“I just don’t like when people say Bruce is gonna be gone,” Kendall sobs to Khloe, wielding a tissue artfully so as not to disturb her eye makeup. Neither of them are taking their dad’s admission that he’s booked more surgery in the spring very well. Alone at my desk at work, I quietly close my browser window and decide to finish watching the Keeping Up With The Kardashians special when I get home so that I can cry noisily in private. I feel like the father I grew up with is gone, too.
I should make it clear that Bruce Jenner and my dad have nothing in common. Not that I know a ton about Bruce Jenner, but Bruce is transgender, and my dad is not. My dad is a bipolar addict who may or may not be homeless right now, and I don’t mean to draw a comparison to his situation and Bruce’s at all. But watching "About Bruce," I recognized parts of myself and parts of my life. And the parts that I didn’t recognize were comforting because of their difference.
“Magical thinking” is the phrase my therapist uses to describe how I combat the emotional fallout of having a terrible relationship with my dad. I scan the world around me for evidence that all my missing but desired experiences really do exist, and then latch onto them tightly as proof that they are available to me, too. It’s a step or so away from internalizing that I’m capable of providing myself with these things.
I looked to One Direction with this kind of starry-eyed happiness for over a year, as five goofballs who miraculously found each other and then loved each other publicly, and then Zayn left and I felt like I was being betrayed all over again, forced to live in a world where everything seemed stable until it fell apart and fell apart and fell apart, a never-ending series of disappointments and upsets and broken bonds. I laid down on my apartment floor and listened to "All Things Go" and cried for a million years. One Direction don’t love each other enough and my dad doesn’t love himself enough.
The Kardashian-Jenners might. I could be wrong! What’s more tightly constructed than reality TV? That one terrifying bridge over the Yangtze? I don’t know. Still, in this special I was struck by their clannishness, which is a pretty boring and well-trod observation these days, but it was new to me. Bruce spoke to each of them individually and yet all of them had concerns about the others.
Kim looked him straight in the eye and asked if he had ever enjoyed sex with her mother, for whom she seemed to be truly devastated. Some of these check-ins were more motivated by self-interest than compassion – Khloe wanted it to be very clear that while he isn’t her biological father she has known Bruce longer than Kendall and Kylie – and that’s to be expected, since everyone has different defense mechanisms. The current that underscored all this was that these reactions, while messy and valid, were temporary; in the long run everyone wants Bruce to be happy. If he is at peace with himself their own peace will follow. No more secrets.
As a kid I had a nightmare where my mother and I were on a beachside boardwalk when she was captured by a group of skateboarders. Terrified, I followed them down a large drainpipe into the sewers – thanks for this cute contribution to my subconscious, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! – to try to get back to her. But I found her too late. She’d regressed to a sixteen-year-old skater dweeb with a board under her arm and a bandana around her head. She wasn’t my mom anymore and she didn’t care that I needed her.
It was profoundly disturbing, like that scene in Casper where Christina Ricci’s newly dead ghost-dad doesn’t know who she is. This dream took hold of me and for a while I cried any time my mother got a haircut or otherwise altered her appearance, because it seemed to herald my biggest fear: that someone could change when I wasn’t looking, that someone could forget their ties to me.
I understand the shock in Khloe and Kendall that their dad is “changing” without their knowledge, or even on some level anger that it is without their permission, although I know it isn’t my right or theirs to say he’s becoming anything different. He’s always been who he is. As someone who is not Bruce and is trying to understand this, there’s a feeling that the rug’s out from under your feet and you’re scrambling to find purchase on something solid. This is what I knew before. These are the reasons I had some idea, but not all. This is what I know now.
By the time my mom spelled out in no uncertain terms what had been happening to my dad, he’d long since skateboarded down the drain. I hadn’t known the half of it. I probably still don’t.
In an early talking head, Kendall says she used to come across alarming objects all the time: foreign shoes, lipstick, things she thought must belong to a mistress until she came downstairs in the middle of the night to discover Bruce dressed as the person they all refer to as “her.” Kendall describes with great attention to spatial detail their separate trajectories through the house, her relief that he never saw her seeing him.
My own ghoulish story comes back to me. I had come down the stairs one night. I had seen a pair of heels carelessly tossed aside on the carpet. I had made an assumption. Unfortunately, in my case it turned out to be true.
The difference is that Kendall is heartbroken about the lengths her father took to spare her and Kylie from his pain and hide himself from them. So many years in isolation, so many years in an identity he never felt comfortable with, they all say.
My dad has no boundaries. He sent my sister and I a letter for our birthdays this year in which he pleads with us to interact with him. I’m not a raving lunatic, he wrote. I’m not an addict. We’ve tried for so many years in so many forms to address his problems; they aren’t anything we can fix. My dad has no self-awareness, unlike Bruce, so my dad can’t ever help himself, unlike Bruce, and my family will never fully heal. Unlike the Kardashian-Jenners.
I know we’re not the same at all but here I see an alternate future for myself. It’s a parallel universe where something unexpected is happening to someone but they acknowledge that it is happening and has happened and everyone around them is able to knit together and process it and move on. It’s a very clean and sweet narrative and it’s on TV and in the news and it’s helping so many people who might not already understand what it means to be transgender.
I watch "About Bruce" and I sigh, gratified. Somewhere I can see, families are okay. I could have that. My family could be okay.