Cameron Awkward-Rich, The Terrible We: Thinking with Trans Maladjustment. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022; 196 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4780-1868-1

Reviewed by Jules Wong, The Pennsylvania State University

What do we do when “the politics of affirmation, love, and legibility” (29) fails to fulfil its promises? In The Terrible We: Thinking with Trans Maladjustment, Cameron Awkward-Rich instructs us to feel with the loss of those unfulfilled promises, and pay careful attention to the people and experiences that were never really subjects of these hopes, now dashed. For Awkward-Rich, this issue is brightly illuminated by the tense relationship between trans and disability. Arguments for trans recognition have often sharply divided the trans person from the mentally ill person, premising the authority of a trans perspective and subject on the disavowal of sickness, madness, unhappiness, and despair. This disavowal, Awkward-Rich argues, is neither ethically nor politically sustainable. In his archival research and argumentation, Awkward-Rich magnascopes the marginalization of negative experiences presupposed by personal and political projects of capacitation. Yet, the project is not simply negative, for it holds space for “[s]itting together” as a “terrible we” (150). 

Although the work takes clear direction from disability and mad studies, it is something other than an attempt to remove or challenge the ableism within trans knowledge production, because the concept of trans maladjustment does not coincide with disability or madness. Trans maladjustment contains painful feelings that may be understood as pathological or politically impairing. Not reducible to feeling alone, it refers to a misfitting relationship between a (trans) person and social world on the basis of their embodiment. However, maladjustment refers to those conditions that cannot become “protectable disability” under legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (8). Thus, maladjustment captures reclusiveness (but not social anxiety), feeling depressive (but not being depressed), identifying as trans (but not being diagnosed with dysphoria) (9). Although it relates to disability at a slant, the concept shares an important connection with Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s critical concept of misfit. As described in “Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept,” misfit is “an incongruent relationship” between body and world that we recognize as disability (Garland-Thomson 2011, 593). Maladjustment (and theorizing it) is a point of potential solidarity between trans and disability. 

It is crucial to note that this solidarity is not aspirational, or even simply ethical. The political ontologies of trans and disability have developed together, and may continue to. As it is explained in the opening of the first chapter, there was a time when trans identity was set to be included in the Americans with Disabilities Act, which would have offered employment protection thirty years before it was federally extended to trans people, in 2020. In the first chapter, Awkward-Rich introduces three transmasculine people from the newspaper archives of gender nonconformity who exemplify the “trans/crip conjunction” The Terrible We aims to convey (33). The vignettes of Evelyn “Jackie” Bross, Milton Matson, and Jack Bee Garland narrate a transmasculine history of the policing of gender alongside/as the production of disability. Each of these figures found themselves entangled in the spaces of containment and exile where madness and gender non-normativity coincide: the asylum, the freak show, the prison. These vignettes contain particularly useful examples of the idiosyncratic appearances of agency under oppressions. The case of Garland in particular offers a surprising illustration of how a degree of control over one’s gender recognition can come with posing as disabled or approximating oneself to disability. Assessing the case of Matson, Awkward-Rich offers a helpful discussion of the imbrication of gender, race, and disability in a way resonant with arguments offered by C. Riley Snorton (2017) and Jules Gill-Peterson (2018). The central upshot of this trip through trans histories “before and beside the clinic,”  however, is a well-supported invitation to question the tendency to eliminate madness and disability from the construction of trans authority—of who speaks for the ‘we,’ be they ‘trancestors’ or our contemporaries (32).

Strictly speaking, Awkward-Rich’s intervention is part of the “introspective turn” (see Nash 2019) of trans studies, asking: What does trans studies feel like? (10). Awkward-Rich’s work joins Hil Malatino’s Side Affects (2022) in both beginning and staying with the negative feelings that texture trans life and taking these bad feelings to be political objects that do things: indicate the structuring features of social life, shape self-understanding, and enable or disenable collective action. While other studies of affect bring into relief the resistant power of negative feelings, Awkward-Rich is “more interested in how the habits of thought and feeling associated with depression might allow us to live together” (76). Although he acknowledges the rich tradition of naming and seizing trans rage for political purposes, Awkward-Rich is particularly interested in the feelings that cannot be made politically actionable. This is because the trans maladjustment to which he attends should not be understood as or assumed to be a response reducible to anti-trans oppression (6). Awkward-Rich focuses on how misfitting with the social world is internal to the process of becoming oneself in it.

This misfitting is explored in the second and third chapters, which approach the ambivalent attachments of transmasculinity and feminism through the maladjusted conditions of depression and dissociation. The second chapter retells and evaluates accounts about the status of the transmasc as a subject of feminism. Some tell ‘good stories,’ where the transmasc straightforwardly contributes to the feminist project of undoing gender, and where the transmasc as boy is a feminist hero because he refuses to grow into the power and domination of the man. This positive spin Awkward-Rich encourages us to reject, noting transmasculinity’s tendency to “disavow [its] attachments to girlhood [and] tend to reproduce and reinforce m > f” (69). The right story is more bad than good, where transmasculinity and feminism experience each other as their own undoing—an undoing that attests to a mutual desire that Awkward-Rich suggests is love. The power and plausibility of this conclusion may rest on the extent to which one endorses the psychoanalytic understanding of love that Awkward-Rich employs. On this issue, one feels the absence of an engagement with two of Judith Butler’s essays on melancholy gender and the ambivalence of love-recognition respectively (Butler 2004, ch.6 and Butler 1997, ch.5). Regardless, Awkward-Rich compellingly shows that trans and feminism seem to need each other, but both seem to disavow their attachments to one another in ways that produce pain for both. Further, a depressive and somewhat detached stance towards this interdependency is crucial. The transmasc is tensely related to feminism as both a “discourse he can speak to articulate the harms he incurred for failing to be f” and a discourse that figures his existence as a problem (88). 

The third chapter continues on this current by considering “dissociation not as the pathological root of transmasculinity but rather as something that has enabled transmasculine becoming and thought” in an extended engagement with transmasculine cultural production (92). Dissociation is explored as an effect of trauma and especially sexual violence. Here, Awkward-Rich dares to genuinely engage the question of the relation between traumatic experiences, dissociative responses, and gender. I say ‘dare’ because this idea has been worn out by transphobic/TERF arguments that transmasculinity is a symptom of gender-based violence, a “maladaptive response” that should not be endorsed (91). The core point of this chapter is that it is possible to account for all experiences of sexual violence without understanding these traumatic experiences through the ‘natural attitude’ about sex/gender, wherein afab is victim and amab is perpetrator. An important step to bringing forth this account is embracing the productivity of dissociation. Awkward-Rich here examines how trauma is so often a feature of the process of how trans people are recognized and come to recognize themselves. Awkward-Rich proposes that for trans, queers, and feminists alike, shattering experiences of “gendering violence […] produce something other than heteropatriarchal gender” because they constitute “knowledge” of the contingency of cisheteropatriarchy (114). In other words, Awkward-Rich aims to take terrain away from the TERFs who argue that transmasculinity is a flawed result of patriarchal sexual violation of the f. Dissociating from cisgender is adaptive but not maladaptive, society’s “generative failure” to reproduce (98). 

Having sketched the band of misfits that forms the terrible we, the fourth and final chapter breaks from the underlying assumption that being a part of a we means being together. Awkward-Rich here argues that “the major strategies early work in trans studies used to affirm trans speech […] begin from forms of withdrawal,” to propose that trans should not (and will not) overcome asociality, defined as “a turning away from the human (and the Human) world in favour of other forms of relationality” (119). This chapter offers a helpful reconstruction of major positions in trans theory/philosophy on what trans subjectivity is and why trans self-understandings are authoritative, and ought to be treated as such by cis people. Awkward-Rich finds that “the wrong-body model, the gender-freedom model, […] the queer trans model,” and Talia Mae Bettcher’s (2014) turn, in “Trapped in the Wrong Theory,” to trans worlds of sense all rely on retreats from reality and sociality. To highlight the position Awkward-Rich takes regarding a/sociality, I will focus on the engagement with Bettcher. Bettcher’s worlds of sense model combines a social metaphysics of multiple worlds of sense, drawn from María Lugones, with a theory of meaning in which the semantics of gender terms are fixed by social practices wherein trans embodiment is paradigmatic. Hence, trans antagonism often expresses itself as ‘reality enforcement,’ the enforcement of cis worlds/meanings over trans worlds/meanings. 

Awkward-Rich argues that Bettcher’s turn to trans worlds of sense represents a certain withdrawal from the social, a retreat from cis worlds of sense. This leads him to suspect that Bettcher hasn’t addressed the “problem that sets trans off in search of a model to begin with,” namely, the denial of gender recognition by (non-trans) others (124). In other words, the other-imposed attribution of gender “counts” more than self-attributed gender (where this self is understood to be supported by a trans community of practice), and this fact makes “trans sociality […] from the beginning and by definition, fraught” (124).

I think that Awkward-Rich’s observations of Bettcher’s account, however, have failed to sufficiently appreciate that Bettcher’s point is to throw the presumed authority of cis into question. Bettcher leans on Lugones for support on this point, who argues that social reality is constituted by multiple intersecting and overlapping worlds, with their relatively world-specific meanings and practices (2003, Introduction, ch.2, ch.4). If the routine denial of gender recognition is indeed the central problem that motivates the search for accounts of trans reality, Bettcher’s response is that there are multiple forms of gender recognition. Some of them succeed for trans people; and only some of them succeed for cis people. Bettcher not only foregrounds trans life, but also exposes the interconnectedness and interdependence of cis/trans—where these connections and dependencies are, as Awkward-Rich has persuasively shown, fraught with bad feelings, power imbalances and deficits, and disavowal. Thus, Bettcher’s move is not a retreat from the hegemony of cis authority into trans worlds of sense, but rather a move to thrust trans communities and practices into publicity, with the effect of throwing the presumed authority of cis into question. In sum, it is mistaken to locate Bettcher’s turn to trans worlds under the topic of asociality, at least as Awkward-Rich pursues it.

A most fascinating innovation of the fourth chapter is the proposal that transitions happen by reading trans literature. Having proposed trans asociality, Awkward-Rich carves out space for the possibility of relations with objects: books. Books stand in for the absent others who might recognize us, and reading is a technology of transition. Awkward-Rich is invested in this technology as employed by Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka in his 1946 book Self: A Study in Endocrinology and Ethics. Dillon exhibits a lyric subject—one whose subjectivity is relational but simultaneously withdrawn, thanks to their necessary misrecognition by this sociality. Although it is exciting to examine the effects of episodic forms of withdrawal, such as reading trans fiction alone in one’s bedroom, it is unclear that misfitting with hegemonic social forms is quite the same as asociality in the strong sense he advances. In fact, Awkward-Rich leaves us with a tension, claiming that asociality is “constitutive” of trans (141) while also moving towards an ethics of sitting together in our maladjustment (150). But perhaps this aporia is exactly characteristic of the poetics of trans bad feelings that Awkward-Rich endeavours to show.

In its (hi)stories of crip/trans, The Terrible We generously offers us honed tools for examining how we construct, and might reconstruct, trans authority. It behooves us to examine how our theories and political visions unauthorize those who have nothing particularly positive to say. To that end, Awkward-Rich deftly poses and answers questions that ought to be posed and answered but so often cannot be—at least not in a way that strives towards the care of all rather than the elimination of some. The book is exemplary of the critical work induced by attending to negativity. It invites further consideration of how recognizing wretchedness, loss, and trauma can bind us, and what we can make of how we are bound.