A McSweeney’s Books Preview of T Cooper’s
Real Man Adventures.
BY T COOPER
Real Man Adventures is T Cooper’s brash, wildly inventive, and often comic exploration of the paradoxes and pleasures of masculinity. He takes us through his transition into identifying as male, and how he went on to marry his wife and become an adoring stepfather of two children. Alternately bemused and exasperated when he feels compelled to explain all this, Cooper never loses his sense of humor. “Ten Things People Assume I Understand About Women But Actually Don’t,” reads one chapter title, while another proffers: “Sometimes I Think the Whole of Modern History Can Be Explained by Testosterone.”
A brilliant collage of letters, essays, interviews (with his brother, with his wife, with the parents of other transgender children), artwork, and sharp evocations of difficult conversations with old friends and puzzled bureaucrats, Real Man Adventures will forever change what you think about what it means to be a man.
Today we offer an excerpt from the book. To purchase Real Mad Adventures, please visit our store.
It goes a long way back, some twenty years. All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man1
By all appearances white, middle-class, het¬erosexual. Male.
Blessed, right? What everybody wants to be, when it comes down to it. I earn 25 percent more than women, for some unexplained reason statisticians have never seemed to be able to make sense of on paper. I don’t get beaten and sexually assaulted, traded and married off, shrouded in black fabric or have my genitals mutilated, and I am not readily found removing my clothes for members of the opposite sex in ubiquitous venues open all hours of the day. (Okay, Chippendales, but no lady actually has fun at Chippendales or ever returns even if she has a little fun in Vegas once.) I am the perennial buyer, never the seller. And if she’s not selling, I can usually just take, one way or another. History tells me so.
If you woke up one day—or no, say you’re an embryo before it figures out whether it’s going to have a Y chromosome or not, and you can decide what you are going to be; you could go to the public library, take all the dusty books off the shelf and really get a good look at all of time and see who’s generally come out on top—what would you be?
If you were a betting zygote, and you wanted to survive, and more than survive you wanted to have, like, an in-ground pool and attached garage and maybe a little cushion of land between you and the next guy, and not get raped over and over and generally be left to do what you wish, there’s only one clear choice. You’d grab that Y chromosome. And if you couldn’t annex the actual chromosome, you’d probably find some other way to go about it.
That’s what I did!
I did it for the extra 25 percent. And the power. And the respect I command in merely walking down the sidewalk, or stating my wishes plainly.
Except that’s not entirely the case.
It turns out if you scratch off a layer I become slightly less visible: a Jew. Slough off another, and I disappear a bit more: not so white. A large percent of people I come across actually take me for Puerto Rican, Arab, somehow brown (“swarthy,” my mother-in-law pronounced me when my then-future wife showed her a photo). If I’m in dirty dungarees and working in the yard or on the house, neighbors jogging by or walking their dogs assume I’m a day laborer. Strangers will often speak Spanish to me if not leading with “Do you speak English?” when in need of directions on the street. Or sometimes folks will address me as “my friend” (as in, Hey, my friend. I’m going to ask you this question which you look like you couldn’t possibly know the answer to, except I’m really desperate and you’re the only person here, so I might as well give it a shot and cross my fingers I’m not insulting you), which is when you really know white people believe they are talking to a nonwhite person. And nowadays I get “randomly” selected for additional screening at the airport sometimes, since I also apparently give terrorist realness.
Finally, go for that last layer, the one I put there myself without anybody’s (or nature’s) help. Yank it off quick before I notice. It hurts like shit but if you do it fast like I said, the pain doesn’t last long. And then I pretty much disappear altogether. A traitor, a spy.
At the landing I saw a bucket full of kerosene and seized it, flinging it impulsively into a burning room. A huge puff of smoke-fringed flame filled the doorway, licking outward toward me. I ran, choking and coughing as I plunged. They did it themselves, I thought, holding my breath—planned it, organized it, applied the flame.2
What I just did there was quickly fan through the pages of Invisible Man and randomly stick a finger down, and then typed in the paragraph my finger landed on. As random as whether a sperm cell carries an X or Y chromosome into the egg it’s fertilizing. Or is it? Because from where I sit right now, about to blast all this shit of mine into a world that’s already on fire and then spill accelerant all over it… it feels like either the smartest3 or stupidest4 thing I’ve ever done. I don’t believe there’s an in-between.
After I read his memoir, Half a Life, I mentioned to the author Darin Strauss that I was thinking about writing about my “thing,” the way he wrote about his “thing”—the one thing that defines most of us (whether determined by others or ourselves). He wrote me this:
As for what you write next: if you don’t want to write that, don’t. It seems wildly personal, and so if you feel uncomfortable, listen to that. This book took twenty-eight years for me to even START. But thanks for being so nice about it.
So What Would Darin Do? He managed to wrestle his thing out of him—and quite beautifully at that. But he also said I could wait on my thing. Or not do it at all. Somewhere therein lay perhaps just the permission I needed to type that Ellison passage, and begin to find out whether I even could.
I don’t really want to write about this thing of mine, but I think I might have to—to stop it from being a thing. If that’s possible. I could certainly regret it later, like I’ve regretted candor on a few distinct occasions in the past.5 It’s just that nowadays, one’s candor and the resultant exposure can end up hanging around forever for people to pick through.
My kids, for example, who in a couple years can and probably will get on the Internet to read all they can about the subject. Just one Google search and something my wife and I have taken great pains and sensitivity and a bunch of time and effort to explain and share with them in the safe, accepting, and loving environment of our household can be unraveled in an instant. Because when one’s candor is filtered through another human being, especially one with a little more power, the results can be devastating (see: all of history). So I suppose this book is an attempt to be my own filter, leaving me nobody to blame but myself when it all goes pear-shaped.
Well, me and Darin Strauss. A difference being that his “secret” (at eighteen having been involved in an auto vs. bicycle accident that left a female schoolmate dead) was something he could (and did successfully) hide for many years after leaving home. I cannot reliably hide that I was not always the man I am today.
Certainly, when I meet people for the first time, none know my “secret” (or more accurately, my past, which many confuse with a secret). But there will always be people whose history has paralleled and intersected my own—from family to colleagues to that girl Annika in the second grade who ate powdered soap at recess—and without a complete name and identity change accompanied by renouncing my entire history (something I’m unwilling to do, as tempting as it sometimes seems), it is near impossible for me to live completely stealthily as a man in this world, because, simply, I was not born male. Not in any conventional sense, at least. Not according to science.
I HOPE YOU’RE SITTING DOWN
Letter to My Parents I Contemplated Publishing in a
Men’s Magazine to Let Them (My Parents) Know I Wasn’t Their Daughter Anymore
Dear Mom and Dad,
I know this is going to be a complete shock to you, not to mention a huge disappointment, but there’s something I have to tell you, and I hope you’re sitting down.
I’m not gay.
There, I said it. It’s out there, and I can’t take it back.
But before you start freaking out, I want to give you the good news. Not only am I not gay, but I’m so not gay that I’m engaged to be married, plus am now stepdad to my fiancée’s two beautiful blonde children. We all live in a nice four-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath house and have two hybrid cars, two rescue pit bulls, and a gray-and-white cat that I don’t like very much.
It’s everything you’ve ever wanted for me! I do yard work. And carpool. I’m completely normal, as in, there’s nothing you have to be embarrassed about with friends and family anymore—no more peroxided buzz cuts, no faux-hawks or combat boots, no bringing home anarcho-vegan dates with septum piercings. No more homo anything at all! So you can just send those PFLAG brochures back to be recycled for somebody who actually needs them.
But there’s also some bad news, and I suppose I should share that with you, too. I know it’s not really cool that you’re finding all this out about me in the pages of a magazine, but to be completely honest, for years I’ve been worried you’d reject me for not being gay, and terrified that you might decide to cut me out of your life completely. But you raised me to tell the truth to both myself and others, so in that spirit I feel as though I need to “come out” to you even more explicitly:
I am a heterosexual man.
Let me take you back. Remember how good I was at football? Like, really good? How I was riding motorcycles at an age when most kids were learning to bicycle without training wheels? And how you had to promise me several pairs of shorts and pants in exchange for buying one gauzy dress to wear to Spencer Presler’s bar mitzvah? Or flash forward a little, to 2002. Mom, remember when you came to one of my readings for my first book, and there was a big poster with my picture on it, and it repeatedly referred to me as “he”? You seemed very alarmed and notified the bookseller of the “mistake,” but you never mentioned it again. Or Dad, that time years before that when we were out at a restaurant in Santa Fe, and you thought I was the maître d’ and asked, “Sir, when will our table be ready?” I just said, “Dad, it’s me,” and you chirped, “Oh,” and then we sat down and enjoyed our Tex-Mex dinner.
Or let’s get even more contemporary. As an author, I’m fortunate to have my work mentioned or appear in various media, and you might’ve noticed that nowadays that media refers to me as “he.” For a couple of years, there was no gender pronoun, and other times, like in the New York Times Book Review, a writer will go out of her way to make sure that her audience knows I am a “she” (the reviewer was wrong, but whatever11). Either way, I know you’ve seen a lot of this stuff, because you’ve always been supportive of me and my work and you enjoy sharing in it. But I guess what I’m getting at is whether this news is even really a surprise to you at all.
I’m not quite one of those “born in the wrong body” types you see on Oprah or The Learning Channel. I actually think I was born in the right body, my body. It’s just a little different, and doesn’t fit squarely into the gender binary. But I think you’ve suspected that all along. You of all people, in fact, have known about the kind of kid I was, and the kind of person I’ve grown up to be: mostly well-intentioned and seeking to do right by others, moderately creative, often stubborn, but generally pleasant to be around. I haven’t been tortured or miserable or beaten senseless on the playground because of my life experience—in fact, quite the opposite. Sometimes it even seemed like I fit in a little too well, made it look a little too easy. Not that it’s always been a cakewalk (there was the time on the subway at knifepoint), but for the most part I’ve been quite lucky.
In truth, the most pain I’ve had over being a straight guy comes from my fears about how you would react. I can’t front and say I haven’t daydreamed about your passing before I’d have to explain all of this to you (because it would of course kill you anyway). So you can see why coming home for the holidays might be a little tricky this year. There’s my beard, for starters. Then there’s the fact that my children know me as their stepfather, and they won’t know who you’re talking about when you continuously call me your “daughter,” rapid-fire repeating it to anyone and everyone as though the more it’s said, the more it might go back to being true.
You no longer have a daughter. But you do have granddaughters. And they really want to meet the people responsible for making me into the kind of person who figured out that he wasn’t what others decided he was, evolving instead into something else entirely.
1 Pg. 43: Second Vintage International Edition (Random House Inc.), 1995
2 Ibid, p. 549.
3 Outside of asking my wife to marry me.
4 Outside of trying for three years in college to have a floppy Hugh Grant haircut with nothing but a Jew-fro to work with.
5 See the chapter in this book entitled “The Little Surfer Girl,” for example.
6 Actually, not whatever. That was fucked up, and it has eaten at me for years. I have considered writing the Times to ask for a correction, but what’s the use? How would I explain to them that in their reviews of “normal” people, reviewers don’t take the time out to straighten out readers’ assumptions about an author’s identity: “By the way, Jonathan Franzen is a heterosexual white male.” There was no gender pronoun on my book at the time; there was certainly no female gender pronoun on any of my own press materials or Web site. It was a violation for the reviewer to state unequivocally in a paper of record that I am female. It was simply not true. Not then, maybe not ever.
I keep hoping one day I’ll stop caring, but short of a complete correction in that goddam review that will likely be around for the rest of time (plus a gilded letter of apology and fruit basket from the reviewer), I don’t know if that particular parenthetical will ever stop bunching my boxers.
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