Queering the Familiar: Genealogy of a Book and its Cover

By Carla A. Pfeffer

Do you ever wonder how an author decided to write a book or how a book cover came to be? I often find these to be fascinating parts of the book creation process, but areas that many authors don’t say much about. In this post, I’m going to offer some of this background story on my book, Queering Families: The Postmodern Partnerships of Cisgender Women and Transgender Men.

fa·mil·iar

fəˈmilyər/

adjective

well known from long or close association.

noun

a demon supposedly attending and obeying a witch, often said to assume the form of an

animal.

Cultural Response to “Unfamiliar” Families

One of the first moments of awareness that I needed to write Queering Families occurred one afternoon while I was working on my dissertation with the television on for background noise. Oprah Winfrey appeared, announcing that she had partnered exclusively with People magazine for an interview with Thomas Beatie, who the press was dubbing, “the world’s first pregnant man.” At that time, I’d been studying a group of fifty cisgender women partners of transgender men over the past three years and was excited to see one segment of the trans community covered on a forum that would, quite literally, reach millions of people. Over the next hour, Winfrey interviewed Thomas Beatie and his then-wife, Nancy. Winfrey followed the Beaties to Thomas’ obstetrical appointments, peeked into his body through ultrasound images, and offered video vignettes of the Beaties’ neighbors and life together in a suburban community in Bend, Oregon.

What I found most remarkable about this hour of television was not so much Thomas Beatie, his pregnancy, his wife Nancy, or even the details of their day-to-day family life. In many ways, their story actually seemed quite mundane. My focus, instead, was drawn to Oprah and her audience. Over the course of the hour, cameras panned and focused for close-ups upon viewers who appeared shocked and bewildered; in many instances, their mouths quite literally agape, slack-jawed, as they stared at Thomas and Nancy and then turned to one another. Their faces mirrored confusion and disbelief.

shocked-audience

After the show aired, Internet chat rooms were abuzz with thousands of comments; their tones ranged from supportive to curious to overtly disgusted and irate. Simply put, many individuals were confused and shocked by these postmodern queer family forms about which they knew and understood very little.

Comment_1

Comment_2

Comment_3

[These are publicly-posted comments to internet chat rooms following Oprah’s Beatie episode]

Family Trees and Judging a Book by its Cover

As I wrote the book, I continued to ponder the faces and reactions of those engaging with an unfamiliar family form. This focus continued throughout, and even after I finished the book and began to think about potential book cover designs. The book cover image my editor at Oxford University Press first sent to me for consideration lit a fire under me. I immediately knew it was exactly something I did not want for the cover of this book. It had all the requisite components you might expect—a family tree, full with leaves and rainbow-colored boxes. It felt derivative, like it couldn’t possibly do justice to the complex stories and experiences with which I had been entrusted by my participants.

Tree_1

 [Image available via Getty Images]

So I began searching through thousands of images to find something that felt more fitting. I recognized it immediately when I finally found it.

Tree_2

 [Image available via Getty Images]

The image was recognizable yet ambiguous, inverted—or was it? Were those barren branches or life-giving roots? Is that verdant and lush greenness foliage or moss-covered ground? Are those blue clouds floating in the sky or a water source toward which the roots are stretching? In the branches/roots, where some might see barrenness, Halloween, death, others might see something more arterial—a pathway for vital sustenance and growth. The bold starkness of the colors of the image seemed almost surreal, particularly juxtaposed against the often saccharine, nostalgic renderings of many family trees. In this image, there was no singular originary structure—a trunk; rather, it had an almost rhizomatic quality to it. The image felt a bit like a confrontation, something you had to think about rather than assume. It was an image that left you a bit unsettled even as it drew you in for a closer look. And it was also beautiful, simultaneously strong and fragile, in transition—perhaps from season to season, from life to death, or death to life.

I was thrilled when the design team also liked the image I’d so obviously fallen in love with, but less thrilled when I saw the mock-up of the cover. They had placed a green overlay atop the image.

Tree_3

Originally, this irked me to no end. I felt it minimized the distinctiveness and surreal quality of the colors in the original image, blending them into a more uniform and bland palate. Over time, it grew on me. I came to see it as the color of the sky in the middle of a tornado—a warning that this is a sky not to be messed with or taken lightly. It was a color that simultaneously symbolizes queasiness, newness, growth, good fortune, perhaps even envy.

Familiar or Unfamiliar?

What I love most about the cover image is that it tends to move the observer and their perceptions from background irrelevance to front and center. Unlike more normative or predictable images symbolizing families, the image is not so easily assimilated; rather, the viewer’s interpretation becomes requisite. It challenges you to step out of passive inattention and into wondering, asking, talking. And, in that moment, it is you and your perceptions that may be called into question, becoming the subject.

The image is, in many ways, symbolic of the lives and families of the cis women I interviewed for the book project. Their relationships have been described by some as highly normative—reflecting a mirror image of 1950s housewifery in the twenty-first century. Yet others understand their relationships as a complete inversion or even perversion of families and family life. In the book, I explore the possibility that queer relationships and families bear no more and no less responsibility than any other types of relationships to socially conform or to subvert normativity. The book’s title is meant to beg the question: Just who or what is doing the queering here? Do we understand cis women and their trans men partners and the families they create as the ones queering families? Ultimately, I argue that is incumbent upon all of us to consider how our perceptions, our interpretations, and our assumptions around families (and who and what gets to “count” as a family or family issues) hold the greatest potential to queer and transform these very concepts and institutions.

Dr. Carla Pfeffer  is Associate Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina and Chair-Elect of the Sexualities Section of the American Sociological Association. Pfeffer’s research on cisgender women’s partnerships with transgender men has been published in the American Journal of Sociology, Gender & Society, Journal of Marriage and Family, and the Journal of Lesbian Studies. Her book, Queering Families: The Postmodern Partnerships of Cisgender Women and Transgender Men, was published by Oxford University Press (2017). Pfeffer’s research has been recognized through funding and awards from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, American Council of Learned Societies, National Council on Family Relations, and the sections on Sexualities and Sex and Gender of the American Sociological Association. In a new collaborative and international project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, Pfeffer and colleagues will study transgender men’s practices and experiences around reproduction and reproductive healthcare.

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