Sunday, November 07, 2010

Remembering Stachio

I met Stachio in the fall of '85, when I was his hall convenor.  Wow, right there in that first sentence there's so much to explain.  I'll start with the simple stuff; at my college, the dorms had a system of peer counselors.  Each hall would have a hall convenor or a resident counselor who had received training in active-listening techniques and was charged with being the first point of contact between students (in particular first years) and the Student Development Office.  Our purpose was to be safe people for students to talk to about any problems they might be having: annoying roommates, homesickness, the pressures of school, anything.  We'd listen, help if we could, or direct them to more qualified people if that was warranted.  We also kept an eye out for red flags of any kind.  Student Development stressed we were not RAs like other schools had; we were not expected to be police officers, writing people up for rule infractions. We were encouraged to do all we could to create a sense of community, but mostly we were just supposed to be available to listen if anyone needed to talk. 

So, that was my job, along with my roommate Peter.  Before the first years arrived, we were asked to write them letters, introducing ourselves and explaining our role.  When I got the list of names, I noticed something odd.  One room had only one name, Sharon Kimery.  Singles were a coveted commodity at my school, as they no doubt are at most schools.  Generally only seniors got them.  Juniors might get one if they had a really great number in the housing lottery.  Sophomores never got one.  And a first year student?  An incoming first year?  Absolutely unprecedented. 

But to be honest I didn't think too much about it.  I figured a student had changed her mind at the last minute, and Sharon would get a roommate eventually, like all the other first years.  When we gathered to prepare for New Student Week however, I learned a bit more from an unofficial (but convincing) source.  Sharon was a woman who wanted to be a man.  At his boarding school he had had a lot of conflicts as long as he was forced to have female roommates, but the minute he was given a single, he calmed down.  So, Student Development and housing had decided to maintain this approach. 

Which brings us to the second thing in that first sentence that needs some explaining.  I consciously chose to use the male pronoun in writing about Stachio.  Doing so is, shall we say, a bit revisionist.  I did NOT think of Stachio as a man when I met him.  In telling this story, I debated which was better; respect his self-identity--as I would now--or admit my own ignorance at the time, when I saw him as a troubled and confused woman?  To honor his memory, I decided to go with the former path.  I'll be addressing my own ignorance plenty. 

I can't remember when I learned that he preferred to be called Stachio, but I thought it an intriguing choice.  I wondered if choosing something unfamiliar to most Midwesterners (Stachio was from Michigan) was a way of taking a boy's name, but not being too obvious about it.  Whatever the motivation, we all called him Stachio.  I don't think anyone ever called him Sharon, at least not in my hearing.  Another student (also a woman, but not, as far as I know, transgender) went by the name Voltaire: this was, after all, college. We'll call you whatever you want us to call you.  What the hell. 

Stachio had gone on a Wilderness program the college offered before the start of each school year, so he came into school having already made some friends.  He was sturdily built, squat and strong-looking, with a low-affect voice and a no-nonsense attitude.  He seemed a bit stand-offish at first, but not lacking in humor.  As a fellow Midwesterner, I recognized the template of manhood Stachio was working with. 

Student Development had still given me no reason to think there was anything noteworthy going on here.  But whatever my intentions or motivations, I decided to try to draw him out.  The easiest way to do this, of course, was to ask him to split a Dominoe's Pizza with me. 
It didn't really take much to get him talking about himself, though he never, then or at any other point, addressed any gender issues with me.  But he told me about his vision of a good life.  Stachio thought a life of pure reason and logic was the way to go.  He didn't see the point of emotions and friendships.  Star Trek's Mr. Spock was his ideal.  He didn't believe he'd be completely without human contact, however.  He said in high school he had been friends with a guy who shared his non-emotion approach to life.  They could hang out, or not, without fanfare or explanation.  The connection was clearly important to him, but there wasn't any fussiness around it.  Stachio hated fussiness.  He was particularly disdainful of women as a group, mainly because of their messy emotionalism (that was as near as he got to telling me he was NOT female).  He was sure that there was another friend like that out there for him, waiting to be found.  The way he talked about this future friend was almost mystical.  He knew they would simply recognize one another when they met for the first time. (He told me a few weeks later that he had met the mystical Mr Spock friend--a guy working in admissions--but a few weeks after that he lamented that he must have been wrong; there had been no corresponding reaction from the other guy, no recognition of their special bond.)

I should explain who I was at this point.  I was still very much in the closet.  I had never used the word 'gay' to describe myself to another person.  A life free of messy human emotions and contacts such as Stachio described was, in fact, rather close to the vision I'd had  in my head for the past six years.  Unlike him, however, I was just beginning to question it.  I had been willing, in high school, to act friendly with people, allow them to think of me as their friend, but I always felt my enormous secret stood in the way of us ever truly being close, and it always would.  My last year in high school and first year of college, however, I began forming bonds that shook up my plan.  I wanted to be close to these people, and if that required exposing my deep dark secret, well, we might want to give it some thought. I was, in short, considering joining the human race.  Hearing Stachio describe an even more extreme version of my hermit plan was illuminating, and frankly, horrifying. 

Stachio and I never had any more heart-to-hearts, assuming that's even a fair description of this conversation.  The static in my own head continued to grow, until I finally did come out to four of my closest friends near the end of that term.  I came out to my family over the Christmas break, told a handful of other close friends at the beginning of second term, then began living as if it was common knowledge.  Actually I had sort of banked on it being juicy fodder for the school rumor-mill, but apparently that never happened.  Whatever.  In any case, coming out was a quiet, modest, and singularly-lacking-in-drama event for me.  Being out would continue to have its complications--hell, it does still--but coming out, that went pretty smoothly. 

So, with this experience under my belt, I looked at Stachio with some well-meaning but misguided ideas.  For one thing, my process of self-acceptance had involved examining my own gender non-conformity.  Any guy who has ever been identified as a sissy, regardless of his sexual orientation, has probably wondered about his manliness.  Hell, probably every guy at some point has had some serious worries about his manliness.  It's a remarkably fragile thing, when you think about it.  You can lose it by crossing your legs the wrong way, by letting your voice go too high, by carrying your books the wrong way, looking at your fingernails the wrong way, etc.  I'm not going to get into a discussion of the distinction between sex and gender, but suffice it to say, I had come to recognize that while I didn't conform to my society's construction of masculinity, I was, in fact, a man, and comfortable saying so, no matter how many bracelets I might wear.  (That was my big statement of androgyny back then: lots of bangles.  Ooh, daring!  Also real jingly.)

One of the biggest reasons I finally came out was simply because I was finally meeting some openly gay and lesbian folks, many of whom were quite cool.  (There were, of course, no out kids in my high school, and one kid who was almost certainly gay also happened to be a bit of a sociopath.  That was a wee bit of a deterrent.)  In particular there was a thriving lesbian scene, with many women tipping pretty far on the dyke scale, who seemed happy and comfortable in their skins.  To my casual observation, they looked and sounded a lot like Stachio.  So while I never said as much to him, in my head I kept thinking "Oh honey, just be a dyke!" 

I was glad to see though that he seemed to be collecting friends, including some women.  Clearly he had begun to reexamine his disdain.  I was especially pleased when I saw him hanging out with a woman I suspected was lesbian (she confirmed my suspicion a few years later).  Stachio even helped me mediate a conflict between the two guys living in the room next to him.  Not only did this require he get involved in messy emotions, he told me he was friends with them both and didn't see why they couldn't get along.  There was no self-consciousness about using the word 'friend', no awareness that it might appear to contradict his policy as previously reported.  That made me happy too, though of course I didn't draw any attention to it. 

As the year progressed, Stachio's friendships appeared to grow in number and depth, though again, we never discussed them.  I have no idea what his thoughts were.  Was he beginning to reconsider the Mr. Spock path?  Did he see these friendships as real and valuable?  And how did this affect his view of himself?  Oh, I'd almost forgotten another aspect of Staccio's self-creation.  He let it be known that he was the bastard child of a British noble and an Australian peasant.  The noble family, disdaining his plebian breeding and bastardy, had initially denied him, but had recently made contact because he was their sole heir.  Stachio came back from Christmas break with a picture of the castle and estate; his Australian accent, faint but noticeable before, had gotten a booster shot.  So this story, mostly hinted at but widely disseminated, became, I think, another way to keep people both intrigued and at arm's length.  I don't know how many of us bought it (seriously?  British nobility?), but it probably added another layer of protection between us and his gender issues. 

I knew Stachio was in therapy with a psychologist I also suspected (again, correctly) was lesbian.  I can only hope that she was more enlightened than I was, and wasn't trying to convince Staccio "just to be a dyke."  But I doubt I was the only well-meaning person in his life who thought that.  And who knows how much he picked up on and internalized that message?  To the best of my knowledge he was never bullied or called names at Earlham.  But who knows better than I how powerful an internalized message can be? 

That summer Stachio, like many students, stayed in town to work on campus.  I have no idea what that Summer was like for him.  I was caught up in my own summer jobs, and was getting ready to spend a semester in Ireland.  Besides, he and I weren't close.  I wasn't someone he confided in, assuming he confided in anyone.  So I don't know what led him to buy a gun and shoot himself fatally in the head.  I don't know if anything could have been done to prevent him from making that choice.  How far back would we have to go? 

There was a suicide note, but the only thing I can remember learning was that it included an apology for lying about his ancestry.  He was not, of course, British nobility.  He was adopted and had lived all his life in Michigan.  He said something about lies being dreams of what could be. 

Stachio's picture was included in the next yearbook, as an 'in memorium.'  He was identified as Sharon (Staccio) Kimery.  It was still a few more years before I learned enough to be saddened by that, to see it as misguided, however innocently.  I don't know, presumably never will, exactly how Stachio saw himself.  Did he consider himself a man, end of story?  Did he feel some step needed to be taken before his true self could emerge? Had he and his therapist been working towards that?  Or had they been trying to make him accept himself as a woman?  That's what I assumed at the time.  What other answer was there?  It was two more years before I met a transgendered adult, by coincidence also female-to-male.  I wish Stachio had gotten to meet Jason. 


Jess said...

There are a lot of people whose lives put more on their shoulders than they're equipped to deal with. It sounds like Staccio had his hands full. It's sad, but it's not something we can always do anything to affect in a positive way. I've known people who had some issues but didn't seem to face the level of challenges you've described, and these same people felt the need end their lives. That naturally led to my thinking, why couldn't one of us have seen it coming and done something to help? But much of a person's internal demons are invisible to the rest of the world--and even somewhat ghostlike to the person whose demons they are--and how can anyone adequately address such things?

All any of us can do is the best we can with the skills and smarts we have. Sometimes that's not enough, but perhaps we can learn from what didn't work out in the past and make the world a little better in the future.

Rebecca said...

Patrick. It's so sad that I (and we as a community) didn't understand more back then \ about how complicated life can be. (For one thing, we were kids, for another, times were so different.) I'm sure I still don't understand things as fully as I could even now. I do remember the sad facts, but didn't know Stachio. Your words are very touching. Thank you.

Sarah M-W said...

Patrick, this is beautiful. It is very easy for me to say this now, but I felt Staccio was a "man in a woman's body" almost upon meeting him in Humanities class. In fact, I remember the professor asking us to pass a message along to "him" when Staccio was absent one day. Everyone in the room visibly squirmed. I wonder now if she was years ahead of her time or actually thought Staccio, who did not introduce himself as "Sharon", was born a man. I appreciated Staccio's cu-to-the-chase, no B.S. approach in Humanities, There was a student named Brett (no last names!) who constantly hijacked the discussion, and Staccio and I were always trying to shut him down.

Prior to learning about the suicide note, I really worried that someone had killed Staccio as a hate crime. I think there was some speculation in Richmond about the investigation and whether it was a homicide or a suicide that fed these fears...The phrase "lies being dreams of what could be" is absolutely heartbreaking and speaks so much to what he must have been going through.

Unknown said...

When I heard of Stachio's death it hit me like a ton of bricks. I have felt this weight ever since. I talk about him in all of my psychology classes when we discuss gender, child development, and sexuality. My purpose is to let people know that feeling like this is o.k. and that there are others out there who go through/feel the same things. My hope is that if there is one person going through this on their own hear someone say others feel this too will give them a pause and not turn toward the purchase of a gun to solve problems.

I will always feel that I could have done more for Stachio.

Patrick said...

Gretchen, I know how you feel; I feel like I could have done more for him too. But I think Jess, Rebecca, and Sarah are right as they all say, in different ways, that we did what we could, we worked with what we knew and understood at the time. Yes, it wasn't enough, but how many of us really expect someone to kill himself? What you are doing now, in your psych classes, is a beautiful way to respond to his death. I guess I wrote this with the same hope, that if I tell his story, I might reach one kid who is thinking a gun is the answer to his/her problem.

Lesley Howard said...

Patrick, I think of Stachio now and again -- in the autumn, especially -- and your blog hits me at a particularly "tender" moment as my two sons are, at 13 and almost-ten, entering into all the crap that adolescent boy-men have to deal with. We're having lots of sex-ed-initiated conversations re: gender/sexuality and I'm hopeful that our (society's in general, and mine and my hubby's in particular) increasing understanding of the range of human experiences is helpful to them in navigating whatever path their lives take. And while knowing another person as their parent = a level of understanding/knowing (for me) unmatched by any other, their private lives are becoming, appropriately, more opaque: what's going on for them? Are regular conversational openings helpful or just annoying? Do I simply flatter myself that I know them well? What's the most helpful way to be a mother to sons, whose experience is inherently different, due to physical and societal differences? Mostly, I hope for them an Earlham-esque community experience -- where, it seems to me, people care as best they can ... OK. This is a bit of ramble. But thanks for the forum, and your thoughtful essay.

John Woida said...

I lived in Hoerner along with Stachio. Stachio had the most wicked overhanded forehand disc throw I have ever seen, and could even get the disk to dip and rise...something I still can't get right. Up!

Patrick said...

Lesley, I wouldn't say you ramble at all; rather, this is a touching and encouraging view of how parents might grapple with some very tricky terrain. I'm not a parent, but the approach you and your husband are using sounds like the one I would use too. Educate them about the range of human experiences, demystify the subjects of sexuality and identity as much as possible, make one's openness and receptivity clear, and accept that adolescents in particular will want to work things out in private. I share your fear that the larger society will still erode all that; it certainly did in my growing up years. My mind boggles sometimes when I realize how much I let the bullies and thugs (who were struggling themselves I have no doubt) shape my thoughts and beliefs. I didn't respect them, why was I listening to them? Easy to forget how much we want to fit in when we're teenagers though. And it becomes a bit like being a fish trying not to get wet.
I also hope your sons find an environment where 'people care as best they can' (love that way of putting it, by the way). I do think such communities are growing, and becoming easier to find. You and your husband obviously are helping build one. I hope I am too.

John, I remember being impressed with Stachio's frisbee skills. I was just telling my dad (who taught Stachio in HUM III) about how he would regularly toss a frisbee with anyone who accepted, on the grass just outside my dorm room. On one occasion he and another guy from my hall (a world-class whiner, to be honest) were playing, and earnestly discussing (more loudly than they may have realized) whether or not I should have gone to school where my father taught. The whiner was anti, Stachio firmly pro, and I thought he made some rather insightful points. The whole thing amused me at the time, and helped cement my fondness for Stachio.

Patrick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Greg said...

What a shame that Stachio can't know (if he doesn't) how he touched all your lives.

I think we're remade a little by each person we meet, no matter if we know them for a few minutes or a lifetime and its clear that your experience with him had its impact, "friend" or no.

Thanks for sharing his story with us.

John Woida said...

Howdy Patrick,

Just came back to visit and see what others posted. This is really just a note to you about some more thoughts, not a comment for your blog...

I was re-reading what you wrote, particularly at the end where you wondered if Stachio thought of himself as a man. I had a conversation with Stachio one day while working the phone desk. We were both taking Human Biology at the time. He told me he was a "genetic fuck up." He didn't go into much more detail, other than to insist that he was born wrong. "Just look at me," he said. There was a finality about his self-assessment that made it sound unresolveable. I think I stammered through some bullshit about people being able to transcend the facts of their own biology using as a lame example my own mutant trait, an inherited abnormal red blood cell morphology. Maybe Stachio just wanted to see if I would flinch. When I think of Stachio I always remember that conversation. At the time (and even now) it was more than I knew how to handle, and I don't think I ever told anyone about it.

My son and I watch Star Trek The Next Generation every night. The day after I read your blog there was an episode about a species that has no gender. But some rare individuals are born different, and lean toward male or female gender identity. These deviants are reprogrammed to cure their illness and make them happy again. My son thinks they should let the individuals make their own gender choice. It reminded me a bit of Ursula K. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness, except in that book I think individuals shift genders naturally as they develop.

I find myself thinking about Stachio from time to time...

-- John

Patrick said...

John: thanks for sharing that story, heartbreaking as it is. I would like to think that at the very least Stachio DID notice-and appreciate-the fact that you didn't flinch. So few of us would have known how to respond to a statement like that, back then. The fact that more and more of us would now know to say "you are not a mistake" is progress. It's also an encouraging sign that you and your son could discuss such a topic in the context of a TV show, thus paving the way for a more personal discussion about sexuality or identity if and when the time arises.
I have never read that Le Guin novel; I've started it a couple of times but never finished it for some reason. I will have to give it another look-see.

Agenttattletale said...

I knew Stachio in high school. We were friends, but lost contact. He was a very conflicted person. I'm deeply saddened, but not surprised at this finish. Peace, Stach. Enjoy the break, at last.