Resource Review: Written on the Body: Letters from Trans and Non-Binary Survivors of Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence. Edited by Lexie Bean. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2018. [URL: https://smile.amazon.com/Written-Body-Non-Binary-Survivors-Domestic/dp/1785927973/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1523283090&sr=8-2&keywords=Written+on+the+Body]
Books that address trans and non-binary individuals’ experiences with sexual assault are still few and far between, given that half of our community fits that demographic.
That’s only part of what makes Written on the Body: Letters from Trans and Non-Binary Survivors of Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence so critical. Another reason is its unusual focus: most of the entries are written as a letter to a part of each author’s body. Given that bodies are integral to both trans/non-binary identities and sexual assault, this narrowed focus provides a wealth of insights. Feet, rib, back of the neck, voice, hands, dimple, “to the one hair that grows out of my cheek”: each is recognized with a story about who they are, what they symbolize, the role they’ve played in each survivor’s life. Some of the stories are about transness, some of the stories are about abuse and trauma, and many are about both.
A Wide-Open Letter to My Mouths is one of the longer and more explicit letters, describing both healing and traumatic sexual experiences. Others are short and poignant:
Despite the art I have carved into you, you provide me with an impeccable memory.
I know of all of the places I’ve hurt and been hurt, and I won’t forget them.
Some write of body parts that exist no more, and some write of new ones. Sometimes these transformations are asked to be magical: The author of “To my humble front entrance” finishes their letter with “Maybe it’s best if you just disappear like I used to pray you would as a child. I doubt it’ll be the case but I hope you can take the nightmares with you.” Another wrote of her surprise when she found that “all the pains and bruises” her penis had sustained transferred to her new vagina; she had thought they would be left behind. Clearly a work in progress, the letter ends, “I still haven’t figured you out yet and that’s ok.”
One of the book’s surprises is that most of the pieces are anonymous. Authors are listed on a back page, but not associated with the letter(s) they wrote. This structure preserves privacy, but it also somehow forces the reader into a more intimate relationship with the letter and the body part(s) to which it’s addressed. There’s no name, no gender identity (often), no biography to situate the letter and body part(s) within a particular life. Instead, the body part(s) stand alone, telling only the story the author chose to share. It heightens the impact, somehow.
Another surprise is the correspondence between Alex Valdes and Lexie Bean that helps open the book. This is a very special conversation. Each asks the other a question, building upon the answers. “When do you feel safe?” becomes “When did you find your trust again? Did you ever lose it?” “What do you cover under covers?” becomes “Where is your voice when you can’t find it in your breath?” It’s the kind of correspondence most of us wish we could have with someone special. Maybe this book will inspire you to find that someone.
Lexie Bean has edited two previous anthologies of letters, Attention: People with Body Parts and Portable Homes.