Everybody Retcons

“History is written by the victors”,  attributed to Winston Churchill, but of unknown origin.

If you haven’t heard the term retcon, it is a shortening of retroactive continuity.  Here is the definition from tvtropes:

Reframing past events to serve a current plot need. […] A good way to get away with a Retcon is to reveal new implications or motivations for events that have already been established. […] Most competent writers achieve a Retcon by relying on a less-obvious but still perfectly valid interpretation of what was previously seen.

It’s not just in the world of fiction that people retcon.  We are all revisionist historians of our own past. When couples break up acrimoniously, it isn’t uncommon for one of them to say “I never loved you!”, taking every moment of doubt that they had and letting their focus lie there, and retconning loving moments into brief episodes of self-delusion.

We see it in others when they say that they “loved Firefly from the first episode”, when we may remember just how skeptical they were for those first few episodes even if they do not. They conflate how they feel about that first episode when they see it now with how they saw it then; they forget that their perspective now is so very different from what it was then.

Because transsexual men and women are human, it must be the case that they retcon their past to maximize its continuity with their present, because everyone does. That doesn’t mean that everything is retconned, just that as in good dramas, you can’t tell the retcons from the plot elements that were carefully set up from the beginning. And that means that in life, when anyone talks about their past, you can’t suppose you’re looking at any kind of objective record.  If someone says “I was always a girl, just hiding it”, neither you nor they know how much of what they’re saying reflects how things objectively were, and how much is heavy retcon.

Back before I transitioned, I worried about how selective I was being and the extent to which I as being revisionist historian of my own past. I used that to leave myself drowning in “how do know my feelings are real” spiral. Eventually, I got over that and realized that I could search for justifications and then vivisect them forever, and that what I really needed to do was follow the blatantly obvious path to happiness, even if every feeling and justification I had could be invalidated as possible self-delusion and retcon.

If I have retconned things (and as a human, I must have), on the one hand it’s sad because I’ll never know with absolute certainty who I really was, way back when, but quite possibly the right thing to take way is that it speaks volumes about who I am now, and maybe that’s more important.

5 comments so far

  1. Quinnae Moongazer on

    I think it’s interesting that you touched on this as it’s a subject I’ve not seen reflected on, though I admit I’ve not traveled around the trans blogosphere as much as I should have.

    “Back before I transitioned, I worried about how selective I was being and the extent to which I as being revisionist historian of my own past. I used that to leave myself drowning in “how do know my feelings are real” spiral.”

    What’s compelling is that sometimes one doesn’t quite leave that spiral. Doubt often dogs me. Of course when I really consider the alternative, I know I’m on the right path, but there’s always that sense nagging me at the back of my head: “is that good enough for everyone else?” There is a temptation to fit your life to the Classic Transsexual narrative just to make sure other people believe you when you say you’re a woman.

    I hate that feeling.

    I know who I am and I’m proud of it, but I know there are aspects of my past that I’m emphasising more than I used to, and other elements thereof that I’m minimising more than I used to.

    I know, intellectually, that as I so often say we as trans people come to our destination by many roads. My road was somewhat atypical (my “earliest memory” was not one of me rebelling against gender norms, or male roles) but it is *my* road and the proof is in the pudding, in terms of how good I feel in the wake of starting transition.

    The doubt is more inspired by fear. Fear that comes with the territory and fear of what others might think of me if my story isn’t ‘convincing’ enough.

    I just need to get beyond intellectually understanding that such things don’t matter and truly live it.

    That’s one of the psychological aspects of transition that’s rarely talked about, I suppose.

    • Nebulous Persona on

      I’d love to have you elaborate on the “is that good enough for everyone else?” feeling; I think I know where you’re coming from, but I’m not sure.

      You say “the proof is in the pudding, in terms of how good I feel in the wake of starting transition”, and I think that is one of the key insights, that if you want to know how real it really is, you just have to look at how it resonates with you, and part of that resonance can be things feeling right, and feeling good.

      At one point in transition I thought something like this: “As things get better, you’re going to forget this, you’ll forget what it was like, how bad it was before, and how good it was to leave that behind. Please remember enough to know how important this was for you.” And I was right; in a lot of ways, I have forgotten. I don’t even remember when in transition it was that I thought that. All I remember is the essence of the statement and its truth.

      I think we are our own strongest critics. Because of the way transsexual people are broadly misunderstood, it is always tempting to tell a simple coherent story than a complex, nuanced one. Sometimes it is even the right thing to do, but I think that everyone’s story is nuanced. One of my goals in having this blog is to have a space to explore some of that complexity.

      • Quinnae Moongazer on

        I can’t disagree with anything you said here certainly. I’m sorry for my own lack of clarity, I wrote the comment at a rather late hour and I was a bit woozy. 😛

        >I’d love to have you elaborate on the “is that good enough for everyone else?” feeling; I think I know where you’re coming from, but I’m not sure.

        Well what I meant by that sentence you quoted was that I sometimes worry that if my self-recollection isn’t ‘just so’ people will think I’m not really trans. Of course, in a cissexist society such thinking is what puts one on the path to madness. You can’t let others define the validity of your identity, ever.

        But at the same time it’s hard to resist, to hold back that temptation to seek validation from the judgements of others.

        You’re quite correct, however. The stories we have to tell are often complicated and nuanced. I cannot completely disconnect myself from my life before transition; the woman I am today is a product of those years whether I like it or not, with all the complexity that entails.

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