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Normal (thoughts)

July 10, 2009

glbt1I’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.)

NormalRather 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?

25 Comments leave one →
  1. July 10, 2009 8:07 am

    Awesome review, Eva! Am off to the library website immediately to see if they have it.

  2. tuulenhaiven permalink
    July 10, 2009 8:16 am

    Great review! I’m intrigued, and I definitely agree that being challenged and wearing someone else’s shoes for a day is one of the greatest things about reading. :)

  3. July 10, 2009 8:46 am

    This sounds amazing! It’s nice, too, to see people discussing transexual issues in a respectful way. I’m definitely adding this to my list.

  4. July 10, 2009 9:07 am

    This sounds like an excellent book, and the tone sounds just right. Your review is wonderful. Thanks for the recommendation!

  5. July 10, 2009 10:00 am

    I’m so glad I discovered your blog, Eva, as you’re introducing me to some great-sounding books! This one goes on the wish list too!

    Oh and pop by my blog — I’ve given you an award.

  6. July 10, 2009 10:23 am

    I love the description in terms of content yet bewildered VW owners vs. miffed and equally bewildered Mercedes dealers! What a creative description.

  7. July 10, 2009 11:07 am

    Excellent review! Sounds like a book everybody should read.


  8. July 10, 2009 11:36 am

    This does sound like a good one to read, especially since I’ve been making my way through fiction like Eugenides’ Middlesex and Lauren Mclaughlin’s Cycler.

  9. July 10, 2009 12:17 pm

    Not sure this is my cup of tea, but it sure sounds interesting. Thanks for the in-depth review.


  10. July 10, 2009 3:38 pm

    Always nice to see another piece of writing that’s respectful of such sensitive issues. Thanks for pointing this one out.

    Another good one is Pat Califia’s Sex Changes: the Politics of Transgenderism. It’s more than 135 pages, but delves into the historical views, professional and personal. Pat’s writing is fantastic and he lightens the academic mood with his sense of humor, which also helps quicken the pace. Actually, I’ve never been disappointed by any of his works and he’s well-respected among transfolk.

  11. Amy permalink
    July 10, 2009 4:11 pm

    I’ve been reading a book of Amy Bloom’s short stories & I’m loving them. I’ve wanted to read Normal for quite a while.
    I was thrilled when I saw that you read it and really enjoyed it. I just love her writing.
    I think I’ll put several of her books at the top of my “To Buy” list!

    Chris Bohjilian wrote a very novel about being a transexual called “Trans-sister Radio”. It was very well-written & quite a good book.


  12. July 10, 2009 8:35 pm

    That’s quite a review. I wanted to let you know I’m posting my review of A Mercy and the answer to your question from the Weekly Geeks Review Catchup at midnight Friday.

  13. July 10, 2009 8:43 pm

    This is a fantastic review. It does sound like a very interesting and well presented book. I think it is so awesome to see an author taking a serious topic like this and writing about it, I think it helps to make society in general realize that situations like this aren’t just fodder for Jerry Springer like shows.

  14. July 10, 2009 10:38 pm

    That sounds amazing. When I was in grad school, I had the chance to listen to Elizabeth Grosz talk about levels of gender. She blew my mind & made me really think about these issues on such a different level. Your review here really reminds me of that discussion, so I’ll have to grab this book!

  15. July 11, 2009 4:41 am

    Sounds great I never would have thought to read anything on this subject before, off to see if my library has a copy

  16. July 12, 2009 11:54 am

    As soon as I go on a book buying ban, you make me want to break it! It’s not fair :P

  17. July 13, 2009 11:51 am

    Great review, Eva. I’ve never read Bloom’s work, but from what I read about her, it seems like her range is really amazing. In particular, I’ve watched quite a few documentaries on this very topic, so this book sounds like something I would be interested in…as would my mother. Thanks!

  18. July 14, 2009 8:43 am

    I read and reviewed Normal earlier this year. My review is here:

    I’m in agreement with you overall, though I’m a bit less charitable about the third essay. When you see three essays like that together in a single volume you can tell which one the author put the most effor into.

    Amy Bloom seems very interesting in presenting the parents side of the story. You mentioned the short story about a mother with a transgendered daughter. There is also the scene in her novel Away where a father takes his son on a tour of New York City and points out all of the places where a man can go to meet other men. The son doesn’t quite know that he is gay yet, but his father knows.

    Excellent review, Eva.

  19. July 14, 2009 6:29 pm

    Thanks for posting. It sounds like an interesting book. I know I’m way behind with commenting, but I just got access to the internet again tonight and am trying ot catch up. :)

  20. July 28, 2009 3:06 pm

    I loved this book so much, and firmly believe it didn’t get enough press or attention when it was published. Thanks for your great review of it!

  21. August 4, 2009 7:17 pm

    I just love the subtitle of this book. :-) This sounds fascinating — thanks for the terrific review!

  22. August 21, 2009 12:07 am

    Debi, I hope they have it!

    Tuulenhavien, isn’t it part of what makes reading magical?

    Memory, I agree!

    Rhapsody, thanks so much.

    Avisannschild, that’s so nice of you!

    Terri, isn’t it great?!

    Tiina, thanks!

    Jeanne, it definitely would make a great companion read.

    Anna, thanks for reading it!

    Mish, thanks for the recommendation. :)

    Amy, thanks for the rec!

    Sandra, thanks!

    Joanne, I think it’s awesome too.

    Becky, that sounds fascinating!

    Katrina, if I hadn’t read her short stories, I probably wouldn’t have that of it eitehr!

    Nymeth, lol. :p

    Andi, I hope you enjoy it!

    CB, you make a good point. I haven’t read Away yet, but I will. I remember reading your interview with Bloom!

    Amanda, no problem!

    Citizen Reader, isn’t it frustrating how little press some truly wonderful books get?!

    Steph, I’m a sucker for a good nonfic subtitle. :D

  23. February 27, 2010 7:45 pm

    Her book is very weak and her conclusions are questionable. She never even picks up that crossdressing is a form of sexual entertainment and closer to being NORMAL than she perceives. If you read the book carefully, you will realize that she empathizes only with the women in the book and disregards the emotions of the men. Even in dealing with the F-t-Ms, she states that they are men because they mold their lives into some caricature of what she asserts a man is. Yet, when she actually meets men, she disavows their feelings in favor of the feelings of their wives.

    With respect to the crossdressers, she misses (almost deliberately) that the men who she observes crossdressed enjoy crossdressing. That’s very unfortunate, because had she acknowledged what was clearly in front of her face, she would have realized that crossdressing is more a normal part of male behavior, even if it is a part of normal male behavior that is undesirable.

    While crossdressers are singled out from the guys who go to strip bars and the guys who look at porn on the Internet, they are actually involved in much the same thing, sexual entertainment and gratification. Most men, at some point in their lives, pursue some form of sexual entertainment and gratification, even knowing that it is not, publicly, a societaly approved thing to do. “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man.” (Yet, our society supports the sex industry in all sorts of ways. And, I’m not just talking about porn and prostitution.)

    Amy Bloom has adopted this continuous spectrum belief. I say our sexuality, both in how we express gender and the sexual practices we find preferable, are individual choices based upon the radical concept of: What We Each Individually Like. Therefore, when she looks at a group that has crossdressing in common, and concludes that everyone who crossdresses
    fits neatly on a line between the straightest straight guy and the gayest gay guy, (which is not exactly what she says but is a fairly drawn summary of where she leaves it,) she is wrong.

    While, at first glance, it would seem that the discussions of crossdressing might belong in a discussion with transsexualism and hermaphroditism, her treatment of the subjects draws absolutely no relationship between the three activities. Instead, what comes forth clearly from her book is her filtered feelings about the three groups. Under the guise of tolerance, she is intolerant. Under the guise of empathy, she is unempathetic. Under the guise of analysis, she is unanalytic.

    Finally, I will say, READ IT, for the purposes of improving your own ability to read a book or article and discern the prejudices of the author and the facts presented in contrast to the opinions. The anecdotes are also interesting. DON’T READ IT as a scholarly objective analysis of what is going on in the heads, hearts and minds of people in these various groups.

  24. Noah permalink
    November 13, 2010 8:59 am

    Eva, I’m glad that you read about trans and intersex issues. I think it’s important to put this book in context, however. It’s a book written by someone who is neither trans nor intersex, and it contributes to the oppression of us in many ways.

    For example, even after reading this book, you mistakenly refer to a trans son as a trans daughter, fixate on the genitals of trans people, and use the word “hermaphrodites.” I’m glad that the essay opened up a new world to you, but it would be great if going forward you are able to take the next step and begin to be aware of the oppression of transsexual people how books like this one fit into that.

    Most of the books other people suggested in the comments (Middlesex–another offensive book written by a non-intersex person, Cycler, Trans-sister Radio) are not by trans or intersex people. Having read books like those, I know that the authors certainly have good intentions, but they instead end up promoting transphobia, albeit in a more covert, though no less powerful way. They’re advancing their careers by using trans people because we’re “sexy” right now, and people can read these books and think they’ve learned something about trans people when really they haven’t at all.

    There is a dearth of published fiction by trans and intersex people, but that is due to oppression. I think rather than reading fiction about trans or intersex people, reading books by trans and intersex people is the way to go. Trans people have written more nonfiction books, but until recently were limited to the biography genre. Two books that seem like a good fit for this blog might be:
    Whipping Girl by Julia Serano
    Just Add Hormones by Matt Kailey



  1. December Challenge Wrap-Ups « A Striped Armchair

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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