This page contains a large number of reivews and interviews from ILTY.
from the hartford Courant:
The Haunting of Jennifer Boylan
‘I’m Looking Through You” can be read as a meditation on the permeability of boundaries — between the present and the past, between male and female, between families and individuals. And (depending on your beliefs about the supernatural) between humans and ghosts and the rational and irrational.
Jennifer Finney Boylan, a novelist, short-story writer and memoirist, is a Wesleyan graduate who grew up on Philadelphia’s Main Line and is now a professor of literature and creative writing at Colby College in Maine.
Boylan is no stranger to the concept of crossing boundaries. In 2003, she published the engrossing memoir “She’s Not There,” which told with grace, wit and challenging frankness the complex story of how she, then James Boylan, after years of feeling female in the male body he was born with, made the transition to Jennifer. That process ended her relationship with her sister but not her mother or sons or wife, who remains her loving spouse. Nevertheless, the book is dedicated, with love, to the sister who will no longer speak to or about her.
The new book is memoir too, but pushes the boundary of that genre right to the edge of what we usually define as the novel. In an author’s note, Boylan approvingly quotes Frank McCourt’s belief that “a memoir is meant to be an impression of a life, and not a photograph.” She freely acknowledges giving characters pseudonyms and other identity-hiding characteristics, stretching or collapsing the book’s time frame, reconstructing dialogue and even inventing some material to plug gaps and dramatize events she (or earlier, he) did not experience, all in the name of telling a richer story.
Those very considerable caveats aside, Boylan has here produced another highly readable, mind-stretching tale, full of visitations that might be ghostly or, not so simply, the product of an deeply sensitive mind, along with raucous wit and poignant recollections.
It all begins with a haunted house. Or, you might say, a “hunted” house, because the previous owners of the Coffin House, named for its original occupant, Lemuel Coffin, were the family of journalist Al Hunt. Some of their experiences are recounted in the book.
A towering, nearly tottering pile that Boylan’s sister likens to the Munster mansion of TV fame, the house comes with tattered wallpaper, hidden staircases, a black-painted living room and unearthly presences that trigger goose-bumpy reactions. Boylan learns that long ago, a mentally impaired woman was confined to one of the rooms and later drowned. Her sad, unfulfilled spirit haunts the author and the reader — and, some believe, the house itself — throughout this tale.
But Boylan is haunted by far more, including his complicated relationship with his father, who endures cancer for a protracted period, and his sister, who is a fierce and strong presence in Boylan’s life. The sting of her thorough rejection is palpable as the story comes to a close.
Yet there are many moments of great levity. Boylan lovingly tells tales involving his grandmother, an outspoken matriarch who takes nearly malicious delight in regaling all and sundry with intimate details about the conception of Boylan’s father, as scandalized family members try to shut her up. She’s accompanied by Aunt Nora, a seamstress who constructs endless piles of cat-shaped sock puppets, known as “kittygirls,” and by her friend Hilda, who, when confused (which is pretty much all the time) emits an interjection that sounds like “Whoop? Whoop?”
Then there is the story of the insanely flushing toilet, which sends cascades of water through the old house, flooding it to the point where ceilings collapse. Not so funny at the time, we can assume, but very much so in the telling.
Boylan also reminisces about attending Wesleyan, capturing that university’s unique affect. Likewise, there are recollections of James’ private school and college acquaintances and teachers, and of the girls he dated then in the hope that one great love would come along and end his hidden, internal longing to be female. For a time, embodied by his amazing Grace, who rode a motorcycle and took no guff from anyone, it did.
There also are encounters with a group of amateur ghost-busters, whose divining-rod wielding leader offers Boylan some comfort concerning his late father, and whom Boylan accompanies on a mission. The author hovers between belief and skepticism as they earnestly perform their rituals, and readers likely will have the same ambivalent reaction to the paranormal doings recounted here.
Yet we can see that Jennifer Finney Boylan is haunted, and perhaps will be forever, by her unusual past and by the unfinished business with her estranged sister. This memoir can be read as a kind of exorcism, and only Boylan knows whether, by writing it, she has finally laid her personal ghosts to rest.–Hartford Courant
Two Lives, One Heart
Q & A Two lives, one heart
Transgendered author describes how her boyhood once haunted her.
By RAY ROUTHIER Staff Writer January 13, 2008
Ghosts and spirits are said to haunt the living. But someone’s past, someone’s inner angst, can also haunt them.
And the two are probably connected, Boylan believes. That’s one of the main themes of Boylan’s newest book, a memoir called “I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted” (Broadway Books, $23.95). The book hit bookstores this month.
In 2003, Boylan gained national acclaim for her memoir “She’s Not There,” which chronicled her gender change from a man to a woman. Her new book also examines her boyhood and the inner feelings that were haunting her then.
Boylan, 49, is a professor of English at Colby College in Waterville and lives in Belgrade Lakes. She’s the author of 10 books.
Q: How did you decide to write a book that seems to explore the various meanings of the word “haunted” as they pertain to your own life?
A: Well, it strikes me that a haunting is at the heart of most good stories. I think we’re intrigued by stories of ghosts in the same way that we’re intrigued by hearing people’s dreams. And yet I think any story of ghosts winds up being as much about psychology as the paranormal. Like, do we believe people when they say they’ve seen a spirit? Or do we presume their unconscious is getting out of hand? Most people I know don’t believe in ghosts — but everyone knows what it means to be haunted.
Q: Is the book more about emotional haunting or physical haunting?
A: Well, the two are intertwined, aren’t they? But in the end, the human ghosts are more interesting than the Scooby-Doo variety. When someone says they’re haunted, often what they mean is that they’ve had an experience they’ve never gotten over — something either so good, or so terrible, that they can’t stop thinking about it. In some ways, they live more in that past moment than in the present. And I think this is how people get damage, they wind up without any way of connecting who they are now to who they have been. What I hope the story of “I’m Looking Through You” tells is the way we learn to “integrate” our past and present, the people we have been and the people we become. In the end, we all want to live one life, not two.
Q: The press release for the book says you and your family lived in a haunted house? Do you believe it was physically haunted?
A: Well, here’s what I, and others, have seen there. Clouds of mist drifting across a hallway; an older woman in a long white nightgown who appeared, from time to time, in a mirror; a figure in black who looked like an orchestra conductor. There were footsteps in the attic, doors that opened and closed by themselves. A friend of mine saw my father appear at the foot of his bed one night, which was more than a little weird, since my father had been dead for five years at the time.
Do I believe that there is a scientific explanation for all of this? Sure, probably. I am not at all sure I believe in ghosts myself, it seems so sketchy. And yet, these are the things people saw, and felt. I don’t know. In the end, I suspect that far more hearts are haunted than houses.
Q: You’ve been on “Oprah” several times. What was she like with you? What sort of questions did she ask?
A: Well, if you’re an author in this country and you get asked to be on “Oprah,” in general, there’s only one thing you can be, and that’s grateful. She exposed my work to a national audience, made my book a best-seller. How can I complain about that? I mean, I didn’t leave her show as her new best friend; it’s not like she calls me at home and asks how I’m doing. But generally I felt extremely glad to have had that experience. I’ll admit that doing her show is a little scary for me — it’s a big audience, and jeez — there you are sitting on that same yellow couch Tom Cruise jumped up and down on, and OprahWinfrey is sitting there two feet away from you.
Q: In writing this memoir, what were some of the things you learned about yourself? Were there some things that surprised you?
A: I think I was surprised by the intensity of some of the memories having to do with my father, as well as with the story of my sister, who, while still alive, declared herself “dead to me,” to use Tony Soprano’s phrase. And yes, there were a few stories that scared me deeply as I put them down on paper for the first time, after all these years. Above all, though, as a person who grew up transgender and very different from everybody else, I was struck by how strong the yearning is, even now, to “be like everybody else,” and how much it hurts to be different. On a good day, I think of being transgender as a gift, as something to be grateful for, since it’s enabled me to see all sorts of things most men — and most women — don’t get to see.
Q: As time goes on, does it get easier or harder to talk about your sex change publicly? Or do you just take for granted that people will ask you about it?
A: I assume people will want to ask about it. There are so few transgender people in the public eye; it’s natural for people to be curious about it. I’m glad to talk about it, mostly; gender connects to so many things. It’s bound to raise interesting topics. It hurts my feelings that many people believe things about it that are fundamentally untrue. And yet, I don’t know that it’s my job to be the country’s transgender spokesmodel. I try, mostly, to tell stories, and to let people learn what they can from those stories. – POrtland PRess Herald
I’M LOOKING THROUGH YOU: Growing Up Haunted
Jennifer Finney Boylan
A quick glance of Jennifer Finney Boylan’s latest memoir, I’M LOOKING THROUGH YOU, would give the impression that the book focuses on growing up in a haunted house. But a closer look reveals, as the subtitle states, that it is about “growing up haunted.” This is an important distinction.
Boylan did live for many years in a house, aptly named the “Coffin House” after the family who built it, that she took to be haunted. Her family moved there in 1972, just as she was entering her teenage years. On her first visit she received a big electrical shock, followed by another surprise: she was to sleep in a spooky third floor bedroom while the rest of her family would get their shut-eye on the floor below. From that first day exploring her new home, Boylan felt the presence of ghosts, and her nights there were full of disembodied footsteps and floating specters. As her story unfolds, it becomes more complex and nuanced. She moves readers back and forth in time, telling stories of the Coffin House, her adventures with “ghostbusters” later in life, and, most especially, her personal hauntings.
As she wrote in her earlier bestselling memoir, SHE’S NOT THERE, Boylan was born “James” but always knew herself to be “Jenny.” It wasn’t until after she was grown, a college English professor married with two sons of her own, that she came out as transgendered and began the process of becoming a woman physically. Her time in the Coffin House coincided with her teenage years, and she relates her frustration and uncertainty with honesty and grace. “Back then,” she writes, “I knew very little for certain about whatever it was that afflicted me, but I did know this much: that in order to survive, I’d have to become something like a ghost myself, and keep the nature of my true self hidden.” In fact, later, returning to the house as an adult woman, after the place had been remodeled and filled with the laughter of the next generation, she wonders if she had indeed haunted herself. Was the starry-eyed woman she saw, as a teenage boy, over her shoulder in the mirror really her future self still trapped and lonely in the male body?
There are other figures who haunt this tale as well. Boylan mourns the loss of her father and older sister, neither of whom get to know her as Jenny. Her family factors large in this memoir, of course. They are an eccentric Irish bunch: a crass and loving grandmother and her refined English sidekick, a perpetually cold aunt, a mystical cousin and others support the story of the immediate Boylan clan, including Jenny’s smart older sister, musical father, and religious and accepting mother.
In the post-Frey era, memoirs are read with a critical eye. Like many others today, I’M LOOKING THROUGH YOU is prefaced with the disclaimer that there are elements of invention in the book, including some of the dialogue, and that she played a bit with the timeline. For readers of memoirs this may seem obvious (for who can remember the exact words of a conversation 30 years ago?), but it frees the author and allows her a creativity that only strengthens the story she is trying to tell. And Boylan’s style is creative — light-handed and readable, funny and wise, conversational and intimate, and yet polished.
Sprinkled with philosophy, without sounding snobby, and pop-culture references without being silly, I’M LOOKING THROUGH YOU is an enjoyable and memorable read. Boylan’s story is at once singular and familiar — the right combination for a successful memoir. While the Coffin House provides the bones of the book, it is lovingly fleshed out, with a personal, often bittersweet examination of family, loss, identity and change.— Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman, Bookreporter.com
A tale of a boy and his inner ghosts
By Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett
Special to The Seattle Times
“I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted”
by Jennifer Finney Boylan
Broadway, 270 pp., $23.95
We’ve all got ghosts in our attics, of one kind or another. Jennifer Finney Boylan’s spirits are a particularly faithful lot, haunting her throughout an off-kilter childhood lived as a boy, adulthood as a man, now midlife as a woman. Humans should be so loyal.
Jennifer, formerly James, is a professor of writing and American literature at Maine’s Colby College. Her smart, funny memoir, “She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders,” landed on the literary map in 2003. (Boylan took talk-shows by storm, and her self-posted readings are busy YouTube stops.) Now, “I’m Looking Through You” is marked by the same wry humor, although Boylan is noticeably less concerned with entertaining the reader this time around. This story is cloaked in pervasive sadness.
Boylan uses her childhood house and its eccentric character as a device to explore her life, noting: “If, as Aristotle said, character is fate, then so, I would argue, is architecture. Surely whoever it is we become is the result, in part, of the houses in which we live.”
Back in the 1970s, three decades before her sex change, Boylan was “a curiously androgynous thirteen-year-old” boy. He, along with older sister Lydia and their parents, moved into Coffin House, named for the 18th-century owner of the Pennsylvania land underneath the cavernous mansion. By the time the family moved in, the house built there was both crumbling and, according to local legend, haunted.
In his first day in the place, Jim accidentally touches his house key to an exposed wire in the kitchen. A bolt of electricity shoots through him, leaving both body and mind in jangling confusion. Clearly, the house metaphor was a good choice.
Coffin House’s restless spirits apparently commune only with Jim and the family dog, Sausage. Boy and dog hear footsteps, the sweeping of phantom brooms, eerie whispers. They see ghostly figures, including a baton-wielding conductor. (Usually vanquished if one whistled Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.) They keep these sightings to themselves.
The first time he feels the scalp-prickling sound of a ghost opening his creaky bedroom door, Jim takes the only sensible course of action: “I pulled the covers over my head and shut my eyes. Once again I petitioned the Lord with prayer. Please make it go away. I won’t ask to be a girl anymore if you’ll just make it go away.” Soon, being haunted is commonplace; just one more baffling aspect of Jim’s world, and he has no further need to make such promises.
For the most part, being visited by inexplicable feelings and sights didn’t really scare him then, and doesn’t scare her now. If you’re a teenage boy secretly wearing halter tops and bras to combat the even greater weirdness of being in the wrong body, a mere apparition isn’t all that threatening. As for the adult Boylan, she sees it this way:
“I do not believe in ghosts, although I have seen them with my own eyes. This isn’t so strange, really. A lot of people feel the same way about transsexuals … Maybe someday researchers will tell us more about what makes people see things that are not there, or yearn to inhabit a body other than the one into which they were born. In the meantime, when it comes to ghosts, or gender, we’re all pretty much on our own.”
At the book’s heart is the relationship between Jim and Lydia, the latter a model of sisterly sarcasm. Underneath the bullying was a strong bond, which is lovingly, slowly re-created by Boylan. It’s clear from the earliest pages that she will lose her sister in some way, but just how that happens is not disclosed until much later in the book. When the mystery is revealed, Lydia becomes the most important ghost yet, and all the sadness woven through the book makes perfect, poignant sense. – Seattle Times
She’s still here
by Ethan Jacobs
Thursday Jan 10, 2008
Jennifer Finney Boylan’s new memoir, I’m Looking Through You, is a bit of a departure from her 2003 memoir She’s Not There. While the latter book catapulted her to the top of the best sellers list and onto the Oprah show with her comic, intimate account of her transition from male to female, the new book takes a turn for the supernatural, recounting her experience growing up in a suburban house in Philadelphia that, according to local legend, was haunted. As part of her research for the book Boylan brought a team of paranormal investigators with her to go ghost hunting in her childhood home and had them moderate a conversation between herself and the ghost of her father. But Boylan, a skeptic about things that go bump in the night, spends much more time in the book writing about ghosts in a psychological sense, as pieces of her past that continue to haunt her. She said that while the new memoir is not as focused on transgender identity as She’s Not There, the idea of being haunted is one that has special resonance for the transgender community.
“I’ll say that I’m less interested in the Scooby Doo variety of ghosts than I am in the other kind, the psychological kind. … If you’re a trans person you really do feel like sometimes it’s very hard to make sense of your life and really feel like there was a before and an after. Many trans people I know are kind of haunted by the ghosts of their younger selves, or, if you’re a young person, by the ghost of the person you might become but can’t quite figure out how to undergo that transformation,” said Boylan. “So how do we find peace with the ghosts of our younger selves or the ghosts of our future selves? It’s a memoir not only of growing up in a haunted house but a memoir of someone who lived in a haunted body. Issues of gender are right there at the heart of the book as well.”
Boylan will read from I’m Looking Through You, which will be in stores Jan. 15, at a special Jan. 19 luncheon during the Tiffany Club’s annual First Event conference, one of the largest and oldest transgender events in the country, which runs Jan. 16-20 at the Boston Marriott Peabody. Boylan will also present a workshop at the conference that afternoon on how to tell one’s personal story through memoir writing.
For readers of She’s Not There, the new book fills in some holes in Boylan’s history, focusing on her relationships with two people who were largely absent from the first memoir. One of those people is her father, who died long before she transitioned.
“If you’re a transgender woman the figure of your father does kind of loom above you,” said Boylan. “And my father never got to see me as an adult and so never really knew me, and certainly never knew me as a woman. And so there’s a sense of sorrow and of guilt, like, ’Oh my God, did I disappoint him? Did I let him down?’”
While Boylan went into the research for I’m Looking Through You feeling more than a bit dubious about the paranormal, she said one of the most surprising moments was when she had what she believes may have been a conversation with her father’s ghost, courtesy of the paranormal investigators she invited to scope out her childhood home.
“And through these ghost busters I was able to supposedly have a conversation with him. I won’t explain how they managed to set that up, but they did have this interesting system by which I could ask him a series of yes or no questions. And I had this, I have to say, very moving experience which ended with me feeling his hand on the side of my face. And I could feel him saying, ’Don’t worry, you’ve done just fine,’” said Boylan. “But at the same time, [I’m] thinking, ’Wait, this has got to be all bullshit. Who would be so vulnerable and gullible that they would fall for something like this?’ So it was a kind of funny experience in that I felt very moved by it but I was also very sarcastic about the whole thing and not sure whether to trust it.”
The second person who Boylan writes about is her sister. After Boylan transitioned she said her sister broke off all contact with her, and when her sister visits their mother she insists that the mother take down all photos of Boylan in the house and hide all of her books.
The new book fills in some holes in Boylan’s history, focusing on her relationships with two people who were largely absent from the first memoir: Her father and her sister.
“So there is a very clear sense in which she’s become a ghost, too,” said Boylan. “So much of the book is about that relationship and trying to make sense of it and trying to make peace with her, too.”
Despite some of the weighty issues Boylan tackles in the book, she said readers of She’s Not There would recognize the same wry sense of humor, and she believes the book’s message about making peace with your past is ultimately an uplifting one.
“I think the thing people really get into is, some people live their lives as exes or formers or priors, people who are so defined by what they used to be that they’re never really — look at Art Garfunkel. … So how do you avoid being a Garfunkel? Well, it’s by trying to make peace with your past,” Boylan said. “And how do you do that? I think the way you do that is by telling stories and by weaving the narrative of your life with one long thread so you can figure out how you got here from there.”
Telling stories will be the focus of Boylan’s workshop at First Event, and she said she feels it is crucial that more members of the trans community tell their stories to a mainstream audience. In many ways she said her own story — as a white, middle-aged professional MTF — has become the most familiar image of the trans community among mainstream America, while the stories of FTMs, genderqueer people, older trans people, trans veterans and others have garnered little notice. She said she will draw on her experience both as a writer and as an English professor at Colby College in Maine to talk about techniques for telling personal stories and the value of doing so.
In some respects Boylan said the success she had telling her own story in She’s Not There has made her feel guilty speaking before transgender audiences.
“You turn one of these conferences on its side and about 2000 autobiographies fall out the door,” said Boylan. “Everybody in there wants to write their story, and I feel a little guilty sometimes that my story has been held up as some sort of emblematic story when in fact it’s really just one person’s experience. And in some ways my experience is not exactly typical. … As far as trans people go, I’m someone for whom things have generally gone very, very well. And some of that I’ll take credit for. But some of it is also cultural privilege; [some of it is] privilege of being white, some of it is residual male privilege, some of it is privilege of class. And all those things are things to be suspicious of and to be wary of.”
She said when her first memoir began climbing the best-seller lists she was uncomfortable seeing herself as an advocate for the transgender community to mainstream America. But over the past few years she said members of the community have convinced her that the publicity she garnered with her book comes with an obligation to use that exposure to benefit the transgender community as a whole.
“But I guess compared to five years ago when She’s Not There came out I really do have a sense of responsibility for speaking for people other than me, quite frankly. When I wrote She’s Not There, I was like, ’This is one person’s memoir, it’s just me.’ And I got a lot of looks from people at conferences where they’re like, ’You’re a very lucky person, Jenny Boylan. Now it would be nice if you would use that fortune for the benefit of somebody other than yourself,’” said Boylan. “So I’m trying to do that. Like I said, I don’t know how good at it I am, but I’m trying to do that.”– Bay Windows
Engaging ghosts of the past
Transgender writer spins entertaining tale through a spooky house
Attention, readers: Don’t pick up this book expecting “The Shining.” This is more like “The Amityville Horror” meets “Glen or Glenda?”
Jennifer Finney Boylan’s best-seller “She’s Not There” was praised as a witty account of her transformation from a man to a woman. In “Growing Up Haunted,” there are ghost sightings, but they’re so often paired with analogies to her transgender longings that I started to suspect it was all one big metaphor, until the chapters about bringing in ghostbusters to “read” the house where Boylan spent her teen years.
Still, ghosts are not the real story here.
Boylan is a great storyteller, who uses her colorful family and the strange house they moved to in 1972 to create an edgier version of the sort of rueful, quirky memoir Betty MacDonald (“The Egg and I,” “The Plague and I”) used to turn out.
The Coffin House, so called for its original owner, Lemuel Coffin, is an “enormous, collapsing Victorian mansion” when the family arrives, “three stories tall, with crazy dormer windows and a gabled roof and several crooked chimneys and a pair of bayonet-sharp lightning rods.” Inside are zebra-striped wallpaper and wagon-wheel chandeliers, not to mention strange blue mists, disembodied footsteps, cold spots, faces in mirrors and tales from the neighbors about a secret staircase and a tower torn off the house after a death.
In between these haunted moments are stories that will resonate with anyone who was a teen in the ’70s. The song lyrics, the embarrassing clothes, Jimmy Carter in the White House … it’s a blast from the past, all right, especially the tales of Boylan’s life at Wesleyan College (“like going to college in a giant space station”).
It’s an entertaining life, entertainingly told: a stint as a 20-something in New York City, early jobs as the world’s worst bank teller and a magazine writer, marriage to a college sweetheart who, amazingly, weathered the sex change along with their two sons. Somewhere in there, Boylan went on to become a figure well-known enough to be imitated by Will Forte on “Saturday Night Live.”
There’s darkness as well, though. Boylan is telling the story of how she came to terms with her difference, and how her sister did not. The book is dedicated to that sister, who broke off contact after Boylan’s gender change. We’re only seeing one side of the story, so it’s impossible to know whether Boylan is stacking the deck in describing a fairly normal, supportive relationship that ended with her transformation to a woman. The reaction seems extreme, given the scenes we’re shown.
Until Boylan’s sister decides to write her own book, though, this one will not disappoint Boylan’s fans, and it’s a pleasant surprise for those who are new to her saga.– Charlotte Observer
5.0 out of 5 stars
I’m Left Wanting More, January 20, 2008
By Story Circle Book Reviews (www.storycirclebookreviews.org) -
The title of Jennifer Boylan’s book reminds me of the song by the Beatles from their “Rubber Soul” 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.– Story Circle Book Reviews
‘Haunted’ and still here
JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN RETURNS WITH NEW MEMOIR, ‘I’M LOOKING THROUGH YOU’
Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of the memoir “She’s Not There,” was standing in line at Splash Mountain in Disneyland a few months after she published her first memoir when a producer from Oprah’s television program called. Seems Oprah had read Boylan’s memoir – the story of her life as a transgender woman and her eventual transformation from James to Jenny -and wanted Boylan on an upcoming episode. When would she and her family return to their home in Blegrade Lakes, Maine, asked the producer. Saturday night, responded Boylan. Great, said the producer. We’ll send a crew out to you on Sunday.
“And I said OK,” admits Boylan during a telephone interview this week. Her new memoir, “I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted,” is just out and comes complete with a national book tour. The attention she’s receiving for this memoir is greater than what she initially received for “She’s Not There.” But then Oprah called. And Larry King. And reporters from television stations and newspapers around the country. She played herself and counseled a character on coming out transgender during a two-episode arc on the daytime drama, “All My Children,” and as the dust settled, at least, as much as dust settles in the aftermath of a life-changing whirlwind, Boylan wondered what she would next write.
Before turning to memoir, she had published two novels, “The Planets” and “Getting In.” She is a storyteller above all else but her children, she says, a storyteller with an audience that has waited almost five years to see what she’d do next.
“People are always going to be curious about [my being transgender] because there are so few trans people out there in the public eye. It’s not something that most people know anything about, which is too bad,” says Boylan. “It’s good that there are stories about transgender lives – or a life – out there that is not the typical story that always kind of surfaces in the media about transition and heartache and surgeries. I’m hoping we can find a place where transgender people’s lives, transgender people’s stories, can be told in a way that is no more unusual than the stories of other people’s lives, and no more unusual than the lives of gay men and lesbians. We’re at the point now where gay men and lesbians are essentially able to tell their stories without explaning what it means to be gay. They can let the story stand. But we [transgender writers] are stuck in this place where we just have to keep explaining ourselves over and over again, and these stories of explanation put us on the defensive.”
Which might explain why in her new memoir she shies away from writing the further adventures of a trans woman in love and instead turns her gaze back at her childhood. She was James, then, still struggling to reconcile how she felt with how she looked. That, alone, may have made for an interesting read (though she covers much of this ground in “She’s Not There”), but, instead, Boylan delivers a memoir about growing up haunted, not just by her gender but by the home in which she and her family lived.
The Coffin House, named after its builder, Lemuel Coffin, was a three-story Victorian eyesore in the suburbs of Philadelphia on the Main Line, says Boylan. There were no lights in its attic (“creepy,” she says) and occasionally the sound of footsteps could be heard. In the basement of the Coffin House was a sign that read: “Bill Hunt: Laboratory,” and in the third-floor bathroom a chimpanzee named “Jesus” once lived.
But the spirits that inhabited Coffin House weren’t the only ghosts beneath its roof. There lurked inside the ghost of the girl that James longed to become.
“Back then I knew very little for certain about whatever it was that afflicted me, but I did know this much: that in order to survive, I’d have to become something like a ghost myself, and keep the nature of my true self hidden. And so I haunted that young body of mine ¦ as a hopeful, wraithlike presence otherwise invisible to the naked eye – like helium, or J.D. Salinger or the G-Spot.”
During our interview, Boylan admits that few people, even herself, believe in ghosts. But her younger self knew these ghosts to be true, and through the course of “Looking Through You,” Boylan explores what it means to grow up haunted and how the transition from childhood to adulthood (again, another transition, this one a bit more universal) allows you the chance to de-haunt yourself. For Boylan, this involved inviting a group of amatuer ghostbusters to come with her to Coffin House, where her mother still lives.
Boylan admits that if the experience of transitioning from James to Jenny was hard for some people to understand, the idea of exorcising her younger selves’ ghosts might be a bit hard to swallow, too. She cautions that to label her new memoir just a ghost story is like labeling her first memoir just the story of a transgender woman. Labels like these, she argues, leave out the hidden corners of the story, the bits that don’t fit so easily into a box or into a 100-word blurb.
During our conversation (and mostly because I’m fascinated by writers who move between genres like, shall I say it, ghosts) we talk about how she’s turned away from fiction in the past few years. It’s a fertile ground within which to work, fiction, but it’s limited by the boundaries of imagination whereas life has no such limits.
“I keep meaning to get back to fiction, but there is something about writing about your own experience. And for a transgender person, you do find yourself in a number of situations that most people don’t get to experience. There’s almost a constant, low-level absurdity to your existence that is full of interesting and dramatic possibilities,” says Boylan. “But I don’t know if memoir will be my exclusive means of expression in the future.” She paused, here, at this point in our conversation, and talked about a few recent articles and opinion pieces she’s published. “It’s funny. I guess, in thinking about it, my work has moved into the realm of non fiction. I guess you could say in a way that that reflects a movement from my own life from a kind of falseness when I was a guy or trying to pretend to be a guy to living more as a woman.” • – In Newsweekly.
Jennifer Finney Boylan continues her story of growing up with a heart — and a house — filled with secrets
The memoir, often the ultimate “Wish you were here” postcard to our former selves, by definition invites wistfulness, but when your former self is of a different sex, the stakes are even higher.
Jennifer Finney Boylan burst onto the personal-reminiscence scene in 2003 with “She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders,” the first best seller by a transgendered American. Her follow-up book, “I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted,” explores the same territory: Life is not easy for a boy who believes himself to be a girl.
Other boys often mistook the young male Boylan as gay and delighted in calling him names, but as Boylan explains, “It’s probably worth mentioning — just in case this still needs to be said — that the thing I felt didn’t have much to do with being gay or lesbian; it was, even then, not about who I wanted to go to bed with, but who I wanted to go to bed as.”
By exploring an overarching theme, in this case the commonplace presence of ghosts in our lives, Boylan’s new book distinguishes itself from the many memoirs that organize themselves around a concrete period of time, most often childhood. As a woman who used to be a man, the author is the personal embodiment of an absence and a presence, and so she comes to this conceit with a rare understanding.
“The world,” she writes, “is full of Exes, of Priors and Formers, people who can never quite live in the present.” She fears that she, too, might be one of those “vaguely comic figures, people who are so completely defined by what they Used To Be that we are unwilling, even irritated, by the prospect of seeing them As They Are Now.”
If you are going to claim to have had a haunted childhood, it helps to have grown up in a certifiably creepy house on the Main Line in Philadelphia, a gawky, misshapen dwelling with creaking staircases and a shadowed past. That home, known as Coffin House, provides a nifty metaphor for the author’s inner turmoil. Boylan felt that in order to survive she had to become a ghost and keep the nature of her true self hidden: “And so I haunted that young body just as the spirits haunted Coffin House.”
If you are nurturing secrets it also helps to have hidden panels in the walls, which Boylan used to store forbidden lingerie. The desire to don female clothes reaches its tragicomic apex when it drives the author, while still a boy, to wear his sister’s wedding dress and then flee into an attic when he hears his father’s footsteps, nearly getting trapped there for who knows how long.
Helping to keep Boylan out of the social fray and engaged in something appealing and distracting as a teen was his decision to embark on the never-ending task of translating Thomas Mann’s “Tonio Kroeger” from German. Boylan’s other defense was to take refuge in a state of near-constant dreaminess. For someone of Boylan’s disposition, there could probably be no worse summer job than as a bank teller, yet that is the job Boylan has in one of the more-hilarious segments of the book. Boylan chronically fails to balance out at the end of the day, at one point misplacing a wad of cash by a coffeemaker (How much? Oh, say $10,000), creating a near panic.
The new memoir revisits some of the material in the first one, including the turning point at which Boylan meets his soul mate, a woman named Grace Finney, while they are students at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and yet the new book builds on the earlier work by creating a better sense of their relationship. “In my experience,” Boylan writes, “straight women like it when a guy has a feminine sensibility, an enthusiasm that goes right up to — but unfortunately does not quite include — his being an actual woman.”
Somehow Grace is the exception, an answered prayer, making Boylan feel as if he can be a man, and it is she who most stirs his deepest guilt about failing to reveal his secret until nearly reaching age 40. In a work that can be praised throughout for being piercing and direct, this one section takes a special prize:
“I hadn’t told Grace my secret when we got engaged.
“I think the expression people use is My Bad.
“I can tell you I should have. I don’t think there’s much question about that.
“But let me ask you something for a change.
“Would you have told her, if it had been you instead of me? After all those years of petitioning the Lord with prayer, praying desperately that love would cure you? Would you have looked Grace in the eyes and told her that until the day you met you suspected you did not exist, that you had spent your whole life up to that point like some kind of sentient mist?
“Would you have had the courage to turn to the one person you loved, and to speak the words you knew might well make her turn her back on you forever?
“Maybe you would have. Maybe you’d have found those words, somewhere within you. In which case, you are a person of integrity and courage, and I can only say I wish I were more like you.
“But then, I’ve wished that I were more like you from the beginning.”
Some people in this book will be familiar to readers of “She’s Not There,” including a goofy fortune-telling grandma who can always be counted on to be inappropriate and who ended her days as a cadaver at Jefferson Medical School.
” ‘Cadavers,’ ” says Boylan’s mother. ” ‘What’s next?’ ” to which Boylan suggests there isn’t anything next. “Once you reach Be a cadaver on your to-do list, your work is probably pretty close to being finished.”
Humor is a hallmark throughout. One of my favorite lines in the book is inspired by a dispute over whether an incident from long ago had actually happened. ” ‘Just because it never happened, doesn’t mean I can’t remember it,’ ” Boylan says, encapsulating in one short sentence the thicket of ethical dilemmas that beset any memoirist, who has to rely for a guide on memory, the most skittish of search engines, made up, more often than not, of fog, quicksand and mist.
Places will be familiar, too, including Coffin House. At least part of the narrative concerns hiring a paranormal investigator to search the old family house for “cold spots” and other evidence of unhappy spirits. As amusing as these moments are, what really shines through is Boylan’s desire to make amends for the betrayals that nature’s betrayal forced on her; the excursions into the netherworld have less appeal than Boylan’s struggles.
When the decision is made to become a woman, Boylan is amazed to find a great deal of support from Grace and their two young sons; from Boylan’s boss, the president of Colby College, where Boylan is an English professor; and from old friends and other family members. But one person is missing from this lineup, a key influence on Boylan’s life, and in the end this book is a love letter to that person, a plea to be seen in the round and to be forgiven the deceits that inevitably preceded the final coming out.
Memoir is as much a blood sport as any other form of writing. As such, it is not for the faint of heart to write one, and the author’s decision to address the missing person, who will not speak to her in person and has declared Boylan to be as good as dead, is dangerous and daring and beyond brave. — Chicago Tribune.
The transgendered author delivers a spirited memoir.
By Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
January 30, 2008
“How is it,” Jennifer Finney Boylan wonders early in this flabbergasting book, “that some people manage to integrate their lives, and live in the moment, while others become stuck, become Exes, haunting their own lives like ghosts? How do we learn to Be Here Now (in the words of Ram Dass, the former Richard Alpert). How do we let go of the past, when its joys and injustices are such a large part of making us whoever it is we’ve become?” That’s a lot of questions, pretty earnest questions, for a book that is just so darn fun to read I found myself doing something I haven’t done in years: finishing the last page and immediately, seamlessly, starting the thing again.
When the author was 13, the family moved to a big old house in Pennsylvania, fondly referred to in the following years as the Coffin house, after previous owners.
From the sound of it, you’d have to be dead yourself not to pick up on the past lives in this house, particularly a little girl who drowned, but also an older woman. Both appeared regularly to Boylan, in the form of identifiable (if gauzy) humans, blue mist or skin-tingling fields of energy.
As a child, the author had a lot going on.
The Boylan family was full of strange and colorful characters, rather like Susan Minot’s family as portrayed in her novel “Monkeys,” but even crazier. James (as Jennifer Boylan was called for the 42 years before a sex change operation in 2000) routinely dressed in girl’s clothing and underwear in the privacy of his own, haunted room.
His demeanor was feminine enough to make the kids in his new school give him a hard time. He was a funny kid, and this, along with music and the tender, generous love of his family, got him through events that might have been unbearable in any milieu, but certainly in the preppy, upper-class world of private school, debutante parties and tony universities.
Boylan’s own beloved sister Lydia, once the author’s fiercest advocate, refuses to see her or allow her children to see Boylan after the operation. (The author quite brilliantly, generously re-creates a person the reader firmly believes is incapable of such a gross mistake. Surely she will open the doors after reading this memoir.)
It’s true that Boylan has thought, written and spoken in public a great deal about her sex change (and described in the book “She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders”), and this adds a layer of forgiveness, distance and humor to things that must have been so painful: “This is not a book about being transgendered per se, and I’m all too aware that the whole subject will strike more than a few readers as annoying, for which I can only say I am truly very sorry. I feel that way sometimes, too.” The light hand with which she treats the subject of gender allows that issue to fold beautifully in with the problem of being haunted.
This is the gorgeous twist, the weave that makes “I’m Looking Through You” so fascinating. Even after Jennifer Boylan has hired a paranormal expert to comb through the house (which is indeed loaded with ghostly energy), she wonders if the woman she saw floating behind her when she was a boy could have been “some future version of myself.” “Sometimes,” she says, “I wonder if a belief in the paranormal has anything to do with the secrets we all carry around. Perhaps, when we bear a dream that remains unspoken year after year, that dream is somehow projected out into the world, transformed into some translucent figure or mist, a shape so distorted by our denial or fear that we cannot even recognize ourselves as its author.” This is an extremely generous admission (though I believe completely in Boylan’s sixth sense and the visions seen first as a boy and then as a female as well).
Even more astonishing is the way the writer (an English professor at Colby College in Maine) hops between the past and the present, creating (often using other people’s words as they echo through her life) a resonance that actually feels like haunting. Questions left unanswered, things unresolved and wildly strange coincidences stored away in a child’s mind for 30 years leap from the pages, animated by her intelligence, empathy and belief . . . in what? In love, of course, even for ghosts. — L.A. Times
Jennifer Finney Boylan created a sensation in 2003 with her first memoir, “She’s Not There,” that tracked her transformation from a man to a woman through a sex-change operation. That best-seller was touted as the first memoir written by a transgender American.
Boylan’s second memoir does not throttle down on sensational material either. “I’m Looking Through You” (Broadway Books, 267 pages, $23.95) focuses on her youth and the unsettling impact of growing up in a house that she still believes is haunted. The run-down Victorian mansion in the Philadelphia suburbs even carried a creepy name — Coffin House (after Lemuel Coffin, its builder).
Boylan’s memoir tracks not only mysterious stirrings in the three-story edifice with its huge basement and attic. She also tracks mysterious stirrings in her own soul, as she becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the reality of being a boy named James. The parallels between the house and its young inhabitant seem to multiply.
As Boylan — now a professor of English at Colby College in Maine — has said, “Surely this house has left its mark on me. For a long time I think I felt, in spite of my sense of humor, that I was a fundamentally ‘haunted’ person and I wondered, for years, how I was going to make peace with my many ghosts.”
“I’m Looking Through You” is an engaging memoir written with an adroit touch. It is recounted with verve, style, skepticism, wit, plus enlivened by well-wrought portraits of the author’s family and friends.
The memoir advances all the way into the present when Boylan employs some professional “ghost-busters” to investigate Coffin House. Her mother still lives there. Boylan still visits but always feels “edgy.”–– John Marshall, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
In the opening chapters of her new book, Jennifer Finney Boylan becomes apologetic. She doesn’t want her readers to become annoyed by the fact that she is a male-to-female transgendered woman, she just wants to tell her story, and a remarkable one it is. Her first collected reflections appeared in the form of the daring, immensely entertaining memoir, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, which ended up becoming a smash hit and threw Boylan head-first into the media spotlight with appearances on Larry King and Oprah. That memoir examined Boylan’s incredibly challenging odyssey, at the age of 42, from James to Jenny.
This new book reveals another perspective on her own life, that of the awkward, tentative coming-of-age of long-haired blond James. His father relocates the family in a creepy, dilapidated mansion in Philadelphia (dubbed “Coffin House,”) replete with an old ghost clanking the pipes and clunking up and down the stairs. Boylan’s initial encounters with the ghost materialized as “disembodied footsteps,” cold spots, hair-raising whispers, muted weeping, and barely visible drawings and inscriptions on walls. “Disaster specialists” were called in, but nothing stopped the mysterious occurrences. As James found life more comfortable in his sister’s halter-top (with grapefruits inside) and feminine hygiene products, paranormal experts descended on Coffin House thirsty for a brush with the supernatural. Though Boylan rehashes many of the themes introduced in her first book, her chilling ghost encounters can be frightening and palpable.
The author lives in rural Maine with her longtime wife Grace and two sons, teaches collegiate English courses, and remains active in the R&B band Blue Stranger. Though Boylan’s ghost story details life with a shadowy apparition yearning to be heard, more important is the exorcism of her own interior spirits who then were just beginning to show themselves.– SF Bay Reporter
When memoirs are at their best, we ask ourselves tough questions: Could I find myself in that place, doing those things, making those choices? Here are some of the best recent memoirs. In all of them, the writers find a kind of answer, and readers will find themselves someplace new.
Every house of childhood is haunted by ghost families, ghost selves. Jennifer Boylan, in “I’m Looking Through You — Growing Up Haunted: A Memoir,” takes us into a place that is haunted with more than the usual ghostly remnants. The author of “She’s Not There,” a best-selling account of her journey from James to Jenny, Boylan gives her readers the background of that transformation, a tour of her family home and history.
The memoir begins with an account of a visit to a haunted hotel in Maine, where Boylan has gone to play with her band. Wandering around the premises, Boylan is drawn back in memory to her family’s haunted house, the Coffin House on Philadelphia’s Main Line, where her family moved in 1972.
Here we see young James, never quite at home, living in a room that he thinks is haunted by a dead girl. He senses her ghostly presence — and so does his dog. This room is where his young, uncomfortable self sets out on a journey of exploration — wearing women’s clothes while reading Thomas Mann, or climbing into the attic wearing his sister’s wedding dress.
As Jenny Boylan looks at her past life as Jimmy, she ruminates on states of being. “The world is full of Exes, or Priors and Formers, people who can never quite live in the present. … How is it, I wondered, that some people manage to integrate their lives and live in the moment, while others become stuck, become Exes, haunting their own lives like ghosts? How do we learn to Be Here Now (in the words of Ram Dass, the former Richard Alpert)? How do we let go of the past, when its joys and injustices are such a large part of making us whoever it is we’ve become?”
Mostly by telling stories, owning truths, and that is what Boylan does in this memoir, stumbling toward her own personal reckoning. Boylan’s accessible, inviting style makes the reader complicit in every moment, a witness to both sorrow and joy: We feel the loss of her father; the pain of estrangement from her sister and her sister’s family; the strength of her relationship with her loving partner Grace, her companion on the journey; the reality of life with two sons. “I’m Looking Through You” is a rich lesson in the emerging self, as Jenny Boylan comes face to face with a haunted past, shows some compassion for her young and searching self, then turns to face her present life, one that is so rich in love and stories–New Orleans Times Picayune
Boylan on childhood in a spooky house, and things that haunt us all When Jennifer Finney Boylan’s new book arrives, I flip inside the dust jacket and there, along with a description of the memoir, is her photo. She looks a bit like Meryl Streep, with strawberry blonde hair — a color I’ve always envied, but never achieved.
Now, hair’s not the only thing to envy about Boylan. She’s authored 10 books, counts Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Russo as her best friend, works as a college English professor, and has been on Oprah three times. Dang.
Still, I’m stuck on her hair.
I ask my husband, “Do you think she’s pretty?”
He raises an eyebrow. “I suppose,” he says.
“Does she look younger than me?”
He groans. “I don’t know. But if she’s famous, she’s probably had some work done.”
“Yeah,” I say smugly.
Then the irony hits.
“I guess she has,” I say, smiling. “She used to be a man.”
I imagine Boylan — or “Jenny” as she’s known now — might smile, too. She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, her bestselling 2003 memoir about transitioning from male to female, laid bare her wicked sense of humor.
“Humor was what enabled me to survive,” Boylan writes in an e-mail interview. “It’s no surprise that trans people can be funny; your life is … defined by a fundamentally absurd condition.”
It’s a condition of which she’s been aware since childhood, when she first identified herself as a girl inside a boy’s body. And it’s a theme she explores again with humor in her latest work.
I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted is the story of her early life as James in a Victorian home shared by her family and a series of ghosts. We meet her father, mother, sister and eccentric grandmother along with disembodied footsteps, a blue mist, a woman in the mirror and an entity known as “the conductor.”
In the book, Boylan includes a disclaimer explaining that memoir is “an impression,” not “a photograph,” and that the story “contains occasional elements of invention.”
So are the ghosts real?
“Oh, I think everybody believes in ghosts of some kind or another,” sayss Boylan. “After all, the ghosts I am talking about are not really the Scooby Doo variety; they are the ghosts of the human heart.”
Ahh … another of Boylan’s specialties. Though she could have written a lurid or overly sentimental tale, she peers into her characters’ hearts in a way so genuine, you can’t help but relate. She’s written a carefully crafted work about coming to terms with her history as an “ex-man” and with the friends and family who are part of the journey. It touches larger themes like the need to be true to one’s self, the difficulty of harboring secrets, the pain truth can cause and the power of love to endure.
“I think we all know what it means to be haunted, even if we don’t believe in ghosts,” Boylan says. “So that’s a thing I think about — how do we make peace with those ghosts?”– Colorado Springs Independent
The answer to those critics who bewail the ascendance of memoir as a genre at the expense of the novel is Jennifer Finney Boylan’s glorious second memoir. I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted, the follow-up to her 2003 Lambda Literary Award winning bestseller, She’s Not There, which told the story of how she transitioned from male to female.
In I’m Looking Through You, Boylan (the author of four novels as well as her previous memoir) takes the reader back further into her past. In 1972, Boylan’s family moved into the “Coffin House,” a 1740 Pennsylvania mansion named after the man who built it, Lemuel Coffin. But the actual ghosts in the house aren’t the only specters haring the roof of the Coffin House. Boylan’s secret, that she ( then “he”) was transgender, is at least as vivid a haunting as the footsteps in the dark, the eldritch voices, the floating blue mists. Always a master of metaphor, the first ghosts Boylan sees in the Coffin House is herself, in a mirror, “a feminine creature with chopstick arms and legs. My glasses were covered with a blurring film, so that it appeared that in some ways as if I were looking out at the world from an aquarium.” As she writes, realizing that she is a girl in a boy’s body, “in order to survive I’d have to become something like a ghost myself, and keep the nature of my true self hidden.”
Metaphor notwithstanding, what separates I’m Looking Through You from the increasing number of trans memoirs is the caliber of Boylan’s writing. The book unfolds with the balletic precision of a first-rate literary novel, and readers could be forgiven for forgetting, at times, that they are reading nonfiction at all. I’m Looking Through You is a multi-tiered enterprise: at once a poignant, powerful chronicle of a trans childhood, a vivid addition to the literary canon of 1970s suburbian American adolescent narratives, and naturally, a ghost story.
One of the primary strengths of the book is Boylan’s refusal to shy away from the supernatural aspects of the story. Yes, there are metaphorical ghosts in I’m Looking Through You—gender secrets, the loss of family members, the cost of truth-telling—but literary snobs who might hope that the author would restrict herself to allegorical phantoms are going to have to deal with the fact that Boylan has written a serious coming-of-age memoir with ghosts. IN the book’s opening chapter, we meet Boylan at a biker bar in Maine where she’s playing with her rock band. During a break in the set, she encounters the shade of a drowned little girl on an upper floor of the bar. “Then she turned her back, drifted up to the top step, and dissolved into the door.” For a writer of serious memoir, this is a display of confidence that is borne out throughout the book.
The characters in the book are vividly sketched and infinitely memorable: Boylan’s gentle, loving father who has no idea of the horrific burden he is placing on young James by urging his son to prepare himself to be “the man of the family”: his sister, to whom he is devoted, but whose closeness doesn’t survive the eventual news of his transition: his garrulous grandmother, who has a taste for telling embarrassing family stories in public. But the most vivid character in the book is Boylan herself, and she doesn’t let herself off her own autobiographical hook at the expense of the story. In a book already leavened with genuine wit and humor (including the account of Boylan returning to the house with a motley band of ghost-busters in 2006 to solve the riddle of what is haunting the Coffin House) one of the best, most moving examples is young Boylan’s “discussion” with Sausage, the dog, whose silence allows it to be the voice of the author’s conscience. Living the stinging masquerade demanded of a boy who knows he’s a girl, Sausage’s dry, occasionally hilarious admonitions are the truths Boylan can barely bring to tell herself.
I’m Looking Through You is, among other things, a thinking person’s memoir that reads like an excellent novel. It is also a story about secrets, told with honesty, empathy, and exquisite skill, making it both appealing and relevant to readers across the entire LGBT spectrum, indeed to anyone with a desire to understand the wonderful complexity of the human heart.– Lambda Literary REview