The Wrong Side of His Story: Reviewing ‘Rough Draft’ by Katy Tur

Readers from the US will undoubtedly be more familiar with the news reporter Katy Tur than those in the UK. She has been a broadcast journalist for years and is noted in particular for her coverage of the Trump campaign. She is barely known in the UK, so you will forgive me I hope that I had not even heard of her until an interview was forwarded to me by a friend.

Katy’s father, Bob Tur, was a famous news person in the 1990s. He piloted a helicopter over the LA Riots, for example, covering countless fires and heinous crimes. Katy’s mother, Marika, did most of the filming and a lot of the reporting that he later took credit for. The couple’s addiction to the adrenalin of news reporting filtered down to Katy, who established a successful news career which took a big leap when she covered Trump’s campaign (it’s the subject of her first book).

I liked Katy a lot. She’s optimistic with a wry sense of humour. She’s grateful for her opportunities but she’s also aware of how the sexism in her industry made for some uphill struggles. And she wants very much to be an ally to her father’s struggles but also to hold him accountable for the things he’s done.

Lovely clip of her discussing that balance here:

One of the problems with listening to the experiences of other children of transitioners is trying to make connections with your own experience, beyond the obvious. Bob Tur (later Zoey) is violent. Some trans parents are, some not. There’s an obsession with teddy bears; my father had that. We might recognise a big personality, a tendency to create a mythology of their life. We all recognise the narcissism. I’ve yet to find an experience that doesn’t involve a focus on clothes. On the one hand, I just wanted to find out more about Katy’s interesting life and her encounters with Trump. But on the other I’m poring over the book for clues.

One thing that Katy grapples with is that she’s famous, and her dad was famous. I really became aware of him through this fantastically bonkers clip:

Shapiro apparently reported the threat to the police.

(Entire discussion here: https://youtu.be/nFH15w6eZvU. It’s fascinating, and gave us ‘polite to the pronouns’ as a bizarre phrase and of course, Shapiro’s ‘Facts don’t care about your feelings.’ I am sympathetic to Shapiro’s point. I think the sane people need to hold the line somewhat for the people who need to know what normal looks like.)

Because he’s famous, people want Katy to talk about her relationship with her Dad So she’s stuck, really, like a lot of us, revisiting the darker moments. Throughout Katy’s childhood, Bob is a larger-than-life character. He takes risks. He gets what he wants. And a lot of the time he’s abusive and unpleasant, particularly to Marika and his children. During Katy’s childhood, he’s violent, explosive, and cruel. When their dog is old and sick he makes it sleep outside where it’s eaten by a coyote. That kind of mean. Her parents break up later after the following incident:

“How’s it going?” [Marika] asked my father. Instead of responding, he turned around and punched her in the chest. No words, just a fist to the sternum. She moved out and began to cut my father out of her life entirely. While I would see her regularly, I wasn’t allowed to tell my father where she lived … She was scared of what he might do. I knew what she meant.”

Katy goes to college and decides she’s interested in television news. Dad isn’t exactly encouraging, but Katy’s keen and good at it. She’s got a sense of humour and is self-aware enough to cope with the inevitable blows to the ego being on television involves. Her career progresses, she works abroad as an international correspondent, and her father is in and out of her life. He’s not an easy person to keep in contact with. He’s trying all kinds of professions, all kinds of relationships. He dates Carrie Fisher, who is lovely. He can’t settle. One night, while Katy is in a hotel resting as she’s covering the Boston Marathon bombing, Bob calls her up and tells her: “I’ve decided to become a woman.”

“He, now she, told me she had felt wrong forever and that she was finally confronting it. She told me she had been born with a “feminized brain” and a male body. She told me this “wrong body” was the root of everything or at least everything wrong in our lives. She had been in denial about her true self.”

Reading this, it occurred to me that it illustrates how simplistic the idea of transgenderism being innate is. Perhaps we might recognise this in some of our own fathers. What if the weight of how awful they have been to the people around them becomes too much? Being a man is too much? And so they sacrifice that man, adopt a new persona, so they can say, ‘It wasn’t me who hurt you! It was him!’ My own father has married twice, changed his name twice, and even tried to change his culture – his first name mirrored our Celtic heritage, and the second reflects his claim to have converted to Judaism. Was the man who was my father so awful that he needed to be obliterated?

Katy continues: “’It’s why I’ve been so angry,” [Zoey] said. She sounded almost giddy. ‘It’s amazing how much better I feel.’ … We talked a lot about the clothes she would get to wear, the makeup she should try … I wanted to know more. To really understand. But the conversation, like virtually every conversation we had had over the last ten years, was a roller coaster in the dark. I never knew whether I was headed for a drop.” Her father thinks she should do a story on him, because, “It’s the new thing to do and you’re right on the leading edge… this is going to be great for your career.” But the story never happens. Zoey is trying new angles. The transition gives him some media interest but he’s still unsettled.

‘Zoey’ says a lot of crazy stuff, and yet there was absolutely no indication at any part of Katy’s childhood that her father would do this. To me it seems like a mental break more than anything else. Katy notes that her father used to say he wished he’d had a Jewish wife rather than her mother, as a Jewish wife would have pushed him ‘to be a success’. That’s how he talks about women, it seems. I wonder if their only use to Bob/Zoey is in what they give him. After taking hormones, her Dad claims, “I’m already a worse driver …  started to take the hormones and they’re already changing the chemical makeup of my brain … My brain is shrinking down to the size of a woman’s.” Katy is unimpressed. Her Dad makes sexist jokes about being a bad driver now and having to talk through movies.

And now of course her Dad won’t talk about the violence. “She wanted the memories thrown out, the records expunged, and that idea forced me into a confrontation – with my father, with our past.” Her father won’t engage, he says his female brain is softer, more emotional. He’s changed and is now full of love. He says: “Bob Tur is dead.”

Oh, the grief and the anger. Yes, that’s what we all seem to share.

Katy clearly loves her father, but the relationship is awkward, and just when Katy thinks things are fine between them, Zoey accuses her of being unsupportive. Zoey breaks off contact, then resumes it, then cuts her off again. The criticism is unfair but just keeps coming, even when Katy has said the opposite. This is the familiar too; I have also had that sense of bewilderment when my love is rebuffed. But anything other than complete capitulation is unacceptable. And, I suspect, even complete capitulation isn’t enough when what your father really wants is the chance to punish you for being a woman while claiming to be the victim. Bob sees an opportunity in Katy’s fame, I suspect. I wish that Katy could be more cynical about this.

In 2017, Katy has a big profile in the Styles section of The New York Times. She writes that Zoey says he is excited about the piece, which will cover her high profile coverage of the Trump campaign. Zoey is interviewed for the piece, and is positive about the relationship with Katy. Katy and Zoey have a good conversation, which moves forward in acknowledging the pain and violence of the past. Katy is blindsided, then, by a post that Zoey makes after the interview.

 It’s Katy’s mother who tells her about the post. Katy writes that she felt, “whiplashed by a relationship that had actually warmed up a little.” But she still hopes for a reconciliation. Katy writes: “Estrangement is loss. Estrangement is work. You only do it if you have to. You only do it if you don’t have a good alternative. I was hopeful there was still goodwill left.” But at her brother’s graduation a year later, her father sits elsewhere and only acknowledges his son.

Her father has betrayed her, but Katy is open to him being in her life. In her epilogue she says she sends him pics of her babies and he gives ‘perfunctory’ responses. I have a collection of random text messages that have a similar vibe. He’s got a new coffee machine, he hated his mother, his long-haired cats are a pain to groom. It’s what sits comfortably with our dads, perhaps. A little distance so you don’t see how fragile the whole façade is.

In a television interview, Zoey says: “If you live long enough, you’ll hurt people, and if there’s any good in you, you’ll regret it.” Katy notes that she has never been invited to her father’s home somewhere in the California mountains. Zoey adds: “I regret, I regret, I regret every single day some of the despicable things I’ve done.” I had a look at Zoey’s Twitter as I was writing this and this was the latest entry:

Oh, the sad irony.

Has Bob really escaped himself? I recognise Katy’s frustration that her father is acting as if the person he was is gone, wiped out by the magic hormones that have made him ‘soft’ and ‘loving’. Not like the mean man who controlled his family with explosive violence. But he’s still mean, in my opinion, holding himself at arm’s length and pretending that she’s not accepting enough of his transition. Aggressive has just become passive-aggressive and he still can’t resist the temptation to hit out. In the end, Katy sends a message of love to her father, adding, “I wish things were better.” Fittingly, her final words are a tribute to her contribution that her mother Marika made to the Los Angeles News Service, even if in the past the glory fell on Bob.

Is it possible to be a child of a transitioner and have a published memoir in which you are not ‘polite to the pronouns’? I suspect not. She’s careful to talk about Bob as ‘he’ and moves to Zoey and ‘she’ when he makes his announcement. A lot of children do this. But there is an odd coda in her acknowledgements where, in the absence of a trans father giving his approval, she thanks Andrea James. That absolutely stopped me in my tracks. Katy writes: “To Andrea James, thank you for the conversations about what it means to transition, and how to write about it with care. Thank you also for being a perceptive reader.” James is a notorious trans activist noted for a campaign of harassment against Michael Bailey, author of ‘The Man Who Would be Queen.’ Bailey says that James’ ‘Suppression of discussion of [autogynephilia] has been extraordinarily harmful to those who need knowledge.’ That includes Zoey, who seems like the classic late stage transitioning autogynephile. That includes most our fathers. By making researchers afraid of looking into autogynephilia, we have stalled any search for a treatment for a condition that has destroyed many families. Was James asked to do a sensitivity reading by her publisher? How sad that, in the end, even someone as bright and dynamic as Katy Tur couldn’t escape some element of fatherly control.