Harold was in his sixties when he died. Butler heard from a relative that Harold had been lucid all those years. He was close to his caregiver. “I’m told that he received a clean sweater, new pants every year, and a little package,” Butler recalled. His brother was said to have paid him an annual visit, but Harold otherwise seemed to have been cut off. “I felt it said something very deep about the cruelty of this family in this history. A family that both suffered cruelty and inflicted it—not the same, but horrifying, nevertheless.”

As an adolescent, Butler was increasingly oppressed by what they describe as panicked “gender patrolling.” Their father was a dentist; their mother worked in fair housing and helped run campaigns for Ohio Democrats. Butler was the middle child. Their siblings “monopolized the genders—he was Mr. Man, and she was this petite dancer who went to Juilliard. I was—I don’t know.” There were thunderous arguments. “I couldn’t wear a dress. It was impossible.”

When it emerged that Butler and two of their cousins were gay, all three were shamed. “I always felt solidarity with Harold,” they said. “We were the queer revenge. We’re not going to conform to everybody’s idea of what we should be.” But, they added, “we suffered.”

School was a reprieve, although Butler was so disruptive in Hebrew school, so often accused of clowning, that they were assigned private tutorials with the rabbi. Butler recalls telling him at their first meeting that they wanted to focus on three questions: “Why was Spinoza excommunicated from the Jewish community? Could German idealism be held accountable for Nazism? And how was one to understand existential theology, including the work of Martin Buber?” Butler was fourteen.

Jewish education gave Butler what felt, initially, like an invitation into open debate and a consideration of what counts as evidence, what makes an interpretation credible. In high school, they travelled twice to Israel, as part of a program that was something of a predecessor to Birthright. It was the early seventies; Butler had been witnessing the civil-rights movement and was disturbed by what they saw as the racial stratifications within Israeli society.

At home, a sense of isolation grew. Butler was outed by the parents of a girlfriend. They began to scratch at their arms uncontrollably. Dermatologists proved to be of no use, and Butler’s parents eventually sought help from the head of psychiatry at a local hospital. He surprised Butler by asking if they were familiar with the concept of the hair shirt, from the Bible—the donning of a scratchy garment to expiate a sense of sin.

“He was reading the Bible as literature,” Butler recalled. “I didn’t know you could do that. He was reading a symptom as a metaphor. He was telling me that my body was speaking in a symptom and saying something that I needed to understand and could reflect on.” By the end of the conversation, Butler told him, with wonder, “You’re not trying to change my object of desire.” And he responded, “Well, frankly, given where you come from, you are lucky to love anyone at all. So let’s affirm your capacity to love.”

Butler has remained a “creature of psychoanalysis,” they said. “It’s where I learned how to read. I was given permission to live and to love, which is what I do in my work. It was a wise and generous gift, which allowed me to move forward with my life.”

A deck, with a large hammock and a small lemon tree, connects Butler’s study with Brown’s. After work, they meet here to talk or nap. It is an architectural delineation of their way of thinking together. “Influence, not synthesis,” Brown told me. Butler brings Brown closer to poetry and psychoanalysis; Brown prompts Butler to think about climate change and political economy, about nonhuman lives that must also be considered grievable. “We joke I’m closer to the animals,” Brown said. “Judith is very human.” Every day, Butler swims in a nearby pool, and Brown in the bay, year-round.

The two met in the late eighties. Butler had been invited to give a talk on Sartre at Williams College. It was a difficult time. A few years earlier, Butler had completed a philosophy dissertation at Yale on desire and recognition in Hegel, filtered through twentieth-century French thought—Alexandre Kojève, Sartre, Lacan, Foucault. It became their first book, “Subjects of Desire” (1987), and advanced a reading of the “Phenomenology” as a journey with a singularly blundering and resilient protagonist, forever failing in his quest for identity but constantly renewing himself—his tragic blindness turning out to be “the comic myopia of Mr. Magoo,” who crashes his car into a chicken coop but lands, as always, on all four wheels. Yet a secure teaching position proved elusive.

“I was what we used to call a street dyke,” Butler said. “Nobody had taught me about haircuts or shirts. I didn’t have silk blouses. I had sweatshirts. But I’m not thinking about how I look. I’m thinking about Sartre.”

Butler recalled giving a job talk at Williams, and learning that the customary dinner with department members wasn’t going to happen. Butler returned to their motel and sat on the bed, confused. A professor called to apologize: the faculty had been taken aback by Butler’s appearance. The next day, still stinging, Butler found their way to a women’s faculty meeting, and in walked Wendy Brown, a political philosopher at Williams, a little late.

“Williams, you can’t be totally bad,” Butler recalled thinking. “She just came in and said hello, and she was so luminous. She’s still luminous. She walks in and it’s, like, there’s too much light in the room.”

Butler, still in search of a tenure-track job, wrote a draft of “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity” as a visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, as part of a program on gender run by Joan W. Scott, who became a lifelong friend. Though “Gender Trouble” was written, Butler says, for a few hundred people at best, it has sold more than a hundred thousand copies.

One day, Brown was sitting in the audience at a conference at Rutgers, listening to Butler speak on a panel, when she sensed from the atmosphere that something had changed. “It was early in the star system in academia, so probably 1992,” she said. “That whole business of celebrity academics—we’re so used to it now. But academics then were old tweedy guys. There may have been some eminences, but they weren’t celebrities. And, all of a sudden, Judith was one.”

Başak Ertür, a legal scholar and a Turkish translator of Butler’s, told me that more than nine hundred people filled an auditorium in Ankara to hear them speak: “Not just academics but L.G.B.T.Q. activists, antiwar activists, sex workers.”

Butler told me that they had little notion of what was happening at first. “Someone from the Village Voice asked, ‘What are you thinking about the new directions in queer theory?’ I said, ‘What’s queer theory?’ They thought I was being Socratic.”

Brown still worries about the costs of Butler’s celebrity, the memes crowding out the meanings. “Neither the person nor the richness of the work can cohabit with celebrity—they just can’t,” she said. “I think that the ‘gender-troubled Judith’ and the ‘anti-Zionist Judith’ and the ‘activist Judith’ can miss that this is a person formed by philosophical questions and readings. Careful and close reading, which you generally do by yourself. ‘Gender Trouble’ came out of what we then called gay and lesbian emancipation. But it was not born in the lesbian bar. No, they took it home and wrote it, alone. It is a part of them that I think vanishes sometimes in the hullabaloo.”

That book, inciter of hullabaloo and produced in private by a thirty-four-year-old junior professor, is itself now thirty-four years old. It drew on Derrida’s reading of the Oxford philosopher of language J. L. Austin and his speech-act theory. Austin had anatomized “performative utterances”: linguistic acts that don’t depict reality but enact it, as when you promise something by using the words “I promise.” Butler broadened the notion to behavior, arguing that gender was something people did performatively. The incorrect reading of “performativity,” which remains the popular one, posits gender as a kind of costume, chosen or discarded for some theatre-in-the-round. What Butler was describing was more obdurate, involving constraint as well as agency. For Butler, the question was “What is done to me, and what is it I do with what is done to me?”

“Butler made thinking so expansively about gender possible,” Paisley Currah, a political scientist and the author of a recent book about transgender identity and the law, told me. “We’re all kind of rearranging what they say and not quite agreeing and responding to it or doing something a little bit different.” Academics in other disciplines, too, found the notion generative. The literary scholar Saidiya Hartman told me that “Gender Trouble” influenced her own thinking about the “coerced performance in Blackness, the performance imposed upon our bodies.”

Joan Scott, as a historian, situates “Gender Trouble” historically: “The seventies and eighties are the start of the critical exploration of gender identity. Feminism starts out with consciousness-raising and asking, What are women? The whole enterprise of critical work is to refuse the singular identity of women, men, gender, race, whatever. All of that, the book is looking to complexify.” Butler has called identity politics a “terrible American conceit” that proceeds “as if becoming visible, becoming sayable, is the end of politics.”

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