Hampshire College Professor Margaret Cerullo Assures Students, “You Don’t Have to Read It to Know What’s in It”

I haven’t been so excited about alternating narrators since first reading Faulkner as an undergraduate.  I am counting the days till Boxing Day, when I can repair to my aerie high atop Copley Square and settle in with Christine Benvenuto’s Sex Changes: A Memoir of Marriage, Gender, and Moving On and Joy Ladin’s Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey between Genders side-by-side on my nightstand.

Each of these books tells the same story: the dissolution of the Benvenuto-Ladin marriage in the wake of Joy (then Jay) altering a male’s body and appearance to his (then her) internally perceived identity.  In addition to shedding her body hair during this transition, Joy shed his wife and three kids, leaving them behind in Collegetown, USA, to find feminine fame and fortune in New York City.

Hence the dueling memoirs.  I can hardly contain myself, having read excerpts from each and thus knowing that these books are well-written and juicy, juicy, juicy.  I expect to learn a lot, but reserve final critical judgment until I have read them both.

That is, if Collegetown’s censors will let me.  Here in New England we have a long and shameful history of bluestockings telling us what we can and cannot read, and what we should and should not say.  As Ms. Benvenuto found out the hard way a few weeks ago when she attempted to give a talk about her perspective on events chronicled by her ex-husband Joy Ladin.  The censors stepped in and put a quick end to Ms. Benvenuto’s free expression. You see, Sex Changes has sparked

a local protest which included Margaret Cerullo, a Hampshire College professor of sociology, who admits she hasn’t read the book, but nevertheless calls it hurtful, containing negative stereotypes about transgender people based on excerpts she read online. “These kind of portrayals are very damaging, especially for young trans people, who are already struggling with self-image … it seemed unnecessarily cruel,” she said in a phone interview.

Professor Cerullo takes precautions to avoid reading before forming an opinion.

Professor Cerullo takes precautions to avoid reading before forming
an opinion.

Last month Cerullo, a group of Hampshire students and others — including friends of Benvenuto’s ex-husband — showed up at Benvenuto’s reading at Amherst Books to voice their objections, an episode that ended with police being called. Cerullo said the group was attempting to have “a dialogue” with Benvenuto. Benvenuto, however, said the protesters shouted obscenities, even though children were present at the bookstore, and seemed to be seeking “a violent encounter.”

The Hampshire College referenced in the above excerpt from the Amherst Bulletin is the same institution whose fourth president, Gregory S. Prince, Jr., promulgated principles of discourse to help members of the campus community conduct their debates with respect if not restraint.  Alas, these worthy principles no longer appear on Hampshire’s website, and it appears they have no currency beyond the campus’s lush landscape. Nor, does it appear, does Hampshire’s mission statement’s lofty promise to prepare

students to understand and participate responsibly in a complex world. Through its actions and policies, the college sets an example of the responsible and creative behavior it expects of its students.

hold sway when professors set the fine, fine example of not reading the very texts for which they instigate protests.  I’m hoping this kind of uncritical thinking is not the rule at Hampshire, because I think it is a pretty good school.

I commend the Bulletin‘s article to you, if for no other reason than the mostly thoughtful examinations of the issues raised in the story you’ll find in the comments.  But you also do not want to miss the hilarity that ensues when Joy Ladin herself enters the fray, daring any and all to put up their dukes and fight like a man.

In a follow-up letter to the editor, Professor Cerullo reaches deep into her lexicon and pulls out the old chestnut “the personal is political,” an insight feminists in the fabulous 1960’s and ’70’s used as a shorthand to explain that a sister’s personal problems (lousy homelife, crappy boss) were inevitable consequences of systemic sexism and therefore “political.”  (You really had to have been there.)

Ms. Benvenuto’s confessional memoir, says the Professor, is an exercise in “hate speech”:

We [Cerullo and her co-authors] do not question the rights of individuals to tell their painful personal narratives about what happens when a family member is transgender. But as feminists taught us since the 1960s, often, the personal is political. Personal hate, when made so public, is hate speech.

So let’s get this straight.  According to Professor Cerullo, when Benvenuto’s husband rejected the relationship the couple had built over decades, leaving Benvenuto without a husband and their kids without a father, in order to fulfill his own personal (but apparently not “political”) needs, the personal misery she–Benvenuto–experienced cannot be shared with readers because the words that describe her genuine thoughts and emotions constitute “hate speech.”  In other words, it’s OK for Jay Ladin the man to act upon his inner need to become Joy Ladin the woman, but it’s not OK for Christine Benvenuto to express the inner turmoil she experienced during and after a cataclysmic change in her and her children’s life.  Yeah, that makes sense.

Professor Cerullo’s letter helpfully points out that

If trans women like [Joy Ladin] cannot “pass” by wearing “women’s clothing” (found creepy and sad by the author) they are at risk of becoming a target of verbal, physical and sexual assault.

Will Professor Cerullo approve of Miss Marple's "women's clothes"?

Will Professor Cerullo approve of Miss Marple’s “women’s clothes”?

I have no idea how Joy Ladin dresses, or whether her attire makes her a target of unwanted comments.  I can certainly understand, however, the discomfiture an ex-wife, accustomed as she was to a very different sartorial style on the very different body of Jay Ladin, would feel sad and creeped out.  Sad that the man she loved no longer exists.  Creeped out that in fact he still does but in a different skin.

What I don’t understand is Professor Cerullo’s deafening cognitive dissonance. The professor is sympathetic to Joy Ladin’s difficulty finding clothes that will enable her to “‘pass,'” but cannot resist the impulse to belittle those choices as “‘women’s clothing'”–quotation marks speak volumes–in much the same way those sexist brutes back in the ’70’s made the personal political when they dismissed housekeeping, nursing, and stenography as “women’s work.”

Its appears to be the same kind of flawed reasoning that allows one to condemn the expression of deep feelings of betrayal, abandonment, and anger yet applaud the expression of a female persona longing to escape the confines of a male body.  I wonder what puts a transgendered person in more peril: a society that encourages us to keep our private thoughts and feelings to ourselves, or one that permits free and full expression, no matter how painful it might be or how many ruined lives it leaves in its wake.

19 thoughts on “Hampshire College Professor Margaret Cerullo Assures Students, “You Don’t Have to Read It to Know What’s in It”

  1. Well, when the good professor is old and in the minority she’ll find very quickly that the new no majority majority thinks she is a pain the arse and not worth supporting on the only welfare system designed for people like her. And in that sense, the fact that the government is electing a new people under our noses will all be worth it.

  2. Nice writing style. Cuts like a knife, where the wound’s not noticed until the blood is seen…. and by then it’s too late.

  3. I wonder where Dr. Cerullo would be if it had been Christine changing out equipment to become Chuck? And what if the first two things Chuck did was buy Patriots season tickets and joined the NRA?

    • No doubt she would point to the political ramifications of Chuck’s personal decision to join the NRA.

      But you raise an interesting point. How many married women abandon their husbands to live a new life as a man themselves. Lots of women do follow what the baritone voice inside them tells them to do, but typically these are women who are not wed, no? Hmm. A new research project.

    • So glad you asked! Her inspirational comment about the Affordable Health Care Act, “we have to pass it to know what’s in it” was my source for the title of this essay.

  4. Yeah! At last someone has a truthful, real, in-biased comment about Ms. Benvenuto’s book. Let’s be fair folks, her book was about the end of her 20 year, what she thought was the love of her life, relationship. Not a book to speak against joy ladin or the GLBT community. Again I say yeah!

    • Thanks for the heads up! Pelosi’s comment seems iconic to me, and forever attached to “the fog” surrounding the passage of Obamacare, but I will keep in mind the important issue you have raised.

  5. I agree with both Ms. Pelosi and the author of the article above. We don’t need to read the ex’s book to know that it’s basically an angry screed. The ex has no one to blame but herself. Joy made full disclosure about her gender identity very early on in their relationship. The ex chose to be in denial. That just shows they shouldn’t have been together in the first place, and divorce, while sad and difficult was the best option. I hope Joy’s ex gets some therapy and gets over her anger. She’ll never find a suitable mate if she’s all Transsexual Empire with any future dates she may have.

  6. What a great piece. You hit the nail on the head over and over. The problem is the censorship, specifically of women. After having read the book I think basically the professor was played. Ladin’s demands for censorship is very much privet and played as political. It isn’t a spoiler to say the book shows Ladin an abusive husband shows the harassment the writer endured. Ladin herself now shows the pattern extending past the marriage as she continues to bully her ex-wife and calls for the book to be censored. In light of a cyber stalking ex-husband, the good professors claim that Ladin is in danger is offensive. How many trans people have been harmed by a heterosexual woman? (I know, the bodies are piling up, see ‘em by the door). Now how many women are killed each year by former husbands? Only an average of three women a day. Now who do we think is in danger? Yeah me too. Had Cerullo deigned to read CB’s “Sex Changes” even she would have realized it is not only about the end of a family and a long marriage, but pointedly about the spousal abuse that Jay Ladin inflicted on his wife and children. Joy Ladin can claim that “and” and “the” are hate speech. She is a garden-variety misogynist and just plays the vitium to victimize. And then calls anyone and everyone transphobic. Well people do tend to fear bullies. The truth is that Ladin is not going to be looking quite so heroic or so victimized, or so brave and scared, nobel (or whatever else she frames herself as) after every, Sisterhood and Hadassah lady read “Sex Changes” in book group.

  7. I find it rather suspect that the author begins this article by stating that they themselves have not read either book, yet attempts to dismiss all of Margaret’s comments on the subject because she had not read the book in its entirety. Secondly, it is absolutely ridiculous to attempt to state that Benvenuto’s book is about the ‘end of a marriage’ and not trans* people. It is titled “Sex Changes” for god’s sake! It is absolutely a) a sensational plug to grab people’s voyeuristic attention about trans* issues and people and b) transphobic and transmisogynistic from start to appalling finish. She refuses to refer to her ex-partner with the correct pronouns or name through the entire text, for starters. On another note, Banewmark, why don’t you take a minute to find some statistics on the horrific violence (and ever rising deathtoll) faced by transwomen on the daily. But, for easy reading the low estimate is that 1 in 12 transwomen is murdered. And lastly, Margaret’s usage in quotation marks for “women’s clothing” is not a snide remark about the way Joy dresses, but an allusion to the apparently radical notion that it is ridiculous the way that we police and gender clothing as whole. I would also like to add that Joy has not “risen to fame” in NYC but faces oppression and extreme poverty due to the rampant transphobia and violence she experiences every day.

    • Calm down, Katie!

      What’s “suspect”? I clearly state about the books that “I expect to learn a lot, but reserve final critical judgment until I have read them both.”

      The full title of Benvenuto’s book is Sex Changes: A Memoir of Marriage, Gender, and Moving On. Sounds to me like it’s about the end of a marriage…especially the “memoir of marriage” and “moving on” bits. In any event, this title is no more “sensational” than Ladin’s Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey between Genders. One could argue, in fact, that the multiple meanings of “sex changes” in fact obscure what “journey between genders” makes explicit…for those of a voyeuristic turn of mind, of course.

      I’d like to know what evidence you can offer to support your claim that Ladin is a pauper. As the David and Ruth Gottesman Professor of English at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University, surely she makes a decent living. Teaching English can be grueling, but it’s a line of work that tends not to expose the practitioner to violence or oppression.

      Dressing as a woman is very important to Joy Ladin, and was a critical component of her transition. Anyone who would deny or diminish her right to celebrate her femininity through her choice of garments is the true oppressor.

      Thank you for writing–give my regards to Professor Cerullo.

    • Katie: I did my research as you suggested :http://maleviolence.wordpress.com/2012/12/31/kenneth-hunt-aka-ketheena-soneeya/


      Really you do not want people researching this. I would take another tactic than claiming in trans are danger given how many women have been murdered in the last 5 years by “trans” women. I know though thats okay they were “just women” but they could steal all that sympathy and pity from the crafted discussion.

  8. Joy Ladin has forty plus years of white man privilege under her belt. She is a tenured professor and is paid the same as any other professor in her position. So please save the histrionics and the drama because they really sound ridiculous and ignorant—But I do appreciate the image of the little matchstick girl image of Joy Ladin. I got a giggle from that. I read the book and it is about an abusive, very abusive husband and father and marriage. And by golly that husband, he abuses a woman, a wife a mother—what a shocker. Bet you didn’t see that coming. What will they think of next?

    Joy Ladin has been the victim of violence, really, date and time. That my friend is untrue and in the vernacular called a lie—learn that in class did you? Joy Ladin would call a hangnail an assault and believe me if she even tripped on the sidewalk she would have made it know worldwide. Here are the stats sweetie—3 women a day are killed by an ex-husband. Zero trans have been killed by a heterosexual women. Now based on that, the real stats—who is in danger. If you think Ms. Benevenuto, you are correct. See how easy that was. Try it at home, called reality. Add to the picture Ms Ladin’s cyber stalking and I would say we have a garden variety abusive ex husband. Period end of story. And most women, see it that way too.
    Joy Ladin does not want people to know that Joy was and is a misogynist and an abuser.

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