Though much has been made of Detransition, Baby’s detransition-related content, (understandable, given its title) Torrey Peters’s debut novel is not the polemic that all the eagerly sensationalist readings out there would have you believe. It’s a book about relationships: why we form them, why we end them, and the cycles that doing either can produce. Peters invokes the act of detransition not to educate the reader on a politically fraught subject but rather to demonstrate how one might sever the ties that bind—in this case, how Ames, a detransitioned trans woman, manages to separate himself from Reese, his trans mom and longtime girlfriend, two dynamics he wants to bring to an end. Conversely, raising a child, whether a literal baby or a newly out trans girl, functions in the book as a way to bond people together. Detransition, Baby. Break, and rebuild.
My own friendship with the author of this novel has weathered similar tumult over the four or so years that I’ve known her. As with her book’s two trans woman leads, our relationship’s boundaries have frequently shifted and blurred, changing form when required. We began by engaging along explicitly hierarchical dynamics: elder and newbie, mentor and protégé, and for a time, most intimately, mother and daughter. We now stand on more equitable ground.
“After a while, I didn’t have anything else to show you,” she tells me on the couch of her Greenpoint apartment.
“How do you see me now?” I ask.
“You’re my compatriot.” She laughs. “I don’t know why I’m saying these weird words. My collaborator! My saboteur!”
There’s nothing inherently trans about this experience. People of all identities are known to form relationships, and relationships famously change over time. But there is something distinctly trans about the way it unfolded for Torrey and me, Reese and Ames, and countless other pairs of trans women. I leveled my life in pursuit of another with only an abstract idea of what it might look like to guide me. I turned to women like Torrey to help me see myself. She did, and eventually I saw her, too, beyond who I needed her to be for my sake.
“Trans women imparting knowledge to each other is really, really crucial to survival, but it’s also incredibly fraught,” she tells me. “It’s not like I think I’ve figured it out, or that ours is a model relationship. It’s not. I mean, we had hard times. But I feel emotionally we now see each other, eye to eye.”
• • •
Our first meeting was briefly chronicled in a recent profile by Vulture reporter Lila Shapiro, pegged to Detransition, Baby’s January release: “Confident and charismatic, Peters is the kind of woman who can inspire despair in others. Walker’s first thought on meeting her was ‘She’s so hot I want to jump off a cliff.’”
That was at musician and future Nymphowars host Macy Rodman’s 2017 album release party at Secret Project Robot in Brooklyn. I was there with another woman who also makes music and would also go on to host Nymphowars, Theda Hammel. Theda—the inspiration for Detransition, Baby’s Thalia, by the way—introduced me to her friend, Torrey, whose novellas and Instagram feed I’d long since devoured in awe. It’s true, as Shapiro wrote, that I despaired upon meeting her, but it wasn’t about anything as simple as her being hot. That reaction had more to do with meeting a trans woman who appeared to have mastered everything that I, a mere month on hormones, wasn’t even close to figuring out. Standing a foot in front of me, unclockable next to her cis girlfriend, Torrey embodied something I wanted for myself while simultaneously reminding me how far I was from it. I could feel that chasm widening with every word she spoke. Thankfully, I kept this insane, projected psychodrama to myself. As a reward for not weirding her out, I guess, she invited me to hang out in her backyard.
The backyard hang was a textbook example of what some, like PhD candidate Avery Everhart, have termed “reproductive labor” between trans women in the community. Torrey, the relative elder, invited me, the barely there mess, over to her backyard to regale me with her wisdom and tell me to read Susan Stryker’s Transgender History.
The occasion was very special for me—the author whose work I adored had requested an audience with me! Me! But for Torrey, the whole scenario felt all too familiar. To her, I was just another new girl in desperate need of her help.
“[Mothering girls like that] was something I did because I was hungry for it,” she tells me back at her apartment, across the street and down the block from the same backyard where she gave me and nearly a dozen other girls her “spiel” about being a trans woman, as she now calls it derisively. “There’s a power in meeting a young trans girl and knowing everything that’s going to happen to her. She thinks her transition is different and special and unique, but in reality it’s a boring, banal process. It’s a really powerful thing to tell someone what their life will look like. ‘This is what will happen in two months, this is what will happen in six months…’You look like a magician, but you’re not a magician. You just have the knowledge of the collective. So many of us have done it, and this is what it looks like when this happens.”
“Among the white girls I came up with, there was not a strong history of mothers teaching daughters about life after transition. It was sort of like, you transition then get a drinking problem or something,” she laughs. When that kind of knowledge was offered to her, it was often given in a belittling, “manipulative” way that established an imbalance of power premised on the giver’s purportedly unquestionable authority. “People who passed that information onto me were like, ‘You’re an idiot who doesn’t know anything!’ So, I turned around and met younger girls and said, ‘You’re an idiot who doesn’t know anything!’ It took me time to separate the approach from the actual knowledge I was imparting. I’m much more circumspect now.”
“Did you think I was an idiot?” I ask.
“Of course,” she says, laughing again. “But you were harder to read, which is probably why I was curious about you. I mean, I didn’t think you had it down.” She laughs again. “But you knew a bunch of cultural stuff I didn’t know. Like, you worked for MTV. One of the first times we hung out, you told me all about what music videos I should watch.”
She could have just stopped at “Of course.”
• • •
My favorite scene in Detransition, Baby occurs toward the end. I’ve refrained from discussing it publicly out of respect for everyone who hasn’t been reading various drafts of it for the past three years—a perk of being good friends with the author—and might not want its emotional climax spoiled before having had the chance to read it themselves. Very generous of me, I know. But my goodwill ends today! The book came out three months ago. I say this with love: You’ve had time.
In the scene, Reese visits New York’s Jacob Riis Park, the storied gay beach better known among locals as Riis Beach or simply Riis. Her attempt at queering the nuclear family has blown up in her face, leaving her terminally childless once again. She has always yearned to raise a child, but without a womb she can’t.
After escaping to a quieter part of the sands, away from the throngs of queers and all their radical nosiness, she realizes that the pain she is feeling is not just any pain. It’s grief. She is grieving a child—no, she is grieving her child. “I lost my baby,” she finally allows herself to admit. The narrator cuts in: “At what point, she wonders, does a mother go from wanting a child to wanting this child, her child?...Reese herself had always wanted to be a mother to a child, and yet, it is only now that she realizes that, without quite noticing, she wanted to be this mother, to that child. Attachments had formed that had almost nothing to do with identity.”
Reese has spent her life needing other people to be who she wants to be: the quietly permissive mothers who let her act like a girl, the controlling assholes and married men who made her feel like a woman, the rich techie ex who allowed her to consider motherhood, and now that same ex and his pregnant girlfriend back with a second chance at it. She needed these people to play their roles, but she honestly could have cast anyone. She didn’t need this married man to feel like a woman. Any faceless torso on Grindr could’ve done the job! Likewise, any baby could have made her a mother, but Reese no longer wants any baby. She wants this baby, the one she can no longer have. It is at this moment that she experiences a breakthrough, one that could help break her out of her usual pattern of building relationships with people not because of who they are but because of who they can let her be—a cycle of desire, sublimation, and toxic interdependence that Peters explores more explicitly with Ames and his history of dissociation during sex.
I haven’t had the best luck with relationships. I would like to say that this isn’t my fault, but sometimes it has been. I’ve devoted myself to those who don’t want me, ignored my gut instincts when blessed with slight affections—even sabotaged stable relationships because I craved something crazier! Do I even have to say it? I identify with Reese.
In particular, I sympathize with Reese’s habit of implicating others in her acts of self-creation. I, too, have hinged every part of myself on other people wanting me, so deeply and inadvisably that a breakup could feel like a referendum on my gender, myself, my intrinsic loveability. I’d like to blame this kind of behavior on some deeply trans trauma, but isn’t that just like a white woman: blaming everything but herself?
In the throes of one such breakup, I pulled that projected energy out of my newfound ex and rechanneled it all toward Torrey. Doing so nearly ended our friendship, as I discovered one morning when checking my inbox. “I want friendships that feel reciprocal.” She had written me in an email naming her concerns. “My role, in its way, feels to me, similar to a therapist, a mother, or to be honest, a sort of soft sexless boyfriend—someone who can be relied upon to countenance your moods, while not asserting my own. I resent this role and I would like it to change.” I validated her grievances and aired out my own. Reconciliation followed as did a new stage of our relationship, one in which neither of us needed me to need her.
• • •
Not long into our interview on her couch in Greenpoint, I realize my newly balayaged hair looks not dissimilar from Torrey’s blonde-streaked bob. I’d hit up my stylist for a post-breakup, brunette-to-blonde makeover a few days prior—a classic “white woman stress signal,” as the writer Jasmine Sanders once put it. I wanted to become someone new, someone who looked nothing like the regrettably banged, brown-haired woman my trans guy ex had treated with so little kindness. Wait. Dating shitty trans guys? Another thing Torrey did first.
How fine is the line between influence and imitation? The question is a complex one for me to consider in terms of how Torrey has shaped me as a writer, as a woman. It's one that Elena, the narrator of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, grapples with throughout My Brilliant Friend. Is she as clever as everyone at school tells her she is, or is she a pale imitation of her close friend, Lila, who ended her education once her family could no longer afford it? Are Elena’s beliefs and convictions her own, or are they Lila’s, repackaged and performed to build up her own standing? The Neapolitan Novels—another thing Torrey has been trying to get me to read for years! Though she wanted me to read them out of order, starting with book two. I stuck to the order in which the books were published. A brilliant display of base-level agency! I guess that’s influence, not imitation.
I have found our relationship, one of the most valued in my life, equal parts frustrating and enriching for all the ways it has challenged me. When I profiled Torrey for them. before we were close, she told me flat-out that she expected me to deliver an “anodyne” story, the kind of trans-empowerment narrative she’d rather not waste time reading. When I didn’t, she must have been impressed, or at the very least pleasantly surprised, and the two of us struck up a friendship. At the same time, she began to actively mentor me as a writer, often giving my work, especially that which concerned trans people and issues, a first-pass before I filed the draft to my editor. One such piece was a critique of the “trans first” narrative the media had thrust upon failed gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist. Torrey shared the article on Twitter, tweeting something about feeling “maternal pride” over what I’d written. It was the first time I’d seen her acknowledging this—the mother/daughter dynamic that defined our relationship for a while but that I felt would be too audacious to name first myself.
“I think you were the last person I tried this kind of relationship with where it actually went somewhere,” she tells me. “I don’t do it anymore because only people who are older than the figurative age of 23 in trans years are interesting to me. That would be weird to go up to a 23-year-old and be like, ‘I’m gonna be your mom.’ I mean, if they’re queers they’ve probably got mommy issues—which, great. But I’m not looking for mommy roleplay. I’m interested in peers and light mentorship.”
After all these years, I’m just interested in Torrey, whatever the hell she is to me.