I stopped counting the times I filled a cup of coffee and got a piece of chocolate to sit down and try to write about “Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis” by Grace Lavery. The moments contained in it are both intense and whimsical, and at times it feels weird to even call it a book, let alone a memoir. Lavery refers to her book as an “experience.”
Dr. Lavery describes her transition and recovery process as nonlinear, and the book similarly ventures down a winding, nonlinear path. At a recent bookstore event, she mentioned that she wrote the entire book on the notes app of her phone; a little bit here, a little bit there. This is why it only felt natural to me to write this review in an unconventional way. I wrote this by using the voice-to-text function on my computer, attempting to best understand her work.
A professor at UC Berkeley, Lavery’s lived experiences inform her writing. At times the book can be difficult to make sense of — in the same way that life often shies away from easy explanations. The book is a mosaic of thoughts about the becoming of a trans person and the beauty of embracing and experiencing one’s own femininity. Her remarks about questioning sexual pleasure through her penis feel like something that is new, beautifully mindbreaking, and empowering. Yes, she does not shy away from sensitive topics, which is why her writing is authentic. While Dr. Lavery concludes “I want to be a woman, of course I don’t want a hard dick, for fuck’s sake,” she also acknowledes “I can absolutely affirm, celebrate, and delight in my sisters who have been able to develop more subtle relationships with their dick.”
She is writing about a penis that is not dick and a cunt that is not a vagina — she directs them linguistically rather than anatomically. It was at that moment that I found myself relating to her. The ever so often discussed topic of trans people and genitalia seems brand new when Dr. Lavery shines her sarcastic, yet fiercely honest light on it. Her satirical analysis seems refreshing and empowering for a genderqueer person like myself.
Lavery finds empowering words for people of trans experiences. She writes, “trans life is wild and joyous and sometimes you just cry at a friend at the surprising possibility of it all, for hours, and that is your Saturday.”
I felt very connected with her when she described the day she started hormonal treatment, sitting in the car with her partner. Her doctor advised her to wait and go to a sperm bank first, but she refused as she did not want to wait any longer. And so she writes, “I unscrewed the bottles, removed 50ml of spironolactone and 2ml of estradiol, and swallowed both right there in the passenger seat of Danny’s old Honda, Kate Bush on the stereo and tears in my eyes.”
The perceived need of justifying your identity as a trans person is hard enough, so “Please Miss” does not strive to be another book about transitioning or justifying your existence. This book is about the multilayered identity of Dr. Grace Lavery, a person who cares about great old literature as much as she cares about Doctor Who.
Her anecdotes to popular culture — including Mars Attacks and The Little Shop of Horrors — were easy to understand. There is, for example, the murderous scene from Mars Attacks in which a Martian Girl kills the White House Press Secretary. Dr. Lavery wrote, “The death of Jerry Ross was the first successful action of the trans femme revolution; the Martian Girl’s death at the hands of the American State our first infamous defeat.” However, Lavery also borrows from the ideas of grand philosophers such as Theodor Adorno, which may require the reader to do some homework.
One of the throughlines of the book are the letters that Dr. Lavery receives from an ominous clown, which serve, perhaps inevitably, as a metaphor that does not reveal itself. The letters are usually hateful and transphobic, as well as misogynistic — the clown, for example, accuses trans people of taking up too much space in conversations about our society. When Lavery described the clown at a recent event at Harvard Bookstore, she said “The clown is everything. It is the centerpiece of how we think about the world today. The clown is gender dysphoria, me, them, Britishness, everything.”
Dr. Lavery stated that she specifically chose not to write a memoir, because memoirs are usually pieces of redemption. After reading the book twice through, watching Dr. Lavery speak on Zoom, and writing five drafts of this review, I concluded that the best way of making sense of this book is to acknowledge that this book often does not make sense, and it doesn’t intend to. The book is a collection of thoughts jotted down on an iPhone while taking a train ride from A-Z. It is about the fun of trans experiences and the joy of unconventionality.
As I come full circle reviewing this book, I realize that by questioning what this book is, I have learned a big lesson. “Please Miss” is the perfect metaphor for trans existence. The validity of the memoir may be questioned as often as the identity of a trans person; for no particular reason. The book is a lesson of self-love and self-hate, of friendship and family, and why there’s no better way to start hormonal therapy than in a Honda, taking in the soundtrack of Kate Bush.