I'm Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted: A Memoir
by Jennifer Finney Boylan

Broadway Books, 2008. ISBN 978-0-7679-2174-9.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 01/16/2008

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

The title of Jennifer Boylan's book reminds me of the song by the Beatles from their "Rubber Sole" album released back in 1965. Although Boylan doesn't say that the song inspired her memoir's title, its words have a new meaning for me now as I relate them to Boylan's "haunted" youth.

When reading a memoir, I'm not as interested in the writer's childhood as much as in how she or he has integrated childhood experiences into the adult life. That's precisely what Boylan has been doing since she had transgender surgery in 2000, moving "from the potato-blighted land of men to the new green country of women." Jennifer Boylan was born a boy, James; now, as a woman, she is haunted by that boy as she unravels the continuous thread of her life through the power of story.

Boylan begins her memoir at the Astrid Hotel in Maine, where the sight of a ghost takes her up old stairs while her mind takes her, and the reader, back to the first time she visited the Coffin House in Philadelphia. Although Boylan uses fictional names in the book, the name of the Coffin House where she spent her childhood with her parents and sister Lydia, is just spooky enough to be real. The house was haunted by presences "otherwise invisible to the naked eye," as Boylan was haunted by the woman she knew herself to be.

Facing the personal hauntings of her childhood, Boylan returned in the spring of 2006 to the Coffin House, where her mother still lives. She brings a "paranormal investigator" to check out the hauntings of the house. Mrs. Boylan wonders about Jennie meeting with a group of paranormal investigators and asks, "When you say paranormal—do you mean, you know...other transsexuals?" The book is full of such humor as Boylan makes light of her childhood and her unique situation. At the end of the book she realizes that "maybe the humor is what I need to survive."

For me, one of the most poignant moments occurred one summer, when James was working in a bank. An older gentleman used the pronoun "she" to refer to James, his favorite "sweetie pie" teller. The man, whom Boylan called Mr. Bowtie, was embarrassed to find that James was a man, not a woman. He was one of the few who had seen James as the woman she believed herself to be.

On the subject of "gender theory," Boylan says she resents "the idea that a theory should even be necessary. To be honest," she writes, "just about the only theory I trust is story." She hopes that the story she tells stands in for theory, and indeed it does. As her mother says, "It is impossible to hate anyone whose story you know." It is a saying that sustains Boylan.

The book is dedicated to Boylan's sister. The last time Boylan saw Lydia was in the spring of 1999 when Boylan and her partner Grace spent a year in Ireland. They had two sons by then, born when the two were man and wife. I found this section of the book to be engaging and heart-warming, after the youthful antics and ghost busting. In a pub in Dublin, brother (Jennifer was still James) and sister talk. He wants to "come out" to her and I wait for the response. Will Lydia be accepting and understanding? As of the writing of the book, Jennifer and Lydia have had no further contact. (Check Boylan's blog on her website for an update on that part of the story.)

Boylan imagines a visit her sister took to a crypt at a church called St. Michan's. Was Lydia going to end up in the crypt herself? The description was spookier than the doors that opened and closed and the chair that swivelled on its own at the Coffin House.

One of Boylan's unexpected blessings was to have Grace decide, after some consideration, "that her life was better with me in it than without, and so, to everyone's amazement, we moved on into the unknown territory before us together." The two had met at Wesleyan University and begun dating in the mid-1980s when Boylan was James. Boylan's children now call her Maddy, a combination of Mommy and Daddy.

Boylan weaves her story backwards and forwards. It's what people do in therapy, Grace tells her, "one thread that puts your experience into a context that includes a past, and a present, and a future." Boylan really wants to be like everybody else. She's different, though, and the spirit of her dead father tells her that this is a gift. "But maybe you don't get to choose your gift," he advises. "You only get to choose what to do with it." In writing her memoir, and other books before this one, Boylan has exercised, rather than exorcised, her gift—through the power of story. She decribes herself as human "with a unique tragedy, deserving of kindness."

I'm left wanting more of that human story and will search out Boylan's other books, including her earlier memoir, She's Not There.

Jennifer Finney Boylan is the author of ten books. In 2003, her memoir, She's Not There, became the first bestselling work by a transgendered American. In 2004, it won a Lambda Literary Foundation prize. Boylan has spoken widely across the U.S. about gender issues and writing, and has appeared frequently on television and radio programs, including the Oprah Winfrey Show and Larry King Live. She lives in rural Maine with her two sons and her spouse, Deidre Grace. Since 1988 she has been professor of English at Colby College, in Waterville. You can read about her, including her blog, on her website.

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