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I Never Expected: My Collaborative Memoir with My Trans Son Helped Us Reconnect

By Mary Collins

Donald Collins with Moose the Therapy Dog at the American College Counselors Association conference in Charlotte, NC
Donald Collins with Moose the Therapy Dog at the American College Counselors Association conference in Charlotte, NC

I never expected my trans son, Donald, whom I battled with over his medical decisions during his transition in high school and college, would ever agree to pen a collection of essays with me that explored our painful emotional journey—nearly failed journey—as a family.

I never expected that after traveling to Yale Medical School, elite private colleges, professional conferences and conventions, that our best Q&A about At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces would be with a group of freshmen at a small regional public university. The honors students had all read the book, processed the tense emotional landscape it explored, and accepted the ambiguity of it all.

They accepted not taking sides.

I never expected parents of transgender children who attended our events to have such an intense emotional response to my candor and expressions of grief over the “loss” of the daughter I thought I had. They often hang on my arm, weep, and literally shake as they let go, one by one, each of the feelings they’ve been hiding.

They come out of their emotional closet.

I never expected to receive so many heart-felt messages from people all over the country. Even one man in Canada, who opened his Facebook message with, “I am a normal person, not some creep…” went on to share that he loves his only boy, now a transgender girl, more than anything, but “absolutely hates the fact that I have this overwhelming feeling that here, in 2017, I’m supposed to be able to flick a switch, accept all of this and move on.” He confessed to “feeling bad for feeling this way.”

I never expected to be so completely awed by Donald’s emerging sense of self as an adult, as a trans man, as an author and public spokesperson. In less than a year, I feel that being on the road together has shown me so many layers of his complex personality, especially his fair-mindedness with questioning parents and audience participants who ask inappropriate questions, and his incredible sense of humor. Before our biggest audience for an event—several hundred college counselors from across the US—Donald broke the tension by singing the praises of Moose the Therapy Dog, who was on hand in the audience care of a counselor from VA Tech.

Who knew that somehow a golden lab named Moose could be part of our road show?!

I always knew that books and art have so much power to transform, but I never expected our book to transform so much about us as a family emerging from a tough emotional transition.

As mom and son, we have shared awesome fried chicken in North Carolina; constantly revisited and learned something new from our own book each time we prepared for a new audience; shared jokes, discussed books and the news, sought out good coffee shops, and admired the design of public spaces in ways few people I know even bother to notice.

I never expected the book would help us reconnect, to regain empathy for each other, to retouch love.


About the Author 

Mary CollinsMary Collins worked for twenty years as a freelance writer and editor for a range of clients, including the National Geographic Society and Smithsonian Institution. She is currently a professor of nonfiction at Central Connecticut State University. She is the co-author of At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces.