8FOLD/CONTEST: Journey Into... # 10, Cover Story

Tom Russell milos_parker at yahoo.com
Fri Mar 26 23:08:32 PDT 2010

"Cover Story"

   They stop my photographer at the door.  "No photos.  Verboten."
   We had been told that Fraulein Schenck had consented to be
   "Frau Schenck changed her mind.  No photos.  Verboten."
   Mikey waits outside.  One of the guards searches me for a camera,
finds one, and confiscates it before consulting in German via walkie-
talkies with Agnes Goessler, Schenck's partner since Die Wende.
There's a tense moment before I'm told that I'm to be admitted into
the private hospital.  "But we keep the camera," says the guard.  "No
photos.  Verboten."
   The guard escorts me to Goessler.  She's easy on the eyes, nearly
forty but still falling squarely on the lipstick end of the lesbian
spectrum.  "Heidi doesn't want a photo."
   But she agreed to the photo.  And we both know that without a
photo, there's no way the story's going to see print.  This isn't the
fucking New Yorker I'm writing for.  This, right here, this is the
little column on the right side of the right page, and there's a big
photo spreading out across the fold, probably Heidi Schenck in her
hospital bed, and then there's two to four pages of text with a couple
more photos interspersed, probably one of Heidi in her prime before
the one-page-ad for deodorant and maybe one of Agnes and Heidi
together in the hospital room, white light blowing out behind them
from the window, not to mention the nice big pores-and-sores black-and-
white close-up that's going to be plastered on the front cover.
Without photos, there's no point in doing the story.
   "Then don't do the story, it's up for you," mangles Agnes.  "Use
old photos.  She doesn't look good like herself.  We don't want people
to see her as a dying freak."

   It was only a week after her first-app that Heidi Schenck dropped
the skirt from her costume, opting instead for head-to-toe skintight
spandex.  Contrasting with the skirt, her densely-muscled limbs, flat
breasts, and square face were androgynous, ridiculous, unappealing.
Without the skirt to provide that contrast, Schenck looked like a
manly woman but not a transvestite.  Or, as she said to the press at
the time, "Without the skirt, I look more feminine."
   The contemporary gossip mill put a finer point on it, saying that
Schenck ditched the skirt in response to rumors that it had been
hiding a penis.  When asked about this, Schenck merely smiled and
repeated, "Without the skirt, I look more feminine."

   Her father was devoted to the party, her mother to her father.  In
both cases, the object of devotion was everything and infallible, not
to be questioned, everything sacrificed for the greater good.  And so
when Heidi showed some athletic talent, her father sent her off to
live and train at the Sportvereinigung Dynamo and her mother nodded
her assent.
   "It wouldn't be very patriotic of me to say that I hated my mother
and father for sending me away," Heidi said after the 1976 Olympics,
festooned by all eight of her gold medals-- and for each medal, a new
world record.  "The story people want to hear is that I nobly
sacrificed everything for Germany, for the greater good.  That's the
story that means something, that's the story that goes with these
medals."  It was the sort of statement that she became famous for--
neither confirming nor denying something but rather explaining what
each answer meant for her image, for her story.  What separates her
statements from those made by two-mouthed politicians is that they're
neither nonsense nor meant to obfuscate; with every sentence, Schenck
takes you behind the scenes.  She's at once false and true,
consciously constructing an image and consciously undermining it.
   In 1980, she only won three medals, again setting world records.
"I had hoped to win more than last time, but it's kind of hard to win
more than three when you're only competing in three events.  I'm
supposed to say that it's because I wanted to focus on those three
events.  It would look really bad if I said the party wanted me to be
less exceptional so that the world thinks of us more as a collective.
I'd be a very bad communist if I said that." Classic Schenck.
   It's a tendency that persists even on her death bed.  The very
first question I asked her, the only very first question that I could
have asked her, was if she thought the steroids had done this to her.
   "Well," she wheezes through her breathing tube, "if I was to say
that, then I would be admitting that I took steroids.  And since my
whole image is being the pinnacle of human athletic achievement, the
normal body honed to perfection, admitting that I took steroids would
kind of destroy that, wouldn't it?"

   Of course, that isn't her whole image.  As an Olympian, she and the
other East German women represented both German exceptionalism and
Soviet collectivity.  It was only Schenck who would comment, in her
inimitable fashion, on how the two things were a bit at odds with one
another.  And only Schenck who continued to represent both ideas
through-out the eighties as a costumed adventurer, the nation's
superhero- (or, to the West, supervillain)-in-residence.
   To many Americans, Schenck _was_ East Germany in the same way that
over a thousand years of Scottish culture, cuisine, and civilization
were reduced to the supersonic bagpipe-wielding Clan MacPlunder for
much of the sixties.  This was helped to a certain extent by the fact
that Schenck kept reinventing herself, going through eleven different
names in her short four-color career-- no one knew what she was
calling herself now, but they all knew that she was "the one from East
   Schenck encouraged the identification even as she undermined it--
much to the government's chagrin.  Often when one hero or villain is
singled out as the epitome of a country or culture, said country or
culture gets a little peeved-- consider, again, the Clan MacPlunder,
or the ambivalence Romania has towards its current vampiric champion.
But this went double for East Germany.
   "They hated me for not representing East Germany very well,"
Schenck recalls from her hospital bed.  "And after Die Wende, everyone
hated me because I represented East Germany, I was the establishment
that was keeping families apart.  And they say I have trouble making
up my mind."
   "You do," smiles Agnes.  She touches Heidi's shoulder before
looking at me.  "That's why she gives everything up for me to decide."
   Since Die Wende.
   "Since we have been together, yes."
   Which is since Die Wende.
   "I think already I have answered you."
   Schenck smacks her dry lips together.  "It is convenient, though,
that after there was no East Germany to represent, that I found
something else to represent."
   "Heidi, please," says Agnes.
   "Well, the implication is that I became a lesbian for purely
mercenary reasons.  The implication is that I didn't do it out of a
sexual attraction to women, or out of love, but for my image."
   Agnes flashes me a pair of eye daggers.  "I did not think you
should be asking such questions."
   Well, is the implication true?
   "Of course it's not," says Agnes.
   "Whether I am really a lesbian or just pretending," says Schenck,
"I am still doing the things that make you a lesbian.  I live with
another woman as my partner.  We go out together as a couple, we march
in parades for the rights of other gays and lesbians.  I am a lesbian,
whether I mean it or not.  If I was to murder you, I would be a
murderer, whether I meant it in my heart or not."
   Agnes sighs, not the first but probably the last to be frustrated
by Heidi Schenck.  "She loves me.  She did not choose to love a woman,
it is not a choose to be gay, but she choose to love me, she choose

   A nurse comes to change Schenck's bag.  While I wait outside the
room, I think about the other Heidi, Heidi Krieger, the East German
shot-putter.  Heidi underwent sex reassignment surgery in 1997,
becoming Andreas.  Not, like other transsexuals, because he was a man
trapped inside a woman's body, but because the anabolic steroids had
made Heidi male.  All the surgeons needed to do was change the
   Heidi had never identified herself as a lesbian; Andreas, now a
straight man, took another former athlete as his bride.  The steroid
use has resulted in multiple health problems, as it has for the
literally hundreds of athletes, some of whom were only ten years old
at the time, who were systemically doped by orders of East Germany's
Minister of Sport, Manfred Ewald.  Androgyny, inability to sleep,
unable to exert themselves beyond what you would expect of an
octogenarian, various cancers, heart problems, and in most cases total
   Heidi Schenck has all of these.

   Shortly after coming out, Schenck retired from jumping around on
rooftops and punching people in the face.  She was, by her own
admission, never the most active hero in the first place, her role
mostly symbolic.  "And I like what I symbolize now, because it shows
that you can be powerful, a champion, and be gay.  That's why I don't
want a photo, because who wants to see another dying gay person in a
hospital bed?  That's so yesterday's hat.  That's not very good for my
message, I think."
   But you're okay saying that's why, you're okay with us printing
that, out in the open?
   She smiles, her lips stretching across the lower half of her
rectangle of a face before she checks to make sure her spouse is still
out on the balcony smoking a cigarette.  "I don't think Agnes likes me
saying that very much, but in the end I have to be who I am."
   Of course, it would probably help your message more if you didn't
verbalize all the ins and outs of your message.
   "For some people, yes, but not so much for me," says Schenck.
"There are people who can lie and everyone loves them and there are
people who lie and everyone can see it, and with me, they can see it.
I can't put on an act.  I have to be honest and risk it not working
very well or else it won't work at all."
   Can you be honest about the steroids?
   "Well, I can honestly say that there is evidence, mountains and
mountains of evidence.  There are books, testimonies, records that it
happened, where and when it happened, and I was there and then.  And
all my health problems are consistent with what has become of the
other girls.  It would look very foolish of me indeed to say that no,
it didn't happen.  It would look like I was lying to myself or like I
was stupid, and I am neither.
   "But!  If I say, yes, this is what happened, if I say that I took
the steroids, then that explains the health problems, it explains why
I won so many gold medals, it explains why I was able to be a four-
colour, it maybe explains why I am a lesbian.  Everything that I am,
is because of the steroids.  Cause-and-effect, and I don't get a say
in the matter.  No... no autonomy.  In the end, no me.  So I can't say
that, because like I said before, in the end, I have to be who I am
and not just a collection of chemicals."
   Agnes returns from the balcony and kisses Heidi on the cheek.


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