Death of the androgyne

I’m writing a novel these days, with the worst discipline possible. I snatch a spare couple of hours when someone else can take care of my children, or when I find myself in a coffee shop in between distant appointments. It’s getting harder and harder to write this way. I am at a place in my strange narrative where I feel the need to cloister myself away and bear down. But my life won’t allow it. This desire is particularly strong now, when I am in professional purgatory, in between jobs and trying to stay open to the unpredictability of my life. My life is like being led blindfolded into a sequential series of unknown rooms. Then someone says, surprise! And the next thing begins. But I live in fear of the blindfold being removed and there being nothing.

In my book, the main character finds herself drawn to kind of performance commune run by an older Andy Fallon, one of two main characters in The Actor’s Way. Though she doesn’t know it yet, as the night progresses, she will be shown some shrines Andy and his followers have created in the Retreat, the converted factory they live in in the Northern Liberties. Shrines in a performance commune, you might be thinking, to Augusto Boal? Anne Bogart? Stanislavsky? No. The shrines are in memory of Marilyn Monroe, Anna Nicole Smith and Michael Jackson. This is also why I am feeling the need to get to work.

You see, what killed Michael could have killed me. And if you are an artist for whom the creation of art is in some way a reaction to, or escape from, or transformation of pain, then it might have killed you too.

In one way, the story of the three enshrined at the Retreat is the story of the inevitable end of person who has become a thing. Any woman who is “conventionally beautiful” will understand what I mean. By conventionally beautiful, I mean possessed of a face and body that would pass muster in an ad for the Gap let’s say, or land her a role on a soap opera. In the entertainment marketplace, such a woman may spend much of her energy proving that she is more than a shape, a face, a bra size. This is an old story. Strong actresses learn to simultaneously work the system to their advantage, while developing a sense of self that is authentic, spiritual, and disconnected to what is temporal. I’m thinking of women like Susan Sarandon, Audrey Hepburn, Drew Barrymore. I’m sitting here watching the Miley Cyrus concert video with my daughter and thinking this young woman has a chance at being that rare creature: a sane and emotionally healthy superstar. Miley has a strong family and that’s essential. I remember hearing Drew talking on Fresh Air about the the surrogate family she had to create for herself in the wreckage of her teenage years, addicted and tragic and without a blood family she could rely on in any sense. She is an example of someone who looked into the cave others got trapped in and managed to reverse direction. It rarely happens. The cave of despair holds you.

Marilyn had some talent and desperately wanted to be taken seriously. Her stardom occurred at a time when women in entertainment had very little power to affect changes in their own careers. She had few options. Anna Nicole had a personality and a figure which was a grotesque mockery of the inflated sexuality of body-objects our patriarchy has enslaved itself to. Easy to ridicule, she nevertheless was a mother, and my empathy for her bloomed in the reports of her love for her son, and the tailspin she went into when he died, collateral damage no doubt of the lifestyle he was born into. Somehow, through those images of the two of them embracing, this truth settled in my heart: she was a person. But a person who the world preferred in two dimensions and inanimate, and so Anna Nicole acquiesced. Both she and Marilyn represent the most common manifestation of female “thing-ness”: becoming a sexual plaything for men.

I don’t mean to over-simplify the complex issues swirling around these women’s deaths, or to imply that they were somehow the same. In fact, I am trying to argue that they were each individuals and deserving of the dignity we offer any individual. Their deaths were surely as unique as their lives. But they share this in common: they came to believe that their success had more to do with their outsides, and so they lost connection with their own eternal and mysterious insides. They became the surfaces the world was fascinated by: shiny, fake and lifeless. They became things, dead things.

I don’t know much about the sources of pain that may have led them into a world of performance, and then propelled them into addiction. Another old story. But the whole world knows about Michael’s pain. I think hell has a special room reserved for his father Joe Jackson. Sometimes I wonder if this wasn’t a part of the repulsion some felt for Michael, the sense that we were all learning about his dirty laundry – T.M.I on a grand scale. We prefer our superstars either sanitized and at a distance, or in a pile of smoking wreckage on the eleven o’clock news.

Michael’s case is a little different. He represents a kind of person the world has always found frightening: the androgyne. From the the time of Euripides’ Bacchae onward, western culture has struggled with this person a friend of mine calls “the third gender”. This boy/woman is held up as source of frightening power in Euripides play, and I don’t think any writer has gotten closer to the truth. Shakespeare played with this creature through the “pants roles” like Viola in Twelfth Night: a teenage boy, playing a young woman pretending to be a young man. In the all-male casting of his plays, the Elizabethans seem to have accepted the androgyne. In their persecution of the Theatre, the Puritans of course, did not. Michael himself seems to have been aware of his androgyny in his adoration of that great 20th century androgyne, Peter Pan. He tried to create Barry’s magical kingdom for children here on earth, and large paintings and murals bedecked the interior of Michael’s Neverland, featuring him standing in for Peter.

His androgyny was represented in another way as well: the complete lack of outward, authentic sexual energy. Even when married, or “dating” people like Brooke Shields, it’s been remarked on over and over that Michael never seemed sexually attracted to . . . anyone. Even his music was a departure from the well-worn subject matter of most R&B at the time: “baby makin'”, or the desire to. Think of Thriller: is there one song on that album which expresses frank sexual desire? The closest you come is “PYT”, which has always seemed a bit child-like to me, almost like what it might sound like if, say, Peter Pan sang a pick-up song. How interesting that the biggest hit from that album is about a paternity suit, about a woman who claims the singer has fathered a child he says he never fathered. Billie Jean is not my lover, because no one is my lover.

But it is Euripides’ Dionysus Michael most resembled, not Peter Pan. Like the Greek god, Michael was able to channel all the sexual energy he might have experienced in his private life publicly, through performing, and was therefore able, through an enormous act of generosity of spirit and nearly super-human performance energy, to release the sexual energy of those witnessing him. He is not unique in this ability. Other healthier rock-star androgynes include Bowie and Prince, though both of them were more frankly sexual than Michael ever was. But it is precisely this lack of personal sexuality that so directly links him to Dionysus. In Euripides’ play, the god has no sexual contact with anyone, but like Michael on stage, he uses sexuality to whip his audience into a frenzy of sexual release.

Michael enacted the outward violence of the last scenes of The Bacchae inwardly. I have always felt that there was rage in Michael’s dances: the impulsive arm flicks that seem like boxer’s jabs, the hard edges of his rapid-fire postures, the nearly permanent snarl he wore on his face. But whereas Dionysus had divine power to cause destruction, Michael did not. The object of his rage (his father?) was not available to him. One wonders what kind of psychotherapy might have been employed to assist him in destroying a “Pentheus”. But instead, all the dark forces the god turns outward Michael unleashed on himself. If Anna Nicole became a thing out of cultural brain-washing and personal despair, Michael became a thing because he needed a target. His target was his own face, which he systematically cut and re-arranged over the last 20 years of his life. Unable to change himself, that deep interior and desperately wounded self, he worked on the part he could see. Ironically, he wrote a song about it: The Man in the Mirror. His face was both the representation of his inner self-loathing, and the ultimate thing he could try to change. And as we witnessed, his face was merely a surface, mutilated in his attempt to change something deeper and ineffable.

Michael’s “thing-ness” manifested itself in many ways. The prescription drugs were essentially chemical additives meant to correct the imbalanced thing he had become. As a recovering person myself, I am familiar with this syndrome: add a little of this to achieve that effect, reduce that one a little so you can function in the day time, increase that substance so you can go to the party. You become a kind of machine requiring different chemical fuels at different times. Finally, the machine breaks down, and the additives become poison, not cure. There is a place for prescription drugs and psychological distress. Another layer of Michael’s tragedy is that if he had gotten good care, he might have found good use for them. But surrounded by enablers, and with the means to live in nearly complete fantasy, there was no way to crack the surface of the thing he had become, and let some light in.

For all of us in the business of performing, there is a constant back and forth between what we look like on the outside and what we feel like on the inside. I remember a friend in recovery from an eating disorder saying to me once, “When I compare my insides to your outsides, your outsides always win.” What she meant is that the objective comparison of bodies always trumps any inner self-worth, and so she was in the process of letting go of those comparisons. It’s just so much easier, in this judgment-laden culture we live in, to say “he’s got a better body than me”. And that can quickly become, “and therefore, he’s better.” It’s so much harder to develop self-confidence based on an authentic sense of self, unconnected to the relentless cultural massages about height, weight, skin color, waist size, bra size, hair thickness . . . the list is long. And yet all of these measurements measure things, not people. People are measured by the “content of their character” to quote Dr. King, or they should be. But the content of my character won’t get me cast in that play, and my thinning hair may ensure that I am not. And thus, the tug of war for our senses of self-worth.

Andy and his friends have made shrines to Marilyn, Anna Nicole and Michael because they see them as martyrs who died at the hands of the enemy: a culture that celebrates the objectification of people through narcissism. People become things when they fall in love with their own images, images which represent the lifeless surfaces they have been taught are the sine qua non of their very beings. From there, it is a slow and predictable journey down one of several roads: sexual self-abuse, addiction, madness and ultimately death. In the community of the theateratti, it is trendy to hold these people in contempt. But Andy and I feel great empathy for them, because we know, there but for the grace of God go I.

Death of the Androgyne Saturday, originally published July 11, 2009