The Third Person Review

By | Monday, August 08, 2022 Leave a Comment
One of the personal challeneges I have is having a good understanding of the difficulties some people face with gender dysphoria and how they emotionally navigate their transition. The people I know personally had undergone their transition before I even knew them, and I've never felt we were close enough to really probe deep into the subject. So when I'd heard that Emma Grove's debut graphic novel, The Third Person, focused on her own transition, I was interested to check it out.

I don't know if this is still the case or not, but at least in the early 2000s, a person needed to undergo some psychological evaluation and get the written approval of a therapist before they could undergo hormone treatments of gender-altering surgery. That's what led Edgar, at age 33, to seek out a therapist. They'd been aware of their gender dysphoria since they were a child and had been going out at times as a woman since their twenties, so the therapist was almost just a formality as far as they were concerned. But since Ed was more comfortable as a woman, they went as Katina for the first couple months. Most of the book takes place in the therapist's office as Toby probes into the motivations of Edgar/Katina/Emma for wanting to fully transition. It becomes quickly apparent, however, that these identities are not just personas for different social situations but almost pitch-perfect textbook manifestations of dissociative identity disorder (D.I.D.). Toby then spends much of the book doing a phenomenally bad -- borderline abusive -- job of trying to get to the bottom of things. But because Ed and Katina and Emma don't always communicate with each other very well, and Toby himself is such bad communicator, they make very little progress. Interestingly, though, the readers learn a great deal during this time, and much of the lack of progress comes from Toby refusing to believe Katina. It's only after Toby finally kicks Katina out for good and Ed reads up on D.I.D. on their own that they're able to start making progress. Things go much better with the new therapist, and Emma is finally able to reconcile with the traumas of her childhood, her identity, and living her life.

It should come as little surprise that a memoir about someone wrestling with their very identity can be very heart-breaking at times. What people expect of you and how they treat you, versus who you actually are. And when that's centered around something as fundamental as gender -- partiularly in a society that has long promoted gender as a nature-induced binary -- and then you layer childhood trauma on top of that... well, it's little wonder D.I.D. comes out as a response. The idea of blanking out and suddenly coming back with no memory of what transpired in the sometimes weeks in bewteen must be -- and is portrayed here -- as very confusing and terrifying. I know that not everyone who transitions suffers/has suffered D.I.D. but Grove's depiction makes it very understandable and relatable.

I was struck by Grove's illustration style. It's very minimalist, to the point of using any sort of backgrounds at all only if they're absolutely necessary. And she also uses a pretty rigid eight-panel grid system for her page layouts. The two combined make it seem at first blush to be almost naive or amatuerish, but it becomes clear as the book progresses that they're deliberate design choices. The simplisitic illustration style means much of the emphasis for the figures is shown through body language, and this is absolutely critical for differentiating between Ed, Katina, and Emma. It also means that much more when Grove breaks out of that -- when she starts making elements more detailed, they're worth paying attention to. The same can be said of the grid system -- when she breaks the regular structure, it's for a good reason! There's some particularly nice payoffs on both of these towards the end of the book.

Interestingly, the grid system seemed to originate from her writing process. From her backmatter notes, Grove says she didn't really start with a script but just starting sketching out individual events and conversations as she remembered them, and then literally cut and pasted the sketched panels together to form an overall narrative. (Apparently, there were elements she never really reflected on before and as she started piecing together how the timelines for Ed, Katina, and Emma all lined up, she was able to answer some long-unsolved mysteries of why items may have "disappeared" or how she "suddenly" found herself at a location with no recollection of how she got there.) While she did go back and redraw everything, using a standard grid system in the creation process meant that piecing together previously disparate sequences would be much easier. And while she could have restructed page layouts, I'm sure that, in looking over, the puzzle pieces of the narrative, she realized how much more powerful breaking that format would be once she finally did.

I will admit that looking at a 900+ page book once it arrives is daunting. I don't recall the last time I cracked open a book with a 2½ inch wide spine! It is, however, a very engaging and smooth read despite some potentially very confusing scenes; that Grove makes the transitions from Ed to Katina to Emma only confusing when it's confusing for themself highlights some excellent storytelling chops. Having read the book, I do have a better understanding of both some of the emotional and societal challenges around transitioning as well as the practicalities of D.I.D. (as opposed to many of the stereotypes often used in Hollywood). This is still Grove's own story, though, so I'm sure it's not representative of everyone's journey but it does help give me more ground to build my knowledge and empathy from.

The Third Person came out a couple months back from Drawn and Quarterly and retails for $39.95 US. It should be available from any contemporary bookstore and is well worth taking a look at.
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