an audio article by Ada-Rhodes Short
My father traveled for work, and I didn’t see him much growing up. Instead of being an ever-present feature in my childhood, he would show up on rare occasions to attempt to share wisdom and bits of culture that he felt were important to pass down.
On weekends with my father, he would make Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, set the TV and VCR on the dining room table, and play movies for my siblings and me that he held in high regard.
Robin Hood Men in Tights, Blazing Saddles, Evil Roy Slade, and with a near-sacred level of reverence, the Christopher Reeves Superman films.
By this point, my family had moved from the foothills of Alberta Canda, south along the Rockie Mountains, to Fort Collins, Colorado. And while we appeared to be an average American family at first glance, my father clung to his Albertan roots and inherited Christian Quaker values. He tried desperately to connect his children to the land of rye fields and rolling hills where we were born.
And so it was with great importance that when Christopher Reeve, as Clark Kent, would run through the fields of Smallville, my father would recount the year that his tiny rural hometown of High River Alberta had been transformed into Smallville for the filming of Superman III. He would point excitedly to landmarks I did not recognize and say, “This is where you are from; this is where you were born.”
He was my own Jor-El, trying to preserve his home in crystallized memory.
While High River seemed as alien and icy as the geometric flat white landscape of Kryton, I did recognize pieces of the Calgary skyline standing in for Metropolis, where I had spent the early years of my life before moving to the States. But both seemed distant, dream-like, and unreal as I attempted to navigate childhood in America at the turn of the millennium.
It may have been this knowledge of the cultural connection or the oversaturated cartoon media landscape of the 90s, but I was obsessed with comic books once I learned to read. They quickly became my own personal religion.
In the pages of Superman, I started to see other things that resonated with me.
A child who felt alien and bizarre for reasons they could not easily articulate. Who discovered something was truly different about them and then, for years, suffered to hide their truth while being forced into a double life.
Just like Superman, and perhaps yourself, dear listener, I knew something was different about me from my peers, and as puberty hit, the feelings of alienation and confusion amplified.
Of course, unlike the man of steel, my change wasn’t to become faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive, but something unknown. Certainly not a man, but not quite yet a girl.
While Superman lived knowing that nothing could harm him due to his difference, mine made me feel vulnerable and fragile. I was afraid of that vulnerability that I perceived as weakness, so I tried to harden myself, quiet the cries of pain and physical need in my body, and put all others above myself. I grew skinny and scar covered, starved to feed others, and threw myself into danger with the foolish idea that I could take the pain and the hurt, but others could not.
Through Christlike divine suffering, I achieved great things and was applauded for my efforts and selfless duty to my community. I was living as the person my absent alien father wanted me to be in the world, unseen by him, but trying my best to live the life lessons he would try to pass on to me in the rare instances where I would come home and find him sitting in the living room in contemplative, silent quaker prayer.
But in secret, there was another me. A truer me. Like Clark Kent, who wore his vulnerability and humanity on his sleeve, the Superman I tried to become also had a secret identity. I would see her in the middle of the night, secreted in my own Fortress of Solitude. In the skirts and blouses stolen from my older sister, in secret indulgences like painting my nails, doing my makeup, or practicing the gestures and movements I so rigidly avoided when I could be perceived by my peers.
I was a girl being crushed to death by the impossible weight of expectations.
It was during these years of shameful duality that I discovered the mysterious and layered writings of Grant Morrison. They had already become one of my all-time favorite writers through their run on X-Men, and now, in my high school years, they began writing All-Star Superman.
Kal-El of Krypton glimmered as a shining god completing Herculean tasks, supercharged by flying too close to the sun, pushing himself to his physical peak, and destined to complete legendary feats before dying from overexposure to solar radiation.
This book resonated with me on levels I am still exploring years later, but it was the 10th issue that struck me in the core of my being.
In this issue, Superman sits on a throne and records his last will and testament.
He projects mentally.
“There’s so little time left now. The End is getting Closer, and there are still so many things I’ve yet to achieve. The Time-traveler Samson told me I’d complete twelve legendary Super Challenges before my death. I would answer the unanswerable question, overcome the tyrant sun, Soralis, even create life, each challenge of course, brings me closer to my death.”
I knew reading it that I would push myself to death and destruction to accomplish great things because that is what I am born to do. Become the great man my father wanted me to be and then die. I stared blankly at my death like Superman stared with resignation and acceptance at the literal writing on the wall.
And then I turn the page. And see a girl. Not just any girl but the image of the girl I became alone in my teen angst. Crying off her makeup and standing on the ledge of a skyscraper about to jump. She squeezes her eyes shut, knowing what she needs to do to end it all, and then a gentle hand appears on her shoulder.
“It’s never as bad as it seems, you’re much stronger than you think you are, trust me.”
And then Superman holds her in the world’s gentlest embrace, with softness and strength that could have only been rendered by the artist Frank Quitely. And I was shattered.
I wept in a way I hadn’t wept before. I cried for the first time I could remember, not for someone else’s suffering or death, but for my own.
And that was when Superman saved me with words I spoke softly to myself when I looked out over the edge.
As I went through college, the girl I tried to lock away in the phantom zone of my mirror began to break free. My true alien identity on full display for the first time but separate from my daily life. I would take off my glasses, do up my hair and become recognizable as what I was. It was thrilling and freeing, like running at an impossible speed through open fields on a bright summer day, but simultaneously terrifying.
The fear of discovery and exposure was ever-growing, darting into alleys and long abandoned phone booths to avoid people who might know my face walking down the street.
The initial terror of being known was slowly replaced by growing confidence. I came out to the people I loved, and they became part of my new life as this Girl of Steel. I found new challenges to take on and fights to face. I found a new community and connections and family. And I saw them suffering. And I remembered that I could be strong and take on great burdens and achieve seemingly impossible feats, and I felt myself slowly turning from the girl with the hand on her shoulder to the pillar of compassion and self-sacrifice standing behind her.
And when people would turn to me in desperation, I would comfort them, knowingly saying, “you’re much stronger than you think you are.”
I became the hero people needed. Through starvation and homelessness, I always worked to make my community better off than myself. I once again wasted away physically and emotionally until all that was left was a blank face staring calmly forward at my own death. I stood at the edge of oblivion, a girl of smoke, dissipated by a slight breeze.
Eventually, I found myself on a call with my own therapist. A precarious lifeline, worn down to a gossamer thread. I cried about the suffering of others and the loss of friends. The many dead children of my community and countless scared youth. My trans siblings who could not protect or fend for themselves. And I admitted that the weight was more than I could bear, and I was once again being crushed under the weight of expectations, but instead of my father’s they were my own.
Expectations of self-sacrifice, endless endurance, and the ability to take on the suffering others couldn’t handle. The expectation to save everybody else and then die nobly.
My therapist, whom I am forever grateful for, asked me what I would do for someone else if they were suffering like me and what I would say to them.
The words that immediately sprung up in my mind were
“It’s never as bad as it seems, you’re much stronger than you think you are, trust me.”
And my therapist looked dubiously at me and asked, “do you really think the problem is that you are not strong enough?”
And I cried.
I couldn’t be Superman any more than I could become Christ, because as much as I was told to be Christlike growing up, human flesh can’t suffer divinely for others to heal the world. It just suffers, and withers, and dies.
So now. In my 30s, as a certified trans elder, I am trying to learn not to suffer but to LOVE divinely. Not to be just the girl on the edge or the gentle hand on her shoulder, but the WOMAN who is both.
And I understand now why Superman doesn’t spend his entire life as Kal-El, the Last Son of Krypton and Martyr from a dying planet, cloistered in his barren fortress of ice, but instead lives in the comfortable skin of Clark Kent, Human. Who finds warmth and peace in home-cooked meals, soft-knit sweaters, and the loving eyes of the woman who sees him for exactly as he is. Invulnerable in his vulnerability.
If you look at me now, you might not recognize the boy who made himself unstoppable or the girl who would die for anyone, but you will see me. You will know me as the woman who loves and cares for both of them and has saved them both by living and loving herself.
And when you pass me on the street, mild-mannered and unassuming, you will see me freed of the weight of expectations, with a heart full of sunlight and joy, and you, dear listener, will believe a woman can fly.