One in Two Thousand: Joseph Messer ’21

I had the delight of meeting Joseph when he was in my Exploring the Arts group. I sat down with him to listen to his moving and fascinating story.

Where are you from?

I am from the gulf coast of Mississippi where there’s not much happening. Very small town, sports environment – that changed very quickly after Hurricane Katrina. I grew up in Mississippi until I was 18 and I never knew that we lived in a place that had what other people would see as cultural or economic poverty. But at the same time there is a great freedom in living a simple life. In Mississippi, there was a lot of land. Growing up, my friends and I would just wander through the woods. There were no cultural values being impressed on you; it was a free imaginative space, to play and build forts and have bonfires. The good thing about my parents working all the time was that I had the freedom to do that without any authority.

What was your high school experience like?

After Hurricane Katrina, we moved 50 miles north, away from the sea. We went out to one of the most rural counties in Mississippi, a place that didn’t have stoplights and was one of the worst education counties in Mississippi. At my high school, there was no illusion that people were going to college. Each class was about 400 people and on average only about four to six people would go to a four-year university. I played soccer and when you joined a sports team at my school that was the priority and second was school. I had soccer from 5:30 in the morning to 8 and then I went to school and talked to my teacher and we had these scripts like – ‘I’ll do your classwork and homework if I can go to the gym right now because I have soccer.’ Half my classes, that would work; teachers would be worn down by students and athletes every year. I had soccer for like eight to ten hours a day. It was a very hyper-masculine culture, a very homophobic place. I didn’t know I identified as queer at the time, because that would be a great way to get beat up, I mean physically. I didn’t know anyone who didn’t identify as straight. I got very good in high school at performing something other than myself. I was the straightest, most masculine person on the team, beating up people who were as queer as me. Even though I had defended myself against any physical violence by belonging to this community, I was doing a lot of emotional violence to myself by playing a very limited version of who a man can be. There’s so many fallouts from that, a hyper-masculine culture – like the women I dated, I never really had a feeling of care or attention with them because it was conditioned in such a way that their bodies were seen as values to aggregate a social capital. The more women you slept with, the more popular you’d be, the more bros would come up and slap you on the back. ‘I heard you and whoever fucked last night.’ There wasn’t any authority to tell me different. Alcohol was very cheap. Everything was very cheap. There was no guiding force as well as no intent to guide you because no one thought you were going to college. They said the best years of your life were high school and after that it was looking back on high school.

Why did you decide to go to Deep Springs College in California?

Originally, a little earlier, I don’t think I would have ever made [it to] college if I hadn’t gotten out of the sports environment, and I’d have never gotten out of the sports environment if I hadn’t torn my ACL twice, which was a pretty traumatic experience because my whole [world] had been built around being an athlete as well as the physical pain of a reconstruction surgery. I still had the athletic training of going 100 percent on everything and really in a way that wasn’t always healthy. So, I started studying biochemistry because that was the book my mom had. Reading the book for hours a night and teaching myself math and science until the point where I was able to do very well at national science competitions. Eventually, I was accepted into Stanford. I was looking for anywhere outside of Mississippi. I would’ve gone anywhere. I applied to 24 schools – none of them were in Mississippi – I was like, ‘one of these schools has to give me a chance.’ The financial aid didn’t come through at Stanford and my parents weren’t going to pay for it; it wasn’t part of the culture there. So, I chose Deep Springs because it was free. It’s best described as a two-year communist project in higher education which I could try to explain all day without ever capturing what it is. I was one of 28 men as students there. As a student body, we were in charge of hiring the faculty [and] admitting new students. It was on a ranch so we had to produce our own meat and our own vegetables. It was out in the middle of the desert. Unlike the hyper-masculine culture, this was a culture of all men and no women, except for the professors. The professors were interested in gender and queer theory, poetry, sensations over thinking. They also lived with the students. It was weird. I’d see them before bed and do yoga with them in the morning. It was a very strange professor-student relationship, [and the female professors were] the only women within a four-hour radius, so as a straight-identifying man, you’d fall in love with all of them. The professors and the students were very interested in subverting masculinity. So, month one, we started doing everything naked. We’d play soccer naked, have saunas together, try to do things that wasn’t typically male like hugging and kissing each other on the cheek. It was an intimacy of ‘I care for you and you care for me.’ It was very healthy for me because in a lot of my past male relationships, we’d tell each other that we cared for each other by beating the shit out of each other. At Deep Springs, we talked about emotion. One of the professors challenged the student body that every man had the responsibility to have butt sex. We were talking about how rights and understanding and awareness starts at an experience of empathy. To understand these marginalized communities as well as what the effects of performing masculinity were on the people around us, we should attempt to experience what was the opposite of the more male dominant position in sexual relationships. We made a bunch of jello shots that weekend and had a sexual experiment night. For me, even if people didn’t have the biological response of a queer person, there was still this intention of trying to feel what that might feel like and, for me, that was the first time I had ever considered something like that, and it opened up the possibility of identifying as something other than straight. I identify as bisexual now, or pansexual for those who are like me and don’t believe in the gender binary. That was the experience that changed what I saw as the possibilities for my identification.

How did you end up attending  the College?

My best friend at Deep Springs grew up in Williamstown. His mom was a dean. After Deep Springs, I lived in a Buddhist monastery. Then I did hard labor jobs which was a horrible experience. I was like, I need to get a degree so I can make more than eight dollars an hour. I was looking forward to going back into college. I didn’t know what I was classified as, because I was in college but was out of it for a year. My best friend’s mom helped me fill out the application and apply for financial aid so I could actually attend this time.

Was that a process for you?

Happiness has always been very hard to find. After Hurricane Katrina, everyone was depressed. After I left to go to Deep Springs, my best friend, who had lived with my family for years, shot himself with a shotgun. It was hard to be happy after that. But at some moment, there just came a realization that even if I couldn’t be or didn’t feel happy, there was still the potential to help other people be happy. That has been a weird process. At first, I studied a lot of psychoanalysis and started psychoanalyzing my friends, but that didn’t seem very applicable. Of course, [there’s] meditation. I taught yoga for a while; I worked with people on mindfulness. There’s this idea, in the Buddhism I practice, of the bodhisattva, someone who spends his life practicing towards enlightenment and then once reaching enlightenment decides to stay in the cycle of samsara to help others find enlightenment. So, for me, that was a huge motivation. I also realized that, in every conversation, I could either add to someone’s emotional burden or relieve it, affirm who they are, or affirm what I think is an innate beauty in all of us, a capacity to be loved. I started not accepting sadness in my life because I felt like there was such an urgency to help others’ sadness. And much to my surprise, I started ending up being really happy even though at the beginning I was just faking it. The more genuinely happy I felt, the more I wanted to continue helping others. So now, I’m just very happy and trying to share my happiness with as many people as I can.