The truth is we know little about the wolf. What we know a good deal more about is what we imagine the wolf to be.
-- Barry Holstun Lopez, Of Wolves and Men
Let us enter a forest, an arboretum of verdant lush in the early humidity of a late Ohio springtime. I stroll with a friend and her dog through the humming thick. She unleashes him into the tall grasses as she recounts the story of her first encounter with her animal companion, how he emerged from a sorghum field in northern Minnesota, mangy and wolf-like. She fancies her dog a cousin of the wolf, with the deep desire to run wild, to be rewilded and to rewild her, even as she dewilds him. But shortly after releasing him to run free through the thicket and bramble, she calls him back, afraid to let him be too free, too wild.
Hearing her whistle, he blasts through the trees. From behind me, I hear her call, “Watch out!” As I turn, I see the dog, in a blur, charging down the path directly toward me. I step to the side at the same moment he veers off the path. We collide, or more accurately, he barrels through me, causing me to twist, popping the tissue of my ankle and extending the tendons of my arm as I catch my fall on an already damaged wrist joint, fresh out of a cast. The pain explodes in me. I jump up immediately because the tumble planted me in a patch of poison ivy. But as soon as I stand, my knees buckle; I kneel on the path, out of the ivy. A cold sweat breaks across my forehead, down my neck, and over my body. My vision blurs; my stomach lurches into my throat. I quietly plead for my body to remain conscious with each exploding pang. I remain silent as my friend laughs at the scene. She does not realize I am injured or in pain because of my stoic hush. Such is how I learned to hold pain: in dammed tears and squelched groans.
This moment in the forest is not about the dog or my friend. It is about the pain, which is to say, it is about the wolf, which is to say, it is about men, or perhaps, more specifically, about masculinity, or, to be even more precise, it is about that hormone molecule that constructs and is simultaneously constructed by masculinity: testosterone.
A quick gloss of the abundant literature on wolves, whether historical, poetical, or fictional, would seem to indicate that one cannot write about wolves without also writing about men. But to write about wolves and men, I must also write about poison and testosterone; I must write through the onset of illness and its chronicity; I must delve into concealed histories of pain and trauma—both individual and collective—in the ongoingness of patriarchal and colonial violences. I must go searching for the wolves.
Of course, there are no actual wolves roaming the trees of the forest where I stroll with my friend and her dog. Their kind has long been ravaged from much of the North American continent, reduced in numbers from millions to mere thousands in the spread of colonial and capital investments in livestock and pelts. In these woods, I was bowled over by a charging dog, running wild through the brush. The dog is not a wolf. In the pain of a newly sprained ankle, I cannot walk. I crouch onto a downed log and sit with the well of ache. But feeling alone—lonely even—in my pain, I am suddenly attuned to the many metaphorical wolves peering from between the trees, asking me to remember the traumas that haunt and inform the pain radiating through my body. The dog, in his wild gallivanting and the subsequent collision of our bodies, has stirred his cousin wolves from their resting places deep in the cells of my body. One must not forget: wolves usually move in packs. The lone wolf is a fiction of colonial westward expansion tied to the fantasy of the rugged cowboy. Trauma is never an isolated event. It collects and clusters in the body, a wolf pack, a chorus of howls in the guttural moans of pain.
The injury in the forest has simply mapped pain onto already delicate and inflamed joints. For years, I have been managing chronic pain in its ebbs and flows in the spaces where tendon, ligament, and cartilage meet bone throughout my body. My pain is not constant, but it recurs and sometimes lingers. When I have a particularly bad flare-up, I am left breathless, unable to do much else but lie on my back until the pain passes. I am halted in pain’s feedback loop as time marches forward outside my body; I am on pause while the world plays on.
In particular, the chronic pain in my sternum is linked to a diminutive and diminishing posture, a bodily manifestation of my desire to make myself small as I turn the traumas in my chest inward, a concave suffering. I cannot pinpoint which trauma pushed me into this curl. Was it the shrinking away from the abuses of my childhood, flinching at my father’s raised palm and belt snap? Or was it a desire to fold my shoulders around my growing breasts in order to make them appear less protrusive? Or was it my various attempts to flatten my chest with tight undergarments that sunk pain into my breastbone? It is arguably a combination of all of the above that collapsed my frame, but when I sought a diagnosis of “gender identity disorder” (now referred to as “gender dysphoria”), I told my therapist I needed to remove my breasts because I was always trying to hide them, so people would read me as a man. If I am honest, it was not my desire to move my body toward some approximation of legible masculinity that brought me to the removal of my breast tissue. I thought, also, that without breasts, I would be able to open my chest again, to release some of the chronic pain and perhaps some of the trauma lodged there.
In the many years following my top surgery, my posture has indeed straightened out. My pain has improved; my flare-ups are fewer and farther between. I cannot be sure if the amount of healing in my body can be attributed to the physical adjustment I made in the flattening of my chest or in the emotional healing that came with it, but I know that I cannot separate the emotional healing from the physical procedure. To be clear, I am not entirely without pain. Pain still flares in my chest from time to time; it also moves through my wrists, the cartilage torn and thinning and in need of surgical repair, around my elbows so that bending them and bearing weight is painful at times, through my knees where I am greeted by an unpredictable sharpness with either a bending or straightening of the leg. The pain migrates; it lingers; it is constant. It multiplies, a gathering of wolves. A wolfpack. It is untimely; it is of time. Which is to say, it has a history that precedes my birth.
Most of the time, no one can know I am in pain, unless I say so. I hold the throb in a quiet sobriety I learned, perhaps ironically, from my alcoholic father. His voice rings through my memories of his hand or a strop of leather coming down on my backside: “Stop crying and I’ll stop!” Or on other occasions: “I won’t stop until you cry, until I can see how sorry you are.” I cry; I am beaten for crying. I hold the tears; I am beaten until I cry. My father cannot feel my pain; he can only watch for the tears he either coaxes forth or shoves back into hiding. My father, it may be obvious, is one of the many wolves in this story.
What’s more, alcohol and the wolf are not metaphorical strangers. Kaveh Akbar poetically paints the many portraits of his alcoholic self in Calling a Wolf a Wolf, hoping to dull its fangs through naming. He calls it so many names, except for the one it is: addiction. Addiction to substance, to alcohol. A toxin that must be metabolized out of the body, largely by the liver, one of the body’s most effective detoxifying organs. Too much alcohol over time can lead to liver failure, as well as a host of other health problems. Too much alcohol in one sitting can lead to alcohol poisoning.
Akbar’s wolf as alcohol addiction is an apt metaphor, considering it was poison that predominantly destroyed the wolf population in the Americas. Wolves were killed because their fangs became sharper and sharper in the figurative imagination. The colonizers were haunted by the cries of the hidden beasts, the howls reverberating in the dark of night. But the wolves hid because they too were haunted (and soon hunted) by these new invaders. As settler agrarian societies grew, livestock became a valued property, and wolves became a threat to property and thus to livelihood and to human life. The wolf became the monster lurking in the shadows, the murderer stalking the fields in the dead of night. The settlers, as we well know, were quite adept at inventing the enemies they wanted to kill: making animals out of men, making monsters out of animals.
And so we inherit the colonial wonderment of the wolf. Following the mass endangerment of wolves on the North American continent, we find a proliferation of movements, law, and policy aimed at wolf preservation. We now want to protect the very animals so many of our ancestors ruthlessly murdered. Wolves are literally and metaphorically the things we love though they frighten us, or, perhaps wolves frighten us because we love them. So akin to how I felt about my father as a child: I loved him though he frightened me; I was frightened of him because I loved him through all the sneers, snarls, and battings of the paws.
There it is again, that perilous metaphor. We know more about what we imagine the wolf to be than what the wolf actually is. The metaphor of the wolf is both ubiquitous and multiply useful—the wolf as sharp-fanged addiction, the wolf as the sexual predator who lurks in the bushes and in the traumatized mind, the wolf as the trauma wound itself, resurfacing without warning, pouncing and mauling the unsuspecting survivor. In this essay alone, the wolf takes on many shapes, even contradictory positions. Part of a wild and indefinable pack.
But so rarely do we actually happen upon literal wolves. It seems we must meet them metaphorically, whether the encounter is romantic, horrific, or a mixture of both. We still want to find them in the wood; we still imagine them roaming the forests. How enticing. How ghastly. And I am fully aware of my tendency to describe the wolves I meet as always in a snarl, teeth gnashing a threat to my being. Rarely do I recount them skulking away, tails between their legs or hiding amidst the trees in fear. I write as though the wolves stalk me. But if I am to be honest, I am stalking them. Let’s be clear: I am the one searching. I am doing the seeking. I am chasing down the wolves even as I imagine them chasing me down.
“The last wolves did not die brokenhearted, longing for open fields and meaty prey. They died afraid, biting at steel contraptions or vomiting strychnine,” Jon T. Coleman writes. Strychnine is mostly used as a poison today, but it has a long history of experimentation dating back to the sixteenth century. It was touted for its supposed benefits in increasing appetite and memory, toning skeletal musculature, working as an anti-venom to treat snakebites, and as a performance-enhancing drug for athletes. It has now come to be understood as a severe neurotoxin which overexcites the nerves, causing muscular convulsions which result in an inability to control respiration, leading to asphyxiation.
Because of its powerful toxic effects, strychnine became an easy solution to the invented wolf problem. Strychnine was purchased in huge quantities and used to lace chunks of meat or to dose small animal carcasses that were then strewn about the ranges where wolves were known to roam. The campaign against an imagined and mostly unknown monster was ruthless and relentless, with no regard for the casualties left in its wake. But strychnine was never reserved for wolves alone. It has also notably been used to treat queerness. In 1899, a medical doctor by the name of Denslow Lewis speculated that lesbians suffered from “sexual hyperesthesia,” or “excessive sensitivity to stimuli.” Lewis considered sexual hyperesthesia to be the result of girls who had too luxurious an upbringing. In other words, spoiled girls grow up to be lesbians. Lewis tried many cures for these spoiled lesbians, including cocaine solutions, clitoral surgeries, and strychnine injections. Strychnine, a deadly poison masquerading as cure.
Same problem, same solution, it seems. I think of killing wolves and curing queers with the same poison. I think of my regular hypodermic administration of another substance: testosterone.
Testosterone, too, is a substance with its own dirty colonial history. The history of the hormone’s discovery and extraction begins with the self-experimentations of a physiologist and neurologist, Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard, who injected testicular extracts of guinea pigs and dogs (not wolves) into his person. Later came laboratory manipulations of nonhuman animals such as roosters, bulls, and rats as well as experimentation on incarcerated men at San Quentin Prison in the Bay Area of Northern California. The “science” behind those experiments can be traced to eugenicist and racist ideologies that touted whiteness as superior in its models of exemplary hormonal balance, derivative of and contributive to the ongoing mythologies of the violent Black man and the persistent dehumanization of people of color and incarcerated persons. The history of testosterone is also a history of racism and colonial violence, making animals out of men, inventing monsters.
These gruesome histories and technological developments make possible the small vials of testosterone I purchase every few months. I must face the complex ways in which my testosterone use—my incorporation of this synthetic chemical substance—implicates me in systems of biocapital, racism, and colonialism. Masculinity is something I both fear and desire. I hold the vial up to the light. The yellow substance is largely composed of cottonseed oil. Cotton. So many bodies enslaved and broken in the history of cotton cultivation and harvest. So many killed in the domestication of land and agriculture. I draw that history from the vial into the syringe. As I look at the yellow liquid, I see the abuse and violence, but I also see the so-called “promise of cure” in this chemical substance that elicits a transformation from my body. I pierce my flesh and exhale as I press my thumb to the plunger. My muscles take in the histories of violence, the legacies of trauma. I entangle myself in this business of making men and monsters. The wounds of history enter through a small prick in the skin, a tiny wound that expels just one drop of blood, a whole world in that globule. As I dab the red away, I ask for forgiveness in how and what I am becoming.
Here I am in the forest again, this time cooled and dried by the late autumn chill. The mornings bring the crisp frost of an impending winter. I move through the umber of bared trees, tramping across a carpet of dried and decaying leaves. I have spent hours walking through hemlock forests, along rivers and creeks, and in between water-carved formations of sandstone in the hills of southern Ohio. I am far removed from my encounter with the dog, but I am still in pain. The pain has been manifesting differently in my body, a deep affective ache of grief. The metaphorical wolves I encounter here appear brokenhearted, fangs tucked into their maws, a low whimper, eyes pleading. With each step through the fallen leaves, I feel as though I am stumbling upon my grief. Grief, perhaps, another manifestation of the wolf as it rends my heart with its sharp claws. I am both losing myself in the grief and steeling myself against the waves of grief I know are always yet to come. Chronic illness; chronic pain; chronic grief.
Like the wolf, testosterone has become an easy scapegoat. Still, I fear men and wolves alike, but I am afraid of letting the anger out of my body, afraid of sounding like my father, afraid of becoming a wolf. And I am angry. I am wild with anger. I am angry that so many wolves are dead. When most people call a wolf a wolf, they are speaking figuratively because men have killed off wolves by the millions. I am angry that I myself latch onto the metaphor, afraid to let it go in its infinite utility, a metaphor so overwrought it has even become cliché. I am angry that the wolves died in fear in the throes of strychnine poisoning and that lesbians were dosed with strychnine to try to poison the queer out of them. I am angry that nonhuman animals and certain humans (people of color, the incarcerated, queers) have been deemed subjects for experimentation for centuries. But it is not the testosterone that makes me angry or increases my anger. It is the wounds of the world along with my own wounding. And for those reasons, I am also heartbroken, grieving all the violences that make our lives today possible in the particular ways we live them.
I once shocked a lover awake with my whimpers in the middle of the night. In my half-sleep, I told her I was dreaming of my father dressed in wolf’s clothing. He wore the head of a wolf like a hat, blood dripping down his face, his own sharp grin settling just below the snout. When she reads this essay, she asks me why I did not write about that dream. What dream? I ask. She recounts what I told her of my father adorned in a wolf pelt. I tell her I have no recollection of that dream or of describing it to her. I try to dig it out of my memory. I conjure an image of my father in wolf’s skin, but I am not sure if I am remembering the buried dream or simply imagining what my lover recounts. She remembers it because my description in bed that night was so visceral and haunting, but the dream is entirely lost to me. Another history concealed by trauma. Another wolf laid to rest. Someday, maybe it will stir and rise up. Or it might already be dead. We know so little about the wolf. We know so much more about what we imagine it to be. Here, it is dangerous. Here, magnificent. Here. Gone. Here. Lurking. Lying in wait. A wolf is never just a wolf anymore.
Note: Some segments of this essay were originally published in Suture: Trauma and Trans Becoming (punctum books, 2021)