Life isn’t Binary – A book review

In its very conception Life isn’t Binary by Meg-John Barker and Alex Iantaffi sets out to challenge binary thinking. It is neither an academic text book, nor a self help book, instead it is both/and. Some of its most complex ideas are followed by pages encouraging you to “slow down”, walk away from the book, and take a literal, and metaphorical breather. It includes exercises both practical and theoretical for you to work through to apply the theory to your own lives, I enjoyed the 13 types of intimacy one, which allows you to reflect on the different needs you may, or may not be meeting currently. This type of interaction is one of the ways in which it breaks the academic/self help book either/or division.

Both/and rather than either/or is the underlying theme of this book. It is written by those with expertise we usually give respect to (academics) but also with lived experience. There is an all too rare honesty about personal lived experience which reminded me of Trans Like Me, where the authors acknowledge their own both/and status. Life isn’t Binary doesn’t rely just on the experiences, or expertise of MJ and Alex however. We hear the voices of others, in direct quotes, describing how they experience gender, disability, sexuality, relationships, emotions, their body, and mind. We are also asked to use our own experiences, as our own experts, sometimes whilst reading, at other times to go out into the world and notice how it might be for someone who experiences it differently. This can make it in some ways more challenging than a straight academic text book, which it is possible to engage with on a purely intellectual level. Indeed another “non-binary” which the book encompasses might be the academic = hard/self help = easy binary. It can be far more challenging to consider how we might avoid putting ourselves first, than to read a paper on the importance of self care increasing resilience.

Structurally the book looks at different areas of life in turn. It starts with the two which we might be more familiar with when it comes to thinking outside of binaries, sexuality and gender. These chapters make an excellent introduction to anyone new to these ideas, and a good refresher for those more used to the width and breadth of sexual and gender diversity. Even for those for whom these concepts are not new, the both/and approach is refreshing, and I believe a much needed one. As is asked in the chapter on gender, we need to be far more aware of what is opened up, and what is closed down, by our categories, rather than simply believing we can develop new gatekeeping and hierarchies.

The book, for me, really takes the idea of both/and into new, and vital territories in the chapter on relationships. When it comes to relationships the either/or tension is one that people are so used to that to even challenge it can leave you with looks of incomprehension. You are either single, or partnered, in a relationship that matters (i.e sexual and romantic monogamy) or not, either acceptably poly, or an unacceptable swinger. It was great to see some of the new either/or “norms” challenged. It is understandable why groups might fall back on “us and them” binaries when they have faced stigma, but it is not always helpful, especially when it reinforces existing binaries of acceptable and unacceptable. Asking why some kinds of relationships are considered superior to others often causes us to look at our own assumptions about relationships in a healthy way.

The weakest chapter, Bodies, looks at this in group/out group binary, alongside a number of other themes including race, class and taking an intersectional stance. I describe it as the weakest, in that in some ways it seems to be a collection of other directions which could have been explored, but are not given enough space. However, criticizing a book because you wish it could have been longer, is I think a reflection most authors would agree with.

The last two chapters Emotions and Thinking, would I believe be beneficial for anyone thinking of embarking on training as a therapist. Anti oppressive practice demands that we look beyond the mind/body rational/emotional split and understand exactly the impact of Cartesian duality on all of us today. The issues with who is allowed to be rational, and whose behavior is policed as emotional, are ones which need to be discussed far more often, particularly in the therapy room, where the rise of behaviorism has often led to clients being told their emotions are unreasonable, based on who they are, not what they have experienced. In being asked to challenge the mad/sane binary Barker and Iantaffi may be echoing the work of Winnacott, Laing and others, but it is a much needed revival of ideas that as a profession we seem to have forgotten. Indeed, the understanding that Life is not binary permeates the works, and thoughts of many of our greatest poets, artists and thinkers, as they have understood that to be an adult is to have the courage to leave binary thinking behind. One does not have to be a post-modernist to understand that as we grow, learn, love, and develop, so we will also hopefully understand that universal truths are in fact anything but, and often about the need to be able to exist in the liminal space of both/and

Life isn’t Binary is available in e-book, and hard copy, but not audiobooks and is published by JK Publishing.

Over the summer I intend to review a number of books which may be of general and professional interest, please get in touch if there is one you would like to recommend.


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