Book Review: What Becomes You


We’ve all speculated about how it would feel to be a different person. Generally, we fantasize about being other people we admire: perhaps a celebrity or a great scientist. Or possibly Barack Obama. Less frequently, we may consider the lives we might have were we to live in a different culture, maybe on another continent, or maybe in a different era. Or maybe we wonder about the lives of those with another career.

Some people, though, need not wonder: they already know. Aaron Raz Link is one such person. He was born biologically female, and was named Sarah. Despite being female-bodied, she did not identify as female, instead visualizing herself as a man.

As I was reading What Becomes You, I was confused by this discussion of gender identity. I don’t think I have a gender identity: the extent to which my biological gender is relevant in my daily life is limited to boxes on forms and looking for bathrooms with signs reading “Men.” Similarly, I don’t particularly identify with my ethnicity, my hair color, my eye color, my height, or anything else I didn’t choose. By contrast, I do identify as a mathematician, which I actively chose to be.

Still, others do tend to treat us in various different ways based on our appearances. I don’t know what caused Sarah to feel unsatisfied as a female, but I can conjecture that others did not treat her in a manner consistent with what she expected or wanted. Unfortunately, this was not carefully explained in the book.

A sizable chunk of the book recounts Sarah’s struggles with her mother, mental health professionals, and doctors regarding being transgendered. Her mother, a feminist who had fallen behind the times with the most recent developments and advances in the field, was adamantly opposed to Sarah’s having a sex-change operation; after Sarah initially told her mother about her plans, her mother responded by insisting that Sarah see a therapist; otherwise, she would inform the police. A string of therapists proved similarly unhelpful: they were unable to see her as a man trapped in a woman’s body, instead seeing her as a diseased person in need of a cure, all the while trying to extort a confession of suicidal thoughts. Aaron points out that therapists, especially those working at universities, love to pry for suicidal thoughts; hospitalizing the patients and billing the parents is one of their top moneymaking operations.

I found it painful to read the description of what transgendered people must go through in order to be permitted to have a sex-change operation. I shouldn’t have been surprised though – humans have a truly abysmal track record of mistreating members of minority groups; we’ve become more outwardly tolerant of several of the more vocal minorities, but it’s impossible for some (and probably most) people to free themselves of prejudice against those who are unlike them.

I hope the situation is improving for transsexuals, and, from hints in the book and elsewhere, I think it is. Sarah experienced several problems related to lack of information. The first problem was that she did not know that transsexuals existed. Now that the LGBT movement has increased its visibility, it is unlikely that the “T” part would be foreign, especially to someone like Sarah and others most likely to be interested. Another problem was the lack of availability of photographs of post-operative men. While Sarah wanted to be male-bodied, she did not want to be a “damaged” man. A photograph was necessary to show that a sex-change operation could be successful. That was before the Internet era; today, a quick Google image search does the trick trivially. Also, Stanford recently elected to include sex-change operations as part of its health insurance coverage. I haven’t looked into the specific details, but this surely great progress for the Stanford trans community, as well as all of us who would like to see an end to discrimination.

The structure of the book is a bit unusual. The first three quarters of the book was written by Aaron; the last quarter was written by his mother, Hilda. So far, I’ve only discussed Aaron’s part. I did not particularly enjoy Hilda’s part. She tried to pain herself as being accepting (without too much success, I might add), while still considering herself as the victim of the story. After reading about what Aaron had to go through, I found this to be utterly ludicrous. (Aaron does not give himself victim status, although he would be entitled to do so, were he interested.) Her section is also highly repetitive: a typical thought of hers is likely to repeated roughly three times. Furthermore, she seems very defensive throughout her narrative.

I got a lot out of this book. For one thing, it took me slightly outside of where I thought my comfort zone lay, and perhaps expanded it a little bit. The book also raised questions about identity, gender or otherwise. I’ll continue to think about that. Finally, I learned a bit more about how real people live. That’s something we should all know more about.

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About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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One Response to Book Review: What Becomes You

  1. pastwatcher says:

    Neat!
    I am slowly reading “Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity” (thanks to a trans woman friend) and I like it a lot (Julia Serano backs up her claims quite well, but also tells her own perspective without over-generalizing). I also didn’t know about the necessity of approval for sex-change operations and so forth, so it is all very horrifying. Perhaps I will read your book next.
    Forgive me for this remark, as you may already realize this and it is not really your point: you may say you don’t identify with your ethnicity or your gender (and so on), but generally people in the “minority” (qualitative sense, not quantitative) don’t get to live their lives without being frequently reminded of that status. So you are perhaps exercising the privilege that comes with appearing to be the default. [privilege=keyword for searching.] Of course I mostly came around to identifying as white and cis and so on after learning this, female only a few years earlier.

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