At a dinner party in Waterville in the 1990s, English Professor Jenny Boylan told a story about her peripatetic Uncle Sean, who traveled around the country by freight train. The family knew that he would be arriving soon because he always sent ahead his trunk of books. In those years, Boylan was traveling through her own life as Professor James Boylan, the author of several comic novels and a collection of short stories, and an entertaining teacher in Colby’s Creative Writing Program. Hidden behind the jokester and storyteller, though, was a profoundly female sensibility.
Boylan is transgendered, and her first memoir, the bestselling She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, explored the transformation she undertook while in her 40s. In her second memoir, I’m Looking Through You: Growing up Haunted: A Memoir, she relates the funny, tragic history of this dichotomy, when she was growing up as a boy outside of Philadelphia, going to an all-boys’ school and then to Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
Like Uncle Sean’s trunk, I’m Looking Through You is full of eclectic stories—ghost stories, coming-of-age stories, family stories, zany adventures and escapes, snatches of lyrics—with a large cast of eccentric and sympathetic characters. They include a fortune-telling, turbaned grandmother; a reserved, piano-playing banker father; a team of inept but sincere ghostbusters; various prankster friends; a loyal wife, mother, and sons; a dog named “Sausage” and the cat “baBOING!”
Boylan tells her readers to expect a story that contains invention. Characters are not composite, but time has been shifted, some incidents made up, and dialogue created where memory failed. Such works appear (to this reader anyway) to be best read not for historical accuracy but as a variant of autobiographical fiction. Where fiction takes the material of the writer’s life and disguises it to get at deeper truths, here, in fictionalized memoir, the lived life gives the book its structure, rather like the branches of a tree on which the writer hangs real and imagined events to enhance the story and to reveal its truths.
For her, to grow up transgendered was to feel translucent, lacking solidity, rather like the ghosts who haunt her family’s appropriately named “Coffin House.” She asks this question: If we’re not seen as who we are, how can we be loved and desired? And even the longed-for transformation, giving her a body in which she feels content and “against all odds” solid, leaves troubling questions: How can she reconcile the woman she’s become with the boy she was? How can she become whole?
Toward the end of the book, her spouse suggests that people heal themselves by weaving “the narrative of their lives backwards and forwards.” It occurs to Jenny that the sense of humor for which “Jim” was so well known was “what I needed to survive,” and that she might yet be saved by “the transformative powers of blarney.”
In I’m Looking Through You she draws on that same zany humor and talent for invention to relate a haunting tale of a woman’s struggle to become herself.