Pop Tarot – Transparent: The Hermit

Pop Tarot - Transparent: The Hermit

This post was first published in Pop Tarot, Jamie Beckenstein’s newsletter that blends tarot and pop culture. 

(spoilers for Transparent)

I really, really like holding hands. I’m questionably romantic and iffy on being touched, but there’s something about hand holding that feels incredibly powerful. I don’t understand why.

I hate Transparent, and “Man on the Land” is my favorite episode of TV ever. It’s set at a barely fictionalized version of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, the notorious feminist music festival where men were forbidden. Michfest started in 1976 and shuttered in 2015 in large part due to the refusal to change the “womyn-born womyn” policy. The episode is rough even before it begins. The previous episode ends with two queer cis women obliviously driving their recently out trans mother to the festival.* In the front, Ali and Sarah sing along to the Indigo Girls. In the back, Maura tries to join them. She doesn’t know the words.

The festival is incredibly well done. Five years later, I can feel the viscera of watching it for the first time. Mud spatters up legs, unbrushed hair, sunscreen sweat. Mourning what I might have had if I’d grown into being a woman. The episode is mostly exactly what you’d expect. Sarah discovers kink; Ali fucks a thinly veiled Eileen Myles; Maura is told that she and her penis are unwelcome at the festival.

Things come to a head when Ali and Maura get into a fireside conversation with older cis lesbians about privilege and pain and rape and the idea of what it means to grow up as a woman. It hurts very badly. Maura leaves to find her other daughter; Ali follows her into the woods. Maura’s losing it. Ali walks past her grandmother.

The whole season is threaded with flashbacks to Ali’s Jewish family in 1930s Germany. Ali’s great-aunt, we’ve learned, was a trans woman in gay Berlin. She often brought Ali’s grandmother to Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, a pioneering research institute that supported trans people through medicine and advocacy. Ali’s grandmother is played by a young actress who’d also played Ali in more recent flashbacks. As modern Ali walks past her grandmother, she sees a fire in the distance. I went cold. The Nazis burned the Institute’s 20,000 books, and it was going to happen, and I couldn’t stop it.

Ali arrives with a lantern. She holds her grandmother’s hand, her own hand. Her great-aunt is arrested. The library burns.

It’s The Hermit to a T. The lantern, the forest, the entering and exiting alone but being guided in between. Historically when I’ve thought about The Hermit, I imagine him moving through an external forest. But lately I’ve begun to think about the forest as something that lives inside of us. What we’re looking for is often within us, but I don’t mean that we’ve had the answers all along or that we can get what we need without community. I mean that it’s impossible to have a full context for yourself. While Maura runs through a forest, frantic to leave a place that once seemed welcoming, her daughter holds hands with Maura’s mother and watches her aunt be forced out of what was once a home. (Every cis person I’ve talked to about this episode has wanted to talk about the Nazi parallels; no trans person has.) Transness is literally in Maura’s DNA. She will never know.^

Forests are older than most of us can understand. The trees give us the wood to make the campfire that Maura left. They let us make books and then the fires that burn them. When we’re the Hermit, we can touch the trees, feel their potential, try to understand what they can be and have been. It’s easy to think of The Hermit as a forward facing card, the bookended solitude making a journey that has a beginning, middle, and end. But what if The Hermit is the part of The Fool’s Journey where we discover that time and history are expansive, uncertain, in us even when— especially when— we’re alone? The Hermit goes into the forest to find something. When she leaves, she may have it, but she also has the knowledge that she can never have all of it. She can’t leave the forest until she’s grown up.

I grew up with Transparent. The first season came out two weeks after I did. The second dropped the week I got denied medical care for the first time. The third came out while I was conducting oral histories with trans elders. The musical was released around the time I got my t4t tattoo. The Major Arcana repeats again and again. With each season, I went back into the woods, searching for something new, feeling the growth from the last time. My biological ancestors reside in those woods. Jews from who knows where, lines of unacknowledged mental illness, commies and conservatives and dentists and farmers. But so do my community ancestors. Trans people we all know, trans people lost to violence and ignorance and fear, trans people who would have known themselves if the books hadn’t burned.

You can’t hold your own hand. But in the forest, Ali holds her grandmother’s hand, and her younger self’s. They all hold time between them. Ali carried her history before she went into the forest. But now she can feel it, even if she doesn’t know what she’s feeling. The Hermit can’t leave the forest until they can take it with them.



*So this is complicated! I’m told that in the musical finale, Ali comes out as non-binary and changes their name to Ari. Ari’s transness certainly changes the context of this episode, and also I haven’t watched the finale. I’m going to write only in the context of the episodes that I’ve seen. This is not replicable with people.


^She finds out in a later season. I felt painfully betrayed.