Sunday, February 24, 2008


If the research is valid, testosterone levels in Browning should be elevated today: they won the District boys’ basketball tournament yesterday. Success makes T go up, failure makes it go down, even in the onlookers, BOTH genders. It’s only a molecule, but it sure seems wired to the human (esp. male) identity and psyche.

Yellowstone Public Radio used to play the opera on Saturday, which I’ve been used to listening to since I was a high school kid in Portland eons ago, but now they’ve begun playing “This American Life” at lunchtime. I hear it by accident. Yesterday the show was on testosterone. You can play it at home or order a CD at this url:

220: Testosterone

Stories of people getting more testosterone and coming to regret it. And of people losing it and coming to appreciate life without it. The pros and cons of the hormone of desire.


This American Life producer Alex Blumberg explains that he wanted to do this show because of his conflicted relationship with his own testosterone. He tells host Ira Glass that the reasons go back to a girl in his eighth-grade homeroom and the 1970s seminal feminist novel The Women's Room. We also hear from a man who stopped producing testosterone due to a medical treatment and found that his entire personality was altered. (9 minutes)

Act One. Life at Zero.

The interview with a man who lost his testosterone continues. He explains that life without testosterone is life without desire—desire for everything: food, conversation, even TV. And he says life without desire is unexpectedly pleasant. The man first wrote about his experiences, anonymously, in GQ Magazine. (7 minutes)

Act Two. Infinite Gent.

An interview with Griffin Hansbury, who started life as a woman, but began taking massive testosterone injections seven years ago, and now lives as a man. He explains how testosterone changed his views on nature vs. nurture for good. (17 minutes)

Song: "To Sir With Love," Lulu

Act Three. Contest-osterone.

The men and women on staff at This American Life decide to get their testosterone levels tested, to see who has the most and least, and to see if personality traits actually do match up with hormone levels. It turns out to be an exercise that in retrospect, we might not recommend to other close-knit groups of friends or co-workers. (12 minutes)

Song: "What Kind of Man Are You?," Ray Charles

Act Four. Learning to Shut Up.

Novelist Miriam Toews, author of The X Letters (which appeared in an earlier episode of the show), tells the story of a recent road trip she took with her fifteen-year-old son. (11 minutes)

Song: "That's Alright, Mama," Elvis Presley

These programs are always narcissistic, wry, inconclusive, halting, earnest, and ultimately hard to resist. I personally am always fascinated by issues of identity: how much is “us” and how much is our bodies doing their own thing, or the context in which we exist? How much can we change without losing our identity? And, of course, the puzzle of bisexuality -- whether coexistent or sequential -- goes all the way back to Teiresias. I’m told I’m high testosterone, but they don’t say that. They say “high androgen,” which I suppose they think sounds better since there are a lot of jokes about testosterone and it’s a kind of symbol for a sort of brutal, loathsome, overpowering man, a victim of testosterone poisoning.

My attention is drawn to testosterone because of hereditary male pattern baldness accompanied by a fuzzy chin. I’ve only actually taken hormones once, while I was teaching in Heart Butte between 1989 and 1991. The gynie gave me a rather large-dose sequence to definitively end a dawdling menopause. First I took estrogen, which made me feel like an old broody hen, a purring sleepy cat. Then I took progesterone which made me into a screaming monster. I never renewed the prescription or went back to the doctor. Forget psycho-active. Think psycho.

The people on this radio show either lost all T out of their system for medical reasons or had major doses in order to flip their gender. They were caught by surprise when their personalities also changed, evem when they were so stereotypically altered -- or close to that. But it was coming up against the cultural assumptions about T that made more trouble. Not only does T make a person competitive, but people are competitive ABOUT who has more T!

And there were puzzlers: the most high-T person on the staff for this show was a woman called Julie. Everyone agreed that she was likely to be the “winner” because she was so focused, driven, aggressive, passionate. And she did score highest among the women -- but she was seven months pregnant at the time! So what did THAT mean? She’s even good at fertility? Doesn’t that mean she ought to be more high estrogen? They didn’t measure E, so we don’t know. She wondered what it was doing to the baby and there are studies about that. The GUY who had the most T, twice as much as any of the other guys, was a total surprise. He was gay, Jewish and -- good grief! -- CANADIAN!! Aren’t they supposed to be laid-back pacifists? How is it that a high T guy is gay? Aren’t gays all girly-men?

The woman who took so much T in order to become a man said the biggest surprise to her was the enormous waves of erotic hits she got off even machinery. She said the xerox machine turned her on with its warm rhythmic throbbing. She started to stare at women’s bottoms and fronts in the way she’d always considered despicable when men did it. Well, it was an adolescence, wasn’t it?

The man who lost all testosterone was more surprising. He described a kind of detachment, a meditative state where he was happy to just sit and stare, a kind of lack of passion or judgment in which everything seemed to him indiscriminately “beautiful.” Since much of his personality was built on desire for goals, on liveliness, humor and choices, he wasn’t himself. He said his voice even changed.

Maybe it’s a little surprising that an alteration in T levels is not prescribed by doctors more. Maybe it’s because it’s hard to know whether T should be reduced, to cool a man down a bit, or increased to get him out of that recliner in front of the TV. And what woman would be willing to go to the doctor for T shots unless she were into gender change? Still, it would be nice to know what one’s levels really ARE, at least most of the time, since the level goes up and down.


Steve Durbin said...

Didn't hear the radio show, but speaking of basketball, I did see a screening of "Class C" a few days ago. It's coming out on PBS soon. I highly recommend it for girls' basketball and small-town Montana culture. Some of it was shot up in Chester.

By the way, I finally got your book that's been back-ordered the last couple months. Now to find some reading time...

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know when the GQ article on the man without testosterone was published? I don't seem to be able to find a copy anywhere.