For years I’ve been fielding emails from women with children whose husbands have recently come out as transgender. They don’t see how they can stay intact as a family. I know it’s possible, assuming they want to, but I had no place to send them for hope and encouragement. Finally, I can point them to Jennifer Finney Boylan’s new book, “Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders.”
“Stuck in the Middle” covers much more territory than gender transition, though fans of Jenny (and there are many) will lap up details of her personal story since 2002, where her tale of transition stopped in “She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders.” Those familiar with that book and readers just now discovering Team Boylan (where have you been?) will be happy to learn that a new “anniversary edition” of that 2003 memoir has come out concurrently with “Middle” (I can’t bear shorthanding it as “Stuck”). It includes a new forward and epilogue by Jenny and an afterward by Deirdre, aka “Grace,” the wife who stayed by Jenny’s side. Refreshingly, a decade later, the new material and all of “Middle” uses the family members’ real names instead of the pseudonyms in the original “She’s Not There.” The change is significant – the Boylans and half the country, it seems, have come out of the closet, making the way easier for the remaining half.
Back to “Middle.” As always, I appreciate Jenny’s clever and crisp writing. She is, after all, the author of a dozen books and an English prof at Colby College. Interspersed throughout the book are “Time Out” sections — ponderings about family based on interviews Jenny conducted with several people, including writers Richard Russo, Susan Minot and Edward Albee. They all serve to demonstrate the universal truth that no family is normal, whatever the hell normal is. It’s something we can’t be reminded about enough, and I loved exploring the themes that surfaced: absent father, adoptive parents, disabilities, death. I delved into Jenny’s story first and then went back to the interviews.
“Middle” contains many memorable scenes. I particularly enjoyed the start, for its juxtaposition of Jenny in her “bizarre,” far-left-of-mainstream marriage with a woman in an all-American marriage to a macho soldier in Iraq, whose “fondest hope was that her husband would be murdered by insurgents.” I make similar comparisons in my own relationship.
Are the Boylans special? I know many families like them who have remained intact and loving, including my own. While Lina and I don’t have children, I can say that we’ve never been happier. Like Jenny’s wife, I went through a period of confusion and despair, but, also like her, I never wanted to leave the person I loved. Although in many ways the Boylans seemed particularly charmed, so are a lot of people. Isn’t being loved equivalent to being charmed? (Admittedly having the funds, as the Boylans do, to afford a cosmetic and medical transition, if desired, gives one a big advantage, as I can attest.)
So what about the many families in transition who are miserable? Plenty of transgender people and spouses and their families are in total turmoil. I’ve heard a load of sorrowful stories about bitter arguments, divorces, child-custody battles, unemployment, and adult children who refuse to acknowledge their transitioning parents. Can this book help? Maybe not directly; it’s not a family primer. But the Boylans give others hope. In our darkest hours, that’s often what we most crave.