Part I: Collaboration
It’s a particular sensation when a six-foot-five man stands over you — screaming — while he jabs his finger in your face. It’s even more particular when two years later he informs you this instance was “not that big of a deal.”
How gendered is letting someone or something go?
One of my best and worst qualities is that I hold the hell on. When I choose to love someone or something, that love runs deep. However, this trait — compounded with the Catholic guilt that courses through my veins — is not always the healthiest combination.
Technically speaking I am a cis-gendered woman, though I live in the neighborhood of genderqueer as a masculine-presenting/androgynous sort who loves nothing better than donning a sharp tie. This being said, I’m 5'4" on a good day. I’m small, and while I like to think of myself as a brick house, I’m a thin-framed “faggy butch” to use the terminology of a tipsy date of mine years ago.
- I once watched a football player-sized man scoop my actress friend up in his arms. Such a delightful display of affection. I instantly thought, damn, I wish I could do that.
- In the first grade, Ms. Tomlinson gifted us nametags on our lockers. I decided to go by “Chris.” When my mother found out, she contacted the teacher and the nameplate on my locker quickly transformed into “Christina.”
- I was the only girl invited to my friend Nick’s birthday party in the second grade. When we finished splashing around the Olympic-sized pool, I followed Nick’s grandmother into the women’s locker room while I watched the boys all march together into the men’s.
- At age ten, my parents enrolled me in an all-girls Catholic school. This changed everything. Suddenly, girls were everywhere. I couldn’t be one of the boys anymore — because there weren’t any.
My relationship with gender is complicated.
My Cuban-born father passed away in early 2017. My mother, a “good Cuban woman,” devoted herself to him for over forty years. She moved where his work took him, she washed his clothes, made his meals, became his receptionist when he opened his private practice. Oftentimes, as a budding queer feminist, I raged at her: “You do everything for him! He can barely wipe his own ass!”
The truth is, I don’t think my mother has a single ounce of regret for devoting her life to my father, and I, undoubtedly, benefited from this choice in many ways. Even still, his absence has sharply highlighted gender in her life — and my own.
Who do we listen to? Who walks you down the aisle? Who gets the final say? Who sits at the head of the table? Who gets to cause a stir, and gets away with it?
When I came out, the first two things my father said to me were: “What did I do wrong?” and “Do you hate men?” Of course, these are not uncommon sentiments among parents, particularly those of different gender, but these suggestions tore me up regardless. As a sophomore in college, my best friends were a band of loveable straight guys. I had no desire to be a “man-hating lesbian,” I wasn’t a man-hating lesbian. Loving women doesn’t mean disliking men, at least not in my book — now or ever. (In fact, according to many people in my life who date or are partnered with men, I probably have less reason to dislike them than they do!)
My therapist and I have had about a thousand conversations about why I feel like my best self when I sport masculine dress. Truthfully, it’s nothing so much more complicated than the fact that dressing this way makes me feel comfortable, it makes me feel more me.
I am not trying to be a man, and I am most comfortable being labeled, identified as, and relating to other people as a woman. Ultimately my dialogue with my therapist always comes down to the fact that we know it’s important, even if we — that is, psychologists, psychiatrists, the genderqueer, the world — don’t know why.
Is there safety in masculinity?
Two years ago, the same year my father passed away, a miserable situation emerged involving the dissolution of a creative partnership — with an aforementioned six-foot-five man — after nearly six intense years working on a project I never thought I could let go. The process has been difficult and unfortunate and I wish these troubling circumstances on no one. What’s equal parts fascinating and harrowing is how many aspects of the crumbling partnership mirrored traits of emotionally abusive romantic relationships. This realization blew my mind and particularly shook me in terms of the way that I present in the world.
At 24 years old I entered the collaboration in a flurry of possibility — a naïve grad school baby ready to rocket toward new lands. My former collaborator and I were assigned as partners in the first round of songwriting for an elective “Lyric Writing” course. I pursued the collaboration because I admired his persistence—the scope and depth of his music. I presented him with pages I wrote from a dream, we discussed a musical, and we were off.
So much of the rest seems hazy. When I spoke to a friend, she recalled my troubles with the partnership less than a year into the collaboration. I drugged myself on the lie of “passable” for years — many commenting that they had “no idea it was so bad.” Because that’s what I had to tell myself; that’s what I told the world. The male hero doesn’t quit — and neither would I.
It’s well known that Rodgers and Hammerstein had an incredibly dysfunctional partnership, yet they still managed to produce some beautiful work! Would giving up be my equivalent to throwing like a girl — not measuring up to what I set out to accomplish?
Once, after a weeklong rehearsal process, I heard myself say, with a bright smile: “He only screamed at me twice so far!” What a grand accomplishment, my perseverance some sick reward. I, too, was complicit — mostly for drowning out my instincts.
EMOTIONAL ABUSE CHECKLIST
- Does your partner become angry or upset, dampening your enthusiasm, just before, or during a social event you’ve looked forward to?
- Do you feel overpowered by your partner’s presence whether or not he or she is with you?
- Do you speak carefully, or avoid speaking, so you won’t risk upsetting your partner?
- Do you often feel like you are walking on eggshells?
- Do you often have feelings of dread?
- Does your partner claim to know the right way to do things and that you don’t know what is right?
- After your partner has put you down, are you then indulged with affection or special care?
- Does your partner contradict the positive things others say about you?
- Do you distrust your feelings about yourself, your partner, or others?
- Do you feel ashamed of past deeds that you were once proud of?
- Does your partner make light of your triumphs, discourage your plans, disparage your success?
- Have you stopped asking for empathy or emotional support?
I never want to be seen as weak (who does?), I never want to be seen as a victim, and these should not be seen as feminine qualities, yet for some reason they still are.
My ex-collaborator and I were selected to take part in a development program involving a staged reading of an excerpt from our musical-in-progress. Communication between the two of us had become impossible (see above checklist). Everything I said or did deemed wrong or insensitive, his short fuse reduced me to a level of PTSD that made me more uncomfortable than I’d ever like to admit.
Throughout the week I mostly hid away in my hotel room (overcoming a cold served as a terrific excuse) or distracted myself with my own personal tour of the University’s small, but lovely Midwestern town — a visit to the state capitol, a haircut at a neighborhood barbershop, a long perusal of the campus art museum and nearby galleries, an exploration of the local bookstores and thrift shops…
At the program’s closing reception, festive streamers decorated the hall and a giant rectangular cake sat on a table near the back of the room. I befriended a sweet, older couple of longtime donors sporting round glasses, hearing aids, and bright program t-shirts.
I felt like half of myself after five days of maintaining professional smiles and nods amidst the shit-storm, but put on my best face for the evening’s celebration.
As I finished a conversation with the lovely donor couple, the two women who ran the program took seats beside me, leaned in, and spoke in calm, direct voices: “We want you to know that we see what’s happening here. We’re sorry we didn’t recognize it sooner. We see you and we support you.” The room turned hollow. Suddenly I understood that my mask wasn’t working. Here I was: exposed. The subject of a thousand damaging behaviors I minimized for years; my supposed thick skin raw beneath the fluorescent lights.
The experience had an eerie duality: being seen by these women proved a great comfort and relief, yet also deeply embarrassing. How had I let the situation get this far? How had I convinced myself that everything was fine?
During another intensive developmental process the summer before, when our assistant director and several cast members became rattled by my collaborator’s aggressive clapping and stomping rhythm in their personal space during the last-minute rehearsal, our female director took my then-collaborator aside and placated him by saying the situation had been blown out of proportion and his actions were, “just passion.”
I understood why she told him this — it was a relatively simple way to calm him down, and yet how dangerous. Thanks to that director’s words, he wielded that word like a sword for the next year. Yes, he’d decided, he was simply passionate, i.e. perhaps the greatest euphemism for problematic in the American canon. Frankly, I don’t believe any trans* or woman-identified artist I know could get away with that “passion.”
The Dalai Lama once argued that women have more biological potential for compassion than men. Of course, this is a blanket statement, and though widely considered accurate, scientific evidence tends to waver. Whenever anyone makes generalizations about gender, it drives me crazy. My brother-in-law is a stocky petroleum engineer with a Texan lilt whose favorite phrase is: “men are assholes.” I can’t even count the number of times we’ve argued over this. Most of my favorite people don’t easily fit within the labels of masculine or feminine, or man or woman. My partner and I often joke that I come from a long line of Latin deep feelers — particularly the men.
I will say that it was women who first acknowledged my struggle. It was a woman who first advised me — two years prior — to walk away from the collaboration. It was a woman — my mother — who urged me, following these experiences, to do the same. However, countless others affirmed this necessary step forward. There were men among these voices, of course, but I wonder if the masculine tendency is to tough it out, to stay strong, to deal. While it’s not something to be proud of, maybe it’s this steely determination to hold on that I prided myself in behind my collared shirt. And what about “standing by your man”? What about all the women who have hung around generations of men and made allowances or enabled their abusive tendencies for the sake of children or love or fear?
I should probably mention that I loved this play. I believed it was the most important thing I would ever write, a story about the resilience of my hometown, the show that high school theatre kids would blast from car stereos, the piece that would change my career, the lush Broadway musical in my canon of work. And so, I told myself that it would all be worth it. I could hold on. I could stick it out. Just a couple more years…
That’s what I thought until I couldn’t think it anymore. When I sat alone in my hotel room and hot, persistent tears rushed in jagged lines from my eyes. I hated them. I hated them because they marked me as a woman. They were proof that I was not fine, that I stood neck-deep in a situation suddenly so far beyond my control. The echoes of the evening’s notes from the panel of experts rang in my ears. It wasn’t the work I feared, but the overwhelm of many more years crushed under the weight of this impossible collaboration.
— X screams at TECHNICAL DIRECTOR (30s, weary woman of color).
— X sends raging email in response to feedback from HEAD OF THEATRE COMPANY (50s, charismatic Latinx man) and MUSIC DIRECTOR (50s, enthusiastic white woman).
— Y seeks recommendation letter from Head of Theatre Company. Head of Theatre Company writes to Y privately, “Where you have been open to critique and possible changes that might be needed, X seems less inclined to accept advice and make changes. Our 2 cents for what it is worth.”
— X leaves angry early-morning voicemail telling Y she’s not doing her work.
— ACCOMPANIST (30s, big-hearted white woman) writes Y private message post presentation: “That’s a lot of testosterone. Don’t know how you do it.”
— HEAD OF PROGRAM (50s, shrewd white woman) advises Y to seek out other collaborators.
— X goes to Y’s PLAYWRIGHT FRIEND (20s, buoyant black woman) behind her back for confidential notes from presentation. Concerned, Friend tells Y who then confronts X. X denies this is problematic. Friend tells Y to walk away from partnership.
— X towers over Y at full restaurant. X screams with finger pointed in Y’s face. X leaves Y with $150 dinner bill.
— X hovers over Y as she attempts to rewrite a scene. Y asks for space. X says Y is “trying to take the show away from him.”
— X screams in Y’s face in the rehearsal room.
— X screams in Y’s face in the campus apartment. Slams door.
— X screams in Y’s face in NYC diner. Storms out. CUSTOMERS watch.
— X tells Y she does not care about the project.
— X tells Y she turned their agent against him.
— X tells Y she intimidates him.
— X says harassing Y at restaurant was “not that big of a deal.”
— Y speaks, X flips.
— Y sends draft after draft. Awaits response. X says Y “can’t be trusted with deadlines.”
— X emails Y that she is “holier than thou, condescending.”
My father’s death knocked the wind out of me. It was sudden; he was gone in 33 days. For a substantial portion of the final ten years of his life — and a larger portion I had no real conception of — he suffered from severe depression. At one point in my early twenties, he began a cocktail of medications to help regulate his brain chemistry. One morning when I happened to be home, he planned to drive his car into work. The problem: the medication impaired his ability to operate a vehicle. My mother urged him — barked at him — to let her or me drive him to the office. “You’re going to get into an accident.” She warned.
Sure enough, ten minutes later we received a call. My father plowed into the side of a dumpster, annihilating the entire passenger side of his car. Luckily, he was not hurt.
I remember he stood at the side of the road in an oversized blazer and slacks. He repeatedly stepped from one foot to the other, a strange tick he developed as a side effect of the medication. He looked like a boy. “I can’t find the car keys,” he whispered to me. “Don’t tell your mother.”
I couldn’t save him.
Undoubtedly the end of this musical partnership would have been easier to reach if I could simply say: “he is a bad person,” but I cannot — despite it all. I don’t believe anything is so simple. Over the course of six years I shared much with my former collaborator. I rewrote a number from our show for his wedding, he mounted our television set to our wall. We shared numerous beers and meals and, at times, relationship fears and challenges. On one occasion he even cooked up a delicious Mardi Gras jambalaya to cure my homesickness.
Musical theatre collaborations can be as intimate as marriages. Ours soured, certainly a bad marriage, but there were bright spots once. We were friends. I knew from a fairly early point that he struggled with anxiety, at the very least. On several occasions he referenced his struggles with various medications, his relationship with his psychiatrist. Sometimes the stories were particularly intense and I wondered if “anxiety” might be a catchall for many things, but all the while, I listened and nodded and did my best to understand.
In a meeting with our mutual “artistic mentor,” the mentor told a remarkable story about a young man whom he and a friend met at a nearby bar during his last visit in town. Within hours, the young man revealed to our assigned mentor an impressive collection of prescription pills, threatened suicide, and gifted his credit card to thank our mentor for his kindness that evening. The mentor and his friend stayed with the young man for most of the night for fear that he might harm himself.
While our mentor relayed this story, I noticed my then collaborator fidget with a napkin at the bar. “You never know how someone’s suffering.” I commented involuntarily, undoubtedly lost in thought about my own father. My ex-collaborator looked up at me then, and I could have sworn I saw “thank you” in his bright eyes.
Even still, it took a PhD in psychology — i.e. my therapist — to directly draw the connection between my ex-collaborator’s suffering and my father’s suffering. Though their cases were very different and mental illness comes in many forms and should never be piled into a single bucket of experience, the parallels are undeniable. Growing up in a family gripped by mental illness and “making it out” relatively unscathed means survivor’s guilt penetrates everything.
Even compassion can be unhealthy in too large a dose, particularly when it comes at the cost of sacrificing yourself. It’s possible, even probable, to rage and seethe and feel immense sadness behind a declaration of “I understand.” Sympathy does not disqualify anger or weariness. I learned this the hard way.
When I stood at the precipice of my decision to end the collaboration, I contacted a former teacher of mine — a composer and accompanist whom I knew during my college days in New Mexico. A slim, gentle man always uniformed in a black turtleneck and a small pair of rectangular spectacles. I could still see his encouraging smile behind the piano. He ended a collaboration with a very famous writer in his twenties; the tale a staple of our theatre department lore.
When I thought, who could I speak to that would directly understand this dilemma? He immediately came to mind. I hadn’t spoken to him in close to ten years, but Googled and emailed him via his website, only half-expecting a response. He contacted me almost immediately and offered his phone number, despite the fact that he was in the midst of a rehearsal process for a new opera. He listened closely as I relayed my story, his response tinged with the hurt of his own experiences, his own failed projects and partnerships. Unfortunately, he noted, my situation was not uncommon. He encouraged me to leave and to heal; the second part as important as the first, he emphasized. “From now on, you’ll have a better sense of smell about these sorts of things.”
When you see someone drowning, the natural human inclination is to reach out.
But what about survival? What about putting the dangling oxygen mask on yourself before placing it on the person beside you? Even parents have to make this decision.
When I ultimately decided to walk away from this partnership, I grasped that I never actually believed I would ever pick myself in this ongoing scenario. “Pick yourself over your project, or pick yourself over him?” My therapist offered.
Recognizing toxicity and abuse and saving yourself is an act that truly has no gender, despite any and every perceived notion on what is masculine and/or feminine.
An act that any human being, regardless of identity, should consider a mark of strength. Yet, even in our independence-driven, #selfcare-obsessed society, it can be incredibly difficult to put ourselves first — no matter who you are. That being said: despite the long-felt casualties, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Life is complicated, relationships are complicated, but if and when necessary, save yourself.