He was, as the newspapers always put it, born Jimmy Slattery of Massepequa, Long Island, before going to New York City and becoming Candy Darling, a transvestite star of Andy Warhol’s famous Factory.
He earned a small fame in the long decade of the sixties: one of the subjects of Lou Reed’s “Walk On the Wild Side” (it is not a flattering reference) and the subject of Reed’s song “Candy Says,” mentioned by the Rolling Stones in one of their songs, the star of two of Warhol’s better known movies, chosen by Tennessee Williams to act in one of his plays, the center of a famous party attended by people like George Plimpton and the clothes designer Halston, and now thirty-six years after his death the subject of an apparently worshipful documentary called Beautiful Darling.
Slattery died in 1974 at twenty-nine of lymphoma caused, according to a writer in the Village Voice, by the hormones he’d been taking. A photo for which he posed on his hospital bed the day before he died became a minor sixties icon.
According to the New York Press reviewer, Beautiful Darling ends with a quote from his diaries: “You must always be yourself no matter what the price. It is the highest form of morality.” Many of us will find it easy to scoff at a man in a dress proclaiming the need to live honestly as a moral imperative. “Of course he’d say that,” we think. “He’s wearing lipstick.”
It’s the great credo of the libertine life, “Be yourself.” But the young James Slattery was right. Aristotle and St. Thomas would have understood him. You must be who you are and suffer for it if you have to. That is, after all, one of the lessons of Good Friday. A lot of people hanging around Jerusalem that day hated the one man in history who was perfectly who he was, hated him for precisely that reason, and few of us would have liked him any better.
Slattery was only partly right, though. He did not see that we do not know ourselves, and the self we think we know is really only the self we want to have, for many reasons, a few of them our fault but many given to us. (Slattery surely did not choose to like dressing like a woman, and for all we know his desire to do so was more powerful than our desires for the more socially acceptable vices we succumb to without feeling bad about it.)
This gives us a good working definition of the Fall of Man: You do not know who you are, and you don’t really want to know, and even if you did, you wouldn’t know how to find out. Slattery seems to have thought that we know who we are, because he thought he knew he was really a woman, and that he knew how to become who he was through clothes and hormones. He was wrong, I think, on both counts.
We are all, if I may put it this way, and this is a line I may some day regret having written, transvestites. We all put on a vesture, a life, that we insist expresses who we really are. We’re all wearing the wrong clothes. Like Slattery, we find people to applaud the performance, who like us much better in the wrong clothes than they would were we wearing the right ones. No matter how clever he was, a Jimmy Slattery with a girlfriend would never have seen the inside of the Factory.
You can think of the obvious examples, when the space between the person and the persona grows too wide, or the rationalizations become too obvious, like the imperious man who lets his fears show or the selfish brute who discovers Nietzsche. People more spiritually or psychologically astute than I could describe the subtler cases.
Flannery O’Connor, for example, whose short stories often turn on a moment of sudden and usually painful self-knowledge. Or C. S. Lewis, whose expert devil Screwtape specialized in making sure his “patients” misunderstand themselves completely. Or even P. G. Wodehouse, whose comedy often depends on his characters living utterly without self-knowledge.
Or you could look in the mirror. While you must always be yourself, whatever the price, you really haven’t a clue who that is. You might not recognize the true you if you met him on the street.
Many of us suffer the haunting feeling that we are not exactly who we think we are, that we are wearing the wrong clothes, that we’re faking, though most of us probably feel this only intermittently. It only bothers me from time to time, though for what it’s worth I find that preparing for confession is usually one of those times, because I always worry that I’m going to get a very shrewd old priest. The reality bothers me more often in others than in myself, I’m afraid.
I’m not sure I can say this without sounding annoyingly pious, but there is an answer to this haunting feeling, and it’s an answer Christians were blessed to celebrate with pomp and circumstance this past weekend. If Good Friday expressed the problem, Easter solves it. In Jesus we see the man who is entirely and wholly and simply who he is, and in the Resurrection not only the divine imprimatur on his life but the promise that he will make us what he is.
“Behold the Man,” Pilate famously declared, not knowing what he said. As the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et spes put it, “[O]nly in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light . . . . Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”
Christ reveals man to himself, not just generically but particularly. He reveals you to yourself. If you truly want to know who you are, look at Jesus, and imitate him as best you can. Any small effort to do what he did makes you a tiny bit more ourselves and removes a little piece of whatever vesture you’ve put on. Taking up your cross, following him, losing your life for his sake: all modes of self-knowledge.
But the imitation of Christ doesn’t get us far enough. Even carrying our crosses, we remain very imperfectly ourselves. We’re still wearing the wrong clothes. We need to know more. We need a handbook.
Look at Christ, the priests and pastors say, and of course they should. Yet, oddly enough, it’s the easy thing to say. We don’t know enough about Jesus to feel too upset by calls to live like him, and the calls we treat as metaphors anyway. (We don’t see any real crosses to take up.) To become like Christ, we need to look also at the rest of Scripture and to the Church’s developed tradition, which offer a wisdom that spells out in greater detail what Jesus wants from and of us.
No one objects to being told to live like Jesus. But to live the way St. Paul says to live, or the way the Catechism of the Catholic Church says to live, that we dislike. Being chaste, or giving alms, or stifling our desire for profit, or going to confession, or watching our language, or suffering a fool gladly, that rankles, especially if we have to do it. But through obedience to the accumulated and refined wisdom of the Church, we become who we really are.
James Slattery does not seem to have been able to become who he really was, despite living the moral life he promoted. Trying to be who he was on his own terms didn’t work out well for him.
In a letter written on his deathbed to Warhol and his circle, he wrote that “Unfortunately before my death I had no desire left for life . . . . I am just so bored by everything. You might say bored to death. (D)id you know I couldn’t last. I always knew it. I wish I could meet you all again.” To have lived such a life and still have been bored to death, that is haunting.
David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. “Everyone Walks on the Wild Side” appeared on the “On the Square” section of First Things’ website on April 25, 2011.