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At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son…

At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces

by Mary Collins

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I need to establish some things off the bat in reviewing this book: 1) I received it through the Early Reviewers program at LibraryThing, and am grateful to Beacon Press for the free copy of the book; 2) I'm a cafab non-binary person who, like Donald, came out while at boarding school in 2011, which means I am going to go into this book with certain feelings.

All of this being said: this book was a difficult read for me, especially the essays written by Mary, and much of my difficulty is informed by my own experience socially transitioning at a young age. At one point I wrote that her struggles with Donald's transitions seemed to have little to do with his trans identity, and much, much more with the idea that he was no longer under her control at 16 (or subsequently at 18) and could do with his body what he wanted. She kept referring to him making these choices, especially medical choices, without her consent, despite the fact that he did not pursue medical transition before the age of 18; her claims that therapists and doctors interfered with her parenting seemed to completely ignore the fact that at the time he made these decisions, he was a legal adult, and he did not go through that process without any gatekeeping, as his chapters make explicitly clear.

In all of this, Donald comes out looking comparatively level-headed and remarkably reflective; he is able to acknowledge the pain his mother went through throughout her transition, including the ways he hurt her, while also holding the same space for his own pain--to put it neatly, he has created the "middle ground" she demands be opened, while her essays leave her claiming "discrimination" from people who were more supportive of her son than she was. I want to be clear that I don't think she doesn't have important things to say, but it is incredibly telling to me that it is Donald who makes the all-too-telling assessment that his mother experienced "the bigger, more abstract fear that [he] needed something she couldn't give and that [he] would seek it out wherever [he] could find it, whether she was included or not." He follows this observation with an incredible insight: "I have to admit, she was right."

And that to me is where the miss in this book came; Mary's rigid insistence that she had been slighted, or abandoned, or kept out of the process of Donald's transition seems to block her from articulating what to me is a huge piece of misunderstanding between trans children and their cis parents, and between children and parents more generally: parents cannot always provide everything for their children that their children need. (It seems important to note that I came to this book less than a week after I finished Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother?, which I would call a readalike with this book.) Donald seems in what I would call his best essay ("Hidden Fees") to understand and even almost articulate that point, while Mary is too caught up trying to explain the why behind her actions and feelings without really digging into the why within herself.

What bumped this book up from two stars to three for me (beyond Donald's last essay, which I am very impressed with) were two things, the first being the section at the back, especially the interviews with trans people, which were delightful as a trans person because it is so rare to see communication between community members in print, but also because it gives a wider variety of narratives for parents who did struggle with their feelings about their children's identities. Being able to step outside Mary's seeming lake of self-pity helped generate a broader sympathy for the parents of trans children (though I should note that trans children and adults are often discouraged, and in some cases are legally prohibited, from being their true authentic selves for the sake of their parents, a thought which never seems to cross any of the parents' minds.) The second thing was how much this made me reflect on my own relationship with my parents, as a trans child who came out at the same time as Donald (literally down to the year- it's almost spooky!) I will be handing off my copy to my mother and then hopefully give it to my father, in the hopes of generating a conversation that we never had about their feelings about my transition (were they more inclined to accept me because I told them a year before I came out socially and changed my name? because I was quick to reassure them that medical transition, if an option at all for me, was not in my immediate future? because they understood or knew their understanding didn't really matter?) That is definitely in-line with the series theme, and so I do think it was worth it from that perspective. ( )
1 vote aijmiller | May 30, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Mary and Donald Collins each tell their side of the story of what happens when a person wants/needs to transition gender from female to male. Each has a difficult story to tell of how the decision impacted their lives and how they finally managed to make peace with each other and their family. A must read for anyone who has a relationship with a "trans" person, family member or friend.
  GramRaye | May 16, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The concept for At the Broken Places is unique. Mother and son tell a collaborative story of Donald Collins's transition from daughter to son & all of the emotional upheaval they endured together (and apart) along the way. Because of their opposing viewpoints it must have been a very difficult time for both of them. This definitely make At the Broken Places a more dynamic story.
As an aside, it was interesting to read between the lines and hear what wasn't being said. Mary indicated names are powerful and matter a great deal when she explained that at sixteen her daughter was "J" and referred to as She. When "J" insisted on being called Donald her daughter was then referred to as He. Her son. The death of a name ushered in the death of a daughter. It is further revealed Mary held some resentment over the name "Donald Oliver" because it single-handedly wiped out memorializing her father ("J's" shared his initials).

At the Broken Places could serve a wide audience: people facing similar situations; people who want to educate themselves; even people in positions of authority charged with changing the status quo. ( )
  SeriousGrace | May 15, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
A MUST HAVE in any GLBTQ, school, or counselor's library, At the Broken Places is much more than informative. At the Broken Places; subtitled A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces; is a true dialog between Mary Collins, a single mother losing her beloved daughter, and Donald Collins almost losing his family as he searches to become who he was meant to be.

Mary and Donald are able to renew their relationship, but only through much pain relived as they collaborated on this book. The resulting book allows emotion to flow through and pain to be expressed.

The ongoing theme throughout the book is the pain of being shut-out or shut-down.

Being trans is misunderstood by many people, including by transsexuals. Transsexuality does not need to be binary, yet it is often assumed to be translated as transitioning from male to female or female to male. Anyone who is not on such a path gets shut out of support groups and medical help. I did not know this, and I assume that most counselors share that knowledge.

Parents are supposed to offer “unconditional love and support” without space to grieve the loss of the girl or boy they have loved for decades. Or if you mention fears for the youth or adult child due to a history of violence against transgender people or fear the side effects of the treatments or medication you are shut down as setting up barriers and/or being homophobic.

The difficulty seems to be a rigid view of sexuality as binary combined with a US cultural imperative to support the individual rather than the community or family. When you view things as a binary, you are stuck in dichotomies. One side must be wrong in order for the other side to be right. Individuals are supported as the myth of rugged individuality still permeates our culture. The neglected family units cause the difficulties for young people attempting to transition to mount out of control. The family, especially protective parents, could shift their focus from having to self-educate with no resources, to crashing through the “gateways” the medical and governmental cultures set in their way. The parents have the experience to do so if they are allowed to express themselves and get true information about the processes. Having a child turn 16 does not stop a mother from caring about her child and the child should be encouraged to let the parent be involved, even if the parent is no longer in control.

I get the feeling that the suicide rate might go down if youths were not encouraged to take control of their lives without support the family could give. But the suicide and violent death rates are horrendous, so any help would be good. ( )
  Bidwell-Glaze | May 13, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book through LibraryThing Early Reviewers in exchange for my honest review of it.

At the Broken Places is a dual, mother-son memoir written by and about Mary Collins and her transgender son, Donald Collins. The dual-memoir framework of the story provided a unique viewpoint into the challenges faced by both Donald and Mary, as Donald navigated his coming out as transgender.

Donald's essays are at times heart-wrenching, but always very human, grounded, and engaging. He built a connection to me, the reader, and I was eager to continue learning about him and his journey. Mary's essays, however, left me feeling that she hasn't yet put enough distance between herself and the situations she is writing about to truly reflect upon them. She comes off as perpetually angry and continually rehashes her same gripes and feelings of victimization without adding any new information or insights. This, combined with the fact that her voice and perspective take up more space (physically and emotionally) within the book than her son's, left me wishing that Donald, rather than his mother, was the "driver" of the project or that the book was written only from Donald's perspective.

The interviews by Mary and Donald at the end of the book offer perspectives of other parents and children navigating similar situations to their own. Mary's interviews are lightly edited and, therefore, often difficult to follow; her interviews feel hasty and slap-dash, as if they are just copy-and-pasted from emails she received. Donald's interviews, however, are beautifully and empathetically written, with Donald taking extra care to treat his interviewees with respect and dignity and allow them space to tell their own stories in their own voices, while also providing context when necessary.

In the end, it was an interesting, if unbalanced, read offering a unique perspective on an important and timely topic. ( )
  SaraNoH | May 10, 2017 |
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We have few positive avenues for honest conversation.  Everyone digs in with hard-and-fast points of view.  We demonize each other.
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