For the first time since he packed Michelle's things away, Michael Berke tugs the cord of the attic door above his garage. Surrounding him in the suburban Delray Beach garage are power tools, bicycles, sandpaper, and a lawn mower, though Berke's prized possession — a Harley — is in the shop at the moment.
Berke, who is 43, looks the biker-dude part. He's a solid six-footer in a black cutoff T-shirt, Harley jeans, the beginnings of a Fu Manchu, tattoos, and a freckled, clean-shaven head. He climbs the wooden ladder and, in one final, creak-inducing impetus, heaves himself into the attic.
It's mostly Michelle's stuff up here, Berke says, looking around reflectively. Just before Michelle disappeared, she gave it away to a friend, Rachael Balentine, who some day will come to claim it. Balentine has apparently hit the accessories jackpot.
"She [Michelle] had so many purses and things," Berke says, unsealing a blue plastic bin. He lifts out a knee-high black XOXO boot and studies it. "These were Michelle's favorite pair of shoes," he says, petting the leather.
He reaches into a white plastic bag and retrieves a magenta alligator purse from Guess. Michelle had Chanel shoes to match, he remembers. There was also the zebra-print jacket, with fake pink blood on it and the pink lining. Michelle loved wearing pink.
Really, she just loved to shop, Berke says. Over the year and a half that she ruled Berke's life, she bought 45 pairs of strappy high-heels, mostly from DSW. For bras, she always opted for Victoria's Secret. Everything she bought had to be tight, vibrant, and provocative.
Berke wishes that he had more pictures of her in those stunning outfits. Or a bottle of Michelle's elegant Incanto perfume. He can almost hear her gravelly voice, making those offbeat jokes. "Hickory, dickery, dock — I got tits and a cock," she used to say. He'll even miss her impulsive spending.
"She bankrupted me," Berke says with a smile.
It's been two years since those D-sized breasts, beautiful legs, fire-red hair, and killer smile all belonged to him. Literally.
That's right, Berke used to be a woman who used to be a man. He's an MTFTM, male to female to male. An ex-tranny who took a surgical U-turn. No, it never got to the big one. He's still got "Snoopy." But add up all of Berke's other surgeries, including breast implants, a brow lift, a nose job, cheek implants, and more and it equals about $80,000. Call it bankruptcy, as far as Berke is concerned. All for a big mistake.
Or was it?
In recent years, the transsexual community has beseeched the media to cover its discrimination and to help extend equal-rights protections. That's important, all right. Transsexuals are mistreated because of their gender identities, particularly in the criminal justice system and the workplace. "Transsexuality is the biggest taboo in the world," says Mark Angelo Cummings, a Hollywood transgender activist and the author of The Mirror Makes No Sense, about his life as a transsexual.
But the story of oscillating trannies has slipped under the radar. The truth is, not every tranny lives in gender bliss ever after.
Sometimes, surgery doesn't fulfill expectations. Sometimes, mental problems are exacerbated. But in Berke's case — as with others — there was another powerful force at work: evangelical Christianity.
If Berke's female incarnate had never set foot in Calvary Chapel — Florida's largest and most influential megachurch — she might have lived a long, sassy life. Instead, after several sessions of fundamentalist counseling, Berke became convinced that God didn't make mistakes. Berke's return to manhood — finagled and partially financed by the church — has outraged local transgender activists.
"I was an extremely happy baby," Berke says, sitting cross-legged in his Delray Beach home and presenting a series of photos, taken in his hometown, Cincinnati, Ohio. In each one, baby Michael displays a tuft of red hair and a toothy, carefree smile.
What happened to Berke between these photos and age 4, he's not sure. He believes he may have been abused. He remembers being ignored by his family and spending a lot of time in the basement. His father — a salesman — played catch with him just once, Berke says. In third grade, Berke was diagnosed with a neurological disorder, but he can't recall what it was.
His parents didn't keep his medical records, and after ten years, the hospital discarded them. He remembers there being something amiss in the connections between his right and left hemispheres in the frontal lobe of his brain. The disorder prevented him from getting dizzy, Berke says. As therapy, Berke remembers his doctor spinning him like a top. Sometimes, Berke would be tucked into a plastic ball and rolled around. For 70 minutes a day, his mother would secure him in a hammock — cocoon style — and spin it. (This treatment is unheard of in modern medicine.)
After a few years, the problem — whatever it was — had been corrected, but the damage was done. Berke had a learning disability. He attended a special school from third through sixth grades. Then, in seventh grade, he reentered the public school system but was placed in special classes. He was picked on mercilessly, he remembers. Though he had no early impulse to cross-dress, Berke suspects he was a little effeminate.
Kids would stick out their tongues at him or slap him. Somebody tripped him, and he knocked out his front teeth. His mother tried to be supportive, but by the time he hit high school, she had given up, Berke says. He saw himself as an outcast in the family. Neither of his parents nor his sister, Robin, who is two years older and lives in Chicago, would agree to an interview for this story. Robin said only that her brother is too unstable to be part of their lives and that he's been unstable and destructive for as long as she remembers.
As a teenager, Berke started acting out. "We were using slingshots and breakin' windows and lighting Dumpsters on fire," he says, grinning slightly as he puffs a Camel Light. But it wasn't until college that Berke began experimenting with drugs. He went to Wright State University in Ohio, where he tried LSD. He loved it.
Berke began neglecting his studies in theater tech to hang out with punk rockers, trip on acid, and go to shows. Then he dropped out completely. In 1985, his parents divorced. Berke took $10,000 that had been put away for him, packed his Datsun 310 hatchback, bought a trailer for his dirt bike, and drove straight to San Francisco, where he got a job as a roadie for the Sea Hags, a metal band. He also became a heroin addict. After the band's bass player died of an overdose, Berke moved to Mission Beach in San Diego to clean himself up.
He ended up living on the street and becoming addicted to crystal meth.
"I got absolutely out of my mind," he remembers.
He moved to L.A., hoping again for a cleaner lifestyle and a job in the music industry. He lived on the streets of South Central for a while, then moved under a bridge in Hollywood, where he became part of a street gang, the Hollywood Trolls. By now, he was in his late 20s, having spent almost a decade on drugs.
Berke started attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, though, and he found another roadie gig, this time for the New Kind, an early '90s pop band. Berke was a diligent worker, and eventually his efforts got noticed, he says. He scored jobs on production crews for some of the biggest names of the early '90s — Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, and Barry Manilow. He's got the framed, signed programs and passes to prove it.
"I was having so much fun, you know, reaching a dream," he says. "To actually go to Hollywood and make it... "
He talks proudly about unloading Chicago's truck and hauling equipment for the Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Once, he had to retrieve Janet's exercise bike from her home. Another time, he had to transport her video — the one and only copy — to a studio. "I think that's the most valuable thing that's ever been in my hands," he says.
But the jobs were infrequent and unpredictable. If Berke wanted to finish school — and he did — he'd have to say goodbye to the music industry. A friend from San Francisco had moved to South Beach and invited Berke to follow him. He packed up again and drove back across the country — 73 hours without stopping. His secrets were coffee and the company of a pet dingo, Amber.
In Miami, things fell apart with his friend. "It didn't work out at all," Berke says. "I have trouble getting along with people."
He wound up staying at a sober house and enrolled at Miami-Dade College, planning to study psychobiology. For remedial math and English courses, he had to travel to the Boca Raton campus of Florida Atlantic University. Rather than drive up there every day, Berke persuaded his father to help him buy a home in Delray Beach.
There were straight A's at first, Berke says, but then his grades began to slip. He dropped out and started going to fetish parties. Sometimes, he dressed as a woman and liked it. In fact, he liked it a lot, though he soon tired of the fetish scene. "Once you see someone get spanked or whipped," he says, "it kinda gets old."
For Berke, the only passion that has some staying power, he says, is an intense desire to be close to other human beings, especially females. Not in the sexual sense. Berke wants intimacy. He wants the thing girls seem to have with their best girlfriends — the emotional closeness or the ability to "melt into another girl's arms."
"I would never try to touch or cuddle with girls, because I would automatically think they would think I was trying to get in their pants. There was a barrier set up with how close I would be able to get to women."
Berke says he felt jealous of the way women bonded with one another. "When you go shopping in the women's department, you can come out and say, 'How does my ass look in these jeans? Do you think this looks good on me?' Now, a guy shopping in the men's department cannot turn to another guy and say, 'Hey, man, do these jeans look good on me, dude?' "
Men couldn't hold hands walking down the street. They had to be tough. "I hated the male role model," Berke says. He wanted to have heartfelt and intellectual conversations, but any time he tried to do that with a man, the man got up and left.
And Berke wanted to look pretty. "I envied what the girls got to do," he says. "The clothes. Makeup. The theatrics of it all."
In 1997, Berke began seeing Dr. Susan Levin, a Boca Raton-based clinical psychologist. Berke came to her with a credible self-diagnosis, Levin says. Reading psychology books, Berke had noticed that his own symptoms jibed with what psychologists call "borderline personality disorder."
The lack of a well-defined identity was the tip-off. "I'm a chameleon," he says. "My identity doesn't exist."
Still, Berke is poignantly aware of his shortcomings, acknowledging that he can be suicidal or self-abusive to the point of cutting his arms and legs with razor blades. His self-image shifts with the most off-hand comment from a stranger, he says. It's not an easy way to live.
"I had always told myself that I would have my shit together by the year 2000 or I was going to check out."
His first suicide attempt failed. The concoction of Tylenol PM and antidepressants didn't do the trick. So Berke tried to pull himself together. He got a job at a tanning salon, and his father set up a trust for him. With the extra bucks, he bought an Argentine thoroughbred named Destiny's Dream, which he trained and entered in barrel races. A bad fall off the horse ended the cowboy phase and started an addiction to Percocet, a narcotic painkiller. Soon after, he injured his knee and went on disability.
"That's when I said, 'Tomorrow, I'm going to start living as a woman.' "
When he walked through Levin's door one afternoon in 2003, dressed as a woman, the psychologist knew Berke wouldn't take no for an answer. She didn't try to dissuade him. A gender specialist might have handled things differently.
Putting too much collagen in a patient's lips or leaving too much flab after a tummy tuck — those are bad but correctable surgical mistakes. But mistakenly going the distance in a transsexual transformation could be a surgical nightmare.
That's why mental health professionals and surgeons usually follow the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care (SOC). The bible of the gender-swapping community, the SOC provide strict guidelines defining what qualifies a candidate for hormones and surgery and when. But there are always a few who slip through the cracks.
Miami urologist and sexual reassignment surgeon Dr. Arthur Reed recalls three phone calls over his 24 years in practice — two from males and one from a female — asking for a "detransition." Reed, who estimates that he performs about four or five surgeries each week, did not accept the challenge. Likewise, he turns away patients who have not followed the SOC or those who are mentally unstable. They are legal liabilities.
"It's not enough for a person to look like a female," Reed says. "If the person is mentally unstable, it means they can't handle stress. I don't want to touch that person."
There's little research on the outcome of transsexual surgeries. In 2001, researcher Anne Lawrence sent questionnaires to 232 MTF patients of surgeon Dr. Tobias Meltzer. Six percent of the MTFs reported occasional regrets, and less than 1 percent switched back.
Berke is part of that extreme minority. The fact that he never had a gender specialist is troubling to experts within the transgender community.
"It's like having a heart problem and seeing someone other than a cardiologist," Miami sexologist Marilyn Volker says. She added that dual diagnoses of borderline personality disorder and gender-identity disorder raise a red flag that an individual might be gender variant — in other words, permanently undecided.
Volker has seen a lot of those kinds of patients. Some switch back and forth, or they feel they are both genders at once. Some are men who want breasts or women who prefer a penis. Gender is not a black-and-white issue, Volker insists; it's a spectrum. And for those who are gender-variant, Volker would not usually recommend any kind of surgery.
So why did Levin write a note to the surgeon, as recommended by the SOC, OKing Berke to go under the knife? Berke insisted, Levin says. Plus, she had been seeing him for seven years, so she felt qualified.
"It's difficult, because borderlines are very impulsive," said Levin, who spoke to New Times at Berke's request. "When you're a therapist, you can suggest and you can explain things, but ultimately, it was his decision. I certainly supported it if that made him feel better and made him happier with himself."
And it did — at first.
Over coffee and Camel cigarettes at his favorite Delray Beach bar, Koffeeokee, Berke talked about what it was like to be a woman. His eyes light up when he lists his surgeries, as if they are old friends he hasn't thought of in years.
There was the nose job. The brow lift. Fat injections in the cheeks. Breast implants. Electrolysis. Hormones. And more.
"I love surgery!" Berke says. "I love waking up to the painkiller fairy."
Of course, not everything needed work.
"I was naturally born with big lips," he says, pouting to make the point. Berke stands, shifts his weight to one side, and runs a hand across his thigh and up his full backside. "And as you can see, I have natural hips. My legs are to die for."
The estrogen and testosterone inhibitors — which Michelle acquired right away from her primary-care doctor (another violation of the SOC) — thinned and lightened Michelle's facial hair. Still, she opted for electrolysis of the upper lip. That hurt. "Oh my God, it's like, let me go get stung by bees for a while," Berke says.
Michelle had long, reddish locks bonded to her scalp at the Hair Club for Women, and for her $300-per-month membership, she could have the hair styled and rebonded when necessary. She got a butterfly and a flower tattooed strategically over the roguish skull on her left forearm.
Dr. Arthur Handal — who did not return New Times' calls — performed the nose job and brow lift in January 2004, about three months after Berke had decided to become a woman. Several months later, Handal implanted Michelle's D-sized breasts.
Michelle was thrilled. She dressed her new body in fashionable, provocative clothing. She bought all new accessories. She taught herself to speak from the diaphragm and walked in heels as if she were born to do it.
"I even developed an eating disorder," Berke says with pride. In a matter of months, Michelle's bulimia shrank her from a size 12 to a 7. She weighed 150.
Eager to make herself beautiful, she enrolled in cosmetology school and became a nail technician. Soon, she could perform French manicures and apply acrylics. To store her polishes, files, and other nail gear, she emptied a toolbox from the garage.
The bedroom would also have to change. Michelle switched her old, off-white bedspread for a flower print. She painted the walls purple and pink. For the bathroom, Berke bought pink towels with butterflies on them, pink curtains, and fuzzy pink floor mats. Her primping station included a double-sided, light-up vanity mirror on a white table, flanked by a unicorn and a star-shaped lamp.
Michelle bought all the Max Factor, Mac, Lancôme, and Ben Nye makeup she could charge. To pull off the feminine look, the most crucial element was the foundation. She applied thick coats of Ben Nye stage makeup over her mustache and beard areas, then covered it in a translucent powder. For eye shadow, she favored reds, pinks, and purples — sometimes all at once. "Girls used to be astounded by my makeup," Berke says.
After spending a couple of hours getting ready, Michelle — unlike her shy twin brother, Michael — loved to go out on the town. She hung out at Dada, Respectable Street, and the VooDoo Lounge in Fort Lauderdale, and she was an eye magnet.
"One time, I was a little pissed," says Ben, an acquaintance from Koffeeokee. " 'Cause I saw Michelle from a block away, and I was like, 'Who's the hot chick?' Then I was like, 'Oh, it's Michael.' It made me feel like I was gay for a second."
Another time, a couple of guys were sitting on a corner of Atlantic Avenue, rating the female passersby. Michelle was nervous because "the guys were, like, total rednecks." She was sure they'd notice her Adam's apple. "But before I even got there, one was like, '10!' " Berke says. "The other said, 'Definitely 10.' "
A man approached Michelle at Starbucks and asked her to dinner. She informed him that she wasn't interested in men sexually, but he didn't mind. He took her to Kyoto Sushi & Sake Lounge, an upscale sushi restaurant, and bought her toro, an expensive cut of tuna.
"I got to feel what it would be like to be treated like a lady," Berke said. "I mean, he pulled out the chair for me. He ordered for me. It was just so beautiful."
As Michelle, Berke began to feel closer to her female friends. She and Rachael Balentine, her roommate, would go to movies together and shop together. They traded clothing. Balentine, Berke says, became like a sister. Balentine agrees they did become like family.
Berke convinced family members that the transition had been a life-changing event. She told her mother she was happy and stable and ready to become a part of the family again. For the first time since Berke's young adulthood, she was allowed to attend the family's Thanksgiving celebration in Ohio. Michelle cooked the gravy. She painted her young niece's nails. All seemed right in the world.
But soon, what Berke called "the pink cloud" — her honeymoon phase of being female — began to dissipate.
Evangelical Christianity has been trying to cure the "sexually broken" — including gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders — through reparative therapy since 1973.
Orlando-based Exodus International, the world's largest nonprofit dedicated to this cause, has cured thousands, according to its promotional materials, and local churches followed suit, some even becoming satellites of EI. Coral Ridge Ministries, the congregation of the recently deceased Rev. D. James Kennedy, hosted the "Love Won Out" conference last May, which focused on preventing homosexuality, and Metanoia Ministries in Boca Raton offers online seminars with titles like "Developing Gender Identity in a Unisex World."
Calvary Chapel, South Florida's largest megachurch, claiming about 18,000 Protestant congregants, has no formal program for the sexually broken, but it provides biblical counseling to those who need it, Pastor Fidel Gomez says. But neither he nor Pastor Bob Coy would comment on Michael Berke or on the church's view of transgenderism.
The success of Calvary comes largely from the charisma of Coy, a former cocaine dealer, gambler, and Las Vegas strip-club manager turned successful evangelical minister. It was Coy's background that convinced Michelle she had come to the right place.
She landed in the pews of Calvary after some emotional lows that stemmed from a strained relationship with her roommate. Balentine had a new boyfriend, an evangelical Christian, who moved in.
"He was staying here all the time," Berke says. "And I got booted out of the whole picture. He was turning Rachael against me. At that time, my behavior... I was off-the-wall. I was in and out of the hospital. Cutting. Suicide attempts. Living with me at that time must have been hell."
Balentine says that Berke became obsessive about the relationship.
All the old issues seemed to be resurfacing, and by then, the only thing Berke hadn't tried was God. Michelle thought it might allow her and Rachael to become close again, never imagining she'd have to give up her identity.
"I had read in the Bible that God loves me no matter what," Berke says. "So I'm like, cool, I can be a Christian transsexual."
Berke took a liking to both Pastor Bob and Pastor Gomez. Michelle loved their uplifting spiritual message, and she wanted to get more involved. After a handful of church services, Berke approached the pulpit to say a prayer and accept Jesus. Then she attended her first "deep faith" class for neophyte Christians. A classmate told her that deacon Craig Houston wanted to have a word with her.
Houston asked Michelle about herself, and she told him she dreamed of falling in love and having a family. "Do you believe in some sort of creation and order in the universe?" Berke remembers Houston asking. Yes. Next question: "Well, if there is order in the universe and some sort of creator, how could that creator make mistakes?"
At the church bookstore, Berke purchased Psychology Debunked, by Lisa and Ryan Bazler. It asserted that problems like Berke's were not mental disorders but the absence of God in one's life. Berke was shown a video of Sy Rogers, a former transsexual and homosexual turned husband, dad, and successful talk-show host, speaker, and musician, and Berke thought about becoming the next Rogers.
The church people were encouraging. "They were so very, very nice to me," Berke says. "I was almost overwhelmed with how much attention they were giving me. I just wanted to do what they suggested. I believed what they were telling me, and I fell into the whole born-again thing."
Michelle stopped wearing makeup and cut off all her hair, even though the brow lift had left Berke's bald head with a thin rainbow of a scar from ear to ear. For two weeks, she wore giant T-shirts to concealed her 36-D's. There was no money for implant removal. The transition had left Berke $80,000 in debt, forcing her to file for bankruptcy.
Then, in what felt like a miracle, the church agreed to pay for the removal of Michelle's implants. A surgeon friend of Pastor Bob's (Berke can't recall the name) had an immediate opening, and, just like that, Michelle was Michael again.
He wasn't thrilled with the results. He still had some breast tissue from the hormones, he says lifting his shirt. "I'm left with this," he says. "He didn't suck out any of the extra fat cells that I had developed from hormonal treatments."
He continued to attend Calvary for several months but eventually lost interest. He still liked listening to the uplifting sermons of Pastor Bob, but after reading the Bible and coming to a greater understanding of what was required of Christians, Berke balked.
"I couldn't get myself to believe that a guy rose from the dead," he says, shaking his head.
Upon reflection, the argument that had been so compelling about God not making mistakes all of a sudden rang hollow. What about people born with three chromosomes or both a penis and a vagina?
The depression came back, and Berke became a hermit. He missed his old clothes, his shopping sprees, and all the attention Michelle used to get. He knew how superficial it all was, though, and he didn't like the idea of growing old as a woman and losing his good looks. He still wanted to start a healthy relationship with a woman, which seemed more possible as a man.
Balentine had moved out by then, and another man had moved in. But he and Berke weren't getting along. Berke tried to kick his new roommate out of the house, and it ended in a fight, with Berke punching his fist through the other man's television set. After that, Berke took a bunch of pills. Before losing consciousness, he called 911.
When he woke up in the hospital, Berke was furious. He wanted to be dead, he says. He picked up an IV stand and wrecked the hospital room. When he got home, he found that his computer and his X-box games had all been stolen. All the photos of Michelle he had saved on his computer were gone.
That's when he traded in his Nissan Altima for a Harley. He rode around for three days, "ready for war," he says. On the third day, he pulled up to Calvary Chapel and burst through the doors with a picture of Michelle in one hand.
"This is who I used to be, and I was happy to be her," he announced. "And this is what I've become, thanks to Pastor Bob."
The pastors sent out three young men to pray for him. But when Berke began talking about how he couldn't believe Jesus rose from the dead, the conversation ended, he says.
"That's when they asked me to leave," Berke says. "I go to church, of all places, which should have been a sanctuary. I felt my life was in danger. And they turned me away. I was just like, 'Fuck this world. Fuck everything. I don't give a shit.' "
He went home, kicked in the door to his oven, and had a mental breakdown.
Karen Doering, senior counsel for the National Center for Lesbian Rights in St. Petersburg, says Calvary Chapel was smart not to comment for this article. They may be in some legal trouble.
"The church absolutely could be liable if they engaged in counseling and did not abide by professional standards of care," Doering says. "It's unconscionable and outrageous that church authorities would prey on an emotionally vulnerable person who has mental-health issues and deliberately exacerbate her already low self-esteem."
Also rallying behind Berke is Mark Angelo Cummings.
"God has nothing to do with this," he says of gender-identity issues. "These are individuals in the church, interpreting a belief system. They don't realize we all don't come with a little manual in a little box. There's a lot of shades, and we're just being who we are."
Calvary Chapel and the doctor who performed the corrective surgery should be penalized, Cummings says.
"They're messing with people's lives," he says. "They're not qualified to do what they're doing."
On a recent Friday night, Berke is handing out raffle tickets at the entrance to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He's not an alcoholic, but these are his favorite meetings. He's content to be at the door, greeting people and making jokes as they enter the conference room.
"Welcome to the meeting," he tells each guest, breaking off a red raffle ticket. Some give him hugs and kisses, and everybody's happy to see him.
It's been almost a year since his psychological breakdown. In that time, he's been taking pleasure in his Harley, riding with a bunch of bikers who barely know him. There's not much talk with his biker pals, he says, because nobody can hear above the engines.
Berke's mother and sister once again refuse to talk to him now that he has become Michael again, saying it is a mark of his poisonous instability.
He's been attending AA meetings almost every day. Although most of the people don't know Berke well, they know that he was once Michelle. And they miss that spunky redheaded Amazon. Berke misses her too — her attitude, her fearlessness, her ability to be the center of attention.
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"If Michelle had never walked into the church, she'd probably still be here today," Berke says. He believes she would have eventually gotten sexual-reassignment surgery and lived out the rest of her life as a woman.
Sometimes, Berke says he's angry, and he thinks of taking legal action. "They warped my mind," he'll say. Other times, he says he knows they had good intentions. He occasionally thinks about going back on hormones — just to feel more feminine. Although he says he doubts that Michelle will ever reemerge, he insists she will always be part of him. "I'm a true Gemini," he says. "Michelle's my twin. I just let her out of the box for a little while. She's still with me."
After the AA meeting, Berke follows the crowd back to Koffeeokee. He gets a cup of coffee and makes the rounds with acquaintances. Ben, the one who once found himself unwittingly attracted to Michelle, is parked at an outdoor table with his friend Jason. Berke sits, and soon the conversation turns to what's next for him. Ben, though he doesn't know Berke all that well, seems to have nailed it.
"I think Michael is quite capable of morphing into different things," he says. "I think he's almost done with the biker thing. There will be another incarnation. It'll have to be something different and shocking."