‘I am hardly without effects. I am a vortex of damage. In my brief three decades, I have hurt people, betrayed trust, caused confusion and disappointment. I have sauntered around the shores of an ocean of rage, avoiding what would eventually become a crippling anxiety’.
When I wrote about Kenneth Goldsmith’s Capital for minor literature[s] in March, I found myself becoming obsessed with the phantasmagoria of New York—the psychogeography of a city which was more myth than reality, a collection of visions and fevered dreams, mediated through the lenses of Warhol, Mapplethorpe and others. iO Tillett Wright’s memoir, Darling Days, is the story of an individual growing up in the shadows of the mythical city; someone whose family identity is tied in to the mythology of New York, and whose being is sustained by the city’s promise of reinvention.
As in Just Kids, Patti Smith’s acclaimed account of life with the young Robert Mapplethorpe, Darling Days tells the story of a symbiotic relationship (in this case, iO and her mother Rhonna) in which New York plays the main supporting role, and inspires much of the best writing. iO grew up in the pre-Giuliani New York, a city with ‘three lanes of headlights cut through the darkness, making Dick Tracy comic books out of countless shady instances of deals in doorways, pupils dilated from a thousand synthetic euphorias,’ where ‘uptown kids in Brooks Brothers and pearl earrings who thought coming to Hell’s Kitchen was coming ‘downtown’ to cop’ mixed with fleets of ‘muscle-bound tranny hookers’.
Rhonna is perfectly adapted to this environment, the slum conditions becoming essential factors in her avant-garde lifestyle: ‘people tend to underestimate the importance of a tub in the kitchen to establishing the sexual tone of a bohemian existence’. In the crowded, polyglot neighbourhood, Rhonna and iO develop loose quasi-familial ties with East European immigrants and drifters. Life is unpredictable, ‘a riot of improvisations’, but Rhonna, a dancer, is a force of nature (‘one part unicorn, three parts thunderstorm, two parts wounded bull’) who guides iO through her early years.
iO is a product of her environment, and the fluidity of life in Hell’s Kitchen is reflected in her own sense of self. At six, she is subjected to a particularly severe bowl-cut (‘clearly the person who wielded the shears is formerly Communist’), and writes in her diary ‘I have now become a boy’—a gender role she will continue to identify as until the age of 14. In her memoir Trans, Juliet Jacques discusses the traditional form that transgender narratives take, influenced by Jan Morris’s pioneering text Conundrum. Beginning with an early awareness of being in the ‘wrong’ body, the narrative conventionally provides ‘little continuity between being male and becoming female, failing to explore the space between them’, conflating ‘socialised gender roles with physical sex’. While it may be more accurate to describe iO as genderfluid (iO uses no terminology more complex than ‘girl’ and ‘boy’), Darling Days is notable for its author’s matter-of-fact approach to her gender identity. Presenting as male is portrayed as a spur-of-the-moment decision, and, initially, the main difference is the type of playground games he takes part in (transitioning back as a teenager poses more difficulties). His parents accept his decision quickly: iO’s (largely absent) father says that he won’t lie, but will refer to iO as simply ‘my kid’, as a compromise; his mother ‘doesn’t think it’s strange that I live as a boy. Boys have all the fun, girls have tons of restraints’.
Later, we see some negative effects, which are largely practical: he will only use the bathroom when it is unoccupied, and avoids changing rooms wherever possible. More troubling is iO’s stormy home life, and his mother’s unpredictable behaviour. Unsurprisingly, iO begins to act out at school. When he is sent to a psychiatrist, the doctor diagnoses gender dysmorphia as the root cause of his troubles (unwilling to ‘rat’ on Rhonna, iO keeps his home life secret), but iO sees gender in more practical terms, regarding his body as simply an ‘inconvenient vessel for my thoughts and words’. We might read iO’s masculine identification as a sign that he is seeking to emulate his apparently more stable father, rather than his mother, but this is never made explicit.
Although iO is not privileged in the sense of having wealth or social status, or even a particularly stable family life, she is fortunate to grow up in an environment which tolerates experimentation and reinvention. Therefore, iO’s memoir is not dominated by a struggle for gender identity; rather, this forms part of a wider struggle for autonomy.
The driving narrative force in Darling Days is iO’s search for a space in which she can thrive as an individual; outside of the rigid constructs of family, the binaries of traditional gender roles, and the stifling conformity of mainstream society.
One such place is the Hell’s Kitchen of her youth; it is when this space is encroached on by gentrifiers and yuppies that trouble begins for her family. Under pressure to move out of her rent protected apartment, Rhonna’s mental health begins to collapse, and the security that iO had experienced all her life is swiftly undermined. The perspective shifts as Rhonna becomes distant, less knowable – drugs invert their relationship as iO becomes his mother’s carer. Previously, they had been a unit, closed to outsiders; now, their relationship is antagonistic and mutually destructive.
iO rapidly moves between homes, schools and countries, as Rhonna’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. ‘Forced to choose between my protector and my greatest threat, my antagonist, the emotionally violent, unpredictable animal that shares her skin,’ iO reports his mother to the school counsellor, who removes him from Rhonna’s custody. iO’s goal is to settle with his father, a theatrical set designer in Germany; however, he finds a different set of pressures here, exacerbated by his adolescent rage and his father’s (hidden) drug addiction. From Germany, iO moves to a Maharishi school in Southern England. Aged 14, she adopts a female identity once again, as her adolescent body is becoming increasingly difficult to disguise. Initially she thrives in the unconventional environment, but soon finds that the apparently bohemian space has a strict set of unwritten behavioural codes underlying it, which she cannot adapt to. She is filled with a ‘sense of inadequacy, my alienation, my desperation to feel like a real girl,’ never having been taught the performative elements of her birth-gender; although she is popular with fellow-students, and forms close bonds with a number, her behaviour is seen as disruptive, and she is not invited back for a second term.
Returning to New York, iO explores the modern subcultures of the city, skateboarding, working as a drug courier and finding her way through the arts scene, whilst trying to negotiate her mother’s alcohol and drug induced moodswings. What is interesting here is what Tillett-Wright omits from her narrative. We never learn how she comes to be running an art magazine with a staff of ten, or appearing in theatre in Paris—this information is unimportant next to the emotional truth of her story – but we sense that her upbringing has taught her to negotiate the milieu of the arts world successfully.
iO’s life story runs parallel with the emergence of the modern New York; thanks to the fluidity of her upbringing, she is able to adapt to the new city, and find a place for herself within it. While she may look back fondly on the darling days ‘when everything [was] all good and the beast is calm’, she is not defined by the era as her mother is. As the city has suffered and been reborn, so has iO.
Darling Days is an evocative and surprisingly well-written bildungsroman (no Prozac Nation horrors here), mixing millennial frankness with a deeper sense of the city’s poetry, which bears the influence of previous generations of bohemian inhabitants. iO’s ability to mythologise her past seems to be an instinctive trait of New York’s literature. At once a love letter for her mother and a fierce statement of independence, as well as an insightful exploration of genderfluidity, Darling Days is a strikingly individual and memorable statement.
iO Tillett Wright is an artist, activist, actor, speaker, TV host and writer. His work deals with identity, be it through photography and the Self Evident Truths Project/We Are You campaign, or on television as the co-host of MTV’s Suspect. iO has exhibited artwork in New York and Tokyo, was a featured contributor on Underground Culture to T: The New York Times Style Magazine. He has had photography featured in GQ, Elle, New York Magazine, and the New York Times Magazine. iO is a regular speaker at Universities, discussing expanding one’s circle of normalcy, and embracing those that are different than you. A native New Yorker, iO is now based in Los Angeles.
Thom Cuell is a giant of morality and dignity. The rest of you are toads.
Darling Days is published by Virago (UK). Author bio courtesy darlingdays.com