As with each of these fine memoirs, “Pholomolo” provides a realistic, analytical and credible look at what it’s like for a MTF transsexual to transition to a female gender role and later operate in stealth, a modality Renard soon realized would produce as much difficulty for her as did the angst of gender dysphoria before sex change. The author provides a vicarious, often ironic, sometimes humorous, but always wonderfully candid treat for the reader. She does so in part by letting us in on the horrible prejudice she experienced in her interactions with others, first with her homophobic schoolmates. Later, although ultimately attaining quite passable an image as a woman and proving successful in all her jobs, her constant battle against transphobia in the workplace and with intimate relationships proved extremely taxing. Many times, particularly as a much younger person, embarrassed by and concealing her transsexual past and not yet exposed to the transformative ways of Buddhism or having lived in the Tibetan or Thai cultures, societies that seem to accept people as they are, she wonders if it was all worth it.
Renard provides both touching and poignant descriptions of her times of self-doubt when it first dawned on her that she had traded a sensate and working set of male organs for a numb and unfeeling neo-vagina, which for years was only functional for the pleasure of her partners. She laments that to transition she also had to give up her “male gayness,” a small yet still powerful portion of her psyche that continued to live on after her transition. As she recounts her conversations with the many people who crossed her path, mostly men, the author demonstrates a wonderful recollection of the dialogues she brilliantly recreates. One particularly notable chat was held with the assessing psychiatrist she first consulted as a transgender teenager. How the author utilized her advanced powers of persuasion, even at this young age was quite brilliant as she snatched victory from the jaws of defeat to gain admittance as the youngest transsexual ever in the Dutch gender identity program.
As a young adult with her transition finally behind her, Renard candidly describes a number of unsatisfying relationships with male suitors. Dealing with her immaturity, co-dependence and poor self-confidence at the time, it eventually began to dawn on her that it was not good enough to find a partner who would accept her “birth defect,” as she originally referred to it, she also needed to be able to love that partner in return.
Renard describes the process in her transition by which she determined she wasn't a gay male, but a heterosexual woman, vividly depicting the aftermath of her genital surgery where she initially experienced her reworked genitalia as being analogous to having "phantom limb syndrome." Much to her initial disappointment, her newly formed labia provided the same sensation they once did as her scrotum and she began to experience her clitoral arousal as akin to her previous erections. Renard’s disappointment with her neo-vaginal experience was eventually soothed by her surgeon, who informed her that it was just a matter of retraining her neural pathways so she could eventually experience having the feelings of a woman's private parts. In so doing, she not only experienced the fluidity of gender identity, but sexual identity as well, as she made the transition from gay male to female heterosexual.
Ironically, living in stealth as a heterosexual woman and not gender transition proved to be the greatest struggle of Renard’s life. However, she would not find a satisfactory solution that would provide a reconciliation of her angst for 25 years. It wasn’t until it was suggested by a therapist that she should begin to embrace her transsexualism rather than shun it, that she began to gradually turn the corner to become a whole person. Taking yet another dramatic step, she soon sold all her worldly possessions, abandoned her materialistic lifestyle, moved to India and began her greatest adventures where she became a person who, although viewing herself as a woman, acknowledged that she is "Pholomolo," half man and half woman. The answer to finding eventual happiness came not suddenly, but in the complexity of her embrace of Buddhism; the acceptance of her transsexualism and giving up her pursuit of being a heterosexual woman, then ultimately attaining the self-confidence to share her realization and truth with the world.
Eventually all good things must end and as her memoir concludes, Renard throws us one final twist that provides the "icing on the cake" to her tale. I must conclude by saying that one could easily fall in love with this person who is neither a man nor a woman for her beauty, both inner and outer, her honesty and for the idea that she has been on both sides of the gender equation, but has finally and confidently found her niche firmly in the center.
[Reviewed by Samuel]