Brugman, Alyssa. 2015. Alex as Well. New York: Henry Holt.
First published in Australia in 2013, the U.S. release of Alex as Well has been met with accolades from Lambda Literary and others. I have a vastly different opinion. Spoilers below.
Alex is 14 years old and has decided to stop taking her medication. For as long as she can remember, she has known she is a girl, despite her parents telling her that she is a boy and that her genitals are just a little different. She quits her all-boy’s school, buys new clothes, and enrolls in a different school to start her new journey.
Her parents are unhappy with these decisions and call her a pervert. Her mother screams at her and rolls around on the floor. Despite her terrible home life, Alex is thriving at school. She has girlfriends for the first time and has been picked to participate in the school fashion show. However, she needs to provide a birth certificate to the school, so she finds a lawyer to help her.
As the lawyer works on her case, some unsettling history comes to light. Alex is intersex, and her parents decided to try and make her into a boy. They concealed her intersex status and gave her medication to encourage masculine characteristics. As Alex comes to the realization that her parents have been lying to her and invalidating her gender identity for her entire life, her parents’ abuse increases to horrifying levels. Her lawyer helps her escape and she is emancipated and relatively happy by the end of the book.
Sounds like a pretty empowering narrative, right? Too bad the author doesn’t seem to know anything about intersex people or gender variance. Let me break down the problematic aspects of this book:
- In the first chapter and a few more times throughout the book, when Alex dresses up in pretty clothes and makeup, she stands in front of her mirror and is sexually aroused by her own appearance. The author is resorting to a very tired stereotype formed by a psychologist in the 1980s: autogynephilia, the paraphilic model that states that non-heterosexual trans women are just cross-dressing men with a misdirected fetish. Scientist and trans activist Julia Serano tackles this erroneous quackery in this excellent article. While many adolescents experiment with visual stimulation during masturbation, choosing to include multiple scenes of a trans girl masturbating while looking at herself in the mirror is poor representation.
- Alex’s internal dialogue is confusing and strange. She has a “boy Alex” and a “girl Alex” talking to her in her head. It’s the “boy Alex” that masturbates while looking at the “girl Alex” in the mirror. This is another inaccurate portrayal of gender transition. Trans girls are girls, full stop. It would have been interesting, perhaps, if Alex identified as bigender, but she doesn’t. The tendency for Alex to refer to herself as “we” and talk back and forth in her head makes it seem like she may have Dissociative Identity Disorder. However, it seems unlikely that Brugman intended Alex to have DID, and if she did, surely there would have been more emphasis on neurodivergence. No, this is just another example of trans-ignorant representation, and, frankly, poor writing.
- The book is riddled with erroneous details about Alex’s intersex status. A reader new to the topic will come away thinking that intersex people are dosed with sex hormones from early childhood, when in fact, many intersex people do not require hormone therapy, and when they do it’s typically to initiate puberty. See the Intersex Society of North America’s great FAQ on intersex conditions here. From the descriptions of Alex’s body (functioning ovaries with an enlarged clitoris and no vagina), it’s clear that her condition is Progestin Induced Virilization. It’s true that in some cases, parents will raise a child with this condition as a boy. However, there would be no medical need for testosterone therapy in early childhood. If anything, a child with this condition would be put on hormone blockers until a decision was reached at the appropriate time for pubertal development. So the multiple scenes of the mother hiding testosterone pills in food, as well as the flashbacks of the mother rubbing testosterone lotion on Alex when she was sleeping as a young child are mystifyingly inaccurate.
My concern with this stereotypical and factually incorrect representation of an intersex transgender person is that it will hurt actual intersex and transgender people. Young intersex and/or transgender people might come away from this book feeling even more stigmatized. And cisgender and sexually typical people might come away from this book believing that intersex people are automatically transgender, that trans girls and women have a cross-dressing fetish, and that hormone treatment is standard for intersex children.
After finishing this book I wondered why on earth the author chose this topic. I located an article she wrote for The Guardian in which she explains why it was appropriate for her to write about an intersex person. She says, “We need established writers who already have an audience to cut a path for writers in these communities to start representing themselves.” The hubris in this statement is breathtaking. Intersex people have been representing themselves just fine without her, a fact she would have known had she consulted Google.
If you are a librarian and have included this book in your collection, please consider also including more nuanced viewpoints from intersex and trans women authors, or at least authors who spoke to intersex people in order to represent them more accurately.
If you are considering reading this book, be aware that there is a lot of potentially triggering content, including physical, mental, and medical abuse from parents and physical and verbal bullying from peers.