feature art: Autostraddle // photo: Cristian Bortes / EyeEm via Getty Images
“The problem is, how do you have some kind of emotional catharsis when you know you’re too old for it?” – Nevada, Imogen Binnie
The Perks of Being a Wallflower was first published in 1999. I was five years old. At least one copy likely sat on a shelf at my local Barnes & Noble throughout my childhood and adolescence. The book is targeted at teens, so I could have picked it up at any point once my age entered double digits, which was when I began reading books targeted at teens and adults.
But I didn’t.
I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower during my last semester of high school. A new friend who had gone to the same school as me for twelve years and had loved this book for many of them gave me her copy.
By the time I read Stephen Chbosky’s coming-of-age tale, I was old enough to be dismissive. I hadn’t read anything considered YA in years, and I looked down upon a book I could finish in the time I’d take with a more pretentious short story. And yet, despite my hesitance to give this book praise, it overwhelmed me with recognition. I knew that if I’d read it four years earlier, my entire life would be different.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is about Charlie, a 15-year-old who has spent the last year in a mental hospital dealing with clinical depression, the suicide of his best friend, and the death of his aunt. He’s starting high school a year late and is anxious about fitting in until he meets two seniors, the beautiful and troubled Sam, and her step brother, the gay and fabulous Patrick. Charlie falls madly in love with Sam and enters their world of drugs and drama and cool music like The Smiths.
I felt like Charlie’s story was my story. I was sensitive. I had clinical depression. I only had older friends. I had a sister who had bad experiences with boys. I felt drawn to gay people and community without being gay myself. I had a close relationship with one of my teachers. And I spent many nights in my feelings listening to The Smiths. The voice in my head that had prevented me from aligning too much with Holden Caulfield was silenced by the reveal that Charlie and I even had the same birthday — Christmas Eve.
Three days before Charlie turns 16, he has the same first kiss I had at that age. Even more than our shared birthday, this was what unsettled me. After exchanging intimate holiday gifts, Sam kisses Charlie. She tells him she wants his first kiss to be with someone who loves him. “It was the kind of kiss that I could never tell my friends about out loud,” Charlie writes. “It was the kind of kiss that made me know that I was never so happy in my whole life.”
The specifics were different, but as I read this moment, I realized my close friend and older crush had done the same thing as Sam. They loved me for how I saw them, they loved me for my innocence, they loved me for who they thought I could someday be, but they couldn’t love me how I wanted. Like Sam, they told me that. Like Sam, they warned me not to get too close. And like Sam, they still kissed me so my first could have the joy so few firsts are granted. Or at least that was my interpretation as I read about Charlie and Sam less than two years after I was given my own moment of tender evanescence.
When I finished the book, I wondered what choices I would have made had I read it earlier. I was certain I wouldn’t have followed the book so closely had I known. Maybe I would’ve made different decisions about my friends or my teachers or my music taste or how I acted with my first love. As a desperate-to-be-cool 18-year-old, I imagined I wouldn’t have let my life be modeled after a popular piece of young adult lit.
Now I see the fault in that analysis. My life would have been different had I read the book at 14, but only because I would’ve modeled my life after it more. I didn’t drink or do drugs in high school. I think I might have. I took two years to make a move with my crush. I would’ve done it sooner. And, most importantly, I would have watched Rocky Horror Picture Show.
At 18, I didn’t know about my biggest adolescent regret, but I know it now. Had I followed this book more closely, I might’ve gone to a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening, I might’ve been immersed in a more public queerness, I might’ve realized what I was trying so hard to hide from everyone and myself.
Or maybe it would have done nothing. Who knows.
Of course, if you’re a fan of sci-fi or comics or physics, multiverses have been in for some time. But now they’ve entered the mainstream. Whether you’re going to the latest Marvel movie, the pop-arthouse title of the year, or catching up on the new season of Russian Doll, it feels like everyone is imagining alternate timelines as we grapple with our untenable reality.
But before Dr. Strange, there was Gwyneth Paltrow. Before multiverses entered the zeitgeist, we had sliding doors. I’ve never actually seen the movie that gave us that phrase, but I have seen Krzysztof Kieślowski’s original Blind Chance and Run Lola Run, another 1998 film inspired by the premise. For many years, I thought about the concept of sliding doors on a near-constant loop.
I didn’t know I was trans until my early 20s. I also didn’t know I had OCD. One of the ways my OCD manifested was in thought patterns around innocuous choices. Maybe inspired by Blind Chance and the cultural presence of Sliding Doors, this was especially acute with the subway. Every time I rode the train — several times a day — I felt consumed with what line I took and which car I entered. Sometimes the thoughts were concerned with my timeliness, but since I often left plenty of padding for my anxieties, they moved on to more unlikely outcomes.
I’d stand in front of the train cars, convinced that the one to my right held my soulmate and the one to my left held my murderer. Or the other way around. Or the way around. Or the other way around. Or the other way.
This didn’t prevent me from getting on the train — what good would that do since the next train would have the same dilemma and also what if I missed my soulmate — but I would spend the subway ride looking around at people awaiting my outcome. These impulses weren’t helped when my anxieties found validation. I never met my soulmate (I don’t believe in them) and I was never murdered (I’m writing this essay), but I did have less dramatic encounters. How could I quiet my obsessive thoughts after ending up in the same train car as a classmate and striking up a flirtation? How could I quiet my obsessive thoughts after a man put his penis on my shoulder and pissed down my back as he laughed?
The problem with my thought patterns wasn’t their validity — it was their use. The reason we find multiverses and sliding doors so compelling is because every small decision we make does have the potential to alter the course of our lives. Every time we leave the house, we may encounter our soulmate or our murderer — or, more likely, someone we have mediocre sex with for a few months or a car that runs us over.
It’s why fate is such an attractive notion. If we miss out on our destiny with one small choice, another small choice will come around soon to fix it.
Choice itself becomes an illusion.
I tweeted this on March 11, 2020 at 9:04pm. I’d had my last electrolysis appointment and gone to the grocery store to buy three weeks’ worth of food. A brief quarantine was predicted and, since I worked from home, I figured I might as well start slowing the spread early. I couldn’t yet comprehend the next two years, but even three weeks at home felt daunting. So fuck it. I started Glee.
The pilot of Glee aired on May 19, 2009 toward the end of my freshman year of high school. I did not watch it. I loved musicals, but my reluctance to embrace anything feminine, gay, and mainstream prevented me from checking out a buzzy TV show on Fox about showchoir.
Since I was in theatre, I must’ve known people who were Glee fans — Gleeks, if you will — but I don’t remember much beyond a resurgence of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” I wouldn’t think about Glee again until I started writing for Autostraddle and all the queer TV nerds around me insisted I check out the first 2.5 seasons. One viral clip that revealed Jewish mommi icon Idina Menzel guest starred, and it got added to my ever-growing list of queer TV I’d missed while hiding in my translucent closet.
My plan was to watch Glee until quarantine ended. I assumed this would get me through the first season, maybe the first two. Of course, quarantine didn’t end, and I watched all six. It became the only thing I could get myself to do, a task both thoughtless and thoughtful as the world asked so much of us all.
I already said I loved musicals, and you know I am gay, but I can’t articulate how much I would’ve loved Glee if I watched it as it aired. I was too desperate to be cool to have turned into a full Gleek, but privately it would’ve consumed me.
Like most queer shows I’ve caught up on since coming out, Glee is full of contradictions. At its best, it’s a sharp musical about adolescent queerness and the suffocating culture of American suburbia. At its worst, it’s a white man rapping “Bust a Move” to his teenage students.
For better or worse, I wish I’d watched Glee while it aired. If Perks showed me elements of the life I did live, Glee showed me the life I didn’t. While I was having stolen kisses and confused angst, the Glee kids were having lady kisses and dramatic realizations. They went from bullied and closeted to a post-Prop 8 fantasy of liberal acceptance. They came out in song, declared their love in song, experienced heartbreak in song, got married in song. True to both its genres — teen soap and musical — everything that happened to the kids on Glee was as big as the feelings I stuffed deep inside.
I’m not sure what effect watching Glee in high school would’ve had, but I have to imagine watching a show this gay about characters on the exact same high school timeline as me would have done something. And while the trans representation was bad, it was at least better than any other trans representation I saw. It’s also yet another opportunity I might have had to become obsessed with Rocky Horror.
Watching the show as an adult, I felt affection for my queer self who attended suburban public school from 2009 to 2012. She experienced so much bullying and so much brainwashing. She fought so hard to escape and so hard to survive. I also felt affection for an alternate self who knew about that queerness. A version who could have experienced these fights with more clarity and a stronger sense of self.
Closeted me would’ve quietly loved Glee, but that girl? She would’ve been a Gleek.
By the time I moved to LA and stopped seeing her, I’d been practicing these new habits for over four years. My brain wasn’t perfect, but I felt like I’d achieved what I could with those tools. And so, when my new therapist suggested we try EMDR, I said yes.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a technique where you recreate the eye movements of REM sleep to retrain your mind and body’s relationship to trauma. The way an EMDR session worked for me is as follows: We’d start with the same painful memory, my eyes would follow my therapist’s finger back and forth as I thought of the memory, then I would say the new memory my brain jumped to, and so on and so on. It was a bit like writing a braided personal essay in real time — so, of course, I loved it.
For me, EMDR functioned as a sort of physical time travel. If the (misguided) goal of every time travel story is to change the past, this process allowed the internal change without all the external side effects. I couldn’t go back in time and stop the bullying I faced or grant myself an earlier self-awareness, but I could massage the pain of that timeline to change my future. It’s nostalgia as action.
This is how it feels to come to art too late. It’s no longer an experience of immediate connection, but one of processing, of rewriting. By imagining earlier exposure, we get to create that alternate timeline. We’re watching the show, reading the book, as our present self and our past self. We may only get one timeline in our universe — but it can feel like we’ve lived many lives. We experience these works of art as those different lives. We imagine the person we could’ve become. We imagine the people we can now someday be.
They become a part of us. Inside our singular body exists a multiverse of madness — and, within that madness, healing.
Okay, I had heard about Nevada. After all, I approached transitioning like a straight-A student with a self-made syllabus. Nevada was on the notes app list I brought to bookstores alongside Redefining Realness, Little Fish, and She’s Not There. But I’ve always preferred reading actual books, and I held off on the titles I could only find online. By the time I gave up and read PDFs of Stone Butch Blues and Torrey Peters’ novellas, I’d been to all those support groups, and I’d lost interest in Nevada.
The same impulse in me that didn’t want to watch Glee, didn’t want to read the book my peers worshiped. After all, I barely considered most of them peers. They were consumed by their oppression, while I thought we were luckier than most. They seemed to romanticize their chaos, while I yearned for calm. They found new ways to hurt themselves, while I felt like the world hurt us enough. This condescension was misplaced — while I wouldn’t quite copy the aesthetic or swagger, I was just one breakup away from the chaos and self-destruction. And, of course, had I read Nevada, I would’ve known that feeling superior to other trans girls is the biggest cliché of them all.
I finally read the book last year and, while I found echoes of that post-breakup self, what I really observed were those other girls I met early in transition. Oh this is why they acted that way. Oh this is why they said those things. I suddenly felt affection toward the qualities that annoyed and alienated me years ago. We were all just looking for reference points as we did this thing we had no idea how to do. This is what they found.
But that’s not to say Nevada is wholly removed from my own early transition experience. After all, the book itself is concerned with the very things I’ve been writing about.
Maria feels like she transitioned too late to be anything but fucked-up. She struggles with expressing emotion, fakes her way through sex, and can’t even remember to take the hormone shot a past version of her coveted. She talks a lot about self-improvement, but her clearest actions are on behalf of others. While she often treats the people in her life with selfish cruelty, she’s generous online with her blog. She writes about transness so others can connect with her experiences and find answers — even though she has no answers for herself.
Part two of Nevada, shifts the third person limited omniscient narrator to another lost trans girl with many of the same issues as Maria. Except James is about ten years younger and about that much further behind in his transness. When Maria meets him at the small town Walmart where he works, she decides he is the reason for her reckless cross-country excursion. If she’s too late to heal, maybe she can at least save another trans girl from the same fate.
Except, of course, she’s not too late. Nor is she equipped to help this other person before he is ready to receive it. Maria loves to monologue with an air of self-awareness but as revealed when the novel slips into James’ perspective or briefly into Maria’s girlfriend’s perspective, Maria’s knowledge of herself and her defense mechanisms is limited.
Despite its reputation, Nevada is an accomplished work of fiction, not a wayward guide for lost trans girls. Maria is not a role model. And not even in the way Maria would tell you she’s not a role model. There’s a reason the dedication says this is a sad book. The misery of Maria and James is understandable, but it is not inevitable. The versions of them we meet are not the only versions that can exist — and hopefully are not the only versions that will exist.
When I think about the times I might’ve read Nevada, I feel conflicted. If I’d read it when it first came out, I might have come out, too. I think back to who I was my sophomore year of college and the impact it would have had on that confused girl. I like this narrative, because it gives me a few extra years.
But far more likely, I would’ve read it upon first coming out. I would have related to Maria’s dissociation, her feelings of being trapped in her theoretically good relationship, the ability to express emotions in writing she can never express in life. I would’ve embraced her draw toward chaos and understood the fact that “coming out as trans was the first change she ever actually made to her own life that felt like it was leaving the map that was laid out for her at birth.”
I would’ve related to these things, and I would’ve felt repulsed by other things. And maybe it would have caused me to lean into my chaos, and maybe it would’ve scared me away. But, ultimately, I don’t think it would’ve changed much at all, because while I didn’t read Nevada, two other people did.
Casey Plett’s Little Fish and Torrey Peters’ Glamour Boutique were my Nevada. They were the portrayals of realistic, self-destructive trans women I latched onto with relief and pain. Both authors have mentioned Nevada as a pivotal moment in their own artistic development.
The only reason reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower in middle school would’ve changed my life is because nothing else I was reading presented alternate views of masculinity. The only reason watching Glee in high school would’ve changed my life is because nothing else I was watching showed contemporary adolescent queerness. The only reason reading Nevada in 2013 would’ve changed my life is because nothing else I was reading acknowledged trans people exist.
Art is meant to connect with us on levels far more complex than introductions to basic aspects of our identity. It’s special when something is able to have that impact, but it’s more indicative of a failed society than successful art. In fact, it’s an unfair burden placed on artists who have loftier goals than representation.
In a world where every train car has your soulmate, it doesn’t matter which one you choose. In a world where trans people are safe to live openly and trans literature is allowed to thrive, it doesn’t matter when you pick a single book off a shelf. The best way to ensure that representation doesn’t matter is to have a lot of representation.
Later, Maria’s friend echoes a similar sentiment: “Hey stupid, did you ever stop to think that that pattern, that coping mechanism, was actually a brilliant strategy to keep yourself alive?”
The first time I visited my family after coming out to myself, I stayed in the closet. I took off my nail polish, put my boy clothes back on, and let my mom make comments about how I needed a haircut. A week in my hometown reminded me of the suffocating suburban culture, and I returned to my girlfriend in New York with a revelation. If I had transitioned as a teenager, in my hometown, with my family, I wouldn’t have survived.
It was a nice thought. I’d spent months getting angrier at myself with every gender epiphany. How could it take me so long to figure out? Why didn’t I realize sooner? Why didn’t I start transitioning sooner? But now there was a new narrative. I almost didn’t survive high school in the closet — I certainly wouldn’t have outside of it.
I wrapped myself in the warmth of this narrative for years. I took comfort in this morbid thought as I started hormones at 23, as I paid money I didn’t have to remove a beard that shouldn’t have grown, as I embraced my own delayed adolescent chaos. I believed it until the pandemic slowed me down. I believed it until I was once again visiting my parents, once again in that same suffocating suburb.
That first trip home, I had all the serious talks with my parents I’d never had the courage to broach. Maybe it was because the pandemic had reminded me of our mortality. Or maybe it was just because I hadn’t seen them in so long. Either way, there was no small talk that week.
One night while walking their dogs, I stated my oft-repeated narrative to my dad. I told him that if I’d come out in high school, I don’t think I would’ve made it. “Really?” he replied. That’s all it took.
No, not really. I was depressed in high school, but so much of that depression was due to my inner confusion. I was a feisty and political kid, and if I’d had language to describe myself, I would’ve done so with fury. I fought so hard for gay acceptance at my school without even knowing where I fit into that. If I had known, not only would I have been happier, but I would’ve had a clearer sense of purpose. I see videos of kids giving eloquent speeches to their state legislatures and I think, “That would’ve been me.”
Maybe Maria did have to stay in the closet. Maybe, for her, that defense mechanism really was necessary. But it’s just as likely it had more to do with the misinformation she believed than her ability to withstand being an out trans teen. I know that’s the truth for me.
What can we do with that knowledge? What can we do with the fact that we got on the wrong train car? Or, more accurately, that the right train car never arrived at our station?
I can’t believe in fate. I can’t believe I was meant to have those years taken from me. Instead, I can fight for a world where other people have it better. Maria’s impulse to help James wasn’t wrong. She just needs to help herself first. Maria is not too late to live the life she deserves. I wasn’t too late to live the life I deserve. There’s no such thing as too late. There’s just later than what should’ve occurred.
Each one of us has an infinite number of versions we could’ve been. We can long for those other versions, we can hope the lives of others have more ease, but we have to accept the version that exists. Do whatever it takes. Read the books you should’ve read earlier, watch the shows you should’ve watched earlier, find a therapist who does EMDR, or just get out of your own head for five fucking seconds so you can take your estrogen shot and tell the people you love how you’re feeling.
If every choice we make determines who we’ll be in the future, we owe that acceptance to our future selves. We can’t change the choices we made, we can’t change the choices we were offered, but we can make new choices today.
Our future self is almost here. Go ahead. Pick a timeline. Who do you want them to be?