Midway through Something That May Shock and Discredit You (Atria Books), his new memoir-in-essays, Daniel M. Lavery writes: “The really nice thing about imagining yourself as a wife of Henry VIII is that you got to deal with every single male authority figure imaginable all at once, because he was everybody’s god and pope and dad and husband and boss.” This book reckons with many different men as well, whether Arthurian knights, Detective Columbo, the Christian brothers of the Gospel, or the author himself—who put off transitioning for years, an authority figure looming over his own mind, until “I could no longer pretend I wanted nothing.” Lavery still lavishes baroque jokes, like his very earliest pieces at The Toast: one chapter lists “Titles from the On-the-Nose, Po-Faced Transmasculine Memoir I Am Trying Not to Write.” He invokes Byron and Sappho. The flights of language flutter as they shed weight; he describes “permitting collapse, abandoning resistance.”
Shortly before the publication of Something That May Shock and Discredit You, Lavery’s father John Ortberg was suspended from the Bay Area evangelical church where he ministered. Lavery had reported a congregant’s confession of “obsessive sexual feelings about young children” to Pastor Ortberg, who encouraged that person to continue volunteering with minors. Horrified by this moral cowardice, he severed ties with his family of origin. Lavery rushed ahead the wedding to his fiancée Grace, an academic, and they moved across the country to Brooklyn. Forced to revise a long-finished book, in the most agonizing circumstances imaginable, he never lost his élan; one of the passages I cut from our conversation was about the sexiest film incarnation of the Joker (Jack Nicholson, naturally). At the beginning of Something That May Shock and Discredit You, Lavery reconsiders his childhood fascination with the Rapture: “Everyone will be reconciled through peace and pleasure who can possibly stand it.”
Chris Randle: I was fascinated by how this book reworks the religious parables and language you grew up with. How did you decide to shape the text that way?
Daniel M. Lavery: I thought about this a lot, because I've gotten a variation of this sentiment from most of the interviewers, but it's usually like: "There's a lot of religion in this book. So much." I think that's true, and it's something that surprised me, like, I set out thinking about what I wanted to do with Anne of Green Gables, what I wanted to do with Athena—
[t.A.T.u.'s "All the Things She Said" starts blaring through Brooklyn lesbian bar Ginger’s, leaving both parties in awed silence]
Wow, I'm so sorry. Let the record stand that I was just transported back to my family computer in the basement circa 2002, illegally torrenting this song.
Yeah, I vividly remember hearing this song... there was an "alternative" midnight show on MuchMusic, the Canadian MTV, and I think they played this. That was where I heard "Deceptacon" for the first time.
And t.A.T.u. did that MTV Awards thing where they took the stage with a thousand girls dressed up like Spice Girls, and then they all kissed. It was like the lesbian apocalypse. And I definitely watched it on TV in the basement. I'm so sorry [both laugh]. I'm truly sorry. I don't think I've heard this song in 10 years.
The last time I heard this song was at a party in a basement, and I was rolling on ecstasy with my friend Mia, we were having feelings.
Understandably. So, yeah, the religious stuff felt less deliberate and more like I had too much religion in my head, and any time I start to write about change and vocation and transformation and family relationships the Bible is just there. Even in the chapters that aren't, like, Paul and the Thessalonians, you still end up getting a fair amount of religious content, or Biblical quotations. I think that's because the first time I started thinking of myself as a person who shaped their own life I was incredibly religious, so when I went back and sought to reshape my life in a different way, the Bible was like, "Great, we'll be coming with you." There's also just a lot of—if you wanted to come up with a lot of lovely, poetic, affirming language about transition, you could do worse than the Bible [laughs]. You know, "This is my son in whom I am well pleased." "For all shall be changed and taken up in the blink of an eye." It's all there.
I was struck by that G. K. Chesterton quote you use, even though he was a dreadful old reactionary: “In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone… Such, it seemed, was the joy of man, either in elfland or on earth; the happiness depended on NOT DOING SOMETHING which you could at any moment do and which, very often, it was not obvious why you should not do.”
Oh, absolutely! I grew up reading Chesterton and he's saying those things, and also fascinated by elves, in the way that a lot of old British reactionaries sometimes are, where they're like, "Oh, I'm so charmed by these creatures."
There's also a recurring bitter joke in the book where you're making fun of people who're like—did you ever see those Crimethinc [sic] posters? It was this terrible anarchist group and they had these posters that showed, like, a boy wearing an apron. "Girls can be tough. Boys can be sensitive." Like, great, I knew that. But you still have to—
And one thing that's just odd on a logistical level, aprons aren't sensitive. There's nothing sensitive about an apron. Aprons are not a representation of sensitivity. Give him a stuffed bear, or show him reading a romance novel. Sorry, I'm really hung up on that [both laugh].
One of many things I love about Miyazaki movies is that the rules of each fantasy world might seem absurd or nonsensical to the protagonist, but they're internally consistent, even in their own dream-logic way. And the moment of triumph is when that character figures out how to navigate them. I don't want to be like [patronizing nerd voice] "gender works the same way," but...
Sure. And that Chesterton bit in Orthodoxy—first of all, it's from a book called Orthodoxy, that's never a great sign. A much more well-known quote from Orthodoxy is: "Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian." The whole bit about daisies gets very sentimental in a way that I don't vibe with. But I do like the way that he thinks about observing a different of rules in the world of the elves.
I think it's also easy for people like me to forget or overlook how—I feel like American evangelicals have thought of themselves, at least up until recently, as being apart from the traditional mainline Protestant denominations.
Very much so.
I remember reading this old essay about Ian Paisley, the ultra-reactionary Ulster Protestant, who loved the really right-wing American evangelicals, and they loved him back. The Ulster Unionists are so nationalistic, so intense about being part of Britain, but my experience is that most people in the rest of Britain look down on them as these embarrassing, violent hicks, and that almost makes them perversely proud, you know?
"We're more British than the British."
I can totally see that. And the other thing is—when I was still part of the church, our church regularly sent mission teams to Scandinavia, I think also the UK. No one would've avowed the white supremacism of that movement, but it was very much like: "Guys, we're losing Europe. Europe! The historical home of Christendom." Which it was not, there was a pretty big region that was the home of Christendom before that. But there was this panicked sense of: We're losing European Christians, and we've gotta get back in there and remind them how great this shit is. And if they dissolved these boring state churches, if they just had exciting evangelical churches, we could win them back. That's how I got to visit Denmark. I saw milk sitting out at room temperature for the first time, it was incredible, like, what kind of world is this. I had a great time.
I was raised without any religion, I've only been to church for funerals or weddings, like, the big ones. And it means I don't have the trauma that often comes with a religious upbringing, but there's also this slightly sad knowledge of a pitch you'll never entirely hear. I am ultimately a materialist, but I really admire, like, Walter Benjamin, the people who try to be communist mystics. Do you know his whole "angel of history" passage?
Benjamin described this angel blown backwards by the storm, who sees history unfolding behind it as an endless series of catastrophes.
That's extremely metal.
Yeah! It was inspired by this odd-looking Paul Klee painting, where the angel kinda looks like a floppy-haired boy band member... wait, I'll show you...
Whoa. Okay, I love that. I love that.
Sort of a Timothee Chalamet type. Um, so, there's a recurring theme of self-denial in the book, like: I'm painfully aware of this possibility, which means I know it couldn't possibly fit me... I was going to phrase that as an actual question, but then the bar started playing "Waterloo" and I thought of that scene from The Simpsons and lost my train of thought.
Certainly it's not hard to look for self-denial in a religious upbringing. I think the way I experienced it was a sense of whether or not something was possible. It wasn't so much that I thought at that time, "There's a thing I want that I'm withholding from myself," because I don't deserve it or I shouldn't have it or whatever—more a sense of not knowing it was possible, for me in particular. So it wasn't like I had a conscious sense of denial; either I'm very, very good at self-denial, such that I didn't know I was doing it, or there was something else at play.
But especially with an evangelical way of relating to the world, which I think can persist even after you stop going to church, it's not always easy to undo or untangle—you're constantly hunting for the next thing that's going to get you closer to God. It's like you seek out the things that will enhance that closeness, and you kind of don't worry about the other things, because if you're hunting that out enough then you're set, you're taken care of. Maybe it was a sense of keeping oneself busy. I think I associate self-denial with, like, Catholicism.
The horniest denomination.
Yeah. But the flipside of self-denial is the indulgence, and then the relief that comes with confession, there's a cycle there, whereas with evangelicalism you don't get too many of those moments. It's better not to know the things you might want. Better not think too carefully about that.
At one point you mention your love of impressions, and a big chunk of the book sort of is one, these pastiches or channelings. I think you hint at this in the text, but why do those appeal to you?
Some of it feels a little on-the-nose, like, "Because I could not truly be myself, I must be all these other people." And I'm okay being a little bit cheesy or obvious. But also, even at a really young age, I had an appetite for different kinds of experiences, and Midwestern evangelicalism doesn't necessarily encourage a whole lot of that [laughs], though one way in which it does is through daydreaming, imagination, impressions. That was an outlet that was quickly encouraged by the adults in my life. "Yeah, keep doing that, that's a ton of fun." When I look back, one of the various moments of gender euphoria that I experienced, for lack of a better phrase—when I was nine or ten, I started singing the Gilligan's Island theme song in the voice of Elvis, and all the adults in my life thought it was the funniest thing, to see this little nine-year-old girl singing in an Elvis voice. But I loved that moment, I loved the surprise... inhabiting somebody else's mannerisms felt very exciting, fun.
You know how you always say you've got an impression in your back pocket? You start to think of it like an arsenal. "I've got these eight in my back pocket, and I've got these three in my other back pocket, they're not quite there yet. And somehow I'm going to use them all like a series of arias to storm a garrison, or flee a garrison." Before I could ask myself the question am I a boy?, I could ask myself the question: Am I Anne of Green Gables? Am I Elvis? Am I Christian from A Pilgrim's Progress? And you can ask yourself those questions kind of cheekily, which is nice.
I also feel like that dovetails with another aspect of the book, which is your quest for a new form of language. Like, there's that passage where you turn these bromides about transition into a Joycean soliloquy, or the entire chapter made up of fake memoir chapters. A flight from cliché, I guess.
Yeah. I think that was partly because I felt the desire for cliché rising in me so strongly, so it wasn't, "Everyone around me is saying this and I must put a stop to it" so much as, like, "Fuck I want to say this, and I know that if I do it might secure me in the short term what I think I want from somebody else, but it will also immediately result in a sense of failing to tell the truth about the one thing I really wanted to tell it about.”
Which I think to a certain extent is just not possible, but it is also true that every time I lift weights I’m like, “I’m inventing this.” Lifting weights is now a different kind of activity, because I, the only living person in the world, and the only interesting person, have done it. I bring the power and the gayness of, like, Herman Melville, the brawn of millions of years of faggots, we’re all lifting together. You idiots were just picking up iron, but I, I danced. That is in me, I want to do that, and also as I hear myself say that I’m like, boy oh boy, you are being very silly right now, you need to stop being so silly.
I know that we’ve talked about this before—I feel like over the past couple of years people have really been rebelling against the tragic/sentimental modes imposed on trans memoir, imposed on any kind of autobiographical writing, really. Do you think there’s a distinctively transmasculine form of comic writing?
Grace and I have talked about this, one of the problems is—every trans memoir has to say this one is different from the other trans memoirs, so even in the act of saying “this one’s different” you’re doing the same thing everyone else has ever done. I would say rather that it’s a genre that requires a justification of the tweaks you’re making, each time someone produces a new one. I don’t think it’s anything I’m doing that’s new, I just think I’m doing the same thing in my own way, if that makes sense. I think of it like the conversion narrative, like Paul and the Epistles, there’s a lot that the classic conversion narratives of the early church have in common with the transition narrative, like telling a story. “Here’s what it was like, here’s what happened, here’s what it’s like now.” But yeah, I at least among my transmasculine friends have noticed a lot of comedy, and I think I’ve benefited from it, because those jokes we make among one another have influenced my writing a lot. I’ve always loved Calvin Kasulke’s work, Julian Jarboe’s work, and we’re constantly texting each other stupid ideas about, like, the horse-girl-to-trans-guy transition pipeline.
That was one of the things that took me aback the most reading Lou Sullivan’s diaries, how they could’ve been written yesterday, especially in terms of the humour.
Especially that relationship to, like: I just saw some boys on TV, and I want to protect them. I wish we were all best friends, and I will save them from the world. That response to some regular-ass guys just playing music on TV, and imbuing them with such depth of emotional intensity they could not possibly have, and swearing “I will protect them,” that’s a very particular flavour of transmasculine energy that I both resonate with and find so embarrassing. Treating the most anodyne straight guys like you are Sam Gamgee and they are Frodo.
There are figures of male identification in this book, but they’re definitely not boy-band types. It’s, like, Peter Falk, or rather Columbo, which might not be the same as Peter Falk. And “William Shatner,” which you distinguish from William Shatner the actual human being.
Who’s a very mean old person. Yeah, I had a boy band phase when I was in the fifth and sixth grade, but it was in the fifth and sixth grade and it was a phase. I have had a lot of other powerful points of connection, like, old character actors, or moments of grizzledness, certain kinds of intensity. I mean, I’m always going to be a sucker for an impossibly beautiful man of 24 who’s like, “I’ve never had acne in my life, I dance effortlessly and gracefully.” Obviously there’s an appeal there that a lot of different demographics can unite on and say, "This is nice." But yes, boy band masculinity is not for me, I think.
You write so well about the gentleness of Columbo, or William Shatner's soft hips.
He had wonderfully soft hips and they were so mean and they put him in so many girdles. Relatable, though. By the way, I don't know if you've ever seen this, it didn't make it into the book, but I did write about it later in my newsletter—the very last episode to air of the original Star Trek series, "Turnabout Intruder," is basically autoandrophilia. A former girlfriend of Kirk's is furious and bitter, because of sexism, which drives her insane. She loves and hates him, she loves and hates herself, and she takes over his body for the episode, she tries to kill him in her body. I had this great screenshot that was like, "She has delusions of being Captain Kirk," and just wrote, "Same." It's a very upsetting episode, and it's surprising that it's the last episode of the series, because it's so odd. It's incredibly sexist. It's also weirdly that autoandrophilic sexual fantasy, so it's kind of hot. And then it's sexist again. Just... jarring.
I was thinking about that whole forced-masc fantasy the other day, as one does, and it's an interesting contrast with the forced-feminization stuff that's all like, you are a dumb bimbo with no agency. The forced-masc material scrambles dominance and submission in such a funny way. "Oh, you want to clean my gutters, Dad?"
[laughs] Well, yeah, obviously there's a degree to which I hope I can be the scholar of forced-masculinization fantasies. If all my work resulted in slightly increased public awareness of the eroticization of transmasculinity, I'll be happy, just because it does away with the old story of the plucky heroine who only binds her breasts out of convenience. And she passes as a boy to defeat sexism, but she's getting nothing out of it! She doesn't even like sex! In Georgette Heyer or Daphne du Maurier or any of those quote-unquote crossdressing fantasies, it's incredibly charged. And so much of the fantasy is about sexual fulfillment through desexualization: "I want you to treat me like a boy. Don't treat me like a girl, but stop treating me like a boy. When you treat me like a boy I feel sexless and humiliated, but when I feel sexless and humiliated I feel thrilled and special. Now we're in trouble."
Part of what I remember at a very formative age is, if you're a slightly fluffy-seeming girl-child, they hand you a lot of books, and they hand you a lot of books where a girl disguises herself as a boy. And there's always a fraught older-brother-relationship with some guy who's always like: "You're shit at being a guy. Who the fuck's going to teach you how to do this right, you piece of shit?" Oh my god, they're finally treating me like a boy, I'm being ground underneath someone's heel. I'm nothing, I'm nobody, I'm interchangeable, I'm a block of sand, but also like, yes, spit on me, make me shine your shoes. Let's ride off together on a fucking horse. There's not much to say except there's a lot of it, it's super erotic, and dressing like a boy to get boys' attention is great and everyone should do it.
Have you ever seen the Claire Denis film Beau Travail?
It's her adaptation of Billy Budd, set amidst the French Foreign Legion, and the main character is played by Denis Lavant, who's this kind of goblin-looking character actor. Definitely jolie laide. And the ending, he's lying around shirtless holding a gun and flexing his muscles on his bed. Then there's a jump cut, suddenly he's standing alone in this nightclub, the '90s Eurodance anthem "Rhythm of the Night" comes on, and he increasingly madly tries to maintain his composure dancing to the song. That's what all the forced-masc stuff reminds me of. Really it goes back to Shakespeare, like, "Why am I beguiled by this creature?" ... How do you think about Something That May Shock and Discredit You in relation to the last book? Do you think it anticipated this one?
In some ways I feel like this book is more connected to the first one [Texts from Jane Eyre], or it's more of a revisiting of the first one, but pushing further than that book left off. The second book [The Merry Spinster] felt very much in-between. "I don't want to talk about anything directly right now, I don't want to talk about anything representational right now, let's see what happens." It was just a really strange time. I essentially came out because the book was coming out, I was on hormones, and I was really upset about the thought of going on tour and being asked, like, "Do you have a cold?"
It felt like I had to make a calculation at that point, and I didn't think I'd be able to pull it off and maintain my composure if somebody was like, "Hey, your skin looks weird." I often associate that book with—I don't revisit it often. I don't go back and pick it up again. But certainly in terms of an arc, to go from The Merry Spinster to the guy [Lord Byron] on the front of this cover—I love it, he's so histrionic, like he's trying to tear his own skin off. He's like: "Auggghhh, I'm going to be 37, shocked and discredited."
That actually made me want to ask, why did you choose to honour Lionel Hutz with your title?
Lionel Hutz is a pivotal figure. He's a person who only ever falls apart.
Right. I think I texted you a while ago, I really identify with how he's blithely confident yet constantly panicking.
And it's the only moment in his onscreen appearances where something works for a minute. He actually pulls it off, he successfully manages to convince everyone that he was never wearing a tie. That's his one moment of glory, he's finally able to pull off a lie. I was thinking a lot at the time about physical stress, fraudulence, being exposed as a fraud. I wish you could convey that my tone of voice is a little silly right now [laughs], but that felt like the title immediately, like, obviously we're doing this. Also, I just want to acknowledge that they [Ginger's] have been playing the most baffling mix, and I adore it. This is Shania Twain's weird comeback song.
It might be the jukebox, but I don't think people are playing music off that?
I think it's a mix, it's gotta be a mix. And I think that mix is going into Spotify and taking, like, gay bar music.
I love that whole chapter about so-called "rapid onset gender dysphoria." The "ROGD" makes me think of frogs whenever I see it.
It's such a goofy concept!
There's a passage where you write: "Any mention of someone's transitioning body sends them into direct and panicked conflict with the prospect of their own transitioning body." You talk about that horror of the flesh. And these people, they so often cite David Cronenberg to express their disgust with any form of medical transition, but they don't get the ambivalence in his movies. Like, if you've seen Videodrome and you think he's suggesting this is very very bad, couldn't possibly be some sort of glorious apotheosis...
I love that this is like, "I accuse them of not getting Cronenberg!" [laughter]
It's like you're telling them: "You know what else is irreversible? Existing in a human body at all."
Yeah. And to be clear, I'm not claiming they secretly want to transition or something, but yeah, that idea of—I'm sure if you understood transition as something you were tricked into, or that was forced upon you, I can understand why you would view that with horror. If you pay careful attention to the fact that, when people tell you, "I want this very very much, I'm not horrified," and insist that their consent must somehow be compromised... that is silly, and not the kind of silliness I have interest in. The idea that there's some perfect, invulnerable, unblemished body that must be defended and protected at all costs... it's very odd. It's not a perspective that I really understand. And I think it's not an accident that so much of the public anti-trans conversation over the last couple of years has moved to kids, because it's such an easy way to deny people a voice. It's like: "Well, we don't seem to be getting as far as we used to just calling you freaks and monsters."
It's so frustrating to come out at 31 and hear: "But what about teenagers?" I don't fucking know any teenagers! Obviously I want trans kids to be able to talk about themselves, but this was literally in conversation with me, and I was like: "I don't know any trans teenagers, and you don't know any either. You know one trans person, and it's me, and I'm in my thirties. I don't know why you're suddenly obsessed with fictional 15-year-olds who might get top surgery. But you're not their relative, you're not their friend, don't worry about them. Let's talk about me." This phantom crew of children being thrown into a top surgery pipeline.
Or the focus on an imagined future regret, as if there's any life decision you couldn't potentially regret.
Yeah, the idea that the best thing to do in life is imagine future regrets you might have, and then only act in such a way as to avoid them. Absolutely you could sit here and eat crackers until you die. You could 100 percent do that, but it sounds boring as shit.
That's kind of what you're working through across this book. The hedging.
"How can I not want this thing that I want?"
And for me the main shift, the most important shift, was: How do I live my life in such a way that when regret comes I can deal with it appropriately, work through it, find interesting ways to incorporate it in my life? Rather than, "Oh no no, this is the one thing that I must avoid at all costs." Once I was no longer thinking that the worst thing that could happen was me making a decision and later coming to regret it—the real worst thing that could happen is never finding out what I want, never doing anything that pleases me, because I'm so afraid of the possibility of future sadness.
There's this Wittgenstein line that I think about a lot: "If a lion could speak, we would not understand him." Because the lion's frame of reference is so remote and alien from your own, even if he were using the same language mechanically. It almost seems like you had the inverse problem, like, such awareness of and familiarity with the language of transition, people who had transitioned, that it was overwhelming.
Yeah, I think so. Yeah. Sorry, I don't have a lot of extra thoughts about that [laughs].
What is your writing process like? Do you and Grace read each other's work?
Grace is actually working on a book right now, and she's been showing me each chapter as she goes along. I tend to treat it much more like I'm a vulture and this is my precious, precious carcass. I tend to really hunker over my stuff and not show it until I've completed the first draft, but that's not always the case. And I have a couple of friends here in the city who I like to show my writing to when I can. But the process is kind of classically, you know, wait until the deadline approaches and then write it all as fast as you can. And I've been able to tinker with that over the years, such that I give myself lots and lots of little deadlines, so I'm always turning something in. I should get one of those ergonomic keyboards, probably, I'm always writing in bed. I should take care of my hands and spine.
I guess I should also ask about you having to rewrite the book just as it was coming out... I can't even think of any parallel for that. How did it feel?
Challenging, for sure. It was the sort of thing where luckily it wasn't most of the book, like it was just really one chapter and then a couple of different moments. But it was very much that something I believed to be true was not true. I was able to see wishful thinking in places where I previously hadn't, and it felt immediately clear to me that I would not be able to stand by any of the things I had written about my family of origin. So I had to change it a couple weeks out from going to press, I'd never made changes to a book that late in my life. My agent and my editor were both incredibly helpful. I hope I never have to do that again! It was very stressful. I was not able to do a lot in the way of rewriting, I did it over two afternoons, it was a total blur. I know that it happened because I have the emails, but I barely remember those days. And I'm really glad that I was able to, I cannot imagine having to tour on the strength of a book that I felt like I had to partially disavow.
I have an older advance copy, and I just remember, I think it's the very last chapter, where you said something like, "My father is a very disciplined person."
That's why they say "don't quote from advance copies"! Because changes might occur to the manuscript [laughs].
Do you feel like your relationship with religion has changed because of all this?
Yeah. I think I have felt at last the freedom to acknowledge that I am not a religious person, as opposed to feeling like I had to equivocate or leave open a certain possibility, because to foreclose that possibility would be to... it's funny, because I had sort of stopped being a religious person in college, but the difference between really committing to that rupture and seeing it all the way through, versus walking some of it back a little bit, just enough around the edges that Christmas is fun...
And I feel like I no longer need to defer to the idea that, "Well, whatever we believe, at least we can all agree that we have the same values." We don't have the same values. I like my values better. I don't share them, they're not mine, that's not who I am. I have lots of thoughts and memories and ideas about my particular brand of Christianity that I was raised in, but I'm no longer chasing that dream of being a very good transsexual who's just spiritual enough that Mom and Dad and the Church are finally going to say it's okay to be gay or trans. They're never going to say it, there was no amount of good I could have been, and it's a relief to no longer have to pretend.