Sam Peterson’s Trunky (Transgender Junky): A Memoir of Institutionalization and Southern Hospitality is the rare book that’s formally experimental AND impossible to put down. It chronicles a three-week stay in a men’s drug rehabilitation center in North Carolina, and I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that it’s a finalist for this year’s Lambda Literary award in the category of Transgender Nonfiction.
Sam is also the literary equivalent of a record-label mate, because both of our memoirs were published by Transgress Press. We spent a sunny spring morning drinking coffee and talking on the phone about what makes Trunky so unique and compelling.
Paige: I wanted to start off by asking about what is probably the most striking formal characteristic of Trunky: it’s written in the third person.
Sam: I’m delighted that you frontloaded that question. It makes me so happy.
P: Tell me about that choice.
S: Sure. When I first started writing—it’s such difficult material, as you can imagine, just reliving that so freshly. It was a device for me to just kind of separate from it and look at it from the outside as a story and a narrative. And then, as I started posting it online and people started reading it, I was really delighted that people had to grapple with pronouns and to really pay attention to who was saying what. I loved that it gave this anonymity to this institution—like, anyone could be talking, anyone could be saying these things. It weirdly interpolates the reader into the narrative in a way that “I” doesn’t.
P: When I was reading the book, I kept thinking about the different genres that you might be writing with or writing against. In my mind, I made a shorthand for those genres, which was “Burroughs and Burroughs”—William S. Burroughs and Augusten Burroughs. In other words, there’s a genre of drug memoir or junky memoir, and then there’s a genre of recovery memoir. I was wondering if those genres were on your mind as you were writing and whether saw yourself in conversation with them?
S: Yeah, I mean, the title is a “tip of the nib” to William Burroughs’ Junky, which I love. I love that book so much, and I try to imagine myself—I mean, not that elevated, but as kind of a non-misogynist William Burroughs. Like a William Burroughs who actually loves women.
And yeah, the Augusten Burroughs comparison occurred to me after I wrote Trunky. But the actual writing is rooted in these really introspective, really harsh kind of memoirs. At the time I thought about Dorothy Allison—just in terms of how difficult the experience might be for the reader.
P: I think Dorothy Allison is an apt comparison in terms of what I want to get at. As I was reading, I kept thinking that there’s a built-in expectation of a certain kind of rehab story where you’re going to have a moment of total transcendence and recovery and hopefulness. Were you playing with those expectations at all?
S: I think, just generally, I find a lot of things formulaic. I’ve done some live performance and some radio, and I was specifically coached in terms of how to carry a story, what to give the listener in terms of experience—and I’m really chafed by that. I think I just wanted to give the reader the experience of being in this institution and the sort of claustrophobic, hypervigilant weirdness of it. Is there hope? Sure. I think it’s a generally hopeful book.
Maybe this is veering off topic, but when you’re in treatment, there’s always somebody who finds Jesus. Always. And, what happens is that they have this—it’s almost like a chemical euphoria. Something shifts, and they’re so excited about recovery. And what generally happens is, they go out, they join a church, and they can’t sustain that buzz, and so they relapse. I think those narratives were really troubling for me, because they don’t capture the slow grind that recovery actually is. There are epiphanies, but, you know—if I rely on one epiphany to carry me through sobriety—it’s just not going to happen.
P: Trunky chronicles one three-week sojourn in a state treatment facility. You don’t go into the narrator’s life post-rehab. That seemed like an interesting choice, because it leaves open the question of what happens next.
S: I didn’t initially plan that. But when I was getting towards the end of writing about the treatment facility, I was like, “This is where it needs to end.” There has to be a sense that we don’t know what’s going to happen. This person is hopeful and grounded in themselves, but we don’t really know what’s going to happen.
It also gives me the platform to write another book, potentially. Son of Trunky!
P: I wanted to go back to something you said earlier about being inspired by Burroughs but seeing yourself as kind of a non-misogynist Burroughs. This is one of the things I found fascinating about the book. The narrator, by virtue of his transness, is a very keen observer of misogyny—but not a judgmental observer of misogyny, a very compassionate observer. The character walks this tightrope at times with seeing the seduction of misogyny as well.
I felt like that must be a very scary line to walk as a writer?
S: I don’t think, as a writer, I really thought about it. I was trying to capture my thoughts in the moment. There were times when I felt the misogyny. I was like “fuck these bitches.” You know, my wife had cast me out. It was pleasurable to surrender to woman-hating. But then, there was a point at which—having done a lot of work on myself (because I need a lot of work, apparently)—I recognized those thoughts for what they are.
And then, having those thoughts mirrored on the outside [by the other men]. It was so clearly violent. It was awful. It really was painful to be around. That sort of trashed my non-feminist fantasies.
I think this is a really common trans-masculine story. When you get in a circle of guys, it’s shocking to find out what men are really saying. And, you know, I’d heard that, from trans guys, and that was a bit of my experience. You know, it’s hard to shock me, but the depth of the violence is shocking.
P: One of the things that comes through in the book is the narrator’s own uncomfortable position in terms of a fear of disclosure. There’s always that kind of double edge: “What if I was outed in this situation? Would all that misogyny and transphobia be turned on me?”
S: Totally. No, I was terrified. I don’t know if I had good reason to be terrified, but I was.
P: The experience of being in treatment and going through withdrawal is necessarily inwardly focused. And yet, the other characters—particularly Laurence–do come across as really real and fully fleshed out. Because of the circumstance, there’s a limited amount of interaction between the narrator and other characters—meeting them doesn’t become the locus of the narrator’s transformation. And yet, there’s still a kind of depth to them.
S: My experience, in the multiple institutions that I’ve had the pleasure of staying at, is that these tiny interactions really save your ass. You know, I’m not someone who can do this alone. I spent a lot of time by myself because it was so noisy and I felt so crappy, but these moments of collision were so powerful. And you could see within each man the hope that they would generate for themselves. Sometimes even in awful interactions.
I did want to do some people justice. On the other hand, it’s a very interior memoir. It’s like a snapshot of what’s going on in my brain. I’m always scanning the room. And all the stuff about race and how uncomfortable I am around race—that’s the kind of thing that’s always going on in my head.
P: Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask about the chapter titles. Almost every chapter title has some kind of animal reference, and I was wondering how you thought about that.
S: Oh my god, this is like my dream interview! I can’t believe I get to talk about this stuff—it’s so exciting. There’s a part in the book where I talk about Temple Grandin. I saw Grandin when she spoke at Duke. And she gloated–she’s hailed as making lives better for cattle when she’s really just ushering in death. So I kind of saw being in an institution—and particularly in that complex that’s situated in a town where I can buy my dope and get arrested and go to jail there, and then I can have a meltdown and go to the psych ward there and then I can go to rehab and then back to jail—it’s one-stop shopping. For me it was like the meat industry. It was kind of gloatingly industrial.
There’s ways in which I connect with animals, so I wanted to use animals as symbols of the trickster, the wisdom. There’s a lot of crows in there. Crows were a very potent symbol for me, and I did see them a lot. I felt like a kind of shadow connection with them. But mostly it was the sense of it being an industry that is thoughtless, that disregards the stunning humanity that’s actually happening within the walls.
P: At the same time, there are these moments of intense humanity from the staff who work in the institution.
S: That’s what I’m saying! The institution is this thing. And the laws that are around that institution, that deny funding and deny—really deny access to humanity, right? I mean the politics in North Carolina are so draconian and so anti-human. That’s what I mean by the institution. But then there are these spectacular relationships. And the care that I got was phenomenal. Really, it could have gone a lot of ways, and I felt like I got great care from people.
P: I feel like one of the most striking and tender scenes is the one over lunch with Big E.
S: He was amazing. I mean, to watch somebody grapple with this trans person. He really struggled with it, and he brought all of his Christianity to bear in the best way. He availed himself to me, and he did me kindness after kindness. And he certainly didn’t have to. And I don’t think he wanted to.
P: Like, “Damn my Christian beliefs!”
S: I was so touched by that.
P: One of the saddest things in the book is your lack of post-treatment options because you’re trans. Do you have any sense of whether things have gotten better since 2013 when the events in the book transpired?
S: Yes, we have a queer recovery house now, LaVare’s House. Durham now has the Durham LGBTQ center. You know, but I imagine that these things like LGBTQ recovery houses are overwhelmed. Whatever there is, it’s not enough. There are more queer people in the South, and yet we have pennies to the dollar in terms of funding compared to L.A. or San Francisco.
Wanna hear Sam read from his work? Catch him in Austin on May 1 at Bookwoman. (P.S. I’ll be reading too.) It’s just a few weeks before the Lambda Literary Awards, so you can say you saw him before he got super famous!