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The boom in first-person narrative has produced a frightening subgenre that testifies to our cultural obsession with controlling expressions of gender and sexuality. This subgenre, which includes Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues and Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted as well as Daphne Scholinski's new book The Last Time I Wore a Dress, details the punishments -- including physical assault, sexual abuse and institutionalization -- visited upon young women who fail to live up to prevailing definitions of femininity. Scholinski's mordant memoir recounts the three years she spent paying for this failure in facilities for the psychiatric treatment of adolescents, where her tomboyish appearance and history of minor delinquency earned her the diagnosis of "Gender Identity Disorder."
Scholinski was 15 when her parents committed her. Her artistic mother left her marriage when Scholinski was in sixth grade, aiming to "find herself" in the '70s counterculture. Her father, a Vietnam vet haunted by memories of a "killing rage," took to punishing Scholinski's household infractions with a belt. Scholinski's search for comfort had her turning to gang members and sexual predators. Her amusements included shoplifting, petty theft and truancy. By the time she found herself on the way to her first hospital admission, she writes, "If I felt anything ... it was a stab of hope."
Her memoir records the betrayal of this hope. Rather than treating the psychic scars of neglect and physical and sexual abuse, her doctors increasingly focused on her lack of conventional femininity. At her second hospital, Scholinski's "treatment plan" included spending 15 minutes every morning applying make-up with her roommate. Wearing eye shadow and hugging male staff members earned her institutional privileges. At the third and final facility, her therapists considered her close, quasi-romantic friendship with another female patient evidence of "regression," and banned eye contact between the two. Scholinski left this last facility at the age of 18 with a high-school diploma, a legacy of night terrors and a mental storehouse of images of tormented bodies that she now reworks in paintings and drawings.
The Last Time I Wore a Dress demonstrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of the confessional memoir. Scholinski intersperses the narrative of her institutional journey with scenes of her childhood and excerpts from official diagnoses and evaluations. Bleak humor and jump-cut organization give readers breathing room in the miasma of inattention and violence surrounding her. We take comfort in the implied presence of the current Daphne Scholinski, the healthy consciousness selecting, arranging and reflecting on her experience.
Yet this very selectivity and fragmentation inevitably limit our understanding of the people and events in the book. For example, Scholinski's mother comes through as her most important, and ambiguous, adult influence, but their relationship is portrayed only glancingly. As a person, of course, I understand that Scholinski's relationships are my business only so far as she chooses to share them. As a reader, however, I regret that her story sometimes stretches thin around gaps it might cost her too much to fill in. Nevertheless, if it causes us to question the rigidity of our cultural definitions of gender, it can certainly be called a success story. -- Salon