Like everyone I know, I am currently reading Torrey Peter’s debut novel Detransition, Baby and I am greatly enjoying it, about halfway through. Detransition, Baby is set in Brooklyn, around Reese, a trans woman longing for a baby, whose ex-girlfriend, Amy, has detransitioned and is now living as a man named Ames. Ames is having an affair with his boss, Katrina, who becomes pregnant. Ames, knowing he might want to be a parent but definitely not a father, proposes forming a family with Katrina, Reese, and the new baby to be.
There’s so much to love about this novel—the way it encapsulates a particular corner of Brooklyn—the one that used to frequent The Spectrum (remember that place?) that is rarely fully captured in literary fiction; its biting sense of humor; its deep love for its characters while also staying clear-eyed enough to tell the truth about each of them. There’s a particular, astonishing section about a quarter of the way in, though, that I am thinking about a lot.
Reese is recounting her relationship before Ames, with a cis man who seeks to control her through financial, emotional and eventually physical abuse. Of this abuse, Reese says:
…the slap was a form of pageantry. Beneath it lay Reese’s own sense of womanhood…Reese wanted…to get hit in a way that would affirm, once and for all, what she wanted to feel about her womanhood: her delicacy, her helplessness; her infuriating attractiveness…Reese spent a lifetime observing cis women confirm their genders through male violence. Watch any movie on the Lifetime channel. Go to any schoolyard. Or just watch your local heterosexuals drinking in a bar. Hear women define themselves through pain, or rage against the assumption that they do, which still places pain front and center…The quiet dignity of saying ow anytime a man gets a little rough—asserting that you are a woman and thus delicate and capable of sustaining harm…She didn’t make the rules of womanhood; like any other girl, she had inherited them…The New York Times regularly published op-eds by famous feminists who pointedly ruled her out as a woman. Let them. She’d be over here, getting knocked around, each blow a minor illustration of her place in a world that did its gendering work no matter what you called it. So yeah…Hit Reese. Show her what it means to be a lady.
Reading this whole passage, I felt a shock of recognition. Not at the desires Reese was expressing, but at the awful logic within it. I remember, at the start of adolescence, not understanding how women were supposed to relate to men. Truth be told, I’ve never really cracked that particular code. But, like Reese, I sensed that violence was at the heart of it. But I was repulsed. When I was thirteen, like most thirteen year olds, I had a bully. He was one of the only few other Black kids in my grade and he bullied me relentlessly with the one other Black boy—mostly telling me how ugly I was. Whenever I told those in authority what he was doing—my mother, my teachers, my therapist—they all insisted he was doing this because he liked me. This was the sign of a crush. I did not know much at thirteen but I knew how profoundly fucked up it was that all the adults in my life were telling me that this was love. So I took an algebra text book and smashed it over his head until he would leave me alone.
In later adolescence, I fell in love with the American songbook—Cole Porter songs, mostly, which are all about dissolution and dissipation, and other classy words for being dickmatized. I loved Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered and Miss Otis Regrets and Love For Sale, all songs about a sordid kind of love that ended in gunshots, spilled gin, giving it away on the waterfront. I loved Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors and I loved the archness of her lines in “Suddenly, Seymour”—Nobody ever treated me kindly/Daddy left early, Mama was poor/I’d meet a man and I’d follow him blindly/He’d snap his fingers, me, 'I’d say sure. I sang these songs every morning underneath the shower head, eyes squeezed shut, trying to imagine myself into a subjectivity where this would make sense. Later, when I finally did begin dating men, I consciously flashed back to those songs whenever I was at a loss on how to respond to a man. Sometimes, I did that self-conscious ow that Reese describes and was amazed to see men respond to it. I was always hyper aware that this was all a role I was playing, and I could never quite fully respect or trust the men who fell for it. But because I am cis, unlike Reese, I did not associate this relationship to violence as intrinsically a part of womanhood. Instead, I wondered why we were all playing these roles that were so profoundly wrong. If they were constructs, couldn’t we just build something apart from them? It is naive to think so, but I still believe it.
I think my feelings on all of this are best summed up in Toni Cade Bambara (sorry, quoting her again!)’s take on the fallacy of equating womanhood to pain. She writes
The Awakening by Kate Chopin is not my (feminist) classic…Sylvia Plath and the other obligatory writers on women’s studies lists—the writers who hawk despair, insanity, alienation, suicide, all in the name of protesting women’s oppression, are not my mentors.
I feel this, deeply, in that I reject the idea that womanhood is defined by pain, but I also want to acknowledge how seductive that idea is. How there is a particular pleasure in singing of sour love under a hot stream of water. I want to pin all this on the push of plush hormones of adolescence but I know even before I went through puberty, I deeply identified with Eponine in Les Miz and memorized “On My Own” with a demented fever, singing it over and over again on my sister’s casio keyboard. But it was all a play.
Anyways, back to Detransition, Baby which is smart enough and has a wide enough imagination to refute and gently mock Reese a few chapters later, when Amy, before she has detransitioned, thinks
…without legible traumas to point to, what would pain make her? At best, a trans version of those Didion-worshipping bourgeois white girls who subscribed to a Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain, those minor-wound-dwelling brooders with no particular difficulties but for an inchoate sense of their own wronged-ness, a wronged-ness that fell apart when put into words but nonetheless justified all manner of petulance and self-pity. In pain? No, not Amy.
A truly lovely callback to the dark musings of Reese. Anyways, read this book as it is a wonderful exploration of what novels can do, when done well.