Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Jargon, Joy, and Jenny: A Review of Stuck in the Middle with You by Jennifer Finney Boylan

I'm back in Book Review mode!  As I mentioned previously Professor Jennifer Finney Boylan sent me a couple of books to be reviewed.  I did the first one already.  This past weekend, I finished reading (and taking notes on) the second.

As I hadn't read this book previously, I went about the reading of this book in a different way.  I'm also doing the review in a different way.  It will take a little bit to develop, so please stick with it.


Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan.

This new book is the third "memoir" from this author, following She's not There and I'm Looking Through You: Growing up Haunted.  However, this book is far different from the other two, as it isn't strictly HER story.  Well the others aren't either as the family is involved, but in this case, about half the book is interviews with friends and colleagues on the topic of Parenting.

The people interviewed are *takes deep breath*:

Richard Russo, Ralph James Savarese, Trey Ellis, Augusten Burroughs, Edward Albee, Barbara Spiegel, Timothy Kreider, Dr. Christine McGinn, Ann Beattie, Veronica Gerhardf (her former nanny), Susan Minot, and Anne Quindlen.

Want to know who they are?  Google them.  Most of them are best selling authors.

As before, Professor Boylan gave me permission to call her Jenny, so I will do so for this review.  And, as before, it's not the most formal way to do a review, but I don't care.  For more information call 555-1212.

Ok, to develop my point, I'd like to indulge in a little Jargon.  As many people know, I have my degrees in Education.  So aside from making me a "Liberal Union Thug" (according to the GOP,) I learned a thing or two about educational theory.  One of the central theories is known as Bloom's Taxonomy.

The short explanation is that Bloom's Taxonomy helps teachers tailor lessons to the depth in the intellect that it needs to go.  Example: memorizing a fact to pass a test is low level.  Using that fact to help analyze a problem and synthesize a solution is much higher level. 

The idea is to start low, and then go higher.

Still with me?

Right.  So the way I'm approaching this book is by seeing if it applies to MY situation as a trans- parent.  "But you're just one person- how is that fair?" you ask.

Well, my reading of the book indicates that she wrote it to inform others of the ways different "types" of people cope with the immense challenges of parenting.  So, as a member of the reading audience, I will attempt to APPLY the information.  Higher level Bloom stuff.  BTW, while reading, I wrote down passages that jumped at me as being especially meaningful. I will quote some, citing page numbers. 

I'm a parent.  I have a daughter who is currently five.  She doesn't know about my being Transgender... yet.  But she will.  So the concept of parenting as a TG person is something I am VERY interested in learning.  How will my transition affect my daughter?  Can she still have a rewarding, fulfilling life?

One of the first things Jenny does is to update the reader on who she is, where she is, why she is, and so on.  State of the Jenny Address if you will, done through stories.  She then defines her terms so to speak, first defining Fatherhood, then Motherhood.

Then deconstructing them... wondering if a male can be a mother and a female can be a father.  Her conclusion?  I'll get back to that.

Her take on fatherhood?  I think she nailed it.  Whether her judgement about the difference is sound, I will find out.

p 10;  One of the things about manhood I learned from my father is that it's a solitary experience, a land of silences and understatements, a place where a lot of important things have to be learned alone.  Whereas womanhood, a lot of the time, is a thing you get to share.

My father was a Lone Wolf if you will.  Depend upon no one but yourself.  He was a military man (US Army, Vietnam era)  From him, I learned that guys are sullen.  They do not express any emotion except anger.  That everyone can and will betray you, so a guy has to fend for himself.  Asking for help is a cardinal sin- and crying a mortal one.  And any hint of femininity?  Unspeakable.

But I also learned from him what the difference is between a Guy and a Man... and I learned this by seeing him and other males.  A Man is not a guy.  A Man respects others who have earned respect.  A Man shows emotion when necessary.  A Man is not afraid to be afraid.  A Man asks for help, and gives it without being asked.  A Man defends those who need defending.

Most of this is the opposite of my father, and it took me until my teens to sort out much of it.

Males are built for Defending... for Death.

A Father is a human being.

So.  From my father, I learned a male is to be quiet, emotionless and solitary.  Angry.  Fights all that opposes.  As a Woman inside, one can imagine how this tore my psyche far worse than the many many beatings.  When he wasn't angry, I was ignored.  I wasn't alone.

p60: Richard Russo.  "[my father] said 'I didn't care about you at all. There was a poker game to go to. The track was there.'"

A Mother. Jenny defines this as well.  Well actually, she allows her Grandmother to define it.

p29:  “That’s not what makes someone a mother,” she said.
“Really? What does?”
Gammie took a long drag on her cigarette.
“Suffering,” she said.

My mother is from Scotland.  Her manners, customs, beliefs are all European pre-war.  From her I learned that the Father rules the home and is to be feared. 

I always wondered why that was.  Why couldn't she stand up to him?  It took me sixteen years until I did... and longer to answer the question.

It wasn't her place.  And she was afraid.

Her example of motherhood was chilling.

Females are built for birthing and nurturing children.  They are built for Life.

Mothers are human beings

So Jenny defined her terms, and now so have I. 

Jenny's parents were loving, if a bit distant.  They encouraged her, and, while not knowing or understanding Jenny's torment, did their best to raise her.
Yet, in the book's interviews, she seems to be searching for something missing.  She probes others about their parents, and for the most part, it isn't at all pretty.  One of her interviewees answers her question about growing up with an amazing observation.
p87  Augusten Burroughs  "We break free, but just because we leave our parents doesn't mean they leave us."

I have done everything in my power to be the opposite of my parents.  The Quest to conquer the Windmills against which I tilt have been hampered by own lack of understanding of my own self... as a person... as a woman.  And my parents are still here with me.  Always will be.  Even after they are long gone, the effect of their lives will ripple through mine.  And, if I am not careful, my daughter's.  Will my Transgender life amplify those ripples to waves?  Tsunami

Jenny covers her Quest for self in her earlier books.  Here, she questions the results.  She wonders if her wife Deedie was right in staying with her, despite what their friends insisted.
 p104 "She [Deedie] would be like some twenty-first-century nether-version of Miss Havisham, frozen in time, still going through the rituals of a life that had long since gone on without her."

Yet, as we learn, her children are Fine.  In fact, more than fine, as Jenny points out all over the book.  She brags about them a bit- and that's allowed.  After all the work and questioning... her children are stronger for the experience. 

That said, Jenny is under no illusions.
p110: "I'm aware that my own story as a trans person is unique, at least in part because many things that could have gone wrong failed to do so, and I have worried over the years about the many ways in which my tale may have given false hope to some readers; my story is surely only that, and is almost certainly the particular result of circumstances unique to my life."

So... that's just Peachy.  I'm reading a book about parenting as a TG... reading how fantastic her kids are... her wonderful marriage... and it probably won't apply to me or mine.  How the hell am I supposed to do this?  How am I supposed to draw examples and applications if she is an outlier?

How will I be the parent my daughter needs?  Can't anyone tell me this?  Answer my questions? 
p129:  Edward Albee  ""There is no one to tell you who you are except yourself."

*stunned silence*

*looks up something*

"Don’t Take Anything Personally.  Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering."
Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements. (that one is number two.)

*flips back in Jenny's book*

p60: Richard Russo. "[my father] said "I didn't care about you at all..."

*references back in this entry*

"When he wasn't angry, I was ignored."   "Jenny's parents were loving, if a bit distant. They encouraged her, and, while not knowing or understanding Jenny's torment, did their best to raise her."

The Central Issue with being Transgender is defining Yourself as who YOU are.  We defy conventions.  We defy biology.  We sacrifice so much to be True to ourselves.  To Be.

Loving Yourself.

Jenny's parents loved her.  She loves her children.  That shines through every word in this book.  And her past ones as well.  And... Jenny finally loves herself.

And that's her point.  It isn't about Gender of the parent.  The Father need NOT be male.  The Mother need NOT be Female.  Same sex couples love their children as well as any other.  Fatherhood and motherhood are more than biology... it's about Love and Responsibility.

p 204-5:  "And yet to accept the wondrous scope of gender is to affirm the vast potential of life, in all its messy, unfathomable beauty.  Surely if we make room for the mutability of gender, we have to accept that motherhood and fatherhood themselves are no longer unalterable binaries either."

So maybe there's my answer.

Yes, Jenny is an outlier.  By definition, all trans-people are outliers.  We are not the norm.  But we are capable of love, despite horrific psychic wounds that so many of us suffer.

If I love my daughter, if I am her parent: her Father, then maybe it can all turn out for the best. 

If I can love myself... and be capable of love....

She'll have a chance for a fulfilling life.  And as a parent, that's all I can hope for, really.

Late in the book, Jenny reflects on her life.  She lays in her childhood bed after a day tending to her dying elderly mother.

p208: "I lay back on my pillow thinking how strange it was that most of the wishes I had ever had in this life had come true- although almost never in the manner that I had expected."

Most parents wish for their children to lives that enrich them and fulfil them.  Many see the wish come true.

I have an idea what my parents wanted from their youngest- the unplanned "mistake."  My dad wanted an engineer.  My mum never ventured an opinion.  What they got was a tormented child who is working her way to that fulfilling life.  A child who has yet to share her wishes and destiny with them, and fears their reaction.

You're no son of mine!

A Child who has wishes for herself... and HER child. 

So.  In applying Jenny's book to my own situation and life, I accessed deep areas that I did not intend to enter and found some answers. 

Answers are what education is all about
In any case, I'm guessing that this is not the review Jenny expected when she sent the offer of the books.  It wasn't the review I expected to write.

It's the review I wrote, though. 

And I conclude it in this way:  If you want to learn about a crucial facet of the human experience: of Parenting, of family, and loving; if you wish to learn about this from a wide variety of sources and with Jenny's gift for storytelling, humor and insight; (and if you've read this far, I think you do), then go to your local brick and mortar bookstore (that pays its taxes and depends upon you for its life) and buy a copy of Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders.

You won't be disappointed.  And you may learn something that applies to your life.

I did.


1 comment:

  1. Beautiful! I always like the fact that Jennifer doesn't try to sugar coat or ignore the facts of her extraordinary life. "She's Not There" was my first TG book and I laughed and cried as I was reading it. I expect that this book will have some of the same effects on me. Thanks for the review.

    Sally Cross