by Amy Bloom
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Apr 21st 2003
In Normal, Amy Bloom
investigates the lives of transsexuals, cross-dressers, and hermaphrodites and discusses
the social and ethical concerns arising from medical treatment of people
identified as being in these groups.
It's a short book with just three chapters and an afterword, and two of
those chapters have appeared in magazines previously. Bloom is an eloquent and charming writer, with occasional phrases
and sentences that stand out with their casual yet telling images. These and her liberal quotations from her
interviewees put the reader at ease reading abut matters that many will find
unsettling. Often she uses humor to
Bloom's perspective is consistently humanistic and
liberal, and she always prioritizes the experience of the people she interviews
and she allows them to voice their opinions.
For transsexuals and hermaphrodites, the proper stance to take is clear
enough: if people really feel they need to get gender-reassignment surgery,
they should be allowed to do so, and we should not judge them. Her focus in her first chapter is not on the
more familiar case of male-to-female changes, but rather on the desire of some
women for female-to-male surgery. She
discusses the details of the different surgical options available and the
opinions of different experts on which option is best. She also provides some historical background
to past practices concerning transsexuals.
What is especially valuable about Bloom's account is her ability to
convey the complexities of thoughts of emotions of people who are contemplating
or have had the surgery. As is nearly
always the case, the stories of individuals command the most interest—people
talking about their feelings, families, and of course, sex.
The second chapter on crossdressers
is in some ways the most surprising of the book, because it is in this chapter
that Bloom's own sympathy with a stigmatized group is most tested. In the other chapters, she sets out graphic
details of surgical procedures of modifications to genitalia with no sense of
revulsion or distaste. However, in this
chapter, she finds it hard to empathize with her subjects. Her observation is that heterosexual
crossdressers seem to be conservative and even sexist in their attitudes –
their view of femininity is stereotyped and old-fashioned, and may even be tied
to their need to cross-dress. Bloom
expresses more sympathy with the long-suffering wives of these men, whose
disappointment with their lot is palpable.
Her description of a group of crossdressers on a ship cruise with their
wives is sad yet funny. She is clear
that crossdressing is a compulsion yet "somehow not a sickness." She says of the crossdressers she encounters
that they have no grasp of female friendship, and she quotes one wife,"
For twenty years he couldn't help with the dishes because he was watching
football. Now he can't help because
he's doing his nails. Is that
The third chapter provides Bloom
much more solid ground for moral indignation at society's intolerance towards
people who do not fit in with conventional categories. Doctors regularly put pressure on new
parents to consent to surgery on their newborn baby if the baby has ambiguous
genitalia. There is no clear medical
need to perform this surgery, and there is no evidence that it improves quality
of life. It seems the only reason for
the surgery is to alleviate the discomfort of parents and medical professionals
alarmed at existence of a child whose sex does not fit easily into categories
of male or female. Estimates of the
frequency of intersexuality put it at about one in 2000. The cause of the intersexed was recently advanced
greatly by the publication of As Nature Made
Him by John Colapinto, the
unhappy story of the boy raised as a girl under the supervision of psychologist
John Money. Money theorized that gender
is purely created by nurture, and so any child raised as a girl would identify
as a girl. The child who was called
Joan and raised as a girl never settled into a female identity and later came
to identify strongly as a male, thus apparently disproving Money's
theories. Bloom mentions this case, but
spends more time describing her meetings with Cheryl Chase, founder of the
Intersex Society of North America.
Chase is a charismatic leader, and advocates powerfully against
unnecessary surgery. Bloom is clearly
impressed and convinced by Chase, and presents a strong case for the rightness
of Chase's views.
Despite its sensationalist
subtitle. Normal is a compassionate and thoughtful look at people whose
bodies, behavior and desires don't conform with societal expectations even in a
time of greater tolerance of gay and lesbian people. Bloom summarizes some of the latest research on what is helpful
and what is not, and she provides a short bibliography, which may be useful for
readers wanting to do more reading on the topic. Her reports of meetings and interviews with a wide variety of
people add a personal dimension that makes the book especially
© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is
Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor
of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical
issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.