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Crossing: A Memoir
By Deirdre McCloskey
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. $25.

Reviewed by Tracy McCabe

July/August 2000

In 1995, at age 52, Donald McCloskey--husband, father, and accomplished professor at the University of Iowa--had his gender epiphany: I am a woman. Before this, McCloskey had repressed this truth about herself, consciously identifying as a "heterosexual, crossdresser, tough-guy economist." After it, McCloskey began the arduous, exhilarating voyage of crossing over to the female gender.

Certainly becoming Deirdre, the woman she felt herself to be, involved many expensive alterations of her body through surgery, hormone therapy, and electrolysis. McCloskey also recounts the harrowing emotional process of coming out to her wife, children, and other family and friends. But what I found most fascinating about her book Crossing: A Memoir is her account of the social and psychological processes of learning to act like and be accepted as a woman. As Donald, McCloskey says, she had been a "guy's guy" both professionally and socially: competitive, egotistical, aggressive. This hyper-masculinity, she now says, was part of the armor of denial. Becoming a woman meant learning to tune into the emotional nuances of social interactions and to signify care and concern through gifts and help. The feature of womanhood that McCloskey finds most distinctive and moving, in fact, is the depth and significance of women's friendships with other women. She poignantly registers this discovery in the dedication of her book to well over 100 women who supported her on her journey. 

Of course, in recounting the differences in men's and women's styles, McCloskey might have demonized one and romanticized the other, but she avoids this by acknowledging throughout the many male colleagues who accepted, respected, and defended her as Deirdre. In fact, if there's a villain in the piece, it's McCloskey's sister, who in an attempt to halt her brother's self-transformation, led an effort to have McCloskey declared mentally ill.

McCloskey's memoir generally supports the idea that gender is a "social construct," a "performance" that we learn early and practice continually. One is not born female, McCloskey insists; rather "You become a woman by being treated as one of the tribe." But McCloskey also says she decided to become Deirdre when she realized she was, profoundly, female. Where does that sense of deep identity come from? McCloskey doesn't offer much self-psychoanalysis, nor does she cite biological theories. Instead, she invokes pragmatism: what does the origin of the feeling matter? She feels female, and she must honor this truth. She only asks that others respect it as well.

In part, I imagine, because McCloskey is an academic, she intersperses in her story some passionate and persuasive critiques of the "crossphobia" she en-counters among such groups as psychiatrists and separatist feminists. She pointedly debunks many myths about crossgendered people--that "gender crossing has to do with homosexuality"; that "it can be cured by psychiatrists or psychologists"; that male-to-female transsexuals are part of "a masculine conspiracy against women." But the memoir is no humorless consciousness-raising tract. McCloskey includes many of the funny, awkward moments that marked her crossing, such as the time when, as Deirdre, she tells a potential employer, "I'm your man!"

McCloskey places her life story and her desire to recount it in a larger historical context when she notes that

in the 1950s, a lot of people were keeping secrets, personal and state: the obedient wives, the hidden handicapped, the closeted homosexuals, the silenced socialists, the blacks under Jim Crow. After the liberation and talk that followed they are no longer disgraceful Others or pathetic victims, or merely invisibles . . . but people whose stories are heard and talked about and might even be imagined as one's own.
Seen in this light, McCloskey's book succeeds. The story of her crossing is fascinating, but the ultimate impact of her memoir lies in the voice itself. Honest, intelligent, and witty, it powerfully conveys: "I, like you, am human."

Tracy McCabe, a member of the North Shore Unitarian Church, teaches at Lake Forest College near Chicago.

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