My Brother My Sister: Story of a Transformation

My Brother My Sister: Story of a Transformation

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by Molly Haskell
     
 

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A feminist film critic’s thoughtful, outspoken memoir about transgender and family

On a visit to New York, the brother of well-known film critic Molly Haskell dropped a bombshell: Nearing age sixty, and married, he had decided to become a woman. In the vein of Jan Morris’s classic Conundrum and Jennifer Finney Boylan's She's NotSee more details below

Overview

A feminist film critic’s thoughtful, outspoken memoir about transgender and family

On a visit to New York, the brother of well-known film critic Molly Haskell dropped a bombshell: Nearing age sixty, and married, he had decided to become a woman. In the vein of Jan Morris’s classic Conundrum and Jennifer Finney Boylan's She's Not There, a transgender memoir, Haskell’s My Brother My Sister gracefully explores a delicate subject, this time from the perspective of a family member.

Haskell chronicles her brother Chevey’s transformation through a series of psychological evaluations, grueling surgeries, drug regimens, and comportment and fashion lessons as he becomes Ellen. Despite Haskell’s liberal views on gender roles, she was dumbfounded by her brother’s decision. With candor and compassion, she charts not only her brother’s journey to becoming her sister, but also her own path from shock, confusion, embarrassment, and devastation to acceptance, empathy, and love.

Haskell widens the lens on her brother’s story to include scientific and psychoanalytic views. In an honest, informed voice, she has revealed the controversial world of gender reassignment and transsexuals from both a personal and a social perspective in this frank and moving memoir.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
03/01/2014
Feminist film critic Haskell writes candidly about the journey her sixtysomething brother, Chevey, made to change his gender, becoming Ellen. She not only chronicles Ellen's life during transition, she describes her own journey to acceptance of her sister with wit and, of course, references to film and literature.
Publishers Weekly
When noted feminist film critic Haskell’s “utterly normal” brother, Chevey, confesses his long-held desire to become a woman, Haskell sets out on a scholarly quest to understand her brother’s path to becoming Ellen in this intimate memoir. Approaching his 60s, following two marriages to women, Chevey simply states that he is going to “change.” Given Haskell’s background, it is not surprising she first tackles his transsexuality with academic rigor: what the book occasionally lacks in description, it compensates for in captivating, well-synthesized research, citing works from fields as varied as mythology, neuroscience, and religion. Haskell successfully employs these voices to aid her understanding of her brother’s surprising “second chance narrative.” Her personal tale of coming to terms with this surprise announcement and its aftermath shines through the research and references, becoming the memoir’s strongest thread. Coming from a well-to-do, conservative family in Richmond, Va., Haskell felt simultaneous grief for the brother she lost and acceptance of the sister she gained in a story of identity and the impossibility of fully knowing another person, even those closest to us. “You discover you don’t know the person you thought you knew,” an analyst tells Haskell. As the conversation surrounding the unknowns of what causes transgender continues, this work makes a significant contribution to its literature. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
Advance Praise for MY BROTHER MY SISTER

“Molly Haskell has written a bracingly candid book about the mystery of sexual identity and the often indirect path we take to claiming it. This is a riveting account of the passion and tenacity it takes to go up against the constrictions and limitations society imposes on our deepest dreams of self.”—Daphne Merkin, author of Dreaming of Hitler and Enchantment

“In this gripping memoir, the author's feelings are parsed with a precision and candor that bring universal resonance to its seemingly singular subject.  The wisdom and compassion that shine through on every page are as necessary as they are rare.”—Phillip Lopate, author To Show and to Tell

“Life’s losses and transitions – in this case, sex changes and death – are heartbreaking and enigmatic, yet Haskell confronts them honestly with tremendous courage, intelligence and love.  A beautiful book.”—Lily Tuck, National Book Award-winning author of The News from Paraguay

“Beautiful and pitch perfect. A wonderfully personal story about family and relationships and secrets and evolution and how mysterious we remain even to ourselves and our closest relatives.”—A. M. Homes, Women’s Prize-winning author of May We Be Forgiven

“A remarkable and indispensable book. In My Brother My Sister, Haskell documents her sibling's amazing journey of transformation from male to female – but it's not about sex, it's about identity – about the price of belonging. Above all this is an achingly personal story. It takes courage for brother Chevey to become sister Ellen and for Haskell to confront her doubts. It also takes a great deal of love.”—Patricia Bosworth, author of Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman

"As the conversation surrounding...transgender continues, this work makes a significant contribution to its literature."—Publishers Weekly

“Haskell eloquently chronicles the emotional torrent [for] both siblings.”—Booklist

“With candor and sly humor, [Haskell] questions her ideas about womanhood and considers the relationship between gender and identity….A deiscrening, vital memoir.”—Kirkus

“A sensitive, funny, difficult, and insightful book.”—New York Journal of Books

Kirkus Reviews
2013-08-15
Feminist film critic Haskell (Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited, 2009, etc.) delves into the dramatic, deeply personal tale of her brother's transformation, in his early 60s, from a man into a woman. Haskell's story opens in 2005, when her younger brother, Chevey, confessed, "For as long as I can remember, I've felt I should have been born female. And now I'm going to become one." Stunned, the author struggled to reconcile her knowing Chevey as a conservative and "manly" guy with his impending transsexuality. A semiretired financial adviser, Chevey appeared to be happily married to his wife of more than 20 years, but his desire to live as a woman had grown so fervent, he claimed that the only thing that would keep him from undergoing gender reassignment surgery was knowing he would die on the operating table. During the course of the book, Haskell's brother, her only immediate family other than her husband, becomes Ellen, the name Chevey called himself in his fantasy life. The difficult transformation required numerous surgeries, including multiple facial reconstructions, painful other procedures and a move across the country to start fresh as Ellen. Haskell's journey was obviously less arduous than Ellen's, but the two are equally compelling, in part due to the ways in which Ellen's choice acts as a catalyst for Haskell's initial discomfort, growth and acceptance. With candor and sly humor, the author questions her ideas about womanhood and considers the relationship between gender and identity as they relate to Ellen, herself, and myriad films and other aspects of popular culture. At the heart of this intelligent memoir lies the process through which Ellen's transsexualism became, then faded from being, the primary fact of the siblings' respective lives. A discerning, vital memoir.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781101638057
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
09/05/2013
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
224
Sales rank:
564,138
File size:
4 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

My Brother Drops a Bombshell

It’s the sixth of October, 2005, a crisp Indian summer day in Manhattan, and we’re sitting in the dining room of our Upper East Side apartment. Outside the window, against the cobalt blue sky, looms the Church of the Heavenly Rest, where Andrew and I were married, where my brother, tall and handsome in his morning suit, walked me up the aisle and, in my father’s stead, gave me away. Now, almost forty years later, he’s come alone for a single night, bringing with him a whiff of unease, even alarm. First it was his wife’s last-minute cancellation, and now it’s the formality with which he’s summoned us to the table . . . like one of those scenes from Law & Order, when the detectives have to tell the family a loved one is dead.

Named John Cheves Haskell Jr., after our father, he’s always been known in the family as Chevey (pronounced “Chivvy” as in “chin”). In addition to being the only immediate family we have (Andrew and I had no children, and Andrew’s brother died in a sky-diving accident when he was twenty-eight), Chevey is the one we turn to for help in so many ways—all those areas in which we are inept. From the humbly domestic (What temperature should the refrigerator be? Chevey travels with a special thermometer) to the technological to the arcane ways of money and finance (he’s a financial adviser by profession and a rationalist by avocation), my brother is a fixer of problems and a fount of common sense, generous with his time as if there were no end to it. In recent years, the only time I can remember being vexed with him was in this very dining room. Andrew and I were giving a party that required removing a leaf of the chrome and glass table. As Chevey and Eleanor were up visiting, he offered to help remove the panel, but the heavy glass, detached from its chrome frame, dropped and shattered. If Andrew had perpetrated this domestic calamity, it would have been exasperating but unsurprising. At the hands of my hyper-competent brother, it was almost comically out of character. And now he is about to shatter normalcy in our dining room again, in a way that I would have said was out of character if I knew what character was and if character had anything to do with it.

I’m terrified it’s some fatal illness, possibly ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), the degenerative neurological disorder from which our father died. Without our ever talking about it, that possibility has been a constant in our lives. Sensing this, he immediately disposes of it: he’s not dying and he doesn’t have an illness in the ordinary sense.

“I have what’s known as gender dysphoria,” he says. “For most of my life, I’ve felt I should have been born female. And now I’m going to become one.”

Stunned silence. Disbelief. How can this be? Chevey, my brother! Andrew’s brother-in-law! He’s so utterly normal. There’s no sudden memory, no flash, no “Of course.” He was (and is) a manly guy—no trace of effeminacy or kid in a tutu—who, if not captain of the football team or a hell-raising, beer-swilling male chauvinist, was always plenty virile, and there were two wives who’d have so attested.

When did he know?

“Since way back, early childhood,” he tells me, “I had confusing urges, feminine longings, but even in puberty I simply had no concept for what I was experiencing.”

“You mean, as the expression has it, a female trapped in a male body?”

“Nothing as clear as that, but just confused feelings, a desire to dress and feel like a girl, not very strong at first.”

A desire, it seems, for which neither he nor society had words. His marriages were good, even sexually, but part of every day was increasingly spent in something like agony, imagining himself a woman.

I’m suddenly struck by two odd memories. In the later years of his second marriage, he became anorexic. Eleanor and I kept asking, even nagging, him about it, but he insisted he was doing it to keep his cholesterol down, with his internist’s approval.

“I was trying to change my body shape,” he now admits.

The other image seems even more telling. For as long as I can remember, he would pick at the skin at his fingertips, almost like an animal gnawing its own flesh, till his fingers became raw.

“I was trying to get out of my skin,” he says. And now, in effect, he will.

I think about Eleanor. She has to be devastated. They’ve had what to all appearances is a wonderful marriage, worked and travelled and built a life together that is about to splinter at the seams. They’re separating, he tells me, and eventually he will move to a mountain condo the two of them bought some years ago.

When I ask how she’s dealing with it, Chevey’s calm voice wavers. “She’s having a hard time. I think she’s struggling less with the idea of me being transsexual than with losing the marriage. A year and a half before we got married, I told her I had had this problem but I thought I had it under control.”

“Why now, at this late date?”

“Because,” he explains, “the urge gets stronger, not weaker. You just don’t want to go to your grave in what you believe is the wrong body.”

I ask him if he ever thought of doing it earlier, if it was the reason he and Beth, his first wife, got divorced. He separated from Beth in 1976. We were all mystified, so joined at the hip were the two. They’d been together since puberty, had dated other people but always come back together.

“Yes, I took hormones,” he says. “I was going to change.” He bought a charming Tudor house in Richmond’s West End and had it rezoned so that it could serve as a financial management consultancy below and residence above.

And then he realized he couldn’t do it. Pete, his son with Beth, was still alive, Mother was alive, the doctors he went to presented a confusing picture; there was no Internet, no information, no guidance.

“I didn’t anticipate the intensity of the drive. Nobody can imagine it. To the point that not having the sex change is no longer an option. From the outside it looks like a selfish act, but from the inside not at all. I had a ‘happy’ life before, and I’m destroying it all. It’s nothing to do with happiness. I had happiness in all those normal senses.

“It’s like . . .” He pauses. “Well, imagine you’re a paraplegic, and they tell you they can give you movement in your legs, but you’ll have to use a cane. Of course you’d jump at the opportunity. I’ll go further,” he continues. “I’d rather die in surgery trying to become a woman than live the rest of my life fighting it. The only way I wouldn’t go through with the surgery is if there were a 100 percent chance of death.”

Spoken in his calm, determined voice, rational to the end, this is so chilling it takes my breath away.

• • • • •

He lays out the plan in his methodical way, precise and logical—the very qualities I love about him and depend on, but that are at odds with the tumultuous event about to unfold and the inner turmoil to which it bears witness. In May he’ll have facial reconstruction surgery in California and then move to Pine Mountain to begin a year of “presenting” as a woman. (As a semiretired investment adviser who oversees the financial affairs of his several clients, he can continue to work at home.) There is, it turns out, a whole protocol for sexual reassignment, safeguards to protect against the disasters of the early years. Often men became women, and women men, expecting miracles, and then, when their whole lives didn’t improve dramatically, they became disillusioned, often to the point of suicide. If he-now-she passes muster—i.e., if certain psychological criteria have been met—she’ll have genital surgery.

Since June he’s been on hormone therapy, under the supervision of an endocrinologist who specializes in transsexuals. Nothing artificial—he’s quite insistent on this; he’s not going to become some pneumatic babe, a Marilyn Monroe wannabe.

I think about this. “Just one thing,” I say (hoping to inject a note of levity, but not entirely joking), “please tell me you’ll still be smart at money and computers, and not dumb like . . . well, like a girl? Like me? Or Eleanor or Beth.” None of us can go a week without having a computer emergency and appealing to him for assistance.

“I’ll still be the same person inside,” he reassures me. And as such, something of an exception. According to what he’s read and to doctors he’s talked with, most transsexuals on hormones change more psychologically than physically, but so far, it seems to be the opposite with him. I’m not ready for details, but I think this is a relief.

He’s begun taking instruction in feminine dress and comportment—how to talk the talk and walk the walk—from a professional, a woman in Santa Cruz who specializes in transsexuals. Apparently, there’s a whole cottage industry, a surgical-cosmetic complex, geared to the transitioning male. (The females to males, still considered a minority within a minority, have different needs and physical goals.) And then there’s electrolysis, which he must undergo every two months, in California, and it’s excruciating.

His plans are as precisely coordinated as a military campaign, involving a whole set of changes that must occur overnight. Nothing can be done by increments. Change of dress and hair (a wig at first), as well as name on Social Security card and driver’s license—all of these will take place simultaneously and by stealth, so that Chevey will disappear and Ellen, like Athena emerging from the head of Zeus, will go forth fully armed as a woman. She will be legally—if not yet anatomically—a female and, one hopes, a socially convincing one. It’s scary, like Kafka’sMetamorphosis or the transformation when the fairy godmother waves her magic wand. One day he is John Haskell, Eleanor’s husband (no shopping for female clothes, no fingernail polish) and the stepfather of her two children; the next day he is a she, Ellen Hampton, a guy-gal in a wig.

And the worst part (other than the fear of failure as a woman) is the facial reconstruction, the surgery with which Chevey has decided to start in order to give himself every advantage. (It goes without saying that these alterations are hugely expensive; luckily, he’s always been a saver rather than a spender.) The facial reconstruction, in which the face is hacked up and reassembled, eliminating masculine characteristics, is far more arduous and difficult than genital surgery, and his description is the most convincing evidence of the overwhelming power of the transsexual’s urge to change. It will last upwards of ten hours, and after coming out of it, he’ll look, in his words, “like someone who’s gone eight rounds with Mike Tyson, without gloves.” Eleanor, in an act of astonishing generosity, will accompany him for the surgery and bring him home to live with her for a period of recovery. As soon as he, at that point she, is able to take care of herself—drive a car, go to the grocery store—she’ll leave and go to Pine Mountain as Ellen.

And then, if the facial surgery succeeds (and what is success?), there’s the perilous aftermath. Will she be safe? Transsexuals are particularly susceptible to deadly assault (see the film Boys Don’t Cry). They’re a lightning rod for sexual sadists sniffing out a victim, or for men who feel threatened by the in-your-face sexual confusion they introduce, and Chevey is a particularly tall lightning rod.

“And what about, well, sexual orientation? Will you be . . . heterosexual or homosexual?”

“It’s not about sex,” he stresses, “it’s about identity.”

Nevertheless, he will be heterosexual, a heterosexual female who would like, but doesn’t necessarily expect, to meet a man. My brother, almost sixty years old and six feet tall, will be a “woman on the loose.” My heart stops. The danger. The grotesqueness. An aging transsexual. Terence Stamp in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, sad, dignified, last chance at love: a sweet, grizzled, elderly mechanic in the outback. Or Dustin Hoffman’s desperate frump of an actress in Tootsie. What’s the best we can hope for? That he’ll be more comely than Dame Edna, but not quite as dishy as Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game?

Yet there is nothing of the flamboyant gender rebel in Chevey. What makes it unusual is precisely my brother’s conservatism: a guy’s guy to all appearances, manly, reserved, twice married to wonderful wives, from a city, or from asection of that city, where gays are still closeted, the word “feminism” is never heard, and no one has voted Democrat since Harry Truman (which they lived to regret). To be specific, we are talking about Richmond’s West End, the very antipode of those meccas of blurred gender San Francisco and the anything-goes subcultures of New York. Simply put, when, in the two most recent presidential elections, Virginia became a swing state for Obama, these Richmonders were not the swingers.

Chevey and I grew up, and he has stayed, in this lovely, sedate, gene-proud Capital of the Confederacy. Or rather, since Richmond has changed tumultuously in the last twenty years, a certain ultra-WASP section of Richmond that has remained quietly but defiantly resistant to time: staid, tasteful, the high-church altar of the Old Dominion’s patron saints—Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Clay—with many of its handsome residential areas situated on the James River, that most historic river, now tainted by present-day pollution and its past as a major transportation route for newly arrived African slaves.

The conservatism and tradition of good manners, which I can appreciate more with the passage of time, made our quarter of the world an ideal place in which to grow up: secure; families intact; children given enough freedom but not too much. It was a generally somnolent era that was free of so much of the political and personal turmoil that would roil postsixties America. But this calm surface, this wholesomeness, with all its taboos and secrets, exacted its price in conformity and repression. There was segregation, of course, always present and rarely discussed. Richmond was on the wrong side of history where race was concerned, but I was on the wrong side of Richmond, or would have been if I’d given voice to my mutinous thoughts. I remember having discussions with a friend, the only one I knew to have liberal tendencies, in almost hushed tones. We hated the fact that blacks had to ride at the back of the bus, but an activist I wasn’t. My chosen course would be to leave altogether.

Whatever its virtues and defects, Richmond as we know it is not the kind of place that fosters alternate lifestyles or ethnic diversity, much less “gender confusion”! “Don’t stand out” is the fundamental axiom of the tribe, the price of belonging, and deviation could mean ostracism. We children all grew up in lockstep, went to the same schools, belonged to the same clubs, learned to dance at cotillion, were confirmed and worshipped in the Episcopal or Presbyterian churches. Moreover, the “good” families would have paid to keep their names out of the paper—not just from fear a burglar might strike if news of a trip leaked out, but simply because people like us didn’t promote or advertise ourselves. In truth, these families didn’t actually go on many trips. They were too content to stay in Richmond. Those Trollope novels where everyone has to be in London for “the season”? Well, in Richmond’s West End the season was all year long. And the next and the next. Oh, a trip to Europe was fine once in a while, and Florida in the winter (provided one stayed at one of the resorts colonized by fellow Richmonders), but what place on earth, what people, could compare with Richmond? When the European tour became de rigueur for the teenage set, a friend explained why she had to postpone the pleasure: “If you go to France, you have to go for at least a week, and I’d miss too much in Richmond.” The tribe was more important than the individual and the individual took her identity from the tribe.

Don’t get me wrong: growing up there was a privilege, and as a child and teenager I loved the place. Indeed, my escape would have been so much easier and less fraught had I loved it less. But Chevey and I had taken the escape route of marriage. I’d left, moved to New York, and, to Mother’s dismay, wedded a film critic from Queens, the son of Greek immigrants no less. As the American importer of France’s “auteur theory,” Andrew Sarris would gain recognition as an important and provocative force in the explosion of sixties cinephilia, but at the time he was just one more idiosyncratic voice on the masthead of an “underground” weekly called the Village Voice that no one in Richmond had ever heard of. And through marriage, Chevey had removed himself from the rigidities of haute WASP social circles, had rejected the “place for themselves” that my parents, not native Virginians, had worked so hard to establish. His wives were not (and were not interested in being) “old Richmond,” which—it now strikes me—allowed Chevey to keep pretty much to himself.

I was the official family renegade, the turncoat; he the apparently staid and dependable stay-at-home. I’d become a transplanted New Yorker of more-or-less liberal persuasion; Chevey was a moderate, but Richmond was still his city, his people. However little he might participate in their rituals, they shared a certain DNA, were bound together by—if nothing else—an overpowering sense of the importance of discretion. And now . . .? Transsexuals are everywhere, we’re told. Presumably, like the saints in the Episcopal children’s hymn, “you can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea.”

But in Richmond?

• • • • •

Actually, Chevey would be discreet, even about becoming a transsexual, and Richmond would be discreet in its reaction.

On the day he leaves his and Eleanor’s house and moves to Pine Mountain, a letter will go out to business acquaintances, close friends, and family, informing them that John Cheves Haskell Jr. has become Ellen Clark Hampton. Why this name? Why choose the name Ellen, so close to his wife’s? Because, he tells me, it’s the name he called himself in his fantasy life, and the fantasy life is where his soul and spirit lived, took sustenance. And why not keep our last name, Haskell? Because he doesn’t want to embarrass the family. Clark is my mother’s maiden name, Hampton a family name deriving from our forebear Wade Hampton, the South Carolina Civil War general, U.S. senator, and postwar governor. There is a delicious irony in this, as Chevey, never much interested in family history, has chosen just the name that would chill the blue blood of our relatives who put great stock in genealogy, and many of whose children, male and female, bear the first name Hampton. But Chevey just liked the sound of it; as he began to live more and more as the woman in his head, these were the details in which he wrapped himself, the saving fantasy of who he “really” was and can’t now abandon.

Andrew and I are instructed not to breathe a word until the letters go out in early May, some months from now. And then, only moments after he’s made his revelation, he says, “You have to promise me one thing.” Anything, anything. “You won’t write about this.” I nod. Unhappy, but what can I say? In a matter of hours, I’ll begin to have second thoughts and even come up with a title (“My Brother My Sister”), only half joking, but for now I would agree to anything. An earlier memoir I wrote about Andrew and his near-fatal illness infuriated my mother and distressed Chevey almost as much on her behalf. For the moment, however, writing about it would have to be the furthest thing from my mind.

• • • • •

After Chevey goes home, I continue to rack my memory for early signs, sissy behavior, and find none. Andrew is equally shocked. Eleanor and I call each other every day. She is now my companion in commiseration, in fear. We have long, agonized conversations. She has known for six months about the change but remains equally flabbergasted.

I go to my analyst, who seems nonplussed by the news of my brother. No, that’s not quite right. I go to my analyst and begin by burying the lead. “I want to come less often.” He nods. Then I say, “My brother is going to become a woman.” His jaw doesn’t drop, but his eyebrows rise several millimeters—the shrink equivalent. “Why didn’t you tell me that first?” he asks.

The wish to cut back on my number of weekly appointments has been preying on my mind for some time. I haven’t mentioned it—I was afraid of “hurting his feelings” (an “issue” that I managed to avoid discussing for seven years)—and here was an opportunity to get it out of the way in a hurry.

Andrew goes to his therapist, with whom he has a more conversational relationship and who expresses real surprise. “Why would he do it now,” he asks, “at an age when women are losing their desirability?”

Apparently, neither therapist has had any experience, direct or otherwise, with transsexuals.

“Maybe he’ll change his mind,” Eleanor and I say more than once, a desperate hope. She, too, is seeing a therapist because, she says, “there’s so much I can’t discuss with anybody. He doesn’t give me any ideas about how to move forward, just gives me the free space to vent, and I mostly sit there and bawl.”

And we worry. What’s going to happen to him living alone in the mountains? Why won’t he join a support group, meet other transsexuals? I ask him. He says he’s “not one of them.” (We can’t call him “she” yet, even when projecting into the future.) Eleanor’s lawyer knew someone, a male-to-female transsexual, and offered to introduce them—she might at least provide information—but Chevey didn’t want to.

Andrew and I make jokes. About . . . Chevey’s refusal to join a support group or meet others in the same situation. Andrew says, “That’s all we need, an uptight transsexual.”

Eleanor and I also make jokes to cover our apprehension, our fears for him and for ourselves (the snickers and eyeball-rolling). About what s/he’s going to look like, sound like. Barbara, Eleanor’s daughter, says her mother should have surgery and become a man and they could stay married. Chevey did suggest that, as Virginia law permitted it, they might stay married, but Eleanor vetoed that, saying it wouldn’t work for either of them.

CHAPTER TWO

Flesh and Blood

And now again obscurity descends, and would indeed that it were deeper! . . . But let other pens treat of sex and sexuality; we quit such odious subjects as soon as we can.

—Virginia Woolf, Orlando

Would indeed that it were all a dream. Or a jeu d’esprit, like the Virginia Woolf novel Orlando, about a time-travelling, gender-morphing acrobat, whose overnight change is both “painless and complete.” If only we could draw a veil of obscurity over the less poetic reality. But in the all-too-literal real world, my brother is to become my sister. And in the decidedly unlyrical vocabulary of such things, he is transgender (genus) and transsexual (species), making a complete “transition,” which includes the rearrangement of those crude body parts that Virginia Woolf airily transcended.

No, it isn’t illness or death, and thank heaven for that.

But the upside of illness and death is that there are guidelines for how to behave, even what to feel. Books and movies and even life itself have given us a repertory of words and gestures appropriate to major crises and events. With death there’s a ritual framework, the formalities of bereavement, according to which friends and relatives gather round and offer concern and support. Like a mild anesthetic, it doesn’t obliterate the pain but takes the edge off, lifts you out of your solitary self. Here, we’re in uncharted seas. I’m not allowed to summon friends, even if I wanted to (and I don’t, not now). And what is an adversity for me is (however perilous) a liberation for my brother. I suppose there is, tucked into every strong response, a hidden opposite: mixed with the intense grief over a loved one’s death is the shadow of relief, the escape from emotional dependency; the happiness of the marital vows is undercut by the isolation of “forsaking all others”; the whole world of conventional pain and pleasure disappears in the madness of l’amour fou; and the act of sex shudders with the petit mort of mortality foretold. But with my brother, the predominant note is “mixed feelings.” What to do with “gender reassignment”? There is no precedent for my brother’s decision, hence no way to orchestrate my confusion. How can you grieve when the person you love is brimful of hope for the future? Where does it fit into the taxonomy of life crises when one person’s liberation is another’s loss?

• • • • •

I see it as a changing of identities, like someone on the lam, or going into the witness protection program. He sees it, quite the reverse, as someone who’s been living as a fake, who’s already done time in the witness protection program and can finally come clean, walk out the door, and face the light of day as his, or rather her, true self. A more extreme version, perhaps, of other kinds of medical miracles—for example, someone who’s suffered from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or lifelong depression and is finally given an effective drug and comes out of the fog into something like normalcy. Or the clarity of vision that can come after cataract surgery. Or “cosmetic” surgery not for vanity or youth but to remove scars or a birth defect.

Another thought, selfish but overwhelming: suppose something happens to Andrew! This fear is never far from my mind. My husband is extremely infirm, an imbalance of the legs not just from old age (he is approaching eighty) but from nerve damage sustained during a terrifying, near-fatal illness in 1984. He walks unsteadily with a cane, is hard of hearing. He looks and feels old. He is still teaching, but the incredible extemporaneous lectures, the broad range of associations, are becoming a thing of the past as his thinking and speaking slow down.

I love Andrew so, I think to myself, and I don’t know how I’ll live without him, but if he dies, the one person I’ll want first—have always assumed will be there to get me through it all, logistically and emotionally—is my brother. But now he’ll be—Ellen. Could I face a memorial service for Andrew with everyone gawking at my “sister”? Could I face friends coming over, having to make introductions? In such an emergency, who would I lean on? My anxiety on this score is isolating and shameful, but it turns out Eleanor is also suffering along these lines. Her mother, ailing and at home with caregivers, will probably die in the next year or so. Chevey is very close to Mrs. W, almost a surrogate son. But, unable to confess, Eleanor has simply told her mother they’ve broken up (shock enough!). Mrs. W is never to know of Ellen, and Ellen won’t be welcome at the funeral. Eleanor will give out the same story to her sister and friends at church, but she feels uncomfortable skirting the truth. . . . Suppose they ask questions?

I call a friend, the psychoanalyst Ethel Person, the one human being I’ve been granted permission by Chevey to talk to. Ethel is known for her referrals—for expertly pairing patients with analysts (she gave me mine back in 1987)—but, more important, she’s written about transsexuals and has made them something of a subspecialty in her practice. She takes the news in stride. “Transsexuals are the best, the kindest people I know,” she says, “maybe because they have to learn compassion the hard way.”

I tell her that Chevey—or John, as Eleanor calls him—was hurt by Eleanor’s refusal to bring her mother in on the secret. “He longs for validation,” Ethel says, and spoke of transsexualism as being “a passion of the soul.” If only I knew what that meant.

I try to get hold of myself, embrace the positive spin. After all, I am losing a brother not to mortality but to sisterhood. And he is gaining his identity, his “authenticity,” his soul. My instinct—for myself, for Eleanor, for everyone including him—is to think of it as a catastrophe. Not just for our lives, but for his: how will he, when she, live alone up there on the mountain? Will she be persecuted, shunned, or even in danger? But he wants it too much for me to think in purely negative terms.

• • • • •

When we talk on the phone I can hear the excitement in Chevey’s voice. I know the anxiety is there, but he’s buoyed by the anticipation of moving forward. I ask about his activities and preparations.

“The dilemma was always that on a particular day not far off I’d become Ellen, but until that time, I had to be Chevey living with Eleanor. As Chevey I can’t go around and try on women’s clothes, yet once I become Ellen I have to have a wardrobe.”

Through the recommendation of his endocrinologist, he found Lisa, a partner in a trendy local salon. He told her his problem (she was gay, as it turned out, and they became friends), and she suggested a woman in Charlottesville who was a clothing designer and had a little shop there.

That was how Chevey found Janice, and the two of them worked out a plan. She measured him and assessed his needs, and when he visited her every week or so, she would have a variety of outfits from different stores assembled for him. Sneaking into a back room, he would try them on, buying one or two and discarding the rest, so that over the course of several months, he gradually accumulated a basic wardrobe—as well as “lots of excellent advice.”

“Some of it I already knew from my years of observing women, studying how they looked and walked, but certain things I didn’t know, the finer points, like does the shirttail look right in or out, how to tie a sash, things that as a guy you just wouldn’t have any way of knowing.

“It was expensive, because I had to pay her and buy the clothes, too. And driving to Charlottesville so often was inconvenient, but I didn’t want to do it in Richmond; I was trying not to embarrass Eleanor. So Janice was a real lifesaver.”

That night I dream that my brother is a beautiful girl, with blond hair and young skin. I wake up thinking, “I wish!” On the other hand, if the dream does come true, if Ellen is young and beautiful, will I be jealous? He’s younger than I am, and has always looked extremely young for his age.

I am happy he’s in such good hands, has done all this to prepare himself. And yet, I’m ashamed to admit, it makes me cringe. I begin collecting transgender stories, just in case Chevey’s ban against writing is lifted, and I look at these stories and say, “Why must they?” As I clip and file, I also avert my eyes, put off reading. Some religious fundamentalist in me arises, demanding, Can’t they just accept the bodies God gave them? Even as I am coming to understand a little of the nature of the urge, how overpowering it is, how little a choice—I want to keep my brother. It’s fine, even a bit titillating, for other people’s children or siblings or parents or friends to change sex, but this is too close to home. I long, atavistically, for the manly ideal, the “oak tree” male.

There is also resentment: who does he, or rather she, think she is? Claiming womanhood without having had to go through the trials and travails (menopause, childbirth, general and especially body insecurity). Trying to have it both ways. (Of course, trying to pass as a woman at sixty, she can hardly be said to have escaped body insecurity!) Most of all, why would a man give up his perks, not to mention the Big Kahuna, to become a woman at precisely the age when women are becoming invisible crones? And the reassessment: How will this recast our childhood? How will it undermine my images of family? Will memories have to be altered to accommodate the brother—or should I say “sister”—I never knew?

And then, of course—how can one avoid it—what will people think? (Thank God Mother is dead.) I know, it’s happening more and more often; soon it will be common enough that it will be accepted, especially by the younger generation. But I’m not a member of the younger generation.

In a memorable New Yorker article (1997) on Teena Brandon, a.k.a. Brandon Teena, “The Humboldt Murders,” John Gregory Dunne speculates as to what an earlier and even more famous transgressive woman of the West, Willa Cather, would have made of the gender-crossing Teena. Cather loved women and created in her tomboy Antonia a heroine very like the poor rural androgyne whose murder became the subject of the Hilary Swank film Boys Don’t Cry. “One can assume,” Dunne writes, “that Cather would have regarded her [Teena’s] obsession with gender and its discontents as self-indulgent, and her gender confusion as an excuse to abdicate personal responsibility.”

Cather may have shared geography with Brandon Teena but the writer had the advantage of a large, close-knit family and an old-fashioned sense of decorum that went with it. She would have had no experience of Teena’s knockabout life of abuse and poverty. But surely that exasperation with “self-indulgence” rings a chord among those of us who came to adulthood before the efflorescence of gender identity politics, with each minority’s claims of persecution and prejudice, clamors for recognition, and determination to set matters aright whatever the cost. That I’m on both sides of the divide—part traditionalist, part liberationist—doesn’t make the whole thing any easier. Even the feminist that I am, by definition a supporter of minority rights, is staggered by the speed of change and the shape those rights have taken. The struggle for women’s equality seems downright quaint, a settled issue, compared to such recent commonplaces as single parents, gay marriage, gay parents, test-tube babies, sperm donors, and egg surrogates.

Why should I be shocked? Back in 2001, I wrote an essay for the New York Times Arts & Leisure section (“In the Land of Self-Invention, You Can Always Start Over”) about the Second Chance narrative as “a phenomenon that has always existed but that has somehow taken on greater urgency and inventiveness in our age of long lives and multiple choices.” In the films covered by the article, “a beleaguered protagonist has the opportunity, either through outside intervention or inner transformation, to do it over or better.” I attributed the proliferation of such stories to the fact that “we are seduced daily by visions of other places and possibilities, thereby living parallel lives in our heads . . . a function of rising divorce rates, feminism’s multiple-choice agenda, and the life-span statistics on the actuarial tables. We have more time to evolve, change, rewind.”

I don’t think I had sex change in mind, nor could I ever be quite as cavalier as I sounded.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Praise for MY BROTHER MY SISTER

“Molly Haskell has written a bracingly candid book about the mystery of sexual identity and the often indirect path we take to claiming it. This is a riveting account of the passion and tenacity it takes to go up against the constrictions and limitations society imposes on our deepest dreams of self.”—Daphne Merkin, author of Dreaming of Hitler and Enchantment

“In this gripping memoir, the author's feelings are parsed with a precision and candor that bring universal resonance to its seemingly singular subject.  The wisdom and compassion that shine through on every page are as necessary as they are rare.”—Phillip Lopate, author To Show and to Tell

“Life’s losses and transitions – in this case, sex changes and death – are heartbreaking and enigmatic, yet Haskell confronts them honestly with tremendous courage, intelligence and love.  A beautiful book.”—Lily Tuck, National Book Award-winning author of The News from Paraguay

“Beautiful and pitch perfect. A wonderfully personal story about family and relationships and secrets and evolution and how mysterious we remain even to ourselves and our closest relatives.”—A. M. Homes, Women’s Prize-winning author of May We Be Forgiven

“A remarkable and indispensable book. In My Brother My Sister, Haskell documents her sibling's amazing journey of transformation from male to female – but it's not about sex, it's about identity – about the price of belonging. Above all this is an achingly personal story. It takes courage for brother Chevey to become sister Ellen and for Haskell to confront her doubts. It also takes a great deal of love.”—Patricia Bosworth, author of Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman

"As the conversation surrounding...transgender continues, this work makes a significant contribution to its literature."—Publishers Weekly

“Haskell eloquently chronicles the emotional torrent [for] both siblings.”—Booklist

“With candor and sly humor, [Haskell] questions her ideas about womanhood and considers the relationship between gender and identity….A discerning, vital memoir.”—Kirkus

“A sensitive, funny, difficult, and insightful book.”—New York Journal of Books

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