The Life of Brian Brett
September 16th, 2012
Brian Brett’s memoir shows him as a girlish youth and as a Jethro-like character near his woodpile. That duplicity reflects the cruel nature of his brave journey.
Brian Brett’s Uproar’s Your Only Music (Exile Editions) recalls the horrendous consequences of being born as a freak, as an androgyne.
Brett was born in 1950 with a rare aberration called Kallman’s Syndrome so that as he approached puberty, several doctors assumed he was starting to ‘present’ as an hermaphrodite.
Growing up in relative poverty in East Vancouver, Brett assumed he was a boy and dressed like one, but his body was completely hairless, even under his arms.
“The current term for conditions like mine is ‘middlesex,’” he says. “Though I had a penis, what the medical profession tactlessly calls a micro-phallus, I guess it could have been mistaken for an enlarged clitoris…”
Now that he’s a hulking and articulate man, living comfortably with his family on Saltspring Island, it’s difficult to imagine how Brett’s hypothalamus was stunting his pituitary gland so that he didn’t have any male hormones.
“They sliced open my groin, and oddly, those six-inch scars have survived, though most of the marks my history has given me have faded.
“They encountered some vestigial testicles which they yarded down, pierced, and attached by long, tight, black cords sewn cross-legged through the skin and muscles at mid-thigh…
“I wandered lost, and sexless through adolescence, dreaming of being a real human being, or at least a definable one.”
It was a lonely and frightening time. When first diagnosed, Brett was told he was one in four million.
“I’ve been told that with the development of modern technology for genetic testing, my kind have been placed on the ‘recommended for termination’ list, but I can understand it.”
Prone to emotional fluctuations, he adopted the Chinese characters for the deer and the dragon as his personal emblems.
One of his teachers beat his hands with a leather strap 36 times in the sixth grade because he could not tolerate Brett’s penchant for inexplicably bursting into fits of weeping during class.
Along the way, Brett also developed extremely painful osteoporosis. “It was decade later that I learned one of the other side-effects of Kallman’s Syndrome is either mental retardation or, very differently, an early-maturing mind (not necessarily a more intelligent one).”
First assaulted at age 13 for his feminine features, Brett took LSD for the first time at age 15 and embraced the counter-cultural zeitgeist.
“I fell into the sixties like a fly into shit.”
At 20, he realized he also had ansomia—no sense of smell.
Finally he was treated with testosterone. “The initial shot was so strong my tiny organ developed an erection that lasted eight days.”
At 20, Brett was 5’7″ and weighed 114 pounds. With injections he reached 6′ by age 30. On a lifelong diet of testosterone, Brett has since ballooned to 230 pounds.
Having survived the mean streets of Vancouver, among drugs and prostitutes and psychiatric wards, Brett somehow managed to start a publishing enterprise with Allan Safarik “in that brash, typical way of young hothead students” until they quarrelled and Safarik became the mainstay of Blackfish Press.
In 1980, while living in White Rock, Brett wrote a fiery broadside against local developers. He enjoyed a meteoric rise as a local hero and found himself surprisingly elected as an alderman.
Disdainful of his fellow aldermen who were toadies to commercialism, he was re-elected for a second term, only to appear on election night, “drunk as a skunk, enraged,” before the television cameras, berating the electorate for their stupidity. One of the local papers launched a stream of sustained invective and Brett failed to win a third term, falling short by 11 votes.
Brett sued the newspaper for libel—and won. After paying his lawyer and assorted debts, he bought a parrot named Tuco. Twenty years later Tuco still lives with Brett and his partner Sharon on their small, organic, farm.
He now looks forward to his term as incoming president of the Writers’ Union of Canada.
The title of his memoir—edited by Margaret Atwood, Barry Callaghan and Heidi Greco, including new poems—is derived from a line by John Keats. “There’s nothing stable in the world: uproar’s your only music.”
“Like Teresias,” he writes, “I’ve seen glimpses of the female and the male in one body—and the intersex, the middlesex, the hermaphrodite, or whatever you want to call it. They are astonishing.
“And although I don’t believe these glimpses gave me any more wit or intelligence or prophecy, they did give me a varied perspective.”
Once at a Writers’ Union meeting, Brian Brett was berated by some female writers for daring to say he could understand their problems.
“Brian, you can never know what it’s like to suffer the way women have,” Audrey Thomas reportedly said. He replied, “You might be surprised,” much to the annoyance of the women.
Brett didn’t defend himself and soon found himself being booed. “I was a hair away from launching into my abused story right there on stage,” he says.
Now the cat is finally out of the bag.
Essay Date: 2005