A Conversation on Gender and Religion in HIS RIGHT HAND

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Jessica Woodbury

Staff Writer

Jessica Woodbury's professional life has taken her to prisons, classrooms, strip clubs, and her living room couch. After years as a Public Defender in the South, she now lives in Boston with her two small children. Cursed with a practical streak, she always wanted to pursue music or writing but instead majored in Biochemistry because it seemed like the appropriate thing to do. These days she does absolutely nothing with science or law and instead spends too much time oversharing on the internet. She has a soft spot for crime novels and unreliable narrators. And the strip club gig was totally as a lawyer, she swears.  Blog: Don't Mind the Mess Twitter: jessicaesquire

His Right HandHis Right Hand by Mette Ivie Harrison is a mystery novel set in a Mormon community. It’s the second in a series, following her debut novel The Bishop’s Wife. The book follows Linda Wallheim, a progressive Mormon married to the bishop of her ward. After Carl, a prominent and opinionated ward member is killed, it’s discovered that, unbeknownst to everyone, he was a trans man.

Book Riot Contributors Jessica Woodbury and Constance Augusta Zaber read His Right Hand and decided to sit down and have a little conversation about it. A few moderate spoilers follow.

Jessica:  To start, we’ve both read this book… twice now? I’ve read it twice. Once a few months ago and then again in preparation for this post to get it fresh in my head.

Constance: I read it maybe a month and a half ago and have been reviewing it. We can call mine 1.5 reads

Jessica:  We both read it for very different reasons. His Right Hand is the 2nd book in a series by Mette Ivie Harrison. I read the first book, The Bishop’s Wife, because I’m a former Mormon who keeps tabs on Mormonism, and because I love mystery novels.

Constance: I’m trying to keep tabs on new books with prominent trans characters which is why I first took notice of HRH but I also love mysteries and the early feedback bumped it up higher on my to-read list

Jessica:  I know we’re getting more and more trans characters, but it seems like we still have a very, very small sample.

Constance: It’s such a small sample. It’s also interesting to me that most of the books with trans characters I’m seeing feature trans women (which is a whole separate conversation about false-representation and visibility) so the fact that the trans character in this book was a trans man was different for me.

Jessica:   I know it’s unfair to demand that any one character represent a whole group. But I do think it’s fair to look for trans characters that are thoughtfully created. I think we’re allowed to have a trans villain and/or a trans victim as long as they’re well-drawn human beings.

Constance: Completely! There are conversations that I’m watching right now about what it means to have trans women at the center of the spotlight right now and whether or not this visibility is a privilege. I’ve been hearing lately variations on what good does this visibility mean if trans women (particularly Black and Latina trans women) are still facing social and physical violence.

Jessica:  I kind of hate that it’s a “hot topic” but as a cis person I do want to see more trans people out there.

Constance: I love seeing trans representation when it’s not “freakshow” style visbility which is part of why I care so much about trans-created representation.

Jessica:  I admit, I was really intrigued by the setup of this novel: a trans man passing as cis in a Mormon ward. Gender issues in Mormonism are full of stuff to talk about already.

Constance: Yeah! Particularly because so much of this book is about gender roles and patriarchy, her use of a trans male character is interesting. (Although my search of the text on Adobe Digital Editions isn’t turning up the word “patriarchy.”)

Jessica:  This is probably where we should acknowledge that one of the reasons we’re having this conversation because we aren’t too happy with how that played out. Carl, the trans character in the book, is just all-in for the patriarchy and that is something I really struggled with.

Constance: Right, I read it with the sort of glee that comes from watching trashy reality television to be completely honest.

Jessica:   I just had mounting dread chapter after chapter.

Constance: I feel like we also had different relationships with the book. This might have been a bit closer to home for you than it was for me.

Jessica:  I am REALLY into religion and writing about religion right now, as I’m doing a lot of writing about it myself. And, you know, I grew up Mormon and was in the church until I was 25. There aren’t a lot of books out there that portray Mormonism in a way that feels honest to me. So I have a lot invested.

Constance: While I’m coming in really just connected to that one character. I’ll say that as an outsider/observer, I found the way she explained Mormon topics and culture to be very uncomfortable, which is something that I’d be interested to hear your take on.

Jessica:  It was painful, I’ll be honest. It felt like explaining rather than storytelling. I would recognize things that were familiar to me, people who were familiar to me, etc. But I didn’t really feel like I came away with it seeing the actual Mormon experience and what it feels like. It felt other-ing. When you have to stop in the middle of the story to give me a few paragraphs of history, it’s like you’re a reader on tour in an exotic land instead of just getting immersed in it.

Constance: That was my read of it, too.

Jessica:   One example I highlighted (I highlighted A LOT on my 2nd read) was when Linda, the main character, is having a conversation with a black cop and has to stop and explain to us the church’s history with black people so we can then understand why the conversation might be awkward.

Constance: I don’t know if you’ve read any trans memoirs from the 2000s but I found a similar tone of “Let me explain this to you but prioritize the readers comfort over anything else.”

Jessica: That’s really it! It’s not normalizing at all. I felt like her discussions of the trans character were the same way. We’d stop every now and then and get a little lecture about what Linda has read/researched about trans people.

Constance: This is one area that I actually liked about it!

Jessica:   That’s so interesting to me!

Constance: Her very black-and-white, confusing, simplified, tangled lectures on trans people felt authentic to me for a cis lady who just googled “Tell me about the transgendered people?” (I assume she’s the type to form her Google searches as questions.) But I don’t think that was intentional characterization and just seemed to speak more to the author’s experience.

Jessica:  It was like your hip aunt telling you about an article she read. And the author says in the notes that she wrote this because of a family friend’s experience with a trans child. I completely understand what she wanted to do, but sometimes that made it feel more like an agenda than a story.

Constance: It definitely felt like the desire to write a “trans book” came before any other plot details.

Jessica:   And having a trans character who’s dead for most of the book and never gets to speak for himself troubled me.

Constance: I was waiting for her to find his diary or a video he recorded for his kids or something to be honest.

Jessica:   As hokey as it would’ve been, I would’ve appreciated that.

Constance: It would have been completely hokey but at least it would have fit with the overall hokey-ness of the book. If she got the idea to write a trans book because of knowing someone whose trans it’s weird that she has the book entirely about cis people.

Jessica:   And yet sadly typical.

Constance: Right, this seems to be a permutation of the dead transsexual/cross-dresser from cop shows. It’s easier to talk about us if we don’t talk and just lay there on the morgue table for them to talk over

Jessica:  And the way they talked about him! I don’t remember what I told you about this book before you read it, but I was worried that it would be painful for you to read all the terrible things the Mormon characters say about this man. It was painful for me.

Constance: I mean this is the issue with lack of representation of Mormon stories, the concern that people may take this book as the Definitive Word on what Mormons think about trans people.

Jessica:   And you know what? This may be what many of them think. I can’t really say. It’s not really a topic Mormons talk about. Which leads to another point: the author tries to make the distinction between gender issues and sexuality issues a few times. And then inserts a couple of gay subplots. Which only muddies the waters. (I know much more about what Mormons think about gay people than trans people.) But Mormons do define gender as “essential,” so there’s that.

That’s from the Proclamation on the Family, which came out in the ’90s. It’s like almost-scripture. And it is basically all laying the foundation for the gay marriage fight, though I didn’t realize that then.

Constance: It’s interesting to me that she has the trans character quoting from this because I feel like I know (or know of) more trans guys who try to do what we call “going stealth” (i.e. hiding the fact that you’re trans and that you’ve transitioned) and end up becoming more assimilationist with “traditional” gender roles as a way of compensating for being trans. It’s like the closest thing to authentic that Carl’s character got for me.

Jessica:   That was really something I tried hard to wrap my head around. I had trouble understanding how someone who struggled with their own gender would then be so strict to hold to gender norms. I wish there’d been more to that, that it had been more fleshed out. And, you know, the fact that he basically remained celibate rather than reveal his trans-ness.

Constance: Did you feel at all that their celibate relationship allowed the reader to avoid thinking about trans people having sex? There’s also the thing where Emma just doesn’t seem to know what sex is at all which I found super foreign.

Jessica:   I was mad that it seemed to invalidate him as a sexual being! As for Emma, I do know a small number of Mormon women who have ridiculous ideas about sex. It’s very abnormal, but it happens. Not surprisingly in a culture that revolves heavily around abstinence.

Constance: I guess if you’re a trans guy who wants to be in a marriage but wants to be stealth I suppose that’s the ideal relationship. But it just felt like an easy out for her to not talk about his sexuality.

Jessica:  And when he does finally have a sexual relationship with an old flame, it feels like it just gets glossed over so quickly. I loved that the guy still cared about him and saw him as a person and didn’t invalidate his new gender. But he mostly tried to hide it so we never really got to explore that. Also Linda was a total creepy psycho whenever she went to that guy’s house.

Constance: So much of her “investigating” struck me as really invasive.

Jessica:   It was. I mean, even though Mormons tend to be overly involved in one another’s business in a ward, and even though being the bishop’s wife gives you that even more, it was not cool.

Constance: I was unsatisfied with her description of the ward. It seemed we kept hearing about people being involved in their neighbor’s lives but other than Emma, Verity, and her walking friend there didn’t seem to be that much community.

Jessica:   Linda seems to dislike everyone and not really be friends with anyone and yet knows a lot about people. I think people actually confide in you LESS when you’re the bishop’s wife because they don’t want it getting out to the bishop.

Constance: A major point in this book is her divorce and I was curious what you thought about how she wrote about it.

Jessica:   That was one of the best parts, I thought. The young marriage and quick divorce is definitely a problem among Mormons. There’s so much pressure, doctrinally and culturally, to get married. Plus, you know, the physical pressure of having to be abstinent until marriage. You hear a lot of stories, a lot of rumors, and sexual dysfunction definitely happens just the way she described.

Constance: And we have the two very different reactions to that in the main character and Carl’s wife Emma.

Jessica:   I think Linda’s frustration at a husband who doesn’t desire a sexual relationship is definitely more the norm.  Also I found it CRAZY how she just casually mentioned that she learned how to masturbate like it wasn’t anything. I learned that was a no go, but maybe things are different now?

Constance: I know that you can’t speak for all members of the church but I’m curious if you have thoughts on if things like masturbation are talked about in the context Don’t Do This or just Not Talked About At All.

Jessica:  So. I never heard about it. Because I am a woman and women don’t masturbate. But I was told that the boys did hear about it as teenagers. A lot. I literally learned that women could masturbate from the movie Pleasantville. I think that was the whole plan, that women wouldn’t even know it was a thing so why suggest that they not do it?

Constance: Which is interesting because that doesn’t feel dissimilar to national conversations about masturbation? Like it’s even a joke in sitcoms about how much boys masturbate but it’s rare to hear about girls masturbating

Jessica:  Yeah, girls were treated as the guardians of virginity, without having sexual desire. Which can be a real surprise when you actual feel sexual desire!

Constance: I have my own complicated history with those early feelings of sexual desire but I can’t imagine experiencing it in a community that has girls has utterly virginal. I imagine it would be even more complicated for girls -experiencing same-sex desire.

Jessica: My sexuality and queerness came into being in a really unusual way, due in large part to that. Celibacy being a “thing” though may have been more palatable to Carl, the trans character, since gay people are expected to be celibate in the Mormon church. Which means that Linda’s son who comes out as gay is facing a tough future.

Constance: That’s something that I would have loved to see Linda dwell more on. After all that happens with Ben, her gay ex-husband, and Carl and his lover she seems fairly optimistic about her son.

Jessica: She’s so concerned about her husband accepting his son, she doesn’t really seem to fathom what his life is going to be like.

Constance: I wonder if it has to do with another part that I struggled with- the way that the author seemed to be so focused on saying, “Oh sure there are _those_ hard-ass Mormons but I’m going to put a positive spin on everything!”

Jessica:  She definitely has a you-can-be-progressive-and-still-be-Mormon tap dance going on. And I really understand that she wants to make that statement, but like a lot of other things about this book, it feels too heavy handed.

Constance: She reminded me of the white gay men who are eager to distance themselves from the “weird” gays to show that “We’re just like you!”

Jessica:  Though I think that’s less and less the case.

Constance: Really?

Jessica:   Yeah. Between my 1st and 2nd read of the book, the church put out a new policy on LGBTQ families which won’t allow the children of cohabitating or married same-sex couples to be baptized or serve missions or join the priesthood until they’re 18, and only then if they disavow same-sex relationships. It really draws a hard line. That was definitely in my head in the second read, I don’t think her son would be allowed to serve a mission if he’s openly gay. Or at least, not much longer.

Constance: Well damn. (This would be a good-time to plug your really excellent Toast piece btw.)

Jessica:   And thanks for that softball, I do have an essay about how many progressives and feminists are leaving the church because of the policy.

Constance: I was reading your piece thinking that I needed Linda to read it.

Jessica:  I would LOVE to know how Linda’s life will change now. Because I think Mette Ivie Harrison’s plans to have this progressive Mormon character are going to be shaped by a lot of things out of her control in how the church is going these days.

Constance: We talked about how it seemed like the author really wanted to write a trans book and it seems like we both agree that she also came in with a “good progressive Mormon” agenda too. If you’re going to write a book with an agenda I think it needs to be realllly well crafted.

Jessica:  I think we also both agree that this book didn’t really succeed with either agenda. That it felt too crafted and not organic enough.

Constance: Completely.

Jessica:  And I know that neither of us feels we can recommend it as an enjoyable reading experience or an accurate view of Mormon or trans people.

Constance: I would recommend it to other people who enjoy reading things they don’t like.

Jessica:  You totally hate-read it.

Constance: I did and I have no regrets.

Jessica:  You are a serious hate-reader.

Constance: I was on a date the other night and told the person that hate-reading is why my skin is so nice. You know we’re going to get comments from people saying things like, “Well, I guess I just shouldn’t write about Mormons/Trans people!”

Jessica:   And I sooooo don’t want that to happen. I want MORE. I just want this book to be a learning experience of how not to do it.

Constance: Right!

Jessica:   So maybe we can recommend some good examples if you want?

Constance: I would love to hear your recommendations on books about Mormon characters!

Jessica:  So this is where I run into trouble. Because I used to have two I’d recommend… and one was Mette Ivie Harrison’s first book. Which I can’t recommend now because the series takes such a sad turn with book 2. But I can recommend Elders by Ryan McIlvain, though I feel like a broken record because it’s the one I always recommend. It’s SO good, though.

Constance: Can you recommend it with the caveat that they should treat it Harrison’s first book as a stand-alone?

Jessica:   I think so? I don’t know. I’m really torn. It feels accurate in many ways. And the first book is kind of about having a more radical fundamentalist-type Mormon in the ward, so it’s different.

Constance: I’ve read a few well-written “trans books” by cis authors where my only complaint was how their trans character was done. It can be harder to find trans books by trans authors because they’re usually smaller publishers.

Jessica:   Yes! I think a lot of us are looking for good ones. I think many readers want to explore other people’s experiences through books.

Constance: But I loved the upcoming If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo. Lilith Latini’s poetry book Improvise, Girl, Improvise is amazing. And there are some great stories in The Collection which is an anthology of trans writers, edited by Tom Leger and Riley MacLeod. Oh, and Nevada by Imogen Binnie which is the book that I came out after reading.

Jessica:  The power of BOOKS. I’m getting all weepy. Stories matter. Stories told well mean something to people. And you and I were both very disappointed with the opportunity missed here.

Constance: Very disappointed.

Jessica:  I don’t like talking about books I don’t like, but I had trouble letting this one go. And the risk of it being on the list of Trans Books to Recommend really clinched it for me and confirmed that we needed to have this chat.

Constance: I feel like this book was also a good bonding thing for us? So there’s that.

Jessica: It was. So hey, still power of books!

Constance: Yeah, part of why I want to be public about not liking this book is because I think it could end up on trans book lists.

Jessica:   I want booksellers and librarians to know that this probably isn’t a good choice for a display about religion or LGBTQ/trans fiction. We’d rather they go another way.

Constance: Jess, this was a really good conversation thank you

Jessica:  Thank YOU. I enjoyed this a lot. We should hate-read again some time.

Constance: We need another trans/Mormon book to come out to hate-read together. Or a podcast, someone should give us a podcast

Jessica:  Oh yes, that exciting and growing genre of trans/Mormon media. We’ll get right on that.