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All too soon I shattered the hopes and dreams of my father. The problem was diagnosed early, in the very first months of my life. It would seem I was born this way; no one has ever understood the origin, the genesis, the source of the unknown force that got hold of me at birth and that imprisoned me in my own body. When I began to express myself, when I learned to speak, spontaneously my voice took on feminine inflections. It was higher-pitched than that of other boys. Every time I spoke my hands waved frenetically every which way, twisting about, stirring up the air.
My parents referred to my fancy ways; Stop putting on those fancy ways they’d say to me. They would ask themselves Why does Eddy always act like such a girl? They’d tell me insistently: Calm down, can’t you lose the queeny gestures? They thought I’d chosen to be effeminate, as if it were some personal aesthetic project that I was pursuing to annoy them.
And yet I too had no idea why I was the way I was. I was dominated, subjugated by these mannerisms, and I had not chosen that high-pitched voice. I had not chosen my way of walking, the pronounced, much too pronounced, way my hips swayed from side to side, or the shrill cries that escaped my body—not cries that I uttered but ones that literally escaped through my throat whenever I was surprised, delighted, or frightened.
Every so often I would sneak off to the kids’ bedroom, which was dark because we hadn’t installed lighting in it. (Not enough money to install a real fixture, or some kind of ceiling light or even simply a bulb: a desk lamp was all the room had in the way of lighting.)
I’d pilfer some of my sister’s clothes and put them on and parade around, trying on anything that I could: short skirts or long skirts, ones with spots or stripes, clingy T-shirts or low-cut ones, worn-out ones, ones that were full of holes, lace bras or padded ones.
These performances, for which I was the only spectator, seemed to me the most beautiful I had ever seen. I found myself so beautiful that I could have cried tears of joy. My heart could have exploded, it beat so fast.
Breathless after the euphoria of the runway show had passed, I would suddenly feel idiotic, sullied by the girls’ clothes I had been wearing, or not just idiotic but disgusted with myself, stunned by the momentary fit of madness that had made me cross-dress; it was like one of those days when inebriation and disinhibition lead to foolish behaviors, regretted the next day, once the alcohol wears off and nothing is left of our deeds but a painful and shameful memory. I would imagine cutting the clothes to bits, burning them, and burying them someplace where no one would ever dig them up.
Then there were my tastes, always automatically turned toward the feminine without my knowing or understanding why. I loved the theater, female vocalists, and dolls, whereas my brothers (and even my sisters, in a certain way) preferred video games, rap, and soccer.
As I grew up, I could feel my father’s gaze, when it fell on me, grow heavier and heavier, I could feel the terror mounting in him, his powerlessness in the face of the monster he had created and whose oddity became clearer with each passing day. The whole situation seemed too much for my mother, and quite early on she gave up trying to do anything about it. I would often imagine that one day she was going to disappear, leaving a note on the table to explain that she had had enough, that she hadn’t asked for this, for a son like me, that she wasn’t able to live this kind of a life, that she was invoking her right to abandon me. Other days I would imagine that my parents were going to drive me to the edge of a road somewhere, or to the middle of a forest, and leave me there, alone, the way you did with animals.
(And I knew that they wouldn’t, that it wasn’t possible, that they would never go so far; but the thought did occur to me.)
Confounded by a creature beyond their ken, my parents tried relentlessly to set me back on the right path. They would get annoyed, and say That kid’s got a screw loose, he’s not right in the head. Most of the time they would say pussy when speaking to me, and pussy was just about the worst insult they could imagine—that was obvious from the tone they used—the one best for conveying disgust, better than asshole or loser. In a world where masculine values are held up as supreme, even my mother would say about herself I’ve got balls, nobody messes with me.
My father thought soccer might toughen me up, so he suggested that I play, as he had in his youth, as had my cousins and my brothers. I resisted: even at that young age I wanted dancing lessons; my sister took those. I dreamed of being onstage, in tights, with sequins, and a huge crowd cheering for me as I bowed, gratified, dripping with sweat—and yet, knowing the shame that such a dream represented, I never admitted to it. Another boy in the village, Maxime, who took dance lessons because his parents, for reasons no one could understand, insisted on it, was constantly being made fun of. The Dancing Queen was what he was called.
My father begged me Come on, it doesn’t cost anything and you’ll be with your cousin, with your buddies from the village. Give it a go. At least try, for me.
On one occasion I agreed to go, more out of fear of the consequences I’d suffer if I didn’t than as part of an effort to please him.
I went, and then I came home—earlier than the others, because after practice we were supposed to go into the locker room to change. I had learned, to my horror and terror (and yet it’s something I should have thought of, something everyone knew), that the showers were public. I went home and announced to my father that I couldn’t continue I don’t wanna go back; I can’t stand soccer, it’s not my kind of thing. He went on trying to convince me for a while, but finally gave up.
I was with him, we were on the way to the café, when he bumped into the president of the soccer league, whom we all called Coach Cigar. Coach Cigar asked, having put a look of surprise on his face, one eyebrow cocked How come your kid stopped coming to practice? I watched my father drop his eyes and mumble a lie Well he hasn’t been feeling that great with, at that moment, that inarticulable feeling that runs through a child who is confronted in public with his parents’ shame, as if in a flash the world has lost all its foundations, all its meaning. He understood that Coach Cigar didn’t believe a word of it, so he tried to cover his tracks And well you know Eddy’s a little bit weird, I mean, not weird, but a little bit strange, he’s happy just sitting around watching TV. In the end he came out and admitted it, looking wretched and not wanting to meet the other man’s gaze I guess it turns out he’s just not that into soccer.
Outside my house, in the northern village of barely a thousand people where I grew up, I think it’s fair to say that as a young boy I was reasonably well liked. Moreover, there were also many things that people associate with a country childhood that I enjoyed: the long walks in the woods, the shelters that we built there, the fires in the fireplace, the warm milk fresh from the farm, the games of hide-and-seek in the cornfields, the peaceful silence of the small streets, the old lady who gave us candy, the apple trees, the plum trees, the pear trees in every yard, the explosion of fall colors, the leaves that blanketed the sidewalks until our feet were lost, stuck in those mountains of leaves; the chestnuts that fell with them in the autumn, and the fights we’d organize. Chestnuts hurt a lot, and I would return home covered in bruises but I made no complaint—quite the contrary. My mother would say I hope you gave as good as you got, or better, that’s how you know who beat who.
It wasn’t unusual for me to hear someone say That Bellegueule kid is a little weird or to get smirked at when I talked to people. But finally, being the odd boy in the village, the effeminate one, I elicited a kind of amused fascination that set me apart, protected me somewhat, like Jordan, my Martinican neighbor, the only black person for miles around, to whom people would say It’s true I don’t like blacks, there’s so many around these days, always causing trouble wherever they go, wars in their own countries or coming here and burning cars, but not you, Jordan, you’re all right, you’re different, you’re all right with us.
The women of the village would congratulate my mother, Your son Eddy is so well brought up, not like all the others, you see it straightaway. And my mother was proud and would congratulate me in turn.
Édouard Louis was born Eddy Bellegueule in Hallencourt, France, in 1992. He is the author of two novels, the first of which, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, is out now in English as The End of Eddy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), from which this text is adapted.
As a ten-year-old boy it seemed to me that I had solved the problem of politics rather well. My father, a schoolteacher and parish councilor in our English village, a beige place called Byfleet on the bus route to somewhere with a cinema, had always told me it was important to take a view on things, to have an opinion, to not become one of those people who care about nothing, and I took this as a challenge to hate Margaret Thatcher as much as he hated her.
The crowds had gone. They were the last two men on the bridge. One was dressed like a laborer, and the other—who looked to be about the same age—like a sailor. They were sitting side by side, smoking in silence as they gazed across the water in the direction of Üsküdar.