A quick glance of Jennifer Finney Boylan's latest memoir, I'M LOOKING THROUGH YOU, would give the impression that the book focuses on growing up in a haunted house. But a closer look reveals, as the subtitle states, that it is about “growing up haunted.” This is an important distinction.
Boylan did live for many years in a house, aptly named the “Coffin House” after the family who built it, that she took to be haunted. Her family moved there in 1972, just as she was entering her teenage years. On her first visit she received a big electrical shock, followed by another surprise: she was to sleep in a spooky third floor bedroom while the rest of her family would get their shut-eye on the floor below. From that first day exploring her new home, Boylan felt the presence of ghosts, and her nights there were full of disembodied footsteps and floating specters. As her story unfolds, it becomes more complex and nuanced. She moves readers back and forth in time, telling stories of the Coffin House, her adventures with “ghostbusters” later in life, and, most especially, her personal hauntings.
As she wrote in her earlier bestselling memoir, SHE'S NOT THERE, Boylan was born “James” but always knew herself to be “Jenny.” It wasn't until after she was grown, a college English professor married with two sons of her own, that she came out as transgendered and began the process of becoming a woman physically. Her time in the Coffin House coincided with her teenage years, and she relates her frustration and uncertainty with honesty and grace. “Back then,” she writes, “I knew very little for certain about whatever it was that afflicted me, but I did know this much: that in order to survive, I'd have to become something like a ghost myself, and keep the nature of my true self hidden.” In fact, later, returning to the house as an adult woman, after the place had been remodeled and filled with the laughter of the next generation, she wonders if she had indeed haunted herself. Was the starry-eyed woman she saw, as a teenage boy, over her shoulder in the mirror really her future self still trapped and lonely in the male body?
There are other figures who haunt this tale as well. Boylan mourns the loss of her father and older sister, neither of whom get to know her as Jenny. Her family factors large in this memoir, of course. They are an eccentric Irish bunch: a crass and loving grandmother and her refined English sidekick, a perpetually cold aunt, a mystical cousin and others support the story of the immediate Boylan clan, including Jenny's smart older sister, musical father, and religious and accepting mother.
In the post-Frey era, memoirs are read with a critical eye. Like many others today, I'M LOOKING THROUGH YOU is prefaced with the disclaimer that there are elements of invention in the book, including some of the dialogue, and that she played a bit with the timeline. For readers of memoirs this may seem obvious (for who can remember the exact words of a conversation 30 years ago?), but it frees the author and allows her a creativity that only strengthens the story she is trying to tell. And Boylan's style is creative --- light-handed and readable, funny and wise, conversational and intimate, and yet polished.
Sprinkled with philosophy, without sounding snobby, and pop-culture references without being silly, I'M LOOKING THROUGH YOU is an enjoyable and memorable read. Boylan's story is at once singular and familiar --- the right combination for a successful memoir. While the Coffin House provides the bones of the book, it is lovingly fleshed out, with a personal, often bittersweet examination of family, loss, identity and change.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 22, 2011