During a visit from her little brother, affectionately nicknamed Chevey (pronounced “Chivvy”), feminist film critic Molly Haskell was stunned by the confession that Chevey had been battling some personal demons his whole life: now nearly sixty years old, he felt it was finally time to come out as a trans woman. Having carefully saved up money over the years, he informed his sister that he would be undergoing a few surgeries in the coming months, ending with the final sex change surgery. Because of this, Chevey would be separating from his second wife, Eleanor. When asked why he had waited so long to do this, Chevey responded, “Because the urge gets stronger, not weaker. You just don’t want to go to your grave in what you believe is the wrong body.”
So begins the year of Chevey’s physical and emotional transformation into Ellen, as told through the often cringe-inducing eyes of her sister. *sigh* Where do I even begin?
Perhaps with one of Haskell’s immediate reactions to the news?
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.
Or maybe one of the thoughts after that, the one shortly after, “Will she be safe?”
[H]e 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 change 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 that Dame Edna, but not quite as dishy as Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game?
Or maybe I should start with one of my bigger issues with the book, the one after Haskell and her husband are sworn to secrecy until Ellen gives the go-ahead?
“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 having 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.
Yes, perhaps I’ll start there. Because even though Haskell does eventually get Ellen’s blessing to write the book (they even did a few promotional appearances together when the book was released), Haskell begins research for it almost immediately, discovering many memoirs written by trans* men and women but almost nothing for their families who are trying to cope with the news. It was a hole just waiting to be filled.
But this memoir isn’t really about Ellen. It’s a vanity project that’s all about Haskell and her complete inability — even months after the news — to process the information. Furthermore, she and Ellen don’t even live near each other; it’s not like Haskell was there everyday to witness the changes and offer firsthand support. She and Ellen spoke frequently on the phone as they had always done, but any observations about Ellen’s changing appearance always came from someone else (the first came from Ellen’s estranged wife, who was horrified by it all but had agreed to help Ellen as she recovered from the surgeries).
There’s also the sense that Haskell believes Ellen to be special and smarter and unlike most trans* people. One gets this sense from Ellen as well. She ultimately agreed to let Haskell write the book because she wanted to help other women in her position, but she has no desire to go to trans women support groups or become an active part of the trans* community; she just want to live her life, as is her right. However, this sentiment is very different coming from Haskell, who ended up writing a rather horrifying passage as a result:
This is a lost year, we agree, but what about when she’s out and about? I asked what might happen if she “meets someone.” And the possibility of danger. I’ll always be up front about it, she says. If a man seems interested, I’ll tell him. This I entirely approve of and is totally in character, my honorable and “straight” brother now sister. Despite Hilary Swank’s virtuoso performance as Teena Brandon/Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, I hated the duplicity. Yes, the yahoos were uptight and murderous, but she in some sense invited the violence by taunting their manhood, pulling the wool over their eyes, and acting in bad faith. The fact is that a large number of transsexuals are murdered every year by those who feel duped and threatened.
Um, victim blame much?! Yes, Ms. Haskell, large numbers of trans* people (mostly women) are murdered every year — look at the number of trans* people who have been killed since the last International Transgender Day of Remembrance — but NONE OF THE BLAME SHOULD BE PLACED ON THEM.
By the end of the memoir, Haskell makes peace with everything and becomes one of her sister’s biggest cheerleaders. She obviously loves her sister and wants the best for her — and Ellen has obviously read the book and is okay with it — but for me, I’m afraid the resolution was too little, too late. Most of the book comes across as narcissistic and, at times, catty (such as when she judges Ellen’s hair and makeup choices). For a book meant to be about her sister, so much is actually about Haskell’s initial shock and embarrassment; she’s concerned for Ellen’s well-being, yes, but she’s also just as concerned for herself. I don’t mean to disqualify anyone’s emotions — people process things in their own ways — but considering Haskell’s decades-long career as a feminist film critic, I expected better from her.
My Brother My Sister: Story of a Transformation was released on September 5, 2013 by Viking Adult.