When Allison Banks develops a crush on Dana Stevens, she knows that he will give her what she needs most: attention, gentleness, kindness, passion. Her daughter, Carly, enthusiastically witnesses the change in her mother. But then a few months into their relationship, Dana tells Allison his secret: he has always been certain that he is a woman born into the wrong skin, and soon he will have a sex-change operation. Allison, overwhelmed by the depth of her passion, finds herself unable to leave Dana. By deciding to stay, she finds she must confront questions most people never even consider. Not only will her own life and Carly’s be irrevocably changed, she will have to contend with the outrage of a small Vermont community and come to terms with her lover’s new body–hoping against hope that her love will transcend the physical.
About the Author
Date of Birth:August 12, 1961
Place of Birth:White Plains, New York
Read an Excerpt
I was eight when my parents separated, and nine when they actually divorced. That means that for a little more than a decade, I've watched my mom get ready for dates. Sometimes, until I started ninth grade, I'd even keep her company on Saturday afternoons, while she'd take these long, luxurious bubble baths. I'd put the lid down on the toilet and sit there, and we'd talk about school or boys or the guy she was dating.
I stopped joining her in the bathroom in ninth grade for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it had started to seem a little weird to me to be hanging out with her when I was fourteen and she was naked.
But she has always been pretty cool about bodies and sex, and for all I know, she wouldn't mind my joining her in the bathroom even now when I'm home from college. For better or worseand usually for bettermy mom has always been very comfortable with subjects that give most parents the shivers. A couple of days before my fifteenth birthday, she took me to the gynecologist to get me fitted for a diaphragm, and told me where in her bedroom she kept the spermicidally lubricated condoms. (Of course, I already knew: God, by then I even knew where she'd hidden a vibrator.)
I hadn't had sex yet, and my mom made it clear that she didn't want me to in the foreseeable future. But she had a pretty good memory of the hormonal chaos that hits a person in high school, and she wanted to do all that she could for my sake to ensure that she wouldn't become a grandmother any sooner than necessary.
When I think back on it, my parents' divorce was very civilized. At least it has always seemed that way to me, though it's clear there are things I don't know.
The way my mom tells it, I was in second or third grade when they realized they just didn't love each other anymore the way they had when they were first married. They'd worked together at the radio station then, and they'd shared everything. My mom insists they both came to the realization at about the same time that they should separate: My mom was thirty-two and my dad was thirty-three, and they figured they were still young enough to hook up with someone who, in the long years ahead, could keep their motors humming the way they were meant to.
Sometimes my dad hints that it wasn't quite so mutual. Most of the time he toes their party line, but every so often I'll get the impression that when he moved out, he was figuring they'd both change their minds and reconcile in a couple of weeks. I think he might have thought he was just being cool.
Once when he was visiting my mom, I overheard him telling her that he knew her heart had never been into the counseling they went through when I was eight.
Still, he was the one who got remarried.
Sometimes, when I was little, I'd help my mom pick out her jewelry or clothing for a date.
"Wear the pearls," I might suggest.
"It's a clambake," she'd remind me.
"And they might scare the oysters."
One time she especially indulged me. I was eleven years old and convinced there was no fashion statement more powerful than a kilt. And so she wore a red-and-green Christmas kilt to a backyard cookout, even though it was the middle of August and the air was just plain sticky. That night my baby-sitter spent most of the time standing in front of a fan, with her T-shirt rolled up like a halter.
If I were to count, I'd guess my mom probably had five serious boyfriends in the decade between my parents' divorce and the day she met Dana. Dana had been in pre-surgical therapy for two years by then and had probably endured close to fifty hours of electrolysis. He'd been on hormone therapy for a good four or five months.
Unlike a lot of pre-op M2Fs, he wasn't trying to pass as a woman yet, he hadn't begun his transition.
Of course, he didn't tell my mom any of thisnot that he should have. When they met, he was simply the professor for a film course at the university that she was taking that summer as a lark, and she was one of his students.
What was he supposed to do, say to the class, "Hi, I'm Dana, and I've spent a good part of the last year with my upper lip deadened by Novacaine"?
Or, "Good evening, I'm your professor. I'm about to start developing breasts!"
Or, if he wanted, for some reason, to be completely candid, "You folks ever met a lesbian with a penis? Have now!"
He had no idea he was going to fall in love with my mom, even when they started to date, and she had no idea she was going to fall in love with him. It just happened.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Chris Bohjalian's Trans-Sister Radio, a uniquely powerful love story with more than a few unexpected twists.
1. What stereotypes or common misconceptions about transsexuals does Trans-Sister Radio challenge? How is it able to reveal the reality beneath the stereotypes?
2. Trans-Sister Radio is alternately narrated by Carly, Will, Allison, and Dana. What effect does Bohjalian achieve by telling the story through four narrators rather than one? How do these differing perspectives shape and control our reactions to the story?
3. As he contemplates Dana's surgery, Will asserts, "You simply couldn't, it seemed to me, change a biological imperative" [p. 143], while Dana says that being born in a man's body was a "howling chromosomal error" [p. 48]. Does the novel seem to favor either of these points of view? Is it possible for chromosomes to make an "error"? Is there a "biological imperative" that determines gender? What ethical and social dilemmas arise with our increasing scientific ability to manipulate nature?
4. Why do Dana's parents oppose his sex-change surgery? What aspects of Dana's becoming a woman concern them most? What prevents them from understanding Dana's deeper need to become a woman?
5. After Dana's reassignment surgery, she visits a young woman who is about to undergo the same procedure and is racked with worry about how her father, a football coach and mountain climber, will react. Dana tells her: "He hasn't climbed a mountain anywhere near as tall as the one you have to get here. Never in his life has he done anything as difficult as you have. Never" [p. 209]. What are the difficultiesemotional, practical, socialDana and other transsexuals must confront? In what ways does the novel take readers inside those struggles?
6. Why does a large part of the Bartlett community object to Allison living with a transsexual? Why do even liberal parents, who at least theoretically have no objection to gay marriage, draw the line at transsexualism? Are their fears understandable and justifiable? What are they based on?
7. Sally Warwick, Allison's eleven-year-old student who masterminds the class's cross-dressing curtain call, explains that she got one of the boys to go along with her plan because he had a crush on her. "You see, when you think someone's cute, you do really weird stuff" [p. 297]. In what ways is this statement a commentary on the novel as a whole? What does it suggest about the nature of love? Why is Sally's innocent perspective on cross-dressing especially disarming?
8. In discussing transsexualism with her mother, Carly says, "we all want to cross over a lot more than we realize. We all want to be . . . other" [p. 272]. Is she right? Why would we want to be something "other" than what we are?
9. How does Will go from being a person who regards Dana as "not normal" and sex-change surgery as a mutilation, to someone who not only accepts Dana but falls in love with her? What are the stages in this process? What moments draw him closer to Dana?
10. Looking back on their relationship, Allison feels she has been used by Dana: "She'd needed someone to take care of her during transition, she'd needed a woman to tutor her in the finer points of my gender. She'd seen the way I'd fallen in love with her when she was my male professor, and taken advantage of me" [p. 312]. Is Allison right about Dana's motives? Has Dana deliberately deceived and manipulated her? Why doesn't he tell her of his plans at the beginning of their relationship?
11. The airing of the VPR interviews with Dana, Allison, and their opponents is a turning point for everyone in the novel. What effect does this program have on Dana and Allison's relationship? On Will? On those who consider Dana a "pervert"? What is the novel suggesting about the role of information in changing public opinion about sexual and gender issues?
12. Near the end of the novel, Carly seems to endorse a complete sexual relativism, where gender and sexual preference don't matter at all: "Let's face it: In reality, it's all just about muscle spasms that feel really good" [p. 341]. Is this an accurate view of human sexuality? To what extent does socialization determine sexual preference and gender behavior? Is Carly's thinking liberating or does it open the door to a confusing sexual free-for-all?
13. Dana undergoes a sex-change operation, but in fact all of the main characters in Trans-Sister Radio experience important changes. In what ways are Will, Allison, and Carly different at the end of the novel than they were at the beginning?
14. When Glenn Frazier confronts Allison with the parents' concerns, Allison says, "Who lives with me is none of Richard Lessard's business." Glenn replies, "That's not true. You teach his daughter. He pays your salary" [p. 115]. To what extent do these opposing positions mask larger anxietiesabout privacy, sexuality, education, moralityin America today?