Book Review: Amy Bloom's Normal

Anne Lawrence wrote the following book review for the International Academy of Sex Research trade journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, (Vol. 32, No. 4, August 2003, pp. 387–396).

It is clear from the review that Lawrence takes issue with Bloom's book title.

In retort to Bloom's assertion that crossdressers, transsexuals, and intersexed persons may be unusual, but not abnormal, Lawrence concludes that will be "a dubious proposition" for many readers (apparently including Dr. Lawrence, given the tone throughout). One can see why this assertion of abnormality makes Dr. Lawrence the perfect stooge for Ray Blanchard and his Clarke Institute cronies who see gender variance through a lens of pathology.

Book Reviews

Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Cross-Dressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites With Attitude. By Amy Bloom.
Random House, New York, 2002, 140 pp., $23.95.

by Anne Lawrence, 1812 E. Madison Street, Suite 102, Seattle, Washington 98122-2876; e-mail: alawrenceATmindspringDOTcom.

Writer and psychotherapist Amy Bloom is best known for her short stories, which display her gifts for detailed observation and psychological insight. Normal is Bloom’s first book of nonfiction. It contains three essays examining the lives of persons who are usually regarded as anything but normal: female-to-male (FtM) transsexuals, heterosexual crossdressers, and intersexed persons. The essays are bracketed by a preface and an afterword that criticize conventional concepts of normality and suggest that understanding these unusual individuals can inform and expand our ideas about what is genuinely normal.

The centerpiece of Bloom’s book, literally and figuratively, is “Conservative Men in Conservative Dresses,” which deals with heterosexual crossdressers. A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in April, 2002, and anyone who read and enjoyed it there will not want to miss this significantly expanded edition. Bloom accompanies two dozen crossdressing men, their female partners, and one male-to-female transsexual on the Dignity Cruise to Catalina Island, and observes participants at the Fall Harvest 2000 gender convention in St. Louis. She also interviews Jane Ellen and Mary Francis Fairfax, the guiding spirits behind the crossdresser organization Tri-Ess, and solicits the contrasting views of psychologist Ray Blanchard, the bête noire of many transgender persons, due to his willingness to discuss the erotic aspects of their behavior.

Although the crossdressers Bloom meets invariably claim that their “hobby” is about relaxation and expressing their feminine side, Bloom is skeptical of these explanations. Her observations lead her to conclude that cross-dressing is primarily an erotic fetish, the expression of which sometimes taxes even her capacity for tolerance and empathy:

Crossdressers wear their fetish, and the gleam in their eyes, however muted by time or habit, the unmistakable presence of a lust being satisfied or a desire being fulfilled in that moment, in your presence, even by your presence, is unnerving. The mix of the crossdressers’ own arousal and anxiety and our responsive anxiety and discomfort is more than most of us can bear. (pp. 94–95)

Bloom devotes considerable attention to the wives and female partners of crossdressing men. She observes that, with some notable exceptions, their circumstances are not happy, and she wonders aloud how the feminism many crossdressers espouse could permit them to inflict their erotic compulsion on their partners. In the end, Bloom finds little genuine femininity in the crossdressers she meets:

For these men, the woman within is entirely the Maybelline version, not the Mother Teresa version, not the Liv Ullmann version, and not even the Tracy Ullman version. There is no innate grasp of female friendship, of the female insistence on relatedness, of the female tradition of support and accommodation for one’s partner and of giving precedence to the relationship overall. (p. 95)

Although the tone of these excerpts may seem grim, the essay generally is not. Bloom’s descriptions of events on the Dignity Cruise and at Fall Harvest are alive with fascinating detail, and her keen eye for the ironic and the absurd is revealed in many humorous anecdotes. Blanchard’s comments provide a witty counterpoint to the author’s observations. If a more insightful or more entertaining treatment of heterosexual crossdressing has been published, this reviewer has not seen it. “Conservative Men” is essential reading for anyone interested in transgender phenomena, and is itself worth the price of the book.

Bloom’s two other essays do not succeed quite so well. The first of these, “The Body Lies,” deals with FtM transsexuals. It was originally published in the New Yorker in 1994, and has been updated very little for this volume. Bloom interviews half a dozen FtM transsexuals, some well known (e.g., writer Jamison Green and photographer Loren Cameron), most not. A few family members and female partners of FtMs also contribute their perspectives, as do several professionals who work with transsexuals, including Ira Pauly, Don Laub, Friedemann Pf¨afŠin, and Peggy Cohen-Kettenis. Laub, a surgeon who performs sex reassignment operations, is a particular focus of Bloom’s attention. She portrays him as a sensitive and conscientious clinician who nevertheless remains slightly out of touch with the feelings and needs of his FtM patients. Bloom’s descriptions of her informants are masterpieces of subtle detail, and her interview excerpts are sometimes touching and occasionally hilarious.

Bloom concludes that FtM transsexuals are genuinely men; the bodies they were born with lie about their real identities. She confidently asserts, “I like these men, and I know, whatever ‘knowing’ means, that they’re men” (p. 15). She even compares her transsexual informants to Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in an elegant if not entirely convincing update of the “trapped in the wrong body” cliché. But if the body lies, Bloom is less clear about what tells the truth; her concept of masculinity remains highly intuitive. Like Justice Stewart on pornography, Bloom can’t define what it means to be a man, but she knows one when she sees one. She knows that Green is a man because he can effortlessly turn down the headlights of her rental car when she cannot, and because he refuses to make any apologies before consuming a large plate of food. With observations like these, Bloom walks the line between acknowledging meaningful sex differences and enshrining cultural stereotypes. In some cases, however, bodies seem to speak the truth to Bloom. Examining childhood photos of Lyle, another FtM informant, she observes that he appears “sturdy” and “cocky,” and confidently concludes, “this is a little boy” (p. 11). The body lies, except when it doesn’t.

The final essay, “Hermaphrodites with Attitude,” concerns intersexed persons. It is the shortest and least satisfying of the three, and one suspects that Bloom wrote it quickly, to round out her slim volume. The title is apt. “Hermaphrodites with Attitude” was the original name of the newsletter of the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA), the militant advocacy group that opposes most genital surgery performed on intersex infants. Bloom’s discussion of this topic is so one-sided that her essay could almost be mistaken for an ISNA publication.

In her other essays, Bloom refuses to uncritically accept her informants’ explanations, and insists on reaching her own conclusions, in part by soliciting contrasting views; but there is little evidence of that process here. Instead, she appears to have confined her inquires almost exclusively to ISNA members and their academic allies, especially Alice Dreger, Anne Fausto-Sterling, and Suzanne Kessler, who in Bloom’s opinion are responsible for “all the best writings on the intersexed” (p. 119). The only contrasting opinions Bloom can find come from a 1990 videotape by the American College of Surgeons.

Although readers are introduced to a few intersexed persons, all are ISNA stalwarts. Bloom’s portrait of Cheryl Chase, ISNA’s charismatic founder, is detailed yet oddly superficial; we meet Chase the tireless activist, but never get a glimpse of the emotions that fuel her activism. And in contrast to the other essays, we learn almost nothing about the issues of the partners and family members of intersexed persons. Chase’s partner, Robin Mathias, appears brieŠy but never discusses her relationship with Chase.

In “Hermaphrodites,” Bloom misses an opportunity to critically examine the current controversy surrounding the treatment of intersex infants. By some estimates, roughly 2000 such infants have undergone surgery for ambiguous genitalia every year in the United States for the past several decades. Yet ISNA, despite considerable national publicity, has attracted only a few hundred members who identify as intersexed, some of whom probably are not genuinely so. Are ISNA’s intersexed members representative of intersexed persons generally, simply the “tip of the iceberg” in a population long silenced by secrecy and shame? Or are they a tiny and unrepresentative minority of intersexed persons, albeit a very media-savvy minority? Are all “cosmetic” genitoplasties in infants with ambiguous genitalia inherently flawed operations, with unacceptably high rates of complications? Or are there some reasonably good operations, with acceptably low rates of complications? Unfortunately, Bloom never explores these questions substantively. Even readers who agree with ISNA’s positions (and this reviewer agrees with many of them) may wish Bloom had dug a bit deeper.

The book’s afterword, “On Nature,” attempts to tie the three essays together by suggesting that the persons discussed therein do not represent Nature’s mistakes, merely Nature’s range. Like the platypus and the black tulip, Bloom writes, crossdressers, transsexuals, and intersexed persons may be unusual, but they are not abnormal. However, many readers may find this a dubious proposition in light of the evidence Bloom has presented earlier. Is it normal that crossdressers experience “a sexual impulse that is directed toward an object or an act and that is greater than the desire for any person”? (p. 94). And if so, why does Bloom herself find this so unnerving? Is it normal to experience one’s own body as a Gregor Samsa might? Many transsexuals would probably say no. Bloom could have spared her readers this last-minute didacticism and trusted them to reach their own conclusions.