“I did not recognize the word ‘transgender’ as it sprang from my daughter’s lips; she came out to me in our kitchen during her final year of high school,” writes a seemingly composed Mary Collins, the mother in At the Broken Places. Her trans son, Donald, remembers the tone of their “earliest conversations” differently: “‘It’s like you’re asking me to be in the room when you shoot yourself,’ she said, weeping.”
These types of conflicting perspectives are at the heart of At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick up the Pieces, a series of essays in which co-authors Mary Collins and her son Donald Collins discuss their often-opposing feelings about Donald’s transition. But that’s the point. In staging a sort of intertextual mediation, At the Broken Places lets us join a family as they attempt to reopen their lines of communication. “This book represents the neutral territory we created,” writes Mary, “where we call back and forth to each other about things that nearly destroyed us.”
It had always been just the two of them — mother and daughter. The switch to mother and son challenged the dynamic of their relationship. In their individual essays that make up At the Broken Places, Mary and Donald recount how the estrangement grew with each stage of Donald’s transition. They take turns narrating the events that shattered their family’s intimacy and accord. Child comes out. Parent responds with hesitancy. Child changes names and pronouns. Parent feels hurt and excluded. Child resents parent’s mistrust and interference.
This pattern repeats with each succeeding stage of transitioning — style choices, hormone therapy, surgeries — until the two are so distant that they rarely speak and hardly recognize one another. Theirs is a tragic example of how miscommunication and lack of empathy can suffocate a once healthy relationship.
The essays in At the Broken Places are vividly self-reflective. Mary’s skill as a creative writing professor and author is evidenced by polished and scenic prose. Donald’s essays, on the other hand, have a casual, conversational tone. He strikes a balance between quippiness and vulnerability that easily wins over readers.
The difference in their writing styles helps us understand how Donald inhabits a very different headspace from his mother. While Mary’s concerns are about the past and the sadness she feels in being pressured to abandon her memories of and former-hopes for her “daughter”, Donald is a future-looking, savvy navigator of the quickly-shifting frontier of identity politics.
In the past two decades, there have been a number of titles addressing transgender lives, histories, theories, and medical/psychological issues. Some have taught parents wishing to understand their child. Others have taught transgender individuals on how to come out to family and communities. At the Broken Places feels like it wants to, as Mary puts it, provide the type of book she “needed as a parent but never found.” Donald, too, hopes that “someone, somewhere, can find [this book] in a library — or put it in theirs — and feel that much less alone.”
But At the Broken Places ends up being more illustrative than instructive. Despite Mary’s efforts to define and label a “middle space” where clashing family members can really connect, it becomes increasingly clear that these essays are only almost in conversation with each other. Had Mary and Donald written actual letters to one another, their reactions and responses would have been more likely to yield the empathy and interpersonal growth desired by both parties.
Instead, these essays are static. Mary and Donald address the same topics and themes, but they both spend more time appealing to the reader than to each other. This creates a reading experience not unlike an awkward dinner party at the home of a determinedly passive-aggressive family, e.g., Dear reader, will you please tell Donald that I do not wish to tacitly condone his choice to malign his body. Dear reader, will you kindly let my mother know that I sometimes find it difficult to empathize with her grief, as it comes at the expense of my identity and personhood?
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places,” writes Earnest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms — undoubtedly the source of At the Broken Places’s title. It feels like a nice gesture to title a book about familial reconciliation after this inspirational excerpt. The problem, though, is that someone seems to be under the delusion that Hemingway was a believer in justice and the transcendence of the human spirit. The full passage continues, “If people bring so much courage to this world, the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them.”
Then again, the self-awareness in At the Broken Places seems to acknowledge its own limitations. Donald writes, “I don’t think it would be fair to say, ‘We did it; so can you!’ That’s not what this book is about. A fairer summary would go something like, ‘We barely did it; here’s what we learned.’”
This book is a window into a complicated parent/child relationship. It doesn’t seek to instruct. It merely seeks to open up that vulnerable space between the broken places, in hopes that eventually something good will come from maintaining a pretense of connection. So perhaps the bastardized Hemingway quotation is more appropriate than not.