This is How It Always Is
By Laurie Frankel
Read Oct 2017
This book first showed up for me on a suggested summer reading list. I looked into it and decided to consider others on the list instead. Then the book appeared on a discussion group list for the 2017-2018 season and I was confronted with choosing to read or not participate in a book discussion group I very highly value. So I read it. Be advised that this essay contains “spoilers” and some personal considerations.
I didn’t want to read about a transgender three year old. I didn’t want to read about the decisions the parents might make. I didn’t want to read about a boy who said he wanted to be a boy at age three and his parents let him. I didn’t want to confront the fact that this was a real question for some people. I didn’t want to be preached to by an author with an agenda.
After reading most of the book I found an “Author’s Note” at the end of the book. We learn that the author has a daughter who started as a son. We get no further details about that fact. She clearly delineates that the book is not her daughter’s story nor her family’s story nor her own. The book is informed by all of that, however. I appreciate that the note is there and I appreciate that the author seeks to tell an informed story. My overall comment: The author tells the fictional story of Claude/Poppy in a generally engaging way and I was informed and enriched by it.
At times I was annoyed that the life Mother-Physician Rosie and Father-Writer Penn (as they describe themselves) create for themselves and their family was too perfect. Doctor mother, stay at home and writer father, big house full of rambunctiously interesting boys who enjoy listening to dad’s fairy tales nightly for more years that seems conceivable, all in Madison WI (a pretty progressive town as I know from personal experience while a grad and post-doctoral student there). Claude’s a articulateness at age three (which is likely attributable to his highly articulate environment and inherited IQ) enables him to proclaim at age 3 that he wants to grow up to be a girl, an idea for which he shows much commitment. Perfect parents so tolerant of all their boys’ weirdness (one son is quite adept at creating interesting practical—but knitted—items) so they take transgender into stride –at least until he starts kindergarten. After a few days of being forced to change into boy clothes before going to school his parents let him go as a girl. Not surprisingly for a progressive community like Madison, the school is apparently well equipped to handle this; Claude’s classmates accept it in a heartbeat; the parents are generally supportive (“you’re so brave”).
But even Madison, Wisconsin isn’t progressive enough so they pick up the household and move to Seattle, WA which the parents expect to be sufficiently safe for Claude. The author (almost finally) provides two sources of conflict at this point—-the eldest son is very unhappy they’ve chosen Claude’s interests over his and the really big one—they decide to keep Poppy/Claude’s situation a secret. All is nearly perfect again—a playmate for Poppy/Claude right next door in a family that becomes a “best family friend” for the Walsh family. Son Ben likes the change the move allows for him. The twins are unaffected by the move. But all is not preface after all. Dad recognizes some serious decisions are ahead as Poppy/Claude gets closer to puberty and Mom wants to not think about it. Son Roo flunks an English class after turning in an assignment that the teacher and parents interpret as homophobic. Then the efforts spent on keeping their secret are unraveled as Poppy/Claude is outed in fifth grade.
The author does a generally good job of “showing versus telling” us about the very real issues confronting transgender individuals and their family. She uses the exercises provided the parents by a Madison “multi-degreed social-working therapist-magician”, Father-Author’s investigations into transgender issues post-puberty, and Mother-Physician’s volunteer experience in Thailand to inform them and us about the realities this family will need to confront about Poppy/Claude. The author also helps the reader confront our culture’s focus on gender as one of the most significant aspects of identity and what we do to ourselves and each other as a result of that focus. She exposes some realities for the lives of people trapped in the wrong body. She reveals there are decisions pre-puberty that could actually be responsible ones and that these decisions are life-shifting ones for both the person and the family. Fortunately she helps you to this possible opinion while ending this story before the family must make such a decision.
Throughout the book the Author-Father has been spinning a fairly tale, first for his wife as he wooed her and then for his boys, that is both autobiographical for the family and instructional for his audience. Fortunately he eventually calls out the family on the fairy tale aspects of their lives and tells all of them that fairy tales must address the “hard stuff” and “the rest of it” too. Their fairy tale doesn’t answer the hard questions ahead and recognizes that their love and strength will be required and challenged as they make the decisions.
Thus the author does address the challenges the family has faced to date and tells us there are even more challenges ahead, but where this family will go next is left for us to consider. The more important consideration the author leaves with the reader is how that reader will move forward in their views of the reality that she presents in the introductory quote from Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods:
It is always “or”?
It is never “and”?
This particular quote resonated with me very strongly. While I’ve advocated for the concept of “and” vs “or” for decades, I’ve never considered how it does or doesn’t apply to gender. I can’t yet advocate strongly for enabling a transgender journey for a three year old but maybe it really is better if you do if you can be clear it’s a reality for that child.
I appreciate that the author raises the question of why our culture is so focused on gender classification from birth and compartmentalizing what’s acceptable for each (of two only) gender and what’s not: dress, play, jobs. It’s accepted that Rosie is a physician, a “boy” job until reasonably recently, but Penn “doesn’t work” according to much of their community. Our culture has broken down many previously gender specific roles and rights—girls can be educated, drive cars, own property, do “boy” jobs, make money, remain unmarried and choose to not be a mother, even live with and marry another woman. We don’t always appreciate the strides our culture has made in this regard until we realize that not all cultures in the world allow these “basic” rights. Less accepted but becoming more “normal” are men who choose to be stay-at-home dads or do “girl” jobs. In our culture, acceptable “girl” dress has included pants for some 50 or so years. Girls can enjoy “boy “games and play “boy” sports with boys in high school. Even the Boy Scouts soon will let girls participate fully in their most prized program of seeking the Eagle Scout title. So it seems the social pressure to declare a gender identity isn’t forced on a trans girl very early. But our culture does not accept boys wearing “girls” clothes to school so parents are faced with a situation that will likely stretch their parenting skills and force uncomfortable decisions at a pretty early age, especially as a large fraction of kids attend day-care and/or pre-school.
Good books often lead the reader to read more—more from that author, more about a topic, etc. This book definitely met this bar. I was prompted to (finally) read the chapter on Transgender in Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon, an extraordinary book that covers a wide range of “non-sameness” situations including Dwarfism, Down Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, and Crime. While the author doesn’t delineate in this book, I became aware of the benefits of suppressing puberty for a transgender child, the decisions that transgender can or must make, and the suffering that transgender people experience throughout their lives. I now can allow this “non-sameness” situation into my consciousness and discuss it. Author’s mission accomplished?
I look forward to the upcoming book discussion of this novel. I expect the capable leader to enable an extraordinary experience for all participants.