Io Tillett Wright

By
Photography Nan Goldin

Published October 6, 2016

I’m proud to say I’m not just the interviewer, not just the photographer, but the godmother. iO’s godmother. I first knew iO when he was still floating in his mother’s belly. I was preparing for the coming of iO. But not prepared for his being. I knew Rhonna, his gorgeous mother, from the streets of our neighborhood—the Bowery. I often saw her floating by, an apparition, an Amazon, tough and sexy, always moving on air with the grace of a goddess.

I asked Rhonna to model for me for one of my first fashion jobs—for the fashion insert of The Village Voice. It was a lingerie story shot at the Russian Baths. Rhonna was nine months pregnant. She brought pregnancy to a new level of beauty, skin so soft and flawless, body smooth, so at ease with her belly. She was the star of the shoot. Oddly, when the photo editor of The Village Voice saw the pictures, he was quoted as saying, “I once knew a woman missing a toe.” I could only assume he meant that he saw pregnancy as a handicap like the missing digit. Clearly he never met Rhonna.

Within a few days, iO emerged. It was the third time a baby came out immediately after I photographed a pregnant friend with a flash. Perhaps the intense beam of light was like a summons to the infant. I met iO as an infant in Positano, Italy, with both his parents, on the beach, always exploring boulders, festooned with necklaces with stars, the darling of the summer of 1986. I met him at openings in SoHo sitting on his father’s shoulders, so often showered with the attention of an inebriated crowd of the art world—easier to engage with a baby than with each other. I went missing for some years. When I reemerged into the outside world, iO was a kid. I’d run into him with his mom in health food stores making the selects from the salad bar or proudly decked out in camouflage. We visited occasionally—a trip to Central Park at the last light, where he scampered up trees, swung from railings, and hit whatever he could with long sticks. I saw a rage I didn’t understand as anything different than the violence performed by young boys.

I saw iO’s mom as gentle and supportive and proud of every move he made. I thought their relationship was idyllic, but I only saw the surface. I knew very little of the deprivation, the lack of electricity at home, the rule that he not go home except at certain hours. He and his ma seemed inseparable. I went to one birthday party where he performed card tricks and imitated a carnival barker. We sat in his room among his Hardy Boys books and he told me about living as a boy. iO was transgender before we used the term, before the majority of people knew anything about gender—fuck. He first lived as a boy from about 6 to 14 with one of his library cards identifying him as “Richie” and told me he passed as a boy. I was extremely impressed and proud of him. Here was a 6-year-old kid kicking against all convention, fearless and daring to be who he felt rather than who he was supposed to be.

When I received a hysterical call from Rhonna that iO had been forcibly taken away from her and shipped to his grandmother’s in preparation to move to Germany, I fully supported Rhonna and hired a lawyer for her. But I didn’t know for weeks that this was iO’s desire, iO’s need to break with Rhonna, iO’s dream to live with his pop.

Now, with his new memoir, Darling Days (Ecco), iO has opened the door to the house that he has always carried on his back. He’s let us in on his trip, on a search for a home. For iO to write this book, to let us in on his secrets, is a gift he has given us. It’s the perfect time for this memoir. He’s already lived so many lives in the reality of a girl and of a boy. The acuity of his vision, his memory, his relationship to language are all extraordinary. He can describe his pain and anxiety, his loneliness and his pleasure in a way that’s so visceral that it’s impossible to detach from. He fluctuates between empathy and rage for his ma. He turns a cold eye on her and the damage that’s been done, but in spite of that, we feel the incredible love. That within the pain and anger, he is describing a love much bigger than him or his ma, a force unto itself. He has found his own way and always had to rely most of all on himself. But as shattering as his descriptions are, there is unbreakable glass surrounding them.

iO’s book is astounding. Written in the first person, from a survivor of so many trials. So honest and wrenching but also full of hope. He is an emerging writer who already found his voice sharing his journey without an ounce of self-pity or embellishment. He is a guiding light for so many teenagers and adults who are traumatized by family or deeply disturbed by their own gender dysphoria. This book will allow his voice, his wisdom, to resonate for a much wider audience, and it’s the time for this to be heard loud and clear.

NAN GOLDIN: Did Mark Mahoney do most of your tats?

iO TILLETT WRIGHT: No. His protégé, Dr. Woo, did. This one [points to left arm] is from a children’s book called The Brave Cowboy, which reminds me of me as a kid. This kid wore pajamas but he gets up and puts on his boots and holster and imagines all these scenes right in his bedroom.

GOLDIN: That does sound like you. I see a tattoo of a rabbit that looks like Oscar Wilde, too.

TILLETT WRIGHT: Yeah. And this one says, “You are my kind.” I got that after I called my dad and told him I might be a man. He was like, “Well, I don’t know what that means for you. You’ve been saying that since you were 5. And I don’t like men a lot, but okay. Whatever you are, you are my kind.”

GOLDIN: You don’t write that scene in the book.

TILLETT WRIGHT: No, this only happened two years ago.

GOLDIN: You see, we already need a sequel.

TILLETT WRIGHT: [laughs] Okay, for the readers, I’m going to describe Nan today. Nan is wearing black slacks. She’s looking very dapper.

GOLDIN: I wore my pimp shoes for you. Fake snakeskin.

TILLETT WRIGHT: And she’s got shoulder-length, signature Nan red curls with bangs.

GOLDIN: That you wouldn’t recognize me without.

TILLETT WRIGHT: Signature, swinging through the halls of her beautiful Clinton Hill apartment, tripping over shit. And in her apartment, we have a toy monkey riding a rocking horse. It looks like a working house. Now we talk. Don’t blow smoke up my ass.

GOLDIN: I don’t need to kiss your ass, baby. I know you as deeply as I admire you.

TILLETT WRIGHT: You’ve known me since before I was born. This is an extraordinary apartment.

GOLDIN: It’s gorgeous. They charge me an unbelievable amount.

TILLETT WRIGHT: What’s this gray notebook?

GOLDIN: I’m making notes. I’m making different color grids. You were in the black grid for a while.

TILLETT WRIGHT: And I got taken out? Brutal.

GOLDIN: It’s a compliment that you were in it, honey. [both laugh] It is. In and out, in and out. Just like the girls you date.

TILLETT WRIGHT: I’m not that bad.

GOLDIN: What do you mean, bad? I consider you good. It’s a high compliment from people from my era. So about the memoir: How did you approach it? Did you read anything to prepare? Because I imagine you read everything.

TILLETT WRIGHT: I used to read so much. But then when I was writing this book, it was recommended that I not read fiction or memoir. That was really good for me, but it threw my reading for a loop.

GOLDIN: What does your father call you?

TILLETT WRIGHT: Squirt.

GOLDIN: But your ma called you Bud. 

TILLETT WRIGHT: Still to this day. I have like 70 voicemails saved from my mother, and they’re all like, “My Bud.” I guarantee you the one she just left me starts with, “My Bud.” Or sometimes if she’s upset, she goes, “Hello, iO.”

GOLDIN: School as a kid sounded like hell in your book.

TILLETT WRIGHT: You couldn’t give me a million dollars to be a child or a teenager again.

GOLDIN: Or even being in your twenties. Everyone has panic attacks in their twenties. Men and women. You describe being all alone on your birthday in the book. But you don’t mention the time when I came for your birthday party when you did the card trick.

TILLETT WRIGHT: I didn’t describe all my birthdays.

GOLDIN: No, you didn’t describe the important ones.

TILLETT WRIGHT: [laughs] Oh, I’m so sorry. Let me go back and write a new chapter about that birthday party.

GOLDIN: There’s a scene in your book where you finally talk to a school guidance counselor and admit to the lifestyle you’ve been living and say, “Yeah, it’s bad.” It’s such an incredible scene. You say it’s the pivotal moment of your life. But you never let on to me. We talked when I came over, and you were reading Hardy Boys, and we sat in your room. But I didn’t know. And one time later I remember watching you and your mom at a health food store on Houston Street. You didn’t know I was watching. You seemed almost like her husband in how you took care of her. Did you feel like you were her husband?

TILLETT WRIGHT: Not in that defined of a way. It wasn’t creepy like that. But, yeah, I felt like I was her other half.

GOLDIN: I don’t know why I didn’t come in when I saw you two at the store. I was fascinated watching your relationship from afar, but maybe I was feeling shy. Your mom said the best thing to me once. She said, “Why don’t you call me?” And I said, “I’m very shy.” And she said, “Life is short. There’s no time to be shy.” That’s one thing she certainly gave you.

TILLETT WRIGHT: She said she would not raise a shy kid. That’s one thing she really nailed. 

GOLDIN: But maybe because you were such a strong caretaker, you weren’t allowed to be a child. You needed to be on the same level, if not the more mature one. But you called one night, and you had no place to stay that night. So I put you up in the hotel in Washington Square Park. I checked you in at one in the morning.

TILLETT WRIGHT: I was probably like 8, based on the photos you took—or 9 or 10.

GOLDIN: Do you remember being even younger, like 4?

TILLETT WRIGHT: No.

GOLDIN: I don’t think anyone remembers being that young. I don’t know when memory really starts. When I’m talking to little kids, I think I’m talking to someone in a blackout. [both laugh] Or a K-hole. Like, they’re not going to remember any of this. It’s amazing to engage with little kids. They know everything, and then they’re taught to forget it.

TILLETT WRIGHT: Some shit sticks. There’s some stuff that I remember.

GOLDIN: You describe being on a float in a Brazilian Day parade when you’re 4.

TILLETT WRIGHT: That float I do remember. But we went to that hotel because we had no lights. I wasn’t sitting there, going, “We have no electricity, it’s so sad.” Instead, I was performing, fantasizing, using my imagination. The only way that I lived was imagining that I was a werewolf or that I was this or that, because the fucking situation sucked. There was no room to be schmaltzy or emotional about it. That’s why, as an adult, I started to realize I had crazy anxiety and was suffering because there was never a moment in all of that shit where somebody looked at me and said, “How do you actually feel about what’s happening?”

GOLDIN: You had the code that we all have, people like us, that you never drop a dime on someone. Your situation was intensified by a thousand, because for you it was complete disloyalty to tell anyone that you were suffering in any way.

TILLETT WRIGHT: Which was the code that defined all of our people in our tribe.

GOLDIN: Yeah, but you were a little child not being able to say anything. And the writing on your experience as a kid in the memoir is amazing. There are parts that are so poetic, or almost musical; others show this amazing memory I deeply envy. I love the scene where you say to your papa, “I will never do any kind of drugs.”

TILLETT WRIGHT: [laughs] I was so fucking naive!

GOLDIN: And there was a big rock right there.

TILLETT WRIGHT: It was hash.

GOLDIN: I thought it was opium.

TILLETT WRIGHT: It was a whole ball of hash. I had no idea what was really going on. The crazy shit is that we were in the thick of all these people doing drugs. I lived with both an addict and with an alcoholic who was exhibiting psychotic behavior. My dad was on heroin, but I didn’t know. My mom managed to shield me from most of that shit.

GOLDIN: But that was her reality. And I didn’t know because those were years that I had been sober. For a lot of our relationship, I was sober.

TILLETT WRIGHT: Everyone around me was using.

GOLDIN: I became a full-time junkie for a few years in the ’80s. It becomes your reality. And most people don’t take a break from that reality.

TILLETT WRIGHT: Exactly. That’s what so few people can understand who aren’t of our tribe.

GOLDIN: And it’s getting smaller every day. It’s so lonely in the world. So many people are gone or they’ve taken another turn, if you know what I mean? Like, they’ve become their careers.

TILLETT WRIGHT: Yeah, I do.

GOLDIN: I think we’re lucky. There’s, like, two percent of people in the world who can do what they love to do and survive on it, for better or worse. I mean, I’m not rich. You’re not rich. I was rich, but I spent it all on antiques and friends—the two things I care about: auctions and friends.

TILLETT WRIGHT: I bought a house in the desert. A little slice of peace. And now I’m broke again. [laughs] I spent all my book deal money on it.

GOLDIN: I have so much I want to ask you about.

TILLETT WRIGHT: You and I have never had a problem having a good conversation.

GOLDIN: [laughs] I know. There’s something Jewish about us. It’s that facility to analyze that I recognize very much in you.

TILLETT WRIGHT: We’re fucking analytical-brain people.

GOLDIN: Exactly. But, by my age, if you do a lot of drugs, it’ll go off. Trust me.

TILLETT WRIGHT: Yo, I understand. It’s crazy. My whole life, I was like, “I’m never doing speed and I’m never doing opiates. Those are the two things.”

GOLDIN: And you didn’t know your mother was taking speed?

TILLETT WRIGHT: Not until I was 19. That’s when I found it under the bed. My best friend was living with us and we were trying to clean because the house was a disgusting nightmare and my mother was a hoarder. We pulled up her mattress to clean underneath and found this orange pill bottle. I looked at the label and was like, “What the fuck is this?” I googled it and it said that Desoxyn was prescription speed. Then I googled further: Desoxyn, side effects of mixing with alcohol. And it was just right there in plain black and white: psychotic behavior.

GOLDIN: And you felt your mother was psychotic.

TILLETT WRIGHT: She had psychotic behavior a lot when I was a kid. I definitely saw it as a child. I would wake up to her screaming every day. And it got really dark after I got taken away. She went down a hole.

GOLDIN: You know I paid for the lawyer to keep you with your mom?

TILLETT WRIGHT: Yeah. But the way I saw it was, look, it’s like, “Sleep doesn’t happen much in the house, what with the plays and things late at night, plus, Ma is in a real bad way. It’s like she has a night personality and a day personality. At night she’s a menace, mean and screaming, and she does the thing where she stares through me. Then in the morning she’s sweeter and softer and pulls me out of bed with a touch of kindness, until … she flies off the handle again.” She was unpredictable. I’ve been researching early childhood development. I’ve been researching the brain. I’ve been researching addiction because I’m like, “What the fuck is going on in my head?” When I was 16, Ilya [iO’s father] told me that he had been taking heroin. But at 16 you don’t really understand what that means. It was just like, “Oh, drama. My daddy’s a junkie.” And because I hadn’t done drugs, I didn’t know what the actual effects were. And I certainly didn’t know what the effects would be on somebody who was around it. I didn’t know until I was, like, 27 that there’s an entire psychological profile of a human being that’s raised by addicts.

GOLDIN: I went to one ACoA [Adult Children of Alcoholics] meeting and a boy said, “I’ve remembered my circumcision.”

TILLETT WRIGHT: [laughs] Oh, shit.

GOLDIN: And they were sitting around holding teddy bears. These were adult children.

TILLETT WRIGHT: I knew there was AA, but I didn’t know what AA was.

GOLDIN: Did your parents ever go?

TILLETT WRIGHT: Fuck no! My parents refused to accept the idea of addiction and breaking it. At first, my mom was like, “I’m not an addict or an alcoholic; you misrepresented that in the book.” She didn’t consider it that way. Ilya is willing to admit that he spent all those years on heroin. And only when I interviewed him about his story for this book, did he stop afterwards and go, “Shit! I see how my heroin use may have affected your childhood.” And I was like, “Oh, fuck, we’re at real 101 shit here.” But my mom doesn’t look back. She just charges through. It’s like she has slides in her mind of instances and moments that happened. But she doesn’t dissect things. She’s not analytical.

GOLDIN: Your pop is though, right?

TILLETT WRIGHT: He is. But he spent so long being emotionally fake happy—

GOLDIN: From heroin.

TILLETT WRIGHT: Yeah, that there was never any room for sensitivity, like saying, “I’m sorry I hurt you.”

GOLDIN: That was never said to you?

TILLETT WRIGHT: Not until the last couple years. It was always a battle with him, where I’d see him and I loved him so much.

GOLDIN: I don’t understand an essential thing: I know you lived with your mom until you were 12 and you went back at 16. It’s strange you went back. I also don’t understand why all these adults found it so difficult to be around you. I didn’t live with you, but I found you extremely easy and lovely to be around.

TILLETT WRIGHT: It wasn’t that everybody found me so difficult to be around; it was that they painted it that way. I was a pain in the ass. So I went to Germany to live with my dad. And I was a fuckin’ brat when I went to Germany, but I was also traumatized. And nobody made any room for that because my dad had his eyes closed.

GOLDIN: You write in such depth and beautifully about your mom, but you don’t bust your father. Why?

TILLETT WRIGHT: This is the time period that the book covers, and it was about my mom and my relationship with mom.

GOLDIN: I understand that. I was with you that night she took me aside and was crying about the book.

TILLETT WRIGHT: Oh, no, we went through it. I put my dad through the wringer, too. Not in this book, because it doesn’t cover that time period; it was more recent. For one, the book is mostly told first person present. And in the time period in which it was all happening, I didn’t grasp that about my father. The processing that I do in that book of my mom actually happened in that time period. But the processing of him and that relationship didn’t start happening until my mid-twenties. There’s a fundamental difference between my parents.

GOLDIN: Yeah, obviously. They’re the most unlikely couple in the whole world. They never were a couple, as you say.

TILLETT WRIGHT: There is something that I get from my dad now. Like, my dad is my friend. My dad is my collaborator. My dad went through this book with me word-by-word nine times. And his level of commitment to being something to me now that he couldn’t be to me then is extreme. He’s put an incredible amount of work into being a dad now. We’re creative collaborators, which makes my life so enriched. And my mom, I admire her as this incredible specimen of human endurance and creativity and originality, but my mom still doesn’t see me. She’s wrapped in her own world.

GOLDIN: She sees you deeply but as maybe an extension of herself?

TILLETT WRIGHT: There you go. My mom doesn’t know what’s happening in my life. My mom doesn’t interact with the world.

GOLDIN: She would take the bullet for you in a second.

TILLETT WRIGHT: In a second, without batting an eyelash. I don’t question her loyalty.

GOLDIN: So where was your father all those years?

TILLETT WRIGHT: Being a narcissist. Being a self-obsessed artist junkie who couldn’t see what was going on. I’ve always had a sense of family, and it wasn’t a family unit with my parents and a dog and a fuckin’ picket fence.

GOLDIN: There’s lots of different versions of family.

TILLETT WRIGHT: I wanted some kind of family.

GOLDIN: I’ve never publicly gone deeply into the sickness of my own family. I have some inherent loyalty that I don’t understand. I consider you brave, but I do worry about your mother.

TILLETT WRIGHT: I worry about her, too. That was my main concern going into this process. And I checked with her every step of the way. And that’s why I started the book with that letter [Darling Days opens with a letter from iO to his mother, expressing love, gratitude, and understanding].

GOLDIN: The letter is amazing. Where did that come from?

TILLETT WRIGHT: The letter came from deep, deep feelings of wanting to protect her and knowing that I was putting her out there in a way that was risking her and a deep love and protective instinct towards her. It poured out.

GOLDIN: That is your voice, iO. In reading the book, I found some of the writing “Here’s the facts” and some pure poetry. This line, I read this over and over: “Trailing swinging booty shorts for blocks.” It’s just one of the great lines written about the city life.

TILLETT WRIGHT: It’s so funny, man. My dad and I edited that chapter so many times. You work with an editor, like your father, who you respect so much, and you want to please them and you want them to tell you that it’s good. But where I realized that I was actually a writer was when I could read a page and I could hear the music of my own words. I could tell what was my music and what was his music. It’s funny because I did a TED talk called “Fifty Shades of Gay.” It was about how sexuality is a spectrum. And one of the lines in it that I clung to, that my father was like, “Nah, this is corny, take it out” was: “Familiarity is the gateway drug to empathy.”

GOLDIN: I agree totally.

TILLETT WRIGHT: It’s the one idea that everyone talks about. So finally I learned to stand my ground and cling to my shit.

GOLDIN: To trust your own words.

TILLETT WRIGHT: That’s when the book went from being the story of my life to something that I had written.

GOLDIN: I was smarter at 11 than I am now. You burn out enough good brain cells along your life. At least I remember how smart I was at 11. [Tillett Wright laughs] I have to say, the difference between me and other addicts is I’ve got no denial.

TILLETT WRIGHT: Denial is probably wrapped up in shame.

GOLDIN: It’s part of the disease that I don’t understand. But they used to say that, in a way, it’s more dangerous to not have denial because you’re watching yourself destroy yourself and letting it happen

TILLETT WRIGHT: Denial is a defense mechanism so that you can continue to destroy yourself. It makes perfect sense. Everybody lies to themselves. That was the crazy thing about writing a memoir. There’s this idea that a memoir is supposed to be an ultimate document of truth. But our memory is often a story that’s been told to us.

GOLDIN: It’s very hard to access real memory, how someone looked, what they smelled like, how their eyes looked.

TILLETT WRIGHT: That’s why I write things down. You know, it never dawned on me to write a book. That came through my agent, Bill Clegg, who is incredible. He was the one who told me I was a writer. It also never dawned on me that I could be transgender. Like, the most obvious things that are right in front of me and never dawned on me.

GOLDIN: Those terms annoy me, having grown up among queens before political correctness.

TILLETT WRIGHT: Yeah, I hate all those terms.

GOLDIN: It’s positive that the world has become more aware of the variations of gender, but on some level, we’ve lost something—the community.

TILLETT WRIGHT: The counterculture aspect of it.

GOLDIN: Yeah, we had each other. We weren’t marginalized from them because we didn’t give a fuck about them.

TILLETT WRIGHT: Yeah. That was our family. That was our people.

GOLDIN: And that was our reality.

TILLETT WRIGHT: It’s been a fucking trip, though, growing up in that. Being born into that, and then growing up and realizing that you came into that tribe of marginalized people, or whatever the fuck they want to call it, versus from the real world, from the quote-unquote “normal straight world.”

GOLDIN: I came out of that normal world. By the time I was 13, I knew I would go to any length to get out.

TILLETT WRIGHT: But that’s the thing. There was something that you needed a way out of. I was born into everyone else’s way out.

GOLDIN: That’s beautiful. So what effect does it have to be born upside down?

TILLETT WRIGHT: [laughs] Well, I’m gay. I’m somewhere on the transgender spectrum. There’s that. I’m going to blame it on being born upside down and backwards.

GOLDIN: I consider you to be an influence on thousands if not millions of people in terms of becoming transgender. Because even up to four years ago, you were the only little girl I knew who lived as a boy. I was so proud of you. But somehow I feel like you are responsible for what’s happened, which is to your credit enormously.

TILLETT WRIGHT: Well, I don’t think anyone becomes transgender.

GOLDIN: No, no. But coming out about it. I’ve known two people in my life up until the last year who had a sex change from female to male. I knew them 20 years ago. It was still so rare. But it was also so rare to meet a child who made that decision for themselves. I love in the book when you tell your pop you’re a boy and then later when you tell him, “You know, I want to be a girl again.” And both your parents’ support of that.

TILLETT WRIGHT: There was a third conversation that happened three years ago, where I called both of them separately—obviously. I told my dad that I felt that I had made a mistake when I quote-unquote “switched back,” and I thought I had done it at 14 to fit into society, because in Germany I wanted to be normal. I was sick of the trauma. I was sick of the pain. I just wanted to have friends. And I knew that being some kind of gender secret wasn’t the way to do that. I also got my period for the first time.

GOLDIN: You were still transgender at that point.

TILLETT WRIGHT: Yeah, I had gotten my period in my boxers. I was totally living as a boy. That switch back was so extreme, like, I was trying so hard to fit into society’s notion of what a girl was. And it really didn’t last very long by comparison. Really I stopped looking like a boy at 16. Like it was two years of growing my hair out, finding clothes, like that whole process—so, like, 16 to 20. It lasted half as long as me being a boy. I was a boy for eight years. I was some weird in-between hybrid for two years. I was a quote-unquote “girl” for four years. And then at 20 I remember wanting to cut my hair, and I cut it from fucking ass length to a little pixie cut. It just got shorter and shorter from there. So when I was, like, 28, I called my dad and was like, “Yo, I think actually I might be a man on the inside.” Because physically I am 100 percent technically female.

GOLDIN: You don’t have a dick.

TILLETT WRIGHT: No.

GOLDIN: Not even a little one.

TILLETT WRIGHT: Unfortunately not.

GOLDIN: What made you think that you wanted to go back to living as a boy?

TILLETT WRIGHT: You know, you were a part of that. Your work and your embracing of people of every different possible walk of life is hugely important. Having you around and seeing all the people that you celebrated, all that shit is so important to kids because those are your examples of what’s okay and what you should be embracing. If you have somebody around putting shame into your head, that sticks. Whereas if you have somebody around who’s going, “Queens are beautiful,” that sticks, too. So you, my mom, there’s this whole milieu of people who all believed in those things that you’re saying are important about me now; it comes from our tribe. Our tribe’s belief was: You’re loyal. You stick by your people. You fuckin’ protect each other. And you allow people to be whoever they say they are. And there are so few people on the planet who understand the way that our tribe thinks. The only thing that I’m doing is taking your guys’ ethos and tribal wolf-pack rules and applying it to a broader medium that reaches more people because I grew up in an era of the internet. I am writing a book, television, all of that shit; I am just taking our wolf-pack rules and showing a huge spectrum of people that they should live by those rules.

GOLDIN: I feel like you brought a lot of transgender people out of the closet.

TILLETT WRIGHT: That’s why I wrote this book. When shit gets really dark, I tell myself that there’s a reason why I’m on this planet, and that’s it. I was able to get past the hurdle of the inherent narcissism of writing a book about yourself.

GOLDIN: I don’t think that’s narcissistic.

TILLETT WRIGHT: The book isn’t narcissistic, but the act of writing about yourself and working on something about yourself, for me, it was something I had to get past. And the thing that helped me get past it was the fact that, every time I tell my story, it prompts all these people from all over the world to send me e-mails and Facebook messages and on every medium possible, like: “Just knowing that you exist makes me feel like it’s okay to be me.” And I didn’t know that that was going to happen. I didn’t know that that was what my purpose in the world was going to be. And it’s not about being trans. It’s not about being gay. It’s about stopping and looking at how you react when somebody tells you something about themselves that you don’t understand, that isn’t yours. Like if your kid comes to you and says, “I feel like I am X,” and you don’t know anything about it. Neither of my parents ever thought that they were another gender.

GOLDIN: But they both accepted it without question.

TILLETT WRIGHT: That’s the ticket.

GOLDIN: Which is incredibly unusual.

TILLETT WRIGHT: That’s the thing. Everything that they got wrong, the lack of electricity, the lack of food, the neglect, the drugs, all that shit; the one thing that they got unequivocally right 1,000 percent of the time was that they always accepted me for who I said I was. And they never forced me out of it. That’s the ultimate gift.

NAN GOLDIN IS A BROOKLYN-BASED PHOTOGRAPHER. HER PHOTOGRAPHIC INSTALLATION THE BALLAD OF SEXUAL DEPENDENCY IS ON VIEW THROUGH FEBRUARY AT THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK.