Monsters united can never be defeated: sentimental queer horror YA, a guest post by Hal Schrieve
The year I turned fourteen, I came out to my parents as transgender. In 2010, as a young teenager, with Gender Identity Disorder still written into the DSM as a disease, I knew that my eventual medical transition would require doctors’ notes and assessments in order to proceed. But my parents, wearing a look of inscrutable fear, initially took me to therapists with the stated hope that we as a family would work something out that didn’t involve me actually ever transitioning.
Eventually, all the doctors my parents took me to, even those most sympathetic to my parents, began to reach the consensus that I was in fact a transsexual. That, the doctors and therapists agreed, meant my parents had to move to the next healthy stage in raising a trans child: mourning my death.
This is standard advice, advice that the parents of trans children have gotten from well-meaning therapists for decades. My inexpert Cut Rite haircut, abbreviated name, the desire to to put testosterone into my body and surgically modify my chest, and, not least, my expression of my desire for romantic and sexual contact with gay men—meant that the child my parents had raised was dead. My parents had lost their shot at something. Therapists phrased it in different ways, describing the dead girl who I was not as a child of expectations, or dreams, as someone who had existed and as someone who had never existed. But again and again, the living teenager in front of my parents was ignored in favor of the theoretically dead girl I had replaced. My parents were given permission to ignore my distress, the bullying I was facing, the discrimination I faced from my school, the lack of information I had about what my future might hold, so they could grieve and adapt slowly to life without their daughter—though I was alive, and their real daughter, my little sister, was right in front of them and living too. For a period of just over a year, and maybe long beyond that, I became undead, unknowable, invisible to the people who were supposed to protect me.
Just as I died to my parents, my parents also disappeared to me. They were no longer role models, because they believed, at least for a while, that the me that existed should not exist. There were people who could see and understand me as alive, but they were not my parents. I still don’t know what I was to my parents during this time, exactly, but it’s safe to say I was something monstrous, a portent. For me, the result of being discussed and treated as dead was a temporary frozenness in my emotional development, a deep depression, and a lack of ability to fathom or connect to the cisgender and straight people around me. My sense of self esteem and empathy towards others ultimately grew enormously during my transition, but the things that prompted this had little to do with medical change in my own body. What replaced my family unit’s emotional ties was contact with punks and sex educators and old gay and trans people and young teens in my city and online who were like me and count see the beauty in one another. Over and over again, I watched small-town gay and trans people take care of each other, drive to one anothers’ houses late at night to intervene in suicide attempts, house each other, give one another jobs, get in professional hot water to protect each other, build up our mutual sense of safety in the face of horror. As my parents realized I was a monster, I was realizing I found their world monstrous.
I am white, which limits how I have been dehumanized in the settler-colonial state I was born in. My family is middle-class. My cognitive differences are such that I was never deemed disabled. I have a body which is able to navigate the ableist infrastructure of our society with relative ease. But I have always related to monsters. This is a trend, among queer people, even those of us who are lucky. We didn’t start it, though—monsters never start our own monstrosity.
I remember the first stories I ever wrote, at age four, being about Ursula from the Howard Ashman version of The Little Mermaid running away from persecutors, escaping and starting a new life at the bottom of a deep well. I didn’t know then that the original Hans Christian Andersen story, queer in its own way, regards the mermaid herself as a sort of monster, who nobly kills herself when she is wounded by her prince’s lack of ability to love her. I just knew I sympathized with something unlovable but charismatic, with tentacles, that shouldn’t have died. Further stories I wrote involved noble, ugly troll girls locked into mill-towers, werewolves on the lam, haggard witches and dwarves living under bridges and stealing scraps. I knew, reading fairy stories, that the witches, pirates, and dragons I read about rarely deserved persecution. When I read the story of St. George and the Dragon, the dragon was the only face I could compute as relatable. Nowadays, when I watch a horror movie about a traumatized ghost or psychic evil type monster wreaking havoc on a living straight white family, I only care about what happened to the vengeful spirit, and why it is so important to the filmmakers that the revenge be seen as more horrible than the original violence. I know that monsters are made, and that we usually are less scary than the people that made us. Traumatized people aren’t why the world is violent. Abusive people in power who want to stay in power and refuse to empathize or love others is why the world is violent.
The horror I see in the world is the systems of capitalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and ecological destruction designed to divide and alienate us from our friends, our lovers, our children, and break us up so we are easier to break. This horror can come even from systems that are supposedly designed to help us, like doctors. Too many of my friends have been told that their physical or mental pain is imaginary, or given up parts of their lives to afford medical care. My own life has been shaped less than others’ by psychiatrists and their edicts, but I spent all of my adolescent years concealing the distress and mental illness that i knew might stop them from writing essential letters or mean they would disclose something that would cause my parents to institutionalize me. I have been helped by psychiatry. But it’s a strained affection. The closest friends I have have been abused by family members, police, psychiatrists, teachers. My best friend when I was eighteen, a trans boy named Sebastian, was killed by a combination of all these actors. All of whom were ostensibly supposed to protect him.
In Out of Salem, I want to talk about the way that queer people and many others are seen as monsters acting as a threat to violent systems of control; I want to express as fully as possible the hope I have that we are in fact a threat, that we can break impossibly huge violent systems through survival and solidarity and love. I wanted to talk about the numbing horror of experiencing the world as marginalized, and how that makes it harder to trust people or show love. You have to talk about that in order to speak of the ways that we can survive the horror story that is our whole world by sticking together. My characters Chad, Elaine, Mrs. Dunnigan, Mr. Weber, Z, Tommy, Azra and Aysel are all at least mostly able to see one another’s personhood and personal dignity, even if people like abusive uncles or hostile teachers are unable to. Solidarity and contact between peers kept me and my friends alive during my high school years, as well as contact with sympathetic adults who couldn’t do everything for us we needed but could act as a model of long-term endurance of a hostile world.
When you are gay and trans and young, or marginalized in other ways, sometimes seeing the survival of your elders—your real elders, who are monstrous like you— is powerful. Touching someone like you is healing. Holding onto each other is hard but it is the only thing I know is good to do, which can help us survive.
Meet Hal Shrieve
Hal Schrieve grew up in Olympia, Washington, and is competent at making risotto and setting up a tent. Xie has worked as an after-school group leader, a summer camp counselor, a flower seller, a tutor, a grocer, and a babysitter. Hir current ambition is to become a librarian, and xie works as a trainee children’s librarian at New York Public Library. Xie has a BA in history with a minor in English from University of Washington and studies library science at Queens College, New York. Xie lives in Brooklyn, New York, and hir poetry has appeared in Vetch magazine.
Out of Salem is hir first novel.
About Out of Salem
Genderqueer fourteen-year-old Z Chilworth has to adjust quickly to their new status as a zombie after waking from death from a car crash that killed their parents and sisters. Always a talented witch, Z now can barely perform magic and is rapidly decaying. Faced with rejection from their remaining family members and old friends, Z moves in with their mother’s friend, Mrs. Dunnigan, and befriends Aysel, a loud would-be-goth classmate who is, like Z, a loner. As Z struggles to find a way to repair the broken magical seal holding their body together, Aysel fears that her classmates will discover her status as an unregistered werewolf. When a local psychiatrist is murdered by what seems to be werewolves, the town of Salem, Oregon, becomes even more hostile to “monsters,” and Z and Aysel are driven together in an attempt to survive a place where most people wish that neither of them existed.
Rarely has a first-time author created characters of such immediacy and power as Z, Aysel, Tommy (suspected fey) and Elaine (also a werewolf), or a world that parallels our own so clearly and disturbingly.
Publisher: Seven Stories Press
Publication date: 03/26/2019
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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