My Brother My Sister: Story of a Transformation

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9780143125808: My Brother My Sister: Story of a Transformation

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 undergo sugery 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 the pleasure of having a sister.

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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About the Author:

Molly Haskell is a nationally recognized film critic and the author of three books of film criticism. She has contributed to many publications, including The New York Times, Esquire, The Nation, and Vogue. She lives in New York City.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

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. Thos...

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Descrizione libro Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2014. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. 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 undergo sugery 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 the pleasure of having a sister. 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. Codice libro della libreria AAS9780143125808

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Descrizione libro Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2014. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Reprint. Language: English . This book usually ship within 10-15 business days and we will endeavor to dispatch orders quicker than this where possible. Brand New Book. 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 undergo sugery 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 the pleasure of having a sister. 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. Codice libro della libreria BTE9780143125808

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Descrizione libro Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2014. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. 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 undergo sugery 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 the pleasure of having a sister. 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. Codice libro della libreria AAS9780143125808

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