Monday, March 19, 2007

The First Man-Made Man

March 18, 2007

Girls Will Be Boys

The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution.
By Pagan Kennedy.

Illustrated. 214 pp. Bloomsbury. $23.95.

Michael Dillon wanted nothing more than to be invisible, to be one of the guys. Problem: he was born with a woman’s body. Everything he did toward realizing his humble dream — the cross-dressing, the hormones and surgeries and the chimera that resulted — pushed it further from his grasp. He went through life as the most visible sort of human being: a physical anomaly. He was the first person on record to undergo surgery (13 operations between 1946 and 1949) to change his gender.

Pagan Kennedy, the author of “Black Livingstone” and other books, does for Dillon what he never succeeded in doing for himself. She makes us see him as an ordinary, sane Englishman, worthy of respect and acceptance. Her compassion and restraint are laudable. She had access to before-and-after close-up medical photographs of Dillon but omits them. Her description of the surgeries is brief and devoid of graphic detail. She resists the temptation to highlight the comically surreal nature of her material. If you read this book, you will not gawk or laugh at Michael Dillon.

Dillon’s story, as Kennedy tells it, is itself a chimera: part biography, part medical history. Here the surgery is seamless, the hybrid better than the sum of its parts. “The First Man-Made Man” is oddly mesmerizing, as close to Shakespearean tragedy as you can come with the words “tube pedicle” and “mast of cartilage” in your book. It’s Romiette and Julio.

Dillon fell in love but once in his life. In 1950, he met Roberta Cowell, the only woman who might understand and even love him. Cowell, born (and equipped) Robert Cowell, came to him for advice. Dillon, who became a doctor, had written an obscure book about hormones and transsexuality, which Cowell read. With Dillon’s help, Roberta Cowell could become Dillon’s modest fantasy: a woman to whom he could reveal his secret (“a semierect, mostly numb sexual organ that resembled a small party balloon”), and who might have him anyway.

Alas, Roberta didn’t love Michael Dillon. She led him on, because, well, she needed him to remove her testicles. Owing to an obscure bit of British law, the physical mutilation of a man who would otherwise be fit for military service was then illegal. Later in the 1950s and through the 1960s, British men seeking sex-change surgery could travel to Continental Europe for the prerequisite amputation of their gonads — “castrated abroad,” the medical records would say, lending an aura of worldliness and class to the proceeding — but for Roberta this was not yet an option.

The besotted Dillon risked not getting his medical license for Cowell: he performed the castration himself. For the actual construction of a vagina, he introduced Cowell to Harold Gillies, the maverick British surgeon who had recently engineered Dillon’s own transformation. Cowell’s genital makeover was another surgical first, predating by almost a year the hyper-publicized metamorphosis of Christine (née George) Jorgensen, in Copenhagen. Shortly after the operation, Dillon proposed marriage and Cowell promptly jilted him. You could see it coming. As a man, Cowell flew fighter planes and raced sports cars. As a woman, she wore “va-va-voom” peroxide wigs and high heels. It wasn’t so much Dillon’s anatomy that put her off, it was the prospect of a quiet life as a doctor’s wife.

I’m afraid I jilted Dillon too. I wanted to stand by him through all 200 pages, but I fell hard for Dr. Gillies. It is no small feat to make a romance between the world’s first two transsexuals seem ho-hum, but Gillies almost manages. During World War I, he persuaded the British government to devote one wing of a military hospital to the cosmetic repair of burned and maimed soldiers — a subspecialty all but unknown at the time. “Gillies made up plastic surgery as he went along, smoking furiously, operating for a dozen hours a day, sketching noses on the backs of envelopes,” Kennedy writes. She describes him preparing for the world’s first male-to-female transsexual surgery: cigarette in hand, doing a dry run on a cadaver while Cowell sits nervously in the waiting room in a skirt and blond wig. It’s heady stuff.

Gillies was altering not merely faces and bodies, but the very nature of surgery. For the first time, operations were being done not out of medical necessity, but for the patient’s emotional well-being. “If it gives real happiness,” Gillies reasoned, “that is the most that any surgeon or medicine can give.”

Happiness eluded Michael Dillon. Isolated, depressed, hounded by the press, he traveled to India and, bizarrely, to a series of ever more remote Tibetan monasteries. He could not speak the language of his fellow novices, but with his shaved head and robes, he felt he fit in someplace. Sadly, he faced prejudice in the monasteries too, and his visa ran out before he was allowed to become a full-fledged monk. In 1962, he died impoverished near the border of Ladakh. He was 47, and had been trying to get back to the monastery where he’d felt at home. Dillon’s is the tragedy of a man born too soon.

Mary Roach, a frequent contributor to the Book Review, is the author of “Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife” and “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.”

We loved Stiff. It was all the stuff you didn't know you wanted to know about corpses. How they're disposed of, how they're put to use for research, how they decompose...

It was a fascinating exposure to a semi-taboo subject: What happens to corporeal bodies after death.

I'm inclined to accept a recommendation from Mary Roach at face value, since I love her books. I've just bumped this book to the top of my book-buying list. If it's anywhere near as well-written and engaging as Stiff was, it'll be fabulous.


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