In his memoirs, Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness, and Becoming a Man
(2014), American author and amateur boxer Thomas Page McBee explores how two defining moments of trauma in his life influenced his journey to transition into a transgender man. For Man Alive
, McBee won the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Best Transgender Nonfiction.
The book opens in 2010 in Oakland when 29-year-old McBee still goes by his birth-name Page and is still a year away from starting injection therapy. (At this point, McBee has only had "top surgery" to remove his breasts). The book then flashes back to 1990 in Pittsburgh where McBee's mother learns that her husband, Roy—who McBee believes is his biological father—sexually molested the author five years earlier. McBee recalls the times in 1985 when "my father became a monster, and in 1990 when my mother found out he was one. 'Men,' she'd said then. And I'd learned to say it the same way, a lemon in my mouth." McBee explains how he coped with molestation: "I picked one tiny thing to look forward to and fixated on it. From his bedspread I jumped into tomorrow and felt the soccer ball connect with my foot and fly, high and sweet, into the corner of the net."
Growing up, McBee feels like a boy and sees himself as one, playing with He-man action figures, wearing his hair short, and tearing his jeans through rowdy play. When his father finally apologizes tearfully for molesting him as Page, McBee thinks, "Shut up shut up shut up
." Connecting the two formative traumas of his life, the narrative flashes forward to 2010 in Oakland where McBee mutters the same refrain
as a gun-toting mugger forces McBee to the ground along with his young female friend, Parker. Earlier, the mugger, George Huggins, had shot and killed a man named Jinghong Kang who was visiting the Bay Area for a job interview with Google. Notably, Huggins did not harm the woman accompanying Kang. It is likely that Huggins believes McBee is biologically a man until he hears his victim's feminine voice, at which point, he tells the author to run. McBee frames the two traumatic events—the molestation and the mugging—as mirror images of one other. In the first trauma, a man who is supposed to be a protector inflicts pain because the author is a female. In the second, a murderous man lets the author live for the same reason. McBee writes that the incident gave him "a new story where being female kept me safe."
The mugging incident sets McBee off on a journey to South Carolina where his father, Roy, grew up in an effort to learn what would cause a person to commit such a heinous crime against his own daughter. He visits Roy's very religious brother John, eager to learn if either he or Roy had been abused. Worried that John won't be forthcoming if he knows McBee is transgender, the author seeks to pass as a woman in conversation with him, an act that brings him an extraordinary amount of cognitive dissonance. Eventually, McBee begins to suspect that Roy is not his biological father, a suspicion he confirms when he requests a paternity test.
McBee returns to Oakland and marries Parker. He begins to consider testosterone treatments though he is unsure how Parker will react. McBee also attends the trial of Huggins where he is reminded of the moment when, at the age of 10, police officers ask if he wants to see his father go to prison. Huddled in his mother's arms, McBee answers, "no." While sitting in the courtroom in the present, McBee thinks to himself, "I imagined Roy doing sit-ups on a concrete floor next to an open toilet, and for the first time I found that I was glad not to have opted for retribution back when I was 10 and given the chance."
On their honeymoon in Mexico, McBee finally tells Parker about his plans to transition using testosterone therapy. Until that point, the trip had been fraught with confusion and hostility from many of the locals who gawked at McBee's flat chest and made bigoted comments in the hotel lobby. With tears in her eyes, Parker assures McBee that she wouldn't dream of trying to stop him from transitioning. Back in the states, McBee rechristens himself Thomas and travels with Parker to the East Coast where he plans to undergo injection treatments. On the way there, McBee decides to visit Roy at a tea shop in Bend, Oregon, presenting himself as Page. During their meeting, McBee is struck by how age has made Roy the vulnerable one, despite the fact that he is still the author's abuser. Roy talks about his own past abuse as a child, and how he lives with "the shame of [his abuse of Page] every day." In the spirit of forgiveness, McBee tells Roy, "Don't let your whole life be about this." As McBee says goodbye to Roy, he also says goodbye to Page, for this is the last time he will ever present as her.Man Alive
is a staggeringly powerful story of abuse, forgiveness, masculinity, and identity.