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'Stuck in the Middle' offers a singular perspective on parenting

Author and transgender advocate Jennifer Finney Boylan looks at motherhood, fatherhood and the putative difference in this new memoir.

May 16, 2013|By Stephen Burt
  • The cover of "Stuck in the Middle With You" and author Jennifer Finney Boylan.
The cover of "Stuck in the Middle With You" and author Jennifer… (Crown; Jim Bowdoin / Crown )

Jennifer Finney Boylan was the father of two young boys, a devoted husband, a keyboard player in bar bands, the author of three published novels, and an English professor in Maine when she began the process that would make her outwardly — anatomically and socially — the woman she felt she had always been on the inside. Her book about life before, during and after that transition, "She's Not There" (2003), made her a guiding star for many transgender readers: Here was somebody who made all the changes she needed and, despite all the growing pains, got to keep most of her life.

Ten years later, Boylan is still married to the same woman, still teaches at Colby College and still rocks out in some of the same bars. She's also become a nationally prominent advocate for transgender people, appearing, for example, on Oprah Winfrey's television show, and she's still close to her sons. (The older one, Zach, starts college this fall.)

"Stuck in the Middle With You" is Boylan's third memoir, and her first to focus on parenthood — on motherhood, fatherhood and the putative difference, which Boylan is almost uniquely positioned to know. (The entertaining second memoir, 2008's "I'm Looking Through You," remembered her teen years in Philadelphia, growing up in a supposedly haunted house.)

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Like many novelists, Boylan thinks in scenes, and she constructs some fine ones, among them the scary days after the birth of her younger son, Sean; a ventriloquists' convention in Kentucky, where Boylan decides if she wants to have sex with a man; and the day Zach explains to a second-grade friend, with quiet confidence, "My daddy's turning into a girl." (Zach and Sean decided to start calling Boylan "Maddy": "half Mommy, half Daddy.")

"Stuck in the Middle" also comes with vivid observations. Raising an infant can be "like living in a firehouse with the alarm going off and all of the firemen sliding down the pole." Being a man was "a solitary experience," "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."

Fans of "She's Not There" may be happy just hearing from Boylan again. (That earlier book may find new fans now, too: a tenth anniversary edition has just been published with new afterwords, one of them penned by Boylan's wife, Deedee.) Set on its own, though, this third memoir seems a bit thin: Some of its most remarkable parts come not from Boylan's own life, nor from her writing, but from the 12 interviews inserted into the text. Most of the people that Boylan interviews are well-known writers (Richard Russo, Augusten Burroughs, Ann Beattie); each has faced tough situations as a parent or a child, some of them harsher than any the Boylans have known. The memoirist Ralph Savarese recalls how his autistic son (who still cannot speak) learned to type. Zach and Sean's former nanny, Veronica Gerhardf, remembers a pregnancy that went terribly wrong. Deedie (given a pseudonym in previous memoirs) here uses her real name; in the final interview (conducted by Anna Quindlen) Deedie also gets a chance to speak for herself. Remembering the days when she "didn't think I wanted to be married to a woman," Deedie concludes, "I get to be married to the person that I love."

Jenny's life after transition now seems surprising, not least to her, because so little of it is surprising: "what I looked like turned out to be of far less consequence to the world than I had anticipated."

Motherhood and fatherhood, at least for Jenny and Deedie, are not all that different, especially since there are so many ways (and so many good ways) to be a mom or a dad: "Every single family in the world is a nontraditional family." In fact, Jenny muses, "everybody goes through transition," if not from male to female, then from child to parent, or from young to old. It is another less than startling — but an important and reassuring — conclusion.

"Stuck in the Middle With You" is a sequel to a sequel, a book by a memoirist whose most serious traumas and troubles (and they were serious) have already been chronicled, if not resolved. Boylan remains a role model for her brisk prose and her high spirits as well as for her public advocacy and attention to her wife and their sons. It's hard to imagine a reader who would cherish this book without loving "She's Not There." But plenty of readers do love "She's Not There," more will learn of it now, and many of us will be glad to find more about its author's life and about her family, after transition and after her rise to fame.

Burt teaches at Harvard and is the author, most recently, of "Belmont: Poems."

Stuck in the Middle With You
A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders

Jennifer Finney Boylan
Crown: 304 pp., $24

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