A social worker remembers a tortured soul

By profession, Donna Dillon is a photographer.  She wouldn’t like to be described as a “professional” anything, but the quality of her photos make her deserving of the term.

But disarray and inertia characterize Donna now, by her own description. “My life’s work is stuffed into little places, and I sit relatively immobile, before the prospect of the bequeathment.  I have set up a will, but it is sort of desperate, maybe even an interim, resolution of my worry. It’s OK for now, though.”

For all the time I have known Donna Dillon — at least thirty years, even back to the time when “Donna” went by “Don” — she was a well-known photographer.  In those years, I knew her to be severely depressed, so much so that she ought not to have been expected to function at the level she has.  But somehow she did.

Indeed, all the photos hanging just about everywhere in her adopted community are testimony to how she once worked.  And what isn’t on display is stored nearby where she keeps a cabin.  She spends most days at that cabin.  The quantity of artwork stored in that small space is probably many times that which has been sold or given away, and she has given away much of it.  Donna is uniquely generous.

When I first met Donna, she was Don as I keep saying, and she lived above a restaurant on Green Street.

Some days I would meet Donna (then Don) in the street, and it would be difficult to evoke so much as a weak smile from her.  She was that down.  Her speech frequently struck me as labored.  If I didn’t see her for awhile and remembered to inquire after her, I might be told by a friend of hers that she was working through a particularly severe bout of depression and had withdrawn to her room above the restaurant.

I moved away and sort of lost track of Donna. One day though, my mother sent me a newspaper article entitled “Donna Dillon, A Prisoner Released.”

“‘I have been waiting all my life for this,” she said.

I wasn’t particularly surprised at what I was reading, although I never had a hint that Don wished to become Donna and would actually do what was required to make this change a reality.  I remembered only a tortured soul.  If becoming a woman got rid of any of that awful depression he or she carried around, so much the better, I thought.

Donna said that, “Thirty years ago I’d probably get killed for doing this.  Art was not a part of my culture.  I grew up in a setting where I was expected to be a businessman, scientist, or teacher, but never an artist.”

She was the child of Irish immigrants. “Salt of the earth” people, as she described them to me.  I don’t believe they were still living, though when Donna made the sex-change decision.

She started out as a professional diver recovering motors, moorings, propellers, and other salvage. That’s what brought her to the sea coast.  In her spare time, she built a primitive underwater camera and trained herself inch-by-inch on how to use it.  Nature began to appear through the camera in ways she had not expected or planned for.  Soon, she said, she was hooked on photography.  But even at this early time, she had an appetite for something beyond her work.

“I felt like I belonged among the girls, saw myself as a girl, and dreamed of it.  These feelings were repressed until one day, I came into knowledge; after a long period of tunneling … finally, I came into light.  It was very peaceful, and I felt released.”

By this time, though, it was late in Donna’s life.  She was past fifty.  Methodical and careful about shedding the imprisonment she felt in a male body, she didn’t rush things.  She actually began tentatively to make the transformation, allowing too for the possibility of coming back to the masculine gender if need be.

She went to Boston to practice anonymously being a woman.  There she could avail herself to all the medical resources in the city.  She had her surgery and ingested hormones, went through electrolysis to remove unseemly body hair, and more.  It took her four years to accomplish the change.  Then it was time to come out, to make the public announcement of the changeover.

What Donna has not become is an advocate for sex change.  She is not out to promote the process.

“I am not the gregarious type,” she is quoted in the newspaper.

But when I see her, which isn’t very often, she is fairly upbeat.  We exchange letters on occasion.  In her last letter, she mentioned raising a giant prize-winning pumpkin for the county fair and being awarded a thousand-dollar prize.  She named the pumpkin “Myrt.” All pumpkins, Donna told me, come from a female flower, thus the name.

“Given my frailties,” she writes, “it took a tooth-gritting to get through the summer (tilling, weeding, composting, watering, etc.)  But my “Myrt” and I stood before the roaring crowd and reveled in it all.  She was 860 pounds robust.”

Donna is gone now; dead, I mean.  She has been dead for a few years.

When I am in Massachusetts, sometimes I walk by the cemetery where she is buried.  She is in the veterans’ section.  She served in the U.S. Navy for a number of years, during World War II, or perhaps it was Korea.  Her grave is near the cemetery wall, and there is a plain marker, exactly like the others there, citing her military service and duration, and a small American flag next to the marker.

Raymond Abbott is a social worker and novelist.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com 

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