Imagine being thirteen years old, and being called up at your Bat Mitzvah, summoned to recite the blessings before and after the Torah reading. For many Jewish teenagers, this coming of age ritual ceremony marks their journey towards adulthood, signifying new social and religious responsibilities. For Tucker Lieberman, this was two years before he would take the first step to pick a new name for himself, one that would reaffirm the gender that he wanted to live in. It was bad enough that Tucker had to wear a dress and worry about tripping on account of high heels, but there was also the question of the portion of the sermon that he was supposed to read:
On the eighth day, Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel.
In this portion of The Torah, all of Israel is being gathered to witness Aaron making a sacrifice to God. With all of the people gathered, God revealed himself in glory and all of Israel fell face down and shouted with joy worshiping him. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu then offered additional fire to the Lord and the two of them were consumed by the presence of the Lord and completely overwhelmed by God’s greatness, died instantly. In his memoir, Lieberman suggests that what went wrong was the fact that Nadab and Abihu improvised during the sacrifice. They made an unauthorized sacrificial fire and God immediately responded with a bigger fire, one that killed them. Lieberman’s refreshing spiritual insights, his unorthodox positions on Judaism are both funny and deeply meaningful. He writes:
To my thirteen-year-old self, the passage seemed to caution against religious innovation. I was still a year or two away from figuring out my own queerness…still, I had to give a talk to the congregation. After some rumination, I said something like God is upset when you do a half-assed job.
Still, even this message didn’t seem very genuine to Tucker, he goes on to say that if he had to give the talk today, he would rationalize it as simply, a bad fire. The boys had animal fat when making the sacrificial offering, setting their tunics ablaze. It was a terrible accident. A bad fire.
Maribel Garcia: Tucker, first of all, thank you so much for being with us today. I have really enjoyed reading your memoir. I have to say though, it is beautifully written and densely packed with writing that is so skillfully and poetically written, it doesn’t make for light reading. Children assigned male at birth are typically inducted into this period of their lives with a bar mitzvah, you were celebrated with a bat mitzvah, since you identified as female at the time. This just goes to show how complex and challenging this ceremonial path to adulthood can take if you are a Jewish transgender youth. Can you tell us more about the title Bad Fire and how this relates to this passage that marked the passage into adult life for you? And, was this also kind of like a catalyst for you? The fact that it was such a public commemoration, did this inspire you to want to live your life more authentically?
Tucker Lieberman: I don’t think anything particular about the Jewish ceremony pushed me toward realizing my gender or otherwise clarified how I felt about gender. Coalescing that identity had more to do with being thirteen. Puberty and adolescence often catalyze the formation of queer identity. That year, there were many requests for me to present publicly in a feminine way, since it was the year not only of my Bat Mitzvah but that of all the other Jewish kids in my class. Nearly every Saturday, a classmate celebrated a thirteenth birthday and therefore their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and I had to wear a dress to the service and often another dress to an evening dance. All of this may have wearied me on dresses. I was pretty much done with dresses after that year.
The story in Leviticus that I read for my Bat Mitzvah is about Aaron’s sons offering aish zarah—that’s Hebrew for an alien, strange, forbidden fire—as a sacrifice. God responds by smiting them with bigger fire, killing them. At the time, I had no idea whatsoever why or how this story was supposed to mark my passage into adult life.
The image became relevant to me only when I was nearly thrice that age and, for a short time, repeatedly hallucinated setting myself on fire. Part of what I do in this memoir is search my own past for the origins of this disturbance.
Maribel Garcia: You write about your spiritual journal, its original aim being to discover your purpose. You write
When I was eighteen, for six weeks in the summer of 1998, I filled a large notebook with what I called a “spiritual journal”…I guess I thought that, by overthinking and transcribing every passing thought into a journal, peace might come to me.
You say you wrote about nothing when you could have written about that six month period of high doses of testosterone, followed by surgery on your chest as part of your transition from female to male. Why do you think that you refused to write about this, it seems like this is something that you now regret, is this something that you may be able to revisit-with the purpose of helping others? Have you ever considered a more detailed memoir about your journey?
Tucker Lieberman: My fortieth birthday is in sight, and I don’t think I can write about my own experience as a teenager. That moment has passed. As a teenager, I tried to keep a meaningful journal, but in hindsight I see that what I produced was ridiculous and unsalvageable. For whatever reason, I had nothing interesting to say at the time. I think of Henry David Thoreau’s advice: “Write while the heat is in you. The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled…” As I didn’t have the heat in me to write a proper gender transition memoir while I was going through it, much less do I have the urge to write it now. The heat was there to do the living but not to make art from life. At that time, I lacked mature insight and writing skill. Now, as an adult, I have more insight and artistry, but those specific feelings have cooled down and the experiences are in the distant past.
Fortunately, there are many other transgender people who are eager and able to tell the stories of their transitions, and I’m grateful that they do so and that they find publishers and readers. They can tell gender stories that are more modern than mine—21st-century passages—and that have more diverse perspectives (especially in terms of race, class, and so on) that need to be heard. The Lambda Literary Foundation is devoted to fostering LGBTQ writing and that’s a good place to begin forming a reading list of transgender memoir.
What I needed to do, and what I accomplished in Bad Fire, was to tell the story of my mental illness in my mid-thirties. It’s important for transgender people to tell stories drawn from all stages of our lives. We need to hear where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Anyone’s gender is inevitably part of any difficult passage in their life, so I brought up the fact that I am transgender and wove it into a story that was primarily about something else. I don’t feel the need to get too detailed about things that happened when I was a teenager. I simply needed to acknowledge that I had previously switched from one gender role to another. Without having made that acknowledgment in this memoir, I couldn’t have gotten so transparent about this particular episode.
Yes, I was motivated by the desire to help others. I felt a strong need to tell the story of having journeyed to and from the “other side,” that is, of having entered an altered state. I survived it and unpacked it, so I shared the wisdom.
Maribel Garcia: When you were 35, something very complicated happened to you. You had a traditional office job and a mortgage, but an “inability to deal with stressful events was compounded by overthinking them” and this, in turn, led to a breakdown. Do you think that writing about these experiences helped you make sense of it? There is something to be said about taking a very painful experience and giving order to this kind of nightmare and turning it into a narrative that can help others.
Tucker Lieberman: Yes, I learned a lot about myself and my experience by writing my story. In this memoir, I omitted what triggered the breakdown and instead chose to examine the symptoms of the breakdown. That narrow focus proved to be a useful artistic constraint. It forced me to drop analyses and justifications of certain events that might have bored or confused the reader and allowed me instead to dwell on the more sensual, emotional experience of being unwell. It’s the difference between saying “such-and-such happened, and I hope you understand the reasons why I felt upset by that” and going more directly to “hey, this is what it felt like when the rug was pulled out from under me.” I’m not inviting the reader to analyze or argue about events in my life just prior to my breakdown. I’m inviting them instead on the subsequent trip.
Maribel Garcia: My favorite part of the book is when you write:
“Today I am on a self-declared indefinite hiatus from corporate jobs. That’s not an illness; that’s the cure. I live differently than other people because I have a different brain. When I take care of my brain, I’m not sick. If I were allergic to carrots, I wouldn’t eat carrots. If I had a stick, I wouldn’t hit myself with it.”
Academia almost gave me a nervous breakdown and once I removed myself from such a stressful environment, I did better. That said, there is still that element of “shame” involved, I often think that others might perceive me as/us as quitters. That we couldn’t handle a particular kind of stress. Why is it so hard for people to look at alternatives? I love that you give this version as a cure, so my next question, have you considered writing a memoir about this new reality?
By new reality, I mean, moving to Bogota with your husband.
Tucker Lieberman: I probably will write another personal essay at some point, but I do not yet know what it will be about. I am happy. Humans more frequently make art out of our melancholy, grief, uncertainty, and conflict. I will have to wait and see what shakes out of my unconscious next.
I do not shame myself. I give myself the gift of honesty. For very complicated reasons, my stress level maxed out. I was going to die—physically die—if I did not get a grip on the problem and then, in a controlled manner, let go of what wasn’t working and wasn’t sustainable. And there were other ventures I needed to pursue: a husband to join in another country, multiple books to write. There would be no point in telling a sad, false narrative that my life changes are due to an unhappy accident or failure. To the contrary: There was intention. This is happy for me. We all have limitations and we make opportunities where we can. This is success, or at least it is something I care about more than what the world calls “success.” I am being honest with myself. Any shame burned off like steam long ago.
I don’t feel shamed by others. People in my life are supportive. I don’t know whether some folks back home perceive me as having quit on the “real work” or if they recognize my writing as a legitimate occupation. I have removed myself so far from that former environment that I do not know what my colleagues are saying about me. I do not know whether they are thinking about me at all. I’m not worried about their judgment of my character. If someone thinks I can’t handle tough shit, they haven’t read my book.
About the Author
Tucker Lieberman is the author of the literary criticism “Painting Dragons: What Storytellers Need to Know About Writing Eunuch Villains” (2018), the memoir “Bad Fire: A Memoir of Disruption” (2018), and the blank journal “Flip the Finger at Despair” (2019).
He has released two poetry collections, Wild Mushrooms and Brújulabeja, and his other poems have appeared in Rockvale Review, Across & Through, Oddball Magazine, The Mark Literary Review, Quatrain Fish, Marias at Sampaguitas, little dog poetry, The Conclusion, Esthetic Apostle, Déraciné, Neologism, Defenestration, and Snakeskin. His fiction has been included in Owl Canyon’s No Bars and a Dead Battery (2018) and Elly Blue’s The Great Trans-Universal Bike Ride (expected 2021). His essays have been published in anthologies including the 2011 Lambda winner “Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community” and the 2012 Lambda nominee “Letters for my Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect.”
He has published photographs in Barren, Royal Rose, Paper Trains, Marias at Sampaguitas, Nightingale and Sparrow, Crack the Spine, and Dodging the Rain. His art appears in Burning House and Blue Pages.
With other gay men, he trained as a life coach at the Easton Mountain retreat center in New York in 2016. He studied philosophy at Brown University and journalism at Boston University. He lives with his husband, the science fiction writer Arturo Serrano, in Bogotá, Colombia.