French university researcher Anne Marbot thought she was open-minded, until her 19-year-old child, who was assigned female at birth, announced, “I am a boy.” The news, seemingly out of the blue, hit Anne “like a tidal wave,” sweeping “away the comfort of my tidy little life that I was more or less satisfied with.” Before long, a seemingly insurmountable rift develops between the two. Élodie Durand beautifully recounts Anne’s acceptance of her transgender son, Alex, and their journey back to each other in the exceptional graphic novel Transitions: A Mother’s Journey. It’s a fine follow-up to Durand’s graphic memoir, Parenthesis, which described her own odyssey with tumor-related epilepsy.
“Why does my child’s choice seem so difficult for me to accept?” Anne wonders. As a biologist, she looks to science for answers, finding a multitude of examples showing that “our classical scientific conception of male and female isn’t relevant at all.” Whether documenting the biology of clownfish (all born male), or showing helpful scientific diagrams (a visual guide to the gender spectrum), Durand’s illustrations cut to the chase, conveying Anne and Alex’s angst as they navigate their changing relationship with both themselves and each other. Several effective pages are simply masses of dark scribbles, as Anne becomes overwhelmed by fear, anxiety and grief, while Alex lashes out in anger and self-preservation.
Durand also offers informative examples from biology, history and activism, which provide helpful pacing breaks amid the family’s emotional turmoil. Durand is particularly adept at using splashes of color to convey emotions—for example, Anne repeatedly appears as a splash of pink hair, lost amid a growing black cloud that threatens to consume her. One memorable full-page spread shows Anne behind bars, being strangled by a giant serpent of anxiety. Durand also follows Alex’s gradual acceptance by the rest of his family, including his two younger brothers. In a touching scene, Anne breaks the news to her parents, who are immediately supportive of their grandchild. After three years, Anne not only fully embraces Alex, but also becomes an activist for the trans community. What’s more, she changes the way she teaches science, noting, “When I read back my words, I have trouble relating to who I used to be.”
This powerful memoir brings to mind Iris Gottlieb’s excellent Seeing Gender: An Illustrated Guide to Identity and Expression. Transitions: A Mother’s Journey is a particularly helpful guide that speaks to a wide audience hoping to gain understanding about transgender transitions. The graphic format makes its heavy emotional content accessible, while Durand’s exquisitely paired text and illustrations bring home the power of this revelatory—and increasingly common—story.