This guest contribution comes from Ross Eliot, who wrote a memoir about his time living with Dr. Babette Ellsworth, a prominent college professor, trans woman, and aspiring nun in Portland, Oregon.
I moved to Portland in 1998 from Seattle. A twenty-two year old with little direction in life, I soon began attending Portland Community College. My favorite professor was Dr. Ellsworth, an elderly, broad-shouldered woman who lectured through a dense French accent. There existed no subject she didn’t know by heart. Her classes ran from World History and Geology to Spanish Language, Women’s Studies and Astronomy to Creative Writing. This remarkable professor took an interest in me personally and, requiring a caregiver, invited me to share her opulent house that was filled with antique furniture and thousands of books. The following sections from my memoir, The Many Lives, Two Deaths and Double Kidnapping of Dr. Ellsworth, illustrates some of what our life together was like.
One evening Dr. Ellsworth shows me a BBC series adapted from Balzac’s 19th century novel Cousin Bette. She sits on the edge of her seat and cries out with delight at every devious turn by which the title character tries to bring about the destruction of a family who wronged her.
At one point near the conclusion, Cousin Bette’s victory seems complete. My professor scowls in sudden irritation, lunges forward and presses stop.
“There we are.” she informs me, arms folded obstinately. “This is the end…well, at least it should be.”
I stare in surprise. She sighs.
“All right. We will see it through to the true conclusion if you insist. But I warn you, these next minutes are unforgivable. I hope Balzac roasts in the deepest circle of hell for ruining such a perfect story.”
We continue, and as predicted, Balzac betrays her heroine at the last minute.
“I wish I knew a way to permanently delete that,” my professor grumbles. “See, you must understand women, Wrahs. We are not so physically strong as men, and therefore other means must be found for survival. An ideal female might not even stab her opponent, but should persuade someone else to use the knife. That is why I love these tales where women achieve their goals by any means. The war against our sex is total and it invades every area of our lives, even language!”
She ejects the videotape and feeds it into a rewind machine. The device cries in shrill dismay as it whirs.
“As far as gender bias goes, English is not so bad linguistically. The words however, are still deplorable. Start with what you study: history. Well, that’s easy. The story of men and what they say happened. Then a pen—well, that is literally a penis! An ink suffused penis which a man uses to record skewed versions of the past while his biological penis writes the future through women’s bodies! Whereas the word vagina? That means nothing but a sheath for a sword! So I take great pleasure when Cousin Bette appears triumphant and it nearly kills me that she fails.”
Over time, I came to know Dr. Ellsworth as someone who presented themselves quite differently depending on her audience. This might be among academic circles, while lecturing the Portland City Council about water use or even attending church. For a complete atheist who called the Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius a true messiah, her frequent time spent performing Catholic religious rituals seemed quite confusing, but my professor attempted explaining it to me:
“There was a time when I found myself in conversation with some nuns at a picnic. One said she thought it was such a shame so many young people these days indulge in masturbation. ‘What?’ I asked. She repeated herself. ‘No.’ I replied. ‘What is this, how do you say, master-abatement?’ She didn’t wish to explain further, but I made a wide-eyed picture of complete incomprehension! She then spelled it out in detail and at that I drew back horrified, saying ‘I had no idea people did these things, what an absolute shock!’ Oh, she felt so terrible for having tainted my innocent mind!
“For a non-Catholic, you can’t understand the compulsion to go someplace I abhor, feign religious devotion and mumble words of prayer I don’t believe in. For myself, masses are pure torture. But not attending would be a thousand times worse. You know, I cannot enter a church and hear sermons without my mind in turmoil at what a fool I am. The laughter of my hero Marcus Aurelius convicts me for my weakness that even after so many years I cannot break free.
“As a woman, it is a special insult. I follow a religion which declares my entire sex at fault for the sins of mankind! And furthermore, you have ancient church fathers such as St. Augustine who hated females with an absolute passion and laid the foundation for centuries of terrible abuse. Women, you see, are so wicked and ungrateful! To produce life in imitation of God, but give birth between where they piss and shit! That is what he wrote! Inter faeces et urinam nascimur. It sounds a little less vulgar in Latin of course.”
Ross Eliot will be lecturing on all-things Babette this Thursday, November 20, at PCC Rock Creek in Portland. If you can’t make it to the lecture, check back here for more stories from his memoir.