Memory Gets a Sex-Change – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Memory Gets a Sex-Change

Fisher Center Lecturer Speaks on Memory Addictions and Sex-Changes

When the capacity audience in the Geneva Room welcomed Pagan Kennedy, the Fisher Center's first Spring 2008 lecturer, they expected one perspective on the series' topic — Gender and Memory. Instead, attendees got the equivalent of several lectures from several perspectives, thanks to Kennedy's interrelated expertise as a writer, journalist and zine artist.

Calling on her journalistic research from her biography, “The First Man-Made Man,” Kennedy offered a genealogy of sex-changes as well as the concept of gender. “How did we get to our modern idea of gender as something formed in the brain, where the body is like wallpaper that reflects our internal identity?” Kennedy asked, noting that gender wasn't always a meaningful word in the modern sense.

“The notion of gender really began in 1920s Denmark, when Einer Wegener explained to his doctor that there was a young girl named Lilly inside of him, who needed to be born outside of him and that he was willing to die for her to be born.” After a potentially life-threatening genital reconstruction and ovarian implant, Lilly was born and so was the first precursor to gender and the sex-change.

“Two decades later, Dr. Michael Dylan was the first person ever to give an argument in the English language for the rights of transgendered people,” Kennedy explained, referring to Dylan's “Ethics and Endocrinology.” Coincidentally, Dylan experienced this firsthand; born as Laura Dylan, he underwent the first sex-change operation thanks to the pioneering techniques of Sir Harold Gillies.

Changing her topic from gender to memory, Kennedy opened the pages and ideas of her most recent novel, “Confessions of a Memory Eater.” In a story that The New York Times calls, “Complicated, cool and vulnerable at the same time,” Kennedy engineers the life of Win Duncan, a history professor who longs to relive the good old days of undergrad glory—and can, thanks to a new drug, Mem.

“This novel was a lot like a thought experiment, a Petri dish; I started creating it and then began just watching it grow,” Kennedy said. “Unexpected questions started surfacing: why would someone want to take a drug like this? What type of society would this drug be present in? And what would be the social impact of a drug like Mem?”

What develops in Kennedy's “Petri dish” is a slow separation of her main character, Win, from his wife and his work. In the place of these, Win becomes addicted to good memories from the past that can only be had when he takes the drug with people from the good old days. “The novel left me with a new view of memory,” Kennedy said. “I realized that memory is something that functions in relationships, like marriages, and in social groups; it's this amazing glue that we depend on. Memory is a large part of what binds us to other people.”

With insights like this, Kennedy left her audience fascinated with the relationship between gender and memory and looking forward to the second Spring 2008 Fisher Center speaker, Charmaine Royal. On Feb. 13 at 7:30 p.m. in the Geneva Room, Royal will explore the role of DNA and genomics in social change during her talk titled “Genomics and Ancestry: Implications For Social Identity and Social Justice”.

The morning after Royal's lecture, a roundtable talk will begin at 9 a.m. in Demarest 212, The Fisher Center.