Casey Legler, artist, restaurateur, and true Renaissance woman who is most well-known for her run as an Olympic swimmer and as the first female menswear model signed to Ford, has just published a memoir of her childhood. In Godspeed (available on Amazon), she tells the story of surviving her girlhood by the skin of her teeth. Finding a natural athleticism in the pool at age 9, she was forced into competitive swimming although she hated it, hated the water, hated her wet bathing suit, hated being lonely and not having enough time to read books. She turned to drinking at a young age to cope, and self-medication quickly became self-destruction.
Although the subject matter of her book is dark and deeply painful, catching up with AfterEllen by phone, she sounds happy. She laughs easily and starts the interview with questions of her own. It is abundantly clear that hers is a story of survival, and in an equal and opposite reaction to the pain and isolation of her childhood. During our conversation, she radiates openness and love for herself and her communities.
The journey to getting it all down on paper was a long one, but she sees it as a gift to those who are struggling. She’s continuing in the LGBT tradition of looking after family. “It was a dyke who was one of the last ones who would come by my house and give me food. I was a pretty dangerous young girl at this point. I quit swimming, I’m doing a lot of cocaine. I’m peripherally involved with Mexican gangs. This was a woman I met at university, someone with whom I wasn’t romantically involved. But she was the one who for some reason would stop by and make sure I was OK. [As written] in Stone Butch Blues, I understand that she was way more aware of a tradition of taking care of each other than I was.”
At times, Godspeed is something like reading a Jackson Pollock. It is mood, poetry, parts of speech trying on new identities. The way a swimmer can hold her breath, you might find Legler pushing the limits of long unpunctuated phrases. She writes with an intense focus on the sensory experiences of her body.
She also notes in the forward to the book that as an adult she was diagnosed with autism. This lends important perspective to the sensory overload that made swimming truly excruciating, but also the way that the routine of swim practices gave much-needed structure and routine to her life.
“I’m on the spectrum and everything I put my mind to I seem to excel at. There wasn’t a lot of language about being autistic in the 80s and 90s and most girls go undiagnosed. It’s not uncommon for autistic children to excel. I did make it out alive and I did fight for it literally. There’s so much grit in my teenage years and I look back on it and I’m appalled. I gave voice to this young girl who made it out alive despite the odds being stacked against her.
“The goal for me was to write about that honestly from the perspective of a girl who was careened because of her talent through these things and yet hold a story of resilience and dignity in there. The environment that I grew up in and certainly the situation I found myself in as my using got worse and worse and my swimming got better and better ironically, were appalling.
“I’m proud to have participated in competitive swimming, but the period of time I write about is really dark and I was really lonely and under incomprehensible demoralization…when I had my first drink it saved my life. It took away this unbearable demoralization, so I kept drinking. I really believed alcohol was doing the same thing for me as for everyone else.”
She hopes the book serves as a love letter and salve to those who are also suffering, saying “In the resilience of the story they might find the inspiration to stick around for one more day.”
AfterEllen readers will be interested to know that this is not really a memoir about sexual awakening or finding her sexuality. In fact, Legler came out at 21, immediately after the period of time covered in the memoir.
“I wasn’t out when the memoir was written. In my mind, it was pretty normal to make out with both guys and girls. The more I used the less interested I was in guys. At the end of my using I would forget the guy I was sleeping with and I turned my attention to the women. As soon as I got clean, that’s when I came out. As soon as I put the drugs down, it all made sense.”
The year she came out was the year Matthew Shepherd was murdered. While it was still risky in many areas to be out of the closet, Legler also knows that being out and being female in “masculine” attire is its own contribution to the tradition of LGBT family caring for our own. She says, “Visibility contributes to the safety of others.”
Presenting her life in this way, heart cracked open and offered as a gift, contributes to the safety of others be they depressed, addicted, isolated, on the spectrum, lesbian or butch.