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Normal

por Amy Bloom

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216298,522 (3.53)3
Amy Bloom has won a devoted readership and wide critical acclaim for fiction of rare humor, insight, grace, and eloquence, and the same qualities distinguish Normal, her first full-length work of nonfiction. In Normal, the National Book Critics Circle Award and National Book Award finalist explores sex and gender through portraits of people who are widely considered not normal. “A great many people, sick of news from the margins, worn out by the sand shifting beneath their assumptions, like to imagine Nature as a sweet, simple voice: tulips in spring, Vermont’s leaves falling in autumn,” Bloom writes. “Nature is more like Aretha Franklin: vast, magnificent, capricious, occasionally hilarious, and infinitely varied.” Bloom takes us on a provocative, intimate journey into the lives of “people who reveal, or announce, that their gender is variegated rather than monochromatic”—female-to-male transsexuals, heterosexual crossdressers, and the intersexed. We meet Lyle Monelle and his mother, Jessie, who recognized early on that her little girl was in fact a boy and used her life savings to help Lyle make the transgender transition. On a Carnival cruise with a group of crossdressers and their spouses, we meet Peggy Rudd and her husband, “Melanie,” who devote themselves to the cause of “ordinary heterosexual men with an additional feminine dimension.” And we meet Hale Hawbecker, “a regular, middle-of-the-road, white-bread guy” with a wife, kids, and a medical condition, the standard treatment for which would have changed his life and his gender. Bloom shows the essential humanity in this infinite variety, allowing us to appreciate these people as they really are—both like and unlike everyone else—and inviting us “to see into these particular worlds and back out to the larger one we all share.” Casting light into the dusty corners of our assumptions about sex, gender, and identity, about what it means to be male or female, Bloom reveals new facets to ideas about happiness, personality, and character, even as she brilliantly illumines the very concept of “normal.”… (mais)
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A passage about sex reassignment surgery almost made me throw up on the bus one morning. Had to put it down prematurely, else risk embarrassment and stained shirt. ( )
  rrriles | Apr 7, 2010 |
Normal by Amy Bloom deals with several very touchy subjects, the sort of topics many people shy away from. The book is divided into three parts; it's really a collection of three independent essays. The first takes an extended close look at the lives of female-to-male transsexuals.

Ms. Bloom concentrates on the personal stories of the many people she interviewed for this article. The stories she presents are wide ranging--there are parents who are with their children every step of the way through the entire process and others who disown their daughters once they become men. The issues around female-to-male transsexuals are different from those around male-to-female ones. The preconceptions and prejudices each group faces are not the same. As Ms. Bloom describes the journey from woman to man, she also describes her own journey of acceptance.

I expected to find psychologically disturbed, male-identified women so filled with self-loathing that it had even spilled onto their physical selves, leading them to self-mutilating, self-punishing surgery. Maybe I would meet some very butch lesbians, in ties and jackets and chest binders, who could not, somehow, accept their female bodies. I didn't meet those people. I met men. Some I liked, some I didn't. I met bullshit artists, salesmen, computer programmers, compulsive, misogynistic seducers, pretty boys inviting seduction, cowboys, New Age prophets, good ol' boys, shy truck drivers saving their money for a June wedding, and gentle knights. I met men.

The men themselves occupy a unique position. Some are able to keep what they learned as women in mind as a foundation for how to behave as a man. Take Luis when asked for his view of women after becoming a man himself:

"I was like a fly on the all in my childhood world view of girls. I grew up with girls, in their world, and I saw how they were treated. I didn't feel like one of them, but I saw how women were disrespected, were diminished, and I haven't forgotten that."

Mixed with the personal stories of female-to-male transsexuals are several interviews with the doctors who perform the surgery. There are several, costly and invasive procedures involved and they can only be started once a person has proven that he can live as a man for two years. The process of phalloplasty is described in detail, but the emphasis is always on the people involved.

The second and third essays both offer great insight into human nature and behavior. What struck me most about the essay on men who crossdress was the experience of their wives. The chapter is not about drag queens, or gay men who crossdress, but about heterosexual men, most of them married, who secretly, sometimes publicly dress in women's clothes. While the transgendered men in the first essay have a biological condition that can be largely "corrected" through medicine, the crossdressing men seem to have a psychological condition that could be "cured." Ray Blanchard, a traditional clinician who has studied sexuality for over 30 years is interviewed and quoted at length:

I've had people say to me, 'You know, I bet if there wasn't all this stereotyping, these people would not choose to wear a dress.' I say that's nonsense. The crossdressing is an attempt to resolve an internal conflict, and it's not about fabric. If we had clothing that was identical in every way, including fabric and shape, except men wore shirts with four buttons and women had shirts with five, crossdressers would want more than anything to have the shirt with five. We don't know why.

Ms. Bloom attends a cruise geared toward crossdressers and their wives. The experience of the wives stood out for me in this section. Women willing to go on a cruise with their husbands dressed as women are all clearly supportive to a point, but almost all of their interviews expose an undercurrent of resentment, sometimes fairly deep. They describe what is good about their husbands and their relationship; there is some reason why they put up with the crossdressing, but it's fairly clear that most of them would all rather be somewhere else, with a man dressed as a man.

The final essay in Normal deals with the intersexed. In America about five intersexed babies are born each day. There are fewer interviews in this essay, but there is a thorough examination of intersexed children and the history of their treatment. In America, the most frequent treatment was to surgically make intersexed babies resemble girls as much as possible. Sometimes this was done to boys solely because they had an abnormally small penis, small enough to make their doctor uncomfortable. This is changing, in no small part due to the work of Cheryl Chase who was born a "true hermaphrodite," then declared a girl, then a boy, then not much of a boy, then operated upon to make her a more suitable girl. Cheryl Chase would like intersexed children to be left alone, left as they are, and Ms. Bloom gives us several examples of people who were and are happy, well adjusted adults as a results. What is striking about this essay is that for so many intersexed people, their doctors are the enemy. What was done to them was done before they could speak, they had no opportunity to say no or to say let's wait a few years and see how things go first.

Normal is a highly readable book. It takes issues that make most people squirm, and humanizes them for the reader, puts a face or two on them. We are all people under the skin, trying to make our way in the world. Normal helps us bring those on the margins of society a little closer to home. ( )
1 vote CBJames | Dec 30, 2008 |
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Amy Bloom has won a devoted readership and wide critical acclaim for fiction of rare humor, insight, grace, and eloquence, and the same qualities distinguish Normal, her first full-length work of nonfiction. In Normal, the National Book Critics Circle Award and National Book Award finalist explores sex and gender through portraits of people who are widely considered not normal. “A great many people, sick of news from the margins, worn out by the sand shifting beneath their assumptions, like to imagine Nature as a sweet, simple voice: tulips in spring, Vermont’s leaves falling in autumn,” Bloom writes. “Nature is more like Aretha Franklin: vast, magnificent, capricious, occasionally hilarious, and infinitely varied.” Bloom takes us on a provocative, intimate journey into the lives of “people who reveal, or announce, that their gender is variegated rather than monochromatic”—female-to-male transsexuals, heterosexual crossdressers, and the intersexed. We meet Lyle Monelle and his mother, Jessie, who recognized early on that her little girl was in fact a boy and used her life savings to help Lyle make the transgender transition. On a Carnival cruise with a group of crossdressers and their spouses, we meet Peggy Rudd and her husband, “Melanie,” who devote themselves to the cause of “ordinary heterosexual men with an additional feminine dimension.” And we meet Hale Hawbecker, “a regular, middle-of-the-road, white-bread guy” with a wife, kids, and a medical condition, the standard treatment for which would have changed his life and his gender. Bloom shows the essential humanity in this infinite variety, allowing us to appreciate these people as they really are—both like and unlike everyone else—and inviting us “to see into these particular worlds and back out to the larger one we all share.” Casting light into the dusty corners of our assumptions about sex, gender, and identity, about what it means to be male or female, Bloom reveals new facets to ideas about happiness, personality, and character, even as she brilliantly illumines the very concept of “normal.”

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