Second Serve By Renee Richards Stein and Day; 373 pp.: $16.95
Everyone knows who Renee Richards is, but not many people have heard of the former Richard Raskind. He was a tall, strapping former Yalie tennis standout who continued his racquet career while becoming one of the nation's leading ophthalmologists. Friends and family labelled Raskind "All-American," but most did not know that the accomplished 42-year-old had been nurturing one secret goal since childhood. Then, one day, he took some time off from his New York practice and, after coming back, decided to leave the big city for good. His friends and colleagues thought he was just going on sabbatical.
Soon after, Renee Richards, a tall, strapping eye doctor with an aggressive game of tennis, joined the staff of a top Southern California opthamology clinic. She quickly gained respect in the clinic for her expert eye work and tennis game. Few people knew much about her shadowy background.
Were it not for an inquisitive San Diego television reporter who did some digging, the link between the two names would never have been made public. Now that most of the nation knows how successful eye sur-two names would never have been made public. But now that most of the nation knows how successful eye surgeon male tennis competitor Richard Raskind had a has decided to explain why anyone would do such a thing. In Second Serve, which was written with John Ames, Richards presents a rambling, humorous and sometimes impassioned memoir of how Raskind Richards dealt with a desire to change the unchangeable.
People tend to complain about things they can't do much about lack of height, disease, baldness. One doesn't often hear gripes about the way a person's sex chromosomes happened to link up. There are tomboys and effeminate men, but most work with what they have. Richard Raskind worked against what he had for many of his 42 years, trying to figure out how to react to the nagging feeling that he wanted to be--ought to be--a woman.
The Richard Raskind story would be difficult to ruin, and the authors make sure to keep out of its way. In fact, the book reads like a collection of stories and thoughts pieced together with some errant editorial comments. Nothing, it seems, is held back the reader must wade through all the gory and embarrassing details. Which doesn't of course, make it any less enjoyable.
Richards evidently had two arms in mind while writing to set the record straight for the general public and, more importantly, for herself. She has been confused for almost all of her 42 years and feels a need to get it all down on paper. And while readers may well begin to understand her bizarre adventures, it is doubtful whether Richards herself has yet come to grips with the whole situation.
The title Second Serve indicates her general confusion the metaphor is inaccurate. In tennis, a second serve is delivered after the stronger first serve has failed. The weaker serve is employed only after the other does not work, there is a clear separation. For Richards, however, no clear dichotomy between her first and second lives actually exists. In his young for motive years, "The best thing that had ever happened to me was being dressed like a woman." A few years later: "Though not fully awakened, [Raskind's] heterosexuality was beginning to emerge. He seemed to have arrived at the climax of an all-American boy-hood." Richards describes Raskind's pre-sex change dalliances with women and, stocked full of estrogens and dressed or undressed in drag, with men. Richards played both sides of the sexual court before her sex change--first and second serves--so the operation can hardly be dismissed as a "second try."
Not surprisingly, Richards also has difficulty in referring to himself during the different stages of her development. The general public is still confounded about what he/she really is or was--"It" is the most common and cruel appellation. But one would expect Richards to have a better idea than this of who she is and was, and what kind of influence the female and male urges had on him through his life:
Dick had very concrete ideas.
He took for granted that he would be a success in whatever profession he chose. He might even be an actor. He knew that he would marry a beautiful and sensitive woman by the time he was twenty-three. She would not be a professional woman like his mother. His children would have the complete attention of their mother; the Richard Raskinds would do a damn-sight better job of bringing up the kids than his parents had. Renee, on the other hand, looked forward to growing into womanhood, marrying happily, and starting a family. Of course, all of this was just daydreaming--neither Renee nor Dick took it seriously.
Clearly Dick's libido steered him towards both sexes, but Renee never quite indicates where it was taking him when. Trying to keep in the first person throughout the story, she cannot resist going back to a third person "he" or "Dick" in the description of the pre-operation adventures. The reader is left understandably confused about a man who at Yale had an affair with a Smith girl while simultaneously dressing up as a woman for Greenwich Village homosexual liaisons: who in his later years married and had a son, but soon after spent a year in Europe posing as a woman: who on the brink of the long-sought operation panicked and thought:
The only course of action open to me was to become a man, to make a panicky retreat from feminity. Considering my previous futile efforts in this direction, it was hard to have much faith in this scheme; but I attacked it with a vigor born of desperation. I had to make it work.
As is well know, it did not work and Raskind decided in the spring of 1975 to go through with the final stroke. It sounds feasible that Raskind had been able to live with the facts of his double life for 41 years but just got to the point where he needed a change. But some details don't fit; for instance, that "Dick" seems to have able to repress his feminine side enough to have a relationship with a woman during middle age. The reader suspects that Raskind, dissatisfied with his previous relationship thought Richards might have better luck
The most striking part of this book--and, of course, what will make it sell--is Richards' openness. Though the book reads like a long string of one-sentence declarations, these certainly pack a punch. Richards shows considerable guts in spelling everything out; she discusses her relationships in painstaking detail, emphasizing that through it all both Dick and Renee have always been heterosexual. Raskind, it seems, spent a lot of time reworking his own body within limits. For instance, he used to tie his penis behind his rear end to hide it. Before his emasculation he would sleep with men but wear an impenetrable girdle. When his masculine side asserted itself. Raskind was very "sexually active" with women, even while his estrogen injections were still working: surprisingly, to say the least, he lived with women at several points although he had rather large breasts. And so forth.
Richards' life after the operation, arguably the talk's most interesting segment, gets the lightest treatment. A relatively successful female tennis pro after facing opposition from authorities, she now coaches first-ranked Martina Navratilova and has resumed practicing opthamology. She says her father has accepted the switch, and her son, after about of psychotherapy, has adjusted to "his daddy becoming a lady."
Andy Raskind, in one of the more accurate statements of literary history, is quoted by his father as calling the whole episode "crazy." Richards does indeed seem crazy, and the narrative doesn't quite refute that impression. But she seems to enjoy telling her story, enough so that one enjoys retracing its wild twists and turns. And anyway, she is happy.