Enjoying a book by Grace Lavery, tyrannical queen of Trans TwitterTM cancellation campaigns, was a surprising start to 2022. Lavery’s new Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis is an astoundingly nuanced and entertaining memoir, free of the ideological snootiness which gave rise to her online reputation. It begins with Lavery’s dick. Her focus, not mine. “My friends, I have solved my penis problem!” opens Please Miss. Spoilers: she hadn’t. What follows is a tale of sexual confusion and addiction, interspersed with literary and philosophical analysis.
Lavery, a tenured professor at the University of California, has a penchant for mixing the “high” and “low”—flipping between applied psychoanalytic theory to descriptions of facefucking. There’s plenty of fodder for amateur autogynephilic diagnosticians. Lavery’s take that “going to the bathroom is kind of sexy… At least, I have occasionally found it to be so” is bound to be plastered next to her pre-transition face and memed into oblivion by the Labrys flag brigade. I couldn’t care less why Lavery wishes to change symbolic sex, nor am I interested in critiquing her conceptualization of femininity (which tends to be of the ultra-mysterious Freudian “dark continent” variety).
Call it naïve sissy boy solidarity, but author Lavery (as opposed to Twitter Laverly) is tempered in her trans politics, capable of accepting moral and metaphysical ambiguities.
“I confess that I’m often unmoved by the science-oriented work that so many humanists love” she notes in Please Miss, “I often feel confused and bored, especially when biological imagery is used to normalize or contextualise the transsexual experience.”
Please Miss sits neatly within what’s been called the “second wave” of trans literature—most characterized by Andrea Long Chu, author of Females and the highly controversial essays On Liking Women and My New Vagina Won't Make Me Happy.
The second wave is unimpressed with “born the way” narratives of psychological identity copy/pasted from simplistic American-centric gay liberation movements. In answering the question whether she was a “trans child” Lavery wavers: “I am supposed to say, ‘I always knew’ when the truth is that I didn’t always know. I sometimes suspected; occasionally, I wished. I played intermittently, and sometimes I did know—sometimes I knew nothing else.”
For Lavery, trans desire exists without a definitive origin story, it’s a demanding urge to be reckoned with even if it can’t be fully intellectualized. Unlike other queer writers who seem solely satisfied with the free play of signifiers “beyond the binary”—The Real, in the sense of the horrifying hard limit of cultural signification, haunts Lavery’s reflections on her transition.
Estrogen ruins your boners, or at least it did for Lavery, who resorted first to Viagra, then to eroticizing the taint to keep things sexy. A brutal quip from a fellow transwoman, younger in age but older in transition, solidifies The Real in Please Miss: “Well, it’s chemical castration, honey, what do you expect!”
This is why Lavery’s penis is a focal point, it’s The Real which short circuits the task of (in the words of a possibly fictional doctor) “transforming the story of your body into the story of a woman’s body.”
Psychoanalyst Patricia Gherovici noted in her book Transgender Psychoanalysis that her trans patients often struggle with “a body that can fall from one’s self, like a wrapping that does not fully hold.” Struggling to find meaning in her member, Lavery seems desperate to find the suitable thread through which to quilt a body that is fully whole.
We get inspiration from chiseled jaw femme antagonists in pop culture including the fembots in Austin Powers and the Martian Lady from Mars Attacks, as well as the monstrous combination of natural and synthetic in Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors.
At times Lavery slips into a conventional “transsexual” narrative, where transition and bodily integrity are intimately entangled: “For me, I suppose, the dick is a mark of trauma” she writes, “it will change the way I think about bottom surgery. No longer a transformation, but the healing of a scar.”
Was this a moment of sincerity? It’s deliberately vague. The ultimate point is that the desire to transition is something without definitive solutions, a thesis that still needs working out. Transition is necessarily tragic, as trans scholar Jack Halberstam noted it’s “a desire for forms of embodiment that are necessarily impossible, yet deeply desired, all at once.”
Let’s pause this penis talk for a moment to talk about the clowns. Please Miss isn’t the standard “my journey” trans memoir or, it is, except the narrative is frequently interrupted by surrealist vignettes often involving maniacal clowns. We get horny Juggalos, a noir murder mystery, the short tale of “Cummy Simon Gets His Cum-Uppance” and John Wayne Gacy squirting water from a flower lapel. These little tangents were delightfully and wonderfully unnecessary, demonstrating Lavery’s adept as a fiction writer.
While enjoying these hilarious side adventures I couldn’t help contrast the delightful author of Please Miss from the notorious Twitter troll @graceelavery. I kept wondering who this humorous bon vivant was, and why she wasn’t in charge of her social media accounts. I was reminded of Lavery’s longstanding unhinged campaign against science journalist Jesse Singal and her utter glee at seeing academics pushed out of positions for their philosophical views.
Seemingly out of nowhere in Please Miss, Lavery comments on the perils of internet discourse, decrying the trend of “perfectly reasonable ideas snowballing into utterly, unreasonable ones, and unreasonable ideas snowballing into strategies of abuse.”
Who’s this person? Where has she been?
In a turn of events likely attributable to mischievous clowns, as I was writing this article with the temporary title Please Miss: Log Off, Lavery’s Twitter account was suspended for wishing death upon the Queen. I hope this gives Lavery, the author, time to orientate herself to more productive ventures.
With its genre-mashing absurd vignettes, detours into Lacanian theory and pages upon pages of dick talk, this book isn’t for everyone. Yet Please Miss is a powerful and refreshing take on the trans experience, from an academic I’d previously written off as too ideologically compromised.