When She Became He: A Change for Good
Cape Catley, $27.99,
When I worked as a publisher a well-worn line about New Zealand autobiographies was that only All Blacks and politicians could sell enough to make one viable. It was a line I confess I used myself to deal with the plethora of such works from ageing folk feeling the desire to record their unique life experience. I’m not sure John Thorp’s autobiography will be filling the Cape Catley coffers, but it is heartening to know some presses are prepared to publish books that contribute to our society rather than their bank account. The reverse could be said of most All Black and political autobiographies.
A Change for Good is the story of Thorp, probably New Zealand’s first female-to-male surgical transsexual. I say probably because the secrecy until very recently cloaking the lives of our queer, bisexual and transgender citizens ensures this part of our history, and many of its participants, remains in the public closet.
John Thorp was born Josephine Thorp in 1927. An only child, her years of a confused adolescence coincided with WWII, forcing her evacuation from London, long periods of billeting with strangers and, it seems, the inevitable breakdown of her parents’ marriage. While all this sounds bleak, the freedom and drama of those years – riding bikes all over the countryside, getting into scrapes, meeting Italian POWs, hiding in bomb shelters and staying out late at night – is recounted with a kind of Blytonesque thrill. Jo was a “masculine” girl, often mistaken for a boy in public, called upon by the teachers for heavy lifting (!), and never short of a dance partner at her all girls’ school. So far, so George.
After the war came university and study for a PhD in special chemistry (yes, Thorp had always been into science, mechanics, trains, Meccano…). She met and formed a relationship with fellow student Mandy, and for 10 years they attempted to live a respectable life. At the end of the doomed relationship, Jo found herself chemistry lecturer at Guy’s Hospital London, professionally successful but personally in deep crisis.
Enter the most remarkable character in this book: Joan (we don’t know her surname) was 42, married to a successful businessman and mother of five. Somehow, in that heightened, oblique, mysterious manner of such things, Joan and Jo found each other and communicated their love despite all the barriers. John Thorp makes a good fist of describing that period of crazy, passionate, hopeless love. And he clearly adored Joan for the many decades they were to be together. But the major disappointment of this book is the lack of any deconstruction of Joan’s experience. Here was a woman with all the trappings of a successful, middle-class British life in the post-war years – who walked away from it all to make a lasting relationship with someone of indeterminate gender, 14 years her junior, and on the brink of suicide.
Maybe her marriage was already on the rocks. And maybe because her eldest son had left home and the next two were well on their way, she felt her maternal obligations were waning. But maternal love doesn’t evaporate when children grow up, and she risked never seeing them – or the younger two – again. Thorp says: “Joan must have missed her children. If she felt guilt she never spoke of it. We lived for each day, thankful to be together, supporting each other with deep love.”
The couple (Joan, too, was a teacher) faced ongoing hounding and discrimination if they lived together as two women. So when Jo read about female-to-male sex change surgery she immediately saw it as the answer. But there is slight muddiness surrounding the motivations behind this decision. Thorp writes:
It was not that I wanted male sexual apparatus, but I felt my female gender to be quite contrary and inappropriate to my innermost soul. That part of my being that was my true self, my mind, my very spirit, had felt male to me from an early age.
That’s in keeping with many accounts of surgical transsexuals and other assertions through the book. But in the preface he says: “This story is unique since my change in sex was forced by social prejudice.”
Right there is the burning question I’m left with at the end of John Thorp’s extraordinary story. How much of that drastic decision was the result of prejudice, and how much because he really was “a man trapped in a woman’s body”? If the latter, then we as a society can do no more than support and embrace those courageous enough to undergo drastic surgery in order to harmonise their minds and bodies. But if the reason is the former, then it’s an indictment on society that we are so intolerant of people who don’t adhere to our notions of fixed gender. Could John Thorp have happily lived as John without surgery? It appears so. Could Josephine have lived as Jo if society had been more accepting of a butch lesbian at the time? Possibly.
But neither option was available. Instead, the torturous surgical procedure was performed illegally by a Harley Street surgeon who cared little for his patient. The process is described candidly, including the ludicrous (and near disastrous) fixation the surgeon has on creating a rigid phallus from grafted slivers of poor John’s hip-bone. Just to add to the excruciating pain, the British press (which seems to have changed little since the 1950s) tracked John and Joan Thorp down afterwards and tried to make tabloid capital out of their story.
Hence, in 1960, the new man John and his de facto wife Joan made a life-changing decision. They emigrated to New Zealand where he took up a chemistry lectureship at Auckland University and she a teaching post. It wasn’t long before the tabloids followed them, however, and a few centimetres in the New Zealand Herald “outed” John. A heartening stand by departmental professor Don Llewellen stopped the rumours in their tracks and to this day, Thorp maintains, he’s had no further harassment from the media.
The rest of the book recounts Joan’s and John’s cosy domestic life, their acquiring of a close set of friends, and their professional movements. Perhaps it’s a good thing this is the less interesting part of the book – because the anguish and rejection are largely absent: John’s and Joan’s premature retirement to the Coromandel and Joan’s death of heart failure take up the last chapters. And again, one wonders, what more could Joan have added to this account if her voice had been heard in time?
But no-one is pretending this is a layered, literary work. Thorp’s writing style is plain, factual and, I’m tempted to say, male. But that’s a stereotype, and as this book highlights so well, stereotypes are treacherous terrain. Perhaps I could say his style is not atypical of a scientist, or perhaps of a writer occasionally lacking the tools to do justice to the nuances and depths of his experience.
There is no doubt, however, that to have this account of what John went through from his early years as a girl and young woman, to his later years as a happily married man, is invaluable in our understanding of gender issues. What would we give to have a similarly personal account of the life of Amy Bock or “Boy Bertha” of 19th century Hokitika? I’d prefer that to another All Black biography any day, thanks.
Paula Boock is a Wellington writer.