Permutations of X
X: A symbol formed by two intersecting diagonal lines. In English, the letter representing the sounds /ks/, /gz/, /z/. In mathematics, the unknown or variable quantity. Because of its use in math, the letter X also signals something mysterious or ill-defined; e.g. the X-factor, the X-files, my own generation, X. Although women are often associated with mystery (think monthly cycles, the moon, internal reproductive organs, our supposed irrationality), the human female sex chromosome was not named X as a comment on the gender.
Portrait de Mme ***, the painting by John Singer Sargent, was first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1884. Sargent’s portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno, Mme. Pierre Gautreau, is today seen as a masterly study of femininity and implied sexuality. It is a full length portrait approximately 82" by 43", slightly larger than life. Her body faces the viewer’s gaze, but her head is turned to the side in profile, her right hand resting upon the table behind her. Her face, neck, shoulders, and décolletage are bare and powdered white. The expanse of white skin is dramatic against the revealing black gown. The only part of her not powdered white is a rosy ear, an omission that calls attention to the sensuality of naked skin in the same way a geisha’s unpainted nape does. The pose and light emphasize her kissable neck and collar bone, her lovely shoulders, narrow waist, rounded hips. The black dress seems to float about her, ready to fall off. Her hand grasps the silk just below her pubic bone; one strap has fallen off her shoulder. Her face in profile, however, suggests power, an unapologetic understanding of both her desirability and her desire. All perfectly representational of its subject, a social climber famous for her beauty, powdered skin, and rumored extramarital affairs. Mme. Gautreau herself thought it a masterpiece. Although the 1884 Salon was packed with unremarked-upon nudes, Sargent’s painting was immediately condemned by critics for its flagrant eroticism; some called it pornography. Both artist and subject were ridiculed. Once the exhibition was over, as a conciliatory gesture, if only to himself, Sargent repainted the fallen strap to sit squarely upon her shoulder. The shunned Mme *** hung in his studio for years, even as he became one of the most acclaimed painters of his time. In 1915, when Sargent sold the portrait to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, he told the museum’s director “I suppose it is the best thing I have done.” And then he changed its name to Madame X.
Today, the X rating is associated strictly with pornography, but in the original Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating system, X was simply stronger than the R-rating and meant children under seventeen were not permitted because of adult content including violence, language, or nudity. The X rating was not trademarked, and mainstream filmmakers began applying it to their own films as a way of emphasizing sensational content. Pornographic filmmakers and theaters soon used it in advertising and, later, on video packaging. Echoing beer rating systems, wherein the strongest beers are given an XXX label, the porn industry began using XXX as a marketing device, promising that a particular film was especially explicit and entertaining. X became so firmly equated with pornography that in 1990 the MPAA replaced it with the NC-17 rating.
My grandfather, who raised me, owned an adult video store two miles east of Los Angeles International Airport. When I was a child, he sometimes took me there. I would wait in the car while he went inside to pick up the day’s take or drop off merchandise. He tried once to explain to me why porn wasn’t that bad: if a man needed to have sex, after all, wouldn’t it be better if he went to our store instead of raping someone? So I thought the men who frequented my grandfather’s store would be those too ugly to get a date, and rapists. I imagined them having greasy jowls and warts; that they’d be obese men with receding hairlines, like my grandfather, or freckled men with yellow teeth. But the men who parked in our parking lot looked like normal men. They drove pickups and BMWS and Buicks. Some wore three-piece suits; others wore jeans or sweats. There were black men, Latino men, Asian men, white men—so many different kinds of men that I thought every man must look at porn once in a while. In some unconscious misuse of the transitive property, I thought every man must, therefore, also be a potential rapist.
The store’s merchandise was kept in our garage, in brown cardboard boxes that appeared innocuous except for the occasional “black” or “lesbian” scrawled in Sharpie. Although my grandfather and his second wife, Marilyn, tried to hide them from me, I spent hours of my early adolescence secretly perusing video boxes, dildos, the Adult Video News, trying to understand sex and sexiness. XXX was emblazoned on everything, sometimes in bold black type, but more often in bright colors and fonts better suited to children’s toys. I learned about knockers, cum, anal penetration, double penetration, and more. I compared the women’s glistening, round hips and firm asses to my own, judged my own nascent breasts against surgically enhanced ones. The comparison was not a favorable one. In front of mirrors, I tried, but failed, to form a porn star’s pouty, seductive kiss, her alluring lick of the lips. From these exercises, I determined that I was not sexy, I was not worthy of desire.
I do not know if my grandfather had yet entered this particular line of business when his daughter, my mother, first began working as a prostitute. But to me, these two facts—my grandfather’s business, my mother’s—seem somehow
Kelly Grey Carlisle
related. My mother was murdered when I was three weeks old, in 1976. She was turning a trick.
In cartoons, dead characters’ eyes are drawn as X’s.
The modern use of X to mean “kiss” derives from the medieval custom of placing a Christian cross by one’s signature to indicate fidelity and sincerity. I cannot sign a note XOXO to my friends, my husband, my three-year-old daughter, without also thinking of XXX printed in purple, cartoonish caps, or the naked bodies squirming beneath.
X, the opposite of a check-mark, symbolizes absence, negation, or error. My grandfather rarely mentioned his daughter. The only two photographs he had of her were of the back of her head, a little girl blowing out her birthday candles. When I was little, I wanted to know what she was like; my grandfather could not tell me. I was eight when he told me about my mother’s murder. As a teenager, I learned that he himself barely knew his daughter, having left her mother just after he became a father. I did not find out about the prostitution until I was an adult.
Solve for X: Thirty-seven years later, the identity of my mother’s murderer is still unknown.
In humans, XY is the genotype of male, indicating the presence of a Y sexchromosome and an X sex-chromosome. Given the circumstances of her death and the type of violence inflicted on her body, my mother’s murderer was almost certainly a man. She was beaten, then strangled with a cord or rope. Although semen was not found on her body, the crime was most likely sexual in nature.
The first movie sex scene I ever watched, when I was eleven or twelve, was not porn. It was from Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, wherein a serial killer rapes then strangles his victims in order to achieve orgasm. The scene is explicit, both in its violence and its brute sexuality. When I watch the scene as an adult, I am repulsed and scared. But when I first watched it, I was aroused—the way he straddled her, the way her breast fell from her bra. I was also scared. In the midst of my arousal, I remembered my strangled mother and I was ashamed of my body, my desire. I thought I must be some pervert. I thought I was dishonoring her memory.
Sometimes when we were alone, starting when I was eight or nine, my grandfather would tell me sexually explicit jokes. Sometimes he’d talk to me about sex, complain bitterly that Marilyn wouldn’t have sex with him, tell me how one day I would have sex and that I would enjoy it. I remember, too, the well-worn spanking magazine that sat on his desk, often in plain sight.
Desire, violence, men, shame; when I was young, each line seemed inevitably to lead to the other. Their intersection was sex, sex the center of their crossing.
X, as in Xmas, is an abbreviation for Christ, derived from the first letter of the Greek Χριστός, or Khristos. During my first two years of college, I was a born again, fundamentalist Christian. I found the concept of premarital chastity especially attractive. Although I believed it sincerely, it was also a good excuse to avoid the thing I feared, to rationalize my shame, to make my unattractiveness a spiritual gift. Even as I grew into a liberal Episcopalian, I held on to the idea of purity. But then I fell in love. The first time I went down on a man, in a messy dorm room at sunset, the dying sun blazing through the window, I was scared. But I knew what to do, knew what pose to take, how to arch my back to emphasize my breasts and ass, how to fake focus and enthusiasm. My heart in my throat, my shoulders tightening at my lover’s violent cries.
In humans, the genotype for female is XX, representing the presence of two X chromosomes, one from the mother and one from the father. Although the name on my birth certificate is Kelly Michelle Archibald, I have never met the man who gave me my surname or half my DNA. When I was eight, my grandfather told me that William Archibald was in jail when my mother was murdered. “After Michele died,” he said, “he tried to get custody of you. But he didn’t give a shit about you. He just wanted to use you to get out of prison. He probably wasn’t even your father. She probably just used his name.” I grew up thinking my birth father did not want me and that the man implicated on my birth certificate only wanted to use me.
After his conversion to Islam, Malcolm Little changed his name to Malcolm X. The X represented his African ancestors’ family name, one that he could never know after centuries of slavery. “For me,” he wrote in his autobiography, “my ‘X’ replaced the white slave master name of ‘Little,’ which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears.” When I applied for my first passport, shortly after that conversation with my grandfather, I listed my name as Kelly Michelle Grey, taking my mother’s name and erasing my father’s. “Archibald” was an ugly name anyway, I told myself.
X, the symbol of crossing out, of deletion. Later, I decided my father wasn’t even worth thinking about, so I banished him from my thoughts. After a while, his absence seemed so normal to me that it did not feel like an absence. I forgot that I had no father. X, the absence of an absence I did not think much about.
When I was thirty-six, the cold case detective who works on my mother’s case sent me a letter my father, William Archibald, had written a few weeks after my mother’s death. It is dated December 27, 1976, and is addressed to the original detective on her case. “I related to you that I have no intention of giving up custody of my daughter,” my father writes, his letter typed neatly, precisely, “and
Kelly Grey Carlisle
that I wanted to make my own arrangements for her care until my release, and that if court action became necessary, I wanted to be present and represented legally at any and every decision made concerning my child. You told me that you would relate that information to the home where you had taken my child that very day.” For weeks, he’d been told that no caseworker had been assigned to me and that I was still being cared for in Mclaren Hall, LA County’s foster institution. Then, on December 27, the day he wrote this letter, he’d been informed that I had been given to my grandmother two weeks before. No one would give him her address. “I most certainly do not want that woman to have custody of my baby for any period of time at all,” he insists. “If she intends to attempt to get custody from me in court, I want the child placed with my sister pending that action, not with her.”
“Your parents were a couple of street kids,” my cold case detective told me. “He was looking after your mom until a couple of months before she had you. Well, I mean, he was doing robbery and break-ins to support them. But then he got caught. Your mom started turning tricks to make some money for you guys. That’s probably why she went with him. The guy who killed her. She didn’t know what she was doing. But I don’t think your grandfather was right about your dad. I think your dad really wanted you.”
The detective also sent me a picture of my father, a driver’s license photo from 1994, the year I graduated high school and one of the few times he was out of jail. It was the first time I had ever seen him. In the photo, he is middle-aged, pudgy, and wears the cheap oversized eyeglasses you probably get in prison.
He is most likely dead now. He has been at large on a felony warrant for decades; there hasn’t been any activity on his social security number for years. But still, he is a presence in my life now, a photograph on my shelf, a memory of someone I never knew but who, it appears, loved me.
The proofreader’s mark for deleting a deletion, that is, restoring something that was crossed out, is a “stet” written in the margin, a row of dots under the text to be restored, and a large X over the original correction in the margin.
This is how I learned to judge myself not-ugly: sitting cross-legged on the floor in my college library, pulling art books off the shelves, staring at portraits and nudes, mentally comparing my face and body parts to theirs. Renoir’s Girl Braiding Her Hair, Frieda Kahlo’s eyebrows, Gauguin’s Tahitians, Olympia’s short neck, Mattise’s Blue Nude (Souvenir of Biskra), Sargent’s Madame X. When I went back to my room and stared in the mirror with those artists’ eyes, I, too, was beautiful, worthy of desire.
This is how I learned to not be scared of sex: practice. The idea of purity, it turns out, is overrated.
In spite of my formerly conflicted feelings about sex, men, and fathers, I am happily married to a good man. The EPT pregnancy test uses a plus sign to indicate pregnancy, although for the purposes of this essay, an X would have
been more convenient. I keep our blue + in a plastic bag in the top drawer of my dresser, along with a newborn bracelet and a tiny, dried stump of umbilicus.
My daughter, Milly, like me, like my mother, also possesses the XX genotype: two X chromosomes, one from me and one from her father. I imagine the two X chromosomes in my cells as buttons: a blue button from my father, a red one from my mother. Which one does my daughter possess? Which one did I pass down? My father’s criminality? My mother’s violent end? My fear of sex? My poor body image?
But not every trait is determined by genetics, and, it turns out, chromosomes aren’t like buttons. The metaphor fails. While I have two X chromosomes, one from my mother, one from my father, I passed neither on to my daughter. As an egg cell is being formed, the two X’s, father’s and mother’s, exchange segments of genes, each with the other. The chromosomes found in the egg cell that combined with my husband’s sperm cell to form Milly are neither my mother’s nor my father’s, nor even mine, but a new combination of genes and traits. And, it turns out, one of the two X chromosomes in female cells is inactive and exerts no influence, meaning that Milly’s biological identity as a woman may very well come from her father. In short: the exact proportion of my mother to my father to my husband to me in my daughter is variable, an unknown quantity.
So, of course, is the ultimate effect of my past upon her future.
Kelly Grey Carlisle