On the way home from my top surgery follow-up, my mother and I were caught behind a car wreck for three hours. One car had crashed into the guardrail at the side of the road. Another man had gotten out of his own car to help the passengers and had been hit and killed by a truck. The state sent in patrol cars, and a hearse, and ambulances, and fire trucks, and a helicopter. We spent the afternoon watching something terrible play out on the horizon.
My mother was sure God had spared our lives. My surgeon had been twenty minutes late to the appointment: “If he’d been on time, we would have been right in the middle of that wreck,” she told me.
As a teenager, I would have argued. My mother has always done this, found some reason to praise God for everything, and I’ve always felt she gives Him too much credit. If God made my top surgeon twenty minutes late, and thereby made sure we were not in the car wreck, then God could have made the surgeon twenty minutes earlier, meaning we would have been ahead of the wreck and not stuck in traffic. God could have made it so there was no wreck. God could have ensured that a man wasn’t hit by a truck and killed for trying to do the right thing.
God could have made it so my mother wasn’t abused by her first husband. God could have made her younger son not disabled, and her older son not trans. If God had done that, I wouldn’t have needed top surgery; I’d just be off somewhere, with my God-given flat chest, out of her hair. If God got us stuck behind a massive car wreck for three hours, God could have managed all that, but God didn’t. Why thank Him?
My mother has survived quite a lot of pain in this life without becoming a bitter person, and I have come to realize that this is why: She, unlike me, looks for what God did do. The marriage ended, but it didn’t kill her. The son got sick, but he isn’t dead. I got breasts, but I also got surgery. Not everyone can afford surgery. Not everyone has a mother who will drive them to the appointment. God didn’t give me what I wanted, but he gave me luck.
Sometimes, you don’t get ahead of the wreck. You’re not in the wreck, either. You’re just behind, stuck until things are set right again; you’re not happy, but you’re not dead. The trick is to realize that this is a blessing, too.
I have an uneasy relationship with my own history. I’ve been more or less well-known — blog famous, social media famous; never famous-famous, for which I thank God and my own self-destruction — since I was twenty-six years old. I realized I was trans at thirty-seven, and I’m now forty.
Eleven years is a long time; the eleven years between twenty-six and thirty-seven may be even longer. I’ve been leaving a public record of myself — or the person I wanted to be, or tried to be, or thought I was supposed to be — for over a decade, little slices peeled off dozens of times per day and posted on Twitter and Blogspot and Wordpress and Tumblr. Thousands of people have encountered one or more of those slices and mistaken them for the reality of who I am.
This would be uncomfortable even if their mental image of me weren’t the wrong gender, but she is, so it’s worse. Thousands of people think they remember me, and if they encountered me at any point prior to September of 2020, they’re remembering the wrong person. They’re remembering a made-up person, who I invented to cover up a deeply miserable portion of my life.
It sounds silly to say that I got Internet famous by accident, or that I found it distressing — boo-hoo, you got attention and praise, poor baby — but I did. I lost my job in 2008 or 2009, and my blog was semi-popular, so my boyfriend at the time thought I could make ends meet by working as a freelance writer. (Neither of us knew what freelance writers made, or this would never have happened.) I had a connect with a guy who was big in the Gawker universe. I won't say his name, because I doubt he'd want to be blamed for me, but in 2009, if you had a meeting with this particular person, and you didn’t blow it, you would walk out with a career. It would probably be a good one.
I spent the night before that meeting sobbing on my couch, snot running down my face, telling my boyfriend that I wouldn’t go, I wouldn’t go, there was no way in Hell he could make me go to that meeting. “I don’t want those people to know about me. I don’t want them to know about me,” I kept saying.
So I knew from the start that it would be bad; being known as the wrong person was always going to be profoundly bad for me. I still went to the meeting, because common sense dictated I had to, and the badness started at once.
I have never been less happy, or less well, than I was in the years 2009 through 2012, the height of my Blog Fame. Those years ended with me in a psychiatric ward, and the miracle is not that it happened, but that it took so long. I tried to kill myself at least three times in that four-year span. I once puked up half a bottle of Zoloft and sat down to file a piece. I drank whenever I wasn’t working, and there were times when I wasn’t working much. I self-mutilated whenever I was behind on a deadline. I showed up at media parties, the ones where I was supposed to Network and secure further Blog Fame, with open wounds that I kept trying to explain as the result of household accidents: I got spattered with grease frying chicken, I think the most ludicrous explanation was, for the burns littered up and down my forearms. Everyone knew that I didn’t own a fryer. Everyone knew that I didn’t cook.
That was "Sady Doyle;" that was the strong, sassy, always-knows-the-answer feminist the Internet loved to hate. I invented a voice, a version of what I thought a cool, confident, female person would sound like, and then I wrote in character, as that person, between puking up pills. The imitation was not always convincing. Lots of those pieces are forgettable; some are bad. Still, in retrospect, there is something impressive in how long I kept up the act.
Sometimes people would react to me as if I were Sady; they would tell me I was strong, or funny, or heroic, and that felt good. Some were very young — teenagers; I got a job writing advice for teenagers, which, in retrospect, is like letting Jackson Pollock drive the school bus — which made me feel responsible for their welfare. I thought getting rid of Sady would be like telling them success and happiness were impossible. I thought the truth would let everybody down. Other people, many people, hated Sady; she was a bitch, a cunt, a frigid man-hating monster, and they wanted to scream at her. I would scream back, because the crucial thing to know about me, in those years, is that I was always barely suppressing a scream.
I will be anchored to that version of myself forever. People still come up to me and want to litigate things she said or did. Some of them want to finish a fight: “About a decade ago, I was publicly raked over the coals by this nasty bitch. I am sexist, sexist, sexist, she announced,” goes one representative post. “If she's a really man now, I'd relish the chance to kick her ass.” Others grieve her. They feel betrayed: “I felt so empowered to embrace my feminine strength [after reading your work],” one woman wrote me, “and seeing you choosing a masculine pronoun instead of a feminine one left me a bit puzzled.”
Me too, sister. On the other hand, I don’t show up to parties with mysterious burns on my arms any more. I am a happy and peaceful and more or less healthy person these days — 30 mg Prozac, talk therapy once every two weeks, psychiatric checkup once every two months; two beers every Saturday night, so far no problems — which is why I can look back on “Sady Doyle” with clarity. It’s a dead name. I killed her.
She is a noisy ghost, though. Odds are, when you look at me, you are — subconsciously or consciously, thinking about it or thinking-about-it-by-trying-not-to-think-about-it — remembering the wrong person. You’re not really seeing my face; you’re examining it for the woman who disappeared. You’re knocking on my door, looking for someone you may not like, someone I didn’t always like, and I cannot make you give up the search for her. I cannot convince you that the only one here is me.
This playlist is on Spotify because Ghost supports the embed. If you want to listen to a version that doesn't fund Joe Rogan, you can find it here, on Tidal.
There’s a man on Twitter who hates me. That’s the least surprising sentence I have ever typed, but there’s a story behind this guy, so hear me out.
This man doesn’t like feminism. For years before I came out, he’d been stalking my Twitter account because he viewed me as an example of Feminism at its misandrist extreme. This man, like me, is transgender, and he had concocted a pet theory: Somehow — although I’d never given any public statements to this effect, or written anything about it, and although the staff I hired for my blog was more than half trans, and I’d been writing trans-inclusive coverage for over a decade — I must harbor a particularly intense hatred for trans men. Also trans women, probably! But primarily trans men, because trans men were oppressed by Feminism, because it shamed their manhood.
I had no thoughts on this guy, or his manhood, when he came up with this theory. I didn’t know who he was. Now, I’ve developed several thoughts, most of which I won’t share. I know who he is now, because he’s relatively popular on trans Twitter, particularly with gay trans men, and so, from the moment I came out — and he started publicly shit-talking me even more often, within days of my coming out — many of the people I had been hoping to connect with had been primed to hate me. This has been painful.
He will read this post, and he will make me regret it. Either on this or on something I write in the near future, he and/or his friend group will find a sentence to quote out of context, to which he will attach a misinterpretation that goes beyond “bad faith” and on to the willful attribution of demonic malice, and I will spend the next few days on Twitter explaining that, no, I actually don’t believe all infants assigned male should be smothered in their cribs, and I never actually intended to convey that trans men should be personally beaten about the head and face with Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse until they detransition, and no, actually, I never said that “Hitler had some good ideas,” that was someone else.
So, keeping in mind that I’m going to be accused of taking the wrong side in the Bosnian genocide based on one clause in one sentence in the second graf of the third portion of this piece (“WHY WOULD YOU JOKE ABOUT THE BOSNIAN GENOCIDE” - This Dude) I will say that I’ve read a little of his work, and some of his tweets, in an effort to comprehend why a stranger would develop this fixation on me. I have picked up some fascinating information.
It’s not the “feminism hurts men” thing. I can’t count how many times I’ve been told I am “hurting men” by existing. I "spread hatred against men and boys," in the words of a hate site that also promised to "fuck me up my shopworn ass." It's not just the MRAs: There was also the editor who opened a job interview by saying he’d searched my work for something “sympathetic to men,” and who made it clear that getting the job would be contingent on “writing something men are able to read.” The next time I heard his name, he was at the center of an entirely predictable #MeToo-ing. There was the houseguest who was angry at me because I "just assumed Julian Assange was guilty." He was later accused of raping a teenager. There was the comedian who made fake social media profiles, posing as me, to defend "free speech." That one turned out to have choked his girlfriend. In between those guys, on top of those guys, there were the dudes who approached me at parties to say that, like, their friend had been accused of rape? In college? And he totally didn’t do it, he just hooked up with a girl who regretted the sex, and, like, I probably never thought about that perspective, how hard it was for men…
Men who are "hurt" by feminism are very often men who hurt women, in my experience. The two stances I have most consistently articulated are “let's take rape seriously” and “don’t harass women just for existing,” and if you agree with those things, I've got no quarrel with you; if you don't, it's typically not hard to guess why. I don’t bother myself much about those men, and this guy is no exception. He believes "feminism makes me feel bad for being a man” is a radical queer perspective, because he, a radical queer, is voicing it; I believe that, though he may not be consciously allied with the men I've listed, his argument, by design, gives them cover and false legitimacy. He wants to tell the world about his hurt feelings, and he has done so. The question of who he might hurt in the process, or whether other people have feelings worthy of consideration, does not seem to occur.
I know there are drawbacks to stooping to his level, which is why I'm not naming him – I don't want to fuck up a trans guy's Google – and why I gave him several years to chill out and move on beforehand. He’ll relish the attention, feed on it, because guys like him always do. Even taking the time to spell this out implies I think of him as some kind of peer. I don't. A ton of guys have this pathology, when it comes to me, and he's just a particularly interesting example. Because:
This guy, it turns out, hates feminists because he used to be one. Specifically, he was a teen Tumblr feminist in the 2010s. This guy is neurodivergent, and has struggled with mental health issues including suicidality, and when he was a feminist, he was closeted and self-destructive and flooded with self-loathing. He hates who he was in his Tumblr days. He was miserable as that person. He has devoted his life to getting past that false self.
Are you seeing it yet? I did, because on the day I checked his social media timeline, he’d posted a photo from from his “annoying feminist” days. Those days, it turned out, had a specific look. It was something you saw often on a certain type: Long, straight dark hair, thick plastic-framed glasses, pale skin, dark clothes, head tilted to the side with a little smirk. There I was, staring at the past self he hated so much, and I was looking right at, well…
I pretended to be Sady Doyle, but so did he. He hated it just as much as I did. This guy is fifteen years younger than me. He would have been twelve when my career took off, and in middle school or high school at the peak of the feminist blog era. I was writing for teenagers; I wrote advice for teenagers, something I had no business doing, and it has come back to bite me. He hates me, he was me, he hates himself and thus me – what defines Sady Doyle, if not the quest to ruin Sady Doyle’s life? I killed her, but not before building a new one to replace her. I am my own worst enemy, even now.
Once, in the middle of the bad years, I wrote a letter to a psychologist. This person was an expert on shame, and I am, once again, fudging details, in the sincere hope that telling the story won’t disturb his life. (This is, after all, the blog post that will be used to prove I helped Nixon do Watergate. It’s best not to take anyone down with me.) I was inspired by his moral rigor, which I found rare in the field. He had empathy for people’s struggles, but he also expected those people to take responsibility for how they hurt others while struggling. Pain could be a reason, he said, but not an excuse.
Something in me knew I needed to strike that balance, and so I wrote to the expert about a friend. This friend had experienced a lot of violence and abuse, I said, and they had become very self-destructive, and did a lot of drugs, and really acted like they were trying to die, and they could also be cruel to the people around them, but what I thought, reading the shame expert, was that maybe this person could turn out okay? Maybe? If they worked hard enough? As I read the expert’s work, this sort of person was not beyond redemption. Were they?
The expert wrote back, and was very polite, and here’s where I fucked up what might have been a nice story: I believed his politeness constituted an offer of friendship. I responded with terrifying intensity, writing unhinged letters about Scottish ballads and blood rivers and the Jungian shadow. The expert was polite a few more times, and then stopped writing back. It took months to realize I had been ghosted.
This was one of the most mortifying exchanges of my adult life. I spent years torturing myself with the memory, trying to figure out the precise moment he gave up on me; what I had done, what I had said, when he figured out that I was too crazy to save, whether I made him uncomfortable or worried for his safety or whether my palpable desperation had felt like harassment or stalking or (oh God) some creepy attempt to hit on him, or… I mean, I will never know what happened, but I have also always known what happened. I was too cringe for a shame expert. It takes a while to get over that.
So I do it too. I decide who people are, based on tiny slivers of their public personas, and then I have a relationship with my own concept of that person, without the actual human being ever getting involved. I will never be able to convince the man who hates me that I am not who he thinks I am; I am not the voice in his head telling him that all men are bad, or that he is bad for being a man, or that transitioning makes him a traitor to feminism or to women. That voice is his, and so are those accusations, and he’s projected them onto me because he can’t bear to face his own self-hatred.
As long as this guy can't accept himself, I will not be credited with the ability to grow or learn. I will never be a human being with my own struggles. He will keep thinking of me as Sady and treating me like Sady, picking at Jude as if it's a mask he can take off to reveal the familiar enemy beneath, and the question of what this implies about his radical trans politics will not occur to him. I will live the rest of my Internet life with this dude busting in on me like Javert at odd intervals – he was born with scum like you! He once had a Tumblr, too! – until one day, when he’s ready, he can see it: I am not the autistic gay Internet-feminist glasses-wearing suicidal trans man whose past he can’t forgive.
Yet, if we project our most shameful qualities onto others, we also project our hoped-for best selves. If I am my own annoying Twitter man, I am also my own shame expert — I’d have to be, after embarrassing myself this often. I’m not saying I’m great at this, but I do find myself easy to get in touch with, so here’s what I’ve got:
No-one else can declare you redeemable. No-one can forgive you for being you. You have to forgive yourself — and I do mean have to, because believing in redemption is the only thing that allows it to occur.
I can put this in therapy-speak. I can tell you that toxic shame — the kind incurred by abusive relationships, or bad family dynamics, or Twitter — causes people to feel fundamentally unworthy of life and love, and thereby makes accountability impossible. A person beset by shame will hear every criticism, no matter how mild, as an attack on their right to exist, and they will fight for their life rather than listen. You cannot improve your own behavior when you hear every “you hurt my feelings” as “you deserve to die.”
Yet in a safe environment, with a healthy self-concept, that same criticism might prompt reasonable behavior: Proportional guilt, apologies, efforts to repair harm. Believing you’re a piece of shit is what’s going to make you act like a piece of shit, so the trick is to love yourself just enough that you can tell when you’re being shitty. Accountability is the goal, always. Healing is what you do so that accountability can take place.
No-one else has to forgive you. Saying that you’ve changed, or even behaving differently, does not entitle you to anybody’s trust. You do this alone, even when you want help, even when you think you need it. I will never be friends with the shame expert. I hope the man who hates me can forgive himself, but I don’t know if I'll forgive him. Not everyone can get out of their car for you; there are trucks coming down the road at 60 miles per hour, and if your rescuer gets hit, the situation will be much worse.
Making other people respect you, or like you, has never been the point. The only fight worth having is the one you have with yourself — and every fight is that fight, in the end. As for me, I am stuck behind the wreck of my past, waiting for the road to clear. I’ve been here a long time, watching the horizon. I didn’t get ahead of it, but I’m not in it, and there is luck in that. I’m alive. Sooner or later, I’ll be moving forward again.
At my other job: I really am sorry about all this, everyone. Also, for this essay on body horror and dysphoria, this other essay on X-Men comics and mutant puberty, and for this thing I wrote about how men are not intrinsically evil. ("Men are... intrinsically evil." – Jude Doyle.)
By the way: That body horror essay is part of IT CAME FROM THE CLOSET, a queer horror anthology edited by the fantastic Joe Vallese that is racking up rave reviews everywhere. I honestly can't recommend the book enough – available wherever fine books are sold, of course – and I also recommend that you come to its virtual launch on Monday, October 10, where I'll be speaking with some of the other essayists. Finally:
Welcome to the Halloween Special! There's actual horror (not just Twitter horror) coming up every week, and, as usual, subscriptions are 30% off this month – $3.50 per month instead of $5. Please do: