Understanding the story of Mike Penner and Christine Daniels

 
Mike Penner was my favorite sports writer.  I posted a blog about this in April, 2007, on the day Christine’s essay was printed.  Who knew and who could have guessed where it would lead.
 
 

In late April 2007, Mike Penner published an article unlike any of the thousands he had written for the Los Angeles Times. It was brief, just 823 words, and placed without fanfare on the second page of the Sports section that had been his home for 23 years.

Under the headline "Old Mike, new Christine," Penner explained that he would soon assume a female identity and byline, a decision that followed "a million tears and hundreds of hours of soul-wrenching therapy."

It was "heartache and unbearable discomfort" to remain a man, he explained. Being a woman promised "joy and fulfillment." The article ended on a hopeful note: "This could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship."

Gone was quiet, circumspect Mike Penner, replaced by ebullient, outgoing — and instantly famous — Christine Daniels. Celebrity meant a megaphone, and Daniels vowed to use it as an advocate. She told her story at transsexual conferences across the country, becoming a symbol of courage to a transgender community inspired by the most visible coming-out in decades.

A year after the essay, the Daniels byline vanished from the newspaper, and within months Penner was back at work, living as a man and writing under his male name. Once so voluble about the reasons for becoming Christine, Penner was silent about the reasons for abandoning the identity.

This time, there was no essay, no explanation. But friends saw a person in torment. Last November, in the parking garage of the apartment complex where he lived alone, Penner killed himself. He was 52.

Penner said that he wanted sex-change surgery. Before American doctors will perform the operation, they require patients to live openly for a year in their new gender to confront the difficulties and sacrifices involved without illusion or false hope.

It’s called the "real-life test," and as he prepared for it, Penner gathered longtime friends and handed them packets about transsexualism.

He took pains, a friend recalled, to remove from the Web every picture he could find of himself as a man, consigning what he considered a counterfeit self to the past. He debated how to come out at work and worried how the publicity would affect Dillman. People who had been through the process advised a low-key approach.

At a meeting with then-Sports editor Harvey in late February 2007, Penner revealed that he would soon become Christine Daniels (his middle name was Daniel) and suggested that perhaps he should move to The Times’ Calendar section.

"I thought he felt maybe we wouldn’t accept him in Sports," Harvey said. "I told him it was a bad idea to leave Sports. We were family to him."

Penner wanted to become Daniels quietly, without explanation to readers. But Harvey pointed out that the name change was bound to become news. "I said, ‘I think you need to write it. Don’t let anybody else write it first,’ " he recalled.

Penner agreed but was consumed with dread as publication day approached. He enlisted friends to monitor the e-mail feedback and sports-radio chatter.

The article, published April 26, 2007, became the paper’s most-viewed story of the year online, and the response — from colleagues and the public — was overwhelmingly positive. "One of the best days I’ve ever had," the sportswriter told National Public Radio.

Two weeks later, Dillman signed papers petitioning for divorce, citing "irreconcilable differences."

Transsexual friends — many of whom had lost families during their transition — recall warning Penner that maintaining the marriage was an unrealistic hope. Through a lawyer, he made overtures: Could the marriage be saved? The answer was no.

Daniels underwent electrolysis to have facial hair burned out at the root, took hormones, amassed a shoe collection and experimented with a variety of wigs: short, long, blond, brunet. She spoke in a soft, high voice, cried frequently, happy or sad. Daniels was "exuberant, dynamic, touchy, hugging, a vibrant, vivacious person," Harvey said.

In October 2007, Daniels showed up at a Los Angeles studio to pose for photographs to accompany a profile in Vanity Fair magazine. The photographer, Robert Maxwell, said Daniels wore simple, elegant dresses in what was intended as a "conservative, classy-type look."

Maxwell said he sensed Daniels’ brittleness and tried to deal with her sensitively. On seeing the photos, she dissolved into tears, saying: "I’m ugly."

"I told her, ‘No, you’re beautiful,’ " Maxwell said. "I was trying to say all the right things. How do you tell someone who looks like a man, ‘You’re a beautiful woman’? I don’t know." As he tried to console her, Maxwell recalled, she pushed him away. The photo shoot was "a total debacle, probably the worst experience of my transition," Daniels wrote in an e-mail to a friend.

The photographer "apparently wanted to portray me as a man in a dress — my worst fear," Daniels wrote. "I felt betrayed, totally abused, and very very vulnerable and exposed and alone in the world."

The profile writer, Evan Wright, said that to write an honest article, he would have to observe that the sportswriter did not pass as a woman. "I thought, ‘Bottom line, she has a fantasy conception. She doesn’t accept who she is.’ "

Wright said that after the photo shoot, he was so afraid Daniels would commit suicide that he asked his editor to cancel the story. It was never written.

One transgender friend, Sara Hayward, heard an eerie shifting in Daniels’ speech during a conversation in early March. Now and then, Daniels’ soft, steady voice would give way abruptly to Penner’s voice, deep and cracking. "It was two voices coming out of the same person," Hayward said.

Daniels, who had been writing a sports-media column called Sound and Vision, had her last byline in The Times on April 4, 2008, then went on extended disability leave. She was despondent — close friends knew she was manic depressive — failing to eat and stricken with esophageal pain.

Daniels told Amy LaCoe, her transsexual friend, that she had ruined her marriage and made a mess of her life. LaCoe insisted that Daniels stay with her for a couple months. "She stared at my bedroom ceiling for a long time," LaCoe said. "She had stopped caring about herself."

Daniels stopped taking hormones and began getting rid of the physical trappings of Christine, LaCoe said, giving the jewelry and shoe collection to friends, donating the wigs, carting the clothes to Goodwill. In a matter of months, the whole identity had been banished.

Just as Penner had once hunted down and removed his male pictures from the Web, he now sought to erase evidence that Christine Daniels had ever existed. He asked editors to have archives of the Woman in Progress blog erased. They refused, citing the paper’s policy of preserving its records.

Nevertheless, at some point the archives vanished. The editor said he has been unable to retrieve the posts or determine who deleted them.

When the sportswriter returned to work as Mike Penner in late October 2008, co-workers noticed that his manner was remote, his handshake unsteady. His face was changed, the jaw line permanently smooth from electrolysis. He did not want to talk about his experience, much less write about it.

Penner had been renting a one-bedroom apartment at the Westwood Villa Apartments on Sepulveda Boulevard, a big, bedraggled, anonymous complex.

About 5:45 p.m. on Nov. 27, Penner entered the apartment office to deposit two envelopes in the outbox — payments to Verizon and a credit card company. Three hours later, neighbors found him slumped in the front seat of his 1997 Toyota Camry in the underground parking garage. The windows were fogged, and a vacuum hose stretched from the exhaust into the passenger window.

The silence that enveloped Penner’s last months now extends among almost all the journalists who knew him best at The Times, including his ex-wife, who covers the Clippers, and his brother John, who works on the copy desk. Neither responded to requests to be interviewed for this article.

No comment except ‘Why?’  And I hope he found some peace.

 

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4 Responses to Understanding the story of Mike Penner and Christine Daniels

  1. Stephen Craig says:

    Bob, Why, indeed is a very good question. This is a bit out of my league as it were but perhaps it is rather like a wanna be lotto winner finally winning the big one. In the rush of new found fortune and dreams come true the good old life quickly seems to fade. Then one day perhaps what one wished for was not what it was cracked up to be and in the effort to go back one may find that there is no return. As ever be well

  2. john says:

    suicide is one of the more selfish acts of man and Penner/Daniels appears to not be self centered so there was something else going on, probably.a sad and tragic story. self idenity for some is a strugglethanks

  3. Joe says:

    I can’t even begin to imagine the problems in this troubled person’s life. It seems that things were so tragic all the way to the end. I wish he could have known just how much God cared for him.

  4. Grandma's says:

    Very sad story indeed. I have a friend on Facebook who is currently going through a sex-change ordeal. A wonderful person…..but I fear for this person….can’t help wondering if the problem is trying to fill a spiritual need, or confusion with regards to sexual identity…but that is not for me to judge. I try to be as supportive as I can….I have no idea what this person is going through….but when I read about the tragedy of Mike/Christine, all I can do is pray for my friend. I too, hope that Mike Penner found the love, peace, and acceptance he was seeking. Some will say that suicide is murder and that God will judge harshly….I have to disagree. I think we, as humans, judge people more harshly than our Lord does.

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