That Molly Haskell – celebrated film critic and feminist, her analyses gracing major New York magazines and culture digests – has ideas about gender, and wrote another book about her latest revelations is not lost on the fact that her book, “My Brother, My Sister,” is not about film or art. It’s not about the film industry’s framing of a feminine, or post-feminine, identity, or the gross sexual politics mass audiences are still being spoon-fed by a still-male-focused industry.
It’s about none of that, but in that it’s about her, it’s also exactly about these bullet points.
The book begins with the day, just a few years ago, when her brother, John Cheves “Chevey” Haskell Jr., announces that he has gender dysphoria. Which is to say, in the simplest of explanations – the vocabulary of which Molly mulls over many times – he felt as if he was born a woman in a man’s body. Her brother is a transsexual, which is to say, not a homosexual, or transvestite, a man who wears women’s clothing for pleasure.
Which is to say, this is a conversation clearly not typical enough to have in a distilled, mutually agreed-upon manner. There are many questions about the simple fact of the matter, of changing your gender. Questions a movie critic, who identifies as a loving, liberal, cultured, feminist, analytical sister, has about her heretofore masculine man of a brother, who’s got a wife and child, a successful career in finance, and all the reason in the world to shut up about his confusion.
This is the train of thought Haskell imbues most of her book with, bravely if occasionally insensitively. There are times when her uncertainty of word choice is expressed with arms thrown to the skies, as if exhausted by the negotiation of the evolving lexicon. There are times when her use of quotation marks around pronouns and nicknames feels mocking, even mildly and again, out of frustration. There are times when she sounds selfish.
But consider this news, and what effect it would have on your understanding of a relationship. Consider what it means for someone to announce this, whether bravely and with support or blindly and with turmoil. It is not selfish to acknowledge the climate changes this news brings to a family, which is an entirely different approach than the typical “take it or leave it” mentality many gays feel about coming out. Gender dysphoria, as it is explained, is not about sexuality, but gender. And when your brother becomes your sister, well, there are conversations to be had.
Fortunately for all involved, Haskell’s discomfort is quickly identified as being about logistical shifts, and not about her brother’s right to feel this way, or act on it. It is often about her own inability to verbalize a question succinctly, so as to not offend her brother, lest he feel his critical sister has turned callous.
There is never a doubt, in any articulation, that Haskell feels deep love for her brother, and wants to support him as he becomes she. She just has questions. And she’s entitled to them.
Haskell’s discovery process is clearly laid out for us, serving as a testimony for her pursuit of clarity, and as a blueprint for readers who may be experiencing parts of this picture. She divulges the many conversations had about the writing of this book, what could be said, whose names could be used, and when it could be published – legalities being just another negotiation of terms.
Re-examination of their idyllic childhood in conservative Richmond, Va., paints a stark picture of what anomalies the New York-venturing Molly, and certainly now, Chevey, were to their household and community. Announcing Chevey’s divorce from his wife Eleanor would be difficult enough, let alone this news. As a place to raise a child in postwar suburban America, though, their home was beautiful, gleaming and traditional in every proper way.
Haskell’s big-picture observations scale down later in her writing, though, to a conversation so wonderfully, academically precise: in addressing her own girlhood as a tomboy, and the prefeminist words she’d tell herself about marriage and family, she opens up her own chest of questions. Was her reluctance to adhere to gender norms as a child – as many young children do, be it girls wearing pigtails and overalls or boys donning mom’s heels and rouge – an early indicator of an innate acceptance of nontraditional roles? Or does it predate her avocation as a provocateur of these exact gender norms?
Her film criticism plays a role here, too. References to adjacent narratives in “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar” and “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” apply a logical lens through which to have these conversations. (Critics are auteurs and journalists, but maybe foremost, and reluctantly, you’ll find, they’re psychoanalysts, too.) Passages from Virginia Woolf and e.e. cummings further contextualize these seemingly modern-day quandaries. That these are not new feelings – even if vocabularies and medical advances are – is another comfort for her questions. If Woolf can posit conversation starters in “Orlando,” and Wesley Snipes can wear a dress in “To Wong Foo …,” then she can open this floor up even more.
Haskell’s inquiries build steam with each essay, branching off of psychotherapeutic sense memories into wonderfully astute, exploratory work. She’s smart enough to acknowledge the self-inflicted nature of this book, written so that she may be of service to her sister, but she’s also bold enough to present her personal inquiries in an academic manner. These are meditations on society and culture, mass media, gender politics, government politics, cultural literacy, and family management – some important frames.
But none so crucial as the one that embodies the fading images of her brother’s past and the developing photos of her sister’s future.
My Brother, My Sister
By Molly Haskell
224 pages, $26.95
Ben Siegel is the editor of Block Club magazine and a frequent Buffalo News contributor.