It's been a while since I've responded so strongly to a memoir, but this is a tremendous historic document and I hope its rescue from a typewritten manuscript decaying in a corporate archives to nice contemporary publication will help it gain a wide academic and non-academic audience.
So who was Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka? In one sentence, the first transman to get a phalloplasty. Less crudely, a member of the British gentry, a doctor, an officer of the Merchant Navy, and the first White man accepted as a Tibetan monk. He wrote this set of memoirs as sort of a clap-back after he’d been outed, then mailed them off to a publisher. Sadly he died rather quickly thereafter of a sudden illness, before the package reached the publishing house, and then the manuscript was blocked from publication by his surviving brother. And has remained in legal limbo for 50 years, until now.
What I like best about Michael’s memoirs is that he’s such a warty human being and he either didn’t bother to disguise it, or was just totally oblivious to his own personal failings. I don’t know what he was doing in that Tibetan monastery before he wrote this but he sure as heck didn’t reach enlightenment. He cracks off these little dickish comments about The Poors, The Irish, The NHS, The [Any Non-British Ethnicity he met], Christians, Women, literally any identity that he is not, he in general doesn’t approve of, and why not write all that down he apparently thought, sitting in front of a typewriter in his Buddhist robes, typing out his memoirs. Why not indeed. Be who you are, embrace who you are, embrace your gender even if people tell you it's wrong, and embrace your personality, even if that personality is An Asshole. He also never for one second stops to think how uniquely privileged he was to be born independently rich and British, to get access to testosterone only a couple of years after its synthesis, how lucky he was to find a plastic surgeon (Harold Gilles) who would complete a mastectomy and phalloplasty on him. He sort of accepts these things in his life as his due, and let’s hear no more fuss about it. Which was the most challenging part of the memoir for me: I kept thinking, be just a tiny bit grateful you privileged butthole, do you know what other people suffered, but eventually I decided I was wrong and Michael was right. Why doesn’t he just deserve it? Why should he be expected to be grateful for a shot at an average life? He shouldn’t, and he wasn’t. Why should anyone?
He also totally fudges his own story, which is the mark of a truly fine memoir. What people omit from their own story is much more interesting than what they’ll ramble on about. In this case, Michael devotes lavish attention to his Oxford rowing career, how much he liked his Merchant Navy uniform (admittedly he works it), his fondness for chipping the paint off the sides of ships (not joking), and a blue and white bicycle he owned, while forgetting to mention minor details to his life like, oh, his entire relationship with the more household-name Roberta Cowell, who he secretly castrated (it was against the law at the time) so she could seek out her own plastic surgery, and who he wanted to marry, but she refused him. She’s not mentioned. At all. Which is very telling. But shhh. Brush up on your rowing terminology.
And here’s the “finale” to the book: he spent years “passing” and was as a member of the Merchant Navy, professes many times how he doesn’t care for money, and then, I guess on a whim, decided he’d better write off to Burke’s Peerage register to be next in line for his older brother’s title now that he’s got all that nonsense sorted out. And then he is shocked and appalled when someone eventually notices this, and then journalists come to his ship and out him in the British papers. Then he sees no choice but to faff off to be a Tibetan Buddhist monk for a few years before he can return to Civilization AKA Britain. And being an American; I sit at home reading his memoirs and just honestly cannot fathom what on earth went through his mind to do that. Michael you complete and utter ding dong, who cares about that moldy old title, you had freedom! But that’s precisely the sort of arrogant, idiotic, un-charming version of Bertie Wooster that Michael Dillon is. The sort of guy who registers for a British title after a hitherto very subtle legal sex change and is shocked that this has consequences. But he was born into the ragged edges of British nobility and he’s right, it’s his title to claim, and it’s the world that’s wrong.
That’s I think what’s so strong about these memoirs. The title is a lie: he’s not out of the ordinary. Not at all. He’s such a very average human being. I would probably find him extremely irritating as a co-worker. The thing that’s on the surface most interesting about him, proves to not be very interesting at all. Which is a nice message in its own way.
To be succinct, everything about this book is excellent and cool. The historical framing and introductory sections? Excellent. The fact that they happen to frame this rare historical document, rescued from legal death-by-a-thousand-cuts in some corporate archives? So cool. Pick it up this winter, try on another human being’s skin, view his warts and moles, compare them to your own. If you don’t, you’re missing the release from Archives Captivity into the Academic Wild of one of the most fascinating memoirs in modern times, soon to be used and abused in undergrad papers worldwide, and you’ll regret not reading it fresh yourself before it gets picked to death by other people’s analysis.