SELF-MADE MAN #19: Notes on Negative Space


My story here is as imperfect a facsimile as a snow angel, my body boundaried by words packed tight as snow at my edges:



needles as conduit

forgiveness as belief                                     complicating masculinity

love as prize                                                     identity as metaphor

restrooms as geospiritual location


But I’m a body, not a metaphor and certainly not a static shape, so what I’ve left out—my raw materials—are more relevant than I allow here. My leg manifests a strange allergy at the site of my injections; my anger prickles more hot and more often; my empathy is erased easily by minor transgressions; I torpedo my internal, benign authorial narration with counternarratives from less empowered times.

This year, as I wrote this song of myself, I grew a self-consciousness that lacquered over every night out until I’d cocooned myself at home, until the days darkened fast.

On the phone I had the same conversation: I’m great, never been better. I walked into rooms burning with self-consciousness—I’m thinking now that I shouldn’t be telling you this but if you were me, 10 years ago or in a different body, I’d want you to know that you’re doing it right.


It’s just easier to be transcendent than it is to be honest.


Here’s the negative space: I wrote a pretty snow angel of my best self and then I lay down inside it. I’m a self-made man because I willed myself into existence. I made myself real.

In college, I had a professor who taught fiction this way: imagine a character. Fill in the blank. Thomas is the kind of person who ______. Here’s the good stuff: is sympathetic to suffering, resistant to cultural norms, thoughtful in small exchanges, measured in conflict.

Behind the scenes, of course, there’s the harsh rub of this bristling face, the hangnails and wayward cowlicks. Behind the scenes, I’m hurtful, I cry wolf, I fear, I fail, I fail again. I won’t write this in past tense: I fight myself, I give up, I grow impatient.

Right now, as you read this, I’m cutting, judgmental, tired. I fantasize about hitting the man ahead of me in line at the grocery store; the man who cuts me off on 95; the man who stares, googly-eyed, at me, my wife, my friend, me.

I think a lot about the problem of hope.

Hope paints a pretty picture of statues that will never be you; but faith pilots you through the messy moment. I’m home alone, I’m doing leg lifts on my chin-up bar in the doorway of my office because the fact is, to have faith you don’t need a story, you need a core.


“If you bring forth that which is within you,

Then that which is within you

Will be your salvation.

If you do not bring forth that

Which is within you,

Then that which is within you

Will destroy you.”

— The Gnostic Gospels


I’ve known what many would call evil: child abuse, a close call with a murderer. I know about other people’s dark impulses, and so I’ve been all the more terrified of my own.

I think Carl Jung was equally troubled witnessing of Hitler’s rise to power. Unlike many of us, he wasn’t content to dismiss the despicable as foreign to the human experience. When you bear witness, when you bear the weight of another’s actions, even as a victim—you are no longer able to distance yourself, and the arrogance of that position becomes clear. Because where does that leave us, those left to make meaning out of the handprints on our bodies, the guns, the horrors of history?

So he designed the shadow theory: that what we repress returns, that we act out our hidden selves. In this case, it’s a moral imperative to make oneself vulnerable and to find the familiar in even the unthinkable. He’d say to deny any aspect of humanity is to deny all of it.

Jung charged that our work, individually and culturally, is to bring our shadows to light, to integrate what we most fear within ourselves with the snow angels we create in their place.


On a puddle jumper back from Nashville after Christmas, we hit turbulence. A better, cheaper story would claim an epiphany as we bumped over New York, Central Park visible from our windows, this little life above bearing witness to the little lives below; but that’s a conflation.

What’s close to the truth is that an hour before we could see the city, tiny and twinkling, beneath us; before the plane lurched and hiccupped through the sky, I listened to the song that soundtracked my cross-country move from Pittsburgh to San Francisco, almost a decade ago. Because I’ve been shining flashlights in my corners, I remembered everything: the sweaty anticipation, the bittersweet twinge that grew as the landscape changed, the cocky phone calls with the girl I thought I’d marry; how certain I was, how it was the first time I believed in myself and how I was right.

I imagined the body I once had, nesting within this one like a Russian doll. I remembered, too, the hope it held: that if I were to just change hard enough, I could be free of cold sweats and flashbacks, shame and grief, disconnection and fear.

Hopeless now and suspended, shuttling in time but beyond it, I felt a small grace among the sick bags and the hot smell of other people’s skin. I thought, I will no longer abandon myself.

And then I pictured you, all of you, with your bad breath and fear of failure and bum knees and dashed dreams and credit card debt. I saw you as the plane dropped and lifted, dropped and lifted, and I thought as long as we don’t crash, I will tell you this.


Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.

Thomas Page McBee’s Lambda award-winning memoir, Man Alive, was named a best book of 2014 by NPR Books, BuzzFeed, Kirkus, and Publisher's Weekly. His new book, Amateur, a reported memoir about learning how to box in order to understand masculinity’s tie to violence, was published in August to wide acclaim. Thomas was the first transgender man to box in Madison Square Garden, a “masculinity expert” for VICE, and the author of the columns “Self-Made Man” for The Rumpus and “The American Man” for Pacific Standard. His current column, "Amateur," is for Condé Nast's Them. A former senior editor at Quartz, his essays and reportage have appeared in the New York Times, Playboy, and Glamour. More from this author →