Arts & Entertainment, Last Word

Becoming Your True Self

By Miriam R. Kramer

This month I decided to navel-gaze with the characters in three non-fiction books about therapy patients: Group, by Christie Tate, Good Morning, Monster, by Catherine Gildiner, and Pageboy, by Elliot Page. Filled with patients, psychologists, psychiatrists, and more-or-less triumphant journeys towards wellness, the books all completely absorbed me on multiple levels. I looked at the human condition from different angles and through other eyes with these authors.

Christie Tate was ranked at the top of her law class, a twenty-something with a severe eating disorder who thought constantly about suicide and was unable to be close to anyone, let alone find a husband and have children. When she saw an eccentric therapist, he urged her to join one of his therapy groups where she would have to bare her soul and tell all her secrets. It frightened her to a point of paralysis. When she finally joined and was urged to talk about her secretive restrictive food habits and sexual experiences, she had an exceedingly difficult time adjusting.

Gradually, though, her turn towards vulnerability, however forced, started giving her a foundation and roots in the community. She had a long, hard journey giving up some of her neuroses and isolation to gain better self-esteem and boundaries, but she finally found a better place. Over years in the group and another that pushed her further, she found the self-esteem to look for better work, also chancing attachments to lovers and boyfriends only to be heartbroken multiple times. Yet the groups were there to save her, along with her law school friends. Years later, with the help of her groups and therapist, she finally found out who she was and what she wanted, she received the love she was looking for.

Tate’s messy, funny book shows a radical psychological approach, but her therapist gave her tools and people to create a community and a life for herself. I was completely absorbed. If you like learning from people’s challenging histories, this book is for you.

Then I read Good Morning Monster, by Dr. Catherine Gildiner, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist. She wrote five stories of patients she saw over the history of her practice that she considered heroes not only for their incredible survival skills, but also for their willingness to stick with her through painful excavations into their pasts and presents over years. They, often unwillingly, gave her time and space to lead them carefully towards self-knowledge and a better, if not always ideal, future. Her admiration is evident throughout as she discusses their steps forward and back, her own mistakes along the way, and the dark humor she and her patients experienced. Victims of neglect, physical, sexual, verbal, and psychological abuse, her patients went through messy stages of growth that we absorb and admire. The title of the book is taken from the phrase her sociopathic mother would use to greet one of the five patients every morning.

One of the characters I found particularly interesting was an older Canadian Cree, an indigenous man who was taken from his parents as a little boy connected with nature in northern Manitoba and put in a state Catholic school to assimilate him, stamping out all that was part of his Native culture, making him stoic, quiet, and surrounded by a brick wall. In the process he suffered psychological and sexual abuse, along with the destruction of his identity. Dr. Gildiner realized that she would need to treat him in a more holistic way, asking colleagues for help and doing research to incorporate spiritual techniques connected better to nature and Native traditions along with her Western, Freud-founded, white-centered therapy. Eventually her attempt paid off when he began to find joy for the first time in years through reconnecting to his roots.

All of her stories are potent and sad, but reminiscent of Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning in that she believes that if her patients could find the why, they could find the how: the way to live meaningful lives. Many do.

Now I turn to the book I have been looking forward to reading since I heard of it. The former actor Ellen Page, now Elliot Page, has written a memoir about his life so far called Pageboy.

I have not met many people who have transitioned, but I am interested in knowing their different stories. After breaking through as an A-list actor in 2008, Ellen Page took the journey not only to declare herself a lesbian in 2014, but also then to become trans in 2020.

Elliot Page’s book about growing up in Nova Scotia and going on to Toronto, Hollywood and the world at large is an unusual, poetic collection of fragmentary observations, along with notes about his feelings from a very young age that he was a boy. His family tried to squelch his urges to wear boys’ clothes and play on a boys soccer team past the normal  sports age of separation between boys and girls. In the book’s construction, he flashes back between his experience in Hollywood as an adult and his less affluent childhood in Nova Scotia.

Elliot spent his childhood practicing a mixture of video games, sports, and imaginative private play, wearing hoodies and shorts while keeping his hair short. It was the time when he could exercise his prodigious imagination and escape his constant sense that he was intensely uncomfortable within his own skin.

Discovered young as an actor, Elliott was desperately unhappy as he grew into puberty. Hating the breasts that were growing in, the shift of his weight, and the long hair he was encouraged to have, he tried to keep his breasts strapped in, since looking at himself in the mirror was distressing, a complete disconnect from who he felt he was. He developed an eating disorder to try to keep his body lean as a boy and his breasts flat. Elliott was claustrophobic in women’s clothes on movie sets, feeling as if they were painted on his skin. He wanted to cut his hair short, wear flannels, hoodies, and baggy pants, and act upon his crushes on girls. At that point he only felt he was a lesbian, and stayed fully closeted because of his deep-seated sense of shame.

When he broke through to in Hollywood after being nominated for an Oscar for the celebrated film Juno, Elliot became even more miserable when studios sent him to hair and makeup to wear dresses and heels on publicity tours. Privately he suffered panic attacks and other extreme reactions. Ironically, although like any actor he played characters, he was caught in a Hollywood machine that constantly presented his so-called real self as a glamorous, polished, doll. There was no respite from his pressure.

Finally, after extensive therapy, he found the stress so great that he came out as a lesbian. While coming out of the closet relieved him somewhat, his sense of displacement, difficulty connecting during his love affairs with woman, and sense of emptiness remained. It had been hidden beneath the somewhat more societally acceptable concerns of homosexuality.

I asked myself during this book: What must it be like to look in the mirror and shudder because of bulimia or anorexia or a form of body dysmorphia where you cannot see yourself clearly? Elliot’s situation, however, has been a more grueling story. What would it mean to know inside that who you are, your true psychological gender, will never be recognized as long as your body stays the way it was when you were born, a body that does not match your natural sense of identity. What is like when your family does not validate you and your sense of self unconditionally? How would it feel to know that you cannot get out of situations where you are the subject of avid attention that offers you unwanted feedback on looks that you do not accept as belonging to the real you? That’s a mouthful, and it’s one that Elliot found impossible to choke down.

This book presents a thoughtful, sensitive individual who undertook a radical step: to pursue the route of become a trans man, removing his breasts and taking hormone therapy to become his true self. For anyone, that is an incredibly courageous action. For an actor whose profession consists of winning auditions in the spotlight with people judging him for his acceptability, it is a huge risk.

Luckily, his recent happiness seems to have softened the former trauma from when he felt trapped in his beautiful cage. I wish him well in his quest to soften those wounds, and forgive, or at least separate from, those relatives and friends who cannot accept him as he is.

I enjoyed his acting before, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it now. After the constant misery he has lived with despite great professional success, I hope he attains peace and happiness through the roles he wants to play and the friends and lovers he will meet now that he is comfortable in his own skin.

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