A Woman but Not, A Father but Not

Detransition, Baby: A Novel

Trans women are juvenile elephants. We are much stronger and more powerful than we understand. We are fifteen thousand pounds of muscle and bone forged from rage and trauma…With our strength, we can destroy each other with ease. But we are a lost generation.

Reese is a trans woman with a deep desire to become a mother. Amy was Reese’s girlfriend before she detransitioned to Ames and got his boss and lover, Katrina, pregnant. Now, Ames is proposing all three can raise the child together in an unconventional family. What happens next is a muddy unraveling for all of the characters, putting their imperfections and vulnerability on fascinating full display.

Detransition, Baby. By Torrey Peters. One World. 2021. Hardcover.

How did I get the book?

This was another title that I picked up on my last trip to Bank Square Books. I had been excited about it coming out since last year but wanted to make sure to purchase it from an indie.

You can purchase the book for yourself here and support independent bookstores, as well!

What did I think?

Peters gives an unfiltered, unforgiving depiction of a trans community that is rarely recognized in mainstream spaces despite “straight people [now] talking about Drag Race the way they used to talk about Survivor.” The picture isn’t always pretty, painted with funerals and frustration at every turn. Reese and her friends feel grateful that they have survived older generations of trans women who died of HIV, poverty, suicide, and repression and now experience the “Sex and the City problem” like their cis compatriots (i.e. women can have a partner, a career, a baby, or a means of artistic expression, but no combination thereof), but they’re also angry and lost, knowing being transgender is too often seen as a disease or a state of failure. These feelings boil over in almost all of Reese’s interactions. She tries to find affirmation in her womanhood by dating cis men who treat her in stereotypically female ways, but is annoyed by how they are always married, using her to cheat and explore. She struggles with knowing that she can pass for a cis woman with other cis women but will never do so in trans circles, alongside admitting she hates people with money that make transitioning look easy and would rather be jealous of than attracted to another trans woman (“At least jealousy is the kind of personality flaw you can work on”). She resents the fact that “no matter how you self-identify ultimately, chances are that you succumb to becoming what the world treats you as.”

What Reese wants to be, however, is a mother, imagining that it is a position where one is “never truly alone.” To some extent, Reese has experienced motherhood in helping trans girls transition, including Amy, “a daughter whom Reese had raised…with all the strange dynamics in power that entails, the dynamics that are so confusingly sexy and painful and satisfying and awkward that the rest of society has an incest taboo to avoid them.” But this is not the same as what Reese’s “mom-crushes” have as they are able to carry babies in the way her body will never allow. They are women who have a certain thrill/risk each time they have sex because it might result in something more, a feeling that Reese tries to replicate in taking PrEP pills like birth control. They are also the women she knows she will have to rely on in order to have a baby but that she doesn’t want to share with or take one from. “It's not considered natural when I say that my biological clock is ticking,” Reese explains, “because I'm not granted a biological clock in the first place.” But alas, this is how she feels.

By contrast, Ames is more conflated by the idea of parenthood, especially fatherhood, not certain of what the distinction is but knowing there is one. Katrina is also mixed up in her feelings (perhaps because Ames’s reaction to the pregnancy was akin to “[getting] dinner reservations somewhere you thought you couldn't get on short notice”). The entanglment of these characters and their feelings only become more complicated as they consider raising the child together. “Reese respects many genders, but doesn't respect Ames's current gender at all,” whereas Ames still feels something for Reese “in a way that talking about her, thinking about her, remains dangerous to indulge in—as an alcoholic can't think too much about how much she'd really like just one drink.” But Ames loves Katrina, too, even though they never say it to one another. As the three of them explore the possibility of raising a child and Reese and Katrina get to know one another, they also develop their own relationship during which Reese experiences some of the most intimate moments of her life in sharing Katrina’s pregnancy. The triad pulls the reader into their fluxuating drama, showing that even when “they are together…[they are] miles from each other, their thoughts turning to themselves, then turning to the baby, each in her own way contemplating how her tenuous rendition of womanhood has become dependent upon the existence of this little person, who is not yet, and yet may not be.”

Final Verdict?

🌟 4.75/5 — Excellent

Roxane Gay’s Goodreads review of this novel is much stronger (and concise) than anything I can pull off. I also happen to largely agree with her. There are moments in the novel when Peters dives into the backstories of characters—particularly Reese and Ames—that can feel over-indulgent, such as remembering their Midwestern upbringings where all of the food was brown (“meat and potatoes and gravy and beige carpeting and instant coffee and grease-darkened oak tables”), or the early days of Reese and Ames’s courtship, comparing their first texts to breathplay, “a tiny suffocation veering toward death between every blip of dopamine-bestowing communication.” There is also quite a bit of sex, and while it’s nice to see moments of joy in what is often a sea of loneliness, I at times questioned how much was serving the book and how much was the writer just stretching her muscles.

However, this point is quite easy to overlook when you get caught up in the prose’s perfect rawness. The free indirect discourse creates a voice totally unafraid to state the uncomfortable: that sometimes a man hitting a woman is not about injury but rather to show her something, that people don’t choose whom they want to fuck but rather from the pool of those wanting to fuck them, that the nature of having a butt means being curious of having something inside of it. This is particularly true when readers are allowed close to Reese and watch her try to convince herself that relationships with cis men are just flings in order to never dive super deep while also admitting that so much of having sex is rooted in controlling her own impression of herself that she often forgets to desire her partner. “Just give me enough of yourself to put me in touch with the part of me that can believe I'm a girl,” she wishes of the men who objectify her genitals in a way that confusingly turns her on as she finds herself wanting a dining set like her friends but only in order to have bruising sex on it, perhaps secretly afraid to want anything more, if at all. It’s brutal. It’s beautiful. It’s everything and more. Read, read, read!

Beyond the book.

Torrey Peters had a really fascinating conversation with Curtis Sittenfeld back in January hosted by Books Are Magic that you can now watch online where she discusses her writing process as well as some of the authors that inspired the novel. You can also hear her reading from the book here. Plus, if you end up enjoying this as much as I did, I suggest checking out Peters’ other books: The Masker and Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones.

See you again soon!

Rachel x