“Very truly I tell you: no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he has been born again.” John 3:3
My Uncle John’s been gone a long time. I haven’t seen him since 2006— in 2007, he disappeared in a flurry of crack smoke and Budweiser, alone at his home in the Fan. After two divorces and one long road through hell, with a price on his head from a dealer in Richmond, he held a gun to his temple and closed his eyes for what he prayed would be the last time.
Ten years have gone by now. I’m sitting on the porch in Concord, NC with my Aunt Diane, John’s ex-wife. She’s a living maternal archetype and one of the people that tried to stop John from killing himself. She’s something like 60 and she’s running me under the table with more coffee and cigarettes than I like to consume before 12 pm. A huge black lab bounds through the front door, barking at some imagined intruder, but the big yard out in the country is quiet.
“Don’t he look just like Zebedee?” says Diane. I haven’t seen Diane since 2006, either, on account of having missed my grandmother’s funeral in the midst of a snowstorm that shut down traffic across the Southeast. But she’s the same woman that I remember: charming, country-fried, and a distinguished connoisseur of Pall Mall menthols.
Zebedee was John’s dog. I remember Zebedee mostly because he and Dixie, the long-legged poodle that raised me like Romulus, had never gotten along. Zebedee was there the night John put a .22 to his head— before he pulled the trigger, Zebedee walked up and put his head in John’s lap, begging him with mournful black eyes to lower the gun.
Someone follows the black lab out the door— a tall blonde woman with a Reardon nose and a voice weathered down by 52 years of cigarette smoke. “Zeke, quit yer yappin’. Diane, do you got any half & half?” Her voice reminds me of my grandmother’s— she manages to rhyme “half” with “knife” in a manner that would make Lil Wayne green with envy.
“You know where it is, Kaitlin,” Diane says. “The top shelf— you’re always forgettin’.”
The blonde woman is Kaitlin Riordan. Ten years ago, she was my Uncle John, and when she finally came clean about the life she’d been living— trapped in the wrong body for 52 years, sneaking off to wear women’s clothes and feeling confused, compensating with the masculine life befitting a Phillip Morris factory worker, drowning it all in a maelstrom of whiskey and beer— it sent seismic waves through our Catholic family.
A few, like my father and some of his siblings, were supportive. Others— most notably, my grandfather— were understandably devastated. John Reardon Sr. warned him that he risked the pain of Hell if he defied God and the body made for him.
This is not an invitation for overzealous SJWs to write nasty letters to my grandfather. He’s a dignified Catholic man who ran away from home at 16 to join the Marines. He came back tough, and proceeded to provide a life and a home for his family, learning the ropes along the way.
He sent six kids to college despite his own high school education, then mellowed with age, transforming into a benevolent grandfather by the time I was born. He was stuck in his ways in 2007— in his mind, chastising John was the only way to save his son’s eternal soul. After all, the Bible tells its adherents that the Lord chastens His people in order to save them.
It’s difficult to imagine the pain it must have caused an old man to see his firstborn son rejecting his gender and namesake (and, in his mind, risking hellfire for Earthly contentment). He was hurt beyond comprehension, and he and John lost contact at the time of John’s most dangerous binge to date.
John was hurting, too. A lifelong drinking problem had turned into a drug problem, and not the lovey-dovey ones the Beatles sing songs about. (Those can make you crazy too, kids, and besides, the Rolling Stones are much better). I’ve only heard stories about John’s downward spiral— horrible stories, thrilling in their depravity but gruesome in their humanity, and, more than anything, terribly, horribly sad.
“I was riding along with these dudes one time on Jeff Davis Highway, and I found this old knife on the floor,” she told me recently. “Picked it up and handed it to one of them. ‘This yours?’ That son-of-a-bitch started acting all crazy. ‘What’s the matter with you? Don’t touch that shit! And don’t give it to me, neither!’ I’ve still got the knife— God knows where that thing has been.”
And then there was the night that she realized she was in too deep: “I lent my car to a guy who was moving some weight,” Kaitlin said, “Paid me fifty bucks. Two hours later, he still hadn’t come back. Turns out the cops pulled him over and found a brick of cocaine. I got the car back, and the guy went to jail.
“Well, then I got a call from a friend of mine,” she went on. “‘Kaitlin, you’re good people,’ the guy said, ‘but you need to lay in the cut, ’cause they’re coming for you, and they’re gonna kill you.’ They all thought I’d had something to do with it. One of his boys showed up at my house with a Magnum— thank God I wasn’t home.”
The most haunting quote from the sad, strange trip wasn’t hers. It’s something a guy out in Houston told her when they were both fiending for drugs to mask the unbearable pain. “Crack makes good people bad,” he said, “and it makes bad people evil.”
It’s hard to reconcile that image of John with the woman I know now— the woman that hassles Diane good-naturedly for more half-and-half, who makes corny jokes almost compulsively, who chases Zeke around the yard and drifts in and out of the house to catch a glimpse of the Carolina game, ragging on the Redskins constantly because she switched to the Panthers in ’95 and I missed the boat.
Kaitlin knows that I suffer from a malignant form of obsessive-compulsive disorder and gobble Zoloft, Xanax, and cigarettes in a futile attempt to find peace. When Diane goes back inside to make some more coffee, we share a personal moment.
“Kaitlin,” I say, “Why do you think it’s gotta be this way?” I’m not sure what I’m referring to— my trials, her tribulations, or maybe just the gloomy December weather. Whatever I’m trying to say, she understands.
“I guess God’s got a plan for all of us,” she says. “Mine was living the life I’ve lived. If I hadn’t been born this way, I would never have gone down to the bottom. And if I’d never gone down to the bottom, I never would have found God.”
“If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you.” John 15:18-19
My Uncle John put down his gun that wretched night in 2007. God alone knows the reasons, but his three children, the support of some of his siblings (including my father), and the doleful eyes of Zebedee must be among them. Not too long after, John— soon to be Kaitlin— checked into rehab and was reassigned gender through surgery. She hasn’t touched drugs or alcohol for ten years.
When I try to imagine what it’s like to suffer from gender dysphoria, I imagine being forced to wear a dress and high heels everyday, despite feeling like a red-blooded man. Kaitlin says that’s almost right, but it goes even deeper— you feel trapped in your own skin and very, very confused.
Gender reassignment surgery helped her make peace with the pain, but that’s not to say that the journey hasn’t been hard. When I stopped by over Thanksgiving and we went to a Wendy’s in Kannapolis, the cashier gave us both the evil eye and a few good-ol-boys in a nearby booth stopped to stare.
“You think these people are gonna call the police if you try to use the girls’ bathroom?” I joked.
Kaitlin laughed. “They can if they want to. My birth certificate’s been changed. They’re up on their shit out in Cali.”
“Southern hospitality, huh?” We’re both dyed-in-the-wool Southerners, by birth and by soul— I’ve spent all my collective time in Richmond and Alabama, and Kaitlin never lived outside of the Tobacco Triangle until she went to California for rehab. I ask her what the difference is between the Carolinas and the West Coast.
“In California, people see me, and they’re like, ‘okay, whatever,’” she said. “In Carolina, they stare. Either that, or they’ll act real nice, and talk about you behind your back. When I rode over to the East Coast to visit, my friend strapped a gun to her waist as soon as we got to Texas.”
“Does it bother you?”
Random acts of bigotry be damned. Her greatest pain has always been familial turmoil. For years, she did not speak with her father. At my grandmother’s funeral, John Reardon Sr. gave her a hug and took a picture with her, and they’ve since exchanged phone numbers and pleasantries. Tensions have eased with time, and he invited Kaitlin to his 85th birthday party. But there is a marked distance between them now, and they’re both hurting— he refers to her as John, desperate but unable to comprehend the changes she’s been through.
“Do you still hold a grudge?” I asked her. “Against anyone?”
“Of course not,” Kaitlin said. “They’re my family. I love my family. I love my dad. It doesn’t make any difference to me. I’m not holding on to hate or resentment anymore. I used to. Call me whatever you like. All I can do now is love everybody.”
“Call me whatever you like” is right. Her grandchildren call her Jank, a ridiculous combination of John and Kaitlin, as well as an apt description of the whole situation.
But now, a few weeks later, on Diane’s porch in Concord, I broach the subject of visiting Richmond for Christmas. “Nah, I’m not going,” Kaitlin says. “I’m tired of getting beat up every time I go up there.”
The primary reason she’s on the East Coast is to visit two of her kids that still live in the Carolinas. She’s staying with Diane, with whom she’s still close. But I know she longs to come to Richmond and see everybody. I keep nudging.
“If I go, I’ve got to bring Zeke, and that’s trouble,” she says. “It’s trouble for y’all, ’cause of your dog, and trouble for Dad, because….” She breaks off. It would be trouble because, even though things have gotten better, the wounds still run deep for both parties.
“Your dad asks about you all the time,” says Diane, perhaps trying to brighten the mood. “How’s John? How’s John? I can’t hardly make him think of anything else. I try to change the subject, and he just keeps asking about you. ‘I just want to understand. I just want to understand. I tried to raise these kids right. I don’t know what happened.’
“I tell him ain’t nothin’ to understand— John was born this way. Nothing he could have done one way or another. We’re still best friends— always been best friends. We’re not married no more, but that’s the only difference.
“‘Is John still going to church?’ I tell him, ‘Yes, he’s still very into the Church. Goes every Sunday.’ And he says, ‘I’m glad to hear that.’”
Kaitlin looks mournful and lights a cigarette, still thinking about the visit to Richmond that won’t happen this year. “I don’t want to cause any more trouble,” she says again. “I ain’t in that business no more.”
“Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister (Mary the wife of Clopas), and Mary Magdalene. Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby.” John 19:25-26
There’s a compelling theory about the Gospel of John that heretical Catholics such as myself find fascinating— far more fascinating than anything Dan Brown could cook up.
The fourth gospel was almost certainly written by an eyewitness, but most modern theologians doubt it was written by St. John of Zebedee. According to an emergent school of Biblical scholarship, it may have been written by Mary Magdalene, the companion of Christ and a reformed sinner herself.
The first three Gospels are presented as historical accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth— Luke introduces himself as an historian, Mark met Simon Peter some twenty years after the Crucifixion, and Matthew drew upon the work of Luke and Mark. The fourth Gospel is radically different from the first three. It was completed sometime after 90 A.D., and it is a deeply personal narrative about the life of Christ.
A number of perplexing inconsistencies occur in the Gospel of John. Of course, that’s not unusual for the Bible, a book that simultaneously instructs us to never kill anyone and to always kill various breeds of Canaanite savages. But the inconsistencies in John have a compelling pattern. The anonymous author—referred to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”— is always appearing in some sort of convoluted, time-warp situation worthy of Back to the Future Pt. III. In every scene featuring the disciple whom Jesus loved, Mary of Magdala was previously mentioned, then mysteriously disappears from the story.
Mary was at the cross; Mary was at the Resurrection; Mary reclined on the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper. The disciple whom Jesus loved is present in all of these scenes, and when Jesus refers to the disciple, the pronoun reflects a male. Then Mary vanishes from the story.
Further information for curious Catholics and history buffs can be found here. The chronology in the Gospel makes very little sense unless Mary is the disciple in question. Further explicit references to Mary as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” abound in the Gospel of Philip. Why, then, would her name have been written out of the Gospel? And why would some fool take a sacred text and perform an editing hack job that makes Walter Hobbs look like Ernest Hemingway?
The answer is a simple and painfully obvious one: power. According to Biblical scholar Ramon Jusino, the Gospel was probably written by Mary Magdalene sometime in the mid-50s. It became the central text to an early sect of Christians, and was then rewritten in the late 90s and shoddily reconstructed to conceal the embarrassment female leadership would have brought on the community.
The Gospel of John is a fascinating text, even for non-believers. It is a window into the psychedelic headspace of Jesus of Nazareth, written by his most beloved companion and perhaps his only true confidant. It is also a highly evangelical text, focused on the reinvention of self through suffering and sacrament as the way to find God on Earth. Famous scenes from Biblical history, like the transformation of water to wine, the washing of the feet, the “born again” decree, and the Bread of Life discourse are found only in the eyewitness account.
Perhaps most importantly, Jesus’ speech at the Last Supper takes up three of the 23 chapters. “Love one another,” he tells his disciples. “LOVE ONE ANOTHER!” he screams, when they ask him to explain himself. “LOVE. ONE. ANOTHER. YOU. IMBECILES,” he must have been thinking when Peter or Thomas told him for the twelfth time that they never could decipher his parables.
I don’t know how any of this fits into the story of Kaitlin. Maybe I’m just grafting this onto the blogpost in the hope of making some ill-conceived allusion to Catholic feminism. If only I had an editor— the guy who rewrote the Gospel of John would really come in handy in times such as these.
From self-doubt springs enlightenment. Does Kaitlin represent the disciple whom Jesus loved, the suffering sinner with an ear to the beating heart of the cosmos, cast off by modern-day Pharisees? Is Kaitlin a Christ-figure, bearing the cross of gender dysphoria, resurrected as the transfigured Kaitlin? Do I need to start writing stories before my self-appointed deadline and stop going on delirious tangents when I ought to be sleeping?
Well, yes to that last question. Really, I just find the Marian authorship theory incredible, perhaps the most unexpected development in Church history since Pope Urban II convinced a ragtag band of inbred farmers with pitchforks to lay siege to the Ottoman Empire. But there’s something very familiar about this story of redemption, surrender, and life after death— as told by a woman, shrouded in uncomfortable clothes and presented as “John” for year after year after year….
“It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you, and appointed you to go and bear fruit.” John 15:16
I’m not really one for all of the God-has-a-plan stuff. Catholics are notoriously compatibilist, secure in their notion of free will and simultaneously resigned to whichever displeasing fate they are bound for. We’re a chronically neurotic people, pessimistic perhaps to a fault, proudly donning the mantle of the Hijos de La Malinche.
They say God has plans to prosper me, and not harm me—well, if that’s so, maybe He could start by letting me think straight without a freight train of intrusive thoughts running through my head all the time, keeping me up til 2 in the morning to write ridiculous stories about the world’s craziest Crazy Uncle. And don’t get me started on the starving children in Kenya who never had even the ghost of a chance to eat the leftover chicken I just threw out, no matter how much my dad tries to tell me that becoming a glutton exonerates me from the sin of world hunger.
I’m a little more comfortable with a phrase often heard in the South: “It’s funny how some things turn out.” Kaitlin has been a rehab counselor in California for almost ten years now. Having been through hell on Earth herself, she is perhaps the best-qualified Virgil to lead the poor Dantes who are only beginning the trek. She makes speeches up and down the West Coast and has written a book, Bondage of Self, about her chaotic journey. “I have slowly released my misery as I became willing to speak the truth buried deep within my spirit,” the back cover reads.
The long journey is not over, but the epoch of guilt and resentment is. John Reardon Jr. is dead— Kaitlin Riordan has been born again. And for those who don’t believe in miracles, Kaitlin likes to recount the last time she saw her mother. It was in September of 2014, when Barbara Reardon was on her deathbed.
I remember those days well. I went to see her at the nursing home to say goodbye once again, not knowing if she’d make it to Christmas. Kaitlin came to see her shortly thereafter.
She’s told the story so often, I feel like I’m there with them sometimes. Kaitlin walked into the room, and my grandmother— her mother— looked up and smiled. Sure, she did that a lot. Kaitlin swears she recognized her, but plenty of people insist that their long-gone parents remember them. It’s what happened next that amazes me.
Kaitlin sat down at her bedside and told her how sorry she was— how sorry she was for causing so much pain, how sorry she was for the role she played in tearing apart a family that was already split at the seams. I imagine she wept, like Christ over Lazarus when he realized that it was too late, that the body before him couldn’t hear the prayers and the pleading. Kaitlin apologized over and over until there was nothing left to say sorry for, cried until the tears were dry. And then her mother looked up.
Barbara Reardon hadn’t recognized anyone for nearly a year; she hadn’t spoken a word for weeks. But this was important. She struggled for a moment, trying to get the thoughts out of her heart and into Kaitlin’s. She couldn’t say all that she wanted to say, I’m certain, but with a colossal effort, she managed one word— the word Jesus implored his disciples to say more than any other. In her diminished state, she used an ambiguous verb tense— or maybe that was intentional, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez playing with cubist dialogue, at once accepting Kaitlin and imploring her to apply the message of Jesus of Nazareth to those she had hurt as well as to those who had hurt her.
“I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.” John 15:11-12