“Book Review: Psychopomps”
Reviewed by Liam Anthony
Significant, poignant, and at times heartbreaking, Psychopomps is a truly superb essay collection about discovering what it means to become and be your authentic self.
[Before diving into this review, it is imperative to address the title: The word “Psychopomps” is of Greek origin meaning “the spiritual guide of a living person’s soul.”]
The essays in this collection oscillate from DiFrancesco’s personal family history to turbulent relationships, offering a special reading experience about truth, honesty, and authenticity.
In the essay “Hank Williams is Sacred,” DiFrancesco documents a relationship with a love interest named Mya, which inevitably ends in heartbreak. Despite the writer being transgender and queer, the essay utilizes classic white heterosexual singers such as Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson as a form of currency to evoke the main idea of the essay. “It’s also a fact that sadness restarted Sinatra’s career.” DiFrancesco flirts with the notion of how sadness provides an impetus to create for these singers and how it does for you too, even if it’s hard to grasp while it’s happening.
In the essay “Flowered Ties: part one” it is easy to recognize how unique and intriguing DiFrancesco’s mind is. The essay is mostly memoir, and the reader is introduced to Vivien who is a friend and somewhat mentor figure to the writer. The essay looks at the algorithm of how many trans people donate their clothes in order to “shed who we were and become someone new.” The ties which Vivien gives to Alex represent the male identity of Vivien and the opportunity for DiFrancesco to feel some kind of attachment to their authentic identity.
This piece not only consolidates the idea that a tie as a piece of clothing is metaphorical for Vivien’s previous identity, but for DiFrancesco how the tie is this new skin, this new possibility. It also conveys the more abstract notion of ties; the reader can see in this essay and in many more the theme of community, ties collocated with family and the connective tissue many of these essays share. “But hanging in my closet, are still many ties that I rarely wear, that once signaled to the world who Vivien was, underneath who she felt he had to be.”
“Home in Three meals” begins as a nostalgic piece about DiFrancesco’s quest to emulate the recipe of a grandparent. However, it gradually transforms into a sensitive memoir about DiFrancesco cooking for homeless LGBTQ+ kids. Alex originally wanted to volunteer as a writing teacher, but fortunately, by having to cook, it unlocked a story about giving something back and strengthening a community. With the line “Desserts make people happy,”at first glance, it might read somewhat ineffectually, but it heightens the notion and importance of contribution. “I don’t really care for sweets myself, but I want to do something that is just for the purpose of goodness and nothing else.”
“Psychopomps” is one of my favorite essays in the collection. DiFrancesco makes many references to mythology, like the idea of transformation: “I read about Saint Perpetua, who dreamed she turned into a man to fight a lion in an amphitheater.” Alex displays a passion toward mythology, religion, and the importance of manifesting these influences into their writing about being transgender. It allows the reader to see how Alex has cultivated and gathered these ideas and made them feel current and subsequently helpful for other transgender readers. DiFrancesco writes in small paragraphs in this essay, which read like tiny waves of information and ideas. It is an unconventional and effective technique, feeling almost like an personal conversation with the reader.
This essay also looks at the relationship the writer has with Vivien’s children. It makes a social commentary on how future generations have an open-mindedness that will subsequently transform the current status quo. In the voice of Vivien’s daughter “we all have a gender friend.” It is a tender moment in the collection, seeing how a blank canvas of a mind can allow us to understand the bigger, more colorful picture.
The essay which touched me the most is the last one “For Bobby, With Love.” It is about the murder of Bobby Evans in 1986, which is an earnest example of hate crime against gay men. The piece cuts close to the bone with details about how Evans was murdered and reminding us of how alive homophobia was at the time.
DiFrancesco reinforces this with facts of how the LGBTQ+ community is still being silenced today. “I thought of all the transgender people murdered in 2017-at least 26 reported.” The facts behind the story are shocking, reminding me of how much we learn about the violence toward women in Rebecca Solnit’s book The Mother of All Questions. DiFrancesco breaks the silence, the shame and prejudice by simply saying “Because Bobby mattered. Because Bobby matters,” DiFrancesco allows us to ruminate the need to speak out about injustice.
Alex DiFrancesco is a storyteller who captures hearts as well as minds, providing the light and voice to many readers who still find themselves in situations where their voices aren’t heard. Psychopomps is tender, raw, and at times challenging to read, but there is room for humor, too. DiFrancesco proves to be a truly singular voice in the world of nonfiction.
Publisher: The Accomplices/ Civil Coping Mechanisms
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