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“It Gets Better” is an oversimplification. We queers know this; we know that sometimes it gets worse before it gets better, and that sometimes, it gets worse again, and that other times, some days you just have to get through one at a time. And yet, like our other metaphors – Coming Out, Transitioning – It Gets Better suggests a linearity that is at odds with LGBTQ experience, even as it also, helpfully, offers hope.
Joy Ladin’s lyrical and thoughtful new memoir, Through the Door of Life, adds another before-and-after metaphor to the mix, and yet its searing narrative undercuts any such simplifications. For Ladin, life didn’t get better when she began her gender transition in 2007. In many ways, it got worse: her wife and children rejected her, her suicidal ideation intensified, and for a time she lost everything.
And yet, even without the redemptive last chapter which gives the book its title, one can still say that even if life got harder when she transitioned, it also, at least, began. Ladin vividly describes forty years of gender dysphoria, of feeling disembodied, detached, dehumanized. She was, in a way that brings the cliché new meaning, a shell of a man. Yes, after her transition, “all of the things that constituted progress – family, love, career success, financial security – had receded beyond any foreseeable horizon.” Often (perhaps even too often) she mourns these losses. But nowhere does she regret taking them on.
By coincidence, I read Through the Door of Life at the same time as Kate Bornstein’s new memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger. Not to state the obvious, it was remarkable how two Jewish male-to-female transgender stories could be so different. Bornstein is radical; Ladin relatively conservative (in terms of lifestyle, not politics). Ladin’s lowest ebb – wanting to cut herself – was, for Bornstein, a passion for blood sports. And as their titles indicate, Bornstein is acerbic and witty, Ladin often melancholy and poetic. (Apart from this memoir, Ladin is best known as a poet; I reviewed a recent book of Ladin’s poetry for this publication.)
Most importantly, the two differ on the meaning of gender identity itself. In Ladin’s words, “Some people glory in gender mutability, gleefully remaking themselves according to mood and occasion. I, however, am old-fashioned – a garden-variety transsexual, rather than a post-modernist shape-shifter.” Bornstein, of course, is precisely a “post-modernist shape-shifter” whose gender workbook has provided inspiration to thousands of others.
Yet Ladin is not exactly a “garden-variety transsexual,” precisely because of the self-awareness she brings to her journey. She is aware that people like Bornstein exist, and is aware that she is not one of them. She knows that many feminists criticize transwomen like her for transitioning to an essentialized and even sexist version of femininity – and she responds to the critique brilliantly, while acknowledging both its validity and its hurtfulness. In painstakingly and painfully constructing her new self, Ladin is fully aware of the societal conventions and privileges of which she makes use. I don’t know of anyone else who has so articulately defended what some queers (mis-)take to be a conventional notion of gender, and Through the Door of Life, is, if nothing else, an important voice on the gender spectrum.
And then there’s “the God thing,” as Ladin puts it. Through the Door of Life is subtitled “A Jewish Journey Between Genders,” and Ladin’s sincere religiosity may be, for many readers, the most radical element of the book. Ladin’s Jewishness doesn’t pervade the book; it figures prominently in only a handful of the vignettes that make it up. But I know from my own experience – I’ve written a book about religion and sexual diversity, and I founded an LGBT Jewish organization at which Ladin and I briefly worked together – that even a dollop of religion can send some readers running for the secular hills. What’s probably most shocking about Ladin’s religious life is that she works – once again, after a year’s leave – at Stern College, the women’s school of Yeshiva University, an Orthodox Jewish institution. This is what made her famous, or infamous –a New York Post article outed her, and Yeshiva University, on page three. And admittedly, it can make one’s head spin.
But Ladin’s private religiosity, rather than her public persona, is what is so stirring here. Particularly in the last section of the book, she describes a deeply personal relationship with a silent God, not the deity familiar from conventional religion but an echo of her fears and, even in its silence, a kind of comfort as well. To me, the honesty and vulnerability which Ladin shows in these portions of the book is inspiring. They are never preachy, never seeking to convince. Still, I wonder if readers with little patience for religion may find them frustrating. It would be their loss if so, for they illuminate the complexity of Ladin’s spirit, and the courage of her writing.
Some of the most painful passages in Through the Door of Life concern Ladin’s family. Her wife and children seem cruel, even as Ladin understands the damage she has done to them and paints them sympathetically. Her kids are angry, sad, defiant. Her wife is uncompromising in her view of Ladin’s selfishness. And there is no real redemption here, only Ladin’s choice of life over death, reminiscent of one of Beckett’s characters, who says “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
Perhaps the most underwritten, if not outright baffling, part of the memoir concerns Ladin’s father who, for reasons we are never really told, simply stops speaking to her in 1983. This aspect of Ladin’s life seems to have less bearing on her gender identity, and perhaps discussing it too much would have taken her far astray from her central themes. It glares, though, especially as Ladin is able to become closer, post-transition, with her mother. I wanted more here, but perhaps the relationship is inexplicable even to Ladin herself.
Kate Bornstein is more of a gender outlaw than is Joy Ladin. Yet perhaps because her desires are so unexceptional – love, a career, a sense of wholeness – Ladin’s journey seems the more difficult one. Of course, it’s unfair to compare, and both of them have suffered plenty. But there seems to be a poignancy, of which Ladin is exquisitely aware, that precisely because what Ladin wants is so normal, her efforts to obtain it are so fraught with pain.
Through the Door of Life
By Joy Ladin
University of Wisconsin Press
Hardcover, 9780299287306, 270 pp.