‘My Brother’s Name is Jessica’ by John Boyne
I had no problem teaching my children to read pre-school or in nurturing their love of reading fiction. I was immensely proud of them, though I admit there was a large element of self-interest in encouraging them to early literacy. With a library at the end of our street, it was to prove a low cost and effective way of giving me a break from them, annoying little beasts that they were.
I quite liked reading the books written for their age groups before passing them on to one or other of them, as long as it was a good story that was well-written with believable characters and I didn’t have to constantly remind myself that whatever I was reading was written for youngsters, as I did with John Boyne’s latest offering. Although according to this interview, he claims not to write with a particular audience in mind, that just doesn’t ring true with this book which, of course, I only bought because people were calling for it to be boycotted. If there hadn’t been a fuss made about it, it wouldn’t have been on my radar and how depressing it is that the would-be censors of today have learned nothing from the past.
I recall Fay Weldon once saying that you should only write if you have “something to say”. At my very academic secondary school, many dreary hours were devoted to the task of working out what that something was. In contrast, it takes no effort to work out what John Boyne has to say but, alas, the mechanism used to deliver the message are one-dimensional characters mouthing improbable dialogue in implausible situations. The setting is supposedly present-day London but, were it not for the reference to Brexit, I would have guessed it was at least a decade ago before everyone with a public profile who dared to even question transgender ideology was afraid of losing their livelihoods and reputations.
The ‘Jessica’ of this story, is a 17-year-old called Jason, who comes from a privileged and stable background. Jason is popular at his co-ed school, a very talented footballer and – most remarkably – he speaks more like how a middle-aged English graduate writes than any teenager I’ve ever known, either in fiction or real life.
He has a girlfriend who betrays him, finishing their relationship when he confides that he’s “really a girl” and in no time at all everyone at his unconvincingly illiberal London school knows.
The narrator of Jason’s story is his adoring, dyslexic, bullied, young-for-his-age but equally articulate 13-year-old brother, Sam. Their mother, in spite of being a cabinet minister, comes across for most of the story as an idiot who knows nothing. The same goes for the father, whose comparatively limited input into the story reminded me of how Margaret Thatcher’s husband would look like a spare part next to her in public and how I used to wonder what he was for.
Jason’s parents and Sam are horrified when he breaks the news to them about what I suppose trans ideologues would call his “authentic self”, a period of conflict ensues and Jason leaves the family home to go and live with his indulgent and eccentric aunt, where he is free to become ‘Jessica’.
Although Jason is reasonably intelligent and should have been able to anticipate their reaction, he is also a typically selfish member of ‘Generation Z’ and it just doesn’t occur to him to wait until he is through his exams and being cosetted in one of those safe spaces laughingly known as a ‘university’ – and his mother ensconced at 10 Downing Street – before coming out as transgender, instead of doing so at the worst possible time for himself and everyone else. If only he’d waited, there would have been no story for John Boyne to tell and we would have been spared the excruciating final chapter where, in the tradition of all the dreariest fairy tales, we learn that everything has turned out perfectly, however far-fetched it seems.
So why were people calling for this book to be boycotted? I knew it had been called ‘transphobic’ but I avoided reading any detailed criticism or reviews until I had read the book and written all of the above. Then I searched Twitter. Inevitably, some of the criticisms are ridiculous. One that comes up over and over again is that the title of the book “misgenders” Jessica as the narrator’s brother. I’d say the title is the best thing about the book. It suggests – accurately as it turns out – that the story is narrated by the sibling of a boy who thinks he’s a girl and is bound to spark more interest than ‘My sister’s name is Jessica’.
Even sillier is the notion that John Boyne shouldn’t be writing about a trans person when he’s not trans himself. I’ve no doubt that writing a story about being transgender oneself, if one doesn’t have that first-person experience, would be difficult to get right, though if you’re a talented and empathic writer who does sufficient research, it should be as possible as writing about being a man if you’re a woman, about being gay if you’re straight, poor if you’re rich, old if you’re young, etc, etc. Think of all the great literature we’d be deprived of if we made it a condition that writers only write about characters created in their own image. The narrator of the story isn’t even a trans person, he’s the younger brother of one, which doesn’t sound like such a massive feat of imagination to me. And while I obviously agree with the criticism made by many reviewers that none of the characters ring true, I don’t think the little brother’s reaction to his adored older brother’s “coming out as trans” is unrealistic.
What those calling for the boycott of this book illustrate above all else is how the word ‘transphobic’ has become essentially meaningless. It has also become ineffective as a weapon brandished in an attempt to silence anyone who challenges the ideology and falsehoods promoted by trans activists. In Boyne’s case, this seems to amount to objecting to the prefix ‘cis’. The accusation of transphobia should be reserved for those who advocate and carry out discrimination and violence against trans-identified people. Most of those referred to as “transphobes” – including Boyne – don’t do that. In fact, Boyne is a self-declared supporter of the nebulous “trans community” and, as I said in my previous blog about him, he is so much in denial about the hatred, bigotry and violence promoted by so many of those who’ve adopted the ‘trans’ label, that he can’t bear to believe it’s true, in spite of the wealth of evidence.
That said, this is not a book I would give to any young person to read in today’s climate. Here’s why:
There is no discussion of ‘gender’ and what it actually means. What is it about masculinity that doesn’t sit right with Jason and why? Why can’t he just be a gender non-conforming man? What does he think it means to be a woman? We’re not told.
Note, Jason doesn’t merely wish he is a girl. He is “pretty sure” he is one. How, for crying out loud? The exploration of why this particular young man might believe he’s a young woman, if it takes place at all, does so during sessions with a therapist that readers aren’t privy to.
Jason is a fine strapping lad and star of the school football team yet he would cross-dress and experiment with make-up. His transgender identity seems to be all about his appearance, which sounds like a fetish to me and nothing to do with wanting the reality of women’s lives.
And, given that he is emphatically not gay and at an age when young men tend to be rather keen on the idea of sex, what are his expectations of future relationships? Does he expect to be as attractive to girls after becoming an approximation of one himself?
One of several glaring omissions in this book, by the way, is any mention of social media pressure, which figures very strongly in every story of teenage “transition” I’ve heard over the past few years.
Furthermore, there is no discussion of what medical “transitioning” involves and the long-term health risks. This is, in my opinion, highly irresponsible. The anecdotal evidence that many people – and not just very young people – are seeking and getting medical interventions without being fully aware of what it does to them is alarming.
I don’t recall any mention of the fact that gender dysphoria is not necessarily permanent and many teenagers get through it and become reconciled to being their biological sex. Nor is there any mention that some people of all ages live to regret their transition and end up detransitioning, some having already gone through irreversible physical changes.
The fact that transgender ideology is hurting and erasing women is completely disregarded. Is ‘Jessica’ going to someday crush some young woman’s dreams of sporting success by displacing her in a women’s football team?
This is a story that effectively promotes the false, offensive and dangerous notion that a girl can actually be born in a male body and Boyne seems to belong to that category of people who think that those who claim to be the other sex than the one they actually are should be indulged to the fullest. (And, yes, I know they call it ‘gender’ but gender and sex are conflated in this story as they are just about everywhere else). Boyne is squarely in the trans ideologues’ camp and any trans lobbyist who thinks otherwise and calls him transphobic is just daft.
I contend that for young people today, questioning one’s gender (whatever that means) is a fashion. It is a fact that the number of young people seeking to “transition” is higher than it’s ever been before. This should be sounding alarm bells but it seems that schools and youth groups, instead of trying to get to the truth of why this is happening are, on the advice of the transgender lobby, promoting the idea that positive affirmation is the only way to help them.
We really don’t need fiction-writers cashing in on the phenomenon and adding to the problem.
I’m not saying, by the way, that Boyne should have written the story differently. As with the awful ITV drama, Butterflies, which aired last year, I’m saying the story shouldn’t have been written at all.
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