Chapter I: The Early Years
This is a true story. Not the Fargo kind.
A Quick, Gentle Introduction
I hate fucking introductions. I can never figure out how to introduce myself or my concepts to the world. I’m not a writer. I write but I’m not a writer. I don’t care about conventions and norms. I don’t care about critical acclaim. I don’t care about anything other than telling a story and telling it in the most interesting, entertaining ways possible. Actually, nothing bothers more than convention. Conventional is misleading. Take J.D. “Fuckhead” Vance, for example: he used his dry ass writing to pretend to be an impartial observer of Appalachian problems and become the new gospel to liberals in the city. And it fucking worked. Fantastic.
I don’t want to be your gospel. I want to hold a mirror up to everyone I can and say “this is how you really look.” It’s not just the people in Appalachia who need it. It’s everyone. Everyone needs it. I don’t care who you are, where in life you are, what you came from, where you live, there are some things you need to fucking hear. I’m tired of this bullshit people do where they pretend they and they alone are the innocent ones. I got news for you, you’re not innocent. I am not innocent. There is no such thing as innocence.
I’ve been all over this country and I have more stories than I can ever possibly hope to remember, but on the most memorable ones, I’m taking you with me. I want you to feel what I felt and see what I saw. I’ll assist you by writing as vividly and as personally as I possibly can. I’m not going to tell you how to think about any of the things you read and you might walk away from it with a completely different take than I did. That’s absolutely fine. The important part is that although these are my stories, this is my autobiography, this is about far more than just me.
If you need trigger warnings or content warnings, let’s just go with “all of them.”
The way I intend to tell my story is very stream of consciousness. At times, it’s going to go quickly. At times, it’s going to go a lot more slowly. It depends on the depth of the memories and how much there actually is to say about things. It’s going to be crude and it’s probably not going to use words in the best ways that they could be used. If you’re sensitive person, it will be offensive. I apologize in advance for any discomfort you may feel while reading certain things. I don’t mean to offend anyone but I need to tell my story as legitimately as possible, which means there are going to be thoughts from versions of me that aren’t as sterile in speech as today’s version of me. I hope you understand.
My hometown is a small coal mining town called Inez, Kentucky. I was born in 1990 and in that year the population of Inez was exploding, going from 510 people to a staggering 511 people. In contrast to the town motto, “Preserving the Past — Embracing the Future”, Inez didn’t ever seem very good at doing either. Aside from coal mining, the past was waved away as if it never happened. The only future was in business as usual. It’s the typical Appalachian coal town story. Corruption abounded. Poverty was at unthinkable levels. Nothing ever seemed to get better, it was either stagnant or getting worse.
I didn’t know that, though. I was four years old. Everything was fine for me. My dad worked in the coal mines, as his family had done for generations, my mom was an elementary school teacher, and I spent the days with my grandma. I didn’t know it at the time but everything was about to change irrevocably for my family, as things usually do in stories like this.
It was an average day at my grandma’s house when the phone rang. Grandma answered and I continued about my own business, happily playing with toy cars. Then I heard it.
That’s my dad’s name. Nobody ever called about my dad. My full attention was now on my grandma. She shook her head as she talked on the phone. It didn’t look or sound good. As the phone went back on the hook, my grandma turned to me. The look in her face is one I will never forget.
“Jeremy has been in an accident.”
It was like the world had gone out of focus. Nothing made sense. I was too young to process this information. I knew what an accident was. I knew that when somebody calls about an accident, it means bad things.
“My daddy’s dead.”
He had been in a near-fatal accident. Electrocution. He was never the same.
It was summer 1995, I was five years old and mere months from entering school. As everyone knew everyone in our town and there were no secrets, my parents had some information that they thought I needed to know before I went. I don’t understand exactly why but the time they picked to reveal this information was none other than our vacation to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
I was fascinated by the ocean, especially the ocean at night. I could look out into the darkness beyond our hotel room and see nothing, but the sounds reminded me that the ocean was still there, still doing what it does, loudly. The crashing of the waves against the sands of the shore — a sound I’ll never forget. I was looking out the window when they called me over.
The words are so inexact in my memory. They said they had something to tell me. It was my last real moment of innocence. The moment I woke up from childhood.
They carefully explained to me that my “sister”, Leslie, was actually my “real” mother. They also explained that they were still mom and dad and always would be. It felt awkward. I was silent. I noticed my dad looked pained.
“It’s okay, you’re still my dad.”
My parents had taken a great deal of effort to make sure I was excited about school. I would get to make friends, I would have fun every day, I would learn. It seemed like a great deal to me, all of those things were pretty chill. I was nervous about school but I was ready to leave the normal routine behind and do something new. I loved my grandma but she would still be there after school, right?
On the first day of school, my mom was my teacher. She had arranged that I be put in her class. It seemed like a good idea for some reason, I don’t even know. I assume she knew I was different and wanted to “protect” me.
The first day didn’t go exactly as planned. I was hyper. Very hyper. I hid under the desk and annoyed some of my classmates. There was a lot of energy in general and I felt out of control, unstoppable. I’m reminded of a comic called Hyperbole and a Half, in which the author finds a dinosaur costume and becomes a dinosaur. It’s comparable, except I lacked the dinosaur costume. Sadly.
The next day, I was transferred out of my mom’s class and put in her best friend’s classroom. My mom was under the impression that since I was her kid and the teacher was her best friend I would be treated properly. She was wrong. I had behavioral problems in need of treatment but Mrs. M treated me like a problem child, a child that just didn’t respect anyone or anything, especially authority. My mom would never forget that, either.
My dad had been kind of a star athlete in his high school years, they tell me he was one of the best around, if not the best, and he could have had an amazing career if he had played his cards right. Adopting me was seen as somewhat of a second chance for him, a way to live the kind of life he dreamed of but never actually managed. He was ready to teach me how to play basketball and make me into a star player like he was, one he could be proud of and cheer for in games!
Since I was five, however, he decided I should try bitty ball first. It’s like basketball except it’s with smaller kids and, at least in my case, tended to be non-competitive. There’s no running, there’s no dribbling, nothing like that. It’s a game designed for everyone to win, the kids stand in line and wait their turn to shoot. After you take a shot, you go to the back of the line and wait for your next turn.
It didn’t quite work like that for me.
I was anxious even one on one, so standing in front of a small crowd of adults and having a bunch of other kids around as I threw a ball was pretty much equivalent to what might be termed a fucking nightmare. Every time I made it to the front of the line, I hesitated and ended up throwing a lot lower than the other kids. I was panic-ridden. I couldn’t do it. I wanted to do it but it was way too overwhelming. I was far too anxious.
That day was my dad’s first major defeat. He had been idealistic about having a new child, as idealistic as my mom had been. He thought he could teach me how to play ball and I could be great at it like he was. He thought he could get me to enjoy the things he enjoyed. He believed that everything was all about nurturance. If you nurture a child to be the way you think they should be, that’s how they’ll be. He had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that no matter how he tried, I was different. I couldn’t be pushed into things and my interests were a lot different than his had been.
After that first game, he took me aside and asked if I wanted to continue. I hesitated and gave an unsure but affirmative answer. He could tell I didn’t mean it. My first bitty ball game was also my last.
One good thing I can say about my parents is that unlike a lot of fundamentalist Christian parents, they considered therapy and psychiatry valid tools. They weren’t profoundly smart people but they were at least smart enough to realize that Jesus probably couldn’t solve some problems. They found a compromise as such: they would take me to a place where I could get treated by Christian therapists and psychiatrists, who would attempt to approach these problems from a good, wholesome, Jesus-y point of view.
I was soon diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism.
The answers seemed simple enough to my parents, I could be medicated! It was the 1990s now, we had medication for everything! I was put on ritalin, adderall, and a plethora of other drugs by the end of the decade. Ritalin itself had the notable side effect of almost making me fucking die twice, so that didn’t go so well. The other drugs all seemed to work, they just came with their own sets of problems. The main medications used to treat ADHD made me feel like a zombie. They also made sleep absolutely fucking impossible on top of that, requiring I be put on sedatives.
I may have calmed down dramatically as a result of these medicines, but I fought them so damn hard. Many of my closest friends and classmates from the era have told me in recent years that they still dislike my parents for forcing those medicines on me. Apparently, I threw shitfits about them really often. I was bad, they’ll say, but not that bad.
Second Grade Hell
I was a kid with a lot of attitude. If I didn’t like you, if I didn’t want to listen to you, not even the medication could deal with that. My teachers were definitely right on my being an anti-authoritarian at least. I saw through the structures of power pretty easily, I knew that they didn’t really have that much power over me. There was nothing they could really do to me. I was always testing these boundaries, too.
In second grade, I had a teacher who was as ferocious as any human I’ve ever met. Her name was Mrs. R and she was such an intense person that I swear her classroom had a red tint. Mrs. R also seemed to absolutely despise me, before I even made it to her class. Once you have that problem child reputation, it fucking follows you. It follows you hard. The teachers are ready to blame you for anything and the students are ready to assist in delivering that blame.
As much as Mrs. R picked on me, the students were even worse. They could tell that I didn’t like her and that she didn’t like me, they always set up these little moments where they could blame something on me.
In truth, aside from being anti-authoritarian, I didn’t do much. I didn’t steal things, I didn’t break things, I didn’t hurt people, I didn’t really do much. I was a talker. My worst trait was probably not following orders, if somebody told me to do something I didn’t want to, I might do nothing, I might do the opposite thing. In one such example, I was a quirky weirdo that preferred to write standing up. Mrs. R told me to sit down. I did not. Conflict ensued.
At the time, we had a discipline system called card flipping. As you did bad things, your card got flipped. If your card made it to red, you were sent to the principal’s office. I made it to red a few times that year. I never went to the principal’s office, though. I loitered around the hallway and pretended to be waiting for my mom or something like that. Nobody ever caught on. The young anti-authoritarian was right: their power was fake and they didn’t know as much as they wanted us to think they did.
I would argue that my reputation early on was undeserved, but as my reputation for negativity grew, so did my impulse to follow it. I wasn’t a bad kid, I was a kid with problems that weren’t being properly addressed. I had no real support. They gave me pills and decided if I wasn’t good I was just an asshole. If you know anything about illnesses like ADHD and autism, you know that’s not how it works. These are things that take sustained intervention and I had none. It seemed like everybody gave up on me and decided I was bad, so I decided to be bad. It was pretty fucked up and pretty fucking sad.
I don’t want to blame anyone in specific for anything. I don’t hold anything against Mrs. R. She was doing her job and I know it’s a hard one. I didn’t make her job any easier at all. I don’t blame my parents for not getting better treatment, either. We were in the middle of nowhere, support was hard to find. It’s also not as if the government cared to fund programs for people like me in our area. We were ignored, as Appalachia has traditionally been.
I Have To Leave
My dad was a preacher, pastor, future televangelist, and a gospel singer. My mom followed right along with him on those things. We were a well-known church family, actually. Southern Baptists, in those days. Church happened every Sunday morning, every Wednesday night, every Easter, every Christmas, every New Year’s Eve, there was a lot of fucking church in my life. And I hated every minute of it. I remember vividly still how many sermons were about how bad America is getting with “the homosexuals.” You know, people like me. It was a lot more of a common subject than you would imagine.
I knew I was queer. I knew I was one of the people everyone hated and talked about in disgust. I knew. I was acutely aware of myself as far back as I can remember. I have very clear memories of my first crushes being on boys and knowing other people didn’t like that at all. I was also a crossdresser at a very young age, wanting to fit in with the girls. I never felt as if I should be around the boys. It’s not that I didn’t like them, they were fine, it was that I was being forced into a set of roles I absolutely did not want. It wasn’t me.
The sense of shame you get from growing up in an environment like that can’t be overstated. I knew I was the things everybody detested and wanted to see removed from the world. I didn’t understand why I was such an anathema to everyone around me. Why did my church hate me? Why did my peers? Why did the fucking government? It was shameful. I had to hide my crushes. I had to hide everything about me. I was six, seven, eight years old living a double life. I lived the life in my head and in private where I was super gay and I lived the life my parents and friends expected me to live, the one where I wasn’t. I was living fakeness day in and day out. I was an actor and the role was my own life.
I didn’t know that trans people existed. I didn’t know that there were people that felt the same as me. I knew from the movies that there were places where you could be anyone you wanted, though. I knew about places like New York City and Los Angeles. Big cities where you could blend in and be anyone and nobody cared. I couldn’t have been older than eight years old when I was hit with the awareness that I was going to have to move away.
I had a very in-depth fantasy in which I left Kentucky and moved to New York City to become the person I needed to be. I had a fantasy in my head that after everything was said and done, I would come back as someone new, someone that nobody knew, and seem to be normal like everyone else. Nobody would know who I used to be. Nobody would have any awareness of my old life. I could never know my family or old friends again, but I could live in the same communities as them and do the same things they do. It was unbearably sad to think about, but I knew I wasn’t going to be allowed to be me while living there.
Outside of fantasy, a set of great fears were pervasive in my mind. I was an anxious kid and I like to think I had good reason to be. One of my fears was that people could see what I was thinking about through my eyes. It wasn’t a small fear, either, it was a deep fear. I never looked people in the eyes. I felt like they could see my thoughts. I felt like if they looked me in the eyes they would know about the crossdressing, the crushes, the shame. I wasn’t even safe inside my own head. There was no safety.
I was called an abomination.
The Sadist Awakens
I had been sick for about a week with what I suspect was a cold, I was getting over but still had a cough, and my coughs always sounded much worse than they actually were. Sometimes it was enough to freak me out, even knowing I was going to be fine, as I was a very anxious child. Hypochondria was my norm.
One night my mom asked if I was feeling better. I said I thought so, I happily made note that I felt a lot better anyway. She added that my cough was sounding pretty bad. I agreed but also told her it was getting better and didn’t sound as bad as it did a few days earlier. Suddenly it was as if a switch flipped inside of her. She became coldly serious.
“That’s a really bad cough, it could be tuberculosis.”
I asked what tuberculosis was and she described to me a horrifying illness no doubt created from several other illnesses she knew about. She said my lungs would get worse, fill up with fluid until I had to use a big machine called an iron lung. She said I would “probably” die if I had it.
I started crying and locked myself in the bathroom. Her response was to laugh. Not just a little bit, either. She laughed for probably the entire hour I was locked in the bathroom. My dad was trying to reason with her the entire time but it took an hour to get through to her. The switch was instantaneous: she turned off her laughter and told me to stop crying with contempt, saying I was fine.
I did turn out to be fine, with the notable exception of being severely goddamned emotionally traumatized. So there’s that.
The yearly Christmas ritual was to ask for some GI Joes and some video games and enjoy the mediocrity for as long as possible afterward. One year, I wanted something a little bit different.
I didn’t particularly dislike the GI Joes. I’m a very middle of the road person as far as interests go. Young me enjoyed GI Joes quite a lot, actually, in part because I fucking love guns. AMERICA. Young me wanted more than just big muscular guys with firearms, though. Maybe a smaller guy lacking the firearms, one that comes with a pink car.
That’s the year I discovered Barbie’s partner, Ken, and decided that asking for a Ken doll might open some doors in my life. As far as I could tell, Ken wasn’t terribly different from the GI Joes my parents were fine with. Still a man, still does dudely stuff, a bit less gruff and a bit more shiny, but not that big of a difference in my eyes. He wasn’t what I really wanted but he was in close enough proximity that I felt like it was okay to ask.
So I did. I asked my dad if I could have one. As I remember, it was extremely awkward to ask. I beat around the bush a bit, as I always did on things of that type, and was met with a bit of laughter as he said no. Kind of humiliating. My cunning plan, ending in such a sad (and terribly anticlimactic) way. I thought I had it this time. Better luck next year, sigh.
Crime & Punishment
There were a series of smaller moments with my mom that made me dislike her more and more as time went on. Smaller moments that seemed a bit… disproportionate.
One time, my nephew and my nieces were in my room making a mess. I didn’t like messes but I let them do whatever because it was very rare that all of us were together. It was a bit after Christmas so many of the toys were pretty new and prone to creating all sorts of new injuries we had never gotten before! In one case, there was a small wrestling ring that my nephew had gotten for Christmas. I was playing around with the wrestling ring when suddenly the stretchy material used for the ropes snapped off and hit my nephew across the face, anybody around could have seen it was an accident. My mom apparently didn’t care. She ripped the remaining stretchy ropes off the ring and hit me in the face with them. Brilliant.
Another time, it was a warm summer day, one of the bluest skies I’ve ever seen. I was outside running around, as kids do, when I saw a dog walking up the driveway in my direction. At the time, I loved dogs. I started walking towards the dog but before I managed to get within a good five feet or so, the dog began yelping loudly, as if it had been attacked. My mom heard this and yelled out my name angrily, asking what I did. I tried to tell her I didn’t do anything, that it wouldn’t even let me get close, but she had a narrative of events in her head and that’s all that mattered. Consequently, she grabbed a branch from a tree and hit me with it repeatedly. Then, even though it was the middle of the day, I had to go inside and take a bath. My day ended early.
One of the enjoyable things about living between mountains and having a parent that is absolutely scared to death of nature is that eventually I figured out when she started yelling or making a scene, I could just run up in the hills! Fifty feet up and I was safe. Sometimes I would go all out if she were particularly mad, and be looking down on her from a couple hundred feet up. It was beautiful, those distant echoes of her nightmare screams!
I still remember very clearly one occasion where she was yelling my name and I didn’t even know what I was being accused of. I had been in the hills all day and she was very clearly using the “you just did something I don’t like!” voice. I looked through a clearing in the trees, she looked like an ant, barely visible. I don’t know why that scene sticks with me so prominently, but it’s one of the few times in my childhood I felt genuinely safe from her wrath.
There was always hell to pay after I left the scene of the crime for the safety of my hills, but you know what? Totally fucking worth it. No regrets.
Biscuits & Gravy
Southern food is pretty interesting in the many ways it can be so profoundly uninteresting, and my favorite among these is known as biscuits and gravy. If you hadn’t guessed, it’s biscuits… with gravy. Other common items included scrambled eggs, fried eggs, mashed potatoes, fried chicken, and our favorite, salt. Lots of salt. If you didn’t use half a container (of literally any size) during the course of a meal, you were doing it wrong.
The dining options outside of the home were very limited, you could say. If you went down the street half a mile, you’d find a Dairy Queen and nothing else. Another mile or two down the road, and you could come across another couple of restaurants.
When McDonalds came to town, it was a moment of almost religious fervor. The people of my hometown responded to McDonalds much the same way a fan of seafood might respond to a top notch sushi place moving in next door, it was a big moment for us. We were finally a big city!
Around the time McDonalds arrived, so did a number of other fast food places: Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, and Papa John’s. These were all a little bit further away, a few miles, so they were saved for special occasions. It’s kind of a weird memory that when I wanted Taco Bell I felt really bad about sending my dad a few miles down the road to get it because that was such a long distance! In retrospect, that’s pretty silly. I guess now I’m used to bigger cities where it takes five times as long to get half as far.
Special occasions, too, were more common than the phrase would imply. When you think of a special occasion, you might think of something that happens a few times a year, maybe a birthday, a holiday. When I think of special occasions, I think of going to KFC every Sunday after church. It was just irregular enough to be special for us, between our bland diet of biscuits and gravy and the increasingly stale McDonalds. Popcorn chicken was practically my first addiction, actually.
These things might seem kind of banal or even silly to people who haven’t lived in rural areas where the most interesting thing that ever happens is a McDonalds coming to town, but that’s kind of the point. That’s the world we lived in, the one where a McDonalds moving in meant that our little town’s stature was growing. It seems a bit dramatic, and it definitely is, but that’s the world we lived in. That’s the world millions of Americans live in right now, at this very minute. It’s boring, it’s silly, it’s dramatic, and everything seems so much bigger when you step outside of it.
While we’re on the subject…
There’s a certain innocence to the attitudes we all had in those days that it can be easy to miss. There were a lot of things brewing under the surface both in our lives and in the lives of everyone around us, but the world felt like a much smaller place. Globalization had yet to take off in full force, the internet was still a niche product, we were a decade out from social media, and the smallest motions in our tiny town filled us with excitement.
One part of it all was simply being a kid and experiencing the excitement that kids do at new things. The other major part of it has some context that is missing from my own side of things, that being the world that our families grew up in, the one that was pretty different than the one we were growing up in.
My parents, adoptive and biological, speak of a different world from the one that I saw. It was a much more active world, one where a lot of things were going on, one that my dad insists was destroyed by drugs and alcohol. Most of their lives, they had seen a previously active eastern Kentucky and southwestern West Virginia in a slow decline. At some point, probably in the 1980s, that decline accelerated and everything was wiped out. Everything died down. It seemed our little towns were doomed to die slow deaths, people fleeing the scene as fast as they could. It was just how things were supposed to be.
Looking at these motions from adults who had seen maybe 30–40 years of perpetual decline, you start to understand why they may have been looking at everything with the same excitement that a child might have. There’s this narrative that towns like yours have been doomed for a long time and suddenly there are signs of life!
I can’t blame them for their excitement. They thought they were proving the common wisdom wrong, they believed with all their hearts that the future included their towns.
I wish I could deliver news of a happy ending, news that these small things did add up into big things, I wish I could tell stories of rejuvenation, I wish I could fill multiple chapters with the triumphant tale of how my hometown was brought back to life by its citizens, the hard working Kentuckians who never gave up!