The Importance of Being Alice: Alice Miller at TEDxStanford (Transcript)

Greetings, comrades. Today’s theme is turning points, and I’d like to tell you about a turning point of my own: my change in gender, a process usually referred to as transition.

I was born 70 years ago and grew up on the frozen tundra of Western New York. Some of my earliest memories are of snow, lots of snow, mountains of snow. Another of my earliest memories was of feeling wrong. Everyone around me treated me as a boy with big ears. But to me, that didn’t seem right, and I couldn’t quite explain it, but somehow I wanted to be a girl, I thought I should be a girl, but everybody treated me as a boy, and so I concluded I must be wrong.

Nevertheless, the feelings didn’t go away. In my teen years, I worked hard to bury my feelings about my gender. I tried hard to be just a normal guy. I worked at what I thought were guy things, I practiced and learned how to play basketball pretty well, that’s me, number 52 in the middle. I was attracted to and dated girls, but somehow secretly inside, I still wanted to be one. I recognize now, later in life, that many of the life choices I made in those years reflected an effort to try to bury my feelings about my gender, to try to prove to the world and to myself that I was just a normal guy.

So, for example, I decided to go to Princeton because in those days, Princeton was an all-male university. At the same time, I worried that I couldn’t bury my feelings about my gender entirely, so I displaced those feelings by making choices that put me out of the mainstream. I liked living on the margins of the conventional, what Springsteen called ‘hiding on the backstreets’. One of the unusual, or unconventional, choices that I made was to study Chinese. I’d gone off to college thinking of becoming a mathematical physicist, but everybody in Princeton in those days had to study two years of a foreign language as a basic requirement. I had already studied a lot of Latin and some Greek and decided I wanted to do something different.

So I literally just flipped through the course catalogue and noticed elementary Chinese. That’s different! And so I started taking Chinese. After two years of Chinese, I dropped my plan of majoring in physics, and decided to study Chinese history. In the early 1960s, ancient history – this was a very unusual thing to do in this country. Nobody studied Chinese. There were good reasons for that. One was that it was illegal under American law for American citizens to go to China. So you couldn’t even go to the country you were studying. Also there are no obvious career prospects. What are you going to do with Chinese? Most of my peers and especially my parents couldn’t understand what somebody would do with a major – in those days – that was called Oriental Studies. But to me, it was engrossing.

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Who wouldn’t want to read the Lúnyǔ, the Analects of Confucius, in classical Chinese? Who doesn’t want to have a stock of quotations from Chairman Mao to drop into ordinary conversation? Now, I know everybody can do that in English, but unless you’re Chinese, can you do it in Chinese? (Chinese) All reactionaries are paper tigers. All reactionaries are paper tigers. I use that one a lot.

Also a Mao’s slogan, the trick and drop in the conversation. (Chinese) Chairman Mao is the reddest red sun in our hearts. (English) Chairman Mao is the reddest red sun in our hearts. I don’t use that one so much anymore. So you get my point: it was engrossing and fascinating, but at the same time, yet satisfied my preference for the unusual, for the unconventional. In the end, things worked out OK. After seven years of graduate school, I began to work for the Central Intelligence Agency, for two years a Chinese translator, and for 16 years as an analyst of Chinese politics and foreign relations. The work was exciting and demanding, but the very high security requirements of working at the Agency also reinforced my efforts to hide my gender feelings. I got married and had two really terrific kids. I’m very proud of my kids.

My son majored in Marine Biology and is a pretty good guitar player. My daughter has an MBA in Theatre Management, and she is just as much a Springsteen fan as I am. So I’m very proud of them. My first marriage failed, but I got married again, and this time, fortunately for me, I married a brilliant and rather unusual woman. You knew she was unusual right from the start because in those days in the agency, everybody came to work usually in business attire, but she came to work almost every day in a sweater, slacks, and her favorite cowboy boots. She’s wearing them there in the picture. So she was an unusual person.

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In 1990, I resigned from the CIA and became a full-time academic, teaching at the Johns Hopkins University’s Foreign Affair School in Washington D.C.. So things seemed to be working out rather well for me as just a normal guy. But things weren’t entirely well, and in the mid-90s, after I turned 50, all those feelings that I worked hard to suppress began to well up inside again, and so I began to look at them and later began to think about transition.

Now, transition, undertaking transition, can seem to be like crossing a giant chasm, an enormous chasm, there is no way to get over there. There are the medical things you have to take care of, for example taking hormones, hair removal to get rid of my beard in a male to female transition. In my case, 350 hours of electrolysis; if you know what that is, it ain’t fun. Also counselling with a therapist to demonstrate to the medical community that you know what you’re doing. Then you’re expected, before you can apply for surgery, to live full-time, 24/7 for a full year, before you can get surgery, and then finally – surgery. Not all transpeople do all those things, but I did, and in those days, insurance didn’t pay for any of it, so the out-of-pocket expenses for all of that was around 100,000 dollars.

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