Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Intersex Book Club: The Ticking (Renée French)

Hello, everyone! This book isn't specifically about intersex, but is definitely relatable to intersex people, or anyone born with physical traits deemed weird, shameful, and in need of "fixing."

I first read The Ticking, by Renée French at the first independent bookstore I ever went into - !!! - in Salt Lake City, where I was doing some work over the summer. I was in college, and had already disclosed my intersex status to my three closest female friends several years before. I was still about three years away, though, from encountering perspectives from other intersex people and organizations on the internet, proposing that intersex wasn't the bizarre medical condition everyone conceptualized it to be. That intersex bodies were good and healthy, and the problem wasn't that bodies like mine existed, but that society didn't accept or make room for them. At the time of reading The Ticking, I knew that I had a lot of confused feelings about what intersex really was, and what it meant in terms of my body, my biological sex, and my place in the world as a person who didn't really fit in, in one of the most basic ways humans are "supposed" to fit into the world.

I picked up this book by chance, in part because it had a soft, textured cover, and I liked the feel of it as much as I was intrigued by the little white figure with the box over its head. What could this be about? I opened the cover and found out.

The Ticking is the story of a young boy named Edison Steelhead who, for reasons that aren't initially clear in the book, has physical features (i.e., very wide-set eyes) deemed unacceptable by his father/the world they live in. Most of the book is comprised of highly detailed black-and-white illustrations (in a style that, interestingly, makes most of the images look fuzzy). In the first of the few words included in the book, Edison's father says, "You look like me...so we'll go away." Curiously, though, Edison's father does not, in fact, look like Edison. He has eyes that are set much closer together. Nevertheless, Edison's father takes him to a new home - the home his father grew up in - in a secluded area where Edison's eye form won't be seen by anyone else. Edison's mother died during childbirth, and is nearly absent from the book.

Edison grows up, and discovers a mask one day while playing outside. He tries it on, and it perfectly fits his wide-set eyes.

Edison, still wearing the mask, finds his father, and asks him if the mask was his own as a boy. His father does not answer, only replying, "Give it to me please."

The father takes Edison to a doctor one day, although Edison isn't sure why he needs to go to the doctor. The doctor takes a marker and makes a series of dotted lines on Edison's face, indicating to the father where his eyes will be located after the surgery Edison is evidently going to have.

Edison refuses to have the surgery, to his father's disappointment. In the meantime, the father has adopted a chimpanzee, referring to her as Edison's new sister, Patrice. He dresses her in human clothes and spends a lot of time with her, while becoming increasingly withdrawn from Edison.

In order to cope with the stressors of isolation from society and his father's non-acceptance of him, Edison spends more and more time cultivating a new skill - drawing. He illustrates many of the things around him, making sense of a world through drawing that cannot or will not make sense of him. He eventually moves away and becomes further estranged from his father, living in a hotel and making a living with his black-and-white pencil drawings. The rest of the book deals with how to live one's life with a body deemed abnormal by society, while living openly within that society with one's natural, physical form. The book also follows the relationship between Edison and his father, exploring the complexities between how you feel about someone and how these feelings translate into actions, and ultimately, life choices that permanently color a relationship's dynamics.

I couldn't help but feel super-emotional while reading this. While it's a more dramatic telling with the emotive illustrations, it felt true to life - being perceived as so freakishly different *does* feel that dramatic sometimes. Having the body you have *does* feel like it eclipses other aspects of your identity, and has already pre-determined what your life can and will be like in some senses. It is hard, and dark, and I found comfort in recognizing those larger-than-everything feelings in The Ticking.

I think I also related to it so much because of Edison's father's assumptions that these natural physical traits should be "fixed," to the extent of actually visiting a surgeon and planning procedures to make Edison "normal." There is a level of heartbreak in realizing just how Edison's father must have thought of his body by not only going through with surgery, but choosing it for his son as well. Edison's rejection of surgery and accepting the consequences of what his life would like look living openly with his body was inspiring to me, at a time when I was not at all sure if it was possible to accept your intersex and integrate it into your daily life in a not-a-big-deal way. Edison showed me that even if it didn't work out like that, it was worth trying to stay honest to yourself, even if that self is seen as flawed by everyone else. <3

Exploring how the relationship between Edison and his father change over time is also so relevant to intersex issues. Families often don't talk about intersex - what intersex bodies mean in terms of identity for the kids, how both parents and kids can learn more about intersex together, talking about why intersex is so stimatized by society and why this doesn't have to be so. Parents need to having conversations with their kids telling them they love them and accept them, not in spite of their intersex, but also because of it. Parents and kids need to work through prejudices and faulty assumptions about intersex and evolve in terms of accepting intersex as a natural, normal thing that's fine, and not as a yucky medical condition that needs to be monitored and policed and fixed, even if coming to hold those views takes time.

Edison and his father weren't having conversations like these. They became emotionally distant with the reality of the father's non-acceptance of his son. They didn't talk about and debate and try to understand each other's points of views and speak to those attitudes and opinions. They simply stopped talking. It's so easy for relationships to become strained between intersex kids and their parents because neither party knows how to talk about it, allowing for once-healthy relationships to fester. This isn't good. This inaction isn't acceptable. We owe our kids and ourselves better than that. Just because these conversations aren't easy doesn't mean we shouldn't have them.

In short, I love this book.

This book will always be shorthand for fairly universal experiences with regard to intersex. If you haven't yet checked out this book, I highly recommend doing so. :)

Australian Bill Passed! First Anti-Discrimination Bill in the World That Includes Intersex

It is an awesome day.