I’m overwhelmed by how many comments I got on my post on Ella Minnow Pea! I wanted to hear other people’s thoughts, since I was surprised by my reaction, and I’m glad I did. :)
Today, we return to normal scheduling, which is Eva gushing about a great book she just read. That book is Normal by Amy Bloom. Last year, I read Bloom’s short story collection A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You and very much enjoyed it. One of the features that stood out to me was that the title story featured a mother helping her transgendered daughter became a man. So when I discovered that she had written a nonfiction book about similar issues (the full title of this book is Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites With Attitude), I put it on the TBR list.
And it languished there, with the hundreds (thousands?) of others, until Amanda’s GLBT Challenge. But when I got it home from the library and saw how small it was (135 pages), I decided it’d be a great way to kick off the challenge. (A quick note: occasionally, I’m using asterisks in this post, especially when I talk about transsexual surgery. This isn’t because I’m five years old, but to avoid creepy p*rn searchers.)
Rather than a full nonfiction book, this is a collection of three essays, the first of which was published in The New Yorker, each addressing one of the issues in the subtitle. Bookending these are a short, thoughtful preface and afterword. Each of the essays is the perfect length; not so long that I get bored, but long enough to cover all of the essentials. And I love the way Bloom approached this book:
There are shelves and shelves of academic, clinical, ideological, and autobiographical books on one or more of the subjects I address here. I didn’t want to add to them; I wanted to tell the stories of the people I met and how it was to be with them, to offer readers a chance to see what I saw, perhaps to see further and better, and to see into these particular worlds and back out to the larger one we all share.
The first essay is about female-to-male transsexuals, especially those who have gone through surgery to become men. Bloom points out that when our society looks at transsexuals at all, it’s almost always male-to-female, so she was curious about the other side of the coin. At first, she’s prepared to find very disturbed people, who loathe being women, and who have been taken advantage of by surgeons out to make a quick buck. But soon she realises that that’s simply not the case;
I met men. Some I liked, some I didn’t. I met bullshit artists, salesmen, computer programmers, compulsive, misogynistic seducers, pretty boys inviting seduction, cowboys, New Age prophets, good ol’ boys, shy truck drivers saving their money for a June wedding, and gentle knights. I met men.
She also explores the difference in views between the surgeons, even the most sympathetic, and the patients. For the ‘bottom’ surgery, there are two options: a phalloplasty will “create a full-size ph*llus and t*sticles” while a metoidioplasty “frees the testosterone-enlarged cl*toris to act as a small p*nis” There’s much more emphasis on creating a ‘p*nis,’ and not a small one, from the surgeon’s corner. The patients had a different take.
Many of the men I interviewed preferred metiodioplasties, but never for the reasons offered in the literature or by the surgeons. The gender professionals say that patients choose metoidioplasties because they’re older and don’t want to go through the more complicated surgery, or because they have other medical conditions that contraindicate surgery, or because they were lesbians before transition and their partners don’t like the idea of sex with a man (as though if your partner had a beard, a deep voice, and no breasts, you would think were you in bed with a woman). But every transsexual man I spoke to who’d chosen metoidioplasty said, in essence, “I don’t need a big, expensive p*nis; this little one does just fine, and I can use the money to enhance my life.” It was like interviewing a bunch of proud and content but slightly bewildered Volkswagen owners and, across town, some slightly miffed and equally bewildered Mercedes dealers.
Additionally, Bloom talks to the women who date/marry the men she interviews. I loved how she included this sometimes surprising view; it made everything feel more well-rounded. As you can tell, I found this essay absolutely fascinating; it truly opened up a new world to me.
The second essay was the saddest, in my opinion. It’s about heterosexual men who enjoy crossdressing. Bloom goes to several events for such men, whose wives often come along. And that’s where the sadness came in; almost all of the wives Bloom talked to didn’t enjoy the events, and found their husbands’ preference difficult to handle. They were trying to deal with it and keep their marriages in tact, but I found their distress to be quite depressing. There’s also an irony in the fact that the husbands argue cross-dressing is a way of worshipping women even more, but as one wife says:
“Me femaleness is not something [her husband] adores-it’s his femaleness that this is all about.
As a feminist, I have to admit I was annoyed by these husbands who were making life so much harder on their wives and refusing to even see that. That being said, not all of the crossdressers were like this, and Bloom describes one very happily married couple.
Dixie and Rebecca are standing across the room, both of them in black lace cocktail dresses, Rebecca’s floor-length and very Scarlett O’Hara, his mid-calf and rather 1930s, with a dropped waist. Just in case you didn’t see him, at six feet, four inches and about two hundred and thirty pounds, he wears a large black polished straw hat with velvet band and dyed black feathers. Dixie and his very pretty wife seem to having a hell of a time.
I also found the disconnect between the way that psychologists and gender experts explain the men’s desire to crossdress and the way the crossdressers themselves explain it fascinating. And as with the first essay, I felt like I had peeked into a world I hadn’t even realised existed.
The final essay is about hermaphrodites, specifically babies or children born with ‘ambiguous g*nitals’ and the medical community’s response to them. About two thousand such babies are born every year in America. It used to be, doctors would take almost immediate invasive action that was essentially cosmetic (and sounds incredible painful). But Bloom discusses how Cheryl Chase, a businesswoman turned activist, has “almost single-handedly changed both the dialogue on the subject and the surgical practice itself.” While Bloom does include several profiles of individuals, this essay felt less personal than the other two, and more of an overview. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but it did make it the least strong. Still, Bloom’s a wonderful essayist, and once again I found myself sharing fascinating facts with my parents that I hadn’t known before.
In case you haven’t guessed by now, I recommend every should go read this book. It challenges society’s view of ‘normal,’ it challenges assumptions about transgendered and crossdressing communities, but most of all it really let me spend ‘a day in the life’ of people completely different than me. And isn’t that what reading is all about?