Memoir of a Man’s Maiden Years by N.O. Body/Karl Baer

Cover of "Memoirs of a Man's Maiden Years" 
Snapchat caption: History time!!!

If you’re interested in the genre of early trans memoir, then I cannot recommend this book enough. While much of the content does reflect the conventions of early trans memoirs, it is important to remember that N. O. Body/Karl Baer, was also intersex. This fact cannot and should not be overlooked in the reading of the memoir. Of the early trans/intersex memoirs I have read, I would recommend this above “Herculine Barbin” as presented by Michael Foucault.

The memoir deals in the early years of Karl Baer’s life as he is raised as a girl. A Jewish man, Baer disguised his identity in his memoir writing under the pseudonym N. O. Body, and making himself of Catholic French decent. While this obscures some details of his life, the underlying message is clear, this is a book, published in 1907, with support of some of the leading medical minds of the time, calling for understanding and acceptance. This call for acceptance and emphasis on medical professionals is quite typical for early trans memoirs and remnants of this can still be seen in the genre today, though it’s much less present than it was. 

Obscuring details is also common in these very early memoirs. Lili Elbe’s “Man into Women” was also published with her name changed in the text, as well as it being written in third person like a novel. Additionally, her memoir passed through multiple hands after her death, so it is unclear what was her editing and what other people’s edits were. In this sense, despite the changes made by Baer himself, it’s almost a more genuine narrative, due to less ambiguity surrounding the who wrote what. 

Another instance is of this is “Herculine Barbin,” which is presented by Foucault in an incredibly fetishistic manner. Including medical and “scientific” reports about Barbin as well as a fictional story based on their life along side Barbin’s memoir, it is therefore even more unsettling when you learn that the Barbin’s narrative is incomplete. A large portion was lost by one of the many doctor’s fascinated with Barbin’s case. Ultimately, the focus of the book is on the tragedy of Barbin’s life and death and the fetishistic fascination with their genitals.

On the opposite side, Magnus Hirschfeld’s epilogue to Baer’s memoir not only discourages this kind of treatment, but encourages understanding, with quotes like “The sex of a person lies more in his mind than in his body” and “For far too long, adults have underestimated … children and their significance as human beings,” this short epilogue written in 1907 seems positively modern. I find the positive messages that can be attained from reading “Memoirs” is vastly above “Herculine Barbin.”

Quote: "The sex of a person lies more in his mind than in his body, or to express myself in more medical terms, it lies more in the brain than in the genitals."

Snapchat caption: Good old Aunt Magnesia

Additionally, if you are looking for a positive story, “Memoirs” has a happy ending, while the memoirs to primarily focus on Baer’s “maiden years” the end is optimistic and hopeful for the future and, more than that, Hermann Simon has been able to uncover the trajectory of Karl Baer’s life through the lucky coincidence of his mother knowing Karl Baer and his wife when she was a child, followed by years of painstaking research. His afterward to the 2007 edition is an excellent supplement and he takes you back through the memoir as he uncovers the reality behind what Baer disguised. 

The book can be found here.

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Snap of book page. "There were at least six printings of the book after 1907, followed by two silent film versions... Only the earlier film has been preserved, although at some point in time, the opening credits from the later film were attached to it."

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