I was 16 years old when I met a trans person for the first time, and she terrified me: middle-aged, stocky, black with short blond hair and breasts that arrived in the room a full 30 seconds before she did. Her name was Fifi, pronounced fee fee, and she was a relative of my father's best friend. After every visit, my father was in a rage; he would yell at me in the car as we drove home, "P&P! that motherfucker wants a purse and a pussy." I haven't thought about Fifi in two decades, but now she haunts me, much like the ghosts in Steven Millhauser's short story "Phantoms" who regard a town's inhabitants with contempt.
Like the townspeople in “Phantoms,” I remember Fifi’s look: the white of her eyes contrasting with the deep, rich brown of her face, a hesitant look that never met my father's face, nor mine, which suited me just fine because I was afraid that she would see that we were kin, would see beyond my affected low voice, the somber baggy clothing that was strictly regulated by my father. I feared she would see straight into the queerness I was desperately hiding.
"Phantoms" is a complex short story. It seeks to understand the presence of phantoms within a town and presents six possible explanations, five case studies, and various reflections on the town's history and experience with the ghosts. The diction of the story is high, and it reads like a scientific paper. The analyses offered in the story move from viewing the phantoms as objective phenomena to subjective, inner constructs of the town's inhabitants. The narrator explains, "According to a psychological offshoot of this explanation, the phantoms are the unwanted or unacknowledged portions of ourselves, which we try to evade but continually encounter. They make us uneasy because we know them: they are ourselves."
"Phantoms," like other stories in Millhauser's collection "Voices in the Night," is concerned with a community. These community focused stories are primarily written in the first person plural perspective. "Phantoms," however, employs every point of view: first singular and plural, second, and both close and omniscient third.
There are 30 discrete sections in the story, two of which are written in first person singular perspective and only one, subtitled “You,” is written in second person. The first person singular sections are meditative, noting minute details of the narrator's experience of the phantoms. These sections immediately precede the second person perspective, and in some respects, the narrator models the behavior that s/he wants to see in the reader.
The story as a whole seems to hinge on the narrator’s address to the reader. The "You" section begins, "You who have no phantoms in your town, you who mock or scorn our reports: are you not deluding yourselves?" It invites the reader to observe the minutiae of one's life and see the ever present phantoms, "Phantoms of memory, phantoms of desire. You pass through a world so thick with phantoms that there is barely enough room for anything else."
I accepted Millhauser's invitation.
On a Monday night, I spent time with a friend, a trans woman, who asked that we hang at her place to avoid hostile attention that would inevitably come with being in public. Later in the week, while lying in bed and scrolling through Facebook, posts about the seven black trans women who were murdered in the first two months of 2017 popped up on my news feed; so did the most horrible thing I've ever seen on social media: a video of a trans woman being beaten to death amid cheers and laughter. Friday night, I saw the film Kiki, a documentary about queer and trans people of color who are part of New York's ballroom scene, and felt saddened by the segregation of viewers within the theater: gay white men on one side and people of color on the other. As the narrator in "Phantoms" predicted, my own phantoms appeared, and now I am haunted by memories of Fifi.
Besides her look, I only remember my father’s mocking and his refusal to be seen in public with her. The behavior parents model for their children often become tacit instructions on how children are supposed to be in the world. While I didn’t mock her, I followed his lead and tried to keep as much distance between me and Fifi as possible.
Millhauser’s exploration of the impact of living with phantoms’ on the town's parents resonates with me. In the first case study, the narrator presents Richard Moore, who "has just finished the forty-second installment of a never-ending story that he tells each night to his four-year-old daughter...He loves having a daughter; he loves having a wife, a family; though he married late, at thirty-nine, he knows he wasn't ready when he was younger... And now he's grateful for it all, like someone who can hardly believe that he's allowed to live in his own house." This reads as picture perfect heteronormativity.
When Richard happens upon a phantom in his backyard at nighttime, "his first impulse is to scream at her, to tell her that he'll kill her if she comes near his daughter... He returns quickly to the house, locks the porch door behind him, locks the kitchen door behind him, fastens the chain, and strikes to the den, where on the TV a man in a dinner jacket is staring across the room at a woman with pulled-back hair who is seated at a piano. His wife is watching." Richard Moore's first impulse upon meeting a phantom in such close proximity to his home is violence. He retreats, bolts the doors, and drifts back into the normalcy of his heteronormative world.
Effeminate men, homosexuals and trans people were my father's phantoms. Once, he drove me down Santa Monica Blvd in West Hollywood and said, "Don't ever let me catch you here." He frequently told me that if he ever discovered that I was gay, he would cut my throat, bury me in the Angeles National Forest, and tell the police that I had run away. Fifi’s presence stoked a tension already present in his and my relationship: that he would lose me to homosexuality. In reading "Phantoms," I see my father's rage after our encounters with Fifi as a response to a disruption, an intrusion on his instructions to me –installments of a never-ending story about masculinity and how to perform it authentically.
In drafting these words, I feel anxious that linking Millhauser’s "Phantoms" and my childhood fear of Fifi is quite tenuous. One of literature's many values, however, is its openness to multiple readings, its capacity to frame new views of readers' experience that would be otherwise trapped in conventional interpretations. Millhauser actively invites multiple readings, “It’s true that a question runs through our town, because of the phantoms, but we don’t believe we are the only ones who live with unanswered questions.”
Prior to reading “Phantoms” and considering the epidemic of violence inflicted upon queer and trans people, I hadn’t spared a single moment in over 20 years to think about Fifi and her experience. Some may argue that a youth who suffered violence due to his sexuality had limited options to challenge the prejudice he witnessed. But the fear and prejudice inculcated in me by my father persisted well into adulthood, and it has taken considerable effort to decolonize my mind of those prejudices, effort that continues into the present. And while I make those efforts, I know that I experience some measure of privilege due to the performance of masculinity that was literally beaten into me.
Has the momentum and excitement of achieving marriage equality failed to translate into better protections for trans people?
Have the fundraising and grassroots campaigning dried up?
Our "town" cannot afford to leave these questions unanswered. As people profiled in Kiki point out, post marriage equality, there's so much work that needs to be done: LGBTQ youth homelessness, equality in the workplace, civil rights for trans people. How are we using our privilege to advance this work?
The townspeople in Millhauser's story were haunted by the phantoms' look just before they turned away, before they departed. Now I'm haunted because Fifi tried to look at me, and I refused to see.
Dandara dos Santos looked at the bystanders around her as she was being beaten.
They have departed from us.