This morning, I finished reading a memoir called Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders by Joy Ladin. It’s a powerful, well-written book, and if you like reading memoirs about struggles and triumphs, or about gender transition, or about transformation, I highly recommend it.
I chose to read this book for a few different reasons:
First: I’ve been trying to read more nonfiction
Second: The next novel I’m planning to write involves a boy who wants to be a girl, and, as someone who has no firsthand experience of such a desire (or maybe I should say of such a need), I’m trying to gain a better understanding of what it feels like.
Third: I’ve met Joy, I’ve heard her speak, and I’ve even shared a meal with her. She’s an amazing person, and, based on how beautifully she had spoken, I expected her book to be well-written and compelling – and it was.
It’s that third piece that’s the strangest for me. I don’t think I’ve ever read a memoir written by someone I know. As I read, I kept having these small moments of familiarity, where she’d share a story in the book and I’d think, “oh, right,” because I remembered when she spoke about it. (For example, there’s a story she shares about this time when, as a child, she walked home in the rain, and pretended that her raincoat was a dress. I kept waiting for that story, because I expected it to be in the book, and, sure enough, there it was. )
There was one chapter in particular that I felt strange reading. She was talking about attending the Nehirim women’s retreat, and it was all so familiar to me.
She attended her first Nehirim retreat in 2010. I attended mine a year later, in 2011. (I think that’s the one where I met her, actually.) She’d describe a room, and I’d recognize it: the synagogue, or the dining hall, or the view through the window. She talked about the woman who greeted her at the registration desk, and a particular face popped into my mind. She talked about meeting Liz, who quickly became her girlfriend, and I knew exactly who she was describing. I met Liz before I met Joy. Liz was one of the first people I met through Nehirim, and other, more local events I attended.
On the one hand, I felt like I was special, because I had this personal connection to the author, and to one tiny piece of her story that most readers wouldn’t have. I know that place. I’ve attended that retreat. If I’d been bold enough, I would even have been there that same year. It almost makes me regret not having attended until a year later, as if I missed something special – even though that special something would have happened out of my view.
It also made me feel a bit voyeuristic, though. It would be one thing if we’d never met, if Joy was just a face on the front of the book and the narrative voice within, and if Liz was just a first name without a last name (though her full name is in the acknowledgements). But Liz is a person I know. I bump into her on occasion as I go about my daily life. And now, I know how she and her girlfriend met, and what they did in those first hours together. And that’s another thing entirely. (And yes, I know that both Joy and Liz would expect people who know them to read this book. It still feels strange.)
So that made the end of the book read a bit differently for me, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of that experience. My reading experience was also made different by the fact that I was reading the book as research for the next novel I plan to write – but that’s a different topic, and I think I’ll save it for a different post.