CONTROL Part 2: The Illegibility of Trans Experience
When Jesse Faden was a child, something happened in her hometown. An Altered World Event. An alien intrusion. The men in the black suits came, the ones who sweep the weird of the world back into the closet. The Federal Bureau of Control. Jesse escaped them. Her brother Dylan did not.
She's been looking for the Bureau ever since. And when CONTROL begins, she's finally found it. Or more precisely, Polaris has led her there. The unspeaking presence in her head, her constant companion since those strange days of childhood. The alien thing that took up residence in her soul.
This is the second entry in a three-part series on the video game CONTROL. In Part One, I discussed how CONTROL is designed to both stimulate and frustrate interpretation. In this entry, I'm nevertheless going to discuss one of CONTROL's clear / debateable interpretations, namely, that it's a story about a trans woman, cleaved into herself and her self-loathing.
But to get there we need to pass through something else first. A problem I have: explaining what is it like to be <s>a bat</s> trans. I was a philosopher, once; I aspired to explain the world, once. Why can I not explain what it's like to be myself?
There is a peculiar magic in the written word. You read horror and you feel fear, or something like fear—your heart quickens, your muscles tense, you can't look away. But there's nothing fearful in the room. Just ink on paper. Writing is more than a recounting. I conjure in you what once burned in me.
The problem is that I cannot do this for certain central aspects of my life. I cannot for the life of me explain what dysphoria felt like, or how I figured out that I was trans. For all my talents they escape the reach of my words. Years ago, before I transitioned, in that time of dysphoria and self-loathing, a friend of mine asked me what it was like to want to be a woman. How I knew. I told him, it feels like pain.
This is true. But it's not terribly informative. Here, let me try again: "I was just born in the wrong body." That's the party line, right?
That's a failed metaphor. A mere swap of bodies. Too many read it and think, hey, I wouldn't mind taking a cock for a spin. That might be fun!
No. I can assure you, it would not be. You know, assuming that you're cis.
The difficulty is that dysphoria is not something in the world, not something seen or heard or tasted. Dysphoria is a way of feeling the world and one that is very difficult to communicate. Dysphoria is the beetle in the box and the trouble is that my beetle looks a lot different than yours.
I wrestled with this difficulty for years. The struggle of translating the wrack of the soul into words you would understand. Then I read Benjanun Sriduangkaew's "That August Song." This is the story of Sanenya, the three-throated melodist, whose job it is to sing biomechanical monstrosities into being, and Tizeva, the half-monster priest-pilot whose job it is to pilot those monstrosities against monsters still greater. They meet, inevitably; Tizeva suggests rebellion and discontent with their airborne masters. No, Sanenya says; I am loyal, I am dutiful, I would never waver from my devotion to our colonial overlords. Tizeva flirts with Sanenya, dances at the edges of her limits. Will you? Tizeva asks. No, I will not, Sanenya says. Tizeva takes her on-mission, into the monster-haunted depths and then the depths of the leviathan mother that births monsters. Will you now? Tizeva asks. Will you birth me monsters to destroy those who oppress us?
Of course, Sanenya says.
The first time I read this it took me off guard. I thought to myself, I wish there had been more to signal Sanenya's evolving commitment to revolution against her colonial masters earlier in the story. It seemed sudden to me. Where was the character development?
But then, I do not come from a colonized background. I reread the story. And this time I saw Sanenya's anger in her absences, in the things she doesn't say or do or feel. The burning rage inside her that she refuses to even think aloud. The discontent broiling in her from the first word.
Understanding "That August Song" requires a certain point of reference, a certain point of view. "Evokes a feeling" is not a predicate, it's a relation, between text and reader. A connection between the words on the page and the reader's affective references. The beast on the page frightens because we are fleshly creatures, horrifying permeable, and its fangs calls to memory those times we have been permeated.
The thing about dysphoria is, dysphoria is not the experience of new and unknown objects. Dysphoria is a new and unknown way of reacting to entirely ordinary objects. The most mundane things in the world, that which half the world is born with. Bodies. Flesh. Gender. What is normal to you was horror to me. This is what makes it so terribly hard to describe. Most people simply do not understand what it could mean to look at their (perfectly normal) arm and hate it and themselves and be so overcome with disgust they fantasize about setting themselves on fire.
Maybe this is why even trans people often find the trans experience most legible in stories that are not about trans people. Emily van der Werff saw her experience as a trans woman shining clearly through Midsommar's story of cult horror. Sasha Geffen saw themselves reflected in Hereditary's tale of demonic possession. And me? I saw myself refracted back at myself in CONTROL's New Weird story of paranatural apotheosis.
Jesse Faden is different. Jesse Faden is not ordinary. When she was a girl, she fell through a gate to another world, and on the other side of that gate something woke up in her. Polaris. A silent passenger.
Polaris never speaks. She manifests as a glimmer at the edge of vision, a spiraling crystalline halo your eyes can't quite parse, or singing / chiming sound heard in the distance. Polaris points her towards what must happen—the possessed objects she must cleanse, the control points she must claim, the secrets she must find. It's Polaris who guides Jesse to the Oldest House, the skyscraper nobody can see.
Inside the Oldest House, Jesse finds monsters. Humans, once; agents of the Federal Bureau of Control, once. Now they're mutated and mad, trying relentlessly to kill her. And as they do so they chant. Here is a fragment:
The last egg breaks now.
The hole in your room is a hole in you.
You came and we let you in through the hole in you.
You have always been here, the only child.
A copy of a copy of a copy.
This is the opposition. Not a beast but a sound, an alien resonance that crept into the Oldest House and made its men into monsters.
Polaris protects Jesse, though. Keeps the Hiss out of her head. And she fights her way through, down those endless twisting corridors, to the cell where they're keeping her brother, Dylan.
And then Jesse discovers that her brother loves the Hiss. He hates the Bureau for imprisoning him and he hates Jesse for not saving him and he hates Polaris most of all for showing him Jesse alive and free. All he wants is for the Hiss to eat the world. To burrow into every ear and convince every soul to embrace it.
But it's alright. Jesse falls into the abyss of the Oldest House and learns to fly instead. She comes into herself as a paranatural powerhouse. She becomes what she always has been: the voice that can calm the occult artifacts and the weapon that can defeat the Hiss and the Director that can lead the Bureau through its darkest hour. "I'm in an infinite building that touches a dozen alien dimensions, and I never want to leave," she says. "Despite all the horror... I feel happy."
This is all extremely trans, is what I'm trying to say.
Let's start with Polaris. To be trans is to have a guiding star in your heart. A silent passenger, trying to tell you who you really are. Certain things in the world shine with a light you can't describe. You are overcome by this relentless wordless knowing, this thing, this way, this deed. This exploration, this fantasy, this pair of rainbow thigh-highs you can't stop thinking about. You are pulled wordlessly and inexorably towards a destiny you cannot comprehend until after you have arrived at it. You know you are trans before you understand how or why. You know what is necessary for you before you have the words to explain it.
The Hiss, of course, is dysphoria. A sound in the air. An earworm you can't dig out. A needle in the brain. This constant background static that is also an endless litany of words, something that fades in and out of consciousness even as it is always present. And you can try to argue with it, because it speaks to you and you can speak back—but it never changes. You can't reason with it; you can only follow that guiding star out of it. It's in your head, but you hear it from the mouths of others, and most of all from your dark twin, the one looking back at you from the mirror: Dylan Faden, the boy who learned to love despair.
Dylan. That shaved head and drab baggy clothing. Practically the egg's uniform. And he sees Jesse and he hates her because Jesse is the woman he wishes he could be and has convinced himself he cannot. He is the boy who has learned to love despair. Who embraced the Hiss because it was easier than facing the possibility that he didn't have to. CONTROL even suggests that there was once only one child, one single Jesse Dylan Faden, and the strange events in their childhood cleaved them into two people: Jesse Faden, the woman who would become Director, and Dylan Faden, her self-loathing externalized and trapped in a self-hating shell.
And Jesse's gradual embrace of the Oldest House and her position as Director—that's gender euphoria. To finally, finally find a place that fits you, a world full of the things you delight in, where people appreciate you for who and what you are. To no longer be suffocated by people trying to fix you, trying to convince you that what you know in your heart is real isn't. To joy in having become who you always were.
There's an issue with all this, of course. A qualification, a caveat. I wouldn't be the first person to read—or write—a marginalized experience into a speculative-fiction metaphor. The orcs of Bright, the mutants of the X-Men, the galactic genocide of Infinity War—these are all in one way or another attempts approach marginalized experiences through metaphor. And they all distort more than they reveal, because these metaphors are never 1:1.
And yet. Metaphor is what makes my heart sing. Even Bit, with its trans heroine played by a trans actress, relies on the power of the vampire metaphor to communicate the feeling of being trans.
Don't write metaphors, sure. But how the hell else am I supposed to explain what it feels like to be trans? How else am I supposed to say it feels like the first thirty years of my life I lay dead and dreaming and only recently have I been born, how else am I supposed to say I feel like a monster who became a woman and I feel like a woman who is a monster, how else am I supposed to say dysphoria is your evil twin whispering in your ear from the mouths of others speaking in your own voice and the only way out is following an unnameable star shining in the dark?
So I am at an impasse. On the one hand—and I cannot stress this enough—being trans is not literally about becoming a paranatural demigod of immense occult power. Yet on the other, the next time someone asks me why I am like this, I know the answer: when I was a child, a new resonance leaked in from an alien dimension. And after I was never the same.
It's as good an explanation as any.