I have read a lot of memoirs, some popular, others obscure. I’ll tell you my top three: This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, The End of the World as We Know It by Robert Goolrick, and My Mother Is Now Earth by Mark Anthony Rolo, a long-time contributor to The Progressive. If the list were a bit longer, I’d include Wild by Cheryl Strayed, An American Childhood by Annie Dillard, and maybe even the eponymous classic The Education of Henry Adams, still brilliant after all these years.
A great memoir takes us into the life of someone whose experience may be quite different than our own, and makes us feel the complicated reality of their own efforts to make sense of it. In that vein, P. Carl’s new book, Becoming a Man, delivers a powerful blend of raw candor and tender vulnerability. In his memoir, Carl, who after a long career in theater is now an artist-in-residence at Emerson College in Boston, performs a remarkable feat of personal truth-telling.
The book is a celebration of self-discovery, as Carl, over a two-year period that coincides with the start of the Trump Administration, transitions from a queer woman to transgender man. He shares his joy at his new identity—this is, after all, what he has always wanted—as well as the challenges it presents to the relationships in his life.
Shortly after Carl’s transition, his wife, Lynette, learns that she has uterine cancer. She reacts with anger, not just at the cancer, but also at him. If he hadn’t transitioned, they would still be “two women in this together.” As it is, she feels alone. “I miss Polly,” she tells their couples therapist, using the name of the woman she had known before the transition. Carl is defensive, focused on his own hurt feelings.
“I may not feel what Lynette is feeling, but I have spent my entire life around women, in love with women, performing as a daughter, sister, and lesbian lover,” Carl writes. “How could anyone think I don’t know how to care for Lynette, especially Lynette?”
This sort of heartbreaking honesty permeates Carl’s book, which effortlessly veers from the personal to the political. He uses his experience to mine fresh insights on gender, power, and injustice. Early on, he recounts his reaction, as a newly minted man, to the belligerent and entitled testimony of Brett Kavanaugh at his Supreme Court confirmation hearings and its various attendant outrages.
“No moment,” he writes, “has been more despairing than listening to Susan Collins, a woman, a Senator, say that Christine Blasey Ford was likely assaulted but that it wasn’t by Kavanaugh—to hear one woman say to another woman that she doesn’t believe her, among a chorus of white men who decry what has been done to Kavanaugh, that he is the victim . . . .”
Later, he describes his father-in-law, a caring and decent man pulled into the vortex of Fox News.
“Frank became increasingly anxious and doomsaying,” Carl writes. “He believed, because Fox News told him it was true, that we were near end times, and he worried that [his daughter] Lynette and I wouldn’t get to see our old age.” Carl sees this as just another one of the toxins that have infected the body politic. “As America doubles as a democracy and an oligarchy, it’s hard not to believe we are approaching the end of something, the power of white masculinity, misogyny, and patriarchy either pushing us toward civil war or breathing its last gasp.”
The more we do the difficult work of learning to understand each other, the more possible it becomes to achieve the latter. Becoming a Man does its part in helping bring that about.