For Magicians Who Die on Stage

On sleight of hand and believing spectacular people

jayy dodd.
Sep 4, 2019 · 8 min read
Illustration by Johnalynn Holland

FFor anyone open to amusement, the appeal of up-close magic is a reliable joy. Whether elaborate or gestural, sleight of hand is an easy way to garner simple reactionary awe, if not outright amazement, from an audience. Prestidigitation, translated directly to mean dexterous handwork, is an entry-level introduction to magic. The tenants of deception remain the same: present a premise, distract, & reveal a new reality. Even when explained it is never as easy as it looks.

II believed I knew what a drunk “looked” like. I imagined men glassy-eyed in bars or barreling in & out of homes without recourse. I imagined puffy cheeked women clinging to moving life in dark rooms or exhaling catatonic on (un)kept couches. I believed drunks were elsewhere, didn’t have friends or family to tell them. I was an arrogant drunk. A vain drunk.

I believed drunks were elsewhere, didn’t have friends or family to tell them. I was an arrogant drunk. A vain drunk.

However, my college drinking was marked by a consistent sociality. Any bodily deterioration was collective & intimate. Still, it is hard to not read these times as a kind of low-frequency self-harm. I gained a reputation for being a life of a party, a room, a scene, for showing up to rehearsal on time the next day, for overextending, for working as hard as I played.

SSleight stems from the etymological root of sly, from the Old Norse root “sloegr,” meaning “cunning” or “skillful” or “dexterous.” My hands are more beautiful than they are particularly dexterous. I can’t draw instinctively and my fine motor skills beyond typing are limited. While my acrylics are by no means an inherent hindrance, the additional practice to accommodate or adapt any trick still feels daunting.

MMany college and university cultures, mine included, allow for inarguable “bad” to occur: assault, discrimination, self-harm, intentional and otherwise. There are the visible evils: drug and alcohol-fueled social settings, drowning in patriarchal terror both internally and externally across all students. But there are also the over-achieving, disassociating and more traditional understandings of self-mutilation. There is no romance in the mellow drama of it all.

For context: I’ve been over six feet for most of my life and for college, I leveled out around 6’5. My frame is lean but there is not a doctor alive who wouldn’t tell you I could carry well over 200 pounds on my body, healthily. Even then, I was obsessed with thinness, but not in an opposition to fatness, I wanted my sheer towering to seem frail. I wanted my mountainous stature to be unassuming. These dysphoric notions were a miscoded desire to be feminine, a troubling conflation of the femme and frail, a thread now pleasantly disparate.

In the fall of my last year in undergrad, I found myself getting ready for a party in a friend’s room toward the end of the semester and noticed he had a scale in the corner. My irregularity of traditional exercise outside of dancing all through college kept me off scales and virtually ignorant of my weight for months at a time. My weight, in particular, was never a useful metric being as I am a visual learner and the mirror never told me what other people saw anyway. I mean, I had some lingering notion that I was possibly thinner but had no capacity to measure by eye. The physics of optical illusions bore me. Tapping the scale to illuminate his glass platform, the cerulean LED screen pops on, taring to zero. The last time I checked, the summer before I believe, I was roughly 235 pounds. The scale never reached 200. At my grand stature of six feet and five inches, I was (fully dressed) 185 pounds. It wasn’t a specific turning point, but it did make me feel a particular kind of shocked.

I wrestled with my discovery of my hyper-svelte figure alone. I had no narrative for what losing that much weight looked like on a body like mine. Tall, Black, Queer, uninterested in maintenance. I traced the weight loss to recreational drug use, study drug dabbling, power loading classes, binge drinking, and even before college, the first thing to evaporate when I am depressed is my appetite. I had figured it out but it couldn’t be that bad…

BBorn just before the turn of the 20th century, Benjamin Rucker, more famously canonized as “Black Herman,” was a magician, entertainer, and political activist known for sleight of hand, healing elixirs, and a notorious Lazarus act. Herman, who studied as a teenager under prestidigitator Prince Herman before he died, perfected an act where he would bury a woman alive for six hours. The act evolved and he began burying himself for three days at a time. His works were wildly inspirational and he used his time in the Jim Crow South to invigorate Black economies. In 1934, Black Herman died on stage of “acute indigestion.” The story goes, the audience stayed in the theater for hours not believing Herman was deceased, a crowd followed his body to the funeral home, and his assistant charged a dime a person to view the body. Reports say spectators brought pins to prick him to make sure he was really dead.

DDays after the scale, I was changing costumes for my dance company’s dress rehearsal and the final number required me to be topless (or at the time shirtless). I wasn’t particularly fond of, but also not extremely concerned with, the public perception of my body. It always felt too singular for any random opinion to matter and if anything, it was the one part of me that was reliably fetishized since I knew the language for the feeling. As I get to my place for the number, I along with the other shirtless dancers get a rousing roar from the girls of the company. I get something in particular. An admiration of my skinniness. I was touched, gawked, seen and fawned upon in a way that felt disarmingly surreal. It was like I had come out in a new body.

Up-close magic relies on an element of trust. The subject of the act trusts their knowledge — of physics, time, space — and the magician must acknowledge and destabilize that trust with such deft only the subject is left in question. Washes of disbelief over each witnesses’ face. People love a good trick. I would be lying if I implied, I somehow resented a production.

EEvery time someone without prompting genders me correctly, I believe I’ve accomplished a feat. As a pre-medical transitioning transgender person, I navigate a daily performance both enriched and complicated by my Blackness — making any feminine expression limited as Black women have been historically and violently regarded as unwomanly. People rarely are surprised that I’m queer but still, I do not consistently achieve the illusion, I know as true for my identity.

The most common question I used to get about sobriety: “You still doing that?” I am embarrassed each time someone doesn’t believe I have made it as long as I have. It’s tapered off. I am meeting more people who only know me sober so it’s less of a surprise and more often a forgettable fact. But still, I am met with disbelief. When I tell my neighbors about getting beat by the police and the chronic pain I live with, they respond “but you move with such grace.” I’m reminded of the time just before senior year of college when a brother in my fraternity and I were talking about dating, and after my complaints of loneliness he admitted to assuming I “got it in all the time.”

I don’t believe I am attempting an illusion just by being alive and hurting and outside. Part of being able to be anywhere is crafting a self that feels desirable to me. For too long, I was thirsting for exterior recognition of my sleight, some trick of making the implications of BIG, BLACK, MAN disappear. Since transitioning, people are most shocked when I tell them how dangerous it is to be Black Trans and Visible. All they see is bravery. They are in disbelief when I say, this spring, a girl like me was found hung 8 miles from my home and Portland PD simply closed the case. The disbelief that I could brush a man’s arm and he could kill me legally under a “trans panic” defense. That my landlord could kick me out just because.

“T“The Magician” card is also known as “The Magnus” or “The Juggler.” It’s characterized by materialization, resourcefulness as well as manipulation. There is no magic to how I juggle my fears. No fantasy for how I manage my pain. I can only sell what comes from my hands and hope it’s to be believed.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

jayy dodd.

Written by

“i have been celestial before, i will be celestial again” | writer, editor, artist | contact: jayy@jayydodd.net // she/her

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

jayy dodd.

Written by

“i have been celestial before, i will be celestial again” | writer, editor, artist | contact: jayy@jayydodd.net // she/her

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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