Photo credit: Jim Bowdoin
For a long time, I thought that my life would be divided not only by gender, but by genre. By which I mean that when I was a boy — yes, I’m transgender, in case some of you didn’t get the memo — I wrote fiction; and when I became female, almost 20 years ago now, I wrote nonfiction. It wasn’t an intentional switch (unlike the other one), but as years went by it made more and more sense to me that as I spent this last third of my life living my truth, I would also, as a writer, focus on work that was itself based on fact rather than on invention.
And yet, as time has gone on, the truth of Oscar Wilde
’s epigram has come back to haunt me — which is to say that sometimes… it is easiest to tell the truth when you wear a mask.
And so that brings us to my new novel, Long Black Veil
, a literary thriller that is, on one level, fiction and suspense, a tale of murder and disappearance and disguise. And yet I think anyone familiar with my work will recognize that this new book, page-turner though it may be, is about the same fundamental questions of identity that have been my primary concern since the publication of She's Not There
back in 2003.
A hot summer day in 1980, Philadelphia. Six college friends are exploring the ruins of a real place: Eastern State Penitentiary, the oldest prison in the United States, designed by Benjamin Franklin
, which opened its doors in 1829 and finally closed them in 1971. It’s a medieval ruin, a castle with arrow slit windows, surrounded by high stone walls, turret corners, sitting right there in the heart of Philly, a short walk from the Museum of Art.
Who among us doesn’t have some kind of moment of "before" and "after" in their lives?
When the novel opens, these six friends are goofing around, the way young people do. They break in and explore the ruins. And then... get themselves accidentally locked in. And just as quickly they find out that behind the walls of Eastern State, they are not alone.
That’s chapter one.
The day ends with a disappearance and a murder. And the events of that awful day, as you can imagine, haunt these young people the rest of their lives, as they try to figure out not only who it was who took the life of their friend — but also how to live their lives as adults when this shadow lies upon them.
I got the idea for Long Black Veil
when I visited Eastern State a few years ago with a friend. A couple things struck me — one of which was just how unbelievably creepy the place is, with the thousands of cells with their walls covered with graffiti that say things like, "I AM INOSANT!" And with the beds, some of them still with their moldering sheets and pillows, in the corners of the cells. There’s a library with its roof caved in, and a decaying chapel and a mess hall and an especially creepy-looking medical wing, that still contains rusted X-ray machines and operating rooms from the 1940s. The creepiness of the place is, quite clearly, on the minds of the people who, in the late 1990s, turned Eastern State into a joint museum and archeological project — they run an event from September through December there called TERROR BEHIND THE WALLS — “the world’s largest haunted house inside the walls of a real prison.”
Jenny Boylan at the ruins of Eastern State Penitentiary, 2017.
My trip to Eastern State, though, put me in mind of other kinds of prisons, the kinds we create for ourselves, the kinds people bear in their hearts. As a transgender person I can tell you all about the many ways in which people can find themselves trapped in life — imprisoned — and the desperate measures they take in order to break free and live their truth.
But that sense of imprisonment is not unique to transgender people. I think that this sense — which I sometimes think of as “haunting” — is something we all experience… particularly if we have a moment in our lives that marks a before and an after. And really, who among us doesn’t have some kind of moment of “before” and “after” in their lives? I think that’s what it means to be haunted, really — to have some life-changing moment in your life that you never really get over. And because you can never get over it, you wind up imprisoned in the past, living there, in that moment of great trauma, or great joy, unable to move on.
In my many travels as an author these last 20 years, I can tell you I have met plenty of “formers” and “exes” and “used to be’s” —ex-wives, ex-husbands, former Marines, ex-nuns, and so on. In some way, it’s everybody. Who among us isn’t haunted by something, or someone. And so I wonder, what do people do with their ghosts? How do we manage to break free of them?
And if you’re a person like me, for example, what does it mean to be a woman who never had a girlhood, whose ex-self, in fact, was a boy?
I don’t want to give anything away about the rest of the book, but I don’t think anyone would be shocked if I suggested that there just might be a transgender person somewhere in this novel. The revelation of that is part of the fun of the book, I hope, so I’m really not going to give too much away. But let’s just say that one of the people we meet as a 20-year-old in 1980 grows up to be a woman living in what “my people” call “stealth.” Stealth, for transgender people, means that you go through transition, and then move someplace where no one knows your past, and in fact you never tell anyone of who you used to be. Our heroine in Long Black Veil is a trans woman living in stealth, in Maine, and none of the people around her know her past. Including her husband. And before you gasp and think, How is that possible?, I can assure you that the world is full of trans people in stealth, people you have met, whom you did not know were trans, because no one knows. I’ve met hundreds of them by now, and the only way I found out about them was that they made themselves known to me because I’m a writer.
I understand the appeal of living in stealth — women who want to be seen as the women they are, not as the boys they used to be. But it’s also true that in some ways, these people have traded one secret for another. Their peace is only possible because they have invented a fictional past for themselves, and no one, even the people they love the most, knows the truth.
And so, 35 years after the murder in Eastern State, when one of the other original six friends is arrested, our heroine has a choice to make. Because she’s the only person alive who knows her ex-friend is innocent. And yet, in order to prove his innocence, she would have to out herself, to risk, and quite probably lose, the life she has created with her husband and their adoptive son.
Which means that the fundamental question of this thriller is not only "Who done it?" It’s also: What do we owe the friends of our youth? How much can you completely reinvent yourself? How much weight do the promises made in your 20s carry when you are 50, or 60? Are we now the people we have been?
What about you? If it turned out that your spouse had been a different sex when he or she was a child, and you’d never known — would you feel betrayed? Would you be willing to give up the life you have created in your middle life in order to save someone you only knew when you were a child?
And above all, in any life that contains a before, or an after, how is it possible to live one life and not two?
÷ ÷ ÷
Jennifer Finney Boylan
is 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
, and 48 Hours
, and has played herself on ABC’s All My Children
. She lives in Belgrade Lakes, Maine.