The story of “What Becomes You” combines two memoirs in one book. The first details the life of Aaron Raz Link, a scientist and self-identified “transsexual” gay man who grew up in a family of academics in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Link, who writes that he was raised as “Sarah,” describes the “unpleasant surprise of puberty” when it became “obvious someone had made a terrible mistake.” In high school, Link formed close friendships with a crew of queer, and for the most part, closeted schoolmates whom his adolescent perspective refers to bittersweetly as “monsters.”
He talks about what it was like to come out to his friends and family at 29 with the realization he had always been male, and deftly details the grueling and absurd process of qualifying for transitional surgery. He walks the reader through his initial euphoric experience of testosterone therapy, as well as the physical, emotional and relational impacts of multiple surgeries he underwent in his transitional journey. Along this path, Link worked in the social work sector, became a theater performer and did a one-year stint in clown school.
Throughout this memoir, Link blends humor with pain, while also providing a plethora of informative facts about the psychiatric and medicalized world that surrounds transitional surgery. The chapters float from past tense to present tense and could be read as a series of stand-alone essays. Some consist of chopped-up bits of medical text; some are written in the form of a letter.
Link’s work as a scientist make him especially good at relating the natural world into his perceptions of gender. When he reflects on his childhood fixation with taxonomy — the science of categorizing and naming things — Link writes: “Taxonomists are science’s dictionary writers, the invisible magicians of the mind. We invent the categories. Then everyone believes in them. We do too. People have to believe in something.”
Link also demonstrates that, even at an early age, gender was low-priority on his list of distinctions: “Everybody knew what the important categories were: They weren’t boy and girl, they were smart and stupid, popular and hated, kid and adult, alive and dead.”
The second memoir is written by Link’s mother, Hilda Raz, a feminist poet, nonfiction writer and former college professor. It is a more straightforward narrative that details her reaction to her child’s sex change and parallels the “loss of a daughter” with the Greek myth of Persephone, whose mother Demeter mourns the loss of her child every year when Persephone must travel to the underworld for the winter months. As a parent, I was intrigued to read this part of the book, though it ended up being the least interesting. Raz’s portion of the book has faced harsh criticism, mainly, in her choice to write about a marginalized experience from a place of privilege. Still, let’s be clear: Link and Raz were collaborators on this book.
Important to note: “What Becomes You” was originally published in 2007 and claims to be one of the first books to discuss the trans experience outside of “psychiatric or medical texts, confessional memoir, pornography, academic theory, or self-help and family support.” The new 2021 publication now includes a list of discussion questions that bring into context the change in social norms since “What Becomes You” first hit shelves.
One question addresses the language both authors use to describe trans people, and whether they would choose differently now. Another ponders the way any modern author chooses to write about a minority experience in a “shared world.” There are also fascinating questions posed about the use of two memoirs: what the different styles accomplish, where they fall short and how they work together as one book.
If anything, these discussion questions bring to light how quickly the rules change when it comes to identity, ownership of language and the art of storytelling. As any good memoir does, Link’s and Raz’s stories offer insight on a unique experience. But as any good author will tell you, once that experience is on the page, it’s perpetually transformed and up to interpretation from all.