When it first appeared on the scene 6 years ago, Alice in Genderland was one of the first memoirs to deal proudly and openly with the subject of crossdressing. No less relevant today, it has been updated and revised, making it worth revisiting.
Depending on where you are in your life, and how comfortable you are with your crossdressing, this can be a difficult read. Richard never shies away from sharing those difficult questions that plague us all, at one time or another, but he also doesn’t fall into the trap of assuming he has all the answers. In fact, one of the elements of his story that rang most true for me is the series of rules he comes up with to try and apply a logical, intellectual structure to what is entirely an irrational, emotional need for expression.
If you’ve ever flirted with questions of gender or sexuality, you can’t help but reflect back on your own life while reading Alice in Genderland, and if you don’t always like what you remember . . . well, that’s part of the process of self-discovery. This is a book that’s equal parts fascination and fear; delight and despair; humour and horror; and rationalization and revelation. There are clearly times where Richard didn’t like what he found, and instances where his revelations created significant problems in his life and his relationships, but that doesn’t make them any less valid . . . or important.
At the same time, for those of us who identity, this is a very empowering read, in that it illustrates that we really can find peace, we really can find acceptance, and we really can have the best of both worlds, if only we’re willing to commit to the effort. Nothing in life – except, possibly its challenges – is simply handed to us.
For me, reading about his early explorations was as uncomfortable as it was eye-opening. Time and time again I saw myself in his words, remembering the delight of slipping into that stolen pair of panties, or that borrowed ill-fitting bra. I vividly remembered the same sickening sensation of dropping from the heights of comfort to the depths of guilty remorse, carried along by the same desperate questions. The difference is, whereas I ultimately chose not to understand, not to care about the why or the how, Richard made that understanding a part of his (and Alice’s) identity. It didn’t always work for him – his initial explorations into psychiatric help clearly did more harm than good – but he always found a way to learn from even the worst experiences.
At no point, however, does Richard ever offer any direct advice, or ever suggest that anybody live as he has done. There’s a lot in his story that I wish I’d had the courage to accept earlier in my own life, but we all develop in our own way. The single biggest difference I see between the two of us that of the extrovert (Richard) and the introvert (myself), which accounts for our diverging paths. Ultimately, Richard sets himself up as a just one example of a crossdressing life, inviting us to take from his experiences what we will. Even if all we take from his story is the reassurance that we’re okay, and the hope that we might even be happy, then it’s totally worth the read.
In the end, what sets this memoir apart, and what makes it worth reading (and even rereading), is the humour that he brings to his story. Richard is not above making light of his mistakes, and is entirely comfortable in pointing out his own absurdities. Through him, we’re able to laugh – or, at least, smile – at our own mistakes, taking solace in the fact that we’re not alone. It’s not so much that humour is a coping mechanism for Richard, but that he can look back and find humour in the darkest places.
As an open and honest tale, it does include some very frank discussions of sexuality that some readers may be uncomfortable with. Graphic, yet never gratuitous, the recollection of Richard’s tentative experimentation and Alice’s more fulfilling experiences plays a significant role in how Richard has come to define himself both sexually, and in terms of gender. For those who have never been in the situation, it’s probably a hard concept to grasp, but I loved the honest exploration of an issue that is all too often ignored. Richard and Alice are both straight, according to the gender they’re expressing at the time, and that strange duality certainly strikes home. Some readers may wonder how it’s possible to be interested in both men and women, without being gay (or at least bisexual), but I think Richard does a wonderful job of explaining how sexuality and gender are not distinct issues.
In the end, Richard not only gets what it means to be a crossdresser who craves the full feminine experience, he doesn't apologize for the fact, or make excuses for how he expresses such cravings. That, alone, is empowering enough to demand a read, even if it’s just to find comforting in the confirmation that we’re not alone in even those most taboo feelings.