Discussing her recent memoir, as notable for its experimentation with form as for the story it tells, Grace Lavery confessed her dissatisfaction with both recovery memoirs, where the author narrates their path to sobriety, and with gender transition memoirs. In both, she said, the trajectory is too linear and they exude a sense of “predestination,” for the end result is clear from the onset: the author will have recovered or will have transitioned their gender. And yet, as she claims in the memoir, not knowing where her path was leading her was also part of her thinking about her transition and her writing: “I am supposed to say, ‘I always knew,’ when the truth is that I didn’t always know. I sometimes suspected; occasionally, I wished” (24).
Lavery, assistant professor of English at University of California Berkeley, appeared recently in person at Stanford in conversation with Adrian Daub, director of the Clayman Institute, to introduce her flamboyant new memoir, Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis (2022).
The event began with a reading of the opening of the text, where the author discusses tackling the memoir genre and explains her decision for picking it: “I was drawn by memoir because I thought nobody would be able to correct me - but on this part I was exactly wrong.” (22)
[A]s she claims in the memoir, not knowing where her path was leading her was also part of her thinking about her transition and her writing: “I am supposed to say, ‘I always knew,’ when the truth is that I didn’t always know. I sometimes suspected; occasionally, I wished.”
In a way, her memoir does tell a story of transition, and one of recovery (more in the background), but her process is not only quite original but also driven by an oneiric and surprising pace, leading the reader in multi-layered and multi-faceted narrative meanderings. The pastiche mode is set up from the very title, a witty wordplay on Dave Eggers’ 2001 memoir, and continues throughout Lavery’s memoir. She enjoys crossing different genres, perspectives and narrative voices spanning from autobiography, to fiction to an academic essay on transgender studies, where she also imagines herself as a hybrid between an Austin Powers fem-bot and a green, president-killing martian from Mars Attacks.
One of the genres she plays with is that of the hate letter, which, as she puts it, is usually “a genre you receive but never write.” The idea of making the hate-letter part of her memoir stems from her personal experience, for the author was the object of daily hate letters by the hand of a single individual for about two years. In her memoir, however, instead of recounting that particular experience, Lavery chooses to invent an imaginary figure, with uncanny and quite scary first-hand knowledge of her life and intimate thoughts, writing about their fear and fascination regarding clowns. As the reader delves into the text, a suspicion arises that Lavery may indeed be the author of these letters, but instead of clearing things, this suspicion only enhances the intricate game of mirrors of the text. For instance, in the first hate-letter a sentence stands out: “I see his face before me as I write, and to be perfectly candid, I find it quite unpleasant to contemplate” (14). Allegedly, it is the mysterious hate-letter writer addressing Grace. We could also read into it Grace’s own experience of grappling with the complexity of transferring herself and all of her facets onto paper.
The sophistication of the narration, informed by a psychoanalytic mode, allows for these interpretations and more. It is therefore not a coincidence that while reading these letters, psychoanalysis comes to mind, for as Lavery puts it, hate letters are a practice of care, albeit a misguided one. In this sense, the author, by appropriating a genre engineered by hatred and by transforming it into a practice of love and self-care, has been able to perform an incredible feat of human resilience and generosity.