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Tuesday, 28 December 2021

Art and artifice: The Book of Dolores

I do hope you had a happy Christmas and wish you all best wishes for the New Year.

As usual, I am not able to spend any of the holiday period as Susie. However, given the two alternatives come down to spending Christmas as Susie on my own, or sharing the time with my partner, then the choice becomes a bit of a no-brainer. While I enjoy the time I can spend as Susie when L goes away for a few days, there comes a point when the house starts to feel a bit lonely.

Here's a thing.

I discovered the work of American writer William Vollmann back in the late 1980s via his Pynchonesque debut novel You Bright and Risen Angels and the collection Rainbow Stories. He followed this with a massive and ambitious 'Seven Dreams' book sequence on the history and colonization of the Americas, though my bookshelves suggest I only made it as far as the first volume, The Ice Shirt.

 I'm not sure what prompted me to remember his name and run it past Google the other day, but it turned up a book of his I'd not previously heard of, although it was published back in 2013.

This is The Book of Dolores, a book of paintings, sketches and photographs of Vollmann as his female alter ego, Dolores, who he describes as 'a young woman trapped in this fat, aging male body'

Vollmann's interest in cross dressing in the 1980s while researching an Inuit myth in which a brother transforms into a woman, and later writing about cross dressing clubs in in Japan which led to his realisation that "I had always imagined femininity as what you’re born with, what’s between your legs."  "And then I realized: no, it’s a performance. It’s about how you move, all the things you do to get ready."

Vollmann himself started seriously cross dressing as Dolores in 2008, while writing a novel about a Mexican transsexual sex worker of the same name. 

Stephen Burt, who also sometimes presents and writes as his own female persona Stephanie Burt, reviewed Vollmann's book for The New Yorker 

"His Dolores imagines herself as pretty but gets caught up short by her unattractiveness in real life. Yet she doesn’t necessarily look bad, except when she puts on a scowl; she just looks bigger than model-sized, and grown-up." and notes that when speaking of Dolores Volmann "gives her, always, the grammatical third person when he write of her like this. “How many times has Dolores imagined herself to be pretty, only to inspect her portrait with her spectacles on?”'. Burt sees this as a separation of Dolores as a construct, a self-portrayed doll he can control, rather than part of Vollmann's psyche. 

This is all rather  troubling. I'm aware in my own posts and comments that I invariably talk about Susie, my other half, in the third person, as someone separate. This maybe because I nearly always write about Susie when I am back in my male mode. Or maybe it really is that I consider Susie as someone separate and not really a part of me. But that doesn't feel true either. If so, why is she a constant - and sometimes very insistent - presence in my head most of the time - even when I'm asleep? She definitely feels part of me, and an increasingly important part of me at that, if not a fully integrated one in that she lives a separate life and has a separate set of friends than my male half. I rarely if ever think about my male side when I'm Susie, only the other way round, but I wonder if that's down to the fact that circumstances dictate I live 90-95% of the time in male mode.

Joshua Cohen in another review in The Observer notes "The strangest thing about all the Dolores images is that, unlike any images of Mr. Vollmann as a man—as a white male author depicted on book flaps—Dolores is smiling" and wonders of Vollmann has "the idea (which only a man could have) that women should smile, or else he’s truly happier as a she." 

This feels truer. There are a couple of pictures of Susie where I'm looking pensive but mostly she's smiling which is a reflection of how I feel at those times. It's harder to judge in photos of me in male mode since I never take selfies in those periods, and the few I have of me are either official (ID, passport) or social occasions where the smile is expected or forced. I have one, taken by someone else, where the smile is real. This was from a convention where I finally met up with a group of people I had corresponded with for decades but either never met or hadn't seen in many years. It's about the only photo of me after my 40s that doesn't make me cringe.

I can't make up my mind about Vollmann and Dolores. I have to confess  that I've not read the book itself - it's a little hard to find and only seems to be available in the U.S. and only the introductory 20 pages (tellingly titled 'Constructions') are available from the Amazon preview - and my thoughts are based on those reviews I've been able to find. Vollmann himself seems ambivalent, while suggesting Dolores is a part of him rather than merely a dress-up doll and photographic mannequin, "I do not exactly cherish Dolores, who is, after all, an aspect of myself" while others, in particular Stephanie Burt, seem less convinced. 

As Susie, I feel perhaps closer to Burt, who is more comfortable with her female alter-ego, than to Vollmann and Dolores. But Vollmann and I are closer in age and he hits the mark when writes about the self deception  that can happen when making up and adjusting the wig in front of the mirror "perhaps because she is newer.. she appears to be blinder to her faults than I", and then the disappointment of Dolores vainly taking off her glasses (we are both very short sighted) to primp and pose for the camera and then replacing them to examine the result only to find "she did not look as pretty as she felt" and wishing "If only the camera envisioned as she did". 

"To see ourselves as others see us" wrote Burns. But would that be blessing or a curse I wonder? And if we did, would we still have the confidence to venture outdoors in a smart coat and heels again?

I wish you all the best for 2022.




  1. Hi Susie
    I do not know about Vollmann"s work but i do understand the point he made ""I had always imagined femininity as what you’re born with, what’s between your legs." As I talked about in a recent post on my blog, being feminine comes from within, it's with you all your life, but for some of us it takes a lifetime to recognise that. Like you I am unable to spend my Christmas as Andrea, but family and friends have to come first, I dream of one day spending the whole of Christmas with friends as Andrea........ A girl can dream! Like you Andrea is never ever spoken about by my male side but Andrea often talks about her male side, almost like a the wife of an ageing couple would talk about her husband 'the old chap'....... I learnt a long while ago what we see in the mirror is what we want to see, a camera often tells us a different story........... Having said that we should venture out into the real world, if the pandemic has taught us anything it has to be live your life now, you just do not know what is around the corner.........

  2. Hi Andrea, and Happy New Year.
    Growing up in the 70s, and with a mother who worked for the theatre, I got an early introduction that masculinity and femininity were not always exclusively aligned with with being male or female (although being seen as feminine in a man was often referred to as camp, which was a more a derogatory term than it is now.) But I also learned there were such things as professional female impersonators such as Coccinelle who went far beyond drag and Danny la Rue in terms of mimicry and realism, and you can imagine the effect of that on a already confused teenager.
    Age, as well as the pandemic, has taught me that you need to live the best life you can now and not constantly put it off until a 'later or better time' that may never come.

  3. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Susie!

    On separation of the psyche, your writing (and, thus, I guess Vollman's too) reminds me of something I recall Calvin exploring a few years ago (keeper of Caitlyn's Masks blog) and that may be of interest to you (alas, I cannot recall exactly when). I don't necessarily think that thinking of yourself in separate parts is a bad thing soi much as it is a self-defence mechanism - that line about you not thiking about 'him' when Susie is revealing, you feel less need for that defence.

    Also, and you may already have read this, I can recommend "A portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl" - the auto(?)biography of Grayson Perry. Though he does point out that, for him, cross-dressing (and he identifies himself as a cross-dresser, not trans) is about the humiliation at times - hence the more garish representations that he totally creates with that in mind - as well as having a more formal and 'acceptable' side when dressed as Claire. And he separates his roles as well, hence the recommendation, sorry, I get distracted by myself! I found that account a powerful one and remarkably open too. It would be interesting to see how he compares to Dolores, actually.

    I also hear you on the confidence thing. But, I would wager that if you saw yourself as, say, I see you in the photos you kindly share you would *absolutely* venture out in smart coat and heels whenever you had the chance to do so. :)

    I'm no psychologist, nor coach, but you do sound like you have your own back most of the time. That's got to be worth something.

    Thank you for the food for though!

    1. Hi Joanna.
      Yes, I've read Grayson's book. Great fun, and those bits about finding hidden places to change outside sparked a few scary memories. He can be quite searingly open and self aware about his own cross dressing. I find his little girl Claire a bit hard to take compared to formal Claire, but I wonder if that's because it hits a nerve and there's still a bit of that within me, as a sense of loss for a girlhood I wanted and never had. You can pursue these speculations down all sorts of rabbit holes (and I suspect at some point we all do while coming to terms with who we are and how we feel, and some seem to lost there and never come back out, which is another danger).
      I think you may be right about the third person being a bit of a defence mechanism, a necessary separation, or compartmentalisation, of the two aspects of my 'psyche' (if it is that) so I can still function at work and at home. (It wasn't always thus.)
      Food for thought indeed. But I feel like I'm in a fairly good place now. I hope you are too.

  4. "...But would that be blessing or a curse I wonder?"

    I'm not sure I would like to open that door. It feels like it might be quite the mixed bag, so to speak. I think it was Russell T Davis who said of the characters in It's A Sin, that the pigheadedness and arrogance some show is directly from him. Mind you, at least if you're aware of something like that - like writing in the third person or not - perhaps you can do something about it or with it.

    I hope you have had a fab Xmas and hopefully you'll catch some time to express all of you soon enough.

    1. While it might be helpful to see what other people are seeing, you definitely wouldn't want to know what they are thinking at the same time. You may never go outside your room, never mind the house, again. It would probably be the mental equivalent of reading the social media comments. ('Ware: Here be Trolls and Goblins)

      Thanks for the Xmas wishes. Is there such a concept as 'too much cake'? We may have achieved critical cake mass.

    2. Yes, if you reach cake critical mass, the ensuing explosion causes one to six patisseries to appear in the local area.

      Also, the air will smell of almonds and that's great for cake lovers and would be poisoners ;-)

  5. An interesting post Susie.

    I haven't been able to spend any time as Lotte this Christmas either but like you I'd rather sacrifice time as Lotte to spend time with my Wife and family. I can wait a little longer for some Lotte time.

    With reference to William Vollmann's Book of Dolores,'a young woman trapped in this fat, aging male body', I feel like that sometimes, not so much fat but definitely aging whilst my alter ego is much younger.

    Best Wishes for 2022 from me.

    1. Ageing is something I have come to terms with, but the onset of what looks like a post Christmas bulge around the middle is slightly more worrying.
      Wishing you a happy and sparkly New Year, Charlotte.

  6. Super blog. Happy new year ��

  7. In Mother Night Vonnegut notes that ‘You are who you pretend to be, so be very careful about who you pretend to be." I'm not so sure that this applies, I spent 50 years pretending to be somebody, but ultimately it could not be who I am.

    Back in a previous life I used to refer to Paula in the third person, these days I tend to refer to "Him" in the third person, I do understand that they are different aspects of the same, both are parts that make up "Me", but it is certainly easier grammatically to refer to them separately, and to not use the first person "I" for both.

    1. Hi Paula.
      Not sure whether I should be reassured or not by that Vonnegut quote. Am I male-me pretending to be Susie or am I someone who has been pretending all their life to be a 'normal' male just to try and fit in? It certainly feels like the latter most of the time, and I still haven't become that person, so maybe the quote misses the mark. As he might have said himself, "So it goes."
      Lifestyle balance is still skewed so that time as Susie is the exception rather than the rule. I wonder if the third person reference would swap if it were the other way around.