Thomas Page McBee's meditation on masculinity

by Charlotte Grimshaw / 08 August, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - McBee

Thomas Page McBee.

A slim book provides a subtle and moving account of the making of a good man.

What does it mean to be a man? In his memoir, Man Alive, American author Thomas Page McBee reports from the front lines. To say he has an advantage as an explorer of gender roles, having navigated the terrain from both sides, doesn’t quite cover it, since his account illuminates just how complex gender and sexuality really are. Gender presents not as a rigid choice between “one or the other” but as a set of characteristics, as unique as the thing we call personality. In addition, there are as many subtleties to sexuality as there are to personality.

One of the most interesting questions raised, although not expressly answered in the memoir, is the extent to which environment is influential. Since experience shapes personality, it must to some extent shape sexuality too.

McBee was born a girl, but grew up feeling “not like a girl”. He matured into a gay woman, but this didn’t seem enough and he decided to transition to being male when he was 30. Man Alive is a lucid, wistful, sometimes comic memoir of his progress through surgery and testosterone treatment.

As he contemplates his future as a man and considers what that means, his story becomes a meditation on masculinity and what defines maleness.

McBee explores two episodes of serious male violence in his life: the first when he was sexually abused as a child; the second when he was robbed at gunpoint and believed he was going to be killed.

His description of these experiences is restrained, dignified and humane. Since it’s depicted as formative, the reader may wonder whether the sexual abuse by the man McBee thought was his father in any way shaped the development of his gender identity – and also, nervously, whether it’s okay to ask.

It’s possible to imagine resistance to the question, since we all want to focus on choice and freedom, not to characterise our life decisions as the result of environmental damage. Does McBee’s decision to embrace masculinity in some part involve a justified desire for mastery over that potentially malign and violent force, maleness?

Man Alive is a slim book, made larger by the fascinating questions it raises. McBee’s tone is extraordinarily civilised and benign. It’s a subtle and moving account: how violence shaped a good man.

MAN ALIVE, by Thomas Page McBee (Allen & Unwin, $22.99)

This article was first published in the July 22, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


March of the Algorithms: Who’s at the wheel in the age of the machine?
102434 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Tech

March of the Algorithms: Who’s at the wheel in the…

by Jenny Nicholls

Complacently relying on algorithms can lead us over a cliff – literally, in the case of car navigation systems.

Read more
IBM’s new quantum computer: The future of computing
102458 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Tech

IBM’s new quantum computer: The future of computin…

by Peter Griffin

The Q System One, as IBM calls it, doesn’t look like any conventional computer and it certainly doesn’t act like one.

Read more
James Shaw: Capital gains tax key to fixing wealth gap
102456 2019-02-15 14:54:45Z Politics

James Shaw: Capital gains tax key to fixing wealth…

by RNZ

The week before a major tax report is released, Green Party co-leader James Shaw has again challenged his government partners to back the tax.

Read more
Jealousy, murder and lies: The killing of Arishma Chand
102448 2019-02-15 10:28:12Z Crime

Jealousy, murder and lies: The killing of Arishma…

by Anneke Smith

Arishma Chand was just 24 when she was murdered.

Read more
Top wine picks from Central Otago
102233 2019-02-15 00:00:00Z Wine

Top wine picks from Central Otago

by Michael Cooper

Tucked into small corners, Central Otago vineyards offer nuggets worth digging for. Wine critic Michael Coopers offers his top picks.

Read more
Ivanka and her tower of crumbs
102404 2019-02-14 10:33:12Z Arts

Ivanka and her tower of crumbs

by Preminda Jacob

For two hours each evening, an Ivanka Trump lookalike has been vacuuming a hot pink carpet at the Flashpoint Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Read more
Youth mental health is in crisis and NZ is failing to keep up
102393 2019-02-14 09:52:16Z Social issues

Youth mental health is in crisis and NZ is failing…

by The Listener

The introduction of a free youth mental-health pilot for Porirua, and later the wider region, is welcome news, but it's far too little, far too late.

Read more
Guyon Espiner: Year of delivery begins in defensive crouch
102387 2019-02-14 09:21:07Z Politics

Guyon Espiner: Year of delivery begins in defensiv…

by Guyon Espiner

For a government promising 'a year of delivery' it has begun in something of a defensive crouch.

Read more