DuBois, Denise Chantrelle. “Self-Made Woman: A Memoir”, (Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiography), University of Wisconsin Press, 2017.
I chose to use only one word to entitle this review simply because it connotes an ongoing practice. I do not believe that we ever finish “becoming” and every day that we are alive, we “become” a little more. I think this is especially true for gay people and trans people since we never come out just once. Every time we meet someone new, we must decide whether or when to come out to them or not.
Denise Chantrelle DuBois had a rough time transition from Dennis to who she is today. She was born in Milwaukee to a working class Polish American family. He father was domineering and in the 1960s when she was growing up, the idea of gender conformity had not yet but something to speak open about especially in a neighborhood where people worked in order to survive. There was very little money in Denise’s family and there would have been no compassion for a boy who wanted to be a girl back then. Throughout school, Denise faced bullies and teasing and when she got home, the sense of deprivation was so strong that she rarely felt good about herself. She tells us, “For decades I kept Denise in the closet. Then I kept Dennis in the closet”. We can only imagine how terrified she was and she fought that by resorting to alcoholism, drug dealing and addiction and these often led to dangerous sex and eventually to prison time. She barreled from Wisconsin to California, Oregon, Canada, Costa Rica, New York, Bangkok, and Hawaii in search of some kind of peace. Somehow she managed to survive. When she was finally able to accept herself as a woman, things changed but it was a long and arduous road to get to that point.
Now that trans people are receiving the acceptance they deserve, there are a tremendous number of books about self-acceptance and transitioning and the theme always seems to be the same—- the person who was born into the wrong body and gender and who has to struggle to find the true self. In the last year, I read many but I must say that Denise’s book really got to me and had me turning pages as quickly as possible. I think that is because it is so brutally honest and so filled with both pain and joy. Yes, it is a book about transformation but it is also a book about survival. Sometimes we have to go through terrible pain to reach happiness and we see that so clearly and powerfully here. We often forget that in order to make peace with the future, we must also confront the past and that is what Denise does so beautifully here. Denise also happens to be a fine writer whose story I will not likely forget anytime soon.