Changeling. Folklore says they are fairies who enter the human realm to seek out a person, usually a woman or child, to replace.
Changelings are considered to be monstrous, evil, and destructive. However, their motivation for replacing a child is that they want to be comforted in some way. If they take the place of an adult it could be that doing so will allow them to find happiness, get something out of life that they couldn’t in their own realm. The fairy shapeshifts to look like an exact replica of the person they replaced, a doppelgänger, except for one thing: the changeling behaves differently. A changeling can and has been used as an excuse as to why someone seemed different, started to behave differently than they had before. Not everyone is happy when people change, especially when those changes don’t mesh with the way they wish that person to be.
Shaker Heights, Ohio. 2004
I’d been married for four years at this point. Darlene, my wife, was in grad school for Art History. I worked at Case Western Reserve School of Law in the Career Services office. I wanted to work there because it granted me access to a tuition waiver to take classes at the school. I had been wanting to change my career, my life. I was in my first creative writing workshop that semester. That class, even though I didn’t know it at the time, helped me hit the reset button my life.
On a night, after one of my workshop classes, my mother called. I stood in the kitchen, the phone cord twisted as I rested my hand against the woodwork in the opening to the living room. She told me about her day at work, about the toys and clothes her sisters had bought for their grandkids. She asked about my day. I told her about the workshop. I told her that the instructor encouraged me to apply for an MFA program.
“When did you become such a bad person?” My mother said.
This is not the first time she had said this to me, but it still caught me off guard. “What are you talking about?” I said.
“I don’t know, Brian,” she said. “You’re just different.” She drew in her breath. The burning paper of her cigarette crackled across the phone line.
“Different isn’t always bad,” I said. Different had always been code for bad in my childhood home.
“I thought you’d really be living as an adult by now,” she said.
“How am I not living as an adult?”
“Darlene’s in school. Now you’re going to go back to school,” she said. “Most people married as long as you have kids by now. They are adults.”
“You don’t have to have kids to be an adult.” My feet pressed against the cold grey tile of the kitchen.
This has also been a conversation we’d had before. My cousins, her nieces, were having kids. She was jealous that her sisters were grandparents and she wasn’t. My refusal to have a child just because she wanted me to was disrespectful and selfish.
“You weren’t always this selfish.” Her voice cracked as if she is about to cry.
Whenever I did something she didn’t want me to do, like study for an exam or not go to a movie with her because I had a paper to write, she thought I was being selfish. I was a bad person. The other times she had said this, I had taken it. I had been a good Midwestern boy and had ignored it. I’d had enough. I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life being called a bad person by my mother.
“We’re done here.” I hung up.
She called back immediately. I picked up the phone. I heard her yelling about how dare I hang up on her before the phone even reached my ear.
I hung up again. I took the phone off the hook. The receiver drooped down to the floor, the dial tone turned into a pleading alarm before going silent.
Months later, Darlene and I moved to a different apartment in Cleveland, changed my phone number, and I did not give it to my mother or anyone in my family. This is my last apartment in Cleveland. There was a certain sense of security and safety in my family not knowing where I was or how to get ahold of me.
When I left Ohio for Illinois to attend grad school. I didn’t tell any of them where I was leaving the city. I’m sure my mother saw this as further evidence that I was a bad person. That I had changed from the boy who did what she wanted, who wanted to make her happy even at the expense of his own happiness, to someone selfish. Had this been a different century, maybe she would have thought that I had been replaced by a changeling. Maybe she would have thought she could cure me with a potion of herbs and milk.
What seemed like defiance to her, was survival for me. I had spent so much time trying to be what she wanted me to be. I needed the separation from my mother, my family to have a chance to figure out who I wanted to be.
Prophecy. My grandparents believed their eldest son, my uncle, became gay when he left Cleveland to go to college in Cincinnati. They were so convinced that leaving Cleveland led to gayness that they refused to help me with college if I went to a school outside of the Cleveland area. I scoffed at this association many times. It was kind of a joke between family members even as it also spoke to the belief that gayness could somehow be prevented. Avoided.
I didn’t leave Cleveland until after my grandparents died. Had they been alive, I would have done nothing to dispel their belief that leaving Cleveland led to gayness. Even if I had told them that it was because of the space I had to think, to consider myself, they would have still clung to the belief that leaving Cleveland was what made me gay. Something outside of me was causing it instead of something within me. That was easier for them to understand.
I came out to myself a few months after moving to Urbana-Champaign for grad school. It would take me another year an a half to come out to Darlene on July 23, 2009. I remember the date because it was three days after my thirty-third birthday. She asked me if this meant that we would have to get divorced. Yes, it did.
Jack, A fellow MFA student, a bald, chubby, straight man I considered my best friend at the time, was the last of my close friends to know I was gay. He had been away when I first came out. I hesitated to tell him because I didn’t know how he would react. I thought he might be upset that other people knew before him. But as I told him when introducing the subject, I wanted to tell him in person. I didn’t want to tell him on the phone.
We were at dinner when I came out to him, he seemed fine at first. He asked me how I was doing. He took a few more bites of his food. His fork hung mid-air between his mouth and his plate as he chewed and he looked at me. His mood changed. He chewed faster. He stabbed at the noodles on his plate but didn’t bring the fork up for another bite.
“Everything okay?” I said with a mouthful of food.
“I’m a little pissed off,” he said.
“Why?” I put my fork down.
“You lied to us. I have no idea who you are.”
This hurt. I assume it was intended to. I insisted that I was exactly the same. Only one detail was different. That is both true and untrue. I was the same and I was different. But there seemed to be so much pressure to be seen as the same as I was before.
As Lady Gaga says in her documentary Five Foot Two, “The truth is: I can always bring my past with me. But I can never go back. You’ve got to leave yourself behind.”
That’s what I did when I hung up on my mother that day. When I left for grad school. When I came out. Both times.
My main worry when I came out as a gainer I worried about leaving behind a certain idea of me. I wanted the people who I thought loved me to keep on loving me. But if they only love a certain, non-fat version of you, maybe it’s not worth having that love.
Confession: I once wanted to be an actor. This helped spur my weight loss in the last couple years of high school. I’d been a fat kid and teenager. I couldn’t be a fat actor. I read enough movie magazines, enough gossip magazines, to know that fatness meant reduced opportunities for roles.
I tried to follow Madonna’s workout routine at the time as closely as I could. This was the early nineties, the years of the Blond Ambition Tour, Truth or Dare, Erotica, and The Girlie Show Tour, when she ran ten miles a day and lifted weights. I did the same. On the days, I didn’t want to run or run as far as I thought I should, I’d imagine running in slow motion in black and white film footage followed by paparazzi just like Madonna was in Truth or Dare.
I stopped eating meat but didn’t call myself a vegetarian because I would eat chicken or a hamburger in theory. I avoided meat because I wanted to avoid the calories and fat that went with it. This was at the start of the low-fat food craze. Every day there was a new chip or cracker or butter that was low-fat. I’d only eat these products. I also limited my carb intake. What did I eat? Barely anything. I became afraid of not losing weight. I didn’t even want to maintain. I had to lose.
My mother bought me a home weight machine that had a step climber on the back. The step climber meant to be used for days when it was too cold or raining or snowing. However, I used it in addition to the ten miles I’d run. Ten miles of running followed by forty-five minutes of step climbing, followed by a half hour to an hour of the weight machine. My workout equipment was in the corner of the family room. During some of my workouts, my mother would leave her bedroom to watch TV in the family room. Her recliner right next to the weight machine. She seemed to have a knack for doing this while I was on the step climber.
She’d come down the stairs with her ashtray and cigarettes in one hand and a glass of Pepsi in the other. My mother’s hair always looked sculpted yet soft. The rest of her always seemed slight, yet made solid as if her bones were made of stones. She wore jogging suit pants and a t-shirt. She’d light a cigarette and let it smolder in the ashtray the whole time I was working out. I’d cough from the smoke, but she wouldn’t put it out. I wouldn’t stop either. I’d hold my breath as long as I could as I chugged away on the climber until forced to take a breath when my heart hiccuped in my throat.
When my mother found out how much I was exercising and how little I ate, she worried. When we’d be at family holiday gatherings, some of my relatives would comment on how much weight I lost, how much better I looked. If my mother heard them, she’d tell them that I need to eat more. “He needs to put on some muscle,” she’d say.
Kids at school, popular kids, started talking to me. One of them invited me to sit at their lunch table with them. I sat with them once. I felt so out of place. I knew this was a place I shouldn’t be. A place I didn’t want to be.
Sometimes you don’t fit in. Sometimes you don’t want to fit in.
Warner Bros. held an open casting call for someone to play Robin in the movie that would become Batman Forever. I was on the verge of graduating high school. I’d been working out for years at this point. I thought this was it for me. I was going to be Robin in a Batman movie. I sent my senior photo in with my contact information as requested. This first round was going to be solely based on how you looked. Of course, being in Mentor, Ohio, I was naive enough to not know this was only a marketing stunt. Chris O’Donnell had already been cast. But I saw it as legitimate. When I didn’t hear back, I took it very personally. I thought if I had only lost ten more pounds or had gained ten more pounds of muscle or if my face still wasn’t so round, then I would have been called.
I spent a week beating myself up about it. Who was I doing this for? It wasn’t for me. As much as I felt out of place at that lunch table with the popular kids, I felt out of place in a thin body. I didn’t have the vocabulary of gaining yet. I just knew I wanted to eat and I wanted to be fat.
I worked at a movie theater at this time. As I drove to work one day, I picked up a box of donuts. I parked out of the way, under a droopy tree. I sat in my car with a box of donuts resting in the passenger seat. Shadows of the leaves shook across the dashboard. Madonna’s Bedtime Stories album played from my car’s tap deck. I shouldn’t do this, I thought. The six powder white donuts beckoned from beneath the cellophane window in the box. They were even more noticeable against the dark brown upholstery of the car. I picked them up. I let the box sit on my lap for a minute before I tore it open and stuffed one in my mouth. Then another. And another. Until they were gone. I relaxed into the driver’s seat.
Transformation. I first heard of changelings by watching Lore. It started as a podcast that has now been turned into a TV show where the stories of folklore, ghosts, and urban legends are reenacted. There is an episode called “Black Stockings” dedicated to changelings and specifically to the story of Bridget Cleary. She was twenty-six years old in 1895. She lived in Ballyvadlea, a small town in Ireland. According to the show, the new availability of the home sewing machine allowed her to become the primary income earner in the household. She made and sold dresses and also had an egg delivery business.
It is implied that her husband was threatened by her new income, and the greater sense of independence she might have been experiencing. When she has to deliver eggs for her business. He tells her that she should be at home.
“Come with me,” she says.
“I don’t work for you,” he says.
To him, she might have been changing into someone he didn’t recognize or perhaps someone he didn’t like. For her, she might have simply been becoming more who she wanted to be. One of her deliveries took her near a suspected fairy ring, a portal between our world and the fairy realm. Being near one could lead to being abducted and replaced by a changeling.
Bridget gets caught in a storm during her deliveries and arrives homesick and with a fever. She doesn’t recognize her husband right away. He thinks she looks taller. Even though the town doctor says she has bronchitis, her husband and the rest of their family believes Bridget has been replaced by a changeling.
Instead of giving Bridget the medicine the doctor left for her, her husband force feeds her a potion of milk and herbs that he got from a “fairy” doctor. He would torture her as he tried to determine if she had been swapped with a changeling. All of this ended when he asked her to identify herself three times. Twice she gave her married name. The third time she said her maiden name. This convinced him that she was a changeling. He held her to the ground, threw lamp oil on her, and set her on fire.
He thought setting her on fire would bring the “real” Bridget back. But the “real” Bridget, had of course, not gone anywhere. Bridget’s cousins and several other family members were in the house that day. They stood by and watched it happen. They were convicted of her death along with her husband. I have purposefully withheld Bridget’s husband’s name and the name of the other family members because it is Bridget’s name I want to be remembered. She was strong-willed and independent and her husband saw her as a threat because of that.
It reminds me of my mother asking when I had become such a bad person.
It reminds me of those who believe gayness can be “cured”.
It makes me think of the devastation caused by the whims and superstitions of men that we see in the news every day.
The overhead speakers at the train station beeped and then crackled with static as it did when a CTA employee was about to make an announcement. No voice came through. Only the beep, the static, and a click before repeating the pattern. It did this three times in a row. I wish I’d been listening closely. This is sometimes how ghosts communicate. But you have to be really listening to understand what they are trying to tell you.
I want to believe in ghosts because it makes me feel more at ease about the idea of death. I have a lot of anxiety about not existing. If ghosts exist, it means death is not the end. There is not nothingness waiting for us. Attending Catholic school as a child may have primed me to be more willing to want to believe in them.
I have had experiences where noises, doors opening, knocking on walls cannot be explained. There was the time when I was seven and woke up to see a shadow shaped like a man in a fedora and pinstriped suit standing near my door. At the time, he scared me because there was a strange man in my room. He seemed like a hulk, his wide shoulders and thick chest barely able to fit in the corner by the door. The blue light flickering from my TV made it look as if he was moving closer to me. I wanted to run away from him. But then he disappeared. For most of my life, I believed him to be a ghost. When I told my mother about him, she was convinced that the ghost of her father had been in my room.
However, there is also an urban legend about a presence known as The Hat Man. Some think the hat man is a ghost. Some think there are multiple versions of The Hat Man. There are theories that there are both good and evil versions of The Hat Man. The Hat Man could be a time traveler.
Maybe The Hat Man is whoever we need him to be. My mother needed him to be her father because she hoped that he was there to apologize to her for all the awful things he had done to her. For reasons I don’t understand, she had wanted me to be a medium, the link between him and her. It disappointed her that I couldn’t be that for her. Whatever healing or relief she needed from the relationship with her father would not be settled through me.
I can understand. I also understand she might think I’m a bad person because of it. It is something else I have denied her. I’ve had to make my peace with that. Maybe that makes me selfish. Maybe that’s how I survive.
Transformation. In September, I hit three hundred pounds. A gainer milestone. A few days later, I went to a writing residency. I had been given a fellowship to attend. I have been lucky enough to surround myself with supportive friends. I thought I had done all the difficult parts of coming out as a gainer, as someone proud of my fat body. Then, I was isolated for two weeks with a group of writers and artists that I didn’t know, who didn’t know me. All of the writers and artists were thin. Some of them very thin. This only made my fatness more noticeable.
My main interaction with them was at meals. At least once a day, at least one of them talked about how they wanted to lose weight, how they shouldn’t eat any more of this or that because they didn’t want to get fat or how they needed to go for an extra long run to work off the extra slice of bread or the brownie they had eaten. This fear of fatness is so embedded into our cultural conversation that I don’t believe they said this meaning to be rude or hurtful to the only fat person at the table. But it made me uncomfortable. It made me question how honestly I could conduct myself while at the residency. The first couple of days, I felt nervous about going to eat a second helping of food from the buffet. It felt like I would have to go back into the fat closet that I worked so hard to escape.
And so on the night of my third time eating dinner at the residency, I finished my first plate and went back for seconds. My hands shook as I scooped a baked potato and some barbecue chicken onto my dish. No one said anything or gave me a dirty look as I came back to the table. The conversations about losing weight and exercise continued.
I signed up to do a reading of my work with another prose writer, who was one of the few writers there I felt I had connected with. Reading with her, made the prospect of such an event feel much safer. Our reading was announced to the group at dinner the day before it would take place. After the announcement, one of the writers at my table, a middle-aged white woman from New York City, a novelist, that many of the other prose writers had heard of, asked me what I would be reading. I said I’d be reading the opening of my memoir.
“What’s your memoir about?” She held her fork into her plate as she waited for my answer.
“I was thirty-three when I came out,” I paused to chew my bite of food.
“What took you so long?” She stared at me as if she wanted to fight.
No one had ever asked me so directly. No one had ever seemed so angered by it.
“My son is fourteen. He had no problem coming out.”
I swallowed my food. “Things were not as accepting when I was that age,”
“Makes no sense.” She dropped her fork and took a gulp of wine. “In New York people come out all the time.”
“That’s New York. Cleveland is very different.”
She shook her head and went about eating. The conversation at the table moved on to something else. I didn’t know what else to say. I wish I had said something like someone’s story, a person’s experience not matching your own doesn’t make the other invalid.
I almost canceled my part of the reading. I talked to another writer about it and she convinced me that doing so would be to let that writer silence me and my story.
After the reading, during the Q&A portion, the woman from dinner said in front of everyone in attendance that she felt my story didn’t ring true. Again her explanation was that it didn’t synch with what she knew of her friend’s coming out. Even in the nineties, she explained, it seemed easy for them.
“I just don’t believe you,” she said.
“We lived in very different worlds,” I said.
The other queer writers in the room told her she had no right to discount my experience. They became very angry at her. Other residents disagreed with her. They reassured me that what I had written came across as honest and worthwhile. I have no idea why this one writer decided she had to go out of her way to dismiss my story. I thought it would be the parts about fatness that would not be accepted, not the part of my coming out story. I don’t know what it was about it that she didn’t want to hear. As my therapist told me when I first came out, we all have our own journeys.
I didn’t pursue the conversation any further. She got up and left. The other writer I read with poured me some whiskey. A group of us stayed in the living room, where the reading had taken place, drinking, talking, and painting our nails.
A friend of mine, Sara, offered to take headshots for me. I’d been asked to send a headshot to an event. All I had were selfies. It seemed time to have actual pictures taken. We discussed locations. I suggested the St. Boniface Cemetery as the outdoor location.
In the car, on the drive over to the cemetery on the day of the photoshoot, I became very nervous. I had all the confidence in Sara’s photography skills. I was nervous about not being photogenic enough, not being good-looking enough for the photographs. I’ve always hated how I look in photos. Even though I was at the weight I had been working towards, I didn’t know how my fat face would photograph. I imagined people cringing when they saw them. I imagined me cringing when I saw them.
I figured I would look awkward in them. Not know how to position my face or body.
As we walked across the snow to a gravestone that had a gray sculpture of an angel next to it, I told Sara that I probably wouldn’t smile in any of the photographs because I thought I looked weird when I smiled in pictures. I also told her about my nervousness. I told her to direct me as much as she wanted because I wasn’t going to know what to do.
She listened. She told me we were going to have fun. As I stood in front of the gravestone to take the first picture, I said, “I don’t know what to do.”
“Talk to me,” she said.
And so I did. I relaxed. I smiled. I vogued because I wanted to live my photoshoot fantasy. Thanks to Sara, I had fun. I didn’t worry if I looked bad. She showed me some of the pictures after she took them. The photographs looked great. After a lifetime of hating pictures of me, I finally had ones that I loved.
After she took a few pictures, Sara paused and asked me what kind of shot did I want. Just my face or could she include my body in the shots.
“You can include my body,” I said. “I want people to see that I’m fat.”
Brian Kornell’s essays have appeared in The Rumpus, The Kenyon Review online, The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog, Older Queer Voices, Ninth Letter and elsewhere. He received a Lambda Literary Residency fellowship to attend The Sundress Academy of the Arts residency as well as chosen as a Jane G. Camp fellow by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA).