The Girl Who Wouldn’t Act Like One
Even now, 13 years later, the dreams come almost every week. She is being chased by something or someone unidentifiable, swallowed bodily by this great force, her personality dissolving like salt thrown into boiling water. She whimpers, her girlfriend tells her later, then stops breathing altogether. She wakes, startled and exhausted, and runs to the bathroom, where she throws up. Then she remembers the hospital room.
In the daytime, Daphne Scholinski tries to paint away her nightmares. A large canvas hangs in the hallway outside her small studio in a collective art space in a warehouse in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood. It is a white, institutional room. In the corner stands an image of an agonized figure straight out of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais, large, meaty hands gripping his head, his feet bleeding into antiseptic tiles. “I’m not crazy,” Scholinski has scrawled underneath.
The painting is reproduced as the cover of Scholinski’s new memoir, “The Last Time I Wore a Dress” (Riverhead Books, written with Jane Meredith Adams), an affecting chronicle of an adolescence spent in mental hospitals, where doctors attributed her rebellious behavior and tomboy look and preferences to gender identity disorder--her failure to act like a girl.
The American Psychiatric Assn. defines gender identity disorder as a mental condition involving “a strong and persistent cross-gender identification,” accompanied by discomfort and pain or impairment of normal behavior. An estimated 3 million youths under 18 fall into the category.
“Gender is normally kind of like having teeth in your mouth; you don’t think about it,” says Dr. Fred Berlin, a professor at Johns Hopkins Medical School. “A gender identity disorder is not just a matter of a girl wanting to play football or a boy who likes sewing. When does a difference become a disorder? When it impairs function or causes someone distress.”
As Scholinski was growing up, other people always seemed more confused than she was. Adults often mistook her for a boy. She wanted to play Little League baseball instead of girl’s softball; she beat up boys. Other girls attacked her and smeared makeup on her face.
“I didn’t really know if I wanted to be a boy,” Scholinski writes, “but I wanted to go shirtless outside in summer and play rough. I could hit the ball harder than the boys, anyway, so why would I want to be one?”
There was no question she was a troubled teen. Scholinski’s parents had married early. She was 17 and pregnant; he was in the Army and about to ship out to Vietnam. They separated when Scholinski was in fifth grade and she soon began drinking, skipping school and stealing. She hung out with gang members and got kicked out of school for threatening to blow up a teacher’s car.
Just after her 15th birthday, Scholinski’s father drove her from their home in Arlington Heights, Ill., to the Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, where he signed the papers to commit his daughter.
“I knew I was bad,” she writes. “I wasn’t crazy, though.”
She spent the next three years at a series of mental hospitals, where doctors attributed her problems to gender identity disorder. While treating her depression and abusive behavior, therapists also encouraged her to curl her hair, walk like a girl and flirt with male patients. They tried to wean her from ripped jeans and rock T-shirts and discouraged her budding friendship with another female internee.
To pass the time at the hospital, Scholinski and her friends took bets on tricking doctors into making false diagnoses, faking hallucinations, conjuring up split personalities. Scholinski feigned anorexia. She tried to commit suicide by chugging facial astringent. After her 18th birthday she was released; her doctor told her that everything was in remission except for her gender disorder.
“Intervention was necessary,” Scholinski admits, looking back at her wild behavior, “but I don’t think incarcerating youth is the answer.”
Now 31, Scholinski is unmistakably butch. Her dyed black hair is short and spiky, her slate eyes serious; she wears an over-large blue T-shirt, baggy brown cords and paint-splattered Keds. She speaks in a deep voice, has a thin mustache and two tufts of untrimmed hair on her chin.
She blames her doctors for trying to erase her personality.
“You grow up feeling you’re a miserable freak,” she said. “All someone had to do was tell me I wasn’t. No one gave me the permission to be me.”
Dr. Berlin says that many mental health professionals might counsel such a patient to make minor changes in appearance or demeanor if it would ease their acceptance in the world, but that the major course of therapy should be to help someone accept who they are.
“Normal is much bigger than we think it is,” Scholinski says. “The one thing that was not treatable is my internal person. I am a masculine woman. I don’t try to be this way. My suffering was totally due to how I was being treated for being myself.”
Eleven days after leaving the hospital, Scholinski enrolled at a community college in Minnesota, where she studied police science, wanting to become a probation officer. “I felt like I could understand why kids were angry and that I could make a difference,” she says.
But money was tight, so she took a job in a canning factory, where she became attracted to a female co-worker, a feeling she battled, imagining one of her doctors looking over her shoulder.
Then one morning after pulling a graveyard shift together, Scholinski was eating breakfast with the woman, who asked her if she wanted to be more than friends.
“Oh, my god! They were right,” she says she thought. “I am crazy. They’re going to lock me up.”
Four hours later, Scholinski pulled herself out of a stupor and wrote “yes” on a piece of paper. Still, it was a month before she kissed her new girlfriend.
Eventually, Scholinski earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from St. Cloud State University in Minnesota and later a master’s from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn as the student loans piled up.
“College was hard,” she recalls. “I graduated from a mental hospital. I very much feel like a teenager. I didn’t start growing up until I was 18.”
Scholinski moved to San Francisco, taking what work she could find, delivering bagels, painting store signs. All the while, she tried to talk to friends and relatives about her years in the hospital. Everyone treated her like a delicate piece of china.
“I’ve been trying to tell my story for 13 years,” she says.
Two years ago, she read an article on the psychiatric abuse of gay youths in the Bay Area Reporter. She called the writer. Soon she was speaking to San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission’s task force on gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trans-genders. Then she told her story in Beijing at the U.N. World Conference on Women, her expenses covered by a charitable trust. “The psychiatric system,” she told 2,500 women there, “gave me two choices: change or don’t exist. I have chosen to exist.”
That exposure stirred publishing interest and Scholinski paired up with freelance journalist Jane Meredith Adams to write the book.
The team ordered Scholinski’s medical records from various institutions, many of which are quoted in the book. She took the first sheet of microfiche to the library and pored over it for four hours, reliving the years in confinement and her doctor’s exasperation with her lack of feminine behavior. “Patient’s judgment is poor,” one evaluation says. “She appears to lack any insight into her illness.”
“It was intense,” Scholinski says. “I couldn’t believe it. I overdosed. For some reason over the years, I had justified the treatment to make myself feel less violated.”
She recently started seeing a mental health professional.
“There’s a certain amount of irony in going to therapy to cure yourself of therapy,” she says. “I don’t think therapy is bad, but it’s wrong to deny that it could really hurt people.”
But her preferred method of dealing with the past is painting. Her works have poured forth by the thousands and are shelved like books against a wall in her studio. On another wall, Scholinski has started a new work: three rows of white squares. “It’s a girl,” she wrote over a drawing of a pink lollipop, under which, in her trademark backward lettering, it says, “Sucker.”
“I know you are,” she scribbled on the canvas, “but what am i. . . .”
“I can’t pretend to paint stuff that hasn’t been in my experience,” she said. “What I’m really good at is being myself.”