Book summary: Amateur

These are some quotes and notes from the book “Amateur” by Thomas Page McBee. It’s an autobiographical book by/about a trans man who gets into boxing and reflects on what it means to be a man.

What the book is about

We misunderstand the relationship between nature and nurture, culture and biology, fitting in and being oneself. This book is an attempt to pull apart those strands.

I too come from a long line of poisonous men.

Changes while transitioning

I was like a plant in the sun, moving toward whatever was rewarded in me: aggression, ambition, fearlessness.

Before, I was a softie, quick to apologize, generally more concerned with keeping the peace than proving a point. Now, I had to work harder to not take things personally.

Treatment difference as a woman/man

Male privilege

Me: I wish you could experience how differently people react to me now that I’m a man.
My brother: I can’t imagine, but I can imagine.

As the testosterone took hold and reshaped my body, its impact as an object in space grew increasingly bewildering: the expectation that I not be afraid juxtaposed against the fear I inspired in a woman, alone on a dark street; the silencing effect of my voice in a meeting; the unearned presumption of my competence; my power; my potential.

To be clear, the Before me wasn’t feminine. I don’t know what it’s like to be wolf-whistled or be told to smile. […] Six months into my transition, testosterone made my voice low. […] But when I did talk, people didn’t just listen; they leaned in. […] The first time I spoke up in a meeting […], in my newly quiet baritone, I noticed that sudden, focused attention and was so uncomfortable I found myself unable to finish the sentence. […] Every day, I was rewarded for behavior that I was previously punished for, such as standing up for my ideals, pushing back, being fluent in complex power dynamics, and strategically—and visibly—taking credit. When I proved myself, just once, it tended to stick.

Male loneliness and lack of touch

I’d gotten the idea from movies that men spent a lot of time in amenable, intimate silences, laced through will well-placed words that telegraphed deep truths, like the pivotal scene in every drama about fathers and sons. I supposed I had indeed spent a lot more time not knowing what to say since my transition. Silence was a kind of defense mechanism.

I fell all the absences my male body created too: the cool distance of friends in tough moments, stemming to some degree from the self-conscious way I held myself apart from women especially, so concerned with being perceived as a threat that I’d become a ghost instead.

Though I had been supported by friends and family, something had indeed dimmed. Pretty much everyone treated my body as if it were radioactive. It was easy to blame it on repressed or explicit homophobia in men, or straight women friends’ latent concerns about sending the wrong signals in our suddenly cross-gender friendships, but that didn’t explain the family members who did not hug me after my mom died, or why, in boxing, guys I barely knew swatted my ass, or draped an arm around my shoulders for minutes at a time. The code of how and why I was and wasn’t touched was a mystery to me.
My interest in being held hadn’t waned. I couldn’t make sense of what lack of touch had to do with gender. It seemed, to me, a core hunger of being human.

“Tell me,” Way said to the kids, “why did that boy kill so many people?” A few volunteered that he was “crazy.” “But tell me why he’s crazy,” she said. “He was lonely.”

Toxic masculinity / misogyny

And in an era in which the former surgeon general of the United States calls loneliness an “epidemic” because of its links to ill health and even increased risk of premature death, why do to many men who were once boys, boys who may have seen their love of their close friends as “human nature”, struggle to maintain any friends at all as adults?
According to [Niobe] Way, a psychology professor at New York University, everything changes between sixteen and nineteen (this age range also coincides with a rise in male suicide rates). That’s when boys learn that to be too close to guy friends is, she said, abruptly labeled “girlie” and “gay”.
Within this limiting context boys learn that violence is the only way available to them to bond. “In a messed-up society that doesn’t offer them opportunities for healthy connections, they go into unhealthy connections,” she told me.

Comparing the Danish idea of masculinity with the American one, she found that the major difference between them was that in Denmark, men said to “be a man” meant to being a boy. American men said that to “be a man” was to not be a woman.

Testosterone effects, violence

I couldn’t argue with [testosterone’s] power. […] It was easy to attribute every change to the oily potion I injected weekly into my thigh: the clarity of color, the shortness of my temper, the increase in my sex drive, the charley horses in my quads, the calming of my nerves, the steadiness of my stride. It was stunning, and disconcerting, to become a caricature of a man so easily.

In humans, if testosterone is raised to an artificial level, as in steroid abuse, aggression levels rise. But for men with testosterone in the normal range, […] “there is remarkably little evidence” that knowing which man has the highest testosterone levels predicts which is the most aggressive. […] [John] Wingfield showed that testosterone increases not aggression, exactly, but the likelihood that men would do whatever they need to maintain their status if it was challenged. […] He pointed to studies rooted in economic games where winning requires being more cooperative and pro-social. “Testosterone makes people more generous in that realm”. But studies demonstrate that the myths about testosterone impact those games too. Men who were actually given more testosterone became more generous, but men who merely thought they were operating with elevated T became less effective and more competitive. […] “The problem is the frequency with which we reward aggression”.

“Did you ever wonder why so many men who believe that testosterone propels men’s violence, why they beat their wives up but not their boss? Your boss makes you feel like shit, your boss is an asshole—why don’t you beat him up? Because he has power over you, that’s why. He’s not a legitimate target.”

A “legitimate target,” [Michael] Kimmel said, is someone men feel entitled to dominate—someone seen as weaker, someone who has less power than them. For the worst sort of masculinity to work, “real men” prove their worth by targeting people they can beat.

Masculinity crisis in the media

I suspected that the crisis was far more complex than people understood. It encompassed all men, even the ones who felt they successfully defied outdated conventions. It was, after all, the men who read books on emotional intelligence and wore tailored shirts who often advised me to treat dating like warfare, or to dominate meetings with primate body language.

Later surveys and studies would suggest that Millenial men as a whole turned out to be as “traditional”, and even less egalitarian, in their attitudes toward gender as their fathers.


This is a short, interesting book that gives perspectives on masculinity. I wasn’t as enlightening as I had hoped, but it was still a good read. One of my pet peeves is that I thought some of the assumptions about masculinity and how men behave were US-centric and kind of toxic (I really didn’t see myself or the men I know in some of the descriptions and assumptions), but I still recommend it if the topic sounds interesting to you.