- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Language Mediates Reality

From the Miami Herald, the sad story of Eric Peter Verbeeck, a transgender teenager who killed himself: [1]

Eric Peter Verbeeck was only 17 when she died on March 6. The smiling, bespectacled teen who grew up in Key Biscayne was a month shy of her 18th birthday, which would have been April 14.

The obituary [that his parents placed in the newspaper] begins, as so many do, by recounting the individual’s loves and accomplishments. Eric loved the theater. She had a nearly perfect “A” record and was excited about high school graduation in June. Eric, who was on the Student Council at the MCA Academy in Coconut Grove and a 2016 honoree by the National Society of High School Scholars, had been accepted by 11 colleges with several scholarship offers. She planned to study theater and arts management.

Eric, the obituary noted, was “pure love and joy with a unique innocence about life.”

Those who kept reading would learn that Eric committed what some might say is the most private of acts. Her parents made it public in the obit:

While Eric lived life to the fullest, he had his own personal struggle. He was in the process of transitioning to his identity as a girl. It simply became too much for him and he sought relief from his suffering. He left a beautiful letter letting his parents know that he knew he had been loved unconditionally, but he needed to move on.

In her letter, Eric left explicit instructions on how she wanted to be remembered:

I would like to be remembered as a transgender pansexual teenage girl named Hope. Being transgender is my gender identity. My sexual orientation, or sexual identity, is being pansexual, meaning that I do not care about what the person is; I care about who they are. Sexual orientation is who you go to bed with and gender identity is who you go to bed as.

The thing is, Eric Verbeeck was popular at school, and involved. He had a great relationship with his supportive mother (his parents were separated). His mother tells the Herald about his coming out to her as trans:

I said, ‘Eric, what is the next step you would like to take on transitioning from a boy to a girl?’ I said, ‘I don’t want to tell you what to do or think you should do. You tell me the journey you want to take.’ 

And so she did. Eric decided she would first start by dressing a bit more like a girl, but only undergarments at first. “He didn’t want to take the step yet on external clothing, I knew we’d head there this summer,” her mom said.

Mother and son met with “a marvelous team at the University of Miami” that specializes in transgender transitioning. Eric went for sessions with a psychologist. They met with an endocrinologist and surgeon. Eric began hormone replacement about 10 months ago. This summer they planned on laser hair removal. Eric joined support groups but didn’t have a lot of time for them because she was very much into pursuing the arts.

Verbeeck, who retired at 59 from a successful career in banking and finance to devote time to her son’s high school years, traveled with Eric up and down the East Coast to nearly all 11 liberal arts colleges that had accepted Eric. That acceptance was complete, her mother said.

“We were very open with our meetings at the colleges that he’s transitioning. These colleges were all accepting,” she said. “He was so excited about college, and graduation. He knew these were colleges he could fit in.”

Eric told her mother she had chosen a new name. After graduation in June, at age 18, Eric would become Hope.


No one saw Eric/Hope heading in this direction, including the psychologist she saw for weekly visits. “She never felt Eric was going to take his life,” Verbeeck said. “She had a moral obligation to let me know. She said there was never an inkling. She told me, ‘He loved you. He was excited about college.’

“As far as I know, he wasn’t bullied,” Verbeeck added. “Everybody we talked with, no one would have guessed.”

But then on that morning of March 6, Eric took her life.

“He left behind a letter, the most beautiful letter you could imagine, and it was on his pillow,” Eric’s mother said. “I got up and realized I didn’t see him in my apartment.”

The letter began: “Dear Mommy and Papa, I am so sorry to do this to you but I have killed myself by jumping off the top floor …”

Eric was always precise, Verbeeck said.

“I could no longer live my life as a lie,” her letter continued. “I’m so sorry I lied to you. I was losing hope in the world and could not see my way out of the wrong body so I decided it was time for my life to end. Please forgive me for any sins I committed.”

Verbeeck: “He didn’t have any sins. I never used the word sin with him.”

Read the whole thing. [1]

The reader who sent me this story points out that Eric had everything that transgender activists say they want — and still, he killed himself. The poor kid was plainly tormented, but doesn’t that indicate that the entire world can rearrange itself to suit what these people want to believe about themselves, and it still won’t be enough? What more could have been done for him?

The thing that jumped out even more about this story is this: the Miami Herald chose to call this male teenager who had not yet transitioned “she”. This might seem like a small thing, but it in fact is a massive one. In this case, the media is attempting to change the way we use language, which is to say, trying to change at a foundational level how we think.

We cannot conform to this lie. We cannot. The stakes are enormous. You change a people’s language, and you change the way they construe reality. George Orwell addressed this point in his famous essay “Politics and the English Language.” [2] Here:

I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.

The Miami Herald — along with almost all our media today — insist on calling a thing what it is not, for entirely political reasons. I could understand using the feminine pronoun if Eric Verbeeck had completed his transition. I wouldn’t agree with it, but I could understand it. But Eric was still legally named Eric, and had only begun to transition. Yet here are major English language newspapers destroying the language to accommodate a politically correct mental condition. What they’re doing is accustoming their readership to accepting as real and true the claim of a mentally ill teenage male that he is in fact a female.

Last week in the Czech Republic, the Benda children — all adults now — told me that growing up under communism, their mother and late father taught them every single day about the lies that their school and the state-controlled media proclaimed as true. It was essential to building their internal resistance to the Big Lie that was Communism. Their parents kept them connected to the true and the real. It required constant effort. But it had to be done.

Over and over in Hungary and the Czech Republic, I had to answer questions about political correctness from the curious and mildly horrified people I talked to. They honestly struggled to believe that we Americans were surrendering to it. I told them, by way of explaining how it’s happening, that the media were mainstreaming it by the constant-bordering-on-obsessive sympathetic coverage of transgenderism. The Herald story, with its “she,” is one example. This piece from last week’s New Yorker, about complex surgery a male-to-female transgender had to carve up his face to make it look more feminine, is another. [3] The pronoun stuff is a given. But read on:

The next day, in San Francisco, she would be undergoing a seven-hour operation at the hands of Dr. Jordan Deschamps-Braly, a craniofacial surgeon who specializes in a process called facial feminization. His practice serves transgender patients like Abby, who was designated male at birth [Emphasis mine — RD], and publicly identified as a man before she began transitioning, almost two years ago. Abby would submit to an array of surgical procedures—on her brow, chin, jaw, nose, and throat—that would leave her looking subtly altered: like her own cousin, or her sister.

The surgery would, in another sense, unwind time. It would give Abby the face that she might now have if the baby who was once carried around Muir Woods had been spared the unwelcome ravages of puberty—if testosterone had not thickened her brow, sunk her eyes deeper, and weighted her jaw. As Abby saw it, testosterone had blighted her with an Adam’s apple that, no matter how long she grew her curly hair, or how soft her skin became from hormone-replacement therapy, irremediably read to a stranger as male.

Notice how the journalist assumes as fact the highly contestable claim that gender is a matter of arbitrary medical designation — that is, that it has nothing to do with one’s body. And notice how the normal physiological development of a male human is here presented as some sort of biological tragedy. As if normality were wrong. More, from the operating room:

Some surgeons prefer to reduce the forehead only by burring it, but Deschamps-Braly, like Ousterhout before him, is committed to procedures that yield more dramatic results—drama, in the context of facial feminization, being measured in millimetres, or in fractions thereof. Deschamps-Braly marked the problem area, six centimetres by four centimetres, and, using a reciprocating saw, he sliced the piece of brow bone off, placing it on a side table. In a few minutes, he would reshape the bone and then reattach it. For the moment, though, he resumed burring her forehead bone, grinding certain areas until they were only a millimetre thick. To examine his handiwork, he gently restored the skin of Abby’s forehead to its proper place, smoothing it down with his hand to see whether the more rounded shape was emerging. “It’s better,” he said.

Deschamps-Braly then turned to the brow bone on his side table. It was the color of raw squid. In some cases, the piece could be restored intact, but angled in a way that produced a flatter profile. Abby’s brow was quite prominent, however, so Deschamps-Braly cut the bone into four pieces, with the plan of reconnecting them into a more refined shape. It was important that the edges be carefully aligned. When operating on the skulls of children, he could be less precise: young bodies easily generate more bone, filling in minute gaps left by a surgeon. But with adult patients Deschamps-Braly aimed for something closer to marquetry. When he had shaped the four pieces to his satisfaction, he joined them with stainless-steel wires, then placed the reconfigured object back on Abby’s brow. He reconnected it swiftly to her skull with the twisting of more wires.

It was now ten-thirty. Deschamps-Braly began work on a scalp advancement—bringing Abby’s hairline forward by five millimetres. He loosened her scalp from her skull, exposing the front part of her head. Abby’s skull, a vulnerable, bloody orb, looked like the head of a newborn. With three tiny sutures, Deschamps-Braly reattached the scalp, moved slightly forward, to her skull. Having folded Abby’s forehead back up, so that her face was visible again, he sliced a ribbon of flesh off the top of her brow, then stitched along her hairline, rejoining the scalp and the forehead.

Read the whole thing. [3] It’s horrifying the extent to which we will slash, hack, and mangle bodies and language to create our own realities. It’s the violence done to language that is more dangerous, because language is how we order our experience of the real.

This is ultimately not a sexual, medical, political, or linguistic problem. It is ultimately a metaphysical problem. The 21st century is going to be one hell of a ride. The war of the century will be the battle for reality.

UPDATE: Beowulf writes:

Lord Karth is a little weird and maybe slightly creepy, but he speaks the truth. Reality always wins in the end. Still, I am reminded of Keynes and the business cycle: in the long run we are all dead.

But back to the trans movement and the incredible economic resources it presumes, it is absolutely true that this phenomenon is one that can only occur among a leisured class. (No one who works for a living has the time or reason for it.) I’d say we are seeing the inner logic of capitalism coming close to completion: the human body itself is now a product to consume.

All this consciousness-raising of trans issues functions like an advertisement for a product. It creates dissatisfaction for both men and women with their bodies (we know this is happening with teen girls) and suggests a possible satisfaction condition. Only now the scope of the product and the scale of the transaction has reached an incredible level.

If you look at advertisements in early 20th century magazines or even on the radio and early tv, they tended to tout the virtues of the product–often to absurdity. They seem so innocent and goofy now. When advertising found its groove, it was because the advertisers no longer approached the consumer as a rational agent with fixed aims. They no longer viewed the consumer as an authority they had to satisfy on his own terms.

They recognized the consumers are not so rational and that they could be manipulated into irrational purchases to fulfill desires symbolically. The ad men learned to identify a deep and universally-experienced human need, the sort that no product could truly satisfy, and project it on to the product. This would create an identification with brand and encourage symbolic purchasing. I suppose we have all been conditioned to do this.

The product we see today, a transformation of body and social identity, promises to fulfill the deep human need of social acceptance and self-satisfaction. Change your “identity” and you too can become a hero! Change your body and you can enter the group with power and no social stigma, you can join the entitled victim class! And of course there are all sorts of other things going on like the fact that boys and girls do not know how to be men and women and this promises an easy way out: identify as the cheap and recognizable stereotype to resolve this very natural discomfort we all experience as we mature.

The Left here seems to be caught in the final absurdity of consumer society. The sick commodification of all life has reached the body and shrewdly branded itself as social justice!

66 Comments (Open | Close)

66 Comments To "Language Mediates Reality"

#1 Comment By MichaelGC On March 20, 2018 @ 8:25 pm

James from Durham says on March 20, 2018 at 8:37 am:

Anyone seen the amusing story of the two ladies who turned up to a men’s swimming event topless, “self-identifying” as men in protest against this stuff?

I’m old enough to remember the topless craze that took off for a short time in the mid ’60s with topless swimsuits, topless evening dresses, etc. Women would wear one in public and promptly get arrested. If a woman wants to go topless at the beach now, I don’t see how she could be arrested if she simply states she identifies as male.

#2 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On March 20, 2018 @ 9:50 pm

At risk of starting another argument with our resident Marcionite, a Talmudic scholar I occasionally pose interesting questions to assures me that malachim, rather crudely translated into Greek as “angelos,” have no will or volition of their own, much less any sex or identity, and are about as independent of God as my arm is independent of my mind when it lifts a glass and brings it to my lips.

#3 Comment By a commenter On March 20, 2018 @ 9:56 pm

“As a general comment to all posters here (and maybe even to Rod): As someone who went through the experience of a suicide of a family member, I urge you not to recruit Eric Verbeek as a poster child for your own pet causes. A suicide is the cruelest of deaths to those who are left behind since it brings not just loss and pain but a hard slap of rejection. Consider how your comments might sound should Eric’s family read them.”

I sympathise with your situation, but suicide in the transgender community is being used as an argument to curtail civil liberties of others, via the reasoning that we must all obey the dictates of trans activists on every area of life (including the privacy of biological girls dealing with their bodily needs) lest the trans person commit suicide. The argument is made that failing to use someone’s pronouns is so harmful that it should be made illegal. That people should be fined, fired, kicked out of school for ever revealing publicly that they don’t think of the trans person as the desired gender. I think that if suicidality of trans people is going to be used to curtail the rights and privacy of others, and to force everyone to police their own language down to having to memorise the pronouns of everyone they meet, then the rest of society has the right to discuss the suicidality of trans people.

[NFR: Damn right. — RD]

#4 Comment By grin without a cat On March 20, 2018 @ 10:55 pm

Or do Germans also think differently at a “foundational level” about gender, in view of the fact that they can refer to one and the same person with feminine or neuter pronouns(sie, “she” to refer to a female person, but possibly also es “it” if the reference is to that same person in terms of a diminutive like Frauelein, “miss,” or Maedchin, “girl, maiden”).

Or even in the masculine, as in:

Sie is ein guter Mensch.

“She is a good human being.”

“Mensch,” the word for human being, is masculine regardless of whether than human being is male or female.

#5 Comment By grin without a cat On March 20, 2018 @ 10:57 pm

Eric, the obituary noted, was “pure love and joy with a unique innocence about life.”

Killing himself by jumping out the window is not the act of a joyful person.

#6 Comment By kgasmart On March 21, 2018 @ 6:43 am

I’m old enough to remember the topless craze that took off for a short time in the mid ’60s with topless swimsuits, topless evening dresses, etc. Women would wear one in public and promptly get arrested. If a woman wants to go topless at the beach now, I don’t see how she could be arrested if she simply states she identifies as male.

I work in an office with several attractive young women, and if they wanted to show up topless to protest whatever, that would be just fine.

Of course, the difference between the ’60s and today is that any male who might gape at female toplelssness would be harangued as a misogynist pig. We can go topless in protest – but you’re not allowed to look!

#7 Comment By JonF On March 21, 2018 @ 10:33 am

a commenter (and Rod)

I learned at a young age that “But everyone is doing it” is not an acceptable excuse.

#8 Comment By JonF On March 21, 2018 @ 10:43 am

Terry L,I cited my sources, notably Jesus’ instruction that we shall like angels (in the Kingdom of Heaven) and angels are without gender. There’s your Scripture. I hope you do not consider Jesus “unsound”.
As others also noted Christian theologians toyed with the notion that souls might be gendered, at least in the West during the grand theological love affair with Aristotle– who never quite said so, but did consider women essentially not just accidentally different from men. Some folk even interpreted Aristotle to say that women had no souls, something Aquinas took pains to refute. For Christian thought the problem with making gender essential to human identity is that it splits us with an infinitely high wall between the sexes into two distinct sorts of beings, and raises an insoluble dilemma as to how Christ saves us all.
The passage you quote from Paul actually supports my point: gender, like ethnic identity and social status, is no deeper than this world– it is not a reality beyond the the limits of the World whence our true being arises and the True and Uncreated Light shines upon all who seek it. (As for being made in the image of God, I am fairly certain that God is not a hermaphroditic corporeal being, though you may argue that if you want).

#9 Comment By JonF On March 21, 2018 @ 10:51 am

As a more general comment, I think we should be careful in taking the title of this piece too much to heart. Yes, language plays a role in our thinking (that’s in “duh” territory), but there may not be much philosophical hay to be made out of the accidents of grammar. Consider the common Indoeuropean word for “Sun”: it is masculine in the Romance language (and Greek), Feminine in Germanic, and neuter in Slavic (at least it is in Russian). So is the sun a man, a woman or a eunuch? That question is of course logical nonsense.

#10 Comment By Erin M. On March 21, 2018 @ 1:17 pm

Yes, there are a handful of people suffering from rare conditions that make things a bit ambiguous, but that doesn’t change the reality for nearly all of humanity, including the vast majority of people who identify as trans.

How on earth can you know that? The fact that you accept that there are ambiguities on the edges, but are dead certain that that can’t apply to most trans people (a very, very tiny percentage of the population after all) is pretty baffling.

Look at most authentically spiritual people and/or spiritual leaders who have dedicated their lives to the nurturing of souls. They do not present themselves as caricatures of “male” or “female.”

Who said anything about caricatures? I don’t think you’re understanding what I wrote at all.

Regarding David Reimer: the point of David Reimer is that his story makes a very convincing case that ones gender identity is an internally felt state that is independent of social constructs (this is totally different from gender conformity, ie how “manly” a man David Reimer is–he could be an effeminate man, or a bro, but would still be a man).

#11 Comment By Erin M. On March 21, 2018 @ 1:31 pm

Since we here are all clearly never going to agree on the philosophy (and really, life would be so much less interesting if we did), then I’m inclined to go with Yenwoda’s emphasis on outcomes.

Why should we “play along” with someone who claims to be a different gender than their biological sex? Because medicine has tried many approaches to treating gender dysphoria, and the best outcomes by far, on average, are achieved by when people with a *stable long-term history of gender dysphoria who have undergone counseling and preparation*, undergo transition.

If the only way you can understand that is to think that you are playing along with someone’s sincerely held delusion, then so be it. That’s awfully condescending, but we are all frequently condescending in one way or another to people that we don’t fully understand, so that’s neither here nor there. We all engage in polite fictions in a diverse society so that society can function; but politely referring to someone as their preferred gender is, essentially part of successful treatment for this person. You certainly don’t *have* to go along with it, but in my view you’re just being a jerk if you don’t.

Let me also add my usual disclaimers that I think transition should be done with an abundance of caution, only after years of consideration and preparation; and that teenagers should never be transitioned medically, and social transition should be done slowly, tentatively, and with an abundance of caution, and with the knowledge that many teens with gender dysphoria eventually grow out of it. Just because I believe trans people are real and should be respected, doesn’t mean that I’m blind to the complications, challenges, risks and dangers of this issue.

#12 Comment By kgasmart On March 21, 2018 @ 4:53 pm

We all engage in polite fictions in a diverse society so that society can function; but politely referring to someone as their preferred gender is, essentially part of successful treatment for this person.

In other words, the transgender person can only be “well” if everyone around him accepts his/her/xe’s dictates on who they are, how they are to be addressed, how we are to perceive them.

They say jump and we ask “how high.”

Life doesn’t work that way, does it? A person has every right to transition, but why is it I must validate someone else’s choices? Do I ask them to validate my choices?

If “freedom” means anything, it means you have the freedom to define yourself as you like, but I have the freedom not to care and not be compelled to go along for the ride. Trans folks and their allies cannot possibly expect the world to bend to their will or desires. They will, frankly, have to manage without that.

#13 Comment By a commenter On March 21, 2018 @ 6:51 pm

“I learned at a young age that “But everyone is doing it” is not an acceptable excuse.”

That response is both condescending and manipulative. I agree with you that the tragically high suicide rate of transgender people as well as individual stories of transgender people who have committed suicide, comprise a category of information that should never have been used (as it has been repeatedly in the matter of how to accommodate transgender people), as a trump card with which to step on the civil rights of various other people. However given that this kind of information has been so used, repeatedly, it is absolutely appropriate to point out and discuss why it should not be a trump card in this political conflict.

#14 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 22, 2018 @ 5:58 am

It may be true that simeone feels a certain way, but that does not make it true, as my dear dead sister-in-law used to remind her mentally ill husband.

#15 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On March 22, 2018 @ 8:44 pm

Erin M offers one of those carefully balanced solutions that will not really satisfy very many but that most of us can live with. Its about what a diverse and e pluribus constitutional republic can aspire to.

#16 Comment By A.C. de Vaca On March 23, 2018 @ 3:07 pm

From the picture of the family in the Miami paper, I suspect that Eric was adopted from a Latin American country. I’m wondering if that had anything to do with his experience of himself.