Review: My Brother My Sister: Story of a Transformation by Molly Haskell [2013]

Everything is relative. Sexuality is a sliding scale – men at one end, women at the other – and each of us are positions somewhere on that scale. Mentally, I believe gender is similar; as a society we (frustratingly) characterise the world as male or female, and who really fits into those generic singular gender types? Very few people I know.

I am fully behind any man or woman who wants to change sex – I want everyone to be comfortable and accepted as/for who they are. I will be honest, I have not met (knowingly) anyone transgender, so if I do write anything ignorant, uninformed or downright ridiculous here (which I will endeavour not to) please do let me know.

mbmsOn a visit to New York, the brother of well-known film critic Molly Haskell dropped a bombshell: Nearing age sixty, and married, he had decided to become a woman. Haskell chronicles her brother Chevey’s transformation through a series of psychological evaluations, grueling surgeries, drug regimens, and comportment and fashion lessons as he becomes Ellen. Despite Haskell’s liberal views on gender roles, she was dumbfounded by her brother’s decision. With candor and compassion, she charts not only her brother’s journey to becoming her sister, but also her own path from shock, confusion, embarrassment, and devastation to acceptance, empathy, and love.

Haskell widens the lens on her brother’s story to include scientific and psychoanalytic views. In an honest, informed voice, she has revealed the controversial world of gender reassignment and transsexuals from both a personal and a social perspective in this frank and moving memoir.

Reading My Brother My Sister has been a wonderfully enlightening experience; Haskell was a fascinating read, she intellectualises her concerns so to understand them – it felt a very familiar process. You read her warmth, her struggle to accept, her determination to support her sister, Ellen, and to let go of her brother. Culturally, a sex change is seen as an alien or ‘other’ desire, a mistake or confusion, I do not think this is the case. In a society where we can easy encounter gender experimentation such as androgyny, I think it is perfectly reasonable that someone may feel they have been born into the wrong body.

We define gender by our biology, but I think gender is more abstract. I believe that asking, ‘what makes us male or female?’ Is similar to asking, ‘what makes us human?’ We are too cognitively advanced a species to solely identify childbirth as a definitive archetype of gender, and scientifically advanced to the point where one day I could foresee sexual organs being successfully transposed or procreation controlled in a lab. Women are still female if they cannot give birth, even if they have a hysterectomy – men are still male if they cannot produce sperm. Gender is a matter of the mind, and if one feels more masculine or more feminine, they should be able to express this need. It is not a selfish act, and would not be so uncomfortable or scary if it were more widely discussed or accepted.

Now, this is where my ignorance will probably show: I do have one hope, when it comes to anyone wishing to transition, and that is in regards to the current notion of what is male and what is female. It would concern me if the idea of what a woman or a man is was dictated by a subconscious embodiment of the patriarchal society’s definition or confinement of gender. For example, that the idea of becoming ‘woman’, was to be overly outwardly attentive to ‘prettiness’, delicate and subservient to the dominant male. Or, in the same way, that the patriarchal pressures of being male influence or affect a female-to-male transition. Essentially, I would want anyone wanting to transition or transitioning to be able to experience a more flexible freedom, not confined or influenced to succumb to restricting gender roles. However, I would never want to enforce someone trapped in an uncomfortable existence, to live their lives in accordance to my feminist beliefs. In essence, selfishly, I would hope that the idea of womanhood which these men are transitioning, or manhood to which women are transitioning, included an idea of strong empowered equals.

My Brother My Sister is the type of book that should be compulsory reading in schools; it is a logical, caring and interesting perspective on watching a loved one become who they were meant to be – and an honest experience of it. Ellen is an example of how natural it was for her to change, it was who she was meant to be. I believe a book like this could lead to a more accepting and understanding culture. Ultimately, I hope more people, who feel as Ellen did, can relate to this book and find the support they need to lead happier lives.

My Brother My Sister was published by Viking Adult on 13th May 2013; this copy was kindly given to me to read by the publishers via Netgalley, thank you!

5 thoughts on “Review: My Brother My Sister: Story of a Transformation by Molly Haskell [2013]

  1. This sounds like a book I have to read! I always get frustrated if I see somewhere (on the Internet) that someone changed their gender and now they’re looked at as freaks. It’s unfair and hurtful and can lead to serious things. I mean, what if an individual can’t handle all the pressure? People should learn to accept each other for what they are and stop judging others.


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