Book Review: “Becoming a Man” — The Roller-Coaster of Transition
By Helen Epstein
I would have preferred a more reflective, in-depth account of becoming a man in 2020, but Becoming A Man is an informative, fast, and fascinating read.
Becoming A Man by P. Carl. Simon & Schuster, 240 pp.
P.Carl begins his memoir of sexual transition with a theatrical flourish — recalling a moment in a midtown Manhattan hotel: “’Good evening, sir, how are you?’ This isn’t my first ‘sir’ – they have come and gone my entire life, and more often in recent weeks. But it’s the start of something that from this ‘sir’ forward will be my new life. On March 16, 2017, I become a man.” His memoir flashes back and forward from that point in time in a series of essays as it documents how Carl rides the physical, emotional, and cultural roller-coaster that his transition entails.
Becoming a Man traces the evolution of a consciousness of having been born into the wrong body, the dysphoria of everyday life that ensues, and, in Carl’s case, the remedy of 21st-century medical technologies.
Medical interest in gender transition and sex reassignment surgery is nearly one hundred years old, dating back to Weimar Germany, where physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld supervised the sexual reassignment surgeries of several men, including the artist who became Lili Elbe. Elbe died following a uterus transplant. Her posthumous autobiography was published as Man into Woman in 1933, then recently adapted as the film The Danish Girl.
It was American ex-GI George William Jorgensen Jr., however, who became the first transsexual celeb in 1952, when he traveled from the Bronx to Denmark for sex reassignment surgery and came back as Christine Jorgensen. Her story made the front pages of newspapers across conservative, binary 1950s America. She became a popular entertainer and the first public lecturer on transsexuals in the United States. Her 1967 autobiography sold 450,000 copies.
Seven years later, the noted British author and travel writer Jan Morris published his classic memoir Conundrum: From James to Jan. Morris writes that he was three or four when “I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl.” In his wide-ranging and meditative memoir, the Oxford-educated Morris is careful to contextualize her own situation: “The transvestite gains his gratification specifically from wearing the clothes of the opposite sex, and would sacrifice his pleasures by joining that sex; the homosexual, by definition, prefers to make love with others of his own sort and would only alienate himself and them by changing. Transsexualism is something different in kind…. I see it above all as a dilemma neither of the body nor of the brain, but of the spirit.”
Books by female to male transsexuals began to appear after 2000 — Becoming a Visible Man by Jamison Green; Just Add Hormones: An Insider’s Guide to the Transsexual Experience by Matt Kailey; The Testosterone Files: My Hormonal and Social Transformation from Female to Male by Max Wolf Valerio — and a critical mass of literature formed.
“Gender dysphoria is always mediated by the culture in which one is living,” says an anthropologist friend of mine, and P. Carl’s Becoming a Man, like all these previous memoirs, reflects its author’s personality, profession, and personal circumstances as much as our 21st-century culture and literary trend of collapsing the distinctions between memoir, blog, and tweet.
In this contemporary form, snappy one-liners replace reflection and we are immersed — “Transition is nothing if not a narcissistic moment in time” — in the eternal present of the writer’s consciousness. Carl is by turns confessional, declamatory, questioning, and discursive. His text reads like a stand-up performance with supertitles by authors and gender theorists that underscore his monologue. Chapters are thematic rather than chronological: they reference doubling — therapy, the effect of transitioning on family and friends, and the challenges of navigating the current political climate when both white supremacy and LGBT-friendly television shows such as Transparent and Orange Is the New Black are part of the cultural mainstream.
Carl began life in a very different time. Polly Kathleen Carl was born in 1966, middle child and only girl in a Catholic family of five in the small town of Elkhart, Indiana. Polly attended parochial school until she was kicked out; then public school, then Notre Dame and the University of Minnesota. She spent 20 years working in theater in Chicago and Minneapolis before moving to Boston, where he is an artist-in-residence at Emerson College.
After living as a white Midwestern girl and woman for 50 years, as Carl points out, he comes into being as a white man in 2017. “White male supremacists occupy the White House. Immigrants are deported and denied entry to the United States. Black lives don’t matter to the politicians controlling Congress. I am announced to the world as a man eight months before #MeToo will fill our social media and news feeds.… No part of this two-year stretch has been more divisive than the Republican Party’s insistence on appointing Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. No moment has been more despairing than listening to Susan Collins, a woman, a senator, say that Christine Blasey Ford was likely assaulted but that it wasn’t by Kavanaugh.… Depending on who sees me and in what context, my body is grouped with these men and Collins in this moment in history – a threat not just to women but also to a fragile democracy on the brink of collapse, in part over a gender divide that has never been more volatile.”
Becoming a Man covers a lot of territory and leaves a great many questions unanswered. Carl learns that “altering a body’s sex is perhaps the greatest disruption to the social order that makes up friendship, work, and love,” but spends little of his narrative investigating those disruptions he leaves in his wake. After describing the emotional earthquakes he detonates, Carl is uninterested in elaborating on how they have affected the people closest to him, especially Lynette, his wife of 22 years. I found that the most potentially moving chapter in the memoir — couched as a letter to her –- read more like a draft than a finished chapter of a book.
I would have preferred a more reflective, in-depth account of becoming a man in 2020, but for me, a cis gender woman who has often wished to know more about the transsexuals and their relatives I’ve met, Becoming a Man is an informative, fast, and fascinating read