Partly because he was a good sport in the comments, but mostly because I can’t turn down an opportunity to take potshots at psychology, I want to say a few things about Joseph Isenberg’s comment on my recent Bradley Manning post. Post here. Comment here.
1. Trans. Ishun?
I never did drag, but one year I went to the Oberlin College Drag Ball as Hegemonica Preshun. Get it? Anyway, what? Oh. I’m going to use the masculine pronoun to refer to Manning. That’s probably wrong, but I want this to be easy to read. Apologies in advance.
It does indeed seem clear enough that Manning was troubled when he began to believe that he was transgender. A lot of his interlocutors, both supporters and oppressors, read into this some sort of grievous psychic trauma and mental break. “Troubled” is the euphemism either way.
But if we’re honest with ourselves in our own personal recollections, we recall that we experienced all sorts of developments in our persons and personalities as agonizing and troubling and traumatic, especially in our adolescence, which Manning was barely out of, if out of at all. Adolescence and young adulthood are a ceaseless, battering storm of psychic catastrophe . . . to adolescencents and young adults.
In fact, what’s remarkable about Manning is how swiftly he moved from the sense of world-ending dread in his realization to mature acceptance, from gloom to planning the surgeries and picking a new name. This occurred over a period of months while deployed in a war zone, while engaging, allegedly, in a massive act of heroic disobedience. What this suggests is not a “troubled,” depressed, immature, confused, ravaged young man, but rather a young man of extraordinary poise and self-possession–a person who over the course of just a few months in the most trying of conditions could come to a reasoned conclusion about altering one of the two or three characteristics that the broader society considers the most fundamental and unchangeable of your character and your being.
None of this is to say that Manning didn’t experience doubt, anxiety, fear, frustration, depression, and dread. He did, and he says so candidly. But we all experience doubt, anxiety, fear, frustration, depression, and dread. We experience them all in much less trying circumstances. We’re just worried that the boss might check up on our progress on that sales report, or whatever, or that our boyfriends are spending a little too much time on grindr “just to laugh at the profiles.”
What distinguishes Manning is not his self-doubt, but his self-possession.
2. ASL? Into?; or, The Anonymizing Influence of the Barcelona Chair
Because I grew up in the great flowering era of the chatroom and cut my fag teeth on mIRC back when AOL M4M was as distant as Skynet, I can’t understand the astonished commentary that springs up around the fact that Manning made a “tortured confession” to some dude on AIM, or whatever. I am sure I made many tortured confessions to any number of fat weirdos and priests and pic collectors posing as cuteboi81. If Manning had made his confession to some shrink he’d never met before, would that be so weird? Why? What about the transactional nature of that relationship makes the act of confession less absurd? They’re based on the same principle: it’s often easier to talk to a stranger, to confess through the lattice to the robed and hooded man.
And anyway, Lamo wasn’t a stranger. You’re buying into a pretense! You’re falling for the same con that ultimately snagged Bradley Manning. Forget your anachronistic feelings that These Kids Today and Their Instragrams do not have real friendships. Online relationships are real. They’re just epistolary. Manning considered Lamo a friend. Forget all that “I can’t believe I’m telling this to a stranger” shit. You just don’t understand how young gay dudes flirt and interact online. They’d chatted, flirted, got acquainted, talked about all sorts of things. It wasn’t anonymous at all.
Except that Lamo was a liar and a con man. If Manning were just some dude and a talented con man had insinuated himself into his life in order to rip him off, would you blame Manning for trusting someone anonymous? Of course you wouldn’t. You might suggest that he’d have to learn some hard lessons about trust, but you’d blame Lamo, the perpetrator of the deception, and you certainly wouldn’t read some kind of psychopathology into the nice, trusting young kid who got taken in by the scammer.
3. Yeah, But His History of Depression, Dude
When I hear the word depression, I reach for the nearest beverage in order to do a spit take. Was Manning depressed? Probably. But the DSM is next to the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the US Code in its titanic indifference to that which is actually human.
If every human behavior is the end outcome of some diagnosable disorder, then we are automatons. Do depressed people lack moral agency? Does “gender dysporhia” attack conscience along with cock and cunt?
As soon as some supposed mental illness enters the picture, sentience gives way to subroutine, and suddenly the great mystery of the human mind becomes a flawed decision tree diagram. People’s straightforward actions are imbued with a weird moral laxness; their convictions are suddenly “complicated”; their simple story suddenly not the “whole story,” and their motives suddenly in question.