Thomas Page McBee's meditation on masculinity

by Charlotte Grimshaw / 08 August, 2017
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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.

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