It was when Paul McKerrow went to UC Berkeley, to get far, far away from Montana, to study rhetoric, art history, and film, that he began to see that he could and would become Kimberly. It was not a transition without conflict—they never are—but Reed took it slowly ("In retrospect I now realize I was comparatively young, and it actually didn't take me inordinately long to transition, but it felt dreadfully slow at the time"). A year abroad in Norway in the late eighties, with a lot of time spent on his own, began the process. And by the time Paul matriculated at San Francisco State in 1990, in pursuit of an M.A. in film, he was in his mid-twenties and living part of the time as Paul and part as Kim. The Bay Area was a safe place to begin this daunting process. Even so, on one occasion, upon encountering an old friend, a guy, while wearing the outfits that were more Kim's than Paul's, she ran and hid behind a tree. Gradually, however, Kim began to let go of Paul. Eventually, she was done. Paul McKerrow checked into San Francisco as a former high-school quarterback, and Kim Reed checked out as a lesbian filmmaker.
There's another kind of high-school-reunion experience—the kind in which the infamous party animal returns to the site of the crime. Here the path is much less glamorous, if well-worn. Here there is, arguably, some regret, if there is also pride for an adolescence lived to the fullest. Something along these lines might well have been Marc McKerrow's experience at the Helena High reunion. To understand Marc McKerrow, you have to know a little about Thrill Hill, just outside downtown Helena, where you tried to crest the summit in your father's Buick Riviera, let's say, at the highest possible speed, before the road veered hard right at the underpass, the one with the cement pilings. Marc McKerrow holds the Thrill Hill speed record, according to Kim. He was also stopped by the authorities driving his father's car at 120 mph outside Helena once. And in his later teens he stole his dad's credit card, too, and rented a suite at the best hotel downtown, and invited everyone to come and party. He was used to wresting the limelight from his brother the quarterback ("He has an inability to be embarrassed," Reed says of Marc); if he wasn't good at school, he was great on the weekends. At least, that is, until the accident. He was driving his Chevy Blazer, with the tinted windows and the vanity plates (BLKBLZR). Paul was away, beginning the process of becoming Kim, when Marc totaled his SUV after his 21st-birthday celebration in Vegas and sustained a massive head injury.
Massive: meaning that part of his front brain eventually had to be removed. Meaning that he had a "personality change," which is a polite way to describe significant brain damage, impulse-control problems, seizures. Of this last: Marc had multiple surgeries to relieve the seizures, but afterward he required even more medication, both for neurological symptoms and for emotional ones, and though he was able to marry (a startlingly patient woman) and to produce a daughter (quite sweet), he was never much able to work. Because of his persistent short-term-memory issues, Marc is preoccupied with the distant past, with the time he can remember, with the particulars of his adoptive family, the minutiae—family photos in great profusion, Paul's skis, a baseball hat that Paul and Marc shared in high school—and of course with stories, all this material from the time before his accident. When Kim was Paul, when all three boys were in school together, and he, Marc, was "more popular" than either of his brothers. For Marc, events of the present—like family get-togethers, visits for the holidays—are furrowed under in this constant need to talk about those years, to talk about high school, the good times, to enumerate the rights and wrongs committed by family members, the moments of glory, the injustices, and the football-playing brother he seemed to both admire and dislike in equal measure (in the film he once calls Kim Paul in a fit of anger). And sometimes when Marc doesn't get the response he wants, there are bouts of cruelty, tongue lashings that go on and on and on, or, worse, explosions (and some of these are depicted in Prodigal Sons, to gruesome and painful effect) in which things around the house, pictures and dishes, are busted up, knives brandished, threats leveled, and so on. The Marc McKerrow of youth was bad, but bad in a way that some people found likable and even amusing. The Marc McKerrow of adulthood is hurt, confused, broken, and besieged from all sides. He veers among arrogant, defeated, and paranoid.