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Like Virginia Woolf and her creation Orlando, my parent thrived on self-reinvention and defiance of convention

illustration by Tallulah Fontaine

Heather O’Neill is the author of several books, including Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Lonely Hearts Hotel. She was recently awarded the Writers’ Trust Fellowship.

When I was seven years old my mother decided to send me to live with my neglectful and unemployed father in Montreal. Not because they believed I would be happier, but because they wanted to be free from the burden of raising me. I remember feeling like I was being raised in the wrong home and in the wrong city and I missed my mother all the time.

I hadn’t seen them for a couple years when they sent me a letter saying they would come take me to the beach during summertime. They arrived in a beat-up station wagon. The last time I had seen them, they had long straight black hair down their back and wore bellbottoms and tight T-shirts. This time, they arrived wearing a black navy jacket with epaulettes and pinstriped pants. Their black hair had been cut short on the sides and brushed back into a pompadour.

As we drove down to Provincetown, Mass., where they had been living, they made it clear that I wasn’t allowed to call them Mom. Or, for that matter, tell anyone they were my parent. Let them think what they want, they said, there’s no need to point out our relationship. (I still refer to them, rather hesitantly, as “my mother,” since they didn’t give me any other term to use, and I can’t not think of them as my parent.) They had also changed their name to Abraham.

I looked at them driving and, even though I was a child, I could tell their look was rather extraordinary.

The other day I heard the theme for this year’s Met Gala was inspired by Sally Potter’s 1992 film of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 book Orlando. I was filled with nerdish delight that an event so mainstream would be centred on a book that was so influential to me. I thought it was apropos that this book should resurface now, when ideas of gender have so radically become part of the public conversation.

In Woolf’s novel, the central character, Orlando, begins life as a man, but then, after a lengthy nap, wakes up to find they are a woman. When Orlando changes gender, it is a fait accompli. There is no lengthy discussion about biology and transformation. The character quickly accepts it and then goes about life as a woman.

Once, when my mother was little, they bounced off a bed they’d been jumping on and cracked open their skull. Their head was shaved for the operation. They really liked looking in the mirror for months afterward, they told me. They loved having short hair. When they looked in the mirror, they saw the child they wanted to see looking back at them. They looked like a boy. Like Orlando, they had changed genders, but no one seemed to go along with it. And then they were forced to grow their hair out and behave like a girl.

Orlando is considered by some to be the first postmodern novel, because it plays with historical periods and fact and fiction. Woolf claims the book is a biography, when it is clearly fantastical, and has real historical people having dinner with made-up ones. Orlando is ageless and lives 400 years. The book is Elizabethan in one part and modern the next.

So was my mother, in a way. Upon arriving in Provincetown, which was then, and still is, a gay and artistic mecca, I came to be acquainted with my mother’s wardrobe. I suppose you could say they had a postmodern sartorial style, mixing up eras, and throwing together fancy and casual clothes. They went rooting through vintage stores to find antique expensive masculine wear. They had a tuxedo jacket with tails that went down their back. They wore a white shirt with the collar up and silk shorts underneath it. They looked like one of the few male passengers on the Titanic who managed to jump ahead of the queue and board a lifeboat. Although their appearance was definitely, by 1980s standards, masculine, they did not particularly identify it as such.

My mother was an artist. They were obsessed with their own appearance and would paint and sketch innumerable portraits of themselves. They had never chosen themselves as their principle subject matter when they lived with me. They used to paint swans on my walls and drawings of me on a desert island. Now they were their own muse.

I learned their choice of the name Abraham stemmed from President Lincoln. It had nothing to do with his historical contributions. Rather, they identified with him because he had big ears. And their whole life, people had been telling them they should be ashamed of having large ears and should hide them behind long hair. Being proud of their ears was a personal triumph on their part. And then at some point, they connected with Abraham Lincoln, who had similarly large ears.

My mother was an artist obsessed with their own appearance, and would make innumerable self-portraits.Illustration by Illustration by Tallulah Fontaine

Orlando begins in the Elizabethan era, a time when men were dressed in a more feminine manner. Orlando’s effete affection for bad poetry, their overwhelming penchant for falling in love and being wounded and weepy at all times was regarded in the era as masculine. Woolf makes a mockery of the performative aspects of femininity and masculinity. Orlando is the same person whether being a man or a woman.

My mother shared a similar perspective. While we were sitting underneath some blinking lights on a bench one night, my mother told me I should disregard the opinions people had about what a woman should be. The differences between genders were a lie. And it didn’t matter who a person fell in love with. You could fall in love with a man or a woman, it didn’t really matter. All they knew was that they felt comfortable in their own skin, wearing these clothes. They lit up a corncob pipe and took a deep draw and exhaled toward the water.

Woolf intuited the pronoun “they” in Orlando. For a paragraph right after she announced Orlando has transitioned, Woolf refers to Orlando as “they” before switching to “her.” If the whole book had described Orlando as “they,” wouldn’t that have been the most marvellous story?

Orlando was inspired by Virginia Woolf's romance with author Vita Sackville-West, adapted here in the 2018 film Vita and Virginia, starring Gemma Arterton as Sackville-West and Elizabeth Debicki as Woolf.Mongrel Media

Changing one’s pronoun to “they” wasn’t something people did in Woolf’s time, or in the 1980s, but it didn’t mean people didn’t feel what we now refer to as non-binary.

The character of Orlando was based on the writer Vita Sackville-West, who Woolf was in love with. Sackville-West sometimes stepped out dressed in men’s clothing and went by the name Julian. Sometimes she was a woman and sometimes she was a man.

My mother was in love with a car mechanic. A stout woman with a large nose and huge eyes who dressed like a rockabilly. I could tell by the way my mother painted their girlfriend that they found her beautiful. They had made a large painting of her as a centaur. I was surprised she could be the subject of a painting at all. From what I had observed of art and culture in general, women who were the subject of artworks were all generically feminine and attractive. There was a nimbus around her head which, even as a child, I was able to identify as a symbol of adoration.

My mother’s girlfriend had a very eclectic musical taste. She was always making my mother mixed tapes that created the soundtrack for that summer. She was into German New Wave bands. I liked the awkward lyrics. They seemed like vampires at a karaoke bar, singing modern simple tunes with a baroque sensibility they had picked up as children in the 17th century. All I knew about German culture was that the older generation was on the wrong side of the Second World War, but the young ones went around in striped sweaters and leather pants, singing about melancholy in an ironic way.

Pride flags fly over the harbour in Provincetown, Mass.J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press/The Associated Press

Irony reigned supreme in Provincetown. Being alienated and excluded from heteronormativity, or any kind of normativity, will make anyone clever and critical.

Everyone seemed much smarter there than anywhere I had ever lived. They were also aware of their creative and intellectual superiority over the stifling homes many had escaped from. In Provincetown, everybody did everything ironically. There was no everyday action that was not up for mockery and derision. You might see someone wearing a recycled wedding dress to go about their ordinary business, or you might be served a delicious birthday cake shaped like anatomically correct genitals. My mother would buy religious icons of the Virgin Mary and other saints. They would paint them so they were punk rock and put them in the front yard, where everyone would go crazy for them.

When you put high and low together, it elevates the low and makes a strange mockery of the high. It makes the high invariably seem absurd and disputes all convention. The whole of Orlando plays with irony, lambasting key cultural male writers who kept women out of the canon.

My mother was obviously adored and super popular with their new cohort. They were very clever and bright and at any gathering went out of their way to be the funniest and most irreverent person there. I had a sense they were singing for their supper. They were like one of those broke Edwardian aristocrats who were invited to stay in one castle after another. They entertained with their witty repartee, in the days before television.

Their fashion sense allowed other countercultural people to identify them as one of the cool ones. My mother wasn’t keen on my own girly appearance. They didn’t like my hair, which was long and which I wore in a ponytail. I liked to wear bobby socks. The ones with round cotton balls at the back were the most beautiful thing in the world. And I liked T-shirts with unicorns and Smurfette flirting on them.

They bought me new T-shirts, ones with pithy sayings from the Provincetown stores. In a tourist seaside town such as Provincetown, one is inevitably exposed to this genre of T-shirt poetry. Flipping through the racks, they would laugh hysterically at each saying.

They bought one for me that read, “If you love something, set it free. If it doesn’t come back, hunt it down and kill it.” They then cut my hair into a mullet. I thought it looked terrible. But I went along with it. I only wanted my mother to like me.

Trivial Pursuit was all the rage in the early eighties. My mother and their friends would get together and play the board game. I sat around memorizing all the cards. I read them in the bathtub and sitting on the beach. I wanted to be taken along to the matches. I seemed like an oddball child genius, knowing the answers to everything from Nobel Prize winners to stars from 1960s sitcoms.

Nonetheless, I definitely cramped their style. Having a child went against everything they said they stood for, including heterosexuality.

Woolf lived an unconventional life. She had a rich circle of intellectuals and artists around them, the Bloomsbury Group, who likewise experimented with art and sexuality and identity. In the same way, my mother had found their group in Provincetown. When I was there with Abraham, I noticed other adults were unfazed by their existence. They did not stare with a level of surprise and hostility. This was the most refreshing thing about the place.

It’s difficult to see your parents objectively. Because whatever they do becomes normal to you.

I accepted their identity almost immediately. When they were dropping me off at the end of summer, a girl across the street came up to me. “Is that your mother?” she asked. “She’s so ugly.”

I was shocked. It had never occurred to me that anyone would describe my mother as ugly. What an incredible failure of aesthetics. And what made her think she could insult my mother this way? Under what circumstances did anybody believe they could say that about anyone’s parent? I would never tell a friend their mother was ugly.

“You’re wrong,” I said. “She’s very beautiful.”

Then one of the neighbours who lived in my building came up to me. “Who was that you were standing with? Was that a woman or a man?” he said with a look of vague disgust on his face. I shrugged. It was even more offensive than the girl across the street because it was an adult saying it. It was an academic who lived in the basement and studied Classics. I never imagined he could judge anyone.

Because I had such a mother, it meant anyone could walk up to me and say what they wanted. I couldn’t imagine what it was like to be them. Orlando becomes dispossessed by changing sexes. She can no longer inherit her home and estate because of the property laws of the time. My mother had become dispossessed of the very basic kind of respect a person was supposed to have.

There were no words back then to describe the life my mother had chosen to live. I didn’t need any labels to accept my mother and their life choices. There is a simple beauty in the idea of living in a world that doesn’t need labels. I thought of my mother as unique, as every person is, and as someone who was acting in a way that made them feel perfectly themselves. However, in confrontations like these, the labels people use to refer to themselves, when they create a community, can make you feel someone has your back.

I wore a hat the first day of Grade 6. The teacher told me to take it off. Everyone laughed and hollered at my mullet until the teacher banged her palm on the table and told them to settle down.

What did I care what the other children thought of me? Their company depressed me. If you said anything vaguely philosophical, everyone would say you were on drugs. Or you might have your math book tossed out the window. I would never dare mention my mother was gay.

I did not see much of mother over the years. My mother treated me like a bill collector. As though I had come expecting them to be my mother. Which, of course, I sort of had. They said, apropos of nothing, that they couldn’t spend their life looking out of the same window, the way I could. It was as though I was the nagging parent figure, and they the restless, freedom-seeking child. They said I was trying to trap them into playing a role of a mother I had seen on television. I only wanted them to let me have their phone number.

Many of the ideas presented in Orlando are ones Woolf would later develop in her seminal feminist text A Room of One’s Own. In her essay, Woolf expounded on the idea that a woman needed a figurative and literal space apart to develop their art. Similarly, my mother presented these arguments to me. They had to make their way in the world as an artist, and should not be expected to be a spouse or a mother, as these hindered their path. These arguments are all well and good unless you are a child about to be disowned. I already existed. A child cannot be argued away. They knew the type of life I was leading in Montreal. Was her choice to not raise me an act of selfishness, or feminism? I hated the way they looked at me as though I was the patriarchy they had defied. Why were these philosophies being used to negate my existence instead of enriching it?

I mean, do whatever makes you happy, Abraham, but take me with you.

I imagined I would find my own community, as my mother had. I read everything, looking for a way out of my class and social circumstances. Characters in books were the closest approximation I could find to the witty eccentrics I had met in Provincetown. Then, one afternoon, as I was looking through the storage room of my high school, I chanced upon a copy of Orlando. The cover intrigued me. There was a drawing of old-fashioned people figure skating on the cover, which gave no indication of the content of the book. I was so startled when Orlando woke up as a different gender. And I was unexpectedly, overwhelmingly pleased by it. It seemed so revolutionary. It changed what I thought character and fiction could be.

Orlando lives through the Elizabethan age right up until 1928, the year Woolf was writing in. Writers are, in a sense, as was Orlando, time travellers. Even if Virginia Woolf could not exist in a time when a woman could go to university, or when one could marry an extravagant gender-fluid writer instead of a cis man, her books and words most certainly would. What was then seen as a fantastical romp is now seen as a prescient view of gender and its potential for fluidity and change.

I don’t have a relationship with my mother now. It’s really impossible. They missed out on so much. But sometimes I time-travel to the 1980s. And I am back in Provincetown that summer. We are eating French fries and clams by the beach. My mother is being funny and talking about how neon lights are the peak of human civilization. And at that moment in time, I am very happy. If I were ever to describe what happiness is, it is moments in time where I truly feel like myself.

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