The following is an excerpt from the new book "Sex Changes: A Memoir of Marriage, Gender, and Moving On" by Christine Benvenuto.
Many people suffer midlife crises. Men in particular seem to be known for them, known for having them out loud and in color, for making decisions that entail the ending of marriages, career metamorphoses, large expenditures of cash, the acquisition of new toys. Women, according to my entirely informal survey, seem to expect themselves to grapple with midlife turmoil by planting a garden, taking up a textile art, or otherwise finding a corner in which to quietly implode. By any measure, Tracey’s crisis was impressive. (I am going to refer to my former husband as Tracey, not because it is his name -- it isn’t --but because it is a gender-neutral name that works before and after and either way.) Tracey never called his midlife crisis a midlife crisis. He represented it as a kind of gender sneeze, an involuntary explosion in reaction to the mounting irritation of inhabiting an identity that didn’t feel like his. In other words, a midlife crisis. It erupted in the middle of our lives. It was a crisis. And like some midlife crises and unlike others, Tracey’s changed everything.
On one level, there really isn’t anything quite like having your husband of twenty-odd years decide to live as a woman, and relatively few people find themselves in that precise situation. But many of us have our lives upended. Illness, death, divorce, other family upheavals. Job loss, geographic dislocation. Life happens. Sooner or later, most of us experience change that is not of our choosing. We fear that we will never regain our equilibrium. We soldier on, racked inside by doubts about whether we are up to the challenges thrown our way. Often, we have no idea how strong we really are. We can’t begin to imagine how happy we may become.
It began with a pair of purple cotton underpants. A woman’s underpants. I pulled them out of the dryer amid the rest of the usual laundry produced by a man, a woman, two children, and one baby. I had never seen these purple underpants before. Tracey came upon me in the basement, standing before the dryer with them in my hand, staring at them. Trying to figure out and at the same time understanding what they were. We stood there, both of us staring at them, in silence.
“Oh, sorry,” he said finally. “Did I put those in the laundry? I’ve been trying to keep them out of your sight.”
“That’s okay,” I whispered.
This was the first time I had ever seen an item of female clothing that belonged to my husband. It was also the end of Tracey trying to keep women’s clothes out of my sight.
I didn’t want to see. I didn’t want to know. Then again, I was terrified of what I didn’t know. I was afraid of what might be happening behind my back. Of what others might see. Each time he did something new, something further, took another step, made another change, each time I discovered that yet another person had been brought into his confidence, I had to suffer all over again. As if it were possible to stop or even to contain this thing once it had begun. I wanted to understand and yet I didn’t. Understanding meant believing it was happening. A kind of acceptance. I couldn’t accept. I couldn’t. This is one of the hardest things to remember now and to convey: the difficulty I had bending my mind around this thing.
When Tracey announced to the world that he liked to wear women’s clothes and would now do so all the time, he was aggressive, to. He didn’t ask. He told. He did. He assumed a treasure trove, a trousseau, of feminine things, and he eloped with himself.
The unfolding, the ripening, that is female adolescence can be a beautiful thing when it happens to a twelve-or fourteen-year-old girl. When it is embarked upon by a 40-something-year-old man, it is something else again. Female adolescence was Tracey’s way of explaining the process he had entered into, an umbrella term to cover the series of things he was doing to himself. Many young girls experience this period in their lives as hellish; Tracey was gleeful.
Outwardly [our] family continued. We handled together what we had to: home repairs, the scheduling complications entailed by three children. From paying bills to baking birthday cakes, I had always managed much of our domestic lives on my own. Now “much” gradually became all.
We had dinners together as a family when Tracey was at home, but the noisy conversation that once bubbled over at our table dwindled to a strained trickle. The children witness Tracey’s undisguised misery, felt the tension they couldn’t name. In Tracey’s presence I found there was very little I needed to say. Once I would have chatted about work, the events of my day, the endless pleasures and concerns occasioned by the children. Now the stuff of my life, of the children’s lives, never seemed to grab Tracey’s attention. A single subject absorbed him. When we weren’t talking about that -- and we weren’t, in front of the children -- it was as if Tracey and I had nothing in common.