April 19, 2006: Features
By Pam Belluck ’85
It was the 38th reunion of the Class of 1962, a gathering graced with old familiar faces, the off-year enthusiasts.
Then an unusual figure appeared.
“He showed up in a dress with makeup and a wig and a handbag,” recalls Samuel N. Reiken, president of the class. “In his handbag he had a handout. And he walked up to everybody in the class and just reached into his handbag and handed them a copy of this thing that he wrote.”
The man introduced himself as Donna, and in his handout, he told a startling story:
“One afternoon in 1944, when I was 4 years old, I put on a red skirt while playing house with my 6-year-old sister and the 5-year-old girl next door,” he wrote. “Ever since then, I’ve wanted to be treated as a girl. This desire has continued for over 50 years without any encouragement from friends or family and despite the continuing risk that I could lose my wife and injure my family relationships if I go too far or too fast.”
The leaflet went on: “I decided this year’s Reunions is the time and place to disclose my transgendered status to my classmates and the rest of the Princeton community. If you look around campus and see a woman in her late 50s wearing black and orange, standing awkwardly by herself, and if her posture is somewhat twisted and she has a tremor in her right hand, that’s me!”
The missive was signed “Doug ‘Donna’ Nadeau ’62,” and it was a bombshell, to say the least.
Douglas Nadeau was a successful Boston lawyer with degrees from Princeton, Yale, and Harvard. He had been active in Princeton alumni affairs, winning an award from the Alumni Council for his work setting up a high school mentoring project as head of the Princeton Association of New England.
“He played 150-pound football at Princeton and he wrestled in high school,” says Joseph E. Irenas ’62, now a federal judge in New Jersey, who roomed with Nadeau for three years and chose him to be best man at his wedding. “He came from a very blue-collar family. He and his father built the house they lived in. He was a kind of he-man. He was a tough guy.”
The switch from Doug to Donna was not the only change in Nadeau’s appearance that shocked his classmates that Reunions day. Nadeau was suffering from a rare form of encephalitis related to Parkinson’s disease, and it had contorted his once-athletic body and played havoc with his appearance and comportment, impairing his speech and movement. “He held his hands at a very awkward angle,” Reiken recalls. “He walked in a very disfigured way.”
The disease took Nadeau’s life a few years later, in April 2004, after he fell while jogging on the rocky beach near his home in Marblehead, Mass. His wife, Lynn, kept the clothes that her husband wore that day: black workout shorts and an orange Princeton jacket, plus a woman’s undergarments and top. Shortly before he died, he got a prescription for female hormones; they were waiting for him at the drugstore on the day he died.
In the months since his death, members of Nadeau’s family — Lynn, whom he met while getting a master’s degree at Yale, and their two sons, who attended Princeton and Harvard — have attempted to come to grips with it all. They have tried to make sense of the paradoxes and the perplexing events: the devastating illness, the desire to be a woman, and the lessons and legacy of a talented, high-achieving, and, ultimately, bewildering and inscrutable man. They wanted to tell his story in PAW, in the hope it will help others to understand what he was going through.
Douglas Nadeau’s post-Princeton trajectory looked much like one might expect of a driven, hardworking young man with an Ivy League pedigree. After getting a master’s degree in international economics at Yale, he earned a law degree at Harvard, then went to work for Hale and Dorr, a white-shoe law firm in Boston. Later he became a founding partner of the law firm Finnegan, Stanzler, and Nadeau in Boston.
Son of a machinist and the first in his family to attend college, Nadeau became active in local Democratic politics, helping to organize campaigns for several state representatives. He belonged to the Union Club, a storied hangout for Boston’s business cognoscenti. He bought a sailboat and became “a credibly good sailor,” Irenas says. Alone on business trips, however, he wore women’s clothes in his hotel room, he told family members later.
No one knew of his secret until Nadeau broke the news to his wife soon after they were married.
“It was just before our first son was born, as I lay in bed next to him in the dark,” Lynn Nadeau recalls. “He said, ‘Lynnie, did you ever think of being somebody else?’ The way he said it was so heavy with meaning. It was the sort of moment that froze in time. He said, ‘Well, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be a woman.’ He said he had this fascination with women’s clothing and told me about his sister and the red skirt. He said when he felt vulnerable, it was something he did.”
It was 1964, and, as Lynn Nadeau puts it, “I didn’t know about the varieties in which humans express themselves nowadays.” She was, she says, “rather shocked, seeing as I was about to have a baby. I was kind of disgusted.”
After that, in the privacy of their bedroom, Nadeau would sometimes wear women’s clothes he had bought or had borrowed from Lynn. “I tried to understand what it was that he was interested in and what he was experiencing,” Lynn says. “There were times when I’d just say, ‘Could you just give it all up?’ and then he’d throw out all the clothing.” But he always bought more.
The Nadeaus told no one, not even their sons, at least not while they were growing up. As Nadeau explained in his 40th reunion yearbook entry, “We wanted to spare them any disturbing thoughts about gender identity during their formative years.” Nadeau told their older son, Ted ’87, around the time he was leaving for Princeton in 1982; Greg learned his father’s secret after his freshman year at Harvard, while he and his father were driving from Cambridge to Marblehead. For others, it remained a secret. “He wanted to be a successful lawyer,” Lynn says. “He wanted to be looked up to in the community. He didn’t want to have people think of him as anything less than a successful person, so he didn’t want people to know.”
Both Doug and Lynn sought counseling. Seeking an explanation, Lynn questioned whether Doug’s feelings — which they called “the problem” — came from a genetic predisposition or were related to his upbringing with a stern and unaffectionate father.
He told his wife that his father was physically harsh with him as a child. “I think he thought that it was that his mother’s world was so much more appealing,” Lynn says. “When he had to work with his father, it could be freezing cold outside and he would have to defrost some pipes. But his sister would be inside cooking delicious things. His father told him at the age of 5 that boys don’t kiss their fathers; his sisters could sit on his father’s lap.”
Ted says, “I sort of have this narrative that the only time that he ever got appreciated love was when his older sister would dress him up. It was an unrealized time in his life. This is not something that anybody in their right mind would ever choose. You would in fact do everything you could possibly do to get out of it or deny it.”
Life became immensely more difficult when, in 1985, a new problem presented itself. During a trip to China, Nadeau contracted a virus that doctors later believed was transmitted to him when he was bitten by a mosquito. The virus caused a condition in which his brain did not produce enough of the neurotransmitter dopamine, and the resulting illness, his family said, was post-encephalitic Parkinson’s, the condition that Robert DeNiro’s character had in the movie Awakenings.
The symptoms were confounding. They started with fatigue, then progressed to uncontrollable blinking that interfered with his job and daily routine.
“He stopped being able to drive unless he sang,” Ted says. “Unless he was outputting information he would blink uncontrollably.”
Botox injections helped the blinking, but he later “developed facial tics, head wrenching,” Lynn says. “He was struggling to speak, struggling to keep his eyes open.”
Eventually Nadeau became unable to move at all unless he took dopamine every two hours. When he went off the medication each night, his body would freeze in a state of paralysis. “He’d wake up in the morning and I would give him a shot,” Lynn says, “and the drugs would kick in eventually and he would get going.” But the dopamine during the day caused “hyperkinetic undulating movements,” she says, so he appeared awkward and out of control.
He had brain surgery three times, which sometimes brought improvement, but never for long. In the prime of his career, Douglas Nadeau became increasingly unable to function in a white-collar world. “He hung onto his identity as a lawyer, as part of society,” Lynn says, adding that his law partners insisted that he keep his door shut so that clients wouldn’t see him, dressed as a man but severely affected by his illness. He began behaving bizarrely. His illness forced him to work at home, and eventually he left his firm.
Explaining that he had spent the first part of his life expressing the rational left side of his brain, Nadeau said he was emphasizing his creative right brain, and he began creating mirrored sculptures and other artwork, some of which won praise at local art shows. He also became increasingly open about his desire to act as a woman.
“His brain surgery got rid of his inhibitions,” says Lynn. “He was drawn to a new persona. His old body wasn’t serving him. At some point he stopped struggling to be the one he was, and he decided to be somebody else.”
Nadeau called that somebody else Connie, then Cherisse, and finally, Donna.
“His first style was much like his mother’s,” says Lynn, who speaks of her husband’s transformation with a remarkable attitude of openness and humor — “plaid skirts, little blouses with tight arms.” Later, Lynn says, “he had a nice selection of evening gowns, many with lots of beads ... almost seemingly out of Vogue. He bought a wedding dress from our niece.”
Some people advised Lynn to leave him, but she did not, trying to support him despite the difficulties. Many relatives and friends were stunned and repelled. Lynn retired early from her job as a math teacher to care for him, and sometimes she would take him on vacations to tropical islands, where people seemed less judgmental. “He’d have a wonderful time,” Lynn says.
Despite those times, the family felt great loss and hurt. Greg, who had been very close to his father growing up, felt that his father had grown “narcissistic” and self-absorbed, and that it was “extremely difficult” to communicate with him. “Both my son Greg and I felt that Donna was killing Doug,” Lynn says. “There was somebody killing the person that I loved and the person that I knew. Whenever Donna would appear we were like, ‘Dougie, Dougie, where are you?’” The family, she says, was like Ariadne hanging onto the thread in the Minotaur’s den as she tried to help her lover find his way out.
Nadeau wrote in his 40th-reunion yearbook that Lynn “has been a wonderful wife, mother, and grandmother, and I want to stay with her as her life partner [Nadeau was not gay], but as I have been presenting myself more insistently as a woman and become less recognizable as the man she has spent her life with, we have drifted apart.”
Princeton had always been extremely important to Doug Nadeau because of the opportunities it gave him in life — travel, connections, a world beyond his humble upbringing.
“He totally loved Princeton,” Lynn says. “He felt that Princeton made him the person that he was. Princeton sent him to Europe in the summertime to write his thesis. He felt that Princeton had done for him what his family had been unable to do.”
Nadeau was a regular donor and spent five years as president of the Princeton Association of New England, during which time he established a mentoring project at Boston’s Muriel S. Snowden High School. He and Lynn attended many reunions.
So when Nadeau began openly appear-ing as a woman, it became important to him to meld his new identity with the place he so profoundly admired.
Says Lynn: “He wanted that world to accept and not just tolerate, but celebrate, someone who was different. He thought his transgendered interests would be a way to help Princeton become the place he always wanted it to be — perfect.”
He began by telling friends in his class. He was intent on marching in the P-rade, which he did in heels, even though “he could barely walk,” Reiken remembers, and he did not always make it to the end. “He had this pride about showing off and letting everybody see him.”
Irenas says, “I think he wanted to portray it as acceptable behavior. He wanted overall to make sense of what was happening to him; he wanted to put it in a good light. He was trying not to make it something that would cut him off from Princeton, which was very important to him. I’m sure he was searching for affirmation.”
People in the class, Reiken says, “were very unsure of how to handle it. I remember people coming up to me and saying, ‘What do I say? How do I deal with this?’” Reiken responded, “Just talk to him like he’s your classmate Doug. Call him Donna if he wants, but don’t call him ‘Hey you.’”
Reiken and Irenas say they do not recall classmates being unkind, but that few people seemed comfortable engaging Nadeau in conversation. They say the effects of Nadeau’s illness seemed to upset people more than the gender transformation, which many classmates believed was a symptom of the disease.
Some classmates were surprised to see Lynn by Nadeau’s side, sticking with him even in such a public display. “I was uncomfortable,” says Lynn. “You think I wanted to be in the P-rade in orange and black with Doug struggling, lurching from one side to the other?” Nadeau found the experience of coming out at Princeton difficult and hurtful, the family says.
“They behaved much in the way that I did when he told me 35 years before,” Lynn says. “They were not [saying], ‘What a struggle it must be for you. Can I help you?’ They were basically aversive, negative. I remember there was one point he was wandering around campus, lonely as could be in some sort of crazy outfit. It was crushing because he had worked so hard to be on the inside.”
Ted has harsher criticism.
“They sort of treated him like a homeless person,” he said. “It’s understandable — he’s drooling, it’s yucky.” But, Ted says, “Didn’t Princeton teach you anything about meeting other people? Didn’t it teach you anything about family and acceptance and commitment? And the answer is no. It taught you about wearing orange and black and establishing we-they division lines. That was the thing that was starkly present to me.”
Shawn Cowls ’87, president of Fund For Reunion Inc./Princeton BTGALA, an association of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered alumni, faculty, and staff, says that after Donna Nadeau’s debut reunion, Nadeau contacted Cowls, looking for support and for other transgendered Princetonians.
“She reached out to us because she had a very unpleasant experience at Reunions,” Cowls says, recalling “some trouble with proctors” who believed that Nadeau was drunk.
In the months that followed, Cowls says, Nadeau became involved with his organization, which at the time had five transgendered members and now has nine. Nadeau gave the group $7,500 to hold lectures on transgender issues and hosted a gathering of transgendered alumni at his Marblehead home.
Nadeau also socialized with the group at subsequent reunions, and Cowls contacted University officials to make sure that campus security was aware of Nadeau’s condition. Nadeau was a “catalyst” whose situation helped make Princeton a bit more hospitable to transgendered people, according to Cowls.
Nadeau’s situation was so unusual that it does not easily lend itself to a neat moral or lesson. “I don’t think there’s anything you can universalize from it,” Reiken says. “He had a unique condition, and he handled it uniquely.”
Greg, despite his years of feeling estranged from his father, said he was glad the obituary in The Boston Globe included one photograph of Nadeau as a conventional man and another of him as Donna. Greg knew that people at the time “were guffawing about his obituary,” he says. “That didn’t really bother me. Once you know someone like my father, you can’t think about transgender people the same.”
Those who knew Nadeau best, at one time or another, can see glimmers of something to take away from it all.
“He was a fighter, and I guess maybe that’s the lesson,” Irenas says. “There are some people that life can deal tough circumstances to who continue to fight as best they can. Doug did that. He never gave up. He didn’t crawl into a corner, didn’t cover himself with a blanket.”
That is essentially what Lynn sees, too.
“Here’s somebody who has been visited with a life-changing illness at 45 and then he deals with it for the rest of his life,” she says. “How would anyone deal with something like this and keep their spirit and keep their soul alive?”
Pam Belluck ’85 is New England bureau chief for The New York Times.