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Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude

Written by Amy BloomAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Amy Bloom

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On Sale: November 12, 2014
Pages: 176 | ISBN: 978-1-58836-208-7
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Amy Bloom has won a devoted readership and wide critical acclaim for fiction of rare humor, insight, grace, and eloquence, and the same qualities distinguish Normal, a provocative, intimate journey into the lives of “people who reveal, or announce, that their gender is variegated rather than monochromatic”—female-to-male transsexuals, heterosexual crossdressers, and the intersexed.

We meet Lyle Monelle and his mother, Jessie, who recognized early on that her little girl was in fact a boy and used her life savings to help Lyle make the transition. On a Carnival cruise with a group of crossdressers and their spouses, we meet Peggy Rudd and her husband, “Melanie,” who devote themselves to the cause of “ordinary heterosexual men with an additional feminine dimension.” And we meet Hale Hawbecker, “a regular, middle-of-the-road, white-bread guy” with a wife, kids, and a medical condition, the standard treatment for which would have changed his life and his gender.

Casting light into the dusty corners of our assumptions about sex, gender and identity, Bloom reveals new facets to the ideas of happiness, personality and character, even as she brilliantly illuminates the very concept of "normal.”

Excerpt

THE BODY LIES

FEMALE-TO-MALE TRANSSEXUALS

What would you go through not to have to live the life of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa? Not to realize, early in childhood, that other people perceive a slight, unmistakable bugginess about you, which you find horrifying but they claim to find unremarkable? That glimpses of yourself in the mirror are upsetting and puzzling and to be avoided, since they show a self that is not you? That although you can ignore your shell much of the time and your playmates often seem to see you and not your cockroach exterior, teachers and relatives pluck playfully at your antennae with increasing frequency and suggest, not unkindly, that you might be more comfortable with the other insects? And when you say, or cry, that you are not a cockroach, your parents are sad, or concerned, or annoyed, but unwavering in their conviction—how could it be otherwise?—that you are a cockroach, and are becoming more cockroachlike every day. Would you hesitate to pay thirty thousand dollars and experience some sharp but passing physical misery in order to be returned to your own dear, soft, skin-covered self?

Approximately two people in every hundred thousand are diagnosed—first by themselves, then by endocrinologists, family doctors, psychiatrists, or psychologists—as high-intensity transsexuals, meaning that they will be motivated, whether or not they succeed, to have surgery that will bring their bodies into accord with the gender to which they have known themselves, since toddlerhood, to belong. Until a decade or so ago the clinical literature and the unreliable statistics suggested that for every four men seeking to become anatomically female, there was one woman seeking the opposite change. Now clinical evaluation centers report that the ratio is almost one to one.

In twenty years of practice as a clinical social worker, I met men who liked to wear women’s clothing, women who preferred sex in public conveyances to sex at home, men who were more attracted to shoes than to the people in them; I didn’t meet any transsexuals. I encountered transsexuals only the way most people do: in Renee Richards’s story, in Jan Morris’s Conundrum, in Kate Bornstein’s books, and on afternoon talk shows, where transsexuals are usually represented by startlingly pretty young women, sometimes holding hands with their engagingly shy, love-struck fiancés, sometimes accompanied by defensive, supportive wives turned best friends. I wondered, in the middle of the afternoon, where the female-to-male transsexuals were. Even if there were four times as many male-to-female transsexuals, there still had to be a few thousand of the other kind somewhere. But not in mainstream bookstores, not in magazines, not in front of talk-show audiences of middle-aged women standing up to applaud the guests’ ability to “look just like the real thing.”

I thought there must be a reason female-to-male transsexuals were invisible. I wondered if their physical transformations were so pitiful that no one could bear to interview them, if women who wished to be men were less interesting, less interview-worthy than men who wished to be women, or if these people were so floridly disturbed that even the talk-show hosts were ashamed to be seen with them.

Much of the early psychiatric literature about transsexu- als, from the pre–Christine Jorgensen 1940s until the late 1970s, leaned heavily toward psychoanalytic explanations and toward clinical descriptions that, however sympathetic to the unhappy patient, emphasized the bizarreness not of the biological condition but of the conviction that there was a biological condition. The next psychiatric wave emphasized “personality disorders” as the root of transsexuality, specifically the popularized borderline personality syndrome, with its inadequately formed sense of self and frightened yearning for symbiosis. In The Transsexual Empire (1979), Janice Raymond dismissed the biological reality of transsexuality and attacked transsexuals as agents and pawns of the patriarchy. Her overwrought theories about the meaning of transsexu- ality and the training and practice of surgeons who perform transsexual procedures read like the feminist equivalent of some of the Mafia–CIA–White Russian conspiracy theories of Kennedy’s assassination, but her essential point, that transsexuals are psychologically unstable victims of a society that overemphasizes the roles of sexual insignia and gender difference, made sense to me. If the people involved were less nuts and society were less rigid, it seemed, neither transsexuals nor the surgery they seek would exist.

Most of us can understand a wish, even a persistent wish, to belong to the other gender. History and fiction are full of examples, many charming, some heroic, of women who dressed as men throughout their lives. It’s the medical procedures that make transsexuals seem crazy: six months to two years of biweekly intramuscular injections of two hundred milligrams of Depo-Testosterone, which cause an outbreak of adolescent acne, the cessation of menstruation, and the development of male secondary sex characteristics; then a double mastectomy, in which most but not all of the breast tissue is removed, the nipple saved, and the chest recontoured for a more masculine, pectorally pronounced look; and then, a year to ten years later (depending on the patient’s wishes and financial resources), a hysterectomy and one of two possible genital surgeries: a phalloplasty (a surgery to create a full-size phallus and testicles) or a metoidioplasty (a surgery that frees the testosterone-enlarged clitoris to act as a small penis). In short: multiple, expensive, and traumatic surgeries to remove healthy tissue. Who would do this?

Lyle Monelle, a burly man of twenty-eight, lives with his mother, Jessie, in a trailer park in suburban Montana, a state in which I’d never imagined suburbs. The trailer park is neatly laid out beneath a shocking cobalt sky, and all the culs-de-sac have their own blue-and-white street signs, none of which are bent or rusted or facing the wrong way. The careful hand of people who are used to making do, doing without, and trying again is everywhere. Jessie and Lyle are watching for me from the trailer’s little porch, and they come toward the car like a couple of welcoming relatives.

The inside of the trailer looks familiar; it is the Montana twin of my late mother-in-law’s home in northern Minnesota. Sturdy, slightly bowed Herculon love seat and matching recliner in shades of orange; copper mallards hanging on the opposite wall, arching over the TV. The three of us finish two pitchers of iced tea during the afternoon’s conversation, and Lyle and Jessie allow themselves to be sad and occasionally puzzled by their own story, but not for long. All their painful stories are followed by moments of remembered grief but end in the genuine and ironic laughter of foxhole buddies; they know what they know, and they are not afraid anymore.

Lyle is older than I had thought he would be—he’s an adult. He was a patient of three of the people I’ve already interviewed—Dr. Donald Laub, a preeminent plastic surgeon known especially for female-to-male sex change surgery; Judy Van Maasdam, the counselor at Laub’s surgical center in Palo Alto; and Dr. Ira Pauly, a noted psychiatrist and when they told me about Lyle, they all focused on how young he was at the time of transition, much younger than most people who apply for surgery. Even though I knew better, I had half expected to meet a teenager. He was fourteen when he began hormone treatments, with medical approval, fifteen when he had his mastectomies, but twenty-three before he and his parents had enough money for the phalloplasty, the “bottom” surgery. (That’s what the guys say about their surgeries—“my top,” “my bottom.”) I was horrified when I first heard the stories about this kid, and I imagined meeting his parents and clinically evaluating them as misguided, covertly sadistic, or perversely ignorant, acting out their own unhappiness on their helpless child.

We should all have such parents.

When Lyle entered puberty, his mother and his late father took him from doctor to doctor, looking for explanations for Lyle’s unhappiness and fierce resistance to being treated like a young woman. An endocrinologist who had worked with Don Laub recognized Lyle as possibly transsexual, and Ira Pauly and Judy Van Maasdam confirmed the diagnosis. Then, after extensive hormone treatments, Laub performed the first surgery and the family moved to another state, to allow Lyle to enter high school as a boy. Later, they nursed him after his hysterectomy and his phalloplasty, and used all their savings, and then some, to pay his medical bills.

Jessie says, “I want everyone to know who reads this that this wasn’t easy—it was a really terrible shock. I didn’t understand. I said to the first endocrinologist, ‘Where did we go wrong?’ and he said nowhere, it was biological. I called every single—I’m not kidding you—every single insurance company in the USA, and they said, ‘No, it’s cosmetic.’ ”

Lyle interrupts—the only time I’ll see him openly angry. “Yeah, right. Like I wanted a nose job. Cosmetic. Well, it was only my life.”

Jessie makes soothing hand gestures, reminding him that it’s all right now. “And of course, the money,” she says. “Our other kids resented it. I understand. But what could I do? What could we do? If your child has a birth defect, you get help. We understood—we understood even when he was little that something wasn’t right. And we knew, when the doctors told us what could be done—we just knew what we had to do. When the doctors said he was transsexual, I felt that I knew that.”

After hearing Lyle’s stories about his hated girl name, his astonished, frightened tears and protracted battles over party dresses, Mary Janes, and even girl-styled polo shirts, and his deep, early sense of male identity—the same stories I would later hear, with minor variations, from almost every transsexual man I spoke with—I ask him about life since the transition. He gives me a glossy friend-filled account highlighted by a two-year romance with an older woman (twenty, to his seventeen) and a successful football career cut short by an ankle injury.

And after high school?

Finally, a bit of trouble: “I had a little money problem and a little drug problem. I got some counseling, came back from Las Vegas, started college. Now I’m taking classes, paying off my bills, working for the state. Eventually, I’ll get my bachelor’s.”

He sighs, and Jessie says quickly, “That’s all right. Lots of older kids are in college these days. Aren’t they?” I say I know quite a few, and we sip our iced tea.


From the Hardcover edition.
Amy Bloom|Author Q&A

About Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom - Normal

Photo © Deborah Feingold

Amy Bloom is the author of the bestselling and acclaimed Away; Come to Me, a National Book Award finalist; A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Love Invents Us; and Normal. Her stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Short Stories, The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, and many other anthologies here and abroad. She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Vogue, Granta, and Slate, among other publications, and has won a National Magazine Award. Bloom teaches creative writing at Yale University.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Amy Bloom, author of NORMAL

Q: Before writing NORMAL, which of your misconceptions about sexuality and abnormality was strongest? Which beliefs were challenged that you expected to remain firm?

A:
My greatest surprise was that so much of what we think is common sense is just prejudice and so much of what we think is scientific fact is about as scientific as the idea that the sun revolves around the earth.

Q: Your second essay, “Conservative Men in Conservative Dresses,” describes your Carnival cruise with a group of cross-dressing men and their wives. How did you prepare for this cruise? What did you say to family and friends? Were you nervous or did you ever feel uncomfortable on the cruise?

A:
I prepared for the cruise by worrying about my wardrobe, as I do before any long trip. I said to my family and friends: “I’m going on a cruise with cross-dressers and their wives. What do you think of these pants?” I felt uncomfortable, as one does, because I was an outsider within a group that if not close-knit, certainly knew how to circle the wagons for self-protection.

Q: This same essay drew fire from many transvestites. What was the most common criticism of the essay? How did you respond to it? Would you change the essay at this point, if you had the opportunity?

A:
I wouldn’t change the essay at all, except to make it clear that the Rudds were an attractive couple, which they are. Some cross-dressers sent me hate mail, along the lines of, How dare you suggest my wife is unhappy? Others said that it was painful but true. I got a bushel of mail from wives, who said, “This book was my breakthrough, it’s the only thing I’ve ever read that reflects my feelings.”

Q: Who is your target audience? Have you been surprised by the types of people who are reading your book, or by the way in which people have been responding?

A:
My target audience is anyone who finds the world interesting and human behavior fascinating, terrible, inspiring, funny, and occasionally, mysterious.

Q: You’ve said that you probably won’t write another book-length work of nonfiction. Why? What have you learned from writing it? Are you glad that you did it?

A:
I am glad I wrote it because I learned things and people who’ve read it tell me that they think differently about some things now. That makes it worth it. But I did feel the tug of fiction and of all that I wasn’t doing when I was interviewing and traveling and I can’t imagine anything so compelling that I would give up the fiction again, for so long.

Q: Which writers have influenced you most? Is the set of writers different for you as a nonfiction writer from what it would be if you were working on fiction?

A:
I’m sure I’ve been influenced by every fine writer I’ve ever read, from Dickens and Austen to Auden and Jane Hirshfield. And also, the short stories of Updike, Cheever, Munro, Alice Adams, and Doris Lessing. And the plays of Oscar Wilde. And paintings by Alice Neel and Matisse.

Q: One of your most popular stories, “A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You,” addresses some of the issues you discuss in NORMAL. In what ways does your nonfiction inform your fiction, and vice versa?

A:
I think the nonfiction, in this case, really did create the opportunity and the impetus for the fiction. Usually, they stay quite separate (except that what interests me, interests me in all arenas). I wanted to look more into the mind of a mother with a transsexual child and I wanted to make her a more sophisticated woman than the mothers I had met, and I wanted to see her whole life.

Q: You write, in graphic detail, about the mechanics of sex-change operations. Did you feel uncomfortable reporting with such candor? Did it provoke any unexpected reactions from your readers?

A:
I didn't feel uncomfortable about the reporting. I so wanted to be accurate without making people ill (and even so, can’t help the squeamish) and I wanted my readers to understand what was happening, to make at least the medical end less mysterious, if not less grisly.

Q: At what point did you decide on a title? How did it come to you?

A:
I always knew it would be Normal—not because I felt that everyone I met and wrote about was normal but because the human range of what is normal is just so much greater than what we like to pretend.

Q: What’s next for you as a writer?

A:
Another collection of short stories, a play, a TV series...everything but poetry.

Praise

Praise

“Part travelogue, part social exploration, Bloom uses compassion and humor to raise the possibility of expanding the American sexual spectrum.”—The Hartford Courant

“[F]luid and deftly contructed essays. . . . Bloom’s unwillingness to embrace simple formulations, her insistence on digging deeper, is her book’s strength.” --The New York Times Book Review

“This is an important book which says new and interesting things about sex and gender and – it is a very good read.” –Grace Paley

“Fascinating without being prurient. . . [Normal] opens new ways of viewing not only gender but our own inability to accept difference.”—Publisher’s Weekly

"Colorful stories. . .stellar writing."--Entertainment Weekly

“Amy Bloom’s wonderful eye and ear are evident. . . She cares for her subjects but retains her objectivity; her great skill is in extracting and weaving from the specific stories her own original thesis about sexuality and gender. This is an important work.”–Abraham Verghese, author of My Own Country

“Such is Bloom’s skill as an interviewer and a writer that she removes the sensationalism from the subject. . .She is an excellent writer and a sensitive listener.”–Deseret News

“As Amy Bloom walks us through her adventures in genderland, she draws compulsively readable pictures of the folks she met there.”–Out

“Wonderfully written, thoughtfully and compassionately told. . . A mind-opening, spirit-enlarging book.”–Deborah Tannen, author of You Just Don’t Understand

“A moving examination of the variety of gender and erotic preferences.”–Kirkus Reviews

“Bloom dares the reader to be willingly confounded by her always engaging, frequently humorous interviewees while also airing her own reactions. . . An accessible, nonsensationalistic introduction to a fascinating and controversial subject.”–Library Journal

“Bloom’s understanding of gender changed radically after her remarkable odyssey into the hidden worlds of female-to-male transsexuals, heterosexual cross-dressers, and hermaphrodites, so will her readers’.”–Booklist

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