Ask me my favorite ghost story
and I will tell you the one
about your haunted house heart
still housing all the people you used to be.
—NIKITA GILL, “Ghost Story”
How did we get here?
I set out to answer this question in March of 2015, “here” being where my family and I found ourselves a month after my essay “A Letter to My Son Jacob on His 5th Birthday” had gone viral—as inexperienced but determined advocates for transgender children. “Here” was also the climax of a remarkable five-year journey that had brought us our son, Jacob. Finally, here was the rare opportunity to write a full-length memoir about our experiences and, I hoped, to further shape public discourse on gender identity in young children.
However, sitting down to write, I discovered that the answer to the question “How did we get here?” was anything but straightforward.
When our son, Jacob, transitioned in 2014, shortly after his fourth birthday, there were few examples for us to follow and no guidebook for parents of very young transgender children. There were only a handful of therapists experienced enough to help families with transgender children Jacob’s age deal with the seismic changes, at home and in the community, that a social transition entailed. At the time, “watchful waiting” was considered the best course of action for a young child who claimed a disparity between his or her gender identity and the one assigned at birth.
Relinquishing to Jacob the choice to transition was an outsize act of faith—in Jacob, in ourselves as parents, and, ultimately, in the world that would need to accept him. How I was able to come to this decision cannot be explained without reaching back to my own early years.
Shortly after her second birthday, when “Em” (a pseudonym Jacob and I chose to avoid using his birth name) started to show signs of emotional decline, the experience had an air of familiarity for me, a sense of déjà vu that I could not account for at the time. As I watched my vibrant toddler fade into a shell of a child, angry, distant, almost unrecognizable, bones and shards of my memories began to surface, demanding examination and claiming relevance to this new and confounding moment. Attempting to record the experience for this memoir unfolded in much the same way.
“It’s like a . . . ghost story,” I tried to explain to my husband, Joe, “but without the ghost.” I began to suspect that the specter was me or, rather, a former iteration of myself, one that crooked her finger and whispered: “We’re not quite done here yet.”
As I dug up decades of correspondence and journal entries, these “ghosts,” no longer content in their interment, began to whisper their own stories, shifting the narrative I had long held of my life until eventually it buckled under the weight of their truths.
The book that I set out to write is not the book I have written; neither is my answer for what sequence of events led us to the moment of Jacob’s resurrection. Once I allowed myself the freedom to reexamine the narrative of my life, it began to reshape itself, past lapping at the heels of present, offering insight and interpretation until the two collided in a moment of startling redemption. What emerged was indeed a memoir but, equally, a mystery, a ghost story, and a love story.
As the author, I feel I have had a surprisingly spare role in all this, yet I have emerged from the telling of this story irrevocably changed and with a new perspective on my own history and a greater hope for my son’s future.
How did we get here?
It started with a birth. A girl born in 1976 in a hospital overlooking the foothills of Mount Scopus, in Jerusalem. Her mother was her entire world, and that world, one of rarefied ultra-Orthodox Judaism, began to collapse in on her when she discovered the price she would have to pay to live an authentic life.
How did we get here?
It started with a birth. A boy born in 2010 who was his mother’s world, a world that began to collapse in on itself when she discovered the price her child would have to pay to live an authentic life.
Memory, degraded by time and human subjectivity, can never claim absolute accuracy. The people mentioned in this book may recall conversations or events differently than I do. I have been fully faithful to memory to the extent that my memory has been faithful to me. Thankfully, I am assisted by a quarter century of diaries, correspondence, photographs, audiotapes, and mementos (what my husband, Joe, wryly refers to as my “hoarder’s paradise”).