‘Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey between Genders’ by Joy Ladin
‚ÄúIt Gets Better‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äď Coming Out, Transitioning ‚Äď It Gets Better suggests a linearity that is at odds with LGBTQ experience, even as it also, helpfully, offers hope.
Joy Ladin‚Äôs 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‚Äôt 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 clich√© new meaning, a shell of a man. Yes, after her transition, ‚Äúall of the things that constituted progress ‚Äď family, love, career success, financial security ‚Äď had receded beyond any foreseeable horizon.‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs lowest ebb ‚Äď wanting to cut herself ‚Äď 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‚Äôs words, ‚ÄúSome people glory in gender mutability, gleefully remaking themselves according to mood and occasion. I, however, am old-fashioned ‚Äď a garden-variety transsexual, rather than a post-modernist shape-shifter.‚ÄĚ¬† Bornstein, of course, is precisely a ‚Äúpost-modernist shape-shifter‚ÄĚ whose gender workbook has provided inspiration to thousands of others.
Yet Ladin is not exactly a ‚Äúgarden-variety transsexual,‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äď 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‚Äôt 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‚Äôs ‚Äúthe God thing,‚ÄĚ as Ladin puts it. Through the Door of Life is subtitled ‚ÄúA Jewish Journey Between Genders,‚ÄĚ and Ladin‚Äôs sincere religiosity may be, for many readers, the most radical element of the book. Ladin‚Äôs Jewishness doesn‚Äôt pervade the book; it figures prominently in only a handful of the vignettes that make it up. But I know from my own experience ‚Äď I‚Äôve written a book about religion and sexual diversity, and I founded an LGBT Jewish organization at which Ladin and I briefly worked together ‚Äď that even a dollop of religion can send some readers running for the secular hills. What‚Äôs probably most shocking about Ladin‚Äôs religious life is that she works ‚Äď once again, after a year‚Äôs leave ‚Äď at Stern College, the women‚Äôs school of Yeshiva University, an Orthodox Jewish institution. This is what made her famous, or infamous ‚Äďa New York Post article outed her, and Yeshiva University, on page three. And admittedly, it can make one‚Äôs head spin.
But Ladin‚Äôs 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‚Äôs spirit, and the courage of her writing.
Some of the most painful passages in Through the Door of Life concern Ladin‚Äôs 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‚Äôs selfishness. And there is no real redemption here, only Ladin‚Äôs choice of life over death, reminiscent of one of Beckett‚Äôs characters, who says ‚ÄúYou must go on, I can‚Äôt go on, I‚Äôll go on.‚ÄĚ
Perhaps the most underwritten, if not outright baffling, part of the memoir concerns Ladin‚Äôs father who, for reasons we are never really told, simply stops speaking to her in 1983.¬† This aspect of Ladin‚Äôs 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 ‚Äď love, a career, a sense of wholeness ‚Äď Ladin‚Äôs journey seems the more difficult one.¬† Of course, it‚Äôs 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.