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> Book Review of: Transparent

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Review of Transparent, by Cris Beam (Hardcover, 2007)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

The topic of this book, transgendered teeenagers, isn't exactly what you'd call mainstream. Neither is the perspective of the author. This book, for most readers, is an opportunity to glimpse into an alien world. The fact it's alien doesn't make it evil, and getting that fact across to people may a purpose Ms. Beam had in writing this book. I think that's a good purpose. The more people can accept each other rather than dehumanize each other, the better.

Unfortunately, this book has some problems in logic and word choices. These detract from the book, so coverage of them has to be part of any review worth reading.

Problems

The author's arguments and word choices frequently assume the point they're trying to prove. Many of Ms. Beam's conclusions are supported only with nonsequitors or cherry-picked facts. This approach is so ubiquitous these days that we can call it normal. But it invariably is a disservice to those who use it and to those upon whom it is used.

Like many contemporary authors, Ms. Beam supplies facts that support her personal views, and ignores those that don't. For example, from her observations of some (but not all) organs, she concludes, "...the brain and the heart are the only organs with a gender."

However, left and right male eyes are the same size while the eye sockets and eyes of females are differently sized (the eye is an organ). And as male rib cages and pelvises are different shapes from female ones, does it not follow that the organs that occupy those areas are differently shaped as well? Or are we to believe the visceral cavity has lots of unused space, and those pelvises and rib cages are differently shaped for no reason and to no effect? The true conclusion, then, is that most (and maybe all) human organs have a gender.

A key assertion in this book is that genitalia are irrelevant to determining a person's sex. Ms. Beam cherry-picks some facts to back this assertion, but the assertion fails when just a few salient facts are no longer excluded from the analysis. When there's an elephant in the room, does the flea really matter? Courts, historians, and others follow a principle called "preponderance of the evidence." Pretending the exception is the rule doesn't make a supposition true.

Using Ms. Beam's methods of analysis, I could "prove" that fish don't really swim in water because I can name several supermarkets in which fish are wrapped in paper or lying on ice and not swimming in water. I can then claim that people who refuse to accept this conclusion are "intolerant."

Ms. Beam correctly points out that our language, with its binary pronoun system (male or female), doesn't allow for the "between" people. Our pronouns force us to choose between male and female. We don't have many gender-neutral pronouns, which is why many people use the plural "they" in place of "he" or "she." Calling someone an "it" just doesn't go over very well.

However, this doesn't create a license for hijacking existing pronouns to restate opinion (or, as I see it, delusion) as fact. Stating it as fact does not make it fact, and wishing does not make it so.

Just because a man "feels like a woman" doesn't mean he is a woman. Just because a man wants to be called a woman doesn't mean others should call him one. If I insist that other people call me "Mr. President," should they feel compelled to do so? If I went around doing this (or insisting I'm Elvis), how long would be be before I'm locked up in the loony bin? Yet when transgendered people insist on something that is contrary to the physical evidence we can see with our own eyes, it's "discrimination" not to play along?

If I'm really the President or really Elvis, then I need to offer you more proof than "I've known it since I was two years old." This line of discussion reminds me of the movie "Bubba Ho-Tep." In that movie, a black (in PC, "African American") resident of a nursing home kept insisting he was John F. Kennedy, having survived the 1963 assassination attempt. Of course, we know Kennedy wasn't a black man. But that doesn't sway this character from his belief that he's Kennedy.

Ms. Beam contends there's a gray area in gender determination, and she presents facts that support this premise. But then she goes on to paint that entire gray area a color of her own choosing. When others do this, it's "discrimination."

She says that post-mortems on male transexuals (transexed to women) show brain development that is female rather than male. So, which came first--the chicken or the egg? The human brain is very, very elastic and it rewires itself according to how it's used. It is possible, or even likely, those brains responded to the desire to be female (and the subsequent acting out), rather than the other way around.

The book is full of this kind of Alice in Wonderland thinking and supposition. But then, so is much of what constitutes mainstream opinion on all kinds of issues. The challenge to the reader is to look past the logic-defying constructions of this book and find the gems that are in it.

Subjects

One point on which I agree with the author is that people deserve dignity and  basic respect. No matter how kooky they seem to be, they are still people. They still feel pain, and they still feel love. It's better to give the latter than the former.

The subjects of this book are real people. And, real people are fallible. Some, more than others. As I read the various accounts of how this or that kid behaved, I kept thinking, "This person has no grip on reality." The very way these people led their lives calls into question their ability to determine that their "real" sex differs from what their genitalia indicate.

I'm not saying a person can't be born with the wrong gender. And as the author has offered no valid proof of that claim, I'm not going to refute it. I'm just saying that we can't trust people who exhibit horrendously poor judgment in all other matters to use that same flawed judgment to correctly determine that their bodies have the "wrong" sexual organs. There may be proof--but it can't be the product of a malfunctioning mind.

The author does point out that the subjects of this book aren't "typical" transgendered people (if there are such people). They are kids from deeply troubled homes. They are ill-equipped to face the world, yet have had to face it without adult guidance and support. These kids grew up to be semi-literate, inarticulate adults who lack the basic skills to integrate into society. That has nothing to do with their perceived core issue of gender.

It is fairly apparent that that the particular kids in this book use the gender issue as a coping mechanism, rather than trying to deal with the real issues. They are so poorly equipped to deal with reality, that they don't even try. From their viewpoint, their problems exist because of other people. *They* discriminate, *they* don't understand, *they* hate me, etc. This theme plays over and over again.

If these kids hadn't latched on to this gender issue, some other issue would have arisen in its place. That is, they would used some other means of transferring responsibility to others. I could be wrong, but that's how I see it due to the behavioral patterns and dialogue in the book. And the book doesn't present evidence to the contrary.

It's self-defeating to spend so much personal energy on something you can't really change, while not spending energy on the things that have positive value and/or are just fundamentals that need to be done. The opportunity costs are very real for these kids, and they have misspent what little was at their disposal.

The author presents no evidence these kids have the wrong genitals (and eye sockets, hip structure, feet, hands, etc.). The author presents plenty of evidence these kids have horrendously poor judgment and pathologically distorted worldviews. But we're supposed to accept the notion that these kids have the ability to make a gender determination that contradicts plain physical evidence.

Engaging in enabling behavior--feeding the product of a person's obviously impaired judgment--doesn't empower that person to tackle real issues. It leaves that person dependent. But let's take care not to knock Ms. Beam for that, as it appears to have been the only viable approach under the circumstances.

People who sought to dismantle or ignore the constructs (defenses) of these kids drove them away. Ms. Beam, who isn't a trained social worker, reached these kids by going to where they are. She grasped a fundamental that the trained "professionals" seem unable to grasp: You have to meet people on their own turf and in their own reality.

Ms. Beam tried to get help for these kids and, for her efforts, got about zero. And so, this untrained person reached out with the one thing she had that government agencies are noted for not having:compassion.

Though she and her mate were themselves struggling on limited resources, they filled a void that nobody else would. They took in, sheltered, fed, and cared for difficult teenagers who had nowhere else to turn but the mean streets. Would you take in a boy who insists he's a girl? And has a drug problem? Who, rather than expressing gratitude, expresses anger and resentment? And seems to exhibit no desire to help himself? It takes an exceptional person to do this.

If you read this book for no other reason, read it to be inspired by the heart of the author. I don't agree with her viewpoints, but I wish we had more people like her in the world.

The book

This book is an engaging read. Ms. Beam is a good writer (even with a lack of adequate pronouns at her disposal). She skillfully relates the dramatic and unusual stories of her subjects. In so doing, she make this book, at times, a real page turner.

On a deeper level, the book can be a mind-opener. You may be surprised to find that the school teacher you like is a lesbian or your neighbor has a transgender kid you've never met.

These exceptions to what most of us consider "normal" are often made to feel they are somehow "lesser" human beings. Meanwhile, nobody makes an issue of the emotionally distant parent or other, more destructive behaviors. People will vote to re-elect the Congressman whose irresponsible "reward the lobbyists" spending robs them blind, but they won't give a gay or transgendered kid a vote of confidence.

I don't have an opinion on the "choice vs. birth" issue. It's not something I think about. It doesn't matter to me why a person is gay. Or if a person is gay. Or transgendered, or short, or whatever. What bothers me is when people on either side make it an issue.

Ms. Beam is obviously issuing a call for acceptance. On this point, the book delivers. But she also calls for the reader to accept a person's opinion contrary to physical evidence, no matter how blatantly that person exhibits poor judgment. This is asking a bit much.

People don't have to agree on everything as a condition of extending respect. I hope many people will read this book and respect the author whether they agree with her views. Or, as with me, do not.

I don't think this book does a good job of presenting/arguing the transexual/transgender viewpoint. But it does an excellent job of showing that no matter how different people are, they are still people. In our modern era of incivility, that kind of message seems increasingly rare. Kudos to Ms. Beam for bringing it to us. She did this not only in her words, but in her deeds. The story, while a bit alien, should motivate us all to do more for others who coexist with us on this planet.

 

 

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About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

The reviews I do will, contrary to emerging trends, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or not substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably another 6,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree undergrad and an MBA. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read to begin with.

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