Jonathan Ames: Breasts and Transhistories

Written by Jonathan Ames on . Posted in Arts & Film, Books.


In the late 80s and early 90s I was obsessed with women’s breasts to an appalling degree. Every woman I saw I wanted to nurse on. This obsessive state of mind, which I’ve since outgrown (now I want to go down on all women–much healthier, I think), was very painful. The world was filled with boobs I couldn’t have! I was like that desolate baby chick from the children’s book, who, accidentally ejected from his nest, staggers about in a Beckettian landscape looking for his mommy.

I was living in Princeton during this difficult period and had a lovely girlfriend, but her breasts–for the idiot I was at that time–were too small. The poor girl, a wonderful artist, sensed intuitively my condition–I had the decency never to say anything about it, but women are emotional tuning forks; they pick up everything–and she painted this large canvas of a stupendously endowed woman rising out of the sea. She hung it over my bed, perhaps for me to look at while I mounted her, which now that I think of it is like the remedy that Dr. Hammond, a colleague of the famous 19th-century German psychiatrist Dr. Richard Von Krafft-Ebing, recommended for a shoe fetishist: his wife’s high heel was to be nailed to the wall over their conjugal bed so that he could peer at it and be aroused sufficiently to perform his marital duties.

I didn’t like my condition, and I thought of contacting the Kinsey Institute and asking to be allowed to nurse on 100 women lined up in a gymnasium. I thought that might heal me once and for all; the idea being to demystify the breast, to get my fill. Later, I did attempt such a cure on my own when I moved to New York in 1992 and frequented the suckling booths of a peepshow on 43rd St., though I was often concerned about getting TB from the nipples of those women. They didn’t seem to wash their boobs between clients, but I never developed a bad cough, and I think the cure worked on my breast problem–by 1993, after just a few months of steady nursing, I was interested in all parts of the female anatomy–including the penis. Turns out that right next to the peepshow on 43rd St. was a legendary trannie bar, Sally’s. So I cured myself of my bosom condition, and then right next door I developed another problem, which took me years to get over. But this is one of the strengths of my character: when it comes to sexual fetishes, I can’t be pigeonholed! I’m always changing, always growing!

Anyway, I’ve digressed; let me go back in time to late October of 1990, when I was still that wandering chick look for the perfect nipple. I was flying back from Los Angeles and a friend picked me up at the airport in Philadelphia. It was around 10 p.m. and I was tired, but on our way back to Princeton my friend, an older man, wanted to stop at a gay bar in New Hope, PA–the Provincetown of the Keystone State. So into this gay bar called the Cartwheel we ventured. Being straightish, I didn’t feel entirely at ease as we penetrated the establishment, which is often my reaction to gay bars. It’s like how I, as a Conservative Jew, feel in Orthodox synagogues–I almost belong, but not quite. So I was very pleased when immediately on approaching the large, circular, cartwheelish bar, a gorgeous, older blonde woman said to me, “Where have you been my whole life, baby? Look at those blond eyelashes!”

She was sitting on a barstool, and right away gathered me into her arms–she was a big woman, about 6 feet tall, in a low-cut blouse and stylish skirt–and she began to make love to me, in the old-fashioned sense that is. She looked to be in her late 40s, had a beautiful smile, bedroom eyes that ate you up, glamorous long legs, and, very important to the 26-year-old Jonathan–an ample, delicious bosom. Her breasts were as big as the ones my girlfriend had put in that painting!

It was just about the quickest pick-up of my life. She held me against her lovely, comforting chest, and we chatted happily and spontaneously. We were kindred spirits: she wanted to mother and I wanted to be mothered.

Well, our bar-side lovemaking went on for about an hour and then my friend, who brought me there, wanted to get back to Princeton. I kissed my new ladyfriend goodbye and she gave me her number, written on a Cartwheel napkin, and we promised each other that we would get together–a promise tinged with erotic possibility.

During the car ride home, my friend expressed his wonderment at my ability to pick up–or rather to be picked up by–the only woman in the bar. I was also impressed with myself, but guilty, too–my girlfriend the artist was waiting for me at home! I was a cad. But how could I have resisted?

Over the next two weeks, this older woman and I had two or three quasi-erotic phone conversations. She lived a few towns away from Princeton and was acting in a local theater company–she had gone to the bar with some gay members of her troupe. We talked about getting together, but I kept postponing this: I was scared about cheating on my girlfriend.

I felt unfaithful, though, just by possessing that Cartwheel napkin–it seemed to burn inside my desk drawer where I had it hidden beneath unpaid bills. I would often look at that napkin, with its hastily scribbled name and phone number, and become guiltily excited–should I call or not call? Should I arrange an encounter? But then, in what felt like an heroic moment after a therapy session, I threw the number away! For all my faults, I loved my artist girl, and I never again saw or spoke again to the woman from the bar.

Now let’s fast-forward. The girl and I broke up two years later and I moved to New York, as I said, in 1992. I took my cure at the peep show and picked up my new fetish condition at Sally’s. Over the next several years, I wrote a novel, which was very much inspired by my tenure as a Sally’s barfly. The book, The Extra Man, came out in 1998, and since that time, I’ve often been solicited to provide blurbs for with sexual content. For example, a few months ago I was contacted, via e-mail, by a publicist for Temple University Press, who was hoping that I might read and blurb one of Temple’s forthcoming –the memoir of a transsexual. I happily assented, and the book, in galley form, was sent to me–The Woman I Was Not Born to Be: A Transsexual Journey, by Aleshia Brevard (272 pages, $24.05 paper).

I loved the book and found it absolutely fascinating; it inspired me to read several other transsexual memoirs. These personal histories, like Brevard’s, are very similar in structure to that classic literary model–the bildungsroman, the coming-of-age novel. In fact, there is such a wealth now of transsexual memoirs that they are deserving of their own category, maybe “transhistory” or “transromance” or “genitomemoir.” Well, I’ll leave it to the PhDs, but I think I will go with my first suggestion.

The basic outline of the “transhistory” is as follows: a boy or girl very early on in life feels terribly uncomfortable in their gender role and there is a sense that some terrible mistake has occurred, that they were meant to be the other sex. Attempts are made–by parents or society–to reform them, and they learn to repress, as much as possible, their instincts. Eventually–like the protagonist of the bildungsroman–they leave the home, their small world, and venture out, usually to a big city. There they begin to privately or publicly masquerade as the other sex, until eventually the masquerade goes beyond costume and posture and becomes permanent–especially in the latter part of the 20th century with the advent of synthetic hormones and plastic and sex-change surgeries.

The third act is the aftermath of the sex-change. In most of the books I’ve read, whether it be female-to-male or male-to-female, the writer will not proclaim that great happiness has been found or that all their problems are solved, but they all do seem to express this feeling that they’ve done all they can (penises removed, breasts implanted; penises constructed, breasts removed; myriad other surgeries; great physical and psychological suffering) and they have come, finally, to a place of self-acceptance and peace. These are the success stories, though, and it takes a lot of courage to write them. But what of the transsexuals for whom gender reassignment doesn’t work?

Aleshia Brevard’s memoir follows this basic transhistory model, and I’m happy to say that her tale is one of the success stories. It is one of the most amazing memoirs–transsexual or otherwise–I’ve ever read. Here’s the Hollywood plot summary: Born in the late 30s on a farm in the south as Alfred Brevard Crenshaw, but called Buddy; quits the farm and runs away to the West Coast, landing eventually in San Francisco, where he becomes a drag queen at the famous Finocchio’s; performing as Lee Shaw in the late 50s, Buddy is perhaps the first Marilyn Monroe impersonator and achieves such a level of fame that MM herself comes to his show; during this time he meets the love of his life, a man named Hank, and so that they may be married, Buddy undergoes, in 1962, at age 23, a sex-change operation; as Aleshia the relationship with Hank sadly falls apart, but she goes to college, studies drama and is twice voted “Actress of the Year”; after college there’s a brief marriage, then a move to Los Angeles and a career as a B-movie and soap-opera actress and Playboy bunny–becoming the first transsexual Hollywood starlet, but all the while never revealing to Tinseltown her previous life as Buddy Crenshaw; there’s also a second marriage and the role of mother to three stepsons.

This life story, which I’ve summarized with the barest-bone details, is told with incredible wit and grace and feeling. Especially moving is her portrait of her mother, Mozelle, this Southern woman who never stopped loving and supporting her child. Here’s an incredible example of her mother’s devotion (the day after the surgery):

“I was curious about the appearance of my vagina. I’d never seen one–and now I had my own. In fact, I had a brand-new one! I’d bought the darn thing sight unseen. I wanted to see exactly what it looked like.

“The day after surgery, I asked for a hand mirror and tenderly positioned myself for my first peek at a vagina.

“‘Good God!’ I shrieked, ‘What have they done to me? This looks like something you’d hang in your smokehouse…after a hog killing.’

“I’d never seen anything so gross. It was swollen, red and wrinkled… This thing needed to be ironed… I started to cry, which only made matters worse.

“Mother rang for the nurse.

“‘You’re perfectly normal,’ they both reassured me. ‘That’s how you’re supposed to look.’

“Who did they think they were fooling? I was having none of it.

“‘Like this?’ I keened… This thing had folds! I was suddenly reminded of that unattractive rear view as I herded home the cows.

“I was truly upset.

“‘We’ll show you,’ my mother volunteered.

“My mother and the Westlake Clinic’s charge nurse both lifted their skirts, presenting me a view of not one but two naturally born vaginas. By golly, they did have folds. There were four outer labial folds on each vagina. Satisfied that I was normal, I drifted off to sleep.”

Well, I absolutely adored this book, and all the while as I read it I kept wondering why the name Aleshia Brevard was so familiar to me. I had this vague feeling that maybe I had spoken to Aleshia on a phone-sex line or something; it was kind of haunting. And I kept looking at her sexy pictures in the middle of the book and I found her, as Hollywood casting agents had, very beautiful–that’s the other aspect of transhistories: incredible before-and-after photos. Then I got to the end of the memoir and there was a brief mention of having been in a small theater company in Princeton.

She was the woman–though I couldn’t quite recall the name, was it Aleshia Brevard?–whom I had met at the Cartwheel! I promptly e-mailed the publicist at Temple University Press: “I love the book and will happily give it a blurb. But there’s something curious going on–I think I’ve met Aleshia. Can you ask her if she remembers meeting me at a bar in New Hope, PA, 10 years ago?”

A few hours later the publicist forwarded an e-mail to me from Aleshia Brevard. It was one line long: “Where have you been, baby?”

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