WHATEVER else it might be, Heaven Come Down is not a comfortable book. I say this not to put off potential readers, but to indicate that, in choosing to read Chrissie Chevasutt’s autobiography, one should be prepared to be disturbed as much as be drawn deeper into empathy and understanding.
I have read a fair few autobiographies by trans people, and, in truth, most (inspired by the pioneering example of Jan Morris’s Conundrum) follow a familiar pattern: the writer begins with an account of a childhood marked by a growing awareness of their gender dysphoria, and then explores their journey through repression and depression and finally on into self-acceptance. Chevasutt’s book follows this well-worn (dare I say “classic”) path, though it has to be acknowledged that her treatment of well-known trans tropes has afterburners attached.
Chevasutt’s childhood was not always easy. Her parents divorced, and she was bullied. It was, however, her life from her teens through to her conversion to Christianity in her twenties which was marked by eye-popping excess and personal trouble.
Those who struggle to read about the impact of addiction or the deleterious effects of seeking enlightenment through the end of an opium pipe should probably avoid this book. Chevasutt is not someone who does anything by halves. At one point, she, in effect, seeks salvation through a punishing attempt to become a road-cycling champion. The first half of this book, which follows her journey from young person struggling with her gender identity through to the low point where she was a homeless burned-out junkie, is often harrowing.
Intriguingly, it is not this journey towards faith which challenged me so much as the nature of her faith once found. Chevasutt’s Christianity was (and in some ways remains) of a conservative Charismatic kind. This is a person who experienced clergy attempting to cast demons out. I read this account of her encounter with so-called “conversion therapy” with horror. Chevasutt almost seems to take it in her stride.
Equally, Chevasutt’s account of coming out as trans — to her wife and children and the wider world — includes frequent sections in which her wife, Pam, is permitted to “speak back” about how she feels about having a trans partner. It is raw and troubling stuff.
Certainly, Heaven Comes Down is a flawed book. Not least, the first half could bear a significant edit; and it is not a sophisticated book. Nevertheless, it powerfully reminds readers that trans narratives can be simultaneously messy and beautiful. Most of all, I was stunned by Chevasutt’s grit. At one point, she writes: “I’ve been around long enough, I’ve experienced enough of heaven and hell, to know which is which.” After the life she’s had, I respect that judgement.
Canon Rachel Mann is Area Dean of Bury and Rossendale, and Visiting Fellow of Manchester Writing School.
Heaven Come Down: The story of a transgender disciple
Church Times Bookshop £11.70