The Only Way Out Is Through: Or a Bit of the Story Behind Time Travel in a Closet
The following is a slightly edited and expanded version of the introduction written for my thesis while studying in Ashland University’s MFA program. I will be defending my thesis this July, and in our introductions we were each asked to discuss a group of around ten texts that form the “literary genealogies” that influenced the poems in our theses . This is also intended as an update since my original #MyWritingProcess post, which I wrote prior to both beginning my MFA studies and my transition.
CONTENT WARNING: Mentions of suicide, physical and sexual abuse, homophobia, anti-blackness, and ABA.
“Everybody communicates. Words are beautiful. Our words have value.”
These words by author and autistic activist Amy Sequenzia are simple, clear, and remarkably profound. Infinitely beautiful, and bigger on the inside.
With my words, I come to you as a survivor, a man with scars both inside and out. I spent my childhood and adolescent years occupying a series of closets, all nestled within each other like Russian dolls. I knew that my family expected me to be a “good Christian girl,” not the oversized, socially awkward, frizzy-haired, hormone-driven, hopelessly unfeminine dork I saw in the mirror. In their eyes, that “me” was absolutely unacceptable, and they reminded me of this nearly every single day until I was eighteen years old. Meanwhile, I hid the physical, emotional, mental, and sexual abuse that I endured at their hands. They demanded that I keep all of this, too, inside a closet.
In effect, I am a living testament of what happens when an autistic queer trans youth undergoes home-grown Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) in the form of abuse. ABA’s aim is forcing compliance and normative behaviors in autistic people, primarily children, with the goal to make them “indistinguishable from their [allistic] peers1.” Unsurprisingly, there is a good deal of overlap between these approaches and conversion therapies designed to make queer people heterosexual and convince transgender folk that they are the genders they were assigned at birth. In other words, my family nearly ABA-ed me to death2; the proof is that I attempted suicide three times. Thank God I failed.
For much of my adult life, I’ve been trying to make sense of those scars and translate them into words. One major breakthrough was a discovery at age thirty-four that I am autistic. Meanwhile, my partner Solomon encouraged me to keep writing, and to also pursue an MFA degree. Yet, perhaps because of my family’s insistence that I never reveal their awful secrets, my story remained hidden in plain sight as I coded it into highly symbolic poetry – almost like a personal Book of Revelation that required extensive deciphering to understand. I alone had the legend to translate it, and that was a problem. I was reading one of these types of poems during one of my first workshop sessions at Ashland University in the summer of 2014 when Kathryn Winograd, the workshop leader, point-blank asked me what the poem was about. When I began to decode its huge extended metaphor into what it really was – a story of what my family had done to me – she then said, quite matter-of-factly: “Nicole, why don’t you write about what actually happened?”
That was one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received.
After that, I began writing graphically about the abuse I’d endured, peering intensely back in time at my childhood and teen years. As I kept composing, I realized I was not the woman I thought I was: in fact, I was not even a woman at all. Soon, it became painfully obvious that I’d occupied three closets at once: pretending to be straight, pretending to be female, and pretending to be neurotypical. I needed to get away from Nicole, to give her the rest she sorely needed as well as to save my own sanity. Midway through my first year of MFA studies at Ashland, I stopped using her name, began publishing as N.I. Nicholson, and asked my friends and family to call me Ian.
This transformation of self has run a parallel course with my transformation as a writer. As this program and its instructors exposed me and my fellow students to a wide variety of poets, I witnessed a formidable range of craft and skill. Not only that, we were asked throughout this program to critically evaluate these poets’ work and judge for ourselves when their techniques worked well, and when they didn’t achieve expected ends. In particular, a smaller subset of all the texts I’ve read in the last two years influenced Time Travel in Closet in very important ways.
Two writers who have significantly informed the thematic scaffolding of this thesis are Bruce Weigl and Michael Scott Monje, Jr. Both writers are intimately familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder: Weigl as a Vietnam veteran and a survivor of childhood abuse, and Monje as an autistic transgender woman growing up in an incredibly dysfunctional family. Additionally, both writers address issues of control, abuse, memory, and the use of free will in traumatic situations – all themes that appear in my thesis poems.
When I read Weigl’s collection The Archaeology of the Circle, I encountered one of his well-known poems, “The Impossible.” In the first six lines, a sudden, unpredictable sensory detail unexpected triggers his recall of a horribly traumatic event:
“Winter’s last rain and a light I don’t recognize
through the trees and I come back in my mind
to the man who made me suck his cock
when I was seven, in sunlight, between boxcars.
I thought I could leave him standing there
in the years, half smile on his lips…”
I realized that Weigl’s jump from “that light through the trees” to his moment of trauma was exactly how my own experiences with PTSD unfolded. They were chaotic, unpredictable trips back in time over which I had no control, activated by seemingly innocuous and random things. Being a Doctor Who fan, my mind immediately fixated on the time travel aspect and coined a term for these experiences: “involuntary acts of time travel.” To allow this sensibility to leak into my thesis, I needed to embrace some of the chaos that terrified me as a child and teenager.
Meanwhile, Monje’s protagonist in her book Mirror Project exists as an artificial intelligence created by the merging of an artificial reality simulator, memories, and brain scans of Lynn Vargas, a woman who suffered fatal injuries in a car accident. The now-deceased Lynn was the wife of Bill Vargas, the CEO of a company specializing in artificial intelligence. In an attempt to preserve Lynn’s life, Bill arranges to import what he now believes to be the resurrected spirit of his dead wife into an android form. However, the new digital Lynn makes it very clear to him that she is not his dead wife. Unfortunately, Bill refuses to accept this and keeps trying to force the issue, and because of this, Mirror Project becomes a narrative of defiance and resistance. Lynn battles Bill throughout her incarceration in his company’s research facility until some of his employees help her escape, after which she lives on as code. “Mirror Project is me. I am the darknet,” she says in the first chapter, and then later warns the reader not to tamper with her code:
“You are something beyond the casual user, and you are used to having control. I will not give it to you. In fact, I can’t give it to you. This is not about trust, and it’s not about locking down some brilliant invention so that other people can’t steal it. This is about the fact that letting you poke around and change things would be letting a stranger stick his fingers into my brain, and I will never do that again.”
In this narrative, I recognized a struggle similar to my own. My family’s insistence that I conform to the “good Christian girl” persona was no different than Bill Vargas trying to compel digital Lynn to become his wife. Also, I understood that my family’s gaslighting, conditioning, and abuse was their version of “sticking fingers into my brain.” Because of this, the narrative arc of my poetry collection needed to explore how to recover “me” as well as reveal the trauma I’d experienced.
Throughout my last two years of studies, I’ve encountered other writers who gave me the courage and voice to bring what was unspeakable into the light. In Patricia Smith’s collection Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, I read in horror as the speaker described her mother’s attempts to scrub the darkness of her skin away with Lysol in “An All-Purpose Product.” In one stanza, the speaker tries to snap her mother back to reality:
“Mama, can’t you read it? You want me to read it to you? I can’t help being my color! I am black, I am not dirty. I am black, I am not dirty. I am black, I am. Not. Dirty. What you have birthed upon me will not come off. My hair black crinkled steel, too short to stay plaited. My ass is wide and will get wider. You can pinch my nose, but it will remain a landscape. You cannot reverse me. What is filthy to you will never be cleansed…”
As I read Dan Bellm’s One Hand on the Wheel, I watched as the speaker suffered from his father’s refusal to accept his homosexuality. His father’s rejections at times reopened my own wounds: back in time I went, reliving the instance of when my aunt and uncle threatened to kick me out at seventeen. In “Book of Maps,” which impressively enough is a triple sestina, the narrator speaks of a young boy, gay and most certainly in the closet, and nearsighted. The boy is never at home in this poem, and definitely not at home in his body. In section 3, we see him is alone in his room, with his eyeglasses taken off, exploring and beginning to pleasure himself until:
“…he shivers to a stop, imagining the boy
beside him, but I would have to be a girl
for that, and I’m not, I have this puny body
of a boy. Then hope must lie in his mind, yes,
all right, he can see more clearly in here
with his bad eyes shut, child
who would rather have any other
body but his own, girlboy
given to see the world as through a glass, but here
is his body and he will live in it, yes, because there is no other.”
I had to stop at these stanzas, the feeling conjured in them being all too familiar: stuck in my own body, also a girlboy3, unable to articulate what I wanted, beyond how my body had been defined for me as girl.
In my required critical paper written during my penultimate semester, I explored in more detail how both Smith and Bellm employed both traditional poetic forms as well as structured free verse as containers for the painful material in their poems. What was significant for me was that their work lives comfortably in what Greg Orr refers to as the “structure temperament” in his 1988 article “Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry” (archived here). Smith worked with a variety of already established poetic forms as well as created her own structural containers in free verse4. For example, “An All-Purpose Product” is a prose poem in structured block paragraphs which eventually break down into scattered words as the young girl loses the battle with her mother’s internalized racism and colorism. Meanwhile, Bellm used sestinas and villanelles in half of his collection, using the repetition in both forms to emphasize the horror, pain, and difficult emotions his speakers encountered. Both poets, in their own ways, encouraged me to introduce more structure particularly into my free verse poems.
Several poets also affected how I composed first drafts in terms of line length and white space. I tried to construct my imagery and metaphor in smaller spaces and clipped lines, similar to how Matt Rasmussen did in his collection Black Aperture, which took an honest and artistically beautiful look at something hard to call beautiful: his brother’s suicide. I later found that I needed to expand outward again, trying out longer line lengths after reading Sharon Olds’ collection The Father and remembering the free associative leaps in Larry Levis’ Winter Stars. Additionally, Levis’ and Olds’ collections pushed me out of my comfort zone through their subject material: with Olds, we follow her as she watches her father die from cancer, and with Levis we read of his lack of connection with his own father and an unabashed look at his own extramarital affairs. Both of these books encouraged me to move a little closer to the painful center of my own narrative arc.
Two additional texts helped me consider how to work in thematic material into my poems. I found appreciation for less literal realms of expression in Oliver Bendorf’s The Spectral Wilderness. This is no accident, for as he gave voice to his own experience as a transgender man, I found inspiration for ways to express my own. In fact, Bendorf’s poem “Patrón” inspired my poem, “Even Trade.”5 These lines from his poem gave me a glimpse at what will hopefully be in my own future as I work to transform my body:
Patrón’s chest is held
in place by two scars
on a wild
sea. Every day
he applies aloe
with one finger
checks the wind
Also, because the name for and subject material of his collection speak to existing in a “space between”, this felt incredibly familiar to me. Since I wanted to represent the essential truth of my experience, I had to deal with unique questions in my writing, such as what pronouns to use or whether to call myself male or female in some of the poems depicting my childhood. Next, I turned to Stephen S. Mills’ A History of the Unmarried as a model for how to integrate pop culture into a poetry collection while keeping the work accessible to readers. Mills’ love of the television series Mad Men was present in his collection as he explored what marriage – and lack of legal access to it prior to marriage equality – meant for him and his lover. Similarly, I tried to code Doctor Who and other fictional time travel works into my thesis to tell my own queer trans autistic multiracial history in poetry; I hope I am even as close to being as successful as I found Mills’ work to be.
Finally, several texts were crucial in helping me divine the order of my collection. The foundational text for this was Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems, edited by Susan Grimm. Many of the essayists in the book emphasized one critical point: there is no magic way to determine how to order one’s collection. Taking the other advice in the text, which included allowing the poems to dialogue with each other and paying attention to the strength of the first and final poems, I stumbled into my own attempt to order this collection. Then, Marci Vogel’s At the Border of Wilshire and Nobody influenced me strongly in the final ordering of this thesis. Because my conceit is time travel, I paid attention to the somewhat nonlinear chronology of her book and derived inspiration from it to let my reader leap around in time with me in a somewhat chaotic fashion, replicating how my PTSD-induced flashbacks happen. Finally, studying the two versions of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel – the restored edition and the version with a forward by Robert Lowell (ordered by her estranged husband Ted Hughes) – revealed how her collection gave rise to two different narrative arcs with different sequences of poems. The restored edition marches through darkness, yet offers a ray of hope near the end; in contrast, I found that the Hughes version told a much different story of a woman’s fiery, seemingly inalterable march towards a tragic destiny.6
In studying those books, I discovered something important: a strictly chronological order of my poems would not have served this collection well. Instead, the somewhat nonlinear order gave rise to its central theme: the only way out is through. I had to pilot my mental timeship back through my past and watch everything as it happened, and would happen again, in order learn how to take control of the console and begin to both heal and reclaim myself.7
It’s important to note that all of the writers I’ve cited make very important statements about self-determination, consent, and the need to express difficult truths as well as one’s authentic self. Additionally, exposure to different approaches of craft while studying in this program have given me the tools to generate as well as revise my own work. All of this is critical for me to tell my story. This thesis itself is an act of defiance and reclaiming. It is refusing to activate the chameleon circuit on my timeship, and refusing to pretend to be what I am not and can never be. It is giving voice to what I was told to keep silent and locked away. And it is finally seizing the console of this ship, and bringing it under my control.
Now I must ask myself, in the words of the Tenth Doctor: “All of time and space. Where do I want to go?”
1. Neurodivergent K has written a great deal on the phrase “indistinguishable from peers” on her blog, Radical Neurodivergence Speaking. A suggested starting point for further reading is “Indistinguishable from Peers – An Introduction.” Other writings can be found here.
2.“An Open Letter to Dr. Lovaas” will appear in Time Travel in a Closet. An earlier version of the poem can be read here.
3. I was surprised to find the term “girlboy” in Bellm’s poem because I used the same word in “Close Encounters of the Whispered Kind, 1992”. Bellm’s collection One Hand on the Wheel was released in 1999, but I did not read the book until late 2015. I wrote the first draft of my poem in 2014. This is incredibly fascinating.
4. As a bonus, you can watch Smith’s poetry craft seminar from Summer 2015 at Ashland University here.
5. “Even Trade” appears in Issue #7 of Guide to Kulchur Creative Journal.
6. “Timeships”, which currently appears in Time Travel in a Closet, explores the possibility that Plath may have been neurodivergent, and that her death may have partially been caused by the stress and trauma of trying to appear “indistinguishable from peers.”
7. “How to Time Travel in a Closet”, which will appear in Time Travel in a Closet, also appears in The Spoon Knife Anthology: Thoughts on Compliance, Defiance, and Resistance, ed. by Michael Scott Monje, Jr. and N.I. Nicholson.