Nan Goldin – Greer in a Babydoll Dress, NYC (1981)[Greer as bouquet¹. Greer levitating. Greer as rice grain². Greer with measuring tape³. Greer as ghoul⁴. Greer as Sissy⁵. Greer with a pin in her chest⁶. Greer as studio⁷. Greer modeling jewelry for Einsteins⁸. Greer in bed⁹. Greer posing nude for her friends¹⁰. Greer in open-mouthed laughter¹¹. Greer getting hitched. Greer getting high¹². Greer giving side-eye. Greer opening Sissy’s torso¹³. Greer dressing Divine¹⁴. Greer flirting with Candy Darling¹⁵. Greer smoking with Teri Toye¹⁶. Greer blotting her lips. Greer papering her skull. Greer swallowing knives¹⁷. Greer with a light in her chest. Greer with birthday cake¹⁸. Greer with pointy red nails¹⁹. Greer in a veil. Greer looking away. Greer as bruise²⁰. Greer as pretzel²¹. Greer in Greer suit²². Greer taking a bubble bath²³. Greer tucking Sissy in. Greer with wires for ribs²⁴. Greer hanging her dermis like pantyhose²⁵. Greer in stitches²⁶. Greer giving the finger²⁷. Greer ascending.]
¹ The artist Greer Lankton once told Nan Goldin she gave birth to herself in a dream.
² After art school, Greer lived in Nan’s loft, where she made dolls and met her husband, Paul. Six years before Nan photographed their wedding, she took this photo.
³ Among Lankton’s notes: I was born April 21 1958 at 1:09am in Flint Michigan at McLaren General Hospital, I was 6lb 13 oz, 19” long, 13 ½” head circumference, 13” chest. At 8:00am on August 14th 1978 I had sex-reassignment surgery by Dr. Richard Murray in Youngstown Hospital Southside Unity, Youngstown, Ohio. I was 5’8” and weighed 130 lbs.
⁴ Preferring a daughter to a sissy son, her parents paid for the operation with help from their church, where her father was a minister.
⁵ Sissy was the doll Greer cut open most. Like Greer, she had the operation. Like Greer, she had a tiny waist and a red heart painted on her chest. Like Greer’s, all her teeth were human.
⁶ You don’t forget that you used to be a boy. (Lankton)
⁷ Goldin called The Ballad of Sexual Dependency “the diary I let people read. It enables me to remember.”
⁸ After AIDS in the 80s, Goldin said, “I lost everybody who carried my history.
⁹ At 38, Lankton wrote: I’ve been in therapy since 18 months old, started drugs at 12 was diagnosed as schizophrenic at 19, started hormones the week after I quit Thorazine got my dick inverted at 21, kicked Heroin 6 years ago. Have been Anorexic since 19 and plan to continue. A few months later, she overdosed.
¹⁰ “Greer had few protective devices or defenses from the world.” (Goldin)
¹¹ When Rilke writes of childhood dolls, he places them somewhere between ourselves and the amorphous world pouring into us.
¹² After her own overdose, Goldin called opioids “a padding between you and the world.”
¹³ Lankton was known to wear doll flesh around town like a great soft shell.
¹⁴ The dolls’ skins and names were always changing. Arms and wigs on the floor. Their insides varied: glass eyes, foam guts and nylon tendons, steel joints and plastic elbows. Sometimes a drop of blood from Greer—kindred.
¹⁵ Those Coke bottle hips.
¹⁶ Those coat hanger cheek bones.
¹⁷ Goldin said Lankton’s work was like surgery without anesthesia.
¹⁸ Body as art: Lankton made plaster casts of her friends’ bellybuttons. “She had a fascination with them,” Goldin said, “as a symbol of the source of life.”
¹⁹ Her own she recarved directly into her skin.
²⁰ Goldin: “Supposedly, the brain can’t tell the difference between emotional pain and physical pain.”
²¹ Without anesthesia, you’d remember everything.
²² Body as red herring: The Ballad of Sexual Dependency contains over 700 snapshot portraits. “I used to think that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough,” Goldin wrote.
²³ Right before she died, Lankton washed Sissy’s face and hung her in the closet.
²⁴ Her first self was small—a split clothesline she twisted into a doll.
²⁵ So in the end we really destroyed you, doll-soul. (Rilke)
²⁶ For her last show, she wrote: FUCK Recovery, FUCK PSYCHIATRY
²⁷ Fuck it all because I’m over it. Over the roof.
Rochelle Hurt is a poet and essayist. She is the author of three poetry collections: The J Girls: A Reality Show (Indiana University Press, 2022), which won the Blue Light Books Prize from Indiana Review; In Which I Play the Runaway (Barrow Street, 2016), which won the Barrow Street Poetry Prize; and The Rusted City: A Novel in Poems (White Pine, 2014). Her work has been included in Poetry magazine and the Best New Poets anthology. She lives in Orlando and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida.