Sunday 14 August 2016

Memoirs of a Man's Maiden Years by N.O. Body: Book Note

Memoirs of a Man’s Maiden Years by N.O.Body: Book Note

Recently my husband and I watched the film, The Danish Girl. The film stars Eddie Redmayne in a brilliant depiction of a man who wants to live as—and eventual to biologically be—a woman. Redmayne is brilliant and would probably have won the Oscar for best actor, had he not won it the year before for his performance as Steven Hawkings, the severely disabled physicist, in The Theory of Everything.
The film is loosely based on the true story of an early 20th century Danish artist, Einar Wegener, later Lili Elbe. He gradually became a she, and lived as a lesbian couple with his wife in Paris.  In 1931 she died after surgery in Germany attempting to transplant a womb into her body.

This movie reminded me of a book by the pseudonymous (obviously) N.O. Body, called Memoirs of a Man’s Maiden Years, originally published in German in 1907 and republished by the University of Pennsylvania Press in English translation in 2006, almost a century later.  These are the actual—but partially fictionalized-- memoirs of N.O. Body, but with a useful preface by Sandor Gilman and an Afterword by Hermann Simon that explains the actual facts about N.O. Body’s life. The original book was also published under the pseudonym N.O. Body,  taken from the English “nobody.”
The Memoirs are of a person who appeared to have been intersex, not transgender. For those of you who are still not familiar with these terms, intersex people are people born with both male and female organs (external or internal). Transgender people might also be intersex, or they could simply be people who “feel” themselves to be the other gender. Sometimes they live as the other gender without having surgery; other times they may also have surgery. In the case of Wegener/Elbe, the person on whose life The Danish Girl was based, s/he may also have been intersex, possessing residual ovaries.

According to his memoirs, N.O. Body was born with ambiguous external genitalia. Her (as he then was) mother wanted to take the baby to a specialist, but her father refused. So she was raised as a female, despite the fact that both the household servants (who appeared to have been paid off) and other children noticed something odd about her. At the time of puberty, she developed an unusually deep voice for a female and also grew facial hair, while never developing breasts or menstruating. She also developed sexual feelings for females. 
Despite this, N.O. Body continued to live as a woman, taking a job in a city as a shop-girl but then, according to the story, becoming a reporter in Eastern Europe. There she met another woman and fell in love. Fortuitously, according to the story, she eventually met a doctor who examined her and confirmed that she actually was a man who needed a “simple operation” to clarify her/his external genitalia. She had this operation and returned to Eastern Europe to find her true love, who divorced her original husband and married her.

Interestingly, as the Afterword by Hermann Simon explained, this story was also wrapped up in European anti-Semitism. N.O. Body claimed in his memoir to have been born into a Catholic family, but was actually Jewish. Her reporting assignment in Eastern Europe as Marie Baer was to investigate the Jewish “white slave trade” on behalf of a German Jewish agency. His true name was Karl M. Baer, and after he became a man he was the director of the Berlin B’nai B’rith until he left Germany in 1938. The “accidental” meeting with a doctor was actually a consultation with the great German-Jewish sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld. The part about the love affair is true though. After she became a man, Baer returned to Eastern Europe and did indeed marry the woman he loved, although sadly, she died soon after. He remarried but never had children.
Talk about intersex people and transgender people is hard for some people to wrap their heads around, and seems to go against the order of nature. As the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said in a speech to the  Human Rights Council, an organ of the UN, “I understand…like many people of my generation, I did not grow up talking about these issues.”  He was firm in his insistence on human rights for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, but tactful in the way he introduced this subject to people from many parts of the world where—as in my own parents’ generation in Britain and Europe—you simply did not talk about these things. (you can find the quote from Ban Ki-Moon in a brilliant article by my former student Elizabeth Baisley in Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 1, 2016, entitled “Reaching the Tipping Point? Emerging International Human Rights Norms Pertaining to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity”, p. 159).

I have sometimes talked about homosexuality in seminars with human rights activists from various parts of the world, including Africans and Indonesians, Christians and Muslims. I’ve done this after being warned by colleagues not to do so. I’ve found that these activists are receptive to discussing these topics with me, perhaps because I don’t immediately blame them for not being as “enlightened” as liberal Westerners. I always think of my own parents and the views they held on such taboo issues. If I were to discussion intersexuality and transgenderism in future seminars, I would introduce the subject by referring to N.O. Body’s memoirs and to The Danish Girl.

Tuesday 2 August 2016

Misogyny and Motherhood in US Politics

Misogyny and Motherhood in U.S. Politics

Like many Canadians, I spent the last two weeks (late July 2016) glued to my television set, watching the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. By the end of it, I was sick to death of hearing what a good parent Hillary Clinton was.
Hillary Clinton

I’m a Clinton fan. I am very impressed by her 45-year-long history of public service, starting with her work trying to ensure that schools were desegregated and that children with disabilities attended school.  I am even more impressed that she was US Secretary of State for four very difficult years.  I admire tremendously her organizational and negotiating skills. I can’t understand why as Secretary of State she didn’t separate her professional and personal emails (something that as a professional woman, I routinely do) but I don’t think that disqualifies her from the Presidency. 
I think Ms. Clinton has been given a raw deal in US politics (a raw deal that the Canadian press also picks up on with its insistence on reporting on her supposed “untrustworthiness” instead of all her accomplishments and commitment to the public good).  I think a lot of the hostility to her is outright misogyny; how dare she be so competent, how dare she be so self-confident, how dare she be so cool?  She had to counteract that image and present herself as warm and “human” during the Democratic convention.
So it didn’t surprise me when Michelle Obama started her long speech by talking about how Hillary was a good parent and grandparent, and cared so much for “our children and grandchildren”. But it did surprise me that her entire speech was woven around that theme.  There was a point where she could have switched to Clinton’s accomplishments, her organizational skills, her views on foreign policy, etc.
It also sickened me that Mrs. Obama had to present herself as just a wife and mother. Michelle Obama is a brilliant lawyer, a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, but she’s spent the last eight years suppressing her professional qualifications and her intellect, focusing on children, exercise, and a healthy diet. Perhaps she learned from Hillary Clinton’s faux pas in 1992, when Clinton mentioned in an interview that she hadn’t spent her time before the election baking cookies, preferring to focus on her professional career. That should not have been controversial, but it was (perhaps deliberately) misconstrued by the misogynist press as a denigration of housewives.
This nonsense about women politicians having to be good wives-and-mothers does not go on in the rest of the world, as far as I am aware. Recently Teresa May succeeded David Cameron as Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom: When her opponent Andrea Leadsom claimed that she would be a better Prime Minister than Ms. May because she had children and Ms. May did not, she suffered a very quick fall from grace. And as far as I know the political fates of Angela Merkel (Germany), Michelle Bachelet (Chile), Dilma Rousseff (Brazil), and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (Argentina) have not been tied to their qualifications or lack thereof as mothers, whatever one might think of them.
Angela Merkel
Michelle Bachelet

People who study genocide know that being a good parent doesn’t necessarily make you a good politician or even a good person. By all accounts Rudolf HÓ§ss, the commander of the Auschwitz concentration camp, was a good father.  He did his job—killing Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Polish anti-Nazis—during the day and then returned home in the evening to the bosom of his family. Lots of German women, many of them probably excellent mothers, joined the Nazi Party (see Claudia Koonz, Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, The Family, and Nazi Politics, St. Martin’s Press, 1987). So I’m prepared to believe that even an ignorant, racist, narcissistic egoist like Donald Trump might have been a good father (though despite his children’s’ testimonials, I rather doubt it.)
I’m really glad that in my several decades as a professor no one has ever asked me how good a mother I am. When I publish books or receive academic awards my son does not have to show up to testify that I am a good mother; who knows what he would say. As for chocolate chip cookies, the ones he baked as a child were better than any I ever made.  

Professional women should unite to defend Michelle and Hillary against the pressure to present themselves as “just” wives-and-mothers when they are so much else.

Here's a link to an article about how much negative press Clinton is getting, compared both to her former opponent, Bernie Sanders, and to Donald Trump.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: Book Note

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: Book Note

Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (Doubleday, 2015) is a very long novel (720 pages) that’s been getting a lot of praise.  I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago.  Two of my friends have also read it: the one I would have predicted would hate it loved it, and the one I would have predicted would love it hated it. You might not want to read further though, if you haven’t already read the novel, although it isn’t giving much, if anything, away to tell you what it’s about.

The novel’s protagonist, Jude St. Francis, is a highly accomplished man who was severely abused and prostituted when he was a boy.  He is also progressively disabled.  So in excruciating detail you read  about what you probably knew only in passing from news articles about adult male survivors of childhood abuse; many loathe themselves, blame themselves for what happened to them, ask themselves all the time what they did to bring the abuse on. You also get a fictionalized, but I think probably accurate, description of how child victims of sexual abuse are groomed by their abusers. 

And even though it’s a novel, you can’t just turn the page and forget about what happens to these boys, as I do while reading the latest scandal about abuse of boys by trusted authority figures. I spend a lot of time swearing at the Catholic Church when I read these accounts, but it’s not only Catholic “brothers” and “fathers” who do this kind of thing: it’s also teachers, Protestant ministers, rabbis, and a lot of other people to whom we entrust our sons. 

In the case of Jude St. Francis, you also get details, page after page after page, about what it’s like to be progressively more and more disabled.  There’s a lot in the novel about his sense of pride, his unwillingness to admit his disabilities, his determination to manage on his own as long as he can.   

Some decades ago my husband and I watched a television program called The Rockford Files. Rockford, a private investigator, was forever getting beaten up and then just walking away.  So then you begin to think that’s how it really works: it isn’t. A beating can leave injuries and scars that last a lifetime. One of my students was beaten up in the 1980s by members of a motorcycle gang who were angry that they were denied entrance to a student-only pub at McMaster University.  My student just happened to be walking by at the time.  He was severely injured and almost blinded. 

Sexual abuse can leave both physical and psychological scars. For some people, they never go away. The psychological abuse intensifies when people blame themselves, asking themselves constantly if they could have done something else, if they could have avoided their abusers. Many of the people whose accounts are printed in the newspapers mention these feelings of shame and guilt.  Many engage in self-harm and some commit suicide.

If you can take it, A Little Life is a very compelling novel that tells you a lot about abuse and disability. The historian Lynn Hunt in her Inventing Human Rights (W.W. Norton, 2007) argues that the emergence of novels in 18th-century Europe allowed readers to empathize with the fictional characters; this extended to a capacity to empathize with real people in their real environments. This is what A Little Life does; it extends our ability to empathize with abuse survivors and people with disabilities.

One very important criticism of the novel: the cover features a photograph by Peter Hujar called Orgasmic Man. This is absolutely the wrong photograph for this book. One of the saddest lines in it is something like “Being an adult means you never have to have sex again.”