Autobiography Through the Lens of Intellectual Development|
I've placed the photo, Almost Winter by Kris Elshoot with this bit of auto-biographic writing as a small claiming of my Dutch heritage. As best I can tell, five of my eight great-grandparents were Dutch.
Note: This document is a small fragment of my document: The Reintegration of the Sciences.
I was born in 1940 in Washington, DC, to liberal parents who gave their lives to teaching and service. They had moved to Washington from their lives in Minnesota and Chicago to do their part in the effort to win the Second World War. My father, Edward Conover, was a free thinker with Christian and Universalist perspectives. He had a brief seminary career and got his Ph.D in Social Work from Ohio State University. My mother, Margaretha Friese Conover, got her Bachelors Degree from the University of Minnesota at a time when it was the only Big Ten school admitting women. She had careers as a high school English teacher, a social worker, and as a secretary/bookkeeper. She had Episcopalian and philosophical interests, and an intense love of Shakespeare. My older brother, John, rebelled against this family background and became a fundamentalist with a lifelong obsession about the end of the world.
My childhood was in Washington, D.C.; Raleigh, North Carolina; Columbia, South Carolina; Columbus and Cleveland, Ohio; and Tallahassee, Florida. My father died when I was 14, shortly after the family had moved to Tallahassee for Dad to begin his career as a Social Work professor. John lived apart from the family from the time I was 12, so from 8th grade through college my family unit was my mother and myself. She was depressed after Dadís death and I was largely on my own emotionally. We lived on motherís modest income and I hurried through my adolescent years. At 20, I had graduated from Florida State University with a B.S. in psychology, had completed my military obligation, and married Joyce Nuckolls whom I met in college. After 17 years Joyce and I were divorced and a year later I married Lois Stovall. After 13 years Lois and I were divorced and a year later I married Patricia Nemore. I am thankful for all three marriages. I particularly thank Trish for bearing with me for the time demands of writing Transgender Good News and for the many aspects of support as I worked out my transgender growth and centering.
My spiritual and intellectual interests were active early. I was baptized as a young teenager in First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee. Dub Martin was the minister at that time and I remembered him as a positive thoughtful pastor who shocked the congregation by committing suicide. I was critical of the church for being totally sidelined on the race issues though it thought of itself as the most progressive church in Tallahassee, and probably was. The good news of that period for me was learning a little about alternative Christian expressions, particularly about Koinonia Partners just a few hundred miles North of Tallahassee, but also about the Church of the Savior, the Austin Christian Faith and Life Community, and Reba Place Fellowship. They were all small communities which blessed me by holding up images of Christianity that were far more meaningful to me than the institutional Christendom of all the churches I knew anything about in my area.
I was a good high school student at the demonstration school of Florida State University. I won the Math section of a State of Florida Science Fair in my Junior Year. But I had a lot of conflict with other students because of my cultural distance, particularly my refusals of racism. I went to the Principalís Office a lot for fighting, and Dr. Boyce took the initiative of getting me out of high school early and into college at Florida State to help me escape that environment. Despite our relative poverty, I could attend Florida State because tuition was low, because I lived at home, and because I could commute by walking or riding my bike. After one semester I joined the Army Reserves and did 6 months of active duty, an absurd time in an Army in disarray. My main military accomplishment was to learn to write free-hand Old English lettering.
I developed a clear intellectual goal during my high school years. I wanted to master the core intellectual disciplines about human beings which I considered to be psychology, sociology, and theology. After getting my undergraduate degree in psychology in six semesters I went to Chicago Theological Seminary. In addition to my theological studies I studied psychological theory and my 1964 Masterís thesis, titled Emergence and Crisis, was the first step towards my goal of writing an integrated theory of the human sciences. My next major step on this path was a Ph.D in sociology from Florida State University where I broke the tradition of that era and was allowed to write a 1971 theoretical dissertation, titled Necessity and Conflict, that mirrored my Masterís Thesis but with regard to the science of sociology.
The core of my academic career was six years at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I lost an ugly tenure battle despite producing twenty-five professional papers, book chapters, and articles in refereed scientific journals in my first five years. I twice chaired sections on theory at national meetings of the American Sociological Association. The battle is more story than I want to put here. Buy me a beer sometime and maybe we can talk about it. The intellectual development point is that I had set myself the task of publishing an article in the Aristotelian, Sophistic, and Democritean traditions in a juried professional journal and met that goal before being thrown out. Because of commitments I had made to living in Shalom Community, a Christian intentional community, I chose not to change living locations and effectively decided not to finish the work I had begun on integrated theory at that time.
My strong Christian commitments became shaped and focused when I went to Chicago Theological Seminary at twenty-one, shaped both by my classes, my involvement in The Woodlawn Organization (the most powerful black community organization of its era), and in house churches I initiated as part of my ministry within Essex Community Church, a small racially integrated neighborhood congregation of the United Church of Christ that is now long gone.
During my teen-age years and my twenties I was struggling with being a transgender person, long before we had such a word available or any of the transgender support groups that would have been so helpful for me at that time. Readers who are interested in this part of my story can get a bit more of it in my book, Transgender Good News.
My formative intellectual grounding had three major elements and all three were part of me by the time I was twenty-four. In college I became interested in existentialism in the persons of Camus, Kafka, and Sartre. In seminary I spent about half of my total study time in careful reading of the three volumes of Systematic Theology by Paul Tillich. I also learned the philosophical analytic structure of Richard McKeon from Widwick Schroeder. McKeon was then the Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Chicago. He wrote the difficult book, Thought, Action, and Passion, and though I have read this book it is the summary of McKeonís analytic structure by Schroeder that I found most compelling.
McKeon, an Aristotelian, divides the history of Western philosophy into four basic perspectives: two phenomenological schools initially shaped by the Sophists and Aristotle, and two ontological schools initially shaped by Democritus and Plato. I applied this analytic approach to the history of psychology for my M. Div. thesis and to the history of sociology for my Ph.D. thesis.
The third major source of my personal intellectual grounding is Christian theology, particularly the work of Tillich, but many other sources as well, including a life-long study of the Bible. I bring an existentialist set of questions to my biblical and theological work, repeatedly asking the questions of guilt, meaninglessness, and death. Personal salvation, to me, amounts to salvation from giving up in the face of the challenges of guilt, meaninglessness, and death. Inter-personal salvation, to me, amounts to salvation from anonymity, anomie, and alienation. I agree with several existentialists that salvation as going to heaven after death, or waiting for the end of the world, is mostly escapism from facing up to the questions we have as part of life. I add that such escapism fails to celebrate and fully value the most precious and engageable gifts of God: life and the human relationships and the world we live in.