On Ownership

When you start an essay with this title, it’s pretty open. I recognize that. We could be talking about anything from the history of slavery on down to “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. And perhaps that’s the problem with ownership, at least the way we Americans tend to conceive of it. I mean, wasn’t it a sense of ownership that compelled all those (mostly white) people to violently invade the Capitol with guns and deadly violence because “their” country had been unfairly wrenched from “their” grips? It reminds me of that moment in Paris is Burning when the category is rich people (or something like that) and the MC yells encouragement at the ball walkers, “YOU OWN EVERYTHING!” That’s the American Dream, right? You own everything, and everything is in the context of ownership. (Of course, to do so, it goes without saying, you must be a person who can own, not a person who can be owned—no POC and no ladies or poor folk of any ilk need apply.)

What does it mean to Americans to own? As I can think it, there are three main definitions of the term, “possession” being the most primary. People also say they “own up” to something, which usually means to admit one’s culpability in it. And the kids today (well, as far back as when I was a kid, too) say they “owned” someone when they roundly best them in a sport or game—you got owned, or, as it has been recreated in recent years, you got pwned. All these uses can easily be understood in the context of the first definition, possession, so let’s talk about that one. (You might even say that “possession” owns all the other definitions.)

You own everything. At least, as Americans, we are taught to imagine this is so. This goes for material possessions, but also goes for children, thoughts, animals, actions, land, rights and liberties, and even society. We love the word “my.” It’s hard to make oneself understood in English without the possessive. I’ve tried. I’ve tried to refer to my wife without using “my”—outside of using their name, this is pretty tough. (Let’s not even go into how confused people get about the combination of the gender marker “wife” and the pronoun “they;” nor shall we go down the rabbit hole of “owning” one’s gender). When it comes to the dogs and cat who live with me, take up most of the bed, nuzzle me when I’m crying or yelling, depend on me for food and defend me fiercely against falling leaves and twist ties on the floor, the word “pet” feels wrong because it seems like a euphemistic way to say “my” animal. “Animal companion” has always felt a little too awkward, but I’m left with nothing else.

This is one instance of the language trouble I think is good for me: I like being confronted with the discomfort and inadequacy of language when it comes to expressing reality. It reminds me how powerful language is, how much it can do to shape the way we think, and it makes me rethink unchallenged assumptions. (If I choose to submit to the language, I choose to imagine I own “my” wife, “my” dogs and cat, “my” house, and even “my” gender. I choose my way into that moral and philosophical mess, whether I’m conscious of doing so or not.)

Thinking in terms of possession does a few things for the thinker. First, it brings the world into reach, makes it smaller and accessible and manageable. If they are “my” feelings, “my” wife and “my” house, I can ostensibly control them. If I begin to think of the world as Jacques Derrida saw language, things change. Derrida is known as the one who developed “deconstruction,” which suggests that each word or concept we know depends upon us knowing another word/concept, and that depends upon another, so that if one obliterates one, a huge hole opens up in the web of what we “know,” like a run in a stocking. For instance, in order to understand what a mother is, one must also understand “woman” and “child,” and probably “nurture,” “parent,” “father,” “pregnant,” etc. Things had to change when “mother” began to apply to women who parented non-biological children. We learned to say “mother” and “biological mother” in an effort to make it clear just what kind of possession we are talking about. Do you genetically possess that child, or just emotionally/fiscally? Did you possess that child with your body for nine months? Is someone who births but then kills a ten-year-old child a “mother”? (Were they a mother before, but then stop being one?) What about someone who does not birth the child, nurtures that child, but is not a woman?

Nowadays we understand “mother” is not concomitant with “father” (we can have a family with only a mother, or two mothers, or no mothers), we are struggling to change our understanding again.

I don’t even want to slip down that slope of “woman,” because it’s rocky and muddy and long and deserves an article devoted to it alone. But just begin to think: if we no longer understand “woman” to be a biological female, a “lady,” a good and proper companion for a “man,” and all that comes with that business, can we properly understand “mother”? What makes a mother and not a father?

You get the point. This can go on and on (for Derrida, that is the point): if we unravel “woman,” then “mother” comes undone, but so does “sister” and “daughter,” “widow” and “wife,” “seamstress” and “party girl” and “slut” and “princess” and “lesbian” and even concepts like ladies’ rooms or pink ribbons for breast cancer (you are aware, of course, that plenty of non-women get breast cancer, even those who are Assigned Male at Birth (AMAB)).

“Having” a gender suggests that one “owns” one’s gender, but this is generally not something we experience. Your gender is defined for you by “your” culture—when you are born in the US, for example, you are declared by the doctor in charge (“It’s a boy!”), and then by the birth record, which records the sex of the child (how do we conflate sex with gender still?) and the child’s name (which most often is meant to declare your parents’ choice of your gender as girl (Sarah) or boy (Stephen)). Then your parents send out a birth notice, and most of these primarily declare your gender (pink ones, or ones that anounce “It’s a boy!”).

I can’t help but think about all those “gender reveal” stunts that have been going awry and blowing people up and setting the planet afire all in the name of hanging on to the predictability of an imagined stability of the concept of gender. It’s just too poetic: a person attempts to make a big, flashy declaration of the expected sex of their baby, which is understood to confer the gender on the child and it winds up killing them or burning everything down. If it weren’t so tragic (and here I think about how a child will feel, growing up knowing their father died trying to declare them a girl), it might be funny. (This is to say nothing of the fact that “reveal” is a verb, not a noun. A noun, by the way, is a thing you can own–you can’t own a verb… what does this suggest about a gender “reveal”?)

Much of this, in my mind, wends its Derridian deconstructivist way back to the concept of “ownership.” Who owns my gender? If I am not free to declare it myself, but it is conferred upon me by others who recognize me as man, woman, trans man but “really” a woman or genderqueer but “you can tell he’s really a man,” I do not own it. Real men don’t eat quiche, they used to say in the 1980s. Pink is for girls. (Did you know that before WWI, pink was considered a stronger color–related to red–than the calming blue, so pink was for boys and blue was for girls?) If crossing my legs a certain way, wearing a certain article of clothing, speaking with a certain tone or timbre of voice, or thinking certain things indicates to others some signal that causes them to read my gender in a particular way, then I do not own it. Even if I declare myself a woman, if my womanhood is dependent upon recognition by others (do I “pass”?), then I do not own it.

“Possession,” which is defined as having or owning something, works this way. It’s tricky. You can possess something (I possess a great pair of shoes), or you can be possessed (I am possessed by anger often) but still can “have” it or “be” it. If I am possessed by a ghost, I am inhabited by it, but it may leave or be expelled. If I am possessed by an idea or desire, does it own me, or do I own it? Possession is temporary (those shoes will fall apart, I will not be angry at some point, that ghost will give up). If it is temporary, is it about being or having (nodding hello to Cathy Opie)? Is it, in our American conception, about both?

Alysia Constantine’s latest novel, Luckmonkey, features a group of activists trying to force questions into the unquestioned ideas of possession and ownership.

The Day Erased

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,

Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,

Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best.

Night, sleep, death and the stars.

A Clear Midnight

Walt Whitman

I’ve pulled away from the world, been absent. It’s been a terrible time to do so: my third novel, Luckmonkey, was recently released, and I know I should be putting my voice everywhere in an attempt to draw a bit of attention to it. But there have been other considerations, ones much more important to me than my success or failure as a writer.

I’ve written before about my mother-in-law, who has been suffering from dementia that brings her by turns to sweetness and anger, to paranoia and forgetfulness, to incontinence, to fear, to confusion. It’s been a decline both slow and rapid, always awful, always frightening. Recently, she’s slipped down another rung and can no longer function very well on her own. She soils herself at night. She never quite knows to whom she’s speaking on the phone or in person, mixing up people and events and time, building her own very different universe out of the crumbs of fact she’s been able to retain. She’s very confused—mistaking toothpaste for face cream or permanent marker for her eyebrow pencil (both comical mistakes, until you realize they were real mistakes). Often, my phone rings with a call from her, but when I pick up, it’s dead air—she’s been playing with the phone, randomly pushing buttons without the intention to call, without, most likely, even understanding what the buttons do.

The other day, she told her homecare worker that I and my partner are both her biological daughters, and her second, older biological daughter—a troubled person with whom she has a troubled relationship–is actually not her biological child, but someone she adopted away from a terrible family. And while it’s so endearing that she thinks of me as her own daughter—most queer spouses my age could never hope for something so wonderful—it is also a little weird that she thinks I and my partner are siblings. I’m going to think twice every time we kiss or hug in front of her now.

We have moved, in the words of her homecare worker, into a new phase of the dementia, and though it is not about me, nor is it any portent of my own biology (as it feels like it could be for my partner), nor even my own parent (again, as it is for my partner), the news has been worming its way into the pit of my stomach, the back of my throat. I’m waterlogged by grief. All my limbs feel too heavy.

As the queer child of an immigrant whose family has remained overseas, a child whose parents divorced each other and remarried new families, I’ve become used to a close-but-distant kind of relationship. One loves one’s family of origin but remains ever estranged, even as one has to seek new family (queers call it “found family”) for intimacy. I’m very lucky that both my family of origin and my mother-in-law love and accept me, and that I have collected a fiercely loving and supportive found family to boot.

Dementia is cruel: it takes you away piece by tiny piece, it ebbs and flows into better and worse times, its alchemy stirs the mind into a swamp of fragmented and unmoored memories. For years, my mother-in-law said I was like a daughter to her, then actually began to call me her “other daughter,” which was her loving way of recognizing my relationship with her biological kid, my wife. Now this is what I have become to her, a literal other daughter, no longer in scare quotes, the metaphor eaten away to its kernel of truth.

One of the novels I used to love to teach was a surrealist work called THE INFERNAL DESIRE MACHINES OF DOCTOR HOFFMAN by Angela Carter. It is a messy proposition, loosely strung together, straddling genres and tones and writing styles and political points, but it’s also brilliant, funny, strange, compelling, and I love it (likely for the very aspects that make it messy). Early in the novel, Dr. Hoffman, an Evil Guy, invents a machine that makes metaphors into reality—everyone in the audience at an opera becomes a squawking, preening peacock, for instance—so that “reality” becomes a dangerous, unnavigable wilderness and Hoffman can, in the chaos, grab control of the world. Words become unreliable, meaning shifts, signs quite literally fail to work, and the world tilts.

Though this novel has always been about meaning-making and language and story for me (oh, please go read this bizarre, provocative, problematic book), those Dr. Hoffman machines must, I imagine now, garble up the world in a way similar to dementia. All the signs fail to function. Past and present and future run together like watercolor. Everything means what it wants to mean. Metaphor (“You’re like a daughter to me”) becomes reality (“You are my daughter”).  

Both thinking and lack of coherent thought are the problem. A demented brain has a schism, a chasm, the thoughts and memories trapped somewhere far across the divide, unreachable and foggy in the distance. My mother-in-law grasps for what feels like truth, though the results resemble something like what happens in that game of Telephone in which a phrase gets so twisted through its whispered repetitions that it becomes nonsense. But my mother-in-law is also sure of what she knows; she thinks it, therefore it must be true. I must be her biological daughter; her homecare worker’s sweet and devoted 80-year-old husband is touching her butt. Meaning and thought are the ground most of us have come to believe is stable.

My mother-in-law’s homecare worker refers to her own “son-in-love.” I always figured this was a fantastic accident of second-language speech, but perhaps it’s actually intentional. After all, it is love, not law, that legitimates the relationship. This is particularly poignant for someone like me, who has been in a queer marriage since long before it was legally recognized. My partner and I just passed our 20-year anniversary but have only been legally recognized as married for less than six of those years.

My meandering point, I suppose, is that meaning and language are so very important, and to lose them must be gutting. Language has the power to create (biological ties have threaded their way between me and my mother-in-law) and it has the power to erase (I think back to when lovers were routinely referred to as friends or roommates, think back to Boston marriages and confirmed bachelors, and to that most pernicious modern slogan, “love is love,” which erases the specific political dangers of queer love). Language grounds you with logic, with temporal dependability, with consistency. When I was young, I could not even conceive of being queer: there were no models, and I had no word for it, only the knowledge that I was uninterested in boys and found girls much more magnetic. I thought I was unable to fall in love; I did not know that there were women who loved women—it was not even in my Imaginary as a possibility–never mind that there were women who loved people who were neither men nor women.

My mother-in-law’s mind has come unmoored. She is now irretrievably at sea. Watching, trying to ease her struggle, has been excruciating for me and for my partner. We still remember the exacting woman who trusted no one to cut her hair properly, who had been a model, who loved her little Yorkshire terrier, who escaped an abusive husband and traveled out of the country to get a divorce, whose life was a series of truly heroic stories. We’ve all drifted away from what we used to know to be true. Love only gets us so far, and doesn’t help us skirt the pain of loss, the long slow horror that this illness is.  

The land is grounded, the ground is reason, time marches across it, steadfast, reliable. I think, therefore I am, DesCartes said, and I wonder what this means for my mother-in-law, who can no longer think in the same way she used to.

I think, therefore I am unmoored.