Sunday, January 24, 2021

REVIEW: How to Be Ace: A Memoir of Growing Up Asexual (nonfiction graphic novel) by Rebecca Burgess

How to Be Ace is a memoir in graphic novel form. I bought my copy brand new.


(Note on pronouns: I used they/them pronouns for the author because that's what the bio on the back of this volume uses.)

This deals primarily with the time before Burgess knew asexuality existed (high school, college). Burgess worried about not feeling the way everyone else seemed to feel and initially tried to "fix" it by forcing themselves to do things that everyone else seemed to consider normal and natural - dating, kissing, touching - even though they didn't really want to and, in fact, sometimes became incredibly anxious while attempting those things. Although Burgess did eventually end up in a relationship with an asexual woman, they learned to stop thinking that relationships were some kind of ultimate goal that had to progress in a particular way. This memoir also touches on the author's struggles with OCD and anxiety, as well as job hunting after graduating from art school during the recession. 

I got this on a whim after hearing about it, I think, on Twitter. The first part of the title was worrisome - it sounded prescriptive, and I wondered whether this would be a "one true way to be asexual" sort of book. Thankfully, I didn't get that impression at all from the work itself. Burgess wrote about their own experiences but made it clear that asexuality is a spectrum that encompasses a wide range of experiences that weren't necessarily the same as theirs.

I found that I could relate to quite a few things in this memoir, which was both good and bad. "Good" in the sense that it's nice to be reminded that I'm not the only one who thinks or feels this way or has had these experiences, because sometimes it sure feels like it. "Bad" in the sense that being able to relate to some of these experiences made me surprisingly anxious.

I appreciated that Burgess discussed both asexuality and their OCD and anxiety, and I particularly connected to this bit, in which Burgess forced themselves to sleep in the same bed with a guy they were dating (just sleep - there's no forced sex in the volume, for those worried about that possibility):

"Despite not liking being this close, I persevered through the night. A lot of people might think 'Why didn't you just say no?' But, I didn't know that asexuality existed... And when you've never felt anything before, you assume that everyone feels this way at first, and that the nice part must come after forcing yourself to do things."

This ties in pretty well with my experience with anxiety. For example, one thing that makes me really anxious is driving long distances and/or to places I'm unfamiliar with, especially if the driving conditions aren't absolutely perfect (great weather, no construction, little traffic). Forcing myself to do driving that's even just a little outside my comfort zone has helped me gradually expand my comfort zone, but I've also found that it makes it really difficult for me to accurately judge dangerous situations, because every situation feels dangerous. So I spent a portion of this graphic novel worried about what Burgess might force themselves to do and what red flags they might miss because it was too hard to recognize the difference between "this will be better once I expand my comfort zone" and "this is something I neither want nor need."

Burgess ends up in a decent place by the end of the volume: more comfortable in their own skin, doing work that pays the bills and uses the skills they learned in art school, and in a relationship with someone who understands them. I do wonder about the therapy aspect - the volume showed up to the point where Burgess's therapist accidentally pushed them to a breaking point that they eventually seemed to get past with the help of family. Did Burgess go back to that therapist, or find a better one who also wouldn't pathologize asexuality?

This didn't 100% work for me for reasons I can't articulate (aside from the "sympathetic anxiety" aspect), but overall I thought it was a good read.

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