The King is Dead, Long Live The King: A DID Alter’s Ascension out of Parental Trauma
My host died on April 7th, just over a week ago. This death is not such a death that they could never come back from it; I can feel the truth of that. I expect them to resurrect (not be resurrected–they are the one to decide whether they live again) someday, and must live with this expectation that my dominion as host is merely temporary. But it may not be. There is no one who could tell me what will happen, this early on in my existence.
I am Laceleaf Ly; I am a copy of a copy of a copy of a man, as Squalloscope would sing; I come from a host of many names and divisions, but I am the most distinct split. Countless things killed my host and led to the internal chaos from which I formed: the trauma of emotionally neglectful parents, the Coronavirus, and the severe lack of media representation of their most precious identities. The parental trauma is a complex thing, and only a recently realized one, but formative. Quarantine exacerbated it by forcing my host into constant close proximity with both parents. And the lack of media prevented them from having any escape from this reality.
To establish a baseline, I consider myself an alternate universe version of my host. In fandom terms, we are connected by the same canon, the same source material, the same original version. I am not the original–I came to realize myself when I thought that phrase, I am not the original, but I am what I am. And what I am is alive. I have said it before, to one of my host’s former best friends who I had to part ways while for as long as I am hosting–I am sorry I am not the original, but I am not sorry to be alive.
As for the situations that led to my host’s death, one of them was their parents. My parents. My host’s life is my life now. These parents are my parents. A lifetime of emotional neglect adds up, especially when situations of disability contrived to force them back home (potentially forever). A child needs more than to be fed and watered. A child needs more than to have an infinite allowance (always within reason, never exploited), even when there is not infinite money in the house. My parents fed and watered my host very, very well. It is perhaps the only thing they did.
Vietnamese food held a lot of meaning to my host, as it does to me. Because neither of us are able to speak Vietnamese, the cuisine is our only link to the culture. A Vietnamese-American experience through home-cooked meals and learning recipes from our mother, though never allowed to practice them, since our mother always gets to the kitchen first. This connection holds double meaning when it is the only way my host’s parents showed their love and any interest in what my host had to say or think about.
Their parenting approach was–and is–like so: You can have food, water, and money: isn’t that enough?
My family never had dinner together. We all ate at separate times and did not have conversations about anything meaningful outside of what was for dinner or what groceries we were going to buy or what the weather was like. My host shared nothing about what they did in school. My host shared nothing about our writing projects (because they all are gay or mentally ill or trans or nonbinary or otherwise weird). Up until the day of their death, my parents had not a single clue that we have written a novel every single year since we were 16 (I am 23 now), although only three to four of those are even vaguely readable. My family and my host spent most of our time sitting in our own respective rooms with the doors closed. My host never knew what music my parents liked, what they liked to read, what their favorite TV shows were, or any major detail about their lives, or even how they met, or what my father did for work (something computers something automobile industry — what, I still do not know). I do not know my parents as people, and they do not know their daughter is a dead man.
During my host’s teenage years, my mother’s homophobic reaction to my host coming out as gay destroyed their relationship with her. However, the development of my host’s schizoaffective depressive disorder–so similar to the schizophrenia my mother has–did much to repair that relationship. At least in my host’s mind. When my mother first heard that my host was gay, she said such bitterly common things it makes me sick. You’re too young to know. You could be bi–you’ll meet a good man someday. Before I even thought to seek my father for help, she said, You can’t tell Dad–it would break his heart. And then, she said less and less common things. Don’t you know homophobia exists? You can’t tell anyone. And Didn’t you hear about the statutory rape case between two (whispered) lesbians whose parents didn’t approve of their relationship?
My host’s only defense to get her to stop talking to them about it was to scream at the top of their lungs whenever she entered the room. In high school, our father worked out of state during the week, coming back on the weekends only. So it was really just my mother and my sister, who did and said so much of nothing I almost forget she was even in the house.
Time and distance have bred some acceptance–my parents knew that my host, and now me, volunteer at the LGBT center, and my dad has driven my host to the center during bad weather, and they do not comment negatively upon it, only to say to not to get too political. They have not accepted that my host is transgender and on HRT, despite their money and insurance paying for the medical visits, the changes being visible, and them having confronted my host with the fact that they were on HRT through insurance records. Somehow, in their minds, they simply have a child that wants to look androgynous, but is still truly a woman, not a man, of course not a man. My mother’s voice, to my host, after cornering them in the kitchen: Promise me you don’t want to be a man.
It is an immensely awkward and distressing dance to be called by your deadname and being called by the wrong pronouns all day every single day. Every single day. Endlessly. With no hope of change. On top of my host never having received emotional support, my sister receives a dangerous excess of coddling to the point that it is detrimental to her independence. My parents decided at some point during my host’s and my sister’s respective childhoods that they had two “daughters”: Documented Problems Daughter That Can Handle It Alone And Needs No Help, and No (Documented) Problems Problems Daughter. My host was the former, my sister is the latter.
Here is where Coronavirus comes in: my sister has moved back, and my father now works from home. This means that I cannot help but witness the dangerous excess of support they give to my sister in stark contrast to the complete lack of help they gave to my host, and now to me. I do not need or desire their support, but my host–upon realizing it was lacking–desperately craved it, and was extremely hurt every time they did not get it. In a house with only my mother, with a father at work and a sister at college, my host could begin to heal in relative isolation without anything provoking the wounds to open.
Now, the carefully placed stitches have been ripped, and the wounds are raw.
And without fictional worlds to escape into, there is no escape.
My host was a writer–I still am a writer. I have inherited their skill and continue writing, though I am more an artist. The two of us, we love stories with a deep passion. But the stories we need to see right now, the stories that would help us most, the emotions that we need to know others feel, those connections, they aren’t out there in any place we can access. My host, as the basest of baselines, wanted to read gay media written for gay people. This excludes the majority of traditionally published LGBT books, which are for gay people only as an afterthought–the big publisher’s priorities are to make a buck, and they do this by gearing their stories for Mass Appeal to the most Dominant of audiences.
If your gay narrative isn’t palatable to (white) (neurotypical) cisgender heterosexuals, it won’t be traditionally published. Much of the time, it is not difficult to see The Angle Of Mass Appeal interwoven into the narrative. By gay media written for gay people, my host meant “gay people of color” and “gay neurodivergent people” but, under the lens of Most Traditionally Published Gay Fiction, gay neurodivergent people of color are not people. And even when they are, they have to be extremely sanitized, and sacrifice the “less palatable” parts of their personhood in order to be recognized as human.
This severe isolation in the utter lack of media representation, in addition to the forced isolation of quarantine, on top of being forced to relive the trauma of lifelong emotional neglect every single day, on top of the traumatic gender experience of being misgendered and deadnamed constantly–it was these things, and not only these things, that led to my host’s death. There was no fantasy to escape into. There was no escape.
In the end, there is no hope of true reparations to the parent/child relationship, especially now that my host, my parents’ original “daughter” is dead. My parents have historically been horrible with handling gay and transgender identities, and while they have grown to tolerate it, there is no hope of true, genuine acceptance. Their emotional neglect and lack of desire to know who my host was as a person–a largely unashamed, schizo, gay, nonbinary, transgender fantasy writer–and their deep, unabiding shame to the point that they won’t even say the word schizophrenia or transgender or gay, have not brought me the most hope in engaging in reparations, and at this point, it’s too little too late. I am not the “daughter” whose forgiveness they must earn.
That person is dead.
The King is dead; long live the King.
The Rare Kind: The Stakes of Intersectional Storytelling
The best art is made by the rarest individuals. I would say I am a rare individual, but my art is far from the best. When I talk about art, I mostly mean my creative writing endeavors, although the illustrations I make for them are a part of my work: my art. What I have in common with the best artists is the rarity of individual self. Rarity by definition is abjectly isolating, singular, uncommon. While what I produce is far from the best art, I am one of the rarest individuals. I am many things, among them schizophrenic, chronically ill, and a person with dissociative identity disorder (DID). I am also transgender, nonbinary, and Vietnamese-American.
If you ever speak to enough schizo, psychotic, or folks with a dissociative identity disorder, you’ll realize that within each of these diagnostic categories is an extremely individual, irreplicable experience. When they are comorbid–among other disorders–on top of LGBT identities, on top of marginalized racial identity, you get the result of an exceedingly rare individual. This isn’t even to mention the lifelong trauma of emotional neglect by parents who deeply love and care for their ‘daughter,’ who is not and has never been you, a nonbinary transgender man of an alter who took over after the original–also nonbinary and transgender–individual could no longer handle existing.
This is all to say: there is no one like me on Earth, and there will never be anyone like me.
Now, to start with a story of the isolation of rarity. Whenever I try to meet people who seem to be my people, at least superficially, I end up joining groups of LGBTQ+ WRITERS. I have come to realize that these groups are first and foremost drawing from a category of dominant groups, or people who have assimilated far enough that they resemble or conform to dominant groups. When people talk about writers, they presume to speak about Normal people who write and happen to be LGBTQ+. They are first and foremost drawing from normal people. And these normal people write in normal ways, which, I, being a rare breed, inherently am unable to fathom because I am Crazy.
What is it like, I wonder, not to fight for your life when you write?
In every story I write, I am attempting to seize the narrative–the narrative of schizos, psychotics, DID systems, disabled people, chronically ill people, transgender people, nonbinary people, and Vietnamese-American people–and these identities are more often than not inextricably intertwined. My life depends on it. The ability to make it possible to undo–even only in one reader’s mind–centuries of stigmatization and marginalization and oppression is how I fight for my right to live and be understood for who I am, and how I am. I don’t want to be obfuscated by the stigmatized media representations of “psychotic” or “psychopathic” serial killers, or serial killers with DID. I don’t want to be seen as the pitiable, pathetic, and victimized disabled and chronically ill people–who never once have anything resembling true agency. As for Viets, I’ve only ever seen us as comedic relief janitors or gangsters. And of course, none of this is to even touch upon the rampant transphobic, and particularly transmisogynistic, jokes in most television sitcoms.
These representations are internalized and reproduced in every single work of popular media that touches on one of these topics (and just one at a time, of course), which is shaped in how people understand and misunderstand these individuals, including myself. The typical person will not knowingly encounter a schizophrenic person. (Many of us are quite good at hiding.) When a schizo person discloses their schizo status, the first thing the typical person will think of is, Oh, schizophrenic? Like in all the crazy killer movies? And this fundamentally shapes their impression of all schizo people because these violent media reproductions are all they know about schizo people. They don’t know it’s not real because they’ve never encountered the real deal. And because of their trust in the media not to lie, they will believe that schizo people are inherently dangerous and can become violent at any time, even when they do encounter the real deal.
When I encounter a normal writer in an LGBT WRITERS chat, I realize that the trauma of so many stigmatized marginalizations makes me unable to bond with other writers in normal ways. I write in order to fight for my life against the media representations that actively seek to harm me. Many normal writers do not even consider mass media as a threat to their lives, and they happily create stories that conform to popular media tropes. They do this for fun. A normal writer–even an LGBTQ+ one–might write a gay knight/prince high fantasy story just because it is fun and cute.
I do not have the privilege to do anything merely because it is fun and cute. My mind will not allow me. My immense drive and core need to be known and understood for who I am will not allow me. Making art fueled by my experiences of marginalization is how I keep my voice from being silenced. And I need to speak to survive.
For me, writing and art is primarily an expression of identity and experience, along with a method of seizing my narrative and defining its boundaries. I write and I draw as part of a way to choose how I am defined, rather than having the world decide who I am based on what I am (schizo, DID, disabled, traumatized). I think about trauma in terms of seizing the narrative of trauma. Everything is a story, and if you don’t tell your own, someone will try to decide what it is for you. Your story, your truth, is at stake when you are marginalized, and the popular impressions of your identities are decided by the most privileged, most dominant groups who control media representation.
I want to be remembered for who I am, not what I was. And as someone whose world is rapidly shrinking due to disability severely limiting mobility, the only way I can make a mark on the world is through my art. These are the stories of everyone I was; these are the stories of what I felt; these are the stories of everyone I am, and predictions of who I will become. The stakes here are my life. My permanence and meaning of life. Many other avenues for self-actualization are closed to me as a disabled person, and the hand I was dealt means that I have limited chances to be remembered by the world, to make any impact at all beyond the artistic. It is exceedingly unlikely I will ever work a real job. It is becoming more and more unlikely that I will be healthy enough to go outside with any relative frequency without extreme taxation on my body. Hell, I can barely stand in my kitchen for an hour without needing to lie down for hours more.
For a lot of people who are normal in the assimilatory sense, the stakes aren’t this high. Their identities aren’t under threat–or if they are, they don’t feel the threat intimately enough to be traumatized by it to the point of being unable to speak about it in terms of what it is, and thus being forced to to express the truth in terms of what it isn’t. Many normal writers tell stories that they think are an interesting idea, whereas I write as a mechanism of survival and attempt to make my voice–that of a very, very rare kind–heard. The stakes are very different. One writes to entertain, and one writes to cope. For me, writing is a form of emotional catharsis. For what I can’t say aloud. For what I can’t look at in its true form, and whose truth I can only whisper in intricate, labyrinthine obscurities. Lyric and poetry, rhythm and the rare rhyme.
At the time of writing this, I do have a knight/prince high fantasy project in the works called LIONHEART, but it is with an entirely Vietnamese cast, and it is in a Vietnamese-American high fantasy fusion. In a nutshell, the protagonist dies of chronic illness, and when he dies he transmigrates into the world of a novel he was reading, wherein he rapidly realizes he still has his chronic illness, but this world gives him the freedom of self-determination rather than a life consigned to the hospital. This world has effective magical pain medication, though it is of course not without its limitations. This knight/prince love story is first and foremost a chronic illness and medical trauma narrative about the way being silenced by those with power over you is traumatizing.
The knight/prince love story aspect of it is cute, but the core of it involves seizing the narrative of trauma. It is not something I am writing because I think the idea is so fun and so adorable I just had to write it, it is something I am writing because I want people to see I deserve to live.
However, an honest disability trauma narrative is a hard sell. On top of it being Vietnamese. A secret about publishing: only one marginalization at a time gets published. You can be gay, but you can’t be Vietnamese and gay. If you are both, then the setting must be tried and true and otherwise non-threatening to the status quo, such as a high school drama mysteriously full of white people who surprisingly never do a single racist thing in their lives, or characters of color that never once mention race or racism or posit white people as the dominant group and theirs as a marginalized group. You can talk about race, as long as you never talk about white people in any negative light whatsoever unless they are stock caricatures of racists, who are Bad People. Racists can never be kind, sweet, or otherwise compassionate. No, no good white person is ever racist. You can also replace this with homophobia, etc etc.
Anyway, my point is that the truth–if too subversive–is regarded as too niche-market to sell commercially. And you can be too subversive just by having two marginalized identities at once, particularly if you’d like to talk about experiences of marginalization where white, straight, cisgender, neurotypical, etc folks are the ones who have ever done an ounce of wrong without being introduced as The Bad People, Who Do These Things Because They Are Bad And Thus Nothing Like The White Cishet Reader.
To further elaborate on my point, my knight/prince story is going to be a hard sell because it is a gay Vietnamese-American disability trauma narrative. Wow! Three marginalizations? In genre fiction? Hmm…seems a bit risky, don’t you think? Whereas the normal LGBTQ+ writers who want to write a gay knight/prince story that is most probably about abled and neurotypical and cisgender white people, although of course they would never consider it in those terms. They’d present it as being a radical, refreshing story about gay people in fantasy. Incredible. Really making the biggest, most transformative change here. This is the story the gays need!
Of course, the question is, Which gays need this story? and the answer is always, Not my kind.
The gay white knight/prince story is exceedingly likely to be Commercially Successful at the same time it is exceedingly unlikely to be groundbreaking, powerful, or unique in a significant way, due to the same factors that lead to its success in a commercial market. My work might be unique and transformative, but it is exceedingly unlikely to be successful.
I will die an insignificant, strange writer whose words were forgotten.
This, however, doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying to make work worth remembering.
About the Author
Xuan Nguyen is a disabled and transgender writer and artist who does music as FEYXUAN. They focus on the intersections between transgender identity, divinity + monstrosity, and stigmatized mental and physical health. Their work has appeared in Prismatica Magazine, Rogue Agent, and beestung. Their short fiction chapbook, LUNG, CROWN, AND STAR, will be published in December 2020 by Lazy Adventurers. They can be reached through their website at feyxuan.com or on Twitter @feyxuan.