June 5th, 2015

mad hatter

Freakin' at the Freakers' Ball, y'all

Once upon a time (1850s San Francisco) a man named Joshua Norton lost his entire (rather considerable) fortune speculating in Peruvian rice. He left town in a hurry, one step ahead of his creditors. He reappeared some years later as a penniless vagrant in a bandbox uniform, calling himself “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.”

His Majesty the Emperor Norton was given to issuing impressive decrees calling for the building of a bridge across San Francisco Bay, for the dissolution of the United States, and various other things. He printed his own money, which the restaurants and grocers in San Francisco honored; it was the only way he ate. Everyone treated him with great kindness, even deference. When Norton I wrote an imperial letter to the so-called President, Abraham Lincoln replied in a properly respectful official letter, as if from one Head of State to another. When Norton died in 1880, San Francisco gave him the biggest funeral seen to that date.

Nobody could cure Norton of his delusion, so they resolved simply to treat him with all the kindness they could. He didn’t bother anybody. He never stole anything. His imperial fantasy was, apparently, simply the way he coped with the loss of his earthly hopes. He became part of the local atmosphere, a much-beloved part of the City.

Which brings me to Bruce, now Caitlyn, Jenner. Mr. Jenner has apparently spent his entire life feeling out of place in his body. That’s got to be painful. He is now my age (or a bit more), and I know how you start coming to terms with things when you get up in your 50s and 60s. There are so many things you thought you’d have figured out, or resolved, by now. But, no. Some things don’t just take care of themselves, and the years of waiting for some way out of the box you find yourself in begin to mount. So he has decided to re-create himself in a rather drastic fashion – rather more drastically than Joshua Norton did, but still, their stories have a certain resonance.

I feel very sorry for Jenner. I would not pile on him/her for the world. He/she is not a symbol or a movement, but one very troubled person. So I may, eventually, be able to twist my tongue to call him/her “Caitlyn.” It’s a kindness, like calling Joshua Norton, “Your Majesty.” But not all the hormones or surgery or makeup or transgender activism can make Bruce Jenner a woman. We can humor his delusion, but that’s about it.

Meanwhile, there are even crazier things abroad than Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair. Years ago, Pico Iyer wrote an essay in TIME magazine on the difference between the eccentric and the weirdo. His thesis was that it is the sign of a healthy society that it manages to accommodate eccentrics in its midst, but that it is the sign of an unhealthy society when it begins to shelter weirdos. And what is the difference? Well, an eccentric (like the Emperor Norton) is somebody out of step with the rest of society, someone who sees things differently, lives by different standards. Instead of beating such people up, or medicating them into zombiedom, or locking them away, a healthy society treats them with such kindness as it can. Meanwhile, the weirdo cultivates normality, blends in, all the while masking disturbing thoughts and plans. The “quiet type” who suddenly shoots up a school, or the “nice guy” who turns out to be a molester or a serial killer – they could be anybody. They don’t stand out like the guy in the crazy suit. But they are the ones who are actually dangerous.

Lena Dunham is a weirdo. In her autobiography (it is worth noting that she has written an autobiography at an age when she has had few real accomplishments) she writes of seducing and molesting her baby sister. She writes about it as if it were a perfectly ordinary, suburban rite of passage, nor is she ashamed of what she has done. People bought her book. She remains employed as a TV personality. She is not “out there” like Cailyn Jenner; she presents herself as an ordinary young woman whose interests and desires are perfectly normal.

The fact that we as a society can tolerate people like Caitlyn Jenner, treat her with kindness, is a sign of our health as a society. The fact that we buy Lena Dunham’s book and watch her TV shows is a far less hopeful sign.