Cover image for Man alive : a true story of violence, forgiveness and becoming a man
Man alive : a true story of violence, forgiveness and becoming a man
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172 pages ; 21 cm.
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What does it really mean to be a man? Thomas Page McBee attempts to answer that question by focusing on two of the men who most impacted his life--one, his otherwise ordinary father who abused him as a child, and the other, a mugger who threatened his life and then released him in an odd moment of mercy. Standing at the brink of the life-changing decision to transition from female to male, McBee seeks to understand these examples of flawed manhood as he cobbles together his own identity.


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Book 306.768 MCB 1 1
Book 306.768 MCB 1 1

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Winner - Best Transgender Nonfiction - 2015 Lambda Literary Awards

Best Books of 2014 - Publishers Weekly

Best Books of 2014 - NPR Books

Best Nonficton Books of 2014 - Kirkus Reviews

10 Best Transgender Non-Fiction Books - Advocate

"Thomas Page McBee's Man Alive hurtled through my life. I read it in a matter of hours. It's a confession, it's a poem, it's a time warp, it's a brilliant work of art. I bow down to McBee--his humility, his sense of humor, his insightfulness, his structural deftness, his ability to put into words what is often said but rarely, with such visceral clarity and beauty, communicated."--Heidi Julavits, author of The Vanishers and The Uses of Enchantment

What does it really mean to be a man?

In Man Alive, Thomas Page McBee attempts to answer that question by focusing on two of the men who most impacted his life&mash;one, his otherwise ordinary father who abused him as a child, and the other, a mugger who almost killed him. Standing at the brink of the life-changing decision to transition from female to male, McBee seeks to understand these examples of flawed manhood and tells us how a brush with violence sent him on the quest to untangle a sinister past, and freed him to become the man he was meant to be.

Man Alive engages an extraordinary personal story to tell a universal one--how we all struggle to create ourselves, and how this struggle often requires risks. Far from a transgender transition tell-all, Man Alive grapples with the larger questions of legacy and forgiveness, love and violence, agency and invisibility.

Praise for Man Alive:

"Man Alive is a sweet, tender hurt of a memoir ... about forgiveness and self-discovery, but mostly it's about love, so much love. McBee takes us in his capable hands and shows us what it takes to become a man who is gloriously, gloriously alive."--Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist and An Untamed State

"Thomas Page McBee's story of how he came to claim both his past and his future is by turns despairing and hopeful, exceptional and relatable. To read it is to witness the birth of a fuller, truer self. I loved this book."--Ann Friedman, columnist, New York Magazine

"'Whoever's child I am, my body belongs to me,' McBee writes, and his book is an elegant, generous transcription of the journey toward this incandescent, non-aggrandized, life-sustaining form of self-possession--the kind that emanates from dispossession, rather than running from it."--Maggie Nelson, author of Bluets and The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

"Well aware that memory and identity rarely follow a linear path, Thomas Page McBee attempts to answer the question, 'What does it really mean to be a man?' Weaving past and present to do so, the book's journey connects violence, masculinity and forgiveness. McBee has an intelligent heart, and it beats in every sentence of this gorgeous book."--Saeed Jones, author of Prelude to Bruise

"Exquisitely written and bristling with emotion, this important book reminds us of how much vulnerability and violence inheres to any identity. A real achievement of form and narrative."--Jack Halberstam, author of The Queer Art of Failure

Author Notes

Thomas Page McBee writes the column "Self-Made Man" for The Rumpus , and his writings on gender have appeared in The New York Times and via, VICE , BuzzFeed , and Salon . Thomas gives lectures on masculinity and media narratives across the country. He lives in New York City.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

McBee, a columnist for the Rumpus, begins this remarkable memoir by juxtaposing two painful events in his life-a mugging in Oakland, and his childhood revelation to his mother of his father's abuse. These recollections propel the author on a quest of discovery and reconciliation, not just of his personal history and the men who injured him, but on the nature of masculinity, both cultural and biological, as he approaches his own female-to-male gender transition. In taut, careful prose that conveys both brutal awareness and unceasing wonder, McBee captures the tension of his transition, "the warble between the shape in my mind and the one in the mirror," "the assault of language" in simple use of pronouns, the fraught everyday choices of which swimsuit to wear, which public restroom to use. In the end, McBee's answer to the initial question of "what makes a man?" is more generous, more inspiring, and more creative than the usual gender binaries allow. Full of bravery and clear, far-sighted compassion and devoid of sentiment, victimization, and cliché, McBee's meditations bring him a hard-won sense of self-one that is bound to inspire any reader who has struggled with internal dissonance. Agent: Chris Tomasino, Tomasino Agency. (Nov.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

WHAT MAKES A MAN? We know it's not quite enough to be born one. It never has been, really: In America, manhood has long been bound up in aspiration, a thing more ideological than biological. Thomas Page McBee has made this his study for two years in Self-Made Man, his online column for The Rumpus. While alluding to the idea of manhood as something built from the ground up, the column's title also provides a literal description of its author - a transgender man whose exploration of masculinity has been fascinated, personal, compulsory. In "Man Alive," his new autobiography, McBee enlarges the study from a series of vignettes into a full, poetic narrative. "There are the facts of what happened," he writes, but, like a body, "the story is in parts." The book splices these parts together, intercutting at the start between the two defining traumas of McBee's life: his molestation as a child by his father, and his being held at gunpoint at the age of 29. Against these two mirrored examples of male violence is set the quieter, underlying trauma of growing up trans in a culture that has no language to discuss it and only a limited capacity to understand it. All contribute, in their way, to "the split: how I lost a body." For McBee, a physical transition is part of the work of reclaiming the lost body. But first he must understand how violence fits into the male equation, using as his case studies two men who set out to do one thing but did the opposite: The protector who abused him, and the killer who let him live. In "Man Alive," everything eventually faces its double. During the mugging, McBee's would-be murderer hears the sound of his victim's voice and sets him free, giving him "a new story where being female kept me safe." The sense of life regained gives him the courage to confront his earlier suffering, the story in which being female laid him open to harm. McBee sets out to research his father's history, only to learn, in an entirely different sense, what he already knew: Biology isn't everything. It "wouldn't erase my scars," he writes, "and it didn't cause them." By the time a paternity test reveals that his abuser is not his biological father, those scars have taken on a second, physical aspect - the scars of a body in transition, running "like smiles" across the chest of "a body I was just beginning to love." Of course, this body comes with a new set of problems. Becoming male means struggling to navigate a sudden privilege. "Now that you're a guy," his girlfriend points out, "talking about yourself all the time means something different." But sometimes talking is the only way to hit on the right words. As he fumbles to make sense of his story, McBee is both nonexistent, "an invisible man," and multiple: "I crossed the lawn, trying to pass as someone not passing as a man." The tendency of language to fail us at our most vulnerable is exposed to him early, and never loses its sting. When a therapist describes his early abuse as "hurt," he is thrown by the sheer wrongness of the word. "All of these adults," he writes, "missing the language, missing me." In light of this, the act of writing could amount to a kind of revenge. But empathy, instead, is McBee's objective, the most important part of becoming real in one's own eyes. "Being human," he concludes, "means being at the mercy of others." That's a part of aspiration, too. We are born human; with hard work, we achieve humanity. HENRY GIARDINA has written for The New Yorker online, New York magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books and other publications.

Kirkus Review

The transgender author delivers a unique, powerful rite-of-passage memoir. Plenty of writers have written about the experience of making the transition from one gender to another, but most haven't also dealt with child molestation, paternity issues and a mugging by a man who would soon commit murdernot to mention a partner who has mixed feelings about the author's becoming a man. Resisting the inclination to sensationalize (or sentimentalize), McBee interweaves the various strands of the narrative, exercising plenty of restraint. The first section alternates between the author as a 10-year-old girl wrestling with sending a man to prison, and the mugging almost two decades later, when the author (who, still female, could pass for a man) is attacked with her partner by a stranger who would soon make headlines for another crime. In each case, there's a theme of forgiveness, a quality of mercy that does not seem strained. "The world seemed to me a place of beautiful, damaged things and I wanted to love them all," explains the author early on. Whether his fatheror the mugger, for that matteraffected his attitude toward men in general and his decision, with deep ambivalence, to live a life after 30 as a transgender man isn't subject to pat psychology here. Instead, the author writes in matter-of-fact detail about the tension and love shared with a fiancee and about self-discovery pilgrimages to explore bloodlines and paternity. "The world is vicious and beautiful and, to some extent, unexplainable," writes the author. "But that doesn't stop us from wanting a story." This is quite a story, masterfully rendered. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.



Prologue South Carolina August 2010/29 years old What makes a man? It's not that I haven't studied them: their sinew, their slang, their violence; but before I was held at gunpoint in Oakland on a cold April day, I couldn't have told you. A real man, a family man, the Marlboro man, man up. The man in the mirror. I loved that Michael Jackson song, growing up. Used to forget my girl-hips, used to sing it to my best imagination of myself. That question -- What makes a man? -- is what ultimately led me to my father's hometown in hot-damp South Carolina. The story starts there because I could no longer afford to leave it alone, to let it rear up every few years, when I'd had too much to drink and it was just me and my reflection and my hungry ghosts. And so I steered my rental with my cap pulled low. I had that passing swagger, scars like smiles across my chest, a body like a unicorn, a body brutalized, a body I was just beginning to love. But the story also begins the night I almost died, back in April. And it begins in 1985, when my father became a monster, and in 1990 when my mom found out and announced as much. "Men," she'd said. I'd learned to say it the same way, a lemon in my mouth. In South Carolina I could smell it through my open window: alligators and secrets; the embers of Sherman's march, the Klu Kux Klan, my father's farm, burning. It smelled like my animal fear and the spicy deodorant I used to cover it. Men, I'd thought with that old curdle, but I already knew my body was shifting. In fact that's why I was there. A good man is hard to find. In South Carolina, the windshield blurred; the road was inky, the rain biblical. The cheap motel off the highway seemed like not such a hot idea after I passed my fifth gun-racked pick-up, but there wasn't any turning back. Once a body is in motion, it stays in motion. My mom's a physicist; she told me that. The truth is, this story's a ghost story. No, this is an adventure story. This is an adventure story about how to quit being a ghost. I: Freeze 2. Oakland April 2010/29 years old Here's what you need to know about Parker: she hummed with something you and I don't have, this magic that vibrated her long strides, her quick-wit, her dressings-down. Though softened by Southern manners, her mood could turn sharp as a knife's edge, and it wasn't too hard to find yourself on the sticking side of it. I'd seen her make a cat-caller wither and call a real dick of a roommate a piece of shit, repeatedly, until it seemed he just sort of disappeared, his stuff packed and gone within the month. It was like loving a hurricane. Tonight she was wound-up and freckled, the plastic bag with a new pair of shoes tossed over her shoulder. We'd spent the day in San Francisco, bumming around and eating veggie burritos and seeing a play neither of us cared for about three generations of women--it was always three generations of women--and I felt tired and safe in a way I'd come to associate with a sense of home. Parker was excitable, swinging her shoe bag as we left the Macarthur BART station, holding forth on the problematic and complicated nature of associating women with domesticity in narrative. She was in her French New Wave phase, and it suited her: short hair, shirts thick with nautical stripes. She looked like Jean Seberg in Breathless, her blue eyes big as saucers -- assessing, though beneath that, a kindness so clear it was almost painful. I squeezed her hand and she startled into holding my gaze. "What?" she asked. It made sense to me that she'd want to protect that softness, though I'd never been good at guarding my own. I didn't say any of this, of course. I shook my head, and she smiled at me. Six years in, she knew. Mostly, she was a smart ass. "I have an opinion on everything," she'd say. "Whales?" I'd ask. "Love them! Key to the ecosystem; smart." I'd try to think of the most innocuous, boring subject. "Row houses?" "Depressing in brick, cute in wood." I wished I was half as engaged, cutting through space so freckled and powerful, owning the sidewalk or the turnstile or the barstool. Parker also had strong opinions about walking home so late, and I knew why: our friend who discovered a man under her bed, our friend who was bound to a chair during a home invasion, our friend that got punched in the face in broad daylight for no good reason. Crime in the Bay felt off-kilter, dark and secret. I'd never admit to Parker how often I'd bristled at the sound of footsteps on Market, or shrunk back from meth heads wheeling with their wild bodies down Castro. I was the one who leapt first. I couldn't afford to be afraid and I thought that meant being fearless. So we walked tonight, even though it was the worst kind of foggy: you could breathe it in, feel it stick. I pulled my collar up, my hat down, my hood on. We walked because she was in a good mood, because we were broke, and mostly because I'd convinced her to. We started down 40th, and I ignored my twitchy heart, stayed smug, walked tall. If I'd learned anything since I was a kid, it was that if I wanted my life to start, I needed to show up for it. Foolish, maybe, but I'd peacock through a warzone before I'd admit that twitch. 3. Pittsburgh 1990 /10 years old "You can tell me anything," Mom said, her eyes wide, a flush creeping up her neck. 1985-1990. Her cursive was bubbly, effervescent, recording everything I said. The dates, she said, were for her records. I told her, then, about Dad's fingers in the pool, in the car on the way to her brother's funeral, Sunday afternoons when she left for the grocery store and he parked Ellie and Scott in front of the television, when he knew no one would come for me. Ellie and Scott and I were each two years apart but it seemed we lived in three different houses then, with three different Moms and Dads, each of us seeing a different angle, each of us in separate, abutting childhoods. Mine was chocolate milk, science fairs, camping, and the rituals that kept Dad's hot breath distinct from the rest of it. I sat on the floor of the closet and threw shoes at the wall. I ran like a deer through the woods behind my house. I picked one tiny thing to look forward to and I shut my eyes at the worst moments. From his bedspread I jumped into the future and saw myself kicking the ball, high and sweet, into the corner of the net. There are the facts of what happened, but the story is in parts. It is still hard to capture the salty terror of the worst of it, the freeze, the split: how I lost a body, or how I conflated the two ways my body was lost to me. I was born female, that's a fact. It's true that I saw myself as a boy but it wasn't until much later that the complex fact of my body needled at me. Later, people would say that my manhood was also always there, blueprinted in my scrappy jeans, my He-Man castle, my short hair. Maybe, but in an effort to be lifelike, let's not make this the kind of story where I know all the answers. What you need to know is that afterwards I'd read a book in my bathtub, and my little legs, hands, torso would return to me eventually, and that was what it meant to be alive: clean and immersed in a library book I could make sense of, breathing in the sharp smell of soap, touching the warm boundary of my skin to the scratchy bottom of the tub. I didn't tell Mom about this ritual, intuiting that to do so would encourage the cloak of guilt to hood her eyes, making her spooky and deaf to me. I never felt lonely when I had the damp pages of Great Expectations and the sharp smell of white soap to keep me company, but I couldn't expect anyone to understand the good chill that rushed through me when Dickens hit me hard, the way my body spangled back to life when I saw myself in Pip's tragic, romantic hope. She called me Pip for years, but I never knew if we saw the same resemblance. Though I couldn't explain it in elementary school, my hands pruned and my heart thundering from the heat, I admired his dogged faith, even in failure. I liked that he believed in something. Years later, after my transition, she'd call me "sweet boy" once, uncharacteristically, and I'd realize that maybe the similarity was as simple as that.. Either way, mostly I left out the bathtub because I didn't want her to go mix herself a strong screwdriver and leave the lamp off in the failing light. Instead, I allowed the translation to go forward in blue ink, sheaths of paper stacked neatly into a folder she said she'd use to ensure that we were never wanting. We were sinking into bankruptcy, and she wanted to keep him tethered to us. I didn't understand it then, but this was her best vigilante justice, protecting us financially by hanging the threat of this story over him: it wasn't my story but my silence that would keep me, all of us, alive. "Just tell me the truth," she'd said but I knew even then that most people don't mean that so I didn't tell her about the day in the living room, the way I retched, the terrible taste of him and the way I washed my mouth with soap and water but never got clean. I stared out the window into the trees beside our house, my knees scratched and pulsating in a stinging drone. In 10 years, I'll be okay, I promised myself each night now. Ten years seemed impossibly far away, double my lifetime, but something to hitch my hope to. My heart felt strung up in my chest. Panic tsunamied through me whenever I met Mom's eyes: she looked like a stranger. Beyond her, the house felt tilted and too bright. I'd had a life of poetry and swim meets despite my father's searching hands, and now I wasn't sure what, exactly, I'd lost. "I hate him," she announced, startling me out of the gauzey silence. I nodded, but didn't respond. I couldn't explain to either of us why I didn't. A part of me fluttered away, and I just let it go. "Try to remember the first time it happened," I heard her say, her voice business-like, the same as if she were quizzing me ahead of a math test. "You can tell me anything," she added again, softening her tone. I couldn't help but think of the photographs I'd taken all summer of sticky stray dogs with matted fur and scabbed noses. The world seemed to me a place of beautiful, terrible things and I wanted to love them all. Women later touched my face too gently if I told this sort of story, as if I was some kind of miracle, as if it is not the definition of heartbreak to lose everything but faith. I fiddled with my shoelaces and met my mom's gaze. I felt movement in my ragged chest, a whole flock gearing up to depart. I let myself go. "I was four," I began. "At the old house." I sounded like someone else. Excerpted from Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man by Thomas Page McBee All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.