Career. Spouse. Baby. Checking off boxes came easy for Ariel Levy, author of the short but intense new memoir The Rules Do Not Apply. The New Yorker staff writer knows now what she didn't know when she was younger and life seemed limitless. She spends her journey recounting, in agonizing observations, the ups and downs that have taken place in her life.
No one would accuse Levy of lacking self-confidence. As an only child growing up in the 1970s, Levy was raised to be independent. She pursued her writing career, languished in the New York excesses of the '90s and achieved success telling stories about "women who are too much." Boundaries were blurred. She had male and female lovers. By her own admission, there were times she wanted to "crawl into the pouch of a kangaroo" to protect her from own impulsiveness.
Levy spends much of the book coming to grips with the fact that she was not the only one who needed protecting. Despite marrying the woman of her dreams, a string of devastating losses forces her to confront her hubris and reconcile what she can. The most heartbreaking of these is depicted in a powerful 2013 award-winning article, "Thanksgiving in Mongolia," which originally appeared in The New Yorker magazine. Levy revisits this tragedy in sobering detail; it is the gut of the book.
The author of Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the rise Rise of Raunch Culture, Levy neutralizes the "perfect life" with unsparing writing that is also a surprisingly quick read. Those who enjoy Joan Didion and Cheryl Strayed will recognize those universal threads of tragedy, grief, remorse. It is the realization we don't always get what we want, and that the best laid plans are just that and no more.
I attended an LGBTQIA safe space training on behalf of BCPL a few weeks ago, and at one point a woman raised her hand from the front of the room. “You told us earlier that calling someone ‘queer’ is hate speech,” she pointed out. “But it’s right there in the acronym. So why is that okay?” The presenter paused. “Honestly?” she said. “It’s inclusivity versus exclusivity. There’s a big difference between someone reclaiming a hateful word from a place of power and someone calling someone ‘queer’ from a place of ignorance.” I lead with this because I want you to understand all the different types of ‘power’ at work in Laura Jane Grace’s new memoir, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout — co-written by Dan Ozzi — because there are many.
The word ‘tranny’ is one that Grace returns to over and over again throughout the book. “I don’t want to wait until all of my youth is gone,” she writes at one point, struggling with her decision to transition from male to female. “I don’t want to end up a sad, old tranny.” That word, tranny, has its roots in hate, as something sneered at transgender individuals for decades, but most often directed with vitriol at birth-assigned men wearing women’s clothing. Like so many other words whose origins are founded in hate speech, it was reclaimed by the very community it was designed to hurt, but because of the common target, the word came to carry a very specific connotation. So when the author refers to herself as a tranny in the book, it’s important to understand that she isn’t saying she wants to be a man wearing women’s clothing — she wants to be a woman. That disconnect between a person’s identity and their biology is what’s referred to as “gender dysphoria,” and it occupies the heart of Laura Jane Grace’s story.
And it’s a hell of a story. Laura Jane Grace shifts seamlessly between the raw, untempered emotion of personal journal entries and the calmer, more methodical reflection of a memoir. More than anything else, Tranny showcases how dysphoria and dysfunction often go hand in hand, one informing the other and often feeding into each other. In an effort to feel normal and escape this ever-present notion of “her,” Grace documents her descent into hard drugs, alcoholism and (maybe worst of all) corporate punk, only to emerge triumphant in the third act and then...stop. Tranny is a unique memoir insomuch that it doesn’t end on a blindingly positive note that leaves the reader with the sense that they all lived happily ever after. Laura Jane Grace doesn’t “win,” not really. What she does do is close the chapter on an achingly and viscerally painful period in her life and begin a new chapter that’s arguably just as painful and hard, but also wholly worthwhile and finally true to who she is. Tom Gabel dies, but maybe that’s what he wanted all along. It sure seems that way.
If you love a good heart-wrenching biography, the not-so-secret politics of the music industry and/or especially self-aware sellouts, Tranny is the book you’ve been waiting for. It will break your heart and it will make you laugh and you will pump your fist when Laura Jane Grace screams at a pharmacist in Florida loud enough to silence everyone who ever had the audacity to say “you’re not a real punk.” Against Me!, Grace’s band, has a long, storied history, but are entirely worth listening to, particularly their two most recent albums: Transgender Dysphoria Blues and Shape Shift With Me, both of which are about as far from corporate as you can get. Laura Jane Grace remains an excellent human being to follow.
When you pick up a copy of Saving Alex: When I Was 15 I Told My Mormon Parents I Was Gay, and That’s When My Nightmare Began, you do so already knowing that author Alexandra Cooper grew up Mormon, that she came out to her parents at a young age and that the results were disastrous. What you might not realize is how profound, life-changing, community-changing and uplifting the journey Alex took after her “nightmare” was, and what a powerful effect this young woman has had over one of the most complicated and tightly knit communities in our country.
One of the final strongholds that has continued to uphold discrimination against gay Americans, and gay youth in particular, has been the establishment of the Church of Latter Day Saints. According to Mormon doctrine, which includes but goes beyond the Old Testament, gay individuals cannot belong to sacred family units, or the Church, or reach Heaven. Certain belief in this is what frightened Alex’s parents to hysterics when, at 15, rebellious and strong-willed, she told them that she was dating another girl, and that she was a lesbian. They had taken action to discipline their “problem” child before, but this time their choices were devastating. They sent Alex away from their home in California to live with a family in St. George, Utah —a family that promised to help “cure” Alex of the sin of homosexuality. Alex found herself isolated from her friends, unable to use any methods of communication outside the strangers’ house, and, when she acted out in desperation for freedom, beaten, enslaved and made to carry heavy burdens and stare at a wall for weeks at a time without rest.
Alex tells her story with such love and tenderness that it’s mortifying to realize what cruelties she endured. Despite her trauma, Alex speaks with clear-headed empathy for her family as well as the culture she was raised in. She expresses an understanding for the fear and anxiety that led her abusers to treat her the way they did, even if she now knows they were wrong for trying to change her. Alex’s case made very recent history in Utah in 2011 by overturning legislation that enforced a parent’s right to try to change or reform a child’s sexuality against their will. Saving Alex is a hard book to read, but is ultimately a triumph, ending as reality often does — broken but hopeful, with some things lost and some things gained. Alex did not lose her life, family or rights, as so many before her did. She hopes to gain the same for the youth of the future.