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(Image: Archi Banal)
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BooksJuly 15, 2023

A story told honestly and told well: Pageboy by Elliot Page

(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

Amelia Berry reviews one of the most anticipated celebrity memoirs of 2023. 

It seems like every day the moral panic around transness gets a little sweatier. Every day another incredulous journalist asks the same leading questions about the ethics of puberty blockers. Every day another cynical politician comes out blustering about what a woman is. Every day a thousand British women on Twitter whip themselves into a frenzy about skull measurements or underwear or whatever.

The consequences of this are increasingly difficult to ignore. Bomb threats and protests against queer events. A stabbing in a Philosophy of Gender course in Canada. A growing raft of bills banning trans healthcare and rolling back anti-discrimination laws across the United States.

Amid this grim sea of pearl-clutching, scare-mongering, and opportunism, Elliot Page’s new memoir Pageboy feels like a rare island of humanity and reflection.

The Academy Award-nominated actor, producer and director was thrust into the limelight at just 20 after starring in Jason Reitman’s 2007 indie teen-pregnancy dramedy, Juno. That was followed by roles in Inception, Whip It, and most recently the Netflix series The Umbrella Academy.

Coming out as gay in 2014, and then as transgender in 2020, Pageboy marks Page’s first major piece of writing — an answer to years of lurid media speculation about his sexuality and gender, a touching account of friendships, love, and growing up, and an account of Hollywood homophobia that pulls few punches.

The writing is good. Much better than the average celebrity memoir. And while there is the odd clunky metaphor or bit of tonal awkwardness, he comes at it with such deep earnestness that every anecdote is imparted with vitality and emotion. While Page’s characters on-screen have always had a stoic cool and steely-eyed reserve, Page himself comes off as much more of a dweeby younger brother. Sweet and loveable for sure, but a man who describes the geography of his hometown Halifax via a long description of World War Two naval disaster.

He’s a guy who dutifully reports every appearance of a dog, remembers the soccer position of every childhood friend, sets his poignant final chapter at a Peaches concert, and at one point listens to Downtown by Petula Clark on repeat for hours. It’s these particularities that make the book feel so deeply personal, even when it’s just reporting statistical facts about the size of a beaver, or pondering the finer points of composting your own shit.

He doesn’t shy away from the embarrassing or the graphic either, and for those interested in the gory details, we get right into it with sex, self-harm, rollerblading injuries, diarrhoea and eating disorders all discussed with a refreshing frankness (and gross-out yuck where appropriate).

“Queerness is intrinsically non-linear,” Page says in the author’s note, “journeys that bend and wind.” This ties into the structure of the book which is totally non-chronological. Each chapter is built out of thematically aligned stories from Page’s life, skipping from high-school to Hollywood and then back to a sea cave on the coast of Halifax. With Page quoting Vonnegut a couple of times in the book (including the massively underrated Mother Night), Page’s own memoir being “unstuck in time” feels like a little metatextual nod to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five — the way trauma and regret breed discontinuity.

It would be easy for this not to work, and there are a couple of sections that do feel disjointed or repetitive (the man has had many rough relationships!). But overall it’s a technique that really helps in building up the spectre of the closet — juxtaposing the adult and child to emphasise the pain of not understanding your place in the world, and drive home the triumph of self-revelation and coming out.

For trans readers, a lot of what Page goes through will be very familiar. Eating disorders, stress and anxiety with clothing and appearance, odd and almost unexplained detachment and estrangement from friends and family, and destructive and codependent romantic relationships are all pretty textbook closet experiences.

Page’s writing manages to cut through the pain, always wringing some hope and beauty out of his hurt: 

“If a part of you is always separate, if existing in your body feels unbearable – love is an irresistible escape” … “You transcend, a sensation so indescribable that philosophers, scientists, and writers can’t seem to agree on what the fuck it even is – if it even is. I often wonder if I have actually experienced deep love. I feel as though I have, but is it real if you were never there? When you have numbed yourself to the truth? Love was unwittingly an emotional disguise, and my relationship to it is another muscle to be transformed.”

The writing on Hollywood is of course less familiar, though perhaps not unexpected. Page writes eloquently about being preyed on sexually as a teenager, receiving homophobic abuse from prominent directors and actors, and being pressured to stay closeted by executives and management. It’s an image of Hollywood where personal identity is professional leverage, sometimes a marketing gimmick but more often a cudgel used to keep “difficult” actors in line.

Page mostly steers clear of naming names (although I’m sure a dedicated hater could piece together some homophobe identities from dates and locations) but really goes in on the production of the 2017 Flatliners remake, which sounds both miserable and physically dangerous. From high speed car stunts performed without padding or harnesses to patronising insinuations and homophobic jibes from producers and executives, it’s a cutting portrait of Page’s on-set marginalisation.

Of his other films, Whip It gets by far the most time on the page, with Page having made some lifelong friends on set and getting a lot out of the camaraderie of the roller derby experience. If nothing else, Pageboy will make you want to watch Drew Barrymore’s 2009 directorial debut.

Fun fact: Whip It was adapted from a novel by Shauna Cross

As the story of a trans life, there is nothing particularly novel here – Page says as much in the author’s note. Towards the end of the book, talking about his journey to hormones and top-surgery, he says: 

“Here is the thing – I almost did not make it, the now I finally have I did not see, and all I knew was permanent emptiness, a mystery I would never solve. Incessant, without language, a depth of despair. Shameful, with all that I had – what dreams are made of. I did nothing but sink, dread blanketing me. I couldn’t see what was in front of me.”

He ends that chapter, “Let me just exist with you, happier than ever.”

These are feelings, a message, as old as anything – lived by countless people, countless times. But it’s a story that needs to be constantly renewed, constantly retold, from different perspectives and different voices, for new audiences and revived enemies.

I don’t know if a cis reader will get out of Elliot Page’s Pageboy what I got out of it. It’s very unlikely you’ll cry when he tells the story of going swimming in his friend’s Speedo, but I did. Will you scream when you hear about his dad liking a particular Jordan Peterson tweet? I don’t know. But I hope if you do read it, you’ll feel some measure of the relief that I did in hearing a story about transness so relieved of sensationalism, hate, metaphysical posturing and online point-scoring. The relief I felt in reading that same old story, told honestly – told well.

Pageboy by Elliot Page (Penguin, $40) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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