to find myself housed at Crane Cottage in a room with a majestic view of the Intracoastal waterway and a courtyard garden. Spiral stairs led to my room at the end of the hall where inside a jetted bath, and comfy-as-a-cloud bed awaited me.

Dinner in the Grand Dining Room found me alone in the front dining room and waited on by Ola, who works three jobs and still finds time to smile. At least when she’s not sad, which she had been of late. She lost her son last year and can’t seem to get over it. Can anyone ever get over losing a child? We agreed no one could, or should.

After dinner, I headed to one of my favorite spots at the resort, the rocking porch. Newly decorated with comfy wicker seating, the club has moved its famous white rocking chairs forward to give guests a better view of the spectacular sunset.

There, I met six-year-old Sarah, whose family was visiting Jekyll to celebrate her 7th birthday. An only child, like my now 19-year-old, Sarah told me she did not like Junie B Jones books, and that she liked St.Simons Island better than Jekyll for its restaurants and for visiting friends (who she called family). What a joy it was to recall my daughter at Sarah’s age as we watched bats spin through the night nibbling up pesky insects. Sarah was sure that at any moment the bats would dive into the pool for a tasty beverage.

Back in my room, I contemplated the story at hand. The one that had given me hives (literally). The one that Ola said must be written for all the “hiders and heartache” in the world. Contemplating Ola’s wisdom and the task of completing the second draft of my story, I stepped out on the balcony amid a cacophony of cicadas. There in the grass, nearly camouflaged by a massive oak,  meandered a mama deer and her fawn. I watched them munch on the lawn or whatever they found so delicious, and quieted my breathing for fear I might rush them from their meal.

For the next three days, I saw less of Jekyll. Immersed in my luxurious room, I wrote for seven hours one day and eleven the next. As I hit save on the completed book and headed to the balcony for a private toast, the phone rang.

It was my mother, and she was sobbing. My dear Aunt Shelley had died. A cherished friend of our family for 40+years, Shelley and her husband Ronnie, were the rescuers of my childhood. Celebration turned to sorrow in an instant.

While I will mourn my Aunt Shelley for all my earthly years, I find some solace in the fact that she will live on in the pages I completed at Jekyll. She was there in good times and bad. Mostly bad, when she would stop whatever she was doing to come and get my brother and me. When Dad had Mom committed to an asylum after he beat her into delirium, I called Aunt Shelley. When the parents in my life could not parent, I lifted the phone to dial her number.

Transgressions in Rouge is complete. Aunt Shelley is gone.

My writing residency at Jekyll Island was a bucolic, heartbreaking slice of life. The whims of fate are fickle. But in the end, all that matters is that we love deeply and share our stories.

Blessings and heartfelt thanks to the Jekyll Island Club Resort,

V.L.

—————

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Find Courage- A Message from Trans Dad’s Grave

 

Mother’s Day weekend had me thinking of a woman who was not my mother, but my father. My father died a transgender woman last year. She transitioned in her late sixties, after living most of her life as an angry, abusive man.
(pronoun warning- it’s about to get messy)

About a month ago, I requested that a volunteer at findagrave.com take a picture of my father’s tombstone. I wanted the photo added to her public memorial page (for which I am the paid administrator).

When my father died, I attempted to publish an obituary on the funeral home’s website. However, my father’s friend (who inherited all of her things including my childhood home) feared that someone would loot the empty house if the death were made public. She stopped publication of the obituary. So my father Joann died, without a single published memorial, other than the emotional eulogy I penned here.

This weekend, I visited my adoptive father’s findagrave.com page because she was in my head. Hours spent reliving my father’s life, as I write her story into a novel, allows her to sit by my side in a sort of self-haunting. However, I believe that the macabre regurgitation of her story will ultimately free me.

When I looked at the page, I found that volunteer photographer Kimberly LaFountain had graciously taken a photo of the tombstone and posted it on the memorial. I expected a basic military gravestone. However, the words carved there were a heartbreaking affirmation of the heart and soul of my new novel.

FIND COURAGE TO LIVE THE LIFE YOU LOVE

dad tombstonenoname

Enlightened words from a woman who did not get to live her truth,
until it was too late to save my family.

My father lived a tortured life, that along with a terrible upbringing, caused him to become a masterful torturer. He was cruel in every sense of the word. One source of his cruelty was that he lived as a man for sixty plus years, all the while knowing he was a woman.

Of late, states across the nation are up-in-arms over where transgender people should be allowed to pee. My father’s story, and the message on her grave, should serve to remind us that there is danger in denying one’s truth.

My father was not a danger when she used the woman’s restroom. She was a danger when she pent up who she was, and tried to live as a tough as nails iron-worker, and fists-first father. She was a horrible person, because she lived everyday in as masculine a manner as she could muster. Her idea of masculine behavior was defined by her own abusive father. Men hit. So she bloodied my childhood while trying to prove a maleness that did not exist.

In my father’s case, there were additional psychological issues that capitulated her anger into abuse. However, I believe the main source of her cruelty was the daily squelching of gender truth.

I defend transgender rights today, despite the turmoil my trans father caused in my family’s life. I want to shout from the rooftops that where trans people pee is inconsequential. They have been using their restroom of choice for years. You just didn’t notice.

When discussing transgender people, the focus needs to be on encouragement for all people to live the truth, without cultural, or societal mandates that make them want to hide their differences. I am living proof that acceptance would mean less suffering for all.

FIND COURAGE TO LIVE THE LIFE YOU LOVE

Blessings to know and live your truth,
V.L.

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The Danish Girl- Not my Transgender Story

Everyone wants to believe in heroes. Some want to be one. Some want to be rescued by one. Others are them–held above the masses, if only for a moment, based on an unfathomably unique, or above average feat.

The definition of heroism morphs based on society’s beliefs at a certain moment. In our society; being the first to try something risky is heroic. So is putting your safety in jeopardy to save another. More than ever before,  the youth of this generation define heroism as the breaking down of boundaries and stereotypes that keep humans from living their truth. By these terms, the protagonist in the movie The Danish Girl is a hero. danish

I wept throughout the beautiful movie, falling head-over-heels into the romance of the script, which tells the story of the first gender re-assignment surgery, conducted in Germany in 1930. The patient was Einar Wegener, a married man, whose wife Gerda recognized a femininity in him, and gently coaxed it to the surface with her art. The shock for Gerda was, that once released, Einar’s feminine side took over. He was she, and had been all along.

I wonder, after watching the movie, if every hero must in some way be his or her own antihero. For with his gender choices, Einer (who becomes Lili) breaks Gerda’s heart. Does every heroic decision require that someone suffer? Whether it is the hero, or the person being saved, does someone have to be victimized? For to require saving (by definition) means that you have been a victim to something, or someone.

The story of heroism portrayed in The Danish Girl made me think of my transgender father’s choice to have gender reassignment surgery in his late sixties. He had lived a long, unhappy life in a body that was obviously not the one in which he felt he belonged. In his endless discontentment, he chose a life of self-inflation, constantly building himself up at the expense of others. He created victims along every path he traversed.

Now, as I watch the world embrace (at least the idea of) gender confusion/reassignment with love, reverence, and a sort of hero worship (as displayed so beautifully in The Danish Girl), I have an aching wish to make my father a hero. Heck, I’d give up a few years of my own life to know him/her as someone heroic. But alas, I cannot.

Why? Because while the decision to go through with gender reassignment surgery takes guts, in my father’s case it was not heroic. It was a relief for her, yes. It was what she needed, yes. But not heroic. Because in the path to reassignment, while she was still living and breathing in a man’s body, he was one of the cruelest, most damaging, and hateful men who ever called himself “Dad”.

Watching The Danish Girl made me want to love my father because he bravely had his genitals altered to match his internal reality. But he was no hero. In fact, he was an anti-hero.

My father (who died in February 2015) was weak, and lived a distorted version of reality where he could beat my brother and mother to a bloody pulp for the tiniest infraction. Speaking too loudly; not eating your most hated food; not brushing your teeth correctly; leaving an dirty dish on the counter- each was rewarded with ambulance worthy brutality.

Knowing that my father envied my being born a girl makes me hate him even more. Leaving me out of the physical abuse he delivered for 12-years of my childhood (and during the five years before my adoption), tripled the psychological pain of the mental abuse. Untouched, I became the forced savior for a family that he should have been saving. I spent every waking moment of my first twelve years trying to figure out an escape route from hell. While other little girl’s had Daddies they could look up to (their heroes), I had an enemy force to conquer.

The Danish Girl made me feel tenfold, the pressures of a society that wants me to shout from the rooftop- “Hey, My dad was transgender. She died a woman. Wasn’t she heroic?”

I must answer those expectations with a resounding, “NO!”

Just as no one can cast every person of a certain race, or ethnicity as having the same beliefs, behaviors, or tendencies- being transgender is not all goodness, light and love. Sometimes being transgender is evil, dark and hateful. Sometimes being transgender is not The Danish Girl story, and is instead a tale of cowardice and anti-heroism.

Blessings for knowing a real hero,

V.L. Brunskill
———-
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Hidden Truth and Bad Behavior- A TransDad Twitter Reply

Happy New Year blog friends!

As I write my next book, Transgressions in Rouge, based on the story of my abusive, adoptive father who died in 2015, I’ve been thinking about the connection between hidden identity (stolen by adoption or squashed by society) and emotional/erratic behavior.

I have also been exploring #healing thoughts on my Twitter feed @RockMemoir.

My adoptive father was a transgender woman who transitioned very late in life. During the years when he abused my family, he hid his gender truth. He was tough, tortuous, and egotistical. I never knew him as a woman. I only knew him as a horrible father.

A transgender father named Erik tweeted to me yesterday, writing “Being trans didn’t make your dad evil. Sorry you suffered his turmoil! He was evil because he was evil, not because he was trans.”

My reply is way too long for a tweet, so I’m answering here.

I wholeheartedly agree that being transgender has nothing to do with being evil.

In fact, I did not contest my father’s will (which I was left out of) because I didn’t want to go to court, and say that he was not of ‘sound mind’. If I did, my lawyer would have used his transgender status to prove he was not mentally capable of deciding who to leave his/her estate to.

My father was mentally ill, but not because he was transgender. So I agree that his evil was not born of his gender. However, I do think his behavior was magnified by his hidden truth.

My father lived chaotically in self-imposed, and societal hiding. He was angry. He beat anyone who disagreed with him. His behavior was hyper-masculine. He overemphasized physical aggressiveness in interpersonal relationships. Inside, he was a woman, while outside he was compelled to prove he was a man.

I’m no psychiatrist, but I have experienced living with two separate identities, one assigned by adoption and one genetic. I believe that there is a degree of madness associated with living any life that does not reflect your truth.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you.

Blessings for knowing and living your truth,

V.L. Brunskill
———-
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Weep, Write, Repeat- ‘Transgressions in Rouge’

Ernest Hemingway once said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Well, as I bleed through the first draft of my next book, Transgressions in Rouge, I am learning the truth of Hemingway’s statement, along with a breathtaking amount of my own truth.

Transgressions is based on the story of my life as an adoptee and abuse survivor. It is also the story of my adoptive father, who lived an angry lie during the first 60+ years of his life.  It was a lie so deeply buried (and secret) that it ate away his humanity, and ability to be a decent father or human being. My father was a transgender woman. hemingway

As I research the male-to-female transition process,  I discover more of my adoptive father’s psyche than I ever understood while he was alive. He died in February. Some of you will recall the Eulogy that I penned for him that month. I wrote it in a whirlwind of pain.

My father’s only friend (who had her daughter call me about Jo’s death) made me out to be an evil person, a sorry daughter who abandoned the righteous woman she’d befriended. During that phone call, I whimpered out my story to the stranger on the phone. I explained that my family was the victim of Jo’s hard handed actions. I told her about the brutal attacks, wondering out loud if they  might have been born of Jo’s desperate cover-up of her true self. Jo was angry at us, herself, the world and resolved her frustration with both fists raised.

Writing a novel that is based on my life is like pulling my lower lip over my head, and hanging a bowling bowl from the end.

It sucks, and then again, it doesn’t.

For along with the writing down of scenes so dramatic they adapt seamlessly to fiction,

  • Dad drowning neighbor’s cats in the backyard.
  • Dad kicking Mom until she had internal bleeding.
  • Dad brushing my seven-year-old brother’s teeth until blood poured from his gums

…there is relief and a deeper understanding of the insanity that was my childhood. When I look at the events as a writer, the motives of everyone involved become clearer. The strong do not loom half as large as they appeared when I was a child living each crisis.

There is power and perspective in bleeding on paper.

Write, weep, repeat.

Blessings that you find your demons and the power to slay them,

V.L. Brunskill
———-
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Waving Backwards book trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_ufjmq0l-U