“Reese almost had it all: a loving relationship with Amy, an apartment in New York City, a job she didn’t hate. She had scraped together what previous generations of trans women could only dream of: a life of mundane, bourgeois comforts. The only thing missing was a child. But then her girlfriend, Amy, detransitioned and became Ames, and everything fell apart. Now Reese is caught in a self-destructive pattern: avoiding her loneliness by sleeping with married men.
Ames isn’t happy either. He thought detransitioning to live as a man would make life easier, but that decision cost him his relationship with Reese—and losing her meant losing his only family. Even though their romance is over, he longs to find a way back to her. When Ames’s boss and lover, Katrina, reveals that she’s pregnant with his baby—and that she’s not sure whether she wants to keep it—Ames wonders if this is the chance he’s been waiting for. Could the three of them form some kind of unconventional family—and raise the baby together?
This provocative debut is about what happens at the emotional, messy, vulnerable corners of womanhood that platitudes and good intentions can’t reach. Torrey Peters brilliantly and fearlessly navigates the most dangerous taboos around gender, sex, and relationships, gifting us a thrillingly original, witty, and deeply moving novel.” – blurb from the publisher.
I read this book because it was spoken of highly by trans women friends who were discussing it in a group chat channel. Some of them expressed that they wouldn’t recommend it to a cis person or that they’d be nervous to see how a cis person would react to it. Also, when I was talking to one of these friends about The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, she said that Detransition, Baby and The Bell Jar felt similar to her in that both novels express ideas that you’d otherwise only ever hear in support groups or group therapy settings. Naturally that all made me very curious.
There’s definitely value in this book regardless of whether you’re cis or trans. Most people in general aren’t exposed to many trans narratives, especially not many that go beyond suffering porn or sensationalism. And as my trans friends put it, Peters “is legitimately challenging so many facets of trans culture without being transphobic. It feels like everyone is given room to doubt or dislike aspects of the community, their experience, their identity, or culture without it ever feeling like it delegitimizes transness or the feelings they had.”
If you’re looking for a book with trans protagonists that isn’t about transness, though, this isn’t it. Transness is deeply central to every major plotline in Detransition, Baby.
Reading Detransition, Baby is the longest period of sustained effort and time I’ve spent engaging with a trans narrative. That feels sad. I’ve watched Pose and Transparent, but both of those shows have storylines with non-trans characters; plus, reading feels to me like more effort than watching. I don’t know off the top of my head of any other trans-centered narratives (novels, memoirs, essays, etc), but if you have recommendations please let me know in the comments.
Detransition, Baby was a pretty emotionally difficult read most of the time, both in terms of the characters experiencing a good deal of suffering and in the amount of self-examination it prompted about perceptions of my own and others’ gender, internalized misogyny, bias, womanhood, etc. There’s a striking part of the book that talks about Reese’s experience with aggressive boyfriends and the “gendering work” of nonconsensual violence. In that section of the book and in several others, Peters skillfully portrays the duality of situations that are unhealthy, dangerous, self-destructive, and/or otherwise problematic while still being something that the character involved feels is desirable or necessary for them in some way. As one of my trans friends pointed out, these dualities laid bare, and the corresponding commentary on about societal forces on individual subconscious, are one of the primary aspects of this book that some cis people might not be ready to understand depending on their prior experience with feminist and trans issues.
I asked one of my trans friends about what she thought of the portrayal of trans community in this book. She expressed that a lot of the takes on culture and community would ring more true for older trans people and those living in hubs like NYC; trans youth today are more able to form communities outside of big cities and more ready to ditch normative trends in gender expression. My friend’s commentary here made sense as to why a lot of the characterization felt pretty similar to some of the cultural ground covered in Pose, which focuses largely on trans women in the late 80s and is also set in NYC. It’s also worth noting that despite the narrative focus of Detransition, Baby being on Reese and Amy/Ames, who are both white, Peters’s writing is pretty thoroughly intersectional, frequently acknowledging the different kinds of problems white trans women have from black and brown trans women.
As a woman who doesn’t want children, Detransition, Baby is interesting to read because of how much importance all three of the main characters seem to place on the creation of children in demonstrating, validating, or challenging gender. I did get mildly irritated at a passage in the book that reads “Reese rolls her eyes. Cis women are always complaining about the burden of their reproductive ability, while secretly cherishing it. Hysterectomies are widely available, but even women who don’t want children aren’t exactly lining up to get them.” It’s just factually false that hysterectomies are widely available–ask any uterus-having person who has tried to broach the subject with their doctor. Literally every time I go to a gynecologist, someone mentions “when you eventually decide to have children” etc. Further, Hysterectomies aren’t risk-free. It can be daunting to put your health in jeopardy in exchange for a guarantee of no children when hormonal birth control is less invasive. I certainly don’t “secretly cherish” my reproductive ability, it’s just dangerous and expensive to shut it off.
When I was trying to flesh out my thoughts about Detransition, Baby for this review, I struggled at first with the idea that it is somehow inherently regressive or insensitive to have criticisms of this book because it’s written by and is about people from a deeply marginalized and oppressed group. It was hard to think about critiquing the writing without feeling like I’m somehow also critiquing the populations that are represented in it or like I only have criticisms about the writing because of some kind of internalized bias against the subject matter. I talked myself out of that fallacy, though. If this book was instead a story I was being told by a friend who was just trying to communicate emotions and elicit solidarity and my response to them included opinions about how the story could have been improved if they had told it differently, then yes, that would be assholeish, insensitive, you name it. But Detransition, Baby is a book, a published novel written by an author with an MFA, even, and it’s doing the author a disservice to not engage with this book as I would a novel by an author with any other background.
That said, I have some thoughts on the writing. The writing chokes on all its diversions and gives the book a stuttering pace where nearly every scene, past or present, is interrupted by tangentially-related vignettes that are full of superfluous details that are never relevant again. A relatively unintrusive example of this is Reese’s “mango units of sadness,” where we’re pulled out of the scene where Amy asks Reese if she had been to Williamsburg lately when Amy already knows the answer to that question after literally the first word of dialogue. This diversion only lasts about a relatively short paragraph, but these kinds of digressions happen constantly. It feels like Peters is procrastinating the meat of her scenes, and it drags down the pacing. There are exceptions to this, like the Wim Hof explanation toward the end of the book. That digression was done well and contributed meaningfully to the rest of the chapter that followed, carrying the emotions of the scenes to greater poignancy. Unfortunately, the frequency of the more ‘throwaway’-type digressions weakens the impact of the good ones, because there are so many and they’re so infrequently important that by two-thirds of the way through the book I learned to speed my way through those paragraphs so I wouldn’t get sleepy.
I was also thinking about the writing in terms of the old “show, don’t tell” maxim. That maxim is largely predicated on the notion that showing should be enough for readers to assume or surmise the same information they would have received from telling, but with more vivid detail and immersion than if the thing had simply been summarized. Peters certainly does a lot of telling, but I think in a lot of ways it’s often justified. Much of her audience wouldn’t have the same context as she did in writing it, so she can’t count on the audience to come to the conclusions she wants to convey via bare details about actions in the physical world, especially because so much of gender is so wrapped up in social, cultural, and individual psychology.
Special thanks to kind and patient friends who fielded my questions and allowed me to reference their thoughts in this discussion!