Monday, May 1, 2017

Review of "Straight Expectations: The Story of a Family in Transition" by Peggy Cryden with Janet E. Goldstein-Ball

Peggy Cryden is a family therapist who specializes in a number of areas, including gender identity and sexual orientation. Peggy's expertise stems, in part, from her own experience raising a transgender son and a gay son. In this memoir Peggy tells her story.

Peggy's determination to unconditionally support her children may have been fueled by her own difficult upbringing. Both Peggy and her brother were adopted as infants by a middle-class, Jewish couple: Joan and Joe. Joan was a painter and taught English as a second language and Joe was a physicist, immersed in his job as an aerospace engineer. Though Joan functioned well in some areas she was mentally ill and incapable of being a nurturing mother. Peggy didn't know what was wrong with Joan at the time but now believes her mother suffered from borderline personality disorder, bulimia, depressive disorder, and anxiety.

Joan's prescription medicines made it almost impossible for her to rouse herself in the morning to prepare the kids for school, and in the afternoons she was often laid out with headaches and backaches. Joan made little effort to prepare meals: a packed lunch might be a sandwich of peanut butter, mustard, and lettuce.....and her dinners were often burned. Joan also did odd things like eating entire packages of cookies and ice cream bars while pushing her cart through the supermarket and sitting down on the front lawn in her dress and heels. According to Peggy, Joan lacked self-esteem, was insecure about interacting with friends, had panic attacks, and was paranoid - thinking people didn't like her.

For his part Joe was a distant father who had little interaction with his children. Joe's engineering job and his position as a reserve captain in the Navy required a lot of travel, and in his spare time Joe joined 'every club imaginable' and wrote newsletters for all the neighborhood organizations. Thus, Joe didn't spend much time with his children - and when he 'babysat them' expected the kids to be quiet and entertain themselves.

As a result Peggy and her brother had to learn to be self-sufficient, and grew up with few physical or verbal expressions of love from their parents. Living in a home where she felt neglected, Peggy told herself "If I ever have kids, I want my family to be different".....meaning she would bond with her children and be involved in their lives. And in time, this came to pass.

Peggy met her future husband Izzy when she was in her late twenties - after difficult and damaging years as a rebellious teen and 'fast' young adult. By this time Peggy had earned an Associate Degree and was applying to universities, and Izzy was a television advertising executive. Peggy and Izzy got married and had two children: a daughter named Julia (who would later transition to Jake) and a son named Jay.

From the time she was a young child, daughter Julia rejected 'girly' things like dresses and dolls - and preferred to play male characters when she acted out her favorite movies. Conversely, son Jay enjoyed playing with his sister's Barbie dolls and avoided rambunctious boys' games and sports. In time, both children were diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Jay had Obessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as well. As Peggy had promised herself, she was a hands-on mother - and she organized therapists and treatment teams for the children.

A few years later, more serious problems arose. At first Julia thought she was a lesbian, but then admitted to her mother that she was transgender.....really a male. In additon, Julia was being severely harassed at high school because she dressed like a boy, and Peggy felt compelled to arrange an independent study program to keep Julia safe. When Julia was fifteen she changed her name to Jake and began hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to align her physical appearance with her true gender. (At this point in the book Peggy starts using male pronouns to refer to Jake.)

Jake's gender affirmation was a long and complex process. When a person transitions from female to male, testosterone supplements can add body hair, lower the voice, and increase musculature. However, gender-affirming surgery is necessary to remove the breasts and - if one chooses - restructure the genitals (though Peggy suggests this is rare for transgender men). Peggy was concerned about her son's transition but ulitmately accepted his gender dysphoria.....and this probably helped Jake through difficult times. After Jake's transition he realized he was attracted to men - so Jake is a gay transgender male.

Meanwhile - because the family had been focused on Jake - Jay's difficulties were being overlooked. In his early teens Jay developed an eating disorder and starting showing signs of anxiety and depression. By the time Jay was sixteen he was often dizzy, irritable and fatigued. A trip to the doctor revealed that Jay's weight had dropped from 153 to 103 pounds. He also had low blood pressure and decreased heart rate, which caused him to pass out, get migraines, and have heart palpitations. Jay was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa - and once again Peggy put together a treatment team.

Shortly afterwards, Jay was 'caught' dating a boy, and confessed that he was gay. Jay admitted to his parents: "I didn't want to tell you because......I know how much you went through with Jake. I wanted you to think at least one of your kids was 'normal'." Peggy asured her son that she loved him 'no matter what' and Jay was honest about his boyfriends from then on.

All these changes in the family required a lot of adjustment. Peggy admits "We went from being the parents of a caring older sister and adoring younger brother to being the parents of two gay sons, and this was a whole different dynamic that affected everyone in the family." Peggy's husband Izzy took a while to come to terms with Jake's transition. In addition, Jay's perception that his brother was getting all the attention created a distance between the boys, who were once best friends. These and other issues required time and effort to be resolved, but the entire family is very close now. Both boys have graduated college, live on their own, and are doing well - so this is a success story all around.

In an effort to help other people like Jake and Jay, Peggy allowed the family's story to be publicized. Jake participated in an MSNBC documentary entitled "Born in the Wrong Body", and Peggy and both boys made appearances on the 'Oprah Winfrey Show.' Afterwards Peggy and Jake became advocates for transgender individuals, held workshops, and started a foundation called Trans United with Family and Friends (T.U.F.F.), which raises money to help transgender people.

Towards the end of the book Peggy discusses therapeutic methods she uses with LGBTQ individuals. She also provides suggestions for further reading and includes a list of resources for the LGBTQ community.

I found the book engaging and came to admire Peggy's strength and understanding in the face of family turmoil. To some extent, though, I feel the book's title is misleading. I expected the story to be almost entirely about Jake and Jay, but at least half the book is about Peggy herself: her childhood; her turbulent teen years; her 'substitute' mothers; her relationship with Izzy; her adjustment to Izzy's 'buttinksy' family; her education; her career; her pregnancies; her deliveries; her early years as a mother; and so on. Though all this is interesting, I would have liked to learn more about the boys and how they feel about their experiences. But maybe that's a different book.

Peggy is very hard on her parents in this book, especially her mom, whose poor mothering is mentioned again and again - to the point where it's repetitious. As a therapist, Peggy might be expected to understand her mother's psychological problems.....but maybe Peggy's childhood hurts are too deep to let go.

I'd recommend this memoir to people interested in LGBTQ concerns, especially readers who want to know more about being transgender. The book also provides a compelling story of an admirable and devoted mother and - on that score - would probably appeal to a general readership.

Thanks to Netgalley, the authors (Peggy Cryden with Janet E. Goldstein-Ball ), and the publisher (Jessica Kingsley Publishers) for a copy of the book.

Rating: 3 stars


  1. Great title. I'll have to check it out on NetGalley.

    1. I was thinking the same thing Jacqui....that it's a clever title :)