Author: Emma Grove
Publish Date: May 2022
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-1770466159
Guest Book Review by KC Councilor
Emma Grove’s book The Third Person is a memoir about a trans person with Dissociative Identity Disorder (D.I.D.) healing from trauma and struggling to access gender-affirming care. It is also a story about trust and vulnerability in the context of mental health care. Both simply and expertly drawn, Grove renders a complex narrative with impressive clarity and insight.
The book is a chronological story of Grove’s coming to understand herself as a trans person and as a survivor of trauma with “alters” or D.I.D.—a term to describe separate personalities formed to protect a person as a result of extreme stress or trauma. As readers, we follow Emma’s journey, which takes us back to childhood memories as they return to her; this happens more frequently as the book goes on, and as Emma starts to gain more clarity, so do we. Much of the book takes place in the therapist’s office, first Toby, and then an unnamed therapist she finds in the magazine Transgender Tapestry. Emma’s different personas drew and wrote different parts of the book—because from within each perspective, she does not have access to the alters’ experiences. Instead, we see scenes as they play out from different character’s points of view, characters who do not have access to the others’ interior thoughts.
The medium of comics is particularly effective for telling this story. Grove makes good use of thought bubbles, shifts in scale, and solid black to depict the interiority of her mental space, conversations between alters, and switching. We can see switches between personalities and between past and present without her signifying this in words. We do not always get much context throughout the book—in the sections with her first therapist, Toby, sometimes we only see the weekly sessions depicted, not the days in between sessions. Visually, too, much of the book is clear, uncluttered, with expressive characters but not overly detailed backgrounds. The fairly minimalist drawing style resembles a storyboard—no surprise to learn that Grove is classically trained as an animator—and the simplicity of the panels helps focus the reader’s attention on the complexity of the story itself.
There are many parallels between trans identity and D.I.D., and in Grove’s book, we see how they overlap, as in her experience, they co-exist. Many trans people are not believed, and are told by others that they are just confused and don’t know who they are. We’re often forced to present ourselves in ways that painfully don’t align with who we are, and face a range of discriminations in all corners of society from school and employment to healthcare and social belonging. We may have different modes—different wardrobes and different names—that we use in certain settings, like at work or with family, in order to survive. The complexity of trans experience is made exponentially more complex in the case of D.I.D., and the remarkable achievement of Grove’s book is that she’s able to present that complexity so clearly.
The book raises interesting questions that challenge the distinctions and the overlaps between trans people and those with D.I.D. Dissociation is a common coping or survival strategy for trans people, a way to deal with what can be the intensely painful experience of having to exist in the world in a gender that you don’t identify with. But many of us switch based on context even if we do eventually transition. There’s often a time of switching between what some call “girl mode” and “boy mode.” Transness is often talked about colloquially as multiple personas—as being two different people, living different lives. Sometimes the experience is that way; for many of us, there is a distinct before and after, and certainly, there are distinct societal responses to us. A common contemporary narrative is that when a person transitions, their previous self is gone, their previous name now a “dead name.”
There are significant challenges to proving one’s identity in a clinical setting, particularly when it comes to receiving a diagnosis that will allow a person to begin medical gender transition. There is a performative, theatrical nature to it. You need to be recognizably trans to get hormone therapy just like you need to be recognizably depressed to go on anti-depressants. While there are some medical practices in the U.S. that now use an informed consent model to start a patient on hormone therapy, at the time Grove was first seeking gender-affirming care, hormonal transitioning was not legally possible without a therapist’s consent—and the diagnosis of a disorder. This heightens the vulnerability of a patient in these therapy encounters, and in Grove’s case, it meant trying to minimize and hide her D.I.D. once she learned it was an obstacle to accessing care. This was then held against her by the therapist as a case of simply being dishonest. The barriers to care include needing a particular (often stereotypical) narrative of experience that trauma and D.I.D. can make difficult, if not impossible.
In Grove’s time with therapist Toby, who is himself trans, we see mostly confusion, manipulation, and mistrust. The real therapy begins when Grove herself works through Deborah Haddock’s 2001 The Dissociative Identity Disorder Sourcebook, and then finds a therapist who trusts and listens to her. Her six months with Toby seem to be more about his figuring her out to satisfy his own curiosity, and less about her wellbeing. Time after time, he doesn’t believe her, and loses his temper with her. It’s a painful example of how therapy can be retraumatizing—we see her alter Katina protecting Emma and setting boundaries. Katina tells Toby, “I have to do what I have to do to protect this body, and to protect Emma… and it’s not safe for her here anymore” (537). Though Grove doesn’t draw attention to it, she draws Toby exactly like a schoolyard bully who tormented her in youth.
Therapists would do well to read this book. Healing requires trust—what are the ways we create that trust, and what are the ways we inhibit it? As friends, as providers, carers, even teachers and other authority figures. There is intense vulnerability in being both trans and having D.I.D. and being in a therapist’s office. To be fully honest requires a lot of trust—trust that the therapist won’t somehow use what you’re saying against you, as happened with Toby. With the second therapist, we experience what a trusting therapist-patient relationship can look like. It is with this second therapist that Emma is able to stay present, and Katina is no longer out front to keep Emma safe. The contrast between the two therapists is stark, and offers many lessons.
I won’t spoil the ending, but wow—readers, you are in for a treat. And Grove offers an additional gift at the end of the book when she shares her process. How was she able to tell these stories when her alters’ memories are distinct? How did she access each to put the pieces of this puzzle together? Cartoonists and writers, take note. The Third Person is a book that rewards multiple readings. In fact, when I reached the end, I turned immediately back to the beginning to start reading again. The book is both record of and evidence of her own healing journey, and it’s a tremendous gift to share that with the world.
KC Councilor, PhD is a trans cartoonist and a communication professor at Southern Connecticut State University. You can see more of his work, including his book Between You and Me: Transitional Comics, at his website, www.kccouncilor.com.