Jennifer Finney Boylan discusses "I'm Looking Through You"
I'm Looking Through You takes place in the atmospheric and very palpable
setting of Pennsylvania in what you describe as the Coffin House. In fact,
the house itself is one of your memoir's more prominent characters. Please explain.
I believe that people's characters are shaped, in part, by the houses in which they live. Surely this house has left its mark on me. For a long time I think I felt, in spite of my sense of humor, that I was a fundamentally "haunted" person, and I wondered, for years, how I was going to make peace with my many ghosts.
The Coffin House - named after its builder, Lemuel Coffin, was a three story Victorian eyesore, in the suburbs of Philadelphia, on the Main Line. It had a creepy lightless attic, in which we occasionally heard mysterious footsteps, and a vast dusty basement, in one corner of which was a sign that said, "BILL HUNT: LABOROTORY." In the deed to the house, Coffin had said that at no time in the future could the property be used for "a glue factory, a tavern, a starch factory, or other offensive purposes." At the time we worried that this meant we couldn't even legally invite over my grandmother, a woman whose antics - believe me - were right up there with "starch factory."
In fact, shortly after moving to the house with your family in 1972 you realized the spirits that inhabited the place weren't the only ghosts beneath its roof. The Coffin house chronicles a very chaotic time in your life - your own sense of self, the relationship with your wild, unpredictable sister, the bond with your mother, and your father's death. How have these experiences shaped you?
You don't have to believe in ghosts to know what it means to be "haunted." I think we all have ghosts of one kind or another. When we're young we're haunted by the people we may become; when we're old we're haunted by the children we used to be. In the Coffin House, there were all kinds of ghost, including the Scooby Doo varietythe mysterious floating mist, the old woman who appeared in the mirror, the entity we called "the conductor" because it walked around with a batonbut it's the other kind of ghost that haunts me most. There's the father that I lost. There's the sister that, at a certain point in her life declared me "dead," making me a ghost to her, and she a ghost to me. And finally there is the ghost of my younger self. How do we make peace with all those spirits? In my own experience, I've found that love, and humor, and forgivenessthe twin blessings of compassion and blarney-- are all pretty effective at enabling a person to find a sense of solace.
In your bestselling book She's Not There you describe your transition from Jim - to Jenny. In this book you touch upon issues of gender and the feminine self. Please elaborate.
In our culture it's become quite routine for gay and lesbian authors to write about their experiences without having to explain or justify their sexuality, or their identities. Until recently, trans people weren't so lucky; if you came out as transgender, people would say, "You're what?" Now, I'm hoping that we've finally gotten to the point where a transgender person's story can be told in which those trans issues are part of the exposition, without it having to be the whole damned story. And so, while the book focuses on my younger life, which includes, of course, the story of being trans at such a young age, this is, in the end, not a story primarily about gender. In the end, I think it's a story in which readers will wholeheartedly identify with some of the issues I wrestled with then. Like: What does it mean to live an authentic life? What are the burdens of living with a secret? How is it possible to love another when your primary sense of self remains hidden and unknowable?
What does it mean to be haunted? And, do you believe in Ghosts?
I am not sure I believe in ghosts, although I have seen them with my own eyes. This isn't so strange, though. A lot of people feel the same way about transsexuals.
To be haunted means that you've had an experience that you can never quite forget. For some people it means that they live more in the past than in the present, or that they can never quite make peace between their former and present selves. The struggle, I think, is to integrate your life, so that the whole arc of your experience is one story, not two. For a long time, I worried that my experience as a trans person meant that I'd never be a woman; I'd only be an Ex-Man. And while being an Ex-Man is not quite the same as being one of the X-Men, in my heart I found out that it's less different than I'd hoped. And so what I've tried to learn is that the person I've been, and the person I've become, are one person. I think a lot of people try to do that, to make peace with their many selves. In the end, it's something that's hardly unique to transgendered people. We all do it.
Your mother still lives in the Coffin House. How often do you go back - and does it or the spirits there hold any power over you?
I confess to feeling a little edgy there; I always have the sense that something is watching me. It doesn't help that my father's ghost woke up a friend of mine in the Haunted Room a couple years ago. He was standing there at the foot of the bed, wearing plaid pants, and smoking a cigarette. Personally, I think it's a little odd that a ghost would be smoking a cigarette, but what the heck. Maybe old habits are hard to break.
Music plays an important role throughout your book and in real life. Tell us more.
I think most authors have to have some kind of musical ear, for language if nothing else. I play in a not-so-terrible rock and roll band up here in Maine, and I always played the piano when I was growing up. In some ways, that's what I had instead of a sex life. I could sit down at those keys after school and play. What's amazing for me is to sit down at that same piano in the Coffin House, years later, and play some of those same old tunes; it's like having a duet with your younger self. The piano, of course, belonged originally to my father, so when I play it's also like having a conversation with him. Dad used to order me around when I was playinglike he'd ask me to play a piece by Schumann, for instance, in ragtime. I don't know, maybe this is all my father's faultthe most important thing in the world, he felt, was to be open minded, to be able to see things from a perspective other than your own.
How did you write this book?
Over the years I've found that whenever I talked about experiences with ghosts, people tell me their own stories, and that it's be sort of like that moment when people tell you their dreams; you have the sense that you're gaining access to a very personal, fragile part of people's lives. It turns out that almost half of Americans believe in ghosts - and the more education you have, the more likely it is you believe in them. So I wanted to tell some of the ghost stories from my own life in the Coffin House. As I wrote those tales down, though, I found that I was more and more drawn to the idea of "haunting" as metaphor. Everybody's haunted by something, even people who think the paranormal is stupid.
I should note that, late in the writing of the book, I visited the Coffin House, the house I grew up in, with a "paranormal investigator," who found all sorts of spirits beneath the roof. When I told my mother about this, she just gave me a look and said, "Now Jennywhen you say "paranormal" - do you mean - other transsexuals?" She had me there.
You've got a fantastic website that includes your own book trailers, a blog, video, audio. How did the videos/audio come about?
The "music video" of the book was shot at the house last summer. I wanted to give readers a chance to see what the house looked like, to hear some music, to really give readers a sense of the atmosphere of the place The site also includes a sample chapter from the book as well as a large community message board; readers who find the site because they're curious about my work have also found each other, and what we call the "Para / Normal" message board has become its own self-sustaining community on the web. There's also lots of other goodies on the sitevideo of me reading from my work, interviews, some files of me playing rock and roll, and of course a blog that contains my work from the New York Times as well as a link to the video of my appearance on "All My Children" last spring (where I played myself for a couple episodes). I wanted the site to be fun and educational, and to bring people together.
What do you hope readers of I'm Looking Through You will take away from your book? Do you want them to gain insight into their own family dynamics/relationships?
I guess the main thing is, I want people to make peace with all their ghosts; to learn how to integrate their lives so that when they think of their younger selves and their older selves, they see one person, not two. In my own case, I found that the best way to find a sense of wholeness in life is by telling stories. As my mother says, "it's hard to hate anyone whose story you know." I hope that people will be able to tell their own stories, so that, in the words of Robert Hunter, "the things we've never seen will seem familiar,"
I know that my life was profoundly changed by the power of love and humor and forgiveness, and I'm hoping that other people who are seeking to find peace in their lives can find that too. As we say in Maine, You CAN get there from here.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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