“Nobody knows my life but me”: An elegy for Dr. V

The Yar Oracle GX1, invention of the late Essay Anne Vanderbilt, known as Dr. V. One man's quest to dredge up everything about its creator's past robbed her of her future.

The Yar Oracle GX1, invention of the late Essay Anne Vanderbilt, known as Dr. V. One man’s quest to dredge up everything about its creator’s past robbed her of her future.

My first thought on reading Caleb Hannan’s Grantland featureabout the trans woman inventor, Dr. V, that he all but hounded to suicide—was that I knew her. “Nobody knows my life but me,” she said sternly to the man who had been investigating her, and that is true. Even so, I think a lot of trans women can relate to much that emerged in this profile of thorns that Hannan used to frame Dr. V. (A comprehensive look at this case, with further details, can be found in The Toast’s link roundup.)

Everything that Hannan used to discredit her or slander her—her caginess about her past, her forthright demeanour and idiosyncratic style, her gloriously fabulous self-perception, and her firm control over how she was seen, the pain that all these things hid—were all traits that I have known in myself or in the many trans women that I have known and loved down the years, whose companionship and empathy have made my life worth living.

Even the twisted shadow refracted through the undoubted bias of Hannan’s words struck a familiar figure to me, one redolent of many a story I knew, irreducible to either triumph or tragedy.

How to Suppress A Woman’s Life

He paints her as mercurial, unstable, and unlikeable—in addition to his core intimation of fraud, to which he helpfully attaches her pre-transition gender, name, and history as if it somehow compounded his idea that Dr. V was a strange, lying woman whose death was a blameless accident.

I saw too much that was familiar in the things that Hannan tacitly held up for derision. Dr. V’s writing style, her use of delightfully obscure language, her boisterous pugilism, her reclusiveness, her loving fixations, did seem to peek through the fissures of Hannan’s prose, but what he cast as strangeness I saw as hauntingly familiar; friends, lovers, chosen family, acquaintances, even enemies, all appeared to me like an army of silent spectres behind Hannan’s words. They were the trans women with quirks aplenty, sired by the difficult lives we have to live before we can truly be ourselves, and the cruel joke played forever after that sees us perpetually battling with a world that despises us.

Among many things that troubled me (aside from the story’s structure, which seemed ripped from a Hollywood script, orbiting the climactic reveal of Dr. V’s trans history) was the way Dr. V’s quirks were used against her in a story slanted to emphasise the appearance of deceit.  Her evident lack of formal education and prickly “mad scientist” demeanour would see any man lionised as a forgotten hero or nerd-cult-icon. Instead, Dr. V receives death and a loveless eulogy that slanders her into her grave. Like many trans women she is denied the critical dignity of having a say in how her story is told; she was denied the right to say no to Mr. Hannan and maligned for having the temerity to even try.

The terror of being outed and scrutinised as the inhuman freak that so many imagine us to be would lead many of us to aver “my anonymity is my security as well as my livelihood.” Many of us also know, one way or another, that the bright klieg lights of public scrutiny immediately dwell on the nethers of the personal, rather than the brightness of one’s professional accomplishments—this too makes Dr. V’s request that, in Hannan’s words, “our discussion and any subsequent article about her putter focus on the science and not the scientist,” quite sensible.

As to Dr. V’s alleged deceit about her education, it is worth noting that she and her partner claimed they had proof, but Hannan denied himself the opportunity to examine it because Dr. V’s condition was that he must stick to the terms he had already agreed to, and not publish personal information in his feature about the Oracle. Thus Hannan trudged forth with his article. But even assuming that Hannan’s claims are true and Dr. V invented a glamorous history for herself that she used to help push her beloved invention, it does not justify outing Dr. V nor Hannan’s blood curdling lack of emotion about the part he played in the final act of her life. Even if she didn’t attend MIT, Dr. V was clearly quite brilliant in her way, and poured that knowledge into an esoteric passion.

She did not, ultimately, scam anyone; her golf club worked a treat.

Critically Distant

It is a testament to this woman’s passionately lived career that, even through the static of Hannan’s butchered narrative, Dr. V emerges as a beautiful character whose nerdiness was a charming delight. I had never before encountered someone who could make me like a golf club—her passion for the Oracle club was undeniable and even infectious. It brought a smile to my face; she talked about golf swings the way loved ones of mine discussed anime, poetry, Quenya, molecular physics, Hegelian dialectics, or ethnomethodology.

I tried to recapture Dr. V in my thoughts as she would have been in life: tall, proud, a blur behind red hair and a storm of hand gestures as she cheerfully explained the way her Oracle worked, a tribune for physics on the fairway. As Hannan himself admits, it did indeed make for better golfing through science. Dr. V’s cloud of sesquipedalian prose-laden emails betrayed a cheerful passion and, above all, a pride in her work. It was, yes, a particularly arrogant kind of pride, but one I understood too well. When so many forces in society see you as little more than a troubled curiosity at best, or a threatening freak at worst, you cling to academic mastery like flotsam in a tempest. On that threadbare surface you build a fortress to protect yourself and your dignity from a world that will spare no effort to annihilate both. It feels so good, so secure, to wrap yourself in the silken shroud of authority that such expertise bestows on you. It can feel like the only thing you have; often as not, it is.

Even if it scarcely absolves Dr. V of any lies about her past employment or education, the foregoing comprises an understanding that eluded Hannan in his quest to spin a good yarn. It is the kind of understanding that would have allowed the man to fully comprehend what his investigations could wreak, in human terms.

What was breathtaking about Hannan’s piece was that it feigned a distance from a story that was, in no small measure, his own creation. His role in it is reduced to that of the hard-nosed journalist, shirtsleeves rolled up and working the phones as he fielded threats and dug up secrets about the inventor of a golf club that was, by all accounts, a fine piece of equipment.  This was merely “the strangest story” he had ever covered and not a tragedy of which he was inextricably a part, each allusive remark about her strangeness putting miles between Hannan and his subject.

Hannan could not find the decency in him to acknowledge the smallest role in Dr. V’s suicide, no willingness to acknowledge that his threat to reveal Dr. V’s medical history in addition to his suppositions about her education might have played a role in leading this woman, who belongs to a deeply stigmatised minority, to feel that her carefully constructed life was about to be shattered.

Even when Hannan seems to acknowledge her suffering, he still speaks of it with the chilling detachment of one unaware of the role he’s played in the very things he laments.

Once More at the Edge of Night

There is more that I could yet say, more rhetorical flowers I could leave at the grave of a woman who loved words. More that I could try to do to honour a sister that I wish I knew, one I did not even know I had. But I want to conclude with this: Mr. Hannan has blood on his hands, yes, and he would do well to reflect on his role in the story he sold to Grantland. But this is not really about him per se; he is not the first journalist to do something like this and we ought not reduce this to an activist quest to see one man fired before going on with our lives. The true problem lies with the editors who thought this was okay, and with the society that enables this slaughter of women via printing press.

Dr. V joins Chloe Sagal and Lucy Meadows in having been harassed by a male journalist pursuing what they thought was a “good story” that amounted to precious little in the end. In every case, legions of these men’s defenders were quick to blame the victims, asserting that they brought it on themselves either through some deceit or simply by dint of being transgender and thus inherently “in the public interest.”

In all these cases what links much public reaction to them is the sense that there is something inevitable and seemly about a hanged trans woman; that what transpired was perhaps sad but ultimately just. According to many men on the internet, Chloe Sagal’s death was a fitting punishment for her “fraud”; now we will no doubt hear protests from Hannan’s defenders that Dr. V lied about her academic credentials and that therefore makes this okay, that outing her against her will unto death was just because she had lied about an unrelated matter.

How quickly and easily that monster with a thousand faces pronounces its death sentences.

This cavalier attitude towards death—Dr. V’s whole life and career bloodily hammered into a magazine’s column inches because it’s a “good story”—is a troubling moral gag-reflex that bedevils trans women in particular (our lives being valued at next to nothing), but is a cancer in the rest of our political life as well.

I ask now what I asked while Chloe Sagal was recovering in the hospital. If there are any who would explicitly or implicitly excuse Dr. V’s death because of her alleged deceit: does your sense of supposed injustice demand a woman’s life as payment?

And finally, to Mr. Hannan, I can only say: for Goddess’ sake, man, shed a tear for what you have wrought.

Katherine CrossKatherine Cross believes ethics are not optional.

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One Comment

  1. Posted January 20, 2014 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Reading the article, I felt really, really sad for her. Hannan said himself that, once he got her on the phone, she was friendly and helpful. She asked about his dog, she explained scientific principles he’d previously found difficult in a way he could understand, she took down his measurements for a custom putter and got his name engraved on it, she spent half an hour talking him through how to use it.

    He doesn’t seem to have noticed that she took time to try to help him understand the invention she’d made so that he could write his story. He doesn’t seem to have noticed that she was kind to him. He doesn’t care that she died. But even from the hack-job he produced, we see aspects of her, as you say, shining through. It sounds like she was a nice woman. I’m very sorry she’s gone.

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