Jennifer Finney Boylan's new book, Stuck In The Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting In Three Genders, is another triumph. Her autobiography, She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders, was the first book by a transgender American to become a bestseller. Its bestseller status was richly deserved, as I explained a few years ago on these pages.
Every story, whether fiction or nonfiction, has a point that it wants to make to readers or viewers. Boylan's thesis is this nonobvious proposition: having a father who became a woman helped make her sons into better men. As I said to my ex-father-in-law when he accused me of abandoning my role as father to my seven-year old son, an age ago now: "What makes a father? Is it taking him to a baseball game? Or is it being there for him?" Boylan's book shows how being there as a trans parent worked, and worked well, and they also got to go to the baseball game. My own relationship with my son is also intact and going well. I'm proud of him, and even more surprisingly, he is proud of me.
The book has Boylan's trademark blend of humor and poignancy, punctuated by short interviews with various people who have something to say about parenting, such as Anna Quindlen, Augusten Burroughs, and Edward Albee. I found it totally engaging, though I must admit I was not happy to have to stop reading Boylan's fascinating words to read through an interview with some stranger to the intimate relationship that Boylan created with me in my living room, short as it might be. But upon reflection, I think the interviews made it a better book, providing a macro lens through which to address the question of trans parenting as a microcosm of parenting. In that, it reminds me of lessons learned from Andrew Solomon's Far From The Tree, a study of families whose children are unexpectedly different from their parents.
But I am interested in a deeper question than what trans parenting is, and that deeper question is one that I think Boylan's book answers well. Why do we assume that anyone who deviates from the social norm is automatically going to be a bad parent, but anyone who fits the social norm is automatically going to be a good parent, when we have so much information to the contrary in our lives?
The answer, I think, delves deeply into the nature of family relations. The book not only provides a window into the experience of the Boylan family, but also a window into the experience of other families and other parents and children. The series of interviews, interspersed throughout the book, shows that there is much we do not understand about parenting and being parented. Our society seems to think that it's the external things that count -- material goods provided by parents, parental socio-economic level, what neighborhood you live in and the schools children attend, the dollar cost of gifts at holidays. But children count their blessings on a different scale.
As a child, it is not whether my Christmas gift is a pair of mittens or a car, but whether I am respected as a person. The five-year old may howl for the desired toy, but the adult child will weigh the parental response to it through the lens of experience. Our cultural view of parent-child relations is largely based on the old model of property relations and master-servant relations. As a parent, it is expected that I own my child, and that my vision of who that child ought to be is the right one. Children are expected to show filial piety. They should accomplish certain things -- little league success, dance lessons, doing well in school, having the right relationships, attending the right college, embarking on the right career -- fulfilling parental desires, not their own. This view is from a time when no one could travel far outside their own village, when there were few books, no television, no internet to provide a different vision, and no life outside of the extended family. Father knew best, and there was little evidence to the contrary.
Over time, there has been a shift in our views of children and childhood. A child is no longer required, by social convention, to think their parents wise and good, to obey them in all things, or even to have anything to do with them after the child is grown to adulthood. Instead, each child judges their parents by another standard: was I encouraged to be a healthy, happy person, loved for myself, and given the skills to navigate the uncharted territory of personhood in the alienated modern world? Or did I have a parent like King Lear, who learned too late that the king can order compliance and judge his subjects by their outward forms, but cannot order them to love him?
Here is a short passage from the book that illustrates the contrast. Jennifer is watching a school fencing match, talking to the mother of another participant, who has tearfully revealed her difficult relations with her husband, who is off in Iraq.
"Gazing upon the gigantic, merciless Ethan below me, I wondered if I could begin to imagine Grenadine's married life. I pictured a menacing Ethan Senior bearing down upon the tiny, birdlike, Grenadine Phelps, and winced. Junior had learned that pouncing trick from somewhere, and it wasn't his mom.
She eyed the wedding ring on my finger. "What about you? Where's yours?"
And just like that, I found myself in one of those situations where neither telling the truth nor coming up with a great big lie was going to accomplish anything. What could I say to her? Well, actually, I'm transgender. I used to be a man, but I've been a woman for ten years now. I'm still married to the woman I married twenty-five years ago, back when I was a man. Crazy vorld, huh? Ha! Ha! Ha!
Wow, she'd reply. Isn't your marriage really screwed up then?"
Jennifer Finney Boylan is that rare author who can paint a complex, richly-colored emotional landscape in a few well-chosen words. This book is well worth reading simply for that engaging experience. There is also a larger lesson that rewards the reader long after the reading is done.
Stuck In The Middle With You.