McBee, Thomas. “Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man”, City Lights, 2014.
Understanding the Past, Making Way for the Future
”Man Alive” is Thomas McBee’s memoir of what it took to make him a man. He begins with his trauma of childhood and moves on to a mugging in Oakland, California where he learned that the body has the ability to save itself. The memoir combines forgiveness and self-discovery but most of all it is the writer’s views of love. As we read, it is as if McBee has picked us up and taken us into his own world and shows us what it takes to become a man. Let me just state early on that this is an important book for me personally as my nephew transitioned from female to male and I, the gay uncle, had the hardest time understanding it all. McBee has gel;per me see things more clearly.
The book is not a typical memoir but it will probably be considered one. I see it rather as a look at the limits of cultural understandings of nonfiction and of transgender storytelling. It is definitely nonfiction and creatively so. By creative I mean that McBee’s structure is at the core of what he has written. The book is composed of very short chapters and in them he writes of a scene or so or a memory and these end right when the reader wants to know more. Want we get is fragmentation in a sense and it is through these fragments that we become aware of two main events that dominate his life— his father’s abuse when he was a child and a meeting with a mugger that almost ended his life. By using this approach, writer shows that things that happened apart in time become so important in the story of his life. His prose is almost poetic and each word seems to be especially chosen to deliver the desired effect.
While McBee writes about his life, he focuses on his late twenties. This was when he began to understand the abuse of his father and when he accepted the fact that he was a man that will go through gender transition. It is also then that he was able to deal with his mugger. He writes with control about something that is not easily controlled. The fact that he is a trans person is constantly there; he constantly questions the nature of his physical body. He thinks about his transition as it is part of other happenings and can ever be secondary to other events. The book is really about what Charles Aznavour sings so beautifully about, “What makes a man”? McBee dares to write about uncertainty and the physical is subjected to the emotional. In answering that very question, McBee looks at the men who have influenced his life—his father and the mugger who threatened to kill him. As he decides to transition from female to male, he attempts to understand these two men as examples of manhood in his life.
I love that this personal story is also a universal story. To face a struggle like this requires us to take risks. Let’s look at the event with the mugger: It was in April, 2010 when McBee and his ex were held up at gunpoint and he was held execution style on the ground. He had not yet transitioned but he did look male. The mugger was unsure of what he wanted—they had no money. McBee was certain that he was going to die—the mugger was focused on him. McBee says that he left his body and as soon as he said something the mugger let them go and even told them to run.
Later on there was a similar incident with the same mugger and different people and this time the mugger took a life. It seemed that the way he operated was to stop couples and murder the man. McBee who not yet transitioned or even taking testosterone spoke up and his voice was of a female. This is why he was not shot.
McBee’s father’s abuse provided him with a “toxic association with masculinity”. Yet McBee was unable to deal with the idea that all men are negative bases upon those experiences. “I couldn’t live out my own gender based on people around me. I thought to myself, What I really need to do is find a way to be the kind of man that I know I can be. Almost as soon as that happened, I started seeing a lot of men who were positive and honest. My eyes opened up a lot more. It’s not that I have a Pollyannaish relationship with men now, but I do feel like I had a very uncomplicated dynamic with men and now it’s much more complicated and I see a lot more beauty there. We don’t see it as masculine when men are empathetic, and I think that’s a thing that’s worth examining in our selves.”
Today,” Thomas Page McBee is a “masculinity expert” for VICE and writes the column “Self-Made Man” for the Rumpus. His essays and reportage have appeared in the New York Times, TheAtlantic.com, Salon, and Buzzfeed, where he is a regular contributor on gender issues. An early version of Man Alive won the Mary Tanenbaum nonfiction award from the San Francisco Foundation and was a finalist for the 2012 Bakeless literary prize administered by Graywolf and Breadloaf. Thomas has given lectures about masculinity and media narratives at colleges across the country, and spent five years as the writer-in-residence at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts in San Francisco. He is the managing editor of the crowdsourced news and analysis site PolicyMic, and lives in Brooklyn”.
Here is what other critics are saying”
Kirkus Reviews *starred review*
“[A] unique, powerful rite-of-passage memoir. . . . This is quite a story, masterfully rendered.”
“Thomas Page McBee is a man of astonishingly strong character, full of empathy and dynamism. Man Alive isn’t a simple memoir; it is a culmination of, as much as it is a springboard into, a manhood that proves to be in the greatest sense alive.”
Lambda Literary Review
“Like jazz. Compelling. Vivid. Dramatic. One would be hard pressed to find better words to describe McBee’s tale … Man Alive doesn’t just offer the reader insight into the creative nonfiction genre, but into trans storytelling as well.”
“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.”
“McBee takes us in his capable hands and shows us what it takes to become a man who is gloriously, gloriously alive.”