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Alumnus, Mom Pen Memoir About Transgender Journey

There was a time when the idea of Donald Collins ’15 writing a memoir with his mom about his transgender story would have been inconceivable.

It took several years for Collins and his mother, Mary, to come to the point where they could co-author At the Broken Places (Beacon Press, 2017), which was released last month.

“There were a lot of ‘never’ moments early on when I was transitioning,” said Collins. “’She’s never going to call me by this name; she’s never going to call me her son.’”

Today, Collins said, he and his mom have a good relationship, and he doesn’t have to think about what she will or won’t accept about him every day.

“I like to bring that up, especially with young queer people who are struggling,” Collins said. “You have no idea where you’re going to end up [in your relationships]. And it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be positive, but it could.”

Which is not to say that he and his mother always see eye to eye, or that they remember his transition in the same way.

At the Broken Places takes the form of four paired essays, half written by Collins and half by his mother. The pieces are grouped according to a general theme but were written completely independently of each other.

“We wanted to keep the sections really honest,” Collins said. “For people who have read the book…you definitely can see it; we almost have completely different conceptions of what happened.”

Collins said they joke that it’s in a “Rashomon format,” referring to the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film whose characters give drastically different retellings of one central event.

Mary Collins is a nonfiction writer and college professor. A few years ago at a writing workshop, Collins said, she shared an essay she was working on that had a deep subtext about her son’s transition. No one in the workshop cared about the rest of the essay, he said.

She decided it would be cathartic to write a series of essays about her experience as the mother of a transgender son, but when she showed the pieces to Collins, he wasn’t ready to write his own side of the story. Eventually, he came around.

“[I thought] actually, I think it would be good for us to deal with this thing that is still kind of haunting us,” he said.

In addition to the essays, At the Broken Places features interviews with people who have different takes on the trans experience. Mary interviews parents of trans children; Donald talks to other young trans people and a trans rights lawyer.

If Collins’s name sounds familiar, it might be because he was thrust into the national spotlight while a student at Emerson.

His Phi Alpha Tau fraternity brothers raised $23,000—$15,000 more than necessary—for Collins to get surgery to remove breast tissue after his insurance company denied coverage for it. (The insurance company did eventually pay for the surgery, explaining that language on its trans-inclusive position hadn’t yet been included in its policy. Collins donated the money raised to a nonprofit that helps trans people pay for medical procedures.)

Though the media glare was brought on by a heartwarming story, it attracted trolls and critics too, and it threatened to drag his mother, who at that point was not at a comfortable place with his transition, into the spotlight with him.

That period in Collins’s life is included in the book and is excerpted on Vice.

At the Broken Places has been praised by the likes of Jill Soloway, creator of the Amazon series Transparent, whom Collins has met on more than one occasion but had no idea would be blurbing his book, and writer and gender theorist Kate Bornstein. Bornstein called it “the best, most thorough narrative of trans experience I've read.” 

Collins said he hopes it will help families like his, who struggle when someone transitions.

“We want [it] to be the kind of book that didn’t exist when we were having a strained relationship,” he said.

He said the support he’s gotten from the Emerson community has been “overwhelming,” with alumni buying up multiple copies of the book, reaching out to him on social media. In fact, the Beacon Press team who got the book out into the world was full of Emersonians, Collins said. The cover was designed by Louis Roe ’14, publicity manager was Caitlin Meyer ’03, and Perpetua Charles MA ’15 helped with marketing.

He credits two Emerson faculty members in particular with giving him the tools to write the book: Associate Professor Tulasi Srinivas, whose gender studies class “changed my life” (“Being LGBT doesn’t mean you understand LGBT theory and history.”), and Professor Martie Cook, who he says made him a better writer.

Cook, who was Collins’s Writing for Film and TV capstone teacher and taught him in a directed study class, said At the Broken Places has the potential to make a huge difference in the lives of many people.

“Donnie is a brilliant and courageous writer who approaches every situation with a sense of humor,” she said in an email. “It comes as no surprise that he has co-written (with his mother) At the Broken Places, generously sharing his personal transgender journey. Without a doubt, Donnie’s story will open minds and hearts, and the world will be better because of it.”

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