HTBG_FEATURED

How To Be A Girl

Intro from Jay Allison: Marlo Mack is starting a new podcast. On Transom, she writes "When my son was three years old, he informed me that he... was actually a she. 'Something went wrong in your tummy,' my child told me, 'that made me come out as a boy instead of a girl.'" One advantage of podcasting is that we can hear about people's lives directly from them. We can hear stories unfiltered by broadcast gatekeepers or rendered bland by standard-issue editorial style. In "How To Be A Girl," Marlo and her child tell us what they are discovering about gender and identity, as they discover it. As Marlo (not her real name) says, "I watched my son transform, bit by bit, dress by dress, into the daughter I now can’t imagine life without." Their story promises a remarkable view into this terrain, and Transom is proud to premiere it.

Listen to “How To Be A Girl – Episode 1 (from the video)”
Listen to “How To Be A Girl – Episode 2”

About “How To Be A Girl”

When my son was three years old, he informed me that he…was actually a she.  “Something went wrong in your tummy,” my child told me, “that made me come out as a boy instead of a girl.”

I assumed it was a phase.  It wasn’t.  Over the next year, I watched my son transform, bit by bit, dress by dress, into the daughter I now can’t imagine life without.

I started recording some of our conversations.  I’d ask my child questions about what it meant to be a girl versus being a boy, and about who he (or she?) felt he was, and why.  I’d also just turn on the recorder when she started saying something cute or interesting.  I had no idea what I was going to do with this audio (I’d never produced a radio piece before), but I knew I wanted to have it.  And I work in journalism, so I am always on the look-out for a good story. This seemed like it might be a pretty interesting story.  I also started writing our story down in a blog.

On my first attempt at creating “some kind of audio thing” out of what I’d recorded and written, I spent a whole weekend culling out the best clips of my kid and lovingly transcribing them.  Then I listened to them all at once and my blood ran cold:  “I can’t do this,” I told my best friend.  “I can’t exploit my child for some creative project.  What if other kids find out and tease her? What if I ruin her life?”  I gave up for a year.

But I couldn’t let it go. I kept on recording her, not sure what I’d do with the audio. I did know that I wanted people to hear our story. It’s not a unique one. We’ve made friends with lots of families with trans kids through our local support group. But every time someone new found out about my kid, I had to do a lot of explaining. Even the well-read, socially progressive, NPR-listening folks in my circle of friends seemed to view my child as an interesting oddity, and while they were supportive and kind, most of them asked questions that displayed their lack of the most basic knowledge about what it means to be transgender (“So, is your kid gay?” “Couldn’t you just make him wear pants?” “Has she had ‘the surgery’ yet?”). Three years of answering these questions got me thinking that there was probably a more efficient way to get this information out to the world, and that maybe I had some sort of an obligation to do so.

I also knew that my child was the most powerful storytelling tool at my disposal. I’d seen family and friends fall under her spell, as she transformed the stodgy and the skeptical into outspoken advocates for transgender rights. So I returned to the project.

Self-portrait., age 4
Self-portrait., age 4

Help and Inspiration

I joined AIR and met up with some other local audio folks. AIR also got me hooked up with a mentor. (Thank you, AIR!) I told my new radio pals about the project and they all encouraged me to give it another try.

My first impulse was to tell the story as if it were about “a friend’s kid.” I produced a third-person version, but it didn’t quite work. I eventually opted to do it in the first person, but to use a pseudonym to protect my kid’s privacy. Throughout this process, I benefitted from the smart and thoughtful input of my friends in the AIR group, and am really grateful for their help.

I was also really fired up by Julie Shapiro’s Transom essay about the dearth of female-hosted podcasts. I started checking out the list she compiled of some of the really good ones that do exist, and they further inspired me. The one that impacted me the most was a really simple one: Julia Barton’s DTFD, in which she chats into a microphone suspended above her kitchen sink while loading the dishwasher. She’s got kids and a job and didn’t have time to do a podcast because she had to Do The F***ing Dishes, as well as about ten thousand other things, I imagine. As a single mom with a full-time job, I could relate. And I thought, “Hey, if this busy woman can devise a way to crank out a podcast, then maybe I can, too!” (My secret: I generally just ignore the F***ing Dishes, not to mention the rest of the &#%!@?! housework.)

Gear, Tools, Editing

I mostly record on a Tascam DR-40. (I use the built-in mics because if she sees a microphone, my daughter gets self-conscious and silly and starts telling jokes about poop.) Our most interesting conversations always seem to happen in the car or while she’s got a mouthful of macaroni and cheese, so the audio quality sometimes isn’t so great. I end up recording a lot on my iPhone because I always have it with me and I never know when she’s going to say something awesome. And it’s very rare that I can get her to repeat herself later on, with a recorder stuck in her face. I record the narration with the Tascam in my daughter’s bedroom closet, where her vast collection of frilly dresses provides great muffling. I edit using Adobe Audition, and all the music is royalty free from the Free Music Archive and Kevin MacLeod.

The animation of the first episode was kind of a lark; I’m no artist. I borrowed my mom’s old iPad and downloaded an animation app (Animation Creator HD, $2.99). I wanted to draw things that the audio didn’t show — like an alien operating a vacuum cleaner and how much it hurt to lose my little boy. I cried a lot while I drew it.

I try to edit the episodes so that my daughter and I are telling the story together — like family members do, interrupting one another when the other person’s delivery lags. The narration that I write can get pretty heavy because, well, this is heavy stuff. Raising a transgender child ain’t easy and I’m terrified for her at least once a week. I like to let my child’s voice interject and lighten things up, showing how something that sounds weighty and complicated to adults can actually be fun and silly — and really isn’t that complicated. “I’m a girl with a penis,” she says. Got it? Now let’s go play.

Marlo Mack

About
Marlo Mack

Marlo Mack works as a journalist in a large U.S. city. She lives with her six-year-old daughter and a big brown dog. More episodes of "How to Be a Girl" are at www.marlomack.com, as well as on iTunes, where you can subscribe to the podcast. You can contact Marlo at girlpodcast[at] gmail.com.

Comments

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  • Zach Hirsch

    7.24.14

    Reply

    Rock on, Marlo!

  • Kevin Kelly

    7.24.14

    Reply

    I think you are both very brave and most certainly have helped many others on their own journeys.

  • Mary Rawson

    7.24.14

    Reply

    I loved this video. Well done.

  • jakewarga

    7.30.14

    Reply

    A delicate and honest balance of a good story and a well-told story. The animation is fun, but stands-alone wonderfully as a radio piece. The sound effects don’t distract, they only ad to the narrative flow. Great writing too, a wrestling with pronouns that can only come from a skilled pen. I watched, then I listened, I actually prefer the latter, a much different experience. I might have liked to hear more from the kid, but I suspect she will take command of her own story soon enough. But at the moment it is a nice dance between the subject of the story and the story-teller. I want to hear more, from both of you.

  • Julia Barton

    8.07.14

    Reply

    Hey Marlo! Thanks for the compliment. And you shamed me into uploading the best of DTFD to Soundcloud, since I let the old hosting service slide…here’s the link: https://soundcloud.com/bartona/sets/dtfd-the-podcast

  • Jane C

    9.03.14

    Reply

    Ok, so now I’ve finished wiping away the tears. Wow! Thank you so much for posting this and naturally it can’t have been an easy decision to make – so when was being a parent easy?! You some like a great Mum xx

  • serenity

    9.11.14

    Reply

    wish i’d had a mom like you hen i was growing up in a male body! what you’re doing is way better having your daughter think she’s the only person God ever made this way!

  • Corbin

    11.24.14

    Reply

    Hello Marlo,

    It has been several months since I listened to this, and I realized I never posted about it. I listened to it, cried, and then played it for my wife and 12 year-old daughter. I think I cried the second time too. This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard, although I certainly know that it comes with some pain, probably lots of pain. It goes beyond the telling of a story and into the realm of something that can change lives. You had me at hello.

    Your daughter has achieved, with your help, the ability to convey this complicated notion–sexual and personal identity–in a way that any thinking, feeling, caring human being can understand. Who better than your daughter to help tell the story.

    I’m an amateur “gatherer of histories.” I doubt I’ll ever create a piece this incredible. You have set the bar quite high! Thank you for sharing a story that will stay with me for life.

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