“There is a conspiracy of indifference against me, and I can’t take it,” Jon-Jon Goulian writes of his classmates’ failure to react when, in 1985, he attended prom in women’s clothing. During the following two decades Goulian won notoriety among New York party hoppers as a fabulous recluse, a man of intelligence and Ivy League credentials who nonetheless insisted on earning a salary by babysitting for $12 an hour. This grandson of political philosopher Sidney Hook, and one-time assistant to The New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers, declined, at every major stage in his life, to build upward. Instead, he sublet a portion of a room in the Lower East Side, and chose to live a neurotically abstemious life while finding succor in four-inch heels and belly shirts.
In his memoir, The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt, Goulian attempts a self-exegesis. The impetus for the backward glance is the surprise arrival of a post card he’d written to himself at age seven, delivered by a postman who promised to hold onto it for 30 years before putting it back in the mail. Perplexingly, Goulian’s seven year-old self was not a listless androgyne but a cheerful sport-o who was curious to know whether or not his future self has become a professional soccer player.
“It’s amazing to me, as I think back to that moment standing on the front lawn in Vermont and confronting this ghostly visitation from my past, that I didn’t scream, drop the postcard and run into the woods,” Goulian writes. The shock of confrontation between these two contradictory beings is amplified by the arrival of another letter from Goulian’s father asking for some help in understanding just how this happy boy became such a strange man.
“You seem to be in a chronic state of indecision,” wrote his father. “How else to view the multiple relocations and short-term living arrangements, a state of existence I long assumed (or hoped) was temporary, but is seemingly permanent?… Can you help me to understand?”
Goulian doesn’t understand, of course, so how can he help anyone else process the jagged arrow of his life? Goulian’s account focuses disproportionately on his childhood. Over the course of nine chapters he assembles and dissembles the period between his first memories as a toddler and the despairing paralysis of his high school and college years.
The book is structured out of sequence, each chapter beginning with a glimpse of an important moment in his life followed by digressions forward and backward in time. It’s teleological in essence and yet, Goulian acknowledges there will be no root causes to discover. All theories to explain his adult condition can be taken as simultaneously true and false.
In “Images of the Future” J.G. Ballard wrote his fiction was “an attempt to escape from time–or more exactly, from linear time, as it seems to me that time is quantifiable and non-linear in far more aspects, and that the most significant relationships and experiences of our lives are intelligible only in non-linear terms.”
In this spirit, Gray Flannel Skirt is composed as a sort of narrative bubble chart, isolated memories plucked from the nostalgic churn of thought. The first of these rippling moments involves Goulian’s discovery of what he presumed to be a third testicle at the age of 13. This new “egg” in his scrotum enflames his hypochondria, a condition to which his upbringing in a “family of physicians” has left him especially susceptible.
“By the age of thirteen, I had a huge store of [medical] terms at my disposal, a store on which to draw in case I felt, or looked, a little out of sorts. Fatigue, the great all-purpose symptom, was never just fatigue. It was a sure sign of Crohn’s disease, or rheumatoid arthritis, or any one of a thousand anemias.”
The third testicle is a perfect gift for Goulian’s medical vigilance, both for its ominousness and the seeming impossibility of connecting the symptom to any real condition. Where another child might have asked a parent, Goulian rationalizes himself into inaction. He cannot face the pubescent shame of having his father inspect his scrotum, and so he decides to simply ignore the egg’s presence. He manages this for three years until revealing the lump to his doctor during a physical only to discover it was not at testicle but a small length of intestine that had slipped into his scrotum through a break in the abdominal lining–an inguinal hernia, in other words.
Though the condition itself is not unusual, and is easily reversed with a short surgery, each day that passed without treatment left Goulian more susceptible to the repercussions of a ruptured intestine, toxic shock, and possibly death. No less damning, the condition left him with physical proof of his monstrous body during a time when one is most willing to believe in one’s capacity to revolt others.
This suspicion of hideousness becomes Goulian’s anthem. As he continues his tour of puberty he confronts several awful facts, the swelling of his nose, the emergence of bowlegs, and the high statistical probability that he will start to bald at a young age. The once-happy boy on the beach is confronted with the emergence of some contorted reptile-person from within (the opening chapter is “An Unwilling Host”).
Faced with the unendurable threat of becoming ugly, Goulian instead opted to get a nose job at 15, and, shortly thereafter he discovered the beautiful sanctuary of women’s wear. Thus a persona was hatched, and the perfectly boring young child became the seductively contradictory Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt.
I too have a persona. While still in school a friend had named his cat “Mike Thomsen” after me. Whenever friends said “Mike” or “Mike Thomsen” it was assumed they were talking about the cat, and so I became “Mike Thomsen The Person.” It was, in some ways, an honor. The cat was an exceptional animal. It could leap as much as five times its body length from a standstill, kept itself perfectly groomed, was a merciless hunter of mice, and still made time for purring affection at the end of the day. Goods cats are like this, and she was a good cat. By accepting the loss of my name to her I agreed to become someone with a personality so fluid it had no need of a name. In the same way that people in many African countries consider it bizarre to give a proper name to a pet, I would treat the idea of my having a proper name as a feeble underassessment of my grandeur. I was not simply a name, but a categorical representation of an entire species.
I liked having a persona at 21. I didn’t have much else: no girlfriend, no glorious sexual history, no career direction, and no money to distract myself with. But I was young and if I could manage to swagger my way through the canned spaghetti sauce aisle at the grocery store–that would be something, at least. Underneath the comfort of having a persona I went through my young life not knowing what to do with myself. In college I’d wanted only to study music at UCLA’s Schoenberg School. I was rejected twice, and during my second audition the proctor cut me off midway. “I think that’s enough,” he’d said.
Foolishly, I’d never thought about what else I might do if the neo-classical composer gambit didn’t pay off. I did what many underclassmen fearing existential free fall had done before me: I majored in English. Going to school in Los Angeles there was a small distance between reading Beckett under a Jacaranda tree and getting into the movie business. I took a series of internships during my last two years in school and, upon graduation, won a plum but low-paying job working for a producer called Adam Fields. He had once been the youngest studio executive in Hollywood and had worked on a string of big ticket filler including Great Balls of Fire, Money Train, and Wild, Wild West. When I started he’d just begun working on a strange and alluring script called Donnie Darko, written by the son of a NASA scientist, that would later go on to become a cult hit, awakening a sense of doom and beauty in a generation of suburban teens who would grow up to populate Look-at-this-fucking-hipster.com.
Considering the future before me, I felt optimistic. A career in movies would lift me out of the pathetic state I had been circling in. I might, in 10 years, have cultivated a West Hollywood tan, a collection of suede loafers, and perfected the pressed shirt open two buttons at the collar look. I would be able to spend my days scooting from three martini lunches to studio meetings deconstructing the motivation of undercover cops and intergalactic martyrs.
Where Goulian recoiled from the bleakness of his future, I worshipped mine. I diligently woke up at 5AM every morning to work on screenplays for a few hours before riding the bus into Beverly Hills. At work I endured terrible humiliations, every day offering new proof of my inadequacy to Adam. A dropped call was my fault, an unpaid expense report was an indicator of my weakness. “The answering machine could do a better job than you,” he’d told me during one argument. Another day he threw a paperweight at my head in frustration. Even when these angry outbursts made no sense, I accepted them on faith as necessary prostrations at the altar of my soon-to-be glorious future. When I retreated to the company of my friends on the weekend and was greeted as “Mike Thomsen The Person,” I’d think to myself, “You’re goddamn right.”
“But they had it all wrong!” Goulian writes of his classmates’ unruffled acceptance of him. “What they were witnessing, in my transformation from Jock + Scholar to Sexually Neutered Androgyne was not an act of heightened self-awareness, worthy of their respect, but an act of regression, worthy of contempt. They were the ones who were brave. Not I. They were the ones who were grappling with Life, real life, with all its perils and dangers and harmful fluids, facing it head-on and pushing through it, while I was fleeing in the other direction.”
In exchange for the comparative peace of thongs, sarongs, and recumbent melancholy Goulian had sacrificed the spoils of identity won in a careerist struggle. Reaching 40 and being able say you’re a tenured professor or a partner in a law firm can’t count as great achievements in human history, but they’re not dismissible. A balding bowlegged lawyer might be haunted by memories of his youthful beauty and athleticism, but a 40 year-old androgyne is no less haunted.
I began to catch a glimpse of this at 30, when I realized I was slowly parting ways with the glamorous future I had imagined for me and my persona. After a few years of working office jobs in Hollywood waiting to have my own projects noticed, I dropped out and joined Peace Corps thinking the dank air of the developing world would would add some emotional girth to my screenplays. If my persona was grand and impossible to categorize, I would need life experiences to match. So I spent a year in China and two years in Madagascar dayjobbing in “development” while spending my nights and weekends hand-writing high school dramas and wartime musicals.
When I came back to Hollywood, ready to accept a BMW and the adulation of my peers, I instead found a conspiracy of indifference. The friends who had helped reinforce my persona had all moved on, becoming lawyers, doctors, anthropologists, teachers, or PhD candidates. I took a job working for another producer, but quit after two days of listening to her lie, bully, and berate. In need of money I took the first job I could get, and thus became a video game tester with an alter ego and a stack of cryptically intellectual screenplays on my desk.
Almost three-quarters of my monthly salary went to rent, which left $300 each month to live on. I’d had dark moments in my life, but I’d never been quite so disturbed by the circumstances of my existence. The romantic melodramas and career experimentation of my post-college years felt important at the time, but at 30 they seemed like distant luxuries. I looked at homeless people on the sidewalk with a new fearfulness.
As I’d fall asleep each night I wondered how many more nights I’d be able to enjoy the sweet privilege of stretching out on a mattress. If I didn’t survive the next round of seasonal downsizing, how long could I last before I’d exhausted my savings and taken my credit cards to the maximum? It was terrible math to do in the darkness before another day working with erratic 18 year-olds who’d sometimes get in fights with each other in the parking lot after work.
I noticed my persona had amended itself in the intervening years. The thin overcompensation of my youth had, like Goulian, grown susceptible to feminine bedazzlement. While in China I’d watched my male students walking around holding hands with one another and wondered who among my friends I’d be able to hold hands with. It was a casual intimacy I hadn’t even realized was possible between men, and seeing it then made me lament its continuing absence.
When a friend came to visit me with a variety of nail polish I let her color my toenails. I saw the alternating pink, purple, and brown nub-ends speckled with glitter and felt a brief but smashing dysphoria. All my masculinity seemed to have drained from the tips of my toes leaving a cupcake-colored confetti in its place. I felt deflated, neither the embodiment of a species nor the capable bearer of a familial name.
Yet I had to admit the color was an improvement on my otherwise narrow and veiny feet. It was comforting in an unexpected way. Like the sight of two men holding hands with no sexual misgivings, this little bloom of color unwound a small bit of the masculine tension that had made the idea of personas desirable in the first place. Soon I found myself more interested in the bright colors and soft fabrics of women’s fashion, and recoiling from the blue and gray body tents of men’s couture. If Mike Thomsen The Person wasn’t going to transform into Mike Thomsen The Screenwriter, I could at least take comfort in bodily ornamentation; a sequined cocktail dress at a friend’s party or a glitter-flecked scarf on a cold day.
When encountering these new affects some of my friends looked at me as if I were masturbating in their living room. It was sickening to see the virtues of romance, family, avarice, and career done without. The figure that endured without these things wasn’t a skulking neurotic but a shamelessly accessorized interloper from the realms of glam faggotry.
The horror in this comes not just from gender shock but a willingness to put the slow-growing cruelties of age in contrast, arriving at a point where one’s dress so sharply stands against one’s body that everyone around is thrown into mortal anxiety. It is to become the old dandy who haunts Aschenbach by his shameless association with young revelers in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.
“He was an old man, beyond a doubt, with wrinkles and crow’s-feet round eyes and mouth; the dull carmine of the cheeks was rouge, the brown hair a wig…Could they not see he was old, that he had no right to wear the clothes they wore or pretend to be one of them?”
It’s with a shudder of identification that I consider Goulian’s portrait on the dust jacket of Gray Flannel Skirt. The androgyne at 40 is a grim and conservative figure, not a neon pink monster of fabulosity. Never has cross-dressing appeared more morose, a black tank top and ash-colored dress hanging down over black leather boots with severe heels.
“I sift through the silt of my childhood traumas, looking for that one nugget of gold that will explain everything, why I’m so fragile and pathetic and unmanly, and here I’ve come up with a whole sack,” he concludes.
After all his introspection and self-analysis, Goulian arrives at a point where all of his broken bits are inseparable from one another. He did not “become” a certain way, but only learned about these broken bits as his world expanded, putting more and more stress on the parts that, in the swaddling comfort of his La Jolla boyhood, had born almost no weight. Like Angela Carter’s bawdy Swan-woman Fevvers in Nights at the Circus, Goulian seems not to have been born so much as hatched, beautiful and bestial. What changes over a lifetime is only the proportions.
By the end of the book one is left with a strange and melancholy provocation that, even if there were clear and linear causes for all of his dysfunctions, they would be of no interest to him. Goulian is terrifyingly at peace with himself, taking his broken bits as comforts like the stuffed animals that cover his bed. The serene horror of his example is that neither skirt, tie, nor careerism can erase the beast one was at hatching. You can cage it in an office park, chain it with social expectations, or instead let it cross its terrible wings and lift its aging black pupils to gaze upon you, as lost in the wilderness as it was in a home.