Summary and book reviews of I'm Looking Through You by Jennifer Finney Boylan

I'm Looking Through You

Growing Up Haunted

By Jennifer Finney Boylan

I'm Looking Through You
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2008,
    288 pages.
    Paperback: Oct 2008,
    288 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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Book Summary

From the bestselling author of She's Not There comes another buoyant, unforgettable memoir—I'm Looking Through You is about growing up in a haunted house...and making peace with the ghosts that dwell in our hearts.

For Jennifer Boylan, creaking stairs, fleeting images in the mirror, and the remote whisper of human voices were everyday events in the Pennsylvania house in which she grew up in the 1970s. But these weren't the only specters beneath the roof of the mansion known as the "Coffin House." Jenny herself—born James—lived in a haunted body, and both her mysterious, diffident father and her wild, unpredictable sister would soon become ghosts to Jenny as well.

I'm Looking Through You is an engagingly candid investigation of what it means to be "haunted." Looking back on the spirits who invaded her family home, Boylan launches a full investigation with the help of a group of earnest, if questionable, ghostbusters. Boylan also examines the ways we find connections between the people we once were and the people we become. With wit and eloquence, Boylan shows us how love, forgiveness, and humor help us find peace—with our ghosts, with our loved ones, and with the uncanny boundaries, real and imagined, between men and women.

Dirty Deeds

I was in a biker bar. There were worse places. My colleagues, who had names like Lumpy and Gargoyle, thought no less of me simply because I was an English professor. It's nothing to be ashamed of, one dude suggested. It's what's inside your heart that counts.

The venue—the Astrid Hotel, in Astrid, Maine—was famous not only for the skankiness of its patrons but also for its ghost, an undead girl who walked its tattered hallways weeping in her pajamas. She'd drowned in the twenties, in the nearby Kennebec River. The girl was determined, supposedly, to find her father and her sister, who'd been guests of the hotel, back in the day. Hey. Don't you know I can't swim?

I had come to the Astrid to play with my friends in an R&B band, Blue Stranger, up on the hotel's grandiose stage, in what had once been a fancy ballroom. Now it had a cement floor, fiberglass tiles on the ceiling. On one wall was a rough-hewn mural of the north country. ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Consider the book's title and subtitle. How have specters and living beings served as windows for one another throughout Jenny's life? Growing up, what did she see as she looked at herself?
  2. What solidarity does Jenny find with the spirits that populated the Coffin House? How have her relationships with the ghosts changed, and in what new ways does the present day Jenny describe being haunted?
  3. What did Jenny's relatives and their friends teach her about gender roles? How did their particular outlook on life affect her choices? How did their tone affect her written voice? Could you hear echoes of any of the people she describes in Jenny's own words?
  4. Discuss the Coffin House itself. What were your first ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

An unexpectedly graceful mix of ideas about ghosts, childhood, sexuality, gender, family, death, and the many ways one can be haunted.   (Reviewed by Lucia Silva).

Full Review Members Only (720 words).

Media Reviews
Washington Post - Patrick Anderson

The best part of the book, by far, comes near the end when Boylan tones down the cute stuff and talks about her later life. Jimmy, hoping that love could "save" him, married at 30 and fathered two children but still wanted desperately to be a woman. Finally, after surgery, Jimmy became Jenny, and we learn how Jenny's wife and family dealt with this new reality. It's an interesting and touching story, but it has already been told in more detail in Boylan's earlier memoir.

Entertainment Weekly - Jennifer Reese

[S]he strains for parallels between her wraithlike pre-op self and the apparitions who purportedly haunted her childhood home near Philadelphia, the aptly named Coffin House. But the blurry specters sending out electric currents and mysteriously closing doors never come to life on the page. C+

South Florida Sun-Sentinel - Carole Goldberg

Boylan freely acknowledges giving characters pseudonyms and other identity-hiding characteristics, stretching or collapsing the book's time frame, reconstructing dialogue and even inventing some material to plug gaps and dramatize events she (or earlier, he) did not experience, all in the name of telling a richer story.

Those considerable caveats aside, Boylan has here produced another highly readable, mind-stretching tale, full of visitations that might be ghostly or, not-so-simply, the product of an deeply sensitive mind, along with raucous wit and poignant recollections.

Seattle Times - Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett

Boylan uses her childhood house and its eccentric character as a device to explore her life, noting: "If, as Aristotle said, character is fate, then so, I would argue, is architecture. Surely whoever it is we become is the result, in part, of the houses in which we live."

Kirkus Reviews

Boylan’s vivid atmosphere and characterizations and use of dramatic irony and comic relief give this memoir a bright, shimmering force. A lovely, heartening piece of work.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In spite of the singularity of Boylan's circumstance, the coming-of-age story has far-reaching resonance: estrangement in one's own home, alienation in one's own skin and the curious ways that men and women come to know themselves and one another.

Author Blurb Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Empire Falls
Jenny Boylan’s I’m Looking Through You ranks right up there with Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life as one of the finest literary memoirs of the last several decades. Like these, it’s a haunting revelation of the human heart, its terrible longings, its fears and joys, the secret recesses where we most truly dwell. How alike we all are, down this deep.

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Beyond the Book

Belief in Ghosts

  • A recent survey, cited by Boylan, reveals that 48% of people say they believe in ghosts, with women more likely to say so (56%) than men (38%); overall, more than 1 in 5 Americans say they have seen or been in the presence of a ghost. Having said that, other polls have put the general figures between 37%-65%, which does make one think about statistics as well as ghosts!

  • In 1991, in the case of Stambovsky v. Ackley, the Supreme Court of New York ruled that a seller must disclose that a house has a reputation for being haunted because such a reputation impairs the value of the house. The Ackleys, and much of the community in Nyack, NY, believed the house to be haunted, and had reported ...

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