Previously: Shi Pei Pu tries—quite eloquently—to set the record straight, but we all know People Magazine will use its preconceived angle on the story in the end. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.
After saying good-bye to Shi Pei Pu, Bertaux and I immediately headed to the nearest café and ordered beers from a waiter who, thankfully, noted our desperate need for quick service. We drank, saying nothing. I caught the waiter’s eye and signaled for another round.
“Daniel,” I eventually said. “Let me ask you something. You’ve known Shi longer than anyone else in the western world—as long as Boursicot has. Be straight with me here: How do you experience him? Do you see him as a man, or as a woman?”
Bertaux exhaled heavily. “I’ve always experienced him as a man, because that’s how I knew him in China,” he replied, “and because that’s how he’s always dressed. I still have distinct memories of the week in Beijing that followed the evening that we met; we were just three young chaps out on the town. I never had a single clue about Pei-Pu being a woman, and certainly no hint about any sexual attraction between Pei-Pu and Bernard. I experienced them as two guys, and I still do so now.”
“So what went through your mind in that phone conversation when Bernard first told you that Pei Pu was his common-law wife and the mother of his child?” I asked.
Bertaux paused to think, and a wry little smile spread across his face. “I was totally bowled over. But I felt certain Bernard was telling me the truth. I mean, there was proof: Bernard raved about how cute his little boy was—just the same damn way you did the first time you told me about your son. He didn’t say anything about an adoption: on the contrary, he clearly said they had had a child together. Those were his words.”
“So, let me ask you this, Daniel. When you saw Pei Pu after his arrival in France and understood him to be a woman—and the mother of the child—did that change your relationship with him—or her, I mean?”
Again Bertaux paused to recollect. “I don’t remember it being a big issue. That must have been when he first told me the story about his having cross-dressed since childhood to please his grandmother. Fine. Enough said. I had no interest in prying further into the matter . . . What did I care?”
“So then what went through your mind years later when you read the headlines about their arrest on espionage charges and Pei Pu being rejected by the women’s prison?” I probed.
For some reason this made Bertaux let out a little giggle. “I remember that morning so well. Look, Terry, France is a one-city country. So if you’re from a family like mine, and you live in Paris, and you went to a grande école, it’s not all that rare to read headlines about people you know. But not like this. I mean, I knew these guys personally, and they were charged with high treason? These two guys were completely unlikely candidates to do anything so wild. And needless to say, I was bowled over by the revelation that Pei Pu was back to being a man. And you know what? I was sort of pissed off, too. I felt like I’d been manipulated by Bernard into misrepresenting Pei Pu’s gender to the immigration attorney who helped him come here—and I still feel that way.” He paused a moment, and then added, “At least in part.”
“What? Why only in part?” I interjected.
Again Bertaux took a moment to find the words he wanted. “Because sometimes I say to myself that Bernard didn’t just believe Pei Pu to be a woman: he actually experienced Pei Pu to be a woman. There’s a difference. So he actually wasn’t lying to me. Sometimes I see it as a kind of good faith error on Bernard’s part.”
“Oh come on, Daniel. That’s all we have here, a good faith error? What about Pei Pu’s continued insistence that he is a woman? You heard him today. Is that also just an error? I mean, however manipulated Bernard might have been by Pei Pu, however deeply they were involved in their mutual fantasy, didn’t he become part of the fraud—an important part actually—when he presented himself to you and to the immigration attorney as the biological father of the child?”
“Look Terry,” Bertaux shot back at me, “we live in an era that recognizes that gender identification is more complex than it used to seem. But that was less true in 1964, especially in China. So I don’t find it difficult to understand how Pei Pu created a personal construction of reality to mask his cross-gender identity from others, and maybe from himself. You heard him tell Wadler today that he believed he was a girl cross-dressed as a boy from his childhood. That’s how he felt on the inside.”
“So, is this just another case of ‘I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body?’”
“Well, it’s at least that,” Bertaux responded. “But I think it goes deeper. I think Pei Pu actually reinterpreted his body as being a woman’s body. He was a woman, to himself. And apparently to Bernard.”
“So Daniel, are you arguing that if you feel like you’re really a woman, you don’t have to take account of being biologically a male when you fill out your immigration application? Don’t you have to distinguish your personal redefinition of your sexuality from the mundane question about which sex you are on an immigration form? I mean, you can’t possibly believe that Pei Pu didn’t know that he was perjuring himself on the application form.”
“I don’t know, Terry,” Daniel replied. “I like to think of the two of them as actually not knowing; they were lost in a fog. People believe in all sorts of nonsense that flies in the face of directly available evidence. I assume companies pay fortunes for advertising only because it works: wear such-and-such a dress and you’ll look like the beautiful model in the advertisement; smoke a Marlboro and you will actually be a macho man—taller, stronger, better looking than you used to be. On some level, consumers must internalize all this nonsense.
“But it’s deeper than that, Terry. Did you ever ask yourself why all the western religions essentially insist that people believe illogical, irrational narratives which directly contradict the world they know in their everyday lives? Think about it: Jews are asked to believe a miniscule bit of lamp oil lasted eight days; Christians have to believe Jesus rose from the dead; and Muslims are required to believe Mohammed traveled on his night ride and met with God. Each of these religions more or less insists that its adherents make a ‘leap of faith’ that directly contradicts everyday reality. This can’t be by accident. I think the leap of faith that is involved is precisely the point. It is a sort of rite of initiation, because the abandonment of rationality is a profound act of commitment to the religion. You don’t pay with money to adhere to a religion: you pay with submission. Maybe that’s how we should understand what Bernard did when he made his leap of faith against the evidence.”
“Okay, Daniel, assume for the moment that you’re right, I replied. “Assume that both of them were so ensnared in their mutual reconstruction of reality that for them—for both of them—Pei Pu was unquestionably a woman for all purposes, including the immigration application. But here’s my question: do you think such a mutual psychological interdependency, such a folie à deux, detracts from the love story he described today?”
“Absolutely not,” Daniel shot back without hesitation. “Why should it? Heterosexual couples come together for all sorts of collateral psychological reasons—the woman needs to find a guy as nurturing as Dad, the guy needs to find a woman as different as possible from Mom—whatever. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be head-over-heels in love with each other. They just may not realize why they are so attracted to each other. The one thing I am absolutely certain about is that Bernard was deeply in love with his wife and his child, and that he ardently wanted them to come live with him here in France-- for no other reason.”
“Okay. I hear you. But one last question, Daniel, and then we’ll call it a night. How do you think Pei Pu is doing these days? I don’t mean the People Magazine project, I mean in general.”
“Not well,” Daniel said. “Not well at all. He must be the most isolated, lonely person I’ve ever known. Think about it: he gave up his country, his culture, his professional reputation—everything—to come join Bernard here in France. He left a culture in which he was refined and educated, to enter one where his language skills are modest and his education is irrelevant. So far as I know, his only motivation for coming was to rejoin Bernard, and then, after years of immigration formalities, he arrived in France only to be arrested, tried, convicted, imprisoned, ridiculed, and permanently separated from Bernard. For over a year he was the laughingstock of an entire country, and now that’s going to happen all over again.”
I was silent for a moment while I signaled the waiter to bring the tab. I was also trying to think of something positive to say. “Well, who knows, maybe all the publicity growing out of M. Butterfly will help him make some new connections? You never know.”
“I doubt it,” Daniel came back. “Look, I understand Pei Pu’s desire to make some money and be in the spotlight. I hope to hell you negotiated some decent money for him from People. But what I don’t understand is why he doesn’t see that People is going to ridicule and deride him—just as the French press did years ago. Once again this is going to make him a laughingstock—this time on an international scale. In my view, Pei Pu’s life is a complete disaster: he gave up his culture and his country for a love affair that slipped through his fingers. And now, after things in France have finally quieted down, this press coverage is going to bring it all up again. I think he’ll be even more rejected and feel even more alone. If that’s possible.”
On that sad note, we left the café and agreed to meet the following day before the recital. The meeting never happened.
Up next: The day of Shi Pei Pu’s television performance arrives. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.