This is a review of a book for which I was allowed a review copy, for which thank the publisher!
This is the first of a disappointing pair of transgender books I'm reviewing today, both written by guys named Chris! The blurb for this book is as misleading as they get. You can't blame the author (Chris Edwards, not to be confused with author Christopher Edwards) for this because they have nothing to do with their blurb unless they self publish, but I did want to mention it as a point of order, and because it's something out of the author's hands that can seriously and negatively impact the very book the author has written.
The blurb says "At a time when the term transgender didn't exist...Chris Edwards endured 28 surgeries to become the person he always knew he was meant to be." The problem with this is that this book covers the author's experiences in changing gender largely during the nineties and into the early oughts (although it references some time before), whereas the term 'transgender' was coined in 1965, which was, I'm roughly estimating, about five years before the author was born) and was in common use by the seventies. So common had it become by the nineties that in 1992, the International Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy had codified a definition of it! So no, the blurb is outright wrong here.
I really wanted to like this book because I loved the title. It was when I began reading the first chapter that I began to realize I should not have loved the title so much. I really didn't like the first chapter, but it improved after that, and so I had mixed feelings as I read on. Although it continued quite strongly from there on, it seriously deteriorated the further I read, and by the end, I didn't even want to read the epilogue and that's where I stopped.
For me the book was at it's best when it described the struggle the author went through to get where he needed to go, which was from the fabulously-named Kristin Eskandarian, to the end goal of Chris Edwards. Determined he was and suffer he did, and I suffered with him (after a fashion!) but enjoyed the experience while it lasted. Every fundamentalist who thinks being gay or transgender is a "choice" needs to read books like this to get themselves an education. No one chooses this ostracism, punishment, struggle, emotional overload and physical pain. No one wants it. No one wishes for it, but some must endure it, and amongst those are people who cannot do right by themselves until they have corrected, to the best of their ability, a heartless trick of nature. This author is one of those people.
Religion just pisses me off, frankly, which is why I had a hard time reading, towards the end of the book, this musing: "I always wondered why God made me transgender." This blind belief imposed by society on everyone from birth (well they try) that some magical being has a plan for all of us is delusional. It is also a burden no one should have to endure, because it makes life harder and inexplicable when you have to accommodate a big bearded giant in the sky. It forces questioning statements like this out of people because when you let god in, you let rationality out. I can't prove this, but the evidence is all on my side: no god had anything to do with this. It's just nature, screwing-up. Fortunately, albeit clumsy as yet, science has the power to go a long way towards correcting nature's mistakes of one sort or another. No god can help, and anyone who worships a god who would purposefully do this kind of thing to people is worshiping an evil, capricious god not worthy of human intellect or attention in my opinion.
The early strength of this book was in its unflinching reportage of the physical struggle: the inconvenience at best, and pain and suffering at worst. The weakness of it was that there seemed to be no "emotional content" as Bruce Lee so cutely phrased it in his movie Enter the dragon There needs to be emotional content in a story like this and I wasn't feeling it. And while this is a memoir and so is expected to be about the author, the problem was that it was all about him, with very little time or room for anyone else, least of all other people in his position.
We have mention of family and friends frequently, but they are always bit players and they seem to disappear completely in the latter portion of the book. We never really get a feel for what they went through because the author is so intently focused on what he's going through. This really came to a head (if you'll forgive the unintended pun) in the last few chapters where the focus was not on his life in general, his liberation, what he experienced in general as a man, and and how he felt about everything. Instead of that, which would have been wonderful, the sole focus was on his desperate quest to get laid!
This really soured me on the entire book, and cheapened the experience of reading it considerably. While I was hoping for more of the post-surgery story, all I got was this endless quest to find a female and this is when it really brought it home to me that the author was very much a guy. His story was all about balls, but it was balls in the sense of testosterone, and not in the sense of guts. In short, it was the opposite of what I'd hoped for when I first saw this title.
I'd wanted a before-and-after story and in a sense, there wasn't one because for the author, there was only after. There never was a before because he never was a woman except in the most superficial sense. I get that, I do, but there is still a story there, and I kept getting hints of it here and there which were disappointingly brief: about how he felt and how he was treated when he was perceived as a woman as compared with when he brought out the man who had always been subsumed under a female exterior.
I'd hoped for more of a general story of post-op life along those lines, but all we really got was the op. There was no 'post' other than what I just mentioned, which sadly was all about his new "post" if I can put it that way, and it sounded rather desperate and of an entirely frat-boy mentality, which turned me right off. It was this kind of thing which made me dislike that first chapter, too.
There's a sick genderist joke that a man's brains are in his penis, and this memoir played right into its hands. In fact the author indulges himself in this kind of genderism when he writes, "Luckily the testosterone had yet to override the female part of my brain that has no qualms about asking for directions." Seriously? There were several such Whisky-Tango-Foxtrot statements such as: "I wanted my first time to be with someone I really cared about—who cared about me" which felt so hypocritical coming as it did at the end of bunch of chapters which talked only about getting laid - and with not a single mention of sexual diseases and risks. I found myself wondering, more than once, what happened to the woman? And the answer was always there: there never was a woman, not in any sense in this book! It was always a guy!
That kind of thing would have made more sense had it not come after statements like this one: "He then informed me that if I’m with a woman at a revolving door, the gentlemanly thing to do is to enter first and get it going so she doesn’t have to exert any effort. This guy was a true gentleman in every sense of the word, which is exactly what I intended to be." To me that's sheer sexism. A 'true gentleman' may well be what he was, but he didn't give me that impression having read those last few chapters, where it was all about sex, never about relationships, companionship, building trust, shared interests, or getting to know someone before diving headlong into them. Again, these are things guys are known for doing - and juvenile guys at that. There is no feminine side to this.
That quote harbors another issue, too. Are men and women supposed to be treated equally or not? If we are, then women don't get to have doors opened for them, unless you happen to be going out first, and hold it for the next person coming right behind, but in that case, the gender of either person is irrelevant. It's just the polite thing to do. But equality means precisely that - equal treatment for all. You don't get get to have the car door opened, or for men to stand up when you enter the room, or for you keep your purse closed while the man's wallet is perennially open on your date. Otherwise it's not equality, it's privilege, class, and special treatment which is precisely what the suffragists accused men of. Do we really want to go back to that? More on privilege anon.
It felt very hypocritical reading a statement like that above from someone who is, in this very memoir, talking of equality in the extreme: of the right of those who are gender dysphoric to be allowed to equalize themselves as this author was allowed, and to be allowed to be treated as all other men and women when the surgeries are over. That's what equality means. But as long as you're talking about wanting to be "a true gentleman", then you're missing the point! This is not to say men should be allowed to be dicks and jerks. We can still be polite, considerate, and well-behaved, but this behavior should not be considered the sole preserve of the male gender, especially since (some would argue and upon very solid grounds!) men are not even there yet! There's no reason at all these days why a woman should not open a car door for a guy, or why she should not go down on one knee and propose marriage!
The author's family, which had played an important role in the early chapters, were pretty much banished from the second half of the book. No longer was this thirty-year-old guy traveling with his mom for consultations. Family was out, which frankly felt a bit odd to me. Traveling with family for post op help I could see, but for a consultation? It felt more like fiction than memoir, but in the end it was his choice.
The fictional shadow grew darker when I read a statement like this: "Dr. Laub had made it his mission to travel to underdeveloped countries and provide life-changing plastic surgeries to tens of thousands of people." Now I don't doubt that a surgeon could perform tens of thousands of operations over a long career. But I just did a calculation, and over a career of forty years, starting from age 28 (four years of university, four years of medical school, and two years of residency minimum, would put him at 28), a doctor could perform ten thousand operations if he did five per week, fifty weeks per year.
That's not a heavy load by any means, but remember that what we're talking about here is charitable surgery in third world countries, and he wasn't doing those at the rate of five per week for fifty weeks of the year over forty years. He was doing those on trips away from his regular work. Hundreds I can see, maybe even thousands of such operations, but tens of thousands, all of them life saving? No. Just no! Doing such work is commendable and worthy, but let's be realistic about what he does instead of inflating it. We're not Donald Trump after all. To do otherwise is to do Dr Laud a disservice. If he supervised or worked with teams of surgeons doing these surgeries, then I can see tens of thousands over an extended period. But not one man. In fact, working with teams is what he did if you read about his work. Wikipedia describes it as "tens of thousands of life-altering operations gratis." That sounds more like it and does indeed make him a super-hero in my book!
It was slips like this that made me distrust the author setting himself up as a sort of spokesperson for the gender dysphoric. Quite often throughout this book there were directives like this: "You should never ask someone who is transgender if they have had or plan to have surgery."
I didn't grow up in the US so it's not my nature to ask personal questions of people I just met. I wouldn't advise it whether they're transsexual or anything else. I don't even ask such questions of people I know well unless it's relevant and I know they will not mind. This is why I have to wonder if the author is really talking on behalf of all who share his experience, or if this is just how he feels, and he's projecting it onto everyone else.
I don't trust it. That's not to say I'm advising asking the first transgender person you encounter all manner of personal questions. Far from it! It's just that I don't believe that all transgender people are the same (except in that they're transgender!) I believe they're like everyone else: some won't want to talk about it - perhaps the majority - whereas others might well be inclined to discuss it in appropriate circumstances. This author wrote a book about it for goodness sake!
The point that it's their choice, not mine, yours, or this author's, so do not expect that, just because they've had a "weird surgery" that it's up for grabs in the topics for discussion department. And ask only if you know them well, and know they will be receptive to discussing it. Remember they did not have a choice over which body they were born in, but they do have a choice whether to discuss what they did about it. Respect that choice and leave it with them to make!
There was one more thing which bothered me, and which the author made only one mention of in the entire book, and that was privilege. This memoir reeks of it. These operations cost literally thousands of dollars (I won't go so far as to say tens of thousands of life-saving dollars!), and this guy or his family could afford them. He could afford the best, and could fly across country at the drop of a hat to discuss a procedure with a doctor, and pick out the best surgeon to perform it.
I wouldn't wish what he went through on anyone, and I admire and salute him for having the 'balls' and stamina, and the courage to go after what he wanted, but the fact is that, as badly done-to as he felt from being trapped in the wrong body and having to suffer emotional stress, and humiliation, and painful, prolonged surgeries to get the right body, he did have the money and means, and opportunity to get it done.
He was extremely privileged in that regard, but from the way this was written, I got no sense of gratitude or of appreciation from this book of how lucky he was he was or how grateful he was to have been privileged enough to pursue his dream when scores of others in his position do not have the same access he did. In a just world, everyone would have this access if they needed it, yet he writes as though it's a right (which it ought to be, granted!) he enjoyed without any sense of humility that he had this access when scores of others are denied it.
It felt rather selfish and was exemplified in this comment late in the book: "After all I do for everyone else, nobody was helping me." This was after his family had paid for surgeries and accompanied him left, right, and center, and his friends had been amazingly and commendably supportive, and he has a great network of people rooting for him, and he's had the opportunity to get precisely what he wanted in life, and now he's discussing getting laid and this is his comment? As much as I wanted to like and commend a book like this, this is not the one I find I can in good faith, lend my support to. I'm sorry and I wish the author all the best in his new life, but I cannot recommend this account of it.