I'm Looking Through You: Growing up Hauntedby Jennifer Finney Boylan
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For Jennifer Finney Boylan, creaking stairs, fleeting images in the mirror, and the remote whisper of human voices were everyday events in the Pennsylvania house in which she grew up in the 1970s. But these weren't the only specters beneath the roof of the mansion known as the "Coffin House." Jenny herself—born James—lived in a haunted body, and both her mysterious, diffident father and her wild, unpredictable sister would soon become ghosts to Jenny as well. I'm Looking Through You is an engagingly candid investigation into what it means to be "haunted." Looking back on the spirits who invaded her family home, Boylan launches a full investigation with the help of a group of earnest, if questionable, ghostbusters. Boylan also examines the ways we find connections between the people we once were and the people we become. With wit and eloquence, Boylan shows us how love, forgiveness, and humor help us find peace—with our ghosts, with our loved ones, and with the uncanny boundaries, real and imagined, between men and women.
Boylan, an English professor, novelist and memoirist (She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders), tells of growing up in a haunted house in Pennsylvania, where phantom footfalls and spectral mists were practically commonplace. This was a fitting-enough setting for young Boylan, then a boy who longed to become a girl. "Back then I knew very little for certain about whatever it was that afflicted me," she writes. "[I]n order to survive, I'd have to become something like a ghost myself, and keep the nature of my true self hidden." In 2006, years after her sex change, Boylan returned to her childhood home with a band of local ghostbusters as she struggled to reconcile with her past as James Boylan, as well as her memories of family members she'd loved and lost there. This memoir is better suited for those interested in broader human truths than in fact (a disclaimer in the author's note explains that she's taken liberties in service of the story); readers in the former category are in for a treat. Boylan writes with a measured comedic timing and a light touch, affecting a pitch-perfect balance between sorrow, skepticism and humor. In spite of the singularity of Boylan's circumstance, the coming-of-age story has far-reaching resonance: estrangement in one's own home, alienation in one's own skin and the curious ways that men and women come to know themselves and one another. (Jan.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
On the surface, this multifaceted memoir could be described as a story about a teenage boy growing up in a haunted house located on the Main Line outside of Philadelphia. In truth, Boylan, the renowned transgendered author of She's Not There , has written a delightful book about a variety of issues that have touched a childhood full of friendships, adventures, and odd encounters with spirits in her family home. She uses the metaphor of "being haunted" throughout to illustrate not only her boyhood experiences but also the memories that have shaped her as a person as she struggled with her gender identity throughout most of her life. Boylan's depictions of her Irish grandmother and her relationships with her father and sister are particularly noteworthy. Her writing style is witty, self-deprecating, entertaining, and often poignant, especially when describing family and friends who have passed away. An adventure to read, this is highly recommended for all libraries.-Erica Swenson Danowitz, Delaware Cty. Community Coll., Media, PACopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Adult/High School- Boylan's follow-up to She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders (Broadway, 2003) is a richly portrayed-and often laugh-out-loud funny-memoir of her youth. The author was a teen in the 1970s, living in a quaint old house in Philadelphia's Main Line. Her family, home, and boyhood share equally in this tale. Until a decade ago, Boylan was male, but as a youth she was coming to terms with the fact that she longed to have a body that matched her feminine identity. Instead, she was named Jim, escaped some social awkwardness by playing piano to the thrill of almost any crowd, and adored her older sister Lydia, the only character here who, years later, can't accept the departure of Jim for the arrival of Jennifer. Combining incisive memories of events as they may or may not have happened with compelling emotions that must be true, Boylan takes readers through family losses (the death of Lydia's horse), mysteries (the footsteps overheard in the old house's attic), comedies (finding himself trapped in that same attic in his sister's wedding dress), embarrassments (his drunk and irrepressible grandmother on the eve of Lydia's wedding), and thoughtful excursions (the responses of Jim's spouse and children to his transgendering). Teens who dote on family stories, as well as those who wonder what life might be like if you could change and still look back at what you had been with a large degree of comfort, will find much to delight in here.-Francisca Goldsmith, Halifax Public Libraries, Nova Scotia
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Read an Excerpt
I was in a biker bar. There were worse places. My colleagues, who had names like Lumpy and Gargoyle, thought no less of me simply because I was an English professor. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, one dude suggested. It's what's inside your heart that counts.
The venue—the Astrid Hotel, in Astrid, Maine—was famous not only for the skankiness of its patrons but also for its ghost, an undead girl who walked its tattered hallways weeping in her pajamas. She’d drowned in the twenties, in the nearby Kennebec River. The girl was determined, supposedly, to find her father and her sister, who'd been guests of the hotel, back in the day. Hey. Don’t you know I can’t swim?
I had come to the Astrid to play with my friends in an R&B band, Blue Stranger, up on the hotel’s grandiose stage, in what had once been a fancy ballroom. Now it had a cement floor, fiberglass tiles on the ceiling. On one wall was a rough-hewn mural of the north country. There were lumberjacks hoisting logs with skidders, fur trappers trudging through the woods on snowshoes. The Astrid Hotel itself was depicted on the mural as it once had been: a genteel mansion perched on a ridge overlooking Carrabec Falls.
It was on a rock at the bottom of the falls that they’d found the girl.
Over at the pool table, guys with tattoos and beards employed the ladies’ bridge. There were mill workers and river guides, taxidermists and hippies. The bouncer chalked his cue. To his left and right were guys named Sleepy, Gangrene, Itchy, Monster, Weasel, and Happy.
The last song of the first set was “Somebody to Love,” the Jefferson Airplane number. I was playing Farfisa organ through an old Leslie amplifier.
Your eyes, I say your eyes may look like his But in your head baby I’m afraid you don’t know where it is.
I liked this song all right. But sometimes, I don’t know. It left me dispirited.
During the break, we all went up to the bar. The band’s lead singer, my friend Shell, ordered me a drink.
I got out the book I was reading—Pale Fire, by Nabokov.
Shell looked over and sighed. “Hey. Professor Glasses. What now?”
I smiled. “It’s a fake poem. And then there’s commentary on the poem, written by somebody who doesn’t exist.”
She sighed. “Whatever.”
“It’s really interesting,” I said.
When she wasn’t leaping around the stage of the Astrid Hotel in spandex, Shell was the vice president of a savings bank. “You think?” she said.
I cleared my throat.
“Was he in Sherlock Holmes, the fellow whose Tracks pointed back when he reversed his shoes?”
She smiled. “You really do live in your own little world, don’t you?” she said fondly.
“That’s so wrong?”
The bartender put two clear, fizzing drinks in front of us. There were what looked like prunes on the bottom. Shell handed me a glass.
We clinked. “Fart in the Ocean,” she said. “Tequila and Seven–Up.”
“Served–with a prune?”
“Served,” she said, “with a prune.”
Why is it, I wondered, that women have to drink the undrinkable? In my day, I had seen my sisters order everything from a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster (vodka, cider, cherry brandy, and Tia Maria) to a Warsaw Waffle (an unspeakable union of vodka and Maine maple syrup). Would it be so wrong if once in a while we had a nice pint of Guinness instead? But whenever I had a Guinness it was inevitable that one of my girlfriends would come up to me and say, You know how many calories are in that, Jenny? As many as a steak dinner! This, from someone who was drinking something called The Screaming Chocolate Monkey.
From the other end of the room a woman’s voice rose in anger. “Leave me alone!” she shouted, then threw her margarita in the face of her good man. This dramatic imperative was greeted with applause and cheers by everyone except for the fellow whose face was now covered with triple sec.
Shell looked at me and smiled. “Brandy and Boyd LeMieux,” she said wistfully. “They’re the perfect couple—she’s an ex–model, he’s an ex–Marine.”
Brandy stood up and headed toward the bar where Shell and I were sitting. She was an attractive woman, in a dilapidated sort of way. “You want a cigarette?” she asked.
“I don’t smoke.”
Brandy laughed. “Right,” she said.
“Jenny here’s an English professor,” said Shell.
Brandy LeMieux laughed like this was funny. “Yeah,” she said. “And I’m an astronaut.” She picked up Shell’s drink, downed it in a single gulp. Didn’t eat the prune, though. She looked at my book.
“What’s that? Any good?”
“It’s Nabokov,” I said. “You like Nabokov?”
Her mouth dropped open, as if I were one of the Beatles. “Whoa,” she said. “You really are an English teacher. Aren’t you!”
Shell patted my shoulder. “Well,” she said. “I’ll let you two chat. Then she headed over toward the place where Boyd was sitting, staring sadly into Brandy’s empty margarita glass.
Brandy and I watched as Shell sat down next to him. I could imagine the counsel she was offering. Don’t worry, Boyd! There are plenty of other fish in the ditch!
“What a nerd,” Brandy said. “My husband. I can’t believe I ever married him.” She looked at me. “You married?”
One of the awkward hallmarks of my life is the way relatively simple questions command complex answers, the kind that require a PowerPoint presentation and several Oprah shows to do them justice. I am more than a little hopeful, in most situations, to be seen as human. But there are plenty of times I don’t want to go into the details. Especially when I’m sitting next to a woman who’s just downed a drink with a prune in it.
“You’re wearing a wedding ring,” Brandy said, trying to help.
“It’s a long story,” I said.
Brandy raised her empty glass and clinked it against mine.
“You go, girl,” she said.
“You go.” We were friends now.
“You’re really pretty, did you know that?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Will you buy me another drink?”
"Sure,” I said. The bartender cut another Fart in the Ocean.
“Boyd wants to put me in a time machine,” said Brandy.
“Hate that,” I said.
“He can’t see me where I am. Only where I was.”
“Where are you?” I said.
She reached out and squeezed my hand. “I’m here with you, Jenny.”
“My son wants to be a time traveler,” I said. “When he grows up.”
“Well, the hell. Maybe he can use Boyd’s machine, after he’s done with it.”
The topic of superpowers, including time travel, was a frequent one in our house. There were times when it seemed like it was all we ever talked about, Grace and me, and our middle school–age children, Paddy and Luke. I maintained that the only two superpowers worth having were super–strength and super–speed. Ten–year–old Paddy, for his part, advocated the power of virtual reality, the power of time travel, and something else he called super–stickiness, which might be the thing that enables Spider–Man to climb walls, or might be something else entirely. In any case, Paddy said that super–strength and super–speed were mutually exclusive. “If you have super–strength,” he maintained, “it slows down your super–speed.”
I knew well enough to let Paddy have his way in these discussions, even though I didn’t exactly understand what the power of virtual reality was, not that it hadn’t been explained to me again and again. “It’s the power to turn your imagination into reality,” Paddy said, exasperated that such an explanation was even necessary.
I'm not saying the power of virtual reality isn’t a good thing. Honestly I’m not. But I’ve been in lots of situations in which super–speed would have been extremely useful.
Boyd got up from his table and started heading toward us. “Shit,” said Brandy. “Here we go again.”
She took me by the hand. “Come on, follow me.” We walked out into the foyer, then into the ladies room. Brandy leaned against the wall, next to the paper towel dispenser and grinned at me. “So what do you think?”
Brandy rolled her eyes. “Duh, Jenny,” she said.
I appeared to have agreed to something that had not been put into words.
“Look at you,” she said. “You’re trembling like a leaf!”
“I am not.”
“The fuck you’re not. Come on. It’s really okay.”
She pulled me into the handicap stall. Then she drew toward me and put her arms around my back and hugged me. Her body was soft and warm, and her head fell against my shoulder. I was a lot taller than Brandy.
“It’s really okay,” she whispered, and then she raised her head and kissed me on the lips. Then she kissed me again. I felt her breasts pressing against mine. “Nngg, Jenny,” she said. “Nnnngg.”
I pulled back. Incredibly, my first concern in this skanky situation was making sure I didn’t hurt Brandy’s feelings.
“Listen,” I said. “You’re sweet, but you know, like—”
“Please,” said Brandy achingly. “It’s my birthday.”
And I thought, It’s her birthday?
“You don’t understand,” I said. “I’m married.”
Brandy didn’t understand what this had to do with anything. “So?” she said. “I’m married, too!”
I heard the voice of Jimmy Stewart in the back of my head: This is a very unusual situation!
“I should go,” I said.
“Wait,” she said. On the wall behind her were phone numbers, profanities, names of men and women enclosed with hearts. Her eyes filled with tears. I didn’t want to wait for her, was in fact more than eager to get out of this particular situation. But I couldn’t leave.
Tears rolled down her cheeks. “Nobody knows me,” she said.
“Brandy,” I said. “I’m sure that’s not true.”
“It’s like having a dog. Like a Saint Bernard.”
“The secrets,” she whispered. “Everywhere I go, they have to go, too.”
“What secrets?” I said.
She laughed to herself. “What secrets,” she said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, what her secrets were.
“Have you thought about talking to someone?” I said.
“Jenny?” She looked at me as if I were on drugs. “I’m talking to you.”
“I mean, you know. A professional.”
“You mean like a shrink?” she said, stunned by the suggestion. “Oh, I’ve talked to plenty of shrinks, believe me.”
“Listen, Brandy. I don’t know you. I’m just an English teacher.”
“But that’s what I need,” she said. “An English teacher.”
I tried to think of what could possibly be so wrong with her that the only thing that could help her was an English teacher. Nothing came to mind.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
It seemed to take her a long time to put it into words, as if she were trying to find the courage to say something she had never spoken out loud before in her life. “I don’t want to be who I am,” she said finally, in a hoarse, desperate voice.
Amazingly, I understood what this felt like. I’d had this feeling lots of times, when I was younger. “Okay,” I said. “So who do you want to be?”
“I want to be someone—” she said. “Who writes poems.”
The words hung in the air between us. I blew some air through my cheeks, and felt bad for her. There’d been a lot of progress in the field of psychology over the years, but so far as I knew there was still no cure for poetry. I don’t know. Ritalin, maybe.
“Have you…,” I said. "You know. Tried to write poems?"
“No,” she said. The tears spilled over her lashes again and rolled down her face. "Because I don't know how. Because I'm not the kind of person who writes them."
“Maybe you could change. You could be that kind of person. If you wrote some. Why don't you try?”
She stopped crying and looked at me suspiciously. “My poems would suck,” she said with an air of clairvoyance.
“Probably at first. Then you’ll write some more, maybe you’ll get better.”
“You think?” she said.
I nodded cautiously.
“And then—” she said. “I’ll be somebody else?”
I wasn’t sure what to tell her. To be honest I was less interested in helping Brandy than I was in getting out of the ladies room. At the same time, I didn’t want to lie to her. It seemed likely to me that she was clinging to a false hope, the idea that writing poems would make her into somebody else. What seemed more likely was that, when all was said and done, she’d still be herself, except that now she’d own a rhyming dictionary.
But what the hell. I didn’t know Brandy’s future any more than I knew my own. Encouraging her seemed just as likely to be an act of kindness as of cruelty.
“Why don’t you write,” I said, “and see who you are afterward?”
Brandy took this in. “Okay,” she said hopefully. “Okay.” She looked at me hungrily. “And then—if I wrote a poem good enough—maybe you’d reconsider?”
“You know,” she said, softly brushing her fingertips against my shoulder. “Maybe we could be girlfriends, you and me? And if I ask you to kiss me, next time you won’t act like I have leprosy and junk?"
I sighed. I don’t underestimate the power of literature. But that would have to be one hell of a poem.
“Good luck,” I said, by way of answer, and then left the stall. She didn’t follow me. Out in the bar, I could hear the sound of Big Head Chester tuning his guitar. “You coming?”
“I’ll be along,” said Brandy. “I’m going to start working on my poem right now!”
“Good for you,” I said, and washed my hands at the sink. “That’s great.”
“Hey Jenny,” she said. “Do you ever wish you were a man?”
“A man?” I said, stunned. I looked at myself in the mirror. “Not really.”
“I do,” said her voice, from the stall. “Sometimes.”
I dried my hands with brown paper towels.
“What do you think it’d be like?” said Brandy.
I told her the truth. “I don’t know, Brandy,” I said. “Kind of like being a woman,” I said. “Only less so.”
I returned to the foyer of the old hotel with my head spinning. On the walls around me were framed photographs of John Wayne, Jesus Christ, and Elvis. It reminded me of something, but I wasn’t quite sure what. Out in the ballroom Big Head Chester was noodling around with the opening riff of “Paint It Black,” the Stones tune. I heard the crack of the cue ball as a guy named Freebird made the break over on the pool table. The nine ball fell into the side pocket.
I’d gone on many travels in the last few years, voyages that had taken me halfway around the world, to Chile, and Venice, and the Turks and Caicos. But it’s fair to say I had never felt quite so far away from home as I did at that moment, at the bottom of the worn–out stairs of the Astrid Hotel. Looking around at my hairy companions, my ears still ringing from the volume of the band, the memory of Brandy’s lips on my neck, I thought of the phrase my sister and I used to call at the end of a round of hide–and–seek: Olly olly oxen free.
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Meet the Author
Jennifer Finney Boylan is a professor of English at Colby College and the author of the bestseller She's Not There.
Jennifer Finney Boylan is a professor of English at Colby College and the author of the bestseller She's Not There.
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I rarely can read a book in less than a day and this one is one of the very few. There is so much I could relate to and new insights I gained from it that I had to lend it out to my friends. It's a great read for everyone.
Don't waste your money on this.