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As such, the final third of the book devolves somewhat into a morass of abbreviations, reports from conferences, and policy discussions folded into canned dialogue.
But all this can be forgiven because amid the public service announcements, Viloria does us the even greater service (it’s more of a gift, really) of showing us what it means to live not just as both a man and a woman but also as a third gender that eventually emerges as the right one. Many Native American tribes “believed that, unlike regular people,” intersex people “had an elevated view of life’s experiences and could ‘see down both sides of the mountain,’” Viloria writes.
Valentine, who now curates a collection at Barts Pathology Museum in London, worked for eight years in Britain as a certified A. As a child, Valentine recounts, she tried to perform autopsies on her toys and was “enthralled by any dead animal I found on the street.” After university she pursued an advanced degree in forensic and biomolecular sciences and gets an entry-level gig at the mortuary, cleaning up after organ dissections (the job requires steel-toed Wellington boots). And it actually works spectacularly well, at least if you’re into that kind of thing.
In a chapter focusing on the five stages of decomposition, she has no problem telling us about the preservatory effects of maggots — “many experts call them ‘the unseen undertakers of the world’” — or the time she cut into a distended abdomen and “the green, taut flesh rippled and burst like a balloon from hell and I was rewarded with a face full of the most hideous gas I’d ever smelled in my entire life.”If the book succeeds as a morbidly galloping parade of every possible kind of dead body, it falls short when it comes to the author’s life.
Despite enjoying the swaggering confidence that comes from presenting as male, Viloria tires of “the limitations around expressing my emotions and the tough veneer that I have to put on to protect myself every time I get around a group of young men.” Roughed up by cops while getting arrested at a protest in Berkeley, Viloria finds that the police suddenly become gentler when they believe they’re dealing with a girl instead of a boy.
Equal parts life history, anatomy textbook, sex diary and public service announcement, it seems in places to have been written as an activist gesture rather than a literary one.
Gaining visibility as a public spokesperson for the intersex community, Viloria appears on “20/20” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and fights for causes such as outlawing the “normalizing” surgery now referred to as I. M., or intersex genital mutilation, which many intersex people undergo as infants.
But three new memoirs dealing with bodies — often exuberantly so — would appear to have little use for the trauma narrative.
Hida Viloria, the author of BORN BOTH: An Intersex Life (Hachette, ), was born with “ambiguous” genitalia, raised as a girl, and was 26 before encountering the term “intersex.” Growing up, Viloria, who prefers the pronouns “s/he” and “he/r,” aligned with the idea of being an androgynous-looking woman who was primarily attracted to other women.