The Mask of Me by E.N. Dahl

People say, “Write what you know.” That’s terrible advice. Stephen King never went to prison, yet The Green Mile is highly acclaimed. Dean Koontz (probably) has no direct experience with time travel or quantum physics. Stephanie M. Wytovich has never, to my knowledge, been the madam of a brothel. Wrath James White likely never murdered anyone.

There is a shred of good direction in those four misguided words. What the phrase should really say is, “Write the themes you know.” King knows all about truly ugly people. Koontz, how a little faith and a lot of luck can turn ordinary into extraordinary. Wytovich, the perfect storm of passion, sadism, and contempt. White, brutality combined with devotion. We see those themes rising up time and time again, no matter the work, no matter the year. Thematically, for instance, Carrie was not that much different from “1922”: a young person with a tenuous grasp on sanity is pushed to commit murder, driven in large part by hatred for an abusive parent.

Me, I’ve always written about masks. Duplicity. Fakes. Alternate identities. They show up time and time again. When they don’t, the main character often undergoes such a descent into chaos that they become unrecognizable to their former selves. Barely a shell of who they used to be. Hollow. Broken. Empty. I even won a small award for a feature screenplay titled The Mirror Game, about a young woman stalked by her own reflection.

My college professors never put a lot of faith in the psychoanalytic theory, but in some cases, it holds up. The idea that you can read a bunch of stories by one person and draw conclusions about the writer’s personality is pretty much ridiculous. There are always exceptions. With me, a friend once suggested that maybe, just maybe, I wrote about all these identity crises because I wasn’t happy with myself.

Any shrink could’ve picked up on that immediately. A loner during my school days, named after my father yet never living up to his expectations, the older sibling to a mixed-race sister seven years younger than me, I wasn’t exactly someone who fit in. It’s a big part of why I turned to writing, just not for reasons most people thought. At the time, some called it my escape. Others, a distraction.

The deeper into puberty I got, the more polarized my personality became. Around my mom, I’d be charming, jovial, quick with a joke, eager to help out with any chore that needed doing as long as she didn’t mind some good-natured complaining, because what mattered to her was kindness and confidence. At my dad’s, I talked about working out, about cute women my age, about doing well in school, about being the stoic, worldly son he wanted. To my sister, I had an obligation to make jokes at her expense, teasing her when I could, yet always ready to offer support, whether that meant going to volleyball games, helping her with homework, or pretending to by the type of person who’d beat up her boyfriends.

I learned to be anyone I needed to be because I never felt like a real person. It became obvious at parties. The more people I found myself with, the less certain I was of what to do and say, so I’d stop doing or saying anything. I’d stare off into space, dissociate, just sit there still and waiting. On more than a few occasions, people referred to me as “eerily quiet,” or occasionally, like a possessed doll from a horror movie. I could sit in dead silence for an hour, then, when addressed, immediately turn my head, smile, and reply as if I’d been listening the whole time.

What I never explained to anyone—what I never dared voice aloud and barely dared to think about—was that I didn’t write to avoid my life. I wrote to explore the life I wanted. Though assigned male at birth, many, many of my stories were about women, or from female points of view. In one of my novels, two characters discuss the fact that a third can shape-shift, reveling in the fact that this power would mean never having to wear a bra again. One reviewer referred to this line by saying, “I love that a man wrote this.”

Well, that’s not exactly correct, just like it’s hard to say I was bullied when I always took “Your hair is girly” and “You’re so gay, you sway your hips when you walk” to be compliments. In early high school, my long, curly hair got me gendered as female more than a few times. I always secretly loved it.

“The Mask of Infamy” came to me as all my best ideas do: slowly, then all at once, without form or mercy. It hinged on the idea that defined my adolescence: If you aren’t true to yourself, you become your own monstrous opposite.

I tried so hard to be the kid my father wanted—hell, we share the same name—that coming out as trans was its own horror story. No surprise the narrator of this piece was so scared of his dad, too. That was never my intention, writing the story that way, but writing is largely subconscious. Maybe the best tales involve taking your hands off the wheel.

No matter what we go through, some things never change. Even now, I continue to write about identity, about losing it, about what remains the same after trauma or transformation. Many of my stories focus on the difference between our personalities, and how we change to satisfy those around us. I still make terrible puns, constantly. It took everything in my power not to call this post “Mask-ulinity.” The fact that I’m taking hormones is secondary to what really matters. I love my family, cry over cute dogs, and have a god-awful sense of humor. Those will never change.

Identity is so much more than body. As long as you still do what you do best, still fight for those you hold close, and still pursue your passions, you’ll thrive. Maybe I’m a little biased. I did grow up playing and replaying Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. There really isn’t a better game to obsess over when you’re just the person everyone else wants to see.

The irony here is great, too. A story about masks, and here I am, finally taking mine off. Two novels, several awards, over 100 short stories published under my deadname, but I’m ready—finally god damn ready—to be myself. I know it’ll be very easy for people to find my old name, my old face, all that, but I don’t mind.

Some people run away from their pasts. I like to look back and see how far I’ve come.

So here you go. Consider this essay “The Mask of Identity.”

E.N. Dahl, at your service.


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E.N. Dahl is a novelist and award-winning screenwriter from coastal NJ. She’s the author of the upcoming Nova EXE, among other works, and her short fiction has appeared with Radiant Crown Press, Helios Quarterly, Sci-Phi Journal, The Literary Hatchet, Thunderdome Press, Pleaides, and Rain Taxi, among others. When not writing, she can be found doing yoga or streaming the worst movies Netflix has to offer.


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