The next weekend, I was back at House 2: The Nightmare Continues. I kept my right hand wrapped in plastic to avoid soiling the bandages or reopening the wound, and I cycled between the groom’s spot on the bed and the victim’s spot on the cross. Somehow, I’d convinced Cathi to join the cast as a new Cynthia, a role she and Julia alternated in until the day after Halloween. Having been fired from Pizza Hut – from which I subsequently quit in protest – Cathi had a blast, and we went home with forty bucks a night instead of twenty.
That year, Halloween fell on a Saturday. We’d planned to spend Sunday cleaning the place out and saying our last goodbyes to each other; when people began lining up outside before sundown, however, we decided to give it one more night. Dressing in our tattered, smelly, sweat-and-Karo-rigid gear, we put everything we had into that performance. The final group of guests to come through the door got the entrance locked behind them. At each room, the performers rose up from, or out of, our positions – our coffins, beds, dentist’s chairs, and darkened alcoves – and began following them chanting, “Gonna get you! Gonna get you! Gonna get you!” This spontaneous chase began as stalking and whispering. By the time they reached the exit, with Freddie Kruger and the chainsaw maniac and the whole demented cast and crew behind them, the guests were laughing and screaming and running for that door. Running after them, we circled them, joined hands, and began dancing around them in the parking lot, chanting the Nightmare on Elm Street rhyme, our voices rising on each verse. As we reached the final shrieking NEVER SLEEP AGAIN, we burst out in laughter, cried “Happy Halloween!” released each other’s hands, and bowed. We thanked our final guests, they thanked us, everyone was laughing and crying and hugging (we didn’t hug the guests, though), and as the guests walked back to their cars, all of us waving to each other, the cast and crew filed back inside to begin our final transition back to normalcy. The phone rang one last time, and instead of the customary, “House 2: The Nightmare Continues,” Vampire-Girl answered with, “House 2: The nightmare is over.”
Most of it was, anyway.
As one might expect, I couldn’t work with a stitched-up right hand. By mid-November, though, I was able to score a Christmas gig at Kay-Be Toys in the local mall, where Cathi found work at… cue the Irony Bell… a cutlery store.
A week or so after House 2 closed, we got a furious call from Harlan. Mike, the producer, had ditched out with the money and disappeared. Harlan wasn’t paid, and his name was on all the paperwork, so he got hung out to dry financially. A bunch of people, it turns out, had been paid little or nothing out of the considerable sum House 2 had amassed. Cathi and I wound up being two of the only cast members who’d been paid consistently, probably because Mike hadn’t wanted me thinking about a lawsuit and so told Harlan to cash us out each night. It was a good thing we had been, too, because although Mike told Harlan that he’d paid off my ER visit, the first bills from that night arrived a few weeks later.
At least the motherfucker paid the ambulance fee.
When I got those bills, I panicked and lost my shit. Trying to reach Harlan, I got his answering machine. Enraged when he did not return my calls, I called Julia and got her machine as well. In a moment I regret over thirty years later, I puked lava into the phone – not blaming her or demanding money but unleashing weeks of pain and betrayal and money stress on the party who deserved it least. Her husband called me later and chewed me out for upsetting her. I apologized to them both and never heard from them again. Harlan never called me back either. Jerry and I were no longer on speaking terms, so I couldn’t ask about the friend who’d gotten me involved with the production. I hadn’t learned the last names of anybody involved except for Julia, so I couldn’t sue anyone even if I’d wanted to… and by that time, trust me, I wanted to. Eventually, Cathi and I were able to talk the hospital’s bills down to a manageable level. I paid them off shortly before we split in 1993.
Spookies shouldn’t play with sharp things. Especially if they don’t know who to sue afterward.
My hand healed fine. I still have an interesting scar on the back of it. You can’t see that scar easily, however, because I’m such a furry cuss. No haunt worth that name behaves nearly as recklessly as we did back then, though I’m told there are still plenty of spooky kids with more spirit than sense as far as that’s concerned. When I posted, on impulse, an abbreviated version of this story on Twitter the other day, the damn thing went viral. As of this writing, it’s up past 1400 likes. One popular comment read, “America in three tweets.” That person isn’t wrong.
I still love Halloween but never worked another haunted house.
Life is weird. Especially mine.
At least I can honestly say I haven’t been bored since high school.
Happy Halloween, y’all, and don’t let anyone swing a rusty sickle at your face.
We were maybe halfway through October when Harlan asked me if I would be willing to be Cynthia’s dying groom. Of course, I would. Hell, one of my roles in a roommate’s college film involved me wearing prosthetics covered in fake blood and rotting animal guts for over 12 hours straight, so sticking my leg through a mattress under a coating of fake intestines seemed easy by comparison. Besides, I’d spent the previous weekend standing in place for hours while tied to the cross, wearing nothing but Karo blood and shredded jeans, so a night or two of laying on a bed sounded like a huge improvement to me. I got on well with the woman playing Cynthia, too (let’s call her Julia, which was not her name), and we had fun with our respective roles. We’d improvise vitriolic banter as she’d shake her blooded, rusted sickle and scream, “THAT’S WHY I KILLED YOU, YOU OBNOXIOUS FUCK!” In hindsight, we were probably acting out the kinds of domestic conflict we didn’t dare have with our real-life partners. We’d vicariously abuse each other, laugh, and enact neo-spousal murder over and over and over again.
That was the first night.
On the second night, we were getting close to Halloween. Only a handful of performances remained. The lines outside got longer, and the people in them got more restless from standing outside in the cold. We kicked out every stop and pushed ourselves to new extremities in order to give those people a good time. And so, when a group of guests stopped at the foot of my bed to marvel at the gory mess of my belly and leg, Julia and I took our marital discord to new intensity. “Get out,” I bellowed, “before this crazy bitch kills you too!”
“Come along,” said the Grim Reaper, trying to escort the group out of our room without actually touching anyone. (That’s one line, reckless as we were, that we did not cross.) “This room is dangerous.”
“Wow, cool,” said one guy in the group, leaning in toward my “severed” leg and mangled guts. “How’d they do that?” Another guy in the group was like, “Are those real animal guts?”
“We must leave,” intoned the Reaper.
“Get out!” I screamed at them. “GO!”
Normally, Julia stayed at one end of the room and I stayed at the other. Our contact was all verbal. As the dudes refused to move, however, she ran across the room, leapt up on the bed, screamed “I’LL KILL HIM AGAIN!”
And swung the sickle down toward my face.
The real sickle.
With blunted edges and a rusty point.
I threw my hands up to block her, and the sickle slammed into the back of my right hand.
“We must leave this place of death,” the Reaper insisted, breaking that inviolate rule and practically shoving the guests through the black curtain. His voice held a note of panic, and the chastened dudes seemed to realize that we had just entered the realm of That Wasn’t Part of the Act.
“Ohmygod,” Julia whispered, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
“Get Harlan.” I’d smashed my left hand over the wound, pressing it closed. Both hands were, of course, covered in fake blood and real grime.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated. “I’m so sorry.”
“Get. Harlan.” I snarled it out, not wanting to think too much about what the pain pulsing through my hands meant in terms of damage.
The sickle hit me right where a major vein runs up the back of your hand, branching out slightly above the wound. The first blast of pain had been dull; it sharpened, though, by the time the vampire girl had hauled herself out of the too-small coffin, stuck her head in, and whispered, “Oh, shit – are you okay?” Julia had busted through the curtain between our room and the entryway, frantically asking where Harlan was. Although news had apparently been kept from the guests outside, word quickly spread that the guy in Cynthia’s room had just been stabbed for real.
By the time Julia pulled Harlan into the room, Vampire Girl and several of our castmates had gathered around and were trying to help extract me from the bed. With my left hand pressed against my right, afraid to let go and see just how much that vein would bleed, I needed two guys to climb onto the rickety bed, grab my arms, and pull me up. Vampire Girl peeled away the gut-laden belly sheet while Julia kept apologizing. “It’s okay,” I told her. “It was an accident. You didn’t do anything wrong.” With help from my castmates, I drew my half-asleep left leg out of the hole we’d cut in the mattress. One guy whose name and role I never learned hustled me to the one functioning bathroom, Harlan close behind us. “Oh, God,” Harlan whispered. “Please don’t sue us.”
“It was an accident,” I kept repeating. “As long as I don’t get stuck with the doctor bill, that’s all it was as far as I’m concerned.”
Man, was I stupid. Young and stupid and heading into shock.
The bathroom was a unisex ruin. Makeup of all kinds smeared across every available surface. Ratty clothes and towels, stiff with Karo blood, draped over the toilet and the edges of the sink. That sink looked like Jackson Pollock had thrown up in it after a particularly hard night. Smudges blurred the mirror as my castmate turned the light on. After hours in near-darkness, our pupils squinched in that blast of light.
I’m gonna have to look at it, aren’t I?
That was not a pleasant thought.
For some reason, that one functioning bathroom was tiny and cramped. I guess the public restrooms had been gutted or something before we got hold of the place. Nameless Castmate had gotten a bottle of alcohol, and both of us were like, “Yeah, we need to clean this out before we get you to the hospital.” Harlan told us that an ambulance was on its way. “Is that your blood?” the guys asked me, noting my gory presence. “I don’t think so,” I told them. “I’ve been keeping pressure on it since she stabbed me.”
Since she stabbed me.
In the glaring light, I saw the spectre I’d become: Torn-up white T-shirt. Bare feet. Old jeans cut off at the left knee. Flannel shirt open to expose my chest and belly. Every bit of me caked in sticky cold red stuff. Makeup smeared around my eyes to give me a dying sort of look. Messy short hair and the beardless face I’d had back in those days. Barely out of my teens, recently married, with a hole in my hand I didn’t want to look at but knew I needed to see.
Oh, well – let’s do this.
It wasn’t as bad as we’d expected, probably because I’d been pressing my left hand across my right so hard that the throbbing from the wound now pulsed between them both. What we saw, in that bright harsh light, was essentially a dent in the back of my hand, its edges pale blue and starting to bruise. The vein had been squeezed closed on both sides, and a slash of red welled at the center of the dent.
My castmate turned on the water. I stuck my hand under it.
Well, at least I didn’t scream.
In hindsight, I suppose I’d turned off most of my usual functions in order to deal with the realities of my situation. Shock’s useful for that sort of thing, I hear. And so, as I held my hand under cold water, sluicing off as much of the grime and gore as possible without touching that fucking blue dent in my hand, Nameless Castmate opened the bottle of alcohol and said, “This is probably gonna hurt a lot.”
I agreed. “Just do it.”
He was right. It hurt a lot.
Like, a lot a lot.
In my various misadventures, I’ve dislocated my knee twice, broken several bones, had the bottom of a shattered bottle punch through an inch of rubber on my sneaker sole and then slash my hand open when I reflex-grabbed at it. I’ve been burnt by fires and explosions, splashed with hot oil, beaten bloody, knocked across a room by a blow in the face from a Scuba mask, hit on several occasions with baseball bats, and wound up hunched and wailing on a bathroom floor while my guts contracted from a nasty stomach flu. I’ve had hangovers and suicidal depressions. I’ve been in car accidents and motorbike spills. I tore a chunk out of my arm when skidding across gravel-strewn concrete. I’ve had a knife at my throat, fists in my face, splinters in my skin, and two divorces carving bits out of my heart.
The stomach flu is the only thing I recall hurting worse than the moment he poured alcohol on that pale dent in the back of my hand.
Folks talk about things being “breathtaking”? That pain was breathtaking. The only sound I remember making was a low hiss through clenched teeth. I looked away because I didn’t want to see that damn dent in my hand again. It’s funny how you can be surrounded by carnage and torture so long as it’s not real, then feel your chest hollow out the moment you realize that you’ve actually been stabbed and the blood welling up in the wound isn’t made of colorful liquid corn.
Someone produced a clean towel. Harlan checked in to make sure I wasn’t gushing blood and threatening to sue him. Nameless Castmate, Harlan, and Vampire-Girl ushered me through the darkened House 2. Guests had begun to file in again, now with more stringent control from our stalwart Grim Reaper. The show must go on, as the saying goes, and we’d had a line of people freezing their asses off to get the thrills they paid for. By then, I’d asked someone to call Cathi, and Julia – who, for obvious reasons, took the rest of the night off – went to go fetch my wife from our apartment. (We didn’t have a car in those days.) As I neared the entrance and saw the flashing ambulance lights beneath the curtain, I realized something funny:
The crowd outside had been standing next to a real ambulance that had pulled up outside a haunted house attraction. As my escorts led me to the paramedics, I saw people in the crowd draw back from my blood-soaked, ragged form.
I probably would have laughed if I wasn’t so worried about my hand.
The paramedics had obviously been briefed. Given the absurd recklessness of that coke-drenched era, I’m sure this wasn’t the first time a Halloween house resulted in real injuries. They asked me how much of the blood on me was mine. “None of it,” I assured them. “I’ve kept pressure on the wound.”
You’d think I would recall my one and only ambulance ride, but I was fuzzy headed by then. The ensuing few hours blurred into a montage of Look how brave I’m being banter, appalled faces in the ER waiting room when I walked in under my own power while covered in apparent gore, Cathi carefully hugging me at the hospital (with an affectionate, “You idiot”), and the ER personnel plopping me in a cold treatment room for what seemed like hours – still barefoot in torn and Karo-bloodied clothes – when they realized I hadn’t actually fallen into a threshing machine. I got a few shots of morphine or something in my hand, so when the doctor came and stitched it closed, I was disconnected enough to watch him do it.
It didn’t look so bad, really. Just some pale bruised skin, the big vein pinched shut and probably coagulated by that point, and a bloodless gap about an inch long being stitched shut with black thread by a guy who’d done that job a million times before.
X-rays showed the bones to be undamaged. My ligaments remained miraculously unharmed. The sickle had punched straight to the bone, but the dull impact and my left hand had kept me from bleeding out. Eventually, after some sharp words from Cathi, the ER staff got me a blanket to wrap around my shoulders. She’d brought me a change of clothes and helped me into them. By the time Julia, Harlan, and Julia’s husband arrived to invite Cathi and me to dinner, I was so high on painkillers and receding adrenaline that I said Sure. The hospital gave me a soft demi-cast cloth split to keep my wrist straight and my hand immobile, provided more painkillers and instructions on how not to fuck my hand up, and sent us on our way. Once I’d cleaned up, we shared a late, delicious dinner while I assured Julia and Harlan I wasn’t suing anyone as long as I didn’t get stuck paying for the ambulance and hospital visit. Hell, I said, it didn’t even hurt that much!
Not until the painkillers wore off, anyway. Around 4:00 a.m., I was whimpering with pain as my hand pulsed lightning through my arm. I struggled in the dark with the child-proof cap on the meds until Cathi, whom I’d been trying to avoid waking, got up and opened them for me…
I love Halloween. As a kid, I would sooner stay home and dress the house up with gory dummies and spooky sound effects than go out trick-or-treating with my friends. It’s not surprising, then, that when my friend Jerry – a former college classmate who’d dropped out of our theatre program not long after playing the role in an ambitious yet doomed production of Jesus Christ Superstar – invited me to talk to a friend of his who was setting up a haunted house, I said Oh hell yes.
This would be late September 1987. My now-ex-wife Cathi had moved in with me a few months earlier, following an ugly break with her family, and we both worked at the Pizza Hut Jerry managed at the time. Cathi had taken some pretty serious trauma during the break in question, and she and I were sorting out what happens when two late-teenage types suddenly find themselves stuck together and trying to be adults. The opportunity to go be a kid again – and for money, no less! – appealed to me. And so, by the end of September, I’d joined the team for House 2: The Nightmare Continues, a Halloween attraction set in an abandoned restaurant scheduled for demolition.
That last part should have been a clue about what life had in store for us that month..
Our director for the project was a short, intense guy who came across like Harlan Ellison’s younger brother. I don’t recall his name, so let’s just call him “Harlan” here. The producer, if I recall correctly, was named Mike, and our cast and crew numbered about 15 people when I joined the troupe. By that time, they’d already begun gutting the building and painting its interior black, blue, and red. Because it was condemned, we had permission to do whatever the hell we wanted to that building; we took full advantage of that license, and we’d trashed the place thoroughly before the attraction even opened. Walls were kicked in. Holes were cut and hacked away. Red “blood” spattered every surface, and black sheets divided the dining areas into “rooms” where different scenes were staged. In later days, this sort of thing would be called a haunt. Back in the 80s, we just called ‘em haunted houses, and the precautions used by any respectable haunt were notoriously absent. We used real knives and real sledgehammers and a real chainsaw with the chain removed. It was crazy, and dangerous, and I loved the hell out of it.
Guests to our haunt were met by a tall Grim Reaper who escorted them through the haunt in groups of two to six people. After encountering a vampire girl in her coffin, they’d be led into Cynthia’s Room: a blood-caked “honeymoon suite” where a mad bride was murdering her husband. Ushered quickly through that room, they’d encounter a long hallway with a mad steelworker swinging a sledgehammer through the walls; a “dentist’s office” where a shrieking mad dentist tortured a shrieking patient; a large room featuring a Goth chick tormenting a mutilated guy strapped to a cross; a hallways where a masked killer ambushed people with a chainsaw; and a Freddy Kruger who’d jump out at the last second and chase the guests out the exit. Along the way, various screamers and spooks would keep the party hopping. Gender-wise, we were split roughly 50/50 between women and men. (This was before nonbinary was a word people used as a gender identity.) We didn’t have any guys who could fit into the coffin, and we preferred to make most of the tormentors women, and most of their victims men, in order to avoid the usual misogynist abuse dynamic. Most of us traded roles throughout the month, if only because the screaming and shrieking did a number on our vocal cords. I found that out in my first two nights as a performer, when a stint as the dentist and a stint as the patient rendered me unable to speak for a day or two and so I wound up on the cross for a few days until my throat recovered. I played Freddie and the chainsaw maniac, too, before alternating to Cynthia’s Room.
And that’s when the real horrors began.
When people entered Cynthia’s room, they’d see a blood-drenched bed occupied by a guy in torn and gory clothes. His belly was ripped open, and one leg had been hacked off at the knee. As this dying groom urged people to “Run before she gets you too,” the wild-haired bride in a crimson-soaked dress leapt out from behind a screen, waving a sickle and threatening to chop them all to bits. The Grim Reaper would hustle the guests out into the long hallway, and the two “married” castmates would catch a breather until the next group came in.
That, anyway, is the way things were supposed to work.
In order to stage the illusion of a disemboweled dude with a dismembered leg, the groom would stick his leg through a hole in the mattress. After he arranged his torn clothes accordingly, someone would place a plastic sheet over his bare chest and belly, then cover that sheet with fake innards and dump a ton of Karo syrup blood all over him. For the next few hours, that performer endured cramps, lost circulation in his leg, and froze half-naked under foam and plastic intestines, covered partially in plastic, and drenched in cold, sticky fake blood.
October’s a cold month in Richmond, VA, with strong winds blowing the summer heat away. House 2 occupied the middle of a parking lot, and so those winds blew across the empty space and cut right through the building’s unheated and destroyed interior. Few of us wore more than a shredded gown, shirt, or pants; most of us were barefoot, and all of our clothing got liberally drenched with red sticky goo. Young idiots like us seem to generate our own heat, thankfully, but we kept from freezing to death mostly through adrenalized activity. The guys on the bed and the cross, however, and the person in the dentist’s chair, were confined to one place, and we inevitably wound up being the coldest ghouls in the place. Thus, those roles got changed out every night or two, so that no one person spent each Friday and Saturday night of the month strapped into place and shivering until after midnight.
If this sounds like disaster waiting to happen, that’s because it was.
Why, then, did we do it?
Partly because it was fun. It really was. And we got paid each night, too, which was more than most starving-artist kids got in Reagan’s America. Harlan would divide up the proceeds from the door, take the biggest cut for expenses and profits, then deal out $20.00 or so to each cast member. It’s not much, granted, but again this was Reagan’s America in “the Capital of the South.” My job at Pizza Hut paid $3.25 an hour, plus tips (if we got any), minus taxes, and so having fun for an evening, covered in gore and scaring the shit out of people, and then pocketing $20.00 tax-free at the end of it seemed like a pretty decent deal.
Beyond that, almost all of us were actors or artists of one kind or another. I doubt any of us, other than Mike and Harlan, were over 25, and at least half of us were teenagers. I’m not entirely certain the building had been rented legally, and I know damned well there was no insurance involved. The number of legal and ethical issues surrounding such an enterprise should be obvious, but for hungry young creative misfits such things rarely matter… until, of course, they do.
Me, I was a seasoned veteran of guerilla film making, art modeling, and improv theatre. I’d spent college falling down hills, being thrown into swimming pools, gagging on rotting animal guts, getting cast nude in plaster, shivering naked on a model stand, pounding myself senseless in dive-bar mosh pits, and having my chest hair burnt off with an improvised explosive device. Gory makeup and cold Karo syrup blood were my natural plumage in those days, so this was just one more adventure to add to my long list of crazy shit. Cathi, bless her heart, wasn’t nearly as much of a ham as I was. She’d stay home and read, safe in a warm bed full of cats, and then help me out of my Karo-stiffened clothing and into a hot shower whenever I’d get home.
As Republicans and their associated media pundits dance around the fire of Kabul’s collapse – blaming it (like Trump’s pandemic and economic ruination) on the Biden administration, let’s recall that the hallmark of Bush’s “Neoconservative” movement involved sneering in the faces of experts who warned them against pretty much everything that administration chose to do, and accusing of treason and “liberalism” all opponents of those choices, regardless of the political tendencies of the critics in question.
Despite campaigning on a promise of “compassionate conservatism,” the Bush II years touted a rootin’ tootin’ cowboy mystique. The reckless behavior behavior of that era’s Republicanism was so divorced from traditional conservatism that a new name – “neocon” – was coined to define it. Old-guard conservatives proved almost as vocal in their opposition as the shouted-down Democratic “traitors” were, leading to such surreal spectacles as American Conservative magazine and Mother Jones sharing near-identical condemnations of Bush and the neocons. The “South Park conservatism” that defines our current era, though rooted in Newt Gingrich’s tactics in the 1990s, reached full and foul blossom under Bush. Ann Coulter, praised as a “conservative intellectual,” infamously proclaimed that opponents of Bush’s administration should be publicly executed “so that they know that they can be killed.” Republicans gleefully adopted absurdities like “freedom fries,” “the Coalition of the Willing,” and – worst of all – “enhanced interrogation” as signs of their Yosemite Smith approach to American power.
That attitude backfired in every imaginable way.
From 9/11 to Abu Garib to “No Child Left Behind” to Hurricane Katrina to ICE to the economic crash of 2007 (hung, in now-predictable fashion, around the incoming Democrat’s neck) to the Faith-Based Initiative to Enron to an ever-growing national debt caused by endless tax-cutting and militarization at home and abroad, each swing of the neocon dick demolished everything it touched. While Trump reached new lows for American politics, no other American presidential administration shares Bush II’s catastrophic record of absolute failure. The two longest and most expensive wars in America’s history occupy space on the desks of Trump, Obama, and now Biden, but it was Bush II – WITH THE FULL-THROATED APPROVAL OF THE REPUBLICAN ELECTORATE AND RIGHT-WING MEDIA – that kicked those disasters into gear.
My disgust with Bushie’s Big Adventures isn’t merely political. Many of my friends became “human collateral damage” of those campaigns. One of my former roommates is a veteran of Bush’s war machine, as are several of my most cherished friends. I’ve seen the damage those wars and their domestic betrayals have left upon my loved ones. As the Vietnam War scarred my father and his brothers, Sheriff Georgie traumatized my family-of-choice. Military contractors got rich, chickenhawks got their rocks off, and people I know personally got stuck with the human cost of those adventures. Yellow ribbons fade more quickly than the scars of war.
For all its horrors, America’s involvement in the Vietnam War at least had some semblance of logic at its foundations. But while 9/11 provided an understandable justification for Bush’s initial assault on the Taliban – an assault supported even by the governments of Iran and Pakistan, who were understandably fed up with having those psychopaths on their borders – the Bush administration proudly refused to listen to pointy-headed experts on regional affairs. As “conservative” media cheered them on, the neocons did literally everything they were warned NOT to do. The invasion of Iraq, which provoked the largest wave of global protests in human history at that time, capped off a promising military effort that blew its chance at success after the first month or two of operations. The disastrous Bush Doctrine epitomized the hubris of Bush’s Cowboy ‘Murrikuh, waving a big, hairy set of balls that proceeded to get kicked for the next 18 years. Those yellow ribbons and “Mission Accomplished” banners became punchlines paid for with a flood of human lives.
And we fucking told you so.
Liberals and old-school conservatives alike decried the Bush administration’s gunslinger posturing. People who’d spent lifetimes studying and/or living in the region warned that swaggering into the Middle East and trying to play sheriff was doomed to failure. But right-wing media, granted a then-fresh monopoly thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, took up Rush Limbaugh’s freakshow standard and turned it into the scream of post-9/11 ‘Murrikuh, a surly frat boy so blackout drunk on his entitlement that he’d fight the entire world on general principle. The Eric Cartman antics of Trump’s era gained their foothold in political discourse thanks in large part to Bush’s neocons. The fact that Trump makes Bush look like an elder statesman in comparison does not change the related fact that a President Trump would have been unthinkable before the necons ushered Sarah Palin into the limelight, borne on the shoulders of Bush’s cheerleaders Michael Savage, Laura Ingram, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and other Fox News luminaries.
Let’s not forget those exact same people still keep trying to get us to invade Iran.
The fires of Kabul provide a grotesque mirror to the smoke over New York City 20 years ago next month. If I were to write such absurdities into fiction, I’d be justly criticized for hammering the point. Truth really is stranger and stupider than fiction.
And the truth is, America’s abject, costly failure in Afghanistan began with a lockstep belligerence the Republican Party has only intensified since then.
Two weeks ago today, a mob incited to violence by the delusions of reality trolls focused on a jacked-up TV star committed symbolic and literal desecration of the United States. That spectacle combined tragedy and farce, with a body count that has grown since I began writing about it that day. This essay began as a stream-of-consciousness rant in real time. Now, with two weeks of perspective, new events, the Biden-Harris inauguration, and a fitting coda delivered by an embodiment of the kind of America Trump and his followers sought to destroy, “Time to Leave the Funhouse” seems like an apt slogan for the coming years.
For all our futuristic boasts and hardnosed pretense, the USA exists in a state of arrested adolescence. Not because so many of us love fantasy, but because so many of us hate facing reality. Instead, we puff up our egos to mythic proportions while glutting ourselves with junk food and diversions. For all our cowboy bullshit, this nation is spoiled rotten. Even as our teeth, infrastructure and fellow citizens fall to pieces, Americans wrap ourselves in mythology and drugs to keep from recognizing the truth: Our nation is unsustainable. Without immediate action and major changes to our way of life, we are doomed not merely as a nation but quite possibly as a species too.
America, we have a problem here.
Hell, even our iconic cowboy mascot is a fake. Real cowboys in history were low-paid laborers – often queer, usually non-white, occasionally trans, and inevitably poor – who literally waded through shit in service to other men’s wealth. Not one American in a thousand was a cowboy; not one American in a million could actually live that life. Yet the cowboy, imported from South America and embellished by Hollywood, embodies These United States even as we divide ourselves by such iconography. It’s no accident that our swaggering cowboy president G.W. Bush left a legacy of catastrophes, that his fans burnt the former “Dixie” Chicks in effigy, and that would-be cowboys posed with both Union and Confederate flags while lynching effigies of our first Black American president. The Cowboy archetype, though based in history, is a whitewashed product of capitalistic racist fantasy. He might not be racist by default (and has, in fact, been reclaimed in Black American communities lately), but his popular image perpetrates a lot of racist trash. The quickest way a rich white dude can grab cred from working-class white folks is to strap on a cowboy hat, adopt a Southern drawl, and pretend to be “just plain folks” while hating on “subhuman mongrels” and “race-traitor” white liberals. Kid Rock’s been playing that game for decades, and Fox News rests on its foundations.
Donald Trump plays a variation on that archetype: The Self-Made Man – a brave, tough-talking All-American guy whose ostentatious wealth attests to his superiority over effete ideas like “taste.” The Self-Made American is the Cowboy in a business suit, his vulgar roots undermining elitist peers. He gobbles Big Macs and talks as though the world is his locker room; after all, it is. As Trump himself said, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” Edison could get away with ripping off rival inventors. Harvey Weinstein could get away with raping movie stars. Trump got away with a laundry list of crimes against humanity, yet still had literal armies of Americans willing to kill and die on his behalf. While the future actions of those devotees have yet to be determined, the proof of that willingness turned 1/6/2021 into a funhouse mirror of 9/11/2001. Both became icons of symbolic wars against America. Two weeks ago, we waged that war against ourselves.
Seven years ago, in an essay called “Coloring the Symbol of a Man,” I said that “a leader – especially an elected leader – is a symbol of whatever that person leads.” Barack Obama, that “subhuman mongrel” whose existence so offended classic rock icon Ted Nugent, embodied the end of an unbroken chain of white men representing our United States. That symbolic overthrow (accentuated by the failure of cowboy president George W. Bush, plus the defeat of Vietnam survivor John McCain and Sarah Palin, Manic Pixie Dream Girl of the American Right) made all manner of absurdities seem possible. Obama was a Muslim. He was coming for your guns and children. He was somehow a Marxist Nazi Zionist Mao-worshipper who was probably the Antichrist and definitely part of a long-range plan by time-traveling malcontents. The fact that Obama never lived up to any of the dire prophecies about him just made everything worse. It’s no accident that Trump gained political momentum by mainstreaming Birtherist conspiracy crap. Even after Obama had graciously stepped aside (despite warnings that he would do exactly what Trump tried to do four years later), the mere fact that a (half-)Black American had personified “OUR country” for eight years drove many Americans unsane. A mythic Deep State reigned even as The Donald declared his absolute disdain for propriety and precedent. Instead of governing in any rational form, The Donald’s administration became a daily exercise of performative cruelty. Hidden symbols were unfurled openly by people convinced that secret cabals hid themselves in pizza dungeons and furniture stores. [*1]
The past few years have been literally and symbolically deranged. That madness climaxed in a orgasmic surge of perverse superheroes in a bloody-handed LARP.
All nations have symbols. All symbols can be poisoned. Human belief may be the most potent force on earth, and humans believe all kinds of awful things.
My fellow Americans, I say this as a creator and consumer of fantasy media: We need to be more careful about what, and whom, we choose to believe.
My fellow creators, meanwhile: We need to be more careful about what we put out there, and more conscious of how it is received.
Obviously, I love fantasy. My career and (to a degree that disquiets even me) identity encompass 30 years of creating exaggerated worlds of adventure. Before I began writing, I was an actor. Since childhood, I’ve loved comics, myths, and action movies. In those creations and entertainments, I’ve sought significance in the mundane world. Whenever possible, I’ve held the mirror up to my audience and myself, asking “What do you see reflected back at you here?” As a creator and a fan of fantasies – whose inspirations include real-world culture, language, and psychology – I understand what Joseph Campbell called “the Power of Myth.” And so, when I look at the narrative cast over the events of 1/6, I see the ultimate tragedy of a collective Narcissus slashing himself to death in a shattered mirror. And if that analogy seems overripe, remember that a young Air Force veteran got herself killed storming the Capital building, acting out an action movie trope, in service to a TV star’s gospel, while absurdly garbed cosplaytriots staged selfies nearby.
She wanted to be a hero. In the minds of many, she became one. And yes, on many levels, that is an American tragedy.
Much as I hate what she did, I feel sad about her death.
I feel sadder, though, about the deaths of people whose names we’ll never know unless we knew those people personally.
When this ridiculous saga appears in history books, that woman’s name will be mentioned while the 400,000-and-then-some Americans who died of Covid-19 remain nameless. The fact that one of those dead Americans, my friend and collaborator Jackie Cassada, was herself a fantasy author writing about incarnated dreams and reality wars, compounds the irony in ways that have me feeling sick myself. The fact that Covid-19 bookends the Trump presidency with one of the largest body-counts in US history is poetic enough to choke Shakespeare on Aristotle’s dick.
I feel sad about that, too.
Sad, and angry, and very, very old.
America, we need to get the fuck over ourselves.
We’re not a nation of cowboys or Self-Made Men. Our nation holds many wonders and promises, but we’re best served by seeing what we are in real life, not which fantasy suits us best.
Now, I love mythology. It’s my living. It’s my art.
I respect its power, though, because I know first-hand where that power – pro and con – can lead.
Mythology is vital to the human experience and society. Used carelessly, however, it creates monsters. Not the consciously created monsters like Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (an analogy for the destruction caused by men who wish to play God), but rampaging creations like that American Frankenstein’s Monster, Donald Trump.
Again, I use that word deliberately. The root of monster means “a portent, an omen, a warning.” Mary Shelly’s warning is a sympathetic creature. I feel no such sympathy for Donald Trump. Unlike Victor Frankenstein’s unwilling creation, and despite his family’s wealth, Trump projects himself as that Self-Made Man. Fine, then. Let him fucking own what he has become: a warning of where our pride and carelessness can lead.
To the Greeks whose myths provide our science terminology, myths have multiple dimensions. Literal names have symbolic connotations, numerical significance, sometimes musical tonalities meant to invoke metaphysical forces. The same is true of other languages, too: Sanskrit, Hebrew, Mandarin, and more. Yet English, despite its twisty corridors of meaning, is a language of commercial trade and diplomatic expediency. So, too, are its home cultures, England and North America. Our myths, then, become fractured things, thrown together – like our languages – from bits of other cultures that we seldom understand in context. They’re pretty, sure, and often more potent than we expect. America is a myth writing itself on a daily basis… sometimes even, these days, on an hourly one. At its best and worst, that myth is powerful as hell.
And yes, again, I used that word deliberately: Hell – the myth-forged punishment ground remixed from older legends until it consumed its original sources in a pervasive garish nightmare.
Today, we seem further from that hell than we did when I began this essay two weeks ago. Another set of symbols triumphed, and those symbols – though in some senses as fantastical as the ones employed by Trump – are more subtle though no less passionate. In a characteristic burst of self-conscious mirror-play, Lady Gaga’s garb recalled the mockingjay pin and costume employed by Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: a teen-lit fantasy/SF series about multicultural rebels toppling a decadent Capital. The oroboroean tangles involved in a media-crafted queer-icon persona, whose name was inspired by a pop song from a British band whose queer-icon frontman was commenting on American media banality, wearing a red, white and gold echo of a film adaptation of a fantasy book series, to sing a parody of a British drinking song that became this nation’s anthem, at the Capital, while figuratively overthrowing its previous queer-phobic media-persona figurehead, are – I’m certain – obvious to Stefani Germanotta, the real-life artist behind Lady Gaga’s façade. There’s symbolic value, too, in having the young Black female poet Amanda Gorman read a poem she composed while watching Trump fans storm that same Capital. Trump’s revolution – despite its non-white enablers – was an assertion of white supremacy. Having a young Black poet laurate proclaim “The Hill We Climb” was a symbolic purge of those Rebel flags and Holocaust hoodies that claimed that ground only two weeks before.
These are, as the saying goes, interesting times.
America is confronting its mythologies and the monsters birthed from them. The racism and genocide that laid the foundation for all American nations (not merely the United States) began on distant continents. It holds pervasive sway, though, in American realities. These past few years, more than ever before, have forced Americans to face the mythologies we’re raised with and the monsters they so often breed. As I’ve often said before, the United States is an experiment founded upon genocide in which slave-owning men made eloquent promises that a diverse populace has yet to fulfill. The tension between those promises and the realities behind them have made American nations (again, not only the US) the vibrant and volatile center of the modern age. Even outside this region, that tension has shaken the world for nearly half a thousand years. This month’s chaos shook our myths to their foundations. Monsters came out, and living people died.
Trump’s cult, and the associated QAnon creed, are Apocalyptic cults in every sense of that word. They claim revelations from higher powers in an endgame struggle with forces of destruction. As ridiculous as their claims are by all rational standards of inquiry, the adherents of those cults are right about one thing: This is the end of their world, and things are being revealed that have been hidden from sight for too long. This culture is facing transformation, with old comforts dying in service of new realities. That is a frightening process, and things are being lost that can never be reclaimed. That’s scary. I get it. This new world doesn’t look like Leave It to Beaver, and though few of the guys hefting battle banners in Trump’s name are old enough to have watched that program on TV, the mythic America it portrays is part of their view of “the way things ought to be.” [*2] MAGAmerica is, at its heart, dedicated to preserving a mythic United States in which any cowboy can become a Self-Made Man if those pesky libtards and scary brown people would just get back in their places where they belong. Trump’s final act, the declaration of a slavery-denying “1776 Commission” on Martin Luther King Day, was as blatant as a Stars-and-Bars. [*3] When Q’s promised Apocalypse failed to occur, the cult turned upon itself. The results, again, remain to be seen. I doubt, though, that’s we’ve seen the last of them. From Haven’s Gate to Islamic State, atrocities have been committed over less.
Fellow Americans, we need to sort this funhouse out. We must be more careful and conscious of our mythologies, of the ways they guide us, of the purposes to which they can be put, and of the people – even me – who craft those purposes, and to what ends.
Otherwise, we’re just spinning frantically until our funhouse finally burns down.
Five lives ended in our Capital that day. Several more have followed since.
Now, at the threshold of symbolic new beginnings, let their tragedy be the warning we all hear.
BEHOLD THY FOOTNOTES!
*1 The fact that QAnon’s nonsense echoes the Satanic Panic which encompassed weird fantasies about heavy metal and D&D adds to the funhouse-on-acid feel of Trumpian mythology.
*2 The title of a book by Rush Limbaugh, whose impending demise adds yet another layer to this age’s over-piled irony cake.
On January 6, 2021, Donald Trump staged a brash act of his alternate reality – an alternate reality in which he is a persecuted prophet fighting for American greatness. He then walked away and let his people die.
Five people perished for his vanity. More could have. More probably will.
As I posted in reply on Trump’s Twitter account that day, it was historical. Just not in the way he’d wanted it to be.
I’ve made a lot of mordant jokes about “this season finale of The Apprentice.” Wednesday’s travesty, however, was funny only from the perspective of, say, the Joker. There was plenty to mock, all right, and an ironic commentary on America’s obsessive narcissism culture. We are living in a Shakespearian play told by an idiot, and that idiot, ultimately, is ourselves.
Five people died for it.
That photogenic would-be martyr who betrayed her oath to this country and its Constitution was killed by believing in a fantasy. For wanting to be a hero in an action movie staged by the greatest Dungeon Masters since Adolf Hitler or Chairman Mao, she died. Four men died, too, one of them a cop who was reportedly beaten to death with a fire extinguisher, another of whom died of a heart attack after supposedly Tasering himself in the nuts.
The real Masters of this Dungeon, meanwhile, sit far away from the chaos they have made. In Moscow. Behind keyboards in someone’s office, spare room, or basement. In whatever headquarters News Corporation favors this week. From dungeon trolls to heads of state, they’ve turned America’s obsession with self-mythology into the instrument of self-destruction.
Adding insult to a slew of injuries, the invaders dressed themselves as veritable cartoon characters, some with logos from Marvel Comics films and characters, others decked out in videogame drag. I’ve learned that at least one person photographed in the company of Q-Shaman-Boy and an asshole bearing a Confederate battle flag was a member of the White Wolf LARP community. Another supposedly belonged to the medieval recreation society where I met my first wife. My outrage isn’t just political, it’s personal and professional as well. For a creator of fantasy media, such grotesque misuse of our vocation feels like a punch in the gut.
America, we need to stop this shit.
Our addiction to nonsense is literally killing us.
Neil Postman, in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, spotlighted America’s obsession with prefab mythology. That phrase, amusing ourselves to death, has been stuck in a groove inside my head these past few years. On Wednesday, four people literally did amuse themselves to death, took another person with them, and might have killed even more people if they’d had the chance. Any sane society would take what happened as a warning of our impending collapse. To many Americans, however, it was just another episode in this crazy TV show, and we’re all eager to see what the next installment brings. Personally, I love horror films… and that’s what this feels like: a horror film in real time, where we can’t look away, but we can’t stop watching either because hey – at least we’re not bored, amirite?
Then again, we don’t have to clean the blood off our clothing and stare at the empty place at our table or bed where a human being used to be.
I admit then when I finally got numb to it all, I brought up Red Dead Online and started playing another round of American mythology. At least those bullets and deaths won’t hurt.
I try to be conscientious. Even I am not immune, though, to this society’s death-grip on the joystick.
Fantasy is great. Fantasy’s essential. I wrote years ago, in the final pages of Deliria: Faerie Tales for a New Millennium, that “such tales invent, but they do not lie. They tell the truth, even in the midst of fantasy.” As Atlantic writer Spencer Kornhaber states in his article “The Superhero Fantasies of Trump’s Mob”: “fiction, fantasy, and what-ifs are part of coping; escapism is seductive even in the best of times.” The power of coping, healing and inspiration within fantasy media is, to use that overused word, awesome. Trouble comes, however, when the audience cannot tell fact from fantasy and stops even trying to care.
There’s sick symmetry in the recursive way Trump’s signature claim to fame, The Apprentice, echoes “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”: the Goethe poem (based on earlier tales) later popularized by Mickey Mouse… by way of Disney, who made much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe possible, and whose designs and tropes undergird so much American mythology (up to and including Walt Disney himself)… in which a sulking would-be wizard takes a shortcut to power that backfires in disastrous fashion. It’s a fractal monster which grows bigger and crazier the longer you stare into it, and the fact that I just referenced Nietzsche’s dictum and Jurassic Park in that sentence reveals how deep the rabbit hole goes. (Hello, Alice. We’re mad here…) This remix Wonderland of ours has its charms, but the dragons here are hungry enough to eat their own tales/tales…
You get the point.
Donald Trump is a problem.
He’s not, however, the problem.
Much as The Donald™ would hate to admit it, America’s problem with mythology is a lot bigger than he is.
End of Part II
*1 *It’s also worth noting that security experts have pointed out the ominous possibility that the entire Capital building has been compromised by surveillance devices planted by so-called “protesters.” Considering that foreign actors have already been implicated, during Donald Trump’s reign, of hacking our government’s secure systems, bribing Republican officials via the NRA, and outright buying favors from the administration, the probability that foreign or domestic enemies have used Wednesday’s chaos as an opportunity to plant bugs in the Capital is quite high.
All cultures have myths, of course. We have more than usual. We manufacture them, too. Our Hollywood films and comic books and pulp fictions and video games flood humanity with interactive mythologies chewing on their own tails like an Oroboros serpent. Cowboys and Gumshoes and Cops On The Edge™. Such tropes are the grammar of our cultural language, foundations of commerce and identity alike.
I know this because I work on the American Myth Factory floor. Donald Trump is a product of that factory, too. MAGA is a myth. So is QAnon.
Yesterday, four people died in the name of those mythologies.
They chose roles in a titanic game, and they lost their real lives in service to those fantasies.
When I say “myth,” I’m not using the superficial definition of “a lie, not real.” I’m referring to the deeper power of cultural symbols – a level of reality cloaked in fantastical garb. People need myths. Cultures need myths. Myths breed, and are bred in turn by, human consciousness. Just as our physical senses are delineated by spectrums of colors, sounds and textures, our cultures and identities are delineated by symbols of language, media and mythology.
If that sounds crazy, that’s because in a sense it is.
Yesterday, a mob of human beings, many dressed in costumes straight off a fantasy convention floor, stormed the symbolic heart of America in service to a baroque mythology crafted around an American icon and the lies he tells about himself.
Four of those human beings died. At least one of them was a conventionally attractive woman who served in our Armed Forces – someone who, at first glance, resembled an old sweetheart of mine. That disconcerting resemblance pointed to a deeper truth: Those people, all of them, however repugnant I find their actions, were someone’s sweethearts. Someone’s lovers, partners, parents, kids. Those mobs of people, and the people they endangered – and, in some cases, were prepared to beat and kill – are not pixels or abstractions. Their lives are human lives.
This is not a fucking game.
Yesterday, that person chose to betray the oath she swore to protect one American mythic cornerstone – our Constitution – in service to another: a TV con man who has used, and has been used by, American mass media for roughly half a century. That con man assumed the ultimate US iconography, the office of our president, to become a living symbol of America itself.
In the funhouse version of Trump’s America, she was the hero of an action movie. She’s being treated as such by some people, as a villain of one by others. I’m sure she saw herself in those terms, and she died in service to those myths.
That IS crazy. And before someone objects to my usage of that word, I’m using crazy in the original sense of “full of cracks; unsound.”
American mythology is crazy in that sense. In its name, we do crazy things, sometimes at great cost.
I feel sad about the human costs of our cracked society.
We’re careless with our mythologies. And that’s literally killing us.
I will not eulogize the woman killed in yesterday’s chaos at the capital [*1]. She made a decision to violate her oaths of service because malcontents and a con man told her to do so. She made her decision, and she died by it.
That said, her death is a tragedy in the classical sense of that much-abused word.
It’s the tragedy of a person, a mob, and a nation that have all given themselves over to absurdity because that fantasy seems more glamorous than the hardscrabble truths of a nation in decline.
As Reed Berkowitz wrote in his essay “A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon”, the QAnon fiasco is, in a sense, a titanic RPG. A literal Augmented Reality Game. A cosplay convention with live ammunition and a body count. As that would-be hero yesterday took bullets and died, overgrown children in desperate need of significance ran around in impractical tac gear and costumes out of a video game. There’s a straight line leading from those tricorned Tea Party fools, the jackass offending both Nordic and Indigenous gods with his “Q Shaman” persona, and the “reality TV” spectre whose ubiquity kicked off this American tragedy.
That would-be martyr I will not name was a casualty of trolls. Three other people died nearby; I don’t know their names right now, but I’m sure we all will soon. One cop may or might have died too – reports, as if this writing, disagree about that. All of these casualties were extras in someone else’s LARP. Sacrifices to the vanity of men and women whose lives are so devoid of meaning that they’ll throw people’s lives away in pursuit of a glorious moment where a con man’s lies consumed the surrounding reality.
I know something about reality-war games. After all, I’ve spent the last 27 years creating one. Mage, in its various incarnations, deals with covert warriors seeking control over Earth’s reality. An idealistic premise became a cautionary satire about the nature of “truth” and the consequences of our actions. Certain elements of that series aged poorly; others became – often to my dismay – more relevant than ever. During my second run as head of Mage, my collaborators and I have tried to critique the concept while underscoring the realities beneath our fictions. The stress of doing that led me to resign in 2019. Whether or not I’m getting paid to manage it, however (which these days, I am not), Mage is part my reality. It probably always will be.
During those times when I wasn’t involved with Mage directly, Mage defined me even when I didn’t want it to. As my collaborator Nicky Rae – another casualty of Trump’s deranged antics – told me the other day, my influence defined Mage too. Even when I didn’t want it to. I’m intimately familiar with the responsibilities of such influence, and the ways in which glorious absurdities can unhinge a person’s life. Unlike Donald Trump, Q Shaman, Fox News pundits, and the multitudes of reality-twisters who craft this tragic LARP for pleasure, power and profit, I care what happens to the people who enjoy my work. I’m cautious, always, to inspire people toward constructive outcomes in their own lives, and to remind them that the fictions my collaborators and I create are not objective truths.
I’m also not blind to the fact that if things had gone differently in last year’s election, that mob might well have stormed the Capitol and died in the name of Biden instead of Trump… and that my sentiments toward them would be far more charitable than my current thoughts about the traitor veteran and her cosplay compatriots. I’m sitting here at 4:00 a.m. writing these words from a profound sense of sadness that we’ve come to a point in US history where one mob or the other seems inevitable, and that lives would have ended either way.
I doubt Donald Trump feels sad about anything except his 12-hour Twitter ban and his impending departure from the biggest stage on earth.
Donald Trump could not care less about the people who died yesterday. Whether they died in a Bastille moment or gasping on a respirator in an ICU, they were nothing to him but props in his legend. I don’t say this because I hate the man, though I do. I say this because his entire well-documented history portrays a man who cares about no one but himself.
Remix Narcissus with the Wizard of Oz, sample Eric Cartman, and project that Frankensteinian monstrosity through Maleficent’s mirror, and you get Donald Trump.
Our myths are killing us.
End of Part I
NATURALLY, THERE ARE FOOTNOTES
*1 An alliterative phrase that sounds like a blurb off an old comic-book cover seems like a fitting description of yesterday’s disgrace.
But no – that was just “political differences.” We were being “extreme” and “intolerant” because we “live on the left coast,” we would “grow up someday,” and we would “just learn to accept that not everyone agrees with you.”
I have been saying for 40 years that the Republican Party was enabling a Fascist takeover of the United States.
I have been saying for 40 years that underneath all that garbage about “rule of law,” “traditional values” and “love of country” was a violent, ravenous, racist monster waiting for an excuse to break free, toss the Constitution, and impose total dominion over everyone who disagreed.
I heard it in the voices of speakers at Florida Bible College during my brief flirtation with Evangelical Christianity in the late 1970s.
I saw it when a “pro-life” mob from Operation Rescue shoved a clinic defender through a plate glass window in DC back in 1991.
I watched it babble from a podium, for hours, different voices with the same subtext, during a Prosperity Gospel event I was ushering for in 2005.
I screamed back in its face at a 2008 anti-Obama rally staged before he even took office, a week or two after his election, when the Tea Party trappings and yee-haw birther trash was already being deployed against the first Black American president.
The question confused me. I was around 12 years old at the time, and hadn’t really thought much about sex, much less about my relationship to it.
Dad clarified: “I mean, are you interested in boys instead of girls? I mean, sexually?”
I replied out loud that I didn’t really think much about that. Sure, by that time I’d begun to get “those feelings,” avoided trying to climb ropes in gym class, and nurtured fantasy crushes on Shanna the She-Devil and Katie from Valley of the Dinosaurs. I knew about the basic sex stuff from health class and talks with Dad and Mom, and felt an embarrassed fascination for the Playboy and Vampirella magazines Dad kept in the bathroom he shared with Mom. In terms of sexual identity, though, I really had no idea. In what I now recognize as the first stirrings of my kinks, I felt drawn to the half-naked barbarians and slave girls writhing in death traps and octopoid coils on the covers of pulp novels and magazines like Savage Tales. But was I queer, though? I called myself that word without knowing the sexual or decidedly negative connotations it had at the time.
In response to my confusion, Dad said the finest and most memorable remark in his long and checkered history of parenting: “Even if you are, you are still my son and I love you.”
This was a huge thing for any father to say in the mid-1970s, an era when it was still technically illegal to be gay in many parts of America. For a Sicilian military officer to say that to his only son was titanic. In hindsight, every other thing he has said to me, pro and con, over our 55-year relationship, pales in significance to that moment. At the time, I felt puzzled and annoyed and a little bit offended. As I grew older, seeing so many queer friends of mine rejected by their parents – in one case, to the point where one committed suicide after coming out to his family – I realized what an enormous act of love and acceptance my father’s conversation with me had been that night.
As I explored my identity for the next several decades, I soon realized that I was queer. Not that we used that word to define identity back then; in my teens and 20s, it was more acceptable, even in queer communities, to call someone a faggot or a dyke than to call them queer. That word got reclaimed long after I’d started going to gay bars and Gay Student Alliance meetings (“Lesbian” was added during my involvement, and “Bisexual” wasn’t added until after I left college) and NOW gatherings and Silence = Death rallies. When I drew my own takes on those nude barbarians, they were male almost as often as they were female. As far as most folks in my world were concerned, there were only two genders, too; you might be androgynous, or a transvestite, or physically intersexed, but the terminology surrounding gender identity on social media today literally did not exist during my teens and 20s. Most of it originates within the last two decades, some of it even within the last five years or so, and both my age and my sexual identity are a lot older than that.
Physically very much a guy (if only because I’m so fucking furry), I wasn’t androgynous. I preferred girls and didn’t even like most guys, so I figured I was straight. Yet I have genderfluid physicality, got crushes on dudes, and often found myself wondering what would happen if I kissed various male friends of mine on the lips. Given that most of the guys I wondered about at the time also presented as straight, I figured it would be awkward and more trouble than it was worth. I felt more in tune with the gay clubs, and with the men I knew who were bisexual and gay, than I felt with the guys who were all masculine and shit. Even so, I didn’t fit in comfortably with the stylish flamboyance of the gay and bisexual men I knew, either. I was a jeans-and-T-shirts kind of guy and had neither the money for a sharper wardrobe nor the desire to pull it off even if I could. My one experiment with early 80s “style” is best left in the dim mists of memory. On someone else, it might have looked good; on me, it… didn’t.
For the most part, I related with women more than with men. Most of my friends were girls or women, and I certainly trusted them more than I trusted any male friend I had… a trait I hold, with very few exceptions, even now. I felt fascinated by femaleness – not with playacting “femininity” as a social construct, but with the experience of being female. As anyone who’s roleplayed with me knows, I play women by default, and I typically write female characters and perspectives, too… not from the “she breasted boobily down the stairs” voyeuristic sort of way guys often write and play female characters, but from a position of fascination and, as I eventually realized, yearning. Writing in my acting journal around 1984 or early 85, I acknowledged that every character I wrote or played manifested some aspect of myself. Discovering Carl Jung’s work during the 80s, I considered that female aspect of myself my Anima… or, as I called her, my Dancer, my Huntress, my Muse. I dreamed a lot about meeting “my female self” in the woods, in mountains or on a beach, and though I initially looked for my Muse in other women, I eventually realized – as I wrote in the Author’s Notes to my 2013 short-fiction collection Wyldsight – that she was an inner aspect of me.
Ironically, my explorations outside masculine gender norms led to me becoming more comfortable with my masculinity. When I stopped giving a shit about whether or not people thought I was gay, “faggy,” “a fairy,” or whatever, most of my earlier shyness and insecurity fell away. By my late teens, I figured that any guy who was worried about being perceived as gay was insecure about his masculinity. Body-shy and easily overwhelmed by sensations as a child, I became voracious for sensation as a teen. I kept that part of myself under wraps, so to speak, while I lived at home, but threw off as much clothing and as many inhibitions as I could when I reached college. Eight years of theatre and four years of nude modeling tend to obliviate body-shame. My preference for going barefoot emerged during this period, too; many of my characters go shoeless because that attitude toward defiant sensation is so much a part of who I am. The more I got into dance, theatre, modeling, music, sensuality and sex, the less I cared about how people perceived me. The fact that theatre and the punk rock, New Wave, Renfaire and Pagan subcultures I was into at that time were pretty damn queer anyway helped a lot in that regard. My late-teen music idols were Rob Halford, Henry Rollins and Wendy O. Williams: artists who, as Rollins put it, chopped up their gender closets and used them for kindling . Although I identified as male, if only out of habit and a lack of better terminology, I did the same with mine.
Because anal sex is a non-negotiable no-go zone for me with partners of any gender , I limited my sexual explorations with other guys to make-out sessions and manual or oral stimulation. That must mean I wasn’t actually gay or bisexual, right? And despite those explorations and crushes, all my meaningful romantic and erotic connections were with women, and so I was “just fooling around,” I guess? Sure, right, whatever.
During college, I referred to myself as “straight but not narrow” with regards to my sexual identity. After I discovered a button stating, “Don’t assume I’m straight,” I stuck that pin into my favorite jackets and started referring to myself as bi. Although the word polyamory wasn’t in common usage then, my first wife and I were essentially polyamorous and had experiences with “both” genders.
By the time we divorced, and I joined the White Wolf staff in my mid-late 20s, I was in full-on Whatever Works mode. Kink, previously theoretical, became part of my surroundings. Soon, however, I set all of that aside to enter a monogamous relationship with my second wife between 1994 and 2001. After our marriage broke down, I discovered and embraced ethical polyamory, renamed myself Satyr, defined myself as a pansexual ethical slut (thank you, Dossie and Janet!), and did whatever I felt like doing with whichever intriguing adults were interested in doing it with me. During that period, I learned that “queer” was now considered a catch-all term for non-mainstream sexual identity, so yay – I finally had a name for all those confounding identity issues.
During a short but intense relationship within a poly quad, I began embracing that interest in men; sadly, a traumatic violation – combined with knowing a bunch of predatory unethical sluts of various genders – led to me distrusting not only my partners in that relationship but most other people in general. Between the emotional vortex of that period, a post-divorce/ post-rape depression, and a series of exciting but exhausting partnerships, I paired up monogamously with my friend Ann in 2004-2005. When that partnership broke up, I went back to my Satyrian ways, albeit with a bit more restraint than I’d used between 2001 and 2004.
When I looked back on my increasingly prolific sexual history, I realized I was hearing variations on a certain phrase a lot from my partners: “You’re the most female man I’ve ever met.” Not “feminine” – female. It wasn’t always a compliment but was said more often in a positive way than in a negative sense. That observation, combined with my explorations into shadow-work, demi-Jungian “aspecting” , and recognizing and redefining masculine experience and identity, inspired me to view my “self” as a tapestry of identities. Several of them were decidedly androgynous and outright female. After considering the experiment of a female social-media persona (and then rejecting the idea as too much work), I created Cedar Blake: the female aspect I’ve written and published under since around 2005.
Initially, I’d intended Cedar to be a pseudonym for romantic and erotic fiction, and I approached a friend of mine about becoming the “face” of Cedar on social media and author biographies. Eventually, though, I decided Cedar was a significant aspect of me: the conscious psychic construct of that Muse I’d been writing about and roleplaying since the late 1970s. After an ugly break with a now-former friend and creative collaborator, I worked around the resulting writer’s block by consciously aspecting Cedar Blake while I was writing. “She” wrote the novellaDream Along the Edge , and the experiment succeeded so well I repeated it years later in order to get past a similar block in 2018’s book Gods & Monsters, giving Cedar a byline each time.
(A related aspect, Silk, came out of that period, too; she doesn’t write, though – she’s a literally psychotic character I’ve played in World of Warcraft, Age of Conan, and Grand Theft Auto, as well as a feral autistic werecreature in Werewolf and Monsterhearts.)
To be clear: I do not have Multiple Personality Disorder or Disassociative Personality Disorder. For me, these aspects are conscious imaginary constructions. Essentially, I give names and physical descriptions to characters that reflect elements of my personality which I choose to emphasize at certain times and set aside at others. I don’t dress as these characters, speak in their voices (much), or say things like, “Cedar is talking now”; those could be valid tools for aspecting, but I don’t employ them except in certain roleplaying situations. It’s a mind-game I play with myself, and it works for me, so I stick with it. Although I began doing this sort of thing long before I read her work, I refined the technique from Debbie Ford’s book The Dark Side of the Life Chasers, and it has worked for me for over 20 years.
By the time I met Sandi in 2007, I’d established that Satyr, my “default everyday aspect,” is pangender, but I’d stopped referring to myself as pansexual because I had hurt a few guys’ feelings by being interested in playtime but not in relationships with them. The term genderqueer was starting to make the rounds by the mid-2000s, but I was trying to redefine what a man could be and so I still asserted a masculine identity, if only to show that men didn’t have to be raging assholes. Exploring why so many men, including me, could so often be raging assholes became the subject of several posts and essays I published around that time-period . The term nonbinary was still on the linguistic horizon, but my interest in conscious aspecting, plus sexual and gender experience and identity, was leading me in that direction. My long relationship with Coyote Ward – who identified as a pangender pansexual autistic person with multiple personalities – involved a lot of discussions about multiple identities (conscious and otherwise), gender constructs, autistic experiences, and other related topics. The fact that I’d been fascinated since childhood with shape-changing, identified so strongly with werecreatures, and wrote extensively about shape-shifting in various media should have made all of this stuff obvious to me a long time ago. Even with a metaphysical artist’s mindset, though, I still kept thinking of myself as a guy.
Old habits die hard, especially when they’re enforced by a larger society.
And let’s be honest here: mainstream society is not the only culture that enforces its ideas about identity.
When I began, several years ago, to toss out references to being nonbinary myself, I got repeatedly and aggressively queer-and-gender-policed by folks who probably hadn’t even been born yet when I first began kissing boys and going to gay bars. The notion that I might be in some sense female was even more harshly attacked, with several people telling me to “stay in your lane” and “stop being so performative” when “discussing queer spaces and experiences.” The fact that I’d been involved with the GSA, ACT-Up and NOW during Reagan’s reign isn’t obvious when you look at photos of me. When folks see me, they see a dude, and as a now-ex-friend of mine phrased it, “No one cares about why you think your life story is important.” Yes, I get the white-guy pass and privileges, and I’m neither young nor pretty enough to fit 21st century notions of what “nonbinary” is supposed to look like. Thus, “you can’t be queer, so shut the fuck up and stop looking for cookies” has been a common enough response that I haven’t bothered coming out about this stuff until now.
If I seem agitated about it here, that’s because I’m expecting similar responses to this post.
After discussing this pushback with various trans and nonbinary friends of mine (including Raven Bond, who likewise transcended conventional ideas about gender even though Raven defaulted to “he/him” pronouns as well), I’d decided it was too much effort to discuss my gender identity in public. Especially in the years following Raven’s and Coyote’s deaths, Trump’s rise, and my ensuing furious depression, I really haven’t had the emotional bandwidth to deal with getting cross-checked by “warriors” on my own team for whom everything’s a fight and everyone’s the enemy. Besides, I’m not going to start wearing makeup and dressing differently; those manifestations of gender don’t suit my female aspects any more than they suit my male ones. I am who I am, and I have been that way my entire adult life. New insights and terminology give me deeper perceptions about who I am, and influence the ways in which I communicate who I am, but they don’t change the person I manifest in this world even though I’m more conscious of the people I can manifest in other ones.
(Consciously manifesting psychic reality through artistic and metaphysical practices is a whole other topic, and this essay is long enough already.)
It’s not accurate to say I feel “like a woman trapped in a man’s body.” Physically and otherwise, I’m a guy. In many regards, I like being a guy; what I don’t like is getting stuck being only a guy. My fascination with shape-changing is sincere; if I could swap out bodies to suit my various aspects, and shift between those aspects physically at will, I would do that in a second. I can’t do that physically, however, so I do it through my art and my roleplaying. In hindsight, I realize that my interests in acting, psychology, RPGs, modeling, writing, and magic originate at least in part from my desire to be more than one “me.” Gender and sexuality are elements of that desire, but the desire is bigger than sex, art, gender, or identity. A few years ago, I commented to Sandi that I resent being stuck in just one body. Thoreau’s words “I am infinite; I contain multitudes” always rang true for me.
Because I’m temperamentally incapable of doing anything simply , these recent insights and conversations have coincided with a degree of physical dysphoria that goes beyond gender. The person I feel inside doesn’t match the person I see in reflections these days, not because he’s male but because he no longer looks like the Me I’d gotten to know. Grief-eating, aging, chronic pain, quarantine, depression, social isolation, social-media aggravation, virtual-only contact with most people I know, and a dramatic weight-gain crossed with a drastic reduction in vitality have conspired to mess with my perceptions about my self. This body doesn’t feel like me anymore, and to be honest I don’t like it much. Adding that sensation to recent discussions about gender identity just throws my established center of balance even more off-kilter, and the fact that so many people think they know me (pro and con) because of their perceptions about my work just increases that sense of dislocation in my own skin. I feel paradoxically more than and yet less than I was a few years ago – more conscious about my self/ selves, yet less comfortable with the aging furry meat sack I wear in this incarnation.
And so (finally!), I made my decision to “come out” with such an uncomfortably intimate presentation about my gender and sexual identity – a gesture of solidarity to other nonbinary folks who physically present in an apparently binary way, and an assertion of my fuck-you attitude toward folks who think they get to determine who I am.
This essays is an absurdly long way of saying, “I’m here, I’m queer, I always have been both, and anyone who has a problem with those facts can go take a flying fuck at the moon, and miss.”
I am who I am.
You are who you are.
Labels are just society’s window-dressing on infinitely complex selves.
Thanks for reading.
Take care of yourselves, be whomever you are, and respect other people on their own journeys. There’s room enough here for us all.
2. Sorry, butt-enthusiasts – it just squicks me. I don’t care what other consenting adults find arousing, but the poop chute has always grossed me out. I know about the prostate and extra stimulation and all, and I’m not interested. Thank you – butt, no.
3. See these articles, as well as references to aspecting in various RPG books I’ve written:
To make something clear, these are the words of Amendment 14, Section 1 – the basis for Obergefell v. Hodges, the marriage equity decision that Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Trump SCOTUS pick Amy Coney Barrett all want to overturn:
_________________ Amendment XIV Section 1.
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
“ALL persons,” “NO state, “ANY law.”
That Amendment was passed in 1868 – ironically, by a Republican majority, back when the GOP was “The Party of Lincoln,” not of neo-Confederates.
Ten years later, another “novel interpretation” of those words gave us Jim Crow and the infamous phrase “separate but equal.” Plessy v. Ferguson determined that it was perfectly legal to discriminate against Black Americans so long as there were “provisions” made to accommodate their separation from white society.
We know how well that turned out.
You would think that a Black American judge who was born before Plessy v. Ferguson was overturned would know that, too.
These are not arcane shades of legal complexity. These facts should be common knowledge to all Americans, and the fact that so few people know them – and that so many people like Thomas, Alito and Barrett count on us not knowing them when they posit absurdities like Thomas’ statement – is a condemnation of the civil ignorance of American society.
As the saying goes, however, “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” There is even less excuse when judges whose literal job it is to know what the Constitution says present us with shit on a platter, glazed with bald-faced lies.
Amendment 14, Section 1, is clear: “ALL persons,” “NO state,” “ANY law.” The fact that those “privileges or immunities” were violated for over a century anyway does not make it right or legal to overturn the law when it is finally observed. The words “unless my holy book says those persons are icky” are not found in Amendment 14. Nor are the words, “corporations are persons, too.”
As for Thomas’ nonsense regarding “the religious liberty interests explicitly protected in the 1st Amendment,” Thomas is once again lying through his teeth. He knows it. I know it. Every other American should know it, too. It takes a pretty “novel interpretation” of the words “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” to extrapolate from them “feel free to ignore the rest of the following laws if your local preacher doesn’t like them.” As the records surrounding the drafting of our Constitution make clear – clear in ways both Thomas and Alito already know but presume that YOU don’t know – this argument was debated by the authors of the Constitution, and it was soundly rejected. Thomas, Alito, Barrett and their enablers know damned well that Obergefell vs. Hodges has a firm constitutional foundation.
What they want is nothing less than the ability to rewrite the Constitution at will when it suits them.
The American Right complains endlessly about “activist judges.” Yet the sort of “novel interpretation” they protest is exactly what they strive to do whenever they have the power to do so.
They count on popular ignorance about our Constitution when they tell bald-faced lies in public as justification for denying the rightful protection of our laws to citizens they dislike.
Know your rights.
And don’t let these tax-funded parasites take them away while pretending to be “patriots” of the nation they betray.