P. Carl discusses writing, teaching, being

Monday, Apr 27, 2020
by Sarah Malone

At the start of February, the Program in American Studies welcomed P. Carl to Princeton as the Spring 2020 Anschutz Distinguished Fellow in American Studies. Carl, a nonfiction writer, and past dramaturg and producer of theater for twenty years, published Becoming a Man: The Story of a Transition in January, and has recent work in The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe and Lit Hub. He delivered the Spring 2020 Anschutz Lecture on February 11.

Over email, as Princeton moved to online classes in response to Covid-19, Carl answered questions about writing, teaching, imagination, American narratives, and being in the present moment.

In an essay you assigned this semester at Princeton, “​’The World is Not Vague’: Nonfiction and the Urgency of Fact,” Marya Hornbacher writes, “Decisions we make about sequence and arrangement are de facto impositions of our interpretation, our sense of causality, relationship.” Talk about helping students to develop narratives about themselves and to reframe received narratives.

In teaching that essay, I was thinking a lot about how important it is when we tell our personal stories that we do so knowing the way we piece together a narrative is, as Hornbacher points, out a kind of fiction. In the very crafting of what happened, we bring subjectivity, of course. That said, when I am working with students on personal essays as I am this semester, my push is for specificity, something the Hornbacher essay is also calling for. So I am teaching a course on white masculinity in America and looking at various moments in history — not from the angle of knowing a sequence of events as we often learn history — but looking for the facts within the facts: the specific language used when allowing more troops to enter Vietnam, the specific language of describing the Battle of the Bulge in a docudrama like Band of Brothers. Or the assumptions in the history of American westerns about what constitutes a “republic.” And of course, that question is one we are facing right now. Saying “toxic white masculinity” or throwing people into large groups like “people of color” or “LGBTQ communities” become empty signifiers without specificity and, if we are going to look at the way power has functioned historically in America, understanding the specificity of the manifestations of white masculinity is the only way to challenge its dominance. I am asking my students to find their personal relationship to what is, in essence, the driving force of American history, the framework that has defined the walls and floors and ceilings of our institutions, and to do that in context and cognizant of both the importance of fact and truth and their relationship to how narratives are shaped.

Early in the course, the class read Jess Row on the absence of people of color from literary fiction since World War II, an absence whose effect, Ismail Muhammad wrote in The New York Times, “is to regulate the American imagination and reproduce racialized power.” Does following up that acknowledgement with a study of artifacts and evidence of whiteness function as a reversal of the (white) male gaze?

That’s a tough question. One thing I know after teaching for so many years is that the white male gaze is still operating at full capacity. The impetus for this course on white masculinity is to expose it in more detail, to gaze back at it with Superman’s x-ray vision, to see through it and pick it apart and reveal it as emotion and bias that has been framed as reason and logic. The surprising/not surprising part of this work is to see the consistency of how power has been expressed in language and wielded inside of the rules of white patriarchy. What’s important is to both recognize this and to understand that visions and outcomes have been very different. I find Lyndon Baines Johnson a particularly interesting figure in that he has all the traits of the egomaniacal, fragile, attention seeking white man that we see in a figure like Trump, and his vision for the country was at complete odds with the current administration. His ability to use the rationales of white masculinity and its temperament to create the Great Society was steeped in a legitimate effort to make the country better for more people. LBJ, like Trump, wanted gratitude, but for work that didn’t only benefit him. When you look at history through the lens of our present moment — think for example of the anti-science, anti-elite rhetoric of the today’s GOP — no one was more dismissive/threatened by intellectuals than Johnson, but he still regarded them as worthy colleagues and opponents — the seeds of the manifestation of Trump have been sewn from the beginning of our history as a country. The power of white patriarchy is its capacity to be “inclusive” in certain periods but that inclusivity is always on its own terms. The institutions of power change slowly if at all.

In Becoming a Man, you quote your therapist that “much of being alive is wordless. It is embodied and acted out.” Narrative and embodied life seem in continuous dialogue in your writing and teaching. Do you find them in tension? Symbiotic?

You are getting at one of the central themes in my memoir. Because I had no relationship to my body for most of my life except in attempts to cover it over, make it disappear, my head and my thought process were primary and as a result, I had no idea how much my thinking was being influenced by my body. My mind believed itself in charge. I trusted reason and logic would prevail and that justice and equality in America were possible if properly articulated. Every time I encountered what we now call “gaslighting,” it took me by complete surprise. I spent of lot of my career in leadership positions, hashing out strategies and visions and programming with cis white men thinking that words and actions were connected. But in transitioning genders I finally understood that white masculinity is primarily emotional. I find it funny to read all the studies of how boys and men don’t express emotion. Yes, they do! In fact, it is emotion that makes truth and facts irrelevant in this pandemic, and I still can’t believe it, though I know this is not new in many ways. I learned my body was directing my narrative all along. I talk about having panic attacks at a girl’s slumber party and at a gathering of girls from across the state of Indiana. Those panic attacks were my body yelling at me, my internal knowing that I only felt at home with the boys on the baseball field or playing GI Joe.

When my therapist said that to me I was so frustrated. I am a writer and scholar and words are my everything! I talk about learning to swim in the book after transitioning, that in the blue of the pool I learned to feel my body for the first time. There are no words under water, but so many feelings. It was through swimming that I understood how right my therapist was.

In the book, you end narrative and expositive sections with sequences of questions, such as “What parts of bodies are allowed to change without causing disruption? What are the qualities of sex and gender that make friendships?” Questions seem a way of making critique into openings.

One thing about the book that readers either love or get frustrated by is that I ask a lot of questions that I never answer. And you are exactly right when you say I am trying to create openings for dialogue and for the connection that comes with not knowing. It’s why I teach. I teach not to bestow my brilliance onto my students but to connect with them through our mutual not knowing. Questions are what bring us together. And, in transitioning, the questions that came up were in one way obvious and in one way nothing I expected. I truly was shocked that I lost so many friends in my transition. I never thought my physical transformation would cause the upheaval it did. For a gender theorist this was pretty naïve of me. I honestly thought people knew. I thought my wife knew. And the process of going through the disruption my transition caused raised so many questions for me. Was I being reasonable to think a lesbian of forty years, my wife, could “go straight?” After twenty years of being together as a gay couple could she and I find our love? Remake our love? In this new configuration? In this #MeToo world where gender has never been more divisive than it is now, a world where so many women really don’t want to hear from a white man in any context where did I fit? And at some very fundamental level what it is about secondary sex characteristics that changes a person’s place in the world almost overnight? Not unlike the work of excavating these never discussed parts of white masculinity, I had to think, and am still thinking, about the ways I am who I have always been and I am nothing like who I was.

You describe a terrifying episode in Boston: “I can’t breathe, my heart is racing, and my impulse is to step in front of traffic on Tremont Street, to splatter myself on the pavement to make the terror stop.” In the present tense, you and the reader time travel with great speed and fluidity. Had you written in present tense previously? How did you find it affected your writing process? Is it a way of rendering onto the page the live quality of theater?

I have written in the present tense before. I like to write in the moment as a way of letting a reader come as close to what I feel as I am experiencing the story I want to tell, those feelings are most accessible as they happen. Had I written this memoir a year or two later it would be very different. It would be less messy and more thought through. Even now, as I work on the play adaptation of the book, I feel the emotional distance I can muster. I really like messy writing. I like being lost with an author or a playwright. I like not knowing things or be told things so that I can imagine them myself. For me the present tense is as close as I get to writing in three dimensions. And yes, this is why I love theater. Life is not lived through a screen or on a page or inside a theory or ideology. It plays out most intensely body to body. Such a strange thing to write and consider in this pandemic.

Also present tense is where a trans person actively transitioning must live. Or it’s where I had to live, for a while at least. The past was excruciating. I was running from her, the other me, at full speed. The future could not be known as relationships morphed along with my body, as people’s perception and treatment of me was unpredictable from day to day. As my body changed I never knew what people would see “him” “her” “it” — so the present tense of my hands rubbing my chin to feel the stubble of my beard, the long look in the mirror to see my receding hairline, putting on a shirt and have it be tight at the shoulders — all these present tense moments allowed me to keep going.

You write of doubling, of knowing “how to perform two different versions of [oneself] depending on the context,” of being aware of oneself separate from gender, skin color, country of origin. Later you ask why does queerness need “the certainty of language […] to feel seen”? The book values doubling and also grapples with its limits.

Doubling is another key theme of the book. We all know what it is to double. Women are expert at it. As I say in the book, a strong and intelligent woman sitting with a group of men in a meeting knows instinctually to double, to not talk too loud or too much or with too much emphasis. She has to be sure she isn’t dismissed as “angry” or “overbearing.” I doubled my whole life as a girl and a woman and I was never a girl and a woman. And now I double as a man in one context and a trans man in another. These are two very different identities and so my mobility is determined by context. Certainly, this is at the core of being Black in America where doubling is essential to survive and, even then, the danger of being seen only in the context of the racist history of America is impossible to escape.

The second part of your question is so complex. It’s the reason the longest chapter in the book, “Queer Enough,” works hard to express the nuance of the ways the confines of identity are both necessary and lethal. I think reading that chapter is the best way for you to know my thought process on the relationship between queerness and language.

White men perform a particular kind of doubling, you suggest.

I don’t think cis white masculinity can have a bird’s eye view of itself. A body cannot feel what it has never experienced in all the dimensions that feelings demand of us, and that pain and discrimination steal from us. I am saying two things about white masculine doubling. The first is that white men are being grouped together for the first time in history. We have longed talked about “trans” people, “people of color,” and “women,” but now we say “white men” and guess what: many white men don’t like it. So this new doubling, to be categorized by your body, is what I argue has led to the perhaps the most toxic display of white masculinity in history in Trump and the men who support him. They will not be stripped of their origin story as the founders of this country and their superiority. The other thing I argue in the book is that the liberal-leaning white men who don’t want to be grouped with the GOP right now perform another kind of doubling, a “wokeness” to words like “inclusivity” and “equity.” But in my extensive experience working with white male leaders, they speak the right words but then proceed to dominate every meeting, dismiss women who raise their voice, say the Black architect in the room talks too much. This is in some way more insidious and, I think, crazy making. I listen to all these enlightened two-dimensional words and the actions don’t match and it’s easy if you’ve always had to double to think you’re not seeing exactly what you’re seeing.

“Wholeness is a privilege,” you write. You also suggest a possibility of temporary wholeness.

This gets back to the doubling question. As white men have never doubled, they experience what they believe is wholeness. They are seen not as a category but in their specificity. They feel able to grasp the individual in the individualism that is a core American value. But we all know that wholeness comes at a cost and requires that the rest of us define ourselves in relationship to something we can never have, aspiring but always lacking. When I talk about temporary wholeness in the book, I am describing learning to feel alive in my body, to walk in the world as a man and enjoy that I am being seen in public spaces not as queer, or trans or a pathology but as a man. I relish these temporary moments when I don’t have to be conscious of being grouped in a category of otherness. In these moments I feel seen as the man I have always known myself to be and it feels great. It also comes at a cost to others who want to feel whole and are denied the privilege I am now able to access in certain spaces.

You use an incident of pronoun misgendering as an occasion to ask how we find words for the invisible, how it is that you could never acculturate to available language and categories. Two tasks seem evident here — grappling with intractable terms and categories that limit and demand, and finding language “that can make the invisible visible.”

I am acutely aware of the two-dimensionality of language. It lives flat on a page, or its meaning already pre-determined when it leaves our mouths. So even when we find new language, that language creates its own box. You see this happen all the time in the world of gendered language. My word for “nonbinary” when I was in my twenties was “androgynous.” Both words are very important, and they imply something necessary about the limits of the terms “male” and “female,” and words alone don’t free us. I always had the word “androgynous” at my access and many people used it to describe me, but as a word, it didn’t allow me to feel me in three dimensions and one person’s way of expressing that word would look completely different from mine. And I look at the history of language around gender — “butch” “femme” “boi” “lesbian” “transsexual” “transgender” — and every one of these words opened up space for bodies to feel seen in certain cultures, and still misogyny goes on and on after a century of feminism, so too does the binary of male and female. In my writing and teaching I think about both language and history, and lived experience, and how these align and clash depending on context. For all of us who try to undo or reimagine the possibilities for a “livable life” I think it’s necessary to understand that adding a word to shift our understanding of identities will be both life-saving and affirming in one context and may not fundamentally change perceptions in another. My work tends to focus more on the lethal parts of the binary and exposing those and perhaps less on creating a new word. I lived in the confines of the binary for so long no matter how many words I imagined. Every artist and scholar makes different choices about where to put their energy and I try to do that without diminishing other approaches, but my obsession is the intractability of white masculinity as our origin story and what my vantage point can do to help unmoor it.

Earlier, you write that “people closest to me, and people I have known all of my life, will not allow me the kindness of noticing” your “physical transformation.” Many signifiers might do — “Hey, man,” a tone, a gesture. But the lack of them is definite.

Noticing, asking about, commenting on a transition puts people in a tough place. Sometimes that place is a legitimate effort not to offend. But what I am talking about in the book is something different. It’s really about people who were very close to me who I saw all the time and who I very expressly talked about the transition with, and what my hopes were. It was the lack of generosity from people I never thought for a moment wouldn’t be generous, actually being cruel. I use the weight comparison in the book because that is a really tricky one. I don’t like or dislike people because of their weight. And if I am not super close to someone or don’t see them often and suddenly they look very thin (in our thin obsessed culture) I am hesitant to comment because I don’t want that person to think their size matters to me. I also don’t know if they have lost weight because they are ill or depressed or happy and healthy. That said, if I am close to someone and I know they are making a concerted effort to make changes in their life and they talk to me about it a lot and they start to feel good about their efforts, then I want to be supportive and say supportive things. Also, if someone goes through a very recognizable weight change, not twenty pounds, but as I say in the book — from 400 to 160 pounds — I am not being honest if I don’t notice and I know that person has changed their life with intention (unless they are sick) and I will want to find a way to talk about that with them, be supportive, and affirm their transformation knowing how badly they wanted it. The easiest thing in the world to say to someone you know is working toward a physical change is to say “you look great!” “How do you feel?” This is an opening a trans person can walk into if they want to and one that at least for me, helped me to be seen in the midst of transitioning.

You point out how social constructs — Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti western pistols; Disney princess outfits — can seem to express essential aspects of the self.

I am saying in this part of the book that the “stereotypes” associated with femininity and masculinity are undoubtedly social constructs and in many cases not very healthy ones. And these social constructs tap into something inside a body from a very young age. Some bodies walk right into the stereotypes and the clothing and the activities more closely tied to their gender with ease, some straddle these spaces and we have a culture a bit more flexible that way, though I am stunned by how many women in my classes tell me the ways they are badgered by their parents to look “more like a woman.” To my point: the binary is in full force and rebellion to these women looks like wearing oversized sweaters or no makeup. And so for bodies like mine that looked at boys from my very earliest memories and saw myself in their toys, their clothes, their sports (I was the first girl to play little league on a boys’ team in Elkhart, Indiana and I didn’t think of myself as a girl), their haircuts — where does this kind of knowing come from? How, for some of us, do we know what our reflection looks like at such a very young age, like three or four? I don’t know the answer but I know the feeling of the knowing.

You take readers through episodes of elemental distress. Did much of the narrative develop in its telling?

I share some very personal things in the book, some painful memories and I do it because, in the world I inhabit, I see similar kinds of distress everywhere and then I go to read an essay or a memoir and I sense the hiding we are all trying to do, that we believe if people know the worst about us then we are “canceled” as they say now. I think we are in a culture where a lot of people are trying to “perform goodness.” I am not talking about the crazy protests to PC culture raised by the tyrannical right, but for those of us who believe that living in a democracy means taking on some kind of responsibility for our neighbor: we still fall into this idea that our good intentions absolve us from the racism and sexism and xenophobia baked into our bodies. We walk around trying to say all the right things and I think these efforts are important, but they also allow these fundamental parts of ourselves — parts that we don’t like, that make us feel terrible — to remain intact, not talked about. I share these things not to be confessional and, as you notice, it’s not about being particularly graphic, but really my effort is to say, “hey, we’re all a mess. I’m a mess.” I think acknowledging that is okay and in fact, if we can learn how to be messy with each other, our sense of connection to others may well be enhanced.

What do you have hope will change on the far side of Covid-19, round one?

I don’t know for sure what to hope for. I guess the biggest thing I hope for is that good triumphs over evil. That the likes of Trump, Kushner, Miller, McConnell and Barr are tried for their crimes against humanity. I hope the next time an Anita Hill or Christine Blasey Ford testifies to sexual assault and harassment that they are believed. I hope that a Black man can walk down the street and eat a bag of skittles and not be gunned down. I hope for universal healthcare and recognition that our most essential workers are seen in the fullness of what they bring to our economy as cashiers and bus drivers and scientists and artists and nurses and EMTs and caretakers and dog walkers — that our humanity is seen not through a false progress narrative tied to capitalism but to each person’s essential right to a livable life.

Where would you recommend visitors to Princeton to make sure to go, when travel resumes?

I had to leave Princeton so quickly because of the pandemic that the only evidence I have that I ever lived there is a baseball cap I purchased my first week on campus that says Princeton across the top. I wear it proudly.