Trigger warning: sexual abuse
In this profound and courageous New York Times bestseller, Janet Mock establishes herself as a resounding and inspirational voice for the transgender community – and anyone fighting to define themselves on their own terms. With unflinching honesty and moving prose, Mock relays her experiences of growing up young, multiracial, poor and trans in America, offering readers accessible language while imparting vital insight about the unique challenges and vulnerabilities of a marginalised and misunderstood population. Though undoubtedly an account of one woman’s quest for self at all costs, Redefining Realness is a powerful vision of possibility and self-realisation, pushing us all toward greater acceptance of one another – and of ourselves – showing us as never before how to be unapologetic and real.
I’ve been a big fan of Janet Mock’s for a while now. I loved her Never Before podcast (the Kris Jenner interview!) and her journalism is fantastic, as is her jealousy-inducing Instagram account. I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to reading her first memoir, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More. I mean that title alone screams Lydia, READ ME.
I think sometimes my subconscious tells me to put off reading books until I’m ready for them, and that was very much the case with Redefining Realness. As someone who has spent much of the last year or so consumed by questions about identity (‘be yourself’ is about the most stress inducing advice a person can give me), reading Janet’s story hit me hard. So, next time you’re beating yourself up for not having got to a particular book yet – relax. You’ll read it when the time is right.
In Redefining Realness, Janet details her life from early childhood up until she goes to college and ends with her reassignment surgery. The book is a mix of Janet’s own story with contextualising elements regularly added to place her personal experience into the wider struggles that many trans women, and especially trans women of colour, deal with. She emphasises that her story isn’t representative of the entire community and acknowledges the spectrum of gender, particularly when it comes to parts like her need for reassignment surgery – a procedure that was necessary for Janet specifically, but one that she takes pains to explain is not necessary for all trans women.
Redefining Realness is a memoir that is also a great introduction to transgender identity, the systemic prejudices trans women face and the sometimes deadly consequences those injustices can have.
What I loved most about this book though, was the nuanced, compassionate and equally resentful way that Janet writes about her family. In writing about her parents, Janet navigates the dichotomy of the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parent with ease. Both of her parents were pretty disastrous, unreliable people while she was growing up. She quickly learned that she had to provide for herself, financially and emotionally, as both her parents had limited room for her needs because they were consumed by dealing with their own. Though both her parents at times appear villainous – her mother with her total focus on her own romantic life at the cost, repeatedly, of her children; her father similarly consumed by his own relationships, drug abuse and a need to impose his ideas of masculinity on the child he didn’t understand – they are also loving, complex people all of their own. Though both regularly let her down, they never let her go. Whether it was her mother nursing her back to health after her surgery, or her father’s response after she came out to him (defensively, aggressively) – “Your disrespect for me is apparent… But I’m the parent and you’re the child and it is not your job to love me the way I love you. My love for you is unconditional” – Janet shows that even in their neglectful moments, both her parents still proved their love for their daughter. Families are complicated, painful, delicate ecosystems and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that represented in a way that felt authentic to me until this book.
Janet’s unflinching commitment to describing every inch of the painful, frightening and vulnerable process of becoming yourself pierces right to the heart of the struggle of growing up. A sense of being in hiding from something is, I think, a state very familiar to many of us, and Janet’s gradual inching out of the shadows is inspiring to read as she comes to terms with the abuse, shame and hardship that led her to becoming the person she is today.
She is fucking epic.
Becoming a person is a long, hard process that requires an awful lot more patience than we ever imagined when we were young. Reading stories like Janet’s is a much needed reminder that struggle, pain and frustration are only one aspect of a long, complicated life. And, once again, that there is a lot of baggage behind even the most glamorous Instagram feed.