Being Abel

In February, 1868, police were called to a boarding house on Paris' Rue de'lEcole-de-Medicine.  A concierge at the boarding house had found one of her tenants dead in his fifth-floor room, an apparent suicide.  The two officials who responded, a local police commissioner and a physician employed by the state registry office, noted the squalid state of the room and the fact that it was sparsely furnished.  The dead man, Abel Barbin, had apparentely used the small charcoal stove in 51l8UtaLlpL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_[1] the room to asphyxiate himself and the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning were clear enough.  The corpse still showed a discharge of dark, frothy blood from his lips.   

Although the attending physician,  Dr. Regnier, suspected that the suicide was due to the effects of neurosyphilis (which was common enough at the time), he made a careful medical examination of the corpse to be sure.    To his astonishment, Abel Barbin's sexual anatomy was unlike anything he had ever seen before.  In addition to a small penis, Abel Barbin had what Regnier could only conclude was a vagina, complete with vulva.  While "hermaphroditism" (as the condition was known at the time) had been observed in other species, cases of humans with male and female sexual anatomy were almost unknown.    As soon as word of Regnier's discovery reached the nearby Faculty of Medicine,  one of the professors, E. Goujon, arranged for the body to be transferred  to the school for study.  

Careful examination of the dead man determined that he/she was not completely intersexual with fully functional male and female sexual anatomy but was a case of what would now be described as "male pseudohermaphroditism", i.e.  a penis and vagina but no ovarian tissue.   Goujon had intended to prepare a paper describing the strange case but soon discovered that a research article had been written about her eight years before (I'll be restricting myself to female pronouns from here on in).  A medical doctor named Chestnet had released a case study based on his own examination of Barbin which, in fact, had led to a legal ruling that Abel Barbin (previously Herculine Barbin) was actually a man. 

It was only through examining the extensive memoirs that Abel/Herculine Barbin had left behind that her entire tragic story could be learned.  The memoirs, which were found in Barbin's room near her dead body, had apparently been written several years before her suicide although there is no way to tell when they were started.  Beginning with the words., "I am twenty-five years old, and, although I am still young, I am beyond any doubt approaching the hour of my death",  the story unfolds in graphic fashion. 

Born Herculine Adelaide Barbin in the town of Saint-Jean-d'Angely on November 8, 1838, she was christened and raised as a girl despite her obvious intersexual characteristics.  All surviving legal documentation described her as female with no apparent qualms on the part of her parents or the officials who prepared her birth certificate.  When her father died when she was still a small girl, Herculine's mother was forced to give her daughter up to the Ursuline convent near Chavagnes-en-Pallers.  From that point on, Herculine Barbin lived as a student at the convent school where her life and upbringing appeared perfectly normal.    According to her memoirs, she was a good student who had planned to become a teacher upon graduation. 

With the coming of puberty, things began to unravel for Herculine.  Not only did she remain flat-chested but she showed no sign of menstruation.    She also had a problem with facial hair and need to shave daily to retain her feminine appearance.  This didn't stop her from completing her education in 1858 and getting a teaching position at a  girl's boarding school.   It was there that Herculine first met "Sara", the sister of the teacher who ran the school.   Not only did Herculine and Sara work together at the school, they also lived in the same house (which belonged to Sara's mother) and often shared the same bed.    While Sara's mother scolded them at times over their growing intimacy,  she apparently had no idea that their relationship had become physical in nature.    As Herculine would later admit in her memoirs,  Sara's mother "saw me only as her daughter's girlfriend, while in fact I was her lover!".    Despite rumours over their close relationship, nobody seemed to be aware that it was sexual in nature.

Since Herculine was deeply religious, her relationship with Sara led to considerable guilt.  She also began to experience abdominal pain for which she consulted several medical doctors.   After pressure from the doctors, Herculine finally confessed the truth about her sexual anatomy to the local bishop and a bizarre legal case began over the question of whether Herculine Barbin was a man or a woman.  Based on testimony from that same Dr. Chestnet who would  write a case study on her, the decision to change Herculine's legal status came down on June 21, 1860.  The register of her birth was duly changed and, from that point on, she would be known as Abel Barbin.    Although Herculine, now Abel, had hoped to be able to marry Sara now that she was legally a man, the scandal over the case ensured that would never happen.   A family friend found Abel  a new position at a Paris railroad where nobody knew about the notoriety surrounding her altered status.  

Abel Barbin was forced to move to Paris and live a life of total anonymity.  The transition from woman to man was too great and the loss of Sara made her new existence even worse.  All that is known about her new life comes from the memoirs that she apparently began shortly after moving to Paris.  In the memoirs, she talked about her altered legal status and stated that, "according to my civil status, I was  henceforth to belong to that half of the human race which is called the stronger sex".   She found life as a man to be intolerable and wrote that "Reality is crushing me, pursuing me, what is going to become of me?"  Although the memoirs don't discuss her plan for suicide, she accurately described how medical doctors were likely to react to the discovery of her body, "When that day comes, a few doctors will make a little stir about my corpse.  They will shatter all the extinct mechanisms of its impulses, will draw new information from it, will analyze all the mysterious sufferings that were inflicted on a human being."

She was right.  Although there are no surviving pictures of Herculine/Abel, the memoirs that she left behind represent the only known first-hand account of how complex issues of sexual identity were dealt with in the 19th century.   Excerpts from her memoirs were included by Auguste Ambroise Tardieu in a now-classic work on sexual identity published in 1872 but was otherwise forgotten for decades afterward.    When Michel Foucault rediscovered the memoirs while researching his own book, The History of Sexuality,  he arranged from them to be republished in 1980 with his own commentary.   First releasedin France, the book introduced Herculine's story to a wider audience.  In his own commentary on the case, Foucault blamed the tragedy of Herculine's life on legal attempts to control gender identity despite relative acceptance of intersexuals in other societies and at other times in history.     In her own feminist analysis, Judith Butler disputes Foucault's interpretation and views Barbin's life in the context of the patriarchal society of the time.    Along with the academic debates surrounding Herculine Barbin, her memoirs, have become the subject of books, plays, and a French film.

Despite the tragedy surrounding Herculine Barbin's life (and the sad fate befalling early transvestites such as Lili Elbe and Dorchen Richter),  the last fifty years have brought a grudging acceptance of intersexual and transgendered people in many societies.   While anti-transgender violence certainly remains all too frequent,  the life of Herculine Barbin provides a graphic example  of the damage that an overly rigid interpretation of male versus female sex roles can cause as well as the need for greater acceptance for those who are "different".


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