Review – Peters, “Detransition, Baby”

Torrey Peters, “Detransition, Baby” (2021) (read by Renata Friedman) – Torrey Peters has said in interviews that she has structured this, one of the major contemporary trans novels that I know about, like a soap opera, with twists and turns and reveals paced for the sort of drama marketed towards the women to whom Peters dedicated this book: divorced cis women. It’s an interesting gambit, and echoes something that comes up a lot in this book and that I’ve thought a certain amount about.

Peters has virtually all of her characters, most notably trans woman Reese, detransitioned Ames (he lived as a trans woman for some number of years, in a relationship with Reese for most of that, before deciding to live as a man), most of their trans friends, and most cis people in the book, refer to trans people by a term I have had numerous trans and non-binary people inform me, mostly via social media, is a slur. No, not the short nasty t-word, but an earlier and vaguely medical-sounding term that most of my trans friends and associates have overthrown in favor of “transgender.” When I’ve discussed this book with people more knowledgeable about this stuff than me, they have told me this is reflective of a generational divide. Trans people roughly my age or younger are more likely ok with the word; younger trans people (and most of the trans people I know are younger than me, typically by ten years or more) are more likely to insist it’s a slur and use “transgender.” 

I say all that to say this: Torrey Peters is doing a bunch of stuff in this novel, and one of them is at least somewhat ironically overdone but also sincerely meant generational war. Reese, in particular — and there are three people who could be called main characters in Detransition, Baby, but as the omniscient third person narrator would probably agree, Reese is the star — has no patience for what she refers to as “Twitter girls,” women, almost always trans women, who promulgate ideas and/or exhibit cultural styles associated with online social justice stuff. Reese, and that omniscient narrator when she weighs in doesn’t really disagree with them on the points, but she just has another way of being who she is that she feels cramped by their indignation. Reese doesn’t want to lead a revolution. She doesn’t want to assimilate, either, like the assimilé cis gay men and lesbians we see in the book. What does she want, then?

Well, it seems, mostly she wants to be a woman. This might sound trite, but I think is quite in keeping with how Peters describes Reese’s mental state, to say she wants to achieve the high scores in the most conventional, one might even say stereotyped, versions of womanly achievement. This gets into some questions I’ve never fully understood — that I generally haven’t pursued that much, because they’re delicate topics and I don’t want to hurt anyone with my critical poking and prodding — related to gender as performance. Arguably, some of what Reese gets into is reflective of another generational divide- Reese understands trans womanhood as a reflection, or an apotheosis even, of womanhood as established by normative cis culture. A lot of the trans people I know — and here it is worth noting I know a high portion of these friends and acquaintances from radical left-wing politics — are often defiantly uninterested in conforming to cis ideas of what gender looks or acts like. 

That is not Reese’s way. Reese wants to own womanhood, wants to experience it as it has been sold to her on tv, though given some spins by trans experience and consciousness. Often, this takes the form of a competitiveness with the cis womanhood she looks to as a model, as in, “see how many of your alpha cis straight dude bros want to sleep with me, as opposed to you, cis lady.” 

Maybe a point of convergence, though- motherhood. Above all Reese wants to be a mother, which she sees as the ultimate in womanhood. I could see younger trans people less invested in binary understandings of gender getting that, even if the concept they’d more immediately grasp for might be “parenthood,” which is not quite good enough for Reese. Reese would like (unaffordable) bottom surgery. Reese needs to be a mother, and has screwed up chances to be one with other selfish behaviors (seemingly driven by her need to prove her womanliness by having affairs with bad men? Or is that a bad read? You gotta understand my understanding of romantic relationships is pretty minimal). 

She gets her chance! Sort of. In a miracle of unlikelihood, her ex-lover, Ames — who she knew as Amy — despite having his hormones and sperm count messed with by transitioning and detransitioning — manages to impregnate his boss, Katrina, a cis lady with whom he was having an affair. Katrina’s a divorced lady who has had a miscarriage, and she wants to be a mom but questions the conditions. She questions them even more when she finds out Ames had a past as a trans woman, and drunkenly outs him to coworkers, which leads to some grimly amusing scenes of HR managers at their ad firm trying to figure out whether they need to retool their bathrooms, etc. Ames, for his part, has been borderline crippled by his ambivalence towards his several dilemmas: “live his truth” as a woman despite the terrors of his trans life versus an easier life as a man, raise a child he’d maybe only stay with out of duty and loneliness, etc. 

Ames comes up with a plan! Bring in Reese as a co-mother! By the time the plot unfolds, Reese and Ames had been broken up for years, the arc of their relationship told in flashbacks. Everyone involved with this scheme is skeptical. Katrina is thrown by this sudden prominence of trans-ness in her life, and takes it with what strikes me as a realistic mixture of efforts at understanding and bad mistakes. Reese doesn’t trust Ames or Katrina at first, and figures she’d just be some weird add-on to their ménage, not a “real” mother, and that this is some bass-ackwards scheme for Ames to both get her back and continue to deny his trans-ness.

After some ups and downs, the three come to some understandings. If nothing else, Reese and Katrina have a shared hobby of owning the hapless Ames (non-sexually, in Reese’s case, at least at that point in the narrative). Katrina learns some about trans and queer culture. Reese patrols the boundaries, attempting to keep Katrina from merely appropriating queer culture (the sort of phrase, if uttered by a “Twitter girl,” would probably make Reese scoff, but she does not enchain the hobgoblins of foolish consistency, Reese) and making Reese into a kind of prop. 

Ultimately, it’s that dynamic that proves to be their undoing in the last part of the book, which has some strong points and some less strong points. Reese’s past experiments in hyper-womanhood come back to haunt her in the form of a bad man at the wrong place at the worst time. Katrina judges Reese’s behavior for both sensible reasons (facilitating cheating) and bad (AIDS panic). People make various dramatic choices. One of the key images of the novel comes when Reese adopts a method she finds on YouTube for dealing with grief, that gets confused for suicide (a tragically common fate for trans people). That her most dramatic moment comes via a YouTube video she watched with a mediocre cis dude hookup is pretty funny and poignant and feels real. Given the centrality it takes on, it feels like it would have been better introduced a little earlier? Workshop criticism, I know, but there it is. Katrina, Ames, and Reese all wind up together, in some sense, in the end, but in a deeply ambiguous and ambivalent manner. 

This was good! It has sound story-telling fundamentals, a story worth telling, a sense of humor, a definite perspective. There’s real limits to how much I can say in terms of how it depicts trans life. I can say more about how it depicts millennial life, I think, even if it’s millennial life socially proximate but… ontologically distant from my own. It does that quite well, I think. I can recommend it pretty highly for people who want to read contemporary literature. ****’

Review – Peters, “Detransition, Baby”

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