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Every time there’s another one of these prominent media-pushed anti-trans books one of us dutifully steps up and takes one for the team in offering a review. Grace Lavery stepped up for a triple header and did Bindel, Stock, and Joyce in the LA Review of Books. Gretchen Felker-Martin, having killed her off in Manhunt, offered an absolute savaging of one of Rowling’s Cormoran Strike things. And as a trans media critic specializing in British television, the release of Graham Linehan’s memoir means that my time has alas come.
Let’s start with the headline: this is a very bad book. I cannot imagine anybody who generally likes my stuff will enjoy much of anything about it. I cannot imagine anybody getting anything of value out of it. Even for Linehan’s fellow virulent transphobes it would seem to offer only the hollowest of pleasures, although I can’t in good conscience pretend that’s not their thing. But broadly speaking I encourage you to not bother reading this book, and if you for some reason feel you must read it, do not under any circumstances pay money for it. I sure as hell stole mine.
To get more into the meat of it, “very bad” is a statistical average of what are in fact two books welded together by a bizarre interlude in which Linehan attempts to make a brilliant “checkmate trannies” sort of argument. The first of these is an ordinarily bad memoir of a sitcom writer, while the other is an almost indescribably bad account of a man’s complete psychological collapse. Linehan presents this bifurcated narrative up front in his subtitle, which promises to tell how he “made and lost” his career. Indeed, as he explains, he lost more than that, including his family and all of his friends.
Well. Clearly not all of them. His book features blurbs from Jonathan Ross and Richard Ayoade, among those from a few less notable old career contacts and fellow professional bigots. These suggest the book will be “funny,” “honest,” “complicated,” and above all “compelling.” The overall result is a book that, to put it in the sort of Catholic terms that start to pathologize him, feels like a confession, though of course, one devoid of any repentance. “Here is how I pushed everyone away” says the man whose friends are blurbing his book and who is giving numerous interviews to promote it. “Don’t you think I’m compelling?”
The first part of this argument—the sitcom memoir—functions as a sort of “I used to be somebody” windup to the sob story. And he did—a level of prominence roughly akin to what Steven Moffat had pre-Doctor Who, which is to say that he was well known among UK sitcom fans who paid attention to the writer’s name. He made some hit shows—most notably Father Ted and The IT Crowd, and describes these and lesser successes like Black Books and Count Arthur Strong. This section offers several cogent assessments of comedy—there’s a nice bit about how farce is the natural structure for a sitcom, for instance. But it’s mostly a catalog of jobs and anecdotes. In most cases Linehan has no particular insight into events—he often describes his successes with a sense of awe at their unfolding forth from him. When he comes to major events, such as the death of Dermot Morgan the day after filming concluded on Father Ted, he is largely restricted to cliches—he talks about the shock of the event a bit, but it’s all very abstract, and a few paragraphs later he’s off on an analysis of Dan Harmon’s story circle. It’s cogent, if vaguely sociopathic.
And then the second part of the book comes, and the cogency gives way to the spectacle of Linehan making declarations about how his now ex-wife “didn’t understand that I would never be confident of having a job again until the entire gender ideology movement, which has caused so much misery, was burnt to the ground” without any seeming awareness that being unable to emotionally function as a sitcom writer until you’ve successfully committed genocide is very much a him problem. The latter portion of the book is filled with moments like this—a friend objecting to his behavior with the note that he has a trans child, to which Linehan blanky replies “I have a daughter” as if this reply is any more sensible than, say, “I have a pomeranian.” And sure, I’m just a deranged transsexual, but for fuck’s sake, even The Sunday Times’s review of the book suggests it’s a bit much. Do you have any idea how completely unhinged your transphobia has to be for the Sunday Times to object?
In the face of this, one is forced to think back to those blurbs at the front and wonder what, exactly, Linehan (or, for that matter, his supporters) thinks is supposed to be compelling about this “I have a daughter” routine. It’s not that he doesn’t try—elsewhere in the book he explains that “I have a daughter. My first responsibility is to keep her safe. It is simply not possible for young women to be safe in a world where cosmetic self-harm is being normalised.” But this really doesn’t make much headway on the problem—equally sensible statements of that form are trivial to construct. “It is simply not possible for young women to be safe in a world where driving 60 in a 55 zone is being normalized.” Actually, now that I type that out, that makes markedly more sense than Linehan’s argument, in that the existence of speeding cars actually poses a threat to bystanders. Does he imagine that the trans will sneak into his daughter’s room at night and perform non-consensual top surgery? For all that he goes on about how “I will not abandon my daughter” and the like, he never comes close to articulating what, exactly, he imagines he’s protecting her from. Certainly one is left to wonder what she thinks of all this protection she’s receiving.
That’s doubly true given how many verifiable things Linehan lies about or is at least so absurdly selective in his recounting of that it might as well just be an outright lie. Reading preposterously disingenuous account after preposterously disingenuous account, I found myself with few points of comparison among things I’ve talked about before. About the only one that springs to mind is when I was reading Vox Day’s SJWs Always Lie—a work of literal neonazi propaganda. The only real difference, number of chapters five aside, is that Linehan can at least fill half a book with actual accomplishments.
For instance, Linehan talks about how the actor James Dreyfus was “hounded” out of work at Big Finish for signing a letter attacking Stonewall for its support of trans rights, suggesting that his loss of this hilariously non-prestigious job was purely “because he signed the letter” and not the years worth of doubling and tripling down on his bigotry. He talks about how it was “left vague” why he was banned from Twitter, an outright falsehood—it was because he accused Grace Lavery of grooming her students. Perhaps most appalling is his account of Mark Fisher, which is constructed so as to suggest that it was the criticism of “Exiting the Vampire Castle” that led to his suicide. These are simply the lies I could catch at a glance, without having to do any further research—I don’t doubt for a moment that if I pulled up the one scientific paper he cites or actually looked into some of the anecdotes he tells they’d prove just as much of a steaming pile of pure bullshit.
In the face of all of this it becomes difficult to simply take his word about his personal interactions. Hell, even if you don’t know enough about the actual situations to catch any of those lies, we’re talking about a man who describes himself as having been “robbed of my marriage,” completely rejecting the idea that he might have had any agency in his own divorce. This is transparently not a book that can be trusted or taken seriously.
Let’s go back to that interlude, in which Linehan attempts to actually set up the anti-trans argument—the moral position that he finds so crystal clear that it drove him to be passively robbed of his marriage. His way into this is to ask the question “what does trans mean?” He begins with a classic—the old “trans used to refer to a rare medical condition but now there’s just too many of them” chestnut in which he evinces shock and confusion when someone refers to her “trans friends,” wondering how anyone could possibly know more than one of these incredibly rare creatures. (The prospect that trans people might know each other, such that befriending one will usually introduce you to others, does not occur to Linehan.) He then turns to Stonewall, quoting what he describes as their “non-definition” of “An umbrella term to describe people whose gender is not the same as, or does not sit comfortably with, the sex they were assigned at birth.” This is patently absurd to Linehan, who rejects the nature of sex as something assigned at birth, sniffing that it’s “observed and recorded, often before birth.” He then wonders what gender is, proceeding to Stonewall’s definition of that, “Often expressed in terms of masculinity and femininity, gender is largely culturally determined and is assumed from the sex assigned at birth.” This too is apparently not a definition—Linehan isn’t entirely clear why, but one assumes it’s the same objection to “assigned at birth,” and so Linehan declares the entire category meaningless.
I will, of course, readily admit that the notion of sex being assigned at birth is controversial. That’s a pretty incontrovertible observation about the world—if it weren’t, people wouldn’t be publishing shitty books like Tough Crowd. However Linehan seems to confuse his metaphysical disagreement with the notion of a sex/gender divide or of sex being assigned at birth with intrinsic incoherence. The problem he’s having plainly isn’t that the word “trans” is unclear—it’s that he rejects the premise that sex and gender are mutable. But his refusal—indeed seeming inability to articulate it as disagreement instead of as a self-evident statement requiring no argument whatsoever is striking. Linehan appears to have no ability whatsoever to even conceive of someone sincerely believing in the mutability of gender.
The result is what I can only describe as an aggressively uncompelling argument. Its only possible audience is among other people who view the immutability of gender as entirely self-evident. Anyone else—even other people who are sympathetic to Linehan’s rejection of mutable sex—will plainly recognize that Linehan is not engaging with anything beyond his own instinctive refusal to grant the premise. Anyone who shares Linehan’s premise—that mutable sex is so self-evidently absurd as to not be worthy of thought—is almost necessarily already a viciously transphobic shithead, that being not so much an inevitable conclusion as a simple restatement of the vehement rejection involved.
And, because Linehan is arguing from a position that is not merely hostile to trans people but wholly incapable of imagining sympathy for their position, his argument only gets stupider from there. He proceeds to rattle off a vast list of other trans identities, culminating in ones he openly scoffs at as ridiculous—omnigender and neurogender and the like. “I haven’t made any of these up,” he says. So far so standard issue—I think Kill All Normies did a version of this bit. And then he continues, “No wonder my Irish comedian friend was suddenly swimming in ‘trans’ people if literally anyone could call themselves one.” Which, to point out the obvious, is not actually a conclusion that stems from the list of how absurd trans identities have gotten. Indeed, the list of niche trans identities largely points in the opposite direction—“if the neurogenders are trans then I guess everyone is” is actually a very weird thing to say.
Linehan goes on to argue that the phrase “trans people” simply covers too many different categories to be useful. “It described both the young women who were succumbing to a new, even more viral form of anorexia – one that caused them to remove their breasts and take drugs that gave them the dubious gift of male-pattern baldness – and the middle-aged men who decided to leave their families in order to live as clownish visions of the women they had fallen in love with online. It covered young men disgusted at what they felt was their own toxic masculinity, and young men who enjoyed nothing better than indulging in it. These groups had little in common with each other. ‘Trans’ was not a stable category.” Once again, there’s very little you can do here but stare in bewildered horror at the stupidity. Is Linehan similarly troubled that the gay male scene contains both twinks and bears? Does the butch/femme distinction lead to him becoming alarmed and confused by lesbians?
And this vapid nonsense is the foundation upon which his zealotry is supposed to rest. This is what’s supposed to justify the crystal clear moral vision that necessitated losing his career and family. If there’s anything compelling here, it’s just the stupid pointless waste of it all—the question of how someone could ever become so myopically wrapped up in the righteousness of so pathetically thin an argument.
There’s plenty of clues in the book for those inclined to play this game. There’s a constant strand fo self-loathing and self-sabotage, even in the sitcom half of the book. His first sitcom is “miserable” and “a stinker,” and he proceeds to eviscerate his own failures as a writer. There’s a similar sense of flickering awareness when he talks about the loss of his writing partnership with his Father Ted cocreator Arthur Matthews, which happened in no small part because Linehan decided for no particular reason to play a passive aggressive game of not calling Matthews for months to see how long it would take Matthews to call him. Later Linehan talks about letting his friendship with Geoffrey Perkins wither, and about how “I don’t tend friendships” and how he relied on his wife to throw birthday parties so he ever actually saw his friends. It’s a marked pattern—a sense that Linehan was prone to pushing people away long before he became a frothing bigot.
But of course, go down that road and the options never really let up. His opening description of alienation from his family that veers immediately into a strange fugue about his one remaining testicle after a battle with cancer. His account of becoming an atheist upon learning that the medical consensus was that masturbation is perfectly normal. For those inclined to pathologize Linehan it’s a psychosexual cornucopia—in terms of setting up the “and lost” part of the book, he doesn’t so much put a gun on the mantlepiece as recreate the guard chamber at Hampton Court.
Which, at the end of the day, rather undermines the claim that this is particularly compelling. I don’t doubt for a moment that empathy for Linehan is possible. No squandering of such obvious talent on such a pointless and destructive course of action can possibly be anything other than tragic. But at the end of the day, “psychologically revealing” is only a recommendation if the psyche being revealed is interesting, and “how did this misanthropic white guy end up having a stupid midlife crisis” isn’t exactly a mystery for the ages. Linehan’s proves stupider than most, but when all you’ve got to sell yourself is that you’re uniquely stupid, well, it’s hard to call it compelling. Certainly it’s not particularly complicated. And no book this comprehensively disingenuous can fairly be called honest.
Which just leaves funny. And while some of the key elements of a work of bleak absurdity is certainly there, frankly, this isn’t that either. It’s just sad and stupid—a waste of talent, time, and trees. Even the title is bad.