Thomas Page McBee's meditation on masculinity

by Charlotte Grimshaw / 08 August, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - McBee

Thomas Page McBee.

A slim book provides a subtle and moving account of the making of a good man.

What does it mean to be a man? In his memoir, Man Alive, American author Thomas Page McBee reports from the front lines. To say he has an advantage as an explorer of gender roles, having navigated the terrain from both sides, doesn’t quite cover it, since his account illuminates just how complex gender and sexuality really are. Gender presents not as a rigid choice between “one or the other” but as a set of characteristics, as unique as the thing we call personality. In addition, there are as many subtleties to sexuality as there are to personality.

One of the most interesting questions raised, although not expressly answered in the memoir, is the extent to which environment is influential. Since experience shapes personality, it must to some extent shape sexuality too.

McBee was born a girl, but grew up feeling “not like a girl”. He matured into a gay woman, but this didn’t seem enough and he decided to transition to being male when he was 30. Man Alive is a lucid, wistful, sometimes comic memoir of his progress through surgery and testosterone treatment.

As he contemplates his future as a man and considers what that means, his story becomes a meditation on masculinity and what defines maleness.

McBee explores two episodes of serious male violence in his life: the first when he was sexually abused as a child; the second when he was robbed at gunpoint and believed he was going to be killed.

His description of these experiences is restrained, dignified and humane. Since it’s depicted as formative, the reader may wonder whether the sexual abuse by the man McBee thought was his father in any way shaped the development of his gender identity – and also, nervously, whether it’s okay to ask.

It’s possible to imagine resistance to the question, since we all want to focus on choice and freedom, not to characterise our life decisions as the result of environmental damage. Does McBee’s decision to embrace masculinity in some part involve a justified desire for mastery over that potentially malign and violent force, maleness?

Man Alive is a slim book, made larger by the fascinating questions it raises. McBee’s tone is extraordinarily civilised and benign. It’s a subtle and moving account: how violence shaped a good man.

MAN ALIVE, by Thomas Page McBee (Allen & Unwin, $22.99)

This article was first published in the July 22, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

Why Marlborough, the jewel of NZ's wine industry, is your next destination
My low-rent version of Sisyphus in hell
109522 2019-08-15 00:00:00Z Humour

My low-rent version of Sisyphus in hell

by Michelle Langstone

Michelle Langstone on being injured.

Read more
Requests denied, delayed and redacted
109441 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Politics

Requests denied, delayed and redacted

by Mike White

Frustrations of the fourth estate.

Read more
Stats NZ could need years to regain public trust
109503 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Politics

Stats NZ could need years to regain public trust

by Craig McCulloch

The census botch-up has prompted fears the debacle will do long-lasting damage to the public's trust in statistics.

Read more
Gentleman Jack: Suranne Jones on the remarkable Anne Lister
109439 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Television

Gentleman Jack: Suranne Jones on the remarkable An…

by The Listener

A historical drama about a 19th-century landowner who secretly diarised her relationships with women comes to Neon.

Read more
Hannibal Lecter's creator returns with Cari Mora
108448 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Books

Hannibal Lecter's creator returns with Cari Mora

by Craig Sisterson

In his first post-Hannibal Lecter book, Thomas Harris heads for Elmore Leonard territory.

Read more
Kiwis in the kitchen: A bite-sized history of NZ cuisine
109468 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Food

Kiwis in the kitchen: A bite-sized history of NZ c…

by Lauraine Jacobs

Lauraine Jacobs traces the evolution of eating in NZ, from the spartan diet of the war years to the vibrant multi-ethnic melting pot of cuisines...

Read more
The chef bringing the world's cuisine to Kāeo
109526 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Food

The chef bringing the world's cuisine to Kāeo

by Jenny Ling

Anna Valentine holds cooking workshops in the kitchen of her century-old kauri villa in Kāeo.

Read more