At the Broken Places blends manual and memoir, both for young trans people and their cis family members. In a series of candid essays, Mary Collins and her trans son, Donald Collins, reflect on Donald’s transition and Mary’s fraught response to it. The book also includes an extensive suggested-reading list, and a “Story Exchange” adds the voices of gender activists and leaders. I talked to them recently about co-writing the book.
Did At the Broken Places emerge, in part, as a way of creating the resource you wish you’d had?
Mary Collins: Initially, I turned to writing essays to help me process my incredibly complex emotional response to the fact my daughter had come out as a transgender man, but I soon realized I was unconsciously creating the very book I had been looking for. I wanted—no, needed—to be inside the head of my own child, I needed to be inside the head of other parents going through the same experience—but nothing out there had the level of immediacy and honesty I was looking for. The national conversation tends to paint just two points of view—either fully onboard or completely opposed. I was neither.
Donald Collins: The idea came from my mom, who finished her essays before I even came onboard. I think the aim of making “the book we needed” was definitely her mission, but she realized the project couldn’t be one-sided. I was honored that she asked me to write complimentary pieces but hesitant at first. We’re talking about some of the most punishing and painful years of our lives; I didn’t know if I was ready to go back to that headspace. But…if doing that work could possibly help others feel less adrift, how could I refuse?
What was it like working collaboratively on this project, and how did it affect your relationship?
MC: Once I finished the first essay on my peculiar sense of grief, now the chapter called “Mapping Modern Grief,” I needed to show it to Donald to see if he was OK with having it published in a literary journal. That first step toward showing him the true depth of my sense of loss…set me free because he was so compassionate and fair about his reading of that piece and gave his OK willingly. I knew then that we might be able to work collaboratively on a book of essays, almost like a call-and-response project….We both were sincere, had a growing sense of empathy for the other, and actually handled our communication on the page much more maturely than in general conversations.
DC: I knew the categories for each section but otherwise flew blind. We didn’t read each other’s essays for fear of polluting the honesty and direction of the pieces.
The book was a chance for me to lay out my intentions, drives, and fears throughout those years with the benefit of emotional distance and analysis. I think my mom was able to better understand where I was coming from seeing it written down on the page.
I consider myself a very empathetic person, and I always thought I had a good conception of the pain my mom went through during my transition. But I never truly felt sincere empathy toward her; I was too hurt and angry. Getting some distance on my own experiences and understanding her motivations better has been really valuable for me as a trans person, a son, and an advocate.
Donald, Mary recommends that trans kids “be patient” with their parents. How would you counsel trans kids about coming out to their parents?
One of the folks I interviewed for the book, trans- rights attorney Dru Levasseur, summed up this paradox perfectly: “The times when you need your family the most are often the times when they’re doing their own processing...and, therefore, the most unavailable.”
As much as our book is about facilitating communication between trans youth and adults, it’s also about the importance of taking space for, and care of, yourself. It is not the job of trans children to “sell” parents on their gender identity, nor is it always possible for trans people to put their needs on hold indefinitely.
I would urge trans youth to check in with themselves first: do you feel safe to disclose even if your parent might react in anger or confusion? Do you have access to additional support, whether it is family, friends, school, or health care professionals? Do you have the resources to self-educate? Are you prepared for…questions?
It is the job of the rest of us—advocates, allies, health care professionals—to support families holistically. Through community and educational outreach we can prevent “coming out” from feeling like a burden to kids and a bombshell to parents.
Mary, while writing At the Broken Places, was it hard to reveal your disapproval of Donald’s decisions?
I was terrified to share my unvarnished take on the emotional journey I was on during Donald’s transition not only with Donald, but also with myself. What will others think of me? Will they feel compassion or just see me as selfish and not a fit parent? When I write essays I strive to never self-censor, so it was less about that and more about sharing what I wrote. I knew I was not motivated by selfishness and have been a fully engaged, loving parent, so if that was true, then why was I afraid? I had to just believe in the honesty of my own experience because it was always motivated by love, a desire to process and move to a better place.
Karen Schechner is the vice president of Kirkus Indie. The photo above of Donald Collins is by Darian Carpenter and the photo of Mary Collins is by Shana Sureck.