Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Return to Michael by Michael Brinkle (REVIEW)

It almost goes without saying that gender transition is often a difficult and agonizing, although ultimately necessary decision for most of those who choose to go this route. To this end, there are literally a ton of memoirs and/or biographies written by and/or about individuals who have lived a life of agony in their birth gender and then, going against all adversity, decide to change their gender role. Generally, this experience is accomplished by first living in the opposite gender role for a time and then ultimately deciding to make this change permanent, whether by a surgical change or not.  Judging from the content of these many stories, the vast majority of those who make this dramatic transformation appear to be rather happy or even ecstatic at having made their life-changing decision.

There are now a couple of books available that were written by people who were diagnosed, first by themselves, and later by professionals as being transsexual, and who later determined that they had made a very serious error in transitioning. Even though these individuals had opted for and received male-to-female sex reassignment surgery, they ultimately re-transitioned to a male gender role. I almost hate to admit it, but although I am saddened by these stories for many reasons, I secretly love to read books like these by those who admit they have made a big mistake in transitioning because it points to the difficulty of this decision and the fallibility of the human condition. Although these stories are full of pathos, they make all of us feel more human and vulnerable.

However, I would have to disagree with the opinion of those who have reviewed and commented so negatively about the short memoir by Michael Brinkle, “Return to Michael.” The general thinking and consensus expressed by readers (some of whom admit to not actually having read this book) is that it’s another attempt by those of the religious right to impose their own particular style of belief on others. I disagree. If anything, “Return to Michael” is a cautionary tale about an individual who had a complete and irreversible sex change in a foreign country at the tender age of 18, without fully having explored his deep psychological issues and the many wounds of his past.

For me, “Return to Michael” in no way invalidates the decision of thousands of others who have successfully negotiated transition to the opposite gender role, nor does it seek to impose a religious doctrine on anyone. The author freely acknowledges that his decision to switch back, although clearly influenced by his strong Christian belief, was his own choice. In so doing, he takes great care not to invalidate others for their beliefs, only to warn them to be careful. As I wrote in my review of Walt Heyer’s memoir “Trading my Sorrows,” another book of the same ilk, “this is a well-written, albeit relatively brief memoir about a sad and extremely tortured life, leading to a calamitous decision that eventually rights itself to a happy ending, as the author finds a higher calling and dedicates himself to a power larger than himself.”

There are other books, notably “Transparently,” by Lisa Salazar, which, while extolling the value of Christianity, are about those who find a place for themselves as transgender individuals in the arms of a loving and beneficent God. And speaking of religious opinion about sex reassignment surgery, we know that Christianity is, of course, one of the world’s great religions, but it is by no means the only religion or even the most widely practiced religion in the world. Many conservative Christians seem to believe quite fervently in the idea that God created only men and women and it is a sin to attempt to live in the opposite gender role. Of course, homosexuality and gay marriage are completely forbidden and considered to be a horrible offense in the eyes of God. I think it is interesting and very ironic to note, that in Iran, a devoutly Muslim country, sex reassignment surgery appears to be emerging as an alternative to those who might be homosexual. The thinking in Iran appears to be that homosexuality is a mortal sin against God, but that if one switches genders, it can be considered a kind of “work-around” that God will accept.  Some might think that is a pretty messed up way of thinking, but doesn’t it nicely illustrate that organized religion is a belief system and as such, is subject to interpretation by those who practice it? Which religion is right? Or, is neither one correct? You make the decision.

As I wrote about the Walt Heyer memoir and it fully applies to “Return to Michael,” as well, “I give the author props for finding a solution to his particular problem which is all well and good for him, but, in my experience, the ‘author's way’ is not necessarily ‘the way’ for every, or even most gender dysphoric folks. It is fortunate that most of those with serious gender confusion seek competent therapists and doctors who subscribe to the WPATH Standards of Care that tend to protect gender dysphoric individuals, like the author, from going down this same tragic road. It is certainly my hope that these feelings will not emerge again full blown again in the author, but somewhere lurking, may be that shadowy girl, so be careful. In my therapy practice, I haven't encountered anyone who has made this horrible mistake, thank goodness, but after reading these aforementioned accounts, I can say that the moral of the story is to be damn sure you want what you wish for, because you may eventually get it.”

[Reviewed by Samuel]

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