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I'm Looking through You: Growing Up Haunted: A Memoirby Jennifer Finney Boylan
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"Boylan, an English professor, novelist and memoirist (She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders), tells of growing up in a haunted house in Pennsylvania, where phantom footfalls and spectral mists were practically commonplace. This was a fitting-enough setting for young Boylan, then a boy who longed to become a girl. 'Back then I knew very little for certain about whatever it was that afflicted me,' she writes. '[I]n order to survive, I'd have to become something like a ghost myself, and keep the nature of my true self hidden.' In 2006, years after her sex change, Boylan returned to her childhood home with a band of local ghostbusters as she struggled to reconcile with her past as James Boylan, as well as her memories of family members she'd loved and lost there. This memoir is better suited for those interested in broader human truths than in fact (a disclaimer in the author's note explains that she's taken liberties in service of the story); readers in the former category are in for a treat. Boylan writes with a measured comedic timing and a light touch, affecting a pitch-perfect balance between sorrow, skepticism and humor. 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." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Jennifer Finney Boylan's 'I'm Looking Through You' might be classified as a whimsical, confessional, semi-fictional ghost story and sex-change memoir. It's a sequel to the author's best-selling 'She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders,' which described her transition from male to female at the age of 43. That book focused on Boylan's transformation and how it affected her family and friends. This new... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) memoir, she says, 'is not a book about being transgendered, per se' because it deals mostly with her early life. However, its best moments recall her youthful longing to be a woman. Otherwise, as she looks back at the confusion of her teenage years, she succumbs to a near-fatal case of the cutes. The book opens with the 40-something, female Boylan at a Maine hotel '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.' Boylan is reading Nabokov's 'Pale Fire' until it's time for her rock band to perform. People are downing drinks with prunes in them and 'an unspeakable union of vodka and Maine maple syrup.' A female ex-model pulls Boylan into the ladies' room and tries to seduce her. Boylan escapes, thinks of 'the phrase my sister and I used to call at the end of a round of hide-and-seek: Olly olly oxen free' and encounters the hotel's resident ghost, who soon 'drifted up to the top step, and dissolved into the door.' Next, the author takes us back to herself as Jimmy Boylan, 'a curiously androgynous thirteen-year-old,' as the Boylan family moves into an 'enormous, collapsing' Victorian mansion on Philadelphia's Main Line. It's called the Coffin House, for a previous owner, and it has a 'decaying kitchen' and a 'blue mist' that fills the cellar. Jimmy accidentally sticks a key into exposed wires, and 'a forking blue flash, like an arc of Sith lightning' engulfs him. 'Then I was rising into the air. I didn't know where I was going. I wondered if I was part of the blue mist now.' 'For a moment I thought we'd lost you,' says Dad, but Jimmy survives. This and other moments of adolescent drama seem contrived and not terribly dramatic at that. Other adventures follow. Dad, a banker who loves classical music, is treated for melanoma. Grandma embarrasses everyone by endlessly describing how her first child was conceived. Sister Lydia marries a man who is short and chews tobacco. The Victorian mansion is flooded by an overflowing toilet. Jimmy locks himself in his room and wears his sister's bras, stuffed with socks or cantaloupes. His new school is a 'deranged institution' run by 'arm-flailing halfwits.' One of his friends persists in talking like the Cowardly Lion, and another moons Jimmy's Aunt Nora at the dinner table. We endure flatulence jokes and cameo appearances by 'the hilariously named Dr. Payne,' a dog named Sausage, a cat named ba-BOING and a monkey named Jesus. Ghosts wander about, as well as Ghostbusters who purport to talk to them. The author says, ambiguously, 'I do not believe in ghosts, although I have seen them with my own eyes.' Jimmy enters Wesleyan University in the mid-'70s and is not much stranger than anyone else, despite his habit of saying 'Well de well de well' when he is at a loss for words. Girls like him because he's sensitive. In one of the book's more poignant scenes, a girl announces that she's in love with him and wants to have sex. His glib refusal leaves her angry and hurt. Some of these episodes are funny, but others are forced and tiresome. People and events are relentlessly bizarre. In a school play, 'We didn't have a regular Jesus, which meant that the part of the Messiah frequently had to be played by the dog.' When Jimmy moves to New York after college, he lives in an apartment 'above an S&M dungeon' and works on a novel about 'a wizard held hostage by a pack of wild waffle irons.' Jimmy's dying father looks like 'the astronaut at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, lying on his back, pointing up at the universe of stars.' I kept wondering what might be the audience for this surreal sitcom. The publisher may have answered the question by noting that Boylan has been on 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' three times; perhaps Winfrey's vast audience is transfixed by the spectacle of an attractive, formerly male college professor and novelist who talks about ghosts, S&M dungeons and bras stuffed with cantaloupes. Boylan clearly has the smarts and skill to write something better than this gag-fest, but probably it's the gags that led to the Winfrey invitations and big sales. 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." Reviewed by Patrick Anderson, whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers(at symbol)aol.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"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." Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire Falls
"This is one of those imperfect yet highly intriguing books where we find ourselves rooting for the author. The need to be understood and accepted by other human beings shines through oh-so-clearly." Oregonian
"Even more astonishing is the way the writer...hops between the past and the present, creating...a resonance that actually feels like haunting." Los Angeles Times
"As a woman who used to be a man, the author is the personal embodiment of an absence and a presence, and so she comes to this conceit with a rare understanding." Chicago Tribune
"An adventure to read, this is highly recommended." Library Journal
About the Author
Jennifer Finney Boylanis Professor of English at Colby College and the author of the bestseller She's Not There, as well as the acclaimed novels The Planets and Getting In. A three-time guest of The Oprah Winfrey Show, she has also appeared on Larry King Live, Today, and 48 Hours, and has played herself on ABC's All My Children. She lives in Belgrade Lakes, Maine.
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