queerview: “Where Were You When We Lost the Culture War?” — Trauma and Fascism in Alison Rumfitt’s Tell Me I’m Worthless
[This is as spoiler-free a review as is plausible.]
It’s a terrifying time to be transgender. With the identifies of especially transgender women and femmes being increasingly target by the far-right as they leverage hate and fear of the Other in an ongoing campaign of rising fascism, many of us find ourselves feeling existentially alienated and both physically and mentally threatened while also lacking any semblance of power, influence, or defense. To be trans in 2023 is to navigate seas of perpetual trauma as even the most well-meaning of allies content themselves by mostly just waving at us from the shore.
Queer and trans representation in media is increasing at some minimal pace to be sure, but representation alone doesn’t address the material conditions and struggles of gender minorities forced to and held at the margins. Representation doesn’t keep us safe tonight as we walk home in the dark, nor does it mitigate the anticipated harassment when we try to use a public restroom or get pulled over while driving. A token trans protagonist doesn’t secure life-saving medical care for trans and gender-nonconforming youth. To spotlight moments of queer joy in a manner comfortable for cisgender audiences is all too often to overshadow, but not resolve, genuine and apt trans terror.
Alison Rumfitt’s debut novel, Tell Me I’m Worthless, moves fluidly between distinct points of view, presenting its not-entirely-linear narrative through diverging and contrasting perspectives. Readers will approach the story and its themes of fascism, identity, and trauma through the minds of Alice (a transgender woman), Ila (a TERF, or trans-exclusionary radical “feminist”), and their mutual friend Hannah, as well as other vantage points which— given the spoiler-conscious nature of this discussion—I’ll leave for the reader to discover on their own.
Some portions of the book filter the narrative through these perspectives conjunctively, presenting two converging viewpoints at once. Others proceed disjunctively, making use of non-standard formatting and type-setting to disorient the reader and simultaneously present two (arguably, three) conflicting perspectives. Still others present the narrative though more abstract—and jarring—perspectives, and in doing so effectively explore the story’s ambiguities and uncertainties while also quite literally drawing you, the reader, in.
This description might suggest that Tell Me I’m Worthless is a challenging read—and in some significant ways, it truly is. The primary struggles readers would do well to anticipate, however, come not from Rumfitt’s structural choices, but instead in both the concepts explored and their particular manners of manifestation.
The novel opens through Alice’s perspective, with Rumfitt effectively reproducing the racing, rambling, loosely-connected thoughts characteristic of chronic, trauma-induced anxiety in a manner that I (as a transgender woman living under rising fascism myself) found both comfortably and uncomfortably familiar. The discomfort came from the text so skillfully capturing these extremely destabilizing mental and emotional states, with the comfort coming from the subsequent and associated validation that others—like Alice—feel them too. Alice’s haunted internal monologue (which constitutes the first substantial portion of the book and should not be unfairly conflated with Rumfitt’s ability to write) is painful to read while also reminding readers like myself that they are not alone.
The stress of seeing the story in and through Alice’s mind did not adequately prepare me for what was to come, however: with the book’s first major shift in perspective, the reader goes from inhabiting the thoughts of a traumatized transgender woman to seeing the world through the eyes and numbed heart of a TERF. This affective and ideological shift amounts to an aggressive gut-punch—one on par with the novel’s frequent explorations and depictions of self-harm, sexual abuse and assault, transmisogyny, racism, mental illness, psychological manipulation and gaslighting, fascist violence and more. A list of appropriate trigger warnings or content notes for the material contained within Tell Me I’m Worthless would be substantial, to say the least.
Please don’t mistake me, however, as condemning Rumfitt’s work as mere trauma porn. To make such a charge would amount to claiming that Tell Me I’m Worthless presents trauma and traumatizing factors as little more than instrumental means toward superficial readerly gratification, as aesthetic tools intended to make the work read as “edgy” or “difficult” in a manner that bottoms out in the sensational. Instead, this is a book that pulls back curtains and confronts readers with stories and themes that, though I do not know her, I can only infer that Rumfitt needed to tell. A transgender woman herself, writing at the onset of the first lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an urgency and immediacy to Rumfitt’s work, suggesting a sort of authorial purge and frantic effort to draw attention to what is actually happening.
In terms of its presentation and exploration of trauma, Tell Me I’m Worthless reads simultaneously like a call to action in face of rising fascism as well as an excruciating excision—as both an alarm and an exorcism.
It would be disingenuous to deny that the book is frequently quite unrelenting and mean to its reader. But it needs to be. This is a story centering and commenting on unrelenting and mean themes. To present these in any other, more saccharine or softer-edged format would be to fundamentally alter what Rumfitt needs to tell us, and what we need to hear.
Therein lies the most fundamental dilemma I face when considering this otherwise fantastic debut: who is “we”? That is, aside from Rumfitt herself, who was this written for, and who do I recommend this book to? To fully feel and appreciate the effect of much of the novel, one would need to have lived experience of something not entirely dissimilar. I certainly have, and though the book provides me with a rare and peculiar sort of comfort and validation, it does so in part by highlighting my own painful memories and fears. For trans folks—especially trans women and femmes—going in unprepared, this book could be substantially re-traumatizing.
At the same time, my suspicion is that much of the forceful importance of Tell Me I’m Worthless would be lost on cisgender readers who aren’t themselves already deeply and earnestly involved in trans struggle and liberation. This leaves the book with seemingly no ideal audience, existing instead in virtue of the simple fact that it needed to be written.
To whoever does read it, however, I offer a plea: when started, the book should be finished. Some of the elements contained within—including questionable (and questioned) abuse accusations and the often disastrous trope of ambiguously presenting mental illness and supernatural involvement—require resolution. An incomplete read of Tell Me I’m Worthless suggests a far different book, one which I would absolutely question the political efficacy and moral wisdom of writing.
In the acknowledgments, Rumfitt herself describes this debut as “an extremely wild and gross book that [she] was certain was unpublishable.” I get the sentiment. Given the dilemma above, I do not know who I would, in good faith, recommend this book to. Without careful caveat, I would probably suggest it no one. Recommended or not, though, I admit to finding a sort of joyless comfort in the fact that Tell Me I’m Worthless exists.