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Review: Michelle Alfano’s The Unfinished Dollhouse offers a timeless message of absolute and unconditional love

Title
The Unfinished Dollhouse: A Memoir of Gender and Identity
Author
Michelle Alfano
Genre
Memoir
Publisher
Cormorant Books
Pages
276
Price
$22.95

Earlier this year I was at a book signing, those generally enjoyable if somewhat contrived events where writers offer a signature and a few words in exchange for someone's cash. Not being a major-league author, the lines are seldom very long and I often have time to make something approaching a genuine conversation. One woman – late-60s, obviously educated, pleasant – asked me about my family and, of course, I reciprocated. "Well," she said, "I used to have a daughter and two sons, but now I have three boys." A pause as I realize what she means, and then a gauche "What's that like?" from me. The reply: "How many months do you have to listen?"

Many months, many years, or a lifetime. The attempt to explain and describe to others, often strangers, what happens when a parent realizes that this is not their son but their daughter, not their daughter but their son. I have neither the experience nor the words, and while leaps of empathy are vital to any civilized person, the relative newness to most of us of trans issues and gender dysphoria makes all of this inexorably challenging. Here's the quintessence of it all. It's we, the majority, who are the problem; we, who travel relatively painlessly through life comfortable in our birth-gender, who make it all so difficult for those born into the wrong body; we who need to be guided and instructed. And I cannot imagine a better gift to that understanding than Michelle Alfano's bitingly personal, viscerally honest story of Frankie.

It must have been a supremely difficult book to write, because she is a participant rather than a spectator, and as the mother of a girl is involved at the most intimate level with every aspect of Frankie finding resolution as a man. Indeed, it's not until a quarter of the way through that the author first uses the word "him," sliding with a gracious smoothness from the feminine to the masculine. Actually, this is of profound relevance. Some critics of the entire trans experience have indulged in a dictatorship of the pronoun, arguing that somehow their fundamental rights are transgressed if they are obliged to be courteous to trans people. It's partly the hysterical right, enabled by the odd – often distinctly odd – academic. It pains me, however, to say that much of this opposition comes from Christian conservatives, who see all of this as part of "queering the church." Actually it's more like Christianizing the church.

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Alfano is from a working-class Hamilton Italian family, where women "wore the pants in the family even when they didn't wear the pants," and that informs much of what she says. Her relationship with her mother, for example, is a semi-constant and compelling theme. As she evolves into a self-professed Toronto liberal – and she's delightful when mocking those who, frankly, deserve it – she and her husband have all of the appropriate attitudes and ideas.

Frankie comes along, premature and vulnerable, and the maternal love is overwhelming. Then her daughter's darkness. Depression, anxiety, confusion, refusal to get out of bed. All of this will resonate with myriad parents. Young people in the prosperous West have never had so much, and never faced so many obstacles. Teenage girls in particular are often thrown into the world of self-harm, bullying, drugs and doubts about self-worth. As the author pithily says, alleged experts on child psychology who claim all of the answers tend to be united by the fact that they don't have children. In Frankie's case, however, the journey is deeper and more challenging. Her parents struggle valiantly, and then Frankie tells them that she is gay. There is a gripping candour here. The author admits to her own frustrations, even her own reservations – less homophobia than a mingling of parental concerns and fears. This is important stuff, rising above the facile notions of good or bad responses. Life is more complex than that, more sophisticated than the politically correct or incorrect.

It soon becomes apparent that Frankie is dealing with more than sexuality, and tells her mother that she's trans. "I tried to be a girl, Mom," she says, "I tried so hard." It's genuinely heartbreaking, as is Alfano's reaction. She's so disarmingly open and undisguised, so refreshingly blatant in admitting that she'd sometimes wondered if the whole phenomenon was about "trans boys opting for the more liberating, albeit challenging paths," and arguing with Frankie and questioning motive and origin. She asks herself if she was being "treasonous." Surely not. As parents, our visceral need is to protect, and I can't imagine any mother or father not wondering what and why in such a situation.

This is an acutely necessary discussion. Anybody who claims that a parent-child relationship in such a situation is of linear simplicity and ease is distorting a complex, pulsing and often painful subject into bland convenience. Life is not quite as facile as that. This is where the book shows its true stature: no suburban romanticism here, no greeting-card saccharine. What the author implies is that it's relatively straightforward dealing with those on the right who simply refuse to accept reality and try to reduce something so human and nuanced into slogans about bathrooms and the safety of their children. The more authentic division is far more significant. How do otherwise progressive, compassionate, loving people react, and how can that reaction be refined and revised?

Alfano writes about all this in a jubilantly balanced tone; by that I don't imply dull or bland but never falling over into the histrionic. The story is so powerful in itself that too much explicit emotion could distort it. Within the narrative, however, are some observations that will be ever glued to the memory. There is a childhood memory of a local, homeless veteran who had lost his legs in battle. He would scream in anger and frustration at people, even when they tried to help him. "He was trapped in a body he had never wanted or asked for. How agonizing it must have been for him." This is recalled long before the author will be faced with her own child's not dissimilar struggle.

The eponymous dollhouse was bought by Mum and Dad for their daughter – part metaphor, part symbol and part theme – and frames the book. In the final pages, Alfano wonders if she will eventually complete it with her grandchildren. "But if I build it, I won't build it for them. I will build it for myself without the expectation that they will enjoy it. I won't press them to help me. I won't expect them to love it as much as I do. I will resolve to honour their wishes and desires, their dreams and aspirations. I promise I will let them be the people they were destined to be."

I have no doubt that, in years to come, we will look back on the era and wonder what all the fuss was about, as is the case with so many other issues of gender and sexuality. This convincing and important book will help greatly in that process, because at its core is the timeless message of absolute and unconditional love.

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Michael Coren is the author of Epiphany: A Christian's Change of Heart & Mind Over Same-Sex Marriage, among other books.

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