“Who we are is inseparable not only from who we think we are, but from who others think we are.”
It’s rare that I tear through a book in a matter of days. I’m usually a slow and methodical reader, digesting every tidbit and painting a picture in my mind. Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family was a book I finished in three days. On the bus to work and back. On breaks at work. And before I fell asleep at night. Maybe it was the subject matter. After all, it’s something I know quite a bit about. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read another book about transgender people. Sometimes, I just want to do anything else but read about something that has dogged me my entire life. But, I knew the outline of Nicole’s story. The struggles her family were going through up in Maine had made national news in recent years. And I knew that she had prevailed over her school district in court. So, after a bit of reluctance, I picked up the book hoping that a positive story was what I needed amongst all the tragedy that befalls this community.
And I’m glad I did. Washington Post writer, Amy Ellis Nutt is a fabulous writer. She was able to spend nearly four years with the Maines. At the surface you might assume this is solely Nicole’s story. But, by embedding herself with the family, the author was able to bring the reader into the living room to not only meet every member of the family. But, to also see how everything they did to protect Nicole and allow her to be herself impacted them.
Nicole has a twin brother, Jonas. Both babies came to Wayne and Kelly Maines even before they were born. They were adopted from one of Kelly’s distant cousins. The author does a great job finding out who Wayne and Kelly Maines are. The circumstances that brought them together. Each of their family histories. And what life was like before and after the twins came into their lives. These are normal, every day Americans. In some ways pretty conservative. They come from small towns. And yet, when it became clear that one of their young sons had the gender identity of a girl, a strong one at that, they did everything they could to protect her and do the right thing. Even while also struggling with their lack of knowledge on the subject and what their neighbors would think.
Being transgender myself, I couldn’t help but put myself in my parent’s shoes. It was a different time. I was a young child in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I have the utmost support from my mom now. She’s told me that if she had the kind of knowledge on the subject then, she would have helped me more. And I completely understand that. I have no ill feelings about that. My mom is great. But, having grown up in an era where even I didn’t have a word to understand what was going on in my head, it’s great seeing kids like Nicole and others have the opportunities I didn’t have access too. Not only do more kids have more knowledgable parents, they have access to a wealth of information and support systems thanks to the internet. And doctors and medicines to pause adolescence and then start puberty in the right direction when it was time.
Timing for prescribing cross sex hormones in a prepubescent kids is critical. After all, there’s no way, for example to undo what testosterone does to the face and body or fix the vocal chords without expensive surgery. Doctors and parents will typically be on the look out for burgeoning facial hair and such. But, in this case, they also had Nicole’s twin brother to observe. This book doesn’t shy away from the medical aspects of transition and what is currently known about what makes someone transgender. This is a new book, published in late October, 2015. So, the science cited here is up to date. I had heard about some of the case work. But, not all of it. There is certainly more research being done that I had expected.
Most of the story centers around the struggles Nicole had in school once she started living as herself. The vast majority of her classmates got it. But, one kid, encouraged by his grandfather, continually made life difficult for Nicole by going into the girl’s restroom when he knew Nicole was there. The family tried to get the school to do something about the bullying. But, after several meetings and seeing that nothing was going to change, the family took the issue to the courts and moved.
I won’t give everything away here. I will say that even knowing how everything ended up is not giving this book justice. This is a story of a family. And it’s also the story of four individuals. As I wrote above, it’s exceedingly well written. And I highly recommend it for anyone.