In film critic Molly Haskell’s new book, My Brother, My Sister,” begins in 2005, as John (Chevey) Haskell, a 59-year-old married financial adviser, tells his older sister that he has “gender dysphoria” and wants to become female.As reviewed in the New York Times, “The author doesn’t soft-pedal her reaction: “My brother . . . will be a ‘woman on the loose.’ My heart stops. The danger. The grotesqueness. An aging transsexual,” she laments. “Please tell me you’ll still be smart at money and computers, and not dumb like . . . well, like a girl?” she half-jokes.
“Haskell’s bewilderment is understandable. Having someone close come out as transgender can be disorienting; few realize how attached they are to a loved one’s cheek stubble or the bass timbre of his voice until those traits morph or disappear. Coping with a gender transition — which necessarily challenges binary constructions of male and female — may be even more difficult for Haskell, who in an earlier memoir, “Love and Other Infectious Diseases,” described herself as a “stoical WASP.” Unfortunately, a state of shock and confusion is not the optimal position from which to glean insights.
“And that is the state in which Haskell finds herself not only on Page 1 but two-thirds of the way through as well. Throughout, she frets. She worries that her brother, now named Ellen Hampton, will constantly be “looking over her shoulder for psychopaths.” She worries that her brother will be too attractive as a woman, or not attractive enough (“There’s nothing like a transsexual to bring out one’s latent fashion snobbery”). And she worries what other people — her friends, her housekeeper, the doorman — will think. She even pictures the reaction of their late mother, a dignified Virginia society matron: “I imagine utter devastation, shock, revulsion, a mortification that goes beyond simple shame or embarrassment. Possibly even a stroke or heart attack, or deep depression.”
“To her credit, Haskell does not appear to edit herself to curry favor with her brother (who authorized and participated in the book) — or Glaad, for that matter. But all this candor rarely leads to introspection. Haskell documents her discomfort with her brother’s changing body, and her deep sense of sisterly loss: “The more of a woman she is — or so it feels — the less of my brother there will be.” But she rarely goes beyond those observations to question why she feels this loss so profoundly (her brother, after all, is not dying) or why this change threatens the nature of their relationship. “Where does it fit into the taxonomy of life crises when one person’s liberation is another’s loss?” she asks, mournfully. But one might inquire: How is it possible to equate Haskell’s sacrifice of a “male shoulder to lean on” with Ellen’s desire to live her own authentic life?”