June 12, 2013

Book Review: Warrior Princess

warriorprincesscoverWarrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL’s Journey to Coming Out Transgender by Kristin Beck and Anne Speckhard. Adavances Press, 2013, $9.99 [Kindle edition]. 

Kristin Beck, the retired Navy SEAL who has come out after a distinguished twenty year career as a transgender woman, popped unexpectedly onto everyone’s radar last week when her book, Warrior Princess, released. The media push culminated with a Thursday evening primetime interview on Anderson Cooper 360, a platform prominent enough that even my mother felt the need to text me about it. [“Did you know that a SEAL just came out as transgendered?” “Yes, mom, I’ve been reading the book for two days.”]

The book itself, co-authored by Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is in many ways a familiar one  for those of us who are even remotely well-read in the genre of transgender biography. Beck was born in a male body; early in her life she identified as female; when she was caught exploring those feelings she was shamed by her father; as an adult she tried to “cure” herself by “being a man”; and ultimately she gave up trying to run from it and gave herself over to her core feelings. In terms of genre, Warrior Princess is not breaking new ground.

The draw, of course, is who Beck is: a retired Navy SEAL. In fact, part of the narrative here is to portray Beck as the complete opposite of everything the public might assume about transgender women.

[Side note: I keep seeing haters insisting that she’s an “ex-SEAL,” as if that somehow takes the curse off it, but that’s not accurate. She is a retired SEAL. She could still return to active duty, hypothetically, if the military allowed transgender soldiers (which they don’t).]

Beck’s childhood was full of “be a man” messaging and activities — hog slopping, football training, motorcycle repair, and a father with strong conservative religious values. As the story is told, Beck’s father routinely punished her while doting over her sisters, and this engendered in her as wish to be her sisters so that she could avoid punishment and earn her father’s approval. I do find it a little disconcerting that Beck portrays her childhood in a way that implies — though it is never outright stated — that her transgender feelings were exacerbated by, if not caused by, the lack of affection she got from her father, as this plays to the stereotype of transgender women as “men with daddy issues.” But it is her story, and I won’t presume to question the authenticity of her presentation.



As an adult, Kris was a twenty-year war hero who served in Iraq and Afghanistan; she was a Christian, at least at first (her religious views seem to shift as the story progresses); and she became a husband and father, though she was not very good in either role. She’s also intelligent and innovative, having not just served as a SEAL but also created or refined several military tools that have become standard equipment in foreign war zones. Even once she came out, she remained a proud American serviceeprson who was not afraid to stand up against someone who spoke ill of the military or who, in one instance, pretended to be a SEAL to pick up women. Beck is every inch the soldier, the patriot, the American that people look up to … and she’s transgender. It’s a fascinating scenario.

Ultimately, then, the story is an important one to tell and Beck is courageous to be coming out with it all. Which makes it all the more disappointing for me to write this next bit …

As interesting as Beck’s story is, the book itself is simply not well written. Neither Bell nor Speckhard are very eloquent writers — we got that biography a decade ago with She’s Not There — and so the prose is generally rough; the combat sequences are especially clunky in their dramatic presentation. There’s also odd repetitions of information, and sometimes even whole passages, either twice in a chapter or even between chapters (which are routinely only two or three pages long). In its worst moments, the book is even besmirched by grammatical errors.

While I’m not one to be pedantic about errors in published writing, the problems with this prose are hard to ignore.  This feels like a book rushed in its writing and only lightly revised. Beck’s story is important, and it’s disappointing to think that some readers might dismiss it because of its presentation. Honestly, I would wonder about the effectiveness of the copy editors at Advances Press.

Beck’s story is an inspiring one; I only wish she and her co-author had spent a little more time polishing it before release. Still, her story is getting exposure. She is challenging the stereotype of the transgender woman, she’s making it to primetime television, and she’s generally getting people to talk about things that need to be talked about. That makes Warrior Princess an important book for the transgender community.

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