Tuesday, December 1, 2009


If you grew up in a haunted house, how would that influence the course of the rest of your life? Of your family's? How different would it be from growing up haunted by something? Those questions occupy Jennifer Finney Boylan's beautiful memoir, I'm Looking Through You.

Living under a rock as I do, I was not aware of Jennifer Finney Boylan until some enterprising library page decided that this book would make a nice component of the nonfiction display nearest the escalator. For my fellow sub-geological dwellers, Jennifer Finney Boylan is a Colby College professor, friend of Richard Russo, bestselling author and two-time Oprah guest. She also used to be known as James Boylan. That's right, she is the first best-selling transgendered author (at least that we know of for sure).

This book is the follow-up to her bestseller, She's Not There. If you don't wish to read about being transgendered, don't worry. This book focuses largely on Boylan's unusual upbringing, in the bizarre haunted house that featured the Monkey Bathroom (where the previous owner's monkey lived, of course), the creepy swingin' sixties bachelor pad living room (as she put it, where the parties used to happen before the bachelor was found mysteriously stabbed to death) and the ghost of a child, or possibly an adult, who drowned...or didn't. It's a bit reminiscent of an Augustyn Burrows book, but with much, much more happiness and stability.

For Boylan was fortunate enough to grow up in a loving home. Her father was a classical music lover and banker who would make her play her Chopin and Beethoven in ragtime or 7/8 and would mediate arguments between herself and her sister by ordering them to stop and argue the opposite point. Her grandmother was embarrassingly, humiliatingly open about sex (the story of her father's conception got dragged out at every get-together, complete with its punchline: "Best screwing I ever had!"). Her aunt was always cold, even in summer, and made copious amounts of sock-monkey cats, which she called Kittygirls.

This story is not only intriguing, but beautifully written. It almost looks effortless. It's the type of book that makes one think: "I could do that. I had a weird aunt, too. I could tell about our family traditions and stories, make people laugh and cry, too." It has a forward momentum of its own, a great deal of heart and humor. It's definitely worth a read, and I suspect her first book is, too. People may come to Finney's work for the freakshow aspect of it all, but she gives them tremendous reason to stay.

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