BECOMING A MAN
The Story of a Transition
By P. Carl
About a year into living openly as a man, the artist P. Carl convalesced just a 15-minute walk from the House of the Wannsee Conference, where, in 1942, Nazi leaders plotted the extermination of European Jewry. By the time Carl’s memoir, “Becoming a Man,” winds its way to this setting — where “the sun sets pink and purple every evening” — its major theme has emerged: The weight of history is omnipresent.
On its surface, this is the story of one man’s awakening, at the age of 50, after living life visibly as a queer woman. The joy of fully embodied living blooms early in the narrative, through a list Carl keeps in his notepad: “shaving cream in a deep lather on my face, the blue of the pool at the gym, the bench press, the smell of my hair pomade that I got at a barbershop named Virile.” Yet this is also the story of Polly, the “P.” in P. Carl, who Carl says must be known, “as much as I will begrudge telling you, because Polly knows so much about Carl and vice versa.” Many of Polly’s flashbacks involve viscerally painful moments that, in another memoirist’s hands, might have overshadowed Carl’s themes. There are suicide attempts, nearly a dozen visits to a psych ward and several sexual assaults, one of which is so shocking it renders a character virtually unrecognizable, but Carl cuts from Polly’s trauma to discuss the larger issues that most concern his history with P., the ones most often stemming from misogyny.
One of the most striking effects of Carl’s “doubling” is the insight it offers into how difficult it is to be a good man. In one passage, Carl describes reveling in his newfound access to the patriarchy; after chatting with a Lyft driver who complains about his “woman,” Carl joins in, adding that his wife hasn’t worked in 10 years and then dismissing women’s rights altogether. That Carl has spent the greater part of his career as a women’s rights activist, and that he earned his Ph.D. in queer theory, imparts to the scene a sense of vertigo. How could this happen if Carl remembers Polly? “I don’t beat myself up about these exchanges,” Carl writes, explaining that it usually happens when he and his wife have been fighting. The wife in question is the writer Lynette D’Amico, to whom Carl writes a striking letter at the book’s center: “One thing we had in common was our disdain for asshole white men. … We have some white male friends. But we’ve never had a white man in our bed.”
The list of terrible white men in the book — anyone from Carl’s father to Brett Kavanaugh to Lindsey Graham to Nazis both past and present — offers examples of the kind of man one can become in a society engineered to protect white power at all costs. The book’s title, which at first glance sounds purely hopeful, begins to take on a foreboding tone, and the Wannsee Conference casts its long shadow.