Bad Elephants

Laura Nelson
8 min readJun 16, 2021
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Review of Torrey Peters, Detransition, Baby (One World, 2021), pp. 341

Midway through his explanation of why he detransitioned, Ames (formerly Amy), one of the main characters in Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby, likens his struggles and that of his trans cohort to the predicament of orphaned baby African elephants. Habitat destruction, poaching, and thousands of micro-encroachments on elephant culture caused orphaned elephants to become violent and uncontrollable. Ames explains:

Throughout their long history, elephants have lived in intricately ordered social structures. Young elephants learned their place and healthy behavior in concentric societal rings of caregivers — birth mother, aunts, grandmothers, friends — relationships that might last a lifetime: seventy years or more . . . This millennial generation of elephants is an orphan generation. In the last few decades, humans have murdered, mutilated, or displaced an entire generation of older elephants who might have bestowed upon this generation the familial, societal, and emotional skills required to handle one’s individual fifteen thousand pounds of muscle and bone, through which courses intolerable memories of pain, trauma, and grief. (p. 100).

Ames then unpacks this elephant metaphor:

Trans women are juvenile elephants. We are much stronger and more powerful than we understand. We are fifteen thousand pounds of muscle and bone forged from rage and trauma, armed with ivory spears and faces unique in nature, living in grasslands where any of the ubiquitous humans may or may not be a poacher. With our strength, we can destroy each other with ease. But we are a lost generation. We have no elders, no stable groups, no one to teach us to countenance pain. No matriarchs to tell the young girls to knock it off or show off their own long lives lived happily and well. (p. 101).

When you are a trans woman, Ames suggests, you are on your own. You know how to be trans, but you do not know how to do trans, so hit-or-miss improvisation is your inescapable fate. Unlike improvisational comedians or jazz musicians, there is no regular practice overseen and developed by matriarchs (or patriarchs if you are trans masculine) to teach the dispositions and habits necessary to cope with and in an uncomprehending world. So trans women lash out — against each…

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Laura Nelson

Writer, philosopher, information technologist,guitarist, neurotic, polite radical, avid and indiscriminate reader, Episcopalian, trans woman.